Part 7

      It was a really good thing his room came with an alarm clock, because Schuldig woke up having no clue what time or day it was. He blinked groggily at the numbers, trying to get his jet-lagged mind to make sense of them, and at length reached out to turn the alarm off. He pushed himself up on one arm and looked around his room, feeling fuzzy-brained without Dolch's familiar minds there to ground him. The first brush against Crawford's mind was more than enough to wake him up and he blinked hard against his dark room. He fished his clock out of the pile of blankets and eyed the green numbers. His room didn't have a window in it, so he had to believe it when the clock said it was half past six in the morning. He tilted the clock towards the watch on his wrist, casting a faint green glow on the glass face, and made a note to change it when he had enough light to see by.

      It took work to disentangle himself from the many layers of his futon and he pushed himself to his feet to make blind swipes at the cord for his overhead light. He found it on the third try and it clicked on at its lowest setting, casting a dim surreal yellow glow on the paper walls and straw floor. The matting felt strange underneath his bare feet as he padded over to his closet and he realized he'd already forgotten what it was called. Totter? Tata? Something. He just hoped he hadn't forgotten those damn alphabets, or today was going to be a headache to get through.

      He'd unpacked last night when his head had calmed down enough to move, so he propped himself up against the closet door to stare in at his choices. As a leader, he'd always had to dress up nicer than his subordinates, since he was the face of his team. They'd moved so far across Africa, though, from cities and towns to little village outskirts, that he had a pretty broad definition of what "nice" was. He supposed now that he'd been demoted, he could leave his suits at the back of his closet. He poked idly at the single pair of jeans he still had before pushing them aside.

      Maybe he couldn't dress like a leader anymore, but that didn't mean he had to dress down completely. If he dressed too nice, Schwarz would think he was still holding onto his rank. If he dressed too casually, they'd get suspicious. He sighed a little and rubbed at his temples, grimacing as this conundrum emphasized the problems to come. Everything he did from here on out had to be planned out based on the impressions and reactions it would get. He'd done it with Dolch years ago, but there had been fewer of them and that was years ago. They'd come together fairly quickly. He was just starting over now.

      Getting Schwarz to come together- and in particular, getting them to come together around him- was going to be a pain in the ass. He'd thought so back in Rosenkreuz, based on the size and Crawford's single-minded attitude. Seeing them last night had just driven that home. He was going to have to be painstakingly careful in how he handled them, never submissive, but never too aggressive. He couldn't give any ground to them now or they wouldn't give him any footing later.

      He'd already startled them last night, but they weren't going to hold onto that impression if he didn't make the right next step. The psychics would be the hardest to win over; Estet's personnel, the easiest. He couldn't favor either side for too long or he'd lose trust with the other.

      There had to be a middle ground in there somewhere. Finding it would take work, but he'd work at it. He was a telepath, after all. That was what telepaths were supposed to do: infiltrate, undermine, break, and repair. They were trained extensively on psychology and human relationships. Crawford was a shit-poor telepath if he ignored such things, but Schuldig guessed there was no helping that when he'd been trained in a precognitive's ruthless, goal-centered world. Whether Crawford could help his attitude or not, it was going to drive Schuldig insane dealing with him and watching him just not care about how Schwarz worked as long as it worked.

      At length he pieced together an outfit he thought would work and tossed it at his bed for after his shower. He collected his towel from its hook and headed downstairs. A few of the steps creaked under his feet and he made a careful note as to which ones they were. The bathroom door was louder as it rattled shut behind him. He stood just inside the bathroom door for a few seconds, staring into the room with the tub and trying to figure out how everything was supposed to work. There'd been a note about toilets and bathroom etiquettes in his handbook, but it still seemed backwards to him.

      There was a shower head, but it was attached to the wall at knee level. He frowned down at it before setting his towel on the sink and stepping into the smaller room. Once inside he spotted a squat little stool. He looked from it to the drain to the deep tub in the corner and finally set the stool upright near the drain. There were already toiletries in the bathroom, each set in individual baskets. He helped himself to the plainest bottles, figuring there was a good chance they were Crawford's, and started making a list of things he would have to buy.

      He'd put most of his personal savings into the bucket for bidding on their electrokinetic, but he'd made at least that back. It cost teams so much to take in new powers that they simply couldn't afford to waste money on personal effects for their new teammates. Because of that, psychics received a small percentage kickback from Auction. That money was meant to support them in the transition and get them everything they needed to adjust to their new teams. His was inarguably the largest bonus anyone would ever receive, but that was to be expected considering the insane amount Crawford had bid on him.

      Sitting made showering a little complicated, as well as making him more tired. He was yawning when he turned the water off and he smothered the second yawn in his towel. He checked the clock in the kitchen on his way by and found he had about ten minutes to get ready before Farfarello stepped by. He paused there to fix his watch and grimaced down at it. His internal clock refused to accept what the hands were telling him and he didn't have the time to argue with it. Instead he went back upstairs, mindful to avoid the noisy steps, and slid the doors to his room closed behind him.

      He was dressed with time to spare and pulled his hair up in a knot to get it off his neck. Few things were more annoying than having wet hair drip down his back. He squeezed the knot with his towel before hanging it up to dry and turned to face the problem of his bed. The room was small enough that the futon easily took up half of it and he thought he understood why the bed was supposed to be folded up. It still took him two tries to get it right, because he wasn't quite sure at first which way the foam bottom later was supposed to fold. He finally got it in a neat stack in the corner and eyed the wall, frowning a little at its lack of a window. That was going to be hell on his attempt to adjust to a new time zone.

      His clock beeped at him on the hour and he heard the door downstairs clack as Farfarello undid the locks. Schuldig scooped up his jacket and wallet, yanked the cord for his light, and left his door open behind him. He neatly stepped over the creaky steps on his way down and found Farfarello standing in the open doorway waiting on him. He shrugged into his jacket and tapped two fingers to his temple in a salute.

      "You're punctual," he noted. The entrance wasn't wide enough for them to both fit comfortably, but Farfarello didn't move. Schuldig gave him just a second before stepping down into his shoes. It put him chest-to-chest with the other man, but the Berserker didn't seem to notice. Schuldig decided he had no concept of personal space. Or maybe he understood it too well? Schuldig made a note to keep a close eye on how Farfarello stood in relation to the rest of the team.

      "Do I need to bring anything today?" he asked, pushing his foot back against the step to get it the rest of the way on. Definitely needed to tie his laces looser from here on out.

      "Hmmm," was the only response he got. Farfarello considered him for a moment, head tipped to one side as he scrutinized his newest teammate. Schuldig waited patiently, letting his gift drift between their minds. Farfarello didn't seem to have a strong opinion of him yet; all Schuldig could get from him was a kind of idle interest that bordered on indifference. After seeing how the rest of the team had reacted to him, the German telepath had no problems with that.

      "You didn't eat," Farfarello said.

      "I don't eat right after waking up."

      "Delicate constitution," the Berserker said slowly, as if he was testing the words even as he said them. It made Schuldig wonder if he even knew what they meant, or if he was repeating something he'd heard before.

      "There's nothing delicate about me," Schuldig answered.

      Farfarello just offered him a small smile, the kind people used when they were sharing some big secret. There was nothing in his mind to go hand-in-hand with that look and Schuldig wasn't really sure where to start in guessing at what it could be. Then the man was finally stepping back out of his way and turning. Schuldig followed him outside, pulling the door closed behind him, and went through the gate into the street.

      Schuldig studied the houses and little shops they passed. Signs decorated the stores, covered in symbols he couldn't read. He could pick out one or two from the list he'd memorized, but it still took him a second to connect the familiarity to the reading. Perhaps he should have brought his paper to memorize on the walk, but he wanted to watch where they were going. He needed to be able to keep his eyes on the road, anyway, because it was narrow enough that he didn't trust the cars that occasionally went by. The bicycles proved to be a larger risk, since it seemed that three-fourths of the riders that passed were on their phones.

      They passed under a small arch with lettering he couldn't read and houses gave way to apartments and shops. The restaurants were closed, but there were several small shops that were brightly lit and full. Suited men hurried this way and that and a few ladies were out pushing strollers. Everyone gave the foreign pair a wide berth and Schuldig returned the more blatant stares with an unfriendly smile. It was interesting to see how quickly they looked away when they were caught staring.

      Further ahead the street finally gave out to a busy intersection. A short ways past it, they were right behind a train station. Schuldig went still a moment to take it all in, studying the elevated tracks and the sweeping skyscrapers. Farfarello stopped right beside him, seemingly in no particular hurry to get to their destination. He was gazing through the crowd that swelled around them, uninterested in the lives of faceless civilians. Schuldig stretched his gift out, testing the mental waters, letting their foreign words flicker across his telepathy. None of it made any sense.

      Farfarello was the first to move again and Schuldig followed him across a crosswalk and into another shopping street. They went down a ways before turning into a narrow stairwell. On the third floor, a hand-painted sign welcomed them in English. Schuldig guessed the Japanese above it was a direct translation and he eyed it, trying to make his brain recognize the symbols.

      "Yo..o..ko…" He hesitated, thinking. "So."

      Farfarello pushed the door open. A bell jingled overhead as they stepped through and someone called a cheery greeting from out of sight. Schuldig followed Farfarello down the hall and into a reception area, where a too-perky girl stood to welcome them. How she kept the smile on her face when she saw Farfarello, Schuldig didn't know. There was recognition in her stare and Schuldig understood the tense edge to her thoughts even if he couldn't understand them.

      She moved her smile from Farfarello to Schuldig and offered a small bow. "You are new here," she said in accented English. "My name is Eiko. Welcome to Japan! What is your name?"

      "Schuldig," he answered, and it was worth it just to see her smile freeze on her face.

      "Sh…u?" she tried.

      Farfarello left them to their stumbling introductions. Schuldig glanced after him as the bell jangled on his departure, wondering whether the man would be back later to get him or if he'd be finding his way home himself. He wasn't even sure how long he was going to be here. He thought about sending a thought after the Berserker to ask before deciding against it. He could handle himself just fine either way, so it didn't matter. He glanced back towards Eiko.

      She clasped her hands together in front of her face. "Sorry, sorry," she said, offering him a guilty little smile. "One more time?"

      "Schuldig," he said again, slower this time. It took her a couple tries and she was giggling helplessly by the time she got it right. Schuldig swallowed a sigh. If there was one thing he'd learned over time, it was to never make enemies with language teachers. Language was too crucial a skill to risk alienating the instructors. He was dead weight on Schwarz when he couldn't understand anything they were doing except through their meetings or his teammates' assistance. Schuldig couldn't usurp Crawford's authority with such a handicap.

      She set a clipboard down on the counter between them. Everything on it was written out in both English and Japanese. She went over the itinerary with him, making sure he understood everything his intensive course would cover. The second page gave a breakdown of how his days during the introductory period would go. Schuldig decided 'intensive' was an understatement, because he was scheduled to be here from 7:30 until half past five, with an hour break midday for lunch. He eyed the squiggly Japanese characters on the page and could already imagine the headache he'd have by dinnertime.

      "Please sign here," she said, indicating the line before handing him a pencil. He picked it up and she squeaked a little in surprise. "Oh, you're left-handed!" she observed, as if it was the strangest thing she'd seen all year. "That will make things more difficult."

      That wasn't what he wanted to hear. "Will it?"

      "The writing," she said, giving him a sage nod. "It will be more difficult."

      "Fantastic," he muttered, scrawling his name at the bottom.

      At least her understanding of English included sarcasm, judging by her giggle. She took the signed page back and unclipped the rest for him to keep. She pulled books off a shelf behind the desk and found a notepad and pencil a shelf closer to him. "For you," she said, handing them over and holding a hand out to indicate the small hallway on the other side of the room. "First door on the left." She finished it up with a jumbled mess of Japanese that had him eyeing her.


      She made a fist and gave a small pump of her arm. "It means, try your best!"

      Schuldig quietly hoped her strangeness was some mental defect of her own and not a trait he'd run into again and again here. Somehow he doubted it, but he told himself that was just the pessimism talking. He realized she was waiting on a response and offered her a thin smile. "Right," he said at last.

      "Left," she corrected him.

      Shoot me.


      Farfarello was waiting for him at lunch break. Schuldig left the small classroom to find the Irishman slouched in one of the chairs in the lobby. The younger man had his head lolled to one side against the cushion and his eye shut, but it slid open at the first pat of Schuldig's shoes against the floor. He took in the glazed look on Schuldig's face in silence for a moment before pale lips twitched in a half-second smile. It was there and gone again in less than a heartbeat, but Schuldig decided the Irishman didn't know how to make any expression that wasn't creepy.

      Eiko wasn't at the front desk, apparently off on her own break. That just made it easier for them to leave without getting stopped. Schuldig waited until they were down in the shopping street before opening his mouth, but he forgot what he was going to say when he noticed how busy the place had become in his absence. Just the sound of Japanese was enough to make him tense. His instructor hadn't used a single word of English the entire five-hour stretch, instead using pictures and gestures to help get her point across. It had been the same when he'd been stuck learning English and French and Afrikaans, but somehow this seemed ultimately more complicated.

      "Tell me it gets easier," he said at last.

      "Tell yourself," Farfarello answered, and Schuldig had never been so happy to hear his native German before. The Irishman set off and Schuldig matched his stride. The looks they'd been subject to this morning came in less frequency now. Maybe it was because the street was mostly packed with a younger generation; more likely it was because some of the natives they passed were quite a bit more eye-catching with their choices in clothes and dye. Schuldig stared at them more than any of them stared at him and he finally lifted his gaze a bit to study the signs they passed. He supposed it was progress that he could pick out the little alphabets his teacher had shoved down his throat this morning, and the fact that he could understand some of the words already almost made up for his headache.


      They stopped in front of a small restaurant halfway down and Farfarello planted himself in front of the glass display case. Shelves were set up with food samples on them. Schuldig wasn't sure what some of it was and he couldn't read the names, but he could read the numbers beneath it. He counted them out loud, in part to make sure he remembered and in part just to hear what it sounded like with his accent.

      "They don't even look like numbers," he said at length, "and the pictographs don't seem to help."

      "Maybe you're thinking of the wrong pictures," Farfarello answered without looking at him. He crouched to get a better look at the bottom row of dishes. Schuldig crouched beside him, quirking an eyebrow at him in a silent press for an explanation. It took Farfarello a minute to notice he was being watched and he slid a bored look Schuldig's way. White fingertips pressed whisper-light against the glass, indicating the price tags. "One knife, two knives, three knives."

      "That's a bit overly simplistic, as well as impractical," Schuldig pointed out, looking around until he found a four. "Four knives?"

      "Four knuckles as I break someone's face with my fist."

      "Technically there are only three knuckles. Look at it."

      "That's his skull, where my punch has shredded the skin off of it."

      "…Right." Schuldig idly rethought his decision to crouch so close to the other man.

      Farfarello moved his hand to his mouth and bit down hard enough on the flesh of his thumb that Schuldig heard the skin squelch as it broke. The Berserker lowered his hand and considered the dots of blood before deciding they were insufficient. He lined his teeth up with the dots and bit down again, harder this time, and gave his hand a small jerk to help tear the skin a bit further. He seemed to find the mess satisfactory this time, because he dipped his finger in the glistening saliva-blood mess and painted a character on the glass.

      "This is him on his hands and knees as I cut him with my sword," he said. "It means sword. This is a drop." He put a little dot off to the side, then streaked another across his first character. "This is the drop of blood he spilled on my weapon, bringing the focus from sword to blade, for the blade I cut him open with."

      Schuldig eyed the pictures. "You realize you're just a bit psychotic," he said, "but at least there's some sense in it all. Method to the madness, I guess?"

      "We're all mad," Farfarello said, smearing his hand across the glass to erase it all. He offered the glass a vicious smile. "You most of all, if you followed his promises here. Mm, telepath? What pretty words he must have offered you."

      Schuldig thought about hard kisses and mint and a deadly promise. His stomach knotted up with conflicting hatred and hunger. He refused to acknowledge that second bit as being at all related to Crawford and instead focused on the food models in front of him. "Perhaps," he answered noncommittally, and he pushed himself to his feet. Farfarello stood just a second later. The conversation died there, but that was fine with both of them.

      He put his energy into eating, using it to force the older telepath from his thoughts. By the end of the meal he had an entirely new problem to deal with: jet lag. At first he thought it was the food that was making him tired; then he assumed it was the thought of going back to that school for another four hours of studies. By the time the waiter cleared their plates and bowls away, though, he managed to pinpoint the problem as his off-kilter internal clock.

      "Caffeine," he said against his hand as he scrubbed at his face. "Anywhere around here I can find it?"

      Farfarello considered that for a moment before getting to his feet. He paid for their lunch at a small podium near the door, despite the fact that Schuldig had taken money out of an ATM at the airport. They went down the street to a convenience store. Little cans of coffee were sitting on refrigerated shelves and Schuldig eyed them, skimming their oddball names, before finally shrugging and scooping up several of them. A too-happy cashier rang everything up for him, apparently finding it not at all bizarre that he was buying eight cans of cold coffee. Schuldig glanced from the register to the smallest bill he had in his wallet. He didn't have to understand Japanese currency to know ten thousand was going to make a lot of little change. Indeed, he got a small stack of bills and a couple of coins back.

      Farfarello said something to the cashier that Schuldig didn't understand and caught Schuldig's wrist before he could start putting the money away. The cashier took one of the one-thousands back and counted out more coins instead. Schuldig eyed the new addition to his handful. Farfarello started picking at the coins until there was just one left of each; the duplicates he slipped into his own pocket. He let go of Schuldig at length and Schuldig decided not to ask. He was more interested in the bag the cashier was packing. He'd gone through two of the coffees before the door had finished sliding closed behind them, only to find himself facing a row of recycle bins. He stared them down, mentally sounding out every label he could, and stopped when he found one that said kan. The picture seemed to match, so he poked his empty cans inside.

      The Irishman dropped him off in front of the school and didn't bother to come upstairs that time. Schuldig went up alone and found Eiko had picked up a coworker at some point. They went through introductions all over again and Eiko made him do it in Japanese to see what he'd learned that morning. They giggled at his accent, but laughed harder at themselves and their inability to say his name. Schuldig decided brain-damaged perkiness was a genetic trait.

      His teacher showed up just a few minutes later and they went back to the private classroom together. She started a review of the morning's work and seemed satisfied with his retention. When she asked him if he had any questions, Schuldig considered it for a few moments and then dug out the coins Farfarello had gotten for him. He dumped them on the table and turned an expectant look on the teacher, and she smiled and leaned forward to give him a small lesson on currency. That just branched into an impromptu lesson on shopping, with them alternating as clerk and customer and "purchasing" random objects around the room.

      Farfarello, Schuldig decided as he put the coins and bills all away again, is not as disconnected as he seems. But he was convincing in his act, which made him just a bit dangerous. Crawford had chosen his inner circle well. Schuldig turned his wallet over and over between his fingers, considering that as his teacher was distracted with getting the afternoon's lesson plan out.

      Well, then, he told himself with a satisfied little smirk. Might as well start with him.


      The problem with starting on any of his teammates, it seemed, was that Schuldig couldn't really do much of anything the first several days. For starters, his lessons took up most of his day. He couldn't even take advantage of his evenings until he finally adjusted to the time zone difference. He spent the better part of the first week returning back to the house completely exhausted. Luckily for him, Crawford had counted that into his plans, and he had nothing at all for Schuldig to do until he was sure the German was awake enough to deal with it. Schuldig knew that "consideration" was double-edged: it meant he had the time he needed to flop time zones, but it meant he didn't see much of his teammates that first week and they didn't get to see him doing any sort of real work.

      He didn't even see Farfarello for several days after that first one. The Berserker had made sure Schuldig knew the route to and from his lessons and now he had better things to do. Schuldig was vaguely annoyed at the disruption in his plans, but he quieted that as best he could. It was best to just bide his time and plan his next moves. Of course, it was vaguely annoying that he had to do most of his scheming away from the house, since he didn't want Crawford picking up on it. Crawford had to know Schuldig wasn't going to be a perfect little subordinate, especially when Schuldig had already warned him otherwise, but Schuldig would prefer it if he wasn't cut off at the pass.

      On the fourth day he took things into his own hands. After his lessons, he downed a half-dozen little coffees and showed up at the Estet household uninvited. Mariea opened the door and didn't seem to know what to make of it.

      "Does Crawford need us?" she asked.

      "I'm hungry and I don't know the neighborhood."

      She stared back at him for a moment, mentally working her way through that, and leaned forward to point. "If you turn right," she started to say.

      "You're acting like you've already eaten," Schuldig said, reaching up to pull his hair out of its knot. "Wait a second." He reached out with his gift, finding the other minds in the house, and pressed lightly against them, just enough to draw their attention to the fact that they had a guest. It didn't take long for the first of them to show up. Mariea glanced back at Hiroyuki and gestured helplessly at Schuldig. Maybe she mouthed something at the other man when her face was safely turned away; either way, she stepped aside and let the Japanese researcher through.

      "Is something wrong?" Hiroyuki asked.

      "It's time to eat."

      They stared at each other for a minute before the shorter man misinterpreted that. "We didn't have plans to cook anything."

      "Neither do I," Schuldig answered. "We're going out."


      He said it like he didn't understand the concept. Schuldig just gazed back at him until he finally felt Farfarello stir. The Irishman crouched at the top of the stairs to consider their visitor. The angle was bad enough that Schuldig could only see his shins and feet, but that was enough. He tilted his head to one side, raising his voice to include the Berserker in their conversation.

      "Food, Farfarello. Are you coming?"

      Farfarello clucked his tongue against his teeth a couple times before standing and making his way down the stairs. He walked propped against the wall, as if he couldn't hold himself up, and stopped right beside Hiroyuki to stare hard at Schuldig. Schuldig stared back and waited. Farfarello poked at the corner of his mouth with his tongue as he thought, then finally brushed past his housemate and stepped into his shoes.

      Hiroyuki said something in Japanese that Schuldig didn't understand. Farfarello answered it with a bored response that was just as unintelligible. Schuldig backed out of the gate so Farfarello could follow. Farfarello was the only one who came, but that was enough of a start. As far as Schuldig was concerned, one Farfarello was worth three other teammates, thanks to his inclusion in Crawford's lofty goals. Schuldig offered the other man a slow smirk in response to Farfarello's half-lidded stare, and they headed down the street side by side.

      The restaurant Farfarello chose was small and cramped, but the food was good and the cook obviously recognized the Berserker. Schuldig introduced himself when Farfarello just shrugged the cook's question off and they sat themselves at the counter for a silent dinner. Schuldig wasn't entirely sure sushi and beer went together, but they found a way to make it work. After the sixth or seventh beer they gave up the pretense of ignoring each other and started eyeing each other over their glasses. After the eighth Schuldig couldn't help but grin, because Farfarello looked almost bored by the alcohol. It seemed he'd found the perfect drinking companion. Spence had been rotten at it.

      Schuldig idly wondered how Crawford's tolerance was.

      That curiosity died when Farfarello spoke, because the Irishman's voice was mental and perfectly focused, something one could only get through long association with a telepath. One wonders what a man has to promise to have another sign his life away.

Schuldig agreed easily. One does wonder what he had to promise to get someone like you.

      Farfarello's mouth twitched into a whisper-thin smirk and he set his glass down. He didn't ask again, and Schuldig didn't answer. One more drink each and they headed back to the houses, and their return wasn't missed by anyone. Whether or not Hiroyuki had reported their joint departure, Schuldig wasn't sure, but one of the empaths picked up on their return. He felt their stares on him, but more than that, he felt the prickle in his gift as minds focused on him. The only stare he didn't feel was Crawford's, and he told himself that was all right. Let Crawford underestimate this for as long as he liked.

      At the end of the first week, Crawford called another meeting. It was the first time since Schuldig's arrival that he'd seen all of his teammates. They didn't look any happier with his presence now than they had then. And with Crawford waiting on a fax to finish arriving in his room upstairs, there was nothing to make them behave. The looks on their faces this time were openly hostile. Anyone who'd had a neutral opinion a week ago had had seven days to be brainwashed by his and her teammates. Only Farfarello and Nagi were unreadable.

      Schuldig considered the thirteen from where he was propped against the doorframe, hands buried in his jacket pockets. If he couldn't wear a suit, he'd damn well wear a jacket at all times. It was too warm to be comfortable, but he was used to the discomfort after years of being Dolch's leader. The cuts were all business-style, but the material and colors clashed with that subliminal message of authority. Today's choice was green, picked because it was a loud and obnoxious shade. He wanted to be noticed; he wanted to be looked at.

      "What an eyesore," Kwan said.

      Schuldig bared his teeth at that behind a mocking smirk and slid around the doorframe. He'd had a week to figure out that most of the wooden floors in this house creaked. The others had obviously gotten used to it during their long stay here. Schuldig, on the other hand, had spent his mornings finding out where every noisy floorboard was. He'd practiced pacing every morning before his lessons until he didn't have to watch his step anymore. Between that care and his socked feet, his footsteps were silent.

      Farfarello noticed, even if the others didn't catch on. A single golden eye watched Schuldig's feet as the telepath crossed the room towards him. Schuldig stopped right beside him and waited for Farfarello's gaze to drag up the length of his body to his face.

      "Psychics don't sit there," Ly Ly said. "That's for Estet's personnel."

      "Last I checked, Schwarz sat here," Schuldig said without looking at her.

      "You don't know anything about Schwarz," Harriet told him.

      "Let's not get started on the list of things you don't know," Schuldig said, half-turning to eye the psychics. "First impression says it's going to be quite lengthy and it starts with your shitastic understanding of what a team is. What does it honestly matter who sits where as long as we're all in the same room?"

      There was just a pause before Hiroyuki glanced at the women. "Psychics don't sit here."

      Schuldig offered the Japanese man a slow, cold smile. "Move me," he invited.

      The telekinetics took that offer at face-value. Schuldig felt power wrap around his arm in a vice-like grip just a second before he was wrenched across the room. He hit the wall hard enough to crush the air out of his lungs and fell onto the connected arms of the couches. There were a couple snickers from his teammates that he could hear even over the bang of impact, but he tuned it all out. He didn't even wait long enough to get his breath back before he was sliding forward off the couch.

      "That's one," Schuldig said. "I'll tell you what I told my last telekinetics: you can only touch me three times. You try and throw me a fourth time and your shields will come down with it."

      "Don't threaten us," Eleodoro said.

      "I don't threaten," Schuldig answered, flicking him a half-lidded look that was all blue ice. "I promise, and I've gotten where I am today by keeping every promise I make. It's on your head if you try me when you've got twelve witnesses to say I warned you."

      "Just shut up and sit down," Nicole said.

      Schuldig ignored that in favor of going right back to where he'd started. This time he kept his gift focused on the telekinetics, listening for the telltale twinge that would tell him which one was using his power. They let him get all the way back before catching him again, and he hit the wall harder this time. He had a name, though: Eleodoro. He tasted blood where he bit his tongue when his head hit the wall. He swallowed it and calmly pushed himself to his feet again.

      The third time, Eleodoro let him get halfway, but this time his power was wrenched brutally away. Schuldig slowly turned to face the child at the back of the room. Nagi wasn't looking at any of them; he was more interested in the file in his lap. He had an ink pen in hand and was scribbling little notes in the margins, filling the page with chicken scratch Japanese. Power pulled at Schuldig's arm again, but it was relentlessly squished. Nagi finally looked up.

      "That's enough."

      "Bug off it, will you?" Eleodoro asked, sending the child an annoyed look.

      Nagi turned that heavy stare on Schuldig. "Sit down." Schuldig's mouth twitched into a smirk and he started for Farfarello's side again. Someone stopped him just a few steps away. Schuldig guessed it was Nagi this time, since he still had both feet on the ground. "Not there."

      "Here," Farfarello said, leaning forward on his perch. He lifted one hand from the wood and let his fingers hang limp, indicating the ground beside him. "Here is fine."

      He and Nagi stared each other down, a silent contest of wills, oblivious to the way they'd caught everyone's attention. Even the mental field was quiet as the team watched. Schuldig soaked up everything he could, fascinated by the hierarchy that was falling into place around him. The stare-down lasted until the stairs creaked with Crawford's first steps.

      "Let go," Farfarello murmured, and everyone heard it for the threat it was.

      Nagi wasn't at all intimidated. "He's not sitting on the floor."

      Farfarello slid forward off the shelves. Minds and powers bristled around the room. Farfarello's stance was relaxed, almost lazy, but the fact that he'd stood up put everyone on edge. Everyone except Nagi, it seemed, who just gazed back at him in silence.

      "Here," Farfarello said again, in the quiet tone of voice that said it was the last time he would repeat himself, "is fine."

      Crawford had reached the base of the stairs. Nagi glanced towards the doorway, and then his power slipped away. Farfarello didn't move until Schuldig did, waiting for that proof that Nagi had retreated. Schuldig sat in the same spot he'd sat in last time, and Farfarello pushed himself up onto his shelf once more. Crawford had a cool look to offer both of them as he came in, not approving of the near-fight.

      Farfarello answered that warning with a lazy smile and leaned over to rest his chest against his knees. It made it easy for him to reach down and knot ghost-white fingers in Schuldig's hair. His grip was almost tight enough to take Schuldig's scalp off, either because he didn't care or because he couldn't feel how secure a grasp he had. Whatever it was, Schuldig knew better than to pull away. Instead he reached up and tangled his fingers through Farfarello's as best he could, trying to spread them enough to loosen the Irishman's grip. Farfarello let him, and Schuldig decided that meant something.

      "I think I like your pet, Crawford," Farfarello said.

      "You're the only one who does," Crawford answered.

      Schuldig answered that with a slur of mental images, tangled skin and heat and gasping breaths, and threw it hard enough at Crawford's black hole of a mind that it had to hurt. He couldn't hear it hit, but it was enough that Crawford lowered his gaze from Farfarello's face to Schuldig's. Schuldig offered him a cold smile full of vicious promise and hate. Liar.

      Crawford slid his gaze away dismissively and continued as if he hadn't heard anything. "Regardless, I thought I made it clear that he is here to stay. Deal with your personal problems on your own time. When you are here, you are here as Schwarz, and we have no time to waste."

      The team settled down with murmured affirmatives. Schuldig glanced around at their faces as Crawford passed out paperwork, studying the way they forced antagonism aside in favor of business. They had a hierarchy even if they didn't have unity. Crawford was the top point with unshakeable authority. Schuldig mentally placed Nagi and Farfarello at muddled perches beneath him, somewhere even to each other. The rest of the team he wasn't sure about, save for the fact that Estet's people were at the bottom.

      The very bottom was saved for him, it seemed, but he had plenty of time to claw himself all the way up.

      One out of fourteen wasn't bad odds to start with.

Part 8
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