Part 8

      Nicole was, completely unexpectedly, the next to crack.

      Schuldig found the empath waiting for him as he left his lessons the next day. The older woman was dressed in the local fashion in an attempt to blend in, not that her white-blond hair would ever let her do so. Still, there were enough fake blondes wandering around that it took two glances for anyone to be sure that she wasn't supposed to be there.

      Schuldig came to a stop right in front of her, meeting her guarded look with a calm expression of his own. Curiosity could undo anyone, and Schuldig should have expected the empaths to take a little bit closer notice after last night. His mental jab at Crawford at the start of the meeting had been for the precognitive alone, but emotions couldn't be directed like telepathy could. Nicole had missed the accusation, but she'd caught everything else. She'd had a long night to think on it and a longer day, and she'd finally given in.

      She didn't say anything out loud to explain her presence, and Schuldig didn't ask. They both knew it'd just be formalities and a wasted courtesy. Instead they stood in silence, mentally testing the waters and the possibility of a civil conversation. Nicole wasn't sure she wanted to be here, especially when there was no way she'd be able to hide it from the rest of the team. Schuldig gave a quiet snort of derision at that thought and she curled her lip at him in scorn.

      "Are we going to do this out on the street, or are we going to get coffee?" Schuldig asked.

      "I figured we'd talk on the way back to the house."

      "I wasn't planning on going back yet," he lied.

      "Soon?" she wanted to know. "I can shop until you're done."

      Schuldig offered her a taunting smirk. "Are you that afraid of being alone with me?"

      She wasn't amused by that jibe. "I'm not afraid of you, telepath."

      He shrugged and stepped around her. Not surprisingly, she didn't follow. He took his time walking up and down the shopping street, exploring all of the little branches that cut off of it every which way. He didn't really care for anything he was looking at and he was bored before long, but he wasn't admitting defeat first. After two hours of walking he finally stepped into a Starbucks and ordered a drink. He sat himself in the far corner and worked his way through his drink as slowly as possible, and still she didn't come. She was ready to try out-waiting him, and she'd meant it when she said she would shop until he was done. She was having a much easier time entertaining herself than he was, in fact.

      After an hour of sitting there thinking, he started reviewing his Japanese. The sight of his textbooks earned him curious looks from customers at nearby tables, but it took half an hour before anyone was brave enough to attempt a conversation. The younger man greeted Schuldig in broken English and carefully scooted his chair closer. Before long his friends moved closer as well, though few of them had anything to add. One only knew a couple lines that sounded so cheesy they had to be pieces of movie dialogue. Schuldig wasn't interested in talking to any of them, but they were a distraction and they made the game a lot easier to play.

      They talked for an hour and a half before finally leaving, and Schuldig went back to his studying. A waitress came by to clear his dishes away, and Schuldig left his textbooks at his table so he could order another drink and a snack.

      Nicole showed up just as he'd sat down, shopping bags in tow, and ordered a drink at the counter. She didn't look at him until she had her cup and then she invited herself to sit across from him. The empath fixed him with a warning look, daring him to taunt her about her curiosity winning out in the end. He just offered her a crooked little smirk and sipped at his drink.

      "Why do you hate him?" she asked, cutting straight to the chase.

      "Why shouldn't I?"

      She ignored that as too flippant a response to be worth her time. "It's not spite," she said. "If you were just angry that he'd kicked your feet out from under you with your rank, there'd be something a bit pettier to it. I know petty, Schuldig. I have thirteen other teammates before you who redefine that word every day. Yours is something quite a bit more vicious and a hell of a lot more personal. I want an answer."


      "Don't brush me off," she warned him, annoyed by that easy response.

      Schuldig eyed her, considering his words carefully. "I'm not," he said. "I won't, because you've actually taken the time to look at what's going on here and realize it's not stung pride and foolishness." She stared hard at him, not trusting those words. He could feel her gift crawling against his skin as she looked for a crack in his shields. Schuldig knew she wasn't going to find one, and he was content to wait until irritation gave way to suspicion on her face. He brushed that aside with a flick of his fingers and set his coffee down, effectively removing every barricade from between them save for their shields.

      "I'm not going to lie. I am angry that I lost Dolch," Schuldig said, "but I'm angry because Dolch was good. I hate to break it to you, lady, but I have no clue how you guys made it to the top of your division. You could be much better than what you are now if only you'd work together. It feels like the cabinet spat on my worth by dropping me from a team like Dolch to something like Schwarz. I don't want to work with your team if your team can't work with itself. You're wasting my time."

      She said nothing but gazed back at him through half-lidded eyes. He could still feel her gift poking at him as she digested his words and the emotions behind them. "And Crawford?" she pressed.

      "We'll start by saying that that arrogant bastard broke my shields. You're a mental psi. You figure out for yourself just how much I enjoyed that. His persuasive techniques need a little work."

      She grimaced a little, not out of sympathy, but an automatic reaction to the thought of her own shields giving out. "Still," she said, tapping her fingernails on her paper cup. "There's something else there."

      "That's about it," Schuldig said. She flicked him a warning look, sure now that he was lying to her, and lifted her drink to take a sip from it. Schuldig wondered if he was really stupid enough to say the next bit out loud, except most of Rosenkreuz's teams had to know by now. It'd make its way back to Schwarz eventually and Schuldig didn't want his team to hear it third-party. Besides, if Crawford was going to smear his reputation there, Schuldig would smear both of theirs here. He waited until Nicole's mouth was full before making himself say, "It's just that most people don't like ending a round of hot sex with their fuck buddies shattering their shields."

      Nicole inhaled her frappuccino and practically fell out of her chair she started coughing so hard. Schuldig pushed himself up from his chair and leaned across the table to thump her on the back. Everyone was staring at them and the waiters were frozen in place, wondering if they should leap in to help. Schuldig knew enough Japanese to tell them that they were fine and didn't need any help, but it didn't make anyone stop looking.

      "You-" Nicole sputtered around her coughs. "You- you didn't just- you don't mean-"

      "I meant exactly what I said," Schuldig answered easily. "What, did Crawford leave his sexuality out of his self-introduction? Must have been an oversight on his part."

      "It's not something to joke about," she insisted, dabbing at her face with napkins.

      He caught her chin and pulled her head around, forcing her to look at him. "I'm not joking," he said in a low voice. "And I'm not going to lie to my team, not about something like that. It's a piece of me you're all going to have to live with. Dolch got over it. Of course, I gave them a bit more time to get used to me before springing that on them."

      She stared up at him, expression blank with shock. "You aren't," she insisted. He didn't bother answering that denial. She skipped straight from that to the more difficult news to accept: "You didn't."

      "Yes, I did," he answered, letting go of her chin. "But no worries, faint-hearted little empath. It's not going to happen again any time soon." She just gaped at him as he went to toss his empty cup away. He came back just long enough to collect his books. "I'm leaving. I've been in Kichijouji for so long my brain has melted into useless goo. Are you coming or staying?"

      She didn't answer that. He turned and left her there, but it didn't take her long to catch up. She ran to meet him, bags banging against her hips where she'd hooked them around her elbows. "You didn't really," she said. "Don't lie to me!" Schuldig feigned not to notice her strident demand. She smacked his arm, then smacked it again, and finally started beating his shoulder with the flats of both hands. "Don't lie to me! Did you really? Did you really?"

      Schuldig turned on her so quickly she stumbled back. She bumped into a brick storefront and Schuldig got right in her face to plant a hand to either side of her head. "Yes," he insisted, flicking her just a split-second memory of bare, flushed skin, "I did."

      It was amazing how red her face could go, and just how quickly.

      "Oh," she said, when she finally found her voice again. "Oh. Really?" She thought about that for a long minute, staring Schuldig down. A minute later her cheeks flushed a little bit darker when she asked, "Was he any good?" Schuldig quirked an eyebrow at her for such a question. She found some of her mental footing and drew herself up, offering him an arch look that wasn't at all convincing when her face was still pink. "He doesn't seem like he would be. He's very cold."

      "You can't feel him," Schuldig deduced, and she shook her head. "That's a pity." He stepped back to give her some room. She didn't move, silently insisting on an answer. Schuldig had his mouth open on a negative, but he couldn't quite get it out. It was more than a little aggravating that he had to admit, "But yes. Yes, he is. Was, rather."

      She thought that over, but Schuldig knew she was going to need a lot more time to come to terms with everything she'd heard and felt tonight. He took it as a good sign that she stepped away from the wall and fell in alongside him on the walk back to Schwarz's houses. Whatever she decided to feel in the end, he'd made progress with her tonight. And whatever anyone else tried to say to her about him later, she had the truth of her gift, and that was always going to rank even with their unfounded vitriol.

      Two out of fourteen made for much better odds to play with.


      Apparently gossip was the universal glue that could pull even a team like Schwarz together, no matter how temporarily. Nicole saw absolutely no reason to keep her mouth shut and Schuldig hadn't even tried to tell her that it was supposed to be a secret. He knew she wouldn't listen to that, anyway, and he wanted to give the impression that he didn't care if his team found out. Nicole had to see through that cold amusement to the thin strain of tension underneath, but she ruled in favor of his façade because it was what she wanted. It took all of one day for all of Schwarz to know that Crawford had fucked Schuldig.

      No one was brave enough to say anything out loud yet, not really sure what sort of reaction it would get from their frigid leader, but the glances said enough and Schuldig could hear their thoughts just fine. He came home from his lessons the next day to find that mess waiting for him and told himself to take some comfort in the fact that Crawford had had to listen to it all day. Schuldig had to assume he was listening, anyway, because nothing in the ice man's expression or behavior gave him away. He went about his business as calmly as ever, radiating that quiet superiority as usual.

      Schuldig hadn't thought he could despise the other man more, but something about Crawford's easy lie got under his skin. It was difficult having to listen to his team as they went through the expected stages of shock and disgust when he'd just gone through this at Rosenkreuz. Tomoko was the oddest one out among her teammates. He couldn't understand any of her thoughts, but he could hear the delighted overtone, and it made him think she wasn't even paying attention to what was going on.

      He wasn't entirely sure what to think that the whispers didn't get any sort of reaction from Nagi or Farfarello. He highly doubted Crawford had told them, but Farfarello's mind was its usual borderline apathy and Nagi had better things to worry about. Schuldig was starting to seriously question their sanity and grip on reality. He'd known from the start that there was something off about Farfarello, but he'd fooled himself into thinking Nagi was something closer to human.

      He made himself listen to his teammates even when he didn't want to, because it was important to see which tracks they were all taking. This changed everything before he'd even had the chance to leave a questionably-favorable impression on any of them. It was a serious risk, but Nicole had forced his hand and he knew it would have been much worse to skip around this. That didn't mean he had to like the consequences of his honesty. He tapped his pencil against his Japanese workbook and stared through kanji at fierce opinions that burned his mind.

      And finally, finally, there was the reaction he was waiting for.

      That was unnecessary.

      Crawford's voice slipped against his shields so suddenly that Schuldig started and banged his elbow against the wall. He'd already forgotten what Crawford's voice felt like, pulsing that deeply across his mind as if it belonged there. Didn't you see it coming, precog? he asked, rubbing his arms to ward off a sudden chill. He wasn't sure if it was from the sound of Crawford's voice right up against his gift or the memory of Crawford breaking his mind open. Maybe it was both.

      You insist on making things more difficult for yourself.

      They deserved to know.

      Don't write this off as some misconception of consideration.

      It's not,
Schuldig agreed. What I did with Dolch was consideration. This is a new variation on the game, called "survival".

      Technically this is called "spite", and it's a waste of everyone's time.

      Did I distract them from their work?
Schuldig asked, hitting that perfect pitch between thoughtful and bored and leaving it up to Crawford to interpret it. He tugged his workbook a bit closer and started scratching out characters. He couldn't practice sentences when he was talking, but he could at least practice strokes. That was a repetitive motion that didn't need a lot of concentration. My apologies, leader.

      And now you insist on wasting my time with pretenses.

Schuldig echoed, flicking the paper door a half-lidded look. I told you once that I don't argue with my leaders. You haven't asked me to speak plainly yet, so I won't. I'll fight with my team. I won't fight with you. Isn't that what you wanted? You demanded my obedience. You're starting to confuse me with these conflicting orders.

      The door between their rooms slid open. Schuldig tilted his head to consider the other man and forced himself to smirk. It was harder than he'd thought it be. Crawford's expression was carved from ice and his stare burned when his power was roiling behind his shields. Schuldig could feel it humming against his mind like a live wire and knew he was a half a second away from being electrocuted. He set his workbook to one side and pushed himself to his feet, turning to face Crawford. It took work to adopt a casual fuck-all pose, but sheer arrogance helped.

      Crawford read the challenge in that stance with no problem. Do not undermine my authority.

      That wasn't my intention,
Schuldig said. Not this time, anyway. I'm just… what did you call it? Right, prejudices. I'm testing their prejudices. Testing their willingness to work with a homosexual on their team. Two, rather.


      It was impressive how much of a warning Crawford could pack into his name. It hissed across his mind so sharply it left rivets in his shields. Schuldig clenched his teeth behind his smirk and took a step forward, then another, until he'd stopped right in front of Crawford. He made sure to stay in his room, careful to keep his toes out of the way of the door, and stared Crawford down. There was the distinct sensation of drowning in a power like that but he clenched his fists until his hands bled and refused to look away.

      What does it really matter, leader mine? Schuldig challenged him, low and cold against Crawford's sharper ice. I'm not aiming to disrupt that precious future of yours. It's my life and sanity on the line as much as yours is, maybe more so because the cabinet will say I should have known better than to agree to hide you. I know exactly what's at stake.

      Do you really, or do you just assume you understand?

      Schuldig leaned forward to give Crawford a good look at his smile. He forgot his retort, however, because moving like that put him so close to Crawford that he could feel the older man's body heat. More than that, he could smell his cologne, and his concentration fractured along the memory of kisses and friction. It was just a second-long slipup, but a second was too much time for people like them. Crawford felt his focus splinter and knew what broke it. He took a step forward, closing the gap between them and then some. Schuldig stumbled back a step before he could get his footing again and he dug his feet again against the pressure of Crawford's body against him.

      Crawford reached up to touch him and Schuldig tilted his head away. Crawford's lips twitched into the faintest hint of a smirk, almost too cold to be predatory. "You dodged," he said, so low Schuldig could barely hear it. Maybe Crawford was shouting and he just couldn't hear it over the roaring in his ears. He wasn't sure if that was his heartbeat or Crawford's that was thudding against his chest. Skin to skin like this, shields almost didn't mean anything, because Schuldig could feel their powers twisting together. "Why?"

      "I don't want to be touched by you," Schuldig answered flatly. "Ever again."

      "Prove a point," Crawford said. "Are you willing to stake everything you are on that lie of obedience? What would you do if I ordered you not to dodge my touch?"

      Hate tasted like blood and bile and Schuldig swallowed hard against it. He already knew how this was going to end. "Are you?" he asked bitingly.

      Crawford said nothing but reached up. Schuldig caught his wrist midair, and that short distraction was enough. Crawford snaked his other hand around Schuldig's waist to plant his hand against the small of the German's back, forcing Schuldig harder up against him. They were connected from chest to hips and Schuldig sucked in a low breath through his teeth at the heat and pressure.

      "Are you ordering me?" he demanded again. "Yes or no?"

      "Run away if you don't like it," Crawford told him, which wasn't really an answer.

      Schuldig struggled against his hold, fighting to get Crawford's hands off of him, but the man was taller and heavier and impossible to move. He'd almost wriggled loose when Crawford gave a final twist and push, and Schuldig's back slammed into the wall. It trapped his hand behind his back with Crawford's. He tried to wrench it free, but just managed to pop his shoulder painfully when Crawford wouldn't let go. He refused to let go of Crawford's other hand, which made it that much easier for Crawford to pin it against the thin paint beside his head. He cursed floridly, shoving against the wall in an attempt to get some leeway, but Crawford was pinning him in place with his body and the struggling itself was distracting.

      No fucking way, Schuldig ordered himself, equal parts furious and incredulous. He refused to believe that he could be at all interested after what Crawford had done to his shields. Denial wasn't getting him anywhere fast, especially when Crawford shifted against him. He grit his teeth against a helpless curse and dug his fingernails into Crawford's wrist hard enough to draw blood.

      "Get off," he said, twisting his head away from Crawford's. That just exposed his neck to the other man and Crawford's lips danced down it light as a ghost. Schuldig shuddered and tried to turn his head back, but Crawford's was in the way and he couldn't go far. He let go of Crawford's hand to grab at his hair, but Crawford seized his wrist in a bruising grip before he could yank ebony locks out.

      "Do not presume to give me orders," Crawford said, just a murmur against his throat, just a murmur but one he felt all the way down. "Whatever happened to minding your place?"

      "You haven't given me a fucking clear answer," Schuldig bit out. His body was pretty sure it knew where its place was and told him in no uncertain terms that the straw mat wouldn't be that bad on his knees. Schuldig derailed that train of thought so viciously that he was sure even Crawford felt the sting. He grit his teeth and planted a foot against the wall, trying to find the leverage to push free. Crawford let go of his wrist, dropping his hand to dig his fingers into the crotch of Schuldig's pants, and Schuldig forgot for a second that he was trying to get away.

      "Yes," Crawford said at his ear. "I'm ordering you."

      For one, endless second, everything went perfectly still, and then Schuldig relaxed back against the wall. He stared at Crawford's shirt without really seeing it and let his hand go slack in Crawford's hair. He waited for Crawford to move again, but nothing came. At length Crawford straightened, and Schuldig's hand slipped free completely to fall limp at his side. Schuldig kept his gaze unfocused and distant and his expression unreadable stone.

      It was a minute or hour or day later when Crawford finally moved. Fingers curved around Schuldig's chin and tilted his head back, a silent order for Schuldig to look at him. The shorter telepath focused on Crawford obediently, meeting Crawford's gaze for just a second before distancing himself once more. He had no desire to look at the other man anymore.

      Interesting, Crawford noted, almost clinically. Disgusting. Schuldig didn't answer that. Speak plainly to me, Crawford ordered him. Explain yourself.

      Permission to be frank brought Schuldig back to himself faster than anything else could. Plainly, he echoed. There aren't plain enough words for you to be able to understand. You earned your rank on your grandmother's favor. You will never understand what it takes for the rest of us to get anywhere.

      I suggest you try.

      The leader's word is always golden, Crawford. A psychic who defies his leader is a troublemaker and destined to be at the bottom of the rung for the rest of his life, never taken seriously by the upper echelons. I have places to go. You want to be a sick bastard at my expense? You want to prove you're no better than Harris would have been? I don't fucking care; do whatever the fuck you want. I'm not going to reach the top by gutting you. I'll leave it up to them to stab you in the back when they realize I'm the far better choice. It is so much more satisfying that way.

      I stand by my assessment that you are driven by spite.

      I never said I wasn't.

      Crawford said nothing. Schuldig stared him down, waiting for some sort of response or retribution. At last Crawford let go of him. I demand your obedience, he reiterated. I demand your loyalty. If there is no other way, I will demand your sacrifice. This, he said, leaning just a little harder against Schuldig, I will never order you to give up, because if I decide I want it, I will never have to order you to give in. I have no interest in such a degrading submission.

      Crawford's arrogance was almost appalling, that he thought Schuldig would ever be interested in fucking him ever again, but that incredulous amusement came hand-in-hand with an undeniable flicker of relief. Schuldig hadn't even realized the extra pressure had made him tense until he relaxed again and felt the wall slide a little against his shoulders.

      You are a fool, Crawford told him. You only think you could handle it. If I really had pushed for it today, you wouldn't have been able to just let me. Stop thinking with your arrogant principles and really consider it.

      Schuldig stared back at him, searching golden brown eyes, forcing himself to bite back his initial retort. Instead he focused on that flickering panic he'd felt when he'd thought Crawford really was going to demand him to be still. He thought past that at Harris and the other captain's ugly promises. He started steering away from that, but Crawford caught the thought and forced it up between them, making Schuldig look at what Harris would have demanded of him. If he ignored his anger towards Crawford and swallowed his spite, all that was left was pride.

      I'd have killed him, he admitted at last. And you.

      You'd have tried to kill me, and I'd have executed you in turn, Crawford responded. You are no use to me dead.

      Crawford stepped back, finished with the conversation now that Schuldig had passed- failed?- his test. "Return to your studies. Your language barrier is making you a waste of our investment."

      "Yeah," Schuldig agreed, because he couldn't think of anything better to say. He watched until Crawford's door slid closed behind the other man before slowly lowering himself to a crouch. He tilted his head back to rest it against the wall and stared up at the ceiling, quietly gnawing on the rush of such a near-miss.

      Oh, he mused, are you human under that ice?

      If Crawford heard it- and Schuldig was sure he had to- he didn't respond.

      Schuldig glanced towards his workbook, but he didn't think he could concentrate just yet. He weighed his options before pushing himself to his feet and leaving his room. He couldn't leave the house, since Crawford had just told him to study, but it wasn't disobedience if he stopped long enough to make dinner or get a drink. He didn't think he could eat when his stomach was in a knot, but coffee sounded good for his nerves and his focus.

      Nicole opened her door at the sound of the water cutting on at the kitchen sink. Schuldig glanced her way more out of instinct than anything else and spotted Ly Ly standing behind her. Nicole's was the downstairs room, whereas Ly Ly's was pushed up against Schuldig's on the second floor. Schuldig knew they'd been down here arguing and gossiping, likely comparing empathic mental notes on their teammates' reactions and moods just like what he'd been doing before Crawford's visit. Apparently the sudden spike of aggression upstairs had caught their attention. Schuldig could only imagine the violent cocktail of emotions that had followed that and he figured they could spend hours deciphering all of it. Nosey little bitches.

      "That was interesting," Nicole said.

      Schuldig offered them a lazy smile, knowing even as he did so that it was see-through to people with gifts like theirs. "I'm glad you think so."

      They studied him in silence, watching him with their gifts more than they were with their eyes. Rosenkreuz empaths believed in neither privacy nor tact. At least they had nothing else to say out loud. It made it easier for Schuldig to ignore them as he set about making a pot of coffee. Eventually Ly Ly nudged Nicole and turned away. Nicole didn't move to follow but tilted her head to one side, eyes narrowing in thought as she contemplated Schuldig.

      "Nicole," Ly Ly insisted, adding something in Japanese.

      The blond empath turned away at last and started chattering back. She slid the door closed with a bit more force than necessary and Schuldig offered the coffee maker a quiet snort as he watched it start dripping. Now that's rude.

      That's life,
Nicole answered with the fuzzy distance of someone not really sure how to make a mental connection with a telepath. Schuldig wasn't surprised by her lack of focus. That didn't bother him at all, because his teammates would all have plenty of time to get used to it. The fact that she answered was ultimately more important, no matter that it was an unfriendly response. He offered his coffee a victorious smirk as he poured it into a mug and he headed back to his room.

      Upstairs, he hesitated just inside his room to eye Crawford's door. His body twitched a little on remembered heat and pressure, but he shoved that as far beneath his thoughts as he could. He scrubbed a hand against his mouth and wet his dry throat with coffee before settling down on his futon again. His workbook had gotten knocked to one side during the struggle, but it was close enough that he could drag it into his lap without having to strain. He cradled his mug in both hands and went back to staring at kanji.

      Staring through them, rather, because several minutes later, his thoughts still twisted helplessly around Crawford's heat.


      The only good thing to come out of that day was Tomoko.

      She intercepted Schuldig on his way to his lessons the next morning, looking just a little bit uncertain about interrupting him. He tipped his head in acknowledgement and she read it as an invitation. She was quick to fall in alongside him. He peered at her mind, already knowing he wasn't going to find much there. The woman spoke no German at all and only a smidgen of English. It seemed like bad decision making on someone's part for teaming her up with Schwarz, but then, everyone in Schwarz save for Schuldig was fluent in Japanese by now.

      She started talking, but the edge to her words said she didn't expect him to understand. He glanced her way before facing forward again, and eventually she petered off. They were halfway to the school when she decided to try again, and she pulled her bag around her shoulder to fish a book out. She considered the cover for a few moments before holding it out in offering, and Schuldig took it from her with just the briefest of glances down at it.

      That glance was enough to stop him in his tracks, because the artwork on the cover was that of two men tangled together. He blinked down at it, then shifted his grip on it and loosened his grip with his thumb so it could flip open.

      "It's a comic," he said slowly.

      "Comic," she agreed, and she reached up to catch the edge he'd let go of. She flipped through it a bit slower than it had been opening before, wanting to show him individual pages. The Japanese in the speech bubbles meant nothing to him, but he had a feeling the dialogue was all optional. She'd just handed him gay porn in comic format. He wasn't really sure there was an intelligent response for that, so he just lifted his gaze to eye her. She stared back with an expectant look on her face.

      "Schuldig," she said slowly, pointing at one of the more explicit pictures, "and Crawford?"

      "No," he answered. She tilted her head to one side, clearly doubting the sincerity of that denial. Apparently she had been listening to the gossip yesterday. She'd just, for some odd reason, been thrilled to tears by the news. Schuldig was pretty sure she was the first straight person to ever react that way and he wasn't entirely sure what to feel. Weirded out, definitely. Amused, maybe in a couple hours. "Is this yours?" he asked. She frowned at him, not understanding. He supposed they were both lucky that the question was simple enough that he could translate it into Japanese and ask again. "Is this yours?"

      "Yes," she said with an emphatic nod.


      Her response was far too complicated for him to understand. She saw that in the blank look on his face, but her attempt to simplify it still used words he hadn't learned yet. She sighed a little and tapped it. "It's a present," she told him, pushing it a little closer to him. "It's yaoi."

      "Yowie," he echoed.

      She tsked a little. "Yaoi," she repeated, stressing some extra syllable he still didn't hear. "It's a present," she said again, and he realized she was waiting for him to put it in his notebook. He eyed it and her for a minute more before giving the entire bizarre episode a mental shrug. There was room in his notebook for it, after all, so it wasn't like it was going to be a pain to carry around. She offered him a devilish little grin as he put it away. "You can study Japanese," she said. "Ask Crawford."

      "Not a chance in hell," he answered in German. She frowned, not understanding. Schuldig waved a hand in dismissal and she decided not to ask again. Instead she tipped her head to him in a bow, offered him a bright farewell, and started back towards Schwarz's houses.

      Farfarello, Schuldig called, reaching out in search of the Berserker's mind. Is every Japanese person I meet going to be alarmingly weird? Farfarello didn't answer him, but Schuldig imagined a 'yes' in the resounding silence. He gave the disinterested Irishman just a minute to respond before sighing. I was afraid of that.

      But, he realized as he turned himself in the direction of the school, Tomoko made three. And four out of fifteen was a third of the team, just a week and a half into his stay in Tokyo. The math made it easy to forget how strange his teammate was and he set off at a brisk pace, feeling more than a little superior. The ties were fragile, perhaps, especially in the wake of yesterday's fight, and would need a lot of work, but they were good enough starts for now.

      Everything started small, after all, from people to victories to landslides.

      And oh, what an avalanche this was going to turn out to be.

Part 9
Back to Mami's Fics