Schuldig gave his teammates a week to recover from that little bombshell before making his next move. He wanted to control all thirteen of Crawford's subordinates, but he couldn't move too quickly. His hold over his three were tenuous at best: Farfarello tolerated him for unknown reasons, Tomoko because she thought it was fantastic that he was gay, and Nicole out of vague interest and curiosity. He needed more than that if he wanted them to choose him over Crawford. He just wasn't sure yet which would be the more difficult task: making them want him, or making them want to work with each other.
He started with Nicole first because he knew she'd be the most difficult to convince. He made sure to cross paths with her in the kitchen, him there to make coffee and her there scrambling eggs for breakfast. They said nothing to each other as they set everything up. Schuldig waited until his coffee had started dripping before opening his mouth. He forgot what he was going to say when he heard the muffled sounds of an unfamiliar man's voice. A flick of his gift at Nicole's room showed that there was no one there, meaning it was either a radio or a TV.
"Masu desu masu desu," he said, the only real sounds he could catch.
Nicole flicked him a sideways look he didn't acknowledge. Schuldig went over and pressed his ear against her paper door, trying to hear. It was difficult over the sizzling sounds of her frying pan. At length Nicole crossed the room and reached past him to open the door. A small TV was set on a stand in the back corner. A grave-looking reporter was rattling something off at lightning speed. Kanji scrolled across the bottom in time.
"There's something seriously wrong with this language if even the natives need subtitles," he commented.
"What's he talking about?" she challenged him.
"He thinks you need to clean your room, because it's a mess. That's a pretty kinky looking bra, by the way, for someone who dresses so straight-edged."
She shut the door again, trying to slam it on his face. He offered her a taunting smirk over his shoulder. She wasn't impressed. "You're dead weight," she told him, as if he hadn't heard it a thousand times already. "When are you actually going to be worth our investment in you? Crawford shouldn't have brought you here until you'd learned the language. A deaf telepath doesn't do us any good."
Schuldig considered that, doing the math in his head and testing the patches. "One more week," he said. "Give or take a day."
Nicole stared at him as if waiting for something else. When he had nothing to add, she pointed her spatula at him. She rattled something off in Japanese. He understood maybe one of the words and tilted his head to one side, trying to sound out the rest in his head. She added something that sounded impatient, then something outright rude.
When he didn't respond to any of it, she switched back to German. "There's no way a week is going to get you up to speed. You're going to be pushing paper for months."
"I'm obviously the first telepath you've met," Schuldig decided. "Tell me that I am and I'll try to let that oversight slide." She narrowed her eyes at him, not understanding and not liking a return challenge. "Telepaths have thresholds for languages. We deal in thoughts, which aren't always spelled out to us. We make a living in connecting the pieces and finding the truth in vague, half-formed intentions. Our turning points depend on our individual strengths. My initial threshold is three weeks. It's the fastest step on record."
"You expect to learn Japanese in three weeks," she said slowly.
"Not fluently," he said, going to poke at his coffee pot. "I'll still need lessons for reading and writing. But it'll be the jump from beginner to upper intermediate."
"You're making this up."
"Don't be jealous."
"Of you?" she scoffed.
"And don't make dinner plans."
She arched an eyebrow at him. "Excuse me?"
"I feel like going out to eat."
"And I would go with you… why?"
"Because I'd be paying for it," he said. "Technically, you'd be paying for it, since it's coming out of my sign-on bonus, but details. You're not really going to say no to free beer, are you?"
She pinned him with a suspicious look. "Why?"
"Alcohol's good for language absorption."
"I'm not going out to dinner with you."
"You're not afraid of us, are you?"
"Us," she echoed.
"I sure as hell can't hold a conversation with you," he said. "You're going to be talking to Tomoko. I'm going to be the interested audience who can't understand a damn word."
"Is there another one running around here that I should be aware of?"
"Psychics and Estet don't mix."
"Don't give me that bullshit," he said, lifting down a mug and filling it. "You're Schwarz."
"Don't start on that again."
"I'll keep saying it until you get it through your thick skull. You're the same damn team. You want to be the best, so be the best. I'm not telling you to hit it off and become attached at the hip. I just think it's ridiculous that you can't stand to look each other in the face. What's wrong, you worried that the rest of the psychics will start treating you differently for hanging out with a teammate?"
"She has her work to do and I have mine. That's how we operate."
"Did Crawford decide that, or did you decide that?"
"Crawford doesn't care what we do in our free time so long as we don't interfere with the job."
"Then there's nothing to stop you from coming."
"Except that I already said no."
"Just tolerate her for one night, and I'll buy you as much beer as you want with dinner."
"You can't bribe me with beer."
"Beer and dinner," he pointed out.
"Now you're sounding desperate. This isn't about language absorption."
"That's still part of it. I told you I don't want a splintered team."
"You're asking for the impossible."
"I'm a believer in impossible things," Schuldig returned, thinking about Crawford's promise. "That's why I came here."
"How the hell did an idealist survive Rosenkreuz?"
"I'm not an idealist. I'm arrogant." He turned on her and got right in her face, so close that the steam from his coffee left damp patches on their cheeks. "That's why the Elders made me a team leader. I know exactly what I want, and I know exactly what I'll do and risk to get it. I don't believe in settling for less. I don't believe in cutting my losses. I don't believe in losing, period."
She eyed him, considering both his words and the cold determination behind them. At length she affected a bored look. "Hit your threshold," she said. "You prove to me that you can speak Japanese in just another week, and then I'll think about going to dinner with you." He said nothing to that. She offered him a cool smile and pressed the edge of her spatula hard into his throat. "Go on, 'path. Show me something impossible."
"Done," he promised, and they turned away from each other at the same time. It would be a week before they spoke to each other again, but that was fine with both of them.
The kitchen was turning out to be a convenient meeting spot. Schuldig supposed it was because there weren't doors to close to keep him out. The next Friday night he waited until Crawford was down there before heading downstairs. He stuffed his hands into his pockets as he picked his way over the creaky steps. Ly Ly, Nicole, and Harriet were in the living room going over files. He'd be the next to receive them. Since he couldn't do much on the field, it was his job to consolidate their notes and to write up the official file on it. Technically, it was the team leader's job. Crawford left it to Schuldig because Schuldig needed something to do and because the younger telepath was qualified to write such things. Crawford had other things he needed to look after.
The women slowed in their talk when they noticed movement in their peripheral vision. Schuldig offered them a smirk in passing and got stony looks in response. He ignored them in favor of Crawford. The man was at the sink with his back to Schuldig, but Schuldig could still see his face. With the florescent kitchen light on and it so dark out, the man was perfectly reflected in the window. Schuldig propped his shoulder up against the kitchen doorframe and watched Crawford put clean dishes away. Somehow it was odd seeing Crawford do household chores. It almost made him seem human.
"I'm going to Shibuya," he announced.
"That is up to your discretion," Crawford said without looking back.
"To take my shields down," Schuldig concluded. The women went silent in the other room. Crawford put one more glass up on its shelf before turning to face him. "I have enough groundwork in place to risk it. All I need to know is if Farfarello finished his last assignment. I was going to bring him along."
"He is busy."
"Nagi?" Schuldig tried next.
"If you take your shields down in Shibuya, your mind will be bleeding for a week."
"There are risks in everything a telepath does. Luckily these ones are acceptable. I know what I'm doing."
Maybe you should come along, Schuldig sent at him. Let me show you what every telepath should know how to do. A trick your mother never taught you.
I am not interested in watching you rupture your gift.
Schuldig's smile was slow and cold. You really are a precog at heart, aren't you? Too bad it's never really materialized in your gift. I'm going to show you how a telepath really dreams, in fractured colors and ice. Come with me tonight and I'll be on the field with you Monday.
Crawford didn't believe him. Schuldig could see that in the cool look in his golden brown eyes. Schuldig hadn't expected him to. Whatever Crawford knew about his telepathy, he'd had to teach himself based on public knowledge about telepaths' abilities. There were some things he couldn't know, and some things he'd never be able to do without proper training. This was one of those things. It was a trick telepaths didn't learn until their final year of schooling, since it was easy to slip up. One wrong move and a telepath could blow out his mind. Schuldig didn't believe in making stupid mistakes.
Crawford turned away wordlessly and returned to the dishes. Schuldig waited in silence until he was finished. There was just enough room in the doorway for Crawford to slide past him. Schuldig followed him to the front door. They toed into their shoes. Schuldig expected them to take the train, since he hadn't been in a car since he'd gotten here three weeks ago, but Crawford unlocked the doors. Schuldig guessed public transportation was below Crawford's dignity.
Schuldig said nothing but fixed his stare out his window. Crawford was equally silent on the drive. Schuldig had forgotten how dangerous silence could be. They were focusing their thoughts miles away from each other, but he was so keenly aware of Crawford's presence that his skin was itching. It was in large part due to the weight of Crawford's power and another part because of that damnable attraction he couldn't squish. He'd discreetly stayed out of Crawford's way as much as possible the past three weeks. It hadn't been that difficult, since he had daylong lessons and Crawford had clients to tend to. He had yet to see Crawford come and go through his room like he knew the precog had to.
This was going to change things. Bumping himself up to field status was necessary, since Schuldig was going to go crazy if he was stuck as Schwarz's secretary much longer. He needed the grit and grime of a job. He needed the power plays and manipulations. He needed lives and millions that could fall apart on a chance as thin as a knife point. He needed a chance to work with Schwarz, both to get a better idea of their hierarchy and talents and to let them get a look at him.
Moving to field status meant he'd be working with Crawford day-in and day-out, though.
"It is a waste of your time to solidify your relationship with them," Crawford said. "We will cut them loose when the time comes."
"Killing them off is your prerogative. Making them into a workable unit is mine. Their incompetence curdles my stomach."
"It is a waste of your energy."
"It hasn't distracted me from my duties," Schuldig pointed out. "Nor has it distracted them. Until I cross that line, I'm within my rights."
"It is a very fine line you're walking."
"Good thing for me, then, that I have such good balance."
"Yes," Crawford agreed calmly. "I suggest you do not ever cross it."
Schuldig offered the dark city a wide smirk. "Of course."
Schuldig hadn't been sure how they were going to find parking in Shibuya on a weekend night, but Crawford apparently had a pass to one of the parking garages. Schuldig supposed it was necessary when some of their clients' offices were here. Still, the price tag for yearly parking passes could have bought Schuldig roundtrip tickets to Europe and back. Schuldig mentally readjusted Schwarz's earnings. He knew they had three cars, which meant three passes, fifteen salaries, travel expenses, and a hundred grand to buy him. He'd yet to hear a solid income figure, but he was starting to think he was better off not knowing.
Schuldig and Crawford took the stairs down to street level and Schuldig stared out at the packed sidewalk. His smirk was back on his face and the ice in it made his entire face feel cold. He could feel the city shivering against his shields, coiling around his mind like a snake. "Where's the station?" he asked.
Crawford led the way. The nearest station exit was one with a dog statue outside of it. Schuldig stood in front of the statue, or as close as he could get when it was so crowded. People were pouring in and out of the station in a constant, thick stream. It was almost too packed to breathe, and the heaviest concentration seemed to be around the statue. He forced his way closer, feeling his gift prickle as he drew interested glances. Three weeks in Japan were enough to tell him that his hair was going to be very popular with the younger generation. Apparently there weren't a lot of people with orange hair in the country.
When he couldn't move anymore, he turned around. Crawford was easy to spot, one of the only pale-suited figures in the dark night crowd. He towered over a good number of the people that swelled around him. Schuldig met his gaze for just a second. He offered his team leader a vicious smile and let his shields fall.
Three weeks ago, it would have been a waste of time and almost destroyed him. He needed something to ground the language against. Three weeks of basics, of nuances and conversations and lessons, gave him the footing he needed. He let Shibuya crush his mind, let the people around fill him up until he didn't exist anymore. Pieces slammed into place almost brutally hard, shaking him all the way down.
He put his gift back together in layers, forcibly shutting out entire sections of the city. He worked his way backwards to his body, throwing out anything he didn't need, until he was open to only the section of the station he was standing in. Thoughts and voices beat in a terrible cacophony in his ears. He felt warmth that he knew was blood and smiled wider.
His gift tilted, hitting the breaking point and sliding off-kilter. He felt that pinch and reacted immediately. He threw himself up against Crawford's shields, grounding himself against them, and fell back behind a final layer of his shields. The city was still bustling around him, but it sounded almost eerily silent when he'd shut their minds out. He swayed on his feet, steadied himself, and scrubbed away the trickle of blood that slipped from his nose. He licked his hand clean and started forward.
"I'd forgotten how fun that was," he said in Japanese as he moved past Crawford.
A hand caught his elbow in a viselike grip. Schuldig went still at Crawford's side and tilted his head to look the other man in the face. It took Crawford a few seconds to come up with something. Schuldig guessed he was debating which language to use. He settled on Japanese. "You could have destroyed your mind."
Schuldig guessed Crawford had felt that hit. "I told you I knew what I was doing. I'll gamble with a lot of things if I need to. I won't gamble with my gift and sanity. I'll speak to my teacher about testing into the next level. From here it's two weeks until the second threshold and I'll be ready to go. I'm still going to be in basics for reading and writing, but at least I can communicate orally."
If Crawford had had any doubts about what this had done for his language absorption, he couldn't listen to Schuldig speaking now and not believe him. A day ago Schuldig had been stilted, accented basics, 'how are you's and 'how much'es. At length the American let go of Schuldig's elbow. "We are finished here."
"Yes," Schuldig agreed, and he followed Crawford to the parking garage.
Night traffic meant the excursion took almost an hour there and back. The women were finished and missing by the time Schuldig and Crawford parked and stepped through the front door. Crawford returned to his dishes and Schuldig went upstairs to his room. A telepathic peek around showed Ly Ly and Nicole had returned to their own bedrooms. Harriet was next door.
You promised me you'd think about dinner and a drink, he sent at Nicole in Japanese.
There was a pause, then a fuzzy, I don't believe you.
Schuldig knew she meant the sudden jump in his Japanese, but he pretended to misunderstand her incredulity. And I don't believe in selective memory loss. Are you going to come out with us tomorrow or not?
It took her a minute to respond. What time?
She made it sound like she was signing her death warrant, but Schuldig didn't care, because she was agreeing to come.
She was, of course, a hell of a lot less accommodating when she realized who else was coming with them. Schuldig had very carefully left out the fact that Tomoko wasn't going to be the only one accompanying them to dinner. Nicole didn't even try to say hello to the Estet researcher when Tomoko stepped out the front door the next evening. She simply turned and took the first step away from the house.
"Wait," Schuldig said without looking at her. Tomoko looked from Schuldig to Nicole and eased past him. Schuldig kept his attention on the front door. He couldn't hear Farfarello's footsteps, but he could hear the other man's mind coming closer. "We're one shy."
Nicole turned around to look just as Farfarello reached the doorway. She took one look at the Berserker and said flatly, "Oh, hell no."
"Too late to back out now," Schuldig said, moving out of Farfarello's way. The Irishman closed the door behind him and followed. Tomoko fell in behind Farfarello easily. Schuldig guessed Estet's people would be a lot more comfortable around Farfarello than their psychic counterparts, seeing as how it wasn't them that Berserkers were trained to kill. Schuldig offered Nicole's icy glare a bland look. "You can spend the evening talking to Tomoko."
"I could spend the evening doing better things. It's bad enough you want me to eat with Estet, but now you want me to eat with a Berserker?"
"You're admirably forward about your prejudices," Schuldig said.
"I won't dine with him."
"Coward," Schuldig said, walking right past her.
"I am not," she said hotly.
Schuldig wasn't going to waste time arguing. He didn't need to, because she stalked after him. They made for an odd group wandering down the street: one outlandishly colored telepath, a bleach blond empath, the ghoulish Farfarello, and tiny native Tomoko. They drew more than a few stares on the way to the sushi restaurant Farfarello had brought Schuldig to weeks ago. The cook looked pleased to see them. Schuldig was idly surprised the man remembered Schuldig's name.
"We need a table for four," Schuldig said, sliding into Japanese. Tomoko gaped at him. Farfarello didn't seem to notice. Schuldig made careful note of that, wondering if Crawford had told him or if the Berserker really was out of it enough that he couldn't be surprised. "It's all on the same tab. Start us with some pitchers of beer."
The cook was thrilled to hear Schuldig speaking Japanese. He laughed and seated them himself. They studied their menus while he fetched them four glasses and a couple pitchers of beers.
"You don't speak Japanese," Tomoko said, ignoring her menu entirely.
"Well, now I do," Schuldig returned.
"Last night. Farfarello, what was that goopy junk we got last time? I don't see a picture of it."
Schuldig turned the menu over and eyed it critically. "Someone teach me the character for roe." Farfarello reached out and pointed without having to look up from his own menu. Schuldig stared down at the complicated strokes. "Never mind. I'll get around to learning that kanji sometime next millennium."
Tomoko put a hand on his menu, covering it up, and stared at him. "But how?" she pressed.
"Lie," Farfarello said absently.
The cook was back to pour their beer. They ordered enough food to depopulate the Pacific Ocean and he disappeared again to start on their platter.
One wonders if he underestimated the telepath's strength.
Schuldig glanced at Farfarello over his beer, wondering if that 'he' was Farfarello himself or Crawford. That's the problem with telepaths. So few people have ever worked with a trained one; no one's really sure anymore what's rumor and what's truth. I'm not the strongest. I'm just the best.
Farfarello seemed amused by that arrogance. He offered Schuldig one of his creepy smiles. Tomoko was still watching Schuldig, trying to figure out what had happened overnight. Nicole was pointedly ignoring all of them, not happy with the company. Schuldig was patient. Beer made everyone friendlier. Well, everyone save Farfarello. He was positive Nicole would loosen up given enough to drink.
His patience paid off. It took four glasses, but her curiosity slowly got the better of her. She kept glancing their way as the other three talked about this and that. Halfway through her fifth glass, she stepped in to argue with something Tomoko said. Schuldig's initial impression of Tomoko was that the woman was quiet and a little on the delicate side, a mistake made through three weeks of being unable to understand a word out of her mouth. He wasn't sure if it was his new grasp on Japanese or the beer, but Tomoko was quite willing to duke things out with Nicole. Schuldig watched over his drink as the two argued.
"Nomunication," Farfarello murmured against the rim of his glass.
"I guess Japan has its good points," Schuldig relented. "Few and far between."
By the time they left, both women were unsteady on their feet. Schuldig couldn't get two of them back to the house and they were close enough to make a taxi cab a waste, so he turned on Farfarello. Farfarello gazed back in silence as if daring Schuldig to ask him. Schuldig wasn't good at turning challenges down, so he propped Nicole up against Farfarello. She was too drunk to remember that that was the last place she wanted to be. She wound both arms around his waist before Farfarello could push her off and stared at him in a manner that would be unnerving if Farfarello was anyone else.
"Can you really not feel anything?" she asked bluntly. Farfarello fixed her with a sideways look and said nothing. "What if it was an empath touching you?"
Farfarello's smile was enough to cure her drunken curiosity. "Try," he said, and she knew it was a threat. She sighed and shifted her grip on him. Her high heels slid a little against the floor when she took the first step away from the table. Schuldig managed to keep Tomoko upright somehow, and the cook pitied them enough to come collect the payment from their table. Schuldig led the way out of there. The four half-stumbled down the streets. Tomoko started singing and Nicole knew the song. The two were warbling along in off-key harmony as they turned onto Schwarz's street. Schuldig traded girls with Farfarello and they went back to their individual houses.
Ly Ly had heard their return and was waiting for Schuldig right inside the door. "She's drunk," she said.
"And you are a master at stating the obvious," Schuldig said.
She scowled at him and shifted to one side to let Nicole past. The blonde stumbled a bit on the step and laughed when Schuldig caught her. He got her all the way to her bedroom door and left her there to get herself to bed. Ly Ly was waiting on the stairwell when Schuldig got back.
"What are you playing at?" she demanded.
"Depends on what day it is," Schuldig said, stepping up into her personal space. She refused to give ground in front of him and he offered her an unpleasant smile. "Telepaths are always up to something, you know."
He moved as if to step past her, but she put her arm in his way. "What did you say to her to make her not hate you anymore?"
"The truth," Schuldig answered, pushing her arm down. "Sometimes, that's enough."
She said nothing to that, and he had nothing else to say to her. He continued upstairs to his room and shut the door behind him.
On Sunday, Crawford gave Schuldig his gun.
The fifteen gathered in the living room to go over the week's itinerary. Before Crawford passed anything out, however, he held a box out to Schuldig. The younger telepath picked himself to his feet and went to retrieve it. He opened it at Crawford's side and found a handgun inside, along with a shoulder harness. He slid his thumb down over sleek metal and didn't even try to hide his vicious smirk. Three weeks of twiddling his thumbs and he was finally allowed to play.
"Sit," Crawford said, and Schuldig carried his prize back to his spot.
Schwarz's leader passed out paperwork and they started at the top. Dates, places, and the most important players were all highlighted. Most of the week was full of boring meetings, but they were starting the week off with death. Takatori Reiji had a round of negotiations to get through and they would be easier if he was missing one of his more outspoken opponents. The death had to look accidental, which meant either of the telekinetics could handle it alone, but Takatori required more than a simple death. He wanted the man's company ruined. It was going to make Monday a very good day for Schwarz.
"Questions?" Crawford asked when he was finished.
Kwan pointed at Schuldig. "Is he coming?"
"Thus the gun," Schuldig said.
"Watch your mouth, telepath," Kwan warned him.
"It's Crawford's call," Nicole spoke up, drawing stares from her teammates. Schuldig very carefully did not look smug about that unexpected defense. "I want to see what a telepath can do on the field."
Kwan obviously wanted to argue, but he couldn't when she'd brought Crawford's name into it. He couldn't sound like he was questioning the precog's authority. Schuldig offered him a lazy smirk when dark eyes slid his way.
Which one of them did you fuck, telepath? Kwan asked, mental voice distant.
Technically, neither. Besides, you couldn't pay me to fuck Nicole. She's got too many curves for my tastes.
I know, right?
I meant you.
"Enough," Crawford said coldly, and the two broke their stare-down to look at him. "We are on Schwarz's time here. Set aside your petty personal issues and focus on our job. We are working with Estet's most important client. Failure is unacceptable in their book. Mistakes are unacceptable in mine. Do you understand?"
Kwan switched to Japanese, perhaps thinking he was one-upping Schuldig by doing so. Schuldig thought it very interesting that none of his three or Crawford had mentioned his acquisition of the language yet. "I can't help but think he's a liability."
"I can't help but think you're an asshole," Schuldig said, shrugging at him. Kwan stared.
"Okay, question," Eleodoro said. "When did he learn Japanese?"
"The second point on tonight's agenda is Schuldig's Japanese," Crawford said. "He absorbed Japanese Friday night. His classes will be moved to mornings only. I expect all of you to include him in your planning for afternoon and evening runs. He and his talent are available to you, so use that resource."
"You didn't become fluent overnight," Hiroyuki said, surprised.
"Still need keigo and technical Japanese," Schuldig said with a careless shrug. "I'll pick that up within the next two weeks. Keep that in mind when figuring out where and when you want to use me."
"Nagi," Crawford said.
The youth at the back of the room inclined his head. "I will bring him with me on Tuesday."
Farfarello laughed at that, soft and sibilant. Nagi slid a look Farfarello's way and the two eyed each other across the room. Crawford's expression was cool when he turned on Farfarello. Farfarello offered him a flicker-short smile, sharp as razors and twice as deadly. "Maybe I will go along," he said. "I think it will be fun."
"We do not need a third body," Nagi said.
"I will go along," Farfarello returned, undeterred.
"It will not hurt anything to have him along," Crawford said. "Take him with you."
Farfarello smiled, pleased. Nagi said nothing. Crawford ended the meeting a few minutes later and went upstairs to mail off reports to all the appropriate people. As usual, Schwarz lingered to debate what was coming up. This time, though, Nagi was the first to his feet. He started for the door, and Schuldig wasn't altogether surprised that Farfarello got up and in his way.
They stared each other down for a tense minute, all eyes on them.
"Move," Nagi said.
And Farfarello, smiling, did. Nagi continued out of there without any further problems, and Farfarello followed after him. Schuldig watched them go, filing that away to think on later. Deciding he didn't feel like sticking around to deal with his teammates' antagonism, he was the fourth to leave. He took the stairs up to his room and crossed the room to half-lean against Crawford's paper doors.
Precog, your kinetic is strange.
Crawford didn't answer, but Schuldig was slow to pull away.
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