Part 16

      The following weeks could be summed up in one word: frustrating. As November rolled around and Schwarz flitted from project to project, finding time alone with Nagi was almost impossible. Schuldig didn't know if it was Crawford's doing, Nagi's, or the team's usual workaholic frenzy getting in the way. Schuldig had pointed Crawford's attention toward Tremelle's previously troublesome client, Higuchi, and Schwarz was slowly going down the list of neutral characters. To arrange a believable government, they needed dissidence and tiebreakers. The trick was in the proportions—making sure Takatori always won the important issues.

      It meant Schuldig was busier now than he'd ever been. He paired off with Ly Ly and Nicole in turns and sought out every single up-and-coming politician and CEO who might have a say in the elections, and he spent three solid weeks getting to know them. Sometimes he showed up with a bold introduction, others he pretended to be a freelance writer for the Japan Times, and now and then he claimed he was an intern for a Japanese company who needed outside interviews. Thirty minutes here, two hours there, an endless round of Japanese tea and snacks and dinners back-to-back with no break but transit time, and Schuldig wondered if the boredom or acid reflux would kill him first.

      Most of the time they made the last train home; others the empaths went on ahead so Schuldig could finish talking to clients into the morning hours. He spent a couple nights in capsule hotels, one night in an all-night diner drinking coffee, and on the occasional night when what he learned was too important to sit on, he shelled out a small fortune for the taxi ride home. No matter what hour he arrived, Crawford woke at his summons, and they put the tiny details into reports and notes. Crawford's map of Tokyo was long-gone, replaced now by files of their biggest clients and problems. Schuldig and Crawford filled another two walls with the smaller peons.

      Schuldig barely had room to breathe, much less sleep. He learned the Japanese art of sleeping on trains, using a low level frequency of his gift as an alarm clock. When nearby passengers reacted to the stop he needed to get off on, he woke and went right back to work. The cat naps saved his sanity, perhaps, but in the moments he couldn't sleep and wouldn't think about work, he thought about Nagi and the approaching deadline he'd promised Farfarello. Luckily he never had time to see Farfarello, either, so he didn't have to endure any more "hurry the fuck up" speeches.

      Finally Crawford allowed him a morning off, since half the team was required to be at the wharf late into the night. Schuldig slept through it, woke up in time to drink some coffee and eat lunch, and spent the afternoon compiling reports and updating Crawford. He passed Ly Ly and Nicole in the kitchen on his third or fourth coffee run. They'd taken the lighter end of the stick in this ongoing investigation, but they still looked tired. He was used to masking his exhaustion, but façades meant nothing to empaths.

      Ly Ly watched him as he nursed his coffee at the sink. She didn't say anything, but that was all right. Ly Ly had been touch-and-go suspicion since the start. These last few weeks working together showed Schuldig both her bad side and her good—the crabby bitch that emerged when she was tired and sick of their unsavory clients, and the unyielding empath who'd earned her place on Crawford's team.

      Schuldig drained the last of his coffee, set the mug to one side, and tapped his fingers to his temple in salute to Ly Ly as he left. "'Til tonight."

      Then it was back upstairs to endless reports, and he might have considered stabbing his own eyes out if Nagi and Farfarello didn't show up halfway through the afternoon. They were there for Crawford, not Schuldig, but they had to cross Schuldig's room to get to Crawford's. Schuldig watched them go, Nagi with his blank face and so-called godhood and Farfarello who'd earned the elders' favor somehow. Nagi led, but Farfarello didn't follow—he took up the rear because it amused him, either the illusion of following another's lead or the way Nagi was so bold as to keep a Berserker at his back.

      "Crawford," Nagi said quietly, and opened the door at Crawford's summons.

      Farfarello closed it behind them. Schuldig huffed a little in amusement and went back to his papers. If Schwarz had an inner circle, Schuldig was neither here nor there; he was the border that kept the lower levels out and the grandchildren in. He knew the end-goal and helped piece both futures together, but he wasn't ranked or trusted enough to be allowed full disclosure.

      Yet, he thought to himself.

      Farfarello and Nagi were there only for an hour, then left the same way they'd come, except Crawford followed them so far as his doorway. He stood there as they left, not watching their departure but gazing off into space. Schuldig gave him a minute, curious, then asked,


      Crawford glanced his way. "Do you have anything new to report?"

      "Not yet," Schuldig said.

      "When you do," Crawford said, and he went back into his room and closed the door.

      Seven of them met up at eleven that night: Tomoko for technical assistance, Nagi and Farfarello as heavy hitters, Schuldig and the empaths as proximity guards, and Crawford to manage. They took two cars out to the wharf, Tomoko driving Farfarello and the empaths and Schuldig tagging along with Nagi and Crawford. Schuldig idly wondered what he'd expected of Nagi and Crawford when they were away from the prying ears and interests of their teammates, but his answer was resounding silence. Neither man had anything to say to each other. Crawford focused on the road, and Nagi stared out the window.

      "Is it really that fascinating?" Schuldig asked after Nagi'd stared at the scenery for a solid hour.

      "Yes," Nagi said without looking away from the window.

      An unhelpful response, but still a response, so Schuldig tacked it up between Neutral and Victory on his mental scoreboard.

      Masafumi, one of Takatori's sons, was currently running his scientific experiments out of a warehouse near the water. He'd cut a few deals of his own to get proper space and was making the move tonight. Takatori wasn't pleased by his son's initiative, and less pleased by the things Masafumi was into, but he couldn't risk anyone catching his son in the act. That meant he'd rented out Schwarz as bodyguards to oversee the process. Schuldig didn't really care, since Schwarz didn't have to do any of the lifting themselves—Masafumi had found a couple contractors to pack and ship it all.

      They reached his warehouse a little after midnight. The grounds were poorly lit; supposed electrical malfunctions put out all the lamps closest to Masafumi's property. The team was working with night vision goggles instead. Schuldig was familiar with the equipment, thanks to all the hit-and-run work he'd done with Dolch, but it was obvious the empaths hadn't used such tools since their Demolitions team. Crawford said nothing when Schuldig showed them how to adjust the settings and straps, and then the team spread out, positioning themselves along a loose perimeter.

      Masafumi's people came in a straggling line and officially started working around one. Tomoko followed them in and went to the upstairs office. Masafumi couldn't be seen here, so Tomoko was running his part, downloading and transferring files and erasing the tracks. Nagi was in the security tower a couple blocks away, rewriting the tapes to show nothing but blank space.

      Schuldig kept a mental eye out, monitoring everything, jumping from focused mind to bored and back again. He didn't hear Farfarello's physical approach, but the muted hum of his mind had Schuldig looking over his shoulder. Farfarello melted out of the shadows a few steps back, but his attention was on Crawford. Schuldig followed his attention to Crawford, who was standing at the front entrance with a clipboard. As contractors went past with their loads, they read him the ID off their particular boxes, and Crawford marked it as received. Schuldig watched for a minute, but he wasn't sure what had caught Farfarello's eye.

      "Farfarello?" Schuldig asked.

      "Something is wrong," Farfarello said.

      "Enlighten me," Schuldig said, then, "Wait."

      Farfarello glanced at him. Schuldig barely noticed, too startled by something he couldn't quite place. He stood silent and still, hand halfway to his gun, as he waited for his mind to catch up with his instincts. When it came again, it was so faint he barely recognized it. "That. Did you feel that?"

      Farfarello snarled something unintelligible and shoved past Schuldig, stalking across the courtyard toward Crawford. Schuldig twisted, trying to locate the security tower through his goggles.

      Crawford, is that Nagi? The ground is—

      He didn't get a chance to finish; the trembling was a full-fledged, violent shaking that threatened to knock him off his feet. He stumbled, grabbing at open air for support and finding nothing. He let himself fall to a crouch and dug his fingers into the asphalt for balance. He'd never felt an earthquake before, aside from the one Nagi created for them a month or so back. It was a little thrilling, thinking this was something far beyond their control. Psychics could manipulate nature, but going up against her in a fight was never fair—they were a pea against a giant in terms of power reserves and willpower.

      Looks like Tokyo remembers what we did to her. Vengeful bitch.

      He looked over at the contractors, who were all kneeling around their boxes, hands over their heads for protection. Farfarello was almost within arm's reach of Crawford, who was now standing sideways in the warehouse doorway. Crawford turned at Farfarello's approach, already peeling his goggles off, and put his hand up in warning. Schuldig was too far away to hear what he said, but Crawford didn't get to finish it, anyway.

      The night went red-hot; the ground heaved beneath Schuldig's feet. Schuldig felt the explosion almost before he heard it. Heat hit him with a physical force, throwing him backward. He hit the ground hard, caught it shoulder first and head second, and rolled, clawing at the ground for purchase he couldn't find. He ended up on his side, dazed and facing the building. His goggles were white and blinding, so he yanked them off and threw them aside to stare with his own eyes.

      The earthquake had shaken loose Masafumi's precious equipment, and the hazardous chemicals the contractors hadn't yet safely packed away had mixed with deadly results. The building was two-thirds flames now, with concrete barely showing through the smoke, but Schuldig had no problems making out the single silhouette in the doorway—just one, when both Crawford and Farfarello should have been standing there.

      No, not one, that was—


      Schuldig shoved himself to unsteady feet, swaying a bit, and he blinked hard to clear his vision. When his eyes finally focused again through the throbbing pain in his head, the sight hadn't changed. There were two figures in the doorway, but only one shape, because Crawford was shielding Farfarello with his own body. He had his arms wrapped around Farfarello and was hunched forward, using his broader form to protect Farfarello—and to hold him still. Farfarello was kicking at the ground with his boots and clawing at Crawford's arms, but with the roar of the flames and the ringing in Schuldig's ears, it took Schuldig a moment to understand what he was screaming. His mouth was shaping a word over and over.

      No. A name.


      A hand grabbed Schuldig's shoulder, nearly startling him out of his skin, and Schuldig looked over to see a white-faced Nicole at his side. The others were running over, booking it from their stations across the compound to see what had just gone so horrendously wrong. Schuldig watched their faces as they slowed, their expressions when they realized who was standing so close to the fire, the horror first and the shock when they saw what Crawford was doing.

      There was a sizzling pop and a flurry of sparks like static electricity going off, and Nagi appeared at Schuldig's side. Ly Ly recoiled so fast she almost fell over, and Nicole instinctively swat at him. Nagi didn't notice, and he didn't hesitate. He was past them in a blur, running for Crawford and Farfarello. Schuldig struggled to his feet, letting Nicole drag him the rest of the way.

      Crawford looked up. Nagi must have called out to him mentally, because there was no way Crawford could have heard him past the booms and thuds of exploding laboratories giving out. Farfarello took full advantage of Crawford's distraction, and he wheeled around Crawford in a heartbeat. Schuldig took a quick step forward, mouth open, realizing Farfarello intended on diving right into the inferno in search of his lover. Crawford grabbed at him, but Nagi was faster, and Farfarello was thrown away from the doorway. Nagi half-turned to watch the rough landing, hand out to stop Farfarello a second time if he had to, and so Nagi missed his only chance to protect Crawford. Because in the next heartbeat, Crawford was gone, turning through the doorway and disappearing into the fire.

      "No!" Nicole shrieked, running forward a couple strides before she caught herself.

      Nagi whipped around at the sound and froze when he saw the empty doorway. Farfarello tried getting past him, but Nagi threw him away again, further this time, so Farfarello crash-landed at Schuldig's feet. Schuldig grabbed at him when he tried to get up, using his full weight to keep Farfarello down. It wasn't much, but he wasn't alone—Nicole and Ly Ly jumped in to help.

      "She's alive." Schuldig hadn't even realized he'd spoken, hadn't realized he'd even looked for her, but that fierce reassurance was all that got through to Farfarello. The Berserker, usually so completely disconnected, looked hopelessly young right now. "She's alive. He'll get her out."

      But why? Schuldig thought numbly, staring over Farfarello's head at the burning building.

      "What the fuck is he doing?" Ly Ly asked hoarsely. "Why did he go back?"

      "Tomoko's still inside," Schuldig said hollowly. "He went back for her."

      The look she shot him was blank, uncomprehending, disbelieving, horrified, everything he was feeling. Crawford was the ice man. He was the apathetic leader of Schwarz who didn't think twice of what his teammates felt or wanted outside of what would get the job done. Why was he risking his life to save a dead mind? It couldn't be for Tomoko's sake. It was for the Berserker who somehow carried rank in Estet, who could mock Crawford and walk out on him so long as the team wasn't there to witness it, but it wasn't about power. It was something about the teenager himself. Crawford only had a split second to react when the first explosion went off—shielding Farfarello was instinctive, not a calculated choice. But why?

      Crawford was only gone for a couple minutes, but it felt like hours. And then he was there in the doorway again, carrying a limp form, and Schuldig was smart enough to let go of Farfarello before Farfarello broke every bone in his body. Farfarello was on his feet running in the blink of an eye. Schuldig followed him, and Schwarz followed Schuldig. Nagi put his hand to Crawford's back, pushing Crawford and his unconscious burden away from the flames as fast as he could.

      Farfarello and Schuldig reached them first, but Farfarello didn't try to pull Tomoko away from Crawford. He let Crawford hold her while he checked for her pulse, his pale hands moving from her throat to her face in desperate little brushes. Tomoko's long hair was singed dangerously close to her skull and she was filthy from blood and soot, but she was alive. Schuldig glanced from Tomoko's face to Farfarello's to Crawford's and hesitated when he realized Crawford was watching Farfarello. He was right—the girl in Crawford's arms was completely inconsequential, except for what she was to Farfarello.

      Schuldig shot a quick look at Farfarello just as Farfarello finally looked up at Crawford, and the look that flickered over Farfarello's face was raw. Not for the first time did Schuldig wish desperately for an empath's power. He'd kill to know what emotion was behind an expression that vulnerable.

      "Take her," Crawford said, voice hoarse from the smoke he'd inhaled, and Farfarello let Crawford shift Tomoko into his arms.

      Schuldig belatedly realized the team had caught up with them. The empaths were staring at Crawford in bewilderment and relief. Crawford didn't bother to return their stares, as if nothing he'd done was out of the ordinary. The front didn't help. The ice man was gone; all that was left was a smoke-stained human with singed clothes, a leader who'd gone into hell to get a member of his team.

      Schuldig had wondered, time to time, how Schwarz would react when Crawford finally acknowledged his fallibilities and imperfections, when he finally hinted at his own mortalities and weaknesses. This wasn't how he'd ever imagined it would come to light, and he almost wondered if this hadn't been a ploy to win their attention back from Schuldig. Even as he thought it, he knew it wasn't true.

      "Nagi," Crawford said, and Nagi appeared at his side. The telekinetic's expression was back to its usual composed mask, but this time Schuldig could see through it. It had a lot to do with Nagi's hands, which were covered in blood and trembling where he held them palm-up in front of his own chest. Ly Ly shot Nicole a quick look, too startled to be discreet. That blood wasn't Nagi's. "Contain it as best you can."

      Nagi turned back to the building and made a wrenching gesture with his hands. There was a horrible sound from deep in the building, an impact Schuldig felt in his chest, and the fire went from an inferno to a manageable blaze. Nagi had ripped the air out of the building, suffocating the worst of the flames. The night was almost eerily quiet in the aftermath, and the world was dark again.

      "Schuldig," Crawford said, looking over at the terrified contractors. "Get them out of here. Have them take what can be salvaged. Masafumi will have to live without the rest. Farfarello," he said, and reached for Tomoko. Farfarello's hands tightened on Tomoko, but he didn't move, even when Crawford slipped his burned hand under Tomoko's blouse. It took only a second, and he pulled loose Tomoko's thumb drive. She must have tucked it into her bra for safekeeping when the fire started, needing her hands free to navigate a way out of the mess. "We are finished here."

      A couple callous words and ugly threats got the contractors moving again, and Schuldig waited until the last van was bolted shut and pulling out. He was starting to turn to join his team at the cars when he saw the colored lights of fire engines and police cars flashing off the walls of the nearby buildings.

      Crawford, let me stay, he said. I won't let them follow.

      Do it,
Crawford said.

      Schuldig smiled, faint and vicious, and turned back to face his new opponents. He opened his gift, pulled in every mind he could reach. He used his hand to guide the focus of his gift, dragging his finger down the line of approaching vehicles. Luckily the news vans weren't here yet; hopefully the police had put up a block a ways back to keep nosey reporters away. The cars screeched to a halt, spilling firemen, policemen, and various other emergency workers into the courtyard. Most looked to the fire, others straight at Schuldig and past him to Schwarz's cars.

      No, Schuldig commanded when the first policeman took a step his way. You do not see us. You will make room to let us pass and you will not remember us.

      Schuldig felt something in his ear pop, felt the heat of blood. It was too many minds to try blanking at once, especially when he was attempting to draw their attention from such a conspicuous target as two departing vehicles at the scene of a crime, but Schuldig wasn't the best by a technicality. He felt them struggle, felt attention turn his way again and again as their minds stubbornly noticed what he insisted they blank out, and he dug his telepathy in with everything he had.

      Let us go.

      He built a mental ladder, shunting their attention from Schwarz's cars to himself and himself to the fire, breaking down the target to something more manageable and important. He had the mother of all headaches by the time they finally forgot he existed, but he'd won, and that was all that mattered. He stood still as stone, watching as they threw themselves wholeheartedly into extinguishing the fire, waiting until they were so consumed in it and their tasks that they noticed him only as an afterthought. Then he casually turned away, shielding his movements, and disappeared into the night.

      He wasn't sure how far he walked before he spotted an open taxi. The driver wasn't happy about the distance, but he kept his grumbling to himself, and that was all Schuldig cared about. He was dropped off at the end of the street, continued the narrow path on foot, and eased into Schwarz's middle house. Nicole and Ly Ly were wide awake and in Nicole's room. Schuldig stopped by the kitchen, stole the entire water pitcher for his parched throat, and continued upstairs with it.

      He didn't sleep.

      He lay in bed until half past three, and then he couldn't stand it any more—not the silence, not the memories replaying endlessly before his eyes, not Crawford's quiet, occasional coughs as his tortured lungs tried to rid themselves of the toxins he'd inhaled. He got to his feet and crossed the room on silent footsteps.

      Let me in.

      When Crawford didn't argue, Schuldig slid the door open and stepped inside. Crawford was lying on his stomach in bed, and even in the darkness Schuldig could see the shadows on his back that had to be injuries. Schuldig lingered in the doorway a moment, wavering between exhaustion and exasperation.

      Why haven't you been seen to?

      By whom?
Crawford asked, and Schuldig supposed it was a justifiable response. Nagi was Crawford's little general, not his nursemaid; it'd upset the odd hierarchy between them if Nagi had to care for Crawford. Farfarello was busy with Tomoko and would probably purposefully do more harm than good. The others had no right to see Crawford like this. Crawford should have gone to a hospital, but doing so meant finding a foolproof way to cover his tracks. Takatori's people could never know he'd been injured on the job.

      Idly Schuldig thought he could turn around and walk away, because Crawford wasn't asking for or expecting assistance from him either, but he brushed that aside before it even fully formed.

      "Aggravating," Schuldig said, mostly meaning it. "I can't even use this to my advantage."

      Schwarz failed their first job tonight since Crawford first took command of it, but because nature was involved, not even Estet would hold Crawford accountable. Precognitives couldn't predict what nature would do. Besides, Nagi would probably kill Schuldig if Schuldig tried to start trouble over this, seeing how Crawford was injured, and Schuldig doubted Farfarello would side with him when Tomoko's life was at stake. Even Nicole might think Schuldig an asshole if he spread dissent regarding tonight's disaster—the empaths were fascinated by Farfarello and Tomoko's odd relationship.

      I won't apologize.

      Schuldig gave a quiet snort and went back downstairs. The team had a medical kit in the bathroom, and Schuldig filled the accompanying bucket with warm water. He heard Nicole stir, but he didn't acknowledge her approach until he was heading for the stairs. She was standing in the kitchen, arms folded tightly over her chest, dressed in little more than a long t-shirt.

      She didn't say anything, but she didn't have to. The why was loud enough in her thoughts.

      Schuldig shook his head, because he had no answers to give her, and brought his things upstairs. He set them by Crawford's futon, closed the door behind himself, and turned on the overhead light. He surveyed Crawford's burned back with a critical eye, taking in the different shades of red, the places where it was almost black. Then he knelt on the tatami beside Crawford.

      "This will hurt," he said.

      "I doubt it," Crawford said.

      Schuldig followed the flick of his fingers to a bottle of sake. He gave it an experimental shake, found it half-gone, and sent another look at Crawford's back. He held the bottle out in offering. "One more for luck, just the same," he said, and Crawford pushed himself up enough from the mattress to drink. Schuldig watched the way he tipped his head back, the way it went down so easy, and frowned a little to himself. He took the bottle when Crawford was done and jiggled it a little to test how much Crawford managed in that pull.

      Where did this come from? he wondered, because he doubted Schwarz stopped by a convenience store on the way home to buy their "perfect" leader medicinal booze. Crawford kept this in his room somewhere, maybe part of a private stash.

      Schuldig imagined him standing alone in front of his maps and reports, straddling the line between who he was and had to be, drinking to ease the headache and transition. Either he was Lady Estet's precious, infallible precognitive, or he was Schwarz's unforgiving, uncaring leader, or he was a man who could drink like a pro and fuck like a star. Not or. Somehow he was all three at once. Powerful enough to con Estet out of their future and command their grandchildren, human enough to protect Farfarello and lash out at his most ambitious teammate when he'd been pushed too far.

      Schuldig was a telepath. He knew things about people they didn't know about themselves. He could make snap judgments when he had to and paint a reasonable assumption of a man's character after a half hour with their thoughts. But Crawford, whose mind was shielded to his, whom Schuldig had such a limited view of—Crawford kept kicking him for a spin, and Schuldig wasn't sure how to feel about that.

      "Who the fuck are you?" Schuldig muttered, more appreciative than irritated.

      Schuldig took a long drag from the bottle when Crawford passed it back, then set it where Crawford could reach it easily.

      Then he set to work, scraping away burnt flesh and cleaning the raw mess underneath. The smell was horrible; the white-knuckled grip Crawford had on the bed was almost worse. Schuldig should have been pleased by all this, in a distant corner of his mind perhaps, this glimpse of a Crawford who rarely ever surfaced, but confusion made it impossible. He worked in silence, intent on doing the best job he could. The med kit had a rather extensive array of things for burns, a necessary inclusion when they had a pyrokinetic on the team, so Schuldig had everything he needed to slowly patch Crawford back together. He couldn't fix it overnight, but he could make sure it'd heal right. Crawford would be feeling these burns for weeks afterwards, if not a couple months.

      When Schuldig was finally done, they were both exhausted, but Schuldig still leaned forward to whisper at Crawford's ear, "Is he really worth this?"

      And Crawford—maybe because of the pain, maybe because it was useless to deny it at this point, maybe because of the alcohol—just said, "Yes."

      "He would have gone back for her. You didn't have to."

      "He can't feel heat or pain," Crawford said. "He would not have known when to stop."

      It was an answer, but not the one he wanted, not the one he needed. Schuldig pressed his lips into a thin line and shook his head, frustrated. The only sounds in the room now were Crawford's quiet, ragged breaths and Schuldig's heart pounding in his temples. Schuldig tucked a knee to his chest and propped his chin on it, content to keep watch. The night stretched on, endless and unnoticed.

      Schuldig didn't realize he'd fallen asleep there until Farfarello's arrival woke him. His gift was the only warning he got; he didn't hear the door slide open and he couldn't hear Farfarello's footsteps. Schuldig looked up just as Farfarello caught the string to turn the overhead light on. Schuldig flinched at the sudden brightness and scrubbed a hand across his eyes. When he thought his eyes adjusted enough, he sent a sidelong look up at Farfarello. Farfarello's face was carved from stone as he stared down at Crawford's back.

      At first Schuldig thought Farfarello was inspecting the damage, but the silence stretched too long. Farfarello and Crawford were arguing where Schuldig couldn't hear it. It felt like it went on forever, and then Farfarello seized the back of Schuldig's neck in an iron grip. Schuldig went perfectly still—one flex of Farfarello's fingers and he'd break Schuldig's spine. Farfarello leaned over painstakingly slow and put his mouth to Schuldig's ear, close enough his lips brushed Schuldig's ear lobe when he said, "Fix him."

      An order or a threat; the venomous tone made it hard to tell.

      "I'm a telepath, not a medic," Schuldig said.

      Farfarello twitched his fingers, and Schuldig obediently tilted his head back to look up into Farfarello's deadly smile. "You'll do."

      Farfarello let go and turned away, and he left as silently as he'd come. Schuldig watched Crawford's bedroom door close behind him, listened for a creak of the stairs that never came, and looked back at Crawford. His neck was sore, and idly he wondered if he'd have bruises later.

      Ly Ly had fallen asleep in Nicole's room, but Schuldig took the conversation to mental grounds anyway.

      That's interesting. Last I checked, he didn't like you.

      He hasn't in years. It is not my concern.

      He knows you were behind his expulsion from the Berserkers.

      Then I assume he knows why I did it, but I do not expect him to agree with my methods.
Crawford didn't give Schuldig a chance to ask another question but said, Sleep. Tomorrow we have damage control to do.

      Schuldig stared hard at the back of his head, willing it to open up and spit out the answers he wanted, but nothing happened. Grimacing, he picked himself to his feet and went to his own room.

      Sleep came in jagged batches, and dawn came too quickly. Takatori was furious, but Crawford spent an hour on the phone with him before Schwarz's morning meeting. Tomoko didn't make it over, unsurprisingly, but Farfarello was there when Schuldig made it downstairs. The team hadn't been up for long, but they'd been awake just long enough to hear all about the previous night's events. They were muttering quietly amongst themselves when he entered. Nicole glanced his way, silently inviting him to contribute to the gossip, but Schuldig said nothing—to her, at least.

      How is she? he asked Farfarello. Farfarello flicked his fingers, writing it off as none of Schuldig's business. Schuldig slid his gift Tomoko's way instead. She was awake, but her thoughts were hazy. Painkillers, he supposed. Still breathing?

      I feel like burnt toast,
she complained.

      Schuldig eased into his chair beside Nagi's. Better than the alternative.

      Tomoko murmured some sort of agreement. Her thoughts slid a bit further out of focus, then came back. Is it true that Crawford saved me?

      Like a knight in shining armor.

      I love those stories,
she said sleepily. Did you give him a hero's reward?

      Go to sleep, perv.

      Crawford finally joined them in the living room, finished with Takatori. The team quieted down at his entrance and schooled their expressions into neutral masks, but Schuldig could hear their thoughts. The team was confused—not over the botched job, but over Crawford's actions. The empaths watched him closer than most. They knew Crawford was injured, but they didn't know how badly, and they couldn't see past his shields to estimate the damage. They'd kept that bit of news to themselves, it seemed; Schuldig couldn't find hints of Crawford's blood in anyone else's thoughts.

      Crawford could hear their thoughts and speculation, and he wasn't blind to their searching looks, but he ignored all of it. Looking at him, it was impossible to think last night had happened. Not a hair was out of place and he hadn't even chosen less-stuffy clothes to accommodate the burns on his back. He acknowledged the poor ending of the previous night's job but said absolutely nothing in regards to Tomoko or his part in her rescue. No one was stupid enough to bring it up.

      They went over the plan for the day, editing in places where they'd have to talk to Takatori's people about last night, choosing how best to watch the press for any possible leaks, and ending with their work cut out with them. Crawford passed Tomoko's files to Estet's people to copy and analyze before he turned the original over to Masafumi, and they accepted it with grim faces. Toward the end, Crawford passed Schuldig a file with information on his next project, then opened the floor for questions. The psychics exchanged uncomfortable looks, silently daring each other to ask the forbidden.

      Nicole opened her mouth, changed her mind at the last second, and looked at Nagi. "Since when can you teleport?"

      "Since always," Nagi said. "I prefer not to."

      Crawford waited a beat to make sure nothing else was forthcoming, then said, "Dismissed," and left. Farfarello was right on his heels. No one else was in a hurry to leave. Schuldig, free of having to pay attention, flipped open the file. He recognized the notes on the first page, but it took a moment for it to make sense. Takatori was going out of town for a couple nights with his sons. Last Schuldig heard, Nagi and Crawford would be accompanying them. When Schuldig turned the page and saw pictures of the hotel, he understood why he'd been passed the job. The Takatoris were staying at a ryokan with attached hot springs. There was no way Crawford could go, not with his back in such a state. Schuldig was the obvious replacement, since Takatori had met him before.

      And on the heels of understanding was sharp realization—he was finally getting time alone with Nagi.

      Schuldig offered Nagi a conspiratorial smirk. "Looking forward to it."

      Nagi didn't waste time acknowledging him; he simply got up and left.

Continue to part 17
Back to Mami's Fics