Crossroads

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chapter 2

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Omi, why is it so cold this morning? - Omi, warum ist es heute morgen so kalt?

Shouldn’t you be in bed? - Solltest du nicht im Bett sein?

What’s wrong? - Stimmt was nicht?

What the hell are you up to, you old witch? - Was zum Teufel hast du vor, du alte Hexe?

Damned precogs. If they’re not crazy, then they make everyone else around them that way - Verdammte Seher. Falls sie nicht wahnsinnig sind, so wird es jedenfalls jeder um sie herum.

*******

Aya stepped off the elevator and into the Magic Bus Hospital’s ICU ward. His left arm throbbed - he could feel every one of the new stitches, every one of the bruises and contusions that Rôyama had cleaned and tended. His whole body ached. He felt so tired and drained, chilled to the marrow but he kept moving forward as if drawn against his will. He didn’t want to go to that room and see Yohji utterly pale from blood loss and lying deathly still, tubes running to and from his body….

He moaned in despair and clutched his good arm around his battered chest yet continued on his way. No matter how much he fought himself he couldn’t stop. He didn’t want to see Yohji like that, didn’t want to remember how close his lover had come to dying, how close he’d been to losing another loved one… part of him… his heart….

//You chose your heart over your soul, star child. Freely you did.//

Shaking his head to clear it of the stray thought, he continued his march toward Yohji’s room. With each step he grew more and more certain that, instead of finding his lover unconscious, recovering from the wound and surgery, he’d find Yohji lying there unnaturally still beneath the sheet drawn over his head, the heart monitor silent like all the other machines….

He couldn’t stop himself from grabbing the doorknob with a trembling hand, turning it and pushing open the door. He stepped forward… into a lush garden, the air laden with the scents of numerous flowers and herbs and recent rainfall and saltwater. He went further into the botanical paradise, thoroughly confused and more than a little angry. He didn’t mean to come here, in fact had avoided this place for the past two months. "Where are you, Cassandra?" he hissed, searching to catch sight of the bedraggled, grey woman.

"No names, not here." He spun to face Cassandra who was behind him, sitting amidst a patch of clover, her grey skirts puddled around her. "Welcome back, star child."

He stared incredulously at her for a moment, his hands clenched into fists. The fragrance of the blossoms was becoming overwhelming with each breath, the air sickly sweet. Not bothering with a reply, he turned to leave. He wasn’t going to stay here, not after being tricked into the garden to talk to a woman he knew he couldn’t trust. Yet, after no more than three steps, Aya found his legs tangled in green vines and his way barred by thickets of roses and thorns. "Let me go, dammit."

"No." Cassandra strolled over to him, skirting the sudden thorny hedge and stopped when they faced one another. "Not yet, star child. Talk we must."

"Go to hell," he said, his anger building the longer he struggled. He wasn’t going to stay here against his will and be babbled at by a manipulative madwoman. This was a dream, so all he should have to do was concentrate on waking up and he’d be free. Closing his eyes and focusing, he saw the image of glowing threads in his mind. One of them had to lead out of here….

"Foolish, stubborn Death! Suit him you do! Cause me trouble to no end, just like him!" Cassandra snarled, her voice growing more faint the longer he concentrated. Then pain spiked through his body, starting at his feet and crawling upward, a constrictive binding of agony.

He opened his eyes and found that the vines now covered him from his chest down, trapped his arms at his side and sported sharp thorns that dug through his shirt, deeper into his flesh with each breath. As his blood flowed down the green stems, flowers bloomed, white roses edged with crimson, their scent potent enough that a few breaths made him lightheaded.

A small hand picked one of the blooms and brushed it against his face. He jerked his head up and stared at a malevolently smiling Cassandra. "Foolish, foolish star. Power you have, great power but bound it is, bound and untrained. You do not have the fine control needed to free yourself from my garden, not as long as you are a chained, stubborn fool." She brushed the rose down his cheek, its thorns tearing into his flesh.

He could only stare at the madwoman. He knew he couldn’t trust her anymore, not since his last visit here when she prodded him to unleash his power but he never imagined her capable of this cruelty. "Let me go." He cried out in pain when the vines reacted to his desperate struggles and tightened further, crawling deep beneath his skin until his body was filled with clawing, burning agony.

Suddenly the excruciating torture moderated a little, the bindings and thorns still there but merely as restraints. Panting from the pain, Aya looked at Cassandra and found tears streaming down her face. With a trembling hand she reached out and brushed back the hair clinging to his face from the sweat and blood.

"Oh, no, so sorry… I’m so sorry. Stubborn, stubborn star, to make me call forth Loki so cruelly. I’m sorry," she whispered over and over again. "Called you here to warn you, I did, not to be like *them*. No, no, no!" Cassandra wrung her hands, teeth biting into her bottom lip as she tried to hold back her sobs.

Trying to calm himself and focus past the pain, he closed his eyes and focused on drawing the scented air into his lungs, holding it in for a moment and breathing it out. He repeated this several times but the pain was a constant throbbing ache that drove away the concentration he needed to call upon the threads and find his way home. "Wha-" he croaked before swallowing with a dreadfully dry throat. "What warning?"

She stilled like a child caught breaking the rules, her small body tense and eyes wide. She gave a nervous laugh and toyed with one of the roses growing on the vine. "You’ll listen now, yes? I’m so sorry but listen you must. Time is short, each heartbeat is another step closer to the crossroads. The blackbirds sense your presence even now and caw in the trees. Nasty, nasty things they are," she muttered.

Trying to think through the hurt, Aya remembered that, while he more than suspected that Cassandra wanted to use him for something, she’d always been correct with her warnings so far. Most times their meaning became clear too late to do him any good but he’d listen to what she said if it got him free of these damned vines since struggling did no good. "What warning?" he repeated, feeling on the verge of passing out from the pain. Would the dream end if that happened?

"Oh!" She jumped, her hand held over her mouth as she looked guilty and ready to cry again. "Oh my, the warning. Listen now will you? Truly?"

"Yes," he gritted out, wishing nothing more than to have his katana in hand to deal with the vines and perhaps scare some sense into the madwoman. Or at least scare her enough to leave him the hell alone.

Cassandra nodded, the motion curt. "Good. The crossroads, star child, they loom before you. Three options lie in wait. On one road stands your Knight, armor burnished and chalice offered to you. On the other is the Magician, his love a chain that once set will never fall away. You’ll be his forever, yes," she nodded vigorously. "The last path… the revenant has walked down that one and stands eager for you to return with her. That one, sorrow tripled, hopes to lead both you and the Knight down that dark road."

She stepped closer to him and cupped his bleeding face between her small, strong hands. "You must choose. That’s what crossroads are there for, to force a decision upon you. Strong magic they are, impossibly strong. Intersecting crosses leading on to infinity, choices weighed and made and discarded forever. One can only walk forward, even you, bright Death," she said, her voice low and thrumming with intensity. "There is no backwards. Three paths, three choices. Three, with your heart the ransom should you choose poorly."

His entire body screaming in pain, he tried to make sense of her words. He felt faint, Cassandra and her garden fading in and out of his senses. "Chose between Yohj-"

"Ah! No names!" Cassandra hissed, her eyes wide with panic. "Not here, not you. Unwise it is to draw attention to your loves."

Forcing himself to remain aware, he ground his teeth together and shook from restrained anger. The sooner he proved that he had the jist of Cassandra’s warning the sooner he’d be free. "The Knight or the Magician, right?"

She nodded, grey, tangled hair flying about. "Yes, between those two your decision lies. The revenant will try to entice you down her path but that’s not an option, star child, not if you hope to regain the lost shell of your soul."

Even in his agony he caught mention of his sister. "What about A- my sister?"

Ducking her head, Cassandra plucked another rose and slowly pulled its petals free. "Three and four. Three paths leading to your fours and precious three."

"Which one?" he demanded to know. "Which path?"

She was silent for a moment before tossing the denuded rose aside. "Both. All but the revenant’s path leads to your soul… eventually." Cassandra looked him in the eye, her eyes like cold steel. "No matter what you do, your soul will remain out of reach for a while longer. Remember that and do not drive your Knight away!" she insisted, her voice loud and sharp.

"I… I won’t." For a moment he wondered why she insisted that he choose Yohji over Schu but, even if he was suspicious, he would do no different. He’d already picked Yohji, no matter what the consequences. His chin dropped to his bound chest and was scratched by the vicious thorns. He was too tired to hold his head up any longer.

Cassandra gently stroked his hair. "He you chose freely, gold threads binding you to him tight. Remember what I told you before about doubting him. If you do that…. Remain steadfast in your love for him, no matter what. Things are not always what they seem and sometimes the past must be properly exorcised before one can move away from it. Give the Knight his chance to lay the ghost of his fair one to rest."

It was so hard to think…. Wasn’t there something important that he’d thought Cassandra might know about? "I’ll choose… my Knight and Sh-… the Magician will leave us alone? No more dreams?" For a moment the scent of cherry blossoms overwhelmed the aroma of sweet roses.

Cassandra’s hand stilled. "…You will choose the Knight… this time," she said, her voice a faint whisper.

"The dreams, dammit!" He had to know about the dreams, about the visions of him and Schu amidst the cherry trees. The ones that plagued him even now. The ones he wanted to talk to Cassandra about, whether or not she knew of them and said nothing or…. There was so much pain, making it almost impossible to think straight.

"This is the crossroads, bright one. You must make your choice." Cassandra stepped away from him, her manner troubled. "But… but… threes there are, ever threes. One and one and one or one and two, reversed or not. This is the first… if you choose the Knight. Pick the Magician this time instead and no more crossroads. None," she spat out. All he could see of her now was her feet, her tattered grey skirts swirling around her legs as if alive, animated by the blowing wind. "No more questions, no more! Set, this path is, set before your birth, by your birth, by your awakening! Paths you must take, yes!" Her voice rose to be heard against the sudden gale that whipped everything in the garden. He moaned in pain as the thorns tightened again and dug into him. All he could see was a blizzard of snow edged in blood, the rose petals whirling about madly. "No going back, oh no! They must pay and you must choose!"

The pain became blindingly intense but the next thing he knew, he was back in his bed, chilled to the bone. His body ached, a faint echo of the dream’s agony. Lying tucked against Yohji’s back, he slowly opened his eyes and took a deep breath. The room was tinged grey by the approaching dawn and the air felt bitterly cold.

Beside him, Yohji snored softly. Aya slowly sat up and rubbed his arms in an effort to dispel the ache and to warm up. His lover showed no signs of waking up, even though the mattress shifted as he climbed out of bed. All Yohji did was snuggle deeper underneath the thick, down comforter. Lately, his sleep was plagued with nightmares so Aya wasn’t surprised by this. Yohji tended to sleep like the dead to make up for his disturbed rest.

Rubbing his hands over his eyes, Aya realized that he was too cold for it to be just him. Moving quietly, he crossed the room and grabbed something to wear. Soft, thick black leather pants, one of Yohji’s merino wool sweaters over a heavy, denim shirt. Warm socks and slippers completed the outfit. Feeling on edge, Aya picked up the pack of cigarettes resting on the dresser and one of the cheap, plastic lighters and headed down the hall to use the bathroom. As he left the bathroom, he lit a cigarette and went downstairs to figure out why the house was so damned cold, even with the heat on.

He found Omi in the kitchen, a hand held under running water. "Omi, warum ist es heute morgen so kalt?" Aya took a drag off the cigarette and let the smoke linger in his lungs before exhaling. "Solltest du nicht im Bett sein?" he asked as an afterthought, still a bit groggy from sleep but remembering that today was a Sunday.

Omi stared at him. Feeling nervous for some reason, Aya inhaled more smoke and ran a hand through his hair. "Stimmt was nicht ?" he asked quietly.

"Aya-kun… why aren’t you speaking Japanese? And when did you start smoking?" Omi asked in evident confusion. The words sounded odd as Aya puzzled at them, at the foreign language….

Pain spiked through his head as he was overcome by a sudden coughing fit. He dropped the cigarette to the floor as his hands pressed against his temple, racking coughs shuddering through his aching body. Omi rushed over to him and helped him sit down. He was bent in half from the coughing spell that seemed to go on forever.

"Aya, are you all right?" Omi asked as he pounded Aya’s back. This time the words didn’t sound odd.

After a minute, he could breathe. He smacked his lips, his mouth tasting unpleasantly of tobacco. Omi patted him on the shoulder and hurried toward the sink, returning a moment later with a glass of water. Aya accepted it gratefully and drank all of the cool liquid between weak sputters.

"Are you okay now?" Omi asked. "Did you take your medicine this morning? Is it another migraine?"

Aya held out his hand to put a stop to the questions, having enough already clamoring in his head. He took a deep breath and noticed with some relief that he no longer felt like hacking up his lungs although he coughed a few more times. "Yes. It’s not a migraine." The pain was fading and only a faint headache remained… along with a sore throat from all the coughing. "What language was I speaking?" he asked even though he dreaded the answer.

Omi paused for a moment before taking the glass and returned to the sink, picking up the dropped cigarette along the way. He came back with another full glass of water and some headache medicine. "I think I recognized a few German words."

Just great. Aya pressed his palms against his eyes and sighed. Cassandra was back in his dreams and the weird stuff started up again. He’d known better than to assume that things would remain ‘normal’ forever but he’d hoped for the peace to last a little longer. Sighing again, he shook out a few pills and swallowed them with the water. Omi sat watching him, quiet and clearly still worried, as he drank.

"Why is it so cold and why are you up?" Aya asked again, this time focusing on the words and making certain he was talking in Japanese. He didn’t want to think right now about waking up and speaking German while smoking a cigarette. His hands shook as he reached into the waistband of the leather jeans and pulled out the pack and lighter to set them on the table, as if distancing himself from the objects would make everything better.

"I woke up because it was so cold," Omi explained as he hugged his arms around his chest. Aya noticed he was dressed in a thick sweater and sweatpants. "Not all of us have a nice new down comforter," he teased.

"You can have our old one," Aya replied as an absentminded afterthought.

Omi flashed him a grateful smile. "Thanks, that should help if the furnace’s pilot light goes out again, like it did this morning." He shook his right hand. "It must have gone out right after we went to bed, judging from how cold it is. I woke up about half an hour ago and went downstairs to check why we had no heat to find the furnace not working. Ended up burning my hand relighting the stupid thing," he muttered in annoyance.

Considering how old and inefficient their furnace was, Aya knew it would take all day for the building to heat up. "Thank you." He rubbed the back of his neck and thought with longing of his nice, warm bed. "We need a new furnace."

"Yeah, we do. I hope to talk to Manx or Birman about it the next time one of them stops by." A determined look settled on Omi’s face. "If Kritiker won’t pay for a new one, *I* will and I don’t care if it’s a security risk having outsiders downstairs near the mission room," he finished, a belligerent look on his face. "We can’t work if we freeze to death during the night."

"I agree," Aya said quietly. "It’s a good thing that the shop is closed." It would never warm up in the Koneko with people walking in and out the door all day.

Omi was quiet for a moment as he played with the plastic lighter. "Either of them should be stopping by soon. We haven’t had a mission for almost two weeks."

"I know." An image flashed through Aya’s mind, of being bound in multi-coloured threads that pulled him toward a crossroads, the narrow roads lined with trees inhabited by flocks of blackbirds. "We’ll be seeing Birman tomorrow," he said, distracted by his thoughts.

"Really?" Omi asked, his voice still worried but his eyes now calculating. Aya noticed and looked down at the table, angry with himself for slipping up. So far, he believed that only Ken knew about his… talent and wanted to keep it that way. He couldn’t afford many more slips in Omi’s presence, the teenager was much too smart to not put two and two together.

He shivered and stood up. "Yes, like you said, it’s been too quiet lately. We’ve had nice break so either she or Manx will be by soon to ruin it. I’m going back to bed."

"A very good idea, Aya-kun. I think I’ll do the same since it’s too cold to do anything other than sleep." Omi rose and followed him upstairs. "Don’t forget to lock your bedroom door if you think Birman might be stopping by," he joked before heading toward his own room. Aya shot him a glare that said he wasn’t amused before ducking into his and Yohji’s bedroom where annoyed or not, he followed the advice.

Once safely inside, he stripped off his clothes and set them on the couch for later wear. Then, he carefully lifted the thick comforter so as to not allow a draft of cold air under the covering or Yohji’s needed body heat out. Sliding into bed, he spooned behind his lover and gave a contented sigh as he basked in Yohji’s wonderful warmth. The man was better and more dependable than the furnace….

"You’re freezing," Yohji muttered as he rolled over to face Aya.

"Hmmm." Aya hugged his cranky, half asleep lover close and melted against him, his head tucked under Yohji’s chin. "The furnace’s pilot light went out. I went downstairs to find out why it was so cold but Omi already relit it." Still tense from the dream and his odd behavior downstairs, he took a deep breath of Yohji’s intoxicating aroma of spice and tobacco and felt his body finally relax.

 

Yohji’s hands soothed up and down Aya’s back. "Guess that means we’ll have to spend the day in bed since the damned place will be freezing until tomorrow. What a shame." His hands cupped Aya’s ass gently.

"Yes," He sighed. It had been a few weeks since they’d spent the whole day in bed and he found himself looking forward to it. Although there was something that nagged at his senses, something he was forgetting.

A kiss was pressed against the top of his head. "Good. Get some rest, then. You’re going to need it." Yohji hugged him closer and quietly drifted back to sleep. Yohji’s scent and warmth surrounding him, Aya reluctantly did the same, even though he was anxious to avoid any more dreams of gardens and madwomen.

*******

Schuldig thrashed on his bed, limbs tangled in the fine cotton sheets as he was assaulted with pain. His eyes wide open and his mouth gasping for air, it took him a minute to realize that the pain wasn’t his. By the time he cleared his head enough to figure things out, the pain started to fade.

He immediately put his talent to work in search of answers. Normally it would take him a minute of intense concentration to contact someone half a large city away but, in an instant, he was drowning in Aya’s thoughts, the contact a balm to his senses. Even with keeping the link mostly dormant the last two months, he slid easily into his love’s mind, Aya’s talent purring in welcome and trying to merge with his. It took Schuldig a second to restrain it, the effort left him slightly exhausted and craving a cigarette.

Lightly scanning Aya’s most recent memories, he found a confusing mix of pain and images. Blood, roses and black feathers whirled in the air amidst a riotous garden. There was a quick flash of Cassandra followed by the image of a crossroads framed by four different types of trees, their branches filled with crows. He had the impression of anger and concern, the last image he could make sense of belonged to Aya’s sister.

What the hell was the old witch up to, he wondered furiously as he sat up in bed, hands combing through his tangled hair. Part of him wanted to go to Cass’s garden and kill the madwoman for hurting Aya. No one touched what was his, *no one*. However, he’d only give her what she wanted if he did that so he needed to calm down first before going to get some answers.

Something was going on in the crazy bitch’s head, that was certain. She seemed to be pulling her wits together after he approached her about Aya but, ever since the girl had been kidnapped, Cassandra began sliding back into madness. While he normally couldn’t care less about Cassandra’s mental state, he needed her visions to help plot the future and was left with a growing certainty that there was a purpose behind her insane actions. A purpose that involved Aya which guaranteed he wouldn’t like whatever it was.

His body tensed at the thought. Aya was his and his alone. Furious at the thought of someone else using Aya or his talent, Schuldig reached for the pack of cigarettes on the nightstand. The nicotine and familiar ritual of starting the morning with a smoke helped to calm him down, something he really needed at the moment or he’d do something he’d regret. He extended a careful mental tendril and assured himself that his love was all right at the moment, if not a little colder than usual.

It seemed Aya wasn’t too happy with Cassandra himself. Schuldig frowned when he realized that Aya didn’t trust the crazy old witch very much although he still considered her words with care. When he tried to probe Aya’s mind to see what she’d wanted with him, he was disappointed to find that the pain from the dream thwarted his power. Again, he was left with the impression that the brain dead girl featured in the conversation somehow.

"Was zum Teufel hast du vor, du alte Hexe?" he muttered out loud as he rose from bed. Too bad all he’d get from asking the woman in person would be a headache and an earful of crazy riddles.

Heading to the kitchen for some coffee, he resolved to talk to Aya. It had been two months, surely his tuberose’s anger had died down a little bit. He winced at the thought and a small, rueful chuckle escaped his lips. The link meant there was no way for him to delude himself into thinking that was true. Aya was still pissed as hell – at least on one level. On another… Aya’s power was more than happy about the link and missed the dreams, missed Schuldig. Aya’s power kept his fury from turning into hate and the more he used it - which hadn’t been much these past few months but that would soon change - the more he would share its feelings. It was a part of him, after all, a most vital part. Once Aya gave himself to Schuldig, his power would be free and there’d be no more anger, no more resistance.

Nagi and Crawford were in the kitchen enjoying a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee respectively. Smelling the aroma of hazelnut roast, Schuldig smiled and helped himself to a mug of the coffee. "I take it you had no problem with my report?" he asked his leader as he inhaled the wonderful steam rising from his drink.

"Considering the fact that you filed a proper report for once, no," Crawford remarked, his tone dry as he turned the page of his newspaper. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack from the shock?"

No, Schuldig thought with amusement, he was just trying to get out of being ‘grounded’ and figured he could try to behave for once – at least until that grew too boring. "What can I say, my work ethic felt inspired last night." He sat down next to Nagi and nudged the telekinetic in the ribs. "You might be interested to know that Tot asked about you." It seemed that Nagi’s face would have almost lit up at the news but he managed to contain himself. "I think she’s looking for someone to play ‘dress up’ with her," he teased as he set the mug on the table and waited for the assault. He didn’t have to wait long before Nagi slammed his chair toward the table, knocking the air out of him as the edge of the table jabbed deep into his abdomen.

Nagi spared him a glare that could rival one of Aya’s before rising from the table, placing his bowl in the sink and stomping off. Schuldig chuckled as he moved his chair back and resumed drinking what was left of his coffee, ignoring the mess spilled onto the table.

"Yes, clearly last night’s behavior was an aberration." Crawford turned a page and smoothed out the paper. "I think it would be best for the team if you spent the day elsewhere, Mastermind. I’d hate to have to find a new telepath at this date, even if they would be better behaved than you."

It took a moment for Schuldig to realize that he’d just been slipped free of his leash. "I thought I was supposed to stay close to home and reflect upon how much I screwed up our last mission," he said.

"Yes, well, it seems Schwarz has reached its limit of having you constantly underfoot. You’re free to do what you will, other than unsanctioned killings. Keep in mind that we are currently on a mission and I won’t tolerate your playing interfering with our work." Crawford looked up from the paper and fixed Schuldig with a stern gaze. "We might not be doing much right now but that will change in the upcoming week. Keep that, and the fact that you’re not allowed to harm Balinese, in mind when you visit Abyssinian."

Schuldig had the growing suspicion that Cassandra wasn’t the only precog keeping things from him but knew from past experience that there was no way for him to sneak past Oracle’s mental shields. "What makes you think I’m off to see Abyssinian?"

"Please, Schuldig, don’t insult my intelligence." Crawford rose to pour himself more coffee. "You’re fixated on the man." He turned around to face Schuldig and leaned against the counter. "What are you planning to do about him when we take his sister?" His eyes grew distant as he appeared lost in thought for a few seconds. "Is that how you’re planning to make him Schwarz? I see nothing to support that course of action."

Yes, but then Aya’s power stifled Crawford’s, Schuldig thought with smug satisfaction. Nevertheless, he still felt a chill to hear Oracle throw doubt on his plan. "He’ll do anything for her, look at all the hoops he jumps through for Kritiker. Once we have her, we’ll have him as well."

"Yes, but a coerced ill-wight is not a good thing, link or no link," Crawford pointed out. "He won’t be happy when he finds out we have our own plans for the girl."

"I’m not worried about that," Schuldig said before he sipped his coffee. Crawford had plans for the girl, not him. Once Aya’s power was unleashed and his heart became Schuldig’s…. Then the possibilities open to them would be endless.

Aya-chan hadn’t aged since the day of the explosion. Nor had Aya. It wasn’t so noticeable with the catalyst since Aya changed in other ways. His pain and cold, distant personality appeared to age him but his body was still that of an eighteen year old. It had never been proven how long a catalyst could extend their or anyone else’s lifespan but it was known to last for several decades at least and was a lot safer and more reliable than some mystic ceremony Crawford discovered. Aya should have enough power to stop time for Schwarz once his true nature was freed.

Schuldig smiled at the thought of ruining the Elder’s dream while attaining his own. "Once he joins us, I’ll make him understand that she truly is a vegetable and it shouldn’t matter what happens to her. She should have died years ago."

"Yes." Crawford again seemed lost in thought. "She was supposed to die and she’s supposed to be brain dead." He stared at Schuldig. "I can only guess what you’re playing at since you’re being so secretive about your plans but I don’t think things are going to happen as you hope."

"Oh, this is great, Mr. ‘I only tell you what you absolutely need to know… and less than that about half the time’ is after me for being quiet." Schuldig leaned back in his chair and glared in annoyance at his leader. "If you don’t know much about my plans how can you be so sure they won’t succeed?"

"I didn’t say that," Crawford replied as he stood up straight. "I only said they wouldn’t go exactly as planned." With that cryptic comment he left the room. Schuldig stared after him, for the thousandth time wishing he could sneak a peek into the bastard’s brain. Crawford definitely knew something but didn’t appear worried. He knew the precog wanted Aya for his power so it couldn’t all be bad but….

"Verdammte Seher. Falls sie nicht wahnsinnig sind, so wird es jedenfalls jeder um sie herum," he muttered as he finished his coffee.

*******

Birman nodded to the police officer who was stationed to keep any reporters or curious people at bay and pushed the glasses up her nose as she stepped past the barricade of police tape. She felt a little sad at the thought that the Tokyo police knew her on sight from all the crime scenes she’d visited over the years. It was a rather morbid way to make someone’s acquaintance.

She stepped further into the dank alley and breathed through her mouth when the stench assailed her senses. A memory awoke, one where she and her family returned home after a week away at the beach during the summer break to find that there was a power outage because of a bad storm. The smell of rotting meat always reminded her of that day.

The low rumble of a deep voice informed her that Mickey was already here. Why was she surprised, Birman thought as she twitched up her long, dark-blue skirt and stepped over a semi-solid puddle of waste. The American was one of the hardest workers she’d ever met. He even made up for his brother’s casual approach to work.

When Birman found Mickey talking to several detectives, she stopped a respectful distance from the men and ignored the curious glances in her direction. Safely out of the way of the ongoing investigation, she observed her subordinate and tried not to let it annoy her that Mickey, a foreigner, got along better with the police than she ever did. While Mickey Stout was clearly intelligent, always deferential and grasped the Japanese language almost as well as a native, he was still an outsider. He was also a man, something that Birman could never hope nor aspire to become. Still, it bothered her to see a newcomer better accepted than herself.

Mickey glanced at her and nodded briefly as he listened to one of the detectives. After a minute he asked a question that led to an animated discussion. Birman watched as the detectives moved about and pointed out various things for the American. There were a few more questions and then Mickey bowed low to the assembled men and walked away.

He nodded as he approached Birman and together they left the dark alley. Leaving the crime scene behind, they strolled down the street and, after a short discussion, stopped at a small kiosk for some coffee before heading to her car.

They slid inside and she started the engine and let it idle. She turned the heat on and sipped her coffee. "Well?"

Mickey balanced his drink on his knee and tapped his fingers against its plastic lid. "They think the body’s been there since last week but won’t be certain until the coroner does some tests. Apparently that dumpster is only emptied once a week; the neighboring businesses complain all the time to the landlord about the stench but all he does is makes noise about how much the garbage service costs him. As you can imagine, no one spends much time in the alley because of the smell so no one noticed anything until this morning.

A body spending a week in a metal container… Birman was thankful that it was a cold autumn and not summer. "How badly decomposed is the body? Can they tell anything other than it was a woman?"

"Just that she appears to be a foreigner and that there are wounds along her spine." Mickey grimaced and adjusted the vents so the hot air didn’t hit him directly. "There’s no way to tell how it happened but her spine was partially removed. The one detective said it looked as if someone tried to pull her spinal column out like you’d de-bone a fish but stopped after several centimeters of it was exposed."

They could possibly have a copycat killer on their hands even though they’d been careful to make sure that details of the recent kundalini murders were kept from the public or the damage to the woman’s spine could have occurred after she’d been left in the dumpster. Birman shook her head and had another sip of coffee. She didn’t think either was the case. Ever since hearing that a woman’s naked body had been found this morning she felt a connection to her current case. "I wonder why they didn’t harvest her spine?" she mused out loud.

"I don’t know but maybe learning the victim’s identity will tell us," Mickey replied after giving the question some thought. "She had a few distinctive piercings and, if she’s foreign, it might not be too hard to figure out who she was. I’ll look through the missing persons database while we wait for more information."

"Good." Birman finished her coffee and set the empty container in her car’s drink holder. "I’ll wait to approach Weiß about the case until we confirm this was another kundalini murder." She glanced at Mickey and offered him a slight smile. "I’m sorry, you worked all night putting things together for me and then this happens."

"It’s all right," he said as he stretched as much as the small Mazda allowed. "Certain aspects of this case are very intriguing. I sometimes feel as if I’m studying comparative religion as opposed to working a murder investigation." He smiled for a moment before the expression faded. "Then I remember why I’m studying."

"Hopefully for not much longer." She itched to hand the case over to Weiß before she had to go down any more dark alleys. The team would work its magic and put an end to the murders… until a new murder case cropped up, committed by new perpetrators. Sometimes the job seemed utterly hopeless.

She rubbed her eyes and thought that she absolutely hated starting out the day at a crime scene. "Let me know as soon as you confirm whether she’s part of this case or not. I’d like Weiß to be involved by Tuesday at the latest." Then it would be their turn to try and make sense of the murders and find the perpetrators. For a moment Birman was jealous at how easily those four young men would put together the pieces she so carefully gathered and solve everything. It was almost enough to make her believe in some of the rumors regarding the group. Rumors that usually involved the mention of ‘Schatten’. "Thank you for the coffee."

"My pleasure." Mickey gathered up their empty cups and rested his hand on the car door. "I’ll head back to the office. If you need me, try me there first." He waited for her to nod and quickly left the car.

After checking the mirror on the visor to see if she’d smeared her makeup, Birman pulled into traffic. This wasn’t the only case she had so, now that Mickey was handling this one, she could devote some attention to the others. Lately, it seemed that the work never ended and she couldn’t remember when she wasn’t busy with multiple cases. She couldn’t tell if Kritiker being this busy was a good or a bad thing.

*******

Yohji groaned as Aya’s wonderful hands finally kneaded away a tight spot in his back that had bothered him for the last two days. The damned nightmares plaguing him lately prevented him from getting much sleep so he was tense as hell as a result. It didn’t help that most of the dreams were about Asuka dying and him losing Aya, two things that were guaranteed to upset him the most. His worst fears brought to life each time he closed his eyes.

"I believe this is when you tell me to stop thinking so much and ruining all your hard work," Aya whispered in his ear, disturbing Yohji from his dark thoughts.

"Hmmm? What’s that, love?"

Aya sighed and used his teeth to tug on Yohji’s earring. "You’re getting more tense and not less. I didn’t think I was that bad at massages."

"No, you’re pretty damned good at them," Yohji purred as he stretched his arms over his head. For a guy who didn’t like much physical contact, Aya was great at giving massages. Yohji smugly thought it was such a shame that Omi and Ken would never find out how good. Hell, he hadn’t known about Aya’s skill until they became lovers. "It’s one of the reasons I keep you around," he teased. "That and your sexy ass and sparkling conversational skills."

"Hmph." Aya dug his fingers a bit deeper into Yohji’s shoulders but, before he could complain, another muscle unknotted. His groan of pain turned into one of pleasure as he rested his head back on the bed. It felt so good to finally relax. Despite the still chilly temperature, today turned out to be wonderful. He hoped the furnace wasn’t replaced anytime soon since he adored having an excuse to cuddle under the covers with Aya all day long. Nothing like spending a cold Sunday making leisurely love to his boyfriend between naps and snuggling. Sometimes it was nice to hide away from everything.

Aya rubbed up and down his spine a few more times and then pulled the comforter over both of them. He settled next to Yohji and shivered slightly. "We should have bought a space heater while we were out yesterday."

Yohji hugged his lover close. "I’m still not sure the electrical system could handle that. If we got one, you know Omi and Ken would too and the wiring up here is even older than what was in the shop. We need to find a way to make Kritiker to replace all of it next time, along with the plumbing."

"It would be nice to not wake up every time someone took a shower," Aya mumbled, his cold nose pressed against Yohji’s shoulder. "One of these days those pipes will burst."

"Probably after the next big quake." Yohji rubbed his hand up under the large sweatshirt and along Aya’s chilled flesh. The idiot had to have been freezing his ass off during the massage to be this cold. He leaned down and kissed the top of Aya’s head. "I know… the next earthquake that hits Tokyo, I say we take clubs to the pipe and rupture all of them. Maybe Omi can figure out a way to fry the wiring and Kritiker will have to replace it all."

Aya mulled the plan over for a minute and shook his head. "They’d probably just move us to an even more decrepit building or something."

"…Probably." Yohji sighed. "Gods, they’re so not hurting for money that they need to make one of their best teams live in a dump and sell flowers to help make ends meet. You can’t tell me other teams put up with this shit."

"I’m afraid so. You’ve heard Masato complain about how Crasher’s base has the world’s smallest water heater and how they can’t run the microwave and electric kettle at the same time without blowing a fuse." Aya nuzzled Yohji’s neck.

Oh yeah. Almost asking Aya about his first team, Yohji suddenly decided he didn’t want to ruin the peaceful mood, bitching aside. Aya was always sad when he thought about Sendai. So he said the next thing that popped into his brain. "You can’t tell me Schwarz lives like this."

Aya immediately tensed. Yohji regretted the slip and cursed himself for being a blithering idiot.

"Am I supposed to know?" Aya snapped as he pulled away, the comforter pressed against his chest.

"No. Dammit, it was a rhetorical question, okay?" Even though two months had passed after the latest discovery of how Mastermind was fucking up their lives, Aya still freaked at any mention of him or his team. In a way, Yohji didn’t blame his lover for acting that way but he didn’t deserve to get his head bitten off for asking a damned question. "I’m sorry," he forced himself to say, knowing very well that Aya would remain pissed off until he did. "I was just trying to point out that other people in… our "profession" are treated better than us."

Aya glared at him for a few seconds longer and then closed his eyes. "I don’t want to talk about them," he whispered as he inched closer to Yohji.

No, Aya didn’t even want to think about those freaks, Yohji thought. He suddenly felt tired, even after sleeping in most of the morning. Sooner or later he’d have to force his lover to talk about Schwarz, Mastermind in particular. They were bound to run into the bastards sooner or later and Mastermind was sure to use… whatever the hell it was between him and Aya against Weiß.

However, he wasn’t going to force the topic today. He’d save it for some day when he managed to royally piss off Aya and wouldn’t mind making his boyfriend even angrier with him.

"Good thing we bought the new sheets and comforter, na? You’d be frozen solid by now if we just had our old bedding this morning," he said, trying to shift the subject onto less treacherous ground. "I’d have to wait for summer for you to thaw out," he teased as he sat up and reached for the pack of cigarettes on his nightstand. Intent on gauging his lover’s mood, this time he was certain that Aya flinched when he lit the stick. So he hadn’t been imagining it when he’d smoked earlier. Tossing the pack and lighter back onto the nightstand, he reached out and combed his fingers through Aya’s eartail. "What’s wrong, Ayan? You’ve been worked up about something all day long." He didn’t think it was because of the furnace.

Aya merely looked at him for a few seconds and just when Yohji thought that he’d never get an answer, spoke in a weary voice. "I had a bad dream this morning." He rubbed his hands over his face. "It was one of those weird nightmares that frustrate the hell out of you."

Taking one last drag from his cigarette before grinding it out in the ashtray, Yohji slumped down in bed and dragged Aya onto his chest so they were face to face. "It was just a dream, kitten." Or so he hoped. Aya wasn’t suffering a migraine so it wasn’t one of ‘those’ dreams.

Aya frowned at the nickname and rested his hands on Yohji’s chest. "I know that. Still… it was a lousy way to start the day. At least *he* wasn’t in it," he said, his eyes murderous.

"He knows better," Yohji replied, daring to mention Schuldig even that much. He felt relieved that Aya wasn’t being plagued by the Bastard and was still pissed as hell at him and felt guilty that he didn’t say anything about his own nightmares the past couple of weeks, other than to pass them off with a lie. Just… things were just so good lately between him and Aya, he didn’t want to make trouble by admitting that he was dreaming of Asuka. Of seeing her die before his eyes and come back to life again, either as a rotten corpse or as Neu. Often she would take Aya away from him but if he knew his lover half as well as he thought, all Aya would care about was him dreaming about his dead girlfriend so he kept his mouth shut.

Aya grunted and leaned forward for a kiss. Only too happy to respond, Yohji kissed him back. He’d give Aya a little time to warm up before tearing off the sweatshirt to ravish the poor dear…. He grinned, feeling wicked and horny and very happy that today was a Sunday. That meant he got to do this again and again and-

As if his thoughts worked as a jinx, there was a sudden knock on the door. The loud sound was repeated and made Aya pull away, a frown on his face as he looked at the door. "Ignore it," Yohji pleaded as he threaded his fingers through his lover’s hair and tugged gently.

The door opened and Omi poked his head into the room. "Good, you’re not sleeping." Ignoring Yohji’s muttered curse, he headed toward them and sat down at the end of the bed. Aya shifted into a sitting position on top of Yohji, his movements graceful and smooth, his cool limbs brushing against Yohji’s and making him groan in frustrated desire.

"Aya, do you remember what day it is?" Omi asked.

Aya stopped glaring at the pest and considered the question. Not in the mood for games, Yohji also sat up, pulled his lover against his chest and snapped at their intruder. "It’s Sunday. You know, our one day of rest so go bother Ken or something." He ended up with a smack to the ribs when he finished. "Ow."

Of course Aya just ignored him. "We’re supposed to stop by Horri’s today, aren’t we?" He sighed, the comforter clutched beneath his chin.

"Yes. We promised him we’d be there to see about selling his pots at four o’clock and it’s almost three. We need to leave in the next twenty minutes if we’re going to be on time." Omi actually looked contrite. "I hate to disturb you and Yohji but you need to get ready."

"…Give me ten minutes." Aya tilted his head up and kissed Yohji’s jaw. "We should only be gone a couple of hours."

"Yeah but it’s our day off," Yohji complained as he tightened his hold on his lover.

"Yesterday was our day off which is why we decided to meet today." Aya gave him a warning glare and tugged on his hands. "Let go."

Sighing as he gave in, Yohji kissed Aya’s ear. "I expect you back in bed no later than six thirty. Bring some dinner up with you, okay?" When Aya crawled off him, Yohji stretched out on the bed and tugged the covers up to his chest. "Between that and a nice long nap I should be more than ready to keep you here for the rest of the night."

He actually got a smile from Aya before his lover grabbed some clothes from the couch and left the room with Omi. He waited for fifteen minutes or so before he plumped the pillows behind him and sat up a little to watch television. There was no way he was going to sleep now, not with Aya gone. The nightmares always came when he slept by himself.

*******

Aya pushed the cart toward the cash registers and was surprised to see the lines weren’t bad for once. However, it would still be a few minutes before it would be their turn at the register, a few minutes of standing there with some vapid teenagers giggling around him and a middle-aged housewife giving him and Omi unfriendly looks while two children screamed as their mothers tried to pay the groceries quickly so they could take their children back home…. He felt the beginnings of a headache. This was why he *detested* grocery shopping.

Omi patted his arm and smiled. "Aya-kun, why don’t you go next door and get us something to drink? I’d like a caramel mocha, please. A large one."

Aya didn’t need to be convinced to leave and quickly nodded. He didn’t bother saying anything else before making his escape, the girls’ giggling and twittering already getting on his nerves. He loathed grocery shopping trips but, since they were already out, it only made sense for him and Omi to get all the goods they needed that Yohji and Ken always managed to forget about when it was their turn to shop, the clueless idiots. And Yohji claimed that *he* needed looking after. If Yohji and Ken were left on their own…. Aya snorted as he imagined what would happen to his lover and teammate if that happened. Things would be very bad indeed. As it was, Ken had forgotten enough groceries during his last turn to do the shopping that there was nothing left in the house to make dinner.

The coffee shop was a little crowded but Aya felt a smile tease at his lips the thought of going home, unpacking the groceries and then being able to spend the rest of the day with Yohji in their warm, comfortable bed…. It would be a very nice evening indeed, the two of them alone and together in bed. Yohji owed him a backrub and after that, he wanted to start on a new book.

The faint anxiety that teased at his emotions was forcefully shoved aside and ignored. He didn’t want to think about this morning, about Cassandra’s warnings or Birman’s pending appearance, just like he didn’t want to think about nightmares, especially Yohji’s. The few times his lover called out the name ‘Asuka’ during them left him with a sense of growing dread that plagued him the past week. Things were good, the best they’d been since… since Aya-chan was taken. The best they’d been for a long time before that. Aya would hold on to this idyll as long as possible and continue to search for his sister. Cassandra told him that he’d find her, eventually. He willfully ignored everything else she said in regard to Aya-chan.

The drinks ready, he picked them up and turned to go wait by the door. Omi should be just about done paying for the groceries. A few steps from the counter, Aya felt a wave of heat wash through him, warming him completely for the first time that day. Moments later, a strong hand clamped around his elbow and Omi’s drink was snatched away. Yet he didn’t feel a sense of panic, not until he glanced at the person standing beside him.

<It’s nice to see you too, Knuddelhäschen. You’re looking good.>

Anger flooded Aya but he was keenly aware of the absence of the hate he should be feeling at the moment. Schuldig was touching him, smiling at him as if there was nothing wrong with this scenario. Schuldig, the bastard who fucked with Aya’s dreams, his mind and his relationship with Yohji.

"Get your hands off me," Aya snarled in fury. He tried to throw hot tea in Schuldig’s face but the hold on his arm prevented that. Trying to swing his other arm to hit Schuldig, he found his body unable to move, causing his fury to spike.

"Great, you’re still pissed as hell at me." Schuldig frowned. <Listen to me, Aya, we’re in the middle of a public place so you’re going to have to behave for once. Try anything and I’ll cause everyone within a five meter radius of you to have a stroke.>

The bastard would do it, too. Aya gritted his teeth and, for a moment, debated going through with an attack after all. It might be worth it to take Schuldig down.

<Ah, but you’d be taking yourself down as well, remember?> Schuldig gave Aya a smile laced with a false, sweet innocence and sipped Omi’s hot coffee. Aya felt his lips twitch as if scalding liquid burned them and his tongue yet he wasn’t drinking anything. He grimaced from the pain at the same time as Schuldig. <You can’t do anything to me without harming yourself. Who’ll look after your sister if you do something so foolish, hmmm?>

<You fucking bastard.> Aya flung the venomous thought at Schuldig. He certainly didn’t miss this in the last two months, having Schuldig mess with his mind, tormenting him whenever he was alone. Even if that wasn’t quite the case here- he quickly stifled that thought.

"If you’re waiting for Omi to save you, it’s not going to happen," Schuldig said. "It seems that he now believes he went shopping on his own today and already left for home. Oh, and in your car. It was rather nice of you to lend it to him." Aya knew Schuldig wasn’t lying, there was a whisper in his mind about how long it would take Omi to get home, the potential of a car breaking down and backing up traffic along the most direct route to the Koneko, slowing Omi down by 12.8 minutes…. He tried to shake his head to dispel the faint, disturbing voice but still couldn’t move.

<If you promise to behave, I’ll release you. I’m not here to hurt you, Aya.> Schuldig stared at him intently and reached out to touch Aya’s cheek. There was a feeling of warm, soft leather before everything shattered and reformed, the two of them lying on a thick futon, surrounded by the scent of cherry blossoms and burning candles, Schuldig’s hands stirring wonderful pleasure in Aya’s sore body, making him forget about the raw agony of his throat….

"Stop it," Aya choked, his anger replaced by conflicting emotions, faint longing for the dream to come true and anxiety that the damned thing affected him like this. It shouldn’t be able to do that, it was just a crazy fantasy of Schu’s that would never come true. It didn’t matter that the dreaded voice whispered to him that this was the truth, that it would only be a matter of time before it happened. Pain spiked through his head and his chest became tight. He couldn’t take this anymore, couldn’t take the mind games, the visions, the feeling that he was standing on a precipice, the sound of the sea crashing in the background and a strong gale pushing him closer and closer to the edge. Schuldig must be trying to drive him mad, he thought as he closed his eyes. Still, the madness was preferable to the vision of intimacy with Schuldig and the voice.

<I’m not, I swear I’m not. Dammit. This isn’t going at all like I wanted it to.> Schuldig’s mental voice actually sounded a bit remorseful and shocked Aya out of his building misery. He opened his eyes and found himself being led over to an empty table. For a moment he almost jerked his hand free to either attack or flee, he wasn’t quite sure which but then he remembered Schuldig’s threat when a young girl laughed. He allowed himself to be pushed down into a chair and was happy to feel his anger return, now that he was no longer thrown off balance.

<It’s not going the way I want it to, either. That would involve you dying a slow, agonizing death.> Aya glared at Schuldig and then gave the matter a little more thought. <Actually, I think I’d settle for a quick, agonizing death.>

"Ha ha. You’d just suffer alongside me, you know." Schuldig waved the stolen drink in front of Aya, his smile a hint bitter. "But maybe that’s what you want. I always knew you were a romantic at heart, and here you are, wanting to die with your one true love. You’re so… Shakespearean."

His hand clenched around his hot tea, Aya leaned forward, eyes narrowed in anger. "The hell I love you. Break it off, Schu. Whatever you did to link us like this, I want you to undo it. Get out of my mind and my life," he hissed.

Schuldig didn’t seem bothered by his anger as he leaned forward also, his hand centimeters from Aya’s. "I can’t ‘undo’ it, Aya. The link’s permanent. That means it’ll be there until one of us dies and drags the other with him."

That was unacceptable. "You messed with my dreams, Schu," he pointed out, furious now. "You were behind the migraines and you tried to destroy my relationship with Yohji. I’m not going to believe a word you say about *anything*, let alone this link. Break. It. Off."

"I can’t." Schuldig’s look of amusement faded, revealing an almost hurt expression. "It’s irrevocable. You can’t make any sort of link on a whim." When Aya was about to say something else, Schuldig waved him to silence. "Listen to me. You know I’ve always kept my promises to you. You can’t deny that." Much to Aya’s chagrin, he couldn’t. It galled him to have to admit that. "I promise you there will be no breaking this link," Schuldig said, perfectly serious. Aya knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt and hated the fact that he did. He also hated that damned voice with all the intensity he could no longer direct toward Schuldig.

"I’ll tell you something else, it never would have been possible if you hadn’t allowed it to happen, Aya," Schuldig continued. "You wanted this. I was only able to create the link because you wanted it as much as I did."

"You’re lying," Aya spat, his hands aching to strike out at Schuldig. He didn’t move though because it would only remind him of the damned link when he shared the pain.

"No, I’m not," Schuldig said, still perfectly serious.

His fury spiking, Aya decided he wasn’t going to put up with the link any longer. He avoided doing anything because his power remained dormant the past two months but after this morning and hearing Schuldig say their link couldn’t be broken, it was time to do something. No matter how much he detested his power, it had to be able to do something good for *him* for once. Reaching inside himself for the faint spark of heat, he concentrated until he felt surrounded and bound by infinite threads. All the green threads connecting him to Schuldig was disturbing but he forced himself to focus and attempted to sever those threads. As soon as he mentally touched one, something deep inside flared in protectiveness and rage, overwhelming him with pain until his concentration shattered, the world around him replaced with a myriad of colors that bled into darkness.

He came to and found himself slumped over the table, Schu kneeling beside him and keeping him from falling onto the floor. "Here, drink this," he said and held the coffee to Aya’s lips. "What the hell were you thinking?"

The warm drink helped with the sudden chill that engulfed Aya. He shivered slightly and tried to sit up straight but needed Schuldig’s help. He felt a flash of annoyance at that but most of the anger was directed at himself. What a damned fool he was. It hadn’t been Schuldig striking at him for trying to sever the connection but his own power. It figured that the one time he tried to use the damned thing, it turned on him. No wonder he didn’t trust it.

<I wasn’t lying, Aya. On one level at least, you were willing and the link was forged.> Schuldig stroked a hand through Aya’s hair, the touch soothing his aching head. <Is it so bad to think that you’ll never be alone? To know that there will always be someone thinking about you, worried about your welfare? I’ll always be there, in the back of your mind.>

<I can’t trust you,> Aya pointed out, suddenly weary now that the pain lessened. He sent images through their link: Schuldig standing above him as he crouched by his sister’s unconscious and wounded body, Yohji thrusting into him, his body wracked with pain and tied with thin wire, the pain and confusion he felt upon waking up from the special dreams….

<It’s always the negative things with you, precious,> Schuldig complained as new images flooded Aya’s mind. Of Schuldig promising to never involve Aya-chan in their personal conflict as long as he wasn’t ordered to do anything to the girl, of the whispered directions that helped Aya flee the burning Aoba grounds, leaving behind his dead team, of Schuldig keeping Dr. Arai out of his mind…. <You know you can trust me when I give you my word. I don’t want to hurt you, Aya.>

Aya shoved aside the hand combing through his hair. "Yet you constantly do, Schu." His anger melted into weariness as more images filled his mind, of Schuldig’s childhood. He knew the telepath had only done what he was trained and ordered to do but it was still Aya’s life that had been destroyed, his and the lives of those he loved. Maybe he couldn’t do anything about the link and his traitorous emotions but he wouldn’t forgive Schuldig simply because he had a shitty childhood. Welcome to the club.

"You’re such a mean-spirited bastard," Schuldig muttered with annoyance as he returned to his seat.

"This from the man who wreaks merry havoc with my life because he’s bored, regularly tries to sabotage my relationship with Yohji and has yet to find a mind he doesn’t want to mess up." Aya realised that he was still sipping Omi’s coffee, the drink now almost gone, and grimaced. "Get on with whatever it was that brought you here and leave me alone." He braced himself for taunts about his relationship with Yohji and his teammates, and the comments about him being just as much of a freak as Schuldig and the rest of Schwarz.

Schuldig pouted and, once again, Aya caught the sensation of hurt feelings. "I get the distinct impression that I’m not being appreciated." When Aya began to growl in anger, he smiled and snatched back the coffee. "I really did mean for this to be a nice little visit, honest. I hoped you cooled off a little over the last two months and we wouldn’t have to resort to the usual threats and mental coercion but…," he shrugged and finished the drink. "Things never go as planned when you’re involved."

Aya was well acquainted with the feeling. "Get on with it," he snapped.

"All right. Now that you know that your dreams are more than mental fancies, I can tell you not to trust Cassandra. You know, the crazy woman with the garden?" Schuldig grunted when Aya gave a curt nod.

"That’s it? Aren’t you going to tell me how Yohji’s going to break my heart or that I can’t trust my teammates?" Aya asked, surprised.

Schuldig rose from his seat and stood in front of Aya. "No, not this time." He leaned forward, one hand on the table and the other on the back of Aya’s chair. "They may have been dreams, Aya, but they were based on the truth. You’ll find out soon enough who’s always going to be there for you and who’s not." He leaned forward and kissed Aya, who for a moment was stunned by how nice it felt. Then he came to his senses and tried to shove Schuldig away but the bastard was too quick. Laughing as if highly amused, Schuldig waved goodbye and, within seconds, was gone from the café.

Left sitting at the table, Aya threaded his fingers through his hair and tugged on the strands. Gods, what that man did to him…. Schu thought that things never went the way he planned during their meetings? Aya was filled with disgust over the fact that he had his enemy nearby yet again and wasn’t able to do a damned thing, link or no link. It was turning out to be a spectacularly shitty day.

On top of it all was the fact that he was left stranded. Omi had driven off in *his* car. For a moment Aya debated if he should call the Koneko and have Yohji pick him up but he didn’t want to remain here any longer in case Schu had any more surprises for him. Drinking his tea to wash the taste of the sweet coffee out of his mouth, he walked out of the café and toward the nearest subway station.

*******

Yohji smiled when he heard Aya’s Porsche pull into the garage. He rose from the kitchen table and headed for the sink with his dirty coffee mug. He was all recharged now and his lover was home, it was time to return to their bedroom and enjoy what was left of their day off. He couldn’t wait. The building had only warmed a few degrees during the day so Aya would be more than eager to curl back up in bed. They’d have to do something to stay warm….

The door opened to reveal Omi, his arms filled with grocery bags. Ah, that explained why he and Aya were almost an hour late. "Here, Chibi, let me help you with those." Yohji snagged most of the bags, his stomach growling as he smelled food. The next time Ken went shopping, he was tattooing the grocery list on that idiot’s hand.

"Thanks, Yohji-kun. I’ll be back in a minute with the rest of them." Omi turned around and returned to the garage. Staring after him for a moment and waiting for Aya to walk into the kitchen, Yohji shrugged after a few seconds and set the bags on the counter. His lover was probably making sure Omi didn’t scratch the car while he fetched the last of the bags.

He was understandably confused when Omi returned a minute later, once again burdened with several very full plastic bags and kicked the door shut behind him. "There, that’s the last of them. I should be able to make something for us to eat now." He smiled at Yohji, the expression faltering after a moment. "Yohji?"

"Where’s Aya?" Yohji asked as he crossed the room and opened the door to the garage. The lights were out and there was no sound coming from the dark room. "Aya?" No response.

"I didn’t see him down there," Omi said as he put away the groceries. "Is that fresh coffee? I’ve been dying for a cup for the last hour."

Yohji stared at Omi for a moment and wondered if he was still sleeping. Maybe this was some weird dream or more likely one of the damned nightmares again. Maybe Asuka would jump out at any moment and die at his feet, come back to life as some rotting pile of flesh and tease him about Aya being lost forever. "Uhm, Omi… he’s supposed to be with you, remember?"

In the process of putting Ken’s sport drinks in the fridge, Omi turned around and stared. "What are you talking about? I had to do a few errands today so Aya loaned me his car. He stayed home with you."

"No, he didn’t." Yohji started to panic. One of his nightmares seemed to be coming true. If this was a joke he’d kill Omi as soon as he calmed down. "You came into our bedroom to remind him about checking out Horri’s fucking pots and he left with you. You were supposed to be back an hour ago, dammit. Where the fuck is he?" This wasn’t happening. It had to be a bad joke.

Omi just stared at Yohji, his mouth opening to speak but nothing came out. His eyes glazed over and he clutched at his head. "Oh! Oh, no. We… we saw the pots and told Horri-san that we’d try selling a dozen for starters. They should be here on Wednesday. Then Aya and I talked about what to make for dinner and realized we didn’t have any food at home…."

Yohji grabbed his friend by the shoulders and shook him, Omi’s head snapped back and forth several times. "What the hell happened then? Where is he?"

Omi now appeared as frantic as Yohji felt. "I asked him to go get us some coffee because he always hates waiting in line. But… I went out to the car and was so sure he was at home! I swear I didn’t think he was waiting for me!" Omi wailed.

Mastermind. It has to the Bastard’s fault. Omi wouldn’t just forget about Aya like that and drive off in his car. Hell, Aya almost *never* let anyone else drive his car let alone lend it out. "It’s not your fault, Omi. Mastermind must have fucked with your thoughts." What the hell did he do with Aya? With horrible images flashing through his mind, Yohji released Omi and ran to the phone, desperately praying that Aya had his cell and wasn’t being hurt or violated. After the phone went into voicemail, Yohji cursed and punched the wall.

"-sorry, I’m so sorry, Yohji. I didn’t mean to leave him there. I didn’t know. I’m sorry, I really-"

Pushing away from the wall, Yohji gripped Omi’s shoulder with his sore hand and squeezed gently. "It’s not your fault, Omittchi. The Bastard messed with your head. I’m… I’m sure Aya’s fine." He tried to smile and reassure the distraught teen but all he could think about were his nightmares. Aya couldn’t be gone, he couldn’t. Yohji couldn’t take losing him like Asuka, never to see his lover again or know what happened to him.

Omi sniffed and wiped his nose with the sleeve of his shirt. "Let’s go back to the store. Maybe Aya’s still there."

"Yeah, good thinking." Yohji released him and ran upstairs for his cellphone and jacket. A quick check showed there were no messages from Aya. Once he was ready he ran to the garage, his car keys in hand. He didn’t want to think what they’d do if Aya wasn’t in the shopping center. Instead, he imagined that Aya was still there, probably furious that his car was missing. There was no reason for him not to be. Mastermind could have snatched Yohji’s lover at any time over the years, why would he do so now?

Tearing out of the garage, the roar of Seven’s engine rumbling in his ears, Yohji debated telling Omi to call Ken but didn’t see what good it would be to panic the man, not when Aya was waiting for them…. "How long ago did you leave the store?"

"Huh?" Omi, his face tight with worry, glanced over at Yohji. "The store? About forty minutes ago. I wasn’t in a hurry and there was an accident on the way home so it took me longer than usual." He clutched at the dashboard as Yohji took a turn a bit too fast. "Yohji, I’m so sorry."

"Omi, shut the hell up." Yohji immediately regretted the harsh words when his friend paled and started picking at the cuffs of his sweatshirt. "I know you’re sorry, Chibi." He tousled Omi’s hair and managed a very weak smile. "It wasn’t your fault so stop worrying and think about what you’re going to say to Aya when we see him. He’s going to be pissed as hell about the car."

Omi smiled back, the expression as feeble as his. "I’ll probably have to detail it for him the next few months to make up for it." He fell silent as they raced toward the store. "Why would Mastermind do something now?"

"I don’t know," Yohji sighed as he ran another red light. He reminded himself to call Mickey later and have the American change a few accident reports after he heard the sounds of multiple impacts behind him. "Maybe because we’re happy." Mastermind must be pissed as hell to feel how content Aya was, with him no less. Or maybe it had something to do with the fucking link. Whatever the reason, if the Bastard snatched Aya, he was going to have one hell of a fight on his hands.

Omi grunted and that was the last of the conversation until they reached the shopping center. Not giving a damn about tickets, Yohji parked in the ‘no parking lane’ right next to the curb and jumped out of the car with Omi right behind him. He attracted a few odd looks when he practically ripped the café’s door off its hinges and pushed into the crowded shop. A quick scan didn’t reveal any redheads other than a group of teenaged girls sitting at one of the tables.

"Maybe he went to the store to look for me," Omi said and they rushed next door. Yohji swore out loud when he saw the crowd of people doing their weekend shopping and was about to start running up and down the aisles when his cell phone rang. Omi slammed into his back when he came to a sudden halt. Yohji snatched the phone from his coat’s pocket and felt his knees quiver when he recognized the Koneko’s phone number. If this was Ken calling about his kids winning a soccer game, he was going to kill the jock. "Aya?"

"Yohji? Where are you?" It was Aya, a bit annoyed from the sound of it. Yohji thought his legs would give way as relief crashed through him and he leaned against a display of fruit juices.

"I’m at the fucking grocery store, where you’re supposed to be!" he yelled. "Where the hell are you?"

There was a slight pause on the other end while Omi babbled questions in his ear. "I’m. At. Home," Aya replied, his voice cold enough to make Yohji shiver. "Where you’re supposed to be."

Telling his brain that now would be a good time to start working, Yohji took a deep breath and shoved Omi away. "Well, I was at home, until Omi showed up without you. Why the hell didn’t you call, Aya? Do you have any idea how much…." He jerked his hand through his hair and sighed. Yelling at Aya over the phone wasn’t going to do any good.

There was a long sigh on the other end of the line and when Aya spoke, his voice was no longer cold and irritated but sounded exhausted instead. "I didn’t have my cell phone and I just wanted to get home. Besides, I didn’t want you to come get me in case…."

"In case a certain bastard was still waiting around?"

"Yes. I’m not going to talk about that over the phone. Come home, Yohji."

He didn’t need to be told twice. "We’re on our way." For a moment he debated telling Aya to remain there but didn’t want to push things. "Give us fifteen minutes," he said as he started for the store’s exit, Omi practically jumping up and down beside him.

Aya actually chuckled, the sound weak but still warming to hear. "Make it twenty minutes, Yotan. I’m not explaining to your fans how you died in a car accident so take it slow."

Switching the phone to his other hand so he could fetch his keys, Yohji laughed in turn. "That is me taking it slow. We made it to the store in ten minutes flat." Aya snorted at that statement and hung up.

"I think this afternoon took ten years off my life," Omi mumbled as he fastened his seatbelt. "He’s all right?"

"Yeah, it sounds that way." Yohji pulled out in front of a small car and into traffic. "It was Mastermind. He didn’t want to say too much over the phone but he confirmed that."

Weaving in and out of traffic, half the time in the wrong lane, he sped back to the Koneko. Aya sounded tired but, considering he’d just had a run-in with Mastermind, pretty together. Now to get home and see if there were any ‘bombs’ left this time. He didn’t think he could take it if Aya started blaming him again, not without feeling an overwhelming impulse to murder every redheaded foreigner he came across. All because he couldn’t kill the one responsible since it would hurt Aya.

********

Omi had to stretch his legs to keep up with Yohji, for the hundred thousandth time cursing whatever genes had decided he was going to spend his life as a short person. He was stressed from the whole Mastermind thing and two very harrowing drives with Yohji, not to mention the fear that he was responsible for something happening to a teammate. He couldn’t relax until he saw that Aya was all right.

Entering the kitchen a few seconds behind Yohji, he came to a halt and leaned against the sink, his body slowly relaxing. Aya was definitely home and looked to be in good shape. That might change in the next few minutes if Yohji didn’t let him breathe but right now, he was fine.

It took the couple a few minutes to come up for air and for once Aya didn’t yell at Yohji for the passionate display of affection. He dug his fingers into Yohji’s hair and leaned against him, their mouths only centimeters apart as they both breathed. Yohji’s arms settled around his lover’s waist as they just looked at each other.

Omi didn’t want to break the silence but he wasn’t sure how long they’d end up standing like that if he didn’t. "Ayan, are you all right?"

There was one more kiss, this time brief, and then Aya looked at him over Yohji’s shoulder. "Yes."

"Eloquent as ever, kitten," Yohji snorted as he pulled out a chair, sat down and yanked Aya onto his lap. He was glared at for his audacity but Aya didn’t put up a struggle but instead made himself comfortable there, straddling Yohji’s legs and facing each other again. "What the hell happened?" Yohji asked as he brushed back shaggy crimson bangs.

Aya tilted his face into the caress. "I’m not sure myself. He showed up as I was leaving the café and…." He shook his head, his mouth twisted in disgust. "It’s always mind games with him, I can never figure out what he’s after. He wanted to see if I was still mad at him and to tell me that the link," he said the word as if it was a foul curse, "was permanent."

As Yohji did some real cursing at the news, Omi poured himself a cup of coffee and thought about what had happened. He couldn’t believe that Mastermind went through the effort of tampering with his mind just to see if Aya was still upset with him… but had to admit that it had been two months since the telepath had seen his teammate and may have looked for any excuse to pay Aya a visit. Beside, maybe it wasn’t any effort at all for Mastermind to mess with Omi’s head. That thought made him grimace. No, it might be no trouble at all for ‘the Bastard’ if he could create a link with Aya which forced them to suffer each other’s wounds.

Omi glanced back at his teammates and found the couple engrossed in each other. He felt a pang of jealousy when Aya wrapped his arms around Yohji’s neck and leaned closer. Yohji whispered something in his ear but Omi couldn’t make out what. He watched the two of them for a moment. Aya seemed rather calm after seeing Mastermind, perhaps too calm after the way he refused to let any of them mention the telepath’s name for the past two months. But at least he appeared to have it ‘together’, a state that normally eluded him after a run-in with Mastermind. Omi had to admit that it was a welcome change, although not as much as Aya grabbing his katana with the intent of tracking Schwarz down and killing them all. While the dreams had stopped they still left their impact on Aya, or maybe it was the link. Omi didn’t like to think that there would be any other surprises for them other than Aya suffering Mastermind’s injuries.

He finished the slightly bitter coffee and poured himself some more. "I guess I’ll call Mickey and ask him to doctor the reports of all the accidents Yohji caused getting to the store," he said to no one in particular.

It seemed Aya was still a little aware of something other than his lover. "Don’t bother, I already did that while I was waiting for you to come home. He sounded busy but said he’d take care of them right away." His look turned distant as if he was seeing something that wasn’t there - at least until Yohji gently pushed him off his lap and he started to glare.

"Thanks. We’ll probably owe him some arrangements for the favor." Yohji smiled at Omi as he nudged Aya toward the door. "I think I need to go lie down after all that stress. Save us some dinner, okay Chibi?"

"Sure thing, Yotan." Omi smiled at Aya, who was practically being dragged upstairs. It looked like Yohji was going to make certain Aya didn’t disappear on him again any time soon. "I’m sorry, Ayan." For a moment he debated mentioning that he’d been extra careful with the Porsche but thought it best to remain quiet and not piss off his friend.

"It wasn’t your fault." There was a glimmer of anger in Aya’s eyes for a moment, the emotion changing to irritation when Yohji just about yanked him off his feet. "Let go," he hissed at his boyfriend while trying to pull his arm free.

"Bed. Now," Yohji answered, and Aya’s retort was lost as they left the room. Omi watched them go, his jealousy grew as he thought about how he’d have to take a tray of food up to them later. Considering the gleam in Yohji’s eyes, those two weren’t even going to leave their room for supper. He couldn’t blame his friend, though. Not after the scare they had today.

What were the chances of Mastermind paying Aya a visit after a morning when Aya spoke German and took up, albeit rather briefly, smoking? Omi wondered about that as he made a fresh pot of coffee and started gathering ingredients for dinner. He was certain there was a connection but knew better than to ask his reticent teammate. However, it was a matter he’d have to pay close attention to, for the good of the team. With Weiß being unable to strike at Mastermind, they were already at a disadvantage, even if Schwarz would also have to avoid hurting Aya in return.

He gave up on such worrisome thoughts as he tried to figure out how much to make for dinner. He knew that Aya was hungry since he hadn’t eaten much today and his stomach had been rumbling while they shopped. Taking into the account the lack of food at home, Yohji had to be in the same straits. Ken was always starved after a day spent with his kids, especially a cold one like today so he better make enough for second and even third helpings.

Ken…. Omi smiled as he filled the rice cooker. Last night was so nice, cuddling with Ken as they watched movies. There had been a kiss at the end and even though Ken pulled away first, he didn’t seem to regret it. Ken didn’t act odd around him this morning before leaving the house and even told Omi he’d be back for a late dinner. Things were finally going in the right direction for once.

A pessimistic voice that Omi refused to listen to whispered that, if things were going so well, it was past time for something to go wrong.

*******

Cassandra smoothed her hand along the lace cloth draped over the small table. A bouquet of white and crimson roses sat on the open windowsill, their perfume filled the stone cottage. Scattered candles illuminated what the fading sun didn’t, the flames refracting off the shiny, red strands woven into the dark cloak in the corner.

She rested her right hand on top of the deck of cards and focused her thoughts. With the crossroads so near at hand, her power was more and more unreliable, all because of the catalyst. She could see enough to ensure that one of her wishes came true and precious little else so she turned to the cards for help. Now to choose a pattern….

"A star for a star child?" she mused but then shook her head. "No, that won’t do nor will the cross. Nor threes, too many of them already." She thought a little longer before her hands started shuffling the cards. "Yes, consequences it is. Consequences of the star child’s choice." Her hands stilled. "No, not Death but the Knight. This time, all hinges on the Knight."

She finished shuffling the cards and set them on the table in a pattern, seven of them. First was the Chariot, signifying the Knight being pulled in two directions. "Death and the Erinyes, present and past." She hoped Kudoh remembered that the past could never be reclaimed and chose accordingly. Beside that card she set the Fool and frowned. There should be no leap of faith needed, his course should already be certain. The next card was revealed as the Five of Pentacles. Again, the past rearing its head, a tale of loss. "She’s gone, gone, gone. Don’t be fooled by the revenant," she whispered.

Below the Chariot, the Lovers card was placed. "Of course there’s a choice. Bah, foolish cards, tell me what I don’t know!" She tapped the portrait of a young couple and snorted. She sucked in her breath when she spied the Star, the card’s meaning twofold. The Knight had a chance at a happy future, had the potential of Death forever at his side but did he see it? Recalling her visions and some of the things she’d set in motion, she moaned and rocked back and forth in her chair. The potential was there… as it would be if she was doing the Magician’s spread. Her actions ensured that, to guarantee her revenge.

The next card was the Moon. Her fingers traced one of the buildings gracing the card. "Revenant. False illusion. Pain from the past to influence the Knight’s decision. But how strong?" She worried about the revealed card as images flooded her mind. Fluctuation indeed, and madness. The question remained how much madness? How badly would the Erinyes scar the Knight?

The final card turned out to be the Tower. No matter what happened, change was inevitable. Things wouldn’t be the same. Would the new order be strong enough to face the future or would it crumble at the next crossroads? No matter how hard she pushed her talent, she could not be certain. All she could hope for was a foundation solid enough to survive the turmoil ahead for the Knight and Death. Something that would remain beneath their feet as they faced their trials, together and alone.

She stared at the cards until the candles sputtered, their wicks almost gone. Realizing how late it was, she walked away from the cards and prepared for bed. She needed her rest so she could stay on top of the rapidly changing events.

As she started to put out the candles, Cassandra noticed that the wind picked up, rushing through the open window and whirling around the small cottage. The roses trembled before the breeze but didn’t give up any petals. No, the fragile, almost white petals that settled on top of the cards were from the cherry trees outside. As she watched, several cards fluttered from the deck, the Knight of Cups landed on top of the Moon, Death and the Magician slid to rest on the Lovers. She stood there staring as the wind slowly blew out all the candles.

*******

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