When Ran cut himself from Kritiker after my awakening, he moved out
of his tiny one-bedroom apartment over the shop and found a bigger one twenty-five minutes
away. It's a two-bedroom, so we each have our own room. The apartment is small and homely,
but cozy. Decor is practically nonexistant. He's a bachelor, and whatever girly urges I
might have once felt to "pretty the place up" seem to have shriveled up and died in that
hospital bed, along with a lot of other things.
There's a family portrait on the coffee table of happier times before
the accident, framed calligraphy on the wall he got at some small corner shop (it reads
"Honor"), and a cheap but nicely-patterned rug in front of the TV.
And of course, there's the katana.
As a symbol of the end of his quest for vengeance and a start of our
new life, he took the weapon that had caused so much bloodshed and hung it on a display case
above his bed, never to be used again. Now it only serves as a constant reminder to himself
to atone for the past and to be grateful for what he has now. I haven't given it much
thought since, having glimpsed in his mind already the lives he's taken with that sword.
But tonight Ran enters his room to find me standing at the foot of
his bed, gazing up pensively at the polished blade.
He hesitates, looking from me to the katana with a carefully neutral
face. He's wondering if I'm about to start asking questions he doesn't want to answer. And
he's afraid that if I knew how often he'd used the sword to kill in his line of work, I would
What would he think, if he knew that as of today, we are both guilty
I speak without removing my gaze from the sword. "I want you to
teach me how to use it."
His initial surprise is quickly swamped by anger and guilt. He grips
my shoulder and turns me around to face him, expression stern. "What are you talking about?"
he demands sharply. "It isn't a toy, Aya."
I stare back at him, undaunted. "I know it's not a toy, Ran," I say
patiently. "That's why I asked you to teach me."
"No." His refusal has not a shred of hesitance behind it. "No. It's
only for display, Aya. I never want to take it down again."
I cock my head at him. "It's the only weapon we have in the house,"
I point out.
He pauses, eyes narrowing in question, wondering where I'm going with
"What if someone breaks in?" I ask, still calm. "What if someone
comes to rob the house and one of us wakes up and sees him? What if he attacks one of us?
Are you telling me your first instinct won't be to grab that sword and defend our home?"
He sways back a bit, expression hard to define. "What made you think
like this?" he demands a bit harshly. "Is everything all right? Did something happen?"
Lying to him, sadly, is easier than I thought my conscience would
allow it to be. "No. Everything's fine. Supposedly."
"The way you and the boys have been acting the last few days makes me
think otherwise. Or did you think I hadn't noticed how paranoid you're all being?"
He flinches, averting his gaze for a moment.
I glance back over my shoulder at the deadly katana. "You've told me
a little bit about what you've been through while I was asleep. So the fact that you're
acting all jumpy now only makes me wonder if things are dangerous again. You don't work for
Kritiker anymore, but the others do. If they have enemies that know you're connected to them
in any way, that puts me at risk as well, right?"
His guilty flinch is more violent this time.
I bull on mercilessly. "Despite your poorly-disguised attempts to
keep a watchful eye on me, it's impossible for you to be with me every second of every day.
Especially with me starting school soon."
His burning eyes swing back to me. He's angry; angry that I have to
go through this, angry that I'm questioning him, angry because he knows I'm right.
"I need to know how to defend myself," I state firmly, staring back
stubbornly. Because telepathy is all well and good, but it does have its down sides. The
blow I delivered to those thugs was strong enough to cause quite a painful backlash; my head
was pounding for hours afterwards. And what if I run across someone with shields strong
enough to withstand my attacks? Things are going to get ugly soon, I can sense that much.
And I would feel much better if I had another way of defending myself.
"That sword will never be used to draw blood again," Ran growls.
"Especially not in your hands."
"This isn't up for debate, Aya," he snaps, eyes flashing. He's in
Absynnian mode, I realize. This is the man Weiß is accustomed to dealing with.
Too bad we share the same stubborn streak. I glare hotly back. "I
have to learn self-defense!" I cry. "It could end up meaning the difference between life and
"I won't let you become that," he snarls, swiping his hand in a short
chop of finality. "I won't let you become--"
He cuts himself off, but I finish for him. "You?"
He rocks back on his heels, taking in a quick breath. Behind his
dark glare, I sense the sudden sharp pain that caused him. I might as well have spit in his
Guilt dissolves some of my anger, and I soften my voice, choosing my
words with more care. "I know you regret the things you've done, and you're just trying to
protect me from that kind of life, but you don't need to be so worried," I assure him. "I'm
not asking you to teach me how to be an assassin. I'm not even asking you to teach me how to
kill someone. I just want to know basic self defense." I struggle for a happy medium,
something he'll agree with. "Can't you at least teach me something simple? Something that
may keep an attacker at arm's length and give you or one of the others enough time to jump in
and help me?"
The words almost choke me, but I already know that this is the only
way to get even some form of cooperation from him. In the end, everything comes down to one
hard cold fact: I'm just a girl. Ran and the others may respect me as a person, but they
are still men. When it comes down to violence, I become just another girl, one who needs to
be sheltered and protected from harm. The thought of a woman being forced to defend herself
rails against every protective instinct they have. I can blame it on culture, on
testosterone, or whatever, but it doesn't change the fact that any one of them would rather
throw themselves in harm's way than put me in a situation where I would have to fight back.
They wouldn't want me to have to do that, and they won't expect me to be very successful at
I struggle to keep the indignant anger off my face, at the same time
wondering in disgust why this has never bothered me before. Before the accident, this never
would have occurred to me. Has our culture really beaten this idea into our heads so firmly
-- this broad, uncrossable line between the sexes? With a wince, I recall the shoujo manga I
used to read.
Well... that was then, this is now. A lot has changed since then.
Sometimes it makes me wonder if I'm even "me" any more.
Other times I wonder if I am more myself than I have ever allowed
myself to be.
Ran is frowning, but the anger is almost gone. He's seriously
considering my words; a quick peek at his thoughts reassures me. He's reluctant, but he's
also thinking that teaching me a simple trick, like how to donkey kick or elbow an attacker
in the throat, might not be such a bad idea after all. If it will give me a few seconds to
get out of harm's way so he can deal with the assailant, he'll be able to relax at least a
"...All right," he relents at last, voice gruff. He doesn't like
backing down from an argument. "You have a point. But," his eyes narrow sternly, "I'm not
teaching you how to use that sword."
"I'll talk to Yohji," he cuts me off. "Of the four of us, he's best
trained in basic self defense."
Ah. Of course. He must have been taught in his days as a PI. I
should have asked him first.
"Thank you," I say with forced cheeriness, rising on tiptoes to peck
him on the cheek. He relaxes a bit and ruffles my hair fondly.
"Go to bed, Aya-chan," he says quietly. "And please stop thinking
about things like this. You have nothing to worry about. We'll protect you. I
Of course you will. "I know. Oyasumi, 'niisan."
I head back to my room, frowning. Yohji will probably be more than
willing to show me some useful self-defense tricks, but they won't be enough. Knowing how to
slip away from a man's grab or deal a punishing blow to the balls is all well and good, but
that doesn't save me from everything. I would still feel a lot better if I could handle some
sort of weapon. Just in case.
But the boys are out of the question. Trying to convince them would
have the same affect as yelling down a hole.
After they relax somewhat, when I finally have time by myself, I'll
see if I can enroll in some sort of judo or karate class. Until then, I'll have to rely on
my telepathy and hope to god I don't run into any trouble I can't handle on the mental
It is two days before Farfarello contacts me again.
I sense his approach like a shadow on the outer boundaries of my mind
as I help Omi get the shop ready to open the next morning, and reach out on the link to let
him know I'm listening.
He speaks the moment he feels the touch of my mind against his, short
and to the point. There's a cafe a block away from the shop. Be there at twelve.
Some of my tension eases. A public place; that's a relief. It's
unlikely he'll be willing to cause a scene there. Does this mean Crawford's willing to
And you didn't tell Schuldich, right?
A mental shrug. I didn't, he grunts. I didn't bother to
ask what the Oracle said to him.
OK, good... wait, WHAT?
Farfarello's voice is completely dispassionate as he passes along the
message. The Oracle says this concerns all of Schwarz. He'll hear what you have to say;
he ordered Schuldich to stay out of your head for now. There's no guarantee Schuldich will
actually listen to him.
I feel my heart skip a beat. You're ALL going to be there?? I
demand incredulously. Forget it!
A touch of impatience tinges his thoughts. I'm not
'suggesting', he points out warningly.
You KNOW the boys won't let me go anywhere by myself! I snap.
It's going to be hard enough to convince them to let me go out for lunch, and even then,
at least one of them is going to be with me! The second they clap eyes on you three
imbeciles, that cafe will turn into a warzone.
Farfarello's voice is bored again. Let Crawford worry about
Stop chittering like a monkey, he cuts me off. You got
your answer. Now go away.
Oh, very mature, I retort snidely. But he's already drawing
So much for chasing him back down the link and finishing the
argument. Uncooperative emotionless TWIT.
I force a bright smile. "Yes?"
Omi holds out the keys over his shoulder, attention on the flowers
he's fussing with as he tidies up the arrangement. "Could you unlock the front door?"
I take the keys and head for the door, already building up my
I'll have to bring up the idea of the cafe as soon as possible.
Lord knows it will take all morning just to beg my brother into
It does take all morning. In fact, it gets dangerously close to noon
before Ran finally grudgingly relents.
"I still don't see why you're so adamant about this," he grumbles as
we head off down the sidewalk.
"I've heard a lot about this cafe from some of the customers," I lie
quickly, glancing at my watch and picking up the pace a bit. "Besides, I'm tired of ordering
out all the time."
He frowns at my lengthened stride. "What's the big rush? You'll
only tire yourself out, Aya-chan; slow down a little."
"Um... I don't want to miss the lunch special."
He gives a little huff, but a small smile of affection twitches at
his mouth despite himself.
At least the place isn't hard to find. Farfarello didn't provide a
name, but he did say it was only a block away, and it's the only cafe on this street. I slow
down as we approach, gazing anxiously through the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of red
or white hair.
The bell above the door jingles, and the waitresses call out their
welcomes as we pause in the threshold, Ran glancing about for a place to sit. I am too busy
nervously checking out the customers to really appreciate the quaint little cafe, though I
make a mental note to visit some other time when I am less distracted.
No sign of Schwarz. I check my watch again. 11:55. We're only a
little early. I follow Ran towards a small table near the back, prudently away from the
windows. How are they going to do this without sending Ran into a violent rage? There's no
way I'll be able to think of some excuse to get him to leave me alone, even for fifteen
minutes. It was hard enough just convincing him to eat out. His thoughts are still milling
furiously around the memory of Schuldich's taunting smirk on the train.
I don't notice I'm drumming my fingers nervously on the table until I
catch Ran staring at them pointedly.
I cough and slip my hands into my lap. "Um, sorry."
He frowns over his menu at me in concern. "Are you all right, Aya-
chan? You seem jumpy. We can go back to the shop."
"No, no, I'm fine," I babble, still stealing glances towards the door
every now and then. "I just.. um..."
He's about to insist we go back to the shop.
"I have to pee," I blurt, a bit louder than I intended. A few heads
turn to stare, and I blush.
Ran blinks, then hides behind his menu again uncomfortably. "Oh.
Well, go ahead. I'll order your drink. What do you want?"
"Surprise me," I send absently over my shoulder, already heading for
Once there I lock myself in a stall and reach out across the link.
Farfarello, this isn't going to work. Ran's here, and he isn't going anywhere.
Leave that to me, toots.
I groan, thumping my head against the stall door. Farfarello,
could you maybe warn me from now on when a certain gap-toothed Jerk is crouching in your
head? Belatedly I strengthen my shields, keeping him from my inner thoughts and the
memory of Tot in the park.
Bite me, princess. Jesus, how long do you plan on hiding in
there? You must be taking one hell of a shit.
I AM NO-- I jerk my head up quickly. You-- how did you
know I was in the--
We were waiting down the street for the 'opportune moment', he
drawls. Get your ass back to your table.
I hesitate, then unlock the stall door, wash my hands out of habit,
and make my way back out into the cafe.
There they are, brazenly sitting right at our table as if they belong
Ran is slumped over a bit, head resting on Schuldich's shoulder.
My heart turns to ice in my chest.
Don't you dare scream, Schuldich hisses, his mental warning
like a papercut to the brain. He's just taking a little nap; I knocked him out.
You didn't hurt him, did you? I demand, slowly taking the seat
on my brother's other side, studying his relaxed face anxiously. I can see his chest moving;
he really does look like he's asleep.
He's permanently brain damaged, Schuldich sneers with biting
sarcasm. I note the harsh irritation riding under his thoughts and glance at him warily.
He's angry that Crawford forbade him from digging around in my head, and he's not too happy
at Farfarello for keeping this whole thing a secret from him.
I glance at Farfarello, gauging his mood.
His single eye is roving around the shop, but his expression is bored
and the bloodlust is on low boil. He seems fairly relaxed for now, so I force myself to
loosen up a bit as well.
Where's this Crawford guy?
Schuldich speaks out loud, completely ignoring the glances our table
earns. "He'll be a couple minutes late; he stopped to run some errand or other." He puts a
finger to Ran's head and pushes him off in distaste; I catch my brother's limp form and
arrange him against my side so it looks like he dozed off on my shoulder. "This better be
I make a face at him. "Why do you have to be such an ass all the
"Why do you have to be such a stuck-up bitch all the time?" he
I draw myself up indignantly. "I am NOT stuck-up!"
A slow, wicked smile stretches his lips, and he props his chin on his
palm, watching me with hooded eyes.
Let the games begin.
"You're right, it's your brother that got the lion's share of
those particular genes. If that stick up his ass was crammed up there any tighter,
it'd be blocking his nasal passages."
I am furious and-- to my horror --amused at the same time. I
disguise my surprised snort of laughter with a sniff of disdain. "You know, maybe if you
actually got laid once in awhile, you wouldn't have so much time at night to lie there
thinking of stupid insults."
Farfarello's eye slowly drifts our way as he listens to the verbal
war with vague interest. I skim his thoughts briefly-- evidently it is rare that someone
actually bothers to argue with Schuldich in this manner, and if nothing else, it promises to
be somewhat amusing to witness.
"O-ho, bold words from Princess Purity," Schuldich leers, leaning
across the table to grin suggestively at me. His eyes wander south, and I have to fight the
instinctive urge to cross my arms protectively over my chest. "Is that an offer? You're an
annoying nosey little cunt, but I gotta admit, with a body like that--"
I know he's deliberately baiting me, but that doesn't keep my face
from flushing to the roots of my hair. "Wha-- You--" I sputter helplessly. I jerk away from
the image in his mind. He's just given 'mentally undressing her' a whole new meaning that I
never wanted to know about. "You pervert!!" But I can sense something under his heartless
teasing; some other agenda, hidden carefully.
He reaches out and snatches my wrist; I realize belatedly that my
hand was already raising for a slap. His grin is all teeth. "Tell you what, after this
little pow-wow is over, we'll go back to my place. You don't have to be conscious for it, if
you don't want to. I'll just take a little--"
The only warning is a sudden dark flare from the link.
Farfarello's hand flashes out like a snake, latching around
Schuldich's exposed throat and practically dragging him across the table. Silverware
scatters loudly, and the other customers give little exclamations of fright.
Schuldich is rigid but unmoving as he stares wide-eyed into
Farfarello's face inches from his own. I sit frozen, gaping at them both.
The Berserker's face and tone are blank as a white canvas, but I can
sense something ugly boiling in his mind. "We didn't come here so you could play your stupid
games, Mastermind. Just sit there and shut up until Crawford gets here."
Schuldich opens his mouth automatically to argue, then thinks better
Then I realize that the surprise loosened his shields. Trying to
shake off my own shock, I take advantage of the situation. As stealthily as I can, I slip
deeper into his mind and take a peek at what he was hiding so carefully during his teasing.
I'm not prepared for the answer I find. It seems my remark about him getting laid brought
someone to mind. And it wasn't me.
I withdraw hastily as his shields start cropping swiftly back up, and
he doesn't seem to notice; all his attention is focused on the murderer still holding him
tightly by the throat. "Fine, fine, jesus, no need to make a scene," he protests, voice a
bit strained from the unyielding grip. "Leggo, will ya? I gotta do damage control." His
eyes flicker towards the manager, who is coming out from behind the counter.
Farfarello releases him with a little push and returns to his bored
contemplation of the room. I stare at him, nonplussed.
"What the hell was that all about?" I demand, a bit shaken by the
abrupt violence. I might as well be a fly on the wall for all the attention he spares me, so
I turn my stare on Schuldich. "And you-- You're a sick bastard, you know that? Don't talk
to me like that."
Schuldich finishes mentally coaxing the manager back into his office,
and straightens his hideous green trenchcoat huffily. "Oh, don't flatter yourself, honey,"
he sneers. "I don't swing that way."
The announcement would have been quite a surprise if I hadn't already
glimpsed as much behind his shields a moment ago.
"Besides..." his eyes slant towards Farfarello pensively, a frown
tugging at his mouth, "I was just testing something." Farfarello seems not to hear.
I am too eager to get my revenge to wonder what he means by that. It
is my turn to lean my chin in my palm and send a wicked smile his way. Schuldich eyes me
"Well, you know," I drawl, "you wouldn't be so grumpy about not
getting any if you'd just go out and get some instead of waiting for a certain
American to catch the subtle hints you've been throwing his way for years."
Schuldich goes white as a sheet.
I have one moment of gloating victory before I realize he isn't even
looking at me. At my taunt, his eyes snapped over my shoulder, and now he might as well be
carved from stone. I stare in mild confusion at his expression, wondering at the horror and
panic streaking across his mind. Then, shifting carefully so as not to dislodge my brother,
I turn my head to see what the hell he's looking at.
There is a man standing not three feet behind me, obviously on his
way over from the entrance. A foreigner, with dark hair and cool amber eyes behind a pair of
glasses. He's dressed in a suit, carrying a briefcase in one hand. He looks handsome, but
kind of snobby; as if he thinks he's better than everyone else in the room.
And he's looking at Schuldich with both eyebrows somewhere up by his
"Crawford," Farfarello greets absently, not even looking his way, his
dark attention on a screaming baby across the cafe.
"Crawford?" I repeat blankly.
The man's face clears quickly, and he turns his eyes on me, giving a
"The Oracle?" I ask tentatively, eyes shifting quickly towards
Schuldich. I have the sudden urge to flee.
Schuldich pins me to my seat with a blood-curdling glare, murder
singing along every thread of his mind.
"The American?" I squeak, inching down a bit. Maybe I can get under
the table before he flies across it and strangles me.
"Fujimiya-san," Crawford greets calmly.
"That'sme, 'scuse me berightback--" I manage to shift Ran's weight
against the back of the chair, then I'm scrambling to my feet and dashing across the cafe,
Schuldich's snatching hands missing me by a hair.
YOU ARE DEAD FUCKING MEAT YOU GODDAMN CUNT!!
I don't look back. I just run for my fucking life.
It takes almost ten minutes of Farfarello's relentless banging on the
bathroom stall-- and finally a growled promise to break down the door by force --before I
unlock the door and return to the table, taking care to keep the tolerant Berserker between
me and the humiliated telepath slouched in his seat. The few customers who were brave enough
to stick around are carefully not looking at any of us. Schuldich's mental suggestions are
probably the only thing keeping us from getting kicked out.
Crawford frowns at me, displeased at the wait, but says nothing. I
take my seat gingerly, still eyeing Schuldich warily. He makes no more threatening moves,
but his eyes are hot with hate.
How was I supposed to know? I demand weakly. I didn't even
His voice is a mental snarl and it hurts my head. He's a
precog, you insufferable TWAT. His shields are stronger than any telepath's. He's
dead air. You'll just slide off his mind like oil. Don't think this is over. Not by a long
shot. You'd better be looking over your shoulder every step you take for the next FIVE
I wince and turn my attention on Crawford, trying to pretend
Schuldich's dark anger doesn't freak me out as much as it does. "Um... So, you're the
"And you're stalling." He folds his fingers on top of the table,
staring back at me coolly. "You know where our Prodigy is."
"Not... exactly," I admit, doing some quick mental readjustments.
Schuldich's right; I can't touch his mind at all. It's like there's nothing there.
It's kind of unnerving. It also makes me more wary of him; there's no way of telling what's
going on behind that poker face. I have no idea what he's capable of, but since he's the
leader of this pack of lunatics, he's obviously not one to be taken lightly. My first
impression wasn't the greatest; I'll have to watch my steps carefully if I hope to get myself
and my brother out of this place alive. "How much did Farfarello tell you?"
He ignores the question. "Tell us everything you know."
It isn't a request. I clear my throat and repeat everything I told
Farfarello. I don't bother to hold anything back. If Crawford even suspects I'm hiding
something-- and he strikes me as the kind of man who can read a person's face like an open
book --he'll probably order Schuldich to dig out the information. Which, considering
Schuldich's current mood, would not go well for me. He might just "accidentally" give me a
Once I'm finished, I sip nervously at my coke, watching the American
out of the corner of my eye. His eyes shift to Schuldich and he is silent for a long while.
Schuldich must have a link with all his teammates. I wait for the silent conversation to be
over, and my gaze drifts to Farfarello.
He is staring off into space with a bored expression on his face as
if none of this has anything to do with him. Why did he get so violent with Schuldich
earlier? I had been too busy arguing with the German to keep tabs on him, so I have no idea
what was going through his head before the sudden attack. Was he just sick of listening to
I feel Crawford's eyes on me again, cutting off my train of
"You've been looking for Nagi."
It's not exactly a question. I frown slightly. "Not really," I
admit. "But it's not like I have anything better to do lately. After seeing Schuldich the
other day, my brother's been keeping me indoors. So I said I'd let Farfarello know if I ran
across his mind."
Crawford's eyebrow lifts slightly. Oops. Evidently he didn't know
about Schuldich's little pissing contest on the train. I carefully avoid the telepath's
You just keep digging your own grave, don't you? he sends me
Great. I'm beginning to wish I'd never convinced Ran to bring me
"You have a link with Farfarello."
I blink. What the hell brought that up? "Yes..." I shoot a quick
look towards Farfarello, but he's staring lazily at a nervous waiter. "It wasn't on purpose.
The first time, I was just trying to pull myself out with Schuldich and Farfarello. The
second time, I didn't know what I was messing with in his head until I'd already reconnected
Crawford studies me for a long moment, expressionless, before
glancing Farfarello's way. "Our Berserker seems to have some plan in mind for you," he
remarks. "I feel obligated to inform you that those who get a certain amount of attention
from Farfarello tend to die soon thereafter. Hence this meeting; if he's going kill you, I'd
like to get what information you have while I can."
"Gee, thanks," I grumble.
He acts as if I haven't spoken. "He reacts rather violently to any
of Schuldich's attempts to bring down the link. Do you use it often?"
This, at last, seems to get Farfarello's attention. He turns his
single hooded eye on Crawford, voice inflectionless. "What does this have to do with the
Crawford studies him in silence, then leans back abruptly, hands
still clasped on the table. He makes me think of a businessman about to deliver an ultimatum
in a board meeting.
"For the time being, at least, I can guarantee that your death won't
be at Schwarz's hands," he informs me briskly. Schuldich and I both stare at him in
disbelief. Crawford's eyes flicker his way, a silent command. With visible difficulty,
Schuldich holds his tongue, though his angry scowl speaks volumes.
I can make it look like an accident, he assures me, making
sure the words scrape painfully against my mind.
I hide my wince, keeping my attention firmly on Crawford. "What
about Nagi and Tot?"
"Naoe is not your concern, he is ours," Crawford cuts me off firmly,
eyes narrowing just slightly. I get the unspoken threat-- this is Schwarz business, and I am
to keep myself well clear of it. I nod slowly.
Apparently satisfied, he rises to his feet with a curt nod and heads
for the door. Sending me a withering look over his shoulder, Schuldich stalks after him.
Farfarello sits where he is for a moment as if he hasn't noticed their departure, eyeing the
screaming child almost hungrily. Finally he, too, scrapes his chair back and gets up
languidly. Without a backwards look, he trails after his fellow demons.
I sit staring numbly straight ahead until Ran stirs and sits up
groggily several minutes later, looking around in weary confusion.
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