Mortality, behold and fear
What a change of flesh is here!
Think how many royal bones
Sleep within these heaps of stones;
Here they lie, had realms and lands,
Who now wants strength to stir their hands,
Where from their pulpits seal'd with dust
They preach, "In greatness is no trust'.
Here's an acre sown indeed
With the richest royallest seed
That the earth did e'er suck in
Since the first man died for sin:
Here the bones of birth have cried
'Though gods they were, as men they died!'
Here are sands, ignoble things,
Dropt from the ruin'd sides of kings:
Here's a world of pomp and state
Buried in dust, once dead by fate.
(On the Tombs in the Westminster Abbey, Francis Beaumont)
He starts the day as he usually does - with a ritual. Waking itself is a ritual. First, his eyes. They open slowly and need time to focus properly, the world outside of a ten-feet radius blurred and hazy. He takes in the pillow he lies on, following its valleys and mountains of feather-stuffed softness, to the edge of the mattress, the dark and polished wood of the nightstand. Lying silently for a long moment, he listens to his own breathing and contemplates how his body is neatly perched at the edge of the bed, and not in the center of it. Legs tangled in the blanket and pulled up toward his chest, the arm he lies on twisted so he can place his hand on the side of his throat that is unprotected during sleep. The other arm squeezed in between legs and chest, pulse thumping against the outside of his forearm.
Taking in a deep breath, he watches a tiny flake of lint float away on his exhale, see-sawing back down toward his pillow directly in front of his face. Like a snowflake, it gently comes to rest on the white surface.
Brad Crawford takes another deep breath and blows the flake of lint away from his pillow, over the edge of the mattress. He needs to sweep the floor. Uncurling from his perch at the edge of the mattress, Crawford rolls onto his back and stretches his legs, the hand that covers his throat sliding onto his chest to draw the blanket up to his chin. These few, precious moments in the morning - or night, or afternoon, depending on when the night officially began for the leader of Schwarz - are reserved for his thoughts alone. He likes to think that Schuldig, when still functioning, had the decency to leave him alone in the morning.
Well. No need to worry about that anymore, is there. At least not at the moment.
The ceiling proves to be a spectacular sight to dwell on when pursuing one's thoughts. He can follow the lines of the wooden paneling for endless minutes. The apartment lies silent, still, deep in slumber. Outside, where the world is beginning to wake up, the waters of the ocean move with the wind, slapping gently against the concrete border that marks the division between land and sea. He likes it here. When Schwarz had come to Japan, Crawford had chosen the apartment because it was far enough away from hectic Central Tokyo and near enough to the ocean. To him, the ocean is freedom. He can spend hours gazing at it, letting his thoughts wander.
This morning, they do not wander far. They stay right inside the apartment, to be precise. He had stayed up long enough to hear Farfarello return home last night, wanting, needing the affirmation that the Irishman was inside the apartment. The vision of a businessman dying on a Ginza sidewalk, surrounded by curious and panicking bystanders, has kept him edgy all through last night until the swooshing sound of the elevator doors opening confirmed Farfarello's return. There had been two options - bloodlust can either be quelled or fuelled by blood; yesterday night, it has been the first option for the Irishman. Crawford does not know if anything else has happened between Farfarello's call and his return, but a quick check-up on the carpet in the hallway, thankfully devoid of large, dark patches of blood, satisfied his curiosity enough to know that even if Farfarello has killed someone else prior or after that businessman, he came back unhurt himself. Sleep had come quickly, then.
He arranges his thoughts carefully, trying to mould them around a plan, or an idea at least, of how to proceed. Takatori senior wants Weiß dead, and he, Crawford, must arrange for that to happen - with the aid of Farfarello, Nagi, and, heavens help, those two surviving Schreient members. Tot and Neu. The cannon fodder. He has to grin at the word, a cold, teeth-showing grin at the ceiling. If he can arrange it, Tot and Neu will die with Weiß. Loose ends need to be tied up quickly in Crawford's opinion, before they unravel and cause the net to collapse. Eszet Headquarters have to be notified of Schuldig's circumstances - at this, he has to quietly chuckle to himself. Circumstances indeed. He cannot decide if the absence of the telepath's aggravating presence is a curse or a blessing; a curse, regarding Schwarz, a blessing regarding himself.
His internal meandering is interrupted by the muffled sound of a door opening and closing, feet padding down the hallway past his door, into the kitchen or the living room. He tries to gauge if it is Farfarello or Nagi; the youth is an early bird, the Irishman restless by nature. Only when something has completely captured his attention, only then Farfarello can be as silent as carved marble. Crawford sits up and reaches for his glasses on the nightstand, sliding them on. The pads beneath the bridge fit perfectly into the indentations years of wearing them have created on either side of his nose. He unwinds the blanket from his legs and watches the world around him swing into focus, blurred edges becoming sharp. He used to be amused by the thought that for an oracle, he is severely nearsighted. But one gets used to things quickly, and amusing things never last.
After a shower, Crawford dresses in light pants and a shirt, foregoing dress jacket and shoes for now, and walks out of his room on bare feet. The faint sound of a chair scraping over the floor leads him to the kitchen, where he finds Farfarello seated alone at their large, round kitchen table, a meager breakfast in front of him. The American crinkles his nose at the thought of starting the day with what looks to be a hastily thrown together sandwich and a glass of milk, and stops in the doorway, observing the other man for a moment. Farfarello sits with his legs pulled up, heels on the edge of the chair, his knees nearly beneath his chin. His arms, which in the bright morning light seem to have no other color but pure white, are wrapped around his legs, his hands busily picking the sandwich apart layer by layer. The Irishman is naked from the waist up, and barefoot as Crawford is, a pair of washed-out black jeans riding low on bony hips. Through the chair's skeleton, Crawford can see the smooth dip of the small of his back, the ridges of his spine wandering up his back, flanked by protruding shoulder blades. Even in a seemingly relaxed surrounding like their own kitchen, Farfarello's muscles are strung tight over his bones; the way he sits, or rather, perches on the chair, reminds Crawford of a bird ready to take off down a cliff.
Farfarello's hands still on the sandwich as he turns his head around, and Crawford finds himself looking at the eye patch covering the Irishman's left eye.
"Good morning." Crawford walks into the kitchen and Farfarello turns his head back, hands picking up where they left off. The American switches the coffeemaker on and pours water into the filter, retrieving a cup from the cupboard. As the tantalizing smell of fresh coffee begins to tickle his nose, he turns around and leans against the counter, arms crossed over his chest. Farfarello pulls the sandwich apart and begins to eat its ingredients separately, which makes Crawford sigh.
"I thought you knew how to eat properly."
The bread knife lying next to Farfarello's plate buries itself into the wall above the coffeemaker barely a breath after the words leave Crawford's mouth; the American does not move from his spot although the knife missed him by inches only. He keeps his eyes on the Irishman, trying to read Farfarello's mood, and finds himself wishing Schuldig were here. He knows Farfarello, yes, but still it was the grip of the vision that kept him in his spot, and not the knowledge - or wishful hope, maybe - that the knife would not impact with his flesh. He uncurls his fingers from where they have clawed into the material of his shirt and turns around, calmly plucking the butter knife out of the wall and placing it down on the kitchen counter.
When Crawford sits down at the table opposite him, Farfarello slides a piece of sandwich bread into his mouth, briefly looking at the knife on the counter.
Conversation among the members of Schwarz, unless it is aimed at a plan or needed during a job, is always haphazard or non-existent; they have little to say to each other, preferring their own world with borders safe and walls high, even among themselves. When there is none to share one's thoughts with, the mind will turn to itself - Crawford knows this to be true all too well. His mind wanders, half-concentrated on enjoying the glow of the morning sun that shines through the balcony door and warms his back and the back of his head. In front of him, Farfarello methodically dissects the sandwich, drains his glass of milk. He seems pensive, almost. A little bird contemplating flight. Or fall. It all depends on the point of view.
It is not long before Nagi walks into the kitchen, barely glancing at the two men at the table. Crawford has assigned him to the task of combing the cyberworld for information about Weiß and the organization behind Weiß, Kritiker. In that, Nagi is like a bloodhound - once set upon a possible prey, he will not let go until he has sunk his fangs into it and stored its blood on disk somewhere. Nagi is not the only member of Schwarz capable of working with a computer, but he is the only one who enjoys it - or seems to, at least. So far, Crawford thinks as Nagi leaves the kitchen again with a cup of coffee and some fruit from the fridge, the youth has not yet protested his designated role as the hacker of their atypical little family, and if he ever will remains doubtable. Sometimes, Crawford prefers the company of the youth to that of Farfarello or Schuldig - Nagi is efficient in what he does, and takes little effort to be persuaded to do something because he simply does it. If this is an effect of his past spent in an orphanage where refusal to comply was met with corporal punishment, or a sliver of his own unique character, or both, Crawford does not and does not care to know.
"What are the plans?"
Farfarello's voice brings him away from his thoughts. Crawford takes a swallow of coffee, swilling the dark liquid inside the cup, and watches the Irishman, who has not looked up from his task of dismembering breakfast.
"I need to contact Eszet and tell them about Schuldig. Did you take Tot and Neu to show them where Weiß live?"
"Only Tot. Neu wasn't there when I went to pick them up. She wasn't too impressed."
"Who would be?"
Farfarello chuckles dryly and stuffs the remains of his sandwich into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. His single eye wanders over the distance of table between them and up Crawford's form until it comes to rest on the American's face, and there it is again, the silent study. Crawford uses the time for a study of his own; although he knows the shapes and planes of the Irishman's face well enough, looking at him is at least more entertaining than looking at his own reflection in the oily black of his coffee. Three scars on his face, dividing it. Allegedly, Farfarello caused them himself, just like he carved his left eye out himself, but sometimes Crawford is not so sure. There is rarely a mission when Farfarello does not attain a new scar; he acts as a shield for Schuldig and the rest of Schwarz. He has taken two bullets for Crawford over the years they have worked together - although remotely grateful for that, Crawford also thinks that at times, Farfarello risks his life too easily. It would be hard to find a replacement for him, should Farfarello's God ever decide to bring the wayward son to his side.
"Nagi has his task. If there is something about Kritiker or Weiß to be found, he'll find it." Another sip of coffee, he can feel the caffeine tickling his nerves, a faint residue of the bitter taste lingering on in his mouth. "No doubt, Weiß will be prepared. An open attack seems not the best avenue."
"We're short one member."
"That we are. How is Schuldig?"
Crawford leaves the kitchen and takes the elevator to the ground floor to pick up the newspapers that are delivered to the front entrance of their apartment building every morning. Schwarz, living on the fourth floor, are the only tenants of the house; the three apartments below theirs are empty or used as storage space. Many a time, Schuldig had whined about living this far away from Central Tokyo, from the light, from everything, but Crawford, as the supposed leader of Schwarz, has made it clear that a move nearer to Central Tokyo is out of the question. The American does not really care where they live, as long as they live safely; the suburban streets of Tsukuda, with their Japanese-style flair, are what divides them from the life they lead. Farfarello once likened the crossing of the Sumida River and the Asashio Canal to boarding a boat on the River Styx. From one life into the other.
As he steps out of the front door, Crawford is greeted by school girls on their way to the bus station, and he greets them back with a paternal smile. When they moved here, the people of Tsukuda were suspicious. And who would not be, faced with four men living together in an apartment. The rumors of them being not the average four young men living together have, thankfully, given way to a silent respect of their presence. Even Farfarello, despite his severe appearance and odd behavior, has been accepted to a point where people do not stare at him anymore, or at least not that openly. And the kisses Schuldig and Farfarello shared on the sidewalk, or in the grocery stores? Looking away is easy.
Across the street, an old man opens the shutters of the grocery store that supplies Schwarz with the food they need. He waves at Crawford, and Crawford waves back, calling out a greeting in Japanese and a few friendly words about the weather, and yes, thank you, his 'family' is well, and the young Nagi is already in school. And could they have an order of food placed a little earlier this week, to be supplied on Thursday instead of Friday? Of course.
On his way back up to their apartment, Crawford glances at the news headings, skimming an article about the fire that destroyed Kourin. It is not on the front page anymore; in Tokyo, things move quickly, and what is new today will already be old and sometimes even forgotten tomorrow. The metropolis does not stop and wait for its inhabitants to catch up with the world.
A name in one of the articles catches his attention. Shuuichi Takatori, chief of police. Reiji Takatori's younger brother, and his opposite in every regard. He makes a mental note to read this article in detail later on as he steps out of the elevator and walks back into the kitchen, where he refills his cup. Farfarello's place is deserted. Crawford takes his cup and the newspapers into his study and closes the door behind him.
"You want me to look up what?"
Nagi's voice holds little patience as he turns in his chair and regards the Irishman hovering near the door. The fact alone that Farfarello is in his room does little to alleviate his mood, the fact that Farfarello is flipping a butter knife in one hand makes him, if not nervous, then uneasy. And what the hell is he doing here, in Nagi's room? He has no reason to be here, much less at a time when Nagi is supposed to be doing research for Crawford.
"You have access to Eszet files, no?" The butter knife is flipped once again before it ends up in the front pocket of the Irishman's jeans; good, at least it is out of view. It means little in regard to Farfarello's ability to produce a knife from any place of his body in less than a heartbeat, but what one does not see is easily overlooked, and Nagi is no exception to that unspoken law. "I just want some information."
"Information on research files on telepathy." Nagi's curiosity is piqued. "Why?"
"Schuldig." Farfarello moves further into the room, looking at the furniture. Nagi's private recluse is, despite him being Schwarz's hacker, curiously devoid of an overabundance of computer equipment. Two laptops rest on shelves next to his bed, on his desk two monitors are humming, connected to one keyboard and a large tower that rests next to the desk. Floppy disks and CDs are scattered across the floor around the chair the telekinetic sits in, but other than that, the room looks like any other room. Books on shelves, clothes hung over the back of chairs, the bed in disarray. For as long as they have been working together, Farfarello cannot remember ever having been in here, so he looks at everything, and finds little of real interest to him.
Nagi's brows lower as the Irishman comes closer. The urge to either turn his chair back around or blast him through the door makes way for interest. Files on telepathy?
"I always thought that you, being Schu's lover, would know all there is to know about that subject."
"I don't. At least not what I want to know right now." Farfarello arrives at the desk, or rather, at the edge of the circle of disks and CDs strewn around it. "I need to know something specific. I need information on Schu's situation."
"He's in a coma."
"I need to know more. Reports, research, anything in connection with telepaths and coma. I visited Eve yesterday night. She told me Schu's coma isn't normal."
"Why don't you ask Crawford? He can contact Eszet directly and - "
"No." A violent shake of the head. "I'm not going to ask Crawford. I'm asking you."
The Japanese youth sighs and chews on the inside of his cheek. "I'm supposed to be doing research on Kritiker." He turns his chair back around and drums his fingers on the edge of the desk, pondering. Not a normal coma? It is not his business. Schuldig is in a coma, and that is all that has to interest Nagi at this point. But Farfarello's presence behind him is a steady one, one that will not go away unless the request is met with a result. As a member of Schwarz, Nagi has regular access to any files the Eszet Headquarters have given out to their worldwide web of underlings and minions. Looking up the information Farfarello wants will take maybe half an hour, if not less since the Irishman has asked a specific question.
He leans forward in his seat, fingers flying over the keys on the keyboard in front of him. Over the years, Eszet has build up a web liking to the World Wide Web, complete with websites, information outlets and email accounts. This web, which has garnered the nickname 'Old Web' over the years, is what Nagi accesses now, keying a complicated 12-digit password into the simple green box that pops up on his screen after requesting access. The 'Old Web' deals mostly with what modern scientists would consider superstitious nonsense - files on telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis. Anyone who has access to the Old Web automatically has access to every recorded 'wonder' of the world, every not-so-normal happening ever recorded anywhere in the world.
"Sit down," Nagi says over his shoulder as Farfarello's hovering presence behind him becomes annoying. The Irishman promptly does, folding his legs underneath himself, in a place where he can, if not read, but do see what is on the computer screen.
Fifty years ago, when there has not yet been an Old Web, accessing Eszet files was a long, tedious procedure that required one overcame countless safety measures. Letters had to be written, reports had to be given, sent through a system of envoys who were paid ten times as much as the ordinary postal worker these days. Nagi has heard of Eszet minions who were killed for trying to use the normal postal system. With the dawning of the computer age, new shores had to be sailed. Keeping up with the developments of the first computers, Eszet scientists had designed a program liking to Unix, the sophisticated computer operating system most computers on the Internet use. Its hard- and software very similar to that of millions of clones  existing in millions of households all over the world, this program, 'Gehenna' , was designed with only one aim in mind: the gathering and distillation of information valuable to Eszet and it's off-branching companies, contributed by the Old Web. One will not find personality tests or websites advertising the newest brand of shampoo in the Old Web. There are no personal websites, no campaigns, only what every person who has access to Gehenna and the Old Web craves: information. It is basically nothing more but a giant WebCrawler that looks for and adds information to already existing sources.
When Nagi had first accessed the Old Web, the name 'Gehenna' greatly amused him. Hebrew for 'hell', the name sounded as though one of the Eszet scientists had read one too many end of the world stories.
But a hell the Old Web is, if not by looks, then certainly by organization and potential. After his password has been tested and validated - Eszet sends out a new encrypted password to its members every three days, along with an decryption program only accessible by identification via fingerprint and voice sample - his screen goes black for a long moment. The box that then pops up is no larger than his hand, and contains only a long, white input field.
"I'm going to look for 'telepathy, coma, telepathy-induced coma'," Nagi mutters as his fingers key in the words. He hits enter and waits, sitting back. After half a minute, a melodious ping announced the information he requested has been found. He groans softly as the search announces over 2 000 results. "Gotta narrow this down somehow."
"Try 'telepathy' and 'out of body'," Farfarello says softly from behind and below him. From his vantage point, the Irishman can only see a screen full of links with a few words of explanations below them.
"Out of body?" The youth swivels in his chair and sends Farfarello a questing look. "You mean you think Schuldig - "
"Just try it."
"Okay ...'out of body' and 'telepathy'..."
Nagi is in his element, that much Farfarello can tell. The appearance of the otherwise slightly apathetic-looking youth has given way to a picture of strained concentration, fingers flying so fast over the keys that the rhythmic clicking sounds like staccato.
"There we go. That's better. Around 400 results." Nagi slides a zip disk into the drive plugged into his main tower and pulls the information off the Old Web, the process taking no longer than thirty seconds. "These are mainly text documents. You'll have to go through them yourself, I don't have time for that."
Eagerly, Farfarello takes the zip disk as it is held out to him, turning it over in his hand a few times. Nagi points at the laptops resting on his shelves. "Help yourself." The unmistakable hint at 'and do it in your own room' all too clear in his words; Farfarello rises to his feet and walks over to the shelves to take one of the laptops, winding the cable around his hand. Watching him out of the corner of his eyes, Nagi has to smile at the way the Irishman carries the laptop - as if he is holding a raw egg on his palm, trying to keep it from slipping and shattering on the ground. He clears the screen of the results, a new search box popping up on his screen.
"Just out of curiosity, what are you trying to find?"
Farfarello, already at the door, turns and lifts one shoulder in a delicate shrug. "Eve told me something yesterday." There is a significant pause in his speech, and Nagi knows the Irishman is trying to decide how much of whatever is driving him to do this he can confide. When the pause becomes too long, Nagi turns, only to find the door closed and no sight of Farfarello.
With an annoyed sigh, he turns back around and enters 'Kritiker' in the search field. Farfarello could at least have said 'thank you'.
Results start spilling down the screen of his computer seconds later. Nagi cracks imaginary knuckles and shoves up mental sleeves, and begins combing through the results.
He wakes up with a crick in his neck and his bladder screaming at him. Stumbling out of bed, he makes his way into the small room adjacent to his, and relieves himself, the air leaving his chest in a long sigh. Done with that, Aya sits on the rim of the tub for a long time, cradling his face in his hands, and stares at his toes. Instead of listening to the sounds coming through the bathroom door - birdcall, cars, voices here and there - he focuses inward, waiting for the nasal sneer of a voice to make itself known.
But the nasal sneer doesn't come, and Aya wonders if it is possible for Schuldig to fall asleep or stay asleep while he is up and awake. The thought holds a certain amount of amusement, and he can't help but picture a cat rolled up in the corner of a dark room, nose tucked between its paws, snoozing blissfully. Yes, a small, dark cat, gray or black, with green or yellow eyes.
The knock on the door to his main room destroys the fleeting sense of amusement quicker than a landslide destroys a village. He sits for a moment longer before he rises and leaves the bathroom, pulling the door shut behind him. He is dressed in pajama pants; the air in his room smells of stale sweat. Before he goes to answer the door, Aya opens the window above his bed, Goosebumps rising on the skin of his arms and chest, his nipples drawing into tight, small buds. He kneels on his bed for a moment, drawing a deep lungful of fresh, crisp morning air.
The knock comes again, paired with Omi's hesitant voice.
When Aya opens the door, Omi looks as though he has not slept all night. His hair sticks up in all directions, his face is drawn and white. He is holding a sheaf of paper rolled up in one hand, while the other holds on to the doorjamb. Silently, they study each other for a long moment before Aya steps aside to make way for Omi to enter. The youth does, hesitantly, mumbling a meek, raspy good morning greeting, to which Aya replies with a short nod. As soon as Omi stands inside, Aya retreats from the door and walks over to his bed, sitting down on its edge. The cold air coming in from the window makes him shiver, but the air is fresh, and crisp, and smells so much better than the air in his room.
"Manx gave me the disk," Omi starts the conversation. He lifts the sheaf of paper a fraction of an inch before his arm drops to his side again. Aya's eyes hang on the paper before he nods, waiting for Omi to elaborate further. "I was at it all evening - night."
Aya nods again.
"Aya, I ..." Omi sighs, looks at his feet. His entire behavior makes Aya think of a young school boy reporting a failed mathematics test to his parents; the mention of the disk already prepared him for what is to come now. He takes a soft breath and lets it out between parted lips, waiting for Omi to go on.
Which Omi does not. Instead, he steps forward quickly and drops the paper into Aya's lap, then steps back just as promptly. Omi's arms cross over his chest, an unconscious gesture. Slowly, Aya picks up the paper and unrolls it. Marginally, his fingers tighten on it as he calmly studies the glossy printout; Farfarello's face is looking at him, or rather, he is looking at Farfarello's placid, insentient face over the black hump of his own shoulder. He remembers leaning over as he lowered the Irishman to the ground, he remembers looking at that pale oval for a long moment before running back inside to rescue the other man - Schuldig - from the flames licking at Kourin.
"That's Farfarello, Aya." Omi moves closer again, licking his lower lip. "You helped Farfarello out of that building."
"Yes." No point denying it, is there? Omi has stored this image on disk somewhere, no doubt. Briefly, Aya wonders if Youji has already seen it, then regards the notion as pointless. He rolls the paper back together and looks up. Omi's eyes are wide, helplessness clearly visible in the blue depths. If there had been any hope in them, any hope that Aya maybe would deny everything, or pull some explanation out of his sleeve, then that hope is gone now, crumbled before Aya looked up.
"Because ..." Because there's someone in my mind capable of taking over my body, and oh gods, please, please Omi, make him go away, make his voice go away, erase whatever happened and stop me from dreaming ever again, please ... "... I had no other choice."
"No other choice?"
"Why?" Omi steps closer again and sits down next to Aya. "Why, Aya?"
Imagine what Kritiker will do to you, sweetheart. Imagine being the hunted instead of the hunter.
Aya cringes as Schuldig's voice whispers to him, soft and silky and so much like sweet poison. It seems Schuldig is finally awake. He tries to ignore it, but there is truth behind the telepath's words - all things considered, Aya is now a threat to Kritiker, to Weiß, to their missions, their goals.
Omi seems to mistake Aya's cringe for hesitancy, and goes on, "I didn't show this to anyone.yet. I wanted to show it to you first." A sigh. "Aya, there must be an explanation. You hate Schwarz. We all hate Schwarz. They're Takatori's lapdogs."
Lapdogs? Schuldig's voice holds hurt pride. Don't make me laugh. Takatori ...
What? The mention of that hated name has made Aya interested - too interested maybe, for Schuldig suddenly stays quiet, drawing back into a corner of Aya's mind the Weiß assassin cannot find, cannot access. He tries, though, for a minute, before giving up and turning his attention back to Omi.
"I cannot offer any explanation that you would believe, Omi," Aya says, folding his hands together in his lap. In his mind, he imagines Omi's reaction if he told him how a telepath has taken up residence in Aya's thoughts, poisoning them with whispers. Weiß and Schwarz have met in fight a few times. He all too clearly remembers the outrageous power displayed by that youth with the darkly brown hair, the surprisingly easy-seeming moves with which the bespectacled man evaded each and every punch, each and every slice of the katana, every thrown dart. Ken's claws have ripped deeply into Farfarello's body but the man wouldn't die, wouldn't slow down, wouldn't stop fighting.
And Schuldig? Schuldig has always been a whisper behind the words, Schuldig has always been the one he, Aya, hated the most during those few encounters previous to the fire that ate Kourin. It isn't so much the flamboyant, abrasive nature of the telepath, no. It is the fact that Schuldig can look behind the outer walls and drag to light what people try to hide.
"Try one that I wouldn't believe, then."
Aya sighs, licks his lips. His eyes harden as he turns his head to scrutinize Omi - the youngest of Weiß, but also the one who has been with the organization behind Weiß the longest. Kritiker deals with everyday criminals, people who evade the law or slip through the loopholes. The edge they walk is thin - they are killers who kill killers, murderers who brings murderers to justice. There is nothing.'magic' or 'odd' about Kritiker. Superstitious nonsense has no place in the soiled world they live in.
"Another time, Omi," Aya says and rises.
Both their heads turn toward the door to Aya's room, which is slammed open a moment later, spilling a disheveled-looking Youji into the room. The tall Japanese is already pulling on his coat. Youji does not stop to contemplate what Omi is doing in here, instead, he finishes pulling his coat on and zips it closed.
There are bruised-looking circles beneath Youji's eyes, though not as deep as the circles beneath Omi's eyes. The Eurasian is slender by nature, but right now, this slenderness does nothing but accentuate the sharp angles of his body, the painful thinness of his legs.
Insubstantial like a soap bubble, Aya thinks. Again. He wonders if it is Ken's state alone that has taken its toll on Youji, or if he, like Omi, is eaten at by the revelation from last night.
"New mission. Manx called a few minutes ago, said it's urgent. Hurry!" Youji shakes a cigarette from a pack that appears in his hands and lights it with a look toward the open window. Aya and Omi pretend they do not see the shaking of his hands.
"Perhaps you can find something about this man's past?" Neu's voice sounds monotone and agitated at the same time. Through the static bristle that sometimes interrupts the connection, Crawford can hear movement in the room behind Neu, the creaking of bedsprings. "The name he screamed a few times is 'Asuka'."
Crawford thanks Neu with the littlest cordiality possible and hangs up, letting his hand rest on the telephone. He is a bit surprised at the woman's eagerness - the call he'd made had taken over twenty minutes to finish, with Neu explaining every little detail of the fight Crawford has only seen glimpses off. Tot, in the background, supplied bits and pieces from her point of view.
The call to Eszet lies an hour in the past. As expected, his superiors are not exactly thrilled about the outcome of the explosion at Kourin, nor about the role Farfarello and Schuldig played in it. Masafumi Takatori's work had been monitored ever since Schwarz had taken up the deceptive role as Reiji Takatori's bodyguards. Though a failure in every human aspect possible, Masafumi had been a formidable scientist, whose breakthrough discoveries in human genetics made it into the headlines of scientific papers such as 'the Lancet'. His latest project - the 'monsters', as the public called them after a few escaped from Kourin's research laboratory - had been promising. Though neither of Schwarz had been in those laboratories prior to the explosion, the results of Masafumi's work had been easily accessed after Nagi broke into their main computer. Eszet's orders, after the first batch of files had been sent to them, had been clear - Masafumi's work was not to be interrupted.
Now, that work is totally destroyed. Although Nagi's latest batch of information to Eszet lies only a few days in the past, no one will ever know if another breakthrough has been made just recently. As far as Crawford knows, Hell has been Masafumi's main partner, the only one with a training as a scientist. But Hell is dead, and Crawford doubts that Neu or Tot have any information worth knowing. Whatever the Eszet superiors were hoping to achieve by monitoring their work is blown away now.
Ever since Crawford came into Eszet's service, his personal superior has always been one single man, whose name is spoken of with fear among the minions of the organization. Paul Stahl, an Austrian by birth, is one of the few known individuals on earth who are gifted with more than one mental power. As a long-time member of Eszet, his powers of pyrokinesis, telepathy and empathy wreaked havoc among Hitler's followers during the second World War, when the Third Reich prohibited organizations such as Eszet and Rosenkreuz in fear of losing power to their teachings. Stahl, who is nearing his ninetieth year, is known for ruthlessness and craving of control; in the forty years of him sitting in the council of Eszet, many a Gifted died according to Stahl's wishes. Crawford, found by Eszet recruiters in his fourteenth year and thereafter raised in the halls and rooms of Rosenkreuz, has met his direct superior only twice in over ten years. But Crawford knows better than to try and pass the easiness with which his team's failure was noted off as mercy or understanding.
Though Schuldig and Farfarello are not responsible for the explosion of Kourin, both Crawford's failing to predict the explosion in time and the entire team's inability to protect the work done in Kourin, are points against them. Eszet does not do 'fair'. No direct threat has been made, but the American heard the underlying steel in the raspy voice he spoke to on the telephone, and he knows the devastating consequences he and the rest of Schwarz are facing if they fail again. Being somewhat Stahl's 'pet project' does not protect them from the harsh judgment the old man is known for. They are already living on a longer leash than any team of Eszet Crawford has ever heard of. Crawford has no desire to see that leash shortened. Heeling has never been one of his stronger points.
He leans back in his chair and sighs, his eyes trailing over the newspaper that lies folded on the desk in front of him. The grandfather clock that takes up a corner of his study announces the tenth hour in the morning with a soft gong. In two hours, Crawford has to accompany Reiji Takatori to the funeral of his son's remains. There will, no doubt, be a lot of journalists present, and Takatori will try to look his best as the grieving father of a misunderstood genius who suffers greatly from the death of his son.
A rhythmic thumping against the wall to his right makes Crawford turn his head.
Nagi has found something.
The heavy textbook falls to the floor with a graceless thud as soon as Nagi hears the door to his room open. He glances at the wall, glad his 'knocking' did not leave a dent in the wall, and waits until Crawford stands on the edge of the disks and CDs scattered around the desk.
"I found something." Nagi turns the monitor in front of him so Crawford can see. The screen shows a database liking to the police's criminal catalogue: a small, grainy photograph on the left, the right side of the screen filled with information and statistics. "There are three recorded organizations known as Kritiker. One is situated in Germany, it's a small security company, uninteresting. The second is a conglomeration of Austrian literary critics, likewise uninteresting. The third, however, is situated here, in Japan. I think it's the Kritiker we are looking for."
Crawford moves a few disks and CDs out of his way with his foot and steps closer, bending low to study the screen from close up. The photo shows an unflattering image of Takeaki Matsuya, one of Tokyo's leading crime lords, trying to shelter his face from the photographer with an upraised arm. The image, Crawford can tell, is old - Takeaki Matsuya is a lot more wrinkled and at least 30 pounds heavier today. Briefly, the American reads through the information provided next to the picture and finds it startlingly correct - birth date, criminal record, number of arrests, likely associates. He is not surprised to find the name Takatori mentioned in footnotes, with a red question mark behind it. Indeed, Takeaki Matsuya has worked for the Jingen Party leader a few times, and always quite successfully.
"The database I accessed is up to date," Nagi continues, scrolling down to a small input field. He enters 'Takatori, Masafumi', and a moment later Crawford finds himself looking at Takatori senior's son, his image crossed through with a red X. He purses his lips and straightens up.
"How did you find it?"
"They're mentioned a few times in older records. Mostly just hints and vague ideas," Nagi eyes the small status bar in the corner of the screen and calculates how much time he has spent in the database already. "Ten years ago, there was a change in leadership. Seems that whoever was heading them then is recorded in Eszet files as a somewhat low-level telepath, and Eszet kept tabs on them. There is mention of an organization called 'Critic', I think whoever took over later renamed it to 'Kritiker'. Seems not only Japanese rock bands have an affinity for German terms. Anyway, Eszet lost interest in them as soon as that one person died, seeing that what they built up was not a group dealing with the paranormal. I couldn't find out yet who that person was, but I'm working on it. There aren't that many recorded Gifted stemming from Japan."
The status bar Nagi is looking at begins to turn red in color. Calmly, the youth saves the information onto his hard drive and exits the database, switching to the second screen on his desk. After a moment of keying, he pulls the information he saved up and moves aside, leaving Crawford enough space to get a better look. The American browses through the various pages for a minute, making small sounds in his throat ever so often when he comes across a face or a name known to him.
"It seems that whoever leads Kritiker is, they have access to police records. I don't see how else their files can be so accurate and up to date." Thoughtfully, Crawford taps the desk with his fingers. "Did you find anything about Weiß?"
"Not yet. The database I cracked concentrates on the criminals of Tokyo. There is one more, which I think holds information on the members of Kritiker." Nagi nods, more to himself than to Crawford. "This one was pretty easy to get into. The other will be harder."
"Of course. They have to protect their affiliates from any unwanted attention." Stepping back from the desk, Crawford walks a few steps away from it and crosses his arms over his chest, pondering. The first time he heard about Kritiker was from Eve Drake, whose bonds with the underworld and small gangs have given her access to more information than most people could claim to have. He also knows Kritiker is behind Weiß - the information easily pulled from tads of information gleaned from various sources in shady bars and shadier individuals. Technically, what Kritiker does is of no interest to Crawford or his team as long as they don't interfere with their plans. And yet.
He turns and blinks. He has not heard Nagi address him the first time.
"Do you want me to go on looking?"
"Yes." The leader of Schwarz nods. "I'll escort Takatori senior to the funeral of his son this noon. Find out as much as you can about Weiß. I'll explain everything later, when I get back. Now is.too soon. I need to plan. There may be more factors that need to be paid attention to than I initially thought."
Nagi grunts an affirmative and turns back to his screen, Crawford's presence already forgotten it seems. As he walks back to the door, he notices one of Nagi's laptops is missing from its usual spots on the shelf.
"Farfarello has it," comes Nagi's reply when asked.
"Does Tetris hurt god?"
Crawford does not wait to hear if Nagi laughs about the jab or not, and walks back to his study.
Anyone familiar with the basic concept that makes up Kritiker will expect their headquarters to be a well-kept, glass and steel building stuffed to the brim with high-tech machinery and computers. It is, after all, what many movies make one think.
The reality, however, is much less grand.
Kritiker headquarters, lovingly called 'the Den' by its employees and agents, are located in a rundown office building in Shibuya, perched between a karaoke bar and shopping center on the left and the looming building of Tower Records on the right. Shibuya is the 'sakariba', the 'party town' for Tokyo's youth, and has held on to that name since the 1930s. Today, one would find here everything 'in' at the moment, from food to clothes to music. Shibuya's stores and boutiques have something for everyone, and attract an equal crowd of locals and tourists each night and day; the neighboring district Dogenzaka, with its steep, meandering streets, night clubs, bars and 'love hotels' provides the entertainment-hungry crowd with refuges long after the tantalizing offerings of Shibuya have been closed down for the night.
There is always an air of well-kept hectic and bustling energy in the Den. One will enter Kritiker headquarters through a small door on the backside of the office building, its front occupied by a clothes store run by two elderly Kritiker agents. Going up a flight of stairs, and passing through more security than at a national airport, one's eyes will fall on a large, brightly lit room partitioned into many small cubicles. It looks like an ordinary office to anyone who does not know what exactly is worked on in here.
Manx meets the members of Weiß at the door to the first room and leads them through a narrow street amid the box-shaped cubicles. She does not hesitate to greet and smile whenever she is greeted; even Aya, Omi, and Youji receive a welcoming nod or even a thumps-up here and there. With good reason - they are Kritiker's most successful team up to date.
The real Den begins behind a steel-plated door. The room that follows is illuminated by computer screens only, it seems, and it takes a while to get one' s eyes accustomed to the strange, glowing light. Here, the background noise is not that of whispers and bits of conversation, but of computer keys clacking, sometimes at astonishing speed. Air conditioner ducts are positioned throughout the room, keeping the computers cooled. Some portions of the floor are raised, kept apart from the rest of the room by glass walls. The entire left wall of the Den is taken up by a row of blackboards and white boards on which erasable markers are used. There are no windows - although it is unlikely that any target of Kritiker would ever find out about its whereabouts and try to spy through a window, a precaution taken is better than dealing with damage. On the wall facing the door, a large TV screen takes up most of the space; at present, there are lines of unintelligible data coursing down that screen, understandable only by those who work here.
The right wall of the Den is an array of printouts stacked on more boards, an old soda vending machine, a sandwich vending machine, lockets and coat racks. Manx again leads the four young men through rows of desks and past busily keying agents, until they reach a table set nearest to the computer screen, where a man is working furiously at a computer. With his back turned to them, he has the recognizable posture of one who spends to much time in front of a computer: slouched in his chair, elbows resting at his sides, hands busy on the keyboard.
The man does not turn from the screen as he greets Manx, following the greeting with a string of obscenities muttered under his breath. Aya and Youji feel a little lost as they stand there, surrounded by machines they rarely work with. Omi on the other hand looks around curiously, whistling softly through his teeth at some things.
The man slams his fist down on the desk. The din of clacking keys in the Den dies down for a long moment and makes room for agitated silence, which is only slowly filled by other sounds again. Without having to turn, Aya, Youji and Omi know most eyes in the Den are fixed on them and the man in front of them now. One starts feeling eyes on one's back after a while in the line of work they do.
Obviously frustrated, the man flings himself back into his chair and swivels around, pushing air out through gritted teeth.
"I lost him," he announces unhappily.
"Weiß, this is Chris Bowen. Chris, these are the boys," Manx says.
Chris Bowen is a thin, weary-looking man in his thirties, wearing ill-fitting gray slacks and a sweat-stained white shirt. He has receding sandy blond hair and gray eyes which are hidden behind small designer glasses. His hands, Aya notices after only a moment, are restless: they constantly seem to be keying on an invisible keyboard. Bowen's fingertips are yellow - calluses springing from too many hours spent at a computer.
"Chris is from America," Manx goes on as Bowen makes no move to introduce himself further. "He's our best import so far, straight from Silicon Valley."
Youji sighs, hand going for the pocket of his coat where he keeps his cigarettes. "Sorry if I'm sounding like an ass, but you didn't just bring us here to make small-talk about some hacker, Manx?"
"An hour ago, someone cracked Kritiker's database password and went through the firewalls without any of us noticing," Bowen speaks up, licking his lips absent-mindedly. His eyes take in Weiß' attire emotionlessly, and Omi thinks that this man is most likely more interested in his computer than in another human being. "I don't know how they got around that, but they did. Which is alarming, because it shouldn't even be known there is such a database. I tried to stop them but for some reason they evaded each and every attempt I made at getting a hold of them. They were only noticed because the search engine suddenly seemed to be performing on its own."
"Meaning ...?" Omi's interest is awakening. As an agent of Kritiker, he has access to the database Bowen speaks about. Kritiker's computers are well-guarded, their passwords changed weekly. There is no way an ordinary search on the Internet will provide one with a link to any Kritiker-related websites, or even sites with mention of them. He knows because he tried.
"Meaning we have a problem." Bowen turns back to his computer and keys something, then swivels around again. "Whoever it was, they went straight for the main base and accessed our criminal records. This wasn't some hacker having fun, this was someone who knew what they were looking for."
Omi, Aya and Youji remain silent, waiting for Bowen to go on.
"I was able to trace the records they were looking at, and they were random at first. But then they got specific. Here." Bowen motions towards the screen, where a list of names glows in a bright green. After a moment of reading, Aya lifts an eyebrow.
"Those are all names of people who were targets of Weiß," the Japanese says softly.
"Not only that." Bowen sighs. "You're the team focusing on Takatori, aren't you?"
Aya's hands tighten imperceptibly. "Yes."
"Well, the hacker mostly accessed files that mentioned Reiji Takatori's name. We don't have him as a listed criminal in here but his name's mentioned in footnotes a lot where we suspect he has connections. The files that were accessed after a few random ones all mention him."
"It could be a coincidence," Manx says quietly, arms crossed over her chest. "We've had cases of retired agents accessing the database through old passwords that didn't get deleted, and we once had the wife of one agent accessing it through her husband's supposedly privately kept password just for kicks. In light of Masafumi Takatori's recent death I doubt this was just someone from our team having fun."
"Not only that," Bowen says, and his tone of voice takes on the quality of someone just having been told their beloved dog died. "I'm gonna try and dumb this down for you boys."
Omi sniffs, feeling insulted.
"There's only so many ways one can hack into a computer. Access through a virus planting a Trojan horse or a trapdoor, or by breaking into someone's house and directly looking at the computer are two of them. Every time a computer is hacked into, the hacker leaves something behind - traces in the snow, if you will. Echoes in cyberspace. That's how most hackers get caught, they get careless and leave something behind, or they lose track of time and get tracked down by tracer demons." Bowen fiddles with the collar of his shirt and chews on his lower lip, sending a scorching glance at his computer. "This hacker left a trace, too. But it's nothing I've ever seen before. Operating system unknown, in other words. Whatever they used, you can't buy it off the shelf, and I doubt you'll find it anywhere at all."
"And now please repeat what you said for the strictly stupid among us," Youji says dryly, an unlit cigarette between his lips. Bowen hands him an ashtray. Youji lights up.
"Kritiker's computers operate independently from the police's main computer. We're linked to them only through a sub-base, but that one isn't accessible through the police line," Manx says, "So whoever it was knew how to find us. It took them three minutes to crack the passwords. This time, they only accessed the criminal records we keep here at headquarters. If they access the personal files next time ..."
Omi's eyes become wide and round. He clicks his tongue. "Then we're in deep shit."
"Precisely," Bowen says. "And that's where what I said earlier becomes important. Because that hacker used an operating system unknown to me, there's no way to track them. Hell, there's not even a way to stop them once they're in the database. I've been sitting here for an hour trying to somehow stop that hacker while they happily rummaged through the criminal records, and I couldn't do anything but fucking watch."
"How much about us is in the personal files," Aya asks, stepping away from Youji as the man exhales a string of smoke.
Manx sighs. "Everything you don't want others to know."
"Shit," Omi and Youji say as one.
Oopsie ... Schuldig takes the moment to make himself known in Aya's mind. Aya thinks he can hear the telepath laugh.
Funerals are boring, Crawford decides after an hour of standing behind Reiji Takatori and listen to the man drone about his son's achievements. There is no real emotion behind the Jingen Party leader's words, and the American wonders if he is the only one who can pick up on the almost bored tone with which Takatori recites what must be a speech someone else wrote for him.
The Aoyama Cemetery, situated between Roppongi in the east and Minamiaoyama in the west, is a large cemetery almost in the center of Tokyo. It is usually a quiet place, a place of mourning, but this noon it seems more of a meeting point for influential politicians and leading newspaper journalists than a place of quiet and peace for the dead. Around the Takatori family tomb - which, Crawford thinks with some amusement, looks like a bad parody of Cinderella's castle in Disneyland with its little tower and turrets - the flash of many cameras interrupts Takatori's speech ever so often. Undoubtedly, the image of a grand, heartbroken old man will be on every newspaper tomorrow and in the evenings news on television.
Takatori's eldest son, Hirofumi, stands at his father's left, a solemn look on his otherwise smooth, bespectacled face. If he mourns his brother's untimely death, then he does not show it - a character trait that seems to run deep in the Takatori family, Crawford thinks. Even Shuuichi Takatori, chief of police and uncle to the deceased Masafumi, does not appear to be overly saddened by his nephew's passing away to the land of the ancestors.
A truly dysfunctional family, everything considered. The only one who sobs quietly into a white linen handkerchief is Ouka Takatori, Takatori senior's bastard daughter born by one of his mistresses. But then again, Ouka is only 17, and her father does everything to keep her away from the dark side of the Takatori Clan. Of his three children, Ouka seems to be the only one the old man is truly attached to, even if, at times, Ouka can be a nerve-wracking little bitch. Crawford, raised by Rosenkreuz, never had to deal with adolescent females; the girls in Rosenkreuz who were of that age had no interest in the things that interest Ouka Takatori.
The speech draws to an end. Crawford follows Takatori as the old man moves away from the tomb, keeping slightly behind and at Takatori's left side, checking people who come up to shake hands and convey their compassion out of habit. He listens in on the brief, strained conversation between Shuuichi and Reiji Takatori: the brothers have been estranged for years. As chief of the Tokyo police, Shuuichi Takatori is the counterpart to Reiji Takatori's criminal energy, but the younger brother has never - or should Crawford say, not yet - managed to corner his brother enough to pin something on him. People like Schwarz prevent that from happening. Crawford feels Shuuichi's eyes burn a hole into him and smiles back politely, ever the dutiful bodyguard.
In the black limousine that transports Crawford and Takatori back to Central Tokyo, Takatori opens the small bar and pours himself a glass of water. He leans back against the leather upholstery, sighs, sips, and finally says, "Glad this is over. Now on to business."
Neu quietly sits at the small table, sipping from a café au lait, her eyes fixed at the shop diagonally across the street. The white sign in the shop's door reads 'CLOSED' in brightly colored letters. There is a big, yellow smiley beneath the letters, looking apologetic. She has been here for two hours now, and watched small and large groups of school girls and students pass by the shop, apparently waiting for the sign to be removed and the door to open.
She feels out of place in this café, surrounded by office workers and tourists. The coffee shop is Western-style, offering a range of dishes more suited to the palate of Europeans than Asians; she is tempted to try a 'beignet', but the prices are horrendous. The waitress already gave her a pitying glance as she entered, a baseball cap drawn deeply into her face to somewhat cover the reddened, irritated skin where the fire singed her hair off. Dressed in jeans and a windbreaker, Neu sits at the table in the farthest corner of the room, from where she has a good look at the street outside.
Tot's recollection of what Farfarello showed the girl has made Neu curious. She wants to see the enemy, wants to see them move about, wants to see how they fare after the explosion. Her stomach clenches at the thought of Weiß moving about freely while her and Tot have to hide and live in a rundown hotel on the edge of the waterfront. It does not seem fair to her, and it is not, but things are rarely fair, and she knows that.
A group of tourists enters the coffee shop. Students, most likely, speaking in a language Neu has never heard before. One of them, a young male about Neu's age, notices her glance and smiles at her, a fresh, bright smile full of white teeth. That smile crumbles quickly as Neu lifts her head and looks at him, making way for an expression of pity and embarrassment. He turns away quickly, following his friends to a table in the back of the café.
Pity and embarrassment are emotions Neu hates when they are directed at her. She glances down at her half empty cup and unclenches her fingers from around it, resting them flat against the tabletop. The doctors in the hospital pitied her, after she woke up from the operation that saved her life. She does not know much about her own past - anything prior to three years ago lies shrouded in mists she cannot pierce. She does not even remember her own name.
It was Schön who called her 'Neu' when they met at the hospital, where the blonde was stationed because of a broken ankle. Schön, who brushed the dark tangles of Neu's hair and stroked her cheek, whispering to her that everything would be all right, that the past doesn't matter as long as there is a future to look forward to. Schön, who introduced her to Hell and Masafumi and Tot.
Schön, blown to pieces, scattered over burning concrete and melting machines.
She looks at the sign in the shop door again and finds her view constricted by a car parked in front of it. The bright, early afternoon sun twinkles on silver embellishments, placing highlights in the hair of the man at the steering wheel. She recognizes him easily - black coat, wavy brown hair, slender statue. She also recognizes the two other people who leave the car and walk into the street next to the flower shop, where the back entrance seems to be. The sun makes the taller one's hair look like fresh blood.
Neu's lips part silently as she sits up straighter in her chair, watching the car drive off and out of sight. Sure enough, only a few minutes after the two have vanished, the tall brown-haired man comes back and enters the same street, disappearing out of view.
It seems the kittens have returned to the basket.
The waitress appears at Neu's table, a serving tray held before her, piled high with cups and plates. "Can I bring you something else?" she asks with a nod at the by now empty cup, avoiding to spend too much time looking at the burned side of Neu's face where it is visible beneath the cap.
Neu orders another café au lait.
Angrily, Youji slams the duffel bag down on his bed and throws armfuls of clothes into it. His movement is jerky, forceful, and he keeps muttering under his breath, mostly just random swearwords meant for his own ears. The drive back from the Den to the flower shop was made in icy silence between the members of Weiß, each of them hanging after their own thoughts. Thoughts that are black, Youji is willing to bet as he closes the duffel bag and rummages in his closet for the suitcase he keeps at the bottom.
The revelation of having to leave the flower shop does not sit well with the Eurasian. Over the years, he has become attached to the smell of flowers and earth, as much as to the homely quality of their kitchen, their basement, hell, even their stairs. The room he lives in comes as close to 'home' as Youji would ever call any place he has ever lived in in ten years. He stops packing and looks around, eyes gliding over the bookshelves, the table, the bed. The smell of smoke that clings to the curtains, no matter how often he washes them. The view from the window, the way the second floorboard in front of the door creaks when someone steps on it.
He'll miss this, he knows. He'll miss the daily routine of walking out of this room and down the stairs to join the others in the flower shop or in the kitchen for breakfast. Breakfasts that were spent arguing, or laughing and joking, whatever the occasion or mood dictated. Ken's comical attempts at cooking, Omi's horrendous pancakes, and no, he is not glad to leave, he is unhappy, very much so. One botched mission and their lives are in turmoil.
One botched mission. The corners of Youji's mouth rise in a sneer as the turns the phrase over in his mind, tasting its bitter staleness. Manx has arranged for Ken to be transported to a hospital outside of Tokyo as soon as possible. Chris Bowen has promised to move Weiß' personal files to a computer that is supposedly safe from anyone's eyes; Youji's argument that these files could simply be erased met with heated refusal from both Manx' and Bowen's side.
Well. Of course not. Erasing those personal files means a loss of power over the members of Weiß, in a way at least. Youji has never seen his personal file - not even Omi has access to them - but Manx' words have left no doubt as to them being more than just ordinary facts thrown together. Everything you don't want others to know ... And there is so much Youji does not want others to know about his life. His hands still, and he sits back on his haunches, half in his closet. His past is not something he likes to think about that often. It is bloody, and haunted by the sound of laughter drowning in the sound of gunfire. Echoes of a smile tainted crimson in the end, breath bubbling out of a chest pierced by bullets and the scene fades to white, white, white as his own life bubbles out of him oh so slowly. He sometimes wishes he had died back then. True, he loves his new life. But there was nothing wrong with his old life, safe maybe for the fact that it went down in gunfire.
That it took away Asuka.
His new life has given him Omi, Ken, Aya and a chance to avenge what has been done to him and others. But there is not a single day when he does not ask himself how the day would be if she had not died, if the flower shop never existed. No doubt, someone else would be walking in his shoes now.
Youji reaches for the suitcase and stands back up, carrying it to the bed. What if and could have never helped anyone.
They meet in the salesroom of the flower shop and silently look at each other. Omi draws the shutters over the windows and plucks the sign from the door, putting it on the counter. Aya turns off the automatic watering system that keeps the larger potted plants moist and cuts the power to the refrigerators that hold their flower arrangements. They don't have much with them - a bag or suitcase or two each, Omi's laptop, their weapons, clothes. In a few hours, a team of Kritiker agents will enter the flower shop and erase every sign that anyone ever lived in the apartments upstairs. Their personal belongings will be transported to a Kritiker storage room on the outskirts of the city, where they can pick them up after they have settled into their new home. The flowers will be removed and either trashed or sold, and the flower shop will cease to exist.
After a last look around, they exit through the backdoor. Dust settles on the flowers and the counters after the door closes behind them. Outside, Omi waits with their bags until Youji and Aya have gotten to their respective cars. When the bags are loaded into the trunks, the youth sits down in the passenger seat next to Youji and looks out of the side window until the flower shop vanishes from view.
The waitress looks up from the menu in front of her and smiles. The smile slips a little as she looks into cold, depthless pools of gray and stone that hold close to no emotion whatsoever.
"Do you have a telephone here I could use?" Neu looks at the window of the café, and back at the waitress. "It's urgent."
Chris Bowen returns to his desk in a hurry, fiddling with his belt, and lets himself fall into his chair. On his desk, floppy disks and CDs are piled three inches high. He takes a sip of cold, bitter coffee and cringes as the brew makes its way into his stomach.
"How's it going, Chris?" one of his colleagues calls out in passing, carrying a stack of folders. Bowen does not answer, only grunts and lifts a hand, before he settles his fingers on the keys of his keyboard, which is more familiar to him than the body of his wife. He accesses the Kritiker database and keys his way through to a section called APF - CONFIDENTIAL. APF stands for Agent and Operative Personal Files, and it is the heart of the Kritiker database, the best-secured part of their small network. As system administrator, Bowen has permanent access to these files, it is his job to keep them updated. He has spent half a year within the tangled and intricate network and thinks he knows it better than anyone else in the Den. As his computer processes the password he needs to have accepted although he is a system administrator, Bowen's eyes fall on the piece of paper sticking out of the breast pocket of his shirt. The four names on it have to be erased from Kritiker's computers. Each and every mention of these four young men has to vanish as soon as possible.
Once inside the database, Bowen enters the first of the four names and hits ENTER.
Manx hurries through the outward part of the Den as fast as her stiletto heels carry her, cursing as she bumps into a security guard and nearly goes down with him. She ignores the stares she receives from the agents in the Den as she makes her way to Bowen's desk, arriving just in time to hear the American curse most flowery.
From the look on his face as he turns around, she can already guess what happened, but nevertheless she asks, "What happened?"
"Gone," Bowen replies miserably, hands clenched around the edge of his desk. "The personal files are gone."
"They're gone," he replies, testily, as though speaking to someone hard of hearing. "All four files, gone. Erased. Whatever. I think they went back in while we were still trying to find out how they got access the first time."
Manx takes a deep breath and exhales in a hiss.
It seems they have underestimated the hacker's boldness.
In Tsukuda, the afternoon sun burns down on the streets, painting them with a golden hue. The school bus that daily crosses the river to pick up the children arrives and lets its little passengers out, filling the streets with laughter and young voices that soon fade as each child finds its way home. In the grocery shop across from Schwarz' apartment building, an old mean leans on the windowsill and watches the arriving children with a smile on his weathered, lined face. Children are the future, their parent's pride. He waves to his granddaughter as she crosses the street, reminding himself to give her the candied oranges he saved for her from the latest shipment.
After a while, the laughter fades completely, leaving the street silent under the eye of the sun. The old man wonders briefly why the youth from across the street did not arrive with the school bus, and then smiles again, reminding himself that it is not his business. The tall American with the glasses often drives to pick the youth up, and who is to argue against a 'parent' taking such good care of their child? He collects the carefully wrapped candied oranges from the table behind him and goes to greet his granddaughter.
The Schwarz apartment lies quiet, and Nagi listen to the silence after the laughter trails away. His eyes follow the sunbeams that filter through the cracks in the shutters of his window, watching tiny particles of dust dance to the floor. He sits leaned back, hands clasped in his lap, just resting, just breathing, just being.
Ran Fujimiya, alias Aya Fujimiya, alias Abyssinian. Birth date July 4th, 1979.
Father and mother deceased, cause: bomb attack. One sister, Aya Fujimiya,
currently hospitalized due to a head trauma.
Youji Kudou, alias Balinese. Birth date March 3rd, 1977. Father Timothy Hudson,
envoy/ambassador of the United States, deceased in plane accident in 1989.
Mother Keiko Kudou, current whereabouts unknown. No siblings.
Ken Hidaka, alias Siberian. Birth date December 23rd, 1980. Father Sanjou
Hidaka, ex-trainer of the Japanese J-league, imprisoned in 1995 due to
accusations of tax - evasion. Mother Akemi Hidaka, owner of the restaurant
"Lotus" in Kyoto. Parents are divored.
Omi Tsukiyono, alias Bombay. Real name unknown. Birth date February 29th, 1982.
All other information: ACCESS DENIED.
He turns the information over in his head, memorizing birth dates, codenames, information about parents. He does not have to look at the screen to be able to do so. Outside, a car drives slowly by, the sound of the engine loud in the silence. He watches the dust dance in the sunlight, repeating the information to himself.
Nearly half a megabyte of information about Weiß sits on Nagi's hard drive, waiting to be dissected. He has been right in his assumption that the second database of the Kritiker network, APF, was harder to crack, but it still was easier than most things he usually does. The system administrator's attempts at catching him the first time have been endearingly cute, and it was with no little feeling of malice and plain pride that Nagi has entered the Kritiker network again while the system administrator was most likely still tearing his hair out over the first access. He has taken the liberty of erasing the files and subdirectories from Kritiker's network after downloading them. They will not need them anymore.
Crawford is on his way back to Tsukuda. The Oracle's voice sounded smug on the telephone, as it always does when a task has been accomplished without complications. There has been a time when Nagi would have done anything to receive a smile for the results of his work, but that time is gone. Crawford's smiles seldom hold admiration or even just pride for the members of his team. Crawford's smiles are for the enemy when they die, for the non-Gifted they work with.
His hard drive makes a clicking sound, and the screen jumps over to the search Nagi is doing in the background. A list of names scrolls down the screen, some with birth dates and little notes behind them, others just that: two words standing for a person recorded in the endless jungles of the Old Web. The youth does not move at first, frowning slightly. That list is longer than he thought it would be. And it is doubtable if out of nearly 3,000 names, he will find one that means something in relation with Kritiker. But the person who headed the organization before the current leader took over is mentioned in Kritiker files, if not by name, then he or she did exist.
Patiently, Nagi waits until the information on Weiß and the list containing the names of recorded Gifted in Japan of the last 50 years is burned on CD. He stands and stretches, hearing the vertebrae of his spine click much like his computer does. A look at the small clock in the corner of his screen shows nearly half past two. As Nagi steps out the door to his room, the light above the elevator doors flashes green, announcing Crawford's arrival in the underground garage. Nagi walks into the kitchen and fixes himself a meager lunch, wondering if Farfarello would spend all day cooped up in his room, bent over the laptop. He is half-tempted to knock on the door and see for himself - the need to know if his laptop is still in one piece also playing a part in the entire idea. The mental image of Farfarello spending any length of time with a computer strikes him as odd. The only tool the Irishman looked normal with to Nagi's eyes is a blade. And why the sudden interest in types of coma?
He steps back into the hallway just in time to see the elevator doors open. Crawford nods at Nagi, shrugging out of his dress jacket.
"In his room," Nagi opens the door to his own room and steps inside, followed by the American. He leaves the chair to Crawford, instead walking over to the window to let his back be warmed by the sun while he eats his sandwich.
Crawford peruses the information, shaking his head at a few of the things he reads. He pauses as he comes to the entry containing Ken Hidaka's information, tapping his fingers on the desk.
"One of them is inactive. Siberian. So we're not the only ones short one member. The number is even."
"We'll start with him."
Nagi nods again, wiping bread crumbs from his mouth. "He was last stationed at a hospital called Makamura Center in Kritiker files. It's no listed hospital. I guess it's an institution under Kritiker's wing, something small, unknown. But they were stupid enough to list the district and the street."
"Neu called me while I was on my way back." Crawford offers a bit of information of his own for the information Nagi gave him. "Weiß have left the flower shop."
"Unknown. I think they gave them the order to move after they found out their computer was breached." Crawford rises from the chair. "We'll find them. But Siberian first. Get Farfarello."
 Clones, Clone - specific term referring to a computer bought off the shelf. Almost every household has a clone these days. They come as normal computers with Windows, Linux or Unix as operating system.
 Gehenna (Hebrew) - lit. translation: "Hell."
Part 5: Chapter 7 | Fanfiction