Part Seven

    Matthews has been in a sulky mood for several days now and it's affecting everyone around him. The joy his people have been feeling over Southbell's fall has faded into a more somber attitude following the news of the death of his son. Schwarz has been hard at work running three projects at once and my teammates have been lying low around our client. He hasn't had need of them these days and Schuldich has said once or twice that he's glad he doesn't have to be in the room with such a man. Matthews and his wife have been sleeping in separate rooms ever since Adam's accident and Matthews' closest advisors spent a few days wrestling with the rabid media. Matthews has had me at his side ever since he returned from the hospital and my patience is being worn thin by his attitude. I do not know what is weighing so heavily on his mind. Schuldich can't find just one cause for it and thinks it's a combination of several reasons, though he laughed off Nagi's suggestion that maybe Matthews feels some remorse for Adam's death in the aftermath.

    I can't escape from a tense atmosphere anywhere I go, because Farfarello is also on edge. Schuldich doesn't have an explanation for that, either. The Irishman was fine when he returned the morning after the club incident, but just a day later he seemed to be getting irritated all on his own. He leaves frequently when Schwarz has no other use for him but Schuldich can't track him and is usually too busy to try. He told me he didn't think it was my fault this time and I started wondering just how much those two talk when I'm not around if he can offer that sort of assurance.

    Either way, it's starting to wear at all of us. Schwarz is tired from the work and annoyed by Matthews, who in turn is grouchy on his own and is taking it out on Schwarz by claiming our incompetence in getting his projects done faster. I have enough years of experience and enough self-control to keep his complaints from bothering me and I offer him calm reassurances and polite words every time he starts to rant again. But as I return from an evening out with him at one of his other corporations, I can feel my smile starting to strain. I am glad to get away from him and retire upstairs to my teammates.

    They're all in the den when I arrive. Schuldich used to indulge in just having a beer every other day or so and no more than the one in twenty-four hours, both because he was trained to not drink alcohol and because he doesn't particularly like the taste, but he has three empty cans sitting in front of him now and he's got a fourth in his hands. Nagi is doing something on his notebook computer and checking his work against two files at his sides, and Farfarello is digging through a box of other papers to find something. None of them are speaking to each other and there's tension in the air when I walk in. This isn't good. I don't want to come back from dealing with Matthews' problems and find problems with my team. We need to stay sharp. It's a bit hypocritical to think of how we cannot allow petty arguments to divide us when Farfarello and I are a constant sort of tension among the unit, but we generally keep our problems short and quick and between ourselves.

    I eye them for a long moment as I consider this. None of them acknowledge my presence until I take a step into the room, and I make a cutting gesture with my hand through the air. "Close it up," I say. Farfarello's face is smooth as he watches me but my other teammates' expressions are blank in incomprehension. "Close it all up and put it away for the night. Nagi, Schuldich, go somewhere. Not together. Farfarello, go kill something. I want all of you back before dawn tomorrow. Drop your work off on my desk and get out of here."

    "I've been drinking," Schuldich points out. It's safe enough for him to have had those beers here, where there are so few people, but I can't very well toss him out into the streets of Charlotte like this. Talents' tolerance for alcohol tends to be relatively low since we have never had the chance to build it up.

    "Then read a book or take a nap." I point at the mess. "Clean that up. Now."

    I turn my back on them and head down to my room, leaving the door open for them because even with my explicit command to bring me their work, Nagi will be hesitant to trespass into my space. I drop off the paperwork Matthews gave me this evening on the keyboard of my laptop and undo my tie, draping it over the back of my chair. Schuldich is the first to show up and he makes a neat stack on the corner of my desk. With a flick of a grin at me that's both tired and relieved, he offers me a mocking salute and retreats to relax in his room. Nagi is just a few moments behind him and he excuses himself with a quiet murmur. They were a bit surprised by my command but I know they're grateful for it. My team will be better for this small break.

    Farfarello takes his time in showing up and he sets the box in my chair before I can sit there. When I flick him a cool look he has just the faintest of smirks in answer. "You should kill something," he advises me, watching as I take off my watch and set it down on my desk. "It's medicinal."

    "Or so you claim."

    He laughs at me, offering me a coldly amused look. "You seem to think that killing me would make you feel better," he points out. I decide not to answer that, as it would be rather redundant, but I don't think he's waiting for a confirmation anyway. "Killing Matthews would make you feel better, yes?"

    "Until Rosenkreuz caught up and executed me for terminating their most important client," I said.

    "It is rather amusing that a man who feels so little concern for the lives of others would feel so much for his own," Farfarello observes. "But I suppose that's natural, and also exaggerated. If it was your Mastermind or the Prodigy in your place, I do think you would have acted to save them. What a pity that the Oracle has no one to save him but myself…?"

    "I gave you the evening off," I tell him. "Go take it elsewhere and leave me to my work."

    "You freed me from Schwarz's command for the evening," he corrects me. "Which means the command is mine, now." I clearly remember what happened the last time he was in charge, and I have no interest in revisiting it. He laughs at me and I wonder where his sudden good mood has come from when he's been so edgy all week. "Come," he says. "We're going to go killing."

    "There has to be a worthwhile reason," I remind him. "You cannot pick up and drop control at your whim."

    "We're going to talk about Rosenkreuz," he sends back at me. "We have a lot to say about them." I frown at him and he gives me an amused look and a smirk. "So untrusting," he muses. "One would think you didn't like my company."

    "Am I supposed to answer that?" I ask him.

    He lifts his hand towards my face and I bat it away. In my distraction, his other hand moves, and he hooks his fingers on the hem of my pants. I feel his knuckles against bare skin and I catch his wrist with my free hand to pry him loose. "I do not have the power," he says, "that you're going to hand off to him. I cannot say 'Sit' and see you sit, nor 'Quiet' and have you silenced. I do, on the other hand, have the power that the littlest one gives to me." I feel Nagi's gift push against me and when I start to push back, I realize I can't. We stare each other down and just the thought of him having access to this power given the nature of his games this past week makes me sick.

    "Let go."

    "Does this scare you, Oracle?" he asks me, amused. "Does it scare you what I could do?"

    I give him a cold look. "There is nothing about you that I would ever bother myself to be afraid of," I inform him, and his eerie little smile slowly widens.

    "Of course not," he murmurs, pressing his hands to my abdomen. I cannot lift my hands from the desk to beat him off. His fingers are warm tonight from being inside, and he slides his hands to my sides to close them over my hips. A step forward has him standing against me and I give him a steely look at the weight and warmth of his body against mine. "The Oracle cannot afford to be afraid of anyone or anything, though he now and then spares a bit of energy to feel disgust and hatred. Yes?" He tilts his face forward and I feel his breath against my throat. I can feel his heartbeat beating calmly against me. "That's how it should be."

    "Get off of me, Farfarello, and amuse yourself elsewhere. I have work to do."

    "No. You will come with me so that we can talk." Teeth bite down lightly on my throat.

    "I have nothing to say to you."

    "Then you will listen." Before I can say anything else, my cell phone starts ringing. We go silent and still as the first ring cuts through the air between us. On the second, Farfarello leans back to consider my jacket pocket, and he pulls my phone out to consider the glowing screen. "Ah," he says. "It is your master." With that, he turns it over to me, and I am freed from his hold to take it from him.

    I answer it and lift it to my face, planting a hand against Farfarello to push him back out of my personal space. He allows me to do so, watching as I talk. "Crawford," I say.

    "Come downstairs," he says. "I am on the back porch. Stop by the kitchen and get me something to drink."

    "Of course," I answer, and he hangs up on me. I close my own phone and slip it back into my pocket. Farfarello steps aside to let me leave with a mocking tilt of his head, and he follows me out into the hallway. He says nothing else and I have nothing else to say to him, not after what he's just shoved in my face. I am not scared of Farfarello; I never have been. But the thought of him wielding such a power in this sort of situation is a cause for concern, and I cannot stop thinking about how to solve this problem as I head downstairs. A maid passes me on the stairs and stops uncertainly on the steps, a manila envelope in her hand.

    "Sir, a message has arrived for you."

    "Send it to Schuldich," I tell her. "He is upstairs."

    She inclines her head to me and continues onwards, and I send the telepath a mental command to accept it from her before continuing on my way. I came into this job knowing that Matthews would be a serious problem. I did not know I would have to face a potentially worse problem within my own team. I'm not sure if Farfarello was being serious or just trying to screw with me upstairs; I don't know him well enough to know whether or not I can peg him as someone who would follow through on such a taunt. I want to say that he's not, but I'm not sure how much of that is personal preference and how much is instinct. It's hard to tell these days when I'm so tense over Matthews.

    I find a bottle of scotch and a glass in the kitchen and bring it to the porch. Matthews is slouched in his swing and I pour him a glass before setting the bottle down by his feet. He points to the railing directly across from him and I stand there where he can see me. He ignores me for a moment to drain his cup, and he fills it again before looking up at me.

    "The worthless bitch has been crying for days," he says. "It's all she does. I can't bring her out in public with me when she's such a mess."

    "It is natural for mothers to grieve," I remind him.

    "It's also natural for mourning people to do outrageous things," he says, tilting his head to one side. "I cannot stand her moping."

    I've been in the business long enough to know what he's getting at. I can't say I'm surprised that he's asking such a thing of me. "If it is what you wish," I tell him. "But years of experience have taught me it is better to accept such requests when our clients are sober." It's obvious he's been drinking for a while; I can see it in the redness of his eyes. It's not as obvious as when our Asian clients would drink, for Americans don't turn as red in the face so quickly, but it's there.

    He gives a disgusted snort at that. "Always got to have the last say, haven't you? You decide when Schwarz moves and what they do; I pay you to order your people around. 'Go here,' I say, and you answer 'Not yet. When Schwarz is ready.' For what I pay Schwarz, I see such little progress from you and even less respect."

    Ah, this pleasant argument again, but I am fresh from an encounter with Farfarello and not so careful with my words this time. "I explained the reasons to you."

    He pushes himself up from his chair and splashes his cup on me. The scotch soaks through the material of my jacket and shirt easily and is cold against my skin. There's a fierce scowl on his face as he takes an unsteady step towards me. "I know which pieces to move and which pieces to keep," he tells me, tone fierce. "I know what must be done, even if the particulars between my version and yours are different. I hire you to do the work because it is better to hire out that sort of work to grunts so that I can keep my businesses in line. I am a busy man, Crawford of Schwarz!" He takes another step forward, waving his cup wildly as he speaks, and I catch it before it can break against my shoulder. It's the wrong move to make; something twists on his face and he slams his glass forward into my chest. I hear glass shatter and feel it bite into my skin. The warmth of blood is only moderately familiar and it stings as it mixes with the alcohol still on my shirt.

    He sneers at me. "Not a damn change," he says. "Your position with Rosenkreuz and that so-called talent that you wield make you arrogant and insolent, but I am the one in charge here. I am the one writing the checks. It's my call; it's never been yours. I've given you the freedom to tell me no for too long. Everyone tells me no; no one knows their place. I won't take any of this disrespect any longer. She'll be dead before dawn in an obvious suicide and Schwarz will fall quietly under my orders. Tell me that you understand!"

    "We give you the control you are allowed to have," I tell him smoothly.

    "Not a damn change," he says again, reaching up to grab my face in a hot hand. He gives my head a shake and I realize he's furious about the placid expression I keep locked in place in the face of his anger. Everyone else knows to cower before him in the face of his influence and money, but he means absolutely nothing to me or Schwarz as anything other than a project. I have no reason at all to cower away from such a man. I catch his wrist before his anger gives me a neck injury and he strains against me as I pull his hand free.

    "Mr. Matthews, I will ask you to control yourself."

    "Control myself?" he sends back, incredulous.

    "I have explained to you why it is necessary for me to act as the medium between you and Schwarz. Your orders regarding your wife will be obeyed and Schwarz will complete your projects in a timely manner. We are contracted to you and therefore our loyalty will be to you, but anything else you require of my team must go through me."

    He just stares at me and I stare back, and I can see a primal anger and hunger in his eyes that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I've seen it several times before in the faces of many of our clients, but this look on this face in particular I've seen in my visions. And in that moment I wonder what is wrong with me, for I suddenly think I see a solution to solve my problems with Farfarello. Farfarello is shoving aggressively at the line between us with Matthews as the excuse; my relationship with my team is strained as long as he continues on in this manner. His actions tonight tell me that I don't know how far he will continue to push, but he will all in the name of "training" me for what's coming. We still don't know when Matthews will cross the line, but until then…

    But what if Matthews was pushed?

    I can see very clearly all of a sudden that I can just leave this porch tonight under the excuse of tending to his wife. I can see that I can calm him back down and walk him back from the ledge and leave tonight. But I wonder in that moment if there is a point to such a thing. It has to come eventually, whether or not I want it to, and then Farfarello will have to back off. I cannot stomach the thought of forcing Matthews' hand and bringing myself closer to that vision, but I do not know if I can continue on being pulled back and forth so fiercely between my Watcher and our client.

    "You are an asshole," Matthews decides.

    "It's in the genes," I tell him.

    He gives a snort at that and leans back, gaze measuring. I can see the gears turning in his head and while I do not know the exact direction they are taking, I know where they will end up. I tell myself to speak, because I know the words to say, but it is still a very long moment later before I can say them. I am sentencing myself with these words, but then, wasn't I sentenced the day I promised Dreyden that Schwarz would move mountains for this man? A pity he didn't require such a thing. He requires this.

    "Your people are yours to command. Your businesses, your stocks, your family. Schwarz is mine." He scowls at me for the words, and I make myself continue. "But I am signed to you, with my unit beneath me. Your orders go through me; that is how I make decisions for Schwarz. There are limits but they were not necessarily put in place by me, so until you put my teammates in danger, anything you ask for must be given." He says nothing but lifts what's left of his glass towards his face. It's at that point that he remembers it's broken, and he studies the specks of blood and alcohol on my shirt. His gaze doesn't raise to my face again. "So the question remains… What is there that I can do for you?"

    And there is the million dollar question. Silence stretches between us for another minute more before he looks up at me. "Anything," he muses.

    I think I'll choke on the answer, so I give him a serene look in response. "Anything," he murmurs again, opening his fingers to let his cup fall to the polished wood beneath our feet. "We will see if you tell the truth, Crawford of Schwarz. I am leaving now. You will be in my upper office at the Carolinian building by midnight. You will come and you will be silent and you will not move, and we will see if you really will do anything. We'll see if Rosenkreuz is as good as its word or if I should take my contracts and money elsewhere."

    I had known I would push the date up, but I hadn't let myself imagine that he would push it to tonight. I just incline my head to him. "Of course."

    He gives me a chilling smile and leaves. I'm left alone on the porch for a bit longer before I make myself move upstairs. Farfarello is in my office when I arrive; he moved the box from my chair and is sitting there. I don't know why he's still here but I don't appreciate his presence near my things. He looks interested when he sees the state of my shirt and pushes himself to his feet. I slip past him as he approaches me.

    "There's a date," I say.

    That's not what he was expecting me to say; a glance back at him as I pull a clean shirt and jacket out of my closet shows me an expression closer to surprised than anything I've seen on him before. I shrug out of my jacket and drop it in the laundry basket before working on the buttons of my shirt. It's rather ridiculous to wear clean clothes to his office when I already know they'll get damaged, but I'm anal about my appearance and I cannot leave this house in dirty clothes. "When?" Farfarello wants to know as he watches me shrug into my new shirt. I pull my jacket on and head over to my desk, searching for my watch among the paperwork now in disarray there. The mess tells me that Farfarello was digging around in my things but I can't spare the energy to be annoyed right now. Instead I sit down and push things aside.


    There's silence in response to that, and then Farfarello starts towards my desk. He stands off to the side to stare down at me. "Why tonight?" he demands. "Tonight is too soon."

    "How do you know what's too soon?" I ask him, and annoyance creeps into my voice in my frayed mental state. He leans forward, holding onto the side of my desk as he watches me dig. At last I just answer him. "Tonight because I let him," I say. "Tonight because he said tonight. Where is my watch?"

    "You let him?" he echoes, and I hear his knuckles pop where he tightens his grip on my desk. "What does that mean?"

    "It means it's better to just face what he wants than to keep putting it off and worrying about it."

    He gives me a look as if he can't believe I've just said that; his mouth moves but no sound comes out. "You-" he says, but he can't finish the rest of the sentence. I look up at him and see that his surprise is quickly giving way to a fierce anger. "You did _what_?"

    Before I can answer that, Schuldich shoves my bedroom door open without knocking and strides in, a frown on his lips and his blue eyes troubled. "Crawford," he starts, but stops mid-sentence when he realizes I'm not alone. He hesitates just two feet inside the door, a file in his hand as he takes in the scene. Farfarello is leaning over my desk, hands planted on the surface, his black mood clear in the obvious tension along his lean frame. I have my chair turned so that I am facing him and am leaning back in it as if that act alone puts more distance between the Irishman and myself. Schuldich looks from Farfarello to me, realizing he's walked in on something and wondering if it's something he's allowed to interrupt.

    Farfarello doesn't look up; his eye remains locked on me even as he sends a flat order towards our German teammate. "Get out of here."

    "This is important," Schuldich says, taking a step forward.

    Farfarello whirls around, knocking several things off my desk as he does so. Papers go flying and my canister of pencils crashes to the ground, spilling all over the place. "Get _OUT_," he snarls.

    I know there is murder in Farfarello's gaze, but he must have reinforced the command mentally, for Schuldich takes a quick step back. Blue eyes widen as the German retreats and he searches Farfarello's face before flicking me a bewildered look. Farfarello takes a step forward that is all threat and Schuldich does something I have never seen him do before: he does an abrupt 180 and vanishes from the room. Farfarello follows him to the door and reaches out, slamming it into place hard enough that I half expect the door frame to crack, then whirls around to fix a fiery gaze on me once more.

    -God fucking Christ, Crawford, what the hell did you do?- Schuldich's mental voice is shaken; it has been a while since Farfarello used his gift against the telepath. -He wants to kill you!-

    I don't answer because I don't want to divide any attention away from the homicidal Sensitive standing across the room from me. I can feel Schuldich press at my mind in an attempt to get an answer and there is a savage twist of power through my mind that feels like a blow to the back of my head. I hear Schuldich's strangled sound of pain but it's dimmed through the pain that's echoing around my own skull, and I blink back black sparkles in my vision as Farfarello stalks across the room towards me. I force myself to my feet to face him, not wanting to meet him sitting down, but he's moving faster than I am and he shoves me back into my chair hard enough that it rocks backwards and hits the desk. I feel it start to tilt as the excessive force almost knocks it over, and then Farfarello is leaning over me with an arm to either side, his pale fingers clenched on the edge of the desk.

    I tell myself that I am in no danger because I did not have a vision about this, but I am still human enough to feel ice curl around my stomach at the look in Farfarello's eye. I remember thinking just the other day that I'd never seen Farfarello angry, and I think I was happier then when I didn't know just how much he keeps balled up inside. I'm starting to understand why Farfarello was left on his own so long in Rosenkreuz's quarters and why no one wished to work with him. Farfarello is like me in that he craves control and he cannot stand the thought of ever losing it. Once he's lost it, he loses the bit of him that makes him human and becomes a monster. He is extremely competent despite his attitude, but how many others would willingly want to work with this? Right now he is seething quietly and his lips are almost trembling where he's pressed them tightly together, trying not to say anything until he knows exactly what he wants to say.

    "Why?" he demands at last, because he cannot stand it anymore. "Why?"

    "I cannot be expected to run Schwarz effectively if I'm worrying about both you and our client," I send back at him, glad that my voice is calm despite the situation. I quirk an eyebrow at him as if this is obvious and see his gaze narrow further at the sight of it. "You claim that I need your assistance to prepare myself for what he wants, but if I am being antagonized by both of you, I cannot give all of my attention to Schwarz. This is Rosenkreuz's current big client and we need him to be satisfied with our work."

    "And will you satisfy him?" is the furious snarl as Farfarello lashes out. I see it coming just a heartbeat before he moves; he hits the chair hard enough that it crashes to the floor and I grab at the desk, planting my feet so I don't fall with it. I push myself up and forward, but there's not far that I can move with him pinning me in. "Will you be satisfied then? Will you come home and clap yourself on the back for how you've managed to please the client so that he keeps sending satisfactory reports to your masters?"

    "And what does it matter to you?" I demand icily.

    "Precognitives are assigned Watchers because they're blind," is his angry response. "You become so dependent on what you've seen that you don't think to look at what you've missed. That is why I am here."

    "And you're doing a wonderful job," is my cool retort to that. "Your method of handling this matter has done nothing to help me."

    He snarls something at me that I cannot understand and pushes away from me, moving backwards across the room. "I hope you found a Watcher that pleases you," he says, and I'm thrown for a moment that he knows I was looking at the unmatched Watchers recently. I remember that my desk is a mess and wonder what he was looking for when he came across evidence of my visit to the Rosenkreuz system. "You'll be needing a new one."

    With that, he turns and storms out of my room. I hear his boots pounding down the hall and then down the stairs, and in the distance, a door slams. I stand silent by my desk, reeling in the aftermath of a confrontation with such a heavy promise of violence. I'm not sure what to think or how to act in his abrupt absence. At length I lower my gaze from the open doorway to look down at the mess Farfarello has made of my room, and a few moments later, I slowly crouch to start putting it back in order. I can't focus on the papers as I pull them back into tidy piles; in my mind all I can see is that angry yellow gaze. I cannot understand his anger; I cannot understand what about what I've done to myself could have made him so furious. He shouldn't care; he should think this entire thing is funny. He was amused in the beginning. Why is he so angry now?


    Farfarello doesn't care about anyone or anything; he barely holds enough concern for himself to keep breathing. He finds amusement in the pain of others and has spent years finding his amusement at my expense. He and I are constantly struggling against each other for control because we do not wish to reach a compromise but we cannot stand letting the other rule. He has always taken care of all of my visions before, always with an amused and condescending air. He has always steered me correctly. It is only this one where I could not handle his reaction. I knew he would be amused and I could live with that. It was when he started acting strangely that I started doubting his ability to do his job. I cannot be harassed by both him and Matthews and still do what's best for Schwarz; I need to be able to trust Schwarz and as long as Farfarello is being so forceful, I can not focus on our work. I am acting correctly in forcing Matthews' hand, because it will cut Farfarello's games short.

    Farfarello, for all of his oddities, knows to do what's best for Schwarz. He knows to do what's best for me.

    Then why?

    Why would he start such games when he had to know what they would result in? Why would he react with such a hot anger that I've taken away his control in this matter and shrugged off his so-called aid?

    It's not an anger that I've overthrown his control. It's an anger that's much more personal, affecting Farfarello at a level I assumed he couldn't feel. I don't know what to make of it, and I want to tell myself that I'm reading it wrong.

    I realize then that I've been staring at the stack of paper in my hands for a few minutes now without moving, and that someone is in the doorway watching me. Schuldich is holding onto the doorframe as he looks in at me, and we stare at each other in silence. His expression is tight, his gaze wary, but he says nothing yet. I push myself to my feet, setting my papers down, and crouch once more to gather my pens. At last Schuldich starts slowly towards me, reaching down to set my chair to rights. He watches my hands as I stand and rearrange my writing utensils neatly in their can, and I wonder if he's going to speak or just stare at me until I talk.

    He answers that question for me just a few tense moments later. "What the hell have you done?" he wants to know. When I don't answer immediately, he reaches out and grabs at my arm. I shrug him off roughly, suddenly angry that so many people seem to think they have the right to demand things of me. The look I turn on him is withering and his lips thin at the sight of it, but he's known me for far too long to be thrown by my anger. It's rare that Schuldich sees me when my patience is stretched thin but our time together and his own self-assured attitude makes it easy for him to just handle my anger and work around it. "Crawford, what did you do to him?"

    "What does it matter?" I want to know, because I have no clue what I did to Farfarello and I think it's odd that Schuldich wants to know what I've done to him instead of vice versa. It's not like I could or would tell him just why Farfarello and I are at odds right now, but I don't even know all of the reasons behind this last blow-up.

    "Damn it, Crawford…" He sends a frustrated look towards my door. "I can't read him; I don't know where he's going. Go after him. You're going to lose him."

    "Tell me why I should care," I snap back, turning on him. "He'll come back eventually because he has nowhere else to go. If all else he'll come back here just so he can kill me in my sleep."

    "Life would be a lot simpler if Farfarello's brain actually worked that way," is Schuldich's annoyed response. I just shake my head at him and look around for my watch again, finally finding it towards the back of the desk. I eye the time before clipping it into place around my wrist. I have my meeting with Matthews in just half an hour; I need to leave soon. "I've been dealing with your fights for years now but they've never been this bad. What the hell did he do, make an advance on you when you told him to knock it off? That's the only think I can think of since he was muttering about finding you a girl to sleep with just a few days ago."

    Schuldich's not saying it as if he's trying to be funny; there's no hint of sarcasm to his voice. It's a serious question, and I am so startled by it that I cannot stop myself from flicking a quick look his way. He and I stare at each other in silence again. My expression is flat, giving nothing away to his searching gaze. "Don't look at me like that," the telepath says. "It hurts my brain to think you really are fucking oblivious, since we're trusting that vision of yours to keep Schwarz in line."

    "I have a meeting," I tell Schuldich, and I start for the door.

    He refuses to be shrugged off and uses his speedy gift to appear in my way, arms out at his side. Orange hair spills into his face and over his shoulders as he stares up at me, wanting answers to questions I don't know and don't want to know. "So much for the all-seeing eye," he says. "Here I figured that was the reason you two were always butting heads around here. Farfarello's been considering fucking you since about six months after he met you. Tell me you knew that."

    I frown at him, hearing his words but not following them. "You're mistaken," I inform him. "He hates me, I hate him, and I have a meeting right now."

    "You have time for this," he sends back at me. "I don't know what the hell is up between you and Farfarello but I won't let it go so far that it tears this unit apart. Farfarello works, God damn it. He's the perfect Watcher for your gift and you know that. He keeps my gift intact and we all know how to work with him. We may not like him twenty four hours out of every day but I can't say I like you much more than that, so I want a good reason for you chasing him off. You have to have a Watcher; precognitive's law. But if you replace him with a lesser Sensitive who can't keep you on the path as well, you'll be fucking our group over and I'm leaving, too. You know Rosenkreuz would reassign me to any group I wanted if I asked them to."

    "Schuldich," I start, though I'm not entirely sure what to say. I'm completely taken back by Schuldich's declaration that he'll just walk out of Schwarz like that; I've never really thought of him being reassigned elsewhere.

    Schuldich interrupts me, so I'm saved from having to think of something. "I never said you had to fuck him, Crawford. I don't care which way he swings and I don't care if you swing with him or not. But if you two could coexist for two years then why can't you do it now? Farfarello doesn't want to leave our unit; I figured they'd have to pull his dead body away from us because he'd never leave it willingly. You're what he's been looking for for most of his life."

    "Spare me the dramatics," I say, and Schuldich reaches forward to push at me.

    "He was bred into a religion where there was an ultimate power, Crawford, one being that controlled and protected everything, an omnipotent God. Farfarello's God abandoned him years ago and in his place he eventually found you. You're a power that pushes back and can control him. You're the one that puts a ceiling on his power, someone who knows exactly what he is and what he's capable but isn't scared to force him down. He's been fascinated by you ever since we got him. I got so sick of talking about you and Schwarz in those first few months but I humored his interest because I figured he needed the information to fulfill his role as Watcher."

    I just stare at him and he stares at me, breathing a little raggedly in his anger. "Don't tell me you didn't know," he says at length. "Don't tell me you didn't suspect a thing."

    I can't say anything at first; I don't know whether or not to believe the madness that's coming out of his mouth. Farfarello hates me and I hate him. This is common knowledge within Schwarz. Common knowledge. Or just my view on things? I don't know. I want to shrug off his words because I don't know what to make of them and I don't know if I have time to even begin to think about this right now, but I cannot help but try to tie Schuldich's words into Farfarello's aggravating behavior these last few weeks. I think of his touch and his kiss and his words at the bar, and how angry Schuldich claimed he was that night when I told him that I would rather have Matthews' abuse than Farfarello's touch.

    --Do you hate me?--

    "This is ridiculous," I murmur, lifting a hand to push Schuldich out of my way. "I have a meeting. I'm going."

    "Crawford…" He sounds frustrated by my refusal to listen to him, but I seriously don't have the time to deal with this right now.

    "Later," I say, flicking him a look. "Later. I have to go."

    "Do what you please," is his annoyed answer. "But make a little note in your schedule that reminds you to pay attention to your team at some point, because you will have to resolve this issue or you're going to lose Schwarz. Not a threat," he says, lifting a finger. "Just a fact."

    "I'll put it in my planner," I send at him, and he says nothing else but moves back so I can leave. I head down the hall with his eyes boring into the back of my head and my thoughts in utter turmoil, and even though I'm leaving now to meet with Matthews, I barely register that in my mind. I'm too caught on what Schuldich's just said to me. I think of Farfarello tonight as he taunted me, think of his hands against my shirt. Farfarello's words from the club haunt me and in my mind I can see him reaching up to hook around his thumb around his collar the night he used Nagi's gift against me to show me that he was still Schwarz's. I remember his arms around me and his hands on my skin and the amusement in his voice.

    --Shall I stalk you instead?--

    I don't know what to think.

    Everything I have ever believed in and everything I've ever had control over is falling apart around me. Farfarello, Matthews, Schuldich… I'm the precognitive. I'm supposed to have everything together. I'm supposed to know what's going on. I earned the code name that Farfarello calls me by because I'm one of the strongest and the best among my talent. I don't feel uncertainty. I don't lose control.

    But all I can feel right now is confusion, tinged with a growing nausea. The hands on my watch are ticking away the time and at last I rip it off and throw it to the ground, unable to stand the sound any longer.

    I'm Crawford, the Oracle of Schwarz.

    I'm not supposed to feel so lost.

Part 8
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