Part Four

    I must have left my bag of smart remarks in my other hospital gown, because for a few moments I can just stare at Farfarello in the wake of such words. I have never heard Farfarello use that word before, and for a moment, I'm proud of him for finally expanding his vocabulary. Then I decide that I don't want mine and Crawford's relationship dragged into this. I gave Farfarello a few tidbits about what's going on between us, but that doesn't mean I want to talk about it right now, not when so much else is shifting around us.

    At last I find my tongue and I arch an eyebrow at Crawford. "If you fucked me because your mother told you to," I start, but Farfarello cuts me off.

    "I'm not talking about you," he says simply. "Am I, Crawford?"

    I can just stare stupidly at Farfarello. "What?"

    "That's enough," Crawford says again. "That is none of your business."

    "No?" Farfarello asks, leaning back against another invisible wall. "I think it is. You were going to survive that fight," Farfarello accuses him softly. "I felt it from them." He bares his teeth at Crawford and at last fire replaces the ice in his eye. "He was mad at you, but you weren't going to die."

    "Farfarello, what-"

    "If they had won, I would have lived," Crawford interrupts me, focused on Farfarello. "My position as a Five means I would have taken the fall publicly for all of Rosenkreuz to see. That is the only reason."

    "Crawford, he-"

    Farfarello doesn't let me finish, either. "That is not the only reason."

    "It is the only one that pertains to you."

    "Is it?" Farfarello asks, voice hard. "I know better than that."

    "Wait," I cut in, feeling a little dizzy. Their rapid-fire argument is going too fast for me to keep up; I was lost right at the start and I can't follow the rest. "What the hell are you talking about, Farfarello? Crawford?"

    "Didn't you tell him?" Farfarello asks Crawford, but it's more of a taunt than a question.

    "It has nothing to do with him."

    "I think he'd like to know," Farfarello answers.

    "Someone tell me what the fuck we're talking about here," I say flatly, looking from one to the other. Crawford's mouth is open, but Farfarello speaks first, and the name stops my heart in my chest.


    The silence…

    …is deafening.

    I taste blood; I taste bile.

    I can't look away from Farfarello. He finally drags his gaze away from Crawford to look at me, but there's nothing on his face. He just stares back in silence as the seconds tick between us, as he waits for it to sink in.

    "That's sick," I hear myself say, but it doesn't really sound like me.

    The silence is…

    Crawford isn't saying anything.

    Crawford isn't…

    Somehow I manage to look away from Farfarello, only to see that Crawford's face is carved from stone as he stares at Farfarello. He's not denying it. He's not denying anything.

    I don't feel my cup slip from numb fingers, but I feel it when it hits the ground and the hot coffee splashes all over me. I'm out of that bond room in an instant, almost craving the excuse to get away from them, and retreat back from Crawford to get out of the puddle. Crawford and Farfarello don't follow me immediately and I can feel the links between our minds sizzle as they argue. I just stare at Crawford's face as I retreat back to my chair, and I've just sat down when they finally pull out of the bond.

    I refuse to think that-

    "It's a lie," I say hoarsely. Neither one says anything, but Crawford calmly picks up the trash can from beside Farfarello's bed and starts my way. "It's a lie," I insist, searching his face, but his eyes give nothing away. He just stops in front of me and holds out the trash can in an offering, and that's enough of an answer.

    My coffee tastes like blood as I cough it up, and I'm only dimly aware of Crawford's hand keeping my hair out of the way. He takes the trash can with him out of the room and I press my hand against my mouth, staring through the floor. I can still feel my stomach shaking, looking for anything else it can get rid of, looking for anything it can shred up to erase that growing knot in my gut.

    "It's not a lie," Farfarello says simply.

    "Shut up," I say, smearing the side of my hand against my lips. My hands are shaking as I push myself to my feet and I clench them into fists. It doesn't help, and I hook one foot behind a leg of my chair to kick it at his bed. It bounces harmlessly off the baseboard and clatters loudly to the floor. "Shut the fuck up! How would you know? How would you know?!"

    Farfarello says nothing to that, but I don't want an answer from him. I shoulder my way out the door and vanish into my own room. Bare feet slap against the floor as I pace up and down the length of the wall, fingers tangled in knots in my hair. I jerk at the orange locks, trying to rip the memory of that conversation from me, but it's not interested in budging.

    Crawford and… Hoffmann?

    I feel my stomach lurch again and latch onto my nightstand, giving it a fierce shove to knock it over. The tin can of candies, long empty, clangs against the floor and rolls under the bed. The nightstand has too curved a front to stay flat and rolls slowly onto its side with the force of my shove, spilling books out onto my feet. I kick them away and sag back against the wall, hearing my heartbeat and my ragged breathing in my ears.

    The door clicks softly closed and I flick a sharp look that way to see Crawford holding onto a spare change of clothes for me. He carries it over to the bed and sets it down, calm as you please, not happy with what Farfarello's just accused him of but giving no sign that it's not something he can work through.

    I hit his shields and bounce off, scrabbling for a hold and finding nothing, nothing but that room. Locked to me. Forever locked to me. Why can Hoffmann and Farfarello see right through him when I'm given nothing? I can hear Farfarello past him, calmly waiting on the outcome of this fight, and Ikida in the other room wondering what's going on. I shoot from Crawford's mind to theirs, telepathy flaring up in one sharp bolt, and slam them both into unconsciousness. I don't want to deal with them. I don't really want to deal with Crawford, either, but there's no real choice with that.

    I struggle to control my ragged breathing, fingernails scratching against the wall I'm leaning against. "You were never going to tell me, were you?"

    "I never saw a reason to," he answers.

    I can't believe him. "You never saw a reason to."

    "That's what I said."

    "Oh, fuck you, Crawford. I have the right-"

    "What gives you that right?" Crawford asks, gazing across the room towards me. "It is not pertinent to the way things are now."

    "That doesn't change the fact that-"

    "How much of anything do you know of me before Schwarz was formed?" Crawford asks, interrupting me neatly. "How much do I know of you, besides what Hoffmann told me to trigger my precognition? What either of us was before doesn't matter. All that matters is what we are now and what we can accomplish together."

    "I don't believe that."

    "You do," Crawford corrects me easily. "It has never bothered you before to not know. It has never occurred to you that it would matter."

    "You were a precog trainer for a year and a half," I tell him. "You told me that. The rest of your file with Schwarz is blank."

    "My file was erased when I became one of the Five because the Council and my colleagues became the only ones who had the right to track what I was doing and where I was going. The rest is unimportant."

    "If it wasn't important, you wouldn't be running from it."

    "I do not consider this to be running."

    "Jesus Christ, Crawford, you let him-"

    "Let?" Crawford echoes, arching an eyebrow at me. "The same way, I suppose, that you let him destroy your mind for a year. The same way Farfarello let him."

    "That's not what I meant."

    "Your word choice, not mind."

    "God damn it, you know what I meant."

    Crawford says nothing to that. We stare each other down in silence for a long minute: me, tense and angry, and him giving nothing away. Never giving anything away.

    Crawford and… Hoffmann.

    Hoffmann had Crawford first.

    I've kissed the same mouth my uncle kissed.

    How does Hoffmann manage to so thoroughly fuck up everything I have? He's dead. I'm supposed to be slowly letting myself forget he existed. I'm supposed to still be partying, now that I can be upright long enough to party. I'm not supposed to be run over with this sort of newsflash.

    "Are we finished?" Crawford asks.

    "You're an asshole," I tell him.

    "I'm glad you think it was my fault."

    I feel a little twist somewhere between my chest and my stomach, something I can't name but something that hurts just the same, and I finally push away from the wall to start towards him. Nothing in his eyes and nothing in his voice, but the words…? I push against his shields again, wanting more, wanting something else that says he didn't like it. I'd prefer it if he came right out and said he hated it, but Crawford would never say that.

    "Once?" I ask him. "Twice?"

    "What's past is past," he tells me.

    "Just because you're a precog doesn't mean you can ignore it," I accuse him.

    "Being a rank eight prescient means that I can," he answers. "It means that I have to. You're a telepath and you wouldn't understand."

    "Try me."

    "Your gift works here, Schuldich," he says, reaching up to touch his temple as I stop right in front of him. His hand moves to my face next and he presses two fingertips to my forehead. "Your gift is mental but it's still a very tactile thing. You have to operate in the present. You have to be everything the present and life is: chaotic and loud and biased. Your gift lets you in and out of everything on very personal levels, and you come to see the world through this view.

    "My gift doesn't work like that," he says, drawing his hand back. "My gift works ahead of us, in the probabilities, in the possibilities of what's coming. If I let myself look back, then who will watch the future? That is how a prescient must think. I have to live each day knowing that whatever happens, I have to find a way to get past it so it won't get in my way."

    "I didn't sleep with a prescient," I tell him. "I slept with Crawford. Maybe it was different for you."

    Silence stretches between us as we consider each other. At last Crawford answers. "No."

    "Was I part of your higher plan for Rosenkreuz?" I ask, because I have to know.

    Crawford almost looks amused by that, and it catches me off-guard. The Crawford before Hoffmann's tweaking would have looked at me like this, tolerant and amused by my uncertainties with where we stand. I don't know if he's amused now or if it's just a farce to surprise me. Either way, it works, and despite the fact that he looks amused by that question in particular, I feel a little mollified before I even have to hear his answer.

    "That was for me. I somehow don't think Rosenkreuz could get anything out of it."

    I don't bother to answer that immediately. I just take a deep breath and feel it smooth out some of the tension in my shoulders. We've still got a long way to go with this unwelcome mess, but that… That, at least, makes it a little easier. At the very least, it means I won't just skip an explanation to rip his face off.

    "And Hoffmann?"

    "I don't think Rosenkreuz benefited from that, either. You should get changed so we can leave."

    "Crawford, don't forget that while you have precognition, I can still wrap my fingers around your throat faster than you can stop me."

    "Duly noted."

    "How long did it go on?" I demand, annoyed by how easily he's sealing up again. "What did he do, walk straight out of my room all covered in my blood and go straight to yours?"

    "Schuldich." He gestures at the clothes again.

    "Don't ignore me, Crawford. Don't shrug me off. This isn't something I'm going to let drop. God *damn*, I wish he wasn't dead yet. I want to kill him all over again."

    "Calm down."

    I throw the shirt he brought for me in his face, but he catches it neatly from the air before it can hit him. "How long, Crawford? You're only not telling me because you know I'm not going to like it."

    "I'm not telling you because it isn't your business," Crawford corrects me. "Maybe a few months ago, it would have been, but things have changed."

    "Hoffmann changed them," I say flatly, "and just a week ago, you said you would try to fix it."

    "This isn't fixing anything," Crawford points out.

    "How long?" I demand, but Crawford is already turning away. I grab at his arm but he moves it neatly out of the way just in time. I squish the vicious urge to go after him, swallowing the anger until I can speak through it. He can walk away now if he likes, but he's still going to be stuck with me in the car. How is he going to walk away then? "Whatever," I send after him. "I hope you loved every single minute of it."

    Crawford goes still at that, but he doesn't look back. "Maybe I did," he offers up.

    I can feel skin giving way beneath my fingernails, but I don't know if it's his or Hoffmann's I'm dreaming about. "Maybe I should ask Farfarello," I hear myself say. "Maybe I should ask him to dig around one of these days and see."

    Crawford has nothing to say to that. He just leaves the room and shuts the door quietly behind him. I'm left there in silence, but silence is relative when I can hear my heart pounding in my ears. I stand there for several minutes before I can force myself to get dressed, and then I have to sit down on the edge of my bed when I feel dizzy. I take deep breaths to ward it off and reach out, searching for Crawford. He's in the other room still, waiting on me to catch up. I take a few seconds more before getting to my feet and this time I'm more careful as I leave the room.

    Crawford is sitting in the chair across from Ikida's desk, reading through some paperwork. "Let it drop," he says before I can say anything.

    "No," I answer. "Not until you answer me."

    "You don't want the answers," Crawford tells me.

    "I'll decide that. Answer the fucking question."

    "Fine," Crawford says, setting down the clipboard and getting to his feet. "If it takes an answer to get you to shut up long enough to get in the car and get back to our apartment, then take it."

    The 'shut up' is all that tells me that I landed a blow in my room. Crawford thinks 'shut up' is crude; I always use it as a benchmark for when I'm pissing him off. I bite down on the sharp flare of hateful victory and instead fix him with an intent look as he turns towards me.

    "How long, you asked," Crawford says. "It started when I was twenty."

    Twenty. I do the math and realize it started before I was even brought into Hoffmann's vicious embrace. "And ended when we moved to China," I guess.

    "No," Crawford answers.

    "Before China."


    My mouth moves, but no sounds come out. Crawford gives me a few moments to come up with something and then turns away. I flick myself forward, blurring the room around me as I appear between him and the door. I've just made it; I flatten myself against it as his hand closes on the knob. Crawford's expression is closed off as he gazes down at me and I claw at his gods-be-damned shields. His expression doesn't budge and he doesn't bother to draw back his hand.

    "No," I tell him.

    "I told you that you didn't want to know."

    "No," I say again. "Hoffmann didn't come to Japan until after you were sick. You were- you were a vegetable, Crawford." But even as I say it, I realize the hospital was within Hoffmann's range of where the Council was staying. The hospital was… "You were paralyzed here in bed when they arrived, and then you came back with us."

    "I have been on my feet for months," Crawford points out.

    "You were with me."

    "Were," Crawford says quietly.

    Hoffmann showing up at Takatori's place, shattering the emotional bond between us and leaving. Crawford leaving soon after… I feel sick.

    Farfarello knows about it, but Farfarello's empathy didn't even wake up until after we told him about Aine. And that…?

    That was just a handful of months ago.

    But if Farfarello knows…

    I try and count all of the times Crawford left after Hoffmann broke us up, either on business with Takatori or for reasons he never bothered to share. I can name seven for sure and I wonder if I'm even right, following it this far.

    "Why?" I want to know, dropping my gaze to his throat.

    "No one tells Hoffmann 'no'," Crawford answers. "Especially not his Five."

    I feel the wood vanish behind my back as I lean forward. Fingers hook in the pockets of Crawford's pants as I let myself fall forward against him. I can feel his heartbeat in my temple where it rests against his throat. More than that, I can feel the tension along his neck and shoulders. From my touch or from this conversation? I don't know.

    All that really matters right now is that Crawford doesn't push me away.

Part 5
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