cliché, he thought), Schuldig knew better than to be flattered. Schuldig, who took flattery for granted as often as a heart beats. Special operation. Him. He knew their intent, their message to the disobedient dog.
His talents alone. Him. Alone.
Alone. Known too well, and not at all.
He wasn’t alone on the plane out of Tokyo, the only passenger on a private jet. She knows. She knows I’m cheating on her. She’ll leave me. The thoughts of the co-pilot, unbidden, circled anxiously through the telepath’s head. His hands were stiff, flicking over the controls. Schuldig heard him contemplate crashing. That hair, that strange shade of red, I want to claw my hands through it, I want him to look at me whywon’thelookatme. A mental panting from the leggy flight attendant, waiting on him more than she needed to. She was gorgeous in the generic fashion, appealing but not stunning. He didn’t even smirk at her when she brushed against his hand.
He wasn’t alone in his head. It was worse now. He knew it wasn’t coincidence.
Srinagar. Beautiful, beloved center of this rich mountain world. An Indus fairytale. Journey’s end, he mused amidst the buzzing lyrics intruding upon his thoughts, while he sent spiders’ webs out for one tragic poem in particular.
Ah. There you are, pretty. Don’t worry, resolution’s coming.
The girl called herself Mika, and her white blonde hair floated in suspension around her like a cloud pregnant with lightning. Something about shocking hair, perhaps, a pattern or a gene or an exercise in what is Not Alone… Her eyes, blue and just as pale as hair and skin, stared at him, withdrawn and expectant. She’d known he would appear eventually. ‘He,’ a relative pronoun, an entity and a force she reckoned with blindly for two years in hiding. A fellow Talent gazed at him with those shallow eyes; a fellow telepath. Schuldig’s stare met hers impassively as he finally confronted the concept before him: she had done what he had imagined trying, but never truly entertained. She had escaped.
“Nice place you’ve got here,” he cast out casually into the void, dusting long fingers over carefully tended lotus blossoms enthroned within a bowl. Delicate, pink silk tore loose from its home and descended into the water, drowning. Real beauty.
“You admire that more than life?” At last, her voice, at last, her response, wind-soft and steady. She had read his thoughts, of course, but wouldn’t have needed to.
“I admire truth,” he said, still staring at the drowning petals.
“And death is truth,” she concluded for him. She took a step back, toward the open balcony doors, as if she could run from truth. If she could just keep running…
He didn’t follow her. He didn’t even lift his gaze. She already knew it was the end.
I am you, her voice murmured into his head, and it was finally the only company there. You are me. We are the same. To kill me is to kill yourself. An indignant thrum rose in reaction, and his eyes, blade-sharp, snapped to hers. Not an effort to save herself, but him.
I’m a hell of a lot smarter than you. Waspish and coarse, his voice hissed back at her. I’m still here.
But for how long? Living this way, how long? The sunlight pooling in from the balcony swelled warmly behind her, she looked angelic, wise, already martyred. Schuldig stiffened. Not long, really. Not long. It didn’t matter, though, did it? In the end, none of it would. It only meant real beauty. It was just truth. She knew. He snarled at her, silent, resentful. She knew. Was she him?
Yes. And you are me.
Mika was weaker than he, less disciplined. He found it fairly easy to manipulate her. Fairly easy to convince her to throw herself off the balcony. Fairly easy to murder her.
Schuldig stared down at her broken body cradled in the garden of lotus blossoms beneath, as if they had been waiting for her. Her fingers curled, still graceful, into crushed petals the color of her lips that would soon fade. A breeze sang through the garden then, lifting dislodged flower slips, pink points of stars, and they landed on the dead angel’s face, they adorned her eyes. Real beauty. But he was cold, and he forgot to breathe.
Eszett may not have killed him yet. But they certainly knew how to punish.
Schuldig left Kashmir without looking back.
“Kashmir is a special operation. It requires your talents alone.” The voice issued forth, genderless and monotonic, from impenetrable shadows. Standing in the judgmental halo of an unseen lamp (how archetypal, how