Part Five

    Nagi decides to tag along when I leave Takatori's house. There is absolutely nothing for either of us to do at Takatori's place save watch television and count the blemishes on the painted walls. Crawford is in and out, following our client to his meetings and to work. As a result, the two of us are left by ourselves most of the time. Nagi has gone in search of some games for his computer so he has something to do, but they can only keep him occupied so long. Farfarello is still gone. I keep careful tabs out, devoting part of my conscious mind to feel for him, but I do not dare move any closer.

    The mental chorus is still loud. I managed to locate six of the traders and consider myself quite lucky to have found them again. It was relatively easy to find what I had lost to them, and I feel a bit better at having patched together some of my mind. It's not much of a reassurance, however, not when I still have at least twenty others bouncing around. It's been several days and I still cannot locate the rest. I haven't told Crawford about it yet…I don't really see the need to.

    Now, after four days of being shut in, I am ready to get out. I have been trying to stay in, as Crawford is keeping his precognitive eye out for our next step in the path against Rosenkreuz and Estet. The more we move around, the more likely his visions will have to do with us instead of what we need to see. I cannot stay in this house any longer, however. I open Nagi's door to find him sprawled on his back in bed, his arms folded under his head as he stares at the ceiling. He doesn't look towards me as I invite myself in, lounging in the doorway and flicking a green gaze around his tidy room.

    "I'm leaving," I announce. That gets his attention; his dark eyes snap to mine immediately. I can't help but grin. "I'm going grocery shopping."

    Nagi pushes himself up, sliding off the bed. "And me," he says.

    "Meh, I suppose." I watch as he slips into his shoes and he follows me from the room. Generally shopping for food would be a boring task, and certainly not one I would be ready to engage in, but it's both practical and something that shouldn't interfere with Crawford's gift. Besides, we're almost out of coffee. I fetch my keyring from the den and we take the stairs down to the front door. We have just one car for us now, but it doesn't matter since Crawford is generally in Takatori's vehicle. It was a fight to decide which car to get; the Council allowed us to take out a loan from them for a vehicle due to our financial circumstances, but Crawford and I had different ideas about what kind to get. I won only because I reminded him that I would be using it more than he would.

    A servant opens the door for us, bowing as we pass. Ordinarily Takatori's servants wouldn't pay bodyguards such respect, but they fear us. They fear Farfarello's appearance and insanity, Crawford's cold, calculating gaze, Nagi's cool disregard for them, and my lazy smirk that promises nightmares. We pay him no attention as we step into the late morning sunlight, and I decide maybe we'll have lunch out today. I haven't eaten in town in a while, and I doubt Nagi has eaten out since he was traveling to and from his university classes.

    Within moments we're on the road, and I allow myself a pleased grin at the way the car slides easily through traffic. Nagi sends me a sideways glance as I weave in and out of the other cars.

    "Now I know why Crawford doesn't let you drive," he says.

    "Gripe at someone who cares," I return breezily, poking the radio button on and searching for a good station. When that fails, I rummage for a CD. With most of my attention on what I am looking for and just one hand on the wheel, I use my telepathy to make sure the other drivers stay out of my way. Nagi slouches ever so slightly in his seat and I am pretty certain he gives his seatbelt a little more reinforcement with his telekinesis.

    ~If you don't put your other hand on the wheel-~ he warns me, cutting off briefly when I slide in front of a car in the next lane with not even an inch between my back bumper and their front. A horn blares. ~Schuldich, we are _not_ immortal-~

    /Yet,/ I correct him breezily, finally finding a decent CD. I slide it in, ignoring the blank look my younger teammate sends me. I don't bother to explain. Crawford will tell Nagi Estet's plans for the future when he wants to. That doesn't mean I can't tease Nagi about knowing more than him. /But I suppose Crawford will clue you in on things when he decides you're important enough…/ I taunt him.

    ~He only tells you things because you're sleeping with him,~ Nagi returns.

    /Jealous?/ I ask, even though I know he isn't.

    ~More like sorry he got stuck with you,~ comes the response.

    /Ouch, brat,/ I clap a hand over my heart. /Hurts me right here./

    He sends me a sideways glance, studying the position of my hand before flicking dark eyes up to my face. ~There's nothing there to get hurt,~ he informs me dryly.

    I laugh, highly amused. I admit to myself once again that college was good for him. I'm sure Aine would be thrilled to hear me say that, but I'll never voice the opinion to anyone else. Nagi was ridiculed towards the beginning; I could see it in his mind when he reflected on it at home or when I was bored enough to bother him in the middle of his classes. They knew he was primarily a distance learner, and somehow they figured out- perhaps from him or an admissions worker they knew- that he had not devoted his entire life to schooling like they had. He was younger than them, and obviously smarter, and they hated him for it. They taunted him about his size and his looks with insults similar to Adashi's derogatory rants.

    The difference between them and Adashi was that Nagi wasn't ordered to tread on eggshells around them. His patience was pushed to the limit and he started retaliating. He used a few insults he had heard from me and a few that were purely his, keeping his own against his older companions. He got in one fight with them on the way home one day, in which he emerged the supreme victor. He used his gift, of course, but he knew to keep it subtle. Either way, there were no problems after that. College did more than I ever could to teach Nagi scorn and arrogance, though he keeps the traits buried well for the most part.

    At least it makes trading insults a lot more entertaining.

    The music blares between us, the bass filling in where our words just were. It's not loud enough to hurt, just loud enough so that I can confuse the pounding bass with my own heartbeat. Nagi doesn't complain about the volume, either because he doesn't care or he doesn't care enough to get in an argument with me.

    We arrive at the grocery store in good time- thanks to my magnificent driving skills - and I challenge an old lady for a parking spot. I win, of course, and watch as she crawls on to find another space. I already know that the next empty one is a nice walk from the front of the store, and I grin as I slid out of the car.

    Nagi carries the hand basket as we start down the aisles. The list is a mental one, so I add whatever I want to it as I lay my eyes on tempting items. Nagi picks up the practical things that I forget. It's not a large shopping trip, but we set a lazy pace. Neither of us are terribly interested in getting back to Takatori's rothouse in a hurry. There's nothing there for Nagi to do and, well, no one there for me to do. We're even content enough to wait in line at the cash register, something that doesn’t happen often with me around.

    I notice some people looking at us with barely concealed curiosity. I attract attention wherever I go in Japan because of my looks and actions. It's kind of hard to miss me, what with this orange hair and all. Nagi attracts stares because he is obviously school age and it is a school day, yet he is wandering around a grocery store with a freaky looking foreigner. We're used to the attention…We've been gaped at by all sorts of people for many years.

    When one couple stares for too long, I tilt my head in their direction and offer them a wide smirk. Both pairs of eyes immediately drop to the floor and the woman shuffles her feet uncomfortably. Nagi and I pay for our items and I let my teammate tote the bags out to the car. It makes sense to me, since he can't even feel the weight of the bags where they hang on his arms when his gift is holding them from the bottom. We are closely watched as we exit the store.

    The bags are deposited in the backseat and we get in. The music starts up where it left off when I turn the key in the engine, and I slide back into traffic to find us a place to eat.


    Nagi and I have said nothing to each other since we finished our meal; we are content to keep our own thoughts and let my CD fill up the silence between us. My thoughts drift lazily outwards as we start approaching Takatori's place, and I bump into a new mind along the way. This isn't unordinary; I wouldn't say I've swiped every person in Tokyo yet, but the girl's thoughts are enough to catch my attention.

    After all, she's calling Takatori 'Daddy'.

    I reach out, jabbing the power button for the CD player. I can't concentrate enough on her voice with the music blaring like that. Nagi glances up at me when I cut off the music, knowing that something must have driven me to do so. He says nothing, however, waiting for me to speak first.

    ~Why is he never here when I come calling on him? You'd think he'd make time for his own daughter…And the flowers I brought are going to start wilting before he sees them.~ There's a clear pout in those words. ~Omi-kun even picked out the bestest ones just for me.~

    Her voice hits with a startling familiarity- after all, it's been dancing around in my head for almost a week: "Omi-kun loves me the bestest, I know it."

    "I'll be damned," I murmur.

    "You already are," Nagi informs me. "What's wrong?"

    I send him a faint grin. "Koala's baby girl has come to see him." We were given a brief biography of all four of the Takatori children- four including the one that was kidnapped many years ago and the daughter of Takatori's mistress. We haven't had the opportunity to meet her yet, but it's not like any of us were jumping at the chance to meet this Sakaki Ouka face to face. She's just a snotty nosed brat, daughter of a corrupted politician.

    We arrive at Takatori's place and unload the bags from the car. A servant inside suddenly has the hunch that we've returned, courtesy of one orange-haired telepath, and opens the door to allow us in. It's the same one that let us out, and he executes a deep bow while murmuring his relief that we have returned safely from our venture. Japanese are amusing that way. I ignore him, gesturing to Nagi. He knows what I want, and suddenly our grocery bags fly themselves up the stairs, heading to our floor.

    That taken care of, I take it upon myself to find the girl whose thoughts got entangled with mine four days ago.

    She's waiting in the den where Crawford and I spoke to Hoffmann, sprawled in one of the thick chairs. There is a vase of flowers on the small glass table beside her, a vaguely familiar kitty tag hanging from one stem. One of the petals has fallen, and she nudges it along with a finger, her face the ultimate picture of boredom. She looks up hopefully when she hears my footsteps. A startled look sweeps her face; she has no clue who I am and she doesn't like how I look.

    "You must be Sakaki-san," I drawl in greeting, "the littlest Takatori."

    She sits up, back rigid as she eyes me suspiciously. "Who are you?"

    "One of your father's new bodyguards," I explain, crossing the room to drape myself lazily across the couch. Nagi follows behind me and seats himself on the arm of the couch. Ouka looks from one of us to the other, her nose wrinkling in disgust.

    "A terrible looking foreigner and a child are supposed to protect my father?"

    "Do not make the mistake of underestimating us," I tell her. She still looks doubtful. I take a moment to reach into her mind, searching to try and find what I accidentally lost to her in my mental scanning. I never know what part of me has been traded; I only realize what was gone once it has been returned.

    "Where is my father?" she asks.

    "He is out," I reply with a vague gesture of my hand. I could elaborate that he is out ruining the lives of both the innocent and the guilty to further his own position, but from what I can tell Ouka has no clue what her father truly is. I doubt Takatori would appreciate it if I were to inform her of that, and Crawford would not be happy with me when we had to deal with the fat man's resulting anger.

    "I had figured as much," she says tartly, going back to pushing at her petal. "When is he going to be back to see me?"

    /Assuming he wants to?/ I send at Nagi. He gives the equivalent of a mental shrug. I reach out towards Crawford, trying to figure out where he is. It is with some satisfaction that I can feel him approaching the house. He and Takatori are done for the day.

    "Within twenty minutes," I answer her.

    "Good." A faint smile curves her lips. She pushes at the petal some more, delicate little pokes meant just to nudge it along gently.

    On one poke, it shreds neatly in two. For a brief moment, Ouka looks horrified that she's ripped it. Nagi gives a slight sniff and looks away. I flick him a sideways glance, but his expression tells me nothing. I grin and turn back to the girl. "Do not weep for it. It has no feelings to understand your sentiment."

    She looks annoyed. "Neither do you."

    I don't deny it, and she looks a bit more disgusted by that even though she expected it. She is right; I do not care anything for her even if my telepathy allows me to understand her. I am interested in her solely because she has something I want buried somewhere in her mind. My search is bothered by the fact that she is allowing her mind to drift, recalling random odds and ends. There are florists and crowds of squealing girls, a cheerful face handing over a pot of the flowers now beside her, some woman hovering over a large cooking pot, her school day…I bat the memories away, listening carefully for anything of mine. I can't find it, and that's frustrating.

    Silence continues to stretch between us. I keep up the searching as the minutes drag on. Ouka ignores us and Nagi sits quietly and patiently, letting his own thoughts drift. He doesn't know why I'm here still with this arrogant chic, but he doesn't really care. Finally, when I cannot stand my unsuccessful rummaging, I try a different tactic.

    /This man before you…/ I murmur into her mind, very carefully and quietly. /Doesn't he sound familiar? Haven't you heard his voice somewhere before?/

    She pauses to consider this, flicking her gaze up to meet my eyes briefly before looking down at the two halves of the petal now cupped in her hand. She wracks her memory, struggling to figure out if this is true. Her search comes up with nothing, just like mine, and she shrugs it off.

    I am mildly annoyed by this, both by the fact neither of us can find me in there and because she has given up so quickly. Now that I've given her the mental prompt, however, I'm sure she'll chew over the question on her own later. I'll just have to keep low tabs on her mind so I know when she's realized where she's heard me before. I wouldn't try so hard if I knew what I had lost to her, but because I'm clueless it leaves me agitated.

    A servant enters with a tray, carrying it to Ouka and offering her tea. She watches as the woman pours for her and accepts the cup with both hands, murmuring her gratitude. The servant turns to go and hesitates when she sees the two of us sprawled on the couch. She sends a quick look towards Ouka. She is alarmed; the servants are afraid of us and this one doesn't like the idea of Takatori's precious baby left in the same room with us.

    "Ah, madam…"

    "She is safe with us," Nagi says when the servant falters.

    Ouka looks up from her tea, turning her attention on Nagi. She studies him, cataloguing him with the interest of a teenage girl. She rates everything about him in a quick sweep from his shoes to his hair, complete with assumptions about what he must be like. Most of her assumptions are far off, but she is right about the quiet and reserved part. She can't begin to fathom what he is capable of, what indifference he feels for most of society. When she has finished, she tilts her head up at the servant.

    "If my father has chosen them as his bodyguards, I suppose they can stay."

    "We're honored you place your trust in us," I drawl, mockery lightly edging the words.

    She sends me a Look. The servant hesitates, then bows and exits quickly. She's on her way to inform the rest of the staff that Ouka is with us. I smirk, tilting my head further into the cushion my cheek is resting on. Ouka turns back to Nagi as the door to the den closes.

    "Pray tell me…how is a child supposed to do any good for my father?"

    "Appearances can be deceiving, Sakaki-san," he answers lightly. She frowns. "I can promise you that no harm will come to your father while we are working for him."

    That is a lie, but Nagi does not know it yet. Crawford is looking for ways to undermine Takatori's power. No physical harm will come to him- yet- but his power will suffer slightly. Crawford has to be careful which ties he decides can be cut. They have to have an impact in the future, but for now they have to be small so that neither Takatori nor the two organizations above us will worry about the loss.

    And speaking of Crawford…I push myself up from the couch and Nagi slides off of the arm beside me.

    "Until next time," I tell her with a cold smirk. I'll see her again- I'll make sure of it. I'll stick to her until I figure out what she accidentally stole from me. I turn towards the door and it opens as I approach it. Nagi and I both step aside, one in each direction, as Takatori enters. Crawford remains in the doorway, and the two of us move to his sides.

    "Papa!" Ouka is out of her chair in an instant, diving towards Takatori.

    He gives a delighted laugh at her obvious excitement, scooping her into a fierce hug. "Ouka-chan, it does me good to see you…"

    I look at Nagi, pointing a finger at my open mouth to symbolize disgust over the 'touching' family reunion. Nagi's lips twitch faintly in response. Ouka sees it over her father's shoulder and gives me a dirty look. I waggle my fingers at her, offering her a bland grin. Takatori looks over his shoulder at us.

    "You are dismissed for now," he says.

    "Mister Takatori." Crawford offers him a bow before turning and leaving the room. Nagi and I follow, and Nagi closes the doors behind us.

    Crawford stops at the base of the stairs and turns. Nagi and I wait for him to speak, mildly surprised that he has not headed up to our own floor yet. "We have our own visitor," he says, "that we must attend to. He will arrive shortly."

    Nagi and I half turn towards the front door, curious. I send out a mental poke.

    "Hoffmann…" I murmur. He is close; I didn't notice because I was too busy raking through Ouka's mind. There is only one reason I can think of for him to be here- Farfarello. I feel a strange chill run down my spine. He's bringing our teammate back finally.

    "Nagi." Nagi glances back at Crawford. "Wait upstairs."

    Nagi hesitates- he doesn't understand why Crawford would send him away. He's guessing the same reason for the empath's presence as I am, and he wants to make sure Farfarello is returned in one piece. I flick him a glance. "We don't need Hoffmann getting interested in another teammate," I tell him simply.

    Nagi looks up at me, then towards the door. Finally he nods and starts up the stairs, leaving Crawford and me to ourselves. The servants are gone, holed away elsewhere. Crawford probably informed them to stay away from the door when they arrived home. After all, Takatori won't be pleased if he finds another of his servants killed by Hoffmann's gift. I consider that, and poke Takatori's mind. He doesn’t know that Hoffmann is coming. He also doesn't know that Farfarello has been missing; Crawford has kept that from him. It is a probably a good thing, then, that Ouka is entertaining her father elsewhere.

    "Exciting day?" I ask.

    "Thrilling," comes the dry response. It has been a while since Crawford had to donate so much of his time to a client's well-being, and adding Estet's agenda under that and ours beneath theirs…He's quite the busy person. I know he has headaches more frequently; when I went to bed last night he was sitting at his desk rubbing his temples. "You?"

    "Took Nagi to buy more coffee and managed to get some KFC down his throat."

    "So I suppose you're feeling accomplished."

    "Of course. It's not every day I can entertain myself by wandering up and down the aisles of a grocery store." I heave an annoyed sigh that is obviously exaggerated, flicking a green glance up at Crawford. Perhaps the irritation would be real if I didn't think we were finally going to get Farfarello back today. "I am rather unhappy with Hoffmann's timing, however. I had plans for today."

    Crawford gives me a sideways look. "Which would be?"

    "You can't guess?" I ask him, letting a hungry smirk dance on my lips. I reach up, hooking a finger in his tie. He allows me pull him down and I kiss him. A pleasant hum remains in my veins when I release him, and my smirk has been replaced with a lazier sort of grin. When Crawford came home from the hospital almost two weeks ago, I discovered that kissing went pretty high up on my list of the simplest pleasures of life. It even gets notched before carpeted bedrooms, which says a lot.

    Crawford looks as if he might say something, but I get a second wave of Hoffmann's mind then and glance towards the door. With a flick of a look towards Crawford, I abandon my lover to head towards the entrance. Hoffmann is approaching from the other side, his mental silence incredibly loud. I quickly adjust my gaze, pointing it to where I think his chest is, and pull both of the doors open.

    Perfect timing; Hoffmann is on the front porch.

    And he _did_ bring my teammate. I ignore Hoffmann for the barest of moments, raking sharp eyes over Farfarello. Hoffmann is carrying him in his arms; Farfarello lies limp in them. He is more pale than usual. His head is lolled to one side, resting against Hoffmann's chest. His one eye is open, but his stare is blank, dead. There are a few scratches on him, including a torn lip. The most noticeable ones look like bite marks and adorn his throat and ear. Other than that, he seems unharmed- physically, at least. With Hoffmann, physical harm isn't what you have to be careful of.

    "Herr Hoffmann…" I say, a belated greeting.

    He extends his arms and I readily hold mine out, desperate to get my teammate out of that bastard's touch. The empath deposits him in my arms and I grunt, readjusting my grip to hold his weight. Farfarello doesn't protest the shift in possession; he still gazes upwards with that look that says he isn't all there. His head does roll to the other side in the movement, however, and I can feel his ragged breath against my shirt. I struggle to touch his mind, but it's dimmed due to Hoffmann's close presence. What I touch is calm and quiet, a far cry from the mind I know.

    Hoffmann makes a satisfied sound; I can hear the smirk in it. "What do you think?" he asks me, reaching forward and tugging down the collar of Farfarello's shirt. My blood runs cold when I see the newest addition to Farfarello's outfit. A black collar is fastened at the base of Farfarello's neck. "He knows what will happen if this is removed from him," the empath tells me. Lazy satisfaction laces his voice. "It is to stay on his throat at all times. No one is allowed to take it off. Is that understood?"

    The Berserker has been collared. A strange shiver runs down my spine. "Ja, Herr Hoffmann…"

    "You have a very strong teammate." Fingers dance over Farfarello's face. My own hands tighten on the Irishman, repulsed by the proprietary touch on behalf of my teammate. "But when you strip away the person and leave just a man behind…When you take away control and take away dignity, shred pride and identity into ribbons…When you make a person forget who they are and where they came from…You are left with just a man. Just a man and raw emotions, and the emotions are the field on which you play."

    He leans forward and I can feel his breath on cheek. I keep my eyes glued on Farfarello's collar. "Everybody bends. Then everybody breaks. Just like you." With that, he pulls back and turns away. "If I were you, I would release him. You do not want to be holding him when I let him go."

    I hear the words and choose to ignore them. "Herr Hoffmann," I say instead, and the Councilman heads down the stairs and towards his car. I take a step backwards and an arm reaches past me to shut the door- it's Crawford.

    As soon as the door clicks shut, Farfarello's mind and eye snap to life. I don't have enough warning as he suddenly lurches against me. One fist flies up to crack into my chin and my teeth clack together painfully. The other hand clenches around my throat. I gag, struggling to not drop his suddenly writhing body. Crawford grabs at his arms, catching his wrists in a warning grip. In return, Farfarello's fingers tighten on my throat. His eye is wild with a hurricane of raw emotions, and there is no coherent thought in his mind above the sibilant whisper of "hate."

    I can't _breathe_. I struggle for a breath and just choke again. Crawford's knuckles are white on Farfarello's wrist, but he can't pull our teammate's hand away without taking part of my throat with it. /Farfarello!!/ I send the thought at him with full force, trying to get through the chaos to reach him.

    Farfarello stills, staring at me with a wild yellow eye. His breathing is harsh and irregular. I don't move, knowing that if he's off-balance from Hoffmann he won't hesitate to rip my throat open. Slowly his fingers relax. Crawford releases him in return, but he keeps an intent gaze on Farfarello in case my teammate tries to do anything. I set him on his feet carefully but he can't seem to stay up; he sags towards the ground. I grab at him, catching him, and he allows me to steady him. His own hands close tightly around my arms. There is a swirling turmoil in his mind, and then one part of it vanishes from the mess. Farfarello has shielded it away so I can't reach it. He rarely chooses to shield his thoughts.

    "Farfarello…?" I ask.

    He releases me as I pull him back upright, one hand slowly straying towards his throat. He fingers the collar and his lips pull back in a snarl. He tugs away from me, but stumbles in his retreat. I know better than to go after him a second time, and I let him regain his footing by himself. I'm still surprised he let me catch him the first time. He stands there, one hand clenched into a fist on his collar, pulling at it as if he's about to rip it off. His hand is shaking as he fights the urge to tear it from his neck. He knows what the collar symbolizes, but whatever punishment Hoffmann has promised for the removal of it keeps him from following through on his violent desire to be free of it.

    Crawford gestures towards the stairs, inviting Farfarello to head up them first. The assassin hesitates for a moment before starting towards them. I glance towards Crawford, but his eyes are on our younger teammate. We follow behind the Irishman up the stairs. He manages to make it without stumbling and without the use of the railing, and I find myself mildly relieved by this.

    Nagi is at the top of the stairs at our floor, and he watches Farfarello come with sharp eyes. He gives the older teenager a quick study as Farfarello reaches the top step.

    That's as far as Farfarello's strength gets him; he sags to the ground. Nagi takes a step back, dark eyes studying the collar. He doesn't like it at all- his thoughts are a flat refusal against its presence. I move around Farfarello, slowly lowering myself to a crouch in front of him as I study the mess of his mind.

    "Sick," Farfarello warns me, just before tipping forward. I barely have time to get out of the way before he starts throwing up. His whole body shakes with the force, and my lips thin at the harsh sound. Stomach acid and a milky white fluid spill across the floor. Farfarello's fingers dig into the ground as he heaves. When he manages to stop, he is still shaking. One hand slowly raises and he presses the back of it to his mouth. After a few moments, the hand lowers to close over the collar around his throat.

    "Nagi," Crawford says quietly, breaking the new silence between us, "go get the shower running."

    Nagi is all to happy to leave; his shoes beat a rapid retreat down the hall. I look up from where I am crouched in front of Farfarello, meeting my lover's gaze. In my peripheral vision, I can see Farfarello is trembling. I decide the shaking is a mix of shock and fury- an acceptable reaction after one has survived an encounter with the Soul Shaker. Hateful thoughts race through his head, so quickly and so many that they tangle into a mess. I allow myself a second to be grateful that he put a mental barrier around whatever Hoffmann did to him. It's not like I do not have my suspicions, and the artic chill to Crawford's eyes show that he is drawing the same conclusions. He is furious. So am I.

    I look down at Farfarello once more. His knuckles are white in his death grip on the band around his throat. Someone collared the Berserker and he does not like the captivity one bit. Someone tried to break Farfarello, and we won't stand for it. Farfarello is one of ours. It was one thing to know Hoffmann was going to find a way to hurt him. That was enough to make me side with Crawford and decide to put my faith in his modern day samurai. It is another thing entirely to be faced with my teammate when he has been returned to us. I don't think I've hated anyone so much in my life as I hate Hoffmann now.

    "Bend for them," I tell him, my voice low and cold. I do not recognize it; I've never heard my own voice twist like this. Farfarello looks up at me, and the anger in me doubles at the gleam in his eye. It is a frustrated, mute fury, an inner seething at what the Council has done to him. Humiliation and a growing rage battle in his gaze, a mix I never expected- or ever wanted- to see from him. "Bend for them," I say again, "but never break. Never. Break."

    Farfarello says nothing as our gazes remain locked. I let him see in my eyes everything I'm feeling; I let him see and know that the Council has gone too far. Farfarello struggles to control his ragged breathing, searching my eyes.

    "Go shower," Crawford says then, almost too softly. "Go get clean."

    The suggestion is met with too much welcome from Farfarello and my stomach clenches, nausea rolling through me. The Irishman rises to his feet and passes me on his way down the hall. I can hear Nagi's thoughts; he is hovering uncertainly halfway down the hall.

    /Go to your room./ It is a flat command, and Nagi vanishes without protest.

    I study the mess in front of me for several seconds before rising. I meet Crawford's gaze once more and a bolt of anger passes between us, so strong it is almost visible. I don't have to be an empath to know how angry my lover is, and the same goes for him.

    "I am going to prepare a room in the subconscious of the Schwarz bond," I tell him, rising to my feet. "Give me an hour and it will be ready."

    "It is yours."

    I leave him, heading down the hall to the room we share. I shut and bolt the door, moving towards the bed. Crawford and I have used a mental room before, but to create one like that would not work for Schwarz now. I need to create a place where we can meet mentally- something more than the bond, something that is barricaded. What happened to Farfarello is unforgivable; Schwarz will launch this war against the Council with everything that we are.

    The room will have two layers- one within the bond, one between Crawford and myself. The first will be used for my teammates to interact freely, and by being pushed into the bond and their subconscious, they will be guarded against those that might suspect us of anything. By placing it there, Nagi and Farfarello will not consciously know that we are turning against Rosenkreuz and Estet. They will know it within the recesses of their mind, and it will only be inside this room that they will be able to put coherent thought to the problem. Crawford has the strongest shields of all of us, so the room will be set in his mind. This will also, hopefully, aid his visions. Half in and half out of his subconscious, I will place it so that his mind's eye will react to its presence and the goals. I will be tightly strung to this room, allowed a deeper access to Crawford's mind than ever before, since without me the rooms will not open.

    It is in these rooms that we will declare war.

    It is in these rooms that we will start to destroy Rosenkreuz and Estet.

Part 6