Part Three: Five Months Ago

    Perhaps it is needless to say that Friday morning does not go well.

    I managed three hours of sleep last night. I tried to make myself sleep more, knowing that the lack of sleep is making everything worse. I took some sleeping pills but they could not keep me out for long. The rest of the night was spent cooking- I emptied my cabinets and cooked everything that could be made into a dish. It wasn't enough to fight off my worry for my sister and dread towards what Schuldich might want from me, but it helped the night pass.

    Things got worse once the sun came up and I arrived at the shop. I am sick from not eating and not sleeping and I am in a horrible mood over what is going to happen today. I don't even bother to hide it; I don't have the strength to try and put on a blank mask. I don't bother to watch myself against the girls who have flooded our shop. Today is a school holiday so the teachers can have a workday, so all four of us are on shift in the morning to handle the prolonged crush. They are loud, they are idiotic, and this morning I cannot stand them being so close to me.

    I have stopped telling them to buy something or get out. That line has never worked anyway. Now I just send them the coldest glare I can manage and dare them to approach me if they're not coming for flowers. This works- probably because my glare is murderous instead of irritated. I should have tried it long ago.

    I think I scared Omi when I turned it on him earlier, but I don't really care. He shouldn't have been bothering me- especially not today.

    Yohji finally drags me out of the shop when one girl flees in tears, grabbing me by the elbow to yank me into the back room. I let him tug me simply because it gives me an excuse to leave the crowd. I have no regret for the girl's unhappiness. If she can't handle one glare she has no backbone. Besides, I'm in no mood to pity or sympathize with her. I'm too wrapped up in my own problems to care.

    Yohji shuts the door behind us, fixing me with a worried look. He uses his grip on my arm to turn me so that I'm facing him, his green eyes searching my face. "Aya, you need to calm down."

    "No, I don't."

    I've tried to calm down; I've spent the last twelve hours trying to calm down. It hasn't been working.

    Yohji releases me and I fold my arms tightly over my chest, giving him a baleful look. "Aya, I backed off yesterday but you've gotten steadily worse. Ken's afraid to work with you because you're not yourself; you've gone from an irritated companion to a dangerous one. You're giving these girls the Fujimiya glare you once reserved for Takatori. You're too pale, you look like you haven't slept in years, and you can't concentrate on anything you're doing. Once I thought nothing could bother you. Today it looks like I could push you and you'd crumple to the ground. Something is tearing you apart. What is it?"

    A day ago I appreciated his concern, even if I couldn't confide in him. Today it just irritates me. I feel like I am close to the snapping point, and I have just one hour until I have to meet Schuldich. "Yohji," I say, a warning.

    "Your clothes make it worse." He gestures to my outfit. I am dressed in black jeans and a black sweater- all black, just like Schuldich demanded. I fight to keep my eyes open, fight to not get sick at the memory of him nipping my earlobe and telling me black is my color. "They only show just how bad off you are. Have you looked in a mirror lately?" I scowl and turn away. He grabs at my elbow again, turning me back. "Aya, please just tell me what is eating you alive!"

    "I can't!" I snap back, giving a violent jerk of my arm to get out of his grasp.

    He tilts his head to one side, green eyes narrowing to rake a sharp look across my face. "Not that you won't, but that you can't?" he asks. I mentally curse myself for not censoring my words. "Jesus, Aya, we've known each other for almost two years. What _can't_ you tell me?" My mouth thins to a hard line and he changes his approach at my expression, softening his plea. "Aya…"

    "Leave me alone."

    "You don't want to tell me now- you can't," he amends. "But when, Aya? When it has completely destroyed you?" I don't answer, instead sliding past him to head towards the door. "You don't want to be in there," Yohji says to my back, "so why are you in such a big hurry to go?"

    I do not respond, but suddenly my fingers can't move on the doorknob. I don't want to go back to the shop; he's right about that. I just don't want to be stuck back here with him and his questions and concern. I hesitate, glancing over my shoulder towards him. Our eyes meet and hold for a long moment; I can see his sorrow that I'm not opening myself up to him in his gaze. Finally I force myself to tighten my grip on the knob. It is with a great force of willpower that I open the door and step back into the bustle of the Koneko no Sumu Ie. The girls skirt away from me, giving me room as I head back to my workstation. Yohji returns just a minute after me and sends a winning smile towards our supposed customers. I cannot help but glance towards him once last time before fixing my attention firmly on the flowers in front of me. He switches between his roles well; he has a mask for every occasion. For him it's just a matter of knowing which one to put on when. In another life, maybe he could have been an actor.

    The last fifteen minutes of the shift fly by too quickly. I do not even realize the shop is closed for break until Ken asks for a vote for lunch. It is only then that I realize the girls are gone and the place is quiet. It is mildly disorienting. My teammates are all on the other side of the shop; Omi is perched on a table with his legs dangling off the side. Like me, he has the afternoon shift off, but he will stick around to keep our teammates company and eat. I ignore the three as they toss ideas back and forth, tuning out their suggestions and playful arguing. My eyes are on the counter before me, my hands are cleaning up the day's mess, and my mind is several blocks away at a small corner of a park. My fingers curl into tight fists on the counter and I let my eyes slide closed. My back shields me from my teammates as I take a deep breath of air.

    I am going to be physically sick. I can feel it.

    Another breath.

    "Aya," Ken calls, loud enough to catch my attention. The way he stresses it makes it sound as if he's tried several times to get me to answer. I look behind me and realize all three of them are watching me. "What do you feel like eating?"

    The thought of food does nothing for my unhappy stomach.

    I need to find a bathroom, now. My fingers work at the knots on my apron strings, fingernails tugging at them with a barely hidden sense of urgency. "I'm not eating."

    "You're not?" Omi asks mournfully. Apparently he's gotten over my earlier death glare. "Come on, Aya-kun, we haven't eaten as a group in a while. We're never all together anymore except on missions."

    "We were together all morning," I bite out, turning away again. The knot at my waist is easy to untie, but the one at my neck refuses to come undone. I need it off. Why won't it come off? I feel like the walls are closing in on me and I can't breathe suddenly. I struggle to control myself, struggle not to lose it. I, Fujimiya Ran, do not lose control!

    Two hands brush against mine and I give a startled little jolt, glancing back quickly to see Omi behind me. I didn't hear him approach. He hesitates, glancing towards me as if for permission, then moves my hands. It takes him two tugs to make the apron fall free. I grab it as it drops and stride towards the back of the room without a word to him. My stomach is threatening dire consequences if I move too quickly, but it's not like I can just stand here and ignore the nausea. I shove my apron onto its hook and vanish out of the shop to the hall where our bathroom is.

    I make it there on time, and a part of me remembers to shut the door behind me. Moments later I am kneeling in front of the toilet. When I have finished emptying the little bit of food I managed to choke down for breakfast this morning I slowly lower my forehead to rest on the toilet seat, just another lost soul paying homage to the porcelain god. I remain there for several minutes before slowly pushing myself to my feet. I flush and stand over the sink, rinsing my mouth and washing my face. I do not feel any better. If anything, I am more queasy and my throat is burning now.

    I get a glance at my reflection as I am toweling my hands dry. Yohji was right- I do look like shit.

    Maybe if I look bad enough Schuldich won't be interested in touching me again.

    Or maybe he'll just take it out on Aya.

    I still don't know why he is doing this. Why does Schwarz have Aya? What could they possibly want or need her for? What does Schuldich really want from me? Why would he come to me with such a game? Why did he pick _this_ in exchange for the safety of my sister? So many questions, and not a single answer. I have to find out when I am with him. I need to find Aya; I need to know why he took her from me.

    I leave the bathroom, moving with slow steps. My teammates have rid themselves of their own aprons and are huddled together at one end of the shop, conversing in low voices. Ken is facing my direction and he nudges Yohji. In another fine example of Ken's lack of subtlety, it is a too obvious jab of his elbow. The trio falls quiet instantly and I am put under very serious scrutiny by very concerned looking teammates. I have the distinct feeling that they're waiting for me to say something. I refuse to do them that favor.

    "We're going to order from Fujiki's," Omi says awkwardly when the silence has stretched on for almost a minute. He glances towards Yohji before looking back towards me. "Are you sure you're not going to eat with us, Aya-kun?"

    I do not feel like giving a response to a question I've already answered, so I don't. Instead I head towards the storage room. They start murmuring again before the door is closed to separate us. My keychain is on the nail by the exit and I pluck them up. It is only when I am opening the door that I stop and debate whether or not I'm in good enough condition to drive. My stomach is churning restlessly and I am light headed from not eating or sleeping. It would probably not be the best thing if I drove to the park. I shove my keys in my pocket and let myself out of the shop. I pass my car, favoring it a single glance as I turn my feet in the direction of the park. It'll be safe here for a while.

    An uneasy frown pulls at my lips. I don't even know how long Schuldich expects me to stay with him. I don't even know if he plans on keeping me alive. There are so many uncertainties, so many questions, so many things that are just _wrong_ with this game of his. I don't know anything except that Aya is gone and that to insure her safety I have to play by his rules.

    "Oi, Aya." It's Yohji. I'm not sure why I stop, but I turn back to see what he wants. He is holding his own keys up and is slipping out of the back door. His eyes flick from me to the car I've left behind. "I'm going to pick up lunch. Where are you off to?" He tilts his head to one side. "Don't look at me like that. I'm just curious because you're leaving your car here. You don't look in good enough shape to be going for a walk."

    Does he have nothing better to do than bother me? "I'm going to the park."

    He shakes his head, beckoning for me to follow him to his own car. "That's too far away. If you're not up to driving, at least let me give you a ride there."

    "It isn't that far."

    He gives me a Look. "It's thirty minutes on foot. It's too long for someone who looks like he doesn't even know his left from his right. Just get in." He emphasizes the command by pointing at his car.

    I just gaze at him in silence, so he starts towards me. I debate the pros and cons of accepting a ride from him. Surely I'm not so weak that I can't make it to the park. I should just turn and walk away; I should just leave him here to call after me. That's what I would have done just a few days ago. Just a few days ago I wouldn't have even needed to forsake my car. Today, however, I cannot turn my detached thoughts into reality. As much as I tell myself I should be leaving him behind by now, I cannot make myself move.

    But I don't want him to drive me. That will get me to the park too quickly.

    Or would it be better to get there quicker? It would give me less time to think about what's coming.

    Yohji takes my upper arm in a firm but gentle grip and guides me towards his car. I mean to resist him, I really do, but my body does not cooperate. I am exhausted physically and emotionally; Schuldich's game has made the last three days a living hell. I am weak from being stressed out, weak from being unable to take care of myself. I do tug away when it seems like he's going to assist me into the passenger seat. I send him a quelling look before getting in myself. Yohji closes the door before I can reach for it and I send a glare towards his back as he goes around to his side of the car. I buckle myself in and fold my arms over my chest, closing my eyes to tell him that although I'm letting him give me a ride, I am not accepting his companionship.

    He takes the hint, something neither of the other two would do. The engine hums to life and we pull out of his space, gliding easily into the main flow of traffic.

    Silence hangs between us, but it is not an oppressive weight. Yohji's silence means that he is accepting that I cannot let him help me yet, so he is not expecting anything from me. It is a patient, tolerant silence, edged with concern but not smothered by it. I find it oddly comforting, and I do not realize I have dozed off until I feel a light touch on my shoulder. Tired eyes slide open to be greeted with the sight of the park. It throws me for a moment. We were just at the shop a breath ago, and now we are here already…? I blink blearily. Why am I at the park, again…? I lift a hand and lightly rub at my eyelids, trying to organize my fuzzy thoughts and resenting whoever woke me.

    "Hey," Yohji says softly. "Why don't you just let me take you back to your place? You're tired."

    God, the idea is so welcome…I feel worse for having grabbed a few minutes' sleep than I felt beforehand. I still can't remember why-

    /Here, kitty kitty kitty…/ a voice mocks me.

    Reality hits me like a boot to the stomach, and my amethyst eyes jump to the clock. It is 12:59. How long did Yohji let me sleep?!

    /Are you coming or should I just leave? I could probably find other ways to entertain myself if you choose to back out now…You only have ten seconds by my watch, after all. I like people who are punctual./

    I really don't like the way he emphasizes 'other ways', and the panicked cry of Aya's name ricochets around my brain. I'm unbuckling as fast as I can, then, leaving Yohji to gape at me. He's too thrown by my sudden launch into action to stop me before I am out of the car. I slam the door shut behind me, cutting off his startled inquiry. Schuldich has a mental countdown going on, and I'm on the wrong side of the park. I didn't tell Yohji exactly where I needed to be, so he's on the east side when I have to be on the west. I can't cross this park in ten seconds, but I can try.

    Watch me as I fail you again, Aya…

    /Two…one./ Schuldich materializes just a few feet in front of me and I stagger to a stop. He's too close; I cannot stop myself all the way from my full-out run. He grins, opening his arms as I stumble into him. He gives very little ground even under the impact of my weight and he wraps his arms around me to steady me before I fall. I want to pull out of his grasp, but the past several days have finally caught up to me. The lack of sleep, the few crumbs of food I could choke down, my frustration, my sickness, and this sprint all combine to drain me of my last reserves of strength. If he weren't holding me, I'm pretty sure I would be on the ground right now. I gasp for breath as I lean against him, fighting off the dizziness that threatens to swallow me whole.

    /This isn't the bench,/ Schuldich says as I close my eyes, /but I'll go easy on you this time./

    'This time'…

    He begins moving away, helping me stumble along as if he can sense that I can't move on my own. Then again, he probably can tell, since he's a telepath. I blank my thoughts, struggling not to think, struggling to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. It feels like forever before we reach his car. He props me against the side and gets the door for me. I manage to get in by using the open door for support. Schuldich closes the door as soon as my limbs are out of the way. I close my eyes as he goes around to the other side, still fighting for breath. My head droops to one side to rest against the window as he turns the key in the ignition. Foreign music spills from the speakers as soon as the engine is on, a rough voice singing a hard song.

    Despite the noise, I can feel myself fading. I accept unconsciousness willingly, letting myself fall away.


    My cat is sick.

    I'm not surprised. I've watched him get steadily worse for three days. It was amusing to follow his thoughts and watch as his determination gave way to despair. He drove himself mad; he ran himself in a million little circles, destroying himself with his stress. I was content to sit back and watch it happen. It was free entertainment- I didn't have to do anything. The only thing I had to interfere with was his team. While the three aren't particularly bright, they aren't stupid, either. They know of only one thing that could eat away at Ran like this. Kudou figured it out before the others; it took him just minutes to decide that something had happened to Aya. As soon as he started cultivating such suspicions I had to blot the memory of that vegetable from their memories. I don't want them to mess things up.

    Ran has passed out, and I glance towards him. It isn't him I see, however. In his place is someone else. His head is tilted to rest against the window in an identical fashion to the red cat's, but he is not asleep. He is studying the people we pass, one hand raised to touch his fingertips to the glass.

    I fix my eyes firmly forward again, a frown pulling at my lips. I ask myself if this is really such a good idea, but I've known the answer to that since I first told Ran he was going to move in. It isn't a good idea. Nagi doesn't feel any better about it three days after I told him what had happened. I've waved off his concerns every time he brings it up, but I know he is right. He doesn't even know why he's right. He has his own reasons for disliking the game, but he doesn't know the real one.

    I guess the masochist in me is just itching to be scratched. It is a dangerous game to be playing with Ran, more so for me than for Red. I am confident in my gift, however. I am confident in myself. The game has a lot of risks but I won't lose it. And when it's done, I can throw him away and forget there ever was a Fujimiya Ran. After all, his sister is much more important to what I'm doing than he will ever be. He is just the extra baggage that comes on the side.

    The apartment Schwarz used to reside in is towards the edge of the city, among the more expensive of the residence areas. Right now we are paying for it with the money out of my account, using what I didn’t spend when we were still Schwarz. Crawford's money is set aside for Nagi's education. When the cash runs out Nagi will have to wire us some more from somewhere. I am not making anywhere near how much it would take to keep the apartment and I refuse to give the place up. Not only is it a really nice place, but I am not interested in finding something else.

    Five months ago, I wouldn't have cared so much.

    That's what it all boils down to these days: five months ago.

    Five months ago Crawford saw his death coming. He announced it to us as we were making plans for Estet's ceremony. The building was going to collapse, he warned us. There was going to be a lot of power and energy running through that building once the ceremony started, and after we took care of Aya, it would have nowhere else to go. The place was going to fall apart. We accepted this, mostly because he told us that we would survive it as long as we did exactly what he said.

    Then he told us that he wasn't included in the survivors.

    He didn't care that he was going to die. I remember realizing that as I listened to him tell us that there was nothing that could be done to alter it. Nagi had protested. After all, Schwarz had been built around Crawford. He was the beginning of Schwarz, and Nagi couldn't imagine waking up to a Schwarz that didn't have the Oracle in it. I hadn't been sure what to make of it, either- I had known Crawford for six years. He and I weren't exactly friends but he had a prominent role in my life. Nagi and I had both argued with him, but he had simply said it wasn't something that could be avoided. That's when I realized that he would be quite content to go. Crawford was always strange like that.

    He didn't tell us how he was going to die. He didn't tell us that the Elders destroyed him when they realized what we had done. They used their gift on him and ruptured something deep inside. I found out because I felt it- his shields vanished in the blow. By the time his vision came to pass and the floor gave out, he was hanging on to his strength with his fingernails. He only needed to be strong long enough to fend off Ran until the building would take care of the redhead for him, and he was dead just seconds after the two vanished through the floor.

    I practically tear the key from the ignition and reach out, giving Ran an unkind jab in the ribs with it to wake him. He only reaches half consciousness, but it's enough that I don't have to carry his weight alone. He leans on me for support, too out of it to really comprehend who is helping him through the glass doors into the lobby. An elevator's doors are closing and I stick my foot in to open them again, giving the old couple inside a mental command to wait for the next car. They slip out and I ease Ran in.

    Our place is on the sixth floor and it doesn't take the lift long to get there. Nagi won't be here for several more hours; his last Friday class ends at a quarter to six. Ran limps along beside me down the hall towards the den. The cats are getting in the way, running alongside me and in front of me. They're crying, excited to see me home so early. I deposit Ran on the couch and three cats are instantly up on him and on the cushions around him, deciding that since my hands are busy up there that that's where they have to be to get pet. I ignore them for a moment, tugging my newest pet's shoes off to bring back to the front door. The cats sniff Ran with wide-eyed curiosity, but abandon him for me as I leave the room.

    "Get out of my way, you little bugs," I say, but they don't pay me any attention. I drop Ran's shoes to the mat beside the front door and Zwei buries his head in one to check it out. "Don't sniff that, you have no idea where it's been," I admonish him, prying off my own shoes and setting them beside Ran's. The next stop is the kitchen. Now that Red is taken care of, I have to bother with the kittens underfoot that are crying up a storm. "Look, you just saw me six hours ago. You bite me again, Zwei, and I swear to God I won't feed you."

    The crying only intensifies in volume as I lug the bag of kitty chow out of its cabinet, and I almost can't refill their dishes because their heads are in the way. "I can't believe you emptied your dishes in six hours. You guys are pigs," I inform them as I put the bag back in its place. They ignore me, a chorus of purrs as they feast. We have twelve little kitty bowls scattered around the kitchen floor. We originally intended to just have one dish per cat, but I started buying more when I kept coming home and they cried as if they had been hungry for hours. Two dishes per cat, and they still act the same. Gluttons.

    I pause in the hall, gazing across into the den. Ran is asleep already. He'll be out cold for a long time. I linger for several moments longer. I took the rest of the day off. My original plan was to plant myself somewhere with a book or to watch a movie until Nagi showed up or Ran stirred, but I am no longer in the mood to do either of those things.

    I find myself gazing down the hall in the direction of my room. My thoughts spin in slow, morbid circles as I regard my door. Before I can get too far lost down them, a head butts against my ankle. I look down to see Eins staring up at me. I reach down, lifting her with both hands to cradle her against my chest. She tucks her head under my chin, purring quietly. I carry her down the hall towards Crawford's office. Formerly the fourth bedroom, Crawford converted it into his personal workstation two years ago. I seat myself in his leather chair, lowering Eins to my lap. She is content to sit there, watching me as I reach around back of the desk and find the key hanging from a nail there.

    The key fits the bottom drawer on the right, and I slide it open. When I went through Crawford's desk four months ago for the first time, I discovered that this drawer holds our Rosenkreuz and Estet files. I know instantly what file I want, and I lift the black folder from the back. Eins' ears perk up as I set it on the desk in front of me and flip it over. There are four packets inside, four small stacks of paper held together by paperclips. I am not sure how Crawford got hold of these- they are our files, straight from Rosenkreuz headquarters. I don't think we are supposed to have them, but they were a wonderful discovery. I move the top three aside; they are unimportant.

    The picture on the fourth stares up at me, a disinterested gleam in his gaze. I slowly pry the paperclip off the stack and lift the page off to study it, staring at the only material image I have of my teammate. I set the picture on the desk upside down and slide open the top drawer on the left. A pack of Mild Seven and a lighter rest within, my additions to the contents of the desk. I light up and prop a cigarette between my lips, gazing down at the cat that is quickly falling asleep in my lap.

    Crawford's advice to us if we wanted to survive the confrontation five months ago was to fall alone and let Nagi's gift protect us once we were clear of the building and on our way towards the sea.

    Things would be much different today if that had actually happened.

Part 4
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