Crawford idly thought that he could remember a time when things were simpler, or perhaps that was just his imagination. Not a lot was making sense anymore and he wasn't sure whether he could blame that entirely on the fact that his world was literally on its way to hell in a hand basket or if it was due to the lack of sleep. There was too much to think about on the way from Dublin to Tokyo to let him get any rest, and even if he'd been able to shut his thoughts off for a while, it wouldn't have changed the fact that he was sitting beside Farfarello for the flight. The Irish demon had the window seat and Schuldig had given Crawford the unenviable task of being a physical barrier between him and the stewardesses.
It was not a pleasant experience, no matter how hard Crawford tried to keep it from getting to him. Years of training and self-discipline meant absolutely nothing when he was sitting next to something so unholy and wrong; Farfarello vibrated with an unnatural power that was dark heat against Crawford's skin and the scent of sulfur was thick around him. It made the precognitive nauseous for the first four hours of the too-long flight and he finally accepted the stewardess's offer of a drink. Farfarello managed to ruin that as well; as Crawford lifted the glass of wine to his lips, the Irishman gave it a poke of his fingers and promptly changed it to blood.
Crawford decided he liked Farfarello less than he liked Schuldig. Liking or disliking, however, didn't change the fact that they were sitting next to each other for a long flight, and so Crawford forcefully focused his thoughts and power on the job that lay ahead of him. As one of Rosenkreuz's precognitives, he had had ample opportunity to work overseas, but he had always been trained before arriving in the country. Showing up in Japan with a demon, the devil, and no Japanese language skills at all seemed like poor planning on every front. How Schuldig could think it was anything else, Crawford didn't know.
He supposed it was a consequence of Schuldig's lifespan. The devil had already said that living for thousands- millions?- of years meant his foresight and planning worked on a far grander scale than Crawford could imagine. These fine details that were everything Crawford lived and operated on were things that Schuldig was practically blind to. How did a war work on so immense a scale? Crawford couldn't begin to imagine it. It could be thousands of years between conflict, thousands' of years worth of planning. Crawford thought about fast-paced human conflicts and battles that turned completely around in a heartbeat and tried to weigh it against immortality.
Such thoughts brought him up short and he glanced over at Schuldig. The devil was staring at the TV screen hanging further up the cabin. He had his headsets on, but they were sitting cockeyed to only cover one ear. The expression on his face was distant, as if he was watching the movie without being fully mentally present for it. He'd spent part of the flight to Dublin making Crawford explain just how and why airplanes worked and the other part just soaking up the wonder of modern technology. The fascination hadn't dimmed, it seemed. Crawford supposed he didn't even notice how long the flight was. What were ten- and twelve-hour flights in comparison to millions of years?
"How long have you been planning this?" he asked with a gesture towards himself.
The devil tilted his head to one side, considering that. "Your particular part in this? One hundred years," he guessed, counting off on his fingers before reaching up and nudging his headsets down around his neck. "I realized what had to be done with Earth around the time Christianity arrived. Wasn't that clever of the gods?" he asked with a vicious smile. His eyes started to glow a little bit in his anger and he stared through Crawford at memories from thousands of years ago. "That was devastating. No one expected it to pick up so quickly or to spread so far."
"Didn't the other gods protest such a monopoly?"
"Of course they did," Schuldig said. "Most of them, anyway. Some didn't care as long as their followers were fervent enough about their faith to die for it. It just cycled them into their proper spots all the faster. The other gods have been fighting ever since it was created. It absorbed religions and people left and right and has been a nonstop source of war. The Christian god is determined to win Earth as his own, the other gods want to take it from him for themselves, and I refuse to let any of them keep it.
"A hundred years ago I found the answer." The devil smiled again and Crawford wondered if that was fear flickering in his blue eyes. Angels couldn't feel such emotions, however, so he dismissed that thought as ridiculous. "The one sure end to all of the fighting. The one guarantee that Earth can be mine to protect. I realized then that I would need someone like you, but it wasn't until you called out to me that I could finally step forward and use you. It's too close a call, though. We only have a few months to find what I need."
"Months?" Crawford repeated, trying to imagine spending months working with these two. "That isn't much time for an immortal."
"But it's a fine enough window for you."
Schuldig looked at him, hearing the implied threat in that placid tone. His smile was murderous. "Don't even think about crossing me, Crawford. You've sold your soul to me already. Give me what I want and your afterlife will be pleasant. Spite me and you will have a more miserable existence than you ever thought possible. Any satisfaction you might feel over besting the devil will be long dead after the first one or five or ten thousand years of pain. Trust me."
Crawford's initial reaction was skepticism, but he squished that. He couldn't even begin to understand so much time, much less fathom spending so much time in unending agony. "What would make it all worth it," he said levelly, "is knowing that you would be even unhappier and for just as long a time."
Schuldig considered him for a moment with a searching look on his face. When he smiled, Crawford's blood turned to slush inside his veins. His heart gave such a sickening lurch inside him that it made his head pound. He kept his expression cold and impassive through sheer arrogance alone, but it wasn't enough. Fingernails brushed over the back of his neck without warning and Crawford flinched for the first time in his life.
The chilly look he sent Farfarello only seemed to amuse the demon, who drew his hand back to sniff at his fingertips. "Fear smells good on you."
"I am not afraid of either of you."
"Of course you are," Schuldig contested easily. "You can't help it; it's a natural reaction when faced with creatures such as us. Don't even try to lie about it. More importantly, don't push me."
"Don't push me," Crawford sent back, turning back on Schuldig resolutely. His mind was racing around trails of a future so faint he could barely feel it tickling around his brain. Whispers weren't what he was used to working with, but he'd take them over nothing when they were giving him a foot up. "You don't understand how my gift works. You already told me you exist on a time scale far different from ours. What you're looking for now is on our plane and therefore must go by our time. We can't operate on hundreds and thousands of years. Humans work with moments, and moments can change everything. One second can turn the future on its head. If you honestly expect this to work, then you have to remember why you chose me. Listen to me when I tell you what has to be done. Trust me when I demand exacts. Your attempts at intimidation and your insistence on reminding me of my apparent inferiority just mean you are threatening your goal."
"Just do what I tell you to," Schuldig said.
"Do what I tell you to," Crawford argued back, "and I'll do what you want, but you have to listen. It's nonnegotiable. Your presence is already affecting my gift to the point that the future is growing patchy. Don't tilt it further out of place."
"He's affecting your gift?" Farfarello asked condescendingly. Schuldig glanced past Crawford at the demon. He didn't have to say anything; that glance was warning enough. The creature gave an amused snort and let it slide.
"This is simple fact," Crawford said when Schuldig didn't argue with him immediately. "In our world, everything can change in the space between two heartbeats. You don't understand an existence like that. You'll have to trust me."
"As a rule, I don't trust mortals."
"Trust me anyway," Crawford insisted. "If you continue like this for months, demanding your way and ignoring my gift, not even my best efforts to obey you will succeed. I'm not even feeling encouraged to give you my best efforts when you are acting like this. If you listen and just let me lead, then I will give you want you want. I mean that."
"I follow one master."
"I follow myself." He could hear rustling and could only imagine the devil's wings bristling at such insolence. "Look at me and understand that, if you refuse to listen to anything else. If you take my control away from me, that is it for you."
"You're replaceable," Farfarello informed him.
"Am I?" Crawford asked. "He sealed a deal with me and that is all that brought him to this plane. If he kills me know, does he really have enough time to replace me before he loses his one chance?"
"I understand months."
"Does he?" Crawford pressed. "He can't, so that brings him down to your word versus mine and a risk he can't afford to take."
Silence stretched between them, so tense as to be murderous. Crawford waited, positive that the argument had spun out exactly as he'd needed to and sure that he was right. He was hedging his bets for his soul on instincts. With his gift acting so strange these last couple of days, it was a deadly thing to do, but he'd believed in his power ever since he'd been old enough to understand what it was.
At length Schuldig started laughing, and Crawford looked back at him to judge his expression. The devil shook for a minute before he managed to bring himself under control. When he reached out, it was too fast for Crawford to see. He hit Crawford with just one fingertip, but it could have been a sledgehammer for the damage it did to his gift. The world flashed black around him, then brilliant red, and then—
The world was jagged edges and fire. The ground was made of broken glass that dug into his bare feet and was so hot it was melting onto his soles. The rain that fell was just as hot and ate through his skin like acid, leaving bone-deep holes behind. He could feel his bones and muscles disintegrating under the fat droplets and choked on a gasp of pain he refused to voice. A sharp look around said he was alone here, wherever here was. Here was definitely not over Europe on the way to Japan.
Black feathers littered the ground at his feet, hissing and twisting as they defied being destroyed by the landscape. He grabbed a few up to try and shield his eyes. His fingers could barely hold onto them anymore, not when the rain was drilling holes in them, so he turned in a circle in search of shelter. His feet were sticking to the ground when he moved and the melted glass beneath him was so thick and heavy that he stumbled. He could barely think through the pain that was knifing its way across his body. As a precognitive, he had managed to avoid pain for the majority of his life, Rosenkreuz training notwithstanding. It was an unfamiliar sensation by now, and an altogether horribly unpleasant one.
He tried another step and stumbled again. Hands steadied him before he could fall and he shot a quick look over his shoulder. He got a glimpse of red eyes and a vicious smile, and then a hand was slamming its way into his mouth so hard it ripped teeth from his gums. His hands shot up for a fight, moving on instincts alone, because his head felt like it had exploded under that blow. Fingers were rammed into the back of his throat and twisting around his spine. Maybe he would have yelled at the pain, unable to stop himself, except the thick forearm had dislocated his jaw and was completely choking him.
"Hello prophet," the red-eyed creature purred. "Welcome home."
Fingers tangled in his hair and yanked, and Crawford hit the back of his airplane seat so hard it knocked the wind out of him. He came back to Earth coughing and gagging and he clasped both hands over his mouth, as much to stifle the noise as to reassure himself that his face was in one piece. It felt like his skin was still melting beneath his palms, but he realized a moment later that that was just his hands shaking from the shock of raw agony.
A stewardess stopped by with a glass of water, but Farfarello sent her on her way with a vicious look. Crawford ignored the water, more interested in moving one hand away from his face. His skin was back in one piece. He clenched his hand into a fist to try and stop it from trembling, but his nerves were still screaming in pain and he couldn't move his fingers far.
"That was my courtyard," Schuldig informed him. "Did you like it?"
"You sent me to hell," Crawford rasped against his hand.
"It's a frighteningly easy thing to do. I've already told you that you're not alive, so it's simply a matter of pushing your soul from one plane to the other. I just wanted to make sure that I have your undivided attention. Hm?" He leaned across the aisle and got right in Crawford's face, blue eyes glowing. "I think it's about time you stuff your skepticism and your arrogance into a little box and really look at me, Crawford. It's way past time that you recognize exactly what you're dealing with and what you've gotten yourself into. That place I sent you to? That was just the outermost edge. You don't want to know what exists beyond those gates. If you fail me, you will have an eternity to learn just what horrors really exist between the heavens. Understand?"
Crawford opened his mouth to answer, but Schuldig reached out and touched a warning finger to his throat. They stared each other down and Crawford could feel ice on his cheeks as Schuldig looked from one eye to the other. Whatever he was searching for, he found it, but he didn't look happy with the results. "I'm going to take a chance on you," Schuldig told him at last. "I'm going to risk absolutely everything on you because this is not something I can afford to lose. For these three months, you have my power at your hand. Call it as you like. But don't ever forget what I showed you today. Don't you ever forget what I will do to you if you lose my world to the gods. Look at me and tell me that you understand."
Crawford took a minute because he knew Schuldig wasn't going to rush it, took the full sixty seconds to weigh exactly what was at stake and how much there might be to gain. He didn't remember what he'd promised the devil in this bargain, but it had to have been something immensely important to him if he'd promised away his soul. He couldn't say he trusted the devil to hold up on his end of the deal if Crawford really did pull this through for him, but aiming for that was a better alternative than what he'd just witnessed.
More importantly, Schuldig had just offered himself to Crawford's command.
Crawford started to wonder if these next three months might not be worth it after all. He was used to having power at his fingertips, and this was a sort of power no other man on earth could hold claim to. He had earth in his hands and his visions. It was his to control.
And so Brad Crawford, Class I precognitive for Rosenkreuz, took possession of the devil.
Jet lag caught up to Crawford before the plane touched down at Narita International Airport, not that he could do anything about it. He was exhausted from spending almost thirty hours traveling, but tense enough from the others' presence that he couldn't sleep if he wanted to. There would be time to sleep later, if Schuldig had remembered to work that into his schedule. Schuldig had given way to him on the flight and given him permission to lead, but he was still certain to question things Crawford made room for. The precognitive had a feeling jet lag would be one of those things.
They followed the line off the plane and down the length of the airport to immigrations, where Schuldig took one look at the officers on duty and they were promptly waved through without questions. They positioned themselves near baggage claim to wait on Crawford's suitcase and the American took the time to look around, surveying the other travelers and his surroundings. There was a fair bit of English here, as he had expected of an airport this size, but most of everything else was printed in pictography. The language meant absolutely nothing to him and it was questionable how much he would be able to pick up in six short weeks.
"You told Demoustier that you could speak Japanese," Crawford said.
"No, I told him that mine is the language every ear understands," Schuldig corrected him. "I speak in tongues, as do all heavenly creatures. I understand every language and every language understands me."
"And your demon?"
"He understands tongues but cannot speak it," was the response. "He will not be attending lessons with you. There is no reason for him to be able to speak to anyone here. Besides, I do not trust what might come out of his mouth."
"He is afraid I will preach," Farfarello said, sounding bored.
Crawford thought about a rosary and a incense-rich chapel. "Is it possible to be a Christian demon?"
"When one is born on earth and raised in the church," Schuldig answered, slanting a sideways look at Farfarello. "He was a priest once. That didn't last long. It couldn't, not after someone thought to tell him just what he was."
Farfarello pointedly did not look at him. Schuldig kept his gaze on the demon, content to try and out-wait him. Crawford turned his attention back on the belts as the luggage started finally rolling past. His bag was not far from the front and he lifted it down. Schuldig got them through customs as easily as he had immigration, and they exited into the main building of the airport. There they paused as the devil tried to figure out the next step. In the end he headed for the information desk with the other two on his heels.
"We're going into the city," he said. "We have apartments there." The lady smiled and chattered back at him in Japanese. "Do you know when the next one comes?" She checked a schedule and read him off the numbers she saw there, and Schuldig nodded and turned away. "She says the train is the best route in. We're in time for the next one."
There was a subway station stop beneath the airport and Schuldig hesitated at the sight of all of the other passengers passing through the ticket gates. He could see what they were doing and how without really understanding the why of it.
"We need tickets," Crawford told him. Schuldig held out his hand in a demand. "We don't have yen on us."
"We'll forego tickets, then," Schuldig said, and he started for the gates. The brush of his fingers against the panel was all it took, and the three were free to pass through. They followed the other passengers to the platform and arrived as the next train was sliding to a stop. The crowd that climbed on was crushing and Crawford could read the displeasure plainly on Farfarello's face. Schuldig didn't seem to notice that they were completely boxed in against each other and a million identical strangers.
The doors slid closed and the overhead speakers rattled away in Japanese. The passengers swayed as the train started moving. Crawford looked Schuldig's way as the devil lifted his fingers to his lips and kissed them. Blue eyes were half-lidded and distant, staring at final chances and the ultimate defiance against a god he desperately loved.
"The countdown begins," Schuldig said quietly. "Do it, Crawford."
There was no way Crawford could ever think of the devil as frail, but just those hints of vulnerability and something close enough to human desperation made up for the past day. Suddenly he knew that he could handle this and come out on top of things as per usual. His lips twitched into a hard, thin smile that drew both of his teammates' gazes to him.
"I always do."
To Be Continued…
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