||Chapter 24||
"Prince of Lies"

Aya's adopted big brothers were understandably worried about her safety once she and the Jackal filled them in on what had happened. They were also sobered by the news that Ran was no longer himself, though they tried not to dwell on it too much out loud; it only upset Aya more.
When Ryoko failed to return an hour after Aya and the Jackal, Raphael sent out Himeno to track her down. The twins and Hikaru, who weren't able to move about in the sunlight, were in the caves with Ken and Farfarello, so that left only the leader of the half-bloods and Yuusuke to stand guard around the shop once Himeno had left to track down her teammate.
The others spoke in hushed whispers and avoided the kitchen.

Aya was sitting listlessly at the kitchen table when the familiar tap of a cane against the linoleum alerted her to Crawford's entrance. She looked up to find him watching her with a carefully neutral face. She straightened in curiosity, trying to shake her glum mood. That was the look of Oracle. He was thinking deeply about something. Something that could affect the future. "Yes?"
Crawford seemed to hesitate, then came over and eased himself into the chair across from her. He leaned his cane against the side of the table, never taking his eyes from the young woman. "There's something you've been wanting to ask me," he said abruptly.
She blinked, caught off guard, and stared at him, uncomprehending. She grasped at straws and seized on the most obvious question. "What was Schuldich talking about the other day? Why did he act like... he hated you?"
Crawford gave a slight nod, as if he'd been waiting for this and was ready to get it over with. "Very well.." he said slowly. At her look of surprise, he explained, "I normally wouldn't bother to tell this story to someone it doesn't pertain to..." His eyes narrowed slightly, thoughtfully, as he looked at her intently. "But evidently it does concern you."
Aya stared at him in surprised silence. She was dying to know, of course, but how could he think that she had a right to know? She had thought the older man might eventually tell some of the others, but not her.
"Telling you is apparently necessary for..." he hesitated. "Certain circumstances in the future."
Aya nodded nervously. A vision. Well that explained it. Somehow he thought telling her the history between himself and Schuldich would help the team with something in the future. She steeled herself and waited for him to begin.
The American set his hands on the table, fingers interlaced, and met her gaze straight-on, unashamed, his face completely devoid of emotion. As difficult to read as ever.
"You might remember when Farfarello was fighting Agammedo, how at one point Schuldich screamed. That was when- as I'm sure Tsukiyono explained to you -his memories were brought back and he was no longer Rosenkreuz's 'Salem'."
Aya nodded. She'd heard that scream all the way from the podium, and it had made her heart jump. Such a scream of pure anguish was not something she'd expected from the normally hard-hearted German, and it had chilled her to the bone.
"When Tsukiyono pulled Schuldich's memories free, he didn't just pull back the Schuldich you all know. He forced him to remember other things-- things Iragadachi Erased years ago." Aya frowned slightly. Crawford went on before she could ask him to clarify. "Two things happened that Rosenkreuz decided caused too much friction in an otherwise strong and stable team. Iragadachi Erased those memories, but Tsukiyono brought them back. That is why Schuldich and I have been.."
"At each other's throats?" Aya finished. She swallowed hard. She suddenly had the sinking suspicion that she was not going to like this. "What were those two memories?"
Crawford paused for a moment, studying his hands. On anyone else it would have been a nervous hesitance. The American's face was still impassive, however, his eyes unfocused slightly as he gathered his thoughts, deciding how best to word the tale and just how much he should tell her.
Crawford looked up and met her gaze again. "The word he screamed- 'mutter' -means 'mother' in German. A long time ago, when I was on my way to becoming a student of Estet and Rosenkreuz, I met a young boy enroute to their 'school'. Schuldich. There was a layover, and I had to stay overnight in Frankfurt. We met briefly on the streets; he was the leader of a group of street rats, basically. They thought I looked like easy pickings, I suppose." He gave a slight shrug. "I was still a novice boxer, but they didn't know what they were doing. I beat them all."
Aya wrinkled her nose in puzzlement. "Even Schu-san? But couldn't he hear your thoughts?"
Crawford shook his head, reaching up to tap his temple with his ring finger. "You've probably heard him complain about my shields. I was born with them; they're the only protection a clairvoiyant has. In any case, Schuldich wasn't expecting it, and he didn't understand why he couldn't Hear me. He was furious. I left him and his friends behind and thought I'd seen the last of him." Crawford's eyes drifted off into space as he visited his past. His mouth tightened slightly in the hint of a frown. "But a year later I had a vision about him. I had realized that he was a telepath when I spoke with other Gifted at the school. I told Thomas that Schuldich could be an excellent asset." The name confused Aya for a moment before she remembered where she'd heard it. She stared at him in some surprise. Did he even realize he never called him 'father'?
Crawford looked back at her abruptly, his eyes cold and shielded as he spoke, anticipating her reaction. "I went with a team to Germany and I found Schuldich for them. We went to his house to talk to his family; I was only there to point him out, so once my job was done I was just in the background. I was a mere witness, but I suppose I can't expect Schuldich not to blame me. After all, if I had never brought them there or mentioned him to Rosenkreuz, they wouldn't have had to do what they did."
Aya swallowed hard, fingers digging into the table. "What did they do?" she whispered.
"They killed his family," Crawford said simply. Aya's heart turned cold and leapt into her throat, strangling her gasp. "His father was a drunkard and just wanted us off his property. The mother refused to let her only child be taken away, and didn't believe that he could be Gifted. So they were killed in front of him. His father was shot, and his mother was beaten to death as they dragged Schuldich away." His eyes flickered aside momentarily. "He was eleven, I think."
Aya could only stare at him in horrified silence for several long moments. Crawford remained quiet, watching her again as he waited for her response, his face composed. She opened and closed her mouth several times before she could trust herself to speak. "And the second thing...?" she finally asked hoarsely.
Crawford's shoulders moved in the barest hint of a shrug. "There was a woman. Another student of Estet and Rosenkreuz. She and Schuldich were lovers. Schuldich seemed... content enough. Even after he was assigned to a team with me, I didn't have a problem with them being together, until he began to feel something stronger than lust for her."
"He loved her," Aya guessed weakly, clawing desperately for reason and sense. Schuldich had been in love once? But... Now he was so cold.
Crawford inclined his head in confirmation. "Unfortunately, she was unhappy with her lot in life. She hated her Gift, and she hated Estet. She wanted out. Schuldich was young, stupid, and in love. He was going to try and escape with her." His tone was even, his face expressionless. "I recommended she be transferred to a team in another country, and she was killed on a mission with them a week later. I knew she was going to die if she went on that mission. And though I never told Schuldich I foresaw it, he suspected I knew."
Aya took in a choking gasp of air as her eyes stung. "Crawford-san-!"
He tapped his thumbs together, watching her calmly. "I was the cause of the death of the people he loved," he summarized simply. "Iragadachi was forced to Erase the memories shortly after we took Nagi into the group because things were too rough between us, and we couldn't work effectively. But ever since- and especially since Tsukiyono brought the memories back -Schuldich is... shall we say, leery, of any kind of emotion other than the colder sorts."
Aya rose to her feet so fast her chair fell over backwards. At the last second she caught the angry, hateful words that rose to her lips, choking on them. She knew that inevitably she would regret them, no matter how angry she was now. What was done was done. Yelling at the American wouldn't fix anything. It wouldn't mend Schuldich's heart.
Her vision was blurry as she glared at the older man in furious silence, fists shaking on the tabletop.
Crawford gazed up at her calmly for a few moments before he reached up and took his glasses off. He lowered his eyes as he polished the lenses, still composed. Aya opened her mouth again, but he interrupted, "I did what I had to do to make the team strong, and I would not change it if I could."
"How could you?" she finally blurted, and a few traitorous tears slipped free. She felt like kicking herself in the head for ever wanting this man to end up with her brother. "You... You're just playing with Ran, aren't you? You can't possibly have a heart-"
He rose to his feet, reaching for his cane. The look he turned on her was dead serious. "I am not playing with your brother's affections, if that's what you're wondering," he said firmly.
"Why did you tell me all that?" Aya gasped, scrubbing at her face furiously.
He set his glasses back on the bridge of his nose, looking at her thoughtfully. "I don't ask for forgiveness, and I don't care for it," he said bluntly. "But in any case, for reasons unclear at this time, having you know these things might help him somehow in the future."
"Redemption," Aya spat. "Is that what you're trying to say you're looking for?" She shook her head sharply, lips pressed tightly together. "That's bullshit," she whispered harshly. "That isn't why you told me. Schuldich was right. You only care about yourself." She whirled and ran from the room.
As the Oracle watched her go in silence, there was no sign of regret or shame.
His face remained as blank and unreadable as the mind the German telepath had tried so many times to decipher.


Malachi and Park arrived at the hotel shortly after sunset.
The assassins were just finishing up their dinner, and Ash had no chance to make a retreat without being obvious about it. As Jenell smirked at him over her cup, he sat rigidly in his chair and pushed the remains of his pork roast around his plate with his fork. He had suddenly lost his appetite.
It was the first time all five assassins had eaten together since Nebel had arrived. Usually one or more of them was away doing shopping or recon, or Felix was asleep. Ash glanced around at his teammates in an attempt to ignore the low voices in the other room as the two Vampire Lords spoke with Birman, who had gotten up to greet them. Iragadachi and Souma had left a few hours ago to do an errand and weren't expected back until later.
Hwang was leaning his cheek in the palm of one hand as he used his Gift to idly arrange the food on his plate to resemble Felix's face. SD'd of course. Jenell was sipping at her drink, looking smug and flirting outrageously with a tolerant Silk, while Felix- who had just realized what his partner was doing -snarled at the Korean to quit fucking around with his food and finish his dinner or throw it away. Hwang glanced up lazily, and a pea flitted across the table towards his leader. Felix flicked the vegetable aside almost carelessly with a spoon that suddenly seemed longer and broader- Ash blinked and the spoon was its normal size again -before offering a painful death to the spiky-haired telekinetic if he kept acting up.
Hwang sneered and straightened up, glowering at his plate. "I'm sick of this crap," he proclaimed. "Next time, I'm making dinner."
Jenell paused in her flirting to make a face at the older man. "No fish," she said firmly.
"I'm not going to suffer Oriental sludge just because we're in Japan," Felix growled. "If you want some Korean food, make it for yourself next time." He jeered at Ash and Silk, popping the last of his roast in his mouth. "That means none of that sushi and octopus crap you Japs eat."
Ash frowned at him, bristling slightly, but Silk ignored him, reaching for the milk.
Felix pointed his fork at Ash. "Tomorrow we're going to see just what you're made of. Pyrokinetics and Telekinetics are two of the strongest Gifts in the world because they're so hard to defend against. When this final battle comes, you and Hwang will be paired up. Jenell-"
"I want to work with Silk!" she said quickly.
"Shut up, you little idiot," he snapped irritably. "Jenell, you will be with Birman. Silk's Gift is practically useless for the most part," he sneered slightly, and Silk turned a Look on him, "so I will be with him."
"Don't you want to be with Birman?" Jenell sniffed, giving him a frosty look. "You fucked her just last night."
Ash choked on his milk. Hwang looked bored, but Silk's eyebrows raised as he looked at the Alchemist.
Felix snarled, hurling his knife- it was suddenly much longer and sharper -at the teenager. She dodged swiftly, howling in anger and pain when it sliced her arm and pinned her sleeve to the chair.
"Mind your own business, cunt," he snapped.
"You ruined my shirt!" she wailed, yanking the long knife from the wood. She threw it on the table angrily and jumped to her feet. "I do not have to put up with your stupid little mood swings, Alchemist!" She turned and flounced off huffily.
Ash turned wide eyes on Silk, who merely shrugged helplessly.
The redhead went rigid in his chair at the accented voice behind him. He set his fork carefully on his plate and turned his head to stare at the American Lord in the doorway. Silk was glaring into his cup.
Ryan Park motioned to him solemnly to get up. As the swordsman obeyed and turned to face him, he found himself wishing fervently that he had not allowed Silk to pick out his outfit again. The older man had assured him with a dazzling smile that the clothes he picked for Ash looked good on him. Ash did not want to look good right now.
Park's eyes took him in greedily, a small smile playing on his lips as he took in the tight black tanktop, smokey jeans that clung to his hips and thighs, and the thick choker around his slender neck. Ash picked nervously at his thin chain bracelet, wishing he was wearing his sword as he avoided the American's gaze. His face was getting hot with embarrassment and his rising temper.
Park seemed to appreciate the blush as much as the outfit. He came forward and touched his fingertips to Ash's hot cheek. "Come take a walk with me," he said quietly. It sounded more like a command than an offer, and Ash had to dig his fingernails into his palm to resist smacking the man's arm aside. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Silk turning to give him a warning look. Don't go, he said with his eyes.
Ash seriously considered it before he remembered Jenell's offhand comment of their unwavering loyalty to Rosenkreuz. If he were to spurn this man, Souma and Iragadachi would be pissed. Then Nebel would make sure he didn't do something so stupid again- the hard way. Unclenching his teeth with difficulty, he gave a jerky nod. "Hai."
Park's smile turned into something of a smirk. "No one can show you the night life like a Vampire," he murmured, trailing his finger down the young man's jaw as his eyes slid down Ash's willowy form once more.
As the Vampire Lord led him towards the door with a hand on the small of his back, Ash flicked a quick, frantic glance back towards Silk.
The blond's face was grim as he rose to his feet, and Ash immediately realized his mistake. Silk would help him if he asked him to, but that meant the older assassin would only get hurt on his behalf. His eyes shot quickly to Hwang, desperate warning in his gaze. Hwang glanced lazily from him to Silk, saw the man's intentions in the stiff set of his shoulders, and shoved him roughly back into his seat with a single thought.
"Hold your horses, lover boy."
Then Ash was out of the kitchen and away from all help as he followed the American numbly to the front door. Jenell was draped over the back of the couch like a cat, grinning mercilessly at the redhead as he and his companion walked by. She wiggled her fingers in farewell, flashing her teeth in a fiendish grin.
Ash's temper boiled; with a quick, angry glance her way, the hem of her skirt caught on fire. The front door shut behind them, closing off her shriek of outrage.


It rained that night.
As Aya sat red-eyed at her bedroom window, it seemed to her as if the sky was crying with her.
There was a light rap at her door, but after a moment she chose to ignore it.
Another knock, a pause, then the door creaked open.
"Aya-chan?" Omi poked his head inside timidly. "Daijabou ka?"
"I'm fine," she said quietly. "Please, Omi-kun, I just want to be alone right now."
Omi hesitated, torn. "Aya-chan, you know if you need to talk..."
She turned her head slightly to offer him a tired smile. "Aa. Thank you, Omi."
He bit his lip in worry, but respected her wish to be alone. "Oyasumi," he murmured, pulling the door shut softly behind him as he retreated.
Aya returned her gaze to the darkness outside, chin on her palm as she watched the raindrops slide down the window panes. Over and over again she went over Crawford's story in her mind.

She had always suspected Schuldich's scornful, cold front was just that- a front. A mask he wore to hide a part of himself from the world. The mask had eventually become so comfortable that he had become the heartless bastard he tried so hard to portray.
Aya closed her eyes when they started to sting again, disgusted with herself. She was through crying. It didn't help anything. It was in the past, and there was nothing she could do to change the pain in the German's past. Some of the harsh words he'd said to her last night began to make sense. Schuldich was so scornful of her feelings for the others because he was afraid of those feelings himself. Every time he had loved, it had been taken away from him.
Her free hand clenched into a shaking fist in her lap. The fact that Crawford was partly to blame for the telepath's pain made her feel like she'd been betrayed somehow. How could she ever expect a man like that to be right for her brother? He'd said he wasn't playing with Ran's emotions, but how could she be so sure of that anymore?
Something tapped against her window, and she gave a little jump. She backed warily away from the window. There were no trees by her room; that meant...
Someone was out there.
She should have been afraid. Instead, a rush of anger and impatience rushed through her. She strode over to her bed, lifted the mattress, and snatched up the knife hidden there. Creeping back to the window, she unlatched it and pushed it open slowly. She nearly screamed out loud when a head appeared upside down from above.
"Farfarello!" she gasped, lowering the arm that had lifted instinctively to strike. The Vampire was hanging upside down from the rooftop like a cat, rainwater dripping from his sunfire hair, his single amber eye regarding her solemnly. She backed away as he swung down and landed lightly on the small sofa beside the window. She sputtered a protest as he crouched there, shaking his head like a dog to dry it.
He slid off the couch and settled himself on the floor crosslegged, looking up at her expectantly.
Aya hastily shut and locked the window and knelt beside him, putting the knife aside. She meant to ask him what he was doing outside her window so late at night, hanging around like a pale bat, but found herself leaning foward to wrap her arms around his strong shoulders, burying her face in the side of his neck. "Oh, Farfarello," she wailed.
He flinched away slightly, reaching in between them to carefully tuck her silver cross underneath her shirt front as it flared warningly. With the cross safely away from his skin, he reached up and put one hand hesitantly against the back of her head, unused to giving such comfort.
So much for no more crying, a part of her mind pointed out dryly. "Crawford told me," she sobbed. "About Schuldich. About..."
"Aa. He called me," Farfarello said. He tangled his fingers in her loose hair and tugged slightly. She rocked back on her heels, wiping at her face and sniffing. He tugged again, making her meet his steady gaze. "Do you hate him?" he asked bluntly.
Aya opened her mouth, then shut it again helplessly, dropping her hands limply into her lap. She shook her head sharply. "I don't know," she said honestly. "A part of me does, but the other part of me doesn't want to.... I don't know what to think," she admitted miserably.
Farfarello released her hair. He tilted his head slightly to the side. "You blame him?"
"Yes," she said sharply. "How can't I?"
Farfarello nodded slightly. "He blames himself," he said simply.
Aya snorted to stop a hysterical giggle. "I don't believe that. Just because he admits that it's his fault Schuldich is fucked up doesn't mean he regrets it."
"How do you know?"
Aya looked at him sharply. "He doesn't act guilty," she pointed out harshly. "Otherwise he would be gentler with Schuldich, and he wouldn't sound so.." she shuddered, "dispassionate when he talks about it."
Farfarello studied her for a moment before reaching out to touch a finger to her mouth. "When you smile," he demanded, "do you mean it?"
She blinked, confused, speaking around the finger. "Yes."
"Y-" she stopped at his raised eyebrow, then frowned slightly.
"When you smile for your brother, do you always mean it?"
Aya sighed, shaking her head reluctantly. "They have enough to worry about," she said quietly as he removed his finger. "They don't need to worry about me as well."
"Prince of Lies."
Aya stared at the scarred man, nonplussed. "What?"
The faintest hint of an unpleasant smile curled the Irishman's full mouth. "Nagi says Schuldich was called the Prince of Lies in Rosenkreuz," he informed her. "He is very good at what he does."
"Everyone lies," Aya pointed out.
Farfarello's head tilted in agreement as he played idly with a knife he had produced at some point from his clothing. Faintly Aya told herself she would have to learn that trick. How he could be empty-handed one minute and fingering a deadly blade the next was a mystery to her, and he'd taught her knife handling himself. "Everyone lies," he said. "Everyone smiles."
She frowned at him in puzzlement for a moment before realizing he wasn't going to lay everything out for her without some thinking on her part. She gave a little sigh and turned her eyes towards the darkened window, pausing to think over what the former Berserker was trying to tell her.
"I smile to keep from other people getting hurt," she said slowly, rewording their conversation. "Schuldich lies... to keep from getting himself hurt?" she ventured. When Farfarello didn't disagree, she frowned. "Then what about Crawford?" she demanded. "He acts so cold and distant, but he doesn't seem to care who gets hurt in the long run. Schuldich said that he was only interested in number one. I'm starting to think he was right."
Farfarello placed the tip of his knife in between his lips, staring at her. "Did they tell you about your brother?" he murmured.
She blinked. "Nani? Ah... how he was like before I woke up, you mean? Yeah, Yohji-san and Ken-kun used to complain about how distant and cold he was..." her faint smile of affection died on her lips as she stared at the silent Irishman. "No," she said shortly. "That isn't the same thing. Oniisan was like that for the same reason Schuldich is. He was hurt."
When Farfarello continued to look at her calmly, her eyes narrowed slightly, then widened again. "Or is it the same?"
Farfarello rose to his feet in a single fluid movement, the blade disappearing into his belt in a flash of metal. She scrambled to her feet and stood beside him, searching his impassive face for an answer. "Somebody hurt Crawford-san, too," she guessed. "But still.."
"What does he call him?" Farfarello cut her off.
"Call who?"
"You know who." Farfarello reached out and hooked a finger in the chain of her necklace, pulling the cross free once more. It glowed angrily with his presence, and he withdrew his hand hastily, eye flicking back up to her face. "Don't open the window again," he scolded, then turned and opened the window.
"Ah- matte!"
He stepped off the window ledge and disappeared. When she ran to the windowsill and leaned out, she saw the pale man walking down the street in the rain without looking back. After a moment, she pulled her head back in and shut the windows slowly, turning the lock.
She gazed at her own watery reflection, suddenly exhausted from all the tumbling emotions inside of her. She watched her mouth form the name in the glass.


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