Part Two: Out of Time

    It would help me greatly if I knew where to start looking, I suppose.

    I have spent several years with Weiß and I was part of Crashers before that. I am used to someone giving me information. Kritiker has always prepared their nice packets with targets, victims, and basic background information. Sometimes they didn't have enough to satisfy us, but at least they gave us something. Then there was always someone else to process the information for me. Omi has always been able to fill in what we need. Now, with no one to assist me, I know only two things: Aya is gone, and Schwarz has taken her. That leaves a lot of unanswered questions. We know nothing about Schwarz except what we have observed from our confrontations and the very meager scratches Kritiker has found. We do not know where they stay or where they frequent. We don't know enough of who they are to even guess at what they are likely to do.

    We had even passed them off as dead after our last confrontation by the sea. Omi and Ken had wondered off and on if they had truly perished- it seemed strange that people with such powers would be killed like that- but they have not done anything for almost half a year. We should have been more active in looking for them. If we managed to survive, of course they would have as well.

    Now I have confirmed that they are still alive, but I cannot do anything with this information. I cannot tell Kritiker without Manx wanting to know how I found out, and it would take some thinking to come up with a place and situation that she would accept. Then she would have Kritiker's agents out looking for any sign of Schwarz, and I am positive that that is disobeying Schuldich's rules. I cannot tell my teammates. While I believe they would keep the news from Manx if I asked them to, I have a feeling part of Schuldich's order to keep this game between us includes keeping the knowledge of Schwarz's continued existence secret. I don't know if that's the smartest thing to do- Weiß deserves a warning that the bastards are still alive and kicking- but for now I can do nothing. I fear too much for my sister's safety.

    That leaves me here. I have already lost a day trying to come up with ways to find her. I am seeing nothing. No sudden strokes of inspiration and genius are telling me a way to solve this problem. I do not think anyone would be able to find something Schwarz didn't want found. If Aya falls under that category, I have a better chance of finding a needle in a ten acre large haystack. She could be anywhere- with them, with an employer, closeted away somewhere…dead…Just the thought makes me sick to my stomach. I have no guarantee that she is really alive and well. But why does Schwarz have her? What could they want with her now? That ceremony failed, and they had a hand in making sure it didn't go through.


    I am pulled back to the here-and-now by Ken's voice. He is hovering by my elbow. My eyes focus on the bouquet I have been arranging. It's ruined- I have crushed the flowers in a death grip. I feel Ken's gaze on me but refuse to turn around and meet his eyes.

    The shop is quiet, as the girls are at school. Morning shift can be the easiest because of that. Once the crowd flees to reach class on time it is a relatively quiet shift. I usually end up taking morning shift with Ken, as Yohji whines about both the lack of girls and being forced to wake up early and Omi has classes to attend. I wonder if I can get on Omi's computer again today. I have the afternoon shift as well, so I could stay here after everyone else left and have the system to myself for a few hours without them knowing. Then again, I'm not sure what use it would be. I am not stupid when it comes to computers, but I do not have the knowledge or the skill to understand most of Omi's hacking. I wish I had paid more attention one of the hundreds of times he had to locate targets for us. I wish I had lingered just a few times to hear how he went about deciding where to start looking and how he found what he was looking for. I wish I had been interested just once, so I could have learned something- anything- that could be useful now. So much knowledge is just a flight of stairs away, and I have no way to access it.

    Damn me and my indifference, anyway.


    Right. The flowers.

    I slowly peel my fingers free from the stems and petals. The flowers are a pathetic sight, squished and mutilated. Petals and leaves litter the counter where I am working. One or two are all right, but I don't care. I scoop the entire bouquet up and carry it to the trashcan.

    "Aya?" Ken asks. I can hear the hesitant concern in his voice. He knows I don't like being questioned like this, but he's worried. I wonder if Omi has shared his growing concern for me with our teammates. If so, I'm sure today's inattentiveness and black silence have done nothing to assure Ken that Omi's suspicions are misplaced. "Are you all right?"


    "I'm fine," I answer curtly.

    "You sure?" He's not letting me think. I need to think. I send him a withering glare, and he holds up his hands as if shielding himself from me. "You just seem out of it, that's all. Can you really hate a guy for being worried?"

    "Ken," I say, voice flat and biting.

    He knows me well enough to translate that to a 'shut up and leave me alone,' so he sighs and shrugs before returning to his side of the shop. I head back to my own spot to attempt making the bouquet again. I try to focus on what I'm doing. My hands know the motions by now, but watching each movement distracts me from thoughts that grow more morbid and restless with each passing hour. I have only used up one day out of my three and I am already seeing defeat hanging over me. I am not the type to give up easily, but I am realistic. The chance of me being able to find Aya on my own with no clues when it was Schwarz that took her is close to nil.

    Think, Ran, think. Where could they have put her?

    Anywhere, my mind offers up sourly.

    I end up stabbing my fingers on the stems- hard. I forgot to remove the thorns. What kind of stupid mistake is that? I haven't pricked my fingers open on roses since I first started working at this godforsaken shop. I utter a soft curse, unable to voice it mentally when my brain is already full of more important issues. I give the roses a disgusted toss back to the counter and look around for the clips. I just had them- I used them the first time I tried this bouquet. They're not here, however, and I scowl as I look around. I am not in the mood for this. Today is not the day for shop tools to grow legs and wander off.

    Ken is watching me again; our eyes meet briefly across the shop. He lifts the small scissors that I'm looking for and I hold out my hand in a flat demand for them. "I told you I was taking them, Aya," he tells me, searching my gaze with a slight frown on his lips. "You didn't argue…"

    That explains what he was doing on my side of the shop, I suppose, but I had been too deep in thought to pay him much attention. "Give them back."

    He pads across the room obediently, eyeing my bloody fingertips. "Jeez, you got yourself pretty bad, didn't you? Where's your mind today?"

    "Ken," I snap, a warning that dares him to say anything else. I practically snatch the scissors away from him and turn sharply around, setting about stripping the thorns from my roses with sharp, quick clips. I struggle to calm myself. I can't let these little things frustrate me, not when I need to focus my attention on a much larger problem. I need a clear mind if I want to look for Aya. It's a struggle, but by the time I reach the last rose my movements have slowed and I don't feel quite as close to snapping.

    Ken's silence ends when he knows I'm not as tense. "Maybe you need a break, Aya," he suggests. "The shop is quiet. I think I can handle things by myself for a little while."

    For a moment, the thought of leaving the shop appeals to me. However, I know that my location will do nothing to help the turmoil I am experiencing. No matter where I go I will have to put up with this mental battle, this running in circles and wash of despair and hope. I realize Ken is waiting for a response and give a curt shake of my head. "No."

    "You sure?"

    Damn it, what is his problem? I'm not in the right state of mind to tolerate him. Is it so much to ask that he leave me alone? I throw him an acid look that must reveal just how much of a rotten mood I'm in because he retreats a step with wide eyes. I clip the last thorn off and hold out the clips to him again. Ken accepts them gingerly, gives me a wary look, and retreats once more to his side of the shop.

    He does not bother me for the rest of our shift; the remaining hour passes in silence. Ken orders a lunch for us and we eat without saying a word to each other, standing on opposite sides of the room. I can feel Ken's eyes on me but I ignore him, keeping my back to him. I eat very little and end up just shoving the rest around for a while. Ken watches as I throw the chunk of leftovers away before discarding his own empty Styrofoam container.

    When Yohji arrives five minutes later, Ken pulls him aside. His attempt to be inconspicuous about it fails; Ken has never been good at subtlety. I can hear his warning to the playboy to be careful around me today. Then, in a louder voice, for he assumes I couldn't hear his hushed words to Yohji, he calls a farewell to me and scurries out of the shop.

    Yohji eyes me for a moment and I give him a baleful look in return. He sighs and checks his watch, then sails out the back door with the parting excuse that he's going on break to smoke.


    Nagi finds me sprawled on my stomach on the couch when he comes home from a trip to the library. Two cats are curled up on my back, another is on the arm of the chair happily chewing on my hair, one is on my ankles, and the other two are playing with each other on the floor. He sets his things in the doorway to the den and enters the room. I crack open an eye to peer at him as he sits on the chair across from the couch, and we gaze at each other for several moments in silence. We haven't spoken to each other since yesterday evening. Dinner was a quiet affair, and I went to work before he woke up. It's not that I'm mad at him for saying what he did, and he knows that. He just knows that some days are not the right days to talk.

    Right now, he's waiting for some sign from me that things are all right again. Five months ago, he wouldn’t have cared so much that I wasn't talking to anybody; he probably would have thought it was the greatest thing to happen to Schwarz if I actually shut up for once. Nowadays it matters a lot more that we're on talking terms- for both of us.

    After all, we have nobody else.

    "I have to pee and my back hurts like a bitch," I complain, voice muffled because my face is half-buried in my arms.

    Nagi gives me a strange little smile, his lips twitching in amusement. I don't miss the light edge of relief to his thoughts. He rises from his chair and approaches the couch, gently lifting the cats from their various spots on me. Drei is promptly attacked by the two playing on the floor. Fünf defies Nagi by jumping back up on the couch. Nagi pushes him off- not as kindly this time- and the tabby sets about cleaning himself, pretending that he never really wanted to be on the couch in the first place.

    I groan as I sit up, as moving hurts my back. The play on the ground is getting a little too violent; Drei is starting to cry. "Cut it out." I poke a toe at the rough housing trio only to have Zwei bite it. "Brat. Should have left you on the docks," I grumble, picking myself to my feet. Nagi pries them apart as I wander down the hall towards the bathroom.

    When I return Nagi is kneeling on the floor beside the couch, wiggling his fingers for Zwei to play with. The Somali is having the time of his life, his green eyes huge as he swats frantically at my teammate's dancing hand. Nagi does not have to worry about getting scratched; I got all of the cats de-clawed once I realized they were starting to tear up our furniture. I should have gotten them de-toothed, I muse.

    "Here." Nagi gestures towards the couch when he notices I've come back. "I'll take care of your back."

    I have to step over Zwei to get to the couch and get a nip on my pants leg for the effort. "And to think he was such a quiet cat when I first brought him home," I tell Nagi dryly. Now he is the most playful- and violent- of the six. There's a cat toy squished between two of the cushions and I tug it out, tossing it over my shoulder. Every cat head in the room perks up as it hits the floor with a loud jingle, but Zwei beats everyone to it and darts out of the room with the yarn mouse in his mouth. Drei and Vier follow in hot pursuit. The other three look as if they're considering adding to the chase, then decide laziness is better than investigating the tinkling toy.

    Nagi lifts himself up on his knees as I stretch out on the couch again. My back hasn't been in the best of shape ever since Takatori took a nine iron to it. It didn't help that I hit a few things on the way down to the sea when that building came down on us five months ago. My job just makes things worse. More days than not I come home from work with a sore back from moving such heavy crap around. I took the job despite the fact I knew it would cause problems for several reasons. The most important two are that it doesn't require much thought to tug things around and that it can sometimes wear me out enough that I am able to get some sleep at night. For those reasons I ignore Nagi's frequent arguments to find a different job. The work is easier than it was when I began four months ago, that's for sure, but it still kills my back. That's what Nagi is for.

    He uses both his telekinesis and his fingers to work the pain away, and on the first touch I groan in relief. I bury my face in my arms, letting him work his way up and down my back. Silence falls between us, but it is a more comfortable quiet than last night's. I am half-asleep by the time he is done and he leaves to start dinner. I remain where I am, enjoying the feeling of not being in pain, eyes closed as I run the day through my mind.

    Today was more exhausting than most because I had to do mental work while I was also lugging stuff around. I had to keep tabs on Ran. Although I'm confident that he'll follow my rules, I don't feel like risking everything. It was amusing to listen to him today. I've been tagging him for about a month now, ever since I started seriously considering abducting his sister. It was strange to listen to him; he had changed a lot since the last time we met face to face. He was never the party guy, but at least his thoughts had had more life to them.

    Now his mind is alive again, kicked to action by my appearance and his sister's kidnapping. It was great entertainment to listen to him today, to hear him run around in frantic little circles as he looked for ways to find his sister. He'll never find her, and a part of him realizes that. He is still in a bit of denial, though, so the next two days will be fun as his hope is swallowed by defeat and despair. A drowsy smirk pulls at my lips as Nagi sends a mental note that dinner will be ready in five minutes. We eat simply around here- most of what we have are bag to stovetop to plate in under twenty minutes meals.

    I decide then that my seventh cat can cook for us. From my month of spying I know that he can make some elaborate dishes. For all the work he puts into cooking, he doesn't care much for the outcome. He picks at the meals with indifference and throws the rest away. He had noticeably lost weight when I saw him yesterday, weight that he didn't really have to lose. That's all right- the cats will be happy to eat what he doesn't. Maybe his cooking skills will help Nagi adjust to the idea of him living here.

    Nagi definitely doesn't want Ran living with us. He doesn't trust the whole game. He knows why I took Aya, but moving Red in with us is not something he expected. I hadn't intended on telling Ran that he was going to become a member of our household. It hadn't been part of the original plan; it was something I decided when I confronted him in his sister's room yesterday. My plan had flown out the window the moment I grabbed him from behind to stop him from lunging at me.

    Ran is almost the right height.

    That realization changed everything, and the words and the teasing that followed had come without any forethought or consideration for the consequences. And there will be consequences; I know there will be.

    Right now, I'm willing to ignore them.

    These thoughts in mind, I slide from the couch and pad towards the kitchen to eat.


    I am out of time.

    Tomorrow is the day I have to meet Schuldich. I have found nothing. I have been at the hospital twelve times in two days to talk to the nurses, the security guards, and everyone else that was there that day. I didn't expect much from them, due to the fact that they would have only seen Aya being taken away if they had noticed anything at all, but I certainly was hoping for more than what I received. They all turned blank expressions on me as soon as I uttered anything about Aya. I have had a grand total of three hours of fitful sleep in the past couple nights, and my frustration and failure has rolled into an urge for violence that beats fiercely in my veins.

    My teammates are walking on glass around me. Omi has tried four times to figure out what is wrong, and he is miserable that I won't tell him anything. I had to bite my tongue the last two times to keep myself from demanding help on using his computer. I almost asked him once, thinking that I could get his help with that if not for the search for Aya, but something in my mind that sounded a lot like Schuldich's irritating voice chided me for considering it.

    Even the girls at the shop are keeping their distance. Both Omi and Yohji have asked me to take a shift off so I can rest- Omi even threw me out of the shop yesterday after he got home from school. I know that I'm pale. I know the lack of sleep is showing. Yesterday's shift off didn't help me at all, however. I would not have been able to sleep if I had tried, and the need to try everything I could one more time would keep me from taking any medicine to knock myself out. I couldn't even make myself return to my apartment. My hands turned the steering wheel away from that direction to take me back to the hospital. I could not make myself go in her room for more than a few minutes. It made me sick to my stomach to gaze at her empty bed. Instead I wandered the halls, starting on the first floor and making my way upwards, questioning anyone I could. I asked everything from character descriptions that matched Schwarz to what kind of facility would be able to support someone in her condition. There were two other places in Tokyo that the nurses said could take care of Aya, and I visited both last night. They couldn't help me, either.

    Two legs appear in my field of vision, confusing me enough to draw me from my unhappy thoughts. I follow the legs upward to see Yohji. He grew. No, I am sitting down. When did I sit? When- I glance around- did I come back here to the storage room?

    Yohji slowly crouches. "You look like shit."

    I don't respond.

    "Need to talk?" he asks, not waiting long for a reply to his first remark. He knows me well enough that he can judge what I will and won't reply to. His expression is serious, his eyes patient and accepting. "I know there are some things that no one wants to talk about," he says, drawing his pack of cigarettes from his pocket. "We all have our own problems, and I respect that. But you're deteriorating pretty rapidly, and I'm worried."

    Aya is gone.

    The words are on my tongue and I have to clench my teeth to keep from spitting them out. I want to say them. I want someone to know. I know I need help. I want it. I want to find Aya. I want her to be safe. I do not want to go with Schuldich tomorrow. The very thought makes me nauseous- both because I don't want to go anywhere with that sick monster and because I really don't want to think about how he touched me in Aya's hospital room and what he said. Just the memory of his hands on my jeans is enough to make my skin crawl and make me feel the need for a shower. I know that I have failed, however, and I know what I must do. To insure her safety, I _have_ to go with him tomorrow.

    For Aya, I will do anything.

    I watch as Yohji lights the end of his cigarette. He half-extends it to me in offering, not really expecting me to take it but probably figuring it's worth a try.

    I'm not sure why, but I do accept it, lifting it to my lips mechanically. I gaze through Yohji as I inhale slowly, my thoughts whirling in sick little circles. I pass it back to him, exhaling smoke and watching the gray tendrils float in the air. Yohji props the cigarette between his own lips, studying me with serious green eyes. I don't want to look at his face and see the concern in his gaze. Despite Omi's skills with the computer, Yohji is the one I would pick if I could have any of my teammates help me. He is older than the other two and more mature; he could keep his head and help calm me whereas our younger teammates would just add to my own anxiety with their excitability. He used to be a private detective- he's been working Tokyo's underground for years so he might know if there's a place that respectable society doesn't know about that can watch someone like Aya. He tangled more with Schuldich than the rest of us- Yohji has his own private grudge against the telepath. He might have some sort of insight into the German, though it's questionable how much help that would be.

    I close my eyes, rubbing my eyelids lightly with my fingertips. Why must Aya always be put in jeopardy? Why has everything had to happen to her? Why couldn't she have had a normal, happy childhood? I have failed her as a brother. I failed her when she was hit by Takatori. I failed her when I stained her name with my murders. I failed her the first time she was kidnapped. And now I have failed her again, by letting her get taken a second time, for not being there to protect her when they came.

    I try so hard to be a good brother to her, but nothing I do is good enough. I will never be good enough for my sister.

    But I will not fail her this time. I will not let them hurt her, no matter what Schuldich decides he wants.

    Warm fingers curl around my wrist, gently lowering my hand from my face. I open my eyes, too tired to glare at Yohji for touching me, too desperate to use him as a distraction from my thoughts. He is gazing at my hand, and I follow his eyes to see that it is trembling. Yohji slides his cigarette between my fingers, lifting his gaze to mine. His eyes tell me he wants to know what's wrong, that he wants to help me, but he will not force himself on me to make me tell him. He does not want me to withdraw further, so he is laying out an offer for me to accept if I will. I understand, but I cannot accept his offer- even if I actually want to confide in someone else for once.

    He sees the answer in my eyes and accepts it, gesturing to the cigarette. "I think you need this more than I do. Go home and get some sleep; I can handle the rest of the clean-up by myself." With that, he rises slowly to his feet and heads towards the door connecting the storage room and the storefront. Before he can make it all of the way, I speak.


    He stops, listening. "Aa?"

    Where is Aya?

    "Who is on shift tomorrow afternoon?"

    He thinks. "Omi and I had it yesterday after you left, so it's you and Ken tomorrow."

    Silence falls between us for a few moments; he has the feeling that I'm not done so he does not move. I tilt my head to one side, looking in his direction. He has half-turned to look back at me, and our eyes meet. "I need to take tomorrow's shift off," I say at last. It's hard to speak it, hard to say aloud the words that mean Schuldich has won.

    "I'll tell Ken we've switched," he answers simply. There are no questions, there is no hesitation. That is how Yohji is; that is the kind of person he is behind a playboy mask and a carefree smile. That is why I can tolerate his laziness around the shop and his seemingly shallow view on the world- I know who he is beneath it all.

    Silence once more. I look away, dropping my eyes to the cigarette that dangles between my fingers. I slowly lift it to my lips. Ash drops from the tip to hit the floor. Before I inhale again, I offer a quiet "Arigatou." I'm not really sure why I say it. Somehow I just feel like it needs to be said. I close my eyes, signaling to Yohji that I'm done. He lingers for a moment longer before exiting. The door clicks shut quietly behind him and I am left to myself and my thoughts once more.

Part 3
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