Reven was still shaking a little from the horrors of the 4th floor. What kind of man kept children herded together like that? Armed? At risk from attackers?

No, worse - doing his stinking work for him!

He refused to think on the screams and the stench and the blood. The odd twitch from as cooling body, even as they made their way out of the room and up the next staircase. He followed Inoue up the steps, his whole body tense with anticipation of what may await them next.

At the top of the stairs, he paused. Inoue motioned for him to move forward; it was the first obvious hint that Inoue was tiring - that he was physically distressed in some way.

He didn't dare question his partner - they both needed all their wits about them now. And what time did they have to talk about such things? They only had time for the instinctive understanding they had of each other - the need to support and balance each other in the field. It was what they'd built together through the years - it was what made them strong together.

Reven didn't allow the thoughts that plagued him now. He'd seen the barest glimpse of the grimace on Inoue's face. There was pain, and there was anger there. And now there was a deep, cold determination that almost scared him.

There was a part of Inoue's mind that was closing to him.

He stepped forward. He felt good enough, physically, though the nausea still churned up his gut. He didn't know what to expect here, but he knew they were almost in the depths of Hellman's domain; nearly at the man himself.

He slid the gun into his hand; felt the comfort of the blade at his waist. He gritted his teeth, then balanced on his toes. One firm shove, and the door opened before them. Reven sprang back, to avoid any gunfire, but there was none.

Nothing but a hissing noise - a murmuring that was no voice; only the caress of steel, a blade slicing through the air towards them.

Inoue jerked to the left clumsily, cursing his failing body as he moved. He had been wondering when they'd encounter the Last Guard, if it would be all of them at once or one at a time spread throughout the floors.

These were men and women trained for one thing: death, swift and merciless.

The redhead watched the door Reven had opened fall from its frame in two pieces, crashing on the floor as a man in loose black robes fell still in the entrance, smiling at the both of them as he held his katana low.

"Welcome," the robed man said in a silken voice, bowing slightly. "It is a pleasure to meat any challengers who could make it past the floors beneath us."

Hairs on the back of Inoue's neck rose immediately. Six armed opponents, each one a serious challenge on their own-- and him with only one arm to attempt defence, never mind attacking the swordsmen.

He gripped the brass knuckles and 12 inch blade tighter in his right hand while moving closer to Reven's side, loathing himself for doing so but acknowledging that this was the only way he stood a chance of seeing Hellman's face-- getting his opportunity to watch the bastard die... he had to rely on his partner to do most of the work in this room and could only add to Reven's defence.

He stepped directly in the path between the robed man and Reven, lifting his own blade and tensing his body, readying himself to become a human shield.

The swordsman lunged with an amused laugh, arching his sword high and bringing it down towards Inoue's head.

Too slow, the redhead thought of himself with a wince, lifting his arm in response. He wouldn't be able to match blade with blade because of his poor reaction time, so he settled for the next best thing and dropped the 12 inch blade, forsaking it to feel the jarring agony of the swordsman's katana colliding with his brass knuckles.

Inoue bared his teeth and kept from making a sound as two of his fingers broke and he felt Reven moving behind him.

Reven had taken in the shock of meeting their worst opponents - the very elite of Hellman's arsenal. He'd taken in the cold, glinting eyes of their aggression - the eager anticipation in their ready stance. Six robed figures, one already facing them. They held their blades tightly yet easily - some held the staff that he himself had trained with, some years ago.

Inoue's defensive move startled him - but he realised at once that this was calculated. If this were all that Inoue could do, he must use it to his advantage - to their advantage. The swordsman had been admiring of their progress so far - perhaps it had been some time since they faced worthy opponents themselves. But Inoue's dropping of the sword made him look weaker than he was - his rash move to block the katana with nothing but his fist seemed desperate.

Reven moved, even as the swordsman's hand reached the bottom of its arc. He moved in the opposite way to expectation - he lunged under Inoue's guard, reaching up to the swordsman's body, his blade flashing out into his hand, and stabbing upwards in a pure street-fighting move. The knife was short, but the swordsman had leant in towards Inoue to finish his blow. Reven thrust up and into the man's belly - he grunted and sliced upwards, tugging the blade out even as the man gasped in surprise, and he leaped back to Inoue's side, ready for the next onslaught.

Inoue would have given Reven an impressed nod if he'd had the time, but they weren't given such luxuries. The first swordsman collapsed on the ground before them, and the redhead drew his leg back, swinging his foot until his boot connected with the man's face, snapping his head to the left and breaking his neck instantly.

One down-- five to go.

The remaining opponents laughed and smirked amongst themselves.

"Nice work; but Yuuki was the weakest among us!" one of the women chuckled. "I hope you're prepared for death's cold fingers at your throat!"

The woman and two of the men stepped forward, holding their swords high and crouching, ready to spring at any moment.

Inoue ignored his blade on the ground and debated using his smoke bomb as he and Reven entered the room fully. No, too soon-- it would have to be saved for the last two. To use the bomb now would give the advantage to the remaining two swordsmen, a man and a woman, lying in wait should their comrades be defeated.

This time the elder assassin was prepared for darting movements-- he shifted to the right as the first of the three charged to the left, anticipating the pincer move.

He was right-- the other two had charged to the right as well, expecting the assassins to both follow the first swordsman's lead and go left.

Inoue caught the stunned female in the temple with his wrist-blade as she pulled back to regroup, and her partner drove his sword high from underneath Inoue's torso, the icy metal slicing across old wounds on the redhead's stomach in an upwards arc. The wounded assassin took the gash in stride, using the swordsman's remaining momentum against him and driving a hard roundhouse into the man's face, breaking the nose and driving fragments up into the man's skull, killing instantly as bone from his nose entered the brain.

The swordsman collapsed on the ground before Inoue as the assassin himself took a faltering step back, clutching his stomach with his good arm and squeezing one eye shut in agony as blood poured from his stomach freely, dripping down his legs and warming them with slick crimson.

Reven had moved in a zigzag - firstly with Inoue, so as to intimidate the two that converged on them there, but also to startle the man who had first charged at them. It had the desired effect. The guard was caught off balance, expecting to have found a body at the mercy of his blade; instead, his prey moved in the opposite direction. He was too well trained to cry out, and also too well trained to let it confuse him for more than a few seconds. He was already turning back, to move in on the assassins from the rear, even as Inoue took on his two comrades.

But Reven gave him no time to reach his goal. The dark-haired assassin's limbs were tired, and his eyes ached with the tension of watching all attackers at once - but his feet were still fast. He knew one of his strengths was his speed - and also his seemingly irrational behaviour.

No attacker would expect him to turn and charge him face on - but he did. He moved so quickly that the space between them was closed in less than a second; the swordsman's eyes opened wide as he realised he had no space to swing his blade on to the young man, almost up against his face.

Even as he reached for his shorter blade, Reven's hand was faster; the gun was palmed and cocked, and the muzzle up at the man's temple, in the time it took for him to realise he'd been outwitted. One sharp bark, and a dark circle appeared above the man's ear. His eyes held their shocked expression as he crumpled down amongst his robes to the floor.

Reven felt the sudden pain in his arm, and leapt back. The woman! She'd stumbled back from Inoue's blow, and obviously expecting her colleague to take out the older, wounded man, she'd turned her attention to Reven.

He bit back the cry as her sword caught at the flesh of his inner arm, ripping at it viciously. The gun spun from his fingers, out of his reach. He dodged sharply, alert only to the soft hiss of the blade, and judging it well enough that it only caught at this shoulder, nicking the skin there. He turned in a fluid, gymnastic movement, crouching to his knees and scooping up the discarded katana from the first attacker. When he sprang back to his feet, putting another foot or so of safety between him and the woman, he was facing her with the same weapon that she held to him.

She was slight, but wiry - even under the robes he could see her well-developed muscles. Her eyes held none of the softness associated with a woman - only the trained, determined gaze of a suicide killer. Reven almost grinned to himself. It was only what he would have expected! Maybe she caught her opponents unawares with her willowy body - perhaps they thought her weaker than she obviously was.

No time for kiss and tell! thought Reven, grimly. Taste this instead, bitch! He saw her crouch, waiting to block his first strike. There was a slight twist to her mouth, as if she laughed at him. But he didn't lunge forward. Instead, he pulled back another foot, lifted the katana above his head, and leapt for the air. He turned even as he gained height - his leg extended, and his foot tightened. He came down almost on top of her, aiming his sword only to block hers in return, but his foot to deliver a spinning crescent kick to the side of her head.

There was a soft cry from her - a cracking sound from her neck. His katana struck against hers with the scream of steel on steel - but her body shivered underneath the impact, and she sank to her knees. The blade fell clattering from her lifeless hands.

"Getting tired?" the man called casually, sneering and thumbing the sharp edge of his sword.

Inoue sank to one knee, almost bowing before their opponents as Reven finished his impressive kill.

The submissive stance worked two ways for the assassin-- it gave the impression that he was giving in to the swordsmen, but it also gave him a chance to catch his breath. His chest felt as though it was being crushed from all directions, and his heart was sending paralyzing pains down his arms and legs.

He was probably about as weak as he looked, but the redhead didn't mind in the least-- he knew that with the closer he got to death, the faster and harder and angrier he'd fight, filled with desperation and the clawing refusal to give up like a cornered animal.

He made momentary eye contact with Reven before lifting his hand and covering his mouth with it, as the last two swordsmen charged towards them.

This is it.

The pair appeared stunned as Inoue flicked his wrist away from his mouth, sending the smoke bomb through the air until it cracked on the floor at their feet. The redhead ducked and rolled to the right as a blade cut through the smoke just above where he had been moments before-- that would have been a fatal blow had he not moved, slicing through his neck and severing his head from his body.

There was sudden silence as the four remained perfectly still in the room, listening and trying to find each other, and Inoue thanked the poisons working their way through him as he rasped for breath heavily, giving away his position.

Not only would the two swordsmen charge him, but Reven would know where to search for them as well, following their instinctive pounce upon weak prey.

Inoue took a deep breath and pushed himself off the floor, slamming his back against the wall as two sword tips sang through the air barely an inch from his face.

They're yours Reven, he thought placidly as he sank to the floor slowly and heard the rush of air as the swords were lifted once more to make the finishing blow.

To Inoue's reluctant surprise, the swords weren't heading his way, however. He winced as he heard both swordsmen change direction and aim for directly behind them, anticipating an attack from the rear.

He shouldn't have expected anything less from Hellman's guards.

"Kill the weak one when the dark one is finished!" he heard the woman bark to her companion.

Reven had stumbled back against the wall beside the door, as soon as the smoke bomb had gone off. He, too, had expected the first attack to seek out Inoue. He was ready for it - he had the katana still clutched at his side, though in his left hand. His right hand grasped his own blade as best he could - he could feel the wet warmth of blood trickling down from his cut arm, soaking his top, threatening the security of his grip with its slick, tacky trail.

He wasn't sure if he would still have enough strength to make it as effective as before; and he feared that his skill with his left hand wasn't enough to master the katana.

He heard them approach - he heard their careless dismissal of Inoue.

His heart hardened. He gritted his teeth. They would not kill Inoue! It wasn't to be the end of them - not here, not when they'd come this far! Not the end of Inoue - not of Eiji!

Not yet.

He slid slightly down the wall, minimising his body as a target. He would strike out at their groins, as they raised their swords to strike again -

He never had the chance.

To his shock, when the blows came, slicing through the smoke with the glint of their blades, they were low - they were aimed at his legs, at cutting him down. Too late, he tried to throw himself to the side - too late, he tried to drop to the floor. The best he could do was twist and scissor his lower body, trying again to give them the least area to harm. It was futile. The first blade sliced at his left calf - the second struck and ripped right across his right kneecap.

He knew he must have cried out, though he bit hard at his tongue to stop himself. He fell on to his good knee, his whole body shuddering with the pain, and his fingers loosening against his will around his weapons. He could hear a soft laugh - he could hear the sound of the blades whistling back up to their highest arc, ready to strike down again, at his immobilised body.

His hand went out to the floor, to steady himself. He felt the touch of something warmer than steel - more sturdy than a sword. It was one of the staffs. The swordsmen had discarded it in favour of their blades - it was really only useful as a blocking device, and the battle had quickly turned to one of closer combat. His fingers curled round it.

Perhaps in his mind he thought of it as a comfort in his last moments - as a last touch of the real world before he was cut away from it.

The fuck I do! he thought, his eyes misted with pain, but his ears full of Inoue's harsh, laboured breathing.

With every last ounce of strength, he lifted and swung the staff at his attackers.

Their vision was still obscured by the swirling smoke - they expected a defeated victim at their feet. He felt the satisfying crack of broken bone against the first pair of legs. He continued the swing onward and upward and thrust his very hardest as he reached solid flesh, hauling himself up on to his shaking knee to get momentum.

The second attacker was the woman - the staff thudded deeply into her belly and up to her ribs, cracking several in its wake. This time it was they who cried out - and told him where they were.

The first man had fallen to his knees a foot away, legs smashed by the force of the wooden staff, an unbidden whimper escaping from his mouth. Reven groped around his feet amongst the smoke, regaining his blade. He rolled swiftly on to his side, dragging his numb leg behind him, lifting the blade as high as he could reach. And then he brought it down as fiercely as he could on the man's throat. He felt it pierce the skin - heard the rattle of a shattered larynx.

With a last, dying gargle, the body thudded to the floor beside him.

The woman was fighting her sobs - she fought on - he felt, rather than saw, her presence over him, through the smoke, as she stumbled forward. All he could do was roll back on to his back. All he could do was watch her body rear up over him, and her shaking hands lifting the katana above her head. He imagined he could see the sweat on her forehead - the murderous pain in her eyes.

She leant forward with the force of her strike - then he lifted his own blade, upright on his belly, and watched her chest fall inexorably on to it, impaling herself, even as the katana twisted in mid-air, and struck nothing but a few inches from his head.

The smoke settled slowly and Eiji's gaze wandered across the room. Bodies everywhere, blood splattered across walls and floor...

His body began to relax against the wall as his eyes slid shut, even though his breathing was still laboured. He wound his good arm around his waist, fingers trembling and throbbing with pain, letting the brass knuckles slide off of them, slick with blood.

He wanted to sleep.

Eiji drew his legs up closer to his body, letting his head fall back against the wall and leaving his lips parted to draw in wheezing breaths. "Reven?" he murmured, barely audible.

He had heard swords slicing through flesh, but the swordsmen were no longer attacking, so the redhead knew his partner was alive-- but how long he had to continue life was another matter. He needed to hear Reven's voice, to be assured that the younger assassin was healthy enough to get up and leave this place if the need to arose.

Reven tried to stop his breathing making that soft wheezing noise, but for a moment it was more important to get to Inoue. The sound of his name from the other man was barely more than a whisper; he had to see to his partner.

He hauled himself to his feet and tried to walk over to him, but the steps were uneven, his leg dragging across the floor behind him. He cursed at himself, and ground his teeth hard against each other, determined to conquer the pain and carry on.

It was a horrible, terrible relief to drop to his knees beside the hunched up redhead - to see his face still conscious, his breath still rasping. But he also saw the red stains drenching Inoue's clothes - the possessive way he clutched at the reopened wounds on his stomach.

The eyes that lifted up to him were so familiar that his heart lurched. "Eiji," he murmured. "We're still here, right? Who'd have thought it?" he looked down, trying to see the damage to his partner - to gauge whether he could carry on. "Hell," he growled. "It was good work, that stitching - and you go and get it ripped up again! Can you walk?"

Eiji glanced down at Reven's leg, and Reven bit his lip. Yeah, he wasn't entirely sure that he could walk at the moment. The numbness was all around his kneecap, and spreading to his thigh. The blood ran freely, pooling round his ankle and his boot. But he had to go on. They had to go on! He couldn't do it alone - he didn't want to do it alone! Anything else wasn't an option. He needed Inoue - Eiji - to stay with him.

"Stay with me, Eiji!" he said, harshly, gripping at the man's shoulder. He could see his eyes rolling gently - his body shivering. "Fucking stay with me, you hear?"

He grasped his partner's chin - he dragged the head up to face him again, staring into the violet eyes, wild with pain, and gazing deeply into what felt like his very soul. "It's not time yet, Eiji," he whispered. "Not time to give in to that fear yet." He stroked a stray lock of red hair out of Eiji's eyes - prayed that the saw a flicker of awareness there.

Then he bent swiftly and pressed his lips to the other man's. It wasn't a sexual kiss - it was a comrade's touch - a partner's love. A sharing of breath - of what breath was left to them.

Eiji took a slow breath as Reven drew away, and a weak smile played on his lips.

"I'm not leaving you," he assured softly, pushing his heels against the floor and sliding up against the wall into a weak stand. He doubted Reven believed him, because he didn't believe himself.

Eiji was drawing on strength he didn't know he had, and upon the strength Reven gave him-- but Inoue was another matter. He was relaxing, giving in, calming down.

They looked like death warmed over.

His gaze lifted to the stairway, pristine and cold, winding like a snake back and forth up to the sixth floor. He knew those doors, the solid brass handles and the intricate carvings of Dante's Inferno.

The redhead shuddered and took the first step towards the stairs, keeping his head lifted to the door and his gaze steady.

It was time to confront the beast.

He looked back at Reven and smiled again. "Lean on me," he murmured, seeing the trouble the man was having with walking.

They headed towards the stairs together, and a shiver whispered up Eiji's spine as his foot touched down on the first stair.