Smoke trailed upwards from the lit end of a cigarette, lazy gray tendrils snaking towards the ceiling. They only made it a couple feet up from the table before fading into nothing. Long fingers danced on the table beside the ashtray as blue eyes stared out the window. Wild orange hair spilled freely around his shoulders, coming to stop at the base of his shoulder blades. He was dressed in khaki pants and a black dress shirt. His hair seemed to glow against the dark color of his shirt, and everyone that was passing the waiting room paused to look in, their eyes drawn to him by the bright color of his mane. He ignored their attention, his thoughts two floors up where their contact was finishing up a meeting. A secretary would be down to fetch them when he was through, but Schuldich and his team would know even before she did.
He lifted his cigarette from the tray, knowing that he wasn’t supposed to be smoking indoors and not caring. He perched it between his lips, eyes moving to the other two members of his team. Aeris was the oldest of the three at twenty-five, but held that position by just a year. She had claimed the only other chair in the room and was flipping through one of the magazines that had been put out for waiting clients. She could only admire the pictures, as she could not read the language the magazine was published in. Painted nails fingered the pages, now and then flicking to her mouth so she could wet the tip and make the work easier. Blonde hair was pulled back in a short ponytail and she had her legs crossed at the knee. The skirt was cut short enough that sitting in such a position exposed an almost indecent amount of thigh, but no one was complaining.
Crawford- Brad Crawford, Schuldich had learned after hearing Aeris call him it- was to Schuldich’s side, closer to the window. He was dressed a step up from Schuldich, with a jacket buttoned over his white shirt and a tie to match. His hands were in his pockets as he gazed out at the Moscow skyline. Glasses made a young face older and wiser, and eyes the color of honey were intelligent and calculating. He was Schuldich’s inverse in appearance, with jet black hair and a white suit.
Even as they drew stares from the passing employees of this corporation, people knew better than to let their gazes linger too long, and none of the men dared approach Aeris with a compliment. They radiated power and danger, and the cool look Schuldich had sent the only man of the day who thought to step through the doorway had sent him hurrying away. They were pretty to look at and dangerous to touch.
Schuldich stubbed his cigarette out on the ashtray. The movement alerted his teammates that it was time to go. Two floors up, Mikula Valisevich was sending away his finance committee and would at last take time for his other visitors. Crawford turned away from the window as Schuldich rose from his chair. Aeris set aside the magazine she’d been eyeing. A year ago Schuldich had finally hit his final growth spurt and now stood at 5’9”. It left him several inches shorter than Crawford but it was tall enough for him, as it meant he had outgrown the shape-shifter of the group. He was lean and fit from many years of hard drills and exercises, as the Austrian school he had attended had required fitness on mental, physical, and gifted levels.
It had been two years since he had last seen Rosenkreuz, and he didn’t miss the school a damn bit. The two years had been busy, floating between states and corporations. Sometimes they took out a single person, other times they reworked an entire organization. They had gradually reformed Rosenkreuz’s ties in the states and after a year they had been moved overseas. It was slow work but never boring, and they hadn’t been the only team in the United States. There had been four total divided between the forty-six states that had needed working on, and between jobs they had gathered twice, once in Chicago and once in Los Angeles. The meetings had been to update each other on their progress, for although there was a telepath on each team, it was much easier to meet and exchange notes by talking than convince a telepath to drop his shields. It took too long to transfer all the knowledge in sentences. No one really minded about meeting, either… It had been a nice break from being surrounded by so many normal, boring minds. Schuldich could almost say that it had been fun, as they’d gathered for drinks and he’d ended up in one of the other empath’s beds one of the times.
But those times were gone, and after the year in the States Nacht had been moved overseas. There had been a stop in Lithuania first. It was the first time Crawford had taken his shields down for Schuldich, lowering them so that Schuldich could implant both Lithuanian and Russian in his mind. It had been painfully tempting to put it there and then move on to other things, delighted as he was to be let behind such thick guards. Apparently his self-control was better than he gave it credit for. There was also the small fact that it was the first time anyone had really trusted Schuldich, and he had sulkily retreated without playing around. As soon as the shields had been put back up he had offered himself a mental kick in the ass for passing up such a golden opportunity. He warned Crawford that the next time the shields came down, he wasn’t going to hesitate before digging around where he pleased. Crawford had accepted this with the slightest bit of amusement in his eyes. Schuldich hadn’t understood the need for Russian at the time. It wasn’t until they finished their tour in Lithuania and moved on to the former Soviet Union that he knew.
Aeris accepted the languages willingly enough, not really caring if Schuldich poked around where he didn’t belong. Her mind didn’t really interest him. He didn’t mind her as a person but it wasn’t her mind he wanted to hear…It was the only mind forbidden to him, the one that hung tantalizingly out of reach. So he had wasted his chance to finally figure Crawford out and wasn’t overly interested in Aeris’s thoughts, which meant he could only play with their employers.
They’d been in Russia for almost nine months now. Schuldich couldn’t say he was fond of the country but he didn’t dislike it, and the work was amusing enough that the location didn’t really matter. Aeris infiltrated organizations in disguise and Schuldich would use telepathy or empathy on the rest. Crawford was the voice and eyes for the group, the main contact for those they met and destroyed, all the while watching the future to see which way they should push to make it fall.
They wouldn’t be here for much longer. Crawford had mentioned that this was their last job here but had declined to say where they would end up. Aeris didn’t know either, though the only reason she would know instead of Schuldich was because the two were off and on lovers. Schuldich knew there were few emotions involved, if any, but it helped them work together as a pair. He didn’t care either way, taking little interest in their relationship. All it meant to him was that he always got a private bedroom, and that was all he cared about. He did have to train Aeris’s empathic shields to be stronger, however. Crawford may be off limits mentally and emotionally, but there hadn’t been much to protect Aeris’s emotions during sex from Schuldich’s gift. He didn’t care that they were fucking each other; he did find it a little odd to have to feel her during it. She’d accepted the lessons with great amusement, and things had been much easier after that.
The secretary stepped into the doorway then and blinked when she saw them ready to go. She lifted a hand, beckoning them forward. “The Manager will see you now.” With that, she turned and led them down the hall to the elevator. Around them, employees tried to look like they were still working. In reality, they were staring, watching the trio pass. The elevator came quickly and the four rode it up to the Manager’s level. She guided them to the door although Schuldich could have found the way just as easily. Their current contact, Mikula, had been chosen by Crawford to fill in the gap where the previous organization had just fallen. The two were sister corporations, and Nacht had been slowly weeding out most of the other prospects for leadership. Besides offing them, they’d had to leave a trail of evidence and suspects so that no one could point the finger at Mikula or any of the remaining candidates. They’d left alive some opponents so it wouldn’t be overly suspicious, choosing the people that Crawford knew wouldn’t be elected to remain alive. For the near future, that man was the best choice to rule that company. He had been approached upon their arrival in Russia and they had spent the last three quarters of the year preparing the way for his ascension.
Now their work was finished, and the Russian would be more than thrilled to hear the news. He had been watching in the news as his rivals were slowly weeded out, and as they finally reached the office, Schuldich could hear and feel his dark satisfaction and hungry delight. Eventually the power would get to his head and he might have to be off-ed as well, but if his greed made him useless it would be a few years down the road yet and it would be another team that came to clean up the mess.
Mikula was on his feet to greet them, a broad smile on his lips. “My friends…” Schuldich snorted, but the man was still talking and didn’t hear the derisive noise. Aeris offered him the barest hint of a smile. “Welcome, welcome, it’s been so long.”
“We’ve been busy,” was Crawford’s cool answer. He reached into his jacket, pulling a small envelope from the inside pocket. He reached out past Mikula, setting it on the desk. The Manager picked it up, opening it and dumping out the contents. It held a key and a small card. At Mikula’s frown of incomprehension, Crawford explained. “The key is to the main office at Skylight. The number on the top of the card is the number of people who are going to vote for you when the remaining candidates are presented for election. The numbers beneath that show how you stand in relation to your remaining opponents.”
Mikula was pleased as he scanned the numbers. He was the favorite by over two thousand votes. He started laughing, a raucous noise that grated on Schuldich’s nerves. “My friends! A drink! A toast! A cigar for all of your hard work…” He went around the desk, pulling open a drawer and tugging out a metal tin. He offered them each a cigar, but all three turned the offer down. Abandoning that, he went over to the minibar installed in his office. A glance towards them told him that they wouldn’t say no to a bit of scotch, and he was more than happy to pour them drinks. They let him carry the glasses across the room, watching him as he made the two trips. He gave Schuldich and Crawford the first cups, bringing over Aeris’s and his own next. They stood together and Mikula offered a toast to both them and himself. They drank to it because a toast was just words and scotch was scotch.
They did not remain much longer. Mikula and Crawford had a few details to discuss but they were bored of the man and his ambitions. They were out of the building less than fifteen minutes later. Mikula himself escorted them to the front door, giving them a hearty farewell. They didn’t look back as they crossed the parking lot to their car. Schuldich let himself ride on the waves of the almost violent joy in their ex-contact, sighing and raking a hand through his hair. The taste of scotch lingered on his tongue and he wondered if he could excuse himself tonight to find better things to drink. He preferred the smoother drinks, keeping from the overly sweet and wandering up and down the middle range of alcohols. He figured the other two wouldn’t mind if he ducked out…He could probably guess at their plans for the evening.
They headed back to their newest hotel. Schuldich had almost forgotten what the Rosenkreuz rooms looked like, the memory lost in a blur of so many hotel rooms. They had been on the move for two years, staying in each area for either a couple days or a handful of weeks. He had seen too many hotels to count since they first touched down in Atlanta, Georgia in the United States twenty-six months ago. This hotel was a lot like the rest but Schuldich didn’t care about the decorations. It had a comfortable bed to sleep on and that was what mattered, since they most often were only in their rooms at the hotel to sleep.
He was pulling the buttons of his shirt free as soon as he stepped into their room, undoing them at the cuffs and then down the front. He didn’t mind the dress clothes, but he preferred sweaters and long sleeved tees to fancy shirts. Besides, if he was going to wander out later tonight, he’d rather not do it in these clothes. Aeris sent a whistle after him as he let the shirt slide down his shoulders and he sent her a smirk and a rude gesture as he wandered into his own room. She bared her teeth in a smile in return, making herself comfortable on the easy chair the hotel offered. Crawford was pulling off his jacket, but that was the most he would dress down outside of the work. He carried it to his room to hang up. The fact that he hadn’t called the hotel staff to get it dry-cleaned was just another indicator that they were leaving soon.
Schuldich didn’t bother closing his bedroom door, as his dresser was on the same wall as the door. Aeris wouldn’t be able to see him from her seat and if she got up to come watch him change, who cared? Crawford wouldn’t, and it wasn’t like Schuldich would mind her attention considering how well built she was. He knew he wouldn’t sleep with her, even if she ever showed interest. It would just be wrong to take a lover that had been Crawford’s first.
Two years of working with the man had not done much to show him who the American precognitive was behind it all. He had managed to form an opinion of the man at last, and he had admitted to himself that he might actually trust the man. Aeris was his teammate, and he knew she would do her job, but he didn’t trust her like he did Crawford. He trusted Crawford’s words and visions. He had slowly searched for buttons to push to see how much he could get away with, cautiously at first because he had been relatively new and didn’t want to get offed like Nacht’s previous telepath or reported to the Cabinet. As far as he could tell, however, Crawford didn’t have buttons. The man was endlessly patient with him, tolerant of his sarcasm and attitude. As long as Schuldich did what he was ordered to, it didn’t matter if he made smart remarks or grumbled about it. It had taken a while to get used to, to be unable to read or feel the man and to never see the man irritated. It fascinated him to some extent, because he knew there had to be a point where Crawford got fed up and lost his cool. He just hadn’t seen it yet, and a part of him craved to find the right lever to push.
Crawford manipulated their clients with cold precision, careless as anyone could be about who died. Targets and the innocents around them were all game. Crawford knew what to do and he would do it, and his team would follow his guidance. It was fun watching Crawford’s soft laugh and coolly amused gaze melt into something harder and colder, something more ruthless.
In the past two years, he had finally figured out why the Cabinet trusted Crawford so much. Part of it he’d seen for himself, in the man’s flawless vision and expert handling of the men they were assigned to kill and rearrange. Crawford was damn good at what he did. Even if he didn’t have a Talent, Schuldich knew he would still be valuable to Rosenkreuz for the way he could twist the pieces how he liked. He didn’t need a gift that could influence others to get what he wanted; telepathy, empathy, control…These things would be a waste for him. He didn’t need them. He needed his own brain only.
There was also the fact that the Oracle was Rosenkreuz’s strongest precognitive that had not given way to clairvoyant status, which was something Aeris had been happy to tell Schuldich. The clairvoyants were those Talents who had given way completely to their gifts and were forever stuck in images of the future. One had to be powerful to slip from one ledge to the other, but as nice as it might be for the Cabinet to have a clairvoyant, it was the precognitive branch that held the rational minds. Crawford was on the top step, with both a powerful gift and a shrewd mind.
All in all, Schuldich would be lying if he said he wasn’t at all impressed.
He carried his shoes with him back to the small entrance room, socked feet moving quietly over the floor. He traded the first outfit for tight jeans and a long sleeved shirt that hung on his wiry frame. Crawford moved into the doorway of the other bedroom and made himself comfortable there, his arm bent and propped against the doorframe at the perfect height for him to rest his temple against it. Smooth brown eyes met Schuldich’s gaze across the room and Schuldich hesitated as he was tugging on one of his boots. It was a considering look, as if Crawford was looking for something in his gaze or was wondering about something important. Whatever it was, it had to do with Schuldich. He was used to the tolerant or slightly amused looks turned his way…He was not used to being searched and judged like this; it had not happened often in the past two years.
Crawford turned his gaze towards Aeris, who had looked towards him when she saw Schuldich pause. The German telempath finished getting his shoes on and straightened, folding his arms over his chest. Crawford waited a moment longer before speaking. “We’ll fly out tomorrow morning,” he told them, and they accepted it because he was team leader and he had never steered them wrong before. “It’s a three hour flight from Moscow to Vienna.”
Vienna…That meant they were returning to Rosenkreuz. He had always known they would return to it eventually, but now that the moment was at hand he was less than pleased. He liked it better when the Austrian school was somewhere far into the future. “Stopping by the school to fuel up?” Schuldich inquired, arching a brow at the precognitive.
“We’ve been on the move for two years,” was Crawford’s answer. “It will be a short break, and then Nacht will be off to South Africa.”
“Sounds terribly exciting…I didn’t know South Africa had enough civilization to worry about.” He didn’t get a response, but he didn’t really expect one. He stretched his arms over his head, considering the announcement. “How early of a morning flight?” he wanted to know. If it was before eleven, it meant he couldn’t drink tonight. The decent places wouldn’t be open until later and by then it would be too late to do the kind of drinking he had been looking forward to.
“5:45,” was Crawford’s answer.
“Damn.” That was definitely too early. “Ah well…” He curled his fingers through his hair, giving the locks an absent tug. It seemed he would spend the evening here, then. At least it would give him some reading time…He had collected a couple books since their entry into Russia, though there hadn’t always been a lot of time to read them. He wandered to the fridge, tugging out a can of soda and feeling mildly grateful that he’d thought to buy them several days ago. He toed the fridge shut and looked back at Crawford, waiting to see if there was anything else. When Crawford gave a slight shake of his head, Schuldich lifted the can in a ‘good night’ and wandered to his room, shutting the door behind him.
The name would always be a bitter taste in his mouth, mixed with the stale air that seemed to surround the school to make a thick, unpleasant flavor on his tongue. The shields around the school recognized their mental signatures and the key cards they had stuffed in their luggage. Schuldich was quite proud of himself for not losing the thing in the two years since they’d last been at the school. It was his ticket into the west wing, where their rooms were.
The shields would alert the Cabinet to their return, and they would know just moments before the entire school. They let themselves into the main building, and it happened to be the changing of classes. The halls came to a stop when they saw the three. If anything, their clothes made them stand out. Everyone around here was in the uniforms Schuldich had had to wear two and a half years ago. If there were any Inquisition teams around, they were dressed in one of the three colors allowed them. Aeris and Schuldich were both in jeans and sweaters, whereas Crawford was in slacks and a dress shirt…as usual. They rolled their suitcases along behind them and the crowd parted before them like the Red Sea. Stares followed them as they passed. Schuldich let his gift wander through their minds. He recognized some of the mental signatures even if he did not remember the people exactly; blue eyes noted the ranking on their shoulders as his gaze wandered over the crowd. They were his old rank-mates, the ones he’d started with and then abandoned. They had finally hit the age to be broken into Inquisition teams, but apparently Rosenkreuz hadn’t started splitting them up yet.
He felt scorn for them, for these people who had been stuck here in classes for so long. He had spent four and a half months wandering northern Europe and the past twenty-six months reshaping Rosenkreuz’s grip on the world. He was stronger than all of them, stronger than he would have been if he had been forced to stay instead of jumping ranks twice. He knew more about the world, knew more about Rosenkreuz, and knew more about his own gifts than any of them would for a long time. He had grown a lot in the past two years beside height, and to come back after such work to find these people right where he’d left them…
A smirk curled his lips because it fit his face better than a sneer did, though he wanted to laugh at all of them for being so stupid. He said nothing, though, following behind the other two down the halls. They were to check in with the Cabinet before anything else, even before putting their baggage in their rooms. The students watched them go for as long as possible without being late to their next classes, and Schuldich drank in their awe hungrily. Nacht was the embodiment of everything these students wanted, Nacht and the other teams housed in the school. Schuldich remembered joining the staring crowds in his first years, remembered the fierce determination to get a spot on one of the teams. The emotions surrounding them were familiar, and he allowed himself a few moments of triumphant satisfaction that he had made it.
The years at Rosenkreuz had been worth it, he decided. The past two years had been entertaining, and he thought he would be content if things stayed like this. He didn’t mind Aeris and he trusted Crawford…It was a team he could live with and work with. Nacht was a good team to be on, and he almost couldn’t wait to be gone again. The outside world was much better than the school. There were more people to play with; there was more room to stretch his arms and legs and just breathe. The outside world was very much alive, and even if its minds were several levels lower than those inside Rosenkreuz, the air in these halls got stuck in Schuldich’s throat and he was already ready to be outside again.
The Chamber doors were open. They left their luggage right outside the door and entered to pay their respects to the Cabinet. It had been two years since Schuldich had last seen them, but they didn’t seem to have aged at all. Like everything else at Rosenkreuz, they drifted in the illusion of being frozen in time. Schuldich didn’t like it…He wanted things to be alive and moving. He liked the fast pace outdoors, and stepping inside the Chambers just made the return to the school worse. He kept his opinion to himself, however, remaining silent as Crawford greeted the three. They were put under serious inspection, their eyes lingering on Schuldich the longest.
The slight smile that pulled at Amalthia’s mouth told him that they were pleased with what they saw. “We’ve heard good things about you,” she told Schuldich, referring to the reports Crawford had sent to keep the Cabinet updated on their progress. Schuldich was surprised that they had actually read them when they trusted Crawford so much. He’d have figured that they would let him do his job without caring how he got it done, and had decided long ago that the reports had been filed unread. With her next sentence, he decided perhaps he was the reason they had been read. “Apparently you’ve managed to mature away from Rosenkreuz.”
“Glad to have your approval. Sirs.” It was a belated addition; he never called Crawford ‘sir’. The honorific had been hard enough while he was still at the school. Two years of being away from it showed that he had grown horrendously rusty. He had never forgotten to call the Cabinet ‘sirs’ while he had been here even if he had slipped up on everyone else. There was no way they could have missed it, but they chose to ignore it- to his mild relief.
“Things have been a bit more boring since you left,” the Third said dryly, and Schuldich couldn’t keep a smirk from playing on his lips.
“I would think that would be a bit of relief for you, sirs.”
“Perhaps,” the Second said.
The First merely nodded. “Nacht’s next destination is South Africa.” Here he looked at Crawford, perhaps knowing that the precognitive had already seen it coming. “The longest you can stay within these halls is four days. Then your presence will be required there.” With a nod, they were dismissed. Aeris and Schuldich turned to go; Crawford remained behind. They realized after a few steps that he was not following them and glanced back. The First waved them off. “We are not done with Oracle. Take his luggage back to the room with you.”
They nodded obedience and left the room. The doors closed behind them and both studied the entrance to the Chambers, wondering what the Cabinet and Crawford could have to say to each other. Exchanging an equally clueless glance, they at length shrugged and gathered their suitcases. Schuldich took Crawford’s so he was rolling one in each hand, and Aeris got the west wing door so he wouldn’t have to put them down on the stairs. He had to carry them up the next flight of stairs as well. Their room had been locked while they were gone. Aeris got the lock on this one as well and then they were in their quarters.
Schuldich helped himself to the single room, deciding it was only logical that the other two had the room with two beds. It would fit them whether they wanted to share a bed or split up. Aeris didn’t protest him claiming the private room. He set his suitcase at the foot of the bed and rolled Crawford’s into the other room. Aeris sat on the edge of her bed, stretching and looking around.
“I suppose it’d be a waste of time to unpack all the way,” she said, looking towards Schuldich, “if we’re just going to be leaving again in a handful of days.”
“Perhaps,” Schuldich agreed, leaning against the doorframe.
Aeris studied her watch and pushed herself back to her feet. “If the coffee pot in the lounge is full, I’ll worship whoever started it,” she said. “I could seriously use a cup of coffee or five or six. You?” she asked. Schuldich shook his head, turning the invitation to tag along down, and she accepted it easily. He moved from the doorway so she could leave and headed to his own room. He let himself fall backwards onto the mattress, lacing his hands together behind his head and staring up at the ceiling.
He hummed a Russian tune he’d never learned the name of under his breath, his knees at the edge of the mattress so his legs could dangle and swing. His thoughts drifted over the events of the past two years, trailing backwards through the months as he considered how far he’d come and everything he’d done. He went past his first meeting of Crawford to the Inquisitions before it, bouncing through the ragged memories of his time as a student here to the day Rosenkreuz came to him, to the stories his mother used to tell him about a school for people gifted just like him…
A familiar pulse rippled through his thoughts, savage and raw and pure. He hadn’t felt it in over two years but he could place it immediately, and if it hadn’t rushed up against him so suddenly he would have taken a moment to reflect on how absolutely unwelcome it was. As things were, it hit him so fast and so strong that it took his breath away, shattering his thoughts to a million pieces and letting them scatter far away. It faded but a throb remained behind. He tried to push himself up to a sitting position, his hands tangled in his hair so that his fingers could dig into his skull. The world was rocking around him- that blow had completely shattered his shields, shields that were seven years old, shields that he had been working on continuously for those seven years…
The second blast was stronger than the first and he fell right off the bed onto his knees. He hunched forwards, his forehead touching the ground as he struggled for every breath. He was dimly aware of warmth on his fingertips were his fingernails had broken through skin. He couldn’t feel the pain, not above this violent, hungry NEED.
You left me, Blue-eyes. You left me.
His breath came in as a ragged gasp. He heard a startled inquiry, but it sounded miles away. Fingers tightened in his hair, digging into his skin relentlessly. His thoughts were broken; it took everything he had to gasp out a mental command: /Get out get out get out!!!!/
It was a mistake, for he had just reached out and touched the other’s mind directly. A string of bodies stood off the ground by several feet, children, all of them. They were lined up like a chain of paper dolls, impaled through their chests on a thick iron fence. The posts went through their chests and hands, a fucking chain of crucified dolls and they were still alive. The fire started at one end of the fence and swept down it, and past them, through the flames, there was a cemetery where the parents were already holding a funeral for their children. They didn’t know the kids were still alive; they couldn’t hear the children’s cries over the minister’s voice. With their lungs punctured, the children couldn’t manage loud enough screams to get attention. Their voices were wet, their throats managing only gurgled moans.
Schuldich watched them all burn, one by one. The last child on the row was almost dead but not quite, and already ravens rested on her shoulders and forearms, picking at the torn flesh where the posts had broken through. Sharp beaks grabbed the ragged ends of the holes and pulled, and Schuldich could see the girl’s fingers twitching in a weak attempt to force them away. The flames caught up to her soon enough, just in time to chase away the bird that had landed on her forehead to consider her eyes.
Do you see it now? Can you see it?
“Get outtttt,” Schuldich managed. The air was burning his lungs; he could barely get the command out. He could feel warm hands on his wrists, tugging at his hands. In the distance, over the crackling of a much hated and, previously, happily forgotten mind, he could hear a woman’s strident tones. He struggled to focus on them, wanting something, anything, to help tug him free of such a noise. His shields, his precious fucking shields… “Get out,” he said again, and it was stronger this time.
The crackling faded to a violent hum in the background of his thoughts, still very much there but not as overpowering. Somewhere closer to him were more shields, shields of a familiar mind, a mind he needed to hear right now. Without a thought for future consequences, desperate only to break loose of the Nightmare’s grasp, he shoved forward through the shields he had helped to build. He was at once surrounded by the familiar feel of Aeris’s thoughts and he clung to them, whirling around in them greedily as he tried to pull himself up to a coherent level.
Aeris was on her knees in front of him when he could focus again, her eyes blank and unseeing, her mouth open. He slowly untangled himself from her, helping pull her shields back up as he did so. She looked disoriented and nauseous and sagged forward against him, reeling in the aftermath of his sudden and harsh intrusion on her mind. Schuldich lowered his hands from his head, studying the blood on his fingertips and only dimly aware of her ragged breaths against his chest. He had an enormous headache and the buzzing of that other mind was still there, stronger than it had been when he had last seen the child a couple years ago. He lifted his hands to his temples, rubbing at his forehead.
It had been very, very nice to forget the Nightmare existed.
Schuldich wished they’d never come back to Rosenkreuz.
Aeris had recovered by the time Nacht chose to go to breakfast, when Crawford returned half an hour later. Schuldich had not had the energy to get up, even if Whitey had dropped the majority of his hold on the telempath’s mind when Schuldich had raided his teammate’s thoughts. Aeris still had a headache and had demanded an explanation in a sharp voice. Schuldich had ignored her, staring through her as he wondered how soon he could convince Crawford to let them leave for Africa. When Crawford arrived at the room Aeris was fuming in the other bedroom and Schuldich was leaning against his bed for support. He turned his head towards the precognitive when the American stopped in the doorway, blue eyes searching light brown. He knew as soon as their gazes met that Crawford had seen the brush between Nightmare and telempath coming.
Schuldich made a mental note to kick his ass later.
Aeris appeared in the other bedroom’s doorway, turning narrowed eyes on both of them. She wanted a reason for Schuldich’s spazzing out earlier and his attack on her shields. Schuldich didn’t feel like giving them to her and wondered if Crawford would do him the favor. The precognitive beckoned to Schuldich to get to his feet. “We’re going to eat,” he said, “and we’re going to talk.”
Schuldich wondered if he could get to his feet. He remained where he was a moment longer, making sure his balance was in check before attempting to get up. He made it on the first try with quite a bit of relief, blue eyes sliding to Aeris’s angry face before moving back to Crawford’s. The precognitive turned and left their rooms. Aeris followed with a final Look at Schuldich. Schuldich took up the rear, closing the door behind him and joining his team as they headed upstairs to the dining hall. There was only one other team present; a light prod showed that only three teams were currently in Rosenkreuz on break. He didn’t bother getting food, because his stomach was still uneasy after his brush with the Nightmare. He supposed it would have been too convenient if the man had vanished.
The other two picked simple breakfasts from the buffet table and returned. Crawford set a mug of coffee in front of the eighteen year old telepath before sitting down. Schuldich wrapped his fingers tightly around it but made no move to drink it yet. They were seated at a round table, which made it easier for them to talk. Whatever the subject could be was impossible to glean from Crawford’s calm expression, but the cool, assessing look to his eye as he studied them both said whatever it was would be important.
“Nacht has existed for almost five years,” Crawford said to start the conversation. Schuldich wondered if ‘conversation’ was the right term and decided not. A ‘conversation’ implied that there were multiple people interacting. Crawford was going to talk, and they were going to listen and then react. “Two years ago I put in a request for a different team and branch of Rosenkreuz. The Cabinet has been considering my request since we were last here, and today I asked them for a final decision.”
“Oh?” Schuldich asked when it was clear that Aeris wasn’t going to say anything. He eyed his coffee mug and took a tentative sip. His stomach protested immediately and he set the drink back down, deciding that it was best to just hold onto it.
“A new team is going to be formed, code-named Schwarz. In its first years it will be doing jobs similar to the work Nacht was responsible for to help the group become more cohesive.” That meant that there would be changes in the members, Schuldich realized, and wondered how many new people Crawford would recruit and if he’d choose to keep both of his current teammates. One didn’t need a large team to do Nacht’s line of work; three was a decent number. “Eventually, if it is successful, it will evolve onto the edges of the political. The clients will become more important to Rosenkreuz, the pay will be better-”
“The killing will stop?” Schuldich asked, arching a brow at him.
“Far from,” came the easy response. “Schwarz will just not be a strictly demolitions group like Nacht was.”
They accepted this in silence, turning the words over in their heads. It wasn’t like they could argue against his decision, because they’d come too far to argue with him now. Besides, there wasn’t anything that said he would get rid of either of them, just like there was nothing saying he had to keep them both. Schuldich decided to try drinking his coffee again. It slid down his throat easier this time and his stomach didn’t twist quite so tightly, so he took a few more sips and let his mug rest against his chin as he wondered if he would be brought along on this new turn of fate or left behind. If he was left behind, he would be given to a different team. There would be new people, new personalities, to adjust to, and he contemplated how different they could be from the team he had now. He doubted any of the leaders were like Crawford.
Aeris, sensing that Crawford had said everything he would on the matter at the time being, pointed a painted finger at Schuldich. Narrowed eyes settled on his face, searching his expression. “Now I want an explanation from you. What happened? You can’t just break my shields like that.”
Schuldich considered telling her that he could break and had broken her shields just like that, and that he had the skill to do so whenever she pleased. He swallowed the remark with another sip of coffee, fixing cool blue eyes on his eldest teammate. The humming was still there in the back of his thoughts and he supposed he should be grateful that the past two years had been free of the Nightmare’s touch. Perhaps he wouldn’t be able to feel the younger teenager’s gift outside of the country. South Africa was a decent distance away, exactly what Schuldich needed.
Aeris felt she deserved an explanation for what had happened; Schuldich felt otherwise. He had no interest in rehashing the Nightmare’s ability to break his shields like a blade going through water. It wasn’t, as far as he was concerned, any of her business. Besides, he had been told to keep news of the Nightmare’s presence a secret and Crawford only knew because the Cabinet trusted him enough to tell him. If Crawford thought Aeris should know, he could tell her, but Schuldich wouldn’t.
“Schuldich,” Aeris started when she realized he wasn’t going to explain himself.
Whatever else she said was lost when a powerful mind touched his. This one wasn’t Whitey’s; it had a different, older kind of strength. It was a touch more than a word, but Schuldich recognized it to be a summons and twisted in his chair, looking back towards the door to the dining facility. He couldn’t read anything other than what it had placed on him, but the edge of the wordless noise brought the First’s face to mind. A frown pulled at his lips and he looked back at his team. Aeris looked mildly annoyed at his distraction but Crawford nodded slightly, confirming the call.
“The Cabinet has need of us,” Crawford said, rising to his feet.
Schuldich pushed away his unfinished mug, Aeris tucked aside her questions, and Nacht started towards the door. Before Crawford stepped through, however, he turned to face Aeris. A hand on her wrist brought her closer, closing the short distance between them. He placed a light kiss to her forehead, released her, and then turned and left. Aeris waited before following him, looking a bit surprised by the movement. Crawford never kissed her in public; they shared whatever it was they had together only with each other behind closed doors. And a kiss on the forehead was too intimate for the casual thing they had. She looked at Schuldich, her confusion erasing her irritation towards the younger Talent, and he shook his head, showing that he didn’t have a clue why Crawford had done such a thing. He would never know, not when Crawford’s mind was so well cloaked. She frowned, a thoughtful expression, and stepped through the door. Schuldich followed, taking up the rear as they made their way to the Chambers.
Later Schuldich would realize the gesture had been a farewell.
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