It is two weeks more before Ikida releases Schuldich to me. If he had his way, the telepath would stay under his protection for much longer, but I am impatient to get the young German away from Rosenkreuz. As long as he is where he can occasionally feel his uncle's mind, he cannot heal. The two-week window is a stilted compromise between the doctor and me. Although he understands what Hoffmann's presence does to Schuldich, he does not think the youth is ready for the world. Schuldich can stand at one week and walk steadily at nine days, and I give Ikida the extra five just for his peace of mind.
Either way, the doctor is not happy with me, not that I care.
The Athlon has been processed and filled, and a bottle of it is in my suitcase with the rest of my things. My luggage has already been taken out to the car that will be bringing us out of Rosenkreuz. All that is left to collect is Schuldich, and I carry one of the school uniforms to the medical ward with me when I go. The Council is secluded in their tower but I can feel Hoffmann's power crackling along my skin just the same. I have already dismissed myself from them, and now they are keeping their distance to avoid upsetting Schuldich's paper-thin grip on sanity.
I have no problems with the distance. Hoffmann came to say his goodbye to me yesterday, which is why Schuldich and I are leaving hours later than I had originally intended us to. I can still taste blood despite the three times I brushed my teeth, and I know my skin is lined with bruises and gashes underneath my suit. It took work to get out of bed this morning and I spent the better part of an hour trying to get patched up. My sheets had to be thrown away; there was no way the cleaners would have been able to get all of the caked blood out of them.
For now, I focus on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to walk as if my muscles haven't been twisted and bruised in every spot imaginable. I refuse to limp, but this takes more effort than I thought it would.
I have not been to see Schuldich since that first time he woke after his coma, but I doubt he has forgotten me. The doctors scoot out of my way at my entrance but I feel their eyes on me as I continue towards Schuldich's room. Ikida is waiting outside with his hands in his pockets and a serene expression stamped on his face. He greets me with a slight bow and nothing else, and I ignore his disapproval and let myself into the telepath's room.
Schuldich is sitting in a chair by the window, fingernails digging into the windowsill as he stares out at Rosenkreuz's dusty grounds. "You came back," he says, voice inflectionless.
"Did you doubt my promise?" I ask, closing the door behind me to block the doctors out.
"Ikida warned me you would come."
"I will make a note that I warrant a 'warning'," I say, crossing the room to set the uniform on his bed. The overhead light is hitting the glass just right so that I can see faint outlines of his reflection, and he is watching me. He doesn't turn my way, but I watch his fingers tighten on the decaying wood of the sill. "Change. You are not leaving here in that gown."
He makes no move to obey. His shoulders tense as he lets silence be his answer, and I realize he is trying to test the boundaries between us. It is questionable what sort of response he is looking for. My two main guesses are that he wishes for me to punish him, thereby leaving him to Ikida's care for a longer period of time, or that he wants to know if he can shrug me off. I will not allow the first and I do not tolerate well the second.
"I was not told that your injuries affected your hearing."
"Are you going to tell on me if I ignore you?" he asks, and the sneer in his words can't hide the way he's started to tremble.
I arch an eyebrow at his back. "Is that what you would like me to do?" I want to know. "It is a legitimate course for me to take, granted, but I consider myself able to solve problems without the Council's interference. Rather, I trust you to know that doing what I say is best for you."
"You made me come here."
"The Council made you come here; I simply confirmed that you would not like it."
"I heard you," I assure him, "but I'm afraid there are too many translations of such a phrase for me to know which meaning you expect me to go with. If you're asking me to leave, then I will consider it. I am sure Ikida will be happy if I left Rosenkreuz without you. I will, of course, have to file a report with the Council saying that I have released you from my care. I have already been granted their approval to take you on as a partner, and they will demand an explanation from me as to why I turned down their approval."
He doesn't answer. I give him a minute and then turn back towards the door. I have taken just a few steps before panic grips him, and I hear his chair scratch loudly against the floor as he jerks around.
"Why can't I hear you?" he wants to know.
"Telepathically, you mean," I say without stopping. "That is because I have shields that are too strong for your mind to breach."
"Wait-" he chokes out as my hand closes on the knob, and I look back at him, head tilted to the side in a question. He looks ill as he stares across the room at me, and green eyes are haunted. "Wait. I…"
"Have you changed your mind?" I ask.
"Are you really leaving?" he wants to know, but he can't get it out much louder than a whisper. His false bravado is failing him, and his hands clench in the material of his hospital gown. "Are you really- are we really leaving here?"
"Rosenkreuz is a powerful place, but it is unhealthy for you," I tell him. "I am taking you away from here to where you can heal." He searches my gaze, looking for something to believe in, but I don't know what he hopes to find. There is nothing to read in my hazel stare; there is nothing friendly in my voice. These are facts, nothing more, nothing less. He is an assignment, albeit an important one. "I am taking you to where he cannot reach you."
"Where he…" He flinches back and darts a hunted glance out the window, as if expecting Hoffmann to be standing right there.
"Make your decision now, Schuldich of Rosenkreuz," I tell him, letting a thread of impatience into my voice. "You will either stay here with Ikida or you will leave Austria with me."
"I-" he starts, but I cut him off.
"I am not taking you away from here to be free," I tell him. "You are part of Rosenkreuz now and it is not something you can escape from. What I am going to do is train you to use that talent for the future. I will help you repair the shields over your mind and I will teach you how to make the most of your telepathy. When I tell you where to go, you will go there. When I tell you what to do, you will do it. When I speak, you will listen. This is what you will be accepting in exchange for my protection. As long as I hold you to be important, the Council needs you alive. Either you will die here as Schuldich of Rosenkreuz or you will live as Schuldich of Schwarz."
His mouth moves soundlessly- not in indecision, but because he can't get the words out that he so desperately wants to say.
"Make your decision," I tell him.
He stumbles in his hurry to get out of his chair and clutches the uniform to him. There will come a time in the future when he will not be so eager to listen to me, but for now, I am enough. I am taking him away from Hoffmann, and that is enough. If I asked him to throw himself out the window in order to win my patronage, he would ask me how many times it should be done.
He almost tears the gown in his hurry to get it off and it is tossed carelessly to one side. I watch as he dresses, taking stock of the various scars that run across him. Hopefully none of them will interfere with his ability to move.
When he is dressed he turns to me, and I open the door and step out into the hall. Schuldich is quick to follow, though his new shoes slap awkwardly against the ground. I try and remember when was the last time he wore such things, only to dismiss it as unimportant. What's important is how Schuldich reacts to seeing Ikida in the hallway. The telepath comes to a quick halt at the sight of his one ally and I turn to watch as they stare each other down.
"He is a powerful man," Ikida tells Schuldich. "You will learn a lot from him."
Schuldich says nothing, just stares at the doctor, and then reaches out to tangle both hands in the doctor's coat. The touch lasts only for a moment and then the telepath is drawing back and turning away, but I don't miss the way Ikida's expression softens at the gesture. Nor do I miss the warning in the look he sends my way.
I almost hope I'll find out what Ikida seems to think is so special about such an uneducated street rat, if only so that it'll make living with him more tolerable.
There's a crackle of disgust through my thoughts- Hoffmann's. Hoffmann has never liked the preference Ikida had for Schuldich, except that it meant that Schuldich was given the best care possible. I've heard many acid remarks from the empath regarding Ikida's interest in the telepath over the year that Schuldich has been here.
The doctors watch us go, but I have only just stepped out of the doorway when some of them start whispering. They share Chizuru's opinion that it's a waste of my time to deal with Schuldich- and yet, their medical opinions war with their faith in my power. They simply can't see how Schuldich could ever recover, and I have taken careful note of their doubt. Ikida's violent reaction to my request for Schwarz and the rest of the ward's disbelief just helps drive in how much work I have ahead of me. And I still don't know how or why it's all going to be worth it.
Schuldich gags on Rosenkreuz's air. I ignore the sound and instead turn to face him. He stumbles to a stop, lurching backwards to avoid running into me, and I lift my hand to press my index finger into the bottom of his chin. "This is Rosenkreuz," I tell him. "Breathe it in with your mouth and eyes. This is where you come from; this is where you belong. It will be many years before you have a chance see it again and you will never touch its grounds again if you learn what I want you to, but do not ever forget. Rosenkreuz owns your soul. You have simply loaned it out to me for the time being."
He says nothing, just stares back at me, and I turn his head. "Look," I order him, and he obediently lets his gaze drift over the distant fence and the scattered buildings. His eyes settle on the tower and he starts to shake again. "Can you feel them?" I ask.
He nods; his voiced answer is too hoarse to be intelligible.
"Good," I say. "I am glad to see that your gift is still intact enough to register location. We are leaving."
The car is at the gate and our driver opens my door for me, leaving Schuldich to his own devices. Schuldich hesitates beside one of the back doors, watching the way the driver inclines his head to me and listening to the respectful greeting the man offers. I look back at him and can see the unease a little too clearly in his eyes. He's wondering what he's just signed himself over to. While he knows I have to be better than Hoffmann, there is no guarantee that he will enjoy his time with me any more, and the way the doctors and this man are giving ground to me does nothing to settle his nerves.
"Get in," I tell him, and he soundlessly obeys.
The driver has nothing to say to us for the trip, though he does unload my suitcase for the trunk when we arrive at the airport. He hands over a passport for Schuldich to use and I dismiss him before turning the booklet over to the telepath. He regards it with a blank look.
"Do not lose it," I tell him, and he just nods.
The airport is busy, but Rosenkreuz has someone working behind the counter who lets us through security without a wait. It did not take a former Council long to decide that such a thing was a necessary move; security lines are enough of a mess that they slow teams down. Schuldich doesn't miss the way we bypass the long lines to get back into the terminal, and I leave my suitcase with the contact and lead Schuldich towards our gate.
Ours is close to the entry point and I turn to look at Schuldich. He's looking a little white in the face as he stares around at the crowd, and I don't miss the glazed look in his eyes. "How is your mind?" I ask, and he just murmurs something. "When it comes to your gift, you are to speak bluntly with me," I tell him. "It is up to us to put your mind back into working order before your gift tears your sanity apart. Maybe you remember what your mind was like when we first crossed paths in Germany. If you do not want to go back to that, then you will have to be honest."
A small shudder runs through his thin frame. "Hurts," he whispers.
"We are going to China," I tell him. "Estet acquired a military base there but they have done nothing to it; there are eighty-seven square miles of uninhabited land. We will be staying there in the beginning and will slowly adapt you to crowds. If you feel at any point here in the airport or on the plane that you are going to lose it, then ask me for this." I pull a small bag out of my pocket and lift it to where he can see the single Athlon pill inside. "Do you understand?"
I already know that he will need it; I made sure to pack it when I first saw that he was going to lose it. The good thing about us leaving late is that it has put us here in the airport much closer to our departure time, so he has the chance to make it on the plane before his mind short circuits. I had originally been planning to feed him something here, since I know he has not yet eaten today, but his mental sickness will save me the trouble.
Schuldich starts to freak out with just three minutes left to boarding time. I am feigning to ignore him in favor of watching the crowd, but I carefully monitor the way he slowly unravels. First his breathing quickens, then he can't stay standing any longer, and lastly I see his fingernails tearing shreds down his arms. He's attracting attention from the passer-bys, but I wave them off when they flick him concerned looks.
"Herr…" he starts, but he does not know what to call me. It seems he has already forgotten my name; I know I told it to him before I went to rendezvous with Manie. I glance Schuldich's way, but his eyes are squeezed tightly closed. The overhead speaker announces that we are about to begin boarding. "I need it. I can't-"
"We are getting on the plane in a moment," I tell him.
It doesn't take him but a second to figure out that I want him to wait until he's seated, and green eyes fly open. At the counter, the announcer hesitates, then says, "Will seats 3A and 3B please board?"
I know without having to check that those are our seats, and I send Schuldich a sidelong glance as he struggles to his feet. He doesn't wait on me but hurries over to the counter, displaying his ticket for the man to check. I follow at a less rushed pace, and Schuldich is hunched over in his seat when I board. I motion to a stewardess and ask for a glass of water, and she pours it from a pitcher while I take my spot beside my charge.
"I see your mother taught you a few things before she died," I say.
"Nnnn," is his response. The stewardess hands a plastic cup of water over to me and I give it to him before handing over the pill. He swallows his medicine dry and washes it down with his drink, and I send the attendant away with the simple explanation that it's just pre-flight nerves. She accepts it with a sympathetic smile and turns her attention to the next set of boarding passengers.
The Athlon works faster than I expected it to; for a moment I think it is a fact-acting poison, it hits Schuldich's bloodstream so fast. He's slumped against the window, unconscious, in less than a minute. I make a note of this and reach around him to tug his buckle into place. The other passengers are noisy as they get on and they're speaking a variety of languages. German is the most prominent, but I detect French and Italian as well. I think I hear English, but it's quickly forgotten as two women draw near.
Liquid words fall from their lips in a language I have not heard spoken in over a year and a half, and I glance towards them. A few of the people they are passing are also looking, stares unashamedly curious, but I can follow the conversation whereas no one else on board can. It's Japanese, one of the two languages I was assigned when I was moved to China. Hearing it is enough; again I see that boy's face that I saw with Manie, but this time I can hear his words.
He's not speaking German- he's speaking Japanese: "What makes me think I'm supposed to trust you?"
The ladies continue on down the aisle and I pull out my planner, making a note to find a way to keep my Japanese in good shape. I will have to train Schuldich in it as well, but to do that I will have to order books off the internet. The only books I'm likely to find in China for Japanese will be from one of the local languages, and Schuldich is going to need to learn it from German.
I find it convenient that my Japanese is already fluent, though I've been with Rosenkreuz far too long to think it's luck. I am my mother's son, after all, and there was no one she liked watching more than me.
There is a car waiting for us at the airport, rented and left by one of China's units. It is a trick getting Schuldich to the car; the flight was not long enough for him to sleep off the effects of the Athlon. In the end I request a wheelchair, and he and I are the last two off the plane. Airport workers help get him off the plane and into the chair, and I pay a man to roll him to baggage claim for me. My suitcase goes in the trunk and we stick Schuldich in the backseat, and the man offers the telepath one last strange look before taking his tip money and the wheelchair and heading back inside.
Our new residence has been somewhat fixed up for the two of us; I placed an order with the same team that rented our car and they moved furniture and appliances in weeks ago. That leaves me with just the food to buy, and I find a department store and leave Schuldich in the car. He will not wake up before I get back, so I do not bother to rush and instead take my time picking out our groceries. The food is familiar and I try to squish the useless feeling of relief at seeing certain meals again. It seems Rosenkreuz made me more claustrophobic than I had suspected.
I know Schuldich's measurements, so I go ahead and purchase a few outfits for him as well. Schuldich is still passed out when I return to the car, and the long ride out to the base is quiet without him to bother me. I glance at my watch as I pull up to the officer's house we will be using and make a note of how much time has passed. The groceries are brought in first and neatly put away, and I take his clothes and my suitcase in second and stop for a self-guided tour of the house on the way back to the car.
I stand beside the vehicle for a minute, gazing in at my new partner, as I debate whether to leave him there or bring him with me. In the end I pull him out and lift him, and he's too light to be healthy.
"She's dead," Future-Schuldich says, sounding flat.
"She who?" I ask his unconscious form.
"You're lying," a thick voice says back.
"I am not going to make a habit out of carrying you," I tell Schuldich as I tote him inside. "This is the one and only time I will allow such a trigger. You were given two legs for a reason."
His deep breathing is my only answer, and I set him on his bed and step back to look at him. Another glance at my watch and I remember to note the elapsed time in my planner.
The next step is to place a call to Rosenkreuz, and Hoffmann picks up on the third ring. "Herr Hoffmann," I greet.
"Oracle," he drawls in return. "I suppose this means your plane didn't crash in a tragic fireball."
"No, Herr Hoffmann. We have arrived safely and are at the base."
"I feel my stomach churn when you use that word."
"Base, Herr Hoffmann?"
"We," he answers.
"Would it be more appropriate to refer to myself and my teammate as Schwarz, Councilman?"
"It would be better if he was just dead," Hoffmann answers easily, "but that decision was taken out of my hands by your mother. As she is dead now, I am sure you are pleased to bear the brunt of my disgust and annoyance."
"I am afraid I only know of my own connections to the child, Herr Hoffmann."
"Child," he says with a snort. "He is only six years younger than you are."
I do the math and make a note in my planner. This short, ragged youth is sixteen now. He certainly doesn't look it. I make another note with a small frown. Hoffmann was sixteen when Schuldich was born; maybe that helped fuel some of his resentment towards the child. He has already admitted- though not in so many words- that his sister was very important to him. Her shields shattered and she was married off and moved away to breed children, and by the time Schuldich was born in his sixteenth year, he had already lost his sister's attention for good.
It seems ridiculous, considering his strength as an empath, but then, Hoffmann is human. Or he was at some point, rather. There's no telling what he is now.
"Keep us updated," Hoffmann says.
"Yes, Herr Hoffmann."
He hangs up before I can get the "mann" out, and I slip my phone back into my pocket and head downstairs. I make dinner for myself and sit at the table with Schuldich's files when my dishes have been cleaned and put away. Outside it's dark, but my internal clock insists that it's not supposed to be quite so late. I have a feeling I will be waking up early tomorrow, and I follow that thought with a heartbeat of silence, waiting to see if any visions warn me against sleeping. Nothing pops up to say that Schuldich will make a run for it if I rest. I'll worry about the why of it later, if I remember to. It doesn't matter much. It could be fear of Rosenkreuz's retribution, it could be fear of his mind falling apart, it could be a number of things. All that matters is that he's going to stay.
Schuldich is still asleep when I retire for the night. My gift and the creak of his foot on the floor wake me up just a few hours later, but I do not stir where I lie on my bed. Through slit eyes I see him where he stands in the doorway, watching me. He stays there for several minutes before vanishing and I hear his steps on the stairs as he goes to explore the house. I am asleep again before he has even reached the bottom step, and when the morning comes, I will find him dozing at the kitchen table.
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