||Chapter 12||
"The Koneko no Sume Ie"

It didn't take long for Schuldich to track down the Jackal, and when he found him, he let the swordsman know with a ruthless rape of his mind that brought him to his knees in the middle of the sidewalk, a silent scream on his lips, fingers digging into his hair.
The pain went on and on for what felt like years but couldn't have been more than a few seconds. It was as if someone had attacked the back of his skull with a power drill and was determined to carve a hole through the center of his head and create a messy exit through his temple. (1)
When Schuldich finally relented, he took away only so much of the pain as to make sure the other man could hear his mental voice. Idly his Gift picked at deeply hidden and painful memories as he spoke, causing the Irishman constant torment.
Going somewhere, Jackrabbit? I suggest you get your skinny ass back here pronto, before Fujimiya decides to carve you into ribbons and use your entrails to tie bouquets together. Don't think you can get away from this so easily, little potato-eater. Leave the heroics for the pros and get back here. NOW.
Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, Schuldich's roaring presence was gone. Tomás was left gasping on his hands and knees, limbs shaking too badly to stand. The grit of the sidewalk dug painfully into his palms and his knees through his pants. His cheeks were streaked with tears. Forcing himself to lift his head, he realized he had attracted quite a bit of attention from pedestrians. There was one older man crouching by him, babbling something... The Jackal's mind was too fried to bother translating.
He took a few deep breaths and forced himself to his feet, tugging instinctively at his trench coat's sash. Reassured that it was tight- that he wasn't flashing his sheathed sword at anyone -he shrugged out of the man's reaching grasp and staggered off, ignoring the stares he received.
Damn that man! He hissed air through his teeth in an attempt to relieve his pounding headache, looking around dazedly. He hadn't even gotten two blocks from the flower shop, and now he'd lost sight of his quarry. He had seen someone just out the back door, peering in through the window at what was going on. On seeing the Jackal staring at him, he'd fled. Without a second thought, Tomás had given chase. Now, thanks to that damned telepath, he'd lost him. 'Leave the heroics to the pros...' Arrogant asshole!
His steps were a little unsteady as he turned his feet back in the direction of the flower shop. Here he was, trying to help them, and all he got for his troubles was a mental invasion and a splitting headache. He knew Schuldich had done it on purpose; the last time he'd searched through the Jackal's mind, in the apartment, he hadn't even felt it.
He felt nauseous and disoriented as a result of the attack, and it took him longer than it normally would have to get back to the shop.
Everyone looked up at his entrance. Aya's brother stood in the kitchen, waiting for him, violet eyes ablaze. Schuldich appeared in the doorway connecting the room with the shop, and offered a pitiless smirk. "You might want some aspirin for that," he commented. Then he laughed.
Hatred shot through the Jackal in a rush of heat. It took all his self control to keep from drawing his sword on the sneering German. His head rang with protest as he clenched his teeth hard to stop his tongue.
"What the hell did you think you were doing, Hannigan?" Ran snapped, still glaring at him.
The Jackal focused his resentment and anger on the redhead, narrowing his eyes at the slender man. Why bother to pretend he wasn't angry when the darkness of his eyes betrayed him? "Someone was watching," he growled. Holding his temper in check was making his head pound even more, and he longed to vent his frustration on someone. He would have preferred the German, but he didn't relish the prospect of another mental attack. "They ran when I saw them, so I followed." His glare flicked momentarily towards Schuldich. "You made me lose him. He could have had answers."
"He was leading you into a trap, Joker," Schuldich informed him, lip curled in disdain. "Next time you want to play the hero, bring one of us along."
"I know what I'm doing, damn it!" Tomás snarled furiously. "Don't you dare patronize me! I've guarded my sister since I was strong enough to swing a sword."
Crawford had appeared in the doorway beside Schuldich. He gazed at the younger man dispassionately. "We work as a team, Hannigan," he said. "If you expect us to trust you, you had better learn to act with us. Revenge for your sister will come in time."
"You're a team that doesn't do shit," the Jackal shouted, fists clenched. "All you do is talk! You have no idea what you're up against! These people are monsters! If you don't do something first, they will!"
"Contrary to what you may believe, we have dealt with Vampires before," Crawford said coolly. "And it is not your place to question our methods. Rushing headfirst into a situation we don't fully understand will only get us killed."
"You're cowards," the Jackal spat.
"This coming from the guy who ran when he saw his sister killed," Schuldich jeered.
The Jackal yanked his trench coat open and reached for his sword.
"Draw that sword, and it will be the last thing you do," Ran said in a low voice, his eyes narrow slits.
The Jackal hesitated, eyes darting towards the redhead. A sudden vision of the strange zealot screaming as he burned flashed through his head. Had that been Fujimiya's doing?
"That's right, Jackie," Schuldich answered the thought cheerfully. "Though if you're going to do something that stupid, let me know in advance so I can fetch some wieners to roast over you."
"That's enough, Schuldich," Crawford said firmly. Schuldich subsided, but continued to grin insultingly at the Jackal.
"For the love of God, all of you calm the fuck down," Ken exclaimed as he appeared, squeezing past Schuldich and Crawford. He stood in the middle of the kitchen, hands on his hips, and glared around at them all. "Get off the Jackal's back, Schuldich. You're only making things worse."
"Does Farfie know you use the Lord's name in vain?" Schuldich asked tauntingly.
"Can it, Schuldich," Ken growled. "I'm really not in the mood for it. Listen up. We need to find out if this 'Sam' guy is alive or dead. I hate to say it-" here he glanced apologetically towards the Jackal, "-but I'm hoping he's dead and buried somewhere. The dead don't lie, so at least I'll be able to get some real answers out of him."
Tomás gaped at him.
"Hidaka is a necromancer," Crawford explained calmly. "For future reference, that information does not leave this room." Ran glared heatedly at him, obviously miffed that the older man had revealed such important information.
The Jackal blinked and nodded slightly. A necromancer. Jesus. That settled it; Ken definitely outranked him. He found himself wondering how the man could have such a rare gift- or curse, rather -but decided after a moment he would probably sleep better not knowing.
"I need to get back to the caves and keep an eye on things," Ken was saying. "I'll let you know if I get any more information on Sam, Farfarello, or Yohji."
The Jackal frowned, wondering why no one had bothered to investigate this "Yohji's" home yet to look for clues. He opened his mouth to ask.
Emerald eyes flicked towards him from underneath hooded lids. Keep your brilliant ideas to yourself, Jackalope.
Tomás closed his mouth with a click of teeth and glared at the German. Before he could decide whether or not to obey, the others began drifting off. Ran had started rooting in the cabinets for dinner; Crawford disappeared into the flower shop, and Schuldich strolled outside to smoke. Ken pushed his hair out of his face with a gusty sigh and glanced towards the Jackal. "You're staying here?"
Tomás stared at him silently. The fact that Ken was asking now instead of ordering meant he understood that the Jackal was under a lot of stress and might prefer not to take this bodyguard job. For some reason that only made him stubborn, and he nodded once.
"All right..." Ken nodded to Ran on his way out the door. "Ja ne."
Ran grunted in reply, not looking up from the instructions on the back of a pasta box.
The Jackal stood awkwardly in the middle of the kitchen for several long moments. Ran was completely ignoring him, and Tomás suddenly felt a little foolish. Tying the sash to his trench coat and hiding his sword once more, he wandered into the shop.
Crawford was nowhere around; he had probably gone down to the basement. Omi and Nagi were standing by the potted trees, and stepped away from each other quickly at the Jackal's entrance, looking a little embarrassed when his eyes landed on them.
Wondering vaguely what he'd just interrupted, Tomás crossed his arms over his chest in an instinctively defensive posture and tilted his head towards the blond- Omi, wasn't it? "Just what kind of powers do you all have, anyway?"
The two boys exchanged a look, holding a conversation with their eyes. The Jackal found himself studying them skeptically in that brief moment.
They claimed to be assassins, but he found it more than a little difficult to believe that these two children could be such. And how could the others expect them to go up against vicious Vampires? It was ludicrous. This was not a task for children. They could get hurt- even killed. Certainly they would be scarred for life after this was all said and done- if they survived it.
Despite their similar ages, the two were as different as day and night. Slightly taller than his companion, Omi was a golden haired, blue eyed child who Tomás himself had seen close to tears over the heap of entrails on their back porch. He was like a little brother to the others, and his smile was bright and friendly. He had a serious streak in him, but to the Jackal he was just too innocent for this.
His friend- Nagi? -was just a shade shorter, and more willowy. His mop of dark hair fell continuously over fathomless, dead eyes that seemed to take in everything around him without interest. He had the air of one who was not easily impressed, and was used to being disappointed. Tomás had yet to see him smile. He was pretty to the point of being feminine, with a small build and a soft voice. Perhaps his solemn mood was a result of other kids teasing him at school?
A rush of harsh laughter echoed in the Jackal's head, and he stiffened at the now-familiar feel of the telepath. Looks can be deceiving, Coyote-kun. Don't judge the chibis so quickly.
Get out of my head!! Tomás thought fiercely; but the voice was already gone.
Omi was turning back to him with a bright smile. "Well, you've already seen some of them. Ran-kun is a pyro. He can set things on fire just by thinking about it."
The Jackal nodded grimly. Note to self: do not push too many of Fujimiya's buttons, he thought sullenly.
"Schuldich is a telepath..." Nagi cocked his head slightly, gazing at Tomás with the hint of an unpleasant smile on his full lips. The look was a little creepy for one so young. "But then, you already found that out the hard way, didn't you?"
Omi had been ticking them off on his fingers, his face suddenly more serious. "I'm sure you've guessed by now that Crawford-san is a precognitive. He can see flashes of the future.." he glanced at his partner for more detail, or confirmation.
"But sometimes the visions are vague, and they almost always come without warning," Nagi added calmly. It was as if the two were used to finishing each other's sentences and thoughts. "And they're never wrong."
The Jackal frowned, recalling the American's cryptic words. So that meant he and Fujimiya would have another swordfight- over Aya-san. But why? Would the other man's distrust and sharp remarks finally make him snap?
"I heard Crawford-san tell you what Ken is," Omi was saying, and Tomás dragged his attention back to the conversation. "I'm afraid I can't tell you about the rest of us, however."
The Jackal's eyes narrowed, and he felt resentment burn in his mouth like bile. "Still don't trust me?" he asked acidly.
Nagi stared at him silently, looking bored.
Omi offered a lopsided, apologetic smile. "Gomen, Hannigan-san. It's just that we can't risk someone getting the information out of you with, er, less than pleasant methods."
"Torture," Nagi said bluntly when the Jackal just stared.
"And there's always that Eraser..." again the two glanced at each other in silent communication. "But anyway, don't take it too personally, Hannigan-san. It's for your own protection as well as ours."
The Jackal frowned. Eraser? What the hell was an Eraser? He gave a little sigh. Well, at least not everyone on this god-forsaken team was paranoid about him.
"Is Ran-kun cooking dinner?" Omi asked suddenly.
The Jackal blinked, thrown by the sudden topic change. "Er.. I think so..."
Omi's adopted the look of a martyr, heaving a sigh of resignation. "Hannigan-san, will you please go get Aya-chan and ask if she can help her brother with dinner? Food and Fujimiya Wrath don't mix. She's the last door on the right."
Tomás looked at him sharply at the request. Omi was asking him to go up to the girl's bedroom- alone -and fetch her? Was he just being careless, or was he proving that he really did trust the Jackal with Fujimiya's sister?
"Aa," he said finally.
The two younger boys followed him into the kitchen. Omi pointed firmly towards the door that led up to the bedrooms, and headed over to occupy Ran before he could see where the other man was headed and throw a hissy fit. Nagi began setting the table.
The Jackal slipped through the open door and slowly made his way upstairs.
The sixth step creaked slightly under his foot, but that was it; this shop couldn't be very old. (2) Just how long had they been running this business? Come to think of it, it was a pretty bizarre side job to have if they really were who they claimed to be.
He reached the hallway and headed for the end, glancing curiously at the doors he passed. One of these was Fujimiya's, and another was his sister's... but why the other two? The others all claimed to live in their own apartments, and he hadn't seen anyone besides Aya and her brother occupying the shop at night. Four doors. Two on each side of the hall. Four rooms for four people?
He hesitated, glancing over his shoulder, warring with his curiosity.
Finally rebellion won over caution, and he opened the first door on his left.
It was a sparsely furnished room, but obviously lived in. It had to be Fujimiya's room. There was a basket of dirty clothes by the closet, and the bed was made. The sheets looked faded, with a plain pattern. Atop the dresser were two framed photos. Tomás was close enough to see that one of them was of Aya, laughing in a sundress and tugging a floppy hat over her head. The other was an older man and woman, smiling at the camera with their hands resting atop each others'. The picture looked damaged, with frayed and burned edges, but it was in an expensive frame. There was a plain desk, with a hard-backed chair shoved into a corner. There were neat stacks of paper piled on top- they looked like financial things. Most likely accounting paperwork for the store. Propped against the side of the bed was a familiar, sheathed katana. The whole room smelled clean, with a faint hint of lavender. Ran's shampoo, maybe?
Giving a soft snort, the Jackal closed the door carefully behind him and strode over to the room across the hall. Opening it, he glanced inside quickly. He got a glimpse of an empty mattress and white patches on the walls indicating posters that had once hung there.
The Jackal gave a violent start at the soft voice directly behind him. Whirling around guiltily, he yanked the door shut behind him. Aya was staring at him quizzically, arms loaded with schoolbooks. Her hair, which had hung in twin braids since he'd first met her, was hanging loose down her back, still wavy from being tied up so long that day. "Tomás-san, were you looking for something?" she asked.
"Uhh- no! I mean yes," he said hastily, and felt like smacking himself upside the head. "Er... that kid- Omi -he sent me up here to get you. Your brother's trying to make dinner, and he's pretty pissy. I got the impression that wasn't a good combination..."
Aya's pretty face took on a look of resignation. "Baka 'niisan," she sighed. "Not even Crawford-san stays around when he's in one of his moods and decides to cook. I suppose I'd better get down there before he dumps a pound of garlic in the soup or something..."
The Jackal remembered suddenly how everyone had fled the kitchen when Ran had started digging through the cabinets.
Realizing that Aya would probably be the only one to readily satisfy his curiosity without getting on his case, Tomás motioned towards the door of the room he'd just looked in. "Uh.. I was wondering.... You and your brother live here alone, don't you?"
She blinked, obviously a little puzzled by the question. He'd just spent the night in the basement; shouldn't he know that? "Hai."
"If your brother and his friends are really the assassins they claim to be, and this is just a cover-up job, my guess is this place was made especially for them. It seems pretty new, anyway. There are eight assassins, and four rooms. Only two of them are used." He raised his eyebrows. "I'm just a little.. confused here."
"Oh." She hesitated, glancing down at the books in her arms. She beamed at him. "Here, just let me put these back in my room before I go help my brother." She motioned for him to follow, and he did so, a little warily. Ran would kill him if he found out he'd been in Aya's room.
She went to the last door on the right and nudged it open with a hip. He hesitated in the doorway, looking around as she dumped the books on her desk with a huff of relief to be rid of her burden.
Posters of J-pop singers, favorite anime, and actors were tacked to the powder-blue walls; one large poster of a vase of roses was right above the headboard of the bed. She hadn't bothered to make her bed that morning, and the wild, colorful design was so loud and different from her brother's it was amusing to think they were related. Clothes were scattered by the clothes basket, suggesting she'd tossed them in that general direction, missed a few times, and hadn't gotten around to cleaning up. Her desk was covered in schoolwork, books, and doodles. There was an enormous stuffed bear on her bed, figurines on shelves along the walls, and...
A pair of underwear peeping out of an open dresser drawer. Mortified, Tomás hastily swung his gaze away, feeling his face heat up.
Aya hadn't noticed. She padded over to the radio and switched off the Gackt song it was crooning. "My brother used to live here with the others before I woke up," she said quietly, bending over to pick up a book that had slipped from the mess on the desk to land on the floor. The Jackal stared at her, nonplussed. 'Woke up'?
"It used to be just four of them," Aya explained, balancing the book carefully on top of three others on the edge of the desk. "Schuldich-san, Crawford-san, and Nagi-kun didn't used to be a part of the team. From what Oniisan's told me, there were once two teams: Weiß and Schwarz. My brother was on Weiß, with Omi-kun, Yohji-san, and Ken-kun. The others- along with Farfarello -were part of Schwarz. They were enemies. It's because of the Vampires that the two teams formed an alliance."
Tomás was drinking in the information eagerly, like a greedy sponge, but he managed to shake at least some sense into himself, long enough to ask warily, "Why are you telling me all of this? None of the others trust me. Don't you think they'd be a little piss- er, mad that you're telling me everything about them?"
"Oh, I won't tell you everything," she said quickly, looking at him with those big violet eyes of hers. He was reminded uncomfortably of her brother for just an instant. She had picked up an anime key chain and was fingering it distractedly. "Some of them don't want to trust you because of what you might give away if you're captured. The others- like my brother and Schuldich," she gave a wry smile to tell him she was aware of the hell the two were putting the Irishman through, "don't trust anyone very easily. Especially with all that's been happening and all they've been through. Please don't hold it against them."
"Then why are you telling me?" the Jackal demanded, eyes narrowed slightly. "You really trust me that much?"
She gave him a bright little smile, disregarding the second question entirely. "The things I'll tell you are things the enemy already knows. I don't see why you shouldn't know these things. It might help you understand a little better, anyway. Although I can only tell you as much as I've picked up myself, or what my brother's told me." She motioned. "You can come in, you know. I don't bite."
He hesitated, glancing around, then walked in and perched gingerly on the edge of her bed.
She put the key chain in a desk drawer and took out a pair of long golden earrings. She put them in as she spoke. "After the last Vampire fight- when Farfarello killed the old Vampire Lord -things got a little different. Yohji-san.." she hesitated, looking up at the Jackal a little nervously. "You're not a homophobe, are you?"
Tomás was nonplussed at the abrupt question. He stared at her blankly. "Uh... I..guess not," he stammered. "I don't really care, I guess, as long as some gay guy doesn't hit on me..."
"OK." She relaxed a little and went back to putting her earrings in. "Well, after that whole Vampire mess, everyone kind of went their own way. Yohji-san hadn't lived in the flower shop for awhile, anyway, and had his own apartment. So I could've had his empty room. But then Ken-kun ended up staying in the Vampire world with Farfarello. That left Schwarz and Weiß each minus one assassin. Omi-kun and Nagi-kun moved in together, and Crawford-san.. well, he lives by himself. For now." She got a look of grim determination on her face for a moment that Tomás wondered about. "Anyway... It turned out the ones who were helping the old Vampire Lord were Schwarz's employers. When they were killed, Schwarz was kind of out of the job. So Manx-san hired them. So now Schwarz is actually Weiß, too, though no one calls them that." She dropped her hands by her sides and beamed at him. "So, did you get all that?"
The Jackal blinked, backtracking swiftly. She'd been talking a little fast, and he was still a little confused about some things, but he supposed he would have to check up on those things later. "Uh.. just one question."
She was pulling her hair up in a quick bun, and glanced over her shoulder at him when he spoke. "Nani?"
The Jackal paused, looking up at her. She had the same willowy form of her brother, except with the curves of a woman. Her big eyes were expressive- an open book. She had a habit of making little faces to go with her moods as she spoke and moved, switching from cute frustration with her hair to inquisitive at the sound of his voice. The excitement, sadness, and concentration that had flitted across her face while she'd talked to him had been more fascinating than the story itself. Realizing belatedly that he was staring, Tomás rose hastily to his feet. "Ah.. I was just wondering... Where were you while all this was going on? This assassin thing? You allude to the fact that your brother had to tell you most of this."
Her hands slowed in their movements, then stilled. She dropped her arms by her sides, her face still turned away. She was silent long enough for the Jackal to realize he'd touched on a sensitive subject. Before he could find a graceful way to drop the conversation, she spoke up quietly. "Up until five months ago, I've been in a coma for almost three years. I woke up right in the middle of the whole Agammedo mess."
Tomás stared at her back in surprise. "A coma?" he repeated dumbly.
"Aa. I was... hit by a car." Her fingers twitched by her sides, and the Irishman's quick eyes caught the familiar gesture, recognizing it as an involuntary longing for violence. Someone had hurt this girl deeply. So deeply she wanted to kill them, maybe?
"The worst thing about it is.. it wasn't an accident," Aya continued in a whisper. "They killed my parents. They tried to kill me. That's why.. I can't really blame my brother for becoming what he did."
Tomás stared at her in surprised horror. She turned to face him suddenly, a smile plastered on her face despite the deep pain in her eyes. "Anyway, Tomás-san, we'd better get downstairs or-"
"Tomás," he corrected her, wondering at the same time why he allowed her to call her by his true name. Always he had insisted on people calling him the Jackal. Hannigan-san at the very least.
She blinked at him in confusion. "Sorry?"
"You don't need to call me 'san'," he mumbled, suddenly embarrassed. "I'm not much older than you are."
"Oh.." she blinked again. "How old are you?" she asked after a moment.
He hesitated. "Twenty-two."
She smiled at him hesitatingly. "All right... Tomás." Her cheeks flushed a little at the blatant use of his name by itself. Belatedly the Jackal remembered that given names, without 'san' or 'kun', meant some sort of intimacy between people in Japan. Oh, well. Too late to change his mind now.
"Well, we'd better get downstairs," Aya said brightly, her previous sadness already pushed aside. "Before my brother accidentally cuts off a finger or something." She giggled and moved past him, golden earrings glittering.
The Jackal paused, glancing once more around the room, then followed his charge silently.
Aya-chan may look like the most innocent of the lunatics in this house, the Jackal mused, but there was more to her than there seemed.


Schuldich wasn't interested in staying for dinner. Once he'd finished his cigarette, he ground it out against the brick wall of the flower shop and flicked the butt aside carelessly. Shoving his hands in the pockets of his gaudy green coat, he walked towards his car.
No one had checked out Kudou's place yet because Schuldich was going to do it himself. He hadn't said it out loud; he hadn't even dwelled too much on it. But somehow the others guessed- or assumed -and hadn't brought it up. Trust that irritating Irishman to want to play detective and question their methods. Stupid kid.
As he slid the key in the ignition, he glanced up, catching a look of himself in the rearview mirror. His customary smirk was absent, as was the cruel glitter of humor to his eyes. He looked brooding and almost sulky. Scowling at his reflection, he turned on the radio and cranked up the volume, knowing Ran would hear it in the kitchen and get annoyed. His grin slid easily into place as he put the Ferrari into reverse and backed out of the driveway.
He may be an excellent telepath, and a deadly fighter...
But secretly he thought annoying people was what he did best.
Laughing insanely, he roared off in the direction of Kudou's apartment, drowning the bitterness of his voice with music.

(1) This came from reading too much JTHM, I think.. -_-;; *cough*
(2) I remembered a little belatedly that the sixth step's creak was mentioned in ch. 1 of WADtD.. lol ^.^;;

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Ch. 27