Part Twenty-Eight: Bitter Reflections

    I’m sprawled out on the floor of my apartment when Yohji shows up. My hands are laced behind my head and I’m staring up at the ceiling. Kumo is curled up on my stomach, fast asleep. The empty cinnamon drink bottle is off to one side where I dropped it last night. Halfway through the party I suddenly couldn’t stand their company- a sharp turnaround from the odd loneliness I’d felt the rest of the week- and abandoned them for my own room. My teammates let me go without protest, content to check out the rest of Yohji’s stash with people that were more willing to celebrate. I’d made an appearance and that was all that mattered to them. I don’t know what time I fell asleep last night; I just know that until I passed out it was a rather unhappy night. I can’t remember anymore what I was thinking about. The only thing I know is that it was a week ago last night that I moved back into my apartment, and while staring up at my ceiling today I still think it’s the wrong shade of white.

    It’s ridiculous, it really is.

    And the taste of cinnamon is still thick on my tongue.

    My door is unlocked; I guess I forgot to bother with it last night. Yohji knocks but tries the knob as he does so, and lets himself in. He spots me easily and I squint towards him. Harsh sunlight floods through the doorway around him, and it makes my head pound. That’s definitely not morning sunlight. What time is it? I wonder if I really want to know; I wonder if I care.

    Yohji crosses the room to sit beside me, green eyes studying me. He has brought more drinks with him; two bottles dangle from each hand, and he sets these aside. One hand reaches out, picking up my bottle to give it an experimental shake. I reach out and take it away from him, setting it down against my side. The move is instinctive; I’m not really sure what it matters if he touches it. He paid for it and I drank it all. I should remember to pay him later. I could go get my wallet now, but I don’t have the energy to get up. I’m feeling rather drained, and I’ve got a headache.

    “I figured I should come check on you,” Yohji announces. “Omi’s been awake for hours and I’ve seen Ken up and about. You’re the only one that I hadn’t seen yet today.”

    “I’m being antisocial,” I answer. “What else is new?”

    Yohji rakes his bangs out of his face. “A few things,” he answers. “How are you feeling? Sick any?”

    I lift a shoulder in a shrug. “Headache,” I answer, “but it’s been there for about a week now.”

    A week ago I left Schuldich’s apartment…A week ago that nagging feeling started, and recently it has bloomed into a headache. I wonder if I have developed allergies to some of the plants around here. It would explain why the annoyance started once I returned here. I would say maybe it’s Kumo, but I was fine around Schuldich’s cats and he had six. Feh. I don’t know. I just know that I haven’t been able to figure out anything I might have left behind and no painkillers get rid of the headache.

    “Want some medicine?” Yohji asks, and I shake my head. “How about a drink?” A drink will erase the taste from my mouth. I should probably accept the drink; it isn’t good to linger on such things. But I shake my head again. Yohji is silent for a few moments, considering me, and I return my attention to the ceiling once more.

    They were…my first kisses.

    I can discard the first one, simply because Schuldich was asleep and he thought I was someone else. But the second and third, he knew who I was. Granted, he was drunk, but they happened. And as much as I should probably erase them from my thoughts, they were my first and they will stick. Any attempts to forget that they happened fail. If it weren’t for them, I would still be at Schuldich’s apartment, and if it weren’t for the drink last night…I don’t think it will be so easy to forget that taste.

    Schuldich isn’t who I would have ever thought would be the first to kiss me.

    Damn, I really should find something and someone else to think about.

    “Do you think Schwarz survived?” I want to know. The question comes out of nowhere; I don’t know what could have ever made me voice it. But I look towards Yohji, waiting for an answer. My teammate seems surprised by the question, and for a moment it’s as if he’s not sure what to do. He doesn’t toss off an answer quickly; he gives it some serious thought, leaning backwards to prop himself up on his arms. His head tilts to one side and he gazes off into nothing, eyes pointed at his knee but staring at something else. Finally he gives a soft sigh and shrugs.

    “I wouldn’t know,” he answers at last, and I find myself dissatisfied by his words for some reason. “You would think it would be easy for them to make it,” he continues. “They had a fierce chunk of power between them. But…” He trails off, and I lift Kumo to the ground so I can roll onto my side to face him. “Ch’…” Yohji grimaces and turns his head towards me, meeting my eyes. “The German- Schuldich, right?- he fell right before I did. He hit the floor beneath us and there was like, a small explosion of blood. I don’t think it killed him, but it definitely did something.”

    I think of the scars that line Schuldich’s chest, the jagged tears across his skin that are so similar to the ones I carry. I remember studying them and seeing that look of both darkness and amusement flit across his face. “Do you really want to know how those got there?” he had asked. He got them in the fall, on the day he never wants to remember, the day he lost everything.

    “And that freaky Irishman…” Yohji says with a shake of his head. “I should have fallen right after the telepath. The floor was giving out under my feet too but suddenly I was knocked aside, back to more stable ground. That madman shoved right past me and leapt down the hole. Between his suicidal antics and Schuldich’s first impact, I have to wonder if they fared any better than we did. Either way, I’m grateful; I think I came out much better than I would have if I had fallen right away and missions are a lot easier when we don’t have to worry about Schwarz.”

    “Fall alone,” Schuldich had said. That’s what Schwarz did wrong.

    Farfarello…leapt after Schuldich. He couldn’t have stopped the German from falling; he couldn’t have saved him. But he wouldn’t let Schuldich fall alone.

    What would it be like to have someone like that, I wonder. What would it be like to be part of such a relationship? It’s a relationship that outsiders both condemn and laugh at. How could two such people ever find any sort of comfort in each other? But they found something…And maybe it was love, and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to have been stronger than lust. It was enough for Farfarello to leap through the falling building after Schuldich, enough to drive Schuldich to despair when he remembers. I think of the collar around Schuldich’s throat; in my mind I can see him reaching up to touch it.

    And I can taste cinnamon, and it seems to be a very bitter sort of taste.

    No wonder…Nagi was so angry at us.

    “I’m going to be sick,” I decide, rolling over onto my stomach so I can get up. It’s almost painful to move…my limbs don’t want to answer me, and I wonder if I’ll even make it to the bathroom. Then I feel the warmth of two hands, one on my arm and one resting at the small of my back, and Yohji guides me across the room. I don’t have anything to throw up but I still manage somehow, and Yohji retreats to get a glass of water from the kitchen. I lean against the sink, nursing my cup and gazing at nothing in particular. Yohji leans against the doorway of the bathroom, arms folded loosely over his chest as he waits in silence.

    I will never know what it’s like to be them, to be Yohji or Schuldich. I’ll never know what it’s like to lose someone like that. On one hand, I resent that there will be something that big about them that I won’t ever understand for myself. On the other, I am immensely relieved.

    I’ll never lose anyone, because I’ll always be alone.

    Soon Aya will wake up, but what happens then? Her life must continue where it left off. Aya had big dreams for her future; she shouldn’t have to abandon them just because she slept for three years. She’ll want to go to college, and I’ll find a way to get her there. And as imminent as my sister’s waking is, I can also feel her slipping from my fingers. I’ve clung to her so tightly for three years, and the time draws near that I’ll have to let her go.

    And I…will be left here once more. There is nothing out there for me. I have no interest in higher education. There is no other job I can see myself doing. I am fated here, despite my grudge for Kritiker’s handling of my sister’s treatments. I have avenged her coma and now I must move on. This is all I have, this work and my team. Aya will grow up and move on and we four will stay here, trapped within these lives.

    I give a small laugh into my cup, a bitter, twisted sound. I lift the cup over my shoulder, tilting it so the water splashes out and washes down the sink. The taste of cinnamon is burned from my tongue, both from bile and water.

    I move towards the door and Yohji steps aside to let me pass. Kumo is eating at her dish and I stand off to one side, studying her. Yohji seems uncertain of what to do; he knows something is troubling me but isn’t sure what to do about it.

    “Should I leave?” he asks at length.

    I should tell him yes, but I don’t want to be alone. I look over my shoulder at him. “What time is it?” I want to know.

    He checks his watch and responds that it’s four in the afternoon. I fold my arms over my chest, rubbing at them as if warding off a chill. “I’m going to make an early dinner,” I say, even though the thought of food makes me queasy. There is plenty in my cabinets; my frequent trips away from the Koneko this week helped stock my shelves with more than enough groceries. “There will be…” I glance back at him once more, “…enough for two.”

    Yohji recognizes the invitation for what it is and offers me a slight smile, gesturing to the bottles on the ground. “I’ve brought the drinks,” he answers.

    “Good,” I manage to say, and disappear into the kitchen.


    Yohji leaves at nine that evening. I walk to the door and watch him leave, debating whether to let him go or call him back. He has been in my apartment for over five hours, keeping me company with a variety of topics. He acknowledged my sour mood by choosing easy things to talk of, moving between conversations that could all be one-sided. I let him say what he wished, allowing him to entertain me and focusing on his presence to stay away from thoughts I shouldn’t be thinking.

    It is dangerous and foolish of me to choose Schuldich’s apartment over my own. I was only there for two months. I have been here for years. How could I choose them over my team when I was with them for just sixty days? Months ago they were my enemy; more recently, I still hated them. Everything has taken such a sharp turn and in the end I have no clue what to think or believe.

    I wouldn’t expect myself to forget that those months happened. They were very crucial to my future; they were full of such enormous changes that I will never be able to forget them. It was just so different from what I have here. In both places I could be ignored if I wished to be left alone; my team recognizes my distaste for socializing and the two of the fallen Schwarz were content to leave me be. And even though I was never truly excluded in either place, it seems like it was harder to vanish into the background at Schuldich’s apartment.

    Schuldich was always…there. He was a constant presence, harassing me or dropping witty remarks in response to my thoughts. He was always there, listening to what I had to think or say whether I had invited him to or not. Schuldich knew me like no one else has or ever will, and I changed in response to that. Yohji mentioned it tonight at dinner, a fleeting comment when he realized I wasn’t interested in discussing it. He says I’ve changed, and even though it’s hard for me to see the differences he says even Ken has mentioned that I’m not completely who I used to be. After years of living for my sister and my family’s revenge, for two months I lived as myself.

    In the beginning, it was all about my sister’s safety. Somewhere along the way, though I’m not sure where it came from, was the small assurance that Schuldich really did not mean my sister harm. I don’t know where the feeling came from, as he had never given me a reason to believe he wouldn’t kill her, but it was enough that I was able to forget about my sister for days at a time. And that changed things- that changed me. I was not “Aya-kun” or “Abyssinian”. Schuldich never spoke to those people. He spoke to Ran, and Ran answered.

    I wonder if I should regret being changed, if I feel so off-balance now. I may be more willing to have company than before now that I am not used to being alone, and I may be better at carrying a conversation like Yohji joked about over dinner- due to responding to Schuldich’s constant banter- but I will never be able to really talk to my teammates. Schuldich has stepped out of my life and I will not be able to have that kind of contact with anyone else. The freedom of being me came and went. I can’t share with Yohji the sort of things that were- generally inadvertently- shared between Schuldich and me.

    I just thought I would have come to terms with it better after eight days than has really happened, but it’s as if a part of me refuses to let go. Even if I lie in bed and tell myself that things have changed for the better, even if I can find all the reasons that it’s good that I am free of Schuldich and Nagi forever, there’s always something there that pulls my thoughts back. There’s something there that tells me that I’m missing something.

    I realize my door is still open and reach out to close it, offering it a disgusted expression. I’m going to have to find a way to get over things if I’m to continue on. Thoughts of Aya distract me but they somehow lead me right back to an apartment on the other side of the city in the end. Once Aya is awake it will be better, but every time I look at her I will remember how her waking was made possible.

    Schuldich’s going to drive me crazy.

    /Glad to hear it./

    It startles me so much to hear his voice that I shut the door on my hand, and I yank my fingers back with a florid curse. The door is kicked shut and I lean against it, holding onto my injured hand as I glare at the floor. Out of all the times he could have offered a response, he chooses the perfect moment to get my hand smashed. It’s just like Schuldich. ~What do you want?~

    /My, my, you sure can kick from bitterly apathetic to lively fast,/ Schuldich remarks, sounding quite amused. /Makes me dizzy, really, watching you bounce from low to high like that./ I roll my eyes even though he can’t see it, blowing on my fingers and trying not to think about how familiar his voice feels sliding through my mind. This was missing, something in me whispers, but before I can consider that, Schuldich speaks up again. /The hospital called…Your lovely little sister’s eyes opened just a handful of minutes ago. They’re not sure how coherent she is, but she’s awake./

    Everything grinds to a halt; I can see my sister’s eyes in my mind, that beautiful shade I’ve lived without for three years. Three years of waiting, and now…


    Schuldich’s prompt drives me to action. I snatch my jacket and keys from the stand by the door and race out. Fingers shove the key in the lock and I take the steps two at a time. The metal rattles under my feet but I ignore them, hands sliding down the railings for balance because ice has covered each step. It takes me a moment to find the right key for the ignition because my hands are shaking. When I find it, I ram it in and give it a savage twist. The engine comes to life and I back out of my spot with just a glance over my shoulder to make sure no one else is coming.

    The road is crowded with people, both in cars and on foot. The celebrations of the new year continue all around me; drunken singing and loud music fills the air. I barely acknowledge them, my thoughts on my sister. I am impatient but not enough to be homicidal, so I bite back the urge to run over the people that get in my way. It seems like forever later that Aya’s hospital comes into view. I grab the first spot available and run across the parking lot, skidding every now and then on the ice and slush covered ground. The elevator doors are closing but I shove my hand in the way, forcing them back open. The orderlies and old couple inside regard me with some surprise, but I don’t notice them. My fingers mash the button for Aya’s floor.

    The ride seems to take a century, but as soon as the doors are open wide enough for me to fit through I slip onto the hall. Quick strides take me down the hall.

    Outside of Aya’s room, I freeze. I am dimly aware of my ragged breath, dimly aware that I am wet and cold. My thoughts swirl on what is happening on the other side of this door. After three years, my sister has woken up from her sleep. I have changed so much in that time and Aya has not changed at all. So much has happened. Nothing will be the same ever again.

    I am almost afraid to push open the door, though the reasons behind such a feeling are so numerous I can’t examine them all.

    “Just go inside and stop being a chicken,” comes Schuldich’s nasal voice at my ear.

    I find myself buried against him without even realizing I’ve moved. My hands are clenched in his jacket and my head rests against his chest; I am shaking as I hold onto him. I’m terrified to see my sister; the fear is almost equal to the delight that she’s awake. What if the sleep has hurt her? What if she has some mental or physical consequences from it? What if she looks at me and can see right through me, to see what sort of person I have become?

    For a long time neither of us says anything; for a long time neither of us moves. At length Schuldich heaves an exasperated sigh, and fingers cup my chin to tilt my head back. Our faces are barely a breath apart and I have to lean backwards slightly to keep my eyes from crossing. He arches a brow at me, his expression bemused. It’s only then that I realize I’m clinging to him, and I would let go if I thought I could. “You’d better go in that room, and you’d better be damn grateful,” Schuldich informs me. “You have no idea how much money I wasted on that chic. Either go in and fawn over her or get out of my way. I just need to see that she’s woken up and then I can go back to my warm apartment and my whiskey.”

    I take a deep breath, then nod and slowly unknot my fingers from his coat. I turn around, finding the handle and pushing the door open. Aya is not alone; Dr. Nakashima sits off to her side. Both heads turn in our direction. Dr. Nakashima rises from his seat, coming over to smile a greeting at us. He says nothing, knowing that we’re more intent on the person lying in bed, so slips past us to give the three of us some time alone.

    I’m not sure how I make it over to the bed; I think Schuldich is behind that. I find myself suddenly standing beside Aya’s bed, staring down at her, and I realize that she really is staring up at me and smiling.

    My sister is smiling at me.

    /Saa…Guess I’m done./ I manage to turn my head towards Schuldich. He has his hands stuffed in his pocket and he’s heading for the door again. His mental voice was weary, and the expression he turns on me once he reaches the doorway is drained. Blue eyes sparkle but not with the light I’ve come to recognize- it’s more of a resigned sort of glow. He offers me a crooked smirk and tilts his head in farewell.

    There are so many things I could say, but the only one I manage is a “Thank you.”

    The door swings shut behind him and I turn back to Aya, lowering myself to my knees beside her bed. Her eyes are cloudy from sleep and medication, but she lifts a hand from the bed. It swings unsteadily towards my face, and fingers brush along my cheek. “Ran…” she murmurs. It’s slurred, but it’s her voice.

    For a long time I can’t speak; my throat is tight with tears I’m afraid to shed because I have a feeling they’ll be hysterical. I just wrap my arms around her, clinging to her like a lifeline and burying my face against her shoulder. I can feel her fingers on my back, feel her breath on my neck, and think to myself…

    We’ve made it…We’ve made it, after so long…


    I sit on the trunk of my car, ignoring the cold as I smoke. I brought my pack of Mild Sevens from Crawford’s desk and now a cigarette perches between my fingers. It’s too windy out for the smoke to trail upwards, but I gaze at the glowing end regardless. Finally I lift it to my mouth, sliding it between my lips. My fingers are laced behind my head and I lean backwards against the back windshield, staring up a dark, cloudy sky. The breeze picks up, whipping the ashes from the end of my cigarette and tugging at my jacket. It’s like ice against my face but for now I ignore it.

    I had every intention of drinking the transition between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day away, but I was only a shot into my first bottle when Ran started drinking. I probably should have kept drinking so I wouldn’t have to listen to him…Ran isn’t much of a drinker so that bottle was way more than enough to trash him. I’m surprised that he didn’t pass out halfway through. Either way, Ran started drinking and I switched to the hot chocolate Nagi was having, and even though I stared at the television and pretended I was watching the movie Nagi had picked, my mind was on the other side of the city with a drunken Ran.

    His thoughts were everywhere last night, twirling in thick circles. He’d flit from one thing to another for a bit and then backtrack to work over something. He went from the flower shop to his past to his sister to our apartment, and most of the time his thoughts centered on the last. They were disjointed towards the end, but he still spent the majority of his time wondering about us and about how he would readjust to being “Aya” once more for his teammates.

    He drank the whole bottle last night…because it tasted like me, because it tasted like I did when I drunkenly kissed him.

    It makes me uneasy, and I part my lips to exhale smoke around my cigarette. The wind has temporarily died down, and a small cloud of gray smoke appears above me.

    There are things about Ran I don’t understand, and even with the bond between us I think they would take a long time to figure out. Part of the reason is because there are things about Ran that even Ran doesn’t understand. He’s still changing; he changed more than he realized while he was with us and he’ll continue changing now that we’re gone. I don’t know what the effects will be. One of the biggest reasons he changed, though he doesn’t know it, is this damn bond I’ve accidentally put between us. Without it, even pity for what Nagi and I went through wouldn’t be enough to morph him so thoroughly. It was the bond… When I shattered over Farfarello’s collar, Ran recognized it deep in his subconscious and he reacted to it, putting strength back into the bond where I had none without knowing he was doing it.

    The bond is still there, and I suppose it is only a matter of time before Ran figures it out. He saw and heard things I didn’t intend him to while he was with us; I’m not sure how much control over that I’ll have. I never bothered guarding things from Farfarello. If he heard it, he heard it, and I didn’t care. I don’t know how much work it would take to guard myself against Ran’s bond. He’s looking for it now; he knows something is misplaced, that something has changed, and with him searching for it, it won’t be long before he finds it and he hears me through it.

    It’s all very confusing…They didn’t talk to us much about partner-bonds back at Rosenkreuz, and I wasn’t interested because I was fourteen and I had no intention of ever getting close enough to anyone to put it up. Not many guys paid attention, and the instructors never made us learn more than the basics. They taught us about them because the bonds are part of being a telepath, but they didn’t want the people they were training us to be to bond that thoroughly with anyone. My bond to Farfarello got reported to Rosenkreuz; we had to visit three telepaths and an empath for them to check it out. They had to judge whether it was safe and beneficial for the two of us, and if they didn’t like it, they would tear it down. I didn’t really understand what the big deal was, and in many ways I still don’t. If I knew more about the bonds, maybe I’d understand. Either way, Farfarello and I passed their silent inspection and were sent back to Schwarz.

    I grind my cigarette out on my trunk, sitting up and working my fingers. Despite the gloves, my hands are numb. Nagi will be waiting for me…I told him where I was going. He accepted the news in silence. He’s glad the girl is awake, as he figures the door is closing on all contact with the Fujimiyas. He wasn’t particularly happy that I was going to see her, though, because he figured there was a good chance of Ran being there, and Nagi doesn’t trust me around Ran.

    I teased him about his lack of faith, probably a dangerous thing to do, and Nagi’s retort was that he doesn’t trust either of us.

    After all, Ran didn’t push me away.

    I slide off the trunk with a sigh. Something’s going to have to be done about that bond sooner or later. It’s probably dangerous for the both of us to have it there, and I can just see Nagi’s reaction if I were to tell him it’s there. I don’t think he’d be very forgiving, even if I tell him that I didn’t put it there on purpose. I have no interest in watching Nagi have another hissy fit.

    I slide into my seat, pulling the door closed and slipping the key into the ignition. It’s New Year’s Day, and Nagi made it clear to me that today is the last day we’re going to have alcohol in the apartment. He let me have it for the holidays and he wants it gone. There’s not much left in the kitchen, as I have been making my way through the bottles steadily this last week, but there are still those in the bedroom…A smirk curves my lips as I pull out of the parking lot onto the main road. A part of me supposes I should just listen to Nagi and get rid of the rest of the alcohol.

    The rest of me isn’t interested in trashing my collection. I might need it if I decide to pull down the bond between Ran and myself…Even though I lost the bond with Farfarello because he died, I have the feeling that even voluntarily removing such a tight link is going to take a lot of work and hurt like a bitch.

    I reach the intersection as the light turns green and move my foot from the brake back to the gas. I am halfway through when I’m blinded by lights. I glance to the right to see a car running its red light; I have no time to react before there is a horrendous crunching sound. I’m dimly aware of my head hitting the window and the car spinning; the world races around me in a colorful blur and then the asphalt rushes towards my windshield.

Part 29
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