Part Ten

    When Schuldich is sent into a two day coma, there is no choice but to act.

    Ikida pulls me aside to tell me that things can't go on like this. He's not sure Schuldich can be salvaged anymore. It's been too long and Hoffmann has gone too far, pushing further bit by bit to toe the line of what he can and can't do. Ikida is honestly worried about Schuldich, and he is afraid it is already too late. He wants me to speak to Hoffmann, because his meetings with the Soul Shaker have done nothing. I know that Schuldich will recover- somehow or other- but I have to take Ikida's words to heart.

    A year is too long.

    A week, really, is too long for someone to have to bear the brunt of Hoffmann's hatred. To last a year?

    The fact that I have seen myself years down the road is what gives me the final push to do what I have to do, which is to stand before the Council and lie to their faces.

    I do not think I am exaggerating things when I say that I am probably the first person who has ever made the decision to do such a thing. This is not as simple as saying "Yes, the report is almost finished" even as one realizes that he is only a tenth of the way done. This is me walking through the rain to their tower to stand in front of them and tell them about a vision that never existed.

    I go there to put into words a story that I spent all night thinking through. My knowledge that I have a future past this point is what will allow me to deliver it with a calm heart and a smooth expression, leaving nothing there for Hoffmann to pick up on. I am supremely confident that I can get away with doing this, and I realize even as I step through the doors into their chambers that this is going to change everything.

    No one lies to the Council- not because they could never get away with it, but because it simply isn't done. The Council is Rosenkreuz, and our blood never dries on the contracts that bind us to it. There is nothing magical about such a contract but there doesn't need to be; we are the school's property in mind and soul and that is how it is supposed to be. We all know this and we accept it. We live and die for the Council's favor and the future of our school.

    But this…?

    I tell myself that this is indeed for Rosenkreuz, because the Council knows Schuldich must not die. There is something about him that is important to them, and therefore important to all of us. That means that I must protect him. My visions are centered so heavily around him that I know it is my job to watch out for him. I lost my sight over his future. Surely that is enough of a sign. Rosenkreuz needs him alive, and unless I do this, he will die and everything I have been given glimpses of will fall to dust.

    That does not justify lying to the Council, but desperate times call for desperate measures, as the saying goes.

    Lie to the Council once, and when does it end?

    ~It will,~ I tell myself, ~because I am not doing this for his sake; I am doing it for the futures I don't want to lose before I come to understand them. I am still Rosenkreuz's until death.~

    ~What a terrible prospect,~ I muse. I am not entirely where the thought comes from, but I squish it as I cross the room towards the Council's table. Maybe it started the first time I lost my sight and Hoffmann rewarded me by burning me with his gift, pushing me into the hard mattress of my hospital bed with his touch and weight. Maybe it started when these encounters continued. Maybe it started long before then, or maybe it started after watching a year of him tearing apart someone that the Council so desperately needs for its future.

    Whatever it is, it's there, and I realize as I come to a stop that it is time to go.

    I need to take Schuldich and leave here; I need to get him far away from his uncle so he can heal and I need to get me far enough away that I can learn to forget the bitter thoughts regarding Hoffmann. I am Rosenkreuz's. I am theirs until death. That's how it is supposed to be. What else would I be if not Oracle? To whom else would my life ever hold any value?

    "Councilmen," I say in greeting, forcing myself to focus on this meeting.

    "What brings you here, Oracle?" Ahmed wants to know, tapping his fingers on a stack of reports. None of them look pleased to be interrupted from their work by my presence.

    "If I may speak freely, Herr Hoffmann?" I ask, and he gives a bored wave of his hand. "I have come to request that the Council cease their work on Schuldich and assign him to the medical ward until he is healed. If this continues much longer, he will die. I have been watching my visions fall apart in anticipation of finding a new future."

    Silence follows that for a long minute.

    "Who are you to tell us what to do regarding the life of one telepath?" Mosuli asks at length.

    "Herr Mosuli, I intend no disrespect. I was given the order to watch over Schuldich and to keep him alive. I came here today acting on that. If my orders have changed, I will withdraw my suggestion."

    "What is his current status?" Jean asks, looking over at Hoffmann.

    The empath gives a bored shrug where he is slouched in his chair. He seems to rather enjoy slouching; maybe he does it to get on his colleagues' nerves. "He is comatose in the ward." Jean's lips thin at the news but he doesn't rebuke his companion while I am present. "He is still alive," Hoffmann makes sure to add.

    "And recovering?" Ahmed wants to know, looking at me.

    "He will recover if efforts are made to help him, Herr Ahmed. There are a number of steps in between where he is now and a semblance of sanity." Ahmed beckons for me to continue and I incline my head to him. "Ruiz and Heusinkveld will need to repress as much of this past year as they can and rewire his thoughts to move around it. This will cost them their lives; they will both die a short time after they are finished. Ruiz might last another year, but no longer. His piecemeal work thus far means the pair will have less work to do than I had previously forecast."

    "Two telepaths for the price of one?" Mosuli asks, sounding outraged. Hoffmann lifts a hand to quiet him; his blue stare is intense as he gazes at me. Ahmed gives another sharp beckon, ignoring the African's interruption.

    "I am asking to give up my duties as head instructor of your school, Councilmen," I continue. "It is unprecedented for one of your Five to be given such a position, but I am asking for field team status." Silence follows that and I continue. "I will take Schuldich away from here and train him myself, guiding him towards what I know he can become."

    "You don't honestly expect us to grant you that, do you?" Ahmed asks disbelievingly.

    Jean sends him a sideways look, picking his words more carefully than his companion. "It is indeed unheard of, and not a request we would have expected from Seraphim's son," he says, and his emphasis on the last two words has Ahmed grimacing even if I miss whatever he's referencing. "Be as that may, it is worth a thought. Would it be worth us breaking tradition?"

    "I have seen a future with him in it, sirs," I answer. "I have seen him flourishing."

    "As long as he is with you," Hoffmann adds.

    "Herr Hoffmann," I say, inclining head to him. "I cannot speak for his future if he stays here in Rosenkreuz; I can simply speak on the things that I have seen for myself. I see us years down the road and I do not recognize where we are. It is not Rosenkreuz's territory."

    "So kind of you to give us a formal request for something you already see happening," is Hoffmann's not-quite-amused drawl.

    It occurs to me that I don't even know if this child is worth saving. The Council wants him alive because of something Seraphim predicted, but I have seen *nothing* that indicates that he will do great things for them. All I have are snatches of interactions between the two of us, usually with him sending something insulting in my direction. Where is the actual work, I wonder?

    The Council remains silent for another minute, and then Hoffmann gives a wave of his hand. "We will discuss this amusing request amongst ourselves, Oracle, and send for you when we have reached a conclusion. For now, go back to your rooms. I do hope you have found a worthy successor to cover the school just in case we decide to allow you this."

    "Herr Hoffmann, I wonder if it is presumptuous of me to have already made plans…?"

    "Whatever. Get out, Oracle."

    I bow to them and take my leave, going back through the rain to the Prophets' Hall. It takes three hours before I am given the summons to return. The storm has gone from a steady downpour to a full out storm by the time I have my answer, and as I pause just outside the Hall to watch lightning rip through the sky, I idly wonder if I am to take it as a bad sign. I am a precognitive but not a cloud-reader; in the end I am too practical to worry about such an atmospheric mess.

    The Council formally assigns Schuldich to my side that evening, putting on paper what Hoffmann said months ago he would allow me. Also on the contract is the notice that I am to be made into a field team leader.

    All that is left is a name, and Hoffmann is tapping his pen against the desk as he eyes me. I keep my eyes on the paper, my gaze considering the blank spot where I am to provide a name. It is no trifle matter; it is a name that will be branded into both Schuldich and me beyond our deaths. Our unit name is more important than any other name they could assign us.

    For me, it is too easy to latch onto the most appropriate name.

    "Black black black black black…"

    Black for the room I am standing in, the darkness that leaves only the Councilmen themselves to add any sort of color. Black for the blindness, for the room I was assigned and the uniform I was to wear. Black for Schuldich stretched out in the moonlight with that broken smile on his face.

    I do not think I will ever know why the name brings such a satisfied look to the Councils' faces, but from that day forward, Schuldich and I are Schwarz.


    Heusinkveld is dead within three days of working on Schuldich's mind, and Ruiz never fully recovers. Schuldich is unconscious for most of the week after waking from his coma as his mind struggles to accept the changes forced upon it. Ikida helps that along by keeping him heavily medicated. The doctor was greatly relieved to hear that Hoffmann had relinquished his claim over Schuldich and seems less agitated these days than he has in a year. He runs himself and his medical staff ragged trying to put Schuldich back together, but it will still be weeks until he is well enough to leave. He has several broken bones, burns, and sprained muscles to recover from.

    Hoffmann keeps his distance out of necessity; it seems Schuldich can recognize the empath's presence even while unconscious. The first time Hoffmann came down to stare at him, the telepath began to panic even in his deep sleep. Hoffmann seemed satisfied by that, but Ikida was not as amused.

    I have six weeks to get the school ready to be turned over to someone else, a task not made any easier by the news that I am going to be leaving. The rest of the Five vary between amusement and exasperation at how often I have changed positions in the last two years. They still can't believe that I intend to make something of Rosenkreuz's shattered telepath, or that I really intend to do field work when I have their rank, but they have learned to expect the "impossible" from me by now.

    "If it is field team you want, he might as well demote you," Adrian says, folding his arms over his chest. "How do you expect to carry on field work and supervise your sector at the same time?"

    "Beyond that, how is a precognitive supposed to train a telepath?" Miguel wants to know, frowning at me. My four colleagues are spread out in my office, watching as I organize things for my departure. I would like to turn the school over to someone else in four weeks so that I can spend the remaining two actually working on getting things organized with wherever Schuldich and I are assigned. There is a lot to do.

    "I will take care of it," I assure them, skimming a stack of reports. "I always do."

    "Have you forgotten?" Elizabeth asks the two, a sly smile on her face. "Crawford could carry the world on his shoulders while playing rugby."

    "I daresay I would not make a good rugby player, Elizabeth, but your confidence in my abilities is heartening, I am sure."

    She just shakes her head at the dry tone of my voice. "Kids these days!" she says.

    "Does my age insult you?" I ask her, amused. At twenty-one years old, there is an age gap between all of us that ranges from fifteen to twenty-eight years. Elizabeth doesn't care less, I know, and Ricard finds it vaguely amusing. The other two are less than pleased by it.

    "Your face insults us further," is Ricard's easy response, and I offer him a thin smile in response to his amused grin.

    "Not for much longer, I assure you." I make little stacks on my desk and Elizabeth crosses the room to perch on the end of my desk. Long fingernails tuck her gray hair out of her face and she considers my work, watching as I make notes on the corners of paper.

    "What makes you think you will be less aggravating from further away?" she wants to know, lifting the nearest folder to flip idly through it.

    "I have no intention of becoming less aggravating," is my easy response, and she laughs.

    "I think you are leaving just to insult me," she says, putting the folder back down and eyeing me. "I will be fifty in three months, Crawford; it is unkind of you to leave before such an occasion. I was going to have Esperanza bring us some of the most glorious wine. Are you honestly going to leave me to party with just these old fools?"

    "More for us," Miguel points out.

    "Many happy returns," is all I give Elizabeth. Fifty is one of the only birthdays that truly matters at Rosenkreuz, as it is a feat if one makes it that far. Generally the only ones that do are those promoted up the ranks; those that make it in to field work are usually dead before they're forty. Elizabeth is the oldest of the Five and the closest to such a landmark, and I idly wonder how much longer she will live after that day. I can hear a telephone ringing, can feel cool fingers sliding over it.

    "I just wanted-" A girl's voice, lilting, thick with blood and pain.

    It is all that comes, just this flicker of a vision. I am not sure what it means, and I let it fall to the back of my thoughts.


    I go to meet Schuldich when he wakes, requesting to have the room to myself. Ikida is the last to leave, hesitating in the doorway for just a moment before stepping out and shutting the door behind him. I wonder idly if the man is this possessive of all of his patients; it seems to me that such an attachment would be foolish. Then again, perhaps he is one of the most valued doctors because he does such a thing. If he has an invested emotional interest, he will treat his patients with more than the clinical disregard that the rest of the staff acts with.

    I do not know; I am no doctor. I do not care; it is not worth my time to figure out.

    There is a stool beside Schuldich's bed and I sit there, folding my hands neatly in my lap. Schuldich is still unconscious, extremely pale against the white sheets he is lying on. Only his orange hair seems to give the room any color as it spills across the pillow around his head. It is a sight to see, still ragged and shorn from Hoffmann, but such a strikingly unusual color.

    ~Unprofessional,~ I decide.

    The minutes tick by as I wait patiently for him to stir. I know he will rouse; I just do not know the exact minute. I have been there for almost twelve minutes when his fingers finally twitch against the sheets. His lips thin, his eyebrows furrow, and I hear him make a low sound in his throat.

    I reach for the charts that hang from his bed, skimming the front page as Schuldich slowly comes to life. It takes just a moment to find what drugs he is on and I make a note to speak to Ikida about them. Likely they are the only ones Hoffmann would sign off on, but they seem entirely inadequate for what he has been going through. With a quiet sigh, I set the chart back where it belongs. The clipboard clacks against the metal supports of the bed and his eyes finally snap open.

    Green and honey brown meet and hold; Schuldich is tense where he lies stretched out in bed. Silence stretches between us for a long minute and he doesn't relax.

    "You have been sleeping a long time," I tell him. He doesn't answer, and I don't give him long to think of a response. "You will be the better for it." I consider the machinery set up around his bed, watching numbers and lines flit back and forth. The beeping gets rather monotonous after a while, but at least I am not the one who has to lie in here and listen to it nonstop. It seems to me like an auditory Chinese water torture. I've never been able to appreciate hospitals; it is rather good for me that I have never had the need to stay in one. I do not imagine that I would like it.

    "Do you know who you are?" I ask him, finding nothing significant in readings I can only dimly understand, and I look back towards him. He doesn't answer that immediately, but the look on his face tells me that it's not out of defiance. There's a detached sort of confusion in his gaze and his lips pull into a frown. "Tell me your name," I say.

    He looks away from me, looking up towards the ceiling as if for inspiration, then around at the machinery. Broken fingers- how many times has Hoffmann broken them this year?- twitch against the sheet again, straining slightly against their casts.

    "I am…" He trails off uncertainly.

    "Relax," I tell him, and if my voice isn't reassuring, at least it is calm. "Just relax and breathe. You are safe now."

    "Safe?" is the whisper.

    The smile on his face is broken and bitter, the look of someone who does not know what the word "safe" means, the look of someone who could never believe such a thing exists.

    "Do you know who I am?" I ask him, and he looks back to me. "I am Crawford, also Oracle of Schwarz. I am going to take you away from here."

    "You…" He starts to push himself up but he doesn't have the strength for it, and I watch his expression twist in pain as he collapses back to the sheets.

    "Lie still. You are not well enough to be moving around." His breathing is ragged as he looks back to me, and I reach up to push my glasses further up on my nose. "You are very sick right now," I remind him. "You need more time to heal. Ikida and his team will be supervising your recovery."

    "Where am I?" Schuldich wants to know, and the question comes out hoarse. "How long have I been here? Why can't I remember anything?"

    "I am sure there is plenty you still remember," I inform him. "Your telepathic mentors could not repress everything. The rest that remains out of your reach has been hidden by your own mind in an effort to protect you. I would not suggest that you reach for it any time soon; it will come back to you when it wishes and you will be unhappy for the reminder. Because you asked, however, you have been here in the ward for two weeks now and here at Rosenkreuz for a year and five days."

    "Rosen…" He can't get the rest out; he chokes on the name. "You- you were-"

    I keep my sigh to myself as he pushes himself back upright, neatly sliding off of my stool and catching his shoulder before he can fall down again. I give him the slightest pull, just enough to tip him forward. When he throws up, it is onto the sheets around him instead of onto himself, and I keep him steady as he coughs and chokes. I can feel him shaking beneath my fingers.

    "You were there- you were there- You- This is your fault-" he gasps out.

    "You have yet to learn the extent of it," I assure him. "Now settle down."

    He lets me prop him against the headboard only because he doesn't have the strength to fight me, and he stares at me through splintered green eyes as I return to my stool. "I will start again," I say. "I am a precognitive here at Rosenkreuz who was called upon by the Council to investigate your potential. On my recommendation and assurance that your gift could be controlled, you were brought here. It is my job to make sure that your gift stabilizes before it eats your mind."

    "Gift?" he echoes disbelievingly, and he gives a strangled laugh. The cut on his lip opens again as his lips twist in a grimace and he curls his fingers in his hair, hissing at the pain of moving his hands. "Gift? This is not a gift! This is not a gift! He-" He chokes on whatever else he could say, giving a high-pitched, frantic sound, and he shakes his head frantically. "He-"

    I reach out and press the button to call Ikida just as enough of Schuldich's mind clicks in place for him to scream. I don't know what he's remembering but I don't have to, and I remain seated as Ikida comes flying in to sedate him. Schuldich fights him, too out of it to remember where he is, and I watch as the Japanese doctor injects something directly into his IV. He has to hold the telepath down while it kicks in and Schuldich's pleading with him, disconnected from this moment and stuck in a year of torture.

    "Don't touch me don't touch me don't touch me—!"

    It takes almost a minute for the medicine to kick in and Schuldich goes limp against the sheets. Ikida straightens and fixes his coat, looking across the bed at me.

    "I want to talk to you about his medication," I say, reaching for the charts again. I give no explanation for Schuldich's sudden panic and Ikida asks for none; whether it is my rank or his experience dealing with this sort of outburst from Schuldich that keeps him quiet, I don't know. I tap my finger against the line that details his drugs. "These are not sufficient."

    "It was what was recommended to me, Oracle."

    "Speak bluntly with me, Ikida. This child is to be under my supervision. Don't mince your words."

    Ikida considers that for a long moment, then slides his hands into his pockets. His expression relaxes, but only slightly. "No," he agrees. "They are not sufficient, but that is all my ward is receiving funding for to take care of him. It is the best I can give him."

    "What of Nikolai's medication?" I want to know.

    "The Athlon?" Ikida asks, seeming a little surprised that I would know about it. "It is still a revolutionary drug, Crawford, far too advanced and expensive to be dispersing on a whim."

    "How much?"

    "Herr Nikolai took them once a day and it cost us nearly five hundred dollars for every pill he swallowed," Ikida answers with a slight shrug. "They are the strongest thing we have to offer, but the Council is considering slashing the research from our budget. We do not have enough telepaths to continue trying to refine it."

    "No," I tell him, pulling a pen out of my pocket. I make notes beneath the line of medications and Ikida watches with a blank look on his face when I sign my name to it in a perfect scrawl. "If Chizuru's group actually succeeds, then we will be breeding telepaths to the point that they can keep up with the rest of the ranks in numbers. I will use this as an argument before the Council. Until then, I want everything you have left to be assigned to Schwarz."

    "Schwarz," Ikida echoes.

    "We are Schwarz," I inform him, handing over the clipboard. He takes it after just the slightest hesitation. "The Council has signed Schuldich over to my care; the announcement has not been made to the school but the Five and the Council are preparing for it. That is why Hoffmann released him to you; as soon as he is well enough to stand, we are leaving."

    "Leaving Rosenkreuz?" Ikida asks. "You can't expect him to survive on the outside world, not in the state he's in…!"

    "He will survive," I assure him, rising to my feet and slipping my hands into my own pockets. "He will do very well with me. Schwarz's account is already set up. I want you to bill a month's supply to it." A glance at the pale form on the bed drives me to add, "While he is in your care, you will administer them to him. When he is released from this ward, the pills are to be handed to me. I will make sure he takes them appropriately."

    "Oracle, I would not recommend removing him from Rosenkreuz, not with his mind in the state it is in. His *shields*-"

    "Ikida, you are allowed to make such statements due to your position as his personal doctor, but I am not entitled to heed them. If you have complaints, file them with the Council. They will choose in my favor, but it might help you sleep at night if you go through such a formality."

    "It is not in my nature to question a precognitive's common sense, Crawford, but I am afraid that I will have to this time." He scratches a few notes on the charts alongside my signature. "The Athlon will be processed and prepared, and I will speak to the Council tonight."

    "Of course," I say calmly, and I leave him there to think this through.

    Hoffmann comes by later that night to tell me that Ikida did indeed go before the Council to argue on Schuldich's behalf. They heard him out and then rejected him in my favor. Hoffmann offers me a lazy smile where he's sitting on the edge of my desk and he reaches out to snag me by my coat, dragging me closer. He hooks a finger around my tie to pull me the rest of the way, until I am standing between his spread legs. I keep my gaze on his shoulder but I can feel his breath on my throat, and a prickling line of heat runs over my cheek and down my spine.

    "It is probably good that you are going," Hoffmann decides, "before I grow bored enough to grow fond of you. You will not be coming back to Rosenkreuz, after all."

    "The Council has but to ask and I would return to Austria, Herr Hoffmann, I tell him, and he beckons at my jacket. I know what he wants by now and reach up, undoing the buttons and letting it slide down my arms to the ground. Hoffmann leans forward to press a kiss to the underside of my chin and I feel the skin give way beneath his touch. Blood trickles down my throat and he licks it away.

    "No," he says. "The Council will give you free reign over your team. We have little to do with you now. I would suggest that you stay under Estet's radar until that rat is healed, however. You do not have the training for a field team, Oracle; you do not have the experience. When was the last time you held a gun?"

    "I carried one on me in China, Herr Hoffmann."

    "That is not good enough," he says dismissively, prying the buttons on my shirt open. "I want you to take two weeks off starting tomorrow and go to Germany to rendezvous with Manie. They have work to do soon; you will be with them through the planning and execution. Tell me that you understand, Oracle."

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann," I say, because I have no other choice, but I think of the classes and meetings I will have to reschedule and cover- and the work that will pile up in my absence. "I will make the most of my experience with them."

    "I know you will," he assures me, watching my face as his hands touch bare skin and leave bloody slits behind. Fingers slide up over my chest and skin peels away beneath his touch, leaving shallow cuts just deep enough to bleed. "You know better than to do anything else because you know what I would do to you. You have watched over Schuldich for a year; you know I would not hesitate to do the same to you if you ever gave me a reason."

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    "Good." He bites down hard on the cut on my throat and I feel the muscles in my back tighten at the sharp pain. "So special, aren't you? So proud, so dignified. So arrogant, with your eyes trained ever-forward to things the rest of us cannot see. But haven't you figured it out by now? I do not have to see the future; I do not have to know what is coming. The future matters nothing to someone like me because I am god of the present. You understand this, don't you?"

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    "Then pay homage to your god," he murmurs against my lips, and I can feel the warmth and wet of my own blood as our mouths brush, "on your knees."

Part 11
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