Part Eight: Disastrous Snowball

    Aya glanced towards the door when he heard the soft knock. He hesitated, debating whether or not to respond. Things had been awkward last night after Manx had disappeared. His teammates, shocked by the heartless comment Manx had made regarding Aya's sister, had said nothing. Aya had left and gone straight to bed...after slicing his pillow open with his katana. His eyes strayed towards the ruined pillow. Its cotton was all over the floor. He would have to find a new one. He'd destroyed that one by imagining it was Manx's head- a rather immature thing, but a vent he'd needed.

    The knock came again.

    He answered, words coming slowly, eyes straying back towards the mirror. "It's open."

    Yohji entered and closed the door behind him. He said nothing for several moments, merely watched as Aya brushed his hair. Aya could feel Yohji's eyes tracing his form. The redhead was wearing pajama bottoms only, baggy cotton pants that covered his feet but hung low enough on his waist that his bruises were visible. Aya continued to brush, steadfastly keeping his eyes on the mirror to keep himself from looking at his friend. There was silence between them, but as Aya finished and set the brush down, he realized something important- the silence was not tense, but merely a shade of uncomfortable.

    He turned finally to face Yohji. The emerald-eyed man's gaze met his slowly, hesitantly. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. "Schuldich...didn't rape you, did he." It was not a question, more like a soft accusation. Aya did not respond at first, and Yohji continued. The words came from him as if he was fighting each one of them. "I thought he had...The bruises look right. He is the right type of man." Those words almost elicited a response from Aya, but the younger man bit his tongue to keep himself from saying anything. He wanted to hear what Yohji had to say. "If he had, however..." Yohji looked away. "The way you interacted with them last night when they were wounded..." He trailed off.

    There was another pause, then Aya broke the silence. "No," he answered. "He did not rape me."

    "...Ah..." It was a soft exhalation of breath.

    Aya moved towards his friend, stopping a few inches away. "Yohji, this isn't easy for anyone."

    "They're _Schwarz_, Aya. You hate Schwarz."

    "I used to."

    "And what? You get a knock on the head and all of a sudden you decide they're your friends?" Yohji's words were still quiet but tinged with bitter mockery.

    "I would answer that, but you don't want to hear what I have to say."

    Yohji was quiet for several moments, then turned away. "Manx was wrong in what she said tonight, about your sister...But I can't think that you're completely right. Everyone's sick of being Kritiker's puppets, Aya, but to go so far?" He exhaled softly, a half sigh. "I don't know what to say. I don't know what to think anymore, Aya."

    Aya had almost forgotten what hope felt like, but that was the feeling that now circled in his chest. He crossed his arms lightly over his chest, almost as if he was trying to hug himself. "Then trust me," he answered quietly. Yohji looked back towards him, hesitant green eyes searching his. "Just trust me."

    There was no response, just silence. Then Yohji left.


    Schuldich entered the room, holding a mug of coffee in one hand. His headband had been left behind in the bedroom so his hair spilled with wild abandon down his back. He reached up with his free hand to brush his loose bangs out of his face, jade eyes settling on the man across the room. His eyes were tired and his skin pale still from his exertion last night. Crawford was sitting in his chair, a newspaper folded neatly in his lap. A mug of coffee sat on the small table beside him, and his clear brown eyes met Schuldich's calmly. Crawford had been waiting for him.

    The American laced his fingers together and waited for Schuldich to sit down. His partner moved towards the couch and sat on one of the arms, tucking one of his legs up against his chest. He was dressed in slacks and a loose shirt that was wrinkled badly. Crawford sipped at his drink, letting the silence grow between them. Schuldich had been annoyed last night over the lack of warning towards Farfarello's injuries. Whether those negative feelings had simmered or cooled overnight was about to be revealed.

    "You didn't tell us about your vision," Schuldich said, finally breaking the ice between them. "If Farfarello's reflexes weren't that good and if Aya hadn't been fast enough, you could have lost one or both of us last night."

    Crawford did not feel the need to justify his actions, but he did answer. "I knew how it would end."

    "A warning would have been nice." Schuldich tilted his head to one side. "Maybe you forgot, but Schwarz isn't supposed to get injured."

    "There is a reason for everything. Things are picking up speed now." When Schuldich's lips twitched briefly into a frown, Crawford released one hand to pick up his coffee. He took a swallow before continuing. "If you set a rock on a snowy mountaintop and roll it downwards, what is going to happen?"

    "You're full of shit," Schuldich muttered, not impressed. Farfarello appeared in the doorway.

    Crawford ignored the comment. "It grows. It picks up more snow until it is so large it's hard to determine how it was started, and harder to stop it. If it isn't stopped, by the time it reaches the bottom it will be a huge ball of tightly packed ice that can deal grave damage. We are in a situation like that." Farfarello crossed the room to sit on the cushion beside Schuldich, amber eye watching Crawford. Schuldich's hand went automatically to Farfarello's hair. He had their attention. "The rock was one time when we slighted Svenska. The explosion at the building was part of what was picked up. This whole thing is still going and still growing, even after Svenska's death."

    Schuldich paused with his mug at his mouth, gazing over the rim at Crawford, jade eyes assessing. "Everyone knows now that we are alive," he said. "Svenska proved that you can be taken by surprise."

    Crawford didn't deny it or admit it. "Someone managed to get around our powers. We now must find a way to counter that. That is the first of our problems. The second is that things between Aya and Kritiker could take a turn for the worse at any moment, which brings us back to last night. I allowed you two to be injured so Aya would be able to return with you here. He is being forced to dance between loyalties, and drew his line last night when his partner challenged you."

    Schuldich said nothing for several moments, then tilted his head back to swallow the rest of his drink. He passed the empty mug down to Farfarello, who lightly bit it. Schuldich and Crawford gazed at each other, Crawford waiting, Schuldich digesting the news. "And that leaves us where?" Schuldich finally asked.

    "That leaves us with a mess to clean up." Crawford put his drink back on the table. "It will take some easy stepping but it will not be impossible to fix this. We cannot have any unknown factors that will tip the scales and drop more buildings on our heads."

    "The unknown factor is still finding out who can get around you."

    Crawford paused, choosing how best to word his response to that. If Schuldich was clever, the man would figure it out on his own. His mind went back several months, to an incident where someone had gotten an upper hand over him. It had been brief but enough to give Schuldich a chance to pester him.

    Schuldich blinked, catching on suddenly to what Crawford knew. His jade eyes narrowed, then widened. He raised his eyebrows. "My..." he drawled, shaking his head in dry amusement. His jade eyes glimmered with anticipation, and his mouth stretched into a wide smirk. "This gets better and better."

    "I'm going to work on that this morning," Crawford informed his teammates. "Schuldich, I want you to check on her partner and see her role in this. The strike must be clean and swift. We will not cut strings that might be useful to us later. Also, contact Aya. Tell him to be careful what he says and does, and see how last night went. I will be back in several hours." Crawford set the newspaper aside and stood. The time for seizing the future was at hand.


    Aya pressed a finger lightly into the soil, testing the moisture. It was almost dry. He lifted the watering can and let a trickle of water in until there was standing liquid. Satisfied, he moved to the next plant. The shop was closed again today. Yohji had met the morning crowd and turned them away with the excuse that Aya's condition had gotten worse. The girls were getting very worried. The shop had been open only two days while Aya had been gone, the two days Omi had been home. They'd been forced to open it so they wouldn't lose money on the plants, and had explained the absence of the other two by saying they were sick. There was a thick stack of get well cards in Aya's room waiting to get thrown away.

    He paused to roll up an errant sleeve before poking the next pot. He was dressed in one of the outfits he'd bought when he was with Crawford: a pair of tight jeans and a comfortable dark brown sweater that was several sizes too large. He remembered trying it on and being delighted by the fact that it was a shirt he could sink into and wrap himself in.


    Aya lifted his eyes from his work to place his partners. Yohji was repotting a plant by the door and was covered in dirt. Omi was sitting at the register, finishing the bank books. A calculator sat by him as he figured out the expenses and balances. Aya's eyes went back to his work. ~What?~

    /We've been making some interesting progress./

    ~Oh?~ Aya's gaze rose to follow Omi as the boy put his things away and left the room.

    Schuldich's voice rippled with amusement. /Ja. We've got most of this figured out. I'm not supposed to say anything just yet, but I am here to pass an order. The first step to be taken is to get everyone who might be used as hostages. There are three. We know where two are./

    ~Hostage by who?~ A slight frown traced Aya's lips.

    /You have challenged Kritiker. There are plenty who will snatch up whatever they can to get submission. Your sister, your teammate, and Nagi are all in the open. You need to find Hidaka Ken. The other two will be easy to take care of./

    Aya's thoughts went back to Manx's words from last night. Would Manx go so far to kidnap his sister? A surge of possessive anger washed through his veins despite his attempts to stop the flow. He set the watering can down and pressed his fingers together. Manx had said hateful words, but he wasn't sure she would be willing to step past the line and do such a thing.

    /Don't get angry already,/ Schuldich laughed. /You haven't been told everything yet./


    The basement lights were off, but the room was dimly lit by the shine from the computer screen. Aya was careful not to make much noise as he moved down the winding staircase. Yohji had gone upstairs to clean himself off and get dressed for the day- he'd been wearing some "shop clothes" for the pots. Omi was standing in front of his computer, rummaging around on it. He'd lost something, obviously, and he seemed to be desperate to find it. Aya slid his hands into his pocket. One came in contact with something cold and hard, the item he'd taken from his room moments ago. He closed his fingers over it.


    The boy tensed ever so slightly before relaxing and turning to face him. He offered a smile in greeting. "Good morning, Aya-kun."

    Aya stopped just a few feet away from the boy. He came right to the point when he spoke; there was no time to be subtle. "Where is Ken?" When Omi just blinked, uncomprehending, Aya elaborated. "Where is Kritiker holding Ken? What building? What room?"

    "I'm...not sure. I was allowed to see him only once, but I've been told he's been moved since then." Omi leaned against his desk. "...Why?"

    "I need you to locate him."

    "Aya-kun, gomen, but Manx doesn't want you to visit him."

    Aya dismissed Omi's apology with a flick of his fingers. "It's not for a visit. Ken is a loose string waiting to be pulled."

    "I'm not sure I understand."

    "The one behind the explosion was Svenska, but he had a partner. He had to. He found someone who was willing to risk both groups in an attempt to destroy Schwarz. I'm not positive on all of the details. What I do know is that the one who helped him- the one he needed to pull the trigger- is someone who can get around Schwarz's powers. That someone is dangerous and has a great deal of authority." He could see that Omi was beginning to understand what he was saying. "You have to locate Ken so we can watch him."

    "Hai, Aya-kun," Omi answered after a long pause. The boy sat down and cleared his screen saver.

    Aya watched as the boy opened a box to log onto the system. Omi entered a password and the screen cleared again, taking him to a different program. Hopefully the search would not take long. There wasn't much time left. Aya almost turned away, then remembered the second reason why he'd come down here. He closed the distance between himself and Omi and pulled his trinket out of his pocket, setting it on Omi's mousepad.


    Omi went still, blue eyes settling on the watch. It was as if he was debating whether or not to acknowledge it. Aya took the decision out of his hands. "That's Nagi's watch."

    There was a long pause and Omi removed his fingers from the keys. "...Aa," he agreed softly. "It is."

Part 9