Part 13

      The next morning started off on the wrong foot- or the very, very right one, depending on what mood Schuldig was in when he thought back on it later. He made sure to get up earlier than Crawford did, knowing he was going to need time to sit and ingest a pot of coffee. In such a small kitchen, there wasn't room for a table or chairs, so he stood as close to the counter as he dared. He'd stayed shirtless for the first two mugs, knowing better than to risk spilling on himself, and had finished getting dressed before starting on his third. By then he was awake enough to trust his motor functions, though so much coffee was making him uncomfortably warm in his jacket.

      He was almost done with the third mug when the stairwell creaked. Schuldig gazed down at his mug without seeing it; every nerve in his body had tuned in to his approaching leader. A smirk ghosted its way across his mouth before he forcibly swallowed it. He waited until soft footsteps reached the kitchen before turning around.

      The early hour left no mark on Crawford. The American looked as awake and controlled as always. It was barely six o'clock and he was ready to take over the world.

      He was not, however, quite ready for Schuldig.

      Crawford had seen Schuldig in the Rosenkreuz uniform that everyone wore, and he'd seen Schuldig's myriad of psychotically-colored jackets in Japan. He'd never seen Schuldig actually try to look presentable. Most people thought it was impossible, what with such fiery bright hair and his too-wide smirk. Schuldig loved proving them wrong, and truth be told, he loved wearing suits. He knew he looked very, very good in them.

      Crawford always wore pale colors: the pristine and controlling businessman. Schuldig always wore black: the dark and deadly commander. He was the devil's advocate, the dirty little what-if murmuring in someone's ear, promising them that no one would mind if they strayed from their predetermined course for a minute or an hour or a night.

      Crawford was the snake. Schuldig was the apple. People loved to hear what the snake had to say, but it was the apple they truly wanted some time alone with.

      Whether or not Crawford was included, though, Schuldig wasn't sure. Crawford's expression gave nothing away, but he did stop inside the doorway. He gave himself a minute to study Schuldig, considering the way his suit outlined his body. Schuldig turned his coffee mug idly in his fingers, letting the ceramic burn his fingertips. He kept his face perfectly calm and waited for Crawford's response.

      "That will do," Crawford said at length.

      It was all he said. Schuldig could have felt insulted by such a simple evaluation. Instead he let his mouth twitch in amusement. They could both feel the hierarchy tilt a little under their feet. Rosenkreuz raised its psychics to associate suits with money and power. Schuldig hadn't been allowed to own a suit of his own until he'd inherited Dolch. This was the first time he'd been back in it since joining Schwarz. There was a risk of slipping back into old habits and giving himself more authority than he was supposed to have around Crawford.


      Crawford understood that problem perfectly, it seemed. "You will bring a change of clothes with you," he said, crossing the room to consider what was left in the coffee pot. He could reach it past Schuldig, so Schuldig didn't bother to move. In retrospect, he probably should have, because Crawford stopped close enough that they were touching. The American was a line of heat down his side when Schuldig was already too warm. "You will not return to this household until you've changed."

      "Of course," Schuldig said, lifting his mug to sip from it again. Crawford couldn't afford for the team to see Schuldig dressed like he had power. It was one thing to play his games with them when he was wearing jeans and a striped yellow shirt. It was something else entirely to actually look like someone they were supposed to be listening to.

      Schuldig hadn't been planning on changing, but this was actually better. If Crawford didn't feel at all threatened, he wouldn't care what Schuldig wore. Schuldig counted this as a tiny acknowledgment of his growing influence over the team. He drained his mug and set it on the counter behind him. "I have a briefcase I can put it in. If you have the hotel number, I'll call ahead and put a hold on a room."

      Crawford let him start moving, but didn't let him leave. His hand came up to Schuldig's throat, curving around it like it was the most natural thing in the world. He tilted his head, letting his nose slide along Schuldig's hair until his mouth found the telepath's ear. "A dog who comes when he is called and heels when he is ordered to do so is not one to feel intimidated by. It does not matter which territory you think is yours so long as you understand who is holding your leash."

      He wasn't sure if he'd swallowed glass or ice. Whichever it was, it cut his throat open and left him cold all over. That was all right, because it kept him from saying what he honestly wanted to say- not like Crawford couldn't hear that Fuck you loud and clear. Even Nicole and Ly Ly felt that pulse of dark hatred; he could feel their minds stirring in sleepy query. Ly Ly had always tuned it out before, used to fights with a team like this, but after yesterday she was paying more attention to him. She wouldn't be able to hear them, but Nicole would have no problems, no matter how quietly they were talking.

      "Oh, Crawford," Schuldig said, soft and dangerous. "You and I had a talk about leashes."

      "Are you disputing my authority over you?" Crawford asked.

      "You are, inarguably, my team leader," Schuldig said, as neutral a response as he could manage. Crawford's grip tightened, not quite enough to choke off his air, but a clear warning nonetheless. Crawford knew exactly what that vague response meant. Schuldig slanted a look up at him that was all icy venom. "My gift and my gun are yours to use however you please. I understand rank. But Crawford? If you are doing it for your own perverse amusement, I will kill myself before I jump when you say jump."

      He knew it was coming, but it didn't make it hurt any less. Crawford's power was a knife ripping down his back, tearing him completely apart. His legs gave out under him, but Crawford was ready for that and his grip on Schuldig's throat kept him from falling. Schuldig choked, but he didn't have the motor function he needed to get back on his feet. A second later even that instinct to struggle was gone, replaced by harsh white noise. Crawford peeled his shields like they were butter, making it all the easier for his heavy gift to crush Schuldig's against his skull. Schuldig felt his body try to black out, but his mind couldn't let go, not with Crawford inside him, not when it hurt so much.

      The precog let go of him abruptly, releasing him on both levels, and Schuldig hit the ground. His knees hit first and he wasn't ready to catch himself. His body kept falling forward until his forehead cracked hard against the polished wood. The resulting pain, compounded with what Crawford had done to him, was almost enough to turn his stomach inside out. He choked coffee and bile back with whatever self-control he still had left.

      "For my perverse amusement?" Crawford echoed slowly, as if testing the way it sounded. Schuldig barely heard him; his ragged breaths were roaring in his ears. Crawford tangled his fingers in Schuldig's hair and eased him up onto his knees. His free hand slid along Schuldig's face and a thumb pressed hard against Schuldig's mouth. "It is not for a telepath to question the 'why' of anything a precognitive does."

      Schuldig twisted his head away from the touch, but he couldn't get far when his body was half-dead and Crawford still had his hair. Fingers caught his chin to pull his face back around and Crawford dared to kiss him. Schuldig wasn't quite suicidal enough to bite him, but he was feeling terrible enough to be repulsed.

      "Let go," Schuldig said, muffled against Crawford mouth. He tried to twist free, but his hands did barely more than twitch against the ground. Crawford leaned over a little further to kiss his throat. "Fuck it all, stop," Schuldig snarled. Crawford smiled, coldly amused by his defiance. Schuldig stared back at him, willing him to die on the spot. He finally got some feeling back in his hand and he planted it against Crawford's face.

      Crawford's power skittered over his mind. Schuldig's gift was still raw enough that a light touch like that hurt more than it should. Crawford brushed his hand aside when he flinched and straightened. "You are not a leader anymore, Schuldig. All you are is a weapon. It is past time you learned to act like one. I have tolerated your foolishness for two months. It ends now. I will see an improvement in your behavior or we are going to have a serious discussion as to your rebelliousness. I do not expect that you would like that conversation."

      "Oh," Schuldig said with sudden insight. "I take it Estet knows that Tremelle called Dolch."

      "They recorded both calls," Crawford informed him.

      Both. Both meant Estet had heard Spence and Schuldig's conversation. It had been short, but Schuldig had made his intentions to usurp Schwarz quite clear. Schuldig was pretty sure the resulting call from grandmother to grandson had been all kinds of unpleasant. Idly he wondered how many times Crawford had had to promise her that the team was still in his control, if a bit baffled by the abrupt arrival of another leader. How many visions had he invented on the spot to show there was no real problem here? That explained a bit why Crawford was in such a bitchy mood. It also did wonders for making Schuldig feel much better.

      He didn't say any of that- couldn't, really, because he couldn't say that out loud without retribution and his telepathy was too bruised to use it yet. That didn't matter. Crawford's gift was fine, and Crawford could hear his amusement perfectly.

      Crawford smiled at him, that terrible smile he'd only ever shown Schuldig once, right after Schuldig had found out who Crawford really was. Schuldig smiled back, too ill to feel intimidated by staring Estet's blood in the face.

      "Find your change of clothes," Crawford said. "We are leaving."

      It took two tries to get to his feet and both hands on the counter to keep him from falling. He got moving before his body was ready because the man they were going to see was not one they could keep waiting. His first stop was to the bathroom. They'd be out the door the second he came back downstairs and he wasn't sure what Crawford's gift had done to his appearance. His expression was a little bit strained, but thinking about Crawford's grandmother giving him the third-degree helped. He rinsed his face with cold water, very careful about how much pressure he put on his face, and straightened his clothes. It took less than a minute to go from injured telepath to the image he'd started the day with. Fighting with Crawford just put a little more ice in that black death.

      The stairwell had a railing, but he refused to use it. It didn't matter that no one would be able to see him leaning against it. He'd know. That was all that mattered. He went upstairs to his room a little bit slower than he might have otherwise, but he made it.

      His briefcase was in his closet. He took it out and set it on his bed, but he'd just turned to find some clothes when Ly Ly slid her door open. Her expression was already cultivated into a perfect look of annoyed disdain. He knew she was about to fuss him out for waking her up, no matter that she'd likely listened in with all nosey curiosity.

      Whatever she'd been about to say, she forgot. She stared blankly at him and he gazed back in cool, calm silence. He gave her a few seconds to find her tongue. When she failed to come up with something, he tuned her out and dug through his closet in search of less-formal clothes. Crawford's orders this morning had pushed him to stage two in how he treated his team. He supposed now was a good enough time to shift gears, anyway, since he'd gotten nine of his teammates to actually look at him as something other than a disgruntled leader. He'd had to start off mellow because of their hostility that first week. Now they could appreciate and would tolerate something a little bit harder.

      Schuldig took his neon jackets and tossed them in the back of the closet, back by the rest of his suits. What he was left with were jeans, black leather coats, and a handful of white undershirts. It'd been his outfit of choice out on the field. In the beginning, it was all he'd ever worn. The rainbow jackets were actually sarcastic gifts from Dolch, their way of telling him they were sick of seeing him in the same thing over and over. They'd bought the loudest, tackiest colors they could find. Schuldig had never worn them, since a leader couldn't be caught dead in such things, but he'd kept them. At last they'd proved useful.

      He packed his briefcase with what he needed and left. Ly Ly watched him go. Crawford was standing at the front step, but he stepped into his shoes and left when he saw Schuldig at the top of the stairwell.

      "Oh," Nicole said from the kitchen doorway. Schuldig paused at the bottom of the stairs to look back at her. "So that's what's got her rattled."

      She sounded amused, but her gaze was searching. She was looking for weaknesses, looking for an outward sign of what Crawford had done to him. He was still in pain and he couldn't hide that from her, but she couldn't find a single scrap of it in his posture or expression.

      Schuldig? she asked.

      He kept his expression schooled, but she felt the pain her mental message caused him. Her eyes narrowed a bit. "You're going to meet with Takatori," she said. "Why is your gift so bruised?"

      She meant, Why the hell did Crawford hurt you at such a bad time?

      Schuldig knew his gift wasn't ready, but he needed this answer to be mental when Crawford was sure to be listening in. Don't question your leader's decisions, Nicole, he said flatly, swallowing hard against the resultant twist of nausea. Teams fail if they can't trust their leader to know what he's doing.

      Later, maybe much later, she'd come back to that warning, and she would interpret it how he wanted her to. For now, she heard it only as the rebuke it was, and she was quick to shut her mouth. At length she gave a shrug, dismissing it as his problem. "You clean up well, at least. Pity you're a flamer."

      Schuldig ignored that and left. Crawford had already had time to back the car out of the driveway, which meant Schuldig didn't have to squeeze between the car and the wall to get in. He settled in the passenger seat and put his briefcase down at his feet.

      Neither of them spoke the entire way to the hotel. Between morning traffic and the effort of getting to the other side of the city, it took the better part of forty minutes. Crawford left the car in the parking garage and led Schuldig inside. They were the first ones there, so the desk clerk got the conference room door unlocked and open for them. A few minutes later, representatives from the catering company arrived. Crawford ignored them entirely, more interested in going through paperwork. Schuldig went to stand in the corridor just to one side of the door, watching and waiting for the next arrivals.

      Takatori Reiji would be the last to show up, he was sure. Considering the man's rank and ambition, he was likely to think the same way that Crawford did: that everyone was meant to wait on him, not the other way around. Schuldig mentally ticked over the profiles of those who would be in attendance today, trying to decide the order they'd arrive in, and gave himself bonus points when Touru Koujirou was the first. The man was the biggest thorn in Takatori's side, but not a man they could afford to get rid of just yet. There was still a lot they could get from him, if only they found the right leverage.

      Touru brought one frigid-looking assistant along with him and was closely followed by two members of his security detail. He took in the lavish hotel lobby with a look that was openly contemptuous. The meeker clerks at the front desk bowed their heads low over their keyboards, hoping desperately not to meet his eye.

      Schuldig, however, was impossible to miss, and it didn't take Touru long before he swiveled his gaze that way. The second their gazes met, Schuldig knew why Crawford had brought him along today.

      Well, he thought with cold amusement, at least he's not whoring me out to someone ugly.

      He smiled, not wide, just enough for Touru to see the danger in it. It was both a challenge and an invitation, and it told the businessman that Schuldig was who he was looking for. The man changed paths, ignoring the front desk entirely, and headed for Schuldig. Schuldig offered him a slight bow but kept blue eyes on the other man's face.

      "Touru Koujirou," he said. "You are early."

      "You are not Crawford," Touru said, with entirely too many syllables in the precog's name.

      "Crawford is inside," Schuldig assured him as he straightened. He flicked a look over each of the bodyguards and dismissed them in a heartbeat. They didn't miss that careless appraisal. Neither did Touru. He might have been insulted another day; he might have been insulted if it wasn't Schuldig who was so completely unimpressed. Schuldig didn't even waste time on the assistant but turned his gaze back on his target for the day. "I am Crawford's associate. My name is Schuldig."

      Touru knew better than to try and pronounce it. Schuldig's slow smile was just as effective as laughter might have been. It wasn't quite mocking, but it was just insolent enough that Touru had to wonder who he was dealing with. In the scheme of things, Touru was a heavyweight, but Schuldig was completely unaffected by that power. The man was simultaneously intrigued and offended. He was obligated to find out who and what Schuldig was, and what the German knew that made him so impervious to Touru's influence.

      Eden's apple, indeed. Touru was going to bite off more than he could chew. The man hadn't even noticed yet that Crawford hadn't bothered to come greet him. The assistant had, judging by the frosty look on her face.

      "Do you know who I am?" Touru demanded. He didn't mean his name.

      Schuldig's smile twitched a little bit wider, bordering on tolerant amusement. "Oh, yes," he said.

      He left it at that, letting Touru make of it what he pleased. The silent And what makes you think I should care irritated the CEO. His expression didn't change, but Schuldig could positively feel Touru's hackles rise. He slid his gaze away, still smiling, and indicated the door with a look. It was either a dismissal or an invitation.

      "Schuldig," Crawford said, just loud enough for them to hear. "It is too early in the day to be bothering our clients."

      He said it like it was an afterthought, as if he was bored of having to monitor Schuldig's attitude. It was the perfect tone, as it also told Touru that Crawford wasn't overly concerned with what Schuldig was implying. Touru's stare was piercing, but after living with Crawford, Schuldig couldn't be unsettled by such an intensity. He could hear the wheels in the man's head grinding as they tried to figure out what manner of creature he was and what sort of authority he wielded that Crawford- Crawford- would give him autonomy to offend clients.

      Whatever it was, Touru wanted it. To control it, to claim it, to break it, he didn't really care, so long as he had it. The businessman gave him another head-to-toe, slower this time. Schuldig let him, watching him through hooded eyes. Only two kinds of people were dumb enough to mentally undress a telepath: one who had no clue what he was messing with and who would end his day on a very unpleasant note, or one who knew beyond reason of a doubt that it would get a favorable response. Maybe it was flattering to someone who couldn't see the process. To a telepath, it was flat-out sexual harassment.

      Touru was going to have a very, very bad day.

      Schuldig's day, on the other hand, immediately started looking up.

      On the tail-end of that idle observation was an order from Crawford. It had been long enough since Crawford had ripped his shields that it didn't hurt to receive it. Once he agrees to the merger, he is of no further use to us.

      He'll be in pieces by nightfall,
Schuldig assured him.

      Touru had been digging his feet in for weeks, knowing that he had the power, knowing that Takatori would lose interest in him the second he signed any of it over. Crawford and the empaths had been picking away at him maddeningly slow. Touru still wouldn't budge, and until he gave in, several others would hang back. This required subtlety, but not something that had lost all its power in exchange for delicacy. That was Schuldig: an atom bomb poised on a needlepoint.

      You are prone to thinking entirely too much of yourself.

      I think it's part of the telepathy gene,
Schuldig sent back. He managed a deferent tone, but Crawford had no problems hearing the jab in that.

      Do not try me, Crawford told him. I do not care if we have an audience.

      Schuldig had no desire to get his shields shattered in front of Takatori or his peons, so he decided not to push the other man. Luckily a handful of distractions were walking in: three of Takatori's allies and one of Touru's. The two factions were not happy to be dealing with each other, and only one of them was glad to see Touru. The five headed into the conference room, leaving Schuldig behind to wait on the last three arrivals. Takatori was last, as Schuldig had figured he would be.

      The massive politician came to a stop in front of Schuldig and stared hard at him. Crawford, who had ignored everyone else, was waiting silently in the doorway. Takatori ignored him. Maybe he was so busy projecting distrust at Schuldig that he honestly didn't notice the precog's arrival. Schuldig kept a bland expression locked in place and offered the man a slight bow. Takatori was not impressed; it wasn't low enough for someone with his rank and Schuldig refused to drop his stare.

      "You," Takatori said, snapping his fingers at Crawford. He went to the other side of the lobby and Crawford followed after him. Schuldig could hear their voices, but not their words. From the way Takatori's thoughts spiked toward Touru, though, he knew Crawford was explaining Schuldig's presence here today. It mollified him a bit, but not much. Takatori wasn't a big fan of surprises, even ones Crawford deemed necessary.

      The Prime Minister-hopeful came thundering back over with Crawford following silently on his heels. Takatori didn't look at Schuldig again but entered the room. Schuldig let Crawford go ahead of him and entered last. He shut the door behind him and made sure to lock it. The click it made drew more than a few looks, most noticeably from Touru's lot.

      The few bodyguards and assistants who had come along were sitting in chairs against the wall. Takatori and Touru were placed at opposite ends of the conference table. Crawford took the first chair to Takatori's right, so Schuldig took the only one left open to him: the one at Touru's right.

      "Begin," Takatori demanded, and the meeting was in session.

      Schuldig didn't even try to get into Touru's head until halfway through the meeting. Reports, no matter how detailed, couldn't give him the information he needed. He preferred his information live, twisted with emotion and conflict. He spent the first three hours sitting silent and still, listening to what everyone said- and more importantly, to what was left unsaid. He wasn't sure how anyone got anything done in Japan, seeing as how so few people were willing to say exactly what they meant. Even here- especially here- they made allusions to figures and circled their way around refusals.

      At the three-hour mark, Touru's assistant started fresh coffee brewing in the coffee maker the caterers had provided. Everyone present took a small recess and munched their way through fruits and crackers. Schuldig and Crawford stayed where they were, Crawford looking as calm and assured as always and Schuldig with the hint of a smirk on his lips. Touru noticed the expression and sent Takatori a hooded look.

      "If your foreigners are here for little more than decoration, kindly relegate them to the sidelines," he said. "It is just as tacky to flex international influence at this table as it would be for my bodyguards to sit with me."

      Takatori returned the look in kind. "Crawford is not one of my people," was all he said. It was the truth, because psychics belonged to no one but Rosenkreuz and Estet. Still, downplaying his ties to Crawford that drastically made it taste more like a blatant lie than anything else.

      "Then perhaps I can inquire as to your firm," Touru said, but he was looking at Schuldig.

      Schuldig offered him a smile that was all teeth. "We are Schwarz."

      Touru knew what that meant. He was the only other man in the room who did. His expression barely changed, but his thoughts flat-lined so abruptly that Schuldig knew he had the man's complete attention. Schwarz had been in Japan for four years, long enough that the top dogs knew who was playing with the country's power structure. That Touru recognized their name meant he really was worth Takatori's time.

      "We are not active participants in this meeting," Crawford said, "but we do have quite an interest in the outcome. I do not think you will object. We all have the same goal in mind: a glorious, successful future. Do we not?"

      Touru flicked a quick, sharp look at him. They'd dealt with each other a number of times before, but Crawford had never bothered to identify himself past his name. Touru was not pleased by that omission, and less pleased by the sense of being manipulated. Schuldig would tell him to get used to it, except the man wasn't going to be alive much longer.

      "Keh," the businessman said at last, and he dug a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He left without another word.

      His assistant and bodyguards moved as if to follow him, but Schuldig was already getting to his feet. Stay, he thought at them, more a subliminal order than a thought. They went still immediately, though they weren't sure why they didn't interfere. He knew he made their skin crawl, and the last thing they wanted was for him to be alone with their employer. He offered them a chilling smile that did nothing for their growing sense of unease and excused himself from the room.

      Schuldig found Touru out front with a lit cigarette already propped between his lips. Schuldig came to a stop right in front of him, neatly invading the man's personal space. He let himself get studied, let Touru's gaze track over his face.

      "I wouldn't have pegged you for Schwarz," the man said at last, sounding disgruntled.

      Schuldig smiled. "I wouldn't have pegged you for a queer."

      Oh, that got Touru's attention back where it belonged. Schuldig leaned forward, watching and listening for the businessman to pull away. He closed his mouth over the cigarette, careful to keep his tongue and lips away from the lit cherry. Teeth bit down lightly on the white stick, testing Touru's resistance. There wasn't any, so he leaned back and dragged the cigarette with him. He lifted his hand to his mouth like a lazy afterthought and turned the cigarette around.

      Touru had stopped breathing at some point, and he didn't start again until Schuldig blew smoke in his face. Schuldig tapped the butt of the cigarette against the businessman's nose once before propping it between his own lips once more. The smile he offered Touru was pure mockery, but the businessman didn't notice. Schuldig was already working his way into his thoughts. Touru was dead and ruined, and he didn't even know it yet.

      "I want you to listen to me," Schuldig said. "Not a single dead brain in there is going to give you a honest opinion on anything you've said this morning. This is your once-in-a-lifetime offer to hear the stark truth. Ready? You are being a complete idiot."

      Touru started to react, but Schuldig didn't have the patience. He clapped his hand over the man's mouth and shoved his head hard against the bricks. They were receiving a couple glances from passer-bys, but no one interfered. Schuldig's gift had something to do with that; the flat Look away he sent out blinded everyone to them. He leaned hard against Touru, shoving a knee between the other man's thighs. The man swung at him, but Schuldig caught his hand and flattened it against the wall.


      Touru's other hand froze at his side, fist half-formed. Schuldig shifted his leg, dragging his leg hard up against the businessman's groin. It helped distract the man from his suddenly-unhelpful limbs.

      "Your pride is going to destroy your company," Schuldig warned him, letting Touru hear the truth in that statement. What he failed to mention was that nothing the man did could stop that from happening. "You and I both know that Takatori is an arrogant, obese ass who doesn't know his elbows from his asshole on a good day. That doesn't mean you can ignore the power base he's building up for himself.

      "You've spent two and a half weeks arguing for more influence in the merger's details. You want to know why he isn't giving you any? Your company is at a serious disadvantage here no matter what he says inside. The files he's giving you are incomplete. You're missing entire sheets of numbers and statistics. He's letting you think you're even-footed because he thinks it's what's going to make you listen to him. Wake up. You need a merger if you want to stay alive. The trick is finding out who to merge with."

      Touru couldn't say anything around Schuldig's hand, but the look on his face was enough. "You don't trust me," Schuldig said. "I will prove it, then. Go back inside. Stop fighting him and actually listen, but this time listen to everyone who's sitting there at the table. After everyone's left, you and I need to have a long talk. I'll bring the paperwork he never wanted to show you."

      He moved his hand. Touru sucked in a hard breath, looking furious over such rough handling. "It is not my place to rule Japan," Schuldig said before he could speak. "Mine is simply to decide which man will be the best for the job. Stop cutting yourself out of the running early. You've got so much power at your fingertips," he said, leaning harder against Touru. He punctuated the move with images of bare flesh and sweat and groans. Touru swallowed loud enough for Schuldig to hear it. "Are you really so eager to turn down what I'm offering?"

      Go back inside. He slowly peeled himself off of the man and took a step back. Touru stared blankly at him, knowing he was supposed to be arguing and not sure why he wasn't. Now.

      Several long seconds later, Touru silently returned to the conference room. Schuldig stayed outside a little bit longer, tasting the nicotine on his lips. The full-body contact had been a little more effective than he'd meant it to be, and not just for Touru. He idly rethought his decision to kill the man before fucking him. It'd be a stress reliever, at least, to get a quick screw in. Maybe it'd even untangle his thoughts from his damn teammate. Too bad he wasn't willing to be Crawford's whore-for-hire. It was one thing to lose to Crawford in a power fight and another thing entirely for Crawford to auction his body away.

      Speak of the devil, he supposed, because Crawford said, Your definition of subtlety is lacking.

      Hearing Crawford's voice right then was exactly what he didn't need if he wanted to relax. Schuldig cast about, looking for the memory of this morning's argument, and let Crawford's callous assessment cool some of the heat in his veins. Subtlety will come later, when it's needed most. I needed to make sure I had his undivided attention.

      He ground out what was left of the cigarette and went inside. Touru refused to look at him as Schuldig took his seat again. So long as he actually listened to what Takatori was saying, Schuldig didn't care about the cold shoulder. Without so much interference and veiled squabbling, the rest of the meeting went surprisingly quick. The businessmen all bowed to each other at the end, faking deference as best they could. Schuldig kept his thoughts on Touru, giving him silent instructions as to what to do next.

      Schuldig and Crawford stayed behind as the others left one by one. Only after all of the cars had pulled out of the hotel's parking garage did Crawford leave the room. Schuldig didn't know where he was going, but he didn't really care. Crawford wasn't going to leave him here.

      It took ten minutes, but Touru came back. The man had to leave to avoid raising anyone's suspicions, but he'd had his men circle around a couple blocks before doubling back. Schuldig left his tagalongs to Crawford to deal with. He had a much more important mind to scramble. He was sitting on the conference room table when Touru walked through the door. The businessman shut the door behind him and locked it.

      It didn't take Touru long to make it to his side. It took him less time to put a hand on Schuldig's knee. He boldly slid his hand up Schuldig's thigh, testing the feel of hard muscle beneath expensive pants. Schuldig shifted obediently, sliding one leg along the table so Touru could stand between his knees. The businessman let his hand continue its exploration, skimming over and briefly fondling his groin before working his way up Schuldig's chest.

      Schuldig let him because he knew it wasn't going to distract the man from their work. If Touru was so easily undone by temptation, the empaths could have gotten him in line weeks ago. Besides, even if Touru hadn't explicitly asked for permission to feel Schuldig up, he knew exactly what he was messing with now. His touch lacked Crawford's heavy possessiveness. It was equal parts curious and cautious, and that made it a welcome change of pace.

      Touru made it as far as Schuldig's mouth before he lowered his hand again. "My papers."

      Schuldig lifted his hand and displayed a folder. "Here."

      Touru could fit the folder between their chests, so he didn't step back. Schuldig kept quiet while he read- verbally, at least. His gift was hard at work. He knew Takatori's and Touru's files inside-out by now.

      Of course, the files he'd given Touru just now were incomplete as well. They were more in-depth than what Takatori had been giving Touru, but they left some pretty crucial facts out. Schuldig could work around that. He knew exactly what to highlight and emphasize in Touru's thoughts and he forced the man to draw the same conclusions Schwarz had.

      Touru was, predictably, not at all pleased to find out he'd been lied to.

      "You can't merge with him," Schuldig informed him, but Touru had just realized that. "It'll kill you if you can't admit that your company isn't strong enough to stand up beside his."

      The look the businessmen shot him was livid. "And your advice?" he asked through clenched teeth.

      Schuldig picked up the second folder he'd kept for this meeting. "The only chance you have of ever standing a chance," he said.

      Touru practically snatched it from him and started thumbing through the pages. The profile was for one of the other companies that had been present here today. As far as Touru knew, the CEO was on his side. He had been, at least until Ly Ly had gotten through with him yesterday. That was the conference she'd disappeared to right after their meeting. Schuldig saw no reason to share that heads-up. He waited as Touru read the file, then waited as Touru read it again. This company was a far better match. It was weaker than his, enough that a merger would be appealing, not enough that it would cripple his company. If the man hadn't abruptly decided to switch his support to Takatori, the merger would make Touru a power to be reckoned with, one that even Takatori might have to take seriously.

      Schuldig held up a business card. Touru stared hard at it, then reached out and took it. Within half an hour, the other CEO was back and the two men were arguing numbers. Schuldig listened, a silent audience of one, as they hashed everything out. The back-and-forth made it easy for him to slip unnoticed into Touru's thoughts.

      Now that Schuldig had already convinced him this company would be good for him, it was time for him to lose all of his power. Schuldig slowly and carefully started whittling away at his reservations. He talked Touru into conceding things they all knew he shouldn't and justified changes in the board and ownership with careful, quiet ease. Convincing Touru to give Suginami control of his company took half an hour of itty bitty picking and pulling. It was all quite boring, but not as boring as it was when Touru called up his board to argue with them about his abrupt change in plans. He didn't tell them all of the details, because he knew there was no way they would agree. The other CEO had known this was coming, so his call was fake. It was still pretty convincing.

      It took them two hours to get everything settled and signed. They shook hands and parted in fantastic moods. Touru stood in the doorway for several minutes after Suginami had left, feeling completely on top of the world. At length he shut the door and locked it again. Schuldig put all of the stamped documents into a folder and slid it down the table, out of their way. Wouldn't do to get blood all over it.

      He thought about power, thought about suits and cologne, thought about how thoroughly they were fucking over Touru's entire company. He thought about how much money was at stake. He thought about what he was going to do to Touru, and impatience got the better of him. It made his blood heat and there was nothing feigned in his hungry smile. The clench in his stomach was real. He caught hold of the businessman as soon as he was in reach and dragged Touru over to him. Touru didn't complain, even when the quick pull made him stumble into Schuldig. Hands dragged lines up Schuldig's thighs and around his hips. Touru ground against him in a demand that made Schuldig pant.

      Schuldig fought to get his hands past Touru's jacket. He yanked his undershirt free where it was tucked into his pants. He pressed his hands flat against Touru's abdomen, feeling muscles twitch, feeling the heat that was blood and life and master of tens of billions of yen. He could already feel it falling to pieces, and he shuddered more from that than the hot mouth on his throat.

      He let Touru get him out of his jacket because fitted suit jackets were too good to waste. His white undershirt wasn't as important. Touru didn't care; he got tired of the buttons halfway down his shirt. Schuldig kicked his pants and shoes off to one side and hoped he'd kicked them far enough to avoid the splatter. His hand was already sliding around his own back to the blade strapped against his spine.

      Touru saw the band around his abdomen, but he didn't stop to think it was a threat. He changed his mind the second Schuldig's knife tore his throat open. He gurgled, eyes going wide in disbelieving horror. Schuldig hooked his legs around Touru's waist, keeping him from retreating. The man had one hand against his throat, as if he could somehow staunch the blood that was shooting all over the place. The other scrabbled at Schuldig's face and neck. Schuldig caught his hand and severed his tendons with one neat slice.

      "I meant it, you know," Schuldig said, offering the man a blood-stained smile. "Your pride has just destroyed your company. Before you go, let me inform you that Suginami will be merging with Takatori before the month is out. The paperwork is already signed. It just hasn't been processed. Our condolences, of course, that you won't make it to the party."

      And just like that, twenty thousand lives and one point eight trillion yen spun out of Touru's control and into Schwarz's. He watched Touru collapse to his knees, blue eyes still hungry, breath still ragged and wanting, mouth still pulled into a smile that was pure madness. He didn't blink until Touru had fallen onto his back and couldn't even try to start breathing normally again until the man was dead. He shivered a bit from the rush of it all.

      It had been too long since they'd last let him kill.


      A tap at the door told him Crawford was already there. Of course Crawford had felt Touru die. Schuldig eased off the table and went to let him in. His socks were soaked through with blood in seconds. He didn't really have time to care about that, because Crawford had just opened the door. The precog shut the door behind him and locked it. Golden brown eyes were distant as he turned to consider Schuldig.

      Schuldig knew just by looking at him that Crawford had been listening in. For once, Schuldig couldn't be damned enough to care. He stared at Crawford, unable to look away. The only way he could break it was by reaching up and sliding bloody fingers into his mouth. The tang of blood was unpleasant enough that he grimaced. He undid the last few buttons to get out of his shirt and mopped himself dry. It didn't help much, not like a shower would, but he didn't mind getting blood on his casual clothes.

      Telepathy was good at helping them clean up, since it meant no one really remembered them carrying the body out of there in the body bag Crawford had brought. The maids who mopped the floor were positive they were cleaning juice, and the security guards saw no problem in recording over the tapes that watched the lobby. Crawford and Schuldig left the body with Takatori so he could dispose of it however he wished.

      Schuldig was pretty sure that they'd make the drive home in silence. They did, almost, but Crawford spoke up right as they reached familiar neighborhood roads.

      "Interesting." He didn't sound interested, didn't even sound curious. He could have been telling Schuldig what color the steering wheel was, for all the enthusiasm he worked into his voice "Your file failed to mention that."

      Schuldig smiled out the window as they turned onto their street. "I suppose they thought it would be redundant to say their assassin enjoyed his job."

      "Enjoyed is something a bit milder than that," Crawford said. "You were getting off on it."

      Schuldig wondered if Crawford expected him to deny it or try and explain it away. The thought was entertaining. Schuldig had never been bothered by that part of him. "My demolitions crew didn't really care. Dolch didn't think so favorably of it, but they learned to work around it," Schuldig said at last. "Mostly they rearranged missions so that I wasn't the one with the kills. It is, of course, up to you if you choose to do the same. Unless, of course," he added with a sly look, "you were getting off on listening to me get off."

      Crawford parked in the driveway. Schuldig left him to deal with the keys and files and headed inside first. The entire team was waiting in the den, alerted to gather when the empaths felt Schuldig enter their range. Nine of them had projects directly influenced by today's outcome, whereas the other four had nothing better to do. Ly Ly had wasted no time in telling everyone about that morning's fight. The team had figured out a while ago that there was some lingering tension between Crawford and Schuldig, but until today, few of them had realized just how deep it ran.

      Maybe they expected him to still be shaken. More fool them. He sauntered in still reeking of blood and death. In another life he'd have pitied the empaths for the vicious knot they were left to make sense of. His black jacket didn't button all the way up, which meant they could all see the dried blood on his shirt. They might have thought the blood was his, except there were dried patches of it all over his throat and face where he hadn't wiped himself off as thoroughly as he could have. His orange hair was streaked with it and sticking together in thick strands. The vicious, self-satisfied smile on his face was too savage to be forced.

      He'd just made it to his seat when Crawford entered the room. With the precog right behind him, the psychics didn't get to say anything, but Schuldig could feel their questions burning against his thoughts just the same.

      The only voice that really mattered in all of that chaos was Farfarello's amused drawl: soft, focused, but distant in a way that Schuldig knew Farfarello wasn't thinking at him. I warned you.

      Schuldig was the only one who noticed the cool look Crawford sent Farfarello. Whatever Crawford said was meant for Farfarello alone, but the Irishman didn't seem intimidated. He didn't look at Crawford, but Crawford and Schuldig both knew who that slow, creepy smile was meant for.

      Curious, Schuldig thought, but Crawford called the meeting to order then. He had to brush it aside for later.

Part 14
Back to Mami's Fics