Part One

    "I _am_ trying my hardest, father. These people are cautious; they do not want to invest their money in something they cannot be certain of."

    There is a bang, the sound of a meaty fist making contact with our employer's desk. I can hear Hirofumi's mental flinch and allow my lips to curve in a faint smirk. From my vantage point sprawled along the back of the couch in Takatori's waiting room I can see through the slightly cracked door of the politician's office. It's not like I have to see; I know more of what's going on in that room than either of its occupants do since I'm privy to what they say as well as what is left unspoken.

    Hirofumi's back is to me but I can see Takatori's fat face. It's flushed red in anger, causing his ridiculous white whisker-hair to stand out even more. He looks absolutely absurd. The hardest part of this job, I think, will be keeping myself from laughing out loud at how retarded the man looks.

    "It _will_ be a certain thing if you actually get their approval! Work on them harder. If you are incapable of doing such a simple thing I will have to find some other place for you to sit and rot where you will not get in my way."

    There is a dead silence between them; I can hear Hirofumi struggling to keep from arguing. When he speaks his voice is that of calm compliance, at odds with his mental protests. "Yes, father."

    "Get out of my face." Takatori sits down heavily. I wait for the chair to break under his weight but it doesn't. Maybe next time.

    There is another pause, a tense moment of silence passing between them, before Hirofumi turns and strides towards the door. He shoves it open the rest of the way and steps into the room where my teammates and I are waiting. His eyes flick across us, taking us in. We arrived after him and now he stops in his tracks, trying to figure out who the strangers in his father's lounge area are. He reaches up slowly to push his glasses further up on his nose and I follow his gaze around the room.

    Nagi is sitting on the couch with perfect posture, hands folded in his lap. His face is impassive as he returns Masafumi's stare. After a moment he allows his eyes to slide away, giving a faint sniff to show his disapproval for the older man. Hirofumi gapes at the lack of respect from a boy much younger than him.

    Nagi definitely learned that trick at school...I snicker quietly.

    Hirofumi looks towards me, frowning faintly at the noise. His frown deepens as he takes in my sprawled out position. Perhaps he's just jealous...It takes balance and practice to be able to be comfortable on the back of a couch. I lift a hand from where it's acting as a pillow under my head and wiggle my fingers at him in greeting. He looks from me to Farfarello, who is standing by the window and ignoring everyone.

    /Farfarello...Turn around. We have a visitor./

    Farfarello really doesn't care, but he does look over his shoulder at my urging. Hirofumi actually takes a step back when he sees the Irishman's scarred face and eyepatch. I'm sure Farfarello's intense glare does nothing to settle his nerves. He looks quickly away, eyes landing on Crawford. Our precognitive is sitting in a chair across from the couch, reading a newspaper. He lowers it slightly and lifts his head to meet Hirofumi's gaze calmly. The movement causes his glasses to flash as the overhead light reflects from the glass.

    Booyah, battle of the glasses-wearers. Only Crawford can make a flash of light look so ominous.

    "Father...? _Who_..."

    There is a creak as Takatori rises from his chair. We listen to his heavy footsteps as he lumbers towards us. He appears behind Hirofumi and his son steps to one side, eyes fixed on Nagi. I know Nagi can feel his gaze, but he neglects to return the stare; the far wall is more interesting to look at. Takatori gives a wave around the room, eyes gleaming as he looks us over.

    "These are my new bodyguards," he says. "They arrived yesterday morning."

    "They look a little..." He searches for a word. There are plenty in his mind, and none of them are flattering. "...sketchy," he finally decides, eyes lifting to study me.

    I let my smirk curl a little wider and examine my fingernails. Us? Sketchy?

    That's the mildest thing anyone's ever called us.

    /He underestimates us,/ I remark.

    ~His opinion does not matter,~ Nagi answers, reclining against the back cushions of the couch. He's careful to keep his head from touching my side. ~He is not the one we're employed to watch.~

    /You know, I hadn't figured that out by now,/ I reply dryly. Nagi ignores my sarcasm.

    "And I suppose you would suggest that I borrow your brother's worthless tagalongs," Takatori says, a flat edge of disapproval in his voice.

    I catch what I can from Hirofumi's mind as the younger man sends his father a wary look. From the taste of their thoughts this is an old argument. He gives a slight tilt of his head towards us, mentally asking his father to shut up before us lowly bodyguards hear something we aren't supposed to.

    I smother a laugh as a cough, tilting my head to one side. I doubt Hirofumi will be important any time soon, so I set what I've gleaned from his thoughts aside for later consideration. As for his brother, well...I'll look into Hirofumi's thoughts on his "tagalongs" when I'm bored, I suppose. I'll have to be bored...It'll be a mind job just going over what I believe was a picture of some blue-haired chick with an umbrella and a stuffed rabbit.

    Takatori escorts his son towards the far door that lets him out into the hall and shuts it loudly behind him. Swearing something about incompetent sons, he storms in the direction of the office. I refrain from making a comment about where apples fall in relation to their trees.

    Takatori stops at the door to his office to look back at us. "I will be resting. I do not need you right now."

    "As you wish, Mister Takatori," Crawford answers smoothly, folding the newspaper neatly and returning it to its spot on the coffee table. He rises in a fluid movement.

    "I suppose you'll tell me if I'm to be assassinated or something." Takatori finds this amusing for some reason and laughs. He's got an annoying laugh.

    "Of course, Mister Takatori."

    Crawford does not have to say anything; the rest of us rise from our spots. I slide off the back of the couch and pad after Crawford as Schwarz's leader heads towards the door. Nagi and Farfarello fall in behind me. I wonder if Crawford's always been this good at kissing ass.

    My smirk slides more into a grin at the thought.

    We have been given some partly isolated quarters a floor down from Takatori. There was a small debate about where to put us when we first arrived...Estet had said we needed our space but Takatori had wanted us close at hand if he was going to start furthering himself with what our superiors want him to do. At length I made the decision for him, planting the rooms we have now into his mind. I have no desire to be on the same hall as him, and besides, I reasoned into his thoughts, Crawford is a precognitive. Distance means nothing if Crawford can see an attack coming; we will be prepared.

    It took a while, but I got my way. Takatori suddenly decided he did not want us encroaching on his personal space and sent us down a floor.

    We've got a nice spot for ourselves, admittedly. The branch of the hall we are on has five rooms, a full bath, and a small lounge area. Crawford gives no indication that he needs to speak to us as a group, so Farfarello wanders into his own room. I am to keep one part of my mind always fixed on him to make sure he doesn't try anything...This house is not equipped to hold Farfarello like our flat was. Nagi also vanishes into his own room.

    I pass my door and follow Crawford into his. "My" room is already a pigsty. I unmade the bed and tossed a few things around to make it look occupied.

    Like hell I'm sleeping in there.

    I close the door behind us. Crawford seats himself at the small desk in the corner and I perch on the end of the bed. His chair is turned slightly and he does not touch any of the folders on his desk. Instead he gazes towards the far wall, lost in thought. I watch him, admiring the way his face relaxes as he turns his concentration more on his thoughts than on keeping his mask. He looks younger...

    We sit in silence for several minutes, him staring at nothing and me staring at him. At last he finally removes his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose.

    "I knew you'd strain something if you tried to think," I muse.

    He glances towards me, expression a mix of amusement and tolerance. I rise from my spot and cross the room towards him. He watches me come, not bothering to move. He does tilt his head back to meet mine when I lean down to kiss him, though. "You do know you look atrocious in that outfit," he murmurs against my mouth.

    I nip his lower lip, straightening and flicking my hair over my shoulder. "What do you know about any sort of fashion?" I ask him, laughing and turning to look at my reflection in the mirror hanging above Crawford's dresser. It waves back when I wiggle my fingers at it in greeting. I skim my figure with appraising jade eyes, starting with the yellow headband and reddish-pink tinted sunglasses that keep my wild orange hair out of my face. I have a green blazer pulled over a white shirt and khakis finish off the outfit. It definitely is an interesting mix of colors.

    I like it, so I don't care what Crawford says.

    I grin at my reflection. My lover rises to his feet then and I turn to meet him, twining an arm around his neck as we kiss again. Part of me wonders what Takatori would think if he were to ever walk in on us like this, even though I know it'll never happen. If Takatori is ever so bold as to come down here and root around our new lodging, Crawford will see him coming. I know neither of us cares what he would think, but the last thing we need is for him to file a complaint that we're incompetent queers or something. We don't need a reason to get the Council to eye us again.



    I realize I am staring at the front of Crawford's jacket and slowly lift my eyes to his face. He is looking down at my hand, and I follow his gaze to see my fingers are clenched in the material of his sleeve. I manage to loosen the grip and withdraw my arm from his neck, stepping back and letting space fall between us.

    Honey amber eyes study my face and I return the stare calmly. "It is my job to deal with them," he tells me. "It is not yours anymore."

    Am I that easy to read or is he a telepath in hiding?

    I give a slight toss of my head, moving away from him and perching on the end of his bed once more. "They'll never leave us alone like they did before," I say. "For six years they did not care as long as we did what they wanted." I gaze off to the side, staring at the wall without seeing it. "Things won't go back to that. They changed the moment you fell sick."

    Crawford says nothing and silence falls between us. The last seven months changed everything. Our group has changed; the ties that hold us together have strengthened. The ties that hold us to our superiors...have weakened. We chose each other over them. We chose to hold out for Crawford when the Council was ready to terminate him. I will never regret that decision. What bothers me now is that the Council is probably all too aware of this. I rocked the Council when I showed up to defy them for my teammate's sake. They had not expected me to come in and be defiant to their faces- not for the reasons I had, anyhow...While my bluntness gave the extra boost to save Crawford, it also set off an alarm in their heads. I know it did. Their strongest group had chosen their own over the Council's decision; their strongest telepath had offered a sacrifice of his life for his precognitive.

    They know the balance has changed...I am positive that is why we are where we are now. Estet's Elders want Takatori for their future. They will be watching his progress- and ours- very carefully.

    If we step out of line...

    ~"Mastermind, open your eyes and look me in the face."~

    "Schuldich, stop thinking about him."

    I fix onto Crawford's voice fiercely, refusing to get dragged back into my memories. I have no desire to get trapped in them. Crawford lowers himself to sit beside me and I scoot backwards on the mattress, tugging my legs up after me and sitting indian-style on top of the comforter.

    "I hate them," I say, a flat edge to my voice. "I wish we could just-" I cut myself off, knowing better than to say the words aloud.

    It's not like I have to say them. From the warning look Crawford gives me, he knows what I was about to say. I give a small sigh and shrug my shoulders. "See anything interesting with the Koala yet?"

    "Koala?" Crawford repeats, the corner of his mouth twitching in amusement.

    I smirk back. "You can't tell me he doesn't look like one."

    He gives a slight shake of his head. "Takatori is not the one that I am getting glimpses of." He glances towards the far wall, mouth pulling into a faint frown.

    "Don't tell me you're seeing stuff about that greasy haired kid of his..."

    "It's not clear enough yet." Crawford rises from his spot and moves over to his desk, picking up his glasses and sliding them into place. "What did you manage to get from him?"

    I rummage around, pulling up the bits I tugged from his mind, and send them across our mental link. Crawford sags lightly, resting both hands on his desk and lowering his head. I climb off the bed and approach him, standing to his side and watching his face as he stares at the ground with unfocused eyes, lost in visions. His mouth thins faintly in reaction to something he's seeing before he finally returns to the here-and-now. He turns and lowers himself back into his chair. I recognize the look on his face- it's the "I need to think _now_" look. I rake my fingers through his hair and turn away. I know better than to ask him what he's seen; he'll tell me if he wants me to know.

    Fingers close around my wrist in a tight grip and I send Crawford a startled glance over my shoulder. He isn't looking at me; he's staring off into space still.


    Honey brown eyes bounce up to my face and then down to his grip. He releases me and folds his hands in his lap, turning his attention back on the wall. He offers no explanation for his grab. I hesitate a moment longer, wondering about it, before deciding Crawford will explain himself later. I head out of the room, rubbing at my wrist as I go.


    Crawford does not eat dinner with us; he dines with Takatori and one of Takatori's associates in the main dining room. Crawford is the politician's number one contact; he will go with Takatori to all of his meetings and speeches. The rest of us will accompany when Crawford feels we are needed or when the trip is far enough away that one or more of us will be able to tag along. Takatori will be spending a lot of his time away from here.

    So will Crawford.

    That's annoying.

    I don't like sitting at this table with just Nagi and Farfarello. Seeing just their faces around the table makes me think for a moment that we've stepped back in time and Crawford is still gone. Nagi feels the same, and I catch his eyes sliding towards where a fourth chair should go. We know Crawford's healed, but still...The two week nightmare that Crawford's stumble created was hard enough the first time through.

    Farfarello finishes first and rises from his seat, padding out of the room on silent feet. Nagi looks at me and then towards the Irishman's plate. I eye Farfarello's unfinished dinner. There is regret in Nagi's thoughts as he turns back to his meal; he's thinking of Aine.

    It is strange to think that Farfarello is unhappy. Hell, he's never been happy, as far as I know. He knows content satisfaction after a kill and he can feel amusement, but most of the time he is tucked away in his own unpleasant world. Aine helped pull him out of that a bit; they were at each other's sides for six months. Now she is gone and Farfarello has been left behind to slowly recede again.

    I give a mental sigh and return to attacking my food, stabbing the vegetables with the prongs of my fork and eating them five and six at a time. I am sure Farfarello is helping speed up his path back into his own isolated thoughts. This is a different sort of unhappiness than what he is used to and he does not like it. Anything that Farfarello does not like _must_ go, so Farfarello has been keeping more to himself than ever to try and figure out how to rid himself of this strange feeling.

    Who knew the Berserker could ever feel lonely?

    It is weird.

    Nagi finishes and carries both his and Farfarello's dishes over towards the sink. Farfarello's leftovers are sent down the drain into the garbage disposal before the plates are placed in the dishwasher. We have been given access to the small kitchen that is intended to be used by Takatori's underlings. Not many of them stay here anymore; Takatori is being cautious now that he knows Estet has chosen him to walk a dangerous path. If he cooperates and does what we tell him to, both he and Estet will profit for him.

    All politicians are the same...Dangle power before their noses and they will bound into the depths of hell to get it.

    I don't appreciate the fact that we of Schwarz are using this little kitchen, but at the same time, I would rather not share a table with Big, Fat, and Ugly.

    I reach towards Takatori's mind, skimming through it to see what they are talking about in the other dining room. They are discussing an upcoming debate in Nara that both will be attending. The other man has been working to get everything settled to make the travel there and back run as smoothly as possible. Crawford's presence has already been taken into account in the plans. I found out yesterday from some mental digging that our services had been promised to Takatori four weeks prior to our arrival. Neither Rosenkreuz nor Estet knew exactly what time Crawford would be released as fit to roam on his own, but Takatori had been told to sit patiently until our arrival.

    Estet and Rosenkreuz...

    I rise, my meal finished, and approach the sink. Nagi is still there, thoughts on nothing in particular as he gazes at the sink. He will return to taking online classes again soon, but the time has not yet come for him to sign up. The ones he wants are on a different schedule from the university he attended in person so he is being forced to wait a few weeks. After so long of nothing but schooling to fill up his time, Nagi finds himself bored and restless. I make a note to find the boy a proper hobby as I stick my dishes in the dishwasher.

    I head to the lounge and sprawl out on the couch that is there, making a face at how uncomfortable it is. The remote is off to one side and I pluck it up, aiming it at the television and flicking it on. After a few moments I am joined by my youngest teammate. He seats himself in one of chairs and gazes at the screen as I begin channel surfing. He is not interested in what he sees but he does not really know what else to do.

    Nagi must be abnormal if he cannot appreciate the value of couch potato-ing.

    When I find a soap opera I recognize I stop and let the remote drop to the floor beside the couch. I hear Nagi's mental sigh. ~I don't understand why you watch this trash, Schuldich,~ he sends at me.

    I reply by shrugging. Crawford asked me that just a few days ago. My response was for Crawford alone. Nagi would not understand.

    The show is almost over when Crawford sends a summons across the bond. ~Schuldich.~


    ~Takatori's other son is on the way and he would like us to be introduced. Apparently Hirofumi told his brother that his father had taken in four bodyguards. We will meet you in the ground floor office.~

    /How rude. You'd think these people would schedule their visits so it doesn't interrupt my show,/ I muse, flicking the television off and rising to my feet. Nagi looks up, shaken from his light doze at my movement. /We have someone we have to meet,/ I send at both of my teammates.

    Nagi stands and follows me out of the lounge. After a pause Farfarello joins us. I turn and let my long legs carry me down the hall. One hand trails along the railing as we descend from the second floor. My two younger partners and I took our own tour of the place yesterday evening to get a feel for the layout of the place while Crawford was busy with Takatori. Now I follow my mental map to bring us towards our precognitive and current employer.

    Takatori looks up as I breeze into the room with my teammates at my heels. He is sitting at the small desk. Crawford stands off to one side. I stop six feet away from the desk and Nagi and Farfarello fan off to my sides slightly. The door closes behind us, pushed shut by Nagi. Takatori grunts.

    "If only the rest of my servants appeared as quickly when they're summoned," he mutters, looking at his watch.

    I raise an eyebrow, my lips twitching into a smirk. Servants? The term is echoed in Nagi's mind as well. Farfarello slowly tilts his head in Takatori's direction, amber eye settling on the man's wide form. Silence falls in the room for almost a full minute before there is a knock at the door.

    "Enter," Takatori barks.

    The door opens and an attendant utters an introduction before ducking out of the way. Hirofumi's younger brother strides in, a woman following close behind him. He stops halfway through the room and my partners and I slowly turn to face him. Whereas Hirofumi at least looked a little civilized with his slicked back hair and glasses, Masafumi has hair going all over the place. Nagi doesn't like his eyes, and I have to agree with his thoughts. He is wearing a white laboratory jacket over slacks and a rumpled shirt. The woman stops right behind him, one hand sliding up to close on his upper arm. I recognize the two from the flickering of Hirofumi's mind.

    "_Well_, father," Masafumi says, raising his eyebrows pointedly as he looks us over. "And you had qualms about who I chose to keep company with."

    Is every Takatori going to underestimate us?

    I let a smirk slide across my lips and turn my back on him. My teammates follow my example. Takatori is leaning forward, beefy arms folded on his desk. Crawford stands behind him silently, but something about his gaze is off- he is not focusing on the present. Masafumi's little girl buddy- the leader of his female bodyguards, I note- is eyeing us with mixed caution and disapproval. She does not like our looks, but she is not as willing as her employer to brush us away.

    There is something about her...

    I rummage a little deeper, letting myself sink into her mind. She knows something- about us. She recognizes...which one of us?

    She knows Crawford; she has seen him before.

    "I would have thought you would have been too busy to come and visit," Takatori says. There is an edge to his voice- he is in no way pleased with this psychotic son of his.

    Masafumi offers a tolerant smile as if chastising his father for thinking so lowly of him. He came only because his brother told him, according to his thoughts. "You are my father; of course I would come inquiring when I learned that you had taken on a group of bodyguards."

    "Then you will be assured to find that your father is in very capable hands," Crawford says smoothly. I am brought from my mental scavenger hunt at the sound of his voice and can see he has decided to join us in the here-and-now. The girl flinches internally- Crawford is looking at her directly.

    Masafumi sends Crawford a condescending look, clearly annoyed that Crawford decided to join the conversation. Takatori, however, is giving a sharp nod. "It is not your place to question my decisions," he tells his son coldly.

    Masafumi spreads his arms, taking on a complacent tone. "You are right, father. As long as I am here, perhaps we can discuss business...?" He looks towards Crawford. "In private, of course. These are delicate issues."

    Takatori gives a disgusted "Harrumph" before nodding to Crawford. Crawford executes a small bow before coming around the desk and moving towards the door. I wait until he has passed us before turning to follow. The woman has moved slightly out of Crawford's way, tucking herself behind Masafumi. Their eyes lock briefly as Crawford passes her. There is a rumbling of disbelief in her mind, swirling with uneasiness. I finally manage to locate where I've seen her before and a frown curves my lips as I exit the room. Nagi closes the office doors behind us and we return to our floor.

    It is a silent trip back, but I speak as soon as I step into the room I share with Crawford. "Crawford, that woman's-" I start, making a gesture over my shoulder.

    I bite back the rest of the words when Crawford turns to face me and I catch sight of his face. Anything I could have said dies on my tongue and I stare blankly back at him. His lips are curved into the faintest of smirks and his eyes are a twisting mix of satisfaction and anticipation. I reach back and slowly shut the door behind me.

    "You wish we could just break away from them completely," Crawford says quietly, finishing my aborted rant of hatred against the Council from earlier.

    Crawford steps up to me, lowering his face alongside mine so he can murmur in my ear. His breath sends a shiver down my spine, but it is his words that stop my heart.

    "What if I told you I thought there was a way?"

Part 2