Part Twelve

    Today is...?


    Did I say that aloud...?

    "Yes, you did. Yokatta."

    A faint frown pulls at my lips and I struggle to open my eyes. It takes a while for everything to come into focus around me. For several moments all I see are blurred white walls around me with a dark smudge beside me. The image slowly sharpens until I am gazing up at Ikida's face. He has dark circles under his eyes as if he hasn't been sleeping...Not that I care. It just looks like someone decked him on each eye. It looks ugly against his pale skin, and I don't appreciate it being the first thing I see. I close my eyes again.

    Where the hell...?

    This is not our headquarters. We don't have such stark white walls, and Ikida would never be at our place. So why am I here...?

    "I was beginning to think Hoffmann-sama had gone too far," Ikida says, relief coloring his voice. "Sometimes he gets a bit carried away when he is playing."


    Memory hits like a baseball bat to the face and I scramble into a sitting position. The world lurches before me and my stomach turns. I am gagging and I dimly acknowledge that there is a hand holding my bangs out of my face and a small bowl is positioned under my mouth. Stomach acid floods my mouth and I almost choke on it. My stomach is empty; there is nothing to throw up.

    ~"Mastermind...Open your eyes and look me in the face."~

    I try to claw free of the voice that hisses through my mind and twist away from Ikida's grip. I feel another set of hands grabbing my shoulder. "Don't," I say, gasping at the pain their contact causes. "Don't touch me-!" But they won't let go and they're pushing me against the bed. I struggle against them but it is hard to resist when my entire body is pulsing with pain from lingering wounds Hoffmann inflicted on me.

    ~"That's an order."~

    "Schuldich-san!" someone cries, and I feel the prick of a needle in my upper arm. "Stop moving! You'll aggravate the wounds!"

    "Don't touch me!!" I can't even see Ikida or his assistant. I can feel fingers curling on my chin, tightening against my flesh. Hoffmann whispers in my ear, quiet and amused. And then he is tipping my head up, issuing the command for me to leave my eyes open. Our eyes meet and all I can see is icy blue burning into me as Hoffmann shreds my soul with his power.


    Memory is crushed by the black of oblivion as the medication kicks in.


    When I wake again I am on my side, gazing at Ikida once more. He is sitting in a chair a few feet away from my bed. We gaze at each other in silence. Finally Ikida clears his throat, folding his arms over his chest. "Good morning, Schuldich-san. Are you coherent now?"

    I try to manage an intelligible response, but I'm not awake enough to get out more than "Mmm."

    "You have now been under our care for four days," he tells me. "You were brought in Tuesday and remained unconscious until yesterday. We had to administer Athlon because you seemed to be displaying signs of hysteria." I say nothing. Ikida rubs at his temples. He looks worse today than he did yesterday. "You have sustained some damage from your meeting with Hoffmann, but most of it will heal itself over the next few days. You have been healing rapidly already. Most of what remains are burns and bruises. For a while we thought you had severely injured your larynx. You relieved that fear when you spoke yesterday."

    Since Hoffmann didn't touch my throat, I will assume that I would have ruined my voice in my reaction to the pain he caused. How strange to imagine that you can damage your vocal cords beyond repair by screaming.

    I blink slowly. There's not much else I can do. I'm still feeling drugged. How much Athlon did they give me? My brain is all fuzzy, and I can't hear Ikida's thoughts.

    "Your teammate will be by later," Ikida says. "He has come a few times every day to watch over you, and I informed him of your vocal progress yesterday."

    The teammate he's referring to sure as hell isn't Adashi. I feel my lips twitch into a tired grin. It's obvious which one of my teammates made the trip, though I don't know if the visits were made out of concern, interest, or the need to get away from the dumb fuck that is our fourth...Nagi is such a strange boy. I sincerely hope he secured Farfarello properly before visiting. I am going to need a break before I even deal with Farfarello and Adashi's feud, and I don't think I would be able to take it if Farfarello were to let loose on our fourth. I need some recovery time before I see Hoffmann again. Like...eight lifetimes.

    "Sleep, Schuldich-san," Ikida says, and I realize my eyes are sliding closed. "It is the best medicine, after all."


    By that evening I am wide awake and restless enough to want to get out of bed. Ikida has several assistants with him now. From their thoughts and my annoyed questions at their endless worrying I devised that Ikida called them in for emergency measures. Two were brought in for Crawford's illness. Four were brought in for me. Apparently I was pretty damaged when I arrived here. Ikida informed me that all of Estet has been breathing down his neck to watch my recovery. Telepaths are hard to come by these days, and as Estet's strongest, well...Ikida says even Hoffmann knows he went too far.

    It's what I get for being the most fun to play with, I suppose.

    Sadistic German bastard.

    I gesture for the nurse to get her hands away from me. "I don't need your help," I tell her for the umpteenth time. I have seven people watching me as I struggle to slide off of the bed. My feet touch the ground and I push myself from the mattress.

    My legs buckle beneath me and four pairs of hands instantly grab at me, even though I am only falling back onto the mattress. A flat look directed at the assistants makes them release me, and I try again. This time I sway but manage to stay up. One idiotic nurse claps gleefully.

    I take a few slow and measured steps forward. The assistants make way for me.

    I am a little dizzy by the time I reach the doorway and my entire body is throbbing with a deep pain. I force myself onwards, slowly picking my way towards the bathroom. The medical staff follows me, watching me carefully for any sign that I cannot take care of myself. I close the door behind me, sealing myself from them, and turn to face the mirror.

    I wince at my reflection, lifting a hand to trace my cheekbone. From my appearance it seems as if I have merely been in a scuffle with someone. There are a few large bruises here and there, and I can see bandages on the skin that shows from the hospital gown I am dressed in. It is in my eyes that I can tell that it wasn't a physical beating I took. There is a haunted look in the backs of the twin jade pools that burn into me. I lift my fingers from the bruise on my cheekbone to rub at my forehead, sliding my eyes closed.

    It is over.

    Hoffmann is gone.

    These words are necessary to help quell the rising sense of nausea. I have taken my punishment for Farfarello's actions. Hopefully Farfarello will have a better grip on himself from now on. After all, Crawford will be evaluated soon. I consider this newest thought, counting up the days. Two days until Hoffmann passes judgement on Crawford.

    It is with some irritation that I admit to myself that I have no clue as to what state Crawford's in. I do not know anything about his situation. Granted, I had no chance to find out in the past several days, but before that...

    He doesn't want to see me, but I don't care. I need to know- right now- if he's made any improvement. I need to have an idea as to what is going to happen when Hoffmann visits him in two days. I need to get an estimate as to how long Schwarz is going to be without its rightful leader. I need to see him.

    Need and want often run along parallel lines.

    I push the door open. The assistants are milling around, waiting on me. Don't they have anything better to do? Carefully measured steps carry me past them, towards Crawford's room. I am halfway there when they quit following me. Ikida has stopped them and is keeping them back. I ignore them, pushing open Crawford's door.

    A bandage goes across Crawford's eyes, taped in place to keep them shut. A vast assortment of machinery hums quietly as background music. IVs trail all over the place and there is a mask over his mouth and nose. It seems there is a tube leading from his mask to slide down his throat, but I have no interest in looking harder to see if that is true. His chest rises and falls slowly and evenly as a machine breathes for him. The sheet is pulled up to his armpits and his arms rest on top of it. The flimsy hospital gown looks a little silly on someone who usually dresses in a suit. He is pale but he looks clean...I suppose the staff washes him.

    I consider this for a moment, fingering my own hair. It isn't dirty. Apparently they cleaned me, too.

    My attention returns to Crawford as I cross the room towards his bed. There is a chair to one side and I settle my weary body into it. Jade eyes study Crawford's still form.

    It is a sad, pathetic sight.

    "You're not looking any better," I tell him, words falling softly into the room.

    ~I didn't think so, either.~

    A sick sort of warmth brushes against my mind at his ready response. I had forgotten for a moment that he is fully conscious and functional. His quiet voice is welcome after Adashi's loud tirades. I rub a hand across my eyes, giving a heavy sigh and leaning backwards further in the chair.

    ~You took down the bond between Schwarz,~ Crawford says.

    "Hm," I answer noncommitally, restringing the ties within our group now that he's pointed out the absence of the links. Three consciousnesses brush against mine when I finish. I hear a muted but startled reaction from Nagi's end as he feels my presence seep into the background of his thoughts.

    ~Schuldich...~ Nagi greets. ~Ikida called earlier to say I could expect you to be alert by tonight.~

    Before I can come up with a response- not that he is really expecting one-, Crawford speaks again. ~Nagi said you had a visit with Hoffmann.~ I hesitate, and Crawford continues. ~He has been coming by here to check on you and he told me what happened with Farfarello.~

    I shrug, as if he could actually see it. /Adashi had it coming to him./

    ~You have to be more careful, Schuldich.~

    /I think even you would have hit Adashi. I can't blame Farfarello for it. Even Nagi wanted to take the empath out, and when Nagi actually wants to take his power to someone-/

    ~Schuldich,~ Crawford says, more firmly. ~Do not give Hoffmann a reason to take notice of you. If that means leaving Farfarello behind on jobs, do it.~

    I blink at him. /Leave Farfarello behind? Adashi's not even supposed to be on our team, and he's useless. I don't see the point of handicapping our team for him. Besides, that's what he wants. He wants Farfarello as far away from him as possible./

    ~Do not catch Hoffmann's attention anymore.~

    The track this conversation has taken is bothering me, but I cannot lay my finger on what is wrong. Instead of trying to decide what about it makes me uneasy, I change to a safer topic. /Adashi will go away when you're better. How much longer is Ikida predicting?/

    ~He is making no predictions. He is concentrating on the present and will save his guesswork for the evaluation.~

    /That's not a good enough answer,/ I tell Crawford. /I want to know _now_ if you've made any progress./

    ~You never were very patient,~ he muses.

    I feel my lips twitch but the beginnings of a grin is swallowed up as I yawn loudly. Silence falls between us. There is nothing we need to say. I take a small amount of comfort in Crawford's presence. He is alive and mentally coherent, which to me signifies hope that Adashi will be leaving our group soon. He isn't much fun to look at, though, not with all of those medical doomyfloggits threading all over the place. In my mind I replace him with an image of how he used to be. The vision that I conjure starts as him in one of his suits, but the finery gives way until I am seeing him like I saw him the morning he first fell ill: peaceful and sleeping, chest bared and blanket down around his waist.

    Perhaps it is safer to stick with reality...

    I eye Crawford for a moment, then reach out and poke at his hand. /Can you feel that?/ I ask. If Ikida won't make an assessment of Crawford's situation, I have to come up with something to help my peace of mind.

    ~I feel nothing.~

    I pick up his hand by pulling on his index finger and let go when it is a short distance above the mattress. It flops bonelessly back to the sheet. It's interesting in a gross way. I do it again, expecting Crawford to reprimand me for playing with him. He says nothing, even when I drop his hand several more times. I sigh quietly, raking my bangs out of my face.

    He isn't commenting on my game because he cannot feel what I am doing.

    That realization takes the fun out of it, and I fold my arms over my chest. He's been like this for almost two weeks...Where is the guarantee that he'll magically get better in the next thirty-six odd hours? It's disheartening and I chew on my bottom lip for a few moments as I consider the heavy implications behind Crawford's still immobile state.

    Luckily for me, deep thought is growing to be impossible. My ventures around Ikida's work station have thoroughly exhausted me.

    I do not want to make the trip all the way back to my room...I'm lazy and tired, and at the moment, it seems like a very long walk. I burrow further into the back of the chair I am sitting on, letting my eyes slide closed. Sleep descends rapidly despite the fact that the chair isn't very comfortable.


    Ikida isn't going to release me for another eight hours. I swear he's being a worrywart. I can walk as well as I used to. The dizziness that accompanies too much moving will fade in a little bit, as will the headaches and nausea. He's pretty adament about it, though, talking about the risks involved with me going out in my state. He argues as if he's expecting a protest from me.

    I don't put up much of a verbal fight, though. If he wants to keep me here for medical reasons, I'll stay. It's not my health in mind, but the disgust at the idea of going back to where I have to put up with Adashi. Crawford can keep me company- or is it vice versa?

    "Look, Crawford," I announce when an assistant pushes the door open. They don't trust me to come back if I leave to fetch coffee, and I refuse to drink that sewage that the cafe serves, so one of the women went out to buy some from a coffee shop down the street. I take the styrofoam cup from her and turn to face Crawford's still form. "Coffee. Want some?"

    ~I'm trying to cut back,~ he answers dryly.

    I smirk, sipping at my hot drink. "I could always inject it into your IV," I tell him, yawning and taking another sip. Not bad...It's not as good as the kind we have at home, but it'll do. I drum my fingertips on the rim idly. Crawford told me earlier that Nagi came by last night but didn't stay long. I think Crawford said his excuse was that he didn't want to wake me. Personally, I think he doesn't like seeing Crawford in his current state.

    I am feeling alive today. Perhaps it is due to the coffee. Perhaps it is because I am recovering quickly from Hoffmann's punishment. Perhaps it is because I am dressed in something other than a hospital gown. While I don't like the suit very much, it's better than wearing that flimsy piece of cotton.

    I sip at my coffee, sliding one hand into my pocket. My fingers encounter something hard and I pull it out, curious.

    It is the glass figurine. I had forgotten about it. I'm not even sure why I picked it up.

    "I hope you don't think that we're going to keep wearing suits when you return to your position," I tell Crawford, toying with the glass head. "Farfarello mutilated his, anyway. He tore it up when he went to fight the would-be ambushers because it was getting in his way." Adashi had been furious, not that any of us cared. I _had_ warned him.

    Nagi told Crawford everything about the mission while I was down and out and I choose to fill up Crawford's time now by telling him more about his replacement. Nagi did not go into many details of Adashi's character with our fallen American, but I have no qualms with laying out every single one of the man's faults. Maybe I need to stay here more than eight hours. This could take a while.

    And so I talk, and Crawford listens without interruption. It's strange to me, to sit here and talk and have Crawford as an audience. Usually I don't have that much to say to him. Usually he has better things to do than to listen to me talk. Here, however, in the world of his sickness, Crawford has no other way to pass the time. Six years of working together, and this is the longest we have ever spoken to each other.

    The conversation keeps from going sour when I find other things to talk about than Adashi- just random subjects that flick in and out of my brain. Often silence falls between us, comfortable and light. I send the assistants for more coffee a few times and we just sit- or lay- in silence, two men who have nothing better to do.

    I am feeling alive today.

    Perhaps it is the company.

Part 13