The sharp retort of a gun echoes through the air. Schuldich remains as he is for several moments longer, then glances towards the screen that tells him where he hit. I see him scowl at the result and he looks back down the length of his gun, sighting towards the target I assigned him. Another crack echoes through the air, followed by a third and forth, and from where I am standing, I can easily see the way his lips quirk into a smirk when he looks back at the screen and finds more satisfactory results.
It is the first time I've seen that expression on his face in person; up until now it has been something in my visions. Somehow it just seems even more like Hoffmann in the present moment, and again I wonder if Hoffmann really expects people to miss the fact that they're related. Then again, I suppose the orange hair and green eyes will be enough to set them apart.
It has been two months now since the pair of us started working here. The weeks have had their ups and downs, more downs than ups, perhaps, but I have to think that we're finally getting somewhere. I am learning a list of triggers to stay away from- the most obvious being, of course, Hoffmann's name. But beyond those triggers, just trying to work on Schuldich's shields is a touch and go experiment. It's a gamble, really, whether or not his shields will do what we want them to or just collapse on any given day, and even my gift can't always see which way it will fall.
Sometimes we don't touch his mind for days at a time. On those days, we focus on his education and his physical training. His reading is getting better, even if the Japanese he just started is, predictably, not going anywhere very fast. Two weeks ago I gave him his first weapon, and out of everything I'm giving him, he was happiest to see that.
"What do I need a gun for, Herr Crawford?" he'd asked.
"To fire, of course."
"On whom," I had corrected him. "You will shoot anyone I tell you to."
I still remember the way he smiled at such a prospect.
Hoffmann's nephew, indeed.
Either way, his progress with a weapon is much faster than any of the other training he's been receiving, which is precisely why I chose to start him on it. I cannot have him failing at everything he's doing, after all. He needs to have something to latch on and feel some confidence in. This is enough for now, and I've already been able to see how his skill with his gun is affecting his attitude towards the rest of his training.
He empties the last of his clip into his target before holstering his gun, and I watch as he slides his thick earphones down to hang around his neck. A press of a button has the computer printing his score and he looks over at my screen. I can't hear his sigh through my own headsets, but I see his lips move around it as he sees that my scores are still better than his. I reach up and remove the mufflers, setting them on their hook once more, and hold out my hand for his paper. He passes it to me as soon as it has printed and I skim over the numbers.
"Good," I say. "Soon we will start you on moving targets."
"Humans?" he asks.
"Not yet," I correct him. "There is a program that moves these targets. You will start with that and work your way upwards. We need your shields to be in better shape before I let an unguarded mind onto our grounds."
Schuldich nods, accepting that, and takes his paper back when I hand it over. I print a second copy to go into his file and he stares off towards the targets as the computer works. We take the car back to the house we've claimed and walk down the street from there to the gym. It took a little juggling to figure out a fitness schedule that worked best for us, and we have finally sketched it down so that Schuldich runs while I use the weight room and I spot him while he learns how to use the weight equipment.
The fitness facilities here are at least as good as what Rosenkreuz had, simply because both the base and the Austrian school need their people to be in perfect working order. Schuldich and I part ways in the parking lot. I head inside and he moves around back to where the track is. He seems to like running, no matter how bad he is at it compared to where he needs to be. He is trying and that is all that matters. More than that, he is trying for himself and not because I ordered him to run.
I let the door swing shut behind me, and the lights overhead flick on in reaction to my presence as I enter the weight room. I wonder how much longer we will have until his mind is well enough to leave the base. I have steady correspondence with my Asian branch, the Council, and the Five, but there is no one else to interact with face-to-face save for this ragged German. It is good for the both of us that he has plenty to work on by himself; I certainly have enough outside work to do.
The Five finally cleared out their bottom teams. It took weeks for Adrian and Ricard to get around to it, but at last the list was compiled and submitted to the Council. I know Adrian's biggest problem with such a cleaning was that he would carry the weight of the work. Adrian inherited the position of mobile executioner for the Council about ten years ago, taking it from Elizabeth when she turned forty. As the second youngest of the Five, it was expected that he would be able to shoulder the task. He only has a few years left until his own fortieth birthday, however, and then the Council will have to pass it off to someone else.
I may be the youngest of the Five, but I do not expect it to pass to me. For starters, I am a precognitive, and a precognitive Fifth has never held that title. The Council needs someone with a more destructive gift, which is why the Five always have a telekinetic and a pyrokinetic on hand. They are the preferred powers for the executioner's role, as they must be able to take out other Talents without a problem. A Five always has the role, simply because there have been times when the executioner had to act without clearing it back with the Council. Only the Five are trusted to act in such a way, though there are severe consequences for such actions if the Council feels the move was not justified.
I push such thoughts away, focusing instead on what is in front of me, but the future is not an easy thing to dismiss when one is a level eight precognitive. Visions come and go for the entirety of my workout, and I barely notice when I move from one machine to another. By the time Schuldich returns, I have made my way to the punching bag in the back. I know that he's back, but he is content to stay just outside the door and I am equally content to feign I do not notice his presence.
I find gloves on a hook and pull them on, strapping them neatly around my wrist. Golden brown eyes consider the bag and I reach out, letting a hand trail over it as I move around the bag in a slow circle. I hear the door creak slightly as Schuldich opens it a bit more to see, but I tune him out much as I would like to tune out my visions.
The first hit lands hard and echoes dully in the room. I think back on my year of high school in Belgium, and after that, my year of university in America. That was where I first learned boxing, as I let some classmates of mine talk me into joining the club. I figured there was little harm in it, as it would at least help keep me in shape while I was away from Rosenkreuz. I still have yet to figure out what good was to come out of study away from the school. If Seraphim was orchestrating things as long ago as the death of Hoffmann's sister, then she had to have a say in everything else that was going on around then.
The question is what? And why? What did she see coming that she had to act for? What are we supposed to do for Rosenkruez? My mother lived and died for Rosenkreuz; I still remember the love she had for the Council. She told me once that she had a son only because she saw that it was the best way to serve their needs- precognitives breed true and she knew that I would inherit the strength of her power, if not the sharp focus she always had. Everything my mother did for me she did only for the school's future.
But if everything *I* see is focused on Schuldich, thenů
As usual, my thoughts have done nothing but go in circles. I have learned nothing new from any of this, and time spent with Schuldich still shows me nothing of what he'll be able to do one day. But there must be something there, somewhere in the future, if he was told to watch for me and I was born to find him. But what? What was she expecting from me, from us? Her expectations were always set higher than I thought I could reach. I have lived my life trying to meet them, goaded on by her knowing smile and dismissing gestures.
Idly I wonder if my mother saw the way Hoffmann's interest would change, but that thought is ridiculous and I bring my workout to an abrupt halt. I have to catch the bag to still it where it is rocking from my repeated punches, and I realize I am breathing heavily with exertion.
"Remind me not to piss you off, Herr Crawford," Schuldich speaks up from the doorway, and I belatedly remember his arrival. He is watching me through slightly narrowed green eyes, fingers closed on the doorframe. "How did you learn to hit like that?"
"I took boxing," I answer, flicking my gaze away from him. Two months with no one but a ragtag German to fill every waking moment, and suddenly I am tired of seeing him. He is always either in my thoughts or right in front of me. There is no escaping him, and I feel a flash of irritation.
Years of this are staring me in the face- years of the two of us working together. Years of waking up and going to sleep and having him fill the time in between, and suddenly I wonder how teams do it. It was one thing to work with Alex and his crew, seeing as how we didn't live anywhere near each other and everyone could work with minimal supervision. Schuldich requires a far greater commitment to that, and seeing signs in my gift that we were going to be working together does nothing to prepare me for how it feels to be choked by his presence.
Why must I live my life, every step and every breath, for one of Seraphim's visions? Can I not make a strong enough future on my own with my own gift? Why must every vision I have be put into place by her prior machinations?
Schuldich watches as I peel my gloves off, and I can still feel his gaze lingering on me when I wipe the sweat from my brow. I swallow the words I want to say and instead focus on smoothing out my annoyance, but I can hear my mother's voice at my ear, remembered words from a long time ago when I got into a fight in Rosenkreuz's class.
"In the end you're only human," she had said with a mournful sigh. "You'll always have the same faults as a human, no matter how much I wish and you pretend otherwise. I don't have to be an empath to see past this stony mask you always show me; I've already seen you lose your footing so many times. How far do you think you can go with such a pretense? What good does it do you to pretend there's nothing beneath? All it means is that they will be more eager to see you fail; all it means is that you will feel the stumbling so much deeper. Don't learn to flatten such emotions; just learn to work around them. It is no crime to feel angry. The only crime is in losing control of that anger."
Fine, then. If Schuldich's presence is the problem, but I am not allowed to kill him to get rid of him, then I will have to find another way to get away from him.
"You have the rest of the day off," I tell him, gathering up my things and starting for the door. He watches me approach, green eyes still searching my face. I can see his surprise in the small frown that tugs at his mouth and know that he is wondering what the catch could be. His suspicion does nothing to help my mood, but I offer him a serene look in return to his stare and motion for him to precede me out. "Tomorrow I want you back at the shooting range and working on your languages the rest of the day."
He answers with an affirmative and follows me back to the house. I leave him on the first floor and go upstairs to shower, and when I come back down the stairs with a bag not even twenty minutes later, he steps into the kitchen doorway to watch.
"Are you leaving?" he asks.
"For the night, yes. I have work to do elsewhere." That last could be a lie unless it's interpreted as two halves: that I have plenty of work to do, and that it's possible to do it elsewhere. Schuldich doesn't question it, anyway, and instead watches from the doorway as I put my bag in the car. "Make some progress while I am gone," I tell him, and he nods and disappears back inside when I climb into the driver's seat.
I drive away the minutes and the miles, my window rolled down to let the breeze keep me company. It takes two hours to get to the nearest town and I buy a room for the night.
For once, I do very little work. What bit I brought with me, I focus on wholeheartedly, and then I busy myself with what few distractions the town has to offer. It does not matter how small the place is or how strangely the people look at me. All I need is to let Schuldich bleed out of my system for one night, if only so that I can let him invade it again tomorrow afternoon.
For the first time in a long time, my gift shows me nothing of him. Maybe my mind recognizes the strain his constant presence puts upon it, but somehow or another, it twists so that I don't catch a single glimpse of his face in my visions that night.
By the next day I am through with such foolishness. I have had my blunt reminder that I am human and I am ready to accept both the fact that I find his presence aggravating and the fact that I can still walk away when I need to. I'm more accepting of what I've been handed after an overdue day without him, and I return to the base after lunch.
Schuldich is dozing in the den with his books. I wake him up and send him running for sleeping during his lessons. He goes without an argument, and I take my time unpacking my things again.
It is a month before I return to that town, but this time I take Schuldich with me. We have been working on his shields again, and although I already know the result of this trip, I decide to bring him anyway. He sits silent in the passenger seat, watching the scenery as he leaves the base for the first time in three months. One hand holds a pen over the notebook in his lap, ready to take the notes I told him to.
His pen first touches the paper with half an hour left to go; I glance his way as I hear it scratch out the time. He's not looking at his notebook as he writes. Instead, green eyes are pointed out the windshield, suddenly alert. The town is showing up on his mental radar already- unexpected, given the distance, but not unwelcome.
He gets increasingly restless the closer we get; it has been three months since he was around any mind besides mine, and these townsmen do not have the shields I do. I listen to the pen scratch over paper, and a glance that way at a turn shows that he's alternating between drawing and just making circles. His drawing is slow but steady, and I am satisfied to see it. I don't want him touching individual minds, but I want him to use his ability to track location. He's attempting to draw the town based on the people he feels within it, judging the way they move and where they're clumped. It's just a rough sketch to get an idea of the size, but by the time we are just five minutes out, it looks to be almost the same shape as the town is on the map.
"How are your shields?" I ask as we enter town.
He grimaces as he looks out the window, studying the people we're passing. "They're holding, Five Crawford."
For now, anyway.
"I would ask that you stop that," I tell him, finding a place to park. He sends me a questioning look as I pull the keys from the ignition and I glance back at him, meeting his gaze. "There is no need to call me by a title," especially when he only remembers to use it half of the time, anyway. "While it is true that I rank above you both as one of the Five and as your field leader, we are still a team and the hierarchy follows different rules."
He frowns at that. "Then what am I to call you?"
"Crawford or Oracle will suffice," I answer. "Get out of the car."
As he moves around the side of the car, I motion him over and hand over an Athlon pill. He takes one look at it where it rests in his hand and peers up at me, looking uneasy by the gift. "They're going to fall again," he guesses.
"Get back to the car before you take this," I tell him. "If you take it and collapse here in town, I will leave you here, and your mind will shatter further upon waking. No matter what it costs, get back to the car first. Do you understand?" He just nods, toying nervously with the pill. "Now go. This is a necessary experiment. Do not forget to time it or we will just have to do this all over again."
He nods, fingers closing over the medicine. I turn away and leave him there, off to take care of my own tasks. I know he will stay within a two block radius of the car, unwilling to move any further when he has already been warned that his shields will fall, but it doesn't matter. If he could pick up the town from half an hour away, then he won't have to go far for him to feel the effects of these people on his mind.
I make my way to a coffee shop and order a drink while I wait for his collapse, and I take notes on a small notepad for my next report to Ikida and the Council. It is a good sign for what we have been working on if Schuldich could sense the town so far away; the next test of whether or not we have made any progress is how long he lasts here. This town is bigger than the Austrian airport.
Beyond that, there is another reason why we've come here, though Schuldich does not know it yet. I watch my visions as I sip my coffee, filtering those surrounding the German out until I'm closer to the immediate future. It does not take long to find what I am looking for, and I let the minutes tick away to bring me closer to that moment. A newspaper from the stand out front gives me something to do; my Chinese is not good enough to read a newspaper without needing a dictionary. Still, it is better than nothing, and I can guess the rest through context.
A half hour goes by before it is time to leave, and I tuck the newspaper under my arm and head back towards the car. I intercept the man I'm looking for when I am almost there, and he sends me a curious look as I lift my hand to ask him to wait.
"I do not mean to bother you," I say in Chinese as I draw even with him. "I am passing through town and I think I've gotten lost. Could you help me?"
"You speak Chinese," he notes.
"Not well," I answer him with a thin smile. "I have a lot left to learn."
He shrugs and waves his hand. "That makes this easier," he says. "Where are you trying to go?"
"It's a small town," I say. "I have it circled on the map in the carů" I motion to it and he motions back, inviting me to lead the way. Schuldich is already inside, slouched down in the passenger seat, head against the window. The man reacts with surprise at the sight of his bright orange hair and peers over the top of the car at me where I am digging a map out of the side pocket of my door.
"I have never seen hair like that," he tells me.
"It is rather flashy," I answer, coming around and spreading the map out on top of the car. He peers closer to see, giving it a cursory glance to try and see if he can spot which town I've marked. It is a perfect shot; one hit and he slumps against the car, unconscious. I catch him as he falls and let him slouch over the trunk while I get the back door open. It takes a little work to get him inside, but I still have him tucked in before anyone passes by the parking lot. I push the door shut and fold up my map.
The sound of their quiet breaths mingling keeps me company on the way back to the base. Our first stop is the shooting range, and I lock our guest in one of the storage rooms there. Schuldich is driven back to the house, but I leave him in the car for the rest of the day.
He is awake before I am the next morning and we drink our coffee together in silence. His green eyes are glazed as he tries to reorient himself, but as I watch, he goes through the mental exercises I taught him and he manages to piece his own mind back together. He waits until we are done with our drinks and he feels less woozy before deciding to talk about the previous day, and I listen to his report in silence.
"Good," I tell him. "You are making progress. These are satisfactory results."
"Even if the shields collapsed?" Schuldich asks.
"You have only been working on your mind for three months. I would not expect them to be perfect already. In exchange for your progress, we are going to do something a little different to start our day. Perhaps you have noticed."
He notices now that his mind is back together. "There's someone else here," he says. "At the shooting range."
"He is going to help our practice," I tell Schuldich.
He accepts that in silence, and we ride out to the range together. He watches as I unlock the door, and the man I abducted yesterday stares out at us with wild eyes. "What's going on?" he wants to know. "What happened? Where am I? I demand to be let out of this closet!"
"I can't understand him," Schuldich says, glancing at me.
"It does not matter," I answer with a shrug. "You do not need to understand him; what you're here to learn has nothing to do with words." To our unwilling guest, I offer a serene look. "My apologies, sir," I say. "It seems that your day is about to get worse. My partner here is learning how to use a weapon, and I thought it was time for a better target than some automated machinery. I suggest you start running before he locates his gun."
The man's face goes white. "Is this a joke? This is a joke!"
"You have until the count of three to get out of this shed before I shoot you myself. If you can make it to the targets at the other end of this field," and I step to one side to let him see them, "before he retrieves his weapon from the back room, then you are free to go."
"This is a joke. This is a joke."
He lets out a low cry and bolts past us. Schuldich sends him a startled look at his flight and looks towards me. I don't bother to meet my teammate's gaze, more intent on watching our target. "It seems he is getting away," I note.
"Should I chase him?" Schuldich asks.
"No. You should shoot him." Schuldich's eyes narrow in surprise; he flicks me a sharp look before staring after the man. "I suggest you hurry; I promised him amnesty if he reaches the targets first. You have about ten seconds and then we'll have to go back to town to find someone else."
Schuldich is gone almost before I'm done talking, vanishing towards the room where we keep our weapons. Ordinary people might have reacted with shock and horror at the announcement that I wanted them to shoot someone in cold blood. But people like us? Schuldich's parents were Rosenkreuz telepaths; he was raised on his mother's principles and her way of life was death.
I daresay that he is a lot more eager than I ever was about killing people. I accepted it as part of my training because I saw it coming; Schuldich has been waiting restlessly for it ever since I told him that he would be allowed to practice on living targets. Now he finally has his chance.
"Five," I call to Schuldich. He's back and sighting down his gun towards the man. "Three."
A sharp crack, followed by a sharper scream. The man hits the ground. Schuldich considers him for a few moments where he's screaming, then looks at his gun and then at me. "Apparently I still need to work on my aim," he comments.
"Now you see the difference between shooting at targets and shooting at people," I tell him. "People are unpredictable and a good deal harder to hit."
"Hm." He considers this, then looks towards the fallen man once more. "Well, he's not reaching the target any time soon," he points out, and his wide mouth curves into a hungry smile.
"True," I answer. "Carry on."
I decide there must be a gene for such a perverse thrill in pain and suffering. Whatever the cause, however, that day and that murder change everything. Schuldich, who has spent the better part of a decade falling to pieces and being abused, has just found a situation in which he comes out on top. For the first time, he has the power and someone else feels the fear. There is a long way still to go, but that day gives birth to the future-Schuldich I have been waiting for.
A pity, almost, that I already know his aggravation level will only go up from here.
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