Part Four: Familiar Pain

    Ran is still asleep when Nagi shows up from classes that evening. I expect the redhead to be out for another few hours at least; after all, he has gotten just a little more than seven hours of sleep since his sister vanished. Even so, I have used my gift to repress his subconscious worries. I don't want his brain to wake him up early with the warning that he is in enemy territory. He's no fun when he's exhausted and sick, so I would prefer it if he slept himself out.

    I am dozing on the chair across from the couch when Nagi opens the door. Zwei leaps off the back of the chair to run and cry a greeting as I lift a hand to rub the sleep from my eyes. I feel disoriented and fuzzy brained, like I always do after a nap. As much as I need the naps I can grab during the day to help balance out the shitty sleep I get at night, my sleep deprived body always takes a while to restart after the dozing and I hate those moments. I'm never more tired than when I wake up from a nap. The door clicks shut and I can hear the soft thud of his shoes on the front mat. Nagi doesn't bother with keys; he just uses his gift to pop open the lock. Zwei's meowing vanishes then and when Nagi appears in the doorway, the Somali is cuddled against his chest.

    Nagi ignores me, his attention going immediately to the newcomer stretched out on his back on the couch. Four cats are sleeping on him, content to use various spots of his scrawny body as beds. One wakes up enough to yawn a greeting at Nagi before giving herself a few licks and snoozing again. Nagi studies Ran for a long time in silence before finally turning to me. He says nothing; he lets me see the disapproval in his eyes. He uses his eyes to emphasize his thoughts, allowing them to color with emotion and speak louder than his mind can. Nagi is a quiet person- both mentally and out loud- which is one reason why I appreciate how much vocal noise the cats make. He has loosened his mental guards since the fall to the sea, knowing that I am still having issues with the aftermath of my shattered bonds, but he is still a whisper compared to how Farfarello was.

    Ran is a loud thinker, the loudest of the group of kittens. It's partly because he keeps so much locked in, shoving everything back so that it has nowhere else to go. While his thoughts are duller in sleep, they are still louder than Nagi's normal thoughts. A part of me relishes the noise, loving that there is such an active, vibrant mind so close after five months of quiet.

    I lift a hand in greeting. "Yo."

    "He doesn't belong here." His words are quiet as he turns away, lowering his bag to the ground. He is very obviously not looking at Ran anymore; when he turns back around his eyes are locked on me. I am almost able to find it amusing, that he is so sharply in denial over Ran's presence.

    "Tell the cats that. They like him." I flick my fingers at them. Nagi doesn't follow the gesture; I didn't expect him to. "It's just for a little while. He'll be here when he's not working, that's all." A faint grin curls my lips; Ran is going to be livid when he realizes he's really going to be living here, but with him fearing for his sister's life I don't have to focus so much on keeping him from trying to kill me. My taunts and touches from our first encounter already have his nerves on end, so he has no clue what to expect. I'm going to use him, yes, but not in the way he's dreading.

    "Where is he going to stay?" It's a softly spoken question, a question Nagi doesn't really want an answer to.

    "You already know." Nagi's lips thin to a hard line at my words. He _does_ know. "Look at it this way. Starting tomorrow you won't have to cook anymore."

    Nagi picks up his bag again. "I have homework to do."

    With those words, he leaves the room. A few moments later, a door closes. I sigh, letting my head fall back against the cushion. Nagi has taken his things to his own room to work. I knew he would react this way…He'll accept Ran's presence eventually. He won't ever like the redhead being here, but he'll accept it. Until he does, however, Red is going to be a sore spot between us.

    I scratch Eins, staring up at the ceiling as I rake my fingernails through her short fur. "Teenagers," I declare softly.

    As if it was just Nagi's age that was going to make this difficult...I wish. Blaming that would be much easier than the truth, anyway. I lift Eins from my lap and rise from my spot, turning to set her in the warm indent I've left behind. I wander into the hall, gazing down it in the direction of the bedrooms. Nagi isn't doing his work; from his thoughts, he's curled up in bed fuming. I consider going to talk to him, but it wouldn't help anything. Nagi won't listen to me right now unless I'm telling him I'm getting rid of Ran, and I refuse to do that. Not yet, anyway.

    It's not like he's going to be here forever...I'm just going to use him for a bit and then toss him.

    I glance over my shoulder at Ran's form, at the cats curled contentedly around him. I cannot stop myself from wondering what it would have been like to have the cats when Schwarz was whole.

    Would they have skirted away from him in fear, or curled around him as well? I can almost picture it.

    It hurts.

    "I need a drink," I whisper to no one in particular- because there is no one around to hear me anymore.


    I am at the kitchen table when Nagi enters. It isn't his thoughts that snap me out of my dull trance; it's the movement as he steps into the room. I blink slowly, trying to push away the fog of my mind, and look towards the clock. It's nine; I've been sitting here drifting in thoughts I don't remember for almost three hours. Nagi doesn't look at me. Instead, he moves straight to the cabinet to find us a dinner. I gaze down at the table, a little disoriented from my mental wandering. The fading out is something I've had to try and get used to; before Schwarz was destroyed it was never a problem. Then there were three people connected to me permanently to keep me grounded. Now there is only Nagi, and his mind isn't enough to combat two savagely severed mental bonds.

    There is blood on the backs of my hands; the skin has been torn in rakish lines. I guess it's from my fingernails, though I don't remember making the marks. They sting now that I've noticed them, though, and I lift my hands to lightly blow on the wounds. Blue eyes follow Nagi as he moves around the room.

    Nagi is being silent; his mind is guarded and his movements don't make a sound. The frozen dinner is taken from our freezer and set on the counter gently, the pan is removed from the cabinet with the utmost care, and he turns the oven on with a silent mental flick. It's very unNagi. This silent treatment is something Crawford would do. Nagi doesn't do quiet anger; he's vocal when he's pissed. He doesn't throw tantrums or yell like Farfarello and I do- did- but he's not _silent_. I debate what this new level of Nagi's anger means, wonder how to react. This isn't something Nagi has done before, even when he's been mad at me. He doesn't use the silence against me. He's been trying for months to fill in the silence for me; now he's taking that work away. I don't like it, don't like the dead silence from anything Schwarz.

    For a moment, I wonder if he's right, I wonder if the risks are too high. For a moment, I think perhaps I really should just get rid of Ran.

    Through Nagi's silence, however, I can hear Ran's mind. I squash my second thoughts firmly.

    "What's for dinner?" I ask, attempting a breezy tone. While playing a part has become a bit harder since someone died and took half of my sanity with him, I still manage to sound careless. I even hold my hand up and examine my fingernails to add to the impression. It's a waste of my energy; Nagi doesn't look back to see the farce.

    He doesn't answer, either. I rise from my chair and move over to his side, reaching past him to pluck up the box. I'm hungry, so I skim the instructions on the back to see how long it will take. A frown pulls at my lips when I find the number. "This takes too long. I want to eat now."

    Still nothing; just that complete silence. I reach through it, searching for Ran's mind again, touching him to try and find some noise. It's not the same, however. It's not...Schwarz. It's not the noise I need to hear right now.

    Don't do this to me, Nagi.

    My mouth draws in a thin line. Five months ago I wouldn't have cared. If I did, I would have delivered him some sort of ultimatum to get him talking again. It would work. But almost half a year of it being just the two of us has taught me to make concessions, has taught me to recognize the battles I shouldn't win. That doesn't mean I'm interested in losing them...It just means that I have common sense. Crawford would be proud of me. I need Nagi on my side; I don't need him sitting bitterly in the background. As much as I need Ran, I need Nagi, too.

    "Nagi...don't fight me on this."

    "Give me a reason," he says shortly, turning around to face me. He has to tilt his head back to look up at me. His dark eyes are angry as we study each other. "Give me a reason why I should welcome him here, when what happened five months ago was partly his fault, when I know nothing good can come out of this."

    "Don't fight me," I repeat in a low voice.

    "Why shouldn't I?" Nagi demands. "This is just another one of your damned games, toting him home like a prize. I don't want him here. Why should I have to put up with him?"

    "For me," I answer. I almost choke on the words. Nagi's lips thin to a harsh line; his eyes rake my face. It's going to take a bit of brutal honesty here...I cannot afford to lose Nagi, not when he's the only one I have left. I can't just give Ran up, however. I need him, at least for a little bit. Just a few days, a few weeks, months, just for a little while I get my sanity back. "He is- taller than you." Nagi doesn't understand the significance. "He is almost the same height- as..." I glance away, flicking my eyes past him to the pan on the counter as if it is important.

    And it clicks, at least a little, in his mind. My discomfort, my inability to put this into words, helps clue him in on what I am referring to. I know only because I see the slight slump of his shoulders out of the corner of my eyes. He leans backwards against the stove, folding his arms over his chest and looking to his right so that we are both gazing in different directions. The tension is tinged with discomfort; this topic is not one either of us want to address.

    "I want him to stay here, for just a little bit."

    I say 'I want'. Nagi knows me well enough, knows at least partially what these five months have been like for me, enough to mentally translate the words to 'I need'.

    "We're all going to regret this," Nagi says softly, but his shields are crumbling even as he speaks. The feel of his mind washes against me, the sound of his thoughts comforting in their own odd way. He isn't happy about this. He still wants to take Ran and chuck him out the nearest window on our apartment, but Nagi isn't strong enough to deny me Ran when I've shoved in his face why I need the man here. Nagi knows that I hate ever appearing weak.

    "I wasn't aware Crawford had taught you regret," I muse dryly, an attempt to clear the mood. Lingering resentment, weary acceptance, and disgusted reluctance light the thoughts between us. Nagi gives me a Look and I ruffle his hair, stepping away. "Now make me dinner, kid. I'm starving."

    "He's cooking from here on out," Nagi says as I head towards the door. "Let him deal with your hunger whines."

    "Of course, of course..."


    I let Ran sleep through dinner. One more missed meal isn't going to hurt him. Besides, I'd rather not make Nagi deal with Red so soon after he gave in and offered me a reluctant alliance. Nagi partly blames Abysinnian for Crawford's death, despite the fact he knows it was the Elders that killed our boss. Ran was always Crawford's adversary, and he's still alive, still someone left behind to blame. As much satisfaction as it could be to whiz in the Elders' direction - wherever their bodies are in the ocean - that sense of vengeance is tripled if your hated one is still alive to be harrassed.

    I have my own grudges against Ran, but they're not his fault. They're the fault of circumstances. There's nothing either of us could do about them.

    Dinner is somewhat peaceful without Ran to cause tension between us; the two of us pretend as if he isn't in our apartment and enjoy what we can of the freezer-to-table dinner. Five months of such dinners make meals something you can't really look forward to, however. Right now the most exciting thing in our lives is probably when I set part of my paycheck aside so we can eat out. In a way, it's rather pathetic. The two of us are used to luxury. I've always had my finger in the rich man's pie. Nagi spent years on the streets, but he spent years with us as well, so he has grown accustomed to things like catered meals and frivolous spending. Now the both of us have to watch what we do and readjust to a low single-person income. I think we've both grown up in this half year, in many ways that wouldn't be possible with Schwarz. When you lose as much as we did, you either break or grow. We grabbed hold of each other and chose to grow.

    I ask Nagi about his day, a habit I got into to make sure there wasn't silence at our table and to prolong the meal so that I don't have to face the night. He spends his free time between classes watching people, observing them as he tries to figure out how to at least look like he fits in. Nagi will never fully click with these people, but I think he can at least get closer than Crawford and I would have ever allowed him before. He watches them to see what they do, how they act, how they react to situations, what they're completely ignorant of. He judges himself against them. All his watching is bound to turn up an amusing incident or two; with so many people at the university there have to be some misfortunates who end up making asses out of themselves.

    So Nagi entertains me with his classmates and I share whatever I gleaned from my coworkers, and a meal that could take me five minutes to eat stretches to nearly an hour. Then we are both done, both with eating and talking, and we study each other across the table as reality seeps back into the room. Past Nagi, the clock reads that it is half past ten, nearing the time I generally turn in for the night.

    When we still had Schwarz, I would stay up til three or four and bounce out of bed between eight and eleven in the morning, rested and ready to go. Since our group was destroyed, my sleep schedule has become more skewed. I turn in at eleven and if I fall asleep I generally manage to stay asleep til somewhere between three and five. If I can't sleep, I'm up til four. My alarm goes off at six fifteen for work. At least once a week I'm up all night, either lying in bed wide awake or vegetating in front of our television set. On a lucky day I can squeeze a nap in before dinner, but that doesn't happen much. On the whole, I have been a very tired person for five months.

    And that brings my thoughts back to Ran. Nagi knows when my thoughts turn to him, somehow; I see it in his eyes. He sighs softly and rises to his feet. I stand as well and lead the way into the living room.

    "I'll move him..." Nagi offers, though I can tell he doesn't want to touch the other man.

    "Just pick him up and give him to me," I say. "I don't think I can get him off the couch, but I can carry him the rest of the way."

    Nagi complies. Little cats lift into the air and are placed elsewhere on the furniture, then Ran is lifted from the cushions. Nagi tilts his head to one side, hesitating, giving the floating assassin a critical glanceover. "He didn't used to be this light," he comments. He's used his gift on Weiß enough that he can feel the weight Ran has lost. While Nagi's gift is pretty sensitive anyway, that's a great testament to how much Ran has changed since we last met on the battlefield.

    I just shrug and hold out my arms. Nagi lowers him into my arms carefully. I feel a protesting creak in my back as Ran's weight is fully released to me. Thinner or not, Red is still heavier than the crates I move at work. Nagi watches me as I start towards the door, a frown curving his lips. Right now his concern over my health- he saw me wince under Ran's weight- overrides his disgust for this whole situation. I glance over my shoulder at him.

    "Go to bed, Nagi."

    "It's a Friday night," he says, settling himself in my chair in a small show of defiance. He cocks his head sideways at me, dark blue eyes meeting mine calmly.

    I consider this. "That it is," I agree. "Thank God." I am terribly ready for the weekend. I leave the den, toting my burden to my bedroom. The door is open when I arrive, courtesy of Nagi's telekinesis, and I shuffle through the doorway. I reach out with a foot, closing the door behind me. The room is dark now, save for the dim light that seeps through the blinds on my windows. I consider pausing to let my eyes adjust more, but Ran is getting heavier by the second. I make it to my bed without too much trouble and try to lower him to the mattress carefully. His weight makes that impossible, however, and he ends up falling the last foot to the bed. If it weren't for my mind on his, he definitely would have woken up.

    I study him for a moment, gazing at him and through him.

    There is someone else in my bed again...someone who takes up the right amount of space.

    But it's Ran, and that is an ugly acknowledgement. For one moment, I want to kill him. He looks so right, so wrong; he's not who or what I want at all. My fingers twitch with the urge to bash his face in, to tear his throat open, anything to take away the wrongness if it would give me what I want. Then the moment passes and I force away the homicidal urge. It leaves a chill in its place and I rub at my arms, averting my eyes from the bed.

    Inside the nightstand are handcuffs. Once they were part of Farfarello's restraints. Now they'll insure that Ran won't kill me if he wakes up in the middle of the night when I'm still asleep. I cuff his hands to the headboard and tug off my clothes, changing into the loose cotton pants I sleep in. My laundry is dropped in the hamper and I move to my side of the bed.

    I stand by the bed for countless minutes before I can make myself climb on. I sit tentatively on the edge of the bed, watching Ran sleep. I am bothered and nervous by his presence suddenly, but at the same time, curious as to how it will feel when I lie down. Will the mattress feel like it used to with two weights on it? Will I recognize the feeling or will that have faded from my memory? Will the nights be easier or harder with him here? I don't know, and I'm not sure I want to find the answers.

    "You wanted this," I inform myself when I don't budge. Even so, another set of minutes passes before I slowly ease myself to the mattress.

    God- it does-

    It feels familiar, so dreadfully and agonizingly familiar. Two years of having someone else in bed with me followed by five months of being horribly alone make this moment painful. It hurts to breathe, to lie here and feel like it's him but stare at someone who is so obviously not him.

    I close my eyes against Ran, pulling the covers over my head to help shield me from him. It's childish but it's all I can do. I close my eyes and try to block him out, try to feel and remember instead of face the truth that is only more stark by crimson hair against that white pillow.

    Once upon a time, I thought I was invulnerable, invincible.

    Five months ago proved me wrong, and it hasn't hurt this badly since that night. I feel a dull shudder run through my frame as I squeeze my eyes tighter, telling myself that this was a horrendously horrible plan. I give a sharp laugh, mocking myself. It's a terrible sound, even to my ears. It's too broken to sound like me, and I bite down savagely on my lower lip to keep any more from following the first.

    When I manage to control my ragged breathing, I can hear the soft breathing of the one beside me. I listen, hating and craving the sound at the same time. At length I slowly tug the covers down to my nose so I can peer over at Ran again.

    In the dark, he doesn't look so much like Ran. He's just a body- the right size- in my bed. The hair on the pillow is dark, but I can ignore that. I can pretend I don't see his face.

    And because I'm such a fucking masochist, I want to touch him.

    I edge towards him carefully, reaching out one hand to rest my palm against his ribcage. I can feel the bones through the snug shirt, can feel his chest rising. Up, down, slow and even in sleep. It's fascinating and painful at the same time. I edge closer still until I am lying against his side, where I can feel his chest rising against mine. One arm slides hesitantly around his waist, and I rest my temple on his shoulder. I close my eyes again, forcing myself not to think about who it is, forcing myself just to feel and to remember what it feels like, to be sleeping beside someone.

    I smell flowers and cats on him, and for some reason it is strangely comforting. I can feel the anxiety and troubles of the day melting away under the soft beating of his heart, and I let myself sink into the illusion that the past few months never happened. I let myself pretend, for a few painful and beautiful moments, that I never fell, that I never broke.

    And for the first time in five months, I sleep through the entire night.


    I wake because my arms hurt. My eyes crack open blearily and I find myself gazing up at a creamy white ceiling. I close my eyes again, unhappy with how much sunlight is in the room. My head feels foggy, and I am feeling strangely disoriented. I can't feel my arms, but I can feel a warmth against my side. I recognize it as another person's body heat. My first confused thought is that it is Aya, come to curl up against me because of a nightmare or a thunderstorm. In hindsight, it's a natural assumption despite the fact that she has been in a coma for years- she is the only one I have ever had curled up in bed with me. She's such a silly girl...

    I force my eyes open, rolling my head to the side to look down at her.

    Instead of Aya, it is the Mastermind of Schwarz, face smooth and almost peaceful in his sleep.

    Reality comes back to me with a sharp jolt and I try to jerk away from him. The retreat is somewhat hindered by the fact that my arms won't move with me. Something hard and unyielding bites into my wrists painfully, and I shoot a glance up to register that I am handcuffed before looking back towards Schuldich. I was able to move enough to somewhat dislodge him, and he wakes up when his head hits the mattress.

    I freeze as our gazes lock. He stares at me for several long moments, blue eyes cloudy and not showing a hint of recognition. He slowly pushes himself up, rubbing one hand across his eyes. I say nothing, partly because the blood has just chosen to return to my arms in waves of hot needles and partly because I don't feel like getting in an argument with the bastard when I'm pinned down. Instead I watch him, body alert and eyes narrowed to an acid glare, as he looks around the room. Orange hair hangs around him in a disheveled mess. His face looks almost too young without the cold glint to his eyes and wide smirk pulling at his mouth. He twists, a small frown curving his lips as he looks around the room, searching for something. I can see his bared chest now, can see the scars that line his tanned flesh. There could easily be more than twenty of them. Most are thin, fine white lines that decorate his front and sides. Two are ugly and twisted, parallel to each other on his ribs.

    I am pulled from my observations when he looks back at me. There is a blank look on his face and a guarded gleam to his eyes.

    "It's two," he says. "It's two in the afternoon."

    And he begins to laugh, a sound that lies somewhere between psychotic and relieved. It's a very strange laugh, one I've never heard from him before, one I don't like at all. He buries his face in his hands and just laughs.

    I think he's lost what was left of his twisted mind.

    "Why am I handcuffed?" I ask when he's paused to catch his breath.

    He lowers his hands enough that I can see his eyes over his fingertips. Blue eyes are both hollow and amused. "It wouldn't be very fun if you strangled me in my sleep, now would it?"

    "Depends on which one of us you're asking," I answer.

    Schuldich reaches out, taking my chin in his hand and tilting my head towards him. I tense at his touch, eyes narrowing to a warning glare as I feel sick chills go down my spine from the physical contact. Blue eyes search mine, a dozen emotions flickering through them that I can't explain or understand: mockery- pointed at the both of us-, resignation, relief, dry amusement, weariness, emptiness...

    "You'll do, Red..." He informs me. "...You'll do."

Part 5
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