Part Seventeen

    I keep us shielded until we reach the school grounds. Weiss already took out the security system so they could get inside, courtesy of Kudou's unwitting contact. It's no trouble at all for us to push open the front gate and just stroll in. The path is wide enough for us to walk side by side, Farfarello and I to either side of Crawford. We're just a few steps past the gate when I pull our shields down, and Farfarello and I both feel the psychics react.

    They were expecting us. Rosenkreuz has taken out Indigo Brow Business College and Lintels Preparatory School already. Weinrote and Koua had to know they would be next, though the five weeks of silence since the loss of the other facilities gave them a false hope of safety. We're fine with crushing that hope. All the preparation in the world cannot save them from us.

    Weinrote is three-fourths students, sons and daughters of European politicians. The last fourth are experiments. Estet thought Project Rosenkreuz was taking too long breeding Talents from birth. These schools are their attempts to breed the power into already-living subjects. Looks like they've finally started getting the hang of it after so many years. There are a lot of them here, and while they're not that strong, they're still above the level we found in Moscow.

    I let my gift ripple across their minds, pressing up against their shields in a mocking greeting. They've worked with F enough to know what telepathy was. I'm the last thing they expected to show up on their doorstep and I taste their alarm.

    "Upwards of fifty," I report. Farfarello's blades hiss as he pulls them free, or maybe that's his breath through his teeth. I look past Crawford at him and smirk at the hungry look of anticipation. I shift my gaze to Crawford next. "F isn't here yet."

    "They will be," he answers.

    An alarm sounds as one of the researchers pulls it. Weiss isn't expecting it and thinks they've been found out. That just stirs them to move faster. We have to trust that they'll get to the data in time. We've got enough to deal with. The students are being evacuated down to the bomb shelters, confused and thinking it's a drill. An explosion rocks across the school grounds, detonated by Hidaka, and the students realize it's not a test at all.

    Panic washes everything else out and Farfarello shudders a little as it spikes bright against his shields. I pull my gun from its holster and check the clip. The only people not leaving are the researchers and the experiments. The researchers stay where they are, ready to defend their projects to the death, and the psychics start our way. I refuse to call them Talents when they're a blemish on our existence. They're not pure. They're useless.

    Crawford draws his own gun. "Kill all of them."

    Farfarello and I go ahead of him as twin angels of death. It feels familiar and good after so long without a real Schwarz. I know my teammate's mind inside and out; I know what drives him. I know what to expect from him in a fight, and I know how to work around him. So what if there's just three of us against fifty-plus? We back our fierce mental strength up with history, and they can't touch that.

    The sonics are, predictably, the first wave out. I laugh when I hear them coming and throw myself forward, letting the school blur around me. The first batch is only five-strong, the closest ones to the door. Unfortunate, pitiful bastards. My gift cuts through shields with every step I take, splintering their view of me, shattering their concentration to the point that not even their speed-adapted eyes can follow me. Another bomb goes off, deafening all of us and drowning out the sound of my gun. They struggle to pull their shields back together, firing blindly. Farfarello keeps coming calm as you please, not at all worried and in no hurry to steal my fun from me.

    The second wave of sonics reaches us. They falter for just a second when they realize one flame-haired man is completely decimating their classmates. One of my toys has enough presence of mind to scream at them to go ahead.

    The seven are stupid enough to listen, and Farfarello is waiting on the other side.

    Nothing is quite loud enough to drown out their screams of horror and panic.

    I have more of an edge than Farfarello does, since I have no problems at all with using my gifts here. Farfarello is used to using his empathy after having it awake in his veins for a year and a half now; it's so much a piece of him now that using it comes automatically. He fights to keep it back, however, wanting to go back to how things used to be. It's kind of foolish taking on seven sonics with just blades, but Farfarello's always had his own particular brand of retardation and I'm not going to stop him. I'm more interested in killing the five around me.

    Crawford walks right past Farfarello and the bleeding seven, then me and what's left of my group. He's firing before the next face appears in the doorway, and the timing is perfect. I laugh as he practically blows the heads off of the next two to try and make it outside; they never even realized he was there.

    The ground rocks under another explosion and the night is red and black with fire. I hear buildings groaning in the distance where Hidaka's explosives are pulling them down. It's distracting the psychics and they're starting to split up, wanting to investigate both sources of trouble. I lash out with my telepathy, snagging every psychic I can feel and forcing their attention back to where we are.

    /The fight is over here, assholes,/ I say. /Unless you're afraid to take on Schwarz./

    Oh, they know that name.

    Fury wipes everything else out and they all turn back our way. I guess someone told them who took their precious Elders out.

    "Farfarello," I call, but I know he can feel it more keenly than I can. I kill the last of the five and am at Crawford's side an instant later, firing my gun in a steady line from left to right from the doorframe out across the polished wood façade. Psychics yell and scream in pain as I get them through the wall, placing them by their minds, and Farfarello shows up at my side. I'm going to assume that most of the blood on him isn't his, seeing as he's still standing.

    And there it is, exactly what we wanted to feel: Rosenkreuz F.

    "They're coming," I tell Crawford, raising my voice to be heard over our gunshots. Glass shattering almost drowns me out as throw themselves out of the second-floor windows. Farfarello is ready for them, and the heads-up on the project's approach makes him slip in his control. Four psychics burst midair where his gift explodes through them. "Careless!" I yell at him, all amused mockery, and he steadfastly ignores me.

    A second later, telepathy slams up against us. It's just a wordless burst of power, because Chizuru's telepaths can't reach outside of their own minds once they've networked to their teams. That doesn't really matter. I go perfectly still at the feel of it against my shields. I can barely remember what telepaths feel like anymore, since the last time I crossed paths with them was when they were putting my mind back together in Rosenkreuz. The mind that's attacking me now is too strong for how young the child is, but not strong enough to get through shields like ours.

    It almost doesn't have to be, because it's still enough to catch me off guard. Not just because of what it is, but because of whose it is. Telepaths have mental signatures. All minds do, really. We have to have nuances between our minds; it's what helps us telepaths find ourselves again. It helps us tell each other apart and gives us back some control, or so Crawford told me during his lessons years and years ago.

    This telepath, though, was bred from my blood.

    Branwyn's telepathy feels just like mine.

    I can hear that angry surprise from him as our gifts and shields crash together, and then it explodes into horrified confusion when our powers completely mesh. I shake my head hard, trying to separate the lines between him and me. I can feel him trying to pull back, but he isn't sure how to anymore.

    I turn away from the fight, leaving the psychics to Crawford and Farfarello, and stare off into the night towards Rosenkreuz F. His gift claws at mine as he tries to free himself. I consider this unwelcome heads-up for a couple seconds more before reaching out, digging my gift into the bond I have with Farfarello and Crawford. I can feel the borders between our minds now. I grab the younger telepath and throw him out of my mind as hard as I can.

    A second later, I feel his network with his teammates shatter. I make a mental note to smack Crawford when we're through here. He hadn't said anything about the telepaths being able to change the way their power works. Everything we've found so far backs up the assessment that the telepaths are practically useless due to their bonds. I have to wonder if the rules have changed because I'm here.

    /What the fuck are you?/ Branwyn demands.

    /The original,/ I answer, starting back down the sidewalk towards the gate. /You're just a pale imitation./

    He can't say anything to that. I flick my gift back towards my lover. /Crawford, his gift is waking up,/ I warn him. /Our powers are connecting. The hell?/

    ~Is his bond broken?~ Crawford asks. Even though his voice is right there against my mind, it's hard to hear him when the bombs are going off in earnest now. Psychics are still screaming as Farfarello and Crawford work their way through them. I keep half a mind on the approaching team, testing the way the four of them feel.

    /Cut through,/ I answer grimly.

    ~He is finished,~ the precog tells me. ~It's what kept him balanced. He doesn't know how to survive without it. He's going to start unraveling.~

    He's going to go mad, Crawford means.

    And despite the fact that we've come here specifically to kill this team, I taste bile at that easy assessment. As a telepath myself, I can't help it. It's going to be ugly. More than that, it means I have to feel in him exactly what it would feel like for me. He's going to die the end I just barely escaped countless times.

    /You stupid little asshole,/ I send at the telepath. /What the fuck did you break your bonds for?/

    /Why did I-/ he starts, furious that I'm questioning him, still a little scared of what's going on. He never finishes that sentence, because he's just reached range of the school. Psychics are dying one after the other and their shields are cracking as they die. Branwyn tore his shields up unwittingly when he let go of his teammates, and he has absolutely nothing to protect him against either the psychics or the students here. /Jeremiah,/ he says desperately, shooting the thought at his empath leader. /Jeremiah, it's too loud!/

    ~What have you done?~ the empath demands, startled.

    I still remember how it felt each and every time my gift started falling apart. I don't even realize I'm moving until I've thrown the gate open again. I'm running down the street as fast as I can go.

    /Come *here*,/ I order Branwyn. /Get your retarded suicidal ass over here./

    He doesn't listen to me; he can barely hear me as he starts to panic. Everyone's minds are digging into him, ripping away his control and common sense. I feel him slip and slide in my head. I taste blood and death and fight against the memory of slush-filled streets. I hear my mother screaming and blink hard against bright blue eyes.

    I can't listen to him die like this. It'll drive me mad.

    /COME HERE./

    It's a direct slam from my gift to his and he can't ignore it now. Jeremiah stopped the car when Branwyn started freaking out, which means the telepath is free to get out. He starts running in my direction, not anywhere near as fast as I can move, but fast enough. Desperation has him moving to meet me, even if it means moving closer to the minds that are tearing his apart. He should know better than to approach me, but he's past the point of common sense and running on terror and a need to survive. The telekinetic tries to stop him. I snap my gift out past Branwyn and hit F with it, splintering their shields.

    ~A telepath?~ the pyrokinetic sputters. ~Branwyn? Branwyn?!~

    The child comes pelting out of the darkness, running down the street with his hands knotted in his hair and his mask an expression of pain. The closer he gets to me, the more my shields seem to buffer him, but it's not going to be enough. He can't see me when I'm moving like this and I don't stop until we've run into each other. The speed takes him off his feet and crushes the breath out of him. I catch him with an arm around his waist, in part to keep him from falling down, in part to pull him close enough to make sure my bullets hit home.

    One would be enough. I use three.

    His mind goes blank after the first but I still squeeze the trigger twice more, just to make sure. His blood splashes against the asphalt at my feet and I stare past him at the puddle. My gift is roiling in my head, on edge thanks to the illusion that it was falling apart.

    Fuck Chizuru and Estet, anyway.

    I suck in a ragged breath and close my eyes against the night, breathing in Germany and death and years of nightmares.

    ~You're still here,~ Crawford says, a calm presence at the back of my gift. I relax back against the link between us, letting his shields help settle my shaken nerves.

    /What the fuck were they playing at?/ I ask. /What the fuck else did they expect?/

    ~They didn't care,~ Crawford answers. ~All that mattered was perfecting the experiments.~

    I think about the four schools we're working on taking apart. /The project dies with the schools./

    ~Yes,~ he confirms.

    I can't stop telepaths from being born across the world; I can't stop Rosenkreuz from finding them. I can't stop their minds from collapsing whether they're found or not. But I can stop this. I'll watch Estet's schools collapse to a bad memory, and I'll see their research go up in smoke. I won't allow this. Not my gift. Not my mind. Not my shields.

    I leave Branwyn in his blood and lift my gaze to the car. Rosenkreuz F is just a ways further down the road and I belatedly recognize the crackle of Farfarello's power that means he's stopping Jeremiah from hurting me. The telekinetic and pyrokinetic were holding back, not wanting to catch Branwyn in the crossfire, but now there's nothing to stop them.

    ~Move,~ Crawford says. I throw myself back the way I came. Fire just barely misses when it explodes where I was just standing. ~Shake the kinetic.~

    I fracture the telekinetic's shields, ensuring he's not going to block my way out, and go right back up the road to where I've left my teammates behind. F follows as we knew they would, and I find Farfarello and Crawford making short work of the last of the psychics. A flicker of my gift shows Weiss retreating, data in tow, and I report that success to Crawford. All that's left to deal with is what's left of the team.

    Farfarello gives me an odd look when I slow to a stop beside them. /Shut up,/ I warn him viciously.

    He ignores that. ~Why are you afraid?~

    /I said shut up./

    ~I told you I will not let you reach that end,~ Crawford says calmly. Farfarello slides his gaze that way, but neither of us acknowledge that look. I just stare back at Crawford, soaking up everything I can of him to try and ease that wrenching feeling in my stomach. Looking isn't enough, and I decide to forget Farfarello's there. I press myself up against Crawford, staining his precious suit with blood and leaving streaks of gore in his dark hair. He lets me pull him into a hard kiss without fighting.

    /Neither of us is going to die like that,/ I promise him in a hard voice.

    I feel his shields shiver against mine and his fingers tighten around the base of my skull. ~I will hold you to that.~

    There's more to that than what it sounds like and I lean back to give him a sharp look. /What does that mean?/

    ~Berger has your gift,~ Crawford says. ~Judging by tonight's display, there are some previously unforeseen consequences concerning that detail.~

    I frown at that, but there's no more time to push for answers now. F has made it to the campus. I pull back from Crawford, ignoring the way Farfarello is still watching us, and set myself between my teammates. We face each other three on three, Schwarz and three kids, and the battle is decided before it's even begun.

    "I will do this," Farfarello says, finally turning away from me. "Then you will owe me a favor."

    "Sounds good," I answer.

    It's kind of anticlimactic, watching his gift hit them. They burst into shredded little bits that scatter all over the courtyard, and we're finally alone as the supreme victors. We won't be alone for much longer, judging by the wailing of fire engines. We leave the frightened students in the bomb shelter after a cursory flick of my mind confirms that there aren't any psychics in the bunch.

    Crawford gets in the driver's seat, but Farfarello catches my elbow before I can get in on the passenger's side. I follow him into the backseat instead and Crawford drives us away from there. I ignore my buckle in favor of turning to face Farfarello. He plants one hand on the cushion between us and leans forward, getting right in my face.

    "Break my gift."

    "…What?" I ask.

    "It was broken before. Break it again."

    "Are you stupid?!"

    He catches me by my throat and slams me against the back window. Crawford doesn't look back at us, but Farfarello flicks him a sneer just the same before turning back on me. "I want it gotten rid of," he says. "I don't want to be able to touch it anymore. It's boring. It makes things too easy."

    "You weren't really using it tonight," I point out, testing his grip on my neck. "Just stop using it so much if you don't like it." He just looks at me, because both of us know it's impossible to ignore our powers, especially when they're this strong. "You're asking me to crack your mind. I won't."

    "You will," Farfarello says dangerously, "or I'll crack it myself."

    I have my mouth open to call that bluff, but Crawford speaks just in time: "Schuldich."

    The words die on my tongue and I stare blankly at Farfarello, realizing he's dead serious. Either I shatter those shields and crush them deep enough to swallow his gift, or he tries doing it himself. If I do it, I risk driving him mad again. If he does, he could kill himself in the process. He knows that, but he doesn't care. Farfarello finds pleasure in very few things in life and the ultimate source has always been murder. His gift has robbed him of that, turning his hunts into easy scores.

    "I don't know how," I say slowly. "There's nothing that says it'll work, or that there'll be anything of you left."

    "You'll try anyway."

    I don't say anything to that, but I don't have to. Farfarello can feel my response just fine. His grip tightens on me. "I don't want to feel anything anymore," he says flatly. "I am tired of it."

    /Crawford, he can't be serious./

    ~He is.~

    /And you're not at all bothered by this?/ I demand incredulously.

    ~This is what he wants,~ Crawford answers.

    /You sure you're not agreeing just to get an empath out of your shields?/

    That earns me a cool look and I bare my teeth at Crawford in response. "Give him time to think about it," Crawford says out loud. Farfarello sends him a hooded look, but he must read some sincerity in it, because he doesn't argue that Crawford's trying to sideline his wish. The Irishman lets go of my throat and eases back into his seat, relaxing against the window. The look he sends me is expectant before he turns his attention on cleaning his blades.

    /No fucking way am I doing it./

    ~It's not your mind.~

    /I'm not breaking his shields./

    ~If you don't, he will,~ Crawford says, ~and he will destroy himself in the process. He will die within a couple of days and you won't be able to stop it. You can put him back together again if you're the one to break him.~

    I refuse to answer that. The rest of the drive back to our hotel is silent. I sleep on the chair that night because I refuse to sleep in the same bed as Crawford. I have nightmares about Germany and Hoffmann. Farfarello wakes me up when it starts bleeding over into his gift and I spend the rest of the night sitting on the curb right out front.

    "You're being stupid," I tell Farfarello when he approaches me around dawn. "How can you want such a thing?"

    "I do," he says, which isn't really an answer. He crouches in front of me so he can stare me in the face. "Tell me yes. What are you so afraid of?"

    "Shut up," I say, sliding my gaze away from him.

    He folds his arms across his knees and waits for me to acknowledge him again. Every minute that drags by silent between us just tells me I'm going to have to give in to this. I don't want to, but it's worse for all of us if I refuse.

    "You're a selfish little asshole," I tell him at last.

    He lifts one shoulder in a shrug. "So are you." I scowl at him. He stares back impassively. "Say yes."

    ~We have updates from Kritiker,~ Crawford says.

    I push myself to my feet and go inside. I half-expect Farfarello to stop me, but he follows me up the stairs to our hotel room. Crawford is hanging up with mini-Takatori when we arrive and the faint crackling tells me coffee is almost ready. I don't acknowledge either of my teammates until I've stolen a mug of it.

    "Well?" I ask.

    "It's time to finish things," Crawford says. "Weiss is getting ready to move and will be in position by the end of the week. At this time, Rosenkreuz D is still in Korea with the final lab. They will move to Koua to protect the projects, as Koua holds the most important research. Schuldich and I will take the lab apart and continue on to Japan from there. You have a different task," he says, turning on Farfarello. Farfarello gazes back at him, a lazy challenge in his one-eyed stare, a reminder that Crawford does not give him orders anymore. Crawford doesn't slow, confident that his offer is enough to earn Farfarello's obedience.

    "You need to retrieve Nagi and Tot from Rosenkreuz."

    Farfarello arches a brow at that. "Hoo?" he muses, considering that.

    I hold up my hands, spreading them. "Empath," I say, lowering one hand and raising the other. I tip my head at the higher one. "School of Talents. How exactly do you expect him to do that?"

    "Nagi and Tot are approaching the completion of their studies," Crawford answers. "The Council has no choice but to give them a field test. There will be ten students and four instructors. You will find them in the mountains in five days. The trick to an easy in and out," he says with quiet emphasis, "is to not kill any of them."

    Farfarello smiles at that, just a cold little curve of his lips that screams 'Fuck that' loud and clear.

    "Rosenkreuz's precognitives will know there's something wrong with the excursion," Crawford continues. "Their blindness to your power means they will underestimate their visions so long as you go there with the intent to let the rest of the group walk away alive. If you show up on a hunt, they will see you coming, and there will be a larger group to contend with."

    Farfarello continues to gaze back at him, waiting for Crawford to convince him that it's a bad thing.

    I look towards Crawford, expecting him to push the argument, but Crawford flicks his fingers in dismissal. "As you please," he says. It's a huge concession on his part; it means he understands he is not Farfarello's superior officer anymore. It catches both me and Farfarello off guard. Farfarello's gold eye narrows a bit as he tries to figure out what game Crawford is playing, but his gift can read the sincerity of Crawford's apathy.

    What Crawford says next, though, is the real kicker: "If you retrieve Nagi and Tot for us, Schuldich will break your gift."

    I have my mouth open to argue with that, but I can't get anything out. They're both looking at me: Crawford, expectant, and Farfarello, demanding. I look from one to the other, thinking about Crawford's warning.

    "Fuck both of you," I say.

    "Agree," Farfarello insists.

    It takes a lot of work to get the words out. "Whatever," I say at length. "Just retrieve the kid and his poofy tagalong and get them to Japan."

    "I will not bring the girl."

    "She's part of the deal," I argue. "If you leave her behind, I won't do a damn thing for your shields." Farfarello curls his lip at me scornfully. I glare back at him. "Leave them alone. I promised Nagi we'd get them both out of there."

    "Your mistake."

    "We will look for them in Japan in one week," Crawford tells Farfarello. "If they are both there, we will shut down your gift."

    "Agree," I send back at the Irishman, all lilting, angry mockery.

    He thinks on that for a few moments, but we all know the decision is already made. "Both of them," he says at last, "and you will do this for me."

    "Your funeral," I mutter, but there's no going back on it now.

    I've noticed that applies to a lot of what we've been doing these days.

    Five days later, we part ways at the airport: Farfarello to head to Austria, and Crawford and me on our way to Korea.

    Two more fights and Estet will be dead. We'll have the cure we need to get Nagi and Tot back to normal. And finally, finally, we'll be able to write Rosenkreuz out of our lives for good.

    "Regrets?" I ask Crawford as I watch the runway blur beneath us.

    Crawford looks almost arrogantly amused by that question, and that vague smirk tells me everything I need to know. "Not a single one."

Part 18
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