Part Eleven

    With some twenty-thousand yen and several hours of his time down the drain, Tsukiyono ends up only staying with us for half an hour. It's still probably one of the most important half-hours of his life considering what Crawford just told him, and I know the resentment he felt last night for coming across the country to see us has completely evaporated. I'll just trust it to Crawford to know what he's doing letting Weiss in on this when we know nothing about it yet and I follow the pair down the hall to the door. They don't bother with farewells because, despite their penchant for society-necessitated manners, the rules don't really apply to the first civil Weiss-Schwarz meeting. Crawford signals the end of it by simply closing the door right behind Omi's heels.

    I don't even count the seconds to let Tsukiyono get down the hall but step forward, catching hold of Crawford to shove him up against the wall. He hits it with a meaty bang that I'm sure Weiss and our neighbors hear and I spare a moment as I'm moving up against him to be surprised he let me do it. Maybe it's an acknowledgment of the fact that I let him get the door shut before pouncing him. The art of compromise is alive and well in Schwarz Central.

    It begins where it left off and I yank at his shirt as we trade breathing for better things. There's no time to stop and question it- none of his initial indifference after Hoffmann's meddling, none of my complete inexperience from the start. A few months ago I was a blank slate when it came to this, wanting and watching and waiting, ready to take the first step but not really sure which way it was supposed to go. A few months ago he taught me everything he knew and there wasn't that uncertainty anymore, there was just a permission to reach out and take whatever I wanted.

    Taught me everything…? No. With everything I've learned in the past few days I know there's a lot about this I'll never have to learn because he had to learn it first. He could have made this anything he wanted and, coming from him, I'd have learned to love it one way or the other. I wouldn't have known that anything was out of place, seeing as how I'd already traded a painful one-night stand to a Rosenkreuz stranger for a shot at sanity. But Crawford left the blood and horror in Rosenkreuz with Hoffmann and now it's long-buried in the sea with the Soul Shaker's corpse. I get everything else, and everything else is everything that is Brad Crawford. Let Rosenkreuz and Hoffmann keep Oracle. I'll keep this.

    I don't stop to ask myself how much of this from him is simple physical attraction or him acting on his determination to undo Hoffmann's work. I don't stop to wonder if it's even possible to undo Hoffmann's trick in such a short time. Whatever the answer is now, the end goal is still the same for the both of us: to get back to where we used to be. As long as that's what Crawford wants in the end, I don't care how he gets there. I'm tired of doubting him. I'm tired of Farfarello's bitter suspicions and the Council's poison and my own gift and sickness-induced weakness.

    I don't want to think about Nagi and his problems or the new Council and their issues or Farfarello and his empty hospital room. Whether there's still a Schwarz or not, the people are still the same and we've proved that we can handle anything that's sent our way.

    I don't want to think or doubt; I just want to feel this.

    I reach between us, one hand working its way to the front of his pants, and I squeeze the hardness there so tight it has to hurt. Teeth nip at an earlobe and I press a hard kiss to his cheekbone. "Fuck me," I tell him again.

    I have to tilt my head to one side as his mouth finds my throat and I arch up against him, breathing curses in a slurred jumble as I fit perfectly against him. I push his shirt down over his arms to bat it to the floor while he pushes me back towards the bedroom and I let him push me with only a bit of resistance. I don't have it in me to just be pushed without a fight, even if it's him, but I don't dig in enough to keep us from making down the hall.

    We end up on my bed- probably so that the mess will be my problem- but I'm not going to be picky. His leg between mine, his hips against mine, his heat and weight and it's not enough, it's not what I need. I snarl something that could be hate or lust or a hundred shady things against his lips and dig my fingers into the line of his back. "If you don't hurry up and fuck me already, I'm going to-"

    He moves, one long shift, body to body, and the words are forgotten, dismissed as unimportant. Lips part on a breath that shakes and I latch onto his sides for balance. "You're going to what?" he asks me, as if he's asking about the weather. He's neither intrigued nor intimidated by the aborted threat but there's more amusement than mockery in his gaze. I bare my teeth up at him just the same and his lips curl into a faint smirk that does nothing to ease the tightness in my pants. "I didn't think so."

    "He thinks he's a wise guy," I taunt him, sliding my hands across smooth skin. "Oh well. Maybe you've earned the delusion by now."

    "Maybe," he agrees, and then his mouth is on my skin.

    It's kind of funny- in a startling sort of way- that every touch here is so sure. We've spent the last several months battling time and visions and a power greater than our own; it's been months since we were last together. I've done little but doubt Crawford ever since Farfarello first spread his adamant distrust to me upon waking and the Council did their best to drive the wedge in deeper. But all doubts are forgotten in these minutes; there's not a single fumbling move between us.

    …since Farfarello first…? I make a note to talk to him later; my annoyed growl is muffled against Crawford's shoulder and he doesn't bother to ask where that spike of irritation came from. A well-placed hand is enough to squish those black thoughts before they can get in the way of this and I forcibly tuck it all away to focus on this.

    Cloth rustles as it's removed and our skin is already sticky from where the heat we're generating has seeped through the threads. We slide against each other, with each other, fingers and lips and teeth. My hands on his chest; his kiss at my temple. Dark strands of hair sticking to his face, mussed already from my fingers, and my hair plastered to my back and the pillow. It's going to be a pain to brush later.

    A murmured warning against my lips; I grit my teeth behind our kiss at the bit of pain. It doesn't last- can't last- and neither can this heat and pleasure and carnal rhythm, but I still push as far as it can go. Me and him and Mastermind and Oracle and I can almost imagine the smirks on our faces when he pulls the trigger for both of us some unknown number of years from now. Funny thing, to be thinking about our joint-suicide as everything comes to a head. I can hear the gunshot somewhere in the strangled groan I lose against his throat.

    I smell blood as the mattress shifts and move a little to let Crawford onto the sheets beside me, but I don't see any red beneath my fingernails. I look over at him and he gazes back calmly, looking years younger with his hair messy and his glasses nowhere in sight. I offer his shoulder a small nibble where it's pressed against mine and roll onto my side to try and help us fit better. My mouth is open for some sort of triumphant spiel but the words are forgotten when moving brings on a wave of dizziness so thick I can't move. Crawford sees it in the expression on my face and doesn't look at all surprised.

    "You just came out of the hospital three days ago," he reminds me. "You've been running on the Council's adrenaline."

    "Ikida was preaching the benefits of sleep," I send back, lifting one slightly unsteady hand to brush sticky orange hair out of my face. "Next time I see him, I'll be sure to let him know that brushes with death work just as well in getting a sick body moving again."

    "I doubt he'll find the humor in it," Crawford tells me, and he lets his eyes fall closed. I stare at his face for a long minute, memorizing and rememorizing the way it looks, but my sickness is catching up with me and I close my eyes against the black that's eating at the corners of my vision. Maybe sleep isn't such a bad idea right now.

    I'm almost under when I hear Crawford's murmured "Relapse". It makes no sense to me but I'm too far gone to question it. I barely hear the "Don't do it." and then there's nothing but darkness.

    It's twelve hours later before I wake up, a sure enough sign that my body needed to crash. I consider Crawford where he's lying beside me, taking a moment to feel pleased that he came back to this bed after he got up earlier. The moment fades when I realize he never got up- if he had, he would have gotten dressed. My mouth pulls into an uneasy frown as I consider that and I press a hand against his chest to feel the way it moves evenly in sleep.

    'Relapse', he'd said, and I turn that over in my head. Crawford has been lagging just a bit ever since he got sick. The GBS hit hard and it took forever to recover physically from it, but he went straight from that to throwing everything he had into the mental fight against the Council. I remember his migraines and carefully hidden exhaustion. Throw Hoffmann's abuse into the picture and Crawford hasn't been at his best in a long time. And then that fight by the sea… We survived, but at a serious cost to all of us. Crawford checked out almost immediately to take care of Rosenkreuz clean-up even though Ikida didn't want him to leave.

    Crawford didn't visit us often in those two months in part because he was busy with Rosenkreuz, but I wonder if another factor was that he needed time to try and heal. I still haven't harassed him about that, I remember, and I make a note to do it in the morning. For now, though… I've just figured out what his "Don't do it" was for, but I'm content to ignore the warning and I lean over to leave a hickey high on his neck. It looks good against his skin; almost as good as I do where our limbs are tangled together on the sheets.

    I've just woken up from twelve hours of sleep, but my body has no problem with dozing off again. I don't bother to fight it but fall asleep to the sound of Crawford breathing.


    I start thinking that something more is out of place when Crawford is still in bed at nine. I only managed to sleep until four when I went back to bed last night, but some sleeping pills in the cabinet helped get an extra five hours in. I feel a little ill from sleeping so much but I didn't want to get on a different schedule than Crawford. Apparently I wasted a few hours of my life, and I arch an eyebrow at Crawford where he's gazing off into the distance from his spot on my bed.

    "Relapse, hm?" I ask. "Good one."

    "It is a relapse," he assures me, calm as ever despite the fact that he's been lying here since yesterday morning. "Ikida warned me it could happen."

    I realize then what he's talking about and push myself up on my arm. "The veggie disorder," I say, and he focuses on my face at last. I grimace and wave a hand in front of his face. I'm a little surprised- but more relieved- when he lifts one hand from the sheet to catch my wrist. I'm glad he's moving when I didn't think he could, but his grip is almost loose enough to slip off. "Can you sit up?"

    "Most likely," he answered.

    "You can't see?" I taunt him.

    He ignores that and lets go of my hand, and I watch as he oh-so-carefully props his hand against the bed. It'd probably be easier for him if he was on his side, but he has to get onto it before he can get up. His expression is flawlessly neutral as he eases himself onto his side and I know better than to touch him as he pushes himself into a sitting position. That seems to take it out of him- as soon as he's upright, he's sagging backwards against the wall.

    I tug on my tangled hair, considering him. "At least you can move," I point out.

    "There is that," he agrees dryly.

    Ikida's warning is buried under so much junk that I don't blame myself for forgetting about it. Too much has happened and as far as Schwarz was concerned, Crawford was healed. But he'd sat down with me and Hoffmann the day Crawford's lungs gave out and warned us that a number of GBS survivors suffered small relapses in the future. I guess everything finally caught up to Crawford, but at least he managed to get to this point before having a minor collapse. I can't imagine what would happen if the Council knew.

    "Somehow I think you lasted this long out of spite," I comment. "The timing is too convenient. What have you been doing, pushing yourself on caffeine and sheer will alone?"

    "There was never an opportune moment before."

    "Opportune…" I scowl at him before scooting closer, pushing sheets out of the way so I can prop myself against him. My forearms brace the wall to either side of his head to keep me from flattening him between the wall and me and I tilt my head to one side to admire the reddish mark on his neck. A little of my fun is ruined when I realize that Crawford's likely to be too unstable to go out until after this has healed, and I lean in to offer the mark a small nip. "You've got to be the most arrogant bastard I've ever met."

    "You're not the first to accuse me of such a thing," Crawford answers easily. "I told you not to do that."

    "I ignored you," I point out, and I lean back to eye him. "Ikida's going to fuss at you when he finds out you overstepped your limits."

    "He is busy with Farfarello," the precog says. "This will pass."

    I offer him a slow smile. "But Farfarello's such a boring patient, Crawford. He just lies there, and he's not even the medical emergency you were when you were crashing at the ward. I'm sure Ikida would love to poke at you some more. Word is that the two of you go way back."

    "Twenty-two years," Crawford answers.

    I blink at him. "You're old," I decide. "Good thing we're going to die young, because I'm not going to be the one pushing around your wheelchair when you relapse yourself into a bed-wetting senior citizen."

    He pushes me for that remark and I don't have time to grab hold of him. My annoyance is muffled by the sheets when I fall back into them and Crawford eases himself up from the wall. I eye him from where I'm sprawled out on the bed, offering him a smirk at the slow way he's moving.

    "Going somewhere?" I ask.

    "Nowhere of consequence."

    "Nowhere fast, anyway," I point out. "Really, you should just give in and stay in bed." He doesn't bother to answer that but slides towards the edge of the bed, and I let him get there before reaching out to snag an arm around his waist. "Your plans for world domination can be done right here, you know. You can't do anything about Nagi until he reports back to us and Farfarello's not really going anywhere. The ball's in Nagi's court. We have lots of time to waste."

    "I've seen what happens when you're bored, Schuldich."

    "I think I can keep us entertained." I slip a hand across his thigh but he catches it and sets it neatly off to one side. I glance up at him but he doesn't notice; he's looking for his glasses. I don't like being ignored, but when I go to poke him, he catches my hand again. "Spoilsport."

    "One step at a time," is all he says.

    "Is that a response to me or a motivational speech to yourself to somehow get to your feet?"

    He ignores me. I see his hands tighten just briefly against the sheets before he eases himself to his feet, and I wonder how he can make a move look graceful when it takes everything he has to get there. Damn bastard. A part of me wants to reach out and push him over just because I know he couldn't stop me, but I can't find the last bit of interest it would take to pick my hand up from the mattress.

    He makes his way out of the room and I hear the bathroom door click shut. It's so very Crawford, to get up from a relapse that left him unconscious for some twenty-odd hours and wander into a shower. Then again… I eye the sheets and scratch idly at one bare arm. I guess we could both use a bit of cleaning up.

    The thought brings a small smirk to my lips and I glance towards the doorway, wondering if I'd actually make it through the door to "help" Crawford with his shower before he shut it in my face. The sound of a lock clicking into place answers that question and I don't know whether to laugh at how predictable he is or to scowl at the neatly aborted thoughts. He's going to be cranky in his special Crawford way for a couple days now that he's sick, so I guess I'll just do my best to toe at his last nerve instead of stepping on it. It wouldn't do to finally get him in my bed and then piss him off back to his own.

    ~He's sick,~ Farfarello's voice says, sliding easily through my debating.

    /You feel his drop-out?/ I flick back. He offers the mental equivalent of an affirmative grunt and I sigh, raking my hair out of my face and kicking the sheets aside. /He's been pushing it; it was bound to come back and bite him on the ass. Good thing you don't live here, hm?/

    I swear I can feel him smile against my mind, a cold little expression.

    /Where's Ikida?/ I want to know, because I can't feel him.


    /Why do we even keep you around?/ I wonder, and I get up from the bed to go in search of Crawford's glasses. It takes me a minute to find them on the counter in the hall and I swing them back and forth from my fingers as I dig through the cabinets. They're not empty, but there's not much in there that catches my fancy. Looks like we're going to have to go shopping. I make a note to find us a job where we can have catering service again. /When he gets back, tell him to call us. I don't know if I'll be out of his range./

    ~You tell him,~ Farfarello sends back.

    /Did you catch the 'I might be out of range' comment?/

    There's a long pause before Farfarello answers. ~This city is your range.~

    I grimace up at the cabinets and click the doors back into place. I'd kept my issues with my shields away from my younger teammates because I didn't want them to know, but… /Was,/ I say at length. /The range has shifted a bit. Just tell him for me, all right?/

    ~Mm,~ is his unhelpful response, and his voice falls away.


    It's three hours later before Ikida calls Crawford's cell. The precog has fallen asleep at his desk where he was trying to think about his missing vision but I help myself to the phone when I see whose name it is. It's kind of pathetic that there's a little bit of thrill in answering his phone; it's one of those so-called 'taboo' things around Schwarz. Crawford's things are Crawford's things and off-limits, and all that. Whatever.

    "Yo," I greet.

    There's a startled pause before Ikida answers and I step into our small hallway and slide the bedroom door shut. "Schuldich?" he asks at last. "This is Crawford's number."

    "No, really?" I feign shock. "He's asleep right now."

    "Asleep," Ikida echoes, and I know he's looking at his watch. He finds the announcement as weird as anyone who knows Crawford would. Twenty-two years. Jesus. I'm twenty-two years old; they've known each other for all of my life. "Your teammate finally decided to speak to me, but all he said after two months of silence was to call you. He wouldn't say why."

    "Crawford's having a minor relapse of some sort," I tell him.

    "Symptoms?" Ikida wants to know, and it's an eerie reminder of when I had to call the hospital to report Crawford's collapse. This was how it started, wasn't it?- with Crawford sleeping all the time. It sends a chill down my spine just to think about it.

    "So far not much except that he's getting a good start on hibernation," I answer, fiddling with the coffee pot as I debate whether or not to start some. In the end I do, because if I don't drink it all, Crawford could probably use some whenever he decides to wake up. "Tell me that this is normal," I order him. "Tell me that he's not going to start it all over again."

    "It will be fine, Schuldich," Ikida assures me, and I believe him because I've never had a reason not to. "He can't go through that again. What he's experiencing now are just the side-effects I warned you about. Fatigue is the most common, but don't be alarmed if he has pain or tingling in the limbs." He considers that for a moment. "Would he tell you?" he asks.

    I want to scoff at that question, but I'm scowling down at the coffee filters instead. Ikida just put into words the annoyed thought that was already forming in my head. "No," I answer shortly. Crawford can't hide fatigue, but if anything else starts acting up, it'd have to get really bad before I'd be able to pick up on it. He wouldn't ever look at me and say 'My arm hurts'. He just doesn't have it in him to whine like I do.

    "Perhaps Farfarello could keep an eye on him," Ikida suggests. "If you talk to him- for he doesn't seem at all interested in listening to me-"

    "No," I interrupt him flatly. "No. Farfarello's gift stays in his own head. He's not Crawford's doctor."

    Ikida accepts that in silence and I hear papers rustling on his end. "We will meet him on his terms, then," he tells me. "I will get his prescriptions ready for him, if you could pick them up later today. Then he has them on hand in case he should need them, and he will not have to go through anyone else."

    "Right," I murmur, and a few pokes of my finger have the coffee pot ready and started towards brewing.

    "He will be fine," Ikida offers. "This is Crawford we're talking about."

    "I'm not worried," I tell him loftily.

    "Of course not," Ikida returns easily, not believing me for a second. "But he will be fine," he says again. "And you will be there to keep an eye on him. Perhaps Nagi can help. Crawford would be less likely to suspect the boy of spying on him."

    Nagi… I grimace. "No one told you?" I ask, and I hear Ikida's papers settle down. "Ikida, how do you exist in such an apathetic state? You saw what we did to Sakura yesterday."

    "Tomoe?" Ikida guesses.

    "Same thing. You saw what happened here and you didn't even think to ask anyone?"

    "I don't question Crawford," Ikida answers. "I knew he would tell me at some point."

    "I'm sure Crawford cries himself to sleep that I'm not such a drone of a subordinate," I send back at him, wondering whether to be grateful for his blind faith or mildly disgusted that he's content to be left in the dark. "You can't tell me you weren't dying of curiosity over there."

    "I was part of Rosenkreuz," Ikida reminds me. "It wasn't my place to question orders coming from the top, and I learned quickly that it was better not to ask too many questions of my superiors. Since you've asked, though, yes. I would like an explanation for that."

    I look back towards the bedroom door, then decide that Crawford would have left a little sticky note somewhere for me if I wasn't supposed to tell Ikida. I'd probably demand a good reason to keep the doctor in the dark if he had left one, anyway. Ikida killed one of the Council for us; he watched us turn the Council and the Elders on their heads and he's sat patiently by, trusting us. And who else to drag into this but Ikida, who helped manufacture that serum junk here in Japan?

    The coffee pot gurgles in front of me and I lift down a mug, tapping it against my temple as I try and figure out where to start.

    "We have a small problem," I say at last.

Part 12
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