Part Eight

    Nagi follows me as I climb the stairs out of Ikida's domain. I am feeling the serious need for some coffee. Ikida wants to run some more tests. I'll let him run them while I try and get some caffeine into my system. I locate the cafe and move to stand in line. Nagi stands beside me silently. I shift positions to get the weight off of my ankle. It's pretty sore, now. I didn't care that it was sprained when I was moving around earlier. Now it's throbbing and pulsing, letting me know just how displeased it is with my carelessness. Nagi catches the movement and glances down at my leg, remembering just now that I'm not supposed to be putting any weight on that ankle. He glances back up at me, his eyes asking if I need any help.

    I ignore the look, gazing at the menu without seeing what's on it. Ikida's short phone call echoes in my mind. There is only one place he would have called. The person in front of me leaves with her order and I take a limping step forward, choosing a drink quickly before turning calm eyes on Nagi. "It's time for you to leave," I tell him.

    He frowns faintly. "Leave?"

    My styrofoam cup is offered and I swipe the man's mind clean so I don't have to pay. I take the cup in one hand and ease myself away from the counter. Nagi follows. "We're going to have some visitors." Nagi considers this. I sip at my coffee. As soon as I swallow I want to gag it back up. What a foul taste. I rub my mouth with the back of my free hand, as if trying to erase the taste from my lips. "For all they pay these people, you'd think they could have some decent coffee." I drop the cup in the nearest trash bin. "It tastes like last night's regurgitated dinner."

    Nagi gives me a look as if telling me that he didn't care to know that. After a moment, he asks, "That man from the clinic...He's going to come here?"

    Icy blue eyes dance in my mind and I pause. The last time I saw those eyes, the last time I dared to look Hoffmann in the face, was when I was first brought to Estet. It's the same as touching a hot stove: there are some things you learn to never do again. I feel a chill in my veins, feel a prickle on my spine in rememberance of how close he was to me just a few days ago. Then I remember Nagi is waiting for an answer and give my mouth another rub, giving Nagi a cool look. "Perhaps."

    Perhaps? Hah. This is the only time I wish I could denounce my nationality. Hoffmann keeps a careful eye on all of the Germans in Estet. He oversees their training and discipline. Whenever a unit with a German in it had trouble in the past, it was always Hoffmann to deal with them. He owns the units with Germans in them. Schwarz is a little different from the other groups because half of our unit has not had to deal with the Council. Crawford and I found Farfarello when we were being sent to Ireland for a different Talent. We chose Farfarello instead, picking a Talentless man Estet had not heard of right off the streets. We were the first to catch him; none of the law enforcement workers could stop or contain the white haired demon. We caught him and I could communicate with him, so Farfarello came. Nagi never went through the formalities of joining Estet. Crawford picked him up himself before Estet's sweeper group could snatch him and bring him to Rosenkreuz. The Council gave Crawford special permission to train the boy to fit Schwarz.

    They've gone this long without being under the Council's scrutiny...Why should they have to meet now?

    Nagi doesn't move. I turn a lazy smirk on him. "I told you to leave," I say again. "Go lose yourself in your worthless studies. You have money for a bus?" He shakes his head once, and I admit to myself it wasn't an intelligent question. We're in our pajamas, after all. "There should be some in the car. Take the bus to the closest station and walk the rest of the way." I don't worry about giving him the keys; he can pop the locks with his gift.

    Nagi hesitates for a long moment before frowning and taking a step back. Two sides of his mind are warring: the side that was trained to listen to orders and is telling him he doesn't know anything about this man that bothers Crawford and I, and the side that wants to stay in case something bad happens. The first side wins and he turns away, moving towards the entrance with rapid steps. He feels both resentment and acceptance, but at least he is going. I watch him until he has let himself out onto the street. I rake my fingers through my hair again, smirk disappearing, and look around the scattered crowd of the waiting room/cafe. I glance at the cafe, debating whether or not to get some food to clear my mouth of the regurgitated dinner taste. At length I decide I don't want anything in my stomach when Hoffmann comes.

    I wonder how long it will take the man to get here, and limp towards the door leading to Ikida's place. I lounge against the wall beside it, folding my arms over my chest and keeping an eye out. Time drags by, and my eyes stray towards the clock one too many times. I poke at Ikida's mind in my impatience, searching for anything. What I get is a mindful of some nerve conduction velocity crap. I shift impatiently and wince when I accidentally put weight on the wrong leg. It's been almost forty minutes since I came upstairs. Where is...

    I trail off when I feel a sudden dip in the minds around me. A black hole has appeared in the swirl of noise. He is here.

    My fingers instinctively clench on my arms and it is a struggle to get them to loosen. I drop my gaze enough that I am no longer looking out at eye level, waiting for Hoffmann to reach me. It does not take him long. Someone stops directly in front of me, and my peripheral vision tells me it's him. He reaches out and I can feel myself tensing. He touches my chin, lifting my head. My eyes dart off to the side, fixing themselves on a far away point. I think he is smirking at me. Every nerve in my body is hissing a protest at the contact. I can feel my heartbeat on my crossed arms, and it speeds up when he touches me. Icy blue, icy blue...Too many memories of pain, hate, and fear. I struggle to control my breathing and lose the fight with my fingers. They clench on my arms again.

    Don't touch me. Don't.

    "Mastermind," he greets, amusement in his voice.

    I'm not sure how I manage to get the words out. "Herr Hoffmann."

    "How is your leg doing?" he asks, turning my face again in an attempt to make eye contact. I close my eyes and hear his soft laughter. He thinks it's funny, watching people scramble to avoid meeting his gaze. I'm angry at being the source of his amusement, but there's nothing I can do about it.

    "It will heal, Herr Hoffmann."

    "I am sure it will." He releases me at last and I hear the door opening. "Come along, then."

    I open my eyes, turning them on the floor and watching as Hoffmann's shoes disappear into the stairwell. I linger a moment, letting my fingers slowly relax their death grip. I tilt my head back, gazing at the ceiling and exhaling quietly. Ikida had better have come up with some positive results, Crawford. If Hoffmann decides you can't be saved...I cannot suppress a shudder.

    I turn and follow Hoffmann down the stairs.

    Hoffmann knows the keycode for Ikida's floor and punches it in. The door slides open and we step through. The first thing I notice is that Crawford is no longer on the front bed, and I cast out with my mind to find him. Crawford has been relocated to a back room. The doctor is seated at his desk, surrounded by different files, loose papers, and thick books open to various pages. He looks up when the door clicks shut and rises, gesturing for us to take a seat. There is only one chair, and it's obvious which one of us gets to sit down. Hoffman lowers himself into the chair and looks in my direction. My eyes stay on Ikida.

    "Mastermind." Hoffmann waves to the floor beside his chair. "You will sit here. I do not want you on that leg."

    I obediently settle myself on the ground beside Hoffmann's chair, though the spot he indicated is much too close for my comfort. Hell, being on the same planet is much too close. I haven't had to deal with the Council for six years, and now I'm back where I was then, sitting alongside this man. I stretch my injured leg out in front of me and tuck the other one close to my chest, wrapping my arms around it. The floor is not comfortable, but I'm not going to say that.

    Hoffmann's hand settles on my shoulder and I feel my skin crawl. I want to pull away from his touch.

    "So, Ikida?" Hoffmann asks, crossing his legs at the knees.

    "I've gone over everything Schuldich has told me and what we have recorded for Crawford's earlier visits. My assistant was not entirely wrong in labelling Crawford as having a heart attack; the symptoms were right. What Crawford was experiencing, however, were symptoms of a different problem entirely." Ikida glances around his desk, searching for a particular piece of paper. "His reflexes have stopped working. I ran a nerve conduction velocity test and the signals from his brain to his limbs are moving slower than they should be. They're getting lost along the way. Ah." He lifts a folder. "I noticed some parallels between Crawford's case and an earlier one the hospital has taken care of. I am formally diagnosing Crawford with Guillain-Barre Syndrome."

    Ikida sighs- not a good sign- and lightly massages his temples. "GBS is a disorder where the body's immune system turns on its nervous system. The first symptoms are weakness and tingling sensations in the legs." Here he glances at me. "Most of the time, it spreads to the arms and upper body as well. The weakness can increase until the patient is almost totally paralyzed. Sometimes it requires placing the patient on machines that will assist body function, such as ventilators or heart monitors. It can be life-threatening and is classified as a medical emergency."

    "What causes it?" Hoffmann demands. He doesn't sound happy. _I'm_ not happy. My mind is running in circles with all of this information. Paralysis? It fits better than the panic attack did, but that doesn't mean this is a better choice!

    Ikida gives a helpless sort of shrug. "No one is sure. It's a rare syndrome...Less than ten thousand people get it each year." There is a long stretch of silence. Ikida picks up on Hoffmann's displeasure. "It's treatable," he assures us.

    /You should have said that earlier,/ I tell him flatly.

    He ignores me, drumming his fingers on one of the open books. "There are a number of ways to treat it, and most patients recover. Less than five percent die. The most important part of the entire procedure is keeping his bodily functions going while the nervous system recovers."

    "How long?" Hoffmann asks.

    Ikida considers it. "A few weeks, a few months...It depends on the severity of the case."

    "He will recover fully?"

    Ikida pauses again. I don't like that pause. "The majority of the cases recover to almost their full potential. Five to fifteen percent will have long-term disabilities. Most cases will have some abnormal sideaffects in years to come." He glances at the book. "Recurrences of fatigue, pain, and tingling are common, but can be aided with prescriptions." There is silence again. Ikida gives another small sigh. "His lungs gave out while you were en route, Hoffmann-sama." He makes a gesture indicating the doors at the back of the wide room. "I moved him to the ICU and hooked him to a ventilator. His mind is still intact, however," and he glances at me again, "so you will be able to fully communicate with him."

    I'm not sure what to think about all this. Alarm and uneasiness are predominant feelings washing back and forth inside of me, but my thoughts are too scattered to come up with anything solid. Then any tendrils of thoughts are washed away when unexpected pain flares up in my shoulder. I am not prepared for it, and the intensity of it rips a gasp from me. My back arches as the agony floods my senses, and my fingers dig into my arms. Then the pain is gone, leaving just a throbbing behind, and I sag slightly, choking as I try to get back the breath that was stolen from me. Hoffmann's grip is still relaxed on my shoulder, but his power vent is enough to tell me he is not pleased. I can still feel pain where his fingertips are, five small dots of fire on my skin. It's a small burn, but it gets hotter with each second it lingers there. I clench my teeth to keep from moving away.

    Don't touch me, I think, trying not to be violently sick as my insides churn in the aftermath of the power wash. Don't you touch me...

    I experienced his gift more than enough times when I arrived at Rosenkreuz. Some call Hoffmann the Soul-Shaker. He's an empath with a frightening amount of skill. What he inflicts emotionally gets carried out on a physical level. That is not his specialty, however. All you have to do is look him in the eye and it's as if you're giving him direct access to your soul. Hoffmann doesn't pass up any chance of exploiting a met gaze. No matter who looks him in the face, Hoffmann will teach them not to do it again. Not even the rest of the Council meets his eye.

    "Weeks or months, and the possibility of long-term disabilities," Hoffmann echoes quietly.

    The blisters on my shoulder pop and I bite back a hiss as his fingers continue to burn the injured flesh. I can see ice blue eyes dancing in my mind, cold and mocking, and I struggle valiantly to stay in the here and now.

    I am dealt a powerful backhand and find myself sprawled on the floor. I gasp for air, focusing on the ordinary pain of a physical blow, focusing on the feel of the cold floor against my face. I close my eyes, gingerly feeling my shoulder. I hear the scrape of chair legs against the floor and quiet footsteps. "I feel better now," Hoffmann says, words bareful audible over the the roaring in my ears. "Bring me to Crawford."

    "Of course..." Ikida sounds a little strained.

    I hear them walking away. Slowly I can feel myself relaxing. Jade eyes open and my breathing evens out. I gingerly push my aching body into a sitting position and tug at the neckline of my pajama shirt. I study my shoulder. There are a second set of blisters where the first ones were, and the skin is an angry red color and sticky. I blow softly on the stinging flesh before carefully setting the material of my shirt over the spot. Everything tilts then, and I make a grab for Ikida's wastebin. I have it ready just as my stomach empties itself and I choke up harsh stomach acid. It seems like an eternity before I can stop heaving, and when I set aside the bin my throat is on fire. I touch the back of my hand to my lips, grateful for the foresight that kept me from eating.

    Hoffmann and Ikida return then, and I keep my eyes pointed at their knees when they stop a few feet away.

    "In two weeks I will return and evaluate his condition," Hoffmann says to both of us. "We will decide then whether treatment will continue. Until then, you are funded, Ikida. Proceed."

    "Yes, Hoffmann-sama. Thank you, Hoffmann-sama."

    One set of legs- Hoffmann's- approaches me. The older man stops just in front of me. "You might want to do something about that shoulder," he tells me, amused. "It does not look so good."

    "Ja, Herr Hoffmann," I answer.

    Then he turns and leaves. I wait until I hear the door to Ikida's lab close behind him before struggling to my feet. Ikida approaches me, offering a small tube. I glance at it. "For your burn," he explains. I take it from him and move past him, hobbling towards the back of the room. "Number seven," the doctor says.

    I push open the door and enter, closing it behind me. There is a stool beside Crawford's bed, and I sit on it because my ankle is killing me. /Are you happy now?/ I send at Crawford, glaring at him. /You're going to have an evaluation in fourteen days./

    Crawford blinks slowly, golden brown eyes turning towards me. The rest of him doesn't move. ~He told me,~ he says. He sounds too calm for someone in his situation. I try to ignore the tubes in his mouth. It's enough to make my stomach lurch, and I've thrown up enough already.

    /Did you already forget what we talked about last night?/ I ask him. /Aren't you supposed to be getting better and not worse?/

    ~If I didn't know you better I would think you were worried,~ Crawford says, mocking me.

    /Worried?/ I retort with a sharp, mental laugh. /More like pissed off./

    His eyes leave my face. ~You're bleeding.~

    I flick the barest of glances at my shoulder. Great. Blisters and blood, and the blood is soaking through my shirt. /At least your eyes work even when the rest of you doesn't,/ I say bitingly. /_You're_ the one in charge of dealing with the Council./ I tug off my shirt and drop the bundle into my lap before unscrewing the tube Ikida gave me. I slowly squeeze white goo onto the injury, and my muscles twitch as the cold medicine touches burned skin. I slide my fingers into the goo, carefully smearing the mix until it fully covers the wound. /If this leaves a scar, I'll unplug your ventilator,/ I tell Crawford.

    ~You're vain.~

    /And you're ugly./ I screw the lid back onto the tube and drop it on top of my shirt. I might need it later. /Did Ikida tell you when he's starting treatment?/

    ~This afternoon,~ Crawford answers. ~It is the earliest he can get all of his supplies.~

    I accept his words and study him in silence. Weeks or months of him like this? With tubes sticking out of his mouth? /Do you have any idea how bored you're going to get?/ I ask.

    ~Not everyone has to be entertained twenty-four hours a day.~

    /But no one can just lay there twenty-four hours a day and do nothing, either. It looks like I'm your best entertainment./

    ~Then I prefer solitude,~ Crawford says dryly.

    His words rub me the wrong way, and I can feel my mouth thin into a hard line.

    /As you wish./ I scoot off of the stool, plucking up my shirt and the medicine, and limp towards the door. I've had enough. /Entertain yourself. Let the Council decide you to be unworthy. Let them off you. I don't care. Be rude to someone else, for a change./ I close the door loudly behind me and tug my shirt on as I limp towards the exit. Ikida looks up from where he is making a phone call. He pauses midsentence, but doesn't say anything to me. I tug open the door and let it swing shut behind me. I hiss quietly as I struggle up the stairs, favoring my sprained ankle and leaning heavily on the railing. I push open the door at the top and make my way towards the front doors. Someone makes a worried comment about the blood on my clothes, but I ignore him.

    There are faint threads of light in the sky as I reach my car; the sun is beginning to rise. I shove the key in the door and pop the lock, then open the door and climb in. I slam the door and buckle myself in, closing my hands tightly on the steering wheel.

    Is my anger irrational? Maybe, maybe not. I gave him my Athlon. I gave him water. I got injured when he screwed up. I called the hospital when he had his 'panic attack'. I drove him to counseling. I brought him here today. I had to face the man that he knows I hate- and fear- more than anyone or anything on this planet. He prefers solitude? Let him have solitude. I've done enough. I'm sick of it. He can sit there and think happy little thoughts to himself for two weeks. In two weeks, the Council will decide what to do with them, they'll let me know, and if he gets erased, maybe I'll watch when they toss his ashes into the ocean.

    "Fuck you," I say aloud, turning the key in the engine.

    'Wirklich?' I hear him ask at last night's dinner, and my hand hesitates before returning to the wheel. I glance at my rearview mirror. No one is coming, so I back out of my parking space. Within moments I am on the road.

    I want water to calm the burning in my throat, but I head straight for the den when I reach the flat and let myself sprawl on the couch. I roll onto my good shoulder, staring at the blank television screen. I remember then that Farfarello broke the new remote. It figures. Nagi appears in the doorway. "Schuldi..." he trails off. "You're bleeding."

    "Am I really?" I ask, and can see his frown at the caustic tone. He disappears and I hear something rummaging around in the kitchen. The sink turns on. Moments later, Nagi returns with a wet cloth. He makes a gesture for me to remove my shirt and I give him a baleful look. "There's medicine on it already."

    "But did you clean it first?" he asks.

    "Does it matter?"

    There is a tug and my shirt lifts itself to rest at my neck. Nagi's face is impassive- he has had enough time to collect himself, apparently- but his mouth twitches into a frown when he sees my shoulder. He kneels in front of the couch and begins gently streaking the cold rag along my burns. It stings, but compared to the pain that put the burns there, it's nothing. "How did this happen?" Nagi asks.

    "Let's just say Hoffmann is not happy with Crawford's condition and leave it at that."

    He accepts it. "And Crawford...?"

    "Guillain-Barre Syndrome," I tell him. I could go into the technical details with Nagi but there's no desire or need to. Nagi will look it up on his computer to find out everything he wants to know. "Treatable but with questionable duration and success. He has fourteen days to show improvement."

    Nagi pauses. "Or?"

    "Or the Council burns him and dumps his ashes into the ocean."

    Nagi looks away, considering this. I reach up to tug my shirt back down and he stops me. "I'm not done," he tells me, and returns to his work. It's nothing I couldn't do myself, but if Nagi saves me the trouble, he can do it. "And the medicine?" he asks. I lift the hand that's holding the tube and he takes it from me. As he reads the label, a small box floats into the room. He pulls gauze out of it and lowers the box to the floor. He pours the goo onto the gauze and spreads it carefully but liberally all over the injury. When he's done, he rises to his feet. "Leave your shirt off for now," he tells me, moving towards the door. His thoughts tell me he's going to go look up the syndrome.

    I can sense from Farfarello's thoughts that the Irishman is awake. It's early for him to be free, but who cares? /Let the Farf out as you pass,/ I tell Nagi, and hear the sound of locks moving.

    Farfarello drifts in a while later and eyes me, immediately interested by my wound. He draws closer to investigate. I let him study the burns, gazing past him at the dark television. "And the Oracle?" Farfarello asks when he is done. He backs up and seats himself on the ground. It didn't take him long to notice we were missing Crawford...Or maybe he was awake and heard us leave this morning. Who knows?

    "He's going to be gone for a while," I answer, pointing past him. "Turn that on." He looks over his shoulder at the television with disinterest, then turns his eye back on me. "He's paralyzed but there's a high chance of recovery."

    Farfarello accepts this and looks at my wounds again. "They're unnatural burns."

    "Yes," I tell him. He tilts his head to one side in a question. "Another Talent did it. Be a good freak and turn on the television to entertain me." He bares his teeth in his own twisted way of grinning before scooting backwards. He pushes the power button and the screen comes to life. Farfarello crawls back over to me, reaching out and giving my burns an experimental poke. I swat at his hand. "Don't. They were just cleaned." Not that he cares. "Farfarello...We're on an infomercials channel."

    "Yes," he agrees.

    "You're useless." He lifts one shoulder in a careless shrug. The doorbell rings and I reach out with my mind, trying to identify the visitor. Breakfast? Farfarello turns. I sit up. "_I'll_ get it." I turn the television off as I pass. It's early for breakfast...Did Crawford see this coming and arrange the meal to be delivered? If he did, I'll kill him. I swear I will. I demand a warning when Crawford's going to pull shit like this morning.

    /Breakfast is delivered,/ I tell Nagi.

    ~Yes,~ Nagi answers. ~I ordered it when I got back from the hospital.~

    You got lucky there, Crawford.

    I open the door. The man there offers a large bag full of styrofoam containers. Like I'm going to carry them...I point. "First door on the right."

    He blinks, then enters. Farfarello appears in the den doorway, watching the man with his single gleaming eye. The man stops in his tracks. I wonder idly if Farfarello will attack the deliveryman, but then Nagi is coming down the hall. He easily steps between Farfarello and the man and takes the bag. "I have it," he says. The man gives a nod and retreats. I stoop and pick up the rolled-up newspaper.

    "Almost had him, Farfarello."

    "No one will want to deliver here if you let the deliverymen get killed," Nagi tells me as he takes the bag into the kitchen.

    "They get paid to come here," I return, shrugging carelessly as I limp in the direction of food.

    "Try not to throw the household into complete chaos while Crawford is gone," Nagi says.

    "As if it wasn't chaos before he left?" Now that I'm in here, I head straight for the cabinet and pull out a cup. I fill it with water from the tap and stand by the sink, taking small sips to ease the burn in my throat. I glance over my shoulder at the breakfast, debating whether or not I'm hungry. I decide against it. My stomach's still a little queasy from Hoffmann's touch. My mind strays towards a mental image of Crawford and his ventilator, and my stomach protests some more. I take another sip of water. Nagi looks over at me. He and Farfarello are both done serving their portions.


    "I'm not eating." He frowns slightly, surprised. I told you I'm the mouth of the unit...For me to not eat is something new. I gaze out of the kitchen window, lightly touching my shoulder. "I'll get into the leftovers later."

    Nagi hesitates before incling his head. "Aa."

    I turn and limp out of the room, and I can feel their eyes watching me as I go.

Part 9