Part Thirteen

    Our latest pool of silence is broken by a familiar mind breaking into my thoughts. A faint scowl skits across my face as I tilt my head in the direction of the door of Crawford's room. My displeasure is echoed in the mind that is coming towards me. I should have known that Adashi would be the one coming to pick me up. It's not like I have a car here with me, and the doctors probably told the empath that I'm not capable of making it from here to the bus station. Unless Nagi learned how to drive a car overnight, Adashi is the only one available to take me back to our headquarters.

    I briefly entertain the thought of Farfarello behind a steering wheel and snigger quietly to myself.

    /The dingy's here,/ I tell Crawford, just moments before the door is pushed open.

    Adashi stands in the doorway, a scowl curling his lips. I'd almost forgotten how ugly he was to look at, but I'm reminded now. He crosses his arms over his chest stiffly. "Are you ready?" he demands.

    Despite the scowl on his lips, cruel mockery dances in his eyes. Inside he is laughing at me, taunting me. He was witness to Hoffmann's punishment. I bet he orgasmed in pure delight at the pain I received. I really don't like him.

    I look from him to Crawford, wondering if I can somehow convince Adashi to just leave me here. I'm sure he wouldn't mind abandoning me. I much prefer the quiet of the hospital than the tension back at our flat. But then, someone's going to have to act as a medium between Adashi and my two teammates. He holds them in lower regard than he does me, if possible. I briefly wonder if he's used his gift on them. He wouldn't bother with Farfarello, not after realizing during our job that it doesn't affect Farfarello, but there's still Nagi...

    "Are you-" Adashi starts again, irritated by my less-than-instant response.

    "He may be a bit slow at times," Ikida speaks up from behind Adashi. "He is on medication still." Adashi looks over his shoulder at the doctor. Ikida's face is calm but his words are firm. "He is not yet fully healed. You will be patient with him, won't you?"

    It doesn't really sound like a question, and I feel a smirk ghost across my lips, there and gone again before Adashi looks back at me. "Ja," I answer when he returns his attention to me. "I am ready."

    Adashi makes a disparaging noise, beckoning for Ikida to step out of the way. The doctor moves but there is nothing submissive about his face as he watches Adashi coolly. After all, Ikida was never ordered to walk on eggshells with the empath. Ikida will only respect and listen to a select few: namely, Schwarz and the Council. Ikida is the Council's highest rated doctor. He does not need to fear Adashi retaliating at him for any lack of respect. Doctors with as much skill as Ikida are as valuable as those with high-rated Talents, so the Council would not take it well if Adashi were to hurt one of their prized men.

    I almost want Adashi to try something.

    Our fourth moves past Ikida without harming him, though. I move after him, pausing beside Ikida as the doctor hands me a small bottle of pills. ~Hoffmann-sama knows how to pick them, hm?~ he offers up in his thoughts.

    I smirk. /Most definitely./

    But soon I won't have to worry. Soon Adashi will leave us. All I have to do is wait, and be patient. Crawford said I never was one for patience, but I can try...Just a little bit longer, and Schwarz will be restored to what it once was, with its proper leader. Adashi will become nothing more than a memory to mock over coffee or dinner, if he's even worth remembering. We'll all be back in real clothes, and the routines we're so used to will return.

    I can be patient for that.

    Just a little bit longer...

    I glance over my shoulder, taking a last look at Crawford's unresponsive form.



    Adashi has plenty of things to say to me once we get to the car- _he_ drove MY car, I notice unhappily- none of them pleasant. What he says is a jumbled mix between taunts over my slip-up that landed me with Hoffmann and rude comments in general about how he had to come and get me. Apparently he's ordered Nagi to learn how to drive so he won't have to be inconvenienced in future trips to retrieve me.

    He speaks like one of us is going to mess up again, and it's not an implication I appreciate or care to hear. I am seriously considering Crawford's advice- or was it an order?- to leave Farfarello behind. Honestly, I know I wouldn't be able to survive if I had to meet up with Hoffmann again any time soon.

    I let his words roll over me, listening with half an ear in case he chooses to quiz me on what he's saying. My eyes are trained on the rearview mirror as I watch the skyscrapers' reflections moving across the glass. 'Objects in mirror are closer than they appear,' the mirror tells me.


    "Are you listening to me?"

    "Ja, Herr Adashi."

    "In Japanese, Mastermind," Adashi says flatly.

    "Yes, Adashi-san, I was listening."

    "Were you really?" He sneers over at me. "Or did the medicine dull your brain so that the world is hazy to you?"

    Count to ten. "I think I caught everything," I tell him, letting a thread of frustrated weariness edge my words. I rub at my forehead, acting like I'm trying to make it a subtle gesture. He puts my words and the rub together to decide that I'm still hurting and smirks at the windshield.

    He's such a dumbass, and I want to roll my eyes at the reflection that gazes back at me from the window. Years of living with and taunting Crawford taught me when that was not an appropriate response, however, so I push down the urge and let my eyes slide closed. It seems I am more tired than I thought...Either that or my body is going into a self-defense technique against Adashi, for his voice fades in the background as I fall asleep.

    I am woken up by a gentle hand on my shoulder. My eyes slide open, slowly focusing on Nagi's face. The car door is open and he is leaning over, one hand on me and the other on the side of the car. Adashi is nowhere to be seen. "Good afternoon, Schuldich," he greets. "I think your bed is a more comfortable place to take a nap."

    "My bed, maybe," I tell him, then pause to yawn loudly. "Crawford's bed, on the other hand..."

    "You gave up your bed of your own free will," he reminds me carelessly. "You don't really have the right to complain about it."

    I sigh. "Should've stayed in the hospital."

    "Crawford's chair was more comfortable?" he asks.

    Ah, that's right. He came in on the two of us after I had fallen asleep in Crawford's room. "Actually, no," I answer. "But when drugged with who knows how many gallons of Athlon, just about anything will do." I tilt my head to one side. "Be useful, Nagi."

    He gives a quiet sigh and a small shake of his head, and the buckle slides away from me. "You cannot do anything for yourself, can you?" he asks. I smirk, letting him pull me from the car. He's careful not to steer me into hitting anything and sets me on my feet. "That's as much as I'll do for you," he says.

    "Lazy," I gripe at him.

    He gives me a Look.

    I set off towards the front door. Nagi follows. I reach out with my mind, locating my missing teammate. He's in his room. Judging from his thoughts he was ordered to stay there by Nagi when my car arrived at the flat. /Behaving, Farf?/ I ask, stretching the thought across the bond.

    ~Men have different ideas of what it is to behave,~ he answers simply.

    ~Farfarello has been fully restrained since you were taken into the hospital,~ Nagi says, a more helpful response than Farfarello. It is not a response I expected, though. 'Restrained', yes, but 'fully restrained'... The implications of that mean that Farfarello has not been loose in the almost-week I was in the hospital.

    /And Adashi?/

    Nagi gives a slight shrug. ~He has been himself.~

    ~He sulks because he can only play with one of us,~ Farfarello says.

    Farfarello's words are a hint, and I look down at Nagi when we reach the door. I stick out an arm, blocking Nagi's way when he is about to walk inside. Nagi glances up at me with an expressionless face. We gaze at each other in silence for a long moment. Nagi breaks the stillness by looking away and gesturing inside. "You should be resting some more, Schuldich."

    There is a shift in Farfarello's mind that I look into. Nagi has just used his gift to shove Farfarello against the wall- a warning.

    That man, that intruder into our flat, used his gift on Nagi when I was down and out.

    Count to ten.

    Do it again, because the first time didn't help.

    "Schuldich," Nagi says, looking back up at me. His eyes tell me not to speak of Adashi to him. Tell, or ask? "It's cold out here." With that, he uses his gift and moves my arm out of the way. He pads inside and I follow, closing the door behind us.

    I open my mouth, as if to say something, but close it again. Careful, Schuldich. Someone might think you actually care.

    Nagi has paused beside the den and is gazing in, mentally going everything he has to do tonight. He has a large report he has to do for his history class. He's checking off his sources as he debates what step comes next. I do not realize I am moving until I am passing him. As I go, I reach out, raking my fingers through his hair. The gesture surprises both of us, though his expression does not change from its impassive mask and my smooth expression doesn't budge.

    Tomorrow, Crawford. Tomorrow.

    You have to pass your evaluation.


    It isn't until the next morning that I realize the glass figurine isn't in my jacket. A faint frown traces my lips as I look around the dim room. I am dressed in jeans and a cut-off tee-shirt, crouching over the pile that is my white suit from the previous day. Adashi will not be up for another few hours, the lazy bum, so I am not worried about my clothes. I am currently looking for anything valuable I might have left in my jacket's pockets, and for some reason I remember that the figurine is supposed to be in here.

    It's not.

    I sigh, tossing the jacket aside and straightening. I stretch, raking bangs out of my face impatiently, and remind myself that I need to get something to hold them out of the way. I move over to Crawford's dresser and find my discarded shoes near it. I wriggle my socked feet into them as I search the top of the dresser. My fingers find my keys and wallet, and I shove them in my pocket.

    It's time for some coffee.

    I pad down the hall, shoes clicking softly against the hard floor. I step into the kitchen and pull down two travel mugs. I fill them both with the brewed coffee and turn the pot off. I shove the lids on and carry both mugs out of the flat with me, locking the door behind me. The mugs are placed in the cup holders between the two front seats of my car, and I turn my keys in the ignition. It hums to life and I pull away from the curb, turning the car towards the city.

    I flick the radio on, changing stations until commercials are replaced by a real song. I don't recognize it, but that doesn't matter. I don't bother to cover a yawn as I make my way through the city towards the hospital.

    Ikida opens his door at my knock and I step into his quarters, my hands holding the two mugs. I wonder absently when the doctor ever sleeps. He looks like he hasn't napped in about four years. "Schuldich-san," he greets, rubbing his eyes and glancing at his watch. "Adashi drive you away that quickly?"

    "You could say that." I pad towards Crawford's room.

    "You cannot stay long," he tells me, heading towards his desk. "The Council will be here later today. I am not sure what time they are going to show up. I must request that you stay away from this hospital- far away- while they are here for Crawford-san's evaluation."

    "When you say such things to me, " I tell him, pausing beside Crawford's door to look back at him, "I wonder whether you're doing it due to my recent escape from Hoffmann or because what you're going to tell them is not good."

    Ikida gazes back calmly. "We have run a few more tests," he says simply. "I will not know what we are going to say to them until the tests have returned."

    I juggle my mugs until I can turn the knob to Crawford's room and slip inside. He looks the same as he did yesterday afternoon. I nudge the door shut with my foot and move over to the chair beside his bed. I set his mug on his bed, balancing it between his arm and side. "There you go," I tell him. "You should be grateful."

    ~And you should be asleep,~ comes his simple response.

    /It's coffee hour,/ I tell him when I realize that my greeting words don't make any sense to him since he cannot feel the coffee mug pressed against him. Well, I guess he won't complain if it's too hot for him. How long has he been awake? I wonder if his internal alarm clock has been rousing him at our usual coffee time or if he's having irregular sleep patterns. /I even brought enough for you,/ I add.

    I sip my coffee in silence. This coffee is much better than the kind I was drinking yesterday.

    I finish my mug and set it aside, folding my arms over my chest. /Are you going to drink that?/ I ask. Without waiting for a response- I doubt there will be one- I pluck his mug up and peel the lid off. I take a large swallow, letting its heat wash through me, and turn in the chair. My back hurts- I slept on it wrong. /Damn, your bed is nowhere near as comfortable as mine,/ I complain. /You haven't broken down your springs enough.../

    There is a long pause, and I do not realize what I've said until Crawford responds. ~My bed?~

    I blink, doing a mental stumble. /It's a long story./ He does not answer. Silence falls between us once more, but it doesn't last long. /It's Adashi's fault,/ I finally say, as if that explains everything, and sip at the coffee again.

    Crawford doesn't answer.

    It doesn't take me long to empty the second travel mug. As I am swallowing the last drops, Ikida opens the door. His face is pale and he is holding a cell phone in a white-knuckled grip by his waist. "Schuldich-san, you need to leave now. They are just a few blocks away."

    I frown faintly, mind reaching out. I encounter a black hole among the sea of thoughts, moving steadily in this direction. Alongside it are three thick shields, more powerful than Crawford's in that they hurt to touch. They are close. They are _too_ close. For a second I cannot breathe; for a second I am not in this hospital room.

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

    "Schuldich!" Ikida's voice cuts sharply through my thoughts and he drops the honorific on my name in his urgency.

    ~Schuldich, get out of here,~ Crawford says, voice flat and firm. It is the tone he uses when he is giving orders on a job, orders that _must_ be obeyed. I react instinctively to the tone, stirred to action. I snatch up both of the travel mugs, rising to my feet.

    My mind is swirling in a million directions.

    It is time for Crawford's evaluation. I knew this time was coming...I have been waiting for it for the past two weeks. Now that it is here, however...I glance towards Crawford. He looks worse than he did two weeks ago. What is the Council going to do? What will Ikida say to them?


    Ikida grabs at my elbow, tugging me from the room. "I will take care of things here!" he tells me. "Get far away from here, and do not come back until I have given you an all-clear!"

    "You will tell me?" I ask him, words escaping me as I allow him to drag me towards the exit. Hoffmann's hole of a presence is sucking in the thoughts close to him, growing larger in my mind. "You will tell me what they decide?"

    "I will pass along the decision should they choose to tell me it!" he says. "They do not always confirm with us before they terminate their Talents." Something must have changed on my face, because he hastens to say, "Have some faith in your clairvoyant, Schuldich-san. He will not let something like this defeat him."

    Crawford might not admit defeat, but he's not the one with the decision.

    My words to Crawford float back to me: "When it comes to push and pull, it's not the sick horse that gets to pick whether it's shot or hospitalized. Will you still be useful or will it be easier to just replace you?"

    "I will tell you!" Ikida says again, giving me a forceful shove out of his headquarters. "Go, now!"

    I tuck away my wild thoughts, blanking my mind from everything except the fact that I need to be far away when the four members of the Council walk through the hospital doors. I don't care who sees me, using my gift to blur my steps as I race forward. I push open the front doors and burst into the faint glow of the early morning.


    You'll pass.

    You have to!

Part Fourteen

Notes on Hoffmann:
I know I didn't make his power very clear, so here's an explanation for anyone who wants/needs it. ^_^
Hoffmann is an empath who has enough power and control over his skill that what he does can often be pushed from the emotional level to the physical- as when he caused enough pain and burning sensation in Schuldich's shoulder to create burns and blisters on the actual flesh. His deadliest form of his skill is when he meets people's eyes- Many say eyes are windows to the soul, and Hoffmann uses these windows to put his power straight from emotional levels into the deepest fibers of a person's being. That is why he was once referred to as a Soul-Shaker, and why Schuldich feels as if his soul was shredded by Hoffmann.