Part Ten: White Transition

    Music played softly from a small band towards the end of the room; three violins and a flute joined together their talents to create a tune that was a delicate background to the quiet murmur of the room's occupants. The smell of a variety of dishes mingled in the air. Waiters in crisp uniforms made their way back and forth, weaving their way between tables. Chefs' assistants rolled carts of dishes out and lined them against the wall for the servers to get. The atmosphere was formal, elegant.

    Aya stood out from the room's occupants easily. His vibrant red hair clashed with the dark colors present, and he had not changed out of his sweater and jeans when he'd gotten the message from Schuldich to meet Crawford here for lunch. When he had made lunch for his teammates earlier he'd been sure to make something light and to not take much of it. He did not fit in with the people around him. They were all wealthy and dined in places like this frequently. Crawford fit in perfectly, it seemed, but of course he would have attended many meetings in such fine places. Aya did not mind, really. He would have preferred to find a smaller place for lunch, but he could understand the necessity of being here. After all, no one else would look for him here.

    They had talked of a variety of subjects during the meal, light topics that were easy to speak of. Now that they were finished and were down to sipping their drinks- Crawford, wine, and Aya, water- it was time to talk about the problem on their hands.

    Aya broke the ice first. "How are Schuldich and Farfarello doing?" he asked.

    Crawford set down his glass. He was wearing his contacts today, and the absence of his glasses made him look more youthful. Aya couldn't stop gazing at his face. "They were successful," he replied. "He contacted me about ten minutes ago to let me know they'd gotten him out without trouble."

    Aya nodded slightly at that. That was good news. "What about your apartments?" he asked next. "Are they ready?"

    Crawford lifted two fingers off the tabletop as he answered. "They are. Farfarello had very little left in his room. It was easy to move it out." They were both quiet for a few moments after that, then Crawford spoke. "Are you all right with this?" he asked, gently. Chocolate searched amethyst for an answer and Crawford lightly touched Aya's hand with his good one.

    "Of course I am." Aya's eyes strayed to the musicians as they changed their music. "It is regretful to see how far the corruption spread, but this makes everything easier. It is the perfect break to walk away- and I will have a better chance of getting my team to come with me."

    Ah, but what would his team say? How would they feel when they learned the truth?

    /Kätzchen. Crawford./ Schuldich's voice pressed into their minds.

    ~What is it?~ Crawford returned.

    /I just finished the check on Weiß. It seems Manx gave them a mission where Aya was the target./ At his words, Crawford and Aya met gazes, waiting. /Weiß turned her down and went as far as to sign their names on the target list. Weiß is now in the clear./

    ~Good,~ Crawford said. ~Are you and Farfarello done yet?~

    /Just about./

    ~Return to the apartments when you are.~ Crawford's words signalled the end of the conversation.

    Aya had guessed Manx would make that move. He didn't care. What he cared about was the fact that Yohji and Omi had signed themselves off of Kritiker. He would have to move fast before Manx could take a further step against them. Crawford knew the direction his thoughts were taking and stood. Aya stood as well. A waiter saw them stand and came over. Crawford paid and the two left the restaurant. The sun was bright overhead and the breeze was cool. Aya let it wash over him as he led Crawford to his car. Schuldich had dropped Crawford off here before leaving with Farfarello since Crawford still was unable to drive. His eyes flicked briefly to Crawford's cast. Soon they'd have to take Crawford in for a doctor to remove the cast and make sure the bone was healing right.

    He opened Crawford's door and shut it behind him, then crossed in front of the vehicle to get to the driver's seat. The trip to the shop was a short one. Aya parked behind the shop where no passerbys would be able to see them and glanced towards Crawford. Crawford saw the hesitancy in Aya's eyes and gave him a reassuring look before leaning in to catch his lips in a tender kiss. "They trust in you," Crawford told him.

    "Aa." It was an odd thing to hear, to know. He'd always been the solitary one of the group. He'd given them just meager offerings of himself in return for their friendship. Yohji, his best friend, had been blown off multiple times in the past. Yet they trusted in him.

    And he would trust in Schwarz. They weren't fond of his teammates. He knew what they thought of Weiß; he knew they found condescending amusement in the white assassins. Yet they were going through the trouble of tying up all of the loose ends, of accepting his teammates, for him.

    When had he ever felt so very much like he belonged?

    "I'll be quick," Aya told Crawford, and slid out of the car. The back door was unlocked and he let himself in. He could hear a quiet murmur of voices and followed them to the source. Omi and Yohji were sitting in the den, curled up on opposite ends of the couch. When they saw him, they shot each other quick looks as they tried to figure out what to say. Aya waited patiently for them. Finally Yohji spoke.

    "Ano...Aya...I don't know how to say this." He stood and took a step towards Aya. "Manx came here earlier..."

    Aya saved him the trouble. "And ordered you against me."

    Yohji was surprised, but nodded. "Yes. We turned her down."

    "I know."

    "How do you know?" Omi asked.

    "I was with Schwarz," was Aya's answer.

    "And Crawford saw this coming?" Yohji predicted.

    "No." Aya gave a slight shake of his head. "And that's the whole key to this." They frowned slightly, not understanding. Aya folded his arms over his chest, letting himself sink into his shirt. It was time to tell them the truth. "You two might not believe me in what I'm about to tell you." Yohji took this as a cue and sat down. Aya leaned against the doorframe. "All of us know the explosion was aimed at Schwarz." They nodded slowly. "Did it occur to you that Crawford did not see it coming?" He looked back and forth between them. Yohji frowned slightly. "Someone managed to get around his gift. Someone managed to sidestep his vision." He took a deep breath.

    "That someone was Manx."

    "What?" Yohji asked, almost too sharply. Omi's eyes grew wide in disbelief.

    "Manx has managed to avoid Crawford's gift in the past to take him by surprise. For reasons we don't know, his clairvoyance does not trace her. Svenska knew this, and he came to a logical conclusion. If he wanted to take out Schwarz, he must have someone that would block the action from Crawford. He hired Manx. I don't know how much he paid her, but she accepted the bond and detonated the explosions Svenska set up previous to the mission."

    "Wait a sec..." Yohji started to stand up, then changed his mind and sank back against the cushion. "You're saying that Manx sent us into the building knowing that she was going to detonate the place on us?" Aya didn't respond. "That's fucking nuts! Why would Manx risk us to get them?"

    "Manx wants Schwarz dead very badly. Maybe you haven't noticed that yet, but she has a special hatred for them. Units can be created easily; find someone with a grudge and slip a leash over their neck. We can be easily replaced." Aya lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Take it or leave it. I only offer you the truth."

    "Jesus..." Yohji muttered, rubbing his forehead with his hands. Omi was staring at Aya with an expression that was pained. He had known Manx longer than any of them, so he seemed to take this backstabbing of hers personal. "That is a rather large lump to swallow," Yohji finally said.

    "There's a lot you don't know yet," Aya told him. "Much bigger things." ~Like my relationship with Brad.~

    "Well, keep them to yourself for now. I don't think I can handle another blow just yet."

    Aya stood silently as the two came to terms with the new revelation. It was another piece of information that they didn't want to accept, but finally both of them turned towards him. "Well, shit," Yohji muttered. "Now what?"

    "Now you come with me."

    "Where?" Yohji asked, a tad bit warily.

    "We have to go where we cannot be found by Kritiker. I have a place we can stay temporarily. We have to disappear and tuck all strings in."

    "Strings?" Yohji repeated.

    "There are three people out in the open that Kritiker could capture and use as hostages. We have to move them out of Manx's reach."

    "What about Ken?" Omi asked worriedly.

    "He's already been moved. Schuldich and Farfarello took care of him just a little while ago."

    "Schwarz moves fast, ne?" Yohji muttered dryly, shaking his head at the entire situation.

    "Grab what you want to take with you. We don't know if we'll be able to return later to pick up anything else. One of you has to go through Ken's room. Meet me out back." Aya left the room, hearing Yohji talking to himself under his breath. He stepped out of the shop and went to stand by his car on Crawford's side. Crawford had the window rolled down and waited with him for the other two to appear. Four minutes passed before they exited, carrying flower boxes filled with personal items with them. Yohji paused when he saw Crawford before following Omi to the car. Aya unlocked and opened the trunk for them before going to slip into the driver's seat. After a few moments the trunk was slammed shut and his partners climbed into the backseat. Aya could see Yohji's wary expression in the rearview mirror, but the older man didn't say anything.


    Yohji looked up at the tall apartment building. The exterior was classy and oozed money from its pores. This was a place that only the wealthiest could afford. He gave a low whistle of appreciation and glanced towards Omi as he eased the box that held his own and Ken's things out of the trunk. Omi took in the building with a slow look before meeting Yohji's eyes. Yohji freed a hand to shut the trunk and looked towards Aya. "How are we supposed to stay here?" he asked.

    "We're staying with Schwarz."

    Alarm coursed through Yohji's veins and the elaborate view of the apartments seemed tainted suddenly. "What?" he demanded. "You want us to stay with _them_?" He gave a slight jerk of his head towards Crawford, who was testing his cast thoughtfully. The older man's brown eyes met his in a cool glance. "I don't think so."

    "It's safe and Manx cannot find us here."

    "Safe?" Yohji repeated.

    "Aa," Aya answered easily, and started towards the door. Crawford kept his pace easily. Yohji and Omi hung back, watching the two for several long moments. Finally Yohji shook his head and shifted his burden, turning an unhappy look on Omi.

    "I don't like this."

    "Neither do I," Omi answered, "but there's no place else for us to go."

    Yohji looked up at the tall building, then towards the glass doors Aya and Crawford had disappeared through. "Damn," he whispered. He wanted a cigarette. He started forward and Omi followed. Aya was walking on a very fine line, here. What more did the man want? Yohji had denounced Kritiker for him. Now he wanted them to room with assassins that they had clashed with so many times? It was complete and utter lunacy.

    The two men were waiting for them by the elevators. When Aya saw them come in through the doors he reached forward and pressed a button to summon one. They waited in pairs that stood opposite each other, letting six feet of empty space separate them. It was the same in the elevator; Aya and Crawford stood on one side and the other two stood away from them. Yohji was _not_ going to step within that distance of Crawford if he had anything to say about it.

    The elevator stopped on the eleventh floor and the doors slid open. Ahead of them was a door. Crawford stepped up to unlock it, and he and Aya entered the suites. Yohji followed bravely, letting Omi take up the rear. Aya shut the door behind them. The group moved further in, to where it opened up into a living room on one side and a study on the other.

    "My, my, look what the cat dragged in," a lazy voice drawled. "More kittens."

    Yohji's eyes shot to the man that had spoken. Schuldich was draped across the couch in the living room, orange hair spilling about him. He was wearing the same headband and sunglasses he usually did, but was dressed in a dark purple shirt that looked like it'd been crumpled up somewhere and a pair of slacks. Farfarello was sitting on the ground beside the couch, amber eye trained on them with an almost hungry look. A stab of reflexive fear rose at the sight of the psycopath.

    Schuldich smirked. "Fear due to him and not me?"

    "Only disgust for you," was Yohji's bold answer.

    Schuldich pushed himself up on his elbows, jade eyes glimmering with cold amusement. "I can change that for you."

    "Stop it, Schuldich," Aya said, tossing the man an annoyed glance as he entered the living room. "Don't goad him."

    Schuldich snickered and let himself drop back down again. "The problem with your companions is that they're so easy to intimidate," he said, following Aya's progress with his eyes as the redhead plucked a small key off of the table beside the couch. "It takes all the fun out of messing with them."

    "Good," was Aya's answer. He made his way back across the room to join Yohji and Omi. Crawford had vanished; Yohji didn't know where to. He'd been busy paying attention to Schuldich.

    Aya beckoned to Yohji and Omi to follow, and they trailed behind him through the suites. Yohji was privately impressed by the surroundings. The place was huge, taking up the entire eleventh floor. It was well kept and decorated with good taste. At the far end of the floor, Aya stopped and turned to unlock a door. "These are the bedrooms," he said, flicking his free fingers over his shoulder. There were four doors, two on each side of the hall. "All of them have good locks."

    This one had more than the others. There were five sets of locks here, and only one on the others. Omi pointed that out. Aya finished unlocking all five before answering his inquiry. "This is where Farfarello used to be kept," he said, swinging open the door. He flicked on the lights and entered. "He rooms with Schuldich now, so you two can use this." He held out the key. Yohji accepted it and gazed at it as it rested in his palm. "This one cannot be locked from the inside like the others, but you can lock it when you leave to ensure no one will enter and rummage through your things. Schuldich and Farfarello have a tendency to be nosy."

    "Ah," was all Yohji could think of to answer.

    "There's only one bed, but we can pull in the couch cushions and some extra sheets for a makeshift thing." Aya gave the room a glance-over, studying it. Besides the bed, the room was devoid of all furniture. There were no windows, and only a single light with a protective shield over it. There were some scratches in the walls, which were reinforced with metal. "It'll do, for short term. If you need to stay here longer than a few days, we'll get hold of another bed somehow."

    "Sleeping in Farfarello's old room..." Yohji said, more to himself than to the others. That thought alone was enough to give him the heebie-jeebies. Who knew what had happened in this room? Sure, it looked clean now, but...

    "Next door is Schuldich's room. If you hear anything at night, ignore it. I don't think you'll be disturbed tonight; Schuldich's still sick and Farfarello is wounded."

    Yohji gave Aya a sharp look. "Hear anything?" he repeated.

    Aya gave him a look that was faintly amused. "You didn't want me to give you anything else to swallow," he said.

    That kind of response made any of Yohji's curiosity vanish. He didn't want to know, anymore.

    Omi spoke up next. "Where are you going to be staying?" he asked.

    Aya paused, and Yohji could see that he was choosing his words very carefully. After a long moment, he answered. "I will be across the hall." He turned away. "Unpack. I'm going to see what Schuldich's gotten accomplished."

    With that, he left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

    "He's not saying something," Omi observed.

    Yohji shook his head and turned to begin yanking things from his box. "I don't want to know."

Part 11