Author: Mirrordance

e-mail: mirror_dance@hotmail.com

title: Mane, Thecel, Phares (prequel to Via Crucis)

type: series

warnings: angst, language, violence, yaoi

spoilers: with references throughout entire series

teaser: how is a traitor made?

Keywords: Ran, Ken, Weiß, Schwarz

"Mane, Thecel, Phares"

a WKff by Mirrordance

don't own anybody…

      His English Lit teacher said, that a lot of authors make use of an element called Foreshadowing.  A hint, a clue of what may lie ahead.

      Omi Tsukiyono wondered, if the characters at the mercy of a writer felt as he had that night, at the mercy of God.  That something big was going to happen.  Something that could turn everything around.

      "Com check," he said again, tiredly and exasperatedly.  It was a tough mission, further hardened by the presence of scramblers within the compound White Cross were infiltrating to steal some information.  They have been on a communication blackout for about fifteen minutes now.  A minor eternity, for a battle.

      He muttered under his breath, tinkering in his trusty laptop, hoping to break the scramble for the nth time now. 

      Finally, a breakthrough.

      "Mission accomplished," Abyssinian's voice said over the com, breaking out of the damning static the group has been plagued with for most of the mission.

      "Great," mumbled Omi, just as he had it fixed.  Terrific timing as usual, Tsukiyono.  He settled in his hiding place, making himself comfortable as he awaited the return of his teammates.  He had been assigned just outside the compound to take care of the scramblers.

      The first one who emerged was Yoji Kudo.  A lanky blond with an indulgent smile, that he favored the youngest member of Weiß with as he approached, walking as if he had all the time in the world.  He was one of the three other members who stormed their way into the compound and split up to divide and conquer the guards as well.

      "A lot of help you were," teased Yoji.

      Omi snorted.  Right.

      "Balinese is already at the rendezvous point," Omi said.

      "Yeah," Yoji added, "it would be extremely nice if you busted your ass a little and hurry up, Siberian, Abyssinian.  So we can go home"

      Pause.

      "Siberian's not there?" asked Abyssinan, sounding surprised.

      "Not yet," Omi said, fidgeting a little.  Is this where the life-altering, plot-turning part comes along? He hoped not.

      "He's not here," said Abyssinian.  "Siberian if you can hear me, respond.  Immediately"

      Pause.

      A curse.

      "I'm going back in," Yoji said, green eyes hardening as he steeled himself back into combat mode.

      "Both of you stay the hell where you are," ordered Abyssinian, "we can't all get fucking lost.  Keep the lines open.  If he's in here, I'll find him."

      But he didn't.

      He hadn't found Siberian's body, living or dead.

      And he scoured the place, turned it upside down in his search, at first cool and methodical, ending frantically and desperately.

      Abyssinain--Ran Fujimiya, had the face of a lost child, standing in the middle of a warehouse devoid of any other life apart from his own.

      "He's not here," he said breathlessly into the com, "he's not anywhere."

      It was so much nicer to think that he just… walked away from them.  Turned his back on them.  Left them in the middle of an operation, covered his tracks, then went as far away as he could from a life that dirtied his hands with blood each night, imprinting them on the ridges on his fingers.

      But Siberian… he wasn't like that at all.  Siberian may have had the capacity to kill his best friend, but he was also Ken Hidaka, who had mourned for him endlessly.  Siberian was an efficient assassin, but Ken Hidaka could put up a flower arrangement, teach kids soccer, and was clumsy enough to continually keep creating minor disasters at home.  They were one and the same and yet so different.

      Ran missed… both of him. 

      How much time has passed by since the three men decided to leave that compound, missing one of their own? But a day? Seemed longer.  Seemed so much, infinitely longer…

      Was he dead by now? Did I, by chance, miss a spot? I think I've looked everywhere.  Maybe I missed a spot.  Maybe he ran away.  Maybe he's alive somewhere, captured, tortured, beaten…

      Ran growled and shook the picture of the vibrant soccer player bleeding and in chains from his head.  Not now.  This isn't the place for this.

      He was cocooned in his own brand of misery, surrounded by female voices.  Heard his name spoken once in awhile, indiscreet whispers and ineffectively lowered voices.

      On the other side of the room, Omi was also bothered by the mysterious loss of their comrade, but was more polite to the women.  Yoji was doing some half-hearted, reflex-driven pick-ups, but the smile he favored his new 'target' with couldn't seem to reach his eyes, uncovered by the sunglasses hovering near the tip of his nose.

      Ran noted them vaguely.  Weiß was working on it.  Manx ordered them to make it their first priority-- missing agents was a definite danger; were they traitors? Were they hostages? The answers were so much more important than the actions that would follow it.  If Ken were caught by their enemies, no negotiations would be made.  It was the risk agents took, to forfeit their own lives in favor of the greater good.  Ran hoped they wouldn't have to make that decision.  To just let him die…

      "I'm going out," Ran said suddenly, to no one in particular.  He had to get some air.  He tore off his apron and headed out the door.

      He found himself drifting to the park.

      This is one of Ken's haunts, Ran thought fondly, absently.  He wondered what Ken liked about it.  All these people, bathed in the sun, smiles on their faces...

      Or, maybe, he wondered why he disliked it so much.  These people didn't know a thing about life, they didn't know shit about anything.

      Children's laughter.  Ah… a soccer game.  Ken should have been here.  Three siblings moved out of town, so Coach Ken had to go scout for new members of his team.  Ken had been talking about it to Omi and Yoji and maybe Ran too, except the redhead pretended to look disinterested and eventually, Ken just excluded him out of the conversation because of his embarrassment.

      Maybe he shouldn't be here after all…

      Weiß was supposed to be nothing but a stepping stone for him.  The way by which he could get to Takatori, the powerful murderer who had slain his parents and hurt his sister.  They weren't supposed to be anything but that.  He tried to distance himself from his three teammates, he really had.

      And yet here he was…

      Ken, where are you…?
      What are you doing? You're not supposed to be feeling this way…

      But from the very beginning, the soccer player had pierced into his hardened shell.  They had fought, Ran remembered, an involuntary smile teasing his lips.  It was some welcome into the team.

      It only got better from there.  Yoji, the off-handed mother hen.  Omi, the kid genius.  But there had been more depth.  Ran suddenly realized that the world didn't revolve around him and his vengeance.  Omi had to kill his own brothers, as well as being without parents and half of his memory.  Ken killed his own best friend, who had betrayed him.  Yoji had lost every woman he has ever truly loved, either by someone else's hand and once, even by his own. 

      Ken, where are you…?

      Why had the loss of the soccer player given him a different pang then he would have thought he could have for the others, somehow? He cared for each of the three equally as friends and yet…

      Maybe it was just that there was a lack of finality in the situation.  Was finding out he was dead better than never to find out about him at all? Yes, that had to be it.  He couldn't possibly…?

      Yes, he couldn't possibly.  This was Ken, for crying out loud and… he was him.  Both of them were male, as if it mattered because anyway, Ran Fujimiya couldn't love.

      Nature couldn't possibly let any of it be.

      He headed back to the shop.

      The first few moments of it was like zooming through a whirlwind.  A blast of cold, frigid air in a dim gray.

      It was hard to breathe here, in this freezing, dry air.  Schuldich nearly quit, his lungs burning, before he got to where he wanted to go.

      A total contradiction, he landed in a desert.  Wide and infinite.  Mountains of sand, an eternal sun hanging overhead, though pleasantly warm (anything was, now, compared to that hailstorm he just braved).

      "Where are you?" he asked softly, though his voice echoed through the desert, his mind calling to the consciousness that should be here somewhere…

      There.

      Ran Fujimiya appeared, as a mirage, in the near distance.  He stood cautiously under a tree by an oasis.  He had the face of a man who wondered if he was dreaming.

      Schuldich smirked.  This is as real as it can get, Abyssinian.  He headed toward the tall redhead, stopping just in front of him. 

      "Is this your happy place?" sneered Schuldich.

      Fujimiya frowned.  "My what?"

      Schuldich looked around.  "Every person has one, deep in their minds.  This one place they go to find peace, control"

      Fujimiya looked around too.  "I'm not happy," he pointed out, still wondering if this was some kind of a weird dream, or if there really was an intruder in his mind, a genuine possibility except they hadn't heard from Schuldich or the rest of his troop in ages.

      The hesitations reverberated in Schuldich, the mind-reader's head.  He found it prudent to reply.  "Yes, I am an intruder"

      Ran's eyes narrowed, calculated and decided to play out this line.  "What the hell are you up to now?"

      "You'd better be nice," sneered Schuldich, "I went to a lot of trouble to get here" Yes, the defenses earlier on had been extremely difficult to get through.

      "No one invited you"

      Schuldich laughed.  "Well, that's true too"
      Silence.  One that Ran was determined to keep.

      Sculdich sighed.  "All right, all right, here it is.  I want you to do something for me"

      The desert darkened noticeably just as Ran's mood did.  "The only thing I would want to have anything to do with you is to kill you"

      "Apparently," Schuldich said, looking around the desert. 

      Ran seemed to take stock of it just now.  He tried to calm himself.  "I'll have nothing to do with you.  Because I don't want to, I don't have to, and I don't have the time to"

      "I think you'll do it," Schuldich said confidently.

      "You're wrong," Ran said venomously, his spine tingling at why the German was so sure of himself.

      "You want something I have"

      "No more games, Schwarz," Ran growled, sensing what was coming.  "Just tell me straight out what the hell you want with me"

      "I want you to spy on Kritiker for me," Schuldich said, "in exchange for the life of one Siberian"

      Sandstorm.

      The winds howled viciously as the conflict arose in Ran's mind.  The two men stood in the eye of the storm, wary but untouched. 

      "We are affiliated to the company you stole the information from the night Siberian disappeared," said Schuldich, "We saw an opportunity, took Siberian out and kept him for our own uses.  In the least, we can sell him to the company you stole from and make a neat profit.  But I thought we'd come to you first, and find out the secrets of Kritiker"

      "Why bother?" fumed Ran, "Why ask me? Just look into my mind, damnit, that's all there is"

      "Power," said Schuldich, "is a useful tool.  I have plenty.  I've used it all to get everything I ever wanted.  It gets boring after a time.  And… it never got YOU, did it? It never defeated Weiß"

      Ran's eyes narrowed in irritation.  "I'll consult with the rest of Weiß"

      "No," Schuldich countered, "Let's keep this between you and me.  You are not to tell anyone, if you agree.  And remember… I can always look into your mind.  Any trace there of your having betrayed our secret, you can say goodbye to Siberian.  Not only will he not die quickly, I'll even grant you a front seat watching it, and plague you in your dreams"

      "Why me?" Ran asked, his mouth dry, fearing the answer.

      "I think you know why," Schuldich said blandly.

      Suddenly, the storm died down to an eerie, quiet calm.

      "I'll think about it," Ran said tightly.

      Schuldich looked around the calm desert. 

      "I think you've already made up your mind"

_______

      Had it been a dream?

      He hoped; but Ran Fujimiya was nothing if not practical.  It had been real.  Brutally, honestly real.

      "I think you've already made up your mind," the German said.  And it was true, though Ran was grateful that his enemy backed off and gave him the time he asked to think about it.

      He was going to make a deal with the devil himself.

      The day went by in a haze.

      Lucky for him, Yoji and Omi decided not to probe into the nuances of his mood, at the threat of his piercing violet glare. 

      He prayed the day would end swiftly, just bring him whatever hell it was his decision would lead to.  But at the same time he prayed it would last forever, so he wouldn't have to reach that dreaded time when he would tell his enemy that they had an Agreement.  Nothing made sense anymore…

      In the middle of a flower arrangement, he suddenly found himself laughing.  Softly and bitterly.  His ivory hands shook in front of his swimming vision. 

      Schuldich is mastering the art that has long been eluding great, sinister minds that came before him.

      How do you make a traitor?

      You make him love.  Then you make him lose.  Then you catch him somewhere in between--

      Wait.

      Love? Did he just THINK that?

      "Ran…" Yoji muttered from the corner of his mouth, looking at the redhead anxiously.  "Ran…"
      "It's nothing," Ran said easily, eyes glinting up in mischief at the tall blonde.  Does he know, Ran wondered, that he is looking into the face of a traitor?

      "Maybe you'd better take a break," Yoji said nervously, "um…"

      "It's nothing," Ran said again, coldly now.  You're fucking blind, Kudo.  My world just changed.  Can't you see it?

      "We'll find Ken, all right?" Yoji told him in a low, determined voice, "I swear it.  Weiß… we take care of our own"
      "We'll find him?" Ran asked skeptically.

      "Yes," Yoji replied.

      "We?" Ran repeated, laughter bubbling up within him again.

      "Yes!" Yoji said, starting to get very annoyed.

      Ran laughed at him.  Then stopped and just decided to ignore the blonde.  Life is simpler in your world. 

      No betrayals. 

      No betrayers.

      And no love that has to span an eternity just to… be.

      Wait.

      Love? Did he just THINK that?

      This is like a recurring nightmare.

      Let the day last.

      Let the day end.

      Just get me out of here…

      Desert.

      Dry, desolate. 

      Decided.

      "There's no one else here," Schuldich complained to Ran, wrinkling his nose at the Japanese man.

      "What?" Ran asked impatiently.

      "There's no one else here," Schuldich repeated, "there's got to be someone else here.  It's your Happy Place, for crying out loud.  I thought I'd find your sister, at least"

      --

      "Well?" pressed Schuldich, "Don't be shy.  I want to know why you're alone here and why you aren't happy in your Happy Place"
      --

      "I can always pick your mind apart," Schuldich said thoughtfully, "play with it piece by piece, find out everything that I want--"
      "No one else," Ran cut him off, "deserves to be here with me"
      "Aren't we masochistic"
      --

      "Anyway," said Schuldich, "I guess it's just weird that no one else is here.  I took a little tour, you know.  Happened to be in the neighborhood"

      "Fuck"

      Schuldich grinned.  "So.  What's your choice?"
      "You know what my choice is"
      "I want to hear you say it"

      --

      "I'll be your mole," Ran spat, "Just give him back.  Alive, safe and happy"

      "I'm not so sure about the happy part--"
      "When?" Ran pressed, "When do you bring him back? How? What are your goddamn rules?"
      "You give me everything you know about Kritiker freely for a week," Schuldich said, "Then you'll get him back"
      "He's going to wonder why you set him free," Ran said uneasily.

      "Yes," agreed Schuldich, "You wouldn't, by any chance, mind if I tell him he's free because of your duplicity, would you?"
      "Bastard"
      Schuldich laughed.  "Thought so.  Well.  I'll think of something.  But you'll get your Siberian back, I promise.  And without him knowing about your dirty little part in it.

      "Isn't this fun?" Schuldich sneered, his eyes glinting in acid triumph, "We've become accomplices"
      Ran stared at him, trying to probe into his face.

      "What's the point?" he asked the German, "You can do this without me.  Why do you hate us so much?"
      --

      Why indeed?

      "You and your kind stand up for everything that I've never known," Schuldich said darkly, "Where were you when I was the one who was in need? You and your kind stand up for everything that isn't supposed to be.  Survival of the fittest.  We have the power, not you.  Why…?"
      Schuldich paused, catching himself.  Then grinned.  "Well.  As they say.  Shit happens, right?"

      Ran stared at him.  Nodded in agreement.

      "I'll leave you now so you can think about your sins," said Schuldich.

      "Wait," called Ran belatedly, "You'll stick by your word?"
      Schuldich looked at him closely.  Frowned.

      "You're pathetic," the German said, before leaving.

      But somehow, Ran sensed he would keep his end of the bargain.

      Yoji mulled over a bouquet of gentians that he was arranging for a woman who had asked for Ken.

      "He's sick," Yoji said evasively.  A few days ago, Omi had told someone Ken was on a date.  Before that, the excuse had been that he was on vacation.  It changed everyday, almost, depending on the mood of whomever was asked.  Lately, the excuses have been getting more and more morose.

      Yoji handed the bouquet to the woman who smiled at him shyly.  "Give it to Ken," she said as she paid, "Tell him I hope he feels better"
      Yoji watched her leave the shop.  Counted to ten in his head before he placed the bouquet in the fridge, with four others.  Weiß will sell them again, because business is business.  He had no qualms about shitting at sentimentality.  He liked to think that it was all he was forsaking.  He didn't want to think he'd do it because the one the flowers were meant for wasn't going to come back anyway…

      They didn't even have a fragment of a lead in this case.  Ken just vanished, plainly and simply.  Who the hell knew where he was?

      Yoji glanced at Omi.  He was tired from staying up late, juggling research and school and the shop.  Yoji knew Omi was killing himself each night, looking for clues as to where Ken was.  Typical.  As for the other man there… He considered Ran worriedly.  The redhead was breaking.  There was… something there, in those purple eyes.  Something he had never expected, and doubted that the redhead expected it himself.

      Chimes on the door.  It clang everytime someone entered or exited, but for some reason, he could always tell if it was going to be Manx.

      Kitada Hanae--Manx, the daunting woman with the red hair and the vibrant eyes, stood against the door expectantly.

      Obligated, each of Weiß made their respected exits, well-oiled lines that the women minded, but didn't dare contradict. 

      Yoji wondered what the hell this was going to be about now.

      Ran didn't know much about Kritiker.

      He knew about Manx and Birman.  He knew about a few bases, which their group went to only because of extreme cases of injury.  He knew about concluded missions of White Cross.  He knew that the organization had several branches.  That was all.

      It had been serendipitous, really.  He made the bargain with Schuldich for the sole reason of wanting to get Ken back.  That was all.  Then he realized, he was lucky that he wouldn't be giving his enemy too much anyway, because he didn't have anything important.  Schuldich already knew about Manx and Birman, as well as the branches of Kritiker, as they probably knew of the bases, which were well-fortified anyway.  Concluded missions were just that: finished, useless.  His betrayal wouldn't be too bad after all.

      And yet here Manx was…

      It's funny how fate plays with you.  Funny, funny.

      She gave them a new mission: Three of Kritiker's heads were to meet for a council on the organization.  Weiß, being one of the best, was assigned to be bodyguards.  Of course, there would be back-up.  But the fewer the better, so as not to be conspicuous.  And if there had to be few, they might as well be the best in the field.

      "Do you accept?" she asked them, knowing they would.

      But she didn't know anything about what was going on in Ran's panicked mind. 

      "No," he said tightly, "We are in the middle of an investigation of our own.  Apart from the reason that we would be ill-equipped for a mission this important with one of our members missing"
      Manx frowned.  Then nodded.  It made sense.  Of course it did.  Ran Fujimiya made everything seem so sensible.

      There.  He has said it.  Schwarz would know about the mission.  Ran knew he had jeopardized the lives of other Kritiker agents.  But as long as it wasn't anyone from Weiß…

      God, what have I done? I'm entrenching myself, deeper and deeper into this mess…

      He hadn't realized that they meant so much to him.

      Manx left, disappointed but understanding.

      Ran closed his eyes.

      I couldn't ask for forgiveness.  It wouldn't be given.  And he certainly found it preposterous to think he would ever deserve it.

      He had sealed their fate as much as he had his own.

_______

      Desert.

      Schuldich stood in front of Ran Fujimiya, looking at the Japanese man thoughtfully.

      The desert in his mind was reasonably calm, but Schuldich noted the slight wind that formed ripples in the sand, and made little tornadoes on the ground, shifting, shifting.  Was it just him or was the sun hotter, the water from the lonely oasis lower, dirtier?

      "We will destroy Kritiker," Schuldich said.

      "I know," Ran said.

      "You have helped us greatly," Schuldich said, testing the redhead who just glared at him in defiance.

      "You have what you want," grated Ran, "Just leave"

      "I'll leave you to think about your sins," Schuldich sneered, walking away.

      Ran stood there, not wanting to give the German the satisfaction, but wasn't able to help it.

      Sins…

      Would there ever come a time when the sins would be too much, that he has committed each one and wouldn't have to feel the guilt about it anymore?

      He hoped not, and hoped so all at once.

      But that didn't matter now.

      Nothing else mattered until you are safe, he decided.

      Six days.

      Six more days of betrayal, until you come back to me.
      But he doubted he could ever leave behind being a traitor, even after that time.  There were things that always stayed. 

      There were things that even being with you again couldn't right.

      Ran thought that he was already resigned.

      He thought he already knew the consequences and was willing to risk them, in favor of Ken.

      But he never imagined anything like this.

      The three heads of Kritiker were dead, as well as thirty Kritiker agents who had died trying to protect them.

      All those who survived assured them that it was none other than Schwarz.

      His betrayal is now complete.

      Ran's vision swam, and bile rose in his throat as he made his ragged way back up to his apartment from the basement, where a hard-eyed Manx told them they had a new mission on top of anything else: the elimination of Schwarz.

      The idea of a traitor hadn't even crossed Kritiker's minds, blinded by their anger as well as daunted by Schwarz's power; having a mind-reader on-hand, it couldn't have been that hard to find out.

      Of course, especially in light of the situation, Weiß said yes.  But Ran Fujimiya thought they were going after the wrong people.

      There's a traitor in your midst, you idiots!

      He locked his door behind him, before falling to his knees on the floor, shaking.

      You're going after the wrong guy!

      I just got assigned to go after me!

      It was almost funny.

      So funny he started to chuckle with it.

      The idea just tickled him.

      "Maybe I'd die laughing," he giggled to himself, then suddenly broke with a sob, taking in heaving breaths that were all too inadequate.

      "God…" he moaned, then stopped in mid-prayer.  No, he didn't deserve mercy, even from that high up.

      He ran his hands through his hair, nails curling into his flesh, leaving his pale skin with red marks.

      I've just sold my soul for you, Ken…

      And I don't even know you're alive.

      Ran glanced at his katana, leaning majestically against the wall of his room.  It was in its sheath, but seemed to glow, calling him.

      I'm going to hell for you, Ken.  And I don't even know if you're still alive.

      Maybe you're dead already. 

      Maybe I'll follow you soon--

      Desert.

      The next thing Ran knew, he was kneeling in the middle of his mind, in front of Schuldich.  The oasis was all-dried-up now, and the trees were dying out slowly before his very eyes.

      "Damn you," Ran seethed.

      "I think," Schuldich said in a triumph that sat and hesitated in his eyes, "Damn us both"
      The sands started to stir in a sudden storm.  Restless, angry, unyielding, indiscriminate.  They whipped against each other, as they tossed against the two humans.

      "You killed them!" Ran raged.

      "So did you!" snapped Schuldich.

      Ran screamed in undiluted anger, as the sandstorm reached its climax in a sudden rush, then lowered gradually as its master placed his hands over his face in anguish.  In defeat.

      "I hate you," Ran said tightly, "Ken's dead.  I'll confess now.  I'll get punished but that's okay.  Because you can't do anything to me anymore.  Ken's dead.

      "I'm leaving now," Ran declared, getting slowly to his feet.

      "You don't sound as if you've actually convinced yourself," pointed out Schuldich. 

      "Ken's dead," Ran repeated shakily, "You can't do anything to me anymore--"
      "I said he was alive," interrupted Schuldich, "I meant what I said"

      I might regret this…

      "Show me," Ran whispered.

      All too ironically, it reminded Schuldich of a thirsty man in the middle of a desert.

      You fall asleep and it's dark.

      When you wake up it's dark too.

      Ken had thought he was blind.  It was his initial fear, his most basic, most absolute fear when he woke up thinking he had lost his vision…

      It took him awhile to realize his eyes were bound, just as his wrists were, and his feet.  He squirmed impatiently and in an effort to test his bonds.

      These were Great bonds, if anything ever was.  Downright… boy-scout-ish, except he was pretty sure he wasn't being kept captive by anyone remotely close to a boy scout.

      He was stiff and sore from being tied up and from lying on nothing but the hard floor, probably for hours now.  He could hear no sound from his surroundings--then again, he couldn't really hear anything apart from the frantic sound of his own heart, recovering from its initial shock.

      What had happened?

      He ran afoul of several of the guards in the mission, an encounter which had injured him.  He had blacked out, but not completely before he realized that someone was taking him away.  The grip had been sure and unobtrusive; there'd been a shock of red hair, and he remembered thinking it might have been Ran except… Ran's wasn't carrot-colored.  The last man who owned a head of red hair that shade was… a past he had much rather forget about.

      He was tied.  Therefore, he was undoubtedly in enemy territory (how embarrassing).  But how long has he been here? And why didn't he ache from anything else but the initial injury that had him blacking out in the first place?

      He was being kept alive, surely.  But for what?

      Ransom? Kritiker wouldn't condone it.  Torture him for information? The idea made him shudder.  They'd end up killing him in the most brutal way, because he wouldn't tell them shit, nor ever could because he didn't really know anything important.  It was surely the greatest possibility, a none too comforting fact.

      He didn't want to think about it anymore.

      He grunted and shifted his weight impatiently.  This is boring.

      He'll have to wait for his captors to make the first move.

      As if he could do anything else anyway.

      Ran stood in the makeshift prison, an unfurnished room the size of a cabinet.  It was reasonably well-lit in a flat white, and was without windows.

      He stood beside Schuldich.  The two of them looked like ghosts, translucent men who loomed over Ken Hidaka, lying on his side on the floor.

      He looked pale and shocky, but was otherwise doing well.  He still wore his mission clothes sans the bugnuks and most likely, whatever weapons he might have had concealed in his person.  His wrists were tied together, as well as his forearms, on his back.  So were his knees and ankles.  There was a tie over his eyes as well, though thankfully none on his mouth.  It looked like a goddamn position to Ran, but mostly, he noted that Ken seemed more annoyed than in pain.

      It angered him anyway, and turned to Schuldich accusingly. 

      "Hey, don't blame us for being cautious," said the German, "you boys have always been a handful.  And yes, you can talk, if you're wondering.  He can't hear you"
      "This isn't the way to keep him," pointed out Ran, "he's injured, in case you've missed it"

      "Wouldn't it be a little suspicious if we kept him in a five-star hotel?" snapped Schuldich, "He's fine.  Not in any danger of dying, or anything"
      "You feed him?" asked Ran.

      "Intravenously," said Schuldich, "He is not going anywhere near forks and knives.  And incidentally," he added wryly, "we make him drink too.  Once in awhile, whenever we feel like it.  He will also get to go to the bathroom when he asks for it.  We know how to keep our prisoners, Fujimiya.  Don't get all uptight here"

      "I'm concerned of the injuries," said Ran, "No infection?"
      "None," guaranteed Schuldich, "he'll be your problem at the end of the week"
      "Good," Ran said, wondering after he said it if it had been the correct remark.  "He… won't know any of this"
      "He'll never know," promised Schuldich, looking at the redhead with interest.  He had been near-mad, just a few minutes ago.  And here he was, all composed again.  Funny how quickly people change.

      For Ran, it was infinitely simpler.

      Ran lowered himself to his knees in front of his fallen comrade.  If he touched him, would Ken feel it?

      Ran hesitated, then lowered his hand to his side and made a fist of it.  Later.  When I take you back.  When you're safe.  When this is over.  You'll hear what I have to say.

      Ken's alive. 

      The motive is clear now.

      He'll do what he has to in order to keep him that way.

_______

      Another day another murder.

      When would that ever sound normal? What kind of a man would he be by that time?

      Subhuman.

      He longed for the numbness it would bring almost as much as he detested it.

      Day six of his treason.  Murder number thirty-seven has been committed.  By now, thirty-seven Kritiker agents already died by the hands of Schwarz, aided by their invisible inside man.

      Ran clung to the reunion a day from now.  It had become an obsession he couldn't shake.  Understandably.  It had been the justification for his betrayal.  Ken's safe.  The light at the end of this long, goddamn endless tunnel.

      After so many killings, Kritiker piped down in the missions for awhile and focused their eyes on the situation.  It was going crazy up and down, trying to reorganize the organization and recruit new agents and hunt down whoever is responsible.

      Murder no. 37 would be the last of its nature, Ran decided.  Manx wouldn't be coming in for awhile, unknowingly leaking information, because they were too busy with everything else.

      Ran's concern, for the moment, was to plan how to get Ken back, discreetly and with all bases covered.  He needed to come up with a situation that had no holes in it, no questions, no suspicions.

      He hoped the German would come visit him soon, so they can end this shit of a Deal.

      "Koneko," Omi said quickly, answering the phone in the flower shop, tucking in the receiver against his neck as he used both hands to prop up an arrangement of daisies.

     It was Manx.  "Within the next few minutes someone is going to come in there and ask you to deliver me something.  Ride along and watch him closely.  Tell him not to go to work tonight"

      Click.

      Omi put down the phone and sighed.  He hoped this had something to do with Ken.  It just wasn't the same around here without him.  Each time he thinks he's succeeded in distracting himself from his worries, a troop of kids comes along, bullies their way through the shop and asks for their missing coach.

      He wondered what this was about, when a collective murmur erupted in the shop from their patrons.  It was a sound of detecting new fish in the sea…

      The comparison made Omi wince in embarrassment.  Truth hurt.

      In came a man about their age.  He had a compact built, lean and balanced.  A pale, chiseled face with an easy smile, though his glassy silver eyes seemed a little hesitant, classy features set of by short, shagging hair of the darkest black, in what could either be described as disarray, or artless style.

      He headed straight for Omi behind the counter; the women parted like the Red Sea for Moses.  Amazing what good looks could do for you.

      "Hi," he greeted, biting his lip in anxiety, "Um.  I want you to fix me up a bunch of hyacinths, and have it delivered to this lady"

      "All right," Omi said with a guarded smile, trying to ease the man into some semblance of relaxation, "A dozen all right?"
      "You know your job, I guess," the man shrugged, looking Omi straight in the eye.  Double entendre there.

      "We're the best at what we do," Omi said cheerfully, feeling relieved that the man was discreet.  It was obvious that he wasn't one of Kritiker's tired and tried agents; this was a newbie, hesitant but perceptive. 

      "Good," the man breathed.  "All right.  That looks nice"

      Omi did his magic, fixing the bouquet.  Then handed it to the man for inspection.  The man was a natural at palming, Omi noted.  The man just went and slipped a microfilm in there, all in the guise of inspecting the flowers.  No one less than a professional could have noticed it.

      "I'm sure she'll like these," Omi said.

      "I think so too," said the man, "Um… Make out the card to Kitada Hanae, will you? Um… Love always, Ian"
      "Ahh," Omi said, "Okay.  We'll deliver it immediately.  You don't have to bother with the address.  We get ordered to bring this lady flowers all the time"
      "I see," the man--Ian said, smiling, reassured, and totally unlike the smitten, jealous loverboy he should have been.  But Omi thought, with a little work, they could be colleagues one day.

      "But I'm sure she will treat these as extra special," said Omi, "you might even want to go out with her tonight"
      "I have work," Ian said with a slight frown.

      "Then skip it," suggested Omi in a deceptively light tone, "This kind of thing…it's once in a lifetime"
      Yup.  It just takes one mistake and you're dead, do you'd better do as I tell you…

      "That sounds like a neat idea," Ian said, paying for the bouquet.  "Thanks," he said before leaving the shop.  Female chatter dominated the room, with him as the undoubted topic.

      "Who was that, Omi?" one of the girls asked him.

      Chimes.  Manx stepped into the shop, making the pretty girls seem overly immature and overly frivolous.  One or two of them might have started to notice that the boys always have to leave each time she arrives.  But annoyance at her is so much more potent than suspicion.

      "That," said Omi, "is Her boyfriend.  So hands off"

      They went down to the basement, Manx quite fascinated by the hyacinths almost as much as she was fascinated by the microfilm.

      "What did you think of my prospect?" she asked Omi.

      "As a lover or as an agent?"
      "Funny," she said flatly, "You'll forgive me if I don't laugh"

      "He has potential," Omi said.  "What's up with him?"

      "That's Ian," Manx said, "a half-breed orphan.  Certified genius, used to do second-story work"

      "Like what?" asked Yoji, just getting the swing of the conversation.

      "Stealing," said Manx, "Palming, pick-pocketing.  Before we instilled his loyalty, we did a background check.  Used his… earnings to pay his way through school.  After that, he went legit and did menial work for Delta Pharmaceuticals, which pays for college"

      "What would Kritiker want with him?" asked Omi.

      "Delta Pharmaceuticals is suspected of an intricate bioterrorism plot," said Manx, "Poisons, viruses, epidemics.  You get the picture.  Kritiker wants him first as a spy.  Then, maybe, as an agent.  We've surely been lacking, don't you think?"
      "Anyway," she quickly changed the painful subject, "this is urgent, so we pooled what's left of our resources and concentrated on this before anything else, to work on as we get back on our feet.  I'm sure… that even without Siberian, you can handle this.  Your next mission is to kill the heads of Delta, on a raid tonight"
      "I could have guessed," sighed Omi, complaining without much heart.  They've been denying missions in order to concentrate on Ken, but it all seemed fruitless.  Besides, not only did he need a real distraction from their missing member, also, maybe Ken wouldn't want an epidemic out in Tokyo.

      Yoji might have been thinking the same thing.  Ran… Ran saw an opportunity.

      "We accept," he said.

      Desert.

      For the first time, Schuldich saw it during the night.  A lot of stars, not really so dark.  Calm, but cold. 

      Fujimiya was where he always was, in his now-dried-up oasis.  He stood at a ready stance, with determination in his eyes.

      "After this," said Ran, "we'll never have to hear from each other again outside of the field of battle"
      "Yeah," said Schuldich wryly, "don't make me cry or anything"
      "I have a plan on how you can bring him back to m-us" said Ran, temporarily shaken from his control.

      "Yeah?"
      "We have a mission tonight," said Ran, "sell him to our targets"

      "I get the idea," said Schuldich, "make Hidaka think he's been sold to the highest bidder, which also justifies why we kept him alive.  We get the money and leave him to your target, who will do one or both of two things: torture him for information, or ransom him out, trade him.  And you're sure you can handle these small-scale-hirelings-type, right?"

      Ran nodded.  "Do you accept the terms?"
      "I said I stick by my word," Schuldich said blandly.

      "After this," said Ran, "If we should see each other gain it will be as if none of this ever took place"
      "Your betrayal will be kept from Siberian," Schuldich guaranteed. 

      "Good," Ran breathed.  "Why is this so easy?"
      "Cos I know we can get you again, if we wanted," said Schuldich.  "Well, it's been fun," he sneered as he vanished.

      Ran was alone.

      The desert was again, what he had always wanted.

      Calm and empty.

      Careless hands tore the bonds from his eyes.

      He squinted in the assault of the sudden light, light that his eyes had not seen for days.  Unused muscles twitched involuntarily as he tried to stare into the face of his captor.

      The Irishman.  Farfello, was leering at him.

      "Time to go," he said jovially.

      "About time," Ken croaked, grateful for the change in his darkness, even if the change was Schwarz.  Now he knew he was doomed.  But it would be so much better than the anguish of the days he had spent unable to see, unable to move, not knowing anything.

      He was hustled around.  He wanted to keep his eyes open so he could see where he was, have some useful information for Weiß on Schwarz's hideout if he should survive.  But his eyes closed involuntarily from the light.

      He muttered curses, and was shoved into a car, which moved for how long, he couldn't guess.  He has long since lost his sense of time.

      Eventually they did stop.  Impatuently, he forced his eyes open to look into the face of Crawford, the American pre-cog.

      "Congratulations," he said, "You go to the highest bidder for Kritiker goods"

      "Thanks," said Ken sarcastically, wondering what the catch was.

      "We'll see each other again," said Crawford thoughtfully, in such a pensive manner that made Ken shudder in wonder, "and not in the way you would think"
      A hand lashed out. 

      He lost consciousness again.

      They hadn't counted on finding…him.

      It might have been an understatement to say Yoji and Omi were surprised to find Siberian in the hands of their Delta Pharmaceuticals targets.

      Unconscious but alive.

      It stopped them short for a moment, but only succeeded in making them so much more angry, so much more determined.

      "When our information was stolen," one of the targets said, misled triumph in his eyes, "We knew our number was up.  We're not stupid.  We know of the organization that takes people like us down.  So we went shopping for a little wild card"
      Were his eyes just a little bit vacant? Ran figured these thoughts had been courtesy of Schuldich, maybe.  Maybe.

      "Schwarz…" Yoji growled, anger taking over, hindering him from seeing what Ran clearly saw.

      "Surrender and the four of you can die together," said the man.

      It took him two blinks before he died.  Three times over, dart, wire and blade.  His friends too.

      Ran looked down at Ken's unconscious form, which Omi and Yoji anxiously hovered over.

      The loose ends had been tied.

      "Is he all right?" Ran asked tightly, trying to keep his face straight, his voice stern and yet… as Yoji's eyes peered into his own, there had been a secret there.  Loud and unyielding.

      "Yes," the blonde said at last, "He's all right"

      Ran wondered if Ken would ever know how much his life and freedom had cost.  The price of the soul is indeterminable…

      If Siberian would ever know how deep the love for him had been.

      It had been a week since his return.

      Kritiker, just like a cat falling from a high place, landed on their feet and simply licked their wounds and went on as they were.

      Ian had been hired to an Intelligence post.

      Weiß had mission after mission, as they always did.

      Ran, no matter what kind of encouragement he gave himself, still kept the secret of his love hidden from painfully oblivious eyes.

      There would be a mission tonight, to steal information.

      Ran told himself what he has been telling himself since Ken returned.

      Tonight he would know I care.

THE END

February 28, 2001

"Mane Thecel Phares" means one has been weighed, measured and found wanting in Latin.  It is the prequel to "Via Crucis," which had been one of my most popular fics.