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On to Part 24.

Disclaimer:
Weiss and Schwarz do not belong to me. I'm borrowing them for my and (I hope) my readers' amusement only and have no intention of trying to make money off of them in any way, shape or form.

Warnings: Swearing. References to past child sexual abuse. Nonconsensual sex. Bondage. Although I'm setting this about three years past the main series, Nagi's age combined with his actions may squick some people. Also, I'm ignoring Gluhen, Side B and the drama CDs, so don't expect this to be consistent with them.

Rating: NC-17

Pairings: Nagi x Yohji. References to Crawford x Aya-chan.

Author: The RCK
Website: http://www.therck.org
Last updated: 24 August 2013

Thanks to Gemais, Leorising and HopeofDawn for beta reading.

Rheotaxis

rhe-o-tax-is: the tendency of an organism to move in response to the stimulus of a current of water, either with the current or against it

Part 23

Yohji wandered around the apartment while he waited for Telat to come to escort him to his lesson with Empath Second Chekree. He was getting more accustomed to walls that hid multiple shelves and to the devices in the kitchen. I know where the movies and the books are. I know how to call up the computer. I even have a login.

His eyes strayed to the coffee table where he'd left the little handheld device that Nagi had identified as a portable encyclopedia. "Just with more information and regular updates," Nagi had said. Yohji hadn't yet dared look too deeply into what it held. He knew he needed to know, but he was afraid of what he might find. Do I really want to know how thoroughly screwed we are? Four of us against-- What? And is it really the four of us now, or is it just me? I can't do anything alone but try not to drown.

Nagi-san has only been gone an hour, and he can't have left for Dimwei yet. He said afternoon, and it's still morning. Yohji ran his fingers through his hair. At least he was in a good mood when he left. I worked hard at that. He didn't want to think too hard about the sex which had started the day. He did enjoy it, though. I hope I start to, too. He also resolutely didn't examine his relief at the thought of five days with no sex.

Yohji was staring at the aquarium, not really seeing the fish inside, when Telat came into the apartment. She closed the door behind herself and gave him a little bow. "Kudoh-san, good morning," she said in Japanese.

He nodded to her. "Telat-san." At least we're in Japanese. I have a name in Japanese. In formal Taisken, he was known as Slave Telekinetic First Naoe. Empath Second Chekree called him Kudoh, but that was an intimacy Nagi would not allow Telat. Empath Second Chekree was different. Nagi-san doesn't resent her, for one thing. He wants me to spend time with her. Only while it's useful, I suppose, but still. "I just need to put on my shoes, and I'll be ready to go."

"I'm afraid your lesson has been delayed." Telat looked genuinely regretful. "Empath Second Chekree ate something yesterday that disagreed with her. She expects to be able to see you in a few hours, but she's not certain." Telat held up a device that looked nothing like the cell phone Nagi used. "She says she will call me when she's well."

"Oh." Yohji felt like he'd been denied a promised treat. That's an overreaction. Yes, it is, but I don't want to be alone in here more than I have to be. "I guess that's that. Please come back when-- No. I'd like to go to the gym now rather than waiting until after my lesson."

"As you wish." Telat had made several attempts to be friendly to Yohji, but he, bearing in mind Nagi's jealousy, had rebuffed them all. Now she no longer tried.

I could explain, but Nagi-san wouldn't like that. She might be too scared to be useful. Yohji knew whose survival mattered more to him when balancing her interests against his own. She'll just have to take her chances like everyone else.

Telat moved aside when Yohji came to the door after his shoes. She watched without comment as he pulled them on.

"If there's time, we'll come back here after so that I can shower." He had no idea whether Empath Second Chekree objected to the smell of sweat, but he saw no reason to be rude. And I'll feel better for a shower.

"I doubt she'll be ready before lunch, even if you don't eat until one," Telat said. "She sounded exhausted."

Yohji wondered how Telat could tell. The voice coming out of that box sounds the same no matter what. "Food poisoning will really take it out of you. I remember one time--" He cut himself off. She doesn't need to know that. It's too much like we're friends. He shook his head. "Well, I was sick as a dog for a few days." He stood up. "I'm ready to go."

Telat led the way to Crawford's gym. Yohji thought he might have been able to find it himself but was grateful he didn't have to. It's different, coming from this direction, but I recognize that mural and this cross corridor. There must be some system of marking corridors. Otherwise, everybody'd get lost.

Crawford's gym was a large, open room. There were weights and weight machines along the left wall and a treadmill, rowing machine and punching bag along the right wall. There was a storage room off to one side that Yohji wasn't allowed into on his own. It held weapons and assorted other equipment like balls and jump ropes.

When Yohji and Telat arrived, Crawford was on the treadmill, running. He had a towel draped over one shoulder, and, as they watched, he wiped his face with it. The treadmill faced the door, so he must have seen them come in, but he gave no sign of it.

"Why don't you wait outside?" Yohji suggested to Telat. "Go and get a coffee or something. I'll be a while, and there's no point in your hanging around." Go away. Give me the illusion of control. He glanced at Crawford. His presence will make sure I don't lose track of reality.

"Naoe-san wouldn't approve of my leaving you." Telat's face had a stubborn set.

Nagi-san also won't approve of you watching me. He wants that for himself. "I promise I won't leave without you," Yohji said. "I also promise I won't overdo." Nagi-san would be angry with me. "No one else is going to come in. I should be perfectly safe." Crawford's not crazy enough to alienate Nagi-san over me. I have the impression that he needs Nagi-san.

He could feel Telat's hesitation, and he really wanted her to go. He hesitated, searching for further words. Then he gave her a little emotional push, a bit of serenity and certainty of safety. He hoped he was being subtle enough that she wouldn't notice. I wouldn't dare do that with Nagi-san.

Telat frowned. Then her face smoothed out. "All right. I'll check back in half an hour. You still don't have any way to call me."

I ought to. Oh, well, I can't ask for anything like that until Nagi-san comes back. He made a shooing gesture. "Go. Relax. You can get back to babysitting me when I'm ready to leave."

Telat smiled at him and left.

Yohji went to the center of the open area and started to stretch. He did his best to ignore Crawford, but he could feel the man's eyes on him. I wonder what he thinks of me. We've gone a long way from that prison cell, and I don't think Crawford's in charge any more. He started with simple exercises-- touching his toes, jumping jacks, push ups and sit ups. He wanted to run and jump and hear his wire sing, but he didn't have his wire, and his body wasn't ready for a thorough workout.

How long is he going to run? I'd like to use the treadmill. Yohji glanced at Crawford and found that the man seemed to be slowing down. Oh, good. I wonder-- Does he use the treadmill first or last? Will I have to compete with him for the weights?

Over the next few minutes, Crawford slowed the treadmill until he was walking at a leisurely pace. Yohji paused in his exercises as Crawford stopped the machine. He watched as the other man got off the treadmill and picked up a bottle of water. Crawford drank deeply.

Wanting to use the treadmill while avoiding Crawford, Yohji kept an eye on the American as he went back to his own exercises. He'll go do something else soon.

But Crawford apparently had other ideas. He strolled over to where Yohji was working out. "Where's your water bottle, Kudoh?" he asked in Japanese.

I guess I am going to have to talk to him. "I don't have one," Yohji replied. "Nagi-san hasn't given me one." And it never occurred to me to ask. He straightened and turned to meet Crawford's eyes.

"Nagi can't think of everything." Crawford seemed to be studying Yohji.

Yohji couldn't pick up much in the way of emotions from Crawford and assumed that the other man must be shielding. At the very least, he ought to be feeling satisfied by his run. He returned Crawford's scrutiny. "He does have a lot on his mind." And he keeps getting distracted by his desire to fuck me. You set that up.

"He's going to be spending more and more time at court," Crawford said. "He needs to learn how to take his place there."

What does that have to do with water bottles? "I have no desire to interfere with that." Yohji thought he might as well give Crawford what he was after. At least, I think that's what he's after. "My safety depends on his."

Crawford nodded. The movement seemed absent rather than firm. "I don't See you at court, Kudoh."

I can hear the capital letter. "Do you see everything?"

"No." The word came reluctantly, and Crawford frowned. "But I do See Nagi at court. I need to. There are so many things that could go wrong."

"At some point, you have to trust him to cope on his own." Yohji considered resuming his exercises. But Crawford's probably one of the few people in this place I can talk to without worrying about how Nagi-san will react. The strength of his need to talk to someone-- anyone-- surprised him.

"My ability balances out our inexperience with the court." Crawford looked Yohji up and down. "You're looking better."

"That happens when nobody's beating me." Then again. He's an asshole. Do I really want to talk to him? Yes. Yes, I do. He might let something slip about the others. "Thank you for letting me use your gym."

Crawford waved a dismissive hand. "It's nothing. Nagi uses it all the time. Schuldig could, but he prefers the main gym. There are more opportunities to interact with people there, and he likes the pool."

"There's a pool?" Yohji stomped hard on his eagerness. He pushed his hair back from his face. "Never mind. I can't imagine I'll get to use it. Nagi-san doesn't like people looking at me." Me, in public, in a bathing suit, doesn't bear thinking about. I wonder what the Taisken wear when they swim?

Crawford made a noise that might have been agreement or might have been a query.

Yohji met Crawford's eyes. "Did you foresee where this would go? Back in the cell, I mean. This is a lot more complicated than what you originally proposed." He wondered why he didn't hate Crawford more.

"It was always possible," Crawford replied. "Nagi is emotionally volatile, and he was bored. I hadn't been able to get him interested in the day to day running of this base."

"He's out, working, every day."

"Now. Before, he was mostly studying and amusing himself. He's very solitary. I was worried about him."

Yohji suppressed a snort. He's not solitary. He's focused. "Did he have any reason to think his input would be welcome?"

Crawford pushed his glasses up his nose. "I never excluded him."

"I expect he was waiting for you to tell him what to do. Guess what? He's not waiting any more."

"I know. It's very exciting." Crawford didn't sound excited. "I'd be happier if you weren't complicating things."

So let me go. Yohji knew better than to say that out loud. That would cause a breach between them that nothing could heal. He rubbed his right hand against the bracer on his left arm.

Crawford leaned in close to Yohji. "Just what do you want, Kudoh? You're in a position many would kill for."

Yohji refused to give ground. "I want what I've always wanted." I want to survive. I want the others to be free. "You seemed to understand what that was back in the cell."

Crawford stepped back and raised his eyebrows. "No ambition? Nagi will have great power once he's of age, particularly once we conquer Earth. You could do rather well out of it."

And all I have to do is survive the uncertain temper and isolation and-- No. Those aren't reasons Crawford will understand. "The High Lord said something of the sort. I was paying attention." I'm trapped. By you. He glared at Crawford. "Not everyone wants power." Could I survive decades of this? Not and be the man I am now. The man who's slipping away from me, hour by hour. I'd survive in body. Is that enough to satisfy Omi? Is that enough to satisfy me? "I'm not ready to give up hope."

"No, I suppose not." Crawford studied Yohji's face. "I had reasons, fairly good ones, for throwing you and Nagi together."

Yohji thought Crawford sounded like he was trying to convince himself. "Will you still think that when Nagi-san kills someone you need because they looked at me wrong?" I shouldn't have said that.

Crawford's expression sharpened. "You expect him to do that?"

Yohji nodded. "I fear it. He hates the woman he's got babysitting me. He thinks I might get attached." He looked at the floor then back up again. "I'm not that stupid." He extended then bent his fingers. "He told me once to kill her."

"I had hoped-- I don't See any futures in which he does kill someone, at least not without reason."

This would be with reason, Crawford, just with a stupid reason. And what about me killing someone? Have you seen that? "It may just be that he's not going to kill anyone who matters to your plans."

Crawford smiled. "That's acceptable."

"Just what are your plans?" Yohji knew he was taking a risk asking, but he felt he needed to know.

"To conquer Earth for the High Lord. He's the best we're going to get. If Earth fights him off, the next one will be worse, much worse. Once we have Earth, ideally, Nagi will be Viceroy."

"With you to advise him." Yohji felt like he'd bitten unexpectedly into a lemon. No wonder you want to know my intentions.

"You think you'd do better?"

Yohji thought Crawford was trying to loom. He smiled. You're nothing after Nagi-san. He's scary. You're... not. "I would never hand over someone helpless to be raped and beaten." The words came out hard and cold, like little hailstones. "I remember that people are human."

"I keep the big picture in mind, Kudoh. Individuals mostly don't matter. Besides, it hasn't done you any real damage."

Yohji felt himself start to shake with rage. "No damage? Really?" If I knew what I was doing, I could show him no 'real damage!' "And just how does me being raped fit into the 'big picture?'" If I try to hit him, he'll see it coming. But he couldn't help thinking of how satisfying bruising his knuckles on Crawford's jaw would be. "I suppose I see why you don't want me armed." He raised his chin and stepped forward, daring Crawford to touch him. I'm not sure Nagi-san would forgive even you. Not for a long time.

Crawford must have agreed because he stepped backward.

Yohji took another step forward. He balled up his fists, and, before he even thought about it, his fist was on its way toward Crawford's chin. He felt a jolt of surprise when he felt flesh meet flesh. Crawford's jaw made a satisfying crunch under his fist. That'll leave a bruise. Good.

Crawford's head snapped back, and he staggered back three steps before straightening. He made no move to strike back. Instead, he rubbed his jaw and glared at Yohji. "You can manage that once," he said. "I'm not going to let it happen again."

Did you let it happen this time or did I really surprise you? Yohji was breathing hard. His fists were still clenched. No. As much as I'd enjoy beating the crap out of him-- if I could-- Nagi-san needs him, and that means I need him. He let his hands fall and turned away.

Yohji could hear Crawford moving behind him. He wondered if he should turn, if Crawford was about to retaliate. Nagi-san might not object to Crawford hitting me after I hit him first. He tensed, waiting for a blow to fall.

Nothing happened.

"I believe I have a spare water bottle that I can lend you until Nagi gets back," Crawford said, for all the world as if Yohji hadn't hit him. "I can spare the time to go get it now if you'd like."

So we're pretending it didn't happen. Yohji turned back. He couldn't force himself to smile. "A water bottle would be helpful." Be damned if I thank him.

"I'll go get it then. When I return, I'll be wanting to use the weights." Crawford took a swallow from his own bottle and turned toward the door.

Yohji watched him go and debated going over to the weights himself, just out of spite. Then he shrugged and walked to the treadmill. No running. I'm not up to that. I'll walk until I'm tired. That'll take a while.

By the time Crawford returned, Yohji had found a rhythm. He was walking quickly and evenly.

Crawford carried two water bottles. He put one down next to the treadmill. "I filled it up for you."

"Thank you," Yohji said grudgingly. He studied Crawford's face, trying to see if there was a bruise coming. I'd like to think I left a mark. "Why did you let me hit you?" I'm not sure I want the answer.

"We're going to run into each other repeatedly," Crawford said. "I'm hoping you won't feel the need to keep hitting me."

I can't hit Nagi-san. No. I don't want to hit Nagi-san. I want to hit someone. "I think I can restrain myself." Yohji tried to put some humor into his voice. He thought it sounded forced, but it was better than snarling at the man. He's right. We're going to keep running into each other. And I can talk to him without setting Nagi-san off. Probably. "Hitting you doesn't change anything."

"No." Crawford pushed up his glasses. "What are you going to do while Nagi's gone?"

"Nothing interesting." Yohji closed his eyes for a second. Crawford was still there when he opened them again, still looking at him like he expected an answer. "Why does it matter to you?"

"You have freedom of the base," Crawford answered dryly. "Forgive me if that doesn't thrill me."

"What on earth do you think I can do?" Yohji amused himself by picturing a big red button that would cause the base to self destruct. Only in cartoons. "I'm not stupid enough to try sabotage." Or not smart enough. I wouldn't know where it would really hurt. And I'd get caught. He suppressed a shudder.

"All I know about you, Kudoh, is what Kritiker told me. I don't think that's sufficient any longer."

Oh, hell. Give him something. It can't hurt. It's not like I'm planning anything. Yohji shrugged. "More of this. Empathy training. Some reading. If I can manage not to get lost, I'm going to explore." He met Crawford's eyes, challenging. "I need to know my way around. I can't rely on having someone to lead me everywhere."

"Nagi does have other plans for your babysitter, eventually."

Plans? What plans? Yohji suppressed a shudder. "He doesn't like me spending time with her." He doesn't trust me. No. He wants to be my everything.

Crawford tilted his head to one side, keeping his eyes on Yohji. "Is that true of everyone you spend time with?"

"It's not true of Empath Second Chekree," Yohji admitted. "It was true of Ken." He managed to keep his tone level. "I suspect that it wouldn't be true of you. At least not if you're careful." And I'm desperate enough to talk to you. I need to talk to someone. "The problem seems to exist independent of what I do." That's not entirely true.

"Do you think Nagi will... How to put it? Will his focus ease? Since you came along, he's been paying more attention to my plans. That's a very good thing. I don't want to lose that, but I don't like seeing him obsessed."

You wouldn't object so much if he were obsessed with someone you picked out. But I forget-- You picked me. "I hope you're not asking me to change the situation. My life depends on keeping his attention. I doubt you'd protect me from Schuldig." Or from anyone else. Most people are curious about me, but some of them hate me. Why am I worth hating? He tried to meet Crawford's eyes, but the other man was looking over Yohji's shoulder. Maybe-- That night-- Nagi-san said people died because of me. That might do it.

"I might be persuaded to exert my influence over Schuldig."

Yohji pushed the button to slow the treadmill. This'll be easier if I'm not moving so fast. "What do you want? I'm not going to fuck around with going back and forth without saying anything."

"Nagi's taking an interest in the invasion. He's taking an interest in the politics of the High Lord's court. Encourage that. Reward him for working at what needs to be done."

Yohji slowed the treadmill again. "I don't approve of the invasion." But I'll probably do it. I like staying alive.

"The invasion is inevitable," Crawford said. "There are many worse High Lords, and the next one to find Earth would not be so easy to work with. I Saw it." He looked over Yohji's head, and Yohji thought he was seeing something other than the wall. "I don't think you can imagine how bad it would be."

Yohji stopped the treadmill. So you say. Why should I believe you? He bent, picked up the water bottle and drank. When he finished, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "You might be surprised." Do I even care? What does it matter who rules Earth? It's what happens to Weiss that matters, and we're all here.

"I suppose I might. Estet thought that the visions of disaster that their people were having came from the rule of their demonic master. I knew better. That was merely a sideshow. Oh, it would have been bad. It just wouldn't have stopped the Taisken coming. They would have destroyed Earth in putting down Estet's lord. The Taisken don't believe in demons, but they do believe in obliterating powers that might challenge their own."

I'm not sure I believe in demons, either. Why are you telling me this? Yohji simply looked at Crawford.

"I believe in being on the winning side," Crawford said firmly.

Yohji let the silence stretch. Then, at last, he nodded. "I can see the appeal." I'm tired of losing. "What makes you think Estet won't fight back with demons?"

Crawford flicked his fingers dismissively. "Estet will spend years trying to rebuild. We gutted the organization. There were a lot of important people at the summoning. They all wanted to be first to pledge their loyalty."

"I remember. I was there." Yohji considered Crawford's words. He had his doubts, but he supposed Crawford knew more about Estet than he did. "If Estet can do it, other people can." He wasn't sure why he was talking to Crawford at all.

"If all goes well, the invasion will be gradual. There will be fighting, in the end, but we'll have people in key positions almost everywhere."

Yohji blinked. "How many years are you talking about?"

"I doubt we'll take more than a decade or two." Crawford shrugged. "We've got time. The High Lord doesn't see time the way the rest of us do. He's effectively immortal, after all. The rest of us will live a lot longer here than we would have on Earth. It wouldn't surprise me if Nagi lives two or three hundred years." His expression sharpened. "Play your cards right, and you can share in his longevity. Assuming he doesn't get bored with you."

How kind, Crawford, to remind me of how very precarious my position is. What makes you think centuries of this have any appeal? "What do you want Nagi-san doing with this invasion? I can't picture him infiltrating anything." At the forefront of a battle, yes, but not infiltrating.

"I can't make all the day to day decisions. Nagi can't either. We need to find people we can trust to manage agents. Nagi could be useful there. We need people actually from Earth. We have some, but they're not the sort we could most use."

Oh. "Kritiker." Yohji tried to wash away the sudden heaviness in his chest with more water.

Crawford nodded. "Among others. It has allies and connections going much farther than you know. We'll have to manage them carefully, at least at first, but they have the reach to be quite useful."

How can you trust them worth a damn? They sold us. They'll sell anybody. No. Forget Kritiker. "If I'm going to help you, I want something." Yohji licked his lips. "I may want more than one something."

"That depends on what you deliver." Crawford looked distant.

"Omi. Nagi-san told me he's... not well. I want help for him. Real help. Not Schuldig."

"Tsukiyono has come out of his catatonic state. Being with Fujimiya has helped him. I doubt he's happy about the situation, but he's as well as we can make him."

Yohji concealed his elation with another sip of water. "Physical therapy, then. Some form of exercise. For Ken and Ran, too. There's nowhere for any of them to run to. You know that. Let them see the sun."

"Do you really think you have enough to offer me to buy that?" Crawford raised his eyebrows.

"Apart from keeping Schuldig off my back, that's all I want. I don't give a damn about your invasion." Though I am not fucking with the High Lord. "There's nobody back on Earth that I particularly care about, so that part of it leaves me cold."

"I will consider your request." Crawford started to walk away. Almost immediately, he turned back and said, "I expected you to ask for a weapon."

Yes. I should have asked for that. Yohji rubbed his wrist and felt the yielding material of the bracer. "I can't wear my watch with these." He held up his arms. Though Nagi-san said these have space for a wire.  "And Nagi-san already told me you said no." I would feel better if I had something. Anything.

Crawford pushed his glasses up. "I'm not inclined to make it easier for you to kill."

Yohji's eyes narrowed. He knows something. He's seen something. Does he think I can't improvise? "I'm going to eventually. Nagi-san wants me to." He took a swallow from his water bottle. "Don't worry, unless he's with me, I'll only kill in self defense."

Crawford raised his eyebrows. "So it's when Nagi is with you that I really need to worry? How reassuring."

Yohji shrugged. "You set this up. Very carefully, too. I have no sympathy if it's gotten away from you."

"I need none of your sympathy." Crawford's lips twisted.

"Good." Yohji ran his fingers through his hair. He hadn't worked hard enough yet to really sweat. More time on the treadmill, I think, then some katas. I'd like the weights, but he's going to be using them. "By the way, Crawford-san." Yohji let his voice go cold. "You lied to me. He lied to me, too, but you--" He set his teeth, unwilling to go on.

"Did I?" Crawford looked no more than mildly interested.

Yohji clenched his free hand. The hand holding the water bottle tightened. "Nagi-san said he won't be of age for four years. Omi can't be more than two years older than he is."

"True." Crawford nodded. He still looked completely composed.

"I've been looking at the-- the encyclopedia sort of thing that Nagi-san gave me last night. You lied to me. You couldn't have used Omi instead of me." Yohji raised his chin. "You couldn't have Nagi-san rape Omi, not for another two years."

Crawford shrugged with one shoulder. "So we lied. You never mistook us for anything but what we are. You should have expected us to lie to you."

Yohji couldn't see anything but Crawford's face. If the distance between them hadn't been so great, he'd have tried to hit him again. Smashing that smug look off his face would be so damn satisfying! "Why?" He was proud that the word came out in a conversational tone. "What did you get out of lying to me?"

Crawford took a step toward Yohji then appeared to think better of it and stopped. "We needed your consent, your cooperation."

"My consent?" Yohji couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice. "Like that was consent? It was just as much as if you'd beaten me until I couldn't stop you. Oh, I forgot-- He did that, too." He felt himself shrinking at the memory. The energy of rage was hard to sustain. "I don't see that my 'cooperation' did anything useful."

"If Nagi'd had to smash your resistance every time, he'd have killed you. I don't think it would have been an easy death."

Yohji couldn't help thinking back to those first encounters. I didn't-- don't-- want to die. "You didn't have to threaten Omi. Everything you got, you could have gotten without that."

"What about Fujimiya?"

Yohji felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. Yes. What about Ran? Because it was Omi, he understood. Sort of. He wouldn't understand where I am now.

"If I accede to your demands and let him out of his apartment-- his very comfortable apartment-- you're bound to run into him." Crawford's smile was sharp enough to cut glass. "Do you think you can explain things to him? Will he understand those?" Crawford waved at Yohji's arms.

Yohji raised his chin. "Ran doesn't have to understand." But he won't, and I can't explain it because I don't dare talk to him. Which he'll see as confirmation that I've sold out. "I want what I want." Omi will understand. He can keep Ran in check. But he's only just awake. Will he be able to process it all?

"I have no desire to see Nagi kill my brother-in-law."

Liar. You can't stand Ran. "Nagi-san has promised me that he won't hurt them." Though all bets are off if he gets jealous. Yohji rubbed his left wrist and missed the presence of his wire.

"You're likely to be disappointed." Crawford turned away again.

This time, Yohji let him go.


Empath Second Chekree called for Yohji in the late afternoon. He'd waited, alone, in the apartment after returning from the gym. The idea of wandering the complex, trying to learn his way around, was attractive, but he didn't want to risk missing his appointment with his empathy teacher.

Empath Second Chekree waited for him in the shielded practice room. She always seemed to be in the same place exactly.

As if she doesn't move between sessions. But she has to, right? She can't be living in here. Yohji bowed to her and waited for her to dismiss Telat.

After Telat had gone, Empath Second Chekree said, "Today, we start learning shielding. You'll be deaf, in terms of your empathy, for two or three days while you learn to hold your shields."

Yohji sat down. He'd learned the hard way that Empath Second Chekree wouldn't invite him to sit. If he waited, he'd be standing through the entire session. "That sounds dangerous."

"Not nearly as dangerous as not learning to shield." She made the sound that he'd come to realize was her laughter. "We have a small window for this, so you must learn quickly. You must be proficient by the time Telekinetic First Naoe returns."

No empathy with Nagi-san is dangerous. He couldn't quite suppress a shudder. "It's awfully convenient, him being called away." Not that I'm saying it was deliberate. I doubt I'm important enough for that.

"Convenient, yes." She waved an arm. "It was bound to happen. He needs to spend more time at court so that he can learn the politics. The timing was simply serendipitous."

I can use the time to think, too. I desperately need some distance from... all of this. I'm getting lost in keeping him happy. Yohji nodded. "What do I do?"

"We've already covered telling what is you from what isn't. It's simply a matter of excluding everything that isn't you."

He rubbed his left wrist, looking for the reassurance of his watch. Its absence cut him. That sounds easy. Except it isn't. Even just knowing what's not me isn't easy. "How do I do that?"

"Most commonly, people define a space that is them and build a barrier around it. We've talked a little about keeping your emotions where they belong. This relates."

Yohji bit his lip. And I'm not very good at keeping my emotions in. I... leak. He tried to visualize himself then decided that seeing wasn't the way to approach it. He closed his eyes and thought about where he was, toes to scalp, fingers to collarbone. He could feel every bit of himself. A barrier... What sort of barrier? He didn't want something awkward or difficult to move around in. Even if it is all in my head.

He considered. I need to breathe and see and hear and touch. He pulled his nascent barrier in so that it barely extended past his skin. A field, like what Nagi-san does when he doesn't want anything touching him. Just not physical. He opened his eyes, and his mental feel for himself and his barrier wavered. He suspect that any push against him would shatter the whole thing. No. It would give like gelatin and smush and fall apart.

He wasn't altogether surprised when the first push came. He tried to force his shield into rigidity to repel the invasion, but that just seemed to weaken other areas. He gasped as Empath Second Chekree's projection swamped him.

"Let me try again," he said when he could speak.

"That is the point."

This time, Yohji tried to picture himself and his barrier as rubbery, yielding but not breaking or allowing penetration. My self is only kind of congruent with my body. At least, it can shift if it needs to.

When the push came this time, Yohji felt himself bend. It feels like it's my right arm she's pushing. Shouldn't I feel it in my head? He could sense the probe of Empath Second Chekree's projection, but he wasn't experiencing the emotion she was projecting. Part of him wanted to know what she was sending, but he held fast to his image of himself. The push shifted so that he felt it in a different part of his body. "That kind of tickles," he said.

The emotional projection stopped. "Very good," said Empath Second Chekree. "I didn't expect you to get it so quickly. How long do you think you can hold it?"

"I don't know." Yohji's mental image of himself was wavering. "I don't think I can do anything else at the same time. Even just talking--" He lost the sense of himself and shook his head to clear it.

"That will be the next step, then-- Maintaining the shield while talking. Once you can manage that, we will leave this room and walk around. Gradually, you'll do more while you shield until you can manage anything physical." Empath Second Chekree touched Yohji on the arm as if to recall wandering attention. "Recommence."

Yohji took a deep breath and imagined his self congruent with his body. His fingertips tingled. He looked at Empath Second Chekree and said, "What am I supposed to talk about?"

She tapped her face. "Let's see... Tell me about your world, about what you did there before you came here."

"Don't you know all of that?" He thought that might hurt too much to bear.

"I know that your planet exists. I know that you are Telekinetic First Naoe's slave. I know that you are a projective empath. Beyond that, I haven't needed to inquire."

Yohji's hand twitched, and he wished for a cigarette. If I'm going to talk, I'd be better for a smoke. "Well... I was a florist, someone who works with cut flowers and plants to make pretty things." Holding his shield while talking was a lot like trying to talk while sparring. "Men would buy flowers from us to give to their girlfriends or wives or mothers." He felt a gentle pressure on his shield. "Girls would buy flowers from us just to have something pretty around. People who were planning big occasions-- weddings, dinners honoring retirees, funerals, that sort of thing-- would have us make arrangements to put on the tables." The pressure increased steadily, and he stopped talking to focus on keeping his shield intact.

"Aesthetics," Empath Second Chekree said. "Those get complicated. I'd be curious to see your work. What was your area of expertise?"

"I did... funeral arrangements." He hesitated, more than a little afraid. I'm not telling her about the other job. Even among the Taisken, murder is a terrible crime. She'd be shocked, appalled, repelled. She might stop teaching me. His sense of himself quivered, and he thought he might be leaking his emotions. He swallowed hard and focused on maintaining his shields.

Empath Second Chekree made a noise that didn't translate. She tapped Yohji on the arm. "Focus, Kudoh."

He took a deep breath. "Funerals seemed appropriate. People I care about tend to die."

"A misfortune."

There was a sudden, hard jab at Yohji's shield. He flinched and pushed back.

"No." Empath Second Chekree rapped him on the arm. "Shield only. We get to offensive techniques after you can protect yourself."

Yohji gulped, nodded and closed his eyes. I can do this. I have to do this. What was I talking about? Oh. "Flowers are fade and die so quickly. We had to work fast, and we always knew that what we made wouldn't last." He hesitated. Talking about flowers was harder than he'd expected. Nobody's ever really been interested before. "I'm curious about the flowers on the High Lord's worlds." And other worlds. How odd to think of more than one world!

"My people mostly view flowers as food. There are some that are beautiful and not edible, but they're judged aesthetically inferior." She tapped on his shield, here and there. "Flower arrangement is a culinary art form for us."

"I'd be curious to learn more about that." Yohji closed his eyes as he tried to focus on keeping both his shields and the conversation going. "I don't know which of the flowers I worked with would be edible for you. I don't even know which ones are edible by humans." He cast about for something further to say. "Women wear floral scents as perfumes frequently. They think it makes them more attractive."

"Interesting." She left off the tapping and stabbed at the heart of his shielded self, breaking through.

Yohji flinched. If he'd been standing, he'd have fallen. As it was, he simply gripped the chair and forced himself to stay upright.

"I do wonder, though, what florists might have done to come to the attention of a man like Precognitive Second Crawford. He seems unlikely to value aesthetics, particularly ephemeral ones."

Yohji fidgeted in his seat. I should have known she'd see that. "I suppose he noticed us because of Aya. Her brother worked with me."

"And he kidnapped all four of you for that? Permit me to doubt. He had a reason to take all of you, or he'd simply have taken his brother-in-law and Potential Hidaka."

Yohji felt his shields waver. They quivered and started to melt. Potential Hidaka? Ken, what does Crawford want from you? He realized with some guilt that he hadn't really thought through the implications of Ken's visit to Nagi's apartment. They need something from you. What? It must be big to merit the 'Potential' title. Do I dare ask? I don't dare not, and Nagi-san won't tell me. "Potential Hidaka?"

"Focus." Empath Second Chekree rapped Yohji's arm again. "Potential Hidaka might become a first tier precognitive. He has promised to swear to the High Lord if he survives."

Yohji's shielding fell away altogether. Ken! He knew he was projecting, but he couldn't seem to stop himself.

"Kudoh! Control yourself!"

Yohji twisted in his chair then took a deep breath. "Ken's being practical," he said, exhaling slowly. I can keep this in. I can.

Empath Second Chekree made the movement that Yohji'd come to recognize as her shrug. "His odds are not good, but the High Lord believes he will succeed, and, on such matters, the High Lord is seldom wrong."

Yohji closed his eyes and focused on keeping his fear for Ken, tangled as it was with his fear for himself, with his fear for all of them, inside. But this is the sort of information I was hoping I'd get from her. She knows more than I do about what's going on.

"I still doubt," she said, "that Precognitive Second Crawford would have abducted two extra 'florists.' I doubt, too, that four young men working together in such a job would care quite so much about each other as the four of you do. This sort of bond comes with shared danger or prolonged contact. You're not old enough for it to be prolonged contact. Unless-- Are you lovers?"

Yohji's rejection of that idea broke his control again. "No!" Nagi-san would kill them!

"Shield. You need to be able to hold that no matter what." Empath Second Chekree twitched her forelimbs. "What is it that ties you together so strongly?"

Yohji set his jaw and carefully reconstructed his shield. The hell with it. "We killed together," he admitted. "We hunted down those the law couldn't touch and made sure their crimes ended." He studied Empath Second Chekree, wondering what she made of this. I'm a murderer many times over. I make no apologies. Damn! I wish I could read her. "I used a wire to strangle people. The others all had their own particular weapons."

"Such a weapon would be ineffective against me," Empath Second Chekree observed without apparent emotion. She pushed hard against Yohji's defenses.

When that attack bounced back, there was a pause, a lull. Then Yohji felt an almost smothering pressure. It wasn't immediately heavy, but it pressed in from all directions, creeping over his body, seeking out weak points.

"Keep talking."

"The organization we worked for-- Kritiker-- called the criminals 'dark beasts,' and they were. Killers and... drug manufacturers... and kidnappers... and evil. I know evil." Yohji couldn't stop a full body twitch as he tried to cope with being touched everywhere at once. "Selling children. Selling women. Setting desperate men to killing each other." Does she believe me? Why isn't she appalled? Maybe she is, and she's just not saying so. Is that what she's projecting at me?

"You'll have to overcome this physical reaction to having your shields tested. You look like you have a seizure disorder."

"Cut me some slack," Yohji protested. Though why I'd expect it when she never does... "I've never done this before."

"Hm. Did you find your work satisfying?"

"Which work? Day job or night job?"

"Either. Both. They seem very different."

"The flowers were okay. We all liked them fairly well. There weren't any-- Well, I suppose that's not accurate. It's just that flower emergencies aren't life or death. Flowers mean something to people, but it's all good. Even for funerals, flowers are a good thing." He struggled to think of something further to say about flowers. I never really gave them my full attention. He rubbed a hand along the side of his face, trying to erase an itch that came purely from his shields.

"And the night job?"

"It was a job. After a while, you stop paying a lot of attention. It's all routine. I mean, it's life and death, but you've done it all before. One death is very like another. And it never seemed to make a lot of difference. There were always more creeps ready to replace the old ones." Yohji wasn't even certain what he was saying.

"You're doing well," Empath Second Chekree said. "Let us continue. What did you do with your time when you weren't working?"


Back in the apartment, Yohji tried to relax. He kept having to re-establish his shields, and he almost gave up on them. There's nothing in here to shield against. But Empath Second Chekree had been adamant that he learn to keep his shields up constantly.

"Make it a habit," she had said, "and they'll even stay up when you're asleep. You're very vulnerable then."

He had dinner and took a long bath. He spent a lot of time following connections in the encyclopedia Nagi had given him. It was a small device, about the size of Yohji's fist. It responded to voice commands and projected an image of text into the air. Each article linked to dozens more, and it was easy to get lost in the names and facts. I have no idea what's important. Some articles, like the one about the High Lord, were so full of propaganda as to be effectively useless. I need to know whether or not I can trust his word, not where he was born or who his favorite poet is.

When he couldn't stand the encyclopedia any more, he looked through Nagi's movies and books. There were a lot of movies, and he knew that Nagi hadn't watched all of them. Does he just buy every action movie? Some of them aren't even in Japanese. How many languages does he know? He squinted at the text on one case as if that would make the words make sense. The books interested him less, but he suspected they said more about who Nagi was. Non-fiction, adventure stories. Explorers, anthropologists and the like. And he's interested in history, our history. He found Kon Tiki among the books but couldn't bring himself to touch it.

Too many memories. Too close to Schuldig. He took a deep breath and rubbed his hands against his legs. Not that it would have mattered if I was somewhere else in the cell right then. No. Think about something else. Just thinking about Schuldig made his shields harden and crack. He took a minute to smooth them out, make them resilient again. He swallowed hard, trying to ease his sudden nausea. I'll have to face him eventually. Nagi-san misses him.

He considered trying to get into the computer system. Nagi had shown him the terminal and how to call it forth from the table and how to dismiss it again. Yohji just wasn't sure what he could do with the computer. I don't suppose there are games on there. Maps. There must be a map of the base. I could memorize it. That would help.

He put down the book he was holding and went over to the table where the computer was hidden. He stood looking at it for a long moment. He clenched his hands, trying to tell himself that they weren't shaking. There was a tiny pad recessed into the edge of the table. Yohji pressed his thumb against it, and the computer assembled itself in front of him. Let's see if this really works. He lifted the machine from the table, carried it to the couch and sat down.

That's the power on button, I think. He took a deep breath and released it slowly. His heart was beating fast. What happens if I break it? I won't. I won't. No, it's just a thing. He'd just replace it. And I won't break it. He pressed the button and waited.

The computer whirred to life. It took no more than five seconds before there was a little blinking light asking for Yohji's login. Yohji hesitated, trying to find the right keys. Not that they're quite keys. That one there. And that one. He wasn't a touch typist on a normal keyboard, and nothing here was where he expected it to be. His fingers felt clumsy, and he wondered if he should stop to do some finger exercises. No. That's just putting it off. There!

After logging in, he stared at the screen, unsure what to do next. Nagi-san said I could explore. He spread his fingers and rested them gently against the screen. The cursor shifted, bouncing from finger to finger. He snatched back his hand. Right. Don't do that. He was looking at a text menu. Music? That's possible. But it's probably all weird. Games? I didn't expect that. It would fill some time, but they're not exactly useful. Forums? He tapped the screen over the word. A new menu appeared, a list of discussion categories. They were broad, things like 'music' and 'fiction' and 'Earth customs.'

He tapped on Earth customs. A list of countries came up. He deliberately ignored Japan, tapping instead on United States. Holidays. Curses and slang. Food. Different regions. Popular culture. He wandered through the categories and started reading discussions about swearing in American English. After a few minutes, he backed out of that and looked at holidays. Halloween and Thanksgiving both had a lot of discussion. He followed some threads through then backed out of the section on Earth customs. That's not telling me anything useful.

He sat back and rubbed his face. There's so much here, and most of it is useless. It won't tell me where the guys are or how to get us all out of here. He doubted that he had access to anything that would tell him the things he really wanted to know. But, if I am stuck here, this is all good stuff to know. He swallowed hard then inhaled through his nose. And I don't see a way out. He felt himself shaking and was glad there was no one to see. Nagi-san wouldn't like that. Anyway, just because I can't see a way out now doesn't mean there isn't a one.

He stood up and walked over to the aquarium. He stared at the fish for a long time. "I need to talk to someone," he told the fish. "But there isn't anyone. Even if I could drink, there's nobody I could take out for a drink and no bar-- Well, maybe there is one. People need things like that, and this place is pretty big. But even if I found a bar, I wouldn't dare go there. Nagi-san wouldn't like it."

He glanced at the clock. It wasn't even nine o'clock yet, and he didn't feel tired. He was tempted to go to bed anyway. At least sleep makes sense. He addressed the fish again. "I've got time to think. I ought to use it. It's just dangerous." He took a deep breath and released it slowly. He glanced back at the computer. "I wanted to find maps. They must be in there somewhere." He nodded firmly. "I'll do that and then go to bed. I wish I could print the maps out. There must be a way to do that. He just didn't tell me. Maybe Telat can explain it."

He closed his eyes for a moment then went into the kitchen for a glass of water. When he came back, he sat down by the computer again. He clenched his hands then flicked his fingers out, stretching them as far as they could go. "That's right. Let's do this."

Back to Index.
Back to Part 22.
On to Part 24.

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