Crossroads

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chapter seven

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Sitting on the cement ledge around the Koneko’s roof, Yohji stared at the cloudy night sky and inhaled more cigarette smoke. He felt utterly hollow and worn out inside, felt that there were no emotions left but pain and remorse. Despite his best efforts, he’d failed both Asuka and Aya yet again when all he wanted was to help them both. Once again, the blood of someone he loved was on his hands. Cursing softly, he threw the cigarette aside and glared at his hands. With them he had killed Asuka merely a few hours ago, pulling on his wire until her neck snapped.

As he sat there, lost in disgust and self-hatred, the roof’s door opened and closed. When he didn’t hear any footsteps, he knew that it was Aya who braved coming here and almost laughed. Since returning home from the mission he’d done his best to avoid Aya, desperate not hear how much of a failure he was and how much he’d let his lover down.

There was a scuffled sound and then Aya sat next to him, wrapped in a thick wool coat that Yohji realized after a moment was one of his. Funny, he didn’t feel cold now. He didn’t feel much of anything but agony, to be exact….

"Omi’s fine. The antidote that Mickey dropped off seems to have done its job," Aya remarked, his voice cold and quiet.

Yohji felt a stab of guilt at how he’d forgotten about his teammate’s condition. But he hadn’t been able to do more than make sure that Omi and Ken got safely home before he had to leave, driven from the Koneko by internal demons. He’d done little more than change out of his mission clothes before he fled.

"That’s good." His throat was still sore from screaming Asuka’s name so the words came out in a barely-coherent rasp. Smoking didn’t help matters any, but he needed the cigarettes’ calming effect. If he wasn’t so afraid of passing out and being left to the mercy of his nightmares, he would also be drunk as hell right now.

"Yes." There was an utter absence of warmth to Aya’s voice, and for the first time since he’d started sitting on the roof, Yohji shivered. "He wanted to begin a new search for Schreient but Ken made him get some rest instead," Aya continued. He didn’t seem to notice when Yohji cursed softly at the mention of… Asuka’s teammates.

Yohji’s memory was still a bit shaky on what had happened after… after he killed Asuka. He thought that Aya had disappeared for a few minutes, possibly to chase after Schreient as they fled, then had come back to practically drag him out of the warehouse. All he’d been aware of after that point was Aya as a warm presence by his side while Ken and Omi watched the warehouse burn until the fire department arrived to put out the flames. Then he’d been alone since Omi and Ken rode in Aya’s car back to the Koneko, and he… he couldn’t take the thought of waiting in his room for his lover to arrive, couldn’t take another fight over Asuka so he fled before Aya finished patching their two roommates up.

"What am I supposed to do now?" He whispered the question that had been on his mind for the last hour or so. How was he going to make things right? He’d let Aya down, had let Omi and Ken down as well.

The question hadn’t been meant for him but Aya answered anyway. "You can get your ass down from the roof," Aya snapped in annoyance. "There are things that we need to do right now and you sulking up here isn’t one of them."

Stung by the sharp comment, Yohji glared at the sky while he tapped another cigarette out of its pack. "Right, we have to track down Schreient and save your sister. She’s all that matters, after all. She’s the only one who deserves to be saved." The bitterness in his voice surprised him and, as much as he didn’t want to hurt his lover, he couldn’t find it in himself to apologize. There was still a chance to save Aya-chan… but Asuka was dead. He’d never be able to undo the damage that the bastard Masafumi did to her and give her a new life. There would be no escaping the guilt inside him or reversing the curse that took from him everyone he loved.

Aya’s body went stiff at the mention of his sister and Yohji waited for his lover to stand up, glare at him and stalk away. He still couldn’t apologize and part of him thought that it might be a very good thing if Aya left. If he wasn’t with Yohji then maybe he wouldn’t be hurt, wouldn’t have the life choked out of him by thin wire….

Just when it seemed that Aya’s anger got the better of him, he sighed heavily and hunched over instead, his hands clasped together between his legs and his gaze cast downward to the street below. "Are we really going to fight now?" he asked in such a quiet voice that at first Yohji wasn’t certain that he’d heard correctly.

Taking the chance that he wasn’t hearing the wrong thing, Yohji flicked his cigarette away and cautiously draped his right arm over Aya’s shoulders. He frowned when he felt the tension that still resided in his lover’s body. "I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly not in the mood to fight." His hand brushed up and down Aya’s right arm. "I’m sorry about your sister," he managed to say after a few seconds. He was, too. Maybe things wouldn’t hurt so much right now if he’d managed to save someone.

Aya sighed again and then slowly, almost tentatively, leaned against Yohji. "I don’t think she was ever there. So they’ve hidden her someplace else." His head rested against Yohji’s right shoulder, and Yohji couldn’t stop himself from tilting his head until his cheek rested against Aya’s head. Part of him waited for Aya to lash out over his failure but more than anything, he needed this contact, needed his lover. "You don’t… you don’t believe that Neu really was Asuka, do you?" Aya asked in a voice so soft and hesitant that it sounded like someone else’s.

Closing his eyes, Yohji slightly shook his head twice. "Please… I don’t want to talk about her." He truly didn’t. As afraid as he’d been that Aya would want nothing more to do with him after tonight, this felt too good to risk losing a fight over. He was willing to bet that Aya refused to think of Neu as Asuka while he still felt sure that they were one and the same. She’d remembered so much today…. He took in a deep breath and slowly let it out as he tried in vain to keep the hurt at bay.

All that mattered at the moment was that he and Aya were both alive and that Aya didn’t seem to hate him for his failure. He wasn’t foolish enough to think that everything was fine, not when Aya’s body had stiffened at his refusal to talk about Asuka, not after all that Yohji had done that day. But Aya had stood beside him after they had fled the warehouse and was here with him now. Maybe when the pain wasn’t so terrible and he had a chance of thinking straight, he’d try to figure out what he had to do in order to make things right once again.

They sat quietly for several minutes until Aya began to shiver violently. The motion shook Yohji from his reverie and he silently cursed himself when Aya hissed slightly in pain. Fuck, he’d been so lost in his misery that he’d forgotten about how the rest of Schreient had attacked his lover. Pressing a kiss against Aya’s head, he carefully swung his legs over the ledge and urged his lover to do the same. "Let’s go downstairs," he said, his arm once more wrapped around Aya’s shoulders. "I’m pretty tired." For a few seconds, it seemed that Aya was going to be stubborn and resist. Then he grunted softly and acquiesced.

"Only you would brood up on the roof when it’s so cold out," Aya grumbled as they made their way downstairs.

"What can I say, it requires less energy than killing imaginary enemies for hours on end in the exercise room," Yohji retorted in an almost wry tone. "If I’m gonna get all hot and sweaty, I’d rather it happen while I’m doing something much more fun." Even though his heart wasn’t in it, he exerted some effort to keep up the familiar role of the happy-go-lucky sybarite.

Aya let out another long sigh and gently nudged his elbow into Yohji’s ribs. "Not now, Yohji," he said quietly, and it wasn’t until then that Yohji realized that Aya’s voice was tight with pain.

"No, not now," Yohji quietly agreed. Not that he could fool around at a time like this anyway. Once they were inside their bedroom, he turned to face his lover, his hands burying themselves in Aya’s silky hair. "I love you," was all he said, but the words were heavy with emotion: love, concern, intent and a little bit of fear. While he felt that his actions that day had been entirely justified, he didn’t want Aya to believe that Yohji didn’t love him any more. All that kept Yohji going right now was the fact that Aya hadn’t shut him out. "I do."

His eyes closed as if he was lost in agony, Aya shivered minutely and then leaned forward to rest his forehead against Yohji’s shoulder. "The moment I feel that you no longer do, I’ll be gone, Yohji." Yet he stayed there.

Heartened for the first time in hours, Yohji carefully enfolded his injured lover in his arms. "I’m so sorry, Aya. All I wanted was to get your sister back and to give Asuka her-"

"No, Yohji." Aya’s sharp voice cut off his chance to explain things. "You’re right, we shouldn’t… talking about *her* right now won’t do us any good." There was little doubt which woman Aya was referring to, and even though he’d argued the same thing minutes before, Yohji felt saddened and a bit rebuffed. No, all was not forgiven, not entirely, but Aya allowed Yohji to hold him and press a kiss against his temple so there was some hope.

Still, Yohji would feel a lot better if Aya said that he loved him as well. Left with a sickening thought that he might have done their relationship some serious damage in an effort to assuage his guilt, he closed his eyes for a moment and cursed himself. Even now, after everything was finished, he still couldn’t figure out why he’d acted so desperately today. Why did he seem incapable of any logical thought until *after* the fact?

All he wanted was for the nightmares to end and for the people he loved to be happy. Yet Asuka was dead and Aya was hurt, both physical and emotional. Mentally berating himself again, Yohji promised that he’d do whatever he had to in order to get Aya-chan back for his lover. Maybe he’d have to live with guilt and fear for the rest of his life, but if Aya was happy and reunited with his sister, he could bear it.

Pulling away slightly, he dredged up a smile and brushed back the hair falling onto Aya’s face. "How are you doing?" he asked as he examined the bruises visible on his lover’s pale skin. Aya’s bottom lip was a bit swollen and his left jaw puffy, his right eye shadowed by more than just exhaustion.

Aya glared and raised his right fist as if to bat Yohji’s hands aside before he let out a slow breath and barely shook his head. "A bit sore but nothing serious. How… how about you?"

Touched by the concern he heard in his lover’s voice, Yohji managed a more heartfelt smile this time. "Basically the same." What hurt the most was his heart but there wasn’t much he could do about it.

Grunting again, Aya glanced downward for a few seconds and then looked him in the eye. "I’m tired," he stated, his voice betraying no emotion other than exhaustion.

"So am I." Stepping away from his lover, Yohji shrugged off his vest then pulled off his shirt. Aya moved more slowly as he first removed his heavy jacket then one of Yohji’s sweaters that he wore beneath it.

Once he was naked, Yohji slid beneath the covers and Aya joined him after pulling on some sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Not the least bit romantically inclined, Yohji nevertheless spooned behind his lover’s back, desperate to merely hold Aya close and know that he was safe. Aya tensed for a moment but then relaxed, hugging Yohji’s arm around his chest. "I’m not going anywhere," he said, his deep voice quiet and serious.

It wasn’t the declaration of love that Yohji hoped for, but it was just as good. In fact, it was exactly what Yohji needed to hear right now. Everything was so screwed up; the both of them were obviously in a lot of pain but at least they were together. He figured that as long as Aya remained, he’d have a chance to fix things eventually. Maybe there’d been no real hope to save Asuka, but he wouldn’t allow himself to fail Aya.

*******

Staring down at the body of a homeless man, Schuldig took a deep breath and sought to control his temper. Literally turning the unlucky man’s brain into mush with a vicious telepathic assault helped to rein in his anger, but it took a few more minutes before he felt that his emotions were even remotely stable.

The mere thought of what had set him off, of what Balinese had done tonight, almost caused his temper to flare back to life but he put years of arduous training to use and subdued it. He could control himself when he needed to - or so he liked to think. And tonight, he definitely needed that control. If he gave in to his impulses and destroyed Balinese’s brain just like the unfortunate bastard at his feet, he’d ruin everything.

Yet, as messed up things were, oddly enough he still felt that there was a spark of hope. True, the man-whore was supposed to have protected Neu from both her teammates and Weiss, indicating to Aya that Balinese loved the woman more than he loved Aya. In none of the visions that Aya’s talent had shown him of the future had Balinese killed Neu instead, but what was done was done. He could lash out at Balinese and risk everything or try to think things through and find something to use to his advantage.

Even as he told himself that, the only thing that kept him from going on a murder spree that started with a certain man-whore was that he could smell cherry blossoms when he closed his eyes. If he focused on the scent, he could feel the soft petals fall on his skin right before Aya kissed him. He’d kept a tight check on his tuberose’s power tonight to make sure that Aya didn’t try to change things, and it still whispered to him of the approaching future. Whatever had happened tonight, Aya’s power still believed that he’d one day be Schuldig’s; as long as it yearned for them to be together in the future, they would be.

Nudging the tip of his left foot against the body, Schuldig shoved his hands into his coat’s pockets and began to whistle. He already had the suspicion that Cassandra was meddling where she shouldn’t, and perhaps that was the reason behind tonight’s outcome. By all rights he should barge into her pathetic dream world and tear it to pieces before he did the same to her mind but he merely began to stroll through Ueno Park instead.

So Crawford’s vision was the true one after all, he mused as he wandered leisurely down a darkened path. No wonder Crawford had seemed so certain that Aya wouldn’t be Schuldig’s for some time to come. Smiling with malicious humor, Schuldig contemplated Aya’s softly murmuring power and wondered if the old witch’s actions hadn’t done something to ensure that Crawford’s vision came true and not hers. He highly doubted that it was the intended effect. He would deal with her eventually but as he walked beneath the bare branches of numerous cherry trees, he could smell their fragrant flowers. That helped him to resist the rage that, despite his best efforts, still simmered inside.

Quick use of Schuldig’s talent revealed that the man-whore was torn between guilt and pain over Neu’s death and gratitude that he hadn’t quite managed to push Aya way… well, not yet. Schuldig immediately broke off the contact before he did something that would drive Aya away from him for good. As for Aya…. Reveling in the feel of his heart’s mind, for once he didn’t allow the love that Aya felt toward Balinese bother him too much, not when that fragile emotion was still tempered by doubts. Even though Balinese had killed the bitch in the end, he had waited an awfully long time and allowed Aya to be hurt. And Balinese was obviously affected by her death, something that shouldn’t matter since she was undoubtedly the enemy.

The dreams of the previous months still had some effect on Aya, Schuldig noted with glee. Maybe Aya wasn’t sitting brokenhearted all alone on his old bed while Balinese was with Neu, but things weren’t that much better. In fact, Schuldig had to admit – even though he hated to do so – that maybe things had turned out for the best this way. There had always been the danger of Aya shattering over Balinese’s betrayal but that didn’t seem as likely with this new development.

Schuldig could come up with a better plan after a bit of careful thought and some regrouping. Whistling a cheerful tune, he allowed his thoughts to delve deeper into Aya’s mind. As always, it felt so good… and if he didn’t do something stupid like lashing out as the old witch most likely hoped he would, things would be fine. The stupid bitch mustn’t know about Crawford’s vision and Schuldig’s knowledge of it. He chuckled softly at the thought and tried ineffectively to push aside the rest of his anger. There was some annoyance over the fact that he owed Crawford for sharing the vision, as in if he hadn’t known about it then he would most likely have destroyed Balinese’s mind and forced his claim on Aya – even if it led to disaster. He wasn’t going to give up on Aya or let anyone else have him for much longer… he just had to wait a bit more.

Everyone believed that Schuldig was too impetuous, too focused just on just his immediate wants. He’d done little over the years to dissuade people of that impression and while it had mostly been fun, he’d done it for a reason. After all, when someone underestimated him, he held the advantage.

And he also had Aya’s power, as chained as it was. He would focus on that fact and do the unexpected for once. He would prove to everyone that he could be patient when he wanted, that he wasn’t a spoiled child. Because when everything was said and done, he’d have Aya. Aya would come to him willingly - not because he had no other choice - wanting Schuldig just as much as he longed for his heart.

A warm thrill shivered its way through his body and made him smile. He’d have a willing Aya, something that was much, much better than a broken one. That wasn’t something that he thought would have really mattered but he found that it truly did. For some unknown reason, it just wasn’t enough to possess the man but to have Aya welcome that possession.

So Schuldig would go back home and wait to see what happened next. He was certain about one thing; Schwarz would move against Schreient very soon. While he should be worried about Aya’s reaction to his sister’s abduction, he actually felt rather calm. He’d purposely reminded his heart about their agreement back in the coffee shop, and having the brain-dead twit in his possession might actually bring Aya to heel a bit. Musing on that possibility, Schuldig slowly made his way home.

*******

Cassandra walked cautiously through her garden, wary of the evil one appearing out of nowhere. She’d felt his rage earlier and his shock that the Knight had killed the revenant. Now it should only be a matter of time now before he paid her a visit.

Walking past the weeping willow tree, she broke off a branch and stripped it bare of leaves. She used it as a switch, lightly slapping it against her thigh as she traveled down worn stone paths. The garden was so quiet, almost unnaturally so. Although it was a dreamscape, there were usually sounds of waves and wind, of small animals and insects and birds. She didn’t like silence.

Yet even the waves seemed muted this evening. Something or someone must be influencing her garden, she thought with growing concern. Wondering if the star child had come to pay her a visit, Cassandra hurried to the rosebush.

Her heart stopped when she stepped around the oak tree and saw a slender figure stroking the petals of a white and red bloom. Instead of the tall, crimson-haired catalyst there stood a child on the cusp of womanhood. Her long, light brown hair fell down her back in two braids, her skin a healthy, golden tone so unlike the star child’s paleness. She’d never seen this child before. How had the girl breached her dreams?

"Go away," she warned in a ferocious tone as she approached the rosebush, her fists clenched at her side. "You’re not welcome here, whoever you are." Had the cruel ones sent the girl to spy on her? The brat would find nothing. She readied her power to lash out at the girl, to send her fleeing in pain from the garden.

Yet when the girl looked up from the rose she was holding, Cassandra felt her gathered power simply vanish. Pale blue eyes regarded her coolly, containing more pain, wisdom and understanding than she could comprehend.

The willow switch fell from her trembling hand. "Who are you?" She didn’t think the cruel ones had sent this girl. No, not girl. The only thing she was certain of was that the image of the very young woman before her was an illusion, much like her own appearance.

"I won’t tell you my name," the visitor answered in German. "You should know better than to even ask." She bent down to sniff the bloom cupped between her fingers and then stood straight to face Cassandra as her hand abandoned the rose. "Call me what you will, it matters little to me."

Cassandra, suddenly cold, wrapped her arms around her chest. The way her heart beat frantically against her ribs, she almost felt as if her arms were the only thing holding the organ in place. "What do you want?" she whispered, her voice fainter than her own thundering heartbeat.

Yet the visitor heard the question. The ‘girl’ cocked her head to the side as if considering something. "So much of the upcoming future had its conception here. I thought it worth my while to pay this garden a visit." Small hands smoothed down a pale yellow shirt decades out of fashion. "You’ve done many things here that you shouldn’t have." The ‘girl’s’ voice was thick with reproach.

Stung out of her fear by that statement, Cassandra’s eyes narrowed in anger while the wind picked up slightly as it reacted to her emotions. "I’ve done what I needed to do. If you don’t like my actions, why don’t you leave?"

The ‘girl’ laughed, the sound half melancholy and half bitter. "You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Poor seeress, you don’t care for unwelcome guests." Despite the blowing wind, the air around her and the rosebush remained calm. "You haven’t done what was needed, you’ve only done what you want. There will be a price to pay for your greed and thoughtlessness," she chided.

"I’m not the one Fate is making pay for my sins. It’s the cruel ones whose time has come. They will pay for what they’ve done," Cassandra replied, her voice as cold as her visitor’s.

There was another dark laugh. "Oh, you mean they’re to pay for what they’ve done to *you*." For a moment the ‘girl’s’ face seemed older, worn down by sorrow and madness. "I know about your past, about your pain." For the first time since their meeting, the ‘girl’ seemed sympathetic. "I suffered much the same that you did and even greater indignities. I was raped and beaten, forced to bear a child so they could preserve my bloodline." Her brilliant eyes swam with tears but her voice was calm. "The madness came upon me early, a constant companion to such agony. I was never more than a pawn, even worse than you." The tears vanished, to be replaced with a look of intense, cold resolve. "Yet I never wished my fate on another. I never willingly handed someone else over to be enslaved and crushed. *You* did," the ‘girl’ spat out in disgust.

Cassandra flinched at the words that struck deep into her personal wellspring of guilt. "I’m but one of many *they’ve* harmed," she found herself trying to explain, as if she were the child here. "The world will be better once they’re dead and gone. As for the star child," she motioned toward the rosebush, certain that was whom the ‘girl’ talked about, "I’ve kept him hidden and safe."

The ‘girl’ snorted while she stood protectively in front of the roses. "You’ll justify your abuse of power however you need to, all for revenge. Listen to me, *it will get you nowhere*," she said, voice heavy with intent. "New abusers will take the place of the old, new atrocities will be committed each day that make the past ones pale. I know of what I speak, more so than you can ever imagine." There was another flash of what might be the ‘girl’s’ true age, decades older than the image she currently projected.

Who was this woman? Cassandra felt more and more uneasy each time her visitor spoke. "They are an abomination."

"And they’ve crafted you well." The girl looked at her with sharp loathing. "You were the prophet this time, you were to safeguard the… star child. Your past suffering was to give you all the resolve you needed to keep the same from befalling him!" The ‘girl’s’ hands clenched around her pleated tan skirt as her face twisted with anger and her voice grew louder. "The times reflect on his kind, they always have! The madness of… of his predecessor could have been healed when he awakened to his power had he only been protected! Now it is too late, his heart too stained with darkness and death. His freedom gone, his power chained and bound! So much power and hope," the girl sobbed as if her heart were shattered," born to correct a great wrong and you’ve tainted him!" She let go of her skirt to hide her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking violently as she cried.

As great as Cassandra’s guilt had been before, it was doubled now. This ‘child’ knew things she shouldn’t, truths that Cassandra had done her best to hide. "I…" She desperately wanted to explain things, to offer reasons for her crimes. "It’s *their* fault, all of it. I’ve done what I could to keep him from their hands, to keep him safe. With their deaths much of the madness and pain will vanish."

The ‘girl’ sniffed and used the back of her left hand to wipe her nose as she glared with reddened eyes. "More excuses and falsehoods. You’ll justify your revenge however you can." She took a step from the rosebush and quickly halted, stepping back to remain between the flowers and Cassandra. "Your quest for vengeance has stripped you of all reason. The Elders are nothing more than figureheads. Their deaths will not stop the horror they’ve created." She paused for a moment and a hurtful expression quickly crossed her face. "I allowed his mother to be born so there would be one who would stand up to the true evil, who would purge the earth of it as long as he was alive. *I* took steps to correct the great wrongdoings, to keep this star child safe. All for nothing, now it seems." She glared even more potently at Cassandra, such a vitreous look at odds with her sweet, childish face.

"Power you were given, a burden and a gift. I’m sorry for your suffering but there are those who have paid more dearly than you can ever imagine for much less than you’ve received. You could have protected others from sharing your cruel fate but instead you’ve doomed them to the same." The ‘girl’s’ voice dripped with venom and disdain. "I have very little influence left, certainly not enough to undo the damage you’ve done – but enough to ensure that you pay some price for your selfishness. Maybe just enough to keep the world from sliding into madness once more." Her slender body began to shimmer, becoming less distinct the brighter she glowed.

"I will not have threats in my own garden!" Cassandra hissed, equal parts afraid and furious. She put up with stuff like this from the evil one only because he could give her the one thing she wanted; she wouldn’t do the same with this enigma. "I need neither those nor your ‘help’."

There was more laughter, sounding almost girlish but for the sad edge to it. "I offer no threats and little help. You led him to the crossroads, seeress, and instead of setting him free on the future you chained him to one path. Yet there are always crossroads ahead, always the chance that the chains will break. Everybody must always move forward – except you. You’ve taken almost all his choices from him, now let’s see how you like suffering the same." The ‘girl’ was a bright ball of light now, causing Cassandra to throw her arm over her eyes to keep from being blinded. The garden turned utterly silent, the world gone pure white-

And then was back to normal. Cassandra found herself standing a few feet from the rosebush with no disturbing young woman to be seen, the wind a gentle breeze against her skin and the sound of crashing waves reassuring.

She ran shaky hands through her tangled nest of hair and sighed. Maybe that had been some trick the evil one had sent her, to feel her out over her betrayal. Maybe it had been a dream within a dream, her guilt manifesting to chastise her for her actions. What did it matter? It was too late to change anything – not that she would. The cruel ones had to pay for what they’d done. When they died, things would be better. She believed that with all her heart.

She took a step forward to check on the star child, to make sure the cloak still held his power chained. He might somehow be responsible for her ‘guest’ tonight, his power twisting about and feeding off her and the evil one’s emotions. She would calm it and then go sit inside her cottage, where she would feel safe and could use her cards for a glimpse at the ever murky future.

Yet less than a foot from the rosebush, Cassandra found herself hitting an invisible wall. Try as she might, physically or mentally, she could not touch the roses. Uttering a disbelieving cry, she raced back to her cottage, to her loom. This was not possible. No one could stymie her in her own dream world. Reaching out for the black cloth stretched over the loom, she once more found herself blocked from the catalyst’s power.

She stood staring at the dark cloak, wondering who her visitor had been and mind worrying over the cryptic words the ‘girl’ had uttered.

*******

A jolt of… *something* woke Aya from a sleep troubled with disturbing dreams. The latest one had been of Yohji walking away from him, arm in arm with a rotting Neu who looked over her shoulder to grin in triumph at Aya, her face little more than skin over bone. Puzzled by what had awakened him but grateful just the same, he carefully sat up in bed and examined his lover.

Whatever was wrong, it didn’t involve Yohji. His boyfriend slept, handsome face furrowed with some strong emotion. Aya couldn’t stop his hand from reaching out and gently stroking through Yohji’s tousled hair. At the touch, Yohji’s face smoothed out and he mumbled Aya’s name. Aya remained still for several seconds and when it appeared that his lover wasn’t about to wake up, ran a light caress along the side Yohji’s face.

Part of Aya felt like a weak fool for doing so, for allowing his traitorous heart to control his life. His body still ached from the blows he’d received during the fight with Schreient, his heart still heavy with guilt in that he hadn’t yet managed to save his sister. The blame for both those things could be laid at Yohji’s feet… but as upset as he was with his lover right now, he couldn’t blame Yohji for everything. Even if the enraged part of himself wished to do just that.

If he blamed Yohji…. There were few things he was entirely certain about, especially upon considering recent events, but he was sure that if he did just that, he would lose the man he loved. Even if he didn’t trust her much, Cassandra’s words filled his head with the warning that if he pushed his ‘knight’ away he could lose him for good. So he hadn’t chased after Yohji when he’d gone to his room to find his lover had vanished. He hadn’t accused Yohji of betraying him or Weiss when he finally went to talk to him up on the roof.

No matter how much he wanted to call the man an idiot for falling for Neu’s act, whenever he closed his eyes he recalled how… *shattered* Yohji had looked after killing Neu. Yohji had huddled in on himself, tears streaming down his face while they watched the warehouse burn. He seemed to have shut down after casting Neu’s body aside and charging at Hel, which caused Schreient to scatter and then flee with the body of their dead teammate. How could Aya be furious with his lover when Yohji had been in so much pain?

Even if Yohji had been fooled by Neu, Aya still loved him. That emotion remained unchanged after all that had happened. Even if he still doubted Yohji, he couldn’t be the one to shove the man away. No, as pathetic as it sounded, he would remain by Yohji’s side until Yohji pushed him away. He’d lost Aya-chan and might never have the hope of saving her so he couldn’t lose the only other person he loved.

Disturbed by such hurtful thoughts, he quietly left the bed and got dressed. He didn’t think he could go back to sleep, not when he felt so unsettled; he didn’t want to wake Yohji up so he would leave. He needed some space to figure out his thoughts and to calm the turmoil he felt. While he knew better than to blame Yohji, he still felt that his lover was partly responsible for what had happened last night and it would be best for him to go somewhere else until he was certain he wouldn’t lash out in frustration. For a short time last night, even with all his doubts about Neu, he’d felt some hope that he’d get his sister back. Now there was nothing.

He was a bit surprised to find Ken in the kitchen when he tried to leave the Koneko. He had expected that both Ken and Omi would spend the morning in bed, but then again, little was going the way he expected lately.

"Morning," Ken grunted, his shoulders hunched as he stood in front of the brewing coffee machine. "Don’t tell me that you’re gonna open the shop?" he asked, the words muffled by a huge yawn.

"I… I need a bit of fresh air," Aya mumbled in response and buttoned his black coat up.

For a moment it appeared as if Ken was going to argue with him over his decision to leave but his teammate then shook his head and leaned against the counter. "Be careful, okay?"

That Ken felt the need to tell him something like that annoyed Aya to no end; however, he bit back a sharp retort and nodded. His coat buttoned, he pulled on a pair of black leather gloves. "How are you and Omi doing?" The question wasn’t so much a polite inquiry into his teammates’ health as a subtle reminder that Aya wasn’t the one who had been suffering from some unknown poison just a few hours ago.

Of course Ken seemed to miss all of that and took the question at face value. Smiling with true gratitude, he brushed back his bangs. "You should know by now that we bounce back quickly!" he chuckled before he turned to pour himself some of the brewed coffee.

Yes, that certainly seemed true. All of them tended to heal very quickly, and when he’d stopped at the bathroom before he came downstairs, Aya noticed that his own bruises had faded quite a bit during the night. The slight feeling of warmth in his chest and the memory of the odd sensation that had awoken him this morning made him shiver slightly and tug on the ends of his green scarf.

His only reply to Ken’s statement was a low grunt and then he fled the Koneko, desperate for some fresh air and privacy. Once outside, he took a deep breath and immediately began to shiver with cold. While he was the only one dressed in a heavy coat and the sun was shining, he couldn’t seem to get warm. Everyone else remarked how it was such a nice, warm day but he didn’t feel it. There was no warmth for him.

Why was it *his* life that had to be so fucked up? he wondered as he made his way to the nearby park. Why was he the only person to feel cold when it was a sunny, unseasonably warm fall day? Why did some of his bruises seem to heal faster and faster with each injury while there were times when he was bruised for no reason at all – or at least no reason on his part? Why did he have to face an enemy who looked exactly like his lover’s dead girlfriend?

He suspected that the answer to everything was his detested power, the thing that had ruined his life just when he seemed to be moving forward. And connected to his power was Schuldig. As he crossed the street, he looked around not so much for traffic but in case his thoughts had summoned the bane of his existence.

There had been no sign of Schuldig since the other night when he had first taunted Aya about Yohji and then held him close. The anger Aya felt toward the telepath was tempered with gratitude for Schu keeping him from breaking down completely. When he realized the nature of his thoughts, he glared furiously and stomped down the sidewalk. He shouldn’t feel grateful toward a bastard who delighted in screwing up his life.

Schuldig’s taunting the other night had allowed him to keep his temper under control when dealing with Yohji. The desire to prove Schuldig wrong was just as strong as his fear of losing Yohji and the caution he felt at Cassandra’s warnings. The only thing he wanted as much as making a fool of Schuldig over his predictions was to regain Aya-chan. He wouldn’t let the bastard’s lies ruin his relationship with Yohji.

His anger fading, Aya slowed down his pace as he made his way along one of the small park’s many paths. Whether it was to prove Schuldig wrong or to keep his heart from shattering, he wouldn’t lose Yohji. Life without the idiot would be meaningless. Even if he got Aya-chan back, she would forever remain asleep like a princess trapped in a spell. There was a spike of agony in his head as he thought that, one that made him wince and immediately think about something else.

More and more, he suspected that he needed Yohji to keep from going insane, from losing himself to the purring voice and the myriad threads that defined the world when he was flooded with heat. Between Schuldig, Cassandra and Kritiker, there wasn’t much reason to cling so tightly to reality. There were times when he was so very tired of the cold, when the voice sounded so reasonable….

Shaking his head, he huddled in his coat and refused to give in to either his power or Schuldig. Whatever it took, he would remain by Yohji’s side. Yohji, fool that he was, loved Aya for himself – a talent-less, antisocial grouch with blood on his hands. Why Yohji loved him confused Aya to no end but he decided to put faith in the words Yohji had uttered last night and countless times before. Even if Yohji hadn’t rescued Aya right away, in the end he had killed Neu and saved him. He had held Aya throughout the night as if he’d been afraid that Aya would leave at any moment.

Aya could continue with his doubts and risk losing the one person capable of loving him back or he could put an end to them. He still felt pain over Yohji’s actions yesterday – but he wasn’t the only one in pain. The anguish in Yohji’s eyes last night…. Maybe he couldn’t forgive his lover completely for what he’d done in the last two days but Aya was willing to put the past behind him - behind *them*. He refused to allow the dreams to come true. From the little he could recall, Schuldig counted on Neu to drive Yohji and him apart. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. Perhaps Aya couldn’t control much of his life, stripped of his power and his family, but he wasn’t completely helpless. The same resolve that enabled him to pick up a sword and use it to kill would give him the strength to prevent someone he dearly loved from being taken away. If he lost Yohji… then there would be no resolve, no reason to ignore the voice or to fight against the madness.

He inhaled deeply and enjoyed the scent of cherry blossoms as he walked through the park, his determination growing with each step. He refused to believe that the future was set in stone, that he could do nothing but act out the role that Schuldig had chosen for him against his wishes. No matter what anyone else wanted, he would save Aya-chan and he wouldn’t lose Yohji.

Feeling something brush against his cheek, he reached up and was surprised to find a cherry blossom stuck to his finger. Frowning in confusion, he came to a stop and looked around at the flowerless cherry trees.

*******

Lying in bed, Yohji stared at the bottle of whiskey across the room. More than anything he wanted to get out of bed, grab the bottle, lift it to his lips and not stop swallowing the potent alcohol until it was gone.

Aya had left. Yohji had woken from yet another nightmare where a dead Asuka had taken Aya from him to find his lover gone, the space beside him in bed cold and empty. He wanted to both laugh hysterically and cry but settled for pulling on his hair. The pain helped to get his fluctuating emotions under control.

Aya had left. He tried to convince himself that it wasn’t a bad sign. Aya was a morning person, after all, and had probably gotten up to go work in the shop or something. Or he could be downstairs trying to find Schreient. They still had his sister, and Yohji didn’t think his lover would get much rest until she was safe.

Taking a deep breath, he focused on those arguments. He usually woke up alone. What mattered was that he hadn’t gone to bed alone. Hell, Aya had even let him hold him as he tried to fall asleep. The last thing Yohji remembered before the nightmare was Aya snuggling closer to him, his head tucked beneath Yohji’s chin. Even if he was pretty certain that his lover was still upset, Aya had wanted to be with him last night.

So he wouldn’t grab the bottle of alcohol and drink himself unconscious. He wouldn’t spend the day in bed wallowing in guilt and heartbreak, not until he was certain he had good cause to do so. And he wouldn’t keep thinking about Asuka, remembering the feel of wire in his hands or the way she had constantly mentioned Masafumi’s name in such a loving voice.

He took another deep breath and pushed away the painful memories. He’d gambled so much on restoring her true personality, on breaking her free from Schreient and he’d lost. If he kept thinking about her then he risked losing the person he truly loved, something he refused to do. During all that time with Asuka, he had only wanted her to remember her past so he could make a better life with Aya. Aya was the one who mattered and he couldn’t keep letting a ghost from the past affect their relationship.

Despite the hurt, he forced himself to get out of bed and walk past the whiskey bottle. There was no way he could get over Asuka and what he’d done to her so easily but he resolved to think about her as little as possible. Three days ago he’d believed her to be dead and he’d just have to go on as if nothing had changed. Biting back a guilty laugh, he taunted himself that at least now he was certain that Asuka wasn’t alive….

Before he knew it, his hand punched against the wall. There was a loud noise and the drywall gave way slightly from the impact. Staring at his fist, he tried to figure out what had just happened. Hadn’t he been by the couch and not the wall? He couldn’t be sure since he was thinking about-

Hissing in anger at himself, he pushed away from the wall and ordered his traitorous brain to stop thinking like that. Big surprise – Yohji Kudoh had failed yet again, so there was nothing new to dwell upon. What mattered was the living, not the dead. What mattered was Aya, and what he needed to do was get dressed and go see what the rest of Weiss were doing. Steel resolve filled him at the thought of facing Schreient. He was going to do whatever was necessary to get Aya-chan back safe and sound. He would prove himself to his lover and close the distance between them, the distance he had created with his false beliefs and hopes.

No more thinking about Asuka, he sternly told himself. She was dead and there was no way in hell that he could save her now. As long as Aya didn’t yell at him and push him away, there was hope that he could save his relationship with the man. Somehow, he’d redeem himself.

The pain and doubt that filled his heart faded a little when he went to grab the clothes from last night and realized that the sweater of his that Aya wore was gone. For some odd reason Yohji found himself quickly turning around and checking the jewelry box on the dresser. The black velvet choker he’d given his lover was still there, along with the navel ring. The fact that those things weren’t missing gave him more relief than finding his sweater gone. For some odd reason, he was convinced that Aya hadn’t left him.

A feeling of hope slowly replacing some of the pain, Yohji grabbed something reasonably clean to wear and headed for the shower. As long as Aya didn’t leave him, there was a chance he could make up for his mistakes. Whatever it took, he’d keep Aya by his side and make him happy. They could get through this and move on. He refused to allow fate or fucked up karma or whatever it was that kept taking his loved ones from him to repeat itself. The bad luck that plagued Yohji wouldn’t touch Aya or take him away. He refused to allow that to happen.

*******

"Schuldig?" Crawford stared evenly at his teammate and waited for an answer that was slow in coming.

Turning toward him after a few seconds, Schuldig shrugged, a malicious grin on his face. "Schreient’s inside – what’s left of them."

What was left of them, indeed. Adjusting his glasses, Crawford took a step closer to the door. "Would you care to elaborate?" he asked, his voice and demeanor calm, as befitted the leader of Schwarz during a mission. The only one who seemed ruffled was Nagi, who stood closest to the door, his face flushed and hands clenched in fists. Crawford glanced at the boy and felt a wave of disappointment before he focused his attention back on Schuldig.

Deciding to behave for once, Schuldig bowed his head. "They’re going on and on about their precious Masafumi and how they’ll make Weiss pay for harming him and killing Neu." He laughed out loud, the sound amused but also dark. "They actually think they have a chance at bringing him back to life. How incredibly stupid."

Crawford nodded in agreement. "Then we won’t be interrupting anything important," he said and motioned at the door. His face growing more flushed, Nagi used his talent to open it and then dashed inside.

/My, my, someone’s eager to see his ‘mentally challenged’ girlfriend, isn’t he?/ Schuldig taunted as he followed Crawford inside.

His disappointment growing, Crawford nodded again. From previous visions, he knew that Nagi was going to let him down today; he was not going to think of Schwarz first and foremost. A small part of him felt a bit of sorrow for the boy before he ruthlessly tamped the emotion down. Nagi needed to learn a lesson about where his loyalty lay and how things would never work out with a talent-less girl.

/We won’t be able to count on him very much,/ he informed Schuldig. /You and Farfarello will make sure that we have the girl and that Schreient is killed./ Not that he had any doubt that Farfarello would fail him, not when the Irishman was very excited about being able to kill the women. However, Aya Fujimiya was their main target today and that meant Abyssinian would be involved. Considering Schuldig’s relationship with the man, he felt it best to make himself very clear on the mission’s goals. There was also Abyssinian’s talent to consider. /You are blocking Abyssinian’s power, aren’t you?/ he asked.

/Of course,/ Schuldig mentally scoffed, his disdain evident in his thoughts. /There’s no way I’ll allow him to interfere today. Esset will have our hides if we don’t get the girl./

That was a rather odd statement from someone who couldn’t care less about what his superiors thought or wanted. For a moment Crawford glanced over his shoulder and appraised his teammate. Schuldig also didn’t seem too concerned that he was about to kidnap the sister of the man he was more than obsessed with, a man who was an ill wight at that. In fact, he was very certain that he would be able to keep Abyssinian’s power from adversely affecting Schwarz at all. If it wasn’t for his visions, Crawford would call the telepath a liar and take matters into his own hands… but his visions confirmed Schuldig’s arrogant assurance.

/Yes, they will so do your job right for once./ He gave Schuldig a warning glance and then turned his attention ahead of him. Nagi was nowhere to be seen, the boy must have rushed off in hopes of finding Tot. There was a moment of pity again, but even if he wanted to protect the boy from reality, Crawford couldn’t. Some lessons had to be learned the hard way and the sooner, the better.

As if reading his thoughts, Schuldig resumed the mental conversation. /You’re really not going to put a stop to Nagi’s foolishness?/ he asked with real confusion. /I mean, it’s no skin off my back, but I’m surprised you’re letting things go so far. He’s planning on warning her to run away./ To Crawford’s amazement, there actually seemed to be a hint of concern to Schuldig’s thoughts.

Tugging on the cuffs of his jacket’s sleeves, Crawford casually shook his head twice. /At the end of the day, Nagi will still be Schwarz. That is all that matters./ Then he thought about the situation a little more. /Will he warn her about Schwarz?/ He hadn’t seen everything, after all, just the outcome.

Grunting softly, Schuldig increased his pace until he was walking alongside of Crawford. "Nah, seems he’s more worried about what Weiss is gonna do to her. He wants her safely away from here before they arrive."

Which would be in another ten minutes by his calculations, Crawford thought with satisfaction. Despite his wavering loyalty, Nagi had ensured that Weiss would find Schreient’s location during their latest search. While he didn’t like to risk unleashing an ill wight’s wrath, Weiss would provide the perfect distraction to help lower Schreient’s guard. Also, his vision had revealed that if Nagi was to survive and remain in Schwarz, Abyssinian’s presence was required. Not quite understanding the ill wight’s role in today’s events, Crawford nonetheless made certain that things went according to what he had foreseen.

Silently approaching him on his right side, Farfarello pulled free one of his knives. "Weiss got to kill one of the bitches, didn’t you say the rest were ours?" he asked, a hint of madness to his voice and his remaining eye bright with anticipation.

"Yes, I did," Crawford reassured the man. "Just remember that the girl is not to be harmed in any way."

"The angel of death’s sister." Farfarello nodded and began to stare off into the distance. "She’ll be unharmed."

That was as good as a promise from Berserker as any, which left Crawford feeling relieved. His talent showed Aya Fujimiya in Schwarz’s possession but if they handed her over to Esset harmed in any way…. He didn’t understand why the Elders were so interested in her and could only assume it was because of her brother. A smile tugged at the corner of his lips as he thought that for once the old fools may have gotten something wrong, that they had put their faith in the wrong Fujimiya sibling. Perhaps that was why Schuldig was working with Cassandra, to help throw their employers off the right track. Whatever the reason, Crawford would give them the girl. All his plans revolved around the Elders’ convergence ceremony, which they believed required Aya Fujimiya’s presence.

/My, you’re happy about something,/ Schuldig remarked as they made their way through the mansion, the malicious grin back on his face. /Are you that excited to see the last of Schreient? And here I always thought you had a thing for Hel. You could get married and have two point five gorgeous, perfectly impassive sociopaths for children./

"They are too naïve and stupid to live," he answered in a cold voice. His eyes narrowed slightly at being teased but he refused to acknowledge Schuldig’s nonsense. "I look forward to no longer having to deal with them." They were fools to believe that Esset would help them bring their dead lover back to life. Esset only cared for its own goals. How some supposedly intelligent women could overlook that fact was beyond him. They had outlived any usefulness they might have possessed long ago. The last thing they would do for him would be to hand over Abyssinian’s sister and help teach Nagi the painful reality of life.

"They actually think they are our equals," Farfarello remarked, his voice thick with derision. "We should have done this long ago, Crawford."

"The correct time is now," was Crawford’s only answer. He wasn’t about to explain how today’s actions would shape the future or how so much rested on the day’s occurrences. Nagi would remain in Schwarz until it best served Crawford’s purpose that he follow a different master. Schuldig would prove his control over Abyssinian… and even though that particular future was mostly obscured, Crawford sensed that what happened in the next twenty-four hours would greatly affect Schuldig’s relationship with the ill wight. And most importantly, Schwarz would be one step closer to bringing down the Elders.

Spying Nagi hovering around the corner ahead and hearing Tot cry out something about Neu, he hardened his resolve. Whatever pain the boy felt today was necessary for the future. He would do nothing to stop what was about to happen because so much depended on it; that he couldn’t see everything but he *felt* it. Besides, Nagi deserved a agonizing lesson for even thinking about turning his back on Schwarz. They would only survive if they remained together.

So he did nothing when first Tot and then Nagi ran past him, toward the front entrance. Instead, he curved his lips into a smile and stepped around the corner with Schuldig and Farfarello behind him, his mostly trusted lieutenants. When Schuldig turned slightly as if to follow the boy, Crawford hissed out a warning. "Leave him alone." Then he once more directed his attention toward the remaining women. "Ladies of Schreient." He bowed his head slightly in greeting.

Hel eyed him warily and brushed her hands down the front of the white lab coat she wore while Schoen primped her hair. He continued to smile at the women until they returned the greeting, the words faint in his head as he became suffused with the feeling of accomplishment.

Things were progressing just as they should, and in a short amount of time Schreient would be no more. Schwarz would have power over Weiss and Crawford would be so much closer to destroying the Elders. For the first time that day, his smile was genuine and something in his eyes made Hel take a startled step back. Reining in his emotions, he set about doing what was necessary to bring his hopes to life.

*******

Yohji landed on the ground and remained in a crouch while the rest of Weiss cleared the electrified fence. Ever since arriving at the property Omi felt was inhabited by Schreient, he’d had a bad feeling, like a warning of danger and treachery. Too damn bad that his intuition hadn’t felt it was important to warn him like this yesterday….

Pushing aside the dark thoughts, he continued to carefully examine the wooded area around him. When he noticed sunlight gleaming off of glass he held up his right hand in warning. "Surveillance cameras."

Crouching behind a log, Omi nodded and called out in a hushed voice. "Over there, too." He motioned with his hand at more of the cameras.

"It’s not safe to move as a group, we’d be too easy to spot," Aya remarked as he stood behind a tree, safely out of the cameras’ sight. There was a distant look to his face, one that caught Yohji’s attention and made him wonder if things were about to spark or something. Weren’t Aya’s eyes a little bit darker than they had been a few minutes ago?

Grunting in annoyance, Ken punched his gloved right hand into his left fist. "If we’re together then they can knock all four of us out at once." While he normally wasn’t the greatest of strategists, even Ken was good about spotting a potentially lethal trap.

Omi was the one who said what Yohji was certain they were all thinking. "We should split up." He didn’t sound too happy about the situation but it was clear that they really had no other option, not unless Kritiker had a tank hidden around here for them to use.

Seeing a chance to redeem himself in Aya’s eyes, Yohji stood up and moved forward. If he could prove to his lover that he was serious about the mission, that he was determined to rescue Aya-chan, then maybe Aya would smile at him once more. Since returning from his walk, Aya had been distant; he hadn’t quite ignored him but the space between them had been obvious. More than anything, Yohji wanted to bridge that space. "I’ll be the decoy," he offered, determined to ensure that Schreient wouldn’t be able to harm his lover. "I’ll make a big scene and distract them. In the meantime, you break into the lab, okay?" He stared at Aya as he spoke, wanting nothing more than to go to his lover and hold him close for a few minutes, to reassure him that they’d definitely rescue Aya-chan this time.

Aya’s reaction wasn’t quite what he expected at the offer, a look of cold fury rather than gratitude. While Yohji frowned, Ken hissed in anger and glared. "Are you crazy or just a suicidal idiot?"

"That’s too dangerous, Yohji!" Omi cried out as he left the shelter of the log to approach Yohji.

Of all the things to say…. "What does that mean?" Yohji asked in annoyance as he played with the knob on his watch, upset that his idea was being shot down so quickly. "Hello, kiddo, we’re assassins about to take out a bunch of insane psychopaths. We passed ‘dangerous’ a long time ago. If we do things my way then the whole team shouldn’t be in any danger," he tried to explain. Then *Aya* shouldn’t be at risk. Schreient appeared to have it in for Yohji’s lover as being the one who’d dealt Masafumi the killing blow. Yohji hoped that if he went off by himself, Schreient would focus more on him… for killing Neu… and leave Aya alone.

He didn’t even see Aya move from behind the tree. All he knew was that one moment he was frowning at Omi and the next, something very solid slammed into the left side of his jaw with a hell of a lot of force. Damn, it felt like a tooth or two were knocked loose from the blow, he thought rather dazedly as he gingerly touched his sore face and stared at his assailant.

Aya stared right back, the coldness gone from his expression, replaced by livid heat. "You’ve lost your sense of reason since Neu died." Aya’s voice practically trembled from all that anger, his hands clenched in fists and his eyes burning with potent emotion. The next time he spoke, his voice was just as furious but pitched softer, as if the words were meant only for Yohji. "Get yourself together. I refuse to allow you to do something so incredibly stupid. I won’t lose you, Yohji, not like this." Then the anger seemed to melt away, to be replaced by pain and sorrow. "I refuse to lose you," Aya whispered. "So stop being such an idiot."

"Aya…" All the longing that Yohji felt rose up and weakened his voice, softening the name until it could barely be heard. Knowing that this wasn’t the time or place, he nonetheless reached for his lover and pulled him close. For a precious few seconds he hugged Aya with desperate need, and Aya embraced him just as tightly. A kiss was pressed against his sore jaw, and then Aya pulled away, his Abyssinian mask firmly in place but the emotion in his eyes tender and warm.

"You idiot," he repeated; then he left, vanishing into the woods, followed by Omi and Ken. Yohji stared after his teammates for a moment then pushed his glasses up with his right middle finger, a chagrined expression on his face.

"What’s wrong with me?" he asked aloud, even though he really didn’t want an answer. Following his teammates out of the woods, he shook his head and tried to get his thoughts in order. Okay, maybe his grand plan had been the slightest bit suicidal but all he’d wanted was to keep Aya safe and rescue the man’s sister. But if Aya didn’t want him to do something so dangerous, then he’d just have to listen to his lover. Feeling happy for the first time that day, Yohji smiled as he quietly made his way through the forest’s underbrush. Aya might be a bit upset with him but he clearly still cared deeply for Yohji. Once this mission was over and they had Aya-chan back in their custody, he and Aya could sit down and talk things through. Then everything would be fine, he was sure of it.

However, first he had to finish the mission. Forcing his thoughts from his lover and their relationship, he concentrated on getting past all the cameras and booby traps set in the forest. One thing was certain, Schreient had to be here considering the level of security he came across. If they had gone through this much trouble to keep people out, then he was willing to bet that Aya-chan was here.

The sounds of voices caught Yohji’s attention and he cautiously crept closer to whoever was speaking. With his right hand on his watch, he took great care to not make any sound and to remain hidden by the tree’s foliage as he approached the edge of the forest.

His body tensed when he recognized the two people standing in the clearing. A feeling of dread formed in his stomach as he realized it wasn’t just Schreient that Weiss would face today but Schwarz as well. Prodigy and Tot stood close to each other; the girl wore a frilly dress, her weapon was nowhere in sight, and Yohji knew it would be very bad if Prodigy noticed him. But the boy’s attention was focused entirely on Tot.

"Listen, Crawford is just using you, he doesn’t care about your revenge. Don’t fight Weiss - it’s dangerous," Prodigy pleaded. Yohji was shocked by the strong emotions the usually impassive boy displayed. "You shouldn’t be doing this. Please get away from here."

Despite the impassioned warning, Tot seemed more confused than afraid. "But why?" She leaned closer to the boy. "Why are you so concerned?" Yohji wondered the same thing. He’d never known Schreient and Schwarz to work together in the past, their connection to the Takatori family aside.

His face brilliant red from a blush, Nagi ducked his head. "I don’t want you to die," he mumbled, and Yohji was left even more confused. Why was the telekinetic so certain that Weiss would kill Tot, especially if the odds were now in Schreient’s favor?

"Eh?" Tot pulled away at that revelation, her brow creased with confusion.

"I don’t want you to die!" Nagi shouted, and his outburst seemed to amuse Tot rather than cause her any concern.

"Nagi-kun," she giggled. "Thank you!" She leaned closer and closed her eyes; after a shocked moment, Nagi leaned forward as well… and smacked his face into her mouth.

Despite the severity of the situation, Yohji found himself grinning at the sight of young love. Yet as Tot laughed and gave Nagi a real kiss, his smile faded into sadness. Before him was a young man desperate to save the love of his life who seemed unconcerned about her fate. He felt that he could understand Nagi’s suffering. He had tried desperately to save Asuka only to fail, and now, as Aya placed himself in danger yet again, Yohji was helpless to stop his lover. If he tried to hold Aya back from this mission then Aya would never forgive him, not when Aya-chan’s life was in danger.

Tot suddenly ran off and Nagi quickly chased after her. Watching them for a few more seconds, Yohji shook his head and resumed making his way toward the mansion. What a fucked up world they lived in, he thought. The gods or Fate or some other such bullshit seemed to really get off on hurting people, on taking away what was loved and leaving broken shells behind. Despite the fact that both kids were his enemies, part of him hoped that they would make it through the day safely, that they would have a chance to be together.

Realizing that he was standing there doing nothing while Weiss closed in on the mansion, Yohji shook himself free of his concern for the kids. He wouldn’t allow anything to cause Aya more pain so he’d better get his ass in gear and make sure that the Bastard wasn’t around here somewhere, determined to fuck some more with Aya’s mind. More was at stake here than Aya-chan.

As he ran toward the mansion, he debated on whether or not he should mention Prodigy’s presence to the rest of Weiss. He didn’t want to worry Aya if the boy was here on his own, and knowing that Schuldig was nearby could potentially throw Aya off his game at a critical time. Maybe if he could get Ken and Omi alone for a moment….

Grimacing at the thought of even more complications, Yohji pulled some wire free from his watch and resolved to let nothing get in his way. If he wanted any chance of happiness for himself, then he’d protect Aya and rescue his love’s sister. Anything that tried to stop him would be dealt with quickly and savagely. If he could kill a former lover for Aya he could kill anything, Yohji thought to himself, his chest filled with pain and the sound of mad laugher echoing in his head.

*******

Nagi chased Tot back to the mansion, his heart heavy with concern. Why wouldn’t she listen? Why did she insist on fighting Weiss? If she cared for him at all - which it seemed possible after that kiss, he thought with heated cheeks - then why wouldn’t she stay out here where it was safe?

His attention focused on Tot’s fleeing form, he was startled to see Crawford appear right in front of him. Barely coming to a halt in time, he was even more shocked to be slapped by his leader.

"What do you think you’re doing?" Crawford demanded as Nagi tried to recover from the blow, his left cheek on fire from the pain. "Schreient should only be thinking about defeating Weiss." Crawford blocked the path to the mansion, his eyes flashing with rare anger and his right hand clenched in a fist. "Don’t do anything stupid to weaken their hatred," he continued in a cold voice.

Nagi instantly tried to defend his actions. "But I just-"

"Shut up, Nagi!" To hear Crawford yell at him like that, with such obvious anger and disgust, was almost as painful as the slap. "Have you forgotten your hatred?"

The question shocked him and he fell silent as he was assailed by memories of the past - of the times when he’d been abused for being a freak, when he’d been left to fend for himself and had almost starved… until Crawford had rescued him.

As if sensing his thoughts, Crawford’s voice softened the slightest bit. "Since you were a child, you were shunned and scorned by society. In your loneliness, you swore to seek revenge on society. That’s what Schwarz has been trying to achieve," he continued, the anger in his eyes replaced by a fervent gleam as if he saw some inner vision. "Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what you want?" His fist fell to his side as he stared intently at Nagi. "Now that we have an ill wight on our side, that goal is finally possible." The cold anger returned to both his eyes and voice, and Nagi shivered in response. "Isn’t that what you want?" he repeated.

Nagi could only answer the truth to the man who had saved him, who had looked after him these past few years. "I know, Crawford," he said quietly, torn between loyalty to his own kind and to his traitorous heart. "I am and always will be a member of Schwarz, no matter what happens."

For a moment, he swore he saw sorrow and doubt cloud Crawford’s blue eyes. Then his leader turned around. "Then forget about your petty desires until we reach our goal. Got it?" Before Nagi could answer, Crawford walked away.

Hanging his head in defeat, Nagi couldn’t force himself to follow just yet. "But I didn’t want her to die, not her…," he whispered, his heart full of pain and regret. He wanted Tot to live, to be able to smile at him and kiss him forever. Yet she’d laughed off his concerns and ran back to the battle against Weiss… against Abyssinian. Against an ill wight who wanted her dead for taking his sister and using her as a weapon and shield against him. There was no way Nagi could see any sort of happy ending for Tot and Schreient, especially not when his own team seemed to want Schreient gone as well.

As much as he wished otherwise, there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t fight his own team, his own kind, he thought helplessly as he slowly walked toward the mansion. His heart was heavy with the fear that he’d lose the first person he ever loved, weighed down by the fact that he couldn’t save her from death. As powerful as he was, there was only so much he could do. For the first time since he joined Schwarz, he felt powerless and afraid.

*******

His body sore from the blows that Schreient dealt Aya, Schuldig carefully, oh-so-slightly released the chains around Aya’s power. Not too much, just enough to help Aya fight better against three enemies, to keep himself safe – and for Schuldig to manipulate what was about to happen.

Once he was done, he blocked the pain as best he could and forced himself to reach down for his heart’s sister rather than kill the bitches for harming Aya. The girl appeared as a well-crafted doll, which was all she really was anymore. Aya’s power kept her body alive but could not return her missing soul. Picking up the girl, he grunted slightly and held her in his arms. The tiny thing didn’t weigh very much but her body was entirely limp and difficult to hold. Still, he managed and turned so he could face the room’s doorway. Crawford and Farfarello faced it as well, a knife in Farfarello’s hand and a predatory grin on his face. Surprisingly, the smile was echoed on Crawford’s lips as well.

Before long, they heard the running of footsteps and Schoen burst into the room, desperate to use Aya-chan against Weiss. She screamed when she noticed the three of them in the room, her eyes first drawn to Schuldig and the bundle in his arms.

Calm as ever, Crawford nodded slightly and spoke in a perfectly impassive voice. "We’re taking the girl," he informed a stunned Schoen.

The look of utter surprise on her face made Schuldig snicker. How stupid could a woman be? To have actually trust Esset, to trust Schwarz after Crawford had made it plain that they wanted the girl? Schreient truly did deserve to die – doubly so after daring to abuse his heart.

"What?" Schoen stuttered, her brain too overwhelmed by confusion to come up with a snappier comeback. How disappointing.

After a quiet sigh of either annoyance or boredom – Schuldig could never tell which one the man felt – Crawford tried to explain things to the idiot woman again. "Now that you have Weiss, you don’t need her anymore, do you?" Schuldig tensed at the mention of Weiss but forced himself to relax. Crawford hadn’t really handed over Aya to the bitches.

Finally gathering some of her wits, Schoen stopped gasping like a fish out of water and glared. "Give her back! She’s our trump card," she demanded. "If we keep her as a hostage, Weiss won’t fight back."

/I don’t know what’s more pathetic, the fact that she really thinks Weiss won’t fight to get the girl back or the idea that we’d meekly obey the bitch,/ Schuldig remarked cattily to Crawford, surprised to see the precog’s lips twitch in amusement. Crawford held back the laughter for a moment and then let it go.

"You don’t have the skill to defeat Weiss," he taunted the woman, and Schoen was once more left dazed, either by the truth in Crawford’s statement or by the fact that he had actually laughed. Beside Crawford, Farfarello’s smile grew sharper as he held up his knife and pressed the button that caused the blade to elongate. Then he licked it lovingly, his attention focused on his target.

Oblivious to her approaching death, Schoen continued to rant. "And as you promised, you will restore Masafumi to normal! You will keep your word!" she screamed, and the madness that filled her mind made Schuldig wince in pain and step back.

All signs of his humor gone, Crawford sneered and turned away from the raving bitch. "Pathetic. Do you really think Masafumi can be brought back to life? You truly are too stupid to be allowed to live." He motioned with his right hand and at the signal, Farfarello threw his blade.

The force behind the blade sent it crashing through the thick glass of the window behind Schoen, and she let out a high scream as it shattered and crashed down. At first she seemed stunned to still be alive but then Hel’s impassioned scream of Masafumi’s name made her jerk her head up in panic.

"What have you done?" she asked, her face pale and body trembling.

Utterly bored with the situation, Schuldig decided to enlighten the brainless bitch. "Thanks to you, we were able to get our missing data." He lifted Aya-chan slightly and smiled nastily at Schoen. "I can’t believe you really thought you’d bring your dead lover back to life. All that’s left for him is to rot, and you beside him, Rothaarig."

"So in other words, you are no longer of use." In one smooth motion, Crawford drew his gun from its holster beneath his jacket, aimed and fired the weapon at Schoen. Much like Farfarello’s knife, she went flying through the shattered window. To Schuldig’s disgust, her last thoughts were on how she had failed her precious Masafumi. How stupid.

"I want the other women," Farfarello stated in a voice tinged with anticipation as the three of them walked over to the window to look down on the chaos below. Schuldig’s lips twitched in amusement at the sight of proud Hel kneeling on the ground as she cradled Takatori Masafumi’s dead body, and he felt a wave of relief upon seeing Aya standing not too far away, a bit battered by the recent fight but mostly uninjured. The relief was replaced by intense hatred when he noticed the man-whore standing close by and for several seconds he fought with himself to not destroy Balinese’s brain. More than anything, he wanted the man *dead* but he refused to give in to his temper. Soon, he promised himself, and Aya’s power purred in agreement. Leave the man-whore alone and soon Aya would be his. Just a little longer….

The high-pitched squeals from Nagi’s brainless girlfriend shook him from his thoughts and he laughed at the way she screamed at Schwarz to give Aya-chan back. What was it with these women? Did Takatori pick them for large cup sizes and low IQs or something? They were utterly deranged and cut off from reality… and they were all soon to be dead.

Sensing Farfarello’s interest in the girl, he forgot all about her when he noticed that Aya realized that he was here… and that he held Aya-chan in his arms. At first there was a surge of relief that the girl seemed unharmed, and Aya actually didn’t think there was anything wrong with Schuldig holding her.

Then he noticed Schuldig’s sad frown and his lovely eyes went wide, his head filled with thoughts of denial. /Schu… you promised…,/ he sent with desperation, completely unaware of what he was doing.

The pain he felt over the link stunned Schuldig, deepening his frown and making his eyes sting with tears. Dammit, this should not be affecting him so much, he was just doing what was necessary. If anything, he should be thrilled over Aya calling out to him but he couldn’t bear the agony that Aya felt.

/Yes, I did promise,/ he said with true sorrow as the chaos continued all around them. /I promised that *as long as I wasn’t ordered to do so, I would never harm your sister*. Esset found out about her from someone other than me, mein Hertz, and they want her./

Stepping forward, his right hand held out as if to reach for his sister, Aya sent Schuldig a pleading look. /You promised. You can’t take her!/

Under siege from Aya’s emotions, Schuldig took a step backwards. /I’m sorry, Aya, but I’ve no choice but to do just that. If I refused they’d just kill me and send someone else. And if I die… so do you./

Aya stood still at that reminder and then he opened his mouth and screamed in rage and pain. At first Schuldig thought Aya was responsible for the building shaking as it began to fall apart before he realized that it was Nagi’s doing. Uncaring what happened to his teammate, he continued to stare at Aya until he felt Crawford grab his arm.

"We need to go now, Mastermind," Crawford sternly informed him, face once more impassive but a hint of excitement shining in his eyes. "Bring the girl."

/Give her back, Schuldig!/ Aya continued to scream, both mentally and verbally. Staring for a few more seconds at the man he loved, Schuldig shook his head.

/I’m sorry, Aya, but I can’t. I promise to keep her safe./ Then he ruthlessly blocked the link between them as he turned to leave. Aya’s screams filled his ears and his heart hurt so much that Schuldig stumbled as he walked, but he didn’t stop. If he gave in and returned the girl to Aya, then they both really would be dead. There was no way he could accept that outcome, not when by continuing to the helicopter meant that they would both live and Aya would eventually be his.

Bits of the building fell down around them as they fled. Damn, but Nagi was really pulling out all the stops on his power. Concerned about Aya, Schuldig released the hold on his love’s talent just enough to protect Aya from the falling architecture, especially since the fool seemed unable to move. As warmth flooded into Aya, Schuldig sensed his surprise at both it and the fact that Balinese began to forcibly drag him from the collapsing mansion.

Upset that he had to be grateful to the man-whore for anything, he snarled and ran even faster to catch up with Crawford and Farfarello. Didn’t the assholes realize that he had to carry about a hundred pounds of dead weight?

"What about Nagi?" he heard Farfarello ask as he drew near.

Crawford frowned and pushed up his glasses as he slowed down, now that they were clear of the building. "Don’t worry about him. Right now, what matters is getting the girl away from here." He opened the helicopter’s door and motioned for Schuldig to put Aya-chan inside. "Is everything all right, Schuldig?" he asked, no display of concern evident in his voice or his expression.

Nodding, Schuldig hastily stowed the girl in the back seat then climbed in to pilot the vehicle. He spared a thought about Farfarello sitting beside Aya-chan but decided that if Crawford wasn’t worried, then he shouldn’t be either. Besides, killing Tot seemed to have left the Irishman in a good mood. "I told you things would be fine. Now let’s get the vegetable home." He quickly started the helicopter’s engine as he spoke.

By the time the helicopter was warmed up and in the air, Nagi had reduced the building to utter rubble. Only the fact that Schuldig could sense Aya’s anguished thoughts kept him calm, his heart troubled more by the loss of his sister than the fact that a mansion had fallen down on top of him. Aya’s power protected him, Weiss and even Nagi and Tot from harm, and he managed to claw his way free of the rubble in time to see Schuldig before he left.

Smiling sadly, Schuldig cut off Aya’s power before the catalyst could use it to strike out and bring the helicopter down. /I promise she’ll be fine, kleine Veilchen,/ he sent, disturbed more than he should be by Aya’s anguish and guilt. /I won’t let them harm her, my word on that./

/Schuldig…./

He could feel the weight of Aya’s regard even as the helicopter rose in the air and away from the mansion. Resisting the urge to close his eyes so he wouldn’t see Aya’s accusing glare, Schuldig forced himself to put more distance between them. He knew this wasn’t the end of the matter, that he would have to speak to Aya soon about what had happened. There was a good chance that he’d earned his heart’s undying hatred for his actions… but that wasn’t what Crawford’s vision and Aya’s power told him.

If he handled things carefully, he could use Aya-chan against Aya, could gain Aya’s cooperation through her continued well-being. He could use her to get what he most wanted. But instead of feeling happy about that, all he felt was Aya’s pain and heartbreak. For the first time ever, he was consumed with guilt for making someone he cared for hurt so much, even if he had no choice in the matter.

Cursing softly, Schuldig wondered what the hell had happened to make him feel this way. He shouldn’t be bothered by this, he should be fucking happy. Yet, the ache in his chest grew by the minute and all he could think about was how he’d let Aya down.

*******

Body warm with the remnants of his power despite the falling cold rain, Aya watched the helicopter fly away. Schuldig’s words echoed in his mind; they left him filled with pain and disgust at himself for failing to save his sister yet again, but they also provided some hope. As foolish as it was, he clung to Schuldig’s promise to keep Aya-chan safe; there was nothing else he could do. To think that he’d been so close to his sister only to lose her to people who would cause her harm would drive him to the edge of the ocean cliff inside his mind and then over it.

His little bit of power flared as he heard debris shift and groans of relief. He didn’t need to turn around to know that his teammates had ‘miraculously’ survived the house’s collapse just as he had.

"That was close," Yohji muttered, and the sound of his voice made Aya close his eyes for a brief moment. At least he’d been able to save one of the two people he loved the most. His hand clenched around his katana while he spared a curse for Schuldig, who had allowed his power to do that much and nothing more.

Aya heard the sound of hesitant footsteps; the threads whispered to him that Ken and Omi approached while Yohji remained crouched by Nagi and Tot’s bodies. Unwilling to face his teammates and see the sorrow he knew they felt at Aya-chan’s latest abduction, he continued to stare at the now empty sky.

Ken and Omi were quiet for a few seconds, and then Ken cleared his throat. "Schreient stuck by him until the end," he spoke, his voice rough but quiet. Even if Aya couldn’t care less about Schreient and their obsession with Masafumi Takatori, he couldn’t help but feel grateful that Ken avoided the topic of his sister.

As if taking his cue from Ken, Omi didn’t mention Aya-chan, either. "To love someone…." His quiet, sad voice trailed off.

His heart filled with sorrow and loss, Aya finished the thought for him. "… is a sad thing." Despite his happiness and relief that Yohji was alive, he honestly believed those words. Yohji had claimed to love Asuka and was now heartbroken over what he felt to be her second death. Schuldig claimed to love Aya but still took Aya-chan from him. And the only people he truly loved caused him so much pain. What good was love when it hurt this much?

Yohji’s sad voice broke through Aya’s dark thoughts. "The kid tried to save the girl with everything he had in the same way that I tried to save Neu… no, Asuka. I guess we both failed," he said before he began to laugh in bitterness. Aya turned to look at his lover and noticed that even though Yohji was still crouched by the dead bodies, he stared straight at Aya. "But you won’t fail," Yohji whispered before he glanced at the two children.

Those four words strengthened the dying sense of hope within Aya’s chest. He wanted to dispute his lover, to state that he would be successful, unlike Yohji and Nagi, but the faith Yohji held in him prevented him from saying the words. Moving quietly through the rubble, he approached Yohji and hesitantly gave his lover’s shoulder a quick squeeze.

Tension seemed to leave Yohji’s body at the touch and he leaned forward to place Tot’s hand within Nagi’s. Despite his anguish, Aya could understand Yohji’s sorrow over what should be two dead enemies; he felt some of that emotion himself. Standing behind Yohji, he stared at the children and was surprised to feel… something from Nagi. However, before he could puzzle out the odd sensation, the last of his talent flared to life and burned through him. He took a quick breath and stepped backward as it flowed from him to the two children and made him close his eyes as he became dizzy.

The world stilled when Yohji’s right hand gripped his left elbow. Opening his eyes, he once again found Yohji staring at him, green eyes shadowed by pain and concern. "Are you all right?" Yohji asked in a hushed voice.

Aya felt a sharp impulse to ask how he could possibly be all right when Schwarz had Aya-chan, but instead he took a deep breath and nodded. Both he and Yohji hurt so much hurt, he couldn’t possibly add to it by striking out at his lover. "Yeah," he whispered and leaned closer.

As the rain fell upon them, Yohji hugged him tightly and pressed a kiss against his temple. Even though he hated himself for failing his sister yet again, Aya couldn’t push Yohji away and hugged him in return. If he ever lost Yohji as well… the remnant of anger he felt toward his lover melted away. Here was someone who loved him, someone who Aya didn’t have to always be strong for as he tried to be for his sister. Yohji wouldn’t leave him unless Aya pushed him away and he didn’t have the resolve to do that - he needed Yohji too much.

"You feel cold, love," Yohji murmured against his temple, and Aya belatedly realized that it was true. His talent dormant once more, he shivered in the cold rain. "Let’s go home," Yohji continued, his voice thick with longing.

"Yeah." Aya couldn’t seem to say anything else, but Yohji seemed to understand and smiled. His arm around Aya’s shoulders, they headed toward the spot where they had hidden their vehicles.

Walking in the cold rain, Aya waited for a sense of déjà vu, to feel a half-remembered dream cloud his mind. Yet all he felt… was a sense of unfulfillment, of anticipation. This was not the cold rain he’d dreamed of the last few months… but it was a harbinger of sorts. Stirring briefly, his power purred in eagerness. Soon, it seemed to whisper with yearning. Soon.

*******

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