Part Fourteen

    I wake up to the sound of Crawford working on the gym's punching bag. He's several buildings away, but I recognize that focused stillness to his thoughts by now. I push myself up and scrub at my face, yawning against my palm. I woke when he got up, since it's impossible for him to wake up without alerting me now, but I hadn't had any interest in getting up then. I dimly remember drinking coffee in the kitchen with him before heading straight back to bed. Late nights are hell on proper sleeping schedules, but completely worth it. It's not like it matters. We haven't had anything to wake up for these past several months.

    It's really strange not having a routine. Crawford's set one up for us because he doesn't know how to live without a schedule of some sort, but it doesn't feel real. We don't have appointments or clients or meetings or anything. It's just him and me and a base in the middle of BFE, with the illusion of having all the time in the world. Around us working on our individual shields and talents, my greatest amusement and hobby is in trying to destroy Crawford's schedule. He doesn't appreciate it, which is precisely why it's so funny.

    I ease myself up out of tangled sheets and go hunting for my sleeping pants. I find them in the hallway and pull them on at the top of the stairs.

    Something flickers against the edge of my mind and I turn my head that way, listening to the chatter of minds crossing my range. We've been in China for four months now; it's been four months since I stripped down to just my core. I've been working on rebuilding my shields, but I rarely leave them up anymore. There's no point when it's just me and Crawford. Crawford's mind can't hurt me. Besides, the more he and I work on my gift, the more it seems to unfurl. I thought I'd hit my limits a long time ago, but Crawford is showing me otherwise. I'm finally growing into the level 8 ranking he gave me years ago.

    I realized that the day I first started hearing Crawford's thoughts.

    It's so few and far between that it still startles me every time. With those viciously thick shields in place, Crawford's voice is so quiet that I have to pay close attention before I can hear even the faintest of whispers. But the whispers are there when they never were before, a soft murmuring barely out of reach. It's loudest when he's having his visions, since he loses his focus. I feel his shields shiver against my mind every time. It's almost enough that I don't ever want to put my shields back in place, if they're going to shut that down away from me.

    I take the stairs down and go down the hall to let myself outside. The travelers are still skirting along the edge of my mind, but they won't come anywhere near close enough to bother us. I ignore them in favor of heading for the gym. There isn't a single locked door on this compound, so I push open the door for the inner weights room and prop myself against the doorframe.

    Crawford has to know I'm here; he had to know I would come. He doesn't slow, and I don't bother to say anything. I'm content to watch. Our time here has given him the chance to start working his body back towards what it used to be and I study his strong back with more than a little appreciation. Sometimes it strikes me as bizarre to see Crawford sweaty, since he's always so pristine and controlled. Watching him here like this, day after day, has replaced that amused incredulity with a gnawing hunger instead. Beneath Crawford's icy exterior is someone who can be more ruthless than any of the rest of us, and watching him work out gives me a glimpse of that monster.

    We have four immortals to cure of their eternal lives. We have a teammate tucked away in Rosenkreuz and another who vanished from Japan two and a half months ago to lose himself in Ireland. Even still, for now, for these few months, our world begins and ends with just us. I'm learning to be really fine with that.

    Crawford starts to slow down, coming to the end of his exercises, and I invite myself across the room to him. I have enough semblance of respect to wait until he's come to a complete stop before reaching out. I slip my hands around his sides to dig my fingers into the hard lines of his abdomen. He's breathing heavily from exertion. It makes me think of entirely different sorts of exercises. I bite down hard on my lower lip, imagining his teeth on my mouth, remembering the taste of blood and the slur of tangled curses against his skin.

    Crawford turns his head but can't turn it quite far enough to see me. His shields shiver and I love the image that flickers between our minds.

    "Just what I was thinking."

    "Don't read my thoughts," he says.

    "Don't broadcast them," I suggest, easing my hands up slick skin onto his chest. "It's a little unfair, though. I only get to enjoy us having sex once. You get to experience it twice."

    "It wasn't for now, anyway," he points out.

    "We can fix that."

    "There's a fax coming in from Maloudi regarding Nagi's progress."

    That's news. We haven't heard anything from anyone associated with Rosenkreuz since Alex handed us the keys to this base. I didn't worry because Crawford wasn't worried, not like Crawford honestly worries about anything. In my next life, I want an ego like that.

    Either way, it's enough that I let go of him. Technically, the fax isn't going anywhere and we can shag each other without it having any effect on Nagi's schooling, but now I'm curious. Crawford dries himself off with a small towel and collects his glasses from a small shelf nearby. I hand over his water bottle and follow him back to the main house. The fax machine starts beeping as I shut the door behind me and I'm right on Crawford's heels as we go to investigate.

    It'd be too difficult for us to read at the same time, so Crawford reads first and turns each page over to me as he finishes. Before we left Japan, Maloudi gave us an idea of where Nagi stood and what he thought the boy could accomplish. Now he's letting us know what Nagi's managed to learn since then, and I stare down at each subsequent page with growing surprise.

    "He's really doing it," I say hollowly. "Learning to teleport, I mean."

    Crawford doesn't seem particularly impressed. Maybe it's because Nagi's just started that part of his lessons and he's only allowed to practice teleporting small, inanimate objects like walnuts. "It's not a surprise, considering his rank."

    "Not a surprise to you," I send back. "Not all of us understand what Rosenkreuz's ranks really mean." He hands me the first sheet on Tot then and I grimace. "A shapeshifter?" I ask. "Oh, hell. At least they finally managed to diagnose her."

    "It will make things more difficult for Nagi," Crawford says. "Shifters are almost as rare as telepaths. Rosenkreuz won't want to let her go."

    "As if Nagi would let them keep her," I point out, but it sounds stupid even as I say it. One telekinetic against a well-trained school is shitty odds. It's going to take him forever to figure out how to break her free of their control. I suppose it's a good thing that neither of them is going to die anytime soon.

    "It explains why she was what the serum needed," Crawford muses. "Her body is meant to reproduce and edit itself. Masafumi was able to twist that into a trigger that continuously regenerated cells."

    I sigh a little at that and toss Tot's sheets onto Crawford's desk. It explains a lot, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. That airheaded idiot caused a lot of trouble for us. Childhood trauma shattered her mind and destroyed her gift. Nagi's honest compassion helped pull her mind and gift back together, and Masafumi pounced on her as soon as she was ready. She was the last ingredient needed in the serum that started this newest mess, a serum meant to give Estet's Elders eternal life. Now we finally understand just how a dumbass like her could be such a thing, but it doesn't make me feel any better.

    "Do you suppose Chizuru even understood what she was working with?" I wonder.

    "She rarely understood the full consequences of herů"

    I turn to stare at Crawford, barely noticing the papers that drift out of my nerveless fingers.

    As a rule, Crawford does not trail off.


    It's not a vision, because his shields aren't reacting. He's just completely lost in thought, staring through his desk. I give him a minute, then reach out and wave a hand in front of his face. I half-expect him to bat my hand away, but he just reaches up and catches my hand to still it. I eye him warily, wondering what the hell he's stumbled across that's frozen him like this.

    "Rosenkreuz," he says at last, slowly. "Project Rosenkreuz."


    "She didn't start her blood work with Tot." Crawford finally focuses on me. "She started with you."

    I stare at him, trying to make sense of that and failing. "I'm not following you."

    "Chizuru started in the Far East division." Crawford lets go of me and pulls open the drawer of his desk instead, looking for a notebook. He finds one that has a pen stuck in the coil binding already and flips through it until he finds a blank page, never slowing in his explanation. "Eventually she was moved to Elizabeth's jurisdiction to work in the labs. Her specialty was in helping develop the Pure-bred Rosenkreuz Force Team. Rosenkreuz knew it was losing certain strains of Talents; Project Rosenkreuz was a method of breeding those strains. It started long before Chizuru became a part of it, but they didn't start having any real success until Hoffmann supplied them with a blood sample of yours. He collected it from you the night he tried to kill you. Eventually the entire project was sold to Estet.

    "These groups were not in Rosenkreuz's files," Crawford says, not looking up from his notes. "The Council showed me everything they had on Estet after the Elders' deaths. This is a piece of Estet that's still standing. They've had years to finish fine-tuning these genetic manipulations. We need to find the labs and destroy them."

    "Does it really have anything to do with us?" I ask, catching at his arm to still him. "Let Rosenkreuz deal with it."

    "We killed their Elders," Crawford reminds me. "It has everything to do with us."

    I think about that for a minute, then finally let go of his arm. "Whatever," I say at last. "It's got to be more fun than just studying all day long, anyway. At least it gives me a chance to prove just how damn amazing I've become."

    Crawford doesn't say anything else until he's done jotting down notes, and then he straightens. I collect the papers I dropped earlier and set them down on Crawford's desk. "So what are we going to do?" I want to know. "Nagi's in Rosenkreuz and Farfarello's in hiding. You and me going to take over the world alone or something? We probably could."

    "We might as well utilize the resources we have on hand," Crawford says. "We're moving back to Beijing tomorrow. I want your shields locked in place by tonight."

    "Sure," I agree easily, "but first things first."

    I reach out to catch hold of him, and Crawford doesn't even try to pull free.


    Alex Yun Fat isn't particularly happy to have us on his hands again, but maybe that's just because of the news Crawford brought back with him. The Council ordered Alex to take us in for the next couple months and to give us access to their files. I know they're monitoring absolutely everything we open on their systems, but Crawford and I have nothing to hide. We just spend our days pulling up every record related to Project Rosenkreuz. It's a little sickening to think Chizuru bred telepaths out of my blood. There's only supposed to be one of me. What she did wasn't cloning, but it's close enough to offend me.

    In exchange for Beijing's cooperation, Crawford and I have odd jobs to run with their teams. Crawford uses his precognition for Alex and we both get to do a bit of killing. I don't like following orders that don't come directly from Crawford, but I keep my mouth shut. The work is eye-opening in its own way, because we're smack dab in the middle of seventeen million people and my gift doesn't hurt. It seems impossible after what a nightmare Tokyo became towards the end, but my shields hold.

    I burst out laughing when I notice, earning more than one strange look from our temporary coworkers, but Crawford doesn't even bat an eye. I make sure neither of us gets much sleep that night, since I feel like celebrating and Crawford deserves a nod of some sort for what he's done for my shredded gift. It was one thing to stand on the base and think how seamless my telepathy felt; it's something else entirely to be in Beijing and feel the same.

    Everyone in Alex's office has shields, but those guards don't mean anything to me. I can hear their thoughts without having to poke my way between a single layer. The only mind closed to mine is Crawford's, now that I've put my shields back up between us. Everyone else is an open book and I take great pleasure in letting that slip. None of them appreciate it, but they don't say anything directly to me.

    Not at first, anyway. It takes me four weeks to learn Korean and another eight to learn both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese. That's about the point Alex starts getting really edgy about having me on hand, which is, of course, too late for him to do anything about it. I overhear him telling Crawford that I'm picking things up at an alarming rate. Crawford just nods along, completely unconcerned. As soon as he's finished listening to Alex's rant, he tells me to start absorbing Russian.

    /Russian?/ I ask. /We live in China, you know./

    ~We'll be in Russia soon enough,~ Crawford answers. ~I won't be able to learn it in time. You need to learn it for us.~

    /They don't use it enough here,/ I tell him. /Not like they use Chinese./

    ~When it comes closer to time to go, I will send you ahead of me,~ he says. ~The basics will be enough for now.~

    I accept that without further argument and slide my gift down the hall, wrapping it around the mind of Beijing's Russian representative. He uses Russian only a few times a day here, but I trust Crawford when he says this'll be enough for now. And so, over the course of the next few weeks, I start teaching myself beginner's Russian from Murdock's thoughts.

    And finally, finally, we get a breakthrough.

    "It's insulting thinking they had a research facility that close," Alex says as he and Crawford and I go over the results of our months-long hunt. Estet had a lab in Moscow. It was a pain in the ass for us to find, since Estet never mentioned it or its location. Crawford and I had to cross-reference absolutely everything to pinpoint it, and we never could have done it if Crawford's gift hadn't locked on to my future presence there. The Elders were just too careful. "More insulting that they didn't tell any of us, after everything we dedicated to that organization."

    "It helps prove their ulterior motives," Crawford points out. "They never intended on bringing us into their new future."

    "Why should they, when they could breed us with built-in limitations?" Alex agrees sourly.

    "They were mixing powers years ago," Crawford says. "We cannot allow them to perfect those forms. We have to completely eliminate this project."

    Alex says nothing to that immediately. He just gazes down at the files, not at all pleased with this turn of events. I get the feeling he's never been particularly happy about the news Crawford dumps on his lap. At last the telekinetic rubs at his temples.

    "I'll call the Council," he says. "We will proceed from there." He considers that for a few moments and slants a glance at Crawford. "Well?"

    "Prepare a team," Crawford answers. "The Council had to shut down our team in Russia during the war with Estet. We are the closest branch that can respond to this threat. They will give you authority over as many Talents as you need. I suggest planning on five to six bouncers, anyone who can safely extricate himself from his current station within the week."

    "Any specific powers?" Alex asks.

    "Put your emphasis on pyrokinetics and telekinetics. We will need long-distance fighters."

    "One day I want you to bring me something besides bad news, Crawford," Alex tells him.

    "The shock might kill you," I answer dryly.

    "Just get out," Alex says, pointing at the door. It swings open with that gesture. Crawford and I get to our feet and leave. People are arriving as we leave; Beijing's office never closes. They work in shifts instead to cover every hour of the clock. They've slowly gotten used to seeing us here, and their initial worry and uncertain distrust has given way to faith in Crawford. Old habits die hard, I guess.

    Crawford waits until we get back to our temporary apartment before turning on me. "You'll be leaving in the morning," he tells me. "There are files we need from that facility that the Council will not let us have. The only way we can have them is through Murdock's mind. You have one week to learn the language. Do it."

    "I can do anything," I assure him breezily.

    The look he offers me is almost tolerant. "I know."

    "I can have anything."

    "So you think."

    I don't let myself slow. "And I want to fuck you."

    Crawford actually pauses at that. I stare back at him, watching and waiting, knowing there's a ninety percent chance or more he'll shoot that down. I realized half a year ago that I had a snowball's chance in hell in getting him to say yes, mostly because of what Hoffmann did, and partly because I share the same blood as that sadistic bastard. Trust is a four-letter word and a joke in a world like ours, and I should know better than to even ask for it. Except Schwarz isn't normal, and hasn't been normal ever since Crawford first collapsed a couple years ago. We're the only team Rosenkreuz has that doesn't think twice about leaving our lives in each other's hands; we're the only ones who can bare our throats to each other's knives and know that invitation will be turned down.

    But this is something intensely different, and I feel the line crack as I cross it.

    There are a dozen arguments I could use here, but I keep my mouth shut. I'm not going to fight, not for this. I just stare up at him and wait, refusing to push, but refusing to back down until he tells me to, either.

    Still, seeing Crawford actually hesitate makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. It slams home more than anything else just how long and wrong his relationship with Hoffmann was.

    It is another minute more before Crawford finally moves. He lifts a hand to curl his fingers around my chin and tilts my head back to consider me.

    It feels like forever before he leans in to kiss me. The kiss could be a yes or no and I get the feeling he's leaving it open to interpretation. I reach up, sliding my hands up his jacket. It's a little tricky to get it off without breaking our kiss, but we've got plenty of practice by now. I drop it on the ground behind him and work at his tie next. That's tossed over my own shoulder. He still doesn't touch me anywhere but my face as I undo his buttons one at a time. I struggle for breath somewhere against his throat, shivering a little at the feel of his breath on my ear.

    We leave our shirts on the hallway floor and our shoes just inside the bedroom doorway. I have his belt undone before we make it to the narrow bed and drop it off to one side. I end up crouched in front of him, tasting every bit of bare skin I can reach. He helps pull me up and I straddle his lap to kiss him. I wonder if I'm imagining how tense he is. There's no more hesitation in the hands that work their way up my back, but there's still something there, so distant and concealed it takes me a minute to realize it exists only between our minds.

    That's still enough to stop me. I gaze at the wall past his shoulders for a moment, weighing my options and the consequences of pushing this. In the end there's nothing else I can do but pull back and get to my feet.

    "Don't be a dumbass," I tell him, but he's already catching me by my wrist and pulling me back down. My growled warning is muffled somewhere between us as he crushes my mouth in a hard kiss. That's more the Crawford I know and I react instinctively, leaning forward against him. I know I need to be backing off now, but Crawford doesn't let go and my self-restraint is questionable on a good day. He pulls me down with him, one hand in my hair and the other dragging my hand with his. I stretch out on top of him, knees to either side of his hips so he doesn't have to take my full weight.

    "We can stop," I tell him. "We should."

    "But we won't," he answers easily.

    I give up any attempt at being noble. It didn't really suit me, anyway. It still feels a bit like a fight here, since Crawford doesn't really understand the concept of giving ground, but he never pushes me off of him. We know each other's bodies better than we know our own and we exploit that to the fullest tonight, and in the end, he lets me win. Bare skin to bare skin and I can't stop touching him.

    I know what I'm doing- in theory, anyway. I tell myself I have plenty of time to get really good at it and refuse to let it slow me now. Crawford doesn't stop me when I finally reach down. I reach up with my other hand, brushing sweat-slick bangs out of his face so I can see his eyes. He doesn't even try to break eye contact with me, doesn't even blink.

    Until he can't help it, anyway, and shit, I didn't even know Crawford could make that expression. Watching his entire body jerk when I find the right spot to touch has me trembling all over. My mouth is so dry I can barely breathe, but I can't stop panting any more than I can look away from his face. His fingers dig into my shoulder so hard I think he'll break something, and for a split second, I wish he would, because shit, I want to feel this for a long time.

    I press harder, deeper. Crawford grits his teeth but I still hear him suck in a sharp gasp through them. I practically collapse against him, crushing my mouth against his, wanting to wear down that last bit of self-restraint. We leave half-moon indents along each other's knuckles deep enough to draw blood. I slide my free hand up his thigh, forcing his leg up enough that I can fit. I don't think either of us breathes when I first push into him. I can't feel anything in my right hand anymore where our hands are connected. I feel too much everywhere else. I gasp for breath against his lips, dizzy on sensation. Shit, shit, this is completely different, this is something completely different from everything else we've done.

    "Move," Crawford says against my mouth.

    "Shit," I breathe. "Is that even possible?"

    "Find a way," he says, not quite a suggestion.

    I laugh into our kiss and do just that. It takes a couple tries to get the rhythm right, but Crawford helps guide me and our bodies don't take long to catch on. I do my best to erase every mark Hoffmann ever left on him, burning my touch into him everywhere I can reach, feeling the way our shields slide against each other. And then I feel his shields actually dip as his control slips, and I fall hard up against his core. The impact rocks us both all the way down and I choke on a startled gasp at the feel of our minds right up against each other.

    It's the last push either of us needs and my body follows my mind in collapsing against him. I fight for breath I can't quite catch, shaking all over from the rush. I don't know how long it takes for me to come back to my senses enough to drag myself up out of his shields. It takes me longer to realize I'm a dead weight on top of him. I ease myself up on my elbows to stare down at him. He gazes back at me as we piece our respective shields back together.

    I wonder if it'd be appropriate to say something here, but it's not like I know the words. In the end I give up and just lean down to kiss him again.

    In the end, it's more than enough.

Part 15
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