Schuldig spent the next two days in the trunk of a car. Four days earlier he'd given the scientists the idea to drive into Tokyo for a business lunch with some of their sponsors. As soon as the details were set he learned the layout and security of the parking garage adjacent to the restaurant. Then, when everyone was well and distracted, he broke in and made himself at home in the trunk.
The back seats were adjustable, but laying them flat was out of the question. Instead he propped one a quarter-inch open for meager circulation, braced with a crumpled paper ball that went unnoticed in the rest of the car's clutter. He stocked the trunk with bottles of water, a single larger bottle that would act as a portable latrine, and a bag of jerky to snack on. His pockets were full of uppers so he wouldn't fall asleep, and he brought two extra jackets to help ward off the cold.
Not the most comfortable get-up, but he'd had worse. Schwarz was a lucky, having the numbers and connections to do their espionage in broad daylight. Few teams had it so easy, and Schuldig could tell a dozen horror stories from his time with Dolch. As a telepath with an empath on his team, he could have made anyone give him anything he wanted and just blurred their memories afterward, but sometimes, the easiest way was the one with the least mental meddling.
Not to mention it was safest to stay out of sight when entering Zerfall's territory. If Berger spotted him, he'd take the complaint all the way up the chain to get one over on Crawford, and Schuldig didn't know how Crawford would explain this to his grandmother.
He sat quiet and still throughout the business lunch, bouncing one mind to the next and memorizing names. Two hours later the three scientists were back. He heard the rumble of their voices as they turned back toward Koua, but he was more interested in their thoughts. When they went quiet and he wouldn't risk them losing track of the conversation, he chose and mind and slipped in as deep as he could.
He spent the afternoon learning more than he ever wanted to know about genetic manipulation and cloning. What it took the scientist his life to master, Schuldig skimmed out of his mind in four hours. He skipped the "why" and processes and just absorbed the end-state knowing. He'd erase it all later, because there was no way he wanted this kind of information floating around in his head, but for now he needed to understand the Kreuz project inside and out.
As he saw it, his options weren't that great: he could try to wake the clones so he could subsequently destroy them, which would attract attention; he could use the scientists to destroy their own project, which would definitely get traced back to telepathic intervention; or he could destroy Berger's ability to link with vessels, which might not even be possible, especially with Crawford's shields around both their minds. He wondered if Berger meant it, if Schuldig really could unlock Crawford's shields. He could use that to get inside Berger's mind, get the truth from him and destroy his gift in the process.
He spent hours thinking about it, ticking through the risks for each option, debating the chances of success any way he went. Mucking with the scientists was out, which left the clones or Berger. Comatose gods or Estet's strongest. Not good odds, but interesting to consider.
He was eating a jerky dinner when Zerfall unintentionally forced his hand. The scientists' minds went red-hot and uncomfortable beneath the school. It took only a second to piece together what was happening: Berger had shown up unannounced to check on the sleeping vessels. He brought with him a demand: he wanted them to wake one of the children. He claimed he wanted proof the vegetative states weren't damaging their minds. Schuldig knew it was more than that. Crawford had Nagi and Schuldig; Berger was trying to match his hand.
The scientists put up a good fight, but arguing with one of Estet's psychic representatives never ended well. Berger fried a mind to make his point, got their word they'd start right away, and left the dead body for them to clean up.
The surviving fifteen were up the rest of the night, making adjustments to their chemicals and machinery. They couldn't simply shake a child awake; they gave themselves sixteen hours from start to full consciousness. Schuldig wasn't looking forward to the wait, but he didn't blame them for their caution. They'd harvested Nagi's genes when he was just a toddler and let the clones live only three years. As soon as they were sure the children had full cognitive abilities and no deformities, they shut them down again to grow in their sleep. The machines kept them as healthy and protected as possible while injecting them with chemicals meant to enhance their mental gifts.
Schuldig couldn't wait to see how they explained such an unconventional childhood to the "lucky" teenager.
He kept a careful mental eye on them, but most of his attention was on the clone's invisible mind. He was listening for a flicker of consciousness, the first moment the child stopped being a body and started being something he could work with. There was no telling what Berger's range was or if he'd wait when that mental blink showed up on his radar. Berger had too much at stake to risk missing it.
Unfortunately for Berger, so did Schuldig.
Child PK7.3 came online at three a.m.—not conscious enough to have a clue what was going on or realize something wasn't right, but mentally aware on the lowest level. And there was Berger, right on cue. Schuldig felt the swell of power as Berger reached for the vessel, looking to slam a link in while the child's mind was still so unguarded. Before Berger could get a good grip on it, Schuldig severed the child's mind as quickly and quietly as he could. The child's mind went braindead.
The scientists wouldn't know they failed until they tried to wake PK7.3 up, but Berger knew immediately something was wrong. Schuldig sat silent and still, gift running on high alert as he waited for a possible backlash. Crawford's shields made him invisible to Berger's gift, but that wouldn't keep Berger from suspecting foul play. Since Berger couldn't find him, though, he'd have to blame himself. He'd think the strength of his mind crushed the child and he'd wait for the next one to be fully conscious before tampering with it.
Finally Berger's gift vanished.
The scientists kept working, clueless.
Berger showed up at noon to demand results, then threw a spectacular shitfit when the scientists had only a braindead body to show him. Berger responded by creating a body of his own: another scientist. Schuldig followed it all secondhand in the scientists' minds, smiling to himself and wishing he had front row seats to the show.
Berger waited until they'd started the process all over again before leaving. Schuldig had what he wanted—time to work on the vessel by himself, and the scientists' ill will toward Berger. They were stung by the deaths of their two colleagues and the loss of such an expensive child. They paused the process as soon as Berger was out the door to discuss the failure, trying to pinpoint where it went wrong.
Part of their caution was fueled by fear: that the clones had been asleep for too long and were useless to anyone now. They needed Kreuz to succeed. Their lives and reputations depended on it. Estet's glorious future depended on it. They could not fail the elders this close to the end.
After some debate they chose to wake two: PK4.5 and PK3.8. The team split in half with the lead scientist floating between them. Everything they did they double- and triple-checked with each other. Schuldig let it go in one ear and out the other, uninterested in such tedious work. He was more interested in the children.
PK3.8 woke up first, and Schuldig went to work immediately. He wasn't even sure what he was looking for; he only knew he had to find it and break it. He had to make the god a child again. But all he could hear was the mumbled hum of a child's subconscious. Blue, the child thought, without any real idea what it meant. His mind was regurgitating whatever it'd been taught in his three years of life. One. Three. Red.
Schuldig was in there for two hours before 3.8's mind was awake enough to dream. They were probably the tamest dreams Schuldig had ever spied on, blurred images of tables and hands and children. The only real oddity was that every dream happened inside. This child didn't know there was a world outside this room. He didn't know what a sky was.
And then—Mine—because children were born wanting to possess whatever their eyes laid on.
and he meant Schuldig's power in his head.
No, Schuldig said.
If 3.8 was fully awake, he'd fight that rejection with the stubbornness of a jilted child, but Schuldig was speaking to his subconscious, and his subconscious accepted that as fact.
You can have me, Schuldig said, showing him the sterile room with its complicated machinery, or you can have you. You can have this.
Schuldig gave the child a dream of trees and stars and ocean. He showed him Nagi standing in a temple, his power swirling through the air around him, the sunlight catching on leaves and dappling ancient wood. Schuldig showed him the view from the mountain with Fuji-san outlined on the horizon. He gave him the smell of the ocean, the endless plains in Africa, the reflection of clouds sliding slowly across Tokyo's greatest skyscrapers, the wet chill of rain on bare skin.
Mine, the child thought, wondering. Mine.
Something—popped—in the back of his mind. Schuldig hadn't realized the child's mind was pulling at his until the pressure vanished. Schuldig waited a moment to make sure it was gone completely, then left the child to his dreams. PK4.5 was already dreaming when Schuldig checked on him, and he was just as easy to break. Schuldig moved his gift back to the scientists, checking their progress, then sat back to wait.
The children opened their eyes at half past seven the next morning. Berger was by twenty minutes later.
Schuldig wouldn't risk sitting in the clones' minds while Berger was rooting around in there, and he couldn't hear Berger through so much shielding, but he definitely heard their reaction to Berger's power in their heads.
No, 3.8 said fiercely.
The child didn't know why he was saying no; he would never remember the dreams Schuldig gave him while he was so deeply asleep. But he knew, with every fiber of his being, that he wanted nothing to do with that sort of power.
No, 3.8 said again, and this time, he backed it up with his power.
Schuldig would have traded almost anything to be there when the child threw Berger across the room.
The scientists' chorus of We did it sharpened to a horrified No no no the second 3.8's mind winked out.
The lead scientist was the fastest on his feet, but it took several minds in the room to paint a picture of what was happening. He threw himself at 4.5's bed, shielding the surviving child with his body. It was instinctive, if absolutely useless when defending the child from a telepath.
Calm calm calm, the scientist thought desperately as he spoke to the child. He explained in simple words that Berger was going to help him, that he shouldn't be afraid, that he shouldn't hurt him.
But a minute later, there it was: 4.5's sullen No.
He didn't toss Berger, but he didn't give in, no matter how much Berger and the scientists pushed.
Berger didn't take rejection well, and the scientists were hard-pressed to explain their failure.
One year, Schuldig whispered in the lead scientist's mind, and the man made every connection Schuldig wanted him to. It was still a year to the ceremony and the cornerstone was lost. It was documented fact the cornerstone and vessel were interlinked. Perhaps the child wouldn't come online until the stone was close. He suggested it, but the rest of the team was quick to rally behind it. They went back and forth, working through the logic and the chances of that being the issue.
There were only two ways to disprove the theory, and neither was practical: wake and check every clone, or try and link with Nagi to prove he was also offline. The former was far too expensive and time-consuming, and the latter would never get approval from Estet. Seemed a link could only be made once: one telepath, one vessel. That was why Crawford had both Schuldig and Nagi on his team but hadn't tried to link them. Crawford was holding out for the real vessel, as was Estet, but was keeping Nagi close as a back-up plan. The elders wouldn't risk that just to prove Nagi's viability and the scientists couldn't imagine Crawford being forced to give Nagi up to Berger when it might jeopardize his role in the ceremony.
Needless to say, Berger was not pleased with the Sit tight conclusion.
They argued in circles for an hour before Berger finally left. He wasn't giving up, not just yet, but he needed time to think things through and perhaps update the elders. The scientists would submit a report of their own presenting their side of the argument. In the meantime, though, they had a new god-child to coddle. It'd take months of physical therapy before he could stand on his own two feet, thanks to the twelve years spent in a medically-induced coma. They'd pass the time trying to teach a mental three-year-old how to be fifteen.
A careful nudge had the lead scientist thinking about Nagi again. The man wanted to share this newest update with Crawford, but the information was too sensitive to say over the phone. He called to ask if he could schedule a meeting at Crawford's convenience. Seemed Crawford's convenience was now, so the scientist resolved to type up his report after he had input from Schwarz. He left his team to watch PK4.5 and came out to the car. Schuldig toasted himself with a bottle of water when the engine cut on, then laid back and relaxed for the drive home.
It was almost three hours from Koua to Schwarz's place in Musashino. Schuldig listened until the scientist went indoors, did a careful mental sweep to make sure no one was watching, and climbed out of the car. He smoothed his clothes as best he could, trying not to look like he'd been curled up in a trunk for two days, and cleaned his mess out as quickly as possible.
He'd just shut the trunk when Nagi stepped out of the kinetics' house, presumably answering Crawford's summons and going to see the scientist. He paused for only a moment when he saw Schuldig. Schuldig wondered again how much Nagi knew, how much he cared, whether that struggle between god and human was ongoing or a settled personal problem.
"We lost two," Schuldig said. "A third is awake. You have a younger brother now. You're more like Crawford everyday, hm?"
"It is a clone, not a person," Nagi said, heading to the middle house.
Schuldig caught up with him at the gate. Before Nagi could open it, Schuldig tangled his fingers in the metal to keep the gate closed. Nagi should have pushed him off and kept going. The fact he looked up at Schuldig meant he had some investment in the conversation despite whatever he told himself.
"If he doesn't have a soul, how does he know how to dream?"
Power crackled in Nagi's eyes, there and gone again, and his voice was sharp. "What did you do?"
"I gave him the choice they never would," Schuldig said, opening the gate for Nagi. "I told him it was okay to be human."
"You had no right."
"One day you're going to take me up on that offer," Schuldig said. "It's time to stop believing in gods."
Nagi started forward, finished with the conversation and Schuldig. Schuldig put a hand to his chest to stop him, but Nagi wasn't in the mood. He swat Schuldig's hand aside and stormed into the house to see Crawford. Schuldig didn't watch him go. He didn't hear the door shut. He was staring at his hand where it still hovered midair.
He remembered this.
The first bolt of wonder, of bewilderment, was so fierce it made him nauseous.
Oh god, he thought dizzily, and that was just so stupid he had to laugh. He sank weakly to his knees and pressed his hand to his chest, needing to feel the pounding of his heart beneath his fingertips. His hand was trembling against his shirt. The shakes were full-body, threatening to topple him over. He might have fallen if two pale hands hadn't settled on his shoulder. Schuldig hadn't even heard Farfarello come up behind him.
"You're an asshole," Schuldig said.
"We're going," Farfarello said, and Schuldig let Farfarello pull him to his feet. Farfarello half-guided, half-pushed Schuldig to Estet's house. The dead minds' house was the largest of the three, but its layout was pretty much the same as the others'. The master bedroom was downstairs, presumably so the wife would have easy access to the kitchen and washing machine, and the upstairs was divided into four smaller rooms. Farfarello and Tomoko had the master—maybe for the privacy, probably because there were two of them in one room.
There were voices in the den they passed and Tomoko was in the kitchen, but Farfarello didn't slow to speak to anyone. Tomoko looked up as they went by but didn't ask what was going on, assuming Farfarello would tell her what this was about if she needed to know. She only smiled a cheerful hello at Schuldig over a steaming cup of tea. Schuldig couldn't help but look back at her as Farfarello pushed him into the bedroom.
Does she know? Schuldig asked, knowing she didn't, knowing she couldn't without giving all of this away. He watched the paper door slide closed, blocking out the kitchen, but couldn't look away from it to face Farfarello. Farfarello's hand was on his chest, maybe to keep him from going after Tomoko for answers she didn't have, maybe because Farfarello understood.
Six weeks ago Farfarello put his hand on Schuldig just like this and asked him to believe: Would you believe in God if one was staring you in the face?
Farfarello told the truth the other day. He'd tried to tell Schuldig his secret, but he'd backed out halfway through. He didn't trust Schuldig; he didn't know what a telepath would do with the truth. He pointed Schuldig at Nagi instead, distracting him with Estet's manufactured back-ups. Schuldig still remembered the mockery in Farfarello's voice as he spoke of Kreuz's "original god". Nagi was the best Estet had to offer, but he was only a shadow of the real thing. Schuldig thought he finally understood why Nagi and Farfarello despised each other.
He understood everything, and the truth was hard to swallow.
You don't know what's at stake, they'd told him again and again, but now he knew. He knew why Crawford would go to such lengths both to escape Estet and protect Farfarello. Loyalty had never been an option for Crawford, not when it meant sacrificing both himself and his younger brother. Crawford picked his side at his mother's deathbed and never looked back.
Brad and Jei Crawford, half-brothers and sons of precognitives, the only such children in Estet's history who hadn't bred true. They couldn't, because they weren't human, not really. They were two halves of an unbreakable, unholy whole. Moire must have known—maybe not until she first looked into a newborn Crawford's eyes but definitely before she tried to conceive Farfarello. How stupid, how ironic, how brilliant, that everything Estet wanted had always been under their noses.
Does Estet know their cornerstone has a pulse? Schuldig wondered, feeling cold all over. How the fuck could he tell Berger something like this?
No wonder Crawford was willing to risk it against Zerfall. Berger didn't have access to two of Estet's critical pieces—he was within easy reach of all three. He couldn't tell Crawford's secret but he didn't need to share it. If he linked with any of Nagi's clones, the damage was done, and they were all fucked. Stupid Crawford for thinking he could ever trust a telepath like that.
Maybe not completely stupid, because Crawford never told Berger about Farfarello—just as he'd never told Farfarello the truth about himself. Schuldig couldn't wait to see the look on Farfarello's face when he finally found out. How much longer did Crawford think he could hide this from him?
Farfarello, Schuldig started.
I will not have this conversation with you right now, Farfarello said, putting his hand over Schuldig's eyes. Go to sleep.
The world went black, and Schuldig didn't remember falling to the floor.
Somewhere in the darkness was Crawford's voice. I need you to forget this for a week.
No, Schuldig said, but Crawford's gift was already there. Schuldig clawed at the truth, but he couldn't stop Crawford from laying shields down. There was a wrenching sensation as Crawford pushed his secrets as deep into Schuldig's mind as he could, followed by an aching sense of loss, and Schuldig was left grasping at empty space. Crawford, don't. You can't take this from me.
You have the power to break these shields, Crawford said. I already told you I cannot shield you like I can Berger. But I am asking you to leave it. Give me one week and I will tell you everything you want to know.
Schuldig wanted to say, I already know everything, but he didn't know anything anymore. There was white noise where the truth was buried and even that hum was fading behind Crawford's gift.
One week, Schuldig agreed, and he sank back into unconsciousness.
Schuldig woke up in his own bed sometime later, not sure when he'd gotten there or how long he'd been back. He remembered his trip to Koua, and most of the drive back, but he didn't know how he'd gotten out of the car and upstairs. He pawed at his memory, looking for an explanation and turning up nothing. It left him feeling more than a little uneasy, but he blamed it on his exhaustion. He'd been abusing stimulants for over a week; there were bound to be consequences.
He got up, feeling stiff and gross. A hand through his hair came back feeling more than a little greasy, so he gathered up his things and went downstairs to wash. The kitchen window was dark as he passed, which was more than a little disorienting. He looked at the clock and found it to be four in the morning. Ly Ly was fast asleep upstairs; Nicole was nowhere to be found. Out with her current client, Schuldig guessed.
He went back upstairs in his towel and dressed in the dark, then returned to the kitchen to make coffee. He felt sluggish and tired despite however much sleep he'd gotten, and he could feel himself falling asleep standing up as he waited for the coffee to finish brewing.
"Rozenkreuz called last night."
Schuldig's heart skipped a beat in his chest; he hadn't heard Crawford come downstairs. At least that little bolt of adrenaline helped wake him up. He sent a casual look over his shoulder at Crawford, knowing Crawford could see through it. "Oh?"
"The rankings are in. Schwarz has placed first."
Schuldig heard the words, but they didn't make sense until he looked at the calendar. It was December twenty-sixth. Rosenkreuz ranked their teams in the week between Christmas and New Year's, since that was usually the psychics' slowest work week. Even criminals wanted time off to celebrate and see old friends.
First-ranked teams earned a bonus and a week's vacation, seven days in which Rosenkreuz refused to track them. Schuldig devoted his entire career to earning that prize. Outwardly it was for the prestige: to be one of Rosenkreuz's most trusted and valuable psychics. But deep inside where he refused to admit it to himself he wanted a chance to walk away. Now it was his.
Schuldig suddenly felt very awake.
"I'm dismissing Schwarz today," Crawford said. "Our projects are at a lull and I have made sure Takatori's social calendar is full."
"What about me?" Schuldig asked.
"You can go where you like," Crawford said, "but if you return to me, I will give you the truth."
Schuldig thought about it, but he already knew what his answer was. "Where are you going?"
"I am Estet's heir," Crawford said, as if Schuldig needed the reminder. "There is only one place for me."
"You're spending the week with her," Schuldig said, setting his coffee aside. The thought of spending a week in Lady Estet's company made his skin crawl. On the heels of that was something close to exasperated disgust, that Crawford was so unconcerned with his fate. The secrets Crawford kept would get them all killed, but he trusted his shielding to hold up to Estet scrutiny. He'd waste a week with his grandmother and calmly spin her a thousand lies and know she'd never catch him at it. "Better you than me."
"Undoubtedly," Crawford said. "I will speak to her about Project Kreuz."
"Can you convince her to wait?" Schuldig asked. "She doesn't seem a woman to take anyone's advice."
"When her immortality is at stake, she will listen to the one voice she trusts. I will buy us the time we need."
Crawford crossed the room and reached down a mug for himself. Schuldig took it from his hand and put it down. He reached for Crawford next and wound his fingers around the back of Crawford's neck. For a moment he was startled to feel Crawford's heartbeat against his palm. For a moment he remembered—for a moment he knew exactly what he was touching. He crushed that before it became a coherent thought, instinctively knowing it wasn't something he could dwell on now, and dragged Crawford down for a kiss.
Crawford tasted like mints, not morning breath. Schuldig idly wondered if he kept a tin next to the sake in his bottom drawer. It made him think of Vienna, of Crawford's hand and mouth everywhere.
Tomoko suggested I buy you a collar, he said. What do you think?
I'm open to experimentation.
And the idea of it, of putting a collar on Crawford's throat and holding him down, of fucking him slow and short until he begged for it, almost sent Schuldig to his knees. The heat, the want, was enough to make him dizzy. Crawford was a lifeline and his noose, enough to save him, more than enough to destroy him. Four months ago Schuldig was afraid. Now he pulled Crawford closer, wanting anything he could get. The secret he knew but couldn't name, couldn't understand, told him it'd be worth it to break. He was holding the world in his hands; he was holding a million futures.
I know what you are, he thought, even if he couldn't put words to it. I know what I can do to you.
Crawford could destroy him with a thought—and Schuldig could destroy him in less.
Crawford's fingers dug into him almost hard enough to bruise, not hard enough to distract him. Schuldig tilted his head back as Crawford's mouth went down his throat, shuddering more from the feel of Crawford's breath on his skin than the weight and heat of his lips. Crawford went all the way to the juncture of his throat and shoulder before biting down.
"Shit," Schuldig said, hearing and hating the way his voice caught. He wanted to push Crawford away, but his hands refused to let go. Crawford's hand between his legs felt like a foregone conclusion. Schuldig was already halfway hard; the weight of Crawford's fingers did the rest. He knotted his hands in Crawford's hair and sucked in short, harsh breaths against Crawford's lips as Crawford's heavy hand drove him to the edge faster than he wanted to go. He wanted to push his pants down and get Crawford's fingers on his bare skin but he couldn't let go of Crawford long enough to manage it. Instead he hooked an ankle around Crawford's, giving the man better access, and whispered ragged encouragement into Crawford's kisses.
Crawford's hand slowed at the last minute, too close to the end to stop anything, just enough to make it really fucking frustrating, and Schuldig came with a heated, breathless, "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you," against Crawford's smug smile.
For a second release left him too dazed to think, too hot and cold and fuzzy to react. Then he reached out to return the favor, finding Crawford's erection on the first grab and seizing it in an unkind grip. He squeezed it through Merino wool, watching the way Crawford's lips parted on a silent gasp. He kissed Crawford as he worked him to completion, wanting to taste and feel the need in the way Crawford's kisses fell steadily heavier on his mouth. Crawford's hands dug into him, up his back to his shoulders and into his wet hair. Crawford's body was a steady weight against him, shoulder to hip to knee digging into him either in demand or need.
Schuldig watched as he hit the edge, watched the second Crawford's eyes fluttered closed, the moment they opened again unseeing and raw. He felt powerful and wrung out all at once, and he held tight until the small shudders faded from Crawford's frame. He was exhausted and spent and it wasn't enough. Lethargy was underscored with displeasure, and Schuldig bit Crawford's lower lip hard enough to draw blood.
One week, he said, and then I'm going to fuck you until we can't move. Deal?
I will find something for the empaths to do.
Fair enough offer, so Schuldig let go and let it slide. Crawford collected his cup and filled it with coffee, and Schuldig went to clean himself up in the bathroom. Crawford called his school when they opened at seven to let them know Schuldig wouldn't be by that week.
By nine all of Schwarz was in the den for an impromptu meeting. Crawford's news wasn't any surprise to them; Schwarz had placed first for years. They expected this vacation and had planned for it months ago. Hiroyuki was going skiing in Hokkaido. Lian was going to Shanghai, Mariea to Prague. Tatsuo was splitting his vacation between New Dehli and Nepal. Farfarello's mind was its usual unreadable mess, but Schuldig picked up his plans from Tomoko—they were off to Iceland, to ride motorcycles along the Westfjords.
Schuldig couldn't see through Nagi's shields, but it was safe to assume he'd lose himself in the nearest patch of nature he could find. Nicole had tickets booked on a cruise. Harriet was going parasailing in New Zealand. Eleodoro was off to see the Nazca Lines in Peru. Ly Ly wanted to go shopping in New York City and watch the New Year's celebration from Time Square. Tremelle wanted to ride part of the Siberian Railroad but was now wondering if he could talk Ly Ly into spending the week with him. He was too afraid to ask—this vacation was supposed to be a private escape. Telling a teammate where one was going was letting Rosenkreuz in on the only piece of free will they were truly allowed.
Everyone knew where they were going save Schuldig.
It wasn't that he hadn't thought about it. Every year he dreamed of a different place to go. But now that the chance was here, the choices were too great. Anywhere in the world, for any reason at all, with none of Rosenkreuz's people judging or tracking him—what the fuck was he supposed to do, really? He was twenty years old; he'd been with Rosenkreuz since he was six. He couldn't remember a time without their leash on his throat.
He missed Crawford's dismissal, but the noise of Schwarz getting up from their couches woke him up. He looked around at them, at the exhausted relief and excitement so evident on their faces. They'd worked their asses off all year, all their lives. They'd earned this break.
Schuldig hoped they made the most of it—this time next year, all but five of them would be dead.
What about Nicole?
He didn't realize he'd asked it until Crawford answered. You know why you can't save her.
Because as much as Nicole liked him and as fascinated as she was by Farfarello and Tomoko's relationship, there was no way she'd let them betray Estet. She'd never understand their deception and never forgive them—and Estet would never believe she didn't know. They'd make an example out of her so every psychic could see what happened to traitors. Letting Farfarello kill her was the kindest thing Schuldig could do for her. After everything she was doing for Farfarello, Schuldig knew the Berserker would at least repay her with an instant, painless death.
Right on cue, Nicole paused in the doorway and looked back at Schuldig. She'd brought her bag to the meeting, a bright pink carryon with at least a dozen dangling accessories. "See you in a week," she said. "Try not to do anything stupid while I'm gone."
"No promises," Schuldig said. "Try not to miss me."
"Fat chance." She flipped him the bird and sailed out of there. Schuldig heard her voice as she gathered her shoes at the entryway; she was calling a cab to pick her up.
People change, Schuldig said. Look what I did to her in four months. What do you think I can do to her in a year?
I make you no promises, but I will let you try.
The rest of Schwarz was quick to scatter. Schuldig tuned out their buzzing minds in favor of his own curious situation. He had a black duffel just small enough to pass as a carry-on and he stuffed it with whatever fit. He still hadn't figured out his plans by the time he made it back downstairs, but he wasn't going to wait here until he sorted things out. Time was ticking, after all.
He passed Crawford at the base of the stairs; apparently Crawford was waiting for his team to clear out before doing so himself. Schuldig hesitated at the genkan, knuckles white on the handle of his bag, as he studied Crawford's face.
Four months ago Crawford found him at Rosenkreuz and promised him the world, then broke his faith through his own fear and distrust. Schuldig came to Schwarz with every intention of stealing and fixing the team, wanting nothing more than to destroy Crawford's rank. He and Crawford fought for four months, too angry to believe in each other's power. Schuldig hated him for most of it, no matter what his body thought of things. He couldn't pinpoint where that started to change, or when it started becoming so complicated. Maybe with the truth; maybe with the night he washed the burns on Crawford's back and realized Crawford was human after all.
He shifted on his feet, discomfited. How stupid, a telepath who couldn't sort his own thoughts out.
"I don't know where I'm going," he said.
"It's not about the destination," Crawford said.
And that was true, wasn't it? It wasn't about getting a vacation, or seeing something a job would never let him experience. It was about freedom. It was the illusion of having a life of his own. A year from now it would be real—he may as well try it on for size.
"Until next week, then," Schuldig said, and he stepped into the open, waiting world.
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