Part Eight

    Nagi was right about his place being away from the bustle of the city. We're the only car moving on the street when we arrive and the only people I can see in the glow of the streetlamps are two people with their dog a half a block away. The building Crawford pulls up in front of sort of looks like a house that wants to be an apartment building, four stories tall but still decorated like a house would be. A sidewalk leads up to the front door and there are bikes propped up in their stands, all glistening in the overly bright light the pole out front offers.

    What shines brighter than the bikes is the blood that's smeared across the road and sidewalk. If it wasn't for that lamp, we might have missed the mess with just our headlights. As it is, the red seems to glow on the sidewalk despite the late hour. I give a low whistle of appreciation as Crawford parks a few feet down from it and I roll down my window to lean out. It's fresh and the scent hangs in the air, sour sweet and strong.

    "What a mess," I tell Crawford, the first thing any of us have said since we left Wisteria. "Looks like one of Farfarello's joyrides."

    Nagi offers an aggravated sigh as he opens his door. "This means the place will be crawling tomorrow with police wanting to know what happened," he says. "As soon as dawn makes it easy to see there's blood they'll be bugging all of us. Tot wanted to go see a movie tomorrow."

    I try and imagine Nagi in a movie theater and just laugh. Nagi ignores my amusement and shuts his door, coming around to stand by my door instead. He has to lean over to peer in. "I think we should talk about what happened tonight at Wisteria," he tells us. "The Councilmen split all of us up on purpose and I think we should talk about it."

    "We have to," Crawford says. "They wish to see us again in the afternoon when they've had time to think over what we told them."

    "The apartment is big enough for four people," Nagi says. "There's not a parking garage, but you can park anywhere on the street. I'd suggest just not near the blood puddle."

    "Are we going to have to play nice with your girlfriend?" I ask. "I think I used up my 'play nice' points on the Council."

    "Shut up, Schuldich."

    "Let's talk about it tomorrow," I tell him, slouching back against my seat. I'm not interested in rehashing what Ricard had to say. Nagi just frowns at me, and Crawford reaches over and neatly undoes my buckle.

    "Get out, Schuldich."

    I scowl at him and push the door open to join Nagi on the sidewalk. Crawford drives around the corner to park and then catches up with us, and we're careful not to leave our footprints in the blood. I almost wish we would stick around long enough for the dog walkers to happen upon the mess. I bet they'll both scream and panic like simple-minded innocents. At least Farfarello's not here. He'd want to play with it, or turn Tot into a similar mess.

    We head up the sidewalk to the door and Nagi unlocks it to let us in. The hallway is lit and we pass a communal kitchen and living room before coming to the stairwell. Apparently there's not an elevator and I hold onto the idle hope that he lives on the second floor. Nagi leads the way upstairs and I take the very back, leaving several feet of space between me and Crawford. I focus on taking in my surroundings, green eyes memorizing every grain of wood in the handrail and the carved designs hanging off the wall, so I don't look at Crawford's back.

    'Has he told you when you're dying yet?'

    '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.'

    It's one of those ugly facts of life I've always known but I've tried my damnedest not to think about. For the most part, I succeed, but having it shoved back in my face tonight was a harsh reminder. Telepaths don't grow old. My mother made it to thirty-two, lasting a good six years longer than the average telepath. My father started losing his mind at seventeen and it was an agonizingly slow downward crawl for the next seven years. Average their death ages together and it's somewhere around twenty-seven. I'm twenty-two.

    "Crawford." I hear his name, low and tense in the stairwell, and realize I'm the one that said it. He doesn't look back but turns his head enough to let me know he heard me. "How old was Nikolai when he died?"

    Crawford goes still, and Nagi stops almost immediately after him. I feel their eyes on me and turn my gaze on them, giving nothing away with my expression. Nagi's eyes are questioning, but Crawford's face is as blank as my own.

    "Nagi," he says at length. "Go on ahead of us."

    Nagi doesn't argue. "We're in 4C," he says, and his shoes tap softly against the stairs as he continues up the stairwell. Crawford is facing me now and I have to move up to his stair, unwilling to let him stare down at me like that.

    "Don't start this conversation," Crawford tells me. "Don't start on the same road he went on."

    "Just tell me how old, Crawford."

    "He was forty-seven," Crawford answers, "the only telepath in over a hundred years to hit forty."

    "Forty-seven," I echo, startled by the number- startled and relieved. "In over a hundred—that means there were others before him."

    "Don't start on this path," Crawford warns me softly. "Don't turn into him. He was obsessed with his death, Schuldich. It was all he learned to care about, was how much longer he had left before he went mad."

    "Do you blame him?"

    "The future is for prescients. Telepaths exist in the present."

    I offer him a thin smile, not swayed by a moment by his uppity bullshit. "Ricard said ninety percent of your visions center on me and my future," I tell him.

    There is just the slightest pause before he answers, but I feel that pause like it's physical. "That is true," he answers. "That is why you were assigned to me. I saw that our futures intertwined and that we would reach our fullest potentials only when we were working together. The former Council had been warned to look out for whichever Talent managed to catch my precognitive eye, but I must say that Hoffmann was very bitter to find out it was you. He didn't want you to be special."

    —All this time I've been watching him, he's been watching me.

    "Quit watching me."

    "I tried that years ago and failed. That is simply how my gift was born to work."

    "When you started thinking you were going to fuck me, was that because you saw it happening first?"

    Crawford doesn't answer that.

    What exactly is a precognitive? What does it take to make a precognitive? In all these years with him, somehow I've managed to forget. After I was taken out of Rosenkreuz, I was given a glimpse of exactly what he was, but then my gift was growing and changing and it consumed me and changed me. It changed how I looked at the world, and somewhere along the way, I forgot Crawford looks at it so differently. Hoffmann splitting us up should have kicked it home again- without emotions in the way, more of who Crawford is started to show through. I just refused to see it because I was too bitter over what Hoffmann had done.

    "I haven't changed," he tells me at last, somehow following my line of thinking. I remember always wondering how he managed to do that and now I wonder if it's that I'm predictable or if it really is his gift, keeping him in tune with me on a level I never understood before. When I just offer him a flat look, he has only a mild answer to offer me: "We worked before, regardless."

    That's enough to bring me up short, and I have to think about it. Is the Crawford in front of me really so different from the one I was sleeping with a couple of months ago? The only thing that's changed is my insight into how he works. But that doesn't change the fact that we *did* work, and I think of his hands in my hair as he worked knots out of them after a busy night.

    Crawford has… always been this way.

    I utter a quiet swear and rake orange bangs out of my face. "The Council wants to turn us against each other," I tell him. "They want to divide us."

    "They're succeeding," Crawford observes.

    Ricard's unwanted words on top of the truth about Hoffmann on top of a lucky survival at the beach on top of Hoffmann taking Crawford from me—it's all been building up into this moment and I have to hold my breath to try and settle my thoughts. Crawford and I have always worked this way, but now I'm angry about it?

    "No," I say at last. "No. They're not." Crawford inclines his head to me, accepting that, and starts to turn away to continue on upstairs. I feel material beneath my fingers and realize I've caught at his arm. Despite my uneasiness with how easily and quickly we were unraveling from each other, I can't just forget Ricard's words. His words helped trigger this bitterness tonight. "Don't tell me an age," I tell him. "Just tell me if you've seen it."

    Crawford gives me a strange look I can't decipher. For one moment I think he's consulting his power, but he's not an SIS precog who can take a question and find an answer. Besides, the glint in his eye is more Crawford than Oracle. "I've seen it," he answers, and I feel my fingers relax on his shirt. "You'll die like you've always said you would: on your own terms. I hope you feel up to defying Rosenkreuz's standards for telepaths, because it is going to be a very long time from now."

    "Good to know," I say, and the amusement I put in my tone isn't quite fake. "I suppose you're a reliable source."

    "I am," he answers. "I'm going to be there for it."

    It takes a moment to understand the full significance of those words- past the promise that I'll die my way, past the fact that it's going to be many years in the future- and straight to the fact that Crawford will still be there with me.

    "Brad Crawford, make a note somewhere in that mental day planner of yours that we are going to have a lot of sex in the very near future."

    "Duly noted," is his dry response, and my mouth is open to suggest we postpone this meeting and just get started now when Nagi's quarter of the mental bond flares sharp in panic and horror. I jerk away from Crawford automatically, green eyes flickering up the stairwell, and I don't bother to wait on Crawford before throwing myself up the stairs. The stairwell blurs around me as I touch on the threads of a sonic's gift and I reach the fourth floor to see Nagi holding onto Tot in the doorway to their shared apartment.

    "I'm fine, I'm fine," Tot is saying on repeat, but she doesn't sound fine. The scent of blood gets stronger as I approach their sitting forms and I can see her fingers shaking where they're digging into Nagi's back. "Nagi, I didn't- I didn't know what to do, I didn't-"

    "Shh, shh," Nagi soothes her, and as I stop behind him, I can see his fingers working their way through her hair- her bloody hair. Her clothes are splattered with dried blood and I can see some on the hands that are trying to dig every ounce of comfort out of Nagi that she can. "Tell me what happened, Tot. Tell me what happened here."

    "Muggers?" I ask, unwilling to go into her mind even though it was fixed months ago.

    Nagi loosens a hand enough to wave it at me in a "shut up" gesture. "Tot, can you stand?"

    "I can stand," she answers a little brokenly, and I watch them get to their feet. Nagi has to move enough to let her up that I get a better glimpse of her and her bloody clothes. She looks like she went wading in one of Farfarello's displays and I suppose I can't blame Nagi for panicking at the sight of her, though I think his affection is wasted on the wrong person.

    Crawford shows up as Nagi escorts Tot back inside and we follow the pair in. Crawford's hand on the back of my shirt keeps me from going further than the entrance with my shoes on and I mutter unfriendly things at him as I kick my shoes to one side. Crawford gets the door and we end up in one of the bedrooms. Tot is sitting on the edge of her bed and Nagi helps her pick up the mug she must have left on the nightstand to answer the door. She's looking a little vacant in the eyes, but this time it's more from shock than a broken mind.

    "Tot, what happened?" Nagi wants to know, crouching in front of her to peer up into her face. "Did someone come after you?"

    "She *is* an assassin," I point out.

    "Was," Crawford corrects me easily.

    The two teens ignore us. Tot lifts her mug to her lips but doesn't manage to swallow anything, and ends up lowering it to her lap again. "I was walking to the Circle K," she tells him. "I wanted some ice cream and they have the mint bar back in the freezer now. But when I was coming back…" She presses a hand against her stomach and tears well up in her eyes. The mug floats out of her hands and Nagi takes hold of them instead, giving no sign that he notices when she crushes her fingers under his. "There was this car, and- and… He didn't have his lights on. I didn't see him in time, Nagi, I didn't…" She makes a choking sound low in her throat and has to look away from him.

    "I… It… It hit me. I went… It dragged me a couple feet before I fell again and it stopped and I was just lying there and it hurt, Nagi, it hurt so much, so much. I couldn't even cry. I was… I was lying there on my side and Nagi my leg was…" She can't finish her sentence and gives a little sob. "Please please please, but they left me, they left me there. I… I died, Nagi, I died there."

    "Tot…?" Nagi asks, sounding kind of hollow.

    She pulls one hand away from his and presses it into her bloody clothes again. I think of the splash out on the street and sidewalk but the pieces still don't add up right until she speaks again. "I woke up," she says, and she starts crying. Fingers twist in her shirt, knuckles going white. "I woke up, I woke up," she gasps through her tears. "It killed me and I woke up. Just like last time, Nagi. Just like when the building fell. Nagi Nagi Nagiiiii."

    She dissolves into helpless crying then and Nagi wraps his arms around her, burying her against him. Her sobs are loud even as they're muffled in his shirt and I look over at Crawford.

    /Shouldn't she be happy?/ I ask. /She has nine lives./

    ~She just got disemboweled by a car, Schuldich,~ Crawford tells me patiently. ~She's scared.~

    /Meh. Farfarello, at least you're pleased by this, right?/

    The empath's response is sour. ~She's too loud.~

    Only experience with unsavory clients keeps me from smirking where Nagi might see it and kill me for it. I save my amusement for my mental voice. /Still don't have those shields under control, hm? You'll appreciate moments like these a lot more when you can keep them from infecting you./

    ~That serum wasn't meant for Talents,~ Crawford says.

    /Well, better used on them than granting immortality to the fat bastards of Estet,/ I point out, but my own words bring me up short. I send a sharp glance at Crawford, but he's looking at Nagi and Tot. /Wait,/ I say, feeling a little chill settling somewhere near my stomach. /Wait. No way./

    That serum was for eternal life.

    "We'll come back later," Crawford says. I assume Nagi hears us, but his main focus right now is Tot and he doesn't answer us. We leave them there and walk down the stairs in silence, the two of us side by side and Farfarello still a dim mental presence.

    I wait until we're on the sidewalk before speaking again. "This is bullshit," I say, because I don't know how else to react. "That serum wasn't meant for Talents, so it shouldn't work that way."

    "That's twice she's resurrected," Crawford reminds me unnecessarily. "And once that Nagi has."

    "So what?" I demand, turning on him. "You want me to think that they just can't die now?"

    Crawford thinks on that for a few moments. "Only one way to be sure," he says.

    "Kill her again?" I ask.

    ~I'll do it,~ Farfarello volunteers.

    ~Kind of you, Farfarello,~ Crawford says dispassionately. ~Two other people were injected with that serum: its originator and her stand-in.~

    /The Tomoe girl,/ I remember. /Sakura./

    ~And Fujimiya Aya. Farfarello?~ Farfarello doesn't answer, but he's listening. Crawford only gives him a moment to acknowledge the call. ~Kill them both.~

    I can feel Farfarello's smile against my mind and I reach out, searching for their minds. Sakura's within range; Aya's not. Just a heartbeat later, Sakura's mind winks out. I assume he took care of the other girl, and I keep my mental ear out. It doesn't take long, just another minute or two, and then Sakura's mind wakes up again.

    "That's really fucking creepy," I say out loud to no one in particular.

    "Both?" Crawford asks.

    ~Both,~ Farfarello answers, and a heartbeat later, Sakura is gone again.

    Crawford starts for the car with slow steps and I follow him. By the time we're back at our place again, the two girls have died ten times- and woken up every time. They're both within range of our apartment and their thoughts are frantic. They're not waking up with as much blood Tot had, or the memories of getting smeared and ripped by a car, but what they have is still enough to frighten them. Farfarello has narrowed his empathy down to a fine point already, so one overload of pain to each girl's heart is enough that it ruptures. They aren't entirely impressive deaths except for the fact that each girl wakes up, pukes blood, and then dies again, only to repeat the process. I can hear Sakura's mind screaming for her parents and know she'll be in the ER before long to find out what's wrong.

    ~That's enough,~ Crawford tells Farfarello, and his gift falls away.

    "Fuck," I say, punching the button for the elevator. "What does that mean?"

    "From which viewpoint?" Crawford asks as the doors open for us. "From a Rosenkreuz standpoint, it means they were successful in their engineering of the serum. From Nagi and Tot's viewpoint, it means that they don't have to worry about a hideous accident taking them away from each other. From a Schwarz standpoint, it means Nagi will live long past the day we die. From a realistic standpoint, it means that there are now four immortals living in Tokyo."

    "Don't make you hit you," I warn him. "Farfarello would enjoy it too much."

    Crawford doesn't answer; he's too busy thinking. By the time we reach our floor he's lost in his visions and I guide him down the hall to our apartment. I leave our shoes on and bring him to the bedroom, and it's easy to make him sit down on the edge of his bed. I stand in front of him, hands on his cheeks keeping his head tilted back, and watch his eyes as he stares at things I can't see. I consider dipping in to take a peek anyway but I don't want to disrupt whatever he's looking at.

    Ricard said I was his filter for the future, and I wonder what that means now. Crawford is trying to see what to do about our teammate, but if the best way he can track it is by seeing my future and what we do by that, how good a judge is that?

    "It was good enough to kill Hoffmann," I tell myself, a flat warning.

    It takes several minutes more before he comes back to himself and I pluck his glasses off the bridge of his nose. I remember that I'm supposed to ask him about his sight but this is more important and the thought is pushed aside. "Well?" I ask.

    "Rosenkreuz," Crawford answers. When I offer him a blank look, he takes his glasses back. "Nagi has to go to Rosenkreuz."

Part 9
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