Part Twenty-One: The Taste of Death

    I wake up with Schuldich’s alarm even though I don’t have to go to work today. Schuldich turns it off and I contemplate going back to sleep, wondering if I would get any benefit out of it. Schuldich pushes himself up and stretches, yawning. He rakes his hands through his long hair, thinking for a few moments, and then looks over at me. I return his stare and he reaches out, giving me a push. “Drive me to work,” he says.

    “…What?” I ask.

    “You’re awake anyway. Drive me to work.”

    “Why do you want me to do that?” I ask, suddenly deciding that there are definite benefits in falling asleep again.

    “I don’t feel like driving and you’re awake anyway. Let’s go.” With that, he crawls out of bed. “It’s not like you have anything better to do.”

    “Except sleep,” I mutter, pushing the blankets away so I can get up. Schuldich tosses me a smirk and vanishes from the room for a quick shower. I’m dressed by the time he returns and wait for him in the kitchen. I feed the cats as long as I’m there, and Schuldich wanders in just moments later. He’s tying his hair up into a ponytail as he enters the room, and he checks the cat dishes before setting a pair of pants on the counter. Giving a satisfied nod that I’ve filled them, he rummages around for something to eat for breakfast.

    I study him as he digs through the fridge. He’s dressed in a burgundy long-sleeved shirt and the overalls he was in when he returned home after being gone for several days. They’re odd overalls…They’re a rubber/plastic looking material. One hand is carrying the thick boots he had on that day as well, and he drops them on the ground by the counter when he finally settles for toast and juice for breakfast. Farfarello’s collar is still around his throat. All in all, he makes a strange impression. The outfit is very different from what he used to wear, and I’m not sure it’s much of an improvement from his green jacket and yellow bandanna.

    “It’s required uniform,” Schuldich says with a shrug.

    I frown at that. “Where do you work?”

    “The docks,” he answers easily, setting his glass and saucer in the dishwasher and collecting the spare pants. “I work at the main harbor.”

    I give him a blank stare and he sends me an amused look in return. “You work at the docks?” I ask, thinking I’ve surely misheard. He just laughs and gathers his boots, leading me to the door. “You unload and load ships all day?”

    This is what Schuldich chose? I knew he gave up assassination for physical labor, but to work in transportation? It blows my mind; I have no clue how he came up with it out of all of the millions of things he could have done. “You have the gift to make people give you any job you wanted and the skills that you could have been anyone’s assassin or bodyguard…and you pick to work at a loading dock.”

    “Yeah, that’s about right.” He tosses me a grin over his shoulder as he puts his boots on at the door. He brings his everyday shoes with him. I tug my own shoes on and grab my keys, following him to the elevator and leading him to my car once we reach the ground floor. Schuldich gives me directions; I’ve been to the docks before for a mission, but that was just once and it was a long time ago. I wonder what his teammates would think of him dropping so far in the ranks of society. Schuldich overhears that thought and laughs. “Crawford wouldn’t believe it,” he answers. “He figured I was too spoiled to do something like this.” Here he tosses me a meaningful look, because he knows I share the precognitive’s opinion. “Farfarello would just shrug it off as long as he didn’t have to do it also.”

    “No wonder you’re destroying your back,” I mutter as I pull into the parking lot.

    “It was destroyed long ago,” he corrects me. I don’t ask him how because I instinctively know he won’t tell me. My eyes stray to the large building. I’ve never been inside, and I wonder what it’s like. “If you’re bored, you could always come in,” Schuldich tells me, lifting a hand to check his hair. “I could blot you so my coworkers don’t know you’re there.”

    The offer surprises me, and I look over at him. He returns my gaze calmly and I realize he’s serious. There’s nothing in his eyes that says I have to accept; I could always return to the apartment and read my book for the next twelve hours…

    “All right,” I say, moving the car from the curb to a parking spot.

    “They have no clue that I wasn’t here last week,” Schuldich says as he climbs out of the car. “I’d rather avoid getting fired then have to rewrite minds to put myself back on the payroll.” He sighs and stretches before leading the way. I fall in step beside him and follow him inside. We step into a locker room and I’m hit with an unpleasant smell of sweat and general dampness. Schuldich laughs at the look on my face and moves to what I guess is his locker. His pants and shoes are stuffed inside and he closes the door again.

    “Shall we go?” he asks, and I follow him back out and down the hall. Another door reveals a staircase leading into a huge room. There are already a couple people gathered, and crates are already all over the place. The wall opposite us is missing, and I can see the ocean through it. The smell of salt is thick and harsh, and the breeze coming through the missing wall is strong. Schuldich gestures to the open area, switching to telepathy now that we have company.

    /Loading area,/ he informs me. /The gate on the right wall is for the trucks. The three men there are the supervisors./

    “Early as always, Schuldich,” one calls as he spots us coming down the stairs.

    Schuldich mutters something about how he wishes they just wouldn’t use his name at all, rather than attempt it and mutilate it.

    ~As you said,~ I remind him blandly, ~Japanese people have issues with German. It’s a waste of time to try.~

    Schuldich sends me a sharp glance over his shoulder, looking a bit startled. I wonder if he’s surprised that I remembered that or if it’s something else, but I don’t ask. We reach the ground floor and approach the supervisors. None of them comment on my presence and I know Schuldich has kept them from noticing me like he said he would. They don’t mention the collar wrapped around his throat, either. I wonder if they dismiss it as just another part of his personality or if he’s hiding it as well. Schuldich and his supervisors exchange easy greetings before returning to their own thoughts. I study the place, eyeing the crates especially. They look heavy.

    /They are,/ Schuldich says, casting them a weary look. /You can leave any time you like, as long as you remember to come back and get me tonight./

    I accept that in silence. Schuldich’s coworkers start to drift in shortly after that, and I retreat to a wall so I’m not in the way. They may not be able to see me but they can still run into me, and several of them approach Schuldich. The best thing to do is move away from him and watch from the sidelines. He’s obviously popular here; his workers greet him cheerfully enough and they exchange teasing insults as they get ready for a day’s work. These men don’t know Schuldich as anyone but a fellow worker. They have no clue what he used to do; they have no clue who he really is. And I guess it doesn’t really matter. They like the Schuldich they know, apparently.

    A truck shows up at about five after seven. The supervisors announce its arrival to the group as the gate opens to let it in, and I watch as the men manage to form a line to unload it. They’re all wearing the same thing as Schuldich, and now I realize that it’s for protection against the water. I watch as they wander in and out of the truck like giant ants, admiring their strength. Some yell insults and jokes back at each other; the supervisors wander off to sit down and watch.

    The ship comes before the truck has left. The workers finish what they’re doing and immediately transfer to unloading the ship. It leaves, and the crates are rearranged by destination slips that are attached to their sides. They yell to each other where the boxes are supposed to go so they know where to move their boxes, and soon there are little clumps all around the place. I lean against the wall, my arms folded over my chest, as I watch them.

    Most of all I watch Schuldich as he interacts with the other workers. It’s still difficult to believe that he would willingly choose this line of work. I worked construction for a little while after Takatori’s death and my memories of it are unpleasant. But Schuldich seems content to be here. It surprises me, more than his choosing of it does.

    Several of the men burst into song shortly, and gradually most of the others yell along. Schuldich is among the few content just to listen. When the one beside him joins in Schuldich leans over and says something with a smirk; I can’t tell what from this distance but from his expression I assume it is a derisive comment. It must be, and it’s not much appreciated; Schuldich gets a punch on the shoulder for his remark and laughs as he turns to get another crate. When everything is organized they drape themselves over the larger, more sturdy of the boxes. The first song turns into a second as they wait for the next vehicle to arrive and bring them work.

    I am the only one that sees Schuldich reach up to touch the collar around his throat, the only one that notices the way his smile fades for a moment.


    I end up not leaving until lunch break. My reasons are a mix between curiosity, interest, and because I have lost track of time as I think. I don’t even realize how much time has passed until Schuldich seats himself on a crate at my side and stretches. His spine crackles in the move and I want to cringe at how terrible it sounds. Schuldich does not appreciate it any more than I do, most especially because it’s his own back making such a noise, and he grimaces. He gives a heavy sigh and makes himself more comfortable, peering over at me. I check my watch, wondering if he’s on a break, and blink in surprise as my watch shows it to be half past noon. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been here for five hours.

    /Some of us have no trouble believing it,/ Schuldich says dryly, wincing as he runs a hand over his other arm.

    ~Why this job?~ I want to know, watching as he lightly kneads his bicep. He just shrugs in response.

    We’re approached then by another worker. He’s aiming for my spot, so I relocate myself to the other side of Schuldich’s crate. The new arrival props himself against the box, peering up at Schuldich with an expectant look on his face. “So,” he says, “remember when I told you my cat had kittens?”

    I hear Schuldich’s weary sigh; the man catches it as well and grins. Schuldich gives his companion a Look. “Do I look like the local animal shelter to you?”

    “You said you’d think about taking one or two.”

    “That was a while ago, when I only had two cats. Now I have six. Six, Shindo. Cat food isn’t cheap, you know.”

    “Just one?” the man wheedles. “We might have homes for two and my wife will keep one. That leaves the fourth. She needs a home and there’s no one else we can ask. You’re the only one I know might be willing to take her. It’s a girl; she’s a really pretty little thing. Gray all over, except for a white smudge on her nose.”

    “They can’t possibly be old enough for adoption already,” Schuldich says, frowning at Shindo. The man just nods.

    “Two more weeks and they will be,” he answers.

    Schuldich rakes his hand through his bangs, thinking. “Nagi will kill me if I show up with another cat.” When his coworker opens his mouth to plead some more, Schuldich cuts him off with a wave of his hand and a tired, “Come back in two weeks and try again.” His companion beams, taking this as a victory- and perhaps rightfully so. He heads away and Schuldich crosses his arms over his chest, sending a weak scowl after him. “I’m being taken advantage of,” he sulks.

    “Seems like it,” I agree mildly, and have to duck when Schuldich takes a swing at my head.

    “Begone,” the telepath declares, eyeing me. “Go eat or something. Go read, even…That’s all you do, anywa

   y.” “Some of us are educated,” I remind him, and this time I’m not so fast in ducking the swat. I put my hand over the injured spot and we scowl at each other a moment for good measure before I turn away. The steps that carry me to the stairs are light, and I find myself strangely content with the morning.


    Whatever truce Nagi might have been on with Ran while I was sick evaporated when I proclaimed myself healed and Nagi finally agreed to let me go to work. The telekinetic barely acknowledges Ran’s arrival; Ran returns the cool greeting, unsurprised at the return of such a cold attitude. I keep my amusement to myself, knowing that neither of them would appreciate it. Nagi has only been home for an hour at most, and the two spent the hour ignoring each other. Ran took up residence in the den, according to his thoughts, and Nagi was buried in schoolwork in the kitchen. Ran returns to the den now, heading back to the couch and the cats to get more reading in before dinner time. We spoke little on the ride back. Time with Ran alternates between conversational and silent, where we go from prodding each other with light insults to barely acknowledging each other as we think our own thoughts.

    Nagi watches Ran go, half-lidded dark eyes hiding the mess of roiling emotions he still feels about the redhead’s presence. He feels some gratitude towards the man for how he helped when I fell ill, but in his life he has learned that gratitude does not imply owed favors. Take what is offered and only reciprocate it if it’s in your own benefit…That’s what Crawford taught him. It isn’t beneficial for Nagi to make any sort of friendship with Ran, and he’s not interested in trying. I give his head a light pat as I head to the kitchen to fetch a drink. Eins alone follows me there; the rest give me their greeting and then vanish to the den. They know Ran is going to be a pillow for them, so they will head to the warmth his body offers and nap while he reads. I watch as they dart away, their tails high in the air, with some amusement. Then I am at the kitchen, and I pluck a cup down from the cabinet.

    Nagi seats himself, pencil moving rapidly over the paper before him. His writing does not slow even as he talks to me, something I have never been able to understand. I am not one who can write one thing and talk about another; without fail the two slip together and I realize I have written what I have been trying to say. It is no problem for Nagi, and the only way his thoughts influence his writing is that his pencil moves in sharp, agitated strokes.

    ~Why is he still here?~ he wants to know.

    /He’s here until I’m done with his sister,/ I answer, even though I know this isn’t exactly what he’s talking about. Ran’s presence isn’t what’s bothering Nagi the most these days…It’s that Nagi has figured out that Ran’s prison is no longer his prison but a place he willingly returns to. That’s what annoys him, that someone brought here for my convenience finds it to his own benefit and interest to return. Nagi had the chance to cast him out- he had my permission to send him away for a short time- and Ran returned.

    ~He wants to be here,~ Nagi says, and at this casts aside his pencil to glower towards the doorway.

    /On some levels, perhaps,/ I answer, pouring myself my juice and remaining calm in the face of Nagi’s irritation. I set the bottle back in the fridge and lean against the counter as I sip my drink. /He can’t help it./

    ~He can,~ Nagi protests, frowning at me. ~In the beginning, he hated us. Why has that changed?~

    /He’s still not particularly fond of you,/ I say helpfully.

    Nagi scowls and closes his book. ~Good,~ he answers, an edge of acid to the word. ~But his opinion of you changed drastically. How could he go from hatred to something else in a month in a half?~ he wants to know. ~He shouldn’t have changed. I like him less now then I did when this started.~

    /What’s it matter?/ I ask. /He’ll be gone in a while regardless of what he thinks of us. It doesn’t do you any harm for him to soften his opinion./

    ~It does,~ Nagi contradicts me, ~because _your_ opinion of him changed.~ When I gaze back in silence, Nagi continues. He doesn’t look at me, instead folding his arms over his chest and returning his glare to the doorway. ~You used to despise him, even as you found amusement in playing with him. But that’s changed. He’s Weiß, Schuldich.~

    /Does that mean anything to us when we’re no longer Schwarz?/ I ask him mildly.

    ~We’re not Schwarz anymore because _they_ helped destroy us.~

    /Weiß had nothing to do with it and you know it,/ I correct him, going to sit in the chair opposite him. His dark eyes transfer to mine once more, and I can see the shreds of anger and indignation in his gaze. /Crawford saw it coming. It had nothing to do with Weiß. In both cases it was choice…Crawford chose not to avoid the Elders’ punishment and Farfarello…/ I don’t finish the sentence, both because I don’t need to and I don’t think I can.

    Nagi looks away. It’s the truth, and Nagi has always known it, but it’s much easier when there’s something or someone to blame when your life goes to shit. For Nagi, it’s Weiß- in particular, this redhead I’ve cast among us. In the beginning, his disdain for Ran was justified because Ran hated us both in return. It was a mutual hatred and it worked for them. But then Ran started changing; his opinions changed and his views took a 180 turn. Ran doesn’t hate us anymore, and Nagi doesn’t like that. The one he focuses his blame on now returns willingly to our apartment and has started treating me on the easy grounds of an equal. It bothers my teammate on many levels, but there is nothing I can do about it…Nothing except boot Ran out.

    Sometimes I wonder if that would be best…Ran’s changes bother me, but for much different reasons than Nagi. I didn’t expect Ran to change; I didn’t expect the “Aya” façade he shows his teammates to give way and let through the man he was growing up to be. I made my plans for one person and a different one showed up. No matter who he is when awake, he still helps me sleep at night, so he is still useful. In the daylight hours, he is starting to form different purposes. From Ran I get the conversations I can’t get from Nagi…I get the easy bantering that was sometimes shared between me and Farfarello or me and Crawford, though the barb is sometimes sharper than the former and there is more humor in it than the latter. What I don’t understand about our exchanges is how he sometimes hears things I don’t intend him to, such as my mental gripe about my supervisors butchering my name this morning. I hadn’t sent that towards him, but he heard it anyway.

    /Ran changed because he sees his best friend in me,/ I tell Nagi, who gives a derisive snort. /He’s only had one friend in at least three years, and that was Kudou./ I don’t have to explain the similarities between the Balinese and myself; Nagi is familiar with his story. All of Schwarz was amused by Kudou’s pain over Asuka and Neu. I lost my amusement in the story several months ago when I found out firsthand what it’s like. /He has no real interest in making friends with the younger half of his team; he never trusted them enough to tell them anything. And he’s betraying Kudou by being here with us./

    ~So let him end the betrayal and go back,~ Nagi mutters.

    I just grin and say nothing, but I know that I’ve handicapped Ran’s friendship with Kudou for a long time. I’ll lose no sleep over it; I don’t regret that I’ve damaged it because it doesn’t concern me. But Ran chose me over Kudou the day of their argument, and he hasn’t really realized it. The morning they fought and I answered his call for help changed his relationship with his older teammate for good. Even though they’re friends, Ran won’t open himself all the way to Kudou. With me, he doesn’t bother keeping his mouth shut since he knows I can see all of his thoughts anyway. There’s a freedom in hanging around me that he’s never had before…The shields he wears for everyone else break here because they’re useless to maintain when I can see right through them. Bound to my apartment by his sister’s kidnapping, Ran finds a freedom for himself that he cannot find anywhere else. He will feel uneasy around Kudou for a while, a combination of the argument Kudou will never remember and the lies that hide his absence from the Koneko no Sumu Ie. Ran will have a mess on his hands trying to readjust when I the time comes to cut him loose from us.

    “So, Nagi,” I say lightly, changing topics even though I know this one will not be any more welcome, “what do you say to another cat?”

    Nagi doesn’t even bother answering; he slams his books closed and leaves the room. I sigh and down the rest of my juice in a large swallow.


    Somewhere else, Ran and Nagi are sitting in the awkward silence forever doomed to rest between them and my plate is growing cold. The call came during dinnertime; now I find myself on the elevator of Aya’s hospital. The doors slide open and I step onto the hall, my arms folded over my chest as I approach the waiting room. Farfarello’s collar seems to burn my throat and my fingers dig into my arms.

    “Ah, Jei-san…” The doctor rises from his seat when he spots me and approaches, a clipboard in his hand. We walk down the hall to Aya’s room, the doctor discussing this and that as we go. Most of the words he uses are medical and beyond my comprehension; I use my gift to figure out what he’s talking about.

    Look, Farfarello…Soon it will be done.

    The doctor pushes open the door and allows me to step in first. My gaze settles on that hateful girl’s face. I keep my distance from her bed, ignoring the doctor as he studies her. He moves around her bed, straightening her sheets and consulting her charts. I don’t pay attention to his movements, letting his thoughts circle through my mind as a quiet hum as I study her pale, relaxed face.

    All things come to an end.

    “All of it,” I answer without even realizing he’s asked me a question. “I want it all gone, not a trace left, as fast as possible.”

    He nods and eyes me. “There are some legal issues…”

    “I don’t care,” I answer, my voice colder than I probably intended it to be. “Just do it. I want it done with before the month is over, and I don’t care about the legalities or risks.”

    He hesitates, then nods. “I’ll have full authority over her next week; I’m still tidying up loose ends from my last job.”

    I nod. We’re done here; long strides take me away from that room, take me to where his collar does not choke me so much, take me to where I can breathe again.

    One week…The time is drawing near when I will be free of Fujimiya Aya for good.

    All things come to an end, whether we want them to or not. I am running by the time I reach the ground floor, and I burst from the hospital into a soft, drizzling rain.


    Farfarello is crouching on Ran’s other side. I realize this and at the same time realize that I’ve been watching him for a while, but I don’t know how long ago he arrived. I am staring up at him over Ran, but my lover does not seem to realize that I’m watching him. His eyes are on Ran, and I can’t stand it. He had always expressed a mild interest in Fujimiya Ran, mostly because Farfarello saw that the redhead was the most like him out of Weiß. But he saved most of his attention for that brainless comatose girl…Only now does he stare down at Ran with the interest he generally reserved for Ran’s sister. He shouldn’t be watching the Fujimiyas. They don’t wear his scars; I do.

    Perhaps it is a hypocritical thought, because when I reach up towards him I have to free my arm from where it lies around Ran’s waist. I have to have Ran here because Farfarello didn’t listen to Crawford, because Farfarello couldn’t obey Crawford that one time and in so doing ruined things. A part of me has sometimes wondered if I would have survived if he had not jumped, however; we hit so many things on the way down that I wonder if I would have died without him there. In those days, death was a welcome thing. It hurt too much to have him gone and to have my gift torn to shreds; the pain from both made it hurt to do everything those first days. If I had not given Crawford my word that I would look after Nagi I probably would have done myself a favor and backed out of life. I fought viciously with Nagi those first few weeks about everything, mostly my right to die. Nagi refused to let me; he clung to my promise to Crawford and fought tooth and nail to keep me with him. I wonder which one of us was being more selfish in those days… I do know that if I had taken my life, Nagi would have followed. He would not have been able to survive when his entire ‘family’ had been ripped from him, not when we were the only thing he knew.

    My hand goes through Farfarello’s face and my lover laughs, tilting his head towards me finally. “I’m dead,” he reminds me. “You can’t touch what you don’t have.”

    “This is my fucking dream,” I snarl back, sitting up and trying again. “I should be able to do what I please.” This time, my hand touches his cheek. His skin is _so_ cold under my hand… It’s like he is made of ice, and it’s cold enough to burn; it’s cold enough that I almost want to jerk away. He feels like death itself, and my stomach lurches in response.

    Farfarello is watching Ran again; a hand reaches out and plays with crimson locks. “Like blood,” he declares, and my hand slides through his face once more. “Do you suppose he tastes like death?” he wants to know.

    We’ve had this conversation before… “I don’t know what death tastes like,” I answer him; it’s the same response I gave him so long ago.

    “I do,” he answers me, and leans down. His mouth touches Ran’s and I give him a rough shove, lashing out in a rage that my dead lover dare appear in my dream only to kiss the man I imprisoned to help ease the bitter loneliness. Farfarello does not slide under my shove; he holds his ground easily. He does sit up, however, and reaches forward to snag my hair. I want to yell at him to get out; I want to tell him to go far away and not come back after a stunt like that.

    “He doesn’t,” he answers, oblivious to my anger and pain. “I do.” With that, he leans forward. I could hurt him; I want to hurt him so badly right now for touching lips with Ran and then putting his mouth on me. Anything I might have said is lost when the harsh taste of blood fills my mouth. I choke on it; I feel it rushing down my throat and I’m gagging on it. The ground is giving out beneath us and I can see the ocean rushing to meet us. I feel Farfarello’s fingers loosen on my back.

    We hit the water and I lurch awake. The taste of blood still lingers and I fight not to throw up. I’m only distantly aware that I woke Ran; I just sit on the edge of the bed with trembling hands covering my face.

Part 22
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