Part 2

      It would be another day or two before all twenty-five teams managed to clock in at Rosenkreuz, but that didn't slow the early arrivals down. There were three identical meetings scheduled for the leaders, one for each night leading up to Auction. On the surface, it seemed a complete waste of time and resources, but it was probably the only way to get work done. Getting team leaders to get along generally took a miracle, especially this close to the end of the year. Estet's presence and the fact that they were where the cabinet could find them meant they at least had to pretend to be civil, but good manners didn't always equal productivity. On top of that, the only room large enough to hold the twenty-five leaders would be the auditorium that was being prepped for Auction, and that was obscenely big.

      Seven was a far more manageable number, Schuldig was sure, and that was the magical number of the day. Seven meant a meeting room in the cabinet's building, in a room with high-backed chairs. The chairs looked amazing on the surface, but the intricately-woven cloth was thin over hard stone seats. The stone wasn't even smooth, but pebbled and bumpy to ensure maximum derriere discomfort. No one ever fell asleep at a meeting, no matter how many days he'd gone without rest. Schuldig was just worried about sitting on such a rough chair when he was already sore from Shane.

      Schuldig wasn't the first to the room, nor was he the last, and he paused for just a moment in the doorway to take in his colleagues' faces. There were ten chairs around the table, or rather, there should have been. Someone had cleared out the end seats to make sure no one fought over those spots and the air of entitlement that automatically came with them. There were four empty chairs for Schuldig to choose from and he offered the seated four a lazy smile.

      "Ladies and gents," he drawled. "How I haven't missed you."

      One harrumphed; another looked pointedly at his watch as if counting down the minutes until he was away from Schuldig. The other two didn't bother to acknowledge him with more than a passing glance before turning back on their paperwork. If there were two things Rosenkreuz's leaders were bitter about, they were rankings and leaders who were younger than they were. At twenty years old and leader of the second-best team in Infiltrations, Schuldig had never been popular. But then, he didn't want popularity. He wanted respect and fear and, if there was time on the side, maybe a little world domination.

      There wasn't a way to avoid sitting next to someone, not when the four had already tried to maintain their personal bubbles. The four were sitting at the corners with chairs open between them and Schuldig flicked a finger between them. "Inky pinky ponky," he muttered, and went with the path of lesser evils. Rather, lesser body odors.

      Miranda said nothing to him when he sat beside her, deeming him not worth his time, and continued flipping through papers. Schuldig had brought a folder with him as well, but he didn't bother to read through it. He knew exactly what it said and exactly what his team needed. The question was just whether or not Rosenkreuz had anything to fill the void he was leaving behind. That answer was an obvious 'no', but he'd take the closest he could get.

      He'd forgotten just how uncomfortable these chairs were. It had been a really bad idea to meet up with Shane beforehand and he squished the urge to shift in his seat. Moving wouldn't help him any and the others would wonder why he was squirming. Instead he tossed his folder onto the table and drummed his fingers on it, ignoring the gazes that slid one at a time to his hand. He could hear their annoyance in the thoughts that prickled across his gift and betted against himself as to which one of them would actually say something next.

      "Dolch," Harrison said at last, winning Schuldig a couple million mental dollars. "If you would."

      Schuldig slid his gaze that way and quirked an eyebrow at the irate Demolitions leader. "If I would?" he echoed, tapping steadily faster. "I already am."

      Harrison kept up the argument, but Schuldig barely heard him. Chin had just looked past Schuldig, a quick glance towards the door as she spotted movement. Schuldig had his back to the door, so he couldn't see the new arrival, but he didn't have to. The dead silence in his mental field told him even before he heard the recognition in Chin's thoughts. Schwarz had come.

      Schuldig refused to look back at Crawford. It took more work than he thought it should to keep his attention on Harrison. It wasn't just that he now knew who the man was, but knowing someone was standing behind him, completely invisible to his gift, was making his skin crawl. He could feel Crawford's gaze on him and it grew heavier with every second that passed. Schuldig was getting crushed under it and he couldn't even remember what flippant response he'd thought up to send back at Harrison.

      Instead he said, "Do you mind not staring at me, ice man?"

      A hand came down on top of his, flattening his fingers to the table. Years of Rosenkreuz, where the slightest hint of a flaw or uncertainty could get one reamed or killed, were all that kept Schuldig from jumping out of his skin. He turned a cool look on their hands. Despite Crawford's unflattering nickname, his hand was comfortably warm and a steady weight on top of Schuldig's. The telepath studied two shades of pale skin overlapping and tried not to think about tangled bodies and sheets.

      "I believe your colleague has already asked you to stop," Crawford said somewhere above him.

      "He implied it," Schuldig said. "I suggest you stop touching me."

      Crawford drew his hand back and straightened. For one moment, Schuldig thought Crawford was going to take the seat beside him. Instead the precognitive started around the table, ignoring the murmured greetings from the two ladies, and took the seat directly opposite Schuldig. As soon as Schuldig realized where he was going, he pulled his folder closer and flipped it open. With bare walls and not a single window on the compound, he didn't have anything else to distract himself. If he just stared off into space, it would be far too obvious that he was avoiding looking at Crawford. At least this gave him a legitimate excuse to be looking down.

      Damn you, he growled at himself. What is your problem?

      "Schwarz is actually intending on bidding this year?" Miranda asked. Schuldig was vaguely amused that she'd ignored him but was trying to strike up a conversation with Crawford. Must be those looks of his. Or sheer idiocy, that she couldn't sense how dangerous he was. "That's unusual. How many years has it been now since you actually expanded your team, five?"

      "We are willing to wait as long as necessary," Crawford answered. "This is the first year we have found anything that interests us at Auction."

      "Is that the royal we?" Schuldig asked, lifting a hand past his shoulder and waggling his fingers in a hello. Delilah had just arrived and he knew exactly where she was going to sit. In the end, Rosenkreuz wasn't that much different from the rest of the 'free' world. Rosenkreuz wanted psychics that bred and had no use for horny gays running around. The cabinet had to know there were some seventeen-eighteen running around in their teams, but they had yet to flat out order a stop to such activities. To avoid such a crippling command, the homosexual community was so far underground they could barely recognize themselves on a good day. They still managed to find each other, and they remembered every single one. It didn't automatically make them friends, but they were at least wary allies.

      Keep everyone waiting, why don't you, fish breath?

      Shut up, cock muncher.
Delilah yanked out the chair beside him and sat down. Schuldig flicked her a sideways look and a smirk. She didn't return the look, maybe because she was sitting right across from Chin. The diminutive Chinese woman wore a uniform like Crawford wore power: it screamed sex. Schuldig had a feeling this meeting was going to be very distracting for both of them.

      The door slammed closed, pushed shut by one of the two telekinetics in the room. For a split-second, there was tense silence as the seven tried to figure out hierarchy, but that was a given. Crawford was the first to move when he picked a briefcase off the floor and set it in his lap. "Teams," he said in simple greeting. "Let us begin. I have brought with me the files for this year's Auction."

      "How many?" Chin asked.

      "Twenty-eight," Miranda sent back.

      "Twenty-nine as of today." Crawford popped the latches on his briefcase and opened it just enough to pull out a thick folder. He'd made copies of the students' files for everyone, each packet held together by a paperclip, and he handed the stack to Harrison to pass out. The electrokinetic looked offended at being delegated by someone who should have been equal rank with him, but Crawford didn't even slow. "The cabinet made their official decision this morning. These files I am handing you, however, only include the original twenty-eight."

      "So much for being prepared," Richter sent at Crawford.

      "The twenty-ninth was omitted for reasons that will become obvious in just a moment," Crawford answered smoothly, and he considered the leaders around the table. "Would any team present like to claim critical needs at this time?"

      He looked at Schuldig when he said it. Schuldig didn't answer immediately, not out of real reluctance to speak but because he was finding the tag that marked the telepaths' section. There were only going to be two at Auction, and twenty-five teams bidding. At last count, there were twenty-nine telepaths in the field, which meant twenty-eight teams had none. Chances that most of the teams who had arranged to make it this year were from that pool were fairly high.

      "Dolch claims critical needs," Schuldig answered, finally looking up. Brown and blue met across the table and Schuldig almost forgot what he was saying. Crawford was staring at him as if he could see straight through him, all the way to the darkest corners. It felt damn invasive, or at least way too invasive for both of them to be fully dressed.

      Don't go down that road, he warned himself, but shit, it was hard to keep his thoughts straight.

      "Oh?" Chin pressed, impatient.

      Schuldig schooled his expression into lazy defiance and fought to keep it there. "We will be walking away with a telepath, period."

      "Rejected," came the irritated chorus from around the table.

      "I would remind you to take this seriously, child," Richter said flatly. "I am not sure which would disgust me more: that you would joke at a meeting as important as this or that you would be greedy enough to think we would let any team have two telepaths."

      "I would remind you not to jump to conclusions," Schuldig sent back coolly. "The twenty-ninth psychic up for bidding at Auction is myself."

      That shut them up, but the choked looks on their faces didn't make him feel any better about the reality of this all. "The cabinet informed me this morning that my gift is needed elsewhere. I will be removed from Dolch and offered up at Auction. However," he continued, raising his voice just slightly when he thought Harrison was going to speak, "my team is currently in the middle of an eight-month project and they need a telepath on hand. We have based six months' of work and contracts on the surety that I would be there through completion. I claim critical need and I stand by it, and I dare you to contest this further."

      There was silence from the other six, as five of them were too startled to react immediately. Crawford was the only one who took it in stride and he touched a finger to his glasses to push them further up the bridge of his nose. Schuldig watched it slide, watched the unwavering gaze behind those crystal clear lenses, and dug his fingers into his thighs under the table.

      Knock that the fuck off.

      Fine lips twitched into a vague smile that bordered on mocking, but Crawford didn't bother to answer. Schuldig wondered for a wild moment if Crawford could even hear him when his whole mind was dead like that, but that was stupid. Even still—

      "I accept Dolch's reasoning as fully justified," Crawford said before Schuldig could send something else at him. The others turned on him, looking torn and more than a little bitter about not being able to refute Schuldig's logic. "We cannot afford for any of our projects to fail. One team's failures is one all of Rosenkreuz bears. Schwarz will not bid on either of these two telepaths."

      The others looked disgruntled, like they wanted to argue but weren't quite sure how to get away with it. Schuldig stared them all down until they finally agreed Dolch could have first shot at their choice of telepath. The telepath didn't even try to feel satisfied by their compliance, not when he would just have this argument all over again tomorrow. He was required to attend all three leaders' meetings just for that.

      "That leaves the question of what's going to happen to you," Wesley said, curling his lip in a sneer. "Losing your team, your rank, and your position; what would you do if no one bid on you?"

      The ice Crawford had sucked out of his veins was back and cut across his face in a vicious smirk. Wesley's expression didn't change, but Schuldig heard his mind grind to a halt as self-preservation instincts wiped out coherent thoughts. "Don't waste our time on pretenses, Wesley. Everyone at this table would put a bid in for me, if only they weren't afraid that I'd usurp their position inside a year."

      Miranda didn't even try to argue. "Who wouldn't want to bid?" she asked, tapping manicured nails against the tabletop. "We'd finally be able to boss him around again and put him back in his place. Besides, the telepaths up at Auction have no experience aside from their year in Demolitions and one of them is already promised to Dolch. He's been on the field for four years and comes fully trained."

      The others exchanged glances, thinking that over, and Schuldig kept his arrogant expression locked in place. It was degrading being considered like just another bauble at the market. He'd hated it when he'd first made it out of Demolitions, but he'd forgotten just how bad it was. To add insult to injury, the teams present weren't worth anything. The only one that was worth his skills was Schwarz, but that was asking for trouble. Besides, he'd thought the whole point of being bid upon was because a terrible team needed him to set them straight.

      Chin scowled as she eyed Schuldig. "I'm not sure permission to beat him senseless is worth what it would do to his ego to be at the center of a bidding war."

      "Point," Miranda agreed dryly. "Still."

      "I refuse," Wesley added. "I don't want him on my team, period. More specifically, I don't want him within a hundred miles of Shane."

      The words alone could have meant anything, but the thoughts that followed that said that Wesley had found out just what Schuldig had wanted with Shane earlier. Schuldig's teeth clenched beneath his razor-sharp smirk. He didn't even see Shane all that often- in fact, he only ever crossed paths with the man in August when the teams were here for Auction- so Wesley shouldn't have a clue. Last year he'd just assumed that they were old classmates who hadn't learned to hate each other and wanted to catch up on each other's jobs. Schuldig didn't know just who had told him, but heads were going to roll when he found out.

      Shut the fuck up, Schuldig warned him.

      Wesley ignored that and stared back at him, open disgust stamped on his features. "Stay away from my team."

      Chin looked from one to the other. "This sounds like an interesting story."

      "It's not what we came here for," Delilah shot back.

      "Conflicts between teams are still an important matter," Crawford said, and Schuldig seriously considered kicking him under the table. An icy look flicked that way had no effect on Crawford's calm expression, but Schuldig knew just by looking at him that the precognitive knew exactly what was going on- and what he was doing by forcing the conversation to stay here. "Teams are not entirely autonomous."

      "Maybe your whole 'spiderweb chain reaction' ideals work for your team, but I don't care," Delilah argued. "The main purpose of this meeting is the Auction. Let's stick to that and actually look at these files. We've got twenty-eight new names to go through."

      "This has an effect on the Auction," Harrison sent back. "If this is a new problem the rest of us don't know about, I want to know it now, before I waste any of my money on him."

      Another fucking word, Wesley, Schuldig said, staring Albtraum's leader down. You'll regret it.

      Are you threatening me?
Welsey demanded tightly.

      Schuldig answered him with a smile that left no room for doubt and Wesley considered him in silence, wondering if this was really a fight he wanted to get into. Delilah kept quiet at Schuldig's side, trying not to look uptight and defensive. Schuldig could hear her wondering if he'd bring her down with him, but that'd be sexual suicide. He'd have to find outside faces to sleep with if he ever ragged on someone else, because none of the others would trust him not to turn them in. Then again, no one would want to be seen with him if it meant everyone else would realize-

      "Are you queer, Schuldig?"

      Jaws dropped around the table at such a bold accusation. It took Schuldig a moment before he could look away from Wesley to stare at Crawford. The three who had no clue were staring at Crawford as well, stunned at such a seemingly out-of-the-blue conclusion, but it didn't take long for them to start looking at Schuldig.

      Schuldig gave himself major props for managing to keep his smile in place. "Is that a relevant question in your twisted version of reality?"

      "It is," Crawford agreed easily. "We are trying to make the best choices for our teams. Not everyone is willing to compensate for having a homosexual on the team. It affects pair work and accommodations, just to start with. It is as relevant as any other statistic attached to your file."

      "I disagree. I don't see how something like that would ever affect my performance."

      "Performance is not the only factor in a situation like this. It has to do with prejudices."

      "Prejudices," Schuldig answered, dragging the word out. He fought to focus on Crawford, but it was becoming increasingly more difficult as the leaders started to mentally react. He hadn't flat-out denied it yet and they were starting to realize what that meant. Disgust and shock were the nauseating flavors of the day and only Delilah's mind rang with annoyance and regret. "Slander, perhaps."

      "The term 'slander' is reserved for false remarks, I believe."

      Schuldig considered bashing that perfect face in with his fist. It'd probably be the best move right now, because at least he'd be able to look at Crawford in the future without thinking of sex. Then again, it was easy to look right now because nothing about the man was remotely attractive after what he'd just done. Schuldig was being forced into a corner he couldn't get back out of and he hated it. He was watching his standing in the others' eyes and any grudging respect they might have for him crumble into dust.

      FUCK you.

      "It is a simple yes or no question," Crawford said.

      Schuldig had his mouth open to respond, but Harrison's thoughts took a turn towards cruelly perverted and they snapped across his gift with a bite that hurt. Ice shattered, evaporating under a fiery hatred, and he leveled a killing look at the Demolitions leader. "Think it again," he said, so viciously that Miranda and Wesley actually flinched. "I dare you to even think about following through on that. The cabinet would execute me for what I'd do to you in return and I wouldn't have a single fucking regret."

      Harrison just smiled coldly in response. Schuldig wanted to take a shower just to try and scrub those thoughts off of him and out of his mind, but this meeting was far from over and he wasn't going to retreat from it. He simply didn't have it in him to run away.

      What he did have was the innate tendency to kick back, and so he did.

      His gift hit the other man's mind so hard blood shot out of Harrison's nose to splatter against the tabletop. The electrokinetic rocked back violently in his chair as the seizure ripped through his brain, and Schuldig ignored the yelling around him. Both telekinetics hit him at once, each trying a separate tack, and Schuldig was practically crushed between their powers. He almost ground a layer of enamel off his teeth in the fight to keep his expression unchanging. His gaze never left Harrison's face and he just dug his gift deeper into the other leader's mind, tearing out everything the man had just thought about him.

      That tenacity kept him from seeing Crawford coming until the last second, and he had no hold on Crawford's mind to warn him. Two hands caught at his face and he realized with a start that the precognitive had made it all the way around the table to stand behind him. The touch was more jarring than mental powers were, as it was real and more demanding. He reached up, ready to smack Crawford's hands away, but he was too slow.

      Crawford's power came awake in his gift without warning, slamming hard up against his telepathy with a brutality he had no defenses against. Schuldig actually blacked out for a second at the pain as Crawford's power systematically took him apart. His mouth opened on a silent scream and, despite the fact that he didn't have the breath to actually voice it, his throat still felt the strain and he choked on the taste of blood. He clawed desperately at Crawford's hands, but the man just leaned forward over his chair and pinned him down against the table.

      The foreign power dropped away, but Schuldig was in too much agony to appreciate it. He was sprawled limp against the table as his entire body shook from the pain. There was a roaring in his ears that was slow to fade into the agitated voices of the rest of the leaders. Harrison was screaming furious death threats while two others argued with him, and the others were demanding to know what Crawford had just done.

      Schuldig? Delilah tried. Her voice was too loud in Schuldig's head and he jerked as if he'd been shot.

      "Trash can," Crawford said, just as Schuldig grabbed at his head. Schuldig didn't even hit it that hard, but even the slightest pressure was too much. Crawford pulled him back off the table and between the chairs just in time for him to heave into a metal trash bin. Schuldig reached out blindly for something to hold on to and clung to the edge of the table as he choked and shook.

      "I believe Schuldig will be absent for the rest of this meeting," Crawford said. His voice was too loud in Schuldig's ears and the telepath couldn't stop himself from flinching. "He has already stated that Dolch will be bidding on a telepath; therefore, I find his absence from the rest of these deliberations acceptable. We do not need him present during our discussions of the other remaining powers."

      "I want him killed!" Harrison roared. "As soon as he loses his leader's stripe, I want-"

      "I do not care what you want," Crawford said coldly. "I will not allow Schuldig to be punished for what has just occurred here today."

      "You won't allow?" Harrison sputtered. "Who the fuck do you think you are? You can't just-"

      "The fighting stops now," Crawford interrupted him. "Estet is on the premises. If they were to learn what just transpired here, everyone in this room would be demoted. I do not think anyone wants such a thing."

      "But he-"

      "Untugend." Crawford didn't have to raise his voice to sound threatening; the cold malice he put into Harrison's team name quieted the rest of the room down immediately. "The cabinet chose to put Schuldig up for bidding and I daresay they will not be amused by your pettiness if you pursue this. Those put on sale at Auction are not to be harmed. Those are the rules and I trust you will abide by them."

      "The rules state-"

      Schuldig didn't know what Crawford did, or what look he gave the other man, but Harrison shut up immediately. For a full minute, the only sounds in the room were Schuldig's strained breaths. At last Miranda spoke up.

      "Mind teaching the rest of us whatever you did to Schuldig? It looks useful."

      "It is not something any of you could do," Crawford said, tightening his grip on Schuldig. The telepath didn't have much choice but to follow Crawford's pull to his feet. His legs almost gave out from under him, but Crawford didn't let him fall. He took Schuldig's weight against him like it was nothing and reached out with his free hand to scoop up Schuldig's files. Schuldig tried to elbow him in the diaphragm, but he couldn't get his fingers to unknot from his hair. "I will escort him away and return. I invite you to continue the meeting in my absence."

      They gave up arguing and Crawford walked Schuldig to the door. Schuldig stumbled behind him down the hall, unable to tell up from down and one foot from the other. Crawford didn't even try to take him down the stairs but opened up an empty meeting room at the end of the hall and sat Schuldig down at the table.

      "What did you do?" Schuldig mumbled, pushing carefully at his forehead.

      "Your gift and mind are both intact," the precognitive assured him. "They are simply bruised."

      "I'm going to fucking kill you."

      "You don't know how," Crawford said. "What's more, you never will."

      Schuldig glowered at him as best he could through bright orange bangs. Crawford wasn't even looking at him. The man was instead gazing at the far wall, or perhaps through it, towards futures Schuldig would never have any control over. The telepath felt sick just thinking about it, or maybe that was lingering illness from Crawford's attack. He tried carefully piecing his mind back together, but it just sent a spike of pain down his spine.

      "It will take about an hour before the lingering effects fade," Crawford told him, glancing back Schuldig's way and setting the files down in front of him. "If you stay here, no one will bother you in that time, and the meeting will be over within twenty minutes. We will be out of your range and somewhere where we cannot interfere with your gift's natural healing process."

      "I hate you."

      "I know," Crawford assured him. "That matters little to me."

      "Get away from me."

      "He is going to bid on you," Crawford informed him. Schuldig thought about what he'd seen in Harrison's mind and his stomach knotted up. "After what you did to him today, he will pay whatever it takes to win you for Untugend."

      Schuldig said nothing to that but looked away. He tried to feign disinterest, but his brains were scrambled too badly to keep his expression in check. Crawford considered him in silence for a few moments, perhaps giving him time for his imagination to go wild. At length he pulled a small foil packet out his breast pocket and held it out in offering. Schuldig eyed it for a moment, then accepted it and turned it over to read the print on the back. It was a painkiller, which meant Crawford must have brought it onto the compound with him. Rosenkreuz didn't believe in babying anyone's pain.

      "I will outbid him," Crawford said, and Schuldig glanced back at him. Only a precognitive could speak with that much certainty, and as Schuldig stared at him, he believed him. "Schwarz has already made preparations to integrate a telepath onto our team."

      "Quit fucking planning my life out for me," Schuldig said, tossing the packet away from him. Crawford anticipated that and caught it easily. He set it down on the table instead, leaving it there for later. "I want nothing to do with you."

      "On the contrary, I have exactly what you want. I know you better than you know yourself, and I know you're lying to yourself with every breath you draw in Rosenkreuz's name."

      Hail Rosenkreuz. The mantra was an automatic response. He'd been in Rosenkreuz's clutches for twelve and a half years now; he'd learned twelve years ago that the only way he was ever going to survive was if he could teach himself to believe a lie and still know it as a lie on a level no one else could reach. In all that time, no one else had ever looked at him and seen right through it to a truth he could barely remember. He'd stood in the cabinet's presence and lied to their faces for over a decade and they'd accepted it all with smiles on their lips. But Crawford—Crawford knew. He wasn't bluffing. Schuldig knew just by looking at him that Crawford wasn't simply trying to provoke him.

      Ice was automatic and he fixed Crawford with a cool look. "Now see, to me that sounds like insubordination."

      "From where I'm standing, it sounds like truth," Crawford answered calmly. "I do not mean these words as a threat or blackmail," he continued. "After all, I cannot prove anything. Rosenkreuz would have to take your mind apart to find the root of that dissent and it would destroy your power. I want that power for my team and myself. I am willing to barter. You will give me what I want, and I will give you what you want in return."

      "I want nothing."

      Crawford looked vaguely amused by that and his mouth curved into a whisper-thin smirk. "You want a lot of things, Schuldig. Do not waste our time with lies." Schuldig opened his mouth to argue with that, but Crawford was already turning away. "You have no real choice in the matter," he offered up. "I will bid whatever it costs to ensure Schwarz wins you, and you will sign off on it because you know what Harrison will do to you if you refuse. We will proceed from there. Do not waste your time being so offended by all of this. We will work very well together in every way."

      "Put me on a leash," Schuldig dared him, voice low and hot with anger. "I'll choke us both with it."

      Crawford just quirked an eyebrow at him. "Do you know how many people die each year of erotic asphyxiation?"

      Schuldig wondered how the conversation had even turned to sex, or if sex was just a predetermined part of this deal that it needed no lead-in. He knew just by looking at Crawford that they'd be fucking the first night they were teammates, if not sooner. It was cold hard fact any way he looked at it, because Schuldig didn't have the kind of self-control it would take to stand in the same room as Crawford and not touch him. His body thought this teaming up thing was the best goddamned idea anyone had come up with this year; his mind thought it was dangerous, if not suicidal. Crawford knew too much about him. Crawford took away every bit of control he'd ever won for himself.

      "Why me?" Schuldig demanded. "Why the hell do you have it out for me?"

      "Because you are the only one who can make this work," Crawford answered easily, "and I'd rather not see twelve years of waiting slide straight down the drain." He paused at the door and glanced back. "You are getting your Christmas bonus," he said. "I am buying you into the number one team. You will have the week you've wanted for years. We will start with that desire of yours, unless you've forgotten already how much you want to stand at the edge and decide your future for yourself."

      "You're not the telepath," Schuldig said flatly.

      Crawford just offered him another passing smirk and stepped outside, and Schuldig was left alone with his unhappy thoughts and pain. Luckily the latter made the former hard to do, and at last he dragged the packet of pills over and swallowed them dry.

      He glared down at the empty foil, trying to find some footing in this mess Crawford was stirring up, but he couldn't find ground to stand on. Outing Schuldig effectively castrated the number of teams that would be willing to bid on him. Even tolerant males would be hesitant, for fear of everyone misreading their desire to have Schuldig on their team. Women wouldn't want to bid on him because Rosenkreuz was conservative enough to prefer male team leaders, so their rank was at stake the second he stepped onto the team. People would still bid, but Harrison wanted desperately to win and he'd drive the stakes so high it would shake everyone else off. The only one who could possibly have the funds and the will to fight a bid war to the finish was Crawford.

      And that—that was dangerous.

      He rubbed at his temples, only to wince in pain as that set off a whole new headache. He stared down at his files without really seeing them, wondering if he really intended to just sit here quietly for the hour Crawford predicted it would take. Leaving this room would be idiotic when his head was such a mess, but staying here where Crawford told him to rankled. He grit his teeth against the inevitable pain and reached out across the compound for his second-in-command.


      Using his gift was like sticking a white-hot poker in his brain and scrambling it, and Schuldig jerked against the table as he tried not to throw up. If Spence had answered, he couldn't hear it, not over the roaring in his ears. He sucked in desperate breaths and looked around for the trash can. There was one sitting by the door. He got to his feet with painstaking care and went to collect it.

      Come to the meeting rooms.

      He let the connection fall apart in favor of trying to turn himself inside out into the trash can. His body was heaving so hard he could barely stay on his own two feet and let the wall take his weight so he could hold on to the bin. When he finally managed to stop shaking, he cracked the door open beside him to give him a peek into the hall. It was only a couple minutes more before Spence showed up and Schuldig pulled the door open further to get his attention.

      He must have looked as terrible as he felt, because Spence looked positively alarmed as he hurried over. Schuldig ignored his first question in favor of setting the trash can back down, and just that move told him there was no way he was making it across Rosenkreuz to his room.

      "Files on the table," he ground out, ignoring Spence's initial query for an explanation. Spence looked from him to the table, obviously wanting to argue, but they'd been together long enough that he knew better. He left Schuldig at the door and went to sit at the table, pulling over the files Crawford had carried over from the leaders' meeting. Schuldig pushed the door closed and waited until he thought he could handle six steps over to the table.

      "Dolch claimed critical need," he said around a burning mouth. "We have guaranteed claim to a telepath and first choice of the pair. I will fight it again tomorrow and the day after, and I'm going to win, so you have to be ready. Choose your telepath."

      The telekinetic didn't argue but turned on the packet Crawford had prepared. He found the telepaths' tab and took the paperclip off so he could set the two files side by side. Schuldig watched as he read both files carefully. He couldn't hear the other man's thoughts, not with his head so scrambled, but Spence didn't bother to hide the tension in his expression. Spence was good on the field- more than good, or Schuldig wouldn't have nominated him- but he wasn't used to making decisions like this one. There was a world of difference between being a competent field psychic and being strong enough to lead a team of psychics, and Spence was going to have a bumpy adjustment. There was no one else on Dolch who could do it, though.

      "We should just turn around and bid on you," Spence muttered as he finished reading the files a second time.

      "I'm spoken for," Schuldig said. Spence glanced his way, but Schuldig didn't bother to elaborate. The kinetic turned back on his papers and started looking between them, making comparisons and weighing pros and cons. Schuldig kept an eye on his expression and interrupted him when Spence opened his mouth again. "Take your time," he said. "This changes everything about Dolch. Don't rush just because I'm sitting here staring at you."

      Spence closed his mouth again, then took a deep breath and finally relaxed. Knowing that Schuldig wasn't testing him let him look through the files at a better pace for him and Schuldig turned his gaze elsewhere to help. He heard noise in the hall when the other leaders left, and then silence, and at last Spence tapped a sheet.

      "This one," he said, straightening his shoulders as he prepared to argue his case.

      "All right," Schuldig said instead. He surprised Spence with that easy accession, but he saw it when Spence realized why he gave in so easily. There was no point in fighting it. Spence had to learn to make decisions and suffer any consequences that resulted from them. "I will present your choice to the leaders at the next two meetings, and you and I will likely have a meeting with Rosenkreuz day after tomorrow regarding your promotion."

      Spence nodded and Schuldig tried getting to his feet. The telekinetic had taken long enough that his head was finally starting to calm down and he at last had his sense of balance back. Spence stood and collected the files, and Schuldig waited for him to be ready before heading to the door. They made their way back across the compound to Dolch's rooms and found the rest of the team waiting for them. They'd needed to stay close to the bedroom to hear the results of this meeting, but wherever they'd chosen to wait, they'd gravitated back this way sometime in Spence's absence.

      They looked to Schuldig, but he ignored them in favor of propping himself up against the closest bunk bed. Gazes were slow to start towards Spence and Schuldig could see it sinking in that they were going to be following his lead in just a few days. The telekinetic waited with a calm look cemented in place. The small nerves he'd shown Schuldig couldn't dare surface here or he'd lose them.

      "All right, Dolch," Spence said. "Here's what we're going to do."

      Schuldig tuned him out in favor of looking for Shane's mind. How the fuck did Wesley find out? he demanded, so coldly that he felt Shane flinch.

      I don't know, the other man answered. Schuldig couldn't hear a lie anywhere in his thoughts. I didn't know until he came back from the meeting and debriefed us on it. That's when he told us what he'd found out about you. Shit, Schuldig, it's been spreading like wildfire in the ranks, spread from one team to another. You weren't here to stop it, so they've all assumed you've been hiding from the backlash.

      Schuldig saw red and forcibly broke that anger apart, shoving it deep beneath ice. Dinner's at eight, he said.

      Spence held the files out towards Schuldig, so Schuldig let the connection drop and focused on his team. He took the folders away and considered Dolch where they were arranged around the room. Dolch had figured out within a couple years just which way Schuldig leaned, but they'd grudgingly accepted it because he'd been so damn careful around them. He knew not to push things with them, so he'd always sought outside faces and unknown names to sleep with when away from Rosenkreuz. He'd promised them that much when more of them were picking up on it, and the fact that he'd sat them down for a meeting just to talk about where the boundaries were had been enough to reassure most of them. That didn't mean they weren't going to suffer for it now that Rosenkreuz was slowly finding out.

      "There's been some fallout," he said.

      "That's why we're in here," Deanna answered. "We got tired of people talking to us."

      "It's going to be bad all week with eighteen teams left to check in. Bear with it as best you can and you'll be out of here in four more days. Don't start anything, not with Estet in the building. If they want to talk to you, you send them to me and I'll deal with them. I will kick their asses for you. My shiny badge says I can. Got it?"

      They nodded in understanding but he could still hear the irritation in their thoughts. He wasn't quite sure what to think when most of that was aimed at their colleagues instead of him. "The cafeteria is open from seven to nine and curfew is at ten-thirty. I will be here until eight. Dismissed."

      Deanna and Marianna left first. Phonesia and Spence met eyes across the room and left next, leaving only Denzel and Calvin. Schuldig didn't blame them for staying, not when they'd probably been taking the hardest hits from their colleagues as single males following Schuldig's lead. He turned away from them and reached out, trying to find the other gays already checked in at Rosenkreuz. He found Delilah first.

      Dinner is at eight, he told her without preamble. We're going to talk.

      I'll tell Cassie and Devon.

      Schuldig accepted that and moved on to the next mind. There were six total here already and he'd end up having to talk to the other eleven as they got here over the next few days. This entire trip was turning into a terrible mess and he wasn't sure he even had time to fix it all before it was time to go. He'd still do what he could, and part of that included talking to the others and convincing them that he hadn't dropped names. Delilah could back him up, as she'd actually been at the meeting, but the rest would be unsettled and more than a little unhappy as they had to blend in with the repulsed gossip sweeping the teams.

      One day, Schuldig was going to bash Crawford's perfect fucking face in.

      The trick would be figuring out how.

Part 3
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