The Illusion of Privacy

    A man who could sell intent and second thoughts on the black market knew well that privacy was a farce. Until now, Schuldig had never understood why people persisted in believing in it, but Renalt Estates made a rather convincing illusion. There were five windows, four rooms, three doors, and only the two of them, standing side-by-side in the middle of the den without a half-assed clue where to start.

    They weren't alone, and he knew that, because they were too expensive to be left to their own devices. There were cameras here: some in plain sight, others so well-hidden he knew he'd never find them. There were transmitters in their cell phones and tracking chips in their shoes. A trainer was on hand in the city, but they wouldn't make face-to-face contact unless things spiraled completely out of control. They were bugs under a microscope, but right now, the only person that mattered, the only person he could hear, was Crawford.

    He slanted a sideways look at the precognitive, wondering if he was similarly fascinated. Crawford noticed the attention and arched a brow at him in question. Schuldig answered with a mad grin, and he saw the hint of a return smirk on Crawford's face before the older man turned away. Crawford went right, Schuldig left, and they did a slow circuit of their new quarters.

    Schuldig reached the bedroom first, and he hesitated in the doorway. He'd shared a room his entire life, usually with fifteen other people at a time, but he'd never had to share a bed before. The room had only one, and while it was twice the size of the narrow bunk he'd slept in just last night in Austria, he couldn't see it fitting two bodies. He almost said something, but he wasn't going to complain where a microphone could hear him. He swallowed his reservations and explored the rest of the room. He opened and closed drawers, seeing which ones squeaked, checked the lights to make sure they all worked, and made sure the window opened smoothly.

    "Schuldig." Crawford was in the doorway with an odd look on his face. Schuldig glanced from him to the bed and back again. Crawford tilted his head in response, and Schuldig crossed the room to him. Crawford stepped back to let him out, and Schuldig looked into the next room.

    It was a mirror image of the one he'd just left, but it took Schuldig a moment to catch on. He said, a little bewildered, "I have my own room." It sounded ridiculous out loud, but it was impossible to believe he was seeing things right. He looked at Crawford, wanting answers, but the other psychic looked as confused as he felt. This had to be a test, but he didn't know where to even start in figuring it out.

    They'd find out the hard way, he supposed—the Rosenkreuz way.

    "Which one's bigger?" he asked at length.

    "Neither one will comfortably fit both you and your ego," Crawford said.

    "What? I'm still surprised you got your big head through the doorway." The phone rang with the words halfway out of his mouth, spoiling his comeback. Crawford's smirk said he'd seen it coming. Schuldig cocked his fingers like a gun and fired at Crawford's heart on his way to the phone. "Bet you wouldn't even feel it."

    Despite his disgruntled tone, the short exchange made him feel better. They were out of Austria "alone" for the first time ever, here to sink or swim. Their lives and futures were riding on these next few months. Success and failure weren't quite as important as how they adapted to the outside world, whether or not they worked together, and why they chose to do what they did.

    Schuldig had followed Crawford out of Rosenkreuz supremely confident they'd be fine, believing years of training would make this easy, but they'd both stumbled rather awkwardly through the airport on both ends. The world seemed so much bigger without trainers around. Life had always been black and white, with rules and regulations and enough supervising to drive a man mad. Now Schuldig could turn left if he wanted to go left, wash his hands twice if he felt like it, and even use the bathroom without asking if time had been scheduled for such a detour. At seventeen, his entire world had changed. Schuldig felt free; he felt like he was free-falling.

    He plucked the receiver off its stand and put it to his ear. He answered in Italian, turning to face Crawford as he did so. Italian and Russian were his assigned languages; Spanish and Russian Crawford's. For the first leg of their two-month training run, Schuldig was the leader. Crawford would handle their next assignment. The third segment was where most immature teams fractured: either one of them could take the lead, so they were forced to relinquish authority on their own. Some psychics were smart enough to know when to step down; others weren't, and they cycled back to Rosenkreuz until they learned humility.

    Schuldig already knew it wasn't going to be a problem with them. He and Crawford had crossed paths the first time at Rosenkreuz's shooting range four years ago. The trainers set the meeting up based on their powers, but they'd willingly stayed at each other's sides since. It didn't matter who said go so long as they went.

    "A mutual friend of ours recommended you," the stranger on the phone said. "I was told you could help me with a small problem. I would like to submit a proposal to you."

    It took a couple minutes to sort out. The stranger didn't want to give any specifics over the phone, but he didn't want to meet, either. He didn't know them, so he didn't want to meet them in private, but he was leery of being seen with strange faces in public. Eventually they agreed not to meet at all: the stranger would send information with one of his people, who would pass it off in a public area. The stranger picked the place, and Schuldig chose the time. Schuldig thought all the exaggerated care was a bit ridiculous, but he couldn't risk alienating their mark so early in the game.

    After he hung up, he translated it for Crawford, then pointed at the precognitive. "Tag, you're it," he said. "Where's the map?"

    Crawford pulled it out of one of their carryon bags and spread it out on the table. Schuldig skimmed it, then pointed out their hotel. It took a bit more searching to find the library, but the path between the two was pretty straightforward. He traced a parallel route with his finger, memorizing street names and mentally calculating distances. "I'm going ahead."

    He half-expected a "Why?", but there wasn't a trainer to grade his decisions. It was a little spooky, knowing his say was final. The silence meant this was real, that the test had begun.

    Crawford wouldn't have to leave for another hour, so Schuldig changed first, trading business casual for jeans and a sweater. He dug his camera out of his bag and slung it over one shoulder. He'd collected travel brochures and a couple segmented maps at the airport. Now he flipped through them, dog-earing pages at random. He pushed his bangs out of his face with sunglasses, tucked a pencil behind one ear, and went to check himself in the bathroom mirror.

    Reflexively he touched his hair. He fingered a couple locks and sniffed them, checking for the telltale scent of ammonia. The trainers thought Schuldig's natural hair color was too distinctive. It hadn't mattered at school, but he wasn't allowed to leave Rosenkreuz grounds without coloring his hair black. He hadn't been a redhead in almost two years now, thanks to sporadic field training, but he only had to play by the rules for a few more months. When he graduated, the decision was up to his team leader, since it was his team that would bear the risk.

    "I sincerely hope you grow out of that vanity," Crawford said from the doorway.

    "Jealousy doesn't look good on you," Schuldig said, looking from his reflection to Crawford's.

    "Yes it does," Crawford answered serenely, and Schuldig couldn't help but grin.

    "I'm out of here," he said, and Crawford stepped aside to let him leave.

    Schuldig took the stairs down and sailed past the front desk clerk. There was a line of people waiting to check in, so no one really noticed one more person in the lobby. He was in and out in a heartbeat, and he struck a casual pace as he hit the street.

    They'd rushed over from the airport, needing to be in the hotel before their mark called, so Schuldig hadn't had a chance to look around. He did so now, partly for recon and partly to sell his disguise. He stopped here and there to check his map or take pictures. A foreign couple asked him to take a picture of them together, so he had them return the favor, and they went their individual ways.

    He made it to the library forty-five minutes before the courier was supposed to be by, and he settled in to wait. Slowly he loosened his shields to listen. Voices were a constant murmur in the back of his head, as steady and meaningless as the hum of a TV in another room, but easing his shields brought them into focus. Soon there were a good hundred people talking over his head, loud enough to be annoying but not quite loud enough to hurt. He stopped paying attention to the magazine in front of him, more interested in deciphering the cacophony. Most of the noise was Italian, but tourists made up a decent portion.

    It was twenty minutes before the courier showed up. Tension gave the man away; he was the only one who walked into the library expecting to get shot at. Schuldig did his best to ignore the voices shouting for his attention and honed in on that mind. He left his magazine on the closest table and followed the man's thoughts across the library, careful not to get too close but wanting a look at his face. He got a split-second glance as they passed at opposite ends of an aisle, each man going a different direction. The courier was plain looking, and his expression didn't give his nerves away. Schuldig continued around the room to the front door, and he was taking pictures of the library when the courier finished his delivery and left.

    --Your paper's here,-- he told Crawford.

    They were half a mile apart, with too many people between them, but Crawford's gift and training gave his mental voice a clarity everyone else lacked. Schuldig heard him as clearly as if Crawford was at his side. --I will leave now.--

    --I'll follow our new friend,-- Schuldig said. He let the courier get a couple blocks' head start, then followed. He didn't need to see the man to trail him, so he took a meandering path. The tourist act was a little more difficult to keep up when his thoughts were focused on a single mind amongst a thousand, but now and then he remembered to stop and look appropriately lost. He almost stepped out into traffic once, but he caught himself in time.

    They went halfway across the city before the courier made it to a rendezvous point with his boss. Schuldig recognized the man's voice from the phone, and he took up shop two blocks away to dig through his thoughts. The mark was pleased by the safe delivery and impatient for a response, even though it was his decision to send his man earlier than he agreed to. It sounded like there was a lot at stake, and Schuldig perked up when the man started worrying how "the board" would react.

    --I think our mark's as much a peon as his man,-- he told Crawford. --Do we really have to deal with a foot soldier?--

    --Patience,-- Crawford cautioned him. --We will end up at the top sooner or later.--

    --Patience?-- Schuldig echoed. --From me?--

    Crawford didn't waste time answering that.

    The mark and the courier parted ways. Schuldig followed the former, hoping he would head back to his office and divulge more secrets, but the man was forcibly putting this contract out of mind and focusing on his day. It was a struggle at first, proving how important this deal was to him, but he managed to distract himself with errands. Schuldig followed along, learning what he could about the man they'd be working with.

    Thoughts were dangerous things because they painted such an incomplete, contradictory picture. Half of everything a telepath heard had to be immediately discarded as either irrelevant or a subconscious judgment. Thoughts were fleeting, half-formed, and emboldened by the privacy of one's own mind. A daughter could think hateful things of her mother without honestly believing any of it, a man could make crude, instinctive judgments regarding a woman he passed, and a bored teenager could daydream violence and heroism without intending to ever follow through. A telepath's job was to find the truth in the lies, but also to see which truths and lies could be twisted to an advantage.

    The trick was finding a pattern, was finding that which lingered and carried the most weight. Schuldig had never been particularly good at profiling, despite his trainers' efforts to beat it into him. Strength, he had aplenty. Technique was another story. Details and nitpicking required ironclad shields, but Schuldig had long ago traded shielding for raw power. He had a greater range than anyone else, and he could do things telepaths could only dream of, but Schuldig's sanity was kept intact by a sneeze and a prayer. His mind registered everything with the same amount of importance, and only years of practice made it possible to tune out the chattering in his head.

    --This is boring,-- Schuldig complained. --Can we kill something now?--

    --Translate this dossier and find out.--

    Schuldig did a last glance at their mark, who was still comparing toothpaste brands in the corner shop, and turned back toward the hotel. He hadn't realized how far he wandered, but he had to use the map to make it back. As he stepped into the lobby and saw the tired faces of other jet-lagged tourists, his own exhaustion caught up to him. He was drained from using his power; he had a migraine from all of the noise. He wanted peace and quiet, and it wasn't until he stepped into the elevator that he realized he wasn't going to get it. His past training runs had all maxed out at a week long, and then he'd gone back to the shielded walls of Rosenkreuz.

    Schuldig swallowed a groan and shuffled down the hall to their suite. Crawford opened the door before he could reach for the knob, and Schuldig went straight to the couch. Crawford brought him the papers, and Schuldig read them start to finish. At the end, he was left unsatisfied.

    "It's a kill," he explained, "with emphasis on discretion and damage control."

    "Simple enough," Crawford said.

    "It doesn't say why."

    "You didn't honestly expect a list of grievances," Crawford said, but Schuldig knew it wasn't an argument.

    The easy thing to do was to take the mission as-is and kill the target, but that was how assassins worked. Psychics were more mercenaries: out to find the greatest gain both politically and materially. They were taught to doubt and analyze every client they had. There was a chance this really was as straightforward as it appeared, but they couldn't act without getting the full picture first.

    "Never the easy way, hm?" Schuldig asked, tossing the file to one side.

    "The easy way doesn't exist," Crawford reminded him.

    Schuldig's expression made his opinion inescapably clear.

    The rest of the day was tedious. Rosenkreuz had contacts in every country they did business with. Schuldig spent the rest of the day on the phone, getting in touch with people and bartering for information. He didn't have a name for their target, but he had the man's address, and that was enough. He was in the middle of a phone call when one of his earlier contacts called back with a name: Francesco Moretti. By the time Schuldig called it a day, he and Crawford had a clear starting point, and his headache had bloomed into a migraine.

    They packed everything up for the night and Schuldig went to shower off the long day. He was in and out in three minutes; Rosenkreuz wasted little time on petty luxuries like washing. Crawford washed in the time it took Schuldig to dry off and pull on a pair of sleeping pants, and the two split up into their own rooms.

    Schuldig felt a small thrill when he closed the door behind himself. There was something ridiculous, almost taboo, about this privacy. The small room felt like a private estate when he had it all to himself. He crawled into bed and buried himself deep under the blankets.

    Minutes dragged by, one after the other, but despite his exhaustion, he couldn't relax. He tossed and turned with increasing frustration, and ended up flat on his back. He glowered up at the ceiling as if it was to blame. He thought it was his headache keeping him up, but it felt like more than that. He'd been in bed almost an hour before he realized what was out of place.

    --It's too quiet,-- Schuldig said, wondering if Crawford would understand.

    Crawford didn't respond. Schuldig thought perhaps the precognitive had fallen asleep, but then there was the soft creak of his bedroom door opening. Schuldig pushed himself up on his elbows, curious, but the padding of footsteps said Crawford was returning to bed. After a minute, Schuldig got up and went to open his own door. He lingered in the hallway, listening, and with both doors open, he could hear the soft sound of Crawford's breathing. Satisfied, he went back to bed, and this time he fell asleep almost immediately.


    They had twenty-four hours to make their decision, and Schuldig voted in favor of their mark. Moretti was the VP of international accounts at a bank; the target Mancini was a member of the local police force who suspected laundering in Moretti's ranks. Since Rosenkreuz's contacts could confirm those suspicions with ninety percent certainty, Schuldig decided the bank was the more valuable investment. Rosenkreuz was always cycling through banks, needing accounts for field teams, trades, and their clientele. One more couldn't hurt.

    Schuldig and Crawford were on their way out the door to find the detective when Crawford hesitated, and Schuldig glanced back.

    "Rosenkreuz will be there," Crawford said.


    Crawford considered that for an endless second. "No," he decided. "Field psychics. Berger."

    Schuldig stared. "He isn't really."

    "His entire team," Crawford said.

    Schuldig touched the side of his mouth, pushing hard enough to feel his teeth. Six of his teeth were fake, and though no one could tell by looking, it still bothered him. Berger had broken a chair on his face five years ago. Surgery had put Schuldig's jaw back together, and extensive dental work had replaced his shattered teeth, but Schuldig's smile had pulled a little too wide since, and he had a faint scar tracing from the corner of his mouth to his ear. It wasn't their worst fight, but it was the one that still pissed Schuldig off the most.

    Berger was a telepath in the grade between Schuldig and Crawford. The telepaths excelled in completely opposite areas: Schuldig had the strength, and Berger had the shields. They'd been pitted against each other time and time again by their trainers, a futile effort to make a perfect telepath out of one of them. Berger should have been Crawford's telepath, except he'd been in the hospital when it was time for Crawford to move out.

    Crawford could have waited to meet Berger, but he'd asked to meet his second choice. He wouldn't give Berger a week of his time, but he agreed to stay at Rosenkreuz an extra year for Schuldig to finish his schooling. Berger hadn't forgiven either of them for that snub, no matter that he'd already graduated to the field on a three-man team.

    --The fuck is he doing in Rome?-- Schuldig demanded.

    He didn't ask, "And why didn't anyone warn us?", but Crawford heard it. --They are testing your functionality when faced with an unforgivable grudge,-- the precognitive surmised. --Nothing good will come out of it; neither of you is mature enough to walk away.-- Crawford caught his wrist and pulled his hand away from his mouth. --Stop playing with them before they fall out.--

    Schuldig gave him a dirty look. --Eat shit and die, Crawford.--

    Crawford smirked. --It is a wonder telepaths can be so vain when they have to hear what everyone else thinks of them.--

    --I know exactly what you think of when you think of me,-- Schuldig said, jabbing his finger hard against the hollow of Crawford's throat. Blue eyes were intense as he stared Crawford down, but Crawford didn't even blink. --Remember that.--

    --I've never forgotten. I don't keep secrets from you.--

    --You can't.--

    --I know,-- Crawford said, not bothered in the least.

    Most people went through life assuming their thoughts were private. Those who believed in telepathy, either through personal superstitions or hard evidence, knew their minds were at risk and tried to shield accordingly. Few ever had to deal with telepaths one-on-one. Crawford was the rarest sort of person: a man who knew exactly what Schuldig was capable of but agreed to partner with him anyway. When they said hello, Crawford said goodbye to even the illusion of privacy. Schuldig was privy to anything at any time, and neither man wasted time on ground rules.

    Despite that, there were some lines they weren't ready to cross. Knowing what Crawford thought and wanted didn't mean Schuldig knew where he himself stood. He let the fight die before it could escalate to something uncomfortable. "Let's go," he said, and Crawford let go of him. Schuldig preceded him out of the room and down the hall to the elevator.

    Mancini's office was halfway across the city. Rosenkreuz's psychics converged on it at nearly the same time, mere minutes before the detective was scheduled to leave for the day. They stood on opposite sides of the street, Berger flanked by his teammates and Schuldig with Crawford at his side. Schuldig knew he should ignore the other team, but it was impossible to. Berger's hair was dyed an ugly green, and his teammates colored their hair red and blue. The tacky rainbow assortment could have been personal choice, but Schuldig read it as mockery and a challenge against his own vanity.

    --Look who finally made it out of Rosenkreuz,-- Berger said. --The trainers must be desperate.--

    --They are,-- Schuldig agreed. --Apparently there isn't a single trustworthy telepath in the field right now. I'm here to clean up behind all of you.--

    Berger's smile was cruel. --You really have no clue, do you? You're still such a child. This isn't Rosenkreuz, Schuldig. You won't last out here.--

    "Schuldig," Crawford said, and Schuldig followed his gaze to see Mancini stepping out of the station.

    --Stand down, trainee,-- Berger warned him. --We have business with this man.--

    --So do we,-- Schuldig said. --Don't interfere with my team.--

    --If you act against us, we will be forced to retaliate. The tribunal will rule in our favor.--

    --They'll say you're justified in responding, but they'll also say we're within our rights to claim him,-- Schuldig said, watching as the detective waited as a crosswalk. --Make your peace with Mancini now, because you won't have a chance to later.-- Even as he said it, he dug his gift into the detective's mind. Mancini knew the light was red, but a thought was all it took to confuse him, and the detective stepped right out into traffic. A truck hit him hard enough to bend his body in two; blood painted the windshield and asphalt. Brakes shrieked, but they were drowned out by the screaming of horrified tourists. --Oops, too late.--

    He flashed Berger a wide smirk. Berger answered it with a slow smile. Schuldig had a second to realize he'd been set up, and then something popped. It was a thick, warm heat at the back of his skull, and Schuldig felt his equilibrium give out. He swayed on his feet, but Crawford's hand on his elbow kept him from falling over. Schuldig didn't notice. He was already lashing out, hitting Berger with everything he had. He felt his gift hit home with a vicious smack, felt Berger's shields give out, and then the world was screaming in his ears, and everything went black.




    Schuldig was a thousand kilometers from Rosenkreuz, four days into his training run, and completely fucked. When he woke up at their hotel, he did so without his shields. Somehow Berger had loosened them, and Schuldig had broken them completely with his retaliatory strike. Berger had set the trap, and Schuldig had walked right into it.

    Schuldig's stomach twisted and he tasted bile. What had always existed as a manageable hum was now a dull roar. A thousand confidantes hunkered close with overlapping running commentary. Anger and indignation spiked above the casual apathy of everyday thoughts, and Schuldig could barely hear himself think amidst the chaos. He knotted his hands in his sheets as nausea set his fingers to shaking. He reached desperately for some semblance of shielding, but he could barely hear himself think. If he couldn't ground himself, he couldn't rebuild, but the only place with the mental space for such a thing was Rosenkreuz.

    A soft footstep warned him of Crawford's arrival. "You are far heavier than you look."

    Behind those words was a soft jumble: anticipation of Schuldig's anger toward Berger, expectation of an irritated, vain retort, and curiosity as to how much damage Schuldig had taken in that short exchange. It was the latter that caught Schuldig's attention. Crawford didn't know what Berger had done. Schuldig stared down at his sheets, listening to the hotel wear away at his bones, hearing Crawford's mild surprise that there was no immediate reaction.

    "You were unconscious for five hours," Crawford said at length.

    It was a press for an explanation, an invitation to rant and rave. Schuldig almost took it without thinking, but the words got stuck in his throat. How was he supposed to tell Crawford he'd lost his shields? Crawford would reroute them straight back to Rosenkreuz. The training run they'd spent two years preparing for would be marked as a failure, and the trainers would be reluctant to ever give them a second chance. They would rethink Schuldig's ability to be out in the field. Maybe they'd pass Crawford off to Berger.

    It was his sanity versus his future. Looking at Crawford, it was easy to choose a side. All he had to do was hold out through Russia. Maybe it was unfair, keeping secrets from a man who was allowed none of his own, but Rosenkreuz psychics didn't believe in "fair". Schuldig forced his fingers to relax and asked, "Moretti call?" For a moment he worried he was speaking too loud, trying to be heard over a chorus only he could hear, but Crawford didn't seem to notice.

    "The phone rang," the precognitive said. "I did not answer."

    Schuldig nodded and got out of bed. "Let's wrap this up."

    Moretti had blocked his number, so the hotel phone couldn't dial it back. Schuldig knew the man would check in again eventually, so he busied himself with their report instead. Crawford went to sleep sometime around midnight. Schuldig turned in shortly after, though he wasn't tired. He pulled the blankets over his head and feigned sleep for the cameras, but the yammering in his head kept him up all night.

    The next morning started with a full pot of coffee and a phone call. Moretti was pleased, as were his bosses, and they had deposited the pair's fee in a Rosenkreuz-prepared bank account. Schuldig inquired as to whether or not there was more work available, and Moretti promised he would look into it. Schuldig guessed he'd be asking the men whose money he was helping launder, but he didn't say such a tactless thing. The banker promised to be in touch, and Schuldig agreed to wait.

    It didn't take long before Moretti called back with information, and Schuldig and Crawford prepared for a second job.


    They were in Italy for less than two weeks before Schuldig had to step down. Exhaustion was the only thing that let him sleep, and his rest was broken by the lively city around him. Each passing day made it more difficult for him to distinguish where the line lay between thoughts and spoken words, and he couldn't concentrate for long. Crawford knew something wasn't quite right, but he expected Schuldig to come clean if it was something dire, so he didn't press the telepath for an explanation. Schuldig was relieved and resentful in turns; he could feel himself fraying all along the seams and he couldn't stop it.

    After twelve days in Rome, he had no choice but to pass the reins to Crawford. His confidence was a bluff that cost him almost everything he had and he wasn't fit to make critical decisions for them. He thought things would get easier when they moved to Madrid. He was wrong. Madrid was a larger city, and Schuldig couldn't understand Spanish. Crawford told him where to go and what to do and what to say, but when Schuldig was left to his own devices, he was completely lost. He was drowning. The only relief was in murder: being able to silence at least one mind gave him a vicious thrill.

    He managed to fool everyone for eight days, hanging by a snapping thread, and then he started answering someone who wasn't even in the same room. Schuldig didn't even realize what he'd done until much later; Crawford's reaction was buried beneath the rest of the noise around them.

    They were on the way home when Crawford took a detour. Schuldig didn't know why they stopped in a supermarket parking lot in the middle of the night, but he figured he'd been told and subsequently forgotten the plan. He followed Crawford out of the car without question and trailed the precognitive across the lot to the far edge. There they stood for several minutes, until Crawford said impatiently, "Schuldig," and Schuldig realized his teammate had been speaking. Schuldig hadn't heard a word.

    "Talk to me," Crawford said. "Right now."

    "Let's go to Russia," Schuldig said.

    "It isn't time yet," Crawford returned. "We have been here only a week."

    "I want to go to Russia."

    "Why?" Crawford asked. Schuldig didn't answer, and Crawford didn't ask again. The silence stretched tense between them as each man tried to outwait the other. Finally Crawford demanded, --Why?-- and Schuldig flinched at the strength of Crawford's voice. Crawford's expression went blank.

    "How long have those been down?" Crawford asked quietly. Schuldig said nothing, but Crawford didn't need an answer. He was finally putting the pieces together, starting with the most likely source. Crawford's alarm tasted like acid in Schuldig's thoughts. Schuldig wanted to scratch Crawford's voice out of his head. Panic was a heartbeat away these days; Crawford could be what finally tipped the scale. "Berger?"

    "I just have to make it through Russia, and then we'll be back in Rosenkreuz with the tribunal."

    Disappointment, disbelief, incredulity. "Tell me you aren't really that stupid."

    "Shut up," Schuldig said, shaking his head violently. He didn't know if he was talking to Crawford or Madrid. Someone was shrieking in his head, pain and panic and horror as she was attacked a couple streets away. It was so overwhelming he almost fought back, except he knew Crawford's cologne, and it was the tiny thread that kept him grounded. His fingernails drew blood on his palms with the effort it took to keep his hands at his side.

    "Why didn't you tell me?"

    "What, so you could cart us back to Rosenkreuz?" Schuldig asked, voice sharp. "We've come too far to fail now. I can hold out a little longer."

    "You can't, and I won't let you."

    "You don't have a say in it. It's not your sanity at sake."

    "You are gambling with something that does not belong to just you," Crawford said, angrier than Schuldig had ever seen him. His fingers were bruising as he caught Schuldig's chin. "You are my telepath; your future and your power belong to me. I will not let you risk everything because you are too stupid to ask for help."

    Schuldig's jaws worked over words he couldn't say, an argument neither of them was ready for. Crawford felt that slip into dangerous territory. It didn't matter how upset he was; he knew better than to cross that line now. The silence that fell was deep enough to crush them, and for a moment, it almost even drowned out the cacophony in Schuldig's head.

    Slowly Crawford's expression smoothed out. The precognitive was forcing himself to calm down, doing every mental exercise Rosenkreuz taught them to achieve inner balance. Schuldig had never bought into that mess, since impulse was more interesting than rational thought, but a part of him relaxed when Crawford did.

    "How much time do you need?" Crawford finally asked. When Schuldig didn't answer fast enough, he pressed, "One week? Two? I will buy you time, and you will fix this."

    Schuldig gave a choked snort that sounded too much like hysteria for either man's comfort. "Sure," he said. "I'll sit down with the telepaths' manual and make it all better."

    Crawford ignored that obvious sarcasm and turned Schuldig back toward the car. Schuldig didn't have the energy to fight anymore, so he went where Crawford told him and sat silent on the drive back to their hotel room. They didn't say another word to each other that night.


    Two days later, the arms dealer they were working with had business along the coastline, and Crawford asked to tag along. Their presence wasn't necessary, but Crawford expressed an intense interest in the proceedings, so the dealer agreed to have them. Schuldig didn't question the change in plans. The ocean was bound to be quieter than the city was, and that was all that really mattered to him. He packed his bag, followed Crawford to the car, and spent the ride lost in someone else's thoughts.

    He didn't see the other car coming. He didn't hear the screech of brakes.

    There was a thud that he felt more than he heard, the crack of bone and shattering of glass, and the sour heat of blood in his eyes.

    Schuldig woke up in the emergency room of a local hospital with a couple scratches and bruises. Crawford's mind was missing, and Schuldig couldn't find a nurse that understood German. It wasn't until Rosenkreuz representatives showed up around dawn that Schuldig found out where the other man had gone: Crawford had broken both legs in the crash and was recovering from surgery. The doctors had put a rod in his right leg, from his hip to his knee. As soon as Crawford could be moved, the pair would be extracted to Rosenkreuz.

    Schuldig heard the news, but it didn't really register through the haze of hospital anesthetics. He dimly remembered getting rolled into the helicopter, but his mind didn't fully wake up until they crossed into Rosenkreuz's territory. The school was covered in elaborate shields meant to protect the young and untrained. His head went quiet for the first time in weeks. Relief was intense enough to make him nauseous, but it was fleeting. With coherent thought came the realization that something was very wrong with Crawford.

    Before he could properly react to Crawford's injuries, the precognitive met his eyes across the helicopter. His lips twitched into a smirk, there and gone again before their accompaniments could see it, and Schuldig knew the crash was no accident.

    --Who's a reckless bastard now?-- Schuldig asked. --What if you'd broken your skull?--

    --Precog,-- Crawford reminded him blandly.

    The helicopter touched down in the medical ward's courtyard, and doctors were waiting with gurneys. Schuldig was released after less than an hour, but he didn't go far. As soon as the doctors gave him the all-clear, he was across the ward and in Crawford's room. The precognitive was stretched out on a narrow bed and hooked up to various machinery. His thoughts were muddled; he was half-asleep from drugs.

    "You've got three months, give or take," Crawford murmured without opening his eyes. "Is that enough time?"

    Schuldig gazed at him in silence, listening to the soft beep of monitors. "Yeah," he finally said. "Yeah, that's plenty."

    "They'll give you the option of reassignment."

    --Fuck them,-- Schuldig said, not daring to say it out loud. Crawford's answer was incoherent, but Schuldig understood the amused edge to it.

    "No more secrets, Schuldig," Crawford told him. "Not from me."

    Schuldig moved a chair closer and sat down to wait, keeping silent watch as Crawford drifted off to a medicated sleep. Only when Crawford was under did he agree quietly, "No more."

    Privacy was overrated, anyway.

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