Disclaimer: I do not own DOGS.
Summary: "You really don't recognize it?" She could not. "It's your name," he said. ( Naoto, Heine )
Notes: Claims regarding illiteracy are fanon (as long as it isn't confirmed in the manga itself).
A cool air whipped across the vacant streets as three individuals walked down what was left of a sidewalk. Naoto wrapped her scarf tighter around her neck, her legs feeling numb from the chill weather. She willed herself not to shiver—not to give any inkling of what she was feeling right now. She often heard words called "summer" and "spring," and those who mentioned such words talked of blue skies and sunny afternoons.
But time halted the coming of either of these seasons.
"I'm starving!" Badou cried, throwing his arms to the back of his head. A trail of smoke escaped from his lips as he made his exclamation, his pace seeming to quicken with a new resolve. "I haven't eaten since last night—"
"—Because you took so long to finish the errand Granny Liza told you to do," his companion, Heine, mentioned with icy indifference, his eyes never once moving to the person he was addressing, but made no objection to Badou's request. Although he wasn't really hungry, he wanted to get out of the wind. The cold he didn't mind, but the wind was getting stronger now, and it didn't help that it blew dust in their direction.
Likewise, Naoto wasn't too eager to eat as well, though she insisted on tagging along with the duo for the sake of her own personal interests. Heine knew something and she was determined to find out. As for this Buon Viaggio, she couldn't say she heard of it. It was an interesting name, and she had heard Badou mention some items off of its menu—Italian food.
She wasn't opposed to pasta, but she had made a blank face when Badou mentioned the restaurant at first. At the memory, the blade maiden averted her eyes to the cracks in the sidewalk. It was embarrassing, not knowing, and she felt that the others knew of her lack of knowledge, too.
They paused outside of the small building, and Naoto realized that she had been here before. In fact, she had been there many times. She paused to examine the designs on the sign hanging above the doorway. "This is Buon Viaggio?" she mused out loud under her breath.
"What?" Heine sneered at her bafflement. "You can't read the sign?" He pushed past her still form and into the restaurant, Badou following after giving Naoto a small, curious glance.
Naoto went tight-lipped as she averted her eyes to the ground; she shot no glare toward the speaker. So those were words… She had always thought they were, but she couldn't be sure. After all, she never had any books where she lived before, nor did Fuyumine or Magato bother to teach her how to read. She could manage to read a few words here and there, some simple and others exceedingly difficult. She was sure it had something to do with her past. Her parents had taught her how to read, she supposed, but they hadn't got that far.
She looked up at the sign and traced the faded letters with her eyes, embedding them to memory. "Buon… Viaggio…" she murmured. She stared at it for a few more minutes before opening the door and stepping in.
"Nao-chan!" a woman shouted from the counter. Naoto managed a small, gentle smile. Kiri was a nice woman and the blade maiden had respect for her. The manager was always kind, though Naoto, admittedly, had trouble reciprocating this friendliness.
"Hello," she managed simply. She moved to take a seat, her mouth turning into a thin line as she felt the eyes of Heine and Badou on her. She could sense their thoughts, what they were thinking. Kiri knew her, yet she, Naoto, didn't even know the name of the place? She turned her head distastefully away as she sat down a table away from them.
Her eyes came to the menu off to the side and she hesitated for just a moment before picking it up from its position and opening it carefully. Black words danced across the surface and Naoto traced them with her thin fingers, loving the way they seemed to be full of such meaning. They were a challenge to her—a challenge to find out those meanings, but…
Quickly Naoto made a mental list of what she heard Badou mention. Pasta, lasagna… Yes, that would do. Drinks? They had water, didn't they?
A few days past after Naoto learned of Buon Viaggio. Heine and Badou did give her a glance or two every now and then that day, but it seemed as if it were simply an awkward moment. It was true she had delivered the newspaper to Kiri every week. At the beginning she had trouble finding her way to her customers, though all she had to do was point to the name on the list she was given to a stranger, and usually the individual would be willing to part with a few directions. Soon, she had grown accustomed to her route, and it quickly became routine.
After her father's death, the routine became obsolete. She traveled with a new group of people now; she followed in a pack.
But now that she finally had time to be alone, she wandered the gray streets, exploring. Her life had been comprised and compounded into an empty warehouse with an occasional outing or two. Naoto had never really looked though. She had never really had the incentive to venture outside. Her mind was bent on improving, on defeating Fuyumine, but now that she found the purpose to go out she couldn't help but look. She couldn't help but see, feel, maybe even taste the world outside.
Many of the buildings remained vacant. Naoto was never keen on the emptiness of the city until she was alone. Her katana was nestled in its protective case, and it did well to shield the strong winds that battered her back as she made her way calmly down the streets. Every now and then she paused to peer through the dusty windows to see what lay behind the other side of the glass.
This time, she paused.
Her eyes looked in, and though she couldn't make out the figures exactly, she knew them for what they were.
Books. Shelves upon shelves of books.
Until then she had made a covenant with herself never to enter any building—only to look. But now she wanted to go inside, feel the pages, see the words and maybe pretend that she could read them even though she could not. She hesitated.
It will only be for a moment, she told herself.
First she tried the front door and, unsurprisingly, it was locked. She had an urge to force it down—she knew she had the strength—but something told her to be discreet about what she was doing. That and she didn't want to look like she was some kind of criminal. No, she was only going to look. That's what she told herself.
She wandered about all around the building until she found a back door by squeezing through a narrow alleyway. Although it was padlocked, time had worn the wooden surface; the iron of the lock became rusty, leaving it to dangle worthlessly upon its catch. Delicately, she pried the door open, careful to place the lock gently nearby on a window sill for the owner—whenever he or she would return.
The blade maiden cautiously looked inside before going in, making a fumbled effort to close the door behind her. The final product was leaning it a ways from the entrance on the concrete walls, leaving a thin slit of natural light.
Naoto found herself on the second story on the shop. It smelled musty, old, and forgotten; though she secretly thought it looked beautiful in its antiqueness—the natural light pouring forth from an already doomed world, the artifacts that lined the shelves. It carried the same… atmosphere as the church did. She found herself dropping her poker face. Her muscles relaxed.
She was content.
She crept down the stairs to the first floor where many of the books were still arranged neatly on the shelves, while others lay in neglected piles on the ground, dust accumulating on the worn, threaded covers. She slid one volume from the shelf and held it in her hands, savoring the feeling of the rough leather, the binding, tracing the title's golden letters with a lone finger. She opened it, feeling the pages with her pale hands. She closed the book, turning it over and over before putting it back.
And then she turned her attention to the other books on the shelves. She saw one with pictures in it—animals that she never saw, nor did she know what they were. She recognized some words: "bird," "the," "morning," "biological," "sunflower," "a," "an"…
The rest remained hidden to her.
Whenever Naoto found the time, she would go back to the building, having memorized its location from her first visit. Although she still followed Heine and Badou on their missions respectively, she no longer hung around afterwards, though she was ever persistent on finding the murderer—the one who took her past. Neither of them truly cared. After all, it was her business what she did with her time, and Naoto was careful about returning at the appropriate time to complete the tasks the old woman gave them, so as not to be a problem to the others.
"Where is she?" Finally. So it was asked. Rays of moonlight speared through the dark clouds of the night, bringing some light to the alleyway where two figures were currently sitting, much of their body hidden in the shadows of the buildings surrounding them.
Where was she?
Well, wouldn't they like to know.
"It's fine. She doesn't need to come," Heine answered. "We can do this without her."
"All right, fine," Badou replied, sarcasm edging his response. "But that wasn't what we planned."
"We never have a plan." He paused. "She never said she'd come."
"True…" the red-headed drawled. "But it's like… assumed, you know." He turned to his companion and, not hearing a response, he continued. "She's always… around," he finished awkwardly, averting his head to the other side of the alleyway. What word was he supposed to use? Stalker chick? Crazy stalker chick? Obsessive and crazy stalker chick? Yeah… he didn't think so. "You don't think it's strange?"
"I think you should stop thinking."
A shadow stretched down the alleyway, catching the other two's attention. Naoto, her head low, walked over to them, aware that she was late. Nevertheless, she was surprised that they hadn't already left and gone without her. She had lost track of time (not that she had anything to keep time with) and it was embarrassing to say the least to show up now.
But she didn't offer an apology. It would just… Just what? she thought. Make things awkward?
"Where were you?" Heine whispered harshly, fiercely. He was angry, like he always seemed to be when he saw her.
Naoto gave him a mere glare, but her response was delayed. She had no words to begin with, and she wasn't keen on explaining herself. "It's your loss," she said simply as if that was explanation enough.
The albino hardened his glare, but said nothing at first, biting back frustration. They could have left long ago—that was true. But they had become somewhat accustomed to her presence over the few months and, like Badou had said before him, it was tacit, unspoken—implicit. "Don't burden us," he said finally, moving himself from his position on the wall.
As the trio began to carry out the beginnings of their mission, Heine couldn't help but bristle at the last display of the woman's attitude. She had no manners. If you're late, you better have a good damn reason, was just one standard he lived by. That is, of course, on the natural assumption—there it was again, that word—that you'd be ready to explain yourself.
Meanwhile, Naoto was inwardly berating herself. Being late was just another reason for the rest of them to think low of her… And Heine's last comment? Her anger raged, though she kept it hidden behind her usual poker face. She couldn't let someone like him get to her. Next time she wouldn't make that mistake.
Easier said than done. She would watch, she would make sure it wouldn't happen again. She couldn't suppress the small panic she was feeling however. It came onto her, plagued her as she moved through the streets, clinging to the shadows—glad they were there to hide her face. Although she hardly believed they were the type, she couldn't erase the small imaginings her mind had conjured up—of either Heine or Badou finding out about her small, unusual hobby… about her inability.
Her inability to read.
The weather remained unchanged like usual the next day. Heine walked down the streets, alone. Badou was off doing who knows what. As for the woman… well, he could really care less, but… He frowned at the thought, his eyes narrowing with contempt. He still wondered to some extent just where she had gone. Moreover, she had opted to not tell them about it…?
He paused in his step, his narrow face angling to the right in thought. The gray sunlight made the bones in his face created sharp contrasts in his face, giving off a harrowing expression. He was thinking too much, he decided. Next time he (and Badou) would not wait for her. It would be her loss if she didn't show, not that he understood the reason why she did.
His eyes wandered up the paste-white walls of the building. Soot marks were smeared, leaving remnants of a fight long ago. He pondered them for only a moment before turning his attention back in front, continuing on his way.
… If it weren't for a small hint of movement behind the smeared glass.
Heine paused, looked at the window, looked out at the streets for any sign of life, and turned his attention to the glass, which reflected the dark depths of what used to be a store of some sort and the shadowed, derelict European architecture of the outside.
Naoto slowly took out a book from a shelf she had yet to inspect. Her gloves were off now, stuffed in the pocket of her coat. Every now and then she patted it to reassure herself that they were there and she would not lose them. If anything, she found it difficult to leave things behind, and always became disappointed in herself whenever she happened to lose something important.
Like my memory, she thought immediately.
Then: No, that wasn't your fault.
Or was it? The question hung like a death sentence.
Her thoughts wouldn't settle.
In any case, she opened the book she now grasped in her hand, admiring the ink sketches of flowers. A ghost of a smile brushed her lips, her eyes losing its hard look, turning soft as she dragged her thumb over the cut pages, enjoying the rough feel of something ancient and something… something very familiar. Did she have books when she was a child? Who taught her the very few words that she knew? Who would've taught her now?
"Who will—" She caught herself and the question was swallowed, evaporated, gone. Still-born.
Who will teach me?
She thought of the bishop, but he was blind. She thought of Nill, but she suspected the angel couldn't either. She even thought of Badou, but would he be willing? She even thought of Heine.
But stopped as soon as the notion presented itself.
What was she doing? No, what is she doing?
It didn't matter though, did it? Heine knew now where she had been the other night, and what the true reason was behind her lateness. He prepared himself, steeled himself—to enter in without pretense—but stopped himself. No, that was much too troublesome to attempt, too much of a hassle. But he couldn't see himself as content with just walking away. Then again, she liked to read. Was that such a big deal?
He walked away, indifferent to the whole situation, but as he took a step he saw yet another flicker of movement. He saw as the woman said a few words to herself, stopped in contemplation, then put the book back and stepped back to look at the array of literature as if it was a showcase—something to see, but not touch.
The realization came to him, and the enormity of the situation seemed to reveal itself. At once he left the scene—untouched, unmarred. He left and his mind raced as if hands moved in the dark crevices of his thoughts, moving and fitting in the puzzle pieces to the questions that had bothered him since yesterday night.
She had been there before and she couldn't read.
What? You can't read the sign?
That was what he had said to her that other day, didn't he… Didn't he?
He recollected the time she had shrieked among the roaring trains of the underground, her breaths ragged as she began to fall to the ground. He had grabbed her (albeit unwillingly), and although he sent her careening to her ground in the end, an essence of pity; it was the only thing he could find it being anything remotely close to. While she had claimed later that she was nothing like him, there was still that connection. Her past was buried in the underground… and so was his.
Not that he was exactly running to get it back, mind you.
Regardless, it wasn't his fault if his words left an acidic stain on her, was it? No, he was ignorant. It wasn't his fault.
Besides, he wasn't even sure, was he?
Exactly... and yet...
Could she take some with her?
Could I? Would it be all right?
She had made her way to the second floor now, pausing with a lone hand on the banister, her back to the shelves of books on the ground floor. It would certainly solve her problem of coming and going every now and then… It wasn't as if she was going to keep them forever. She would return it—doing anything less would be nothing short of theft… and she was no thief.
She was no thief.
After all, she knew the feeling of being robbed.
A few, she decided. Three at the most.
One, two, three… done.
But even as she gathered her chosen volumes, she felt awkward carrying them out. What would she answer when they asked her where she had got them? She had no money to buy such luxury items. The only possible option would be that she took them without asking.
I'm not keeping them, she reminded herself, but even so she tightened her hold on the books.
Finally she decided on the only conclusion that she could invent: slip in and out without anyone noticing. That was simple… she would stow the volumes under the church benches if necessary. Or in a closet… or maybe a trunk—drawer? Why not? She wasn't stealing.
After all, she knew the feeling of being robbed.
A week passed since then, and Naoto proceeded to set herself a small schedule, akin to the one she had made back then. After a couple of days—a month at the very most she decided—she would return the books she had taken, allowing herself to take new ones. The only one she kept with her was the one with the ink drawings of animals. She liked the form, the shading, the feeling that they could leap out of the page at any moment. Plus, she could try to identify the words with the image, though these certainly were words she had never seen before.
An image of a large, orange cat with black stripes had two words associated with it in small print underneath the image. However, the blade maiden suspected them to be in a foreign language of some sort because of the… style it was typed in: italics.
But her favorite drawing was of a wolf (this animal she knew). Although she couldn't read the small lettering underneath it, what she looked at most was the eyes of the animal—fierce, unyielding… strong. She imagined its fangs bared; she imagined it howling to the full moon at night, and some indescribable feeling welled up inside of her.
The desire to howl and cry out seemed like it was imprinted into her DNA.
The clock in the church was unmoving, yet Naoto knew she had been waiting there for a long time. Nill was in the back, resting, while the bishop was out again. Here she was waiting for his return. She had not seen much of him since… Her eyes darkened at the memory. Since she had seen the eyes of that woman—the culprit, the murderer. She felt her fingers clench down on the cover of the book that was laid out on her lap.
Relax, she told herself. She needed to calm down. She would find the woman eventually, know her name. Get her revenge and then…
Know who I am, she finished, though her answer to her own question seemed to be filled with uncertainty. Quickly she turned back to her "reading." The book had no pictures in it, but she enjoyed it none the less. It was endearing to see the filled up pages, the printed lettering. The pages that the words were printed on were different too. It was smoother, and thinner than the other books she had looked at so far. The red color of the cover had faded over time, reducing it to a washed out scarlet. Nonetheless, it was a change from the shades of gray that the world seemed to have bore since the day she was conceived.
So immersed in her text that she didn't hear the loud groan of the main doors opening resonated throughout the interior, enhanced by the church's acoustics. She had noticed this uniqueness of the building when she had first arrived at the church; the blade maiden could only imagine what the choir must have sounded like before… well, before the world had been reduced to this.
The individual came closer, stopping at the other end of the bench as if perched on the edge of her sphere of influence—or was it his?
"What is that?"
Naoto looked up, suppressing the surprise she felt at Heine's intrusion. She called it so, even though she knew that anyone was allowed to come and go as they pleased. Her fingers trembled just slightly until she willed herself to stop. She forced a glare on the man—or was he a man?—in front of her.
"I'm reading," she answered. A sense of pride entered her voice, like a child who had earned a gold star on her paper, although inside she knew the truth. Just because she did, however, didn't mean that he should know too.
He snorted, an eyebrow arching up in sheer skepticism. "Upside down?"
The woman froze. Upside down? Was it really? No, she couldn't be that oblivious, could she? She knew up from down—she did, she did! She quickly looked down, scanned the text—searching for one of those familiar words like "the" or "a" or "she." But embarrassment flooded her mind and the words refused to register. They looked smudged, smeared. They were already smeared—it wasn't her. But now they looked blurry—now they swam across the page, refusing to become clear to her.
What was she supposed to say?
"I—" she began, then stopped herself to look back at Heine. "It's more challenging," she declared lamely, trying to convince herself.
Heine stared at her, his face placid. He lied to her about the way the book was turned, and almost called her bluff before reconsidering his actions, getting a feeling that it would somehow backfire on him. He figured there was a better way to do this, resulting in the both of them retaining a sense of dignity.
Reluctantly he sat down on his end of the bench, ignoring the way she had bristled as if he had stepped on marked territory—her territory. He looked at the book in her hands for just a moment before drawing out a small slip of paper. He slid the paper across the seat to the center of the bench, before drawing back and leaning his arm on the arm rest, resting his chin on his gloved fist.
Naoto's eyes narrowed suspiciously at him, but curiosity got the better of her and she slowly took it in her hands. She flipped it over, recognized the way the letter "a" was shaped, and adjusted the slip accordingly so she was reading it correctly. She was more careful now, more wary… and certainly tenser.
Two words were written on the slip. Hastily written, she added mentally. It was somewhat smudged as if written using a stick of charcoal. It was nothing like the small printed text she was now accustomed to seeing.
"Read it," she heard him command.
She tensed further. "Why?" she challenged, though she felt her heart hammering in her chest. When no reply was given, she muttered a small curse, opened her mouth to give it somewhat of a try (she knew what the "a" sounded like at least), but stopped herself, allowing herself a small glance to the gunman to make sure he didn't notice her action). "I don't recognize it," she said finally. "What language is it?"
Heine gave no answer, and his body made no movement, save for his eyes which he now directed onto her.
"You really don't recognize it?" She could not.
"It's your name," he said finally after a few moments of silence.
At once Naoto felt her cheeks grow red with shame. She turned away, her eyes downcast and covered by her hair, leaving Heine at loss of what to do or say. This was a bad idea, he thought instantly. It was an awkward situation, and he had trouble admitting it was he who brought it upon himself. He let out a small sigh, and noticed the way she seemed to continue to stare at the book in her lap.
Naoto, her head down, was trying to figure everything out. How did he know? Was he mocking her? How did he know how to write? How did he know how to read? Her eyes swiveled in their sockets to the right, finding him, though it wasn't a glare she projected. She didn't know everything there was to know about him and, frankly, it frustrated her—almost as much as the fact that he could read but she couldn't.
But that wasn't what bothered her the most.
She looked down at the book in her hands, realizing that it was right-side up, and had been all along. She felt even more ridicules, but she closed her eyes, took a deep breath. She raised her head, her hair falling back into place to reveal soft eyes—humbled. Her eyes found the text in front of her once again and she stifled the feeling of embarrassment she had just garnered.
Nothing bothered her more than…
"This isn't my name," she said slowly. "Fuyumine Naoto… isn't my name."
There was silence on the other side of the church, prompting her to continue. "I was young… and then I forgot." She paused, unsure of herself, and then tried again. "I forgot many things… my name—" She broke off, tracing her fingers over the words that spelled it, not caring that trails of excess charcoal were now slowly smearing across the paper's white surface. She counted the syllables mentally, knowing which word belonged to which part of her name. "My name," she repeated under her breath.
There was a beat of silence—him taking in this information, her trying to read it now that she knew what it said.
"Say your name," Heine instructed at last, seemingly bored, "and line the letters up with the sound." He didn't look at her, but Naoto had the feeling that he was waiting—waiting for her to begin at last.
She resisted at first, unwilling to follow his lead, and then complied, slowly muttering under her breath the first sounds of a name that wasn't hers, yet the first name she had ever tried to read before.
A/N. I dunno where this story idea came from, but I thought it would kind of make sense. Illiteracy wouldn't be too uncommon in a post-apocalyptic era, would it? Bleh… anyways, this is my first DOGS story so I understand the characters may be OoC, and I read some previous fics to get a sense on how to write them. Regardless, I'm pretty sure I didn't do too well. Please critique however you'd like!