Part Seventeen

   Rosenkreuz doesn't really have a system for birthdays, but that doesn't mean the day goes unnoticed. There are plenty of reasons to keep track of a Talent's birth date, and the system keeps such a close eye on it that the Talents themselves don't have to bother remembering any of it. Just the same, we're alerted every year by the school on that day. With the rise of technology, it has gone from a phone call to an electronic message. When I wake up that winter morning I find the simple notice in my inbox: "You have turned 24 today."

    Usually I brush these notices from mind as soon as I receive them. Different branches in Rosenkreuz have different views on birthdays. Aging Talents appreciate each one that passes because they know their time is rapidly ticking out. Field teams take it as a sign of success that they have survived another year in their line of work. The political branches use it only to mark the passing of time against their deadlines and what they want to accomplish, and the teachers drink themselves to nonsense at the reminder that they still have many more years left at their unwanted task. As for me, I have no reason at all to care about my age, but I still find myself lingering for a moment just the same.

    Being twenty-four means only one thing to me: it has been four years since Schuldich first stepped into my life and changed everything for me. Four years ago I was pulled from China to watch a ragtag creature in Germany. Four years ago he was nothing at all, and now…

    Glass shatters in the hallway and I sigh, relaxing further back against the chair. One hand pulls my glasses from my face and I squeeze the bridge of my nose, listening to Schuldich's laughter ring out. Laughter deteriorates into swears as something crashes and I push myself up from my desk. It takes just the press of a button to delete the birthday message and I return my glasses to my face before going in search of my teammate.

    The hall is dark, and after gazing at my glowing computer screen, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust. My teammate has no such problem; he has just come in from the darker outdoors and he spots me easily. "Crawford," he calls. "Up early again. Early bird catches the worm. I heard that phrase today. Today? Yesterday. I think it suits you."

    "I have meetings today, Schuldich," I tell him. "You know that."

    "I know, I know." I can see enough now that I can see him flapping his hand at me. "You've only told me about it at least three times."

    I swallow the urge to sigh and instead reach out, flicking on the overhead lights. He curses sharply at the sudden glare and covers his face, and I try to scrounge up some sort of disgust for his current state. My almost-nineteen years old teammate has been out on the town again, thoroughly enjoying readjusting to a new city. This is our third one in the year since we left China behind us, and after the rather unsanitary conditions in the last one, he's happy to be back in civilization. I may be the Five for Asia and my future may be in Japan, but the Council wants us to travel the globe before settling in the Far East. That included a trip to Africa, and Schuldich hasn't quite forgiven me for that assignment. Whether it's because of the constant guerilla warfare going on around us there or the excessive number of times he got sick, I don't really care. All that matters is that we're in Europe now and we've left the problems of the southern continent behind us.

    We've only been here for three days, but Schuldich has made himself as scarce as possible. There wasn't much of a time zone difference to adjust to but he has had a fine time of messing up his internal schedule as much as he can. It's just after four now and he's been gone for eight hours, drinking and dancing and doing whatever he likes. I don't even want to know what he does; I've seen his accounts and how much money he wastes on each of these long nights.

    It's truthful to say that the last year has been good for Schuldich, but I would be lying through my teeth if I said I've enjoyed the transition. Knowing what is coming and actually having to live through it are entirely different things, most especially when it comes to Schuldich. Seeing him as an insufferable youth doesn't measure up having to live with his insolence and mockery. I saw glimpses of his future/present self; I never sat and witnessed the larger events and conversations his attitude was part of. It's tiring and sometimes it's all I can do to not let that show; I know he'd just latch on and chew harder if he knew he was winning.

    "Hey Crawford, you really should learn how to loosen up," Schuldich tells me.

    "Allow me to envy your current state of looseness," I answer.

    He offers me a smirk and scratches orange hair out of his face. "You're jealous," he accuses me.

    "Of course," I return, starting down the hall towards him. "Every Talent dreams of being a useless wreck."

    "Useless," he echoes, giving me a dirty look. I don't bother to repeat myself, and he bares his teeth up at me when I stop in front of him. "I'm not useless."

    "Prove that you aren't," I invite him. "You're supposed to be the best of the telepath branch. You've already hit your rank six in the two and a half years I've been training you, but moments like these make me wonder if it is just insanity or luck that helps you accelerate through your lessons."

    He kicks his shoe against the wall. "I'm not insane," he says flatly, a hard warning in his voice.

    "Get away from the front door, Schuldich. I am leaving."

    He kicks the wall again. "I'm not insane."

    "And if you would like to continue receiving my assistance in that matter, you'll move," I tell him. "I can just as easily think up a future for Schwarz without you."

    He glowers up at me for a long minute before pulling himself to his feet. He smells of alcohol from this close and I can see the glassy, unfocused look to his eyes as he shifts out of the way. He slouches against the wall. "Schwarz sucks as two people," he declares. "I want a younger teammate."

    "For what purpose?" I ask.

    "So I can have someone to boss around, for once," he answers, offering me a toothy smirk.

    "Go sleep and sober up, Schuldich."

    "Is that a no?" he wants to know.

    "At the moment, you're the worst sort of role model another Talent could have," I point out. "If you expect Schwarz to get any larger, then you need to clean yourself up. I don't want a team of delinquents." He arches his eyebrow at the word, but he doesn't have the right to argue against such a label. "If you stop this nonsensical behavior, I will bring you home a younger teammate."

    He laughs at that and tangles his fingers in his hair, tugging idly at the locks as he peers at me. "You say that like you can just go to the store and pick one up off the shelf," he comments, highly amused. "You going to buy one at Fasching?"

    "Go to bed, Schuldich."

    His smile slowly fades off his face and after a moment, he squints at me. "You're serious," he realizes.

    "Your request was serious," I say, "even if you still find the most childish ways to express yourself."

    "You're serious," he says again. "You're going to expand Schwarz."

    "I have always planned to," I answer.

    "From Rosenkreuz?" he asks.

    "Time will tell."

    "Time will tell," he echoes. "Or Crawford will see. They're about the same, aren't they?" When I glance back at him, he flaps a hand at me. "Go to bed," he says. "See? You're not the only one that can guess what's coming. When will you be back?"

    "Later," I answer.

    He scowls. "Oh, go away."

    We turn away from each other at the same time: him, to go sleep off a long night of drinking; me, to work. I tune him out of my thoughts the moment I step out of the door, as I have more important things to think about, and I have almost managed to forget our conversation by the time I return home fourteen hours later.

    Schuldich is not so quick to forget. He is awake when I arrive and sitting at the table with a cup of water. He watches as I enter the kitchen and his green eyes follow me while I pour myself my own drink. I allow myself to be grateful for the silence after such a long day of boring conferences, but I know it will be shorter than I would like.

    He gives me until I sit down at the table before opening his mouth. "You were being serious," he says, neatly picking up the conversation we left off on this morning.

    "Are you that fascinated with the idea?" I ask him, arching an eyebrow at him over the rim of my cup.

    "*I* was being serious," he points out, "so you'd better be too. I'm not going to spend the next month or so without anything to drink if you're just going to go back on your word."

    "I would like to ask what precedent you're going by with such an accusation," I say, setting my glass down.

    He just makes a face at me and drums his fingers on his cup. "How long?" he wants to know.

    I find it vaguely amusing that he is so determined to bring a new face into our team, but it is also a bit of a relief. I have known for a long time that Schwarz would get at least one new member- a telekinetic- but I wasn't sure how Schuldich would react. I've never seen visions of Schuldich interacting with our other teammate; I've only seen him interacting with me. Considering his violent upbringing and the decline to humanity from a puppet this past year, I wasn't sure what to expect from him regarding this. Schuldich is mastering the art of being insufferable and I think I would end up shooting him or myself if he decided he didn't want Schwarz to get bigger.

    "At least two months," I answer. "We have just signed a contract with the Conservatory for that long."

    "Two months?" He thinks that over and then rakes his hair out of his face. "Fine," he agrees at length. "Two months."

    I accept that wordlessly and we finish our drinks in silence. After we have both set our glasses aside, I retrieve my briefcase from where I left it near the door and bring it back to the table. Schuldich accepts the contract I hand him and I set my briefcase down near my feet as he reads it over. I refill both of our cups from the pitcher in the fridge and have almost emptied mine again before he is finished.

    "Who writes these things?" Schuldich asks with a grimace as he sets the papers aside. "Why can't they ever use plain speech?"

    "Two years ago you wouldn't have been able to read it," I point out.

    Schuldich blinks at me as he considers that, and he looks down at the contract again. The English our mothers insisted we learn has come in handy as we move across the globe. The number of places we can be sent with just German and Japanese skills are limited, but English is enough to open the doors the Council wants us to walk through. Although a good number of our clients' associates in our three contract areas so far don't speak more than a few words of it, the people we're assigned to are those who were forced to learn English in school and now make the most of it for their business negotiations.

    "Huh," Schuldich says at last, just a quiet sound, and I can see his face relax out of the haughty expression he so frequently wears these days. He pulls the contract closer to stare down at the printed words, reflecting on how far he's come, and when he looks up at me, I know we're finally going to have a peaceful night. They're getting rarer these days: the nights when Schuldich lingers somewhere between who he was and who he is now. I find myself almost looking forward to them, because they're the nights that Schuldich isn't so quick to jump on everything I say.

    "Are you sober?" I ask him.

    A few minutes ago he would have offered me a smart remark, but now he just tilts his head to the side. "Maybe?" he guesses. "I slept for about nine hours after you left." He glances towards the clock, trying to do the rest of the math, and I just gesture at his water. He picks it up obediently and watches me as he drinks, waiting for an explanation for the question.

    "There is something I want you to try," I tell him. "I know you can do it, because I saw it coming years ago. I think you're finally ready to attempt it."

    That's enough to catch his interest and he sets his water down to give me his undivided attention. I reach up and press a finger to my temple. "I want you to find a way to put a link up between our minds."

    "A link?" he echoes. "Crawford, you have shields I can't touch."

    "You don't need to get through them," I tell him. "You just need to be able to find something to hold onto. This is going to be a long job and pieces of it are going to prove tricky. As we are now, your gift has been cultivated enough to use your telepathy the way you were meant to, but it's not enough. I want something stronger than the messages we send each other. I want you to make a bond here."

    "Can telepaths do that?" he wants to know, eyeing me a little warily.

    "To date, the only ones who have accomplished it are the engineered telepaths," I answer, because there's no reason to be dishonest with him, "and their attempts have locked their telepathy down to the limits of their teammates' minds. I want you to build a link that still allows you to reach outside of yourself."

    "How exactly am I supposed to do that?" he asks.

    "You're the telepath," I answer simply. "That's for you to figure out."

    "That's unhelpful," he mutters, and he props his elbows on the table to make a perch for his chin. He eyes me for a long minute before looking away, and I sit in silence as I wait. I'm willing to give him as much time as he needs to figure this out, because I realized today as soon as I touched our contract for the first time that we need this link if we hope to make it through this next job without scrapes.

    At last I feel his gift press up against my mind. I started actively teaching him to use his telepathy after we left China, and his power has exploded in the last year. For the most part, I just had to point him in the direction he needed to go, and his gift pulled itself up out of the darkness of his mind and grabbed at everything it could. He has spent a year going in and out of minds, searching for his limits. So far he has found none, and over the course of the year, he has already climbed to a rank six. It's enough that Rosenkreuz has gone quiet about whether or not I know what I'm doing, and even the Council has long since stopped making remarks about what all they've sacrificed to give me Schuldich.

    But six is not enough, and what we have now is not enough.

    I watch him as he stares through me, and the minutes tick by around us as he struggles to do what no other telepath has done. He must succeed where the lab 'paths have not; he must find a way to tie us together that will not extinguish his gift. I know that he will make it, but it's obvious that it's not easy. It takes only a few minutes before I see the strain on his face, and at the ten minute mark he looks queasy.

    "I can still hear her," Schuldich murmurs, but it's more to himself, words spoken aloud so the thought won't distract his work. I can only guess that he means our townhouse neighbor. Either way, it means that he is doing well so far in not tying himself out of his own mind. He grimaces and keeps working, and just a few moments later, I hear him gasp, and the kitchen blacks out around us.

    We stare each other down in the sudden darkness. Although the kitchen has been replaced by pitch black scenery, I have no trouble seeing my teammate. He just blinks at me as he tries to figure out exactly what's happened, and then squints. "I can still see you," he says. "At the table."

    I consider that as I study him, and it takes me a moment to see it too. Overlapped with this darkness, we are still in the kitchen, seated across from each other. I drop that in favor of this darkness, and I see a triumphant grin spread on his face. "I can still hear her," he says. "She's watching that stupid show again."

    "Well done," I tell him.

    He preens under the praise and then grimaces again. "I don't know how long I can hold it, though," he says. "It's giving me a headache. It'll take more work, but I'll figure it out."

    "Of course you will."

    He just shrugs and looks around, staring off into the blackness around us. "Kind of quiet in here," he says, and I have the distinct feeling of déjà vu at the words. "I'd expected to be able to hear *something*."

    "More fool you," I tell him calmly. "You're still outside of my shields."

    "Then the point of this is…?" he wants to know.

    "A bond like this will accomplish more than telepathy alone," I answer. "For starters, it should give us a much further range. The rest of it we'll learn later."

    He stabs a finger at me. "You risked my telepathy for something you don't even understand the benefits of?" he asks. "Crawford, if I could get my hands around your neck, I would strangle you."

    "It is fortunate for me, then, that you cannot reach me," I answer.

    He makes a rude gesture and the room splinters around us. We're back in the kitchen and Schuldich sags forward against the table, one hand tangled in his hair. "Damn," he mutters. "That's definitely going to take some work…"

    I push myself up from my spot and retrieve his Athlon from the cabinet. He accepts the pill I shake out into his hand and drains the rest of his drink with it. I am left in the kitchen when he stumbles off in the direction of his bedroom, and I wait until I know he's asleep before placing a call to Austria.

    Hoffmann picks up on the third ring. "Tell me you're calling with something interesting, Crawford," he says, knowing by the tone of his ring who is calling.

    "Herr Hoffmann," I greet. "I would like to register Schuldich's official codename with Rosenkreuz's archives."

    "Oh?" he asks. It's not quite a question. He doesn't want to talk about Schuldich, but then, he never does. It doesn't matter. I still have to get the Council's approval. "I could offer a few suggestions of my own. Mongrel, Useless, Brain Damaged… I do hope you've come up with something more creative?"

    "Mastermind, Herr Hoffmann."

    Silence follows that. I let it stretch between us, eyes on the clock. It is almost a full minute before he answers. "And you expect me to approve that?" he asks coldly.

    "I believe he has earned it, Herr Hoffmann."

    "I don't think I even want to hear you try to justify yourself."

    "Herr Hoffmann, would it be improper of me to ask what gifts your parents wielded?"

    There's yet another pause, and then he says, "I expect there is a reason for such a question."

    "Schuldich is starting to develop a second gift," I answer, gazing towards my recent visions of our new contract. "He is displaying signs of a sonic's power. They have yet to appear in the present, but I saw them today. They should materialize over the course of our newest job; the work will be hard enough at times for him that he will have no choice but to use it."

    "That is impossible," Hoffmann reminds me in a mocking drawl, but I know him well enough to hear the edge beneath the mockery. "Talents wield one gift only, and his is telepathy."

    "That is what I was taught in school, Herr Hoffmann," I agree.

    He says nothing for a long moment, and when he speaks again, his voice sounds dead. "You are being serious."

    "Herr Hoffmann, I would never falsify my reports to you. You have taught me better than that. I understand that what I am saying is improbable, but I have seen it as such. I thought I should report it to you."

    Hoffmann thinks this bit of news over and I give him time to chew on it. "I am glad that he is your headache and not mine," he says at length. "I would have killed him long ago." I decide not to mention that I've considered killing him quite a few times in our years together and instead wait for Hoffmann to continue. "I'll make a note of it. Take whatever name you want, though he doesn't deserve it. Anything else?"

    "He has also managed to link our minds, Herr Hoffmann," I tell him, "without closing off his gift. It is something Chizuru's experiments could not do. That is the original reason for his codename." Hoffmann doesn't answer; I don't think he knows what he's supposed to say to that. The telepath that he hates so much has shattered so many of the rules Rosenkreuz would like to impose on him. He survived Hoffmann's first attempt on his life, bounced back from the brink of sanity and shot to a rank six while being trained by a precognitive, forged a mind-link, and is developing a second Talent.

    "I'm getting off the phone," Hoffmann says at last, very calmly, "unless you can give me a very good reason to stay on it."

    "Herr Hoffmann, I am wondering if I should report these newest things to Elizabeth?"

    "Why?" he wants to know.

    "Her section is overseeing Chizuru's projects. If Schuldich has developed these traits and their telepaths were bred from his blood, then there is the chance of her projects evolving in the future along similar lines. There may be hope for her telepaths after all."

    Hoffmann considers it for a moment. "Fine," he says at last. "Talk to her. And Crawford? I want you to call me when the signs really do show up. I don't want to listen to what's in your fried brain. I want actualities. If he starts flickering like a sonic does, *then* you call me. Until then, don't you dare mention his name to me again."

    "Of course, Herr Hoffmann," I answer, but he's already hung up the phone.

Part 18
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