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An Ounce of Prevention

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Leaning forward, palms flat against the wood, Crawford pushed his chair back from the desk. He took a deep breath and blinked a few times, attempting to shake off the residue of his latest vision.

Schuldig, body prone in a tangle of sticky sheets, unfocused, unseeing eyes glittering in his red and sweaty face.

“Shit.” Crawford ran an unsteady hand through his hair. This was going to be a problem. He pulled back up to his desk and leaned towards his computer monitor, saving the files he was working on before the vision hit, and then made his way to the bathroom to raid the medicine cabinet. Finding what he’d come looking for only after pushing aside numerous expired sedatives prescribed for Farfarello, he headed for the living room, hoping the vision hadn’t come too late for him to intervene. If he was too late, Schwartz was in for serious trouble.

 

*****

 

“Nagi, I don’t see why you can’t do this for me, you little ingrate!” Schuldig was nearly doubled over, hand shoved deeply between the cushions of Schwartz’s living room sofa.

“Because I’m not the one who lost his keys,” Nagi replied, looking up from his laptop. Curled up in an armchair, he looked a little smug in the face of Schuldig’s predicament. “I’m not going anywhere tonight, so I don’t see why I should wear myself out using my power to help you search when I could care less whether you find them or not.”

Schuldig rolled his eyes and went back to searching, making a disgusted face when he fished out what appeared to be one of Farfarello’s old gym socks. Carelessly tossing the sock aside, he wiped his hand on his pants before resuming his search. It had been too long since he'd had the chance to enjoy a night out and he’d be damned if he missed out on his fun just because of some missing car keys. He was almost positive he’d dropped his keys on the console table early that morning when he’d stumbled home from the crappy surveillance detail Crawford put him on. Every night this week he had crouched on the roof of the building across from their target’s home, freezing his ass off in the chill autumn wind and thinking very dark thoughts about the leader of Schwartz. And now, when he finally had a night off, his damned car keys seemed to have grown legs and wandered away.

Just as Schuldig was beginning to weigh the pros and cons of hotwiring his own car, Crawford strode into the room. Schuldig straightened his body as the man drew even with him, giving a rather perplexed look to the bottle of pills that were pressed into his hand.

“Don’t you normally discourage me from popping pills before I go clubbing, Brad?” Schuldig teased, turning the bottle he held until he could read the label. “Vitamin C?”

“Just take them, ok?” Crawford said, clearly not wanting the encounter to degenerate into an actual conversation.  

Schuldig wanted to take advantage of Crawford’s weird order and use it as an excuse to needle the man, but he wanted to find his keys even more. “Sure Brad, just tell me if you’ve seen my car keys.”

“Ask Farfarello,” Crawford said, turning to retreat back to his office. “And Schuldig,” he shot over his shoulder as he was disappearing down the hallway, “make sure you take a coat tonight.”

Schuldig shared an incredulous look with Nagi before making his way to Farfarello’s room to torture the location of his keys out of the psychopath, if necessary.

 

*****

 

The clock on their entertainment system’s VCR read 3:17 when a very sodden, shivering Schuldig finally dragged himself home. He’d never been to a club with a foam bubble machine before. The waist deep suds had been fun at first, and he hadn't minded the way it turned the whole place into a giant wet t-shirt contest, but he was pretty sure his favorite silk shirt was ruined and it just seemed stupid to have to trudge home in wet clothes and squelchy shoes when the temperature outside was nearing freezing.

The apartment was dark and quiet as Schuldig toed off his expensive—now probably ruined—shoes and trudged to his bedroom. He was grateful no one was up to witness his less-than-spectacular return home. The soap bubbles he tracked in weren’t likely to leave any traces on the floor, but Schuldig was pretty sure both Nagi and Crawford would be none-too-pleased with him for dragging such a ridiculous substance into their home. When he reached his room, he didn’t bother to turn on the lights. Attempting to keep cold, dripping hair from clinging to the back of his neck, he whipped his head forward before trying to peel out of his wet pants. As he slipped out of his shirt, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror above his dresser. Studying his image in the sickly glow cast by the streetlight outside his bedroom window, he wasn’t surprised he hadn’t had more luck in picking up a suitable playmate at the club that night. Schuldig didn’t really do wet well, and there were dark circles under his eyes from all the missed sleep surveillance duty was costing him. He was beginning to think he made the right decision in not using his talent to force the issue with the hot blond whose white pants had clung to the curves of his ass so invitingly in the soup that was the club. He probably needed the rest.

Deciding to forsake the hot shower that would warm him up, but also keep him awake longer than he was prepared to be right now, Schuldig flopped onto his bed still wearing his wet briefs. As sleep began to overtake him, he felt a tickle in his throat and spared a thought for the pills Crawford had given him that he’d forgotten to take.

 

*****

 

Schuldig woke to the distinct sensation of a telekenetic prod to his shoulder. He was lying on his belly, briefs that were still somewhat damp riding up the crack of his ass. Apparently, he’d never managed to get under the covers of his bed, but that was alright, seeing as how the temperature in the apartment seemed to be turned up higher than usual. Another prod from Nagi, this one almost bouncing his head off his pillow, had Schuldig awake and angry enough to attempt a response.

“Wha,” he croaked, realizing with dismay that his throat felt like it was coated in fiberglass.

“You look like hell,” Nagi commented blandly as he walked from his position in the doorway over to Schuldig’s bed. Schuldig greedily eyed the steaming mug Nagi cradled in his hands.

/I’ll forgive the rude wakeup if that’s coffee you’ve brought./

“Echinacea tea. Crawford told me I should bring it to you,” the boy informed him as he set the mug on the bedside table.

Schuldig attempted to voice his disapproval of Crawford’s choice in beverages, but it got trapped somewhere in the slimy feeling mess that used to be his throat. /He knows I don’t drink that shit. It tastes horrible./

“Drink it or don’t, whatever. I’ve got to get to class.” Nagi primly turned on his heels and left Schuldig to his tea.

Struggling to sit up, Schuldig groaned at the aching muscles of his shoulders and back. He spared the herbal assault to his taste buds a disdainful look before gaining his feet. Disjointedly, he wondered why Farfarello was watching television so loud in the living room that the din of voices reached him all the way back here. Staggering over to his dresser, Schuldig leaned against the furniture and blearily gazed at his reflection. And he thought he’d looked bad last night. Long strands of red-orange hair that had dried in his sleep and smelled vaguely of synthetic soap bubbles stood out from his head in all directions. There were still dark circles under his eyes and the skin there felt strangely sweaty. The only other bit of color on his face came from two rosy patches that stood out high on his cheekbones.

/Dammit Farf, can you turn that shit down? I can barely hear myself think in here./

Schuldig turned as he heard a loud thump against Farfarello’s closed door, just across the hall. He hurriedly slipped on a ratty pair of sweatpants and a faded Kraftwerk t-shirt before leaving his room to wrench open the door of his deranged teammate.

Apparently Farfarello was having one of his bad days. Schuldig found him wearing his straightjacket, dazedly lying on the floor after having nearly knocked himself unconscious banging into his bedroom door.

Quickly shutting and locking the door before Farfarello regained enough awareness to become a menace, Schuldig shuffled towards the living room. Surely Crawford wasn’t watching TV at inconsiderate volumes in the middle of the morning? The cacophony of voices was only growing in volume as he got closer to the living room, so Schuldig’s best guess was that Nagi had forgotten to turn the television off before leaving for school.

Unsurprisingly, the living room was empty, but the television was off, which was a surprise. Schuldig felt the first niggling bites of fear sink into his consciousness.

He hadn’t had a problem in years. Nothing was wrong. Someone must’ve left the radio in the kitchen tuned to some talk show. Draping himself in comforting denial, he made his way to the kitchen to take care of the source of what was now becoming a headache-inducing chorus of voices.

The kitchen was quiet. The voices were not.

Schuldig took a deep breath and fought the rising panic that joined his growing fear. His heart thudded dully and his stomach did a lazy flip. He had shields now, good shields. The last time he’d had a problem had been when he was still an inexperienced teenager, hospitalized for appendicitis. This couldn’t be a problem now; it wouldn’t be a problem now. Wincing as he forced his burning throat to swallow a thick glob of spit, he decided he must just be exhausted. He’d go back to bed and when he woke up again, everything would be fine. Everything would be fine.

 

*****

 

As morning bled into afternoon, Schuldig burned. The growing fever that seized his body and mind seared him, devouring everything that he was. Flames licked and danced against his mental shields, crumpling them like cheap plaster.

/…always the one who has to feed the cat never wanted the nasty rich fuckers deliberately make more of a mess just because they’re paying me to add seven and carry the five buy more of that fruity gum so soft wish the flavor didn’t crap out so mad at me or am I being paranoid as usual stupid email can’t tell what the tone is…/

When he’d gone back to bed, sleep eluded him, which only presented more of a foothold to the fear climbing to the forefront of his increasingly confused mind. He flung himself from one position to another, restlessly shifting in his sweaty sheets. The more he moved, the hotter he felt. The hotter he felt, the looser the grip on his talent became, feeding his growing panic, making his heart flutter in his chest and his breathing turn fast and shallow. Palms already moist with fever sweat became so slick they left damp, dark imprints on the blanket he was clenching.

/This is not happening. I’m in control. God dammit, get out of my head./

In the deteriorating part of his mind that remained rational, Schuldig knew that giving in to fear would only make his problems worse. He tried to remain calm, breathe deep, because he knew that’s what he should do, but he couldn’t stop the barrage of voices attacking him, voices that were becoming more difficult to distinguish from his own. His sense of self guttered and struggled like a flame in the wind. Terror seized Schuldig in its jaws, needle-sharp teeth sinking into his consciousness and shaking it mercilessly. In the part of his mind that was still his, the part that hadn’t yet succumbed to delirium or panic, Schuldig fought to shore up his mental defenses. But it was like using a child’s sand bucket to bail water out of a sinking ocean-liner. Tears of frustration welled up in his eyes as he realized the struggle to maintain his sense of self was only exhausting him, hastening the inevitable loss of all control.

/… teeth aren’t white enough maybe I should pay for the bleach but I hear it eats the enamel much longer is this bus going to take I have to go to the bathroom stupid trendy new restaurant probably isn’t very good anyway not taking reservations what are they if I didn’t show up today would they call I don’t want to get caught but it’s so nice straightjacket doesn’t matter I’ll hurt God destroy what’s His…/

Weakly struggling into a half-sitting position, Schuldig darted his gaze across the room, searching desperately for anything that would help him hold on. As a member of Schwartz, a child of Rosenkreuz, there were very few things in life that Schuldig could call his own. He took fierce pride in the fact that his mind, control over his consciousness, was something he could lay claim to. Not every telepath with the kind of power he possessed could say the same. Hell, some of them couldn’t say anything at all, thrown into catatonia by the continuous pummeling to the psyche. Since his powers had fully matured, Schuldig had lost control only once, lying on the cold tile floor of the boys’ restroom in his Rosenkreuz dorm, weary head resting against the side of the toilet bowl as the pain in his side refused to go away and his fever burned and burned….

Schuldig’s eyes lit upon the mug of tea Nagi had brought him earlier that morning, before his day had turned into a feedback loop where his dread only seemed to nourish the delirium.

/Probably cold now,/ he thought, and then, Schuldig thought no more.

 

*****

 

The late afternoon sun filtered through the living room window. Crawford slipped off his shoes in the entryway, drew in a weary breath, and traded the little paper bag with the pharmacy logo from one hand to the other as he slipped out of the arms of his suit jacket. Carefully draping the jacket over the back of the sofa on his way, Crawford headed to the hall that led to Schwartz’s bedrooms. Yesterday’s vision had been frustratingly vague, and today’s only vision served no purpose other than to inform him his attempts at intervention were unsuccessful, doing nothing to help him formulate an appropriate plan of action. At this point, he was forced to operate on little more than his common sense. Although Brad Crawford possessed this quality in spades, he felt an emotion unpleasantly close to vulnerability when forced to work without the safety net of knowledge his visions normally provided.

Crawford paused in front of Nagi’s partially open door, not bothering to knock before breaching the threshold. The boy was hunched over his desk, pale face illuminated in the semi-darkness of the room by the eerie glow of his laptop. Nagi preferred to keep his curtains perpetually closed, saying they cut down on the glare to his computer screen. Sensing the presence of his leader in the room, he dragged his attention away from his work and settled his gaze upon Crawford.

“Nagi, could you please get a glass of water from the kitchen and bring it back to Schuldig’s room?” Crawford asked, the tone of his voice undercutting the polite phraseology, making it clear this was an order, not a request. Nagi’s eyes darted to the little white bag in Crawford’s hand. He opened his mouth as if to ask a question, but Crawford’s stern expression had Nagi clicking his jaws shut before the inquiry could be voiced. The boy locked down his computer quickly and then swiftly brushed past Crawford. He was forced to turn sideways in order to avoid bumping into the American.

Once Nagi was out of earshot, Crawford fetched an uncharacteristically self-indulgent sigh. Schuldig had managed to get himself sick, and his team’s productivity was going to suffer because of it. While the smirking idiot seemed to enjoy making his life difficult when he was healthy and fully functional, constantly baiting him and pushing his buttons, Crawford had to admit that as a teammate, Schuldig was an incredible asset. He was consistently solid in the field, using his disquieting speed to move with a self-assured, predatory grace. He loved to piss and moan about the more mundane aspects of their work, but jobs assigned to Schuldig did not go undone. And of course, there was his talent. Although Nagi’s telekinesis was probably the strongest of Schwartz’s preternatural abilities in terms of raw power, Schuldig’s telepathy was a tool that Crawford had become painfully reliant upon. Crawford’s visions and knack for scheming and strategy had only taken him so far before he’d found Schuldig to help him fill in the blanks. Annoying brat that the German was, he was also Crawford’s right hand, and now, with their chance to escape Esset’s control looming in the not-too-distant future, was not the time for Schuldig to break.

As he made his way to Schuldig’s room, the ever-vigilant part of Crawford’s brain clinically noted how silent this part of the apartment was. His shrewd mind immediately placed what was wrong with the scenario—Farfarello had been locked in his room all day and should have been doing his damnedest to punish his walls, himself, and his God by now. Filing away Farfarello’s unusual reticence as something he could deal with later, Crawford opened Schuldig’s door.

He’d expected to find a sick and confused Schuldig. He’d even vaguely understood how a severe illness would wreak havoc on the man’s talent. However, the almost academic understanding Crawford held of what the loss of control could do to Schuldig did nothing to prepare him for what he saw.

Schuldig clearly raged with fever. Tangled, damp strands of hair clung to cheeks that held a deceptively rosy color. His eyes gleamed with something that spoke of deep incoherence. The old concert t-shirt he wore sported sweat stains extending from armpit to ribcage and neck to chest. All of the bedclothes, even Schuldig’s fitted sheet, were now pooled at his feet. Crawford took in these facts instantaneously, processing them below the surface of his mind, but one aspect of the scene was totally unexpected, and it demanded all of his conscious attention.

Schuldig was covered in blood. Shallow cuts seeped from a dozen places on his arms, hands, and feet. An experienced eye such as Crawford’s noted that none of the wounds were too severe; perhaps one or two of the gashes would require stitches, but probably not. Even with this knowledge, Crawford found it difficult to tamp down the disgust the scene provoked in him. Seeing Schuldig in this state was disturbing. Schuldig could be careless, going off on reckless little tangents to play his own games, but he never relished getting hurt. When Farfarello decided to carve himself up like a Christmas turkey, that was to be expected, but this….

Farfarello’s room was quiet. Fuck. Crawford’s heart thudded dully in his chest as realization hit him. He’d thought he understood what it meant for Schuldig’s talent to malfunction, but this was beyond his imaginings, beyond any of the cursory information Esset gave him when they informed him a telepath would be joining his team. Once, Schuldig had drunkenly confided to Crawford about the drawbacks of his talent. It happened shortly after the two started working missions together as Schwartz. They’d just come off an assignment. Schuldig had used his talent to talk their target into jumping off the roof of his high-rise office building. The man wanted to live. It took a hell of a mental push to get the job done and Schuldig had rewarded himself by getting shitfaced. He’d sprawled out on the floor of their hotel room, head lolling back against his bed, wild gestures causing his Schnapps to slosh onto the carpet as Crawford sat at the room’s desk and attempted to file their report. At the time, Crawford hadn’t really understood the heart of what Schuldig was trying to tell him, but now, now it was right in front of him in Technicolor surround sound.

Schuldig had said that sometimes he was afraid he would lose himself in other people, that it would become too hard to differentiate where his mind ended and someone else’s began. The strain placed on his control by high fever made this fear a reality. The reality had been made into a nightmare when Farfarello’s was the strand of consciousness Schuldig’s beleaguered mind seized hold of. A sick feeling rose from the pit of Crawford’s stomach as he contemplated the feeling of Farfarello holding the reins to his mind. No wonder the Irishman was sitting quietly in his room. Through Schuldig, Farfarello was engaging in one of his favorite pastimes: self-mutilation.

The nearly musical sound of breaking glass interrupted Crawford’s grim insights. Whipping his attention to where Nagi now stood, sans water, Crawford caught the shocked and concerned expression on the boy’s face. “Clean it up and get another glass. Find Farfarello’s meds.” His voice sounded amazingly steady in his own ears. Long conditioning to respond to Crawford’s authority enabled Nagi to school his expression back into its usual indifferent mask.

Trusting the boy to competently follow instructions, Crawford turned his focus back to Schuldig. He approached the bed slowly, but with confidence, exuding the alpha male vibe that Farfarello normally responded favorably to. He needn’t have bothered; if Schuldig was seeing anything at the moment, it wasn’t what was happening in his bedroom. The acrid scent of sickness assaulted Crawford as he drew near the telepath and set the pharmacy bag on the bedside table, right next to an untouched mug of tea. Ignoring the stench and trying not to wince away from the palpable heat radiating off the man, he took hold of a right hand that felt too fragile and gently pried the razor blade Schuldig had used to cut himself from the redhead’s grasp. Although Crawford dimly thought that in situations such as this the appropriate action was to pull up a seat at the invalid’s bedside, he stood several feet away from Schuldig, waiting for Nagi to return.

Why hadn’t he seen this? Usually, visions about the health and safety of his teammates came with startling frequency, which was one of the reasons why, Farfarello aside, Crawford’s team had one of the lowest injury rates within Esset.

Nagi came back bearing not only a fresh glass of water and Farfarello’s medication, but also a bowl, washcloths, antiseptic ointment, and an array of bandages. Silently nodding his approval, Crawford motioned for Nagi to approach Schuldig’s bed. The man had drifted into a dubious state of semi-consciousness, which, considering the circumstances, was probably a blessing. Nagi quickly and efficiently cleaned and dressed Schuldig’s wounds while Crawford tackled the childproofing on the bottle of antibiotics he’d picked up that afternoon after his vision hit. They ended up having to use Nagi’s telekinesis to get the pills down Schuldig’s swollen throat because the man was simply too sick and out of it to swallow properly. Nagi’s talent also served well in covering the blood-spattered mattress with a fresh set of dark colored sheets. Schuldig moaned a little as he was floated a few feet over the bed but made no sound when the boy gently lowered him down. Crawford moistened one of the clean washcloths and after wringing it out a bit and left it resting on the telepath’s forehead. Satisfied he’d done everything that was sensible at the moment for Schuldig’s physical well being, Crawford pocketed Farfarello’s sedatives and indicated that Nagi should join him in the hall.

“The fever’s made him lose control of his talent. Farfarello was nearby all day and you know he’s never had shields,” he explained curtly in the face of Nagi’s questioning eyes.

The boy nodded gravely, and Crawford internally praised him for possessing the intelligence to read between the lines. “What are we going to do?”

“Farfarello’s going to be a problem until Schuldig can get himself back under control,” Crawford said, glancing at the Irishman’s locked door. “Since we just gave Schuldig a powerful antibiotic and he’s got a high fever, we can’t sedate him, so we’ll have to knock out Farfarello instead.”

Nagi sighed at this. The task of sedating Farfarello when necessary usually fell to him and Crawford knew it was one of his least-favorite chores. The boy was too soft, allowing himself to feel bad about manhandling his deranged teammate. Fortunately, pumping Farfarello full of his usual medications was a simple affair thanks to his uncharacteristically docile reaction to Nagi’s handling. Crawford wasn’t sure if Farfarello was aware of the link he’d established with Schuldig, but whether it had been subliminal or conscious, the connection he’d shared with his teammate that afternoon had left the berserker sated. Crawford couldn’t really be angry or blame Farfarello for being what he was. That didn’t mean seeing the little half-smile on the Irishman’s face and knowing Schuldig had been thoroughly used to put it there didn’t make Crawford’s skin crawl.

Once they were done with Farfarello, Crawford sent Nagi to Schuldig’s bedside to make sure the man wouldn’t do more damage to himself if he woke up again, reminding the telekinetic to be vigilant with his shields. Once he settled everything as best as he knew how, Crawford found himself sitting in his office, in the dark, willing a vision to come that would let him know how to handle this mess.

 

*****

He was submerged in a sea of voices and he was going to drown. He sank deeper and deeper, the pressure of minds all around increasing in intensity as he was dragged down. There was no ocean floor, no end to how hard the thoughts of others could push against his will. Eventually, he’d be squeezed so tight that he would fold in on himself, and then, whatever this was would end.

/…won’t she get off the phone I need to use it she just saw these people an hour ago what’s there to talk gaining weight better not have that dessert tonight but just one scoop won’t hurt lovehandles aren’t noticeable yet turn the music down oh god shut up shut up shut up shit wrong turn somewhere this isn’t where I want to be do I need to catch another him sitting there like he didn’t just fuck that bitch an hour ago what am I going to do I still love…/

A thread looped tight around him, pulling him through the crush. Without having any choice in the matter, he was raised to surface as someone else.

 

*****

 

That night went badly for all of Schwartz. The antibiotics, supposedly so strong they’d take down bacteria the size of elephants, weren’t working fast enough and aspirin barely put a dent in Schuldig’s fever. Between helping to keep Farfarello sedated and staying up to watch their sick teammate, Nagi was almost dead on his feet. With two of its members out of commission and a third on the way due to exhaustion, Crawford didn’t need a vision to tell him that Schwartz was in deep shit if something didn’t improve, and soon.

Thankfully, Schuldig wasn’t awake most of the time. When he did wake, Nagi could barely manage the situation. Whatever creature appeared when he woke up, it was most definitely not Schuldig. Crawford missed it the first time because was sitting in the dark trying to have a vision, but Nagi told him the man had opened his eyes, bolted out of the bed, and tried to start doing sit-ups. Fortunately, that small amount of activity had sent him back into unconsciousness quickly. Crawford was there the next time, when in the middle of the night, Schuldig woke up laughing so loudly Farfarello stirred from his drug-induced slumber. That time, his inflamed throat put a stop to things; the laughter degenerated into a coughing fit that made him pass out. Then, just before dawn, as Nagi was slumped in the chair they’d brought to Schuldig’s bedside and Crawford was propped in the doorway, the telepath woke up moaning, stroking his own improbably hard length through his sweatpants. Blushing furiously and looking miserable, Nagi clenched his fists and turned away. Crawford watched grimly, never taking his eyes off his teammate until with a last feeble grunt, Schuldig came in his pants and passed out once again.  

Recognizing that Nagi was nearing his breaking point after that incident, Crawford sent the boy away to look in on Farfarello while he took the watch over Schuldig. Now, as morning sun streamed in through the window, it was Crawford who occupied the bedside chair, Crawford who witnessed the latest episode. This was the most lucid the redhead had been so far and it was hard to handle.

Schuldig was crying. Lying face up on the bed, he wept with unselfconscious abandon. Hot tears leaked from the corners of his eyes, wetting the greasy hair at his temples and sliding down the strands to puddle on his pillow. He was still flushed, but his face was taking on a hollow look, dehydration pulling the skin too tight against muscle and bone. Although his abused voice was no more than a grating whisper, he was speaking, interrupting his sobs with dialog referencing “that bitch.” Occasionally, his eyes would settle on Crawford and he found those moments intensely unsettling. He’d worked and lived with Schuldig for years and never seen the man shed a tear. Now he stood beside the redhead’s bed and forced himself to once again not look away from the spectacle of his teammate.

Crawford startled when Schuldig’s hand squirmed out from the blankets and grabbed his wrist. The grip was hot, dry, and surprisingly strong. “Gonna take him for everything he’s worth. Bastard won’t get away with this,” he breathed, looking directly into Crawford’s eyes. “God, how could he fuck that bitch?” He spit the last words with aggressive force and broke down into another coughing fit. Crawford took the opportunity to wrench his way out of the telepath’s grip, wiping the skin Schuldig had touched on the fabric of his pants.

Once the coughs subsided, Schuldig slipped back into an uneasy doze, the rise and fall of his chest barely perceptible under the covers. Crawford was settling back into his own mental space, taking advantage of an opportunity for concentration, hoping to snag from the ether the vision he so desperately needed. He’d retreated deeply into himself when the sound of Nagi’s soft footsteps brought him back into full awareness of his current surroundings. He turned to see Nagi hovering in Schuldig’s doorway, laptop clutched to his chest. The boy looked completely wrung out and achingly young. The laptop was his security blanket, and the manner in which he held it now, not to mention the fact he seemed to be carrying it around for no apparent reason, drove home to Crawford the fact that Nagi was nearing the end of his reserves.

The boy had gone without sleep for much longer than this before while hacking for missions and he was no stranger to emotional distress, but seeing his teammate as utterly helpless as Schuldig had become was badly shaking him. There was a part of Nagi that hated Schuldig, hated all of Schwartz, Crawford knew. But the telepath usually wasn’t unkind to Nagi, and the two spent enough time together that a camaraderie had developed. With the life they led, Nagi’s chances to interact with other people were limited and, like weeds, attachments grew where they could.

“I’ve got things under control here, Nagi. You should go get ready for school.”

Several conflicting emotions flickered through the boy’s eyes, but he eventually found his indifferent mask and nodded, leaving Crawford alone with Schuldig again.

Crawford took stock of the situation, sharpened reasoning skills sifting through the alternatives currently available to him. He loathed admitting it, but help in the form of a vision wasn’t going to come. Schuldig wasn’t getting better. He could leave things as they were and hope that something was left of the telepath after the fever ran its natural course. If not, Esset would swiftly send a replacement, and Crawford’s careful plans to break Schwartz away from its masters would probably be ruined. He could bite the bullet and call in an Esset doctor, but that would draw the organization’s attention to his team, also possibly endangering his plot to escape. He glared at Schuldig, angry with the man for putting him in this position, but his anger scattered into less definable emotions when the telepath loosed a chest rattling cough.

“Fuck. If I’m going to do this, you damned well better take advantage of it.” He fished his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed the number that would bring help to Schuldig.

 

*****

 

They could have done a lot worse than Dr. Kikuchi. The man was Esset—Crawford held no illusions about where the doctor’s allegiances lay—but he was a doctor first and foremost. After a brief phone conversation, Kikuchi had swiftly made his way to Schwartz’s apartment, arriving less than an hour after Crawford’s call. Shoving pleasantries aside, the doctor had pushed his way to Schuldig’s bedside. Crawford stayed out of the way and watched silently from the doorway as Kikuchi began to examine the telepath.

The doctor wasn’t much to look at. Short, middle-aged, and thickening in the middle, he didn’t appear very different from any number of Japanese businessmen one might encounter on the streets of Tokyo, especially in his off-the-rack rumpled suit. Replace the pack of medical supplies and files with a briefcase and he had the look of a prototypical salaryman. But the way his hands deftly moved along Schuldig’s abused body as he assessed his vitals was anything but ordinary. He was gentle and efficient, and when Schuldig muttered weakly about how he’d kill those bastards before they would lay him off, Kikuchi was unfazed, taking advantage of the moment of wakefulness to peer inside mouth, nose, and ears. The redhead actually growled when the doctor shined a penlight in his eyes, but he was much too weak for a fight and soon lapsed back into an uneasy doze.

Once he finished the initial exam, Kikuchi motioned for Crawford to join him by Schuldig’s bed.

“You said on the phone that you’ve been giving him antibiotics, correct?”

“Yes.”

“And there’s been no improvement in his condition?”

“None.”

“It’s likely that the problem’s viral, but I want you to continue with the antibiotics just in case.”

“And the fever?”

“It’s higher than I’d like, but not so high that there’s risk of permanent damage. Cold compresses will take the edge off and I expect it to burn itself out within a day or so. I believe Mastermind has contracted a very nasty strain of flu, but his body is young and healthy, so his immune system should be able to handle it. I’m a little worried over how dehydrated he’s become, but I can get him on IV fluids for that. However,” he said, leveling a chilling brown gaze directly on Crawford, “that’s not really what we need to worry about, is it?”

Crawford met the doctor’s eyes. “No, it’s not.”

“Tell me, Oracle, how much do you know about how Mastermind’s talent works?”

“I’ve been told how to most effectively use his skills in the field, Dr. Kikuchi. As I’m sure you’re aware, instruction on how to shield against other talents is heavily emphasized at Rosenkreuz.” He said this last without a hint of bitterness; Crawford could allow no sign of emotion to escape in front of this man. He may be a doctor, but he was also a potential informant. “I also understand now that loss of control is a major risk for telepaths.”

Kikuchi snorted at the understatement. “Although it’s not my primary area of expertise, I did spend a few months working in a facility that…administers talents like Mastermind.” Crawford thought he might have seen a bit of sadness cross the doctor’s face. “Telepathy is one of the best understood talents, on a neurological level, but it’s also one of the most difficult to manage. Individual differences between users make it especially difficult to treat problems. You see,” Kikuchi leaned against the bedside table, looking down at Schuldig as he spoke, “every telepath reads thoughts the same way. All of our actions, all our thoughts, are the summation of billions of neurons firing in the brain. Memories, sensations, feelings—they’re all represented by vast neural networks. Telepaths are able to pick up the pattern of another person’s neural firing, then mimic those activations in their own brains. A telepath of Mastermind’s power can also reverse this process, actually forcing his own neural activation patterns on another person.”

Crawford nodded, willing the doctor to get to the point.

“The problem with all this,” Kikuchi continued, “is that, on a neurological level, the telepath experiences everything that he is trying to push on someone else, or everything that the person he’s listening to does. To a telepath’s brain, there is no difference between the neural activation pattern of its own thoughts and someone else’s. The facility I worked in is necessary because many telepaths aren’t able to fully overcome this problem.”

“I’ve never known Mastermind to have any such trouble before yesterday,” Crawford began, rushing to Schuldig’s defense before he realized what he was doing. Damn it, he couldn’t afford to slip like this if he wanted to keep everything together. His plans of thwarting Esset’s control included Schuldig, but he couldn’t risk this doctor telling the wrong people he was developing too strong an attachment to his teammate.

Fortunately, Kikuchi didn’t seem to register the slip for what it was. “No, Mastermind’s records indicate that he was able to train himself to differentiate between thoughts originating within his own mind and the simulated thoughts of other people. Different telepaths work differently, but my guess is that he’s built up a section of his brain that codes for the source of a thought—a mechanism that acts as a switch between internal and external. It’s an efficient way to deal with the issue of keeping one’s sense of self distinct, but it appears that Mastermind’s switch has some vulnerabilities. I took a look at his medical records before coming over here, and I can tell you this isn’t the first time he’s had a problem.”

“No?”

“It seems the mechanism he uses to keep himself separate from others malfunctions when Mastermind has a high fever. His records indicate that from the time of his intake at Rosenkreuz, Mastermind’s control has always been weakest when he’s sick, not surprisingly. However, a breakdown of the magnitude you’ve seen in the past 24 hours only occurred one other time, when Mastermind was still at Rosenkreuz and suffering from appendicitis. Apparently, his control cannot withstand the kind of neural noise a fever delirium produces.”

“So, this means once he fights off the fever he’ll regain control?”

The doctor frowned and fished through his bag, pulling out what Crawford assumed were Schuldig’s medical records and flipping through pages. “Ah, here it is,” Kikuchi said, his eyes scanning lines of text. As he read down the page, he began to slowly shake his head. “It doesn’t seem to be that simple. Even after his fever was brought under control, Mastermind still required outside intervention to regain functional status.”  

Crawford clenched his fist at his side. With the doctor’s attention still focused on Schuldig’s file, it was a slip he could afford. He voiced his next question in an even tone. “What kind of intervention?”

Kikuchi turned the page, his frown deepening. “Another telepath.”

Fuck. Crawford’s shields were excellent, but he really didn’t want to risk another telepath wandering around.

“But,” the doctor continued, “I’m afraid that won’t be an option this time. Although the intervention was successful in restoring Mastermind, the other telepath was put into a state of…irreparable non-functionality.”

Crawford worked out the euphemism. They could bring someone to pull Schuldig out of madness, but it would just be trading one out-of-control telepath for another. Esset sunk too many resources into its people to sacrifice a healthy talent for one with two strikes against him—and a good chance for more trouble in the future.

“I understand.”

“I’m sorry, but it seems there’s not much we can do. I’m going to set him up with an IV before I leave so we can get him hydrated. Perhaps he’ll be able to find his own way back this time.” The last was said without much hope. “I can give him a day, but then I’ll have to file my prognosis with the organization.” The doctor left unsaid what the ramifications of that action would be, but Crawford knew. Schwartz had no use for a defective agent—no team did. Maybe Esset would stick Schuldig in a room somewhere and find ways to exploit his shattered mind; maybe they’d just kill him. In any case, Schwartz would be getting a new member, never to see the old one again.

Crawford waited numbly in the living room while the doctor busied himself with seeing to Schuldig’s ailing body. He wasn’t sure why the man even bothered. Probably some sort of intrinsic need to heal what he could, if such a trait could exist in someone who reported to Esset. When Kikuchi finished, Crawford walked him to the door.

“Notify me if his condition deteriorates. Otherwise, I’ll be back to check on his progress tomorrow afternoon.”

“Anything else?”

The doctor looked from one side to another, almost as if he were checking that they were alone in the room. Seeming satisfied with whatever he did or didn’t see, he leaned closer, speaking in a low voice.

“I can only hypothesize—as I said, telepathy is not my field of expertise—but I think your teammate is being pulled to the thoughts that are the loudest, the most intense. But there’s something to be said for spatial proximity too. I don’t know that it’s possible for him to regain his equilibrium, but if it is possible, he would be much more likely to do so by latching on to a calmer mind.”

Kikuchi didn’t give Crawford a chance to respond. He swept out of the door and pulled it closed behind him, leaving Crawford to contemplate what he’d said.

 

*****

 

He should have been in his office, organizing his thoughts, altering his plans, readying himself for the arrival of a new team member. It was going to be near impossible to pull the rest of his team through without Schuldig. He only had a few days to prepare. But here he was, wasting time standing at Schuldig’s bedside, contemplating dropping his shields, of all things.

After the doctor left, Crawford had spent a few minutes standing in the living room, his mind whirring into frenzied action. He played Kikuchi’s words back in his head over and over. He scrutinized, analyzed, tried to figure out what the doctor’s game was. Did the organization suspect them? Esset was capable of setting very cunning traps. Perhaps the doctor was trying to get Crawford to slip up, to show that his priorities were off kilter, that his loyalties were no longer in the right place.

/Or perhaps the man really is a healer,/ said a voice that Crawford knew came from his own head, even if it did sound suspiciously like Schuldig.

He could have stood there near the front door for longer, debating with himself, but his feet seemed to move of their own accord. So now here he was, looking down on a sleeping Schuldig. Whatever Kikuchi’s motivations were, he really did seem to have helped Schuldig’s physical state. Crawford’s gaze moved from the IV needle taped to the back of his hand up to his face. Already, the fluids were making a difference. Schuldig’s face had lost a bit of the hollowness and his skin carried less of the unwholesome flush. Without thinking about what he was doing, Crawford reached down and brushed the back of his hand against Schuldig’s forehead. Warm, but not searing like before.

He took a seat in the chair Nagi had occupied most of last night. He hadn’t been sitting for long when a familiar little tickle in the back of his mind warned him of an impending vision. Bracing his arms on the bed, he closed his eyes. It was easier to sort out what his inner sense was showing him without the interference of visual input.

A still-exhausted Nagi, trudging home from school. Nagi shoving more pills down Farfarello’s throat. Nagi sleeping like the dead in his bedroom.

It wasn’t the most helpful of visions he’d had—certainly not what he’d been trying to see for over a day now—but he could work with the information. Nagi would be home soon and he’d take care of Farfarello. Then Crawford would be pretty much on his own. It would be a good chance to get started on the necessary preparations the restructuring of Schwartz would require, if Schuldig stayed quiet.

/And if you can stop thinking about what the doctor said,/ the not-Schuldig voice in his head chimed in.

Crawford scowled, angry with himself for allowing this distraction. Schuldig was a capable second and he’d grown rather accustomed to working with him over the years, but attachments were something children like Nagi formed. They weren’t something Crawford wanted or needed. He’d killed off everything inside himself but the drive to break away years ago.

/Then why don’t you want to let me go?/

This time the voice sounded so much like Schuldig, Crawford half-expected to find the telepath smirking at him. Of course, the redhead was still sleeping. Crawford’s brain did a hell of an imitation, but deep down he knew it wasn’t the real thing.

/Nope, I’m still lying here totally off my nut. Funny that you seem to miss me so much you’ve got to pretend I’m still around though, eh Brad?/

“Shut up,” Crawford gritted out as he tore his eyes away from Schuldig.

/Hey, it’s not me. I’m practically a vegetable, remember? Tell it to your subconscious./

Crawford growled, knocking the chair over as he gained his feet. There was no point sticking around here as long as Schuldig was sleeping. He didn’t have time to play mind games with himself. It would be much easier to think clearly in his office.

But before he’d even cleared the doorway, Schuldig groaned, and Crawford found himself back at his bedside, covering the distance in a few big strides his mind didn’t even register. He quickly righted the chair and took a seat.

Blue eyes fluttered open and settled on him. For one fleeting moment, he thought he saw recognition there and felt a peculiar fluttering in his stomach. Then the eyes widened in an expression of unmistakable terror and Schuldig was scrambling into a sitting position, defensively throwing his hands in front of his face.

“It was an accident! Oh god…please, don’t…don’t hurt me again….”

Brad dropped his shields. There was no careful decision making process, no sifting through the available information, no weighing of pros and cons. He just dropped his shields and when Schuldig kept on whimpering and begging for mercy, he grabbed the telepath’s hand and held it firmly in both of his own, mindful of the IV and the myriad shallow cuts.

At the instant of physical contact, Schuldig’s pleas were cut off and his expression turned stony. His chest still heaved, but Crawford realized that the telepath’s rapid breathing was merely reflecting his own. He started at Schuldig. Schuldig stared right back, face grim, concerned, determined. It was a distinctly creepy sensation, like looking in a mirror but with a different face.

He tamped down his emotions, barely resisting the urge to bring his shields back up. The doctor said Schuldig needed a calmer mind. That was something Crawford could provide. He couldn’t always make the visions come, but he’d learned long ago that bringing himself to a place of stillness was the best way to try, so he was well-practiced at meditation. He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. Did it again and mostly blocked out the distraction of Schuldig’s chest rising and falling with his own. The world narrowed down to the rhythm of his breathing, the beating of his heart, and the warmth of Schuldig’s hand.

Nagi’s gentle, tentative hand on his shoulder brought Crawford back to reality. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting there, but the light in the room had changed from bright midday sun to afternoon gold. He looked down at Schuldig and saw the same uncanny mirroring of himself as before. He released the telepath’s hand and rose stiffly. Schuldig’s eyes drifted shut, so Crawford felt it was safe to leave the room for a few minutes.

Out in the hall, he gave Nagi an extremely edited version of the day’s events. Ever sharp, the boy gave him a sidelong look that said he knew Crawford was holding back, but refrained from asking questions.

Crawford had Nagi deliver another round of sedatives to Farfarello and then ordered him to get some rest. The boy gratefully retreated to his room.

When he returned to Schuldig’s bedside, a little spark of hope had Crawford thinking that maybe the telepath would be back to himself. He placed his hand on Schuldig’s forehead, pleased to note that the fever seemed to be retreating. Schuldig stirred at his touch.

“Schuldig?”

Blue eyes opened, glittering out of a hopeful face. Pale lips curved into the hint of an oddly familiar smile, totally unlike his usual smirk. Crawford opened his mouth to say something, but it looked like Schuldig wanted to speak too, so he remained silent.

Schuldig gazed back at him expectantly. As they started at each other in silence, nearly identical expressions on their faces, realization dawned, and Crawford’s heart sank. Schuldig’s face fell, a perfect window to Crawford’s feelings.

Pushing it all away, Crawford once again took the telepath’s hand and concentrated on lending him more of the stillness.

 

*****

 

It was dark, but he didn’t care. It was cold, but he didn’t feel it. He stood in a vast stretch of nothingness, inky blackness caressing him from all sides, and smiled.

In his dreams, there was no future, only an empty here and now, and it was wonderful.

This was the only place where he could really escape the specter of the future. The only time he didn’t feel the weight of responsibility, the necessity to keep track of endlessly expanding possibilities. Crawford snuggled into his dreamscape, grateful as always for this secret hideaway.

Something was different tonight. He felt a bit slow on the uptake; this place tended to numb his thoughts into fluffy, useless things. The sound of Schuldig’s impressed whistle pierced through Crawford’s sluggish mind.

“Damn, Brad. You are one utilitarian motherfucker. This is where you come to relax? You know, most people’s dreams are full of stuff—things, people, places. But not you man, you fall into the void all the way.”

Right in the middle of all this nothingness, there was Schuldig, wrapped in his customary green overcoat, messy hair kept moderately in check by a yellow bandana. The smirk was there, but his eyes twinkled with affectionate amusement. For some reason, the sight of him made Crawford hurt.

Distance was weird in this place and space didn’t obey the normal laws of physics. Crawford thought Schuldig must’ve been several feet away, but when he looked down he knew that couldn’t be true, because Schuldig was holding his hand.

“Why are you holding my hand?”

“Because you’re holding my hand,” Schuldig easily replied, smirk growing wider.

Crawford fought to keep from rolling his eyes. “Are you really here? Is it really you?”

“Hmm, don’t know. It’s your dream, Brad. I’m probably just a figment of your fucked-up imagination.” He looked down at himself, used his free hand to feel at his face. “Nah, I can’t be real. I think my nose is a little bigger in reality.” The German radiated teasing glee, making it impossible to tell if he was serious.

Familiar agitation bubbled up in Crawford. He sighed. “Why are you here, Schuldig?”

“'Cause we don’t have time for you to figure this out on your own. Unless,” he said with a devilish grin, “I’m not really here, in which case, you already have figured it out on your own.”

“I’m doing what the doctor said. He said you needed a calm mind to help you find your way back.”

“You trusted that guy? You’re really slipping without me there to read people for you, huh Brad?”

“What? No, I mean…dammit, I knew the bastard was just trying to make me slip up.”

“Think so?”

A wave of intense frustration crashed down on him. Crawford had been under a lot of stress lately, and Schuldig’s usual pain-in-the-ass attitude, or his mind’s facsimile thereof, whatever, was pushing his limits.

“I don’t know what to think.”

“Guess I don’t either, then.”

“Stop fucking around, Schuldig. What am I doing wrong? Why haven’t you come back?”

“Come on Brad, think about it. I don’t need a calm mind. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate not having to slice myself up or weep like I’ve got the worst case of PMS in the history of the world. But I don’t need your mind. I need my mind.”

“Then find it, you sonofabitch. I’m supposed to be giving you the peace you need to find it.”

Schuldig tutted disapprovingly. “I can’t find anything when every fiber of me is so full of you. I can practically taste that stick you’ve got shoved up your ass. Sorry Brad, you’re not a bad place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.”

“Then how? How am I supposed to bring you back? I’m not a fucking telepath.”

“No, but you know one pretty damned well. That’s all you need.”

Schuldig squeezed his hand. His voice lost its sardonic edge and he looked at Crawford with a disquieting hint of tenderness. “Look, Brad. I think you’re going to wake up pretty soon. You can do this. I know you want me around…for what you’ve got planned.”

Light was filtering in to the place and Schuldig was fading out. Crawford tightened his grip on the other man, but the hold felt strangely insubstantial.

“You know, you don’t always have to come here when you want to get away….”

Crawford tried to ask Schuldig what he meant, but it was too late. The dream was over.

 

*****

 

He woke with a start, still holding Schuldig’s hand. The light coming through the window told him it was sometime not long after dawn. They still had a few hours before Kikuchi returned.

“Schuldig?”

The telepath peered up at him, then down at their joined hands, a puzzled look on his face.

Wait. Crawford wasn’t puzzled.

“Schuldig?

His eyes moved to Crawford’s face. He looked almost blank in his confusion.

“Are you back?”

Schuldig didn’t respond. Crawford watched as the awareness, the spark of self, slowly drained away, replaced by the same crestfallen expression Crawford already wore.

/All right, Schuldig. I think I understand what you need./

He closed his eyes and breathed deep, but this time he didn’t push his feelings away. He let them swim to the surface, and thought of Schuldig.

Schuldig on his first mission as Schwartz, still a skinny teenager. Irritating, cocky, already-perfected smirk plastered on his face.  

Schuldig in a gunfight, whipping across the warehouse floor in a blur of speed. Looking so damn confident, so deadly.

Schuldig at home, draped across the couch, teasing Nagi in his nasal voice.

Schuldig in his office, blue eyes meeting amber, giving honest feedback about the latest target.

Schuldig at a club, losing himself to the beat, writhing and dancing, so fucking beautiful.

Schuldig in his head, always there with the information he wanted. Always ready to irritate him. Always there when he needed him….

Crawford felt a squeeze to his hand. He opened his eyes. Schuldig, staring up at him from his bed.

“Hey Brad,” he rasped.

A smile spread across Crawford’s face. “Welcome back.”

“Thanks.”

It wasn’t a word Schuldig liked to use, but he said it with sincerity. The two just looked at each other, sharing a silent moment before Crawford cleared his throat and disentangled his fingers from Schuldig’s. His lingering smile was replaced by his cool, professional facade. He slammed his shields back into place with a force that would be painful to the telepath.

“Brad….”

“I’ll make sure Nagi brings you something to drink. Think you can handle some soup?”

Schuldig nodded, eyes searching Crawford’s face.

Crawford stood up and looked away. “You’ve cost us a lot of productivity, Mastermind. I expect you to work towards a quick recovery. We can’t have distractions slowing us down.” He turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.

 

*****

 

A few weeks passed and Crawford could almost forget what happened between him and Schuldig. When Kikuchi had come for his follow up visit, he’d covered his shock at finding a coherent Schuldig well. Although they’d kept up the appearance of being forthright and helpful in answering the doctor’s questions, neither Schuldig nor Crawford had been willing to share with him what really happened. The questions dried up pretty quickly, thanks to some tinkering on Schuldig’s part. They wouldn’t have to worry about what Kikuchi would report back to Esset—as far as the doctor remembered, he’d just helped re-hydrate Mastermind after a severe case of food poisoning.

Schuldig’s shields weren’t back up to 100% yet and he seemed to be nursing a lot of headaches, but his cuts had faded and he was working simple missions again. He sucked down Echinacea tea like there was no tomorrow and he hadn’t been out clubbing since he’d gotten sick, but he was back to teasing Nagi and trying to push Crawford’s buttons. Everything was falling back into place. Schwartz rolled toward the future on tracks of Crawford’s choosing.

And if sometimes, standing in the nothingness of his dreams, he felt a phantom hand in his own, it didn’t matter.

He was sitting behind his big wooden desk in his comfortable leather chair when the vision hit. After the dry spell during Schuldig’s illness, his visions had returned with a vengeance. Using all the information they provided to prevent his plans from derailing kept Crawford busy. But this wasn’t like the other visions he’d been having lately. This one was disturbingly familiar.

Schuldig, body arched, wild halo of fiery hair fanned out on rumpled sheets, fever-bright eyes glittering out of his sweaty face.

Crawford swallowed around the lump in his throat. He reined in his fear, told himself that it wasn’t going to happen again, not so soon. Schuldig was taking much better care of himself. And now they knew how to handle the problem. It wasn’t anything to be concerned about. He was just about to pull his chair back up to the desk and resume his work when the second part of the vision hit.

Crawford, hovering over a graceful, toned chest. Licking and biting his way up to hard little nipples ringed with soft, fine red hairs. Kissing lips that were no longer curved in a sardonic smirk. Looking deep into heated blue eyes as he thrust into Schuldig’s beautiful, willing body.

“Oh, fuck.” Crawford drew in a few shuddering breaths. This was going to be a problem. He slid forward in his chair and saved his work, shut down his computer, and made his way to his bedroom, locking the door behind him. He rummaged through the drawer of his bedside table, finding what he was looking for at the very bottom. With shaking hands, he unzipped his pants, squeezed a generous amount of lube on trembling fingers, and proceeded to hastily rid himself of the raging hard-on the vision left him with. When he was finished, he realized it wasn’t enough. Schwartz was in for serious trouble.