------------two : You will believe in me, and I will never be ignored

    Consciousness was an effort that came over the course of several minutes. His body was awake long before his mind was. When his brain finally caught up, Jonas was staring up at an unfamiliar gray ceiling. He shifted in an attempt to sit up, but restraints kept his hands fastened to the headboard. Metal dug into his wrists and ankles on his second try, and moving just forced the starchy sheets harder into the gashes down his back. He closed his eyes and sucked in a slow breath, struggling to focus. His head felt like a shattered mess.

    Now that he was conscious, his gift reacted on its own, systematically shutting down the part of his brain that could recognize pain. It did nothing to help his thoughts; they still felt dangerously muddled. He tipped his head back, looking upside-down at the machinery at the head of his bed. Hospital, then. He'd been to Ikida's ward, but only as a visitor. He'd never been a patient. He didn't know why he was here now. He didn't feel doctors anywhere; the entire building was empty save for him.

    He blinked several times, trying to clear the blurry edge to his vision. Head injury, he thought critically, and that thought immediately reminded him of Alessa's fate. It sent a small shudder down his spine, imagining himself ending up like that, imagining his shields breaking and—

    There was a flicker of memory: eyes wide and vacant, blood dried and black on a wooden floor, and Jonas stopped breathing.

    He broke one wrist and gouged both ankles on his first attempt to break free, but his gift kept him from feeling it. The machinery started blipping in warning and there was a soft hiss as it automatically increased the dosage slipping through his IV. Jonas was oblivious.


    He screamed, rage and denial and heartbreak, hard enough that he tasted blood. He fought his restraints, almost wrenching his shoulders out of socket in his desperate attempts to get free. He kicked and thrashed, blind to the damage he was wrecking on his body, blind to everything but the memory of his sister's crumpled body. He screamed until he couldn't breathe, until the sedatives finally caught up with his abused body. He fought the drugs the whole way down.


    Ikida was waiting for him when he woke up, sitting still and silent at his bedside. Jonas wasn't in the mood for guests, even if his guest was a doctor, and he closed his eyes against the other man. "Get out," he said, or tried to say. With so many drugs in his system, it came out as little more than a slurred mumble.

    "The Council has ordered me to wait on you," Ikida said, refusing to give Jonas his space. "How much do you remember?"

    He remembered what she looked like. He remembered how she smelled.

    He remembered showing up at her house and wondering why he couldn't feel her anywhere around. He'd known she couldn't have gone far, not when her young son was alone in the house. He'd let himself in, thinking he would wait for her return. Instead he'd found her where her husband had left her. Left there like a piece of trash to rot in the warm German spring, left there for the rats

    He tasted bile and blood, felt his control creak.

    Her son had been curled up against her dead body, numb with shock and loss. Jonas had cut the truth out of him. Mistake on his part—the boy had answered with telepathy. He'd broadcast the entire thing to Jonas' mind, showing him the deteriorating relationship between mother and father, the fights and angry words, the drinking, the escalating violence. Jonas had watched Enrique take a poker to his sister, shattering the bones in her body, beating her until she couldn't get up again. He'd left her there to die, but Alessa had held on for another day, broken body wrapped tight around her son.

    The last thing she'd done was call him. Jonas remembered the call; it was why he'd gone to Germany in the first place. He'd hung up on her because all she wanted to talk about was her son. I'm so afraid for him, Jonas, she'd admitted. All I want is for him to be happy. Please, protect him for me.

    If she'd only told him she was dying! If only he'd stayed on the phone for one more minute, would she have told him? Would she have asked him for help? Would he have gotten there in time?

    He didn't know. He'd never know. All he knew was that she was dead, and that the son she so desperately loved was a shattered wreck. The boy had brought it on himself. Seeing Alessa die once was too much; watching her die again and again— Jonas had told him to stop, but the brat had been panicking and wouldn't stop that stupid fucking feedback loop. He couldn't stop, not when he'd made the mistake of reaching into Jonas' shields. He'd gotten sucked right in. Jonas felt entirely justified for breaking his shields to smithereens.

    "Hoffmann," Ikida tried. "Are you with me?"

    He clenched his teeth almost tight enough to break them, fighting to breathe, fighting not to completely lose it a second time. Control had never been his strong point; Seraphim had even mocked him about it years ago. But Jonas wouldn't, wouldn't, fall apart, not with an audience. "Get out," he ground out.

    Ikida got to his feet, but only so he could move closer to the bed. Jonas was a Five, but the medical staff ran on a slightly different hierarchy. Ikida didn't have the right to ignore Jonas, but he could override him when it came to his personal care, especially with the Council at his back. Jonas didn't care about technicalities right then. He just wanted to be left alone. Ikida felt the warning crackle of empathy against his skin and went still with his hands halfway to Jonas' left arm.

    "I will stay," Ikida said quietly. "So long as I am here, the Council is not. They are not finished with you."

    His injuries finally made sense, even if that memory was fractured and jagged. He'd been in Berlin for three days: one burying his sister, and two taking his time with her husband. The Council wouldn't have cared about her husband's death, but the boy? He'd been an investment, and Jonas had destroyed him. He'd left him a bleeding, insane mess. The Council had demanded retribution, and Nikolai and Mosuli had torn the Council's displeasure into his skin upon his return.

    "I'm not sorry," Jonas said. "I never will be."

    Ikida gave a quiet sigh and pressed careful fingertips to Jonas' arm. "You shattered three bones in your wrist and dislocated two of your fingers. Mosuli will meld the bones back together; he is the only one I trust to do it properly." He took Jonas' hand in one of his. Jonas felt pressure and heard the sick pop of Ikida realigning his fingers. He tried to curl them, but his injured wrist wouldn't let him.

    Ikida let go of his hand, but he didn't step back. "I can set your bones and mend your back, but loss is not something any doctor can help with," he said quietly. "That is an injury only time can repair." Jonas ignored him. Ikida gave him a minute, hoping those words would sink in, and finally loosened Jonas' restraints. "I need to see your back."

    Jonas sat up, using his good hand to brace himself against the mattress. Ikida reached for him again, but Jonas bat his hand away. He pried the IV out of his arm and cast it to one side. His shirt was on the shelves by the door, so he got to his feet and went to get it. It was awkward pulling it on when his left hand wasn't working right, but he struggled into it without Ikida's help.

    Ikida opened his mouth as if to protest his exit, but in the end, he knew it wouldn't change anything. Instead he sat down to wait, knowing the Council would send Jonas back shortly with a new set of injuries.


    Seraphim had once called Jonas out on his self-imposed isolation, but the months that followed Alessa's death made all those before seem like party years. Jonas took to sleeping in his office, when he bothered to sleep at all. When he caught up on his own duties, he started looking for more work to do. He sketched out plans to expand Rosenkreuz's reach across his territories and, with the Council's approval, began enforcing those changes. Until then, Rosenkreuz was the only permanent base. Jonas changed that by setting up outpost headquarters in Russia and China. He streamlined his division and rearranged his advisors as he saw fit, and the Council let him do as he liked because his profits increased exponentially.

    His meetings with the Five grew fewer and further between, until Jonas only saw the four when they were supposed to dine with the Council. They did not mourn his absence, nor did he regret theirs. After Alessa's death, they'd considered him with a bit of condescending pity. He'd always been a workaholic, but they knew grief was what had forced that dedication to an almost suicidal level. With each passing month, their pity faded to respect, because Jonas had real results, and real goals, and an unrelenting, ruthless ambition.

    "You will be a Five forever," Elizabeth commented after one of their weekly dinners. Jonas glanced her way, but her gaze skittered away from his. She looked instead toward the door, as if making sure the Council weren't around to hear her say such a presumptuous thing. "You will never find anyone who can keep up with you. The Council will not let you ascend if it means creating a gap in the Five."

    She was speaking from personal experience, he assumed. The oldest of the Five, she might have had a chance to be Council once, if not for her devotion to her genetics division. Although she was not the one doing the hands-on work, she was the mastermind behind it. She had a successor, but she refused to relinquish her spot. Instead Mosuli had been tagged, and Adrian had taken his spot in the Five.

    Jonas lifted one shoulder in a shrug and set his plate aside. With the Council gone, he had no reason to linger. "Seraphim believes otherwise."

    Miguel frowned at that. "You don't mean she spoke to you."

    "Seraphim's words are for the Council alone," Adrian said in flat warning.

    "You find a way to shut her up, then," Jonas said, and he left without a backward glance. They didn't call after him, not really sure what to say or think after such an unexpected heads-up. He headed for his office and the work he'd had to set aside for dinner. He was not altogether surprised to find more work waiting for him in the form of a file on his door. He plucked the manila envelope out of the plastic basket and let himself into his quiet, crowded office.

    He didn't open the envelope until he was seated behind his desk, and the paperwork he dumped into his waiting hand wasn't what he was expecting. It took two read-throughs to make sure he understood the request. Seraphim wanted her son to spend two years overseas. It was not an unheard-of request, though it was an exceedingly rare one, and Jonas had never heard of anyone going abroad for two consecutive years. That much time away from Rosenkreuz wasn't wise.

    If it had been anyone else, he would have stamped DENIED all over it, but this was from Seraphim's desk. Seraphim would never send someone overseas knowing it would weaken their devotion. Jonas stared down at her neat handwriting, wondering, thinking about Elizabeth's words at dinner, thinking about Seraphim's promise that her son was going to be what Jonas needed.

    He picked up his phone and dialed the headmaster. "You will bring me Crawford's file," he said, and hung up. It did not take long for the instructor to arrive, and the file he brought with him was thicker than Jonas expected it to be. He did the math in his head and realized the child wasn't a child anymore. He'd been at Rosenkreuz for almost seven years now; he was weeks shy of his thirteenth birthday. The Five would have to bid on him soon.

    That explained, then, why Seraphim had sent him the schooling request. She was assuming he was Crawford's Five and would have to be the one to sign off on such a thing. Jonas hadn't seen the brat since the day he'd broken rank nine. He didn't know why he'd even want Seraphim's progeny in his division.

    "Sit," Jonas said, holding his hand out in a demand. The headmaster turned the file over. Jonas gave him Seraphim's request to consider and busied himself with analyzing Crawford's progress. The youth was listed as a rank four and the top of his class. His language instructors declared him fluent in his chosen three languages, and there was a written recommendation that he begin a fourth. The rest of his teachers noted that Crawford seemed bored by his lessons. Even Malachi, the prescients' head instructor and Seraphim's aide, had favorable things to say. Having two rank eight precognitives vouching for him was no small feat.

    "Tell me we have a place to send him," Jonas said when he was through. He set the file to one side and turned his attention on the teacher. The man shifted a little uneasily under the weight of Jonas' stare. "He is not going to Germany, but his languages limit him."

    "I would suggest Liechtenstein or Belgium, Herr Hoffmann," the instructor said. "They are well-ranked with the OCED and still close enough for a boy's first venture outside of Rosenkreuz. I can research schools tonight and have a list of recommendations on your desk first thing in the morning."

    "I want him further away for his second year," Jonas said, but even as he spoke, he knew what he wanted. "You will send him to an American university his second year. He is past ready for advanced classes and needs to practice using English on a daily basis. Let's see how he keeps up with an older generation. I dare him to be bored then."

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    "One requirement," Jonas said. "You must find schools that will teach him an appropriate language." He considered the men and women he'd already assigned at his eastern headquarters, doing a mental tally of languages and dialects. His first instinct was to force his people into Cantonese or Mandarin, but his advisor Catherine Chen had more Chinese speakers than anything else. "Japanese."

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    Jonas thought that over, then jerked a hand in a sharp dismissal. "Out," he said. "Send him here. I will have my list before sunrise."

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    Jonas didn't bother to watch him leave, more interested in perusing Crawford's file. He skipped past the summary notes from his last academic year and turned to the more in-depth progress reports. There wasn't much to see there. Rather, there wasn't much because the entire teaching staff was of a like mind when it came to the prescient. Jonas found that a bit odd, because Rosenkreuz's instructors were known for being vicious and degrading. Teachers still had their favorites, but for Crawford to be everyone's favorite made him think they were trying to get on Seraphim's good side. He dismissed that notion shortly, because Seraphim had no access to the teachers' files unless the Council chose to grant her it.

    He pushed the files aside when he felt Crawford reach the building. He propped an elbow on the desk to make a perch for his chin and focused on what his gift was telling him. What it found in Crawford wasn't what he expected. Only a handful of Talents at Rosenkreuz could approach him without any fear whatsoever, and those were the five protected by their rank: Seraphim and the Council. Apparently he'd miscounted, because Brad Crawford wasn't nervous.

    That made no sense. They hadn't seen each other in six years, but Crawford had to know Jonas' reputation and had to remember their ugly first meeting. Despite that, he was perfectly calm as he made his way up the stairs toward Jonas' office. He didn't even hesitate to knock on the door.

    Jonas thought it extremely stupid of him, but he was intrigued despite himself. "Blind leading the blind," Jonas murmured into his palm, before tilting his head and calling, "Enter."

    The boy let himself in and closed the door quietly behind himself. He'd grown since Jonas had last seen him, but then, it had been six years. He would be tall one day; Jonas could tell just by looking at him. He had his mother's looks, from that impossibly dark hair to her gold-brown eyes. For a moment Jonas despised him, that he had taken after his mother when Alessa's brat was every inch his treacherous father. He forced that aside and pointed at the chair across from him.

    Crawford sat, keeping his gaze averted—not out of fear, but because he lacked the authority to look Jonas in the face.

    "Do you know who I am?" Jonas couldn't help but ask.

    "You are Five Hoffmann of the Asian Sector," Crawford answered.

    "Why aren't you afraid of me?"

    And Crawford was surprised. "Herr Hoffmann?"

    "It is not a difficult question," Jonas said.

    Crawford took a couple seconds, trying to figure out a response to such an unexpected demand. "Herr Hoffmann, you are a Five."

    It was such a simple answer it made Jonas' head hurt. He stared at Crawford in silence for another minute more, trying to figure that out, but no other explanation was forthcoming. "Look at me," he ordered, and Crawford obediently lifted his gaze to meet Jonas' stare. The second their eyes locked, Jonas let go of his gift. It started low, a burn deep beneath the skin, and slowly worked its way to the surface. Jonas could see skin turning red in his peripheral vision as the emotional burns crossed planes to a physical level, but Crawford didn't even try to break eye contact. Crawford pressed his mouth into a hard line, but it was the only outward sign of the pain Jonas was inflicting on him.

    That damn pride; it hadn't weakened at all in the past seven years.

    Jonas let go of his empathic fire in favor of something with a little more bite. He hit Crawford's back with enough force that he could hear the precog's skin tear. Crawford sucked in a low breath and tensed up, but he didn't even clench his fingers where they rested in his lap. What it cost him to leave his hands relaxed on his thighs as Jonas laid blow after blow into his skin, Jonas didn't know, but he was fascinated. Anyone else would have cried out; anyone else would have instinctively fought to look away. Anyone else would have been afraid.

    But beneath the agony building in Crawford's skin was only one emotion: trust.

    For a split second, Jonas wanted to break that trust. For a split second, he wanted to tear and tear and tear until Crawford screamed, just like he'd screamed six years ago when he'd felt an empath's wrath for the first time.

    Instead he stopped, and a flick of his fingers gave Crawford permission to finally look away. Crawford focused on the back wall, considering the intricate lines of the Chinese map hanging there. Jonas waited for some sort of anger, or confusion, or resentment, or—anything. But Crawford simply waited to see what came next.

    "Look at me," Jonas insisted.

    Crawford didn't even hesitate. Jonas cut him across his face, digging bloody lines from one cheek to the other over the bridge of his nose. He tracked a line across his forehead to send blood dripping down onto Crawford's eye lashes. Crawford refused to blink it out of his eyes, no matter how much it burned, because that meant he'd lose eye contact with Jonas. Jonas waved his hand again, and Crawford dropped his gaze. Crawford blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision. And still there was just a calm waiting, just an unquestioning acceptance of Jonas' temper and power.

    You must trust him, Seraphim had said.

    Six years ago, Jonas had thought that to be a laughable request. The only person he trusted was Alessa. The only person he believed in was Alessa. She was family. She was the only one who could stand toe-to-toe with him and not flinch. She was the only one who was happy to be in the same room as he was. And now she was gone, leaving him with his dreams and ambitions and his tiny, isolated office.

    "Trust him like they trust me."

    Staring at Crawford now, with Crawford's calm confidence saturating his gift, Jonas wondered if maybe Seraphim's request wasn't as ridiculous as he'd once thought.

    "You are thirteen in two weeks," Jonas said, making up his mind once and for all. "On that day, you will be indicted into the Asian sector, but you will complete your schooling overseas. Your headmaster will supply you with further details within the next few days." He gave Crawford only a moment to digest that. "When you return, I will expect you to be ready for your first internship."

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    They lingered for one moment more, the feared and the fearless, and Jonas finally leaned back in his chair. "Out," he said. "Ikida will see to you."

    Crawford quietly got to his feet and left. Jonas sat silent and alone long after he was gone.


    The following week, he made time for the Five's meeting. The others were surprised to see him. Elizabeth made some joke about star alignments that Jonas tuned out. Instead he said, "The Crawford boy is mine."

    "He is a bit young for you," Ricard said.

    Jonas slid a withering look his way. Ricard feigned not to notice, but it was a see-through farce when Jonas could feel the tension in his amusement. Adrian had about as much patience as Jonas did for the others' jokes, and said, "For what reasons?"

    "My division is the one with the greatest expansion rate, yet I am the one with the least number of seers on my staff," Jonas said. "It is time I invest in a sight not my own. He is already fluent in Hangul, which sets him up for an easy transition to an eastern post."

    "You are the one who chose your staff," Miguel pointed out, more for the sake of argument than any interest in Crawford himself. "If you are short on prescients, you have no one to blame but yourself."

    "If it is sight you need, there are other up-and-coming precognitives," Adrian added. "Several of them are well on their way to making rank five, whereas that child has been a four for almost two years now. Your argument fails."

    "I have no interest in them," Jonas said dismissively.

    "Only in Seraphim's son," Elizabeth noted. "That is a lot of prestige to hand off to you."

    "I couldn't give a shit about prestige," Jonas said.

    "But you do have ulterior motives," Adrian said. "What is to say he shouldn't stay with our divisions? Word in the halls is that you have already set up and approved a study abroad for him. Two years, Ricard told me, in Belgium and America. Apparently he's to train with some of our local units on the side?" He waited for Jonas' nod. "Why shouldn't I keep him? Why shouldn't Elizabeth? He will know our people and goals."

    "I will not let you have him," Jonas said. "It is as simple as that."

    Miguel and Elizabeth exchanged considering looks. Ricard leaned forward, sliding his gaze back Jonas' way. "Oh," he said. "Now this really is interesting, isn't it? I have never seen you so taken with anyone. Don't you think, Elizabeth?"

    "It is a bit odd," she agreed. "I think you are hiding something from us."

    "Especially when you put him in the medical ward just last week," Miguel added.

    "And six years ago," Adrian said. "We were there. We saw what you did to him. We remember."

    "Not a promising start to your glorious future together," Ricard admitted.

    "We are not here because we care about our futures," Jonas reminded him coldly. "We are Five because the only future we live for is Rosenkreuz's. If I believe this child is what it takes to get to the next level, then I will do whatever I have to in order to secure him as my own."

    Elizabeth smiled, slow and cold and approving, and glanced at Ricard. The South African grinned. "Well said. For a moment you almost sounded Rosenkreuz-bred. I still think you're hiding something, but I don't care enough to fight it. Elizabeth?"

    "Have him, then," she said.

    Miguel shrugged. Adrian, the eternal sore loser, just grunted and glared at the far wall.


    Jonas' office was Crawford's first stop upon his return to Rosenkreuz. Jonas was busy when he showed up, but Jonas was always busy, so it hardly mattered. He pushed his reports aside in favor of considering his young minion. It had been two years since he'd last seen the teenager, though they'd been in steady contact during his absence. Crawford had had to make regular reports to Jonas during his study, detailing both his work with the other Fives' units and his curriculum.

    He looked older, but it wasn't his looks Jonas was interested in. He was more keen on what the eye couldn't show a man: how Crawford had changed on the inside after a couple years away from Rosenkreuz. Seraphim's word had gotten Crawford out of Austria, but only Jonas' judgment would get him back in. He had had a couple years free of Rosenkreuz's dead grounds and violent rules. He'd never before been allowed to see the world and travel the breadth of it, even if his excursions had been carefully monitored by Rosenkreuz's local teams. It was a fifty-fifty on how he'd regarded that freedom: whether he'd seen everything he'd missed out on by being born a psychic, or if he'd looked at it knowing he was going to rule it all one day with his power.

    "Sit," he said at last, and Crawford obediently seated himself on the other side of the desk. "Back home at last, then, are you?"

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    "I assume you're pleased."

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann." Typical rote response, perhaps, but Jonas knew better. There was something in Crawford's simple words and quiet voice that was—well, if not sincere, then at least certain. Maturity wasn't an emotion, but that was the sense Jonas got from him. Crawford had spent two years out in the world, two years without his infamous, influential mother breathing down his neck. He'd never forgotten who or what he was, nor had his loyalties seemed to have dimmed, but there was finally a bit of balance beneath that blank mask.

    Jonas demanded, "Why?"

    Crawford lifted his gaze from Jonas' globe to the map of Asia that hung on the back wall. Jonas watched him study it, but didn't look back at it himself. "Herr Hoffmann?" Crawford said, not a request for clarification, but gently testing the ground between them, wondering if he was going to be too bold with his response. Jonas said nothing, neither in permission or to cut him off. "I am a prescient. Rosenkreuz is the only future worth believing in. If I cannot live my life for Rosenkreuz's glory, then I have and am nothing."

    "And if I chose to send you away again?" Jonas asked.

    "Herr Hoffmann, I would go wherever you wished me to go."

    So his mother had said, once. Jonas ignored that memory. "And be cross with me," he noted. Crawford said nothing, not wishing to come across as argumentative, but Jonas could practically taste the way Crawford balked at that tacit accusation. "Or not?"

    "You are Five Hoffmann," Crawford said carefully. "I believe in you."


    Ironic, perhaps, that a world like theirs hinged on such an emotion. They were manipulators and backstabbers and murderers, but they would fall apart in an instant without that basic faith. The lower levels were wrought with tension and hatred, but the top tiers were unshakable. The school would stumble if it ever had reason to doubt the Five, and would cease to exist entirely if no one believed in the Council. Like and dislike had nothing to do with it; the top nine were those who would pay any price to ensure a successful future. Whether it was because he was Seraphim's son or because he'd grown up at Rosenkreuz, Crawford understood exactly what Jonas' ranking meant. He had never questioned it.

    "You are stupid," Jonas decided.

    Crawford inclined his head. "Herr Hoffmann."

    Jonas considered him in silence for a minute, debating. "The office beside mine is empty," he said at length. "Requisitions will supply it with the basics. I expect you to be moved in by this afternoon, for we will be starting on your lessons over dinner. You are slotted to take your place with China's advisors in six months' time. Until then, you are here. You cannot land in China blind, but you have been preoccupied with foreign studies these past few years."

    Crawford wasn't surprised; the prescient had seen it coming. "Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    "Go," Jonas said, and Crawford left on near-silent footsteps. Jonas watched the door close behind him before picking up the phone and dialing to the requisitions department. It took only a few minutes to get the order placed and approved, and he was promised that it would all be ready within the hour. Jonas hung up without a farewell and began organizing files to turn over to Crawford.

    The young prescient had been slotted into an advisors' career path once Jonas had taken him on. It was really the only role open to precognitives who left Rosenkreuz grounds. They had to understand a bit of everything, under the impression that well-rounded minds could see more clearly: politics, social studies, economics, history, geography, and so forth. Now it was time for Jonas to teach Crawford about his division, so Crawford could start mining his gift for useful visions of his future.

    He could have assigned anyone else to be Crawford's tutor. The most reasonable path to take was to drop him in China now and let Catherine Chen and Alex Yun Fat deal with him. Jonas didn't linger over that idea for long. Seraphim had claimed Crawford would be important to him. Jonas was interested in seeing what nonsense she'd based that prediction on.

    The phone rang as he was finishing up. Elizabeth was on the other end. "There's someone I want you to meet," she said without preamble. "You remember Terri? She's on a study abroad this year and she picked up a rather promising child. Fifteen, sixteen, maybe, with genius scores on her tests and a working knowledge of the psychics' world."

    "What gift?" Jonas asked.

    "None," Elizabeth answered. Jonas hung up on her. Elizabeth, unsurprisingly, called right back. "Ikida is a dead mind."

    "Is a doctor and the son of two great Talents," Jonas said. "I have no time to waste on a faceless human."

    "She'd be a waste in my sector," Elizabeth said, and he could imagine her shrugging. "She's Japanese. Native Japanese and Mandarin, conversational English. Her father worked at the Japanese consulate in China. Her mother is Triad. She has connections. She knows names and faces. She's too valuable to let slide and just young enough to mold."

    Jonas wanted to hang up on her again, at least on principle. He hesitated, however, and Elizabeth knew she'd won. "I'll bring her over to meet you tonight," Elizabeth said.

    "I will be busy with Crawford."

    "Then they can meet," she said easily. "They're about the same age, you know. A lot of good could come of it. Seraphim prefers breeding her line with dead minds. It avoids distorting the gift."

    This time Jonas really did hang up on her, and Elizabeth didn't call back.

    Four hours later, Elizabeth and Chizuru Aoi showed up at Jonas' office. Jonas put her through a rather extensive interrogation in Japanese, of which Elizabeth understood not a word, and finally decided she might be worth tolerating if he could put her dead mind far away from himself. Elizabeth left after he'd signed off on the paperwork, and he let her get halfway down the hall before giving Chizuru the same vicious welcome he treated every new Rosenkreuz student to. The others on his floor had to hear her screaming, but no one spared a moment's concern.

    It was rather boring breaking in a dead mind. They didn't have the same resilience and tenacity psychics were born with. They didn't have the inner steel a Talent needed in order to control his or her own gift. It was over far too quickly to be at all satisfying, and Jonas shoved her into the corner with his boot.

    He called the medical ward and demanded someone retrieve her battered body, then pressed his gift into Crawford's skin. The precognitive was sitting at his new desk next door, but he felt Jonas' summons like a static charge down his back. It took him no time at all to answer the call, and he barely spared Chizuru a glance on his way into the office.

    Neither man looked up as the medical assistants arrived to carry Chizuru out. Jonas couldn't miss their entrance, however, and his gift bounced from one mind to another: Chizuru's horror to the doctors' callous appraisal to Crawford's apathy. The only thing Crawford cared about was the work that Jonas set in front of him.

    They studied deep into the night. Crawford was still young enough that long hours meant little to him, and he had no problems keeping up. Jonas would occasionally pass him things to read so he could handle his own things, such as checking reports from and making calls to his teams. When he thought Crawford had had sufficient time to study, he quizzed him on what he'd learned so far. Jonas called it off around four that morning, since he was expecting a teleconference with his Shanghai and Beijing quarters. Crawford went to bed with the reminder to be back by ten. Jonas expected him to sleep in until then, but Crawford was at the gym at a quarter to eight.

    So it continued over the next couple of weeks, with Jonas shoving everything he could at Crawford and Crawford simply absorbing it like a sponge. Jonas could practically feel Crawford's mind working as he put pieces together. He could certainly feel the strain: Crawford nursed a low-level migraine for an entire week. He never let it slow him and gave no outward sign of his discomfort and nausea. Jonas wouldn't have tolerated him slacking off, anyway.

    The rest of the Five found Jonas' hands-on approach questionable, since Jonas was already the most overworked member of the Five. Adrian repeatedly pointed out the teenager's rank, which had been stopped dead at a four for almost four years. His colleagues were of a like mind: Crawford was a colossal waste of Jonas' time when it was obvious he wasn't going anywhere.

    "He is a four by technicality alone," Malachi said when Jonas approached the precognitives' board about Crawford's stagnant state. Their expressions were polite, but the mess beneath it was interesting to consider. The six instructors were frustrated by their favorite's failure to make rank. "He should be a five by now."

    "He should be a seven," one of the other instructors said, annoyed.

    "Explain," Jonas said.

    "He's been all over the board since the beginning, Herr Hoffmann," one of the two women said. "Rank one, rank six, rank three… A good third of his visions are too high for his level, but so long as the majority of his visions fall into a four's sight, we cannot rank him."

    "The raw talent is there," Malachi said, glancing around at his colleagues. "The trigger is not. As a general view precognitive, that trigger is the only thing he has."

    One of the others gave a mirthless bark of laughter. "If it weren't for his shields," he said, "he'd perhaps have an easier time of it. A Talent would kill for shields like those, but not when it suffocates the very gift it is meant to protect!"

    "We are not," Malachi said in soft, acidic warning, "changing his core."

    Jonas glanced from one to the other, sensing a years-old argument between them. The two stared each other down, but Malachi was the foregone victor. The other teacher looked away in angry silence. Jonas waited until they'd settled down before asking, "His core being…?"

    "The one thing he believes in beyond any shred of a doubt," Malachi said. "The future."

    Jonas mulled that over for a minute, then got to his feet and left. The precognitives belatedly rose from their chairs as he left, but Jonas barely noticed them. His thoughts swirled around thoughts of his young acquisition. At least he finally understood why Crawford's shields were rock solid, if they were built on such an ideal. Thinking Crawford had that much faith in Rosenkreuz and his gift was surprising; he hadn't sensed that bone-deep arrogance. He hadn't given Crawford a chance yet to show off that little personality trait.

    Still, Malachi was right—they could not afford to change Crawford's core.

    How annoying.


    In the end, however, they didn't have to do anything to Crawford's innermost shields. Not even a week later, the Council left Rosenkreuz to meet with Estet's elders. Seraphim escorted them out. Jonas and Crawford were making rounds at the same time, and they stopped beside one of the buildings to watch the four climb into their waiting car. Nikolai was last. Although he could not hear Jonas, he knew the feel of Jonas' black hole of a shield, and his gaze slid their way. Jonas tipped his head, and Crawford bowed slightly at his side. Nikolai didn't linger, and the car was on its way shortly.

    Jonas watched the gates open to let the car pass and listened to them groan as they eased shut again. He started forward, but Crawford didn't move with him. Jonas glanced back to see what was stopping him and saw Crawford hadn't risen from his bow yet. The precog was staring blankly down at the ground, and his mental field was just as empty. It wasn't the first time Jonas had seen a prescient lost in a vision, but he'd never seen one go so deep that even their emotional field shut down.

    Pain was the first thing that came back to Crawford—pain, then surprise and denial, with nausea right behind it. A few drops of blood splattered against the dirt ground at Crawford's feet. Jonas snagged him by his hair, forcing him to straighten. Crawford's nose was bleeding.

    Crawford's expression was as calm as ever, but the tension behind it was new. Whatever Crawford had seen, he hadn't liked it one iota.

    Jonas could feel Seraphim's approach, but he kept his stare on Crawford's face. "What did you see?"

    "I saw Councilman Nikolai's death," Crawford answered quietly.

    "Today?" Jonas demanded.

    "No, Herr Hoffmann," Crawford said, and for a second, Jonas could almost see the years in his eyes. "We still have time. He is going to start losing his grip soon, but it will be a long goodbye."

    He'd go mad, Jonas mentally translated, just as Alessa had gradually rotted her own mind out. Jonas sucked in a slow breath through gritted teeth and looked out at the gate. "Telepaths," he said sourly. Crawford said nothing beside him, and Jonas weighed the pros and cons of putting Crawford's notes in the official books. The Council needed to know, but there was no telling how the volatile Nikolai would react to news of his mortality.

    Seraphim heard his remark as she finally drew even with them and offered him a sly smile. Jonas sent her an icy look for that silent amusement. "It is your job to watch the Council, not his," Jonas said. "I need his eyes on Asia."

    She lifted her hands in a delicate shrug. "This is a vision reserved for Brad alone," she replied. "And my, my, how far you see. How… special." She reached for Crawford's face. He tipped his head back out of reach, but she didn't need sight to know he would dodge her. She caught his chin in a viselike grip and dragged him back. The flat look on his face said what Crawford thought of being handled such, but he didn't dare pull free. "I will tell him you have seen it," she said, "but you have already seen what will happen when he finds out the date. You will not tell him until it is time."

    "I would not tell a Councilman no, Seraphim," Crawford said firmly. "If he asks me-"

    "You will if it will save his life," Seraphim interrupted. "Rosenkreuz is not prepared to lose him. If you tell him, you force the hands of fate. There is nothing a telepath fears so much as the loss of his own mind. Your Five knows this well."

    Jonas thought of Enrique panicking and going mad under Alessa's corroding mind. He tasted bile and fought to speak through his hatred. "The Council will hear of it," he said, glancing from one precognitive to the other, "but they are not to know the specifics. I leave it to you," he continued, fixing Seraphim with a hard look, "to explain the why of that."

    "Of course, Five Hoffmann," Seraphim agreed easily.

    There was a silent protest from Crawford. His calm expression didn't budge, but Jonas still felt it. Crawford didn't want to hide from the Council and didn't want to have to tell Nikolai "no" when the telepath inevitably demanded a detailed explanation. Despite that, there was a small spike of relief—squished so quickly that Jonas barely had time to register it.

    "Rank him, Seraphim," Jonas said.

    "He is a six." Seraphim tilted her head to one side and offered her son a crafty smile. There was no pride in the expression, nor in her thoughts: the only thing there was cold calculation. "For now, anyway."

    "He will get stronger, then," Jonas concluded.

    Her fingers tightened on Crawford's chin, clenching so tight her knuckles went white. They stared each other down, mother and son, sightless warning and stony, feigned indifference. "I do hope so," Seraphim said after a moment. "I would hate to think he enjoys wasting our time." She wrenched her hand free. "I will write up the official report, Five Hoffmann."

    He waved her off, and the two men watched her leave. Jonas was more interested in the mess she left behind in her son than he was in what had just happened to Crawford's gift. He could almost hear Crawford counting to ten as he brought himself under control. It actually took eleven beats before Crawford ruthlessly buried the last of his angry resentment.

    Jonas waited until Crawford had found his precious control before saying, "You'll never make it out of her shadow, you know."

    Denial, irritation, determination—Crawford's control crackled. The precog held on with an iron grip, desperate not to let his anger get the better of him. None bled into his smooth, "Herr Hoffmann."

    Jonas smiled, entertained. "Still," he mused, "I would love to see you try."

    Saying so, he set off to finish up their rounds, and Crawford kept close behind him.


    Jonas considered the paperwork sitting in front of him for a few minutes more. No matter how much he tried to focus, the words kept blurring. He took another swallow of coffee, hoping the caffeine would kick-start his brain, knowing it was a wasted effort. At length he picked up one of his many paperweights and tossed it at the wall. It hit with a resounding thud. There was a stutter in the empathic field next door as he disturbed his neighbor's concentration. A smirk flickered across Jonas' lips and he slouched low in his chair to prop his boots on the table.

    It didn't take long; it never did. No one stalled when coming to see the Soul Shaker, but no one responded so promptly, either. There was a knock at his door, and Jonas called a command to enter. Crawford obeyed and quietly shut the door behind himself. There was a chair across from Jonas, but Crawford would not sit until he was beckoned to. For now he stood patiently behind it. Jonas looked his fill, comparing and contrasting what his gift told him with what his eyes told him.

    It was interesting to see what difference six months could make. Jonas wasn't sure what to blame it on: the knowledge Crawford's precognition gave him, his age, or the work Jonas had assigned him. Perhaps it was partially Crawford's new role within Rosenkreuz itself. Being Seraphim's son had put a world of expectations on his shoulders, but being seen at Jonas' side so often made Talents a bit leery to deal with him. They hesitated to cross him and were slower to tell him no, not sure if his orders were his own or his Five's. For the most part, Crawford didn't give them a chance to think twice. Every second they gave him, he took, and every second gave him a bit more power over them.

    Six months ago, the precognitives had told Jonas—in a roundabout way—that Crawford was self-assured. Jonas had accepted that Crawford was confident. What he hadn't grasped at that time was that Crawford absolutely refused to second-guess himself. He did not doubt his abilities or decisions, and likewise, he did not doubt Jonas. Arrogance, Jonas thought, did not even begin to cover it.

    "Oracle," Jonas said at last, testing the sound of it.

    "Herr Hoffmann?"

    "You are moving to China in two days," Jonas reminded him needlessly. He pointed at the chair, and Crawford sat. "You cannot be assigned an official field position without a registered codename. As of this morning, the Council approved the use of 'Oracle'. No arguments from you, I'm sure."

    "I am humbled by the Council's faith in me, Herr Hoffmann."

    "Liar," Jonas drawled. "You barely know the definition of 'humble', Crawford." Crawford was saved from having to think up a tactful response when someone else registered in Jonas' gift. The empath slid a cool look at the far wall. "Your bitch is looking for you again."

    Crawford's expression didn't change, but Jonas felt his irritation just the same. He let a slow smirk stretch its way across his mouth. Crawford knew he was being laughed at and tried to smooth his emotions out. It didn't really work. Chizuru Aoi had been a thorn in Crawford's side since Elizabeth had first introduced them. Chizuru had taken to the American immediately. Crawford, on the other had, had absolutely no time to waste on a dead mind. He had not been at all pleased to hear they were traveling to China together.

    Jonas dragged his legs off the side of the table and sat forward in his chair. It wasn't hard to reach across the desk and pluck Crawford's glasses from the bridge of his nose. Crawford hadn't seen that coming; there was a brief flutter of surprise that dampened his reaction to Chizuru's approach. Honey eyes flicked from the map of China—Crawford's usual focal point—to Jonas' desk.

    Jonas turned the glasses over in his hands, studying the lenses with small disgust. When Crawford had jumped ranks five months ago, skipping a five ranking entirely, Seraphim and Malachi had tried to change his gift. Unlike his SIS mother, Crawford was a general view precognitive, which meant his visions were all trigger-based. It was the more common strain of precognition, but it was less reliable than the specific-instance branch.

    What had possessed Seraphim to tamper with her son, Jonas still didn't know. All she'd succeeded in doing was giving him a migraine for two months and near-sightedness. "I do not trust foreign doctors," Jonas said at length. "Bring spares with you. I cannot have my favorite precog going blind."

    "Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    They sat in silence for a minute more, considering how far they'd come and how much further they needed to go. Finally Jonas held the glasses out in offering. "You will not fail me," he said, venomous warning beneath a casual tone.

    "No, Herr Hoffmann," Crawford said, not a bit nervous, not a bit hesitant, not a bit unsure. There were no 'maybes' in Crawford's world; there was no room for 'but'. There simply was and was not, and all Crawford saw was success. He would never allow himself to disappoint Jonas.

    Jonas believed him. Whether it was due to Seraphim's reassurances or Crawford's unwavering confidence, he wasn't sure. All he knew was that he would stake his division's future on a sixteen year-old scrap of a precognitive and would argue that case before the Council itself.

    That was dangerous, he thought, but it was too late now.

Part 3