Part Nineteen

    After six months of treatment, the oracle has finally returned to where he belongs. I close the car door behind me, looking over the roof at Crawford as he climbs from the car. He has a cane with him in case he needs it, but I doubt he'll use it. His steps are measured as he moves towards the front door. I follow him. Nagi is waiting for us in the doorway, Aine and Farfarello behind him. Nagi visited Crawford a couple times, but I think he spent most of his time away out of respect for Crawford's invalid state. Either that or it was because of his studies. He is still in his school uniform now, as he got home from class while I was getting Crawford. He looks like a little Aine in that drab gray thing.

    "Good afternoon, Crawford," Nagi greets, moving aside so Crawford can enter the flat.

    "Nagi," Crawford returns, stepping past him into the house.

    I wonder what is running through his mind as he enters the flat for the first time in seven months. I wonder how it feels, to have spent so much time away, to go through all that he's been through, and to now be back where he lives. It has taken over half of a year, but he is back with us and on his own two feet. The coffee maker is tucked under one of my arms and I deposit it in the kitchen where it used to sit. Crawford's newspapers are sitting in a box in the living room...Nagi collected them daily and put them aside. I don't think Crawford will ever read them, but it would have been strange to throw away the newspapers before Crawford had seen them. It was something Nagi just had to do...Like I had to have coffee every morning at the hospital for seven months.

    Of course, two hundred odd newspapers takes up a lot of room. I think Aine's been weeding out the older ones, throwing them away because Nagi won't or can't. I'm going to guess that only the past three weeks' worth are in that box.

    Aine is following Crawford into the living room when I emerge from the kitchen. I linger in the doorway to watch as he lowers himself to sit in his chair, a chair that has gone seven months without anyone to rest on it. Aine sits on the floor a short distance in front of his chair. Farfarello sits beside her. They were an easy topic to talk about on my daily visits to Crawford during his therapy. They make an extremely efficient killing pair, and I would be willing to bet that Aine understands Farfarello as well as- or better than- I do. They speak often together, conversing in quiet Gaelic. However Aine's conversation with Farfarello over religion went, it opened up something between them. As far as I know, though, they've only talked. Either Farfarello's oblivious or Aine moves slow.

    Crawford finally gets to see them after all of my talk, and his golden brown gaze is assessing as he judges the way they sit beside each other. Farfarello isn't, after all, a social creature. The closest he usually gets to the rest of us is the seats at the dinner table. They are dressed in vests and slacks, Aine's vest gray and Farfarello's a dark blue. He's been cutting himself again- the vest shows his bandages easier than his previous clothes. Aine's been the one taping him up after his fun.

    "Welcome back, Crawford-san," Aine says, offering Crawford a smile. "I have been asked by my superiors to clear a few things up, although perhaps business is not the best way to start off your return to your home. I regret that they are the first things you will hear, but the Council is not reknowned for its patience. If you would like, I can delay them for ten minutes, but that is the most I can give you."

    "You may speak them now," Crawford answers.

    She reaches up with a hand, twirling her finger through her single long lock. "As you know, Estet stopped recognizing you as one of theirs. At the moment, you belong to Schwarz as a separate property. They have found a job for Schwarz to run that will be used for evaluation. You will lead Schwarz. I will come along but will take no part in the action, acting as an observer. I have the first say in whether or not the Council will see you. If I do not feel you are up to your position, you will have to stand down once more and I will command Schwarz until you are deemed fit. If I approve of what I see, I will find a meeting time for you and the Council and they will make the final decision. Do you accept this?"

    "They are necessary measures," our clairvoyant says easily, "to insure the stability of Schwarz."

    She smiles again. "Thank you for your cooperation, Crawford-san."

    "What'd you expect him to say?" I ask from my spot sprawled out on the couch. Nagi is perched on the arm at the far end since I am taking up all of the cushions. I lift my head from his spot where my chin was nestled on my arms to send Aine an amused look. "'No, I won't'?" She grins at me. "Maybe we'll buy you next," I muse. "Then you can stay on as our maid."

    "A tempting offer," she says dryly, then turns back to Crawford and holds out a piece of paper that probably contains the details on our job. "Our scheduled departure time is three twenty. The Council wants an answer by tonight."

    Right...Six months of indifference and now they want answers.

    Crawford gives a small nod, accepting the paper. "I understand."

    "We will leave in fifteen minutes, then. From this moment until the end of the job, Schwarz is yours to control and I am just a tagalong." Aine returns the nod and sprawls backwards. Farfarello glances over his shoulder at her before picking at the bandages on his arm. Aine swats his back. "Stop it, Farfarello," she chides him.

    He sends her a calm look, continuing to tug at the material. Aine mutters something under her breath that is half-exasperated and half-amused. Nagi adjusts the sleeves of his uniform, meeting Crawford's gaze across the room. The boy offers a faint smile and inclines his head slightly. I know he is happy to have Crawford back. I cannot tell what Farfarello thinks. His mind is as distorted as always, a maze to get lost in. I wonder if his reception of the oracle is positive or negative. He has nothing against Crawford; he followed him willingly enough seven months ago. The return of Crawford signals the disappearance of Aine, though. I wonder if Farfarello understands that.

    I wonder if he'll care. One can never tell with Farfarello.

    I used to say that about Nagi as well, but somehow I've been able to understand him better since Crawford's illness. It's like Crawford falling sick and causing Schwarz's stability to crumble rocked all of us out of our own isolation from each other. We've been able to live with each other a lot better since Crawford was admitted to critical care, accepting each other's presence instead of merely tolerating it. Strange. I won't try to understand it.

    Aine stretches, looking at her watch, and pushes herself to her feet. She pads out of the room, humming a cheery tune. Her exit leaves the four of Schwarz behind, and we sit in the living room as a lone unit for the first time in half a year. Granted, the Council doesn't recognize Crawford as part of us yet, but their opinion on his status doesn't count right now. In this moment, he is Oracle, and we are Schwarz.

    We say nothing to each other, letting the silence hang in the room as we take in the unspoken ties between us. Minutes drag by, each sixty seconds an eternity. I do not feel myself dozing off, but I know I have slept when I feel a nudge on my shoulder and my eyes open to see Crawford in the doorway. He has changed into one of his suits. In this moment, it is hard to believe he was ever sick. He looks as healthy and imposing as he used to. Nagi is standing already at the end of the couch. I assume it was his gift that roused me. Crawford's gaze sweeps the living room as Farfarello and I pick ourselves to our feet.

    Aine enters the room then. She has changed into her sweater, a sign that she will not be doing any of the killing. I consider taking her off the bond, then decide she might need to be able to hear us to complete her evaluation. As soon as the job is over, however, she is gone. She will not be part of our unit anymore, not if Crawford can do his job right. I will trust him on this one...I don't want to believe that he is unfit to be our leader still. It's been seven months without him. Surely he can pull through here. We've been patient. It's time for him to reward our patience.

    "We are leaving," Crawford says simply.

    I smirk, reaching up to adjust the yellow headband I bought a few months ago. It clashes nicely with my orange hair, tacky enough to suit me. It does its job, though. I shove my hands in my jeans pockets and move towards Crawford. Aine steps to one side, letting Crawford exit first. I follow him, mouth pulled wide and jade eyes glinting with anticipation and cold amusement. Nagi comes third, face impassive as he likes to wear it. Farfarello is behind him, pulling a blade from its spot hidden within his bandages. His single eye glows with the need for blood. Aine watches each of us pass with something akin to admiration in her gaze.

    We are Estet's best.

    We are Schwarz.

    We are whole again.


    Aine stands against the back wall of the auditorium, her arms folded over her chest. Her bright blue eyes are fixed on Crawford. Gone is the easygoing expression that we saw when she led us, gone is her relaxed stance. She is not watching Crawford as Aine or as the woman that led us. She is watching Crawford as Prometheus the bouncer, one of the Council's favored staff. She will be unmerciful in her grading of Crawford; she truly wants Schwarz to be left with the most capable person.

    Crawford is on stage, sitting in one of the chairs lined up behind a podium. Our employer is standing, making gestures with his hands as he rambles on about some topic I can't give a shit about. His audience looks rapt, though. My guess is that they're either drugged or too stupid to be bored. The rest of my team is scattered. Farfarello is in one of the upstairs balconies, simply because most of those seats are empty and he'll cause a distraction if he's down among the larger crowd. Nagi is out among the crowd, ignored by most, assumed to be an assistant to one of the present officials.

    I am in the lobby, hands shoved in my pockets as I wander lazily around. Now and then I pass one of the open sets of double doors and can catch both a glimpse of Crawford and a snippet of the speech being presented. The lobby is empty, save for one or two guards by the main doors. One of them keeps sending me a wary glance. I meet his gaze each time I hear his thoughts shift towards me and offer him a lazy smirk. It's enough to make him return his attention to where it's supposed to be.

    I make my way over to the buffet table, plucking a wax apple off of a tier of shiny fruit. I toss and catch it as I walk, weaving my way back the way I came. We're hear because our employer, some weasel advocate of one Estet's many branches, is giving a report on the last year's progress. Many important people are here tonight to listen. I personally think they're idiots, to have so many people with high ranks crammed into one place, but I won't complain. Without a world full of idiots, there would be no one to hire us. I would lose my flat and carpeted bedroom.

    We are here because our employer implored that Estet provide bodyguards in case of an assassination attempt. It's common practice to have guards in place in case someone tries to take out one or all of the higher-ups present. They're like sitting ducks in that room. Whether or not there will be an attempt, we have to be here.

    I pause in one of the doorways, gazing in the auditorium. The first speaker sits and another rises. Crawford reaches up, pushing his glasses further up on the bridge of his nose. I cannot help but grin at the sight of the habit. His glasses give an ominous flash as the overhead lights cause a glare on his lenses. ~This man is tonight's target,~ he sends across the bond. ~They will come for him as the assembly is dismissed, two from the north side and one from the south. The fourth is already here somewhere.~

    /I'm on it./ I step further inside, holding the apple between my hands and rapping the waxy exterior with my fingernails lightly. I start at the stage, sweeping my way across. I have fifteen minutes to go through seventy-six minds. My first scan is one searching for thoughts different from everyone else's. If there isn't a variance in thought patterns, I'll have to dig deeper. I doubt it'll come to a thorough search...No one knows there's a telepath here. Good assassins can act the goody-good while thinking murder on the inside. It's part of the game, a mask to put on and take off.

    ~-spent that much?!~

    ~-not _another_ charity-~

    ~-ten more minutes-~

    I zero in on that mind, eyes settling on a man five tables back from the stage. He fits the part, leaning forward in his chair as if his entire being is focused on what is being said. His face expresses the same emotions as those around him, and he makes a few remarks to his tablemates about what's being said. He's only listening with half a mind, though, and his thoughts center not on what words are being said but on the mouth that speaks them. He's counting down the time and occasionally debates whether or not his partners have reached their spots.

    /Found him,/ I report, leaning against the man's mind. /It's been so long since you last ate,/ I whisper into his mind. /There's good food just outside. No one will notice or care if you go grab a snack. Others have already come and gone./

    He shifts slightly, a hand touching his stomach briefly as if he can really feel his stomach churning for food. ~I can wait,~ he assures himself. ~Just ten more minutes.~

    My gift would be a bit nicer if I could just control other people, but possession isn't my Talent. All I can do to control others' actions is make suggestions. Sooner or later, I'll win. /You want food now,/ I assure him. /It's not like you care what he's saying or not./

    I lean against the man beside him, a portly man in his mid-thirties. /Time for a snack,/ I inform him. /Your neighbor looks hungry...You might as well invite him along./

    This one is easier, as I suspected he would be. He pats his bulging stomach and nudges the fourth assassin, exchanging some quiet words. They both rise after a few moments and weave their way towards the back door. I slip out of the doorway and move back towards the buffet tables. /He's dead walking,/ I announce across the bond.

    ~Nagi, you will take the south side. Farfarello, the north,~ Crawford says.

    I pace myself so that I reach the table at the same time as Fatso and Fourth, setting down the apple and helping myself to some food alongside them. They make small talk as they serve themselves, plucking snacks from the platters onto small napkins. Their main discussion is what is being spoken on inside the room, which annoys Fourth. He just wants to snack in peace and get back into place.

    I tell Fatso to take a hike, my mental urging flat and brooking no argument. He ambles off to eat elsewhere. I finish my snack and toss my napkin in the nearest garbage can. The assassin is done at about the same time. As he turns to leave, I come up behind him, drawing my gun from my jacket pocket. I clap one hand over his mouth calmly and press the barrel of my weapon against his throat.

    /You make a sound and you're dead,/ I tell him, priming my gun so he can hear the ominous click. His thoughts are incoherent, but if they were summed into one word they would probably be "Shit." My lips curve into a wide smirk. /Let's take a walk, shall we?/


    "Was that really necessary?" I ask Farfarello dryly as he approaches our car. For only having to kill two people, he is messy. He does not respond, content to suck at the blade hanging from his mouth. Aine gives a rueful shake of her head, smiling. Her easy expression is back now that the job is complete. She is off the bond. I removed her as soon as we received my teammates' affirmative that their targets were dead. The job went off without a hitch. Crawford's visions were right on spot.

    Nagi removes the plastic covering from inside the trunk and covers one of the seats with it for Farfarello. I end up sitting between Nagi and Farfarello, since Aine is driving her car and Crawford sits passenger. I guess he's too dignified to sit in the backseat with the rest of us grunts. I send the mental jab at him, but apparently he's also too dignified to respond.

    The ride home is silent except for the quiet noises Farfarello is making with his blade. The drive is a little over thirty minutes, and I'm more than happy to see the flat after the quiet and being stuck in the backseat. Aine turns off the engine and sits back in her chair, lifting her hands and slowly clapping them together three times.

    "Congratulations, Oracle," she says, glancing over at him. "You have my approval as being fit for this job. I will contact the Council and request a meeting." Saying so, she slides from the car. The rest of us follow behind her to the house. Crawford settles in his chair in the living room and picks the most recent newspaper from his box to read. Aine disappears into his study to make the call. Farfarello is sent to the showers by Nagi. He tracks some blood down the hall. I eye the stains, wondering if they're too light for Crawford to notice and debating whether or not they can go without being cleaned.

    "You will clean them," Crawford's voice floats to me from the living room.

    Damn, is he a telepath or a clairvoyant?

    Muttering under my breath, I head to the closet to find a towel. It doesn't take long to swipe up Farfarello's mess. I suppose if I take the time to appreciate how much easier it is to clean blood from a hard floor than from the carpet we had when we first got Farfarello I won't mind the task so much. I choose to use selective judgement, however, and that means this is a chore. Nagi is in his room with his door closed, working on a paper due for his class. His term will be done soon- he only signed on for the courses he cannot get on distance learning. I open his door without knocking and toss the dirtied towel in his laundry basket.

    Nagi doesn't look up from his spot. "The laundry room is two doors down," he says.

    "You're right," I answer, closing his door and heading back down the hall. God knows I've seen enough of that room in the past seven months. If there was one thing Aine wasn't willing to do for us, it was our laundry. She hates laundry with a passion. I had to do my own.

    Without medical bills, we'll be able to take our clothes to a laundromat. We'll also be able to have our catering service returned. I tilt my head to one side, sliding my hands into my pockets. We'll need a car if we're going to deliver our laundry elsewhere...I'm not going to lug a basket of dirty clothes onto a bus. I'd rather do it myself than resort to that.

    Still can't understand my own logic. Damn. Maybe one day.

    I return to the living room, pausing in the doorway as I allow myself to remember what it's like to find Crawford in his chair. I sprawl out on the couch, reaching for the remote control. I stop channel surfing when I hit a soap opera, watching as two women go into a very fake looking cat fight. I set the remote aside and gaze at the screen, watching them go at it. I hear the soft rustle as Crawford turns the pages of his paper.

    "I have yet to discover why you choose to watch such things," he tells me.

    Conversation...This is something that was lacking before his hospital visit. After seven months of having only me to talk to, perhaps communication with us will be better. I tilt my head to look towards him. Instead of his gaze being on the television screen, his eyes rest on me. His paper is lowered to his lap, disregarded in favor of talking. I almost grin before deciding I don't feel like it. Instead I lift one shoulder in a shrug.

    It is a question I never asked myself. I never once stopped to consider why I watch such filth. I know that it's disgusting. I know the actors suck and that a truck can drive through the plot holes. So why do I watch it? I look back towards the screen, watching as both girls give up the fight to sob instead and hug each other. "Sometimes," I say, "it makes more sense than reality."

    I'm not sure if Crawford understands, but when I look back towards him he inclines his head slightly in acceptance of my words.

    I turn back towards the television, and silence falls between us once more. When the commercials come and I spare a look towards Crawford, he is still ignoring the newspaper. Instead, his gaze lingers on me. Our eyes meet and hold. I feel like there is something I'm supposed to be saying, but no words come to mind.

    Aine steps into the doorway, leaning against the doorframe. I lose eye contact with Crawford as both of us look towards the pyrokinetic. She offers me a smile that seems apologetic, her thoughts circling around her interruption of our private time together. Part of my mind feels disgust at her mental wording. Some private time. We're in a public room. The rest of me decides that it doesn't like the intrusion despite the location, so she'd better be sorry.

    "They are ready for you now," she announces. "I will take you there. An escort will return you."

    Crawford rises. I follow him to my feet, padding after him towards the hallway. Nagi has left his room to bid Aine a quiet farewell. Farfarello is just now leaving his room, dressed but hair wet and spikier than usual from his shower. Aine moves towards him and he looks up at her approach. She reaches up, taking his face in her hands and pulling his head down for a kiss. When she steps back, Farfarello stares wide-eyed at her, stunned by her actions. I bite back the urge to burst out laughing at the look on his face. "Look me up if you have a break," she tells him, waggling her fingers in a cheery farewell to Nagi.

    Nagi's quiet laugh is covered as a cough. I see Crawford's mouth twitch into the faintest of smiles before he covers it up with his usual serious expression. Even he can't resist the humor of Farfarello's face. Aine turns a smile on me. "Goodbye, Schuldich," she says.

    My mouth stretches into a grin and I lift my hand in farewell. Prometheus and Oracle exit, closing the door behind them. I will never see Aine again. I will not miss her.

    Her going means that Crawford will stay, and that is all the more important.

Part 20