Part Seven

    He's up and about when I get home from my long morning out. He's limping, but at least he's walking on his own. I have a problem with his up and down health. One minute you think he's got it bad, the next he seems on his way to recovery. It's a bit annoying. But then, what about him isn't? He's got arrogance that rivals mine. While I broadcast mine all over the place, his is evident in the calmly condescending way he deals with things, in the ever-patient tolerance he holds for those beneath him. He has as much right to be arrogant as I do, I suppose. Being privy to the future gives you a boost up in the scheme of things. I don't mind his arrogance...until he turns it on me, that is. Schuldich the light bulb...

    I saunter into the den and make myself comfortable, sprawling across the couch. I wonder if the rest of us will be given any missions while Crawford recovers. It's unlikely...The Council does not believe in me as a leader. They claim that I gamble too much and often let my own selfish need for entertainment get in the way. At one time I would have been offended. I learned not too long after that that it was a lot more fun to be under someone else...I get to play and someone else has to correspond with the Council. Let Crawford do the dry work.

    There is absolutely nothing on television, but that doesn't surprise me. I keep going until I get to the one-sixties. I am positive that the number of crap programs is directly proportional to the number of channels. I've always believed this. Even so, I'm the one who began paying the television bill when I added the two hundred channels to our original stations. More channels may mean more crap, but it also means it's a better way to waste time. What else am I supposed to do? We're going to be stuck here for who knows how long while Crawford experiences loss of body control and panic attacks. I can only hope that between the three hundred channels and the chance of Crawford eating tile again that I will be suitably entertained.

    Farfarello enters the den then and moves to sit on the floor in front of the couch. I shift slightly to make sure I can see past his head and aim the remote around him to continue surfing. Farfarello watches with me as the channels begin to flicker by too fast for me to register if it's a decent program on or just infomercials.

    "Your remote's going to get broken," Crawford says calmly, limping into the room.

    I consider this, debating whether it's worth it to keep going at this speed. It'd be fun if I could break it, but that means I'd have to sit right in front of the television set and push the buttons. I envy Nagi's powers for a moment, as he could just sit here and push the buttons from a distance. I slow down in my flipping. At least my thumb doesn't cramp from rapid-firing the 'channel up' button anymore...I've probably got the strongest thumb in Japan.

    Farfarello lifts a hand when I get to an infomercial displaying knives. I pass him the remote. It's not like he's going to change the channel or anything.

    There's a crunch and I stare over Farfarello's shoulder. He's snapped the damn thing in two!

    "I warned you," Crawford says simply.

    I flick him a scathing glance. He could have been a little bit less vague, like "Hand the remote to Farfarello and the madman will break it right in half". Crawford meets my eyes calmly over the magazine he has opened, gaze unrepentant for not being clearer. I swat Farfarello's head. It doesn't hurt him a bit, but at least it helps _me_. "What the hell was that for?" I demand.

    "We will stay here," Farfarello answers.

    "I wasn't going to change the channel, you freak," I tell him. "You'd probably have broken _me_ in two if I had!"

    He lifts a shoulder in a careless shrug. I sit up, heaving an aggrieved sigh. The television set is too much effort if I have to sit in front of it and manually poke the channel button. Besides, sitting that close will ruin your eyes- or so my mother always said. Who knows if she was right? There are some things you don't test out of defiance for your parents. If a parent says the stove is hot, don't touch it. If a parent says stepping on an anthill is dangerous, don't bother it. If a parent says drinking cyanide will kill you, don't drink it- and so on and so forth.

    I cross the room and pause in the doorway. A glance across the hall at the clock in the kitchen says it's only just after noon. Great...The day's only half over and I'm devoid of entertainment. It looks like another trip to town is in order...There's not much to do there, but I can always rent more movies. _Those_ don't require much use of a remote. I enter the den again, standing purposefully in front of the television screen as I gather up the movies I rented earlier. Something connects solidly with my head and I send Farfarello a baleful glare. He is holding the remaining half of the remote in what's an obvious threat.

    "Don't throw things," I tell him, and flick off the television before zipping from the room. The other part of the remote connects with the doorframe, just barely missing my head as my speed carries me rapidly out of the den. Crawford doesn't chastise him; he probably thinks I deserve to get part of a remote control stuck in my skull.

    I smirk to myself as I step out of our flat. Farfarello is more dangerous entertainment than Nagi, but just as fun. There are some things you shouldn't try with him, but the television stunt is safe enough. If he'd really been annoyed with me for getting in his way, he could have knocked me out with that first throw.

    Well, if we're stuck here waiting on Crawford, I can always be grateful for two things: no house arrest and roommates that provide hours of entertainment.

    I pause just outside our house and pull a keyring from my pocket. My eyes fall on a particularly long and shiny key before moving to Crawford's car. He won't be driving it for a while. I grin slowly to myself. I'm sure he won't mind if I take it out for a ride. It would get bored sitting in our driveway, after all.


    I roll my window down and peer out, studying the building I am parked in front of. I am here early; Crawford isn't scheduled to be done for another ten minutes. I prop my arm on the windowframe and rest my chin on it, eyes trailing along the aged bricks. Crawford is inside somewhere...I reach out, lightly touching his mind to locate his mental barrier. I feel resistance and my gaze lifts to the third story windows. Crawford is currently at a counseling session. He is to visit a counselor twice a week starting today, according to Hoffmann's orders. I find the idea highly amusing. I doubt Crawford is as entertained by all of this. He probably feels it's below his dignity to have to talk with other people about his personal life. I wonder if he's resisting them due to pride or actually talking because he was ordered to come by the Council. I feel my mind automatically straying to the counselor's mind to find the answer and catch myself. I'll save my prying for when I need ammunition against Crawford.

    I yawn loudly, drumming my fingertips on the side of the car. It is my job to transport Crawford to and from his sessions. He is no longer allowed to drive. It wouldn't do to have his legs give out when he needs to push the brake or gas pedals. So I am his taxi driver, and my car is his cab. I'd use his car, but I've discovered it does not go as fast as mine. His top choices when he bought the car were style, price, and comfort. My top choice was speed.

    The sun feels good on my face, and I am seriously considering dozing off where I am when the front door of the building opens. Crawford emerges and moves down the stairs towards my car. His limp seems to be worse, if at all possible. His hand grips the railing beside him tightly for balance as he picks his way to me. His progress is slow and his serene expression is gone, replaced by one that is slightly more strained. His left leg isn't bending at all. He stumbles slightly and I lift my chin from my arm, experiencing alarm before he catches himself. The last thing I want to see is Crawford pulling a Jack and Jill on the stairs.

    His hand uses my hood as support as he makes his way to the passenger side of the car. I wait until he is buckled before speaking. "Well, did you have an enlightening experience with the friendly neighborhood shrink?"

    The corner of his mouth twitches faintly in a frown as he debates how to respond. "You are early," he chooses to say.

    "So are you," I return easily, turning the key in the ignition. With a brief glance over my shoulder to check the traffic, I pull away from the curb. My retort hits the mark: Crawford does not answer. That's a dead giveaway that he did not enjoy his session in the least. "I take it your psychiatrist was more the concerned type than the kind that does crossword puzzles," I say. He does not answer and I reach towards the radio, flicking it on. Japanese spills out of the speakers and I switch to my CD player, replacing Japanese with German and cranking the volume up. I wait a moment for some resistance from Crawford, whether it's verbal or a pointed look, but he is too busy gazing out of the windows to comment.

    For one moment, I think he is watching the skyscrapers as they pass.


    I wave the remote control I bought in front of Farfarello's face. "Do you see this?" I ask. His single eye is bored as he watches the remote swing from side to side. It's like one of those hypnosis tricks you see on television. Then again, you need a brain to be able to be hypnotized. I consider this. It's not right to make a comment about Farfarello concerning intelligence. He can fool a lot of people with first impressions, but Farfarello's sharp. He went to an old-fashioned and strict Catholic school. So maybe I can hypnotise him. Or does he need two eyes? Bah, who knows? "You are not allowed to touch this. You break one again and I'll break your head. I took the money for this out of your account." Not that he cares...He doesn't have much else to spend his money on. I turn away and he follows me out of his room and down the hall. We split up at the kitchen entrance: he enters to eat dinner and I turn right to deposit the remote in the den. I join them a few moments later, as Farfarello is pulling his chair back to sit down.

    The meal smells good, and I help myself to good-sized portions. We have to order enough for almost eight people. We're all grown- well, in Nagi's case, growing- men. We eat a lot. Farfarello eats the least out of all of us. I used to think he would eat the most- because wasn't gluttony one of the seven sins?- but he doesn't like feeling heavy. If he needs to move fast, he doesn't want his stomach to weigh him down, apparently. Nagi eats only a little more than him, then Crawford, then me. I don't mind being the mouth of the unit. Remember my list of simple pleasures? Add good food to it. I can't believe I left it off earlier.

    Dinner is quiet, with just the sounds of Farfarello and my forks scraping against our dishes to pierce the silence. Farfarello taps the prongs of his fork against his plate when he's cleared a space, and three pairs of eyes settle on him to warn him not to drag them across the surface. He looks at each of us before choosing instead to suck on the prongs. We return to eating. Nagi finishes first, as usual, and clears his dishes. Farfarello is done a moment later and watches as Nagi takes his things away. Then he vacates the room, and Nagi isn't far behind. I hear the television flick on only moments after Farfarello has disappeared from the doorway, followed by a crunch as he obliterates the remote. I should have known he would do something I had told him not to do. He's probably still sulking over not being able to kill that lame horse.

    Would the Council let Farfarello kill Crawford off if our leader was dismissed? The question comes to mind without any warning and twists in my stomach. I cannot help but consider it. In a healthy state, Crawford could probably match Farfarello pretty well for a decent amount of time. He used to be a boxer, after all, and his unimpaired gift would keep him equal. He'd be a sitting duck right now.

    "Okay," I say to Crawford, spearing another vegetable on my fork. I wave it at him. "Let's go over this for a moment. You're sick. The Council knows this. The Council sends you to therapy. You don't approve of counseling. If you don't improve, you get erased. If you get erased, I get landed with a second-rate Talent. I will have to reestablish balance of order and superiority. If he's no good, Schwarz will stumble. If he's terrible enough that the rest of us can't carry his weight, I get landed with piss-poor jobs that don't pay worth crap. I lose the flat, I lose my carpeted bedroom, I lose my car. Do you see where I'm going with this?"

    He arches a thin brow at me. "I can make a few guesses."

    "Good. So it is my job to make sure you actually get better. Step one is getting you through your counseling. Which means if you walk out of that building early again I'll drive off and let you hobble home."

    The second brow joins the first as he wonders at my boldness. His eyes are unreadable but there is a hint of condescending amusement in the way his mouth twitches.

    "Step two, I will assume that your session did not go well. I will do this because I will not believe that I've worked for you for six years and you'd toss more of what processes take place in that gray matter between your ears to some counselor than me because you were ordered to do so." That's a long sentence, and I subside for a moment to catch my breath and eat the vegetable. It's cold now. Ew. I stab another one and eat it, letting its warmth override the gooey-ish coldness of the first. Truthfully, the thought that Crawford is being ordered to spill his guts to some jerk-off when I've struggled for years to get a peek behind his shields rankles me. It's amusing that Crawford's been ordered to go. It's not amusing that the counselor is going to learn more than me. With Crawford, I want to be inside of his head by my own skill, not by snooping out bits that he is forced to tell someone else.

    That doesn't mean I actually was going to word step two that way, and Crawford knows that.

    I eat the rest of my vegetables, controlling my frustration. Crawford's up and down health over the past week have been pulling on me more than I realized. I'll attribute it to the fact that he's such an important part of our team and he's never been this sick before. None of us have. It's a different sick than when Nagi sent me through the wall and I was hospitalized. This is a sick that is eating him from the inside out.

    Panic attacks?

    I still refuse to believe that.

    "So," I say, letting a smirk curl my wide mouth because I know Crawford will refuse, "care to have another session in a more personalized setting?"

    "That's not likely," Crawford says calmly, sipping at his drink. "If I am forced to take counseling, I am more likely to take an outside source than you. I will not have to work with this man, and," he pauses for emphasis, "this man does not play mind games."

    "Are you saying I would take advantage of the insight for my own amusement?" I raise my eyebrows as if scandalized. Crawford makes a sound that might be a quiet snort and I peer into the serving dishes to see if there are any leftovers. There is still some meat, so I fork some onto my plate. "At least like to share the quack's advice? If I start having a panic attack, I should like to know what to do to relieve the stress in my life."

    Crawford gives me a measuring look. "If he were to have asked what caused me the most trouble, and I were to have answered readily," he says, rising with his plate, "his conclusion would have been to send you to another team."

    "Yeah, fuck you," I mutter, stung. I'm not completely sure why. I should be amused; I should have expected a comment like that.

    Crawford pauses halfway to the kitchen to glance back at me with one brow raised. His mouth twitches in a mocking, half-smirk. "Wirklich?" he drawls softly, choosing a response that he knows will leave me off-balance. Indeed, I stare wide-eyed at him. He gets the effect he wanted- I am silent and that gives him a chance to speak. "I may be temporarily displaced from my position in Schwarz, but that does not mean you will throw respect for me out of the kitchen window." He pauses a moment to set his dishes neatly in the dishwasher. "If I do not receive respect from you, perhaps I should ask for you to be reassigned until I am considered fit to lead. After all, you are the cause of most of my problems."

    "Wirklich?" I do not know if that's my response or if I'm echoing his use of the word.

    Crawford moves to leave the room, limping along. He pauses beside my chair, and I peer up at him with my fork hanging from my mouth. "You can't always get what you wish for."

    I pull the fork from my mouth and rise, lifting my own plate. "Yes," I answer, "I can." With that, I move to pass him, heading for the dishwasher. A hand closes on my elbow as I get even with Crawford and I pause midstep, looking over at him. Silence falls between us for a long moment. I can feel Crawford's breath on my face, cool and faint.

    "Can you?" he asks at last.

    The urge to shiver is strong and I squash it relentlessly. I have no response, but I do not think Crawford is waiting for one. Slowly his fingers loosen on my elbow and he turns away. I remain where I am, listening as he makes his way out of the room, as if my feet have forgotten how to move. For one idle moment, I wonder if this is how Crawford's sickness feels- I have unresponsive legs and my arm is tingling. I wonder if Crawford had been pinching a nerve, and I rub the skin there for a moment before padding towards the dishwasher.


    Again I am surrounded by swirling, hazy colors, the fragments of dreams. I recognize a color pattern and turn towards it curiously. The voices are tugging at me again, but there is no real need for them to be doing so when I'm already turning. Look, look. Pale oval, outlined and half-streaked with dark. A face, but whose face? Look, look. I _am_ looking. Leave me alone. I glide closer, reaching out to dispel the haze in front of the face. How interesting...The flavor of this dream is mostly mine. I dream? I had figured I had forgotten how. I am curious now, and swipe harder. Things begin to come into focus and I have just about figured out who the face belongs to when pain sears through my senses.

    This time, it is not the sun to wake me.

    My eyes pop open before the white-hot flare has faded, and I register as it lessens that my room is still dark. I roll onto my side, gasping for air at the pain that lingers in my body. What the hell? Before I can try to reach out and find the source, it hits again. I curl into a tight ball, eyes wide but unseeing. It is as if my back has been cut open and someone is touching a lightning rod to my spine! Is it mine? No- there are threads of thoughts clinging to the sensation as it ebbs once more. But to be able to feel pain, and so accurately, I have to be completely meshed in someone's mind...Someone's mind must be fully open to me, someone close enough that the thoughts have a great enough volume to tangle me.

    Shit, oh shit, oh shit shit shit.

    I scramble from bed, staggering towards the door. I make it to the doorway when it strikes again, taking me to my knees. I claw at the doorframe, struggling to free myself from the unwelcome grasp. I am choking on my gasps. When I come to my senses moments or an eternity later, I am curled up on the cold floor of the hall. I cannot breathe. There is a tightness in my lungs that is leftover from such pain, a pain my body does not know how to handle. I roll painfully onto my stomach, struggling to my feet. "Cr-Crawford," I somehow choke out, reinforcing it mentally with what's left of my scattered senses. Abrubtly I have the sensation of the world being sucked out from beneath my feet, the sensation that comes from suddenly being tossed out of a tight mental connection. I can feel Crawford reinforcing barriers he never meant to let down, but at the same time, can feel them creak in my mind as he struggles for enough conscious thought to hold them together.

    I make it to his room, banging open the door without caring how much noise I am making. Crawford's sheet is on the floor. Crawford is curled into himself much as I was on my bed, eyes open but unseeing, breathing ragged.

    This is _not_ a panic attack!

    There are two options here: call the hospital and have them send someone here, or take him there myself.

    I'm not a law-abiding citizen. I won't politely stop for red lights and give other people the right of way. I'm quicker. It's an obvious choice.

    But I need help getting Crawford to the car. I sure as hell can't carry him. /Nagi!/ I send his name as forcefully into his mind as I can, and feel the way he is snapped into awareness by the mental pain. /Get in here, right now! Crawford has to go to the hospital!/

    ~He can't breathe again?~ Nagi asks, appearing in the doorway just moments later. I don't have to answer. Nagi pauses in the middle of rubbing sleep from his eyes to stare at Crawford.

    I reach out, hands rougher than they probably should be, and pull Crawford to a sitting position. The movement obviously causes worse pain- his shield splinters in places enough for some to get through to me and I hiss. Crawford's eyes are struggling to focus on me as Nagi lifts Crawford with his gift. I'm still holding Crawford although it is an unneccessary touch. Nagi has enough skill and power that I would trust him to handle Crawford alone. But I do not release him as he guides him down the hall and outside. Nagi lays him in the backseat and climbs in the passenger seat. I don't even bother to buckle my seatbelt but take off down the driveway. Nagi's gift keeps Crawford from rolling around.

    /Ikida,/ I send out, searching for Estet's top doctor. Our group is allowed to call on him whenever we want. He's paid to make himself available at our beck and call. If only he had been the one to run the EKG, I muse, but he had been in a class with some professors that day.

    ~Schuldich-san?~ He does not take long to respond.

    /Are you at the hospital?/ Nagi is sitting sideways in his seat, keeping a careful eye on Crawford's form. Worry is as clear on his face as it is in his mind. Between the frequent cracking of Crawford's shields, Nagi's concern, my own haywire thoughts, and the mental phone call to our doctor, it's hard to concentrate on the road. If I'm lucky, we won't get in an accident. I take a sharp turn as Ikida gives me an affirmative answer, glancing at the clock on the stereo. Five fifteen. Nagi almost tumbles out of his seat into me at the turn- he forgot about buckling- and one of my arms snaps out to plant him back against the cushion. Now he scrambles for the buckle, but it takes a boost from his gift to get it to tug all the way in order to accomodate his sideways position. He glances at me, and I feel my own buckle tug into place. /We're a few minutes away. We're bringing in Crawford./

    ~I will be ready for him.~

    "What is wrong with him?" Nagi asks me, turning wide eyes briefly on me. He's as unnerved by this newest problem as I am, it seems. He must be shaken if he's responding to the situation with an open display of worry. I, on the other hand, react differently. I send him a scathing glare.

    "Why the hell are you asking me? Do I look like a doctor?" Nagi subsides, looking back at Crawford. I chance a look in the rearview mirror as I make the final turn. From somewhere I think to warn Nagi of our stop just as I hit the brakes: "Stopping." If we weren't buckled, we probably would have gone through the windshield. As it is, my chest almost makes contact with the steering wheel and the strap of my seatbelt bites roughly into me. Crawford doesn't so much as budge; Nagi sees to it. We're yanking off our seatbelts as fast as we can, and Nagi's throwing open our doors for us to scramble out. Nagi gets Crawford. Ikida is at the entrance as I slam the doors to the car shut.

    I reach out, cloaking the minds of those we pass. We don't pause to get a stretcher as Crawford floats between us. At least he is uncurled, now- he is laying flat as he floats. I can still feel the rocking of his barrier, however, which means whatever is hurting him hasn't stopped. We take the stairs down to Ikida's section of the hospital and he punches in his keycode. The door opens and we precede him into the room. Crawford is settled onto the bed and he lays there like one dead, eyes closed. I pace on the other side of the bed. Nagi is standing off to one side, looking pale and small. I use short sentences to explain the sensations that woke me up.

    "Like lightning?" Ikida muses. His clipboard is resting on a small table beside the bed, and he jots notes with one hand as he checks Crawford's pulse with the other.

    I jab a finger at Crawford's still form. "First, you said he had a flu. Then your assistant said he had a panic attack. What is it this time? Food poisoning?"

    "Calm yourself," Ikida tells me.

    "I _am_ calm," I snap, dropping heavily into a nearby chair. I cross my arms over my chest, glowering in Ikida's direction. Crawford's breath catches before it starts to slow from its ragged pace. I think I preferred it ragged. Now it is thin and faint, as if his lungs are unable to draw in a proper amount of breath. My eyes watch Crawford's face as Ikida moves around him, running what I will assume are some routine tests.

    I press myself forward, against the barrier in Crawford's mind. Something in there dips, sliding and giving way. I wriggle through the cracks of his shields long enough to make sure his mind is still intact. The pain is still there, choking in its intensity, but I can't locate what was sliding around. As I'm slipping from his mind and into my own consciousness, I see his eyes opening slowly. He can't focus. His eyes are dilated almost enough that I can't make out the golden-brown of his irises. I wait for them to focus but it takes a long time. "Why isn't he focusing right?" I demand as he gives a slow blink, pupils returning to normal size.

    "I'm not sure."

    "Don't you get paid to know what's going on?" I ask him.

    He sends me a tolerant look. "I asked you to calm down. Now kindly tell me which symptoms of a panic attack he was displaying."

    I tug my thoughts together, tapping a finger for each point I rattle off. "The ones I know of? Shortness of breath, light-headedness, numbness of the hands and feet, blurred vision, and headache. His legs got so bad that at one point he couldn't feel either of them." I clap my hands together. "Went down like a rock." I point to his legs when Ikida looks there. "He seems to be having most of his trouble there. He limps a lot and keeps almost losing his balance."

    "As if he cannot control his own body," Ikida murmurs thoughtfully, leaving Crawford's side. "We had a case like this," he says, making an absent gesture to indicate the ceiling above him. I think I can safely assume the 'we' means the hospital, not Estet. "I cannot recall the name, but I am sure we could compare symptoms and perhaps take a step forward. I tested his reflexes...They're a no go," he says over his shoulder. It doesn't mean much to me.

    There is another slide in Crawford's mind and I peer at his face, touching his shield briefly. The pain is gone. I can feel myself relax slightly. It seems this nerve-wracking episode is over. But when will the next one be? Will it be worse? Will there even be a next one? I need answers. Crawford slowly rolls onto his side, taking his first real breath since he woke me up. His fingers are curled loosely, and his eyes slowly lower to them. He exhales softly and I bend over so I am at eye level with him. "Who causes who trouble?" I ask him. "My hair's going to go gray before my twenty-secondth birthday."

    He says something, but I'm not sure what it is because it comes out quiet and slurred. I straighten, brushing my hair out of my face and turning my eyes on the doctor. "So?" I demand, ignoring Nagi as the boy takes a step closer to the bed. "Find anything that you care to share with us?" He holds a hand up as a gesture for patience as he finishes reading the file he's pulled out. Ikida's got a copy of every major case that goes on in this hospital in this basement of his. "This is where I become clairvoyant and say you're going to tell us that it's over now."

    "There's a reason you're a telepath," Ikida says with a sigh, tucking the file under his arm. "If Crawford runs parallel to this case," and he taps it lightly as he heads towards the phone, "there could still a lot left to come."

Part 8