Dinner was an exercise in civility and tolerance amongst graduates of an organization that held no faith in either one. Dolch knew before they even went that they were going to have trouble, even if Estet's presence meant they had to pretend to get along. Conversations died at the teams' tables when Schuldig led his seven-man team into the room and every head turned to stare. Most looked away again with disgusted, dismissive tosses of the head; others just fixed Schuldig with blatant hatred. Schuldig met every gaze that dared linger on him with cold insolence in his bright blue eyes. He didn't care what they thought of his sexuality, but it was more than a little annoying that it was going to affect his team so negatively.
You have something to say? he sent at every field psychic in the room.
It was asking for trouble and he knew it, but he challenged them anyway. The resultant wave of revulsion was thick enough he could taste it. Crawford's mind was the only silent one, but not the only neutral one. He could spot the other gays in the crowd easily- not because there was any hint of friendliness or pity in their thoughts, but because their annoyance had such a different, self-serving edge of desperation to it. He tuned everyone else out except for those minds.
How the hell did they find out about you? Jason demanded flatly. What the fuck happened to being discreet?
Schuldig offered a vague smirk in the man's direction. Language, he warned Jason, and he could feel the pyrokinetic's simmering anger. As furious as the others were, they couldn't vent on him the way they were bound to vent on Shane. He held rank on them; the only one that would be bold enough to tell him exactly what she thought of him would be Delilah. She wasn't bound to exploit that, not when she'd been there when it had happened. She knew he hadn't given them anything, and she'd had to know by now that Crawford had set it all up.
We were discreet, Shane insisted from the other side of the room. He sounded miserable and Schuldig didn't really blame him, not now that his leader had figured out what sort of man he was. He didn't feel an ounce of pity for him, either. I don't know how Wesley found out. I didn't even realize he knew until he got back from the leaders' meeting. He said he'd found out about Schuldig. He pulled me aside and gave me some speech about how I'd been brainwashed by a sadistic telepath.
And you played innocent, Schuldig sent back, pausing in the middle of the room. The teams had arranged themselves very carefully, working in a once-in-a-lifetime harmony to make sure none of the remaining tables had seven seats together. Schuldig sent a cool look over his shoulder at Spence, and Spence looked around the room in search of empty chairs. As soon as he'd spotted enough, he yanked them across the room towards the closest open table. Schuldig heard annoyed curses where the telekinetic didn't even try to not clip elbows on the chairs' way past.
He was going to cut me from my team, Shane insisted.
No serious loss there, Schuldig sent back. Shane started to protest, but Schuldig drowned him out. It doesn't matter, so don't keep making excuses. I don't care what he demanded of you or what you said. It's not like it'd help me if you tried to be honest.
That still doesn't explain how Wesley managed to find out, Devon said cautiously. The other leaders are going to be more alert now. We have to be careful.
We've always had to be careful, Delilah said.
But they're raring for a witch hunt, Cassie said worriedly.
Like you girls have to worry, Jason said disgustedly. People expect girls to be touchy feely. If two guys are alone now, they're going to be like bugs under a microscope. I just want to know why and how you put the rest of us at risk, Dolch.
You mean you want to know if I'm going to drop names if the leaders put pressure on me, Schuldig sent back coolly. He led his team over to the serving line, knowing Spence would keep their chairs safe for them.
He didn't tonight, Delilah said. I vouch for him.
But the cabinet's going to catch wind of this, Cassie pointed out. And Estet's here, so they're not going to want a mess like this on their hands. They'll want it taken care of.
They're only going to bring it up with Estet if Estet demands that they do, Schuldig said, filling his tray with anything that looked passably edible. In a place like this, it wasn't much, but he didn't want to look like he'd lost his appetite with all this going on. They won't want to bring it to Estet's attention anymore than we do. It'll be an embarrassment to them. It'd be more their style to let it die quietly.
The teams aren't going to be so easy to quiet. How did Wesley find out? Jason demanded.
Crawford told him, Schuldig said, not even trying to hide the sour edge in his voice. Their response was a bit of stunned silence, save for Delilah, whose thoughts tasted of irritated regret. You've already heard that I'm up at Auction. Schwarz plans on bidding on me and Crawford doesn't intend to have any contenders. He out-ed me to get to me, not any of you. Just deal with the fallout for a few more days and you'll be out of here.
He's not a man you want to cross, Devon told Schuldig.
He knows that already, Delilah said dryly. Crawford took his mind apart in two seconds flat.
Fuck off and die, bush eater.
He did what? Shane asked, startled.
He's not a fucking precog, Schuldig sent back. Precognitives can't do shit like that.
What, are you saying the cabinet mislabeled him, sir? Jason asked, mental voice scathing.
One more smart remark and you'll be fucking fish by dawn, Schuldig warned him.
Don't second-guess Rosenkreuz, Delilah warned him.
Schuldig had to fight to not scowl at his dinner plate. His expression remained impassive through willpower alone. He just wished his anger was hot enough that he couldn't taste the food he was eating. Rosenkreuz meals didn't have much flavor anyway, but that faint aftertaste was more than enough. Having something die in his mouth had to be better- and more nutritious.
The mental meeting went silent as the six considered their meals and the antagonism in the air around them. Schuldig's gaze drifted up from his plate in search of Crawford and he considered the smooth face across the room. Crawford glanced up just in time to meet his stare and Schuldig was positive the air between them was vibrating with his loathing. His stomach was vibrating to an entirely different sort of tune and he clenched his fingers tighter on his fork, willing his dick to grow some common sense.
Who is he? Schuldig demanded of his unhappy group.
A pain in our collective asses, Delilah sent back.
Schuldig's gut just twitched in hopeful agreement, and he cut off the mental links in savage disgust. Across the room, Crawford's mouth twitched into a vague smirk. Die in a fire, Schuldig sent at him. Crawford's smirk solidified just a bit, but no answer came. Schuldig wondered again if Crawford could even hear him, or if he was just looking so coldly amused now because Schuldig was staring. He wasn't sure he liked either alternative. It was creepy being so deaf to Crawford's mind.
"Schuldig?" Spence asked quietly at his side, noticing his distraction.
"How do you kill someone who can see you coming?" Schuldig asked.
Spence knew it was a rhetorical question, but he followed Schuldig's gaze to Crawford nonetheless. Schuldig had nothing else to say about it, but he finally managed to tear his eyes away and go back to eating. He hadn't even finished when the summons came, and the feel of the cabinet's power shuddering over his skin crushed the breath out of him. His fork fell from nerveless fingers to clatter against his plate and he pressed a hand against his abdomen, struggling for breath.
"Schuldig," Spence insisted.
Schuldig got to his feet. Across the room, Crawford was doing the same. Schuldig didn't slow to answer Spence, not wanting to reach the door second so that he'd have to follow Crawford out. He didn't want to be second to that man and he didn't want to spend the walk to the cabinet's quarters staring at Crawford's ass. If the cabinet hadn't already caught wind of what was tearing the teams apart, they would notice the drool slobbing its way down his chin.
He didn't even push his chair back under the table but started for the door with quick steps. Crawford was closer to the exit, but he wasn't in as much of a rush. Schuldig realized why when they reached the doorway at about the same time. He was not at all amused. Instead of trying to squeeze out first, Schuldig took an extra step to get right in Crawford's face.
Only, Crawford didn't quite stop in time, and Schuldig ran into him chest to chest. The contact shook him all the way down in ways it really shouldn't have, but insolence kept Schuldig moving when instincts wanted him to shut down. He stuck a finger right in Crawford's face, murder dark in his bright eyes and even darker in his voice.
"Don't play games with me," he warned Crawford, so quietly that only the precog could hear. They had all eyes on them now and he could feel the psychics' curiosity scratching against his mind. "You're in for a world of absolute fucking misery if you even try."
Crawford's response was a murmur that barely moved his lips. "You and I both know that life is nothing but a game we play for keeps." He gestured for Schuldig to go ahead of him. Schuldig wanted to linger and keep arguing, but even this brief stop on the way to the cabinet could be construed as insubordination. He bared his teeth at Crawford behind a fierce smirk and turned sharply on his heel to stalk out of there. Crawford followed just a short space behind him.
The trip to the cabinet's quarters was uneventful. Anyone who was in the way got out of it as soon as they saw the red and white badges on their shirts. Crawford's expression of impassive stone and Schuldig's blatant cold malice just got them moving faster than simple obedience dictated. Schuldig didn't look at any of them, too busy shielding himself down to the core for this meeting. He wasn't stupid enough to think this meeting was going to be anything but pleasant, not when he was causing such a fuss. It didn't matter that Crawford had started it; Schuldig's sexuality was at the center of it and therefore was the real problem here.
The chair outside their room was empty, so Schuldig helped himself to it to trigger the cabinet to their arrival. Crawford remained standing and Schuldig realized that meant he'd be the first in the room. That was vaguely annoying. Schuldig didn't even know what the other man was doing here, though he entertained himself with thoughts that the cabinet would take him to task for instigating all of this. They had to have figured out what was going on hours ago, considering the fight had started in this very building with the temporary destruction of two minds. Why they hadn't acted then, he wasn't sure, except that Estet might not have picked up on it. No one was quite sure what powers Estet wielded, so there was a miniscule hope that they still were blind to such violent antagonism. Schuldig never bet on hope, though; it was far too frail.
The door swung open to let them in and Schuldig got to his feet. He could get in front of Crawford if he tried hard enough, but Crawford could just as easily cut him off and make him look like an imbecile in front of such important people. Schuldig opted to go the path of lesser evils and just let Crawford take the lead, as much as it rankled him.
The door sounded too loud as it closed behind them. Schuldig followed Crawford to the halfway point in the room and took his spot at the older man's side. He waited for fire and brimstone, but the cabinet was gazing at them with unreadable expressions and Estet was looking back and forth between them as if trying to figure out which one of them to deal with first. At length Lady Estet smiled. Schuldig thought that a bad sign.
"I assume the two of you have met by now," she said.
She was looking at Schuldig when she spoke, which at least saved them the clumsiness of speaking over each other in an attempt to answer her unhesitatingly. "We had a chance to speak at tonight's Auction conference," Schuldig confirmed. When she continued to stare at him, he added, "Schwarz has made it quite clear that he intends to bid on me, Lady Estet."
"You are the only reason we let Schwarz travel so far from their post," she explained, giving him another little-old-lady smile. "Crawford heads our most important project in Japan. It was difficult convincing us that you were worth the trouble and expense."
Schuldig gazed blankly back at her for a second as he realized Crawford's manipulations had gone further and deeper than he'd originally figured. "Maybe I'm being presumptuous, but am I to conclude that I am up at Auction specifically because Crawford asked for me?"
"It would have taken nothing to simply slide you from one team to the other," one of the men said with a brush of his hand across the desk. "However, out of consideration for Rosenkreuz's cabinet," and Rosenkreuz's three tipped their heads in acknowledgement of said consideration, "we have arranged things to put you at Auction. Moving you disrupts the balance and productivity of the other teams and Crawford has made it clear he is willing to pay whatever it takes to have you on his team. Rosenkreuz and Dolch will benefit greatly from this Auction and it will more than make up for shifting you onto your side. We therefore hope," and his smile was menacing, "that you will live up to these expectations."
Schuldig said nothing immediately, because dull surprise had melted away to offense at that last sentence. None of that made it into his voice; there was only a steady surety. "Lords and Ladies, I have always striven to give the best that I can offer to Rosenkreuz and Estet. Whatever path you choose for me I will accept unquestioningly, but it is not in my nature to be merely acceptable. I will succeed at whatever you ask of me in hopes that I make you proud of my contributions."
"So your hitherto flawless track record says," the other man said. "Your file backs up everything Crawford has said about you."
"I am relieved, Lord Estet."
"You know by now that the bidding is rigged," the woman said, folding her fingers together on the table. "That does not mean we can rush tradition, so instead we will make the most use of this time as we can. You have two more days before Auction and you will spend them preparing for Schwarz's projects. My grandson has brought the files along with him. You will be accompanying him off Rosenkreuz grounds to be drivers for tonight's final team. He will brief you while you are waiting and I expect you to begin work in the morning."
Schuldig's mouth was open, but he'd forgotten what to say.
Grandson, he thought, feeling sick to his stomach, and he couldn't stop himself from shooting Crawford a quick sideways look. He's—
She'd let that drop on purpose, wanting Schuldig to know just what he was getting himself into here. Rather, what they were dragging him into whether he honestly wanted it or not. The strength of Crawford's gift, as well as the authority he held amongst his colleagues, finally made sense. He'd earned his spot as team leader through his blood and Estet trusted him with their most critical assignments. Schwarz was going to be something entirely different from everything Schuldig had dealt with so far.
"Schuldig," one of the cabinet said, a fierce reprimand.
He found his voice again out of necessity. How he sounded so calm when his throat was so dry, he would never know. "Apologies, Lords and Ladies."
Lady Estet smiled at him, and it was the first time she hadn't even tried to look like a helpless old lady. The look on her face was too cruel, too cold. Her expression was both a warning and a threat, and Schuldig dipped his head low to say he heard it loud and clear. A small part of him was dazed that he'd made it onto Estet's list, that Crawford had actually managed to convince Estet's elders that he was worth this sort of attention and promotion.
A much smaller part, so far down he could barely feel it humming against his ribcage, was recoiling in sheer horror.
Hail Rosenkreuz, he thought, willing himself to believe it with everything he had. He bit through the inside of his lip and let the blood and sting bring him back to himself, and with it came his ice. His mouth curled into a slow smile, one of satisfaction and ruthless promise, and he lifted blue eyes back to the woman's face. Her smile twitched wider when she saw his expression. My life for Rosenkreuz. I bleed and breathe for Estet's wishes.
"I will be ready, Lady Estet," he promised her, voice thick with confidence. "I will not fail you."
She stared at him for a few seconds more, and then her façade came back into place and she relaxed back against her chair. She was a plump old grandmother once more, with a tolerant and doting look on her face. "I know you won't," she assured him, all cookie-crumbs sweetness. Schuldig felt the lie in it scratch him straight through. "I know you won't."
"The cars are in the shed," one of the cabinet said, and keys materialized in the air in front of them. Both men caught the jangling rings as they fell, and they bowed deep before taking their leave.
Schuldig didn't really start breathing again until they made it down to the second landing. "Grandson," he finally managed, because he didn't know what else to say. Shit, he was picking fights with Lady Estet's grandson. What the hell were the rules when it came to that? The rules were changing anyway once Crawford won Auction. He'd become Schuldig's superior and Schuldig knew exactly where the lines of ranking lay. As much as he despised the thought of letting such an arrogant man control him, he knew his place. Mutiny got people killed; there was never an excuse for it on a field team. He was a good enough psychic to understand just how important it was to follow Crawford's lead. But if Crawford was part of Estet on top of that, just how bad was this going to get?
"I invite you to erase that from your thoughts," Crawford said without slowing. "It is not pertinent to anything we are doing."
"How is it not?" Schuldig demanded in a low voice. He lengthened his stride to catch up with Crawford and sent the precognitive a wary look. "It changes things- a lot of things."
Without an audible mind to clue him in, Schuldig had no warning that it was coming, and Crawford moved too fast for the telepath to defend himself. There was just a blur of Crawford's off-white suit and then Schuldig was crushed up against the wall, trapped between the heat of Crawford's body and the ice of the metal.
If it had been anyone else, Schuldig would have laid them flat with a migraine or worse for daring touch him like this. It wasn't anyone else; it was Crawford, and the weight of his body against Schuldig's jarred him too badly to even breathe. On the tail-end of those stuttering, half-forgotten thoughts was the warning in his head that this man was not someone he could ever harm, not with that blood in his veins. And so he stood still, staring blankly up at Crawford.
Stand down, one part of his mind ordered him, and the other chimed in, Fuck me.
Crawford said nothing at first, but he didn't have to. He'd been taking Schuldig's sanity apart with his gaze all day. Schuldig could feel it happening again even now, as instincts washed out common sense and warning and his entire body twitched with the need to reach out and touch. He tried to keep his hands still at his sides, but gave in to the fight and started clenching and unclenching them, just to get that restless energy out of his fingers before he got himself killed. Need made it hard to breathe and his mouth was dry all over again.
"I won't repeat myself again," Crawford said at long last. "That is not pertinent to anything we are doing. It does not factor into Schwarz and it is not public knowledge. When you serve me in Japan, it will be because I am your team leader and because we have the same desire for superior results. She will not factor into any of it."
Schuldig considered those words very carefully, wondering just how far to read into any of it. When he responded, his words were slow. "Something tells me someone's not happy to have made it this far on blood's prestige."
Crawford's smile was colder than the metal at Schuldig's back and he lifted one hand to the telepath's face. Knuckles brushed down over one cheek in a deceptively gentle brush and Schuldig hated himself that he shivered. There was no way Crawford could miss such a reaction; indeed, the precognitive was just leaning closer. "It is not my control you need to fear when you enter Schwarz's territory," Crawford informed him, just a husky whisper at his ear. It worked just as well as a hand in his pants would have and Schuldig reached out without thinking, digging his fingers into Crawford's jacket. "It is hers."
"I'm sure a world-class precognitive such as yourself appreciates being watched so—shit," Schuldig flinched as Crawford pressed a kiss into his ear, smart remark already forgotten. Lips slid over the lobe to the sensitive skin right behind Schuldig's ear. Schuldig had already gotten fucked by Shane that day, but just the touch of Crawford's mouth on skin made him feel like it had been years. Schuldig was losing his mental footing at a suicidal rate and it took everything he had to twist his head away from Crawford's.
"What are you?" he demanded, and he wanted to flinch at the hoarse edge in his voice. Crawford didn't answer. Schuldig fixed his stare on the banister past Crawford's elbow, refusing to look him in the face again. "You're not a fucking precog."
Crawford answered that accusation with silence. Schuldig waited, needing to hear that answer and knowing he wasn't going to get one. At last fingers curled around his chin and forced his head back. Schuldig should have known better than to meet his stare, but he didn't have much choice. He locked eyes with Crawford with more defiance than he actually felt. The stone was back on Crawford's face and that dead look made it easier to look at him.
Schuldig smiled and pretended he wasn't trying to soak up Crawford's body heat through his fingertips, pretending he wasn't already hard just from standing like this. He didn't think he was fooling either of them, but none of that raw need made it into his voice. "What's wrong?" he asked, tilting his head into Crawford's hand. "Didn't see that coming, ice man?"
Crawford said nothing, but Schuldig felt his power change. It scratched over his mind so sharp he thought he felt his brain bleed, but he kept his haughty expression in place. At long last Crawford smiled. It was the first honest curving of his lips and it made it achingly obvious that he was Lady Estet's grandson. Power incarnate; Schuldig should have been counting his losses and retreating. Instead he leaned forward to shove himself hard up against Crawford.
"Tell me I'm wrong," he challenged.
"We have a team to pick up. We will talk once we are off Rosenkreuz grounds." Crawford lifted his other hand to trail a knobby-edged key down Schuldig's throat. "I think we have a lot to talk about."
Schuldig shifted his hips forward just slightly. "Talk?"
Crawford leaned in, tipping his head towards Schuldig's and stopping tantalizingly close. The ghost of warm breath across his lips was a tease so cruel Schuldig wanted to gut him. You're not a fucking precog, he insisted again, throwing the accusation at Crawford's blank mind. Prescients can't take a telepath apart.
Crawford shouldn't have been able to do this to him, shouldn't have this kind of effect on him. Schuldig had thought it to be simple, unadulterated lust before, but there was something too destructive about it. It was Crawford's power eating away at his mind, and he had absolutely no way to fight it. His shields were still in place and they weren't blocking the man out. He'd already tried to touch Crawford's mind once today and it had almost pulled him in. There was nothing he could do but stand here and feel the ground sliding out from him and want the entire way down.
The steady loss of control was nauseating and the realization that he'd be working with Crawford for years made him honestly fear for his state of mind. If Crawford was so overpowering now, how could Schuldig be Schuldig after a year of living with the man day-in day-out? He was going to be destroyed and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it, not with Crawford as his team leader and Lady Estet's grandson.
"Stop it," he ordered tightly. "Whatever the fuck you're doing, stop it."
Crawford tilted his head just so, just enough to slide his lower lip over Schuldig's. His power was white noise in Schuldig's head and lust in Schuldig's veins. Schuldig could feel Crawford's shields peeling up a little bit further in the way the noise screamed louder in his head. It sharpened to bright white agony and he dug his fingers into Crawford hard enough to bruise. He thought he said something, but he couldn't hear his voice over the pain.
"We're going to talk," Crawford said against his mouth, "until we are both completely satisfied."
With that, he backed away, and Schuldig sagged heavily against the wall. He watched Crawford walk away, feeling fuzzy-minded and nigh-delirious with pain. Crawford didn't look back and he wasn't waiting, so Schuldig forced himself away from the wall to start after him. His legs felt too unsteady to try the last set of stairs, but he refused to rely on the railing for balance. How he didn't fall in the stairwell or in the halls on the way to the cars' storage room, he didn't know, but he was positive that choking sense of loathing had something to do with it.
Crawford didn't look his way again, even as they got in the two cars and pulled out of Rosenkreuz. The cabinet's guards lifted the rock barrier at their approach and they were on their way back into the city. Snow had started to fall at some point while they'd been indoors. Schuldig flicked the windshield wipers on with one easy twist of his fingers and pressed the button to roll the window down. He'd already forgotten what fresh air tasted like on his tongue. Wintry mountain air was frozen in his mind as the taste of freedom, ever since he'd first been allowed out on Rosenkreuz's grounds for mountain training after three long years in a windowless school. Now he let the draft rip through the car, chilling him to the bone until his head didn't hurt anymore.
The lessening of pain just brought his thoughts into sharper focus and he watched the car on the road ahead of him. There was a sinking feeling in his gut as he considered his current situation and he clenched his hands on the steering wheel, willing his mind to find him a way out of this.
His body, on the other hand, was still eagerly anticipating that talk.
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