Part Fourteen

    Adashi is still asleep, even at ten o' clock in the morning. A distant part of my mind keeps tabs on him. The moment he wakes up I need to be out of this room and where I can keep an eye on him and Nagi. With some subtle readjusting I may be able to curb any more of his inclinations to hurt the boy, but he'll have to be fully conscious. It'll be tricky- if he even _thinks_ I'm trying to manipulate him, he'll be furious. It's one thing to manipulate Talentless people. It's another to try and manipulate someone with a gift of their own.

    I would like nothing more than to be out of this house. I feel trapped within the walls of this flat. I feel like they are squeezing in on me, choking me. I have practically worn a line from the door of Crawford's room to his window from pacing back and forth over it for the past three hours.

    I cannot leave, however. There is nowhere to go. If I travel to the city, I am far too close to the Council.


    I half-reach for Crawford's mind, then catch myself and pull back quickly. It won't do me any good to sit in his mind. It will only be harder if I'm privy to his thoughts. He has a shield up- it seems he is strong enough to construct one again, which is some relief- but I have the distinct feeling that a push will let me throught it.

    It is better that I keep my consciousness here.

    Twelve long strides from the window to the door. Twelve strides back.

    I reach for Ikida's mind and yank myself back again.

    Adashi stirs at last. I snarl a curse under my breath and peel off my shirt, throwing it towards my bed. I yank off my jeans, sending them after my shirt, and grab at my suit. I yank it on with more force than necessary, fingers fixing the buttons with jerky twists. This room is suffocating me. I shove my door open and move down the hall, forcing my scowl into a smooth expression, guarding my eyes to hide the unease that roils about in their jade depths. My angry strides melt into a fluid movement. From my outward appearance, nothing in the world can bother me today. It is the impression I want.

    It will be hard enough to get through the day without giving Adashi any incentive to pester me. I will bite his head off if he does.

    Nagi is eating in the kitchen. It's late for him to be having breakfast. I can tell he was up late last night, working on his paper. He looks worn out and acknowledges me with a tired glance as he picks at his breakfast. I lift a cup down from the cabinet and fill it with milk from the fridge.

    "I fed Farfarello," Nagi tells me. "He is still in his room."

    Lovely. On top of everything else, we have Farfarello to deal with...He's been restrained for how many days? Five? Six? He's got to be restless as hell. When the Council is gone, I'm going to have to take him- and Nagi, for I won't leave him here with Adashi- out to kill.

    When the Council is gone...When they have made their decision...

    I take a large gulp of milk.

    "There's enough for you," Nagi says.

    It takes me a moment to realize he's talking about the plate of food on the counter. "Later," I tell him. I have no intention of eating. My stomach's doing funny things...I don't know if it's safe to try and let food go down there.

    "You have to eat, Schuldich."

    I grab the plate and carry it to the trash can. Nagi watches as I dump the plate. I open the dishwasher and stick the plate inside, then shut it with more force than is necessary. I meet Nagi's eyes briefly as I turn away from the counter. I cannot read his expression or his mind; he has both his eyes and his thoughts shielded from me. For some reason, it irritates me.

    "I hope you have an excuse for making so much noise so early in the morning," Adashi says, scowling as he enters the kitchen. His eyes rest on me where I stand beside the dishwasher.

    Don't you start.

    I can't stomach your obnoxiousness today.

    I would love to just knock myself out for the day with some Athlon and wake up when everything is over. That leaves Nagi open to Adashi, however. Nagi could easily squish that pathetic excuse for a person into just a blood puddle against our kitchen floor, but he is helpless to defend himself when faced with the consequences being what they are. Not to mention that killing one of the Rosenkreuz staff members puts you right on top of the dead list. Next to striking out at the Council itself, to attack one of their trainers is to ask for death. There is no second chance, no forgiveness.

    Basically, we're all powerless with Adashi until he is replaced by Crawford once more.

    Some part of my mind offers up "_if_ he is replaced by Crawford once more" and I squish that part with a fair amount of hate.

    Adashi looks at me sharply, but he has enough skill with his power to tell that the hate is not directed towards him. After a long moment he heads towards the fridge to search for something edible. I take my milk from its spot beside him and carry it towards the table, settling myself in the chair across from my teammate. Adashi finds a breakfast and carries it to the table, seating himself. Before he can eat more than a bite, the phone rings.

    I stop breathing. I think my heart stops beating. Nagi looks at me. I look at Adashi. Adashi gazes back, meeting my eyes for a brief moment. A smirk, cold and amused, curls his lips. He rises from his seat and heads towards the phone. My throat has gone dry, and I finish the rest of my milk in one gulp. Nagi floats the jug to me from the fridge.

    I unscrew the lid. Adashi has a shield drawn up around his mind- when the hell did he get that?- and isn't saying anything that Nagi and I find useful. One of my hands is shaking and I hide it under the table. I reach towards Ikida's mind, but he knows nothing. I touch Crawford, but he is blank.

    The Council- what did they decide??

    Adashi hangs up and returns to the table. A wide smirk is on his face and I can feel something twist inside of me when I see his expression, looking quickly back at my drink. "Your clairvoyant has not made enough progress," he announces. "The doctor is predicting up to eight months' recovery time. Eight months...That's a long time to be out of a job." He shovels some food in his mouth. My hand that is holding the jug tilts upward slightly, stopping the flow of milk to my cup. Jade eyes lift from my glass to rest on Adashi. "I knew all along that he wasn't worth what they were paying to keep him in the hospital. Few Talents are worth the fortune it would take to tend to him. Tonight..." And his smirk widens. His eyes flick upwards to catch mine, holding my gaze for a long moment. "Tonight they will do us all a favor and pull his plug."

    I can feel nothing around me: not the chair I am sitting on, not the hand that is clenched into a too-tight fist in my lap, not the milk jug in my other hand.

    Adashi eats a bit more. "Actually," he comments, "it would be no fun if they were to just pull his plug. They will probably stick to tradition and burn him alive. I wonder if Hoffmann-sama will punish him for the inconvenience he has caused Estet before they burn him." He laughs. "I hope he allows an audience if he does. It would be sweet."


    I can feel again, but I am cold all over. Even where my fingernails have drawn blood from my palm feels chilled. I set down the pitcher, slowly and deliberately. Nagi's stunned gaze lifts from his plate and he just stares at Adashi, who had turned to his meal with renewed hunger and energy. He looks towards me, and the expression on his face alters quickly from shock to a hint of raw panic. He says my name mentally, but I hear it as if from a great distance. I scoot my chair back and rise to my feet. Adashi looks up then. Nagi hisses my name again, but it is lost among the crashing waves of crimson in my mind.


    Hate hate hate.

    "I am going," I say, very calmly, "to get Farfarello." With that, I turn and leave the room, plucking up the key for his door as I go. My steps fall silently in the hall. I open his door and enter, flicking on the lights. Farfarello looks up at my entrance, and I see something flicker across the back of his eye- surprise, perhaps. I don't really care. I remove his fastenings and point to his empty plate. Either Nagi fed him himself or Farfarello was briefly freed to eat. I don't know. I don't care. "Your plate belongs in the dishwasher."

    He pauses before answering, amber eye measuring. "Aa."

    I turn and leave his room, starting down the hall. Farfarello follows, plate in hand. As I pass Crawford's office, my feet lead me inside. I approach his desk and slide open a drawer. Fingers slide across cold metal. I lift it from its spot and turn. Farfarello is watching me but says nothing. I slip it into my pocket and leave the office, leading Farfarello to the kitchen.

    Adashi is making some snide comment on the quality of the food as he eats. Nagi's eyes are fixed on me as he ignores what Adashi is saying. I, in turn, ignore Nagi. I have eyes only for Adashi as I slide into my seat. I pull the gun from my pocket, finger fitting against the trigger. I lift it above the table, aiming straight at Adashi's head. He sees something move in his peripheral vision and looks up to see what I'm doing just as I squeeze off two shots.

    I. Hate. You.

    Blood is all over our table; gunshots echo in my ears. Adashi slumps forward. His face is turned to one side, his expression frozen in a look of shock. His wide eyes stare lifelessly in Nagi's direction. Nagi's chopsticks fall from nerveless fingers and he makes a noise that sounds like a choked version of my name. Farfarello reaches over to Adashi's plate and shovels some of the man's food onto his own dish.

    "Schuldich," Nagi says hoarsely.

    I rise from my seat, tossing the gun aside, and move to the other side of the table. I grab Adashi's body by his hair and yank him bodily out of the seat. Blood is spilling all over our floor and all over my white suit. This is why we do not have carpet. I grab his arm and begin dragging him behind me out of the kitchen.

    "Sch-Schuldich!" I hear a chair fall over as Nagi leaps to his feet. He hurries after me, tugging at me with his gift to try and stop me.

    I send him a flat Look over my shoulder and he releases me. Something akin to horror dances in his usually blank eyes, but he says nothing for several moments. I open our door and yank Adashi outside, dragging him in the general direction of the dumpster. I knock the lid off and peer inside. It's large enough. I lift Adashi's body and drop it in without ceremony, then slam the lid shut. Nagi is in the doorway when I approach, and he retreats before me.

    "Schuldich, the Council," he says as he backs away. I leave the front door open as I stride in the direction of my room. Nagi doesn't bother closing it. He's too busy following after me.

    "Shut _up_," I snap at him. I step into my room and tear the once-white suit from me, grabbing my clothes from this morning. I use my towel to get some of Adashi's blood off of me before dressing hurriedly. My mind is doing a scan, searching for that gap within the realm of thoughts. It does not take me long to find it. The Council cannot be far away if they're going to dismiss Crawford tonight. "Just shut up."

    When I am dressed I turn to leave the room, but pause midstep when I realize Farfarello has joined Nagi in the doorway. "What are you going to do?" Nagi asks.

    "I am going to have a chat with the Council," I say, advancing on them. "Move." Nagi doesn't budge this time, so I shove Farfarello. It takes quite a push to send him backwards, and he doesn't give much ground. It's enough for me to slide between them, though.

    "What are they going to do?" Nagi asks. "Schuldich, think before you act! What have you done?"

    "You were there when it happened," I tell him snidely, starting down the hall.

    A hand closes tightly on my wrist and I look over my shoulder to see Farfarello's calm gaze on me. "The Council will not forgive you for the death of their own," he says simply.

    "Does it matter?" I ask, trying to tug my hand away.

    "Schuldich," Nagi says, "don't."

    "Whether I go to them or they come to me, we're still going to have to meet," I tell Nagi flatly. "Adashi's dead and it won't take them long to figure that out. I have two choices: go to them or let them come to me. They are _not_ setting foot in this house."

    "Schuldich, _why_?"

    Why? How can we ask why? I don't know why. What does it matter, anyway? The Council has decided Crawford will die. They have decided one of their prized Talents will be executed. I have a .000001% chance in hell I can convince them to keep him alive. Whether I am successful there or not, I face death tonight. I don't care, either. Let them kill me. Just give me that .000001% chance to stop them from killing Crawford. At least my murder of Adashi will get their attention and distract them briefly from the clairvoyant.

    "Let go of me," I tell Farfarello.

    He gazes at me in silence for several moments before his fingers loosen in their death grip on my skin. I turn on my heel and move for the front door. I wonder if Nagi and Farfarello understand what is going to happen tonight; I wonder if they will realize exactly what the punishment for killing Adashi will be. Farfarello is probably close to figuring it out. I wonder if they realize I will not be coming back today. The moment I walk out of this door I am leaving this house for good. Two gunshots, and I leave life behind me.

    ~Crawford, stop him!~ Nagi casts the mental plea over the bonds I've tied within Schwarz.

    I do not look back at him but rip down the ties before Crawford can answer or find out what is going on. I tug my car keys from my pocket and step out of our flat into the midmorning sun.

    I wonder what will happen to Nagi and Farfarello if Crawford is terminated as well and they are down half a group. The Council has acknowledged Farfarello's usefulness and Nagi's got a high level of Talent, so the most likely conclusion will be their reassignment to other units. Ah, those will be lucky units, to receive my teammates.

    I squash these thoughts. I don't want to think on them.

    For once, Crawford, I am not afraid of the Council. I am not afraid of their powers. I am not afraid of the past, of the pain and agony they caused me when I arrived at Rosenkreuz. For once, I am not afraid of what is going to happen to me when I meet up with them. I am not afraid of what they will do for my act of defiance. I am not afraid of what they can do.

    Nein, Crawford...

    I am afraid for you.


    News travels fast. The Council is waiting for me when I arrive at their hotel. I will bet that Hoffmann knew the exact moment Adashi died. He probably felt that swell of startled panic just before Adashi's brains were blown out the back of his head, and I know he can feel the lack of emotions from the other empath now. A slight woman approaches me as soon as I step into the lobby of the expensive hotel. Her face is white and her lips are so tightly pulled that they are bloodless.

    "Schuldich-san, eighth floor," she says.

    I do not respond but head towards the elevators. One has its doors open already and I step inside. The button for the eighth floor is lit up. It seems Mosuli reserved it for me. The doors slide closed and I lean against the back wall. My hands close tightly on the railing that runs along the inside and I gaze at the closed doors. My reflection is blurred and smeared across its metal surface.

    I take a deep breath, and another one.

    The fear is returning, but there is nothing that can be done about it. If I could reverse time, I still would have shot Adashi. My fingers clench briefly on the railing and I close my eyes until I hear the ding that announces my arrival on the eighth floor. I try to clear my mind and thoughts.

    It's a good thing I didn't have breakfast. Hoffmann would not appreciate it if I threw up food all over the hotel's carpet. Hmm...I wonder how easy it is to pull milk out of carpet fibers.

    This is not a direction I want my thoughts to take.


    Two deep breaths and I yank my calm mask back into place. I do not regret Adashi's death, so I have no reason to act remorseful and beg forgiveness- not that forgiveness would be given, and not that _I_ would ever beg for it! And since I'm going to die anyway...Let me go in there proud.

    So I shove my hands in my pockets and move down the hall, pace unhurried without being lazy, measured without being haughty. There is a man standing outside a set of double doors and he knocks as I approach. The doors swing open and the man ducks away quickly, frightened of what is going to take place.

    I step inside. There are four men seated at a long oak table. I let my eyes sweep them at chest level before pinning my gaze to the far wall, staring between the two middle heads to avoid eye contact. At the far left of the table is Mosuli, a telekinetic from some country in Africa or whatever. Beside him is Hoffmann. On Hoffmann's other side is Jean, a French pyrokinetic. The man on the far right is Ahmed, from somewhere in the Middle East. I never was curious- or bold- enough to ask exactly where.

    "We demand an explanation for your behavior," Mosuli says, rising from his seat. The doors slam shut behind me. It sounds very final, but it has no reason to sound otherwise. At least we're starting off very to-the-point. A vote for death is constituted by the four of them standing. Mosuli does not really care for my words. He is ready for me to die. Those still seated still have things to ask me before they rise.

    I knew from the beginning that these four were not to be fucked with. I've always known that, above everything, I must avoid ending up with them as my judges. I've seen the deaths of the few that dared challenge the Council. I'm no different from them in the end, but here I stand, trying desperately for time and the power to change their minds over Crawford. But what can I do, really?

    I'm just Schuldich, after all.

    I want to cross my arms over my chest but I force myself not to. I can feel my heart pounding. My fingertips hurt from the rush of my pulse through them. The room is cold, too cold. I can feel my jaw muscles twitching, struggling to keep my teeth from chattering. My eyes stay locked on that spot on the wall.

    "Herr Mosuli," I say, and feel some satisfaction that my voice is calm, "I could not work with him."

    "So you killed him," Jean says, voice flat. It is not a quesiton, so I do not answer it. "Tell me, little man, what you expect us to do. If you think we are going to give you control of Schwarz just because Oracle is down, you are terribly mistaken."

    My jaws are clenched tightly and I fight to get them apart. "I am not attempting to gain leadership of Schwarz. The four of you made it clear long ago that the position would never be mine. As a member of Schwarz, however, I have learned it is in my best interest to keep each of the others intact. We all know this. We work together because it is best for all of us. That man is not one of us, and he never will be."

    "Because you killed him."

    "It is better that he is dead," I say simply, and Jean rises from his seat. Two up, two down. Well, at least I'm only 50% of the way to my death. Hopefully I'll be able to say something about Crawford before the other two choose to kill me. "It is better," I say again, struggling to focus. Imagine there is a smudge on that perfectly clean wall and just stare at it, just look straight at it and not at them. Never at them. "I will never accept another leader," I tell them, and I hear Mosuli inhale sharply at such a bold statement. "Oracle is the leader of Schwarz. He has proven it hundreds of times over. The group has balanced. We have accepted each other's patterns. To throw someone in who is not a part of the original ties is to rock the boat worse than Oracle's fall did."

    Hoffmann leans forward in his chair, tilting his body further over the table. He links his hands together as he stares at me, willing me to look at him. Out of the corner of my eye I think he is frowning heavily, deep in thought. I refuse to look at him.

    "Did you think," Ahmed asks, speaking at last, "that you could defy us? Did you think you could kill one of our trainers and then waltz in here pretending you did nothing wrong? Did you think you could do this and be successful?" He rises slowly and plants his hands on the table, glowering at me.

    Against my will, my eyes slide shut. Please, please, just listen to me. Just let me keep my thoughts intact long enough. Just let me think of the right words to say. "I did not come in here for success," I say at last. "I came in here because I knew the Council would demand an explanation for the death of their trainer." There is a pause before I add, quieter, "I will not work without Oracle."

    Silence falls on the room. Crawford, I hope your sorry ass appreciates this. Look at me. Look at what I'm doing. Look at what I've done. Look what I am daring to do for you. Watch as I throw my life away and scrabble in my last minutes to save your invalid self. Why the hell am I doing this? I don't know; I am uneasy about digging too deeply for the answers. Do you know? Do you know why I feel it necessary to be here? What about this- what about you- makes me come here and defy these men to their faces? You're worthless, you know. You're only you. You're only Crawford.

    In my mind, I can see you on your feet like you were just a few weeks ago. I can see you as you move around our flat with a detached sort of gracefulness. I can see you at the fitness center from that one time I accompanied you. I can see you shirtless, and can feel the restriction in my chest that I felt then when I gazed upon you. It has always been painfully fascinating to watch you. Painful, perhaps, because you will never be interested, because I will never be good enough.

    Or would I, if I lived long enough, I wonder detachedly. "Wirklich?" you ask.

    You're only Crawford...

    And that's why I'm here.

    You are such a fucking complication to my life.

    I can hear the scratching of chairs and I know that they are all on their feet. Look, Crawford. If only you could see this. They've voted against me, and I'm going to die now. What will you think when you hear that I was killed because I was trying to protect your sorry ass?

    What will you think...?

    There is a catch to that thought that carries almost exquisite agony and it is enough to make me open my eyes. I came in here defiant. Let me be defiant until the end.

    Hoffmann is in front of the desk and moving towards me. My hands clench into tight fists in my pockets and I think I feel myself drawing blood on one hand. His hand brushes across my cheek as I focus on his throat. He's in the way of my imaginary smudge. Then his fingers cup my chin and he tilts my head upwards. "Look at me, Mastermind," he murmurs.

    Suddenly the fear fades, and I allow him to tilt my head upwards to lock jade eyes with icy blue.

Part 15