Part Two: The Echoes of Silence

      The ride home was silent. Schuldich sat in the passenger seat, gazing at his reflection on the window. Now and then the streetlamps they passed would cast a glare across the glass, wiping out his image. He was patient in waiting for it to return, keeping his eyes fixed on the spot where his mirror's eyes would meet his. It was an oppressive quiet that had settled between them. Schuldich knew better than to open his mouth and break the stillness; Crawford was going to be mad enough without him trying to make a witty remark.

      But it was too quiet. He couldn't stand the silence. If he couldn't say something, he wanted someone else to- but no one did. One hand clenched convulsively in his lap as the glass lit up with a flash of orange light. All he wanted was to be out of this car and away from this stillness, before it swallowed him whole. Once he had wanted nothing more than silence. Once, long ago, that desire had nearly consumed him. Then he had accepted the fact that the voices would never go away, and he had accepted the chaos and madness of his mind. Now he had what he had long ago craved, and he felt he was going to go mad if someone didn't make some sort of noise.

      Just when he had decided to risk Crawford's wrath by opening his mouth, they reached their flat. Schuldich was the first one out of the car and he stood outside of the vehicle, inhaling the night air deeply.

      He refused to make eye contact with his teammates as they exited the car, knowing already the accusation that hung heavy on their gazes. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and tried to look as nonchalant as possible as he followed them to the front door. He tried to make a beeline for his room the minute he stepped inside, but Farfarello cut him off, gazing up at him with a gleam in his eye.

      "Sit down, Schuldich," Crawford said quietly but firmly from behind him.

      Schuldich bit back his uneasiness and turned to offer the American a forced grin. "It's time for my beauty sle--"

      "Sit down," Crawford said again, glasses flashing.

      Nagi glanced towards the unresponsive German, and Schuldich toppled backwards onto the couch, sputtering a foreign curse.

      He felt suddenly trapped. They stood around him, faces closed off, eyes digging into him. Farfarello stood just behind the couch, toying with his knife, while Nagi stood a little to the side, ready to hold Schuldich down with his gift if needed.

      Crawford moved to stand directly in front of him, towering over the seated telepath. "You have some explaining to do," he pointed out in a hard voice. "You almost cost us the mission."

      "Why didn't you warn us Weiß was that close?" Nagi demanded quietly.

      Crawford flicked him a look, and Nagi subsided.

      Schuldich opened his mouth and shut it again soundlessly. He could not tear his eyes from Crawford's for a long moment as his thoughts raced. He balked at the thought of lying outright, and besides, Crawford's eyes told him that even trying to evade the truth would get him in more trouble than he wanted. A tense silence fell between them. Crawford's expression was the epitome of patience, but his eyes were cold. Schuldich finally managed to break the stare. Instead of glancing to one side, however, he found his eyes dropping to his lap. His gaze studied the blood that stained his clothes.

      "One of our clients is dead, Schuldich," Crawford said, "and you're a mess."

      One of Schuldich's hands lifted off its own accord to touch his face gingerly, fingers brushing over the spot where Yohji had hit him. He dropped his hand quickly and heard a rattle as he hit his pill bottle through his jacket. Crawford's eyes lowered at the sound, lingering on Schuldich's pocket long enough that it was obvious Crawford wanted to know what medicine Schuldich had been carrying around. He reluctantly drew it free and let it lay in his palm, gazing at the label and knowing how much having this with him added to the trouble he was in.

      "How could you do that?" Nagi demanded, unable to keep quiet. "Even this-" he waved his hand towards his head vaguely, eyes boring into Schuldich accusingly, "is gone. What's wrong with you?"

      Schuldich was startled at that. It hadn't even occured to him that he might bring the bond connecting all their minds down if his own collapsed.

      Then he took a quick look at the anger churning just under the surface of his teammates and got another shock.

      They thought he had betrayed them.

      They thought he had deliberately allowed Siberian to get around him and had cut the mental bond between them to give the Weiß assassin time to get the job done.

      "You've got to be joking," he blurted without thinking.

      "Joking?" Farfarello mumured, toying suggestively with his knife.

      "Joking about what?" Nagi snapped. He was obviously upset, an uncharacteristic attitude in the young boy that made Schuldich nervous.

      "You think I did this shit on purpose?" he growled, shooting a glare towards each of them. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

      "You," Crawford said, voice quiet but hard, "are what is wrong, and you are going to tell us why you failed." He reached out and took Schuldich's medicine from him. It was obvious what the pills were for, but he still tilted the bottle to one side and raked the label with his eyes. "We will start with why Siberian was able to kill Nakano."

      "He left the room," Schuldich answered, unable to keep a sullen edge from his voice as he fixed his gaze on the medicine in Crawford's fingers. He couldn't decide if he was feeling irritated or ill that Schwarz thought he would do such a thing to them. He always pushed at the lines within their group and among their authorities. They knew he loved to play games and he gambled where the highest stakes were. But to think that he would truly turn on Schwarz...

      They were silent, and he realized they were waiting for him to continue. "I was at the other end of the hall. Siberian got to him first."

      "Do you think that highly of yourself, Schuldich, that you would allow so much space between one of our clients and you when Weiß is around?" Crawford asked.

      Schuldich's lips thinned to a hard line and he swallowed the annoyed retort that he _was_ good enough to do that...Or he would have been if he had still had his gift. Silence stretched between them. What could he say? How could he tell them that the talent that made him Schuldich and had put him where he was today had gone silent? He was still trying to come to terms with it and the ramifications of such a loss.

      "Put it back up." The German looked up slowly, meeting Crawford's stare a bit apprehensively. "Put the bond," Crawford said again, "back up."

      Schuldich had a private internal war with his pride and his smouldering fear at that point. If he told his team that his gift was no longer in his control, he would be useless for the most part. True, he still had his speed, and he was no helpless punk in a fight- but Schwarz relied on his mental probing as heavily as they depended on Crawford's visions.

      That thought in itself brought up a question: Why hadn't Crawford forseen this sudden lapse in his German partner's talents? Though, to be fair, because it was a silent, invisible problem, any hint the clairvoiyant could have seen probably wouldn't have made much sense at the time. But shouldn't he have forseen Schuldich's incompetence and seeming "betrayal"?

      THAT brought Schuldich up short. If Crawford had had these visions of what appeared to be betrayal, why hadn't he acted on them? Why had Siberian been able to get into the room in the first place?

      Had Crawford been hesitant to believe what his visions were telling him? Had he come to trust his teammates so much that he thought them incapable of betrayal anymore?

      That was the stupidest idea Schuldich had ever had, and he squashed it quickly. Crawford didn't give a damn about the team when it came down to it. Nagi might see this team as some kind of warped "family", and Schuldich might instinctively see some bonds tying them together, but Crawford didn't give a rat's ass about anyone but number one.

      But, for the sake of argument, if this ludacris thought was right, having the vision of Schuldich's "betrayal" would account for most of the anger the American was directing his way. Crawford had been betrayed by one he had learned to grudgingly trust, and he was rightfully furious-- at himself as well as Schuldich.

      "I'm waiting, Schuldich," Crawford said in tones of steel.

      Schuldich gritted his teeth and glared up at him defiantly, arms crossed tightly over his chest. "I can't," he grated out.

      Crawford's mouth twitched into the faintest of frowns. "You can't or you won't?"

      Schuldich took a deep breath, fingers clenching just briefly on his upper arms. "Can't," he said, and he wanted to choke on the word. It was all he could do to hold Crawford's gaze. Silence stretched between them. He could feel Farfarello's sharp, intent gaze on him, and Nagi's eyes had narrowed slightly in surprise and confusion.

      "Get up."

      Schuldich stared blankly up at Crawford for a few moments before rising to his feet. Crawford cast a brief look towards their other teammates before turning and exiting the room. Schuldich glanced towards the younger two, taking in their expressions, before following behind the precognitive out of the room. Crawford pushed open the door to his office and Schuldich stepped in first. Crawford entered right behind him, closing the door firmly behind them.

      Schuldich firmly squashed the beginnings of nervousness, crossing the room to stand by Crawford's desk. He turned to face the older assassin and let himself lean backwards slightly, using it as a support. Silence fell between them, and Schuldich knew the Oracle was waiting for him to speak first and explain this. He crossed his arms over his chest again, looser that before, somehow feeling less on the defensive now that it had been narrowed down to just the two of them.

      "Something's wrong with…" Schuldich tilted his head slightly in obvious indication of his gift, watching his partner closely, "this."

      Crawford remained silent, face emotionless.

      Schuldich bulled on, a part of him relieved to get the whole business off his chest while at the same time his mind was screaming at him that he was signing his own death warrant. "Last night the whole headache bullshit was making it hard to hear anything any of you were saying in the bond. It's been getting worse, and during the mission it just…" he shrugged, feeling trapped and hating it, "stopped working."

      "Stopped," Crawford repeated.

      "It's...just me," Schuldich answered, tucking loose hair behind his ear out of the need to do something with his hands. He pressed his palms against the desk to either side of him. "I can't hear anything except my own thoughts. I can't even feel a distant presence of anyone else around me." He took in Crawford's closed off expression. "It could just be temporary."


      This whole parroting shit was really starting to get on Schuldich's last nerves.

      Crawford reached up slowly to remove his glasses, polishing them on his shirt and gazing at his partner with an unreadable expression on his face. "What if it isn't, Schuldich?" he asked calmly, and there was an almost-threat to the undertone. "You won't be any use to Rosenkreuz anymore if you're just another man with a smart mouth. And you know too much."

      Schuldich's stomach tightened in cold knots, but he couldn't trust himself to speak. He glared silently at the other man, letting the acid look speak for him. Did Crawford think he didn't _know_ that? Schuldich's telepathy was all he had. There was his gift of speed, but that was a practically useless talent.

      "Why didn't you bring it up sooner?" Crawford asked coolly.

      "I thought it was the hangover," Schuldich snapped defensively, his eyes narrowing at the older man. "How the hell did you expect me to anticipate something like THIS?"

      Crawford was silent for a moment as he digested this information. "So you can't use It at all," he concluded calmly.

      Schuldich's lip curled, but he decided that he didn't need to vocally state the obvious.

      "You know what this means," Crawford continued, still with that infuriating calm, the gleam on his glasses hiding his eyes, his mouth firmed slightly.

      Schuldich tensed. "No shit, Sherlock," he spat. He had the sudden, immature urge to break something. Or somebody. His fingers tightened on the desk and silence fell between them. Nausea rolled in his gut and he took a deep breath, holding it for several long seconds. What would happen to him when Crawford filed the report with Rosenkreuz? How would they react to the news of one of their strongest telepaths just suddenly blanking out? They would not be happy. But what would they do?

      The most obvious path was dismissal, and just the thought of that was enough to make his blood run cold.

      Six years ago, when he had first been assigned to Crawford, he had just barely begun to realize what a life with Schwarz would offer- the power, the prestige, the money, the entertainment, the commitment. Everything had been given him in exchange for his gift. He had never thought that he would be watching it all crash down around him. He had never thought that it would come to this; he had never thought it possible.

      "You are more trouble than you're worth," Crawford said at last.

      Schuldich managed to dredge up a smirk. "I'll bet you say that to all the guys."

      Crawford reached up with his index finger to push his glasses further up the bridge of his nose, and for an instant Schuldich could see his eyes: narrowed slightly as if in thought or annoyance, but not burning with hatred or triumph. That gave him a moment's pause. He stared dumbly at his partner even as the American spoke to him calmly.

      "You would be completely worthless to us if you hadn't had training in other areas. I'm going to assume your entire brain didn't depart with your talent and you can still cooperate as an assassin and a fighter?"

      What the hell was this? Was Crawford actually thinking about trying to keep him on the team? Crawford was staring at him, waiting for an answer. "J-ja," he said quickly, knowing his eyes were clouded with wary puzzlement. A glimmer of hope began to burn inside of him. Was Crawford hinting that he wouldn't turn him in? Impossible.

      He had thought Crawford would jump at the opportunity to rid himself of the German; Schuldich had always been the troublemaker of the group. Now that the opening was there, was Crawford really going to walk right by it? It didn't make any sense, but he knew better than to question the American. Hell, if Crawford was choosing to keep him here instead of sending him to Rosenkreuz, he wasn't sure he even wanted to know why. He just cared that it was happening.

      Rosenkreuz would hear that the job had had a glitch, however, once there was a complaint filed about Nakano's assassination. Kaltoa was likely to pitch a fit, since they had been promised protection by the Germany-based organization. When Rosenkreuz sought some sort of explanation, what was going to happen? Crawford had implied that Schuldich would stay on with Schwarz, which meant the "why" of Siberian's success would have be changed.

      He realized belatedly he was jumping to conclusions and studied the tall American dubiously. Was he being too hopeful? Maybe Crawford planned to turn him in after all, but would put in a good word for him or something? Surely Crawford didn't feel he was worth the trouble to lie to Rosenkreuz itself. He shuddered involuntarily just at the thought of what would happen to him when- if -the four men of that group found out that one of their top Talents had become useless. Crawford had always been a hard man to read, but this time it was a life or death decision the older man was making. The guessing was driving Schuldich crazy. He felt like he was balancing precariously on the edge of a cliff, with Crawford standing a mere foot away, contemplating whether to pull him back up or not.

      "So what's the deal, then?" he asked as casually as he could, trying to look unconcerned. "Now you know. So what are you going to do about it?"

      Crawford's mouth curved in a tiny smirk that instantly had Schuldich on his guard. "You mean what are YOU going to do about it."

      Schuldich blinked, nonplussed. "Huh?"

      "Are you worth the aggravation to keep around?" Crawford asked bluntly.

      "Prove myself, you mean?" Schuldich asked with a slight sneer. "If you think I'm helpless just because I can't dig someone's brains out, you're not as observant as I thought."

      "Maybe," Crawford said mysteriously, still wearing that infuriating half-smirk. With that, he turned and moved towards the door.

      Schuldich lingered behind, watching as the taller assassin let himself out of the room. As soon as the door clicked shut he let himself sag further against the desk. Was he drawing the right conclusions from this? Would Crawford really keep Schuldich if he was "worth the aggravation"? What was in it for the precognitive? Why would he bother keeping Schuldich with the team if he were practically Talentless? Farfarello had no gift, but he was an incredible killer.

      Why would Crawford want another giftless assassin on his hands?

      The predictable thing for Crawford to do would be to turn Schuldich in. Schuldich was sickened by the suggestion, but still- it was what he had figured Crawford's most likely path to be. Crawford seemed to be taking the other route, though, without a satisfying explanation. It was always what Crawford didn't say that could deal the most damage, and now Schuldich wondered if it was safer when Crawford was predictable.

      "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," he muttered to himself, and pulled on his confident mask before strolling into the den with mock casualness to face his team.


      Yohji wanted a cigarette.

      He lounged in the beat-up old couch in the basement of the Koneko no Sumu Ie, squinting up at Aya, who had chosen- probably on purpose, the little shit -to stand in front of a lamp. Yohji turned his head away, playing with his lighter idly. "So he's okay?"

      "Aa." Aya stood with his arms loosely crossed, his face set in its beautiful yet stony mask. He had just returned from the hospital a few minutes ago and had pulled the remaining members of his team downstairs to debrief them. "They said he had a broken arm and a slight concussion. He'll have to stay there overnight."

      "Manx won't be happy," Omi sighed, sitting up straight in his chair and looking at the two older men solemnly. "She's been waiting for the opportunity to get to Kaltoa for a long time."

      Yohji scowled at his lighter. "If that damned German hadn't stopped me, I might've been able to help Ken. At least he managed to kill one of them." He looked to Aya. "Didn't you injure another as they were getting in the 'copter?"

      Aya's eyes were chips of violet ice. "Aa. Crawford lifted him into the helicopter before I could finish the job." It was pretty obvious how displeased Aya was about that. He burned with a hatred for the dark-haired American that could almost rival his hatred for Taketori. Almost.

      Yohji gave a shake of his head, flicking his lighter open. The mission had been a failure; once again Weiß had been unable to take Kaltoa out. They were damned lucky that Ken had managed to kill one of the bastards, especially since Schwarz had been guarding them. Giving a disgusted sigh, he clicked the lighter to allow a flame to dance around, green eyes gazing at the fire. The only satisfaction he could get out of the night was the fact that he had gotten the drop on Schuldich, but even that had come at a price...He lifted one hand to brush fingers along the bandages around his middle. He had some spectacular bruises and the foreign assassin had almost broken a rib with the vicious kicks he had dealt Yohji's side.

      Yohji slowly closed the lid of the lighter, lowering his arm to dangle it off the side of the chair as he gazed at nothing. But he _had_ gotten a strike in on Schuldich. That was a first. Hell, he'd hurt the German twice. A self-satisfied smirk curled his lips as he remembered the look on Schuldich's face when Yohji had decked him.

      ~Didn't hear _that_ coming, now did you?~ he mused.

      And that in itself was unusual.


      Whatever Crawford had said to Nagi and Farfarello, they didn't bring up the bond or the mission again that night. Schuldich was grateful enough for that- not that he would admit it in a million years.

      He sat at the table with his close-mouthed teammates, trying to tell himself that he wasn't bothered by the oppressive silence that made his own thoughts so loud. He reached up absently to trace his fingers across his bruised face, frowning down at his untouched food, shaping the spaghetti noodles into a contorted face with his fork.

      "If you're going to just play with your food, throw it out," Nagi said tersely.

      Schuldich rolled his eyes at the younger boy. "Yes, Mommy." Just to get on the younger boy's nerves, he began nibbling on one noodle.

      Farfarello was nearly finished with his plain noodles already- they had made the mistake of giving him spaghetti sauce one time for his pasta, and would never do so again. Something that looked that close to blood clots only made the Irishman restless for another kill.

      Schuldich let the noodle fall back to his plate, not interested in finishing his meal. He didn't think he could stay in this room much longer, not with the quiet that hung between them. He needed noise. He pushed the rest of his dinner into a pile in the middle of his plate and rose from his chair. His teammates glanced towards him but said nothing. Nagi's mouth thinned to a hard line briefly as he turned back to his own meal.

      Schuldich raised an eyebrow at him before carrying his plate towards the sink. "You're the one that told me to dump the food, so don't make that face." He rinsed his pasta down the sink and flicked on the garbage disposal, looking over his shoulder at the youngest of Schwarz.

      Nagi opened his mouth, then closed it with a small shake of his head. Schuldich turned back to the task at hand. He finished rinsing his plate and set it in the dishwasher before padding from the room. He could feel eyes on him as he went but did not look back. He found himself in the living room and leaned against the back of the couch, running over his options. He wanted something loud, some source of noise. There was the television, there was music, and there was the nightlife. He considered each option, trying to determine which one would prove best.

      Well, going to a club was definitely out of the question-since that was where he'd been when his gift had decided to fuck up. He plucked disconsolately at his shirt. Maybe he'd go shopping. It would take his mind off of things and… He allowed himself to grin ruefully. It would be interesting to be able to make his way through the streets of Tokyo without a million thoughts blaring in his mind, interrupting his own train of thought. He'd go nuts if he had to sit around for the rest of the night and listen to the oppressive silence of his teammates.

      He shifted so that he could dig his wallet out of his back pocket, opening it and counting the money inside. Damn, he'd have to stop by an ATM on the way. He rose fluidly to his feet and tucked the wallet back in his pocket, offering a saucy grin as Farfarello padded into the den, finished with his meal. "I'm going shopping," he said casually. "Don't burn the house down while I'm away."

      He was halfway to the door when Crawford's voice stopped him. "Where are you going?"

      Schuldich hesitated, turning slightly to regard the man in the kitchen doorway. What a pain it was to repeat himself. He'd never had to do that in the bond. He forced himself to grin. "Just goin' shopping. I'll be good," he promised sarcastically.

      Crawford frowned, as if debating whether or not he should allow the younger man to leave, then turned and walked back into the kitchen dismissively. "Don't drink."

      "Ja ja," Schuldich said, rolling his eyes. "Don't wait up," he teased, and left the flat quickly before Crawford could think of a reason to keep him there.

      Long strides carried him away from the flat. He had only the changing scenery to tell him he was going anywhere; the thoughts of his teammates that should have been fading as the distance between him and them grew were absent. He caught himself glancing over his shoulder once to make sure he was actually leaving and gave a disgusted little snort at the gesture before fixing his eyes firmly forward.

      At length he arrived at a busy street. He remained where he was for a few moments, staring out at the people with a feeling that might have been the beginnings of awe. They were everywhere, laughing, talking, a few yelling. There was the occasional honk of a horn that rose above the noise, and in the distance he could hear music playing. He reached out, closing his fingers around a pole for a street sign, and let himself rest against it for a few long moments. Jade eyes that were slightly wider than usual moved slowly over the throng of people.

      So much noise, so many people...

      But his thoughts remained intact. He let out a shaky laugh, fingers tightening on the pole. How strange...It sent a strange thrill down his spine, to see and hear so much and yet hear his own thoughts so clearly.

      He pushed himself away from the pole and continued down the sidewalk, hands in his pockets and a grin on his face. People didn't even give him a second glance, busy in their own tasks as they hurried along the sidwalk, chattering noisily to each other. The night was still young and already Schuldich could spot some of the partyers strutting towards the clubs in flashy clothes, confident in their immortality as they moved along in small packs.

      He didn't bother to head for the subway or catch a cab-- the clothing store he usually visited was only a fifteen minute walk, and he found himself enjoying the sights of the city without the blaring thoughts of its many citizens invading his head. He remembered that he needed to visit an ATM belatedly and came to a stop, arrogantly forcing the crowd to slip around him rather than get out of their way as he looked around for a machine.

      He spotted one across the street and turned unthinkingly to cross, a habit he had developed as an amusement. He could always convince the drivers to stop if he needed to.

      His right foot was actually off the curb when reality smacked him full in the face. A car sped by noisily, dangerously close, and he snatched his foot back as if it'd been burned.


      He could no longer be as careless and cocky as he was used to. Without the advantage of his gift, he was almost like any other ordinary person. Almost.

      He glanced around, finally making his way to where a clump of people were waiting to cross the street. ~How annoying,~ he mused, lips pulled into a faint frown as his eyes watched the busy road. This new change was going to take some getting used to. No; scratch that. He didn't want to get used to it. He didn't want to think that he would be Deaf long enough that he would have time to get used to things like this.

      The cars slowed then and the post on the opposite street lit up green. Schuldich moved with the crowd as they picked their way across the crosswalk, letting their words flow against his ears but never into his mind. He separated himself from them at the other sidewalk and moved towards the ATM. There was a long line, he noticed with faint disgust, and debated his options. He was patient when he wanted to be and rarely when he had to be. On any other day he would have shifted the line so that he was in front.

      Somehow he doubted that was going to happen tonight. Fighting annoyance at the inconvenience, he tagged himself onto the end of the line, inching up when it moved. It seemed like forever before he had made it to the front, and he made sure to take his time getting his cash, irritating the people waiting behind him to make himself feel better. In a somewhat better mood, he flicked a smirk towards the line as he gathered his money and turned to go.

      What he saw made him pause for a moment. The expressions were placid, if some were a few strained. The polite mask the Japanese loved to wear in public held now, and for once Schuldich was not privy to the thoughts beneath them. For a moment, it was as if they truly did not care that he had taken so long; it was as if they were reassured that he had a reasonable excuse for being so slow at the machine. Some had used to attribute it to the fact that he was a foreigner and assumed that he just couldn't read the Japanese. Others had been burning with annoyance. But from looking at these people, there was no sign of either amused resignation or anger.

      That was beyond strange. Shoving his wallet back into his pocket, Schuldich took a couple steps back before turning and starting away. Now the words that rocked against his ears were different; they were different from the voices he was so used to. He was used to looking past what was spoken to hear what was really going on.

      He'd pulled out almost a hundred dollars- that should be enough to get him some decent clothes and maybe some fast food to make himself feel better. He ducked down a familiar alley, humming a German tune to himself, hands in his pockets. It was a route he used often despite the lowlifes crawling in it. No one fucked with him here. He had caught many a malicious intent on the minds of nearby would-be thieves and after a few demonstrations, they had been content to let him pass in peace. It had been awhile since he'd gone shopping this way, but he was carefree as he strolled leisurely down the dank alley, basking in his own thoughts.

      So of course he didn't hear- in more than one way- the man that came up from behind him with a knife.


      Yohji grumbled to himself as he came to a stop on the sidewalk and glowered at the long line at the ATM. Why did Tokyo have to be so damn crowded anyway? He jerked out his wallet and rifled through it. Thirty bucks. Well, that could buy him a few drinks at least. He could always find another ATM. He was turning to go when he heard a muffled shout. He hesitated, glancing around, a frown tugging at his mouth. He peered towards a nearby alley reluctantly. He'd been in there once before, and had barely managed to escape with his wallet and his jaw in one piece. Still… it could be a damsel in distress. "It's not easy being a hero," he sighed dramatically, and jogged into the alley with a faint grin.

      It was dark, and hard to see, but he was used to hunting in the night, and he quickly spotted the source of the trouble. Two men with knifes were beating at a tall man who was dodging nimbly and cursing in some foreign tongue. The man in the long coat feinted right suddenly, then slammed one of his attackers against the wall with a vicious kick. The other man leapt for him, but he backhanded him almost contemptuously. Well, Yohji thought, slightly disappointed, it certainly wasn't a damsel in distress.

      The man who had hit the wall pushed himself forward with a strangled cry, slashing with his knife.

      Yohji reacted without even thinking, thrusting out his hand and releasing his wire. It sang across the alleyway and twined around the unfortunate's neck.

      He gave a hard yank, felling the man easily and ignoring his scream.

      The other man hit the ground just a second later, downed by a vicious blow from his would-be victim. Yohji nudged the one he held captive, an obvious warning to shut up. The man silenced immediately, trembling fingers tracing the wire that was tight around his throat. "You struggle and you'll be a lot lighter," Yohji warned him. His response was a gurgle. Satisfied, Yohji turned to the one who had been attacked, ready to give him a short lecture about traipsing down dark alleys.

      The words died on his tongue and he made a sound much like the one the downed thug had. He was staring at Schuldich. His orange hair stood out even in the dim light the alley had to offer. His face was shadowed enough that Yohji could only make out the outlines. He raked his eyes up and down the telepath quickly, running over his options. This had to be a trap of some sort; his wire was busy keeping one man down. Stupid, stupid.

      His eyes paused then on Schuldich's shoulder. Even in the darkness, something seemed wrong about it; a part of it seemed to bled in with the wall behind it better. A faint frown twitched on Yohji's lips and he tightened his fists, deaf to the frightened sound the punk at his feet made when the wire grew more taut against his already lightly bleeding throat. The silence stretched between them, until there was a buzz and click behind them. Then the streetlight at the edge of the alley flicked on, its internal alarm telling it it was dark enough out that light was needed. A pale yellow-white light shone down the alley.

      Schuldich twisted his face away, lifting one hand automatically, as he was unfortunate enough to be facing the lamp when it suddenly flashed on. It took just a moment for Yohji to register that the stain on Schuldich's sleeve was blood, and another moment more to acknowledge the fact that it wasn't from either of the German's two attackers.

      Then Schuldich was turning to face him, frowning a little as he considered his helper. His eyes widened for a second, and Yohji had a brief glimpse of honest surprise and even a flicker of- fear? Then that arrogant smirk was on, eyes shielded as always, and he was the German Yohji had grown to hate. "Well, well, well," he drawled. "A little lost kitten far away from home."

      "Schuldich." Yohji spoke the name like a curse. He depressed the button on the side of his watch, and the wire instantly loosened. The man on the ground tore it from his neck and scrambled to his feet coughing. Yohji gave his rump a kick to send him packing, never taking his eyes off his enemy. The two street thugs dashed out of the alley as fast as their legs would take them, yelling hoarse threats and curses over their shoulders. Yohji's glance flicked once more towards the blood staining the German's sleeve. "What's the matter, Schuldich?" he asked with a slight sneer, pretending he wasn't tense as hell and ready for a fight. "Get nicked?"

      Schuldich's mouth moved in the faint suggestion of a frown as he looked down at his injured shoulder. Yohji shifted slightly, letting his wire recoil back into the watch, a million plans running through his head. He clamped down on them hastily, hoping to God Schuldich hadn't already picked them out of his mind.

      Schuldich lifted his eyes back to Yohji's, lips twisted in the faintest of smirks. "I guess I cut myself shaving," he drawled.

      "Maybe...or maybe you're not as good as you think yourself to be, getting injured by a couple of filthy men with a knife." He raised an eyebrow at the other assassin, fingers practically vibrating in preparation to send his wire flying. "You're slipping, Schuldich."

      Schuldich's smirk flickered for the barest of instants before the German burst out laughing. Yohji fought back the instinct to cringe at the sound. Schuldich took a step towards him and Yohji went rigid. "When you are as good as we are, you tend to forget some things. We never have the opportunity to refresh in our memory what pain is." The German reached up, brushing his fingertips along the bloodied material before extending the stained hand towards Yohji. Yohji took a step back, eyes narrowing in warning. "We don't get the pleasure of remembering such things; that's generally for the mediocre assassins to do. Speaking of Weiß, how is your resident Humpty Dumpty?"

      Yohji blinked, nonplussed. "What?"

      "You know, your local acrobat." Schuldich flashed a grin. "Don't tell me he was Killed in Action?"

      Ken. Yohji's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I ought to slice you and that Nagi brat up for what you did," he snarled, fists clenching in anger. "You.."

      "Dirty Nazi? Stupid German?" Schuldich looked bored. "Spare me, Kudou."

      "In your dreams," Yohji growled, and lashed out, letting his wire zip free. He knew it was useless; Schuldich had already caught a whiff of his plan before he'd actually done the act, but he couldn't help himself. The other man had pissed him off.

      Schuldich ducked to the side with that inhuman speed of his, but it was almost like an instinctive reaction, a startled look flitting across his face for just one second.

      It was long enough. Yohji stared in surprise at the German even as he was leaping back out of reach, jerking his wire back to him.

      Something was wrong. Why hadn't Schuldich expected the attack??

      Schuldich hissed softly, reaching up to finger his cut through the torn material of his shirt from where his quick dart away aggravated the wound. Jade eyes raked Yohji's face assessingly. Yohji continued to stare at him, mind running in a dozen directions. He had seen that look on Schuldich's face only twice before: once, when the floor had suddenly given out from under them in the tower by the sea, and the other time on the job they had just had this afternoon. That was twice he had surprised Schuldich in one day. The tower had been something the telepath could not have expected, but he had never fallen behind in following Yohji's thoughts before.

      Something was most definitely wrong here.

      He considered his options, taking in the way the edges of Schuldich's smirk had hardened, as if the expression had been frozen in place. Jade eyes narrowed slightly.

      ~I'll try and feint an attack on the left,~ he thought slowly, ~and then quickly swing to the right. If I move fast enough...~ He let the thought trail off. He was assuming too much. It was a dumb idea. And yet...

      He lunged to the left, at the last minute ducking to the right. His fist just barely brushed over Schuldich's cheek. Schuldich's own fist crashed into Yohji's face, sending him stumbling back. He brought up his wire, as if somehow it could act as a shield, and took a step back. Two pairs of narrowed green eyes met and locked.

      Schuldich had moved to the right.

      Even with Yohji's thoughts about how the left was just a feint for an attack on the right, Schuldich had flitted to the right- directly into the path Yohji's attack had intended to go. Only at the last possible moment had the German recognized the feint for what it was and tilted backwards away from Yohji.

      What in the HELL was going on here? It was as if the other man hadn't even heard his thoughts. Maybe he was sick? His mind drifted back to the mission, in which he had caught the German by surprise twice, and he began to grow suspicious. Something was definitely up. Or was it just a trap, meant to make him overconfident?


      Schuldich cursed himself in German silently.

      Yohji was sensing that something was up; he was realizing that Schuldich hadn't picked his planned feint from his mind. This was not good. He had to do something before the cat was out of the bag. He allowed himself a tight smirk at the bad pun, reaching up to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. This scrawny kitten was definitely beginning to get on his nerves. At least Yohji hadn't drawn blood this time. Just a glancing blow to his cheek. He watched as Yohji wiped the blood from his split lip, noting the flicker of suspicion that lit up in those jade eyes.

      Time to do something about this. He spread his arms wide and leered at the other man. "Care to try again, kätzchen?" he challenged. "You almost had me there." He took care to put in just the slightest hint of a warning in that last jibe, whittling at the other man's self-confidence. If he could make Yohji think this was just a game to him, he might just get out of this without another close blow like that. He didn't think his pride could handle having the other assassin on almost even ground with him. In this narrow alleyway, his speed wouldn't do him much good in close combat.

      "It would be the third time today," Yohji pointed out, readying his wire once more.

      Schuldich's smirk widened. As if he needed a reminder..."My, aren't you clever...You can count."

      Yohji flicked a finger to his face, indicating his cheek. "I don't think purple's your color. It clashes with that gaudy coat of yours."

      "You goody-goodies have no sense of fashion," Schuldich tsked, sliding his hands into his pockets and taking on a lazy stance. It was the way he usually faced off his enemies when he knew victory was in sight. It was a sign he was done playing around.

      It was a big fucking façade that he hoped would end this stupid encounter quickly.

      Indeed, Yohji shifted positions again, his expression turning wary. Whatever suspicions he had been having were giving way at the normalcy to Schuldich's actions now. The faint mockery to his eyes faded, replaced with caution and uneasiness. Schuldich allowed his smirk to widen, hiding his mild relief. He took a step forward, enjoying the way Yohji tensed but refused to retreat. Jade eyes were cold and condescending as he locked them with Yohji's, outwardly nonchalant and inwardly watching for any sign of an attack.

      Yohji flicked the barest of glances over his shoulder, towards the entrance of the ally. "Don't tell me you're afraid of fighting in public," Schuldich jeered, hoping he was interpreting the look correctly.

      Yohji glared. "Of course _you_ wouldn't care."

      Schuldich gave a faint shrug, ignoring the way such a careless move aggravated his shoulder wound. "Why should I? The so-called innocents are never what they seem, never what you wish to see them as. No one is innocent."

      "That's a lie."

      Schuldich arched a brow at him, laughter rippling in his voice. "Is it? Don't be so naive, playboy."

      Yohji gritted his teeth in helpless frustration, fist tightening as he debated whether or not an attack was worth the risk. Had the other man been toying with him, making him think he was defenseless? He glanced around suddenly with an unhappy thought. Were the rest of Schwarz in hiding, laughing silently and waiting for the opportunity to strike?

      Schuldich's grin turned genuine at the sudden flicker of fear in the Weiß assassin's eyes. He loved being right.

      Pushing the dangerous game further, he took a lazy step towards the other man. He already knew what Kudou's reaction would be-- he didn't need telepathy for that.

      Yohji loosed his wire on him, nerves shredding as he caught the German moving towards him out of the corner of his eye. Schuldich dodged it easily and flitted forward, grin widening at Yohji's gasp of fear. He seized the shorter man's wrist in a crushing blow, feeling a twinge of triumph as the watch shattered in his fist. He reached up with his free hand and wrapped it around the young man's throat, grinning madly in his face. "I believe I owe you a few bruises myself."

      Yohji's attempt at a retort was more gurgle than words, as Schuldich's grip was almost tight enough to crush something. The German gave a small grunt, twisting his body and heaving both him and the other assassin towards the wall. There was a small crack as Yohji's head connected and the taller assassin gave a sharp gasp of pain, his free hand darting up to close on Schuldich's wrist. Yohji's fingers dug into the soft flesh as he try to give more leeway to his throat, an attempt to breathe, and Schuldich tightened his own in response. He gave the other man another rough shove before heaving him to one side, releasing his grip and watching as Yohji stumbled desperately for balance. He managed to stay on two feet at the last possible second and whirled to face Schuldich, one hand lightly massaging his throat as he gasped for breath.

      "You're not so tough without your tinsel, now are you?" Schuldich asked, taking a step towards him.

      "Why don't you go crawl under a rock and find a band-aid or something?"

      "Nice to see you're concerned about me getting an infection, Kudou."

      "It's just a shame," Yohji bit out, "that he didn't take your whole fucking arm off."

      "How crude," Schuldich yawned, then deliberately turned his back, lifting a hand over his shoulder in farewell. "Well, this has all been very entertaining, Balinese, but you've caught me at a bad time."

      "N-nani?" Yohji sputtered from behind him, caught by surprise.

      "I have shopping to do. You have weeds to attend to. Auf Wiedersehen."

      "M-matte!" Yohji called out angrily, but Schuldich ignored him, continuing down the alleyway, knowing that Yohji would not follow him now that he was battered and weaponless. Feeling much better now that he had come out on top in the skirmish even without his telepathy, Schuldich turned onto the street at the far end of the alley. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he offered a smirk to the world.

      The days to come weren't going to be so easy; especially once another mission cropped up. But for now… For now he enjoyed the murmurs of his own thoughts, the words no longer lost in the darkness of his mind.

To Be Continued...
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Auf Wiedersehen : Goodbye, see you later, so long, etc...