Part 20

      Berger kicked his team out only minutes after Schwarz's exit. The five walked out to the end of the street to smoke and wait. Schuldig jumped from mind to mind in a cursory scan and found nothing unusual. They were comparing first impressions of Schwarz and laughing over the presence of so many dead minds. Schuldig tuned them out as uninteresting and turned his attention back to Berger.

      He knew Crawford's secret was buried two layers deep in Berger's mind, but he still hoped something interesting might slip. Berger had had a couple years to figure out the limits of Crawford's shield. His earlier taunt proved there were loopholes. But Berger said nothing, and neither did Crawford. The silence stretched between them. Schuldig tilted his head to one side, baffled. Had Crawford deafened him to their voices? It shouldn't be possible when Schuldig's gift was buried inside Crawford's shields.

      He didn't have long to wonder. Nicole flinched across the room and muttered, "Christ."

      Schuldig looked her way in time to see her and Ly Ly exchange dark looks. Realization was a bolt of heat down his spine. Berger and Crawford weren't standing around quietly over there; they'd taken the conversation out loud the second they had the house to themselves. But they weren't talking, they were fighting—the ugly sort of fight that couldn't happen telepathically because it was too visceral for thoughts.

      The idea of Crawford losing his cool with Berger was at once impossible and impossibly glorious. Schuldig couldn't put his mind around it, even as his gut warmed to the idea. This kind of fight could only happen between two people who knew each other inside and out, who knew exactly where to cut to make things hurt. He'd never get far enough past Crawford's defenses to ever take him apart this easily, but it was fascinating to know someone had.

      Nicole sent him a frustrated look. You are not getting turned on by this.

      Schuldig couldn't pretend he hadn't heard her and wouldn't pretend to deny it, so he flashed his teeth in a vicious smirk.

      "Oh," Ly Ly said, startled. At first Schuldig thought she was reacting to him same as Nicole was, but Nicole was simultaneously distracted. The empaths stared at the far wall like they could see through it to Crawford and Berger. Schuldig tried to read the emotions on Nicole's face, but they came and went too fast for him to grasp. He didn't have to ask, because Ly Ly scrunched up her face and said,

      Schuldig, you have competition.

      Schuldig stared at her and mentally tied both empaths to him. They're not really.

      They're not, yet,
Nicole said, sounding a little uncertain. She and Ly Ly couldn't feel Crawford, so they had to judge by Berger's side of things. I don't sense any physical pleasure in there anywhere. But Berger's definitely willing and wanting.

      And then some,
Ly Ly said, sounding sick to her stomach. Berger is—

      "Ly Ly," Nicole said.

      Ly Ly glanced at her, then followed her meaningful look to Schuldig. It took her a moment to catch on and she went quiet.

      Endearing, Schuldig said, unamused, but I don't have feelings she needs to spare. You know that, Nicole.

      You do have feelings,
Nicole said, even if neither you nor I know what they are half the time.

      There's a critical difference between you and Berger,
Ly Ly said. No matter which way you're swinging, you're It wasn't the word she wanted to use; he could tell by her annoyed tone. She struggled for a moment for a better one before giving up and getting to the point. You ever sit in the room with a rapist, Schuldig? This feels like that. This feels like someone who won't stop at no. It's ugly. I don't want to feel it in action whether or not Crawford okays it.

      She was disgusted, not worried. It'd never occur to the empaths to worry about Crawford. They respected him too much for that. Berger and Crawford might hate each other, and they might have powerful teams at their disposal, but they still had to play by Estet and Rosenkreuz's rules. Schwarz was confident Crawford would come out on top in any fight.

      Hell hath no fury, Schuldig said, lifting his shoulders in an expansive shrug.

      Nicole stared at him. There's more to that than it sounds, isn't there? No, forget it. I don't want to know.


      The others in the room couldn't hear their conversation, but they didn't miss the exchanged gestures. Tremelle looked from one to the other, curious. Schuldig wasn't interested in sharing this kind of information, so he opted for redirection. He dropped heavily into one of the empty chairs, lolled his head to where he could see Nagi, and asked,

      "So, Berger and Farfarello?"

      Nagi flicked him a cool look for bringing attention back to what was apparently a really sore subject and said nothing. Schuldig hadn't really expected an answer, even though there was no love lost between Nagi and Farfarello. Crawford had to be somewhere in that explanation and Nagi'd already said too much about Crawford's personal life today.

      He got what he wanted, anyway. Schwarz, save for the empaths, immediately tuned in to what they thought was the more interesting subject.

      "Intense," Tremelle agreed.

      "Too bad Estet was so fast," Eleodoro said. "Wouldn't that have solved a couple problems?"

      "She's not the problem," Harriet said. "How's a first-class psychic know a Berserker by his birth name?"

      Berserkers and psychics weren't supposed to cross paths until it was time for someone to die. If psychics knew who the Berserkers were and what they looked like, it gave them yet another advantage over their dead-mind executioners. Farfarello was the only exception in the entire history of the program and one of Estet's best-kept secrets. No one outside of Schwarz knew he was here or what he really was—what he had been, rather, before Crawford orchestrated his failure.

      No one except Berger, it seemed, and Schuldig couldn't wait to hear that story.

      "Enough," Nagi said. "It's irrelevant."

      "Zerfall's in Tokyo," Nicole said, frowning at Nagi. "That makes it relevant."

      The silence that followed that was absolute. Not even Schuldig knew how to react. He'd never seen Schwarz contradict Nagi before. Only he and Farfarello dared push back when the young telekinetic spoke; the others retreated like Nagi was Crawford's mouthpiece on the team. Nicole breaking character was completely unexpected, but in the wake of surprise was a violent rush of triumph.

      Nicole had to feel that from him, had to feel the underlying pulse of self-satisfaction, but she didn't waste time acknowledging him. She looked around at the rest of her startled teammates, looking a little annoyed by their reactions.

      "What?" she demanded, daring someone to tell her she'd stepped out of line. They didn't. Not even Nagi could. Like Schuldig said, favoritism wasn't rank in Schwarz. Nicole lowered her stare to Nagi's face again and said, "So, Farfarello and Berger?"

      Nagi turned an icy look on Schuldig, who shrugged.

      You're looking more human by the day, he said. I suggest you answer the question. You can tell them, or I can speculate. Guess which one of us could do more damage to Crawford in the end.

      If you knew what was at stake here,
Nagi said, angrier than Schuldig had ever heard him.

      Crawford had said that before, multiple times. Schuldig never listened, because of course Schuldig knew what was at stake. They were trying to outmaneuver Estet. They were trying to break free and they were going to kill a lot of very talented psychics in the process. They were keeping secrets from Estet and Rosenkreuz that could destroy a lot of ancient plans. Schuldig knew exactly what was at stake.

      Didn't he?

      "Schuldig?" Nicole asked, looking between him and Nagi. She couldn't feel Schuldig through Crawford's shields and she'd never been able to feel Nagi, so she only had their expressions to go on. Schuldig didn't think she liked being so blind to them.

      Schuldig opened his mouth, but Nagi made up his mind. He stared at Schuldig as he spoke, but the storm in his eyes and the violence in his mental rebuke didn't bleed into his voice. He sounded as detached as always when he said, "Their mother was executed shortly after Farfarello's birth and their father had no time to raise children. Crawford applied to be his primary guardian."

      "How'd they figure it out so quickly?" Schuldig asked. "That young, he could've looked like anyone. How did they know?"

      "Farfarello's natural hair color isn't white," Nagi said. "No one else in the bloodline was a redhead."

      Nicole did the math on her fingers. "Crawford was... seven? He should have been starting at Rosenkreuz then."

      "He enrolled," Nagi said. "He brought Farfarello with him."

      Harriet's eyebrows disappeared under her ragged bangs. "You aren't serious."

      "What'd he do, pack him in his suitcase?" Eleodoro asked. "Socks, shoes, baby brother?"

      "I did not ask for specifics," Nagi said.

      "He brought him in and hid him in the precogs' ward," Schuldig said slowly, thinking it through and watching Nagi for confirmation. Psychics spent their first year at Rosenkreuz segregated by powers, forbidden to mingle until they had rock solid shields. "But the second year he couldn't avoid having a roommate. It was Berger, wasn't it?"

      Nagi inclined his head. "He, Berger, and Farfarello shared a room until Farfarello was shipped to the Berserkers' facilities six years later."

      "Berger helped Crawford keep him a secret," Tremelle deduced. "Wonder why?"

      "He brought a newborn to Rosenkreuz," Harriet said, unable to let that point go. "Who approved that?"

      "What Crawford wants, Crawford gets. There's a lot of power in his corner," Schuldig said.

      "Oh, hell," Nicole said, rubbing at her eyes. "I can't unsee it."

      "Nicole?" Ly Ly asked.

      Nicole made a pained face. "Crawford taking care of a baby? Bottlefeeding? Diapers?"

      Eleodoro cut a hand through the air. "Consider that line crossed. Seriously, Nicole?"

      "Conversation over," Harriet said.

      "Conversation sealed," Nagi said. "Neither Crawford nor Farfarello will tolerate hearing this repeated."

      Saying so, he set his tea aside, got to his feet, and teleported out.

      "I hate when he does that," Ly Ly said, rubbing at her arms.

      "How does he know all that, you think?" Eleodoro asked, staring at the place where Nagi had just been.

      Nagi knew because the elders knew, but Schuldig wasn't about to map out Estet's family tree for his team. He was more interested in Tremelle's question: why did Berger help Crawford hide Farfarello? Somewhere along the way it went horrendously wrong, but whatever drove that vicious wedge between Berger and Farfarello hadn't had any effect on Crawford and Berger's future relationship.

      "Why didn't we know this?" Nicole asked, looking at Schuldig. She said "we" but he heard "you".

      He grimaced at her. "Tomoko didn't know. I couldn't hear it from her."

      He poked his gift that direction. Farfarello's mind was still off the radar. Tomoko's thoughts were already turned to boring subjects like dinner. Schuldig slipped deeper, looking for a memory of Farfarello's words. Seemed Farfarello had confirmed his relationship with Crawford but hadn't elaborated. Odd. She didn't know Crawford raised him, just as she didn't know Crawford was the reason Farfarello had no nerve endings.

      Never saw this one coming, Schuldig said.

      Me neither, Tomoko admitted. They were both quiet for a moment, then she asked, Does this make Farfarello your brother-in-law?

      The world gets scarier by the day.

      Ly Ly looked at the far wall again. "Nicole."

      "Yeah," Nicole said. "I think he's leaving."

      Schuldig motioned for them to wait and went to the front door. Berger was already on his way down the road to his team, but he glanced back at the sound of a door opening behind him. He stopped and the two telepaths stared each other down for a minute. This close Schuldig could feel Berger's gift again, a steady weight that seemed to settle on every part of his skin. It touched him everywhere but his mind; Crawford's shields stood unyielding between them.

      Finally Schuldig pulled the door closed behind him, and Berger turned to fully face him. He pointed a finger at the ground in front of him in a clear order. Schuldig kept his expression calm as he obediently went to stand before Berger. Berger swept him with a slow head-to-toe, taking in every inch of him. The mocking smile that twisted his lips said he wasn't impressed with the results.

      "So you're it," Berger said. "Crawford's precious telepath. I wouldn't think you'd be his type. Was he disappointed?"

      "I won't hazard a guess, Zerfall."

      "You mean you don't know?" Berger asked, arching an eyebrow at him. It took him a moment to catch on. Schuldig wondered if it was an act; he couldn't read Berger through Crawford's power. "You haven't learned to unlock his shields yet."

      "You imply I would undermine my leader's shielding."

      Berger's smile was slow and pitying. He put his thumbs to Schuldig's temples and dug in almost hard enough to hurt. "He really hasn't told you a thing, has he? How would you be any use to him unless you could destroy his shields? You hear it, don't you? That buzz, buzz, buzz in your ears, begging you to answer."

      Schuldig knew what he was referring to—that deadly, all-consuming chaos in Crawford's gift. It'd been there when they first met, but it'd disappeared for the most part after his arrival in Japan. He'd assumed it was the shields Crawford built for him to get him out of Rosenkreuz alive. Berger's words made him wonder if it was something else. He said nothing, however, and kept his expression neutral.

      Berger searched his face for a moment, looking for answers Schuldig refused to give. Finally he lowered his hands. "Or maybe he overestimated your worth. All of us make mistakes when our backs are against the wall. He's been in a corner so long he took the first way out."

      Schuldig considered Berger, wondering how it was possible for a telepath with Berger's strength to be so blind. Best bet was Berger was trying to get a reaction out of him. Berger wasn't exaggerating—Crawford was indeed backed into a corner with few ways out. But Schuldig privately thought Crawford preferred that, as it meant he kept all his pieces in front of him where they were easier to track. Crawford was hard up, yes, but he was not desperate, not by any stretch of the imagination.

      Schuldig couldn't say "You're stupid" and he wouldn't pretend to agree. Instead he said, "It sounds like you've known Crawford a while."

      "You know how long," Berger said. "Crawford's shields protect you but they don't protect your team."

      "To be honest, I am more interested in your relationship with Farfarello."

      "And I am more interested in you," Berger said. "I look forward to the day he has to tell you the truth. I can't wait to see his face when you do the same with it as I did. Maybe then he'll understand. Pass that along, would you?"

      Schuldig tilted his head in understanding, and Berger turned away. Schuldig watched him until he was halfway down the street, then went into the mental psis' house. Crawford was standing alone in the sitting room. Schuldig studied him, looking for visible signs of what had just happened here a couple minutes ago. He found nothing. Crawford was as locked down as ever. Schuldig had expected that, but he was still a little annoyed. He went to stand in front of Crawford.

      He planted his hands against Crawford's chest, trying to feel the tension through all the layers of Crawford's suit. He pushed, just a little, but Crawford gave no ground. Schuldig laughed at his defeat and tipped his head forward, kissing Crawford on the corner of his mouth where Berger's lip ring was.

      "The empaths said he's dying to fuck you. Shall I fight him for you?" he asked. Crawford put a finger to the hollow of Schuldig's throat, pressing steadily harder until Schuldig almost choked on the pressure. He smiled, slow and mean. "I think I'm jealous, Crawford."


      Crawford slid his hand around Schuldig's neck and dug his fingers into the hair at the base of his skull, holding him still long enough to kiss him. Schuldig buried his hands in his own pockets, refusing to escalate this to distraction. It mostly worked; when Crawford drew back Schuldig instinctively leaned after him. His lips had barely brushed Crawford's before Crawford's hand pulled him back.

      "Are you better than he is?"

      Schuldig didn't hesitate. "Beyond a doubt."

      "I guess we'll see." Crawford slipped past him and left.

      Schuldig reached out with his gift and gave his teammates the all-clear. He didn't wait for the empaths to return before following Crawford upstairs. He closed his bedroom door behind him, but Crawford left his open. Schuldig stood in Crawford's doorway, leaning against the doorframe, and watched as Crawford surveyed his planning wall. Weeks ago he'd mapped an earthquake out on this wall. Today it was covered with itineraries and building layouts.

      Clear your calendar, Crawford told him. I have a new project for you.

      Schuldig thought over his to-do list. It'll take two days to tie up the loose ends. Who's the new mark?

      A cold smirk curved Crawford's mouth as he slanted a look Schuldig's way. Zerfall.



      A day later, it was still enough to give Schuldig goosebumps, still enough to stop him in his tracks and put a smile on his face that had Schwarz edging out of his way. Crawford refused to elaborate on the project until Schuldig was ready for it but Schuldig didn't care. Knowing Crawford was going to deliberately set him on Subterfuge's number-two team gave him a warm rush he only ever got from killing a man up close and personal. Teams weren't supposed to strike out against other teams, not without clearing it through the channels, not without maybe getting Berserkers involved.

      Schuldig finished his work in half the projected time. He couldn't wait for details on the new job any longer than that. The next morning he went to his Japanese lessons as usual, then caught a train to Tokyo Station. He found Crawford a block away in an elegant cafe. Schuldig slipped into the seat opposite him just as the waitress arrived with two drinks. She set one down in front of each of them, inquired politely if there was anything else they needed, and bowed her way away from their table when Crawford dismissed her.

      Nice trick, Schuldig said, unamused. How many visions did you ignore to keep me in the dark these last few months?


      Schuldig ran a fingertip along the rim of his mug and eyed Crawford. So, Zerfall.

      That afternoon Schuldig got a crash course on immortality. He knew Crawford was skipping most of the finer details, but they had most of a year to sort that out. All Schuldig needed to know right now was that the entire ceremony hinged on the elders having three critical pieces.

      The first was the cornerstone, which was supposedly somewhere in Japan and which Estet's other teams were relentlessly hunting. The second was a vessel powerful enough to hold a god. Crawford said visions pointed to the vessel being a young girl. The only other certainty was the vessel had to be born somewhere close to its cornerstone. At the ceremony, the girl's soul would be destroyed and Estet's god would take over her body to reign on earth. Should Estet's teams fail to find the proper vessel in time, Estet had a back-up plan: Naoe Nagi, the human-bred god who could be sacrificed in her place.

      The third piece was a telepath.

      When the time comes, you are expected to prepare the vessel, Crawford said. You will erase it and bind it to the cornerstone.

      I think I'm understanding why Nagi hates me,
Schuldig said. If we don't find this girl...

      We will.

      You see it coming?
Schuldig asked, only a little sarcastically.

      I told Estet we would find it, Crawford said. I am the only precognitive in their ranks who has had any visions of it.

      They believed you. That's why they gave you Nagi.
Schuldig took a long swallow from his coffee and stared Crawford down over the mug. That's why they gave you me. Now you have two of the three pieces. Either they're hoping you can collect all three or they trust you not to lose what they've given you. If only they knew you're planning on stealing us out from under their noses.

      Crawford passed him a file, but did not let go when Schuldig took it. Nagi is the original, but he has twenty-two copies sleeping dormant in Project Kreuz. Part of Berger's assignment is to activate copies until he finds another suitable vessel, which means he now has two of Estet's critical pieces. He must not link with any of the clones. I know he will try.

      It really is a race to the finish line,
Schuldig mused. But when the cornerstone's found, surely Estet would give it to you first. You have Nagi and me; we're a better pair than anything Berger dredges up from Koua's lab.

      Assume nothing,
Crawford said. Zerfall is a real threat. Project Kreuz must not succeed.

      Schuldig stared at him. You're asking me to destroy Estet's pet project.

      I am telling you to,
Crawford said. I do not care about expense and I do not care who you kill to accomplish it so long as you do not get caught. Berger will try to trace it back to us. You cannot leave a trail for Estet to follow.

      Schuldig looked from him to the file that hung frozen between them, then back again. Arrogance said to agree. Common sense made him think it through first. He asked himself if he really could do something so ridiculous and suicidal. It was one thing to destroy companies and another to make a Prime Minister. Any psychic worth his salt could pull it off, especially with resources like Schwarz's at his back. But sabotaging Estet's decades-old project and fucking over one of their top teams was something no one else had ever tried—with good reason.

      Schuldig had never wanted any job more. That hungry heat was crawling up his throat again, burning him all the way through, and he didn't try to stop the twitch of his lips. He smiled so wide his face hurt.

      It'll be fucking brilliant.

      Crawford let go, and Schuldig set the thick file at his elbow. Schuldig stared down at its cover for a minute, then turned back on Crawford. They would have given me this team, he said. If I'd swayed Nagi, they really would have taken my side over yours, wouldn't they? You're her grandson but I'm part of the ceremony. Immortality wins over blood when we're just one year out.

      Crawford only smiled, a faint, cold expression that was there and gone again.

      Schuldig wanted to laugh. He wanted to punch Crawford in the face. No wonder the elders took those phone calls seriously. When Tremelle called Dolch and Spence called Schuldig about his intentions to topple Crawford, maybe it made them think. Maybe when Lady Estet called Crawford about it, it wasn't to discipline him for having an insubordinate telepath. Maybe she was considering the idea, and Crawford's visions were all that saved his rank. Schuldig still remembered how angry Crawford was that day, how his power felt as it took Schuldig's shields apart. Crawford had always known Schuldig had a real chance of taking Schwarz away from him. Explained a lot, really, and was absolutely worthless in hindsight.

      You're an asshole.

      Consider it your victory, conceded,
Crawford said, not at all bothered by the anger he had to hear in Schuldig's thoughts. But do not take it seriously. I would never have given you this team. The elders do not want their ceremony to succeed nearly so much as I require it to fail. I have told them a thousand lies; I would tell ten thousand more. Anything it takes.

      Schuldig frowned at him. When you promised me a future, I imagined escape would be involved sooner rather than later. You're really going to see this next year out, aren't you? You'll bring us all to the finish line just to watch them fail. This is what it's always been about.

      There is no freedom or future while Estet has a chance at immortality.

      It's more than that.

      Berger knows but one half of the truth,
Crawford said. Farfarello knows only the other. When Farfarello trusts you with his secret, I will trust you with mine.

      I was overdue for a long chat with Farfarello anyway,
Schuldig said. I'll spend the rest of the day reading over this. Should have a preliminary report ready tomorrow.

      Then you are dismissed.

      Schuldig hesitated, but not for long. He sensed no amount of pushing would get more from Crawford today. Really, he was surprised he'd gotten so much. He knew the only reason Crawford divulged any of this was because Berger's presence forced his hand. So Schuldig gathered his file and stood. He hopped the Chuo Rapid at Tokyo and took it all the way back to Mitaka. As soon as he walked in he started a pot of coffee.

      I know that sound, Nicole said from her bedroom. Make enough for me.

      Make your own,
Schuldig said, though they both knew he'd let her steal some of his.

      He filled a mug before it finished brewing and went upstairs to read. He was still there when Crawford came home eight hours later. He glanced up instinctively as Crawford crossed the room. Crawford closed his bedroom door without a word to Schuldig and Schuldig read the last thirty pages of Kreuz's file in silence. When he was done he went back downstairs, started a second pot, and stood in the kitchen to drink his way through it. He had a headache, but he wasn't sure if it was from the late hour, the caffeine, or what he'd read.

      Farfarello's mind came back online sometime around sunrise. Schuldig was just starting the water in the bathroom when he heard the muffled buzz on the outskirts of his gift. It gave him pause. Farfarello had been off the grid since Berger's arrival. Schuldig had left him alone, knowing he wasn't going to get anything out of an angry Berserker, but if Farfarello was cooling off...

      Once he started on this thing with Zerfall, he wasn't going to have time to get through to Farfarello. Today was his only shot.

      Farfarello, he said. You've been keeping things from me.

      Farfarello didn't answer, but Schuldig wasn't deterred. He checked the temperature of the water, switched the flow to the nozzle, and sat on the plastic stool to wash up.

      Walk me to class today. We'll grab breakfast on the way.

      You don't eat this early.

      I don't eat right after waking up,
Schuldig corrected him. He was a little surprised Farfarello remembered, then annoyed at himself for being surprised. Farfarello didn't forget anything. I've been up all night going over Crawford's newest assignment. I think you'll be very interested in the target.

      Farfarello didn't answer, but Schuldig didn't push it. He finished washing, then dried off and went upstairs to dress. He was tugging on his shirt when he heard the front door open. He glanced over his shoulder at Crawford's closed door. It was still early, and Crawford's room was dead silent, but Schuldig had a working theory Crawford never slept.

      Chances of him punching my stomach through my spine when I tell him I reneged on our deal, precog?

      As he expected, Crawford's response was immediate and calm. I would not let you go if I thought he would hurt you.

      If I didn't know you were just protecting your assets, I might be touched,
Schuldig drawled.

      Crawford didn't bother responding to that jibe. Schuldig shrugged into his black jacket, grabbed his Japanese folder, and headed downstairs ready to piss off Estet's most dangerous Berserker.

Part 21
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