Ch. 9

    The doctor's face is pleased as she sets her clipboard aside, lacing her fingers together atop her desk. "She's recovering excellently," she proclaims. "Her determination and willpower is amazing. I'm confident that she'll be walking without any assistance in another month or so."
    Ran turns his head towards me to smile encouragingly, and I squeeze his hand in response, managing a small smile.
    "Excercise is good, but make sure you have plenty of rest," the doctor cautions, scratching with her pen at a little slip of paper. "If you get tired, listen to your body. Sit down or take a nap. Get plenty of fresh air and good food in you, as well. A few brief walks in the park with your brother will do you both a lot of good. The two of you have much to be thankful for." She hands the paper to Ran. "This will hopefully be the last prescription she'll need. When she starts to feel strong enough to walk on her own without them, you can flush the rest."
    "Thank you, doctor," Ran murmurs as he gets to his feet, holding his arm out to support me. Gripping my cane tightly in one hand, I use his crooked arm as a boost to pull myself up. Bowing his head in thanks to the doctor, he takes me slowly out of the office and into the hall.
    It has been nearly three months since the day the tower collapsed, taking the men of Schwarz with it. Three months since I woke up in Manx's lap, disoriented and heavy-limbed. Grueling hours of physical training have finally helped me to graduate from walker to cane. I can tell my brother is privately thrilled at the doctor's good news, but all I can muster up is a sort of relief. It is difficult lately for me to experience much in the way of joy.
    Oh, I have my reasons to be happy. I am awake and nearly walking now; I have my brother back at last; I have finally met the mystery man who smells of cologne and cigarettes-- Kudou Yohji, Ran's partner and friend.
    But everytime I count my blessings, my curses line up and demand attention.
    Ran's face is not as cold as the image of Absynnian that I once saw in Farfarello's mind, but he is still a changed man. While the other boys of Weiß insist he is much more relaxed and cheerful than he ever was when they knew him, he is still a darker version of the brother I once knew.
    We have lost our parents; the only comfort is that Ran slew the man responsible.
    Manx is constantly trying to wheedle Ran back into the world of Kritiker, despite his firm refusals.
    I have not heard from Farfarello or Schuldich since the Jerk awakened me; he destroyed my link with the Berserker in the process, and I have no idea if they are even alive any longer. Weiß is sure they are dead.
    The doctors that work for Kritiker discovered an impossible fact: somehow, my aging process was slowed almost to a standstill during my coma. I should be pushing nineteen, but they say physically I still have the body of a sixteen year old. It is a fact we have kept a secret from the rest of the world, even my physical therapist. At first it only stunned and horrified me. How could such a thing even be possible? Now I just try to comfort myself with the fact that on some level I haven't really lost those years spent lying in that hospital bed.
    And then there is my Secret.
    Ran's hatred for Schwarz runs deep, and it is a distaste shared by his partners. Their fear and loathing of Farfarello and their distrust of a man able to read their most secret thoughts rang through loud and clear on the few conversations I wheedled out of them concerning the black assassins.
    I told Ran that I heard him sometimes when I was in the hospital, that his voice gave me hope, and this seems to comfort him. But I cannot bring myself to tell them about my interactions with the madmen of Schwarz. Ran would go into a rage if he knew about the cruel things Schuldich had said and done to me, not to mention my furious struggle with the Berserker in the landscapes of my mind.
    And their fear of a mindreader only makes me more hesitant to let them in on my biggest secret. If they knew they had a telepath in their midst, would they be just as uncomfortable around me?
    So I have kept silent about it all, and tried my best to block my mind from their thoughts. I have not actively "spoken" to anybody in this intimate way since awakening, using the gift only to occassionally listen in. I try not to let it become a habit, though; it is a gross violation of privacy. And as I knew I would, I have already heard a few things I would rather not have known
    ....Though some things have been rather enlightening. Such as Sakura's rather desperate crush on my unknowing brother.
    Not to mention another's confused and conflicted emotions when it comes to Ran. This little insight was quite a surprise, and while I am not quite sure how to cope with it for the moment, I am content to let it alone. My brother is too dense in the romance department for that person to have a chance, anyway.
    We get my little bottle of steroids at the pharmacist's desk and make our way outside, where a familiar tone of thoughts catches my attention and makes me smile.
    Of the four of them, Kudou Yohji is the only one with shields.
    Whether it is a natural talent or something he picked up in his fights with Schuldich is unknown, but at least it means that unless I go actively searching for them, his thoughts remain a mystery to me. I rather prefer it that way. Some things are better left pleasant little mysteries.
    He sees us coming from where he's leaning against the car and straightens with a lazy grin, dropping his cigarette to the ground and putting out the butt with the heel of his foot. "Good news, I take it?" he guesses, catching Ran's hovering smile.
    Ran has remarked more than once that I seem a lot more reserved and mature since waking up, but being in Yohji's presence always makes me feel like a bashful schoolgirl again. If he knew he had taken a part in some of my foolish fantasies, he would probably be a bit embarrassed, too. Or maybe not. He seems to have no problem dealing with women.
    When I imagined Ran's mysterious friend, I was half right. He certainly is the smooth, attractive type to catch a lady's eye, though his physical appearance is completely different from what I fantasized. No dark hair or soulful eyes here; only lazy green eyes and honey-colored hair. But handsome nonetheless. Taller and slimmer than I thought, too. The fact that he flirts shamelessly with me whenever he gets a chance doesn't do much for my nerves.
    "Come on, honey, show us a smile," Yohji urges, chucking me under the chin.
    I smile back at him a bit shyly, though I do wish he wouldn't mix his signals like that; flirting but treating me a bit like a child at the same time. I've heard that he only goes for women above eighteen, but I can still hope.
    He reminds me a bit of Schuldich sometimes, but like the better version of that red-haired Jerk. He drawls a lot, smokes, and has a sarcastic wit, but his humor isn't twisted like Schuldich's, and his smile is a lot more genuine.
    "The doctor says she might not need the cane in another month," Ran informs him, holding the back door open for me.
    "Hey, great news, Bambi," Yohji congratulates me with a broad grin, heading over to the driver's side door. "Bambi" is his nickname for me, presumably because of my large eyes. A bit childish, perhaps, but it's a little nice having a private pet name. "Then maybe you can take over some of my shifts at the shop, eh?"
    Ran scowls at him over the top of the car, and he holds up his hands defensively. "Kidding, Ran-chan, just kidding."
    I had another mystery solved shortly after my awakening. When Yohji came to the hospital that once and said my name, and when Sakura referred to an "Aya" on the bluff, they were talking about my brother. Apparently he took up my name during his search for vengeance. Even now the boys sometimes slip and call him Aya. It gets a bit confusing sometimes.
    At least Farfarello was telling the truth about one thing-- Ran did indeed save those earrings. I awoke with one of them in my ear, and he returned the other shortly after. I wear them constantly.
    I take a quick peek at Ran's thoughts as we pull out of the hospital parking lot. He is happy and content after the meeting with my therapist. I pull away from his mind, settling back in the seat.
    "Is something wrong, Aya-chan?" Ran's gaze meets mine in the rearview mirror as we slide into the main traffic. "You haven't said a word since we left the doctor's office."
    I blink, quickly going over the last half hour, and wince internally. After so long of having conversations only in my head, after years of lying in that hospital unable to respond, I have developed the bad habit of keeping my mouth shut too often. Sometimes it worries Ran; he always frets that something is troubling me. I can't tell him that I just don't feel like talking; he would only worry more.
    I force another smile. "Nothing's wrong," I insist. "I'm just a little tired." The lie comes easily, but it seems to satisfy him. Yohji, whose instincts with women and their moods are more like a fine-tuned artform, fills in the silence with chatter.


    "Irrasha-- Oh, Aya-chan." Omi greets me with a smile as we enter the shop, straightening from where he was packing new soil around a young sapling. "How did it go?" He takes in Ran's content expression and his smile widens. "Good news?"
    Ken turns from the counter, clippers in hand as he looks at us expectantly.
    I can sense that Ran is bursting to tell the good news, so I offer a small smile and limp my way slowly towards the kitchen in the back. "You tell them, 'niisan. I'm going to get a drink of water."
    Yohji strides ahead of me, gallantly holding the kitchen door open, and I cannot hold back another smile. "Thank you, Yohji-san."
    "Of course, princess," he says with a little flourishing bow and a cheeky grin.
    My smile disappears. "Please don't call me that," I say without thinking.
    He blinks, startled at the edge to my voice.
    I give myself a mental kick in the ass and force myself to smile sweetly. "You call all the girls princess," I say quickly. "Bambi is just fine for me."
    He grins, following me into the kitchen. I'm not about to tell him that that particular nickname reminds me a bit too much of Schuldich.
    "Ne, Yohji-kun," I say with forced carelessness as I retrieve a cup from the cupboard. "Do you think Schwarz really died when that tower collapsed?"
    He pauses in his search for a snack in the fridge. None of them are comfortable talking about Kritiker or their enemies. It took a lot of dogged wheedling to get some of the story out of them, and even then they left out a lot. Some of the blanks I can fill in with educated guesses after my time with Schuldich and Farfarello, but there are parts that are still a mystery.
    "Don't worry your pretty little head about those murderers," he says, casual grin back in place as he snags a pudding cup. "They're long gone. We were fortunate to survive; we haven't seen or heard from them since, so it's likely they weren't so lucky. Even if one or two of them did survive, they're laying low. For all we know they ran back to wherever they came from with their tails tucked between their legs."
    I try to imagine either Schuldich or Farfarello doing such a thing and snort into my cup.
    He doesn't seem to notice, busy digging through the silverware drawer for a spoon. "It's good to see your brother smiling. I used to wonder if that man would ever be happy again. He never really talked about you, but we knew it tore him apart, having to see you in that condition."
    I nod, taking one of my pills with a gulp of water. "Thank you all for keeping an eye on him all this time. I know it couldn't have been easy for all of you to try and get a smile out of him when it was so hard to smile yourselves sometimes."
    "Oh, we dealt," Yohji hedges, and I know he thinks I'm referring to their job as assassins.
    But I've already learned all I need to know about each of them; I even dipped quickly into Yohji's mind on first meeting him, curious to know him better as I carefully peeled back the outer shields of his mind. So I know just how haunted each of them are. Omi's cruel family, Ken's dreams of soccer torn away from him, Yohji's tortured guilt over Asuka.
    It bothers me a bit to think that a few years ago I would have done everything in my power to banish such darkness from their minds. I would have put my own feelings aside and been the happy ray of sunlight to give them a bit of cheer.
    But now I can't bring myself to do it.
    They are each dealing with these painful memories their own way. There isn't much I can really do, honestly, except be there and understand. If there's one thing the horror of Farfarello's mind taught me, it's that not everything can be fixed with a smile and a song. Some scars are too old, too deep, to be fully healed.
    Even though these four men will recover eventually, in a way that Farfarello probably never will, there will always be that shadow lurking in the back of their minds, keeping them awake some nights.
    "Emotionally drained"... I frown down at my cup of water. Before I was called into the doctor's office, Ran and the doctor had a short, private conversation. Easy enough to eavesdrop on for me.
    The doctor was concerned that my "ordeal" had left me emotionally drained. She was trying to explain my rare smiles and solemn silences to my worried brother, assuring him that soon I would be my normal cheery self. "When she is finally able to walk without help, I think she will open up a lot more," the doctor had said firmly. "Her confidence will come back, and she'll be a lot more open and lively. Just give it time. I'm to understand you went through a similar period of withdrawal after the accident."
    Ran's internal wince was clouded with fear. He didn't lie to himself; he knew that no matter how happy he was to have me back, no matter how hard he tried to be the big brother I remembered and loved, that he was still a bit withdrawn. He is afraid that I will end up like that.
    I sigh under my breath. Is he right? Or is the doctor right? I doubt just being able to walk will really do that much for me emotionally, even if it will be a big accomplishment. But maybe all I need is time.
    Still, I can't help but feel a bit skeptical.
    Those years in the hospital and all that time with Farfarello changed me in subtle ways. Sometimes I wonder if part of it is due to the residue that clung to me after that violent brush with his mind.
    It seems I have scars to deal with, as well.
    "Shoot, I have that dentist appointment," Yohji growls, breaking me out of my thoughts. He grumbles, finishing the pudding quickly and tossing the container in the trash. "Take care, Bambi. Be back in a couple hours."


    "You wrecked the car??" Ken's voice is incredulous and irritated at the same time as he stands with arms akimbo and glares accusingly up at his sheepish friend.
    "Not 'wrecked', really," Yohji wheedles, avoiding his eyes as he twirls the keyring on his finger distractedly. "Anyway, why are you getting so mad at me? I told you already, it was the other assho--" his eyes dart my way. "Um, the other guy's fault."
    I roll my eyes at the verbal stumble, but keep my mouth shut. Ken and Yohji are always trying hard to watch their language around me, probably due to some threat of my brother's, and I don't have the heart to tell them I've heard-- and used --much worse language.
    "That's just great, Yohji," Ken hisses, stepping forward and jabbing his finger into the taller man's chest. "Ay-- Ran is going to throw a fit. How is he supposed to get Aya-chan home now? She can't very well ride on the back of my scooter!"
    "Um, a cab?"
    "It's too expensive to take a cab all the way to their apartment!"
    "They can split with Omittchi."
    "He left half an hour before you got here!"
    "That's what subways are for," I interrupt, just as Ran comes in from the back, my small bag with my medicine and schoolbooks slung over his shoulder. "Niisan, you don't mind riding the train, right?"
    His narrowed gaze shoots towards Yohji. "I thought you said it was a 'little fender-bender' on the phone," he growls.
    "Um, guess it was a little worse than I thought." Yohji shrugs helplessly. "It's in the shop. You should have it back tomorrow afternoon. Sorry. The other guy just came flying out of nowhere. Anyway, shouldn't you all be thanking God I'm alive instead of going on and on about the stupid car?" He pouts, and I can't help but smile a little.
    "We're glad you're alive, Yohji-san. Really," I insist, tugging on Ran's arm. "Niisan, let's take the subway."
    "But- your cane-" he looks horrified at the thought. Overprotective panic is bubbling in his mind. "If someone bumps into you--"
    "It's past rush hour, I'll watch where I'm going, and you'll be there," I say firmly, dragging him towards the door. I offer the other two a wave and a smile. "See you tomorrow!" I frown up at Ran as soon as we're on the sidewalk. "Niisan, really, I'll be fine. Besides, the walk to the station will be good exercise."
    He nods slowly, though uncertainty still clouds his mind. "Aa..."
    "The doctor said I needed more exercise."
    Impatience flares, and I push it back guiltily. I don't remember my temper ever being as short as it's been since I woke up. He doesn't deserve to get snapped at. He's only worried about me. I force a cheerful smile and lengthen my step a bit. "See, the fresh air is doing me good! Come on, 'niisan, you're slow as an old man!"
    A faint smile hovers on his lips at my teasing, and he relaxes a bit as he catches up to me in two long steps.

    It is nearly a ten minute walk to the station, and though I refuse to let it show, it does wear me out. We arrive right when the train pulls up, and thankfully there are seats free. I lower myself into one in relief, though I try to keep the weariness off my face to avoid another panic attack from my brother. The tone alerts passengers to stay clear of the doors, and the train is off with a lurch. I wince, hunching in a bit as I strengthen my outer shields a bit.
    Despite my carefree attitude about taking the train, it is something I would rather have avoided if at all possible. Crowds bother me now in a way they never used to. At first a part of it had to do with being surrounded by so many people after years of being by myself. But that wore off the first month. Now crowds are an agony for an entirely different reason.
    They're loud.
    Even on a train, where the majority of the passengers prefer to keep their silence and ignore their neighbors, their minds clamor away in a jumbled mix of noisy chaos. Keeping it all down to a muffled background noise takes up all my concentration, and Ran has to say my name twice before I hear him. We switch trains, and thankfully this one is a lot less crowded. I sink back in the plastic seat in relief, quickly forcing a fake smile for Ran when he looks at me with worry. "I'm just a little tired," I say, forestalling any questions. "But I'm all right. The walk was good for me."
    He nods slowly, still frowning.
    I glance up at the map on the other side of the train's car. Only three stops. At least the station there is only a few minutes' walk from our apartment. I can make it that far. But I'm going to sleep like the dead tonight.
    Idly I reach out, letting a few of the mental voices around us in. Sometimes it entertains me to see what's on the minds of strangers. And sometimes it pays off; once I overheard a boy thinking about how cute I was. Nice for the ego, that.
    I jump so hard I almost fall out of my chair.
    Ran steadies me quickly, face instantly full of concern. "Aya-chan, are you all right?"
    "What?" I stare at him wildly. "What? Oh-- um, yes," I babble. "I just-- you know, started to nod off, then-- jerked awake... I'm fine!"
    He sits down next to me, still holding my shoulder and searching my face. "Your legs don't hurt, do they?"
    "No, no, I'm fine," I insist. "I promise." I wait until he finally relaxes and looks away and then reach again for that flicker of familiar heat I felt at the very edges of my mind.
    He hasn't sensed me, yet, so I take advantage of it. I can't believe this, I send out dryly, though my heart slams in my chest. Just when I thought I was free of you for good.
    I have the great satisfaction of feeling a jolt of surprise from his end.
    Not you again, Schuldich groans. Good god, what does it take to get rid of you??
    A well-aimed bullet, I reply drolly, a small smile teasing at my lips. By the way, I never got to thank you for--
    Save it, cupcake, he growls. I was just returning a favor. Your monkey shrieks helped me track down Farf and shake some life into him.
    My brother and the others think Schwarz died when the tower collapsed. I take it all of you made it?
    Why the hell would I tell you, you nosey little brat?
    It's not like I'm going to tell them, I say with a mental snort. They're happy thinking you're dead. As long as you guys don't plan on attacking them again, I don't see any reason to break their little hearts with the bad news.
    I feel his touch against my mind dig in a bit deeper, but don't bother to try and shove him away. It's not like there's anything too important in there he doesn't know about already, and I already found out the hard way that he's a hell of a lot stronger than I am. Damn. I was hoping at least some of those irritating ass ticks got wiped out in the fall, he grumbles. They're still at that goddamn weed shop? Not too bright. If we were set on taking them out, we'd know exactly where to find them.
    Does that mean you're not interested in 'taking care of them'? I demand.
    Feh. Who cares about Weiß? They were only a problem when they went after our clients. I doubt they'll be interfering with us in the future.
    I sense his approach-- so he was on the train, after all --but pretend I don't. Glad to hear it. By the way, there's something I'd like explained.
    Do tell, he says with mock interest.
    Ran handed me a stuffed rabbit when I woke up. He said it was left on my hospital bed, but none of them put it there. I'm having a hard time imagining one of you psychos putting it there.
    A rabbit? Schuldich's mental laugh is like a carress. A carress of sandpaper, maybe. Sounds like Nagi's little girlfriend paid you a visit sometime. She's a real wacko.
    I retaliate suddenly, lashing out quickly with my own mind like I did that time I stole Ran's image from Farfarello's mind.
    Little brat- he growls, but I've already retreated with the information I was looking for.
    I frown, surprised. Nagi? That's the boy with telekinesis, right? He's still missing? Do you think he died in the tower?
    Who knows?
    Someone appears at the pole beside my seat suddenly, leaning over slightly, and I glance up, face carefully unimpressed. He's wearing a sweatshirt, the hood pulled up to cover his tell-tale red hair, but as he leans over I catch a glimpse of his face and his shit-eating grin. "Boo."
    Nice try, I felt you coming. And are you insane? If my brother realizes who you are, he's going to lose his mind. Nice outfit, by the way. Is that your idea of incognito?
    You're such a mouthy little twerp, he snorts, but I can sense his annoyance. He was hoping to startle me. Tell me why I shouldn't just kill you both right now so I don't have to worry about either of you ever again.
    I glance towards the slight bulge in the pocket of the hoody. He's carrying a gun around in public. Is he insane??
    Wait. Stupid question.
    Don't be stupid, Schuldich.
    I thought I was 'the Jerk', he says mockingly.
    I glare up at him. You are, I snap.
    And yet a microscopic part of you is almost happy to see me. He tilts his head, still grinning fiendishly. Why is that, do you suppose?
    I gape at him, then look quickly away, scowling across the car. I am not. You idiot.
    It's my dashing good looks, isn't it?
    I hope you get hit by a bus.
    Ran must have noticed my dirty look, and is looking from me to Schuldich with a narrowing gaze. Schuldich keeps his head lowered, hiding his features with the shadow of his hood. "Is this guy bothering you?"
    "Who?" I ask innocently, wiping the frown off my face and staring wide-eyed at my brother. "What do you mean?"
    Schuldich's mental voice is laced with wicked amusement. This is just too tempting.
    Do it and I swear I'll kick you in the nuts.
    Violent, much?
    Ran shifts, still eyeing Schuldich distrustfully. "Aya-chan, switch seats with me."
    I think you spent a liiiittle too much time with Farf, princess, Schuldich notes. He's certainly brought out the bloodthirsty little beast in you.
    Will you shut up??
    "We're almost there," I insist, keeping my face carefully blank, back to Schuldich. "Why do you want to switch seats?" I'm not about to do that; Schuldich could blow his cover deliberately or Ran could catch a glimpse of his face.
    Ran hesitates, unwilling to say his suspicions aloud.
    Go away, Schuldich.
    He chuckles, but straightens and starts to head away. I'll tell Farf you said hi, he taunts.
    You do that, I respond quietly, staring at my lap.
    He stops, and though he doesn't turn around, I feel his focus on me sharpen. You actually mean that. He sounds suspicious and incredulous at the same time. I'm sorry, I must have missed the big lump of BRAIN DAMAGE in that dense skull of yours. You have remembered that Farfarello is the Berserker, yes? I tell him you're alive, and he'll probably track you down and kill you. Messily. He pauses. Now there's an idea.
    I sigh, rubbing at my temple wearily. The train rattles to a halt. Oh, christ, forget it. Just get lost.
    See ya, toots. He turns then, pausing at the door as it opens. I realize what he's about to do, but there's nothing I can do to stop him. He reaches up and pushes his hood back, grinning insolently our way.
    Beside me, Ran goes absolutely rigid, eyes widening in shock.
    Schuldich waves tauntingly and steps off the train.
    Ran is on his feet in the next instant, face livid with rage. I reach out and seize his wrist as tightly as I can before he can run for the door. "Niisan!" I cry, feigning surprise, while I seethe inside. "What's wrong?"
    You just couldn't help yourself, could you? I snap, exasperated.
    Schuldich sounds entirely too pleased with himself. That'll give ol' stick-up-the-ass something to think about, he sneers. He'll be looking over his shoulder for weeks.
    I really hate you, you know that?
    No you don't, he jeers. Then he's drawing away, out of range, and I retreat from his mind, focusing on the problem at hand. Ran is shaking with anger, glaring at the closing door. The train's lurch as it starts up again makes him stagger.
    People are starting to stare. I force concern into my voice. "Oniisan, what is it? Are you all right?"
    He glances down at me, struggling unsuccessfully to bring his expression under control. "Fine. I'm fine," he finally says shortly. He forces himself to sit back down, though his entire frame is still tense as a wire. "It was nothing. Sorry, Aya-chan. Don't worry about it."
    I bob my head in a nod, but already my mind is drifting back to that unexpected conversation.
    'No you don't'... Arrogant ass. I do hate him. He's just saying that to piss me off.
    And what the hell did he mean by 'You actually mean that'? Of course I didn't mean it. I don't want him to let Farfarello know I'm alive. I shift in my seat uncomfortably, frowning in irritation. I don't give a flying flip about Farfarello. Whether he's alive or dead makes no difference to me, as long as he stays the hell away from me and my brother.
    I never want to hear from them again. I don't care about any of those Schwarz bastards. Not at all.
    Not one bit.
    The remainder of the trip home is full of tense silence for us both.

Author's Notes: I think this is actually the first time in a WK fic where Aya is awake that I actually use that whole "she stayed the same age the whole time" thing they used in the series. Can we say deus ex machina?

Back to WK fics