Part Two

   Crawford almost does not wake up in time for us to leave the house at our appointed hour. I finally wake him up at nine-thirty, giving him enough time to shower and drink some coffee. He looks even paler today and it is easier to see how tired he is. He touches his eyes frequently, pushing his glasses up and resting his fingertips on his eyelids as if they are bothering him. All of this is carefully tucked away when we leave the house, however. The unyielding hard set is back on his face and his eyes are chilling. The calm superiority that gleams in his honey eyes is enough to unnerve both our opponents and those we are currently working for.

    He locks the door behind us and I know the security system has been activated. We approach our car and I wonder for a moment which of us will be driving. The question is answered when Crawford lets himself into the driver's seat. I take the passenger, letting Nagi sit with Farfarello in back. Our shiny black car comes to life with a soft hum that is felt more than heard. Crawford backs it out of the garage and we are on the street in moments, heading towards Futori's mansion.

    Occasionally Crawford will use this time to brief us. I am expecting him to do so this time. He gave us little information yesterday at the call and absolutely none at dinner time. It is only a matter of when he feels like talking. Until then I gaze out the windshield, entertaining myself with the view. There is plenty to see, but little of it is interesting. We live only a few minutes from the city, so most of what I can see are the rows of skyscrapers. It is them that I watch; it is them that I always watch. I cannot help but find my attention drawn to them. I bear silent witness to their struggle, to the way they strain upwards on their foundations to touch the sky. The struggle of mankind is evident in the way they are built. Man always stretches to reach what is beyond his reach.


    I glance towards Crawford, then flick my eyes to the rearview member as if I am merely doing an inspection of all of my teammates. Nagi is ignoring everything outside of the car. He lost interest in watching the traffic and the skyline approach long ago. Right now he is flipping slowly through a notebook. Crawford approved some college courses for Nagi to take online, so Nagi works on his reports for them in his free time. He does not understand that education is a waste of time. Lessons, school, degrees...They will get someone like him nowhere in life. With his talent he will find himself walking the same track the rest of his life, wandering in circles around it without noticing that he's tread this ground before. I've mentioned this to him a few times in the past but he's not interested in listening to me. I have decided I am content to wait until he notices it himself. I cannot wait to see the crushed look on his face and feel the weight sinking through his heart when it hits him.

    Farfarello is sitting passively in his seat, gazing out of the window. I do not believe he is looking at anything in particular. He knows he's in this car in some part of his mind, but he's in his own world. I suppose that's all right. I'm sure they know him there. I feel the familiar slide of my lips against my teeth as an amused smirk curls my mouth. He tilts his head towards me, drawn out of his thoughts when his instincts tell him he is being watched. A single amber eye gazes at me, unyielding. Before I can speak, Crawford does.

    "There will be five hundred in attendance today," he says, his words effectively making him the center of attention. The rustling of paper stills from the backseat and three pairs of eyes rest on Crawford's face. "The foreign branches are all returning to witness the exchanges of power. There will only be two hundred and thirteen employees. The rest will be protection units such as ourselves."

    I give a low whistle, locking my hands behind my head and turning my eyes forward. That's a lot of bodyguards.

    "It sounds more like a preparation for a bloodbath than promotions," Nagi says.

    "I was thinking more along the lines that that's a lot of people Crawford is going to get sick," I toss over my shoulder with a quiet laugh. I can see the boy shake his head in his reflection on his window and grin.

    "If you are going to be an annoyance," Crawford says, looking towards me, "I will drop you off here and you can catch a taxi back to the house." I sigh heavily at his inability to appreciate a joke. "A few words could unbalance the stack and send everything crashing downward," he continues, returning his attention to the road. "As long as we can correctly judge the mood and keep it balanced, everyone will walk out intact."

    "Everyone that matters," is Farfarello's input. It is almost a question and I can see his fingers trailing over the window, fingernails skimming the glass quietly.

    A faint smirk ghosts across Crawford's mouth. "Of course." Farfarello is satisfied and loses interest in the conversation. The possibility of murder will be enough to keep him focused. He cares nothing for the details of the mission. Crawford takes the car in a smooth turn onto the exit that will bring us towards Futori's road. A glance at the side mirrors shows the skyscrapers slowly moving away in the distance.

    Futori has the road to himself. As soon as we turn onto it we can see the small line of cars waiting on the curb. A clump of men are standing around in the vast yard that surrounds Futori's mansion and I allow myself to study the house as Crawford parks easily at the end of the line. We have been inside the estate multiple times. It is easy to appreciate the many rooms and lavish decorations, but none of us would ever pick the house to live in. What would four people need such a large house for? We are satisfied with the one floor house we live in. Most of our time is spent out and about, travelling or tagging along with our newest employers.

    Crawford exits the car, closing the door behind him, and approaches the clump. I watch the men as they turn to greet him with nervous enthusiasm. They are torn between fear and excitement over the upcoming events of the day. If Futori is promoted, those on his personal staff will rise with him. They desperately want such a thing. If they are overlooked, it will be easy for them to fall from favor and sink to the bottom of the pile. I laugh quietly to myself, leaning my head to one side so I am resting a temple against the window while I watch Crawford and them men exchange civilties. These men are pathetically amusing. I can hear their heartbeats in their thoughts, can hear the rapid staccato that accents their breathing.

    They mingle for a few more moments before splitting up and moving to their own cars. Futori's driver stands ready and opens the door for him. Crawford returns to his place and easily slips his buckle into place. He rests his hands on the steering wheel, waiting for the rest of the cars to be full. Four engines hum to life. Futori's car pulls away from the curb first, and Crawford steers us to fall into line right behind him. The other two cars follow and we are on our way. This ceremony is taking place right inside the city, in TaoCorp's side building. It was designed for things like this and is capable of seating everyone comfortably.

    "So," I start, lowering my arms to cross them loosely over my chest. "What does Futori think?" I ask, eyes dancing with amusement as I look towards Crawford.

    He lifts one hand from the wheel to lightly press his fingertips to his eyelids, showing that his eyes are still bothering him. When he drops his hand to the wheel again he speaks. "He is not going to make it," is his response. "He thinks he has a good chance, but he does not have what it takes to make the cut." I give a bark of laughter, satisfied and amused by the answer. "This is our last run with TaoCorp before Estet is moving us from them. Another group will be able to watch him from now on. He does not need our power at his disposal if he is going to be dropping ranks."

    That means our house arrest will be lifted. We will once more have the ability to go wherever we want, whenever we want. That is, until Estet finds us another worthless person to watch over. Then we'll drop back to restricted schedules. It will be good to be able to wander the city again.

    Futori is going to be extremely unhappy when he finds out that Crawford is the one who destroyed his career. We were assigned to him because he is a pivot point in the level he is at. Until Estet decided whether they wanted him or the woman he's even with to ascend, we were supposed to remain with him. Crawford carefully eased Futori through decisions so both him and the girl were on even footing, making it easy for us to drop one when the time came. Several days ago, Estet chose between them and needed us to split Futori away. That was almost too easy. Crawford merely guided Futori into decisions that would kill his career. Futori doesn't know yet what we've done to him.

    "That makes today more interesting," I say. It will be my job to keep track of those who are slighted in the promotions. Until the names are called it is a rather boring job, as no one in TaoCorp has any interesting gray matter between their ears. It comes with its small bonuses, however. I will get to witness their shock and anger firsthand. That is almost enough to make up for mind-sitting.



    I almost don't bother to cover my yawn, and the volume of it causes several of the people around me to glance my direction. I flick a careless look in their direction, resettling myself noisily in my seat. Nagi, sitting across from me at our round table, sighs softly in annoyed resignation. Farfarello has his arms folded on the table and is resting his chin on them, amber eye slowly sweeping the crowd as he mentally debates which ones could be tonight's unfortunates that he gets to kill. I turn my eyes towards the front of this large room, where the long tables are set up for the businessmen. I can easily spot Crawford in his white suit where he is sitting beside Futori. On the stage, the CEO is giving a welcome speech and praising individuals whose hard work have caught attention. There is applause following his words, more polite than anything else, and the tension in the room grows. On the outside, all of these men and women look calm and collected. On the inside they are buzzing with anticipation.

    Finally the man on stage settles down to business. He shifts positions, leaning closer to the microphone and propping his arms on the podium. "We will now go on to recognize those who have been selected to promote themselves further. Please hold all remarks and applause until everyone has been called." Saying so, he adjusts his glasses and peers down at the paper in front of him.

    The room falls into tense silence. I'm pretty sure everyone is holding his breath. I cough loudly to break the quiet and those near me jump, startled, and stare at me. I prop my chin on my hand and arch a brow at them in amused condescension.

    I let the names being called go in one ear and out the other. I know when Futori's name is skipped over by the startled jump in his thoughts and smirk against my palm. He is near the end of the list, and when the CEO is finished, there is a long moment of silence. Finally applause starts. It begins as an explosion of flurried claps from the parties associated with TaoCorp's chosen ones. Eventually some of those who were skipped over add tight, slow applause to the roar. It's easy to tell who was left out by their dark faces and gloomy thoughts. I seek out Futori once more with both my mind and my eyes. I cannot see him; everyone is rising to leave.

    /My, my.../ I say, offering the words to the rest of Schwarz. /Futori not a happy camper./

    ~We are not interested in his happiness,~ is Nagi's simple response, and I laugh quietly at his words. How true.

    ~Is he needed, anymore?~ Farfarello asks, directing the question at both himself and us. He lifts his chin from his arm, single eye turned in Futori's direction.

    I reach outwards, testing for Crawford's mind. It is mainly a one-way bond: he will hear whatever I send him and I will receive only what he chooses to send back. /How much is Futori's life worth?/ I ask. /Farfarello's ready to auction it off./

    ~If he is allowed to live, he will cause trouble for Yawaguchi,~ Crawford says, referring to Futori's peer that just got promoted.

    The CEO taps the microphone several times, calling for silence. The noise dies down slowly and he clears his throat, peering around. "Congratulations to everyone. To those that were not chosen, keep in mind that we will always be looking to recognize individuals with promotions. Keep up the good work, dedicate yourselves to TaoCorp, and you will see yourselves rewarded. Now then, those promoted are invited to stay for a celebratory lunch. Everyone else, we will see you Monday." With a nod, he steps away from the platform.

    The crowd begins filing towards the doors, their talk subdued and punctuated now and then by a sharp sound of anger. Farfarello looks at me and I let a wide smirk spread on my mouth. When I nod, he slips from his chair and vanishes into the crowd on silent feet. I lose him easily among the throng of dark business suits and laugh, rising from my own chair. Farfarello is eager to kill. He is no idiot, however. He will take his prey away from the noise and hundreds of eyes. When he is finished, he will join us at our car. I know when Farfarello has successfully found and captured his victim by the stab of confusion and fear in Futori's thoughts. Moments later, Crawford materializes from the crowd alone.

    "Are you going to speak to Yawaguchi?" I ask.

    He gives a slight shake of his head, beckoning for us to follow. "I have had enough of useless politicians for one day," he answers. Nagi stands and trails behind us as Crawford easily weaves a way through the crowd.

    I pause outside, surveying the parking lot. It is a traffic jam of its own as so many people try to leave at once. It will be mostly cleared by the time Farfarello returns and is ready to go. If it is not, Nagi can get us a slot by stalling someone's car. We stand by our car to wait on our teammate and I lounge against the door, arms crossed over my chest. The cars to either side of us belong to Futori's entourage, and the men standing around them look extremely dejected. Now and then, one of them looks towards the building, waiting for Futori to show up. The idiots have no clue that he'll never come.

    It takes five minutes before I hear Farfarello's voice in my mind, reporting calmly that Futori is dead. I turn to face my door, looking over the top of the car at Crawford. I do not need to speak; he knows from the movement alone that our teammate is ready to be picked up. Nagi pops the locks up with a simple push and we climb into our respective seats. The doors slamming shut catch the attention of Futori's staff and they glance towards each other. Finally a few approach Crawford's window. I buckle myself up, glancing back at Nagi. He is busy laying plastic sheets over the seat Farfarello will sit in. Crawford will not be happy if Farfarello gets blood on his interior.

    Crawford rolls the window down when a face lowers to a breath's distance away. "Where are you going?" the man asks. Crawford gives him a calm look and I lean forward slightly to gaze past Crawford outside. The man looks from Crawford to me and back again. "Where's Futori-sama? I thought you men were supposed to be watching him."

    "Our contract lasted until the day the promotions were announced," Crawford says simply. There is nothing threatening in his words or appearance, but the man he is speaking to seems to regret approaching us. "They have been announced. We have more important things to deal with now."

    "But..." The man trails off, glancing towards the building. When he looks back again, Crawford has already rolled his window up. The engine starts and the man backs away. I wiggle my fingers to him in a mocking farewell as we pull away.

    "Farfarello's by the south exit," I tell Crawford, and he turns into another parking lot. There are three for this building. All of the cars are going the opposite direction on their way out of here, so it takes no time at all before we are where we need to be. Crawford stops at the curb and gazes past me. I look out as Farfarello pushes the glass doors open. Apparently, several days of house arrest made him restless. He is bloodier than he usually gets on simple in-and-out murders. Dark crimson stains the front of his shirt and is streaked on his face and arms. His knife is held between his teeth by the blade.

    Nagi opens the door for him without moving from his spot and Farfarello slides in, seating himself on the plastic Nagi has laid out. He closes the door behind him and we pull away from the curb. "Feeling better?" I ask him, grinning.

    The gleam of an amber eye is enough answer for me and I laugh.


    It is after midnight when I finally return to our headquarters. I pause outside of the front door to drop my cigarette to the ground, easily grinding it with a shoe. I exhale slowly, the smoke going unseen in the darkness. I am tired, but it is a satisfied weariness. I have been out making up for lost time, enjoying the nightlife of the city. I vanished from this place as soon as Crawford sent the call to Estet to inform them of Futori's death. Now, fourteen hours later, I return smelling of cigarettes and perfume. I don't particularly like the floral scents that cling to me. The women of the clubs put on entirely too much. Once it has begun to mingle with the sweat of their dancing bodies it is nothing more than a sickly smell.

    I step inside and close the door behind me, not bothering to close it quietly. I slide the locks back into place and make my way down the hall. The place is dark. The only light left on at night is the flourescent light hanging above the sink. It casts a pale yellow glow in the kitchen that doesn't quite reach the doorway to illuminate the hall's carpet.

    I am almost to my room when I notice another light is on. I can see it shining beneath the cracks of a door further on- the bathroom. The door isn't closed all the way, as if someone was in a hurry to get there. It is enough to catch my interest. It seems Nagi is staying up late again. I reach out with my mind to bother him, but the brush against Nagi's thoughts show he is asleep. I pause in the doorway of my bedroom. Apparently I was wrong in my guess. It is Crawford in the bathroom.

    I enter my room without bothering to turn the lights and toe my shoes off, kicking them aside. I peel off my clothes, thinking of how useful it would be to have Nagi's gift as I throw them in the general direction of my laundry basket. Within moments I am dressed in the simple pants and shirt outfit I use as sleepware. I crawl onto my bed, flopping carelessly on my back. My eyes stray towards the window and I gaze at the stars showing through the class. I'm going to have a nasty time five hours from now when the sun chooses to come up. If I wasn't so lazy, I would get up and move my bed.

    I make a mental note to get Nagi to bump it over and roll onto my side, burrowing the side of my face into my pillow.

    Twenty minutes later I give up pretending to be asleep and sprawl back onto my back, staring up at the ceiling. I'm tired as hell, but I can't sleep. Damn it.

    Something is keeping me awake. What is it?

    Coughing reaches my ears and I turn my head in the direction of the door. I can hear water running. It stops, then starts again. This happens several more times until I grow curious.

    Well, I'm not getting anything done lying here, now am I? I sit up and slide off my bed, padding towards the door. The bathroom light is still on. That is where the noise is coming from. I head towards it, stopping a few inches away to peek in. I don't want to go in if I'm going to catch my teammate on the toilet. What I can see of Crawford, though, shows he is standing at the counter in his pajama pants. I push the door open some more with a hand, stepping into the doorway.

    "Isn't it a little late to be brushing your teeth?" I ask him.

    He is leaning over the sink, arms resting on the counter. At my entrance and words, he straightens, lightly pressing the back of his hand to his mouth as he turns his eyes on me. ~Do you need something?~ he asks, and I blink in surprise that he has chosen to ask it telepathically. It's not because he's trying to be quiet, that's for sure. He reaches for the hand towel that is crumpled on the counter beside him and dries his face and hands.

    "It's two fifteen and you're awake. I find that curious enough to investigate."

    Crawford sets the towel aside, levelling me a look that clearly states he is waiting for me to move out of the way. I play ignorant, yawning loudly and stretching. I can see the distaste in his eyes when I have finished my very thorough stretch and gaze back at him, tugging on stray strands of hair that dangle over my shoulder. Obviously he does not like the smell I have brought home. It seems to be magnified now, perhaps because I am thinking about it, and I consider this. I do not want my bed to smell like this. It seems I'm going to have to take a shower, then.


    A grin dances on my lips. "Yes?"

    "Get out of the way."

    I roll my eyes as if it is seriously inconveniencing me and step back a couple feet, leaving ample room for him to exit. Crawford takes a step forward and seems to forget how to walk midstep. My extremely graceful and dignified leader stumbles. My mind is torn between two different drains of thoughts: catch him or let him fall so I can laugh at his ass on the ground. Even while I'm considering how wonderfully entertaining the second choice would be I'm moving out of instinct, feet carrying me swiftly forward. I loop my arms under his and feel his fingers close briefly on my upper arms as Crawford makes contact with my body.

    I freeze, startled jade eyes staring straight ahead. His head is lowered and over my churning thoughts I can feel through a briefly weakened link a rocking dizziness. My mouth opens as I try to put myself back in charge of the situation with a cutting remark, but words will not form and I have to close my mouth again silently. No matter how well you carve a path through life, no matter how smooth you can talk, no matter what you do, there will always be those tiny awkward moments when you find yourself at a loss. This is one of those moments.

    Crawford pulls away then, stepping back to let space fall between us. He lifts a hand, lightly touching his fingers to his forehead. I follow his example and take my own step back, crossing my arms over my chest. I can feel the rapid tattoo of my heart against my arms through my flimsy shirt- apparently his stumble startled me more than I originally thought. My brain is working again and I arch a brow at him.

    "That gets a ten on the ungraceful scale," I tell him. He waves his other hand at me in a gesture for me to shut up, pressing his fingertips harder against his forehead. I decide to categorize the movement as being too subtle for me and continue. "Have you been into my beer?"

    He chooses to be more blunt. "Shut up."

    I cannot help but snicker. It's only Crawford's third morning being sick and he's already lowered himself from calm talk to a flat out 'shut up'. That's something to write on the calendar. Perhaps it's because I'm more likely to listen to "Shut up" than "Be quiet." "Be quiet" doesn't sound all that threatening.

    With that, he picks his way towards his room. He seems to have regained his sense of balance, at least. I watch him go until I hear the click of his bedroom door behind him. I am alone in the household once more. I gaze down the hall in the direction Crawford went, seconds ticking by as I'm lost in thoughts I don't know I'm thinking. It occurs to me some unknown minutes later that I had decided to do something. But what...?

    The light shining into the hall from the open bathroom catches my attention and I look towards it. Ah. I had been planning to shower.

    Invisible fingers tighten on my arms in an instinctive search for balance and I drop my eyes to the sleeves of my shirt. Slowly I lift a hand, running my own fingers over the place where Crawford's just were. Physical contact between the four is something that almost never happens. Most of the time it happens is when we are tending to Farfarello. Why would we touch each other? We have to live with each other. The teamwork is the most we will sacrifice to each other, the most of ourselves we are interested in receiving or giving away.

    It seems everything I say has an exception to it, I muse as I trace the folds in my sleeve, feeling again that hard body falling against mine, seeing again that proud man losing control and needing me to catch him.

    I do not know why I bother thinking about such things. I know Crawford will not spare it a second thought- except perhaps in annoyance over his dizziness. Why would he? He said it to my face. When? Three months? No. Four. That was the first and last time I ever taunted him about something sexual. I don't know why it sticks with me. I don't know why I can still feel bitter over his response.

    I close my eyes, drifting back to that day. We had just finished working with a client who had made no secret of the fact that she wanted to slip between Crawford's sheets. She had been sorely disappointed when Crawford smoothly and dispassionately evaded all of her not-so-subtle attempts to get his attention. I swear that lady gave seduction a bad name. When she left I had prodded at Crawford, saying that I would have slept with her to take her off his hands- though the thought is almost enough to make me nauseous.

    Crawford had paused where he was straightening his papers and sent me a calm look, eyebrows raised ever so slightly in his own version of mockery. "It's just you, Schuldich. I don't think she's that desperate."

    Just me.

    There was something else I was planning on doing. I turn sharply on my heel and move down the hall towards the kitchen. Our calendar is hanging on the fridge. I open a drawer, rummaging through the contents in search of a permanent marker. Eventually my fingers close on one and I pop the lid off, chucking it aside to roll on the counter. I turn to the calendar, eyes skimming the rows of squares in search of today's date. When I find it I write in as legible of handwriting I know: "Crawford Fails Grace Test".

    I take a step back to eye my handiwork before tossing the pen in the general direction of the lid.

    "Should have let you fall," I declare to the empty room before turning and heading back to bed.

Part 3