Part 17

      Schuldig was packing for his trip to Otsuki when Farfarello and Nagi showed up, the soft hums of their minds giving them away before they made it through the front door. Nagi was quiet by nature, but sound carried in a Japanese house, so his footsteps seemed obscenely loud in the stairwell. Farfarello made no sound at all aside from his thoughts.

      Schuldig glanced at the clock when they reached the landing. It was almost midnight, and he and Nagi were scheduled to be on the first train out in the morning. The pair was going a day ahead of the Takatoris so they'd have time to scout the area. It was a little late to have a powwow with Crawford over anything.

      Neither man hesitated on their way to Crawford's room, no matter that they had to cross through Schuldig's to get to it. Schuldig folded another jacket with a mocking, too-late "Come in," that both men ignored.

      "Crawford," Nagi said quietly, and opened the door when Crawford acknowledged him.

      Farfarello caught the door to close it behind them, but Crawford must have gestured an okay at him, because he let his hand fall away. Schuldig took the open door as a silent invitation to eavesdrop. He set his things aside and went to stand on his side of the doorway. Crawford was standing in front of one of the walls, turned so his side was facing them. He had a folded sheet of paper in one hand, and he tapped one corner into his other palm in idle rhythm as he thought. He didn't keep them waiting long.

      "Do you know what today is?" he asked.

      Nagi looked at his watch. "It's midnight, which means it's officially fornalis."

      "Meaning?" Schuldig asked.

      "The final countdown," Farfarello said.

      "The one-year mark has passed. The elders have three hundred sixty-four days to perform the resurrection ceremony," Crawford said, which was a tad bit more helpful than Farfarello's vague response.

      "And if they miss it?" Schuldig asked. "They wait?"

      "They won't wait again," Crawford said. "They cannot afford to; the full cycle is fifty years. None of them will live long enough to see a third chance."

      Farfarello slid a heavy stare Nagi's way. "Perhaps their pet is finally ready to be sacrificed."

      "Don't," Crawford said before Nagi could react. Nagi shot Farfarello a venomous look but kept his gift to himself. Crawford waited a few moments to make sure the two were behaving, then continued. "The elders are growing anxious and impatient. The teams assigned to finding the cornerstone are proving ineffective, so they are rotating back to Austria. You might sense them on your peripherals in the upcoming weeks, as they will be exiting through Tokyo."

      "And Schwarz?" Nagi asked.

      "Continues as present," Crawford said, "with one exception. The incoming teams were chosen because they have Japanese speakers in their ranks, but Schwarz is the only remaining team with contacts in the country. The teams will in-process in Tokyo, and we are to use our clients and connections to launch them across the major islands."

      He tapped his paper against his hand twice more, then unfolded and studied it. Schuldig saw black lettering going down it, but he was too far away to make out what it said. It didn't matter; Crawford read from it a moment later.

      "The first team to process is Zerfall."

      Schuldig recognized the name because he was required to know the names of all of Rosenkreuz's teams, but all he knew was it was the second-ranked team in Subterfuge. That alone would get a reaction out of anyone else in Schwarz, because competition was brutal between the top teams in any division. That Nagi and Farfarello had an opinion on the matter, though—that was interesting, since neither man cared about such petty things. But Nagi actually gave a sharp jerk of his hand in a silent, furious No and Farfarello went perfectly tense. Schuldig looked from one to the other, Nagi's stony expression to the cold, ugly hunger on Farfarello's face.

      Schuldig thought the conversation ended there, but when the silence stretched on, he realized it'd been taken to mental grounds. They were arguing, he decided a moment later, where no one else in Schwarz could hear them fight back. Crawford looked completely unbothered by their reactions to the news, but he must have expected this. He'd called them over here this late at night to warn them, knowing they'd need time to accept it, knowing better than to spring it on them when their teammates might see their reactions. If Schuldig wasn't going out of town tomorrow, he'd spend the next couple days digging up everything he could on Zerfall. He silently cursed the bad timing.

      Whatever Nagi and Farfarello said, it wasn't enough, but Schuldig could have told them that ahead of time and saved them the trouble. They might be the elders' grandchildren, but they weren't enough to change Estet's mind when eternal life was at stake.

      "That is all," Crawford said, calm as you please, and all three of them heard the order in it.

      Farfarello was the first to turn away, and Schuldig half-turned so the Berserker could leave. Nagi wasn't long behind him, and he jerked the sliding door shut behind him. Schuldig caught it before it could connect, but Nagi wasn't in the mood to tolerate him. His gift finished what his body couldn't.

      Schuldig felt the door push back, but he had only a split-second warning as to Nagi's intentions. That was all he needed. He locked his expression into something neutral, even when Nagi slammed the door with his telekinesis and half-crushed Schuldig's hand against the doorway. Hot pain exploded in his hand and lanced up his forearm, but Schuldig refused to show it. He sent a cool look over his shoulder at Nagi.

      Nagi didn't look back, but Farfarello reacted to the bang and turned back. He lifted his hand, shaping his fingers like a gun and putting the barrel to the center of Nagi's forehead. Nagi went to push his hand away, and Farfarello moved like lightning, seizing his wrist and hauling him around so viciously Schuldig expected his arm to break in two. Nagi was too off-guard to react immediately, and Schuldig saw the flash of pain across his face as Farfarello wrenched his arm up at a brutal angle. Nagi met Schuldig's gaze again—unintentionally, Schuldig was sure—and Schuldig saw power snarl across Nagi's stare. Any second now he expected Nagi's gift to tear Farfarello in two, except Farfarello said something at Nagi's ear Schuldig couldn't hear. Nagi's face went stony again and he said nothing, even when Farfarello let go of him and left.

      Schuldig waited until Nagi followed him out before pushing the door open a bit and asking, "Any ETA on when the teams are due to arrive, or is it up in the air 'til respective project-end?"

      "It depends on how quickly the resident teams can pull out," Crawford said. "Estet ranks this mission above any others; the incoming teams' current assignments do not factor into the timeline."

      Schuldig considered that a moment, then tipped his head to one side to indicate the pair who'd just left. "And Zerfall is a problem?"

      "We will finish this conversation when you return from Otsuki," Crawford said. "There is not enough time to get into the necessary details tonight."

      Schuldig obeyed the dismissal this time and closed the door between them. He went back to packing, but his thoughts were far from Takatori and Schwarz.


      Morning started unfairly early the next day. Schuldig met up with Nagi out front of the house, and the two walked to Mitaka Station in silence. Schuldig kept pace with Nagi, keeping up when Nagi started to edge ahead, slowing down when Nagi tried to put space between them. Nagi didn't comment on it, so Schuldig didn't call him out on it, either, and they bought tickets at the gate. They stood a short space apart on the platform for the ten minutes it took their train to arrive. They'd missed rush hour by a half-hour or so, but all the seats were taken, so they stood halfway between the doors. A bell sounded overhead before the doors rattled closed. The announcer called a warning, and the train pulled west out of the station.

      Seats opened up down the line, but it wasn't until they'd passed Kokubunji that Nagi finally sat. Schuldig opted to stand in front of him, one hand on the safety railing over his head and the other jammed in his pocket. It was a little awkward when his hand was starting to bruise from Nagi's stunt last night, but the pain made him think of the mini-meeting. He considered Nagi's face, trying to read the secrets behind the youth's impenetrable expression.

      A housewife a couple seats down who'd gotten on after them and didn't realize they were traveling together sent discreet glances between Schuldig and Nagi, discomfited by Schuldig's blatant staring. It took her another couple stations to get up her courage, and she tilted Nagi's way to say in quiet Japanese, "If this foreigner is bothering you, come sit beside me."

      Nagi didn't even look at her. "Do not talk to me."

      His rudeness shocked her; she recoiled a bit like she'd been slapped. It took her a moment to recover, and then she turned her eyes forward and refused to look at anyone else. She was off in a couple more stations, and Schuldig laughed quietly at how quickly she got off the train.

      He and Nagi disembarked at Otsuki Station in a small city along a river. Nagi collected maps from slots on the station wall and bought bottles of water from a nearby vendor. Two he passed to Schuldig; the other two he tucked into the baggy side pockets of his cargo pants where the condensation would eventually stain the material a half-shade darker. He led Schuldig out to the sidewalk, ignored the line of waiting taxis entirely, and stood off to one side to flip through his maps. He settled on one, looked around to get his bearings, and set off.

      Schuldig expected to be led to a restaurant or business, somewhere they might make local contacts. Instead Nagi took him off the beaten path toward the mountains, along a winding hiking trail. They passed other hikers, most Japanese, all of whom stared as Schuldig's hair like it was the most fascinating they'd seen in their entire lives. He ignored their looks, more intent on figuring out where Nagi was going with this.

      Up, apparently—the path took them up the side of a mountain. There were stairs here and there in the steepest places, but sometimes the stairs were too steep and narrow themselves to be much assistance. A ways along, they came to a museum, and Nagi meandered through it, reading plaques on the walls and considering the photographs of Fuji and the surrounding area. That was about the time Schuldig decided yes, Nagi was just wasting time.

      "I didn't take you for the outdoorsy type," Schuldig said.

      Nagi ignored him, unsurprisingly.

      They made it up to the peak, and Schuldig followed the pointing fingers of other hikers and tourists. Fuji loomed on the horizon, gray-blue a fraction darker than the sky, white-tipped and perfect like a postcard. Cameras clicked in endless succession as the hikers snapped shot after shot of it, and a woman excitedly prattled on about how she couldn't believe their luck, that Fuji-san wasn't hidden behind cloud cover. Schuldig tuned her out and held his finger up, judging the distance between them and Fuji to guess at its height.

      "We're not climbing that one," he told Nagi.

      Nagi pretended not to hear him, and after some time stretching their legs and admiring the view, they headed back to the city. Sunrise followed them down the side of the mountain, painting their skin reddish orange and the sky kinder shades of pink. The sun was long out of sight by the time they reached level ground again, but there was still enough light left to find a place to eat. Afterward Nagi inquired quietly as to a place to stay, and the two were pointed in the direction of a ryokan.

      They shared the room with four other travelers, each man given a thin futon to spread about the large room. It was cold, even with the blankets, but not cold enough to keep Schuldig awake. He slept to the sound of strangers' deep breathing and the quiet snores of the sleepers next door and woke to the tones of a chanted prayer.

      Nagi led him down the hall to the bathing rooms, which were communal but segregated, and Schuldig got his crash course in bathing with strangers. Stools lined a mirrored wall for the washing, and the large bath in the center of the room was for soaking and relaxing. Schuldig did as the others did, ignoring both the sideways looks and the blatant stares he drew. Three of the men started talking quietly amongst themselves, thinking he couldn't understand what they were saying about him. Schuldig thought about calling them out on it, but it was more amusing hearing such unguarded opinions from a people known to be so polite and conservative.

      After a traditional Japanese breakfast, Nagi and Schuldig set off to explore the nearby temples. Schuldig got bored of them after the first two, but watching Nagi was interesting enough to tolerate the rest. Nagi lingered over odd things, from a railing etched with moss to the scattered, dancing light cast onto a wooden floor through a screen of leaves. Schuldig started putting distance between them to get a better view, slowing his steps and making a slow circle around Nagi. The telekinetic looked so small as he stood between two pillars of the temple, head tilted back to survey the carvings on the ceiling. He looked so big, because Schuldig realized that heat in the air wasn't sunlight, it was Nagi.

      Schuldig waited until they'd gone the stairs back to the path before saying, "So is that human fascination or a god thing?"

      Nagi didn't answer, but then, Nagi hadn't said a word to him in days, not good morning when they'd left Tokyo yesterday or even a This way as they explored the area. The attitude was expected, but the silence was irritating all the same. Schuldig swallowed the urge to strangle him and instead said mockingly, "I love our conversations, Nagi."

      "I don't want to talk to you."

      "I hadn't noticed," Schuldig said sarcastically. "At least tell me why."

      Nagi turned around to stare at him, and Schuldig saw that power in his eyes again, that lightning storm beneath endless blue. "Because you're a telepath," he said, and Schuldig wasn't sure if the acid in his voice was old-fashioned disgust or his power. "You think you can say the right words and wave your hands and make me think any better of you. You're wasting your time and trying my patience. I hate your kind."

      "Hadn't realized you had it out for us telepaths," Schuldig said mildly. "How many have you had the misfortune of working with, that you're so jaded?"

      "I heard enough about the last one Crawford chose," Nagi said.

      "So why is Crawford the exception?"

      Nagi stared hard at him, and Schuldig stared back, silently willing the child to give him a straight answer. Finally the power in Nagi's eyes went out, but his expression wasn't any less hostile. "Did you know, Schuldig? I didn't know what the sky looked like until I was eleven."

      Schuldig opened his mouth, but words failed him. Farfarello told Schuldig Nagi grew up as a lab rat, but Schuldig hadn't realized what that meant. Nagi grew up in a lockbox, sterile walls and tests and scientists. Crawford introduced him to the real world. He gave Nagi Schwarz and a home, yes, but he also gave him rainstorms and twilight. There was absolutely nothing Schuldig could promise him that could compare.

      Nagi waited until he saw that understanding on Schuldig's face, then said, slowly and firmly, "Do you get it now? I will never, ever give this team to you."

      Schuldig thought it over for a minute, but he knew a lost cause when he saw one. "I guess I'll focus on Crawford, then, see if I can't use my endless charm to sway him."

      "Crawford will never trust a telepath again," Nagi said. "Consider that a courtesy warning."

      "Who knows," Schuldig said with a lazy smile. "Maybe I'll get lucky."

      Nagi didn't answer, and Schuldig knew he'd heard the last from Nagi this trip. That was all right—Nagi had given him plenty to think on. Schuldig turned the conversation over and over in his head the entire way back to the station to meet the Takatoris, and it simmered on a back burner while he made polite conversation with Takatori and his sons. The trip should have been a nice break from the stress of the last couple weeks, but the only thing he wanted was to get back to Tokyo and Crawford.

      Finally they were free. Takatori and his sons went back by chauffeured car. Nagi and Schuldig took the train again. Nagi went straight back to his house, leaving Schuldig to make the report. Schuldig let himself inside the mental psis' house and reached for Nicole and Ly Ly.

      Give us a minute?

      A week ago, a month ago maybe, they would have ignored him. They had no reason to obey his request. Today the empaths packed their things up and took it next door to Tremelle's quarters, and they didn't ask why. Schuldig waited by the entrance while they left, then continued upstairs alone. Crawford opened his bedroom door when Schuldig made it to the second floor landing. Schuldig greeted him with a tilt of his head and went to his closet. He dug his files of Schwarz out of the back and flipped through them, knowing the answer he wanted wasn't in there.

      You had a telepath before me, Schuldig said, but not in Schwarz.

Crawford said. We were in Demolitions together, and Zerfall bought us as a pair. When it was obvious we were incapable of working together any longer, I had myself reassigned to Schwarz.

      Which you then took over and used to upset Zerfall in the rankings. Sounds like a bad break-up.

      It was,
Crawford said.

      Schuldig considered that for a moment, remembering the one time he and Crawford fucked in Austria. He'd wondered then where Crawford learned to fuck like that. Literally or figuratively?

      Irrelevant to the answers you want.

Schuldig concluded. Crawford didn't answer, but that was all right. Berger was important if his team was coming to Tokyo soon, but he wasn't the most important thing here. The secret Nagi unwittingly gave away a couple days ago—that was what was eating Schuldig alive. He set the files aside, closed his bedroom door out of habit, and turned to face Crawford.

      You're not a precog.

      You know that.

      But you're not a telepath, either,
Schuldig accused him quietly. Are you?

      Crawford said nothing. Schuldig folded his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall, affecting a nonchalant pose neither of them believed. Nagi and I got into it on our day trip, he said. He had a rather unfavorable opinion of telepaths, but when I asked, he implied I was the first telepath he'd had to work with. I wondered why he didn't include you in that number, but I didn't ask him. I didn't want his lies and cover-up, I wanted the truth from you. What are you, Crawford?

      The specifics are not your concern.

      Interesting, because I'm feeling pretty concerned over here.

      That means little to me. I know you would use the truth to ruin me.

      You started this hate game,
Schuldig reminded him. Back in Europe you asked me to trust you, asked me to give you my life and future, and then you broke my shields beneath your own. You wanted my unquestioning trust but you wouldn't trust me. You didn't even respect me enough to tell me what you planned on doing. Of course I came here intending to one-up you. I won't be anyone's fool.

      Neither will I, not again.

      Because of Berger?
Schuldig guessed.

      I knew Berger for ten years, Crawford said. I knew he wasn't the telepath I needed, but I gave him the truth anyway. He used it as blackmail to gain control of Zerfall. It was obvious he would not stop there, so I silenced him. It took two layers of shielding to bury that secret where he could not share it with anyone. You are stronger than he is by half; I do not have what it takes to do the same to your mind, not without crushing your telepathy in the process.

      Schuldig stared hard at him, working his way through that. If Crawford was twenty-six now, he'd gained Schwarz sometime around his nineteenth birthday. Nineteen years of living a double life, hiding a lie from an organization that would kill him for being something more than a precognitive, and then betrayed by the first person he confided in, a telepath he'd known for more than half his life. Idly Schuldig thought it finally made sense why Crawford was so coldly hands-off toward his team.

      Schuldig dug his fingers into his arm so hard he left fingernail imprints through his coat sleeves, then pushed off the wall and started for Crawford. He didn't stop until they were pressed together, chest to chest where Crawford wouldn't step back and Schuldig wouldn't stand down.

      "But you need me," Schuldig said, wanting it out loud in the air between them. "Don't you?"

      Back in Austria, when Schuldig demanded to know how he warranted Crawford's attention, Crawford said Schuldig was the only one that could make "this" work—"this" being their freedom from Estet, a plan Crawford first dreamed up twelve years ago. At fourteen he'd wanted out, at nineteen he'd almost lost everything, and at twenty-six he was burning bridges with the one telepath who really was enough somehow. Schuldig had thought Crawford brought him on because their job was reaching a stage where it was hard to proceed without mental manipulations, but if Crawford had seized on Berger first, it was more than that. It was something to do with his gift.

      Isn't this an ugly circle. Berger burned you, so you burn me, so I burn you. When does it end?

      I'm not a precognitive. I can't tell you that.

      "I'm going for a walk," Schuldig said, and Crawford didn't call him back.

      He wandered the city for three hours, oblivious to his surroundings and not even noticing when nightfall brought an ugly chill to the air. At last he stopped before a set of vending machines, bought a pack of cigarettes from one and a can of coffee from the other, and sat on the curb until another smoker passed by. She loaned him her lighter when he asked, and he saluted her with his cigarette when she continued on his way. He used the first cigarette to light the second and so on, chain-smoking his way through half the pack. Then he got up and went back home.

      Crawford was waiting for him out front when Schuldig made it. The metal gate was all that stood between them, but neither man moved to open it. Schuldig studied Crawford in silence, relearning the lines of his face, feeling his stomach clench and ease all at once.

      I want, he thought, but it was more violent need than coherent thought. He wanted Crawford—his body, his power, his position, his prestige, his secrets, his team. He wanted to be responsible for Crawford's comeuppance. He wanted Crawford's surrender and Estet's respect and the inner circle following his lead. He wanted—

      —what he would never ever get.

      Tell me you're not a telepath.

      Silence—endless, brittle, deadly.

      And then, I am not.

      Schuldig held up the cigarette pack, and Crawford held up a lighter. Schuldig shook two cigarettes into his hand, lit them both, and passed Crawford one over the gate. Schuldig exhaled a cloud of smoke into the air between them, and with it went the tension of the past several months. The need, the anger, and the spite ebbed, replaced by frustration and exasperation.

      Schuldig reached for Crawford's face. He slid his fingers over Crawford's cheek and dragged his thumb across Crawford's mouth, leaning in almost close enough to kiss. His knuckle stopped their mouths from hitting and he lifted his blue stare to Crawford's intense gaze.

      You're neither, but you're both somehow, aren't you? You really can see the future.

      Not to the extent a precognitive should.

      Schuldig shook his head, hating himself for missing it, irritated with Crawford for hiding it. Back in Austria, Crawford knew the flight would be delayed enough for him and Schuldig to talk about a future without Estet and Rosenkreuz. He knew Schuldig would have the privacy he needed to put his mind together the first time Crawford took it apart at the leaders' meeting. He fabricated visions for his team's sake, but he guided Schwarz's overall decisions with an uncanny surety that couldn't all be luck and arrogance. How many of those fabrications really were lies, and how many times had he played Schuldig to keep Schuldig in the dark?

      Schuldig wondered if Crawford hadn't seen or suspected something the night the warehouse exploded. He remembered the way Crawford hesitated in his doorway after Nagi and Farfarello left, staring after thoughts only he could make sense of. He remembered the way Crawford got his goggles off before the explosion could blind him, the way he tried to stop Farfarello before the first lab went up in fire and smoke, and how perfectly he protected Farfarello from the blast. So many tiny things, little hints and clues, all the way down to the lighter Crawford knew to bring outside with him tonight.

      Schuldig almost laughed, but this wasn't at all funny.

      "Nagi knows," Schuldig said. "Does Farfarello?"

      "He knows as much as you do."

      Schuldig half-expected that. "Promise me the truth is worth this," he said, as much a demand as a quiet threat. "Promise me it justifies my broken shields and Farfarello's shattered body and the wreck you let your team become. Promise it'd be worth me stepping down when I have more than half your team in the palm of my hand."

      "It is," Crawford said, without any hint of hesitation or doubt, as sure as he'd been in Austria when he promised Schuldig freedom from Rosenkreuz and Estet.

      "I guess we'll see," Schuldig said, letting go of Crawford at last. "Until then, I'm giving up."

      There was silence for a minute, and then Crawford said, faintly mocking, "Am I really supposed to trust your change of heart?"

      "I've lost," Schuldig said, hating the way it sounded, hating the finality of it, and at the same time, distantly amused that it'd come to this after all his hard work. He was so damn close, but he'd never be close enough. "There is nothing I can steal from you. I can't take your team. Farfarello would give it to me in a heartbeat, but this trip with Nagi proves he'll never turn on you. I can't take your power, because you aren't something I can compete with."

      I warned you, didn't I? I said if you were a precognitive, I wouldn't care about your strength, but because you were a telepath, I couldn't let it go. I can't be second-best to anyone. What a waste of effort, because you've been lying to me all this time. What a waste of need. You created a conflict of interest that doesn't really exist.

      Schuldig dropped his cigarette, ground it out beneath his shoe, and slanted a look up at Crawford. "I'm going to check on your back, write up your report, and go to bed. When do you need me in the morning?"

      "I don't," Crawford said. "There's nothing scheduled for you until tomorrow night."

      "Good. Let me in?"

      Crawford studied him a moment more, then opened the gate and turned away. Schuldig followed him inside, closing the gate and the front door behind them. They toed out of their shoes at the entrance and went up the stairs, one behind the other. Neither man said another word to each other that night, not when Schuldig changed Crawford's bandages or turned in his report, and not when Schuldig took his one good suit downstairs to the kitchen and stuffed it into the compost bin.

      Thoughts of Estet and Crawford threatened to keep him up all night, but exhaustion finally pulled Schuldig under. Morning wouldn't make defeat any easier, but Schuldig would figure it out as he went.

Part 18
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