Art of Cruelty

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chapter five

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Aya stood on the vacant sidewalk and stared at the tall, wooden fence around Hasegawa’s small house. Despite the lawsuit and his wife divorcing him, the professor had managed to hold on to the property, an impressive feat considering how much land went for around Tokyo. Even with the tiny amount of yard surrounding the house, Hasegawa possessed more privacy than someone living in a condo or apartment. If he was involved with the killings, had he kidnapped the models here? He most likely would have to take them elsewhere to keep them captive and then kill them, but-

<Maybe he has them locked up in a box or a closet. Gags or drugs them to keep them quiet, takes the flesh or limbs he cuts off out with the garbage, careful to put them in the right recycle bin so the neighbors don’t bitch. Gardens are a good spot to hide stuff, too. I bet he tells the neighbors that he has a compost heap or something. Human flesh rots just like an animal’s, you know.>

Grinding his teeth together in annoyance, Aya wished for what had to be the millionth time that there was a way to keep Schuldig out of his thoughts. <Go. Away,> he answered back with as much vehemence that he could muster, his head aching slightly from the intense emotion.

<Aw, do you really think you can rely upon that asshole, Kudoh, a bug and a tracking device to save your ass if Hasegawa’s really the sick fuck going about turning people into statues?> Even though the bastard was nowhere in sight, Aya knew that Schuldig was sneering at him just then.

He barely managed to resist the urge to bang his head against the neighboring house’s stone wall and stepped forward instead. <I’ll trust those three things more than I ever will you. Now go away and stop distracting me.> He focused on a memory from earlier that day, when Schuldig had once again invaded his dreams to give him an update on his sister.

There was a wave of anger as Schuldig remembered the detailed threats of what Aya would do if the telepath ruined this mission; Aya would gladly deal with the pain he inflicted upon himself if it meant that either Schuldig had to suffer as well or blocked the link enough to avoid it. Before the telepath could think up some retort or another, Aya deliberately looked around the quiet neighborhood for any sign of his lover.

Schuldig might be ignoring his wishes on being left alone to proceed with the mission, but it looked as if Yohji was listening for once. Aya sent that pointed little thought to his personal tormentor, well aware of how Schuldig hated to lose to Yohji in any manner. Then he did his best to stifle the realization that just because he could not see Yohji, the idiot might not be lurking around somewhere. As long as Yohji remained a lurker and had faith that Aya could take care of himself, then things would be fine.

There was a sort of mental grumbling – a mix of anger, annoyance and inarticulate thoughts – then Schuldig became quiet. Aya was certain that the telepath continued to ‘listen’ in on him, and decided to take his victories where he could. He straightened the bracelet on his left wrist before he opened the gate leading to Hasegawa’s house, and spoke as softly as he could into the listening device that Omi had tucked into the collar of his black button-down shirt that he was entering the man’s home.

He had knocked twice on the door when it opened a moment later, as if Hasegawa had been waiting for his arrival. The art professor was still dressed in slacks and a dress shirt, as if he was on campus teaching, but they looked worn and comfortable, like a uniform that had seen much wear and had become a good luck charm of sorts.

"Matsumoto-san, thank you for coming." Hasegawa bowed slightly before ushering Aya into the tidy foyer.

Taking a deep breath as he removed his shoes and coat, Aya noticed that the house smelled of oil paints and turpentine, and not the tell-tale odor of death and decay. That did not mean the professor was innocent, just that if he was the murderer then Aya’s theory of him taking the victims elsewhere after capture was most likely correct. "The directions you gave me were very accurate," he replied, feeling almost bereft when he shivered slightly from a chill. As much as he despised his talent, it was useful in potentially dangerous situations as this; more importantly, it could probably save him a lot of time by revealing if Hasegawa had any intentions on kidnapping, maiming and then murdering him.

"That’s good." Hasegawa nodded several times as he led Aya into the just as tidy living room, its furniture simple yet well-made, its walls covered with various paintings and artworks. "Would you like some tea?" He made the offer with jilted movements, motioning toward the tea set placed on the low coffee table.

No doubt Omi was on the other end of the transmitter about to smack his head over Aya’s lack of manners, but he was in no mood to drag things out with niceties. "Actually, Hasegawa-sensei, I have plans for this evening and think it would be best if we could start now." Besides, that way he could avoid being drugged by anything in the tea.

For the first time since he had arrived, Hasegawa smiled. "Yes, yes! You’ve already accommodated me by coming here on your day off, there’s no need to waste any more of your time. Come." He motioned with his right hand for Aya to follow him deeper into the house, past a couple of closed sliding doors. The studio was about the same size as the living room and filled with light, the source for the scents that he had noticed upon entering the home. A padded bench had been set in the middle of the room, not far from an easel with a faint drawing already sketched upon it.

Hasegawa pointed to a kimono and haori folded on a small table. "You know how to wear them, yes?" When Aya nodded, he was quick to take a step toward the room’s door. "Good. Please put them in." He left the room, allowing Aya the privacy to change.

Considering that the man had seen him naked several times now, Aya thought that was a bit odd and was mindful of the fact that there might be a camera hidden somewhere in the room. He looked about as casually as he could while he undressed, careful to palm the radio transmitter as he removed his shirt. The device could be easily hidden in the folds of the dark grey haori he wore over the simple black kimono, and as he hunched over to pull on the white tabi, he quickly removed the copper bracelet, grateful that the metal was flexible enough to fit around his ankle instead. Should the worse happen, Hasegawa would not find the tracker until he or his assistants stripped Aya of his clothes, hopefully at wherever it was that they kept their victims.

"Bombay, Hasegawa is allowing me to remain dressed. Since I can wear the mike, order Balinese to *not* come to the house unless you hear something go wrong." He whispered the words as clearly as he could, mindful that he might not be the only one possessing a bug in this room. However, it was too good of a chance to not take the risk; one of his problems with this plan was Yohji appearing out of nowhere and possibly scaring Hasegawa off before he could make a move. It would be best to see what the professor would do without any interruptions; there was a chance he might be the killer and not have any plans to move against Aya today.

Because the transmission was only one way, there was no response from Omi, but Aya trusted his teammate to see the sense in his decision. There was no doubt in his mind that Yohji was going to be very upset when the message was relayed to him, and Aya hoped that, for the man’s sake, Yohji listened to Omi. Aya would not be happy if their situations were reversed, but he trusted his lover and would not risk the mission over misplaced concern.

<You give the Blödmann too much credit, Kätzchen.> The impression he got from their link was that Schuldig was amused just then, which prompted Aya to glare at nothing as he straightened up.

<Then what does it mean that I can trust him to not mess things up a thousand times more than I can you?> he shot back, not about to put his life at risk *and* listen to the German bastard insult his lover at the same time. <Now go away.>

A spike of pain shot through his head, a sure sign that he had pissed off Schuldig, but at least the jab had gotten him the result he wanted. Again, there was the sense that Schuldig was ‘lurking’ around, which Aya would put up with as long as the man remained quiet. For once.

He had seated himself on the comfortable bench when Hasegawa returned with two bottles of water. The professor nodded in approval when he saw how Aya was dressed and set one of the bottles down beside the easel, then picked up a small, plain fan. "Good, good. I thought you might be familiar with the clothes. Now, I want you to kneel on the bench. You can do that for a length of time, yes?" He barely waited for Aya to nod in answer. "Good. Hold this." The fan was shoved into his right hand, and the water bottle set on the floor within reaching distance. "Pretend you’re a nobleman in an old picture." He fussed with Aya’s clothes as he knelt as comfortably as possible, the image of an old photograph in his head that he thought the older man wanted him to pose as. At least he did not have to wear an old-fashioned hat or several layers of kimono, like his great-great grandfather had in the picture his father had kept hung up in the office.

He waited for some crack from Schuldig, something along the lines of him pretending to be the fabled Genji, and felt almost disappointed when there was nothing. Annoyed with himself, he scowled and clutched the fan tightly, much to Hasegawa’s apparent delight.

"Yes! That’s it, just perfect." Hasegawa nodded once and backed toward the easel, where he spent several minutes mixing paints. He offered no explanation for why he wanted Aya to dress and pose like this; as he was not naked for once and used to kneeling like this during the tea ceremonies his mother had held, Aya considered himself lucky. As assignments where he was acting as bait went, there had been much worse, and he would much rather wear traditional clothes than some of the outfits forced on him in the past.

He felt that in light of some of those assignments that he had to acknowledge the fact that modeling – *while* clothed – was not all that bad. Years of practicing mediation and being required to sit so formally for various events had taught him how to find the most comfortable possible position and then remain still, and it was rare to be able to enjoy the quietness in the studio. The faint muttering from Hasegawa now and then blended with the rasp of the wet brush against the canvas and the creak of wooden floorboards. Aya remained tense enough to never forget that he might be sharing a room with a mass murderer, yet felt an odd sense of peace at being in such a familiar situation. Ken might complain about being bored, Omi of how he had so much homework to do and Yohji bitch incessantly about how he could be drinking or having sex, but Aya never did mind being on stake-out duty for a mission, usually having to remain still and quiet as they hid just out of sight of their targets.

<And you call me a crazy bastard.> The soft tone of the words were so similar to Hasegawa’s mutterings that it took Aya a moment to realize that Schuldig was once more annoying him.

Aya barely caught himself in time before he moved, the urge to grab his katana and go search out the German bastard who would *not* leave him alone almost strong enough to make him forget about the mission. As it was, Hasegawa stopped painting and glared at him until Aya relaxed his shoulders and returned his right hand into the position it had been in a moment before. <I swear to you on my parents’ souls that I *will* hunt you down and kill you, despite any consequences to myself, if you ruin this mission.> That Schuldig had been somewhat involved in his parents’ deaths only stoked the amount of righteous fury he felt. He was not a damn plaything, put on this earth and forced to suffer just for Schuldig’s amusement.

Either that thought or his vitreous emotions had some impact on the meddling bastard, as Schuldig’s mental tone became almost apologetic instead of snide. <I am *not* trying to fuck up your mission, du Trottel! I’m not the one stupid enough to parade himself around a possible homicidal maniac!>

About to comment that he had obviously been driven to suicidal impulses because of Schuldig – and only stopping because that line of argument never worked out no matter who he used it against on the grounds that he had been acting ‘suicidal’ for years – Aya once again found himself gripping the folded fan as if it were a hilt of a sword and made himself stop. An image filled his mind of how he would spend the rest of his life trapped in some gothic-style insane asylum, the type that could be found in old movies, wearing a straightjacket while shouting ‘die!’ at the top of his lungs all day. If he was cursed even more than he already suspected he was, Schuldig would be locked up with him, gloating over having driven him so deeply into insanity. And people wondered why he was a bit ‘suicidal’?

<I don’t think I like the point you’re insinuating there,> Schuldig sulked, and mission or not, if he had been anywhere in physical reach, Aya would have shown Hasegawa a few inventive new uses for paint brushes.

Instead, Aya proved that he did have some self-control, no matter what his teammates or anyone else believed. <DIE.> He felt the left side of his face twitch as he sent that thought, but otherwise he remained still.

There was a minute or two of blessed silence, and then Schuldig merrily went about ignoring him, as always. <Look, despite those particularly nasty thoughts you’re having right now about me, I’m not here to fuck things up for you.>

<I don’t believe you,> Aya shot back, not even giving the bastard a chance to explain. He was about to add a few insults, reveling in the rare anger he felt toward Schuldig for once lately, and it was as if he suffered a jolt of sorts to his brain, rendering him unable to think straight for a few seconds.

<As much as I might consider all these insults as foreplay under the right conditions, now’s not the time. So just shut up for once about how I continue to ruin your life and *listen*.> Schuldig’s emotions were an unusual mixture of exhaustion and annoyance, and Aya did not have the impression he was the lone reason for either of those.

When he did not lash out with verbal abuse even after he got his thoughts back in order, Schuldig continued. <Since you insist on ignoring reason, I checked out the old fart’s thoughts. Other than a bunch of images that have something to do with ‘juxtaposing present Japan with the restrictive honor of the past’ or some other arty bullshit like that, I’m not picking up much. He’s only concerned about mixing the red paint properly, and not about how’s the best way to chop you up.> There was a sense of petulance to Schuldig’s revelation, as if he were a child disappointed in being deprived of some gory, nightmarish scene after sitting through a horror movie.

Aya did not answer back right away, using the time to study Hasegawa as surreptitiously as he could without any obvious movement or intent. The truth of it was, he saw nothing that made him suspect that the professor was the murderer. After being in Weiss these last few years *and* having to deal with Schuldig, he believed that he could recognize obsession when faced with it. Hasegawa clearly did love art and being an artist, yet… something was missing, something that would render him unable to tell the difference between a human body and a lump of clay.

<See? So why don’t you get your ass off that bench, tell the old fart that you’ve a sexy guy willing to buy you dinner despite your nasty attitude toward him right now and leave? It’s just a huge waste of time.>

<No.> Aya remained where he was, body still as tense as before and attention as focused on his surroundings as he could be while distracted by Schuldig.

<What the hell is your problem?> As always, Schuldig’s emotions took a turbulent, dark turn whenever he did not get his way. <I read his fucking mind, just like you wanted me to do, and you’re ignoring me?> Pain skittered through Aya’s head, faintly at first with the occasional savage twinge that warned he would soon be suffering a headache that would make his ‘migraines’ pale by comparison.

<You’re not infallible,> Aya answered, and did his best not to wince from the pain he felt as a result. <Perhaps he’s buried that part of himself.>

<Not from *me*,> Schuldig shot back, and Aya did not need a telepathic link with the man to know that he was furious and insulted just then. <I’m the fucking best there is at reading minds.>

Aya struggled to keep his thoughts in order despite the building headache. <If it’s not him, then it’s a good chance it’s someone else from the university, and I can’t risk doing anything that will cost me the modeling job. I’m not leaving.> It would almost be worth it for Hasegawa to try to kill him just to prove Schuldig wrong.

Another sharp stab of pain warned him of Schuldig’s growing anger. <You don’t trust me to be right about this, do you?> The words were faint in his mind, as if Schuldig had stifled their link a little.

He did not feel that he needed to answer the question. Schuldig lied to him on a daily basis, had admitted that he would do damn near anything to make Aya his personal slave, had proven so many times in the past that he did not care how much he hurt Aya as long as he achieved that goal. Oh, Schuldig might have changed tactics a bit these last few months, but it did not erase the fact that he did not care about the damage he did to Aya as long as he won in the end. Maybe he was telling the truth about Hasegawa, and maybe he was pissed off at Aya ignoring him and lying. Either way, Aya would finish up this assignment.

That was, if he did not pass out in agony first. The wooden spines of the fan bit into his fingers as he clenched it in his right hand, wishing more than anything that it was his katana.

Schuldig’s mind brushed against his own, a quicksilver rush of emotions and images that Aya realized he had grown used to over time, and Aya braced himself for a mental assault. Instead, the pain lessened enough that he was no longer in danger of tumbling off of the bench.

<No, you don’t trust me about this. But you do in regards to your sister, and that’s a start.> Schuldig’s emotions were still tainted with anger, but there was a sense of smugness mixed in as well. <Go on, sit there until your legs go numb and your back aches, wasting all the time you could be out there looking for the real killer. Go on doubting me, and see who’s proven right in the end. Just don’t ask me to read any more minds for you until you do trust me, mein undankbarer Schatz.>

Aya almost shook his head to clear it of his muddled thoughts before he remembered what he was supposed to be doing, off-balance both from the pain and Schuldig’s sudden change of attitude. He should be used to both now, especially when they were connected to each other, but an encompassing sense of cold prevented him from regaining the calm center he needed to think. Something felt wrong – it was almost as if there was a warning in what had been said to him – and he hated the fact that if he could only use his despised talent, he could make sense out of things. As it was, he bit back on any retort after being reminded about his sister. Schuldig might be the enemy, but he was also Aya’s only link to Aya-chan now. Offending the telepath over the mission was one thing, risking that fragile connection was another, even if it only increased his fury over the ridiculous situation he was stuck in.

<Go on and blame me for that, too. One day, when you do get your talent back and grow the balls to use it as it should be used, you’ll be able to look back on things and see them as they truly are,> Schuldig warned, his anger fully replaced by gloating. <Then you won’t be able to blame me for everything like you do now. It’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun having you make up for all of the shit you’ve put me through.>

Luckily, the connection was severed before Aya could gather his thoughts and lash into Schuldig for that preposterous statement. He passed the remaining hour at Hasegawa’s wondering just what he had done in a past life to deserve the one he was stuck with now, and if it would be such a bad thing if Hasegawa proved to be the target and ended up killing him. Right now, being turned into a gruesome statue seemed like one of the best futures Aya could see for himself any time soon.

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Yohji leaned against the wall surrounding what was probably a landscaped garden of some uppity lawyer or government employee, the picture of bored nonchalance. The trick with hanging out in a strange – and upper middle-class – neighborhood looking like he did was to not draw attention to himself yet *not* lurk around. If he stood in the shadows or tried to hide in any manner, the police would be getting a call about some ‘thug’ loitering about, busy planning his next raping/stealing/murdering spree. As if. He was willing to bet the houses would contain a fair amount of cash, but not too much in the way of other valuables. The neighborhood was trying much too hard to come off as ‘genteel’.

What that said about one of the residents living in it, he was still a bit uncertain. He would bet good money that Hasegawa’s ex-wife had pushed the artist to buy some land here, and the place was quiet enough that Hasegawa probably saw no reason to move elsewhere. Considering the cautious looks Yohji had attracted ever since getting off the bus in this neighborhood, it would be a bitch to cart dead bodies around all the time. Fancy fences only worked so well at keeping out snooping eyes, and at least five houses would either call the police or send someone out to investigate if he screamed right now.

No, this place did not *seem* to be housing a serial killer… but he did not need to be in the assassination business for a few years to know that the trouble with murderous bastards was that they blended in much too well to write off anyone as a potential target. Sure, it helped if they had a mansion in the middle of nowhere or could be traced to an abandoned warehouse, but he had taken out ‘dark beasts’ in neighborhoods like this one in the past. Living here in no way cleared Hasegawa, but it would make the situation a bit dicey if the old guy attempted to do any killing or kidnapping while Aya was visiting.

Thinking about his lover, Yohji grimaced and tugged his cellphone out of the right pocket of his blue winter coat. Just some impatient punk kid from the city who had taken the wrong bus and was killing time calling his friends until the right one came by, that was the practiced image he projected while waiting for Omi to pick up the damn call. Mindful of having to leave behind a car if he had to rush Aya out of here, he had kept his Seven parked at home, a fact that did not put him in the best of moods *before* Omi had notified him of the change in plans.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to listen to what’s going in with Abyssinian when you’re distracting me, Balinese?" Omi sounded as cranky as Yohji felt just then, which was better than him being worried or afraid, even if the kid would probably get back at him somehow for being an annoyance.

"Which is why I should be knocking on the bastard’s door right now, *Omi*." Yohji was still trying to figure out what drugs Persia had been on to come up with cat breed codenames for assassins, and refused to use them while standing around in the open like this. "Come on, I can pretend that I’m here to pick him up for our date." Omi had relayed to him how Aya had turned down a drink.

"Except that he’s not supposed to be dating any students, which might cost him the job," Omi pointed out, sounding more distracted than annoyed now. He paused a time or two as if listening for something, but since Yohji was not given carte blanche to kill Hasegawa, he assumed that Aya was still all right.

Yohji’s concern was not because of a mistaken belief that Aya could not look after himself, but the gnawing fear of losing his lover ever since- Pushing… *her* out of his mind, he shook his head then clicked his tongue a couple of times. "As if he’s not breaking the rules by going to Hasegawa’s house like this." There were very few times when he could punch holes in Omi’s arguments, and they were to be savored when they did occur. That it also got him nearer to prying Aya out of the old professor’s house was a bonus.

Omi’s aggrieved sigh just then had to last for five whole seconds. "Ba-… Yohji, I feel it’s only fair to warn you that Aya and I have worked out an agreement of sorts. If you interrupt his mission without just cause, then I get to break your left arm." He spoke the words with a cheerfulness that made it clear that he was really looking forward to that opportunity. Yohji shivered in response for a moment and wondered why it was always the short ones who were so evil.

"Uhm… why my left arm?" he asked when curiosity got the better of him.

"Because Aya gets to break your right arm, along with three other bones of his choice. I did insist that if you were foolish enough to go against his wishes, that he try to limit the damage to things that would heal within a couple of months. He had been considering removing any organs that you had a duplicate amount of," Omi announced, just as happily as he would that he had gotten the highest score on a test at school.

Yohji spent a minute pondering just what ‘duplicate organs’ Aya had in mind and winced, all the while doing his best to not let his left hand creep down to his crotch since he was out in public like this. "You’re such a good friend, kiddo," Yohji gritted out through his clenched teeth, the words thick with sarcasm.

There was another sigh, and the next time Omi spoke, he did not sound so cheerful. "You know how important missions are to him, and how much he hates it when you don’t trust him to take care of himself."

Yeah, any mission that did not somehow get derailed over the fact that a Takatori had popped up during them, which was a thought that Yohji kept to himself. The last thing he wanted was to upset Omi, and he could not really throw any stones, not after…. Dammit, he had to think of something else just then before he lost his mind and went to Hasegawa’s house. "How’s he doing?"

Omi took a minute to answer. "It sounds like Hasegawa is wrapping things up." Omi ended the call after announcing that, which prompted Yohji to curse a few times as he stared at his phone. Granted, the kid could call him back with only a couple of seconds’ effort and did not want to be distracted right now in case something happened, but would it have hurt him to just set the phone down? This was *not* helping Yohji fight the impulse to go drag Aya out of a potential murderer’s house.

He pushed himself away from the wall, the cellphone kept clutched in his right hand in case it rang within the next few minutes. Keeping up the appearance of being a little annoyed but mostly bored and harmless, he strolled toward Hasegawa’s house. Aya’s Porsche was parked two blocks away, near a cluster of magnolia trees that should offer some coverage to Yohji if Hasegawa or anyone else in the house decided to look outside. If things went fine, then Aya would be heading to his car in the next few minutes. If not…. Yohji refused to think about that any more, his right hand straying toward his left wrist as if it had a mind of its own.

About ten minutes and a nervously smoked cigarette later, the front gate opened up to reveal Aya, looking tired but still all in one piece. Yohji spared a nasty thought for Omi over not calling him to let him know that things were okay – even if he would have just panicked if the phone had rung – and shoved the cellphone back into his pocket as he forced himself to not move away from the car. As far as he could tell, no one was watching Aya leave the house, but he was not about to mess things up now after Aya had left the place.

Aya walked toward him, his gait slow and a little unsteady. Yohji’s eyes narrowed as he watched his lover, suddenly afraid that Aya had gotten himself drugged in some manner or another. As soon as he was close enough to do so, Yohji grabbed him by the sleeve of his black wool coat and yanked him forward.

Aya stumbled against him, strong arms wrapping around Yohji’s back as if it were the only way for Aya to remain on his feet. "What the hell happened?" Yohji hissed as he took a careful step backwards, toward the car. If Hasegawa had done anything to his lover, he was leaving Aya locked in the car before going to strangle the old bastard.

"Schuldig." Aya’s deep voice was dulled by pain and exhaustion, and for a moment he rested most of his weight against Yohji as if grateful for the support. Then he struggled to push away enough to stand as evenly as possible on his feet.

"Fucking telepath." Yohji managed to spit out the words quietly, so as to not attract attention with any shouting. He pulled Aya in close again and kissed his lover, not caring if anyone was watching just then or not. Fucking Mastermind messing with Aya’s head again, inflicting more pain that they could not return with a vengeance until that damned telepathic link was broken. All he could do was hold the man he loved tightly and kiss him like this, to prove to them both that Aya was mostly safe and sound, that Yohji was here for him as always, and try to forget how fucked up their lives had become.

To his surprise, Aya accepted the kiss for several seconds before pushing both hands against his chest in an effort to end the embrace. Yohji let him step back again, his hands on Aya’s shoulders for support. "Don’t mess things up now," Aya murmured, sounding a bit better than he had before.

Yohji grinned as he fetched the spare set of keys to the Porsche out of his left coat pocket. "Aw, I’m just a good boyfriend who’s happy to see you after freezing his ass out here for the last two hours!" He held up the keys and motioned toward the passenger side door, not about to let Aya drive when he looked this bad. "They’re all looking out their windows right now going ‘aw, isn’t he such a wonderful boyfriend, sweetie? I hope he gets lucky tonight, like he deserves’." Aya glared over the joke, but otherwise got into the car without any protest.

Mastermind must have really done some damage, Yohji thought with a bitter flare of anger, for Aya to not protest over someone else driving his car. He kept his mouth shut as he got behind the wheel and started the vehicle, wanting nothing more than to get back home. Well, that was false – what he wanted most in the world was to be free of Schwarz and Kritiker and anything else that caused him and the man he loved any pain or grief. Since that was *not* going to happen anytime soon and without a lot of homicide, he would settle for getting them home.

"So, how did things go?" He had been refused the request to listen in on Aya’s bug, supposedly because he could not be trusted to misinterpret any suspicious noises. "He only made you pose in naughty positions and then sent you on your way?"

He got an amused albeit tired snort in response; Aya had his head back against the top of the seat and his eyes closed, appearing as if he was ready to fall asleep at any moment. "If you consider dressing up like I did as ‘naughty’…." He snorted again and left that thought unfinished. "Hasegawa didn’t try anything. He took several photos before I left and asked if it would be all right to return if he needed me again, and that was it. He didn’t try to force me to drink or eat anything that was drugged, ask where he could find me later on, or anything else suspicious." It sounded as if he was regaining a little strength now, which made Yohji lessen the pressure on the gas pedal before his boyfriend realized that he was speeding while driving his precious car and then bitch him out.

"So, what do you think?" On ‘paper’, it looked like Hasegawa might be the main target; he was hiding things, seemed unconcerned about breaking the law and definitely was serious about his artwork. Hell, anyone who wanted to deprive the world of good porn *had* to have something wrong with them, at least in Yohji’s opinion, but he had just passed up a great opportunity to nab a new victim. Yohji was grateful for that latter part… except if the old guy had made an attempt on Aya, they would be ending the mission right about now and no more nude modeling on Aya’s part.

Aya was quiet for a couple of minutes, during which Yohji kept a look-out for any place with a drive-thru to help out with his lover’s lack of energy. "I didn’t see anything in his home that would make me suspicious, but I only saw a small part of it. He did nothing during the session that would make me suspect him and… Schuldig claimed that he read Hasegawa’s thoughts and that he wasn’t a target." He spoke the last part in a rush as if reluctant to admit it.

Yohji reminded himself that if he damaged Aya’s car in any way by reacting to that statement, he would be without sex for an uncomfortable amount of time, if not lacking in body parts as well. "Why would he read the guy’s thoughts?"

"Because I refused to quit the mission." Aya sighed in exhaustion then opened his eyes, and finally noticed that Yohji had taken a slight detour on their way home. "Yohji-"

"You need some caffeine, right?" Yohji did not give his lover a chance to argue. "Nothing fancy, just some coffee." He took the slightly pained expression on Aya’s face to mean that an offer of food right now would not be a good idea, which lent credence to his suspicion that Aya was suffering from a telepathic-induced headache. He placed an order for two large coffees, relieved and worried when Aya closed his eyes and said nothing.

Mindful of spilling anything on the car’s leather interior, Yohji handed over one of the coffees to his boyfriend and pulled back out into traffic. He carefully set his own cup between his thighs. It was a good thing that they could not go very fast in this section of town, as he did not care to be scalded anywhere ‘important’.

They were quiet for a few minutes while Aya sipped the hot drink, nose wrinkled a little as if he was not pleased with the taste. The caffeine would hopefully help his headache, as well as clear his head a little. Yohji had a few sips as well, grateful to be out of the cold and participating in a favorite pastime of late – imagining all the fun ways to torture and dismember Mastermind if he ever got his hands on the fucking telepath. One good thing about chasing down a bunch of psychopathic assholes these last few years was that he had a lot of inspiration for his much sought-after revenge. Now to just figure out a way to end the link between Aya and the fucker, and then capture him….

"I don’t trust Schuldig, but I’m beginning to think that Hasegawa might be a dead end."

Aya’s voice startled Yohji enough that he almost grinded the gears while shifting, which earned him a venomous glare. "Heh, sorry about that." He finished shifting into third and then handed over the rest of his coffee, which Aya accepted with only a slight amount of ill grace. "You’ve spent the most time with him, so if you think he’s not the one, we can focus on the other suspects." He tried not to think about Aya’s talent and did not ask why Aya felt that way.

"I don’t think we should completely discount him just yet, but maybe move him down the list." Aya frowned at nothing in particular as he drank more coffee, appearing a little more relaxed now as if his head was not bothering him as much. "There’s still Kaneshiro and Yakumo to consider."

Yohji nodded, even if he had his doubts about Yakumo being a killer. "I’m hoping to invite Yakumo out for a drink or a bite to eat after our next class. Maybe see if I can get anything out of him about the medical equipment." He dared to reach over to tuck back a strand of his lover’s hair, taking the chance to trail his finger along Aya’s face. "I will be so happy when this mission is over."

"So will I." For once, Aya did not chastise him about paying attention while driving and caught Yohji’s left hand in his right one. "It’s… I just have this feeling that it’s going to be a bad one." He was frowning as he spoke, his eyes unfocused as if staring at nothing but thankfully not darkened.

Yohji squeezed his lover’s hand. "I’ve been saying that all along." He hated the thought of Aya being used as bait, especially considering what had happened during the Aso David case. Maybe they had become lovers as a result of that mission, but it had still almost driven him over the edge at the thought of losing Aya back then. Now, after all they had been through together… if there was a way to avoid the risk to Aya yet salvage the man’s prickly pride, he would snatch at it in an instant. All he could do was keep an eye on him and be there if Aya needed some help.

At least he could do that much, and had managed to rein in his fears and overprotective impulses to not ruin the mission today. Hopefully, Aya would have a bit more faith in him now and he would not have to fight to be nearby like he had earlier. He knew that Aya could look after himself, but with Mastermind in the mix so much lately… there was no way he would lose Aya. None.

Despite the coffee – or maybe because of it helping his headache – Aya drifted off to sleep for the rest of the ride home. He did not seem to suffer from any nightmares during the drive, but Yohji was bothered by the worried frown that did not fade from his lover’s face the entire time.

*******

Pushing his chair away from the desk, Omi reached up and rubbed his eyes in an attempt to lessen the ache from staring too long at a computer screen. On the off-chance that the man might try to harm Aya, he had spent most of the day investigating Hasegawa. He had traced down every lead that could be traced by computers, double-checking cell phone, bank, credit card, work and even library records. All his efforts had gotten him was the URL of a website that had some very nice artwork which might make a suitable present for Aya in the future and a sore head.

One thing he had learned during his time in Weiss was to never completely rule out a suspect, but he had serious doubts on Hasegawa being behind the murders. First of all, the man had not tried to kidnap or harm Aya in any manner, other than to give him some stiff muscles for posing still for so long. Any suspicious gaps in the professor’s whereabouts the last two months had been filled when Omi had investigated the man’s lover. He had failed to uncover any tell-tale details of purchases that would indicate that Hasegawa was keeping another person captive and performing the body modifications that were a signature of their target.

He whispered a foul word under his breath, the small lapse of manners helping him to feel better even as his cheeks blushed in reaction. Most of a day wasted when he could have been studying or trying to figure out a way to sneak into one of the art classes for which Ken was modeling.

He rose from the chair and stretched his arms into the air, his fingers intertwined as he worked out a few kinks from sitting mostly still for so long. How Aya and Ken - *especially* Ken – could pose for so many hours was beyond him, even more so for the fact that they were naked at the same time and in front of strangers. He shivered at the thought, and felt a familiar stab of envy.

Things were progressing with Ken – they were spending more time together and Ken made it clear that he thought of Omi as his ‘boyfriend’ even if they had not slept together yet. Omi looked forward to Ken returning home any minute now so they could go out to dinner, as planned, and see a movie. Such simple things made him so happy, were even more precious after a day spent investigating such gruesome crimes. The only thing that would make it better was to finish up this mission and have a short break.

He thought about the wistful plans he had told Yohji, a chance to get away for a long weekend to their mountain villa, just the four of them. He knew that Yohji and Aya would pretty much keep to themselves during their vacation, which was fine with him. Any chance he could take to be with Ken, either having snowball battles, or soaking in the hot tub together, or even curled up in front of the fire roasting marshmallows would be a wonderful break from….

He shuddered in horror as he left the mission room, determined to think of something other than the case for a little while. Too much obsessing over things and he would be as broody as Aya, which was something to be avoided at all costs. Because his life was messed up enough that Yohji might take an interest in him, then, since the idiot had a thing for dangerous, moody lovers, and Omi would have to do something *really* drastic as a result. His imagination was not quite up to what that would be at the moment, but he knew that he and Ken would have a lot of fun at dinner tonight completing that thought.

The kitchen was quiet and empty, which prompted a frown from him when it became clear that he had not been too distracted to hear Ken come back from the university. Maybe Ken had stopped by to pick up a few things on the way home, or got stuck in traffic. Omi opened the fridge door for something cold to drink, and was in the middle of contemplating if he should have a snack before dinner or not when someone came through the back door.

Yohji escorted Aya into the room, both of them appearing tired and a little upset. Omi felt a sinking sensation in his abdomen as he stared at his two friends, even as he managed a smile in welcome. "So, what happened now?" He doubted that it had anything to do with Hasegawa, or else he would have been called to assist in the clean-up.

Yohji let out a short breath of air, his handsome face twisted with hate for several seconds. "Three guesses." He helped Aya to remove his coat, even though he was glared at for his audacity.

"I don’t think I need more than one of them." For a moment, Omi reveled in the fantasy of finally being able to kill Mastermind. He owed the man for so much, and was weary of how that debt only grew over time. "Did he interfere with the mission at all?"

Aya, his eyes narrowed more with exhaustion than anger, if Omi was any judge of things, shook his head and left Yohji to deal with their winter coats while he went to the counter so he could check on the hot water dispenser. Omi was grateful that he had refilled it a couple of hours ago, and sat down at the kitchen table to listen to whatever his friends had to say.

"No, other than to insist that Hasegawa isn’t our target." Aya stared at the cabinet in front of him for a few seconds, his body swaying as if he was in need of a few hours of sleep. "There were the usual taunts and threats, but not much more than that."

"Huh, maybe he’s not feeling well," Omi surmised out loud, and had to hide his grin at the way Yohji’s expression turned hopeful. "What’s your opinion on Hasegawa, Aya?"

It came as no surprise when Aya shrugged in a nonchalant manner and continued measuring out some tea leaves into the tea pot. "As much as it disgusts me to agree with Schuldig, he may not have been twisting the truth for once." His task done, he turned around to face Omi. "If Hasegawa is the target, it’s not going to be easy to get him to make an unplanned move."

"Yeah, I agree." Omi finished his drink and tossed the empty bottle into the bag set up for plastic recyclables. "It wouldn’t be the first time that a target has fooled us, but I’m beginning to think that he’s a waste of our time." Judging from the quick nods from his teammates, Yohji and Aya must have been discussing the professor on their drive home.

"Aya and I were thinking that it might be best to focus on the others for a bit." Yohji tapped the pocket of his light blue shirt as if about to reach into it for his pack of cigarettes, but must have changed his mind. Instead, he went to stand beside Aya, a smile on his face but his eyes shaded with concern. Omi figured that if the movie was sold out by the time he and Ken got to the theater, they could always come back home and watch a rented one; Yohji and Aya most likely would spend the night in their room together, and for once Omi would not need to turn up the volume to avoid hearing about their ‘activities’.

"We’ll see if Ken noticed anything during class today."

Yohji rolled his eyes to show what he thought about that statement, while Aya remained quiet and focused on making himself some tea. "Right, kiddo. Most likely he was trying not suffer a nosebleed in embarrassment the whole time."

Omi felt the need to stick up for his boyfriend and missing teammate. "At least he feels some shame over a bunch of strangers seeing him naked!" As the words slipped out, he winced and spared a cautious look Aya’s way, and was relieved that his friend did not seem perturbed by the accusation. As much as he loved Yohji like a brother, there was no way to deny that the man had acted like a slut before dating Aya. Well… he still acted a bit like one now, but only slept with one person.

"Oh, please, not another round of ‘you should be sharing the glory that is your body with the world, and not poor, shy Ken-ken!" Yohji followed that ridiculous statement with a pose that Omi *assumed* was supposed to be sexy. "They’d never be able to keep their hands off of me," Yohji claimed as he played with strands of his shoulder-length hair.

It seemed that Aya was not too tired to take his boyfriend’s enormous ego down a few notches. "You know you’re not supposed to drink before missions."

"Hey! I didn’t drink anything, and I don’t like what you’re implying!" At least Yohji had the sense to wait until Aya set his full mug of tea on the counter before hugging the redhead. "I am too very sexy." He leaned forward to whisper something in Aya’s ear, and for once was not smacked for his audacity.

Omi was relieved to see that Aya must not have suffered too much abuse from Mastermind if he was able to smile at Yohji and give him a mostly playful whap to the chest. "You’d be sexier if you used your brain for once." While Yohji smiled at the almost-compliment, Aya looked over his right shoulder at Omi. "When is Ken supposed to be back?"

The good mood that had filled Omi for the last several minutes deflated at the question. "Uhm, he really should have returned almost an hour ago." He glanced across the room to see if there was a message on the answering machine, and knew from checking his cellphone every ten minutes or so that Ken had not called that number, either. "Did he say anything to you about running some errands?"

Yohji’s pleased grin faded as he shook his head the same time as Aya. "No, he was pretty upset about being stuck with working today as it was, and told me that he just wanted to get the sessions over with and come back home."

"Do you think he had to stay late at the university or something?" A queasy sensation filled Omi’s chest as he stared at his friends and slowly had his hopes dashed. He told himself that Ken had a habit of acting without thinking, and may not have considered causing them any concern if he happened to stop by a store or a place to eat before heading home. Except… except Ken *was* reliable on missions, and would have at least called first to say he was making a stop or two.

"Oh, don’t tell me you think the dumb jock went and got himself abducted!" Yohji spoke Omi’s burgeoning fear out loud, and even if his tone was a bit incredulous, Omi appreciated it all the same. "Maybe he’s having some trouble with his bike."

"Then he should have called." Aya frowned at nothing in particular as he stared off into the distance; Omi found himself actually wishing that his friend’s eyes would darken if it meant a way of knowing if Ken was okay or not. They remained their normal purple shade, although Aya’s frown deepened. "Have you called him?"

"He turns his cellphone off while he’s modeling," Omi explained as he jumped up from the chair so he could pull his phone out of the deep side pocket of his pants. His fingers shook as he dialed the number, the queasy feeling strengthening when the call went straight into voicemail. "It’s not picking up."

Aya and Yohji shared a look that he had no trouble interpreting; Ken and Aya had promised to turn their phones on once they were done modeling for the day. It was not just so Omi and Yohji knew that they were safe, but there was a chance that something might have happened or been discovered that would require their assistance as soon as possible. Yohji made sure to call Aya right after each time he modeled, and only Ken commenting that he would be offended at the ‘lack of trust’ kept Omi from doing the same.

"Activate the tracker," Yohji suggested, his demeanor so serious that Omi felt a bit better about imagining the worst if his friend was concerned as well. He was followed down into the mission room, Yohji and Aya hovering behind the chair as he pulled up the program that showed the location of Ken and Aya’s bracelets.

There was no problem locating Aya’s signal, which had been set to stay on for the mission earlier today. Omi was bitter for a moment over how the one teammate who seemed to care the least about his well-being was actually following procedure for once. According to the program, Aya was still wearing his, and he had to adjust the map to get a better read of where Ken’s signal originated once he activated it. His initial fear of finding the glowing red dot nowhere along a direct route from the university to here was allayed a bit when closer inspection revealed the location to be one of the city’s many MOS Burgers. "If he’s just sitting there, stuffing himself silly, I’ll *kill* him," Omi announced through gritted teeth. He would beat Ken with his bracelet and cellphone to remind the idiot to never forget about either again.

He was out of the chair and halfway across the room when Aya told Yohji to accompany him. He turned in time to see his friends staring at each other for a few seconds, before Yohji shrugged and stepped toward Omi. "You just don’t want to chance being arrested while I stand there cheering Omi on as he kicks Ken’s ass." Yohji waved to Aya before following Omi up the steps. "And you’re hoping that I’ll bring back some dinner so you don’t have to pay." His tone was light, as if he thought all of this was a waste of time, but he was leaving Aya alone on a day when Mastermind had already tried something with the redhead, and Omi know that his quiet friend hated hamburgers.

Part of him insisted that he tell Yohji that he could go yell at Ken by himself, yet he remained silent as they went out to Yohji’s car. He tried to convince himself that Aya was staying behind in case they missed Ken on his way home, and that Aya must be tired from whatever Mastermind had done to him. He should not read into Yohji being the one who went with him – Yohji, who was the best detective out of the four of them.

It was a very quiet drive to the MOS Burger chain; Yohji tried chatting for the first few miles but gave up when Omi could barely manage one or two word answers. The situation was ridiculous; Ken was more than able to look out for himself and had just been modeling at the university. He had not gone to a suspect’s house, as had Aya, and it was still light outside. Who could kidnap an assassin in broad daylight?

They reached their destination, and Omi was out of the car as soon as it came to a halt. "Omi! Dammit, don’t kill him until I’m there to witness it!" Yohji called out as he closed both doors to his car before running after Omi, and they almost crashed together when Omi had to wait for an elderly couple to finish walking through the door. He raced into the small restaurant, quickly searching for any sign of his boyfriend. Yohji mumbled something before walking away, while he went past every table in the place in hopes of finding Ken or the bracelet.

He found nothing. As something occurred to him, he whirled around to go check out the bathrooms, only to find Yohji talking on his cellphone in the hallway that led to the restrooms. Two girls gave him flirtatious looks as they walked past, hands raised as if to the stifle their giggles. Yohji waved to them as he answered whoever he was talking to on the phone. "Damn. Thanks."

The expression on his face confirmed Omi’s fears before he even got a chance to talk. "Nothing. I checked both rooms, and Aya says that the signal hasn’t moved at all. I’m thinking… we might need to check the dumpster out back."

The queasy sensation became one of pain, blossoming in Omi’s chest as he finally allowed himself to consider that Ken had been taken. No more was it a question of his boyfriend forgetting to turn on his cellphone or losing the bracelet; all day long they had worried about Aya, only for Ken to be abducted. He managed a weak chuckle at the irony of the situation before something inside of him froze. As best he could, he kept his assassin mindset separate from what he used to get him through day to day life, and it took over now, numbing him from the pain and panic that should be overwhelming him so he could still function.

"I’m calling Mickey. He can send someone over to check things out here while we go over all of the information again," he told Yohji as he pulled out his phone. The one thought that gave him any peace just then was that they at least had some time to find Ken; the victims were kept anywhere from two weeks to two months as they were modified to fit the target’s artistic ‘vision’. They would find Ken before the bastard was done, and Omi would finally enjoy completing a mission.

*******

Schuldig strolled into the apartment he shared with his teammates, his hands tucked into the pockets of his white pants and, apparently, his smile disturbing enough to make Nagi look at him once, pack up his laptop and leave the room. Since it was rare for him to disturb the kid like that with so little effort on his part, Schuldig took it as a positive sign and began to whistle what he considered a cheerful tune.

Crawford was in the middle of brewing a fresh pot of coffee, his hair slightly tousled and the sleeves of his white and dark grey pin-stripe shirt evenly rolled up precisely to the halfway point of his forearms.

<Can you get any more anal-retentive if you tried?> he sent to his ‘leader’, amused despite himself at how controlled Crawford could be. It was almost worth the massive effort of getting the man on a ship and then sinking the vessel to see how long Crawford could keep up his meticulous appearance. He had a nagging suspicion that even if on a rubber lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the bastard would barely have a hair out of place.

"I am under the impression that I have to balance out the mess that is you, and as you never fail to disappoint me with some new atrocity or another, I would say the answer is ‘yes’." Crawford’s eyes drifted closed for a moment as he listened to something, he nodded once before opening them. "I haven’t seen those movies in a while."

Schuldig stopped whistling the movie theme and grinned as he leaned against the kitchen table. "We could tie Nagi to the couch and force him to watch all six of them in a row. Maybe that would make him act more like a normal kid." Or break his already fragile mind; either result really did not matter to Schuldig, what did was the chance to inflict some abuse on another soul.

"Leave him alone," was the now familiar refrain from Crawford whenever tormenting Nagi was brought up. Schuldig did not quite understand the response – he knew that Crawford had been a bit disappointed in Nagi standing by his brain-dead twit of a girlfriend, but he had not done anything to make Nagi choose otherwise and had accepted the kid back into the fold. Had it been some sort of test? Schuldig sneered at the thought, as he detested anyone other than him getting to play some mind-games.

"If you stopped coddling him, I could use his help with the abusively long list of agents you gave me to check out," Schuldig complained as he fished a small camera out of the inner left pocket of his green coat and tossed it at Crawford.

Of course the precog caught the camera with ease, a fact that was almost enough to dampen Schuldig’s good mood a little. "You’d be farther along with that list if you didn’t spend so much time on Abyssinian." There was no hint of reproach in Crawford’s tone, nor in his demeanor. If he was bothered by Schuldig’s activities, he sure as hell did not let it show.

"At least I’m still working on the list." Schuldig hated working, unless some sort of violence occurred, and following around clueless Kritiker agents to gather information on them was boring as hell. He shared that thought with Crawford and did not get much of a response. <With Takatori and Smoke gone, Kritiker’s been crippled enough in the past year or two. Why are you so concerned about taking them down?>

To his immense surprise, he got an answer to his needling question. "Because now is not the time to bring them *completely* down," Crawford answered with a rare hint of annoyance. He pushed his glasses to the top of his nose and stared past the reflective lenses as if looking at nothing in particular. "Our employers may want the organization destroyed when they attempt to resurrect their fallen leader, but it is not in our, nor others’, best interests to let that happen. Kritiker needs to be substantially weakened but not defeated. There will come a time when its remnants will be of use to us, so we need to carefully pick who we cull." As he spoke, an odd note crept into his deep voice, almost a mix of resignation and pain.

Schuldig was left with the impression that he did not want to see whatever it was that filled Crawford’s mind right now, even if he could get past the bastard’s impressive mental shields. It was not often when Crawford appeared that beaten down by a vision, usually he was smug as hell, and if that was a future the man was aiming for….

"Why do things have to get so fucked up?" Schuldig muttered as he went to the fridge to fetch himself a beer.

"Now that’s something odd to hear from a man who revels in fucking things up." Crawford sounded like his normal self again, and he stopped contemplating visions to pour himself a freshly brewed cup of coffee.

"Pfft". Schuldig waited to follow the annoyed noise with an explanation until after he had a few gulps of beer. "Yeah, because *I’m* doing the fucking things up bit." In a way, he supposed that he was almost as much a control freak as the precog, except that he did not have to plan everything down to minute detail. No, it was enough for him if someone he did not like – well, did not care for – was suffering because of what he had done.

"Such as stalking Abyssinian while you should be working?" Crawford paused in his lecture to sip some of his coffee, his blue eyes bright above the rim of the black ceramic mug. "I’ve already assured you that he would be fine during this mission, so I see no need for you to give in to this… odd sense of concern."

Schuldig glared at the bastard for that remark, even if a part of him understood why Crawford had said it yet did not like how the jab had hit home. "He’s *mine*, and I’m unwilling to let anyone else ‘play’ with him." That explanation sounded good to him, and his anger grew when Crawford smirked in response.

"If you say so." Crawford held up his empty left hand when Schuldig readied his thoughts for a scathing retort. "Please, spare me the forthcoming diatribe. I understand that he is ‘yours’ and do not wish to see him harmed any more than is necessary, considering his rare nature. I’ve already assured you that he will not be harmed in the upcoming weeks." Annoyance crept into his voice, and the thought of how bothersome it got to keep repeating himself slipped past his mental shields.

Aware that he was intentionally allowed to pick up that thought, Schuldig sneered at his teammate as he threw the empty beer bottle into the trash. "Maybe if you would explain damn near *anything* to me about what you’ve seen happening, then I’d make you stop repeating yourself," he shot back, almost desperate for a time when he would not have to rely upon Crawford’s talent and secretive nature. Once he truly did have Aya, then he could use his lover’s talent to scan the future ‘threads’ and decide their actions accordingly.

Crawford shrugged off the comment with ease, and again provided a surprise when he spoke. "So, how did things go with Abyssinian today?"

Schuldig eyed the man for a few seconds, uncertain if he was being set up for another lecture or not. "Mostly… well."

That was bit of an exaggeration; the day had definitely gotten off to a rocky start between them. The only thing that made Aya’s rebuff of his attempts at protectiveness acceptable was the fact that the asshole had been dealt the same. Still, he had been able to remain in telepathic contact with his love to make sure that Hasegawa was not about to knock him out and carve him up like a piece of wood.

It rankled, even now, how Aya had not believed him when he had finally made the effort to read the old fart’s mind. Part of him understood how annoying it was for him to finally investigate a possible suspect when he had refused doing that every time Aya’s thoughts had gone in that direction. He had been waiting for Aya to beg him to do such a thing, and had ended up blowing such a great opportunity in a failed attempt to get his love out of there and to spend some time with him.

He really should not have let his temper slip at Aya’s refusal like he had, and had basically doomed himself to staying out of the man’s mind for the next few hours if he wanted to avoid the headache he had created. No doubt that cocksucker, Kudoh, would do his best to insinuate himself even further into Aya’s affections during that time, but in the end it had been worth it.

Over a year ago, and he would have been amused at Aya’s furious threats against him today. A few months ago, and he would have been enraged, driven to desperation over how the only person he had ever been unlucky enough to fall in love with managed so much resistance. Oh, he was a bit upset about it even today, but he had come to the realization that he did not really want a docile, broken Aya.

That had begun to be made clear when the asshole had not tossed Aya aside for the bitch, when he had realized that it would be so much better in the end if Aya came to him of his own free will. The verbal sparring today had been… comforting, in a sense. For so long it had been insults and threats between them, had been a contest of sorts as they proved who was the most clever and determined. He still felt that he had the edge in that regard, but the thought of having a partner as well as a lover had quenched the foul temper that had caused him to lash out until Aya was left hurting.

What would it be like to spend the rest of their long lives like that? Always keeping each other on their toes, any given ground being earnestly won and so the win being rendered that much sweeter? All during the ‘mission’, Aya had refused and rebuffed him, had stood his ground despite Schuldig’s best effort. That was enough cause for Schuldig to leave him with a migraine nasty enough to keep him in bed for a whole week, let alone the bad headache he had inflicted instead, yet….

Despite the anger, despite the remembrance of all the ‘bad blood’ between them, there had been no true hatred. There were times when Schuldig needed to be reminded that he had indeed made progress in his quest to finally have Aya all to himself. He had infuriated his love and been repudiated in return, and tomorrow morning he would open up their link, insinuate himself into Aya’s dreams and a new day would start. Oh, he was certain that he would be insulted a few times over the pain he had caused, but in the end he had not messed up Aya’s precious mission and even tried to help in his own odd way. Aya would snarl and pout, and then the anger would settle once he asked about his sister.

He sensed amusement and realized that Crawford had said something, the words unheard as he had been lost in his thoughts. "What?" he snapped to cover up his lapse of attention.

Crawford merely smiled, an empty mug held in his hands while he appeared almost the picture of innocence. *Almost*. "I had commented on how pleased I am that things are going ‘mostly well’."

Wondering if that were a hidden warning of sorts, Schuldig stepped closer to his teammate. "Why, are things not supposed to go ‘well’?" If the bastard was wrong about Aya being unharmed by Weiss’ current mission, he would… was there enough starch in the world to chafe Crawford’s uptight ass?

"In Abyssinian’s regard? I’ve already told you that he would be all right." Crawford was growing peeved with having to repeat that fact, judging from the way his eyes narrowed and his voice grew colder. "Oh, he may be upset for the next few days as he searches for his missing teammate, but he will be fine." The chuckle just then that filled the kitchen contained enough amused malice to remind Schuldig of why the precog was his boss.

A hopeful thought made him stop glaring and grin instead. "That ‘missing teammate’ wouldn’t happen to be that Schwanzlutscher, Balinese?" He doubted it since he had sensed the asshole standing a couple of blocks away from Hasegawa’s house, worried about Aya yet lacking the balls to do anything to piss off the prickly redhead, but one could dream.

Of course Crawford dashed his hopes. "No, I’m not in the least bit sorry to say it’s another ‘cat’ who’s let down his guard and been captured." A cruel smile on his face, Crawford partially turned away from Schuldig so he could pour himself more coffee. "Be semi-good for once and let the man suffer until Abyssinian and the others manage to track him down."

Schuldig grimaced to show what he thought about that order, even if it was phrased as more of a suggestion. He remembered Crawford telling him that this mission would be important to Schwarz and wondered how being kidnapped and tortured would help out his team. In the end, it did not really matter as long as Aya was unharmed, and he could always track down the captured ‘kitty’ later and savor the pain and humiliation the man would suffer over this turn of events. Poor Weiss, so deluded that they were at the top of the food-chain, that they were just as bad and strong as the ‘dark beasts’ they took out. Being someone’s plaything for a while should produce the most delicious type of angst for him to savor, as well as provide plenty of emotional fodder in the future. If it were Siberian, he could play up on the man’s failure the next time they faced off during a fight. If it were Bombay… well, he actually hoped that was not the case as he still counted on the brat to keep an eye on Aya for him and prevent Kritiker from figuring out just what his love really was.

"How I suffer for my team," Schuldig complained as he went to fetch another beer, which prompted an amused laugh from Crawford. He turned in time to watch the precog leave the kitchen in a good mood, and was almost curious enough to search out which member of Weiss had been kidnapped and if Aya realized that fact yet. A faint throbbing in his left temple reminded him of how it would be best to give his talent a break for a little while, especially in regards to Aya. Ah well, he could always spend the evening watching a movie or two instead.

*******

His head pounding and his throat sore, Ken did his best to marshal his scattered thoughts as he drifted awake. His body ached and he was lying on his stomach, which was an unusual pose for him. Had he been injured on a mission? The pain was not very bad, but he should not be lying like this unless someone had put him to bed.

He tried to roll onto his back and found himself unable to do that. The soft material bound around his wrists and ankles were not the bandages he had thought they were, and the fact that he was barely able to move finally made his thoughts coalesce enough to make sense.

He had been kidnapped.

Barely managing a groan at his situation and stupidity with his mouth so dry, he forced his body to relax on the… what felt to be an examination table, the type that could be found in a doctor’s office. Its surface was firm, giving only a little, and covered what felt and looked like to be absorbent pads, the stuff that would be put down to keep things from getting messy. To his utter embarrassment and anger, he realized that he was not wearing anything but what felt to be an adult diaper. The undergarment’s elastic bands bit into the inner part of his left thigh, and made faint squeaking sounds as moved about.

So, the situation was that he, being an incredibly gullible idiot, had been drugged unconscious, stripped of his clothes, forced to wear a fucking *diaper* of all things, and most likely had found the latest mission’s targets in the least preferable manner possible. Oh… he *had* to figure a way to get out of this situation, because he was in enough shit alone for being kidnapped. Omi… he shuddered a little as he thought about facing his boyfriend – no, at facing both his boyfriend and Bombay. There was no way he was getting out of this unscathed, once he was rescued by Omi. Only he was *not* going to accept being rescued, when being found like this would give Yohji enough fodder to torment him for the rest of his life.

No, the only possible way to redeem himself was to get off this damn bed, find whatever weapons he could and take out the targets on his own. Hell, if he had to use his own hands, he would, driven on by the image of a taunting Yohji and a furious Omi. The situation was bad enough that even Aya would make a comment or two about how much of an idiot he was.

Gathering his strength, he began to slowly pull back his right arm in an attempt to see how tight the padded cuff around his wrist was and how strong was its chain. It was just his luck that the answer to both was ‘very’. The cuffs had been made with the obvious intention of not leaving any bruises behind, but were tight enough around his wrist that he could not make the soft fabric slide about enough to wiggle his hand free. Also, despite his best efforts, he could not break the chains that kept his arms spread out almost perpendicular to his body. They were short enough that he could not even lift himself up off of the makeshift bed more than a few inches.

The ankle-cuffs felt to be the same, and all his struggling got him were sore knees as he pulled on the chains. It was just his luck that the one time he was kidnapped, the assholes who had him knew enough about damn restraints that he seemed to have no hope of getting free. Okay. So, now he had to somehow overpower one of the targets while barely being able to move if he wanted to be free. Even if he was wearing a diaper, they had to uncuff him long enough to change the damn thing, or to roll him over from time to time to prevent bedsores. After all, what type of artwork would he be if he were covered with the unsightly things?

Unfortunately, that offhand thought led him to recall all of the previous victims and the disturbing ways they had been chopped up and flayed, burned and tattooed. What were the chances that he had been kidnapped by another bunch of psychopaths? Maybe one of the students had developed a crush on him and wanted to keep him as their own personal model? He could deal with being pawed at a few times as long as he could eventually free himself.

Dammit, this type of shit was not supposed to happen to him! Maybe to Omi and Aya, but not to him! He did not have any special powers, or come from a rich family, or look cute in chains, or… or…. He had never thought that one day, he would end up like this.

Being an assassin was all about taking risks, but they were ones that he could face on his feet and be able to fight back against. This… this was even worse than Mastermind fucking with his head, because the one thing making him helpless right now was his own body. Because he lacked the strength to break free and the intelligence to not fall for Saito’s stupid ‘oh, can’t you help a poor, defenseless, weak and pretty girl’ routine. Maybe he deserved whatever punishment Omi meted out.

Once he was certain he was unable to break free under the current circumstances, he tried to get a better idea of his surroundings. The air felt cool against his bare skin and a bit damp, and the room only had a couple of lights scattered about. There were no windows that he could see, and judging from the plain concrete that was sporadically covered with large sheets of blank drawing paper, he doubted there were any at all. From his limited vantage point on the bed, he did not see any doors so that most likely meant it was behind him. Great, no way to see if anyone crept into the room or not, which would make it harder for him to know just how many people were in the room.

A small desk was set up in the left corner, with a laptop and a cd player on top of it. Beside it was a curio cabinet that looked as if it had been rescued from flea market and given a weak attempt at being cleaned up and repaired. The closed doors bothered him, as he was certain that the piece of furniture contained stuff he really, *really* did not want to see. They had to be keeping the sharp things around here somewhere, and that was the most likely place.

There was a faint rumbling sound, more felt as a tremor that ran through the bed and his body, that faded away after a minute or two. He was left with the impression that he was underground somewhere, and cursed at the realization that getting out of here was going to be that much more difficult. Why did he have to be brought here instead of some dilapidated, drafty warehouse? Or someone’s house, where there was a chance that a neighbor or passing mailman might hear him if he shouted loud enough.

He was still contemplating the pretty lousy situation he was in when he felt a draft rush over his skin. The wave of happiness at the fact that he could at least feel when the door was opened was soon replaced with trepidation when he did not hear anyone enter the room. He debated pretending that he was asleep for a while, before deciding that he would rather know what the hell was going on.

He lifted his upper body as much as he could and craned his neck over his right shoulder in time to see Saito creeping toward him. "What the hell do you think you’re doing?"

"Aw, you ruined my surprise!" She was no longer wearing the designer clothes he had always seen her in, instead having changed into a pair of plain jeans and what looked to be an artist’s smock covered with smears of paint. Oh hell, he *hoped* it was paint.

He was actually shocked into silence for a good minute, during which she gave up her attempt at sneaking and came to stand in front of him. "You’re nuts. Let me go!" Had she striped off his clothes here? Was there a chance that the bracelet was still sending out a signal, or that someone had taken his cellphone? If they were stupid enough to use it, Omi could track down the targets that way. Fuck, was Saito even on the list of suspects? What if she had pitched his phone and the bracelet? Would Omi have any way of tying the crazy bitch to him going missing?

She cocked her head to the side and smiled. "Why do all of you think that’ll work? Would you let someone go just because they told you to if you went through all the trouble of getting them in the first place?" She clicked her tongue a few times in a chiding manner. "Ah well, you only have to look good, not be smart." She reached out as if to pat him on the head or touch him, but something in the glare he gave her made her stop with her fingertips still a couple of inches away.

 

"Let me go, or…." What could he say? Let him go before his teammates came to the rescue and killed her, along with whoever else was part of this insanity? Yeah, if she somehow believed that bit of ‘nonsense’, then she or one of her partners would most likely kill him and get the hell out of Tokyo. "Look, I won’t tell anyone what you did, okay? It’s just a prank, right?" He did his best to pretend that he was nothing more than a young man in a crazy situation.

His pleading restored Saito’s confidence, and she actually skipped as she moved away from the table. "Sorry, but it’s not a prank. If it makes you feel better, we’ll let you go eventually." The smile on her face as she told him that destroyed the usual queasiness he felt about the thought of killing a woman. No, he had been around enough murderers to know that she was excited about what was going to happen, about cutting him up and leaving him in a dismembered pile somewhere.

Saito went to the desk and turned on the cd player, flooding the small room with loud pop music. As she began to sketch what looked to be the rough outline of a man’s body on one of the pieces of paper, he actually prayed that Weiss would get here soon. It did not matter if Aya used that freaky talent of his to track him down, if Yohji found him wearing a diaper like this or Omi would kill him for being so stupid. He could not accept lying here, unable to prevent a sick bitch and her friends from treating him like some sort of doll. His restrained hands clenched into fists as he stared at Saito’s back with hatred and anger.

*******

Geli stared at the entwined orchids and roses, her stomach slightly unsettled by the fragrant aroma of the white and red flowers. She would smell roses long after she had left this garden, the scent clinging to her clothes and hair no matter how many times she ‘wished’ them to be something different. In a way, it was a physical reminder of Aya, who was never far from her thoughts.

Was it so much to ask for a catalyst to actually have a peaceful, happy life? Just because they influenced so many important events, did they have to be caught up in tumultuous times?

Saladin would remind her that some of them had lived their lives out in obscurity, their days rarely touched by anything ‘exciting’ while their dreams spanned the world and set into motion things that could change almost anything. She would smile and thank him for that, even as something inside of her twisted in jealousy and pain. Some of them had indeed been able to live out their lives in the peace she wanted for Aya, but not in a very long time. The world had changed so much the last several centuries, propelled forward by innumerous changes that would reverberate far into the future. Perhaps one day a catalyst would be born and not know suffering, loss and pain, but it would not happen for a long time to come.

All she could do was ‘cushion’ things as much as possible for the current catalyst. She owed him that much, as many of the events she had set into motion – no matter what her intentions – were affecting him today. If she gave him all she had and he accepted her help, then there was a slight chance that he would know some peace and that she could make a few amends. Despite the agony and nightmares that her past caused her, she would give up those fragile compensations if it meant that her successor would be happy.

That would not be for some time to come, if it ever happened, and there was much work to be done before then. She focused her talent and searched out the warm, inviting light that was Aya, a frown curving her lips when she sensed his anger and fear. Someone close to him was in danger, and it would not be long before he showed up here, asking about his own talent. That it had been locked away had not truly bothered him before now, but he took too much upon himself, felt too much guilt to not ask for access to something he hated.

It would almost break her heart to deny him that access; she was not the one who had snatched it from him in the first place, and as much as she despised that German bastard, she would not break his mind in order to free Aya’s gift. No, Aya would have to be the one to break down the walls in the end, driven to that by worry for his loved ones. Cracks would form because of what had happened today, cracks that would inevitably lead to him accepting first his talent and then himself, and she could do nothing to stop it. *Would* do nothing to stop it.

In the end, he would have to accept all of himself if he wished for any sort of happiness. He could deny his talent all he wanted, but it would still twist things, and he would still be sought after because of it and his loved ones used against him. Geli had learned the hard way that all it gained a catalyst to deny what they were was to be used.

She twirled around, black skirt flaring around her legs as if wings to snatch her from the ground and send her soaring into the sky. She could do that if she wanted, could fly up into the bright, warm air of this dreamscape. How many years had she spent in captivity dreaming of doing just that? Funny, how the desire had burned itself out a decade or two after she was finally free of all constraints.

Walking away from the rose bush and orchid, she made her way to the silent figure waiting for her in the distance. All of the catalysts had a fondness for the clothes and styles of their last life spent in the real world, and Seishirou was no exception. He wore the black kimono with a grace that made her envious, his grey eyes appearing almost silver because of the light grey haori with white and smoke-coloured clouds picked out with silver threads.

Would Aya favor such dress when his time in the real world came to an end? He did enjoy traditional dress at times, seeming as comfortable in it as jeans and sweaters. She had an impression that his lover would have a say in what he wore here, and smiled for the first time in hours.

"Mah, it’s about time you stopped looking as gloomy as Malachi," Seishirou teased as she approached, his own smile carrying its familiar sardonic edge. He had been one of the rare catalysts who had been both aware of his power and never anyone’s catspaw, still a force to be reckoned with even if he did not directly influence the world at this point in time. Geli wondered if he would allow himself to be reborn anytime soon; perhaps the cycle of abuse that had befallen the last few catalysts would be broken then. "You’re about to cause the skies to turn black and rain."

"I would hate to think you brought yourself here just to torment me, when you can do that at any time." She folded her arms over her chest and pouted for a few seconds, until his smile lost that sharp edge and he reached out to pull her closer.

"It’s not fun if I do it ‘any time’. I choose my moments wisely and for the maximum impact." His right arm now tucked through her bent left arm, he urged her to walk with him through the fragrant garden. It was no surprise when she heard the faint roar of an ocean in the distance, nor when the scents of roses and fresh cut grass was replaced with the more elusive ones of magnolia and cedar. "Else it’s just a waste of effort on my part, and I hate expending energy on pursuits that aren’t very amusing."

"Tell me the truth. Kudoh Yohji is one of your descendants, isn’t he?" she asked after a moment’s contemplation, struck just then by how similar the two men seemed in regards to attitude and sense of humor.

Seishirou laughed for almost a minute, appearing as a handsome young man who had no cares in the world. She did not doubt that he had looked like this at one point in his life, as most of them chose a physical appearance from happier times in their past. "Who knows? I gave up keeping track after… the fifth generation, I believe." He shrugged to show that he no longer had any cares about his descendents.

If only she could say the same. Her happiness fading at that bitter thought, she stopped smiling and looked ahead, away from the handsome man at her side. "Did you see her?" she asked, her voice quiet and rough with anger as she brought an end to their cheerful discussion.

Sighing as if vexed by something, Seishirou made her wait several steps before he answered. "Yes, I have. I honestly have no clue if it’ll please you to learn that she’s slipped even more into madness." As her voice had, his own gave away the emotions he felt; in his case, slight reproach.

She considered her feelings before she spoke. "It does not please me." While Cassandra did *not* deserve any peace for what she had set in motion, her lapse back into insanity was not a good thing for Geli’s plans. She knew from first-hand experience how much madness could twist things about and unravel the best of plans. "However, I will admit to feeling no remorse over her situation." The precog had dared to chain a catalyst to her son, and had been bound by chains of a different kind in return.

Seishirou sighed again, his exasperation made plainer by the force with which he expelled the lungful of air. "Why did I even think for a moment that you might have a touch of sympathy for her, hmm?" He turned his upper body enough to look at her, his eyes full of disappointment that she knew was directed at her. "You both-"

"I have *never* enslaved another!" she spat in rare vehemence at her best friend. "Having suffered such a state myself, I never attempted to wrap chains around another soul!" That Seishirou would think to compare the two of them in such a manner made her want to leave her friend’s side and not return for a generation or two.

He must have sensed her intentions and was quick to hold on to her arm, his tone now soothing instead of accusatory. "I’m sorry! I never meant to imply such a thing." He held firm until she stopped trying to pull away and finally turned to face him. "I only meant that you had been held captive because of your talent, like her, and forced to use it in ways you never would have contemplated on your own."

At least he did not mention how they both had been forced to bear children because of what they were, or how their bloodlines were now entwined. She stopped glaring at him after a few seconds then stepped closer, so he could enfold her into an embrace of warmth and silk.

"I can’t forgive her for what she’s doing to Aya," she explained once she could speak with a steady voice. "She knows how special he is, how much he could change things for the better if given a chance, yet she binds him to her brat of a son all in hopes of gaining revenge." Had it never occurred to Cassandra that she could have won Aya over to her side through more favorable means and still brought Esset down? That she did not have to become like the ones she hated the most and ruin yet another life? No, two lives in this case, as Yohji’s fate was as intertwined with Aya’s as the purple orchids with the white and red roses.

"Listen to me, Geli. Don’t discard my opinion just because you don’t like it." Seishirou loosened his arms around her until she looked up at him. "Sometimes… it’s my belief that sometimes, our kind *has* to suffer." He was quick to give her a gentle shake when she opened her mouth to dispute that absurd belief. "Not like you and a few others have, and not in the way that Aya might if he doesn’t break free of the machinations of so many others, but… as a trial of fire." His eyes grew clouded as he became lost in contemplation. "The best of weapons are tempered numerous times, until they are strong enough to withstand more than they ever could have before. If you want things to change so much, to have things put to right that-" He paused for a moment when she moaned quietly in pain. "Aya needs to be strong. Aya *and* Yohji, and anyone else who hopes to stand by them in the future. As much as it annoys me to admit it, diversity does build strength and character." He smiled as he spoke the last few words, the expression for once not twisted by his caustic sense of humor, but by sadness.

She considered what he had said, just as he had asked. While she hated to think of Aya having to suffer at all, he did need to become stronger, to shed some misplaced beliefs that bound him more tightly than that awful weaving of Cassandra’s. And Yohji as well, if he hoped to be a true companion of a catalyst. So few souls could claim that place beside their lovers, yet he was the first one to have the chance in….

"And it annoys me to admit that you *may* be right," she said after a silence that had stretched on for several minutes, the only sound around them the faint crashing of waves.

Seishirou gave her a true smile for that remark, the same time he urged her to resume their walk. "One would think that you would be used to it by now, though!" His laugh was deep and warm, blending with the sound of the waves as if he, too, was a force of nature. She would not put it past her friend, even if to say such a thing out loud would only make him more conceited than he already was.

"Come now, Takako has invited us to tea and promised to tell us a new story she has thought up. You know the last time we were late to one of her gatherings, we did not fair so well in her next tale." Seishirou gave her arm a squeeze and winked when she smiled in memory of that event.

She felt a bit saddened to enjoy the company of dear friends while Aya was distraught over the fate of his teammate, but she knew from experience that there were times when one had to step back and let the present roll out uninfluenced. She had done what she could for the moment, and could only have faith that even bound as it was, his talent could still twist things enough to prevent worry from turning into sorrow. Her time in the real world had come to an end, she only involved herself now for the sake of her heir. Once his time was finished, then she could turn her back on what happened from that point with a clear conscience, the torch passed on as always.

*******

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