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Theme: 17. The Grotto, or, “Underwater Wonders.”

Yohji sat on the couch with Aya’s sister. Everyone but Aya was calling her Ran now, and everyone but her--Ran--still called Ran's brother Aya. It was making Yohji’s brain hurt.

Today had been Ran’s first day back to school. Yohji didn’t think she’d be going tomorrow. Or maybe ever again. She had come home, put on Aya’s flannel pajamas, and put The Little Mermaid in the DVD player. The pajamas were huge on her, hid her feet and hands entirely, and she folded herself into a corner of the couch like a small bundle of washing.

“It’s just so stupid,” Ran said, during the crab’s solo.

“Hm?” Yohji was in his pajamas, too, though his were more subdued. He hadn’t been home from the hospital long.

Home, of course, needed giant air quotes around it. They were staying in a rented house north of Tokyo. It was made of concrete and steel and no doubt had been ultra modern in early eighties. The garden outside had been allowed to run wild. The trees were smothered in vines, formerly trimmed topiary now grew into monster shapes, and the ornamental grass was taller than Yohji.

Ran seemed to love it. She walked in the gardens every day. Sometimes she dragged Yohji along. He glanced over and saw her pursed lips and eyes fixed on the screen.

“Hey,” he said. “What is it?”

“Everything! School. Those kids. Groceries!”

“Groceries are stupid?”

“Life!” She sighed. “Trying to live like we’re normal. Especially Ran trying to pretend like I’m just a normal teenage girl who hasn’t been in a coma for years, or had psychic visions or whatever that was with you, or almost got possessed by a demon. Like I should go on like I was. It’s crazy. He’s crazy.” She bit her lip. “Is he crazy?”

Yohji put an arm around her. “Nah. He’s not crazy. He’s...a little stuck in the past, is all. We all are.”

“Not me. I just want to get past all this. To something real.”

“Did they give you a hard time at school?”

She shot him a poisonous look. “That is not what this is about.”

“What’s it about then? Enlighten me.”

She pressed her lips together and looked at him hard. He could see little gold flecks in her eyes that he thought were just hers. Or maybe he’d never looked so closely at Aya’s eyes.

“I want to do what you all do.”

He leaned back against the couch. “You want to kill people.”

“No!” She hugged her knees. “Yes. If that’s what it takes to be part of your team. I will. You only kill bad people.”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad, Ran-chan.”

Maybe she understood that. She was quiet afterwards for a long time, long enough that Yohji let his eyes close and rested his head on the back of the couch. Sleep was never far away these days.

He wasn’t surprised to find himself dreaming, or even that he knew it was a dream. He dreamed about the night at the temple a lot.

He fell through blue water that darkened to black as he sank. Chunks of white marble fell around him like stars. He could breathe in the dreams, which made them something short of nightmares.

This time, he found himself sinking faster and faster, the rush of water past his skin as palpable as wind. He was falling toward something this time--toward something real.

Suddenly, the water was lightening again, from black to indigo to azure. Below him was the sea floor, made up of red-gold sand. When his feet hit it, it puffed up in a sparkling cloud. There was a cave in front of him. He walked into it.

He followed an upward slope for an impossible time. The water drained away until only little waves licked at his ankles. Things crunched under his bare feet and a familiar scent rose up. The froth on the waves was made of popcorn.

Schuldig waited for him, seated on a rock, chest bare, hair longer than Yohji remembered it. He’d traded in his legs for a fish tail.

Yohji blinked at him. “You’re a mermai--”

Man,” Schuldig snapped. “Merman.”

“Are you dreaming, too?”

“Probably. They drugs they have me on keep me under most of the day. Nothing much to do but dream.” He flipped his tail and scowled. His hands were chained to the rock.

“Who? Those creepy fucks from Rosenkreuz?”

“No. Just your run of the mill loony bin. Restraints, anti-psychotics, sedatives, blah, blah, blah. Been through it before.”

He didn’t look as blase as he sounded. His shoulders hunched in, and his head dropped forward, hair hiding his eyes.

Yohji went to him and yanked at the chains.

“You can’t break them,” Schuldig said. “They’re there in real life, and my subconscious knows it.”

“Where? What hospital? Are you still in Tokyo?”

Schuldig shrugged. “Who knows? Unconscious, remember?”

“How did you get there?”

“Don’t remember much. I woke before you. Went wandering around, got picked up by the cops. My energy was too low to keep my shields up. Wham, bam, french fried brain pan. Haven’t woken up properly since.”

“Were you trying to find me? I never dreamed about you like this before.”

Schuldig shook his head. “I was trying for Crawford, but he’s a slippery son of a bitch even in his dreams.” He paused and wiggled on the rock. “This merman thing is your fault, I take it?”

Yohji thought furtively of Ariel, and shuffled his feet. “Maybe? It’s a dream. Who knows?”

“Did you remember--” Schuldig said, and stopped.





Yohji woke with a start to find Ran stabbing at the remote.

“Sorry! Sorry, I was trying to turn it down, and I hit the wrong button,” she said. She paused. “Were you dreaming? You kept twitching.”

Yohji sighed and rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “Just a dream.”

But it wasn’t just anything, and no matter what Schuldig had done, he couldn’t let him rot in some psych ward, drugged and tied up.

“You want to work a mission with me, kid?” he asked Ran. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. The way her eyes lit up only helped him convince himself.