Takatori, predictably, does not take the news well.
The three of them- our other teammates and the fat man- are all in his office. The elevator carries us to the appropriate floor quickly and I step out as soon as the door has opened, quick strides carrying me towards his room. Farfarello follows easily, playing with his knife in silence. He and I haven’t said another word to each other. I have absolutely nothing at all to say to him and it’s all I can do to keep from kicking the shit out of him.
Takatori’s secretary has gone home for the night. I shove the door to his office open, not bothering to knock and not trying to be quiet. Takatori turns at the bang of his door connecting with the wall, propping his golf club against his shoulder, and glowers when he sees who has just showed up. Apparently I’ve interrupted his game. I ignore him, eyes flicking past him to where Crawford is standing against the wall.
The instant our eyes meet, I know he knows.
In that moment, I hate him even more than I’m hating Farfarello. Something ugly twists on my face; a dark scowl curls my lips and I let him see it in my eyes. Nagi sends me a mental inquiry, startled by such an eat shit and die look. I ignore Nagi, keeping my eyes locked with Crawford. His gaze shows no remorse, no interest, even, for what’s just happened.
“What do you think you’re doing, storming in here like that?” Takatori demands.
I ignore him for a moment, fighting a silent battle with Crawford. Takatori looks his direction when I have no immediate answer, but Crawford is looking at me. Nagi looks up at Crawford, then over at Farfarello. For a few moments, hostile silence cloaks the room. Finally Crawford speaks, but all he has to say is, “Schuldich?”
“Keh!” A sharp pain- disappointment, perhaps. Disappointment in how much has changed. Or maybe it’s just my arm. I give an irritated toss of my head and stalk over towards the windows. The blinds are pushed aside on one of the great panes and I stare out, gazing out at the city beyond. The city is still alive even so late at night… I’m dimly aware of Farfarello moving up beside me. He pulls my gun out of his pocket, empties the clip into his hand, and offers the weapon to me. I almost take his fingers off when I snatch it away, and I offer him a murderous look before turning back to Takatori. Farfarello tucks the clip into his pocket once more, unbothered by my animosity towards him.
“Ouka was killed,” I say at last.
It takes a few moments for the words to actually register in Takatori’s mind. He just stares at me in blank silence for a while before taking a step forward. “What did you say?” he demands.
I give him an irritated look, too off-balance from how my nice little evening has been thrown out of whack to guard the expression. I push my jacket aside, shoving my gun back into the harness I was wearing tonight. “I said Ouka got killed,” I say, knowing he heard me but repeating it just for his benefit. I wish I could enjoy this moment, wish I could enjoy the dawning horror and denial and pain. He starts towards me, walking with stumbling little steps. I wish I could just be hysterically happy that Ouka is dead. But when you’re Schwarz’s scapegoat and you’ve fucked up twice in two days on Estet’s and the Council’s highest priority client, there’s nothing funny about this. “Killed as in she’s no longer with us, as in she’s dead and she’s not coming back. Not breathing, not talking, not walking that fucking pathetic dog-”
“You’re lying,” Takatori bites out.
Farfarello smiles, an eerie, hungry expression. “Is he?” he asks.
Takatori looks at him, just stares at him for a long moment. Then he looks back at me. I stare back in silence. I watch it in his expression, watch his denial fade as the blood drains from his face. He’s close enough to me now that I can see the small tremors start on his body, a mix of both grief and fury. He looks at both of us and his thoughts rip through me, dismayed and hateful and crazed in his utter loss. The silence stretches on; past him Nagi watches in silence, his thoughts quietly turning over what Ouka’s death could mean.
“I’m not lying,” I say at last.
I don’t hear the attack coming. It’s such a primal move, such a furious and spontaneous action that there’s no thought to warn me. And even as I see the golf club arching around, I don’t realize he really is aiming to hit me until it’s too late to dodge. It catches me on the right side of my face, metal hitting skin in an explosion of fire. I go stumbling sideways into Farfarello, my hand flying up to cover my cheek as I stare at Takatori in stunned disbelief. Blood trickles lightly over my fingers and I can taste it on my tongue; he hit me right where Hoffmann scratched my face up and I’ve bitten the inside of my mouth hard. It’s a wonder my jaw is still intact.
“You son of a bitch…” I say, pushing off of Farfarello. He did _not_.
~Schuldich, stand down.~
I send Crawford an acid glare. Nagi has taken a step forward; Crawford’s arm is out to keep him from taking another. Honey and emerald meet and lock across the room, cool indifference warring with hateful rage. /Fuck you./
~Don’t touch him.~
The club catches me on my shoulder, knocking me down to my knees. White numbness spreads to the tips of my fingers on that arm and I ignore the burning of my bad arm, moving my hand to clench my fingers around my upper arm. Farfarello takes a step forward and a strike from Takatori’s nine iron brings him down alongside me. The pain doesn’t bother him; neither does being beaten with a piece of sports equipment, apparently. He just offers Takatori a bland expression, readjusting himself to get comfortable. I glower up at Takatori, offering him a baleful expression.
He dares to hit me…
~Stand down.~ It’s Crawford again.
/Make me,/ I snarl back, shifting to get to my feet.
~Crawford-~ Nagi starts.
~You will,~ Crawford says flatly.
My jaw might shatter, my teeth are clenched so hard. I have no feeling in my left arm and my face is on fire. I glare up at Takatori and he glares back; it’s a silent battle of hatred. I can hear his ragged breathing as he struggles to control himself.
~You will,~ Crawford’s voice is firm, as if he’s absolutely positive I’m going to obey him, ~not. Touch. Him.~
I feel…betrayed. It’s an ugly, sharp emotion, twisting in my chest and stomach. It makes me nauseous and finally I lower my eyes from Takatori, looking past him to a point on the far wall. Is this what the Council made you into, Crawford…? Did they take away your interest in me as a lover or did they take away your ability to look out for your own goddamned team? Is this what you want? Is this what you want to see, me kneeling here before this fat man, kneeling and allowing myself to be punished for something that wasn’t my fault? I faced them down for you. I’ve offered myself to pain and death for you… And you can’t even care enough about this.
I would laugh, but I feel too numb to.
Takatori takes my averted gaze as some sort of signal, and the control he was searching for is abandoned. I hear him suck in a small breath, hear the whistle as the club goes flying through the air. It hits me across my face again, left side this time, hard enough that I do a little flip and end up sprawled on my stomach. I let it send me flying; resisting a blow like that will just get my skull destroyed. I can’t breathe; it feels like my head is splintered in several places. I’ve landed on my bad arm, too, the weight nearly crushing against the burns. I suck in a deep breath, forcing myself up, pushing myself up on my arms enough to look up at Takatori.
He points his golf club at me, and it’s shaking from his unsteady hands. “Why? Why did you kill Ouka? Ouka was… Ouka was more precious than anything. She was my cherished jewel!” I don’t have the strength to be disgusted with his words. I never actually said we were the ones that killed her, but I guess the gun Farfarello gave me told him something. His eyes narrow and his lips pull back in an ugly scowl. “You damn fools!”
My fingers clench in the carpet as the club comes swinging down again. He catches me in the back this time, hitting me right beneath my shoulder blades. It knocks the air from my lungs and I grit my teeth to keep from making a sound. On the return swing Takatori crashes his impromptu weapon against Farfarello’s shoulders. My teammate barely flinches under the hit and Takatori swings again.
~Crawford, make him _stop_!~
Crawford has nothing to say to Nagi. I don’t have the words to describe what it feels like to have a metal golf club cracked into your back by a cruel, grieving father. It’s not anywhere near as bad as some of the things Hoffmann has done to me but it definitely lands harder than anything Nagi’s ever hit me with. The difference is that Nagi never intends to do any lasting harm. Takatori doesn’t care. I feel something give as the club hits me in the back again and then it arcs away to find Farfarello.
He hits my face again and my vision flashes black. It knocks my head to one side and then back, and through the sparkles dancing before my eyes I see Takatori’s club come to a sudden halt midair. Crawford reaches out and takes hold of it, fingers curling around it. He and Nagi are both behind the prime minister to be now, and the look Nagi is turning on Takatori could chill hell. I lower my head back to the carpet, fighting to breathe and stay conscious. Feeling is slowly coming back to the arm he hit, and I can feel too much from the other one. I can’t hear anyone’s thoughts through the roaring in my head. I can dimly hear Crawford as he and Takatori talk. I let the words turn into a jumbled mess in the background. I don’t care enough to know what they’re saying.
I don’t really remember how we get back to Takatori’s place. I swim in and out of consciousness, neither one a respite from the white noise set on full volume that’s filled my skull. My back is alternating between being on fire and going numb. I don’t remember leaving his office… I dimly recall trying to get to my feet. That’s the last thing I can remember. When I wake up again, I’m stretched out on my bed on my stomach. It’s still night out; only darkness filters through my window where the curtains are thrown wide open. Every breath hurts… With every breath it feels like my skull is expanding and breaking into pieces. With every breath my back burns. My burned arm is throbbing hotly and while I have feeling in the other one, the dull pain in my shoulder reminds me that it took some damage.
Something shifts in the darkness; I cannot hear who it is through the noise in my head. I crack my eyes open again and someone steps into my line of view. It’s Nagi. Wonder why I thought it would be anyone else. He’s on his knees beside my bed, arms folded on the mattress as he stares over at me. “Schuldich?” he asks softly.
In my mind, I see a golf club jerked to a stop before Crawford’s hand ever touched it.
He reaches out, touching the side of my face very, very carefully. “It’s swollen…” he tells me. “But Ikida doesn’t think anything is broken…”
I try to say something, though I’m not sure what, but I can’t get my mouth to respond. I just stare at him in silence. Nagi doesn’t seem bothered by the lack of conversation from me; either he understands that I can’t talk right now or he thinks I’m wallowing in black anger. It’d be the second if it was possible right now. Nagi looks over his shoulder, towards the doorway. “Ikida’s still here,” he tells me. “He is… not happy with Crawford.” He stares at the closed door for several more moments before turning back, reaching towards the ground and coming back with a small bottle of pills.
I know what those are. I watch him as he unscrews the lid and shakes one out. I manage to unclench my hand from the mattress and slide it towards him, ignoring the way moving sends pain shivering all the way up my arm and down my back. He meets me halfway, small fingers pressing the medicine into my palm. Before he lets go, he curls his smaller fingers tightly around mine. It hurts, but surprise over such physical contact helps me ignore the pain and I look up at him. Our eyes meet again, his dark eyes almost black without good light in my room.
“I wanted to kill him,” he says, his words barely a whisper.
He lets go and gets to his feet, turning away from me. I watch him as he crosses to the door. He opens the door only wide enough to squeeze out. The light that does filter in sends knives through my skull and I squeeze my eyes tightly shut against the harsh pain. Then the door clicks into place and I’m left alone again. I stare at the door for a few moments longer before sliding my hand towards my mouth. I swallow the Athlon dry, and soon enough I can feel everything melting away.
When I wake, I’ve slept most of the day away, and I take another Athlon to pass away the night. I pull myself out of bed halfway to noon the following day. I can’t stand up straight; I have to hunch my shoulders forward slightly. Careful steps take me towards the mirror and each one hurts. I make it to the mirror and hold onto the edge of my dresser as I try and straighten. My back makes a crackling noise and I wince at the sound, letting my body lean forward again. Baleful green eyes search my reflection. Nagi had said my face was swollen. There’s been time enough for the swelling to go down but my face is an ugly sight to see regardless. Vibrant purple colors both sides of my face, stretching from my cheekbone to my jaw in a misshapen blob. I reach up and gingerly touch my right side, fingers trailing over both the bruise and the scratches.
A dozen raw emotions burn hot in my chest. I turn away from my reflection. Aching fingers find my towel and I lock myself in my bathroom. I take a long shower, leaning against the wall when it starts hurting to stand. Steam curls around me as I stand under the hot spray. Moving hurts, so I take my time washing. When I’m done, I remain where I am. Fingers reach up to my face, moving over my cheeks. I press down, ignoring the pain of pressure against abused flesh. Ikida said nothing was broken, Nagi told me. What a fucking miracle. My skull should have been broken in ten places. I press harder, until I can feel bone. It seems to be all in one piece.
It hurts to breathe… I drop my hands to my ribcage, putting more weight against the wall, and reach behind me to brush the back of one hand against the spots that golf club hit me. I take a deep breath but have to stop before I can fill my lungs completely. As my lungs expand, fire laces through my back. I choke on my breath and cough, fingers going to the wall to keep me from falling down.
That fat fuck…took a nine iron to me.
I can’t believe it.
I don’t want to believe it.
It shouldn’t have happened…but it did. Because Crawford didn’t stop it. No. That club stopped before he touched it. Nagi stopped it. I can remember Nagi’s strained voice across the bond, trying to get Crawford to react, trying to get Crawford to intervene. I remember Crawford’s arm going out to stop him from taking another step forward. But most of all I see Nagi grabbing the club with his gift because Crawford wasn’t doing anything.
And it makes me nauseous to the pit of my soul.
I reach out and give the knobs a savage twist. The water cuts off and I ease myself out of the shower into a steamy bathroom. I reach out with my hand, wiping at the small mirror, and turn to try and get a look at my back. I peer over my shoulder at the mirror. The angle is wrong; the mirror is too high to show me the bruises. I can see the edge of purple stained skin, however, and I curl my lip back in disgust. I wrap my towel around my waist, twist the lock undone, and step into my room.
I’m not alone.
Crawford is standing by my bed, and I freeze in the doorway. I can’t believe he’s here, can’t believe he’s standing there after what’s happened. Cool honey brown eyes study my face before moving to my shoulders, perhaps studying the way I’m hunched forward. There is nothing in his face to apologize for what’s happened. I wonder why I expected it. At the same time, I’m furious that there’s nothing there. How dare he…
“Get out of my room.” The words are heated but low.
“We’re going to have a talk.”
“Get _out_ of my room.”
“We’re going to talk,” he says again. “Ouka is dead.”
“No shit,” I snarl, taking a step forward. “I was there when it happened, remember?” Crawford gestures and I look where he’s pointing. There’s an ice pack resting on top of my dresser. I don’t want it, not if he brought it. I ignore it, turning a baleful glare back on him. “Get out.”
“You knew that Farfarello was going to kill her,” I say, the acid words spilling out before Crawford can say anything else. I clench my fingers on the doorframe to the bathroom, ignoring the water that’s starting to turn chilly on my back, ignoring the pain. The pain doesn’t matter anymore; it’s buried under this anger, under this deep twisting fury. This…utter sense of betrayal. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you do anything to stop it? You saw it coming and you let it play out.”
“It was necessary,” he answers simply.
“You let him beat me, Crawford!” My hand snaps out, grabbing hold of the ice pack, and I hurl it at him. He catches it easily and turns slightly, setting it on my bed. “You just stood there and _watched_ as he took a fucking nine iron to me!” I gesture to my face. “You saw it coming. You let Farfarello leave the estate even though you knew he was going to kill Ouka. You let it happen, and you let me take the fall for it. Are you happy now, you fuck?”
“Happiness has nothing to do with it.”
“Get out of my room.” I stab my finger towards the door. “Get the fuck out. I don’t want to see you now. Get out before I hurt you.”
He starts towards the door- not because I want him to leave but probably because he realizes that the conversation he wants to have so badly isn’t going to happen. He can take his conversation and rot in hell. He doesn’t speak again until his hand is on the knob. “You have to trust me that this is all necessary,” he says simply.
“But I _don’t_,” I tell him.
That stops him. He says nothing for a long time; the only sound in the room is my ragged breathing. Finally he turns, slowly twisting to face me. His expression is smooth but his gaze is steady as he stares back at me. I meet his gaze, folding my arms over my chest. My burned arm protests but I give it a mental order to fuck itself. I take a deep breath and hold it, and an ugly silence fills the air. At last Crawford speaks. “Oh?”
“I don’t,” I say again, and I realize as I’m speaking that it’s the truth. The words burn my tongue, burn me straight down to my gut. I’ve trusted Crawford for so many years… We’ve had rough times but I always followed him. I’ve argued with him many times, but I’ve always been sure that he knew what he was doing, that he was doing the best for Schwarz. But right now… I don’t. I can’t. “Give me a reason to,” I tell him, and the hot anger has faded from the words. They’re no less intent, but they’re quieter. “Give me something to believe in.” He says nothing, merely studies me from across the room. “Give me a reason to believe in what you say, to believe that you’re in this for anyone but yourself.”
I don’t really expect anything else.
And then Crawford turns and lets himself out of the room. I stare at the closed door for a long time before slowly making my way towards my bed. That’s as far as my legs want to carry me…That’s as much as my back can handle. I sink down onto the mattress, curling up on my side. The anger has died and the pain has returned. Green eyes stare at the ice pack without seeing it for several minutes. Finally I reach out and take it, fingers curling over it carefully. I lift it to my face and close my eyes.
What has happened to my team…?
Hoffmann shows up sometime that afternoon. I’ve been in my room all day. Dressing took a long time, and after I finally managed to get some clothes on, I didn’t have the energy to do anything else. I’m dressed in jeans and the loosest shirt I own. When the Soul Shaker steps into my bedroom, I’m stretched out on my stomach in bed. I’ve had a lot of drugs… Nagi brought me everything we had in the medicine cabinet. I kicked him out after taking the bottles from him, telling him to go keep Ikida company at the hospital. He interpreted my words to be permission to see Tot again, and was rather surprised that I was sending him there when the last time we brought up Tot we’d been arguing about her. He didn’t protest but vanished. Crawford left not long afterwards; I felt his mind dim as he headed elsewhere. That leaves just me and Farfarello.
And Hoffmann, now.
“Herr Hoffmann,” I say. I can’t gather up the strength to be worried about this… I don’t have the strength to feel anything, not after that fight with Crawford. I’ve just been kind of numb since, wondering what’s happening to my team and what this means about our plans for the future. If I can’t trust Crawford, I can’t work with him, and we’re all going to die. We need to be a team, but now we’re completely splintered. Nagi’s still going to hit that point of Tot versus Schwarz. Farfarello is a wild card, a serious unknown. And Crawford and myself… It will take a lot, I think, to fix what has broken between us. I can’t even start imagining what it could take.
He crosses the room quietly, not bothering to close my door behind him, and stands beside my bed. I wonder if he wants me to sit up and face him. I don’t really feel like it. But he says nothing, merely reaches out and grabs hold of my shirt. I let him pull it up, let him tug it up to rest around my shoulders. He studies my back in silence, blue eyes taking in the ugly bruises and discolored patches that take up half of my back. He reaches out and his fingers are cold against my skin as he tests the skin. It hurts but I say nothing; I just keep my eyes fixed on the far wall.
“Sit up,” he says at last.
I push myself up. He moves back so I can sit on the edge of the bed, my legs dangling down the side. Fingers work at my shoulder, where a bruise and knot stick out. His eyes flick briefly to the burns on my other arm before he takes hold of my chin and tilts my head back. I stare through his chest, imagining the wall behind it, as he examines my face.
“A nine iron,” he says.
“Ja,” I answer.
“He took a nine iron to you.”
“He was upset,” I say back. My voice sounds tired. I think it’s from the drugs. In my peripheral vision I see Hoffmann’s mouth curl back in a snarl. That’s curious… Dull interest makes its way through the numbness that has chilled the rest of me. I study his mouth, green eyes focusing on the angry set to his lips. He says nothing, however. I force myself to speak, wondering why he isn’t chewing me out yet for letting Ouka die, wondering if he’ll just be angrier if I talk. “I couldn’t have stopped it.”
“I know.” The words surprise me. Fingers brush over my cheek and he tilts my head to one side, fingers combing through my hair as he tries to see if I was hit anywhere else on my head. He doesn’t say anything else, so I let him search in silence.
Finally he’s done, and he releases me. Without another word, he turns and leaves the room. I stare after his retreating back. He leaves the door open behind him, turning onto the rest of our hallway. There’s only one place he could be going… I push myself to my feet, forcing myself across the room. My lungs and back are burning by the time I reach the doorway, my entire body hurting from how quickly I forced myself to the door. I latch onto the doorframe, struggling for breath. Hoffmann is standing before Farfarello’s door, and he looks back at me when he hears me.
Don’t, I want to say, but I remember what happened the last time I said such a thing.
“Go back to bed.” Farfarello’s mind rolls against mine. He knows Hoffmann is here. He is mentally steeling himself against the empath. And as much as I hated him earlier, I don’t want him to have to deal with Hoffmann for what he did. “Mastermind. Go back to bed.”
“…Ja, Herr Hoffmann.”
I release the doorframe and move back into my room, shutting the door and locking it behind me. I retreat back to my bed. I reach out and touch Farfarello’s mind, a wordless brush to let him now that I’m still there. He’s regarding Hoffmann with wary defiance, his thoughts curled around dark emotions.
~Let go,~ Farfarello says across the bond.
And I rip him free from our mental link, throwing up every shield I have against his mind so I won’t have to hear.
I don’t realize I’ve fallen asleep until I wake up. The clock on my nightstand tells me I’ve been asleep for two hours, probably a result of both all of the medication and my body’s attempts to heal. Hoffmann is gone, long gone. I reach out, searching for Farfarello’s mind. On the way, I run against a second mind, a very familiar one. Blinking in surprise, I push myself up and carefully slide from the bed. Unsteady steps carry me towards the door. I slide the bolt free and let myself into the hall. I can hear two voices, conversing quietly, and I follow both the words and the tangling thoughts to the kitchen.
“Dia duit,” comes the cheerful greeting.
“Don’t spit that Irish crap at me,” I send back, leaning against the doorway. Farfarello looks over his shoulder at me. To his left, seated so that she’s facing the doorway, is Aine. Bright blue eyes study me across the room. She’s dressed in that humongous sweater still; in the weeks since we’ve seen her she hasn’t moved on to anything better.
She wiggles her fingers at me. “You look like crap, Mastermind.”
“So I’ve heard. What are you doing here?” Her thoughts melt against mine, tangling with Farfarello’s in my gift. They’re both thinking in alternating Irish Gaelic and English, and the lilting words and accents echo against each other. I pull Farfarello’s mind closer to me, restringing the bond between us. Aine gestures towards the coffee pot and I see that coffee is freshly brewed. It’s an odd time to drink coffee, at a quarter to four in the afternoon, but I start towards the pot anyway. I can feel them watching me, can feel their gazes taking in the way I have to walk.
“Herr Hoffmann told me to come,” Aine finally says. She lifts her own mug to her mouth, taking a sip. I pour myself a drink and ease myself over to the table, sitting down very, very carefully in one of the two empty chairs. The two Irish assassins study me, Farfarello with a smooth expression and Aine with that familiar smile curving her mouth. I ignore Aine for the briefest of moments, checking on my teammate’s mental status. The bitter thoughts and hateful rantings over Hoffmann have been tucked aside as Farfarello concentrates on Aine instead. He’s using her a distraction from what has happened, taking some bit of comfort in her presence.
Satisfied that Farfarello’s somewhat stable, I turn back to Aine. She feels my gift brush against her mind and she allows me to slide through her thoughts without protest. Hoffmann called her as he was leaving and told her to come here, told her to come visit Farfarello. How strange, how curious, that Hoffmann would first hurt my teammate and then think to call her in to help fix the mess. A light frown curves at my lips and I sip at my drink.
“Why?” I want to know.
She just smiles and lifts her shoulder in a shrug before looking towards Farfarello. He abandons staring at me to turn his yellow gaze back on her and they study each other for several moments in silence. Aine’s smile widens and she turns back to me, reaching out with her free hand to play with Farfarello’s fingerless black gloves. “Why don’t we do a bit of catching up?” she asks. “Apparently I’ve missed out on a lot of excitement. And maybe you can tell me why Takatori’s blowing up military bases, yes?”
My mug freezes halfway to my mouth for a second sip; green eyes stare at her in incomprehension. “Why he’s doing what?”
She blinks at me, surprised that I don’t know, and looks towards Farfarello. He gazes back at her in silence. She considers this for a moment before curling her fingers around one of Farfarello’s, and the look she turns back on me is amused even if her eyes are thoughtful. “I guess we really do have a lot to catch up on.”
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