Part Fifteen

    I'm waiting in the airport when they arrive, bundled up against the cold and past ready for them. I watch as the team makes its way across Arrivals towards me and don't even try to hide the vicious smirk that twitches at my mouth. Crawford and Alex are at the head of five other men. All of them are dressed head-to-toe in black, save for Crawford, of course, who I'm sure has never worn dark clothes in his life. Their stony expressions are a promise of murder and slow deaths and it's fun watching other travelers fall back out of the way. The dead minds don't know what's going on but they're smart enough to know they don't want to be a part of it.

    I've already got our cars ready for us. Alex splits me and Crawford up and I let him because physical distance is meaningless. I know he's not at all happy with Crawford for sending me ahead of them. Crawford had easy explanations for him, mostly concerning how it would be good to have someone on the inside to prepare cars and figure out routes. Alex isn't stupid, though. He knows there's more to it than that, and he hates trying to outguess Crawford. He knows he can't and he hates feeling outwitted.

    I drive in the lead car because I know the way. Crawford drives the second car because he knows how to keep up with my driving and because Alex thinks we can't communicate if we have to pay attention to icy roads. It's not Crawford's mind I want to keep an eye on, though, but Murdock's. They'll expect me to pry at his shields later. If I start now, I have plenty of time to ease my way through so he doesn't feel a thing. I don't have to take anything down to hear him, but I'm going to need to actually manipulate his thoughts later and I can't do that with his shields in the way.

    It's an hour out to the facility and no one in my car says a word. Their thoughts say enough. Crawford and Alex briefed this slipshod team of bouncers prior to leaving Beijing, so they know exactly who and what I am. Just because Beijing's team is used to me by now doesn't mean everyone else is. Beijing tolerates me because I come part and parcel with Crawford, and most of them worked with Crawford years ago. These bouncers are independent and newer agents. The acid distrust in their thoughts amuses me.

    I shield us all as tight as I can and it puts a funny chill in my stomach that I succeed. It's not something I should be able to do- except, apparently, it is. Still, wrapping myself around eight minds, four of them unfamiliar, should do more than just send a warning twinge of strain across my gift. If I can do this, I wonder, what else-

    ~Leave it,~ Crawford murmurs against my mind, distracting me from my dizzying thoughts. ~Telepaths burn out in part because their gifts are too strong for their sanity to keep up, and partly because they cannot help but overthrow their power. We will find your limits slowly and carefully.~

    The mention of burnout is more than enough to keep me from arguing with him and I pull my gift back where it belongs. /Yes boss,/ I taunt him, and he doesn't bother to answer me. I grin out the windshield at the dimming evening.

    Thanks to my shields, we're right up on the facility before they realize we're coming, and they're understandably less than pleased to have guests. There's nowhere near enough time for them to get ready to take us on, not like we think they're any sort of challenge for us. Crawford signals the telekinetics when the firefight is about to start and the three men slam their gifts forward as one, practically vaporizing the bullets that come our way. I drop the stealth shielding around our minds as I wrench the parking brake into place. My gift is already moving, flying out away from me.

    A week in Russia with my shields down to just a sliver around my core isn't much, but it's enough to get me where I need to be. Estet's facility is guarded, but not enough to stop us. They can still make this a complete waste of our time by destroying all of their files. It's worth it to them to lose everything if it means we won't get it. Pity, then, that we won't allow that. It takes me just seconds to find the right minds and I grab them with my gift hard enough to make them see stars.

    /I don't think so,/ I drawl in condescending Russian. /I'm not going to let you do that./

    They fight against my grip, mentally screaming curses and threats. All the vitriol in the world can't get them free of my control, so I ignore the yelling in favor of getting out of the car. The other seven are already in line side-by-side to face the first wave. Fire swirls around us as our lone pyrokinetic gets ready, and the siren is wailing loud enough that I can feel it humming against my skin.

    My gift tells me they're coming, but I still don't expect them to come so fast. A line of uniformed bodies comes flying across the courtyard and I know they've got to have sonic blood in them. They're fast enough to dodge the fire that goes screaming through the air, but speed's got nothing on telekinesis. They're shredded to bits halfway to us. I slap my clip in my gun and then I'm off, digging into my own speed and throwing myself forward at the building. I'm little more than a blur as I go pelting through the blood and skin still sloshing through the air.

    The rest of my temporary team is following, but I don't have time to wait on their slower bodies. I've got the scientists stopped in their tracks, but it won't take long before someone runs to make sure the files are erased. I'm the only one of us that can get there in time.

    I duck around the guards I can outrun and find myself in a game of deadly tag with the ones I can't. Gunshots echo deafeningly loud in the corridor and then we give up on guns to make it a bit more personal. The sonics yell at their companions to keep going, confident they can handle me. I guess four on one sounds like good odds. They're all idiots. I catch a glancing blow against my face from one and return the favor by introducing the bastard's front teeth to the back of his throat. These people are all kids; this close to them I peg them as being maybe fourteen. Punks like them have nothing on me.

    I can't draw my gift back far enough to use it as a weapon here when I can't afford to lose the scientists, so instead I take the sonics with me down the hall. I've managed to lose one, but three are still coming at me and looking more than a little pissed. I laugh in their faces. Crawford doesn't recommend this as a fighting tactic, but I've always loved it.

    I can still hear them, even if I can't twist their minds inside out. That gives me an edge they can't fight against. It's too difficult to use guns here, but I've got a knife. Farfarello would be pleased. Actually, I can't help but think he'd be vaguely annoyed that he missed out on all this fun. I push that to one side to debate over later and focus on my blade instead. Knives have never been my specialty, but that doesn't mean I'm incompetent with one. Besides, even clumsy knives win over bare fists.

    They follow me all the way to the basement stairs and we just barely beat the other guards there. The sonics send them up towards the main door, where the screaming is so loud that it's starting to drown out the alarms. I can hear the roar of fire from here, and metal groans as the telekinetics start tearing the building completely apart.

    /Crawford,/ I send at him, and I throw myself backwards down the stairs.

    The doorway gives out just a second after I'm through it, crushing two of the sonics in the rubble. The third loses a heel. I'm waiting for him when he stubbles and make short work of his throat. I heave his body off of mine to bleed elsewhere and keep going, flying down the stairs as fast as I can before I get caught in the collapsing stairwell.

    I hit the basement floor and roll, purposefully losing my knife along the way so I can shield my head. Dust fills the air thick enough to choke on and I squint through it to make sure the room isn't going to follow the stairwell's lead. There's no way out of here now, at least until a telekinetic comes to unearth us. That suits me just fine, and I push myself to my feet. I sneeze a little on the thick dust and blink it out of my eyes. It's hard to look badass and cool when it's hard to breathe, but I'm sure I'll manage.

    /Jackpot,/ I tell Crawford, turning away from the stairs to face the scientists. They're standing around one of the computers, expressions masks of furious hatred. I offer them a toothy smirk in response to their glares and look around at all of the servers.

    "Nice place you have here," I say in Russian. "Have you gotten my files ready for me yet?"

    "You fucking worthless telepath," one snarls. "Get out of here. You don't belong here."

    "You make a guy feel unwelcome," I chide him as I cross the room towards the three. "We've got plenty of time to fix that attitude of yours. Don't worry."

    They answer that by lunging at me. I duck neatly out of reach. "I'll take those passwords," I insist. "You'll like me a lot more if you just give them to me."

    They start throwing up every mental obstacle they can think of. That gets annoying really fast and I lay one flat with a boot to his gut. "The quicker you cave, the quicker I'll kill you. That's a reasonable offer."

    Apparently it's not, because I have to make a serious mess out of them before I can get them to sit still. Crawford warned me not to kill them, since they're the only three here who know how to get into the systems. I can't break their minds without destroying those codes, so instead I have to beat them as close to submission as I can. I can't do delicate mental work without focusing on them one at a time, but they're not interested in giving me that chance. That means breaking quite a few bones to wear them down, but I've got plenty of time. Now and then I hear the rocks in the stairwell shift, but Alex is supposed to be the one guarding the stairs and I know he's not letting anyone down here until I'm done.

    I move over to the youngest scientist first and crouch in front of his mutilated form. He stars back at me, teary-eyed and bloody and terrified. "Here's the deal one last time," I tell him. "You give me what I want, and I'll kill you quickly. You fight me, and I'll take it by force, tear your mind to shreds, and then kill you. What'll it be?"

    "We do not give in to Rosenkreuz dogs!" another yells at me.

    I look at him and gesture from the youngest to me. "What part of this makes it sounds like I'm talking to you, hm? Shut up." He doesn't listen and continues to spit curses. I gaze at him for a moment before checking the ammo in my gun. "Guess we'll start with you," I say, and I promptly shoot him between the legs.

    I've never heard a man scream like that.

    I push myself up and go to crouch beside him instead, studying his agonized face with merciless green eyes. He's grabbing at the hole where his dick and balls used to be, completely oblivious to my presence. I pry one hand free from chunkified skin and blow a hole through his wrist next. With my gun pressed right up against the skin, it's almost enough to completely sever his hand from his forearm. I consider the remaining tendon, then take his elbow in one hand, his fingers in the other, and give a brutal wrench. His scream makes my ears ring. At least it covers up the sound of his partners' horrified retching. I drop his hand off to one side and catch him by the throat to crush him against the ground.

    "Look at me," I say, trying to get him to focus on my face. He can't; pain and shock are shutting him down quickly. I tighten my grip enough to shut him up. "You know, this kind of slow torture isn't really my thing. It never had to be, because this is Farfarello's job. I'm making a serious exception for you, so fucking listen. You are standing between me and something very important to me. Give me what I want, or I will take all day getting it from you."

    He just shakes his head as best he can. I push my gift into his mind, unraveling it like it's little more than a spool of thread. Half-unconscious with pain, he still fights me. I'm not impressed. I waste another two bullets in his body and he finally gives up. I sink directly to the codes I need and memorize everything I can.

    I draw myself free only after I've sure I've caught everything and quirk an eyebrow at him. At length I shrug. I might need the rest of my bullets later, so I take his throat in both hands and squeeze until I feel vital things give. He goes still at last. I brush blood off on my pants and turn on the balls of my feet to look at the other two.


    Amazing what a little display can do for a guy. The youngest one caves instantly and gets a single bullet as his reward. The last man looks from one body to the other before fear kills loyalty. He gives me what I want without any further fuss and I send him with the others into death.

    I leave them behind in favor of settling down in front of the computer. It takes me forever to log on to the system even with their passwords, mostly because I can't find the damn keys I'm looking for. My work with Murdock and my week in Russia taught me how to speak and understand Russian. It did nothing at all to teach me reading and writing. That's why it's so important for me to get inside Murdock's head, where he can do the reading for me. I didn't anticipate this headache, though. I hunt and peck every letter, silently cursing mankind's perverse pleasure in creating three million different alphabets.

    The screen comes up with a load of unintelligible characters and I throw my hands up at it, knowing better than to even try making sense of it.

    /Got it,/ I tell Crawford, shoving myself up out of the chair and going to slump in another. /Mind getting me out of this coffin now?/

    The team is cleaning up whatever's left of the facility's guards, but Alex is strong enough to unbury me on his own. He brings Crawford and Murdock down with him. Beijing's leader eyes the dead bodies with an almost clinical boredom before glancing my way. I ignore him entirely, for all intents and purposes completely absorbed in reloading my gun. Alex has to know it's a lie, but it's not like it'd help him to send me out of the room.

    Murdock sits in front of the computer and starts navigating the system with ease. I listen closely as he starts downloading everything, doing my best to absorb everything I think we might need. Alex gave him explicit orders to not read anything so long as Crawford and I are nearby, but it's a ridiculous command. The man has to read at least a bit to know what he's looking at and he's human enough that he can't help it when his attention catches on certain things. And with me in his head, there's no way he can stop. They're just the barest whispers against his thoughts, so quiet that they aren't even words, just little tendrils of influence that have him skimming more than he should. I don't know how much Crawford needs to trigger a vision and there's too much at stake here to be sloppy. It's better to grab too much than not enough.

    At length he's finished and he passes the files over to Alex. I watch the discs trade hands without really seeing it; Crawford's mind is humming against mine as his gift flickers. /Safekeeping?/ I ask Crawford, meaning the tradeoff.

    ~He's not going to have them read here,~ Crawford answers. ~He wants them sent to Rosenkreuz.~

    /Away from us,/ I conclude. /The level of trust in this place is astounding./

    Alex tucks the discs into his pocket and starts for the stairs. "We're leaving," he says, and Crawford moves after him. Murdock takes a step that direction and I don't even look at him before stopping him with my arm. He flicks me a wary look that I ignore. I'm more interested in keeping him from cutting me in line. My spot is behind Crawford. It always has been. Some paltry biokinetic isn't going to take it from me.

    We tear the entire place apart on our way out. It reminds me of the night Schreient fell, when Nagi shattered Masafumi's mansion right over our heads. I watch as stone and plaster crumble to uneven piles, trusting the weight of the stones to hide just what we've done to the people who used to work there.

    /Too bad Farfarello wasn't here,/ I muse. /I think he'd have had fun with opponents like those./

    ~He will be back in time for some of it,~ Crawford answers.

    /Shit, really?/ I fish the keys out of my pocket. We didn't bother to lock our car doors before the fight, so I pull the driver's door open and drop myself into the seat as gracelessly as I possibly can. /I kind of thought he'd be excited to vanish into obscurity./

    ~If he was Talentless, perhaps,~ Crawford says as everyone else climbs into the cars. ~Without powers, dead minds would be more than enough of a distraction. With a gift that strong, he's going to need something more challenging to quench his thirst for blood.~

    /Looks like this will be perfect for him, then./ I twist the key in the ignition. I can't afford to share what I learned while we're driving, since Crawford needs to be able to pay attention to the road, so I keep my stolen intel until we're back at the airport. I take both key rings to the rental counter, but my mind stays close by Crawford's, spreading everything I've snatched. I feel supremely victorious when I feel the fierce ripple of his gift.

    That is, until he finally speaks again.

    ~You have to reach Nagi,~ Crawford tells me. ~The Council cannot see the files on the middle disc yet.~

    /That means going to Austria,/ I say. It's the last country in the world I want to step foot in and Crawford knows that. Crawford just looks at me. I scowl and look away, already knowing I'm going to go. /Jackass./

    ~The serum's cure is in those files,~ Crawford says, and that brings me up short. ~Not explicitly, but they will lead us there.~

    I stare at him, turning that announcement over and over in my head and warring against a year's worth of repressed memories. Blue eyes flash in my mind above a cruel smile. I blink hard, burning it away beneath the memory of Hoffmann's blood. That melts directly into the blood that had smeared across Crawford's and my knuckles.

    ~There will be a contact in the airport,~ Crawford tells me. ~You can find directions to Rosenkreuz in his mind. Keep your distance from the school; you cannot afford for them to notice you.~

    /That warning sounds a little redundant when you're talking to me./

    ~I will meet you in Romania in two days. I have to tidy things up here first.~

    I hesitate a few seconds more, but it's easier than I expected to give in.

    /Two days, then,/ I say, and I don't let myself slow. I just disappear into the crowd, cutting my way away from the group. I can hear Alex's angry thoughts as he demands explanations, but Crawford isn't interested in answering to him. /Lay a finger on him,/ I dare Alex, my mental voice little more than a deadly purr. /No one will ever find you again./

    His response makes it clear he's not intimidated. That's on his head. I know Alex isn't going to hurt Crawford, though. I don't think he dares, at least not without a direct order from the Council, and Crawford wouldn't leave himself here as a sacrifice of some sort.

    There aren't any flights to Vienna leaving in the next couple hours, but there is one to Paris and that's close enough. It won't be any trouble to get from one to the other and I have plenty of time. Alex isn't going to fly Murdock straight there from Moscow; after a sting like this he wants his team back in Beijing first.

    I breeze straight past security and I'm just a blur on my way across the terminal. My flight has just finished boarding and the door is already closed, but that doesn't stop me. A few sharp orders are enough to get the door open again. I kick a passenger out of his first-class seat and send him to economy to find something else.

    It's five hours to Paris. The timing is better than I could have hoped for: the last plane to Austria for the night leaves in an hour. I putter around the airport doing my best not to think about Rosenkreuz. I don't even remember what the school looks like, since I wasn't coherent for most of my stay there. I don't remember anything about it, really, except for Hoffmann and Ikida and Crawford and a hell of a lot of pain. My body remembers what my mind can't, though, so I stare out the windows at the planes on the tarmac and work on not getting sick.

    The hard part turns out not to be getting on the Vienna-bound plane, however, but getting off on the other side. I stand in Arrivals with my fists crammed in my pockets and my shoes cemented to the ground, completely unable to move.

    ~Crawford, you are full of dumb fucking ideas,~ I think acidly.

    The only thing that gets me moving is Rosenkreuz's contact. I feel the man's thoughts focus on me with an alarming quickness and I snap my gaze that way. We're close enough that I can watch the blood drain out of his face and I offer him a wicked smile before crushing his mind beneath mine. I take what I need and erase what I don't want, and he's convulsing with seizures before I've even turned away. He'll recover, because I don't want to leave a dead body behind, but he won't remember seeing me.

    I drive with the windows up and the heater on full blast, trying to warm the growing chill out of my blood. I only spare half a mind for the road; the other half is busy putting together the bond that fell when we all split up. I can piece it back together, but it's hard holding it in place when its pillars are missing. I force it to stay when it'd rather collapse, reinforcing it with pure power and the mental signatures of my teammates. It feels strange when Crawford's mind isn't here to anchor it against, but it'll have to do for now. As soon as I know it's not going to fold in on itself, I drop my shields enough to broadcast it. With it keyed in to such specific minds and with Rosenkreuz so desperately low on telepaths, I'm hedging my bets on no one being able to notice it but Nagi. The question is, then, whether he'll notice it before any empaths or precogs notice me.

    I'm an hour out from the airport when I get my answer.

    It's been thirteen months now since Nagi and I were last close enough to touch like this, but his mind seals up against mine with the ease of long association. He sounds startled as hell to hear from me again, but I barely hear his query. I'm too struck by how different his mind feels.

    ~Schuldich?!~ Nagi tries again when I don't answer him.

    /You finally hit puberty or something?/ I ask, pulling the car off the side of the road now that I'm close enough to reach him. I fold my arms across the steering wheel and prop my chin on them, gazing out into the distance. I'm grinning like an idiot and I wonder if it's more because I've surprised him or because I can finally put a proper distance to my gift's range. I'm shielded as tight as I can be around this bond and I can still reach him. I'm an hour and a half out from the school. An hour and a half! Hell. Some days it's so good to be an 8.

    We drop simultaneously into the darkness that served as our meeting room when we were trying to figure out how to one-up Rosenkreuz and Estet. Seeing him is almost as startling as hearing him. We appear here as we see ourselves and Nagi looks much older now than he did last year. He looks worn out, too.

    "You're not at Rosenkreuz," Nagi says.

    "Like bloody hell," I answer. "I'm not that stupid." He says nothing to that, seemingly content to just stare back at me. I eye him in turn, taking in the way he looks leaner and taller. Even his hair's grown out some, and it looks really weird on him. "Maloudi told Crawford you're working on teleportation. Guess that would have been helpful a couple years back when you were floating serums halfway across Tokyo."

    "Just a bit," he agrees, rubbing at his face. His image flickers in his exhaustion. Idly I wonder what time it is. I didn't even think to check. "It's draining, but I think I'm getting the hang of it."

    "You have another twelve hours to perfect it," I inform him. "Estet's still got facilities up and running under the radar. Crawford and I are trying to hunt them down; Crawford thinks one of them has what we need to get your blood back to normal. The Council isn't going to want to let us in on it, though, until they understand exactly what it all is."

    I've got his undivided attention now, but his concern is primarily for Tot. I try not to smile just thinking about what this school's got to be doing to a dumbass airhead like her. "There's a man stopping by the school tomorrow to deliver three discs. Crawford says we need them to lose the middle one. You get to play magician and get that disc away from him. How far out can you teleport?"

    "Not far enough to get it to you," Nagi admits.

    "That's fine," I assure him. "I don't care if you plant it in the middle of a concrete wall. You just have to get it away from them. If they reach that data before Crawford and I sort out his visions, we're not going to get there in time."

    Nagi considers that for a long moment, not wanting to agree until he's confident he can handle it. At last he nods. "I'll do it."

    We go back to doing the silent staring thing for a few minutes more. Nagi's the first to break. "How much longer are we going to be here?" he asks quietly. I don't have an answer for that, so I say nothing. "It's helpful," he says at length. "It really is. I'm learning a lot about my gift that I didn't think I would. So is Tot. But it's still…"

    "You're not going to get stuck there," I promise him. "Remember who you're talking to. We'll get you out of there. We just need you to be ready first. We're going to be going up against genetically mutated Talents and we're not going to be able to do all of it with Rosenkreuz at our back. We're all training, you know. We've all got to get better."

    "Yeah," he agrees quietly.

    The silence feels awkward this time. I shove my hands in my pockets and try to think of something to say. "You bang Tot yet?" I finally ask, just to rile him. "You're seventeen now, aren't you? Finally old enough?"

    "Mind your own business."

    "It's more fun to mind other people's."

    "It's not like you even really want that answer."

    "Oh, hell. It's a yes, isn't it?"

    The stony look he offers me tells me the distance between us isn't enough to protect me if I continue harassing him. I almost ignore it, except I'm not really sure what a level 8 telekinetic can do. I didn't even know he was supposed to be able to teleport himself, for crying out loud.

    "You hate school yet?"

    "No," he says. I don't know if it's the truth or if he's lying just to be stubborn. "I'm going to want a vacation when this is all over, though, before I can face going back to regular classes. You and Crawford should come along."

    "That sounds absolutely thrilling. Kind of like a fairy tale ending on hallucinogens and cyanide."

    "Don't be an asshole, Schuldich."

    "Too late," I remind him. He flickers again and I draw myself up out of the room enough to see the clock on my dashboard. It's almost three o'clock in the morning. I drop back down to where he's waiting on me. "Go back to sleep. We'll come for you when it's time. Just keep an eye out."

    "We'll be here," he answers, emphasizing the plural.

    "Yes, yes," I say, waving that aside. It's not like I'm stupid enough to think we can get him free without bringing her with him. The dumb kid has bent over backwards so many times for that fluff that there's no way we can separate them now. It's just not physically possible. "We'll get both you and the Tater Tot."

    "We'll be here," he says again, less of a warning this time and more of a grim resignation to his and Tot's fate. "We'll be ready."

    "It'll be worth it," I promise him with a vicious smile. "I get the feeling these people are going to be fun."

    "When you say things like that, I start getting worried."

    "Untrusting jerk."

    "Reckless psychopath."

    "Bunny fucker."

    Nagi has his mouth open to respond, then hesitates. "Are you and Crawford…?"

    "Now who's being nosey?" I ask, arching an eyebrow at him. He just gazes back, waiting on a more definitive answer than that. I think about blood and kisses and heat and can't quite stop the smirk that twitches at the corner of my mouth. Nagi sees it, judging by the way he relaxes a little. "Later, brat."

    "Goodbye," he answers quietly, and I take the room apart.

    I come back to myself in the car. It's a long minute before I twist the key in the ignition and turn the car around. It's not that hard to get myself flying down the road away from Rosenkreuz, though it feels a little weird leaving Nagi behind. He's still got work to do, though, and I know we'll be seeing him in a few months.

    I don't bother to turn the car back in at the airport. Instead I keep driving until dawn, going wherever the road will take me, my thoughts focused on two days from now.

Part 16
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