1: Famous Last Words

      Schuldich was the second to enter the kitchen that morning. Crawford glanced up from where he was already seated at the table, a newspaper in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. His younger teammate pulled out the chair opposite the American, turning it around and seating himself in it. One arm was draped lazily over the back of the chair to act as a prop for his chin and Schuldich reached out with the other hand to tug a discarded section of newspaper towards him. For a while the only sound between them was the soft scratch of pages sliding against each other. There were no greetings, no idle chitchat. They'd been partners for seven years and known each other for longer, and the silence between them had long since been comfortable. Crawford knew there had to be a reason for the younger man to search him out so early in the day, however, so set his newspaper down when he finished the article he was on. Schuldich recognized it as permission to speak and dropped the segment he'd stolen to turn blue eyes on Crawford.

      "Farfarello has a bad feeling," he said simply. "He's not enthusiastic about this job."

      Crawford considered that, reaching up to lift his glasses from his face as he thought. "When did he say that?" he wanted to know.

      "Brought it up last night while you were gone," was the response. The German idly drummed his fingers on the table, the small frown on his face thoughtful. "Came out of nowhere, too. I don't even know what brought it up. 'We shouldn't go,' he said, but he doesn't know why and he doesn't know what's off."

      Crawford's own mouth curved into a slight frown as he considered this. Farfarello was a low level Sensitive, and as such was prone to pick up on both things that his teammates with their Talents knew and things that they missed. The team was used to taking his little feelings into mind when working, but Farfarello had never before said something about an entire job. They were used to him knowing where targets were, knowing little things like who was injured or sick and which way to turn. For him to sit back and declare a whole job a bad call was something new and unexpected.

      "Have you seen anything?" Schuldich wanted to know.

      Crawford shook his head. "Nothing that would prove disadvantageous to us. Working with Hasagawa will open up a new line of clients to us and we could stay busy for a while. It's power in all the right places, which was why we approached him in the first place." He took the last sip of his coffee, lukewarm by now, and set the mug aside. He laced his fingers together and set them on the table, considering this. "I have not yet seen any possible way that we would regret doing such a thing."

      Schuldich didn't respond, knowing that Crawford was going to look again. Golden brown and blue met over the table, one watching the other's face expectantly, the other staring through his companion as he pressed into the future. Hazy colors drifted around him and he studied the little flickers off to his sides, pulled closer the knowledge that a dip into precognition gave him. Everything his gift told him was familiar; he'd heard it in pieces before deciding that Schwarz should make a move on Hasagawa Tatsuo. Now he concentrated on the pictures, just faint blurs of colors on the edges of his vision. He studied them each in turn, watching them come into focus. They were short little clips on repeat and he had seen them all before. He abandoned them, opening his gift to see if it brought him anything new, but nothing came.

      Schuldich knew when Crawford had refocused on him and straightened in his chair, sliding his hands back to rest them on his thighs. "Nothing," he mused at the older assassin's small shake of his head. He considered this, then gave a small nod and rose from his chair. He locked his fingers together behind his head, using a shoe to turn the chair back around the way it was supposed to be. "What should I tell Farfarello, then?" he wanted to know.

      "To keep his senses open," Crawford answered. Schuldich accepted this in silence, but Crawford could tell from the way the frown still lingered on his lips that he was going to be wondering about it for a while. "We're leaving in two hours," Crawford said, picking up the newspaper again. It was mostly an act, a way to show Schuldich that he wasn't overly concerned with Farfarello's grim prediction. It worked; he saw Schuldich's expression smooth out. They'd been together for too long for Schuldich to doubt Crawford now. He would trust the American and trust his visions to keep Schwarz safe. "We have a tour of Hasagawa's facilities at ten-thirty and will be eating early lunch with him before moving on to business."

      Schuldich nodded and left the room, off to spread that to their younger teammates. As soon as he was gone, Crawford lowered his hand to let the newspaper rest against the table. He studied the empty doorway, turning Schuldich's words over in his head. Schwarz was used to taking Farfarello's little feelings and premonitions into consideration, but something like this? For Farfarello to feel something that would declare the entire job a bad idea, it should have registered on another gift. Nagi should have found something when he did background research on Hasagawa and his corporation, something that would have told him something was out of place. Schuldich should have been able to find something when he and Crawford first approached Hasagawa. The meeting had told them that their client had mental shielding, but there was still Schuldich's dull empathy, which allowed him to read others' emotions even if he couldn't control them. And Crawford himself… There should have been something.

      Well, there was still today. He glanced towards his watch before rising from his chair, carrying his mug to the sink to rinse it and then refill it from the pot. If Farfarello was right, then something would happen today. One of them would find something out of place and Schwarz would call it quits if it was serious enough. And if there was nothing, Schwarz would stay, and working with Hasagawa would open up a whole new corridor of opportunities for them.

      These thoughts in mind, he took his mug back to the table to finish his newspaper.


      Schuldich let himself into Farfarello's room, helping himself to the Irishman's bed because Farfarello was currently sitting on top of his dresser. He let himself fall backwards to the mattress, listening to the springs squeak in protest as he hit it, and shifted until he was comfortable. He propped his feet up on the baseboard, crossing his boots at the ankles, and laced his fingers together behind his head. Farfarello didn't protest the intrusion, not even bothering to look up from where he was sharpening his knives. He had a line of weapons to either side, those that were done and those that had yet to be worked on. Schuldich closed his eyes, listening to the scrape of metal against metal for a few moments in silence. They said nothing to each other, Farfarello because he was busy and Schuldich because there was no point. Farfarello knew why he had come here. When he decided to acknowledge it, they would talk.

      Farfarello wiped both sides of his blade against his thigh and lifted it to his face to study it. He turned it this way and that, and Schuldich finally felt Farfarello's attention shift to him. It was just a brief flick of a yellow eye and a soft brush of power, but it was enough. He opened his eyes again, studying the ceiling with idle curiosity as Farfarello went back to working on his knife. "We're leaving at ten," Schuldich said.

      "We're going," Farfarello said, spoken as a statement but wanting an explanation. He checked his knife again, found it to be to his satisfaction, and set it aside. Pale fingers picked up the next one and he started on it.

      "Crawford hasn't seen anything yet that'll give weight to what you say," Schuldich said with a shrug. "We'll talk to Hasagawa today and see if that changes. We can't quit a job just on your word alone, not when it could be a good step for us. If there's really something wrong, Crawford will see it today, but keep your gift open anyways." Farfarello said nothing. Schuldich rolled his head that way, blue eyes studying his younger teammate as Farfarello worked. There was five years of age between them but one couldn't tell by looking at them. Farfarello looked older than he was, and the scars that trailed across his white flesh only added to that illusion. He had yet to pull on a shirt and so worked in just a pair of loose gray pants, one leg dangling off his dresser and the other bent so his foot rested on top of the wood surface. He was leaning backwards, shoulder blades propped against the wall, his eye on his work. At Schuldich's scrutiny, however, he stilled his hands and lifted his gold eye to match Schuldich's stare.

      "You look tired," Farfarello said, not a concerned statement but a simple observation.

      Schuldich just shrugged, returning to his contemplation of the ceiling. Farfarello's eye lingered on him, and he felt a small brush of power against him. He kept his shields intact, refusing to acknowledge the Sensitive's query. Farfarello was the newest man to Schwarz, found just three years ago. Schuldich had found him holed up in a prison while Schwarz toured Europe. Farfarello wasn't worth anything to Rosenkreuz. He was a low level Sensitive, not strong enough to mean anything to the school for Talents. But Schuldich had worked with Sensitives before, and he knew Farfarello was exactly what he'd needed. He'd taken him from prison and brought him home without warning or explanation, and Crawford hadn't even batted an eye as Schuldich moved the Irishman into their quarters. Nagi had been warned by Crawford when the American saw it coming and while he hadn't been sure what to make of their new teammate, he hadn't said anything against him. There was no way Crawford or Nagi could have said anything against Schuldich's random decision; they were just relieved that the German had finally taken an interest in something after a rough two years among the team.

      Schuldich cut off that train of thought with a savage twist. Farfarello set his things aside and slid forward off the dresser, coming to stand beside the bed. He leaned over it so his face was above Schuldich's, yellow eye studying Schuldich's blue ones. Schuldich offered him a disinterested look. "Do you mind? You're blocking the view."

      "You're on my bed," Farfarello pointed out easily. "I do mind."

      Schuldich rolled his eyes, drawing his legs back from the baseboard and sitting up. Farfarello moved so he could get to his feet and Schuldich raked his fingers through long orange hair as he started towards the door. Farfarello reached out and caught him before he could get far, catching him around his wrist. Schuldich looked back at him, blue eyes silently questioning the younger assassin's decision to stop him. Farfarello studied his expression for a moment, searching for something that Schuldich wasn't willing to give, and glanced down at the hand he'd captured. Schuldich hadn't bothered to change out of his sleeping shirt yet, and the sleeves of it were long enough to almost hide his fingers.

      "Smell it, do you?" Schuldich asked softly, realizing what had caught Farfarello's attention. He turned back, reaching out with his free hand to pull Farfarello fingers away. The Irishman let his fingers be pried free without a fight, lifting his gaze to Schuldich's face to study the German. The telepath's voice was amused if quiet, but his blue eyes were unreadable. "Don't bring the entire arsenal today," Schuldich said, tilting his head towards his teammate's dresser. "There won't be any action."

      Farfarello offered him an amused look. "If you can find them, you can take them away from me," he said simply.

      Schuldich just shook his head at the man and left the room. His door was the next one down and he wandered that direction, scooting the door open with his shoe and pushing it closed behind him the same way. He leaned backwards, resting against the cool wood for a few moments as he surveyed his bedroom. It was a small place but the perfect size for him as he did not have many belongings to scatter around. He'd picked the smallest room of the one floor house Schwarz had decided to rent upon their arrival in Tokyo. The place was spotless today; it was tidy on a good day but today it was so clean the wood still shone. He crossed the room to the window, reaching out to pull the latch and slide it open. Cool air wafted through and he studied the view for a moment, blue eyes trailing over the rest of the houses in the small suburb.

      He toed off his boots, leaving them to rest beneath the window, and went in search of his towel. He was still dressed in yesterday's outfit, save for the shirt, because he had not bothered to go to bed last night. He'd stayed up instead, reading a book, checking out the boring crap that came on television in the middle of the night, and then scrubbing his room when he ran out of better things to do. He'd pulled all-nighters before, some for work and some just because, but never had the night moved so slow. He pulled his towel down from its pole in his closet and slung it over a shoulder, making his way out of his room towards the bathroom.

      Yesterday had been September 23rd. September 23rd hadn't been a good day for five years.

      Granted, there was a huge list of things that had gone rotten five years ago, but Schuldich shoved them from his mind roughly. He closed the bathroom door behind him and turned on the water for the shower, one hand adjusting the knobs while the other tested the spray. When it was where he wanted it, he peeled off his jeans and socks and pulled his cotton shirt over his head, dropping the clothes into a small pile beside the tub. He stepped in, standing still under the spray for several minutes. Finally he lifted his hand to where he could see it, studying his palm before turning it to see the back of his hand. Five red lines went over the back, dried blood from cuts he'd made last night. He'd used his knife, tracing the scars that were almost faded, the blade digging in until it found blood.

      He lifted his other hand, running his thumb lightly over bumpy scabs.

      "Twenty-one now," Schuldich murmured. "Getting old fast, aren't you?"

      Red eyes locked with his, but they weren't the gaze he remembered. They weren't the eyes of someone he knew, not the eyes of the boy he had been called away from just a few years prior. The smile on the boy's lips was unfamiliar as well, a bitter little twist of his mouth. Brown hair was pulled back into a small ponytail but stray strands hung loose around his face, flicked aside by a careless hand just moments before that hand lashed out, slapping away the fingers that reached for him. Metal tipped gloves tore through flesh and through the strange emotions ricocheting off of Schuldich's gift was the sharp sense of satisfaction, pulsing through the disdain and keen sense of betrayal.

      "Twenty-one…" Schuldich breathed, lifting his hand to run it through his hair so he wouldn't have to see the scratches anymore. "Wonder what you look like now."

      Not that he'd ever know; he'd never see the boy again. Rosenkreuz had made sure of that after things had gone so horrendously wrong five years ago. No one had been prepared for two of the school's most promising teams to suddenly go toe to toe with each other; no one had been prepared for the aftermath of such a fight. Schwarz had been left in pieces, two Talents dead and a third almost broken. They'd been punished severely for letting things get so wildly out of hand, and then they'd been sent to opposite sides of the world, forbidden to cross paths ever again. Schatten had gone west and Schwarz had stayed in Europe a while longer as Crawford and Nagi tried to keep their remaining teammate alive. Schwarz hadn't heard anything from the other unit in five years and was left with just the bitter aftertaste of the results of the confrontation. And slowly they'd been piecing themselves back together again, finding Farfarello and moving east to work on Russia and Asia. But they would never forget.

      Schuldich could never forget.

      But Schuldich would rather have these memories, would rather have these nightmares and these scars, than the terrible reality of Schatten. The only decision Rosenkreuz had ever made that Schuldich had ever completely agreed with was the decision to ban the teams from each other's presence. He didn't think Schwarz would survive a rematch.

      He knew he wouldn't.

      He took a deep breath and let it out, trying to clear his thoughts. He washed quickly so he wouldn't have time to think, focusing on what he was doing. He'd thought about them enough. He needed to get them out of his thoughts before the memories ate him alive. But even as he washed he knew that his lips were curved into a smile, and he didn't have to look into the mirror when he stepped out of the shower a short time later to know how bitter it was. He squeezed his hair out in the sink, scrubbing at his skin before wrapping the towel around his waist and stepping out of the steam filled bathroom into the cool hall. One hand held his hair up off his back as he made his way to his room, leaving just a few drops of water on the hardwood floor as he walked.

      He didn't bother to get dressed yet, simply because he saw no point. He had plenty of time before they left, so he snagged a book from his bedside table and flopped on his stomach in bed to read. He flipped to the first page but his eyes wouldn’t focus on the words, staring through the page as his thoughts drifted back where he tried so hard to keep them from straying. In the end he pushed the book away with a sigh, folding his arms on top of his sheets instead and lowering his head to rest on them. He sent his gift out, searching for someone to listen to as a distraction. He hit Farfarello first but slid past him, finding Nagi and Crawford before making his way out of Schwarz to the others that lived on the outskirts of Tokyo. At last he found someone who wasn't horrendously boring to listen to and he opened his gift to them, letting their mind invade his until he forgot who he was. He forgot about a pair of pretty red eyes, forgot about Schatten and their black haired leader. He forgot about the fight and the aftermath, forgot everything that he'd lost five years ago.

      When Nagi dragged him back to himself a little over an hour later with the announcement that it was time to go, the boy got a swat for his efforts and was sent out of Schuldich's room with muttered death threats following him. Schuldich sat on the edge of his bed for a minute or two, mildly disoriented from using his gift, and then pushed himself up to get ready for the meeting.


      Yohji flipped idly through the newspaper, one hand finding his mug where it sat off to his side and lifting it to his lips for a sip. There wasn't anything interesting in the paper, so he eventually closed it and set it off to one side. The mug was returned to the table, cupped between two hands as he let his gaze wander across the coffee shop. It was mostly empty; the morning crowd had vanished just half an hour ago as people scattered to work or school. There were only two other customers, and they were sitting together at the other end of the shop. The shop owner was wiping down the counter, and when she finished that she went on to straightening the shelves to keep herself occupied. The clock on the wall behind her was shaped like a cat, its two front legs acting as the minute and hour hands. It was one of the tackiest things Yohji had ever seen but he supposed it fit the shop. It was still impossible to read, however, so he glanced over at his cell phone to check the time. He still had twenty minutes before he had to be at work. The coffee shop he was at, Jazz, was fifteen minutes from the Koneko and ten minutes from his apartment. It was an out of the way place for one who just wanted a drink on the way to work, but since Yohji hadn't found better coffee anywhere else, he made a daily stop here.

      He lightly drummed his fingers on his mug, letting his thoughts drift where they liked, and then finally emptied the rest of his drink and rose. One hand scooped up his phone, tucking it safely into his pocket, and he pushed his chair under the table. The shopkeeper met him at the register and he paid for his drinks with a smile and a compliment before heading out. The sun was bright and he paused outside the door to push his sunglasses down on his nose. He wandered down the sidewalk towards the crosswalk and stood at the curb, just missing the green light, and slid his hands into his pockets as he waited. He studied the cars waiting for their light to change with idle curiosity, not really interested but needing something to look at.

      Orange hair caught his attention, and he looked towards the second car in line. Surprise, surprise… He pushed his sunglasses back into his hair with a thumb to get a better look. If it wasn't Schwarz. Kritiker had been keeping an eye on the other team as best they could, but so far there hadn't been a reason for the two teams to cross each other's paths again. Kritiker wasn't interested in pushing a confrontation, keeping the results of previous fights in mind. Yohji figured there would be a day Weiss and Schwarz went up against each other again, but that day hadn't come yet and he wasn't in any real hurry for it.

      Blue eyes turned his way. Schuldich was sitting passenger and he tilted his head towards Yohji, gaze seeking the man out, and Yohji knew the other's strange power had noticed him. The car was close enough that Yohji could see all four of Schwarz were there, but only Schuldich seemed halfway interested in acknowledging him. His arm was across the side of the car, resting against the window, and he lifted a hand to waggle his fingers in a mocking greeting. Yohji returned it, offering the other assassin a cool smile. Schuldich's teeth showed through his grin and Yohji felt a small press against his mind, as if someone had reached out and poked him in the forehead, and with it came the mental image of Yohji strung up on his own wire. Blood oozed out of deep gashes where it had torn flesh open and his head was lolled to one side in death.

      "Very artistic," he murmured aloud, knowing the man would catch it.

      Schuldich gave a small shrug and then the light changed, and Yohji watched as the car drove by. He rolled his eyes, though he wasn't sure which one of them the gesture was directed towards, and tilted his head back to contemplate the sky as he continued to wait to cross. Schwarz was an interesting little puzzle. They'd met the other assassins while working on destroying the politician Takatori, and after that the group had been wandering in and out of their lives. Kritiker had told them the group had been in Japan for a year before Weiss had ever met them, if their information was correct, but they were a hard group to track. Weiss had never been able to figure the other four out and had ended up having to slot them into the 'Evil, Must Die' category.

      Estet had changed that slightly, and none of them were quite sure what to do in the aftermath. There was still 'Evil,' and still 'Must Die,' but the sense of 'Evil' had shifted from 'Complete' to 'Evil Because it Amuses Them to Be Such' or something along those lines.

      It had been a fight to get back out of the sea after the tower gave way. Schwarz had gotten to dry land first, so Weiss was reluctant at first to leave the waves. They were exhausted and injured from fighting and the fall, and knew the chances of surviving Schwarz were slim even if the other group had also taken a dive into the ocean. But they'd struggled onwards, helping each other out onto the rocky shore. Schwarz had turned to face them and they'd readied themselves, expecting a fight.

      "So cats do have nine lives," Schuldich had observed, sounding amused as he wrung water from his hair. Then he'd glanced towards Farfarello, arching an eyebrow at the white haired man in surprised interest. Blue eyes had gone back to the group, studying Ken. After a moment he'd tilted his head towards the man, looking towards Yohji. "Farf says your bugnuks boy is going to die," he declared breezily, as if announcing the weather forecast. "Hit too many things on the way down. Small internal bleeding. You waste too much time here and he's gone for good."

      And with that, he'd turned away, using a hand on Farfarello's shoulder to turn the white haired madman away from them. Crawford had led the way up the rocks as a car drove up, and two men had stepped out to greet Schwarz. It'd been hard to hear most of what they were saying, but from the looks sent their direction Yohji knew they were talking about Weiss. The wind brought snatches of the conversation to them, and with it came Schuldich's "They're fun. Leave them alone." It had ended the conversation. Schwarz and the men got into the car and they'd driven away. Manx had found them just a minute later and they'd brought Ken straight to the hospital. It could have been a joke on Schuldich's part but the chances of it being such were slim to none, and while none of them knew why the telepath had chosen to warn them, they had been very relieved that he did. They'd gotten Ken there just in time to save him.

      The crosswalk turned green and Yohji stepped out into the street, moving with the crowd towards the far curb. Since that day, Yohji had idly occupied himself with mentally examining Schwarz. They were something he couldn't figure out, and all of their meetings before Estet's fall had only left him with a small glimpse at who the other assassins were. Schuldich's words on that day were a curious new addition to the mental image Yohji had of the man. It had been such a small thing but still curious, and he'd tried to put together a better image of Schwarz in his mind. It kept him busy when he was bored, even if it was impossible to figure out. He hadn't seen anywhere near enough of the four to get an educated guess on them, though his teammates' response to that comment had been that he should consider himself lucky that Schwarz wasn't a larger presence in their life. It was true, so he'd nodded and kept further wonderings to himself.

      The others were there when Yohji showed up. He lifted a hand in greeting, offering a "Yo" as he moved to get his apron. He tugged it over his head and tied it at his waist before tugging a small hair tie out of the pocket to pull his wavy locks out of the way. Ken was propped against one of the counters, humming the tune of one of the current hits, his fingers tapping lightly on the metal surface. Aya and Omi were seated at the table, and the youngest Weiss was twirling a cut flower in his fingers. They still had a few minutes before they had to open the doors, so Yohji went and sat down on the edge of the table. Aya sent him a significant look that Yohji conveniently didn't notice, as he was yawning and stretching.

      "Guess who I saw this morning," he said. No one answered; they figured he was going to regale them with some story of a pretty girl. A smile twitched on his lips as he glanced around at them, watching for their reactions. "Schwarz," he offered up. That got their attention. He brushed stray bangs out of his face, turning amused green eyes on Aya. "They were all dressed up, the whole group driving somewhere."

      "Off to work," Ken said, sounding disgusted.

      "Did they see you?" Omi wanted to know.

      "Of course," Yohji said, lifting one shoulder in a careless shrug, and he grinned at his teammates. "They waved, I waved back."

      "Just like that?" Ken asked, sounding incredulous.

      "Something along those lines."

      "Ch'," was Aya's contribution to the conversation. Schwarz wasn't something he wanted to talk about. He rose from his seat, pushing the chair roughly under the table, and started towards the door. "There's nothing funny about seeing them," he sent over his shoulder at Yohji. "If they're working around here, there's a chance we'll be assigned a mission against them."

      "Don't you want to kill them?" Ken wanted to know.

      "What makes you think we can?" Yohji returned with a small snort. "They're untouchable. Nothing can hurt them. We sure tried enough times." He pushed himself off from the table as Aya flipped the sign on the door to open, watching as the redhead undid the latch so he could prop the door open. "Remember the sea? Remember the geezers with powers and that drop into the ocean? Did you see any of them limping afterwards?"

      "Manx managed a shot at Crawford," Omi pointed out. "She hit his gun. He's not infallible."

      "And I got my wire around Schuldich's throat," Yohji answered, "but it still didn't do anything. Didn't get it to touch his skin, and I only got it around him the first time because the building was going to shit around us. I don't think any more buildings are going to conveniently explode next time we want to fight them. We're just lucky they've only been playing with us so far."

      "They shouldn't take us so lightly," Ken grumbled, though he knew there was no reason for the other group to do anything else. Weiss had never been a challenge for the other assassins, not when it was physical gifts against strange powers. It had always been a game for Schwarz, and Weiss knew it, felt it keenly every time they crossed paths with the four. The mockery on three faces and complete disdain on the fourth lingered as a bitter taste in the back of their mouths as the other group left them in bruised heaps on the ground every time.

      "Enough," Aya sent back at them as a warning, toeing the door prop into place. They already had three customers waiting outside, some little old ladies with hunched backs. He greeted them smoothly enough, stepping back so they could shuffle inside. Ken hurried forward to help them, taking over from Aya. Cheery words easily replaced his disgruntled attitude and the other three watched as he helped them, asking what the occasion was and then offering suggestions. Yohji raked his bangs out of his face again, moving over to one of the counters to look busy. He studied the rows of potted plants resting in front of him, reaching out to idly poke at the soil in a few.

      All in all, it was a very boring shift until mid-afternoon, when Manx showed up with a brown envelope under her arm. She wiggled painted fingers at them, offering them a smile as she passed them and headed downstairs. They still had one customer, so Ken volunteered to remain behind and help while the other three went to hear what Manx had to say. Yohji trailed behind the others down the curved stairwell, making his way to the stuffed chair and flopping down in it. One finger pushed his sunglasses up into his hair so he could see in the dim room and Manx moved over to the television to slide a tape in. Heels clicked against the ground as she moved out of the way, and the four watched the clips in silence. Their target was a man by the name of Hasagawa Tatsuo, a Japanese businessmen with a whole plethora of connections.

      "It's a scumbag festival," Yohji observed as the tape went over. He dug his pack of cigarettes out of one pocket and lit it, propping it between his lips before lacing his fingers together behind his head. "Start with one and you've automatically got a head start to get rid of the rest. This could keep us busy for a while."

      "Perhaps," Manx answered with a delicate shrug, moving forward to turn the television set off. She shook a small packet of information out of her folder and handed it over to Omi to examine. "But start with Hasagawa. Some of his allies are overseas, so Kritiker will use other units to deal with them. Work on him and depending on how things look afterwards, we might send you down the line to clear out the rest. He's the worst of the lot, so we want him gone first."

      Omi skimmed through the information she'd given him and nodded, leaning over to pass the papers to Yohji. Yohji flicked it a bored look and immediately turned it over to Aya. "It should be fairly easy," Omi told Manx. "We can have it done in just a few days."

      "Good. Send me a report when it's over with." With a small wave, she started towards the stairs. Yohji watched her go, admiring the way her short skirt hugged her legs as she left, and then turned green eyes on his teammates.

      "Easy, hm?" he asked, reaching over to stub his cigarette out in the ash tray. "I need the cash; the Seven's got some engine trouble. Sign me up to take it. Easy in, easy out, no surprises, and I'll buy the beer afterwards."

      "Yohji-kun the big spender," came Omi's amused retort as he pushed himself to his feet. "Quite the generous offer."

      Yohji bared his teeth at the younger assassin in a smile. "Warm milk for you, of course."

      He got a kick for that.


      Schwarz scattered themselves amongst the den when they returned from their meeting with Hasagawa. The ride back had been filled with Schuldich's derisive comments about their client and his corporation, covering everything from the man's outfit to his attitude to the look of the people working under him. His team had endured it in silence, almost amused by his critical overview of their new employer. It was something they were used to. Schuldich didn't interact with his team on a job unless it was work related, as he spent his time soaking up what was going on around him. He used his gift to figure out how people worked together and where the power lay in the relationships, waiting until afterwards to mix real knowledge and idle observation together as long as it wasn't required immediately. Hidden among his condescending words was real information, and his team listened as he outlined what they were going to be working with.

      Now they gathered briefly in the den for the team to interact as a whole. The car was Schuldich's domain, and they always met after their outings to take what Schuldich had said and offer up their own opinions and observations. Today, the main purpose of the meeting was to deal with Farfarello. Schuldich was sprawled in the recliner, limbs going everywhere in a position that really shouldn't be comfortable but was. Nagi was perched on the loveseat and Crawford had taken the chair opposite Schuldich's. Farfarello, on the other hand, was on the far side of the room from them. He'd gone straight for the window upon his return home, shoving the latch up and yanking it open to stare outside. He ignored them as Nagi made a few idle comments and Schuldich debated with him about particulars, standing silent and still until Crawford predicted that it would be a beneficial contract. As soon as he said that, Farfarello gave a sharp shake of his head.

      His teammates considered him in silence, waiting for him to speak. Finally Farfarello folded his arms over his chest, half turning to send a piercing look towards Crawford. Schuldich reached out and touched him with his gift, letting Farfarello's thoughts cover his so he could hear the tone of them. Uneasy anticipation colored the Irishman's mind, and Farfarello's gaze flicked towards Schuldich at the touch before turning back to Crawford. "Drop him," he said simply. "Something's going to go wrong."

      Schuldich looked over at the American, a frown pulling at his lips. He'd never heard Farfarello insist on something like this- but then, Schwarz had never ignored him, either. It bothered him that Farfarello was so stuck on this bad feeling of his. The Irishman had never been wrong, but Crawford hadn't had any warning visions to justify it. Schuldich had played against Hasagawa's shields today, unable to bring the man's thoughts any longer than an incoherent mumble. There hadn't been anything but awe and the lust for power in his thoughts, the usual mental cocktail of Schwarz's clients. Nothing was out of place, but Farfarello was positive that it was. All eyes were on the American now, waiting for his reaction to this. It was three against one but they'd never gone against Farfarello's little feelings before, and Schuldich knew Crawford was weighing the risks in his mind, trying to figure out whether they could afford to ignore him.

      "Four days," he said at last. "Four days gives us enough time to get hold of his contacts. Then we'll cut our contract with him and still have work."

      Farfarello hesitated, obviously not liking this decision but knowing it was the best thing for Schwarz. Finally he nodded, turning his gaze out the window again. Crawford left the room, off to readjust everything for their changed plans and perhaps to try yet again with his gift to discern what was upsetting their Sensitive. After a few moments, Nagi excused himself as well, leaving just the middle two of Schwarz behind. Schuldich stayed where he was for a while longer, studying the Irishman across the room, then pushed himself to his feet. He crossed the den on almost silent feet, coming to rest beside the younger man. Farfarello didn't look at him, but his arms tightened where they were still crossed over his chest. Schuldich studied his hands, eyeing the way his knuckles were white as he dug his fingernails into his upper arms hard enough to break the skin, and his sense of unease grew.

      "We shouldn't," Farfarello said.

      "Four days," Schuldich returned, words confident even if he wasn't feeling it. "Nothing can go that horrendously wrong in four days."

      "Famous last words," was Farfarello's response, spoken with a grim little smile playing on his lips, and he turned sharply away to stride out of the room. Schuldich was left alone, staring after him. At last he reached out and pulled the window closed, throwing the latch back into place with a small sigh. Nothing could go wrong in four days. They were Schwarz. They were Talents. If something terrible was going to happen, Crawford would have to pick up on it eventually, and Schwarz would make it out of whatever it was just as flawlessly as they did any other.

      …With the exception of five years ago, of course.

      These thoughts in mind, he went off in search of something to drink.

Part 2
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