The sound of the phone ringing draws me out of sleep at half past two. I consider the clock on my nightstand, which is set close enough that I don't need my glasses on to be able to read it. I moved the second phone in here last night, knowing that it would go off without knowing who would be calling. I have a glass beside my bed and I take a sip from it as the first ring peters off, trying to clear my throat so I don't sound freshly-woken on the phone. I pick up before the second ring is halfway through.


    "Good morning, Oracle."

    Jonas Hoffmann's voice is familiar enough to wake me up the rest of the way. My position as Five means I hear from him on a regular basis and answer to him just as often, but I just filed a report with him about our current project yesterday. I didn't foresee this phone call and it makes me wonder what I've missed. I am up to date on what is going on with my Asian sector and the ranks within Rosenkreuz, or so I was certain. Hoffmann wouldn't call me without a reason. He can't, more like. The Council made efforts to restrict his access to me by turning my team over to Estet.

    "Mister Hoffmann." I push myself up in bed carefully, not wanting to drown out his next words with the rustling of my sheets. I don't have the right to ask Hoffmann to repeat himself and it's suicidal to miss anything he has to say.

    "Do you know where I am right now?"

    "I apologize that I do not, Mister Hoffmann."

    "I am standing in front of Narita International Airport," he answers, "and jet-lagged as hell."

    That brings me up short and there's a second where I can't think of an appropriate response. Hoffmann doesn't give me longer than a second and I can hear the satisfied smirk in his lazy drawl. He knows how much work it takes to one-up a rank eight precognitive and he enjoys every instance that he can. He's helped by the fact that my gift is so tightly locked on Schuldich.

    "We're on an unannounced tour of our sectors," Hoffmann says. "The Elders are getting twitchy about things the closer it gets to their deadline. We're here in Japan for a few weeks to make sure things are all in top shape."

    "I apologize if my reports have been insufficient."

    "Whatever. The others have already started back for the hotel to sleep," he says. "I am too awake to sleep. You will come get me."

    "Yes, Mister Hoffmann."

    I wait for him to hang up, but he doesn't. Seconds drag by between us with just silence on the line. It sends an unpleasant prickle up my spine. I'd attribute it to his gift, but we're on complete opposite sides of the city and each an hour's drive or more from where the true outskirts of Tokyo start. Hoffmann is a nine, but even he has his limits. No, this is not his power. It's just my own humanity coming back to make things difficult for me.

    He laughs at last, just a quiet sound, and finally disconnects.

    I stare down at the phone for a few moments more before telling myself to get moving. Hesitations are not allowed when it comes to the Council and I know that better than anyone else. My place under his command was decided before I'd even turned thirteen, thanks to my mother's interference. My training and mandatory years abroad were completed when I was eighteen, and I was transferred into his Eastern Sector. My promotion at nineteen just put him as my direct supervisor, and we've had a close working relationship in the eight years since.

    It has been five years since I left Rosenkreuz, three since I last had to see him face-to-face, and seeing him again now is the last thing I want to do. Logic says Hoffmann's interest in me has to have faded over all this time apart. My gut tells me something else entirely and the flicker-short visions his laugh triggered just confirm that nothing has changed. This reunion can only end badly for me.

    Thinking that doesn't stop me from getting ready, however, and I am out the front door just a few minutes after his call.

    /Crawford?/ comes Schuldich's half-asleep query.

    ~Manage yourself for a few days,~ I send back. ~I have work to do.~

    /Oh, good, we can finally party around here. Take your time getting back./

    I don't bother to answer his snide remark, and he doesn't try pushing the conversation. He goes back to sleep, more than happy to leave the 'work' to me, and I take my car away from there.

    It is a long drive out to the airport and knowing what is waiting for me just makes the hours endless. I feel it when I slide into Hoffmann's range, still a couple hours out, and his gift sits in my veins like a heavy drug I can't shake off. It crawls under my skin, leaving heat and hungry anticipation behind, and I bite my lip hard to separate his emotions from mine. Twisted amusement spikes through the rest of the mess as he feels me fighting his grip and he just burns it deeper. My knuckles crack where I clench my hands on the steering wheel.

    Hoffmann is the only empath who has ever been able to push his gift from a mental to a physical level. He has learned to love exploiting that. No one has borne the brunt of it more than Schuldich has, but I know I am not incorrect in saying that I am next in line for that favor. Unfortunately, his interests in us are entirely different. I cannot help but think I would far prefer for him to view me the same as he does Schuldich. Hatred, I would be able to work around, especially when Seraphim's prophecies mean he cannot risk damaging my mind.

    Lust and obsession are different things entirely.

    His gift is heavy enough to feel on more than one level, and it feels too much like a hand as he slides his attention down the length of my body. I fight to ignore it as best as I can, needing my concentration for the road.

    My cell phone rings. I know who it is before I answer. Hoffmann skips a greeting entirely. "Pull over," he says thickly, and I murmur assent before pulling off onto the shoulder. I let him know when I've turned the engine off and his gift is on me a heartbeat later, exploding almost violently hot against my skin. I choke on a gasp and almost crush my cell phone in my hand, and I hear a ragged breath on the other end.

    "It's been too damn long, Oracle. Have you missed me?"

    I try and get a response out, but I can't manage words when I can't get my breath back. I still try until he laughs again; that sound tells me it's okay if I don't respond. My skin crawls with the sound of that possessive hunger. My body aches under his touch. It's a vicious conflict and one I didn't miss at all. If he would just hurt me, it would be one thing. And he has hurt me, countless times. I just wish he'd never started slipping to include this. This is- something else entirely. This is something far crueler.

    Empathic fingers pick their way across my body, dragging pain and pleasure with them. I push myself hard against the back of my chair, planting my feet carefully away from the pedals. I can't get my hand to loosen from the steering wheel and I don't dare let go of my phone. I can do nothing but sit there and let him touch me from a distance, nothing but let him completely unravel my cool and control, and viciously hate it beneath the lust he forces me to feel.

    The physical edge to his gift disappears so suddenly that I can't stop another gasp. Hoffmann's breath catches at the sound of it. I'm left hanging, still caught up in his gift but without something solid to finish it. I finally get my hand off of the steering wheel and I dig the heel of my hand into my forehead, trying desperately to drag myself back from that edge. All the willpower and loathing in the world can't help me now, not with his heat in my veins. I can hear how uneven my breathing is and I hate how it sounds in my ears.

    "Too damn long," Hoffmann says again, content to wait and observe my struggling. "Don't you think so?"

    Nowhere near long enough to be back to this again.

    It takes pure arrogance to keep my voice calm when the rest of me is shaking. "It has been a long time, Mister Hoffmann."

    "Do it," he orders me, hungry and impatient.

    I reach down, sliding my hand between my legs to the unwelcome hardness there. I grit my teeth, refusing to make a sound, and force my hand to move. It doesn't take long to work myself to completion. It doesn't help when Hoffmann's power is still brushing against me; if anything, it makes it worse. I can satiate a body's craving. I have absolutely no control over what he's doing. I can't get rid of it; I can't do anything to ease that need. Frustration is sharp and crackling and I fight to squish it before he feels it. Hoffmann doesn't miss a thing.

    "So hateful," he purrs in my ear. "So needy. So *helpless*."

    His gift flares bright again without warning. Release has frayed my control and I choke on a strangled curse. My hand snaps up, nearly crushing my lips against my teeth, suffocating anything else before it can slip free. Hoffmann can't see me but he knows me enough by now to know what's causing the sudden silence. He doesn't tell me to stop fighting because there is more fun to be had for him if he can wrench my self-control away from me. Instead of ordering me to give in, he just kicks his power up a notch. It is ruthless as it digs its way into my body, hot and wanting.

    Coherent thought sears away, replaced by fierce need. I taste blood from where I've torn my mouth on my teeth. I can't breathe around my fingers and I finally have to move my hand. That doesn't help much; it's so hot in here that I can't catch my breath. Every one I suck in is too short and thin.

    Headlights flash across the car and I lean forward, folding one arm against the steering wheel and burying my face against it, hiding my crumbling expression from any passing drivers.

    "Say please, Oracle," Hoffmann murmurs.

    Stop it.

    Somehow I manage to get the words out. "Please, Mister Hoffmann."

    Stop these damn games.

    I hate them.

    "Good. Open the door."

    I freeze for a second before lifting my head. A taxi is pulling back into the late night traffic from where it's dropped Hoffmann off. He's standing right outside my door with his phone against his ear, and the dark night isn't enough to hide the expression on his face. I see his mouth move on a quiet, ragged breath when he sees my face. I get the lock in part because he's told me to and in part because it gives me an excuse to look away from him.

    He throws his phone past me with so much force that I expect it to shatter against the far door. I drop mine into the passenger seat just a second before he's leaning in the open door. His mouth is hungry and demanding as he crushes it against mine and his hands work at the latch on my seat, forcing my chair as far back towards the backseat as it can go. A second latch has the seat falling back until it's stopped by the cushions behind it. It's not far, but it's more than enough space that Hoffmann can fit between me and the steering wheel.

    After so much time apart, I wish the weight of his body had grown unfamiliar. I arch up into him without meaning to, half-running on sensory overload. I try to apologize, but he cuts me off with a harder kiss. Pain knifes its way down my neck and chest, but I'm so far lost that it can't ground me. It's just sensation by now and it's not enough to give my body what it demands. I hear a moan and refuse to admit that it's mine, except that Hoffmann follows it up with a thick curse.

    He rakes his hands up my sides and onto my face. "Touch me," he orders me, and I reach up. He pushes me further up on my chair, shifting to get a knee between my legs, and I hiss as his gift follows his body down. He draws blood where he bites my throat and his hands work steadily to get my pants undone. I get my hands under his shirt and follow the line of his back up, pulling him closer with the wretched hope that compliance will get this over sooner. Experience tells me it won't help.

    It's too much trouble to get our pants all the way off, so he doesn't try. He just gets them down enough that he can move. He pushes in without any warning or preparation. It hurts like it always does, except it can't hurt as much as his gift does. Hoffmann keeps up a steady litany of ragged curses as he forces himself all the way in and he doesn't give my body time to adjust before he's moving.

    He kisses the blood off my mouth as his power infects us both. The more his control crumbles, the more pain bleeds into the emotional mess, as Hoffmann's power leans towards agony and hatred first and foremost. I can't remember it ever feeling good by the time release has us shuddering against each other, but that's more than fine with me. The way he's stretched out on top of me has my face pressed against a sweat-slick neck, his hands knotted in my hair and mine clenched in his shirt. I leave my face hidden there as I fight to pull my expression back together. It takes him a minute before he finally starts drawing his power back; it takes me longer to learn how to breathe again.

    He leans back at last and stares down at me. "Maybe Japan won't be so boring after all," he muses, tipping my head to one side to consider the teeth marks he's left on my throat. "What do you think? Maybe I'll even make time to see that stupid, useless rat of yours. Hm?"

    A vision snaps against my mind: Hoffmann's hand curling on Schuldich's shoulder, his gift burning through clothes and skin.

    --Let the Council decide you to be unworthy. Let them off you. I don't care.--

    Black black black black blacků There's the sensation of falling, of everything shattering on the way down.

    Hoffmann is watching me, recognizing the distant look that means I'm not here with him anymore. I forget he's even said anything to me; all I know is that he's leaned back to watch until I focus again. It puts enough room in between us that I can twist in the seat, and I push the car door open just enough to get sick onto the asphalt. I cough to clear my lungs, wishing the taste of bile was enough to clear the taste of Hoffmann out of my memory, and slowly ease myself back into the seat.

    Hoffmann tugs the door shut for me and leans in, a lazy smile on his lips. He assumes the nausea was triggered by his touch, and in large part, it is. My body simply cannot handle the overload he forces on it, and no amount of time together ever taught it that kind of tolerance. Luckily for me, Hoffmann has always been amused by that rather than offended.

    "Make time in your schedule," Hoffmann says. "You are spending today with me."

    I murmur an assent automatically, but my mind is weeks ahead of now, to darkness and pain and the blipping of a cardiac monitor. There's not enough of it there for me to hold on to and make sense of, but it's gone just a few seconds later. I push the lingering uneasiness out of my thoughts because there are more important things to focus on now. Hoffmann fixes his pants and eases into the passenger seat. He hands me my phone as I finish straightening my clothes.

    "It's going to be a good week," he decides. "Let's go."

    "Yes, Mister Hoffmann."

    By the time we find a hotel, I've already rearranged the day's schedule. My last call is to Schuldich, giving him things to work on until I get back. He answers those demands with his typical unpleasant attitude. I let silence follow his rude response, and it only takes him a couple seconds to realize he might have crossed a line. Years ago he would have made careful attempts to fix things, afraid of the repercussions. He forgot how to make amends ever since we picked up Nagi and Farfarello. Now he's content to see if he can outwait me. He can't and we both know it.

    "You still there, or what?" Schuldich says at length.

    "Prove that you haven't been a waste of my time these past several years," I tell him.

    Prove that you're worth this.

    The aggravating thing is that I already know he is, if only he'd figure things out enough to stop being insufferable.

    I'm keenly aware that Hoffmann is watching me from the other side of the room, unable to hear Schuldich's side of the line but reading my irritation. He's not amused by it; he's too busy dealing with his own roiling loathing to pay attention to my personal feelings. That's a good thing, as things with Schuldich have gotten impossibly complicated within the last few years. The last thing either of us needs to happen is for Hoffmann to figure that out.

    Furious German rips across my mind right on the wake of that thought, warning me that there's almost no point in being careful: --Tell me how long ago you saw this coming and why you never thought to inform me of it. Do you have any clue what it took to stand there and listen to him say such things to my face?--

    Schuldich's angry retort almost drowns out Hoffmann's future words. "I am not a waste."

    "Then do what I tell you to," I answer, and I hang up on him.

    He doesn't try to call me back. I set my phone down on the nightstand and Hoffmann crosses the room towards me. "Don't mention his name to me today. You will not like me very much if you do."

    Too late for that and we both know it. That doesn't matter. "Yes, Mister Hoffmann."

    So many years later, so much time and work, and I'm right back where I started. Such is my fate as a Five. I turn to face him and he pulls me into an embrace that burns hot enough to bleed.

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