Beijing is exactly how I remember it: crowded and noisy. Schuldich doesn't particularly like it except for what it means for his shields. The fact that he could follow me here and stand in the streets now without it hurting speaks volumes for how far we've gone in our eleven months together. Dislike the crowd or not, it is overruled by the unavoidable sense of pride and relief. I can see it in his eyes as he looks around, studying the people that move around us in a constant, jostling flow. Electronic signs scroll messages that he tries to decipher with his Japanese and flashing neon signs catch his attention to distract him. The city is very big, very busy, and he tries to drink it all in within the first fifteen minutes of our arrival.
We see other foreigners, but none of them are familiar faces, and Schuldich stands out the most by far. He attracts a good bit of stares and he has no problems staring back. At seventeen years old, he has finally gained some height, though it's already obvious he will always be shorter than me. He has been letting his hair grow out since we arrived in China and it's down to his shoulder blades now, as wild an orange mess as it's always been. Green eyes are sharp and clear. His mind gave out on us for the last time six months ago, and for half of a year his sanity has held. It is done collapsing and ready to strengthen, and Schuldich has felt his gift turn itself completely around since then.
He has on simple jeans and a shirt compared to my suit, but a jacket helps him hide his gun, so it is enough. I brought him here for business, not for fun, and he was a lot more eager to come at the prospect that he would get to kill something. I haven't yet told him why we're here, but the gun is enough of a clue and I'm sure he'll be satisfied to hear it.
"Here," I tell Schuldich, and I lead him inside the next hotel we pass. I have already booked us a reservation for a few days, and the clerk helps us check in. She passes over our keys and shows us where the elevators are, and Schuldich follows after me there.
We ride the elevator up to the fourth floor and our room is third on the left. It's a small place, barely bigger than one of our bedrooms back at the base, but it fits two beds and a bathroom and that's enough for us. Schuldich waits until I've claimed a bed before going over to the other one, and he sets his bag down by his pillows and goes to examine the view.
"It's so big," he says, staring out at the seemingly endless rows of streets and buildings. "It just goes on forever."
"Nothing is forever," I correct him, and he glances back at me where I am waiting by the door. "We're leaving."
He accepts that in silence and starts back my way. The clerk is absorbed in her paperwork as we leave and doesn't bother to acknowledge our exit. Schuldich offers the top of her head a sneer as he passes, and I allow him his immaturity because I know better than to flatten his personality. Everything I've been doing has been to undo what Hoffmann has done, and even though we've been a pair for almost a year now, I know that it could all come undone at the smallest touch. He is not yet strong enough for me to step on him. Instead of yielding, he would crack again. He is spoiled through this weakness of his, and if he were anyone else, Rosenkreuz would forbid my leniency.
I chose the hotel not for its comfort or price but for its location. My former office is just across the street, and I bring Schuldich with me to the crosswalk. We both draw stares from other waiting pedestrians and a few make comments about our appearance. Mine are far more neutral than Schuldich's; mostly they comment on my height. As for Schuldich, it is a rather good thing that he cannot understand Chinese.
I let them keep the illusion that neither of us understands because there's nothing to gain by proving it otherwise. The light changes and we head out into the street, ignoring the bikes that try to fly around us. It's a step up onto the curb and I lead my teammate into the second building down. The secretary at the desk recognizes me and stands. She's one of Rosenkreuz's out of necessity; with Alex's team going in and out at all hours of the day, it is better for us to have someone here that will not question the hours and isn't a threat by remembering their faces. She's a rank three telekinetic, good for nothing except desk work.
"Oracle," she greets, bowing low over her desk. Schuldich flicks a look between her and me. "It is an honor to have you back here with us. Shall I call up to Yun Fat and tell him you are here?"
"No need," I answer. "We will be up there soon enough."
She straightens only after we have passed her to the stairs. The first floor is filled with offices rented to nearby businesses, just to help the place blend in with the others around it. The second is reserved for Rosenkreuz, and we take the twelve steps up. I no longer have my keycard from my time as Alex's superior, but I have something better, and that is my rank as one of the Five. No door in Rosenkreuz that belongs to someone lower ranked can stay closed to me.
I don't understand how the security system works, and I don't much care to learn. I've heard that it is cutting edge technology and I just accept it as that. My position within Rosenkreuz has never been one that I would have to care about the how. I have far too many other things to keep myself occupied with. All that matters is that it does work. I am only a few feet away from the door when I hear the lock pop, and I push it open easily.
It is all too familiar. Nothing has changed in my absence on first appearance. The doors are still open down the hall and the tangle of voices speaking rapidly in a number of languages is still the same. Phones ring, go silent, and then ring again as soon as they're hung up again. The door clicks shut behind Schuldich and I lead him down the hall towards Alex's office. I hear a few voices trail off as the people we're passing spot us, but I don't bother to look to either side to see who is where.
"We're making a scene, Crawford," Schuldich says behind me.
"Don't say it like it bothers you," I answer, because I know he's amused. I glance back over my shoulder at him; he's watching the doors we pass to see the way the workers falter. "German would be best here," I tell him. "This is an Asian unit; these people were trained in German at Rosenkreuz and whichever language they were to specialize in. German is the one certain overlap."
"Understood," he answers, switching over instantly.
We have been operating with a multilingual household, spending one day of the week conversing in German, two in English, and four in Japanese. Schuldich's English was in tatters when we first met because it had been years since he'd had the chance to speak it, but it's made a solid comeback. I cannot afford to let it slide. He was taught English for a reason, just as I was. As a bred Rosenkreuz Talent, I should have been raised on German alone, and then Korean and Japanese when I was assigned to Hoffmann's eastern sector. But my mother made sure to teach me her native language, beating it into me before I was old enough to enter Rosenkreuz's hallways.
His Japanese has been growing steadily over the year together, though it still has a long way to go. His speaking and listening clicks into place much faster than his reading and writing does, but he spends enough hours on languages a day that the progress is good.
I knock once on Alex's door, not because I should but because I know from experience that he shuts the door in the face of people who try to barge in. I did not have the clerk call up to warn him, so I cannot expect him to act any differently if I were to just open his office door and enter. It knocks back at me in a summons and I twist the knob and push it open.
I spot my replacement first. Alex has moved into my desk at the back of the room, as my exit meant that he stepped up to the primary position in this office. My replacement has taken Alex's old desk and he looks swamped with paperwork and files. He's speaking in rapid Japanese on the phone and doesn't spare me a glance. He wouldn't recognize me, anyway.
Alex does, and his pen stills where he's scrawling his signature across the bottom of a file. "Hmph," he says at length, and finishes the scratchy kanji. "You might as well come in, then."
I step in and to the side, and Schuldich moves up beside me. The door is pulled shut by Alex's gift and the telekinetic leans back in his chair, lacing his fingers together in his lap as he eyes us. "Herr Crawford," he drawls, testing the title out. "When you said you were coming, I almost wondered if I should clean the place up. Maybe throw you a parade. Then I worried that you'd notice the insincerity of my apparent respect."
"I never foresaw you learning any," I assure him.
I don't have to look at Schuldich to know that his shoulders have tensed. I catch the slight movement in my peripheral vision as I look back towards Alex's partner. He is finishing up his call and hanging up, and he looks up expectantly to see who is disturbing them. Schuldich's gaze doesn't leave Alex. He can't believe the man's attitude towards me. Knowing my rank, knowing Ikida gave ground to me, and seeing the way the others in the hall and downstairs reacted, he can't believe someone like Alex is being so blunt.
"You must be O'Donnell," I say.
"Curtis, this is Oracle," Alex says, flicking his fingers at me.
"The Fifth," O'Donnell says, inclining his head to me over his work. "Alex said you were coming by. I hope our reports to you have been satisfactory."
"I have faith in the Chinese branch," I answer, looking back at Alex. "Your partner knows I always have."
Alex offers me a thin smile. "That's him, then, isn't it?" he asks, looking towards Schuldich. "A politician to a teacher to the Five to a field team." He meets my gaze unflinchingly, unlike O'Donnell, who refuses to look at any of us now that Alex is acting so crassly. "You left Rosenkreuz for that? It is ugly, Crawford."
"Luckily, you do not have to find him attractive."
He scowls at my words. "You are making a lot of concessions for one half-mad telepath," he says, stabbing a finger at Schuldich and then driving his finger into his desk. "I assume you saw this was necessary."
"I assume you did as I asked you to and arranged our escort."
"Fuck." Alex rakes a hand through his hair and slouches in his chair. "The Five aren't supposed to be on the field," he mutters, glowering up at me. "The Five are not supposed to leave Rosenkreuz, especially not one with your background and gift. You could have left him to anyone else."
"I chose not to," I answer. "My escort, Alex, if you will."
He sighs and digs through one of his drawers. The file is floated across the room to me and I take it neatly from the air. "Pyrokinetic," he says. "Twenty-seven years old and still going strong, so there's got to be some worth to him. He's in the middle of a job right now, though, so it'll take him another day to get here. Maybe you foresaw the lag."
"He'll get here a few hours later than he told you," I answer distractedly as I flip through his files. "His plane will be delayed by engine troubles."
"Crawford, the years have not been enough to keep me from wanting to wring your neck."
"Alex," O'Donnell hisses at him.
"Do you need anything else?" Alex wants to know.
I offer him a calm look in the face of his irritation. "As long as everything has been arranged, then I need nothing more from you. We will be back tomorrow."
The door opens for us as I turn away and I bring Schuldich back down the hall with me. The clerk bids us farewell and Schuldich holds his tongue until we're back at the crosswalk. Then he cannot stay silent any longer, and his German is harsh and agitated. "Why did you let him be so rude?" he wants to know. "Why did you let him talk to you that way?"
"Rude?" I echo, considering the cars that blur into meaningless colors in front of us. "He and I worked together for a long time, Schuldich. His attitude has always left much to be desired, but that is part of who he is. I have too much to do to worry about people fidgeting over formal words and polite facades; the future can be changed in just a moment or a gesture and I need subordinates who tell me what I need to know. Alex has always understood that, and he knows that my promotion to the Five has not changed the necessity of such an attitude. I am the only one of the Five that will allow the people beneath me to speak their minds so easily."
"He was being rude," Schuldich insists, thoroughly annoyed. It strikes me as a curious thing, that he could be so fired up for my sake, and I wonder if I should be amused.
"He can say what he likes," I tell Schuldich. "He and I both know that he would die if I told him to. All he would ask would be if it was Rosenkreuz's wish; all it would take is a word from me and he would tear himself apart with his own gift. Rude he may be, but his loyalty is in the right place. He is just uneasy with Schwarz's creation. He understands the risks of a demolitions team and he knows precognition makes for a poor weapon in comparison to the flashier gifts."
"It is a better warning system," Schuldich mutters, stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets.
"Everyone makes mistakes sometimes," I answer. "Everyone can be gotten to. Beneath our Talents we still have blood and veins and muscles; beneath our gifts we are still human. Humans are born for one reason and one alone." Schuldich looks my way and I offer him a vague smirk. "To die."
The crosswalk changes, but neither of us moves.
"Cities rise and fall. Dams change the paths of rivers. A baby is born and an old man dies. We spend countless fortunes on education, food, homes, entertainment, and it is all just a waste. The only reason we have such things is because we were gifted with such long lives. We are still animals in the end, and animals are born only to keep their race going. When they have fulfilled that purpose, they die again. Humans are the same. Talents work by different rules in that our breeding is strictly controlled by the Council and the Five. Those that are not allowed to breed live just to kill and be killed. That is life."
Schuldich thinks about that and looks over to where the cross sign is flashing in a warning. "And you?" he asks.
"The Five are not supposed to breed," I answer. "It gives rise to the thought of inheritance, of a child rising up into his father's place. The Five are supposed to be chosen from the best of what Rosenkreuz has to offer, not from the blood, and even today Talents make the mistake of thinking fondly of their children. Part of it is human nature that Rosenkreuz can't erase; part of it is greed for what could come of such things. No one in this world can be as manipulative as family can be, as I'm sure you have noticed."
He says nothing to that, but he looks a little pale.
"And me?" he asks at length.
"You are a telepath," I answer. "Rosenkreuz's telepaths are dying; you are one of a few left. They would love to get their hands on you and breed you if only your mind was stable and your gift evolved, but there's trouble in that. There are no more female telepaths, and telepaths breed best when bred from a pair. Even then it is hit and miss, and it is next to impossible when it is a telepath and a differently gifted mind. Barring that, Rosenkreuz is already attempting to breed your kind through scientific measures."
The crosswalk changes again and we step out into the street. "I don't understand," he says, matching his pace to mine.
"I wouldn't worry about it right now," I assure him. "It is questionable whether or not you will ever cross paths with those projects. Just worry about your own gift for now, and leave the future to me."
There is plenty to be done in Beijing before our escort arrives. I knew before we came here that our bouncer would take an extra day to get here, but I chose to come on time anyway so Schuldich could see and adjust to the city. He is equal parts skittish and intrigued by it as our stay stretches on, wondering about the great number of people when he has only had me and that small town for company for a year. We spend a few hours wandering the city to help him adjust, a rather boring task for me but one that makes him happy.
He is amused by the oddest things, from the sorts of food sold to the kind of money they use, and he plays with the money I gave him all the way up and down the streets. He hasn't had money in years now, and the fact that I gave him some with the permission to spend it on anything is something special in his strange mind. He wants to spend it as much as he wants to keep it, and at last he sacrifices a few coins to a vending machine to buy a drink.
"You might as well spend all of it," I tell him as I watch him count the bills to see what he has left.
"Is that an order?" he wants to know.
"This is just another lesson," I tell him, and he tucks aside his money in a pocket to retrieve his canned drink. "When we start running jobs, you will receive a paycheck. We do not do our work for free; we do not destroy people's lives just for our own amusement. We are hired out by clients to do their work for them, and they pay us a great deal for the use of our gifts. You need to adjust to the idea of having and spending money. What you earn is yours to spend; I am not going to control what you do with it."
"Mine and mine alone?" he asks, looking towards me as he straightens from his crouch. He gives his drink a little shake but doesn't open it just yet, watching me carefully.
"I have my own to worry about," I answer. "I do not have the time to manage yours."
"Then I can keep this bit, can't I?" he asks sensibly.
"You are going to earn more in a few days," I answer. "That is why we're here."
He frowns a little at that, as he thought we were here just to test his shields and see Alex's office. "There is a man coming into town who will run a job with us," I say. "That is why you brought your gun along. None of the teams were free to take care of this yet, so you and I have taken their place. This bouncer will help us."
"Bouncer," Schuldich echoes.
"A bouncer is a Talent who has no team and tends to work solo jobs. Bouncers face the tricky task of being able to work alone and with teams; they break in new teams to demolitions and can add on to other teams to help a big job run more smoothly. They're teammates for hire, in a way. It is standard procedure for a team to use a bouncer on its first run, so Alex arranged one for us."
"We're going to kill people," Schuldich guesses.
"A lot of people," I answer.
Teeth glint behind his smile and he opens his drink. "I like Beijing," he decides.
"Enjoy it while you can," I tell him. "We are leaving China after this run."
He wasn't expecting that; I see his surprise on his face. "Oh?" he asks, and I can hear a wary edge in his voice. "Where are we going?"
"Are you afraid I am taking you back to Rosenkreuz?" I ask, and his fingers tighten on his can. "There is no reason for you to return. You have been turned over into my care and you are part of a field team. There is no work for field teams in Austria. We are going where the work is, wherever it happens to be."
"Japan?" he asks, relaxing his grip a little on his drink.
"Eventually," I answer. "But not yet. There are a lot of steps between now and then. We will take it one day at a time."
He accepts that in silence and finishes off his drink. Dinner is eaten an hour later at an expensive restaurant that is still where I remember it to be, and Schuldich and I head back to our hotel. We take turns getting ready for bed and I sit against the headboard of my bed, reading over the file of our pyrokinetic as I consider what's going to happen tomorrow. I set the file aside and pull my gun out from under my pillow. Fingers trail over cool metal and I close my eyes against it, watching images play out in my mind.
No other path, then? I had half-expected the visions to fix themselves into a different future, but it seems there is nothing else.
It makes no difference to me, and I open my eyes again. Schuldich shuffles into the bedroom in a pair of sleeping pants and I watch as he heads past my bed towards his. I set my gun away and he gets the lamp between us, and darkness descends on the room.
I can hear his breathing in the shadows and I try to remember when the last time was that I had a roommate. I don't think it has happened since my days in Rosenkreuz. There are many years between now and then and it is odd and out of place to listen to someone else in a room that is serving as my bedroom.
He seems to be thinking it over as well, because it is another minute more before I hear his sheets rustle and his mattress creak. I listen to the sounds of him lying down and stare down the length of my bed at the darkness of the far wall.
My mouth moves soundlessly around the word and at last I lie down to sleep.
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