At one-fifteen I am standing by the window, watching as a cab pulls up to the curb across the street. The door swings open to let a gangly man out onto the sidewalk, and I push the curtain further open as I examine our assigned bouncer. The distance between the far sidewalk and my window is not enough to hide his irritation; I can see it on his face and in the way he shoves money rudely at his driver. He has a simple black bag that he slings over his shoulder and he stalks towards the door to let him into Alex's office.
"That's him?" Schuldich asks where he's come up behind me. He peers over my arm to watch the door swing shut behind the other.
"That's him," I affirm. "We're going."
"Death is a good way to start the afternoon," Schuldich decides, starting for the door.
"Indeed," I answer, though we're thinking about two entirely different deaths. The telepath waits a short distance down in the hall while I make sure our hotel door is locked and we take the stairs down. The crosswalk is blinking when we reach the curb but we cross anyway, reaching the other side just as it turns red.
The telekinetic secretary gets to her feet as we enter and bows over the desk. "Oracle," she greets. "Shall I call up to Yun Fat and let him know you are here?"
"There is no need," I answer, though I know that a simple phone call would be enough to alter this future. One phone call could save a life, but out of everything that Estet and Rosenkreuz trade in, death is the easiest currency to come by. A phone call could save a life, but a death could mean a lot more. I feel no regret for what's coming; I have no sympathy to spare.
She waits until we have reached the stairs before straightening, but I know she will not sit until we're out of sight. I lead Schuldich up to the second floor and the door opens as easily for us today as it did yesterday. Today, however, things are different. This office always runs on some sort of tension, but it is usually purposeful and organized. While I was here, there was not much of a chance for upsets, considering my precognition. Even though Alex and O'Donnell don't have that sort of warning system anymore, I trust them both to be competent enough that this office never has to kick into panic mode.
This isn't panic mode, but it is unwanted just the same. I can hear phones ringing from the offices, but there are fewer voices. The workers here are more fixed on what has just swept into their leading Talent's office, and I can spot two Talents in doorways as they stare down the hall. They look our way when they hear the door open and one moves as if to knock on Alex's door, wanting to alert them.
"That is unnecessary, Kipling," I say, lifting my voice just enough for her to hear me before she can reach the door. She goes still, and after a glance towards her companion, retreats back into the doorway.
"Oracle," she greets.
I can hear muffled voices through Alex's door even from here. Even if I cannot make out the words, the strident tones of anger and indignation are clear enough. I motion to the two to return to their work and they bow out of sight, leaving our path clear. Alex's door is still open a crack where the pyrokinetic didn't shut the door all of the way, and I know already that Alex is going to be too distracted with his guest to stop me from opening it. I give it one hard push, enough to slam it up against the inside wall without bouncing back off and swinging closed again.
The office goes silent.
"Pyren," I greet. "It is good of you to join us."
The pyrokinetic stares at me for a long moment before looking back at Alex. Alex's expression is twisted and dark with annoyance and he gives the bouncer a dirty look. "This is him?" Pyren wants to know, looking back at me. He forcibly erases the scowl from his mouth, but it doesn't leave his eyes. "You're Oracle."
I can sympathize with Alex's irritation even if I cannot condone his quick temper. Bouncers were always a tricky section to work with. As this office is more political based, they fall neither under our jurisdiction here or at our Shanghai office, nor Shih Yen's corporate and financial branch on the other side of the city. They don't even have a field team to answer to, which means that although they can be called on by anyone to run jobs, they tend to claim only to answer to the Five for wrongdoings.
"I am Oracle," I agree.
"You're Herr Hoffmann's replacement."
"I have been for some time now," I answer.
"Five don't work on field times," he tells me.
"Is that what you were taught?" I ask.
"Everyone is taught that," he sends back, propping his hands on his hips and peering at me. "It isn't done. You should still be in Austria, Herr Oracle."
"It is not for a bouncer to decide where the Five should and should not be," I remind him, and he has nothing to say to that. "Are we going to have problems on this run, Pyren?" When he still doesn't answer, I beckon to him. "That was not a rhetorical question."
He manages to look irritated and uneasy at the same time and he throws another glance at Alex. "Yes," he answers. "We are." I don't answer that and he lets the silence stretch between us before he decides that means he's supposed to elaborate. "One of the Five is running a job as a field team leader. I am a bouncer; it is my job to lead and train teams, not to train the Five. The ranks are too uneven between us. Besides, precognition shouldn't be on the field anyway, no matter who wields it. And a telepath?" The more he says, the more he thinks of to say, and his words get faster and more agitated. He stabs a finger past me to where Schuldich is waiting at my elbow. "This job is a disaster waiting to happen."
Silence settles in the office again. O'Donnell is watching Pyren with a hostile look on his face. Alex and Pyren are looking at me. I can hear a clock ticking; I can hear the phones further down the hall. The prickling of eyes on the back of my head tells me that we've attracted a curious audience from the other offices.
"Such a pessimistic outlook," I muse.
"It is my truthful assessment," he answers, "after six years of being a bouncer."
"Six years," I echo. "A fine accomplishment, I am sure. I have read your files. I've seen your statistics. You're rated among the top of the bouncers in Asia, but I'm sure you know that by now. However… I find myself disappointed with the reality."
He twitches a little at that and I lean to one side just enough to rest my shoulder against the doorframe. I fold my arms over my chest and offer him a calm look. "Out of curiosity, Pyren, do you suppose you would say the same things to Hoffmann if he were to have walked in here in my place with Schuldich at his side?"
The pyrokinetic gives a little flinch as he mentally scrabbles for an answer. "Herr Hoffmann is an empath," he says.
"That is not an answer," I tell him. "I want a yes or no."
He hisses air through his teeth, watching me carefully. "No," he answers. "Oracle."
"And yet he was one of the Five," I point out. "If he was a Five still and he walked through this door, would you tell him that he was wrong?"
"Then you're saying you have double standards for what the Five can and cannot do, based on their gifts."
"No one tells Herr Hoffmann no," Pyren protests, but he grimaces as soon as he says it.
I give him exactly what he knows is coming. "Then why do you suppose that you can tell me no?"
"You're a precognitive," he says.
"Correct." I lift my hand to my face, pressing a finger to my temple. "I am a level eight precognitive. I suppose you have not had a lot of practice with prescients, but maybe you can take a guess at what my power is capable of. Do you not think that I would be able to see the outcome of the job?"
"I have faith in your precognition, Oracle."
"Except that you don't," I tell him, letting a hard edge into my voice. "You came here to argue with Alex about your assignment to Schwarz and you told me to my face that this job I have hired you for is a disaster waiting to happen. Your words, Pyren," I remind him when he opens his mouth to speak. He tries again to defend himself, but I silence him with a look. "Tell me, Pyren. Is it my gift or my rank that you doubt?"
"Neither," he says.
"Do not lie to me," I say.
"I have problems with your telepath," Pyren says, a last ditch attempt to redeem himself that isn't completely false. "Telepaths are an open path to madness."
"You are saying that he is a liability."
"Every telepath is. Alex says he hasn't even gone through Rosenkreuz's training."
"And therefore he will be our downfall," I conclude.
There's a tense pause before he answers, "If you see it as such."
"If I see it," I agree. "And yet, I have called you here just the same with the intention of running this job. Tell me if I am putting the pieces together incorrectly. You claim to have faith in my rank and my power enough that I will not be a hindrance to your fine record on this job, yet you imply that I would have overlooked the stability of my teammate. I admit I am a little confused."
"It's not that-"
"I don't believe in double standards, Pyren," I tell him. "Your problem is not simply in my gift or Schuldich but in my rank and the fact that I have replaced Hoffmann as your superior. You do not like taking orders from someone five years younger than you and you find it ridiculous that a precognitive replaced an empath as one of the Five. By spurning me you are by extension implying that Hoffmann is not fit to choose his own successor."
"I didn't say that."
"You meant it," I inform him, and he has nothing to say to that. I shift my attention past him to Alex. "There is a telekinetic returning from a break in Rosenkreuz," I tell him. "Ferdinand, rank five. He is landing in Seoul in twenty-six minutes. I would appreciate your placing a call to his escort to turn him around and put him on a plane here. He will do just fine for our purposes."
"I am more than suitable enough to-" Pyren starts, but he cuts himself off when I look back at him.
"Rosenkreuz is rushing forward towards a glorious future," I tell him. "Everything that happens, happens because every soul of Rosenkreuz, from the newly recruited to the Five to the field man dying on his job, believes in that future. All over the world our people are bleeding, killing, and dying to make that future happen. They believe in each other, Pyren. They believe in Rosenkreuz. They believe in Estet. But you? You believe in nothing but your own prowess, and Rosenkreuz does not have room for people like you anymore."
Pyren's shoulders are tense. He looks from me to Alex to Schuldich. "Just like that?" he asks, a funny edge to his voice. "I've put fourteen years into Rosenkreuz, and just because the Five has an obsession with an insane telepath—"
"That is more than enough," Alex says, but there's not much else Pyren can say to make this worse. His fate is already decided. "Crawford, are you doing it or am I?"
Maybe it's that casual debate over which one of us is going to kill him; maybe it's the human part of him that has just realized he is about to die. Either way, Pyren reacts exactly the way I knew he would. I feel the air twist and I can see it ripple. It rips towards us fast enough that I would be too late to move if I didn't know it was coming. Either way, I reach out, locking my calm expression in place as I put my arm right in the path of the twisting air.
The fire was meant for Schuldich's face, but it ignites against the first thing it touches- my arm. Alex doesn't have to wait on an answer anymore. The second he sees flames burst to life and realizes what Pyren has just done he turns on the pyrokinetic. He's too slow; Schuldich is already moving. The telepath's arm snaps out underneath mine and his finger squeezes the trigger twice in rapid succession. I watch the bullets gut Pyren's head; the mess splatters against an invisible wall in front of Alex at the same time that the telekinetic's power rips all of the air away from my arm. There's a popping sound as he tears the air open and the fire goes out immediately.
For a moment there's absolute silence, and then Pyren's body hits the ground with a heavy thud. Alex explodes just a moment later. "What the fuck?!" he yells at me, furious. "What the fuck are you trying to prove, Crawford? He could have taken your goddamned arm off!"
"I have faith in your telekinesis," I answer, lowering my arm. It is stopped on its downward journey and I glance over at my teammate. His arm is still out from firing and his green eyes are a little wild at the near-miss and my easy shielding of the blow meant for him. He flicks a quick look up at me when our arms touch and then lets his fall away. Alex is already storming across the room towards us, kicking one of Pyren's legs out of his way as he goes. He grabs at my wrist and pulls my arm up again, staring at the charred material.
"It is not serious," I tell him, reaching out and pulling his hand free. "As soon as he saw my arm come up, he pulled back what he could."
"You're still burned," Alex tells me hotly.
"It will not scar." I consider the blackened material of my sleeve and the glistening skin beneath. "My new escort, Alex, if you will."
"Fucking hell," Alex whispers hoarsely, eyes still on my arm. I don't bother to remind him what he's supposed to be doing; he pulls himself together just a moment later and turns sharply away.
O'Donnell presses the intercom button on his desk. When he speaks, I can hear his voice in the offices down the hall behind us. "Mally, get out your kit. Jamison, get rid of this damn body." He lets go of the button and looks towards me. "Oracle, if you would let Mally tend to your arm…"
"I know where her office is," I answer, and I turn away. Alex is already on the phone, snarling at whoever is on the other line. Schuldich's eyes are on my arm as I turn his way and I beckon for him to go ahead of me, ignoring the way it hurts to move my arm. "Third office on the right," I tell him.
"He…" Schuldich says, looking up at me. He swallows the rest of whatever he wants to say when he sees the serene look on my face and instead turns away. The hall is full of silent Talents, and I arch an eyebrow at them.
"Your phones are ringing," I say.
"Oracle," one of them breathes, lifting his hand to his heart. "To the Five. To the Council. To Rosenkreuz. To the future you bring us."
"I bring nothing," I answer him. "I simply make sure that you do."
"To the Five," he says just the same, and this time others join in. "To the Council. To Rosenkreuz."
I answer their pledges with silence, because I expect no less than this loyalty from them. These are men and women I helped pick and train in Asia. I would accept nothing less than what they are. Instead I follow Schuldich down the hall to the room where Mally keeps the unit's aid kit. The unit's empath meets us in the hallway and inclines her head to me, extending her hand our way. "Crawford, if you would allow me, my gift can take care of that."
"That is not necessary," I answer.
Mally knows better than to argue and instead precedes us into the room. The kit is waiting on a desk and she crosses the room to it with long strides. It's dusty from disuse but the inside is packed with a wide assortment of things, enough to take care of one slightly burned arm. Schuldich is directed to a seat across from me and I shrug out of my suit without Mally's help, ignoring the way pain lances up the limb. Mally's gaze flicks between my arm and my face as her gift tracks the pain, but she says nothing.
I fold my coat neatly over the back of my chair and sit, resting my arm on the table for her. She undoes the button of the cuff of my sleeve and carefully rolls it up. I let her do what she needs to do and look towards Schuldich, considering the tense set to his expression.
"Now," I say, and he looks up from my arm to meet my gaze, "do you understand at last the difference between disrespect and an unpleasant attitude?"
"Was that supposed to be a lesson, Crawford?" he asks in low English. "He burned your arm."
"It is better that my arm is burned than your face," I answer, switching languages easily. Mally can only speak Korean and German, but she says nothing about us carrying on a conversation that she cannot understand. She doesn't even glance up at the sound of the foreign words, more intent on cleaning and bandaging my arm.
"Why?" Schuldich wants to know, searching my eyes for an answer he can understand and accept. "Why?"
"Do you know why I took you from Rosenkreuz, Schuldich?" I ask, and he hesitates and shakes his head. "Because you are a tool, just as I am a tool. We are Talents. We have one purpose in this world, and that is to use our gifts for the good of Rosenkreuz. As a precognitive and one of the Five, it is my job to make this world what Rosenkreuz wants it to be. Everything I have done in my life has been for that goal."
"And me?" Schuldich asks.
"You're just another step in the ladder," I answer. "You are just someone else that I am to use and cultivate."
Silence follows that. Schuldich looks back at my arm, watching as Mally bandages it. "Tell me that you accept it," I tell him. "I saved you just to use you and it doesn't matter how much you hate him. You will still fight and bleed for him because he is Rosenkreuz, just as you are Rosenkreuz. And if the time comes for you to die, you will die for him."
It's almost too quiet to hear, and Schuldich looks back at me. Green eyes are almost too bright, sharp with anger and something else I can't quite name, something not quite hatred. "No," he says again. "You took me out of Rosenkreuz, so I will do what you tell me to do. I'll fight, I'll bleed, I'll kill, I'll learn any language you try to shove down my throat. If you say it's for Rosenkreuz, then it is, but I'll only accept that because you've told me to.
"But my death? I will die for no one, Crawford, especially not him. You told me that Alex would die for you if you told him to. Fine. I won't be outdone. You saved me from Rosenkreuz and you've put in me in Schwarz. It's all I have and probably all I'll ever have. So if you tell me to die, then I'll die on your word. But I won't be doing it for them- not for them and not for you. Can *you* accept *that*?"
"That is good enough for now," I answer.
He has nothing to say to that immediately. Mally finishes her work and I excuse her. She goes quietly and Schuldich watches her silent exit before looking back at me. There's a curious glint to his eyes, something distant and searching. It's a gleam I've been waiting for. "Do you use everyone, Crawford?" he asks.
"Of course," I return easily. "Why should you be special?"
He smiles in answer to that. It's a familiar expression even if it doesn't stretch as wide on his face as I know it will in the future. It's cold and distant and he doesn't know enough yet to hide the self-mockery from it. "I'm not," he tells me. "But I don't have to be."
I just nod and look at my watch. "Our new bouncer will be here in three hours. You are free until then. At half past four I expect you to be back on this floor. The secretary downstairs will call up to someone here to open the door for you."
"Of course, Oracle," he answers, and he gets to his feet. I don't watch him leave. It is the last time he will ever call me Oracle to my face; I can hear it in his voice. I hear his footsteps down the hall but the sound of the door opening and closing is drowned out by the other noises of the office.
"Crawford," Alex says, stepping into the doorway. "Hoffmann is on the phone for you."
I rise from my chair and slide the sleeve back down over my arm. Alex doesn't budge immediately from the doorway, content instead to fix me with a hard look. He's calmer now than he was when I left him, but disapproval is clear in his expression. "I'm not dumb enough to think you didn't see that coming," he tells me, "but if you ever get hurt in this office ever again just to prove a point, I'll kill you myself."
"Your concern is astounding," I answer dryly, and he scowls and steps out of my way.
Schuldich doesn't come back until four thirty-nine. He does it on purpose. I know he does, and he knows I know he does. Even still, I say nothing about the tardiness and instead introduce him to our newest bouncer. Schuldich has nothing to say to the man.
The job goes off without a hitch, and the telekinetic reports back to the Council that we are fit for full field team status. Usually such a recommendation would go to the Five, but my presence makes it a special case. Hoffmann stamps off on it and I have messages from the rest of the Five waiting on my computer when Schuldich and I return to our base. They range from disapproving to amused, and I delete all of them.
Two weeks later, Schuldich and I finally leave China behind us.
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