Part 21

      There wasn't anyplace to grab breakfast on the walk and most of the storefronts in Kichijoji's outdoor shopping mall were still gated, but Schuldig found a cafe halfway down the street that was open. The air was thick with the smell of bread and coffee when they walked in, which was promising. A chipper hostess motioned them to a small booth near the back. Schuldig knew she was keeping them out of sight of any other potential guests, but he didn't contest it. Isolation was exactly what he and Farfarello needed for this conversation.

      They ordered after a cursory look at the menu, but neither man spoke until they'd gotten their first round of coffee. Schuldig cradled his mug in both hands, needing the heat to help thaw his fingers. They were almost halfway through December, and Tokyo's temperatures were dropping at a rapid-fire pace. He needed to invest in a thicker coat before he froze to death, but he didn't have time to go shopping.

      Schuldig waited until the waitress moved on to another table before opening the conversation in German. As he did he kept a mental ear out, searching for anyone in the sparse crowd who might understand him. The words attracted a bit of tired interest but no comprehension.

      "I was starting to think you were gone," he said, waggling a finger at his head to indicate Farfarello's shielding. "Crawford do that for you?"

      "My mind is not yours," Farfarello said. "He cannot touch it."

      "Last time we talked about your fucked shielding, you just said he couldn't understand you."

      Farfarello lifted one shoulder in a bored shrug and tapped his mug gently against his mouth—not drinking, but maybe reveling in the fierce heat of the ceramic against his lips. Schuldig watched him for a minute, waiting for an answer he knew he wasn't going to get. Finally he set his own coffee aside, tired of burning his fingers, and got straight to the point.

      "Nagi told us about Lady Moire," he said. "He didn't tell me why a first-class precognitive made such a stupid mistake."

      Farfarello only shrugged again. "She did what she had to do."

      "She already had Lord Kane's heir in Crawford. Why'd she go out of her way to have you? And why did she sleep with a redhead? Recessive gene or not, there was still the chance of you inheriting. She should have known better. She should have seen that you would."

      "Ask her," Farfarello suggested.

      Schuldig gave him a withering look. "She should have at least made sure to fuck a precognitive."

      "She did."

      "I misheard you," Schuldig said, but Farfarello didn't repeat himself. "I don't know what they told you to salvage her reputation, but there's no way she could have. Precognition breeds true, and you don't have a gift." He gave Farfarello a minute to change his tune, but Farfarello had nothing else to say on the matter. Schuldig moved on, because he had too many questions and only a little bit of time to work with. He'd take that fight up with Crawford later. "You didn't tell me you were brothers."

      "You didn't ask."

      "You asked me to take his rank away. Thought something like that might have come up in that conversation."

      "Thought wrong," Farfarello said.

      Schuldig had planned on saving this bombshell for the end of the conversation when he was about to walk away from Farfarello, but annoyance over Farfarello's uncooperative attitude changed things. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the padded booth seat, giving himself what little space he could between them. It put him out of Farfarello's reach, but only if Farfarello didn't come out of his chair after him.

      "Well, I gave up."

      That got Farfarello's attention. "You didn't."

      "You said it hinged on getting Nagi's vote," Schuldig said. "Guess what, I looked into it. There's no convincing that kid I'm the better choice." That was half the reason, anyway. The other half was realizing Crawford was more than he said, more than Schuldig assumed. There was too much going on here, too many secrets, for him to take the helm from Crawford—especially in the wake of what he'd learned yesterday. "I did the smart thing and conceded defeat. Crawford's rank is safe, especially after he set me loose on Kwan. Schwarz will never vote for me now. They want someone's word between me and their throats."

      "Convincing," Farfarello echoed, like it was an unfamiliar word. "He told you what you are."

      It was more a demand than a question. Schuldig hesitated for a second, wondering if they were thinking about the same thing. "A link."

      "Between vessel and stone," Farfarello said, with an edge in his voice. "You do not convince a vessel. You command it. You have the final say over it. If you told the child to follow you, he would."

      "Okay, again? Things like that would have been useful months ago." Schuldig said. "Stop holding out on me. I'm sick of secrets."

      Farfarello spat something unintelligible into his mug and drank half his coffee without coming up for air.

      Schuldig stabbed a finger at him. "You told me what Nagi was. You should have told me what I was to him. You wanted me to kick Crawford's feet out from under him but you didn't give me the ammunition I needed to succeed. Instead you gave me some sob story about power and rank you thought I'd empathize with. So yeah, this is your fault, not mine. Why didn't you tell me?"

      Farfarello said nothing, so they glowered at each other until the food arrived. The waitress cast a nervous glance between them, easily picking up on the tension at the table, and excused herself as quickly as possible. Schuldig didn't even look at his breakfast. He'd lost his appetite. He continued to stare at Farfarello, ticking through a million questions he wanted to ask and a hundred things he needed to know. He swallowed every word of it, looking for the piece that might salvage this conversation.

      "Crawford says you'd never betray him."

      The silence that followed that made him think for a moment Farfarello was done with him, but finally Farfarello said, "He would never betray me. I am too important to him."

      And that was the uncomfortable truth, wasn't it? Schuldig originally thought Crawford stole Farfarello so he'd have a Berserker on hand, but he'd wondered why that Berserker specifically, why the grand-nephew of one of Estet's elders. Not for his rank, not for his reputation. For blood. Crawford saved Farfarello as a baby and he was saving him now, taking Farfarello with him when he broke free of Estet.

      Thinking Crawford was so human was almost as disturbing as it was fascinating.

      "Yet you wanted me to take his rank," Schuldig said, unwilling to dwell on such thoughts.

      "He took mine," Farfarello said. "He took her."

      "He's giving her back. He's the one who okayed Nicole's experiments."

      "He wanted me to forget her," Farfarello said, with that edge in his voice again. "He brought her here only to see what she knew about us. He thought it would end. He wanted it to."

      Except Farfarello and Tomoko's relationship wasn't built on physical stimulation and release. When Schuldig first found out about the pair, Tomoko said she wasn't deterred by Farfarello's disability. If anything, she thought it brought them closer together. Schuldig hadn't understood it then. Maybe he understood it now, after seeing the way they kissed. The memory of it was enough to set his stomach churning, days later. Psychics weren't supposed to be so wrapped up in each other, not with jobs and gifts like theirs, especially not when they were planning on destroying Estet. She was Farfarello's greatest strength and his greatest weakness, and neither of them had powers to protect them in the aftermath.

      "Crawford plans on cutting Schwarz when this is through and he knew she'd be a casualty. He wanted you to leave her," Schuldig concluded. "If he still felt that way he'd have let her die in Masafumi's warehouse. It would have been clean and easy. But you remember that part where he went back into a burning building to find her? I haven't forgotten, maybe because I'm the one who has to clean his burns every night."

      Farfarello only flicked his fingers and picked up his mug again. Instead of drinking he turned it in his hands, over and over and over.

      Schuldig tilted his head to one side and eyed Farfarello. "You thought I'd spare her," he said slowly, sorting it out as he went. "That's why you favored me. That's why you humored me when I tried to win you over. You let me drag her out with us for drinks and food and you allied yourself with me first chance you got. It'd sting your brother's pride and reputation but you'd get to keep both of them. So tell me, Farfarello. Did you think I'd find a way to make it work if you asked me to save her, or did you think I'd choose a different future for Schwarz than Crawford wanted? The truth this time, if you even know what truth is."

      Farfarello looked at him. "You're a telepath."

      They were Nagi's words coming out of Farfarello's mouth, lacking the angry edge but matching it in simple accusation. That same certainty and unquestioning distrust, and Schuldig wasn't prepared for the fierce well of anger that roiled through his chest.

      "Fuck you," Schuldig snapped, incensed. "I'm not Berger."

      He didn't realize he'd gotten up to leave until Farfarello's hand clamped down over his wrist. Schuldig shot him a slit-eyed glare, but Farfarello was unaffected. Schuldig tried to yank free, but Farfarello's fingers clenched so tight Schuldig almost dislocated his own wrist. Schuldig opened his mouth to say something really rude—something that would undoubtedly get them both thrown out on their asses should the waitstaff overhear—but Farfarello beat him to the punch.

      "I will tell you a story," Farfarello said. "When my mother died, Crawford begged the elders for my life. They spared me and gave me to him to raise and protect. He brought me with him to Rosenkreuz."

      "So Nagi said," Schuldig said, still angry but listening. "His second year he moved you both in with Berger. Why did Berger keep you a secret?"

      "There was a baby in Rosenkreuz," Farfarello said. "Crawford had to tell him who approved it."

      "Meaning Berger knew you were Lady Estet's grandchildren," Schuldig said "He wouldn't risk her wrath."

      "But he was still a child and a telepath, and I was still a human he could not read."

      Schuldig interpreted that without any problems. Estet was enough of a threat to keep Berger quiet, but it didn't keep Farfarello safe. If Rosenkreuz faculty discovered a baby on their grounds and raised a fuss, Estet would surely hear and step in. Until they did, though, Berger was free to do whatever he liked. Schuldig didn't need to think too hard on that one. Children were cruel creatures, but psychic children were soulless monsters. They had all the power in the world at their fingertips and no solid judgment of right and wrong. It was a mindset Rosenkreuz encouraged.

      "He hurt you."

      "I was the puzzle he could not crack. Crawford was his opponent."

      Crawford and Berger turned Farfarello into a tugowar game for six years: a child fast on his way to becoming Rosenkreuz's most powerful telepath and a psychic who had to pretend he was only a precognitive. Schuldig wondered how much of it Farfarello remembered. He'd been young; maybe his mind did him a favor and buried the trauma. Maybe it explained Farfarello's odd personality and disconnect. Maybe that was just a result of the Berserker training.

      "I enrolled in the Berserker program when I was six," Farfarello said. "Berserkers have three years of training. Until I graduated, Crawford was forbidden to see me. When I had a team, Estet let him come. The faculty was...displeased," he said, deciding on the word after a moment's consideration. Schuldig saw what an understatement it was in the vicious smile that twitched at Farfarello's lips. He imagined the Berserkers wouldn't like having one of Estet's psychic children on hand.

      "Crawford told me a secret," Farfarello said. "Words for a truth I knew but could not understand. The next time he came, he brought Berger—and every time after that. I knew what he wanted. I told him he was mistaken. But he could not hear me. Berger listened for both of them, and I could not speak to him. Look what became of that."

      Schuldig tried to put it together in his head, what Farfarello said and what Farfarello didn't need to say. He wasn't sure what to make of the final picture.

      Despite Crawford's strength, blood, and gifts, Berger had the upper hand in their relationship from day one. Crawford had a baby brother to protect and a power he couldn't admit to. He was too young to understand how to protect his weak spots. Berger'd pushed and pushed until he won. Schuldig wondered if maybe Crawford had given up prematurely. Crawford grew up knowing how he wanted his career with Estet to end. He knew he needed a telepath. Berger was despicable but he was powerful, and Crawford hoped he was their ticket out. Somewhere in Farfarello's absence they'd become codependent through their struggle. Enemies to rivals to allies to lovers. Then betrayal.

      "What secret did he tell you?" Schuldig asked.

      Farfarello said nothing but got to his feet. Sharing time was over, apparently.

      "I'm not Berger," Schuldig said. "Yes, we're both telepaths, and yes, we both want Crawford's power. A couple weeks ago I'd have done whatever it took to break Crawford down and take everything away from him. That's why I wanted you at my back.

      "But there's a critical difference between me and Berger all of you have missed. Berger is a career telepath. He believes in Estet and Rosenkreuz. He wants their powerful future. I followed Crawford to Schwarz because he promised me he could get us free of all this. It doesn't matter what your goddamn secrets are or what I take from Crawford in the process. I will always want out. But how am I supposed to help us if I'm flying on half-truths?"

      Farfarello stood a minute, studying him like he could read the truth on Schuldig's face.

      Finally he said, "You already know, telepath. You just don't remember."

      And he walked away, leaving Schuldig with two untouched breakfasts and the bill.


      Schuldig had the rest of the morning to think about the conversation, but after his Japanese lesson let out he was forced to tuck it all aside. He had work to do, and nothing he'd done with Schwarz so far could prepare him for this. Schuldig had a team to disable and a project to destroy, and he couldn't leave a trail. No notes, no reports, no written work of any kind. All of it happened in his head, from the profiles he painstakingly put together to the gritty details of Koua Academy. That part was exhausting but doable.

      The nightmare was in not getting caught.

      Schuldig couldn't take time off Schwarz while he sorted it out, because Schwarz was his alibi. His teammates couldn't suspect something was amiss and they couldn't know he had a private project. He couldn't leave Schwarz's apartments for more than a day or two at a time. He had to take jobs—some which Farfarello and Nagi secretly completed in his place, others he had to take with various teammates so they'd remember him being around. He had to go out for drinks with Farfarello and Tomoko and Nicole. He had to go to his Japanese lessons.

      He stole fifteen minutes here, an hour or two there, a night or three without sleep. He took the long way home from meetings and jobs, started looking for restaurants on the far side of town, gave himself an ulcer from all the coffee he was drinking. He raided pharmacies for ADHD uppers so he could focus when his brain wanted desperately to shut down and rest.

      And all of it happened inside Crawford's shields, both to protect him from Berger's detection and to keep Crawford continually updated on his progress.

      When he had the most time to spare he borrowed one of Schwarz's cars and drove out to Koua, keeping well out of range of its massive security but staying close enough to get a read on the place. Each time he gave a different staff member the suggestion to take a future trip into Tokyo proper, so he could gather further intel closer to home.

      Koua was more than Project Kreuz. It was a separate Estet-funded project, a school hellbent on corrupting brilliant minds to Estet's way of thinking. It had fifty names on its official payroll, another sixteen paid under the table, and rotating teams of twelve that stayed on school grounds overnight. From what Schuldig could tell, half the teachers knew what was going on, and the other half were normal people whose very insignificance protected Koua from too much scrutiny.

      Beneath it all was Zerfall's six-man team, and somewhere in there were twenty-two minds who were alive but comatose. Schuldig wasn't ready to meddle with Zerfall just yet, but he couldn't do anything with Nagi's clones as they were now. Luckily that meant Berger wasn't going to have any luck with them, either, so Schuldig had time to sort out a plan of action. His first targets were the sixteen-man team in charge of the clones' medical facility—Nagi's former keepers.

      Which led to an interesting problem: how much did Nagi know about what Schuldig was doing? If so, would he condone it, thinking it was necessary to their survival and success, or did he have vague emotional ties to his twenty-two copies? Who would react first, the god or the human, and whose reaction would Nagi choose to live with? In the end, though, Schuldig simply didn't have the time to bring it up with him. He couldn't even justify it under the guise of gathering intel, because the intial file Crawford gave him regarding Koua's experiments had Nagi's name on it. Nagi gave Crawford everything he knew about his brethren, and Crawford gave it all to Schuldig to destroy them.

      Schuldig, Nicole called, startling from his thoughts.

      For a moment Schuldig thought about canceling, maybe to see if Nicole would still have dinner with Tomoko and Farfarello in his absence, maybe so he could get some sleep. He didn't remember the last time he slept. This week was feeling like an endless year.

      He pinched the bridge of his nose so hard he heard cartilage creak and sat up on his futon. Coming.

      He ran cursory fingers through his tangled hair, swallowed two uppers dry, and went downstairs to meet them at the door. He made it all the way to the landing before he got a good look at Farfarello, and the sight of black leather around Farfarello's throat stopped him in his tracks.

      "Uh," he said.

      Nicole made a face at him, not really a grimace but not quite a smile. "I rebuilt his neck."

      "So you collared him," Schuldig said, flicking Tomoko a blank stare. "The logical next step, of course."

      "It is. Now he can feel me on him at all times," Tomoko said.

      "You just happened to have a collar lying around? You have kinkier sex than I suspected."

      "Only sometimes," she said with a shrug. "But the collar is new. We picked it out this morning."

      Schuldig couldn't help it. "There's a pet store nearby?"

      "Oh, no. We went to M's in Akihabara."

      "We," Schuldig echoed, trying to picture the oddball couple browsing at a sex shop.

      Nicole was definitely grimacing now. "Can you at least keep your eyes off it while we're out?"

      "Why?" Tomoko asked. "I like how it looks."

      "Yeah, I know," Nicole said, a little sourly. "Empath, remember?"

      "I must have forgotten," Tomoko said. She trailed her thumb along the length of Farfarello's collar. Farfarello reacted only by looking at her. That was enough. Schuldig didn't need Nicole's gift to interpret the look that crossed Tomoko's face. Her thoughts were fractured and hungry. She was rethinking this dinner thing, too, then thinking they didn't have to stay home for her to get what she wanted. There were a million hotels, alleys, and bathrooms between here and there, after all. No problem at all for her and Farfarello to slip out once or twice.

      "Before I learned Japanese I thought you were some docile native," Schuldig admitted. "Someone should have thought to warn me."

      Tomoko drew her hand back with great effort and gave Schuldig a sly smile. In a stage whisper she asked, "You think Crawford would let you collar him?"

      "We're leaving," Nicole said, too loud. "Out. Out. Oh my god."

      Nicole stepped into her stilettos and stomped down the street like she hoped to break the asphalt under her shoes. Schuldig toed into his shoes and followed the lovers out. They were off to Roppongi tonight in search of a glitzy place Nicole found while working a mark. The ride felt longer than Schuldig knew it was, maybe because they had to transfer to the subway at Shinjuku, maybe because Schuldig was damned tired after a week of research.

      He survived dinner by the skin of his teeth, though the pathetic two beers he managed went to his head as quickly as ten might have. Nicole gave him crap for fading out on them so quickly, Tomoko took advantage of the distraction to play with Farfarello's collar again, and Farfarello sat a half-world apart from all of them as usual. Schuldig was desperately glad to be back on the train afterward and heading home, at least until he and Nicole went through the front door. The sound of the door closing behind him flicked a switch in his head prematurely—he was home, he could rest. He stumbled a bit on the step and had to catch the wall for balance.

      "If you're catching something, warn me now," Nicole said as toed out of her shoes and sailed past him. "I can't afford to get sick."

      "I picked up some powders earlier," Schuldig said. "Don't worry about it."

      "Still," she said meaningfully, and she padded off to bed.

      Schuldig headed upstairs on his own and didn't bother to change before sinking onto his futon. He didn't know what time it was. He didn't care. He trusted Crawford to hear him. Can you buy me a day's time?

      I will buy you two.

      Schuldig was asleep a second later.

Part 22
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