Part Nine

    Nagi pauses in the doorway to the den but I do not bother to look up at him. I am staring at the blank television set, waiting for it to turn itself on and entertain me. I know why Nagi's here; it's clear in his thoughts. He continues to linger there- not awaiting my acknowledgement of his presence, but knowing I know why he's here. He's waiting to see if I'll speak without a prompt from him. It is a contest of wills, and I know I'll win. I'm a stubborn bastard. I lose to no one.


    Crawford and Hoffmann don't count.

    "Schuldich..." Nagi says, accepting the fact that I'm requiring him to vocalize his thoughts. "I'm going to go see Crawford."

    I arch an eyebrow at him, condescendingly amused. "Miss him already?" I ask.

    He gazes back at me calmly, face impassive. "It's not missing or not not missing him," he answers, and something in his voice chides me. For what, I do not know. "I am going so that I can talk with Ikida-san on this syndrome. There isn't much on the internet, and I would like to know more about it."

    "Yeah, whatever."

    He pauses. "Are you coming?"

    "You can walk to the bus station," I tell him. "I don't need to tote you everywhere."

    "I wasn't asking for a ride," Nagi responds.

    "Companionship?" I drawl, mocking him.

    Now his mouth thins. "It was an invitation," he tells me, "asked for your sake. I was merely wondering if you were interested in seeing Crawford."

    "I can talk to him from here," I remind Nagi.

    His patience is thinner than it has ever been before, and I realize that when his eyes narrow. I can taste the anger in his thoughts and regard him with interest. "You act as if you're delighted he's gone," he tells me. "You would probably be happy if he were to not make it through this."

    The urge to backhand him is sudden and unexpected. I squash it, throwing Nagi a lazy smirk that I don't feel. "Maybe," I tell him.

    His mouth twitches and I know he wants to say something, but he wins the struggle to remain quiet, keeping whatever he had been going to say locked behind his shield. He exhales slowly, schooling his face back into an impassive mask. "Ja," he says simply, and turns to go.

    "Na~, Nagi," I call after him. He pauses in the doorway but doesn't look back. "Turn on the television for me."

    He glances back at me, eyes unreadable. He gives the couch a rough yank with his gift and I am almost rocked off the cushions as the furniture moves closer to the television. I blink and reach out, finding the buttons to be close enough to poke them comfortably. I'm a little close to the screen, but I'm tired of staring at a blank television screen from the other side of the room. I resettle myself on the cushions as Nagi leaves.

    He's a strange boy, that one.

    Entertaining, though.


    I lift my serving of breakfast from the microwave and carry it over to the table. My teammates are already seated. Nagi made a simple lunch for Farfarello and himself, and I'm sure I ended up with the better deal. I set the styrofoam container on the tabletop and sit, scooting my chair forward. I touch my food with a finger and get burned; I left it in the zapper too long. I begin moving the food all over the dish with my fork, trying to spread it out so it'll cool quicker.

    Nagi was gone for an hour with Crawford. I didn't ask him about it when he returned. I don't care what happens with the American anymore. He's the Council's problem, not mine.

    The meal seems to be quieter than usual. Perhaps it is because we're missing the sound of a second pair of chopsticks. It's probably just my imagination.

    I dig into my food with a vengeance, feeling the absence of a meal in my system. I'm going to have to make up for it sometime today...I guess I'll eat Crawford's portion of dinner. It's not like he'll be able to appreciate real food for a while. He has to receive all of his meals through an IV.

    I wonder why I bother thinking about him. He doesn't want me to think about him, obviously.

    "What will happen to us," Nagi says, his quiet voice seeming almost too loud in this room, "while we wait on Crawford? Are we on leave?"

    Farfarello slides the prongs of his fork against his plate in a long screech. Nagi turns a Look on Farfarello, who returns it calmly. I wait for my teeth to unclench and for the hair on the back of my neck to stop standing up before speaking. Earlier I had thought we would just sit tight. Now that I understand everything that is going on with Crawford's body, though, I reevaluate my opinion. "My guess is that we'll get a temporary fourth." I shovel a few more forkfuls of food into my mouth. "We'll just be taking on someone to act as a medium between us and the Council, to assign us our orders."

    "Ah." Nagi falls quiet.

    Farfarello pokes his plate with his fork and is rewarded with two warning looks. He sniffs quietly and stabs his food.

    I use the silence to contemplate my words. A temporary fourth, hm? Joy. I wasn't here the last time the Council tossed a stranger into our midst, but I heard from Nagi that it didn't work out that well. My guess is that the guy was incompetent. Most of Estet's recruits are, compared to us. And no one could ever replace _me_.

    Such boastful thoughts bring a haughty smirk to my lips as I finish up my meal. It fades slightly as my thoughts turn to a more difficult problem. If Crawford is terminated, will that fourth become an official member? Some dickweed that knows nothing about us or how we work? Talk about rocking the boat...

    Ah, but Crawford's going to get better, because he's too damn stubborn and proud to let something like this take him out.

    Right? Right.

    The phone rings.

    Nagi looks at me. I shove my dishes aside and push my chair back. The phone rings a second time as I cross the room. I reach for the receiver and realize I'm holding my breath. I exhale quietly, chastising myself for such a foolish reaction. Ah, but how am I supposed to answer the phone? What am I supposed to say? Crawford answers with his name. I lift the receiver from its spot.

    "Ja?" I ask.


    My eyes slide closed. Not you, you damned bastard. Go away. Go far away. You had vanished from my life for six years. Why do you have to keep showing up _now_? Crawford, I hate you. "Herr Hoffmann," I answer. It is some consolation that I am speaking to him over a phone and not face to face. After all, he can't hurt me through a phone line. He has to travel to get to me.

    And travel he will, if I offend him. He will hunt me down and teach me the error of my ways.

    Nagi has stopped in the middle of putting the dishes in the dishwasher. Farfarello has stopped in the doorway. They recognize Hoffmann's name from the clinic where Crawford had his EKG. I keep my back to my teammates, gazing at one spot on the wall. Old habits die hard...When speaking to Hoffmann, find a nice spot and make it fascinating to look at. Jesus, Schuldich, he's on the _phone_. I could stare straight at the phone and he couldn't hurt me.

    But my eyes stay fixed on that spot, refusing to budge.

    "I was hoping it would be you that answered."

    You knew it would be me that answered..."It is reassuring that you haven't been disappointed." They are smooth words, polite but not mocking. It is the dead truth, and the kind of civil response Hoffmann demands. I hear a spike in Nagi's thoughts as he acknowledges the words that sound so strange coming from my mouth.

    "By now I trust you have figured out that you will have a fourth member fill in Crawford's place while he undergoes treatment. He is currently overseas working as a staff member at Rosenkreuz. You will pick him up at the airport in six days. His flight lands at 3:45. He is a level 6 empath."

    An empath. Damn all empaths.

    "When he arrives he will bring the details for your next job. You are to follow his orders, Schuldich. Is that clear?"

   "Ja, Herr Hoffmann."

    "If I hear that you are giving him any trouble, you will answer to me."

    "I understand, Herr Hoffmann."

    Ah, Schuldich...Reduced to walking on glass around a level _6_ empath? He's two levels below us. How degrading...If he's a staff member at Rosenkreuz, he's favored by the council, however. Hoffmann's threat is not an idle one. I will have to be very careful with our fourth and judge how he will react to everything in this household. I wonder how long it will take me to categorize his dislikes and annoyances.

    "If I hear that any of your teammates give him any trouble, you will take responsibility."

    "I understand, Herr Hoffmann."

    There is a click as Hoffmann hangs up. I lower the receiver back to its spot. I inhale deeply, mulling over Hoffmann's words. The soft clink of a dish being set down reminds me that I am not alone and I turn to face my teammates. They are both looking at me. Their expressions give nothing away, but there is interest and curiosity to their thoughts. My eyes linger briefly on Farfarello's face as I wonder if Hoffmann could make the Irishman feel pain.

    Is this how Crawford feels, I wonder? He hangs up and turns to find his team waiting for him, ready to follow his words.

    They are looking to me...Not Crawford. Because Crawford isn't here. Because Crawford is sick and is lying in a hospital somewhere with tubes down his throat. I'm here, and I've got Hoffmann breathing down my neck and watching everything I do. I move towards the table, resting a hand on the back of my chair. My appetite is gone, so I shove my chair back under the table. It's not like I had much left to eat, anyway.

    "We will get a fourth in six days. I have to pick him up, and then we'll head out to our next job." I set my plate down on the counter next to Nagi. I wonder if he'll clean it or leave it there for me. One can never be sure. Nagi's reactions can be unpredictable. "If any of you," and I look at Farfarello because I personally don't think this applies to Nagi, "antagonize him in any way, I will kill you."

    "Schuldich is Schwarz's whipping boy?" Farfarello murmurs, tracing a finger over one lip. "The guilty one will be crucified."

    "You will be first," I tell him, "if you make him voice a complaint to the Council."

    I'm being dead serious here, and I sure as hell hope he realizes that. I have no interest in being the scapegoat for something Farfarello does. The psychopath in question just gives me an odd smile and backs out of the kitchen. I turn my eyes on Nagi. He gives a faint nod, his thoughts telling me that he will help keep our Irishman under control.

    I leave the kitchen, heading towards the den. I climb over the arm of the couch and sprawl out full length. I reach out, pressing button to turn the television on, and let my brain ooze out of my skull to puddle around me. It's soap opera hour. The first scene I see is of someone in a hospital bed. Five people trying to look worried are standing around him. I change the channel.


    I hate airport parking. I slam the car door closed and stuff my keys in my pocket. I glance around, trying to pick which direction the airport is in. This parking lot is huge. It is four stories tall and I am on the second one. I finally pick a way and turn my feet in that direction, letting them lead me wherever they want. I hum a German tune under my breath, thoughts going towards the upcoming meeting between myself and the fourth. Hoffmann told me the fourth was a Rosenkreuz staff member so I would know that his threat to punish me for any grievances against the fourth was not an idle one. Perhaps he knew that I would also take that information into consideration when debating what the empath would be like. Most of Rosenkreuz's staff are sullen and condescending, carrying an air of authority and quick to punish offenders.

    There are two ways Hoffmann could have gone about this. One is that he could have picked one that he knows will clash with me, therefore making me struggle to play nice. The point of this would be to make me slip up, so Hoffmann would get some one-on-one time with me. The other way is that he could have picked one that he knew would fit alongside us temporarily. After all, Hoffmann says the empath is coming with a job. If it's an important job he'll want one that won't stir up trouble with us.

    Bah, what do I know about how Hoffmann's mind ticks? Absolutely nothing.

    I turn my thoughts away, looking for a safer subject. They land on thoughts of Crawford. I've kept away from him for a week now. I hope he's happy. _I'm_ happy. I don't care what happens to him. I don't give a damn at all.

    Have I always been this bad at lying?

    But is it lying if I don't know _why_ I want to go? I'm not welcome there. Crawford made that clear. That's it, then. I want to go so I can annoy Crawford.

    A self-mocking sneer dances on my lips. Whatever you say, Schuldich.

    I have been going in the right direction, it seems, for suddenly I reach the railing and can see out of the parking lot. The airport is across the street, and there is a stairwell beside me. I move past the people that are coming up, letting their mental thoughts and spoken words wash against my ears and mind. They are not speaking Japanese...Tourists. Perhaps it is French. Who knows?

    There is a crowd waiting to cross the street, and some man who is supposed to be directing traffic is standing to one side. I survey the scene. There are a lot of cars. It will be a while before this group is allowed to cross. I'm not in the mood to waste time.

    I glance at the drivers, catching their minds with my own. I close my eyes briefly, focusing on them. /Stop,/ I tell them. I open my eyes in time to see that the cars are slowing down. The traffic guard looks from one lane to the other curiously, then takes their braking to be a sign of courtesy to the waiting people. He beckons my group across when the cars are at a complete stop. My long, sauntering strides carry me across the street easily. I have a useful gift, do I not?

    I peek at my watch as I step inside, breezing past the security desk with my gift to aid me. I am fifteen minutes early. I wonder if his plane has landed early. I don't need the empath to start his complaint list the same day I pick him up.

    There are signs hanging from the ceiling, directing me where to go. The airport is crowded and my mind becomes host to a tangled knot of thoughts in all languages. I let them seep through me. My own thoughts get lost in the noise, but I've learned that that's not always a bad thing. Sometimes I have no desire to hear what's going on in my brain.

    I reach the gate and find a chair to sit at. A glance at the glowing sign above the desk for this terminal shows that the plane has not arrived yet. I take a survey of the other people waiting around me. There are two old women by the window, waiting anxiously for their son/nephew to arrive safely from his trip to Europe. There is a boy to one side, chewing on a pencil and reading a magazine, waiting on his girlfriend who went home for a death in the family. There is a woman trying to keep three young and energetic children under control as she waits for her husband to return home from an overseas job. Lastly there is an old man, sitting close to the window.

    He is waiting for someone that will never come back.

    I blink, my eyes falling on his figure. His hands are folded on the knob of a cane and he is gazing out the window at the sky. His fingers drum on the wood absently as his sad eyes trace the clouds.

    He will be my entertainment until the plane arrives.

    /Who are you looking for?/ I ask him.

    ~My lady-love,~ he answers. He's not bothered by a voice in his head. Perhaps he's old enough that he hears a lot of voices.

    /You waste your time staring after a lost love?/ What a pathetic man.

    ~I will wait forever for my lady-love.~

    I resist the temptation to roll my eyes. I wonder how well I can stir up his mind. /Maybe she doesn't want you to wait on her./

    ~She told me not to.~

    I blink.

    He continues on, content to ramble in his mind. ~She told me to stay away from her. She told me that she wanted me to stay away, for my own good. She does not want me to see her as she is now.~

    /What, ugly with age?/ I mock.

    ~She was in a car accident,~ he says. ~She is undergoing treatment now, far away. She does not want me there to see her in her debilitated state.~

    I digest this slowly, trying to ignore the way something in his words gnaws at my stomach. Some part of him knows his lady is not going to come back. Why? Because of her age? I consider this, tilting my head to one side. It has to be it. The woman he is waiting on is too old. Her body is too fragile to survive the treatment she is receiving. She has told the man to stay away because she does not want him there to watch her die.

    Gag me.

    A plane slowly rolls into view, coming to a stop beside the terminal. /I wonder if she will refuse your presence when she is dropped into the ground and has worms eating her,/ I send at the man, rising to my feet. /She will look even worse then./

    I have plucked the right heart strings, and the old man begins to weep quietly.

    The satisfaction I feel has a sick edge to it.

    'She does not want me to see her in her debilitated state.'

    Huh. I shove my hands into my pockets, taking a leisurely stroll to where I am in full view of the people entering the waiting area from the plane. I was given no description of the empath, but I will be able to pick him out by his thoughts. It does not take me long to catch his thought pattern. His thoughts are laced with scorn and annoyance, and I watch carefully to see who emerges from the tangle of people. One man moves, running to embrace the woman with her children, and I look our temporary member over for the first time.

    He spots me and moves straight towards me. His mouth is set in a scowl and his brown eyes flicker with annoyance. He is dressed in jeans and a semi-formal shirt. He stops just a few feet away and crams his hands into his pockets. A shake of his head moves ragged black bangs from his face and he eyes me with disdaining eyes. He is young- barely older than me. I feel the sudden, violent desire to smack the look of condescension off his face and struggle to push it down.

    "Well?" he demands, the very essence of haughtiness. "I'm ready to go."

    I can feel my fingers ball into fists in my pockets. "Of course," I answer smoothly, jaws clenched behind a serene expression.

Part 10