He's been here before, or maybe not.

      He's been here often enough that he knows the room inside and out. It's something constant, something familiar, something he can always rely on even if he can never explain it. Four walls, a ceiling, a floor, and peeling white paint.

      Today, a white box sits in the middle of the room, in the exact center of the floor.

      He stares at it for a long time, unmoving, unexplainably alarmed by this change.

      It takes a minute, a month, a year, before he approaches it.

      There's just a simple red ribbon holding it closed, and the touch of his finger is enough to dissolve it. Silk turns to blood that slides down the sides of the box. Thick streaks rush across the floor and climb up the walls in thick, scattered streams. The blood is hot on his hands where he's holding on to the lid. It throbs against his skin, a pulse without a heart, and he pries the lid off.

      The room goes white, and all that's left is a paper crane.

      He reaches out to touch it, and it swallows him whole.


      4:30 a.m. was much too early to be awake.

      Schuldig had thought this little tidbit of knowledge was common sense, but he'd apparently given his teammates too much credit. He stared blearily at his clock, trying to imagine that it was a saner hour of the day, and finally sighed. Crawford took that as acquiescence and hung up. Schuldig flipped his phone shut and buried his face in his pillow. He almost started drifting off again, only to be startled awake when his phone started jangling again. Crawford hung up after one ring, but Schuldig understood the warning. He grumbled rude things against his pillow and pushed himself upright.

      He fumbled with the lamp on his nightstand, trying to find the button, and blinded himself when it cut on. He blinked rapidly to try clearing his vision and squinted off the side of his bed. It took some rummaging to find his slippers. He somehow got himself to his feet, though he swayed a bit on his way up, and grimaced as his body reminded him how sore it was. He worked at his right shoulder, trying to get the knots out of it, and stumbled across the room.

      His phone rang again. He still had it clenched in his fist, so he opened it. "I'm up, goddammit," he growled. Never let it be said that he was a morning person. "This had better be good, Crawford."

      Crawford understood what he meant, but all he said was, "It isn't."

      That woke Schuldig up. "Three minutes," he said, and he hung up on the other man. Crawford was a lot of things, but 'pessimist' was not one of them. Crawford was human enough to have second thoughts and doubts, but he kept them to himself as much as he could. This was the first time he'd made such a dire prediction out loud. If getting up at this hour hadn't ruined Schuldig's day already, whatever Crawford had to tell him most certainly would.

      He raked a hand through his hair as he shuffled down the hall, trying to work some semblance of order into the sleep-kinked locks. He passed a few other early-risers, some of whom looked far too awake to be human and others who looked just as cranky and coffee-desperate as he did. He jabbed the button to call the elevator. His reflection stared blearily back at him on the metal doors and he yawned at it.

      At this time of day, there wasn't long to wait on the elevator and he got to ride alone down to the third floor. He found the chosen conference room down the hall on the right and skipped a greeting entirely, more intent on detouring to the coffee pot. His companions waited in silence until he'd filled a mug. He took a sip, burned his tongue, and took a larger swallow. There was a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray waiting for him at his seat, which just increased his sense of foreboding. Crawford hated it when he smoked and he never let Schuldig smoke in the conference room.

      "Right," Schuldig said, eyeing the cigarettes warily. He pulled his chair out with his foot and sat down. "What's gotten into you that couldn't wait another three hours?"

      The smile Crawford offered him as thin and grim. "Estet."

      Schuldig stopped breathing. He stared at Crawford for a solid minute, waiting for the punch line, but it never came. "That's not funny," he said softly. Crawford didn't answer. Schuldig shook his head. "No. You promised us that last run was the last. You promised us that they don't have the kind of money it'd take to sign us on again."

      "I don't make our deals," Crawford said. "Rosenkreuz does. I've tried every chain of command we have access to; they all refuse to reconsider."

      "There are fifteen other teams. They don't need us."

      "They do," Crawford said.

      "Schuldig, they lost him," Nagi said quietly.

      His coffee mug slipped from nerveless fingers. It hit the corner of the table and bounced off, sloshing him and his chair, but he didn't feel the burn. He didn't even realize he'd dropped it. He was already turning to go, but Nagi caught his elbow in a telekinetic grip and pulled him back. Schuldig clawed at the air around his arm, knowing it wasn't going to do any good.

      "Schuldig, sit down," Crawford said.



      "I said no. I'm not going."

      "You are the only psychic he will come out of hiding for," Crawford said. "Rosenkreuz knows that. They won't send anyone else."

      "You saw what happened last time!" Schuldig said, trying to wrench his arm free of Nagi's iron hold. "It's not our fucking fault they couldn't hold onto him! They promised they had the right people. They promised us they could handle it. If they were wrong, that's not our goddamned problem."

      Nagi looked sick to his stomach. "Schuldig, please," he whispered.

      "How the hell did he get away?!" Schuldig demanded, shooting a wild look between them.

      Crawford's smile was brittle. "Farfarello."

      Schuldig went perfectly still to stare at him. Crawford took his glasses off and tossed them carelessly onto the paperwork spread out in front of him. He rubbed his hand over his face and pinched the bridge of his nose, looking for patience or strength. His thoughts were such a mess that Schuldig had to retreat from them. None of them had taken Farfarello's loss well, but Crawford, as Schwarz's leader and a precognitive, felt ultimately responsible. Three months back from Japan weren't long enough to ease that sort of guilt.

      "Crawford," Schuldig said, not really sure if there was a tactful way to say this, "we saw him die."

      "Apparently we didn't," Nagi said. "Security cameras picked him up at Estet's facility."

      "But Zanzou can't touch your mind," Schuldig said, turning on Crawford. "He tried for a solid month and couldn't do a damn thing to you."

      "My shielding isn't perfect," Crawford said. "You know that."

      Schuldig did. It was hard as hell to get in Crawford's mind, but it could be done. He looked from one to the other, wondering if this was all a bad dream. "Oh, hell," he said at last. He looked down at his hands and realized he wasn't holding his coffee mug anymore. He reached for his cigarettes instead. His hands were unsteady on his lighter, making it hard to get his cigarette lit, but neither of the others said anything about the trembling. "We really are going, aren't we? Crawford, I need to write a will."

      "I brought the forms with me."

      Schuldig said nothing, because there wasn't anything he could say. At last he pulled out a dry chair and sank into it. "Give me a pen."


      Kudou Yohji did not do mornings. He thought he'd made that perfectly clear, but apparently his teammates were a bit shaky in the memory department. He stared blearily at his clock, trying to imagine it was a saner hour of the day. No matter how hard he looked, the numbers didn't change. It was a quarter to six and someone actually expected him to be up. He buried his face in his pillow, quite willing to dash those expectations. He almost started drifting off again, only to be startled awake when someone pounded on his door. He grumbled rude things against his pillow and pushed himself upright.

      He almost knocked his lamp over when he fumbled for the switch. He almost blinded himself when it came on and he swore viciously. He scrubbed at his eyes and leaned over the side of his bed, looking for his slippers. He got to his feet on the second try, only to sit heavily down on the edge again. Their job two nights ago had been a killer. They were all still lagging from it. Yohji personally thought Kritiker should have given them some sort of vacation, maybe sent them to Hakone to soak their sore muscles in the spas there. Manx had refused to even submit that request.

      The knocking came again. Yohji got to his feet again and stumbled towards the door. He yanked it open with more force than necessarily and scowled at his teammate. "I'm up," he said. "There'd better be a good reason for this."

      Ken did not look at all intimidated. Ken was that aggravating breed of human being known as a morning person. He was up every day at half past four and out the door on a run by five. When they'd started figuring out schedules for the shop, Ken had volunteered to take the morning shift every day. Yohji had tried to follow suit and volunteer for purely afternoon shifts, but that had been vetoed. He and the other two would be rotating morning and afternoon as needed.

      Ken held out a paper cup of takeout coffee. "Two more days."

      Yohji groaned and shut the door in his face. A second later he changed his mind and opened it again. Ken knew what he was after and had the coffee ready. Yohji took it and slammed the door a second time. The stairs rattled as Ken headed down them to his own room and Yohji slumped against the wall.

      "No way," he mumbled. "Can't we get a break?"

      He'd known it was a bad idea to try and move the Koneko to Tokyo, but none of them had expected opening week to coincide with such a rough mission. They'd assumed they'd have plenty of time for managing shipments and set-up, but then their target had turned things into a hell of a mess. What should have been a three-day mission had taken almost a week. They were supposed to have the Koneko no Sumu Ie's grand opening the day after tomorrow and they were nowhere near ready.

      He pushed away from the wall and shuffled toward his dresser, burning his mouth on coffee as he went. He dressed for a day of heavy-duty cleaning and threw his empty coffee cup away on his way out the door.

      Omi was waiting for him on the landing one floor down, looking very much awake. Yohji blamed it on the mug he was clinging to for dear life. Built to hold 32 ounces, it was never far from Omi in the mornings. Ken liked to harass Yohji about his late nights, but Yohji was almost always in bed by one. Omi, on the other hand, was frequently up until three or four. The youngest assassin had too much work to do and not enough daylight hours to do it in, and often he could only concentrate when no one else was around to distract him.

      Yohji stopped beside him and took his mug away. He sipped at it, only to grimace at the overload of creamer and sugar. He wasn't sure what was worse: the sugar rush, or the combination of too-sweet coffee with the leftover taste of toothpaste. "You won't have any teeth left by the time you're thirty," he said.

      "Maybe I'll be dead by then, anyway," Omi said cheerfully.

      Yohji decided this had to be Omi's second mug at least. He handed it back and leaned in, stealing a kiss. "Who came up with this 'morning' thing?" he grumbled as they headed down the stairs together.

      Omi muttered his answer into his mug and let Yohji get the door. Ken was already in the shop's back room and was talking on the phone. Omi went to sit on the closest table. Yohji spotted his cigarettes on one of the back shelves and snatched the pack up. Omi sent him a disapproving look, but Yohji feigned not to see. Instead he watched Ken, wondering who would be calling this early in the morning. It couldn't be a delivery, not if Ken was scheduling it for half past eight that evening.

      "Right," Ken agreed, and he hung up. He stood perfectly still for a moment more, then looked over his shoulder and grimaced at them. "Manx is going to be stopping by later."

      "You're joking," Yohji said flatly. "She can't seriously be thinking about giving us another run."

      "Looks like she is."

      Yohji waved a hand around at the disaster zone that was supposed to be their storeroom. "We're busy!"

      "Somehow mass murderers top flower shops on Kritiker's list of priorities," Ken said dryly.

      "She's the one who wanted us to get this cover up and running," Yohji grumbled, lighting one of his cigarettes. "She's got a team in Yokohama. Can't she send them to do it?"

      "Yeah, you try arguing with her," Ken said, giving a helpless shrug. "Let me know how well that goes."

      Yohji knew exactly how well it would go, which would be not well at all. He scowled at his cigarette and took a long drag off of it. Omi was rather steadily inhaling his coffee now, realizing he was going to need all the caffeine he could get. Kid was going to be pulling a twenty-hour day at the minimum. Omi emptied the last sip and set his mug off to one side.

      "Right," he said. "Let's see how much we can get done today, then. Where's Aya?"

      Ken looked around the shop as if just noticing the redhead was nowhere in sight. "Uhh…"

      "If that prickly bastard pulled another disappearing act, I'll strangle him," Yohji said. "It's not fair if he gets to duck out and I don't."

      "You want to tell him he's out of line?" Ken asked, quirking an eyebrow at Yohji.

      "That's Omi's job," Yohji said, waggling a hand at their youngest.

      Omi rolled his eyes and hopped off the table. "I'll go find him," he promised. "Ken, dig up yesterday's orders and receipts. Yohji, somewhere around here is the paperwork for the bank. I'm going to need that. Please have both sets ready for me when I get back."

      He padded out of the room and shut the door behind him. Yohji and Ken considered the door, then exchanged glances.

      "Coffee?" Ken asked.

      "Coffee," Yohji agreed.

      Ken went looking for the coffee pot, which they'd managed to bury beneath pots and paperwork, and Yohji propped himself against a table to finish his cigarette.


      Knowing he was hours or days away from being completely destroyed was a nauseating feeling. Schuldig stared out the window at Narita International and idly wondered how he hadn't thrown up yet. He knew Nagi already had. The kid had lasted fine until about two hours out from Japan, and then he'd booked it for the bathroom to get sick. On any other mission, Schuldig would have teased him mercilessly about having such a weak stomach.

      There was nothing at all funny about this, however.

      Every organization had rules. Rosenkreuz was no different. There were things the psychics could do and things they couldn't. There were things they had to learn based on their power and diets they had to follow for the same reason. There were some psychics that had to be paired up, and others that weren't allowed on the same team as each other. There were psychics that were prized, and others that the school refused to train. There was even a list of psychics that Rosenkreuz would kill rather than leave loose in the wild. Zanzou was one of them.

      Zanzou was the only exception Rosenkreuz had ever made, and now it was coming back to haunt them. The child was an intricate breed of telepath, one whose power focused solely around memories. He was the first of his sort that they'd found, or at least the first they could remember finding. He'd only been on Schwarz for one month before he'd been slotted into the queue for elimination. It didn't take past experience to know that the child would do them more harm than good, especially when they saw how susceptible Schuldig's telepathy was to Zanzou's gift. Their powers were too much alike; Schuldig's mind had been an open door and Zanzou had loved inviting himself in. Into Schuldig's head, into his version of Schuldig's past, into Schuldig's bed—

      It had been an all-around disaster.

      Unfortunately, Rosenkreuz had gotten curious and gotten greedy. Estet had put in a formal request to buy the child, and the council had turned it down. The bidding war had gone back and forth until they were finally offered a ridiculous amount, one they should but couldn't say no to. Schwarz had been assigned the unsavory task of handing their teammate over. Zanzou had, predictably, fought the decision. The only thing that had saved Schwarz was that Zanzou was so taken aback by their betrayal that he hadn't come at them full force. He'd still managed to kill/not-kill Farfarello in under twenty-four hours and wipe out the first thirteen years of Nagi's memories.

      They had absolutely no illusions about how long they'd last this time.

      This time they were better prepared, or so Rosenkreuz claimed. This time they were going to be fitted with cameras and microphones and the like. Zanzou could rewrite their memories, but he had no effect on electronics. The recordings they picked up would help confirm what had or hadn't actually happened each day. That wouldn't help them if they couldn't remember they were wearing such things, and Schuldig had spent half of the flight inking reminders onto his skin. He'd run two pens dry. He had eight left in the package for the subsequent days.

      They were the last ones on the plane besides the flight crew. Crawford stood up at last, figuring he'd allowed his team to stall long enough, and started down the aisle. Schuldig followed after him because he couldn't hang back without looking like a coward. Nagi was right on his heels, maybe for the same reason.

      They stood at baggage claim, oblivious to the crowd around them, thinking only about their former teammates. Schuldig's bag came by first and he set it at the ground between his feet. His hand went unerringly for the figurine that was hanging off the handle. It was a delicate crane, made out of plastic but shaped like a bit of origami. Zanzou had been obsessed with making little origami cranes. He'd told Schuldig once that anyone who folded a thousand of them had their wish come true. Schuldig had asked him what he'd wish for. Zanzou had laughed and said he didn't know, but that he wanted to be ready when he figured it out.

      He worried his lower lip between his teeth, looking for some lingering taste of the child's skin. He found nothing but the mint aftertaste of anti-nausea pills. It still made him sick to his stomach.

      He twisted his hand, needing to see the ink he'd left on the insides of his wrists. Do not trust Zanzou, it said, and he pulled his sleeve up his arm to read the rest of the message. Zanzou was inducted to Rosenkreuz and Schwarz in 1997. You never knew him before then.

      The message made him smile, though the expression was more of a grimace. He had six years' worth of memories of Zanzou, six years of tainted memories where the child had written himself into Schuldig's past. Six years when he'd really only known Zanzou for a month. Schuldig knew it was all a lie, but that didn't make the memories any easier to ignore. The problem with Zanzou's gift was that he could erase memories entirely or he could alter existing ones: he couldn't create new ones. He could change details, but the core had to stay the same. An early morning stayed an early morning, a trip stayed a trip, but he could change who was there and what day it was and what was said. That meant even if Zanzou wasn't supposed to be in Schuldig's memories, everything he remembered happening around the child had happened, which meant Schuldig couldn't shrug it off.

      The false history hadn't been enough to save Zanzou in the end. Schuldig had turned on him just as easily as he would turn on any other childhood contact. His loyalty was to Schwarz, not some pint-sized lover. Zanzou's mismatched six years had nothing on the twelve he'd known Crawford. Zanzou had not taken that well. He wasn't likely to have forgiven Schuldig for such a thing, especially not now that he'd been Estet's guinea pig for three months.

      Schuldig figured he was lucky to be a telepath. It was a double-edged sword, really. Zanzou had free reign in a mind that was built to accept telepathy, but Schuldig's gift protected him from getting erased like Nagi and Farfarello had been. Zanzou couldn't blank Schuldig out. He was forced to work with what was already there.

      Such thoughts weren't getting Schuldig anywhere. He focused on the ink as a distraction, following the dark lines all the way up to his shoulder. He turned his arm this way and that to make sure he could read everything. The bold lettering was attracting stares from passer-bys, but Schuldig felt his teammates' looks more than anyone else's. He rolled his sleeve back into place. He turned his other wrist, and his skin asked, Are your cameras on?

      He eyed that, confused. "What cameras?"

      "Schuldig," Nagi said sharply. "That's not funny."

      Schuldig's jokes were usually off-color, but Crawford had known him long enough that he knew Schuldig wasn't trying to mess with his teammates. "Schuldig," he said, sounding rather calm despite what was going on. "Open the top zipper of your suitcase."

      Schuldig did as he was told and stared down at tangled wires. Memory came back in a rush. Portable surveillance for both Rosenkreuz and Schwarz, a means of proving what was real and what wasn't. Schuldig felt sick to his stomach. "He knows we're here."

      "He can't be here," Nagi said, casting a quick look around. "We just got here."

      "If any other team came to Japan, Zanzou would run in the opposite direction and be lost," Crawford said. "If Schuldig's here, he'll come straight to us. He knew Rosenkreuz had to send us if we had any hope of catching up with him."

      Schuldig knotted his hand in Crawford's sleeve and reached out with telepathic fingers. It took a minute, but he eventually ran hard up against a mind he knew a little too well. Get the fuck out of my head, you worthless waste of oxygen.

      He could hear Zanzou's smile in his words. Didn't you miss me, my love?

      Schuldig hadn't forgotten his voice, no matter how hard he'd tried, and with Zanzou's voice came too many memories. He could almost picture the young man: bright blue eyes, corn-straw hair, and a laughing smile. It was amazing that such a ruthless person could maintain an innocent face so easily. Schuldig still remembered that playful façade giving way to raw need, still remembered a mouth gasping for breath against his, oh God harder please

      Stop it,
he warned Zanzou.

      Mmmm, no?

      Schuldig reacted the only way he knew how, slamming his gift hard up against Zanzou's mind. Their two telepathies crushed each other, meshing and tearing in a vicious whirlwind. Schuldig tasted blood and didn't know if it was on his end or Zanzou's. He heard Zanzou's furious, pained snarl, but he refused to give up. Zanzou was the first to retreat, and Schuldig didn't come back to himself until he knew the memoripath was gone.

      Schuldig offered Crawford a hollow smile. "Are we taking bets yet?" he asked. "I give us thirty-six hours max."


      Knowing they only had a little bit of time to get everything ready and that they'd be interrupted yet again with another job started the morning on the wrong foot. Yohji stared over the rim of his coffee mug, surveying the mess with some trepidation. Ken was doing the same at his side. Being a morning person meant he was awake, but didn't make him any more eager to start overhauling the storeroom. And of course, Aya was nowhere to be found. Yohji grimaced a bit at his coffee. His teammates called him the lazy one of the group, justifiably so when he was forever trying to find a way out of his work, but at least he showed up for his shifts. Aya had a habit of disappearing, usually without any forewarning.

      "Next time we move, can't they at least give us a better cover?" Yohji asked.

      "Omi really should talk to them," Ken agreed, nudging at a bag of potting soil.

      Yohji sighed, already knowing what the outcome would be. He wondered if it was still worth a try. It was degrading. If anyone found out about their double-lives, the underworld would laugh themselves sick. Assassins did not tend flower shops. He wasn't sure who had come up with the idea, just as he wasn't sure what all of the reasoning had been. He knew part of it was the physical aspect of it, since it wasn't exactly easy lugging around bags of soil all day. The rest, he wasn't sure about.

      "At least this one's permanent," Ken said at last, trying to cheer both of them up.

      It did help, a little. "Yeah," Yohji agreed, taking another swallow from his mug. Weiss had been on the move for a while now. Aya was to blame for part of that. Kritiker didn't want him in the same city as Takatori. They didn't trust him to behave himself if he were to accidentally pass the politician in the street one day. Yohji supposed it was for the best. If they were moving all the time, they didn't have a chance to become recognizable faces, and their unknown surroundings forced them to be on their toes when running jobs.

      There was only so long a unit could stay effective when it was living such a nomadic lifestyle, however, and it was finally time to give Weiss a rest. They'd been officially assigned to Tokyo three months ago. They'd spent the first month exploring the city, needing to know it inside out. That was almost as hard as dropping their non-Tokyo accents. The second month, they'd been trained in all things floral to help their cover story hold up. Omi had started the application for their business license a while back, but they'd only gotten it two weeks ago. With that in hand, Omi had been able to close the deal on the Koneko no Sumu Ie. They'd moved in, and for the first time in years, Weiss had a home. A home with a basement full of weapons, perhaps, but a home just the same.

      Yohji was ultimately more interested in their private bedrooms. This was the first time since he and Omi had gotten together that they had walls between them and their teammates. No more waiting on everyone else to leave; no more trying to find reasons to get the others out of the way. All they had to do was shut and lock a door.

      It was perfect.

      The rattling footsteps outside warned them that Omi was on his way back. Ken and Yohji set their mugs aside as quickly as they could and hurried to look productive. Yohji rolled up his sleeves. Ken took one look at his arms and started laughing.

      "Cheat," he said. "If you hadn't slept through class-"

      "Oh, shut up," Yohji said good-naturedly. "There's too much to remember."

      "You can't get away with that on opening day," Ken pointed out.

      Yohji made as if to throw something at him. Ken ducked and covered, and Yohji went to rearrange the nearest stack of pots. Learning which flowers looked good together was easy, if only because Yohji was big on aesthetics. Learning the names of the plants had been a bit more difficult. Learning the symbolism behind them, however, went way over his head. Yohji simply couldn't keep them straight. He and Omi had been up studying last night, though the studying bit hadn't lasted very long. He knew he wouldn't sit down and stare at pages and pages of notes, so he'd used his arms as a notepad of sorts. He couldn't help but study now.

      Omi came through the back door. He paused right inside, eyeing his teammates. They tried to look suitably busy, but the coffee mugs on the table gave them away. Omi planted his hands on his hips, affecting a look of stern disapproval. His teammates feigned to be too caught up in work to notice. Omi gave up on them a few seconds later and went to dig around for his bags. There were three duffel bags toward the front of the storeroom that held all of their surveillance equipment. Omi pushed at each bag, looking for the lightest, and slung it over his shoulder with a bit of effort.

      "Yohji, if you're not doing anything else, can you get the other bags?"

      "I'm doing stuff," Yohji grumbled, but he had no problems following his young lover. He picked the other two bags up like they were nothing, earning an appreciative whistle from Ken. Yohji heard the mockery in it and made a fist at his teammate. Ken was the strongest on his team in part out of necessity and in part because he was a workoutaholic. Yohji, despite all of his goofing off, was a close second. His choice of weapon demanded a lot of upper body strength, both for holding people still long enough that they asphyxiated and for stringing people up like hangmen.

      They left Ken to the storeroom and went up front to the main area of the shop. The metal grate was still pulled down over the glass storefront, so there was no one to see them empty endless coils of wires onto one of the tables. Omi found a stool in the corner and used it to get up on a countertop. Yohji handed him anything he needed out of the pile and watched as Omi hid security cameras along the ceiling tiles. It was a little hard to concentrate when Omi's shirt kept riding up.

      "Yoooohji," Omi said, and Yohji blinked up at him. Omi had his hand out, but Yohji didn't know what he was asking for. The boy seemed more amused than annoyed by his distraction. Yohji grinned up at him, completely unrepentant. When he'd first met Omi, he hadn't trusted the boy a bit. Someone who looked like that, all bright blue eyes and corn-straw hair and such an open smile on his face, couldn't be worth his salt on a mercenary team. So he'd thought, anyway, until he'd found out what a ruthless brat Omi could be. Once he'd learned that unpleasant lesson, Yohji had learned to appreciate such an innocent face. What he liked more than that, though, was watching that playful façade give way to raw need.

      "You have a one-track mind," Omi informed him matter-of-factly.

      "No, really?" Yohji asked.

      They could hear Ken struggling with something in back, so it was safe for Omi to lean over and kiss him. There was promise and a lot of sticky memories in that kiss. Yohji slid his hands up Omi's legs to his hips, listening to the way Omi's breath stuttered against his lips. Omi caught his hands before they could start toying with his zipper.

      "We're working," he said.

      "Later, then," Yohji said.

      "Of course," Omi agreed with a not-so-innocent smile.

      Yohji hesitated, debating his self-control in the face of such an expression, and finally jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'll be in back." Omi's smile just widened, so Yohji did an about-face and headed for the storeroom.


      Their cameras were in place and recording long before they reached Estet's Tokyo facility. Schuldig sat in the backseat with Nagi and spent the three-hour ride staring at the ink on his skin. He wasn't really reading the words. Instead he was going back and forth with Nagi telepathically, summarizing past missions. They compared notes, bashed previous clients, and complained about how small of a cut Schwarz got from certain runs.

      There was only so far back they could go before they hit that blank patch in Nagi's mind. Schuldig had tried repairing the damage several times and had only succeeded in giving them both migraines. There wasn't anything to undo. Zanzou had simply erased absolutely everything from Nagi's first thirteen years. Schuldig wasn't sure if even Zanzou could fix that.

      Schuldig assumed Farfarello had gotten the same treatment, which made Schuldig more than a little leery about going up against him. The redhead had only been on their team for half a year, but Schuldig had decided pretty early on that he never wanted to make an enemy out of him. Farfarello was wicked with a blade and ruthless on his runs. Schuldig had absolutely no desire to get disemboweled and he hoped to die with all of his digits intact.

      At last they pulled up in front of the giant laboratory. The driver let them off at the front door. Schuldig wasn't quite sure what to think when he saw who was waiting for them on the top step. The Takatori family was in charge of the facility, but Schwarz hadn't met them last time. They hadn't needed to. The Takatoris had a reputation for being pompous windbags, with Reiji at the top of the list. They ran the facility from a distance, unwilling to bother with the actual work. That Takatori Reiji had come to meet them made it all the more obvious that Estet was in trouble.

      In Takatori fashion, he blamed Schwarz and Rosenkreuz for understating what a threat Zanzou was. Schwarz mostly tuned him out, more interested in the surveillance tapes he'd set up for them to watch. They were shooed into the conference room and Takatori stomped off with a final warning to get Zanzou back at all costs. Crawford nodded along, and none of them mentioned that Rosenkreuz had overridden the "retrieval" order with a "kill" one.

      Crawford shut the door behind Takatori and returned to the table. Nagi got the first tape playing with a press of his gift and Schwarz watched the screen in silence. For several minutes all they saw was a bare hallway. Having nothing else to look at made the date at the corner of the screen a little more noticeable.

      "Shit a fucking brick," Schuldig said, staring at it.

      "He's been out for three weeks?" Nagi asked, sending them a wild look. "Why did we just hear about it?"

      "Either they forgot he'd escaped or they forgot they hadn't told us," Crawford said, but the removed look on his face said he wasn't happy about this, either. If Zanzou had been loose in Tokyo for three weeks, that was three weeks spent shoring up a base somewhere. He had been preparing for Schwarz's arrival for almost a month now, whereas they'd learned less than twenty-four hours ago that they had to deal with him again. "It is an inexcusable lapse regardless. We will file an official complaint with Estet and Rosenkreuz both."

      Knowing that the Takatoris were going to get their asses handed to them didn't make Schuldig feel any better, especially not when Farfarello had just stepped onto the screen. The redhead already had his blades out and ready. His boots left bloody footprints behind him, a sign that he'd decimated most of Estet's guards on his way to the inner hall. Seeing him up and moving was jarring when they'd all seen him die months earlier. Nagi rubbed at his arms, warding off a chill.

      "Schuldig," Crawford said, so softly Schuldig didn't know if it was a murmur or a thought. Nagi didn't hear him, too busy staring at their long-absent teammate, but Schuldig glanced over at the precognitive. He didn't have to ask. As soon as he saw the distant look on Crawford's face, he knew, and he really didn't want Crawford to say such a thing out loud.

      Don't leave me here, he said, because it was all he could think to say.

      We won't, Crawford said.

      Schuldig looked back at the screen, not wanting to see any more of his dismal future in Crawford's eyes. He swallowed hard against nausea and tried to focus on the screen. Farfarello had gotten the keys from one of the guards. Now he undid the bolts on Zanzou's cell and disappeared out of sight inside. It didn't take long to get Zanzou out of his restraints. He carried the short teenager out as if he weighed nothing. Schuldig thought Zanzou was unconscious, but the child finally lolled his head to one side to look at the security camera. He offered it a hateful smile and a wave, and the pair of them vanished down the hall.

      Nagi stopped the tape there and Schwarz sat in silence. Finally the telekinetic changed tapes. There were four others to go through: the four that followed Farfarello's path into and out of the building. Apparently having his memories nuked hadn't done anything for Farfarello's skill with all things pointy.

      He said as much to his teammates, and Nagi sent him a pained look. "I haven't forgotten my telekinesis," he pointed out.

      "He let you keep a year, so you still remembered Schwarz," Schuldig returned.

      "The most likely scenario is that Zanzou only erased Farfarello's first five months with Schwarz," Crawford said. Schuldig glanced over at him, not understanding. Crawford didn't return the look; he was too busy scribbling notes on a pad for his report to Rosenkreuz. "If he erased everything Farfarello remembered of Schwarz, Farfarello would not have come here for Zanzou. He needed Farfarello to at least remember the month Zanzou was on our team. That begs the question of what he's done to us in Farfarello's memories."

      "Made us the bad guys, no doubt," Nagi said.

      "We are the bad guys," Schuldig pointed out.

      "Don't make me hurt you," Nagi warned him.

      "We're going," Crawford said. They gathered up their things and left. Estet was giving them board while they were in Japan. Their suitcases had already been moved into their rooms. The secretary in the lobby had the keys to the car they would be using while they were in Japan. They spent the rest of the afternoon and evening driving around Tokyo, trying to get a feel for the city. Schuldig kept his gift trained outward, looking for either of their former teammates.

      They were about to head back to Estet when Nagi said, "Wasn't the hotel back that way?"

      "We're not staying at a hotel," Schuldig said.

      "No, we said…" Nagi trailed off. A glance at the backseat showed him looking miserable. Schuldig's immediate argument was enough to tell Nagi what the child didn't want to hear. "At the airport, we said we'd stop by the Akimori Hotel for dinner. Except we didn't, did we?"

      Schuldig looked over at Crawford. "Is he remembering something I can't, or is he remembering something we didn't do? Far as I know, we never talked about dinner."

      "Yes," Crawford answered, "and no. Nagi brought up the subject of dinner as a distraction, but we didn't decide on the Akimori Hotel."

      There was silence for a long moment. Nagi was the first to break the silence when he said, "Either way, my appetite's ruined now. Can we just go back to Estet?"

      It sounded like the safest plan, so they did just that.

      How any of them got any sleep that night, Schuldig honestly didn't know.


      Manx showed up at the Koneko not long after lunch. She'd brought a briefcase full of files and tapes with her. Weiss preceded her down to the basement and scattered themselves around the room. Manx said nothing about Aya's absence, used to his issues by now. Instead she set her briefcase to one side and flipped it open. It didn't take long to get their mission files passed out. Yohji stared down at his without reading it, not really interested in the details.

      Manx cleared her throat to get their attention and they obediently set their folders to one side. She launched into a small lecture about the company they were going up against, detailing everything the public knew about their targets. Then she started the first tape rolling and Persia told them what the general public didn't know: what the target was really involved in. Yohji listened to it in silence and decided he'd been in the business too long, because he wasn't particularly impressed by the man's shady dealings. What caught his attention was when Persia linked this target to Takatori.

      Manx turned the tape off when it was through. "Our goal is to be facing Takatori by the end of the year," she said.

      "Man, where's Aya when you say stuff like that?" Ken asked, simultaneously amused and exasperated.

      "He knows," Manx said. "We had to tell him separately because we knew how he would react. He is on a private recon mission right now. He should be back by morning."

      "Oh, so he did have a legitimate reason for missing work today," Yohji muttered.

      Manx quirked an eyebrow at Omi. "He's still causing problems?"

      Omi smiled and shrugged. "He is not a man who wants to be controlled," he said. "He does things how he wants to do things. Bringing Takatori into the equation will likely worsen it, but at least we have an end goal. It'll work out. He'll listen to me when it matters most."

      "See that he does," was her crisp response. "Weiß, do you accept this mission?"

      They all signed off on it and she left them there to consider their files. For several minutes, no one spoke. The three were content to rummage through their folders, double-checking facts and faces. Yohji left his folder in his lap and contemplated the ceiling, wondering how they were supposed to juggle this and the shop's grand opening. Obviously Tokyo's criminals needed to learn to be more accommodating.

      "Okay," Omi said at length. "Let's try this. If Aya's looking here," he ran a finger down his page, following the highlighted lines that discussed Aya's role in the mission so far, "we need someone over here." He skimmed his finger over another section. "Aya can get us his schedules, but we're going to need to understand his territory." He flipped his folder closed and tucked it against his chest. "Yohji, can you drive us?"

      "No problem." Yohji flashed him a thumbs-up and got to his feet.

      The three left the shop in disarray and went out back to their car. Ken sprawled in the backseat while Omi took passenger, and Yohji drove where he was told. They spent a couple hours at it, more time than they could really spare but a necessary expense. Their target worked in a branch of the city they knew but weren't too familiar with. They took their time getting a feel for the streets, sometimes parking and getting out to walk around. They tested distances between office buildings and kept an eye out for escape routes, and eventually turned back toward the shop.

      The sight of a second car out back told them Aya had beat them to the shop. Ken grimaced a bit at that. Aya somewhat listened to Omi and surprisingly had no problems with Yohji, but was not at all interested in dealing with Ken. An Aya who knew they were finally working their way up the political food chain to Takatori was going to be downright dangerous.

      "I'm going to pick us up some dinner," Ken volunteered.

      "Coward," Yohji taunted him.

      Ken aimed a kick at him and went to get his motorcycle. Omi waited until he'd roared out of sight before slipping an arm through Yohji's. "Take a break," the teenager said. "I'm going to see what Aya's got for me. We'll have a lot of work to do after dinner. Based on Kritiker's notes, we should be able to move out tomorrow morning."

      "I can hardly wait," Yohji said.

      Omi flicked him an amused look and headed inside. Yohji stayed out back so he could smoke. As he went to stuff his keys in his pockets, his keychain caught against denim. He lifted it to where he could see it, though he'd memorized the straight lines of the dangly figure a long time ago. A miniature white crane, carved from plastic but made to look like it was origami, hung off his key ring. It had been Omi's once upon a time, but Omi had given it to him. The boy had a mild obsession for folding white cranes. He folded at least ten a day, no matter how busy his day was.

      A disorienting flicker of déjà vu killed that train of thought. Yohji gazed out at his parked car, struggling to figure out what was out of place. Eventually he gave up and settled against the back wall of the shop to smoke.


      Schwarz was comparing notes over coffee when Crawford saw Zanzou's next move. They lingered over their files for only a moment more, maybe steeling themselves for a confrontation two of them already knew the outcome of, maybe simply finishing up whatever they'd been reading. When they finally started packing up, Crawford looked over at Schuldig.

      "Give me one of your pens," he said.

      Schuldig fished it out of his pockets. Crawford motioned for him to set his hand on its side on the table. Nagi leaned close to watch as Crawford wrote in a line from Schuldig's palm around to the back of his hand. He had to trace the letters four times each to make them stand out. Schuldig left his hand how it was, letting the ink dry. "Don't turn your camera off," it said.

      "I won't be able to see that once I've got my gloves on," Schuldig said.

      "You're going to take them off," Crawford answered.

      Schuldig didn't like the sound of that. He couldn't use his weapon without his gloves. He chose not to argue and just gave Crawford a stiff nod. They stood as one. Crawford led them down the hall and outside to where their car was parked. Zanzou's target today was one of Estet's sponsors. Crawford knew how to get them to the facility they needed. They left the car in the garage and went inside to evacuate all important personnel.

      Then there was nothing to do but wait.

      They didn't have long.

      "There are three of them," Crawford said, his way of telling the other two that their guests would be showing up in less than a minute. "Zanzou, Farfarello, and an unknown. Zanzou will keep back to where he knows Nagi cannot reach him. The other two will come for us. Do not strike to kill. We need to see if we can restore Farfarello's mind and we will need to know who Zanzou has chosen as his secondary puppet."

      Schuldig stretched out with his gift even as Nagi murmured an affirmative. He found Farfarello's mind first. Right behind him was a dead mind, focused and intense. A little bit further out and he finally found Zanzou.

      Hello, love, was the singsong greeting, and an explosion followed on the tail-end of it.

      "Nagi, the lab," Crawford said, and the telekinetic ran to protect what he could.

      Quit being such a coward, Schuldig sent Zanzou. Come out where we can kill you.

Zanzou sounded torn between finding such a concept amusing or offensive. You couldn't.

      It would be the greatest moment of my life,
Schuldig assured him. Right next to pissing on your bloody corpse.

      You don't mean that,
Zanzou informed him. You and I have something special.

      The word you're looking for is 'superficial'. You are nothing to me.

      Everything you sacrificed for me-

      Is a lie.

      Everything I've done for you-

      A lie,
Schuldig said savagely. You pretending things happened differently doesn't change the fact that those things aren't real.

      It does,
Zanzou informed him. We are our experiences, Schuldig. It does not matter if your memories are constructed or genuine. You will live every moment of every day for the rest of your life based on what you remember.

      Leave me the fuck alone,
Schuldig warned him. Go focus your twisted games on someone else.

      Stop me,
Zanzou invited him.

      "Schuldig," Crawford said, a second before another explosion rocked the ground beneath them. Smoke billowed down the hall toward them, and two bodies came flying out of it. One Schuldig didn't recognize: some dark-haired Japanese national with wicked metal claws on his gloves. The other, the redhead with an icy mask and a long blade in his hands, was unmistakable. Schuldig had seen Farfarello on the security tapes yesterday afternoon, but seeing him in person was disorienting. Schuldig remembered how Farfarello had been gutted. He remembered looking for a pulse and finding none. He remembered-

      He lost his train of thought when survival instincts kicked in. Farfarello was taking a swing for his head and Schuldig didn't want to part with it. He dove out of the way, fighting the instinctive desire to go for his weapon. It was absurd to think he'd string his own goddamn teammate up.

      "Farfarello," he tried. "Farfarello, snap out of it."

      Farfarello smiled, lazy and cold, and prepared for another attempt. Schuldig flicked a quick look around, noting the way Crawford and the clawed assassin were fighting, and did the only thing he could: he took off in search of a place with more room to move. He couldn't face Farfarello's blades in a room this narrow.

      Farfarello followed on his heels. He said nothing, neither to call Schuldig back nor to taunt him, but he didn't have to. Farfarello's stare spoke volumes and Schuldig could feel it digging into the back of his head.

      Farfarello, he shot at his former teammate. Wake up, god damn you. You know who I am!

      A dead man, Schwarz,
was Farfarello's easy response, all laced with quiet vitriol. Those who support Takatori and Estet must die.

      Undo it,
Schuldig warned Zanzou. Give him back.

      Zanzou smiled against his thoughts and said nothing.

      Schuldig made it as far as the conference hall and he grabbed the first weapon he passed: a metal folding chair. It wasn't much, but it was still a faceful of metal and it slowed Farfarello down. Schuldig turned to face Farfarello, hands clenching and unclenching as he kept himself from pulling a weapon. Crawford had made him bring a gun, no matter that it had never been Schuldig's weapon of choice. He'd shunned firearms in the past because they were loud and made deaths too quick. His aim had never been great, no matter how hard Rosenkreuz had tried to beat that skill into him. There was a chance he would blow a hole in Farfarello's face when he meant to shoot him in the hip. His usual weapon, the garrote, was out of the question. There was no safe way to use it.

      Farfarello kicked the chair out of his way and started slowly stalking Schuldig's way. Schuldig decided to take his chances with his firearm. He yanked his glove off with his teeth and went for the gun, only to hesitate when he saw the ink Crawford had scribbled across his hand.

      He grabbed at the wires that were poking out from under his cuff, turning the knob to see which light was on. Neither; he'd turned the camera off at some point. He couldn't remember when or why. A hard flick of the switch got it recording again, transmitting feed both to Schwarz's equipment at Estet and to a hard-drive at Rosenkreuz. His distraction cost him. He saw Farfarello move out of the corner of his eye, but it was too late.


      -and everything broke into a million shattered colors.


      Yohji wasn't really sure how they'd gotten back to the Koneko. All he knew was that his bathroom was too small to fit both him and Omi comfortably. He stared fuzzily down at Omi, too out of it to help the youth get him out of his clothes. He guessed they must have been really ruined in the fight, because Omi was stuffing them into a black trash bag. The child went still at the sight of long black wires trailing from Yohji's shirt to his chest. He pulled Yohji's shirt out of the bag again. The wires ran all the way down the inside of the sleeve, and the knob on the end was glowing green. For a moment his expression twisted into something almost hateful, something very not Omi, and then it was gone. Omi yanked the wires free and dropped them in the toilet.

      Yohji started for the door, wanting desperately out of there even if he didn't know why. Omi snagged his wrist. "You have to sit down. You hit your head, Yohji."

      Omi pushed at him until he was sitting on the side of the tub. His young lover stared hard at him, searching his eyes, maybe looking for signs of a concussion. Yohji swallowed against a thick rush of nausea and looked away.

      Omi caught his chin and forced his head back. "Stop it."

      "Leave me alone."

      Omi looked like he'd been slapped. Yohji wanted to apologize, but he didn't feel sorry. He stared back at Omi, struggling against the haze in his thoughts and the panic he could feel starting to twist its way through his chest. Something must have shown on his face, because Omi held up his hands in a soothing gesture.

      "Yohji," Omi said, very softly. "Yohji, it's me. You're safe now."

      Yohji didn't answer him. Omi considered him in silence a moment more, then picked up a small, soapy sponge. He carefully sat on the side of the tub beside Yohji and began scrubbing at the ink that streaked its way down Yohji's arms.

      "Don't worry," Omi promised him. "Things are going to be just fine. They'll be a bit bumpy for a while, but everything will work out."

      "Schwarz," Yohji started to say.

      Omi flicked him a hooded look so disapproving that Yohji forgot what he was trying to say. "Their telekinetic isn't going to be a problem," Omi said, going back to work. "The foreigner is the only one who might pose a bit of a threat, but everyone can be gotten to. He's already proved it. We just have to bide our time until the next chance presents itself."

      "You think we'll see them again?"

      "Oh, for sure," Omi agreed. "We have something they want, you see."

      "Like what?"

      "Kritiker business," Omi said apologetically. He softened it with a smile and leaned in to press a kiss to the corner of Yohji's mouth. Yohji flinched away without thinking. "Don't act like that. You know I can't tell you everything they tell me."

      "I know," Yohji agreed.

      Liar liar liar

      The ink wouldn't come all the way off. It left blackish smears up and down Yohji's arm. Omi considered the mess and sighed. "You could have just studied like a normal person," he pointed out, setting the sponge aside. "Wear long sleeves tomorrow. We can't let our customers see that."


      Omi propped his shoulder against Yohji's. They sat in silence, each man tending to his own thoughts. Yohji didn't know how long they were there before his mind finally started putting itself back together. The past couple days slid into place with a clarity that was almost painful. Everything before that was still a rotten mess, but he could worry about that later. The vicious sense of wrongness was slower to fade, but eventually that too was gone. In its place was a wincing sense of guilt over his brusque treatment of Omi. The kid had had a rough week so far between getting the shop ready and prepping for missions.

      He wound an arm around Omi's shoulder and pressed a kiss to light hair, a silent apology. Omi smiled at their reflections where the mirror hung opposite them. Two shades of blue met and held on the glass: one gaze apologetic, the other easy understanding and forgiveness. Omi tangled his fingers in Yohji's orange hair and gave the locks a light tug.

      "Let's get some sleep. Tomorrow's a big day."

      "Sleep?" Yohji drawled.

      Omi grinned, that special grin of his that reminded Yohji how not-innocent the kid really was. "Or something."

      They turned off the bathroom light on their way out.


      He's been here before, or maybe not.

      He's been here often enough that he knows the room inside and out. It's something constant, something familiar, something he can always rely on even if he can never explain it. Four walls, a ceiling, a floor, and peeling white paint.

      Today, a white box sits in the middle of the room, in the exact center of the floor.

      He stares at it for a long time, unmoving, unexplainably alarmed by this change.

      It takes a minute, a month, a year, before he approaches it.

      There's just a simple red ribbon holding it closed, and the touch of his finger is enough to dissolve it. Silk turns to blood that slides down the sides of the box. Thick streaks rush across the floor and climb up the walls in thick, scattered streams. The blood is hot on his hands where he's holding on to the lid. It throbs against his skin, a pulse without a heart, and he pries the lid off.

      He's staring down at a mirror, bright blue eyes and orange hair, and for a second he remembers.

      Then Omi is at his side, taking the lid away from him. "Enough," he says. "You've got to stop fighting me."

      They tie the box closed and leave it there.

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