Ch. 15

    "Do you know why Farfarello reacted the way he did?"
    I seat myself slowly back on the stool, gnawing on a hangnail and avoiding his steady gaze. "Um... I think I have a vague idea," I admit. "I must have really taken him by surprise."
    "Understatement of the year." He cocks his head at me, eyes narrowing. "Mind if I ask why the HELL you did that in the first place?"
    "Ummm..." I duck my head a little, voice a mumble against my fingers. "It wasn't like I planned it... I just, um, did it."
    "Uh huh."
    "I'd been trying to figure him out for the past couple days, wondering why he did or said things the way he did, and... I dunno, I guess I...."
    "Acted on a hunch?" he drawls. "Or instincts maybe?"
    I nod mutely.
    "Well your 'hunch' was wrong," he declares firmly, rolling his eyes. He holds up a hand, frowning, when I open my mouth. "You should know better than almost anyone that Farfarello is barely even human anymore. He doesn't feel anything towards anybody except hatred or very vague interest. Though his 'interest' is usually the same kind you would pay to a monkey in a zoo. A temporary amusement, one you can discard later when you get tired of it and move on to the next cage. That thing you kissed isn't a man. Maybe it used to be, but those memories are either warped, lost, or so hazy even I can barely dig them out. He's been the Berserker so long he doesn't know how to be anything else."
    I glare up at him, dropping my hand into my lap. "That's a fucked-up thing to say," I snap. "Just because he is the way he is doesn't mean he isn't human."
    He sneers at my ignorance. "You say that cuz you haven't known him as long as I have. You haven't seen what he's really capable of. Let me assure you, sweetheart, the second he gets tired of you or Crawford or even me, he'll kill any one of us without a shred of regret. He's incapable of feeling any real attachments to anything or anybody."
    "I don't believe that," I say quietly but firmly.
    "Then you're dumber than I thought," he says brutally. "The only reason you're sitting here right now is because he was too freaked out to do anything about it. As soon as he calms down and goes over it again in his head, he's going to find you and he's going to kill you."
    I tilt my chin up, staring up at him boldly. "If Farfarello really is unable to feel any sort of attachment, then WHY am I still here?" I demand. "You said he'd kill any of us without regret. Then why didn't he just kill me in the alley?"
    "You're not--"
    "He hesitated, Schuldich," I interrupt. "He was about to kill me-- I felt it. He was seconds away from tearing me apart with his bare hands. Then he stopped himself, and pushed me away instead. Why? If you're right, if he doesn't even view any of us as people, then why didn't he do it? Why did he check himself?"
    His eyes narrow, mouth twisted in a scowl. But he, too, pauses. I feel the touch of his mind and relax my barriers as he digs more thoroughly through the memory of that scene in the alley. "You misread it, chica," he says impatiently, eyes unfocused as he splits his attention between the conversation and the mental digging. "Farfarello doesn't hesitate. He's the kind of guy who lives moment to moment...." He stops, his brows drawing down, and I know he's found that moment in my mind where Farfarello left me. How his hands tightened dangerously on my arms-- then retreated suddenly. The look of complete shock on his face, and then his broad back receding as he quickly left.
    Schuldich shifts his weight, hands on his hips. Something like unease flickers across his face. "What the hell kind of 'hunches' were you going off of?" he growls, but he sounds more baffled than scornful. He digs deeper. I relent, sitting quietly as he begins to sort through my memories and thoughts of Farfarello, impatiently slipping past what he deems as unimportant trivial things. Then abruptly he stops, backs up, and begins again, this time going through my memories with a fine tooth comb.
    I lean my back against the wall and let my gaze wander around the room as I wait. Schuldich knows Farfarello better than almost anyone. If he looks through my eyes, sees what Farfarello's been like when we're alone, then I'll believe him when he says again that I was mistaken.
    Mistaken about what?
    I stare at my hands, curled loosely in my lap. Just what the hell was I doing? Schuldich's right; I didn't think about what I was doing, I just acted on some deep instinct or hunch without stopping to consider what that "hunch" was. And afterwards things were too insane to really give the brief close-mouthed kiss much thought.
    That's very distracting, you know, Schuldich points out snidely.
    "Sorry," I mutter automatically, and try to clear my mind.
    He continues exploring my mind with grim intensity, and it feels like forever. I am actually starting to nod off when I feel his mind slip free of my own. I sit up straighter, blinking the sleep from my eyes as I look up at him expectantly.
    He isn't looking at me; his eyes are focused on a spot on the wall near my head, his face unreadable. His shields are up, keeping me out, and I have no choice but to wait for him to gather his thoughts. I am about to speak when at last he focuses on me, mouth jerking uneasily.
    "None of that makes any sense," he says shortly.
    I blink, then arch a brow at him. "What do you mean? I know some of our conversations were strange, but--"
    "I meant--" He stops, fingers drumming against his hips. He transfers his gaze to the door, frowning darkly. "No, he doesn't."
    He's lost me. "Doesn't what?"
    "Argue with me. Or tease me--" he stops, taking a quick breath and exhaling it loudly, brows knit. "You've seen sides of Farfarello that I've only glimpsed a few times, or never seen at all," he says slowly. "And he doesn't interact with you like he does with anybody else."
    I stare up at him in disbelief. "What? But you--"
    "You'd wondered if he acted different around you," he continues as if I haven't spoken, still refusing to look at me. "That was the 'hunch' you went off of, I guess. You're still a stupid twat for kissing a homicidal psychopath, but..." He begins to pace. "What the hell is this?" he mutters fiercely to himself. "None of that made any fucking sense...."
    I reach up and rub my temple gently. His thorough search left a faint ache behind, and I feel too fuzzy and weary to concentrate. "Look, you're the one not making any sense," I sigh. "Are we done here? Ran is gonna flip shit if he wakes up and realizes I'm gone."
    He ignores me. "You didn't piss him off, you broke his rotted little brain," he muses, and it takes me a moment to realize he's referring to the kiss. "You're some kind of... anomaly to him. He reacts to you, to what you do to him, but he doesn't understand it. You jumped to the next conclusion, but he never got that far. He doesn't know why he reacts to you differently; he doesn't know how to deal with that. He doesn't have any idea what girls are for other than screaming."
    "Will you stop muttering to yourself?" I ask, exasperated. "And stop pacing, you're making me dizzy." I take a deep breath. "You're saying Farfarello doesn't understand this anymore than we do?" I wince. "I must have really confused the hell out of him, then."
    "Farfarello doesn't like being confused," Schuldich warns me.
    "So he's angry, too," I sigh. I retrieve my cane and get to my feet. "Look, I acted on impulse, but it won't happen again. Not that you have anything to worry about; he'll either avoid me like the plague or come hunting me down with a knife. It's not like I can take back what I did."
    He finally stops pacing and peers at me. "You seem pretty calm about all this," he notes. "You do realize that kiss might as well have been a signature on a death certificate, yes?"
    I shrug helplessly. "There isn't anything I can do about it, and worrying about it doesn't do any good. I ruined whatever warped form of 'trust' we had, and I guess I'd better be prepared for the consequences." I head for the door. "In the meantime, I'm going to spend as much time as I can with Ran and the others. If he's going to be after my head, I want my last days to be at least somewhat 'normal'."
    "Don't you mean happy?" he sneers.
    I pause with my hand on the doorknob. "It's hard for me to be 'happy' anymore," I admit quietly without turning around to look at him. "So I'll settle for 'peaceful'. Don't come looking for me again."
    I open the door and enter the bar. He doesn't follow or try to stop me, so I make my way home slowly.
    I am halfway there when my tired mind finally picks up on something missing.
    I stop in the middle of the sidewalk, reaching out tentatively.
    The link is gone.
    I try to remember the last time I felt the bristling edges of Farfarello's mind, but the last instance I can remember is before the police station. Schuldich must have taken it down at last; probably while I was being questioned by the cops. I was so numb I wouldn't have even noticed. Which means there was no struggle; Farfarello must have let him do it without a murmur of protest. Hell, after what I did, he probably asked Schuldich outright to get rid of it.
    I stare at my feet for a long moment before forcing myself to walk again.
    Somehow my legs manage to keep moving, and they don't buckle until I'm safely home. I drag myself to my bed and haul myself into it. I sleep fitfully; my dreams are strange and frightening and I don't remember them in the morning.


    My mind feels strangely empty in the morning.
    Now that I am more alert, the absence of the link is more obvious. I hadn't realized how accustomed I was to that bristling sensation on the edges of my mind. Now that it's gone, it feels as if a part of my own mind was separated with it.
    Don't be stupid, I order myself wearily, playing listlessly with the eggs on my plate. At least some good came of all of this. With the link gone, it means no more "spilling" or "leaking". Schuldich told me the damage already done was irreversible, but at least it means now I can't get any worse.
    I glance up at my brother, studying him. If I expected to be able to be whole again, to be as I was before the accident, I am in for a big disappointment. This only proves Schuldich was right. It wasn't Farfarello's mere presence that was twisting me up inside. Something from him really has infected me. I look at my brother's dejected features as he stares helplessly down at his own untouched breakfast, and none of the shame, heartache, or horror I should feel makes an appearance. I know I hurt him with my words yesterday, and I know he's worried about me, but...
    I shake my head sharply. I still love him; he's still my brother. Farfarello couldn't change that. It isn't quite the same; it's not the overflowing, blind love I had for Ran when I was younger. But something still remains.
    I push my plate aside and get to my feet. Ran looks up quickly, puzzled but also worried. I go around the table and seat myself in his lap. He looks startled, hands hovering by my shoulders in an aborted attempt at comfort.
    I give him what he wants-- and what I need. I wrap my arms around him, bury my face in his shoulder...
    And finally I cry.
    The tension in his frame dissipates, and his arms come up around me in a tight embrace. He's heartbroken at my tears, but deep inside he's relieved, too. He wants me to get it out, to finally break down and deal with the horrors of the previous day.
    But the tears I spill on his shoulder aren't a reaction to the murders, or to my explosion in the grocery store.
    I am crying for the only thing I truly regret: I am mourning the death of Fujimiya Aya.
    She's gone forever, and I am left to deal with whatever it is the darkness of Farfarello's mind left behind.

    We both feel a bit better, a bit more human, after my miniature breakdown.
    We spend the rest of the day cleaning the apartment and watching TV. We don't go outside, and we don't answer the phone. We spend the day together doing nothing of importance, and that night we fall asleep on the couch, his hand buried affectionately in my hair, with my head on his shoulder.
    Something human in me is left, after all. Because my last thought is "I'm glad Farfarello didn't take this from me."


    Yohji, Omi, and Ken are caught by surprise when Ran and I show up the next morning.
    "Aya-chan!" Omi comes over quickly, but hesitates, his eyes flicking Ran's way. They're wondering what the hell we're doing here. They assumed we would both stay home for at least another day or two.
    But I spent the morning convincing Ran that I needed to come into work, that I needed to feel normal again. Rather than risk another argument, and hoping that keeping busy would take my mind off of things, he finally relented.
    I manage a small smile of greeting, then walk past them into the kitchen to start the coffee. I can hear low voices as Ran explains.
    "You should've stayed home with her," Yohji hisses. His worry for me makes him angry. "She needs to--"
    "She wanted to be here," Ran insists. "It was her idea. Besides, maybe she's right. Seeing smiling faces all day, interacting with people and keeping busy will keep her mind off of what happened."
    I tune them out, shielding myself from their thoughts as I concentrate on brewing the coffee. I'm not going to think about Saturday. And I'm definitely not going to think about Farfarello. Eventually he'll come after me and kill me. I know him well enough to know my death will be the only answer he'll be able to find. I'll die and take all the confusion away with me, and he can go about life as normal. I doubt even Crawford will be able to stop the Berserker once he has his mind set to something.
    So I am going to live what's left of my life normally, damn it. I build up my shields as thick as they'll go. I don't even want to use my gift today. I want to be as much like Aya as I can be. Who cares if the smiles are an act? My brother needs it, and on some level, so do I. I set out five mugs and wait for the coffee to finish, humming under my breath.

    Two hours later Murphy's Law kicks into effect. Just because the world hates me.
    I am watering the plants lined outside the shop while the boys deal with the hopeful customers when I hear a frantic "Psst!"
    I glance up, moving the hose towards one of the planted saplings.
    There's a girl attempting to hide behind a mailbox on the corner of the street, looking nervously from me to the shop. She puts her finger to her lips and beckons for me to come with the other hand.
    I stare at her in blank surprise, the water spilling all over the sidewalk. The name takes a second to emerge, but I'd recognize that hair anywhere.
    "Shhh!" She beckons again, impatiently.
    I glance toward the shop window, but none of the boys are looking my way. Reluctantly I turn off the hose and walk slowly towards the mailbox, drying my hands absently on my apron. "What are you doing here?"
    She edges behind the mailbox a bit more. "Don't let them see me," she whispers, peeping over the top of the mailbox as she gives the store a wary look. "They don't like me very much."
    I sigh, pushing my hands into my apron's deep front pockets as I lean against the mailbox, blocking her from sight from anyone that should look out of the shop's windows. "I think I can see why. Your timing is horrible." I glance down the street. "Are more men after you?"
    "What? No. I just..." she pauses, frowning at me in bewilderment. "Hey, I thought you could read my mind."
    "I don't want to read minds today," I say firmly. "Now what do you want?"
    "It's Nagi." She tugs on a curl morosely. "Schuldich and Crawford showed up at the place I was keeping him. Last night. They took him away from me." She glares at me accusingly, tears threatening to spill. "You told them! I told you not to!"
    "They didn't leave me much of a choice," I insist. "Anyway, I didn't know where you were keeping him. Schuldich must have tracked your mind down and found you himself. I just told them you had him."
    "You said you wouldn't tell!"
    I frown impatiently. "All three of them cornered me in a shop and 'asked' me what I knew," I snap. "It was tell them or have Schuldich rip it from my mind. And anyway, what are you so worked up about? You like Nagi; Doesn't he like you, too?"
    She blushes prettily, looking down at her feet. "Yes."
    "Then he'll find a way to see you again. Just because he's with Schwarz again doesn't mean you can't see each other anymore." I decide not to mention Farfarello's hint at the fact that they might be leaving.
    "I guess..."
    "Who were those men, anyway? I don't suppose Schwarz explained it to you?"
    "No one important," she says with a dismissive flick of her brightly -painted fingernails. "Schuldich saw their faces in my mind and recognized them. They used to work for Taketori."
    I stiffen at the name, but keep my mouth shut.
    "They wanted revenge against Schwarz. They know they allowed Taketori to be killed."
    "What about Weiß?" I interrupt sharply. "Will more of them come for my brother and the others?"
    She shrugs. "I don't know. But Schuldich says most of the men who actually saw Weiß the night they killed Taketori were killed by your brother and the rest."
    I relax a bit. "So they don't know what they look like. They won't find us."
    "I guess not." She seems completely unconcerned about it. Only Nagi matters to her. "But when they found out I was alive, they thought I might know where Nagi was, so they came after me. Schwarz will take care of the rest of them if they attack again."
    I look over my shoulder at Omi's call from inside the shop. "Look, I need to get back before the others panic. Things have been really weird lately, and they don't want me out of their sight." I turn away, waving over my shoulder. "Take care of yourself, Tot. And don't do anything stupid."
    She calls a cheerful farewell, evidently already forgiving me, and trots off. I roll my eyes as I retrieve the hose. "Airhead," I mutter.
    "Aya-chan?" Omi steps out of the shop. "Oh, there you are. If you're done with that, could you come inside?" He smiles a bit apologetically. "You know your brother wants you to stay inside as much as possible."
    I sigh, rolling the hose up and tossing it behind the pots. "Fine."
    He checks himself as he is turning to re-enter the shop, and studies me more closely. "Aya-chan," he murmurs, "are you really all right?"
    I manage to keep the impatience out of my tone. "I'm fine."
    "All right. It's just..." he offers a small, weak smile. "I hope you know we're all here for you. I mean it. If you ever need to talk..."
    Without thinking I reach out and touch the very edges of his mind. He's honestly worried about me, and just as concerned for Ran. And under that is a bubbling indignant anger. He wishes he could get his hands on the men who accosted me. I nod. "Thanks. You too."
    He blinks. "What?"
    "If you need to talk about...well, anything..." I flick my eyes over his shoulder towards the mild chaos in the shop. "I won't mind."
    He stares at me blankly for a moment, then his eyes widen in sudden horrified realization.
    I don't give him a chance to respond. Smirking slightly, I move past him and go back inside.
    The anxious looks he sends me for the next few hours keep me amused for the rest of the day. When he tries to corner me as we are closing shop, I attach myself firmly to Ran's arm and send a cheerful farewell to the others as we leave for the day. Ran misreads my smug grin and is happy.
    "You're right, coming to work was good for you," he says approvingly as we get in the car.


    The next morning there are men outside the shop.
    They show up an hour before opening time and loiter outside, feigning interest in the plants. Their sunglasses hide their eyes, but I know it's not the flora they're looking at.
    I keep an eye on them as I help set up, sending a tendril of thought into their minds to confirm my suspicions.
    They're the same as those men Farfarello and I killed in the alley. They were sent from Rosenkreuz to retrieve me. They'll wait all day if they have to. As soon as I step foot outside, I'm fair game. I keep my eyes on my work as I slowly fill a new pot with soil, seething inside. Farfarello was right; they won't allow someone with such a rare gift to run unleashed. They want my talents for themselves.
    I know you're there, I send their way, scorn lacing my thoughts. Were you trying to be sneaky? Get lost, unless you want to end up like your friends.
    They seem to be used to dealing with telepaths; not only do they respond instantly, but I can sense that their shields are already up defensively. And they're strong. Almost as strong as the man Farfarello killed.
    You're only making this harder than it has to be, one of them points out. We aren't here to hurt you. Come with us. We'll take you to a place where you can fine-tune your gift, where people like you are appreciated.
    Beat it, I snap, making sure the words scrape painfully against their shields. I'm not interested in going anywhere with you.
    We're not leaving, the other man informs me coldly. It doesn't have to be like this. Come with us peacefully and we'll treat you with respect. But if you resist, we'll be forced to take care of you in other ways. We can drag you kicking and screaming or you can come quietly.
    I turn my head to glare at them through the window, my words blows that leave gaping holes in their outer shields. GET LOST. If you think I won't tear your minds to ribbons just because I'm a 'little girl', you're sadly mistaken.
    You aren't strong enough to get past our shields, the first man scoffs. You're untaught. Everything you do is instinctive and unchecked. We're a special team put together specifically to track down telepaths like yourself.
    I grin unpleasantly at him. Could've fooled me. That other guy sure didn't seem very impressive to me. I tore his mind apart so fast he didn't even have time to scream. He was bleeding all over the place. It was coming out of his ears, his nose, his mouth... even his eyes. Looked pretty painful to me.
    If this disgusts them, it's hidden carefully behind the inner shields where I can't sense it. Their faces remain expresionless as they stare at me through the window. I do sense some anger in the first man's mental words, though. We thought you'd be weaker than you are. We're more prepared this time. Empty threats, little girl.
    I latch onto that undertone of anger and throw it in his face. Aww, I'm sorry, did you know him? Was he your friend? Did you see the body? Gross, huh? Yeah, he was pretty weak. His mind fell apart like tissue paper.
    The anger is mounting in him, but his companion steps in before he can respond. You're already naturally strong, he says calmly. Most telepaths don't develop this much until they've had years of practice. You have great potential. Rosenkreuz can teach you how to use your abilities to their maximum. Don't you want better control of it?
    The only reason I would want to strengthen it would be so I would be able to crush shields like yours, I snap. This is the last time I'm telling you. Get out of here and don't come back. I'm not going anywhere with you. I don't know very much about Rosenkreuz, but I know enough. I've seen what you people did to Farfarello.
    He wasn't a part of the school. He was just an experiment--
    I am about to slam my mind against theirs, to test the real strength of their shields, when Yohji suddenly appears in front of me, stepping in between me and the window. Startled, I quickly try to make my face blank. "Oh, um, Yohji-san--"
    His hooded eyes are on the men outside. At his attention, they quickly turn and walk off. Yohji's eyes follow them suspiciously. "Ran," he calls calmly, "we got solicitors."
    Ran looks up quickly, looking at him, then quickly following his gaze towards the retreating men. His eyes narrow. Puzzled, I touch his mind. "Solicitors" is code; sometimes I almost let myself forget that tending a flower shop is only a cover. They're suspicious and wary by nature because of what they do at night with blades and silence. They don't know who those men were, but they instinctively smell trouble.
    "Aya-chan, stay inside the shop today," Yohji says quietly, eyes still on the window.
    I nod silently.
    Have it your way, comes one of the men's grim voices. We'll be back later. And we're not going to take no for an answer.
    Go fuck yourselves, I snarl, and pull away from their minds.
    Ken and Omi have caught on to the sudden tension in their partners. They are all alert and suspicious for the rest of the day, and the smiles they give their customers are as fake as my own.

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