Part Eight: It Isn't Fair

    My apartment has never been a lively place. I’m not much for collecting things, and since I became an assassin there’s been no point to decorate my place. Every item I own is one more thing my teammates would have to get rid of if I slipped up on a mission. Besides…with all of my checks going to Aya’s medical bills, I don’t have the money to indulge myself with materialistic possessions. Therefore, it doesn’t take long to pack, and I stand by the door staring in at the barren room. I found empty boxes in the storage room downstairs and filled them with my clothes and my pictures of Aya. The only other things I had to pack were my books. I leave my sword and coat here; this is where I’ll stop by when I’m called to go on missions, anyway.

    I have four boxes; it takes four trips to get them down to my car. Three fit in my trunk. I put the other in the back, shoving it to the ground between the backseat and passenger seat. I drape a jacket over it and poke at it to try and make it look like it’s just strewn there rather than hiding something. My car is closest to the stairwell; I don’t want my teammates to see the box and wonder what I’m doing with my possessions. Packing done, I return to my room.

    It’s five-twenty now; I have plenty of time before I have to be downstairs. I glance around my room. The only thing I left up here for this morning is an outfit of my own and my toiletries; I was hoping to get done early so I could take a shower and feel clean. Schuldich’s clothes are thrown carelessly to the ground. I usually try to keep the place clean, but I don’t care about his things. I vanish into my bathroom and close the door behind me, leaning against it a moment to take a deep breath. My eyes slide closed; I reassure myself silently that I am in my own place. Even if it is just for a little bit, I will be in the shop for most of the day. Schuldich requires my presence, but only outside of missions and my shifts. I will still spend most of my waking time near the Koneko.

    I was never able to appreciate the flower shop like I do now.

    The mirror greets me when I open my eyes, showing me my scars and bruise. The bruise is an ugly mix of shades, from yellow to blood red. I still haven’t managed to think of a good excuse for my teammates; I can’t even imagine what I’m going to say to the girls who come in to harass us. I reach up, brushing my fingers over it. It might be the first physical wound I’ve received from Schuldich…Generally he sticks to tormenting us with his gift. I much prefer the physical attacks, I decide, even if they leave marks. Bruises fade; the pain from a ravaged mind could linger forever. Humans are good at forgetting about the things that hurt their bodies; it is their souls that cannot heal. Losing the ones I loved will eat at me forever, a mix of pain on both physical and emotional levels.

    I turn away from the mirror and step into my shower. If I had time, I would head to the baths a couple streets down and soak to remove the fuzzy layer it feels like I have from being in Schwarz’s apartment. The shower will have to do; I remain under the hot water much longer than I usually do, scrubbing at my skin until it is an angry red. After I am satisfied that I am clean, I stand and try to let the water calm me. Slowly the hot water does its magic and I can feel myself relaxing. It hurts; I was so worked up about being in Schwarz’s apartment and presence that it is physically painful to relax.

    When I feel the water start to run cold, I twist the knobs to off and step out of the shower. It’s like stepping into a cloud; my bathroom is completely filled with steam. I reach out to the mirror, using my fingertip to trace Aya’s name onto the foggy surface. My towel is hanging on the back of the door; I tug it free of its hook and step into my main room. The steam tries to follow me, and I close the bathroom door on it. I find the clock with my eyes as I am pulling my clothes on and am surprised to see that it is a quarter after six. I didn’t realize I was in the shower for that long. I still have time before I have to be downstairs, which means I can have breakfast.

    One of the things I have been most grateful for in these past several months is that our apartments come with kitchens. True, they’re small, with the stove not even as wide as my forearm, but it still means I can cook things when I want. I send my stove a glare today, however. I’m going to be cooking a lot of meals for Schwarz in the future, which means I’ll no longer be able to use it as an activity to take my mind off of life.

    There’s a loaf of bread on my minifridge, and I settle for making toast. I take my time eating it, still searching for an excuse for my battered appearance and my abandoning of Yohji last Friday. At least I don’t have to deal with him until the afternoon. I have morning shift with Ken, and I can probably chase away his questions with a glare. That gives me a couple more hours to think.

    Finally it is time, and I move down the stairs to the shop. I enter through the back door and close it; as I am turning I realize I am not alone. The person I wanted to see the least right now- next to Schwarz- is standing just a few feet away.

    I don’t turn to face him fully, trying to keep my bruise from him for just a few more minutes. What is he doing up? It’s seven in the morning. Yohji doesn’t get up at seven unless someone makes him, and he usually tries to kill that someone just a short time later.

    “Where have you been?” he asks, voice soft. I don’t answer, half-wondering if I can just slip back outside again. “I looked for you this weekend. You never answered your door.”

    “I was out,” I answer.

    “Aya, we need to talk.” He moves towards me, and I know I can’t hide the bruise anymore. I grit my teeth, waiting for him to see it. The others I can shut up with glares and cold words; Yohji won’t be dissuaded so easily. No matter what I tell him, he’ll keep bothering me for days until he gets what he feels is the truth. And Yohji is very, very good at knowing when he’s being lied to…Not to mention that he seems to be able to see right through me a good bit of the time. Before, I was almost glad that Yohji and I seemed to have an understanding; it made the world seem just a bit better back when I had no one. Now I hate him for trying so hard to be my friend.

    “About what?” I ask.

    “You.” He comes to a stop next to me and reaches out to turn me to face him. I wait, eyes locked on his face, for his reaction. His mouth is open to speak again, but the words never get uttered. Yohji reacts as if he is the one who has just been hit; he jerks back, green eyes widening. Stunned disbelief dances on his features, and I take advantage of his surprise to pull out of his grip. “Jesus Christ, Aya, what the hell happened to your face?”

    “Tripped,” I answer dryly, scooting past him and heading towards the door connecting the back to the main shop. It’s the first thing that comes to mind. As long as Yohji’s going to know he’s being lied to, I decide I might as well not waste creative answers on him. “What are you doing up so early?”

    He snags my elbow, yanking me back to him to give my bruise a careful inspection. “Who hit you? What the hell happened?” he demands.

    “You should see the other man,” I tell him, trying to tug free again. Schuldich may not be in any pain now, but at least he’ll be on a deeper level of hell than I will. I entertain the mental image of him sinking into fire and lava; it pleases me.

    “Aya,” Yohji bites out. “Don’t avoid the question.”

    “Stay out of my business,” I snap back. “What are you doing up so early?”

    “I switched shifts with Ken so we could talk,” he answers. He hates that I’m ignoring his questions, that I’m trying to avoid the subject, but he also knows I’m less likely to cooperate when my own questions go unanswered. “Who hit you?”

    Yohji switched shifts. I’ll have him all morning. Damn. This is not what I need when I’ve just been returned from a hellish weekend with Schwarz, when I’m facing several months of them. I’ll have enough people aggravating me there; I need the shop to be some sort of respite. I settle for glaring at him. “Let go. My face isn’t any of your business.”

    “You’re my friend and my teammate. I think it’s my business when you get in fights.”

    I give my arm a violent wrench and he still hangs on. Something snaps. “I don’t ask you who you’re fucking,” I say, my voice twisted with anger. “Don’t bother me about what I do when I’m not on shift. It _isn’t_ your business. Your job is to watch my back on a mission and I’ll return the favor. Your job is to show up for your shifts when you’re supposed to. My life isn’t your concern. I don’t give you the right to worry.”

    My harsh words make some progress; he lets my arm slip through his fingers. Fixing Yohji with one last glare, I turn and continue my previously interrupted journey to the shop front. Yohji stays behind for a long moment before following. Omi or Ken might be offended by my words…If Yohji let me get to him, he would never have gotten where he is today. If my temper and my seeming lack of regard for everyone around me bothered him, he never would have kept trying to earn my trust. He listens to the words and lets them roll over him, refusing to take them personally.

    Before, I was always grateful for that. Today it just means he’s going to bother me.

    He joins me in the shop shortly and we begin working at our tables, preparing the shop for the day. For now he’ll respect my wishes enough to not ask about my weekend or my cheek. Those questions will come later, and will keep coming at random intervals until he gets a satisfactory answer. He’s probably running over all of his questions in his mind now, wondering which angle he can use now, which ones he might get answers to. I let him think and struggle to push down my anger on the other side of the shop. If I want this shop to be a retreat from Schwarz, I have to work at keeping my teammates from getting under my skin. I am usually good at controlling my temper, even when I feel the three are invading my privacy. I know I’m just off kilter from this weekend, and Yohji doesn’t deserve my anger. So I close my eyes and take a deep breath, telling myself to treat his next question a little better.

    It doesn’t take him long to come up with something else. “You look like you’ve finally gotten some sleep.”

    My thoughts flick to the drugs Schuldich gave me. “I did,” I agree.

    He recognizes this as a safe subject and continues. “That’s good. You looked like walking death last week. You know, if you have problems sleeping, I can suggest some energetic people. A little bed company can wear you out enough to get some real rest.”

    It’s an attempt at humor on his part; it just draws my thoughts back to Schuldich. “Not really,” I mutter.

    I didn’t mean to voice the words aloud. Even so, I thought I had spoken them too quietly for Yohji to pick up on. I realize he heard me when I hear the shears hit the ground, and I can feel his gaze boring into my back. I continue working, checking the soil of the flowers in front of me. Perhaps I am already used to Schuldich being able to read my thoughts…Words and thoughts are the same for him, so one might as well voice what they’re thinking. I’ll have to be more careful.

    “So, you were _out_ this weekend…” Yohji says.

    “I don’t want to talk, Yohji. Not today.”

    “Well, when you do…” He leaves the offer unspoken.

    I give a soft sigh, grateful because it means he’s going to leave me alone today. “I know.”

    “Now…let’s think of something to tell the girls for your face, mm?”




    Something cold touches my face; that’s what brings me out of my thoughts. I find myself staring into Nagi’s eyes. He has a bottle of juice to my cheek, and he lowers it when he sees me focus on him. My head throbs; I reach up and rub my fingers along my temple as I glance around. Where am I? The den? When did I get here? “What are you doing up?” I ask.

    “I’m going to class,” he informs me. “What are you still doing home?”

    “Shit!” I scramble to my feet; my teammate easily moves aside as I search for the time. He reads it to me from his watch right as I find the clock. It is seven fifty- I’m twenty minutes late to work. I’m not even dressed yet; I took Ran back to the flower shop in my shoes and cotton pants. Nagi follows me to the hall. I’m dizzy, though I’m not sure why, and the cats running under my feet don’t make it any easier to walk. I reach out, using my hand on the wall to keep me balance.

    ~Did you drink straight from the pot?~ Nagi asks me.

    /What?/ I ask blankly, rummaging through my drawers for my clothes. By the time I get there it will be a quarter after eight. I’m not overly worried about being late…I can use my gift to tweak the minds of my coworkers so they don’t realize I wasn’t there for the first forty minutes. I don’t like being late because it’s never happened before, because it’s always been that I was early because I couldn’t sleep. Today I’m late because I blanked out. What caused that? I wrack my mind, trying to remember what I was doing in the den.

    ~The pot for the coffee maker is out here, and it’s empty.~

    /Hell if I know,/ I answer.

    I took Ran back this morning…Then made coffee and went to the den? I shake my head, trying to pull my thoughts back in order, as I zip up my pants. I fasten the buttons of my shirt as I go down the hall. I can hear the sound of Nagi filling the cat dishes. My teammate finishes the task and meets me at the door, his bag in hand. We tug on our shoes and I grab my keys. Nagi stills me by putting his hand on the door first, and I glance at him.

    He studies my face. Whether he finds what he’s looking for or not- whatever he’s looking for- I don’t know. After just a few moments he opens the door and I follow him to the elevator. As we exit the building, I send my younger teammate a glance. “Ride?” I ask.

    His first class isn’t until half after, so Nagi always leaves the apartment after I do. He has enough time to walk to campus and get to his class before the teacher does. He walks because I’ve usually left for work before he gets up. Today, however, I’m running late for the first time in the four months I’ve been working at the harbor.

    The harbor…? Something flickers in the back of my mind, something just out of reach.

    “You’re already late,” Nagi informs me.

    I shrug. Nagi considers the offer, then nods and follows me to the car. I drive away from the apartment complex for already the second time this morning, heading in the opposite direction of the flower shop. Something drives me to start a conversation; something doesn’t want me left alone to my thoughts once more. I wonder if whatever my mind is trying to hide is what made me fade out this morning, why I only remember watching Ran walk towards the flower shop and nothing else about this morning. Or maybe I’m just tired.

    “You survived your first weekend with Red,” I inform Nagi.

    “One down, three billion to go,” he responds with a sigh.

    I grin. “There aren’t that many…”

    “You want him to stay with us for three or four months,” Nagi tells me. “That’s a long time to have him under our roof.”

    “He cooks well, though, doesn’t he?” I ask blandly. Nagi’s leftovers disappeared the other night, and the boy picked at his dinner last night.

    Nagi ignores that. “The only good thing about him is that he helps you sleep at night. Other than that, what good does he do? He just lurks about with a dark look on his face. Your seventh cat indeed; at least we don’t have to clean up after him.” With that, he folds his arms over his chest and looks out the window at the passing traffic. I glance sideways at him, waiting. There’s something else he wants to say, something else that is eating him from the inside out. It’s behind the remains of his shield, however, so although I can sense its presence I have to wait until he voices it to know what’s bothering him. It could be months until he says it, though, or maybe even forever. Nagi is used to bottling things up.

    Today seems to be the day, however. As I turn the corner and his university comes into sight, Nagi whispers, “It isn’t fair…”

    The pain in that soft sentence is strong enough to be physical; I’ve never heard such a thing from Nagi before, and I pull up to the curb near the entrance gates and turn sideways in my seat to look at him. For a few minutes, Nagi doesn’t move to get out. He just stares down at his things, his hands clenched into fists in his lap. His knuckles are white, and his mouth is pulled into a thin line. Silence hangs between us, tense and unhappy.

    Finally Nagi gives an odd, sharp laugh and forces his fingers to uncurl, lifting one hand to rake his hair out of his face. He flicks me a glance, and for one moment I can almost see right through him, to the pain that he never allowed himself to express when Schwarz- the closest thing Nagi had to a family- fell apart. Nagi never had the time to grieve; he was too busy trying to be strong for me, trying to put me back in order. He lost two teammates that day and I’ve never been the same since. Even though he’ll pause and reflect over what happened, he forces his feelings on the matter to the back of his mind. It’s what Crawford taught him to do, but now I can see just how much Nagi has locked away, now I can see just how strong Nagi’s shields are to be able to hide such a large thing from me.

    “They’re all alive, aren’t they?” Nagi asks, his lips twitching into a hollow mockery of a grin. I hate that expression on him; it makes my stomach twist. “All of Weiß.”

    There’s no point in lying to him. I look away, unable to hold his gaze any longer. I rake my eyes along the cars passing, studying the people on the opposite sidewalk. Our windows are rolled up against the noise of the traffic, but the muffled sounds carry through the glass. “All four,” I answer.

    “Of course…” I hear his seatbelt click as he undoes it, and look over at him again. His face is calm again, even if his mouth is still pulled tight. His eyes are guarded, and the unhappiness that lingered in his mind has been shoved away. He picks up his bag from where it rests at his feet and opens the door, sliding out. He leans over, peering in the car to catch and hold my gaze. “Will you be working late today?”

    I shake my head. “I’ll be home on time.” On time means 8:00 at the latest; I work 60 hours a week when I’m not doing overtime shifts, working from 7 in the morning til 7:30 at night. It’s no wonder it’s killing my back, but the pay is nowhere near what we used to make. Even with just two of us, there are a lot of expenses. My leftover pay from Schwarz won’t last forever when it’s being drained by our rent. I’ve made eight paychecks since I started taking over the rent, and I have to divide these between the apartment, the other bills, and general spending money. The rent is what I’m most worried about. If I have to sell my car and walk to and from work every day just so we can keep the place, I’ll gladly do it. Nagi’s education is something else… Right now he’s paying from his own funds. When those run out, he’ll use what we’re saving in Crawford’s for him.

    We made enough money as Schwarz that we should have been all right for almost two years, even if I wasn’t working. When we decided to turn our back on Estet and cut ties with them, Crawford had Nagi move part of our money into new accounts so we would have some once we were free. We couldn’t move all of it or someone would grow suspicious and alert the elders. It was done as a series of small transfers that we hoped no one would notice, but we didn’t have enough time to move all that we hoped to. By now Estet and Rosenkreuz have swallowed our money from our old accounts, I’m sure, recycling them back into their own funds.

    “And Weiß?” Nagi asks, drawing me from my thoughts. Money used to be Crawford’s business…He handled things. It just gives me a headache, and I’m glad for the distraction.

    “He’s working all day today. He’ll get there about the same time as me.”

    It gives Nagi some relief, I’m sure, that he won’t have to put up with and accept Ran by himself. He’ll get home before both of us, which means he’ll feed the cats for me. I grin at him, and he relaxes his grudge and displeasure over everything enough to give me a faint return smile. “Work hard,” he tells me, straightening and shutting the door.

    I watch him for a few minutes as he heads into the gate, a young man aged beyond his years, a student like everyone he passes but always the outsider. It didn’t mean anything to be different before. It cost nothing to be the outsider, to be Schwarz, before. But now we’re not Schwarz, and the only thing we can do is try to slip back into a world that can never really belong to us, a world that will never accept us. It doesn’t matter as much as it could; as long as there are two of us, as long as we can turn around and see someone who really does understand, we’ll make it.

    We’ll make it, even if at times we don’t want to.

    I turn the engine back on and pull away from the curb. It takes ten minutes to get to the harbor and I’m late enough that I have to park at the far end of the parking lot. I turn Nagi and my conversation over in my head once before tucking it aside to go over later. I can see that our first ship is here; my manager is probably cursing me and my entire bloodline since I’m late. Well…in a couple minutes, he’ll never know that I was tardy. He’ll think I’ve been here the whole time.

    I adjust the security guard near the door so that he never saw me pass, hurrying down the stairs to find my locker. The locker room is empty; it won’t be crowded again until shift change halfway through the day. Most of the part timers show up in the afternoon, when we’re busier. I change into the coveralls that are hanging in my locker and trade my shoes out for the waterproof boots, tying the laces and tucking them in so I won’t trip over them. There’s a rubber band dangling from my hanger; I grab it and pull my hair back into a ponytail to get it out of my face.

    Five months ago, no one would catch me dead doing this type of work or wearing such things. Schwarz spoiled me that way- I was good enough to kill and manipulate, nothing else. That’s what Rosenkreuz tried to teach us, was that killing was the ultimate work and everything else was something for the pathetic people who could not free themselves from society. Five months ago I was given a harsh reality check. I am not an assassin anymore…I never will be again. Schwarz died that day, and Nagi and I don’t have it in us to put the pieces of the fallen unit back together. It doesn’t matter that we could make better money if we went back to our old ways. If we work again, it’ll just bring attention to us, and Nagi and I are supposed to be dead. Times have changed and we’ll change with it, and if I have to work twelve hour shifts at a loading dock to try and make ends meet…

    …Somehow, I’m satisfied with it.

    I close my locker again and head upstairs. I bump into my supervisor at the top and I let him explode at me, privately amused by his anger. It doesn’t matter that this is my first time I’m late…Apparently some others called in sick and we’re seriously understaffed today. I’m supposed to be reliable and responsible, and here I am over an hour late- more than an hour because I detoured to take Nagi to school and we stopped to talk as well. When he is through and waiting for me to apologize, I tweak his memory and anyone else’s who might have been close enough to hear. I leave him on mental pause until I’m down the hall and around the corner, and as I cross through the door into the main, enormous room of the docks. Only as I’m making my way down the carpeted stairs- carpeted so that our wet boots don’t slip on metal steps- do I release him, and he doesn’t know he bumped into me just moments ago.

    Everyone else present is tweaked to think that I’ve been here all along, and that I’m coming downstairs right now because I took a trip to the john.

    My gift is so useful.

    I weave through the line of my coworkers who are carrying crates off of our current ship, taking count as we go. We’re four people short today, and four on a line like this is a lot. Today will be busy, people will be stressed. It’s just the type of day I need right now, a fast-paced day where I don’t have time to think. I reach the edge, slowing down my stride when I reach the point where the ground has puddles. We’re high enough off the water that the waves can’t leak onto our floor, but when the ships come they always manage to make a mess. I prance up the ramp, passing one of my other supervisors where he’s talking to a representative of the ship. He reaches out, giving me a clap on the shoulder as I pass. The supervisors weren’t sure what to make of me at first, what with my nationality and my strange appearance. They weren’t overly interested in me at first, but my hard work and my sarcastic attitude warmed first my coworkers and then them to me. Let the salarymen work their asses off with polite attitudes and false smiles…Here on the docks, no one cares about pretenses. When we have the breath for it, we poke at each other. I think I’m good for them…I’ll say what they still hesitate to voice, and slowly I’m drawing them out of their odd Japanese shells.

    I tug a crate from the pile and turn to go. I pass a coworker as he heads up the ramp and pretend I’m trying to trip him. He calls me a bastard and then yells good morning with a laugh.


    Crawford would call it corruption, but hey, that’s how he is.


Part 9
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