Ch. 10

    Evidently my brother and the others think being half-crippled makes me half-deaf. I stare into my mug of tea as I eavesdrop shamelessly on the conversation in the other room. I don't even need my telepathy for this; they aren't being as quiet as they think they are. Even the pattering rain outside doesn't cover up their voices.
    As soon as we arrived at the shop this morning Ran sent me into the kitchen to rest a bit (since we of course had to do the subway thing again to get here, though he was tense the whole time, glaring at the other passengers suspiciously). Now the four of them are talking about last night's occurence.
    "Schuldich??" Ken hisses. "Are you sure?"
    "Was he the only one there?" Omi demands. "I'd assumed they'd been killed, since we hadn't seen them in so long. This could be bad."
    "It's weird that he didn't do anything," Yohji points out. "You weren't expecting him; he could have taken you out easily. It must be one of his fucked-up mind games. He was deliberately trying to scare you."
    "Aya-chan didn't figure out something was wrong did she?" Omi asks anxiously.
    "No." I can imagine the dark scowl my brother is wearing. "I just told her I thought I saw someone; I didn't clarify who. She seemed to accept it. She didn't ask me about it again; she was too tired."
    "Don't give me that look," Yohji protests. "You'll have your stinking car back by the end of the day."
    "We had all better stay on our toes," Omi insists. "Maybe he didn't do anything because he's the only survivor, but we don't know that. We'll just have to assume he's got some nasty trick up his sleeve."
    "We'll all keep an eye on her, Ran," Omi says firmly. "We won't let anything happen to her. But it'd be best if she isn't left alone until this is worked out."
    "Worked out," Ran repeats with a touch of scorn. "The only way this is going to be finished if we hunt those bastards down and take care of them once and for all."
    "You're probably right," Omi sighs. "I won't feel safe until I know they're no longer a threat."
    "There's no 'probably' about it," Ran snarls. "We need to take them out."
    "I didn't mean--" Omi's voice is a bit subdued at the harsh retort.
    Yohji steps in breezily. "Calm down, Aya. Uh, Ran. Whatever. I'll call Manx and have her try to dig up some info. But until we know more, it's best to just act as normal as possible. For Aya-chan especially. We don't want to scare her."
    "...Right." Ran's voice calms a bit. "Don't mention this to her."
    Ken snorts. "Duh."
    I scowl at my mug. Damn that Nazi bastard. This is all his fault. Things were nice and calm, until he just had to stick his fat face into it and mess it all up again.
    I should've kicked him in the nuts on the train.


    True to their word, the boys do indeed "keep an eye on me".
    Though I prefer the term "suffocating".
    The only alone time I get the entire day is when I go to the bathroom. Otherwise I have at least one shadow hovering closeby, even going so far as to follow me when I go to the kitchen for a break. And forget going out for lunch. Omi orders out, and we share a pizza at the table. And god forbid I even look like I'm about to step outdoors to water the plants out there. It's kind of sweet.
    In a really annoying kind of way.
    It does nothing for my temper, and by the end of the day they're on pins and needles from being so hyper alert so long, and I'm grouchy from having four babysitters tag along at my heels all day. I'm more than ready for a hot bath and a good night's sleep.
    There is still an hour before closing time, but I've decided enough is enough.
    Omi jumps when I stand up abruptly from behind the counter, my palms slamming down on the register. "That's it," I say tersely. "Enough is enough. I need fresh air."
    "Oh, but Aya-chan--" Omi starts to protest.
    Yohji must sense an explosion on the wind, because he sweeps in smoothly, offering me his arm as I snatch up my cane. "I could do with some lovely company," he says suavely. "I was about to go take a smoke break anyway."
    My irritation dissolves. At least this is one "babysitter" I don't mind sticking close to. Smiling, I take his arm and follow him out the back door. Ran watches us go with a slight frown, but knows better than to speak up when I'm so obviously frustrated. Besides, he trusts Yohji to protect me.
    Right. Protect me from what? Schuldich made it clear he has no interest in Weiß. They may be paranoid, but I at least know there's nothing to fear.
    It is still drizzling, so we stand under the tiny overhang outside the back kitchen door, and I step upwind as Yohji lights up. I wrinkle my nose teasingly at him. "That's a bad habit, you know."
    He smile around the cigarette. "Nasty habit," he agrees, then waggles his brows. "Some women think smokers are sexy."
    I can't help but laugh. He always makes me feel so at ease.
    "Smile, Bambi, you've looked like you swallowed a lemon all day."
    And other times the most innocent things he says spark an irritation I can't explain. He tries hardest of all the boys to cheer me up. He's constantly telling me to smile. Sometimes it's charming, and other times it is unexpectedly annoying. Sometimes I want to say "What if I don't feel like smiling?".
    I force another smile anyway. "Ken-kun warned me about your silver tongue," I tell him. "He says you go through women faster than cigarettes."
    Yohji coughs, glancing away. "Ken's a nosey little prat," he says bluntly. "Nothin' wrong with showing girls a good time."
    "...But only ones over eighteen, ne?" I ask quietly.
    His eyes flicker my way quickly, then away again. He keeps his tone light. "Sure. Seen some pretty girls, but I prefer to stick to women who are a bit more mature and, um, experienced, you know?"
    I stare down at my feet, swallowing hard. He really is adamant about that, then. It doesn't matter that mentally I'm almost nineteen. Physically, I'm still a sixteen year old girl, and so I don't even fall into the potential girlfriend list in his mind. Would it be too bold of me to ask if I would interest him if I were eighteen? He's good at picking up signals; surely by now he's noted the feelings I have for him. He pretends not to notice, because I'm Ran's sister and I'm underage, but... I have to know. Do I even register to him on that base level? Does he still think I'm pretty? If I were eighteen, would he...?
    I am so busy fumbling shyly with these thoughts, trying to bring up the courage to voice them aloud, I don't notice the all-too familiar prickle against my mind until too late.
    There is a sharp crack, and Yohji collapses with a grunt, passed out on the wet concrete.
    "Yohji-san!" I start forward to help him up, then look up quickly as his attacker steps out of the shadows, knife still upheld from where the blunt hilt struck Yohji.
    I stand frozen, unable to tear my eyes away from the figure before me, his white hair plastered to his head from the rain. He stares back at me calmly with his single amber eye, expression dispassionate.
    "Farfa..rello..." The word escapes me as a breath of air, hardly audible.
    It is completely different to see someone's image in your mind and then to be presented with the real thing. Schuldich's face on the train was sharper and more defined than it ever was in my head, but I had only had a few glimpses of him in my head before. His mocking smile and red hair were what gave his physical body away yesterday. The impact of seeing him in real life was nothing like this.
    The first coherent thought to pop in my head is: Farfarello is taller than I thought he was.
    Omi is a small boy, roughly my height; the space around Ken is filled with goodwilled if somewhat clumsy energy, a comfortable presence; Yohji exudes a relaxed, charming aura.
    Farfarello fills the space around him like a dark cloud covering up the sun.
    He's broader across the shoulders and chest than he was in my mind, and the stark paleness of his skin is more startling after being surrounded by rosy-cheeked customers and flower boys for months. He isn't as tall as Schuldich or even Yohji, but I still have to tilt my chin up; he stands a full head taller than I. But it isn't just his physical stature that makes him seem bigger than life; danger and tightly leashed violence rolls off of him in waves, eating up the air around him. He is the most intimidating man I've ever stood before.
    The flash of fear I'm waiting for, surprisingly, never comes.
    His scars look even nastier up close-- brutal and dark. I realize my hand is lifting of its own volition as if to touch these scars, and jerk my arm back down, a bit embarrassed. I stare into a fierce golden eye and swallow past an unexpected lump in my throat.
    "Schuldich still can't keep his big mouth shut, I see," I say, my voice a bit weak despite the flippancy.
    One shoulder shifts in a barely-there shrug. He glances downwards, and I follow his gaze to Yohji's still form.
    Guiltily I crouch down, clasping Yohji's shoulders. "What'd you do that for? You didn't have to hit him so hard."
    He levels me with a deadpan look, and I sigh. I know that look. His all-too-familiar infuriating "Are you really that stupid?" look. "OK, I'm not saying he would have been thrilled to see you, but still..." I tug at his heavy form, trying to get him back under the overhang, but he's heavy, and my legs are starting to shake from crouching. A little rain won't kill him. I'll take care of him once Farfarello's gone. Speaking of...
    "Why are you here?" I lean heavily on my cane as I try to rise, but my legs wobble threateningly. He watches the struggle impassively for a moment.
    I almost jump out of my skin when strong fingers wrap around my arm and drag me to my feet. I stumble a bit before finding my cane's support, and stare at him blankly. He withdraws his hand the instant I'm steadied, face still a blank, uncaring mask.
    "Schuldich sent me here to kill you."
    It has been so long since I've heard his actual physical voice-- not since the hospital, before Schuldich drugged me --that it makes me jump a bit. It is slightly different from his mental voice; much flatter and colder, if that's possible. His accent is also more noticeable.
    "Oh," I manage to say, taking a prudent step back, though I won't be out of immediate grabbing distance unless I go out into the rain. "Nice to see you too."
    "Hn." His hooded eye flashes towards the door.
    "Don't go in there," I command, straightening my back resolutely. "I told you what I'd do if you tried to hurt my brother."
    For the first time he smiles, sort of. The corner of his mouth twitches upwards slightly, showing a sharp canine in a creepy half-grin. What are you going to do, hit me with your stick? he mocks.
    I'll beat you with it like an old lady, I promise, falling back on this more intimate way of speech almost without noticing.
    He gives a quiet snort, looking utterly unintimidated.
    I make a face at him, trying to keep the mood light. Well, as "light" as it gets with him. Thanks for knocking out my potential boyfriend, you ass. How am I supposed to explain that to him? You're lucky he didn't see you.
    His eye narrows, and I hesitate. That didn't lighten the mood; it had the opposite effect. What the hell? What'd I say?
    An instant later his face is blank again. Schuldich sent me to kill you, but it isn't very fun to take out a cripple.
    Oh, very funny, I growl. I'm not a 'cripple', you smartass. The doctors say I should be walking on my own again in about a month. I pause, feeling awkward for some reason. Um, I got from Schuldich that Nagi is missing. Are you looking for him? I'll keep an open mind, see if he's in the area, though I doubt it.
    He shrugs slightly, unconcerned. Schwarz has some loose strings to tie up.
    I don't like the sound of that. "Like killing us?" That's what I mean to ask. It's the important question. Instead, what comes out is, Does that mean you're leaving? ...What the hell? Not that I care, I add hastily, frowning at him.
    He stares at me blandly for a moment. Probably.
    Common sense steps up and delivers me a sharp kick in the ass. What the hell does it MATTER? If Schwarz is leaving, that's cause for celebration!
    I cover up for the blunder quickly. So what are these 'loose strings'? Schuldich said Weiß was no threat anymore.
    They were never a 'threat', Farfarello informs me dryly. They just liked to think they were.
    Fine, now that they're not an annoying thorn in your sides, I correct with a sigh. So who are these new targets? Almost without meaning to, I reach out to probe a bit further at his mind to find the answers quicker.
    I touch on something familiar, something at the very edges of his mind, and thoughtlessly wrap my own mind around it, trying to encompass it to figure out what it is.
    We both give starts of surprise at the flash that goes off in both our minds. "What--" I gasp, stumbling back a bit.
    His eye is slightly wider than normal, but an instant later he scowls at me accusingly.
    "Oh shit--" It was the link. Or what was left of it, anyway. Some scrap left over from when Schuldich cut it off... He must not have bothered to destroy it completely when he thrust me out of Farfarello's mind for good. "I'm sorry," I blurt quickly, cringing. "I really didn't mean to do that. Um, you can ask Schuldich to take it down when you go back home."
    I SAID sorry, I huff. I was just trying to--
    Be nosey, he finishes with a sneer.
    I scowl at him. I was just curious. I wanted to know who your new targets are.
    No one you know, mouse, he states flatly.
    Still feeling guilty about the link, I retreat a bit from the link instead of digging for the answer again. It's none of my business anyway, and perhaps I would sleep better not knowing. As long as it isn't my brother or his friends...
    His lip curls slightly in something hovering at the edge of exasperation. It's not that pack of blood-stained imbeciles. Did it ever occur to you to beg for your own life?
    I blink. Um. No.
    That's why you're an idiot, he informs me bluntly.
    Yohji groans quietly, and we both glance at him quickly.
    "Jesus," I sigh, waving the hand not clutching my cane. "Go, before he sees you. I need to think of some way of explaining the bump on his head."
    "Tell him the truth," he suggests darkly, studying Yohji with a predatory gleam to his eye.
    "Are you crazy? They're already wound-up enough after Schuldich's little stunt, and then they'd start asking a lot of really awkward questions if they knew you were here and didn't kill me."
    He stares at me suspiciously for a long moment. "What did you tell them?" he demands.
    I shake my head. "Nothing. What else could I do? Ran would hit the roof and spend the rest of his life hunting you and Schuldich down. They don't even know I'm a telepath, for god's sake." It is the first time I have referred to myself as such out loud, and the word feels strange on my tongue.
    He arches a brow at that.
    Yohji stirs and groans louder, cutting off further conversation.
    Farfarello glances back at him impassively, then turns and steps back out into the rain.
    "Good night," I murmur to his retreating back.
    As always, I get no response.
    But I can feel him faintly on the edges of my mind across the link, a cold thorny presence that feels a little too familiar there for comfort.

    I blame Yohji's head injury on a piece of shale fallen from the roof, and he seems to buy it, to my relief. While Omi fusses over him, Ran and I take our leave. He had picked up the car earlier that day, and the drive home is silent.
    He can tell something is bothering me, but is unsure how to ask about it. I help him make dinner and conversation is light and unimportant as we each pick at our food. He is wondering what is bothering me, and my mind keeps drifting back to a madman in the rain.
    My brain goes over that scene one more time, with mounting disbelief and bewilderment. As mild a conversation as it was, something doesn't add up. I keep getting the feeling that something else was going on underneath the surface that I can't quite grasp.
    Flustered and confused, I excuse myself from the dinner table and go to bed.


    You've got a lot of nerve, you little twat.
    I almost fall off the stool at Schuldich's abrupt mental growl.
    Luckily the boys are busy with customers, though the girl holding out the potted plant for me to ring up looks startled. I force a smile and accept the plant from her. Jesus, Schuldich, are you TRYING to give me a heart attack?
    If only, he drawls. I take it a certain one-eyed albino came to visit?
    Yesterday. Supposedly you sent him here to kill us.
    And he failed miserably, I see. What's the big idea, putting that damned link back up?
    Honestly, it was an accident. You didn't get rid of the traces of it; I didn't know what it was when I touched it, and I accidentally restarted it. I told him to get you to take it down.
    Schuldich's tone is annoyed. Well, he kind of failed to mention it. At all. I didn't know shit about it until I ran across it while talking to him.
    Maybe he forgot. I accept the girl's money and hand her back the plant and her change. Anyway, what's the big deal? You took it down, right?
    He got pretty hostile about it and kicked me out when I tried to get rid of it.
    I blink, staring down at the register to hide my expression of surprise. Why?
    You tell me.
    How should I know?? He hates me, doesn't he?
    I'm beginning to have my doubts, he mutters. I feel him give himself a mental shake. You're probably just some new toy to him. I'd watch your back on dark moonless nights if I were you, chica. Sometimes he loves a good hunt before the kill. He was probably one of those kids who pulled the wings off of butterflies and watched them wriggle around awhile before stomping on them.
    You could always take down the link by force, I point out.
    I get the impression of a wince. I got a pretty good idea of what Farfarello would do to me if I did that. I like my limbs firmly attached to my body, thank you very much. If he has some sick little game in mind, fine. It's not my problem anymore, it's yours. I'll keep an eye on the obituaries for you.
    You know, sometimes I hate you so much it makes me physically ill, I shoot back acidly.
    What are you talking about? I'm a loveable, charming guy.
    Yeah. About as charming as a fart in church. Get lost, you Nazi bastard.
    You kiss your brother with that mouth?
    Kiss my ass!
    A dry chuckle, then at last he is gone.
    "Ano... Aya-chan?"
    I give a little start, looking up to find Omi hovering by the counter, watching me in concern. "Are you all right?"
    I must have been giving the register a pretty murderous look. I quickly stretch my mouth in a smile. "Uh, yeah! I'm fine."
    He glances around to make sure none of the others have noticed, then leans in, lowering his voice anxiously. "Aya-chan, I know you don't want your brother to worry about you, but if something's bothering you, any of us will listen to you. It isn't good to keep something bottled up, you know."
    Like these four have room to talk. Ran is heading our way, so I grit my teeth and keep my tone light. "No, really, I'm fine," I insist. "I was, um, just thinking of all the school work I have to catch up on. It gives me a headache just thinking about it."
    "Oh." Omi straightens, beaming. "Well I can help you with that! If you ever need help, I can tutor you after school if you'd like. I'm only a year ahead of you."
    Ran stops in front of the register, flicking Omi an appreciative look at the offer. "Nervous about going back to school?"
    I shrug, picking at the edge of the counter. Now that they mention it... "A little," I hedge. "I won't know anyone there except the seniors; and they'll be people that used to be several years behind me. Everyone else in my class graduated already. And I feel like I've forgotten most of what I learned. History and math are going to be hard to catch up on."
    Omi gives a small, wistful smile. "History usually is," he murmurs, then moves off to help a customer.
    Suddenly I grin. "I'll be fine," I say with more confidence.
    To hell with it. I can always cheat and use telepathy for tests if I really need to.


    The rest of the day and the day after that pass uneventfully. The most exciting thing to happen is the shy confession of a nervous girl and her abrupt burst into tears at Omi's uncomfortable turn-down. I think he was almost as traumatized as her. Yohji had to take him aside and assure him that no, the girl would not go home and slit her wrists, and yes, staring at her blankly after her confession was perhaps a bit unkind.
    Today Ran is privately panicking.
    Yohji seems to have caught a mild cold and went home early. Omi needs to get downtown to pick up an order of new seeds, and needs a ride.
    Ran turns from locking the front gate, frowning. "Can't Ken give you a ride?"
    "I don't know if it's safe to balance a box that big on a scooter," Omi points out.
    "No can do, anyway," Ken interrupts, sweeping the last corner of the shop. "I have practice with the kids today, remember?"
    I look up from counting the money, interest piqued. "Soccer practice?"
    "I can't take you," Ran protests when Omi stares pointedly at him. "I have to take Aya-chan home."
    "Can't I go with Ken-kun?" I butt in eagerly. The prospect of being able to get away from the house and the shop for an hour is far too tempting to pass up. "I'd love to watch."
    "I don't see why not," Ken starts enthusiastically, then trails off weakly at the glare Ran turns his way.
    "Oh, 'niisan, don't start," I sigh, reaching for my cane. "Ken-kun will be there to keep an eye on me."
    "He'll be watching the kids."
    "I'll stay right next to him."
    "It will be boring."
    "It will be fun."
    "I don't know how long it will take to get the seeds."
    My temper approaches the breaking point, but I force my voice to remain calm. "Good. A couple hours in the park sounds relaxing." I pull myself to my full if somewhat unimpressive height and attempt to stare him down.
    The mood shifts abruptly.
    Ran steps back as if I've slapped him. Ken fumbles and drops his broom. Omi's eyes widen slightly.
    I blink, looking around at them. "What?"
    "No need to get so mad about it, Aya-chan," Ken protests, a bit subdued. He glances at Ran. "I'll keep an eye on her. I promise."
    What the hell? I reach out, touching Ran's mind to see what--
    I didn't know I was even capable of making a face like that. My expression was a little too similar to Farfarello's darkly impatient look for comfort. I've unnerved the other two a bit and hurt Ran's feelings.
    I carefully smooth my face and go for a pout instead, knowing that will have better results. "Pleeeeeeease?"
    Omi is still eyeing me a bit warily, but Ran relaxes somewhat. He heaves a sigh of long suffering. "Fine," he grumbles, giving in with bad grace. "But stay by Ken the whole time."
    I smile sweetly. "Of course."

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