Part Eighteen

    The Conservatory contract ends up lasting us sixty-three days before we're released. Schuldich has been on his best behavior for the past two months, a testament to how much he wants a new face around here. I must admit that I'm surprised by his dedication to the idea; I was certain that he could grow tired of being an agreeable teammate after a week of suffering through it. But he has stuck to his word, so it is time for me to stick to mine.

    I spend our first free afternoon in my office, downloading files of all of the available Talents that are about to graduate from Rosenkreuz. I'm hoping to use them as a trigger to find our next teammate and I spend three hours going through them. It's a vain pursuit. Although telekinetics rank as one of the most common Talents, none of these many profiles are what I'm looking for. At last I give up in favor of dinner and close everything down. As I leave my office I wonder if I should go through the list of teams to see which telekinetics are attached where, but I brush that thought aside. The future tells me what I should do, but it is also based upon what I myself would do. I would not tear apart a team for my own purposes unless the team was meant to be trashed- and after the Rosenkreuz spring cleaning, I know they are all top notch.

    "So you do live here," Schuldich comments when I step into the kitchen. "I'd wondered."

    "I am sure you mourned my absence," I return, and he lets me see a smirking response before focusing once more on his drink. "The second half of our Conservatory pay has been entered into the accounts."

    "That means what to me?" Schuldich asks, directing the question at my back as I open up the fridge to consider our groceries. "But speaking of money-"

    He's interrupted by the phone, which is just as well. I know he's just going to bring up what I was working on earlier. I silence him with a hand as I move towards the phone and he scowls at me, annoyed that I don't even want him to finish his sentence before picking it up.

    "Crawford," I greet.

    "Do I even have to make this call or have you already seen it coming?" Hoffmann wants to know, a lazy drawl. I can hear a clicking as he taps the phone and I can imagine him all too easily, leaning back in his chair with his feet on his desk. I've seen him on the phone often enough- more than that, I've seen the look the rest of the Council gives him when he sits in such a way.

    "Herr Hoffmann," I greet, and I don't have to look back to know Schuldich's reaction to the name. "My visions have been focused on our Conservatory work."

    "I suppose," Hoffmann says, which isn't really an answer. "We received the notification they sent to the Elders and us about the end of the contract. We've already got the bank transfer on file here. Quite a hefty amount, is it? You should learn how to spend your money."

    I wonder if I should be surprised that he's tracking what I do with my pay. "Perhaps Herr Hoffmann has a suggestion for me?" I ask.

    "A plane ticket," Hoffmann answers. "I want you in Rosenkreuz tonight."

    I glance towards the clock, checking the time and wondering why I didn't see this phone call coming. I suppose I was too absorbed in the quest for our other teammate. I would have preferred a little bit more of a forewarning. It has been years now since I last cross paths with the Soul Shaker, but from the things he says sometimes during his phone calls, I don't think his opinion of me has changed at all in that time. "Of course, Herr Hoffmann."

    "The Elders are coming," Hoffmann tells me, and that's enough to bring me up short. "They wish to meet with you."

    The Elders? But that…

    "It will be an honor to speak with them, Herr Hoffmann," I answer. "How many days should I pack for?"

    There's a pause. When he speaks again, I recognize the heat in his drawled words. "Have you already found your next contract?"

    "Not just yet, Herr Hoffmann."

    "Then you have time to stay," Hoffmann tells me. "You'll stay through the week. Leave your pet there. I'm sure the break from him will do you good."

    I somehow doubt that I will be any better off if I'm just around Hoffmann's power, but it's not my place to say or think such things. I silence the part of me that's digging in its feet against what I know is coming and instead check to make sure that my voice is as calm as always. "I would appreciate your hospitality, Herr Hoffmann."

    "Liar," he mocks me, and hangs up.

    It is another moment before I set the phone down and I let my hand linger on the receiver for a few seconds longer. Schuldich is still watching me; the weight of his stare brings my attention to him at last. I consider the face turned towards me and decide that he looks nothing at all like Hoffmann in these moments; Hoffmann could never look so tense. The Soul Shaker feels only what he wants to feel- he does not have the range that Schuldich has. I suppose this team will work out after all. Even if the similarities are there, Schuldich will never become his uncle.

    "Rosenkreuz," Schuldich says at last, trying to get an explanation from me. I can almost hear him choke on the word.

    "I am going alone," I tell him, and I can watch the tension ease out of his shoulders. Only then do I realize he was sitting hunched over his cup. As he relaxes, he unfolds back against the back of his chair. His eyes still demand answers, but I don't answer to him. "I do not care what you do with yourself," I tell him. "I will be gone for four days at the minimum. You were just paid; try not to spend it all."

    He scowls at me. "What are you basing that accusation on?" he demands.

    "Past experience," I answer easily.

    He stabs a finger at me. "I haven't had shit to drink in two months, Crawford. Don't think you can just-"

    "You've already earned your teammate," I interrupt him neatly. "I don't care what you do now."

    He looks a little startled. "You remembered," he says.

    "Did you think I would forget?"

    He just eyes me. "You haven't said anything else about it," he points out.

    "I wasn't aware you needed my reassurances."

    "Get fucked," he snaps back.

    I feel my lips curving. The small smirk that twists my lips is cold and usually reserved for the people Schwarz is about to destroy. I've never turned the look on Schuldich before, and quite honestly, I don't mean to even now. I can see Schuldich tense again at the sight of it and wariness replaces the irritation in his eyes. He's staring at my mouth, knowing what this expression means, and it is a long few seconds before he can look up and meet my gaze.

    "I shouldn't have said that," he says, but it sounds more questioning than repentant.

    It's the first time in our years together that he's successfully managed to cross a line between us, but I doubt that line would exist if I hadn't just hung up with Hoffmann. It is not the first time he has told me such a thing; I quite distinctly remember him saying the same thing when I took him from Rosenkreuz. It meant nothing to me then except that he was the first Talent to think he could say such a thing to one with my ranking.

    Either way, I would have preferred to give him no reaction at all. Schuldich has been pushing and prodding to find something that could get through ever since he found his backbone again. I had decided long ago to never let him see what landed; common sense told me then and now that things are better when he doesn't have something to scratch at.

    "Apparently you have forgotten," I tell him, and I watch his fingers twitch against his glass in an uneasy little gesture. "There is a very crucial difference between disrespect and an unpleasant attitude. I will not tolerate disrespect, Schuldich. I do not have the time or patience for it."

    Silence stretches tense between us as Schuldich struggles to answer. The person he is becoming doesn't want to admit that he has made a mistake, but the teenager who spent a year under Hoffmann's touch for such disrespect is choking on words to say to make this better. At last he settles for a neutral "Yes, Five Crawford," and the return of the title is enough to tell me that he'll remember my rank.

    Maybe he'll remember the rank, but he won't forget that he got a glimpse of what he wanted.

    I smooth my expression back into something he recognizes, but the wary glint doesn't leave his eyes. "I will be back Sunday or later," I tell him again, starting for the door.

    He waits until I've left the room to speak again. I'm out of sight and a foot down the hall, but I still hear his words: "So you are human, after all."

    I don't know if he intended for me to hear him, but it doesn't really matter. I brush both the words and his curious tone from my mind in favor of focusing on travel arrangements. The next flight out is in an hour, not much time to get everything put together and get to the airport. It should be just enough to get there by boarding time if the traffic isn't heavy this time of night. The next flight isn't for three more hours, which is more of a time gap to work with, but I know Hoffmann checks flight schedules when he calls people in to see him.


    /Yes?/ he sends back.

    A few taps of a button buys one of the last seats on the plane and I print the receipt to bring with me to the airport. ~If you expect to have the car while I am gone, you will have to drive to the airport.~

    /I thought you didn't trust my driving,/ he points out.

    ~It leaves much to be desired,~ I agree, carrying the receipt to my bedroom with me.

    Schuldich appears in the hall outside of my room, watching me as I pack. He has never had the courage to actually enter my room, sticking to the doorway or the hall instead. That he has still managed to hold onto that modicum of respect despite the rest of his decline is something I should be grateful for, I suppose.

    "And our teammate-to-be?" he asks.

    "We will find him when the time is right," I answer.

    He gives a quiet snort at that response. "From all of your pretty speeches, I would think you made the right time happen."

    "The right time happens when everyone is ready for it to happen," I answer. "Precognitives see the right time coming because everyone is approaching that stage. It happens because we tell people it is coming and tell them how to be ready, but we see it happening because they make it happen."

    "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" Schuldich sends at me, a taunting response.

    "That depends on whether or not you believe in evolution."

    "Jesus, Crawford," Schuldich says, sounding exasperated. "You're not supposed to actually answer that." I don't answer, more intent on packing, and Schuldich gives me a few moments more before speaking again. "So I guess that means you don't know?"

    "Soon," I tell him. "This visit is one of the trigger moments."

    "Hoffmann?" he asks, and I wonder what it costs him to say the empath's name so calmly.

    "The Elders of Estet," I answer. "They are going to Rosenkreuz tomorrow. They are our key to Asia."

    And I'm not supposed to be meeting them yet. The timing seems off. I knew I would have to meet with them before they would approve my entry into Japan, but there is something missing still. I just don't know what. I have until tomorrow to figure it out, because if the Elders tell me that it is time for us to go, I do not have the authority- or death wish- to tell them no.

    I am ready to go just a few minutes later and Schuldich leads the way out to the car. The drive out to the airport is long and silent. Schuldich drops me off at the curb and I find the agent I'm looking for. Rosenkreuz and Estet fund agents in the major airports of the countries the teams are in to help facilitate our travel. The important countries get Talents; the others get Estet's dead minds. This one is from the latter group, but he is still enough to get me through security without having to wait on the long lines.

    I reach the boarding area just as business class is loading and find my seat easily. The rest of the plane is tuned out as I focus instead on the gap in my gift. My thoughts keep me occupied for most of the two hour flight and my ride is waiting for me when I land in Austria. Idly I wonder what she would have done if I had not made this flight, but I dismiss that thought. Hoffmann must have been watching the number of empty seats on the flight. More than that, he knows that I know better than to lag when coming to answer him.

    She has nothing to say to me beyond her respectful greetings until we reach Rosenkreuz. At that point she tells me that Hoffmann is waiting for me and that she will take my bag to my room in the Prophets' Hall. I decide she is a low-level precognitive to have entry to that building and answer her words with silence.

    My feet take me towards the Tower and I don't even have to make it through the doors before I feel Hoffmann's power curling through me. He is downstairs waiting for me when I enter and I'm not quite sure what to make of him coming to get me. I don't think I like it, but I cross the room towards him just the same.

    "How good of you to make time to see us," Hoffmann drawls as I come to a stop in front of him.

    "Herr Hoffmann," I greet. "It has been a while."

    His lips curve into a wide smirk as he studies my face. I can feel his gift follow his eyes as he traces my expression and features and I keep my eyes on his mouth. "My," he muses. "You're looking older. Twenty-four now. How time flies."

    "Time seems to move fastest when people are kept busy, Herr Hoffmann. These years have been good for Rosenkreuz."

    "Have they?" he asks, sounding amused. "You will have the chance to say that to the Elders tomorrow when they are here. But I don't want to talk about those old bastards right now." He flicks his fingers at me in a demanding beckon to follow and turns towards the elevator. It's already sitting on the first floor and the doors open as soon as he pushes the button. I follow him on and he thumbs the button for his floor before turning back on me.

    The bolt of pain almost takes me off my feet and I catch at the hand rail for balance. Hoffmann laughs and steps towards me, using a hand on my shoulder to push me back into the corner of the elevator. The doors click shut and the car starts moving upwards, but these things are noticed at the peripheral edge of my consciousness. The only thing that really registers is the weight of Hoffmann against me and the crackling of his power in my veins.

    "It's been a few years," he says. "Life is rather boring around here without you to entertain me. You're slipping, you know. I can taste your reluctance to be here, no matter how perfect your mask is. That's what's so damnable about you, isn't it?" His fingers come up to my face. It seems like a crime against everything that exists that his fingers can brush such a light touch over my skin when his power is following their path from beneath the surface. As whisper-light a brush as it is, the pain is hot enough that my jaw feels numb.

    "Only I can make you feel like this," he purrs, leaning in to kiss me. My fingers clench around the rail as fire replaces the air in my lungs. His hands slide down my face, working their way down my chest until he can hook his fingers in the pockets of my suit coat. Through the metallic taste of blood on my tongue I can taste the alcohol on him, and I idly wonder when he started drinking. I've never seen him with alcohol before.

    He doesn't lean back until the elevator dings to announce our arrival, and he flicks the doors a bored look as they start to slide open before looking back towards me. "I'm the only one that can make you feel," he tells me. "Isn't that a perfect match?"

    What am I supposed to say to that? "Herr Hoffmann."

    He laughs at me, a scornful little sound, and moves away to catch the doors as they start closing again. I follow him out of the elevator to his room, noting the way he seems a little unsteady on his feet. It gives me a bad feeling about this encounter, not that I thought this was going to be in any way pleasant. Hoffmann laughs again, picking up on that, and turns around to prop himself against his bedroom door.

    "I think I've had too much to drink," he informs me.

    "I have not seen you drink before, Herr Hoffmann."

    "It's none of your business," he tells me, and I murmur a quiet agreement as I stop in front of him. He twists the knob without turning to see it and backs into his room, letting me follow him inside. I close the door and his hands are on me immediately, shoving me so hard up against it that it almost knocks the breath from me. Maybe the impact doesn't, but the next hit of his gift does.

    "I despise you," Hoffmann tells me, but it's a little hard to believe such words when he says them so conversationally. "How does it feel?"

    I find the breath I need to answer. "Herr Hoffmann?"

    "Stop calling me that," he says, sounding disgusted, and I don't know what I'm supposed to say to that. "Stop talking to me as if you're the same as everyone else."

    I really don't want to be here anymore.

    "Councilman, if I am addressing you incorrectly…"

    "Do you have any idea how aggravating you are?" he asks, propping himself against me. One hand tangles in my hair to shove my head harder back against the door and he bares his teeth at me behind a snarl. "You're too important to Rosenkreuz's future. You're too important to Estet. I'm a level nine empath, Oracle. I'm the Council. I decide who I can and can't touch with my gift, but empathy has its drawbacks. I've seen teams fall apart after their emotions have been edited; the tweaks that were meant to solve the problems would have been better off with telepathy.

    "I can't change this," he grinds out, and frustration twists his voice. "I don't trust the rest of the Council with you, so I cannot pass you off to them. I cannot foster apathy in myself towards you because you are the key piece making the future. None of us can risk me losing interest in you."

    I don't want to hear this. Rather, I don't want to hear what he's not saying.

    "The Elders are going to take you to Asia," Hoffmann tells me. "It'll be many more years before I have anything to do with you again. I'm cutting you off. You'll have nothing to do with Rosenkreuz until you're done with them. Your orders will come from them, not me, but don't you dare forget who you really belong to. They're planning on keeping you busy if they like what they see tomorrow. They'd better like what they see, Oracle. We haven't tolerated your ridiculous requests for this long just so you can embarrass us."

    "I will be proud for the chance to represent Rosenkreuz," and I catch myself from his usual title only at the last moment. I have been calling him by it for many years; it is too much of a habit to stop now. My brain takes a skip at the last moment, switching over into the only thing it can when I don't have the time to think on it. "Mister Hoffmann."

    It's not really a change between one and the other, but it's enough to catch him off guard. He blinks down at me and silence stretches between us for a minute. At last he starts laughing and he jerks my coat down my arms hard enough that I hear it rip. He draws blood when he kisses me and his hands are demanding.

    "You think you're something, don't you?" he asks. "That'll do. Only from you. Let's go. I'm not doing well at this standing thing."

    He shoves away from me and weaves his way towards the bed. I watch him, swallowing the mouthful of blood that has pooled on my tongue, and realize in that moment that he's going to go too far tonight. He's too drunk to know his limits- rather, too drunk to know mine. Of course, that also means he'll be too drunk to appreciate my warning.

    "Mister Hoffmann, what time will the Elders be here tomorrow?" I ask him.

    "Why?" he asks, sitting heavily on the edge of his bed. He sneers across the room at me, and that sinking feeling tells me that he already knows what I've just realized. He knows- and just doesn't care. It's not like I expected him to. "Are you going to tell me that this is a bad idea for a legitimate reason or just because you're scared of what I can do to you? Go on, Oracle. How will you answer that? Will you imply that you're not scared of me or will you admit that you want to be anywhere but here?" He laughs and makes a clawing motion at me. "How it must wear you out talking to me, trying to find the right thing to say. You're insufferably good at it, but I don't want to talk tonight. Just shut up and come here."

    I push myself away from the door because I don't have quite enough control to step forward on my own with what's coming, and Hoffmann's smirk is vicious and hungry as I draw near. "Here's how it goes," he tells me. "If you're worried about the Elders seeing how bruised up you are, then I'll keep it all internal. Gracious of me, isn't it? But if you're worried that I'll go too far without a physical warning of what I'm doing, then you just have to tell me and I'll call Mosuli in here to act as our referee. Your choice, Oracle."

    Everything in me knows that the common sense answer is to ask for Mosuli's interference. After living through Hoffmann when he's in his right mind, I know that it is stupid and practically suicidal to turn such an offer down when he's drunk. But logic means little here. I am the Oracle, one of the Five. Hoffmann is the only one who can see through my stony mask and my shields. The thought of anyone else seeing those shields come down and seeing what he does to me is… unacceptable. "This is fine," I answer him, "Mister Hoffmann."

    "Stupid man," he mocks me, but he pulls me down just the same.

Part 19
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