Part Six

    I lift a hand, effectively cutting off what the medic is saying. He stares wide-eyed at me, intimidated by me. I take a limping step forward and he barely manages to hold his ground. Nagi and Farfarello are standing quietly behind me. I can sense Nagi's doubt easily, and I don't have to look back to know that his mouth is pulled into a faint frown. "Wait just one minute," I say slowly. "Repeat what you just said."

    He clears his throat, rearranging his clothes and glancing around nervously. He's not encouraged by either of my teammates and slowly lifts his eyes to mine again. "I said the EKG doesn't show anything wrong with his heart. He's fine."

    "How could he be fine? Did you _see_ him when he came in?"

    He clears his throat again and the noise annoys me. "Yes, yes, I did. Remember, I was the one who redirected him to..." He trails off, knowing I'm not interested. "We've gone over the symptoms with him, and we think it's quite plain that he had a panic attack."

    "A panic attack," I repeat blankly.

    "Yes, yes." He ticks the symptoms off on his fingers. "Shortness of breath, light-headedness, feeling your throat closing, increased heart rate, numbness or tingling of the hands and feet, blurred vision, and headache." Numbness of the hands...My mind goes back to the way he couldn't seem to get his hands to wake up at Fuwigama's and I feel my lips twitch into a frown. "It can be triggered by a great amount of stress and anxiety. Obviously, as the Oracle of Schwarz, he is bound to be under stress."

    I'm trying to add this all together, but two and two are making five. "Crawford doesn't panic."

    "He has a very straining job," the medic tells me. "It's bound to take its toll."

    The idea of Crawford having a panic attack is ridiculous. One aspect of it is hilarious- this is something I could hound Crawford with for an eternity without getting bored- while the rest is just plain idiocy. Crawford couldn't have had a panic attack. It had to have been a heart attack. We were on a simple job, not something that would push him over the edge! Had it been compounded by his illness? What could have unbalanced him enough to have a panic attack? "You're sure," I say, and the medic nods.

    "He has recovered already," he adds, gesturing to the room behind him, "if you wish to speak to him."

    Dozens of taunts swarm upwards in my mind, ripe for the picking. I can taste them on my tongue, but for some reason I'm not interested in vocalizing them right now.

    "Good evening, Mastermind," someone speaks up behind me.

    My blood runs cold and I feel every muscle in my body freeze. I stop breathing. The greeting echoes in my brain, an all-too familiar voice. I see icy blue eyes dancing in my mind, narrowed and scornful. There is the quiet sound of footsteps as an older man draws even with me. I remember to breathe and the rush of air to my lungs is painful. I refuse to look at the man beside me. His mind is silent to me, as are the minds of the other three Councilmen. Instead of being a shield like Crawford's, however, this man's is a vast emptiness I could get lost in. Nausea rolls in my stomach. "Herr Hoffmann," I greet, voice subdued without being submissive.

    "I came for the report on Oracle," Hoffmann says, directing the words at the medic. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck is standing on end and I wish he would just step away from me. He's too close. He holds out his hand and the medic hands the folder over. Hoffmann reads over it slowly.

    Crawford appears in the doorway behind the medic then, perhaps drawn by the voice of one of the Council. "Mister Hoffmann," he greets quietly. He is not acknowledged until the Councilman has finished reading to his satisfaction.

    "Well, well, Oracle..." Hoffmann closes the folder and tucks it under one arm. It seems he wishes to bring it back to the rest of the Council. My eyes are on Crawford. Crawford's eyes are pointed at Hoffmann's chest. Neither of us is stupid enough to look Hoffmann in the eyes. "We've been talking about you." There's no doubt in my mind who 'we' is. I feel a chill go up my spine. "Mosuli was saying just a short while ago that we should count our blessings that you were doing so well for us. I suppose he jinxed you." Crawford doesn't make the mistake of looking like he's agreeing or disagreeing. To agree would be putting blame on Mosuli. To disagree would be insolence to Hoffmann.

    Hoffmann squints at Crawford. "You will have to be put down on temporary leave. If it was a panic attack, it is not contagious, so you will be permitted to remain with your team. However, you will seek therapy and counseling. The medics will see to it that we do not have another attack." There's a not-so-subtle order, and the medic gives a nervous nod. "If you make no progress, you will be removed," he says simply.

    Removed from Schwarz...and life. Estet will not hold onto a defective agent.

    Crawford inclines his head slightly, accepting the words in silence.

    Hoffmann turns to go and pauses briefly to gaze at me. I keep my gaze fixed on Crawford. "A pleasure to see you again, Schuldich."

    He is waiting for a response. My jaws have locked themselves together, but when he wants a response he is to have one. "Herr Hoffmann," I return, somehow getting my mouth to work.

    I think I see a ghost of a smirk on his face as he turns away and heads off. When I hear the door close behind him I can breathe normally again. Slowly my muscles relax. He's gone, I tell myself. I can feel myself calming down considerably. Only then do I realize my hands are clenched into tight fists by my side. I force them to open and gaze down at my palms. My fingernails have left moon indents on the skin. I close my hands again, shoving away the desire to shiver, and slide them into my pockets. Despite Crawford's calm exterior, I have a feeling he is on edge as well. Not even he can face the Council without feeling some fear. The Council makes sure no one forgets them. They make sure no one will cross them.

    Crawford nods to the medic and moves towards the door. I fall in behind him silently. Nagi and Farfarello wait until we've passed to fall in line behind me. I can hear the wariness in Nagi's mind and the interest in Farfarello's. Neither of them know the Council as Crawford and I do. There was no need for a...formal introduction, not when Crawford could keep them in line so easily. Both of our teammates picked up on the change in power in the room, however. That was enough to catch Farfarello's attention and to put Nagi on guard.

    I ignore my younger teammates; they are not important. Instead I fix my eyes on Crawford's back. I warned him not to catch the Council's attention. The highest clairvoyant and one of the Council's top five, Crawford can't afford to stumble. Schwarz cannot afford to stumble. We work so well because our powers balance perfectly. Crawford sees victory and we seize it. If Crawford doesn't recover...

    I shove these thoughts away. I have no desire to deal with them right now.


    I'm gazing at the television set without really seeing what's on it. The words roll against my ears and go unheard. Today has been an odd day, as I knew it would be. None of us are sure what to think about this. None of us know what to say or how to act after last night. Our invincible leader has stumbled. A panic attack? Is this what it has boiled down to? The proud and unyielding Crawford collapses under stress? The thought tastes scornful in my mind, more like vinegar than honey. He has been fine up until now. For six years, I never saw a flaw in his work or his attitude. Now he caves? Is he so weak that he can just collapse like this?

    The signs are all there, but I cannot accept them. I cannot fully accept the medic's verdict.

    I turn off the television. It wasn't doing any good being on, anyway.

    Crawford is reading a newspaper beside me. He's the only one who is acting normal. The way he acts, you'd think he isn't bothered by this at all. You'd think he isn't bothered by falling under the Council's watchful eye, isn't bothered that he's fallen quite a few notches on the power scale. Even if he recovers, our clients will never respect him as much. How can they fear and respect someone who has panic attacks?

    Damn it, Crawford!

    I'm angry at him, angry and scornful. Where is the man that never slipped up? Look at him. He limps around the house like I do, but he has no wounds. His hands are clumsy on things. His visions screwed up and almost got me killed. The one that no one ever expected to bring harm to Schwarz is the one that almost killed one of its members. I chuck the remote control to one side and it thuds against a coffee table before falling to the ground. The lamp on top of the table rocks under the impact and I watch with detached interest to see if it will fall.

    "Don't throw things."

    I meet Crawford's eyes slowly but boldly, a taunting smirk curled on my lips. "Why not?"

    He doesn't answer. He doesn't have to. The look in his eyes is response enough: Because I told you so.

    My smirk widens. "Do forgive me," I drawl, mocking him, and slide off the couch to fetch the remote. "How awful...I might have broken something, ne?" Our eyes are locked together, challenging each other. "Maybe you should hold onto the remote." I toss it at him. He catches it, but cannot work his hand right to hold onto it and it falls from his hand to the second coffee table positioned beside his chair. The glass top rattles in protest. "You're noisy," I tell Crawford, moving towards the door. "I can't think with all the racket you're making."

    "Thinking is a skill you never learned," Crawford returns easily and calmly.

    "Perhaps I don't think." I stop in the doorway and look back at him. "But I don't try to get my teammates killed, either."

    There is no reaction from him, not a single subtle change to tell me what he thinks about that accusation. I give the impression of not caring what he thinks by not waiting around more than a breath to observe him. I step out of the doorway and stroll down the hall as well as one can stroll with a sprained ankle. I yawn loudly and don't bother to cover it. My mind easily and instinctively locates my teammates. Farfarello is back in his room, thinking of horses. Nagi is working on his next school project. That's what kept him busy at Fuwigama's. He will be good for entertainment. I hobble into the kitchen and grab a drink from the fridge before moving down the hall to Nagi's room. I push the door open easily and wander inside. Nagi doesn't look up; he doesn't have to. I'm the only one that wanders in his room like this. If Crawford needs him, he will knock once and Nagi will answer the door immediately. He and Nagi tend to stay out of each other's personal bubbles. They hold some distant respect for each other's work. Crawford allowed Nagi to take classes, so he gives the boy the privacy to work on his papers. Nagi knows Crawford makes our group successful and lets the man do his work without annoyance.

    Farfarello has no interest to go in the boy's room, so that leaves me to barge in. After all, I don't give a damn about the boy's grades. I never did see what was so important about school. I never even went to high school. Estet picked me up before I started, and the schooling I received after that was comprised mostly of lessons on my power and the workings of the political world.

    I invite myself to sit and plop on Nagi's bed. It's like Crawford's, always tidily made, but if Nagi didn't have telekinesis to do the work for him I bet it'd be left undone everyday. I reach out, pushing at his pillow to leave indents in it. As soon as my hand lifts from the surface, the pillow fluffs itself out. Nagi glances over at me without slowing in his typing. Show off. "Do you need something?" he asks simply.

    My mouth twitches. "Not a thing," I answer blithely.

    He isn't fooled but returns to his work. I lean over, peering at his screen although I can see in his mind what he's working on. "Can't you find better things to do with your time?"

    "Such as wandering around provoking everyone?" Nagi asks.

    "It's great entertainment."

    "You were bothering Crawford, weren't you?" Nagi asks after some hesitation. His fingers still on his keyboard. I do not answer. I do not have to. My smirk tells all. He glances sideways at me, and I can see disapproval in his eyes. That's nothing new. "If you're bored, you should take some classes as well. They offer all sorts of things, and education helps."

    "All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten," I respond blithely. "Naps and playtime rule the world."

    "I didn't go to kindergarten," Nagi says simply.

    "That explains why you're such a dry person. Crawford probably skipped it, too."

    "You are hard on him."

    "What do you care?" I lift an eyebrow in derision.

    "He doesn't give you a hard time when you have to take your Athlon," Nagi says, and there is a flat edge to his voice.

    I blink at him. Nagi's a little bold today..."You're not in the most pleasant of moods. Make a bad grade?" I ask him, leaning back to flop on my back on his bed. His mattress isn't as soft as mine. "I don't see why you bother getting an education, anyway. It won't get you anywhere. Your soul is attached to Estet, and you'll be here until you die or you fail. Which, with Crawford how he is, might come up quicker than you think."

    Nagi begins typing again, fingers flying over the keyboard. For several moments there is only silence. "I am busy, Schuldich," he says.

    "So work," I return, waving one hand in the air to show that I'm not moving. A glance in his direction shows that his lips have thinned in faint annoyance. I gaze up at the ceiling, my lazy body enjoying being sprawled out. My mind runs over our conversation in an attempt to find out what's bugging our little Asian kid. I always give Crawford a hard time. Why would my doing it now be met with any change in emotion from Nagi? I have a right to be annoyed with Crawford. He slipped up. Excuse me if I don't jump when he says jump...Sprained ankle, you know.

    So what if Crawford doesn't bother me when my gift is too much? That's just part of his attitude, like mine is to pester.

    So what...?

    "You're boring," I announce. Nagi's bed doesn't seem to be even the slightest bit of comfortable anymore. I sit up and struggle to my feet. Nagi doesn't answer. I hobble towards the door and let myself back into the hall.


    I pad down the hall towards the kitchen, tugging absently at my pajama shirt. An old German tune comes to mind and I mumble the words to it as I approach the kitchen. I have to stop in the hall outside of the kitchen, however, because someone is blocking the doorway with their back to me. It's Crawford- no surprise. I wait a moment to see if he'll move, but he doesn't budge quick enough. "Oi," I say, trying to get his attention. He doesn't respond and doesn't move. "Move your American ass," I tell him. "Those who get in between me and the coffee pot will die."

    "It doesn't work."

    "It had damn well better work. I'm not going to resort to sucking coffee filters." I peer over his shoulder at the coffee pot. It was working yesterday..."It's full, you ass. What do you mean it doesn't work?"

    Have I mentioned I'm not a morning person?

    "My leg," Crawford clarifies himself.

    I glance at his leg and only then notice his strange posture. He is leaning against the doorframe, hands curled on it as if for support. His legs look fine. "Then _limp_ yourself out of the way, cripple, and let me get to the coffee." He doesn't even shift to one side to let me slide past. Annoyed, I reach out and give him a small push.

    Fingers claw at the doorframe but can't regain their hold. Crawford doesn't make it a foot forward. He doesn't even stumble more than two inches. He wasn't joking; his legs don't work at all. I'm too stunned to grab at him and he crashes against the ground, hitting it hard with his shoulder. He lays there for a moment, staring into space, before turning his gaze up on me. I give a low whistle. "Ladies and gentleman, the London Bridge has fallen down." Crawford gives me his I'm-Not-Amused look. I raise my eyebrows at him. "You only said 'leg'. You didn't say neither of them were working."

    "One was working just a moment ago," he says- a bit frostily, I might add.

    I'm going to bet his shoulder bruises. I consider stepping past him and getting my coffee, but wait a moment longer. He pushes himself up on his arms, easing himself into a sitting position. I decide this makes up for him slipping up on the mission. Watching Crawford eat tile can do wonders to settle grudges. My lips are pulled in a wide smirk and now I cross the room to pour myself a drink. "Let me know when you start having chest pains and I'll call the medic to come unpanic you," I say over my shoulder.

    "Shut up."

    That's twice he's said that. I sip at my coffee and turn to face Crawford. He's studying his legs as if he's never seen them before. I set my mug aside and lift down a second, pouring it. I carry the mugs to him and crouch beside him, offering him one. He takes it absently. "You know, this floor probably isn't clean," I tell him.

    "It's not soft, either," Crawford returns dryly.

    I laugh quietly and sip at my drink again. "I think we're even, now," I observe.

    He eyes me for a moment before lifting his mug to his lips. "Perhaps."

    I straighten and wander down the hall to fetch his newspaper. It's enough of a break in tradition that he's not in the living room...Let's not skip every step, hm? I bring it back to him and he unrolls it silently. I sit to one side of him, gazing at nothing and drinking while he reads. When he is finished with it and sets the paper aside, I gaze at his feet. He studies them as well, and I assume he's trying to move them. They don't even twitch. I cannot help myself; I am curious. "What does it feel like?"

    He pauses, considering this, and I lift our empty mugs and carry them to the dishwasher. My plate isn't on the counter. I guess Nagi took care of it for me last night. "They are dead. They are not there."

    It must be a strange sensation, I muse.


    Both of us glance towards the doorway. Nagi is staring at Crawford, unable to hide his surprise at seeing the American sitting on the floor with his legs stretched in front of him. I turn and lean against the counter, and Nagi looks at me. "He's fallen and he can't get up," I say, raising my eyebrows at the youth. "His legs don't work. This is your specialty, chibi." I wave my hand at him. Nagi looks at Crawford, who must be tired of sitting on the floor by now. Crawford's right; that floor isn't soft. My rear is sore.

    Crawford gives a slight nod and is slowly pulled to his feet by Nagi's power. I move towards Crawford. I rub my chin and look him up and down, walking in circles around him. "Hmm...Yes, he might be all right." I make a gesture in the general direction of the living room, looking at Nagi. "What about the den? Maybe put him on a couch or something, to make him look more lifelike...Would that be nice? Our own little Crawford doll..."

    "Schuldich." I'm-Still-Not-Amused.

    I ignore Crawford, reaching out and tugging at the tag of his shirt. I jump back as if burned after skimming it. "Egad, never mind. He's too expensive. And imagine the upkeep." I shake my head, moving towards the door, and Nagi floats Crawford towards a chair at the table. "Never mind," I say, sighing as if disheartened. "Take it away."

    "You can't always get what you wish for," Crawford remarks calmly.

    What I wish for...

    I pause in the doorway. Wish for him to be taken away? Nein...A flicker of a bare chest crosses my mind, and suddenly I can feel a body stumbling and collapsing against mine, unable to support itself. I look over my shoulder at him, a wry smirk playing on my lips. "I learned that long ago." With that, I exit the room.

    I think I'm going to eat breakfast out today, in the city. I have the desire to see the skyscrapers.


    I find myself at the gym after breakfast. I haven't been here since I accompanied Crawford here that one time. I wander through the place. My path seems aimless to others, but my feet are taking me back over the steps I walked that day. Eventually they bring me to the weight room, and I pause beside an empty bench. One hand runs absently over the bar and fingers the weights on each end. I had walked in while Crawford was lifting weights and at first had decided to come and bother him. I had put my hand out and pressed down on the bar to add more weight. He had put the bar back on its hooks and sat up, turning to face me.

    It was the first time I'd seen him without his shirt on. Who would have guessed that under that dress shirt was a well-packed body? I mean, I know he used to box, but I'd assumed any muscles he'd had had gone to flab under Estet. I remember staring, and knowing I was staring and knowing that it was obvious I was staring, but it wasn't easy to tear my eyes away. I don't know why. In my mind, I allow my eyes to trail down his glistening body and over the ridges of nicely-formed muscles. In that moment, I had felt...I don't know. Attraction, possibly, on a physical level. Something like want or hunger, maybe, but I doubt it. I don't know what I felt. I didn't know then. I only had the feeling that it was dangerous, whatever it was.

    That's why I stopped going to the gym with him.

    Physical attraction is a normal thing of life. I know that. I can appreciate a well-formed body, I suppose. And of course that appreciation would go to Crawford. It's not like we have any females on our team. The only women I've seen for the past six years were part of our clients' entourage or the two secretaries under Estet. So naturally I would only be able to appreciate another male's body.


    I glide past the words in my mind that point out the countless times I've seen Farfarello shirtless, glide past the voice that says Farfarello is built better than Crawford is.

    These things are unimportant.

    I leave the gym in search of entertainment.

Part 7