Schuldig stood in the doorway, arms folded, lips dipping down into a deep frown. His mane of red hair was pulled back into a messy topknot, and he was barefoot, as if it wasn't the middle of January in Hokkaido, but summer somewhere far more temperate. He was also clearly irritated at Crawford, who stepped past him and into the foyer, brushing the snow from his shoulders.
"Apologies," Crawford said. "I was held up in traffic. It couldn't be helped."
"On the train? Really?"
"It was rush hour." Crawford shrugged off his overcoat. "The trains were crowded."
"Uh huh." Schuldig gave him a skeptical eyebrow. "Well, your reasons for being late are you own and not my business, but your guest is waiting."
"Yes. The one you asked for. She's here."
"Ahhh." Crawford tilted his head. Behind the loud buzz that was Schuldig's telepathic energy, Crawford could sense the deep stillness that was Nagi, and then a lighter, tenser energy just beneath that. The signature was definitely feminine, and it pulsed with an untapped potential that made him want to rub his hands in glee.
"Did you have any trouble?" he asked.
"None," Schuldig said. "But that's more because Nagi seems to have a way with women, and not because she wasn't reluctant."
"Nagi did this?" Crawford chuckled. "You're losing your touch, Schuldig."
"Eh. More like she's not my type." Schuldig waved a dismissive hand. "When they're that naive, they break far too easily for my tastes."
Crawford chuckled again, following Schuldig as he led the way down a short corridor. There was a shoji screen to the left, and when Schuldig opened it, it revealed a sitting room as well as Nagi and a young woman tucked cozily on opposite sides of a kotatsu.
"Good evening," Crawford said. Nagi and the young woman both looked up, and Crawford gave them a low, polite bow. "Thank you for coming on such short notice, and please forgive my lateness. I trust my associates have been treating you well in my absence?"
"They have, thank you." The young woman spoke with confidence, but there was an edge of distrust in her tone. "They have been quite hospitable since the moment of my arrival. Naoe-san even leant me his jacket as I seem to be having trouble staying warm."
"Ah, yes. I see." Crawford seated himself on one of the kotatsu's open sides. Schuldig remained standing. "That was very upstanding of you, Nagi. I'm impressed."
"You shouldn't be," Nagi said. "It's something any polite gentleman would do,"
"Yes, but given how our reputation can sometimes precedes us, gestures like that carry a lot of weight."
"Reputation?" The young woman looked back and forth between the two of them. "What reputation is that, Mr...?"
"Crawford. Brad Crawford."
"Mr. Crawford. I'm afraid I know so little about you and your team that I wasn't aware you had a reputation."
"Well, it's nothing to be afraid of." Crawford gave her his best benign smile. "It's just that not everyone looks favorably on what we do. We offer some very...unique services, and people sometimes find that intimidating."
"We'll explain more once we talk about why we've asked you here," Nagi added. "Because then everything will make more sense."
"Well, yes," the young woman said. "But if I may, can I ask a question before you begin?"
"Of course," Crawford said. "What is it you'd like to know?"
"I just wanted to make sure that...I'm actually the one you're looking for." The young woman laughed nervously. "If I am, that's fine, but you see my brother..."
"Went by the name Aya, just like you." Schuldig folded his arms as he leaned against the wall. "We're aware, Miss Fujimiya."
Aya blinked. "You are?"
"Yes," Crawford said. "And we know about the Incident, too. The one that...well..."
"The one that took my brother's life?" Aya looked down with a sad smile. "It's all right. You don't have to be coy. It's been long enough that I've made my peace with what happened, though I still get contacted quite a bit by people who think we're the same person. So I just wanted to make sure you weren't making that mistake."
"I appreciate that," Crawford said. "But it is, in fact, you we want, Miss Fujimiya."
"Okay. Well...I suppose you'll be telling me why momentarily?"
"Something like that," Schuldig muttered, and Crawford silenced him with a stern look.
"What Schuldig means is that there are a couple of reasons we asked you to join us today," Crawford said. "One of which has to do with what happened. We didn't know your brother, but we were in the area the day of the Incident. And we were asked by our employer to come to his aide."
"Oh!" Aya's entire demeanor changed. Her eyes misted over, and she looked at Crawford with a vulnerability that made his heart race. "So...you saw it then? The collapse?"
"Yes," Crawford said. "We saw it all. And I am loathe to say it was because we had arrived too late and not because we managed to do any good. I'm very sorry."
Aya gave him a watery smile. "I'm sure you did the best you could," she said. "And...I hate to force you to relive those bad memories, but...can you tell me what happened? I never did get much of an explanation."
"From what I understand," Crawford said, "a main structural support let go. It had been weakened by flooding and stressed one time too many, and couldn't take any more. And when it went, it took the whole building down with it."
Aya sniffed and dabbed her eyes with the edge of her sleeve. Crawford placed his hand over hers and let her feel it, let her relive the loss, and then waited for the right moment to go on.
Schuldig nudged him to let him know she'd reached the perfect tipping point for him to continue.
"They say it happened so quickly, no one inside felt a thing," Crawford said. "But...well...we've discovered some information that might completely disprove that line of thinking."
"What?" Aya's gaze shot up. "What do you mean?"
"We have reason to believe...the collapse might have been deliberate. Part of a plan orchestrated by a group called Esset. Not only that, we have reason to believe your brother might be alive."
Aya let out a tiny gasp. "That's impossible," she whispered. "I identified the body. I saw him lying there, lifeless..."
"You identified a body," Schuldig said. "But it was likely that body didn't belong to your brother."
Aya stared at him, shock and disbelief making her face pale. "What do you mean?" she asked. "How is that possible?"
"Esset employs people with very real, very powerful psychic abilities," Crawford explained. "Everything from perception manipulation to spatial distortion. They have telekinetics powerful enough to cause earthquakes, and telepaths skilled enough to completely rearrange people's minds. We've run up against them many times, and they are difficult, if not impossible, to deal with. We all have our fair share of Esset scars."
For emphasis, Nagi and Schuldig both nodded, and Schuldig took a step closer, sliding his hands into his pockets as he looked directly at Aya.
"But that," he said, "is where you come in, Miss Fujimiya."
Aya stared back, quiet and confused. "I don't understand," she said at last. "How...what does any of this have to do with me?"
"You have what they have," Schuldig said. "You have psychic abilities. And they can bring your brother back to you if you are willing to join up with us."
"What? How do you know?"
"Because Schuldig has them, too," Crawford said. "He has abilities, and he can sense them in others. All psychics can. It's an instinctual, self-preservation reflex."
Schuldig nodded again as Aya's eyes went even wider.
"I hope this doesn't sound strange," Schuldig said, "but I found out about your talents when I passed you a few months back in a subway station in Tokyo. The shock you gave me made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and I knew right then that you were like me, but I was worried that you might already be a part of Esset. So I gave Nagi your description and let him do some research."
"My investigation led me to your brother first, but I found you almost immediately after," Nagi chimed in. "And I'm sure you know, but your brother was very fond of you. He did everything in his power while he was alive to make sure you would always have everything you needed."
"Yes, I know," Aya said. Her eyes filled with tears once again. "I always told him he fussed over me far too much, but he was insistent."
"Because he cared about you," Nagi said. "That's a good thing."
"Perhaps," Aya agreed, "but sometimes I wonder. It's so hard without him. And I know it probably sounds childish, but I miss him. I miss being taken care of."
"Well, now there is a chance you can have it all back," Crawford said. "Your old life, your brother, everything. All you have to do is trust us. Are you interested?"
Aya sniffed. Nagi fished around in his pocket until he found a handkerchief. He handed it over, and Aya wiped her face, pulling her composure back together with several deep breaths.
"I'm interested," she said. "What is it I need to do, Mr. Crawford?"
"You need to let us teach you how to use your untapped potential," Crawford said. "And then you need to help us dismantle Esset, brick by brick. I should mention they are the ones holding your brother. If you needed any further motivation, I could find out where..."
"Knowing he's alive is enough for now," Aya said. "How soon can we start?"
"How about in the morning?" Schuldig suggested. "I always feel strongest when I first wake up. Shall we say 6 a.m.?"
"Yes." Aya nodded, fists clenched in determination. "Only how will I..."
"We have arranged a room for you here in case you decided to accept our offer," Crawford said. "They'll be no need to return to Tokyo if that's what you were wondering."
"Will I...have that for the duration of my training?"
"Oh absolutely! You are becoming part of our team. Which means you will be provided for in the same manner as the rest of us."
"Then 6 a.m. it is, Mr. Schuldig." Aya got to her feet and bowed low. "I look forward to it."
"Excellent," Crawford said. "Then it is settled. And on that note, it is also settled that it is Nagi's turn to cook dinner, isn't it?"
"It is." Nagi got to his feet as well. "Miss Fujimiya, would you...care to join me? It may be forward of me to say, but I have been enjoying your company and wouldn't mind having it a little bit longer."
"Oh." A hint of a blush stained Aya's cheeks. "Well, I suppose that's all right...Mr. Crawford?"
"Please," Crawford said. "Go enjoy yourselves."
Aya smiled and gave a quick bow before following Nagi out of the room.
Schuldig waited until the screen closed to saunter over to Crawford and place his hand on Crawford's shoulder.
"Brad Crawford," he drawled. "You magnificent bastard. That was so good, you almost had me believing your bullshit."
"Well, I didn't lie about the latent power. Were you able to discover anything more about the demon inside her?"
"Only that it seems to be resting. But I could poke it into wakefulness if you'd like..."
"Don't do it now unless you're sure you can control it."
Soft laughter filtered in from down the hall.
Schuldig grinned. "If I can't, I'm sure Nagi can."
Crawford unfolded himself from under the kotatsu and got to his feet. "That may be true but tonight isn't the night to try. We've set enough in motion, so we can relax. At least until the morning."
"A drink then?" Schuldig gestured toward a bottle of sake warming on a hot plate. "To our first victory?"
"Yes, to our first victory." Crawford smiled, and his glasses glinted in the dim light. "And then a second toast. To what will be many, many more."