Part Sixteen

    The colors are all shades of red, molten lava brushing against my skin to burn me. I gasp at the pain, but it is a sweet pain. I am being consumed and I do not care. It is greater than the pleasure I derive from toying with people, far past and beyond the satisfaction of tormenting those around me. I sink back into its warm depths, letting it enfold me. How strange this is...Recognition dances out of reach as it rocks against me in waves. With each receding wave I have coherent enough thought to struggle to place it. It is not a physical pleasure, but something more-

    Something more complete-

    Look, voices call, almost drowned out as the red begins to fade to bright orange. I let the waves go, detangling myself from their grasp. I'm not interested in looking. I'm trying to think.

    Look, a single voice whispers in my ear as warmth slides against me. I fall back into the embrace of a new color.

    I know this voice-

    I twist, struggling to see, even as pain flares up around me with my fight. Harsh orange fades to liquid amber as I finally twist around. In the moment I see what is behind me, in the moment before recognition becomes thought, I jolt awake.

    My head is pounding. I press a hand to my temple, offering up some choice curses as I roll onto my side. My words are muffled as I turn my head to bury my face in my pillow. It wasn't my dream, after all. I'd gotten sucked into someone else's brain dump. Damn...I hate it when I get twisted into someone's mind so deeply that an attempt to separate our consciousnesses hurts. At least I got out before I got lost.

    I sigh heavily into the cotton of my pillow, willing the headache to fade so I can go back to sleep. I close my eyes tightly, struggling to ignore the pulsing. I remain like that for several minutes before realizing it is a lost cause. I turn a bleary glare on Crawford's alarm clock. I'm five minutes early for coffee time.

    I struggle to sit up and shove myself from my bed, padding across the room and yawning loudly. I pick a random outfit from my closet and dress in the darkness, shoving my feet into my shoes without bothering to untie the laces. I grab my keys and head towards the kitchen. A short tug unplugs the coffee maker and I wrap the cord around it. I didn't set its alarm to brew last night, but the ground coffee and filter are in place. I select two mugs from the cabinet and tuck the coffee maker under one arm.

    I shuffle down the hall and exit the flat. The coffee pot is buckled into the passenger seat of my car. Nagi found a potential buyer who will come by today to look at Crawford's car. I turn the keys in the ignition and pull away from the flat. My eyes stray from the road to the skyscrapers as I drive. From a distance, they don't seem so tall. From here, their tips seem to be touching the clouds. It's a strange illusion.

    I yawn again, focusing my attention on the road again. The drive to the hospital doesn't seem to take that long. Finding a parking spot is easy at this hour. I only have one contender to deal with, but a mental readjustment advises the person to look elsewhere for a spot. I grab the coffee maker and mugs and shut the car door behind me with a foot.

    Ikida is at the cafe when I enter the lobby, buying some coffee for himself. He must have a stomach of steel to be able to drink that coffee. It isn't coffee; it's roadkill juices or diluted acid. I think he actually slept last night: the bags under his eyes have turned from black to dark purple. It's an improvement on his ugly mug. He hastens to join me as I head towards his headquarters and opens the door for me. Honestly, I could easily get the code from his mind to open the door myself. I choose to ignore that part of my gift, however, because it's more fun to let Ikida drop what he's doing to come fetch me.

    I make my way across the room towards Crawford's door while Ikida heads to his desk. He smothers a yawn as he rearranges his papers. Crawford would have been moved up to a normal, non-Estet doctor if it weren't for Ikida's request that we not disturb the clairvoyant in this stage of his syndrome. Ikida claims that from here on out it's an easy path as long as Crawford doesn't get sick- contracting an infection is the biggest threat right now.

    I somehow manage to turn the knob of Crawford's door with my thumb and last two fingers. I push the door open with my elbow and step in, closing the door behind me and shuffling across the room. There is a small table next to Crawford's table that's empty. I think it's for Ikida to put his papers while he's examining Crawford. It has a new purpose from this moment on. I set the coffee maker down on top of it, nudging it a bit.

    All in all, I've done too much work before I've gotten some caffeine in my body.

    I adjust the coffee pot once more, eyeing it critically to make sure it's sitting right. Satisfied, I flick the power on and step aside to let it brew. My fingers are curled around my mug and I drum my fingertips on its surface lightly, humming a German tune under my breath. The dark aroma of the coffee fills the small room easily. My eyes stray towards Crawford as I wait for enough to be brewed for me to drink.

    He hasn't changed in the twenty-odd hours since I last saw him, nor has he changed in the past several days I've been visiting him. It's disturbing that he just lies there. At least Crawford says this stage should only last for a few weeks. I glance towards the coffee pot. It is finished, and I reach to pour myself a mug. It's then that I realize I brought a second mug. I sigh, pushing it aside to fill my own cup. When I brought a second travel mug it was a joke. I'm not sure why I grabbed it today. I attribute it to habit before noting that Crawford usually fetched his own mug.

    Details, details...Since when did details become important?

    Since I finally figured out what I want.

    Ah, but Crawford...

    You knew all along.

    You knew it when you challenged me on whether or not I could get what I wanted. You knew it, back before I had realized it for myself. You knew what I disregarded or avoided putting into words. You knew it before I considered suspicions and debated my own reactions and interests. You've always known.

    Well, Crawford, now I know. I lift my mug to my lips, mouth curling in a smirk as I gaze over the rim at Crawford's still form. I know, and I'm going to get what I want. I didn't face death at Hoffmann's hands to be deterred now. You need time to recover? Sure. Take as long as you want. I'll still be here.

    I can be patient.


    Like before, it takes a week before our temporary fourth shows up. She is a level seven pyrokinetic whose recent team has just disintegrated. According to the summary Hoffmann gave me over the phone, she is a bouncer. Bouncers are a few steps further up on the chain from Adashi's trainer level, working as instructors on the field. They select people of various skills and form units of three to five to run on small jobs. They stay together for only a short time before being judged as fit for field work, fit for a different job within Estet or Rosenkreuz, or requiring more training. Her status as a bouncer will, in theory, make it easier for her to adjust to us and vice versa. For Hoffmann to actually loan us a bouncer means he has found people who require our talent and strength.

    That's good...The little field trip I took Farfarello on to let him relieve pent-up energy wasn't quite enough. Farfarello has a limitation on how many people he can kill outside of jobs, since his are always along a gruesome path. He's ready to go. Without anyone else to take out his energy on, he's returned to making slices along his arms and chest. A murder-sated Farfarello has no need for self-mutilation, so such actions are a clear sign that he's got to snap sometime soon.

    I suppose it's a good thing that I remind Farfarello that this fourth is not going to be killed.

    She arrives on her own; she has her own car. That's good news for me. I'm sick of taking the bus to the hospital every morning. Only lowlifes and members of the mediocre status of the social hierarchy should have to take buses. I'm not mediocre. I'm a god on that scale.

    We are standing in front of the flat when she shows up. We haven't bothered to dress up; we have returned to our usual jeans outfits. It would be a wasted effort for us to put forth a clean appearance, anyway- when she steps out of the car, she is wearing jeans and a drab gray sweater that is about six sizes too big for her. She closes the car door with a small push of her hand and moves towards us. She stops about five feet away from me, calm but bright blue eyes moving down our line. Her gaze rests briefly on Farfarello before she shakes one arm. The movement causes her over-long sleeve to slide down enough that it reveals a hand, which she extends towards me. I accept it for a brief clasp.

    "Schwarz," she greets. "I am Aine. Schuldich, I presume?" she asks. Her English has the same accent as Farfarello's, and I see the teenager's head tilt to one side as he studies her with interest. I incline my head slightly, the smirk on my face- not condescending, but amused- twitching a tad bit wider. She holds her hand out to Farfarello next. I suppose no one told her Farfarello hates physical contact when it's not him killing something...

    But Farfarello accepts her hand without any hesitation.

    My thoughts run along this line: !

    "Farfarello," she greets, the corner of her mouth curling slightly. "Dia duit."

    "Beir beannacht," he says back.

    Whoosh! That went over my head.

    They release each other and Aine turns to Nagi. He takes her hand, inclining his head slightly to mirror her action as they greet each other. "Nagi," she says, before taking a step back to turn her attention on me. "Mastermind, Prodigy, and Berserker...I stand here as Prometheus, and I will be acting as the link between you and Estet while Oracle is healing.

    "I have been briefed as towards the latest events with Schwarz." Here she tucks a long strand of her golden brown hair behind her ears. The rest of her hair is short, save for that one lock that hangs down to her collar bone. "We are at a compromise here. Judging bouncer to field agent, your rank is superior. It is my duty to train newbies, not guide experienced Talents. In this situation, however, I am holding rank on you." She pauses a moment, gaze still locked with mine. "I am only here to do my job."

    This will be much easier than dealing with Adashi, and my teammates have realized it as well. Nagi offers up a quiet mental murmur of relief that I second. Farfarello ignores us, but that's nothing new. "Well," I say, breaking the small lull of silence in the wake of Aine's introductory speech, "breakfast is on the table, and I'm hungry."

    With that, I turn and head inside. Aine follows, with Nagi and Farfarello trailing behind her. Nagi closes the door with his gift when Farfarello neglects it.


    Aine calls Hoffmann, just to inform him that she has arrived. We settle her in my room, just because all of my stuff is still in Crawford's from Adashi's stay. I never bothered to move my things back into my own room. Nagi helps her bring in her suitcases. She has four total, and she is currently closeted away to unpack. The rest of us are in the kitchen, eating breakfast. She claimed to have already eaten before heading to sort through her things. I pour myself some more water and set the jug aside.

    ~I think it's going to be all right this time,~ Nagi says across our bond as he tidily picks at his roll. ~She recognizes our superiority.~

    /Ja,/ I agree, taking a deep gulp of my water. /Don't let her complacent attitude fool you, though./ Nagi glances towards me, face bland but thoughts curious. I smirk into my cup, jade eyes holding his. /Bouncers get their jobs for a reason...They are ruthless on the field./

    ~You speak from experience?~

    /Mine and Crawford's bouncer loved opera and gardening. He also loved using his telekinesis to twist the bodies of his victims into unnatural poses. One blink of the eye and their heads were on backwards and joints reversed./

    Farfarello considers this gift, single amber eye studying Nagi with faint interest. Nagi's mouth twitches into a faint frown. He has not learned to get enjoyment from a hunt and kill yet. He has not learned to drink in the adrenaline and rush of pleasure during a kill like Farfarello, nor has he learned the dark delights of screwing up peoples' lives before killing them, like I have. I suppose he'll learn eventually. He can't be in this business and not learn.

    He finishes his breakfast and carries his things over to the dishwasher. It's almost full enough to start, with three days' worth of dishes sitting in it. Farfarello stops eating with part of a roll left. Nagi lifts the plate slightly to ask if he is finished and the Irishman pushes it back down. Nagi waits for a few minutes, but the older boy seems content to just sit there with his partially eaten roll. Nagi has better things to do with his time and leaves Farfarello to his roll.

    Farfarello's still sitting there when I'm almost done with my breakfast and Aine shows up. She looks around our kitchen, mentally categorizing the state it's in. It isn't messy, but it isn't clean. I'm not a maid, Farfarello doesn't care, and Nagi's getting ready for his final grades for his online classes. Her gaze sweeps the cabinets, debating which one has the cups.

    "The one on your left," I tell her, poking the last bite of my food into my mouth.

    "I forget you are a telepath," Aine saids in her lilting voice. She flicks me a look that is half-assessing and half-amused. I will guess from that comment that she has not had contact with a telepath before. The two that are in Rosenkreuz could still be in training or be under a different division from her. She reaches down a cup from the cabinet I've indicated and carries it to the table. She stands beside me to pour herself some water. As she sets the jug down again and sips at her drink, Farfarello fixes an intent gaze on her.

    At first I think he is looking at her face, but his thoughts tell me otherwise. He is looking at her hand. Then he rises, leaving his plate and roll behind, and exits the room.

    Aine seats herself in Crawford's empty chair when Farfarello is gone, setting her cup aside. I cannot see what Farfarello found so interesting about her hand because her sleeve covers it as soon as her cup is released. She folds her arms together on the table, turning her blue eyes on me. "Reports filed with Rosenkreuz by your clairvoyant and talks with the Council can only tell me so much, Schuldich. They tell me of your successes, but they do not tell me of the unit. Have you any comments on your teammates to share before we set out on our first job?"

    "We know how to do our job," I tell her simply. It can be taken as either an explanation or a rude comment. I don't care which one it comes across as.

    She inclines her head slightly, accepting my remark. "Farfarello is primary assassin. You are proximity guard and secondary assassin. Nagi is tertiary assassin and techinal support. Your oracle was the contact. Correct?" I nod once. "Your files have the least number of injuries out of all other reports at Rosenkreuz. Your oracle was good. He kept you in top shape. In his six years he has only filed four accounts of on-the-job injuries. None are from the period where it was just your unit of two. Two are from Farfarello. One is from the recent Fuwigama job." She pauses, tilting her head to one side. "I am no oracle. I cannot promise such a record. The jobs you run with me will be numerous and we will not have the gift of clairvoyance to guide how they run. As proximity guard, it will be up to you to keep the unit notified of changes and advances."

    She almost sounds like Crawford when she talks- she speaks with the calm assurance that she is going to be obeyed. The way she words herself, though, by pointing out that she cannot promise us no injuries, sticks to her earlier recognition of Schwarz's superior role here.

    She falls silent then. We study each other for a few moments. "I suppose you'll do," I say at last, and empty my cup with a final gulp. The corner of her mouth curls in a faint smile. I reach out to her mind, drawing ties between her consciousness and the links of the rest of the team. This is something I did not do for Adashi: both because I loathed him and he was only supposed to be with us for a short time. Aine will be with us for a few months, however.

    "Ah?" she breathes softly, noticing the sudden weight in her mind when she is linked to the Schwarz bond. She is not sure what it is; she just knows something has changed.

    "Welcome to the Schwarz phoneline," I tell her, toting mine and Farfarello's plates to the dishwasher.


    Nagi is still barricaded in his room at dinner time. I open his door without knocking to see him stretched on his stomach on his bed. He has two stacks of printed paper sitting before him: one read, one yet-to-be-read. Sections are highlighted and underscored from previous review. He is on a temporary break right now, with his head down. His cheek is pressed against the mattress as he rubs at his eyes and the bridge of his nose, tired from his days of review. Studying is about all he has done in the week we've been waiting on Aine. What a dull life he leads.

    "Nagi," I greet in a sing-song voice. "It's dinner time."

    "Mm," he replies. I wait a few minutes more and he sighs, lifting one head from the blanket. "Can't you just make a salad?" he asks.

    "Do I look like a rabbit to you?"

    "If I squint..." he answers, smothering a yawn with his hand. It's Nagi's job to make our dinner. I make breakfast because I'm always up first. Lunch is a free-for-all, where we wander in and get whatever we want. He sighs again when I don't leave, shoving his papers aside. I grin. I have no pity for Nagi. He chose to take these courses, and he also agreed to make dinner- just like he brought up the subject of losing the catering service for homemade meals. I'm bound and determined to make him regret that little inconvenience of life.

    He slides from the bed, rubbing at his aching head one last time before heading towards the door. I move and follow him down the hall to the kitchen. Aine is sitting at the table, playing solitaire with a pack of cards. She looks up as we enter, scanning Nagi's face.

    "You look exhausted," she comments mildly.

    "I have tests I am studying for," he answers.

    That catches her interest, and she smiles faintly. I roll my eyes. It seems she's an advocate of education. Bah.

    "You attend school?"

    Nagi welcomes the interest; he cannot help but appreciate it. Crawford allows Nagi to take the courses, but they never speak of it. I put down education constantly. "I do distance learning," he tells her. The cabinet doors swing open to give him a view of the contents.

    "Good for you," she says with warmth. "Many people do not seem to value education as much as they should these days." Here she glances towards me, mouth twitching into a wider smile. It seems she saw me roll my eyes. I smirk, unrepentant of my view. Farfarello's thoughts alert me to his presence; his footsteps are too quiet to pick up on. "What say you, Farfarello?" she asks, looking past me to him. Nagi and I glance at his smooth expression. "For education, or against it?"

    He considers the question, fingers sliding along the blade in his hand. "For," he says at last.

    I sigh heavily. Outnumbered.

    Aine looks back towards Nagi as he begins rearranging the contents of the cabinet with his gift. "What are you doing now?"

    He pauses before answering, floating a box down to where he can read it better. "I am looking for dinner..." he answers distractedly, setting the box down on the counter.

    Aine lightly swipes her card game into a neat stack. "I'll make it," she offers. "I've got nothing else to do, and you look dead on your feet."

    Nagi gazes at her in silence as she approaches him, face impassive but inwardly off-balance. We're not used to dealing with people like Aine, and even I find her offer strange. She's different from us, different from the people we've dealt with in the past. She's a far cry from Crawford, and just as different from Adashi. She's not like anyone else I knew at Rosenkreuz. Even my bouncer was self-absorbed and indifferent to others.

    Aine is different. She's weird.

    "A-aa," Nagi answers, taking a step back.

    "Now, tell me what you're learning," she says brightly, skimming the box for instructions. I look at Farfarello. He ignores me and vanishes from the room again. I give a shrug and follow.

Translation of the Irish Gaelic words present in this part:
Aine = pronounced "Awn-ya"
Dia duit = "God to you/for you", a greeting. The canon reply is "Dia 's Muire duit", which means "God and Mary to you".
I didn't feel comfortable with having Farfie respond with anything that had "God" in it, so his response of "Beir beannacht", is used instead. It means "Best wishes to you". Just in case you were curious...^^;

Part 17