Force of Habit: Chapter Twelve

//Sometimes I'm everything you've ever asked God for

And more but recently I've asked myself what for

If there's no feeling left then I can't see the view

This lack of motivation tells me this is true

I'm drowning inside of you

We have to cry, like we've never cried before

We have to die like we've never died before

Hesitation, separation, rolling dice all day

Try to find the options but they strayed along the way

Knock me down then lift me up confused beyond belief

Demoted back to Hell again but there I find release

Nothing seems impossible I dwell on self abuse

If you decide to kick the stool I'll tighten up the noose

I find, I find release//

SOUNDISCIPLES, End of an Error

Those who forget their mistakes are doomed to repeat them. It was the standard modern history drivel that had been drummed into Schuldig like every other European school-going kid for as long as he could remember. Perhaps that was why he found his current situation so fucking amusing. He had always thought his mistake had been his unwillingness to give his life up for that of his friend, but it turned out it had been interpreting the actions of a certain pre-cog as being due to concern for Schuldig. And like the most pathetic kind of idiot, he'd fallen victim to the man again. But this time he knew it. In that moment he'd seen the whole of Crawford's mind laid out before him.

With that had come the discovery that his life had never been in danger due to the escape attempt. On the contrary, the Delphic Unit had hazy images of the German successfully making his way to Berlin, thereby proving that Yue too would have gotten away from Rosenkreuz's clutches. But he'd stopped them all, had effectively destroyed the one who had been his best friend and caused the death of Asuka for nothing. For eleven years of guilt and working with a man who didn't see him as anything other than a useful tool. The lack of any emotional ties to the redhead in Crawford's mind shouldn't have surprised the German after everything else he'd seen in there, but for some inexplicable reason it still hurt.

He hadn't even bothered to get angry with the other man, knowing that expecting any kind of emotional response from Crawford was futile. Instead, he had silently gathered up his things and left the apartment without another word. No one tried to stop him; Aya and Nagi were obviously still asleep and Farfarello was locked up as per usual. He'd made it all the way down to the docks and smoked his way through half a packet before the reason for his easy escape chose to make itself known.

The echoing ring of approaching footsteps was not enough to merit turning his attention away from the smouldering filter in his hands. The unmistakable click of a safety being released from a gun caused him to pause for a moment, before raising the cigarette again to his lips. "How the fuck did you find me?" he asked, keeping his face firmly facing the sea.

There was a sigh from behind him. "You haven't even noticed yet, have you?" Crawford said in a tone as free from emotion as ever. "You can't hide from me as we're still linked. The bond between a telepath and pre-cog is permanent."

Schuldig snorted and flicked the glowing remains of his cigarette into the water. "Still sounds like an awful lot of effort compared to GPS." There was another pause before Schuldig pulled another cigarette free from the packet. "Planning on shooting me, Crawford?" he asked idly. "It would certainly be one way of preventing Void from completing the task."

"So would simply excluding you from this assignment," Crawford responded. "Which happens to be precisely what I have in mind."

The German let out a humourless laugh. "That is somewhat of a lousy idea considering we're surrounded by Weavers. Do you really think the spiders are going to let you start spinning your own web?" Through the connection in his mind to the American, Schuldig was able to sense as Brad looked around and noticed the silent figures that surrounded the pair. There was a rustle of fabric as the gun raised to the back of the German's head was lowered and then put away.

Almost instantly the pair were surrounded by the Delphic Unit's operatives. "Crawford," one spoke up in a tone that made the American sound positively overemotional. "It is the orders of Janus and the Delphic Unit that we ensure your presence at the following address tonight. There you will be presented with the chance to re-obtain Void and remove him from the unknown group. Should he fail to rejoin Schwarz, the telepath Schuldig will accompany us back to Rosenkreuz."

Throwing his final cigarette to the ground as he rose to his feet, Schuldig smirked at the impassive faces that surrounded him. "You make it sound so tempting, I think my colleagues may find motivation hard to come by." Stepping around the American without so much as a glance at the Schwarz leader, Schuldig stretched his arms casually above his head. "Well, it appears I should home and get some sleep before all the fun starts." Crawford made a move towards the telepath, but Schuldig dodged it easily using his faster reflexes and continued with an unhurried step back towards the apartment. Behind him, the Weavers began to follow at a discreet distance, but the American remained down by the docks. Schuldig left him there.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A quiet knock at the door gave Yohji the required split second to throw his cigarette out of the window before Ran entered the room. The redhead must have noticed the smell of cigarette smoke, but chose not to comment on it. Instead he fixed Yohji with a questioning stare. "Your guest just left. Any inclination of telling me what it was about?"

Yohji grinned without humour and shifted his position by the window, giving the other man room to come and sit by him. "Not really."

Ran nodded as if to himself as he made his way over to join the other man by the window. Keeping his eyes carefully observing Yohji's face, Ran reached out and brushed a stray blond strand behind the other man's ear. "In that case, how much effort is it going to take to force some information out of you?"

Yohji arched an eyebrow in surprise at the redhead. "Planning on seducing the answers out of me, Ran?"

The other man snorted slightly, but kept his hand gently playing with the wavy strands of blond hair. Yohji felt his eyes begin to close at the soothing, gentle tugging sensations the man was causing. Warm breath drifted across his cheek as Ran leaned in close enough for the blond to feel the redhead's lips brushing against his in an almost caress. "I always thought that was more your style," Ran replied. "I was actually planning on sitting here with a sympathetic ear should you feel inclined to use it."

A wolfish grin spread across Yohji's features as he opened his eyes again to find the other man's face practically touching his own. Bringing his own hand up to bury itself in the soft crimson strands and pull Ran's face the final few required millimetres, Yohji deepened the feather-light brush of lips to something more substantial. The redhead responded with more pressure of his own before opening his mouth to admit the blond.

Yohji's questing tongue revealed in the unique flavour of Ran's mouth before the redhead pulled slowly backwards and broke off the kiss. "Still don't feel like talking?" Ran enquired as his fingers crept up to the collar of Yohji's shirt and began to play with the buttons there, twisting them and letting them fall from his grip. Gradually the fingers slid from the fabric to the skin underneath and traced lazy patterns idly across Yohji's collarbone.

Looking at Ran in suspicion, Yohji fought back the response his body was desperately trying to achieve. "For someone not intending to seduce me, your actions could be easily misconstrued."

Ran smiled again. "Maybe I'm just horny."

Yohji laughed. "Now I know you're trying to seduce me into talking. Either that or you're the latest one to have your personality reprogrammed."

A roll of amethyst eyes and another quiet snort answered the blond as the other man continued to play idly with Yohji's shirt. "You just seemed troubled," Ran said at last, his voice neutral and eyes firmly fixed on the fabric he was twisting and sliding through his fingers. "I thought maybe if you talked about whatever's wrong it would help. But if all you want is someone to help take your mind off things, that's okay too."

Yohji felt his eyebrows draw together slightly as he gently slid his hand under Ran's chin and tilted the pale face so that he was staring directly into those incredible violet orbs. "Aren't you forgetting something?" he asked gently. "What about you? What do you want?"

Ran paused. "I just want you to be happy," he said at last, breaking off his gaze as he did so as though unsure of the response such an answer would cause.

Yohji smiled and moved in to kiss the other man again. "For someone who acts so cool and aloof, you really are a romantic at heart, aren't you?" A hand whacked the back of the blond's head, but Ran seemed too involved to actually break away and form a real answer. The blond let his hands trail slowly down from their grip in the crimson strands to entangle amongst the soft cotton of Ran's shirt before slowly sliding the buttons out of their fastenings. Yohji felt Ran shift closer as his fingers began to explore the man's pale skin and concentrated on pushing Mika's warning to the back of his mind.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The strong sense of disorientation must have been responsible for the extended amount of time it took Ran to realise that he was dreaming. Not that the bland interior of a lift was the usual setting for his sleeping mind. On the rare occasions he recalled his dreams, they always involved his sister or the faceless victims of his blade. So he studied the mirrored walls with great suspicion, unable to remember where he had seen a lift like this before. From the reflections of the lift's highly polished sides, Ran could see he wore his assassin gear, but even that detail failed to help him fix the location in his normally impeccable memory.

The lift shuddered slightly, indicating that Ran had arrived at a floor, even though the panel above the doors remained blank. With a chime the doors slid open to reveal darkness so thick it almost seemed tangible. A waft of cold air, heavy with the damp smell that comes from being underground reached the redhead's awareness and not seeing any other option, Ran stepped slowly out of the elevator. The floor was uneven underfoot and the redhead squinted down through the gloom in the hope of keeping his balance. While thus occupied, the doors slid shut again leaving Ran in darkness.

Unwilling to simply stay put in such an environment, Ran turned back to where the elevator doors should have been and reached out a hand to locate the call button. Instead his hand found only air. Frowning, the redhead turned to face his original direction and, not seeing any other option, began to make his way along the corridor.

The ground didn't become any smoother as Ran walked further along and rather than continue to stumble, he reached out a hand to brush against the wall for balance. Even through the leather gloves he wore, the redhead could tell that the wall was no smoother than the ground and out of curiosity, removed one of his gloves to run his fingers lightly over the surface. The questing digits encountered cold stone, damp from seeping rainwater and patches of muddy earth that crumbled at his touch. Ran withdrew his hand with an expression of distaste on his face before sighing quietly and replacing his hand. Putting his glove back on now would simply ruin the leather and he had no intention of continuing to stumble around so the wall would have to guide him.

He had gone no more than a few steps however when a noise ahead of him drew Ran up short. The distortion caused by the echoes of the enclosed space made the original sound hard to discern and the redhead froze completely, not wanting to move before he identified the possible threat. He didn't have to wait long; it appeared to be a fairly rhythmical, if somewhat slow, beat interspersed with a fainter noise that sounded off-key and caused his hair to stand on edge. It only took Ran a few moments to recognise the noise as that of a badly rusted door banging against its doorframe.

Relieved at having found a possible exit from his current location, the redhead began to make his way forward. His eyes appeared to finally be adjusting to the gloom and so he was able to move slightly faster and with more confidence over the uneven ground. The door was up ahead, a collection of broken boards indicating that at some point in the past this particular portal had been boarded up. Possibly due to the apparent instability of the underground tunnels, Ran mused. The whole place looked as though any minor shower would cause major subsidence.

The redhead reached out a hand to push the door open and peered into the darkness on the other side. A shuffling, scraping sound alerted him to another presence and as Ran squinted into the gloom, he was disquieted to find himself on the verge of panic. Clamping down firmly on the emotion, Ran slowly edged into the room. There was a figure standing in one of the corners, little more than a black shape against the darkness and for some unknown reason, Ran felt it best to draw as little of the stranger's attention to himself as possible. Even though there was no movement or other indication to show any awareness on the figure's part, Ran found himself moving as slowly as possible.

There was a flicker of movement in the general area of the stranger's wrist as a whispering noise filled the room. From out of the darkness snaked a multitude of wires, their thin strands wrapping around Ran and forcing him to his knees. Even once he'd been forced to the ground, the net around the redhead continued to tighten, making Ran gasp for breath.

Footsteps and an amused chuckle caused his eyes to snap upwards once again. A nightmare from his past looked down on him. "None of you ever seem to learn," Void remarked in much the same tone of voice as used for discussing the weather. "All of you, so pathetic and powerless, nevertheless seek to control me. It doesn't work that way. Only one who exists outside the webs can truly influence them. Anything else is mere delusion."

Ran tried to force himself to calm down and keep his expression neutral. "You don't exist anymore. In fact, you never really did. This is all in my mind."

An almost imperceptible movement of the wrist and the wires around Ran began to cut through his leather coat. The redhead hissed involuntarily, but was in no doubt that Void had heard his reaction. The blond leaned closer, a golden stream of hair sliding smoothly over one shoulder. "This is indeed in your mind, but even a normal mind can't block me out. I have always been here. I am the essential part of his existence. Yue, Yohji, call him what you like, but it's still nothing more than a shell for me. You can try to shut me away, imprisoned behind blocks, but I'll always find a way to break free."

"You mean you're what Schwarz tried to block from Yohji's mind?" Ran's mind tried desperately to keep up. "But then why wasn't there any sign of you … whatever you are?"

"Oh I've been around, making my presence known. But I've been subtle – passive if you will, for even I can only achieve so much without direct control." Straightening up again, Ran's captor examined his entangled prey. "I must confess to not wanting to kill you here. After all, you were the one who freed me and as such I am in your debt. Besides, you're in store for something far more interesting than any messy death I could cause here and now."

The figure was suddenly gone as if he'd never even been there. Ran's bonds tightened for a moment before falling to the floor, the redhead along with them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He'd left the redhead there, sleeping peacefully. Even now a large part of the blond's conscious mind wanted nothing more than to sneak back into the Koneko and lie down beside the man. But Yohji couldn't do that, no matter how much he wanted to.

"Do you really think anyone cares that you've made a life for yourself here? That they'll honestly not decide to simply get rid of your little boyfriend-come-bodyguard? And however good he might be, he's still normal. Blind luck allowed him to survive against you once, how long do you think that luck will hold? Are you willing for his death to be on your hands when you have the chance to prevent it? Come with us now and we'll leave him alone. The redhead has lived out his usefulness to us, and it's up to you to ensure he doesn't become an obstacle."

Mika's words repeated themselves endlessly in his head, the dark intent behind them seeming so at odds with the teenager's wide-eyed and innocent expression. But he had no reason to doubt that people capable of blowing up a hospital would see his own feelings as anything other than superfluous.

His fingers itched for a cigarette, but Yohji simply pushed them deeper into his coat's pockets and concentrated on walking. This was something he had to do. He was not going to let his friends get hurt on his account. Mika had seemed to think that explaining his past would somehow win him over to their side, but the teenager had been mistaken. Past loyalties aside, Yohji had no intention of lifting a finger to help someone he didn't even remember. The betrayal thing didn't even come into the matter. As far as he was concerned, Yohji had no more loyalty to the past, his only hope lay in his future. And that was why he refused to see Ran get hurt on his account. He'd find a way to sort this mess out and then return to the redhead when it was safe. Hopelessly naïve and optimistic perhaps, but that was the way things were going to be and damn anyone who wasn't willing to go along with his plans.

Yohji broke away from that train of thought with an almost physical wrench, shaking his head quickly as if that would help send his thoughts on another direction. It was something that he was beginning to be worried by; this constant assurance that things would work out just the way he chose – forced or not. It went beyond simple cockiness into something darker and somewhat unnerving. He wondered if this was some aspect of one of his prior identities resurfacing, but hurriedly changed his thoughts again. Thinking that kind of thing was only going to encourage these unsettling feelings. Plus he'd decided that whoever he'd been previously had obviously been given a fair shot at things and messed up. Chance over: make room for the new kid.

This wasn't exactly shifting his mental train of thought, Yohji reflected wryly and he removed one hand from his pocket to run through his hair, brushing it back from his eyes for all of a few moments before the honey strands fell forwards again. Why was it whenever you specifically tried not to think of something, your thoughts wouldn't remain on anything else? The blond pulled a wry face to himself and replaced his hand in the overlarge pockets. Through the material of the lining, Yohji's wrist lightly brushed against the edge of the bulge in the small of his back where he'd placed Ken's gun. He'd thought the weapon would help reassure him on some level, give him some semblance of power in this situation, but the cold metal refused to warm to his body's temperature and caused his stomach to contract whenever he let himself dwell on its presence.

Some half-hidden instinct made the blond slow his steps and he raised his gaze to study the featureless warehouses around him. He had no real recollection of the industrial area, and found the lack of distinctive landmarks confusing. But that was probably why he'd been told to come here, Yohji thought sourly. The last thing an insane assassin group is going to do is hide somewhere in plain sight. Good guys hid in flower shops and let the psychos worry about central heating and running water. Even so, he was still able to instantly spot the figure that stood in wait for him. "Has anyone ever mentioned that such colourful hair might hinder your effectiveness as an assassin?"

Mika pulled a face as she left her slouched position by one of the warehouses. "Considering you were supposed to see me, the whole question is rather obsolete at the moment, isn't it?" Pausing as she stopped in front of the taller man, Mika chewed on her lower lip for a moment, her forehead lightly creased. "I didn't think you were going to come," she admitted.

Yohji's eyes narrowed. "You made it very clear what would happen to Ran if I didn't. Don't even think about pretending I'm here for any other reasons than keeping him safe. I couldn't care less what happens to people I don't remember, even if they didn't betray me."

Something flickered through the teenager's eyes as she stepped away from Yohji, regarding him in a completely different manner from before. "The other's are waiting for us. We don't have much time."

Yohji raised an eyebrow, inwardly thanking Ran for having been such a hostile bastard at first. Even though the redhead had certainly thawed out, his legacy of chilling glares and cutting remarks were proving invaluable. "And what is it that we're in danger of missing? My welcoming party?"

Instead of responding with the expected sulk, Mika's expression suddenly seemed to be sorrowful, before she forced her features back into a more neutral arrangement. Yohji felt a sudden stir of unease at what he'd got himself into in the light of the teenager's unexpected display of maturity. Turning away from the blond, Mika shoved both hands into the fluorescent pink fake fur jacket she wore to clash with her hair and began to walk away. "You'll find out," she said. "Come on."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

One look at the arriving redhead's face told Ken all he needed to know about Ran's current state of mind. Hurriedly gulping down the mouthful of rice, the athlete pushed his chair back and fled the kitchen; leaving Omi watching the Weiss leader with much the same look as a rabbit staring down approaching headlights. When there was no immediate demand for his return, Ken sped up his pace until he reached the sanctuary of the shop.

Back in the kitchen Omi regarded the older man with extreme caution. "So you've heard then," the blond commented. "I didn't think Birman was going to tell you herself."

Blinking at Omi's opening, Ran slowly turned to the young assassin with a blank expression. "What was Birman going to tell me?"

Omi opened his mouth and then closed it again, obviously searching for an answer that wasn't going to antagonise the other man. Ran bore the extending pause with an unchanging gaze. Finally the youth ducked his head and focused intently on his bowl of rice. "They've finished clearing out the hospital basements. They've found Manx – unconscious but otherwise stable and also the central computer systems. Birman called to say that Kritiker's OS will be back up and working in a matter of hours."

Another slow blink as Ran digested this information and concluded that what he had heard still did not explain Omi's current state of nerves. "And?"

"And that's how long you have to make sure that Yohji isn't anywhere they can find him. The first thing they've been briefed to do is take him into custody … they didn't say where."

Ran nodded to himself. "So we only have a few hours before they can monitor our computer usage again? That's good. I need you to get online now."

It was Omi's turn to blink as he gaped at the calm reaction of the redhead standing in front of him. "But … aren't you going to say something about Yohji having to leave?"

A derisive snort answered Omi. "There would be little point in that seeing as he's run away of his own accord. But we still have time to find him." Ran glanced towards the stairway. "If you can coax Ken out of whatever corner he's hiding in, tell him to get ready for a mission."

"How?" Omi spluttered. "How do you honestly think we're going to find him in the middle of Tokyo?"

An almost feline smirk spread across the redhead's features. "Because I bugged him," he replied simply.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Something was going on. That much was pretty obvious from the amount of noise going on outside her room, Aya reflected, but she still didn't have a clue what it could be about. Glaring at the wooden door that blocked her view of the passageway, Aya cursed her atrophied limbs yet again. Why did she have to spend so much time hanging on for her absent brother's occasional visit when she could have met Sascha? She could have woken up long ago and set about rebuilding her life, a life her brother had seemed far too busy to worry much about. Tugging on the faint mental link she had established with the orange-haired man who had finally saved her from the boredom of her self-enclosed prison, Aya noticed with some concern that something didn't seem quite right with the older man.

When the door to her room finally opened to admit the redhead, there was nothing in his outward expression to indicate any problems. Throwing a wink, he breezily sauntered over to her bed and lowered himself onto on corner, crossing his legs and leaning back on his elbows as he tipped his head to look at her. "Wie gehts Schätzchen? You called?"

Aya watched the display with a stony expression, not convinced in the slightest. "You're upset," she said bluntly. "You're upset and you're hiding it. Why? What's wrong?"

The German shrugged and let himself fall back against the mattress. "Nothing I didn't bring completely on myself. I have a tendency to act a little impulsively and it always ends up biting me in the arse. Still without it I'd have a much less interesting moniker."

Aya thwapped the man with one of her pillows. "Idiot. Don't ever let me catch you talking like that. You keep putting yourself down, but you won't convince me. You got me out of that hospital when even my brother gave up on me."

Sascha raised an arm to try and fend off the attack. "Verdammt, you're vicious! That's some killer instinct you've been hiding Schätzchen."

Aya abruptly broke off the assault with a giggle. "Imagine what that says about your credibility, being beaten up by an invalid teenager."

Sascha glanced at Aya and rolled his eyes. "I never could resist the dark-haired ones." With a groan, the German swung himself back into a sitting position and tossed his hair back over a shoulder. "But anyway, what's up? I heard you calling."

Realising that she wasn't going to get anything else out of the man on that particular subject, Aya switched back to her original topic. "What's going on? It sounds really hectic out there."

Another feigned groan as the redhead nodded with theatrical sorrow. "Schätzchen, you have no idea. Your room is a haven, trust me."

Aya made a threatening pose with the pillow. "Don't play coy and answer the question. What's going on?"

Sascha sighed and turned his gaze up to the ceiling. "Some business has come up and the four of us have to go out tonight. None of us want to leave you alone, but we have no choice. It'll only be for a couple of hours."

Aya pulled a face. "And you're leaving me in here with only a charred lump of plastic that used to be a stereo for my amusement? What kind of sadists are you?"

Sascha grinned. "Why don't I bring the TV in here for you? It'll be worth it just to watch the expression on Crawford's face when he sees it's gone."

Aya smiled back. "Let me guess; everything has to be in its exact place and nowhere else? He really is just like Ran."

Sascha rose to his feet, turning his face momentarily away from the girl as he moved towards the door. "So it sounds as if you're already well versed in ways to wind the guy up. I shall leave it in your capable hands." He threw a final wink and a smile over his shoulder as he opened the door. "The television's right on its way, Süsse."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He hadn't really thought about what he'd been expecting for the Big Badass Headquarters. Lots of futuristic computers perhaps, all Imperial Stormtrooper like with that wizened old guy sat in some big Sith Lord throne. Or maybe just a whole lot of cobwebs and chains, illuminated by flickering candlelight and generally creating spooky shadows in which the rest of the little bunch lurked. The empty warehouse was a definite disappointment, Yohji reflected, though until now he'd never really considered himself a drama queen.

Striding along the vast expanse of concrete flooring with Mika a few steps in front, Yohji silently followed the girl up a flight of stairs and into the overseer's office. And sitting behind a mundane desk in a bog-standard swivel chair was the old guy who'd been caused so much irritation lately, looking for all the world like some middle-manager. To one side stood the two younger men, but there was no sign of the final woman who had appeared in his dreams. Mika obviously noticed Yohji's faint frown and hurriedly spoke up. "Verdandi can't be with us in person, but she can occasionally join us through the medium of dreams."

Yohji nodded. "Gotta be cheaper than conference calling, I guess."

The seated man cleared his throat as he rose to his feet. "Welcome Yue. I believe you have already met Pan and Legion, but allow me to introduce myself. I am Odin."

Yohji nodded slightly, pointedly ignoring the outstretched hand. "Don't call me that. The name's Yohji. Now let's get this mess sorted up so we can all be on our merry little ways. You guys keep screwing with me and I want you to stop it. I want you to leave me and those close to me alone. There's nothing that I know or have that could be of any interest to you."

Behind Odin, Legion shook his head and put his face in his hands while his companion winced. Odin however simply smiled and let his hand drop back to his side. "Self-deception is an amazing thing, is it not?" he commented lightly. "Even in the light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we can still believe that we are completely normal. That nothing is wrong for as long as we pretend. But even the blindest of us must open our eyes at some point. Can you really say that you have no idea why we could possibly be interested in you?"

Yohji opened his mouth to fire off some offensive reply, when something made him pause. Memories of the abortive kidnap attempt surfaced in his mind. The ease of escape until he'd found Ran's beaten form and had lost all control of himself. Yohji's gaze drifted back to Odin, who was watching the blond with an unpleasant smile.

"Rather easy escape, wasn't it?" Odin supplied, echoing the other man's thoughts. "And yet it wasn't through untrained or incompetent guards. No … rather events just seemed to come together in a useful series of coincidences. I suppose it could be put down to a fluke of timing. But that hasn't been the only time. Everything seems to just happen in your favour, doesn't it? You're just always in the right place at the right time."

Yohji frowned and shrugged his shoulders, trying to dismiss the uneasy feeling inside. "It's not like I had anything to do with that."

Odin smiled faintly before stepping around the desk to face Yohji directly. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wooden edge. "Really? Then let's look at your escape from Schwarz in the first place. You spare the life of a man who has the power to destroy the mental blocks inside your head and then can't even dodge when he uses the last of his strength to attack you. A slight lapse in judgement or simply another set of events working in your favour?"

Yohji snorted in exasperation. "Anything else you're planning to blame on me? Did they not have any valium left at the pharmacists for you? Got to be a conspiracy that I'm at the centre of. Or how about Beckham leaving United for Real Madrid? My fingerprints must be all over the contract."

Odin looked at the blond sourly for a moment or two. "Let's try another line of reasoning then. Answer me this; if the Delphic Unit can see into the future and influence the fate of individuals, why can they never see you in their visions? Why is your course of action impossible for them to plot?"

"I'm impulsive?"

"If that were all then at least the consequences of your actions would be seen. But you seem to exist by using that random factor or outside chance that exists in any situation. The kind of thing that is impossible to predict because there is no logic or reason behind it. Simply a freak occurrence. You exist outside any webs they may try and weave and because of that you alone have the power to destroy everything they are working for. If they cannot predict your movements, then they cannot protect themselves from you."

"Arachne knew it all along," Legion suddenly interrupted. "It's in your fucking name. Her and her sick sense of humour."

Yohji frowned. "My name?"

"After your mind was tampered with, they needed something to call you by. The Elders settled on Void based on the words of Arachne. But what she originally said wasn't in English, but German." Pan took up the story smoothly, without a glance at the man beside him who had once again fallen into withdrawn silence. "Yues Tod hinterliess eine schmerzliche Lücke. Rosenkreuz took it as a reference to the absence of any visible personality, but it wasn't that at all. It was a play on words, a really bad bi-lingual pun. Lücke … luck. All that was left behind was a painful luck."

Yohji shook his head slowly in disbelief. "You guys really need to get some sort of social lives. This sort of stuff just isn't healthy."

"Are you listening at all?" Odin demanded. "Don't you see your value to us? You have the gift of Luck, Coincidence … call it what you will. You can influence random chances to occur in a manner that will be the most benefit to you. If there is only a one in a million chance of something occurring, your gift will ensure the probability that it happens to you. With training you can control just what you influence, and to what degree. This is why you cannot return to Esset. You will be our means of destroying that organisation once and for all."

"Think about it for a moment, Yue," Mika said. "When has something you really wanted not worked out the way you wished it would? Since you awoke in that hospital bed name me one thing that has not gone well for you."

Yohji glared at the girl. "I had to leave everything and come here. But if what you're telling me is true then I have no need to stay. I can simply walk out of here and you won't be able to harm me or Ran despite your threats."

Odin smiled and raised an eyebrow. "Ran? You mean your ardent admirer? Think back and tell me if you can promise with a totally clear conscience that you weren't manipulating that man into feeling for you from the very beginning. If the events that brought you together were anything other than yet another manifestation of your power." The Englishman paused and at Yohji's stunned silence smiled again. "Food for thought, isn't it? And let's go one step further, weren't you indirectly responsible for the death of his sister … the one person who could divide his loyalty away from you? Do you see how it all ties together? You don't belong with him and even if you were to return, he wouldn't accept you. You'll do nothing more than keep him a virtual prisoner, but of course he won't be able to realise that. Isn't love a noble thing?"

Yohji swallowed against the sudden sick feeling rising up through his body. "You're wrong," he objected.

"Am I?" Odin goaded. He paused for another moment and then turned to walk back to chair. "Well, you're here and you'll be staying for now. Anything you wish to ask that does not involve me and my colleagues dying in a variety of painful manners?"

Yohji thought for a moment. "Yeah. What sort of party pieces do you guys have if you're still not powerful enough to get things done without me?"

"I'll field this question," Pan offered calmly. "As you no doubt guessed, it's not that we lack abilities, but rather that even our combined gifts are still not enough to counter the somewhat omnipotent Delphic Unit. I myself am a breed of telepath. But I don't directly read the thoughts of others, but obscure them. Consider it a blocking effect combined with a strong sense of confusion in those of stronger ability.

 "My colleague Legion is also originally a telepath, but an unfortunate incident warped his power somewhat. He now channels the dead, but is unable to turn this ability off hence his occasional lapse into total madness. Also he doesn't like to touch other people, or go underground for long periods of time.

"And Mika is possessed of a rather interesting ability to distort time within a given field. As long as she has a medium on which to concentrate – she prefers sand for this, but any sort of pouring solid will do – she can speed up or slow down time."

Yohji nodded then jerked his head towards the seated Englishman. "What about him?"

Odin smiled. "Currently irrelevant, but I believe you will discover it in good time." He opened his mouth to add something, but stopped when a gunshot rang out nearby. The man frowned. "They're early." Odin rose to his feet and glanced over at Yohji. "You will stay in this office while we deal with the intruders outside. Should you not be waiting here on our return, I will personally disembowel that redhead of yours. Am I clear?"

Narrowing his eyes, Yohji nodded reluctantly. He watched as the four others silently filed out of the room before sitting on Odin's desk and pulling the gun from its resting place. He studied the weapon while his mind raced through everything he'd been told. The whole thing seemed ridiculous, but perhaps he shouldn't question such an advantage.

Yohji ran his fingers lightly over the barrel of the gun. If Odin was right about Yohji, it was high time to start seducing Lady Luck. A humourless grin twisted at the corner of the blond's mouth. Good thing he'd always been such a hit with the ladies.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"You put a tracer onto one of the buttons on his shirt? How the hell didn't he notice you doing that?" Ken asked, incredulity writ large on his features.

Ran threw the man a carefully controlled look. "He was distracted at the time." Not offering any further explanation, the redhead turned his attention back to Omi. "Has he moved?"

Checking with a small display that the blond stuffed back into a pocket, Omi offered a bright smile. "Still in the same warehouse. We're practically there." He gestured with a hand to a nearby building. "It's that one there."

Ken didn't look quite so thrilled at the sight of their goal. "You mean the one currently being approached by the four guys dressed in white? Are we going to need invites to this thing or something?"

Ran cursed under his breath and unsheathed his sword. "Be on your guard. Don't attempt to take them on directly, just cause enough of a distraction to stop them entering the place before I've got Yohji out of there."

Ken winced. "I hate it when things sound that simple. It always seems to be tempting fate to fuck us over."

Omi gave the older assassin a sour look. "Thanks for the pep talk, Ken."

Ken had the decency to look abashed and busied himself with checking his weapon as Ran broke away from the side of the building to head towards the warehouse. Omi watched the redhead go, before readying a selection of darts. "Come on Ken. And try not to do anything stupid."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Slipping into the warehouse unnoticed by Schwarz had been effortless. The quartet seemed to be more interested with simply observing the building. Ran soon guessed why when he noticed the welcoming committee he had amassed.

"Ah Ran, we've been expecting you," a distinguished older man with a discernable English accent greeted the redhead's arrival while the three other figures looked on silently. "I assume you're here to play the white knight in shining armour once more? Here to rescue Kudoh from the nefarious clutches of his past and prevent him from once more becoming tainted." The man paused and smiled. "Because that's what's really important to you, isn't it? Kudoh is your proof that there is a chance at redemption, a chance to leave a past saturated with the blood of the countless mass you slaughter under the pretence of righteousness. If someone like Void, who had fallen so far and left all traces of his humanity behind him, could break free from that past and live a normal life as just another normal person then surely you could also. If you could protect Kudoh from becoming Void once more then surely you could also retain some small part of who you were, the Ran who knew nothing of murder; of sins justified by cold hard cash. After all, you no doubt reasoned to yourself, Void was far worse than you could ever be."

Ran blinked, unable to find the words to respond. He as vaguely aware of lowering his guard and allowing the sword to come to rest uselessly at his side, but he couldn't focus on anything but the words that were being fired at him in an attack far cleaner than any he could have inflicted. A part of his mind was loudly protesting every venomous word that dripped from the older man's mouth, but another part of Ran, the self-destructive part, refused to do anything but keep listening. Almost anticipating every word before it came as if they were nothing more than the words he had accused himself of in some of his darkest moods.

"But that, my dear Ran, is where you're wrong. Void was simply that: a void. An empty shell remotely controlled by others. You are fully aware of each and every person you murder and yet you still do it. You have no claim on him, no right to project these futile hopes of escaping what you've become onto Kudoh. In any case, he's ours now. He was ours from the moment you destroyed the blocks. And this time, he'll be fully aware of each and every life he takes, all thanks to you and your meddling. Does that thought make you feel good? Or is it yet another burden you're going to add to your conscience? Either way, don't let it trouble you, my dear boy. You won't be alive to fully appreciate what you've done anyway."

He was barely aware of Odin bring his pistol to bear on his face. His eyes relayed the information to his brain, but he was unable to form any further processes. Foremost in his thoughts was Yohji. Was this current situation really his fault? It sounded so ridiculous, but then again …

The sound of a shot brought Ran blinking back to his senses. Odin's gun lay unfired on the floor while the man cradled his hand and glared over his shoulder in the direction of the stairs. Following the other man's gaze, Ran saw Yohji standing at the top, a gun held expertly in his hands. "Lass ihn! Er hat nichts damit zu tun." Yohji clicked another bullet into the chamber and readied the trigger. "Nächstes Mal vermisse ich nicht."

Odin raised his hands and slowly stepped to one side, throwing a satisfied smile in the direction of Ran, who watched in shock as Yohji hurriedly descended the stairs to where the redhead stood. "Ran, alles in Ordnung? Bist du verletzt? Was? Was ist los?"

Shaking his head as he stepped away from the concerned looking blond, Ran tried to get his brain to focus again. "Yohji. I can't understand you. What are you saying?"

Yohji blinked in puzzlement. "Can't understand me? I only asked if you were injured. You're looking at me as if I've grown another head or something."

"You … you weren't speaking in Japanese. I didn't know what you were saying," Ran explained even as he moved away from Yohji again, unable to cope with being so close to the other man and not throwing himself into his arms.

"You've been speaking in German since you arrived here," Pan commented from his observation point in the corner. "I'm surprised you weren't aware of it."

Ran's earpiece suddenly crackled into life, making him jump. "Abyssinian, get your arse out here! We need back-up right now or things are going to get very messy."

Ran cursed under his breath before replying, perversely grateful for the chance to focus on something other than the situation he currently found him. "You were merely supposed to keep them distracted Siberian."

"Yeah, well try telling them that!"

"Understood, I'm on my way." Looking past Yohji to where the Englishman stood, Ran was disturbed to notice a smile on the man's face again.

"Leaving so soon, Ran? Don't let us keep you. You have a very important meeting to attend after all."

Noting the confusion on Yohji's face, Pan offered an explanation. "Schwarz have shown up to try and get their hands on you. You're housemates are currently outside trying not to get killed."

"What?" Yohji spluttered. "Why can't everybody just leave me alone?"

"You mean other than him?" Pan enquired with a nod towards the disappearing redhead.

Yohji swore and took after the man. "Damn it Ran, you're enough to drive anyone mad!"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Schuldig wasn't sure quite what he felt when he saw the redhead appear, sword in hand and heading straight for Crawford. When Yue emerged behind him only a few moments later he realised it was resignation. Tinged with a hint of relief. Raising his gun he turned his thoughts towards the blond.

~Strange how events have a habit of repeating themselves, old friend, isn't it?~

Yue turned to face the German, his brow slightly creased in puzzlement. Realising the green-eyed man was one of the group attacking his friends he brought his gun to face the redhead. "Did you say something?"

~Thought it. The advantages of telepathy. It allows you and I to have a little private chat while the others scrap it out.~

Yue opened his mouth then closed it and frowned in concentration. ~What could you and I possibly have to talk about?~

~It's been quite a while since we were last able to converse with one another like this. I'm simply making the most of the opportunity. Wouldn't want to wait another eleven years, would we?~

The blond didn't look impressed, his thoughts tinged with annoyance. ~Oh yeah, and who's fault is that? From what I've heard this is all your mess in the first place.~

Schuldig allowed a small incline of his head. The fight continued around the pair, no one paying the slightest attention to the two men who stood staring at one another with barely the smallest movements. ~True enough. But then you'd have never got your hands on that little bodyguard of yours. I think I deserve a little gratitude for that.~

~I think you need to fuck off back to whatever hole you crawled out of.~

~Do you recall your words in that bar, Yue? As I sat beside you confessing my worst sins, my deepest betrayal? You said that my friend would have forgiven me. Do you still feel the same now you know just how unworthy of forgiveness I am?~

Almost unconsciously, Yohji stepped briefly to the side, avoiding the brawling Farfarello and Ken as they dashed past. His gaze never left the German's and his grip on the gun never faltered. ~Do you want me to feel sorry for you? To tut sympathetically over how much you've suffered? Give me a break. You brought this on yourself. You have no one to blame but yourself.~

The German's gaze glittered like hardened glass as his expression twisted. ~Oh I know that. This was my choice, my mistake. All because I believed the words of someone I thought cared for me. I chose to live rather than die with my friends. And I've paid for the cost of my survival. I am the guilty party. But now we find ourselves back in a similar situation and I have to ask myself if fate isn't trying to tell me something?~

~Enlighten me.~

~I'm talking about atonement. A sin is committed. The sinner is condemned. Then the sin is erased. It ceases to exist and the evidence that it was committed is removed. Is the sinner therefore still guilty? Only as long as the memory of the sin remains. He is the last witness, the final piece of evidence. I can't forget what I did and so as long as I remain, I am guilty.~ The German smiled faintly and threw away his gun. ~I'm tired of being guilty Yue. I want to be Sascha again.~

The shot rang out, somehow causing the other participants of the struggle to stop as all eyes turned to the falling figure of the telepath, orange hair streaming through the air as he gracefully tumbled backwards. Then the spreading crimson liquid dulled the vivid colour as Schuldig lay motionless on the ground.

Almost out of nowhere, people began to appear from all sides, dressed in the black uniforms of Esset. Ken was the first to notice them. "Shit, we can't deal with this number of enemies. We have to get out of here now."

As if Ken's words were merely the prompt required, Schwarz and Weiss split in all directions, as Esset continued to converge around the telepath's prone body.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Stumbling along as he helped support the heavily limping Ken, Omi looked towards the silent redhead with a troubled expression. "Who were those guys? I've never fought people like that before."

"Freaks," Ken spat. "That's what they are. A bunch of fucking freaks." He winced as Omi adjusted his grip and regarded his mangled thigh in disbelief. "I slit that guy's chest open and he didn't even notice. Not even adrenaline can block out that kind of pain."

Omi glanced at the display and then back at Ran once more. "According to this Yohji's standing still around the next corner. He might be injured or resting as he hasn't moved in some time."

"Injured," Ken snorted, mainly to himself. "The guy fires one shot after just standing there for an age taking in the sights. He could walk through a minefield without getting injured. Hey, Ran, where you going?"

Ignoring the calls from behind him, Ran unconsciously broke into a run as he turned the corner and came to a sudden halt. He hadn't had any real idea of what he was going to say to Yohji, Ran reflected. He'd just planned on opening his mouth and saying the first thing that came out.

Instead he stood silently, listening to Ken and Omi's approach before slowly leaning down and picking up the discarded shirt button from where it had been thrown. Turning it over carefully, he saw the metal glint of the tracing device he had placed there earlier. Ran folded his fingers around the object and spun to face the two other assassins. "We should head back to the Koneko. It won't take Birman long to show up once Kritiker's OS is running again."

Omi blinked. "But what about Yo-"

Ken quickly elbowed the blond, cutting him off before he could finish the question. "Leave it Omi," Ken hissed, noting the expression in Ran's eyes. "Let's just worry about getting back."

Ran nodded once and strode past the pair, taking the lead again. His clenched hands tightened and then loosened, letting the button fall to bounce once more on the concrete paving.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The three men stood watching as the plane was filled with its cargo.

"A job well done," Melmoth commented as he watched the comatose redhead be stored safely on board. "Once he reaches Munich we can transfer him directly to the ward at Rosenkreuz until he regains consciousness."

"Perfect bait for Void," Gil-Martin agreed. "Now that his power has awakened, it can only be a matter of time before he starts to seek out those who can help him control it. What about Schwarz in the meantime?"

Melmoth looked over to the small group who stood, or in the case of one member sat in a wheelchair, and observed the events. "Schwarz should develop nicely," he remarked. "This event has rid them of a very troublesome element."

"And we foresee no problems with the replacement," Janus added. "The girl is developing at a remarkable rate under Crawford's watchful eye."

"There's a strong desire for vengeance in her," Gil-Martin noted. "We can use that. She has no loyalty to anyone other than Schwarz. Not even her surviving brother. Thanks to Crawford's influence, she even holds him responsible."

The Elders fell silent, observing the events around them like the proverbial spiders at the centre of the web.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Aya blinked back tears and willed her face not to betray any emotion as she watched Sascha be carried away. A warm hand gently clasped her shoulder and she squinted up against the sunlight to see Crawford standing beside her, an identical expression on his face to the one she wore. "This isn't over yet," the American assured her in a voice that held no room for disagreement. "We're going to get him back."

Nodding, Aya dropped her head back to watch the aircraft and bit her lip. "And we're going to make them pay for taking him away from us," he added. Crawford's hand tightened in an affirmative squeeze before moving back to the pre-cog's side. They continued to watch in silence for a few more moments before Aya spoke up again. "I have a name now."


Aya squinted her eyes again. "Leid. I want to be called Leid."

There was a pause, then Crawford's hand brushed against her hair. "Very well."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Odin regarded the people sat before him with satisfaction. "A job well done," he said. "Not only have we achieved what we came here for, but Schuldig will soon be in a suitable state in which to attempt to induct him into Hunt."

Mika looked less than impressed from her position between Pan and Yohji. "He's in a coma. Was that really necessary?"

"He's away from Schwarz and Crawford, so yes. I would say it was."

Mika's face darkened, but a restraining hand on her shoulder from Pan prevented her from voicing any dissent. With a curt nod at the group, Odin rose to his feet. "We leave for Europe in a few hours. I suggest you ensure you are all ready to travel."

With Odin gone, Yohji was the next to leave the room as he silently stood and headed out the door. Mika watched him go with an unhappy expression before turning to Pan. "Why'd you stop me?" she demanded. "Odin's gone too far, someone has to tell him that his plans are nuts."

"Odin is not the type you make your objections known to, petite," Pan answered. "He wouldn't listen to you."

"But Odin's not the only one who can lay a trap, lassie," Legion added as he moved over to join them. "As long as you've got a wee bit more patience than that pompous airbag, you've got the upper hand."

"But he's got Yohji," Mika pointed out. "He won't even speak to the rest of us."

Pan shrugged. "That doesn't mean he has Yohji's loyalty. The man isn't allied to anyone but himself."

"Yet," Legion interjected. "Isn't allied yet."

Mika's eyes suddenly widened and she smiled at the two men. "So we've got our work cut out for us, haven't we?"

Force of Habit: End

To Be Continued in Cat's Cradle.

Oh yeah, and before I forget: Translations

Yohji: Leave him! He has nothing to do with this. Next time I won't miss.

           Ran, is everything okay? Are you injured? What? What's wrong?