Matthews does not meet us at the airport. Instead, he sends one of his drivers to come pick us up. Schuldich lingers between taking offense that he couldn’t be bothered to come see us and satisfaction that our ride will be a limousine. Farfarello doesn’t care either way, whereas Nagi sides with Schuldich in feeling slighted. I am content with the ride. I don’t know if seeing Matthews will trigger another vision, and if it were to come now I would be forced to speak to Farfarello about it. I will have to talk to him soon, but we need time to go over it and privacy from everyone else. We space ourselves out inside the limousine, Schuldich sprawled in the back seat, Nagi on the edge of the seats I’m sitting in, and Farfarello across from me. He’s sitting on the edge of his chair, leaning back to rest his shoulders and head against the back of the seat. His legs are folded at the knees and his arms folded across his chest, and his heavy gaze rests on me.
I ignore him, going through the file on Matthews once more. Besides paperwork and thick information packets, there are newspaper clippings to give us an idea of the public’s opinion of him. He looks cheerful in every picture, turning a charming smile on the camera. Such a smile looks wrong and out of place on his face when I’ve been seeing a colder smirk in my visions. I pick through the pages slowly, using the words to distract me from my thoughts. It’s difficult; I’ve never witnessed such a vision before and disgust circles the thought thickly. In the background of my mind I can hear Dreyden telling us that Schwarz is to do whatever it is that makes this man happy. I already know what it will take, but it’s not something I’m willing to give.
But it’s an order…
The car stops before his house, and a glance out the window shows five men waiting on the porch for us. One man is at the top of the stairs; he has two to either side a few steps down. Pulling my gift as tightly under control as I can, I leave the file on the seat and step out of the car when the door is opened for us. Someone else will bring our luggage and the paperwork in for us; it’s not something for Schwarz to do. My team follows me out, Schuldich stopping to one side and back of me, the other two a short distance behind him. We stop at the bottom of the stairs, taking in the five men in silence.
The four on the stairs were listed in the file to be the members of Matthew’s council, his four main advisors and the next people in line under him. The man at the top of the stairs is Matthews himself, a broad smile on his face as he studies us. Sunlight gleams off his dark hair, making it shine, and glares almost too brightly off of the white suit he wears. He beckons for us to approach and I lead Schwarz up the stairs towards him. “Welcome, welcome,” he says, offering us a toothy grin and holding his hand out for mine. “Jacob Matthews.”
I reach out, accepting his handshake. “Crawford of Schwarz,” I answer back.
He gives my hand a firm shake before turning towards Schuldich. Even though he has let go I can feel the heat and weight of his fingers wrapped around mine. A flicker of either memory or fresh vision ripples through my thoughts; I can feel a tongue tracing the curve of my ear, can feel a hand sliding down my abdomen towards my pants. My fingers curl into a loose fist and I lower my arm back to my side, turning to watch as Matthews greets the rest of my team. I watch them instead of him. Schuldich is studying Matthews through slightly narrowed eyes, and he glances my way when he notices my attention.
-He has shields,- he informs me.
-How strong?- I want to know.
He considers this for a moment, watching Matthews as he holds his hand out to Farfarello last. The Irishman doesn’t bother offering his hand, giving the man a heavy stare instead. I don’t think Matthews minds much; as glad as he is to have Schwarz, I don’t think he’s happy enough to want much to do with Farfarello. Like I said before, all of Schwarz has a reputation. Farfarello’s is the ugliest by far. Matthews doesn’t miss a beat, acknowledging in one breath that Farfarello doesn’t want to touch him and lowering his arm the next. He starts introducing the other four to us and there is more shaking of hands.
-I could break them,- Schuldich answers at last, not looking back at me. -He would feel it. He would know. Someone taught him how to make those shields. Why didn’t Dreyden tell us?- He doesn’t really expect an answer, so I don’t offer one. He’s a bit displeased to have the man’s mind guarded from him. As much as his gift is destroying him, he doesn’t like being refused access to our clients. He’s never been forbidden it before, and it makes him feel handicapped. I have the feeling Schuldich’s approval of the man has dimmed somewhat. But I consider my vision and think perhaps it’s a good think that Schuldich can’t hear him.
“Let’s get in out of the sun, shall we?” Matthews asks, and turns to head towards the doors. Schwarz follows him, and his council takes up the rear. Aides wait until we’ve passed through the doors before slipping out to fetch our belongings. We follow our client to a dining room, where a light snack has been laid out. He gestures for us to sit, taking his place at the head of the table. Schwarz takes two seats on each side of him, and the council divides itself up beside us. “Eat, eat,” Matthews urges us. “It’s very good.”
It’s ice cream, fruit, and some wafer crackers. We obediently eat the food set out for us, and Matthews talks as we do so. “Today you’ll be settling in. I’ll show you your rooms after you’re finished here. You’ll meet the wife and kids and then you’re free for the rest of the day. Perhaps you would like to familiarize yourself with the area.” That won’t be necessary; Schuldich will take information about Charlotte from those around him and spread it to the rest of us. I don’t say this, though, and accept his words with a slight nod. “Tomorrow starts early. At six we’re heading to the main office. I’d like you to meet the staff there. Midmorning is another meeting with representatives from Albatross, and in the afternoon there’s another meeting regarding my company’s progress. I think it will be useful for you to sit in on it. Between the meetings I’ll have someone give you a tour of the place.”
Albatross is one of the companies Matthews wants to buy. I set my fork down and take a sip from my glass of water. “Will you be acquiring Albatross or just working on negotiations?” I want to know.
He gives us a significant look. “Acquiring,” he answers. I nod in understanding. He will win the negotiations with our help. Schuldich will be glad to start work so soon, especially since the plans for the rest of the day are so dry. The tour and meeting are useless; we know exactly how well his company is doing, down to the dollar figure of their expenditures and their percent improvement for the last five years. I do not know if Matthews knows we are so well informed, but I doubt it would matter. It’s all standard procedure; our clients have rarely skipped this step and jumped straight to the work. I’ll have to listen to Schuldich complain tomorrow, but that is nothing new.
Matthews gestures towards the doorway, and we glance that direction to see a small head peeking in. At his father’s beckon, the child comes tearing through the room, small arms out for a hug. Matthews turns his chair to scoop the child up, setting him in his lap. Two more children follow the first, another boy and a girl. The oldest can’t be older than six. They cling to their father’s jacket, staring at us with wide eyes. Mostly they stare at Schuldich and Farfarello. Schuldich eyes them under hooded eyelids, commenting that they’re uglier in real life than they were in the pictures. They do have a funny shape to their faces, with square lines and pug edges.
“Joey,” Matthews says, introducing the one in his lap before nodding towards the other two, “Casey, and Adam. These are your father’s new partners, kids. Say hello.”
“Hullo,” comes the hesitant response. Adam is sucking on two of his fingers, wide eyes on Farfarello. He turns his gaze on me at last. Past him, I can see a second Adam racing across a sidewalk, arms outstretched for a ball. He follows it right out into the street; I hear car horns and a sick crunch, and his little form disappears. I consider the vision for a moment, glancing to one side to see a second Matthews standing with his hand still out from throwing the ball. He regards his fallen son with some sort of disinterest for a while before stepping forward, hiding the satisfied glint in his eyes as he takes on the role of grieving father. I make a note to share the vision with Schuldich later. The German will appreciate it.
I shift my eyes back to the Adam of the now. He has moved his attention back to Farfarello. Matthews is letting Joey drink from his cup. The youngest child gulps the water noisily, gasping between every swallow. When he is done, our client sets the glass back on the table and puts his son on the floor by his siblings. He gives him a light push. “Go play,” he tells them, and they obediently race out of the room. Matthews watches them go before turning back to us. “They’re a handful,” he informs us, an amused drawl edging his voice. “But I adore them.”
“I’m sure,” I answer smoothly, thinking of a ball thrown purposefully too hard.
He rises to his feet and we echo the move. He leads us to the stairs and we follow him to the second floor. “My family resides on the first floor,” he says as he walks. “We don’t want the children running up and down the stairs and getting hurt. You’ll be staying up here, where they won’t be able to disturb your work.” He starts opening doors, leaving them open as he passes so we can see. “Four bedrooms and a bath, and a den. I would prefer it if you took your meals up here when my children are present. I don’t want you frightening them.” This is said with a pointed glance towards Farfarello. “My cook can bring your meals to you. Will that be a problem?”
“Of course not.” It’s not the first time we’ve been requested such a thing, so none of us are surprised by his words. I think Schuldich’s rather content, as I doubt he wants to look at those kids every meal. He rather despises kids, a fierce dislike he shares with Nagi. He didn’t care so much until we had one client whose kids were fascinated with him. They were forever clinging to him and making fists in his hair as their mother cooed how adorable they were in the background. One threw up on him at one point, and he was never able to forgive the child for it. Farfarello doesn’t mind children. He thinks they’re rather fun to play with, and much more fun to kill.
Our suitcases have already been placed in our rooms. It puts me closest to the den, with Farfarello beside me and Schuldich on his other side. Nagi is across the hall from the German, and the bathroom is between him and the den. Matthews looks towards us for our approval. We haven’t inspected our rooms, as to do so with him present would be rude, but we nod. He smiles, but the warmth of it does not reach his eyes this time. “Good,” he says. “A car has been provided for you. The keys are on your beds. I have some business to attend to tonight that does not require your assistance, so I will see you again tomorrow. Your dinner will be brought up at 6:30.”
We nod in acceptance. He considers us for a moment, a hungry gleam in his eye, and gives a sharp laugh as he starts forward. “Good to have you,” he says in parting, reaching out to clap his hand on my shoulder as he passes.
Back to the dark room, and it all plays out again. It picks up where it left off last night, and a hand grabs my shoulder to whirl me around. My hair twists in his grip; he did not let go when he moved me. Cold, hungry eyes rake across my face and I gaze back with a smooth expression. He doesn’t take long to consider me before yanking me forward again, catching my mouth in a bruising grip. His hand slides down from my shoulder, running over my arm before skipping to my side and raking across my back. He bites down on my lip, hard enough to break the skin, and I can taste blood. His breath is ragged when he pulls away. I feel blood trickle down my chin. Now that I’ve heard his voice, his words are clearer. “Did you see this coming, clairvoyant?” he wants to know, voice husky with lust and greed.
“A long time ago,” I answer him.
He laughs at that, twisting my hair tighter in his grip. “Whore,” he declares, a heated, excited whisper. “Fucking whore.”
I’m suddenly aware that I’m the center of attention. I’m staring down the hallway in the direction Matthews went, but he’s long gone by now. Schuldich is studying me with wary surprise. I ignore him, because a much heavier gaze is resting on me. I reach up with my hand, running my fingers along my lip to check for warmth. I can still feel the sting of broken flesh. I can still feel blood trickling down my chin. Finally I shift my eyes to Schuldich. There was nothing big to alert him that I was gone this time; last time he only knew because it happened on a stairwell. He must have said something to me, must have maybe felt something shift and give out in my mind.
-You didn’t tell him.- It’s just short of an accusation, and he sounds startled. He expected me to pass the vision on to Farfarello when he vanished to get Thai food yesterday for lunch. Now he realizes that I didn’t. While aggressive precognition isn’t a rare occurrence, it almost never happens so close together unless it’s repeating itself, and it only repeats itself when it hasn’t been shared with a Watcher. Schuldich knows this. He was taught the particulars of my gift back in Rosenkreuz; we all learned about each other’s gifts.
At his words, I glance towards Farfarello. The disinterest that has been lurking in his eye since we got here is gone, replaced by anticipation. Schuldich must have noticed with his telepathy; Farfarello picked up on my distraction the same way the German did, by bleeding off our teammate’s gift. We study each other for a few moments in silence. Farfarello is pleased by this, pleased to have a chance to be in control. I give him a cool look, turning back to Schuldich. Nagi glances towards us, wondering what he’s missed. Farfarello takes a step towards me, and Schuldich looks from him to me with a small frown on his face.
“Schuldich, familiarize yourself with Charlotte.” He could do so from right here, but considering what’s just happened, he knows it’s an order to get out. He accepts it with a nod, beckoning towards Nagi. The teenager doesn’t know why he has to go along but he doesn’t protest and follows the telepath down the hall. I listen to their footsteps on the stairs before turning back to Farfarello. As distasteful as it is to have to hand him the power in this dangerous relationship between us, it’s what I was trained to do. A cold smile curves his mouth when he realizes I’m deferring to him, and he heads for the den. Tucking aside my reservations on the matter, I follow after him. The room has a door, and I shut and lock it behind us. We seat ourselves across from each other, staring each other down over the coffee table.
He pushes against me with his mind; it’s a familiar weight, a familiar demand. I hesitate only a moment before accepting his power, letting it slide through. Although I have just seen it, the vision replays itself, drawn forth by Farfarello’s power, and we watch it together. Farfarello fades to inexistence as the room slides around me. We watch in silence, and when it fades I can still feel that hot, possessive grip and I can taste blood once more.
Farfarello is silent for a long time, considering what he’s just seen. He’s seen a lot of things; he’s seen everything I have that’s coming for me. Like me, this vision is something he never expected. He thinks it over for several moments, head tilted to one side. Finally he sprawls backwards against his chair, draping his arms over the sides, and regards me through hooded eye lids. I sit neatly in my chair, fingers laced together in my lap, and wait for his response. I know already that I won’t like it. I rarely do.
“That’s a repeat,” he says at last. Absently I wonder how he knows. I’ve never had them repeat before, because I’ve always accepted them and reported them to him before. But somehow he knows, and that amuses him. He arches an eyebrow at me, letting his head loll to one side lazily. “You’ve had it for a while now.”
It’s not worded as a question, but I recognize it as such. I eye him coolly as he waits for an answer. His gaze demands one. Finally I settle for saying “Yes.”
“How long?” he wants to know.
I carefully tuck aside my aggravation at being obligated to answer him, presenting him with a smooth expression and guarded eyes. When it comes to an aggressive vision, Farfarello always has the right of way. I am not allowed to deny him anything. Those are Rosenkreuz’s rules, and if I ever chose to disobey them, he could report the grievance to them. “This is the eighth day,” I tell him.
“Is it.” That smile returns to his lips. Wisps of the vision curl before my eyes as he toys with it once more, and he reaches up with a finger to tap his lips. “Took you by surprise, did it?” he inquires, a soft, amused drawl.
“Is that a rhetorical question?” I return evenly.
“Maybe you liked it and wanted to watch it all,” he answers with a shrug.
I give him a cold look and he smirks back, offering a shrug with one shoulder. Silence falls between us and I reflect that it is good he knows. Now that his gift has hold of it, it will not show up anymore. It will not continue any further, and I won’t have to watch the rest of such an atrocious thing. My teammate regards me through a half-lidded eye, considering me and what he has seen in silence again. “You weren’t fighting him,” he says simply, meaning it to be a question.
“We have orders,” I respond. He arches an eyebrow at me, and I elaborate. “‘You are to do whatever he says unless it is detrimental to Rosenkreuz’s goals. I don’t care if it means he wants you to make him his coffee everyday. You will do it.’ That is what Dreyden told us when he assigned this job to us.”
Farfarello’s lips pull into a thin smirk. “Doesn’t take much to make him happy, does it?” he murmurs.
I give him a cool look. “Not much at all,” is my smooth answer.
Farfarello laughs, lifting a hand to rake his fingers through his hair. His bright yellow eye glows with amusement as he studies me, and after a moment he points at me. “It’s going to happen,” he says simply. “You can’t do anything a vision you have chosen to do. By obeying your orders you are accepting what he wants and thereby choosing to let him do it.” It’s not what I wanted to hear, though deep down I realize I didn’t expect anything else. I accept his words with a smooth expression, giving away none of what I feel on the matter. “Everything you have seen will come to pass.” He gives me a lazy smirk, eyes lowering to half mast. “What an interesting job.”
Interesting isn’t the word I would choose to use for it.
“He has shields,” Farfarello says, though Schuldich already told me that. “You will not have that as a warning. You have a very vague time estimate and will have to watch what he does rather than what he thinks.”
I just nod. My answer to Mathews in the vision, the only words I spoke, are the only indication that I still have time before he starts taking an interest in me. When he asked if I’d known such a thing was coming, I told him I’d seen it a long time ago. Farfarello rises from his seat, leaning forward to rest one hand on the coffee table. The other reaches out to tangle roughly in my hair. I know I couldn’t tug out of his grip if I tried, so I don’t bother wasting energy just to get a sore scalp. I regard him in silence, eyes guarded and face expressionless, as if we have just had a civil conversation and I don’t mind him standing so close to me. “So you’ll give him what he wants,” Farfarello says, searching my eyes. “You’ll follow your orders like the dog you are. But you don’t really have a clue what it is he’s demanding, so can you give it to him?”
With that and a faint, eerie smile, he straightens and heads towards the door. His fingers flip the lock out of place and he exits the room. I remain where I am for a long time afterwards, considering everything that we’ve said. That soft, lilting drawl laced with amusement lingers in my mind.
It’s not like I expected him to react any other way.
He can afford to be amused. It’s not his vision.
If Matthews notices that Farfarello has taken a sudden, intense interest in him when the day before he couldn’t care less, he says nothing and gives no outward sign of being bothered by Farfarello’s frequent staring. Farfarello keeps to himself most of the morning, generally ignoring everyone around him. Randomly, however, he’ll turn his gaze on Matthews and just study him in intent silence. It’s blatant and rude and it makes the aides nervous, but since Matthews says nothing, Schwarz does nothing to stop him. He always ends his staring with that eerie little smile as he lowers his gaze and goes back to whatever he was doing before. Schuldich doesn’t really notice that something is extremely off until the fifth time he catches Farfarello at it, and he sends the Irishman a suspicious stare before flicking his blue eyes towards me.
I, of course, feign not to notice. We are currently finishing up negotiations for Matthews’ acquisition of Albatross. Schuldich has spent the better part of the meeting adjusting things here and there, curbing second doubts here and planting reassurance and confidence there. It is very careful, very slow and subtle, and within half an hour the representatives are starting to convince themselves that allowing Matthews to buy them out is for the best for their company. Schuldich backs off then, letting them take it from there. He wants them to take his nudging and finish convincing themselves the rest of the way, so that when they announce their decision to be bought to the rest of their staff they will have firm reasons for it, justifiable reasons that must be found by them instead of Schuldich.
He keeps a mental ear on them in case they start faltering, but now that he has backed off he has finally noticed Farfarello. He told me once that it is almost impossible to read the Irishman, both because the younger assassin leeches off his telepathy and therefore can create a mental shield and because of the way Farfarello’s mind works. It helps keep whatever aggressive visions I share with Farfarello safe, and in so doing leaves Schuldich completely clueless as to why Farfarello seems to find something interesting about our current client.
When I still refuse to acknowledge his stare, Schuldich finally looks away again. The representatives have gone silent, and at last they ask if they can step aside to talk things over amongst themselves and make a phone call. Matthews graciously agrees, telling them that they can use the office next door. They exit the room and as soon as the door closes behind them our client turns to fix an expectant look on me.
“You will have it,” I assure him smoothly.
“Good.” He is pleased; the smile that curves his mouth is cold with satisfaction. I recognize the expression. He leans back in his chair, glancing over at the man seated to his left. “Look at this,” he says, sounding very self-satisfied as he gestures towards us. We of Schwarz are seated where the representatives can’t see us, sitting around a table in a little half office connected to their room. Matthews can see us and we can see him, but where Albatross’s chairs rest they cannot see past the doorway. “Look at this power. Anything I want. I can have anything I want.” It amuses him and he laughs, a greedy, hungry sound that I have heard many times before.
Farfarello gives a soft little laugh at such words, and Schuldich treats him to another searching look. “Indeed,” my Watcher murmurs.
I ignore him. Nagi glances up from the files he has been reading. He had been too absorbed to pay attention to any of us before. What jars him from his reading is the fact that Farfarello had something to add. He looks at Farfarello, then around at the rest of us. Schuldich waggles his fingers at the younger assassin, leaning forward to prop his chin on his palm and gaze off into Matthew’s office. Our telekinetic goes back to reading, figuring it was nothing. He is studying network information, particularly where all of Matthews’ owned organizations are connected. Very few people know that he owns as much as he does, so the connections between the companies are small and hidden. Schuldich hates it when the Asian youth studies such things, as he can’t keep it from getting tangled up in his gift. He complains often about learning things he doesn’t want to, but now and then he’ll use what he’s snagged from others. He is very intelligent by his power, and staying sane by luck. He seems to be doing better ever since Farfarello joined our team and started leeching telepathy from him. It weakens his power, not enough to be a problem but enough that it lessens the strain on his mind.
The door opens again and the men return. They announce that they have decided Matthews’ offer to be in Albatross’ best interests, and the three of them sit down to go over Matthews’ proposed contract. Schuldich flicks his bangs out of his face, sending his watch a glance. He feels no satisfaction over the meeting’s successful ending. It is boring work to him, to do little things like this, and he has done so many similar little tricks over the past years that he does not waste time feeling smug over them. He is ready for this day to be over. He knows what is planned and he doesn’t like it at all. He doesn’t want to deal with the boring meetings to come, hours of dry information that he doesn’t need to know. He wants real work to do.
-Patience,- I tell him, just as he has turned to me and opened his mouth to complain.
He gives a heavy sigh, crossing his arms over his chest. -As long as things get interesting at some point,- he sends back. -If I get stuck here doing crap like this,- he gives a small tilt of his head to indicate the other room, -I am going to be impossible to put up with.-
-How is that new?- Nagi inquires lightly without looking up from his paperwork.
Schuldich sends him a flat look.
-He will find bigger work,- I tell Schuldich.
Farfarello tilts his head to one side, lips pulling back into his special little smile. -He will always want more,- he says.
The comment goes over Schuldich’s head; he doesn’t know enough to catch the reference. He just rummages in his pockets and retrieves a piece of candy, which he unwraps and starts sucking on. -He’d better get a list of demands going,- he says. -The least he could do for us for having to walk on eggshells around him is find something challenging to go after.-
Unbidden, my gaze slides to Farfarello’s face. He glances my way. Our eyes lock across the table, and Farfarello’s smile widens. Farfarello looks away first, but not until after he lets me see the lazy amusement curling in his eye. I contemplate the relief it would bring me if I were to draw my gun and just shoot him here and now, and squish the thought. I should not let him get under my skin, but for some reason I can never keep him from irritating me. It is annoying, almost more annoying than he is. I turn my attention back on the doorway. Schuldich has missed the silent exchange.
-I’m sure he will,- I answer at last.
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