||Chapter 31||
"High Price to Pay"

"Sheiße," Schuldich hissed, straightening in his chair suddenly and glaring in the direction of their target.
Crawford lowered the phone from his mouth slightly as he glanced over to see what had upset his partner. A woman was striding purposefully towards the greasy fanatic's table, short blond hair, freshly curled, bouncing against her shoulders. Crawford was puzzled for an instant, but he saw the light of recognition on Schuldich's face.
The German's eyes traced her curves from across the room as he sneered. "I'd recognize that body anywhere," he growled quietly. "It's that cop bitch."
Crawford ignored him for the moment, returning to the phone. "Make that twenty minutes," he corrected his earlier statement. "Something's just come up." He closed the phone with a snap and slid it into his breast pocket, watching as the attractive woman seated herself in the chair across from their quarry.
"What the hell is she doing with him?" Schuldich muttered irritably.
"She's an ally," Crawford reminded him, reaching for his coffee and watching out of the corner of his eye. "She's a Vampire Hunter, remember? She probably has her reasons."
"She's being buddy buddy with a guy who's probably more than a little crazy," Schuldich retorted.
"She isn't being 'buddy buddy' with him," Crawford said calmly. "At least not in the way you're thinking." He watched the two discreetly. "He doesn't seem to know her, and she is smiling at him the way she smiled at Ryoko when she was questioning her. I suspect she's here on business." He looked towards Schuldich and saw the man's eyes were unfocused. He frowned indignantly, carrying on in the same calm voice. "Perhaps she wants to sell him one of the pink elephants she keeps in her handbag."
"Uh huh," Schuldich murmured absently. Crawford snorted. Schuldich hadn't been listening, his eyes fixed on the far wall as he poked curiously at Kiki's mind.
Crawford gave up trying to get through to the man and returned to sipping his coffee and reading his Wallstreet Journal, glancing up every now and then to watch the two across the room. Their target seemed full of nervous energy as he spoke with Kiki, but he couldn't hear their words from where he was sitting.
Finally she seemed to finish with him. She shook his hand, unconsciously wiping it against the side of her chair before rising smoothly to her feet. She inclined her head in farewell and headed for the door. As she passed, she flicked a meaningful look towards Crawford's table before exiting the cafe. Crawford arched a brow at the closed door, and an instant later a vision took him, making his breath freeze in his lungs with the abrupt shift of the world around him.
"She wants to talk to us," Schuldich said, finally focusing on the table as he retreated from her mind. He picked up his pack, tapping a cigarette into his hand. "Turns out his holy greasyness calls himself Mister Riddle. He was at the apartments the day Kudou was kidnapped. She was questioning him about it; nothing unusual. It took her this long to track him down. Evidently he doesn't live here, he's only visit-" He looked up just in time to see Crawford coming out of the end of his vision, blinking rapidly. Schuldich frowned as he lit his cigarette and tossed the lighter to the table. "Oh, lovely. Another one. What's this one about? This time maybe you got to see me tearing Jenell's vocal cords out, I hope. I'm not looking forward to seeing that spoiled little bitch aga-"
"No." Crawford was frowning slightly, puzzling over what his mind had just shown him.
"Well, what did you see?" Schuldich demanded impatiently.
Crawford didn't answer at first. He gazed at the table, still frowning. "Nothing helpful," he said at last. "Ran was on fire."
"His entire body." Crawford's mouth twisted into a deeper frown as he tried to figure out what it could mean. "I'm assuming it was his Gift, but... I've never seen his entire body take the flames like that." Crawford's hands curled into fists as the image flashed in his mind, burned behind his eyelids. He couldn't get the look of agony on the man's face out of his mind.
Schuldich arched a brow. "Maybe he's going to lose control of it," he suggested, then shrugged defensively when Crawford scowled at him. "Hey, it happens," he said. "Sometimes people lose control of their Gifts. It tears them apart. Remember that telepath back in Holland, whatshername..?"
"I remember," Crawford said shortly. Schuldich took the hint and dropped it. The older man rose to his feet, digging for his wallet. "Let's go see what this woman wants."
The two of them headed for the register, unaware of Riddle glaring at their backs.


Aya shrieked, dropping into a crouch and covering her head with her arms as lightning cracked along the walls of the alley. The screams of the boys and the smell of burning flesh terrified her.
Finally all was silent. Shaking, she lowered her arms to stare in horror at the three charred bodies. The dirty brick walls were scorched, and a metal trash can had fallen over and was humming softly from the powerful current.
Jenell spat at the body of Seiji at her feet, pushing it aside with her toe. She placed her hands on her hips and turned her cold eyes on Aya. "Oh, get up and stop snivelling," she snapped impatiently.
Aya wasn't sure her feet would support her, but she didn't dare anger the other girl. She forced herself up, leaning her back against the wall, unable to take her eyes from the younger girl. Her heart was pounding, echoing in her ears. Was Jenell planning on killing her next?
"Why?" she gasped at last. Her throat hurt from her screams. She swallowed, trying to wet her dry mouth. "Why did you...?"
"Don't take it the wrong way," Jenell cut her off, painted lips lifting in a sneer. "It is as I told these perverted creatures. Someone already has a claim to your life."
Aya felt sick. "Hwang," she whispered.
Jenell's smile was unsettling. "Correct." She crooked a finger, scowling. "Now come with me, you whore. I will bring you to him. That will get him and Felix off my back."
A little spark flickered on Jenell's fingertip, and her strange green eyes narrowed dangerously. "Come with me, or I will make you come. You will not like it," she promised.
Aya's fingers dug into the bricks at her back, her knees trembling. "No," she said again, shaking her head. One of her braids, loosened from the boys' tugging, came loose. "I won't."
Jenell studied her for a moment, then suddenly grinned nastily. "But don't you want to see your darling brother again?"
Aya's heart leapt into her throat. "Ran!" She pushed herself from the wall. Strength suddenly returned to her feet, and she found she could stand without support. "What have you done to him?"
"Oh, no, it's not what I have done to him," Jenell chortled, pleased. "Iragadachi-sama is the one who Erased him. And Park is the one who is.. interested in him."
Aya didn't like the way she said 'interested'. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a flicker of movement. She forced her eyes to remain on the younger girl before her. Her voice sounded shaky to her own ears. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Jenell smirked at her in a superior manner. "Don't act like you don't know what I mean." She made a rude gesture with her hand. "He finds your brother attractive. He has been pursuing him and drinking from him. Ran is not pleased, but there isn't anything he can do about it. He is helpless."
"I don't believe you," Aya whispered fiercely, clenching her fists by her sides. "You're lying."
"Am I?" Jenell jeered at her. "Come with me and you will see just who is the liar here."
A shadow appeared just behind her, and there was a loud splash as a bucket of water was overturned over her wild blond hair. Jenell let out a screech.
"I think the young lady would rather come with me, instead," a droll voice spoke up, cutting off the shriek of rage.
"Himeno-san!" Aya gasped in surprised relief. As the woman stepped forward, Aya's eyes flicked frantically to the dripping Spark. "Himeno-san, get back!" she cried. "She-"
"She can't do anything," Himeno interrupted, sounding oddly amused. She levelled the child assassin with a small little smirk and an arched brow. "Have you ever seen what happens when lightning strikes a puddle of water?"
Jenell stood still, glaring up at the half-blood in pure hatred. Her fingers clenched and unclenched with the desperate need to unleash her Gift. "My Gift will not hurt me," she spat. "I control the lightning!"
"Even when you're wet?" Himeno asked with feigned surprise. "How extraordinary. Please, feel free to prove me wrong."
Jenell hesitated, her narrowed green eyes shooting from one enemy to the other and back again. Her face turned red with rage.
Himeno glanced around at the charred bodies on the ground, wrinkling her nose at the smell of burned flesh. "Been busy, have we?" She turned towards Aya, extending her hand in invitation. Her eyes were stern, and her mouth tugged down in a frown. "Come on, then. You and I are going to have some words, young lady. I should put you over my knee and beat the daylights out of you for pulling such a stunt. You're lucky Crawford-san saw the attack and called me."
Aya was too giddy with relief to be meek or scared by the threat. She clasped the proferred hand and let the half-blood help her over the bodies of the boys. Himeno clapped Jenell's damp shoulder with a strong hand, causing the girl to stumble. She flashed a wicked grin, showing her elongated canines. "You wait right here, honey," she said in a low, falsely cheerful voice. "I'm going to bring a few friends to meet you." Ignoring Aya's protests, she pulled the other girl out of the alley and turned in the direction of the flowershop.
Jenell squirmed past them and bolted, shouting German curses and threats over her shoulder.
Aya tried to go after her, but Himeno was impossibly strong. She didn't even budge when Aya lunged against her grip.
"What are you doing??" Aya gasped, trying to twist away. She only succeeded in hurting her wrist. "She's getting away! Why didn't you kill her?!"
"Calm down, missy," Himeno said calmly. "I want her to get away."
"What?!" Aya stopped struggling to gape at the taller woman. "Why?!"
Himeno was peering at her. "Hey, kiddo, you don't look too good. You're not about to throw up on me, are you?"
In her terror and in the renewed rush of adrenaline that had beset her upon Jenell's appearance, Aya hadn't even noticed her own pain. Now that Himeno had mentioned it, though, her body screamed for recognition.
Her ribs were laced with pure agony. Her entire body was sore from the run and the struggle, especially her legs. Her head hurt, she felt light headed and sick, and her groin ached from Taka's rough handling. She swayed on her feet as her vision blurred for a moment.
Himeno's eyes flicked over her, taking in her damage. Her eyes locked on Aya's thighs, and she hissed a strange curse from behind clenched teeth, her eyes narrowing.
Aya looked down. There was dried blood caked on the insides of her thighs. Aya was at once relieved that there wasn't very much of it, and at the same time horrified. Her stomach heaved, and her head was pounding like a drum. The world tilted.
"Jesus, girl," Himeno breathed, looking up at her quickly. "What in the hell did they do-"
Aya's knees buckled, and she collapsed into the woman's arms as darkness rushed forward and snatched her away into blissful unconsciousness.


Omi jumped, spinning around as the back door was booted open. His heart was pounding even as he snatched his crossbow from the table. Raphael was supposed to be outside keeping watch. Who the hell-
The Jackal, in the middle of making dinner at the stove, whirled, his sword coming free of its sheath in a blurring move. The ring of steel echoed in the room.
Himeno stomped inside, craddling Aya's limp, battered form in her strong arms. She bared her teeth at them when they merely stared dumbly. "Don't just stand there," she barked. "Help me!"
"Aya-chan!!" Omi dropped his crossbow and ran over to the woman as she entered the kitchen with her burden. Raphael appeared in the doorway behind her, shotgun loaded as he glanced around outside warily.
Omi took one look at the girl in Himeno's arms and whirled towards the Jackal. "Get Nagi!" he shouted. "Tell him to get down to the basement with the first aid kit!"
He motioned quickly to Himeno, and she followed without protest when he led her hastily to the basement door. He opened it and rushed downstairs, flicking on the lights. He reached the couch where the Jackal slept and hurriedly tossed off everything but the blanket and pillow. "Here," he panted. "Put her here."
Himeno strode over and gently laid her charge out on the couch.
A moment later the Jackal came racing down the stairs.
Omi stood over the unconscious girl, running his hands fretfully through his hair as he gazed at her helplessly. "Oh god," he said in a choked voice. "What the hell happened?"
Himeno hovered just behind him, her voice strangely subdued. "I failed in my mission to protect her. She gave me the slip in the hospital. Crawford-san called me and told me he'd had a vision that she was going to be attacked a few blocks from the flower shop. I almost didn't get there in time."
Nagi came pounding down the stairs carrying the first aid kit under his arm. His face paled at the sight of Aya. He scanned her body quickly as he opened the kit. His eyes landed on her thighs and he froze. Omi and the Jackal, noting his scrutiny, also looked and saw the blood there.
"There were three boys," Himeno started softly.
The Jackal rounded on her and hit her in the face with a fist.
She fell back a step, head thrown to the side, but made no noise. She closed her eyes, face expressionless, and didn't bother to wipe the blood welling from her cut lip.
"You stupid hybrid bitch," the Jackal snarled.
"Hannigan," Omi said loudly. The Irishman froze, his fist raised to strike the woman again. Omi struggled to keep his voice reasonable. "Calm down. You're not helping the situation any."
Nagi's hands were steady despite the sick look on his face as he began to clean up her wounds, deliberatly avoiding touching the blood on her thighs for now. "What happened?" he murmured.
Himeno was silent for a moment, opening her eyes to gaze dully down at the still form on the couch. "The three boys must have attacked her and pulled her into the alley. I found their bodies when I got there."
"Their bodies?" the Jackal interrupted, face red with anger. "Are you suggesting Aya took them all out by herself?" he demanded incredulously.
"No. Nebel did."
The three of them turned their heads towards her quickly.
"Nebel?" Omi gasped. "They were there?"
"It was the girl from before. The one who calls down the lightning. She'd burned them all-- killed them just before I got there. She was saying something about bringing Aya-san back to her teammates. She was goading her... something about her brother."
Nagi looked up suddenly, eyes widening slightly.
Omi felt it an instant later- the familiar brush against his mind. "They're home," he said needlessly.
"The bond's back up," Nagi said quietly. "Schuldich must have sensed the discord on it as he came closer. He just found out everything Himeno told us." He looked woodenly up at his lover. "Omi," he said softly, "how are we going to tell Ran?"
Omi closed his eyes and shook his head slightly, his expression pained.
All of them were sure Crawford would be angry about what had happened, at least a little bit. They weren't really expecting Schuldich to give two shits.
The look on his face as he came stomping down the stairs behind the clairvoiyant wiped that assumption from their minds.
He stopped beside Nagi and stood staring down at Aya with a face like a granite wall. He said nothing, but his entire body was stiff. His eyes drifted towards the blood on her legs, and from where he was crouching on the floor, Nagi saw the man slowly clench his fists.
Crawford was staring at Himeno like a raptor. She couldn't make herself meet his gaze, and settled for staring sullenly at his chest.
"You were supposed to be watching her," Crawford said in an eerily calm voice.
"I was," Himeno muttered. "She's only human. I didn't expect a human child to be able to move about with injuries like-"
Crawford backhanded her, putting all his considerable strength behind the blow.
Either his blow was stronger than the Jackal's, or Himeno was standing loosely; she crashed into the wall and tumbled to the floor with a grunt of pain.
"That's enough," Omi protested in a strained voice. "Kicking Himeno-san around won't change anything! She made a mistake. You can tell by looking at her she feels like shit about it." He turned to look at the half-blood as she pushed herself slowly to her feet. "Don't get me wrong," he said quietly, and she glanced up at him. His face was tight with anger and grief. "I know Aya. She'll forgive you for this." He stared at her for a moment, making sure he had her attention. "I will not."
She looked away and said nothing.
Schuldich leaned over abruptly and put his fingertips to Aya's forehead. Nagi started to protest, but too late-- they all felt the slight surge on the bond, the echoes of whatever he sent into Aya's mind.
Aya came awake with a jerk and a gasp. Her hands flew up in an instinct to defend herself. Schuldich grasped her wrists in a strong but careful grip, looking intently into her eyes, much the same as Farfarello had done to him after the attack on the flower shop.
"Oi, princess," he said sharply. "Snap out of it."
"It's OK, Aya-chan," Nagi whispered soothingly, lying a hand on her forehead. "You're safe now. You're home."
She stopped struggling and looked around at all of them, panting, her body trembling. Her eyes focused on Schuldich, and her body went limp. She gave a low moan, closing her eyes tightly.
"It hurts," she whimpered, her voice hoarse from screaming. "I want my brother..."
Schuldich's grip tightened on her wrists, his jaw giving a violent twitch. He released her abruptly when she gave a small noise of pain from his tight hold.
Omi crouched beside his lover, taking one of her shaking hands in both of his. "Aya-chan," he murmured. "Aya-chan, it's OK..."
"Be careful," Crawford said quietly. "She may go into shock."
"It's OK, Aya-chan," Omi repeated, blinking hard. "You're safe."
Aya clamped her lips tight together and began breathing deep breaths through her nose in an attempt to regain her self control. Slowly the worst of her shaking subsided.
"Good girl," the Jackal said encouragingly. "Calm down. Just calm down..."
Finally her breathing was somewhat normal, and her face was no longer an unhealthy ashy color. Only her hands were trembling, now. Slowly she opened her eyes, and a single tear slipped down her cheek. She blinked a few times to clear her vision. "Himeno-san," she whispered. "Where's... Himeno-san? Is she OK?"
"Worry about yourself, you little idiot," Schuldich snarled, fists clenched on his knees as he glared furiously at her.
Nagi hushed him. He gestured over his shoulder to where Himeno was hovering prudently out of sight, still silent. "She's fine, Aya-chan. She brought you here."
"What happened?" the Jackal asked her.
"Quiet," Crawford snapped.
"Shut up," Omi hissed irritably over his shoulder. "Just let her rest." He flicked a hard look towards Schuldich- a warning to stay out of her mind.
Schuldich didn't acknowledge the look, still glaring silently at Aya.
Aya looked around at all the worried faces around her and managed a weak little grin. "Gomen, minna," she said meekly. "I just didn't want to sit in that hospital while.. while you all went off to fight. I..."
Schuldich exploded. "You should have stayed there, you ignorant little cunt!" he shouted, leaping to his feet. Aya stared up at him, wide-eyed as he glared down at her.
"Schuldich!" Nagi gasped.
"That's enough, Schuldich," Crawford barked.
"Quit trying to be a fucking martyr. You're not a god damn hero, you're a stupid little girl with no Gift," Schuldich ranted. "What the hell is the matter with you?!"
Crawford's face was dark, his tone threatening. "Schuldich-"
Surprisingly, Aya gave the hint of a smile, her eyes sliding closed. "Iie," she murmured. "It's OK. I'm not going to break down if you yell at me, guys. I guess it was a pretty stupid thing to do... in hindsight."
"No shit, Sherlock," Schuldich snarled.
"Shut up, you fucking Nazi!" the Jackal shouted.
"Schuldich," Omi pleaded. "Stop it..."
"Leave him alone," Aya said, opening her eyes again and clutching Omi's hand. "Please..."
Schuldich spat a few German curses and strode off. Shouldering past Crawford, he stamped up the stairs.
"Aya, you don't have to stick up for that trashy loud-mouth," the Jackal protested, stepping forward hesitantly.
"I said leave him alone," Aya repeated, her voice suddenly stronger. "You don't understand Schuldich. He's just..." she sighed, shaking her head with a slight frown as if questioning herself.
But Nagi gave a little sigh, looking away. "That's what Schuldich's like when he's worried," he said quietly.
"Worried? That bastard? Well he doesn't have to be such an asshole about it," the Jackal snapped, looking unconvinced.
"It's his 'shield'," Aya said with another sick little smile. She winced, closing her eyes. "Nagi-kun," she breathed hopefully, "I could really use some aspirin or something."
"A-aa." He rummaged hastily through the first aid kit and dug out a bottle of strong pain medication. "Hannigan, get me some water from upstairs."
"Why don't you just float it down here?" the Jackal muttered rebelliously. When Nagi refused to answer, he stalked back upstairs, grumbling to himself.
"Aya-chan.. what happened?" Nagi whispered.
Crawford held up a hand, shooting the younger boy an admonishing look. "She doesn't need to talk about it right now. Let her rest."
Aya's eyes darted towards Himeno. Her face was twisted in a mixture of confusion and pain. "Himeno-san... why did you.. why did you let her go?"
All heads turned towards her.
"Her? Her who?" Omi demanded a little fiercely. "The lightning girl?"
Himeno remained well out of reach, her face dispassionate. "I had to get Aya-san back here. Did you expect me to just leave her there? Besides," she added when Crawford turned towards her threateningly, "I wanted her to go." A smile flitted on her face. She looked straight at Aya and moved her hand in mimickry of patting something.
Patting someone on the back.
Aya's eyes widened. "Did you... You bugged her?"
"Of course." Himeno gave a little sniff. "Why kill the rat when you can have the whole pack?" She flicked her fingers in dismissal, her lip curling in triumphant scorn. "She will lead us right to them. It's our best bet and our best chance at getting these scum before they can make a move."
Aya gave her a watery smile of satisfaction.
Crawford held out his hand in a silent command. Himeno reached down the front of her blouse and pulled free a small hand-held device. She tossed it to him underhanded, and he caught it deftly, flicking on the power and looking intently at the screen. After a long moment he murmured, "She's heading for Akihabara." He arched a brow at the half-blood.
"She said something about the others being mad at her," Aya interjected. "Maybe she won't go back to them right away."
Crawford continued to stare coldly at Himeno for a few long moments before he finally slid the transmitter into his pocket. He glanced towards Omi. "Call Manx. She should be here when Farfarello and Hidaka get here. We need to strike now."


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Ch. 32