Part Nine: Mission Mercy

    Omi reached out and scooped up the watch. He held it very carefully, as if he was afraid of breaking it. He didn't dare look up and meet Aya's eyes. "He...He got it wet. I took it from him, to try and repair it." He lowered his hands to rest them in lap.

    It was time for the truth. Aya crossed his arms over his chest, feeling the soft material of the sweater slide against his skin. He made himself comfortable leaning against the desk. "What is between you two?" he pressed.

    Omi's hand closed over the watch and he lifted the loose fist to press it against his chest. The words came from him slowly but without reluctance. "He is not as fortunate as I am, to attend school so much. He takes classes when he can, registering for a few here and there, skipping between campuses to get the best there is to offer. He comes on days that he is free and doesn't when he can't. He's not in it for the degree, but for the knowledge. Perhaps for a sense of normalcy as well. Schwarz is an everyday job. It's his life." He gave a rueful shake of his head.

    "About six months ago Nagi signed up for three classes at my school and ended up in two of mine. Both of us were there to learn, so we went out of our way to avoid meeting or fighting. As fate would have it, however, we ended up as lab partners in Advanced Chemistry. Chemistry isn't really my subject. Physics is. After working in silence for several days, I finally gave in and asked him for help. As time went on he became my chemistry tutor during lunch, and in return I helped him in economics. I told myself that we were just classmates, not opposing assassins, so I offered more and more of my time. There was just something about him that I couldn't avoid, that I couldn't help but find myself dragged into...He had to grow up so quickly. He's so very alone." The last sentence was stressed and there was a sad ripple in Omi's voice as he spoke it.

    Only now did Omi's eyes lift, to gaze at some point on the far wall. "We became friends, in a way. He didn't want to be friends. He was always reluctant on subjects outside of school. Only a few weeks ago would he be the one to suggest going somewhere."

    Omi paused, and Aya digested this information. Omi and Nagi had been on a truce for half a year? That was hard to swallow. It was no wonder that Schuldich and Crawford couldn't recall any recent changes in Nagi's behavior- the pattern had shifted long ago. Omi's teammates hadn't paid much attention to his study habits simply because it seemed to be in his character to focus on school. Aya could dimly recall Yohji and Ken teasing the boy about the increased devotion to studying. He hadn't paid any attention then because he hadn't been interested.

    Omi's lips thinned. "I know he's Schwarz. I know he's a target. But I can't...I can't strike against him." He turned to look at Aya, rotating the chair so he was facing him completely. In Omi's eyes Aya could see his own resolve and determination reflected.

    "You never spoke against my thoughts on Schwarz," Aya said. He had noticed that last night when the two agents had been questioning in. In the time Aya had been back, it had been Yohji or Kritiker fighting with him. Omi had never pressed him against them, had never argued. There was no way Omi could have.

    "I am no hypocrite," was Omi's quiet answer. "I don't know how much I'd trust the rest of Schwarz, but I trust Nagi. And if you have found a reason to believe in Schwarz, I can try." Omi offered a faint smile.

    That was what Aya wanted- needed- to hear. He felt his lips twitch slightly in response. "Arigato."

    Omi reached out and squeezed Aya's hand briefly, then turned back to the computer. "I'll let you know when I find Ken."


    Birman stepped into Manx's office. Her superior was shoving things into a briefcase with short, angry moves. Birman crossed her arms over her chest, frowning slightly. Manx had been in a sour mood since the night before. She looked like she hadn't slept- but then, neither had Birman. Last night had shown her just how badly Aya had been altered. She hadn't been told all of the details over what had happened during Aya's absence, but had been filled in Manx's reports. What she had witnessed last night had unsettled her enough that she hadn't been able to do anything but toss and turn in bed last night. Weiß was her favorite unit, the one she liked dealing with best. She had been the one to find Aya for Weiß, after all. She couldn't help but feel a little protective and possessive of the group even though Weiß had been assigned to Manx.

    Last night had shown her so much even though she had only stayed there for half an hour. She had requested to go with Manx when the mission report had come in from Omi. She had watched Aya carefully upon his arrival. Most of his behavior was the same, but it was sprinkled with little nuances that gave away the changed state of his mind, such as his shrug and the increased amount of words he spoke.

    The conclusion she'd come to was disturbing. All of Manx's reports had ended with the bold and unnerving claim that Aya had been meddled with mentally by the telepath of Schwarz. After seeing Aya for herself, however, Birman would bet her next paycheck- hell, she'd bet last year's income- that Aya had not been tampered with by Schwarz. He was the same man he'd been before, except with the gates to his past open. Schwarz did not have a leash on Aya. That was good.

    Aya had supported Schwarz of his own free will.

    That was bad.

    Manx paused in her work and looked up. "Yes?"

    "I've been thinking," was Birman's answer.

    "So have I," was the crisp rejoinder as Manx slammed her briefcase shut. She set one hand on top of it and put the other on her waist. Her eyes were unhappy when she turned them on Birman. "Your thoughts?" she pressed.

    "I don't think Aya is under Schwarz's control."

    "You noticed?" Manx's voice was bitter.

    So Manx had figured that out, too. "Now what?" Birman wanted to know.

    "This makes everything worse," Manx said with a flick of her head that made her red curls bounce. She was clearly angry. "Aya is still connected to Schwarz, but of his own free will. You and I know what that means. Schwarz is dangerous. They are everything that Kritiker stands against. We can't afford to have our agents wandering back and forth from white to black. We killed three agents four years ago when they did that."

    A sickening feeling began to circle Birman's heart as she realized what Manx was getting at. "You want to dismiss him."

    "There is nothing else for me to do."

    "This is Aya you're talking about!"

    Manx slammed her fist onto her briefcase. "And because he is Aya he should received special treatment?" she said, voice caustic. "Yes. It is Aya. It is Weiß, our best group. We cannot afford to lose them all. The longer he stays with them, the more chance he can get his teammates to turn too. He defies Kritiker, Birman. He defies us. You know what that means."

    Birman didn't answer. Manx lifted her hand to rub her eyes. The anger drained from her frame and she sighed. It was a weary and sad sigh. "This isn't easy on me, either, Birman," she said softly, lowering her hand to gaze at the floor. "If Persia were still here..." She shook her head slightly. "This is the only path I can take. I cannot spare Aya just because Weiß is my unit."

    There was silence between them for several long moments before Birman bowed her head. Manx's reasoning was sound, even if Birman did not want to accept it. It was a terrible thing to say, a terrible order to give, but it had to happen. Aya had turned his back on Kritiker. Now Kritiker had to reply to the snub in the way that had been established long ago- with dismissal.


    The shop was quiet when Manx entered. Yohji offered her a tense smile in greeting from his spot at the kitchen table. He closed the magazine he'd been idly flipping through and leaned back in his chair, stretching. His eyes strayed towards the clock. One twenty-six. On any normal day he'd be returning from his lunch break now. As it was, Aya had made them all lunch around twelve thirty and they had eaten together. For the first time since before the explosion the atmosphere of the table had been comfortable. There had been very few words spoken, but Yohji felt as if they had understood each other during those minutes. It might have just been his imagination; Yohji didn't know how much Omi knew or what the boy thought of Aya's situation. It had been nice to imagiune, though.

    Manx's gaze was calm and unreadable. "Where are the others?" she asked.

    Yohji's eyes dropped to study the briefcase in her hand. He recognized it and was instantly on his guard. It was the mission briefcase. "Omi is in his room studying. Aya went out to do some serious grocery shopping and won't be back for a while. You want me to page him?"

    "No, I don't. Get Omi and meet me downstairs." She left the doorway.

    Yohji frowned lightly and let the front two legs of his chair touch the ground. He stood and moved into the kitchen doorway. Manx had already disappeared into the stairwell leading downstairs. He frowned and glanced back over his shoulder towards the phone. It was odd to not alert Aya to a mission. Of course, Aya had practically signed his resignation papers last night in the argument between himself and Manx. He sighed and moved to the stairs leading up. "Omi!" he called. There was no answer. "Yo, Omittchi!"

    There was the sound of a door opening and a few minutes later Omi appeared at teh top of the stairs. "Yes, Yohji-kun?" Omi asked, leaning against the banister.

    "Manx is here. Come on down."

    "Hai." Omi started down the stairs. Yohji headed down into the basement. Manx was standing by a wall. Yohji let himself flop ungracefully onto an overstuffed chair. Omi was quick to join them and seated himself on the couch. They turned their attention on Manx.

    She cleared her throat. "Weiß, good afternoon. I join you today to give you the hardest mission I've had to assign. You have a new target that must be disposed of immediately. He has been privy to information that no one else must get hold of. He has betrayed the organization he works for by switching loyalties to a group of ruthless murderers. He is dangerous and deceiving. He must be stopped. Failure to stop him will result in your unit also being labelled as traitors and will risk you becoming targets as well. Do you understand?"

    Yohji felt tinges of alarm enter his thoughts, but Omi beat him to the question. "You're talking about Aya-kun, aren't you?" the boy asked hollowly.

    Manx met Omi's gaze steadily. "Yes," she answered calmly.

    "No," Yohji whispered back in disbelief, sitting up.

    "Aya made the decision last night," Manx told Yohji, switching her gaze to him. "You two know how dangerous Schwarz is. You've been up against them and seen their work enough to understand just how heartless and cruel they are. Aya has aligned hismelf with them of his own free will. You know what that means."

    "No," Yohji protested again, shaking his head.

    "You know the penalty for defying Kritiker," Manx said firmly. "Weiß isn't a job, to pick up and put down when you please. Weiß is life. Once you're a part of Kritiker, how can you ever leave? You can't. We cannot allow Aya to leave Kritiker, especially not for Schwarz. For _Schwarz_, Yohji," Manx repeated when Yohji continued to shake his head. "It is better for him to be killed at your hands than to be used by Schwarz or killed by another unit. I chose Weiß for the mission to give you that small mercy. Take it and do what's right," and she swept her eyes to Omi, "or refuse it and risk becoming targets."

    "You want us to kill our friend," Omi said flatly.

    "It's not easy for me to give you this mission," Manx admitted, quietly. "I've known you guys for many years. I've worked with you throughout all of Weiß's existence. Please trust me when I tell you there is no other way we can turn."

    There was silence.

    Yohji looked down at his hands that sat limply in his lap. He squeezed them into fists tight enough to turn his knuckles white and took in a deep, shuddery breath. "I believe you," he told her, then slowly lifted his eyes so his emerald gaze bored into hers. "But I trust Aya, too." Why did it suddenly seem so cold? "He asked me to trust in him, and I do."

    "We won't take the mission," Omi said in agreement. "We can't and we won't. There's no way we will. We're sorry."

    Manx did not respond for a long time. "I see. I can understand your reluctance, so I will tell you this. Another unit will be dispatched to take care of him. You must stand back and not interfere with the mission or you will be labelled as traitors as well. That is the farthest I will stretch the line for you. This is very serious."

    Yohji shook his head. "No," he told her firmly. "You've got to be kidding me. First you want us to kill him, now you want us to let him be killed? Forget it!" Damn, was this how Aya had felt? It was a dizzying rush of emotion that swept through him as he spoke. It was frightening, to know he was turning his back on the life he'd had for so many years. He'd been with Weiß for so long. And yet, how could he stay? Aya was his best friend. Yohji would not let anyone hurt him. And if Kritiker wanted to kill Aya...He couldn't, wouldn't, stay with them. "Put me on your target list if you want, Manx. I'm not going to let you hurt Aya."

    "Same here, Manx," Omi agreed.

    Manx said nothing for a long time, merely gazed at them. It was as if she was struggling to digest what they'd said. Finally she started towards the stairs. She didn't speak until she was at the top of them. "You are no longer a part of Kritiker, then, except as targets. The next time we meet we will be on opposite sides. I'm sorry it had to come to this."

    Yohji closed his eyes as he heard the doors shut. A sort of dry panic was licking at the insides of his lungs. He let out a long, slow breath.

    ~In Aya we trust...~

Part 10