9: Courting Madness


      When he dreamed, he dreamed of Erik.

      He did not dream about Meirth, not the things the empath had done to him or how he felt about him. No, he dreamt about Erik.

      And he would rather dream of Meirth.

      He hated dreaming, because in his dreams Erik was such a wonderful person. He was always there, helping when it got to be too much, defending him from the other students, laughing with him and teasing him. He was there with him, back on the streets in Germany, stubbornly fighting with his father to take him in when his parents died. He was making room on his bed and offering a blanket to sleep under when he won the fight. He'd been there when the men showed up to take them away, had watched his father be murdered and still tried to get them both to safety. He'd been there then, been there in Canada, and then five years ago as well.

      His screams woke Einsam from his sleep, left him shaking in his bed or where he was sometimes pressed against a sleeping body. His dreams, and the memory of Canada, the memory of five years ago, haunted him and made him want to throw up.

      He hated his dreams because when he woke up, he remembered that Erik was not a friend, that he was a horrible person who had used him and left him. A traitor. And he told himself that his dreams had to be Erik's trickery, but he always knew when Erik touched his mind. He felt Erik's touch as if it was physical; he would know if these dreams were just a game of the telepath's.

      He hated his dreams because they weren't influenced, but he knew they had to be false.

      He hated them because he feared they were true.

      And he dreamed every night.

*

      Meirth knew his pretty Sequencer had finally found what he wanted, because when he stepped into the younger man's bedroom the Talent was crumpled on the floor. He looked like he had fallen there while trying to get out of bed, and while his face was out of view, his forehead touching the ground, one hand was clawing helplessly at the hardwood floor. His ragged breathing was the only sound he made and Meirth moved towards him, reaching down to catch the tail end of his braid. He used it to haul the younger gifted to a sitting position, studying the other's face. Einsam didn't know that he was there; his red eyes were unfocused and his mouth hung open as he stared off at something only he could see. A satisfied smile pulled at Meirth's lips and he crouched, tugging the Sequencer into his arms and rising to his feet. The boy was lighter than he should be, partly because he often forgot to eat. He laid the other man back in his bed and Einsam immediately rolled over, presenting his back to Meirth, curling in on himself on his side. One hand reached out, fingernails raking back and forth over the wall.

      Meirth left him there and went to eat breakfast. Nuboshi looked up from where he was stuffing his face on a disgusting mix of raw egg, rice, and fish. Meirth averted his eyes from the plate, digging in the cabinets for something edible. The previous owners of this house had been killed upon their arrival in Japan. Nuboshi and Rice had found the place for them. Meirth and Einsam had traveled over on a later plane, keeping Einsam out of Schuldich's mental range until after things were through with Hasagawa. It would have spoiled the fun if the German had picked up on his linkmate's presence.

      "Where's the runt?" Nuboshi asked.

      "Busy," Meirth answered, pulling a box of cereal down to the counter. The house arrest was aggravating already. They'd been free for five years. Now they were here, and they couldn't leave the house without Einsam telling them it was all right. It was like it had been twelve years ago for the American and the Sequencer. They couldn't go for groceries without the boy figuring out whether or not Schwarz would spot them. It was a pain in the ass but so far Nuboshi had no complaints. He couldn't complain, not when he had their youngest teammate to play with. Meirth, on the other hand, was clinging tight to the thought that this was all worth it. It had to be worth it. He would see Schuldich dead and he would make the trip there painful. He'd pay him back for crushing hopes of freedom, of a life without Rosenkreuz. He'd pay him back for the scars and the pain and the humiliation, and the years of fighting for his life among furious rankmates. He'd pay him back for making him wait so long for the chance to kill him, for losing his chance five years ago and having to wait longer. All he'd wanted was to be free, and now he could never have it. But he wouldn't let Schuldich get away with ruining his life, and he'd kill him and then kill himself before Rosenkreuz's dogs could get their hands on him again. He'd save them the trouble of killing him, and he would do it much faster than they would.

      "How busy?" came the response, drawing the empath from his bitter thoughts.

      Meirth slid a glance towards the Japanese man. "Wait until he's coherent," was his response. "I need what he's Sequencing."

      "Mm," came the answer, and Meirth looked away as the other Talent slurped at his egg.

*

      Yohji was once again woken with a boot to his shoulder, and he told himself that he really needed to learn to hear the man coming so he could avoid such a thing. He slanted a look up at the other man and decided from the look on his face that he wasn't in a better mood than he'd been in last night. The evening had been a little off after Farfarello and Schuldich's little knife game. It made Yohji curious. He had the distinct feeling that he'd missed something last night.

      He pushed himself to his feet, raking his hair out of his face as he moved past Farfarello towards his suitcase. He had taken a second shower yesterday just before bed so that he wouldn't have to take one in the morning. It would mean walking back into Farfarello's bedroom to drop his dirty clothes off and he wasn't too keen on the possibility of waking the Sensitive up. He had a feeling the results wouldn't be pretty, so decided this was the best way to go about it. He crouched in front of his suitcase, pulling back the zipper and pulling some clothes free. He and the Irishman were both changing, one preparing for bed and the other getting ready for the day. Yohji was quite content with the psychopath's sleeping schedule, as he wasn't interested in putting up with house arrest with that man as a constant presence.

      His pajamas were folded up and placed on top of his suitcase with the rest of his clothes, and he left without another look back towards his "roommate". The smell of coffee lured him to the kitchen and he found the other three of Schwarz there. Schuldich already had a mug, and there was one at Crawford's place as well, so he decided the pot that was brewing was the second one. Idly he wondered when Schwarz started their day. Whenever it was, it was way too early. He dug his pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and eyed it, noting that there were only four left in the pack.

      "Things could get dangerous around here," he commented, shaking one out and moving towards the open window above the sink. As he passed Schuldich, he noticed that the man's mug was full and untouched. Blue eyes were staring through the table in front of him and Yohji paused just long enough to reach out and poke the mug. It had been cold for a long time, apparently. He expected a comment from Schuldich at the poke but the German didn't seem to notice he was there. Continuing on his way, the other assassin propped himself against the counter and lit up. Green eyes glanced over his shoulder. Nagi was eating toast and eggs but watching Schuldich, and Crawford was studying a paper. "How long is this house arrest going to last? I'm going to need cigarettes."

      "Schuldich has some," was the response. "The time is still uncertain but it's growing shorter."

      "I love vague answers." He took a deep drag from his cigarette, eyeing the coffee pot as he tried to judge whether or not there would be enough left over for him to steal some. Thinking that there was perhaps enough, he turned so he was facing the table. Schuldich's back was to him at this angle, and he studied the German's orange hair. Perhaps today, things would be normal. Yesterday had been several kinds of weird, and Yohji had been introduced to yet another of the telepath's mood swings. Schuldich and Farfarello had treaded quietly after their little spar. He didn't know why. Perhaps they'd exchanged some words during the short fight that he hadn't heard, but he knew they'd been fine with each other up until that point. After thatů Well, they'd stayed out of each other's way.

      "Nagi," Crawford said, and the boy set down his breakfast.

      Just a second later, Schuldich gave a lurch back in his chair. The chair, in return, was pushed back to the ground by the telekinetic's power, and the mug of coffee was pulled from his fingers before it could spill all over the place. Schuldich swore, and Yohji finished off his cigarette so he could move. When he leaned against the fridge instead, he could see the telepath's expression. A grimace pulled at Schuldich's mouth but it cleared after a moment and a cold little smile pulled his lips as he looked over at Crawford.

      "Pop goes the weasel," he said. "He's in."

      "How do you know?" Yohji asked.

      "I just had a Sequencer's mind crushed against mine," came the comment. From the look on Schuldich's face, it had not been a pleasant experience. Farfarello appeared in the doorway then, and Yohji guessed his power had alerted him to this new development "He's in, all right. Took him long enough. Meirth's hold has been fucking up the link, and we've been apart so long that he had to fight to find my patterns. I'm not who I used to be, so it's probably been grand fun for him to try and readjust."

      "I still can't believe you're happy about this," Yohji mused, watching as Farfarello crossed the room towards the table. Schuldich took a sip of his coffee and made a face, eyeing his cup as if wondering what his coffee was doing cold. Farfarello was there then and took his mug from him without stopping. He moved to the sink, where he dumped the drink and rinsed the mug. Pale fingers found the coffee pot and refilled it, and he brought the mug back to Schuldich before standing behind his own chair. Leaning over it, with his hands planted on the table, he studied his older teammate with an intent yellow look. Schuldich offered him a weary grin and Yohji decided that yes, the strangeness of last night had faded.

      "It'll still take him a while," Schuldich said, speaking to Yohji without looking at him. He took a swallow of his fresh drink and tapped his fingers idly on the rim. "You don't get it, do you? Einsam's a great little accessory for any power unit, but he can't snap his fingers and figure things out. It takes him time. Right now his starting point is here, right where I am. I've got coffee, and there are a hundred and more things I could do with just this one mug of coffee. That's not saying what I could do just sitting here, or talking, or getting up. Einsam's good at weeding off branches he doesn't need but he still has a mess to go through to get anything accomplished. The first thing he's probably going to do is figure out the layout of this house, because he's going to need it for further tracking. But he starts here," a finger poked the table, "and he has to follow the possibilities of what I could do once I stand up. Painstaking process, but very complete, and he could paint you the exact picture of the inside of this place when he's done. Give him a few hours and he'll have it, but he'll be working around me. When I start moving again, his sequencing will break into two lines. The fun thing is that he will still have to readjust and hiccup to things that are new. Come here." He pointed at the floor beside his chair, and curious, Yohji approached. The telepath promptly dug his pack of cigarettes and lighter out of his back pocket and Yohji took a quick step back from the touch. Schuldich didn't hesitate, shaking one out and lighting up.

      "Those are mine," Yohji informed him, trying to push away his surprise at the German's bold move. Farfarello's eye was on him again, a heavy gaze, and Yohji glanced his way. Farfarello turned his attention back to Schuldich after just a moment of holding Yohji's attention, watching as the other European assassin took a drag from his cigarette.

      Schuldich smirked, not paying any attention to the staring contest that had just taken place over his head. "I didn't smoke five years ago," he said, a simple explanation without any semblance of an apology. "His Sequencing is going to catch on this and drag him right back to the beginning to try and figure it out. And when he gets that solved, he'll try and branch off what he knows as useless and then move ahead to continue his search. I'll give him a while and then decide I'm pretty bored of sitting still. Could be a very long day for my little German Sequencer."

      Yohji heard the 'my' and tucked it aside for later, pushing the curiosity over such wording deep in hopes Schuldich wouldn't pick up on it. He doubted the telepath had; he was studying his mug but only paying it half a mind, the other half checking up on the other German man. "He'll pick up speed," Schuldich mused. "Just give him some time and he'll be days ahead of us again. It's going to take him a bit longer when I keep pushing his mental footing out from underneath of him." He sighed and moved to stub the cigarette out on the table. Yohji took it away from him, as it was only half gone and it wasn't worth wasting like that. Schuldich didn't seem to notice; his eyes slid towards Farfarello.

      "Go to bed, Farf," he told the man.

      Farfarello straightened, eyed him for a moment longer, and then left the room. Schuldich watched him go before turning back to his mug, lifting it to his mouth to down half of it. Nagi caught Yohji's eye and tilted his head towards the doorway. A mug moved from the shelf to the counter and filled itself, and floated towards the door. Yohji looked from the youth to the mug and followed after it out of the room. He didn't mind the dismissal if it meant he got some of the hot drink.

      He caught the mug just two feet away from the kitchen doorway in the hall and he heard Schuldich give a short laugh, very different from the laughter of last night's dinner conversation. "Fuck," the German said, quiet enough that he was barely audible. "It really shouldn't feel so familiar."

      "Just keep him fighting," was Crawford's return.

      Yohji considered this for a moment longer and then headed to the den, making himself comfortable on one corner of the couch. Content with the thought that Schuldich was distracted with Einsam and Farfarello was supposed to be sleeping, he pulled thoughts of Schuldich and Einsam to the forefront of his mind. He turned Nagi's story of Schwarz's history over in his head once more, considering it. Schuldich and Einsam had grown up together; they'd apparently been very close. It was strange to think of Schuldich giving a damn about anyone enough to get close to them, but the way Nagi had described their relationship seemed strong and genuine. There was the chance that Nagi was exaggerating, since he himself had said he hadn't been there, but then there was the dinner with Schatten to consider. Schuldich had unraveled just a little too quickly once he was put back in the room with Schatten for that whole meeting to not be extremely personal. His reactions to the night and the words spoken there had been a little too fierce.

      Despite whatever had happened five years ago, Yohji got the distinct impression that whatever had been between the two Germans hadn't vanished. It was bent and broken, but there was still something there. He wondered if the telepath would get over it or if it would just cause problems.

      He was interrupted just fifteen minutes after entering the den when Schuldich came wandering in. The German moved over to the chair, stepping up onto the arm of it and then onto the cushion before it could fall over. Up to the other arm and down to the floor, and a lazy circle around it before he moved to the other. Yohji watched him for a long moment, just staring as he wandered this way and that around the room. "What are you doing?" he asked at last.

      "Einsam wants a tour of the place," was the response. A smirk was curled on his lips but Yohji couldn't tell what emotions were behind it. He thought it might be mockery, but he got the distinct feeling it wasn't aimed at the Sequencer he was linked to. Schuldich made his way over to the couch, stepping up onto it at the far end. He used his shoe to push the middle cushion to the floor and then stepped over Yohji and dropped lightly to the ground. Yohji turned in his seat, watching with interest. There was something wrong about the way Schuldich was moving. He looked like a mental patient as he moved this way and that. The telepath stopped in front of the cabinet he'd taken the guns from last night and ran his hand down the top surface before backtracking and sliding his hand across the drawers. After a few moments he moved to stand in front of the large window, just staring through the glass. He stayed there for perhaps a minute before turning and moving towards the door. He was partway there when he started laughing, and Yohji stared at him, wondering if he'd cracked.

      Schuldich caught the look and threw him an edged grin as he reached the doorway. "Einsam's not happy with me," he announced, and there was a viciously bitter sort of satisfaction to those words. Then the man was gone, and Yohji could hear his footsteps down the hall. After a moment there was a loud thud, and then a few moments later, a boot went skidding down the wood floor of the hall, careening past the doorway to the den. It made a second thud, and Yohji guessed it had collided with the front door.

      Nagi entered just a short time later to find Yohji still sitting there, staring at the door as he considered things. The telekinetic took in the perplexed look on his face and the ghost of a grim smile curved his lips. "Schuldich is very good at what he does," he said simply.

      "Acting like he's insane?" Yohji queried.

      "Pissing people off," came the answer. "Schuldich knows very intimately how Einsam's power works, and he knows exactly what to do to throw everything out of whack. At this rate, it's going to take Einsam the better part of the day to figure out what the house looks like, and my guess is that he's going to be less than pleased with Schwarz for several days."

      As if to confirm his words, a door slammed further down the hall, opened, and slammed again.

*

      Omi parked the delivery bike in front of Kritiker's Tokyo headquarters, pulling the bouquet of flowers out of the cooler in the back before starting up the stairs towards the doors. He and his team had spent hours talking yesterday, from the moment Crawford had left until the moment they were just too worn out to deal with it anymore and had collapsed. They couldn't let Kritiker know what was going on, couldn't let them know about Schwarz's or Yohji's involvement. But Kritiker had to give them the go-ahead for the hunting of Marigold. Weiss couldn't spend their time and resources on seeking the other group without Kritiker catching on, and Omi's task for this morning was to secure Manx's approval.

      The clerk at the front desk offered him a greeting and let him through to behind the counter. Anyone who came in here on accident would be told it was a filing and research cooperation for a legal firm and would be sent on their way. What the random person would see was a clerk at the desk and two on computers behind her, and a folding painted paper wall would block the back half of the office from view. Sounds of computers and printers could be heard all day long, and when Omi slipped through the space between the folding wall and the real wall, six heads lifted and he was greeted by these workers as well. He offered them a good morning and took the stairs to the second floor, where Manx's office was. Everyone knew who he was and they let him pass without stopping him, knowing that he was here on business if he chose to actually come to this building.

      Manx was on the phone when he reached her office and he waited outside until she was finished. Once the receiver was set back in place she beckoned him in, and he let himself through the glass doors into the private room. She stood to accept the flowers he had, offering him a thanks and moving to get them settled on her windowsill before turning back. Omi stood in front of her desk, careful with the expression he chose to wear. He couldn't appear too interested in this case, no matter how important it was to gain her favor. She beckoned him to sit and he obeyed the gesture, lowering himself into one of the two chairs and folding his hands together in his lap. Once upon a time this had been Persia's secondary office, though he had rarely been in it, as he was always busy with his real job. Now it was Manx's, and without the chief of police around, she was here full time.

      He swallowed the pain that rose at the thought of his uncle, waiting until she let him speak. She was the same today as she had been for the last twelve years. Her personality hadn't changed with time, and she had been a constant in his life since Persia had rescued Omi and brought him into Kritiker's fold. She had grown older but she had stayed the same person: very bold, very blunt, and very red. He had trusted her for years to know what was right, had trusted her to do the best she could for Weiss. She, in turn, trusted him to do what Kritiker wanted him to do.

      She also wanted him to do what was best for Weiss, unless it royally screwed Kritiker over, so he wasn't going to completely betray her trust by talking her into this. Weiss's number one priority right now was getting Yohji through this safely, no matter what it took, and he needed her approval to act against Marigold so she wouldn't waste their time with missions. Yohji was one of them. He was family. They wouldn't be able to do Kritiker's work when he was out there somewhere, and if Omi could talk her into this it would keep her from coming to the shop to give them work, in which case she was bound to notice that Yohji was absent.

      He knew they couldn't hide Yohji's abduction from her forever, but any time at all would be good to work with.

      "How are the boys this morning?" she asked.

      "They're doing all right," Omi answered. Two of them, anyway, but he didn't feel the need to elaborate.

      "Anything wrong?"

      "Not really," he assured her, offering her a slight smile. "I just came because I had problems with Yohji's report on his last mission." The words brought a frown to her painted lips and she beckoned for him to continue. "We picked over it for a while, wondering where Hasagawa's security came from. Yohji reported that it was Schwarz's telekinetic that took them out, but according to rumors there was a chance that Schwarz was signed on as Hasagawa's current bodyguards. You informed us of this fact and we sent Yohji on the mission with this in mind. For them to take out those men, either the rumors were wrong or the men didn't belong, and we assumed it was the former." He leaned back further, letting himself sink just a bit more into the chair in a more comfortable position. Manx was listening in silence.

      "Out of curiosity, I tried to run a background check on the men. Yohji was able to tell me that they were all identically uniformed, and they had the insignia on their chests that labeled them as part of an organization called Marigold." This was information he'd taken straight off the disk Nagi had sent with Crawford for him; there had been images of the uniform included in the history and personnel files. He'd spent part of last night searching Kritiker's databanks and using their connections to make sure that somewhere he had been able to figure out who Marigold was, at least slightly. He couldn't come in here and announce that he'd succeeded at his research when it was impossible to do. "What I managed to find declares them to be a Canadian based cooperation, and I don't really understand what Canadians were doing in Hasagawa's buildings less than a week ago. Would Kritiker mind if I used our sources to make a connection? Something about it bothers me, both where they're from and the fact that Schwarz was in on it. Either they were called in for Hasagawa, which I don't understand why he would call in such faraway sources, or Schwarz killed them because they were trying to invade Hasagawa's cooperation. I am curious as to Canada's interest in one businessman, and I wonder if they were after him specifically or if they're after the ring of Hasagawa's allies as well. Unless Kritiker has immediate work for us to do, I would like to take a couple days and see what I can find. It could be nothing."

      Manx considered this in silence, lacing her hands together and making them a perch for her chin. One finger lifted and dropped again, the back if it tapping idly against her face as she thought. There was a chance Kritiker would dismiss it, as it was something that could be small. But he was betting that she was going to give him the go-ahead, because Hasagawa's allies were Kritiker's next targets once enough evidence was gathered. But he said nothing else, neither to encourage her or in a false attempt to dismiss the topic, and merely waited. She thought on it for maybe three minutes, and then tilted her head to one side to study him.

      "See what you can find," she told him. "I want a report on the results when you have made some progress, and I will tell you how to move once you reach that point. We need to know who these people are and what they are doing with Hasagawa's ring. If you need Kritiker's assistance with the research, I can free up another specialist," Manx's polite word for hacker, "to aid you."

      "Thank you, Manx." He rose from his chair. "I'm hoping that it's nothing. Tokyo's got enough problems to deal with without bringing in foreigners to make a mess."

      She offered him a small smile. "Don't I know it," was her response.

      He left her there and made his way back down the hall, waving to a familiar face before taking the stairs back down to the first floor. A good bye and thank you was offered to the front desk clerk, and he was back into the sunshine. He would have a few days to try and track Marigold's actions, and in a few days he would present Manx with the information he already had assembled, regarding who the men were in detail. What he'd read in the file should be enough to have her officially assign them a mission against the small army, and then Weiss would be free to move. Once Marigold realized they were being attacked and Schatten realized the men they'd brought in were having trouble, Weiss would be hard pressed to stay anonymous and hidden. They would have to strike fast and hard.

      The bike was driven back to the shop and he wasn't surprised to see it crowded. This past week had been the first week of classes for several schools in the area, and it was their first weekend now. They all wanted to talk about their classes and their teachers with their favorite people in the world.

      All of them noticed that Yohji was gone, but either Ken or Aya had informed them that he was still sick. When the absence stretched on, the girls' mild concern would become frantic, and then there was a higher chance of Manx finding out. But Omi couldn't see the future, and he didn't make his plans around it. He made them for the now, and as he eased his way back into the crowd of the shop he offered his teammates a nod to let them now that they were good to go. As soon as their shift was over he would head down to work. He had a feeling it was going to be a long night, and wondered idly if he could convince Ken to run to the convenience store for him and bring him something caffeinated back when the shop was closed.

*

      Start at the doorway. You could go back the way you'd come, one step, two step, three step, four. Backwards, forwards, sideways. Backwards gives you a view of the room, your right side will show you a bare wall and your left side will show you that dent in the wall you never managed to get rid of. Forwards gives you a view down the hall and look at what you can see, you could keep going if you wanted to but you'd run out of walking space eventually. It's six steps to the next door and you know because you've counted before, and you could go there if you wanted and knock knock knock upon the wood. No one's inside. You could go in anyway. He wouldn't be happy but you could go in and look at everything that's there, such a neat freak in this like everything else-

      Doorway. Back to the doorway. If you reach out and touch the doorframe it'll be cool, doesn't matter which hand you use. You could even tilt your head to one side to touch it if you wanted to prove it's all the same. You could stay there as long as you wanted; it's not like anyone's around to tell you to move. Lean this way or that, just a fraction, maybe half a foot, or all the way so you're sprawled against the doorframe. It's kind of comfortable. You could hit the doorframe if you wanted. Maybe bite it, if you cared, but then they'll say you're crazy, or are you crazy only if you have witnesses? It wouldn't taste good anyway, and it wouldn't do you any good to bite it. If you bite hard enough maybe you can break your teeth, but you'll probably just make your jaw hurt-

      You're not one to linger. You won't stay there. You came here for a purpose, and it's resting in this room. What are you looking for?

      Doorway. Moving. One step into the room. The dresser's on your right and if you touch it-

      Doorway. Moving. Two steps. The dresser's still on your right and if you touch it-

      Doorway. Moving. Three steps. The dresser's still on your right and if you touch it-

      Doorway. Moving. Four steps. The dresser's gone but if you wanted you could turn around and touch it, feel how cool it is. The wood is polished and fine, sleek and easy to the touch. It's covered in drawers and you could open them, start at the top left, start at the middle, the top right, the bottom. So many to pick from and they all have something hiding inside. Open them, shut them. You could do this for hours. Nothing's going to change, unless you yank hard enough to shift the contents. Look, there's things in this first drawer and if you wanted you could take them out one by one. Don't know what you'd want to do that for but the possibility is there, it's always there. Take them out, throw it around the room. You could make a sound while you did it. Maybe leap onto your bed, it's only two three four steps away on the left and you could jump wildly around it waving your shirt over your head like we did when we were kids remember when we were kids and we broke the springs on your mattress because it was so old and your dad was so mad at us because he didn't have the money to fix such things he said he said he didn't have that kind of money to waste on it and you felt so guilty and so upset and he spanked you for it and I should have warned you better-

      Focusing.

      Doorway. Moving. Past the dresser now. Past the drawers and all their endless possibilities and the items you could spend all day, all week, playing with. They're just clothes, and a couple guns. The guns? First is second drawer from the top on the far left. It's nice, very nice. I don't know anything about guns but look, it's shiny, so it can't be all that bad. And a knife? Why a knife? You don't know how to use them. Perhaps for looks, make you feels special. Will find out later. Cyclops should know what you're doing with a knife. He had seven on him at dinner, after all, did you count them before you left? Wonder if there's any significance in the number seven. He had them; I saw exactly where they were because he was going to take them out and use them if we touched you. Just mildly overprotective, is he not? I have a lot to find out about Cyclops later. Other gun, bottom drawer on the far right, underneath the stacks of dress slacks. Didn't your father have a gun that he kept in his closet? I remember us finding it when we were looking for our Christmas presents and you thought it was so cool you thought it made your dad cool and you wanted to play with it and oh how he yelled when he found us touching it, yelled and yelled even if it wasn't a nice gun like this. You could take those guns out of there now, if you wanted, and clean them and load them and maybe carry them down the hallway six steps past the empty room and eight more to the den and there's someone inside you could shoot. Or you could turn it on yourself and slide it in your mouth and blow your brains out your skull, and if that's the way you want to do it then you can turn so it hits your sheets and makes a pretty design-

      The bed. The bed. What are you looking for? We'll get there. We'll get there. Soon enough, we'll get there.


*

      It was after two that Einsam cut his Sequencing off for the day. The older two of Schatten had been leaving the blood-eyed beauty alone for seven hours now, and Meirth was prepared for the younger Talent when he finally got up from his room and found his way to the kitchen. There was a black expression on his face; Meirth had picked up a dark mood from him for a good bit of the morning. The sharpest bits of anger and frustration had petered out around half past nine, and in the four and a half hours since, Einsam's attitude had improved. There was still the edges of resentment and weariness, but whatever had been so thoroughly irritating him had only lasted for two hours. Meirth had a good idea as to what had happened.

      "Schuldich was bored, I presume," he said.

      For once, Einsam moved straight towards the cabinets. Long fingers dug through the boxes there, finding noodles. He ripped the top flap off and treated himself to several uncooked ones. "Restless," came the short answer. Just because Schuldich had stopped whatever he'd been doing this morning didn't mean the Sequencer had recovered from it. Meirth touched the boy's mind with an assessing mental touch, feeling the sheer pain and exhaustion of an overstretched and abused gift that hadn't had to work this hard in years. If his teammate had been on the road to madness before, being completely wrapped up in Schuldich was going to give him an express ticket there with no traffic. Einsam simply couldn't handle such things anymore. He wasn't young enough to deal with such an overload.

      Nuboshi's smile was lazy as he rose from the table, moving towards his younger partner. A hand lifted, fingertips trailing over Einsam's cheek as he stood behind the German. "Perhaps I should take your mind off of things."

      "Don't touch me," came the flat warning. His fingers crushed the box in his hands. He was wearing his gloves, Meirth noted, and the empath tilted his head to one side in curiosity. He'd given the Sequencer them out of amusement years and years ago, black gloves with small clawed tips on the fingers. Schuldich had gotten a rather nice taste of them when Meirth had reunited the two Germans five years ago. The empath didn't see the point of such things now, though.

      Einsam moved away from the sonic, heading towards the cabinet that held the pots. One was pulled out and set down loudly on the stovetop, and he upended the noodles into it. The cabinet door was left open, the pots pushed aside from the quick retrieval of one, and the pot chosen had no water in it. It didn't matter, as the Sequencer abruptly gave up on the idea of eating. He shoved the pot onto the back burner and whirled around, shoving past Nuboshi to stand before Meirth. Small hands, petite almost, reached up to cup Meirth's face, and the red eyes that turned on him were fractured.

      "Take it away," he said, a breathless plea. "Make it stop hurting. Make me forget."

      Nuboshi moved towards him, reaching out to tug on his braid, and Einsam whirled around to deliver a vicious swat to the Japanese assassin's hand. Blood welled up from five scratches and Nuboshi stared at the marks for a moment before turning an acid look on his teammate. "You stupid little *bitch*," he started, one hand lifting with the intention of decking Einsam to the other side of the country. Einsam bared his teeth back in a defiant, silent snarl.

      "Stop it," Meirth said, a crackle of power halting them in their tracks before they could maim each other. He rose from his chair and Einsam offered Nuboshi one last venomous look before turning to Meirth. The American lifted a hand, resting his palm against the Sequencer's forehead. He could feel the almost feverish heat there, could feel with his gift the frantic fear that he was going to get lost. There was the fear that he was already gone and that he just didn't know it yet, trapped in the depths of one of his sequences. Einsam could feel himself going mad; long sessions of tracking the probabilities of the future always left him sick to his soul and insanely out of it. He needed something to focus on, needed a piece of brutal reality to let him know where he was. It was almost amusing that what had the younger man cringing away from him in fear was also what he came begging for when he got lost like this.

      Two hands clung to the front of Meirth's shirt, curling into desperate little fists. "Make it go away," he begged again.

      "What did you find for me?" Meirth wanted to know.

      Einsam's expression was broken as the empath delayed granting his wish. He pulled his hands free, yanked the gloves off and let them fall to the floor. Nuboshi still had a murderous look pointed at the younger man's back. The sonic's teammates ignored him, focused on each other. Einsam reached up again, a small whimper in the back of his throat as shaking fingers touched Meirth's face, two index fingers batting idly at a lower lip. "After," he said. "After. Please? Meirth, please? After?"

      "What did you find for me?" Meirth repeated. A sharp poke of his empathy told Nuboshi to take his anger elsewhere and the man did with just a parting scowl. "You're going to tell me what you found, or you're not going to get anything from me."

      "The house, the house," came the answer, and Einsam's answer was only half intelligible and a lot rushed as he tried to get it out as quickly as possible. "Five men, four rooms, two share, one sleeps, the guns in the dresser and cabinets and they're all there with a bed to jump on like there was long ago and I want I need-"

      Meirth decided that he wasn't going to get a better answer, but today's results weren't all that important, anyway. He leaned down, swallowing the incoherent rambling in a kiss. Fingers dug into him, desperate and needy. He didn't need his gift for any of this; Einsam needed a way to bring focus to his thoughts and rocked between this and pain depending on how far lost he'd become. "Tell him," he ordered, lips brushing Einsam's as he spoke. "Tell him what we're doing. Let him know how much it's going to hurt, and tell him that you came for it of your own free will."

      At the moment, Einsam's shattered mind couldn't comprehend the reasons for such a thing, but he did it anyway. There was a violent reaction from the other side of the city, where Schuldich was living, a pulse of twisted, black hatred. He laughed against Einsam's mouth and pulled him closer.

      Revenge was beautiful.

*

      It was Farfarello that was there when Schuldich lost it. The unfortunate Irishman had just woken up from his rest when it came. Yohji was sipping water at the table, reading the newspaper because he was bored to tears. Schuldich was at the sink, mixing juice in a pitcher, and Farfarello went to stand beside him to watch. Yohji glanced their way out of instinct more than curiosity. Schuldich offered his younger teammate a smirk, mouth opening to say something.

      Whatever it was, it never got voiced.

      Schuldich *froze* in a way Yohji had never seen before. It was past going still in shock, more rigid than if Nagi's telekinesis had locked him into place. Yohji stared, wondering at the perfectly blank look that crossed the German's face before his expression twisted into something ugly and hateful. He threw the pitcher and spoon back into the sink, snarling something vicious in a language that Yohji didn't understand as he moved back from the sink. Farfarello reached out and caught him by the elbow, and Schuldich decked him with his free hand. Farfarello let the blow knock his head to one side but he wasn't fazed by it. His teammate wrenched out of the Irishman's grip and turned as if to leave. Farfarello caught him, wrapping his arms around Schuldich to pin his arms against his body, his fingers locking together in front of his chest. He was pressed chest to back with the telepath and when Schuldich dropped to a crouch, it brought the Irishman with him. The look on Farfarello's face was grim. Schuldich's face was hidden; his fingernails were attempting to gouge holes into his forehead. Yohji was only absently aware that Nagi and Crawford had appeared in the doorway.

      "Get him out of my *head*," Schuldich said, and Yohji had never heard his voice twist like that. The German freed one hand from his face, twisting his arm the best he could with Farfarello holding it in place, and his fingers clenched into a cruel fist in the Irishman's white hair. Yohji could see his white knuckles, and he winced in sympathy for the savage yank Schuldich treated his teammate to, even if Farfarello couldn't feel the pain from it. "Get him the *fuck* *out*."

      A moment later, Schuldich collapsed, and Farfarello just barely managed to catch his footing so he wouldn't fall on top of his now unconscious teammate. The Irishman remained crouched beside him for a moment, reaching up to check his head with an absent hand, and then pulled Schuldich up off the floor. He got the limp man up and started towards the door. Crawford and Nagi obediently moved aside for him, and he vanished with his teammate down the hall.

      No one said anything, and Farfarello didn't come back until Schuldich had woken up an hour later. The German's mood didn't improve over the course of the afternoon, and there was still an angry slur to his words when they sat down to dinner.

      Yohji knew better than to ask what had happened.


Part 10
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