12: Boom

      Meirth was woken up when Einsam crawled into his bed. Yellow eyes snapped open to glare at the man who had just made himself comfortable half-sprawled across the empath's form. The boy was still wearing what he had been yesterday, and blood red eyes were glittering in a manic satisfaction. His mouth was pulled into a wide smile and he leaned forward, allowing more of his weight to rest on the empath. Meirth shifted his gaze to the right to check his clock, and the numbers glowing back at him declared it to be two in the morning. "You have two seconds to give me a reason not to kill you," Meirth informed the Sequencer, sitting up in bed. Einsam let the movement knock him onto his back and he rolled off onto the floor, landing in a crouch and springing to his feet. Two hands grabbed the empath by his ears and he pulled him forward, pressing a rough kiss to Meirth's forehead. Meirth would have had him curled on the floor in pain the second the man had crawled onto him, but the emotions in the boy's mind told him to wait just a moment longer.

      "You've got him," came the answer. "You've got him."

      That got Meirth's attention. "Tell me how."

      "I want the lights."

      "Get the damn lights, then. Tell me how."

      Einsam spun away from him, throwing himself at the wall and flipping the switch. He remained sprawled against the wall, a sick smile on his mouth. His mind was fractured; the red eyes that were fixed on Meirth were seeing through him. Einsam started laughing, and bit down on his lips to quiet the noise. He broke the skin, and blood trickled down his chin. Near-hysterical giggles still came from him and he let himself slide down the wall to a crouch. "You can't keep him," he said. "But you can have him. Long enough to touch. Long enough to say hi to."

      "I don't want to tag him and let him go," came Meirth's disapproving answer. "You have to find something better."

      "No," came the easy answer, and all of a sudden Einsam's expression was serene. Meirth pushed his sheets aside and turned in bed, letting his legs dangle off the side. Gold eyes were cold; his voice was colder.

      "What did you just say to me?" he asked.

      "This is necessary," the Sequencer told him. "You cannot have anything without going through this first. I can see it…" Fingers danced over the wall even as the younger man kept his eyes steadily on Meirth. "You'll lose everything without this step. You have to be willing to let him go tomorrow. Are you willing?" He tilted his head to one side, long bangs falling into his face. The smile on his lips turned mocking, but Meirth, even with his empathy, couldn't tell in that moment which one of them he was laughing at. "You can punish me later. You don't have time to lose this thread. Listen to me now and hurt me later. Are you willing?"

      He was going to kill the child when this was over, if the boy didn't go mad before this. Einsam hadn't spoken to him in such a way since they were back in Rosenkreuz six years ago. Gold eyes were half lidded and he could taste the boy's blood on his tongue, could already hear his screams. His smile was full of venom as the two stared each other down, a deep hatred for each other curling between them. "Tell me what's going to happen," he said.

      Einsam pulled a marker out of his pocket, which Meirth could only guess he'd stolen from the previous tenant's desk. The cap was pulled off and flung aside, and he rose to his knees. The younger Talent turned to face the wall and lifted both hands to it, black marker sweeping across it in bold strokes. "Send them tonight," he said. "Late night. No one's sleeping yet. No one's home. The night life is fun, I suppose. Talentless. He'll find them if it's not. Bomb goes here." He'd drawn a rectangle; now he put a little circle in the middle of the bottom line. "Beneath the stairs; there's room for it there and it wouldn't be immediately noticed. It has to go here. Foundation is built upon this spot. You put it here and boom, the whole place goes down. Boom, boom, exploding plaster like a fireworks show." He viciously scribbled all over the building. "London bridge is falling down. Oh, listen to them scream as they die." The smile on his face was dreamy and he drew some horizontal stick figures all over the place for emphasis.

      "Here," he said, and he promptly drew three stick figures a short distance from the box. "They're going to be here." He shot Meirth a glance, as if making sure the empath was still paying attention. He pointed to them one at a time, naming them and lilting the words as emphasis. "Braddyn. Sensitive. Giftless. The Sensitive knows. He knows something. He's going to be in the neighborhood. They're going to come with him. This," and he stabbed the destroyed building, "will slow him."

      He rose to his feet in a lithe movement and drew another stick figure a far ways up the wall before putting a bold X over it. "This," he said, staring up at the figure as he idly scribbled around the lone figure. "This is Schuldich." He looked over at Meirth, drawing a line from Schuldich down to the other three. It wasn't a straight line and missed by a foot of wall space since he wasn't looking, but Meirth got the picture. "They're within range," Einsam said, circling the Sensitive's stick figure. "He'll *know* when you find Schuldich. And he's going to come. Fast."

      "There's no point in me going all the way out there if I can't keep him," Meirth said, flicking his fingers in disgusted dismissal of the whole idea. "I might as well stay here."

      "*No*," was Einsam's answer, as if he couldn't believe Meirth would consider such a thing. "You have to go."

      "Give me a reason."

      Einsam turned to survey the wall, taking a few steps back before throwing the marker at it. It left a dark mark where it hit and then it bounced away. "It's not the Sensitive that's going to go running for him when you're there," Einsam said. "Two will stay to watch the show. The other will come for Schuldich. I want to know why. They're lying to us. They're lying to us about something. You have to go. There's something *wrong* with that one."

      Meirth considered that in silence for a few moments. "There's no point in blowing up a building," he said. "If the three are out there anyway, then it's pointless to blow something up, even if it does distract two of them."

      Einsam didn't respond immediately, staring at the wall. Then he reached forward, taking a step towards the scribbled art to touch the building. "There's something there I want," he said. "There's something there we need to know. It's going to change everything," he said. "This," he poked the building, then dragged his finger down to the Talentless stick figure, "and this. They change everything. We have to know."

      Meirth thought on it for several minutes. Einsam continued to stare at the wall. Finally Meirth decided. "What's the first step?" he wanted to know.

      "Send someone there," Einsam answered. "Plant the bomb tonight. I will detonate it tomorrow at the right time. Tonight, just the bomb. The rest comes tomorrow."

      Meirth raked his hair out of his face, tilting his head to one side to study Einsam. The Sequencer didn't need to be beckoned over, and he came to stand in front of the empath. Long fingers reached up to brush over Meirth's face with mock tenderness, and Meirth eyed him with a hooded gaze. "Before I start, would you care to tell me why you're in such a bitchy mood tonight?" Meirth asked.

      Einsam's smile was cold. "You'll know tomorrow afternoon," came the answer. The younger man leaned forward, pressing a small kiss to the corner of Meirth's lips. "I give and I give and I give," he murmured against the empath's mouth. "And you betray me every time. So you make me want to help you. So you've made me hate Schuldich. But I still know better, and I do still know what you're doing to me."

      "I don't care if you know," Meirth informed him, "but I do care about the way you're talking to me. I thought I'd taught you better a long time ago."

      "So you did," came the easy response. "He talks to me, you know," he said, one hand running through Meirth's hair. "Talks to me throughout the day when I'm trying to work. Tells me again about Germany, as if I've forgotten. I don't forget anything. Not what he was to me then. Not what you tell me. Not what you beat into me. But I'm dying, Meirth, and the quicker I get there, the happier I'll be. I won't be dead til you're done with me, til you want me to die. Let me help you along on that wanting, shall I?"

      Meirth caught the collar of Einsam's shirt and yanked him down. Gold eyes were narrowed as he studied Einsam's face. Red eyes were cold, and the smile on his lips bitter, but there was the gleam of tears in his eyes. With a brush over Einsam's aura, he realized that the tears had nothing to do with how he was feeling. It was his subconscious, dying and crying out to be freed. "What did he say to you?" Meirth demanded.

      Einsam laughed. The first tears slipped free but the Sequencer didn't seem to notice them. What he was crying for was something he didn't feel anymore, something Meirth had ripped away from him. "He's drunk," Einsam said, and his words were amused, mocking. He was mocking the German he was speaking of even as whatever the man had said had driven him to tears. "He's drunk, and he's still awake. He's been talking to me. Don't even know if he knows he is. Rambling on and on and he doesn't give a shit what he says, doesn't even stop and think about who he's talking to."

      Meirth's hand twisted tighter, pulling the collar snug around Einsam's throat. "What did he say?" he wanted to know.

      "That maybe he should have said yes," Einsam said. It was almost eerie, that his voice could be so cold, so careless, when tears were tracking down his cheeks. Meirth kept his scowl hidden. Einsam's mind was splintering, and it was taking Meirth's influence with it. The more the boy fell to pieces, the less secure of a hold on him he had. It was going to take some work to pull the strings back into place. He would have to work on that tomorrow. "That maybe he should have said yes," the younger man repeated. "But that now it's too late."

      It took Meirth a moment to place what the younger man was talking about. An amused smile curved his lips and he reached past Einsam for the phone. "Where is the bomb going?" he wanted to know.

      "Here~ kitty kitty kitty…" Einsam answered, leaning forward to brush his lips along Meirth's cheekbone. "Where the cats live. With the flowers." At Meirth's Look, he smiled and offered up the address. Meirth dialed the number for his Marigold contact and passed on the information. Einsam waited as he talked and then lowered himself to sit in the empath's lap. "Here~ kitty kitty kitty…"


      Schuldich appeared sometime around eleven the next day, fresh from bed and looking very much like he had a hangover. Yohji was absently fascinated by this view of the man, who hadn't even done more to put his wild hair to order than pull it back in a ponytail. He wandered into the kitchen in just a pair of low riding cotton pants to find Crawford and Yohji already there. Crawford took one look at him and pulled a bottle of pills down from one of the cabinets. Schuldich popped off the lid and tilted his head back, letting the drugs fall straight into his mouth. He swallowed them dry and put the bottle back, letting Crawford return it to its spot. The German pulled a cup out of the clean dishwasher and settled himself at the table, where Yohji already had the water pitcher out.

      Yohji tried to keep the amusement off his face, but judging by the look Schuldich sent at him, he'd failed. "Maybe we should have taken you to get ramen last night," he said. At the telepath's blank look, Yohji elaborated. "Clears that right up. That's the trick of drinking in Japan… Go get smashed, eat ramen to get sober, and go find someplace else or go home sober so you won't have a hangover. Don't tell me you haven't learned that in all of your years here."

      Schuldich was just staring at him. Yohji grinned and poured himself some more water before pushing the pitcher close to the German. "Right… Well, for future reference…"

      Schuldich muttered something incoherent under his breath and poured his drink. After a couple sips, he pushed the glass aside and put his head down on the table. Yohji laughed and finished his drink off. Before he could rise from his seat, Schuldich spoke. "One and a half," he said.

      Yohji blinked. "One and a half what?"

      There was silence for a moment, then Schuldich carefully rolled his head to one side so he could peer through his bangs at Yohji with one blue eye. Yohji was absently aware that Crawford was watching them. Schuldich considered Yohji, as if debating whether or not to elaborate. Finally he did. "One a half years. In Japan. That's all." Yohji was so surprised by the volunteered information that he didn't know what sort of response to make immediately. Schuldich gave a heavy sigh and buried his face against the table again. "God, my head hurts."

      "You look like shit," Yohji informed him, ever helpful. "At least you don't look like you're going to hurl."

      "Your generosity astounds me."

      "Anytime. Drink your water."

      "I don't want to."

      Yohji rolled his eyes, sliding from his chair to Farfarello's, and reached out to push Schuldich upright. He was careful to be slow, because he didn't know how nauseous the telepath was. The telepath still grimaced at the movement, but he didn't protest as Yohji settled him upright in his chair. It didn't take a second order from Yohji; the orange-haired man picked up his cup and nursed it slowly. The German was only half finished with his glass when he stopped, eyes narrowing suddenly. He shot a quick look off to his right and set his cup back down on the table.

      "What is it?" Yohji asked. The German didn't answer, but pushed his cup away and started to his feet. Just a few moments later, a door open and shut. That brought a frown to Yohji's lips; last he checked, Nagi had been in the den. The other two of Schwarz were here, and Farfarello was supposed to be asleep.

      But Farfarello appeared in the doorway just a moment later, fresh out of bed when he'd only gone to sleep two hours ago. His mouth was pulled in a tight line as he stared in the room at them, eyes sweeping from Schuldich to Yohji and landing on Crawford last. "We have to go," he said, and he disappeared from the doorway once more.

      "Kudou, let's go," Crawford said.

      "Where are we going?" Yohji wanted to know, pushing himself out of his seat.

      "Shit." A grimace pulled at Schuldich's face. "Schatten's moving."

      "How do you know?" Yohji asked, taking hold of Schuldich's elbow. "Schuldich? You said you four couldn't see what they're doing."

      "We can't," was Schuldich's answer. He pushed at Yohji in a silent order to get moving. Crawford was already heading towards the door. "But what Crawford can't see at all, Farfarello can feel a little of. It happened last time. Schatten's moving. Einsam's done Sequencing and Schatten's ready to fight."

      "Last time?" Yohji asked.

      Schuldich hesitated, blue eyes flicking towards Yohji's face. "He told us… not to take that job," he said. It took Yohji a moment to place it, and by the time he had, a dressed Farfarello appeared in the doorway. Farfarello's boots were dangling from the fingers of one hand as he entered the kitchen with long strides, and the Irishman stopped right beside Schuldich.

      "You," Farfarello said, poking first Schuldich and then the table, "stay here. *Don't* leave this house."

      "Do I look like I'm up to going anywhere right now?" was the German's breezy answer.

      "Don't leave it," Farfarello insisted.

      Schuldich studied him in silence for a moment, studying the grim set to his face. Finally a wry grin pulled at his lips and he slowly sat down again. "I'm not going to," he answered, reaching for the water pitcher. "Don't be gone for long. Nagi is really boring company." When Farfarello didn't leave immediately, the German reached out, planning a hand against Farfarello's abdomen to give him a light push. "Get going already."

      Farfarello eyed him for just a moment longer, then turned on his heels and stalked towards the door. Yohji glanced down at Schuldich. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he couldn't help the sly little grin that pulled at his lips. "That's some pretty fierce concern," he said.

      "Fuck you," Schuldich answered into his cup, but there was no heat behind it.

      Yohji ruffled Schuldich's hair and started for the door, ignoring the German's indignant voice behind him. Farfarello had his boots on by the time Yohji reached the door and Weiss's eldest followed the other two out into the sunlight. He was a little surprised that Farfarello chose the backseat but didn't comment, sliding into the passenger one. "Why am I coming along?" he wanted to know as he pulled his buckle into place.

      "Discouragement," was Farfarello's short answer. "Schatten's out."

      Yohji didn't understand and turned a questioning look on Crawford. The American didn't return the look, as he was backing the car out of the driveway, but he elaborated. "Schatten's out in the city. If we run into their range, they need to know there is a Sensitive with us so they won't be so hasty to move against us."

      "Wouldn't it be better for me to stay there, then?" Yohji asked. "They won't go after Schuldich and Nagi if I'm there."

      "Once we find them, we're going to stay within Farfarello's range," was Crawford's response. "If they start moving back this way, we'll return. Right now, Farfarello needs to find Einsam and the catalysts."

      "Can he do that?" Yohji wanted to know.

      The ghost of a grim smile pulled at Crawford's lips. "We'll find out."


      Manx paid for a parking spot for an hour and slid out of her seat, pulling her purse with her. She closed the car door behind her and spared a moment to study her reflection. Red hair that could never be controlled, chap-sticked lips and pearl nails, and a white top over black pants. She had a casual lunch with Birman after she was through with the flower shop. Apparently things were getting serious with the man Birman had found a few months ago, and she wanted the two to meet. Birman had begged her not to wear red, a teasing tone on a serious request. Manx had laughed at her and agreed. Studying her reflection, she decided Weiss was probably going to have a heart attack when they saw her- Yohji most of all.

      Her thoughts were amused and her heart light as she stepped out of the parking lot and started down the sidewalk for the flower shop. Weiss's mission last night had been a success. The reports had been on her desk when she'd first showed up to work and the news had been broadcasting the explosion all morning. There had only been three reports; according to Omi, Yohji had opted out of the mission to court a new ladylove. Manx's mouth pulled in a rueful smile. That man was never going to learn… She couldn't wait for him to finally fall in love again. She'd been there when he'd been in pieces over Asuka's death, and she'd watched from a distance as he splintered over Schreient's Neu. He needed somebody new to take care of, but he wasn't going to find it in the adoring masses that clogged the flower shop. They were too clingy, too artificial. He needed someone stronger, someone more independent. Someone who could take care of themselves but didn't protest the occasional helping hand. She ran through a mental list of her friends, wondering if any of them fit the bill. Perhaps Masato.

      She just wanted her boys to be happy. She'd been with Weiss too long for her to not care. It had been easy at the beginning, to be handed a team to work with. They'd told her not to get too close and she'd learned that it was best. Weiss was her third team. Kritiker had moved to her Tokyo to work under Takatori Shuuichi and to be the contact for Weiss. Her first team, in Osaka, had died. All three of them had been killed in the line of duty. The second team had eventually had to be broken up, as they grew unstable. By the time they assigned her to Weiss, she was determined not to care.

      They hadn't told her Omi was part of the team until after she'd shown up, and she'd been furious with Kritiker for months. She'd helped raise the boy when he was first brought into Kritiker's fold. Takatori Shuuichi had given him to her to take care of and she'd raised him until she was called away for her first team. Now, heart hardened from watching people she'd grown to care for die and fall to pieces, she'd been reunited with the child. Except Omi wasn't the same as the child she'd left; Kritiker had fixed him up and made him into an assassin, and he had been given a unit to reside over. Manx had been leery of working with Weiss for a long time, not wanting to get too close for fear they'd die, but unable to stay away when Omi was with them.

      In time, they'd won her over. And they were her most successful team. They'd been strong for years now, and she'd stopped fearing their deaths and learned to enjoy the time she had with them. She'd grown extremely fond of them, all four of them.

      "You look very happy today," came a young voice to her left. Manx looked up to find Tomoe Sakura trailing her. She offered the high schooler a small smile in greeting. She'd come to know the girl a little bit ever since the tower fell at the sea. Sakura and Aya had an awkward little dance going on between them that was highly amusing to watch. Aya had promised to tell her everything, and Manx had reluctantly agreed. There was no point in telling him no, when Sakura had been involved in Estet's downfall. In hindsight, it had been a good decision. Sakura was good for the boys. It helped them to have someone outside of their group understand. And it certainly helped Sakura make headway with Aya, though if the two moved any slower at getting into a relationship, Manx was going to die before they went on their first real date.

      "It's a beautiful day," was Manx's answer, and she gestured to the wrapped box in Sakura's hands. "For Aya?"

      "No…" Sakura shook her head. "For Yohji-san."

      That was surprising. "For Yohji?" Manx echoed.

      Sakura nodded, keeping pace with her as they approached the shop. Even with a half a block between them and the shop, Manx thought she could hear the squealing of excited school girls. "He hasn't been at the shop for almost a week now," was Sakura's worried answer, and she stared ahead towards the shop they were heading for. "Aya said it was just a cold, but… I'm worried that he's really sick."

      Manx frowned. "He's been gone for over a week?" she asked. Omi hadn't said anything about Yohji being so ill. And he'd had a date last night; how sick could he be? Sakura nodded, her mouth pulling in a concerned frown. "Yes. He left the shop early last week because he was sick and he hasn't come back. And I thought it was nothing, you know, but… Aya's so worried…" Her voice dropped on that as her young mind conjured up all sorts of horrible illnesses to be plaguing Weiss's playboy. "He says it's nothing to worry about. Says it's just a cold. But they're all so upset, so tense. You can see it in their eyes."

      Manx turned that over in her mind, a frown pulling at her lips. Omi would have told her if Yohji was really that sick. What could possibly be going on?

      They were about fifteen feet from the store when Omi stepped out to put up a sign. He noticed them and lifted his hand in a wave. "Good afternoon, Sakura-san, Manx. Manx, you look nice today. What's the occasion?"

      She ignored the flattery and the question. "I need to talk to you."

      He saw the expression on her face and she saw something change on his. "Come on in," he said, and he vanished inside without waiting on either of them. Sakura looked up at Manx.

      "Will you let me know how he's doing?" she asked. "They won't tell *me*."

      "Of course," Manx answered, and they edged their way into the shop. It was packed. Apparently the boys were having a sale today. Manx looked around, her heels and her natural height giving her an advantage over the crowd, but she couldn't find Omi. He'd vanished, and she wondered how on earth he could move so easily through such a thick throng of people. A second scan made her settle on Aya and Ken. They were standing by the door to the basement, talking to each other even as their eyes were on her.

      There was definitely something they weren't telling her. Ken couldn't guard his expressions as well as his teammates, and there was agitated concern in his eyes. It told her two things: there was definitely something wrong with Yohji, and none of Weiss was happy to see her show up and investigate. The back door opened and shut, but she didn't see anyone come out. Manx frowned and started through the crowd. Sakura followed close behind, squeezing through the path Manx made.

      "Where's Yohji?" Manx asked.

      "He took the day off," Ken answered. "Who knows where he goes?"

      "Sakura says he's been sick for a week."

      "Well, yeah. But he's better. Should be at the shop tomorrow. Just wanted another day off to get out of the shop, since he's been trapped inside for so long. He'll be back tomorrow," Ken said again.

      Manx eyed him, then turned to Aya. "We're going to go downstairs and have a talk. Where's Omi?"

      Aya glanced over at the girls, searching the crowd for their youngest teammate. "Out front," he guessed.

      "I just came from out front," she informed him, arching an eyebrow at him. "Go downstairs. You," and she looked at Ken, "stay here and watch the shop."

      With that, she pushed the basement door open and started down the stairs. Aya didn't follow immediately, and she realized a moment later that it was because Sakura had stopped him. "For Yohji-san," the girl was saying. "Please give him my regards, and I do hope he is better. I'll come by tomorrow to check on him."

      "I'll tell him," Aya assured her.

      "Leaving already?" Ken asked.

      There was a pause; Manx glanced back to see Sakura looking around the shop. "I could help out," she suggested. "There are a lot of girls here for just one of you. Where *is* Omi, anyway?"

      "Oh, he's around here somewhere."

      "Aya," Manx called.

      The redhead finally turned and stepped onto the stairwell to follow.


      Nagi's cell phone was ringing. He looked up from where he was sprawled in bed to eye it, then marked his place in his book and called it over to him. It flew up from his desk and sailed into his hand, and he flipped it open and answered. "Nagi," he said.


      He sighed. Bombay. "What do you want?" he asked. "You gave me your report on Marigold. We don't need anything else from you, and you're not getting Kudou back. If this call has to do with either of those two things, then just hang up now."

      "No, it's-" There was a pause, then the sound of papers rustling. He heard a curse and he frowned. The boy was talking so quiet he could barely hear him. "We've got a slight problem here. Manx has just shown up at the Koneko, and she knows something's wrong. I can see it on her face."

      "That means what to me?" Nagi wanted to know.

      "Our entire *basement* is full of printouts on Schwarz, Schatten, and Marigold," came Bombay's sensible reply. More papers rustled and in Nagi's mind, he could imagine the other youth racing around, pulling down sheets that had been tacked all over the place. "There's something- unless you want Kritiker in on this-" He cut himself off, and there was silence for a few moments. Nagi thought he heard something pounding. "Can Schuldich hear me?" he wanted to know, words rushed. "Can he hear me at the shop?"

      "Not from here," Nagi answered.

      "It's *important*," Bombay insisted. "Can he-" He cut himself off again, and there was a small crash. Bombay swore again and then there was the sound of shoes racing up metal. "It's important," he insisted again, and then the line went dead as the other assassin hung up.

      Nagi just stared at his phone for a few moments, then sighed and pushed himself up from his bed. He opened his door and padded down the hall to find Schuldich alone in the den. He looked around, a frown on his face "Where is everyone?" he wanted to know.

      "They went out," was Schuldich's answer.

      Nagi held up his phone. "Bombay just called," he said. Schuldich arched an eyebrow at him, as if asking why he should care. "There's something wrong at the shop. Manx showing up when there's a lot of information around. I don't think it's what we gave him that he's worried about. He said there's something there we don't want her to see. Don't know what it was. He hung up." He pocketed his cell phone and folded his arms loosely over his chest. "He wanted to know if you could hear him from here; he insisted that it was important."

      Schuldich was silent for a long time. "What could Weiss have that we should care about?" he wanted to know. "If Kritiker finds out, it's not like they can do anything to us. They've been harmless to us for a year and a half now."

      "I don't know." Nagi shook his head. "He hung up before he could say. What do you think?"

      Schuldich thought again, using his magazine like a fan to waft cool air onto his face. "I think he could be exaggerating," he said. "What Weiss thinks is an emergency is something Schwarz scoffs at."

      "But?" Nagi asked, because he could hear it in Schuldich's tone.

      "But these days, we can't risk anything." Schuldich sighed and tossed his magazine to one side. "It's probably nothing, but I'd rather know it's nothing now then ignore it and have it bite us on the ass later." He pushed himself to his feet and made a face. "There should be a rule against forcing hung over people to work," he muttered grumpily, starting for the door.

      "Where are you going?" Nagi asked, stepping back.

      "Can't hear them from here," Schuldich said. "The head of the subdivision puts them within range, though. Just going down two streets and I'll see what the pipsqueak wants. Be back in less than five minutes and we can laugh at Weiss's stupidity and panic together. Be useful and start a pot of coffee while I'm gone."

      "Should you leave the house when none of the others are here?" Nagi asked, watching as his older teammate started for the door.

      Schuldich hesitated for a moment, then glanced back. "It's two streets," he said. "It'll be fine. Coffee."

      And he stepped outside.



      Yohji sent Farfarello a startled glance back. Ever since Farfarello had pointed them this direction, the Irishman had gone silent. Einsam was on the move; Schwarz was following him to see where he was going. Crawford didn't ask questions; he simply pulled over to the curb. Farfarello lurched forward between the seats and Yohji pressed himself against the window so the younger man's shoulder didn't knock him. Farfarello's hand clenched in the sleeve of Crawford's shirt. "Meirth," Farfarello said. "He's moving."

      He didn't have to say where to. From the sharp edge to the Irishman's words, it was obvious.

      //Where are you at?// Schuldich's voice came suddenly, open to all three of them.

      //You left the house,// was Farfarello's flat accusation, and Yohji wondered how he knew.

      ~Halfway across the city,~ Crawford answered, and he used a hand to push Farfarello back some so he could see past Yohji out the window. He listed some of the nearby shops. Yohji wasn't paying attention to him; his eyes were on Farfarello's tight expression.

      //You're out by the kitty shop? Good. Bombay's got his nuts in a knot, says-//

      //Meirth,// Farfarello interrupted him. //Meirth is on his way. Get back in the fucking house.//

      //Where is he now?// Schuldich wanted to know.

      //Fifteen minutes from there, maybe less.// There was a hard edge to his words. He still hadn't let go of Crawford's shoulder, and Yohji thought the grip was going to leave permanent wrinkles in the expensive material.

      There was silence for a long moment as that sunk in, then Schuldich tried again. //Kritiker's at the Koneko,// he offered up. //Bombay's trying to get the information out the back. He has shit there that would have Kritiker all over us in a heartbeat, and we don't have the time to waste for that. Crawford, clean up duty.//

      Farfarello snarled something incoherent and threw his door open. //Schuldich, come to me. He's too close.//

      "How's him coming closer supposed to help?" Yohji demanded, but Farfarello had already taken off. "Hey-"

      Crawford's expression was grim. "Meirth's alone," he said, reaching back to pull the Irishman's door shut. "If Farfarello gets closer to them both, he's the best protection Schuldich has now. The closer Schuldich gets to here, the closer he gets to Meirth, but the quicker Farfarello can catch up to both of them. We need to see what went wrong with Weiss, and then we'll head back. Einsam is in this area; he's too close for anyone's good." He was silent for a moment; a frown twisted faintly at his lips. "This blows Farfarello's cover," he said after a few moments.

      Yohji tried to think of something to say, but he couldn't figure out a good response. The car pulled away from the curb and they turned at the next corner to bring the flower shop into sight. There was a decent crowd around it and Yohji wondered how his teammates were dealing with so many girls. "Maybe I should get out and go ahead," Yohji started. "We could pull the car around back and I could-"

      The rest of his suggestion went unvoiced, because at that moment the Koneko no Sumu Ie exploded.

Part 13
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