Part Thirteen

    The blast comes without warning. I've just spun around, gun up at the ready, when the guard's body bursts into a thousand bite-sized pieces. Blood and organs slush across me, thick and sticky and hot, and I go perfectly still. The air is hazy with misty little droplets and I watch as the pieces tumble over and under each other to form a pebbly-looking pile at my feet. Blood trickles down my cheek to drip onto my suit jacket and another drop falls from the tip of my nose. I blink to clear gore off my eyelashes and slant a sideways look at Crawford to let him know how not amused I am.

    "I warned you not to go over there," Crawford says.

    "Right," I agree. "Three hours ago, before we'd even left the apartment, you reminded me to stay closer to the wall with the windows on it. What the hell is this? The blood is never going to come out."

    "Which is precisely why I advised you against wearing your usual green jacket."

    "Because I'd have massacred you if it had gotten destroyed today?"

    "Because you would have fussed inconsolably over your inability to listen to my warnings, yes."

    "You know what? Bite me." I smear my hair out of my face and grimace at the way it sticks. Who knew blood was such a good mousse? I send my thoughts across the city to Tokyo's resident Irish psychopath. It's a far reach from here, but not as far when his consciousness is still spread across the city.

    /You mind, jackass? You might want to work on your aim. You got him all over me./

    ~Not my problem.~

    /I'll knife you./

    ~You can try.~

    /You think I won't, limp noodle?/

    He smiles against my mind, cold and vicious, and I know he wishes I would try. I'm not that stupid, so instead I drop the connection and stalk towards Crawford. He knows what I'm after and points his gun at me. "Touch me before you've showered and you will seriously regret it," he advises me.

    I look from the gun to him to his pristine suit. It's one of his better suits, so I decide not to call his bluff. "You wouldn't shoot me anywhere vital."

    "No," he agrees. He leaves the "Non-vital places are still viable options" out, but I still hear it loud and clear.

    "Spoilsport." I hold my hands up in self-defense and take a couple steps away to survey the room. We've made a mess of the place, as expected. Death could be quick and clean, but that's boring. Crawford prefers it that way unless it's for a power show, since he feels it's more efficient and professional, but he rarely orders us to keep things clean. He knows this kind of brutality is something Farfarello and I need.

    Most of the heavy damage in here is indeed from Farfarello's gift. The Irishman has been working on his power in between his physical rehabilitation for the past month and a half. Occasionally he runs jobs with us remotely, because he needs to exercise his gift and it's easiest to hide the bodies this way. Crawford and I aren't foolish enough to think this is the only way he's flexing his power, but Crawford hasn't said anything about it. After all, Farfarello's not part of our team anymore. Crawford can't exactly take him to task- just like he won't pull strings to cover Farfarello's ass if the Irishman gets himself spotted. It's not that we think Farfarello's stupid; it's just that he rarely ever cares about prudence.

    So I'm a hypocrite. Sue me.

    I'm also extremely leery of letting Farfarello work here on his own, which is exactly what we're going to do as soon as Crawford thinks he's ready. I need to fix my shields and my mind, but the only way I can do that when the damage is so extensive is to take them down all the way to the core and start over. In Japan, that would be suicidal, what with there being six gazillion people here. Crawford knows the perfect place: exactly where we both started, on an abandoned post in rural China. The isolation will keep my mind from self-destructing and Crawford's shields won't hurt my unprotected gift.

    That means leaving Farfarello and Ikida alone, so we can't go until Farfarello can protect them both and still keep his shields in place. Farfarello isn't worried about our imminent departure, but we are- if not about Farfarello, then about the research Ikida is working on for us. He's spent the last seven weeks taking apart what he has left of the serum. Most of it was destroyed when the tower fell at the sea, but he had a couple tubes left on hand, and he's been carefully deconstructing it to try and find a way to reverse the effects. He's a doctor, not a scientist, so it's far above his head, but he's the most qualified of us to try and work on it. He didn't manufacture it, after all; Chizuru and her Estet people did.

    "Let's go," Crawford says, holstering his gun.

    "You actually going to let me in the car like this?"

    "There is a small gym in the basement that has showers," Crawford answers. "Your change of clothes is in the briefcase I had you bring. We have fifteen minutes before security notices something is amiss. That is more than enough time."

    I mime swallowing a bullet, but there's something amusing in the familiarity of this all, Crawford and his unthinking arrogance and meticulous planning. Things have been a bit odd for me, having only one teammate to check in on while on missions and having Farfarello as a long-distance freelancer type person. It's been so long since it was just me and Crawford that it took me time to adjust. Crawford's wobbling up-and-down health didn't help, but Ikida's medicine got Crawford back on his feet again in more ways than one. Now Schwarz- or whatever the pair of us is supposed to be called- is doing magnificently.

    I fetch the briefcase where I set it down beside the door upon arrival. I'd thought it was just for show, since we came here to crash a meeting. Apparently not. "You even pack me a towel?" I ask as I trail behind Crawford towards the elevators. He opts to ignore me, likely because of the mocking tone in my voice. It was a mostly rhetorical question anyway, since I know he'd have packed it if he knew I'd need it.

    The elevator smells like blood and death, a salty, tangy poison we've built our lives on. I can't remember a time when violence wasn't a part of my life. Maybe that's because it always has been, or maybe it's because Rosenkreuz's telepaths had to crush my mind down to keep Hoffmann from breaking it. I'm missing most of my childhood and have patches through my first year with Crawford, so everything I know is pain.

    I try to imagine life without this sort of work and fail. There's the option of growing too old for this work, except Talents don't live long lives. I reconsider that, remembering how Crawford stated our deaths to be a long time from now. I wonder which timeframe he's looking at and whether it's actual years or years relative to Talents' usual lifespan. It doesn't really matter, I suppose, as long as I get from point A to point Death in fine form and with my mind intact.

    The gym is a modest little thing, but it does have showers. Crawford follows me into the bathroom and over to the sink counters, and I consider myself with a critical eye. That bastard had gotten back to his feet just an arm's length away from me. I hadn't been in any danger of getting hurt, not with a gift like mine, not when my shields are so raw that there's no way I could have not heard him moving around. All it meant was that he'd made a stupendous mess of my clothes. I look like someone tried to gut me with my clothes on, in part due to the globby junk that's sticking to my jacket, in part just because of the massive amount of blood.

    It takes me a second more to realize Crawford is studying me as well, and I offer his reflection a quirked eyebrow in silent question. He doesn't notice, too intent on looking at the bloody parts of me. I let him look for just a few moments more and then set the briefcase down, expecting a lecture.

    "You are always so reckless," Crawford muses, right on cue. I'm not the only predictable one around here. I have my mouth open to respond to that, but Crawford is touching me then, undoing the buttons on my jacket for me. I forget my words in favor of eyeing him, not really sure what's going on. "Every time I turn around, it seems I'm cleaning up after you."

    "That's your job," I inform him. "You should be past used to it by now."

    "If I hadn't already seen your death, I would live day-to-day expecting you to drop dead at any moment based on your carelessness alone."

    I choose to ignore that, writing it off as just him being irritated with me, and lift my hands to finish the buttons myself. He doesn't slow down or back off to let me do it, however, but pulls the last button free and slides my jacket off my shoulders. I let it slip down over my arms. He catches it before it can fall but I don't really notice anymore; I'm too busy looking at him.

    "I'm still here," I say.

    He flicks me an unreadable look for that. "I noticed," is his dry response.

    I touch a finger to the underside of his chin to hold him in place and lean in towards him, careful not to touch anywhere else when the blood's gone through my jacket to my undershirt. Somehow it still feels electrifying even connected only with a finger and a kiss.

    Nagi was the only one of us to die on the beach that day, but that doesn't mean the rest of us walked away scratch-free. Farfarello's the most visible proof of that. Crawford got up again on sheer arrogance and the knowledge that damage-control had to start immediately. And I? I was unconscious for the better part of two months as my body tried more desperately than ever before to recover from Hoffmann's cruelty. He could have killed me outright on the beach, except his hatred for me meant he wanted it to last. That loathing was all that gave me a chance, but it wasn't easy.

    I wonder, then- was Crawford worried?

    Can a precognitive worry about a person, even if he knows beyond a doubt that that person will survive?

    Is he looking at me now where I'm covered in blood and thinking about that fight?

    "When did you realize we were going to make it?" I ask him without leaning back.

    "You asked me for your death day," Crawford says against my mouth. "You triggered it then."

    He hadn't known whether or not I'd make it; maybe my semi-coma for the next couple months registered as blank in his mind. Maybe he'd turned around to see me on that beach and saw me so bloody and thought, for one hard moment, that I was gone. I wonder what went through his mind then—if his first thought was towards the imminent shattering of his shields and sanity, based on Hoffmann's interference, or if one part of him had been honestly horrified.

    We went into that battle risking everything, knowing there was such a small chance for survival. Crawford had known he would have survived even if the rest of us hadn't, since the Council would have wanted to punish him personally. I wonder if he knew about Nagi and Farfarello. I wonder if any part of me in his gift showed him what was going to happen to them, and I wonder, not for the first time, how the hell one can stand to be a precognitive and know so much. There's a chance he didn't see those things, since he'd been tearing at his gift to try and turn it as SIS as he could possibly make it, but now I'm curious. Not curious enough to ask, though; I'm not sure I want to know if he had seen Nagi die and still led us into that battle as calm and confident as you please.

    "How the fuck?" I murmur against his mouth. "How do you be you?"

    "You're a telepath," he reminds me needlessly. "You would never understand."

    "I don't want to," I decide slowly, searching eyes that see worlds more than I'd ever want to know. For years I've wanted peeks inside those shields of his, wanting to see how he ticks and what he sees. These past couple of months since that fight are telling me I'm glad he was smart enough to keep me out. Learning what a precog is has been a nauseating lesson.

    "When we go to China, we are going to have sex in every room," I tell him. He sets my jacket aside and I get the rest of my clothes off myself. I catch at his wrist and put his hand against my skin where it's sticky and red, pressing his palm hard against my chest to prove to him that it's not my skin cut and broken. There's no change on his expression to let me know that any of these suspicions are correct, but I can feel the barest tightening of his fingers against me. "It seems only right."

    "Of course," he assures me.

    "I'm going to hold you to that," I say, letting go of him, and I step past him towards the showers.

    We've wasted minutes here dancing around conversations we can't have, but they don't really feel like a waste. I make up for the time by taking a fast shower, just enough to get the gore off of me. My clothes and towel are set out on the sink when I step out and Crawford has already packed the bloody clothes into my briefcase, safely tucked inside a plastic bag. I get dressed and take my briefcase back, and we are out of there with a couple minutes to spare.

    It's a quiet drive back to our apartment only in the sense that we say nothing to each other. The roar of traffic and chaos of twilight Tokyo do all the talking for us. I listen to a million bodies live and breathe and die around us and soak it all in like acid rain, feeling the way it decays my mind a little further. Soon enough I'll finally be able to cut that rot out, when I can take my shields down and put them back together again. It'll only be the second time I've ever pulled them down of my own volition, the first being when I ripped them apart to shield our mental room. I'd be worried about taking them down again after they've been broken so many times, except this is all Crawford's plan, and I know Crawford knows best when it comes to me and my gift.

    I'll never admit that out loud, though. The man's got a big enough ego as it is.


    Our plane touches down in Beijing three minutes earlier than scheduled and we follow the rest of the passengers into the airport. Getting through customs and immigration is a breeze when I can tweak thoughts how I like. Our suitcases take a while to show up on the other end, but they all arrive in one piece, and we get them out to the rental car Crawford secured for us.

    We have an obligatory stop on the way before we can head all the way out to our base. It's been five years since we visited Beijing's headquarters, but Crawford still remembers the way. This was his office for years before I stepped into his life and started disrupting everything. I don't think he could ever forget how to get there.

    We have to park down the street from it, but we get a spot close enough to walk there. The secretary at the front desk isn't the one who was there years ago. I half-expect Crawford to walk right past her, but he leads me over to the desk. She has a look of frozen politeness on her face, not recognizing either of us and not wanting outsiders in a Rosenkreuz facility. I figure she started schooling at Rosenkreuz after Crawford left Austria to tend to me; that's the only way she could be so ignorant.

    "If you would call Alex Yun Fat," Crawford says, and leaves it at that.

    "On whose authority?" she asks.

    "As prior Five Crawford," he answers, and her expression goes rock hard. It's one part fear, one part anger. She knows his name if she doesn't know his face. She knows what Schwarz did, and now she's positive she doesn't want him here in this building.

    He said the word "prior", but she still hears the "Five", so she presses the button to call up to Alex's office. I'm actually surprised the man still works here so many years later, but I suppose China is an important post for Rosenkreuz, especially when they're trying to find their footing in the wake of Estet's death. Crawford had told us that the Talents had all been called back to the school for the final fighting and to help support it, but a couple months later, seems like they're trying to reestablish their ties. Alex has spent more time in China than Crawford has by now, so he was probably the best choice to come back and hold Beijing together.

    "Sir, you have a visitor," the secretary says. "Prior Five Crawford says he is here to see you."

    There is just a heartbeat of silence before someone responds with, "I assume he is already on his way up, then."

    "Not yet, sir."

    "You had better not be keeping him standing there in the lobby," is the irritated response.

    "Apologies, sir," she says. "He is on his way upstairs to you now." Alex disconnects on his end and she rises from her seat, belatedly showing Crawford the respect he deserves. "Apologies to you as well, Mr. Crawford. Would you like me to escort you upstairs?"

    "I know the way," he answers, and he leads me through the door. We take the stairs up to the second floor and find the place as busy as I remember it being. Amazing how not busy it becomes when the first person notices who is here; all activity grinds to an immediate, startled halt. No one says anything because no one knows what to say, and we don't slow long enough to let them collect their wits. The door we want is at the far end. Crawford knocks just once, and it swings open from the other side.

    I only met Yun Fat twice, but I recognize him immediately. The partner he had back then is gone; in fact, the whole second desk is removed. Seems like Rosenkreuz went through some downsizing.

    The door closes behind us with just a thought from the telekinetic behind the desk, and Alex stares hard at Crawford from across the room. Crawford makes no move to approach the desk, content to stand back and wait. They're testing the ground between them; they're testing five years and the death of a Council. I remember Alex as a man with a bad attitude and very little appreciation for Crawford as a person. Despite that obvious dislike, Crawford claimed the man was completely loyal to Crawford's visions. Now we'll see if that respect is still there after what Crawford's done.

    "You're not supposed to be here," Alex says bluntly. "Give me a good reason why you came."

    "This is a courtesy visit," Crawford answers easily. "Schuldich and I will be making use of the outpost for the next several months. I thought it fair to warn you that we would be in your territory."

    "That land is Rosenkreuz's. Last I heard, you'd rejected Rosenkreuz, which means you have no claim to that land."


    It's the worst argument I've ever heard, but Alex says nothing immediately. He needs some time to think about what he wants to say. "You killed the Council," he says at last. "The new Council called a mass conference to explain Schwarz's involvement and reasoning. It reeks of your idiotic arrogance. Did you know the Council backed you up, Crawford? They said they sided with Schwarz, based on Seraphim's prophecies. That doesn't mean they're happy. That doesn't mean anyone's happy. The Council is not expendable, Crawford."

    "Rosenkreuz is not expendable," Crawford answers easily. "The lives of four men, whether they are students or the Council, mean absolutely nothing to me. I was raised to protect the school's future first and foremost, and the Council second. When the latter starts to interfere, I pick my sides with the majority. Estet was after immortality and demonic powers. They would have destroyed us."

    "Killing them nearly destroyed us," Alex snaps, giving a sharp jerk of his hand. "Look at what we are now. Four-fifths of all of our offices had to shut down because we didn't have the funding to keep them open. We had Beijing offline for eight weeks. Eight weeks, Crawford. Do you have any clue what it cost us to close this branch down?"

    "I assisted the Council in the shutdown and the reorganization," Crawford answers. "I am aware of what it cost, yes, at least in preliminary figures."

    "On top of that, we lost sixty Talents fighting Estet's people. We still haven't cleared all of Estet out, not when they never told us where all of their bases were, so all we can do is wait and watch the precogs for the next wave." Alex slams his fist down on the table and glowers at Crawford. "How are any of us supposed to accept that you really did do this to help us when the school is so weak now?"

    "Are you questioning the Council?"

    "I am questioning you," Alex shoots back. "You have cut the legs off of this school, and now you've washed your hands and walked away from it. What is that? Talents do not walk away from Rosenkreuz!"

    "I have no further place in the school," Crawford tells him. "The Council accepted my reasoning, but they cannot forgive my actions. They cannot accept me back into the ranks, not without lowering themselves in Rosenkreuz's eyes. It is best for everyone if I leave."

    "But you haven't left. You're still meddling."

    "I promised the Council that Rosenkreuz would not fall," Crawford says firmly.

    "You promised," Alex says derisively, but that is all he says.

    They stare each other down for another minute more, Alex tense as a wire ready to snap and Crawford eternally calm. At last Alex hits the desk again. "What the fuck ever," he says sourly. "Take the base, but know that I will report your presence up the line to the Council. If they do not want you there, I will remove you from the post with force."

    "They will let us stay when you inform them it is in Schuldich's best interests," Crawford answers. "He is very valuable to them."

    Alex slides a hateful little look my way, likely, like everyone else, blaming all of this on me. "Just stay out of the way of my team."

    "As you wish," Crawford says. "I have no intentions of interfering with your office here."

    Alex yanks open a drawer and digs a key ring out of it. He hesitates for just a moment before throwing it across the room at us, and I snag it from the air. Crawford turns and opens the door, and I offer Alex a last look before following Crawford out. The telekinetic's face is like a thundercloud, but he gave us the keys and he doesn't call after us when we go. I half to wonder if it's a bad idea for him to tell the Council where we're going to be, but Crawford wouldn't have come here if he'd known it wouldn't work out for us.

    It's a long drive out to the base. It hasn't changed in our years of absence save for the amount of dust all over the place. It has its own generator that Crawford turns on with a couple presses of a button. We take our time scoping the place out, seeing what all we'll need to furnish the place. We'll have to pick up food later, but we need the fridge to get cold before we put anything in it. We'll get light bulbs and all that boring stuff then.

    It's the most ordinary recon sort of mission I've ever been on, but it feels… weird. Being back here is jarring. I take my time going through the rooms, looking at both present and past and fingering through my shredded memories of this place. Crawford made me here; he turned me from a wreck into Schuldich on this base. Shielding and shooting and politics; Schwarz.

    "My mother was the epitome of a telepath," I murmur to myself. Crawford glances my way at that but says nothing, and I shake myself out of the past in favor of now.

    We used separate bedrooms then. We arrange ourselves in one now. There's only one dresser to start with, but I tote the second one in from my old room. As soon as the clothes are put away, I put together Crawford's computer in the downstairs office and he arranges paperwork on the shelves how he needs it. By then, the kitchen is ready for us, and we go back into the city for our shopping.

    It takes just an hour to get everything put away and have the main building cleaned up, and then Crawford and I meet up in the living room with two mugs of coffee.

    "Take them down," Crawford tells me.

    I press my gift up against my shields one last time, feeling out the way they rest so brokenly against my thoughts, and don't even hesitate. I shatter them in my head to leave nothing but my core. With them gone, it's glaringly obvious what Hoffmann and Farfarello have done to that bottom layer. There's a taint there that shouldn't be there, that I can't afford to have there.

    "Presence?" Crawford asks.

    I drag my attention away from my core long enough to notice how my gift feels without the shields to help protect it. There are a few other minds showing up on my radar, far enough away not to interfere with my head but close enough that I can still feel them like thorns against my mind. It's a little chilling to have my gift so free; it makes my telepathy seem naked. If I'd tried this in Japan, the overload of minds would definitely have destroyed my core and my head in less than a minute.

    "A few," I answer at length. "Six stationary." I press my gift against them, trying to gauge their location. "There's a home out here now."


    "I… can't tell." I frown at that admission and touch on the minds again. I could judge distances back in Tokyo, but this family is far enough away that I can't even guess.

    "Take care of them."

    I nod distractedly and dig my gift in, reaching as deep as I can and wrenching. The six die without knowing what hit them, and my mental field is cleared. I nod again to let him know it's done, and Crawford sits back a little in his chair.

    "Now," he says. "Let's begin."

Part 14
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