Part Twenty-Seven: Tastes Like Home
I am pulled from my reading by a knocking at the door. I can hear voices; there’s more than one person there. Wondering what my teammates want, I mark my place and set my book aside. Kumo is sleeping in the middle of my bed and acknowledges the door with just the flick of an ear. I approach the door, feeling none of the resentment I know I would have felt two months ago. Two months ago I didn’t care for anything, especially interruptions. But now I welcome the distraction. My apartment is hauntingly quiet. It’s been a few days but I still am not used to the quiet. Kumo is here to keep me from being alone, but I spend most of my time when I’m not on shift wandering the city. There are people there; there are noises there. It’s not the small, quiet apartment.
I have also visited Aya several times. Schuldich took me to the hospital so after a bit of searching I was able to find it once more. She is starting to look healthy once more…The pale color is fading from her cheeks and she randomly hums, a noise the doctor says is unconscious on her part. But still, to hear a sound from my sister after three years…I thought I would die from joy.
I open the door to reveal my three teammates. Omi is standing in front; Ken is off to his side and is using Omi’s shoulder as an armrest. Yohji stands in back, leaning against the railing and smoking. Omi turns pleading blue eyes on me.
“We were going to have dinner,” he says. “We thought we’d eat out.”
“We don’t see each other outside of the shop,” Ken adds. What he means is that they don’t see me, and they probably don’t see much of Omi because he’s always busy. Ken and Yohji randomly hang out, but to get the four of us together outside of the shop and missions is near impossible- especially because of my situation the past two months.
Omi opens his mouth, but I cut him off before he can launch into a most likely memorized speech to try and get me to come. “I need a coat,” I say simply.
First there’s shock, then delight. Ken grins in pure triumph as if he alone convinced me to tag along. I close the door most of the way so too much cold air won’t get in. I want my kitten to stay warm. I find my coat draped over the back of the chair, offer Kumo a farewell scratch, and slip out the door. Yohji takes my keys from me and locks the door while I tug my coat on. We head down the stairs and Ken inquires as to which car we should take. Yohji offers his on the condition that Omi and Ken both sit in back. They grumble about the seating but Yohji and I both ignore them.
“Kids, kids, that’s enough bickering, get in the car before I freeze my ass off…” Yohji opens his door and points imperiously inside. Ken kicks some slush in his direction and scrambles inside before Yohji can stab him with the car keys. Omi follows him and they begin scuffling with each other in the backseat. Yohji and I exchange a tolerant look over the roof of the car for our teammates’ antics. Yohji grins when he sees the dry amusement echoed in my gaze, and we slip into the car.
The two younger assassins are obviously thrilled to have the group together on leisure time. We drive to the sound of their cheerful chatting, and they tease and harass each other with abandon. There’s an argument over where to eat; I lean against the window and listen to them fight. Yohji joins in, reaching back to take a swing at Ken as he drives. I reach out and snag the wheel when the car swerves lightly, and Yohji sends me a wolfish grin. It seems he’s as content to be going somewhere as the other two are, not that I’m feeling any less free to be out of my apartment.
“Well, Aya-kun?” Omi asks, and they look towards me for my input.
For a moment I consider correcting him. My sister is about to wake up, and she will take her own name back. Then I decide against it. Ran is…Ran is who I can- could- be around Schuldich. There are too many things keeping me from being Ran to my teammates. They know and will always know Aya. I lift a shoulder in a shrug. “Wherever,” I answer.
“See?” Yohji says. “He sides with me. That means we’re going to go to Toyaku’s.”
“That’s not what he said!” Ken says with a snort.
“Wasn’t it?” Yohji asks me.
“Of course,” I answer.
“See?” Yohji sends Ken a smirk. I study the expression. He doesn’t have Schuldich’s smirk. Their mouths curve differently; it’s partly because of the way they smile. Yohji works the warmer side of the expression, moving between sultry, kind, and amused. Schuldich picks up at amused and moves across the colder side, to a chilling smile and a smirk that promises violence and unhappiness. Both share some middle ground…In the past few weeks Schuldich’s smirks have become more arrogantly amused than anything else, and I’ve seen Yohji offer a cold smile to his victims.
“You just have to learn Aya-speak,” Yohji is telling our teammates, speaking with exaggerated lofty amusement. “A ‘Hn’ is ‘I’ll think about it,’ ‘Whatever’ is ‘Whatever you say, Master Yohji,’ and-”
“And what does shut up mean?” I inquire.
“That it’s time to turn on the radio,” Yohji answers easily, flicking the switch to a station. He sends me a sideways grin and I arch an eyebrow at him, folding my arms loosely over my chest. Yohji laughs and turns his attention back on the road. It doesn’t take us long to get there, and the hostess approaches us with a wide smile that three of us return.
“Smoking or nonsmoking?” she inquires.
Yohji starts to lift his cigarette pack; I reach out and push it back down. “Non,” I answer, and she nods and beckons for us to follow.
“Oi…” Yohji complains.
I glance over my shoulder at him. “I’m not going to choke on your smoke while I eat,” I inform him. “Keep your lung cancer to yourself.”
“He told you!” Ken declares.
Amusement laces Yohji’s eyes. “Indeed,” he answers.
It doesn’t take us long to figure out what we’re going to eat. The real wait comes afterwards, as we’re getting hungrier due to the smells around us and our food is still cooking. The other three fill the time with words, talking about this and that. A lot of what one talks about, the other two already know, and I fiddle with the bottle of steak sauce that’s on the table as I listen. The past two months, I’ve been pretty much oblivious to how things are going with my teammates and the shop. I showed up for my shifts, tolerated their conversations, and vanished back into the strange world of Schuldich and Nagi’s apartment. I don’t know what any of them have been up to besides Yohji’s wooing of Makiko.
I have often felt like I never truly belonged with my teammates, but tonight I feel more of an outsider to them than I have in a long time. It bothers me more than I want it to.
“So Aya, how come you have nothing to say?” Ken inquires.
Yohji waggles his eyebrows at me meaningfully. “Don’t you have anything to add to the conversation? Don’t you have anyone to talk about…?”
I eye him. “How’s Tunio?” I inquire, giving him a bland expression and passing him the steak sauce. Ken and Omi offer us blank looks; Yohji didn’t tell them about Makiko, it seems.
“Who’s Tunio?” Omi asks Yohji.
“No one special,” Yohji answers. Omi and Ken look to me. Yohji seems to be a bit nervous; it amuses me.
“No one special,” I echo, lifting my drink to take a sip. Ken and Omi protest; Yohji and I exchange sideways looks, measuring each other. At length Yohji lifts his cup to his mouth, tilting it in a slight toast before taking a swallow. He won’t harass me any longer and I’ll leave off of his business with Makiko. Yohji’s eyes are both amused and satisfied, and I feel my lips twitch into the beginnings of an answering smirk before I hide the expression in my glass.
“They’re hiding something from us,” Ken complains to Omi.
“When are they not?” comes the tired reply.
Yohji hides a laugh as a cough, and then our food arrives and our teammates have more important things to worry about.
I stare up at the ceiling, fingers laced behind my bed. I’m stretched out on my back, humming along to a tune I can’t remember the name of. My clock declares it to be two-fifteen; the other clock says two-sixteen. I never could get them both to show the same time…They’re a handful of seconds apart. I give a deep sigh, staring around the dark room. It’s been three days since Ran left, and I still have not gotten used to coming to bed alone. I would have thought it would be easy, and the first night, it was. I was tired enough that I was able to fall asleep quickly. The problem was that I woke up in the middle of the night because I realized Ran hadn’t shown up yet.
Last night and tonight…I’m used to coming in here and seeing him already half-asleep. I’m used to having someone with me, and now I have to make myself readjust to him being gone. It would be much easier if I hadn’t strung us together.
I still haven’t told Nagi.
I brush a mental hand along Ran’s sleepy mind. Ran may have moved out but the distance doesn’t dull his thoughts any. They’re sharp and clear, bound tight to mine so that I can always hear them. I hear his even when I can’t hear Nagi’s, and I had to catch myself the first time I almost commented on his thoughts. Ran and I have been separated physically; him moving out is supposed to end the deal between us. But somehow I wrapped the telepathic bond between us tighter than it was supposed to be. Ran doesn’t realize it, but he’s still as close mentally as he ever was.
How did this happen? I wrack my mind, searching for an answer. I watched Ran for a month before I actually abducted him. Once I presented the deal to him I linked him to me. But in those first days, I had to actively touch the link to hear if he was trying to be clever. Somewhere in there, his mind was pulled close enough that I always hear him, whether I’m listening or not. I’ve grown used to having his voice there, and it is a bit of comfort to have it there. Farfarello was wound this tightly to me because he was my lover. I would never have willingly put Ran on such a bond.
But how else would it have gotten there?
I roll onto my stomach, blowing my bangs out of my face with a heavy sigh before burying myself in a pillow. A hand reaches out, poking the empty other half. It won’t have anyone in it again. Farfarello isn’t coming back and neither is Ran. The bed is mine now, but it’s too big for just one person. I bought this bed when Farfarello moved in with me because my original bed was too small. I wanted something with a lot of room. The thought of getting rid of this bed seems absurd, but I wonder how long it will take me to adjust to sleeping alone.
Sleeping with Ran…
I consider this, lifting my head from the pillow to frown over at Ran’s spot. Was that when I slipped up? Those first several nights I woke disoriented. I fell asleep by convincing myself I was beside my lover. Is that when I linked us tighter? Was it an unconscious move on my telepathy’s part? If I told myself it was Farfarello and believed it enough that it startled me to find Ran in my bed in the morning… Did my gift recognize that the link wasn’t what it was supposed to be and ‘fix’ itself?
It was much easier to read Ran after he moved in than beforehand… And ever since Ran’s thoughts have been loud beside mine, loud and clear enough that I can hear him even at work. His thoughts were a welcome distraction; harassing him entertained me and helped the day go by. But I never questioned why it was so easy to hear him when everything else was dull. And there were instances when Ran heard things I didn’t intend for him to, or where he saw images of what I was thinking about. There was the display in the mall; he saw that. And near the beginning, there was a nightmare about the sea. Ran saw it all. I wondered about it but I never realized it. This is what went wrong.
I’ve linked Ran to me just like I had Farfarello. Damn. That never should have happened, and now I tell myself that I should take it down.
Even as I consider this, I wonder what it would be like if his voice disappeared. It would be harder to adjust to than this sleeping alone business is. Ran has been linked to me for two months- not the two years my lover was- but it’s still long enough that I’ve grown used to it. It’s nice, in its own way, I guess, to have it there. Because of the distant comfort I take in having such a link back, I’m reluctant to take it down. I know that I should, but still…
Of course, there are more issues with Ran than just the link.
Nagi and I managed to make dinner last night, but it tasted strange. Ran has made the dish for us before, so we knew what it was supposed to taste like, but what it turned out like definitely wasn’t that. I suppose I’m either going to have to abduct the know-how from Ran’s mind or I’m going to have to go back to instant meals. Taking the knowledge from Ran’s mind won’t help all the way…It’s the experience Ran has that helps him out.
But even as we complained about the dinner going wrong, neither one of us mentioned that Ran could make it better- not out loud, anyway. Nagi thought it and squished it savagely, and I knew better than to comment. Ran is sort of a taboo subject between us. I went too far when I was drunk; Nagi won’t talk about it anymore but I know he’s still achingly bitter over what happened.
“Feh,” I declare, dropping my face back to my pillow.
So I got smashed and kissed Ran. So what?
I drum my fingers on my mattress, agitated. Okay, so it happened twice, and I knew what I was doing. It’s not like I forgot about Farfarello. I had just been raving about him moments earlier. It’s just…
Ran didn’t taste like blood, and I think I needed that. Why it ever occurred to me to kiss him in the first place, I don’t know. If I had been so sure that I was bleeding, like I apparently thought I was, I could have found a different way to prove it to him. The first one I can’t explain; the second one I can but that doesn’t mean I’m pleased to be able to. I knew exactly what I was doing that time, drunk or not.
‘How could you do that to him?’ Nagi had demanded.
I don’t know. I don’t know what to think. I just know that I wanted to, so I did. Nagi is understandably and justifiably incensed by it. He did have to work so hard to keep me alive, and the past seven months have been broken by varying degrees of pain when I am too keenly reminded of my lover. I pieced together from Ran and Nagi what happened when I found Farfarello’s collar, and to go from that to kissing Ran in a few short weeks is unexplainable and unexpected.
I shouldn’t have even loosened up to him in the first place. True, there were the occasional instances he reminded me of my lover, but still. I wonder if it was the reinforced bond between us that had a hand in it. We were permanently open to each other; or rather, I always had him there. Towards the end Ran began to find the other half of the bond, though he never realized it wasn’t supposed to be happening. Whether or not he could hear me, he could always feel me right there.
The bond has drawn us together, and neither of us realized it was there to fight back. I just have to hope the damage is reversible.
Even as I think that, I wonder if I want it undone.
Ran may not be here physically, but with someone attached to me so permanently and so thoroughly, I’m never quite alone.
“Cinnamon,” I declare to the empty room.
It has been most of a week since I moved into my own apartment, but there is still something distinctly wrong about my own things. There’s the sharp feeling of something missing, of something being stretched too far. It haunts me; if I’m not busying myself with something else I can feel it. I can’t explain it. I’ve dug through my things to figure out if I’ve forgotten something, because that’s what it feels like- as if I’ve forgotten something. It pokes at the edge of my consciousness, just enough to remind me that it’s there but not strong enough to be identified. After several days of it, it’s getting to be quite aggravating. If I could just figure out what it is, I’m sure it would go away.
New Year’s Eve finds me wandering the streets aimlessly. I don’t know where I’m going; I just let my feet guide me. Kumo is at home playing with the toys I gave her as early New Year’s gifts. My teammates are getting everything together for the party tonight. It starts at ten and will continue until the drunks have passed out and the tipsies have decided to turn in for the night. I have time to wander, as it is only nine o’ clock. Omi made me promise I would come when he saw me leaving for a walk; he threatened dire things if I backed out on them.
I just need to walk. I just need to get away from the apartment for a while. I could go see my sister… Tomorrow is her last blood cleansing. She should wake up late tomorrow or the day after.
When I turn a corner, I nearly run into someone. I catch myself just in time, lifting my gaze from the sidewalk to the other’s face. Blue eyes meet my gaze calmly; orange hair spills freely down against a dark black coat.
He doesn’t look distinctly surprised to see me; instead, my arrival is greeted by a slight, thoughtful frown. He’s not unhappy to see me, but something about me bothers him.
It has been almost a week since I saw him last, and the last time I saw him…
“Where are you off to, kitty cat?” he inquires.
“I don’t know,” I answer honestly. The nagging at my mind has faded now that I have company, and I am more than happy to see it go. I slide my hands into my pockets, looking around to try and figure out where I am. I traveled here without paying attention to my surroundings. The shops around me are unfamiliar; I’ve wandered to a part of the city I’ve never visited before. Hopefully it won’t be impossible to find my way back to the party.
But the party…doesn’t seem important anymore.
“You?” I ask.
“Nowhere in particular,” comes the lazy answer. He lifts a gloved hand to brush his bangs out of his face. He turns and starts away. Without thinking, I draw even with him and walk alongside him. He says nothing about me inviting myself to his walk, sliding his hand back to his pocket and gazing around. We walk in silence, wandering the streets together. Everywhere there are people singing and yelling. The streets are lit up as people celebrate, ready for the new year to come. I think of Schuldich’s alcohol stash at the apartment.
Schuldich gives a soft laugh. “It’s the only way to celebrate,” he informs me.
“I’m sure Nagi’s thrilled,” I return.
“He’s still on a high that you’re gone,” is the light response, and Schuldich sends me a sideways look.
“Good to know,” I say dryly. Schuldich grins. We stop on a street corner; I recognize the shop across the street. Schuldich tilts his head towards it.
“Go back to your litter box, cat,” he says.
I turn towards him, studying him for a moment. A part of me wants to say that he walked this way because I had no clue where I was. The rest of me chucks that suspicion aside; Schuldich would probably be more amused that I was lost than anything. We say nothing for a long moment, lost in our own thoughts as we gaze at each other. Finally I offer a slight nod and turn away, taking the first step back towards the Koneko no Sumu Ie.
But I don’t…
…want to go back.
The thought bothers me, as does the tone that edges it. I don’t want to go back, because going back means that I’ll be alone. And after three years…I am very tired of being alone. And I regret very much, in these moments, that Schuldich ever got drunk and pushed Nagi over the edge. It is with a bit of pained surprise and a small bit of denial that I realize I wish I was still at the apartment, that I hadn’t lost those extra days.
A hand catches my wrist. I look over my shoulder, meeting Schuldich’s eyes once more. I wait for him to say something even as I realize there’s nothing for him to say. Instead he offers me a crooked sort of grin and releases me. I watch as he turns around and starts away, folding my arms over my chest to ward off the sudden chill.
It must amuse Schuldich, I decide, to see what’s happened. He must laugh over how I feel like such a stranger in my own apartment. He and Nagi are happy to be back as they belong, just the two of them. In a few days Schuldich will be rid of Aya, and then he will truly be free from the both of us. They’ll go on as they were before I interrupted their household and I’ll…
I’ll somehow find a place to fit in, now that I realize what an outsider I am in the two places I might have considered home.
I am late arriving at Ken’s apartment but my teammates are just glad to see that I’ve come. They don’t harass me about my tardiness and they don’t notice that I return their greetings with silence. My thoughts are back on the small throb that has returned; it has taken on a new sort of ache and I sigh, wondering if a drink would help drown it out. I didn’t expect to run into Schuldich tonight; certainly didn’t expect that I would feel… “relieved” isn’t the right word. I’m not sure what word I’m looking for. But I was…glad to see him, in an odd sort of way.
And that bothers me on a number of levels.
I should be grateful for what he’s done for my sister and I should be glad to be back in my own place. Unfortunately, I only feel the first.
I drape my coat over a chair where everyone else has put theirs, telling myself that it just needs more time. I need more time to adjust to being back on my own. Besides, once Aya wakes up, I won’t have time to think about Schuldich’s apartment or its owners.
I settle myself in a chair, watching my teammates from my perch. The three of them seat themselves on the floor around the collection of drinks Yohji brought and the tray of food. I wave off the food when Ken offers it to me, dimly content to watch them as they talk and eat. I didn’t join in last year, so they don’t expect anything different this year. They’re happy that I showed up and they won’t push me to socialize with them. I’m grateful for it tonight, as my thoughts are troubling me. At the same time, I wish there was something I could do to take my mind off of things.
Therefore, I am happy when Yohji pushes aside the food and starts to pour drinks. He doesn’t bother asking me if I want one; he hands me a shot glass and our eyes meet briefly over it. If the other two are clueless, Yohji is far from. Doubtless, though, he thinks I am lonely without my ‘girl’. His green eyes search my gaze as our teammates check out everything Yohji’s brought over.
In a way, he’s right. I lower my gaze, eyeing the drink for the barest of moments before deciding I don’t care what it is. I’ve swallowed it before Yohji even turns away. He hesitates, eyeing the glass and then taking it back to refill it. The aftertaste is bitter but the swallow is smooth, and tonight I really don’t care. As soon as he hands me the shot back I’ve downed it.
Yohji arches an eyebrow at me. “Maybe I should leave the bottle here,” he remarks.
“Maybe you should find something that tastes better,” I answer, though I’m reaching out my hand for it anyway.
Yohji offers me a wry grin and moves the bottle out of my grasp. “I’ve definitely got some better stuff.” Saying so, he turns on his knees to set the bottle down. A moment of consideration and he finds something else. My hand is still waiting, and he hands it over to me. “Enjoy,” he says, leaving me to my drink and turning back to the others. I don’t think they noticed the exchange, as Ken is trying to get a wary Omi to swallow his shot. Yohji resettles himself opposite me- sitting, I realize, where he can keep an eye on me. It also forces my teammates to shift so they can face him, and this puts them with their backs to me.
I twist the lid off and pour myself a shot, swallowing without even bothering to sniff it. I’m hit by the taste of sharp cinnamon and I cough, startled enough by the taste. My teammates turn at the sound and I stare at the bottle. It isn’t the same shape as what Schuldich was drinking, but this…
It’s what Schuldich tasted like.
“Good, huh?” Yohji asks.
The amusement in his gaze fades when I flick my eyes towards him; he sees something in my eyes that tells him my reaction wasn’t because of the hot taste. I offer him a dry smile I don’t feel, ignoring Ken’s inquiry as to what I have. “Tastes like home,” I answer simply.
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