Tomoko was back on her feet the next day. She was probably wearing a roll's worth of bandages and her long hair was now chopped as short and ragged as Farfarello's, but she was standing. When Schuldig commented on it, she cheekily said news of Kwan's death filled her with the strength she needed to return to work. Schuldig thought it was too early for her to be up and moving, especially when he could see how much pain she was still in, but it wasn't his place to question her. Farfarello would have tied her to her bed if he thought she wasn't ready to be working again. As it was he stayed within arm's reach all day, watching for the moments when her strength flagged and she needed something or someone to lean against.
Nicole spent most of the day watching them, but Schuldig was too busy with his own work to pay attention to her thoughts. It didn't occur to him to spy on her, because he knew Nicole's interest in Estet's unlikeliest couple was genuine. It wasn't until Schuldig was half-asleep that night that Nicole finally reached out to him with a quiet,
Do you think he can be fixed?
Schuldig opened his eyes and stared at his dark wall, wondering what answer to give her. Estet wrote Farfarello off as damaged goods, but Farfarello thought they'd given up on him prematurely. When he first confronted Schuldig about his plans to seize Schwarz, he'd traded his vote for Schuldig's help in repairing his nerves. He knew Schuldig's easy relationship with the team's lead empath was the leverage he needed. But was Farfarello right? Could he be fixed, or was it wishful thinking?
If Schuldig said yes, would Nicole try to fix Farfarello, and would Crawford let her? He'd gone to great lengths to secure Farfarello for his team. Schuldig doubted he'd let an empath undo all that hard work—but would it really be a bad thing? Farfarello was neck-deep in Schwarz's work. Could Estet afford to transfer him back to the Berserker ranks this late in the game?
Only one person knew for sure. Schuldig didn't want to ask, because he wasn't convinced he'd like the answer, but he wouldn't let Nicole act if he didn't know what consequences awaited her. So he stretched his mind out toward the empty darkness that was Crawford's mind and asked, Will you let her?
Despite the hour, Crawford was awake, and his answer was immediate and calm. With certain restrictions. It took Farfarello months to adjust to the loss of sensation; it will be just as difficult to adapt to its return. We cannot afford for him to be handicapped at this point in the game.
But, Schuldig said, because he could hear it in Crawford's voice.
So long as she is careful, she is free to try.
Schuldig considered that in silence for an endless minute, then pushed his blankets aside and stood. He went downstairs, stepping over the steps that would creak under his weight, and crept down the hall to Nicole's room. He tapped on the sliding door to her bedroom, and her bed was close enough she could open the door without getting up. She hadn't even changed out for bed yet.
"I don't know," Schuldig said, an honest and belated response, "but Crawford will sign off on it."
"You asked him," Nicole said, startled into sitting up.
"You're asking to rewire Crawford's right-hand man," Schuldig said. "You can't do that without his okay. He'll approve it with one condition."
Nicole listened as he explained. She was quiet for a long time afterward, thinking through it. "It makes sense," she allowed at length, "but it crosses off a lot of options. I can't even give him back his hands yet. I'd do it so he could feel her hair between his fingers, but he'd have to relearn everything, from how much strength it takes to hold a cup to how he's supposed to hold his knives."
"How an empath still manages to be a romantic after all this time, I'll never know."
She scowled in the face of his mockery. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."
"Then explain it."
She tilted her head to one side, weighing the sincerity of that invitation, and decided to take it at face value. "The majority of emotions an empath feels are fleeting and insubstantial, created and fed by too many unreliable factors. Hormones, weather, something so trivial as a bad hair day—Empaths feed on this cycle, because no matter what we make a person feel, we can justify it to them some way or another." She gestured, dismissing it all as useless. "We love and hate with the same breath. We're irritated by a friend in one moment and devoted to them the next. We can tolerate a neighbor one day and absolutely loathe them another.
"But that is something constant," she said, and Schuldig knew she meant their teammates. "It's something we rarely find. Of course I'm fascinated."
She said fascinated, but Schuldig wrote at least part of it off as jealousy. Psychics weren't supposed give a damn about each other. Attraction was inevitable and it was impossible to keep psychics from forming relationships, but the demands of their job and the nature of their work fractured most pairs before things went too far. Most relied on temporary pleasure and body heat. Tomoko and Farfarello were different, somehow.
"Anyway," Nicole said, "thank you for asking."
It was a goodbye, and Schuldig didn't care enough to argue with that abrupt dismissal. He closed her door and went back upstairs. He knew Nicole would be up a couple hours more as she looked for an easy solution to this problem. Schuldig buried himself in his blankets and fell asleep, trusting her to sort things out.
The next morning Farfarello stopped by the house to speak to Crawford. Schuldig woke Nicole up as soon as the Berserker came through the front door. When Farfarello left Crawford's room, Schuldig followed him downstairs. Farfarello didn't drink coffee, but he stood off to one side and watched as Schuldig prepped a pot. Nicole heard the noise and opened her door. She didn't say anything, content to stand in the doorway and look at Farfarello. If Farfarello even noticed the blatant staring, he didn't acknowledge it.
Finally Farfarello left. Schuldig saw him out, then went back to see Nicole.
"If I actually pull this off, I want to be put down in some sort of hall of fame," Nicole said, stealing his coffee. "I can't feel anything but haze from him. Remapping his nervous system and reteaching him what to feel—correctly—is going to be an absolute nightmare."
"Rosenkreuz and Estet will acknowledge it," Schuldig said. "Crawford will have to file that sort of development with them."
She nodded, but he got the feeling she was only half-listening to him. "I can't do this long-distance."
"I'll figure it out," he said, and she turned away. He looked down at his empty hands as she closed her door behind her, then sighed and poured himself a new mug.
That night found the four of them in the psis' living room. They hadn't gone out for dinner together in weeks. They still weren't ready to return to that routine, because Tomoko was too weak and sore to be on her feet that long, but they made do with take-out. Farfarello and Schuldig fetched bags of food from a place up the street and the four went through a case of beer. Nicole was the only one who didn't really drink much, and she kept losing track of the conversation toward the end. A mental glance her way saw her thoughts whiting out; she was concentrating too hard to have a coherent thought pattern.
Schuldig didn't have to ask what she was working on. Do it, he willed her, keeping the thought to himself so as not to distract her. He distracted Farfarello and Tomoko instead, keeping Tomoko active in the conversation so she wouldn't talk to Nicole. Unfortunately, Tomoko was tiring out quickly this late in the day, and she kept trailing off. Any second now Schuldig expected Farfarello to bundle her back to bed.
He couldn't stop them from leaving, but he could at least give Nicole a heads-up she was losing them. "One last round before you fall asleep on us," he said, and he went to get beer from the fridge. Tomoko gave a grateful nod when he passed two cans over. Farfarello opened both of them when she held them out. She handed him one and propped herself against his side to drink. Farfarello let her get settled before moving.
He flinched the second the can hit his lips.
Tomoko bolted upright so fast she had to hurt herself. "Farfarello?"
Farfarello stared at the can like he'd never seen beer before in his life, then made another attempt at drinking it with about the same success. Schuldig reached out and took the can from him before Farfarello could spill it. Farfarello didn't seem to notice; he had his fingers pressed so hard to his mouth he was crushing his lips against his teeth. Schuldig wanted to look at Nicole to see her reaction to this, but he couldn't look away from the too-blank look on Farfarello's face.
Tomoko caught hold of Farfarello's wrist, but it took two tries before she could pull his hand down. "Farfarello?" she said again, a quiet press for an explanation.
It took Farfarello a moment to answer her, maybe because he didn't believe it himself, maybe because it'd been so long he'd forgotten the words he needed. "It's cold."
She didn't understand; she didn't believe him. After three years to get used to Farfarello's handicap, it didn't occur to her that he might be right. She checked his eyes, looking for some sign he wasn't all right, and glanced down at the hand in her grasp like he might have an injury somewhere. When Farfarello started to lift his other hand to his face, Tomoko beat him to it. She felt out the line of his jaw with careful fingers, found nothing out of place, and let her fingertips rest on his lower lip.
And, oh, oh, did Farfarello feel that.
Schuldig saw it in the way Farfarello stopped breathing, the way he went so completely still. He stared at her like moving would destroy this tiny connection between them, whatever it was that suddenly let him feel the perfect weight of her fingers on his mouth, her skin cool and damp from handling beer.
Tomoko didn't need powers. She'd known Farfarello long enough to read him like a book. Her mouth opened, then closed again soundlessly. She swallowed so hard Schuldig heard her choke on it, but her voice was still a whisper when she said, "You can feel me."
Schuldig slanted a look at Nicole. "I should have guessed you'd choose that as an alternative."
She flipped him off without taking her eyes off of the pair across from them.
Tomoko shot a look over her shoulder at Nicole. The look on her face was almost anguished; the knot Nicole was picking up on was surely a thousand times more complicated. "You—" Tomoko said, but she didn't know how to finish it, if it was a why or a how or even why now.
"I can't fix all of him," Nicole said. "Not yet. But that's a promise that I'll try."
Tomoko might have said something else, but Farfarello was already moving. He dug his fingers into her hair, cradling the back of her skull, and dragged her back around. Tomoko caught his face in both hands and leaned in. Farfarello sucked in a short, sharp gasp against her lips, something startled and wanting as he could finally feel his lover's mouth. Tomoko made a choked sound in the back of her throat, tears or laughter or something somewhere in between.
Their relationship wasn't a secret on the team anymore, but having it in the open hadn't made them less discreet. Tomoko saved her affectionate touches for when she was drunk out of her mind or she and Farfarello were safely tucked behind closed doors. Because of that, Schuldig had completely underestimated what it was they had together. He could hear Tomoko's thoughts when she thought about Farfarello and he knew when her mind wandered into the gutter throughout the day, but it wasn't the same. This wasn't logic; this wasn't rational. This couldn't be put into words and thoughts for him to pick up.
He'd never seen any two people hold each other so tight, like the world would end if they let go. Tomoko kissed Farfarello like it was the last time she'd ever be allowed to, like Nicole's gift would vanish in a heartbeat and leave them with nothing. Schuldig was at once fascinated and alarmed. This single-minded devotion should be impossible—or forbidden at the very least. Ironic, he'd think later, when he wasn't so horrified, that a man who couldn't feel a damn thing could feel so much. Much later, maybe, because right now he couldn't even look at them anymore.
Nicole wasn't faring any better. Her gift hadn't prepared her for this. She sat with her head bowed, staring at her drink like it was the only thing keeping her centered.
Tomoko whispered something against Farfarello's mouth, a flurry of lilting sounds in a language Schuldig wouldn't even guess at. He didn't have to understand; her tone said enough, and the way Nicole reacted, recoiling like she'd been struck, was enough encouragement to get out of there. Schuldig was on his feet in an instant, and he hauled Nicole after him with a hand on her arm. She didn't fight until they got to the hallway, and then she ripped out of his grasp and made for the door.
"Nicole," he tried, but she didn't look back. She toed into her shoes, pushed the door open, and was gone.
Schuldig stared at the closed door for an endless minute, then started upstairs. Crawford's door was closed, but Schuldig went to it anyway. He pressed his hands flat against the thin paper, focusing on the silence of Crawford's mind so he wouldn't hear Tomoko downstairs.
Two days later, Schuldig was in the kitchen watching a pot of coffee brew while Crawford washed dishes at the sink. The pot just started to gurgle when glass crunched to his left. He flicked a startled look that way, first at the sink full of soapy water and then up at Crawford's face. Crawford stared down at his submerged hands a few moments longer, then lifted them to examine the damage. He'd sliced a line across his palm, deep enough it started bleeding the second his hand left the water.
There was a soft pop behind them, displaced air and reforming flesh, and Nagi said, "They're here."
"I know." Crawford lowered his hand underwater again. Schuldig wondered if he was washing it or hiding it from Nagi. Schuldig couldn't look back at the telekinetic; his eyes were on the water that was tinged red in places with Crawford's blood.
"I trust you will stay out of the way today," Crawford said.
"I can leave the city," Nagi said.
"Nothing so drastic," Crawford said, "but you are confined to your house."
"Should I tell Farfarello?"
"He will only spend the morning agitated," Crawford said. "There is no point."
Nagi didn't waste time arguing; he apparated out of there as easily as he'd arrived. Schuldig finally dragged his gaze away from the sink to stare at the space the telekinetic (god) had occupied. "Today's getting a little more interesting," he said.
"Zerfall has touched down in Narita." Crawford lifted his hand above water again and flexed his fingers, testing the depth of the cut on his hand.
Narita International Airport was almost sixty miles away. That Crawford knew the exact second the other team arrived should be impossible, but Schuldig didn't doubt him. Instead he tugged open the drawer nearest him and pulled out a spare hand towel. Crawford accepted it and pressed it hard to his hand, soaking up the blood. Schuldig waited until he'd moved the cloth out of the way before catching Crawford's wrist. He studied the injury with a critical eye. By some stroke of luck, it wasn't deep enough to impair the use of his hand. Hiding it from the team, though, was going to be impossible.
"This doesn't bode well," Schuldig said, but he was more intrigued than alarmed.
He knew Crawford and Berger had a complicated history. He knew they'd ended their relationship on the worst possible note. But this—seeing this, Crawford's attention fracturing so completely at the first touch of Berger's mind at the outskirts of his gift—really slammed it home.
"Come," Crawford said, and he pulled his hand free. "Bring your coffee."
Schuldig poured two mugs and followed Crawford upstairs to Crawford's bedroom. Crawford took the mugs away from him and set them on his desk. The bottom drawer had a makeshift first aid kit in it, mostly put together by Schuldig for the burns on Crawford's back. Crawford held his hand over his trash can as he poured alcohol over the cut, and Schuldig cut a length of gauze free. He was wrapping the last bit of it around Crawford's hand when Crawford spoke.
I am going to shield your mind.
Schuldig went perfectly still. Crawford finished the bandage himself and waited for Schuldig to look up at him. Schuldig didn't say anything; he didn't have to. Crawford could see his answer in Schuldig's stony expression.
You know Schwarz's real end goal, Crawford said. I cannot let Berger hear that from you.
And Berger isn't going to suspect something when he can't read me?
He knows I need a telepath. He'll assume I am protecting you from him.
Everything in Schuldig said to refuse, to fight this, because the last thing he wanted was Crawford's shields lodged inside his mind again. He still remembered how it felt, how much it hurt, to have another psychic's gift merged so fully with his own. But fighting wouldn't change anything. Crawford was going to do this with or without his blessing.
The fact that he gave Schuldig a warning at all—well, Schuldig would think about that later.
He swallowed hard against bile and said, Okay.
It hurt worse this time than it did the last. Schludig blacked out at one point, but not for more than a couple seconds. The pain was far too great for him to stay unconscious for long. It felt like someone smashed another skull in between his and the skin of his scalp, taking over the space where he should be and crushing him so they could both fit. Breathing hurt. Thinking hurt. Opening his eyes was a fatal mistake, as the light in Crawford's room was too bright for his headache. He didn't know when he'd fallen down, but he was on his back on the ground. He rolled onto his side and dry heaved onto the tatami floor.
It was minutes, or hours, or days, before the agony faded to a hot pain behind his eyes. Without that roaring in his ears he could hear his own rasping breaths. It took conscious effort to get his breathing under control, and only then did Schuldig try opening his eyes again.
Rest here, Crawford said. We still have some time.
He stepped over Schuldig's crumpled body and left, closing his bedroom door behind him. Schuldig didn't argue because he couldn't. All he could do was lay there and breathe until his body and gift didn't feel so broken. Finally he risked sitting up. His head was a four-ton weight atop his shoulders, but he struggled to his feet. The coffee on Crawford's desk was so cold as to be repulsive, making Schuldig wonder how long he'd been down. He drained both mugs anyway, leaving just a sip for the painkillers in Crawford's bottom drawer.
Navigating the stairs back to the first floor was tricky, but Schuldig took his time. He filled his coffee from the pot, decided he wasn't up to taking the stairs, and settled in the living room instead.
The empaths showed up a half hour later, back from a joint run to the grocery store. They didn't make it all the way to the kitchen before Nicole was doubling back, and she stared at Schuldig from the doorway. It was the first time she'd looked at him since they had dinner with Farfarello and Tomoko two days ago.
"Schuldig, I can't feel you."
That was unexpected. The first time Crawford shielded Schuldig's mind, he'd done so without cloaking the outer layer of Schuldig's thoughts. Schuldig went back to Rosenkreuz with Crawford from the Vienna Airport and didn't arouse any suspicion in the other psychics at the school. Apparently Berger was the greater threat as far as Crawford was concerned.
"It's only temporary," Schuldig said, wondering if that was the truth. He didn't know how long Zerfall would be in Tokyo or where the team would be assigned. What if they were close enough to Tokyo that Crawford couldn't risk letting Schuldig's mind go? "Zerfall is on the way and Crawford doesn't want a telepathic pissing fight."
That brought Ly Ly back from the kitchen, and the look on her face was savage anticipation. "They're here?"
"Picking up their luggage from baggage claim as we speak," Schuldig said.
Nicole glanced at Ly Ly. "Suppose they'll stop by their hotel first or come out here for a meet-and-greet?"
"They'll check in," Schuldig said. "They won't want to show up rumpled from travel and with their bags in tow. It'll make them seem eager and second-class."
"Let them take their time," Nicole said, flipping her hair over her shoulder. "It won't do them any good."
Within an hour Schwarz's psychics all knew Zerfall would be stopping by. No one thought to tell the dead minds. It probably only occurred to Schuldig that they might want to know, but he kept his mouth shut and his gift to himself. Crawford was shielding Farfarello from this until the last minute. Schuldig didn't know why, but he wasn't going to fight it.
They spent the rest of the morning cleaning and freshened up after lunch. When Zerfall finally crossed into Schuldig's range, Crawford gave him the okay to bring Schwarz over. Nagi didn't show, and Schuldig didn't miss the confused looks his teammates sent Nagi's empty chair. Schuldig didn't explain, and none of them would ask with Crawford standing right there.
Only when the psychics were settled in the living room did Schuldig reach for Farfarello. Zerfall is en route. Bring Estet.
Farfarello didn't answer, but he'd heard. A few minutes later Estet's dead minds filed in. Farfarello wasn't with them, but Tomoko only shook her head when Schuldig and Nicole looked at her. Hiroyuki was the last to sit, and he'd just found his seat when Zerfall's team arrived. Schuldig heard the engine cut off outside. It wasn't Crawford's place to answer the door for anyone, so Tremelle went to let the six-man team inside.
Berger was the first through the door into the living room. Schuldig knew his face from Zerfall's profile sheet, but a picture had nothing on reality. Schuldig understood in an instant why Crawford fucked up with Berger. If Schuldig didn't know better, he'd fuck Berger in an instant. It had nothing to do with his looks, because Berger wasn't Schuldig's type. It was his presence. Schuldig felt Berger's power like it was a tangible weight against his mind—not as deadly as Crawford's was the first time Schuldig met him, but arresting just the same. Schuldig said time and time again he wasn't Rosenkreuz's strongest telepath, just their best. He was staring their strongest in the face right now.
Somehow, though, the most interesting thing about Berger was the fact he had a lip ring. Schuldig wondered if Berger had it seven years ago, if Crawford kissed that mouth and tasted metal on his tongue. Thinking about it made them both seem younger. They must have been hell together; they must have been amazing—a psychic who could play the Elders for fools and a telepath strong enough to command a first-ranked team at eighteen years old.
"Schwarz," Berger said, but he hadn't looked at any of them since he'd stepped into the room. His eyes were on Crawford even as his team fanned out behind him and surveyed their competition. Schuldig knew he should look at Zerfall's psychics, because they were strong enough to be Schwarz's rivals, but he couldn't look away from the leaders standing in the middle of the room.
"Zerfall," Crawford returned. "Perhaps you'll have a little more luck than your predecessors did."
"Perhaps you could peek into our future and let us know."
The taunt went over Schwarz's heads; only Schuldig and Crawford really understood. Berger knew Crawford was no precognitive, even if Crawford's shields in his head kept him from saying so. Schuldig very carefully did not look at Crawford, but Crawford didn't miss a beat.
"I would prefer you were surprised."
"Suit yourself," Berger said, scratching idly at the metal hoop in his lower lip. His dark eyes scanned the room, finally taking in the faces of the psychics present. His stare lingered longest on Estet's people, and he didn't bother to hide his scorn. "Dealing with dead minds. You're the last person I'd expect would sink so low."
"Estet's navigators are a critical component of this team."
"Of course," Berger murmured.
Crawford saw no need to explain himself to Berger. "Schwarz was asked to provide contacts for the in-processing teams. I assume Transfers provided you with a cultural packet to help you adjust."
"And an in-house interpreter," Berger said, tolerating Crawford's change of topic. He meant the newest member of his team, a half-Japanese pyrokinetic named Geisel. "As it is, we won't need your contacts. We're contracted to Project Kreuz." He said it like he expected Crawford to understand, but no one else in Schwarz caught the significance, Schuldig included. "Speaking of which, I heard rumors the preliminary is here with you. Is that true?"
"If you are asking to meet him, you waste your time. He is no longer connected to that project."
Nagi, Schuldig realized suddenly. Kreuz had ties to Koua and the god experiment.
"It would still," Berger said, but he never finished his argument. Crawford was looking past him, and Berger turned to see what was so distracting. Schuldig followed his gaze and sat up a little straighter in his chair, startled.
Farfarello had joined them at some point. The Berserker stood in the doorway, yellow eye trained on Berger. The usual indistinct hum of his thoughts was gone; his mind registered nowhere in Schuldig's gift.
The look that flashed across Berger's face was too sharp to be surprise, but it was there and gone again too fast for Schuldig to interpret. In the next second Berger was laughing uproariously. Schuldig shot a quick look between Crawford's cold expression and Farfarello's colder one. Berger laughed until he was wheezing, then made a great show of wiping his eyes dry. It was all a farce—the smile he turned on Farfarello when he was done was cruel.
"I almost didn't recognize you," he said with savage cheer. "What happened? Is dear Maimeó still trying to sweep you under the rug?"
"Careful, Berger," Crawford said. "You do not have the right to speak of her so casually."
"My mistake," Berger said, but his gaze stayed on Farfarello. "But that thing is Jei, is it not? I had not heard he was part of your team."
"Estet's files are not in Schwarz's public profile."
"He should have been the exception."
"I do not see how it concerns you."
"Only because I am concerned for you," Berger said, sliding his gaze Crawford's way. His smile was pitying, but Schuldig saw the coldness behind it, the old anger in his stare. The rest of the team was silent and frozen on the outskirts, watching this antagonistic reunion with a tense interest. Schuldig doubted Berger was aware of the audience beyond an instinctive level. "She never liked your bias toward him."
"She approved his transfer regardless."
"It is not about what she lets you get away with," Berger said. "It is your refusal to let go."
"It is not your business," Crawford said. "Do not attempt to make it yours."
"My apologies," Berger said, in a tone that said he was not at all sorry. "I forget we are no longer friends; I still speak with the freedoms afforded one. Perhaps you'll forgive me the occasional slip for old times' sake."
"Come, Berger," Crawford said, with a slight, cold smile. "We both know you forget nothing."
"No," Berger said, "I don't."
It wasn't agreement, it was a warning.
I've missed you.
It was Berger's mental voice, directed at Crawford, but with Schuldig's shields locked behind Crawford's, Schuldig had no problems picking up on it. It wasn't a confession, and there was nothing soft or wistful about it—it was a threat, through and through.
I won't say the same, Crawford said.
"I wish to speak with you about my mission, Crawford," Berger said aloud, "but I do not require such a large audience. Peons need not hear such intimate details."
Schuldig, he is not safe. That tight warning was from Ly Ly. She didn't have the mental focus Nicole now did, so Berger overheard her. He glanced her way, met her stony expression with open disdain, and slid his attention to Schuldig. He gave Schuldig a slow head-to-toe, considering him.
"Ah, Schuldig," Berger said. "We've never met, but your reputation precedes you."
"My apologies," Schuldig said, with his best deferential tone, "I don't know who you are."
A muscle in Berger's cheek twitched, but otherwise his expression did not falter. "Better to be unknown than to be Rosenkreuz's most expensive whore. I heard Crawford bought you for a hundred grand, hmm? I hope you have repaid it in full." He didn't wait for a reaction, not that Schuldig could respond without crossing a line, but slid his attention back to Crawford. "Let him stay a moment with us, Crawford, but your brother and the rest must go."
Schuldig misheard him.
He must have misheard him, because—
"Oops," Berger said. "Was that supposed to be a secret?"
How Tomoko got off the couch fast enough to stop Farfarello, Schuldig would never know. Farfarello was almost skin-to-skin with Berger when Tomoko caught his elbow in an iron grip.
"No," she said, barely louder than a whisper. She didn't have to raise her voice; she'd been Farfarello's navigator too long for him to ignore her now.
Berger turned to face Farfarello, unaware of the danger Farfarello posed or completely unimpressed by it. Schuldig leaned more toward stupidity when Berger lifted a hand and pressed a fingertip to Farfarello's forehead. Berger pushed, but Farfarello refused to give ground. Instead he put his thumb to Berger's throat and tapped it in time to Berger's slow, steady pulse.
"I didn't give you permission to touch me," Berger said. "I see you still don't understand your place."
"I do not follow your rules," Farfarello reminded him quietly. "I am a Berserker."
"Former Berserker," Berger reminded him needlessly. "You should have been executed when Elend wrecked you. Fortunately someone was there to scrape you out of the trash again."
He hit a nerve—crunched it, rather. Farfarello's lips parted on a silent breath and his finger went still. He said nothing, but he didn't have to. The look on his face said Fuck you loud and clear.
Berger smiled, cold and malicious. He leaned down, tilting his face so close to Farfarello's they could have been kissing, daring Farfarello to bite him. "Your master and I have business to discuss. Heel, dog."
Farfarello stared at him for an endless minute, as if he couldn't quite believe someone dared say such a thing to his face. Schuldig was sure Farfarello would tear Berger's throat open with his bare fingers in just a second. Tomoko must feel the same, because she was holding Farfarello's arm so tight she was leaving bruises. Finally Farfarello smiled—if that vacant, deadly look could be called a smile in any universe—and stepped back.
"Schwarz, you are dismissed," Crawford said. "All of you."
Berger arched an eyebrow at him. "I said I would like to get to know your new telepath."
"I heard you."
Schuldig, it isn't true, Nicole said, mental voice sharp with surprise and disbelief. It can't be.
Schuldig didn't answer; he couldn't look away from Farfarello's face.
Farfarello was the first to turn away, and Tomoko followed him out on his heels. Estet's people trailed behind them. Schuldig didn't linger, despite his curiosity—Crawford's word trumped Berger's, and Schuldig wasn't hesitating here on Berger's account. Farfarello brought the dead minds back to their house where he wouldn't have to deal with the psychics' curiosity and shock, and Schuldig brought everyone else to the kinetics' house.
Nagi was in the living room when they walked in, kneeling before a table in the middle of the room and sipping tea. He didn't bother to look up at their entrance, and the team quietly arranged themselves around the room. Schuldig was barely aware of them—his thoughts and gift were still next door, twisting behind Crawford's shielding. Crawford and Berger's conversation had gone completely mental. What they were saying was too dangerous to say aloud.
You replaced me, Berger said. It took you long enough. Does he know?
He knows what he needs to know.
Berger's response was callous, but his tone was hot and pleased. He doesn't. You manipulative bastard.
I remember what happened the last time I trusted a telepath with the truth.
You can't really blame me.
"He isn't really," Tremelle finally said, unable to stand the silence anymore. He looked to Schuldig, like Schuldig would somehow know. "Is it true?"
"Berger stands to gain nothing by spreading such a lie," Schuldig said slowly.
Schuldig looked to Tomoko's mind, wondering how the hell he could have missed this from her, but she was as confused as the rest of them. In the eight or nine years they'd worked together Farfarello never told her.
"Is what true?" Nagi asked, an edge in his voice and his power sparking in his eyes.
Schuldig knew Nagi was thinking about Crawford's secret. "Crawford and Farfarello being brothers."
It wasn't what Nagi expected to hear; his power vanished so abruptly his eyes looked black. The god child was quiet so long Schuldig didn't think he'd actually answer. He knew Nagi didn't want to, because Nagi didn't think Crawford's business was any of Schwarz's, but there wasn't much point in denying it now. Finally he set his tea down and said, "Half, by way of their mother."
Schuldig knew "Farfarello" wasn't the Berserker's birth name, but—Jei Crawford? It gave him chills. Farfarello had told him he was grand-nephew to one of the Elders, but Farfarello hadn't mentioned that two of the Elders were brother and sister. He'd left it out on purpose.
"That's impossible," Harriet muttered, raking a hand through her hair.
That means neither of them is Lady Estet's grandson by blood, Schuldig said.
Nagi didn't look at him, but he answered, and that was enough. Lady Moire couldn't carry Lord Kane's children to term. Crawford took after her, but Farfarello took after his father. Lady Moire was executed for her infidelity.
They should have killed Farfarello. Why didn't they?
They had their reasons.
You mean Crawford, Schuldig said, and Nagi slanted a dark look up at him. You might as well answer me. Berger as much as said it—he said Crawford saved Farfarello from execution twice.
Then you do not need me to confirm it.
I'll ask Crawford if you want me distracting him from Berger.
The air in the room got a little heavier. Schuldig didn't think it was his imagination, because the hairs on his arms were standing on end. Nagi was leaking power, too agitated over Berger's presence to hold it all in.
Crawford intervened, Nagi said. Lady Estet thought it was precognition.
And that so-called precognition was why this entire thing was impossible. If Farfarello and Crawford were brothers, Farfarello should have powers. Few psychics outside of precognition bred true, but siblings were never a mixed batch. If one child inherited, the next would too, and the next, so long as the mother kept bearing children. There was a chance they'd develop different but related strains, such as telepathy for one and empathy for another, but for one to be completely dead was unheard of. Maybe having different fathers threw something off, but Schuldig couldn't think of any precedent.
"Is that why Crawford saved Tomoko?" Nicole asked haltingly, finally figuring out what Schuldig guessed at weeks ago. She didn't believe it even now; she couldn't believe Crawford put himself in danger for Farfarello's sake.
Schuldig wondered how they'd all been so blind, so convinced of Crawford's coldness to miss his so-called bias. Crawford assigned Farfarello to Schuldig when Schuldig first came to Japan, trusting Farfarello to show him around. He took Farfarello's side over Nagi's in their arguments, whether Farfarello was hassling Nagi about his upbringing as a labrat or Farfarello was inviting himself along to meetings with clients. He said nothing when Farfarello mocked him for underestimating Schuldig's strength. He let Farfarello turn his back and walk away without so much as a by-your-leave.
That's why you broke him, Schuldig accused Crawford, unable to wait until Berger left. That's why you chose him out of all the Berserkers. It doesn't matter he's their grandchild – you wanted your brother specifically. You didn't think he'd turn on you.
Farfarello never will, Crawford said, like Schuldig should have figured that out by now. It does not matter whose leadership he backs or how much he despises me. He will never betray me to Estet.
Blind, Schuldig thought, but he knew Crawford was right. Farfarello knew who'd orchestrated his fall from favor and he sought revenge through Schuldig, but he didn't do anything to compromise Crawford's overall plan for the future. He didn't want Schuldig to stop Crawford; he wanted Crawford to lose his power and rank the same way Farfarello himself had. If Farfarello wanted Crawford destroyed, he'd have turned Crawford in years ago. He knew Crawford wasn't a precognitive, even if he didn't know what Crawford really was. But Farfarello would never use that against him.
The simplest answer was the likeliest, that Farfarello would play along to the bitter end because his hatred for Estet outweighed his hatred for Crawford.
Teammates, rivals, brothers.
Schuldig rubbed at his neck, working away the phantom pain of Farfarello's bruising fingers on his skin. He could almost feel Farfarello's breath on his ear, harsh and hot, as he snarled Fix him in Schuldig's ear.
But Farfarello doesn't hate Crawford, even though he should.
Schuldig had answers, but he still didn't understand.
Back to Mami's Fics