Part 15

      "Do you believe in God?"

      Schuldig continued to stare up at the menu, but the words went out of focus as his mind stumbled over such an odd question. He gave his thoughts a minute to reboot, then sent his teammate a sideways look. Farfarello was gazing at his options as well, but Schuldig didn't know if he was really reading any of it. The cashier continued to beam at them with the eternal patience of a Japanese service worker.

      "I'm not really sure I know you well enough for this kind of conversation," Schuldig finally said.

      Farfarello offered him a vacant smile and slid his gaze Schuldig's way. "Do you?" he pressed.

      Schuldig gave it a few seconds' thought, but even that felt like a waste of time. "No."

      "Oh," Farfarello said, and he stepped up to the counter. "You should."

      Schuldig quirked an eyebrow at the back of his head. "Sure," he agreed. "That sounds like a grand idea. First comes God, then comes Hell. Thanks for looking out for my immortal soul, Farfarello."

      Farfarello ignored him long enough to order. He stepped off to one side when he was finished, giving Schuldig a chance to move up to the counter. Schuldig took another peek up at his options and picked the first thing to catch his eye. As he held his hand out for his change, however, Farfarello put his hand against his chest to stop him.

      "What if one was staring you in the face?" he asked.

      Schuldig eyed him, trying to make sense of that, wondering what he was missing. Farfarello let his hand fall away, knowing Schuldig wasn't going to brush him off this time. The Irishman went to collect his food further down the counter. Schuldig stayed behind long enough to get his change, then caught up with his teammate. Another worker was stuffing his items into bags and they were good to go in a couple short seconds. There was a table open in the corner between two smokers and a mother of three. Farfarello sat where he could keep an eye on the kids, and the glint in his eye was hungry and mean.

      "So," Schuldig said before Farfarello could get them both in trouble. "I get the feeling you're trying to make a point."

      Farfarello slowly shifted his gaze back to Schuldig's face. "The telepath asks for control over a team he knows little about," he said. "I told you to focus on the child."

      "I remember," Schuldig said. "That was six days ago. I still have time."

      "You had time before." Farfarello gave a careless shrug with one shoulder. "Estet mocks your ambition, telepath. You campaign for a team you know nothing about."

      Schuldig considered him over his burger. "You said Nagi was the centerpiece."

      "They could vote for you," Farfarello said. "The psychics and the navigators. Unanimous. Estet would not care."

      "What's so important about one brat?"

      Farfarello's cup couldn't quite hide his mocking smile. "He is a god."

      Schuldig eyed him, wondering if Farfarello had taken a blow to his head in yesterday's earthquake. "Uh-huh. Of course he is."

      "To Estet," Farfarello concluded. "The 'original god'," he said slowly, as if tasting the words for the first time.

      "You're certifiable."

      Farfarello said nothing to that but set about eating. Schuldig gave the conversation up for the time being and started working on his food. The meal was short and silent, or as silent as it could be with three toddlers at Schuldig's back. They threw their trash away in the can closest to the door and were out into the early-autumn evening less than ten minutes after their detour. They worked the food off in the long walk out to their target for the night. Schuldig spent the time trying to decipher Farfarello's strange words. He understood the language, but not the message.

      Akizora Corp was mostly empty this time of night. Schuldig placed security with his gift and led the way to avoid confrontations. They took the stairs up to the eighth floor and walked in on a meeting they weren't supposed to know anything about. Schuldig took in astonished faces, horror and confusion, and stepped back to let Farfarello work. The Berserker moved like a snapped rubber-band kept tense all day and finally allowed release. Schuldig stood in front of the door to keep anyone from running.

      The room smelled like blood and urine when Farfarello was done, a sour smell Schuldig associated with a coward's death. He reached behind himself to turn the knob and followed the door out into the hall. Farfarello slipped out not long after him. Schuldig eyed his clothes critically.

      "Not a splash," he noted.

      "Waste not, want not," Farfarello quoted.

      Schuldig shut the door behind them. "You were in his face when you cut his carotid open," he said. "You should have gotten messy."

      Farfarello didn't bother to answer that accusation, nor did he explain just how he'd avoided getting sloshed on. Schuldig didn't push, because his youngest teammate seemed to be the bigger problem of the evening. He waited until they made it down to the street before bringing up the subject again. "By god, you mean freakishly strong."

      Farfarello unwound the bandages that wrapped around his left bicep and held his arm out to Schuldig. The edge of a piece of paper was sticking out, so Schuldig caught the corner and wriggled it free from its hiding place. It was a photograph, a still taken from a security camera. Schuldig was staring down at a laboratory and a lot of Naoe Nagis. Two or three, and Schuldig might have assumed he had siblings. There were five within range of this camera shot, and who knew how many there were elsewhere in the room.

      "Clones," he said slowly. He supposed it wasn't that strange that Estet would be working to perfect the technique. They or Rosenkreuz could use it to perfect psychics, creating exactly what and who they needed. They could weed out the uncertainties and mass-produce the stronger, proven psychics.

      Farfarello took the picture away from him and twirled it between his fingers. "Estet wants to raise their god," he said. "They are human enough to want a... back-up," he said, then found the word he was looking for. "Contingency plan. Human-bred gods. The child is the original creation, the only one allowed to age naturally. The others grow here in Koua." He stopped the picture to display the incubators to Schuldig again. "Crawford claimed he needed the original. Use a god to find a god."

      "And what Crawford wants, Crawford gets," Schuldig concluded.

      "The elders agreed," Farfarello said. "They woke another godchild to replace him."

      "Naoe was a lab rat," Schuldig said, trying to figure out what this meant for him and his plans. He tried to imagine all of the testing. He came up with conflicting schedules: on one hand, revered as a source for godlike clones; on the other, little more than a living guinea pig more valued for his blood and power than anything else. It would explain why Naoe expected the team and Schuldig to defer to him, and why Farfarello would occasionally let him have his way. But as Farfarello had reminded Naoe last week, the telekinetic could never hold rank: he was still, at heart, just a DNA donor – a DNA donor Crawford freed from a life spent in a laboratory.

      "Naoe's loyal to Crawford," he said. It sounded redundant even as he said it.

      "You will not win the team without him," Farfarello agreed. "The team does not matter. You must have two of three say yes."

      Two of three of the top three men in Schwarz, Schuldig knew. He already had Farfarello's vote and he would never get Crawford's. Naoe was the crucial battleground in taking Schwarz. "A god's vote is that important, huh?"

      "Yes," Farfarello intoned. "Estet's youngest grandson is that important."

      Schuldig was left staring after him. Farfarello humored his shock by turning and walking backward. Schuldig struggled for words, but the best he came up with was a startled protest. "Wait. Wait. Two of the elders have grandsons on this team?"


      Schuldig saw the last answer he wanted to deal with in Farfarello's mocking smile.

      "You're not a psychic," he said flatly. "You're no one's fucking grandson."

      But already he was remember Farfarello walking away from Crawford without waiting for a dismissal, knowing he could, and Crawford not even trying to call after him. He could remember Naoe arguing with Crawford over Schuldig's disrespect and Crawford allowing him to do so. He remembered Farfarello getting in Nagi's face and harassing him about his heritage and rank. Even still, he refused to believe it.

      Reality didn't really care what he wanted, though.

      "Grand-nephew," was Farfarello's bored response. "Adopted thirteen years ago when I was enrolled as a Berserker. His favorite."

      "You're shitting me."

      Farfarello had said he'd get Schuldig Estet's votes. Suddenly Schuldig didn't know if he meant the elders or the dead minds on their team. Schuldig's feet had frozen to the ground. Farfarello came to a stop further down the sidewalk and watched him, waiting for a response. Schuldig stared back at him, blinking a couple times to give his brain time to catch up. It didn't really work; he could feel himself getting the edges of a migraine. He pressed his fingers to his temples and dug in hard enough to leave half-moon marks in his skin.

      "Do they know?" Schuldig pressed. He wouldn't believe he'd missed picking this up from his teammates. He'd resign as a telepath if that was the case, living here for months without ever finding out just who he was living with. His natural arrogance said he couldn't miss such a thing, but beneath that, much quieter, was the unwelcome reminder that he'd missed Tomoko's undying devotion to Farfarello. He couldn't hear Farfarello and he'd had a language barrier blocking him from Tomoko for a little while, but still. He blamed it on Crawford, for breaking his shields and flooding his mind with that agonizing white noise. Somehow it all boiled down to Crawford. Schuldig was getting used to that.

      Farfarello cut his early resignation plans short with a: "They do not need to know."

      Schuldig exhaled slowly, letting relief melt through his veins. A too-familiar heat followed it. Now that he knew it wasn't his failing, he was recovering at a rapid-fire pace, and he could positively feel his brain switch tracks. "Let me get this straight, then. Five navigators, two empaths, two telekinetics, one electrokinetic, one shapeshifter, one pyrokinetic, one telepath, one pseudo-precognitive, one Berserker, three grandsons, one god. Schwarz."

      "You don't honestly think you can win this team from Estet," Farfarello taunted him.

      "Ohhhh," Schuldig said, dragging it out. His fingers started trembling against his face. When he smiled, it was not a nice smile whatsoever, and definitely not an expression he should be turning on someone who technically, seriously outranked him. "Oh, I have to have it. I'm going to take it, one way or the other."

      He had so much power within his grasp that it physically hurt to think about it.

      There was no way he was letting Crawford keep it.

      But still—

      Something didn't sound quite right.

      Schuldig had assumed Crawford wanted to break free out of some sort of fear. Survival, maybe, since his farce had to give out at some point. It didn't make sense anymore; it didn't sound that simple. Schwarz's navigators had come out of necessity. Schwarz's psychics had earned their spot through sheer skill. So why had Crawford gone out of his way to get Naoe and Farfarello? Maybe he did need Naoe for his master plan. But why had he orchestrated Farfarello's fall from favor?

      Schuldig didn't know, but he had time to figure it out. He'd do it because he couldn't resist a challenge. He'd do it for the look on Crawford's face when Schuldig took everything away from him. But mostly, he'd do it because he just couldn't help himself.

      He was going to have Schwarz under his control by Christmas. He was going to win this team and Estet over and have Estet's grandsons at his command. He would get his week of vacation to go wherever he wanted without anyone having any right to question him about his choices. Estet had a year in which they had to find the cornerstone, and rumor had it that that was here in Japan, here within Schwarz's reach. Schuldig had the world at his fingertips: either to rule the greatest team Estet would ever have, or to cut it all free in favor of a life for himself. He was getting everything he could ever want.

      He was still shaking when they made it home fifteen minutes later.

      He didn't remember Farfarello splitting away from him to head to Estet's household. He barely remembered leaving his shoes at the front step, and Nicole making dinner in the kitchen, and her mental demand as to what had gotten into him to buzz him all the hell. He didn't try to answer. He went straight upstairs and across his room to press up against Crawford's door.

      Let me in.

      There was no sound to tell him Crawford heard, no shield to tell him Crawford was actually inside. Perfect blank space and two buzzed minds and holy shit Estet's children and it was all about spite, it had to be spite that was the real driving force behind this.

      The soft crunch of a socked foot on tatami told him to take his weight off the door. Crawford slid it open and Schuldig tilted forward to rest against him instead. Fingers knotted in Crawford's clothes automatically and Schuldig pressed his face into Crawford's cheek. He sucked in a deep breath through clenched teeth that smelled like soap and Crawford, that tasted like power on the back of his tongue. Schuldig didn't even know if he'd closed his bedroom door behind him but he didn't care.

      He dragged his hands across Crawford's face, feeling his way to the buttons on the other man's dress shirt. A real precog would have worn a shirt with less fucking buttons.

      That is a useless argument in this situation,
Crawford told him.

      Schuldig bared his teeth in smile and turned his head just enough to kiss the corner of Crawford's mouth. You accused me of being the spiteful one, he said. Is this a 'takes one to know one' argument?

      Crawford ignored that and took a couple steps back. Schuldig moved with him, refusing to relinquish his grip on Crawford's shirt. The older telepath reached over his head to shut the sliding door. Schuldig guessed that meant he'd left his open. It wasn't like a door made much of a difference when their housemates could feel exactly what was going on. Well, Schuldig's side of things, anyway. He wondered what part of his soul he had to sell to get shields like Crawford's.

      It is a price you don't know how to pay, Crawford said, a little too coolly.

      Curiosity spiked through Schuldig's power haze, but he let go of it for later. He was more interested in shoving Crawford across the room. Crawford snagged a hand in his hair to make sure Schuldig went with him. Crawford's bed was still folded up in the corner. At this point, Schuldig really didn't care if they fucked on bare tatami.

      You're making a mistake, Nicole warned him.

      Duly noted, Schuldig sent back.

      You'll hate yourself later.

      Schuldig didn't bother to respond. He'd gotten Crawford's back up against the wall and that was all he needed. He gave up on Crawford's shirt in favor of grabbing at his pants. Getting them unbuttoned and unzipped took just a second and he slid down the precog to settle on his knees. The mat was more uncomfortable than he'd thought it would be, but he didn't care.

      I will not let you have this team, Crawford told him.

      Schuldig flashed a look up at him through orange bangs. You don't need them.

      What he meant was, You don't deserve them, and Crawford could hear that just fine. Fingers twisted tight enough in his hair to yank painfully hard at his scalp. Schuldig refused to wince at the pain. He could hear hair snapping, but he didn't care. He leaned forward to tease soft skin with his mouth and tongue. In sharp contrast, fingernails dragged red lines down Crawford's thighs. Crawford hissed in a sharp breath through clenched teeth, but Schuldig didn't know which sensations that sound was in reaction to. So long as Crawford didn't tell him to stop, Schuldig couldn't be bothered to find out, either.

      He sucked Crawford off months after he'd first dreamed about it, months since Crawford had destroyed everything he'd thought he wanted, with two empaths as an audience. The tatami left imprints on his kneecaps through his pants by the time he was done and would take half an hour to fade out completely. He wanted to spit into Crawford's mouth. He remembered to swallow just in time and crushed a hard kiss against Crawford's mouth. He stared his leader down over the kiss, dragging it out until he felt some of his mental balance slide back into place. When he stepped back, he was smiling, and even he could feel the mockery in the expression.

      "I've got reports to write," he said.

      "I expect them before you go to sleep tonight," Crawford said.

      Schuldig let himself out and shut Crawford's door behind him. He kicked at his futon until it was laid flat and sat heavily on it. It was awkward when he was still hard as sin and a hand went automatically to his lap as he thought over the evening.

      He could taste Crawford long after he'd gotten himself off. Even when he'd written his reports and gotten settled, it lingered like a heavy weight in his mouth. He fell asleep to the tune of his future falling perfectly into place.


      Friday marked the end of the business week and the second day of Schwarz's post-quake recon. Most of Thursday had been useless, since their pool of targets and clients had been reacting to the disaster. There'd been press conferences and endless reports of losses on the news, giving Nagi and the navigators plenty of information to work through. Crawford had spent most of the day with Takatori and did the same on Friday. Farfarello devoted his Friday to making rounds in the underground. Schuldig made rounds with some of the newer add-ons to Takatori's circle, making sure no one's nerves were rattled enough to make them unreliable.

      Running into Naoe was completely unplanned.

      They passed at a train station, Schuldig getting off on the platform and finding Naoe waiting at the opposite tracks. The telekinetic couldn't have heard Schuldig, but he felt someone's stare on his head and looked back. It didn't take him long to place his teammate in the crowd. The overhead speakers warned that Naoe's train was approaching.

      I don't believe in gods, Schuldig said.

      Naoe's expression didn't change, and with his thoughts muddled, Schuldig couldn't tell what he thought of such a blunt dismissal. The young man said nothing for so long that Schuldig thought he wasn't going to get an answer. As Naoe's train came flying by the platform, slow to put on its brakes, he finally responded. His mental voice was crystal clear. Schuldig could taste the power in it the way he hadn't been able to hear it in Naoe's infrequent spoken words. It shivered across his mind like ice.

      Farfarello told you.

      I think his grandfather told him to,
Schuldig said. Estet knows I want to inherit Schwarz. I think that lesson was meant as a deterrent.

He said it without any emotion, but his body language said enough when he slid his gaze away dismissively. They will never give you this team.

      I cannot say what Estet will or will not do,
Schuldig said. I have no right to even make guesses. All I can do is hope that they will do as they have always done: what is best for Estet and Rosenkreuz's futures. If I have any chance to contribute to that, then I will take it, and not even death will make me let go.

      The doors on the train slid open. Naoe didn't move, so those exiting the train were forced to step around him if they wanted to get onto the platform.


      The child didn't look back at him or respond. Schuldig only gave him a moment; he didn't have enough time to wait on the telekinetic's cooperation.

      I don't believe in gods. I will not treat you as one. I will not respect you as one. I will not tiptoe around your blood relations and your upbringing at Estet and Crawford's blatant favoritism. I already said it to Kwan: everyone is equal in Schwarz save for the one appointed as its leader. I will only treat you like a teammate. I will only treat you as a human. If you ever wonder what that it feels like to be human to someone, you know where to find me.

      Enough, telepath,
Naoe said, and he stepped onto the train.

      Schuldig said nothing else. He was content to stay behind on the platform and watch as the train pulled away.

Continue to part 16
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