"The Masks we Wear"
Ran cornered Aya the next morning as she came tromping down the stairs, hands still twisting her hair into braids, a piece of bread crammed into her mouth. He blocked the bottom of the stairs and offered her his most unyielding scowl. "You're not going to school today."
She hesitated three steps above him, fingers still working on the braid. "Wha?" she asked around the bread.
"You heard me," Ran grunted. "They know where we are. There's no telling when an another attack will come. You're going to spend the day packing what you need and moving."
Aya finished her braid and yanked the bread from her mouth, staring incredulously at her brother. "Moving??" she repeated loudly. "You promised me we'd never move again! You said there was nothing to run from anymore, that we could start over. What's going on, anyway? Why are people after us again? Why should we have to move?"
Ran sighed, running a hand through his hair distractedly. "I know," he muttered, unable to meet her eyes. "I know what I said. But I was wrong. These men are after Schwarz. They must know that we see them regularly. That means we're in danger as well." His eyes flashed with temporary anger. "There's nothing we can do about it. We can't stand back and wait for this to be over. Schwarz has made it our problem through simple association."
Aya studied him for a long moment in silence, her expression of outrage fading a bit. "Don't do that," she protested quietly.
Ran scowled. "What?"
"Don't blame this on Farfarello and the others," Aya insisted. "That isn't fair."
"I'm only saying what's true," Ran snapped, turning away.
"Maybe," Aya admitted. "But you should have known the risks when you decided to stick by Crawford-san."
Ran visibly flinched, turning his head to glare at her. "Didn't you hear me?" he demanded. "Do what I said. Go pack. And get out of that school uniform-- it's too conspicuous."
Aya huffed, but turned on her heel and stomped back upstairs.
Ran watched her go in silence, mouth pressed together tightly. "Just who," he muttered to the uncaring walls, "is the eldest here, anyway? Baka Aya...."
Aya had just finished changing into her favorite blue skirt and blouse when there was a short rap at the door. "I heard you the first time, Ran," she snapped, bending over to dig her suitcase out from under her bed.
"You'd better be decent," came Schuldich's voice through the door.
She turned her head to watch as Schuldich opened the door and stepped in. "What do you want?"
He hesitated at the threshold, arching a brow before belatedly flicking his eyes to the side. "Young ladies shouldn't bend over in short skirts," he pointed out with a barely supressed smirk.
Aya straightened hastily, hands flying to the back of her skirt as she glared at him, cheeks flushing. "Ecchi!"
He held up his hands defensively, grinning at her. "You're the one wagging her ass in the air. You finished packing yet?"
She offered him a dirty look and squatted down to yank out her suitcase. "I just heard the great news," she grumbled. "Give me a few minutes, will you? And if you don't want to see things like that, don't come barging into a woman's bedroom."
Schuldich rolled his eyes, wandering over to her desk and toying idly with the small crystal dragon given to her by Yohji. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as she unzipped her bag, noting the momentary somberness in his face as he inspected the tiny figurine. "Don't pack every knick-knack, doodad, and hairbrush you have, chibi," he drawled, setting the dragon down firmly, expression normal again. "This is only temporary. And it's easier to run with one bag than five."
"I know how to pack light," Aya retorted, striding over to her dresser. She began pulling open drawers and tossing clothes in the direction of her bed. "I know it's temporary. This is our home. I'm not leaving it. We're just going to lie low for a little while, right?"
If he picked up on the strained note to her voice, he chose to ignore it. He was still idly rummaging through the things on her desk. "Yeah, until this blows over. Might be for a few days, maybe longer. However long it takes to shake these guys. Or kill them. Whatever comes first."
"Kill them," Aya said firmly, hesitating as she reached her underwear drawer. She shut it again firmly. She would pack those when a certain smartass German wasn't hovering over her shoulder. "At least then we'll know the whole thing is over with."
Schuldich gave a short bark of harsh laughter. "How very demure and ladylike of you," he drawled. "The shit that comes outta your mouth really cracks me up." He slid hooded jade eyes her way. "Little girls that have never so much as killed a pet cat shouldn't speak so lightly of killing other people," he pointed out, darkly amused.
Aya straightened, returning to her bed with an armload of shirts and socks. "I'm not the one who's going to be fighting," she reminded him. "Like 'niisan would let me."
"After what happened last time?" Schuldich snorted quietly, returning his attention to the desk. "Not fucking likely. Or have you already forgotten your little run-ins with a certain psychotic Korean?"
Aya shivered at the memory, dumping the clothes on her bed and beginning to refold them all. "What else was I supposed to do?" she asked quietly. "That first time, I mean. After that, he came looking for me."
"You make an enticing target," Schuldich pointed out. "A little girl with no Gift with close ties to one of the enemy. Killing you would be an easy way to get to that human matchbook you call a brother."
"And you?" Aya asked before she could stop herself.
Schuldich frowned, lifting a glittering hair fastener to the light. "Huh?"
Aya kept her eyes on her work, unable to make herself look over at the older man. "Would you even care?" she demanded quietly. "If I was..."
Schuldich tossed the fastener aside carelessly, jamming his hands in his pockets and frowning over at her. "What the hell are you going on about now, runt?"
"Nothing," she said firmly, arranging her clothes in the suitcase roughly. "Nevermind. Forget it."
Schuldich wrinkled his nose at her. "I get it. You're on the rag, right? That explains your fucking homicidal attitude--"
"I'm not," she snapped, embarrassed and offended at the same time. "Will you get lost and let me pack? Or at least make yourself useful. Hand me my notebook, will you? The green one."
Schuldich rolled his eyes and began pushing things around her desk half-heartedly with his index finger. "Don't tell me miss honor student is going to work on her homework while on the run."
"I have a lot of catching up to do," Aya called over her shoulder as she headed for the bathroom. "I'm far enough behind as it is. I just want to be normal for once. Finishing high school is important to me, Schuldich. You wouldn't understand."
"Hah." Schuldich gave up his search of the desk's surface and began opening the drawers randomly. He dug through one of them, inspecting its contents with vague curiosity. He hesitated on spotting a splash of rusty red peeking out from under a pile of papers.
He seized the corner of cloth and pulled it quickly. Had someone gotten to her already? That girl at school who'd sensed him trying to read her thoughts? Why the hell would the little twit hide something like that?
His mouth was already twisting in a scowl of irritation when he held the length of cloth up for inspection.
The scrap of yellow, splattered with the old stains of blood, was all too familiar.
Aya's quiet voice from the doorway startled him from his thoughts. "...What are you doing?"
He turned his head to stare at her, and caught the flicker of embarrassment and hurt on her face before she looked away and headed quickly for her suitcase, dropping in a small pile of toiletries. "Don't dig through a girl's things without permission," she muttered with her back to him.
Schuldich dropped the bandanna as if he'd been burned, feeling an irrational moment of embarrassment. Oh, get a grip, he thought to himself angrily. It's not like you were digging through the twat's underwear drawer. Unconsciously, more out of habit than anything, he sent a slim tendril of thought into her mind.
She'd walked in and caught him holding the bandanna with a sneer on his face. Humiliation and hurt were bouncing around in her head so loudly she hadn't even thought to shield her mind yet. She had taken his expression for disgust. Disgust for a little girl that had stupidly kept one of his belongings as if it had some sentimental value.
He withdrew hastily from her mind, jerking his eyes away and glaring at the desk as if it had offended him in some way.
"If you can't find the notebook, can you get out so I can finish packing?" Aya asked, still subdued.
Schuldich hesitated, eyes lingering on the bloodied yellow cloth for a moment. "Why do you have this?" he asked abruptly.
"You can have it back," she answered, shoulders tensing up a little. "I forgot I had it."
"What do I want with a stained piece of toilet paper like this?" Schuldich snorted, flicking the bandanna back into the drawer. "Why did you keep it in the first place?" A small part of his mind was informing him a little desperately how very stupid his choice of words was, but he ignored it easily. It was a corner of his brain he rarely paid attention to.
Aya had gone very still. She turned sharply and strode over, refusing to look at him. She reached past him, snatched the blood-splattered bandanna from the drawer, and threw it into the wastebin beside her desk. "Happy now?" she demanded harshly.
Schuldich acted without thinking, snagging her arm as she turned away.
She stumbled back at the sudden yank, eyes flicking up to him in surprise. She was red with embarrasment, and her eyes were suspiciously wet.
Schuldich blinked, startled and suddenly uneasy. Crying women were not exactly his specialty. "Jesus, quit taking everything so personally," he snapped because he didn't know what else to say to shake some sense into her. This had been Kudou's department, not his. "I don't care if you keep the stupid thing. Use it as a momento of your towering stupidity from the last fight."
That, the little corner of his brain informed him with an internal wince, was very stupid.
Aya's eyes had widened slightly at his words, and she wrenched her arm away with excessive force. "Get out of my room," she said tightly. Her voice quavered just a bit, but she wasn't about to let him see her cry. She shouldered past him and hurried back to her bed, chin up and lips pressed together tightly. Walls were wrapping themselves around her mind, shielding her thoughts from him.
Schuldich floundered. What? What'd I do? He kept the baffled words from his lips just in time. He may not understand women, but he had a feeling another word from him would result in an explosion of temper from the young woman.
Offering her back a half-hearted scowl, he strode from the room and shut the door firmly behind himself.
The familiar tap of a cane against the floor drew Ran's attention from where he was carefully stowing the day's earnings in a small wall safe in the back room.
Ran nodded, shutting the safe door and spinning the dial to activate the lock. "Just waiting on Aya-chan. My things are by the stairs."
"How did she take the news?"
Ran shrugged, turning and bending over to pick up a crate of canned mushrooms. "She had to have known this was coming after yesterday's attack. She's in denial right now. She's afraid of being uprooted again."
Crawford moved aside so that the younger man could get by. "The fact that she's packing instead of arguing proves she understands how dangerous the situation is," he pointed out. "She should be back to school shortly."
Ran carried the crate out to the kitchen and set it under one of the counters. He straightened, glancing back at the tall American. "She had better be. She can't miss much more school."
Crawford nodded slightly, face serene. His eyes slid away for a moment, the only sign of his internal conflict. "I apologize," he stated formally. "You were right. This would not be an issue for either of you if you'd disassociated yourselves from us at the beginning."
Ran surprised him by shaking his head and saying dryly, "I knew what I was getting into. As Aya so bluntly pointed out, I knew the risks. A part of me knew that even after Nebel was gone, we would still have to be careful. And you did warn me that there might eventually be others."
Crawford studied him in silence for a moment. "So why did you stay, then?"
Ran's eyes flinched away. "I made my decision. It was probably a stupid one, but--" he stopped abruptly, peering suspiciously at his partner. "Wait. Since when does Brad Crawford apologize to anyone?"
Crawford's lips curved in a faint sardonic smile. "There are exceptions to every rule," he murmured.
Ran snorted, dusting his hands off on his jeans. "Where are we going to stay?"
"Schuldich has offered to let some of us stay over at his place." Crawford leaned against his cane, taking some of the weight off of his bad knee. "It's big enough. My apartment has more than enough room as well, but it's probably wise to split up. If one place is discovered, everyone can move to the other."
Ran frowned. "Aya and I are the only ones who need boarding," he pointed out. His eyes widened slightly at Crawford's small smirk. "No," he said firmly. "Forget it. I am not leaving Aya alone with that perverted Nazi."
"He's strong enough to protect her," Crawford soothed. "He won't let anything happen to her."
"I'm more worried about him protecting her from himself," Ran growled.
Crawford gave a quiet sigh. "Schuldich won't do anything," he assured the younger man. "And I doubt they'll be seeing much of each other, anyway. Aya seems to want nothing to do with him lately. They'll probably avoid each other all day."
"I'll stay with them," Ran said quickly. "I don't trust--"
"Ran." Crawford stepped closer, face solemn. "You've expressed your dislike and lack of trust for him for quite some time. But I don't see where this paranoia concerning him and your sister stems from. When have you ever seen him treat her with anything other than sarcastic neglect? You've never seen him touch her or make advances. The two usually get along somewhat, but I think you're comparing Schuldich too closely to Kudou. Schuldich doesn't see it as his life's mission to deflower every virgin he comes across. He won't touch her unless she wants him to."
Ran flinched at Yohji's mention, but refused to drop it. "I find that hard to believe," he snapped. "Anyway, this is just one of your underhanded attempts to get me alone in your house, isn't it?"
"Am I that transparent?" Crawford drawled, then held up a hand when Ran's eyes narrowed. "It was a joke, Pyro. It's simply safer if we're thinned out a bit. There are already less targets with Farfarello and Hidaka in America. The only other safe place would be in Farfarello's realm, but I doubt you would like the idea of her hidden in a mass of Vampires."
Ran blanched. "The Vampires? Are you out of your mind? I never trusted them to begin with, but now that Farfarello isn't here to control them, they could go berserk at any time."
"He left Himeno in charge," Crawford reminded him mildly. "She's a competent woman. But you're right, she isn't quite as intimidating as Farfarello. Which is why this is the only other option left open to us. Besides..." his eyes drifted away for a moment. "Schuldich and Aya need to be forced to put up with each other. They need to resolve their differences sooner or later."
Ran stared at him. "Is this a vision thing?" he demanded bluntly. "Or just a whim of yours?"
Crawford smiled blandly but didn't respond to the pointed question. "You can trust Schuldich with Aya. But I'm beginning to wonder if your opposition to this plan is partly because you dislike the idea of being alone with me."
"Same problem with you," Ran snapped, flushing a little. "Am I going to have to lock my bedroom door at night?"
Crawford arched a brow. "Won't we be sharing a room?" he inquried innocently.
Ran scowled, still blushing. He opened his mouth for a retort, but Schuldich popped his head in just then. "I can feel your slimy loathing all the way upstairs," he told Ran in disgust. He turned his gaze on Crawford. "Are you really fucking serious about this splitting up thing? I don't think it's such a good idea for She-Ra to be bunking at my place."
Ran gave Crawford a meaningful look that went ignored.
"Deal with it," Crawford said unsympathetically. "She's under your charge as of now. I suggest guarding her with your life; Ran wouldn't be too pleased if something happened to her because of your negligence."
"She isn't in grade school, she doesn't need a fucking babysitter," Schuldich hissed angrily. "Keep the little twit with you." He smirked. "Or will that ruin your 'alone time'?"
"Can it, Schuldich," Ran growled, elbowing past him and striding out of the kitchen. "And if you so much as think of touching my sister, I'll gut you and give your carcass to Farfarello's men."
"Touch? Touch??" Schuldich sputtered, whirling around to glare at the other assassin. "There will be no touching! What the hell are you talking about, you walking fire hazard?"
Ran turned sharply to pin the German with a deadly glare. "No touching. No flirting. No comments that can be taken the wrong way. And your eyes stay above her neck. Do you get me?"
Schuldich gaped. "What the fuck are you going on about?" he exploded a moment later. His face felt hot, but he ignored it. "What are you, her fucking father?" He brought himself under control quickly, sneering at the redhead. "This overprotective shit is real cute, Red, but I don't happen to be interested in little girls. If I wanted a fuck, I'd find a real woman. I'm not going to touch the brat. So sheathe your claws, kitty ca...." he trailed off, eyes widening slightly.
Ran turned, puzzled.
Aya was at the foot of the stairs, face slightly pale, expression carefully closed off as she stared across the room at them both.
Crawford stepped out of the kitchen and took in the scene calmly.
Schuldich opened his mouth, then shut it again, expression quickly switching to a defiant scowl.
"Aya-chan," Ran started.
She cut him off with a sharp shake of her head. "I'm not staying with him," she said in a strangled voice, throwing out the pronoun like a curse word. She glared at her brother. "I'd rather sleep on the streets."
"Very smooth, Schuldich," Crawford murmured in mock approval.
"Who asked you?" Schuldich snarled. "Oi, chibi, what did I say about taking everything so damned personally?"
"How do I NOT take that personally, you arrogant jerk?!" Aya shouted back. She whirled and raced back up the stairs.
Schuldich stood gaping for a long moment as an uneasy silence hung on the air.
Ran turned to give him a filthy look. "What the hell was that for?"
Schuldich glared in silence. Unwanted, he felt the ghost of a hand on his face.
"Smile, Schuldich. I wish you would smile more."
Sad eyes above a gentle smile, eyes gazing right into his.
"A real smile. Not those grins you always show everyone. Not those sarcastic masks you hide behind. Can't you-- just once --show me an honest smile?"
Schuldich reached up unconsciously to touch a hand that wasn't there, eyes focusing on a face that no longer existed. A face in his mind, pulled free of memories he thought he'd gotten rid of long ago.
He caught himself and aborted the motion, clenching his hand in a fist and forcing his arm back by his side. "This is one of the dumbest plans you've ever had," he informed Crawford coolly.
"You hurt her feelings," Ran accused.
Schuldich forced himself to smirk tauntingly at the slender man. "Tough love," he said mockingly, and left in quick strides to have a much-needed cigarette outside.
He drew up walls of iron around his mind, muffling the pain he could feel coming from the bedroom upstairs.
Author's Notes: o__o Forgive me
Yes, I know it has been FOREVER and a day since I've updated Gravewalker. I just... I
dunno, lost interest in it. And everything WK for that matter. I've been working on GW for
a long time now, not to mention drawing on the side.
But Mami is slowly dragging me back to the WK world, kicking and screaming all the way. So
on impulse I sat down today and wrote this entire chapter. So maybe my muses got the
kickstart they needed.
I'm sooo sorry for the long delay ^^;; There are those who e-mailed me asking if I was
dead, and if I was ever going to update... So..Here it is. ^^;
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