Part Three

    Crawford manages to make up for his surprise announcement that the Council is coming by showing up with coffee. He's holding it out to me even as he steps through Farfarello's doorway and I wonder if I'm that predictable or if he just saw that life would be better for him if he brought caffeine. It doesn't really matter in the end as long as I have it, I guess, but I'm not so distracted by it that I miss the firm way Crawford closes the door behind himself.

    Calm honey-brown eyes study Farfarello, considering the casts and bandages. "Has Ikida given you your estimate?" he asks Farfarello. Farfarello just gazes back, but Crawford doesn't really give him more than a moment to answer. "He believes it will be another month before you can get to your own feet, but he's still worried about your spine. He would prefer to put you in a wheelchair first."

    The mental image of Farfarello in a wheelchair refuses to form and I flick a quick look towards my Irish teammate. I expect him to react with some sort of anger at what lies ahead of him, but the thoughts that flicker whisper-light across my ragged shields are almost coldly amused. Farfarello's lips quirk into another faint smile. I eye him warily across the room, tilting my paper coffee cup to one side so I can see past it to his face.

    /Hey, at least you'll be mobile,/ I tell him. /Crawford had to do it, too./

    "I'm not Crawford," he tells me out loud.

    "Fancy that. Neither am I," I answer.

    Farfarello doesn't seem to notice. He's too busy staring down Crawford, who seems content to answer the silent challenge. I press up against both minds, noting the coolness in Crawford's and the ice in Farfarello's. I don't like what I'm getting from Farfarello's mind. Crawford and Farfarello have always had a pretty much predictable relationship. No matter what, Farfarello has always followed Crawford's lead. It's that simple- it always has been. Crawford's word was enough to get Farfarello on our team and it was enough to keep Farfarello in line after his run-in with Hoffmann. A warning from Crawford was enough to get Farfarello in the same room as Hoffmann again, and his sight was enough proof to back up my unwelcome news about Aine.

    They're not friends- the word sounds rather ridiculous when used on them- but they're teammates. Allies. Crawford was born to lead and Farfarello follows only those worth following. That doesn't mean Farfarello's a happy little subordinate. He plays the part better than I do, really, content to let others make the decisions as long as he gets to kill, but that doesn't mean he hasn't made an attempt on Crawford's life before. It's not anything personal against Crawford; it's just how Farfarello ticks. If Crawford ever stumbles, then Farfarello's predator instincts kick into play and Crawford's fair game. It's happened only a couple times now- once when we first took Farfarello on, the two or so times Crawford has been really sick, and then when Crawford's GB-whatnot started tearing him apart.

    All of that, I understand and accept. Crawford needs to be the best, and Farfarello won't tolerate anything less than that. If Farfarello wants to swing a knife at Crawford, more power to him, as long as Crawford wins.

    But this?

    This is unfamiliar. This is something new. Rather, it's that same old tension between them, but twisted and sharp in unwanted ways.

    "Can't we all just get along?" I ask mildly, an attempt at some sort of humor.

    It's enough- somehow. Farfarello pulls his gaze away from Crawford to look at me, and just like that, round one of the challenge is over. Farfarello gives a quiet little snort and closes his eye, supposedly tuning us out. Crawford takes that as a sign that he can get down to business and turns so that he can see both of us. I admire the profile in the moment before he starts speaking, and then I have to actually pay attention.

    "I don't want this out loud," Crawford tells me, and the bond flickers sharp between us as he slips onto it. Our physical proximity and the heavy transfer of his powers and his shields to the bond strengthens it, filling in the gaps around my messy shields. Farfarello follows him there at the same time I do, and it's good to see Farfarello standing upright in this room. He's propped against a nonexistent wall, slouched back against it with his arms folded over his chest. He ignores my glance, more intent on Crawford, and I shrug and turn on the prescient as well.

    "Schuldich is checking out today," Crawford tells us, although we both already know. "Ikida is working on the papers for your out processing. Schwarz has a lot of work to do in these upcoming months. I know you're not finished healing, but you can do the rest at our place. Farfarello, I know the apartment is still in your range. I found one that you could reach easily. Your primary responsibility is to heal, but that doesn't mean you'll be left out of what we're doing. We can't afford to let your gift sit here unused. Understood?"

    "Mm," Farfarello answers, sounding bored.

    "You two have a couple months to catch up on," Crawford says, and I materialize myself a chair so I can sit again. I wonder what it says about me that I'm so lazy that I have to be sitting even in the depths of my mind. "I have purposefully left the pair of you out of the immediate fallout with Rosenkreuz, but with the new Council coming to the country, you need to know what's going on."

    "Generous of you to finally share," I tell him, scooting my chair closer. On all of Crawford's short visits, he's given me jack about what's going on with Rosenkreuz. The most he's given me is what he told me last time- that Rosenkreuz has been coming by and that we were offered the Council's spots.

    He ignores me. "I called Rosenkreuz from the hospital the same night on the Five's private lines and explained to them what had happened."

    That's enough to get our attention; I see Farfarello straighten against his invisible wall. "You did what?" I ask, surprised.

    "It was the most sensible thing to do," Crawford answers.

    I rub at my temples. "It makes perfect sense," I mock him. "Farfarello's in pieces from head to toe, I was unconscious, you were… whatever… and you thought it would be smart to tell Rosenkreuz what had happened. Tell me, Crawford, were you and Nagi going to fight them off if the school had sent in reinforcements to kill us?"

    "Farfarello was still awake," Crawford points out, and I glare at him. "I wasn't planning on fighting anyone," he says. "I knew we were safe when I called. Rosenkreuz didn't know what shape any of us were in, but they knew we were all alive. A four-man team took on the Council and lived, Schuldich. Do you think Rosenkreuz would be so hasty to send someone else after us?"

    "I hate you," I decide.

    "Liar," Farfarello says, an absent little contradiction as he eyes Crawford.

    "Shut up," I send back at him, refusing to draw my own gaze away from our leader. "What did they say?"

    "They didn't take it very well," Crawford answers.


    "Fortunately for us," Crawford says, "not all of Estet was destroyed by the sea and their financial and political allies did not appreciate losing the Elders. All they knew was that Rosenkreuz had something to do with it. Estet and Rosenkreuz went to war and that was enough to distract them. Three-fourths of Rosenkreuz's teams have been hired out to Estet, but their primary loyalty is to Rosenkreuz. Rosenkreuz contacted them before Estet could react."

    "Rosenkreuz won," Farfarello guess.

    "Rosenkreuz has Talents," I say. "Of course it won."

    "I told them how to win," Crawford agrees. "When I called them to let them know what was going on, I told them how the backlash would move. Even still, there were losses on the Rosenkreuz side. Most importantly, Rosenkreuz's financial base collapsed. Estet provided eighty percent of Rosenkreuz's funding. All of the field teams had to transfer what money they had to help support a war, but it wasn't enough. For most of the past month Rosenkreuz was holding itself together by pins and needles."

    "You're rather informed for a traitor," I comment.

    "I was there for it," Crawford tells me.

    Dead silence follows that as Farfarello and I search for something intelligent to say. I look over at Farfarello, searching for inspiration, but there's nothing in his gaze as he looks back at me. Crawford gives us a minute to consider that.

    "You went to Rosenkreuz," I say at last.

    "I did. I talked to the Five about what had happened and what was coming, and I offered them my gift as an aid to keep Rosenkreuz from completely falling apart. They had a day to think it over before Estet would start realizing that there was something wrong in Asia and then I called them back." He takes his glasses from his face to pinch the bridge of his nose and I notice for the first time that he looks tired. Farfarello doesn't miss it, either, but I think he's too intent on this story to take advantage of it just yet.

    "They accepted under the conditions I went alone, and I went under the conditions that Schwarz's involvement was kept quiet. If the Talents knew that soon after the shock of losing the Council, they wouldn't listen to either the Five or myself and Rosenkreuz would never hold. The school has always been strongest when it is united under a single purpose."

    "I don't think I'm following this," I tell Crawford. "We killed Estet and the Council and kicked Rosenkreuz's legs out from under it, and then you went back and helped steady it? What the fuck?"

    Crawford considers me for a few moments in calm silence. "I have no desire to see Rosenkreuz fall," he says at length, a simple answer but not one I expected. "I was raised to protect it and I believe in it."

    "You were also raised to protect the Council," I point out.

    "Only if the Council was best for Rosenkreuz's future," Crawford answers. "We were raised for that fight, Schuldich, tailored from birth to be what we needed to be to take the Council on."

    "Since when do you believe in that cheesy junk?" I demand.

    Crawford says nothing for a long minute, lost in his own thoughts, and then answers at length, "I am my mother's son."

    That's the second mention of Crawford's mother in just the last week. "That's not a good answer."

    "It is the only answer," Crawford tells me, "and it is why the new Council is coming to Japan tonight."

    "Yes, let's jump to that." I push myself up from my chair and move towards him. "Explain that."

    "After the war with Estet, Rosenkreuz spent the next month strengthening its base again."

    "With your help, of course."

    "Of course," he answers a little too easily. "Once Rosenkreuz was finally stabilized, there was nothing else to do except find new leadership. That's when the truth about Schwarz came out. The Five announced it, but they declared that they were neither taking a side with or against us until they understood exactly what happened here. That is why Rosenkreuz's people came to ask us to be Council."

    It sounds like English, but it sure isn't making a lot of sense to me. "They were told of our actions and they turned around and voted for us? Why?"

    "Do you want that answer?" Crawford asks.

    "No, I asked it because I like hearing my own voice."

    "You do," Farfarello agrees.

    "Farfarello, shut up."

    "Me," Crawford answers simply. I just stare at him and Crawford gazes back calmly. "Schwarz is my unit. I am still Five Crawford. That is why."

    It has been years since I've heard "Five Crawford", but I know Crawford uses it on purpose here. It stirs up old memories, buried beneath all of this recent chaos, and takes me back to a time when there were just the two of us. Rosenkreuz… I don't remember much of the school and I had almost nonexistent contact with its teams once I left with Crawford. But "almost nonexistent" is still more than enough to remember.

    "China," I say, both to help myself remember and to tell Crawford I understand.

    --"Oracle." Watching a hand lift to cover his heart, a pledge of utter loyalty. An almost feverish devotion in those eyes and I know when I see it that it has nothing to do with saving his own skin. Crawford just killed a rabid pyrokinetic in the other room and these people love him for it. "To the Five. To the Council. To Rosenkreuz. To the future you bring us."--

    "You still killed the Council," I tell him, ignoring the way Farfarello is watching us as he tries to figure out what he's missed. "Even if you are still the Oracle and the Five, why would they have reason to trust you?"

    "That's a Rosenkreuz mentality," Crawford tells me, "and I don't think you would ever understand."

    I guess Ikida was right when he warned me that this wasn't something I would be able to keep up with. "You turned Rosenkreuz down," I tell him.

    "I knew Schwarz wouldn't want it," he answers, "and I know the Five did. I told them from the start that they would have to take the lead. The remaining three were officially inducted as the Council yesterday morning, and tonight they are landing here. Just because Schwarz was offered up as candidates doesn't mean everyone wanted it. They are uneasy regarding us. They trust us because they trust me, but they don't know what it means for one of the teams to take apart the Council. If we had ascended to the top, we would be viewed with more caution and than our predecessors. The Talents were uneasy with which way to swing- vocally supporting our betrayal could have gotten them killed, but there weren't many that were ready to easily dismiss a team strong enough to kill Hoffmann.

    "Now the Five are the Council, and it is up to them to put the school back together again. That cannot be done until they figure out what to do about us, however, which is why they are coming."

    "Foolish of them," Farfarello muses.

    "They are not to be harmed," Crawford answers.

    "No?" I ask.

    "I have already said that the school needs to stabilize. Killing off its newly elected leaders would accomplish only the opposite."

    "It's rather bold of them to come here on just your word," I tell him. "You could have just helped them steady the school for yourself. How do they know you're telling the truth?"

    "They don't," Crawford answers easily. "But they're coming just the same."

    "Foolish," Farfarello says again.

    "They are the Five," Crawford says, glancing back at him. "They think the same as I do: we live and die for Rosenkreuz's future."

    "Like killing the Council was for its future?" I demand.

    "It was," he answers, and I have nothing to say to that. I can just stare back at him as I struggle with that thought. Crawford turns away from Farfarello to face me, tucking his hands in his pockets as he considers my face. "That was a fight long in the making," he says, "even if I only realized it after we were assigned to Takatori. You told me that you wanted the Council to die. I gave you the option to make it happen. Your hatred wasn't the reason for it- it was simply what made it possible. I gave you the chance to kill the Council because I saw that it had to be done."

    A sharp retort would be welcome right now, but there's nothing there for me to grab hold of. Crawford, on the other hand, is perfectly fine with sharing this revelation and continues with the conversation. "This new Council is different. They are to stay in power, and we will allow them that. They will be good enough as interim leaders; they are all middle aged and will not last more than a decade. It is long enough for them to choose new Five and establish new contacts throughout the world."

    "There are three?" Farfarello asks. I guess he doesn't care that Crawford used our hatred of the Council like that.

    I mind very much. Not so much the fact that Hoffmann is dead, but the fact that Crawford had an ulterior motive that he never bothered to tell us. Words from years ago, from that same tumultuous day in China, whisper in my ear: "You are just a tool. We have one purpose in this world, and that is to use our gifts for the good of Rosenkreuz. You're just another step in the ladder."

    Crawford… wasn't lying. And Crawford's view has never changed. Through all of the years, through all of the trouble of the past few years, he has always stayed the same. And I've never been able to see it, because I would never understand. To me, it all makes perfect sense. Meet Hoffmann, be destroyed by Hoffmann, hate Hoffmann, kill Hoffmann. Rosenkreuz never factored into that. I have only ever cared about myself and my team. Crawford had a far different upbringing, but I never imagined that he would think of what we'd done in any other way.

    I… know nothing about Rozenkreuz.

    I wonder if I even know anything about Crawford.

    "Yes," Crawford answers Farfarello, either oblivious to the way I'm staring at him or just ignoring it in favor of his story. "Rosenkreuz was broken up into five segments: Europe, Africa, North America, South America, and Asia. This is important for you to know because it gives you an idea of how strong the Councilmen are. All of Rosenkreuz follows the Council, but the teams are divided up among the Five. When a Five ascends to Council, having a replacement Five take his spot eases the transfer of loyalty. Now, however, the teams have had no time to adjust to viewing all of the Five as equals. That works in our favor for the time being.

    "Ricard Sutton rules Africa, the smallest of the units. He is a rank seven electrokinetic. Rosenkreuz's teams know of him but not him. He also checks on the outlying lands, including Australia and such. Recently he has been trying to put teams on the ice caps for research purposes. Adrian Markinson is a level six sonic in charge of North America. Aine ruled Europe when she was chosen for the Five, but before she was chosen and in the months since her death, Adrian has ruled it."

    Farfarello says nothing about the casual mention of Aine's death, but the walls flicker gray around us just the same.

    "Miguel Sanchez is a level seven telekinetic in charge of South America and the islands around it," Crawford finishes up.

    "Asia?" Farfarello asks, though the process of elimination makes it obvious.

    "Asia is mine, from Russia east to Japan."

    "Is," Farfarello echoes.

    "I still hold my title," Crawford answers.

    "And the biggest pieces on the board," I say. It's just another reminder of why Crawford never understood what it meant to relax. Besides keeping our team moving, he was working with the rest of Rosenkreuz's teams under his jurisdiction. A part of me always knew that, but I was always too intent on my own entertainment to think about what Crawford was doing. "Who ran your teams while you were sick?"

    "Hoffmann," Crawford says, as if it should be obvious. "I was his successor."

    "Hoffmann's pet," Farfarello says.

    "Don't use that word," I warn him.

    Farfarello ignores me, intent on Crawford. "Why do you dislike Adrian?" he asks.

    "What makes you…" I start, but I trail off. Dumb question.

    No, not dumb question. Farfarello can read through Crawford's shields?

    I flick a quick look at Crawford, but he's looking at Farfarello. He has no immediate answer for the Irishman. Instead he's wearing that patented smooth look that usually means trouble, and their little spat picks up exactly where it left off at the start of this whole conversation. Farfarello's slouched against the wall again but his gaze is intent as he stares at the precognitive, and I realize that Farfarello didn't want an answer to his question. He simply wanted Crawford to know that he can see through him.

    I have the distinct feeling that Crawford doesn't like that little heads-up.

    "It's what he had, isn't it?" Farfarello asks. "But I'm taking far less."

    "I would appreciate it if you took nothing," Crawford answers.

    "Can you stop me?" Farfarello wants to know, pushing himself away from the wall and starts walking towards Crawford. No, not walking. It's definitely a stalk, and although I know Crawford can hold his ground easily, I move towards Crawford as well.

    "Would you like to find out?" Crawford asks.

    "You couldn't stop him from taking what he wanted," Farfarello says, but it's more of an observation than a challenge. "Could you?"

    "He was the Council," Crawford answers. "I was his Five."

    "His pet," Farfarello says.

    "Does that make you mine?" Crawford asks, and Farfarello comes to a stop right in front of the precog. I stand just a short distance off to their sides, flicking my eyes back and forth between them. Farfarello's expression is cold in the wake of such easy words, but Crawford doesn't seem to notice.

    "It isn't the same," Farfarello accuses him quietly.

    "No?" Crawford asks. "I did whatever Hoffmann told me to because that was my place. Hoffmann was the Council and the Council was charged with the responsibility of moving Rosenkreuz to a strong future. If he told me to kill, I killed. If he were to put me in harm's way, I would go without regrets. Is that not the same as what you have demonstrated with Schwarz? I give you the target and you deliver. I warn you that you will take the downfall for Ouka's death because Schuldich will be unable to and we need it to happen. You accept that almost immediately after it is explained. How are we different?"

    "How?" Farfarello asks, and that creepy smile appears on his face again. It's slow as it curves his lips and I feel something in my mind twist, feel something in me warn me that I don't want to know what he's about to say. "There's a very crucial difference. Isn't there?" He lifts his hand to his mouth, pressing his fingertips to his lips before biting down hard on his thumb. His gaze never wavers from Crawford's face but he takes a few steps back- moving, I realize, to where he can better see the both of us at once. "Tell me, Crawford."

    "That's enough."

    There's a very final note in Crawford's voice and I flick a quick look at him. Crawford's smooth expression has given way to stone and I realize that he's caught on to whatever Farfarello is talking about. I look back at Farfarello in time to see him smile again.

    "Tell me," Farfarello invites him again. "What did letting him fuck you have to do with Rosenkreuz's future?"

Part 4
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