------------eight : You got my trust and it feels like sabotage.

   Since it was Jonas' fault Crawford was in the hospital, it was his duty to explain to the Elders what had happened. They did not take the news well, but Jonas refused to back down. It took five hours of fighting and accusations before they finally calmed down. Jonas believed in Crawford and Schwarz one thousand percent, and his supreme confidence did wonders to win the Elders over. In the end, they had no choice but to trust him. They'd hinged too many hopes on Crawford's successes to back out now.

    Schwarz had too much work to do to wait on Crawford, so Jonas called on Alex. The telekinetic went through his files with a fine-tooth comb, looking for a field replacement. He came up with Akira Adashi, a rank six empath. The Council studied his files, found him to be suitable, and sent the order back to Alex to extricate Adashi as soon as possible. Alex promised Adashi would be in Japan in six days. Jonas called the Elders first, then Schuldich. He gave the telepath explicit instructions to behave and cooperate, and Schuldich promised he would.

    Six days later, Adashi signed in with Schwarz. Two days later, Schwarz broke that promise, and Adashi brought Schuldich before Jonas for retribution. Schuldich was afraid, but there was an unapologetic defiance beneath his fear. When Jonas demanded an explanation, the only excuse Schuldich had was incompatibility between Adashi and Farfarello. Jonas was not impressed with that response; a dead mind's opinion meant absolutely nothing to a Talent. He cut his disapproval into Schuldich's skin.

    He didn't mean to take it so far, but he couldn't stop himself. He looked at Schuldich and thought about Seraphim, thought about Crawford's illness, thought about how this worthless green-eyed telepath was so important to Rosenkreuz and Crawford both. Schuldich ended up in Ikida's ward and was unconscious for the better part of four days. Somehow the Council managed to hide Schuldich's injuries from the Elders, but they didn't try to hide their fury from Jonas.

    Schuldich checked out of the hospital on his fifth day. Jean and Ahmed were relieved by such good timing. The Council was scheduled to visit Crawford the following day, and there was a chance the Elders would stop by to inspect their prized Talent.

    It turned out the Elders were too busy to visit, so the Council went alone to Crawford's hospital room. The Oracle still looked like a dead thing, silent and still, relying on machinery to stay alive. The only improvement Jonas could find was in his mind: the pain that had been there before was still there, but it came and went in waves. As far as he could tell, Crawford was conscious, so he had Ikida give them updates from Crawford's bedside. The doctor went over his tests, his expectations for the upcoming weeks, and an in-depth view of the illness.

    "And Schuldich?" Jean asked when Ikida was through.

    Ikida nodded and changed tracks. "His injuries-" he started.

    "Not that," Jean said, a bit impatiently. "How much does he know about this?" He waved at Crawford. "How is he reacting?"

    Ikida glanced from Jean to Crawford, not really sure why the Council was asking or why it was important. It wasn't his place to question it, so he answered honestly. "Not well, Councilmen, but he is accepting it in stages. The first stage, denial and anger, is thankfully over. He came to see Crawford of his own volition while he was hospitalized here. He was here this morning as well, but I escorted him out when I knew you were on your way."

    "Estet demands a lot from Schwarz," Ahmed said. "We must know if the team is stable."

    "We are not interested in statistics," Jonas said. "This upcoming year lays a great burden on their shoulders. Professionalism and experience will not save them in the end. It requires more than that."

    Ikida shifted his grip on his clipboard, thinking, wondering how much of an answer they wanted from him. "I have been in Japan for four weeks, Councilmen, but I have not had much opportunity to acquaint myself with Schwarz. Until this happened, they did not have much reason to call on me. However." He paused, debating the best way to word his next statement, perhaps questioning his own certainty. In the end he decided to go with it. "Should Schwarz still have the problems they had at the start, I would know about it. Schuldich would have come to me."

    Jonas believed him. Maybe Crawford had saved Schuldich's sanity, but Ikida had been the one to save his life. The doctor had been the only one to care about Schuldich when the telepath had first entered Rosenkreuz. The two hadn't seen each other in years, but Schuldich had cultivated the beginnings of self-worth under Ikida's ministrations. If it weren't for the Council's presence in Rosenkreuz, Schuldich would have chosen to stay with Ikida rather than leave with Crawford all those years ago.

    The Council exchanged glances, thinking, and finally Ahmed turned away. "We will see for ourselves," he said.

    "If Schuldich returns today before we call on you, you are to deny him entrance," Jean said. Ikida nodded his understanding.

    With that, the Council left. They returned to their hotel, and there Jonas placed a call to Adashi. "Make yourself comfortable," he told the younger empath. "Ikida is predicting eight months' recovery time for Crawford. We will not wait that long. Tonight we will execute Crawford and formally instate you as Schwarz's team leader."

    "I understand, Herr Hoffmann," Adashi said, and Jonas almost killed him for the smirk he could hear in Adashi's voice. He settled for hanging up on him, and he unfurled his shields to bring Schwarz's household into range. He closed his eyes, focusing on the only minds in the city that mattered right now, and let their emotions bleed into his colleagues. Adashi's self-satisfaction was syrupy and thick in Jonas' head.

    Adashi obediently passed Crawford's sentence on to Schwarz, and the team's reaction was fierce. Schuldich's bolt of panic and horror was sharp enough to choke on. Nagi was stunned by the Council's verdict. As Schuldich mind twisted into revulsion and hate, Nagi responded with fear and caution. Adashi's vicious delight spiked higher as he tracked the others' reactions. Farfarello was late to the party with a wary sort of curiosity, and then there was one staccato-burst of shock from Adashi.

    Abruptly, Adashi was gone.

    "The fuck—" Jean snarled, startled.

    Nagi went blank with shock; Farfarello was entertained. Crawford stirred in the opposite direction, picking up on something along Schwarz's unique bond. Then Schuldich was moving across Jonas' range, making a beeline straight for the Council.

    Jonas opened his eyes and let his connection to the Council drop. The four stared at each other, thrown. Talents did not murder Talents. The Council could execute anyone they pleased. The Five could pass judgment on their people, but the repercussions could be severe if the Council disagreed. Killing a stand-in team leader in cold blood was—impossible. It went against everything Rosenkreuz knew.

    "He didn't," Ahmed said.

    "He did," Mosuli returned slowly.

    "Do not look at me," Jonas said. "I have always wanted him dead."

    "And we are to protect him?!" Jean demanded sharply. "We are to forgive him? I refuse! This is bullshit."

    He said, "I refuse!", but the other three knew such anger ran hollow. Estet needed Schwarz. Schwarz needed Crawford. Crawford needed Schuldich. Schuldich was the highest-ranked and sanest telepath Rosenkreuz had had in years. But forgiving Schuldich set a dangerous precedent should anyone else in Rosenkreuz find out. The Council wasn't supposed to be backed up against a wall like this.

    "Councilmen, do you understand? One cannot live without the other. If you try to make them, you will lose everything."

    "I hate him," Jonas said with feeling.

    For once, none of the others begrudged him that hatred, but there was nothing they could do but prepare to welcome Schuldich. Jonas went downstairs to arrange for a conference room. There was one open on the eighth floor, so he reserved it effective immediately. He gave Schuldich's description to one of the clerks at the counter and went back upstairs to collect the others. They rearranged the room to their liking, removing all but four chairs from the expansive oak table. The seats they left, they put facing the door, until the conference room was a shabby imitation of the Council's Chambers in Rosenkreuz. Then they sat down to wait.

    Schuldich entered the room with his head high and his hands stuffed in his pockets. At least he was smart enough not to look any of them in the face. Jonas didn't trust his self-control in that moment.

    As soon as the door shut behind Schuldich, Mosuli got to his feet. It was a vote for death and warned Schuldich not to waste anyone's time. Schuldich understood that. Beneath his calm veneer, he was grim and desperate.

    "We demand an explanation for your behavior."

    "Herr Mosuli," Schuldich said, gazing steadily at the back wall, "I could not work with him."

    "So you killed him," Jean said. "Tell me what you expect us to do now. If you think we are going to give you control of Schwarz just because Oracle is down, you are terribly mistaken."

    There was a pulse of surprise at that—Schuldich hadn't even considered such a thing. "I am not attempting to gain leadership of Schwarz. The four of you made it clear long ago that the position would never be mine. As a member of Schwarz, however, it is in my best interests to protect my team. That man is not one of us. He never will be."

    "Because you killed him."

    "It is better he is dead," Schuldich said.

    Jean stood up. Schuldich's control frayed a little in his desperation. "It is better," he said again. "I will never accept another leader. Oracle is the leader of Schwarz. He has proven it hundreds of times over. The group has balanced. We have accepted each other's patterns. Throwing a stranger in rocks the boat worse than Oracle's fall did."

    "Did you think you could defy us?" Ahmed asked, getting to his feet. "Did you think you could kill one of our trainers and then waltz in here pretending you did nothing wrong?"

    Schuldich's expression fractured and he closed his eyes. "I will not work without Oracle."

    Unspoken: I will die first.

    Fear pain desolation hope need defiance

    And beneath that, something that finally brought Jonas to his feet. Standing turned out to be a mistake, as the unanimous vote for death distracted Schuldich. The telepath grabbed hold of his courage and held tight, refusing to fall apart, refusing to beg for mercy. Green eyes opened again, bright with defiance, as Jonas crossed the room toward him.

    Fear hate desperation

    There was a hint of what Jonas was looking for: that fear wasn't for himself.

    "You know you've earned your death," Jonas said.

    "I do, Herr Hoffmann," Schuldich said.

    "Yet you're not here to gamble for your own life," Jonas noted.

    "No, Herr Hoffmann, I am not."

    "Interesting. Six years ago you swore you would die for no one, not even the Council. Today you are ready to sacrifice yourself for Oracle." Jonas didn't need Schuldich to confirm it. "Let us talk about your clairvoyant, then."

    Schuldich floundered for a bit, not sure what was going on. He knew he should be dead by now. At the very least, he should be screaming in pain. But the Council was watching him and Jonas was letting him speak. Schuldich's arrogance cracked under this unexpected turn of events. "Adashi said the Council was going to terminate him," he said uncertainly. ""Ikida was predicting a recovery."

    "Of five to eight months," Jonas said. "That is a long time for him to be out of commission. Rosenkreuz bleeds precognitives; he can be replaced."

    Schuldich was offended by such words, but none of his outrage made it into his voice. "Crawford has the highest level of precognition Rosenkreuz has seen in decades," he returned. "He has always been the most reliable of the Five."

    "That sounds like a biased opinion," Jonas said, and the hypocrisy in his words amused him. "Give me a good reason as to why we should pay Crawford's bills."

    "Does Schwarz have enough?" Schuldich asked quickly. "Crawford's car- my car- our bank accounts…"

    "So desperate you are, Mastermind. I refuse to believe he means so much to you."

    Schuldich opened his mouth to argue, but he caught himself just in time.

    It still wasn't fast enough, because Jonas felt the knot that bolted across Schuldich's nerves.

    "He is ours," Schuldich said quietly.

    He said ours. Jonas felt the mine he meant to say. The Council heard it, judging by the shock and disbelief that hissed through Jonas' gift. He dug his fingers into Schuldich's chin hard enough to leave bruises.

    "No," Jonas said in a hard voice. "He belongs to the Council. Do not pretend you matter in the grand scheme of things. You have no say in what we do with him."

    Schuldich sensed the conversation was coming to a swift end, and he grabbed at anything he could. He shot a wild look at the Councilmen past Jonas' shoulders. When he spoke next, it was in Japanese. His words were meant for Jonas alone. "I don't matter to you," he said. "I never have. But my mother meant something to you. Doesn't her word still stand for anything? You loved her once."

    Jonas felt cold all over. "Don't you dare bring her into this."

    "I was there when Mom died. I know she called you. I was there when she asked you—begged you—to protect me. To make me happy. You've ignored that request for years. Now I'm asking to collect on it."

    "She has nothing to do with this. You earned the death penalty through your own stupidity."

    "I don't care if you kill me," Schuldich said, soft and desperate and terrified. "Just—please. Let him live."

    It wasn't the words that made it through to Jonas—it was what burned beneath them. The twist of emotions behind that plea was almost violent in its intensity, and Jonas refused to believe the interpretation his gift gave him. His stomach clenched as he stared at his nephew's bowed head. An endless minute stretched between them, and then Jonas reached out and knotted his fingers in Schuldich's hair. He forced Schuldich's head up, and Schuldich didn't try to avoid his stare. Blue and green locked and held, and Jonas ached all over with the effort to keep his gift in check.

    Fearful resignation, defiance, and then a bit of confusion when Jonas didn't hurt him. Jonas batted those emotions aside irritably and dove deeper. He didn't have to go far. The emotions that had driven Schuldich here were right there for him to see.

    Too strong to be friendship, too complicated to be a crush.

    Jonas almost killed him on the spot. He tasted blood. He'd torn his own throat up with the effort not to lash out against what he'd just found. His control was collapsing, so he did the only thing he could: he let go of Schuldich and turned away. Schuldich stared after him, not understanding why Jonas was walking away, afraid to hope but hoping anyway. Jonas went back across the room. The Councilmen had known Jonas for sixteen years. They saw what Schuldich couldn't see on his face.

    "Get him out of here," Jonas said, almost too quietly for them to hear, "before I kill him."

    He threw himself heavily into his chair. One by one, the rest of the Council sat. Schuldich stared at the floor, feeling his failure keenly, waiting for his death.

    "Get out," Jean said.

    Schuldich stopped breathing. Green eyes jumped to Jean's face before he remembered to look away. "Councilman?" he asked numbly.

    "Do not gape like an idiot, Mastermind," Ahmed said, scowling. "Besides yourself, Rosenkreuz has access to only two other telepaths. They are levels two and four, and there is little chance of them advancing. This is neither forgiveness nor a pardon: it is simply a stay on your execution. This year is very important to Estet and Rosenkreuz. We will let you live until Estet is through with Schwarz."

    "Your clairvoyant will live," Jean said, "but under your proposed terms: Schwarz will pay for his bills. He is on leave from Estet until he has recovered. Schwarz will be given another fourth. Do make sure this one stays alive."

    Schuldich looked from one man to the other, bewildered. "I… Yes, Councilmen."

    "Do not let this go to your head," Mosuli warned him. "The next time you step out of line, we will kill you without a second thought, no questions asked. This is your first and last chance. Is that clear?"

    Schuldich barely managed a nod.

    "Again: get out," Jean said.

    Schuldich retreated as fast as he could go. When the doors opened, the Council got a glimpse of his teammates: Nagi and Farfarello had followed Schuldich across the city. Mosuli slammed the doors closed as soon as Schuldich was out of the way, and the Council sat in silence.

    Jean was the first to break it. "Oh," he said, sliding a cruel look Jonas' way. "That's twice now a Jonas has offered his life for Crawford's. Looks like Seraphim wasn't talking about you after all."

    Jonas didn't hear him. He was staring at the closed door as if he could see Schwarz's three on the other side of it. Schuldich's stunned relief was nauseating as it rocketed along his nerves. Jonas could feel it twisting into excitement, into need, and he swallowed hard against the need to shatter every bone in the telepath's body. He sucked in a slow breath through clenched teeth, unaware of how unsteady it sounded to the other three in the room. His gift was ringing with the memory of his nephew's defiance.

    Loyalty fear faith desperation desire

    "I will not sign off on that," he heard himself say, as if from a great distance.

    "I will," Ahmed said in cool argument. Jonas whirled on him, blue eyes narrowing to furious slits. Ahmed ignored him, more interested in the paperwork set out before him. The show they'd put on for Schuldich was over; there was no need to keep pretending. Schuldich had acted the way they'd needed him to. He'd signed his life and soul over to Schwarz on a level he'd refused to give up before. He'd proven Seraphim's prophecies correct and proved he was still an integral part of their future.

    "Level nine indeed," Jean said with an ugly smile on his face. "How could you have missed that?"

    "Fuck you," Jonas snarled.

    "Hoffmann," Mosuli said firmly, not amused by the empath's shit-fit. "Let it go."

    "We have other things to worry about," Ahmed said. "The Elders will demand to know why we have juggled Schwarz again, and we must find an appropriate replacement for Adashi. A high profile one," he added, gazing at the door as he thought. "We need someone with enough rank to assuage Estet's suspicions, to prove we are still heavily invested in this team."

    He looked at the others for their agreement. He needed only a moment to realize Jonas would be no help right now. He was annoyed by the empath's black mood, but it was better to work around it than to force Jonas through it. "We will adjourn for now," he said. "We can argue our suggestions over dinner tonight. That gives us six hours to accumulate files."

    "Agreed," Jean said. "I will call Ikida and approve visitation."

    Jonas didn't waste time answering; he simply walked out.


    He spent an hour seething. That was all the time he could afford, because there was too much at stake. He and Alex went back and forth for two hours via phone and computer, digging through files for appropriate replacements. In the end, Jonas accepted three of his suggestions and set their files aside to debate with the Council later. Asia taken care of, he turned on his second sector, Europe.

    Five Aine answered on the first ring. She listened in respectful silence as Jonas explained exactly what the Council needed, then took a couple minutes to weigh the problem. At length she said, "Councilman, if I may?" She gave him a moment to refuse her, then said, "I should like to nominate myself."

    Jonas hadn't expected that. "That is very bold of you."

    "It is bold," she agreed apologetically, but she did not retract the offer.

    "I will hear your reasons."

    "I am your Five and executioner," she began. "My rank is sufficient enough to soothe Estet's nerves. As a former bouncer and team coordinator, I have field training and the experience necessary to adjust to an established team. I am qualified to judge Schwarz's progress, and my authority within Rosenkreuz is a clear message to how seriously they should take their assignments."

    "They will not know you," Jonas said. "Two of theirs are outside Rosenkreuz's jurisdiction. The telepath Mastermind has been kept shielded from Rosenkreuz matters to preserve his sanity." He considered that a moment, then allowed, "Oracle knows of you." And with Schwarz's telepathic bond, it wouldn't take but a thought to warn his team to behave.

    "It is an interesting proposition," he continued, thinking it over. "Crawford is out of commission, which leaves the line between Asia and myself broken." Aine had a rank Asia's department heads would have to listen to. Jonas had promoted her and worked with her for the last three and a half years; he knew well how competent she was. "Are you offering out of arrogance or restlessness?"

    "Perhaps a bit of both, Herr Hoffmann," Aine admitted. She had never desired to be Five; she'd liked her nomadic lifestyle as one of Europe's bouncer. She never shirked her duties, but Jonas could see her withering away inside Rosenkreuz. Her only excuse for leaving the school's grounds was when she was acting as the Council's executioner. If she was ordered to leave, she was out the door in a minute flat. Jonas found her enthusiasm for others' deaths amusing. "I feel I am capable of handling two sectors. I know better than to disappoint you."

    Jonas thought it over for a few minutes, weighing the pros and cons of having a Five in Asia. "We will see," he said at last, and he hung up on her.

    When he met up with the Council hours later, hers was the first name he offered. She was not at all who'd they'd expected, but they listened to Jonas' arguments. Jonas gave them time to think it over, and the four kicked the idea around for a bit.

    "With one condition," Ahmed said after a while. "She is not to reveal her rank to Schwarz. You are sure they will not know her?"

    "They have no way of recognizing her," Jonas said. "If we order her and Crawford to silence, they will never know."

    "Schuldich is a telepath," Mosuli said.

    "Prometheus has unique shields," Jean said, shaking his head. Europe had been his sector back when Elizabeth was still alive. He'd given control over to Jonas years ago, but Aine's mind had created enough fuss in her training days that he remembered her. "She crafted two sets early on as a means of survival. Her true core is small and buried deep. Her trainers likened it to a pea in a cornfield. Mastermind will see her façade and not think to look further. Even if he wonders at her dismal shielding, he would have to take her apart to find her center. She is safe from his gift."

    "Why should she hide?" Mosuli wanted to know.

    "If they know her rank, she will not get an honest insight into the team," Ahmed said. "That is what we need: an assessment of Schwarz as a whole."

    Mosuli tipped his head to one side, considering that. Jean didn't wait for him to catch up with them. "I accept this nomination," he said.

    Jean's acceptance was a rare enough thing that Mosuli didn't want to argue. "As do I," he said, and it was decided.

    Jean called the Elders to give them the news. Jonas sent Aine the official order to pack up and move out. After that, the only loose string was Crawford. Jonas made the trip to the hospital alone. He spoke to Ikida first, since Ikida was ranked enough to recognize Aine's name and face. Ikida accepted the order to keep his mouth shut and thoughts off of Prometheus, and then Jonas went to see Crawford.

    "Oracle," he said. Crawford reacted to the sound of Jonas' voice, proving he was awake. Jonas gazed down at his still form for a few moments, listening to Crawford's heartbeat blipping on the monitors. "You have failed us. You trained your telepath. You should have trained him better. What he did today was impermissible and unforgivable. You understand this."

    He went quiet, giving Crawford time to mull over that. Crawford couldn't respond, but Jonas felt the dull edges of frustration. Crawford was not pleased with his subordinate's behavior, no matter the outcome. He knew it reflected poorly on him in the Council's eyes. Behind that understanding, however, was a quiet sense of relief that Schuldich had survived the Council's judgment.

    Jonas' temper, held desperately in check all day, finally snapped. He hit Crawford, putting his weight behind his fist. The first blow triggered a second, then a third, but venting this way didn't make Jonas feel any better. He wanted Crawford to bend and break and scream. He wanted to skin Schuldich alive. He wanted to cut them both to pieces for hiding such a thing from him.

    "Tell me how long ago you saw this coming and why you never thought to inform me of it," he said savagely, catching Crawford's hospital gown in both fists. He gave the precognitive a fierce shake. "Do you have any clue what it took to stand there and listen to him say such things to my face?"

    Crawford was sorry—but only that Jonas had found out.

    Jonas threw the precognitive away from himself. Crawford flopped against the bed like a dead thing. Jonas bared his teeth at his Five in furious disgust. The need to get out of that room was almost overpowering, but he couldn't leave just yet.

    "We are calling in Prometheus," he finally said. "She has command of your sector and team while you are recovering."

    Crawford was satisfied with that news. He had never met Aine and his exclusion from Rosenkreuz these past three years meant he'd never had the chance to speak with her. He knew of her from his department heads, however, which meant he knew she was Jonas' second Five.

    "Your team does not know who she is," Jonas said. "You will make sure it stays this way, do you understand?"

    Crawford continued to lie silent and still. Jonas stared down at him for several minutes. Finally he turned and stormed out without another word.

    One week later, Prometheus landed in Japan, and the Council returned to Rosenkreuz.


    Seven months later, Ikida called the Council to Tokyo for Crawford's evaluation. They landed the day before Crawford was officially released from the hospital and took up residence at a hotel to wait. Prometheus collected Crawford from the hospital at the appropriate time. The timing was ideal, as Schwarz was entering the final stages of a field run. Prometheus handed the reins over to Crawford, not caring that he was fresh from physical therapy, and stepped back to watch him work.

    She called Jonas when it was over, reporting success. Jonas gave her the order to pull out. She needed some time to pack her things, and then she escorted Crawford to the Council's hotel. Jonas felt their approach and went to watch their arrival from the window. He had a good view of the parking lot, so he could see them talking as they climbed out of the car. Crawford respected very few people, but Aine had made his list after the way she'd handled his team this past half-year. Crawford carried a unique workload, and Aine had shouldered it without losing control of her own sector. She'd earned commendation from Estet for her successes, and the Elders were already talking about bringing her back to Japan in the future. Jonas had half a mind to allow it.

    He let the curtains fall shut and went down the hall to the conference room to wait. It didn't take long for the two to arrive upstairs. The Council spoke to Aine in private first. She gave Crawford a glowing recommendation and Schwarz her blessing. She'd been there to watch Schwarz fully come together as a unit around Crawford. She'd never seen such a close-knit team and doubted she'd ever see another like it.

    There was only one problem in her eyes: the unfurling relationship between Schuldich and Crawford. Aine had picked up on the attraction almost immediately upon her arrival in Japan. She'd included it in her reports to the Council, at turns bemused and curious. The greatest sticking point for her was Schuldich's ignorance: the Five were not allowed to be intimate with anyone, but Schuldich didn't seem to know that. She didn't know why Crawford had never told him.

    She'd asked Crawford today on the way over to the Council's hotel and finally received a satisfactory answer: Schuldich didn't know because he hadn't needed to before. Schuldich hadn't recognized his own attraction until Crawford had fallen ill. Now that Crawford was up and about, Aine assumed Crawford would handle the situation properly.

    The Councilmen accepted her decision and dismissed her back to Rosenkreuz. She passed Crawford in the hall one last time. She offered him a smile in farewell, and he nodded in return. Then he came before the Council to accept their judgment. Jonas wondered if he'd expected Crawford to be different, if he'd thought perhaps Crawford would have been somewhat humbled by his illness. But Crawford was as he'd always been: calm, sure, and focused on the next step. He'd already put this year behind him. The only thing that mattered was the future.

    The vote to reinstate Crawford was unanimous. Jonas presented Crawford with Schwarz's next assignment: the final pawn that would make Estet kings and queen of Japan. Crawford accepted without hesitation, and the Council waited as he skimmed the reports. He had no questions.

    At the end, he politely thanked the Council for their patience and trust. He knew he should have been terminated months ago.

    Jean harrumphed a bit at that. "We make an annoying habit of bending the rules for you," he said, curling his lip in disgust. "We are about to do it again."

    "We are giving you permission to pursue your telepath," Ahmed said. His tone said how much he disapproved of such a relationship and decision, but Crawford didn't notice the insult. He was too distracted by the words.

    Jonas couldn't remember the last time anyone caught Crawford so off-guard. The others didn't notice, as nothing on Crawford's expression changed, but Jonas' gift crawled under the prickling weight of Crawford's surprise. Deep beneath that was something—possessive, something hungry, something far too human to come from Crawford. Something that said Schuldich wasn't unmatched in depth of feeling, something Jonas couldn't believe he'd missed for so long. It didn't burn with the ferocity of a new revelation like Schuldich's feelings had; it had an edge that meant Crawford had been fighting it for a long time.

    Jonas thought he was going to be sick.

    "We do not approve," Mosuli said, "but we believe it the appropriate next step. Schwarz's greatest strength is in the unity of its members."

    "If this proves to be a mistake, we will terminate the relationship," Jean said. "Do you understand?"

    "Yes, Councilmen," Crawford said.

    "Then go," Jean said. "Takatori expects you within the week."

    "Yes, Councilmen," Crawford said again, and he left—back to Schwarz, back to Schuldich.


    Mosuli was talking, but Jonas didn't hear him anymore. He stared through his glass of wine without seeing it. His thoughts had flat-lined, torn to shreds by his gift. Schwarz's house was within range of the Council's hotel. There were many people between here and there, but somehow there weren't nearly enough. Jonas felt it when Crawford caught Schuldich alone.

    Surprise caution uncertainty heat desire need

    "Mosuli," he said dully. "I might kill them."

    Mosuli didn't have to ask who he meant. He took one look at Jonas' face and figured out what was going on. He also knew better than to think Jonas' words an empty threat. "We are leaving," he said, rising from the table. Jonas followed him out of the hotel restaurant and into the lobby. The last thing he remembered was stepping into the elevator. He was unconscious before the doors closed.

    The next evening, Schwarz moved out of Jonas' range and in with politician Takatori Reiji.

Part 9
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