Part Seven

    None of the three Councilmen are smiling when they step through the door into our reserved room, and I decide to hold that against them. Sure, I couldn't expect for them to be happy about coming all this way to meet us, but it's not like we want them here, either. I decide to write off some of their apparent irritation as a lack of sleep. I think they've tried their best to hide it, but it's glaringly obvious that they've been missing sleep these past couple of months. I guess we left them quite a mess to clean up, but really, they should be thanking us for their abrupt promotions.

    Crawford is the last in and he seats himself between Nagi and me only after our three "guests" have sat. I've been following them here since they came into my range, but Crawford didn't send me a message to tell us to stand for their entrance. With the previous Council, respect was automatic, and I would never dare to meet Hoffmann sitting down. With these three… Hah. Maybe that's another reason for their sour looks, since I'm propped up on my elbows on my back when they walk in. Uptight bastards.

    We sit in silence as the waitresses come in with our meal. As soon as the Council started this way I told the staff to start dinner cooking, so the timing is as perfect as it could be. One of the men looks idly interested in the strange and colorful foods set before him; one looks absolutely repulsed. The other hasn't stopped staring at Crawford and I'm starting to feel a little territorial.

    At last the women leave, bowing and wishing us a pleasant meal, the door clicks softly shut behind them. I take that as a cue to sit up and instead lean forward to prop my elbows on the table, chin in my hands. That's enough to draw their eyes to me and I offer them a smile in greeting, lifting both pinkies from my cheek to waggle them in a hello. That impresses them even less, and I scratch out a mental scoreboard with me in the lead.

    "Councilmen," Crawford says, saying nothing about my posture. I wonder how this is going to go, with him fighting a hierarchy he's been part of all his life. It seems promising already, if he's going to be the one who watches himself but he lets Nagi and me do what we like. The precog flicks us a mental note, identifying each of the men before us, and I finally have faces to go with the names he told me in our bond room this morning. "Schwarz formally welcomes you to Japan."

    "Not all of Schwarz," Miguel says. "Your Talentless is missing."

    /Talentless?/ I ask Crawford.

    ~Apparently I forgot to inform them that he's an empath,~ is Crawford's bored response.

    'Forgot'. I smirk into my cup.

    "And instead," Adrian says, turning a beady look on me, "you brought this along. We specifically requested that you leave your telepath at home."

    "You did," Crawford agrees.

    Silence stretches across the table and at last I see Ricard smile. It's a thin expression, amused but wary. He leans forward to prop one elbow on the table and cradles his cheek in his hand. The other hand curves around his cup and stubby fingernails tap out an irregular rhythm. "So this is the man we lost to?" he muses, considering me, and he offers me a smile that's a little more real. "What trouble you've caused us these many years. The Council would have preferred it if you'd died in that fight."

    "If you're waiting for an apology, you're not getting it," I tell him, and Adrian turns an accusing stare on Crawford for my rudeness. "I like being alive."

    "Of course," Ricard answers. "It's an honest answer, so here's some honesty back. We have had cause to dislike you ever since you first showed up in Rosenkreuz. Not only did you distract Herr Hoffmann from his daily tasks, but you also drove your precognitive mad. We hold you responsible for the fall of the Council and Estet."

    "I'm flattered, but I don't think Schwarz appreciates the fact that you left them out of the glory. I wasn't alone on that beach and I'm not the one who saw it coming." I tilt my cup at him in a mocking toast and drain it. Ricard, looking a bit less than amused, tilts his cup in return and drinks.

    "You're a telepath," Miguel says, as if that explains everything.

    It takes me a moment to catch on and then I start laughing into what's left of my water. Crawford takes my cup away and sets it back down while I try and catch my breath. "Are you serious?" I ask. "You think I made Crawford do that?"

    "Crawford is Seraphim's son," Miguel starts.

    "And she died looking into my future," Crawford reminds him neatly. "Schuldich has never been able to break through my shields."

    "He's the same rank Nikolai was," Adrian says flatly, "and Nikolai could."

    "I will rephrase that, then," Crawford amends. "Schuldich never would."

    "You sound so sure," Miguel sneers at him.

    "Nikolai didn't care for what was inside those shields," Crawford explains. "All he cared about was the date of his own death. The rest was nonsense, which is why the Council sided against him in the end. Schuldich has been raised as Schwarz, a team that centers around my visions of the future."

    "Maybe you've forgotten," Ricard tells Crawford. "You have a history of letting telepaths in when it's to your own advantage. How can you prove that you would not have let Schuldich in to rearrange things like you allowed Nikolai?"

    "You have a history of killing Councilmen for your own greed," Adrian reminds him heatedly.

    Crawford offers him a faint smile. "The former Five have benefited from my so-called greed this time around."

    "And the last," Ricard points out off-handedly. "Hoffmann became Council and you became the Five in the wake of Nikolai's death. It was much more efficient that way."

    Adrian sends him a flat look for such a tactless response and Ricard just shrugs. "We didn't all benefit," Adrian says stiffly. "You killed one of our own."

    "She killed herself," Crawford points out.

    "Schwarz is not a reliable witness to the events of that day."

    "Take it or leave it, Councilman," Crawford answers, and dead silence follows that. "We are the only survivors."

    I note that he's leaving Ikida out of this and I decide that's a good thing, and then make another mental note to find out who Nikolai is after all of this. Crawford referred to him briefly as a Councilman earlier and they've said enough to make it obvious he was a telepath, but that doesn't explain what Crawford did to him or why he let another telepath into his shields. I find myself heavily annoyed by that revelation and I switch from water to sake.

    At last the Council recovers from Crawford's rude response and Ricard points at me, eyes on the precognitive. "The point is, you cannot prove that he had nothing to do with this, and you've only slapped the Council in the face by having him present here tonight when we asked you to leave him at home."

    "You mean you're afraid I'm here to work through your shields," I tell him, and Adrian and Miguel turn hostile looks on me. "You'd feel it if I touched your mind if you're worth your rank."

    Miguel's smile is all ice. "If you do," he tells me, "you'll be dead in a heartbeat."

    "This meeting is not meant to start a war," Crawford speaks up, and he turns a calm look on the Councilmen.

    /Shouldn't you have cleared this all up, say, two months ago?/ I send at Crawford.

    ~It has been a while since anyone in Rosenkreuz had to deal with telepaths,~ Crawford answers. ~You're not a trusted breed.~

    ~I wonder why,~ is Nagi's dry response.

    /And somehow I get stuck being blamed for everything that happened on the beach?/

    ~*I* didn't make the call,~ Nagi points out.

    /Nice show of support there, brat. Go fuck Tot or something. Better yet, don't. Ugh, lost my appetite./

    My toes are promptly crushed inside my shoes and I grit my teeth against a curse. Luckily none of the Councilmen see the twitch in my expression; they're too busy staring down Crawford for his words. I pour Crawford a bit of sake and empty my second little cup before waggling the bottle at Ricard. "I'll simplify this for you, then. I can't get through his shields, period, unless he lets me through. If I *could*, he and I would still be having sex."

    "Tact, Schuldich, tact," Crawford tells me.

    Adrian's expression twists in disgust. "We read in your files that you two were terminated as a couple."

    "They keep files on that?" I ask Crawford.

    "All Talent relationships are reported to the Five to be judged," he answers. "It disrupts the balance in a team, so it is something that must be approved."

    "The Five are not supposed to be in relationships," Miguel tells Crawford. "You expect us to think you didn't kill Hoffmann out of any sort of insubordination? You started breaking the rules the moment you indulged in such disgusting activities and-"

    I slam the bottle down against the table so hard it shatters. Rice wine spills in all directions and for one moment, it's the only thing that's moving in this room. I fix sharp green eyes on Miguel and I can feel my lips curve into a smile that's as far from friendly as it can get.

    "Say that again," I invite him.

    "Hoffmann approved the relationship," Crawford says, as calm as always.

    "He made a habit of bending the rules for you," Adrian says. "It led to his downfall. His trust in you killed him."

    "The Council's trust in Estet led to its downfall," Crawford returns. "I called the Council to Japan to explain that, if you would stop throwing accusations at my telepath long enough to listen. The Council died that day because they had to, but Estet was the real target. Will you listen now?"

    They don't rush to answer that, but at length Ricard motions for Crawford to explain. I stuff my face as he tells them the same story he told me earlier, and I spare half a mind to listen to Nagi's reaction to such a tale. I'd rather listen in on the Councilmen, but I'm not feeling particularly suicidal today. Maybe tomorrow. Either way, I give the Council credit for not interrupting Crawford a single time either with arguments or stupid questions. They just listen to everything he has to say and it hits me somewhere along the way that they're still used to listening to Crawford as an equal despite Crawford's explanation that this is the second time they've outranked him. I guess it's just natural instinct in all humans to listen to him.

    Crawford gives them time to think things over and the four of them start on their meals. Nagi, like me, has already cleared his plate. I wonder who's picking up the tab. Common sense says it's us, because who calls the Council of Rosenkreuz to Japan and then makes them buy their own food? I think it'd be funny, but I don't think Crawford would agree. Even still, we've been unemployed for a while and busy racking up hospital bills. I generously decide Crawford can pay for the hospital and I'll get dinner. I tell him so in a mental aside and he ignores me.

    At last Adrian pushes himself to his feet and digs a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He points it at Crawford. "You come with me," he says flatly, and he starts for the door. Crawford gets up a little more gracefully and follows him out. Miguel watches them go but Ricard keeps his eyes on us.

    /What do you think, Farfarello?/ I send towards our absent Irishman.

    ~They're not afraid of you,~ he answers. ~Not really, not like you were afraid of Hoffmann.~

    /Hey, stick to useful comparisons, okay?/ I send back, annoyed at that blunt evaluation.

    ~It is useful,~ he answers. ~They still trust him.~

    /There's a shocker./ My tone is sarcastic but it is a bit of a surprise that they can still find some bit of faith in him after all we've done. /They think it's my fault,/ I tell Farfarello, since I don't know if he can tell just where all of the emotions are going right now. /They think I brainwashed Crawford into the Council's demise./

    ~Maybe you did,~ Farfarello answers, sounding bored.

    /Maybe Hoffmann shouldn't have taken you from us if he'd wanted to die of old age,/ I return easily, and Farfarello has no answer to that. Crawford has always known that Farfarello's abduction was the final piece it took for me to side with his insane visions. Before Hoffmann took our Berserker and locked a collar around his throat I would never have been able to do it, no matter what Crawford said about the future. I knew better than to ever defy Hoffmann, though that had finally started to shake when he talked so easily about terminating Crawford for his illness. It was one thing when Hoffmann was taking everything out on me, but once he spread to my team…

    Of course, if I'd known then what he'd done to Crawford… But "what if"s don't matter in this sort of situation. The fact of the matter is still that he took our Irishman from us and I told Crawford it was war.

    I'm shaken from my thoughts when Miguel gets up and three pairs of eyes watch him head for the door. Ricard's eyes are half-lidded as he watches his companion leave and I wonder whether to be amused that he's not afraid to be left alone with two of Schwarz- especially when they think I'm responsible for Crawford's so-called betrayal.

    "I want a moment with your telepath," Ricard says, looking back at Nagi.

    ~Schuldich?~ Nagi asks.

    /Go find us more sake or something. I can handle a measly electrokinetic./

    ~Measly,~ Nagi sends back, but he's getting to his feet and dusting himself off. He toes into his shoes at the door and closes the door behind him, leaving the two of us alone.

    We stare each other down across the table and Ricard seems content to just study me in silence for a long minute. At last he pushes his plate to one side and props his elbow on the table again. "Your precognitive has always been the largest source of our migraines," he says. "Whether it turns out to be true or not, that story he told sounds a lot like him. It rings of his arrogance."

    I say nothing to that, but Ricard doesn't seem to care. "So you're who he gave us up for," he muses, raking his free hand through his hair. "It just confirms our suspicions that he was going mad, but at the same time…"

    "At the same time?"

    "Speaking for myself only, I'm glad you survived." He offers me a slight smile and I don't miss the tight edge to it. "And still speaking for myself, in the capacity of just one of the Councilmen, I have a favor to ask you: don't die."

    I arch an eyebrow at him. "I don't know…" I say slowly, as if I'm not sure I can handle such a task.

    He snorts into his hand. "No other Talent dares talk to us like that," he says.

    "Rosenkreuz Talents respect you," I say, and that's all I have to say. I let that sink in, what it really means about Schwarz, and at last I see a glint in Ricard's eyes. "First you blame Schwarz for killing the Council, then you blame me for putting Crawford up to it, and now you tell me you want me alive. Why?"

    /How're we doing, Farfarello?/

    ~They're unhappy,~ he says.

    /Very eloquent, Farf./ He ignores me and I decide to return the favor.

    "There are two reasons we blame you for the fall of the Council, no matter what Crawford has said," Ricard tells me. "The first is obvious: your gift. The second is one that the previous Council knew and we learned only when we read Schwarz's files last month. With as crippled and twisted as Crawford's gift is, he should never have been able to see enough to orchestrate such a betrayal unless you were the driving factor."

    I blink at him. "Come again? He's a level eight."

    "Ninety percent of what he sees is you."

    I don't have a witty response for that, or even a dumb one. I can just stare back at him in startled silence, and Ricard's smile has that tight edge to it again. "Eight is a rank every power wants to reach, and he more than earned it years ago. We watched his gift rise and break and rise again, and everyone in Rosenkreuz knows he earned his eight when he broke his sight some seven or eight years ago. But how can we still call him an eight if his visions are focused on you and not our future?"

    "His sight," I say, pressing for an explanation, because he's not talking about Crawford's visions.

    Ricard ignores that. "It chills me to the bone to think he could have still destroyed the Council and Estet with just that remaining ten percent," he tells me, jabbing a finger at my face. "The only way it can be explained is because you are his teammate, but even the thought of him seeing such a thing through seeing you is still too much to take on good faith. You're his filter for the future and I think I'm glad to know that his gift is too busy watching you if he could still see so much. I don't want to know what it would be like if his visions were free. Even still, I would rather him have something more reliable than a half-mad telepath."

    "I'm only a quarter mad," I say, just to piss him off.

    It works; that smile is gone. "Your file says you're twenty-two," Ricard tells me. "Maybe you're a third mad by now. Has he told you when you're dying yet? He wouldn't tell Nikolai, either."

    I do not like the track this conversation has taken, but I refuse to react to those words in front of him. "Nikolai was a telepath?" I ask, although I already know.

    "Nikolai was Councilman before Herr Hoffmann. Crawford let him die."

    "He already said Nikolai had to die so Hoffmann could take the Five," I point out. "It was somewhere in that ramble he spat out a few minutes ago."

    "Nikolai died because he wanted to know his deathday," Ricard answers. "Crawford let him break his shields because he knew the Council would side against an insane telepath. They picked Crawford over one of their own."

    "Crawford's shields can't be broken."

    Ricard looks amused at that bit of denial, amused in the sort of way a bully looks when he hands a crying kid back his slashed ball. "He let them break," he says. "He used Nikolai to get his sight back, and then let him die. He used Hoffmann to get power and then killed him. He used you to get rid of the Council and Estet. Now that he's accomplished that, what good are you?"

    "I'm a sane telepath," I tell him.

    "What happens when you lose your mind, telepath? Do you suppose he'll still be there?"

    I offer him a cold smile. "He'll be there," I say, "with a gun to end it all. Is there a fucking point to this? I think you lost it somewhere along the way in your ranting."

    "This Council is not going to be used, Schuldich," Ricard tells me, a firm warning. "You keep that in mind and you stay alive. If ninety percent of his visions are centered on you, then I don't want to see what happens when you're taken out of the picture. Either his gift will blow up to unimaginable heights or he's going to lose it. If he *can't* work his gift without you in the picture… Have you ever seen a precognitive's mind shatter, telepath? It's a bit more devastating than your own madness will be. Will be, I say, because both yours and his ends are a definite insanity."

    "Fuck off and die," I say flatly, and the door rattles open.

    Adrian and Crawford let themselves back into the room into the almost violent tension between Ricard and myself and bring only more unspoken hatred with them. When Nagi and Miguel return together a minute later, it's too tense in there for any of us to sit through without thoughts of mass murder. The last thing Schwarz wants is to get involved in another war with Rosenkreuz, so just a few minutes later, Crawford dismisses Nagi and me with the announcement that he'll bring the Council to their hotel room.

    I'm not planning to take the subway home like Nagi is, but I still lead him outside and start down the street. He follows me without questioning, unable to match my fast stride but managing to keep up just the same. I'm only half aware of the fact that I'm walking; my thoughts are too caught up on Ricard's words to me and the memory of my insane parents screaming at each other and the voice in their heads. I think of losing a year at Rosenkreuz, and then days at a time afterwards, and Crawford telling me I would never remember what happened in those lost bits of time. I think of my frayed shields and the voices still on repeat somewhere beneath the chaos pressing hard into my skull and I taste blood.

    There's a bottle in my hand and I realize I've just taken it from a drunk salaryman. I see his startled face but I'm already turning, hurling the bottle as hard as I can towards the glass storefront to my left. Glass shatters all over the sidewalk like glitter and ice and everything lurches to a still on the sidewalk. Nagi's hand is on my elbow as he drags me away from there and I let him pull me into the evening shadows.

    He misses the last train; he stays with me instead. When Crawford pulls the car up to the curb we're a dozen blocks away from where we started and we're sitting several feet apart on the sidewalk near a convenience store. Nagi gets into the back and I take the passenger seat, and no one talks on the long drive out to his place.

    Later, much later, I'll realize I could never ask Crawford if he knew what would be waiting for us there.

Part 8
Back to Mami's Fics