Estet isn’t concerned by Takatori’s distraction with Weiss, nor are they bothered that it’s all he’s been doing for about two weeks. If it makes him happy, they’re fine with it. Crawford and I decide that they wouldn’t be so lenient if the ceremony was coming up quicker. We don’t have a date and we doubt a specific one has been decided, but it must be a decent ways into the future if they’re letting Takatori goof off so much. The Council is almost satisfied with the strength of Takatori’s actions, as they’re trying to use it to convince Estet to drop him. They’ve been fighting back and forth over it for these weeks. And Schwarz… Schwarz has been doing absolutely nothing. Takatori is ignoring us still. We don’t care.
Life is, I think I could say, going decently. Aine comes to visit us when she’s not required over at the chambers, or rather, comes to visit Farfarello. They talk a lot, but sit in silence even more. Now and then Aine gets tired of being indoors and they end up walking around Takatori’s estate or nearby parks. We don’t have to worry about Farfarello losing control and killing people. Aine can keep him in control easily. So we let them wander where they will, and Nagi wanders here and there talking to Tot. Schreient is growing increasingly irritated with him, and he’s growing increasingly condescending towards them. And Tot… Well, Tot tends to take his side when they start getting into it. Now and then I check on the two, judging how close Tot’s mind is to fixing itself. This is the best time for something to happen with her, while Hoffmann is distracted. She’s saying “I” a lot more. Her team doesn’t notice, but Schwarz sure does.
Crawford is giving his visions a small break, backing off of wrenching his gift as far as it will go, and is having less migraines. He eats every meal with us since Takatori isn’t interested in us. Things between us are still at point zero, but now that I know it can be fixed, it makes dealing with him a lot easier. I’m in a much better mood these days, now that my back is healed and my face has finally smoothed out. My arm is fixed, too. I don’t like the scars but at least it’s done healing as much as it can. I’ve been keeping an eye on Fujimiya this week. The others are all taking breaks but I can’t just sit here and do nothing… It bores me. So I keep an eye on the redhead, who is growing restless. Weiss hasn’t been given missions because of Takatori’s rabid hunting for them, and while Ran understands the reasons behind it, he is hungry for the politician’s blood. It won’t be long before he snaps and pushes for a confrontation. He’s starting to push at his leash, starting to shove back at an unyielding Kritiker.
Aine steps into the room then, tugging Farfarello along behind her by his wrist. He does not resist the tug, letting her drag him wherever she wishes. Crawford doesn’t look up from the newspaper he is reading but I acknowledge their entrance with a wave of the remote. It’s not even nine in the morning but Aine looks as if she’s been up for hours. I wonder how anyone can stand to be a morning person, wonder how anyone can be so cheerful when they haven’t had any caffeine in their system. Aine doesn’t drink coffee in the morning- she only drinks it late afternoon. She drinks decaffeinated ice tea the rest of the day. I told you she was bizarre.
“Sleep well?” I drawl.
She offers me a crooked little smile for that, propping herself against the wall and folding her arms over her chest. Farfarello waits in the doorway. She ended up spending last night here, sleeping in Farfarello’s room. I am eternally grateful that nothing really happened. She has no shields to speak of and because I ripped mine to protect the bond in Crawford’s mind, nothing I could have done would have deafened me to her.
It’s the small things we have to be grateful for.
“We’re taking a field trip,” she says. “I’m bringing Farfarello to the chambers. Want to come?”
I arch an eyebrow at her. My first instinctive reaction is to say something smart, some drawl about it not being worth my time to tag along with her. The fact that I’m bored out of my mind and have had nothing interesting to do for the last two weeks squashes that comment. “Will I have to watch you neck Farf if I go?” I want to know.
Crawford sends me a look over the top of his newspaper that I ignore. Farfarello gives me a cool look as well. Aine just laughs, unbothered by my words. “It wasn’t really an invitation,” she tells me, bright blue eyes amused. She tilts her head to one side, studying me with an easy smile playing on her lips. “More like the Council wants a chance to see you now that you’re healed and this would be a good opportunity for the lot of you to meet.”
“Feh!” I give a toss of my head, sending orange locks everywhere. “How is that supposed to make me want to go?”
She grins. “Crawford?” she wants to know.
Crawford folds his paper and rises to his feet soundlessly. I look towards him. “What’s the point?” I want to know. “You’ve already been there and seen everything.”
“We should go,” is his simple answer. Honey brown eyes flick towards me, holding my gaze just long enough to be significant, and he turns back to Aine. She smiles at him, beckons for me to come, and turns back to Farfarello. He doesn’t immediately move out of the doorway and she leans forward, letting herself sprawl against him. He allows the easy contact, saying nothing as she plants a small kiss to his shoulder. His yellow eye gazes down at her, expression calm and thoughts quiet, and she tilts her head back to look up at him. She says something in Irish and he gives a soft snort before answering.
Crawford watches them in silence; I look from them to him, to the way he is studying them. He finally glances back over his shoulder at me, where I haven’t moved.
~We should go,~ he says again, and a small image sizzles across the bond that has me embedded in his mind.
Pretty bright blue eyes, filled with tears and slowly starting to darken with blood…
I sit up, pushing myself upright in a startled jerk. Aine looks over her shoulder at me, but Farfarello ignores me in favor of studying the woman who has her arms laced around his neck. Time has made it easy for me to turn a bland expression on Aine, and I push myself to my feet. Aine smiles, content that I’m following, and straightens from Farfarello. A small hand against his chest and a light push has him turning and the two Irish assassins leave the den. I’m across the room in just a few long strides, catching Crawford by his elbow just as he’s leaving the room. He looks back at me and I search his gaze, a hard frown on my lips now that Aine isn’t looking.
/What was that?/ I demand. /What did you see?/
He shakes his head, just a slight movement, and turns away to stare out the doorway, gazing at something only he can see. ~I don’t know,~ he answers. ~I don’t know yet.~
One hand reaches up and pulls my hand free from him, and he steps through the doorway. I can hear Aine’s laughter as she and Farfarello head downstairs. I stay where I am for a moment longer, letting my gift run across her mind. Her thoughts are light and free, that familiar tangle of both English and Irish that is so much like my teammate’s.
I run a hand across my mouth, smoothing the frown from my lips, and follow after them.
I’ve always seen Aine. She’s always let me see past what Rosenkreuz pushed and broke her into. Watching her as she interacts with my teammate and thinking on how she acts for the rest of my team, it is very easy to see what kind of person she used to be like, so free spirited and generous. That is who Aine is, and somehow she has managed to retain it. Even if her hands are scarred from fire and stained with blood, even if I have watched her kill countless people without batting an eye, she still manages to hold onto the personality of the woman she was going to grow up into. But today, for the first time, I’m seeing Prometheus. I can see almost no trace of the easy going girl who dotes on our Irish psychopath. And watching her… I think I can finally understand why she was never afraid of Farfarello. She never had a reason to be.
We three of Schwarz have found ourselves a place to rest. We’re deep underground, in wide open chambers. This used to be solid rock. Now it is being torn apart. Above ground, construction workers are building a great tower. Farfarello and Crawford are standing, one to either side of me. I have picked a small ledge of rock to sit on. It isn’t the most comfortable of seats and it is kind of cold, but I don’t really feel like standing.
The twelve Talents brought here, six telekinetics and six pyros, are going over the work to be done today. They range in ranks, from four to six with Aine the strongest at seven. They have gathered in a loose circle to talk, and I study their faces. They are close enough that we can hear them, but I only half pay attention to what is spoken as I sift through what I can catch of their thoughts. Nine of them have shields of varying strengths. Two have screens, and Aine has nothing at all. I find it curious that she wasn’t given anything and wonder how she survived at Rosenkreuz. There should have been some telepaths while she was there, since she was going to school at the same time Crawford was. And there are plenty of empaths. I wonder how she managed to make it out without the psychic gifts tearing into her. There’s a chance the telepaths were in a different section, but there have always been enough empaths that she should have brushed into a couple.
Her thoughts have changed tones; the laughing voice I am used to has given way to something harder and more critical. She stands silent, watching the others as they talk and work on assigning jobs. Their words are edged, and I smile to myself as I listen to them. None of them are being outright rude, but they are playing a game with their words, sticking to subtle, hidden insults. None of them are from the same original teams; they were selected from different places to be brought from here. That much is obvious. No one inside Rosenkreuz gets along. Inside teams, there is some sort of alliance, something that might be trust, something necessary to survive. Teams are like what mine used to be almost a year ago, individuals who don’t like each other but can tolerate and work with each other. What mine has melted into now is a consequence of Crawford’s fall, of the fact that we are all pulled together on two and three mental bonds, and because Nagi and Farfarello never went through Rosenkreuz’s training.
It is very hard to get Talents to work with each other when they have nothing, when they don’t know each other or have the security of knowing it is their own unit.
“They hate each other,” Farfarello comments idly.
I glance towards him. He is ignoring them; his eyes are on the knife he plays with in his hands. Whereas Crawford is standing straight, my teammate is lounging lazily backwards against the stone wall. An eerie half-smile plays on his lips and he lifts his knife to his mouth, putting a soft tear there. Blood trickles down his chin. He lets it for a moment before licking it up, and at last his yellow eye lifts to survey the group. “They want to kill each other.”
“Indeed,” I answer, amused. “But they can’t. The Council has ordered them into doing this.”
The mention of the four is enough to kill Farfarello’s easy mood. His gaze flicks towards me and we study each other for a few moments. Before he can say anything, however, Aine’s strident voice cuts through the air. “Shut up.”
Surprisingly, they do. We look towards the group to find the Irish girl the center of attention. She lifts her hand to flick her hair out of her face, fixing the eleven each in turn with a cold, scornful look. They glare back but say nothing. “Stop arguing about this like a bunch of immature idiots. This isn’t a pissing contest, this is work, and when the Council shows up in two hours you’re going to have no progress to show them.”
“They’re coming?” is the startled response from one.
A smile curves Aine’s mouth, but the expression is unfamiliar. It’s much too cold to look like her. She laces her fingers together behind her neck, tilting her head back to study the telekinetic through hooded eyelids. She doesn’t say anything; there is no reason for her to repeat herself. Silence has settled on the group as the others digest the news that the Council is coming to watch them.
“Shit,” one finally says.
“Do try to look competent,” she tells them, turning away and moving over to a small table. Paperwork is spread out on it. “There are plenty of telekinetics and pyrokinetics wandering the halls of Rosenkreuz. You were picked because we thought you could do this correctly. Prove us wrong and we’ll move on to someone else even as we send a notice to your team that your pieces are drifting somewhere underwater.” She lowers her hands, picking up a few pieces of paper from the table, and turns around to present them to the group. They watch her in an uneasy silence. She lets them consider her words for a bit before speaking again. “Now,” she says, and the amusement coloring her voice is almost deadly, “this is how we are going to do things.”
No one argues as she assigns them each their work for the day, as she takes control and splits things up how she wishes. When she is done there is only the barest of hesitations before they separate to start their work. Aine watches them go before moving to her own spot. Fire dances around her in a ring as she studies the wall in front of her and then she turns and leans backwards, pressing herself against the cold rock, and the flames curl up against the stone and race upwards. It swirls around her, crackling and roaring, eating into the rock even as it races in a loop around her. It’s a wonder she doesn’t catch on fire, the flames are moving so close.
Things go fine for all of about an hour.
At an hour and ten minutes, two Talents finally lose it with each other and start yelling. It’s two telekinetics on the other side of the cave, and their raised, heated voices bring everything else to a dead stop. Around the chambers, all fire dies and the power that was crushing and shaping the stone walls vanishes. Ten heads turn to where the two are arguing. They’ve started using their power on each other; light crackles upwards where the blows connect between them.
Aine watches them through half-lidded eyes for half a minute, her expression calm. I glance her way when she starts moving, when she finally pushes herself away from her wall and starts across the room towards her. I look back towards the other two, then notice Crawford is still watching Aine with an intent look and return my attention to the pyrokinetic. Her footsteps leave little patches of burning stone behind. I’ve never seen it happen before, and I watch her through half-narrowed eyes as she moves easily towards the two. The other nine have stopped watching the arguing Talents; instead, their eyes are on her.
She is just ten feet away when the two realize she is there.
The moment they turn to her, they explode into flames.
I straighten from where I had been slouched against the rock as the two Talents collapse, screaming in pain. Aine stops just a foot away from them. Her hair is waving madly, tossed about by the waves of heat rolling off their burning bodies. She watches them with a dispassionate expression, watches as they finally stop screaming. A few minutes later, all that is left of them is ash. She studies the two little piles for a few moments before slowing crouching, gathering one of the piles in her hands and starting towards one of the side tunnels. It opens on the cliff side, facing the sea. It’s a bad angle to watch her go, but in just a few minutes she comes back and gathers the second pile, taking it out with her.
“My God,” I murmur.
I have just realized who Aine is and why the Council assigned her to us in the first place.
I realize in that moment that Aine has to have a shield, and I press into her mind as she starts into the caves again. She stops at the entrance to the tunnel when she feels the weight of my gift against her and her head tilts towards me. Bright blue and brilliant green meet across the room and I force myself deeper, through the layers of her thoughts that have always been so open to me. Her mind has always been open and free, easy to read, so I have never asked, never wondered.
But there it is, sitting down beneath everything she is, a tight, small shield that protects her core from the world. I never bothered to dig deep; I never had a reason to when her mind was so unprotected. But I have finally had a reason to find it and I can see in her eyes that she knows I have found it at last, and she offers me a faint smile. There is no emotion in the expression; it is just an automatic curving of her lips that she is good at. Then she is turning away.
“Are we going to have any more problems?” she wants to know.
The other Talents turn soundlessly back to their work, and Aine looks over at where the other two Talents were just cremated. She reaches out with a shoe, grinding the remaining bits of ashes into the stone, and heads back towards the other side.
When you cross Rosenkreuz, when you’re not deemed worthy enough to stay alive anymore, you’re burned alive and your ashes are scattered to the ocean. That’s what Aine’s job is. Besides being a bouncer within Rosenkreuz’s ranks, she is also the Council’s mobile executioner. She has to be, or there would be no way she would be able to get away with burning two Talents just for arguing with each other, without passing it by the Council first. It’s her job to weed out the ranks of those she thinks Rosenkreuz is better off without, her job to kill those that haven’t done enough to be worth the Council’s- and Jean’s- time.
Aine is one of the Council’s Five, just like Crawford is.
“My God…” I murmur again, barely audible, and I look towards Farfarello. My younger teammate doesn’t notice the scrutiny; he is watching Aine with amusement and approval in his single golden eye. I feel something between nausea and dull shock twist in my stomach as I realize what this means, and I tear my gaze away from him because I cannot look at him any longer.
The Council shows up less than an hour later to get a progress report from Aine and to check on my injuries. We tactfully have Farfarello wait elsewhere before the four show up. As soon as Hoffmann has been satisfied that I am healed up, Schwarz makes its exit. None of us talk to each other on the way back to Takatori’s place. As soon as we are back on our hall, however, I plant myself in Crawford’s way to keep him from moving. Farfarello ignores us, heading back to his own room. I watch him go in silence before turning back to Crawford.
“Tell me that vision was a certainty,” I tell him, voice low as green eyes search his gaze. “Tell me that that is really going to happen, because I need to hear it right now.”
Luckily for us, Aine is too busy at the chambers for the next few days to come visit us. I’m not sure how I would treat her if she were to show up here. It’s not that she’s one of the Council’s Five. That’s a shock but I could accept it if I didn’t know exactly what that means for my team and for Farfarello. I’ve shoved thoughts of her deep, refusing to think on her, not wanting to dwell on what’s going to happen, what has to happen. Someone’s got to tell Farfarello at one point, but telling him is just as dangerous as keeping it from him. We can’t afford for him to change his behavior around her; she will know something is up and then the Council will know as well. I’m not in any particular hurry to enlighten my teammate, as it is going to be a decidedly unpleasant conversation. Crawford hasn’t pushed me to talk to him, so we both keep this dark realization to ourselves and turn our attention back on Takatori and Fujimiya to keep ourselves occupied.
“He’s breaking,” Crawford says at last, studying his desk without seeing it. I have made myself at home, perched on the edge of his bed. I don’t think my American ex-lover was quite sure what to think of me making myself comfortable on his bed as if it were nothing; he paused for a moment before starting this conversation. Now he is looking away from me, eyes roaming over the polished wood. “Fujimiya is going to snap soon, and when he does, he will set in motion actions that cannot be stopped. Takatori is closing in.” I nod at that. Takatori spotted the little Weiss and his brother at Ouka’s grave, and he had a small confrontation with the police commissioner last night. He is starting to suspect his brother; the animosity that has always existed between the two is starting to twist into something more dangerous than before. “We have no time left. Tomorrow night Fujimiya will divide himself from Weiss and by that time we have to have things in place.”
“That’s not a lot of time to work with,” I muse. “We have a grand total of what, twenty-four hours, to convince Estet that Rosenkreuz is right and Takatori isn’t worth a thing to them. They’ve been working with him for years now. You managed a miracle with the Council. Do you think you can pull another one now?”
“We need a reason,” Crawford says, looking back towards me. We study each other, thinking. “We need proof that he is uncontrollable. The Council can say it but if Estet doesn’t care that he is out of control enough to take a golf club to a rank eight telepath, it has to be something different. Something more concrete and personal that will make them finally take notice.”
“Fuu…” I rub at my eyes, turning this over in my head. “You’d have to convince them that Takatori isn’t their best choice. Then they’ll just go looking for someone else and we could be reassigned and start over. But they believe in him, somehow or another.”
Crawford considers this for a few moments. “They believe in him,” he echoes, and I lower my hands to search his gaze, waiting expectantly. He is toying with visions, I can see it in his eyes- he is playing with ‘what-if’s’ and ‘maybes’. He tilts his head to one side, a slight, unconscious gesture that means he has found something interesting to work with. Anticipation puts a smirk on my face and I lean forward, fingers tightening on the mattress to either side. “They believe in him,” he says again, looking back towards me. “But does he believe in them?”
I chew on that. “He’s done everything they want him to,” I answer. “You said it yourself, that his soul belongs to them. You said it when Ouka died.” He says nothing and I realize he is waiting for me to figure it out for myself. It startles me even as it feels familiar. After Crawford and I finally started having real conversations, back when he was sick, this sort of thing became normal. It was less of us talking at each other and more of us talking with. Instead of him saying everything while I just absorbed and made smart comments, he started saying less and making me think more. We didn’t use to have it, and I consider that even now with Crawford changed by Hoffmann’s gift that he has chosen to fall into this type of conversation. I feel some satisfaction over it and give Crawford’s words some serious thought, turning them over as I wonder what he is waiting for me to see.
“What if he didn’t?” I ask at last, looking back at him from where I was studying the far wall.
The barest edge of a smirk curves his lips. “What if he didn’t?” he echoes.
“Could we make him change his mind?” I wonder, speaking more to myself than to him. “Even if we didn’t, could we make Estet believe that he has?”
“He doesn’t know why we’re really here,” Crawford tells me, shifting in his chair until he is facing me fully. Long fingers lace together and rest in his lap. “He knows half of it, that we are here for his protection. He doesn’t know that we are also here to make sure he stays on the right path, that he does what Estet and Rosenkreuz want him to. The reports we file with the Elders and the Council… He is clueless. He is certain we are here mainly as servants.”
I arch an eyebrow at Crawford. “He would be pissed if he found out,” I conclude. “He’s too superior, too self-indulgent. He’s a control freak; he wants to own Japan. Estet is helping him so he has tied all of his backers to them as well without the supporters knowing just what they’re supporting. But if he realized that everything he is doing is just a well-orchestrated dance, that he hasn’t done a thing yet except for this rabid Weiss hunt without the Elders approving it first…”
“He will denounce them,” Crawford says, lowering his gaze to stare off into the future. “It will take some pushing, a little prodding here and there. Careful and subtle manipulation will be enough, and he will denounce them.”
“Will he?” I want to know.
Again, that faint, cold smirk that is Crawford’s deadliest expression. It means that he is totally in control, that he knows something that is about to royally fuck over a lot of people. Between the few, rare smiles I used to see, his serene expressions, and this smirk, I think I like this one the best. It means things are about to get fun.
“He will say enough,” he says at last, “that they will think he has. And that is all we need.”
The next few days go beautifully well. Crawford places a call to the Council to report that Hoffmann is going to defect, giving them the details of a vision we ourselves are going to create. They in turn report the news to the Elders, and that night Crawford has a long video conference with both the Council and the Elders on Nagi’s computers. Farfarello and Nagi don’t know what is going on; Nagi is too busy with Tot and Farfarello doesn’t really care enough to pay attention to us. I try not to think about Farfarello. I haven’t really said much to him these last few days. I think he’s noticed; I can feel his measuring gaze on me from time to time but I have never looked back to meet it.
The result of Crawford’s conversation has the Council feeling pleased- Hoffmann in particular, for Takatori crossed a line with the Soul Shaker that he never should have- and the Elders restless and angry. They don’t want to believe Crawford. They refused to believe him, saying that things have gone too well for too long to go badly now. They claimed there was a fault in his vision somewhere, that it was just a possible that might not happen. They said it was just a vague dream pulled up from a body still healing from a terrible ordeal, saying it was just a hallucination in the aftermath of his illness. They said anything they could to justify such a vision while the Council listened to them in self-satisfied silence. When the Elders were through Crawford asked what he was to do if the vision came to pass as true. He forced them to make a decision.
In their uneasy, bitter silence, the Council said that Takatori was no longer needed, that they had enough supporters that Estet had a stronghold in Japan. After Takatori was gotten rid of, Estet could start from their perch and work upwards again. Hoffmann reminded them that the ceremony was coming soon and that after that Takatori would have been useless anyway. It tells Schwarz that Takatori isn’t a key element in the preparations for the ceremony anymore, which means that we will have to start looking soon for the major piece there so we can start tearing that apart as well. There has to be some reason for the Elders to want to keep Takatori alive- something that the Council doesn’t know, if they are so at odds about the man’s usefulness. But the Elders lost, and Schwarz won. The Elders had still not wanted to respond, but at last had told Crawford that if indeed Takatori was to defect, that we were to kill him. Crawford had accepted this.
The next morning, he and I made sure that vision would come to pass. We took over one of the offices downstairs and discussed the reports we were sending to Estet, discussed Takatori’s distractions and his progress. A tug from my gift brought him to our side of the hall in time for him to overhear the planned conversation, and he eavesdropped silently outside, listening and slowly registering that Estet considers him as nothing more than a puppet, a stepping stone to get where they want to be. I listened to his thoughts roll from stunned to enraged as he realized that Schwarz isn’t here just to protect him but to keep him firmly where he needs to be, and the thought pissed him off like nothing else.
He didn’t confront us, however. He stormed away to mull on such bitter revelations elsewhere. Right now he is preoccupied with Ouka. He is not the prime minister of Japan yet. So he bides his time and continues to give Schwarz the cold shoulder, waiting for the day when he can be free of us for good.
And when he decides to cut Schwarz free, we just might interpret it to mean that he has no use for Estet anymore, either. All it needs is for Crawford’s vision to come to pass, for those words- “I don’t need your help anymore”- to be spoken aloud.
He will die that same day.
Are you ready, little samurai?
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