Ch. 14

    The next two hours are a blur. I feel as if I watch it all from a distance.
    I don't even remember the look on my brother's face when he found me in the alley. Next thing I know I'm sitting in the police station staring at an oddly-shaped paperweight while two officers question me from behind the desk. I don't remember what I say, but I don't say much.
    "She's in shock," I hear a female officer murmur somewhere behind me. "Poor thing."
    I'm not here to be punished, of course.
    There's no way in hell any of these cops would believe for a second that a petite high school girl with big doe eyes and a slight disability could have taken out two six-foot-something musclebound hitmen. And then of course, there's the fatal blow to the second man; I had no knife. There was no knife on the scene. Hit-and-run. Wait, that's vehicular manslaughter...
    Whatever the case, I get the impression that they're certain there was another person on the scene. I vaguely remember mumbling responses when questioned about this. Did you get a good look at him? No, I was scared. Did he hurt you? No, I screamed and he ran away. Can you describe him at all? No, I closed my eyes. Were there any witnesses? If there were, none of them came into the alley to help me.
    And so on and so on. They throw questions at me while I sit there dully staring at the paperweight. Ran sits rigid in the hard wooden chair beside me, holding my hand so tightly it hurts. I clutch my cane like a lifeline in my free hand. It helps. Not me, but the case. It's a visible reminder that I am disabled, that a girl barely able to walk a few blocks cannot possibly be responsible for this heinous crime. Added bonus-- they pulled our files and now we have the sympathy vote, because my coma and the untimely death of my parents is right there in black and white, one big sob story.
    They manage to get some sort of statement out of me, but I'm not sure how legible or articulate it is. In the end they relent to the obvious fact that I am "traumatized", "in shock", and other such horrible things. They agree to let me go home and rest, but they want Ran and me to come back tomorrow. Ran convinces them to wait until Monday. I need to rest, he says. I've just gone through a terrible ordeal. No, we won't be leaving the city. Yes, here's the number you can reach us at. No, she doesn't want to answer any more damn questions.
    Yohji, Ken, and Omi are all waiting for us in the lobby. I don't really pay attention to the looks on their faces, either, or the murmured words of comfort for that matter. But Ran has had enough. He barely stops to acknowledge them. He is in a dark, dangerous place right now. Someone tried to hurt his sister. Someone committed cold-blooded murder in front of his little sister's very eyes. He doesn't have the time or the patience to even try a hand at "polite".
    Luckily they are used to this side of Ran, this Abysinnian that glares at them hotly as he ushers me out the door and to the car. They respectfully fall back and watch us go, silent promises to be there for us humming in their minds.
    The drive home is silent. When we get home, Ran doesn't know what to do. He keeps waiting for me to break down, to cry on his shoulder, to scream.
    I go to my room, shut the door, and fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.
    He'll understand.
    After all, I'm traumatized.
    My last waking thought is, inexplicately, "One of those victims was mine".


    I wake up close to dinnertime, groggy and confused. I sit on the edge of the bed for several minutes before I remember where I am and what has occurred.
    I bury my head in my hands and reach out with my mind, checking on Ran. He's in the den, with the TV on, but he has no idea what's happening on the screen. All he can think about is what happened. He's forgotten my explosion in the supermarket. All he cares about is the murder. His thoughts are violent and heartbreaking at the same time.
    Sighing quietly, I slip away from him. He won't bother me for the rest of the night. He understands the grieving process. Before bed he'll check on me, but he won't approach me and offer comfort until the morning. Everyone is going to tactfully keep their distance from me for awhile, while I "recover". Fingers digging into my hair, I stare dully down at my bare feet.
    And wait for the horror, the revulsion, the terror to set in.
    It does, eventually: I am horrified, revulsed, and terrified that I feel none of these things about the murder.
    Maybe this is shock, I tell myself, eyes wandering around the room without seeing anything. Later it will set in. I'll cry a lot. I'll be scared of my own shadow. I'll be terrified of Farfarello.
    Maybe this is just you accepting what happened, that tiny rational part of my brain points out quietly. Maybe this is you getting over it in the same breath.
    I curl up into a little ball and go to sleep again.
    I don't dream.


    We need to talk.
    Everyone will respect the grieving process and leave me alone for another day or two.
    Except a certain Nazi pig-fucker.
    I have actually been awake for a good hour or two; it's nearly three in the morning. I roll onto my back and gaze up at the ceiling. What the hell do you want?
    Jesus H. Christ, your mind is a mess, he hisses. You've really done it now, princess.
    Done what? I ask dully.
    Look, we really need to talk. The only reason I didn't get ahold of you earlier was because your mind was so fucked up you probably wouldn't have heard me anyway. But in case you forgot other events that occurred, one of us was rudely awakened from their afternoon nap when a certain one-eyed Berserker had something to the equivalent of a volacanic eruption in his head.
    Oh yeah. That. Amazingly, I don't blush. I kissed Farfarello.
    So I gathered. After extensive research. It took an hour to get anything coherent from his mind. I knew you were stupid, but this gets you a trophy. A big one. You do realize that that little stunt you pulled should have earned you a nice little section in the obituaries?
    It didn't, I point out wearily.
    ... I roll my eyes towards the clock again. When do you wanna meet?
    Next month would be fine. I'm free on the first Tuesday around four. When do you THINK, twinkletoes? Get your ass outside. I'll make sure the witless samurai stays asleep.
    I lie there for another long moment, debating on the pros and cons of getting out of my nice comfortable bed, until he gives my brain an unpleasant little jolt. Grimacing, I roll off the bed, grab my cane, and stuff my feet into some house shoes. I don't bother to tip-toe or hold my breath. Ran is still on the couch, fast asleep, hand curled by his side, the remote fallen to the floor. I shuffle past him, out the door, and take the elevator down to the lobby.
    He's waiting in the parking lot outside, leaning against some kind of flashy sports car and taking quick, impatient drags of a cigarette. I halt several feet from the car, arms wrapped around myself against the night chill, cane tucked under an armpit. I stare back at him solemnly. "I'm not getting in that car with you."
    He scowls, but he must sense my determination. He doesn't feel like having to force me kicking and struggling into the back of his car, so he tosses the cigarette aside, stuffs his hands in his pockets, and starts walking. After a moment, I trail slowly after him.
    I can feel him rooting through my mind, but don't bother to fight back. I plod along, eyes on the ground, as he goes through my memories of the day. It's only when he's finished with those and begins digging deeper that I retaliate, butting him out with my inner shields.
    He glances back at me, the shadow cast by his bangs in the streetlamp's light practically hiding his eyes. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way," he points out.
    "I've got an idea," I cut him off, an edge to my voice. "How about you attempt to be civil and actually ask me about whatever the hell it is you want to know?"
    He shrugs one shoulder and turns his face forward again. "Have it your way, princess. But you hold back from me and I'm going in there again. I'll admit, you're pretty strong for someone who's untrained. But you won't hold up against me for more than a few seconds. And it will hurt. I'll make sure of it."
    I believe him.
    I realize belatedly that we have an actual destination. Luckily the small bar isn't more than a few blocks away, because my legs are starting to feel weak. Which is actually a small surprise; I would normally have been forced to sit after the first block.
    The bar is mostly empty, the music low and dreamy. There's a whore chatting up some fat fuck of a businessman at the bar, two shifty-looking men in a corner booth, and some young guy staring mournfully into his drink. The bartender takes one look at Schuldich and puts down his cleaning rag, coming out from behind the bar to greet us.
    I paw idly at his mind. He knows Schuldich; he used to work for one of Schwarz's clients. This place is sort of a safe haven, then.
    "I need a room, Yuu. Now."
    The man's eyes shift to me. "This ain't a hotel, you know," he mumbles, uncomfortable. "If you really want that, I got some cheap ones..." Schuldich scares him a bit. He's only made bold by the absence of the Berserker.
    Schuldich levels him with a flat, menacing stare, and Yuu retreats in front of him. Muttering to himself, he leads us to the back. Opening one of three doors, he pops his head in, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "Get the fuck out," he growls.
    Two prostitutes swagger out, drunk and irritable. They give Yuu a dirty look and Schuldich an appraising one. He ignores them completely, pushing me in front of him. He locks the door behind us.
    I examine the room. Tiny, with a beat-up looking bed, a small television, and a footstool. My eyes wander to the mirrored ceiling.
    Schuldich flicks his fingers at the bed, indicating I take a seat. I take one look at the stained sheets, wrinkle my nose at the musky scent in the air, and choose the stool.
    He dumps himself on the bed, leaning forward slightly and propping his elbows on his thighs as he stares at me. His mocking front is gone. This is the Mastermind, now; sarcastic laid-back Schuldich has left the building. His eyes are cold and analytical, his mouth unsmiling. He does a slight prod at my mind, weighing my current state, before withdrawing.
    "You first," he decides clinically. "Otherwise you're not gonna hear a goddamn word I say."
    I lean my cane against the wall and stare back at him, waiting.
    "Start at the part where you went bonkers on your idiot brother," he orders. "That's when shit starting going downhill."
    I frown at him. "You've already gotten all of that from my mind."
    "Yes, but a lot of it's blurred or disjointed, and I'm not asking, I'm telling."
    I shrug slightly and begin talking. My words are a monotonous drone, but I only get so far as my decision to leave the store when he stops me with an impatient swipe of his hand.
    "You're laying out the scene like you're describing a really boring art show you were forced to attend," he points out a bit snidely. "Try again. And this time, think before you speak."
    I glare at him, a bit of anger stirring amid the numbness I've been feeling all day. I start over, but this time I do think before talking. I think about the way I felt, the words I said. I remember the way my brother looked at me, as if I'd just told him I hated him and couldn't stand to be near him. By the time I get to the scene in the alley, my voice is shaking a bit.
    I can't look at Schuldich. I stare at a spot on the wall as I relive it again in my head, the words pouring out faster and faster.
    A mind breaking like glass under my attack, a look of hatred on the other man's face, hard wall bruising the back of my head, salty taste in my mouth, spray of blood, blood on the wall, on my blouse, pink tongue licking a shining blade clean, a smile like a demon's, strong fingers on my wrist, hard chest in my face....and then...
    He cuts me off suddenly, rising to his feet. "Never mind that." He stares down at me. "We'll get back to that later. What happened after your brother found you?"
    "He... took me to the police station, of course," I mumble, feeling cloth tug sharply at my thighs. I look down and see I'm twisting the hem of my skirt fitfully in my fingers. "They asked a lot of questions... I don't know, I kept zoning out. I didn't say anything about Farfarello. Nothing they can go off of, anyway. I gave them a ghost to chase, but..." I stare down at my skirt.
    I'm still wearing the same outfit. I didn't even bother to change when we got home from the station. I reach up and tug the blouse, staring at the red splatter across the chest.
    "This stain will never come out," I blurt.
    There is a strained silence. Schuldich's eyebrows slowly rise.
    Suddenly I'm on my feet, the stool clattering to the ground. I stare up at Schuldich a little wildly, feeling my breathing start to speed up, hitching a bit in my throat. Is this it? Am I finally going to break down sobbing?
    "You know what I kept thinking the whole time those cops were questioning me?" I demand, voice loud in the small room. "All I could think about the whole time I was at the station was, 'I hope this doesn't take too long. Tomorrow's my day off. This had better not ruin my day off'."
    Something bubbles in my throat, almost choking me.
    Somehow, it doesn't feel like a sob.
    No. I need to cry. I need to cry to feel normal again.
    "I killed that man, Schuldich, I was trying to kill him when I hit him and then-- Farfarello, he--"
    I start laughing and I can't stop.
    It's not happy or normal. It's pure hysterical laughter, the kind that is usually followed by a scream or a floodgate of tears. The kind of laughter you burst into just before a meltdown.
    I think of that blood suddenly spurting from his neck, of Farfarello licking the blood off the knife, of the man's look of stunned horror as he toppled slowly over... And I laugh harder, struggling for breath. Something deep deep inside of me is screaming, but all I can do is laugh. "You-should've-- seen his-- face-!" I gasp between cackles.
    Schuldich's face is tight and drawn, his eyes narrowed slits.
    His palm cracks across my cheek and knocks me against the wall. The twisted laughter is gone as suddenly as it appeared, leaving me struggling to catch my breath and staring at him in surprise.
    My eyes are hot and wet, but I don't remember crying. My cheek stings from the sharp blow, but it helps clear my head a bit.
    He's still staring at me, eyes hard and calculating, but he doesn't yell at me or tell me how sick I am. "It happened a lot faster than it usually does," he notes calmly.
    "What did?" I manage to ask, my voice hoarse.
    "The rotting." He reaches out, pushing his finger against my forehead hard enough to tilt my head back. "He's rotting you from the inside out. And sorry, chickadee, but it's way too late to stop it now."
    "What are you talking about?" I gasp, still trying to steady my breathing.
    "Do you know why you're breaking down?" he demands mercilessly. "Now-- after it's all over, after you've had hours to think about it?"
    "Because it was horrible," I say through gritted teeth. "Because-- because I was traumatized--"
    "Don't give me that horse shit," he sneers. "You're falling apart because you're not traumatized. You're more afraid of how much none of it affected you than you are of what actually happened."
    "Who made you a shrink?" I snap, angry again. "What the fuck are you talking abou--"
    He grabs the front of my blouse and shoves me back against the wall. Startled, I stare up at him mutely as he glares down at me, face close to mine.
    "You wanna know why we keep trying to get Farfarello to let us take the god damn link down? Because this is the fucking result. It took years for it to affect me like this, but then, you've been trapped together in your head, and you've gotten dragged into his mind. Frankly, I can't believe a little twat like you made it out alive. And now you've got this link up-- a permanent flow of his shit trickles in and mixes with yours every single time you use it. That's the price of being a Telepath, princess. You give and take a little, and it ain't always pretty. You link with some religious nut, eventually you're gonna have a little more faith, now ain't ya? You link with a fucking Berserker who's so full of insanity, hatred, and bloodlust, and you're gonna go a little off the deep end yourself. And something tells me you don't just casually drop by his head to say hello every other day. You reach out and check on him, and bam, a little more shit gets through the link. You hold a conversation with him, and a whole flood of it shifts to your side. And let me assure you, o pure one, whatever he's getting back from you in this little 'give and take' game is not enough to counter all the crud he's been dumping into that little landfill you call a brain."
    I've never hit anyone before, so the fist I slam into his stomach earns little more than a quick flinch. "You hit like a girl."
    "GET OFF OF ME!!"
    I throw an attack at him, a vicious one, but it hits his shields and slides right off. What little bit does get through has the same effect as a hard scratch of fingernails against skin.
    He doesn't even bat an eye. "Don't get me wrong, toots, I have no regrets about who I am now, and this flexible conscience of mine is rather useful. But a lot of the shit you hate about me comes from years of being linked to that psychotic nutjob. Oh, some of it's all me. I'll always be an asshole, I think it's my best trait. But you, little girl, you've got it coming to you. My shields can keep out some of it. You've never even tried to block any of it out. You just let it all trickle right on in and mix with what you already have."
    "You're not making any sense!" I shout. "Nothing's-- leaking into me!"
    "No, it's pouring in," he agrees grimly. "And you absorb it like a god damn sponge. I give it another year or two before you're as in-fucking-sane as he is."
    "You're lying--!!"
    "Oh? Then why the sudden changes, miss perfect?" he sneers in my face. "You used to be some little goody-goody, and now you keep finding yourself wondering why you're so different from how you used to be. You don't react to things the way you used to because they don't affect you the way they used to. Whatever empathy you had that made you, the bleeding heart, reach out for a Berserker of all people, is fading away more and more every day. Soon you're gonna be just another soulless husk like Farf and me--" he puts his face close to mine suddenly, grinning demonically. "And won't that be fun?"
    Chest heaving, I stare back at him, unable to make my voice work.
    Slowly he releases me and sways back out of my personal space a bit, his voice calm again. "Oh, quit with the deer in the headlights routine already. You're not completely lost yet. Not if you're still able to tell something's wrong with you. You can't reverse it, but you can keep it from getting worse."
    "How?" I whisper.
    "Cut the link."
    I stare back at him for a moment, then step away from the wall. "What the hell do you care?"
    He arches a brow. "Pardon?"
    "You heard me, asshole. I said what the hell do you care?? Why are you even telling me all this? What difference does it make to you if Farfarello causes me to lose my mind? You don't give a damn about me. So what's the REAL reason behind this enlightening little chat?"
    "Oh, you got that right," he assures me cruelly. "I don't give two shits about you, personally. But Crawford seems to think you're useful, and we can't have you going all apeshit on us just yet. When we're through with you, feel free to slip happily into insanity. I hear padded rooms are really comfortable, though the jackets are a bit restraining."
    "What do you mean 'useful'?" I snap.
    He sees understanding light my eyes and waves a hand in the air mockingly. "Wow, you catch on quick. You want a prize?"
    I barely hear him.
    It's not my brother Crawford is interested in.
    It's me.
    He's ordered Schwarz not to harm me, he's allowed Farfarello to warn me, because I'm useful to him in some way. That's why Schuldich never went through with his threats. That's why they haven't hurt my brother-- if they do, I'll never cooperate with them.
    And if they've been watching their steps this long...
    "The Oracle," I murmur, then focus on him again. "Are you telling me Crawford had some kind of vision? About ME?"
    "He never said as much, but..." Schuldich shrugs carelessly. "I figured it out eventually. For some reason you're more useful to us alive than dead. Whatever it is, it's gotta be important for him to be so adament about it. You are one lucky little bitch."
    I let my gaze drift to the side as I slowly process all of this. He waits, lazily picking at his fingernails.
    Finally I glance at him sideways. A weary sort of calm has descended, a kind of dull acceptance. Maybe I'm just tired. Maybe Farfarello's impassiveness is starting to rub off on me. "Schuldich," I say abruptly, "why didn't you have Crawford explain all of this to me? I thought you were never going to speak to me again."
    "The restaurant."
    "..Oh, THAT." He grins smugly. "Yeah, I'll forgive you for that."
    I arch a brow. "That's... surprising," I admit slowly.
    In lieu of an answer, he allows me a glimpse of a memory from that night.
    Hard hands, fumbling clothes, hot mouth, tangled sheets, a sharp cry--
    My eyes go impossibly wide. "OH. Oh." My face begins to burn. "You mean--"
    He smirks, smug and confident as he examines his fingernails. "I'll let you in on a little factoid, princess." He stretches languidly, like a cat, satisfaction humming along the threads of his mind. "Americans," he drawls, "are great in the sack."
    I burst into helpless laughter.
    He gloats for a moment, waiting for my embarrassed amusement to pass, then crosses his arms over his chest. His face is serious again, but there's a mocking smirk hovering in his eyes. "Now... about Farfarello's own little meltdown today..."
    And the blush is back.

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