Part Five

    Farfarello is waiting for me when I show up. I park the car at the corner and walk a few minutes down the sidewalk to the Carolinian building. My younger teammate melts out of the shadows as I reach the steps and gets out a card to let us in the building. I don't know if it's the same card as the last one; it looks different but I only see it for a moment before he's pushing open the door. I follow him down the hallway to the elevators, listening to the way our footsteps echo softly through the darkness. The elevator is waiting on us and Farfarello props himself against the wall opposite me. His yellow gaze is intent despite his lazy posture; a glance that way gives me the impression that I'm being weighed. His expression is smooth as he considers me and I idly wonder what's going through his mind. What do the thoughts of a madman sound like? Schuldich has a lot of trouble reading him and generally doesn't try. Farfarello let him in once when Schuldich kept harassing him about it and the German was silent for days afterwards.

    A slow smirk curves along Farfarello's lips and I look away, finding more interesting things to stare at. The bell dings and he flicks his fingers towards the opening door. I catch the gesture out of the corner of my eye and lead the way out, passing the secretary's desk to reach his office. Farfarello has messed with the lock at some point; I know Matthews locks his office door every night, but a pale hand reaches past me and gives the knob a hard jiggle that unlocks it. He pulls back to allow me to open it and I precede him inside. I move to stand by the desk, almost in the same spot I was in last time. The door clicks quietly closed behind us as I eye the room.

    Silence falls for a few minutes and I can feel Farfarello's heavy gaze on me. He says nothing and I have no interest in being the first to break the quiet. At last he sighs. It strikes me as an odd sound, barely audible as it is; I can't remember if I've ever heard him sigh. It's enough that I pull my attention away from the paintings on the wall and start to look back.

    I don't even hear him approach.

    I've just started to turn when he's there. I feel the weight and warmth of him at my back just before hands splay across my abdomen. My hands are on his wrists instantly, pulling him free, as my thoughts do a startled little stumble. It's an instinctive reaction to rip him away; it's an unfamiliar, unwelcome touch and it's Farfarello initiating it. Farfarello doesn't touch people; he has a thing about physical contact. All of us in Schwarz are deathly protective of our personal space, and he's the last one I thought would ever break one of Schwarz's silent but most important rules.

    "Don't move," he says, locking his arms when I've just gotten them a breath away from me. The order is quiet and cold and I can feel his breath ghosting across my collar. We go still in the wake of his command: him, waiting, and me, struggling to process those words.

    It takes me just a moment more to react. "What are you-"

    "Let go," he interrupts me. Silence again, tense and short. He gives me just a few seconds before repeating the command. "Let go of me, Oracle. Now."

    I find it ridiculous that he's taking offense to me holding him when he's at my back. Farfarello and I have always had issues and we tend to toe the line between us when the power is on the opposite side. But despite our dislike of each other, we know when to give in, no matter how distasteful we find the task assigned us. I know this. He knows this. Then why is this not an order I can follow? I can feel the tension in both of our frames as we stand pressed together, and can feel him silently willing me to cave, but I cannot make my fingers let go. Instead they tighten. "Get off of me," I say, voice flat.

    I can hear the sneer in his words. "Were you hoping for counseling and therapy, Oracle?"

    He keeps using my codename to enforce his authority here. I hear it and I know that I'm supposed to listen, but for the first time in our years together I'm ignoring my Watcher's explicit orders. I don't like the weight of him against me. I don't like being touched like this.

    "Let go, Oracle," he says again, and there's a clear warning in his voice. "You will not like it if I make you let go. You can work this job with a broken arm and Rosenkreuz knows it. You'd be the one to file a report to inform them of the injury and you know what they will say about it when you have to tell them how it happened."

    My jaws hurt where my teeth are clenched, and it is another painful minute later before I can relax my fingers on him. The moment he feels my grip start to slacken he wrenches himself free. His fingers go straight to my collar, catching the material and yanking it tight enough that it cuts off my air. He shifts against me, rocking up on his feet to speak directly into my ear. "Do not ever defy me again, Oracle. That will be your one warning."

    And with that, his gift slams into mine with the force of a freight train. It's a solid, sharp blow to my senses, powerful enough that I stumble. He pushes me forward and I reach out automatically to steady myself. I feel the desk under my hands but I cannot see my hands there in front of me. My mind is swirling through a vision I've seen too many times already but the physical sensations are detached; fingernails slide against the desk as I reel at this unfamiliar limbo between the here-and-now and what's to come. This is not how my gift is supposed to work. I am either there or I am here; my mind isn't sure what to make of this tangling of present and future.

    "He's coming for you," Farfarello murmurs in my ear, and unbidden, my eyes flick to the clock. The hands that indicated it to be almost half past eleven now are counting away the seconds to midnight. Farfarello has let go of me; he let me fall forward away from him. I touch the desk again, blinking against the dimness of the room. My gift is trying to let go, hearing Farfarello's voice and using it as an anchor to reality, but Farfarello won't let it. A gaze moves quickly around the room, taking in the way the moonlight has shifted both due to the change in time and day of the month.

    "Everyone wants to play with fire," Farfarello muses. Hands I cannot see take hold of my wrists and pull my hands away from the desk, moving them to my sides before letting go. "So pretty, so tempting… So easy to get burned."

    The door opens. A flash of light spills in from the hall, light that I know isn't really here. It changes the shadows in the room. There's a shadow from the doorway for the few moments that the door is open, but Farfarello's shadow isn't there beside Matthews'. I wonder for a moment, for the first time, why the hall light is on at midnight. Did I turn it on at his command so that he could find his way here, or did he leave it on for me? The lights have a timer to go off at eleven unless they're security lights. There's a small lamp on the secretary's desk that stays on twenty-four hours, but not the overhead lights.

    The door swings shut and I hear the lock slide into place. The clock is chiming to announce the midnight hour. Matthews draws near to me; I can feel his stare boring into my back.

    "Ahhh…" comes the soft, satisfied whisper.

    A palm presses against my back, but it feels wrong. Matthews has big, heavy hands. While this touch is no less possessive or demanding, I know instinctively that it's not part of my vision. It feels more real than it always did in my mind. My visions always gave me physical sensations based on what my mind thought it would feel like. They were rough approximates and they were convincing, but this touch is wrong. This touch is real; this touch is Farfarello's.

    It slides along my shoulder blade to my side and I know Farfarello is acting in time with the Matthews in my vision; I've seen this scene enough to know that it's all going exactly as it's supposed to. He's half-lost in this like I am, and I do not like the idea of that. I can feel a protest twisting in my stomach but I do not speak- will not speak, because Matthews ordered me not to speak, and a part of my mind is reflecting that I know how to follow orders. Fingers fit themselves to my side, tight enough that I can feel the pressure on my ribcage. The pause isn't for him- it's for me, to let me know who's in charge here.

    It feels too real. I try to make myself reach out for the desk, knowing that the double touch of something real will probably be enough to shake us both free of this, but I cannot make my hands move. Or are my hands moving and I just can't see them? I do not know, and words are frozen in my throat.

    My shirt is pulled free of my waistband and hands slip inside. Farfarello's hands aren't as hot as Matthews' are going to be; they're cool from waiting outside on me. Fingertips and nails trace a path up to my ribs and then back down to my hips. Fingers dig in tightly, almost too tight, and then he's tugging me backwards. He's shorter than Matthews; I can feel the distinct height difference and for a moment my gift hiccups, wondering about it. The room flickers dark as I teeter between now and then, and right when I think I'll fall free the vision resettles itself.

    Hands are prying at my buttons when I'm back and I let him rip them free. ~Put a stop to this,~ I tell myself flatly. ~This isn't the way to go about it. There's another way to prepare myself for what's coming. This is not it. Push him away.~

    For a moment I feel skin against my fingers and I realize my hand has moved, but there's a warning growl at my ear that tells me to cut it out.

    Matthews murmurs something; I've seen this vision so many times and I still miss his words every time. The husky voice, twisted with lust, is the same as it has always been, but the words are lost. A button clinks off his desk and fingernails rake viciously over my skin. I feel the skin give way under the force; while the cuts aren't deep enough to bleed, they'll be red and angry for days. Breath washes over my throat as Matthews and Farfarello tilt in to rest against me. The room flickers once more and I can see that my hand is half-raised, frozen in the air without my control. Farfarello is shorter than me, and much shorter than Matthews. Where Matthews has his chin on my shoulder, Farfarello can't make it that far. He's close enough that I know he's leaning up on the balls of his feet, but it's not the same.

    And then he kisses me.

    The shock it is to my system is enough; it comes at just the right time that the vision snaps free. The fingers that jerked my head around by my hair let go the moment I'm released from my mind, and I shove Farfarello back away from me as hard as I can. He had to have known I would react like this but he can't hold his ground under it, and he's sent stumbling back several steps. My hand is already at my face, wiping away the taste and feel of another's mouth.

    Farfarello just kissed me. Farfarello, my half-mad Irish teammate and Watcher.

    "Did you see this coming, clairvoyant?" Farfarello mocks me quietly, lilting the words.

    "We're going home," is my flat response.

    He just laughs at me. "We're not done, Oracle."

    "We're finished."

    I start for the door and he moves into my way easily, planting himself in my path. He's silently daring me to try and move him, but I can see us past him, vague images of ourselves as I reach out to move him and he snaps my arm without a thought. I remember his threat and fix him with a cold look as I stop right in front of him. There's barely a breath between our bodies as we stare each other down. His expression is lazily amused and his posture is relaxed, but there's a cold glint in the back of his eye that's a clear warning. "We are done here when I say we are done, Oracle," he informs me. "If you cannot follow the simple orders that bind you to your gift and to me, then how will you face him when it is time? Some dog you make if you chew at the leash whenever you feel offended."

    I just give him a Look and he reaches out, hooking his fingers into the front pockets of my pants. His smirk is slow and cold as he stares up at me. "This is going to hit you harder than I thought," he declares. "Tick tock tick tock; the days count down until Oracle's great stumble, and I wonder if you'll recover. Ten years from now you'll still know that you let him bend you over his desk for Rosenkreuz's wallet. He was right," he decides, almost a purr. "You *are* a whore."

    I take a swing at him.

    Farfarello's arrogance keeps him from being able to dodge; with his hands attached to my pants he can't reach up to block the blow, and having his fingers hooked in the material means he can't pull back in time. It is insanely satisfying to feel my fist slam into his face at long last. He crashes into the wall behind him and almost loses his balance; boots slide against the carpet and only his hands against the wall keep him from falling to his ass. I expect him to bounce away from the wall immediately and come for my throat, but he seems content to stay propped there for a while. A yellow eye considers me in silence for a minute before he pushes himself up, and he reaches up to press his fingers against his cheek. When he smiles, he bares his teeth at me, and a drop of blood collects at the corner of his mouth.

    There's a promise in his gaze that I don't like, but he says nothing else. I don't wait around for him to figure things out but stalk past him, pulling the door open and heading down the hall. The elevator arrives and I step on, and it isn't until the doors are almost closed that he shows up and sticks his arm in to open them again. We stand at opposite ends of the elevator car, with him staring at me and me staring at the numbers above the door. As we step outside I realize that he ripped my shirt, and I pull my jacket out of the backseat before climbing into the driver's seat. I don't know how Farfarello got here on his own today but he invites himself to ride back in the car with me. He lounges in the passenger seat off to my side, ignoring his seat belt, and plays with his cheek the whole way back.

    As luck would have it, we bump into Schuldich at the top of the stairs. I half-expected my teammates to be in bed already, but they must have been too caught up in the work to turn in for the night. The German takes one look at the stony expression on my face before turning to Farfarello, perhaps vainly hoping for a reason for my obvious bad mood, and I find some satisfaction in the way his blue eyes go wide. His grip on his folder loosens enough in his surprise that some papers spill out, and I glance back at Farfarello to see that his cheek is already darker than it should be. Whatever he cut- his cheek or his tongue- he let the blood dribble out to dry in a red path down his chin. Farfarello sneers at me at the glance and I give him a cold look in return before stepping past Schuldich and moving down the hall.

    "Schuldich, I want progress reports," I say. "Where's Nagi?" Nagi appears in the doorway to the den, either answering Schuldich's mental call or coming at the sound of my voice. "Nagi, put him in his room," I say, and I can hear papers rustling as Schuldich scrambles to pick up his files so he can follow me. "I don't want him out until I say he comes out."

    Farfarello starts laughing, and the sound is harsh and mocking against my ears. Nagi looks a little surprised by my flat command but he moves out of the way to let me into the den, and Schuldich is close behind me even as Farfarello's laughter fades behind a closed door. I sit down in my chair and Schuldich comes to stand in front of me, giving me an intent look as he tries to figure out what's going on. I hold out my hands for the progress reports and he turns them over, and I ignore his gaze as I flip through the papers. It isn't long before Schuldich is forced to give up and retreat to the couch to wait on me. Nagi appears in the doorway and I see Schuldich shrug and shake his head out of the corner of my eye, a silent answer to a mental question. Nagi crosses the room to sit near my teammate, and through the silence I can still hear Farfarello laughing against the shields of my mind.


    The breakfast table is crowded today. Matthews, his family, two of his closest advisors, and three of Schwarz all sit around the table. Three maids pass out our food but no one pays attention to them; rather, all eyes are on the screen of the television set Matthews had pulled in here for this. It's seven in the morning but there are beers at every place save for the children's, and we all watch as the headline of the day is the death of Southbell Industries. The children nibble on their food and watch us all with wide eyes, wondering why their dining room is so full. The youngest is content to stare at Schuldich alone, taking full advantage of a rare moment when Schwarz is down here on the first floor. The child had wanted to sit at Schuldich's side, but his mother's paranoia saved us from coming up with an excuse not to allow it to happen. Schuldich would have been too tempted to choke it on its food.

    There's a sneer on Matthews' face as he watches the headlines, a cold and satisfied expression. No one speaks until the newscasters have moved on to a different story and then he turns away from the television, motioning for one of the maids to mute it. His gaze seeks mine where I sit just a few chairs down and there is a hungry sort of triumph there, as if it has finally hit him just what Schwarz can do for him. Seeing his largest rival collapse so irretrievably after just a handful of days' work from us has wet his appetite for more.

    "You will dine with us tonight," Matthews says. "We will eat in Schwarz's honor. A toast, a toast."

    "We are glad for your favor, but it is an unnecessary acknowledgment," I tell him. "We are just doing our job."

    "And you do it very well," one of the advisors says, tucking into his breakfast now that he's seen the news clip.

    "Drink to you instead," Schuldich tells Matthews, and the man glances his way, considering the words. Schuldich's smirk is slow and cold as he stares past me down the table. He is glad for the renewal of Matthews' faith in us, as he believes it will give us more to do. He does a good job of encouraging our clients' greed and being the official voice of Schwarz that says it's okay to want more. He gives them the go-ahead and I confirm that we are capable of taking on the extra tasks. It is perhaps a pretty tricky game to play with Matthews; it's always touch and go to keep them from going too far and as long as he can't read what's going on in Matthews' mind, it means he doesn't know when the man is starting to demand more than he should. My German teammate lifts his can of beer and tilts it towards Matthews, leaning back in his seat with a lazy, boneless grace. "Drink to the dawn of your empire."

    Matthews' wife reaches out and gives her husband's hand a small squeeze even as the advisors lift their cans as well. Nagi and I lift ours and the wife picks up hers as well, and Matthews' smirk is wholly self-satisfied as the room drinks to him. He accepts a kiss from his wife. "Well then," he says. "Let us eat." We are halfway through when he decides to inquire about my missing teammate. "Where is your albino?" he wants to know.

    Schuldich mutters something against my shields about how Farfarello is very obviously not an albino. I tune him out. "He is busy," I answer easily. "He has been working hard on getting things prepared for the next step."

    My teammates know better than to call me out on the lie, and Matthews has no reason to suspect me. Farfarello is still in his room. Technically the Irishman can get out whenever he wants; just because Nagi's gift is keeping him inside doesn't mean he can't leech off of both Schuldich and Nagi to force his way out. He stays inside because it amuses him to give us this illusion of control. He's content to wait it out because he knows that until my vision has come to pass, there will be plenty of opportunities for him to demand control. If I am being foolish in indulging myself in his absence and in being in denial of his power, I do not care.

    "I want him eating with us tonight," Matthews says. "All of Schwarz is to be present."

    "Of course," is my smooth answer.

    The rest of breakfast passes with idle chatter and Matthews has a plate of food made up for Farfarello. Schuldich takes it when we rise to leave, and we excuse ourselves from their group to give them a chance to celebrate quietly together. Schuldich keeps pace with me as we go up the stairs whereas Nagi is content to hang back a short distance, and the German flicks me an assessing look as we arrive at the second floor.

    -How long do you plan on keeping him in there, anyway?- he wants to know.


    I give a flick of my fingers as if I couldn't care either way. -If he's not going to be troublesome, then he can come out.-

    -I don't suppose you've changed your mind and have decided to share why you hit him in the first place,- Schuldich tries hopefully. -Or at least tell us how he managed to not dodge it, because that bruise on his face is impressive.-

    -Mind your own business, Schuldich.-

    -You're no fun at all, Crawford,- he complains, but he drops the matter and goes to let Farfarello out. The Irishman is waiting at the door and he takes his food from Schuldich as he steps out. A yellow gaze goes straight to me; I'm already down the hall past him but I can feel the weight of it on the back of my head.

    "We get to party with the boss tonight," Schuldich tells Farfarello.

    "A privilege," is the murmured response.

    I close my bedroom door behind me to block them out and cross the room to my desk. I have plenty of busywork to keep myself occupied for a few hours, and I seat myself in my chair to arrange my files in front of me.

Part 6
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