||Chapter 23||

"Don't you miss him at all?"
Schuldich had been ignoring the thoughts running through the minds in the shop below, allowing them to be a dull murmur in the back of his head as he sat on the rooftop going through his pack of cigarettes. He couldn't lay down because the crash in the flower shop had jacked up his back pretty bad, and he was beginning to think they hadn't gotten all the glass out of it.
Dammit. He didn't want to go to the hospital.
He lowered his cigarette and turned an uninterested look Aya's way. She was climbing over the fire escape and heading towards him, arms wrapped around herself to ward off the night's chill. "What?"
"Yohji-san. Don't you worry about him even a little bit?" She reached up to push stray locks of hair from her face blown there by the breeze. Her face was pensive and anxious.
Schuldich snorted, turning his face away dismissively. He watched streams of smoke thread their way through his fingers from where he was holding his cigarette. "That ratbag can take care of himself."
"Demo.." she seated herself beside him, tucking her dress under her knees and looking at him worriedly. "He's your boyfriend. He's been kidnapped and brainwashed. That doesn't bother you even a little?"
"Hey, he's the one that broke it off, sweetheart," Schuldich snapped, lifting his cigarette for another drag. He scowled up at the sky. "He isn't my bedmate anymore. So he isn't my problem."
Her eyes widened slightly. "I didn't know you'd.. broken up," she admitted. "But... that's still a cruel thing to say. Do you really not care?"
"I really don't care," he sneered.
She fell silent, and he continued to smoke and glare at the stars.
After a few minutes she said quietly, "I think you're lying."
"Am I?"
"You're lying to yourself and us."
He turned his head to give her a piercing look. She met his gaze, lifting her chin stubbornly. "Yohji is a very nice man, and he cares about you. Probably more than he wants to admit to himself. What are you so afraid of, Schu-san? Why do you keep pushing him away? Why do you keep pushing everyone away?"
Schuldich threw back his head and laughed harshly. "I'm not afraid of anything, runt. I can't believe you're trying to guess my emotions and my motives. Who's the telepath here?"
Her eyes narrowed slightly, but her voice was a little shaky. "Why, Schuldich? Why can't you just accept what he's trying to offer? You're an asshole, that's who you are. We know that's who you are, and we accept it. But can't you let your guard down even a little for us? We're your friends-"
He flicked his cigarette away and turned to glare at her heatedly. She actually shrank back at the fierceness of his stare. "I don't need anyone's fucking 'friendship', Fujimiya Aya. I need a steady lay and a steady gun watching my back. What the fuck do I need with 'friends' or 'boyfriends'? Don't be so god damn naive. You know why you always worry and cry and get mad?" He jabbed her hard in the chest, and she flinched. "It's because you were weak enough to let these idiots actually mean something to you. That was your biggest mistake, kiddo. The less people you let in here.." he jabbed again, "the better. I suggest you learn that lesson quick before it's shoved down your throat. At least half of us are going to die-"
"I would rather be crying when you die!" she shouted, her eyes filled with unshed tears. "I would rather cry and hurt than feel nothing and be able to go back to being 'normal' the next morning. At least when I hurt I know I'm alive, I'm human."
"Spare me the sentimental bullshit," Schuldich snarled, giving her a quick, hard push. She cried out in surprise when she toppled over and landed on her back. "I don't have time to hear your inspiring little speeches of sainthood. Save it for the punks of Weiß." She pushed herself back up, but he didn't let her get a word in edgewise. "That's the difference between you and me, honey. When the world goes to shit tomorrow or the next day and everyone is dropping like flies, your eyes will be too filled with your little tears for you to be able to dodge bullets. But my head's gonna be crystal-fucking-clear. I didn't get through life by worrying about other idiots and crying like a baby every time someone died--"
The sound of her slap across his cheek was loud and sharp on the still night air.
They both froze. Aya was breathing quickly, her eyes wide, cheeks wet. Schuldich's face was still turned from the slap as he sat immobile and silent.
After what seemed like an eternity, he slowly reached up and slid his cigarette in between his lips. He rose to his feet carefully and turned his back on her.
He ignored her, stalking over to the fire escape and disappearing over the edge.
Aya lowered her hand into her lap and stared numbly at the empty space beside her, the night breeze quickly making the tears on her face cold.
"You saw that coming," she whispered out loud. "You heard me think it. Why didn't you stop me? Why did you say those things..? Schu-san...."


The next morning Schuldich was gone, along with the mental bond between them all that he'd put up.

No matter how many times they called mentally or phoned his apartment, they couldn't get ahold of him. He had simply disappeared.
Aya seemed the most upset about it. She walked around with a guilty, sad look on her face and said little all morning. Omi and Nagi seemed a little worried, but the others shrugged it off. Crawford seemed annoyed about the whole thing, but once he realized they weren't going to find the German, he dismissed it and reminded the others that they still had a job to do.
Shortly before lunch Aya took a break in cleaning the destroyed shop and turned to the Jackal. "I want to go shopping," she said suddenly.
Omi and Nagi, who were also cleaning, glanced up at her in surprise. The Jackal hesitated on his way to the door with a full bag of trash. "Now?"
"Yes, now." She set her broom aside firmly and undid her apron. "Unless everyone wants to go hungry. We're low on groceries. And I need to get out of this shop before I lose my mind."
Omi and Nagi glanced at each other, and the Jackal hesitated. Omi looked towards where Yuusuke was standing guard by the destroyed side window.
"Tomás can go with me," Aya said before he could speak. "I don't need them to come. It's just a shopping trip, I'll be quick."
Omi and Nagi held a silent conversation with their eyes. Finally Nagi said quietly, "Take your brother's car. Tell Crawford where you're going."
The Jackal held up the trash bag. "Let me throw this out and grab my sword. Then we can go."

Surprisingly, Crawford gave his permission. He must have sensed that Aya really needed to get out. He gave firm instructions to go straight to the grocery store and straight back, and she and the Jackal were on their way within ten minutes.
As he stood in the driveway watching them leave, he spoke to the person he knew was hidden nearby in the shadows of the next building.
"Follow them. Make sure they don't get caught off guard by any of Rosenkreuz's people."

"So where do you want to go?" the Jackal asked, glancing over at the quiet girl beside him. "Any store in particular?"
Aya was staring out her window with unseeing eyes. "Take a left on Hitomi Avenue," she said quietly. "Keep going straight on it. I'll tell you when we get to our turn."
Tomás could sense she was in a strange mood, and obeyed in silence.
They drove for about twenty minutes before he began to get the feeling he'd seen these streets before. As she directed him towards a large apartment complex, he turned his eyes towards her in surprise. "Wait a minute, this is Schuldich's-"
"Just park," she snapped.
He frowned, but pulled into an empty parking slot. When she started to open her door, he reached out and grabbed her arm. She twisted to look at his stern face.
He hesitated, studying the resoluteness to her expression, before giving a little sigh. "In and out," he said firmly. "If he's not in his room, we're leaving."
"I know."
Muttering to himself about rebellious teenagers, the Jackal got out and followed her into the building, hand resting on the hilt of his sword hidden under his coat as he glanced around warily.
They took the elevator in uneasy silence, and she all but ran to the telepath's door.
She knocked and knocked, with no response. Finally she gave up in disgust and pulled her nail file from her pocket. The Jackal's eyebrows shot up to his hairline when after a few moments of jiggling it carefully in the keyhole, the lock clicked. (1)
She caught his look and offered an innocent smile. "Yohji-san taught me," she explained before pushing the door open and sliding inside. The Jackal hesitated, glancing nervously around before following her.
"Aya," he hissed as he nudged the door shut behind himself, "he's not here. Let's just go."
"Just let me look around real quick," Aya said absently over her shoulder as she headed for the bedroom.
Tomás fidgeted in the den, glancing around with nervous energy as Aya did a quick exploration of the house. Finally she came striding back shaking her head. "No," she sighed, "he isn't here, and his shower's dry. His closet's open, though. I guess he came home only long enough to grab some extra clothes. I wonder where he could have gone? Why would he leave?"
The Jackal followed her back downstairs to the car, shrugging in ignorance. "Maybe he got spooked. These Nebel guys sound pretty tough, and that telekinetic from last night was no joke."
"No," Aya said softly, not looking back at him. "It's not them he's afraid of."
"Nothing. Never mind. Come on, let's go to the store."

The Jackal trailed after her as she went down the aisles of the closest grocery store, choosing a variety of items to please the tastes of all her brothers. He arched a brow when she collected more than was necessary for the number of people currently in the shop. She caught his look and lifted her chin as if daring him to argue with her. "It's for the others. When they come back." She held up a package of macaroni and cheese. "'Niisan never admits it, but he likes this cheap crap Crawford-san makes for him sometimes. He likes cheese." Her voice trembled slightly, and she turned away to toss the box into the cart. Tomás wisely kept his mouth shut. (2)
Finally they were done, and he offered to push the cart after she'd paid for the food. She walked beside him in contemplative silence as they walked through the parking lot, and the Jackal didn't bother her, knowing she needed to get some things straight in her head.
"Well what a pleasant surprise this is," a woman's voice called cheerfully from behind them.
Aya turned curiously, expecting to see Kiki, or maybe one of her classmates. She squealed in shock when the Jackal shouted and threw himself at her, knocking them both to the hard asphalt. A line of fire shot overhead before she could yell at him, and she could feel the heat prickling her skin as it missed the both of them by inches.
That was-
Squirming to get out from underneath the Irishman, she twisted her head around and spotted their attackers.
Birman was standing back, gloating as she watched the show. Standing a little in front of her, hand still upraised from his attack, stood Aya's brother, eyes narrowed as he glared at her.
"Oniisan!" she cried, struggling to push Tomás off of her. He grabbed her arms and hauled her to her feet, but pulled her back roughly when she tried to run to her sibling. "Let go of me!"
"Aya, don't!" he said sharply, tightening his grip. "He isn't Ran anymore!"
"We happened to be in the neighborhood," Birman said with a triumphant smirk, "and spotted your car. Isn't this a nice little reunion?" She gestured towards them imperiously. "Go ahead, Ash. There's your target. That woman is one of the people responsible for your family's death."
Aya gaped in horror at the woman. "What?!"
Ran's eyes narrowed in hate, and flames danced along his arm. "Shi-ne, Weiß!"
She screamed as the Jackal jerked her behind a car, again barely escaping getting burned to a crisp. "Let me go!" she cried. "Let me talk to him! I can-"
The Jackal shook her roughly to get her attention. "He won't listen! He thinks you're the enemy. Just stay down," he hissed. "Run as soon as you get the chance."
He rose to his feet and faced the glaring redhead boldly. His broadsword came free of its sheath with a ringing tone, and he took up a defensive stance. "Come on, pyro!" he shouted in challenge. "You're a swordsman, right? Fight me the right way!"
Ran's mouth tightened. "Get out of my way," he commanded in a hard voice. "I'm only after the girl."
Tomás set his jaw stubbornly and didn't budge. "Then you're going to have to go through me," he said in a low, intense voice.
"Just burn him," Birman said impatiently.
Ran glared at the Irishman before him for a moment in silence before abruptly closing his fist; the flames extinguished themselves in an instant. He whipped his katana free and held it up at chest level, ready for a rush. "Die, then," he murmured, and charged.
"NO!!" Aya shrieked.
Tomás leapt forward to meet the other man, yelling something in Gaelic. Their swords met with a crash that made Aya jump in fear. Slash, parry, block, strike--
The Jackal was stronger, and his blade was wider, but Ran was quicker and more skilled. They darted back and forth, striving to strike flesh as their swords rang against each other. They fought fiercely, each knowing that the winner would be the one to get the girl. One battled to protect her, the other to kill her.
Aya could only crouch behind the car and watch helplessly as Brad Crawford's vision came to pass.
They raged back and forth, each striving for an opening. People who had been going in and out of the grocery store scattered, screaming. Several fumbled with cell phones, intent on calling the authorities.
Aya was trying desperately to think of a way to stop the fight, when Birman gave something close to a squeal.
Aya and Tomás leapt apart momentarily, their eyes flicking towards the woman.
"My my, I almost missed the show." Ryoko was standing behind Birman, holding a knife to her throat and giving a small little smile of indulgence. "Now, be a good pyro and step away from them."
Ran hesitated, his eyes lit with anger. Ryoko was mostly hidden behind the other woman; he couldn't use his fire without hitting her.
Birman's face twisted in a mix of indignant frustration and nervousness. Her hands wavered by her waist, but she didn't dare draw her gun.
Ryoko smirked at Aya, who was peeping around the car. "You're lucky Crawford-san sent me to watch your backs. Now get out of here. I'll be right behind you."
The Jackal hesitated, panting and still full of battlelust. He glared suspiciously at his opponent, but Ran had lowered his katana and was glaring first at the half-blood, then at him.
"Ch'!" The Irishman sheathed his broadsword almost violently, yanking his trenchcoat closed to cover it. He strode over quickly and seized Aya's arm, dragging her to her feet.
"No, wait-!" she gasped, but he yanked her after him, running for their car.
"Never mind!" he shouted. "Come on!"
Ran tensed, gritting his teeth as he watched them get in the car and roar off. He turned on his heel slowly to glare daggers at the Adir'avar and her prisoner. For a few long moments it was a staredown.
But no one had told Ryoko of Birman's Gift.
Taking a quick breath of air, she stepped forward; walking through walls or metal, there was no difference, as long as she wasn't caught unawares. The blade slipped through her throat like water, and before the assassin behind her could grab her, she'd ducked and rolled clear. "Ash!" she shouted.
Ryoko had no time to dodge. She looked up to see a jet of flame encompassing her vision. Closing her eyes in resignation, she sank her fangs into her lower lip to prevent a scream as she was engulfed in searing flames.


"So much for those 'oh-so-impressive' Adir'avar people Malachi was talking about," Birman snorted as she strode into the main room ahead of a silent Ash.
Iragadachi was seated at the couch, fingers steepled as he gazed up at her expectantly. "You ran into them?"
"One of them." Birman reached up unconsciously to touch her throat where the blade had been. "We ran into Fujimiya and that Irish swordsman. One of the half-bloods interfered, and they escaped." She gestured to Ash and smiled in satisfaction. "He made short work of the Adir'avar, though."
The tall man nodded slightly in Ash's direction. "Good work."
"Aa," Ash murmured, looking distracted.
Silk appeared in the kitchen doorway and caught the redhead's eye. He grinned and offered a thumb's up. Ash couldn't help but smile slightly at the man's encouragement.
Jenell was lounging in one of the armchairs, flipping idly through channels. She didn't bother to look up, and she didn't look terribly impressed by the news. "Hurrah for you."
Birman frowned at her. Ash's lip lifted in a silent sneer and he walked by dismissively. They still weren't getting along, but now it was personal. Somehow Jenell had figured out that it bothered the pyro whenever she flirted with Silk; she now did it even more than usual.
This did not make Ash a happy camper... not that he could figure out why in god's name it bothered him in the first place. Or rather, he suspected he knew why, but didn't dare accept the possibility.
He walked past Silk and headed for the fridge to get a cold drink. Silk trailed after him. He leaned against the side of the fridge, arms crossed loosely over his chest as he grinned at the somber young man.
"Don't listen to Jenell, she's just bored of being cooped up. Nebel wants to go after Schwarz, and they're sick of sitting around waiting for more intel. Don't take it personally."
"Hn." Ash shut the fridge door and took a long gulp of lemonade.
Silk arched a brow. "What's wrong? You seem kind of out of it."
The younger man lowered his drink and stared into the cup, brow furrowed. "That girl," he said quietly after a moment of thoughtful silence. "Fujimiya Aya. She was... acting strangely."
"What do you mean?"
"She acted like.. she knew me."
"Of course." Silk shrugged. "She's partly responsible for your family's death, right?"
"Yes. But... it was different than that. She kept trying to approach me and.." He looked up suddenly, frowning. "Is the Irishman her brother?"
Silk blinked, scratching his nose. "The swordsman? I don't think so... You'd have to ask Iragadachi-sama. Why?"
Ran's gaze drifted off, his lips pressed together tightly. Silk could see the confusion and questions churning in his violet eyes. "She kept shouting something about a brother..."
Silk studied him for a long moment, then pushed himself upright and reached out to place a hand on the slender man's shoulder. Ash blinked, focusing on his face.
Silk found himself gazing deep into the man's questioning eyes, forgetting for a moment what he'd been about to say.
Damn, the man sure was easy on the eyes. And more than looks, he had a firey spirit to match that crimson hair of his. He strangled his libido and crushed it under a friendly smile. "Probably some trick. Watch your back around them, all right? But you did good today, if you took out one of the Adir'avar. I guess they're not so tough, huh?"
Ash nodded slowly, visibly dismissing his earlier confusion. "Aa." He finished his lemonade and placed the cup in the sink before trailing after his partner into the den.
Jenell brushed past, and as she did, she offered the pyro a strange little grin, her bright eyes glittering. Ash frowned, puzzled, and looked up when Iragadachi called him over. The Eraser rose to his feet, and Ash stood before him, awaiting instructions. Silk hesitated, unsure whether this was to be a private conversation or not, and wondering if he should excuse himself.
Iragadachi got right to the point. "Jenell tells me Ryan Park seems to have taken quite a shine to you."
Ash stiffened slightly, and had to force himself not to turn and see if the teenager was hanging in the doorway, watching with glee. He swallowed hard, but before he could think of a response, the older man was speaking again.
"I don't think it's necessary to remind you that Park is as much a part of this plan as Malachi is. We're depending on his forces in America to work with us."
Ash nodded again slowly.
"Whatever it is he's after, whether it's blood or.. whatever," Iragadachi made a hand gesture that wavered between carelessness and finality, "you will do what it is he asks of you, and I don't want to have him coming to me to tell me one of my men is being disobedient." His eyes were chips of ice as he stared the shorter man down, a cold warning to his tone. "Understood?"
Ash was numb. He could only stare at the other man before he caught himself and remembered to nod jerkily. His stomach was twisting with indignant fury and disgust. He had to fight to keep his face straight. If any of his anger slipped into his expression, the Eraser chose to ignore it. He gave a curt nod of satisfaction. "Good. Now go get the Alchemist. I wish to speak with him."
Ash murmured something like assent and turned away stiffly as the man lowered himself into his chair again. He met Silk's eyes across the room. The blond's face was hard, his mouth pressed together tightly. When he caught Ash's gaze, he forced a small smile of encouragement, but his eyes were snapping. He fell in step with the redhead as Ash moved slowly down the hall towards the guest bedroom.
"This is bullshit," Silk hissed as soon as they were out of earshot. "He can't make you do that! I don't think he knows what Park is really after. I mean.. I could be wrong, but.." he floundered, unwilling to broach the sensitive subject, unsure if Ash had figured it out for himself or not.
Silk's words only proved Ash's fears. He shook his head sharply, still staring straight ahead as he walked. "He knows," he said shortly.
They reached the bedroom, and Ash rapped on the door, cutting off whatever the blond had been about to say. Silk shut his mouth, fuming in silence as they waited. Underneath the fear, the disgust, and the anger, Ash couldn't help but feel a glimmer of confusion and.. something else ..at Silk's obvious dislike of the situation.
The door swung open, and Felix glared at them blearily for a long moment before demanding in heavily accented English, "What the bloody 'ell do you want?"
Ash had quickly gotten used to the British Alchemist's strange moods and sleep schedules, and wasn't disturbed by the irritated words. He gestured over his shoulder. "Iragadachi-sama wants you."
Felix blew a loud sigh, reaching up to rub his forehead. He squinted at Ash for a moment, scowling, before snapping, "An' just what the 'ell is wrong with you?"
Ash's face hurt, and he realized belatedly that he must be wearing a dark look. He tried to smooth his expression without much success as he stared silently at the man before him.
Felix Jackson had taken to staying mainly indoors since he had arrived. Part of it was because he did indeed have a bizarre sleeping schedule; the other part of it was the fact that a black man with dredlocks and a blunt British accent tended to attract a lot of stares in Tokyo. He was about Silk's height, but more broad-shouldered and wirey. He was a handsome man, with a hard body and strong, calloused hands. He was arrogant, and tended to have dangerous mood swings, but he wasn't too hard to get along with as long as one stayed out of his way and off his bad side.
Staring at his scars usually got you on his bad side.
Now Ash was careful to look only at the Englishman's face. When Nebel had first approached them in the airport, Ash had been unable to stop himself from staring at the scars visible on the man's neck, arms, and hands. Theoretically the man was scarred all over his body. His mind flickered back to the pictures of Tokyo's Vampire Lord. They were knife scars.
Of course, with his Gift, Felix's scars were more like a proof of his experience as an Alchemist, while the Berserker's were merely the cuttings of a madman, as Jenell had so scornfully informed him.
"He's just grumpy," Silk said when he realized Ash wasn't going to respond.
"Hmph." Felix sighed in annoyance. "Fine, tell Iragadachi-sama I'll be there in a minute." He shut the door in their faces.
Ash levelled his partner with a Look. "'Grumpy' must be the understatement of the year," he said quietly. Before Silk could respond, he walked away and entered the other bedroom, shutting the door loudly behind him.

(1) Do not try this, and do not listen to the demented authoress. -_- This rarely works on most doors nowadays.
(2) I seriously doubt they sell mac 'n' cheese in Japanese grocery stores. -_-; Oh well. I seriously doubt Japan is overrun with Vampires, either. =p My story. mwahaha

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Ch. 27