Part Two

    I open my mouth, then shut it again, leaning backwards away from him to study his face. Apprehension and incomprehension dance on my face and I frown. "What?" I ask blankly. He is only half looking at me; part of his mind is still wrapped up in his thoughts. I reach up, planting my hand against his chest. "Crawford, say again?"

    He moves away from me, crossing the room to his desk, and stands beside it. He gazes down at the wood, considering it, before turning to face me again. The smirk is gone, replaced by a smooth expression. His eyes are patient. "There is," he says, lifting one hand and indicating a small distance with his forefinger and thumb. "It is slight; it is just a crack."

    "And you're considering it?" I ask, knowing incredulous disbelief stains my voice. I abruptly switch to telepathy, unwilling to say the rest out loud. /A crack, you say, a crack of a chance to break away. Fuck, Crawford, a chasm would be suicide, and you're feeling enlightened because of a crack?/

    ~It is possible to wear away the edges, and once the damage starts it will be near impossible to fix.~

    I say nothing, but give a slight shake of my head. I hate the Council, I hate Rosenkreuz, I hate Estet. So does Crawford. A part of me wants nothing more than to watch them fall and piss on their graves; the rest of me decided long ago that such a thing is impossible. And yes, just earlier I was expressing my desire to free ourselves from them, but the very last person I expected to not only agree with me but seek out a path would be Brad Crawford himself. He has been with them longer; he is one of their Top Five. He knows as well as I do what happens to people who don't follow the rules.

    And yet he has, I decide with a strange feeling in my stomach, been thinking about this.

    "Shit," I murmur, at a loss for anything else to say.

    "It's yours," Crawford tells me.

    "Mine?" I ask blankly.

    "It is your call," he clarifies simply.

    For a moment I can do nothing but gape at him. Then I give a sharp shake of my head. "No," I say flatly. "You're not even funny, Crawford." He says nothing, just gazes at me with that politely blank look that he probably patented. _He's_ our leader. _He's_ supposed to guide us. Yet he throws this, the biggest decision Schwarz will ever make, at me.

    It isn't supposed to be mine. Someone else is supposed to make it and I'm supposed to follow. That way, if something goes wrong, I can lay the blame on someone else. I can hate someone else. If something goes wrong in this plan of ours, there will be a whole lot of hating going on. I need that, that escape from the blame. I can't be guilty for everything, after all.

    Part of me thinks it's viciously unfair that Crawford is making me decide.

    The rest of me understands. I have to be the one that chooses. I have more riding on this than any of the others. I have much more to lose. Hoffmann and I share a mutual and fierce hatred for each other. The difference is that my hate is also built by a deep fear I cannot shake, and he knows this. I fear him and we are on the same side. He is a terrible threat, a dark presence looming overhead, and we are on the same side.

    To strike against the Council...

    If we do so, we are declaring a war he will be more than happy to take part of. He will finally have no reason to hold back against me. He will have the encouragement and consent of the Council to strike back.

    He will be the one to attack, and I will be the first one he goes for.

    I cannot handle him as a superior; how can I possibly survive him as an enemy?

    My call...The future of Schwarz is my call.

    "I don't like you," I inform Crawford.

    "I know."


    The next day begins quietly; Crawford joins me for coffee and then leaves me to tend to Takatori’s demands. We say nothing to each other; we haven't said a word to each other since I made it clear how displeased I was with his handling of this new idea of his. I set my mug on the counter and retreat to our lounge to think. Nagi wakes not much later and frees Farfarello, and I can hear their mental noise in the background of my tangled thoughts. Neither approaches the lounge, and time slides by as I think. One would think that such a serious subject would keep me from falling asleep, but I manage to doze off anyway. I didn't get much sleep last night, and the disturbed rest had nothing to do with the fact that I was sleeping in the same bed as Crawford.


    I crack open my eyes to see Nagi standing in front of me. "What do you want?"

    "It's lunch time."

    That wakes me up, and I look past him to the clock on the television center across the room. Indeed, the hour hand declares it to be past noon. I've wasted half of the day and haven't reached a conclusion of any sort. I don't know how much time Crawford will allow me; I don't know how much longer his 'crack' of opportunity will stay open. I'm torn between hatred and fear, and I don't know which way to go. I doubt Crawford will demand a response today; he knows I cannot just snap my fingers and come to a decision. That doesn't mean he'll wait forever, though.

    Crawford wants to do this.

    Rosenkreuz has pushed Crawford far enough that he _wants_ to destroy them. I'm still not quite sure how to react to that knowledge.

    I push myself to my feet slowly, rubbing at my forehead to ward off the remains of exhaustion and a headache.

    "Maybe you should sleep in your own room from now on," Nagi muses. "You would probably get more rest that way."

    "Bite me."

    "I would rather not."

    "Good. You might give me rabies." I wave a hand at him in dismissal and wander out of the room. He offers a quiet sigh to the room and I grin, wandering down the hall to the kitchen. I can smell the food as I approach and my stomach rumbles quietly to show its appreciation.

    If I expected Crawford to be there, I am disappointed. Farfarello sits at the table by himself. He has not moved to serve himself yet, but he reaches for a bowl when Nagi and I enter. We pass the dishes around silently. I set the last platter aside and pluck up my fork. I made sure to bring our silverware with us when we came here; I doubt Takatori even knows what a fork is, the fat pork rind. It is a slow meal; we linger because there is nothing else for us to do and eating will have to serve as a form of entertainment. Being here is much like being under house arrest for the three of us. We will leave only when Crawford believes all of us will be necessary. How long are we going to be here? I rack my mind, trying to remember. "Anywhere from several months to a little over a year," Crawford had said when telling us of this job.

    Lovely. Someone really should talk to Rosenkreuz and Estet about giving us something more entertaining to do.

    Rosenkreuz and Estet…

    My fork slows to a stop on its way to my mouth and I gaze at my plate, twisting their names over in my mind. Their faces flicker in my thoughts: the four members of the Council of Rosenkreuz and the three elders of Estet. Nagi glances towards me and I can sense his faint curiosity at my distant expression. I flick my eyes towards him and poke my fork into my mouth, though I cannot taste the food. Damn them; thoughts of them can take away the simplest pleasures of life. Did I even remember to put good food on that list? I don't remember.

    "You're thinking," Farfarello says.

    "Some people do that," I answer, pouring myself more tea. It would be rare for Nagi to ever ask me what's on my mind. Farfarello doesn't have as big a problem of inquiring after such things. Whereas Nagi would keep his own curiosity or interest suppressed out of common sense or a distinct desire to _not_ know what I'm thinking, Farfarello has less worries. It is still rare for him to try and provoke something of a conversation between us, though, which means that he senses whatever is distracting me is important.

    Farfarello has never needed two eyes to see things.

    That doesn't mean I'm going to tell him the full truth. "Just wondering how long the koala is going to keep Crawford occupied."

    "Koala?" Nagi repeats.

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

    "I think any koala would be offended by the comparison," the boy answers, floating the tea pitcher to his own cup and watching as it fills his glass.

    "Is this where I apologize for scandalizing the fuzzy creatures?"

    Nagi glances towards the ceiling in a search for patience. I smirk, finishing off my meal quickly. Hopefully Nagi's classes will start soon…He has no sense of humor when he's bored out of his skull. While I find some amusement in how much easier it is to provoke him, I think it's in everyone's best interests if Schwarz doesn't squabble amongst ourselves. The Council and the Elders are still watching us. Aine gave Crawford her approval rating and he was reinstated as a member of Schwarz, but he has been out of the hospital's care for less than a week and none of the seven are willing to turn their back on their top group until he has proven himself completely capable.

    It's his fault that we were given to Takatori. The man will need constant attention and guidance by Crawford. Where Crawford goes, Schwarz follows, but this is his way of proving himself worthy to remain one of their top five.

    Maa…Several months of house arrest so Crawford can prove what the Council should already know. I make a mental note to gripe at him for the inconvenience and rise to take my dishes away. I glance towards Farfarello, feeling his gaze on me. The look he gives me is considering and I pause in the middle of pushing my chair back under the table. Then his interest wanes and he returns to eating. I touch his mind but can find no thoughts pertaining to me; there is nothing there that tells me what he thinks of my distraction.

    That's not really a surprise. Farfarello has never been easy to read. I dismiss him with a mental shrug and pad towards the dishwasher.

    "Are you going back to the lounge?" Nagi asks.

    I start to shrug, then look over my shoulder at him. From his background thoughts, I pick up that Crawford told both Nagi and Farfarello to leave me alone today. As long as I inhabit the lounge, Nagi will stay away from it. I weigh the pros and cons of this. I can go back in there to think, thereby leaving Nagi to entertain himself with his computer the rest of the day, or I can give him the opportunity to learn the joys of channel surfing on the television.

    "Nein. None of my shows are on."

    He doesn't answer, but joins me by the sink. I close the dishwasher before he can put his dishes in and head out of the room. He thinks a veiled threat towards me and I snicker, vanishing from the room. My feet bring me aimlessly down the hall as I wonder where to find my next source of entertainment. My mind drifts out, acting like a net to catch the stray thoughts of everyone else in this building.

    There aren't many other servants in this place, but there are enough.

    A smirk curls my lips as I turn my shoes towards the stairs, off to find someone and torment them.


    I am alerted by a familiar mind moving towards mine and I look up from where I am sprawled indolently on a bench in Takatori's gardens to watch as Crawford approaches me. I brush against the cool shield of his mind, more an instinctive query than a test to see if there's an opening for me to pry through. The sun is setting, casting an orange glint along his glasses. I push myself to a sitting position when he stops beside the bench and he accepts the silent invitation to sit, lowering himself gracefully to rest beside me. We say nothing for a long time, content to sit beside each other and gaze out at the carefully cultivated scenery.

    I wait for him to bring up the subject of Rosenkreuz and Estet, but he does not, and I accept the prolonged silence with a small feeling of relief.

    A gardener drifts into view. He does not appear to notice us at first, as he is inspecting the plants around him to check which ones will require some pruning. Looks can be deceiving, though; he is here to keep an eye on me. He has been circling the grounds every thirty minutes, mostly keeping out of sight. Takatori doesn't like my looks, apparently, so he has this man watching to make sure I'm not getting into trouble.

    Looks can be very deceiving; Takatori does not know I'm a telepath. It must have slipped Estet's mind when they were informing him of his new group. Fatty was just told that Crawford has clairvoyant skills and that Nagi is a 'capable' telekinetic. For all he knows, Farfarello and I are just here to do the bloody part of bodyguard work. No one cares to relieve him of that assumption; there is no need for him to know what gifts he has running around under his nose.

    He also doesn't know that we're here as more than bodyguards. Crawford told us we're here to make sure Takatori stays useful. When that ceases to be a possibility, Takatori falls into the SOL category and we'll be free.

    "Takatori needs to teach his servants what subtle observation is," I tell Crawford, covering a loud yawn with one hand and gesturing in the direction of the gardener. He is too far away to hear us, but he notices the small wave and quietly ducks out of view. "Even if I were a non-psi I would know he was watching me. It's pathetic."

    "He will be dead tonight anyway," Crawford replies distantly.

    "Natural causes?" I ask, not really interested but willing to keep the conversation going.

    "No." I glance over at him at this. Crawford is studying his fingernails. I study them with him. They are perfectly manicured; Crawford keeps up a perfect appearance down to the very neatly tied shoelaces on his shoes. Appearances can be everything. This holds especially true for Crawford due to the fact that he is a foreigner. I rather like my wild and shocking appearance, and I think it would take serious work if we wanted Farfarello to look decent. He and I have a different message for people: we are insanity and death. We are the ones people will be hesitant to cross. Crawford keeps a tidy look both because it's in his nature to do so and for the sake of business. Crawford always has it together.

    Well…My thoughts stray back to his illness. Almost always.

    "I will not be here tomorrow," Crawford tells me. "I will be attending Human Chess with Takatori. He has been invited by one of his subordinates to attend, and there are several men he has ties with there. Takatori is required to go to strengthen those ties, to mingle with those beneath him and reaffirm their loyalty to him."

    "Sounds thrilling," I drawl. I picked up some stray details of Human Chess from Takatori's mind earlier. It sounds like something Farfarello would love to take place in- a place where he is encouraged to slaughter as many opponents as the ring can pour out. "Perhaps Takatori would like to enter Farfarello. It'd be a nice display of his bodyguards…perhaps get the message across that he's not to be fucked with."

    "It would be too strong of a display for some; it would come across as a message that he employed a madman because he is suspicious of those beneath him. Takatori cannot afford to make his underlings assume that. In addition to that…a redhead is to win." Crawford tilts his head to one side. "His katana cuts the future," he says quietly. "He creates the crack."

    "A modern samurai is our window of opportunity?" I ask. I cannot help but be amused.

    "He will create it." He looks over at me.

    I give a quiet sigh, turning my gaze towards the gardens. "And it will be up to us to make use of it," I finish for him, a resigned edge to my voice. I shake my head and rise to my feet. Crawford mirrors the motion and I turn to him. Uneasiness sits heavy in the bottom of my stomach. "Then don't let the window close."

    "It will take a lot of work, and a lot more than your hesitant words, to see us through this." Crawford starts away and I match his stride easily. The gardener hurries along behind us, trying not to lose sight of us as we make our way back towards the house. "You cannot falter anywhere in here, Schuldich."

    My pride is stung. "I won't falter," I snap back at him.

    He does not respond; he does not have to. In my mind I can see ice blue eyes turning towards me, and I force back the bile that rises in my throat. Crawford has a very strong point here. When I was first brought to Rosenkreuz, I hated Hoffmann. I hated the Council. I hated them with every fiber of my being so that I could feel nothing else for them. Hoffmann decided to change that.

    It took time before the hate made room for terror.

    It took time because he _wanted_ it to take time. My pride had little to do with it in the end. I ended up having to tuck away everything of mine I wanted to save; I had to lock it away deep within and guard it with my life from his touch. He took his time tearing apart everything I had, everything I was. He cut me up, made me into a puzzle, then put the pieces back together however he damn well pleased. When he got bored of the design, he would start over. It was a game to him; I've always been a game to him. He only stopped because what he was doing was starting to damage my gift. I was collapsing under him and taking that precious curse of telepathy with me. That gift is the only reason he backed off and cast me away to other trainers to get my feet back. If I had not been able to lock a part of me away when he first decided to become my guardian, I would not have been able to recover.

    Telepathy, it seems, is a precious gift. It saved me a second time when I challenged the Council for Crawford's life.

    Either way…Hoffmann did a thorough job. To strike against the Council goes against everything he tried to burn into me. Crawford knows this; that is why he will not accept my casual approval of his plan to strike out. A body and tongue do not always work together. In this case, they have to. They must.

    I know this, but I still cannot shake the nausea.


    Crawford, again, does not dine with us. Farfarello, Nagi, and I eat in silence. I make a note to myself to prod Takatori towards the idea of eating alone once in a while just so we can have a fourth face at our table. At least the fatty has good timing; I can hear the smoothness of Crawford's mind approaching just as I'm finishing. I smirk to myself as I rise from my seat, leaving my plate behind.

    "Nagi…Be useful." I gesture towards the plate and slip out of the room.

    ~At least keep it down…~ He sighs.

    /Shut up, brat./

    I meet Crawford in the hall, effectively blocking his tracks and stopping him beside our bedroom. His lips twitch faintly- in amusement, I think. I reach out, twisting the knob and pushing our door open. He obligingly steps through and I follow, closing the door behind me. I shrug out of my green blazer and cast it carelessly aside. Crawford eases his own jacket more gracefully from his shoulders, allowing it to slide down his back towards the ground as he turns to face me.

    I close the distance between us, rocking upward enough to catch his mouth. One of his hands cups the back of my head, tilting it back to let him deepen the kiss. A lazy thrum heats my veins and I raise my hands to his shirt, sliding one between the buttons to find the soft skin underneath. The hard muscles he used to sport have to be rebuilt; they were worn away by so many months of limited movement. I teased him about it once, taunting him that I was built better than he. He had given me a Look in response and I had laughed and ducked away. There would have been no use in him pretending that it didn't bother him at all that his routine trips to the gym had all gone to waste.

    His lips graze down my throat and I tilt my head to one side, giving him better access. Suddenly I hear his breath hitch in his throat and he freezes. The hand on my back clenches and his fingernails dig into my flesh. I reach back, grabbing his wrist and pulling his hands free before his fingernails break the skin. I take a half step back from him, studying his gaze. He is staring through me, lost in a vision. When his gaze clears, his expression clears with it, blanking into the patented one. He straightens and I feel a frown tug at my lips: he only gives me that look when I'm not going to like what he has to say.

    "We're going to have visitors tonight," he says. "Soon."

    There are only four visitors that he would give me that look for. My fingers tighten on his wrist. I am probably squeezing the blood out of his hand, but he says nothing and I don't loosen my grip. "Why would they come?" I demand. "You passed your evaluation. Why are they coming here?"

    "I cannot see that."

    "You can see something," I accuse him. He doesn't answer. "How many of them?"

    "Just two."

    I feel the 'just' is inappropriate. "Mosuli's with him," I say, finally getting the strength to release Crawford's wrist. I take another step back away from him. Mosuli goes with Hoffmann when the German is on a hunt. Mosuli is the one that holds you down when Hoffmann has you screaming; he keeps you in place so there is nowhere to run, nowhere to turn away. They like to work together; they share a sadistic streak. While Hoffmann likes to tear each other apart emotionally, I've seen Mosuli take his victims apart with his gift. I've watched him break every bone in someone's body with his gift, one at a time. I've known him to destroy internal organs with his gift and leave people to die slowly. What he especially loves, however, is to eat.

    Mosuli came from a cannibalistic tribe in Africa, after all. Telekinesis makes for a very handy carving knife.

    I cast my mind out, searching. I push past everyone in this building, searching outwards. As I'm seeking, I feel a familiar dip. I recoil, drawing back quickly. "I'm guessing five minutes at the most…" I tell him.

    He lifts my hand, showing me my fingers. They're shaking faintly. I ball my hand into a fist, meeting Crawford's gaze. "If you step through this window, you will be against them," he says. "There cannot be a halfway. You have to look at a reaction like this and transcend it or it will get you killed. Face them tonight and tell me then whether or not you can do it. No lies, no hedging- brutal honesty."

    I open my mouth and close it again, then firm my lips to a hard line. "Ja, Herr Crawford."

    "Schuldich." It's a warning.

    I tug my hand away from him, averting my gaze. "I know."

    His fingers graze my cheek, a whisper light brush, and I look back towards him. Our gazes meet and hold. He seems to find what he's searching for in my eyes because he turns away to retrieve his jacket. I allow myself a mental grumble at Hoffmann's bad timing before squelching the thought and fetching my own blazer.

    Nagi is just exiting the kitchen when we appear in the hallway. Crawford extends an arm to one side, giving a small flick of his fingers. "The two of you are to stay on this hall until Schuldich tells you otherwise," he says, voice calm and firm. "Go to your room, stay quiet, and stay out of the way."

    Nagi hesitates, perhaps surprised by such an order. It isn't often that Crawford sends Nagi to his room, after all. The boy's almost as much an adult as we are; it's rare that Crawford speaks like this and points out the stark difference in age. It is this difference, more than his status as our leader, that gives him the authority to send the telekinetic packing. After a moment, however, Nagi turns to obey. He cannot act in any other way.

    Farfarello appears behind the younger boy as the teenager is turning to beckon him. Farfarello's gaze studies each of us in turn, lingering on me the longest. I brush his mind and he tilts his head to one side in acknowledge of the faint caress. He lets me see that he knows- he knows why they are being sent to hiding. He knows because he recognizes this closed off expression of mine. He lets his thoughts fade after that, allows them to melt into a senseless hum. He follows Nagi passively enough down the hall and steps into his room. I watch as Nagi closes the door, though all four of us know that Nagi's gift is the real barrier that will keep him inside.

    A servant appears on our floor, looking decidedly uneasy about approaching us. Crawford favors the woman with a cool look as she takes a few wary steps forward. "Takatori-sama has sent for you," she says. "Some guests have come calling and wish to speak with Schwarz."

    Crawford starts forward and the woman retreats before us, fleeing back the way she came. I match Crawford's pace, letting my stride equal his. I do not want to go, but I have to. Crawford has basically told me that I must go. I have to see them again, have to face them and make my decision for Schwarz. I shove my hands in my pockets, a gesture meant to be taken as casual on first sight, a gesture really meant to hide the shaking of my fingers. The woman is downstairs before us and points out a direction for us before vanishing again. The black holes of Hoffmann and Mosuli's minds threaten to swallow my thoughts and I can feel my teeth clenching as we head towards where they are waiting.

    We pass the gardener's body; he is crumpled in the middle of the hall. Judging by the expression his face is frozen in, I think Hoffmann killed him. Absently I reach out to touch Takatori's mind. He is safely secluded somewhere else. He has heard enough about Rosenkreuz's Council to know not to approach them without their beckon.

    A door swings open for us. My eyes are fixed to a spot near the ceiling as we step inside the den, and I don't have to look to know that Crawford's gaze is pointed at a similar spot. As soon as my peripheral vision can place the two Council members, I lower my eyes to a level equal to their chests. There's a vase off to the right of Mosuli's shoulder and I decide that it is fascinating, locking my gaze on it. The two are sitting in thick arm chairs. Mosuli keeps an erect posture while Hoffmann lounges against the cushions.

    "Councilmen," Crawford greets.

    Hoffmann rises to his feet and starts across the room towards us. My palms are going to have half-moon indents from my fingernails for weeks. The older German stops right before us, standing so that he is centered directly between us. He reaches out, cupping a hand to each of our chins and tilting our heads towards him. I slide my eyes closed, fighting back the fierce desire to flee at his touch. It's hard to breathe.

    "You brought my favorite telepath along," Hoffmann comments to Crawford, sounding amused. "What a pleasant surprise." His fingers slide free. "Come on in and make yourselves comfortable. The four of us are going to have a talk."

Part 3