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Back to Part 7.
On to Part 9.

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: Yaoi. Swearing. References to past child sexual abuse. Nonconsensual sex. Bondage. Although I'm setting this a couple of years past the main series, Nagi's age combined with his actions may squick some people. Also, I'm ignoring Gluhen 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
Last updated: 18 August 2003

Thanks to Amy the Evitable, Briar Rose and Yochan for beta reading this chapter. Thanks also to Amy the Evitable for encouraging me to keep writing and assuring me that it all could and did work.


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 8

Schuldig strolled along the corridors, feeling more pleased with himself than he'd been in a while. Give Fujimiya another day or so to stew, and he'll watch those tapes. Just the right pushes at the right times, and I'll be done. Then I can get the hell out of this pit. He maintained a smiling façade, but very little he saw interested him. I hate this place. Everything's all closed in. There's nowhere to really let loose. A frown almost escaped him as he passed two women chatting. And everybody knows what I can do, and half of 'em can block me when I'm being casual. And when I do get in and things get... interesting... He sighed. Then everybody knows who to blame. He kicked at a tiny cleaning robot that was wiping up a spill.

The force of the kick propelled the robot a couple of meters along the corridor. As soon as it landed, it began rapid progress back toward its starting point. Schuldig kicked it again. Boring. Well, Crawford will give me someone to play with if I bitch enough. The robot scuttled back toward Schuldig. He snorted and stepped aside. No challenge in it.

Schuldig sauntered on. He started whistling, deliberately off-key, just to enjoy the occasional winces from passersby. I wonder if the kid's playing with Kudoh again... Might be worth a look. He changed direction. He reached out mentally. Let's see. Kudoh's mind's pretty easy to penetrate. Yes. There. He stopped, startled by what he found. There's no thought there to speak of. He's awake, but... Schuldig groped for coherent words, images or sensations to tell him what Kudoh was doing. Water on skin... Probably showering. "I won! For once--" Not good. Not at all. Is the kid there? Schuldig attempted to turn his attention to finding Nagi but found his mind caught by Kudoh's.

Fuck! He stumbled backwards, moving physically to echo the mental effort required to break free. What the hell? That hasn't happened since-- Not now. Fascinated, he poked tentatively at Kudoh's mind. I have to investigate this. First, get closer physically. The observation room, I think, and see what the hell he's doing. He doesn't feel quite the same. Headblind and not... I wonder if Crawford knows?

Schuldig started walking again, only half his attention on his physical surroundings. What a whirlwind! I have to find a way in. There's something interesting going on in there. His expression sharpened, and a genuine smile spread across his face. More than there is out here, anyway.

His forward progress met a sudden interruption as someone barreled into him. "Hey!" Schuldig grabbed at the offender's shoulder only to have his hand slip aside. He turned as the figure moved past him. "Nagi?" :Kid? What's wrong?: Don't think you can get away with ignoring me!

Nagi simply kept moving as if he hadn't noticed either Schuldig's words or the collision itself. Schuldig made another grab for Nagi and again couldn't connect. Shielding. He's shielding telekinetically-- And I think he's crying. What the hell? He reached out mentally and encountered a storm. He flinched, physically retreating from what he encountered. Anger. Self loathing. A cycle of thoughts he can't-- won't-- get out of. Hell. Last time he got like this, he pulled a building down on top of us, but that was directed outward. This--

He stared at Nagi's back. Shit. The kid's going to hurt himself-- Schuldig turned and started after Nagi. :Crawford!: That bastard damn well better be listening. This is his damn fault. Him and-- Schuldig's eyes narrowed. Kudoh. I'm going to kill the son of a bitch. Maybe take a couple of years doing it.

Nagi didn't really see anything as he made his way toward the garden. More than anything else, he craved the oblivion he knew he could find there. I'm not-- I didn't-- No! I thought-- He-- No! He felt his power coiling around his body, pressing in on him, tangling in his emotions. I've become him...

As he stepped out among the bushes, Nagi felt a little of his pain drain away. Yes. This is where I need to be. I won't have to think-- He stretched himself mentally, trying to reach as far as he could. Peace.

"If you do that now, you won't come back."

Nagi tried to block out the words as he'd blocked out everything since he'd left Yohji's cell. I don't want to deal with this.

Crawford stepped in front of Nagi. "Look at me!"

Nagi turned his head away. Go away, Crawford.

"Nagi." Crawford managed to turn Nagi's name into a command without raising his voice.

Years of habit prompted Nagi to meet Crawford's eyes. "Leave me alone, Crawford. I don't want to talk."

"Too bad. I'm not letting you wreck things with a temper tantrum."

Sudden anger sparked through Nagi's despair. "Wreck things? Your fucking plans? Thinking you're infallible just makes your fuck-ups bigger." Nagi clenched a hand and was pleased to see Crawford flinch. "What's wrong? Can't see me coming?"

"You didn't bind him this time, did you?" Crawford adjusted his glasses. "I gave you that order for a reason."

Nagi laughed, a wild sound that vaguely frightened him. I'm right on the edge of losing control. Would that be such a bad thing? "What does that have to do with anything? It's the orders I obeyed that are the problem." If I go, I'm taking you with me, Crawford.

Crawford smiled slightly. "Guilt? Is that what this is about? I didn't expect it this soon. Kudoh must be very talented."

This time Nagi did lash out with his power, knocking Crawford to the ground. I want to see some stains on that suit. I want to see it reflect reality. "It's your guilt, too. More yours. You made me." Made me carefully, each lesson, each test, each trauma. "I despise you. I'd have left a long time ago if I'd seen any other options."

Crawford laughed. "Would you choose to be otherwise?" It sounded forced, but Nagi scowled in response. "You still need me, Nagi. You don't even know what's hit you. Stop being an idiot and think!"

He makes it sound like another lesson, one I'm being slow picking up. Damn him! Nagi snarled wordlessly and looked around. There-- He pushed one hand outward, toward a small paved courtyard. The pavement buckled, and benches shattered. He took a step forward and spread his fingers wide. The broken pieces flew into the air. He clenched his hand in a fist. The debris spiraled in together, crashed and crumpled. Not enough. Not nearly enough. Dust sifted down as pieces of pavement pulverized each other, trying to occupy the same space at the same time. After a moment, he lowered his arm and allowed the remaining fragments to fall to the ground. He turned back toward Crawford. "The next time we play games like this, Crawford, I'll do that to something you care about. I know you better than you think."

Crawford had risen to his feet and begun the task of straightening his clothing. He frowned at his jacket for a moment before meeting Nagi's eyes. "Where are your shoes?" He looked Nagi up and down. "You look ridiculous."

Nagi narrowed his eyes. Changing the subject? But I think you got the message. The question is, do you believe it? "I was in a hurry." He kept his tone icy.

"It's a question of professionalism. If the Taisken see us looking... disordered... they won't take us seriously."

Fuss, fuss. Whatever you're doing got away from you just a little, Crawford, didn't it? Nagi laughed low and looked back at the destruction he'd wrought. "No. They won't take you seriously, Crawford-san. I can paint myself purple and stroll around naked, and they'll still take me seriously. The High Lord can see what I do, and he hasn't had a telekinetic this powerful in generations. I don't need you anymore, not as much as you need me."

Crawford took a step forward. "You can't see what's coming. You'd be dead in under a year." He started to advance further, but Nagi held up a hand, palm outward.

"I'm not very happy with you right now. You saw this coming, didn't you? And decided you wanted it to happen? I'm not a chess piece or a pet or..."

Crawford seemed to be intensely interested in the cuff of his jacket. "You'd have given it away." He shrugged and looked up again. "I didn't want him to see it coming. I told you to keep him restrained."

That makes no sense. Nagi shook his head and focused on the portion of Crawford's words that he understood. So this is all about Kudoh-- Part of Nagi's mind flinched, the wounds seeming too raw to be touched. How'd I let him hurt me this badly? I know better. And what the hell was he playing at? He had to know I'd be back, that I'd exact a price. I don't think-- Nagi shuddered mentally, shying away from quite looking at how close he'd come to killing himself. I don't think he was trying to kill me. He doesn't know me that well.

"So, are you done with your tantrum?" Crawford asked in an irritated tone.

Nagi raised his eyebrows. He is rattled. Usually, he knows better. Of course, if I say yes, he'll assume I'm calm and go away, giving me a chance to think. But if I think, I'm going to cry. I'm going to cry anyway-- Nagi turned his back on Crawford and walked away.

Kudoh... Yohji
. Nagi forced his spine to remain straight, his shoulders squared, as memory sliced him. He did want it. At least... He clenched his fists and swallowed heavily. If he was acting... That's not easy. I-- I never could. When I-- I meant it. He looked up at the trees and beyond. I could fall into the sky... Never come back. His lips twitched. I actually could. Lifting myself isn't that hard.

He sighed. I just don't want to look at... Yohji. He-- He gave me exactly what I wanted, and then-- Everything changed suddenly. Yes, don't look at the rest of it, just that moment. Before was a lie, and after... doesn't matter. A burning in his throat and pain in his belly told Nagi that he was lying to himself, but he ignored his physical reactions and continued looking at the sky. What did he say? "What have you done to me?" That came first. Then he said, "Get out of my head!" And he was looking at me like I'd done something. Nagi clenched his jaw, fighting nausea. Which I had, but... His eyes widened a little. That wasn't what he was talking about, was it? And it wasn't someone else in his head. He was getting, had gotten, something from me.

He spun on his heel and wasn't particularly surprised to find Crawford still watching him. "You utter bastard!" Nagi hissed. "You callous son of a bitch! You had me rape an empath!" Nagi struck out with his power.

Crawford rolled with the blow, just managing to keep his feet.

"Saw that one coming, did you?" Nagi strode toward the other man.

Crawford gave an oddly crooked smile. "He's a much better empath now than he used to be, much more useful." He stood his ground. "For one thing, now he knows what he is."

Nagi came to a halt a short distance away. Bitter disgust, at himself as much as at Crawford, roiled his stomach, and he spat, trying to clear his mouth of the taint. "An unshielded empath, no less! One with no fucking clue as to what was happening to him-- Sometimes, I hope there is a hell, just so I can see you there some day." He launched a simultaneous attack with fist and telekinesis.

Crawford dodged the physical blow, but the psychic one connected. Crawford stumbled back from the force of it.

"I wish you'd let me punch you. It'd be a hell of a lot more satisfying." Nagi stretched a telekinetic collar around Crawford's throat. "If you really wanted to keep me obedient, Crawford, you shouldn't have pushed my power so hard, have forced me to become so strong. Oh, but then we'd still be working for Estet, wouldn't we? Or perhaps we'd be dead? The end always justifies for you."

Sudden and painful sound lanced through Nagi's head, and he raised his hands to cover his ears. That only made the scream reverberate more strongly. Psychic-- Shield it! The noise cut off abruptly. I didn't do that-- Who-- Nagi staggered forward then straightened. Shit! I lost hold of Crawford!

Crawford had stepped backward on a small rise and stood with his feet apart as if he were bracing himself. Like you need the height advantage, bastard. Hm... I think it hurt him, too, but... He'd gone white, and his face looked strained, but he showed no sign of surprise. He was expecting it, wasn't he?

Crawford adjusted his glasses. "So what do you want, Nagi? We can continue this if you want, but... I think your toy's in a bit of trouble."

Nagi couldn't stop a snarl. But I didn't shield it out. Something else-- Was that really Yohji? Well, it sure as hell wasn't Schuldig. Fuck! Schuldig shielded, cutting off the source, which means--

Crawford smiled just a little. "We'll talk again later when you're more... composed."

"Damn right, we will, Crawford." Nagi forced his voice to coldness. "Don't think I'll forget." He turned away and headed back toward the building. I won't run while he's watching. But Schuldig can do a lot of damage very quickly-- But-- The hell with it! He broke into a run.

Yohji avoided looking at Nagi's cushion. I won't. Not at that. Not at his shoes, his jacket, his tie... And sure as hell not at the towel. He ran the bar of soap across his chest again. I'm never going to be clean again. He stopped moving for a moment, simply letting the water hit him. What now? I'm calm again. Mostly. I'd almost rather not be. I am so utterly fucked. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and winced. And my body won't let me forget.

He's going to come back again, and then he will kill me. And I'll even kind of deserve it. He didn't do anything but what I asked him to, but... He felt himself starting to cry. At least, the water from the shower'll hide that.

So what do I do now? I can't stand here forever. I'd like to, but... If nothing else, my legs won't hold me. I guess I go and sit and wait. And wait. How long will it take him to pull himself back together? I hurt him badly, pushed every button I could. And I can't very well apologize. I'd have to explain, and... I don't really want to apologize. It's not like he hasn't hurt me. And how would I explain? It's not like I've got the slightest clue what happened. No. I know what happened. I just don't know why or how or...   I was feeling his feelings, wanting what he wanted. What's that called? Empathy. I think that came up when Kritiker was talking to us about psionics. But... I'm not-- I never-- Not till now.

He turned off the water and used his hands to scrape off some of the excess moisture. Squeeze out the water from your hair. Look like you haven't a care in the world. It's only everybody who knows you're lying. He moved to the sink and brushed his teeth. God, I should have done this first. I-- I let him-- No. I volunteered, opened my mouth and-- He added more toothpaste and brushed vigorously. That's blood. I can taste it. I should stop. I should-- He spat pink tinged foam. Water... He rinsed then spat again then drank eagerly.

He stopped suddenly, letting the water run over his hand. What if it's in the water? Whatever's doing this to me-- What if it's in the water? Hell, anything could be in the water. He snorted, almost a sound of amusement. Here I've been worrying about the food... He shook his hands dry. What now?

His eyes wandered the room as he tried to come up with options. He left the cart. No, no point. They'll just gas me again, and it's not like I've got anywhere to hide anything. Oh, wait... He left the book. Yohji shook his head minutely. I bet the offer to lend it to me's been withdrawn. What the hell. He can only kill me so many times. It's not like I'm going to get another chance at the damn thing. He straightened his shoulders and walked toward the book. His feet seemed reluctant to make the trip, his legs resisting to the point that he felt like he had weights attached. He won't be back this soon... That's not helping. He sighed and bent to pick up the book.

A small noise from the other side of the door froze him just as his fingers brushed the cover. Shit! He stood and began to back away. Too soon! It's too damn soon, and-- Yohji frowned. There's something there... Anger? I think so. But not his. So-- The inner door swung open.

Schuldig regarded Yohji through slitted eyes. "You made the kid cry, Kudoh." Schuldig took a quick few steps forward. "Really, really bad idea."

Yohji winced as the telepath's emotion slammed into him. No! Ow! No! He fought to keep Schuldig's rage at a distance. I have no idea how to do this. Help! Think fast-- Yohji backed into the wall. Nowhere to go. "I don't suppose you'd believe--"

"I don't give a damn why you did it, Kudoh. But as it happens, I'm going to give you something you wanted." Schuldig smiled. :You wanted to know what's going on with Tsukiyono, didn't you? And while you're in there, you can think about what the kid's going to do to him now that you've fucked up.:

Yohji found himself slipping less easily into this scene than he had into Schuldig's presentation of Ken's memories. Yohji twisted mentally and fought to reject the images, but they washed around him like monstrous shadows.

Pain. Cold. Terror. Desperate faith and the certainty that that faith would be broken... Yohji felt himself start to flounder mentally as the emotions swirled around him. I'm drowning in Omi--

The child huddled against the wall, wishing desperately that the air were warmer. Even the wall leached away the heat from his body rather than helping insulate him. He shivered and squeezed his eyes closed against the darkness. But I can't hope for light-- Light means the bad men coming back. In the dark, he could almost pretend that he was grown, not a child, not small, not vulnerable. Not helpless.

"Please hurry, Papa," he whispered. "It's awfully hard staying brave." He felt tears forming in his eyes and turned his head in an effort to use his shoulder to brush them clear. At least my arms don't hurt anymore...

Heavy footsteps broke the silence, and the child whimpered. The bad men are coming. Please, Papa-- I don't want them to hurt me again. Please!

No! Yohji wrenched himself away and suddenly became aware of himself as Yohji again. That's not me. That's not-- I'm not a child. It's not real. He felt his knees weakening and pushed himself upright again. He also pushed aside his anguish at Omi's suffering. It's bad. It's so bad--

:Oh, it's real, Kudoh. Or it was. He was a lot smaller then. Think about it, how much it had to hurt. And you still can't protect him.:

Yohji opened his eyes and was half surprised to see his own cell rather than the child-Omi's dank prison. Schuldig had come close, placing his hands on Yohji's shoulders. The telepath's bitter anger and sadistic malice made Yohji shudder. Worked once before... The image of wrapping his wire around the German's neck in the final battle after the summoning ceremony flashed through his mind. Very deliberately, he suppressed all thought as he had done then. He lashed out with his fist and connected firmly with Schuldig's chin.

Schuldig's head snapped back, and he staggered away.

Free for the moment, Yohji gathered his strength and fled. He headed toward the still open door into the antechamber. If I can get there and get it closed behind me--

But Schuldig recovered rapidly, while Yohji'd worn himself to exhaustion and still hurt from his encounter with Nagi. Schuldig grabbed Yohji just as his fingers brushed the door. Schuldig spun Yohji around and smashed him against the wall.

:There's nowhere to run, Kudoh. Nowhere.:

He's doing that telepathically because he's out of breath, isn't he? Doesn't sound as threatening when he's panting. Yohji pushed that thought aside as irrelevant. One last thing to try... And he's already in my head. That should make it easier. If I can do it at all. Yohji met Schuldig's eyes, forcing defiance to mask his terror, then took a deep breath. Okay, you bastard, have it all-- Yohji put every bit of pain, terror, shame and rage, every negative emotion he could find within himself, together in a bundle and aimed it at Schuldig.

Yohji felt those emotions explode outward, ripping themselves from his psyche. He screamed and vaguely heard an echo that could only have come from Schuldig. Then Yohji felt Schuldig's hands wrap around his throat and begin slamming his head against the wall.

I hurt him... The pleasure of that thought remained a distant shadow even as Yohji lost track of everything else. Why bother fighting it? Whatever he plans'll hurt less if... He let the darkness take him.

Well, that was fun. Not. Schuldig panted heavily as he glared down at Kudoh's unconscious body. He's not supposed to be able to do anything like that. He massaged his temples. I don't think-- Even if he were awake, I'm not up to getting into his head again. Not after that. Not till this headache's gone.

He prodded Kudoh with his toes. Out. Completely. Damn. I'll have to wait. No point doing anything till he can feel it. Schuldig looked around the cell. A few things on that cart I can use. Careless of Nagi to leave it-- He scowled. Shows how badly the son of a bitch upset him. Pain is not enough. What...

Ah. He worries all the time about what happens to his body while he's unconscious. Let's start there. I'll tell him all about it as soon as he wakes-- Schuldig's head throbbed as he bent to lift Kudoh. Okay. He'll get that after my headache's gone; I couldn't do it justice right now. Now where? Yes. His eye came to rest on Kudoh's pallet. He feels safe there; that'll make it worse when I show him...

:Onii-san--: Ouka's voice shook a little, and Omi gave her his full attention.

:What is it, Ouka-chan?: He kept his voice gentle in spite of his exasperation at the interruption. What I'm doing right now is important. He sighed. My imouto knows that. She wouldn't call for something that wasn't at least as important.

:I think something's happened to Yohji-kun. I think...:

Omi stiffened, going suddenly still while the computer system's data continued to flow around him. :What? Why? Do you need me back there?: How does she know? :Has Naoe returned? Or Schuldig?:

:Not exactly... A little bit ago, I felt Schuldig poking at our mask. Then he kind of... Well, pulled on it. Remember how it felt when he showed it to Crawford? Like that. I thought it was weird, but... Well, it didn't seem important enough to bother you about. Not right now.:

Omi nodded. :I see. What changed?:

:A few minutes later, Yohji-kun screamed.:


:I-- I don't know what else to call it. It hurt. It knocked me out for a minute. It... Whatever happened must have hurt him a lot, and I'd bet Schuldig's responsible.: Ouka sounded scared. :Find him, nii-san, please. Yohji-kun-- Schuldig might--: Her shudder crossed the link between them. For a moment, they shared images of Schuldig's appearance and actions the night she died.

:I wouldn't bet against it.: Omi set his mouth in a grim line. :Thank you for telling me. If you're okay, you should probably go back now. I need to look for Yohji-kun, and...:

:I'd distract you.:

:I'm afraid so. Will you be all right?:

:I think so. And nii-san-- I hope...: Then her presence was gone.

Me too. Omi turned his full attention to the surveillance systems. If only this place weren't so damn big.

Nagi skidded to a halt in front of the door to Yohji's cell. I'm going to have to do this the hard way. He'd stopped on the way at the observation room and hadn't been particularly surprised to find everyone there unconscious. At least, I think they were unconscious. It's not like I stopped to check, but there wasn't any blood to speak of. He'd gone straight for the door controls only to discover that Schuldig'd left the inner door open. Which means I can't open the outer door without command overrides. Well, actually, other people can't open it without the overrides. I, on the other hand--

Too much time gone. Too damn much. I know what Schuldig can do in fifteen minutes-- He stepped back, pressing his body against the far wall. Breathe. Even it out, no time for panting. Focus-- He raised his hand. Damn, I wish I hadn't played around out in the garden! Waste of energy I've got a better use for-- Of course, then I'd have killed Crawford. Would that be such an awful thing? He wove the tendrils of his power through the tiny gaps around the door then squeezed, stressing the materials. Then he smashed the full force of his ability squarely against the barrier. Once. Twice. It's giving-- Hit it again!

The door and part of the wall surrounding it exploded. Nagi didn't pause to study the destruction. Instead, he charged through the debris and into the cell. Once inside, he looked around quickly. There--

Schuldig crouched beside Yohji's unmoving form. Nagi extended a hand in a sweeping gesture and used telekinesis to hurl Schuldig against the wall. Schuldig hit hard and bounced sideways before falling to the floor.

Nagi crossed the room rapidly and knelt beside the pallet where Yohji lay. So much blood... "Yohji-kun?" Nagi reached for the other man's neck, feeling for a pulse.

Yohji's eyelids twitched. "Nagi-san..." The name barely came out as a whisper.

No, everything's superficial. Painful but superficial. At least, physically... "I'm here." Schuldig just barely got started. Going for pain, meant to take his time. Yohji'll be all right in a few days.

"Kid--" Schuldig had regained his feet and started to move toward Nagi.

Nagi looked up and scowled. "Don't you think you've done enough?" :Back off! He's mine! No one else touches him.:

"He hurt you! I couldn't just ignore that." Schuldig hesitated for a moment then started forward again. "I suppose you've got some interesting ideas about what he deserves..."

Yohji whimpered. Nagi looked down again. He reached out with gentle fingers to stroke Yohji's hair.

Schuldig's shadow fell on Yohji's body. Nagi looked up.

"Stay the fuck away, Schuldig." Nagi's voice took on the cold tone of command that Crawford used whenever Schuldig really went too far.

"You don't mean that--" Schuldig's expression changed rapidly, different emotions flickering across his face. "You can't mean that." He took another step.

Nagi hit him telekinetically, slamming Schuldig against the wall again. This time, he heard bones snap. "Someone will be in soon to take care of you. I've got other things to worry about." He turned his attention back to Yohji. Moving him is going to hurt like hell. "Yohji-kun, I'm going to knock you out so I can move you. It'll hurt less." Without waiting for a response, Nagi put slight pressure on Yohji's carotids and waited. Okay, now. He released the pressure and lifted Yohji into his arms.

As Nagi turned to go, he met Schuldig's eyes for a moment. Schuldig had wrapped one arm around his body while the other hung limp. His eyes burned with accusation, with disbelief, with betrayal. "Someone will be in for you soon," Nagi repeated gently. "I'm sorry, sempai." He left without any further backward glance.

Omi raced through the system, searching for signs of Yohji. I shouldn't have put it off. I just figured he wasn't going anywhere-- No. I just didn't want to watch Naoe touching Yohji-kun. I didn't trust myself.

No. Not here. Omi looked around. Too damn slow this way... He closed his eyes and let go of his visual construct. How does it feel? He stretched himself. Double door cells there and there and there... He focused his attention on one of those areas. This is too weird. I'm not supposed to be shaped like this.

Sudden pain flared in... My right shoulder? No. I don't have one right now. Never mind! I can't afford this. For a moment, he was too busy coping with the unexpected sensation to guess at its origin. Control. Pain is in the mind, and I'm nowhere else right now. Separate. Yes. Pull back. Yes. Now go there.

He twisted himself mentally and opened his eyes again. There-- One of the icons indicating a double doored cell flashed an angry red. Omi reached out to touch it then recoiled briefly as the system shrieked its alarm. He set his jaw and pushed his awareness forward. Inner door open. Outer door closed but... Yes. Something-- someone-- is trying to force it. Surveillance system, that's what I need. There. Naoe outside trying to get in. That's--  Omi felt a snarl of rage curling inside his virtual chest and realized dimly that it reverberated through the computer network, disrupting normal functions. That should be me! No. No. Better Naoe on the outside, coming to the rescue, than-- I may not have to intervene. I shouldn't want to intervene.

Inside the cell, Omi saw Schuldig standing over a battered looking Yohji. Schuldig glanced toward the door then shrugged. He crouched beside Yohji and rolled him onto his back. He's bleeding. Both shoulders dislocated looks like. Hell of a lot of external damage. Omi snarled and flexed his fingers. Access the nanites to check for internal-- No. No time. Naoe's almost in. Judging by how he's acting, he's pissed. I can get Schuldig later. We'll get Schuldig later. He could feel ripples from his anger running through the system. I'm not even going to think about what that's doing to the computer.

Omi watched until Naoe carried Yohji from the cell. Should I follow? I don't know... I need a way to communicate with Yohji-kun, and that means using Ran-kun. At least, that's the simplest. First-- Can I get a signature on Yohji-kun's nanites? The system's been tracking his physiological reactions which means it can find the nanites. If I can track that... I don't know if that'll work outside the cell. Well, time to find out.

I suppose if I lose track of Yohji-kun, I can always look for Naoe. I don't think he'll leave Yohji-kun for long. Not now. Not given how he looks. Trust Yohji-kun to manage a seduction, and trust Ran-kun not to see any of it happening even when he did. 

Ran-kun. Right.

Omi sped along the path back to his body. It seems a long way... Getting into the system is becoming easier. Getting out on the other hand-- He twisted his perceptions and slid back into his body. He sensed Ouka's relief at his return and her anxiety over what had happened.

:It's okay, Ouka-chan; at least, I think so. Naoe smashed Schuldig against the wall to rescue Yohji-kun. Yohji-kun, he was hurt pretty badly, but... I think he'll be okay.: He reached out mentally and nudged the surveillance system, looking to see what Ran was doing. Reading. Perfect. He created a short loop that included Ran turning a page and set the system to repeat it. That's getting a lot easier. I bet I could fabricate records fairly easily. I'll have to play with that a bit more-- Later.

He stretched and cleared his throat. "Ran-kun! Come in here for a moment."

Omi heard sounds of movement from the other room, and after a moment, Ran walked in. He looks so much better. Omi smiled. He wouldn't admit it, but he'd lost hope. Okay-- How do I explain this? I'm going to have to tell him about Ouka eventually, but... He'll be certain I'm crazy.

:You most certainly are not!: Ouka interjected.

:Look at it from his point of view--:

Ouka snorted. :Like he's in a position to talk. At least, you haven't asked people to call you by my name!: She sighed. :But you're right. We can't afford to have him questioning your ability right now. We need him too much. Maybe he'd accept...: She hesitated. :There's part of you that doesn't entirely believe in me, you know. You hide it, but it's hard for me to miss that sort of thing.:

Omi's eyes widened slightly. :I-- I'm sorry, Ouka-chan. I--:

"Omi? Is something wrong?" Ran had halted in the doorway, and his face showed concern.

Oops. Omi met Ran's eyes. "Well, it's not entirely good, I'm afraid. Come, sit down." He gestured toward the chair beside the bed.

Ran advanced and sat down. He perched on the very edge of the seat, regarding Omi solemnly.

Omi sighed. "First the good news. I located Yohji-kun. The bad news is that Schuldig was... working him over. I was thinking seriously about intervening even though it would hurt our chances of escaping, but Naoe burst in and put a stop to it."

Ran's jaw set in a hard line; then he raised an eyebrow. "A setup? Something to make Kudoh-- Yohji-- more dependent on Naoe?"

Omi shrugged, ran his fingers through his hair then shook his head. "It didn't look like that. At least... Naoe hurt Schuldig. A broken arm, probably some ribs. I'd bet that Schuldig could take a fall better than that if it was planned." He shook his head again. "Doesn't matter, Ran-kun. Either way, Yohji-kun's alone, and we need to find a way to make contact. He needs to know that we haven't forgotten him. And--" Omi fixed Ran with a glare. "He needs to know that we don't think less of him for... what's happened."

Ran looked away.

At least he looks ashamed of himself now, not like it's all someone else's fault. "Ran-kun... We have to watch those tapes. I need to know what happened, and you-- You need to make them think Schuldig's sick game is working. It's the only way they'll ever let you near Yohji-kun."

"I won't-- I can't do that. What Schwarz wants..." Ran folded his arms across his chest and pressed himself back in the chair. "I'm not going to hurt Kudoh."

Ouka snorted. :What Crawford wants, he means.:

"Ran-kun--" Omi put a hand on Ran's shoulder. "If I could see another way, I'd take it, but I don't. And I can't... I can probably either cut the sound or substitute a sound track, at least as long as you're careful about not letting the cameras catch your lips." Omi frowned, considering. If I can manage a time delay, it'll be better. I can script dialogue that fits what they're doing. How long can I get away with? Tremors passing through Ran's body pulled Omi's attention back to the present situation.

"Omi... I'm afraid I'll hurt him, really hurt him. Schuldig didn't put that there, just brought it to the surface." Ran looked directly at Omi, his face showing an unusual pain and vulnerability.

:I didn't think he'd see that,: Ouka commented softly, her tone much kinder than was normal when she discussed Ran. :Be gentle with him. That can't have been easy to say.:

So you do trust me, Ran-kun. I've wondered sometimes. "Come here, Ran-kun." Omi pulled Ran toward the bed. Ran resisted for a moment then allowed himself to be embraced. Omi managed not to react when he felt Ran's tears soak his shirt. He's really worried about this. "People have... impulses. All people," Omi insisted as he felt Ran's body stiffen in rejection. Yes, Ran-kun, you too. Much as you'd rather not be human... "Some of them are ugly. Some of them..." Careful. "Some of them just need to be channeled so that--" No. Not that way. "You're Weiss. Yohji-kun is Weiss. You can do whatever's necessary. I have faith in you, both of you."

Yohji stared up at the ceiling. This is wrong. This is just... strange. He closed his eyes for a moment and let the drugs in his system start him floating. Soft mattress. Smooth sheets. Warm. Nagi's bed and only me in it. And he promised... Promised not to let Schuldig-- Yohji shuddered and then froze at the pain the movement produced. Don't even think of him. Just don't.

He heard the sound of movement from elsewhere in the apartment and seized on the distraction. My nurse, my babysitter. What's her name again? Telat. She'll come if I make any sound. See if I need more medication, food, water, a trip to the toilet. Change my pants. Pants. He gave me clothing. Only sweatpants, but... Social armor even against a nurse. And I need it.  Not counting my name, she knows all of about a half dozen words in Japanese, and all of them are on that little list Nagi gave her.

What the hell did Schuldig do to me that Nagi thinks I need a someone to watch me? No. I wasn't going to think about that. But I do need her. I still can't walk to the toilet on my own. What the hell did Schuldig do to me? Fuck it. I'm not going to be able to leave it alone. He turned his head a little to one side, ignoring the pain the movement caused. I can smell Nagi in the sheets. I never thought that would be reassuring.

Schuldig... He shuddered again. I... did something. Even hurt him I think. Then he... Yes. He grabbed my throat and beat my head against the wall. There's time missing then. At least, I think so. And I think... He tensed, clutching at the sheets. He raped me. I'm sure he did.  I'm glad I wasn't really there for that. But I was awake for the rest of it. He wanted me to know, to hurt, to fear, and... it worked.

Then he came-- Nagi. And it wasn't a set up. He was too angry, too worried. He chose me over Schuldig. I-- He concentrated for a moment on his breathing, trying desperately to even it out. I couldn't understand the words by then, but he was gentle and so very angry with Schuldig, and he brought me here, to his own place. If I could walk... If I could, I bet it's even a door I could get through.

When I'm feeling better... When I'm feeling better, I'll figure out a way to use that.

Ken shifted in bed. He glanced at the stack of folders on the nightstand beside him then looked away. Not like I haven't already read 'em all. Twice. I just wish I could disbelieve what I read, but... Once I accept certain givens, it all makes too much fucking sense.

He stared up at the ceiling and started counting speckles. Anything to keep from thinking for a while. Damn! I wish I could move. I could work this through better, and I'd worry less. Even watching curling would be better than this...

Familiar footsteps interrupted Ken's attempts to distract himself. "Crawford." Ken didn't even bother to look; the American's gait was too distinctive to be mistaken. Ken heard Crawford pull up a chair and settle into it.

"So have you given my proposition some thought?"

Yes, and I damn well don't like it. Ken nodded. "If it's that important to you, I don't understand why you're giving me a choice." He kept his eyes on the ceiling.

Crawford cleared his throat, and Ken's mind pictured the other man's probable movement. Push up the glasses. Settle his expression so he looks like he knows everything. Move the hand to attract my attention. Tough. You're not getting it. Deal. I can damn well multitask.

"No matter what happens, you hate me. I don't have time to change that, and... The whole effort's wasted if you lie to me."

Ken turned his head and met Crawford's eyes. Now the question I really want to ask... "You think I'm going to lose it, don't you?" Go completely bugfuck crazy, judging by his reactions.

Crawford didn't flinch.

Not that I expected him to. He's got guts. Wonder what he'd be like on the field? Ken raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything further.

Crawford's response came softly enough that Ken might not have understood it if he hadn't been paying attention. "The odds do favor that." Crawford's fingers twitched, and Ken wondered what the other man wanted to do. "Most seers can't... interface... with the present very well. They get lost."

"You do pretty damn well." It's possible. Anything Crawford can do, I can. But the whole idea scares the hell out of him. Is he losing his nerve? Closer to that edge than he wants me to know? Probably.

Crawford actually looked away. "My gift isn't very strong as such things go. I don't See all the time. Beyond that, it's a question of mental discipline."

And you don't think I've got any. Moron. I was a goalie. Minutes of boredom punctuated by seconds of urgent action. "I see." Ken looked away again. And I bet you hope I do go nuts. Otherwise, you'll have to deal with me and my agenda. Whatever it turns out to be. I studied those files you gave me, Crawford. If I stay sane and if I swear to this High Lord, I'll have the more powerful gift, so I'll outrank you. If.

"You know, Hidaka-san, there's a certain irony in this."

Ken turned to look at Crawford and narrowed his eyes a bit. You're actually pretty honest with me, I think. Trying to get me to trust you? Maybe. Probably looking for emotional engagement. That's where my files say my weakness is. Hell, that is where my weakness is. I just know better than to let it get personal. Most of the time.

"Out of all the members of Weiss," Crawford went on, oblivious to Ken's inner monologue. "You're the last I'd have expected to have this sort of talent." He pushed his glasses up again. "With the strength of the potential, it ought to have manifested at least a little before now, just hunches but enough to keep you out of trouble."

Since Ken had already considered this question, he was able to hide his reaction to Crawford's words. Just because you don't know about it! And it's not like I paid attention when I wasn't on the field. They were just hunches, and I didn't want to be another superstitious ball player, and... Kase was my friend. The pain of thinking about Kase had eased a little over the years, but the memory still cut deeply. Maybe going crazy wouldn't be all bad... No! Stupid! I promised Omi not to do that again. Besides... He shook his head once.

"Is something wrong?" Crawford's tone revealed a little anxiety.

"What are you giving me to make this worthwhile?" Ken made his voice hard.

"Saving the world isn't enough?" Crawford raised his eyebrows.

Ken waved a hand at the files. "You've given me some facts. Maybe. If you're not lying. The rest... You're asking me to take a lot on faith, and, as you recently mentioned, I don't like you. There are only a couple of reasons I haven't already told you to go fuck yourself sideways... You asked, and you didn't have to, and... You might be telling the truth." And you've got my friends locked up somewhere in this place. If--

"You want a gesture of good faith? I suppose we could heal you up faster--"

"Real good faith, Crawford." Be damned if I'm giving him a 'san!' "Let the others go, and I'll do it."

Silence stretched between them for a long moment. Then Crawford shook his head regretfully. "I can't. Aya-chan would never forgive me if her brother got himself killed fighting us, and he would. You know that. Tsukiyono's not up to being out on his own right now. I've got Ran looking after him. When he's doing better... That I could do if you really want it, let Tsukiyono go, that is." Crawford sighed almost inaudibly. "And Kudoh, he's no longer... His situation is no longer under my control."

Ken stared at Crawford for a moment. "You're really bad at this people stuff, aren't you?"

A brief flicker of offended indignation crossed Crawford's face. Then he smiled with conscious irony. "Let's just say I'm not accustomed to asking, to being the petitioner."

Ken nodded. "Your strategy's not bad, but your tactics suck. You'd get run over in your first five minutes on the field. Well... I suppose this whole precognition thing would help. Call it ten minutes. Anyway, the way I see it, I'm the one with something you really want, have to have even. And I won't get anything out of giving it to you." I don't get this, not really. Why hasn't he played up the potential benefits if I do make it through? That's the attractive looking package. So what'll he offer? How badly does he want this? You can't convince me he's never done contract negotiations.

Crawford's jaw clenched. After a moment, he replied, "I don't need it." He shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "You're the idealist, the one who cares about making things right. Or have I mistaken Weiss' purpose?"

Ken suppressed a snort of laughter. Idealist? I murdered that along with Kase. And then again and again and... I suppose he's still leaning on the files. For someone with the instincts he's got, he relies too damn much on documentation. But he's not going to let them loose unless someone higher up orders it.

I'm going to have to play this game, ignoring the odds, and I'm going to have to win.

"No!" Nagi shook his head. "Absolutely not!" He glared at Crawford. "Haven't you and your plans done enough damage?" And I only just got him resting comfortably! Babysitter and all.

"I don't think Hidaka will do him any harm, Nagi," Crawford replied mildly. "It's not like I'm asking you to leave Schuldig alone with him again."

Nagi narrowed his eyes. You're not usually this clumsy, Crawford. "No." He folded his arms across his chest. "I may still be able to put Kudoh back together now, but Hidaka's a complication I don't need." You've been misreading Yohji, and I wouldn't put money on your being right about Hidaka. If he's anything like Fujimiya...

"Kudoh doesn't have to be conscious." Crawford turned away and walked over to the window.

"What does Hidaka have that you want that badly?" Maybe he'll even answer... Hell, he'll answer if he really wants it because I'm not letting Hidaka anywhere near Yohji without a damn good reason. Nagi fidgeted in his chair. I am not getting up to follow him. Let him pace and demand and worry. He deserves it. "Just bearing in mind at the moment, Crawford-san, that I'm still looking for a reason why I shouldn't cut ties with you entirely, take Kudoh and walk. I can."

"I know." Crawford didn't bother looking back. "It would be a bad idea, but you could do it. The High Lord would be happy to accommodate you. As you commented yesterday, he hasn't had a telekinetic like you in a long time, and he wants to keep you happy." Crawford turned to face Nagi. "I just want to keep us all alive."

Nagi shook his head. No, Crawford, that one won't fly anymore. "I need a hell of a lot more than that. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your credit's run out. I forgave you for Tot. Mostly. I even understand why you set me up like that. Now. Mostly. That pales in comparison-- She wasn't permanently damaged. This time--" Nagi shook his head again. Yohji may survive what Schuldig did, but... I can't be sure of that yet. And that doesn't address what I've done. What Crawford told me to do. What I still want to do...

Crawford sighed, and his shoulders seemed to droop. "Yes. This time..." He straightened abruptly. "It was necessary. Then and now."

Nagi met Crawford's eyes, keeping his expression hard. He looks exhausted. "Not good enough. You can label anything as necessary. Especially after the fact." I don't trust you anymore, Crawford. "So tell me. Explain it to me in simple words. Explain it all, or I will walk."

Crawford stared at Nagi for a moment.

That's right. Look at me. Me. Not some factor in your damned calculations!

Crawford's expression changed just a little.

Yes. I'm not irresponsible and impulsive like Schuldig. I'm not crazy like Farfarello. And I'm not a child anymore. You have to deal with me, not just use me.

"All right." Crawford almost collapsed into his chair. "All right, Nagi. You win." He sighed and closed his eyes. "Give me a moment. I need to get my thoughts in order."

Nagi leaned back in his chair, schooling his face to conceal his amazement. I win? What the hell? He must be exhausted. He watched as Crawford sagged forward, supporting his head in his hands. Yes, he is. I wonder... I don't think he ever really looked at me, thought about me like that before. Oh. Nagi's eyes widened. I bet he's having more trouble with Hidaka than he expected. A lot more trouble. And I bet he has no clue why. He's treating Hidaka like one of us or like a minion, like someone who won't question. But usually, Crawford can See how people will respond to his ploys...

Crawford looked up. "Have you swept for bugs recently? It's better if this is private."

Nagi responded with an ironic half-grin. "You wouldn't even ask unless you were already sure of the answer."

"Well... You have been a little distracted lately."

Have I? I don't think so. "You assigned me a task, but Kudoh hasn't required all of my time, not even most of it. Getting this place properly set up has taken rather more." Okay, maybe by your standards I have been distracted. I haven't been devoting myself only to what you want. Tough. Deal.

"This part isn't any great secret really, but..." Crawford steepled his fingers and tapped his index fingers together. "You know now that Kudoh's an empath. His power level will never match Schuldig's, but Kudoh should be able to learn a much greater measure of control than Schuldig ever will. He's not the only one of Weiss with potential." He hesitated for a moment before going on. "Hidaka's... He has a large and completely untapped potential as a precog, a seer."

Nagi straightened is his chair. I suppose it's not surprising that somebody else would have potential. What's the Taisken estimate? Half the population? Two thirds? Assuming that holds true on Earth. "Precognition?" He raised his eyebrows. "I thought that was your area."

"He could be a lot stronger than I ever will be if we can force his abilities to manifest. Left on his own, he won't take things anywhere, but with the proper pharmaceutical assistance..."

Nagi frowned. If he's stronger than you are... Can you afford the competition? "I thought it was the rarity of your ability that made you valuable."

"Not exactly. Not... The thing that's really rare is controlled precognition, the ability to See consistently without... without Seeing too much."

"And Hidaka will be able to do that?"

"No." Crawford made an abrupt slashing gesture, a rejection of the possibility. "He'll be too strong. He'll See all the time. He won't be able to tell what's real and what's not."

What's useful about that? Well, obviously Crawford's got something in mind. "And that will help you how?"

Crawford's expression seemed to imply that he thought less of Nagi for not having figured it out already.

Nagi ignored the expression. I grew up looking at that, Crawford. I'm immune. Nagi waited.

Crawford sighed. "I'll be able to tell which of his visions are what we need."

Just a bit too much emphasis on the "we," Crawford. I haven't agreed to anything yet.

"And we will need what he Sees." Crawford frowned, apparently offended that reality hadn't chosen to make things more convenient. "There are things I... Things I know we're going to need-- people actually-- that I--" His voice broke just a little, shocking Nagi. Crawford looked away for a long moment before meeting Nagi's eyes again. "That I'm not strong enough to See."

For a few seconds, Nagi couldn't breathe. Crawford not strong enough? The man who brought down Estet? The man who-- Nagi inhaled slowly, using every bit of his self control. He really is leveling with me. What happened? He used to spend hours sorting through possible futures, looking for the one he wanted, figuring out the paths that led to it. And how to get us on those paths whether we liked it or not.

Crawford remained silent and very still. Oh. He's waiting for my judgment. Will I use his weakness or will I help him? Which do I really want to do? Does it matter to him except as a branch on his logic tree? I wish I thought it did. Nagi sighed almost imperceptibly. It's not really a question at all, is it? Except in his head. No wonder he's been such an ass. He never actually understood what I wanted with Tot, why I'm still angry about it. He doesn't believe that people can care. Wonder how the hell he manages with Aya-chan...

Nagi nodded. "I understand. So we really do need Hidaka." He gave the pronoun the slightest extra emphasis and saw from Crawford's expression that he got the message. I can't-- won't-- abandon you now, Crawford. You're the closest thing I've got to a father. Crawford started to speak, but Nagi held up a hand. "I haven't forgiven you, Crawford-san. That's... harder. But..." Nagi spread his hands as words eluded him. And the questions pile up... Does the High Lord know? Will he care? Crawford's position has rested on three things, my power, his own power and his intimate knowledge of Earth's politics, economics, and so on. But he gave the High Lord Kritiker... Hell.

Crawford's eyes widened just a little at Nagi's words, and he seemed to lose a certain tension from his shoulders.

Did you really think I'd-- Of course you did. You don't actually know me, do you? When did you stop Seeing what I'd do next? You treat us all the way you were treated, don't you, Crawford? What did they do to you to make your gift stronger? How close did they push you to the edge?

"If Schwarz sticks together, we'll survive regardless of whether we get Hidaka or not," Crawford admitted quietly. "At least as long as we're more loyal to the High Lord than we were to Estet."

You weren't planning to be? "I see why you asked about bugs. Even saying that-- even if you don't mean anything by it--" Nagi shook his head, suppressing a shudder. "I'd rather avoid another deep scan." To say nothing of the things the High Lord does to people who betray him.

"I Saw... The Taisken finding Earth was inevitable, unavoidable, at least from Earth itself. If I could have gotten us into the Empire somehow, we might have stopped it, but--" Crawford waved a hand dismissing the thought. "The High Lord is only the first of many and, sadly, the best of the lot. We want his claim on Earth to be upheld. If it comes to war with other Taisken-- They won't give a damn about 'collateral damage.'"

Nagi leaned back in his chair. Why that sounds almost altruistic! Who are you and what have you done with the real Crawford? "Since when do we care about collateral damage?" And what the hell does this have to do with Hidaka?

Crawford laughed bitterly. "It becomes important when we're likely to be part of it. That, and... Whatever I pretend, there are some things I care about." He also leaned back in his chair, suddenly appearing more confident. "Tell me, Nagi-- Yesterday, in the garden, why did you only destroy the artificial, the pavements, benches, fountains? Why be so selective?"

Because-- Oh. I guess you can still teach me something. Nagi looked away. He licked his lips. "They wouldn't be selective."

"The High Lord's conquest will be... messy... anyway, but he will take some time about it and co-opt existing institutions where he can. Most people won't ever encounter the darker side of his regime. Hell, for a lot of the world, the corruption in his administration, the cruelty of some of his people, his personal... vices, will still be an improvement over what they've got now."

That sounds like you've run through it a thousand times, and it's all true, but it still doesn't tell me why we need Hidaka. "What do you See about it?" Nagi felt daring asking the question which was not one Crawford had ever been inclined to tolerate.

Crawford hesitated before replying but finally took a deep breath and said, "Nothing really. I'm relying on chance flashes which don't tell me much. I can't afford to look that far ahead right now. Half an hour, even an hour, I can manage safely, more than that if there's a fight involved and I focus on that specifically, but..." Crawford shrugged with exaggerated indifference.

Nagi stared at the older man for a moment. "You almost got lost, didn't you? Ended up where you say Hidaka's going to be--" I was ready to walk away just a few minutes ago, but... The thought of Crawford gone, especially that way-- That scares me. He's-- He's Crawford, for god's sake. He's supposed to be indestructible. Maybe we all paid a price for destroying Estet.

Crawford just shrugged again, not bothering to answer. "But I have Seen Hidaka as the key. I just have to get him to volunteer." His expression became decidedly sour. "He has to agree for two reasons. First, I have to be sure he won't deliberately lie to me later, and second, the High Lord won't let me activate that sort of potential pharmaceutically unless the subject agrees. The latter reason's really more important. It won't take long for him to end up too tangled in the possible to be sure who he's talking to at any given moment."

Is that why you used torture on Yohji, that the High Lord didn't want you to use drugs? Or were you just being nasty? To Yohji and to me. Or don't you know any other way? Nagi suppressed the impulse to ask. "Have you Seen that?" Yeah, what if you're wrong? He already hates us, I'm sure. How's he going to feel after he sees Yohji? Do you really think he's not going to blame you, blame us?

"No, but the odds... I don't think even one in a thousand Seers can manage the trick. I can't guarantee that he won't make it, but that's the way to bet. If I'm wrong... Well, he'll See what I Saw."

Nagi got up. He paced toward the window then turned back. He stood very still and watched Crawford. Crawford turned to look at Nagi. "All right. I'll allow the visit, but there are conditions. One-- Kudoh's mine. No more games, no telling me what to do with him. Two-- Tell me what's going on from here on out. I'm willing to work with you. Not for you."

"All right." Crawford nodded. "Kudoh's yours. As to the other... I'll try. I'm not very good at... that sort of thing. Aya-chan keeps telling me I've got to be better about talking to people." He smiled slightly. "I think she means better about talking to her, but I suppose it generalizes too." Crawford seemed to hesitate then asked, "Will you accept advice?"

"I'll listen to it. I may not take it."

"Apologize to Schuldig."

Nagi turned away and moved to lean his forehead against the window. No. Absolutely not. "I told him more than once to stay the hell away from Kudoh. It's not my fault Schuldig didn't listen." His mouth tightened. "He's lucky I didn't kill him."

Nagi heard Crawford sigh. "Even a week ago, you would have."

What? Nagi went rigid and only barely kept himself from spinning around to stare at Crawford. Well, I asked for honesty.

"Oh, yes, Nagi." Crawford's voice carried the soft venom he reserved for revealing unpleasant truths to people he couldn't afford to kill. "I've spent the last two years watching to make sure you didn't kill any of us. Power like yours doesn't mix with... rage. It's been very tiring."

Nagi heard Crawford stand. It's a lie. The son of a bitch is just trying to get control back.

"You'd have felt terrible afterward, but it doesn't take much to set you off. Didn't take much with Kudoh, did it?"

"I didn't kill him." Nagi wasn't entirely sure whether he meant Schuldig or Yohji. He felt a purely psychosomatic pain in his chest. But I wanted to... But I didn't. I just went in knowing Yohji'd try things that would piss me off.

"I know. That was a bit of a surprise. A pleasant one, but a surprise never the less. You'd have regretted killing Kudoh, but it wouldn't have wrecked you... or Schwarz."

How many different stories does he have? First it's sex education. Then it's breaking Yohji to make him work for us. Next it's hurting him to make his empathy stronger. Now it's teaching me self control, giving me something-- someone-- to take out my anger on. "What the hell are you really trying to do with Kudoh, Crawford-san? You've given me a hell of a lot of different stories." Nagi turned and raised a hand and started ticking off points. "Sex ed. Assassin on a leash. Empathy through torture. A punching bag for me."

An odd smile tugged at Crawford's mouth. "You forgot my dislike of Fujimiya."

Nagi raised his eyebrows. "I'd discarded that one."

"Perhaps you shouldn't have." A note of bitter humor escaped in Crawford's words. "I'm quite capable of being petty."

Are you? I think I need to figure you out. Maybe... I wonder if I can come up with an excuse to talk to Aya-chan... "Just how close did you come to the edge, to losing yourself?" Will he answer? Do I even want to know?

Crawford rose to his feet. "I'd better be going. Let me know, Nagi, when you're willing to let Hidaka see Kudoh. And--" He seemed to hesitate for a moment before saying softly, "You might want to think about why Schuldig did what he did. It matters."

Nagi sighed and felt his shoulders relax a little. He can't answer me, can he? He'll never be able to bend that far. But I can. I have to. "I can manage that much, I think."

Author's Note, 29 April 2003: This may be the last section posted for a while. I've reached the point in my pregnancy when the baby could arrive at almost any time, and I've been having pregnancy related health problems that have limited my ability to write. I will be coming back to this story, I promise; it's simply that my priorities will be different once the baby's here. I can't be sure how quickly I'll write then or how often I'll update. Right now, I have one more full section roughed out, pieces of two other scenes and the ending written. I do know where this is going.
23 May 2003: My daughter arrived on May 17th. I've done pretty much no writing since. I've been thinking about "Rheotaxis" a bit though, so it hasn't entirely vanished from my mind. I'll get back to writing after I adjust a bit more. Of course, right at the moment, I'm spending a lot of my time just staring at my little girl and admiring her.

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