Part Five

    Crawford and I ride back to the apartment in silence. I sit slouched low in the passenger seat, eyes on the road and thoughts still twisting around this newest problem between us. They're not pleasant things to dwell on and I have to keep clamping down on an overactive imagination that thinks it's funny to shove images of Crawford and Hoffmann together. I'm not sure I'll ever recover from this sort of nausea, but at last the hatred has won out over it. It's a real pity that Crawford had Nagi burst the Council's bodies into bloody dust, because there are a number of things I want to do to that bastard's corpse.

    With the hatred comes a renewal of determination to get Crawford back. I decide to give up my upset that he keeps so much locked away only because I know it'll never change. I force myself to think about it as I would act in his place- a major compromise on my part- and decide that I would have absolutely no desire in talking about such things with anyone. Instead I decide to take some pride in the precog for surviving such a relationship for so many years without losing who he is. It couldn't have been pleasant, knowing Hoffmann's obsession with pain, but I doubt I'll ever understand the extent of it.

    That thought just makes me angry again, but I manage to force it down. I think I'll always be angry about this, but like Crawford said, anger isn't going to help us.

    There's a parking garage underneath the apartment building and we take the elevator up to the fifth floor. Even though I already know I can't reach the hospital from here, I give it a try anyway. Kind of a pity, because I'm going to have some words with Farfarello the next time I see him.

    There are only two doors on our floor and Crawford leads me to the one marked 5A. He draws a key card out of his wallet and turns to hand it to me. I reach out to take it from him, looking past the card that connects us to consider his face. "So," I say, and I know he's waiting for me to pick up our argument again. I'd be lying if I said it isn't tempting. "The Council."

    "The Council," Crawford agrees. He lets go of the keycard and steps to the side. I move past him, popping the key in the door. It beeps as the door unlocks and I eye the card, turning it this way and that. Crawford reaches past me to twist the knob before it can lock again, and I take the hint and go inside. He catches the back of my shirt when I start to enter with my shoes on and I mutter exaggerated things his way as I toe out of them.

    I go on ahead of him into the apartment to explore, leaving Crawford to remove his own shoes and close the door behind us. I think I hear the coffee pot bubbling as I wander from one room to the next and I check the clock that's hanging from one white wall. It's half past two, a little late for Crawford to be drinking caffeine. Maybe it's mine. That would be nice.

    Crawford is waiting for me at the coffee pot with two mugs when I'm done with my self-guided tour. I pick whichever one looks like it has more in it and frown up at him.

    "There are only two beds," I say, as if he hasn't noticed this. "I'd feel encouraged by that, but they're in the same room."

    "Nagi isn't living here," Crawford answers.

    I feel my eyebrows creep up into my hairline. "No?"

    "Nagi already told you he was accepted to be a university student," Crawford reminds me.

    "And…?" I ask, weirded out by the thought of Schwarz split up like this.

    "He and Tot have an apartment closer to the school."

    "…and Tot," I echo.

    "They're living together."

    I make a face at him. "That's gross."

    "It's a two bedroom place," Crawford says.

    "That doesn't make it any better. I'm scarred for life."

    "He picked Schwarz over her," Crawford tells me, moving around me and starting towards the bedroom. It's a rather small apartment compared to Takatori's place and the Schwarz flat, seeing as it only has a bathroom and two rooms. Crawford's office is in the corner of the bedroom and he sets his mug down on the corner of the desk. I look from one bed to the other, mentally measuring the distance between them and then debating how well two bodies would fit on either one. "Now that there isn't a Schwarz, he can keep her."

    'Now that there isn't a Schwarz'… Ikida said basically the same thing, that Schwarz didn't exist anymore. I went into that fight against the Council know that we wanted to kill them and break away from Rosenkreuz, but to lose Schwarz? What are we if not a unit? There are only two beds in this place, two beds because Nagi's living with a freak and Farfarello's in the hospital. What do we do if not the sort of work Schwarz did?

    "If there's not a Schwarz, then why did you help Rosenkreuz?" I want to know. "Why is the Council coming? You told me that you told them to shove off, but you've already spent a month or two helping fix them."

    "It is not my intention to see Rosenkreuz fall," Crawford tells me. "I was simply putting it back together again."

    I perch on the bed closest to his desk even though it's obvious it's his. "And now?"

    "The new Council is strong enough to support it. They do not need anything else from us, and we are free to do other things."

    "You think they're just going to let us walk away?"

    "Perhaps," he answers.

    I arch an eyebrow at him. "I really don't like it when a level eight prescient says something like that."

    "I'll keep that in mind."

    I aim a kick at his chair, knowing I'll miss, and drain more of my coffee. "A Council," I mutter. I can't draw up any real sort of emotion towards it, most especially not the cautious respect thoughts of the previous Council evoked. I know nothing about these men other than the bare details Crawford gave us earlier today. They mean nothing to me if Hoffmann isn't among them, and especially not after we already killed a Council.

    Idly I hope they don't expect us to worship them on sight, because none of us are going…

    I lower my mug. "You said you're still a Five," I tell Crawford. "What does that mean?"

    "It means that I will have to refuse my rank," Crawford answers, "or this meeting will not go the way you want it to."

    Crawford let Hoffmann have his way with him because no one dared say no to an empath with that sort of power- but probably more importantly, because Crawford was Hoffmann's Five. The Five serve Rosenkreuz by serving the Council. To me and the rest of Schwarz, a change in power means nothing to us, because we can't give a damn what that school is doing anymore. To Crawford, it is something else entirely. For a fleeting moment I think Farfarello's use of the word "pet" was appropriate, but it's a startling wake-up call for someone as powerful and arrogant as Crawford. The fact that he can both be on top of the world but so neatly at someone's beckon is dizzying.

    "That is why I brought you home from the hospital," Crawford tells me. "All of my negotiations with them thus far have been when they were still part of the Five. Now they have ascended."

    "And you'll listen to them," I accuse him.

    "To some degree, perhaps," Crawford answers. "They were part of the Five before I was, so it is just a return to that difference in rank. We are leaving Rosenkreuz today, however. The school is better off now."

    "You make my brain hurt trying to follow your logic," I tell him.

    "I could say the same for you," Crawford points out easily.

    "At least my logic is interesting with all of its twists and turns," I return, and empty the rest of my drink. I move to set my mug down on the floor but Crawford takes it from me and neatly sets it on the edge of his desk. I eye him for a moment, studying his face. He still looks a little tired. I suppose it's been a very busy few months for him and his gift, both leading up to the Council's death and trying to stay alive and keep Rosenkreuz alive as well. Either one would be a drain on his power and Crawford's been feeling that drain more keenly since he was sick.

    "Ikida says you left the hospital early."

    "There was little to be accomplished just lying around the ward."

    "I didn't see you after the fight," I tell him. By the end of my duel with Hoffmann, I was in so many pieces that I wasn't conscious for more than a few seconds after his death. I remember seeing Nagi and Farfarello, and I think I remember Crawford turning my way, but the next time I woke up was weeks later. I don't know how bad of shape he was in; all I know is that Ikida and Nagi told me he was well enough to leave quickly, but Ikida seems to have retracted that comment in favor of honesty. "Farfarello said you were going to survive that showdown."

    "The Council had just reason to want to postpone my death," Crawford answers. "Besides my rank, they were a bit… shaken."

    "One of the Five had betrayed them."

    "Seraphim's son betrayed them," Crawford says, an absent sort of correction.

    "Seraphim?" I ask.

    "You never met her," Crawford answers. "Your mother knew her, however, as did the Council. When we first moved to China, you told me that your mother had your father teach you English. She made that decision because she was told to by Seraphim. We were taught English growing up because Farfarello is taking too long to pick up on Japanese."

    "A precog," I guess.

    "Precognition breeds true," he says, and I debate whether or not I knew that previously.

    I wait, but that's all he says. I reach out with a foot and push at his chair. "So?" He eyes my foot and I push his chair again. "All of a sudden Rosenkreuz is back in the picture and everyone is talking about your mother."

    "Do I count as everyone?" he asks.

    "Ikida mentioned her, too, but not by name." I wave a hand in dismissal. "Something about how she's the reason you were brought to Rosenkreuz so soon. Tell me what she has to do with this mess."

    "You're going to have to hear it when the new Council arrives," Crawford tells me. "I haven't sat down with them yet and explained why the fight turned out the way it did."

    "So tell me before they get here," I insist. "If I have questions, it's not going to look good if I'm fighting the Council to speak first."

    Crawford considers that for a moment. "Seraphim was a rank eight SIS precognitive," he tells me, "who lived her life asking herself 'What should I do now for the good of Rosenkreuz?' when the Council wasn't asking things of her. She was the eyes for the Council, and as her son, I was bred to be what Rosenkreuz needed. As were you, when she first saw the possibilities you held. My mother loved Rosenkreuz with everything she was; everything came secondary to the school's wellbeing. Because of that, for her son's team to be the ones to turn against the Council is unfathomable. She left the Council a string of prophecies regarding Schwarz, and none of them were warnings. In hindsight, the double meanings of some of them are quite apparent."

    "Favoritism," I toss at him. "Looks like she picked you over them. So much for loyalty."

    "No," Crawford corrects me. "Seraphim loved Rosenkreuz, but she had little interest in Estet other than as a source of jobs and funding. She saw what the Elders wanted from the ceremony by the sea and she didn't trust their visions of immortality. Schwarz was bred to destroy Estet, but in order for one of Rosenkreuz's teams to do that, they would also have to be capable of going against the Council that would defend the Elders' deaths. She found that in us: Farfarello and Nagi, whose loyalties lie only to us, you, whose hatred of Hoffmann forced you onwards, and myself, who could get us into such a position with my ranking but could see killing the Council as necessary. That is what I have decided after thinking on it."

    "Don't you think it would have been simpler for your mother to tell the Council what was going on?" I want to know, leaning forward to see if he has any coffee left. He turns his mug over to me and I empty what little is left.

    "Perhaps," Crawford answers. "Nikolai of the Council was unstable and bound to die, and Hoffmann was the best choice to replace him. Hoffmann favored me as his replacement and his trust in me is what made me a Five. I needed to ascend to Asia; Asia held the future. Hoffmann's support made it possible for me to strengthen the school and teams the way I saw fit even when the rest of the Council would have put some restrictions in place. He never questioned my changes like they would have. Therefore, it was necessary that Hoffmann come to power.

    "Without Estet's funding and allies, Rosenkreuz wouldn't have been able to grow. The past several years have doubled Rosenkreuz's influence in the world, and even with Estet gone, the teams can regain ground in their territories. As Rosenkreuz was growing, however, the Council was also falling apart. Hoffmann had divided it years ago and it had long since been a one-man Council. That ceremony was the best chance for Schwarz to destroy both threats. To Seraphim, it would have made perfect sense to set things up this way. She only cared for what Rosenkreuz would get from it; she wouldn't have thought twice about what we chose to do in the aftermath."

    I hand him his empty mug back. "You have way too much time on your hands to think about this," I decide.

    "I have had a lifetime," he answers, "to realize that every step we take has already been planned out by her." I think that over and decide I almost don't care, because in the end, Hoffmann is still dead and we're free. I have to wonder how long it took Crawford to come to terms with that as a precognitive, though. "The point is," Crawford continues, "everyone associated with Rosenkreuz knows her and knows what she predicted for Schwarz. The Council knew it best. That is why I was going to live- so they could find out what had happened."

    "Hoffmann said he was going to let me live," I say, gazing past Crawford at the desk. Considering what shape I left that beach in, I wonder if he'd have been able to pull back enough that I'd live, but… "It was going to be like before."

    "You wouldn't have lived," Crawford tells me. "If the Council had won, I would have shot you." I stare at him, caught off-guard by that. "I spent that year watching you," Crawford reminds me. "This time you wouldn't have had Ikida to patch you up again, and Hoffmann wouldn't care how far he went."

    He'd have shot me to prevent a repeat of that. Crawford knew that going into the fight- at some point he sat down and realized that if Schwarz failed, then he was going to do something about me.

    Kind of funny how talking about my own death makes me want to shag him.

    I drag myself forcefully away from that thought. "So the Council is going to show up to want to know why we did it and you're going to tell them that massive story, and then we're going to argue about what happens from here." Crawford inclines his head to me and I tug idly on my hair. "What *are* we going to do from here?" I want to know. "Farf's a raisin and Nagi's at school. If you can somehow forget the fact that these three are Councilmen enough to tell them to their faces to take a hike, what happens next?"

    "I've already told you," Crawford answers. "Whatever you want."

    I rethink the "want to shag" option, then tell myself to shut up. I'm not sure it's an appropriate path to take right now, not so soon after I just found out about Hoffmann. Burn away bad memories with good, right? But just the thought of Hoffmann pushing Crawford down against his sheets makes my stomach hurt and it does wonders to kill my sex drive.

    "Who knows?" I say at last. "But if you think I'm going to domesticate and become a uni student like Nagi, it's about time you got your visions cleaned."

    "Neither of us would appreciate that sort of life," Crawford says. "You need chaos and you're too used to getting it from our work."

    "And you?" I ask. The idea of Crawford living a simple man's life is enough to bring a smirk to my face.

    "I have had too much power," Crawford says, and I have to shake my head at the easy way he says it. "To go from running Asia and advising Rosenkreuz to running a household would probably just incite suicide."

    I can't help but laugh at that last remark and stretch my arms above my head, studying his face as I think.

    Two beds, hm? An apartment within range of Farfarello's hospital room, but still… This place is for two people. He chose it for us specifically. Nagi's off elsewhere and it'll be months before Farfarello heals and finishes his therapy. I don't know what Farfarello plans to do with himself besides wander off to Ireland with Aine, but…

    It's kind of strange imagining Schwarz splitting up. In the beginning, Schwarz was just the two of us, Crawford and me, but we've grown used to having the other two around. With the recent messes, I've grown used to looking over my shoulder for them and keeping an eye on how they're doing. I guess Farfarello doesn't need anyone's "protection" now that he's got that gift of his, and Nagi could be content living a normal kid's life with that fluff, but…

    "Weird," I say out loud. I want to ask Crawford if Schwarz is really breaking up, but I manage to stop myself before asking the question. We went to that last fight ready to die for our freedom. I guess it's not really my place to know what they do with it.

    I feel a vague spark of annoyance at my self-censure and I scowl at Crawford. "I've been around you too long," I decide. "You're rubbing off."

    "It would be about time," Crawford answers.

    "Things would be so boring around here if there were two of you," I tell him. "You'd just sit around in silence because you'd already know what the other was going to say."

    Crawford gives me that look that says he's trying to figure out how I've stayed alive this long, and I just offer him an unrepentant smirk in response.

    He should know the answer to that already. He's what got me this far. He's the one who took me away from Hoffmann and put my mind together, spending a year trying to build up shields and sanity out of the mess Hoffmann left me with. He's the one who was there for years to make sure there wasn't a relapse. He's kept Schwarz healthy and strong, guiding us through the usual jobs and then figuring out how to destroy Estet and Rosenkreuz in one vicious swoop less than a year after he was semi-comatose.

    He is…

    For a moment I'm afraid he can see that in my eyes. I have to look away from him and instead fix my gaze on my bed. It's everything I've always known about him, but it took until he was sick for me to figure out what it meant. And maybe Crawford's forgotten his side of things because of Hoffmann, but as long as I still remember…

    Crawford gets to his feet and picks up the mugs, ready to return them to the kitchen. I turn to watch him only after he's passed and he disappears out into the hallway. A glance over my shoulder at his pillow is enough incentive to scoot up the bed and I sprawl out on my side, happily taking over his bed. I close my eyes against the room and force a smirk off my face when I hear his footsteps returning to the bedroom.

    "Your bed is on the other side of the room," Crawford tells me as he stops in the doorway.

    "Eh," I answer. "The end goal is still to end up here eventually, so I figured I'd get used to how it feels."

    "They're the exact same bed."

    "Yours smells like you," I point out.

    Crawford has nothing to say to that. I wait in silence for any sort of reaction, but the only thing he has to say is, "Nagi will stop by later. He wants to see for himself that you're fine."

    "I'm not the one who died," I say, and I can't stop a grimace at the memory. The sound of Mosuli punching a hole in my youngest teammate's middle still echoes loudly in my ears months after it happened. I could see the beach through him; I could see the sky. I realize my fingers have clenched on Crawford's sheet and I force them to loosen.

    If Nagi had died… Rather, if he'd stayed dead, instead of miraculously coming back to life again…

    I hear Crawford's footsteps. My first thought is that he is returning to his desk, but a moment later, the bed shifts as he sits down on the edge of it. Green eyes slide open to consider him but he's too busy gazing across the room, staring at my bed or past it at memories of that day.

    "Tell me that you hated him," I say, closing my eyes again.

    "I am a Five," Crawford says. "I'm not allowed to hate the Council."

    I ignore that. "Tell me that you hated him. Not because of what he was doing to Rosenkreuz, not because of what he was doing to the Council. Tell me that you hated him because of what he did to you. Tell me that you hated Hoffmann, not the Soul Shaker. Tell me that some part of you saw him die and was relieved, but it wasn't for Schwarz or Rosenkreuz or your mother's petty future. Tell me that."

    Silence stretches between us. I hear his watch ticking in the seconds that pass us by but I don't bother to count them. I'll wait here as long as I have to, because I want- need- that answer.

    At last Crawford answers. "I hated him," he says. "Despite all of my efforts to the contrary, it seems I'm still human."

    I grin against his pillow. "I'm sure you're disappointed by that."

    "Crushed," comes his dry response.

    He is… mine.

    Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow.

    But someday.

Part 6
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