Ch. 13

    The next day, I can feel Farfarello's mind touching mine constantly through the link. Every hour or so I'll feel him stretch out, as if to see if I'm still there, then pull away again. He never says anything, and he ignores any of my attempts at conversation. I ignore it after the first few times; it's not too distracting, and he obviously isn't going to tell me what the hell he's up to, so I continue business as usual. It's fairly busy, being a Saturday, and being two men short only makes it more fast-paced. We'll be closing early, and tomorrow will be a much-needed day off. By the time noon comes around and clean-up begins, I've grown so used to the periodic queries from Farfarello that I hardly notice them any more.
    Yohji and Ken haven't been in all day, and my suspicions are confirmed when Ken ducks under the half-closed security gate over the front of the shop just as we are preparing to leave for the day.
    He looks exhausted, his hair completely unkempt and his clothes and face smudged with dirt. My eyes dart towards his arms. He's so out of it he hasn't remembered to take off his bugnuks; I can see the way they bulge under his jacket sleeves. Usually he takes them off if he knows I'm going to be at the shop. I can't decide whether it's because he doesn't want me to see him armed, or if he doesn't want me to see any blood on them.
    Ran may have disbanded from Weiß, but the other three still work for what's left of Kritiker. Omi, determined to get through his final year of high school, sticks more to the behind-the-scenes jobs while Yohji and Ken do most of the field work. He felt guilty about it at first, but Ken and Yohji both insisted. They don't want to see him give up his future, and neither does my brother. Ran may not be a part of the official team anymore, but he helps Omi when he can to leave the younger boy time to do his homework.
    Ken stumbles to a stop and rests his forehead against the cool metal of the gates.
    Ran takes one look at his friend and sets his broom aside, dusting his hands off on his apron. "Recon?" he guesses.
    I reach automatically under the cashier's desk and pull out the first aid kit.
    Ken's head bobs in a weary nod. "All night," he groans, eyes barely open. "Since five o' clock yesterday evening." He gazes down at himself in vague disgust. "I wanna shower an' go to bed," he mumbles firmly.
    Omi looks sympathetic. "I'm sorry Yohji-kun couldn't relieve you. He was needed somewhere else. Did it go all right?"
    Ken rummages in all of his pockets. "Yeah... damn, know it's here somewhere... Ah, here." He pulls a tiny disk from his back pocket, dropping it into Omi's waiting palm. "Bastard didn't even show up until midnight, but everything from then on is there. Hope the quality's good. It was hard to get too close. That man has way too much money. Lawn guards everywhere."
    "Blood money, you mean," Omi says grimly, lifting the disk a bit to the light. "Thank you, Ken. This should be a big help in bringing down his corrupt corporation. Go get cleaned up and get some food, then go to bed. You look like you're about to fall down."
    "Not hungry," Ken mutters, heading with dragging feet for the back door, to take the stairs to his tiny apartment above the shop. "Jus' wanna sleep..."
    "Let me check you first," I insist, already opening the kit.
    He waves a hand over his shoulder dismissively, still heading for the door. "'M fine, no one saw me."
    "It's OK, Aya-chan," Omi says quietly, watching the older boy shuffle off. "Unless something goes wrong, it's rare to get injured on a stake-out."
    I think of the day Yohji stumbled into the shop that night almost three months ago, face covered in blood from a horrible gash on his forehead, wire jammed and trailing from his watch, leaving a hair-thin trail of blood across the floor.
    It happened on a mission gone wrong, where Yohji was forced to fight for his life. He got away, but barely. I had only been awake for a couple of weeks, and was caught completely off-guard. A few days later, after my constant badgering, Ran finally sat me down and told me enough about Weiß and Kritiker to fill in some blanks. I guess he expected me to be horrified. The fact that I accepted it and made myself unofficial nurse for post-mission injuries puzzled him, and for awhile he would send me worried looks at random times. I never bothered to explain that Farfarello and Schuldich had already told me enough to take the initial sting out of the news.
    "I'll check on him later tonight," Omi promises, stretching. "I'll finish locking up. I have to work on this disk anyway in the basement. You two should head home."
    "Don't forget we have to stop and grab some groceries," I remind my brother as we give Omi our farewells and step outside.
    He frowns, but doesn't reply. He would rather leave me at home, where it's safer, but at the same time he's loathe to keep me out of his sight for too long.
    I am climbing into the car when I sense another of Farfarello's momentary flashes across the link.
    All right, that's enough, I say a bit sharply. What's gotten into you? You've been checking to see if I'm here all day. I pause in sudden suspicion, buckling up automatically as Ran starts the car. Or is Schuldich seriously planning to kill me?
    He retreats without a word, but this time I stubbornly follow him down the link, and bully my way past his outer walls. Hey! I was talking to you.
    And I was ignoring you, he points out bluntly.
    God, you're aggravating. Seriously, what's the deal? If Schuldich's planning to jump me sometime today, I'd like advance notice.
    Funny you should mention that, he notes dryly.
    For just a second I lose my train of thought at his words. For some reason I try to imagine him actually saying that phrase out loud, and fail miserably. The inklings of an idea have been nibbling at my brain for some time now, but I have never bothered to explore it. Something about Farfarello that's... off.
    I shake it off. I'll get to it later; for now I want an answer. Farfarello's constant check-ups all morning have made me a bit uneasy. Mention what? 'Advance notice'? Why? Did Crawford have one of his weird precog things? A vision or something?
    Then WHAT? You're starting to freak me out. Will you just tell me what's wrong?
    Because something IS wrong. I can sense it now that I'm paying attention. Something is bothering him. Something to do with me. Farfarello?
    He finally relents, but instead of answering outright, he allows me to view the disjointed memories and thoughts connected with whatever it is that's put him so on edge.
    It takes me a little while to rearrange and explore these thoughts until they click and make sense. When I finally see the whole picture, my heart thumps hard against my ribs. I don't fully understand it, but I can grasp the basic gravity of the situation.
    Rosenkreuz knows about me.
    Farfarello doesn't know if Crawford told them or if they discovered the bodies of the men I left in the park, but one chilling fact remains: they know Schuldich's not the only telepath in town, and they have no intentions of letting someone with that sort of gift run free. That's why Crawford had the meeting so soon after finding out I was communicating with his teammates. He knows they're on to me and he's no longer sure how long I'll be around.
    Because Rosenkreuz has already given the order for my capture.
    They've sent people for you by now, Farfarello says at last.
    Wha... Why don't they just order Schwarz to do it? I manage to ask. I turn my face towards the window to hide my expression from my brother.
    They have.
    What the fuck? Then why are you telling me all this? I demand. Why haven't you--
    Suddenly I remember Crawford's promise from yesterday, and it draws me up short. "For the time being, at least, I can guarantee that your death won't be at Schwarz's hands."
    What the hell is going on here? As one suspicion forms, others jump up to join it, things that I dismissed before but which are starting to seem glaringly wrong. Why has Crawford ordered his team to let me be? Why did Schuldich drug me in the hospital instead of killing me? Why didn't Farfarello kill me in the hospital when he'd come to "visit"? Why does Schuldich always talk so much shit when I see him, but he never delivers? Why is Farfarello warning me about Rosenkreuz? And my brother-- why was he never killed when the two teams would clash? Why did Schuldich only knock him out in the restaurant instead of killing him? Even on the train, he taunted Ran, but made no move to kill him. It would have been so easy; Ran never would have seen it coming. In the end, I can scrape only one theory from all of this, but it doesn't make any sense.
    Schwarz-- or perhaps just Crawford --wants us alive for now. And they have no intentions of assisting Rosenkreuz in my capture.
    I don't realize the quiet inquiry goes over the link until I sense Farfarello's mental shrug. The Oracle has his reasons for everything he does, he admits. If he has some stupid idea behind all of this, I didn't bother to ask.
    Did he tell you to let me know about this?
    The bewildered question is out before I can stop it. Then why are you telling me this?? I cut him off without waiting for an answer. And why did you warn me about those men who are after Tot and Nagi? If Crawford's not ordering you, then why do you keep--
    His mind is a blank as I babble almost incoherently, but abruptly an ugly shudder runs through his thoughts. Impatience, anger, and bafflement clouds his mind. Whether he's confused by my questions or because he doesn't have the answer, I can't be sure.
    Shut up, he snaps fiercely. You're annoying.
    I jerk away from his mind and withdraw from the link, and ignore him furiously for the rest of the trip to the store.
    But he is always there, lurking at the edges of my mind through the bond, and I can feel the upset churning in his thoughts.
    It is impossible to tell which of us he is angry with.


    I cool down as I trail after Ran through the grocery store. He seems bothered by my sullen silence, and I note absently that I earn uneasy or strange glances from the other customers, but I ignore them all. This thing with Schwarz and Rosenkreuz can't be solved right now, but there is another puzzle I can work on.
    That mild gnawing on my brain about Farfarello. Something he said....
    Oh, yes. I had tried to imagine him saying such a certain phrase out loud, and almost laughed at the thought. Something about that brought me pause. Why?
    Nibbling on a strand of hair, I wander down the snack aisle as Ran gets me a liter of coke.
    The sight of coke reminds me of the meeting in the cafe for some reason. Oh, that's right, Ran ordered me a coke before Schwarz showed up...
    And then it hits me.
    Farfarello was detached and mute for most of the meeting, barring that time he attacked Schuldich and the end of the conversation when he demanded to know what the link had to do with Nagi. I had thought fleetingly that it was a bit strange, but now that I think about it, neither Schuldich or Crawford seemed to take notice of his impassive silence. I think of the first time I saw him in real life, when he showed up at the shop and knocked Yohji out. Going back over the bizarre conversation, I realize most of it was done across the link. And when he first visited me in the hospital, he said barely anything to Schuldich; back then I assumed Schuldich was answering shrugs or facial expressions, but Farfarello's responses must have been over their link. In the short time I've known him, his verbal communication has been scarce.
    Is that how Farfarello usually is? Quiet and aloof about everything?
    But he isn't like that when we talk over the bond. We hold entire-- if somewhat deranged --conversations. And he's even shown hints of a twisted sense of humor. He fights with me, makes fun of me, argues....
    Is that how he is when he and Schuldich talk over their bond? Does he let the German goad him into petty arguments and conversations that he doesn't bother with out loud?
    Or just me?
    That last errant thought flickers through my mind pensively, and I stamp on it an instant later, mortified.
    "Don't be stupid," I mutter to myself, glaring in frustration at the hapless bottles of soda. Where did that thought come from? Of course he's like that with Schuldich. They've known each other for years. My face is burning and I don't know why.
    Anger is a convenient cover-up when one cannot deal with other emotions.
    My nail taps out a sharp, erratic beat against one of the shelves. Screw that one-eyed Irish bastard! Why the hell am I giving him a second's thought, anyway? I'm so sick of him and his twisted team. I hate him.
    I jump violently, and Ran snatches his hand from my shoulder, startled.
    I stare up at him a bit wildly, my voice sharper than I intend it to be. "What?"
    He glances around at some people in the aisle, who are sending me sideways looks. He lowers his voice, tone concerned. "Are you all right? You look upset. We can go home..."
    Somehow, he has picked the exact wrong thing to say at the exact wrong time.
    My temper flares, and I turn on him furiously. "Stop asking me if I'm all right!!" I shout.
    Activity in the aisle freezes as everyone openly stares. Ran's eyes widen a bit in surprise.
    I don't care. I ride the sudden wave of anger and throw my pent-up frustration in my brother's face forcefully with my words. "I'm not a CHILD! Quit acting like I'm going to pass out, or disappear, or break down, or get lost or kidnapped or--"
    I snap my mouth shut with a click of teeth, stunned at the force of the unexpected outrush of anger. I stare at my brother's stricken face, and wait for the shame to rush up and take the anger's place.
    It doesn't.
    It only makes me angrier.
    And then, out of nowhere, a solid picture forms in my mind: my fist in Ran's stunned face, bones breaking under the blow.
    The small rational part of my brain not consumed by this mindless fury begins to quietly panic. What the hell is this? Why do I feel so violently angry? What is WRONG with me??
    I still can't bring shame up to bear, so I decide to remove the problem another way. Later I'll regret this, and I'm not going to allow it to get any worse. Later my brother's surprised hurt will haunt me, but for now I've got to get myself under control.
    I spin on my heel and run from the store as fast as my weakened legs will allow.


    It turns out they won't allow me to go very far at all.
    I don't even make it a block before I realize that if I don't sit down or stop, my legs are going to give out on me.
    Ran hasn't caught up to me, yet; store security must have delayed him for the few seconds it took me to get to the parking lot and choose a street to flee down.
    There are too many people jostling me on the sidewalk, and I lean heavily on my cane, my legs shaking badly as I cast about for a place to rest. Eventually Ran will find me, and I refuse to have him discover me sprawled exhausted on the ground.
    I spot guardrails farther down the sidewalk, blocking the designated smoking area from the street, and grimly limp towards it.
    I'm still breathing quickly from my run, and it makes it harder to control my anger, even if it's not as fierce as it was in the store. I need to sit down, give my legs a rest, and figure out where the hell that explosion came from.
    "Fujimiya Aya?"
    I stumble to a stop, staring up blankly at the two men in suits who have suddenly appeared in my path. "Huh?"
    I can't see their eyes behind their sunglasses, but their expressions are grim. "Come with us quietly," the one on the left suggests in a deep voice.
    I'm already reaching out to touch their minds before the words are finished coming out of his mouth.
    I don't let myself think, I just act. I swing my cane at the first one's head like a club, putting all my weight behind it.
    His arm snaps up to deflect the blow, bruising his forearm instead of bashing in the side of his head like it was supposed to. The swing and the sudden loss of support is more than my trembling legs can take, and I go down.
    They catch me halfway there, snagging my arms and hauling me into an adjacent alleyway as if I weigh no more than a child.
    "LET GO OF ME!!" I shriek, more angry than afraid. The boiling rage I have been trying to calm since leaving the store explodes all over again, and I throw a blow at the man on the left, hurling all of that dark anger directly into his mind like I did in the park.
    Except when I did that I was startled and frightened. I deliver this strike with the sole intent to hurt the man as badly as possible. To kill him.
    It does.
    He falls like a sack of bricks without uttering a sound, blood rushing from every major orifice in his face. I turn to deal with the second man, but the surprise I sense clamoring in his head lasts only for an instant-- then shields are slamming down around his thoughts. I throw my fury at him anyway, smashing through his outer barriers with little trouble. He grunts and staggers, but doesn't fall. I've run up against his most inner barriers, the ones I have to break in order to tear a mind apart, and they're too strong. As strong as Schuldich's, maybe stronger.
    He snarls in pain and anger and shoves me hard. I stumble back, trip over the first hitman's body, and trip. I land on my ass and my head falls back and cracks against the grimey brick wall so hard I see stars. Terrified I will black out, I blink rapidly, struggling to keep my focus.
    He looms over me, mouth twisted in a sneer of hate and contempt. "You fucking BITCH," he spits. "I'll--"
    Blood leaps across his throat, spattering me and landing on my tongue when I open my mouth to gasp.
    He gurgles, starts to reach up as if to conceal the jagged opening that exposes his severed windpipe and trachea, then topples over and lands dead beside his partner.
    My eyes don't watch his fall; they're pinned to the man standing before me, tongue running along the blade of a bloodied knife.
    Farfarello's hooded yellow eye bores into me, his lips lifting to reveal teeth in an unholy little smile as if the kill was one big rush to him.
    It was; I can sense the fierce satisfaction and the momentary high the murder gave him.
    My surprise at seeing him is enough to smooth out my anger and slowly seep it away. "What...." the word is barely audible. I glance once more towards the man spilling his lifeblood all over the asphalt and try to get to my feet before the puddle reaches me.
    My legs are still weakened, and I give up after the second attempt. He watches silently for a moment, sinister amusement curling through his thoughts, both at my pathetic attempts to stand and the complete lack of revulsion and fear I know he senses across the bond.
    Later, I reassure myself. After the shock wears out, I'll remember him cutting that man's throat, I'll remember the blood going everywhere, and I'll feel horrified, I'll cry and I'll throw up. Later.
    I hope.
    He reaches out abruptly, seizes my wrist with incredibly strong fingers, and jerks me to my feet in one quick pull.
    Caught off guard by the quick tug, my legs still wobbly, I stagger into him, smashing my face against his solid chest. "Ouch!" I yelp, leaning back a bit and reaching up to touch my smarting nose.
    I chance a quick peek up at him, swallowing the question before it can be voiced.
    I don't need to ask what he's doing here; it's not like he'll tell me the truth anyway. I don't need to hear it, I already know anyway. This is why he's constantly been checking in on me today. He was expecting something like this to happen. He must have been close by, perhaps all day, and when he sensed my fury on the bond, he followed it.
    Farfarello, Berserker of Schwarz, saved me.
    I should ask why. I should demand that he tell me what the hell is really going on. Hell, I should be shaking with horror after what this man just did.
    Instead I offer a small, shaky smile. "My hero," I say mockingly.
    The smirk that starts to twitch at his lips freezes as I rock forward on tip-toes, hands still flat against his chest for balance, and press my mouth to his own.
    Everything in his mind goes completely blank.
    A heartbeat later it explodes with wild confusion and something very much like horror. Hard hands clamp painfully tight on my shoulders as he shoves me roughly to arm's length, his head jerking back out of reach.
    I stare up at him numbly, and he stares back, his eye wide and his mouth pulled in a tight line. The noise in his head is almost painful. It's as if I unwittingly flipped a self-destruct switch with the chaste kiss, throwing his entire world into chaos.
    A thought flashes across his mind-- the intent to rip me apart. Kill me and fix the problem. His hands convulse suddenly, sharply painful, and I bite back a cry.
    Then abruptly he shoves me away from him as if I am a poisonous snake. Turning his back on me, he rushes off in long, quick strides.
    I settle my back against the wall to support my weakened limbs and stare straight ahead at nothing. The hurricane I feel at the borders of my mind is quickly swallowed up by my own sudden rush of humiliation and confusion.
    Ran finds me there five minutes later, still shuddering and staring at the alley walls, two blood-soaked bodies at my feet.

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