Part Four

    I don't look up when Crawford enters the room from our private bathroom. His clothes are set out neatly on the bed, save for the suit jacket that hangs on the closet door. I am sitting beside his pants, legs crossed Indian style as I gaze at the mirror on the far wall. I don't need to look at him to know what he's doing; I know the order he gets dressed in. It's just another one of his routines, an unvarying part of his day. I watched him the first three days after I moved in with him just because it was amusing. I took his socks once to try and screw it up, but he fetched a new pair before going further. When I stole his comb- his only one- he waited until I gave it back before continuing. There are some things Crawford is just anal about.

    His pants will come first, followed by his dress shirt, which he won't tuck in yet. He'll fasten all of the buttons on his shirt save for the top three, which come later for reasons unknown to me. Next are his socks, and then his shoes. He'll fix the cuffs on his sleeves then. He'll tuck in his shirt, finish his buttons, and put on his tie before combing his hair and donning his glasses. The last thing is his jacket, and Crawford is ready to take on the world with us behind him.

    I trust him to follow this routine today and for the most part ignore his presence to study the far wall. I stare at the mirror without really seeing it. I am not completely here; a part of my mind has been vacant since Farfarello was taken from us last night. I cannot hear him. I haven't been able to hear him or sense him since they took him. It is unsettling to have him gone…He has always been the loudest mind on the bond. It is strange to not hear the curling whispers of half-formed thoughts, the flickers of voices along the inside of his mind, and the chorus of hate and death that lights his soul. It is strange to not feel him there, when I am so used to having three minds permanently attached to mine. He has been with us for years and I have never lost touch of him like this. My mind feels empty and very quiet. It doesn't help that Nagi is thinking quietly today and I can never hear Crawford unless he wants me to, not to mention that there are few people within my clear-hearing range.

    I keep reaching out towards him, keep shoving my mind in the direction the Council has gone. I cannot hear anything of him through them, but I keep reaching out and circling around their shields to try and get just a sense. I have been trying it off and on all night.

    That's all I want, is a brush to know that he's all right.

    I believe in Farfarello's immunity to pain. I've worked with him enough years to have faith in it.

    But I also have faith in Hoffmann's cruelty. Hoffmann has spent thirty of his forty-five years with Rosenkreuz. He has had a third of a century to develop his gift and figure out all of the nuances for it. He is one of the Council of Rosenkreuz and the highest rated Talent there is a record of. Everyone fears him, whether they know him or not. Anyone he passes can feel the malice and cruelty that he is blanketed in. The only one to ever be hateful to him after they were taught their first lesson was me, seven years ago.

    My reward was that, instead of being immediately handed over to Crawford as his subordinate, I was kept. For one year I belonged to Hoffmann and no one else, hanging in limbo between student and reject. Crawford was handed a job as a precognitive trainer while I was Hoffmann's possession. I do not remember most of the year. What I do remember comes in blurry chunks. I do know that the two telepaths at the time had to be brought in to try and clean up some of the mess. In the end they repressed most of it. One died a few days later and the other gave into his gift a year later.

    Hoffmann does not tolerate defiance.

    The fact that Farfarello _glared_ at him without being hurt is going to make him doubly set on teaching my teammate a lesson. Farfarello is a madman, but he is still that: a man. It is his greatest flaw. He is merciless, he is cruel, he is the best god-damned assassin without a Talent and finds a greater joy in death than most _with_ Talents…But he is a man. He's human, if he is a bit twisted, if he does have a broken soul. Humans are home to a wide range of emotions…Hoffmann can touch all of them. He does not need Farfarello to feel pain to get his point across.

    Distracted by my thoughts, I slip too close to Hoffmann's shields and feel it pulling at me. I give a startled lurch backwards, both physically and mentally, and find myself steadied. I gaze up at Crawford's face for a few moments, then down. I would have fallen off the bed if he had not caught me. I have no doubt that he caught me only because I would have complained about the hard landing if he had let me fall. I sit up and turn, letting my legs dangle off the side of the bed.

    I fix my attention on Crawford to help center my thoughts again. His hair is spiky and messy from rubbing it with the towel and his glasses are absent, giving him a youthful and definitely unCrawford-like look. He is fixing his cuffs now, and the unfastened buttons allow me to see a sliver of skin. His shirt hangs loose about him, not yet tucked into his slacks.

    I like this stage of his dressing; it is my favorite. I have dubbed it The Ruffled Businessman.

    "Stay away from them," he says simply, reaching up to fix his buttons. I reach up with an arm, batting his hands away to trail my fingers down his throat and onto the bit of chest I can see. It is something physical, helping root me here. Mental sweeps can be dangerous for telepaths. When pushing through a crowd, every brush is an exchange. You leave a bit of yourself behind and pick up a bit of them so that your mind quickly becomes an echo of the crowd you have just passed through. It's not hard to fix the mess when you withdraw, whether it's a quick retreat or a lazy one, as long as you know how to get back what has been exchanged. One of Rosenkreuz's telepaths in training has a tendency to get lost along the way…He won't survive much longer. A fast retreat like the one I just pulled leaves a few moments of dizziness and the sensation of being unreal in its wake.

    I withdraw and he finishes his buttons. "He _will_ be Farfarello when they bring him back," I tell him. The 'or else' is left unspoken; it does not need to be voiced. I realize then that I truly mean that threat. Hoffmann ruined me and left a mark on Crawford. We worked for years to keep our teammates out of the Council's clutches and failed last night. First Farfarello, then what? Nagi? I don't think so. If the Council hurts my team, I will retaliate with full force. No one else should ever go through what I went through…No one else should ever be the focus of Hoffmann's attention.

    It is both a frightening and thrilling feeling, to sit here and know that I am _ready_. The Council has screwed up for the last time. I am ready to fight with Crawford, to find this crack and widen it until the ground falls out beneath both Estet and Rosenkreuz. I will pay them back for everything they've done to me, everything they've done to Crawford, for wanting to just give up on Crawford, for taking Farfarello, and for the possible threat of touching Nagi. For the first time in seven years, hate has won out over fear in a fierce landslide. I can feel it burning in my veins, a welcome heat.

    I can hear Hoffmann's voice from so long ago- ~"Six years ago you swore you would die for no one, not even the Council."~ Now I am sitting here, realizing that I have fully broken my own vow. When he made this comment it was when I was sacrificing everything for Crawford. Now it is for myself and my team. In a way, it's irritating; I wasn't ever supposed to care about the rest of them, and for a long time really didn't.

    Crawford studies me for a few moments as he finishes his tie, searching my gaze. He finds what he's looking for; he sees the battle light and the fierce determination glittering in my jade eyes.

    "Your redhead will win tonight," I say.

    "Yes," Crawford answers, "he will, and the crack will grow."

    "Not a crack, but a splinter?" I wonder.

    "Thread," Crawford corrects me easily. "A splinter is smaller than a crack."

    "Bite me," I mutter. "Details, details. Details aren't important."

    "Here they are," he says, moving away in search of his comb. "Every detail is going to be important. We must work in both the present and the future. One wrong turn could bring everything down on us." For the first time when referring to a dire punishment from the Council, I feel no uneasiness. What a feel is a bolt of scorn for them. We will not stumble. Crawford and I would never let us stumble, not when dealing with this. Any anxiety over the matter is gone, replaced by a restless anticipation. "As long as we move carefully, however…" He looks back at me.

    I feel my lips curve into a wide smirk. Crawford's own lips twitch in response, and we would be a frightening sight to any fool unfortunate enough to see us.


    There are two places set for lunch. I stare over my plate for a moment from where I am sprawled lazily in my chair, meeting Nagi's gaze. Crawford ate breakfast with us- he was finally able to get away from Fatzoid to eat with us and there were _still_ just three faces- but he and Takatori had business discussions for lunch. So Farfarello is kidnapped away, Crawford is tending to our client, and Nagi and I are having a stare down over our meal.

    I haven't had to stare at just one other person in years, not since it was just me and Crawford in Schwarz. It's weird.

    I say nothing, though, and Nagi says nothing. We merely stare at each other. A smirk has curved my lips, an instinctive expression, and Nagi's blank face gives away nothing. His thoughts are still quiet, though he cannot keep them quiet enough when we have just five feet between us. They're a whirlwind of confusion, of impatience, of curiosity, of dread. He has had nothing to take his mind off of what happened last night, and the silence from us on the subject has eaten away at him. He knows that Farfarello's abduction is a terrible thing, but he cannot comprehend just how horrible it is for our missing teammate.

    I remember a time when it was hard to separate worry for Schwarz and worry for _Schwarz_ in his thoughts. He always could keep an indifferent air to his thoughts or his words, he always could blend business and personal together. Before us, there was nothing but a dismal, lonely existence on the street. Crawford plucked him from the alleyways and deposited him into our flat, throwing him from one twisted life into another. He opened a way for Nagi to learn to control the gift that had made him a reject, gave him a way to act out on the anger and disgust for the world. Although the fire of hate died long ago to a small burn of contempt, Nagi was permanently bonded to us. Schwarz, as a unit and as individual people, was fused into one thing in his mind.

    Since Crawford's fall, however, he's been much easier to read. It's getting easier to see that Schwarz moved from being business-heavy to personal in his thoughts.

    Crawford's sickness changed a lot of things.

    "Screw this," I announce to Nagi, rising from my seat. I pluck up my plate and start for the door.

    "Where are you going?" Nagi asks, but he already knows the answer. There's really only one place to go on this hall since Crawford would kill me if I brought my lunch into our bedroom.

    I cast him a glance over my shoulder, lifting an eyebrow at him and not deigning to answer. There's not really an "I" to it. Nagi will follow me. Indeed, I hear the soft scrape of his chair as I step into the den. I slouch on the couch, setting my plate in my lap and reaching for the remote. Nagi settles himself in the chair, looking a bit out of place. A TV meal isn't the sort of thing Nagi is used to…He's used to routine, to order and discipline. Crawford made him that way. Years of my work, pulling Nagi in the opposite direction than the path to what Crawford has become, have had little success. He's a lot like Crawford in some ways, but markedly different in others. The differences are both due to my meddling and his age. Nagi is, after all, a teenager. He lives as both a teenager and an adult, a strange and complex twist of personality. He is mature and reserved, he has seen too much, done too much, but he can still have the frustrations of an almost sixteen year old boy.

    There are plenty of soap operas on, I know, catering to the many housewives in need of entertainment. I ignore them today, however, and can't help but grin at Nagi's relieved thoughts. They don't make good lunch time shows. I manage to find some action flick on a channel and let the remote drop from my hand to the cushion beside me, plucking up my fork. We've missed the beginning, but it's just ten past the hour, so we might be just a little bit in.

    Nagi, after some hesitation, begins to eat. His eyes go from his plate to the door to the television and back again for a good five minutes, as if he's still uncertain about eating lunch in front of a movie. After a while he resigns himself to the cruel fate I've assigned him with a small sigh and focuses his attention on the television screen.

    It is with some amusement that I note he stays behind after we've both finished eating. Our plates float out of the room during one of the commercial breaks but Nagi makes no move to follow them out; it's almost an absent cleaning of the room.

    Without the movie holding my focus as the moment, my thoughts slide inevitably towards Farfarello. Crawford had told me to stay away from them, but how can I?

    I press myself outwards, stretching my mind in the direction of the Council. They haven't moved from one area since I first started tagging them. I suspect it's probably the same place they stayed last time they were here, that fancy hotel. It's about the right distance away. I brush past the minds in my way, sliding through the web of voices in an attempt to find the silence. Every foreign thought I brush against suddenly seems more important, as if it were one of my own. I feel my mind fracturing, a soft cracking in my sense of self as the swapping of minds begins. The thoughts traded for mine are pushed to one side as I continue my search.

    I reach them at last, and all thoughts fade away as their shields come into touching distance. In my mind I can see them, three white and one jet black. I give up a bit more of my physical self, trailing along the outside of the shields without touching them. They would feel a mental brush and would not appreciate the inquiry at all. I'm not interested in them; I'm looking for Farfarello.

    This time is like all the rest; I cannot sense him here. He is between their shields, his thoughts cut off my them so I cannot pick them up. Frustration is sharp, anger is fierce. Farfarello is twisted enough as it is- he doesn't need their meddling and punishment to break him further.

    Stay away, Crawford had said, but I'm moving closer. There is room between their shields, and I wonder if I can get through. I take a deep breath, loosening the grip on myself I have just a little bit further, trying to sharpen the image of their minds as physical barriers I can move around rather than lights and presences in my mind. I can hear nothing, I can feel nothing. It is complete silence, a complete numbness. I am trying something I never have before, something I have never felt the need to try before.

    The largest gap is between Hoffmann and Jean. I approach the two shields, keeping my eyes trained on Hoffmann's to make sure I do not get too close. Feeling has returned enough that I can sense it pulling at me, trying to suck me in. I am right next to the shields, and I reach out slowly, carefully, trying to slide my arm between them without brushing either.

    /Farfarello…/ I call. /You have to be in here _somewhere_…/

    A slight tilt forward, fingers stretched and almost desperate. They said they wouldn't kill him, Hoffmann said he would return him, but what have they done to him? I am starting to lean towards Hoffmann's shield and there is a faint stir of panic as I keep myself from lurching backwards. The shields are close enough together that a fast retreat would make me touch one of them, and if I were to touch Hoffmann's…I don't even want to think about it.


    It hits me unexpectedly. I've been trying for him since last night but the sudden touch of his mind is enough to catch me off guard. It is a flurry of thoughts, a fierce whirlwind with a flavor that is distinctly Farfarello's. But none of them are _coherent_, none of them are much more than a jumbled, rapid mumble. In the distance I can hear the chorus of hateful voices shouting out, furious and strangled. It is going from silence to a tornado of thoughts, and I thrive under the familiar noise.

    And out of the mess and chaos comes his voice. ~Schuldich-~

    There is a startled edge to his voice, and something else stains it that I refuse to name right now. But I feel no relief at hearing him; any that might have been there when I managed to touch him is washed away in a fierce wave of shock.

    He said my name.

    Farfarello has never said my name on the bond; he has never said any of ours. He tosses thoughts and comments out for anyone- usually me- to respond to, but he has never used our _names_ when speaking to us on the link [1]. I can feel him, I can feel his thoughts beating against me, but it's slipping away as one of the Council members moves around him.

    /Farfarello-/ I lurch forward without thinking, struggling to keep hold of him.

    The ground gives out beneath me; part of me has fallen into Hoffmann's shield. A bolt of condescending amusement laces through me- Hoffmann has sent the emotion at me. He knows I'm here- and he knows I've gone too far. There is no hate for his amusement at my expense; there is just a rush of panic as I feel myself falling deeper into his shield. Physical sensation returns with the harsh feeling of something tearing, of being burst apart. I struggle fiercely even though I know that that will just pull me in quicker, trying desperately to free myself. There is nothing I can do- nothing nothing nothing-

    Everything goes black around me.


    I wake feeling sick to my stomach and with one of the worst headaches of my life. The voices are there before I even realize I'm conscious and I utter a low curse, reaching up to press the heels of my palms to my eyes. It takes a few moments longer before I realize that I know who I am. A faint frown creases my lips and I give myself a mental once-over, checking on my identity. It's intact…mostly. There are a few new gaps near the ones I've had for years, a lingering feeling of something missing. It's a side-effect of touching Hoffmann's damned shield.

    I lower my hands, looking around. I have to turn my head slowly because of the fierce pounding in it. I'm in my bedroom. Through the window I see a black sky, and I ease myself into a sitting position gingerly to look around the dark room. Crawford's alarm clock shows it to be four thirty-five. I press my fingers to my temples, sullenly wishing the voices would back off. Everyone is supposed to be asleep right now, and the nice thing about sleeping people is that their thoughts are more muddled then. These ones, however, are clear and energetic.

    They are also, I note with a sick sort of surprise, on repeat.

    ~I hope I can make it to the cleaners' before they go on lunch I hope I can make it to the cleaners' before they go on lunch I hope I can-~ ~He loves me he loves me not he loves me he loves me not he loves me he loves me not he loves me-~ ~Will you please shut up? Will you please shut up? Will you please shut up? Will you please-~ ~I'm starving, I hope the cafeteria has I'm starving, I hope the cafeteria has I'm starving-~ ~I can't believe they sold out already I can't believe they sold out already I can't believe they sold out already-~

    There are several dozen of them, all loud and on repeat, a moment frozen in time.

    A moment- the moment I brushed them on the way to Farfarello and traded thoughts in the process.

    "Fuck," I announce to the room. I didn't come back from Hoffmann the way I had gone in. I didn't make a normal withdrawal; the reverse exchange never occurred. My mind is now home to whatever those I touched were thinking at the time we passed each other, and they're bouncing around as clear as if they were my own thoughts. This is not a good thing.

    "You had better have a good reason for what you did," Crawford speaks up. He's a light sleeper; my swear woke him up. Or perhaps he woke when I sat up, because he doesn't have the "I just woke up" slur to his voice.

    "Farfarello," I answer simply. It is the reason, and it is good enough.

    For me, anyway. I gaze down at Crawford's dark form. I can barely make out the outline of his face, but I don't have to see him to feel the disapproval in his gaze. "I told you to stay away from them."

    I don't bother to respond to that. I don't feel like getting into an argument right now, not with my head pounding so badly. "What happened?" I ask instead, pressing my fingers to my temples and trying to drown out the voices. It works about as well as plugging your ears and chanting "La La La" to try and avoid hearing someone; it drowns them out but just gives you more noise to deal with.

    "Nagi felt the bond collapse and turned to find you staring into space. You wouldn't respond to him, and when you started to panic, he had to find your Athlon. According to him, if he had not had telekinesis to help him, he would not have been able to get you to hold still long enough for you to take the pills."

    I have never been more grateful for those fast acting drugs of mine than I am now. They were enough to knock me into a deep state of unconsciousness; enough to shut me down before I completely fell into Hoffmann's shield. That explains why I still have a grip on who I am. I let out a slow breath, reflecting on my close call for a few moments. Crawford says nothing. He does not have to chide me further; he does not have to lecture me on the importance of following his orders. He knows that what I just narrowly missed is enough to shake me.

    To distract myself, I find a new topic. I missed out on the rest of yesterday, so I slept right through Crawford's departure for Human Chess. " How did your samurai do?"

    "He performed quite well," Crawford answers calmly. "His tie to Takatori is deep; it binds them together and can be broken only through death. He will be very useful to us in the future."

    Absently I wonder what some modern samurai would want with the fatty we're guarding. It's something I'll have to look into later. He's one of the threats the Council and Estet are carefully watching for, one of the people that could send decades of planning and work all down the drain. The thought amuses me, and I feel a brief stab of that hateful anticipation curl in my gut. They'll all fall, and I'll piss on their graves one day. Maybe I'll even pay for them to get buried with headstones, just so I have something further to vandalize. They've handed us the key to their doom; he's sleeping in a bed and snoring uproariously elsewhere in the house. It's hilarious, really.

    Silence stretches between us as I entertain myself with such thoughts, but the amusement fades as thoughts of them invariably lead to thoughts of my teammate.

    After a few minutes, I speak up. "I felt him," I tell Crawford, carefully easing myself back down to the mattress. My head has never hurt like this after taking Athlon; I have to breathe through clenched teeth and it feels like moving too fast will knock my head from my shoulders. At last I make it down and rest my head on my pillow, staring up at the dark ceiling. "I heard him for a moment."

    Crawford says nothing. I continue my study of the ceiling. "Hoffmann knows I was looking for him…" I say, though it isn't really necessary. Of course the bastard knows, if I felt into his shield. I remember his amusement. It wasn't only that I had slipped up, no- it was because of what I had found in my teammate. Farfarello had been surprised to hear me, had been startled to feel me touch him after my absence from his mind. He had reacted to my mental brush by pushing his mind towards me; I had felt the chaos increase as he joined my struggle to reconnect our minds from the other end.

    "Na, Crawford…"

    A part of Farfarello had wanted to hear me; it had twisted his voice, had stained it.

    "He called me by name when I touched him."

    A part of Farfarello had needed to hear me.

    A part of him had been hoping to hear me.

    I feel nauseous, and I wonder if it is a side effect of the massive headache. Crawford cannot fully appreciate what that means, to hear Farfarello call me Schuldich, though he can tell by the way it affects me that it's not good. _I_ know the significance because I have lived with Farfarello permanently embedded in my mind for years. I have been tied to my teammates for a very long time, and mental changes like that are a big thing. Farfarello had been trying to reach me as I had been trying to reach him.

    What that tells me, above everything else, is that Hoffmann is winning over my teammate.

    Is winning, I wonder acidly, or has won…?

    We lie in silence for a few minutes more. At last I cannot stand the headache anymore and sit up once more with a disgusted sigh. I get to my feet carefully and start towards the door. My stomach and my head do not appreciate the movement and are quite happy to inform me of their annoyance. I try to ignore them, walking with one palm pressed to my forehead. Crawford says nothing as I go, and I mildly relieved for that. The hall light is off, but the kitchen light is on. I make my way there and rummage through our new medicine cabinet, searching for anything that will take the edge off either the nausea or the headache. I can feel my heartbeat in my temples, pounding violently.

    I pick up my bottle of Athlon, considering it for a moment wistfully. They would be perfect to get me back to sleep, no matter how sore I am. Of course, I wouldn't wake up until tonight, and I have no interest in sleeping another day away. With a soft sigh, I set the bottle back down and return to my digging. I finally manage to find some medicine for my stomach and head and, not caring whether or not a mixing of the two kinds is allowed, pop some of each.

    I lean against the counter, gazing at the floor as I try to think through the pain and the chorus on repeat. The first thing I want is to get rid of these damn thoughts, but the mental webbing has shifted greatly in the past sixteen hours. It is near impossible to find someone just by the sound of their mental voice, and that is about all I have going for me. Folding my arms over my chest, I decide to try anyway, weaving my way outwards. I move slowly at first, mindful of my headache, but the pain seems to fade the further out I stretch.

    I feel my mouth twitch in an uneasy frown and my fingers tighten on my arms as I fan myself out, stretching in hopes of hearing any of the voices. At night thoughts are harder to hear, but I'm hoping it'll be better than trying to search in the explosion of noise an alive Tokyo presents. The night would be louder if we were positioned closer to the nightlife, but we are residing on a quieter part of the city.

    Colors swirl past me in lazy waves. I can hear dull murmurings, and now and then can pick out a clear image. I touch the minds I find, looking for a part of me left behind and lingering just long enough to break the contact fully before moving on. It is slow work, but my headache is relaxing as I let myself shatter softly among the dreamers. The people I touched could be anywhere; they could reside here in Tokyo or live an hour or two outside of the city. I can feel my frustration growing as time stretches on and my search turns up nothing.

    I have found nothing when Crawford enters the kitchen for coffee hours later. I disentangle myself from the dreamers, pulling myself back to my own consciousness. The headache returns, but it isn't quite as severe, and I look up from the floor to meet Crawford's eyes.

    He has not moved towards the coffee pot, which I just now notice has brewed. He is standing a few feet inside the doorway, studying me. His eyes tell me he knows something's wrong, but he doesn't know what. I don't bother to explain; I don't want to. Instead I turn away from him, reaching two mugs down from a cabinet. I fill them and hold one out in offering. He accepts it and we stand in silence, holding our steaming drinks and studying each other.

    ~I know I didn't do well at all I know I didn't do well at all I know I didn't do well at all-~ ~I'm not going to make it on time I'm not going to make it on time I'm not going to make it on time-~ ~Wai~! All four of them are here today! Wai~! All four of them are here today!~ ~Omi-kun loves me the bestest, I know it Omi-kun loves me the bestest, I know it-~ ~Mmmm Pastry… Good…Mmmm Pastry…Good…-~ ~I hope she was looking when I I hope she was looking when I I hope she was looking-~

    "So," I say, giving the thoughts a violent shove to try and shut them up. " What happens today?"

Part 5