Matthews' party is nothing like we expected it would be. After dining with so many clients in so many locations, we've managed to come to the conclusion that the wealthy Americans' idea of celebrating such a victory is to sit around a fancy dinner and wine themselves into a dull stupor. Matthews, on the other hand, has rented out a ritzy dance club for the night and has a live band performing on the stage. There are well over four hundred people packed into this four story madhouse, and Schuldich's smile gets a tight edge to it before we even make it to the door. Matthews and I are the only ones of the lot with shields besides him, and I have a feeling Schuldich's going to crawl home and nurse a few aspirins and bottles of water whenever we're allowed to leave. Matthews had us dress up and we're in matching suits of white. Matthews happened to wear white as well, though he has a dark red undershirt on. Schuldich has said at least five times between us coming downstairs and the limo arriving at the club that red is not one of Matthews' colors.
Farfarello has been relatively well-behaved all day, which means the rest of us are keeping a very close eye on him. Nagi wasn't that sure about bringing Farfarello out to a noisy place like this, claiming it would be too easy to lose him in the crowd, but he picked a spot near the bar and hasn't budged since. I know this because I've been stuck at Matthews' table, just two feet away, since we arrived here an hour and a half ago. Schuldich comes and goes as he pleases, enjoying himself as much as he can with so many bodies invading his personal space. Nagi is in the far corner somewhere where two of Matthews' associates brought him to discuss a networking problem, and Schuldich checks on him now and then to see what's going on.
Matthews' wife is sitting at home with the children. Matthews himself is surrounded by three women who look far too young to be here and far too busty to look so young. They're wearing barely anything on their bodies and more than enough make up on their faces, and I can smell their perfume even through all of the cigar smoke that has slowly been replacing the oxygen in the room. Matthews seems quite pleased with them regardless and he has kept them amused for an hour now, talking about this and that. I can't hear him over the music and I don't try, but I don't excuse myself to find better company, either. He pointed this chair out to me upon our arrival and he hasn't yet said that I should leave, and it's not as if there is better company here to retreat to. Matthews holds the most power in this room. Everyone else present is useless to us except as a drone. There is absolutely no work to be done tonight, and it's probably only the third time in my career with Schwarz that I've been at such an occasion with nothing at all to do but watch other people make great fools of themselves.
Schuldich appears out of the crowd with a drink in each hand just as the brunette makes herself comfortable in Matthews' lap, and he lifts one cup at the man in a toast for his success with the girls before setting the cup down before me. I don't have to worry about him lacing it with anything; Schuldich knows better than to mess with my drinks. He's been having water all evening himself, keeping his gift and his shields in working order as best as he can. One shoe is hooked around the leg of an empty chair and he pulls it out so he can sit, taking a large gulp of his own drink before setting the cup down.
"Nice party," Schuldich says, lying through his teeth. "You're quite the popular man tonight."
Matthews just smirks as he strokes one hand through thick brown hair. "Do you want one?" he asks, raising his voice to be heard over the pounding bass. "Take your pick around the room; they've all been whispering about you four tonight anyway."
"Us four?" Schuldich asks, and gives a small wave of his hand. "They do know that Nagi's just sixteen, right?"
Matthews' smile is all teeth. "Doesn't matter to them. If it doesn't matter to him, he's set." He motions to the blonde and flicks his fingers in Schuldich's direction, but the German's hands are up in self defense before she's even made it out of her chair. She looks a little insulted by the gesture and turns a pout on Matthews. "I'll pay for it," Matthews says, an attempt at being generous. "No worries, unless you prefer redheads." This is said with a jerk of his thumb towards the third girl. "Personally I can't see red and orange hair mixing on a pillow, but to each their own. Betsy?"
The redhead starts to get up, and Schuldich waves his hands in an insistent denial. "Flattered by your generosity, I'm sure," he says, "but Talents don't fuck non-psis. They don't have shields, and physical contact is the quickest way to light up a psychic gift."
Matthews seems to remember then that Schuldich is a telepath. While he doesn't understand all of the ramifications of this, a little piece falls into place and he looks from girl to girl before considering the writhing crowd past us on the dance floor. "I take it it's a little loud in here for you on more than one level?" he guesses, and Schuldich just offers him a shrug. Matthews points at him. "But you have shields, yes? They said you do out of necessity. Just as he does." He flicks his finger over towards me now. "So technically you could fuck him and still be fine, and vice versa."
Schuldich makes a face. "Technically, but I think it would take a lot of alcohol, pot, and one or two death wishes. No offense," he offers in my direction, amusement in his blue eyes. I give him a thin smile in response, not as amused.
A hand comes down on my shoulder then and there's a mouth at my ear. "Did you script that out?" Farfarello wants to know, an amused purr. "Get up, Oracle, and take a walk with me. Now. I've finally figured out how you get yourself into such insane messes." I glance from Schuldich's curious expression over to Matthews' interested look and stall by taking a sip of water from my glass. "Get up without arguing, Oracle, because you will not like it if I have to pull rank on you in front of your master."
Damn him. "If you'll excuse me?" I say to Matthews. "Something has just been brought to my attention."
"This is an evening for relaxing, not working," Matthews says, but he beckons a passing waitress over and snags a glass from her tray. He sets it on the table top and sends it across the table towards me. "Have a drink before you go, at least."
Before I can reach for it, Farfarello reaches around me and sets an empty shot glass in front of me. I have no clue where he got it from, but he lifts Matthews' offered drink and neatly fills the shot glass with some. He downs the rest in a few easy swallows and he sets the glass back on the table upside down. Matthews looks amused, and I finish off the shot in one swallow before rising from my chair. Farfarello moves to let me get up, glancing over at Schuldich to get his attention. He points at Schuldich and stabs his finger down at the table in a silent command to sit still and stay out of our way. I start away and Farfarello follows me through the crowd. When Matthews is out of view he slips past me, a pale wraith amongst the darkly dressed dancers. A yellow gaze is flicked my way and he continues onward, knowing I'll follow him in his twisting path around the room.
All along the back wall there are scattered couples making out, but Farfarello manages to find us a corner without anyone nearby. We stand close together so that I can hear what he has to say, and I can smell the alcohol on his breath as he gazes past me towards the crowd we've left behind. It makes me wonder if that drink was his first tonight, and I realize then that I had no clue Farfarello would even touch alcohol.
"What do you want?" I ask.
"I cannot believe the stupidity of your German," he answers. "Were you listening to anything he said?"
"He told Matthews he didn't want to sleep with an underage girl because he's a telepath."
"He told Matthews that the only requirement for one of you two being able to safely fuck someone else is that they need to have shields," is his scornful response. "Matthews knows he has shields. What do you think he's going to do with this brand new knowledge, Oracle? You and I both saw that vision. Seems like he didn't forget what Schuldich said." I consider that and glance over my shoulder in the direction of Matthews' table. "So much for a reliable telepath, but maybe he can find a girl for you with a semi-shielded mind."
"How much have you been drinking tonight?" I want to know, wondering where that last comment came from.
"Why?" he sends back.
"Never considered you to be a drinker," I answer easily, tilting my head slightly so I can look at him. "It seems to be something that normal people do. Now and then it just strikes me that you're human. Usually you're so far removed that the idea seems ludicrous."
He gives me a cool look in response. "You're going to lose to him, Oracle. You and I both know that. As for the virginity that means nothing to you, who are you going to lose it to and for whose sake?" I say nothing, and he quirks an eyebrow at me. "Rosenkreuz tracks when their psychics start to sleep around because they know how it affects their gifts. I'm sure you'll be pleased to have his name on your permanent record for everyone after you to see what you'll do for your masters. Have the Mastermind find you a girl."
With that, he starts to slip by, but I turn as he goes and catch his sleeve. A loud song has started and although our spot is a considerable distance from the nearest speaker, I have to lean towards him to be heard. I judge the distance wrong and feel cool earrings against my lips. "I don't want a damned girl," I tell him, annoyed by his words. Not his words, no, but what he means. The truth behind them. I don't want Matthews to be a stain on the rest of my life but there's nothing I can do about it, and it's the first time since Rosenkreuz showed up on my doorstep that I've felt helpless to change something so vital to me. I cannot stand this trapped feeling.
"Then who will you have?" he wants to know. I feel his cheek graze my chin as he turns his head towards me. "The Mastermind has shields but he would never give that to you. He will trust you in everything but that."
Just the thought of sleeping with Schuldich is insane; worse yet is the mocking tone of Farfarello's voice. "Stay out of my affairs and my life," I tell Farfarello, and he laughs at me. "Get away from me and finish drinking yourself into a stupor at the bar. I don't want to hear from you the rest of the night."
He chooses to ignore my anger. "Shall I stalk you instead?" he asks me, amused. I start to let go of him but he catches hold of me this time, tangling pale fingers around my tie to keep me in place. "Then when he has you in his office, you can pretend it's me."
"Am I supposed to think of that as the lesser evil?" I demand, and I cannot keep the ice out of my words.
"Either that or be relieved that it's just him," he assures me, letting go and pushing me away. There's a smirk on his face and a gleam in his eye, but the amusement is gone from his expression. It's been replaced by a thin sheen of ice, and we stare each other down like two wild dogs just waiting for the chance to rip the other's throat out. I remember what it felt like to hit him and I wish more than everything else in this moment that I could just hit him again. I am wound too tight right now from his words; I have always been bad about letting him get to me. None of the training I received in Rosenkreuz and none of the ease in dealing with Schuldich's antics over the years helps me here. Farfarello has been a thorn under my skin since the day he got here, and instead of letting the skin heal over top of it, he scratches until it festers.
"Do you hate me?" he mouths at me, lifting a thin brow over his one remaining eye.
"Everyone does," is the answer I send back.
"Do you hate me more than him?" he wants to know.
He bares his teeth at me behind a frightening smile and turns away at last, starting away. I watch as he vanishes into the crowd. The twisting bodies seal up behind him to hide his pale form from view, but I stay where I am for a few minutes longer as I dwell on his words to me.
Farfarello is gone before I wake up the next morning. Schuldich tells me of his absence when I come across him in the kitchen and I accept the words in silence. The German is leaning against the counter, elbows on the surface so he can perch his chin on his hands. His blue eyes are intent on the coffee pot that's slowly brewing just a few inches from his face. Sunlight streams in the window, far too bright, and the clock above the stove announces it to be half past noon. Matthews wasn't ready to leave until five this morning, and then he wanted to take his three girls home first. The girls had been quite fascinated by Nagi, a little surprised to see someone their age, and two of them had been trying to coax him into a conversation. Nagi had ignored them as best as he could, and Schuldich had been content to use the boy as a barrier between himself and the drunken teenagers. I'd ended up on Schuldich's other side, pinned in between the telepath and my irritating Watcher. I hadn't seen Farfarello at the party after he'd left my side, but he'd reappeared right when it was time to go home and shrugged off Schuldich's questions of whether or not all of the guests would be making it home that night.
Between Farfarello's reappearance and Matthews' taxi service, we hadn't arrived back at the house until after six. Schuldich, for all that he was drinking only water last night, looks like a mess. He's suffering from a different sort of hangover after spending twelve hours crushed in a club with so many other people. I have no doubt that this coffee pot was his first stop upon waking up, and even if the house started to burn down, he wouldn't budge until he could fill a mug. I settle for a glass of juice from the fridge, knowing better than to even approach Schuldich when he's like this. I tug his chair out as I pass the table before seating myself across from it and wait there for my teammate to be ready.
Schuldich gives a heavy sigh when the pot is done at last. He comes to the table with the mug cradled in both hands like some precious package and seats himself at his spot, willing it to cool off enough for him to drink. I keep my silence until he's had his first several sips and Schuldich finally looks up at me. His announcement about Farfarello had been a slurred message as he had continued to stare down the coffee pot, but now he's able to distract himself enough from his drink to attempt conversation. "So…" he says, blue eyes searching mine. There's a troubled look to his face and I wait for him to spit out whatever's bothering him. It takes him a moment to figure out how to bring it up. "What did you say to Farfarello last night to piss him off?"
"You should have learned by now to mind your own business," I tell him. I woke up just half an hour ago. I don't want to be discussing Farfarello first thing in the morning.
He frowns at me. "You're the one that always comes away from your little catfights pissed off," he says, lifting a finger from the mug to point at me. "Not him. I just want to know what turned the tables."
I'm not entirely sure what he's talking about. Farfarello didn't seem angry last night; I'm not sure I've ever seen Farfarello angry, much less pissed off. "You're the telepath," I say. "I'm the clairvoyant. I don't pretend to understand the motivations and reasoning of a madman. That's your job."
He scowls at me and takes a few more swallows of his coffee. "And I told you a long time ago that I don't know jack shit about what goes on in there or why. He's your Watcher, not mine. Don't even look at me like that, Crawford. I was in and out of all four hundred and two minds last night because your fucking Watcher slammed my own telepathy back into my mind and managed to fracture my shields. I spent an hour in the bathroom putting them back in working order, but Matthews is going to have questions because I thought I was going to throw up on him or those idiotic bimbos of his."
I frown at him. " Why didn't you tell me that last night?" I demand.
"I would have told it to you with my fists and I have had just enough etiquette beat into me by Rosenkreuz to know that beating your boss to a bloody pulp in front of a very important client is one of the no-no's. So you're going to sit there and give me some excuse for why you pissed him off or I swear to God you won't be able to dodge this coffee when it comes flying at your face."
My clairvoyance tells me that he's just riled enough to throw the mug at me and I sigh into my cup of juice, conceding temporary defeat. Defeat against Schuldich is much easier to handle than even just the thought of defeat to Farfarello. Schuldich asks for so very little; he knows where the lines are and he refuses to cross them. He doesn't even consider them to be victories; it's not like he's keeping a running count somewhere. "We merely voiced our differences in opinions regarding a few matters."
He frowns at me. "Tell me you didn't question his abilities as a Watcher," he says.
"Not out loud or in so many words." Schuldich just arches an eyebrow at me and I lift one shoulder in a slight shrug. "I just told him to stay away from me and said that accepting my current vision was preferable to his idea of a cure."
"Christ on a crutch, the pair of you are going to turn my hair gray before I'm twenty-five. I told him a long time ago that I wanted nothing to do with your petty fights and tempers and what does he do? He turns around and sucks me right up into the middle of them." Schuldich finishes the rest of his coffee in two swallows and sets his mug down on the table. His arms are folded across his chest and he slouches a little in his chair, eyeing me intently. "What's all this about a girl?" he demands.
"A girl?" I echo.
Schuldich's frown is back. "He said something about finding you a girl who had some semblance of shielding on her thoughts. What do you need a girl for?" He lifts one hand. "If it's graphic, then keep the details to yourself, because I'm not sure I want to know the answer, anyway. But Farfarello's the last person I thought I'd ever hear such an order come from. He's got too much invested in this to just toss it over his shoulder like that."
"Invested in what?" I send back. Did Farfarello tell him about the vision?
Schuldich glances at me and away. "Back to square one. For a clairvoyant, you can be so goddamned blind sometimes that it's amazing." He sighs and shrugs. "What kind of girl?" he asks before I can press him further. "I just need to know if she's for work or if her looks matter."
"No girl," I tell him, and he arches an eyebrow at me in question.
"We don't need a girl for anything. Farfarello's just trying to cause trouble."
"He said you asked for her." I just Look at him, and he offers me a tired grin. "Right, right. Your word over his. Always, Oracle. There'd better be more coffee in that coffee pot." He pushes himself up and heads over to the coffee pot, considering what's left before pouring more into his mug. I watch him as he drinks, not understanding everything that was said between us. He says nothing else and doesn't return to the table, content to think his own thoughts and drink at the counter. A part of me- the smarter part- tells me to just get up and leave. There's plenty of work to do today and it's not going to get done if I'm sitting here trying to decide what was and wasn't said between Schuldich and Farfarello. Farfarello never tells anyone about my visions, no matter what he sees. Never. It's an unspoken agreement between us, and he smashes Schuldich's curiosity with an iron fist whenever the telepath glances our way.
"Invested in what?" I ask again.
Schuldich hesitates with his mug halfway to his mouth and looks over his shoulder at me, blue eyes measuring. "I would much prefer to stay on the outside of this," he tells me. "It's none of my business." Silence stretches between us as we stare each other down, and at last Schuldich looks away, muttering something under his breath. "I was just surprised Farfarello would come to me to say I needed to find a girl for you," he says, clicking his nails against his mug. "He's so damned territorial of you that I wondered what you said to so effectively push him away."
It's not an answer; it just creates more questions. "Look, if you're just poking me to see what I do and don't know, cut the shit, yeah?" Schuldich says. "You act so oblivious sometimes that I'm not sure whether if it's the truth or you're just trying to keep the rest of us out of your ongoing spat with him. Nagi's clueless about it, so you can leave him alone."
"Nagi is clueless about a lot of things," I send back, annoyed that Schuldich is skirting around talking to me.
He must hear it in my tone because he turns to face me at last, setting his mug down and crossing his arms over his chest once more. Before he can say anything, however, there's a high pitched scream from downstairs. Blue eyes flick away from me, startled, and he starts for the door. I watch as he stands in the doorway, knowing he's reaching out with his gift to find out what's going on. I hear doors slamming and the screaming grows fainter. Belatedly I realize the scream was a name: Adam.
"Score one for the precognitive," Schuldich says, looking back at me. "Matthews' son has just been hit by a car." I remember the vision of Matthews playing with his son a little too close to the street. He tossed the ball hard enough that he knew his child would miss it, and Adam was too young to comprehend the dangers of following it out onto the asphalt. "It's on the north lawn," he says, lifting a hand to point that direction. "This will keep the reporters from bugging Matthews too badly about his rival's sudden demise; his publicity agents can keep them back by telling them it's cruel to hound a man who just lost a son."
"Was that his only reason?" The voice is Nagi's; the scream must have drawn him from his room. I cannot see him from where I'm sitting, but I can hear the disapproval in his voice. Nagi doesn't like children, but he doesn't like anyone throwing away lives that easily for such petty manipulations.
"You think I know?" Schuldich asks, reaching up to tap his index and middle fingers to his forehead in a reference to Matthews' shields. "It's all guesswork here, kid. There are a hundred reasons for doing what he just did, from him thinking he had too many children to his pig of a wife finding out he was screwing three high school girls last night and causing a fuss. Maybe she raged and wept all night long and this is his way of telling her he's still in charge and can take everything from her." He gives a shrug. "I don't know and I don't care. It's one less screaming brat running around underfoot."
"You were a screaming brat once," Nagi points out.
"Hah," Schuldich says, dismissing that with a wave of his hand. "Telepaths are bred, you disillusioned little telekinetic. I learned a very long time ago that children should be seen and not heard. It's not my fault other people can't raise their children properly."
With that he heads away, vanishing into the hallway, and I realize that he's abandoning our conversation. I open my mouth to call him back, but no words come. At last I close my mouth again, curling my fingers around my glass of juice. Nagi enters the kitchen just a few moments later and goes to find himself brunch from the cabinets. I watch the clock as it ticks away the minutes above the stove, and it isn't long before Nagi joins me at the table. He takes the chair Schuldich just abandoned but tilts his head to one side in question before beginning to eat.
"Where's Farfarello?" he wants to know. "I can't feel him in his room."
"He's out," I answer.
He accepts that and begins peeling the crust from his bread. "What are we going to work on today?" he asks, and a folder floats into the room to settle beside him. He continues peeling as the pages turn and he watches the words as they go by. It's the list I gave him of our assignments, and he finally gets past the pages on Southbell to reach the second assignment. I wait as he skims the page and at length he points to the page with his little finger. "We can start the groundwork for this," he says. "It shouldn't take more than two of us."
"Good," I say. "Look over it with Schuldich."
He nods and goes back to eating, and I rise and dismiss myself from the room. If Nagi needs me again he'll send Schuldich for me, as he prefers to use the telepath as a middle ground when I'm in my room. I close the bedroom door behind me and cross over to where my desk stands, flipping my laptop computer open with one hand before sitting. It asks for a password and I supply it, watching as the operating system wakes up and loads for me. I sit back in my chair and consider it, thinking heavy thoughts.
At last I reach forward, sliding my fingers along the keys as I log myself into Rosenkreuz's network. It takes several clearances before I'm in, and I wait for just a minute more before looking for the file I know has to exist somewhere. I've used Schuldich's information to log in sometimes when I didn't want to leave a trail under my name, but this time I have to use my own password to get to the section I need. Nagi said once that the system tracks everywhere Rosenkreuz's assassins go when they're logged in and I don't doubt it, so all I can do is hope that this little foray won't throw up red flags somewhere. I tell myself that I'm just looking out of curiosity, not out of hopes that Rosenkreuz will notice and ask if things need to be changed within Schwarz.
At last I find what I'm looking for, and the list of unmatched Watchers begins to scroll across the page.
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