Part Four

    We are trying to work that evening when Farfarello shows up to harass us. Nagi is kneeling at the small table in the den, going over printouts that he has spread all over the wooden surface. Schuldich is stretched out on his side on the couch, nursing a beer and a headache. One hand is struggling with a file Nagi has given him and the one with the can of beer comes precariously close to spilling his drink several times as he waves it around. After we left Matthews at his office, we dropped Schuldich off at a diner across the street from Southbell Industries and returned home so Nagi could start collecting his data. The two of them will be working very closely together for most of this. Farfarello doesn't have work to do until some killing starts, though he can give Nagi and Schuldich rides if they need them. I have work of my own between tending to Matthews, laying groundwork for our next jobs, and tidying up pieces around Southbell. Matthews gave me a list of meetings and conferences I am supposed to attend with him, meeting leaders of his shadow industries, discussing Schwarz's progress, and convincing hesitant business partners to ally themselves with our group.

    Right now Schuldich is giving Nagi and me a rundown of what he accomplished today. Through telepathic messages and a dozen or so calls this afternoon, he and Nagi bounced information off each other to make our German's job easier. While Nagi found out what the public knows and can access about Southbell, Schuldich was trying to establish the real power hierarchy at the corporation. It will take another day for them to have everything mapped out the way we need it to be, but they made good progress today. The complete destruction of an organization is one of the easiest jobs for Schwarz, right there next to intimidation and simple murder. Nagi's suggestion- kick Southbell's feet out from under it and then let Matthews give it a hand back up- would have taken more time.

    "Timing would have been best a week ago, then," Nagi says in response to Schuldich's little lecture, and he flips through news articles to find the one he wants. "With the board of trustees still intact and before they split their stock…"

    "It'll still be good timing," Schuldich says with a shrug. "They thought these moves would make them more stable. They've had a week to realize it worked and right when they think they can breathe easy, we happen. People will say the flaws in their management's decisions just weren't immediately visible. Right, Farfarello?"

    As soon as he says it, the cushions of my chair shift as our missing teammate props himself against the back of it. "People will say what you want them to say," Farfarello answers, and Schuldich grins at that. The cushions shift again and two fingers curl around a lock of my hair, twisting it tight enough that it pulls at the scalp. "We're leaving, Oracle."

    "Where to?" Schuldich asks me.

    "I did not have plans," I say, a response to both Schuldich and Farfarello. The Irishman releases me and comes around to crouch beside my chair. His yellow eye is half-lidded and his smile is lazy.

    "I made them for you," he says simply. A flicker of color flashes from his mind to mine- a split second of gray carpet and dark leaves. His eerie smile twitches wider though there is no change on my face, and he pushes himself to his feet. He does not wait for me, knowing that I will follow. He has pulled rank of me, and there is nothing Schuldich and Nagi need me for that can override his command. The two watch as I rise but say nothing. They know there is only one reason I will listen to Farfarello, and they figure the two of us can handle whatever it is. Schuldich lifts two fingers from his can to waggle them in a farewell, and I know they'll keep working in our absence.

    I follow Farfarello down the stairs. His jacket is slung over the banister and he scoops it up as he passes, shrugging into it. It jingles in the movement and I recognize the sound as being keys. I don't bother to ask where we're going because I'm not curious enough to know and I doubt he'd answer, anyway. No one bothers us as we leave, and Farfarello takes the wheel. I sit silent in the passenger seat of our car as the engine comes to life. Headlights flick on to light up the dark street and the drive takes right under fifteen minutes. We're just four minutes away when I realize where we're going, but I say nothing.

    Farfarello parks at the curb and we slip out. He takes me up to the doors and slides a card through the slot to let us in. I arch an eyebrow at him as he holds the door open and he offers me the barest of smirks.

    "Is Matthews going to report a dead guard in the morning?" I want to know, gesturing towards the stolen keycard.

    Farfarello's amusement is condescending. "It isn't time to kill anyone yet. He doesn't know it's gone."

    "Do forgive me," I murmur. "Sometimes I forget you possess common sense."

    He bares his teeth at me behind his smile and I precede him inside. The door is closed softly behind us and he trails after me towards the elevators. There's no reason for him to lead the way now. There's only one place we could be going, and while I do not appreciate it, I will not let on by hanging back and letting him take me there.

    The elevator opens immediately. It rests on the first floor after closing hours, waiting for morning when it will be used again. We both step on, and Farfarello presses the button for the seventh floor. He amuses himself by watching the numbers above the door, and I study our reflections on the mirrored back wall. The elevator makes a ticking sound with every floor it passes and I count them in my mind until we've reached the seventh. Farfarello steps out first, as he is closest to the door, and I follow after him down the hall. I don't bother to ask about the security cameras for this floor. I know Farfarello has already taken care of everything. I probably should have paid better attention to his absence earlier, but I suppose I was just content enough that he was gone that I didn't stop to question where he was going. Farfarello wouldn't bring us here if we would get caught.

    He picks the lock for Matthews' office; it takes him just a second to do so and then he opens the door. He leans against the doorframe to survey the office and I wait just off to his side, staring past his shoulder in at the room.

    This afternoon Matthews called us here and I saw face to face the room that had haunted my gift for over a week. Right now I see the room as I have grown used to seeing it. The moonlight through the window falls at the wrong angle; the day is wrong and the time is off as well. Other than that, it is exactly as I have known it would look. I step past Farfarello, making myself move into a room I don't want to be near, and study the place with a cool hazel gaze.

    "Is it to your satisfaction?" Farfarello wants to know, pushing me forward with a hand on my back. We move to the desk and stand there, and I can only listen to him with half a mind. The rest of me is studying the room as it appears in darkness, and I reach out to touch the desk in front of me. The wood is cool and smooth beneath my fingertips, and Farfarello moves to lean against the desk. "You're going to see it soon."

    "There still isn't a time," I remind him. My eyes find the clock and I watch it tick. The second hand slogs merrily along and for a few moments, it's the only sound in the room. Farfarello notices my distraction and glances that way as well. When he looks back towards me, his smirk is unpleasant.

    "There isn't long enough to get you ready," he says.

    I flick him a cool look. "There isn't much to prepare."

    His expression is smooth but his eye flickers with dark amusement. "Do you really think you can handle this one on your own?" he inquires, sliding both hands across the desk. His gaze is a challenge as he stares up at me and I straighten the papers his hands mess up. "Are you so arrogant? I find your ignorance amusing. You should be dismayed by it."

    I lift a finger to push my glasses further up my nose, trying a mental countdown from ten to control myself. The Irishman is laughing silently at me, thrilled to death about the predicament I am in. I don't know what he is trying to prove tonight; I doubt he is doing more than just shoving this in my face. I do not appreciate it. I don't need his mocking reminders to keep this future fresh in the forefront of my mind. It's beyond irritating that the Sensitive can get under my skin so easily; not even Schuldich is this good at testing my patience. Times like these make me believe it would be much better if I could just deal with my gift on my own and face the insanity or death that would most certainly follow such a course rather than have this man in particular assigned to me. It would make life simpler, I'm sure, to just die young rather than survive and continue to have to deal with Farfarello. A pity then that I'm not a defeatist; I face many more years of these aggravating moments.

    At least the hate is mutual, though the hate is what makes it so easy for us to irritate each other. I tell myself to tolerate his taunts because the sooner he is satisfied here, the sooner we will return back to Matthews' estate and I will once more be in command. I realize then that I'm looking around the room still; my gaze is lingering on the plants instead of on my teammate's face. It doesn't improve my mood at all to realize that the reason I'm reacting so quickly to him is because I really don't want to be here. I'm supposed to be able to keep it all together at all times, but being in this room at night just makes my skin crawl.

    Hands slide against me, rough and possessive, and I can feel a hot mouth on my neck.

    "My training was sufficient," I say at length, satisfied that my voice is calm. I try to force the tension from my shoulders, try to force myself to relax. It isn't working. When I blink I can see the upcoming night and all I can feel are heavy hands on me. Matthews' laughter rings in my mind.

    "Was it?" Farfarello asks, lifting himself onto the desk and sprawling out onto the papers I've just fixed. He offers me a bland look, ignoring the stony one I give him in return. "You are a dog. You do what you are told. You fetch, you hunt, you kill. They give the word; you give results. But can you give something you never have before? Dogs only perform the tricks they were trained to do and they did not teach you this."

    "I do not require your assistance with this," I tell him firmly, struggling again to force the images back. It takes me just a moment more to realize that Farfarello is enforcing them, and my fingers twitch briefly as I keep them from curling into fists at my side. He sees the movement and offers me a lazy smirk that reminds me too much of Schuldich. I give myself a moment to be eternally grateful that Farfarello, despite how much he is given access to my gift, refuses to share any of it with the others. It is hard enough dealing with Farfarello's cold amusement; I cannot imagine what it would be like if Schuldich caught wind of this particular problem. "Now, if you don't mind-"

    That is as far as I can get; a sudden stab of pain sharper than any I've felt before crashes through me. It is a violent physical blow and it knocks me forward against the desk; my hands instinctively grab at the edge for balance. The slam forward knocks my glasses from my face and Farfarello catches them midair with a lazy grace. I struggle to focus, struggle to figure out what has just happened. I realize I've choked on my breath and take a deep breath, thoughts whirling in every direction as the pain lingers on. The breath almost makes me cough and I fight back the urge with everything I have.

    I know instantly where the blow is from; Farfarello has leeched off of Nagi. The Irishman reaches up with his free hand, snagging his fingers in my tie, and jerks my face down until we are just a breath apart. I'm too disoriented to react immediately; I'm still trying to focus and I blink rapidly to clear the black sparkles from my vision. The Irishman's expression is calm when I can focus on him again; all amusement has bled from his face.

    "If I had told you not to move, would you have been able to stand in place?" he wants to know. He lifts his other hand, sliding my glasses back into place on the bridge of my nose. "Is that what your training prepared you to give?"

    My mind has cleared enough to realize what Farfarello has just done and what it means for what it coming. It is an ugly bit of awakening and fury and hatred splinter through my mind and chest. Golden brown eyes narrow to furious slits; any attempts at trying to keep my cool are abandoned. The pain is still there, sharp and hot. "Let. Go."

    Farfarello rolls off the desk, pulling me with him by the hand on my tie. I catch his wrist, ready to yank him free, and he grabs mine in turn with his free hand. He gives me a smooth look, pinning me between the desk and himself, and searches my gaze. "No," he answers his question for me. "It didn't."

    "Let go," I say again, "and get away from me."

    Farfarello tilts his head to one side and offers me a thin-lipped smile. "You're bleeding," he tells me. "I can smell it."

    With that he pulls his hands free and turns away, striding towards the door. I watch him go, expression cracking enough to send a dark look towards his back. He doesn't look back to see it; he pushes the door open and passes through, letting it swing closed behind him. I swear fiercely under my breath, one hand moving to my stomach as the other helps me balanced against the desk. I make the mistake of trying to sit down in one of the chairs across from Matthews' desk but don't make it very far before I decide it's much better to stand.

    I can taste my hatred for Farfarello on my tongue, and with it curls the hatred of this knowledge he's decided to share with me. It leaves a sick feeling in my stomach; it gives the vision I keep having just a nightmarish dose of reality.

    I wait until I can seal away the pain and sickness before leaving the office. Farfarello is sitting cross-legged on the secretary's desk, waiting patiently for me, and he watches me as I step out into the small waiting area. He points to the spot in front of him. I am tempted to just walk away and leave him, but I find myself moving that direction anyway. He is the one with the keys, after all, and storming out means that I've let him bother me. I present him with a cool look as I stand right in front of him, and he considers me in silence.

    I wait for him to say something. Silence stretches between us as I wait for his taunts, for his amused words. He continues to say nothing, and at last he slides off of the desk. "So then," he says. "We go."

    I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, and watch as he heads for the elevators. He knows I'm not following him and he stops halfway there to turn and consider me. I have turned to watch him but haven't budged from my spot, and we stare each other down once more. Finally he lifts his hand to his neck, hooking his thumb to the collar around his throat. It was given to him by Rosenkreuz when they assigned him to me. For the first year and a half of his service to me it was charged, ready to kill him if he struck out against Schwarz. Rosenkreuz didn't trust him not to strike out against us, considering the state he was in mentally when they gave him to me. He had been on the list of those considered for death row or experimentation; the list of assaults on Rosenkreuz officials had been long. But he'd been the most advanced Sensitive, despite all this, so they had decided to give him a chance. When he proved his worth again and again and seemed content to do nothing more than bait the other three of Schwarz, Rosenkreuz turned off the collar. We all expected him to take it off, but he left it locked around his throat.

    "You have decided that this is going to happen to you," he reminds me. "This means I have to walk you through it. You have no clue what you're doing."

    What he did in the office wasn't done out of spite, but as a warning. It was a little taste of what to steel myself for, though I can't say I appreciate it. But I accept his words and the meaning behind it and start towards him at last.

    Farfarello finds this situation amusing, but regardless of his own opinion on the matter, his job is to make sure I can make it through what Matthews wishes to do with me. He'll laugh at me the entire way but he'll try in his own twisted way to make sure that I will not flinch back under Matthews. After the little show at the desk I have to swallow the bitter truth that I honestly have no clue what exactly Matthews has in store for me, though this little glimpse of it is enough to leave me cold. I say nothing to Farfarello as I reach his side and he presses the elevator button. Our car has already retreated back down to the first floor, but the second elevator sits on the fifth floor during idle hours, and it rises to fetch us.

    The ride down is in silence and we head out to the car. Farfarello takes the driver's seat once more and I ease into the passenger seat as carefully as I can without seeming obvious. It hurts to move, hurts to sit. Farfarello watches me with a little smirk on his face and I do my best to ignore him. Breath hisses out quietly through clenched teeth as I settle fully in the cushions, and he laughs quietly at me before turning his attention on the road.

    "You have meetings tomorrow," he reminds me.

    A whole day of sitting… "Looking forward to it," I mutter in response.


    Matthews has five meetings scheduled for the next day, all with allies of his. They are the managers on the outskirts of his corporation network; these companies form a ring of sorts around his growing power. He tells me in an aside between the two morning meetings that men are too easy to control these days. People gave up morals and ethics long ago in exchange for fatter checks, fast cars, and faster women. Matthews knows exactly how to keep these men happy and to him it's a game. I ask him what he would do if they banded up against him to demand more, and he just laughs and says that they don't know about each other. He has moved them very carefully so that each man only knows that one other of the five exists, in a tangled loop of mixed feels of both alliance and jealousy. I accept this in silence and decide that Schuldich would like our client if he could just hear inside his head, though I am quite content to have his shields in place.

    Matthews and I stake out one extremely fancy Japanese restaurant in the middle of the city and we let them come to us. We eat light with each group and the managers keep remarking that they thought they'd beat us here. Matthews just smiles at that and beckons for them to sit across from him. He has me on his right side, and I'm an immediate point of interest for our new arrivals. Matthews explains that I'm a consultant he had brought in from Europe to "help out around the place". I shake hands that, while they aren't as bloody as mine, have destroyed at least as many lives over the course of their careers. It's the third meeting, last meeting of the morning, and I'm on my third salad. Matthews has each of the men explain their company and position to me, though I've already read a little from the files we've been collecting.

    My job is just to sit there quietly and listen; they're content to do their business and not include me in it, and I'm fine with that. I analyze every word they say as I chew on my lettuce, forcing myself to concentrate on them. It takes an active bit of force that I am slightly disgusted over; I should be able to tuck aside everything else in the face of my work. Schuldich and Nagi will need what I can bring them from this and I will be making my own judgments based on what goes on here.

    But it is as if Farfarello's little lesson last night opened up a small bit of awareness in me in regards to Matthews and myself, and I find myself getting distracted more often than I care to count. I'm distracted by wondering if I'll be able to stand up again once these meetings are over. Matthews comes and goes to the restroom between meetings, but I nurse the same cup of water all day long. I'm not entirely sure I could sit back down again once I was up and I know he would notice something. This Japanese restaurant is traditional style and has us sitting on the floor. For this particular table, there's a gap under the table for our legs to dangle, but I still don't want to try standing and sitting just yet.

    I am distracted when Matthews introduces me to the managers. He sets a hand down on my shoulder each time when he is indicating me, and it is a possessive sort of touch. It's not a particularly new feeling, though Matthews is the first client we've had that is arrogant enough to touch us. Others in the past have seen us as little more than bodies and talents to hire out, but they knew better than to say such things to our face. Matthews doesn't bother to hide his greedy glee over 'owning' Schwarz. He knows that what he is working on is important to Rosenkreuz and it just adds to his own sense of self-importance. His hand is heavy and hot on my shoulder and his fingers tight, a silent and fierce 'Mine'.

    It is as if he has two different in-jokes going on at the same time through the meetings. With his managers it revolves around his power to get 'the best European consultant' on his side, and the managers chuckle and go along with it and think that I have no clue what's really going on beneath the surface. With me, Matthews lets me see his scorn regarding his managers that he is very carefully orchestrating. He speaks to both groups today on different levels, sometimes tilting himself my direction as he talks. To them, he is including me in the conversation. To me, it's almost an aside, and the "Can you believe these assholes?" may be unspoken but it's loud and clear.

    I speak when he wants me to and say what he wants me to, just as I have done a thousand times in the past with so many other clients. The managers urge me to eat more than a salad and I inform them that I am still recovering from jet lag and don't want anything heavy in my stomach. Matthews smiles and they accept this, and they forget again for a few minutes that I am there.

    It is a long and boring day, but four pm finally comes around and signals the end of the meetings. Matthews' last group takes their leave and the two of us are alone once more to sit and reflect upon everything that got accomplished today. Matthews beckons a waiter over to ask for sake, free to indulge now that his companions are finally gone. It comes out in just a few minutes, and we spend the time in silence. When the waiter sets it out before us, Matthews pours us each a bit and holds my little glass out towards me. "Ever had sake before?" he says, and he pronounces it all wrong, like a typical American. "It's rice wine."

    "I've had it," I say, though I don't elaborate to tell him where. I accept the cup from him and he lifts his own.

    He tilts his towards me and we both down the little shots together. Matthews coughs at the flavor as we set them down, and he sets about pouring us more. He eyes me as he's setting the pitcher back down. "You seem to me like a man who could hold your liquor," he decides. "Tell me, what is your tolerance?"

    It is not a question I feel he has the right to ask me, but I have a simple answer for him anyway. The lie is easy on my tongue. "Mr. Matthews, Rosenkreuz's Talents are not drinkers. Controlling such powers takes a great deal of focus and concentration, so it would be dangerous for us to impair ourselves. It is not safe to lose control."

    "Yes," he muses. "You do come across as a bit of a control freak."

    I decide the comment is worth passing on to Schuldich, because I know it will entertain him. My telepath used to joke about me being a control freak, but he never meant anything by it. He understands, as a telepath, as a Talent, and as my partner, why I have to keep a tight control on everything. He doesn't hold it against me. To Matthews, I just give him a small smile that is not a smile at all and we drink our second cups. Matthews calls his driver to come pick us up and finishes off the rest of the alcohol on his own. It is time to leave then and apparently Matthews is already feeling his drink. He is not quite steady on his feet when he rises and I take advantage of his distraction to get to my own feet. It is an unpleasant experience after sitting all day.

    Matthews snags the bill and we go to pay at the door. After paying for all of his associates' meals throughout the course of the day and then our own food, he has wracked up quite a bill, but pays with a check card and the limo is waiting for us when we step outside. The driver gets the door for us and we sit across from each other. Matthews studies me in silence the entire trip back to his place and, although I do not like the calculating look in his eye, I stare back.

    He is distracted by his wife as soon as we step through the front doors, and I dismiss myself from them and head up to the second floor where my teammates are waiting. Schuldich is in the lounge, dozing where he is sprawled out on the coach, but he stirs when he hears footsteps. Blue eyes crack open to study me as I move through the room. His work is spread out all over the table and I consider it, eyes raking over the charts and papers.

    "Have an exciting day?" Schuldich wants to know, yawning around the words.

    "It's the sort of day I wake up for," is my dry response, and he grins at me.

    "Nagi's off looking stuff up," he tells me, lifting a hand from the cushion to wiggle it at the table. "Did you send Farf out on something? He's been gone for hours and I can't really track him wherever he went." I shake my head at that, leaning over slightly to pick up one notepad, and Schuldich considers me for a long moment.

    -It's about Matthews, isn't it?- he wants to know, and I glance his way to study his curious gaze. -Whatever you gave to Farfarello. It has to do with Matthews.-

    -You should know better by now than to ask,- I return easily.

    -He's important to Rosenkreuz,- Schuldich points out, reaching up to rake his hair out of his face. Long fingers tuck longer locks of orange hair behind his ears. -Dreyden seemed to think that he's going to be a major catch; I was sitting there with you when he was assigned to us. But if your vision is acting up around Matthews? It sounds like conflicting interests for Schwarz.-

    -Do not worry about it,- I tell him, setting the notepad back down. -We are taking care of it. It won't interfere with Schwarz's success.-

    He looks for a moment like he's going to press the matter, but instead remains quiet for a minute longer. -The web is almost done,- he says. -We should be finished by the time we go to sleep tonight. I don't know if you'll be back by then.- At my look, he explains. -Farfarello left a message for me to give to you, saying he'd meet with you tonight at eleven. He didn't tell me where; he said you'd know.-

    I am quiet for a few moments before I realize he's waiting for an acknowledgment, and I nod to him. -I know where,- I agree, starting for the door. Schuldich doesn't ask where I'm going, most likely assuming I'm going to prepare a report summarizing the day to submit both to my unit and to Rosenkreuz's files. He lets me leave without saying anything else and I take myself to the peace and quiet of my room. My hand lingers on the doorknob as I close the door behind me and I look across the room, studying the time and counting down the hours until the meeting. Yes, I know exactly where Farfarello will want me to meet him tonight.

    'It won't interfere with Schwarz's success,' I'd promised Schuldich.

    It's a promise I intend to keep, which means that I have six and a half hours before I meet Farfarello again. Until then… I start for my desk to start on today's paperwork.

Part 5
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