Part Twenty-Three: Second-Place Favorites
I get very little sleep Friday night. I’m too excited to sleep well. I lie in bed, however, so Schuldich can sleep. He starts out on his side of the bed, but it doesn’t take him long to find me. The feel of his body up against mine is familiar by now, as is the extra heat that is much appreciated in this chilly month. I watch him as he sleeps, studying the way his face relaxes so completely in sleep. Almost two months ago, he stepped into Aya’s empty hospital room and I identified him as the devil. As of today, he and Farfarello are my favorite people in the world. I attempt to reevaluate my view of Farfarello, and it is revamped very generously considering my wonderful mood. He goes from a bloodthirsty psycho to a human who was bad but not evil, someone who could have been close enough to Schuldich that his death affects the telepath so much, someone who felt for his family enough to latch onto Aya so deeply.
Schuldich isn’t doing this for me, but I am the one who benefits most from it. Schuldich is finishing what his lover wanted, but Aya has been the focus of my life and the driving force behind my career as an assassin for three years now. Everything I have wanted will come true soon; I will have my sister back at last.
At last…My thoughts turn towards Kritiker and take a sharp turn from delighted to furious. Schuldich says they enforced her coma. They knew she could have woken up long ago but made her sleep, made me stay with Weiß so I could afford her medical bills. Aya could have woken up years ago. She would be out of high school by now and just starting college. Instead she’s jumped from 16 to 19 and lost the years in between, years of her life she can never get back- all because of the people that were supposed to be helping us.
Kritiker betrayed me; it is Schuldich that is saving her.
I can’t ignore what Kritiker has done. I can’t forgive them for their actions. Manx has known all along, I’m sure of it. How can she come to the Koneko and hand out missions and dare look me in the eye? If she were here now, I would kill her. I’m not sure I’ll be able to refrain myself the next time I see her. Hatred chokes me.
Schuldich stirs uneasily beside me, mouth pulling into a slight frown, and I wonder if it’s in reaction to a dream or to my furious thoughts. I don’t want it to be the second that’s disturbing him; I will never find a way to repay him enough for Aya. The least I can do is let him sleep…that’s why he brought me here- that’s what he chose in exchange for Aya’s kidnapping and caretaking. In my eyes, it’s not enough to give back to him, but it’s a start. I take a deep breath and hold it, struggling to calm down. It’s hard but at length I manage to force the anger away. I should sleep, but I’m too worked up to seriously consider it.
Truly alive, for the first time in years. I consider this and realize it’s a sensation that has been building up over the past seven weeks. The apathy I had for life gave way when Schuldich brought me here because my hatred over his double kidnapping kicked my thoughts to life. Curiosity about the shattered team that so easily and so often defeated Weiß on the field carried me through the days. The truth behind the disappearance of Schwarz as a unit helped open me up to them better than anything before it; it was the final thing that made them human. Schuldich reminded me of a Yohji in his darker moments- with telepathy and a sharper sense of humor, granted- and I admitted to myself that Schuldich isn’t an evil person. He was a good assassin and he has fun with his gift. He is a bit callous towards society and mankind in general, but he puts aside his opinion and his past enough to make acquaintances with his coworkers at the loading dock.
Schuldich is just like Yohji or myself, except picked up by different hands. I wonder what I would be like if someone on Estet’s side had offered me the revenge I needed over my family.
In some ways, Schuldich is more human than Yohji or me. The two of us wear masks to guard ourselves from others, whereas Schuldich’s gift makes everything brutally honest. The telepathy that had me categorizing him as a demon long ago is what makes him such an honest person. He rarely guards his words, telling others exactly what is on his mind. If he has to hear everyone else’s thoughts, he sees no reason to cloak his opinion and spare anyone else’s feelings or reputation.
For seven weeks Schuldich has been a constant presence in my mind. I didn’t notice it until recently; in the beginning I figured he was just checking on me. But it’s the little mental comments I make that he responds to, when we’re both at work and he should be distracted by the hard labor or his companions. He answers me at random times, prodding me about this and that when I least expect him to be paying attention to me. The only way he could be such a frequent visitor is if he hears me all the time…
I glance at him. Like my angry thoughts… He relaxed again as soon as I calmed down. Wouldn’t he have a break from me in his sleep at least? But perhaps that’s influenced by how close we are to each other.
I felt guilty a while ago at taking some measure of comfort in his gift, telling myself I shouldn’t consider something from him a good thing. I hide so much of myself from my teammates; for years I have been the sole audience to my thoughts and feelings. Now Schuldich is always there, and even though he teases and insults me with abandon when my thoughts amuse him, I have grown used to having someone else finally hear the things I forbid myself to say. Schuldich understands me because of his gift…I cannot hide anything from him so he sees everything. He doesn’t judge me by how I appear but by who I am, and I think I have grown used to that. I appreciate…being seen as me. I appreciate hearing someone call me ‘Ran’ because it is just another lie to call me ‘Aya’.
I sigh to myself, a soft, content sound, and look towards the clock. It is four in the morning. Several months ago I would not have believed I would be sleeping in Schuldich’s bed and thinking such generous thoughts about him in the middle of the night. A wry smile curves my lips; I am willing to think every kind thought possible about him tonight. He is giving Aya back to me.
I lean over towards him to murmur in his ear, “Thank you.”
As I start rolling to resettle myself on my back, his hand closes on my pajama shirt. I freeze, waiting to see if he’ll let go. I can feel his breath on my face; then he leans forward, closing the half inch between us to touch his lips to mine. My thoughts give a huge hiccup; wide eyes stare at Schuldich’s face. I’m too surprised from the move to pull away. By the time it occurs to me Schuldich has tilted his head away, and blue eyes cloudy from sleep crack open to peer at me.
“You don’t taste like blood,” he mumbles, nearly incoherent but still sounding confused. His eyes slide shut again and he gives a heavy sigh, mouth quirking into a puzzled frown. It melts away just moments later and he is fully asleep once more. His fingers relax on my shirt but I remain where I am for a moment more before lowering myself from my side to my back. I stare up at the ceiling, unnerved.
I think I’m done thinking for the night; that just killed my entire train of thought.
Ran is gone when I wake up, but his spot is still warm. The covers are bunched up under my arm to act as a replacement for his body, shoved there by the redhead whenever he left. I yawn loudly, sitting up and looking at the clock. It’s half past nine. I’d love to get more sleep considering it’s a weekend and Nagi could be out for several more hours, but I wonder where Sieben has gone. I give his mind a light poke; I know he does not have work until this afternoon. He’s in the kitchen, cooking something. I eye the clock again, wondering if it’s nine at night and I’ve slept the day away. But sunlight drifts through the window and I frown lightly. Ran never cooks breakfast… We’re all on our own for that meal and we usually end up scarfing toast. Sometimes he cooks lunch on the weekend, but never breakfast.
It’s enough incentive to get out of bed, and I make my way to the kitchen. Two cats greet me in the hall; I scoop them up and drape them over my shoulders as I enter the room. The other four are at their dishes, purring as they practically inhale their food. When the two I have spot them, they decide they want to go back to eating. I deposit them on the ground and they race away. There’s a small scuffle for dishes and a few rearrange themselves. It doesn’t matter that every dish has the same food; they’re certain that the next one over just tastes better and so must have the food from that specific dish.
Ran is sipping juice at the counter, concentrating on whatever is on the stove. I move closer to investigate and see that it is some kind of fried rice. He greets me with a glance before returning his attention to the pan before him. He must have found the medkit in the cabinets, because his rough paper towel bandage has been replaced by a cloth strip. I move past him to get my own cup for juice and he gestures towards the table. A look that direction shows that three places are already set. I pluck my cup up and pour from the juice pitcher, leaning against the table as I watch Ran.
“You’re optimistic if you think Nagi will be awake anytime soon,” I inform him.
“He was in bed at midnight,” Ran returns.
True. Nagi turned in early; maybe I will see him before noon.
Silence falls between us, a thoughtful quiet. Ran’s thoughts flicker through the back of my mind. He is focusing mostly on his work, but now and then he allows himself to reflect on what life will be like with Aya. I sip at my juice as I gaze at his back, remembering his reaction to the truth last night. I suppose Farfarello would have reacted somewhat the same…Although he lost his family thirteen years ago- compared to Ran’s three- the pain and anger over it was still sharp. I take a deep swallow of my drink, wondering what Farfarello would do with Aya’s recovery so close at hand. There’s no guarantee that she will not have mental deficiencies from her drug-induced coma, but the important thing is that she actually opens her eyes. That’s all I need her to do; then I will have finished what Farfarello wanted and I will be done with the girl that captured an equal share of Farfarello’s attention as mine. When she wakes, she will be Ran’s problem.
As will be Kritiker…
He dishes the pan to a deep bowl and carries it to the table. I reach towards Nagi’s mind, wondering if he’ll rouse to eat.
/Nagi, hot breakfast on the table,/ I announce, using my gift to poke him to coherent thoughts.
He’s not pleased to be woken up; his answer is an annoyed grumble. ~Did your cat make it?~
I roll my eyes. /No, I did, dumbass. Yes, he made it./
~Then why would I want it?~ Nagi asks sensibly.
/Because now you’re awake,/ I inform him with no small bit of amusement. /You can either _attempt_ to go back to sleep or accept defeat now and come stuff your face./
Nagi’s answer is a jumble of choice words, and I laugh. He’ll come, all right, even if he’ll be cranky. Nagi doesn’t like getting woken up- especially by my telepathy. Falling asleep after I’ve touched him is damn near impossible; I force his mind onto a high enough wavelength to respond that it’s hard for him to relax down enough to sleep. Abandoning Nagi, I seat myself at the table and dish rice to my plate. There are eggs as well, and Ran is waiting on toast.
“So what’s the occasion?” I ask.
“I felt like it,” he answers simply. I accept his answer at face value, deeming it too early in the morning to deal with all of the complex reasons behind the meal. I know Aya is the driving force; for now that’s enough for me. I’m picking at an eggshell when Nagi appears. He favors me with a dark look as he sits down and I give him a pleasant smile in return. His hair is mussed from sleep and I’d reach out to play with the wayward strands if I didn’t think he’d break a few fingers for it. Ran brings everyone toast before taking his seat. Nagi serves himself last. He has no problem with eating a hot breakfast even if he’s less than pleased to be woken up for it.
The meal is quiet. I let my mind drift where it will and leave my companions to their own thoughts. Among my mental wandering is the observation that it will be hard to go back to instant meals when we send Ran back where he belongs.
It isn’t until hours later that I find out the other reason why Ran is being quiet around me.
Ken and Yohji were on morning shift today. They wait for Omi and me to show up during lunch break so Ken can discuss the New Year’s party once more. When I walk in Yohji is ticking off the names of alcohol he wants present and Ken is trying to turn him back onto the topic of food. Both turn to me when I enter, trying to get me to side with what they each think to be the more important topic.
“Worry about food later,” Yohji tells Ken, waving a hand in dismissal. “We should stock up on drinks early to avoid the rush. New Year’s is two weeks away; it’s the perfect time to shop. Right, Aya?” Yohji turns to me, expecting me, as his friend, to agree with him.
But he says Aya’s name, and my thoughts circle away from their problem back to her for the billionth time in the last sixteen hours. Aya might be awake in time for New Year’s. She could be awake and talking by then. After so long of waiting for her, the idea is glorious.
I cannot keep the smile from my lips and slip from the storage room to the main shop. My teammates’ argument is instantly forgotten; dumbfounded stares follow me. I begin setting up my side of the shop, pleasant thoughts making the work easy. Yohji and Ken are peering through the doorway at me, studying me as I move.
“Is he high?” Ken inquires of Yohji. It’s the only thing he can think of.
“No, I think he’s just happy.” Yohji’s eyeing me, no doubt linking my smile to my ‘girl’. I pretend to ignore them both as I check the plants on my counter. They’re freshly watered; Ken probably took care of that. I study the flowers before me, wondering which ones to bring my sister. Surely Schuldich will let me see her now that she’s close to waking up, now that he’s told me the reason behind her disappearance. I wander from my side of the shop to Omi’s, studying those blossoms as well. I’ve brought my sister flowers for years. Now, for the first time, she will actually be able to appreciate them.
For the first time in years…My thoughts drift briefly to Kritiker and I scowl.
“Okay, maybe he’s high,” Yohji concedes at my sudden mood swing.
I force thoughts of Kritiker away, preferring to dwell on Aya’s recovery rather than the reason behind her prolonged sleep. There will be plenty of time to deal with Kritiker later- and they _will_ be dealt with. Clinging to brighter thoughts, I turn and lean against the counter. Folding my arms loosely over my chest, I offer my teammates a bland look. “Do you need something?” I ask.
They both grin, joining me in the shop. Ken hops up onto my countertop, using it as a seat, and Yohji crosses the room to sprawl beside me.
“You look like you got some last night,” he informs me, sounding amused. At least he keeps his voice down so Ken can’t hear as he settles himself more comfortably on the metal surface.
I offer Yohji a sideways look and a dry response: “Not all of us are sex fiends, Kudou.”
He looks startled that I’ve actually voiced such a remark, then surprise gives way as he bursts into laughter. He drapes an arm across my shoulders, gesturing to a curious and oblivious Ken. “We were discussing alcohol and food for the New Year’s party, that’s all,” he informs me, though I know that much from walking in on them.
“You _are_ coming to the party, aren’t you?” Ken asks.
“You can bring a friend,” Yohji offers slyly.
“Does he have any?” Ken asks, surprised.
That’s Ken, as thoughtful as always. Yohji scowls at him across the shop but I am privately amused. Sometimes Ken says things without thinking, so they turn out sounding much worse than he intends them to. What he meant was “Does he know anyone outside of Weiß?” A positive answer would startle him, because Omi and Ken think I’m as antisocial as a rock is hard. It’s true enough, I suppose. After my family’s tragedy, I wasn’t really interested in anyone else’s company.
Dryly I wonder what would happen if Schuldich and Nagi showed up at Ken’s apartment.
/Mass chaos,/ Schuldich answers helpfully.
~Indeed,~ I answer.
“So are you coming?” Ken tries again, sounding a bit sheepish after Yohji’s silent reprimand.
/Once Aya wakes up, the exchange is over,/ Schuldich informs me simply. /You can take the girl and go your merry way. I don’t want to see her ever again./
When Aya wakes…With the distance between us, I suppose it’s safe to offer him another ~Thank you.~
/Don’t thank me; I’m not doing it for you./ But I know Schuldich can follow my train of thought enough to see I don’t care. /What do you mean by ‘safe’?/ he inquires next. I don’t answer him, and if he seeks the answer himself he doesn’t comment on it. It’s the last I hear from him for several hours.
“Aya?” Yohji asks, wondering at my delayed answer.
If Aya is awake by New Year’s and Schuldich has said that ends the exchange, then I could be back above the Koneko no Sumu Ie before the holiday. I consider this, wondering what it will be like to be cut loose from Schuldich’s apartment for good. Nagi must be thrilled that the time is so close at hand. “I…think so,” I finally answer Ken, who beams.
I suppose I’ll have to teach one of them how to cook.
“You do _not_ celebrate Saturnalia. You’re not a Pagan.”
“I’m God,” comes the lofty response. “Therefore I drink to celebrate myself and I can choose when the festivities begin. Hey! Give that back!”
I linger in the doorway, wondering absently if it’s safer to just turn around and leave again. With a soft sigh, I discard my shoes and search out my housemates to see what chaos Schuldich is making now. I find them in the kitchen, standing beside a table that is completely covered with bottles of varying shapes and sizes. I lean against the doorframe, watching as Schuldich and Nagi fight over an open bottle.
“I might as well start early,” Schuldich reasons with his teammate. “There’s too much here just for New Year’s.”
“Then you shouldn’t have bought so much,” Nagi returns, swatting Schuldich’s hand away.
“Who says I bought them?” Schuldich asks scornfully. “You think I have the money to waste on this stuff?” Schuldich must have given Nagi a mental poke because the boy gives a little jolt. The telepath takes advantage of this by snatching his bottle back; Nagi retaliates by knocking half of the bottles to the floor. Schuldich stares down at the shattered glass and quickly spreading alcohol in disbelief. “You little shit!”
“Oops.” Nagi doesn’t even attempt to sound contrite. Schuldich sends a dark look and darker words his direction.
I think I might miss this when I’m gone, I muse, entertained by the argument.
“Yes, it’s very funny,” Schuldich says to me, sounding irritated as he sets about cleaning shards of glass from the floor. Nagi doesn’t bother acknowledging me as he pours himself some juice. I have nothing better to do, so I join Schuldich in cleaning up the glass. Schuldich leaves that to me and disappears, returning just moments later with some bath towels to mop of the puddle. He’s muttering under his breath, too low to be understood, but I have a pretty good idea of what he’s saying.
Nagi doesn’t help Schuldich, content to let the German deal with the mess. A slight, satisfied smirk curves his lips as he steps past his teammate and heads to the den. Schuldich watches him go, and as soon as the television turns on he abandons the towel and quietly starts gathering some bottles into his arms. I watch as he slips out of the room; there’s only one place he could be taking them. I let out a quiet sigh, amused. I suppose he’s trying to save the rest of the drinks from his companion’s gift. Schuldich returns shortly and finishes mopping. The rest of the bottles are stuffed in the cabinets and Schuldich eyes them with some satisfaction.
I, on the other hand, still think there are too many bottles for just one person. “Drunkard,” I offer.
He offers me a smile that’s all teeth. “Now and then.”
Ran and I both ditch work Monday. Ran asked me about seeing his sister so many times yesterday that I finally gave in. Now it’s eleven in the morning and we’re braving the sleet to make it to the hospital. For as calm as Ran looks, for as still as he sits in the passenger seat, his mind is racing a thousand directions. If I look at him, his purple eyes are glowing. I don’t want to see it; it’s bad enough to hear his excited thoughts. He’s out of the car before I am when I’ve parked at the hospital and I follow him to the lobby with an expressionless face. The elevator is quick in coming and I press the button for the fifth floor. Ran and I lean against the back wall, waiting in silence. If Ran is in the best mood possible, I am in near the worst.
It surprises me…I’ve never been happy to see Fujimiya Aya, but I would think I would feel some satisfaction that I am almost done with her. But I feel nothing but irritation and a smooth face hides the hands clenched into fists in my pockets. The doors open on the appropriate floor and Ran follows closely on my heels as we step onto the floor. Our doctor is near the nurse’s station and he turns when he spots me.
“Ah, Jei-san…” He waits for us to catch up to him and offers a smile to Ran, waiting to be introduced.
I gesture to Ran with my elbow. “Fujimiya’s brother.”
“Fujimiya-san, a pleasure to meet you. I am Dr. Nakashima. As of today I have full control of your sister’s care, and I’m very optimistic about her recovery.” With that, he beckons for us to follow. We reach Aya’s door in no time at all and find that she is not alone. Three nurses- Nakashima’s staff- move around her. One is checking Aya’s vitals, another is using a marker of sorts to dot the underside of one arm, and the third is playing with some new equipment. Nakashima gestures to Aya. “Today we’ll be checking the levels of Cylathamin Doracine in her bloodstream so we can determine a schedule for removing it. We have to be very careful; her body could have developed an addiction to the drug. If we remove too much too quickly we could injure her. The best thing to do is wean her off it slowly and offer other temporary drugs to calm subconscious cravings.”
Ran hears the doctor’s words, but I don’t think he’s truly absorbing them. I am the one to respond. “And how long is ‘slowly’?”
Nakashima considers this, studying Aya. I’m the only one who isn’t staring at her. It irritates me, though I tell myself it is an irrational annoyance. “Because of the length of her coma, ten to fourteen days. I’ll know better after today’s tests are done. Once it’s all gone, it could take an additional day or two to rouse her. There’s a strong chance of disorientation and delirium the first day.”
Yeah, who cares?
“Call me when she’s weaned,” I tell him. A short visit, perhaps, but about all I can stomach today. I’m feeling too out of sorts and in too unpredictable a mood to linger longer. The doctor nods, used to my short meetings with him, but Ran sends a startled look my way.
~We’re leaving already?~ He doesn’t want to.
I take an iron hold of his wrist, pulling him from the room. He stumbles behind me the first few steps before drawing even with me. I send him a flat look. /She’s not going anywhere, and there won’t be a change in her condition for about two weeks. There’s no point in staying just to watch her get stuck with needles./
He hesitates. ~But…~
Ran subsides, thinking it wise not to push the issue after he hears the sharpness of my refusal. I release him when we reach the elevator, ignoring the way he gently rubs his wrist where I was squeezing so hard. The ride back to the apartment is full of Ran’s thoughts about his sister and whether or not she’ll be awake in time for the holidays. I scowl at my rearview mirror as I drive, turning on the radio to try and drown out his thoughts with the music.
My mood hasn’t improved much by the time Nagi gets home from classes. He finds me in the den and stands in front of me, studying me where I am sprawled with the cats on the couch. I send him a black look; he’s blocking my view of the television. It isn’t on, but I was looking at it anyway.
~You’re in a good mood today,~ he remarks.
/Spare me the sarcasm,/ I send back, glaring at him as I pull Eins closer against me.
~You visited Fujimiya Aya today,~ Nagi decides, crouching to put us at eye level.
I scowl. /Enough about her already./ I flick a hand in the general direction of my bedroom, where Ran is attempting to read. /That’s all he’s been thinking about since Friday night. Aya this, Aya that, will she be awake by the new year, oh Aya oh Aya./ Disgust laces my voice.
Nagi raises an eyebrow at me. ~You knew that would happen.~
I want to pinch his head off. He’s not helping at all. /It’s an ugly déjà vu,/ I finally say, /the second time in less than a year I’ve been challenged by the vegetable./
~But it shouldn’t matter this time,~ Nagi insists, frowning at me. ~It isn’t Farfarello. It’s just Ran, so it shouldn’t matter if he’s in his sister-obsessed mode.~
No, definitely not helping. /Go away and work on your books,/ I tell him sourly.
He studies me a moment longer, still frowning. At length he leaves the room, but his thoughts are troubled. I sneer at his back as he heads away and it makes me feel a little better. I tilt my face towards Eins and she licks the tip of my nose before going back to cleaning herself. My fingers give her head a light scratch and I sigh.
It shouldn’t matter, but I’m still annoyed.
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