||Chapter 36||

For some reason the first thing that came to Aya's mind was the conversation that had taken place back in Schuldich's apartment the day she had watched the Jackal's eyes change color.
Crawford had said he'd only seen one other person with that strange discoloration of the eyes that came with extreme mood changes. He had refused to say who it was, saying he hadn't seen it in a long time.
He had been talking about Schuldich.
As the telepath watched his lover's body fall to the floor, his eyes became blue in a sudden horror and grief so deep it made Aya gasp. As he stood there, not moving, simply staring across the room at the lifeless man on the floor, Aya's heart went out to him, nearly swamping out her own grief. She turned quickly away before he could catch her staring, nearly choking on her own sobs. Through her blurred eyes, she witnessed a new horror that almost took away her grief completely.
Her brother was on fire.
He was standing over Yohji's body, tears of fire streaking down his cheeks, and his entire body was covered in flames. People backed away hastily from the extreme heat, gaping as the rage and the grief tore her brother apart.
Slowly he lifted his head, still crying silently, and stared with hollow eyes at Souma, who was also staring in shock at the burning man.
Slowly, calmly, Ran lifted an arm and sent a jet of flame towards the telepath.
Souma tried to throw himself aside, tried to save himself, but the fire was too large and too swift. It consumed him in an instant, his howl of agony dying out quickly.
Now the fighting really had come to a screeching halt. Everyone stared in dead silence at the enflamed swordsman as they slowly backed away, leaving him a wide berth. Not even Crawford could stand the heat, and was retreating, his teeth clenched.
Ran's eyes slid shut and he opened his mouth to draw in a shaking breath, his chest heaving. Then he screamed.
The sound was impossibly loud, a sound of pure agonized anguish. Hands flew up everywhere, clapping over ears, and nervous murmurs broke out.
Then the world really was on fire.
Unable to control his own Gift in his explosive rage, Ran sent his fire out in all directions, killing everything it touched.
Shrieks and wails of horror and fear echoed off the concrete walls as Vampires and men alike scrambled to escape the sudden inferno.
"Crawford's vision," Schuldich breathed in horrified realization. Aya gasped as the man seized her arm and started to drag her hurriedly towards the stairs, following the mob. "Move," he barked. "If we don't get out of here, he'll kill us all."
"But- my brother.." Aya strove to see his face as she stumbled to keep up. His eyes were still a beautiful crystal blue, though his face was grim. In the wildly dancing shadows cast by the flames, Aya couldn't tell if his face was wet from tears or sweat.
"Move!" Schuldich snarled, hurling her in front of him and pushing her to make sure she didn't move back.
Suddenly the tears came in earnest, and Aya stumbled up the stairs, sobbing as if her heart would break.

Felix growled in annoyance, ducking a flaming sign that fell from above and exploded on the ground. Farfarello seemed hardly to notice, and lunged at his foe with a snarl of bloodlust, knocking the man off his feet.
As soon as they had landed on the floor Farfarello snapped at the exposed throat, digging his serrated knife deep into the Englishman's side.
Felix gasped at the pain, then laughed wildly and managed to heave the Irishman off. He rolled to his feet, staggering a little, his hand clamped to the wound. They were both covered in bleeding wounds and breathing heavily. "You would die here in the fire, just to see me dead?" he sneered. "You really are insane."
"I will see you dead," Farfarello promised ominously, circling his prey with a glowing amber eye. He licked his blade slowly. "I will tear you apart."
"Don't you have other things to worry about, Berserker?" Felix murmured, his hooded eyes flicking to the side. "Say... your lover?"
Farfarello hesitated, darting a quick glance in the direction the Alchemist had indicated.
Ken was surrounded by a group of his zombies, tearing frantically at a landslide of rocks covering some sort of opening, ordering his minions desperately to pull the rocks away. They were obeying, but their movements were slow and there were too many rocks. The flames were sneaking closer, but Ken ignored them, yelling hoarsely for the zombies to move faster, to get the rocks away, to open it back up.
Farfarello stood frozen, torn. He looked quickly towards Felix, then Ken, then back to his foe again, his limbs shaking with the agony of his decision.
Felix grinned at him wildly. "Well, Berserker? What will it be? My life... or his?" He took a slow step back, then another, his eyes flickering towards the exit. He licked his lip nervously.
The fire was getting closer to Ken. A few sparks flew from one of the burning cables overhead and lit on his bomber jacket, unnoticed. Snarling in frustrated rage, Farfarello turned his back on Felix and raced over to his lover.

Ken yelped as strong hands seized him from behind, and swung back wildly with his bugnuk. The blow was deflected easily, and he twisted around to stare into his partner's eye. "Farfarello--"
The Irishman ignored him, hastily ripping the jacket from his lover's body and flinging it aside just before it caught fully on fire. He seized Ken's wrist and gave it a firm yank. "We're leaving," he growled.
"No!" Ken yanked away and began digging frenzidely at the rock heap again. "It's Omi and Nagi," he gasped, coughing from the smoke. "They're trapped in here! We have to get them out..."
"Ken." Farfarello's voice was softer as he grabbed the boy's wrist again and tugged him back. "Leave it. They're gone."
"No!" Ken tried to pull away again, but Farfarello's grip was unyielding. "We can't just leave them--"
"They're gone, Ken," Farfarello repeated, more firmly. His eye was soft, the only indication of his sorrow. "I can smell the death through these rocks."
Ken stared up at him numbly, his mouth working uselessly, his eyes wide. Slowly they filled with tears, and he made a choking noise. "But.."
"We have to go," Farfarello said quietly, and dragged his lover after him. "Come."
Ken seemed to notice the threat of the fire for the first time and hastened after him. His vision was blurry with tears, and he stumbled several times. Farfarello scooped him up in mid-stride and ran. The zombies, without an order to cease, continued to pull the rocks away as the fire crept up on them.
They almost passed Crawford, who was kneeling on the ground with an unconscious Ran in his lap.
Farfarello came to a halt, staring down at them for a long moment. "Can you carry him?" he demanded at last.
Crawford lifted his head to look up at him and shook his head once. His knee would not support the burden all the way up the stairs. Ken realized with a jolt of surprised comprehension that at the moment, Crawford had no plans of escaping if it meant leaving Ran behind.
Ken slid from his lover's arms and wiped the tears angrily from his gaze, sniffing. "Give him to me," he ordered hoarsely. "I'll carry him fireman style if I have to."
"No need." Himeno appeared at his side, making him jump. She bent over quickly and gathered the pyro into her arms, lifting him as if he weighed no more than a child. Ken helped Crawford to his feet and found his cane nearby. He snatched it up and handed it to the older man.
"The Jackal," Crawford said suddenly, as if just remembering. "And Kudou. I don't know for sure if they're dead yet..."
"Go," Farfarello ordered shortly. He turned and hurried over to Yohji. Crawford grabbed Ken's elbow when the assassin tried to follow his lover, dragging him towards the steps.
Farfarello watched for a few moments to make sure they had a safe path to the stairs before crouching by Yohji's side. He placed his fingers against the side of the man's throat, hoping for Ken's sake that the man was still alive.
After a long moment he slowly lowered his hand, gazing in silence at the blond's body. Still... they would like to have the body, at least, for a funeral of some sort.
He shifted to get to the Jackal, and gave a little grunt of surprise when he heard the swordsman's rattled breathing.
He touched the man's shoulder, rolling him onto his back. Tomás's eyes flickered open to gaze up at him through a haze of pain, and a weak if sardonic smile touched his lips. "Just leave me," he whispered, his voice barely audible over the sound of the crackling fire and the stampede towards the door. "I don't have much time left, anyway."
Farfarello stared back at him solemnly for a long moment, then glanced down at the wound in his chest. He hesitated, then offered quietly, "I can bring you back." When the Jackal merely stared at him, he glanced back up to meet his gaze. "Since we are... kinsmen, as it were," he added, as if the notion was strange to him.
The Jackal screwed his eyes shut, clenching his teeth in pain. "What would be the point?" he breathed. "Just let me die... Let me see my sister..."
"And our country?" Farfarello demanded.
Tomás forced his eyes open to give the scarred Vampire a puzzled look.
"Your sister is dead," Farfarello pointed out bluntly. "Now you are to die. I am Lord of Japan." He touched the horrible chest wound carefully. "So who will watch our people in Ireland?"
"Beats me," Tomás grumbled. "Whichever one is vicious enough to scare the hell out of them, I'll bet..."
"Is that how your sister ruled?"
"No," Tomás said fiercely, a momentary anger lighting up his eyes. "They followed her because they knew her and trusted her. And because the Lord before her trusted her."
"And now you would leave them to a vicious ruler?" Farfarello arched a brow. "Someone like me?"
They stared at each other for several moments. A cable overhead crackled and sparked loudly, jolting the Jackal back to reality. The pain in his dimming eyes was no longer physical. "Very well," he whispered. "Maybe... it's what my sister would want."
"This is going to hurt," Farfarello pointed out belatedly, manuevering the man's torso into his lap. Then he sank his fangs into the other Irishman's throat.
The Jackal, eyes wide, was unable to warn Farfarello as a figure stepped through the fire and strode towards them, malice in his eyes.

No one was too interested in fighting when they finally made it out of the subway and staggered about the street, coughing smoke from their lungs. Himeno shoved Ran off on Ken and hastened off to find her team.
Ken slung his unconscious partner's arm over his shoulder and half dragged, half carried him as he followed Crawford towards where his own teammates were gathering together. Kiki was sitting on the ground, clutching a broken arm to her chest, her face ashen. Manx was nowhere to be seen.
Aya saw them first, where she was huddled next to Schuldich. She ran up with a cry of relieved joy to take her brother's face in her hands. She kissed his forehead gently, then looked anxiously up at Ken. "Omi?" she asked desperately, her eyes pleading. "Nagi? ...Yohji?"
Ken stared back at her and shook his head slowly, swallowing past a lump in his throat.
Aya's face crumpled, and she began to sob softly. Crawford shuffled forward to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, and she buried herself against his chest with a wail of anguish.
"Where's Farfarello?" Schuldich asked after a long moment, his eyes a dull green. His face was completely devoid of emotion.
Ken swallowed again, looking over his shoulder. "He was checking on Yohji and the Jackal. He was right behind me..." He took a step towards the stairs again, a thread of panic in his voice. "What's taking him so long?"
"No!" Aya pulled away from Crawford quickly and snatched her brother's arm. Ken, still hauling him, stumbled to a halt. "Don't you dare go back in there!" she cried. "You'll be killed!"
Ken hurriedly shrugged Ran off of him, and Aya nearly fell under his weight. "I have to make sure he gets out!" he shouted, and darted off before Crawford could nab him.
"Hidaka!" Crawford shouted. "Don't be a fool!"
Ken ignored him and ran, elbowing emerging Vampires out of his way. He got to the stairs and raced headlong down them, covering his nose and mouth with his hand to filter out some of the smoke.

Farfarello had just shoved his cut wrist to the Jackal's mouth for him to feed when Tomás sputtered around the wound, "Behind you!"
Farfarello had time to only turn half around when the Pureblood's shoe caught him in the side of the head and sent him flying. He hit the wall hard and slid down, his head ringing from the heavy blow. Fighting back unconsciousness, he scrabbled to his feet with a liquid growl of rage.
Malachi had already come to him, and drove his fist directly into the Irishman's face. Farfarello fell back, and his head cracked against the wall. He saw stars, and blackness threatened the edges of his vision.
"Almost thought you'd won, didn't you?" Malachi sneered, animal rage erasing the handsomeness of his face. "You are no longer Lord of this city, Lucifer. Step down."
Farfarello bared bloody fangs at the taller man, his eye turning red in his fury. "Finally decided to show up?" he murmured. "Where were you hiding, Malachi?"
The Pureblood swung at him again.
Farfarello's reflexes had been dulled considerably from the vicious knocks to his head. The fist caught him in the gut, and he doubled over with a grunt. Malachi snatched the front of his shirt and hauled him effortlessly off the floor, glaring up at him as he held him high overhead. "We will not be led by a treacherous Turned dog like you," he hissed.
"You lost, Malachi," Farfarello stated calmly, gazing down at him with his single mad red eye.
"Have I?" The Pureblood whirled around and flung Farfarello as hard as he could. He crashed into a stack of burning crates and smashed through them, disappearing behind the flames.
The Jackal was convulsing on the ground, gasping frantically for breath as his life was snatched away. He hadn't yet had time to swallow enough of Farfarello's blood to Turn him. Malachi stood over him, his eyes burning with triumph. "Thought you'd cross over, did you?" he breathed, setting his foot deliberately on the Irishman's throat. He slowly pressed his weight down on it, and Tomás began to thrash more violently. "I will wipe all your filthy kind from the face of this planet. Park's army in America will help me to wipe this continent free of the plague of this Turned disease."
"You just like to hear yourself talk!"
Malachi whirled as Ken burst from the thick smoke all around, slashing at him with his silver-plated bugnuks. The Pureblood gave a hiss of hatred as he snatched the man's wrist in mid-swing, wrenching it aside and back painfully, nearly breaking the arm. Ken shouted in pain.
"Well if it isn't the little Necromancer," Malachi breathed, grinning in fiendish delight. "Lucifer's little plaything. Do you remember that day when you stood on that podium and thought you had the right to give me orders, human?" He twisted the arm more cruelly, and Ken screamed aloud. "I have always wondered how your blood would taste," Malachi murmured, staring hungrily at his neck. "The blood of a Necromancer... Mmm. I'm sure it's quite a treat."
"You're not going to find out," Ken gasped from behind gritted teeth. "I'd rather die."
"You will," Malachi promised, and bent his head to feed.
Burning timber went flying as Farfarello erupted from where he'd fallen, snarling in rage.
Malachi's head snapped up, and he hissed back in challenge. He yanked Ken around so that he was between the two of them, then gave him a hard push, sending him staggering into his lover. The two of them stumbled back, and Malachi took that time to seize the hilt of the Jackal's broadsword and yank it out of his body. Tomás's scream of agony was loud and horrible.
Malachi ignored him, turning back around to point the blade at Farfarello, who was pushing his lover firmly behind himself, out of harm's way. "Come on, then," the Pureblood shouted. "You're supposed to be some kind of blade master, right? Let's see if your little knife tricks can stand up to the strength of a Pureblood and a sword."
Farfarello growled low in his throat and started forward, but Ken seized his shoulder and held him still. Farfarello started to shake him off, but Ken leaned against him, putting his mouth close to his ear.
"It's time to dance," he breathed, flexing his fingers in grim encouragement. "Show him the moves, koibito. Show him your Dance of Death."
Farfarello went still, turning his head slightly to look at his lover out of the corner of his eye. Ken stared back fearlessly, his mouth set in a tight line.
Slowly the Irishman looked away, and Ken released him, falling back and watching the two warily. The Berserker focused his intense stare on his enemy, the mindless rage gone from his face. He flicked his hands, and two knives appeared in his grip as if by magic. He lifted his serrated one to his mouth and slowly licked the blood from its blade, never taking his eye from Malachi.
Malachi hesitated, noticing the sudden change in the Irishman's manner. His grip on the broadsword tightened, and he bared his fangs in challenge. "Well? Afraid to come at me, Lucifer?" he snapped. "Come and die like the trash you are!"
"I'm not the coward here," Farfarello pointed out calmly, "little hyena that hides in the shadows while his people die for him."
Stung by the insult, Malachi snarled with rage and rushed for him, swinging the sword in a blow meant to take off his opponent's head.
Farfarello didn't move until the blade was actually slicing across the air inches from his neck.
Then he fell into a crouch so quickly and smoothly it seemed as if he had disappeared. The sword finished its powerful scythe, but Malachi's eyes were already darting down in horror as he realized his error-- too late.
Farfarello drove his serrated knife up in a powerful surge, driving it straight through the Pureblood's stomach so that it erupted out of his back.
The sword landed with a clang on the stone ground.
Malachi stumbled back, hands flying to the knife protruding from his gullet. He gurgled, then looked up quickly in dawning surprise and a flicker of desperate hope that he still had a chance. "It isn't silver," he laughed insanely. "You-"
Farfarello was right before him, calm and still as a shadow, his eye red as a demon's. Malachi's voice froze in his throat in sudden numbing fear. "No," the Irishman agreed quietly. "But this one is." And he slashed his second knife across the Vampire's throat in a blurring motion.
Malachi had time for one gurgled scream before the black flames erupted around him and turned him to ash.

"There they are," Hikaru said sharply, pointing quickly towards the stairs.
Aya scrambled to her feet, as did the others on the team. She gave a deep sigh of relief as she saw Ken emerge from the smoke, coughing and hacking. Behind him came Farfarello, carrying Yohji's body soberly in his strong arms. Something else shifted in the smoke, and from it emerged...
"Tomás!" Aya cried, running to him in surprised delight. "You're all right!" She came to a halt before him, her eyes quizically taking in his torn shirt. "But I thought..." Then she looked up into his eyes, and noted the sudden paleness of his skin. When he opened his mouth to speak, she saw the tips of his fangs protruding, and gasped.
"Get away," he rasped, pushing her roughly, his eyes filled with pain. "I don't want to hurt you."
Aya stumbled back and ran into Schuldich, who tugged her protectively closer, getting her safely out of the Jackal's reach. Aya could only sputter in protest, "You're a.. a.."
"He hasn't fed yet," Farfarello informed her calmly as he knelt to lay Yohji's body out on the ground carefully. "Don't get too close to him until he's had his first meal."
"How could you do that to him?" Aya cried, turning on him angrily.
"It's all right, Aya," Tomás interrupted quietly, his eyes downcast. "I was dying. I agreed to it. I have to go back to Ireland and take my sister's place, before someone like Malachi comes along to take it."
"But..." she stared up at him in sorrow, then decided to let it drop for now. Schuldich had stepped away from her to crouch beside Yohji and was gazing at him in numb silence. Her heart went out to him, and she wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly feeling very cold. Her heart felt like ice in her breast as she turned a tearful look on Ken, who was crying openly but silently. "Ken," she whispered brokenly, "please tell me this isn't real. Please tell me this is all some big nightmare...."
Ken looked at her, his face ragged with grief. "I wish it was," he murmured. "Believe me, I wish it was."


The Adir'avar, their job complete, had disappeared into the shadows they were named after as soon as the first wails of the fire engines were heard on the night air. Later they would be back for their payment, but for now they would give their employers time for their grief while they licked their own wounds and recovered. The remaining Purebloods disappeared soon afterwards, running in terror from their deadly Lord. At Farfarello's order, the Turned wearily made their way back to the caves, while the pitiful remains of Weiss and Schwarz piled into Manx's car-- she had never emerged from the flames, presumably killed in the battle --and another Schuldich had hotwired. Before they left, Ken had quietly ordered the handful of remaining zombies to return to their graves.
They made a stop at the Kritiker emergency room, but while Schuldich allowed the doctors to patch him up, he refused to stay overnight. They drove back to the flower shop in grim silence, and half an hour later found themselves gathered in the basement, stinking of blood, sweat, and smoke.
Tomás disappeared momentarily with Farfarello to find his first meal, and by the time they returned, Ran had finally come to.
Yohji's body had been placed on the long coffee table and covered with a blanket. Schuldich was standing over him, staring down at the pitiful lump with dead eyes. Aya stood beside him, clutching his limp hand in both of hers in silent support, but he didn't seem to notice that anyone else was in the room but himself and his dead lover.
Ran lifted his head from his hands as Farfarello and the Jackal entered the room, his face streaked with tears. He stared at Farfarello for a long moment before he whispered hoarsely, "Thank you... for bringing him out."
Farfarello inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement, but remained silent.
Abruptly Schuldich flinched, reaching up to touch his head. "Shit, red, stop thinking so fucking loud." Then he seemed to realize what he'd just said and scowled slightly.
"Looks like your telepathy is back," Crawford observed quietly from where he was sitting beside Ran.
"Oh goody," Schuldich murmured. But the usual sarcasm was gone from his tired voice. "My shields are shit right now, though."
Ran looked towards his sister with sudden alarm when she swayed on her feet. "Aya-chan," he said softly, rising quickly. "You need to get some rest. You've been through a lot..."
Aya almost protested out of habit, but then thought better of it. Suddenly bed sounded like heaven to her. She nodded a little and turned blindly towards the stairs. Ran took her elbow gently in his hand to lead her, then glared warningly at the Jackal when he, too, stepped forward to help. Any tentative trust he'd developed towards the Irishman had been wiped away by the new turn of events. He did not relish the thought of a newly-made Vampire leading his kid sister up to her bedroom.
Tomás seemed to understand, and stepped away, his eyes averted.
Ran gently steered his sister up the stairs, through the kitchen, and then up the final flight of stairs to her bedroom down the hall. By the time they reached her room, Aya felt as if she would collapse from sheer exhaustion. She sank onto her bed, and Ran sat beside her, brushing her matted hair from her face with his long fingers. "Try to get some sleep," he murmured, his own voice sounding strained. "We'll deal with this tomorrow."
Aya started to nod, and then suddenly she was crying and couldn't stop. For the first time that night the truth sank home completely.
Yohji was dead. Omi and Nagi were dead. Tomás was a Vampire. And... So many horrible things that had happened in just one night...
She clung to her brother and sobbed brokenly, her chest constricting with the deep grief inside. Ran's arms came up and wrapped around her in a comforting embrace. He lay his cheek against the top of her head and rocked her like her mother had when she was a child.
Against her head, she could feel her brother's own hot tears, and tightened her hold on him, returning his comfort.
Even after he'd finally left, the tears still came, and she cried herself into a sleep full of nightmares and pain.


Whoever coined the phrase "Everything will seem better in the morning", Ken thought darkly, ought to be shot.
It was ten in the morning and they were all gathered in the kitchen for a late breakfast. No one had touched their food, which was just as well, since Aya had been too upset to produce anything remotely edible. They simply sat or stood where they were, staring at their plates or out the window. No one had spoken a word to each other since they'd sat down for breakfast, and the burnt eggs were already cold, the milk warm.
Ken was leaning against Farfarello, holding the Vampire's hand tightly in his own as he let his gaze roam around the room.
The Jackal was leaning against the counter near the window, staring fixedly out at the sky, poking his fangs unconsciously with his tongue. Kiki was perched on the counter far out of his reach, her broken arm in a sling as she stared at her badge cradled in her lap. Schuldich was slouched in his chair at the table, staring unblinkingly at his plate. He hadn't even had the energy to play with his food, which was sign enough that his mind was somewhere else. Next to him sat Crawford, holding his fifth cup of coffee. Ran was next to him, eyes closed, cupping his forehead in his hand as if he had a pounding headache-- which perhaps he did. Aya was on her brother's other side, fiddling with her butter knife and watching Ran out of the corner of her eye, obviously grateful to have him back but expecting a full-fledged breakdown at any minute.
Ken's eyes instinctively flickered around the room again, seeking out the three missing faces he was so used to seeing, before he realized he would never see them again. Grief rose up in him again, stinging his throat, and he blinked rapidly to keep from crying again. He'd done his crying last night against Farfarello's chest, and had firmly decided afterwards that he would not break down again in front of his friends. He knew that if one of them started crying, it would only break the rest of them.
So he followed their lead and kept his sorrow bottled up for the time being.
Things were understandably tense. Most of them didn't want to talk to each other or even meet each other's gazes. So much had changed in the past few days and especially last night. No one seemed sure of where they stood anymore-- the Jackal and Ran in particular.
Aya was also glancing around the room now, chewing on her bottom lip thoughtfully. Ken fervently hoped she wasn't attempting to devise some way to cheer them all up; it would be a lost cause, and everyone was unstable at the moment. It would only blow up in her face.
Instead, she said softly but clearly, "I've been thinking about something."
A few of them looked her way briefly, attempting to show mild interest. Some, especially Schuldich, didn't even look up. She straightened in her chair, bit back a wince, and cleared her throat. "I know a lot has... changed in the past few days," she said, as if she'd read Ken's mind. Perhaps she had, he thought cynically. Not much would surprise him now. "There's been... confusion," Aya continued, looking down at her untouched plate. "Mistunderstandings. And... bad things." She swallowed hard. Her voice was a little hesitant, as if she wasn't sure she even had the right to speak to the assembled assassins on this matter. Ken's heart went out to her. She had been just as close to Yohji, Omi, and Nagi as the rest of them had been. And it had obviously been eating her apart when Ran had been brainwashed. "Even though a lot of this is going to take some time to.. get over-- No, wait, that's a bad way to put it," she stammered, flushing a little.
"Just spit it out already," Schuldich muttered, glaring at his cold coffee mug.
Aya took a deep breath. "But there are other things I think we need to get straightened out between us." She looked directly at Schuldich. "Schu," she murmured, "is your Gift working again?"
"Unfortunately," he growled. He finally looked towards her, scowling. His frown froze in place as he caught a glimpse of her thoughts. "You're insane," he said after a moment, his eyes narrowing.
"Schuldich, please," she whispered desperately. "Otherwise there's only going to be more misunderstanding, and things will never be all right again between everyone."
Schuldich's fist slammed onto the table, making everyone jump. "Nagi is dead!" he snarled fiercely, his eyes bright with pain and fury. "And so is Kudou. Of course things aren't going to be 'all right', you little twit!"
"So is Omi," Ken started defensively.
"Don't talk to her like that," Ran said in low warning.
"Guys, stop it!" Aya cried, her eyes glistening. "Please!" She looked imploringly towards Schuldich again. "Please," she repeated more quietly.
They locked eyes, Schuldich's hot and angry, Aya's pleading and wet. At last it was the German who looked away with a noise of disgust. "What makes you so sure your stupid plan will work?" he demanded sullenly.
"I don't know if it will," Aya admitted. "But I still think it will help. A little, at least."
"What plan, Aya?" Crawford sighed, downing the rest of his coffee in one gulp, as if steeling himself.
"It has to do with Schuldich's link," she started, sounding a little more unsure of herself in the face of Schuldich's belligerence. "I'm not sure how to explain it, exactly. Sort of like a... a slideshow, I guess."
"A slideshow of what?" Ran asked wearily.
Crawford arched a brow at her. "Events. Such as..?"
"We were all there, Aya," Ken reminded her, his voice a little more terse than he'd intended. "I don't think we need to see it all again."
"But you weren't," Aya argued more firmly, looking right at him. "You weren't all there all the time. I'm not saying I was everywhere at once either, but that's what this is for. Besides.." she glanced down at her hands in her lap. "I'm not really a part of the group, and you probably didn't notice how much I was around. How much I saw. Some of the misunderstandings here, I... I've heard or seen both sides." She looked around at them all. "I want everyone to see the good things they missed," she murmured. "Instead of the horrible things we all saw."
Silence settled over the room as they all digested this, glancing around at each other warily and shifting in their places.
"Fine," Farfarello said abruptly, earning him several startled looks. It was the first time he'd spoken all morning. He turned his amber gaze on Aya. "How?"
She hesitated, looking to Schuldich. The German muttered something rude under his breath, blew out an irritated sigh, and straightened in his chair. "Fine," he grumbled, "but don't blame me if you don't like what you see." He crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes.
A moment later Aya felt something picking at her mind, and then suddenly she was on the web Schuldich had strung between them all.
It was a new and incredible sensation for her. She had never been a part of the official link between the assassins. When Schuldich had extended the one he already had over Schwarz to cover Weiss as well, he hadn't included her-- probably at her brother's insistence. As she herself had said, she had never been one hundred percent part of the team. There had been no need for her to be included. Now she felt as if even if she closed her eyes, she would be able to tell where each of her friends were, and if she reached out enough, she could talk to them without ever opening her mouth, or catch their thoughts if they weren't guarded enough. She let out a small noise of surprise and wonder, and caught a strange flicker of- something -from Schuldich that she decided was probably guilt at having excluded her for so long from this secret bond they'd all shared for so long.
"I'm going to poke around," Schuldich warned them all, still sounding a little sulky. "So drop your shields."
"You, too, Schuldich," Ken said.
The German didn't answer at first, and Aya felt slightly awed at the fact that she could discern the hesitance and annoyance the German was feeling. "I will if Crawfish will," he finally said firmly.
Aya opened her eyes- when had she closed them? she wondered vaguely -and glanced nervously towards Crawford. She remembered now that Schuldich had said once or twice that Crawford's mind had always been an enigma to him; a trove of secrets surrounded by a high, impenetrable wall. The American was looking steadily at Schuldich without speaking, obviously reluctant to let the other man in. Schuldich cracked an eye open to stare back. At last Crawford gave a single, slow nod, frowning slightly as if he knew he was going to regret it.
"Fine, then," Schuldich muttered, and closed his eyes again. Aya felt another brush against her mind, soft at first, then more pronounced. She slid her eyes shut and took in a shuddering breath as the strange tickling sensation in her head intensified. She winced a little in confusion and nervousness as the feeling of her new web-mates strengthened, nearly swamping her own thoughts. "Christ, it's a mad house in here," she faintly heard Schuldich say. "Give me a minute to sort things out a little. This isn't easy, you know."
For several minutes there was an uneasy silence in the room as Schuldich fought with the tangle of everyone's thoughts. Aya began to doubt her plan, and was about to suggest he just drop the idea, when suddenly something clicked.
She was struck with a barrage of images and sound so quickly it made her gasp. And with these came the various perceptions of all involved in each case. At first she was afraid it would be too fast for her to process, but then she just gritted her teeth and let it all rush into her, letting her mind absorb it like a sponge.
She could hear the others making similar sounds of surprise, and knew they were experiencing the same things she was. She gripped the arms of her chair and rode it out.

Ran and Crawford arguing about the phone call, herself listening in at the door and thinking with exasperation that her brother really was dense, couldn't he see that Crawford was just--
--worried about him, the bull-headed little idiot. How could he just expect me not to be worried when someone's calling with death threats, and what does he mean it has nothing to do with me when I'm--
--why is he so irritated, what does it matter? Just a prank call, I can take care of myself, it's not like it was a threat against him or anything--
Aya fumbled at first, a little lost, then realized she was seeing everyone's point of view from the scenario. Her own, Crawford's, and Ran's. This just might work, she thought dazedly, then was swiftly caught up in the next scene:
Crawford relaying to her exactly why it was that Schuldich hated him. The things he had done.
And the way everything inside of him had flinched just at the the memories. Including the parts he hadn't told her: watching in horror as Schuldich's family was murdered, grabbing the leader of the team and ordering him to stop- stop or I'll tell my father- the man's irritated swat. The way he had wanted to cry as he'd watched the boy get dragged away-- What have I done?
How Schuldich had grown to be so confident and snide Crawford hadn't had the will or courage to so much as apologize, much less let it show that he gave a damn that he had been the reason his family had been killed.
The telepath's thoughts of revenge that Crawford foresaw leading to the serious injury of one of the teachers. His decision to keep quiet and not tell his father because he knew what that would mean. They would kill Schuldich, so fuck them, he wouldn't say anything, they didn't have to know he'd seen it coming.
Then the terrible beating that followed because every time something went wrong his father assumed he had known all along; why should this time be any different?
And years later his smoldering jealousy as he watched the relationship blossom between Schuldich and his woman, watched him experience feelings Crawford himself never would because even at that age his heart was so tightly contained that all the women called him the Ice Prince...
Aya sat in stunned disbelief at these revelations. She was having a difficult time fitting those feelings and memories behind the cold, uncaring face Crawford had worn as he'd told her Schuldich's tale of grief. On the very edges of the web, outside of the flashing thoughts and images, she could tell that Crawford was cringing at having this part of him bared. She could also feel Schuldich's shock and confusion.
Her own part in that was going through, now: her horror, her sudden hatred of the precog, and her deep sympathy for Schuldich. A sympathy she knew Schuldich would not appreciate or acknowledge. Her desire to hit Crawford, to tell her brother to stay away from such a vile man...
And another scene, strangely mundane.
Why is he wearing that? Ran isn't going to like it when he gets his memory back... does he even know whose it is?
A coffee shop, it seemed like. Something between Schuldich and Crawford about.. a bandanna..
What's he talking about? What does it matter if I wear it- mine's all bloody anyway. It's probably Fujimiya's. He's going to think I gave it lice. I should wipe my ass with it.
But underneath the German's amused thoughts was the fainter one that he was mostly wearing it because-- despite its flashy design --it had a comforting scent.
Aya got a glimpse of the bandanna in the flickering images, and it did look familiar, but before she could figure it out, the scene was shifting again.
Many things flashed through her mind, showing her and the others viewpoints and scenarios they hadn't been privy to before now. There was even her whole thing about getting her first kiss before she died, which was embarrassing in hindsight.
Ran finally got to see a little deeper into how Crawford felt about him when he witnessed the memories of Crawford's explosion upon finding out he had been captured by "Silk"...
The others heard the entire conversation between Aya and Riddle the day he had come to the shop...
A turmoil of frustration, trepidation, and warmth all rolled into one in the way Ran viewed Crawford...
And then Aya saw and sensed something that took her completely off guard.
She saw how the others viewed her:
She was their backbone.

Ever since she had awakened from her coma, she had adopted them all as her beloved- if strange -brothers. She had known the majority of them held at least mild affection for her, but as she had told them all just minutes ago, she had always viewed herself as an outsider looking in. They had known each other and worked together (and against each other) for several years while she had been asleep. They knew each other more intimately than she did, and they all thought basically on the same wave length. They were tough assassins with dark secrets, bloody hands, and powerful Gifts.
She was just.. Aya. She tried to make up for her uselessness by being as helpful and supportive as she could. Making the meals, doling out comfort and first aid, smiling even when she felt lonely, and trying to brighten their days when she could.
She had thought it was all a little pointless, and that she would never be seen as 'one of them'.
They didn't think it was pointless.
She'd always known her brother loved her; his overprotectiveness and occassional warmth towards her was more proof than any words a more talkative man might have had to offer.
But she'd always assumed the others mainly put up with her simply because she was Ran's sister.
Ken was immensely grateful to her. He was relieved she was there to be the optimist and the smiling charm when he or Omi just couldn't be due to rotten missions or guilty consciences. She was what Ran had been wanting back for years, and Ken was always delighted to see Ran smile when she spoke to him; smiling, which had been so very rare during her coma. And he knew Farfarello and she were close, and he loved her for it. For being the sister he'd lost to his own birthright. For understanding the madman most men feared.
Farfarello's feelings for her were almost as fierce as Ran's, which caught her a little off guard. She had always known Farfarello was fond of her in his own strange way, but he was even more stoic than her brother. Actually sensing his emotions up close was a far cry from guessing at them. He would kill for her; he would die for her. He would take a blow for her as readily as he would take one for Ken. She was his sister, as far as he was concerned, and if Ran didn't like it, he could shove it.
Crawford was another surprise. She had thought that, of all of them, he most of all would tolerate her mainly because of Ran's love for her. But while his feelings ran nowhere near as deep as Farfarello's or even Ken's, he had a certain affection for her. He saw her more as a niece than a sister. She was someone he didn't fully understand, but nonetheless he disliked seeing her upset, and was frustrated at his own weakness in the face of her tears. He'd dragged Schuldich back to the group with trickery and taunting just to get that sad look off her face. He'd wanted to kill Himeno when he'd seen what had been done to Aya during her escape from the hospital. He would most likely never give his life for hers, but he would go into a burning building and drag her out if he had to-- cane or no cane. Coming from a man reknowned to be cold-hearted, this revelation of feelings meant more to Aya than she could say.
Kiki, surprisingly, respected her. She no longer saw Aya as a little girl as she first had when they'd met at the club for the first time. She could understand Aya's desperate wish to protect her brothers and get revenge on those who wronged them or herself. She thought Aya was braver than she'd been at her age, and would grow up into a good person. She saw her almost like a little sister.
Aya blushed when the Jackal's emotions swept over her next. When she saw herself the way he saw her, it made her want to smile, or maybe have a fit of shyness and hide in her room. She was beautiful to him. She was a rose in a garden of weeds; a spark of life and laughter in the midst of the death and grimness that surrounded them all. He was a little in awe of her, and he wished he had the courage to tell her how he felt, or kiss her, or earn a smile from her that was just for him. She wasn't like a sister to him; if things had only turned out differently, he would have tentatively tried to woo her. He was crushed that he would never be able to, now. He wouldn't allow it. She was life and happiness and innocence. He was dark and dangerous and now he was a Vampire. Any hopes or dreams he might have had before had been destroyed the instant Farfarello had bitten him-- but that didn't mean he didn't still have feelings for her.
Suddenly she felt Schuldich trying to back away, trying to withdraw as he realized that things he'd rather keep to himself were suddenly there for the viewing. Shields were cropping up at a rapid speed, and without thinking she focused all her attention on him and somehow slipped through a gap.
What she saw there was completely unexpected. It made her forget to breathe for an instant out of pure shock and disbelief.

Schuldich didn't see her as a sister, either. In fact, he'd wanted nothing to do with her when they'd first met, aside from the amusing prospect of helping Farfarello use her against her brother. She'd been more entertaining than anything else for the longest time. It wasn't until they'd spent more time together, after the death of Agammedo, that he'd grudgingly admitted to himself that she wasn't a complete waste of human flesh. The way he viewed her now was so vastly different from how he had first seen her that if Aya hadn't personally been sitting inside his mind at the moment, she would have laughed it off as impossible.
Schuldich had never known a woman like her before. She wasn't even a little girl to him anymore, she realized with numb surprise. He saw her as a woman; of all of them, he seemed to be the only one that didn't think of her as just a girl. Even his lover from Rosenkreuz, who he'd admired because she was so different from the others, hadn't been like her. Lillian- the name came to her as she stared at the image of the beautiful young girl he'd dated so many years ago. Lillian, with her long dark hair, her big doe eyes, and her secret little smile. A girl who stood out like a princess among beggars in Rosenkreuz because despite all she'd been through, she still retained some form of innocence. She was gentle, soft-spoken, and Schuldich had loved her so much it had hurt. Surrounded by death, pain, and betrayal, she had been the one rock he could cling to. Aya was nothing like Lillian, and she never would be.
But Aya was not a little girl in Schuldich's mind. Not anymore. He'd come to know her, like it or not, and she amused and fascinated him. Her ability to be sweet and charming one minute, and then to turn and tell him to fuck off the next; the way she didn't break under pressure, even when he expected her to fall apart; how she didn't stand for his shit or anyone else's, and refused to be pushed around. She did what she was told only when it suited her or when she didn't feel like arguing. He saw a band of steel in her, underneath the kindness and the naďveté. She was as stubborn and tempermental as her brother sometimes, and she had no qualms about fighting back. She'd gotten several hits on Hwang, she'd stood up to Schuldich in his rage, and she was not afraid of any of them. The fact that she had accepted Farfarello into her heart despite his scars, his twisted mind, and his dark past, had definitely kicked her up a few notches in Schuldich's opinion.
He enjoyed teasing her just to get a reaction. He lashed out at her when she tried to comfort him because it confused him and made him defensive. He shouted at her when she did something dangerous because it scared him. He was determined to keep a distance between them, but couldn't stop himself from stepping in if he saw her in trouble. Seeing her upset pissed him off, made him want to hurt someone. Although he refused to admit it to himself, he felt a smoldering jealousy for her relationship with Farfarllo and the tentative feelings between herself and the Jackal. He mostly picked on Tomás, she realized, because he knew the Irishman had a crush on her.
Schuldich was..... She snatched at the fleeing thoughts, trying to pin down what was behind all these jumbled, confused feelings, but with a furious shove, Shuldich bullied her mind out of his. It wasn't until she was hit by a stray image from Ken's mind that she realized she had been the only one to see all that had been going on in the telepath's mind concerning her. While she had slipped past his shields, the others had continued to view other various accounts from each other. And despite all that she had just learned, the encounter had only lasted a few seconds as the emotions and stray thoughts had flooded into her; no one had noticed her slight absence from the web.
Shaken, confused, and a little frightened by the new revelation, Aya tried to concentrate on the rest of the images.
Then the images began to shift, and darker memories and emotions swam to the surface. Schuldich was angry and embarrassed that she had seen what was in his head; his temper was affecting what they were all seeing.
Farfarello's towering rage when he saw how badly Aya had been beaten just yesterday-- and Schuldich's own dark fury at the thought of what those boys had done to her...
The Jackal's heartache at the loss of his sister, and Ran's sudden sympathy for the man...
Aya's sickening horror when she'd thought Schuldich had killed himself bringing her brother's memories back...
Ran's feelings- as Ash -about Silk.. and his horrible heartache when he'd seen the other man killed defending him...
Schuldich's regret that he had never been able to give Yohji what he'd wanted, and how bitterly he wished they had never gotten into that argument...
Ken's overwhelming guilt and grief at the deaths of Omi and Nagi...
Outside of the web, she heard the Necromancer make a whimper in his throat.
"Stop!" Aya gasped, almost choking on a sudden sob. "Stop!" More emotions, thoughts, and pictures flashed through her head a few moments more before Schuldich broke it off with a mental wrench and a pained grunt.
There was a collective gasp of relief when it was over, and everyone slumped, shaking a little, as reality seeped back in.
Aya sank back in her chair and covered her face with her hands. Those last few emotions had been sickeningly strong and painful. Her shoulders shook with silent tears. "I said only the good ones," she said pitifully when she at last trusted herself to speak.
"I couldn't help it," Schuldich grumbled defensively, not looking at her. "I lost control of it." On the web, Aya sensed the unusual vulnerability to her friends in the aftermath. Almost without thinking, she tried to touch Crawford's mind to get a better glimpse of the man behind the uncaring mask.
Crawford's shields slammed back into place with a force and strength that made Aya jump and Schuldich wince. She realized belatedly her eyes were still closed, and opened them in time to see Crawford get to his feet and limp out of the room with a face like a thunder cloud.
Schuldich watched him go with an expression of confusion and disbelief. He had not found what he'd been expecting behind the American's impenetrable shields. The honest guilt Crawford had felt at what he'd done to the German had obviously taken the wind out of Schuldich's sails.
Schuldich wasn't the only one who was caught off guard by the American. Ran sat staring at his plate for a long moment, his eyes blank with surprise and pain. Abruptly he rose from his chair and strode after the precog.
Aya glanced hesitantly around at her friends, half expecting them to be upset with her for her idea. She locked gazes with Ken across the room and he gave a slow nod, his eyes glistening.
I think it's a good thing to get some of those feelings out in the open, he told her, offering a tired smile.
Aya, still a little flustered and confused by how they all felt about her-- Schuldich especially --managed to smile hesitantly back.
Schuldich got up and wandered outside to smoke without a word. He was very carefully not looking at Aya. As he walked out, Aya noticed the bandanna he was using to keep his hair out of his face. It was the one from the memory in the coffee shop; the one Crawford had advised him not to wear. Schuldich still didn't know who it belonged to, exactly. But Aya suddenly recognized it.
It was hers.


The news arrived only an hour later.
A Vampire came to the shop, wild-eyed and demanding to see Farfarello. He was obviously upset about something, and the Jackal fetched his Sire without asking any questions.
The Vampire Lord was curled up on the basement couch with Ken, idly running his fingers through his lover's hair in a comforting gesture. When the Jackal popped his head through the door and reported that a man by the name of Flint wanted to speak with him, Ken's eyes grew frosty.
"Good," he said in a low tone. "I have a bone to pick with him." He and Farfarello hastened upstairs to the kitchen, where Schuldich and Tomás were lounging against the counter, watching their visitor with unreadable expressions.
"Flint," Ken started angrily, but stopped when he saw the look on the other man's face.
"We got hit," Flint blurted, ignoring Ken in favor of his leader. "Early this morning. Explosives, we think."
Farfarello's golden eye narrowed. "Explain," he snapped.
Flint nodded jerkily, his face a contorted mask of anger and a little fear. "Someone must have set the explosives last night while we were at the subway," he said. "A couple hours ago they went off; we're not sure if they were timed, or if someone accidentally tripped them. Over half the damn caves collapsed-- a lot of us got buried in it. Some made it out, but most didn't. We're still counting the missing. The main cavern- your throne room -is completely sealed off."
Ken banged his fist against the wall in frustration. "Damn that snake Malachi! This has to be his fault. He probably had it all planned out just in case."
"We don't know who was behind it," Flint admitted, finally glancing warily towards Ken, "but we have an idea who actually carried out the plan. Witnesses spotted a guy hanging around last night-- some shabby looking human with greasy hair, muttering prayers or some shit."
Schuldich, Ken, Tomás, and Farfarello all shared a Look.
"Riddle," Ken sighed in exasperation. "I should've known we hadn't seen the last of him. He's completely mad."
"I think it's about time someone took care of the little grease bucket," Schuldich pointed out ominously.
"Shit," the Jackal hissed. "What about here?" At Ken's blank look he clarified impatiently, "If this is some kind of hate crime or 'purging of evil' or some shit, wouldn't he want to take us out, too? Aya is the only one here he didn't think was corrupted-- but I'm sure she lost brownie points when she broke his nose that one time. What if he put bombs here-- last night, while we were fighting??"
Ken's face paled. "Oh fuck," he said weakly. He looked sharply towards Schuldich. "Tell everyone to get out. Now. I'll see if Kiki can pull a few strings and get a bomb squad here. I don't want anyone in this shop until we know for sure Riddle didn't leave any surprises."
Farfarello looked from Tomás to Flint, pawing restlessly at the knife in his belt. "Go back to the caves," he ordered Flint at last, having made a decision. "Dig out whoever is still alive." He pinned the Jackal to the spot with an intense stare. "You and I," he breathed, "are going to track down this Messenger of God."
"And do what?" the Jackal demanded. "Put him through the third degree?"
"No," Farfarello corrected calmly, already heading for the door. "We will crucify him. Then he will be that much closer to his beloved God."

Author's Notes: And now you know, pretty much, why Aya was focused on so much during the story, and how important she was to its development. (plus, ok, I liked writing her)
Sorry it took so long to get up, but I got stuck at the part where they're all linked together and the chapter just sat there for awhile... I had to go back and find the instances I wanted to point out, and then I ended up getting carried away and writing too much. -_-; The chapter is actually longer than this, but I cut off the last few pages and will stick them in V37. ^^;;
37 should be the last chapter, then an epilogue, and it will be done. ^_^ Scary, no? o_O;

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Ch. 26
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Ch. 31
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Ch. 36