Part 18

      Needless to say, Schwarz did not take news of Zerfall's impending arrival well. Schuldig watched his teammates carefully as it sank in, gauging expressions and reactions around the room. Disgust and mockery were evenly matched by knowing looks and cruel smiles. Schwarz and Zerfall had never crossed paths outside of paperwork: first for Crawford's transfer, then when Schwarz edged Zerfall out in the rankings, but they'd been neck-and-neck in the rankings since their respective inceptions. That was more than enough reason to hate each other on a good day. Now the stakes were higher than ever. Estet's ceremony was less than a year away. The race was on to be the first-ranked team in the division when Estet achieved immortality.

      The only ones untouched by the news were Farfarello and Nagi, who'd had their chance to vent a couple days ago. Nagi didn't look up from his paperwork and Farfarello's disconnected stare put his attention halfway around the world from here. Schuldig wasn't fooled by their show of apathy, but he didn't call either of them out on it.

      The names of the other inprocessing teams made less of a stir, but it helped distract Schwarz from thoughts of Zerfall. Crawford opened the floor for questions, then turned the topic to upcoming projects. For the most part, it was business as usual: secure deals here, seek alliances there, and lay the groundwork for future negotiations. Schuldig expected the same for himself, and he wasn't mistaken. The only interesting part was that he was going west to Osaka to meet some businessmen there.

      Crawford had already made his travel arrangements, so Schuldig went to collect the folder of tickets from him. He didn't wait to sit before flipping it open, and his eye caught on the sheet of train passes. Crawford waited until Schuldig looked up again before saying, "Harriet, Eleodoro, and Kwan will accompany you."

      Schuldig slid a look at his least favorite teammates. "Sounds like fun."

      They looked about as pleased with this development as he felt, but they weren't stupid enough to say anything with Crawford right there. Schuldig tucked the folder under his arm and went back to his seat. Crawford waited until he was settled before finishing up the meeting, then made his exit. Schuldig expected Farfarello to be right behind him, since Tomoko was still flat on her back at the dead minds' house, but the Irishman stayed put. Nagi left without a look back.

      The rest of the team stayed, looking back and forth between Kwan and Schuldig and waiting for the inevitable fight.

      Kwan held out a hand in imperious demand. "Folder."

      Schuldig flipped the folder open and scanned its contents. Behind the first set of tickets was an envelope with his name on it. The date in the upper lefthand corner was four days from now, the second day of their stay in Osaka. Schuldig ran his finger across the numbers, wondering again at Crawford's grab-bag of gifts, and tucked the envelope into his coat pocket. The rest of the papers in the folder were profiles and itineraries. Their hotel reservation number was printed across the top of one page.

      "I'm talking to you," Kwan said, a little louder. "Hand it over."

      "There's this thing called taking turns," Schuldig said without looking up. "Right now I'm looking at the paperwork, so you're going to have to wait. You can have it when I'm done."

      Kwan didn't give up. He couldn't, not with such a large audience. The couch gave a quiet creak as Kwan stood, and Schuldig arched a brow down at his papers. You don't want to start a fight with me, Kwan. We'll never have a useful working relationship if you make me do this.

      Kwan didn't dignify that with a response.

      His mistake.

      Schuldig let Kwan get right up on him. Kwan made a grab at the papers, and Schuldig was just fast enough to catch his wrist before Kwan could touch anything. He finally looked up. Their eyes met for a moment: Kwan's glare hot and furious, Schuldig's cold and mocking. Schuldig didn't even give Kwan time to wrench free. His power came to life in the invisible connection still hovering between them.

      Good night.

      Kwan crumpled, unconscious. Schuldig let go of his wrist before Kwan's weight could drag him out of his chair. The shape-shifter hit the ground with a heavy thud, hitting his head on the floor hard enough he'd feel it even when he finally woke again. Schuldig didn't need to look around the room to gauge his teammates' reactions; their surprise was singing in his thoughts.

      Nicole was the first to react with a startled, "What did you do?"

      "I turned him off," Schuldig said, looking for the spot he'd left off in his reading.

      "What does that mean?" Harriet demanded, staring at her fallen teammate.

      "What it sounds like," Schuldig said. "I put his conscious mind on hold."

      "That's a little extreme," Tremelle said with the cautious tone of one not quite sure how right he was.

      Schuldig could have explained, like he'd explained his actions a dozen-odd times before when his teammates questioned his people skills. He could tell them he'd given Kwan plenty of chances to check his attitude and shown impressive patience so far toward the other man's upfront hatred. He could say this was the cleanest way to end a fight—killing it before it started. But Schuldig wasn't stopping a fight. He was feeding it and forcing it to the only conclusion he'd allow. So he said nothing, because they had no place in this conflict.

      By not answering, he was letting them think this was spite or his personal feelings getting in the way of his usual team-centered mentality. They'd be wrong. The files specifically labeled Schuldig as lead psychic for this job, because Schwarz was going on Takatori's behalf and Takatori knew Schuldig. That gave Schuldig temporary authority over the four-man team. Kwan wouldn't know that until he read the file, but words on a page wouldn't change anything. Kwan wasn't going to follow Schuldig's lead willingly.

      Schuldig would have his obedience just the same.

      The longer the silence stretched in the room, the more his teammates' thoughts teetered from curiosity toward disbelief and discomfort. If he would just say something they could side with him and mock Kwan's undignified defeat. They weren't used to reticence from him. But none of them asked again, and none of them said anything else.

      Most interestingly, none of them moved until Schuldig finished his read-through and stood. He stepped neatly over Kwan's body and went to Harriet. She considered him through hooded eyes as he stood in front of her, and he could almost taste the wary edge in her thoughts. She didn't trust him for a second. He didn't waste his time or breath reassuring her. He only gazed down at her, silent and waiting, until she finally lifted her hand for the folder. He passed it to her and turned to go.

      He hadn't heard Farfarello stand, but the Irishman was at his side. When Schuldig left the room, Farfarello followed him out. Schuldig toed into his shoes at the door and left. Farfarello left him right outside the gate, heading back to Estet's house to wait with Tomoko. Schuldig went to the end of the street and turned left on the main road. He followed the streets down to Kichijoji and ended at the cafe where he and Nicole had their first real conversation. He ordered the largest coffee on the menu, bought a newspaper from the stand by the front counter, and settled in to practice his reading comprehension.

      He hadn't brought any of his dictionaries with him, which made things a bit more difficult, but he did have a blue pen in his pocket. He circled every kanji and compound he didn't understand and underlined the ones whose meanings he could guess by context. An hour later he had only managed a couple articles and had a headache for his efforts. He recycled the newspaper by the door, composted his cup in the appropriate bin, and headed home.

      A note was on the sliding door to his bedroom, consisting of a single letter: H.

      He took it down and stared at it a long moment, trying to decipher it, then went with the most obvious but least likely solution. He reached out toward Harriet's mind and said, I'm back from Kichijoji.

      She didn't answer, but she heard him. He was flipping through Zerfall's files on his bed when Harriet made it to the psis' house. She didn't come upstairs but waited in the entrance for him to pick up on her arrival. Schuldig put everything aside and went down to meet her. She was standing in the doorway to the living room as he reached the first floor landing, and she greeted him with the same severe look on her face as she'd worn the first day she met him.

      "Let's eat," Schuldig said, stepping into his shoes.

      She didn't want to come with him, but she did. He brought her to the local sushi place. He ordered dinner; she didn't. He didn't let that kill his appetite, and she didn't let him distract her from the point of this visit. She'd brought the file with her and she put it on the table between them.

      She didn't like him. Chances were she never would. Truth be told, Schuldig didn't think he'd ever be fond of her, either. But she'd follow Crawford's wishes to the death, because Harriet believed in Crawford, Rosenrkeuz, and Estet with the sort of fervor that made her surly attitude worth the trouble. So Schuldig didn't waste time asking her why she'd come. He didn't make this conversation about her and him; he made it about Schwarz and their mission. He ignored the caustic edge in her words when she demanded strategies and instead gave her what she needed: the line between their targets, the angle Schuldig thought they could be approached.

      They talked for an hour, long after the food was gone. Harriet went home first. Schuldig lingered over a couple more beers because he didn't want to walk her back. When he finally made it home, only half of Schwarz was still awake.

      Nicole heard the front door open and was standing in the doorway to the kitchen by the time he toed his shoes off. She had one shoulder propped against the wall and her arms crossed over her chest, and her steady stare was assessing.

      "He's still asleep," she said.

      Schuldig looked to his right, where Kwan was still down for the count, on hold until a telepath reactivated him.

      "Yeah," he said, and he went upstairs to bed.


      Schuldig woke Kwan up the next morning, giving Kwan a day to go about his business and review the mission profile before they had to leave. It was a waste of time. Kwan woke up just as angry as he'd gone to sleep, and his mood only worsened when he realized what happened to him. He went so far as to file an official complaint with Crawford, who listened to Kwan's tirade and calmly turned him back to business. Schuldig was expecting it when Crawford took him aside later, but all Crawford said was, "Complete the mission."

      "Of course," Schuldig said, and he went back to his research. He checked on Kwan throughout the day to see if Kwan was up for a pre-mission briefing, but Kwan was a seething ball of hate until nightfall.

      Seemed the empaths were keeping tabs on Kwan as well, because Nicole saw Schuldig off the next day with a dry, "Good luck."

      Schuldig looked back at her where he was toeing into his shoes, surprised by her choice of words. "I don't need luck," he said. "We have a job to do, and we're going to do it. He can fuck himself if he thinks this is going to get in the way."

      She was surprised by that response, but only for a second, and the sharp smile that curved her lips said she approved. Schuldig lifted his chin in a short farewell nod and slung his travel bag over his shoulder. Nicole murmured a quiet farewell as he left.

      Harriet was waiting outside for him, looking impatient even though he was on time. Eleodoro showed up a minute later, and Kwan showed up a couple minutes late. Kwan didn't so much as acknowledge their presence before starting for the train station. Schuldig kept pace with Kwan, and the other two stayed as close on their heels as was possible.

      They took the train further into the city, then transferred to the shinkansen for the ride to Osaka. They had assigned seating in one of the first class cars. Schuldig was side-by-side with Eleodoro, leaving Harriet and Kwan to share the seats right behind them. Eleodoro stared out the window for most of the ride, refusing to look Schuldig's direction. Schuldig was fine with that, as he'd packed his workbooks for the ride.

      They were in Osaka by noon and met their clients for a four-hour "lunch" meeting. Afterward the team had time to drop their things off at the hotel, where Crawford mercifully booked them individual rooms. Schuldig gave the three time to put their things down and wash up a bit before calling them to his room. Kwan hated answering that beckon, but he came just the same, and Schuldig wondered if the trip would be salvageable after all. He knew better as soon as Kwan showed up, because the loathing Schuldig heard in his thoughts was plain on his face for all to see. If Kwan couldn't hide his hatred in front of their clients, the entire alliance would be compromised.

      Schuldig was supposed to meet their client again for some evening drinks with her major investors, so he assigned each of his teammates a different recon task for the night. Harriet accepted hers with nothing more than a sharp nod. Eleodoro muttered something unintelligible as he took the file Schuldig offered him. Kwan snatched the file from Schuldig's fingers and stomped toward the door.

      "Kwan," Schuldig said.

      If he just used his voice, Kwan would have kept going, but he backed his call up with his gift. Kwan froze with his hand on the doorknob. Schuldig didn't wait for him to look back. He knew Kwan was fighting his telepathy with everything he had, and he knew the shape-shifter wasn't going to win. He didn't have time to wait on Kwan to figure that out.

      "Tell me we're not going to have a problem."

      "I know how to do my job."

      Schuldig let him go, and Kwan slammed the door behind him.

      Except the next day Kwan didn't report back to him with results of his recon. Schuldig gave him until eleven when they were supposed to head out again on separate runs. When he heard Kwan's mind start for the elevators, he moved to intercept his teammate. Kwan looked back instinctively at the click of another door but didn't wait on Schuldig. Schuldig caught up with him outside the elevators, and Kwan flicked him a derisive look.

      "What do you want?"

      "The information you have is pertinent to the rest of us doing our jobs," Schuldig said. "You were supposed to report."

      "You're a telepath," Kwan said. "Get the information yourself."

      "Last warning, Kwan," Schuldig said. "Cut the shit."

      Kwan didn't even look at him. "Or what?" he asked as the elevator doors opened. "You going to go crying to your boyfriend?"

      Schuldig put his hand in the way to keep the doors from closing. "Go back to your room."

      "I'm working," Kwan said, pressing the button for the lobby.

      "Now," Schuldig said, and his gift left no room for arguments. Kwan's legs moved against his will, bringing him back into the hallway. Kwan started to snarl something unfriendly, but Schuldig silenced him with a flat, "Shut up."

      Kwan wouldn't give him the information willingly, so Schuldig took it from him, tearing names and dates out of his head in a way that would leave Kwan out the rest of the day. He left Kwan barely conscious on his hotel room floor and took his key card on the way out. He went back to his room and called the others over to redistribute the afternoon's work.

      "Where's Kwan?" Eleodoro asked.

      "Elsewhere," Schuldig said, and left it at that.

      That night he sat at his desk with the laptop Crawford loaned him for the job, compiling data from the other two into a report he'd send back to Schwarz. As he saved the first draft, he glanced toward the time, and his gaze lingered on the date stamped beside it. He got up to collect Crawford's envelope from his discarded jacket. He broke the seal with his thumb and dumped the contents onto his bed. Turned out to be the return tickets to Tokyo, but something wasn't right. He scattered them further apart, thinking he was seeing things.

      There were only three tickets.

      Crawford didn't leave an explanation, but Schuldig didn't need one.

      He collected Kwan's key card from his dresser and went next door. The shower was running in the bathroom when Schuldig walked in. He slipped the deadbolt into place, toed out of his shoes, and tucked the card into his back pocket. He stripped off his shirt and pants and folded them neatly over Kwan's desk chair.

      Kwan hadn't bothered to close the bathroom door, but the dark shower curtain kept him from seeing Schuldig's entrance. Kwan's phone sat within easy reach on the back of the toilet, in case a teammate or client called while he was busy. Schuldig closed the toilet lid and sat on it. He folded his legs at the knees, laced his fingers together on his kneecap, and watched the curtain like he could see his teammate through it.

      Sit down.

      Kwan said something surprised and rude, but the curtain fluttered as he moved on the other side of it. Schuldig listened for the thump of his body against the ceramic bottom of the tub.

      A shower's not going to cut it. Take a bath.

      "I don't fucking believe this," Kwan snarled. He raised his voice to yell, thinking Schuldig was still next door: "You fucking fagg—"

      Shut up, Schuldig said, cutting him off mid-sentence. I said take a bath.

      The plug clicked as Kwan set it, and a wrench of the knob switched the water from the showerhead to the faucet. Schuldig listened carefully, judging the depth of the water by how the running water sounded as it landed. Kwan tried to turn it off twice before Schuldig wanted him to. When Schuldig was finally satisfied, he pushed the curtain back and turned the water off himself.

      The look on Kwan's face when he realized Schuldig was in the room with him was priceless, but Schuldig didn't want to hear the verbal mess that went with it. He tightened his grip on Kwan's thoughts as he slid to his knees on the bathmat.

      "Shut up and sit still," he said, holding Kwan's hateful stare. "You hear me?"

      Kwan opened his mouth, but he couldn't get a single insult or threat out. The tension in his shoulders said he was fighting Schuldig's orders. He was screaming at himself in his head, demanding a response from his body, wanting so badly to get his fingers around Schuldig's throat. Instead his hands sat limp on his thighs. Schuldig watched him struggle for a minute, savoring the moment, then dipped two fingers into the tub. It was hot, but not unbearably so.

      "You homophobes," Schuldig said, pushing his hand deeper so he could touch Kwan's thigh. He watched Kwan's face as he traced circles on Kwan's skin. Kwan watched Schuldig's hand like it was a poisonous snake. "So predictable in your fear and loathing. No, I am not here to assault you. I'm here because we have a problem, and I'm not leaving until we fix that problem."

      He lifted his free hand from the side of the tub and curled his fingers around the back of Kwan's neck. "Come on," he said, and he eased Kwan forward. He pushed Kwan's face into the water, held it there for a moment, and let go. Kwan started to sit up again, but Schuldig put a finger to the base of his neck. "No."

      Kwan still didn't understand. He thought this was a game, a contest of wills. Kwan didn't know how to to communicate with a telepath, but he was doing a fair enough job of it. His thoughts had gone from screaming at his body to screaming at Schuldig, a hateful litany of Fuck you and creative death threats. Every time Schuldig blinked he caught a glimpse of what Kwan wanted to do to him. None of it was at all attractive, but Schuldig's blood was heating just the same.

      Schuldig let go of his neck, waited to make sure Kwan couldn't sit up, and reached for Kwan's legs again. He wanted Kwan to feel the weight of Schuldig's hands on his knees. He wanted Kwan to know Schuldig's gift was the only thing keeping him from sitting up. He wasn't tied down; there wasn't anything heavy bearing down on him making it impossible to move.

      Kwan was starting to run out of air. Schuldig could hear the choking sound in the back of his throat and in his chest, where he was instinctively swallowing to stop himself from taking a breath. Kwan could hear it too, as Schuldig made sure to leave Kwan's ears above water.

      Schuldig's lips parted on a quiet breath. He wasn't sure if the heartbeat pounding his ears was Kwan's or his own. His fingers tightened on Kwan's knees, not to hold him still but because it was all that kept Schuldig from dipping a hand between his own legs. He didn't want to get distracted, not yet.

      He didn't hear the first gasp Kwan made, but he couldn't miss the coughing and choking as Kwan filled his lungs with water. Kwan's body rocked with the force of it, but no shake was enough to bring his face back above water. He gagged and choked, then gasped for air, and the cycle started over again. The murder left his thoughts; the only thing his brain cared about now was breathing.

      Kwan still thought Schuldig was going to let him up.

      Schuldig gave his knees a small squeeze and let go. "Thank you for your sixteen years with Schwarz. Unfortunately, you've been deemed expendable."

      He could hear the rough edge in his voice, the wanting, but Kwan was too far gone to hear it. All he heard was goodbye, and his entire body went into panic mode. Schuldig finally sat back on his ankles. He kept one hand on the side of the tub; the other went to the hard heat between his legs. The first rough squeeze of his fingers almost made him close his eyes, but Schuldig didn't want to miss a thing.

      Kwan took forever to die.

      When his mind finally winked out, Schuldig scrabbled for Kwan's phone. He barely remembered dialing Crawford's number. Crawford picked up on the second ring, and Schuldig answered his simple greeting with a ragged pant. He didn't ask if Crawford was busy. He didn't really care.

      Crawford could have hung up on him, but he didn't. He sat silent on the other end as Schuldig worked himself to a frantic finish. Schuldig tried to make it last, he honestly did, but his blood was burning too hot. He imagined the hand dragging along his length was Crawford's, and that was all his self-control could take. He might have said Crawford's name as he spilled into his hand; he couldn't hear past the buzzing in his ears. He was shaking too badly to stay upright, so he let himself fall forward. He propped his forehead against the cool side of the tub and focused on getting his breath back.

      It was another minute more before he thought to check the timer on the phone. The ticking seconds said Crawford was still there, even if Schuldig couldn't hear him. Schuldig shivered a little at the thought and swished his sticky hand clean in Kwan's bath water. He hung up without saying goodbye.

      He dried off with one of Kwan's spare towels, got dressed again, and hung a Do Not Disturb sign on Kwan's door. He waited until the cleaning staff was making rounds the next day before hijacking one of their carts, and he rolled Kwan out of there in a pile of sheets. He brought Kwan all the way downstairs and out the back, turning aside questions and curious looks with his gift.

      Harriet, he said. We need the car.

      He hijacked one of the hotel's maintenance trucks, loaded Kwan into the trunk, and drove to where the team's rental car was parked. Harriet wasn't long.

      "Now what?" she asked.

      "Follow me," he said, and he waited until she was in the car before leaving. Schuldig led Harriet out of the city limits and parked off the side of the road. Harriet sent a meaningful look around as she got out of the car. Schuldig climbed out of the truck, locked the doors behind him, and lit a cigarette on his way over to her. The look on her face was angry, but her thoughts were wary. She didn't like being in the middle of nowhere with him.

      Schuldig stopped right in front of her and said, "Burn it."

      She looked past him to the truck. "We're too close."

      They got back in the car, and Harriet backed them down the highway to a safer distance. When she thought they were far enough away, she set her gift to the truck's gasoline tank. The explosion was loud enough Schuldig thought he felt it in his chest. He watched as the truck disappeared into flames. Every car that passed tried to slow, but Schuldig used his gift to distract them from the fireball on the side of the road.

      "How long?" Harriet asked.

      "However long it takes to burn a body," Schuldig said.

      They sat there for an hour, neither one saying another word to the other. Schuldig protected the car with his gift, and Harriet fed the flames with hers. When Schuldig finally murmured an okay, Harriet put the flames out and turned the car around.


      Eleodoro tried to reach Kwan twice the next morning to compare notes but couldn't get the shifter to open the door. He asked Harriet if she'd heard him leave, and Harriet pointed him Schuldig's way. Schuldig opened the door at Eleodoro's knock and answered simply, "Kwan checked out."

      They finished the mission without him. Harriet and Eleodoro didn't ask Schuldig outright, but they talked about Kwan's absence amongst themselves. They assumed Schuldig sent Kwan home early, and that thought was horrifying enough to keep them in line. Neither of them wanted to get kicked back to Crawford as a disruptive failure. Schuldig didn't bother to correct them, not wanting them distracted from the job at hand.

      Four days later they packed their things and headed back to Tokyo. Schwarz had a group meeting scheduled that night, but Schuldig's three reached Mitaka almost an hour early. Instead of heading home, Schuldig went out the south exit. Eleodoro and Harriet didn't understand, but they followed, at least until they realized Schuldig was heading toward a Chinese restaurant. Schuldig heard it when Harriet balked, and he stopped to look back.

      "You can eat now, or you can eat in three hours," Schuldig said.

      He didn't wait on them but headed inside. They followed a couple minutes later, after the hostess already seated him in a booth. They didn't want to eat with him, but neither was quite sure they wanted to face Crawford and Kwan yet. They ate without looking at each other, the only silent table in the entire restaurant, and walked back to the psis' house afterward.

      The timing was as perfect as it could be. When Schuldig led Eleodoro and Harriet into the psis' living room, half the team was already gathered. Conversations died off at their entrance. Harriet swept the room with a defiant stare, waiting for someone to say something about her performance under Schuldig's command. Eleodoro sat tense and stared at the far wall.

      They were still missing a couple teammates, but the empaths weren't fooled. They couldn't find Kwan anywhere on their radar. They knew he wasn't coming to this meeting. Ly Ly looked to Nicole; Nicole stared hard at Schuldig like she'd find the answers on his face.

      Tremelle was the last to show up before Crawford, and he took the open spot at Ly Ly's side. It wasn't until he sat he realized someone was missing, and he frowned over at Schuldig. "Where's Kwan?"

      Harriet jerked like someone electrocuted her and swiveled to stare blankly at Schuldig. Schuldig held her stare as he answered Tremelle. "Kwan was reassigned."

      Nicole's face went white. "Bullshit."

      Schwarz's people didn't get reassigned; every psychic in the room knew that. What Schwarz was doing for Estet was so important and confidential the psychics weren't even allowed back on Rosenkreuz grounds. Crawford was the only one with shields strong enough to withstand Rosenkreuz's cabinet, and even then he rarely ever stopped by the school. Schwarz was Schwarz for life.

      Harriet was half-out of her seat, but Eleodoro was faster.

      Power hit Schuldig so hard the world flashed white. The sound of glass shattering was an afterthought, a sharp tinkle behind the sound of snapping wood. Schuldig went right through the fence separating the psis' house from the kinetics'. The concrete wall of the kinetics' house wasn't as forgiving, and Schuldig slammed hard up against it. He crumpled to the ground, too stunned to catch himself with his hands. The first breath he managed had him inhaling dirt, and every cough felt like it would break him in two.

      Why Eleodoro stopped, Schuldig wasn't really sure. All that mattered was getting back on his feet when every nerve in his body was screaming in pain. He couldn't feel the ground beneath his fingers when he pushed his hands against the ground, and he wasn't sure the legs he was looking at were his. Somehow he got upright again. Only when he was sure he wouldn't keel over did he lift his head and look back into the living room.

      No one was looking at him; all eyes were on Crawford where he stood in the doorway.

      Schuldig spit blood to one side and limped to join his team. He wasn't sure he could pick his chair up, and he didn't want to drop it with such an audience, but he tried anyway. It took two attempts before he could prop a hip under it and lift it the rest of the way, and he was glad to sink into the cushion.

      Crawford waited until he was settled before starting the meeting. He didn't mention Kwan a single time. He didn't have to. His silence told the team whose side he'd taken.

      For two hours he distracted them with business, but when he left their thoughts went straight to their missing teammate.

      Eleodoro waited until the stairs creaked beneath Crawford's feet before asking, "Why?"

      "Kwan had orders," Schuldig said, painstakingly pushing himself to his feet. "He wouldn't follow them. We don't have time for insubordination, not this year, not with Zerfall touching down in Tokyo any day now."

      "You killed him," Harriet said hollowly.

      None of them liked Kwan, but news of his death still rocked them to the core—not for the loss, but because Schuldig did it. Teammates didn't kill teammates; psychics were disposed of through the Berserker program.

      They'd never look at him the same after this. Schuldig knew that, and he knew why Crawford put him in this corner. He told Crawford last week he'd give up on seizing Schwarz. Crawford couldn't trust his word, so he spread that distrust to his team. They'd work with Schuldig and follow his lead to the letter, but it would never occur to them that Schuldig might be capable of taking Crawford's place.

      If Schuldig wasn't so sore, he'd be impressed at how easily Crawford set him back.

      He slung his travel bag over his shoulder and left with all eyes on him. Somehow he managed the stairs. He let his bag slide down his arm to the ground and kept going past it. Crawford's door was closed across the room, but Crawford opened it at Schuldig's approach. Schuldig kept going one step too far, until he was pressed chest-to-chest with the taller psychic. He buried his face in Crawford's throat and breathed in deep. He tasted blood on his tongue and knew it was his own.

      Fuck me.

      Crawford's palm grazed his face; he pressed his thumb hard into Schuldig's mouth until Schuldig leaned back. Crawford tilted his face down, but his thumb kept their mouths from hitting. Schuldig could only stare up at Crawford, hating Crawford with every beat of his heart, needing him with every breath that crushed his lungs.

      Schuldig smiled; he couldn't help it. He remembered this cruel tease from a week ago. He opened his mouth just wide enough Crawford's thumb slipped in. Crawford pressed his index finger in without waiting for an invitation and Schuldig tried to suck the fingerprint right off his skin. Crawford dug his fingernail into Schuldig's tongue, and Schuldig crushed Crawford's finger against the roof of his mouth.

      Fuck you.

      One day,
Crawford said, and the thought of pushing Crawford down, fucking him open until Crawford could barely remember his own name, made Schuldig lightheaded. He shuddered so hard he almost lost his footing. Only Crawford's hand knotting in his coat at the small of his back kept him on his feet. Schuldig shifted closer, pushing them together from collarbone to groin, wanting Crawford to feel the way his body was reacting to that promise, wanting to feel Crawford's heat against his skin.

      The bang of a door downstairs was all that broke their staredown. Farfarello and Nagi had left; the rest of the team wouldn't be far behind them. Schuldig took a slow step back from Crawford. Crawford let go of his coat and Schuldig turned away. He limped toward the corner where his futon was folded up. His footsteps muffled the sound of Crawford's door sliding closed behind him. By the time Ly Ly made it up the stairs, Schuldig was curled up on his side in bed.

      Sleep was long in coming, but it eventually dragged Schuldig under.

      He dreamed of Crawford's hands on his skin, rough and unforgiving, and woke alone and wanting.

Part 19
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