PARALYZER

Part 12


      The next day, two couches showed up on Schuldig's front doorstep. Rather, boxes full of impossible-to-put-together pieces did, since a couch wouldn't fit through the narrow door. Watching the deliverymen try to get the boxes from the front door to the living room was amusing, since the wall wasn't wide enough for them to turn it. They had to carry each box all the way down the hall, then back up and ease into the living room that way. The first time was trial and error, and the second time was a breeze. They set the boxes down where he indicated, looking a bit surprised that anyone would need four couches and three chairs. They were too polite to ask. He signed the papers they offered him and they were gone.

      He'd ordered the couches before classes that morning and made sure to get an early afternoon delivery time, figuring that Estet's people were mostly likely to be free around lunch time. Now he called them over without telling them why. It took them a couple minutes to put down whatever they were doing, which was more than enough time for Schuldig to fetch beer from the fridge and the toolbox from the kitchen closet.

      The six came in to the sight of Schuldig fighting with the first box. They weren't really sure what he was up to, but Tatsuo and Hiroyuki stepped forward to help just the same. There wasn't a design on either box, so it wasn't until it fell open that they realized what he'd bought them. Lian actually whooped at the sight of it. In a house that offered no privacy whatsoever, the noise was bound to get the empaths' attention. Crawford knew the couches were coming because Schuldig had told him, so he wasn't likely to put in an appearance, but the girls were too nosey to let such a thing lie.

      Nicole was the first to show up, since her bedroom was on the first floor. She stood in the doorway and stared, not sure what to make of a room full of dead minds or the giant mess they were making. Schuldig ignored her in favor of trying to sort pieces of couch into piles. Tatsuo found the instructions, and since Schuldig couldn't read Japanese, he let the man keep them and dictate. Hiroyuki and Mariea argued over the little bags of screws and bolts while Lian and Tomoko helped Schuldig rearrange piles of cushions and wood.

      "Agh," Schuldig said, trying to figure out the difference between two bits. "I'm a telepath, not an engineer."

      "What the hell?" Ly Ly demanded as she showed up behind Nicole.

      "Sitting on the floor makes my ass hurt," Schuldig said without looking up. He displayed the two pieces to her. "Hey. Which one's the left?"

      He honestly expected her to ignore him. She stared narrow-eyed and purse-lipped at him for so long that he almost got tired of waiting on her. Finally she glanced over at Nicole, waiting for the blonde to make the first move. Nicole looked from Schuldig to the dead minds and Schuldig knew she was about to hightail it out of there. Then her green eyes slid toward Tomoko and Farfarello, and she stepped into the room.

      Ly Ly's expression twisted a bit in displeasure, but she followed. She strode over to Tatsuo, hand out in a demand for the instructions. A week ago, Tatsuo would have relinquished them. Today, with Schuldig right there, all he did was turn it so she could see. His two-handed grip on the booklet was a silent declaration of war against her. Ly Ly hadn't been expecting that tiny defiance. She turned an irritated look on Schuldig.

      "Do I look like I put furniture together for fun?" she demanded, as if he'd insisted she help. "Call Tremelle if you can't handle it on your own."

      Schuldig chose to ignore her taunting tone. He cast out, looking for the electrokinetic. Tremelle, he tried. Ly Ly says you're good with a hammer. I'll trade you beer for extra muscle.

      There was a long pause, then a fuzzy, In a minute.

      Dropping Ly Ly's name was probably more effective than the offer of beer, Schuldig reflected. The Korean empath was pretty, even with all of that attitude. Tremelle was always glad when he was sent on jobs with her.

      "Isn't ghostie over there going to help?" Nicole asked, sending Farfarello a pointed look.

      Farfarello ignored her, content to crouch in the corner and watch the chaos. Schuldig just shrugged at Nicole. For reasons neither of them completely understood, Nicole hadn't told anyone about Tomoko and Farfarello. Schuldig was surprised by that discretion, especially considering how quickly she'd opened her mouth about him and Crawford. From time to time the Frenchwoman wondered if she'd imagined it in her drunken state, never mind that she'd been sober when she found out. Schuldig guessed he could understand that skepticism, seeing as how she'd been on the same team with the two for three years and never picked up on their relationship.

      "Aren't you?" Schuldig asked.

      Nicole looked at him like he was stupid and displayed her hands for his approval. "I just got my nails done yesterday."

      "Right," Ly Ly said, dragging Schuldig's attention back to the problem at hand. She and Tatsuo had compromised and were each holding a side of the instruction packet. She snapped her fingers at Schuldig to make sure he was listening to her. "The one in your right hand is the left."

      "It's the right," Tatsuo said, frowning at the picture.

      "No," she said, annoyed. "Look. See where the hole is?"

      "Oh. It's the left," Tatsuo confirmed.

      "Well, now I've forgotten where it goes," Schuldig told them. They dug through the packet to find out, arguing with each other the whole way. Sometimes teamwork was an amusing thing.

      The door opened as Tremelle arrived, and he took a couple moments to survey the disaster. Schuldig gestured from the mess to the beer and held out the pieces he was holding. "These are for you. Congratulations."

      Tremelle looked over at Ly Ly, who shrugged at him, and then over at Nicole. She didn't bother to return the look, more interested in walking atop the bubble wrap and listening to it pop. "Huh," Tremelle said. He thought things over for a few moments more, then came to take the wood from Schuldig. "You realize, of course, that we're in the middle of a lot of projects and don't have time to waste like this."

      "We're taking a break," Schuldig said.

      "If this is your idea of a break, don't invite me on your next vacation." The electrokinetic surveyed the mess again, then started rearranging everything. Estet's people got out of the way when they realized he knew what he was doing. He didn't even need the instructions; he could tell where things were supposed to go by sight. Schuldig, who wasn't a visual thinker like that, was mildly envious. "If I help you with your home improvement project here, I expect you to return the favor. My client's being an asshole and I'm tired of dealing with him."

      "Just say when."

      Tremelle wasn't quite sure what to make of that easy agreement, but he hid his surprised confusion pretty well. "This piece, over there," he said. "Someone get the other end. You." He pointed at Lian, then paused as he tried to figure out her name. He gave up and hooked his fingers at her. "Find us the screws that are about this long."

      "Lian," Schuldig supplied.

      Tremelle ignored the correction, but the next time he needed her attention, he used her name. Between the eight of them and their audience of two, they managed to get the couch put together in twenty minutes. They tossed cushions haphazardly on it and took turns sprawling, enjoying the fruits of their labor. They went through a beer each before starting on the second box. Now that they had the hang of things, the second couch was quicker to put together.

      "Victory!" Tomoko declared, throwing her arms into the air.

      Tatsuo leapt up onto the first couch and jumped a few times, never mind that he was thirty going on forty. The empaths stared, looking a little embarrassed by such childishness, but Tomoko was quick to join him. She gave it a test bounce before flopping onto one of the thick cushions. The twenty-seven year old held her hand out to Nicole.

      "Come on!" she said cheerily. "It feels good!"

      For one moment, Nicole's expression twisted with something indescribable. It was a feeling, not a thought, so Schuldig didn't know how to interpret it. The quick look Ly Ly sent her teammate just made Schuldig even more curious. He set it aside to worry about later, because Nicole was reaching forward and letting Tomoko pull her onto the couch.

      "Oh, hell!" Nicole said as soon as she sat down. "Why is your couch more comfortable than mine? This cushion is mine from now on."

      "No, it's ours!" Tomoko sent back with mock-outrage.

      Tremelle helped himself to the spot beside Nicole, wanting to test the couch out. Ly Ly, not to be outdone, settled at his side. That started a chain reaction as the others tried to claim what space they could. Somehow they managed to fit everybody, no matter that there were only six cushions. It helped that Farfarello refused to join them, but it was still a cramped fit. Schuldig wasn't sure, since he'd only been here two months, but he was fairly confident it was the first time Estet's people and the psychics had sat together on the same couch.

      Unity.

      It was fractured at best, but it was still a start. They were assassins and mercenaries and power-hungry assholes, but they were also people. They were social creatures. They couldn't spend hours destroying people's lives and then come home to isolate themselves day after day after day. They couldn't distrust and dislike and ignore the people they lived and worked with in such close quarters. It had been poisoning the team from the inside-out. Crawford, who cared more about his freedom than anything else, hadn't cared and had let them rot.

      So much power, so much potential, and Crawford was letting it die.

      No wonder they're impossible to put up with on a good day, Schuldig mused.

      A soft tap at the door heralded Crawford's arrival. The precognitive took one look at the mess, another at the packed couches, and let his gaze settle on Schuldig. "I will speak to you upstairs," he said. Schuldig knew from the look in Crawford's eye that it was not going to be a pleasant conversation. "The rest of you have work to do. Do it."

      Schuldig wriggled out from under Lian and obediently followed after Crawford. The telepaths headed upstairs to Schuldig's room and shut the door. It didn't help much. They had two very curious empaths listening in, judging by the tingle against Schuldig's mind.

      What do you think you are doing? Crawford asked coldly.

      I told you this morning that I was buying couches, Schuldig answered. Voila. Couches.

      Two-thirds of my team dropped everything they were supposed to be doing to put those couches together. I already warned you not to overstep your boundaries. You are not to interfere in their work.

      Estet's people were on lunch and the empaths invited themselves. Tremelle and I talked business while we worked. He wants me to go along with him on one of his runs so I can take a look at his uncooperative client.
They were valid excuses, but excuses were subjective. It didn't matter that no one had been busy at the moment he'd asked them. If they sacrificed their lunch hour to put furniture together, they could have just as well sacrificed their lunch hour for more important things. This whole period was busy for them, at least until their mini-projects culminated in a big run next week.

      This is your one verbal warning, Crawford said. The next time you cross the line, it will be a written warning on your file. Do you understand me?

      That might have meant nothing to someone else, but Schuldig wasn't someone else. Schuldig's file was flawless; Estet had already remarked on that fact. He'd never been warned by anyone about anything, not by the insanely strict teachers at the school or any of his teammates. Schuldig's perfect file was important to him. Crawford knew that and he was petty enough to use it as a weapon. Schuldig was almost impressed by such a low blow.

      Watching you fuck other people over is enough to make me want to go down on you, Schuldig said absently. I find it interesting or supremely sad that watching you fuck up my life and my team's lives doesn't quell that urge any. It does make me want to use my teeth, though. Does that make me a lost cause of some sort?

      It was out before he could catch it, slipping from one mind to the other. A heartbeat later he decided it was completely worth it, because Crawford couldn't come up with a single response. That silence was just as damning as Crawford's criticism could have been, since it gave Schuldig several long seconds to just stare at him. It had been two months- two months- since he'd gotten any action. He'd been so busy lately that he hadn't gotten the chance to just stand still and look at who he was working with. Now he got an eyeful, and what an eyeful it was.

      If he turned around and left now, he'd leave with his dignity intact. He knew that, quite clearly, but he couldn't stop himself from leaning in to hide his face against Crawford's throat. He was very careful not to touch Crawford, but he could hardly tell the difference. Crawford's body heat and cologne were a drug, buzzing him to high hell and back again. He could already hear his mind turning to white noise. His breath ghosted over Crawford's skin and came back to tickle his own cheeks. It made him think of gasping breaths and choked curses and sweat-slick skin.

      If he turned around and left nowó

      If he didn't turn around and leave, he really would find out how tatami felt on his knees and the empaths downstairs were going to get quite a show.

      "I know my place," he said, mustering every bit of willpower he had. It physically hurt to lean away from Crawford. "I appreciate the verbal warning. I'll be more careful from now on."

      He might have made it out of there just fine if Crawford hadn't caught his wrist. "See that you do," Crawford said, and Schuldig made the mistake of looking him in the face again. At least it gave him a second's warning that the other telepath was leaning in. Two months since Schuldig had gotten any; two months since they'd kissed. They'd been living side by side in this damnably cramped house without touching for two months and it had been killing Schuldig's self-control. By this point, just the feel of Crawford's hands on him was almost enough to get Schuldig off.

      They hadn't gone far into the room, which meant it was no trouble at all for Crawford to flatten Schuldig against the wall. The doorframe dug into his shoulder blade like that, so Schuldig knotted his hand in the waistband of Crawford's pants and pulled Crawford down the wall with him. Crawford didn't taste like mint today. He tasted like coffee, coffee and cream and all sorts of dark things that turned Schuldig's gut inside out.

      Fuckmefuckmefuckme

      It was too easy to give in, too easy to kiss and touch, too easy to get his leg up around Crawford's waist. Schuldig was losing control at an alarming speed and he really, really didn't care. At least, not until Nicole spoke up.

      I'm impressed at how quickly he can turn you into a whore, she said with false cheer.

      Shove off it, you nosey wench, Schuldig shot back, but her taunt was enough to help shake him a little a little bit out of his haze.

      Her words were meant for Schuldig alone, but there was no way Crawford could miss the exchange. The precog punctuated her words with a hand between Schuldig's legs. The hard roll of his palm against Schuldig's forming erection was almost reason enough to ignore Nicole's interference. Schuldig's head hit the wall so hard he saw stars and he dug lines in the cloth of Crawford's shirtsleeve.

      "Stop," he said through clenched teeth. "Stop."

      "Stop?" Crawford murmured against his throat.

      If Nicole hadn't been enough to wake him up, the edge of condescending mockery in Crawford's voice did the trick. "Fucking- stop," he said, planting both hands against Crawford's shoulders and shoving him away. Crawford didn't attempt to touch him again, seemingly content to watch Schuldig struggle for control. Schuldig tried his best to ignore him. He let the wall take his weight because his legs weren't on his side. It was a fight to get his breath and wits back, made all the harder when Crawford was right there.

      His only saving grace, maybe, was that his jacket was long enough to hide the bump in his pants. It meant he booked it out of there as soon as his feet remembered they were supposed to be carrying him. He headed downstairs with a stony look in place and found that absolutely no one had left yet. The nine had been cleaning the mess they'd made of the den, but the empaths' distraction had interrupted that. A flick along their thoughts said only the empaths had any clue what had happened. The others just knew that Crawford and Schuldig had been fighting.

      Schuldig wanted to pick the trash up and shred it, but he made himself start gathering the discarded cardboard and plastic as calmly as possible. Nicole silently started working on the other side of the room. Ly Ly was staring hard at Schuldig, trying to make sense of such a vicious knot of emotions. Schuldig ignored her and instead looked over at Estet's people.

      "I've got this," he said. "You have files to work on."

      Farfarello was the first to leave. Tomoko looked between Schuldig and Farfarello, then decided tact was the better part of valor. The rest of Estet's people were close behind her on her way out, and Tremelle didn't stick around much longer. It left Schuldig with two intensely interested empaths to deal with. Frankly, he'd have preferred the dead minds.

      "What was that?" Ly Ly asked.

      Very bad news, Schuldig thought, but he kept that to himself. If Nicole hadn't said anything, he'd still be upstairs. What would happen the next time the empaths were out on their errands?

      "You should know better," Nicole said, voice cool with disapproval.

      Schuldig ignored her. Ly Ly looked between them, wondering what she was missing out on. Schuldig wasn't going to clue her in anytime soon, and Nicole was too busy glaring at him to pay much attention to her teammate. Schuldig had the living room clean in a matter of minutes, and that was enough time to get his mental footing back.

      He made it as far as the doorway before he had to stop, and he looked over his shoulder at Nicole. It was her turn to be giving him the cold shoulder. He managed a grudging, "Thanks." She shot him a quick look, startled. Schuldig didn't wait for a response but headed upstairs. Crawford was in his room with his door shut. Schuldig gathered up his files and sat on his bed to work.

      Beneath his relief, he couldn't shake the nagging sense that he'd been cheated. None of the research and planning he buried himself in that afternoon was enough to erase that tiny resentment.

*

      The next day was Saturday, and they kicked off a productive weekend with a meeting. Schuldig was one of the last ones downstairs, thanks to a mostly-sleepless night. He ignored the den in favor of collecting coffee from the kitchen. There wasn't much but dregs left, but it was enough to fill half a mug. He was too tired to care how much he drank so long as he got any caffeine at all. It was gone in four swallows that burned his mouth. The pain was more effective than the coffee in waking him up. He set his mug down in the sink and headed back down the hall.

      The second he stepped through the door, he was glad that most of his teammates had shown up already. It meant he missed their reactions to the new couches, yes. It also meant he walked in to see a tiny Rosenkreuz-Estet mix. Nicole, Ly Ly, and Tremelle had claimed one of the new couches. Lian, Mariea, and Hiroyuki shared the other. Farfarello, Tomoko, and Tatsuo had ended up on Rosenkreuz's side of the room, on one of the couches there. It put them alongside the sour trio: Eleodoro, Harriet, and Kwan, none of whom were pleased with their new neighbors.

      Nagi sat in the same place as always, in the chair in the back right corner. It left the other two chairs open. Now that Schuldig had bought new furniture, he had no excuse to sit on the floor. More importantly, now that the couches were mixed, he had no reason to. He headed to the back of the room instead and plunked down in the middle chair. It was infinitely more comfortable than the floor had been and it would put him directly across the room from Crawford. They were both the center of the room. It just depended on perspective.

      Schuldig's morning immediately started looking up.

      Kwan sent Schuldig an annoyed look and pointed over at Tremelle's lot. "What is that?"

      "A couch," Schuldig said.

      "Why the fuck are they sitting over there?" Kwan demanded.

      "Hey, I built it," Tremelle said, shrugging at his teammate. "I'm going to use it."

      "It is creating unnecessary conflict," Nagi said, not looking up from his files. It had been weeks since Schuldig had last heard the child speak, so the quiet voice at his side surprised him. He'd almost forgotten what Nagi's voice sounded like, especially when the child's mental voice was an unintelligible murmur. He sent the young telekinetic a sideways look, watching as he covered his paperwork with messy scribbles.

      "This team seems to exist in a state of conflict," Schuldig said. "Seeing as how only three people are angry about how the room is set up now, you shouldn't worry about it."

      Nagi lowered his pen and looked at Schuldig. Two shades of blue weighed each other in silence: one, icy and bright, and the other, dark and deep. Schuldig was good at reading people's minds. He was good at reading their tones and expressions. Nagi was absolutely indecipherable. Schuldig didn't know if he was more frustrated or intrigued by that.

      The conversation died there, because Crawford showed up with paperwork. They went around the room one at a time and gave updates on their projects. When it was Tremelle's turn, the electrokinetic glanced Schuldig's way and included him in the discussion. It took them just a minute to figure out a time that Schuldig would be going with him. Schuldig didn't miss the sneer on Harriet's face as Tremelle asked for assistance. Neither did Tremelle, judging by the look he sent the pyro. With Crawford waiting on them to finish, though, there wasn't a chance to say anything.

      Schuldig couldn't afford to get in a fight right now, anyway. Three of his teammates reported snags, and another two reported delays. Some of them Crawford was positive would work out, so he simply left the jobs to them to handle however they liked. Others that he expected real trouble from, he consulted his "visions" and advised the psychics how to proceed. One would take some real reworking to smooth out, and all Crawford said was that they would try a new angle. Schuldig paid close attention to the latter two categories, since chances were they'd end up on his plate.

      Nowhere in there, though, did he see a good opportunity to get Nagi alone.

      Crawford started talking about the upcoming week. Halfway through a sentence he went quiet. The others thought he'd triggered a vision; Schuldig knew he'd just mentally put some troublesome pieces together. It was a pretty effective illusion, though.

      "Schuldig," Crawford said at length. "You will not be attending your lessons tomorrow morning. Be ready to leave here by six-thirty. You will be accompanying me to Takatori's morning conference."

      "Of course," Schuldig answered, skimming along his teammates' minds. None of them were sure what to make of that. Crawford had been the sole point of contact with their client thus far. "Attire?"

      Crawford let his gaze linger on Schuldig's bright red jacket. "I assume you have something more conservative."

      "I have my suit," Schuldig said.

      Crawford gave a short nod and went right back to his spiel. The goals for the week were pretty much the same as always: secure and control the powerful, destroy the unwanted weaklings, and keep an eye open for future opportunities. He accepted their written reports and was gone, off to a lunch meeting with some clients. Ly Ly wasn't long behind him, since she had a conference of her own.

      "You got a problem?" Tremelle asked the second the door was shut.

      "Apparently you have problems you can't solve on your own," Harriet said.

      "This," Tremelle said, gesturing between himself and Schuldig, "isn't any different from the joint runs Crawford sent you and me on. The only difference is that he assigned you and me together from the get-go before, and this time he said to leave Schuldig out of it until it was time to use him. I've got too much to do to wait on my mark to grow some common sense."

      "You keep on lying to yourself," Harriet encouraged him nastily.

      "How is it any different or worse than all of you coming to us for our assistance?" That unexpected query came from Tomoko. The only ones who didn't turn to stare at her were Nagi and Farfarello. The petite woman was sitting straight-backed on her cushion and staring straight ahead, refusing to look at Harriet.

      "Shut up," Kwan said. "You don't have a voice in this room."

      Tatsuo was the next to speak up, emboldened by Tomoko's retort. "Oh, shut up," he said. "Quit being such an asshole."

      Nicole actually gaped at him. The blank shock on Kwan's face only lasted for a second before fury replaced it. "What the fuck did you just say?" he demanded, getting to his feet. Tatsuo said nothing, a bit too dizzy from saying it out loud the first time. Kwan didn't need it repeated, and he crossed the room in a heartbeat.

      Schuldig was closer to Tatsuo's couch than Kwan was, which was really the only way he managed to get up in time. He got between the two and planted a hand against Kwan's chest to stop him. The other man was bigger and stockier and not at all interested in being stopped. His fist went back, ready to take Schuldig's head off his shoulders.

      "Stop it," Schuldig said. He echoed it with his gift, driving the order deep in Kwan's brain. The shapeshifter jerked at the feel of Schuldig's power. His fist strained but went nowhere. "You are out of line."

      "I am?" Kwan exploded. "You're not going to side with a dead mind, not over a psychic."

      "I'm saving your ass as much as I'm saving his," Schuldig said. "I want you to think really hard about just who all is registered as being part of Schwarz. That's everyone in this room, plus Ly Ly and Crawford. Crawford is the only one with rank. The rest of us, and that includes the people Estet loaned us, are all equal rank. Do you know what that means? That means if your argument escalates to a fight, it gets reported and you receive corrective action."

      The look in Kwan's eye was all loathing. Schuldig ignored it. "Besides," he continued in a more amused tone, "it's not like you can be at all surprised by his opinion. Right about ninety percent of the team agrees with him, including the two on your couch. Might want to get an attitude adjustment at some point, because it's a waste of a good talent. You're the strongest shifter I've been assigned to, so I quite honestly resent the fact that you're impossible to work with."

      "Don't you dare lecture me," Kwan warned him viciously.

      "I'm just stating my opinion," Schuldig said. "I'm within my rights to do so."

      "You really think you're something, don't you?" Kwan demanded. "Strutting in here like you've still got some rank, fucking the leader so he looks the other way when you want to play hotshot. Maybe I'm an asshole, but at least I'm not someone's bitch."

      Schuldig's smile could have cut diamonds. He'd been fairly careful to keep this expression away from his team, since it was the ugliest, cruelest expression he could make. He tended to reserve it for targets and Harrison- and Crawford, before Schuldig had lost his rank. It instantly transformed him from a tackily-dressed teamwork-centered mediator to pure murder. His teammates felt that shift immediately and they went perfectly still to stare.

      Schuldig turned so he was facing Kwan head-on. The shifter actually took a step back, though Schuldig doubted he realized he was moving. Schuldig's smile twitched a little bit wider. "Unless you can give me one good example of where his fucking me has given me obvious special privileges, I would invite you to keep my personal life and Schwarz two entirely separate matters. Do you understand me?"

      "That is enough," Nagi said.

      Schuldig didn't even look at him. "Favoritism is not a rank here, Naoe. Stay out of it." To Kwan, he insisted, "I'm waiting. Can't you tell me even one instance? I've been here two months."

      Kwan's mouth thinned to a hard line and he stayed quiet. Schuldig gave him almost a minute to come up with something. As the silence stretched on, he finally let his expression relax. "We've got work to do," he said, and he went back to his chair. He settled in the cushions with his files and began sorting through them, seemingly completely ignoring everyone else who was in the room with him.

      He wasn't at all surprised that Kwan was the next to leave, or that Harriet and Eleodoro weren't far behind him. Nagi gathered up his things and left without another word. Schuldig half-expected Estet's people to linger, though Farfarello was a toss-up. He knew Nicole would stay, if only so she could paw through everyone's emotional reactions to that close call.

      The fact that Tremelle lingered- that was a pleasant surprise. He didn't stay long, just long enough to say, "Monday, right?"

      That was still good enough for Schuldig. He looked up from his paperwork and offered Tremelle an amused smirk, every inch the Schuldig they were used to seeing. Tremelle's expression didn't change, but he sounded a little uncomfortable at the abrupt change. "Ten," Schuldig agreed.

      Tremelle started for the door. Nicole arched an eyebrow at Schuldig. "Here I thought you got control of Dolch by blinding them with ideals and bribing them with beer," she said. "Your little 'I'm a psycho who nuked the western hemisphere and licked the dead corpses for fun' face makes me think it might have been something more substantial."

      Tremelle paused at the doorway. "Yeah," he admitted. "You act like a dead mind nine-tenths of the time. It makes it seem impossible that you graduated from Rosenkreuz."

      "You really don't understand telepaths, do you?" Schuldig mused, flipping through his paperwork in search of the first page. "The first thing they teach us at Rosenkreuz is the same thing they teach everyone else: that we can completely control the world if we learn to harness our power and do what they say. The second thing they teach us is how to shield our thoughts. And then? Then they don't say another word about our gifts. They put us in any class they can think of: sociology, psychology, languages, culture... That's what telepathy is, is understanding what people and human minds are all about. We have to teach ourselves how to access and use our gift. Only when we've figured it out do they teach us how to refine it into a weapon.

      "I spent half of my time at Rosenkreuz learning how to take people apart," Schuldig said, looking up at the electrokinetic. "I spent the other half learning how to put them back together. There is a time and a place for each of them. The first thing I learned after I graduated was that, when it comes to teams, the second is always the most important. Discord in a team is a waste of everyone's time when you know just what that team can accomplish as a whole."

      "We're ranked first."

      "Yeah," Schuldig agreed in quiet challenge. "And how happy are you to be part of Schwarz? You're part of Rosenkreuz for life. You really want to be grouchy until the day you die? Quite personally, I have a lot more fun when its my clients who are miserable." He didn't expect Tremelle to answer that, so he shrugged and continued. "When I joined Dolch, they were good. They were fast and ruthless and had a decent string of successes. But they were so angry all the time that I got really sick of dealing with them. I offered them an alternative. Now they're second-ranked in their division, and they're unbreakable."

      Tremelle stared back at him in silence for an endless minute. Finally he turned and left. One by one the others followed him, leaving Schuldig to do his work in peace.

      Four hours later, Schuldig's cell phone rang. He didn't recognize the number, but it was long enough that he knew it was an international call. He picked it up, answering with a simple, "Schuldig."

      "Spence," was the easy return greeting.

      "I don't remember giving you my Japanese cell phone number, Dolch."

      "No," Spence agreed. "Your teammate did."

      Schuldig tried to figure that out. "Crawford?"

      "Sounded black," Spence said. That meant either Tremelle or Kwan, and that was easy enough to figure out. "You realize you've only been part of Schwarz for two months, right? He called me up to ask me if you actually believed in what you were saying. I asked him if you were giving him that teamwork lecture you gave us two years ago. Seems you were. I gave him an honest answer: I told him to suspend disbelief and take you up on it. Schuldig, don't tell me you're seriously challenging the ice man for control of his team," Spence said, sounding exasperated.

      Schuldig's smile was slow and viciously satisfied. "Why not?" he drawled.

      Tremelle made nine. And if Tremelle started to lean Schuldig's way, well, Ly Ly wouldn't be far behind him.

      This really was turning out to be a good day.


Part 13
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