Part Twelve

    "You could look happy to see me, you know."

    Farfarello answers that with a bored look before going back to staring at the ceiling. I consider asking him how many dots there are, but I'm half-afraid he knows the answer. Instead I tug the door closed behind me and tote the chair closer to the bed. I make a big show of getting comfortable and prop my shoes up on his bed. Crawford would never allow such a thing, but Farfarello doesn't care if I get dirt on his sheets. He doesn't even tell me to stop wiggling around so much.

    Silence stretches between us after I go still and I'm the first to lose patience. "Aren't you going to ask me why I'm here?"

    "No," he intones.


    "Was it good for you?" I purr. He flicks me a cool look for that and I smirk at him. "I know you were awake for part of the foreplay, at least. Gift pick it up all right?"

    "Get out."

    "Going to ask me why I'm here yet?" He stares balefully back at me and I decide that's the best I'm going to get. "Crawford says I'm strong enough to finally help you with your shields."

    That gets his attention. He's had months to try and hone his gift but it's been slow going considering how little he knows about Talents and his even more dismal understanding of emotions. His cruelty and bloodlust led him straight to the heavy hitting that was always Hoffmann's specialty- such as what he did to Mosuli and the girls' hearts. It's a waste of his strength if he can't learn the fine tuning and intricacies, but he can't do that before he has his shields.

    Technically, Crawford is the better teacher for both shields and the ins and outs of Farfarello's gift, but I can at least take care of the shielding. Considering the epiphany I had day before last, I've decided Farfarello's mind is number one on my list of priorities- even before seducing Crawford.

    Farfarello's open mind means hell for him and his gift, but it also backfires to me as the telepath bound to him. His growing distrust in and annoyance towards Crawford has been leaking across our link for months without me realizing it. Many years of believing in Crawford and that tighter link between Crawford and myself kept Farfarello's gift from sinking too deep, but it was still enough that the new Council easily drove a wedge between us. I'd rather not go through a repeat of that- or any other version of Farfarello's complicated relationship with Crawford.

    It's enough incentive that I spend an hour telling Farfarello about shields, teaching him everything I know. It's the same lecture I heard from Crawford- word for word, learned from countless repetition. I only remember one of those times, but my shields were dropping enough back then that most of the first few months as Schwarz is a jagged mess. Every time they dropped, Crawford had to re-teach me everything he'd already walked me through.

    When Crawford was teaching me, I had a million questions for him, but Farfarello lies silent after I'm through. I'd think he fell asleep if he wasn't still looking at me. At length his gaze slides away and he hums low in his throat, considering all of that.

    "Okay?" I ask, and at his nod, I press my gift into his mind to watch. A quick-learner can still take upwards of an hour to put the first shields in place, or so Crawford told me. I've never had the chance to see the starting steps, so I'm curious as to how it will go. After fifteen minutes of absolutely nothing aside from Farfarello's thinking, curiosity gives way to boredom.

    The easiest way to lock in core shields is to build them around the most unshakable sense of self. For a child, it's a lot easier, because there's so little to define them that it can be anything. Crawford's had students who bound their shields to their favorite food, for example. Nagi's shields are tied to a single dandelion his mother had growing in a green pot on the windowsill.

    The older people get, the harder it is to pin themselves down to just one thing. Defining themselves as one image or moment is something they balk over. Farfarello's nineteen, almost twenty, and that's the oldest I've ever heard of anyone trying to build their core shields.

    Somehow, though, I'm not at all surprised when Farfarello finally decides on a cross. The amount of detail in it, though, says it's a specific cross and not just a symbol. It starts as a slate gray lump, then starts to twist as his mind cuts details into it he must have memorized from looking at it hundreds or thousands of times. Intricate curves twist through it in traditional Celtic cross style and even in his mind I can sense the immense size of it.

    What's really surprising is the absolute lack of hatred that comes with it. Farfarello's had this abused wife relationship with God and Christianity since long before I met him. For it to suddenly be gone is disturbing. I almost ask about it, but stop myself just in time. It's not discretion, just me remembering not to disturb the shielding process. I hate keeping silent, though, and turn the question over and over in my mind as I guess at answers.

    I think about what little I know about Farfarello from his life before we met him. I never cared much to look before, at least not until he went on a rampage and slaughtered several priests and a nun while we were working for Takatori. He's always been trigger-happy with religion, but something about the nun screamed personal. Considering she was trying to get in touch with him, I took it upon myself to carefully root around in his thoughts for her. I don't think he noticed, since he was too startled to see her again.

    On top of that are the memories I caught from the day his gift woke up again- shattered pieces of the day his gift shut down and broke his mind. Religion soaks through the memories like a disease, almost, and I can still remember how Farfarello's fingers looked as he'd slid them so reverently over the printed lines of his thick bible. I remember how rosary beads looked where he'd clasped his small hands around them, kneeling at the nun's side as she walked him through the rosary prayers. Now I notice the cross that's hanging in the church, and it's identical to the one Farfarello's painstakingly carving in his mind.

    The only conclusion I can draw is that his insanity took the sheer pain of that day and the religious figures surrounding it and twisted it desperately out of control. Whatever caused it, though, it's gone now, replaced by absolute apathy. I scrub at my arms, a little unnerved by the 180 in what I've always viewed as a crucial part of my teammate's personality.

    Farfarello picks up on that feeling. ~Wrong?~

    /No,/ I tell him. /You just.. don't hate God anymore./ He says nothing to that and goes back to trying to tie his gift to the cross. I can't resist. /Just don't become a flower-toting Fundie and I guess it's okay./


    /Shutting up now,/ I say, and he doesn't tell me to get out a second time. This second stage of shield building takes so long that I almost wish I'd left. I'm starting to daydream about Crawford's ass when Farfarello finally finishes. Thorny vines snake their way over the curves of the cross and pull tight. In the next instant, the cross explodes and Farfarello's core shields slam into place. I'm not in deep enough to be hurt by them, but I still feel the hit.

    /Two seconds,/ I warn him. That's all the time I give him to pull them as tight as he can, and then I slam my gift into them. They completely shatter in the impact and I smirk against his mind. I don't have to be an empath to feel how much that hurt. Even a trained empath can't dull such a thing, not when it's purely mind-and-gift related. It'd be really dangerous, almost suicidal, to be able to block out the pain of broken shields. Shields keep us sane. /Hey, Farfarello, remember when you asked me what pain feels like?/

    He snarls a curse at me and I draw back, waiting until he's coherent enough to give it another go. /Try having that done to you almost every week for a fucking year, on top of everything else Hoffmann's twisted imagination could come up with,/ I say, and I think my bitterness bleeds through the words. /*Luckily* for us, our gifts are strong enough that we can take a lot of blows. Low level Talents can only handle it a couple of times, and precognitives shatter if…/

    ~If?~ Farfarello asks, but I recognize that lazy tone of his by now.

    /Nice try,/ I say. /Core. Try again./

    He lets it drop, but he'll never forget. Farfarello never forgets; that's what's so bloody dangerous about him. I wonder for a moment if I should be worried about this, but Crawford already told me we had a while left to live. Still, unfinished information might just make Farfarello bored enough to find the answer on his own.

    /Precogs have a window,/ I say at last, and Farfarello goes still to listen. /If their core shields are cracked, thirty seconds is all they get to put them back together before they go mad. If they're broken like what I just did to yours, it's ten./

    Farfarello thinks about that. ~Too easy.~

    /Takes the fun out of it, right?/ I say pointedly, and he lets me feel his cold amusement over that less-than-subtle warning. /Crawford and I have the gifts no one at Rosenkreuz really wants. It's too easy to go mad, even with these damn shields./

    ~But yours are weak,~ Farfarello reminds me. ~Your range changed. You said so.~

    Should've known he wouldn't let that one slide. /My shields have never been as good as they should be,/ I tell him. /Hoffmann broke them too many times. Two telepaths helped put my mind back together but the effort was enough to kill them, and what they gave me wasn't enough for how strong my gift was. Crawford taught me how to build them, but Hoffmann's broken them since then. Last time they broke was the night he took you away from us./

    ~He said his mind ate yours.~

    I can hear Hoffmann's laughter in Farfarello's memories, can hear the Council's flat warnings for Hoffmann to force my mind away before it got eaten. I wonder if Hoffmann knocked me out before Nagi could get my medicine in me. Either way, neither of them was fast enough.

    /Hoffmann's shields were a black hole,/ I say, and the memory of my gift getting sucked into them chills me to the bone. I leave blood on my arms where my fingernails bite through the skin. /It's why I could never fight him at Rosenkreuz. His mind tore my gift completely apart. Doesn't help that I had to shift my shields down over our mental room, either. Note to Farfarello: don't ever do shit like that./

    ~Fix them,~ he tells me.

    /It's on my to-do list./ If it's possible. /But I need your power out of my head first. Your bitchy attitude is destroying my grip on my core./

    He doesn't ask, but I can hear the question in his silence. I'm not about to answer him, but then I wonder if the truth will help convince him not to kill Crawford. I mean, I know Crawford said we're going to live a long time, but Crawford didn't tell me what steps we have to take in order to ensure that we do. If it's something I wouldn't normally do, he'll tell me, but otherwise I suppose it's however I normally act and react to things. I war with myself for a few moments more, and then force a casual tone into my words.

    /Didn't you know that my shields are built around Crawford?/

    Farfarello decides that's more than he ever wanted to know about me and goes back to his shielding. I send him the mental image of me kicking him. He ignores it and brings his shields up again. I enjoy breaking them a little too much.

    It takes us almost two hours before they come up strong enough that they stay when I hit them. I'm pulling my mental punch because I know a level eight telepath can break almost any shields he comes across but I only dim it down to a level six. If he can withstand that, he can handle most of what Rosenkreuz throws at him, and he's going to have layers of other shields on top of them to take the initial blow anyway.

    This work has exhausted both of us, despite the fact that we're sitting still for all of it. I leave Farfarello there to recover and take myself down the street a few blocks to a café. An hour away is more than enough time to recharge and I go through several mugs of coffee. I can still feel him tinkering with his shields in the back of my mind, but I keep my thoughts and gift away from it.

    When I go back, it's on to the second bit of business. "Ikida says he's taking off most of your casts tomorrow," I tell him. "Technically he could have taken off some of them a while ago, but he knew better than to give you any mobility until the most crucial bones were mostly set again. Knowing your retarded ass, you'd take it too fast and re-break them. No thanks."

    "He can take them off now," Farfarello says.

    "Tomorrow," I tell him. "He's way too busy today."

    "He's been busy since you called him yesterday."

    "Yeah, I had to tell him that Nagi went to Rosenkreuz," I say. "Crawford didn't bother to. Methinks the all-seeing one is too used to Ikida just blindly following whatever he says, though I guess Ikida proved beyond a doubt that that programming is still in place. Dumbass." I mime blowing my brains out. "In all the confusion following the death of the Council and the election of the new one and then the fight with Estet, it seems Ikida's been forgotten. Not really a surprise, I guess, since he's a non-Talent and Crawford gave the Council a head count of every Talent in Japan when he went to see them. Either way, Ikida still has access to Rosenkreuz's networks, so he's been downloading everything off the archives in careful doses for months. Crawford had his access shut down the second he told the Council that we killed Hoffmann's lot, so Ikida's his only source. Crawford wants it all tomorrow, which means he's been trying to put it together on disks to hand it over. It'd be simpler to just hand Crawford his computer, in my opinion."

    I think about that for a moment, and then I can't help myself. "He really is loyal, isn't he?" I ask. "Both of them, I mean. To Schwarz and Rosenkreuz both. Like, deathly loyal."

    Farfarello flicks me a sideways look. "Yes."

    "Why?" I wonder, but Farfarello can't give me that answer. The only thing I know about Rosenkreuz is Hoffmann. I try and imagine what it was like for Crawford, who entered it at the age of six. Cutting Hoffmann out of the picture takes quite a lot of work, but I force myself to do it so I can think about it as nothing more than a school that trains Talents. I think about Crawford's various positions within it, and Crawford's simple comment the other day that he's had too much power at his fingertips for too long to drop into a mundane lifestyle now. At length I can almost see it: a school that trains nothing but power, a school that has contacts to the sort of people that move and break the world. If Crawford was such a pillar figure, then Rosenkreuz is what it is today in part because he put so much effort into it for so many years.

    Still, it's a bit disgruntling to think that he could kill the Council only because it was for the best of the school. It never would have been possible without a team like ours: Crawford, who grew up so focused on Rosenkreuz's future; me, who absolutely loathed the school and its Council; and Nagi and Farfarello, who never saw Rosenkreuz and therefore couldn't realize just how wrong it was for Talents to revolt.

    "He pisses me off," I decide, and I rub at my forehead. "Anyway, here's the last bit of news I have for you, and if you thought the rest of it was good, wait until you hear who stopped by our apartment a few days ago…"


    If I'd realized that visit with Farfarello would be the last entertaining thing I'd have for three weeks, maybe I would have stuck around longer. After that day, though, I steer as clear from Farfarello as I can, because I have absolutely no desire to see what months of casts have done to his body. I'm not going near him until he's walking again.

    By the next afternoon, Crawford is moving again, or at least recovered enough from his relapse that he can start doing his work. That's bad news for me, even if I get Nagi's computer as part of the deal. The kid couldn't bring it to Rosenkreuz with him, so I get it. I don't want it, as I have no real interest in computers, but I have no say in that. I have it so I can help Crawford go through Rosenkreuz's archives. That? Is boring as absolute shit.

    I'm not like Crawford, who can sit there for most of the day and read files. Four hours is the limit on my tolerance for sitting still reading things and that's with me actively fighting to concentrate. Every four hours I get as far away from that apartment as I can and lose an hour somewhere else in the city. I explore our new neighborhood in depth, memorizing all of the streets and nearby shops, and rewrite my mental routes to everywhere important from here. Then I bring lunch back to the apartment and drag Crawford away from his computer long enough to eat, and we both settle down to work again. Then I'm off again and going grocery shopping so I can stop later with the excuse that I have to cook, and it's back to those damn files.

    The only thing that makes up for the day is that when Crawford finally shuts down both of our computers for the day, he doesn't even pretend to fight my kisses. Maybe it's his reward for me trying so hard today. I don't ask because I don't care. All that matters is that we end the night in the same bed, ragged breaths and hungry fingers and lust.

    Sex can't fix everything, though, and doesn't make waking up the next day to the same damn work any better.

    From the second day onwards, we start taking our time with it, and spend only our mornings digging through files. The afternoons are split between two things: watching from a distance as Farfarello puts his outer shields together piece by painstaking piece and Crawford and me visiting friends of friends of old business clients, people who have nothing to do with Estet or Rosenkreuz. We stop by just to let everybody know that Schwarz is still intact, and brief meetings with them is all Crawford needs to see if they'll be profitable for us. We're judging it purely on a financial level now and setting ourselves up to be freelancers is more than a bit odd.

    At one point, I ask Crawford point blank if it bothers him to not be working for Rosenkreuz anymore.

    He considers it for a moment, though I'm sure he saw this question coming a while ago, since our completely different views on this school are a rather critical flaw in our relationship. It counts, though, that he pretends to think about it. For someone as present-minded as me, I need proof that he's not throwing out whatever answer he thinks of first.

    "When I told you it was possible to destroy the Council, I realized then what the consequences would be for our team," he says. "That the broken trust meant Rosenkreuz couldn't accept us as openly as they did before and that your newfound blatant disgust for the Council would make it impossible. I still made the decision because I felt it was necessary. My purpose in life and the sole purpose of my gift has always been to push Rosenkreuz to greater heights. I have done that and my role is nearly over."

    "That's a yes," I decide.

    "Yes and no," Crawford says. "You don't understand."

    "Make me understand. I've been trying and I can't."

    "The truest people to Rosenkreuz live for the school," he says, turning to look at me. "When their purpose is fulfilled, they die for it. My mother and my mentor both broke their own shields to protect what they saw us doing. They didn't even think twice about it. My team in China would have died if only I told them they needed to. The higher echelons of Rosenkreuz are like that. They live until they realize there is nothing more to give, and then they die."

    "You do realize your precious school is a brainwashing cult, don't you?"

    "If Hoffmann had never touched me, I would be dead now," Crawford tells me, and that shuts me up. "He is the one that made it possible for me to want something more than what Rosenkreuz wanted me to have."

    I stare back at him in silence for a minute. "Don't say that," I say at last. "I refuse to think that any fiber of me should be grateful to him."

    Crawford says nothing to that, seemingly content to just study me. I wonder if he's thinking about choosing me over Rosenkreuz, wonder if he's thinking about choosing us over his death. The thought gives me goose bumps and I don't know if it's because he really would have broken his own mind that day or if because even with Hoffmann's apathy he still decided to stick with me.

    "Yeah," I finally say. "We're having sex now, because I don't want to think anymore."

    "You're not in the mood," he tells me, and I hate that he's right. It's really hard to think about fucking Crawford right after thinking about my uncle doing the same. Before I can stop myself, I wonder how much it hurt- and then I wonder how much it didn't. After all, Farfarello can't feel pain. After all, Farfarello said Hoffmann picked him because Hoffmann thought Farfarello was so much like Crawford, was so---fucking untouchable.

    I think I might be sick. Instead I say, "Well, I'm not in the mood to stare at Rosenkreuz files anymore, either. We've been at this for three weeks and you still haven't found whatever trigger it is you're looking for."

    Crawford picks up his phone and flips it open. "Crawford," he says, before it's even had a chance to ring.

    "You realize people hate it when you do that, right?" I ask him.

    He ignores me. "Yes, Maloudi, I remember you well."

    The name tells me to stop making wise cracks and I shut down my files in favor of watching him. Maloudi is one of the three teachers Crawford wanted Nagi to find and stick to. It's the first time Rosenkreuz has contacted us about our telekinetic since their very generic "He is here" message. I'm not sure what it's supposed to mean that one of the instructors has called Crawford all the way from Austria. My first thought is that it must cost a fortune; my second is whether or not the Council knows he's calling.

    If the Council are the head of Rosenkreuz, but the Five are trusted as those whose every action is for the Council, then does a teacher need permission from the Council to talk to Crawford? Crawford said when the Council came that he'd be renouncing his position, but they didn't mention it at dinner. Crawford's still powerful enough that they actually listened to him, that they actually seemed to forget that they're technically ranked higher than him. His name and reputation and power are things to turn Rosenkreuz on its head. Maybe they haven't pushed him to drop his title if they think they can exploit it somehow.

    Ugh, Rosenkreuz politics make my head hurt.

    "Yes," Crawford says, and he gives Maloudi a number. "I appreciate your efforts." He listens for another moment, then says, "Of course," and they hang up with each other.

    "Your phone skills suck," I tell him.

    He sets his phone to one side and turns his gaze on the fax machine he bought us last week. It only takes a minute before it starts beeping and spitting papers out, and Crawford lifts them down and puts them in the right order. He reads through them, handing me each page as he's finished. It's Maloudi's report on Nagi so far, a full three-week assessment. It's very clinical, but very thorough, and focuses both on what Nagi's capable of and where Maloudi expects he can go from here. That last bit is a bit of a sucker punch.

    "Wait," I say, staring down at it. "Wait, teleportation? That's an entirely different power."

    "Mosuli could," Crawford says, taking the papers back and stapling them neatly together. "The strongest telekinetics can. It's just not advised, since they don't have the proper power to do it. Taking themselves completely apart isn't a trick: it's putting themselves back together properly that is so difficult for them. With Nagi's level, he should be able to accomplish it down the road. Rest assured that he will practice on fruit and dead minds long before he tries it on himself."

    "He should use Tot as practice," I say. "She won't die from it if he puts her together wrong and it'll teach him to be extra careful." Belatedly I remember Nagi won't die, either. Crawford doesn't bother to point that out, knowing I can figure it out on my own. "You realize that everyone on Schwarz is getting pretty creepy, don't you? I'm the only one who isn't. I'm feeling left out."

    "Figure your power out for yourself," Crawford tells me. "Nikolai was an eight but he didn't last long at that ranking. You have been an eight for a year now. Figure out for yourself where the limits of your power are."

    "The hospital," is my snide response.

    "We will fix your shields," he answers, sounding calm and confident as always. "It will just take time."

    I almost ask how much time, but I realize that for the first time in a very long time it doesn't matter. We're not Schwarz. We have all the time in the world.

    "I'm rethinking the sex thing," I say.

    Crawford sets Nagi's file aside, and that's all the answer I need.

Part 13
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