Part Three

    Hoffmann turns away, heading back towards his chair. Crawford follows after him. I take a deep breath and move with Crawford across the room. There is a small couch across from the chairs the two Councilmen have chosen, and we seat ourselves there. It's a small enough piece of furniture that Crawford and I are almost touching at our thighs and shoulders, and I take a small bit of comfort that I am not alone in front of these two demons. Silence falls over the room as the two men study us. I don't want to see them…It's been a very happy seven months since I last saw them- since the time I hunted them down at their hotel and confronted them over their decision to terminate Crawford.

    I can see Hoffmann's smirk out of the corner of his eye as I move my hands from my pockets to clasp them in my lap. He knows why I wanted Crawford to be saved- he figured it out during the confrontation. He is probably the last person I would ever want to know such a thing. Fuck, what was the probably for? He _is_ the last person.

    "I trust you two have settled down easily enough here?" Hoffmann asks.

    "Yes, Mister Hoffmann."

    "That is good." Hoffmann tilts his head to one side. "We are here to inform you of what Estet did not. We hold different ideas of what is an appropriate amount of knowledge for a unit regarding this matter. Estet initially refrained from telling you why Takatori is needed and why he was the one chosen due to the wishes of the Council. There have been more talks, however, and the Elders have requested that you be informed. They are unavailable right now, and I decided that I would like to check up on my favorite German and his unit."

    Crawford and I say nothing, listening carefully as we study our individual spots on the wall.

    "The Elders have visions of immortality," Hoffmann says. "They have had them for many years, and these visions are what helped tie Estet and Rosenkreuz together. To gain power that great, one must have power. Because of Estet's visions, they have been funding and hiring out our units for decades. You are one of those units. You are favored by the Council and have been essential to their rise in the recent years. You have not been handed such an important client before, however." The other German reaches up to rake a hand through his hair. Gray is showing through the burnt umber locks and I allow myself a vicious moment of satisfaction at this sign of aging. He will die one day… I'll probably influence some official to make it a national holiday, though they'll never know the real reason behind their decision.

    "Takatori is the type of man they have been looking for. He has wormed himself into enough deals and bound himself to enough corporations that he holds a major sway on Tokyo. He is rising in power, and his power will fuel them as well. Estet needs him to succeed. It is that simple. It is Schwarz's job to make sure that happens." Hoffmann fixes his gaze on Crawford. I can feel a faint shifting in Crawford's mind, behind his shields. They are the tremors that usually accompany visions. Crawford's fingers clench ever so slightly in his lap. Hoffmann is watching him intently, knowing that his words are causing Crawford's gift to go at it. "Takatori has many allies, and many enemies. The Council is wondering if Schwarz can handle this."

    Crawford takes a moment to answer- not out of reluctance to respond but because he is trying to gather his scattered thoughts. His fingers relax in his lap. "Councilmen, I assure you that Schwarz is more than capable of attending to Estet's needs."

    "Estet has declared Takatori's wants to be greater than Schwarz's. Take this in mind when dealing with him. Estet wishes no harm to come to him. If he is unable to carry out his plans, Estet will suffer, and so will the unit that has failed him." There is a brush of heat across my skin, a warning empathic touch. "You will both find yourselves very unhappy, do you understand me?"

    "Yes, Mister Hoffmann," Crawford answers smoothly.

    "Ja, Herr Hoffmann," I echo.

    The heat withdraws. "This does not mean that the Council will allow a Talentless to abuse what is not his, for which Takatori was not informed of your gift, Mastermind."

    I incline my head slightly in acknowledgement, confirming Hoffmann's words that Koala does not know what I am. The thought of having a power hungry grease ball knowing the gift- and, as Hoffmann has suggested, abusing it for his own wishes- is disgusting. My telepathy is for Schwarz, not for some fat man trying to compensate for something to exploit.

    "There have been concerns, however," Hoffmann says. "Rosenkreuz and Estet both wonder about a member of your team and have debated whether he is capable of keeping up on such an assignment or not."

    He means Farfarello, I realize with a start.

    "The Berserker has been with us for several years," Crawford says. "He has proved his worth to the unit multiple times."

    "To the unit," Hoffmann says, "not to us."

    "Your bouncer approved of him," Crawford points out, referring to Aine.

    Hoffmann's smirk is amused. "Yes, she was very fond of him, wasn't she?"

    "Mister Hoffmann, I was not present to observe for myself what her personal connections to Berserker were. I only know her opinion of him on the field. She admired him for his dedication to the field and his efficiency at playing executioner." Crawford makes a slight, vague gesture with his hand, as if saying that her opinion should be enough. I wonder if they'll let the gesture slide; it's an assumption on his part. Something inside of me is twitching in protest. I don't like this thread of the conversation; I don't like where the talk has suddenly started going.

    "Her opinion does not change the fact that he is Talentless," Mosuli says, speaking for the first time. He sounds irritated; he always does. He leans forward, narrowed eyes fixing on Crawford. The large jewels that adorn his ears and throat gleam in the light as he moves. "A Talentless is worthless, and we will not accept him screwing things up for everyone."

    I want to speak, but I know better than to get in an argument with the Councilmen. I can only hope Crawford, who is allowed a looser tongue due to his status as one of their Five, can convince them that their reservations are misplaced.

    "Councilmen, I admit that I am at a loss," Crawford says. "If I had known that Berserker was viewed useless for his Talentless status, perhaps I would have suggested he be removed years ago."

    Mosuli scowls, debating whether or not that was an insult. I have known Crawford well enough to be able to recognize it as such. Those not used to dealing with him are clueless sometimes when Crawford has called them idiotic to their faces, but the Council has had a bit more practice. I send a faint warning at him, that he is so bold to insult Mosuli. He does not respond; he is busy studying his spot on the wall with a serene expression. The calm edge to his tone and his carefully blank face help confuse Mosuli as to whether or not he has been mocked. Crawford is challenging him on the Council's view of Farfarello. If the Council _had_ thought Farfarello to be unworthy of standing in our ranks, they never would have allowed him there. They never would have let Crawford and I take him in without them sending him through their own training. They recognized Crawford's approval of Farfarello and turned him over to us. Crawford's insult is a subtle one, a slight one, but still there…that the Council took years to decide on the potential of an agent in one of their top groups, that now the Council is thinking itself mistaken in allowing Crawford to keep him. The Council is not supposed to make mistakes.

    Hoffmann gives a quiet little laugh- _he_ knew what Crawford was saying- and Mosuli's scowl deepens. Crawford's face is slapped to one side by an invisible blow. The hit is strong enough that his body gives a small lurch with it, but he makes so sound and resettles himself smoothly, fixing his eyes back where they belong.

    "Insolence like that will get you in serious trouble," Mosuli warns him. "One morning you will wake up and find your paralysis has returned, but this time it will be permanent."

    "It would certainly make bedroom life a little less exciting, wouldn't it?" Hoffmann drawls, trailing a hand down his chest.

    Neither of us respond to that. I see Hoffmann's smirk widen.

    "Either way, we are here for you to vouch for your retarded teammate," Hoffmann says. I bite back a stab of annoyance at the reference to Farfarello as stupid. He's my teammate to mock and ridicule, because I do it in jest. I feel Hoffmann's gaze on me; I didn't hide the irritation quickly enough. "We have told you the seriousness of the situation and the price if you screw anything up. Decide now whether or not he will be able to handle things. If he cannot, we will take him back with us."

    They would not take Farfarello back, no, but his body. If he is rejected by us, there is no use for him. They don't care about his skill, they care that he has no Talent. He is one of two allowed within Rosenkruez's branches that has no gift. The other is a correspondent between Estet and Rosenkreuz's medical divisions, and she disappeared a while ago. She was not searched for despite the delicate fields she worked with, which led me to believe she had been reassigned for a reason not made public.

    Well…At least I know where she went, now. My mind strays to a girl standing behind Takatori's son, watching us warily as we pass.

    There is a pause as Crawford picks his wording. "I believe the Council will not be disappointed in him or his performance on this team. He is our primary assassin and an integral part of the unit. We have accommodated for his lack of a Talent. He does not need one to be effective."

    "And Schwarz feels that it is better to accept a giftless rather than trade him out?" Hoffmann asks.

    "I ask the Council to forgive me if what I say is viewed as insolent." Crawford tilts his head to one side, shifting his gaze from the wall to Hoffmann's chest. "I am sure the situation is as delicate as you have said it to be. Schwarz recognizes the necessity of working with this man and making sure he succeeds. We accept this task as we stand now. I believe in the abilities of my subordinate, and I feel more harm than good would come out of changing the group when its unity and strength is needed most."

    "Indeed," Hoffmann says dryly. "Schwarz seems to have a history of trouble with its replacements. Some of them tend to wind up dead."

    Mosuli sends a scowl at me. I keep my expression neutral, refusing to rise to the bait. Adashi deserved what he got, and no one can convince me otherwise. He was a bastard to my teammates- particularly towards Nagi. I think a part of me decided he was going to die the moment Farfarello told me that Adashi used his gift on Nagi. It was just waiting for the opportunity, for the final thing to push me over the edge. Hearing him mock Crawford as he announced the Council had deemed my lover unworthy of living was the final step. The four of Rosenkreuz sent someone to fetch his body from our trash can, since it wouldn't have gone over well if the trash collectors had found his carcass dumped inside.

    There's a shifting in the distance, in the mental field, that distracts me from my thoughts. It's hard to hear; being so close to the Council members is screwing things up. I tilt my head to one side, straining my gift. There are a lot of people, but I can barely hear them.

    ~They're here for Farfarello,~ Crawford says across the bond.

    /What do they want with him?/ I demand.

    The answer is from Hoffmann. "So you hear them now, do you?" he asks me. He rises from his seat and Mosuli follows him to his feet. "We wish to see for ourselves what a capable assassin he is. There are many deaths on the horizon. Prometheus assured me that you would use him for the majority of the hand-to-hand combat required, so we are here to act as judge and jury. We will be impressed with what we see tonight, or he will not stay with you."

    So the Council rummaged up some bodies to be slaughtered…This will be an easy test for Farfarello. The four underestimate our psychopath in their disdain for the giftless. In the four years he has been with us, they have never met Farfarello outside of the reports Crawford files on Schwarz. Seven months ago when Crawford was falsely diagnosed as suffering panic attacks was the closest Hoffmann had ever been to Farfarello. Tonight these two will finally see him and see why he is so valuable to us.

    Hoffmann gestures for us to rise and moves towards the door. Mosuli does not budge, so Crawford and I fall in line behind Hoffmann. The door swings open for us as Mosuli takes up the rear of our small group. Marching between two of the Council is an unpleasant experience. At least I know Crawford can't be any happier about it.

    I reach out across the bond, seeking my younger teammate. /Farfarello./ He does not respond in words but in a settling of his consciousness, a focus coming to the drifting nonsense in his mind. Nagi's thoughts go on pause as well as he listens in. /You are wanted. The Council wishes to witness a blood bath. Nagi, let him out./

    Anticipation lights Farfarello's thoughts; it's been several days since he was able to kill anyone, and that was only one person. From what I can hear of Farfarello's to-be victims, there are a lot of them.

    The front doors open for us and we step out onto the porch. There is a large group assembled on the lawn- twenty heavily armed men. Seven have guns, four have clubs, two have staves, six have wicked knives, and one has a tazer. They vary from chunky to lean, and all have a fierce glint in their eyes as they stare at Crawford and me. I give a low whistle of appreciation, reaching back to push the door shut.

    /Farfarello, you're going to have so much fun. It's like Christmas come early./

    My gift places him to be above us- he is standing at the window above the front door to analyze his opponents. I can hear him smirk. It's an odd flick of his thoughts, a rippling, satisfied murmur that is more sound than words. I grin in response. This will do wonders for Farfarello's slump.

    Nagi has left his room; his mind is close to Farfarello's. His curiosity and interest in what is about to unfold overrides Crawford's orders to hide away. I don't blame him. This should be an interesting fight, though I have a feeling Farfarello's going to need some band-aids afterwards.

    A person going for theatrics would have jumped through the window, shattering the glass with an ear-splitting crash and showering the would-be assailants with the shards. Farfarello is not stupid, however. He would be shot before he even hit the ground if he did that.

    The front door opens slowly behind us- Nagi's little contribution to the battle. Hoffmann and Mosuli move off to one side, and Crawford and I take the other end of the porch. Hoffmann is not fooled, I know- he can locate Farfarello by his aura. Mosuli glances towards the door, however. The gunmen steady their grip on their weapons. One lifts his rifle to his shoulder, aiming.

    And then Farfarello is on top of them, leaping out the window he slid open while Nagi got the door. He goes for the gunners first, landing behind them on light feet. He swirls in a pale blur, arm arcing up as his blade flashes in the moonlight. He has brought only two knives with him. One is a rather showy seven inch one, its blade jagged and hooked. It's one of his more wicked possessions, and he hasn't had the chance to put it to proper use in a while. The other is a shorter blade, a three inch long spike. It won't kill anyone or disembowel them, like the other one, but it is still a lot of fun to jab into people, and he can still take fingers off with it.

    The longer blade goes through one man, tearing through his spine in a brutal wrench as if it were nothing but a twig. It finishes its journey through his middle, spraying blood, shattered vertebrae, and shredded kidneys on the person closest to the first victim. Someone screams. Coward. Farfarello's blade is buried deep in the second man's gut and he twists the hand with the gun. I can hear the wrist bones break from where I stand. Guns fire, but Farfarello is already moving. The second man is dragged with him to the next person. A vicious kick knocks back one man while Farfarello unarms the next with his spike. He shakes the man on his longer blade off with a scornful twist and leaps further into the fray. He is glowing in the moonlight, his eye gleaming with the light of a child who has just been given a new toy, offering a war cry to the air as he tears into his opponents. The four of us watch from our spots on the porch, and I muse that it is good to see so much life back in my teammate.

    The men gathered to fight Farfarello are not as pleased. They were not prepared for him…No report Crawford or Aine ever filed with the Council could ever have prepared people for the brutal reality that is Farfarello. Words cannot describe what he can do when he is in a battle fury. I watch as he makes his way through the group, focusing first on taking out everyone with a gun. A staff cracks into his side and he ignores it as if he never felt it, taking out the last gunner. He is bleeding; I can see the dark stain on his pale skin, but it is not enough to slow him. He turns on the one that struck him and the man looks as if he suddenly wishes he would rather be dead than to be facing this demon. Farfarello answers that wish just a second later.

    It takes maybe five minutes for the battle to be over.

    Farfarello stands among their bodies as silence replaces the tearing of flesh, the thud of bodies on the ground, and the screaming voices. One or two are still alive, but they won't be for long. No one can lose that much blood that quickly and live long. He ignores them, knowing them to be a waste of his energy. He looks even more demonic now, with blood on him from head to toe. There's barely a patch of clean skin left on him. He stands with his back to us for several long moments, studying the bodies at his feet.

    ~They are disappointed,~ he speaks. I know from his thoughts he means the Council.

    /Maybe,/ I answer, though I do not understand why. It was a great show. I could have made a fortune selling tickets, I think.

    ~They did not want me to win.~ Farfarello lifts his blade to his mouth and slides it past his lips, letting his tongue slide across the blood stained metal.

    I consider this. Farfarello has a knack of sometimes picking up on things we don't, from sickness- such as being able to diagnose Crawford when Nagi and I were oblivious- to putting the pieces together quicker than us, to feeling a presence as well as I do. Farfarello does not know why the Council wanted him to lose, nor does he really know why he knows they did. He just knows that he was supposed to fail tonight. I debate the reasons even as Hoffmann steps forward.

    The bastard claps three times slowly. "That was beautiful," he says, making his way down the stairs towards Farfarello. My teammate does not turn to meet him, instead flipping the blade over to lick a clean streak down the other side. Mosuli is studying the bodies all over the ground. I wonder if he is in the mood for an evening snack.

    Hoffmann comes to a halt behind Farfarello. "Neither Oracle nor Prometheus was exaggerating about you," he says, reaching out towards the Irishman. "A demon incarnated-"

    He is cut off the moment his hand touches Farfarello's shoulder. He bites off anything else he might have said when Farfarello turns and slaps his hand away.

    "Don't touch me." The words are low, a threat. I have never heard this tone of his before, this ice under a nonchalant blanket.

    Something inside of me gives a violent twist and I feel my blood run cold. Hoffmann is leaning backwards slightly as he stares at my teammate. As for Farfarello…

    Farfarello is glaring at Hoffmann.

    His amber eye is narrowed as he meets Hoffmann's gaze. The way he stands is a warning, a tense posture that is ready to spring either at Hoffmann or away. He has his long blade still raised, and it is tilted towards his body so the blade touches the soft skin of his throat. He is staring at Hoffmann, looking him full in the face with a threat and a challenge whirling in his eye.

    Hoffmann is at a momentary loss, I can see it- because Farfarello is not flinching back. Any other person would be screaming by now, torn apart by the German's empathic gift as a punishment for meeting his gaze. But Farfarello is not budging. I cannot read him; I cannot hear his thoughts anymore. He and Hoffmann are locked in a stare down.

    /Crawford-/ I send him a quick look.

    Crawford was not expecting this either; I can see it in the way his eyes are narrowed in surprise. Mosuli realizes there is something wrong and leaves the porch, moving towards Hoffmann. Nagi, up above us, is the only one who does not realize what Farfarello has done- what he is doing.

    Hoffmann is the only Talent to have ever reached a level nine. He is the only empath who can turn a soul-based gift into a physical one. He can touch a person's soul through a met gaze and can shred a body just as easily as he allows his attacks to mix aura and flesh together. Only one person has ever met his gaze and walked away unscathed. That was me, seven months ago when I faced the Council down over Crawford's fate. I was saved from his power by his own choice, so that he could use my eyes to see inside of me. I am not even sure why he chose not to attack me that day; he has had no problems with actively seeking out an attack on me before.

    But this-

    This is beyond Hoffmann's control. I know that instinctively, and I can hear an alarm going off in my head.

    /Farfarello, what are you _doing_?/ I send at him, but I cannot feel him on the bond so I do not know if he can even hear me call out to him.

    The last thing we need is for the Council to see Farfarello as a challenge.

    "My…" Hoffmann drawls. "What a surprise." He begins to move around Farfarello in a slow circle. My Irish teammate remains as he is, not bothering to turn and keep the met gaze. "Do you have any clue how long it has been since someone has ever looked at me in such an insolent manner? I think it was your foolish teammate, almost seven years ago. I had forgotten what it looked like…It never stayed on his face long once he dared lift his eyes to mine."

    Hoffmann stops behind Farfarello. Mosuli is left between us and our teammate, so that Farfarello is in between them. He turns his warning look on the telekinetic, not approving of being boxed in in such a manner. Mosuli does not appreciate being looked at like that, and I can hear the impact of his gift against Farfarello. Our white-haired assassin is sent flying and lands heavily on his side, rolling a few feet. He did not release his knives when he was thrown, and he sports a new wound now where one has gashed his bicep. I can see the fresh blood staining his blade where he had just cleaned it, though the wound itself is hidden under the blood of those he slaughtered tonight. Upon his impact I can hear his mind again, a faint humming of disdainful thoughts and a fierce scorn. The intensity of the emotions behind his thoughts bewilders me; Farfarello does not really know these two like Crawford and I do.

    Farfarello lifts himself to his feet in a graceful movement, turning a bold look on the Councilmen again.

    ~Farfarello.~ Crawford's voice is flat. He did not see this coming, and he is not liking this surprise anymore than I am. ~Stand down.~

    Our Irish teammate pauses, then obeys. He turns away from them, starting towards the porch. It is already too late, though. Hoffmann gestures to Mosuli, and Farfarello is stopped in his tracks. Nagi's thoughts have a tinge of alarmed confusion to them and I swat at them, trying to push his mind away from mine so I can think. He knows something big has happened, but he does not realize what it is.

    Crawford steps off the porch, moving towards Farfarello even as Hoffmann and Mosuli approach him. It's a stupid thing to do; neither of them are happy. Crawford has known them longer. He knows they're not happy, and he knows what happens when these people are angry. He knows that consequences are in the near future, yet he acts anyway to put himself in the direct path of the punishment. His subordinate is about to get prosecuted, so he moves.

    Hoffmann's fingers are in Farfarello's hair and he yanks the teenager's head back to study his face. His expression is unreadable. Farfarello's isn't. Held in a tight grip by the African telekinetic, he can do little more than scowl at Hoffmann. Scowl he does, a fierce twist of his full lips. He looks like the devil himself, stained red with blood, leaving a little trail of the crimson fluid from his own wounds, yellow eye murderous and teeth bared.

    "He is giftless," Hoffmann says. "He has no Talent, therefore he should be dead." It is a reasonable assumption; no one without a Talent has ever been strong enough to face Hoffmann's stare. My thoughts briefly flick to the gardener, crumpled in Takatori's foyer. The Soul Shaker turns an accusing stare on Crawford, who is wise enough to have his eyes pointed at Farfarello's throat. Hoffmann gives Farfarello's head a shake, an unspoken demand for answers.

    "I do not have an explanation for this," Crawford answers simply.

    I take a step off the porch. Something in me is fighting, twisting, telling me to get back on that porch and away from the Councilmen. I squish that voice, keeping my eyes firmly on Crawford as I approach him.

    "Your Irishman has a soul, does he not?" Hoffmann asks.

    "A broken one," I answer, appearing at Crawford's elbow. Perhaps on any other occasion I would not have the gall to be standing here speaking to them, answering a question Hoffmann meant to be directed at Crawford. But the same sort of push is twisting inside of me as it did seven months ago. Then they were trying to terminate Crawford. Now they have set their sights on Farfarello, and I don't know what the outcome will be. It won't be anything good, that's for damned sure- for him or us. When Hoffmann is angry, someone tends to get hurt.

    Nine times out of ten, that someone is me. So why the hell did I close the distance between me and the man I hate more than anything and anyone else?

    Hoffmann studies us both for a long moment. We keep our eyes on Farfarello. Mosuli is baffled but angry. After a long moment, Hoffmann releases Farfarello's hair.

    "He passed our test tonight," he says simply. "We arranged a group to assassinate him and instead he was left standing. He is marked," his hand unerringly finds the spot where the bullet hit him and he presses his fingers to the bloodied flesh, "but not severely. We used this test to decide whether or not he will remain in Schwarz. The decision was made with his victory and we will stick to it."

    I allow myself a moment of relief- that means Farfarello will live.

    "However." Hoffmann gesture, and Farfarello is thrown to one side again. He is controlled enough with Mosuli's gift that he cannot catch himself with his arms, so it is a rough landing. He does not feel the pain of impact, but I know he hits hard enough that the air is knocked from his lungs. I glance from him to Hoffmann's chest. There is nothing separating him from Crawford and me now, and he closes the space between us with one long stride. I lean backwards away from him without meaning to, counting the threads on the button on his collar. "I am going to borrow your teammate."

    Neither of us say anything; the double layer of warmth and ice to Hoffmann's voice warns us not to speak. "I was made aware that he could not feel physical pain, and Adashi reported his gift did not work on the Berserker when he tried it. I must say I am intrigued that an empathy three levels higher can still fail to touch him. Your teammate is special."

    Intrigued isn't the word, you soulfucker. Try 'bothered'- it's more truthful. If I didn't have such a bad feeling about this, I might be amused by Hoffmann's failing. He is used to crumbling people with a mere glance. It must really piss him off that this Talentless little psycho can glare at him and walk away unscathed.

    "Your teammate will be returned to you at a later time," Hoffmann tells us, reaching up to close a hand around each of our throats. I know what's coming; I speed up the counting of his threads in an attempt to keep myself from flinching way. 8, 9, 10…"A pleasure, as always," he says as farewell.

    Past his shoulder I can see Mosuli lifting Farfarello from the ground. The Irishman's eye gleams with a battle light but he cannot fight the cannibal's psychic grip. Farfarello floats along behind Mosuli as the man heads for the car. I feel a stab of alarm and stretch out for Farfarello, forcing myself past Hoffmann's black hole of a mind to reach for my teammate's consciousness. I have just barely managed to scrape against it when the world explodes in pain.

    When Crawford and I wake later, we are in our room, brought there by a white- faced Nagi. He is sitting at Crawford's desk, watching us as we finally rouse back to consciousness on our bed. He tells us what we already know, what we don't want to hear.

    Hoffmann and Mosuli are gone.

    So is Farfarello.

To Be Continued...
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