Part Seventeen: The Broken Schwarz


    Schuldich hasnít gotten back to the apartment by the time I show up, and I am given the full attention of love-starved cats. Nagi appears in the doorway of the kitchen just briefly to see who has shown up. When he notes that it is me, he retreats back to his work in disinterest. The crowd follows me down the hall to the bedroom, and when I stretch out on my stomach on the bed with my bag of books they decide to join me. I scratch them for a while obediently until the cries have given way to purrs, and somehow I manage to convince them to leave my hands alone so I can read. Instead they curl up around me, two taking my back for a bed, and I pull one of the old books from my bag. The sound of purring is a soothing background noise and the body heat from six cats is welcome as I flip open the book and start reading.

    When I am a couple chapters in, I realize that Schuldich has not returned yet. Even if I were too lost in reading to hear the door open, the cats would have abandoned me. Theyíre still here, deep asleep with me as their pillow. I glance towards the clock on my nightstand; itís eight thirty. Schuldich must get off work around the same time my afternoon shift ends or he wouldnít make it back to the apartment at the same time as me most days. Perhaps heís working late.

    At nine twenty Schuldich is still not back, and I set my book aside. With soft apologies to the protesting cats, I remove the two from my back and climb from bed. Iím hungry, and Schuldich never said I had to wait on him to make dinner. The television is on. Wondering if maybe the cats were just too asleep to hear Schuldich return, I move to the doorway of the den.

    NoÖIt is just Nagi inside. The little logo in the corner of the screen announces this to be the history channel, and he watches whatever is on the screen with obvious interest. It takes him a bit to notice Iím there, and when he looks up I think heís expecting me to be his teammate. He pauses for a moment, his eyes registering who is in the doorway, and a light frown curls his lips as he turns back to the television.

    I retreat to the kitchen to make dinner, cooking enough for three so I can store Schuldichís. Whenever he decides to come back he can microwave his plate. When dinner is finished I set the table and move the serving dishes to it, then pause to consider what to do now. Nagi and I donít keep the best company, and this will be the first time in the four weeks Iíve been here that we have to eat together without Schuldich here as a buffer.

    Dinner is going to be a quiet ordeal, I muse, and I head to the den to inform Nagi that dinner is ready.

    For several moments he doesnít answer. Finally the television turns off without him even bothering with the remote and he rises from his seat with a quiet sigh. He follows behind me to the kitchen and we serve ourselves. We set about eating with an awkward silence between us. The hostility Nagi feels for me is gone tonight; I believe his thoughts are on his teammate rather than my presence here. His mouth is curved into a faint frown and he picks at his food more than he eats it.

    Schuldich should have been home over two hours ago. Iím curious over his absence but not particularly worried by it, but it seems to be bothering the boy. I give an internal sigh and finally ask if Schuldich is working late.

    I donít expect an answer; Iím pretty sure Nagi will just ignore my question. But after some silence, he finally offers up ďNo.Ē

    Itís the only thing we say to each other that night, but itís the second thing heís said to me in a month. I wonder if I should consider it progress and decline to file it as such since Iím not interested in making progress with Schwarzís youngest. As I lift my cup to my drink, Nagi gives a soft little gasp and his hand flies to his forehead. Iím not looking at him but I can see him flinch in my peripheral vision. When I glance towards him his mouth is drawn in a thin line and he is staring at his plate without seeing it. Itís either a headache or something Schuldich said, and Iím willing to bet itís the latter.

    Nagi rises from his seat and abandons the kitchen without another word. A short time later I hear the television turn on again, and I wonder what Schuldich could have said to him. Iíll never know, so I tuck my curiosity aside and finish my dinner. Schuldichís plate is wrapped and put in the fridge. After some consideration I wrap whatís left of Nagiís as well. Everything else is cleaned up and put into the dishwasher, and I wipe down the counter afterwards.

    I take a glass of water and the final third of my broken pill to the bedroom, planning on reading more before turning in for the night. Only two cats are left in the bedroom; the others have wandered off wherever they please. I turn the overhead light off and my lamp on. My alarm is turned on and I curl up under the blankets to get warm, reading two more chapters before I take my medicine. I get another chapter done before the words start becoming too blurry to read, and I tuck my book on the nightstand for later. As I reach out to turn off the lamp, I note that it is eleven and Schuldich is still missing.

    I turn off the light and tuck my arm back under the cocoon of blankets, drifting off to sleep easily as I hear a soft rain start outside.

***

    When my alarm goes off the next morning, I turn it off and notice that Schuldich is not in the bedroom. There is a chance he was out late and managed to wake up earlier than me, or perhaps he pulled an all-nighter and didnít sleep at all. His side of the bed is cold, so whatever he did, heís been gone for a while. I shrug to myself, sliding out of my blankets. Itís raining again- or still, Iím not sure- and I study the gray skies from the bedroom window for a few moments. I take my towel to the bathroom and shower, and dress in warm clothes when I am clean and dry. I look in the den, wondering if perhaps Schuldich came home late and fell asleep out here.

    Heís not there, and I wonder at that. Itís Saturday. Is he working overtime this weekend? He didnít mention it, not that he clears anything by me. I suppose thatís where he is. The cats wake at my entrance and follow me to the kitchen. I have to feed them to get any peace and I feed myself next. I eat my toast and wait for the coffee to be finished brewing. My mug is brought with me to the living room and I sit on the couch, nursing my drink and watching the clock. Iím feeling lazy this morning and in no rush to get to work. I have shift with Ken, anyway, which means he wouldnít show up until at least ten minutes after I normally would.

    My drink finished, I place my mug on the counter. The dishwasher was run last night and will have to be unloaded sometime today. Itís usually Schuldich that takes care of chores like that, though Iím not sure why. Iíve been here a month and heís given the apartment several very thorough cleanings in that time. He does the laundry for our room, not bothering to sort mine out for me to do, and I always find my clothes returned to my closet. It took some getting used to, both that Schuldich was the one that kept the place clean and that he was doing my laundry, but Iíve grown to accept it as just one more thing that blows my mind about the way he acts.

    Itís getting to be a long list, actually.

    My umbrella is by the door and I bring it with me as I leave. I get to the shop just moments before Ken does. A half eaten bagel dangles from his mouth as he ties his apron on. As soon as his strings are fastened the breakfast disappears in a couple bites. I find myself distantly amused by it. Ken has the largest appetite of the four of us, but he works out enough that it doesnít matter. His quick metabolism and exercise burns off everything he eats and leaves him craving for more. Yohji used to gripe about how he had to watch what he ate even though Ken didnít. When Ken suggested Yohji take up an exercise routine, our oldest companion lit up a cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke at him.

    Shifts with Ken are made up of long periods of silence interspersed with small bursts of random conversations. This morning is no different. Ken doesnít mind quiet; he minds too much of it. He also thinks a lot and then gathers all of his scattered topics into his conversation to get them out of his head, so if I blink I know Iíll miss something. He starts off talking about the rain. I drift off into my own thoughts for just a moment and when I return my attention to him heís talking about New Yearís. Itís the beginning of December now, and Kenís contemplating holding a small party for the four of us for the holidays. His idea of a party consists of the four of us and some food, and if Yohji has anything to say about it, a lot of alcohol. Yohji managed to talk me into going to last yearís New Yearís party, and I remember what that was like. Omi and I drank a little and our companions got sloshed. Ken and Yohji drunk together make for an entertaining spectacle. It was amusing, even if I didnít tell them that.

    I wonder what will happen this year, wonder if I will sit with them on New Yearís or be confined to Schuldichís apartment. Part of me wonders what Schwarz does for the holidays and if they bother to acknowledge them. In my many reevaluations of their characters since I became their third housemate, I have a feeling that Schuldich, at least, will do something.

    Ken asks me if Iíll come and I make him no promises. He accepts this- he didnít expect anything else- and goes back to preparing his side of the shop. When weíre ready for business we roll the guard up, and there are already girls gathered outside. The ones loyal to either Ken or me squeal in delight and I sigh, fingering my shears and wondering how much trouble I would get in if I used them on the girls. Ken goes to open the door and he greets them cheerfully before letting them pour into the shop. One girl asks Ken who is to be on afternoon shift, and she hurries away to come back later when he tells her itís Yohji and Omi. The faction of the girls that come just for those two follow her out, but they still leave a sizeable crowd behind.

    If even a portion of these girls were actually going to buy something, we would need more than two people working weekend shifts. As it is, these girls come for the company rather than the flowers, so we can get away with just half of us manning the shop. I ignore the girls the best I can, barely acknowledging the way they hang around me as I busy myself weeding some plants. They shower me with praise over my ďcareful and gentleĒ way with the plants, crooning their undying admiration and love. The morning drags by as they cling and stay as long as they can, wasting several hours of their time in our shop to giggle at each other and bat their eyes at us. It amazes me that they have nothing better to do, that they can come and devote so much time to our shop.

    Ken and I are both heavily relieved when lunch time rolls around. I kick all of the girls out, ignoring their pleas to let them stay just a moment longer, ignoring their invitations to lunch and movies. With great satisfaction I lock the door and flip the sign around for lunch. A few linger behind to watch us through the glass, and Ken and I retreat to the storage room to get away from their prying eyes. Ken wipes at his brow, giving a heavy sigh.

    ďTheyíre leeches,Ē he informs me.

    ďThey are,Ē I agree, and we hide out there until our teammates show up.

    Omi arrives first and blinks when he sees us sitting on tabletops in the supply room. Then he laughs, sympathetic and resigned at the same time. ďThat bad, hm?Ē he asks.

    ďWe told them that you and Yohji would be here second shift,Ē Ken tells him with a wide grin. ďTheyíll cater to that and you can have your own groupies while youíre working.Ē

    ďSo cruel, Ken-kun,Ē Omi complains.

    Ken gives him an encouraging pat on the shoulder as we slide from our spots, and we leave him there to contemplate the joys of working a popular flower shop.

***

    Schuldich isnít at the apartment when I show up, but I only half expect him to be here. I thought this morning that perhaps he was working today. Even if he is off, he could be out eating lunch on the town or doing a million other things Schuldich does that I donít know about. These thoughts are squished the moment Nagi appears in the doorway of the den, and I stop in the act of taking off my shoes at his entrance.

    He was hoping I was Schuldich.

    Thatís when I realize that somethingís wrong, that somethingís happened. I ignore the cats that gather around me, prying my shoes off and setting them on the door. Nagi hasnít disappeared yet; he remains in the doorway staring at me and through me. I canít read anything from his expression, but his shoulders sag slightly. He folds his arms over his chest and retreats back to the den at length, and I frown at his absence.

    Schuldich is supposed to be here.

    If he was supposed to be working overtime, he would have told Nagi. But Nagi was looking for it to be his teammate that just showed up. Why doesnít Nagi know whatís going on? Schuldich has a gift. The boy could have spoken to him at anytime to know when he was returning. Didnít he speak to Schuldich last night? What did the German say that could still leave Nagi clueless as to his whereabouts?

    I step into the den, crossing my own arms over my chest and resting against the doorframe. Nagi is curled up in a chair, gazing at the far wall. ďWhere is he?Ē I ask. His absence doesnít bother me; Iím just curious as to where Schuldich has gone. It is strange to see Nagi so quiet simply because itís a different sort of quiet than before. Then it was a hostile, antisocial silence. Now itís concerned. Somethingís happened with Schuldich, and Nagi is worried for him. I think that maybe I should be surprised at the show of concern, but I think in a month Iíve been able to figure out that thereís some sort of bond besides a history of Schwarz between them that keeps them together.

    Nagi doesnít answer me. I try again. ďWhat did he say last night?Ē

    Again, silence. Nagiís not going to be any help. I decide to leave him there to his silence, figuring a book would be better company. As Iím about to turn to leave, however, Nagi answers.

    ďHe said to leave him alone.Ē

    The words are quiet, and I study Nagi as he lowers his gaze from the wall to where his hands rest in his lap. ďWhy?Ē I ask, and Nagi shakes his head. Either he doesnít know or he doesnít want to tell me. I guess I should be content that he answered me at all. Another minute passes between us and I leave, stopping by the kitchen to make myself a hot drink before heading to the bedroom to read. Schuldich will come back at some point, and when he does Iíll be ready for him to leave again. The only good thing about his inevitable return is that itíll end Nagiís quiet moping. Itís a very strange thing, to watch him sit in such worried, tense silence. I think I preferred it when he disliked me.

    By the time we eat dinner eight hours later, Schuldich is not back and Nagi is very obviously frayed. He doesnít touch his dinner at all. He sits in his seat with his hands clenched in his lap, staring at his plate without seeing the food on it. I eat in silence, studying him across the table. Schuldich knows how to take care of himself. Heís both a telepath and an experienced assassin. He canít be in any sort of trouble. Thereís just a reason heís avoiding the apartment, and I donít know what it is. I try to remember what happened the day before yesterday, when we all ended up back here just after lunch because of the storm. Nagi and Schuldich watched a movie together that day and spent the rest of the evening playing cards while I read. They were getting along fine at dinner, as far as I could tell, so I donít think they had a fight.

    But something about Schuldichís absence sits heavily with Nagi, and that can only mean that thereís something wrong. Iíll probably never know; a lot of what happens between them stays between them. Most of what I know about this place is what Iíve had to piece together through their visible actions and reactions. There is still a lot that Schwarz is hiding from me, and I doubt Iíll have their help in figuring things out.

    Nagi excuses himself when I start clearing the table. I wrap their plates and put them in the fridge next to the two plates already there. The table is cleared and wiped and I decide to unload the dishwasher rather than let the counter stay cluttered until Schuldich shows up to do the chore for me. I know where most of the dishes go, as Iím the one that uses them to cook. Some of them are things Schuldich or Nagi has used, however, and I have to hunt for their place. The tidiness of the apartment hits me again as I pull open cabinets and drawers. Nothing is cluttered; everything has a place. There is no more here than what these shelves can hold, and I have a feeling if there was too much Schuldich would chuck any offending dishes regardless of the necessity of their presence.

    I finally manage to locate a spot for everything and I set about rinsing the dinner dishes so I can load the dishwasher. The counter is wiped when I am done and I study the kitchen for a moment longer before turning my eyes to the clock. I donít have work tomorrow, so I donít plan on taking any medicine tonight. I wonder what to do now. Iím bored of reading, bored of Schuldichís bedroom. At length I opt to take a shower, as itís the only thing I can think of. I bring my clothes with me to the bathroom just in case Schuldich returns while Iím washing.

    The house is silent when I emerge from the bathroom some time later. I leave my towel in the closet and explore. Nagi is missing; I wonder if he has retreated to his bedroom. There is still no sign of Schuldich. Bored still, I take over the den and treat myself to a very rare moment of channel surfing. I settle on the news channel when there is nothing else on, and Ain approaches me. She stands beside my leg on the couch cushion, staring up at me, and gives a plaintive yowl.

    I pet her, but she doesnít seem entirely interested. She cries again instead and I sigh. ďStop crying. Heíll be back soon.Ē I canít see Schuldich staying out a second night in a row, so my bet is that heíll be here before I even go to sleep tonight. Heíll waltz through the door as if heís done nothing odd and Nagi will pretend he was never worried in the first place. Thatís how Schwarz is.

    But Schuldich isnít back when I finally go to sleep, and Iím up in the den until close to one, alternating between sitting in silence and flicking through whatever the television offers. Ain ended up taking a nap in my lap and is still there. I turn off the program I was watching on the science channel and study the clock. Nagi hasnít shown his face since dinner and Schuldich is still not here. I sigh, glancing towards the curtains. The rain has started again; it stopped early afternoon but now it has come back. Itís stronger now, but at least itís not as bad as the storm we had the other day.

    Schuldichís continued absence is odd, but I accept it. I lift Ain from my lap to hold her against my chest, rising to my feet and leaving the den. The cat doesnít protest being moved and leans against me in silence as I move to the bedroom. The light is on in Nagiís room; I can see its glow under the door. I turn and enter Schuldichís bedroom, leaving the door open behind me and carrying the cat with me to bed. She is set down on the mattress and I slide under the blankets, resting on my side. Ain pokes her head at the blankets until she can worm her way beneath them, and soon enough she has curled up by my stomach and I can feel her purring.

    The numbers on my clock declare it to be a quarter after one when I finally reach out and turn the lamp off. It is a while before I fall asleep, and Schuldich still hasnít returned.

***

    Schuldich doesnít, in fact, return until several hours later. Itís 4:30 a.m. the second morning since he vanished that we see him again; itís been almost seventy-two hours since I last saw him as we went our separate ways to work. Now I am woken up by the sound of the door banging open. Because I took no medicine when I went to bed, the sound jars me from my sleep instantly and I find myself searching for my katana without thinking. When I hit the second pillow, I remember where I am and I sit up, raking a hand through my hair as I try to figure out whatís going on. The bedroom door is open, and I can hear someone mumbling to themselves. It takes a moment to realize itís the missing telepath, and thatís when I note what time it is. I wonder what kept him out so long; I canít say his absence concerned me but I am curious.

    A door opens and shuts, and I see Nagi pass by my door. It seems Schuldichís entrance woke him as well. I consider going back to sleep and worrying about this mess in the morning; I am almost content to leave Schuldich to his teammate because Iím tired and because of what time it is.

    Content, that is, until I hear Nagiís strangled ďOh God, you promisedÖĒ

    After that, I canít resist. I slip from the bed and cross to the door in socked feet. I slip through the opening in my doorway, leaning against the doorframe as I look down the hall. The kitchen light is on; Nagi must have flicked the switch as he passed. The telekinetic is at the other end of the hall already, grabbing at a stumbling and wildly swaying Schuldich. I can smell the alcohol from my spot and I lift a hand to cover my nose. Yohji has never come home smelling this strongly of it; itís rank enough that I feel my stomach twist in protest. How much does one have to drink to smell like that?

    ďSchuldich, you promised not to do thisÖĒ Thereís a plaintive, broken note in Nagiís voice that Iíve never heard from him before; itís not something I ever expected to hear from the disdainful little brat of Schwarz.

    But his forlorn words fall on uncaring ears. Schuldich is giving an odd sort of laugh that sends chills down my spine. Nagi is tugging at Schuldichís clothes, trying to get them off. It must still be raining, and Schuldich has been walking out in it by the looks of things. The coveralls heís wearing are soaked through and there is a large puddle under his feet. But Nagiís efforts are in vain, and Schuldich spins out of his grip. The quick movement is too much for him in his drunken state, and he goes stumbling against the wall. He collides with it with his shoulder hard enough that the wall shakes and a small picture hanging there falls to the ground and shatters. Schuldich struggles on down the hall, leaning against the wall for balance. And still he is laughing, a sharp, breathless sound that holds no humor and all near-hysterical pain. I want to cover my ears but I cannot get my hands to move. It has got to be the worst noise I have ever heard. What on earth could drive him to make such a sound?

    ďSchuldichÖĒ Nagi tries again.

    ďLook, Nagi, lookÖLook what washed up at the harbor yesterday,Ē Schuldich says between his laughs. His voice is twisted, strange. He lifts a hand to his throat, holding onto something there that I canít see. ďOh, some poor child must have lost their doggie, they said. Oh, some child threw in a stick but the water was too strong. Perhaps a boat caught him, they said. Round and around in the propellers heíd go, the doggie, into kibbles and bits and bits.Ē Nagi reaches for him again and Schuldich smacks his hand away viciously. His words have more of a snarl to them now and his shoulders are visibly shaking. ďMustíve been big, judging by the size of it. Maybe he was sent to drown on purpose, maybe they never wanted a dog in the first place, they said. How tragic, how amusing, what a poor little dog...Ē

    Heís laughing again, and this time he lets Nagi close enough to start unclasping the coveralls from him. Then Schuldich turns and leans backwards against the wall, his hand still clinging to whatever is at his throat. Nagi recoils with a chocked cry, leaping back as if he has been burned. Around Schuldichís neck is a black collar that I recognize all too easily. Many months ago it had been wrapped around the neck of Schwarzís most insane. Now it is returned to Schwarz- but where is its owner? Schuldich is still laughing, that horrible, horrible laugh as he sags towards the ground. The laugh is growing more breathless and his fingers are knotted in his hair as he slowly slides down the wall. Nagi seems at a loss for what to say or do; he stands a few feet back and stares at his teammate with horrified eyes.

    Then Schuldich rocks forward, burying his face in his hands, and the laughter gives way to a far worse noise.

    Nagi drops to his knees, reaching out to gather his teammate in his small arms and burying his face against Schuldichís shoulders. I cannot see his face but I can see the way his fingers dig into Schuldich even from here. I can do nothing but stand there, my heart frozen in my throat, as Nagi clings to his shaking teammate. I donít think Schuldich is aware of his teammateís comfort or even aware of his surroundings. I donít think he notices anything, lost as he is in his own wild grief.


Part 18
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