He feels the train's approach before he hears it. Faint tremors rattle up his legs from the floorboards, and he sets his tweezers aside to wait it out. Bloody fingers grope for the cigarette he set on the corner of the sink. It's gone mostly to ash now, but he shakes that off and sticks what little is left between his lips. He gets one good drag before it's dead, and he spits the butt into the tub. He glances at his pants where they're crumpled by the toilet, decides it isn't worth the effort to dig for his pack, and settles down to admire his handiwork so far.
His left arm is a bloody mess, but it's not as bad as it looks or feels. It could have been a lot worse. His lips twitch, but it's a vacant expression. The adrenaline rush of the mission is gone. Later he'll be high as a kite, full of himself and his successes. Right now, there's only foggy pain. He dislocated his shoulder in the fall, and it hurt ten times worse to reset it. He should have his arm in a sling already, but he's got a side full of glass he still has to take care of.
It's a toss-up as to what's more uncomfortable right now: his left side, or his ass. The tub is the easiest place for post-job clean-up, but straddling the side for this long is going to have him walking funny all night.
Finally the train is gone, and the apartment shudders into stillness once more. He cuts on the water, counts the minutes until it finally heats up, and fills a pitcher with warm water to dump down his arm. His lips pull back in a silent snarl of pain, but it gets the job done. He drops the empty pitcher to one side and considers his bicep, watching dots of blood reappear. He traces his skin with his fingers, feeling for the telltale sting of glass.
He's just started working again when the phone rings, and he goes perfectly still.
Only one company has that particular ring tone, and they should not be calling him. It's been two years since he walked out Rosenkreuz's front gates, and all communication with them since has been electronic. Having their number is more a formality than anything else.
The ringer's five-second chorus starts again, and he's off the side of the tub so fast he almost falls. He stumbles up against the sink, swearing viciously at the pain, and washes blood off his good hand. He gives it a hard shake, then a swipe across his pants to dry it. The phone's on its third ring when he gets it out of his pants pocket, and he knows better than to let it hit a fourth. He mashes a button to accept the call and puts the phone to his ear.
Silence is his only answer, for so long he thinks he didn't make it. He risks a peek at the screen, sees seconds ticking away, and waits to be acknowledged.
"Schuldig," is the response at last.
Six thousand miles can't dull the edge on Schuldig's name. Schuldig hasn't heard Dorian speak in two years, but he knows that voice anywhere. He tastes bile and tilts the phone so the man can't hear him swallow. He pushes his bad side so hard against the sink his vision blurs. It's a pinprick compared to what Dorian used to do, but it's enough to keep his thoughts focused on the present.
Dorian speaks. "Your reports indicated you would be closing your project this week."
"Yes, Instructor," Schuldig says. "I finished this morning. All that is left is clean-up."
"Then you will extract yourself immediately and report to the Council."
Schuldig opens his mouth, but Dorian doesn't wait for a response. There's a soft click, and the dial tone is loud in Schuldig's ear. It takes him a minute before he can hang up, and he carefully sets his phone to one side. He feels dizzy, so he retreats to the side of the tub and sits down again.
He nudges his pants with a foot, finally gets a grip with his toes, and pulls the black slacks over. His pack of cigarettes are in one of the back pockets, and he pries it out one-handedly. He gets a stick between his lips and lit, then kills it in one long, fierce drag. He spits it out and gets another. He lights it, then stubs it out on the side of the tub with a vicious, "Fuck!"
There's a reason his missions never bring him within two thousand miles of Austria, a damn good reason why he's not allowed back on Rosenkreuz proper. He's the only graduate in all of Rosenkreuz history who's forbidden to have a field team. Every field operative does solo work from time to time, but they all have a place to go back to at the end. Schuldig stands apart, a living exception in a society that isn't supposed to allow any.
Most telepaths peddle petty influence. Schuldig is different. To Schuldig, one mind is the same as another, whether it's his own or a stranger's. There are no lines he can't cross, no barriers he cannot breach. He hears thoughts as clearly as he does the spoken word. Some call it evolution; most call it poison.
If no lines exist, there is nothing to keep Schuldig out – and nothing to keep him in.
The stronger his gift gets, the harder it is to keep it under control, and Schuldig literally bleeds power. He is a crushing weight on the minds around him, and eventually, something has to give. Schuldig's classmates had an unusually high tendency to burn out and break at Rosenkreuz, but it was years before anyone realized the cause was a person. By the time anyone put the pieces together, it was too late, and Schuldig had already broken the only person he never wanted to hurt.
He doesn't really remember his trial. He spent the better part of two weeks in restraints, interrogated and sedated in turns. In the end, the Council voted for exile. He's a ticking time bomb, but he's too valuable for Rosenkreuz to write off. This is their best solution: letting him burn himself out where he can't catch anyone else in the crossfire. It's a shitty straw to draw, but it's better than being dead.
Apparently that's changing, because there's only reason the Council would summon him home.
He waits for anger and resentment, but that small outburst seems to have drained him of it. He's known for years it would end like this. Twenty-one years old and nowhere to go but down. At least he had a damn good run of it. Rosenkreuz will remember him. They'll keep his memory and accomplishments alive, if only as a warning for any future telepaths they find.
He's humming when he goes back to work on his arm.
Twenty-six hours and two layovers later, Schuldig steps into Arrivals at Vienna International. Everything he owns is in a bag over his right shoulder, so he passes the signs for luggage pick-up and heads straight for the rental counters. He does his best to protect his left arm from the swirling crowd around him. It's not entirely successful. Someone turns suddenly, and the corner of their bag strikes Schuldig's sling. The businessman doesn't notice; he's too busy looking for his welcoming party. Schuldig levels an icy glare at the back of his head.
One hard pinch, one hard pull, and the bomb is set. In ten seconds the man's mind will start unraveling. In two minutes he'll be brain dead. Schuldig doesn't stick around to watch it happen, but he's starting to turn away when he feels someone's eyes on him. He tracks the crowd with a slow gaze and comes back empty. Somewhere behind him there's an alarmed cry. A glance back shows the businessman twitching on the ground.
Schuldig continues on his way.
He's signing paperwork at the Europcar counter when suddenly he's not alone anymore. He doesn't hear the other man's approach, not in a noisy place like this, but he knows. He pushes the clipboard to one side and turns around, ready for anything.
Not at all ready for Brad Crawford.
There's a reason Schuldig's not a part of Rosenkreuz anymore – a living, breathing reason, a casualty the Council could not ignore or forgive.
Crawford moves, but Schuldig's faster. He gets his free hand planted against Crawford's chest and he shoves as hard as he can. Even if Crawford saw it coming, he can't hold his ground under this sort of desperation. He stumbles back, but Schuldig's still moving. He grabs Crawford's coat, twisting his hand so hard in the material his knuckles pop. The rest of the airport vanishes to a nonsensical hum; the only thing that matters is the person standing right in front of him.
This isn't real.
This can't be real.
Schuldig was seven when Rosenkreuz came calling on his family. In twenty-four hours, his life fell completely apart, and Crawford was there when the pieces started coming back together. Schuldig doesn't know what compelled Crawford to seek him out, doesn't think even Crawford knows, but the ten-year-old precognitive was waiting for him outside his classroom one day.
Rosenkreuz was hell, but it was their hell, something to face together. They were brothers and rivals, each other's confidantes and links to sanity. It was inevitable they'd end up fucking, and equally inevitable Schuldig would destroy Crawford's mind. He remembers sheets and kisses and skin – and Crawford screaming as his mind gave way.
Crawford was comatose in the medical ward when Schuldig was shipped out of Rosenkreuz for the last time. It was eight months before anyone thought to tell Schuldig that Crawford survived. Somehow the precognitive made a full recovery, and last Schuldig heard, he'd been recruited to Estet's ranks. That was a year and a half ago.
Now he's here, despite Council orders that they never meet again.
Crawford reaches for Schuldig's wrist, meaning to pry him loose, but Schuldig snatches his hand back before they can touch. Crawford lets him retreat and lifts a key ring. It takes Schuldig a moment to understand the significance. When Crawford turns away, Schuldig has no choice but to follow.
Neither man speaks on the way to the parking garage. There's nothing to say, or maybe too much. Schuldig doesn't know where to start, so he doesn't start at all. He keeps his mouth shut, his thoughts busy hating the Council with every breath he has, and his gaze pointed anywhere but at Crawford's back.
The avoidance technique works until they reach the elevators. Suddenly it's just them and their history and their issues in a box too small to hold it all.
Crawford is the first to break the silence. "You should have seen the look on your face, Mastermind."
"Schuldig," he says, harsher than he intends. Guilty guilty guilty.
Crawford ignores that correction. "What happened to your arm?"
"I jumped out a window," Schuldig says, and when Crawford arches an eyebrow at him, elaborates, "from seven stories up."
Crawford sighs and puts his index finger to his temple, a search for patience. It's so familiar a gesture it hurts. "I see you haven't outgrown your inherent stupidity."
For the first time in the fourteen years they've known each other, Schuldig refuses to take the bait. The elevator creeps up to the fourth floor and stops. When the doors open, Crawford makes no move to exit. Schuldig takes the first step, but Crawford puts an arm in his path to stop him. The prescient's expression is calm, but Schuldig isn't fooled. There's an intensity in Crawford's eyes no one else can match. Schuldig never thought he'd see that stare again.
He catches Crawford off-guard with that. Schuldig's never apologized before. He'd rather take the Instructors' beatings than grovel before them. This is different. Crawford is different and always has been. Always will be.
"I'm—" he tries to say again, but Crawford doesn't let him finish.
One hard push gets Schuldig flat against the elevator wall, and Schuldig's world stops and starts with Crawford's body against his. Two years apart and Schuldig hasn't forgotten the weight of Crawford's hands on his skin, the taste of Crawford on his tongue. They've kissed a thousand times, but never like this, never like it was the only thing keeping them alive.
Schuldig breaks the kiss and gasps for breath against Crawford's throat. "No."
"It's all right."
"No," Schuldig says savagely.
Crawford straightens and stops the door when it tries to close. "Listen."
Schuldig listens, but Crawford doesn't say anything. It takes a full minute before Schuldig knows what he's listening to: silence. Crawford is standing right there, but his mind is a million miles away. Shielded. Untouchable.
Schuldig sucks in a ragged breath. "That's impossible."
Crawford leads the way off the elevator. "I don't believe in impossible."
"The how doesn't matter," Crawford says.
It's not in Crawford's nature to be vague, not with Schuldig. That he's avoiding an answer now puts a sinking feeling in Schuldig's stomach. Whatever those shields cost Crawford, it was an ugly price. Schuldig opens his mouth to demand an answer, but Crawford beats him to it.
"It's not open to discussion," Crawford says in quiet warning.
"Yet," Schuldig says, because this isn't a fight he's willing to lose. He broke Crawford's mind two years ago; he wants to know how far Crawford went to fix it. For now, though, he lets it rest.
Crawford's car is parked in a shady corner in the back. It's unlike Crawford, but Schuldig doesn't have to wonder for long. The passenger door is on the side facing the wall, and Crawford follows him around the car. There's enough space between metal and concrete for both of them, and Schuldig's happy to let the car take their weight.
It's not perfect privacy, but they don't care. They can't change the last two years and they can't erase what Schuldig did to Crawford's mind, but they can pick up the pieces and start again. Here is just as good a place as any. Schuldig lets Crawford take him apart from the ground up and he doesn't really care if anyone sees.
And this time, Crawford's mind holds.
It takes a little work to get themselves cleaned up, and they get into the car. It takes Schuldig four tries to find a way he can sit that's not completely uncomfortable. He ends up sprawled on his side with the passenger seat reclined and his eyes on Crawford. Crawford knows he's being stared at, but he keeps his eyes on the road. He looks relaxed.
"Why am I being recalled to Rosenkreuz?" Schuldig asks.
"Perhaps I convinced Estet we are in dire need of your talents," Crawford says with a self-satisfied smirk. "I am here to negotiate your transfer."
"To Estet," Schuldig says, not really believing it.
Schuldig likes the sound of that, but he says, "Any perks?"
Crawford glances his way. "A future."
Schuldig answers with a mocking smile. "I'll believe that when I see it."
"You'll see," Crawford agrees, so sure that Schuldig can't help but believe him.
"Yeah," he says slowly. "I guess I will."
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