I M P R E S S
Schuldig was quite convinced that Crawford had finally gone mad.
It would come as no surprise to the German, above and beyond the fact that madness was an inevitable conclusion for the mental-based powers of Rosenkreuz's elite field teams. As a telepath, he'd had his own fair share of mental slip-ups. That was just life, and he and Crawford had learned to work around each other's weaknesses.
Still, there was a sizeable difference between waking up on the back porch with slashes up and down one's arms and legs—or face, but Crawford's glasses covered where he'd tried to take his own eyes out once—and this. Yes, this ranked pretty high up there on the "Please get Rosenkreuz to schedule Crawford for his annual check-up" list.
Maybe Crawford could sense that internal debate, because he looked up from his computer at last to consider his younger teammate. "Problem?" he wanted to know.
"Just hanging around waiting for the punchline," Schuldig said, waggling the folder at Crawford. "The least you could do for making me come all the way up here is take things a little more seriously."
"I am being serious," Crawford corrected him easily. "Rosenkreuz wants him to be field trained and it makes the most sense to send him with you."
Silence stretched between them and Schuldig weighed the odds of that being a compliment. It sounded more like Crawford was tired of having him as a teammate. He proceeded to calculate the odds of coming out of this alive, and finally lifted his shoulders in a shrug. "I want hazard pay."
"The finance department would never sign off on that request, not when we specifically asked for him to be assigned to our team."
"That's because they're money-grubbing assholes," Schuldig pointed out, "and you know I hate it when you use the royal we. I didn't want him on our team. Nagi and I do just fine on our own. If you have a problem with the way we're handling things, you should have brought it up with me before going to Ranks and filing paperwork. I told you that."
"Three times," was the unimpressed response. "He's part of this team, whether you appreciate it yet or not, and you will learn how to work with him. That starts tomorrow. I've given you the files. I expect steady reports. And if you actually voice that, you will be needing the hazard pay."
Schuldig bit back on his sarcastic retort with a great bit of effort. "Fine," he said instead, flicking his fingers in disgust. "But if we fall behind because I'm hospitalized, the blows had better come down on the right head for mismanagement of Rosenkreuz property."
"I mean it."
"Schuldig," Crawford said, sounding a tad impatient. He plucked his glasses from the bridge of his nose and twirled them idly in his fingers. "This order came down the chain. Don't push against it to see just where it originated. You'll sleep better not knowing."
Schuldig felt a little of his annoyance falter under that warning and his scowl thinned out to a small frown. Crawford said nothing else, just gazed back at him in silence as he waited for Schuldig to accept this. At last the telepath pressed the heel of his palm against his forehead and counted to ten. It didn't help much, but it was enough.
"Fine," he said again as he let his hand fall away. "I'll set Nagi to running interference and framework while I'm off babysitting your pet monster."
Crawford inclined his head in acceptance of that and there was nothing else Schuldig could do but leave him there. He walked out of the office the same way he'd come in and made his way down a long hallway to the waiting room. The same secretary who'd called him up to the sixth floor was sitting at the desk and she tapped two fingertips to her temple in a small salute. The gesture was so routine by now that she didn't even have to slow in her paperwork to acknowledge him and Schuldig barely noticed it. He had better things to worry about.
He turned his files over and over in his hands as he waited on an elevator, thoughts falling down disgruntled pathways. When the doors finally opened a minute later, there were three other people inside, but they all got out as soon as they saw him. He took the lift down to the second floor alone, as was his right as a Rosenkreuz psi. The privacy gave him a chance to open the folder Crawford had given him, but his eyes skimmed over the words without really reading them.
Nagi was right where Schuldig had left him, poring over files where they'd spread them out on their so-called war table. He looked up at his older teammate's entrance and Schuldig greeted him with a shake of his head. The door locked automatically behind him, not that locks did much against some of the powers in this building. Rosenkreuz's Asian Headquarters housed eleven teams and three hundred and seventy-four support personnel this year. The number continuously fluctuated as teams moved in and out on business, but that was how many people were registered on the payroll.
"Something wrong?" Nagi wanted to know.
Schuldig crossed the room to flop ungracefully in the chair across from Nagi. When he tilted his hand in an invitation, Schwarz's young telekinetic plucked the files from his hands. They flew over the table to his waiting hands and Nagi flipped them open to consider the profile sheet that started the pack.
"Remember our new friend?" Schuldig asked needlessly. It was rather hard to forget a man like Farfarello. "Guess who gets to take him out and see if he's trustworthy unchained?"
"Three guesses and the first two don't count?"
"You get smarter every year."
"I can be back-up," Nagi offered.
"No," the telepath said, shaking his head. "We need you to stay on schedule as best you can and work around my absence."
"What'd you do to Crawford this time to bring this down on your head?"
"Apparently it was thrown down at him from somewhere way up Rosenkreuz's ass," Schuldig said with a shrug. "Whoever it is, they're high enough up on the ladder that Crawford'll risk us falling through on the Yun Fat case."
Nagi frowned at that. "Falling through," he echoed. "How long does he expect this to take?"
Schuldig poked one finger into the air. Nagi stared at it for a moment as his mind tried to translate the single digit correctly, and then he slapped the folder down on top of his carefully arranged notes. "One week?" he demanded. "One week? Schuldig, this case-"
"McMadness is worth the trade-off to somebody," Schuldig cut in. "You can manage this end on your own, and if not, Crawford'll be in his office all week. You know how to get to the sixth floor from here."
Nagi just looked at him as if he couldn't believe Schuldig had suggested turning to Schwarz's resident coordinator for help. The three men were all on the same team, had been a three-man unit for a year and a half now, but there was a thin wall between the younger pair and their leader. Crawford was the go-between for Schwarz and Rosenkreuz and Estet. He found jobs and wrote up the appropriate paperwork, managed the team's finances and contacts, and did any and all administration duties a team like theirs would need. Schuldig and Nagi were the force of the team, a telepath-telekinetic pair that pushed the world the way Crawford told them to. As Schuldig liked to say, they got to do the fun things, though this Yun Fat case had been anything but fun thus far. They'd been working on it for a month and a half now and were supposed to be tying up all of the loose ends in preparation work within the next two weeks.
"We don't have a choice," Schuldig admitted, grimacing a little as he had to take Crawford's side in the argument. "If we're going to make a use of the madman, this is the case to bring him on."
"I'm enough," Nagi pointed out stiffly.
Schuldig just looked at him and Nagi dropped his eyes back to the paperwork. Schuldig didn't have to say anything; he and Nagi had been partners for a year and a half and they knew they worked as a tight pair. Schuldig had never had a reason to doubt the young teenager's capabilities, and he'd done his damnedest to instill that unshakeable faith in Nagi towards him. Schuldig didn't know if they'd ever paid each other so much as a veiled compliment their entire time together, but they didn't need to. They were good and they trusted each other.
This new monkey, though… Neither of them had been pleased to find out Crawford had specifically requested Rosenkreuz's pseudo urban legend. It meant another personality to work with, another mind for Schuldig to have to deal with. Nagi, as the primary demolitions man for the black unit, took it as a personal slight that Crawford had wanted the so-called Berserker on his team. They had to believe Crawford had had a vision about it, but he hadn't shared any details with them that would make it easier to swallow.
They let the silence hang between them for another minute more before Schuldig sighed and pushed himself to his feet. "Right," he said, starting across the room to the small counter. "I'm going to start some more coffee. Call all your girlfriends and tell them you're going to be busy all night with your sexy teammate instead."
A mug just barely avoided hitting his head on its way past him to the counter and Schuldig sent a sly smirk over his shoulder. "Ease up," he told his riled teammate. "You know you're not my type."
"Well, maybe Crawford thinks this new guy is," Nagi sent back.
"Do I even have to tell you where to stick it?"
In his nineteen months in China at the Headquarters, Schuldig had only been down into the basements once. His status as a telepath on a field unit didn't earn him the right kind of clearance. It had irked him in his first few months here that he couldn't go down there, especially when he found out that the support personnel that worked on those three floors had mental shields too strong for him to get through without breaking them permanently.
When Crawford had finally brought him and Nagi down here a few weeks ago, Schuldig had been pleased- until he saw what Crawford wanted him to. Rather, who. That wasn't the best way for either of them to find out what Crawford had done to their team.
Schuldig's mood now wasn't quite as black as it had been when he'd left the basement weeks ago, but it was close. He and Nagi had been up until four to put as big a dent in their work as they could before Schuldig had to walk away and leave it all to the younger man. With just three hours of sleep between that headache this one, his weeklong assignment to Farfarello was off to the worst possible start.
The security guard at the door knew to expect him and buzzed him through, and Schuldig took the stairs down to the lowest basement alone. He picked his escort up there: two guards who led the way down the hall and three more that flanked him—just in case. Their expressions were grim and their respectful gestures and greetings were tight, and their nerves over having to release someone like Farfarello from his bindings did nothing at all to help Schuldig's annoyance. If he could actually hear their tension through the shields around their minds, he had a feeling he'd hurt them.
The six made their way to the holding cell in the far back. One of them got the light switch by the door and they slowed to a stop to stare through barred doors at a lone figure. The man was restrained by a straitjacket, and the chains that went from his shoulders and elbows to bolts in the wall made him look like some freakish albino spider. He was slumped forward enough to pull the chains tight and didn't stir at their entrance or the sudden light.
"Hey," one guard said, smacking the side of his fist against the bars. No answer came to that call and the man looked over at his companions before tightening his grip on his nightstick. When he nodded, a second man started undoing the seven locks on the door. The guard glanced Schuldig's way as the last lock was undone and he couldn't hide the bleak look in his eyes. "Please stand back," he advised Schuldig.
"I'm comfortable," Schuldig said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Just hurry it up."
The door clattered loudly as it opened and Schuldig didn't miss the way two of the guards moved in between him and the entrance. The other three stepped into the cell and warily approached the kneeling figure. One pushed at a pale cheek with his stick but earned no reaction, physical or mental. Schuldig grimaced a little at the mental silence and tightened his hands into fists in his pockets. There had been a rumor for years now that Rosenkreuz had picked up a demon who could cloak himself against telepaths without the use of shields. Most of the 'paths assumed it was meant as a warning that they needed to hone their gifts to where no man could escape their notice. After seeing Farfarello for the first time, Schuldig had to accept the truth in that story. The man read much like a corpse would: he just didn't exist.
He did his best not to wonder how many of the other rumors were actually true.
The guards set about unlocking the chains where they connected to bands around restrained arms. Metal hissed against the stone floor as they moved the chains out of their way, and when the last was freed, they all froze and waited. Several seconds passed, and then the figure slowly fell forward against the ground. The three jumped back like startled cats, nightsticks raised in preparation for a blow. When nothing came, they exchanged confused looks.
"If you killed him, the higher-ups are not going to be happy," Schuldig announced.
That was enough to get them moving again, and one stepped forward to poke experimentally at a shoulder. No reaction earned the pale man a harder poke, and then harder, and at last the man swung his stick down in a vicious blow. Schuldig heard the thick thud of it hitting home against a narrow back, and in the next heartbeat, Rosenkreuz's ghost woke up.
The slam of his mind up against Schuldig's outer shields sent a shudder down the German's spine, but there wasn't really time to send out a warning. Farfarello came off the floor like a marionette whose strings had just been given a hard yank, and none of the three could move in time. His teeth found an exposed throat on his way up and Farfarello twisted, pulling the screaming man around to take the blows from the other guards' sticks.
It was amazing how fast a man in a straitjacket could kill three armed men.
"Go!" one of Schuldig's guards shouted over his shoulder, but the telepath ignored him. He was content to take just two steps back and sprawl against the wall as the third man hit the floor. Farfarello stood their over their dying bodies, considering them with one hooded eye, and then slid his attention towards the remaining three men in the room. The jacket that had been white was now stained all the way down to the ankles with blood, and skin that wasn't much darker than the thick cotton was equally sloppy. He'd even managed to get some in his spiky hair.
"You should go!" the second guard insisted as he tried to keep his nightstick steady.
"Shut up," Schuldig warned him.
Farfarello's single eye studied them each in turn and lingered on Schuldig the longest. At length he smiled. It started as a twitch at the corner of his mouth, then was repressed, and then it spread until red-stained teeth showed between his lips. He turned their way and the guards took small steps forward, making themselves a barricade between the two teammates.
"Stand down, Farfarello!" one of the guards yelled.
He took a sliding step their way that made the buckles between his knees clank. His bare feet smeared lines in the blood all along the stone ground and he took another step.
He was running in the next second and the guards did what they'd been raised to do by throwing themselves at him. It was futile, but all they knew to do was keep Farfarello from reaching Schuldig. They paid for that loyalty and sacrifice with blood and screaming, and Schuldig listened to the crunching squelch of skin and bone giving way. Idly he thought he should have timed it all.
There was no one between them then and Farfarello didn't slow on his way to Schuldig. Schuldig's lips twisted into a cold smirk at that foolish move. Farfarello was fast, but Schuldig was faster. His gift hit the madman's mind so hard he felt the aftereffects against his own shields. A neat sidestep got him out of the way as Farfarello crashed into the wall and he took distinct pleasure in watching the man crumple against the ground. A boot against one bloody shoulder finished the job and knocked Farfarello onto his back, and an unfocused gold eye stared up at the ceiling as his mind went on red-alert to put itself back together.
Schuldig leaned over him and quirked an eyebrow down at his unwelcome teammate. "Nice try, Marshmallow," he drawled, "but you're way too young to keep up with me."
It took a few seconds more before Farfarello could focus on Schuldig's face, and the roiling mess of his mind abruptly vanished. They stared each other down as Farfarello reassessed the man towering over him. He was content for the moment to lay where he'd fallen, watching for an opening rather than presenting one himself on his way to his feet. Schuldig, in turn, knew better than to look away from the downed psychopath.
"Why did you come back?" the pale man asked at length.
"Not because I wanted to," Schuldig answered easily, and he prodded at one shoulder with his shoe. Farfarello let him do it, but the calculating look he sent Schuldig's foot said it would be the only time. "I'm assuming someone told you why you came to China."
"Is this China?"
"Are you playing stupid? Tell me you're playing stupid."
Farfarello offered him a creepy smile in response. Schuldig eyed him as he wondered whether or not the man was just messing with him. With just that blank expanse where his thoughts should be, Schuldig couldn't tell. His jaws slowly clenched and he pulled his hands free of his pockets to prop them on his thighs. He couldn't hear a damn thing from that mind and Crawford wanted him to trust the lunatic at his back? Hell no. He made a mental note to put in a second request for hazard pay.
"You're in China," he said at last, because there was nothing else to do but assume the man didn't know. He couldn't very well take Farfarello out on this run if he didn't honestly understand what was going on. "You've been recruited to be Schwarz's Berserker. You and I are going out for a bit to see if you can actually keep up."
"With you?" the man asked lazily.
Schuldig heard the taunt in that. "Do you honestly think you can?" he asked. Farfarello just smiled again and Schuldig squished a small spike of annoyance. "So you can kill five guards with a jacket on- so what? I'm not impressed."
"Are you a man of first impressions?"
"I'm a telepath. I have a right to be."
Farfarello's smile vanished beneath a smooth veneer. "Look again," he invited, and he rocked back onto his shoulder blades in a lightning-quick move to slam his boot into Schuldig's chin. Schuldig managed to jerk back some as the psychopath started moving, but not far enough. It saved him from a broken jaw but not much else and he was spitting curses even as Farfarello continued heels over head. The Irishman landed knees first and feet second and used the momentum to push himself up and backwards, propelling himself away from Schuldig. Schuldig took a swing at him and just barely missed, and Farfarello rewarded him with an infuriating little smirk.
As they stared each other down with just a couple meters between them, Schuldig wondered if his gift could do anything to control the Irishman now that his mind was silent. He thought of his gun first and the dead guards second, but he only spared a moment for such thoughts. His chin was throbbing painfully and he swallowed back the taste of blood.
"Very cute, Snowflake. Do you want to be untied or not?"
"That's not my name."
"This is me caring. Get over here."
Farfarello didn't budge. "Untied," he pressed, a demand for an explanation.
"Did you miss the part where I said we were leaving? We've got a job to do."
Farfarello thought about that for a few minutes. "Will you untie me?"
"Your file didn't say that brain damage was one of your selling points," Schuldig said, offering the younger man a hooded look. "What good are you to me or any of us if you're trussed up like a misplaced Christmas present?"
Farfarello lifted his shoulders in the best shrug he could manage with such a restrictive jacket on. "Your mistake," he intoned, and he turned away and waited. Schuldig hesitated for the barest of seconds before moving towards him, and with the Irishman's back to him, he allowed himself to pull his gun free of its hidden holster. It was hard to pull the buckles free with just one hand but he managed, and he was ready when Farfarello turned around.
He pressed the barrel of his gun into the underside of Farfarello's chin and quirked an eyebrow at the Irishman. Farfarello echoed the expression, not looking at all threatened. "Am I?"
"Are you what?"
Farfarello's smile was wicked. "Cute."
Schuldig cocked the hammer and pulled the gun back just enough that Farfarello could move again. "You'd be cuter with a second hole in your face. Now shut up and take your jacket off."
Farfarello peeled it off and let it drop to one side to soak in blood and shredded flesh. He sent a pointed look down at the buckled straps between his knees, but Schuldig ignored that. He was too busy wondering how they were supposed to get out of here, because he sure as hell didn't want the man at his back, but he didn't think it would be a good idea to let someone like Farfarello go ahead of him into the room where Rosenkreuz's people were.
Eh, support personnel were replaceable.
"Let's go." He gave a jerk of his gun in an order to move. Farfarello took a sliding step forward, skidding a little through the blood, to get right in Schuldig's personal space. "Don't push me," Schuldig warned him.
"I'm not touching you," Farfarello pointed out.
"So you do know my name." His mouth twitched into a half-smile and Schuldig got a glimpse of a still-reddened canine between his lips. "I don't know yours."
"Hooo?" That earned him a full smile. "What are you guilty of?"
Schuldig matched his smile ice for ice. "We can have this heart to heart later. We're on a timeline. Now go."
"Me first?" Farfarello asked, sliding his gaze away from Schuldig's to stare down the hall. "I don't know the way. I'll get lost."
"Only if you don't know how to walk in a straight line, jackass. Move it."
Farfarello shrugged in response and started away, and Schuldig followed after him down the hall. They went up the stairs to the third floor and Farfarello went out the door there when Schuldig told him to. Apparently someone had thought about the expense of replacing personnel, because the normal security guards were replaced by two telekinetics. Nagi wasn't among them, as he was probably crashed somewhere catching up on what sleep he could. Schuldig knew the two that were waiting for him but only because he was required to know everyone who worked inside this building.
Farfarello moved towards one of them, but the woman's gift stopped him in his tracks. Schuldig could watch him tense as he pushed against that invisible power, testing its hold on him. Telekinesis would definitely come in handy on a run like this. He made a note to sign up for it to be injected into his genes if Rosenkreuz ever figured out how to breed power.
"Personnel's got a mess to clean up," Schuldig said, waving over his shoulder at the door they'd just come through. "Five bodies need somewhere to go before they stink out the basement."
They just nodded in understanding and escorted the Schwarz pair to the door. A car was parked out front and Farfarello went down the stairs first. Schuldig hung back with the telekinetics, watching as the Irishman stopped on the sidewalk to stare around at the world. They were out on the far edge of the city, inconvenient for work but good for moments like these when they had a freakishly white, bloody man wandering around. The man in question made no move to get away, though that might have been the iron grip the kinetics had on him, but instead lifted a hand to consider the way sunlight looked on his skin. It was almost enough to make Schuldig think he'd been telling the truth when he feigned ignorance over his transport to China from Austria. He'd likely been drugged to the gills the whole way here.
"Is it true?" the female kinetic wanted to know. "What they say about him, even."
"I'm starting to think so," Schuldig answered.
"They should have loaned you out another psi," the man said in a low voice. "Your partner-"
"Is busy," Schuldig interrupted him, and he turned a cold smile on them. "You're finished here, I think."
They fixed him with twin looks almost too mocking to be pitying and stepped back, and Schuldig looked back at Farfarello in time to see the man rock forward. He'd been straining against a mental hold that was no longer there, and he looked back over his shoulder to see what was going on. Schuldig took the last of his reservations and buried them deep with a vicious push, and started down the stairs to his new teammate's side.
"Let's get this over with. Get in the car."
Farfarello just looked at him, looking totally disinterested in that command. Schuldig didn't wait on him but climbed into the driver's side. The car had been prepared and packed for them and Schuldig twisted the key in the ignition to bring the GPS monitor to life. Even the directions had already been punched in and saved, and he could call them up with just a press of a button. Personnel's usefulness was almost enough to make him regret how easily they died, but it was just a fleeting notion.
The telekinetics got Farfarello moving with a hard push against his shoulder and the look Farfarello sent them as he went stumbling up against the hood of the car said he was memorizing their faces for later. They didn't look at all worried, supremely confident in their powers, but Schuldig couldn't help but think that Farfarello could find a way around such a thing.
"Ridiculous," he told himself, and he stretched out his mind towards the blank expanse that was Farfarello's consciousness. //Get in the car,// he said, and he couldn't stop a small trickle of relief at the look Farfarello sent him. It meant his power could still make it to Farfarello's mind whether he could hear anything from it or not, and it made him feel better about this whole retarded situation. //You can get in on your own power or you can let them throw you in here like a rag doll.//
//I am not a toy,// Farfarello informed him, and Schuldig felt the hairs on his arm stand on end at the weight of Farfarello's voice against his mind. With nothing at all behind it, it seemed heavier than a normal person's thoughts, more distinct and powerful. //Do not make that mistake.//
//A pet, then,// Schuldig said, waving one hand in dismissal. //Rosenkreuz's most expensive pet.//
Farfarello pressed his thumbnail against his throat and dragged it around in a clear threat. Schuldig feigned not to see it. At last the Irishman straightened and started around the car, and Schuldig glanced at the monitor again. He mentally congratulated himself on taunting a Berserker right before starting a three-hour drive and decided that if he got killed on this, it was probably going to stem from his own stupidity and not any talent of Farfarello's.
The car sank a little as Farfarello climbed in and Schuldig braced himself for an attack that didn't come. The man was content instead to slouch low in his chair and prop bare feet against the dashboard, and Schuldig glanced over his shoulder in search of the duffel bag that should be there. Their weapons and expensive equipment were in the trunk, but he saw what he was looking for and flicked his fingers that way before putting the car in gear.
"Clothes," he said simply.
"These are fine," was the bored response.
It wasn't worth arguing about, so Schuldig just sent the GPS monitor another glance and pulled away from the curb. They left the Headquarters in their rearview mirrors, and Schuldig's stomach twisted just a little when he felt the telekinetics' minds fall out of range.
For as much as Schuldig didn't want to be on this run, he was happy to be checking into their rooms at the hotel. His gift kept the desk clerk from noticing the blood that had dried and caked on Farfarello's clothes and from taking too much interest in the strange-looking guests, and that was enough. He carried their suitcase and computer bag and left the duffel to Farfarello, and they took the stairs up to the third floor. Farfarello went first, since Schuldig especially didn't want the man at his back while he was carrying heavy things, and he even got them into their room with the key card.
Schuldig put the suitcase down just a few feet inside the door and closed the door behind them while Farfarello went ahead to investigate. The telepath gave himself those few seconds to forcibly relax, trying to unknot the tension of the long drive here. Farfarello hadn't said anything since he'd first rejected the change of clothes, and Schuldig hadn't been interested in striking up a conversation. They'd been dead silent for the rest of the ride and Farfarello had barely twitched from his position. Every time he had, though, Schuldig had felt himself tense, not that he'd been relaxed in the first place.
The barely-conscious apathy Farfarello had treated him with on Schwarz's first visit to his cell seemed to have replaced the savagery that had started this trip. The Irishman had tested the waters to get a first taste of the hierarchy between them and for now was content to let it lie. Farfarello's files said he'd been locked away in Rosenkreuz's basement for three years now, long enough for the school to beat some sort of order into the monster, and Schuldig was glad to see some of that training was holding.
That satisfaction quickly evaporated when Schuldig went down the short hallway after Farfarello and saw the rest of the room they would be sharing for a week. It was more than the fact that it was small- barely big enough for him and his ego, let alone a second person- it was that there was only one bed. Apparently this weeklong outing with the Mad Hatter hadn't been part of the planned budget.
"Misers," he said, not at all pleased. "A pox on every head in Finances. You're sleeping in the bathtub."
Farfarello just smiled at him. "Make me."
It was safer to let that taunt slide than to deal with what that smile promised, so Schuldig feigned not to hear him. "Towel's in the bathroom," he said instead. "Be useful and go shower or something. We've got work to do and I can't take you out when you smell and look like that. Go."
Farfarello tilted his head to one side to consider Schuldig with a hooded eye. "You're bossy."
"Get used to it," Schuldig told him. "Schwarz's orders come down the line from Crawford, but I'm the unit's field leader. I'm going to be the one telling you what to do and when. That's why I'm the one here with you this week." Farfarello didn't answer that and Schuldig flicked his fingers in a dismissal. "Shower," he said pointedly, and he reached out to set the laptop down on the bed.
It was just a temporary distraction, but that second was more than Farfarello needed, and Schuldig hadn't even let go of the bag's shoulder strap when the shorter man slammed into him. He went crashing into the wall, crushed between cold wallpaper and the heat of a hard body, and Farfarello's fingers clenched around his throat. Schuldig's gift was already moving, spiking across the short space between their minds to strike out at Farfarello's emptiness.
The hard flinch that shook the younger man's frame said his blow hit home even if he couldn't feel it, and it did wonders to ease some of the tension in his stomach. Farfarello's fingers went slack against his throat and Schuldig was already moving to smack his hand away. He gave the Irishman a rough shove back away from him and Farfarello fell to sit unsteadily on the edge of the bed. Schuldig tested his neck and found broken skin where Farfarello's fingernails had started on an attempt to tear his throat in two.
"Cut the shit," he said, but unease over this week finally gave way to supreme confidence. He moved around Farfarello and sat further down the bed to open up his laptop. It was another minute more before Farfarello actually got up and left, and Schuldig allowed himself a victorious smirk where he was digging through the files they needed. He had a few minutes to get things organized before the water cut off in the bathroom, and Farfarello didn't even slow to dry off before coming back out into the bedroom. He came to a stop beside Schuldig, dripping all over the floor, and the telepath dragged his eyes up bared, scarred flesh.
Farfarello hooked a finger in the collar around his throat. It was the only thing he was wearing besides some thick bandages along his arms, and the jet black leather seemed alarmingly dark against his pale skin. "Take it off."
"I said no," Schuldig sent back. "You haven't earned it." Farfarello looked decidedly unimpressed by that and Schuldig offered him a cool look in return. The German tilted his head to one side, drawing Farfarello's attention to his throat. He traced a line around his neck and Farfarello hesitated for just a second before leaning in to see better. "Everyone comes to Rosenkreuz collared," Schuldig said when he thought Farfarello had found the thin scar that looped across his skin. "It's only when you move off probationary field status that they cut it free."
"I'm here," Farfarello pointed out.
"On probation," Schuldig said, "and as your field leader, I'm the one who has a say in when that ends. Like I told you: I'm not impressed."
Farfarello didn't respond immediately, but at last he straightened. There was a calculating look in his eye as he stared down at Schuldig and Schuldig was content to stare back and wait. "Yet," the Irishman said at last.
"Don't think it'll be easy," Schuldig returned. "I work with a telekinetic and he can do a hell of a lot more than you can. Neither of us wants you on this team."
Farfarello thought that over. "Yet," he said again.
"You hope so. If I don't like you, you're going back down into the basement to rot."
Farfarello smiled. "Do you?"
"Do I what?"
"Not a single bleached speck of you. Now go get dressed. We've got work to do."
Farfarello took his time drying off and getting clothed, but that didn't matter. Schuldig opted not to waste the time and read the job parameters and objectives to him. He wasn't entirely sure Farfarello was listening to him, though he thought he saw the man slow down a little in his actions to quiet the rustling of heavy cloth. Schuldig was more interested in the files than Farfarello's interest at the moment, as this was the first chance he'd had to read all of the details about their job. Crawford had presented him with a summary yesterday when turning over the preliminary paperwork, but last night had been devoted to the Yun Fat case. Now, as Schuldig tried to familiarize himself with this new job last-minute, he spared a moment of gruff sympathy for Schwarz's precognitive. The starting date on the case file said Crawford had just received the order to send Schuldig and Farfarello out into the field eight days ago, which had given him barely over a week to get everything ready for the pair on top of doing the rest of his work.
He flipped between the computer and his folders, cross-referencing names and files, and eventually Farfarello came to stand beside him again. The only things the madman was interested in were the photos, and Schuldig turned them over to watch him memorize them. Farfarello proved that he'd been listening to at least some of what Schuldig had been saying by promptly categorizing the files into two stacks: those that were to be killed and those that were to be protected and left alive.
"Crude," Schuldig decided, "but it'll do."
"There is no other way," Farfarello returned. "There's only life and death."
"Everything Rosenkreuz does is shades of gray."
"Rosenkreuz," Farfarello said, and he gave Schuldig another creepy smile. Too-white fingertips traced the scars that cut across his face and tapped against his eye patch. "But I'm all black and white. Death doesn't compromise."
"You're a nutjob."
"Said the guilty to the damned."
"Whatever." Schuldig glanced down at the watch on his wrist. "This is how it's going to work. We've got time to get food before we have to meet the big guys at their office. We need to check in with them to let them know we're here and about to start work. You speak Chinese?" Farfarello just gazed back at him and Schuldig shrugged away his annoyance. "Just stand around and stare at carpet fibers for all I care, then. Follow my lead."
He pushed himself to his feet but Farfarello didn't step back to give him much room, and Schuldig ended up pressed up against him to keep from falling back down onto the bed. "What if I don't want to?" Farfarello asked. "Follow you."
"It beats the alternative of rotting in your jacket, but if that's what you'd prefer, be my guest. I won't miss you."
Farfarello gave him a cool look that was two parts ice. "Why should I follow you?"
"Decide your reasons on your own."
"No," Farfarello said, and some of the chill melted away into that lazy look of apathy again. "You decide. Schwarz put in the request, after all."
Schuldig sent him a narrow-eyed look. "I don't remember mentioning that."
"Come on, Mastermind," Farfarello invited him. "Impress me."
"I didn't tell you that name, either," Schuldig told him.
"Someone did," Farfarello answered.
Schuldig thought about Crawford warning him not to ask just who had let Schwarz recruit the psychopath. His mouth twitched into the beginning of a displeased frown as he searched Farfarello's face and gaze. What was so special about this madman that the higher ups would care? And why did they want him on Schwarz? Crawford had requested Farfarello specifically- Crawford had said so and Farfarello had just confirmed it. How Crawford had first found out that Farfarello was real, though, was starting to look a bit shady.
"Don't push me," he warned Farfarello again.
"I don't push," Farfarello assured him lazily. Fingers hooked in the belt loops of Schuldig's pants and the German went rigid as Farfarello tugged them harder together. "I pull. You're going to take this collar off of me in a week."
It sounded like a demand; it sounded like a threat. Schuldig stared through those words at his growing questions and felt nothing but the sinking sense of a set-up. "Earn it," he said simply. "Now get your hands off me before I lose my appetite."
Farfarello held on for just a few seconds longer before pulling free, and Schuldig slipped away from the bed. "This is how Schwarz works," he told Farfarello. "I'm not going to tell you to bow to me or lick my shoes or follow me around like some sort of housebroken puppy. I've got enough shit of my own to worry about without telling you to remember to breathe. What I am going to tell you is when to shut up and when and who to kill, and that's what you're going to do. You want to earn a place on Schwarz, you start with that."
He thought about that for a few seconds before adding, "And if you keep trying to kill me, that's not going to help you at all."
"Don't make yourself a target," was the bored response.
Schuldig ignored that in favor of grabbing his phone and keys, and he let the hotel room door slam behind him. Farfarello wasn't long in following him downstairs to the car, and if anyone in the lobby thought they were a freakish pair with their strange coloring, Schuldig's telepathy kept them from standing out too much.
If the first day was marred with tension, the first night didn't do much to help it. Schuldig didn't have what it took to make Farfarello sleep on the floor or in the bathroom, and there was no way he was going to retreat from Farfarello to one of those alternatives, either. Common sense and survival instincts said he was retarded for even considering sleeping in the same bed, but at least there were ways around it. Someone had packed a clean straitjacket and restraints for Farfarello's legs in the duffel. Schuldig considered the metal links while Farfarello perched on the headboard like a pale cat and watched.
"Are you afraid of me?" came the drawled taunt.
"You're the one that said not to be a target," Schuldig said as he pulled the gear loose and threw the jacket at Farfarello. "Put it on."
He expected an argument, but Farfarello tugged it on with the ease of long practice and let himself fall sideways off his perch onto the mattress. Schuldig went over to fasten the buckles in place, and the Irishman rolled onto his back to watch Schuldig as the German locked his ankles to the footboard. Schuldig pushed the bags off to one side before peeling out of his own clothes and changing for bed, and he didn't miss the way Farfarello watched him get undressed and dressed again. He decided not to comment but ignored it as best he could.
It was hard to ignore Farfarello when he cut the light off just a minute later and had to get into bed, though. He climbed onto the mattress and crawled down the length of the bed to stretch out on his side, but the way he'd let Farfarello lie meant that there wasn't much space between their bodies even with him being conservative. He could feel Farfarello's body heat against him as he pulled the sheet up and it did unwelcome things to his stomach. He tried to do the math for the last time he'd shared a bed with someone before deciding that was the last road he needed to go down tonight, especially considering just what freak was lying next to him.
He told himself not to think about it, but his subconscious finished up the math, and Schuldig sighed heavily and rolled onto his other side. The wall wasn't very interesting to stare at, but it was safe, and that was all that mattered.
Farfarello said nothing, and with his mind a blank slate, Schuldig had no way of telling when he fell asleep. Schwarz's telepath lay awake long into the night, listening to the voices muttering and dreaming all around him when he finally tired of wondering what he was supposed to think and do about Farfarello. In the end he mentally edged backwards towards Farfarello's silence, and as he let that nothingness drown out the rest of the noise around them, he finally fell asleep.
The first three days on the job were mind-numbingly boring. Schuldig could barely stand them, so he wondered how Farfarello possibly managed to behave. The days were packed with meetings and negotiations, a lot of back-and-forth arguing about alliances and finances. Schuldig was there as the voice of Rosenkreuz and their main client's bodyguard, and he detested being slotted into such a role. Being a telepath gave him an edge when it came to arguing such things, but Crawford was simply better at it, and Crawford was cleared to give more away than Schuldig could. It took two days for the businessmen to accept the fact that Schuldig could not promise them what they wanted without first having it cleared up the chain, and then the Schwarz pair had to endure that sullen disapproval and disappointment.
The fourth day should have been better, if only because it ended with a lot of death and bloodshed, but it turned out to be the most unsettling day yet.
Schuldig brought Farfarello halfway across town to find their targets of the evening, and then he considered his work temporarily finished. Their client had already said he had connections who could run clean-up, so Schuldig just stepped off to one side and let Farfarello go. There was the smallest hope that the man would get shot going up against three targets and their thirty-one security guards. The pale man had refused to take a gun with him, claiming he would find something better along the way, and Schuldig didn't feel like arguing.
"Nagi could clear this entire building with just his gift," he told Farfarello. "Show me why we need you."
Farfarello just offered him a lazy smile at that challenge and went ahead of Schuldig through the front door. Schuldig let him go first and followed just a half-minute later. He expected to see Farfarello finishing up with anyone in the front room, but the room was already cleared. Three men lay sprawled on the floor, disemboweled and throats cut. Schuldig came to a stop just inside the doorway to stare and blue eyes darted from one corpse to the next.
"That was fast," he muttered, and he hurried to catch up.
He never made it. He followed the trail of minds that were vanishing far too fast all the way to an end office, and Farfarello was waiting for him there. The Irishman was sitting in one of the desk chairs as their targets lay in bloody pieces around the room. Farfarello didn't return Schuldig's hard stare, more interested in licking clean a wicked looking knife.
"I see you acquired a weapon," Schuldig said at length, because he wasn't sure what else to say. He looked down at his watch, but the seconds ticking away didn't make sense. Farfarello had iced thirty-four men in a minute and a half. Finally he gave up all pretense and settled for a, "How the fuck did you do that?"
"They were weak," Farfarello answered. "The weak must die."
"That's not an explanation."
"That's my answer."
"You're not a Rosenkreuz student," Schuldig insisted flatly. "You can't kill thirty-four people just like that."
"But I did," Farfarello pointed out. He planted a shoe against the table and turned his chair, and Schuldig stared when he realized Farfarello's bandages were loose down one arm. The wrapping hung in bloody, coiled loops over the arm of the chair and into his lap, and torn skin showed through. As Schuldig watched, Farfarello pushed his knife flat against the wound and wrapped it up again. He had to pull the bandages tight to keep the knife from showing or slipping, which explained the blood if it didn't explain how Farfarello hadn't cut his arm open with weapons in such places.
"That's the most retarded place to keep a knife I've ever heard of," Schuldig told him.
"Is it?" Farfarello asked, disinterested.
"When you cut your arm off, don't come crying to me."
Farfarello tugged the last edge of the bandage into place and looked over at Schuldig. He considered the German for a few moments before reaching over and pulling a letter opener free from a can of pens on the desk. He gave it a lazy wave in Schuldig's direction before dragging the tip down over his face. Skin split easily beneath the sharp blade and blood ran down over his cheek and lips to dribble off his chin. Schuldig's mouth was open to demand just how mental he was and how far behind on medication he'd fallen when the blood stopped.
The distance between them wasn't too great for Schuldig to watch Farfarello's face mend itself, and silence dragged between them as Schuldig refused to accept that as truth. Farfarello seemed to understand that denial, because he cut a line across his throat next. At least, he tried, but no matter how hard he seemingly sawed at his neck, the skin did little more than turn pinkish with bruises and blood that faded too fast. He cut at his wrists next, and while they actually bled, they healed almost as fast as his face had.
"That's enough," Schuldig said in a low voice when Farfarello moved as if to punch the blade into his thigh. "That's enough."
Farfarello looked back his way and they stared each other down. At length the younger man tossed the letter opener to one side and stood, and Schuldig didn't wait for him before turning around and leaving the blood-smeared hallways behind him. Neither of them talked the whole way back to the hotel. Farfarello got in the shower to wash himself clean while Schuldig filed a brief confirmation with their clients.
He was waiting when Farfarello came back. The Irishman came back naked again, but this time, he came to a stop in front of Schuldig and turned around. Schuldig hadn't seen the markings the last time, too distracted with Farfarello's demands over his collar, and his stomach sank at the sight of the black insignia inked into his new teammate's skin.
"Estet," he said. "Rosenkreuz bought you from Estet. What the fuck are you?"
"Just a prototype," was the careless response, and he offered Schuldig a lazy smile. For the first time, Schuldig couldn't read any amusement in the expression. "Just a failed prototype."
Estet and Rosenkreuz had long been wary of each other, as one believed in cultivated power and the other believed in pure breeding. They had started as the same organization but had split before long, and they'd been circling each other ever since as they tried to figure out what happened next. There were rumors in the ranks that Estet was going to push for an alliance and merger soon, but it was no secret that the powers on either side didn't want such a thing to happen. The last thing Schuldig wanted was to be competing with a lab rat psi.
But then Farfarello…
"Why did Rosenkreuz buy you?" Schuldig wanted to know.
"Intelligence, of course," Farfarello answered as he turned around.
It made sense. Farfarello was a reject, but he was still proof of what Estet was tinkering with. Maybe he wasn't a telekinetic or a precognitive or a telepath, but he'd killed thirty-plus men in less than two minutes and he apparently had a dandy trick of healing himself. Schuldig thought again of the look Farfarello had sent the telekinetics at Headquarters, as if he'd been figuring out how to get around such a power. So Farfarello was giftless, but he was also estimated to be seventeen years old. Estet's technology could only have gotten stronger and better since his batch.
Farfarello reached out and touched two fingertips to his temple then, and Schuldig wasn't ready for the psychopath's mind to snap awake again. It hit him like a freight train, slamming up against his shields. The thoughts of the other hotel guests evaporated under the heat and blood of memories and imagery. Lights and blades and voices and drugs; they blurred together in a mess that was sometimes a little too clear. Schuldig tasted metal and blood and felt the jerk of a chain against his arm pulling him back. He grabbed blindly at Farfarello and struggled to find his mental footing enough to throw Farfarello out of his mind. He came back into being Schuldig with shuddering, gasping breaths and a massive headache.
Estet's lab rat to Rosenkreuz's lab rat; Rosenkreuz had acquired Farfarello three years ago and he was just now being given up for a field team. Schuldig felt his stomach lurch and choked a little on the taste of bile. It didn't help at all that Farfarello's mind had gone completely blank again; the afterimages still remained burned into Schuldig's thoughts.
What the hell did Crawford want with someone like him?
"You will take this collar off in a few days, won't you?" Farfarello said, petting white fingers through orange hair. It was a threat again, a demand, a barely-restrained hatred and fury. Schuldig could finally feel that darkness beneath the calm words and he forced himself to let go of Farfarello. The Irishman didn't appreciate his slow response and grabbed handfuls of orange hair to jerk Schuldig's head back. "Three days," Farfarello insisted.
"Yank my hair again and you'll fry," Schuldig warned him, glowering up at the pale man. Farfarello stared down at him for a few seconds more before roughly untangling his hands. Schuldig pushed himself to his feet to try and knock Farfarello back, but the man held his ground like his feet were cemented to the floor. "It's not that simple. The only thing three more days will tell us is whether or not we've managed to finish this job properly. Then there's paperwork and arguing and negotiations back at Headquarters. It doesn't matter to me where you came from or what you'll go back to; my priority is my team."
Farfarello said nothing to that but moved away, and Schuldig watched as he got dressed without really seeing him. Estet's insignia flashed at him every time he blinked. His list of questions to take up with Crawford had just doubled in size and his headache was only getting worse.
"We're going to sleep," he said, and Farfarello silently pulled his jacket on over top of his night clothes. Schuldig locked his legs into place and got changed himself. It was the first time Farfarello didn't watch him, and Schuldig decided Farfarello was mad at him. He couldn't bring himself to care. He turned the light off and got into bed, but it was a long time before his thoughts let him sleep.
On the fifth day, Farfarello was as well-behaved as anyone could hope. Schuldig listened to their clients' stories of what the clean-up crew had found in a superior sort of silence, but that arrogance was little more than a façade. A couple hours' of sleep and many hours of thinking weren't enough for him to feel at ease about everything going on. The truth about Farfarello- rather, the corner piece of the truth about Farfarello- chewed its way through his thoughts all day long.
On day six, when it was time to take out their last targets, Schuldig went in with Farfarello. He'd seen Farfarello redefine speed when he was taking care of those five guards at Headquarters, but this was something completely different. Humans weren't supposed to move like Farfarello was moving. He cut his way through bodyguards like a blade through smoke, never slowing or stopping. Guns fired but bullets rarely hit home, and those that did mattered nothing to the pale wraith. Schuldig had to run to keep Farfarello in his line of sight and he followed the madman all the way to the end.
He slowed to a stop just an arm's length away from Farfarello as the last body hit the ground, and for several seconds, the only sound was that of trickling blood. Then there was the faintest pulse of Farfarello's mind, roiling and twisting with hunger and need, before it went silent again. Schuldig arched an eyebrow at the back of his head but Farfarello didn't seem to notice, more intent on seeing if maybe one of the fallen bodies needed more help in dying.
Schuldig glanced him over, looking for and counting healing wounds, and paused when he noticed the small bulge in Farfarello's pants. He dragged his attention back up to the man's face. "Did you seriously just get turned on by killing all those people?" he asked. "You are the singularly most fucked up person I've ever met."
Farfarello lifted one shoulder in a careless shrug. Schuldig looked down at his pants again, and almost without thinking, he reached out to press a hard hand against clothed heat. Farfarello's eye jumped to his face at the contact but the man didn't break his arm in six or seven places or cut his throat. That was probably a good thing. Schuldig wasn't going to risk it, though, so he drew his hand back and forced his gaze back up to meet Farfarello's.
"Let's go," he said. "We're finished here."
"Are we?" Farfarello asked.
Schuldig decided not to try and figure out if that was an invitation. He wasn't stupid enough to even consider taking the man up on it if it was. His innate desire to live until he was at least thirty-five said it would be a very bad idea to even start thinking of Farfarello like that. Three months without a bed partner weren't enough motivation. That didn't stop him from seeing the challenge in Farfarello's stare, though, and from noticing that it came without lethal intent.
"Not yet," Farfarello decided.
Schuldig ignored that. "Let's go," he said again, and he led the way out of there.
They checked in with their client to let him know they were finished and to arrange a meeting time the following day for any loose ends. Schuldig called Crawford from the hotel while Farfarello was in the shower to say they should be back on the road to Headquarters by two. Crawford accepted that and the promise of reports with just a few words, and then silence stretched between them on the line.
"I have questions," Schuldig said at last.
"Not now," Crawford said. "We are busy here. Save them for your reports."
Schuldig accepted that because he had to- not just because Crawford was his unit leader, but because he heard the warning beneath Crawford's calm voice. Crawford didn't want Schuldig's questions aired over a line that wasn't secure, which meant he knew more about Farfarello than he'd bothered to tell Schuldig. Schuldig thought about the merger and Rosenkreuz's dissent and the council letting Crawford in on Farfarello's existence. A trigger, perhaps, for Crawford's gift? Farfarello was a rather weak link back to Estet by now but the relationship was still there.
"Your assessment?" Crawford asked, distracting Schuldig from his thoughts.
The bathroom door clicked open and Farfarello came wandering out in a pair of loose pants. Schuldig studied the mark on his back and thought about the future. He thought about Nagi and Yun Fat and the headache that paperwork and infrastructure job was, thought about Farfarello and buildings full of blood and dead people. Two heavy hitters on one team, paired up with a precognitive and a telepath. What the hell was Crawford preparing Schwarz for?
Just the thought sent a small shudder of excitement down his spine, though he told himself not to get his hopes up.
"I think I'm impressed," he said at last.
Farfarello looked his way at those words and the two eyed each other with half a cramped room between them. Crawford was saying something at his ear about how he'd make a note of Schuldig's recommendation, and the two hung up without farewells.
Schuldig studied his phone for a few moments before dropping it off to one side and standing, and Farfarello met him halfway. A single golden eye burned holes in Schuldig's face and he did his best to ignore it as he searched for the panel on the inside of Farfarello's collar. He managed to wriggle a fingertip in between dark leather and pale flesh to press it against the screen, and there was a small beep before the buckle popped open. The collar clattered to the ground between them and Farfarello pressed his palm against his throat, trying to see what his neck felt like without the restrictive band.
"It's not official yet," Schuldig told him. "I have to make a formal statement to Crawford tomorrow, who has to turn around and send it up the chain. Still, if they let Crawford ask for you in the first place, chances are they're not going to say no."
"But you could have said no," Farfarello guessed.
"I'm starting to think you have some good points."
Farfarello quirked an eyebrow at him for that before looking down at his collar again. At length he leaned over and picked it up, and Schuldig frowned as he watched the Irishman fasten it into place around his throat again.
"What the hell was that for?" Schuldig demanded.
"A test, of sorts," Farfarello said with a small shrug. "I passed your test. Now you pass mine. If you can, this stays on, and I'll belong to Schwarz." He slid his fingertips along the length of the collar and offered Schuldig a lazy smile. "Impress me," he invited Schuldig. "If you can."
Schuldig thought about his meeting with Crawford tomorrow and mirrored Farfarello's smile. "I'm sure we can think of something."
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