Part Nineteen
May 1996 – June 1996

    He could hear voices.

    He wasn't awake enough to open his eyes. He couldn't move, couldn't speak, could just lie there and listen. It was hard to hear them over the pounding in his head, and he figured if he did move he would just end up throwing up anyway.

    Where was he?

    "What the hell have you been doing to him?"

    Zimmermann...? Back at Rosenkreuz, then. How delightful. Curious. He didn't remember coming here. He didn't remember much at the moment. He just knew that it hurt.

    "He has been acting on the Cabinet's orders," was Crawford's response, easy and indifferent, a sharp contrast to the instructor's flat tones. "This is merely the consequence of doing such a thing."

    "There has to be another way to accomplish things. This is going to destroy him."

    "It will work out."

    "I'm the telepath here," was the answer, and Schuldich had never heard his instructor's voice snarl like that before. "You can't feel his shields, you can't feel what he's been-"

    "He'll survive," Crawford said, neatly interrupting him. "I will have to ask you to keep your voice down, as he is trying to rest. Perhaps you could come back later."

    There was tense silence; Crawford's words were less of a suggestion and more of an order, and the two stared each other down in a challenge of each other's authority. Finally there was a sharp, disgusted noise, and shoes scuffed against the floor. Moments later a door clicked shut, and cool fingers brushed lightly over Schuldich's forehead.

    "Go back to sleep," Crawford told him.

    He did.


    When he woke, he was alone. He was stretched out on his back, staring up at the ceiling. The first thing he noticed was that his head was a fucking mess. The second was that he was strapped down to the bed, and he discovered it when he tried to reach up and touch his aching forehead. He swore and struggled against them, but the movement sent pain down his spine and nausea curled thick in his stomach. He stilled to let the black sparkles fade from his vision, breathing through clenched teeth in an attempt to keep his stomach's contents where they belonged. While he waited, he took mental stock of his shields, and what he found almost made him throw up right there.

    All of his outer shields were gone, leaving him with just his core. He ran a frantic telepathic hand along them, making sure they were intact. There were cracks in places that turned his stomach to ice, but apparently they'd healed in his sleep. He struggled to remember where he was, digging through his memories. He was aware of waking up many times in this same room, but never having the strength to have his eyes open for more than a few seconds. At the beginning of it all was Zimmermann's voice, and he remembered suddenly that he was back in Rosenkreuz. He must be in the medical ward, then. But why?

    Red eyes burned on the backs of his eyelids, and his eyes flew open.

    Someone stepped into the room then, warned by his curse that their patient was awake. "It's about time, Schuldich," the older man said, coming to stop beside his bed. Sure hands worked at the buckles on the straps holding the telempath in place and helped maneuver him to a sitting position. They weren't gentle but they knew what they were doing, and he accepted the help in silence. "You've been asleep for a month now. We were starting to think the damage done was too great and you'd never recover. It was a fight to keep that damn Nightmare out of here."

    "Where is he?" he wanted to know.

    The doctor gave him a searching look. "I would advise against seeing him right now, with your shields damaged as they are. You're going to be staying here until you can get your outer layer shields back in place. When you can work on them without passing out, start fixing them. The Cabinet will see you when you're put back together."

    "Where is he?" he insisted.

    "Right now, in solitary confinement."

    He lurched forward off the bed. Two hands grabbed him right as his legs gave out, and he lost the fight with his stomach when the world gave a wicked lurch before his eyes. The doctor held him up as he got sick, and when he was done, set him firmly back on the bed and moved towards the door. A speaker was by the door and he pressed the button beneath it. "Hortencia, find out where Crawford went. Schuldich's conscious again."

    It took him a while to realize that that was him the doctor was talking about. It clicked into place with a sick realization. "Why are you calling me that?" he wanted to know, running a hand along his mouth. His throat burned from the stomach acid. He hated the taste.

    The doctor frowned at him. "Calling you what?" he asked. He opened his mouth, and shut it again. But the doctor had already figured it out. "Temporary amnesia?" he mused. "I wouldn't be surprised, considering the beating your shields took. Anything you've forgotten besides your name?"

    "I didn't forget my name," he insisted, irritated.

    "And what do you think it is?"

    He hesitated for just a moment, tasting the way the name felt on his tongue and in his thoughts. "Niklas," he said at last, a flat edge on his voice in a hope to hide the pause. He only distantly recognized the name the doctor had been using. This name… It made him sick that he couldn't say for sure that it was his, but it was there, stuck in his thoughts.

    The doctor just stared at him for a long time, then turned back to the speaker. "Hortencia?"

    "He's in a meeting, sir," came the response.

    "I don't care. Get him in here, now."


    Crawford was there just five minutes later, stepping past the doctor- an empath named Frank- to stand in front of Schuldich. The mess on the floor had been cleaned up quickly. Niklas was still perched on the side of his bed, legs dangling off. The empath had taken some of the pain away, dulling it so he could think clearly again. He knew his shields were going to take a lot of work to put together, and in the time between Frank's call for Crawford and the other American's arrival, he took a quick assessment of his gift and realized it would be a while- days, even- before he could start on his shields. His gift was raw, ripped in several places. He wondered if it would heal; he'd never felt it be shredded like this. Luckily, Crawford showed up at that moment and distracted him from his morbid thoughts.

    He didn't wait for Crawford to speak. "Why is Farfarello in solitary confinement?" he demanded.

    "He tried to kill Nagi and me when he woke," was the easy response. "Until you woke, it was considered best that he be kept out of the way."

    "His gift," the telempath started, furious.

    Crawford interrupted him. "He is asleep again."

    He considered this for a moment, relief tingling across his nerves, and fell quiet. Blue eyes studied the man standing just a few feet in front of him as he tried to piece his ragged mind back together. His memory came in jagged chunks. That power had nearly taken his mind apart. It was a wonder that it hadn't. Blue eyes flicked towards the empath before turning back on Crawford. "He says I have amnesia," he said, jabbing an accusing finger at the doctor.

    "You're going to be suffering the backlash of that hit for a little while longer," Crawford told him. "You've spent this past month sleeping. Now that you're awake, you need time to put things in order. As you heal, it'll get easier to remember what was forgotten and figure out how deep the damage runs. You have to take it slowly or you could rip it deeper. The medical ward is willing to house you for several weeks if you need them to."

    He considered that for several moments. "Why didn't it destroy me?" he wanted to know.

    "You touched Nagi," the precognitive answered. "He knocked Farfarello out. Unconsciousness was enough to force his power to let go. No more questions now. Rest, and take your time." With that, he turned and vanished out the door. A flick of his fingers had the doctor following him, and the German was left behind as they moved into another room to converse. He considered the short conversation, dissatisfied with it, uneasy about what he'd been told. He lifted a hand to gently rub at his forehead, wincing at the pain even a light touch brought.

    Being awake hurt more, so after a few moments he lowered himself back to the bed. Despite the pain, he was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.


    A few days later brought him more visitors. Zimmermann and Adeline came sweeping into the medical ward while he was picking through his lunch. He contented himself with the fact that he knew exactly who they were, despite his jagged memory. Zimmermann was the head telepath, in charge of all telepathic instructors and students. Adeline was one of the other instructors, and he could distinctly remember being her favorite. She hadn't punished him for anything. She didn't care that there were rules when it came to him, and had let him do whatever he wanted. Those he had tormented as a student here knew better than to hope for help if she was nearby, and knew not to go report to her.

    Adeline's mind touched his and she flinched violently at what she found there, taking a step back with a queasy expression on her face. "Good Lord," she breathed.

    "Amen," he muttered sourly, shoving aside his lunch tray in favor of his drink.

    "Do you remember what happened, Schuldich?" she asked, and he hesitated before taking a swallow from his cup. Zimmermann glanced her way; he must have said something because a disbelieving look crossed her face before bright green eyes turned on the German sitting in front of them. "You do know that's your name, don't you?" she asked.

    "Ade," Zimmermann warned her.

    "What did that fuck Nightmare do to him?" she demanded, whirling on her superior.

    "Leave him out of it," the telempath said, looking up from his cup to turn a sharp look on the woman. She hesitated, studying the expression his face with something akin to disbelief. Zimmermann was eyeing him in silence, his face unreadable. The youngest 'path knew it wasn't his place to speak in such a way, but he knew Adeline would let him get away with it. It was a gamble that Zimmermann would, but he doubted they would punish him when his mind was such a mess. "He didn't do this."

    "His power did," Adeline returned.

    "Not of his choice." A warning lined his words and glowed in his eyes, daring her to say anything else.

    "Schuldich…" She just stared at him for a few moments, then gave a sharp shake of her head and turned on her heel. He watched her retreat from the room, listened to her shoes beat against the floor as she crossed the medical ward and let herself out into the school. Silence fell between the two men for a long time.

    He didn't feel like looking up to meet the gaze that was studying him, so he examined his cup instead. After a few moments he lifted it, taking a few sips from it. It didn't taste good; he couldn't enjoy it. A minute dragged by in silence before the older German moved, seating himself beside his former student. The orange-haired youth hated to say that he welcomed the company, squishing it and telling himself that he didn't need to be grateful for the other telepath's presence. But with his mind in shatters and him barely able to tell left from right, he needed someone else there.

    "It's been a while," Zimmermann said at last.

    "Mm," came the answer.

    The instructor took a few moments to consider his words. "The Cabinet allowed me to read Crawford's reports regarding your assignment to the Nightmare," he said. "In it, he details the gradual decline of your shields and mind. The Cabinet did not keep me informed of the changes in your absence, so to have you suddenly back here after almost three years with such… destruction," for he couldn't find a better word, "catches me off guard."

    A humorless smirk curved the assassin's lips. "So nice to know you're worried."

    "I've never seen a telepath whose shields have been broken so far by someone not the Cabinet," was the instructor's response. "You should be grateful that you're still somewhat intact after whatever happened back there." Zimmermann paused for a moment, sharp eyes studying the man sitting beside him. "What happened? His power never struck so deeply before. The report from Crawford's briefing didn't include an explanation."

    He said nothing for a long time, staring off into space as he remembered. Shadows colder than death and a smile he should have recognized long ago. Red eyes, promising violence and death. An embrace that had almost destroyed him. Just the memory of how that power had felt was enough to send a chill down his spine, was enough to make his hands shake where they were holding onto his glass. He realized that he was smiling, a sick curve to his lips. "I met Farfarello," he murmured.

    His instructor said nothing. After a while he pushed himself off of the bed. "You need to rest," he said, "otherwise you won't be able to pull yourself back together. I will come back in a week to check on you and see your progress. I am sure the Oracle will be keeping an eye on you as well."

    He just nodded once, looking down at his glass where it was held between trembling fingers. He heard the scuff of shoes against the floor but didn't speak until the older German had reached the doorway. "It's my name," he said, voice quiet. "It's my name, isn't it?"

    There was a pause, then, "Yes."

    His instructor didn't wait for a response, knowing there wouldn't be one. The telempath remained as he was for fifteen minutes more, waiting for the trembling to fade. Finally he set the glass down on his food tray and set the tray on his nightstand. He lowered himself back to the mattress, breath hissing out between his teeth as his skull threatened to unseat itself from his spine at the movement. He didn't bother with the blankets and didn't care that the lights were still on. Blue eyes stared across the room towards the door.

    "Schulllldich," he tried, letting it roll across his tongue to get a feel for it.

    His sleep was uneasy.


    It was another month before he left the medical ward. He'd managed to get four shields over his core, but they were heavily reinforced by Zimmermann's. The older telepath had insisted on helping when he realized how hard it was for Schuldich to get his mind back to rights by himself. His gift had taken a serious blow, and it would take much longer than several weeks for him to be able to make more than one shield without help. He needed more shields if he wanted to leave the medical ward, so Zimmermann worked for several hours a day, weaving his power alongside his former student's until the shields were there. Schuldich would only allow so much of the older German's gift to sit in his mind, and he resented it even as he recognized it as necessary. It was two weeks before he had the strength to try, and two weeks more before he had the four shields in place. When he wasn't working on getting his guards back in place, he was slowly trying to take stock of the damage in his mind. What he saw there made him sick, but he clung desperately to the things he still had, the knowledge and memories and power that Farfarello's mind hadn't eaten.

    It was mid June when he finally remembered for himself that Schuldich really was his name, and managed to put back in place most of who he was and where he'd come from, and the end of June that he was released from the medic's quarters. Crawford came to get him, and Zimmermann was nearby to make sure his shields held up once he left the warded quarters of the medical bay. Schuldich realized he was holding his breath as he stepped out of the main door, but the shields held without so much as a creak, and the relief was almost painful.

    But it wasn't the school he was worried about. It was how his shields were going to react to Farfarello.

    He didn't have to ask. Crawford knew where he wanted to go, and led him straight to where they were keeping the Nightmare. The single guard watching his door was dismissed, and stepped back to watch. Zimmermann and Crawford stood where they could see inside, but kept a comfortable distance between them. Zimmermann was furious with Crawford; he would never forgive the American for what had happened to his prized student. Schuldich ignored them, moving towards the white bed Farfarello was stretched out on. Dried blood covered his skin, his clothes, and the sheets. Knives were scattered on the floor, their blades flecked with blood. Farfarello was sleeping on his side, half curled in on himself, his fingernails biting into his upper arms in a death grip that his chosen state of unconsciousness hadn't loosened.

    Schuldich sat on the edge of Farfarello's bed, twisting to study his teammate. He couldn't see where all of the wounds were. He wondered if they were self-inflicted or put there by one of his Nightmarish friends before he'd retreated to this sleep. He hoped they were the second; just the thought of it being the first made his stomach turn. But Schuldich had never seen blood linger so long after one of Farfarello's fights with his visions. He knew he could ask Crawford if the man saw the blood. That would be enough to let him know which one it was, but he didn't want to know.

    One hand reached out, touching Farfarello's cold cheek. It sent a sick chill down his spine. Farfarello's skin was almost as cold as the shadows had been. He swallowed his nausea, relaxing his hand further against his lover's face. He could feel Zimmermann's disapproval. The man knew nothing about this Nightmare except that he had practically killed Schuldich, that he had spent the last several years wearing away at his sanity.

    "Farfarello," Schuldich called softly, wondering if the man would be able to hear him. "Farfarello, wake up. I want you to wake up now."

    There was silence for a long moment, then Farfarello's fingers twitched. He waited, watching, as the Nightmare pulled himself up out of his rest. His eye was red when it first slid open and it was all Schuldich could do to not bolt when he saw it. He forced himself to stay where he was, his expression unchanging, as Farfarello's eye focused on him. The second the Irishman's brain recognized who was sitting next to him, he lurched upright, flinching away from Schuldich's hold.

    "Good morning," Schuldich said, despite the fact that it was mid afternoon by now. "Have a nice rest?"

    Farfarello's mouth opened and closed soundlessly, and then he reached out, fingers catching in Schuldich's hair. He pulled the German towards him and Schuldich followed the tug, their foreheads touching as Farfarello's other hand lifted and tightened into a fist on his shirt. His teammate's hands were shaking. Fear; Schuldich's empathy could taste it. The fear that he'd ruined Schuldich, when he'd promised his power would never hurt him again. The fear of those shadows catching hold of the German, and he'd been unable to stop it.

    Neither said anything, sitting there for several minutes as Farfarello reassured himself that his Dream was still there and Schuldich tested the way Farfarello's power touched his shield. It had a sharper sting to it now; he felt it more deeply when he had fewer shields. But the shields held, and that was all he needed to know. Finally he reached up, untangling Farfarello's fingers from his hair and straightening. "I've been eating medical ward food for a month now," he informed his lover, "and they have severely cracked ideas about what's healthy and good for sick people. If you don't mind, I would like to get some real food in my stomach."

    Farfarello said nothing, just nodded, and Schuldich slid off of the bed. The other Talent followed him towards the door, ignoring Zimmermann's glare, ignoring the wary look on the guard's face, ignoring Crawford completely. His gaze was fixed on Schuldich where the German moved in front of him, one hand still holding on to the hem of the telempath's shirt as if he wasn't sure he should let go. Schuldich inclined his head to his former instructor and then Crawford turned away and the precognitive's team followed him away.

    Nagi was dismissed from his afternoon class to meet them for the late lunch. Schuldich paused at the bottom of the stairs to the teams' wing at the feel of the youth's mind approaching his. Nagi had been forbidden to visit his teammate until Schuldich was healed again, and now he turned to look down the hall. The boy came flying into view, rounding a corner and racing towards them. He practically threw himself against Schuldich, burying his face in the telempath's chest as he wrapped his arms tightly around him. Schuldich stumbled back under the impact but Farfarello's hand at his back kept him from losing his balance. No one said anything for several long moments as Nagi clung desperately to his older teammate.

    "I'm still here," Schuldich said at last, lifting one hand to awkwardly rest it on the telekinetic's head.

    At the touch Nagi straightened and backed off, rubbing a hand along one cheek to smear away the silent tears. "I know," he said, offering a weak smile. Schuldich gave him a grin in return and followed Crawford up the stairs, Farfarello and Nagi taking up their places behind him. Despite Nagi's status as a student, he was still allowed to wear the clothes that meant he was a field assassin. Schuldich would have to figure out how that was going sometime today. He was betting Nagi was the least favorite student at the moment, since he was so young yet was already advanced past them.

    There were five teams in the dining hall when Schwarz entered, and all heads turned their way to see them whole again. There were a few brushes against his mind, curious touches by other telepaths to see how he was doing. He gave them all a vicious mental smack away. His shields had suffered and his power was torn, but he was still one of the strongest 'paths Rosenkreuz had to offer and he'd be damned if he was going to just stand there and let them check him out. Two of the mental signatures seemed familiar but he couldn't place them, and when he glanced towards the telepaths he didn't recognize their faces.

    He wondered idly how much everyone else knew about what had happened two months ago. The students were oblivious, he was positive, but the teams had to have noticed the absence of half of Schwarz. It wouldn't have taken any of them long to find Schuldich in the medical bay, if they tried hard enough with their gifts. It was hard to get through the wards there but not impossible.

    They were at the table of food then and Schuldich helped himself to whatever looked good. Farfarello took nothing for himself, so Schuldich pushed a potato into his hands. Nagi had eaten lunch with the other students a couple hours ago but it hadn't been anything special, so he grabbed himself something small to snack on. Crawford took nothing except a mug of coffee, and then Schwarz moved towards one of the round tables.

    A woman inserted herself in front of Schuldich's path, one of the familiar signatures. She had brown hair that hung in tight curls, and lighter brown eyes. A smirk curved her face and he studied it, thinking that he'd seen it once upon a time. But he couldn't place her to save his life, and he arched an eyebrow at her. "Should I ask what you're doing in my way, or should I just move you?" he asked.

    "Is that any way to treat an old friend?" she asked, her voice mocking. One eyebrow arched at him, her entire expression coldly amused.

    There was recognition from Farfarello, and Schuldich touched his mind in question. The Nightmare turned over the memory easily- this woman, years younger, standing in a hotel room. Tossing Schuldich his things and telling him to leave, telling him to catch the next flight and take the little white haired monster with him.

    And Schuldich remembered. Who she was and exactly how much he had disliked her clicked into place in the same breath. He sent a mental query to Nagi and the boy obediently lifted Schuldich's tray from his hands, moving it around the older woman to set it on the table. "Harriet." The Inquisitions bitch. His mouth curved into a slow smirk. "What a pleasant surprise." It wasn't a lie, though it came out as a drawl. He had had a very shitty past two months. He was very pleased to see her.

    "How the mighty have fallen, Schuldich. I seem to remember you having much better shields last time we were together. One has to wonder why your shields now have Zimmermann's touch embedded so firmly in them." She reached up one hand to tuck her hair behind one ear, tilting her head to one side as her smile widened. Another man approached them, and now Schuldich could recognize him as Ferdinand, the other telepath that had made up their Inquisitions group. It'd been five years this month since they'd last crossed paths. "Did our poor little precocious telempath finally push his gift so far, or can I hope that the power you were so proud of finally collapsed and took you with it?"

    "Both of you are here?" he asked, looking from one to the other. "I suppose it's about time you made it to field rank. How many times did you have to beg to be let on a team, Harriet, and how many team leaders couldn't stand you and cast you away?"

    "I do believe you're changing the subject," Harriet said.

    "Perhaps you remember Farfarello?" Schuldich asked. The Irishman had risen silently from his chair and now stood behind the two telepaths. They glanced back at Schuldich's gesture, but to their credit, didn't jump when they realized how close he was. They did flinch, however, when he lifted his hands to their shoulders and pushed them apart to clear a path to the table. Schuldich took a few steps forward, tangling his fingers in the collar of Farfarello's shirt to pull the Irishman up against him. Schwarz's two were the only ones who didn't choke on whatever they were eating when the German kissed his lover; Schuldich easily picked up on the quick stabs of shock from the two telepaths to either side. Everyone in this room knew who Farfarello was, by reputation if not from personal experience. All but four had been here before when Farfarello was at Rosenkreuz.

    Harriet's eyes were wide when Schuldich slid his mouth from Farfarello's, lips grazing over a cheekbone before he tilted his head to eye her. She had felt Farfarello's power for herself, when they'd first discovered the Talent in Ireland, and she had been informed that Schuldich had been assigned to the younger man. It had probably amused her for several years, knowing what had happened to the telempath she despised so much. But now, as they stared at each other, Schuldich reached out towards her and let her see a glimpse of who he was, of what he'd become- of what Farfarello had made him. He let her see exactly how different he was from who he'd been before, let her have a taste of everything he'd gone through. It didn't matter that she knew, because she wouldn't be alive much longer. And then it really hit her, and she looked at it telepath to telepath instead of from the viewpoint of a hateful rival. Despite her dark feelings for him, what Schuldich showed her hit her deep, throwing her off balance.

    "You're courting madness," she whispered.

    "I want you to kill her, Farf," Schuldich said, speaking close to the Irishman's ear but voice loud enough for the whole room to hear. "I want you to kill her and make it painful. I don't like her." With that, he straightened and slid past his lover. Farfarello turned to eye the older telepath and she blanched. Her eyes flicked over her shoulder, towards her team leader, who started to get up from his seat.

    Farfarello moved just a little too fast.

    Schuldich didn't bother to watch, standing behind his chair. He picked up his glass and sipped from it, aware that someone else, someone who had been here last time, was shoving Harriet's leader back into his seat with a sharp warning. He let Harriet's shattering mind roll against his, let Farfarello's hunger after so long without killing crash against his shields. Ferdinand was retreating, perhaps unconsciously, from the murder going on right in front of his eyes.

    It was over quickly. A death didn't have to be slow to be agonizing, and Farfarello knew exactly what he was doing. He let her fall to the ground, where she would be dead within a minute. It was fast but Schuldich could taste her pain, and he turned to face Farfarello as his lover turned back to his table. He wrapped his arm around the Irishman's neck and pulled him close for another kiss, all too aware that everyone was staring. It was a very clear message to everyone gathered, and he knew it wouldn't take long before all of the teams got it.

    Ferdinand looked from Harriet's dead body to Schuldich, where the German was resting cheek-to-cheek with his lover. He took one last look at the look on the younger man's face and beat a hasty retreat, quick steps carrying him across the room to where his team sat. Schuldich laughed, pressing a final kiss to the corner of Farfarello's mouth before seating himself at the table.

    "I feel much better," he declared, digging into his food with a renewed appetite.

    Farfarello, sitting to his right, just smiled and licked blood from his fingertips before reaching for his potato.


    There was really only one test left for Schuldich's shields, and he arched an eyebrow at Crawford as they made their way back from dinner that evening. He'd just felt Zimmermann's mind approach; the other man was currently moving towards their floor. "Anticipating something?" he wanted to know.

    "Considering the state you're in, he'll be a better judge in the aftermath," was the precognitive's answer. "I asked him to wait in the lounge on this floor until you called him."

    "You take all the fun out of things," Schuldich decided.

    They reached Schwarz's quarters before the other telepath made it to their floor. Crawford had said the school staff had almost moved a fourth bed into their quarters in preparation for the enlarged team's arrival, but the precognitive had told them not to bother. Now the middle two shared the one bed room, and Crawford and Nagi shared the other. Nagi took a look over his shoulder at his older teammates, at the way Schuldich's fingers were hooked in the waistband of Farfarello's pants, and didn't bother asking if he could come over and read. He just shook his head and vanished into his own room. He was worn out; he'd submitted Farfarello to a rather scathing lecture on all the horrendous things he would do to him if he hurt Schuldich again before Schwarz had gone to dinner. Apparently Schuldich had missed the really colorful outburst, which came after Farfarello regained consciousness and found out Schuldich had been taken away from him. Crawford told him it had gotten two other teams involved. It hadn't deteriorated from words to powers, but apparently it had been impressive nonetheless.

    Schuldich regretted he missed Farfarello's fight with Crawford. Apparently three people had died in it when they made the mistake of stepping in to restrain the Nightmare. Idiots. He made a mental note to snag the memory of it from someone who'd been there.

    But that was for later. He closed his bedroom door behind them and turned back around to find Farfarello waiting for him. It had been months, and they were both hungry. Farfarello let Schuldich's empathy have a taste of his hunger before he brought his mind back, forcing it away and locking it down, and Schuldich moved to meet him. They made it over to the bed somehow and fell in a tangle of limbs. Schuldich ended up on top and straddled his younger teammate, mouth and fingers working at pale flesh. He wanted to forget the last two months, wanted to forget what he'd seen in Farfarello's mind. He wanted to forget how close he'd come to losing himself completely, to forgetting who he was. He wanted to forget that it had taken weeks before he remembered his name and his past. He wanted to work some warmth into Farfarello's cold flesh.

    Most of all, he wanted Farfarello, period.

    How things had changed these past three years…

    Farfarello's mind hit his when he couldn't hold on anymore, a thud and crackle of power against brand new shields as the world dropped out around them. Schuldich knew it was coming and buried his face in his lover's throat as he let it roll across him. Farfarello's grip always failed there when they fucked, but only twice had it ever been a strong enough blast to break through his shields. The first was the first time they'd slept together; the second, when Schuldich had forced him to keep his mind open. He realized he was holding his breath and he let it out when his shields stood under the small rush of heat. He pushed himself up and looked down at his lover, orange hair stuck to his face in some places from sweat. Farfarello reached up, moving the strands out of the way, and they regarded each other for a few moments in silence.

    "I didn't want it to happen," Farfarello said at last.

    "I know," Schuldich answered, shifting and moving to sprawl out beside the younger Talent. He was tired. The shields had held. He didn't want to deal with Zimmermann's probing tonight. He had a feeling Crawford would call the man down here whether he wanted to see the instructor or not, though. He contemplated getting dressed again but didn't feel like it, lying on his side facing his lover. The Nightmare rolled over to face him and they studied each other.

    "Tomorrow," he said aloud, "is going to be a bad day."

    Farfarello frowned lightly at him, and Schuldich reached out towards Zimmermann's mind. Tomorrow the Cabinet would want to see them, would want to know if the German had made any progress. They'd want to know what had happened that had almost broken one of their top Talents. Schuldich knew exactly what had happened. He knew what he'd seen in there. And he knew, deep down, that he couldn't tell the Cabinet what he'd seen. He also knew that it was a very dangerous game to play keep-away with the Cabinet, and he'd never been stupid enough to try it before.

    He had a feeling it wasn't going to go well.

    He thought to pull the covers up over them just moments before Zimmermann knocked and let himself inside. The telepath paused for just a moment, studying the two younger assassins where they were sprawled so close to each other. Finally he moved towards them, and Schuldich rolled onto his back when his former instructor stopped beside him. Crawford moved into the doorway to watch, which Schuldich thought was rather pointless because he had to know the results already, and he thought he saw Nagi behind the oldest Schwarz. Zimmermann and Farfarello traded cool looks before the head telepath set about checking for damage.

    "They didn't even crack," the man decided at length, "but even I felt that hit. He can't contain his power completely, even if he tries. You shouldn't tempt fate," Zimmermann warned him, his hands on either side of Schuldich's head as he did a second, careful check for new weaknesses. Schuldich reached past him, plucking up his pack of cigarettes from the nightstand. He'd finally gotten to unpack before dinner, and he'd put the pack there knowing he'd want them later. He lit up and set both lighter and pack to his sides, taking his cigarette between his fingers and resting his palm against his chest as he gazed up at the older man. "The Cabinet orders you to work with him, so you must. They do not require this of you. It's just extra risk."

    "I want it," Schuldich said, lifting his cigarette to take a long drag from it. "And what I want has always come first in my life. I'm spoiled. You know that." He slanted blue eyes up at the other man, exhaling smoke off to one side. "Sir."

    "You're going to regret it," his instructor warned him, drawing his hands back.

    Schuldich's smile was cold. "I don't do regret," he said. "I don't have time for such things. I knew what was going to happen to me the moment they assigned us to our team; Crawford forcing some semblance of order into my assignment didn't give me any hope that I would make it. I thought it would prolong the inevitable, but it's been a countdown ever since. I've always known I wouldn't make it to twenty-five. I doubted I would make it this far." He gave a small wave of his cigarette before propping it between his lips. "I'm out of time," he said simply, speaking around the lit butt. "If I make it to 1997 sane, I'll be surprised."

    Zimmermann said nothing, just regarded him in silence. There was no chiding for such grim words, no denial or correction of such a pessimistic outlook. The two 'paths stared each other down and Schuldich knew that Zimmermann knew and understood. As someone who had helped put Schuldich's shields back together and could see exactly how his power was now, he knew. The German's power was never going to recover. It was still there, strong enough to make him a formidable Talent and assassin, but it was just one breath away from completely destroying its owner. If his shields took one more strong hit, they were gone for good. His core had been damaged too badly, too often. He was just waiting for that hit to come, and if Farfarello's mind didn't get to his raw gift first, the rest of the institution would be enough to finish the job.

    The instructor left without another word, and Schuldich lifted his hand to eye his palm. He was only distantly aware of his team watching him, three sets of eyes studying his face. He could feel Nagi's pained protests running across his empathy, could feel something raw from Farfarello. From Crawford, as always, there was nothing.

    "Gets shorter by the minute," he mused, and let his hand fall back to the mattress.

Part 20
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