Author's notes: This fic gave me a lot more trouble than I thought it would. It was written for a kinkmeme request- Santa/Clover- and that struck me as a really cool pairing until I sat down to write it and found it unexpectedly hard. It was really difficult for me to picture this fic in general, actually, which is unusual for me. I also lost the journal I was writing it in 5/6 of the way through and had to start over from the beginning. orz For the record, Aoi spends some time thinking about Clover's "bad girl" look; in Japan, school girls who want to look "bad" roll up their skirts at the waist to show more leg- as Clover obviously has- and dye their hair, which is against the dress code in a lot of schools.


Backdrops


Clover's a hell of a lot lighter than her brother- but then, Aoi expects that. Her left arm's not a prosthetic of metal and plastic, after all, and besides, she's pretty tiny. Small in height, small in build; even as deadweight, she's not a chore to carry. He might have to drag some of the participants he takes in later tonight, but not this one. This one fits in his arms easy enough.

He glances down at her as he walks: the pink and black heels, the dyed-pink hair, the rolled-up skirt. She's got some kind of bad-girl look going on, but to Aoi, it looks like someone painted the set for a play. The scenery's there, but the mountains sure as shit aren't real mountains, and that river's just a few creative swipes of blue. She doesn't look like such a bad girl to him- that's all. Maybe it's because he remembers the way he pictured her nine years ago, when a blind kid talked about her like she was the center of the fucking universe.

He wonders if Light ever told her about that day. He wonders if she knows she saved the life of every kid on board that sinking chunk of metal.

Sure, she hadn't been there- but she didn't have to be. The fact that Aoi's still around to think at all is proof fucking positive that just the idea of her turned out to be plenty. They didn't need a little girl who'd just turned nine, a girl whose present was supposed to be the clovers in their hands. They only needed to know she was out there somewhere. It'd reminded every goddamn one of them that they had reasons to walk off that boat in one piece.

Aoi shifts her in his arms as he approaches the car where his sister's sitting behind the wheel. He thinks about the number "4" bracelet waiting in the Nevada desert. He thinks, not for the first time, that this is a dick move- that all of this is. But if there was ever a time for second guesses, it passed way the hell before tonight.

When Akane leans across to open the car door, he only shoves his thoughts away and bends to lower the girl into the back seat with her brother.


He feels like he's read the whole goddamn script beforehand. Every line, every set, every fucking plot twist- he knows them all. Aoi thinks that this is how an actor must feel, putting on a show. Now surprise, now anger, now fear- all for display. Cover up what's real, hide what's true, make a new truth instead, piece by piece.

What he wants to say is, "That's not your brother," but of course he can't. What he wants to tell the red-eyed girl with the face three shades too fucking pale is that this is all part of the story- that this is all part of the show. But if he opens his mouth now, he's wasted the past nine years, just pissed them away down the drain.

"Hey," he says instead. "Look. It's been a shitty night."

She lifts her eyes from the floor. They're wet at the edges, and if looks could kill, he'd be bleeding the hell out on the ground about now.

Aoi doesn't know what he plans to do until he's moving. His hand doesn't stop to ask permission from his brain- it only reaches into his pocket and pulls forth a slightly crumpled bookmark salvaged from the cushions of a couch earlier tonight. He holds it out to her like he's thrusting it away, the third time he's made the offer. Where Junpei refused him and the woman with the number "8" bracelet left it lying on the floor, though, Clover reaches out to take it. Her fingers close around the picture of her namesake just a little too tightly.

"A clover?" she asks, and her voice is strange.

Now's when he ought to walk away. The girl isn't stupid; she's proven that much already. If he says anything, she'll know- or suspect, at least.

Instead Aoi finds himself shrugging, jamming his hands into his pockets. "I heard somewhere clovers are supposed to mean something. They've got leaf words, or some shit like that." He looks away, thinks very distinctly that he should shut his goddamn mouth, and keeps talking anyway. "One for each leaf, but fuck if I can remember them all. Hope, faith... luck, maybe. Something else, too."

"Love," Clover prompts him, very quietly. Her eyes are on his face, sharp as a new blade. He can see her thoughts begin to turn, working things through behind the veil of grief.

Christ. He should've left well enough alone. He should never have let his idiot mouth run away with him.

"Maybe that's it," Aoi says. "Anyway. I figured you could use some words like that on a shitty night like this one."

Clover looks away from his face and down at the bookmark. She hasn't loosened her hold on it; it buckles in the middle, adding new creases, and her knuckles are white.

"Yeah," she says. "I guess I could."


When the knock at the door comes six days after Aoi's twenty-fifth birthday, he's slouched in a chair in the living room, buried in schematics. His notes are on the end table; his gun is in the end table drawer. He and Akane are balls-deep in the plan to track down the fuckers who bet on the first Nonary game and serve them up what they've got coming. They've got new aliases, a new address, all new contacts- so when he goes to answer the door, he only shoves his loose notes in the notebook and shuts it. The gun stays in the drawer.

He's expecting the postman, with that wiring he ordered a few days ago.

He's expecting his sister, maybe, home a bit early.

What he's not expecting is a girl with dyed-pink hair and freckles, staring at him with something like accusation. "You're a bitch to track down," she says, casually, and Aoi stills- feels everything go cold, like someone's dumped ice down the back of his shirt.

His thoughts clatter to a stop and then lurch back into motion, racing in every direction at once. If she's come armed, he's a dead man. If she's gotten the cops involved, he may as well be. A warrant for the apartment behind him will yield enough to put both Kurashiki siblings away on nine counts of kidnapping- not to mention whatever charges stick for their involvement in three deaths in the Nevada dessert. He can kiss his plans goodbye. He can kiss his freedom goodbye. Not the best fucking lawyer in the world could pull the right strings to walk them out of shit that deep.

He moves to close the door on her, already beginning to make new plans- pull out hard and run fast, get word to his sister before she comes home, leave this new life behind and start again. But Clover is wedging her foot into the crack and then shoving forward, angling her body so that it's impossible to slam the door. A part of Aoi admires her confidence, even as she pushes right the hell into his apartment- admires how she assumes that this can only go the way she wants it to. Then she's shutting the door after her, and everything evaporates except for the very fucking real anxiety involving what the next five minutes will hold.

She puts her hands on her hips and shakes her head, eyebrows raised expectantly. "Don't look at me like that," she says, like she's scolding a child. "What did you think was going to happen? All that, and then you run off without a word."

Aoi shifts; he avoids looking toward the end table, but he's wishing he'd taken his gun, after all. It would give him a hell of a lot more negotiating leverage. "Look," he says to the girl. "You're right. What we pulled last year- that was pretty fucked up." He pauses and licks his lips. "But that was the only way to get it done. I'm not gonna say I'm sorry for it. Not when it got me my sister back."

Aoi sees the change in her eyes; he sees her start to move, and he flinches backward. He expects her to knife him. He expects her to punch him.

For the second time today, his expectations are so far off they're in the next goddamn galaxy. Because Clover's kissing him- and not some pretty little-girl kiss, either. It's a kiss that matches the badgirl scenery, a kiss with lips and teeth and tongue, a kiss with all of her pressed up hard against all of him. It's a kiss with her arms around his neck and her hand in his hair. He's just gotten past the surprise enough to realize she's one hell of a good kisser when she pulls away.

She doesn't go far- just rests her head on his collarbone- and Aoi cranes his neck to try and look down at her. He wonders if this is part of some plan. He wonders if she's come in bugged, and intends to fish for information. He thinks, without meaning to, about a staircase with gaps in it, and he wonders what sort of underwear she has on.

Clover hums against his collarbone, an oddly content sound. "You should have killed Hongou, too," she says.

When she pulls him down for the second kiss, Aoi lets her.