Part Fifteen

    It takes me a moment to realize that our locked gaze does not bring a wash of pain with it. Long moments drag by as we gaze at each other in silence. Hoffmann is studying me as if he has never seen me before, searching my face for what only he can read in my eyes. I hear the sound of the other Council members shifting, and then they approach Hoffmann and I. I do not look at them; Hoffmann's gaze is too hypnotic to look away from.

    "You know that your actions have the punishment of death," he says.

    "I do, Herr Hoffmann," I answer calmly. I'm still waiting for the pain to flare up. Where is it? It confuses me that he is not hurting me. _No_ one has ever looked Hoffmann in the eyes without getting scalded for it. But time drags on and nothing happens.

    "This was never about your death, was it, Mastermind?" Hoffmann asks at last. "It was not your life you came here to gamble with."

    I suppose you can't hide much from an empath. I'm grateful for his curiosity now, and hot relief flows through my veins. He will listen to me, out of curiosity. Then, when I am done speaking, he will kill me. But he will have listened!

    "No, Herr Hoffmann, it was not."

    "Interesting. Six years ago you swore you would die for no one, not even the Council," he says. "Today you came in here to exchange your life for another's. I will assume that life is Oracle's." He does not really need my response for that, so I stay quiet. "The mind and heart work in mysterious ways," he muses. His comment makes me uneasy. The corner of his mouth twitches when he picks up on my discomfort. "So we shall talk on your clairvoyant for a few moments."

    His tone implies that it is up to me to start the conversation. "Adashi said the Council was going to terminate him," I say. "Ikida was predicting a recovery..."

    I can feel a glare on me. Apparently someone doesn't think I have the right to be holding such a conversation and asking for the reasons behind the Council's decisions. It is probably Mosuli. Hoffmann, however, answers readily. "Crawford will be unable to attend to jobs while he is hospitalized. With an estimate of between five and eight months to be fully recovered, that is a long time for him to be out of working order. There are more clairvoyants in the halls of Rosenkreuz. His gift is one that can be replaced."

    "Crawford has the highest level of precognition that Rosenkreuz has seen in decades," I return. "He has always been the most reliable of the top five."

    "That sounds like a biased opinion," Hoffmann says, dryly amused. His icy blue eyes flicker and I wince before I can catch myself. A faint smirk curls his lips and his fingers tighten on my chin. "Give me a good reason as to why we should pay Crawford's bills."

    "Does Schwarz have enough?" I ask, the words out before I can stop them. "Crawford's car- my car- our bank accounts..." I know Nagi wouldn't mind donating his money to help pay for Crawford, and Farfarello doesn't even use his.

    Hoffmann laughs again, amused. "So desperate you are, Mastermind."

    I close my mouth, not sure what else to say. Hoffmann eyes me in silence thoughtfully. His fingernails trail over my cheek as he released my chin. "You know that I have never had affection for you," he says at last, speaking in German now. "I cared only for my sister."

    I drop my eyes at the mention of my mother. Part of me feels sick that he is mentioning her to me. How can he mention her to me? By doing so, he implies that he and I are related, and we have never acknowledged that before. He has hated me since the day my father killed my mother in a drunken rage, and I have hated him since before then. He is darkness, my mother was light. There is no way I will acknowledge blood ties between the two. There is no way he can make me.

    "Her last request was for me to make sure you were happy." Here his lips twist in a cold smirk. "That is what she had to say to me before she died."

    Don't tell me this. I was there. I heard it myself. My mother's death was the fourth and last time I saw Hoffmann before I was recruited to Rosenkreuz seven years later. My lips thin and I feel my hands reclench.

    "So, Mastermind," he says, "I will grant that wish of my sister's."

    I look up again, wary but hopeful, and am careful not to look him in the face. My eyes point at his throat once more. Hoffmann reverts back to Japanese. "Your clairvoyant will live. Schwarz will pay for his bills. He will be on leave from Estet until then; he will not be acknowledged as one of ours. Schwarz will be given another fourth. Do make sure this one stays alive, Mastermind."

    I am startled enough that I cannot stop my eyes from leaping back to his face. "A...fourth...?" I manage to get out.

    Ahmed scowls at me. "Do not gape like an idiot, Mastermind."

    "There are currently two other known telepaths in Rosenkreuz," Jean says, crossing his arms over his chest as he glowers at me. I look from Ahmed to him, bewildered and unable to hide it. "They are levels two and four, and there is little chance of them getting any better."

    What they are implying hits me like a fist to my stomach, stealing my air. The Council does not wish to terminate me. I had known that telepaths were rare and far between. I had known that I was the strongest telepath Rosenkreuz had managed to dig up. But to be spared for my Talent...? They decided before I even showed up- in the time between Adashi's death and my arrival. They decided that I alone will be the one to have a trespass forgiven- because they need my gift.

    "Yes, Mastermind," Hoffmann says, "but do not let it go to your head." He tilts my face towards him, and his eyes warn me. "The next time you step out of line in such a way, we will kill you without a second thought, no questions asked. This is your first and last chance. Is that clear?"

    I cannot speak. I can barely manage a wide-eyed nod.

    "You may go now."

    Pride wants me to leave here in a dignified manner. Fuck pride. My mind is reeling still from the shock to its system, and I stumble backwards away from the Council. My hand reaches behind me and comes in contact with the doorknob. I twist it and back into the hall. The door swings shut by a pull from Mosuli.

    The moment it clicks shut I sag towards the ground, unable to to keep myself on my feet anymore. I gaze at the closed doors, dumbfounded, propping myself up on one arm. The other hand lifts to cover my face. I struggle to control my breathing and the sudden shaking in my limbs even as I realize there are two familiar minds nearby. Nagi and Farfarello are here. I do not know how they made it here, or why they came, but right now I do not care.

    Nagi kneels beside me. One small hand peels my hand from my face. He is staring at me, perhaps as shocked as I am that I am in one piece.

    Then I am smiling, and so is he, and this is the best I have felt in my life. I do not think I can talk; I do not think I can speak without bursting into almost hysterical laughter. /Let's get out of here,/ I say instead, directing it at both of them.

    Nagi helps me to my feet because I cannot get to them by myself. I have some difficulty walking- my brain is still struggling to figure out what the hell went on in that room- but Nagi and Farfarello are to either side of me, making sure I get out all right. The front doors swing open for us when we arrive at the lobby and we step outside. The sunlight seems more bright than harsh today, and for a moment, the headquarters we are heading for almost seem like a home.


    I bring my teammates with me to the hospital. Nagi and Farfarello go in to visit Crawford while I speak to Ikida. Farfarello does not remain with the clairvoyant long; soon he is wandering around the rest of Ikida's office, exploring with interest. I am busy going over the nitty-gritty details that will transfer the billing from Estet to Schwarz. I give Ikida the same story I gave my teammates- a condensed version of the events that transpired in that room, leaving out Hoffmann's relation to me. Crawford and Hoffmann are the only ones that know of our relationship.

    I breathe up a silent thanks that my mother's brother loved her so much.

    It is thanks to that that Crawford is still alive...

    It is thanks to my Talent that I am still alive.

    For someone who walked out of his house just an hour ago prepared to die, my morning has gotten some pretty good bonuses. Adashi is dead, Crawford is safe, and I am still breathing. Hell, either of the first two will keep me giddy for weeks. I know Nagi and Farfarello are pleased to no end that Adashi's dead, now that no one has to pay for his death.

    I set aside Ikida's pen, done signing the last form. As I straighten, Ikida reaches out to grasp my arm. I look towards him.

    "You have the devil's luck," he tells me, "and I know your entire team is grateful for your success in saving Crawford-san. I myself am relieved that he will not be terminated. But try not to be so careless with your life from now on, please!"

    I grin at him. I have no intention of screwing up my life now. No, not now.

    I pad towards Crawford's room. Farfarello and Ikida watch me go. I step into the doorway. Nagi glances up at me from his spot by Crawford's bed. I restrung the bond between us so they could communicate, but they'd been speaking quietly and I'd been busy figuring out finances, so I don't know what they were actually saying to each other. Nagi looks towards Crawford. "Good day, Crawford. It is Schuldich's turn now."

    With that, he passes me and leaves the room. The door closes behind me.

    ~Schuldich, are you really such an idiot?~ I blink and stare at him for a moment, caught off-guard by the words and his tone. His mental voice is laced with frustrated anger. I blink again, moving to sit in the chair beside his bed. I fold my arms over my chest. ~You faced down the Council?~

    /Nagi, you damn tattletale,/ I send at the boy.

    ~He had the right to know,~ Nagi answers, unrepentant, ~and you practice selective truth-telling.~

    /How much did you tell him?/

    ~I hadn't gotten to the part with the switch of billing yet.~

    I turn my attention back on Crawford. /Yes, I did. You don't have to sound so ticked, you know. I'm still breathing. By the way, so are you./

    ~Schuldich, you deliberately made a move that would get you killed.~

    /Keen observation,/ I drawl.

    ~What possessed your rattled brain to do something like that?~

    Oh-ho, Crawford's pissed, hm? I grin to myself. It is very rare that I do something that forces him to show his anger. Now all I have to do is find out exactly why it ticked him off so much. /It got their attention, didn't it?/ I ask. /And they changed their minds about your death./

    ~Do I even want to know how you accomplished that?~ he asks, voice still bitingly sharp.

    /Call it a favor to one of the blood,/ I say.

    Crawford has no reply to that. He falls silent. I slide to my feet, moving closer to the bed. I poke at his arm to see if there's a response. There is none. I grin and reach out, tugging at his cheeks until I have pulled his face into a smile. I am in such a good mood today. Not even Crawford's anger can hurt it. Or perhaps Crawford's anger is helping? I pause, considering this, gazing at his face.

    Crawford is angry that I went to the Council to die...Angry in a worried way?

    I feel the corner of my mouth twitch in a rueful grin. Nein. I am looking for things in my good mood. But still...I tap his cheek thoughtfully, fingers loosening on his cheeks to let his mouth fall out of its maniacal smile.

    /Ne, Crawford./ No response, still. Perhaps his anger is burned out. /Do you want to know the other reason Hoffmann let you live?/

    ~Do tell,~ he says, almost a weary sigh.

    My mouth curls into a wide smirk. /I bought you./


    Then, quietly, not quite comprehending: ~You bought me?~

    /Ja./ One finger trails over his lips, whisper light. Crawford can't feel it, after all. /We're selling our cars today...Schwarz is cleaning out its bank accounts. We're getting another fourth and the money the three of us make from the jobs will be covering your bills. Isn't that generous of us?/

    ~I know you well enough to sense an ulterior motive.~

    I laugh, leaning down to whisper in his ear. "It seems that I'm the one shelling out the money this time..." I tell him. "I believe I can afford you. You should be honored...I'm paying more for you than that man paid for me."

    ~You bought me,~ Crawford repeats, mulling over this idea.

    "Are you complaining?"

    He considers this. ~It could be worse,~ he says at last.

    I grin, fingers brushing along his face. His skin is soft...Strange. He always comes across as such a hardass. This sickness has done everything to show that he is not invulnerable, that he is not invincible. My fingers thread upwards, boldly fingering his hair. I doubt I would be so bold if he could actually feel what I'm doing. He can't even see what I'm doing due to the bandages that snugly cover his eyes.

    /Don't worry. I take very good of my belongings./

    ~Like your remote?~ he asks dryly.

    /Oi./ I look around the room. /So you're going to be in here for five to eight more months?/ That's a long time. /Are you going to be a zombie that long?/

    ~According to Ikida, I should start regaining some bodily functions and senses in just a couple weeks or so. The treatment I am on has been hailed as being highly effective. The longest time will be spent trying to recover the entire way.~

    I eye him. /It's like having a stroke?/ I ask. /Do you have to relearn everything?/

    ~It might not be as drastic, but it's along those lines.~

    I sigh, eyeing his room once more. I am going to be seeing a lot of this room in the next few months. I should put something on the wall to counter the stark white paint. Crawford may not see to care, but it bothers me.

    ~It is time to eat,~ Farfarello announces across our bond.

    /Saa...I suppose I should take them to find food./ We'll be doing a lot of cooking for the next few months, I realize with a small sigh. The numbers on Ikida's bills were pretty staggering, especially since Estet has dropped its claim on Crawford- thereby dropping his medical insurance. Our catering service is not cheap. But today, for lunch, we will eat out. We will have lunch wherever we want and have whatever we want, then we can go shopping for groceries. The events of the morning and its up and down twisting are enough to convince me that a little splurge in food won't hurt.

    /Don't go anywhere,/ I say as I head towards the door.

    ~No promises.~


    The bank accounts are looking pretty slim, I note with a small sigh. We've paid Ikida for two months of Crawford's treatment in advance in case it takes a while to get a job. I doubt it'll take us that long before we get work again, but it's better to be ahead on bills than behind. And let me tell you, Crawford's bills, without insurance, are staggering. It's amazing, considering Estet used to pay for all of our hospital requirements. We haven't sold the two cars yet, but we're looking for buyers. I doubt it'll take long to get rid of them. They're nice cars. I'm willing to sell them, though. I'm even willing to empty out our accounts. There are two things I am not willing to do, however- one is to switch flats, even though this one's monthly rent is pretty high, and the other is staring me straight in the face.

    I'm looking down at my laundry pile.

    I nudge the pile with the toe of my shoe. Nagi is the one that brought up the issue of laundry. Once the cars are gone I won't be able to drive my laundry out of here. The laundry service could come and pick it up, but they charge for it. Nagi claims that it's an unnecessary cost. He believes I should learn how to do my own laundry.

    Like hell.

    I nudge the stack again. It's not even a big stack. I don't own that many outfits- a couple pairs of jeans and some slacks, and some shirts to go with it.

    Oh, and that damned white suit. I haven't gotten rid of it yet. It was expensive and it was tailored to fit me, so it's not like I can sell it. To throw it away would be to have wasted that money. After looking at the figures on Ikida's bills, I am feeling pretty stingy.

    /Na, Nagi.../

    ~Wash colors in cold,~ he answers distractedly. He's working on his paper again.

    I make a face. /I think you should do it./

    ~You would think that,~ he answers.

    /You're the youngest. It should be your chore./

    ~Some of us have things we have to be doing,~ he says. ~I have schoolwork that must be done.~

    /You're lazy./

    ~You're hopeless.~

    I mutter a few unfriendly German phrases under my breath and gather up my dirty laundry. It takes me a moment to remember where the laundry room is in this flat, since I haven't once used it. I find it at last and drop my clothes on the floor, eyeing the washer and dryer with some distaste. I open the lid of one and look down at my clothes. They're all colored. I drop the entire batch into the washer, pushing it down when it doesn't seem to all fit. The detergent is on a small shelf above my head and I lift it down, scanning the back for instructions.

    Beh..._I_, Mastermind of Schwarz, the only one the Council has ever walk away from a murder of their own, the only one who has faced trial with the Council and lived to tell the tale, have to do my own laundry.

    There's something wrong with this.

Part 16