Part Eleven

    Seeing in your mind that someone is going to get blown to pieces doesn't quite match up to seeing it in real life, especially when said someone happens to blow up five feet from where you're standing.

    Actually, "blow up" is the wrong term for it. It's dismemberment and disemboweling all in one go, and Kristof calls it art. He has honed his telekinesis to the point that he can just completely rip our targets apart. I've seen Mosuli cut people open with his gift but as a member of the more political and administrative side of Rosenkreuz, this is something entirely new. I must say it is a bit of an eye opener to what my new job will require of me, but I expect Schwarz will be a lot less messy, seeing as how we consist of a less the destructive gifts of precognition and telepathy.

    It is lucky for Kristof, however, that he has learned to control the blood as well has he has his gift; instead of spraying out in all directions, it shoots just up and down. It keeps it from splattering on those of us standing nearby, though it takes another step or two back to get away from it as it streams across the floor.

    "Pop goes the weasel," Kristof says, and he sends me a sideways look.

    "Indeed," I return, and he offers me the vaguest of smirks.

    Manie still is not sure how to handle my presence. I have been with them for a week and a half now and it has taken some readjustment for all of us. I am not used to this line of work and they do not know what to make of having one of the Five on their hands. They are not used to having an extra body to watch out for and they're nervous about being saddled with training responsibilities for someone like me. It keeps them on their toes as they remember to be respectful, but it is an odd juggle for them to be both submissive and authoritative.

    I gave them permission to speak bluntly after three days of watching them stumble over themselves, but it has done little to make things easier. They still remember my rank before they remember that I must learn the tricks of their trade. Only Sarah, their team leader, is willing to hash things out with me, and she only does that when we are alone. She absolutely refuses to call me to order if there are witnesses.

    It has been a rather long ten days; there is a lot to learn and a lot to do. Nevertheless, I feel confident in my adaptation. It does require a lot of thought, though, as to what differences the power will make. Manie is a three person team consisting of a telekinetic, a pyrokinetic, and a teleporter. I will have myself and Schuldich to take into account- one level eight precognitive and one unranked telepath who is trying to recover from a year of torture.

    I think it is safe to say that things will be bumpy for a while between us, but I can look past primary issues to the things I know we'll be able to accomplish together.

    Sarah leaves little spots of blood behind as she starts for the door; the spiky heels of her shoes catch the edge of the puddle on her way out. "We're finished here," she says, voice flat and ringing with authority. "Let's move out, Manie."

    Sarah's car is one of only five in the parking garage, and our footsteps echo through the corridor as we make our way towards it. Sarah drives while I ride passenger, and we smell faintly of blood and death. We don't have to worry about security cameras tracking us as we leave; Kristof destroyed them all on our way in. Telekinesis appears to be a handy gift, and I make a mental note to enlist a telekinetic if I can ever stabilize Schuldich enough to handle teammates.

    A flicker of dark blue eyes and brown hair; a face tilting towards mine. Lips move around words I can't read; liquid sounds echo in my mind that I can't understand.

    Apparently I will be getting a telekinetic, which means that Schuldich will be just fine. How he's going to recover from what Hoffmann's done to him, I'm not sure, but I have a feeling it will be aggravating to help walk him through it. The Council needs him up and running, and so do I. But if I cannot risk him staying around Rosenkreuz to heal, it means I will have the distasteful task of de-traumatizing him. At least it will be better than staying here as a professor. I may have made the school more efficient and the teachers more competent, but my colleagues are still dull company.

    Jackie rolls down a window in the back and lights a cigarette. The breeze isn't enough to completely erase the scent of smoke, but at least the smoke helps to cover up the blood somewhat.

    "Nice of you to offer one to everyone," Kristof says, and I can see in the mirror of my sunshade where Jackie answers with his free hand. The teleporter is mute, which actually made this team one of the easiest ones to put together. According to the files I read on Manie's assassins, Kristof and Jackie entered Rosenkreuz around the same time and Kristof was the only one in the entire compound that knew sign language. If it weren't for Jackie's high ranking as a teleporter, he would have been disposed of long ago, but both that and the lucky presence of someone who could communicate with him ensured that he had a place. The pair was Sarah's first choice, if only because she knew before she met them that they knew how to work together.

    In the depths of my mind where only Hoffmann's power would be strong enough to feel it, I am relieved by the company of both Manie and this particular pair. Although my work is piling up in my absence, it is good to be outside of Rosenkreuz's shuttered corridors. This team reminds me of China's quarters, in a way: they know how to work together and trust each other. It isn't much of a stretch to guess that they are more of a team than Alex and my people were. These three have been guarding each other's backs for years. They know what it means to be a cohesive unit, and the pair has no problems listening to Sarah's orders. It's a lot more than I can say for the teachers and staff at Rosenkreuz.

    "I know I don't smoke," Kristof sends back at his teammate. "It still would have been civil to offer."

    Jackie answers with a single finger, and Kristof returns the gesture easily. Jackie blows smoke out the window and replaces his cigarette between his lips, and I watch in the mirror idly as his hands move. There's no answer from Kristof, and a look towards the side mirror just outside my window gives me a glimpse of the telekinetic. He's answering with his hands, something I've only seen once in the time I've been here.

    "Sometimes I think I should learn sign language," Sarah says, noticing my distraction as she's checking the next lane for cars. "It makes me wonder what they're saying about me where I can't hear it."

    "Jackie says your breasts look even bouncier today than normal," Kristof supplies helpfully without slowing down his hands. Jackie bares his teeth at him in response, and the telekinetic just grins. "And that he thinks you're perpetually cold."

    "Do you want to walk home, Kristof?" Sarah asks, sending him the evil eye.

    "He said it, not me," Kristof answers.

    "Even if he did, he would just teleport himself home, so there's no point in kicking him out of the car."

    "That's true," Kristof muses.

    Jackie abandons the silent conversation for a moment, leaning forward between the seats to offer Sarah a thumbs-up. "I know he's a liar," Sarah assures him. "I haven't known him as long as you have, but I'm not that slow to catch on."

    Jackie offers Kristof a smirk, relaxing back into his seat. Kristof just sighs and shrugs. "All right, all right," he concedes, and at first I think he's admitting his lie to Sarah. Instead he scoots into the middle seat and leans forward, closing one hand on the edge of Sarah's seat to peer at me. "Oracle?" he asks. "I have a message from Jackie."


    Kristof looks back at Jackie, who just motions for him to proceed. The telekinetic grimaces at him before looking back my way. "He suggests that you amend your wardrobe before taking on a field team."

    "Hold your tongue," Sarah says flatly, sending him a quelling look. "Jackie-"

    "It's quite all right," I tell her. I can see some of the tension ease out of Kristof's shoulders, but his fingers don't relax where they're holding onto his leader's chair. Past him, Jackie seems to have no regrets about saying such a thing to one of the Five. His fingers are laced together and he rests his head against the window as he considers me. "This is fine."

    Kristof glances at Sarah before continuing. "He has concerns about the blood staining your light clothes. It doesn't wash out easily."

    "That is my concern," I tell him.

    "Yes," Kristof agrees, and he retreats back to his own seat with one last signaled message at Jackie. Jackie just shrugs and turns his gaze out the window.

    "My apologies," Sarah says.

    "There is no offense taken by it," I answer, considering the rose ahead of us. "I am interning with Manie so that I will learn how to handle a demolitions team of my own. You are a team, but you each have your own individual views on how things are done as well. What one of you thinks is obvious, the other might miss or have a counterpoint. I have been given weaponry tips from your telekinetic and various tactics insights from yourself. It is a relief to finally be worth your final teammate's consideration."

    "He's not ignoring you," Kristof protests.

    "Then do not argue with him when he wishes you to speak to me from him," I answer.

    Kristof doesn't have a response for that, but Jackie does. Kristof just sighs at whatever his teammate has to offer him. "Understood, Oracle."

    The rest of the ride back is quiet for the most part. Jackie has dozed off before we arrive and Sarah and I leave Kristof to wake him and head inside. Manie has a small one-floor house in a quiet suburb. Their neighbors are simple people living simple lies, a far cry from the death and madness in Manie's house. Sarah has her own room while the two men share, but she has moved to a cot in her office to give me her space. It is this office that we head to, and Sarah watches as I file Manie's report. There are two copies: one that is entered into Rosenkreuz's system and one on paper. Rosenkreuz trusts technology only so far. They would rather have files that they can hold and touch.

    I turn over the paper copy to Sarah to double-check and her lips quirk into a wry grin. "Your handwriting is better than mine," she says.

    "There is a lot of paperwork involved with running Rosenkreuz's school. I have had plenty of time to practice."

    "Rosenkreuz's school…?" Sarah echoes, sending me a quick look.

    "I made a note to replace the former leadership. I have been headmaster there for over a year and a half now."

    She looks like she's just swallowed a rock. "We were told when you ascended to one of the Five, but…"

    "It didn't need to be broadcast," I answer.

    She returns her gaze to the report, but her expression is no less troubled. "It's hard to keep track of what's going on in Rosenkreuz," she admits. "Now and then they remember to send us bulletins, but for the most part, we're left out of the loop. It doesn't pertain to us; our focus is supposed to be on the mission work. But we still come from Rosenkreuz and work for Rosenkreuz, and we don't forget that even if Rosenkreuz forgets about us."

    "Rosenkreuz remembers the hard work of its field units," I tell her. "They embody the success of the Rosenkreuz school. Do not worry about the politics of the place or the happenings within its walls. Rosenkreuz is the past and the teams are the future."

    "Spoken like a precognitive," she murmurs.

    "Rosenkreuz's goal is to craft teams like yours," I tell her. "Yours in particular, in my opinion." She sends me a hesitant look, not really sure what I am getting at. "You have made a strong team," I tell her, and her eyes widen slightly at the unexpected compliment. "I am sure Elizabeth is grateful to have you."

    I feel a moment's annoyance that she is so surprised. It is true that the teams are cut off from Rosenkreuz and that such a move is justified for the most part, but it also means that teams lack the support they need. It is ingrained into them to work for Rosenkreuz no matter what it costs them, but they get nothing at all in return for that. What is there to keep their loyalty strong other than habit and fear? If they are competent, then they deserve to know. The Council's approval can be a driving force and can instill a sense of pride in a unit. As for those that fall short of what they should be accomplishing, they should be taken care of. After all, there are plenty of restless replacements at the school.

    I make a mental note to bring it up with Hoffmann, though I know the Five will not be happy to be assigned an extra task if Hoffmann approves such a thing. It takes work to evaluate teams, especially when we each have so many reporting to us.

    "Thank you for your kindness, Oracle," Sarah says quietly. "We are glad to have the approval of one of the Five."

    She seems unable to hold my eyes any longer and instead drops her gaze back to the report. It takes her a few moments more before she starts reading it, though, and for a short time she just stares at the scrawled text. At last she finishes it up and gives a nod. "Perfect," she says. "Now all that's left to type it. If you'll excuse me for just a moment? I need to get out of these heels."

    I incline my head to her and she gathers up a change of clothes and exits the room. I hear voices in the hall but don't bother to try and make out the words. Instead I open the program Rozenkreuz's teams use for submitting field reports and I transfer all of my written documentation to the computer. Sarah is back before I am finished and she stands behind me to watch. I slide my chair to one side to give her a better view at the screen and she steps forward to see, studying my work with a critical gaze. When she nods, I press the button to submit it.

    I stand and she steps out of my way, and she folds her arms across her chest as she studies me. "I am sure Rosenkreuz will be glad to see you go, Oracle," she says. "I may not know everything that goes on in Austria but I have heard things from Elizabeth and other teams about you. It is insolent of me, but I will admit I had my doubts about one from a political branch transferring over to demolitions, whatever other positions such a person had experience in. After this week and a half, I think that the mobile half of Rosenkreuz has a lot to gain from your presence amongst us."

    "I appreciate the vote of confidence," I answer, though her opinion means little in the end except that it means she thinks I have learned enough to have my own team. That is all I need; Hoffmann would not appreciate it if I returned to Rosenkreuz without a stamp of approval. Beyond that, I refuse to be a failure at anything, and I have issues with coming second.

    I leave the room and hear the chairs scrape against the floor as she sets the room to rights. I make my way to the kitchen to find something to drink, but as I step into the doorway, I realize that the kitchen is already occupied, and I come to an abrupt stop.

    Kristof and Jackie do not notice my entrance; they are a bit too focused on each other. Jackie has taken one of the seats at the table and has his hands tangled in Kristof''s shirt, keeping him pulled down. Kristof's hands are tracing paths up and down the telekinetic's thighs, and their eyes are closed as they kiss.

    So much for foresight.

    I'm not sure what surprises me more: the fact that they're intimate with each other, or the fact that neither of them seems to mind the other's touch. I think of Hoffmann's bruising fingers and Blaze's deal with Schuldich, and these two don't seem to match up with either set. When Kristof leans in closer to murmur something at Jackie's ear, the teleporter's smile is dopey and pleased. He turns his head to give Kristof better access to his neck, and that's when half-lidded brown eyes spot me.

    He gives a jerk in the chair and snatches his hands back from Kristof so fast that he hits his teammate's hands where they linger on his thighs. Kristof leans back, startled, and then follows Jackie's gaze to the door. Jackie drops his gaze to the floor, looking uncomfortable, and Kristof flicks an uncertain look towards his teammate before offering me a guarded stare.

    They're waiting for a reaction, so I give them the only one I can think of. "There are rooms better suited to this," I say.

    "Excuse us," Kristof says, and Jackie looks to him, a question in his gaze. I can see his fingers twitching in his lap as he tries to send his partner a discrete message. Kristof misses it, as his gaze is still on me. The teleporter gets to his feet just a minute later, and the pair starts for the door. I step out of the way to let them past, and it isn't until they reach the hall that I realize Sarah has followed me into the hallway. She is a short distance away, far enough back that she wouldn't have been able to see anything in the kitchen, but there's a knowing look in her eyes.

    She waits until their bedroom door closes before speaking to me. "Is that going to bother you?" she wants to know.

    "It was not in Manie's file."

    "I…" She struggles to find a response to that, but she knows she's in the wrong. Inter-team relationships are supposed to be reported back to the Five to be filed away. They affect a team's balance; there is preference between certain members of the team, and wrongdoings against one may incite hard feelings in the other. "There are just the three of us," she says at last. "I thought it would be better for my team to leave it as it is."

    "It is standard procedure."

    Sarah searches my gaze. "Frau Elizabeth wouldn't have approved," she says softly. "She does not approve of same-sex relationships and has made it clear in the past. I've seen…" She trails off, wondering if she has the right to argue with me. At last she finds some of her backbone and continues. "I did not want my team to end up like Himmel."

    "I am not following you."

    "Relationships are reported to the Five for their approval," Sarah tells me. "With just a word, the Five can then veto such a pairing. Six years ago, Frau Elizabeth submitted Himmel's pair to Herr Hoffmann to be reassigned. He rewrote their emotional wiring to break them apart and Himmel never recovered. The rest of the team couldn't adjust to the newfound apathy between two of their own; part of the reason the team was so successful was because of that relationship. They are still a successful team simply because they refuse to fall apart over something like that, but they do not have the harmonics they had before."

    She lifts her chin; I'm not sure whether it's in defiance or in preparation for a judgment. "I made the decision to leave my team intact although I knew it went against Rosenkreuz's procedures. I understand the consequences of such a thing, but I made the decision regardless. My team is what it is today because of them. Rosenkreuz trusts us to do their work, and I did what I felt I had to to carry out such an order."

    Silence stretches between us. She's waiting for me to do what she knows I have to. She has gone against Rosenkreuz, no matter how small the slight, and there is no other course of action except to report her. It is my duty as one of the Five. Hiding things from the Council is not allowed. There is a reason for the things they do, and she decided her personal judgment overruled that.

    But what does that say about me, for lying directly to the Council about Schuldich? I acted because I knew Rosenkreuz needed Schuldich alive. I lied to the Council to save his life and their future. Sarah has done the same thing. Manie's track record speaks volumes about their loyalty and commitment to Rosenkreuz; I was sent to them specifically because they are one of the most important teams in Europe.

    I wonder if it's true what she has said about Himmel. She has no reason to be lying, but she still only knows things from one perspective. Then again, I know Elizabeth, and I know very well how deep her prejudices run.

    If I condone what Sarah has done, I have just given her permission to lie to Rosenkreuz. If I report to the Council, I will be taking apart Manie.

    I don't even know why I'm debating it. There is only one correct path to take.

    But the future is an unstable thing, and Rosenkreuz needs all the power it can. The focus is shifting and growing in Asia, and Estet is growing stronger with each passing year. They dream of big things and I have spent enough time in the school to have an idea of how many there will make it into field status. It is not what it should be, though the numbers will go up after the changes I instilled in it. But the students are still children in too many ways, and what Rosenkreuz needs right now is to nurture the teams it already has.

    "You have reported it to one of the Five," I say at last. "I have judged it, and it needs go no further than myself."

    I am doing this for Rosenkreuz's future, and yet… Lie to the Council once, and when does it end…?

    "O-Oracle…" Nothing could have prepared her for me to take her side. I don't know if she's horrified by the fact that one of the Five has just followed her into disobedience or if she's just stunned that I'm going to aid her in hiding such a thing from the Council.

    "Procedure says that it must meet one of the Five's approval, does it?" I ask.

    "Yes, but…"

    "If you have made a mistake in judging what is best for your team, then you may change your mind."

    "No, it's just that…" She looks a bit flustered. "I was not expecting…"

    "I am a precognitive," I tell her. "Rosenkreuz is nearing the crossroads, and the Council has charged me with the task of getting their Talents ready for the future. How I go about it is up to my discretion. If you have a complaint, you may file it with Elizabeth or the Council. If not, then do not stare at me in such a manner."

    She gives a quick shake of her head, then leans over and bows to me at a ninety-degree angle. "Herr Crawford," she says. "Manie hears and accepts your judgment; we are endlessly grateful and honored by your support of our small team." When she stands, she's holding a small blade in her hand, and she rakes it down over the skin of her palm without hesitating. Blood spills up from the cut, dribbling between her fingers, and she holds her hand out to me in an offering.

    "What the Oracle sees for the future, Manie will die to secure."

    And with this, I have just lied to the Council a second time, helped a field team in lying to the Council, and have replaced Elizabeth as the top authority in her most important team's eyes.

    All in a day's work.

Part 12
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