Schuldig had never been a big fan of flying. The first time he'd ever been on a plane was at fifteen years old, when he'd been bought at Auction the first time and given to his Demolitions team. In the five years since, he'd flown a couple times, but not that frequently, and he'd barely flown at all with Dolch after he'd become its leader. There were cheaper ways to get around Africa and he'd been very good at cutting corners where he could. There were always better things to spend money on than transportation.
Apparently Crawford disagreed, because they were flying first class for both legs of the trip. Schuldig thought it was a ridiculous waste of money but didn't bother to say that. Tact hardly mattered in this situation, anyway, when Crawford was far enough inside his head to hear every thought that flickered half-formed or hatefully loud around his skull. The older telepath didn't acknowledge any of it and they spent the flight pretending not to notice each other's presence.
There was a layover in Paris for three hours. Schuldig stayed close on Crawford's heels as they got off the plane, knowing better than to lag behind and get separated, and Crawford rewarded that obedience with silence. He brought them to a café, where he ordered them both coffee and bought a newspaper for himself. Schuldig sat sideways in his chair so he could look out at the passing travelers instead of at Crawford's paper. At least the paper blocked the bastard's face, but still.
Schuldig knew something was up when Crawford ordered refills for them an hour later. The itinerary said they were landing during the early evening in Tokyo, early enough that they had several hours to get work done. It meant they should sleep some of the remaining seventeen hours of flight, but apparently they weren't going to be ignoring each other for the other half. It made sense to utilize the time, but that didn't mean Schuldig was looking forward to it.
Boarding started a half hour before their flight. Crawford gave Schuldig the window seat. Schuldig doubted it was consideration. It sounded more like he was corralling the telepath to make sure he couldn't just get up and walk off at will. Schuldig didn't appreciate it either way. It meant he was stuck between Crawford and a long drop, and they both seemed equally attractive at the moment. He sat with his gaze on the back of the chair in front of him, listening to the sounds of the rest of the passengers walking past and getting settled.
Crawford waited until they were in the air and the drink cart had taken its first round before lifting his briefcase into his lap from by his feet. He set it on his tray table to unlock and open it. Schuldig buried his hatred with as much force as he could, shoving it deep beneath the ice he needed to get through this. Personal grudges were one thing; teamwork was another. Their fight had no place in any of this. They had a team to contend with, a project to succeed on, and Rosenkreuz and Estet to one-up.
"You are going to handicap us from the start," Crawford said without preamble. "You don't understand the culture, the language, or the team you're going to be working with. I expect it will be frustrating for you. I also expect you to work around that without inflicting that stress on my team." He glanced Schuldig's way. The telepath just nodded, though they both knew that stress was unavoidable. It was always rough adjusting to a new personality and power.
"We will address the problem of culture shock and the language barrier first," Crawford said. "I have enrolled you at a local language school. This will take up a considerable amount of your time in the first few months, but it is necessary. You are to use your gift as much as possible to help speed up your grasp of the language. You will also be taking culture and history classes. It is very important to our clients that we show a thorough understanding and appreciation for their country. This means you must know as much as you can about anything they might reference. You will still be doing work with us on the side, but you will have very little interaction with any of our clients until I feel you are ready to represent us."
He set a plastic sheet in front of Schuldig that was covered with scribbles. "There are three alphabets used in Japan: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. This sheet covers the first two. You will have these memorized before your classes start. Your instructors will expect you to be able to read and write them without hesitation. Your course begins the day after we land."
"Right," Schuldig murmured, poking idly at the sheet.
"This is a basic introduction to Japanese culture, touching on the most important things you should know." Crawford handed him a thin folder. "You will have time to read it on the flight.
"There are fifteen of us now," Crawford continued, setting files down on Schuldig's tray table one at a time. Schuldig's and Crawford's were the first two, set out side by side. "In reality, Schwarz now has two telepaths. That is something that stays between us," he emphasized. "Only two others of Schwarz know which way my power leans. To the rest, I am a precognitive. I trust you to act accordingly. You have been chosen for this team for several reasons. First and foremost, you are the most experienced telepath Rosenkreuz has to offer. Secondly, I know you have the same goals I do. Third, we are getting to the point that we cannot work without a telepath and I am not in a position to do the work without giving myself away. You will be doing most of the work, but not all of it."
He set two files down on top of theirs. "These are Farfarello and Naoe Nagi. They complete our core group of four, the real contenders in breaking free of Estet and Rosenkreuz. Naoe is a telekinetic."
"And two years old, it looks like," Schuldig noted, studying their pictures and statistics. "Farfarello's file is incomplete."
"His file is incomplete because he has no gift," Crawford said, and Schuldig flicked him a sharp look. "Schwarz is two-thirds Rosenkreuz graduates and one-third Estet support personnel. We have nine with powers on our team and six without. Farfarello is part of the latter category; he is one of Estet's Berserkers."
Schuldig grimaced a little at that and peered at Farfarello's file. He'd heard of the Berserkers before, but only in insubstantial rumor. Psychics didn't grow on trees and few of the strains bred true like precognition did. Rosenkreuz had only fifty-seven teams, most of which were contracted to Estet's projects in some shape or form. There was still more work than there were psychics, and not all of it needed powers to get the job done. That shortage was filled by Berserkers, men and women Estet collected at young ages and warped into ruthless, brutal killers. Mostly the psychics refused to acknowledge their existence, deeming themselves to be more important. That had changed three years back, when a five-man team had been wiped clean by Berserkers for failing a crucial project.
"That was Farfarello," Crawford said.
It took Schuldig several seconds to realize Crawford was responding to his train of thought. He wasn't used to people being able to read his thoughts, so he stared blankly at Farfarello's file until his mind put one and one together. Sudden realization made him forget what Crawford had just said and he instinctively pulled at his shields. It didn't help when Crawford's gift was sitting inside them. He gave up a second later and finally focused on the words.
"Farfarello took out Elend?"
"It was his last assignment as an independent Berserker," Crawford confirmed.
Schuldig picked up the file to consider it more closely. A pair of golden eyes stared back at him beneath a fringe of white hair. According to the notes, Farfarello was nineteen now. That meant he was sixteen when he and whatever former team he'd been on had taken Elend on. Schuldig tried to imagine just how much he'd improved since then and made a note to not piss the Irishman off.
"There wasn't a team," Crawford said. "He did it alone, and upon his success, I contracted him to Schwarz. He was trained to kill psychics. He is exactly what we will need when the time has come to cut ourselves loose."
"You mean for him to kill your team," Schuldig concluded. The thought rankled him. "If you intended to lose them in the first place, why did you let Schwarz get so large?"
"They are useful." Crawford offered him a cool look in response to Schuldig's glance. "You disapprove."
It wasn't a question, so Schuldig bit his tongue against a response. If he still had his badge, he would have given Crawford a piece of his mind. As it was, he'd given his badge to Spence and he could hear the inflection in Crawford's voice that dared him to continue the argument. In the end, all he said was, "Whatever I honestly think won't interfere with my work," because that was what Crawford wanted to hear. It still left him clueless as to how such a broken team could make it to the number-one slot in Subterfuge, and how they could stand dealing with each other day-in and day-out.
"Eleodoro is our second telekinetic," Crawford said, setting the rest of the files out one at a time. "Nicole and Ly Ly are our empaths. Kwan is a shapeshifter. Harriet is our pyrokinetic, and Tremelle is an electrokinetic." He stopped there to let Schuldig consider each of the files in turn. Schuldig studied the pictures, trying to memorize faces and names, and skimmed their stats. When he was through, Crawford put out the files for their supporting members, the other five taken from Estet's ranks. Three were Japanese, the fourth was Chinese, and the fifth hailed from Brazil. Schuldig wasn't keen on the idea of working with dead minds, but he didn't have much of a choice.
"Our current project centers around a politician named Takatori Reiji," Crawford said, taking the files back and putting a thick folder down instead. "Right now he is a member of the Diet; eventually he will be Prime Minister. It is our job to spread his influence and strengthen working relationships with those in power so that he can be elected. Through him we will gain control of the entire country."
"Out of curiosity, what's so special about Japan?" Schuldig asked. "They make TVs."
"Estet believes Japan to be where the cornerstone was lost."
"Oh," Schuldig said, because that was all he could say. That announcement was more than a little sobering, and sufficient enough to curdle his coffee in his stomach. Estet's elders lived for two things: eternal life and world domination. Schuldig couldn't blame them for either goal, though he didn't have much interest in such things. They'd been using Rosenkreuz's teams for decades, trying to get footholds in society and power across the world. Such an alliance wasn't their first choice. The elders followed a demonic god and a religion Schuldig couldn't understand, and all of the psychics knew the elders wanted to channel their god's powers for themselves. The cornerstone they needed for that ceremony had been lost during the first world war. They were still looking for it, but in the meantime, they'd turned towards Rosenkreuz as a slower means to an end.
"Is it?" he finally asked.
"That is not for us to determine," Crawford told him. "Estet has teams scouring the country for it. Our focus is on preparing Japan for their use. You are to familiarize yourself with everything in that folder. If you have any questions with it, ask. Schwarz has no time for confusion or mistakes." With a dismissive gesture towards the folder, he pulled files out of his briefcase for his own perusal.
Schuldig eyed the notebook, wondering just how many hours it would take to go through. It was as thick as his index finger was long, and he realized why as soon as he opened it. It covered absolutely everything Schwarz had done in Japan so far. The first notes were copies of their orders to Japan, dated two years ago. Every report had attachments, and sometimes those attachments had attachments, and alongside the official reports were Crawford's own. Schuldig slowly picked his way through all of it: the assignments, the schematics, the medical reports, the updates, and the results. Crawford had had to submit a report every single day of their stay in Japan whether or not Schwarz had done any work that day.
It took Schuldig six hours to read through it all, in part because it was mind-numbing to try and take it all in at once and in part because he had to stop now and then to clarify things with Crawford. The flight attendants brought dinner around at one point, which meant he had to set everything aside for fifteen minutes while he ate a meal that was barely better than Rosenkreuz fare. As soon as his food tray was cleared away, it was back to reading, and it felt like forever before he finally reached the end of the folder. It went all the way up to yesterday; apparently Crawford was keeping in touch with his team long-distance. He'd filed their updates in with everything else.
Schuldig leaned back in his chair when he was finally through, feeling more than a little drained and with a rather sizeable headache. The foreign names and the constant references to teammates he didn't know had made him stumble mentally in the beginning. It had gotten easier the further he'd read, but it left him with a lot to take in.
"Questions?" Crawford asked.
"Not yet," Schuldig answered, and Crawford put the folder away again. He waited for Crawford to hand him something else, but the other man said nothing. Schuldig realized why a few minutes later, when the attendants started turning off the overhead lights. He gazed out the window at the night sky, studying the glittering stars far behind the haze of clouds. He didn't really notice when he propped his head up against the wall. He dimly felt himself slipping away, exhausted from such extensive reading. Crawford said nothing to get his attention back, so Schuldig let go and dropped away into sleep.
There was a car waiting at the airport for them. A willowy woman was waiting in the driver's seat and she popped the locks undone for them when she noticed their approach. Crawford sat passenger while Schuldig eased into the miniscule backseat. The woman greeted Crawford with due respect before half-turning to watch Schuldig get settled. He recognized her from the files as Harriet, the team's fire-starter. Her expression was as far from friendly as it could get, a silent declaration of how unhappy she was to have to contend with a telepath. Schuldig returned her stare with a bland look of his own, not impressed. Her mouth twisted into a faint scowl and she faced forward.
She didn't say anything else to Crawford and didn't have a single word to spare for Schuldig, so the ride from the airport into the city was long and silent. Schuldig watched out the window as they slowly got closer to the outskirts, staring with interest at the glittering skyscrapers. It was quite a change from their assignments in Africa, and he blinked at the indecipherable signs that flashed in blinding neon to every side.
Schwarz lived on the opposite side of the city, out in the suburbs where apartments gave way to real houses. There were too many of them to fit in one house, which meant they were in three that sat side-by-side on a small street. The driveway was barely large enough for the car to fit and Schuldig almost lost skin against the concrete wall as he squeezed out of the car.
"Estet's personnel live to the left," Crawford told him, gesturing down the street. "Our destructive powers are on the right. You will be in the middle house with the mental gifts."
Schuldig supposed the segregation made sense, at least in terms of how Crawford had broken them up. It didn't seem very logical, though, as it created unnecessary divides. He kept his mouth shut and just nodded. Crawford started for the middle house and Schuldig followed. Harriet was at the rear and Schuldig could feel her stare on the back of his head. He set her a bored look over his shoulder.
You glare any harder at me and I might catch on fire.
She refused to answer that and Schuldig gave up on her as a lost cause. Crawford already had the door unlocked to let them in. The precognitive stepped out of his shoes at the front step. Schuldig studied the neat rows of shoes as he followed Crawford's lead. He'd only managed six hours of sleep on the plane, which meant he'd still had around five hours to read his cultural handbook and study his alphabets. He made a mental note to start tying his shoes looser.
There was a doorway on the right, right past the step, that opened up into a den. Schuldig knew before he even entered it what would be waiting for him there, and he moved up alongside Crawford to study his new team. Harriet slipped past him to find a seat and Schuldig let his gaze travel around the room. There were two couches up against the longest wall. The far wall was all glass sliding doors, with several chairs in front of them, and the right wall was taken up with shelving. The waiting twelve had arranged themselves by gifts, he noted with a small trickle of annoyance. There weren't enough seats for all of them, but they'd made up for that by having some of them sit on the shelving. Schuldig didn't miss the fact that the ones on the shelves were the giftless, whereas the psychics took the chairs and couches.
This is going to take some serious work.
"Schuldig is going to be our telepath from here on out," Crawford said in simple introduction. "You have already read his file. Questions?"
Their thoughts covered a wide range from resigned to acceptance. Schuldig made careful mental notes of who stood where. A couple of them exchanged glances, but Kwan was the first to lean forward. There was a hard look on his face and a challenge in his words that Schuldig didn't appreciate.
"All I have to say is: remember that you're not a leader anymore. Check your high horse at the door."
Schuldig arched an eyebrow at him and let his mouth twitch into a smirk. He didn't bother to be irritated by those words, not when they brought a focus to the others' thoughts. It helped explain a bit why there was such a heavy layer of distrust in their thoughts. Schwarz wasn't a first stop for any of them and their experience with team leaders so far was taxing. They weren't looking forward to dealing with a demoted leader, sure that a bruised ego and air of self-entitlement were part of the package.
Kwan was waiting for a retort, but Schuldig said nothing. It irked the shifter. "Did you hear me?"
"Boring," Schuldig told him, propping his hands on his hips. "Let me earn your disgust first. Save your personal issues for the people that really sparked them. You can fight with me when we actually have something to fight about; otherwise you're just wasting everyone's time."
"You've got no rank here."
"That doesn't mean I'm out of line in calling you out on being a presumptuous jackass."
"We're not getting in a fight right now," came a quiet voice from the corner, and Schuldig slid his gaze that way. Naoe Nagi was sitting in one of the chairs by the windows, looking absolutely dwarfed by the cushions. He sat with perfect posture and his hands folded together in his lap, and he looked so much like a child that Schuldig wondered how he'd caught Crawford's eye. He had to be something if Crawford had recruited him, and the fact that the kid was part of Crawford's important four told Schuldig to pay close attention to him.
"Anyone else?" Crawford asked. The rest stayed silent. "Introductions." They went down the line, offering their names and powers and little else. Schuldig studied each face in turn, reinforcing what he'd already tried to memorize on the plane. Farfarello was the last to go, as he was on the end and the closest to Schuldig. Schuldig studied him with mild interest, wondering how long ago the picture on his file had been taken. Farfarello had had two eyes then. Now he had just one, and the other was covered with a black patch. There were scars on his face as well. Idly Schuldig debated the possibility of that damage resulting from his fight with Elend.
Crawford glanced his way when they were finished. "Questions?"
Schuldig thought about it very carefully before turning on Estet's personnel first. Farfarello gazed back with a bland look on his face. The other five frowned a little, not expecting him to focus on them first. "It's my first time working with Estet's people," he said. "It might take me a little while to get used to it." Their frowns deepened as they tried to decipher whether or that was intended as a warning or an apology. Rosenkreuz psychics weren't taught how to apologize, but it didn't sound like a threat, so they were confused. Schuldig didn't bother to clarify it but asked instead, "To the three of you that are Japanese, which name am I supposed to use?"
"They already introduced themselves," Harriet said. "Pay attention."
Schuldig didn't bother to look at her. "First name, or family name?"
They hesitated a second more. "Everyone else calls us by our first names," Hiroyuki said at last.
Schuldig inclined his head in acceptance and looked towards Naoe Nagi next. "And you?"
"His name is Nagi," Harriet said.
"I wasn't asking you," Schuldig said, turning on her. "It's not your name. Crawford gave the floor to me for questions, so why don't you be quiet for a minute and let me get my answers?"
Schuldig held up a hand between them to hide her face and turned back on Nagi. "Do you prefer your family name or your given name?"
Nagi gazed at him, weighing him with soulful, dark blue eyes. "Naoe."
"Naoe, then," Schuldig answered. "No more questions yet."
"It is settled, then," Crawford said. "We have business to discuss. Find somewhere to sit." He gestured towards the couches, not that there was really anywhere to sit except on the arms where the two couches were pushed against each other. Schuldig considered that for a second before turning to his right instead. He headed over to the wall with the shelves. There wasn't a place left for him there, either, but that didn't matter. He turned to prop his back against the wall and slid down to the ground. He got odd looks from more than one person for that choice, but he ignored them.
Crawford waited until he was settled before starting the meeting. The team went over their work from the last few days and Crawford outlined what they'd be working on over the next few weeks. Schuldig kept his mouth shut and just listened, taking in as much as he could. The meeting went on for two hours before Crawford dismissed them. Schuldig picked himself to his feet and brushed his clothes off, watching as the others filed out of the room. Farfarello slid off the shelves, landing right up against him, and offered the telepath a slow, creepy smile when Schuldig glanced his way.
"Is it hot?"
"In here?" Schuldig asked.
Farfarello reached up and let his hand hover right beside Schuldig's hair, ghost-white fingers waving gently back and forth. "It looks like fire." He pressed his hand against the bright orange locks. "Ssss, burns."
Schuldig tilted his head to one side, eyeing the Berserker. "Do you even remember what heat feels like?" he asked. Among everything he'd read in Schwarz's folder had been extensive reports surrounding Farfarello's induction to the team. Having a Berserker on hand had not made anyone on the team happy. Farfarello had nuked a psychic team and walked away, albeit heavily damaged. The medical reports said one of the team's empaths had completely shattered Farfarello's nerve endings. Since then, Farfarello was unable to feel pain- and ninety percent of anything else. The loss of sensation had hurt Schwarz's productivity, as Farfarello had had to relearn a lot of things. It was hard to live and fight and move when one could barely feel even the touch of pressure against his skin. At least those reports had explained why Estet had released their top Berserker to Crawford's care.
"Not really," Farfarello admitted, unbothered by that fact. "Ssss." He drew his hand back and blew on it before offering Schuldig another creepy smile.
Crawford was the only other man left in the room and he gestured between them. "You are spending tomorrow with Farfarello. He will show you the neighborhood and walk you to your lessons. Be ready by seven." Schuldig just tipped his head in response. Crawford led them back to the hall and waited there as Farfarello put his boots on. The Irishman left without another word, and the telepaths were left alone.
"Follow," Crawford said, and he took Schuldig on a small tour of the house. The hall led to a table-less kitchen. At one end of the kitchen, a sliding door was pushed shut. A peek of Schuldig's gift that direction showed a mind there, just a seconds before Crawford announced the room to be one of the bedrooms. At the other end of the kitchen, another sliding door opened up to reveal the shower room, the toilet behind a separate door, and a washing machine.
They went upstairs next and Schuldig hesitated when he realized all of the upstairs rooms had straw flooring. It felt strange under his socks and he studied the delicate sliding doors, brushing his hand down over the thin paper. The doors were all that separated the three upstairs rooms from each other and Schuldig could clearly hear two voices talking in one. There was no such thing as a private conversation in this house, it seemed.
Crawford went through one of the open doors and Schuldig followed him into the tiny room. "This is yours," Crawford said, continuing across the room. The far wall was all doors, and Crawford opened one to reveal another bedroom. "That is mine."
Schuldig looked from Crawford's room to his own to the way they'd come. "You have to walk through mine to come and go," he observed. "That seems like a poor choice on the architect's part."
"You will adapt." Crawford gestured towards a small door. "We had your things shipped from Africa."
Schuldig went and opened the door to reveal a closet. There was a single shelf about halfway up with no pole for hanging clothes. His suitcase rested on the shelf, waiting for him to unpack it. He started unzipping it as something to do, only to go still when he heard the soft crunching of Crawford's approaching footsteps. He slowly turned, refusing to let the man come up on his back. Open hostility was insubordination, so he settled for stony warning.
Crawford stopped right in his personal space. "We had a deal," he said simply. That was all that kept Schuldig from backing away from him when Crawford reached up. The precognitive took his face in both hands, holding him in place. Schuldig realized why a second later, when Crawford's gift twisted in his head. It had been lying dormant for days, impossible to forget but at least less painful when Crawford wasn't doing anything. Now that it was moving and Crawford was peeling his shields out from inside Schuldig's, it stung so sharply that Schuldig almost jerked back instinctively.
He tried holding his ground, but Crawford was taking his time. Crawford had to be very careful in how he got back out if he didn't want to damage Schuldig's gift any further. That delicate picking and prying just made it hurt more. Nausea and pain made Schuldig unsteady on his feet and at last Crawford pushed him back up against the wall to give him something to lean against. He kept Schuldig up by pinning him in place with his body, and Schuldig's fingernails left half-moon marks down the insides of Crawford's wrists. If Crawford told him to let go, Schuldig couldn't hear it over the roaring in his ears, so he held on for dear life.
With one last slip and twist, Crawford's mind was finally free, and Schuldig gasped for breath as he felt his gift and shields finally seal into place how they should be. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear the hazy edge out of his vision. It took a minute before could focus and Crawford watched until he saw Schuldig's eyes clear.
Crawford let go of him and stepped back. Schuldig made sure he had his footing before letting go of his leader's wrists. "Sleep it off," the older telepath said, and he headed for his own room. Schuldig stayed standing until the door closed behind him, and only then let himself sag to the ground. He buried his fingers in his hair, gently cradling his skull, and sat unmoving until he could breathe without it hurting. His hands were shaking in both pain and relief. He took quiet delight in the pounding migraine because it meant his head was his own again. The pain would make it hard to sleep that night, but he knew rest would fix his gift more than anything else.
The only real trick, then, would be figuring out how to put his bed together.
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