Part One: The Devil Himself
I offer a quiet sigh to the shop, running long fingers through my crimson bangs as I survey the scene before me. I have been left with the task of tidying the place up for the night. Yohji was purposefully being insufferable as he worked alongside me on afternoon shift today, no doubt hoping I would cast him away in annoyance so he could get out of cleaning. I went along with him; I play the part of the irritable git well enough after years of practice. I'm used to his ways by now, enough that it doesn't get under my skin as much as it appears to. Honestly, I don't care whether he has plans for the evening or not. I sent him away for my own reasons. I am in the mood for silence today, something that is near impossible to acquire with teammates such as mine. Yohji will lay out everything he does with his women to fill in the silence. Omi is always spouting new information he picked up from either the news or school. Ken is random, and I still haven't figured out how he thinks yet. He can jump from soccer to ice cream to last night's weather forecast in the same sentence. I suppose I should be impressed. I'm not.
I untie my apron and carry it to its small hook on the back wall. Once it is secured, I pull the broom from its spot in the closet and debate which end of the shop to start on. Leaves and dirt are strewn everywhere. A mess is inevitable in a florist's shop, I suppose. At least Ken was not on second shift with me. He's not known for being clean, and he can triple the work of putting things to rights after hours. The others tease him about it, but he lets it slide with a grin and cheerful shrug.
I finally pick the front corner, just so I'll end up back by the closet where the broom belongs and be near the trashbin. I sweep slowly, as I don't see any need to rush. I am alone here. Yohji has gone off to woo anything that looks female and over eighteen, Omi is at a study session, and Ken has probably already returned to his apartment. There is no mission tonight. I have the afternoon to do whatever it is I want. It belongs to me.
As with every time I think of her, I cannot decide whether I want to smile or be sick. One hand lifts of its own accord to cover my face. After all, there is no one here to see me, no one to witness the slide of the mask that conceals my inner pain. My palm is cool against my skin and I inhale deeply. I am a foolish person...Once I thought myself to be practical. Once I thought I was mature; once I thought I was level-headed. It turns out that I was still just a boy who clung to fairytales. Now I know better.
For some reason, I believed Takatori's death would change everything. I believed my beloved Aya would wake up. I believed I would feel that hollowness inside of me filling. I believed everything would suddenly be right, that suddenly things would return to the way they were before Takatori took my life and ran it through a blender. I expected his death to be some sort of miracle.
I am stupid, ne?
I killed him months ago, and nothing has changed. I still hope for Aya to wake. I still believe that she will. Now, however, her wakening is some obscure moment in the far future. I have nothing immediate to cling to; I no longer have that surety that her time is close at hand. She is just as far away as she has ever been. The one responsible for her condition is dead, killed by my blade. And I...I am still called Aya. I am still an assassin of Weiß. I am still a murderer who slays others under my sister's name.
And I have work to do.
I lower my hand, sliding my fingertips along my cheek as I return my grip to the broom handle. My thoughts continue to drift as I begin sweeping the debris towards the back of the shop. Life has fallen into a cycle that eats away at me. Every day is the same as before. The patterns are the same. There is nothing new. There is nothing to look forward to. I do not have a real life. I work a shift or two at the store, I go to the hospital or go on a mission, and I go home to sleep. Rinse, repeat. Omi has made no secret of the fact that he worries about me. He didn't use to worry, not to the degree he does now. I wonder what about me changed in the recent weeks for him to actually try and hold a serious conversation with me about his concern for my well-being the other day.
"Try" is the key word. I didn't let him get very far before excusing myself from his sympathetic blue eyes. I don't need his concern. I don't need anyone's concern. What I need is...I don't know. I have no clue, but I can feel its restless urging twisting within me. It is nameless and unavoidable, eating at me in both my waking moments and my sleep. I cannot ignore it, but somehow I must learn to.
I brush the pile into the dustbin and tip it over the trash can, watching the collected garbage cascade over the end in a soft hiss of dirt. I give the dustbin a final shake before putting both it and the broom away. I treat the shop to one final glance-over and nod as if satisfied by its newly cleaned state. Truthfully, I don't feel anything when looking around. It's just the flower shop, just the same shop I've come to every day for years. There is nothing special, nothing good about it. It is just another part of the cycle that is wearing me down.
I exit through the store room, plucking my keys from their nail on the wall as I go. It is dinner time, but I am not hungry, so Aya will be my first stop.
I drive without music and with the windows rolled up. I know the way to the hospital better than almost anything else, but today I focus on each turn and stoplight. It distracts me from my thoughts, at least for a few minutes. I like it when I don't have to think, and I have started actively seeking distractions to deaden my brain. In the shop, I focus on the flowers and nothing else, so that the workday passes in a numb blur. At home, I have started making more elaborate meals despite the fact they are for only one person. Focusing on a complex recipe leaves little room to worry about other things. I am interacting less with my teammates, because they always require attention and thought. They are very alive, after all, and I…I am dying on the inside, and I don't really care.
I know how many steps it is from the front doors to the elevators, and how many steps from the elevators to her door, but I count them anyway. The nurses smile and wave, and I return their greetings with an absent nod. Everyone knows me here…Even the cleaning staff knows my name and the story of my sister.
I know exactly how she's going to look as I push her door open, but I'm wrong.
Two steps into the room, and I realize that something is severely out of place.
The bed is empty.
I take another stumbling step forward. Violet eyes are wide and raking up and down the mattress. The sheets are folded neatly as if no one ever rested beneath them. The pillow has no dent from her head. The machinery that I saw hooked up to her for over three years is gone. My breath has caught in my throat and horror races in my veins. She's gone- she's gone again. Someone has taken her away from me yet again. My brain, home to dispassionate thoughts just moments ago, has exploded in a flurry of anger and panic. Who could have taken her? Why do they want her? Why didn't anyone tell me?
The door clicks shut behind me; I am not alone.
I whirl around and find myself facing the devil himself, complete with long orange locks and cold blue eyes. My eyes widen further before narrowing to furious slits. Schwarz…I suppose it would be too convenient if they had perished in our last confrontation. We had allowed ourselves to believe that they had not survived the fall into the sea, as we have not heard anything from them ever since. But if he's alive- then Aya-
My mouth is moving and hate-filled words escape. "Where is she?"
He is leaning backwards, sprawled against the door. One hand is raised so a finger can idly twirl through his hair. A smirk plays on his mouth, cold enough to match the icy gaze fixed on me. His eyebrows lift fractionally, as if in confusion. "Where is who?" he queries. I lunge at him, but he just flits out of the way. One moment I am sure I have landed a punch to his jaw, and the next my knuckles are scraping against the door and he is behind me, perched on the end of Aya's bed. I twist around to face him, my stomach churning in disgust at the thought of his filth touching a place I have come to associate with Aya. He laughs quietly, tilting his head to one side. "You hold such a high opinion of me."
"Where is she?" I bite out, advancing towards him once more. I want to wring his neck, want to tear him apart. I can almost taste his blood.
"You're coming across a bit vague." He waggles a hand in front of him. "Try again."
"Aya!" I snap, impatient and furious. "Where is Aya??" He's responsible. He's taken her away. Once more she is in the clutches of such scum. Hate-tinged despair rolls about within me. If they have hurt her in any way…
"Ohhhh, _Aya_," Schuldich says, lips twitching. He lets his head fall backwards and gazes at the ceiling, the perfect picture of someone deep in thought. More of his throat is exposed in the movement and I can feel my fingers twitch with the need to wrap themselves around it. "Hmmm…" He looks towards me and pats the bed beside him. "I can tell you where she's not."
I lunge again. Schuldich easily blurs out of the way, moving behind me once more. He is there almost before I realize he has moved. Before I can turn to attempt another strike, an arm wraps around my neck tightly. I gag at the sudden pressure that is practically crushing my throat, instinctively grabbing at his arm to try and loosen his hold. "Tut tut, Ran," Schuldich mocks me. I try to drive an elbow back into his abdomen, but he catches my elbow with his hand. "If you're so worried about your sister…" He trails off and I freeze in my next attempt to strike him, alerted by his words. When he knows he has my full attention, he relaxes his hold and continues. "Play nice, Ran. You wouldn't want me to tell my teammate you're being troublesome, ja? It might not be healthy for certain people involved. Even if you were to get lucky and injure or kill me, it doesn't take but a thought to relay the message. I'm sure my partner would love to take care of your sister for me…" The last words are a husky whisper by my ear.
My heart skips a beat. He's talking about Farfarello. The thought of that white-haired madman getting close to Aya sends a horrified shudder down my spine. My fingers relax their death grip on his arm even as I feel myself go slack in defeat. My eyes are trained on her pillow. "What do you want?" I ask.
He laughs again, and nothing is more irritating than that sound at this moment. "I want a lot of things, little Red. You don't have to worry about what I want from you. It's nothing that will cause you to betray your team. Anything I want from them I can take straight from their own IQ deficient minds. From you…" His hand slides down my arm from my elbow. I almost jump when his fingers touch my hip, and his palm moves to my abdomen. His fingertips slip under the hem of my jeans briefly before he moves to toy with the zipper. "Well, I'm sure we can figure something out, can't we?"
It takes me a moment to realize what he's insinuating. First things first: I want his hand away from me- _now_. My skin is crawling under his touch. He can't possibly mean what he's saying. He can't possibly mean what I think he means. My mouth opens and shuts soundlessly. He starts tugging the zipper down- probably in response to my denial. I push myself backwards, though there isn't much room to move when he is right up against me. Both of my hands grab his wrist in a vice-like hold, stilling him. His arm tightens on my throat before I can rip his hand away and I gag at the pressure.
"Now you're going to listen to me," he says. "This is my game, and we are going to play this by my rules. The moment you start understanding that, the easier time you'll have with it. Understand?" I can't answer; it takes too much effort to try and breathe. "But just so no one can I say I never gave anyone anything," he says, speaking in my ear again, "I will give you three days." I try to twist my head away, hating the feel of his breath on my ear, hating the way his voice sounds. The struggle just makes me gag again as his arm keeps my head firmly in place.
"You have three days to try and locate your sister on your own. I'll say that again in case you weren't listening. On your own. You will not tell your teammates. You will not tell Kritiker. You will not tell the police. This is between you and me only. I will be listening, and I will be forced to hurt a certain someone if you disobey."
"The nurses," I choke out. "They'll know she's gone, and they'll tell people even if I can't."
/No,/ he assures me, voice rippling through my mind in a reminder of his gift, /they won't. I have made sure of that./
"Now," he continues, aloud this time, "what happens after those three days? If you find her, cheers to you. If you fail, you will take the afternoon shift off on Friday and you will meet me in the park at one. I will find you at the bench across from the Little Pink ice cream store, and you will come with me."
This isn't happening. My breathing has sped up, and somewhere along the way I lost the struggle to keep my eyes open. I can only stand within his arms, helpless to do anything other than listen to him.
"Denial never helped anyone," he informs me before lightly biting my earlobe. I jump, startled by the nip, and try to twist my head again. "Come in black, Ran. Black is your color." His fingers finally release my zipper and his palm slides down my thigh; my hands are suddenly too weak to stop him from pulling out of my grasp. I fight the urge to flinch at the feel of his hand on my leg. "If you screw up any of my requirements, I cannot promise the safety of your sister. Do you understand me?"
Silence reigns in the room for several endless seconds. My hands are clenched into fists so tight that I think I feel the warmth of blood on my palms. My heart is thudding wildly in my chest and I have never felt so nauseous in my life. I feel helpless, utterly helpless. What else can I do? What else can I say? I cannot- will not- let Aya be hurt. If that means playing by this twisted bastard's rules, then that is what I must do. I can do nothing else until I find a way to free my sister from his clutches.
I never thought one word would be so hard to say. "…Yes…"
"Such devotion you have to that vegetable," Schuldich murmurs, just short of sounding amused. My fury at his callous reference to her vanishes into revulsion when his hand slides back up my leg, skimming over the front of my jeans to rest on my abdomen once more. This time I cannot stop myself from cringing away from his touch. "Three days, kitten. Good luck." He shoves me forward and I stumble towards Aya's bed. I have to catch myself with a hand on the mattress and I twist quickly, not wanting to turn my back on him. "You can talk to the nurses about her if you want, but they won't know what you're talking about."
He rakes a hand through his hair, tilting his head to one side as if contemplating what he's said so far. For a few moments his expression is calm as he gazes at me, studying me as I glare at him. Finally he smirks, letting the mocking expression dance on his lips. It doesn't reach his eyes; they remain hard and unyielding. He is dead serious about everything he's said. One wrong move on my part and Aya…I feel my stomach churn inside of me. I think I'm going to be sick.
He lifts a hand to his face, touching his middle and index finger to his lips before flicking them towards me. His free hand opens the door and he saunters out, calling a farewell as he goes. "Until Friday, then, kätzchen."
I sag down to sit on the mattress. My legs are shaking and my skin is still crawling from his touch. The sheet feels painful against my hands and I lift them to see that I did indeed draw blood from my palms. The drops are smeared across my skin and on the sheets, and there is some crimson under my fingernails as well. I slowly curl my fingers to hide the blood, although I can do nothing about the bed. I stare at the open door where Schuldich was just a moment ago, my mind swirling with confusion and a sick sort of anxiety.
Aya is gone. Schwarz has taken Aya again. I have three days before…I swallow, pressing the back of my hand to my mouth. I think I'm going to be physically ill. My stomach is unhappy, and I can taste bile. I have three days to find her before I have to go with Schuldich. I have to follow everything he has said if I want Aya to be safe.
I will do anything to protect her.
I repeat the words to myself, but it does not help my nausea. I slowly push myself from the bed, grace forgotten in my roiling dizziness and the sickness that eats at my muscles. I hurry towards the nurses' station. I'm afraid to talk, afraid to move my hand because I am just barely keeping the nausea back, but I do anyway. "Fujimiya Aya," I tell the woman at the desk. "Where is she? She was here yesterday. When did they take her? Where did she go?"
The nurse smiles back at me with a blank expression. "Are you lost, sir?"
"Fujimiya Aya," I repeat, almost savage. I feel like I'm going to either choke or explode. I have a white knuckled grip on the edge of the desk and I lean closer to her. "What happened to her? What happened to my sister?"
"You aren't looking well, sir." She reaches for me, giving my hand a kind pat. I jerk my hand away. "Perhaps you should get something to drink and sit down for a few moments."
I hurry away from the desk and duck into the nearest men's restroom, managing to make it to a stall before the few contents of my stomach empty themselves. I spend several minutes rinsing my mouth at the sink and stare at my reflection in silence. My mind is in chaos. I don't want to accept the fact that Aya is gone again. I don't want to accept that it's Schwarz who has her. I don't want to play Schuldich's game. I don't dare to act against him, however. I know what kind of a monster he is. I can't just ignore him because I don't want to accept reality.
I tug a sheet of paper towel free from a nearby stack and dry my face and hands. I hesitate beside the trashcan, looking back towards the mirror once more.
I will do anything to protect Aya. I will do anything to keep her safe.
I have three days. I will do everything I can to find her!
Nagi is in the kitchen when I return to the apartment. I close the door behind me and turn to hang my keys up on the nail beside the door. The bolt slides into place on the door without me having to touch it. Nagi knows that I don't bother with the lock, so he just listens for my keychain to jingle and uses his gift to take care of it. There's not really a point to it, but Nagi won't listen to me. It's not worth fighting over, anyway, not when there are more important things to argue about.
Like what happened just half an hour ago.
I toe my shoes off and nudge them to one side. I don't really care for this bit of Japanese custom, but we made ourselves a little list of compromises for this apartment and shoes were one thing I had to give up. My socked feet make little noise as I head down the hall towards the kitchen. Nagi is hard at his schoolwork again; I can hear it in his thoughts. He has a desk in his room, but he uses the kitchen table for his studying. I know why, so I don't say anything against it. If I told him to use his room, I know he would.
He glances up when I step into the kitchen, and I survey the room. His work takes up half of the table, a mess of books, notebooks, and loose papers. I waggle my fingers in greeting as I cross the room to tug a cup down from the cabinet. Nagi goes back to his work as I fill my glass from the sink. I twist the faucet back to off and lift my cup to study the sloshing liquid inside.
"Work late?" Nagi asks, breaking the quiet between us.
I approach the table, snagging a chair with my free hand and turning in it. I set my cup on the table and sit down, folding my arms on the back of the chair and perching my head there. Nagi doesn't look up from what he's doing. I study his books with idle interest. He has an essay due next week, so he has been hard at work on it every day since it was assigned. It gives him something to do, gives him a distraction, gives him something to focus on.
He glances up after a few moments and I realize I haven't answered him. I lift one shoulder in a shrug. "I made a stop on the way back." Nagi and I haven't done any assassin work in five months, not since our confrontation with Weiß went bad. Nagi attends classes at the University of Tokyo, and I've found myself a spot in a loading dock at Tokyo Harbor. It's physical work but that's fine with me. When everyone's concentrating on moving and rearranging crates and other heavy packages, their thoughts are quiet. It isn’t the most exciting job on the face of the planet, but it works.
"I found us another pet," I announce.
"Another one?" he asks, exasperated. He props his chin on his palm and studies me, tapping his pencil against the table. "Schuldich, don't you think we have enough mouths to feed around here?"
I grin at that. I have found several stray cats while working at the harbor, and I carried them all home with me. Nagi accepted the first one with open arms because it was a half-starved, pathetic looking kitten. The second he accepted because he allowed me to write it off as a companion for the first while he went to classes and I went to work. The next four were met with varying shades of amusement, and even though he warned me each time that we had more than enough pets, he helped me get them settled here. They add a little life to the apartment. When they've been left alone all day, they come running to greet me and Nagi and welcome us home with demands for attention and more food. Once their stomachs are full and they have been reassured that they're still welcome, they curl up in the den to snooze.
Nagi sighs at my complete lack of apology for finding us yet another pet and sets his pencil down. "So where is it?" he asks.
"It's coming on Friday," I tell him.
"Friday?" he questions. "You didn't bring it today?" When I shake my friend, he gives a slight frown. "Are there problems with it?"
"Well, I gave it three days." I take a sip of my drink. "I can have it on Friday at one."
He eyes me. "It is a cat, isn't it?"
"Sort of." I take another sip. Nagi is studying me again, silently demanding an explanation. My odd answers tell him that something is up, and he instinctively knows that it's something he isn't going to like. If I give him long enough, he might figure it out for himself. He doesn't disappoint me: two minutes later, it dawns on him.
"You took Fujimiya Aya." It's a soft accusation.
"We're going to be babysitting her brother for a while," I answer, setting my cup back on the table.
"You're bringing him here?" Nagi asks, incredulous. "You're bringing Abyssinian to our apartment?"
"I don't want him raising hell and alerting the world to her disappearance."
"Schuldich, it's not a good idea to have him here." He searches my eyes, his frown deepening. "Don't you get it? If you wanted him to stay quiet you could have just threatened him into silence. You could have made him temporarily forget about his sister. There were so many ways to go about this. Why did you pick the worst one?"
My lips twitch into a wry little grin. "We'll make do with the one I picked, chibi." There is a soft mew and I glance towards the doorway. Eins has woken from her nap, alerted by the sound of my voice. I rise from my chair, ignoring Nagi's disapproval as I move towards the cat. She runs towards me, a funny little gait, and I reach down to scoop her up. She is happy to be held and she shoves her nose at my throat, purring loud enough to be mistaken for a motorboat. I turn to face Nagi again, leaning against the doorframe.
"How long?" Nagi asks.
"Four to six months, depending."
The teenager mutters something under his breath, rubbing at his forehead as if warding off a headache. "You never would have gotten away with this five months ago," he says tiredly.
He realizes what he's said after the words are out of his mouth and his fingers still on his temples. Dark blue eyes fix themselves on his papers because he doesn't want to look up and meet my gaze. I stare at him for a few moments in silence, my face blank. Eins nips my fingers because I have stopped petting her, and her needle teeth are enough to draw me from my thoughts. I turn and leave the kitchen without another word to Nagi, carrying my cat towards the den.
Zwei is in my chair. I shift Eins to one hand so I can scoop him up. He protests quietly at being disturbed from his nap but hangs limp in my grasp. I lower myself to the cushion and let him get resettled in my lap. He sprawls across one thigh and Eins takes the other. She leans over, licking Zwei's ear a few times to calm him. Within moments both cats are purring and ready to fall asleep again. I watch them as they get settled, Eins' head resting on the back of her companion's neck. I let my own head fall against the back of the chair and gaze towards the opposite wall without really seeing it.
Five months ago, I wouldn't have had to do this.
But a lot has changed since then, hasn't it?
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