Part 5

      Schuldig's shields had cracked at least a dozen times before. Anything could cause even a well-trained psychic's guard to slip. Stress, strain, and exhaustion were the largest contributors. Overthrowing one's power was a stupid way to go about it but a rather common reason. Tangling with another psychic meant someone was bound to walk away mentally scratched and bleeding. The most recent example of that was whatever Crawford had done to him at the leaders' meeting. Then there were the Rosenkreuz instructors, whose jobs revolved around tearing down shields to force them to come up stronger. Schuldig was no stranger to temporary lapses in the control over his gift.

      Having his gift utterly crushed, however—

      It hit so hard, so deep, that he couldn't even find the breath to yell. Every muscle in his body jerked and his teeth tore lines across Crawford's collarbone where his mouth opened on a silent scream. He dug deeper lines into Crawford's arm without realizing he was even holding on to the other man. Something was in his head, deep inside his shields where only his telepathy should have been, and he knew it was fatal, whatever it was.

      No no no no no

      His gift slammed back into place as if it had been thrown against his skull, but there was still something else there along the edges. The foreign power had retreated far enough that it wasn't life-threatening, but the agony of the intrusion and the lingering pressure left him blind with pain. He didn't even notice when Crawford pushed his head to one side, and he didn't remember throwing up so violently that he almost fell off Crawford's lap. He was barely aware of Crawford's hands on his arms, holding him up.

      "What—" he tried to gasp out, oblivious to his own attempts to speak. "What—"

      "Don't try to speak," Crawford advised him, easing him back upright. "Just sit still until the programming is in place."



was the simple response.

      It was the first time he'd heard Crawford's voice in his head and the shock of it, the depth it pierced to when Crawford was inside his shields, left Schuldig mindless. His mouth stumbled over death threats he couldn't voice, unable to get anything coherent out past the sheer, screaming pain of having someone's mind that far inside his.

      Calm down.

      FUCK YOU

      I said calm down.

      He went for Crawford's throat with his teeth and Crawford almost wasn't fast enough. Schuldig felt skin give and tasted blood, and then Crawford was unceremoniously shoving him to the floor. He hit the floor ass first, back next, and didn't have the coordination to stop his head from hitting third. His head hit polished tile so hard he almost blacked out. He didn't even know he was capable of making such pained noises anymore, but he was already rolled over onto his side and grabbing at his head. His skin was shuddering against his frame, threatening to split apart and slide to the ground, and every time he breathed he was a hard breath closer to throwing up again.

      "This is necessary," Crawford said. "We're going back before the cabinet several times before we leave. I already told you that only my shields are strong enough to stand before their scrutiny. How could I trust you to face them again after what we've said and agreed upon?"

      Schuldig lashed out, gagging on bile as the strike jerked his entire body. Crawford planted his shoe hard against the square of his back to flatten him against the ground. "Lie still. You need to let your gift come back together."

      Schuldig wanted to keep fighting him, but his head would have none of that. He hated every second he had to lie prone there and that choking loathing made it hard to breathe. He knotted his hands in his hair and focused on finding his telepathy again. Crawford's mind felt like a cage around his where it lurked on the inside of his shields. He wanted to claw the skin off his scalp just to dig Crawford out of there.

      It felt like hours before he could think without it hurting. The slow, miniscule dulling of agony didn't make it any easier to tolerate what had just happened. His gift was a bleeding wound that couldn't heal as long as Crawford was shoved inside that gash.

      "Get out," he rasped.

      Crawford saw no reason to answer that when he'd already made his refusal to oblige quite plain. He did take his foot off of Schuldig's back, though. Two hands caught at Schuldig's shoulders to pull him up onto his knees and Schuldig elbowed him hard, aiming for his groin. He just barely missed and he hated himself for it. He snarled curses and threats up at Crawford as the man fought with him.

      "Get the fuck off of me! Stop fucking touching me!"

      "Stop being childish."

      Schuldig stared up at him, completely disbelieving that Crawford had said such a thing. The man looked perfectly unruffled except for the splash of blood against his throat and shoulder where Schuldig had bitten him. Losing his glasses didn't make his stare any less cold, but Schuldig could finally look at him without feeling that power crushing his common sense. No wonder; Crawford had been carrying programming around in his head for Schuldig since before he'd gotten here. Now that he'd implanted it, the link between them had finally settled into something less noticeable.

      Less noticeable except for the fact that Crawford had shot his gift inside Schuldig's skull.

      "You fucking asshole," Schuldig said, and unadulterated venom made his words shake. "Undo it."

      "I will not."

      Schuldig moved to try punching him, but the link between them gave a twinge and his hand jerked back of its own accord. Schuldig tried again, only to get the same poor response, and he could feel himself starting to lose his cool entirely. He started to reach out mentally, trying to find the edges of Crawford's work, but his gift was too sore from being crushed to go far. He could feel Crawford's mind in his, but actively looking for it left him with a migraine so sharp he could hardly see. Pain pulsed black and white behind his eyes, graying his vision.

      "It's better for you if you just give in for now," Crawford told him. "Understand the necessity of such a thing. I cannot have you giving us away. You know what Estet and the cabinet would do if they knew what we have planned for them. Just tolerate it until we are out of Austria. As soon as our plane touches down in Japan, I will pull back."

      "Tolerate it," Schuldig echoed, choking on the words. "You fucking arrogant-"

      Lie still, Crawford ordered him, and Schuldig's body obeyed against his will.

      Schuldig glared up at him, nearly lighting the air on fire between them with how much hate he packed into his stare. You have no fucking right, he said viciously. We are the same rank. You don't have the right to do this to me.

      I don't have the time to wait until you're my subordinate,
Crawford answered easily. Schwarz doesn't make a habit of asking permissions of anyone. We do what must be done to secure our future. That is how I run my team. You will get used to it. You will give in to it if you actually want us to succeed in this endeavor.

      I know my goddamned place,
Schuldig said acidly. I understand hierarchy. I follow my leader no matter what he says because I fucking understand that he calls the shots. But I'm a leader now, too, and I know how to run a team. Let me just say for the record that I'm a hell of a lot better at it than you are, judging by this piss poor judgment of yours.

      You and I both know you wouldn't have said yes to this even if I'd asked.

      Some telepath. What the fuck do you honestly know about me?

      You waste our time with lies and false bravado.

      If it's a lie, then why do you think Harrison actually thinks he can get away with what he wants to do to me?

      Crawford said nothing to that, but Schuldig wondered if that bitter remark caught Crawford off-guard. Having been both a subordinate and a leader, Schuldig knew how important it was to trust the higher-ranking officer. He knew how to do things he didn't want to do just so the team came out on top. Harrison was a cruel extreme, but Schuldig still would have followed the lines of protocol to get Harrison to stop. Teams suffered when idiots were their leaders; they suffered even more when there wasn't any real unity.

      At length Crawford walked away and gathered up Schuldig's clothes. He tossed them so that they'd land in front of the younger telepath and offered Schuldig a calm look that wasn't at all repentant.

      We do not have the luxury of second-guessing ourselves, he said. Myself least of all.

      Schuldig's mouth curved into a smirk so savage it hurt. "You'll get used to it."

      Crawford didn't look impressed by that threat. "Get dressed," he said instead. "We have a team to pick up. They will not appreciate being kept waiting and we do not want a delay reported back to the cabinet."

      "Right," Schuldig said, clenching his fingers in his shirt. "Can't have Lady Estet finding out her precious grandson isn't what she thinks he is. You've fucked my team over just to save your sorry skin. How long do you honestly think you can hide your gift behind mine before she notices, self-made prophet? How long do you think it'll take nepotism and familial loyalty to fall apart?"

      "She has yet to notice anything amiss in twenty-six years," Crawford pointed out, sounding as confident as always. Schuldig wrote that calm attitude off as a lie and bared his teeth at Crawford. He'd already seen Crawford slip with regards to his grandmother's close watch.

      Idly he wondered what it was like spending every second of every day pretending to be a different power entirely. That had to be his mother's fault. Precognition only emerged when breeding true; if Crawford wasn't clairvoyant, then it meant someone hadn't exactly been loyal to Estet's son. Seeing as how precognition was the most-craved gift in the Estet-owned teams, that adultery should have spelled death for both Crawford and his whore of a mother. It hardly mattered that Crawford's telepathy was strong enough to take Schuldig's mind apart. Someone had lied to Estet. The three looked like fools that they'd never noticed Crawford's visions were all self-fulfilling prophecies after twelve or thirteen years of Rosenkreuz tutelage and field work. The second they found out, he would be completely taken apart.

      If the man wasn't such an asshole, Schuldig might be convinced he was brilliant.

      Schuldig wasn't inclined to think anything positive about the man, however, and he stuck stubbornly with his first opinion. It hurt to move enough to get his clothes on, but he jerked his uniform back on just the same. His fingers lingered over his badge and he saw Crawford's gaze follow that motion. Schuldig took strength in that physical proof of his own authority even when the rest of his body wanted to give out on him and his mind wasn't his anymore.

      "You," Schuldig said, low and cold, "stay the fuck away from me until Auction."

      Crawford may be right in the end about this shielding. Schuldig had hidden his hatred for Rosenkreuz through years of denial and careful self-deception. Now that Crawford had dragged it all to the fore and actually offered him a chance to break free and spit in Estet's face, there was no way he could shove it deep again. Going back into Rosenkreuz radiating cautious hope for a different future was a death warrant of the most terrible, unthinkable kind. The only way he could survive long enough to get out of here was behind Crawford's protection. Schuldig didn't care. He refused to be grateful when it had been Crawford's choice to tell the truth with so many days left.

      More than that, what Crawford had just done was the mental equivalent of raping someone with a spiked, hot poker, and Schuldig wasn't going to ever forgive him for that. He'd carry that boiling sense of revulsion to the grave with him, no matter what happened in their next many years together.

      It was a pity, almost, that he didn't quite hate living enough to turn Crawford in.

      Crawford led him downstairs to the arrivals area. The team they'd been sent to collect hadn't arrived yet. They were content to wait out the next half hour on opposite sides of the crowd. They led the psychics out to the cars in two groups and Schuldig didn't say a word to anyone in his batch the whole way back to Rosenkreuz.

      Despite Crawford's shielding, Schuldig expected Rosenkreuz's guards to notice something wrong with his head. Instead the female telepath glided right past him with just a cursory mental glance and turned her attention on the team instead. The obligatory greeting and warning were for the leader alone, and a few seconds later, the rock barriers lifted to let them through. Schuldig and Crawford dropped their temporary charges off at the front steps and parked the cars in the gym's back room where they belonged.

      Schuldig didn't plan on acknowledging Crawford, except Crawford beat him to the door and held his hand out. "Keys," he said simply, and Schuldig threw them in his face. He slipped around the taller man, careful not to touch him, and stormed down the hall towards the rooms.

      He startled Dolch when he burst in on them, as he'd never returned back to their quarters without a telepathic greeting of some sort. The entire team was there and gathered around files they'd brought here to continue working on. Spence had his mouth open, but his words died the second he saw Schuldig's face. Schuldig wrenched his gaze away from all of them, teeth nearly cracking with how hard he was clenching them. He'd been biting back a million furious words ever since he'd gotten to his feet in that lounge and they were tearing his chest apart by now.

      Dolch had never seen him really lose it and this wasn't the time to start, except they weren't his anymore, so it almost didn't matter what they thought. He seriously considered telling them to get out just the same, but it was too late. The door was slamming behind him and he was already across the room. He buried his face in his pillow as deep as he could, hands holding the stiff cotton and beans tight enough to smother a scream of wordless hate. It felt like it shredded his lungs in its wake and he clung tight to the pillow, fighting for every breath. His team's minds had gone perfectly silent in shock behind him.

      Spence was, predictably, the first to speak. "Schuldig?"

      Deanna was a bit more vocal. "Jesus Christ, what the fuck?"

      Schuldig had gotten this far on rage, but the pain was coming back in vicious waves and the digging feel of Crawford in his head made him dizzy. The man's shields were pressing in tighter against him now that they were here on school grounds and it felt like the edges were cutting his mind open. He reached up blindly, grabbing at the bunk above his, needing something to hold onto before his legs gave out from under him.

      "Harrison came by," Spence said when it became apparent that Schuldig wasn't going to explain himself. "He was looking for you. Did he… find you?"

      The cautious edge to those words told Schuldig what he didn't want to hear. It was enough to get his face out of his pillow and he sent a sharp look over his shoulder at Marianna. The team's empath looked positively queasy.

      "We didn't have the authority to tell him to fuck off," Deanna said, flicking her twin a searching look. "Marianna said we should have. We just told him you weren't here and that the last anyone had seen you, the cabinet had asked for you and Crawford."

      "Mind your rankings," Schuldig said automatically, and the words made his stomach hurt. He turned around and slowly let go of his grip on the bunk railing, letting himself slide to the ground. It put him eye level with his team. The six stared at him, wanting answers he wasn't going to give them. Sitting was uncomfortable after what he'd done with Crawford, but it was so much easier to tolerate than the mess his head was in that he tuned it out.

      "Schuldig," Spence pressed carefully.

      A couple years ago, they'd been a slop of a team. He stared at them, taking in the way they were sitting in such a close circle, studying the way they all looked to him. He'd fought so hard to make them something cohesive and perfect. They weren't second-ranked because of their collective strength, because they weren't exactly the most powerful in their individual gift rankings. They were second-ranked because they believed in their team and each other. It was something the other teams didn't understand and something few teams achieved.

      Considering Crawford's admission towards a Machiavellian viewpoint, Schuldig knew he couldn't expect for this much from Schwarz. He really was starting over from scratch, wasn't he? Idly he wondered how long it was going to take him to put Schwarz together into a honest-to-god working team and whether or not Crawford would let him get away with it. Not that he cared what Crawford thought about that. It wasn't insubordination to repair working relationships; it was the only way to stay alive in a business like this.

      "Schuldig?" Marianna asked, and he wondered just how much her gift could pick up on.

      "Enough." Schuldig scrubbed a hand across his mouth, trying not to feel sick. "We've got work to do," he said, easing himself across the floor. They watched him carefully, silently demanding to know what they'd missed. He ignored the questions and curiosity in their stares and instead pulled some of the paperwork closer to himself.

      Work didn't help; he went to bed angry, and he was angry the next several days.


      The auditorium was packed the day of Auction. The bidding twenty-five teams were in attendance, with most of the psychics sitting in the back rows. The front two rows were for the leaders, who needed an unhindered view of the twenty-nine psychics on stage. Schuldig was by far the oldest seated there and he kept getting quick looks from the rest of the contenders. He ignored them, content to sit still like a good little psychic, his expression carved into a look of calm disregard. He could still feel their stares. His gift prickled constantly as attention kept shifting his way. Harrison's never went anywhere else, and Spence looked his way more than he should. The telekinetic had been promoted this morning in a meeting with the leaders and cabinet in attendance. Schuldig had pinned his red and white badge on Spence's breast pocket and effectively walked out of Dolch's life.

      The different powers were presented by the head instructors in each area, starting with the telekinetics. There was little said about anyone on stage, as the teams had been given ample time to study their files and consider which ones they wanted to fight for. Schuldig watched the bidding through hooded eyes, taking in the almost callous handling of each field-agent-to-be. Spence fought for and won the electrokinetic they'd originally come here for, though it seriously ate into the budget the team had allotted for this ceremony. That hardly mattered when they'd argued critical need for one of the two teenage telepaths, but Schuldig still didn't like that this sudden shifting had upset his ex-team's careful budgeting. It had been a headache figuring out how much they'd need.

      Things started getting interested for all present when it finally came time for the telepaths. Spence's chosen was introduced first, and that was settled in just a couple seconds. The instructor acknowledged the unanimous vote in Dolch's favor and the girl was sent down off the stage to Spence's side. Phonesia came up from Dolch's seats to collect her.

      The bidding for the next telepath was fierce and furious as ten of the teams struggled for the upper hand. Crawford didn't budge, completely uninterested. It took almost four minutes of counter-bids and arguments before a Subterfuge team won. Then it was Schuldig's turn, and everyone sat up a bit straighter. Schuldig pushed himself up from his chair with lazy grace, as if he really didn't give a damn that he was being put on display like this, and went to stand beside the presenter.

      "Opening the floor for Schuldig," the telepathic instructor said.

      The words were barely out of his mouth before it began. For the first several minutes, Crawford didn't participate, and neither did Harrison. The electro was eyeing Crawford from time to time, waiting for Crawford to join in, himself waiting until the bidding was up in the range he was willing to deal in. Schuldig ignored both of them and kept his gaze pointed at the back wall. The numbers climbed steadily upwards, starting from a paltry two hundred dollars and escalating to five digits in the first two minutes.

      When the bidding hit twenty thousand, Harrison finally opened his mouth. "Sixty."

      The silence that followed that was absolute and more than a few heads turned his way. Harrison got to his feet, as if he thought the presenter might not notice him, and fixed Schuldig with a look that was pure loathing. Schuldig stared back at him with a carefully blank look on his face. He knew better than to let his own hatred show when the ranks had shifted between them. Harrison sneered when he saw Schuldig minding his place, and Schuldig choked on the taste of his thoughts.

      "Sixty," the presenter echoed, sending Schuldig a sidelong look that said he clearly didn't think Schuldig was worth that. "Do any teams wish to-"

      Crawford stood at last. "One hundred."

      Harrison's choke was audible. Schuldig didn't really blame him; his own breath had locked somewhere in his lungs. He refused to look at Crawford, refused to acknowledge such a outrageous bid. Teams didn't have a hundred grand sitting on hand. They needed that money for other things: supplies, food, rent, travel, countless bits and pieces that added up far too quickly. Subterfuge was the most expensive branch. Schwarz couldn't possibly have that much in their accounts. If they did, they weren't doing their job right.

      "I challenge Schwarz's bid," Harrison said angrily.

      "I have already stamped the amount off with the cabinet," Crawford answered without deigning to look his way. "I have the papers that prove Schwarz has that much on hand, ready to be wired to Rosenkreuz's bank."

      Shit shit shit.

      No wonder Rosenkreuz had been happy to sell him out.

      "One hundred thousand," the telepathic instructor said when the silence had stretched too long. "Do any teams wish to outbid Schwarz?"

      Silence was his answer, and Harrison positively radiated helpless anger. The instructor gave the teams twenty seconds to come up with a counter-bid. "Sold to Schwarz for one hundred thousand," he said when no one else spoke. "Step off the stage, Schuldig."

      All eyes were on him as he went for the stairs. He took the five down to put him on ground level and he closed the space between himself and Crawford with careful steps. He wondered how long Crawford had been holing money away for this moment. With his precognition a lie, Crawford had had no clue what the other teams might bid for Schuldig once he convinced Estet that the telepath needed to be routed to Schwarz. It had come down to mathematics and guesswork, based on average finances and expenses. Crawford had to have started years ago to get enough that he thought he could win against any challengers here.

      He stopped in front of Crawford, only to be motioned towards a free seat at Crawford's side on the end of the aisle. Harrison sent a tangle of thoughts his way so vicious and crude that Schuldig forgot what he was doing. He flicked a sharp look that way where Harrison was still standing. It took him just a second to realize Harrison was too angry to have made that threat private. The empaths in the crowd- and the three telepaths present- were looking from one man to the other. They were waiting for a fight, and Schuldig knew what it meant if he backed down here. He knew, but he also knew his place. He sat despite the fact that every inch of him wanted to take Harrison apart.

      Schuldig? Marianna demanded, mental voice sharp.

      Mind your own business, Dolch, and mind your goddamned rankings. Keep your mouths shut.

      Crawford had to have heard that mess as well, considering the strength of his gift, but he couldn't give himself away here. The only explanation for him being party to such a grotesque threat was if Schuldig passed it on to him, and neither of them wanted to convey the image of Schuldig running to Crawford for help. The pseudo-precognitive's expression didn't budge from its perfect impassive mask and he sat as if he didn't notice anything out of place.

      The rest of the bidding went unnoticed by either man.

      Neither of them was surprised when Harrison appeared in front of them the second the proceedings were officially closed. Crawford stood to greet him, the briefest touch of his fingers to Schuldig's shoulder a silent order to stay seated. Harrison glowered hatred at the tall American. The teams had been dismissed, but no one left. They were content to watch the leaders stare each other down.

      "I wish to speak to your telepath."

      "Denied," Crawford answered simply.

      "On what grounds?"

      "He is my telepath. As such, I do not need much reason to deny you right to see him."

      "Can't you defend yourself, telepath?" Harrison asked, all angry mockery.

      "My team leader ordered me to stay put, Untugend," Schuldig pointed out. He kept his voice calm through sheer willpower alone. Keeping the ice off his face was harder when he was out of practice on this 'respect' thing, but he managed. "I obey him first and foremost."

      "Lay off it," Delilah said, arriving at Harrison's side and offering the electrokinetic an annoyed look. Schuldig wasn't expecting support from her corner and he eyed her, wondering why she was even here. Maybe she just wanted all of this quieted down before people started focusing on Schuldig's sexuality. "You lost. Get over it and let's go. I have questions about a joint job."

      Spence was the next to arrive and the look he gave Harrison was openly hostile now that he didn't have to watch his footing. Schuldig guessed Marianna had passed the flavor of Harrison's threat on to him, meddling little empath. Either that or she'd just taken his 'mind your rankings' a step further than he'd meant her to. Harrison was not expecting such open vitriol from someone he wasn't used to viewing as an equal and the look on his face said he forgot Spence's ranking for a second. Luckily for him, he saw Spence's badge before he said anything.

      Spence said nothing yet, very careful not to overstep Crawford's authority when it came to Schuldig. Crawford gave him a second just to make sure he didn't cross that line, then turned his attention back to Harrison. "I have already warned you once to keep your hands off of psychics that do not belong to you." He said it casually, as if he were commenting on tonight's dinner menu, but anyone close enough to hear him knew it was a threat even before he elaborated. "Consider this your second warning, and keep in mind that I never give anyone a third. I need Schuldig in working order the second he hits the ground in Tokyo. I will not let you jeopardize my team's work."

      Harrison curled his lip at that in open derision, but he said nothing. Crawford glanced Schuldig's way, and the telepath obediently got to his feet. "We have a flight in two hours," he said. "We take our leave of you and leave Rosenkreuz's future in our joint hands."

      "To the future," Delilah and Spence said, and Harrison grumbled his own rote response back.

      Crawford started away and Schuldig followed after him. They hadn't made it very far before Spence's self-control cracked. Now that Crawford had spoken and left, Spence was free to add his bit. His voice was so dangerously low Schuldig almost didn't hear it, but the words were more than enough to make him look back.

      "You back the fuck off and stay the fuck back, Untugend, or you will seriously regret it."

      They were too far away by then for Schuldig to hear Harrison's response, but for a second, his and Spence's gazes met and locked. Just a second, and then Schuldig was turning away, knowing he'd likely never see Dolch again. They were no longer his concern. His sanity, Crawford's lofty goals, and fourteen new teammates he was going to have to contend with had much higher spots on his list of priorities.

      "Your team is distractingly attached to you," Crawford said.

      It sounded like a rebuke. Schuldig's mouth cut into a cold smirk. "I have that effect on people," he said. "Just wait until you see what I do to Schwarz."

      I'm going to take them all away from you.

      Just you fucking wait and see.

Part 6
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