DAS EWIGE DASEIN
The lab is in the process of being evacuated when we show up. Three of four schools have fallen now; the researchers aren't going to risk anything. They want out of here as fast as possible. Unfortunately for them, their fast isn't fast enough. Unfortunately for us, Rosenkreuz D isn't there. We've just missed them. Crawford meant for us to.
They're gone- but they're still close enough for Berger and me to feel each other. Our gifts hit halfway to the lab and I know as soon as I feel him that he's not another Branwyn. That kid was still a level five. Berger is a strong seven. Geisel is a six, whereas Layla registers as an eight. I think I understand now why Crawford is content to wait and fight them when we're a complete team again.
Their minds burn against mine, sharp and hot. Berger has my telepathy and my mental signature. He has a link to his team that's similar to what I have with Schwarz. That network registers in my gift as if it's mine and I feel his telepathy hiss along my ties to Crawford. I think I understand now what Crawford meant when he said my DNA had unforeseen consequences. I scowl out at the night, refusing to accept the feel of another telepath's mind testing Crawford's shields.
I reach out with my gift, threading a line between Berger and myself, temporarily knotting our networks together. Layla and Geisel don't notice it at first, since my gift feels just like Berger's as it cruises across their minds.
Berger can't miss it. /Who do you think you are?/ he demands coldly.
/Who do you think you are?/ I return easily. That brings the other two up short, but I tune out their startled demands in favor of listening to the telepath. /What makes you think you have a right to exist?/
/I am Berger of Rosenkreuz./
/Lies,/ I send back easily. /You are Berger of a test tube./
/Who are you?/ he presses.
/Why don't you ask Branwyn that?/ I ask. /Oh, wait./
His mental voice is furious. /You killed our brothers./
/It was pathetically easy,/ I answer. /It'll be just as easy to kill you. Run now if you must. We'll catch up to you in no time at all. Just promise us you won't run from us next time Schwarz comes calling on you./
/Schwarz,/ he says slowly, testing the name against his memory. I find it interesting that he has no clue who we are. I don't bother to enlighten him. He has a day and a half to do the research on his own. /We are looking forward to tearing you completely apart./
/Promise,/ I say breezily, and I rip the link apart hard enough to bruise his mind. It separates our network from theirs and I ignore the brief twinge of dizziness. I turn my gaze away from the windshield to look at Crawford.
"That's going to cause problems," I say.
It's not quite a question, but Crawford confirms it with a nod. "Our minds are all keyed in to recognize your gift."
"Good thing no one can get through your shields, then." I rake my hair out of my face. "Should prove fun, I guess."
Crawford doesn't answer that. Much later I'll kick myself for not noticing that silence. For now I'm more interested in turning my thoughts towards the lab. It's almost pitifully easy to take it apart upon our arrival. Most of the staff has already cleared out, retreating to Japan to take up a last stand at Koua. Everyone who's left gets a bloody sendoff into death. Crawford checks the systems just to confirm that everything has been cleaned out and then we take the entire place apart.
We watch it burn to the ground just to make sure it's completely destroyed. We're still there when the police arrive, but my gift won't let them touch us. They don't even remember seeing us, so we take our time getting back to the car and to the airport. We make it back with plenty of time to catch the next flight to Japan after Berger's.
"We move around too much," I declare as I follow Crawford through security. "Once we're back in Japan, we're not going anywhere for at least a year."
"As you wish," he answers easily.
"Nagi thinks we should all take a vacation. Do you even know what a vacation is?"
"China was a vacation."
"China was not a vacation. We were doing serious work. Sometimes. Around lots of sex."
"It was close enough to count."
"I could kick you from here."
"I know," he agrees, not at all intimidated.
I eye him, wondering whether or not it's worth it to go through with that threat. In the end I give up and flop into my seat at our gate to wait on boarding. Crawford sits besides me and neatly sets his briefcase down at his feet. I study him in silence for a few minutes, considering this past year and the last obstacle between us and our long-desired freedom. "This'll all be over soon."
"I know," he says again.
I decide I don't have any regrets, either.
Little Takatori is so funny. He calls us up the same afternoon we land in Japan to tell us Kritiker has canceled the strike on Koua. It's true, sort of. His grandfather, who still holds some clout within the organization, is refusing to acknowledge this mission anymore. Apparently he's been fighting to get Tsukiyono-Takatori to back off. Thoughts of Tomoe and Fujimiya's sister have kept the kid moving thus far, but now the fractures are too deep to ignore.
What he doesn't say is that he's still going to go ahead with the strike, with or without his grandfather's blessing. He doesn't need to say it, because Crawford can see straight through his words. More than that, he's standing in my range when he makes the call, which means I have absolutely no problem reading his thoughts and half-formed plans. Crawford doesn't argue with him, which warns Takatori that something is up. Both sides pretend not to notice something out of place with the other, and we hang up on him.
Ikida is watching us where we're standing in his office. Crawford closes his phone and turns back on Ikida. "As you were saying," he says, and the doctor continues explaining what he's managed so far on a cure. He's one ingredient short. It feels like a familiar failing, but Crawford already knows we'll get that last piece. "How soon will it be ready?"
"If you can retrieve that data tonight, it will be done before noon tomorrow."
"Nagi and Tot will be back by then," I say with more confidence than I feel. Rosenkreuz hasn't contacted Crawford yet. I fully expected them to bitch Crawford out when Farfarello nuked their instructors, if they could get up the courage to do so. Between Crawford's reputation, my strength, Nagi and Tot's rapidly developing powers, and the heads-up on just what Farfarello is, they might be really content to just let us walk out of their lives. I'm hoping it's that, anyway.
Farfarello and the kids should be on a plane and almost here, but we haven't heard anything from them, either. The silence makes me twitchy, but Crawford doesn't seem to notice anything out of place. I tell myself that's because his visions are centered on me, then shut those thoughts up.
"We are going to be making use of your ward again," Crawford says.
"It's always open to Schwarz," Ikida answers easily.
"I am not staying in this damn hospital ever again," I protest.
"Then don't fight so recklessly tonight," Crawford answers.
"I'm not reckless." They both just look at me. I grimace at them. "Assholes."
"Ikida," Crawford says, inclining his head to the doctor. He starts for the door and I follow behind him. Ikida walks us out and stands in the lobby.
~Be careful,~ he warns me quietly.
/Worrywart,/ I send back.
Our guns are in the dashboard that I prop my shoes up against. We drive with the windows rolled down just a crack, just enough to let the city noise fill the silence between us. Koua is two hours north of Tokyo. I'm sick of sitting after flying so much these past couple weeks- months, rather. I don't want to see a plane for at least another year.
It doesn't help that we're both jet-lagged, but there wasn't a way to avoid that. We needed the lab taken out and we need to be here for Koua. It means we're going up against Berger's team at a slight disadvantage, but the power difference between us will help even that out. Farfarello and the rug rats will just be the final edge we need. I open my mouth to ask Crawford if they're going to make it, then forcibly shut it again.
I spend the first half-hour erecting such thick shields around our minds that I can barely hear anything else through them. It's hard to say if that'll get us in under Berger's radar, but it ought to be enough to at least get us in position. There will be a lot going on tonight; he's going to have a hell of a lot of minds to keep track of. He registers them mostly as presences, however, which means we'll stick out the most. Rather, I will.
Crawford has his usual impeccable timing, though, and shows up as Weiss starts really causing a fuss. We get onto the compound with no trouble at all and leave our car near the gate. We go on foot the rest of the way, heading for a center building where we'll be able to see things better. Since I'm not allowed to use my gift yet, all we've got is eyesight.
We reach the center building before Weiss does and take an elevator up to the top floor. The stairwell is right beside the elevator when we step off and we take it one more floor up to the roof. It's hard to believe it's night when the moon is out and full like this. It casts a silver glow across the campus, giving us more than enough light to see by. I can feel minds beating against mine from their close presence, but my shields are drawn so tight that it's all just nonsensical humming.
I suck in a deep breath of cold night air as we move up to the edge of the roof. I peer over the side, considering the twenty-storey drop to a sure death, and step up onto the ledge.
It doesn't take long to spot Weiss- rather, the four original idiots of Weiss and then the one extra they've still got. It takes less time to spot the welcoming party that slowly files out of the front door of this building. Weiss, Estet, Schwarz, and Rosenkreuz all in one spot. It's been a while since this last happened and I can feel my blood rushing in anticipation.
"Damn," I say with a low whistle, knowing none of them can hear me from so far away. "Not inviting us to a fun reunion like this; you'd think they didn't like Schwarz much." Crawford's shields shiver against mine and I glance his way. His eyes are closed as he considers his own thoughts, a million miles away from here, and I frown a little. "What's wrong? What did you see?"
"I've told you countless times to stay out of my mind," Crawford says, glancing at me.
I shrug at him, knowing he isn't surprised by my pry. "I'm just excited. What should we do?" I wonder, looking down at the fight once more. Everyone's here that's going to be here, it seems, which means it's finally time to move. "Kill Weiss? Kill the brats?" I offer him another shrug and a wider smirk. "Kill everyone?"
"Wait," Crawford says. "Just a moment more."
Crawford doesn't answer that, but I can feel his gift still working. When he tilts his head, I follow his gesture, and my gift snaps awake inside of me, sizzling as the bonds are completed. I can't hear my teammates from here when they're so far away and my shields are layered so thick, but distance means nothing when we've got ties like these.
"No shit," I say, covering up my relief with vicious amusement. Crawford gives a slight, satisfied smirk and I return it with full force. "I guess this really is a reunion."
Crawford pulls out his cell phone and answers it before it rings. "Crawford." He moves up alongside me to consider the night, gazing out in the direction our teammates are coming from. "You will need to come ahead of Farfarello," he says, cluing me in to who's on the other line. "The telepath in this unit here has Schuldich's mental signatures. You don't have what it takes to shield yourself against him; he'll notice you the second you cross into his range."
Crawford waits long enough for Nagi's murmured assent before hanging up. In the next second, the bond between us starts pulsing.
"The hell?" I ask, but the closer Nagi gets, the easier it is to figure out what he's doing. "Holy shit."
The boy is teleporting.
He doesn't have the range a teleporter does, but that hardly matters. He's sending himself ahead of Farfarello, throwing himself forward as far as he can, skipping in and out as he closes the distance between us too fast for Berger to notice.
That is, until he stops, and I watch him reappear in the shadows just a short ways back from Weiss. Berger's mind snaps awake, locking in on his presence, but it's too late. I lean forward to watch, staring at my teammate across the distance between us. He doesn't slow enough to acknowledge us, more interested in the threat right in front of him. The psychics don't notice him yet, more interested in fighting Weiss.
I hear a gun go off, but no one falls. I sigh a little when I realize Nagi's interfering. "What the hell is he doing?" I gripe.
"Making his own decisions," Crawford answers.
"Know-it-all," I send back at him. I don't bother to look his way, more interested in watching Nagi completely crush the psychics. He doesn't even break a sweat.
"Everyone is here now," Crawford says.
The alarms start going off as people finally register Nagi's presence, and I feel Berger's power rip across the compound in search of the rest of us. I refuse to drop my shields just yet. "Aren't you getting excited?" I ask Crawford. "We're finally going to face a group that's worth our time. It's been a while."
"We still have a long night ahead of us," he says, turning away from the view. I follow him towards the door. He steps off to one side just inside the door to let me go first, since my part in this game comes before his. I pause for just a second, just long enough to lean in and kiss him hard.
"Piece of cake," I offer up, and I fly down the stairs.
I don't drop my shielding until I reach the bottom. Around me, everyone's minds finally snap into focus. I lock onto Nagi's just before he vanishes again, consciousness breaking apart and reappearing just a half-second later. I realize why just a moment more: it seems he's run up against Layla. I leave them to each other, trusting Nagi to be more than enough to handle one engineered punk. I've got other things to worry about: in particular, clearing the way for Weiss to get that damn data.
I hear the roar of fire before I see any of them. Geisel's blocking the youngest three of Weiss. A quick poke of my gift shows the older two still outside, arguing. Their stupidity is almost galling, that they can be so sure of themselves and each other that they can waste time with in-fighting. They don't seem to realize just what they're up against here. If it weren't for us, they'd be dead in minutes. It's almost annoying that I have to save them.
Especially when I show up right in time to hear Hidaka's unfriendly assessment of Geisel's powers: "This guy is weirder than Schwarz! What should we do, Omi?"
"Die with the other unwelcome guest," Geisel suggests.
"Who's an unwelcome guest?" I demand, raising my voice to be heard. Geisel snaps his hand out, throwing fire in my direction. I skirt out of the way, letting it ignite in the air where I was just standing. There's no way to him without going through it, so I dip into my sonic blood and flicker through the flames. I'm just fast enough that it doesn't catch. "Shut up and die."
"Schuldich?!" Weiss gapes stupidly. Takatori is trying to figure out how we're all here when he told us the plan was canceled. He's an idiot and has a long way to go before he'll ever be a serious asset to Kritiker. Hidaka is sort of incredulous that they've just been rescued a second time and I decide to nip that in the bud immediately.
"Don't get the wrong idea," I tell them. "As soon as I kill this waste of oxygen, I'll come after you."
~Leave them alone,~ Takatori warns me.
/You're changing the deal on us,/ I send back. /Why shouldn't we change it on you?/
Geisel comes at me, but I'm too fast for him and I duck around behind him. "You're mine," I purr at his ear, and he sends me a furious, mocking look.
Takatori is hesitating, torn. /Go get our fucking data, you imbecile,/ I snarl at him as I attempt to break my knuckles on Geisel's face.
Hidaka grabs Takatori's arm. "Omi, let's go!"
He finally snaps out of it and gets moving. Geisel moves as if to go after them, but changes his mind at the last second. He knows I'm the bigger threat here, even if he's got that Rosenkreuz-Estet arrogance in him. I offer him a fierce smirk.
"Look at you," I drawl. "Aren't you so proud of yourself to be such a soulless, worthless creation?"
"Worthless?" he echoes condescendingly. "We are perfect."
"Of course you are," I answer, not at all convincing. "Especially that unstable telepath of yours, right? Nice network, by the way. So complicated, so vital. So… fragile." I grab it with everything I've got and give it a vicious wrench. I hear it hit on Berger's end so deep and hard that his shields splinter. Geisel feels it, too, though not on the same level I can. He comes at me with everything he has and I have to make myself scarce as the entire hallway fills with fire. I have my gun out to shoot him, but the hall gets so hot so fast that the metal's too hot for me to touch. I snarl a curse and throw it off to one side as useless.
"Where are you going, Schwarz?" Geisel calls after me. "Now you're the one that's running away."
"I'm not running," I yell back. "I'm temporarily changing the location of our fight."
He laughs at that, but most of the mockery is lost in the roar of the flames that swirl around him. There's no way I can get close to him without getting fried, at least not without a little frying of my own. I slam my gift back at him, shattering three-quarters of his shields before fire forces me to move. I concentrate on getting myself out of there, but fire follows me the entire way down the hall.
A second later, Berger retaliates against that attack on his shields. Not against me, but against Crawford. I feel his gift hit hard against my lover's shields. My first thought is that Crawford's shields can take anything Berger throws at them.
A heartbeat behind that is the realization that Crawford's shields know my gift-
-and that Berger's power registers the same against them.
A link flares up between their minds, fierce and thick, falling right into the lines Schwarz has always used.
Bombs wrack the compound, shaking the building around us. I stumble into the wall and Geisel takes advantage of that distraction. Fire bursts through the wall behind me, showering me with flaming debris. I hit the ground hard and roll, knowing I need to concentrate on Geisel but unable to when Berger has Crawford on a link.
/YOU GET THE FUCK OUT OF HIS HEAD./
/I'm not in his head,/ Berger answers as he completely rewrites his network to surround only Crawford's mind. He pulls his weakened links back from Geisel and Layla, knowing Crawford's shields are more than enough to support him. /He's in mine./
I'm on my feet but not fast enough; Geisel's appeared at the hole in the wall. There's nowhere out of this room behind me except through the walls. They're thin, like all Japanese walls are, and I flick them a quick glance to study the cracks running through them from the explosion. I throw myself backwards as hard as I can and his fire follows after me. The wall gives behind me and I hit the ground hard. I stumble on my way to my feet, panting for breath, unable to let go of the link between Berger and Crawford.
"You can read minds, can't you?" Geisel calls mockingly. "Read it, then. Read my flame-filled mind!"
Oh, I read it, all right. I do more than that. His flames come at me too fast and thick to dodge. I do the only thing I can, which is to throw a mental punch at him. It cracks his shields all the way down to the core and his flames crackle away to nothing as he loses his concentration. I throw myself at him and slam both fists into his gut, sending him flying. He crashes into the wall.
~He's hurt,~ Farfarello observes.
My first thought is that he means the pyrokinetic, but I know better. I can barely feel Crawford; Berger has taken my link in our bond. That doesn't stop me from putting the other ties back into place, though without me as the connecting piece, I have to start from scratch in knotting them to Crawford's mind.
/Farfarello, where the fuck are you?/ I demand. He answers that with bloody mental images. He's making short work of everyone left on the compound. I string knots across our mental bond as tight as I can. /Get to a stopping point,/ I warn him. /You've got a new target./
~Schuldich, focus,~ Nagi warns me.
/I am focused,/ I snap back.
Fire explodes right next to me, making a liar out of me. I throw myself away from there, not even trying to fight back. Retreating is pathetic but I'm more interested in getting my teammates locked on to Crawford's mind than I am in fighting.
~Focus!~ Nagi says again.
/Shut up, you retarded little monkey./ I hit the wall hard just a second later and realize I've run myself into a corner. I flick a quick glance Geisel's way, but I can't draw my gift back enough from my teammates to fight him, not without losing everything I'm doing.
Geisel's expression is a little too pleased. "Let's end this."
/On second thought, don't shut up. Get me a way out of here./ I flash him a mental image of the room.
~Don't you ever listen to me?~ Nagi asks. ~The wall, Schuldich. To your left.~
Fire explodes in the room and I throw myself through the flames towards the opening I know Nagi will make. Geisel gives a startled shout at my apparent suicide, but I can't hear him over the roar of the fire. I catch at the edge of the hole and throw myself back through. Most of the fire is where I was standing; there's still enough here that I singe myself on my way back to Geisel's side. I appear behind him before he even realizes I'm coming, and I wrap my arms around his throat.
"Don't be so quick to underestimate us, you worthless little clone," I warn him. "And yes, I'm reading your mind. You want to know what I'm going to do? This."
I grab his chin in one hand and give it a vicious wrench. He goes stiff for a second before going perfectly limp, and I let go of him to let him collapse against the ground. I stumble back a little, wincing at the way moving hurts my burns. "Stupid…"
There are better things to worry about than pain, though, and I put the last pieces in place.
/It's up,/ I warn my teammates, and I feel their minds splinter as they sink where I can't reach them.
A second later, they're all gone, vanishing into a room that was meant for only us. Nagi and Farfarello take my ties with them, and the links force the bond right up against Crawford's shields, bringing them out of Berger's mind and into Crawford's.
I stagger out of the room, coughing and fighting for breath as the room gets too hot to give me any air. The smoke is choking me and I make my way to the nearest exit, catching at the doorframe to hold myself up. I suck in as much clean air as I can, trying to clear my head. And finally I feel what I want: Berger's mind shattering as Farfarello grabs hold of it.
The link cracks back into place between Crawford and me, and I'm up against his shields in a heartbeat. I can feel the gouges Berger left in them. They're still intact, but they're more damaged than they should be. Looks like trust bites everyone in the ass eventually. I scowl and drop into our mental room.
"You stupid ass precog," I say as I appear, but I forget the rest of what I'm saying when I see the shape Crawford's in. He's bleeding from his temples down. "Shit, haven't you ever heard of dodging?"
"I could say the same for you," Nagi says. I make a rude gesture at him, hesitating when I see the marks on him as well. He sounds exhausted from using so much of his power. Even eights have their limits, and it seems like Nagi's been pushing his with all of his teleportation. I have no clue what shape Farfarello's in. It's hard to tell when he's completely covered in blood.
"And Weiss?" Crawford asks.
I dip out of the room briefly to find Takatori. Weiss is in the inner room. /Data,/ I demand.
~Not now,~ he sends back, fierce with worry. I flick from his mind to the others. They're down one and Kudou's fading fast.
/Data. Yes or no?/
~Yes,~ he snaps. ~Get away from me.~
I move right back to that room. "They've got it," I answer.
In the next second we're all shaken out of the bond as the building shudders beneath us. I come back to myself still in the doorway. The frame is shaking under my hand as the entire compound shakes with explosions. One goes off on the other side of the building, far enough that the blast doesn't reach me, close enough that it still throws me to my knees. I curse at the pain and shove myself back to my feet.
/We're getting out of here,/ I say, but the reestablished links between our minds tell me Crawford's still deep inside the building. /Move like you want to see tomorrow, Crawford./
~He can't,~ Farfarello says before Crawford can answer that.
/What do you mean, he can't?/ I demand.
Nagi appears at my side with a sharp snap of air and rejoining flesh and grabs at my arm for balance. He sucks in a ragged breath. "Where is he?" he asks, casting his gift out to try and place the other man. "That room's at the center, Schuldich. It's caving in."
~Shield, Nagi,~ Crawford says, and Nagi shields just as a bomb goes off right off to our side. Nagi can't block out the noise and I crush my ears beneath my hands, gritting my teeth at the knifing pain. ~Schuldich, get to the car. Things are too unstable here.~
/Now, Crawford,/ I order him. I can hear him getting to his feet, but it seems to me that he's moving painstakingly slow. Farfarello shows up right behind us and Nagi gives a wrench of his hand to include the Irishman in his shield.
"I can go get him," Nagi says. "Trust me."
It's the 'go' that tells me he doesn't mean clearing a path between them. "No," I say, but Nagi's already gone, sending himself through a dozen rooms to Crawford's side with nothing to place him but the way his gift pings off of Crawford's body. It's damn stupid and reckless when Nagi's not supposed to be either of those. I hear his pained sound when debris glances off him on his reappearance.
/Don't you fucking dare,/ I warn him. /I don't trust you, not with him, not with that, not a chance in hell./
~Schuldich, there's no time,~ Crawford says.
/I refuse,/ I start to say, but it's already too late. Nagi's already moving, wrapping his gift around both of them and teleporting them out of there. He's had months of practice by now, though I'll never be brave enough to ask him how many times he's practiced on someone besides himself. I feel Crawford's consciousness split, feel the entire world heave around Nagi's shield as the last round of bombs go off and completely wipe out the building
More than anything, I feel Crawford's shields shatter.
Our bodies are not meant to teleport. They simply cannot handle being taken apart like that.
Crawford's mind hits mine so hard I hit the ground, or I would if Farfarello wasn't standing right behind me. The empath catches me only because I fall against him, and then Crawford and Nagi are right in front of us. I see just a flicker of them before my eyesight goes black. My own shields are breaking beneath the weight of Crawford's mind, tearing all the way through.
Farfarello's hand in my hair wrenches my head back and his gift slams through me hard enough that I see white. "Ten seconds," he says, burning the reminder into me with his empathy. It feels too much like Hoffmann for me to ignore it and brings me back from the brink like nothing else can. "Wake *up*, Mastermind."
I told Farfarello once that a shattered precog has ten seconds to pull himself back together before he dies.
We've already lost three of them.
I let Farfarello hold me up because I don't have any energy to waste on standing on my own. Everything I have left is poured into my gift as I throw myself at Crawford's mind. A telepath should never be anywhere near someone's unguarded mind like this but we have no choice. Crawford and I promised each other we weren't going to go mad like this.
I find his shields where they're just chunks. I can feel where he's trying to pull them back together again, but ten seconds isn't enough time. All I can see is me, an endless whirl of orange and green, and I know it's not good for him for me to be right here when his shields come down. I grit my teeth against the agony of his mind tearing against my shields and the unrelenting burn of Farfarello's gift in my veins and grab at the nearest pieces.
I build shields around his mind even as we wrench his core back together. We work as fast as we can, not knowing if we're going to be fast enough.
The last piece slams into place and I can feel just how weak his core is in the wake of that crash. A moment later I can't feel anything at all, because Crawford is collapsing and taking me with him.
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