Part Thirteen

    As it turns out, I don’t have to listen to Farfarello’s mental turmoil of hatred and bitterness for more than a half hour. That’s because Hoffmann shows up right after we finish eating breakfast, and Crawford and I know the moment he shows up that he is not happy with us at all. If the Council didn’t consider Hirofumi’s death to be a serious thing, they wouldn’t have bothered waking up so early. The fact that the empath is striding through the front doors of Takatori’s estates before eight o’ clock in the morning tells all of us that we’re in trouble. I feel the empath’s shields a few seconds before Crawford Sees him coming. A large portion of the telepathic field I’m covering just gives out suddenly and it startles me enough that I end up choking on my juice. Nagi sends me a quick look as I cough, giving me a telekinetic thump on the back to help clear the liquid from my lungs. Crawford doesn’t notice, as his gift has just chosen to tell him we have a visitor on the way.

    “Shit,” I snarl, my voice hoarse as I struggle to breathe normally again. My cup has tilted over and I grab at some napkins, setting my cup upright and crushing the napkins down on the mess. My younger two teammates are staring at me, Nagi with curiosity and Farfarello’s single eye demanding an answer. It’s him I look at, because Nagi doesn’t really matter when it comes to Hoffmann. Farfarello sees the answer in my gaze and bares his teeth in a silent snarl of hatred. “Nagi, get up, get up and go to your room,” I say, but it’s too late. He has just gotten to his feet when we can hear footsteps on the stairs, and I grab Nagi’s wrist to yank him back down into his chair. I don’t want Nagi to be in the hall when Hoffmann shows up or the older German will finally Touch him with his gift.

    My stomach gives an uneasy lurch. I shouldn’t have eaten, but I didn’t realize Hoffmann would show up so quickly…I realize I’m still holding onto Nagi’s wrist and I force my fingers to relinquish the death grip on him, lacing my fingers together in my lap instead. The table hides the white knuckles from my teammates and I fight to keep my expression calm as Hoffmann approaches the kitchen. I am Schwarz’s official scapegoat. If he’s pissed enough to come this early, I wonder what he’s going to do. I can only wish that if he decides to get ugly he’ll keep it from my teammates. Nagi has seen the aftermath of my meetings with Hoffmann but he doesn’t need to see the confrontation itself.

    Crawford gets to his feet just as the Councilman enters the room. I find myself unable to look towards Hoffmann and fix my eyes on Crawford instead. Nagi’s eyes go to Crawford as well; Farfarello keeps his gaze locked on me. His thoughts are murderous and black. If Hoffmann’s time with the Irishman was supposed to make him fear the German’s presence, he failed. Farfarello just loathes him more deeply; the dark desire for his death sings through every twisted and growled thought. He is tense; I can see the way his shoulders have tightened out of the corner of my eye, but the anger and hatred is stronger than his uneasiness over the German’s abrupt entrance into our quarters.

    “Mister Hoffmann,” Crawford greets, his voice as calm and respectful as always. He knows what it means to have Hoffmann here but by looking at him, by listening to him, you’d think this was going to be a decent, civil meeting. For a moment I want to kick him, because he’s never had Hoffmann’s attention on him like I have. No one has. That’s why Crawford can play the cool and collected game when the Soul Shaker shows up. I’m not empathic- I can feel the emotions that color thoughts but I cannot feel plain emotions themselves- but I can feel the barely controlled anger seeping off of the older man.

    “Get up,” Hoffmann says. I can feel his stare on me and it is all I can do to keep my eyes on Crawford. I force myself to my feet, letting my hands fall to my sides. I step away from my chair and push it back under the table. “We’re going to have a talk.”

    “Nagi,” I start to say, but Hoffmann doesn’t let me finish.

    “All of us,” he interrupts me, and I can feel the first trickles of his gift washing over my skin. My nerves jump at the hot prickling sensation that rolls over me and my fingers clench unconsciously on the back of my chair. “All of us are going to have a talk.”

    With that, he turns and leaves the room. Crawford looks over at me. “Fuck,” I mutter, raking my hands through the strands of hair that have fallen over my shoulders. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Nagi is looking distinctly uneasy, his patented indifferent expression gone. He’s learned to identify Hoffmann as a Bad Thing and my reaction to Hoffmann’s presence tells him that something is very wrong. Farfarello is still sitting down; he isn’t interested in following Hoffmann anywhere. “Get up,” I tell him, and he just glowers at me.

    “Farfarello.” Crawford’s voice is quiet.

    “I won’t.”

    “Get the fuck up,” I snap at him, and I can just barely keep the frayed edges from my voice. Hoffmann’s gift still lingers on me and he lets me know how pissed he is. The anger is directed at all of Schwarz, but me especially. I struggle to think how it could be so utterly my fault that Hirofumi died, and for a moment I panic that he’s figured out what’s going on. I squish it quickly, telling myself not to be stupid, not to go assuming the worst- even though when it’s Hoffmann, it generally _is_ the worst- and tell myself that he’s just pissed at me the most because I’m his favorite telepath to fuck over. God, but what if? What if he were to find out? I can’t even imagine what he would begin to do to us.

    I never want to trade my blood or gift so much as when Hoffmann shows up on our doorsteps. Is this your idea of happiness, fucker?

    Farfarello is snapped to his feet, yanked there by Nagi. He snarls at Nagi and for a moment I think he’s going to go after our youngest teammate. Mosuli has telekinesis and he had a grand time using it on Farfarello when the Council borrowed him for a few days. Nagi lets go as soon as Farfarello is on his feet, though, and Crawford reaches out to snag Farfarello’s sleeve. Farfarello glares at him for a long moment and Crawford stares back, cool brown eyes hard. Nagi’s watching me and I force my fingers to untangle from my hair, shoving my hands in my pockets instead.

    Farfarello yanks out of Crawford’s grip, giving the precognitive a baleful glare. Crawford sends a final look towards me and starts out of the room. I follow behind and Nagi is close after me. Farfarello hesitates for a long moment before following. But he comes, and that’s what’s important. Crawford still has some control over the Irishman, even when he’s forcing him to face the man Farfarello is starting to hate more than his God. I tell myself that the obedience is good news but it just tastes bitter on my tongue.

    Hoffmann is in the den, waiting on us. He points at Nagi and points to the couch, points at Farfarello and points to the chair at the far end of the room. He’s pushing them aside as unimportant and if that didn’t mean he was going to focus on me and Crawford I might have been able to feel some sort of relief on Farfarello’s behalf. Hoffmann turns around to face the two of us then, and we keep our eyes pointed at his chest. I haven’t bothered to step even with Crawford; I stopped right behind the American, off to his side but a step back. It’s not an attempt to make him deal with Crawford first; no matter where I am I’m still going to bear the brunt of this confrontation.

    Hoffmann takes two quick strides forward and backhands Crawford hard enough to send him staggering a step to one side. I know Crawford was holding his ground; he just couldn’t hold it enough under such a fierce blow. Anger spikes through the nausea that’s twisting my stomach, anger that Hoffmann’s just hit my lover. My fingers clench in my pockets but I keep my expression as blank as I can. Crawford straightens almost instantly. I’m not so sure I could feign recovery from such a blow that quickly. I shift just an inch closer to him.

    Hoffmann grabs Crawford’s chin in his fingers in a tight grip, yanking his head forward before hitting him again, bringing up his free fist to catch the precognitive on the other side of his face. His fingers keep Crawford from moving but the thud of flesh on flesh is deep and I know Crawford’s going to bruise. I don’t like the thought at all. Crawford is strong. Crawford is proud. Bruises are the sign of a collared man and Crawford is too strong to be collared. I think of what Takatori will do when he sees such marks, think of the amusement he’ll find in such a thing, and hatred curls darkly in my stomach. The next fist goes straight into Crawford’s stomach, lifting his feet from the ground by a breath of air.

    When Hoffmann’s fist flies forward next, I catch it, both hands darting out to grab his wrist. I’m not going to stand here and watch him beat the shit out of my lover. I won’t. He has no right to touch Crawford. He’s going to turn on me next, so I might as well piss him off enough that he turns to me now and just get it over with.

    Crawford says something, perhaps my name, but it’s barely audible as he’s trying to suck air back into his lungs. Hoffmann has gone still at such a bold move on my part and I lift my eyes from his fist to his mouth. “Don’t,” I say.

    “What did you just say?” His voice is soft, cold.

    “Don’t,” I repeat myself firmly.

    He releases Crawford’s chin, lifting his hand to my face. I don’t duck away, instead letting him curl his fingers in my hair. He clenches them close to the skull and gives a vicious jerk to one side. I have to let go of his fist as I stumble, both of my hands switching to his other wrist to insure that he won’t take out half of my hair. Even so, the rough snap to one side makes my neck hurt. He hauls me upright again. “Do you presume to tell me what to do?” he wants to know.

    I don’t answer. I hear Crawford’s voice in my mind but I can’t make out the words, just the flat tone of warning, because Hoffmann’s shields are so close. Hoffmann lifts his free hand to my face, raking his fingernails down the skin. His empathy sends pain searing through my face and the strength of his gift has my skin tearing open where his fingernails brush. Hoffmann is strong enough that he can twist emotions to make the reactions physical, something no other empath can do. Blood trickles down my cheek from the deep scratches and I hiss air through my teeth at the pain that burns half of my face.

    “Don’t you _ever_ tell me what to do, do you understand me?”

    Ja, Herr Hoffmann. I’ve never failed to get the words out of my mouth before, no matter what he’s done to me. But for some reason they stick in my throat and I cannot voice them. He gives me just a few seconds of silence before he realizes no answer is coming. The heel of his palm comes upwards, cracking into my chin to snap my head back, and then he cracks a slap across my cheek. I can taste blood where I’ve bitten myself and I let it trickle out from between my lips. Pain sears through my arm, white hot and enough that I gasp, releasing his wrist to grab at my arm. The burns spread to this hand as well and my skin sizzles. I can watch the blisters forming.

    “You disgust me,” he tells me, his voice a low growl. “All four of you disgust me.” He uses his grip on my hair to throw me downwards and I land roughly on my knees. He releases me to throw a glare around the room and I pry my jacket off. My arm is still on fire and my clothes just make the burns worse. Shaking fingers get the buttons on the cuff of my white shirt undone and I hurry to roll up the sleeve. I hear Nagi’s sharp gasp of horror as he sees the burned flesh. It’s a bad burn, worse than he’s given me before, and my fingers tighten on my wrist, my teeth clenching as the pain vibrates through me. The burn is getting worse; the skin turns from red to burgundy to almost black in places and the pain is making me sick to my stomach when he finally releases his empathic hold on my arm.

    “One of Rosenkreuz’s greatest groups, favored by the Council, and you can’t even keep a few ungifted alive. You allowed Takatori Hirofumi to die last night, and one of you had better have a damn good reason for it.” His gaze turns on Crawford pointedly. I pull my eyes away from my burn, inwardly cringing at the smell of burned flesh, and turn my gaze on my lover.

    “We turned our attention away from Takatori Hirofumi when he left the party,” Crawford says. “There was an attack planned on Takatori Reiji and we chose to concentrate our efforts on his safety instead. It was my decision.”

    “Was it.” Hoffmann reaches out, kicking my shoulder to send me crashing backwards to the ground. Farfarello starts getting to his feet and is abruptly pushed back into place by Nagi’s gift. Hoffmann misses it, as his back is turned to the two. I push myself back up, picking myself to my feet. “It doesn’t take four of you to keep an eye on one fat man. Your preoccupation is understandable, as you are the precognitive. Your purpose on this team is to use your visions to help Rosenkreuz and Estet achieve their goals. But it doesn’t take four people to guard him, and someone else should have been watching Hirofumi. If there was an attack on the father there was likely to be an attack on the remaining son. Tell me why your call was such a terrible one, Oracle.”

    “There was no reason for anyone to target Hirofumi.” There goes my big fat mouth. Crawford’s mouth was already open to answer but I cut him off. Hoffmann’s gaze turns on me and I can feel the utter rage at this morning’s insolence; it washes over me like a cold chill and I struggle to keep my voice steady as I speak. My eyes are on Hoffmann’s chest because I don’t want to look at Crawford right now. I know I’m digging my own grave, that I’m just making everything worse by pissing Hoffmann off more, but I can’t stop myself. “He isn’t an important player. In the beginning, he gathered people for his father. Their loyalties are already turned. No one would gain anything by killing Hirofumi off.”

    “You must have had quite the breakfast this morning,” Hoffmann says, reaching out to grab hold of my chin. His fingers are going to leave bruises for a while. “You must have eaten something incredible if you’re being so bold. I didn’t let you live seven months ago so you could mouth off to me. You of all people know what happens when you piss me off, or maybe those telepaths repressed too much. What do you think?”

    “No, Herr Hoffmann.”

    “Do you know what I think?” Hoffmann asks, tightening his fingers on my chin. I turn my eyes away from him, seeking out Crawford with my gaze. Hoffmann is between us now, and Crawford is several feet behind him. His face is red from where Hoffmann hit him. On the other side of the room, my teammates watch in silence. I can hear none of them, not with Hoffmann between us.

    “No, Herr Hoffmann, I do not.” It was a stupid question, anyway. I’ve never been able to hear him and he knows that.

    “I think,” he reaches up with his other hand, trailing his fingertips down my cheek, “that you are a distraction. And I cannot afford,” his fingernails dig into my face, into the deep cuts he made earlier, “for my Oracle to be distracted. Do you understand that?” The smooth edge to his voice is harder now, and I can feel the crackle of his anger washing over me. I struggle to stay calm, to keep my expression blank. He was pissed when he showed up this morning and in the last few minutes I’ve managed to get him even angrier. I’m so stupid sometimes it amazes me. “You will not screw this up for us.”

    He hits me, one fist cracking into my face. I hold my ground under the blow, tasting blood where my teeth have torn the inside of my mouth. My gaze never falls from Crawford’s face; I keep it fixed there with every ounce of will that I have. “Crawford is a rank eight precognitive,” Hoffmann tells me. “He should have been able to see both. The only thing I can conclude here is that I have made a mistake. Letting him live was not that mistake; allowing you two to court each other was. You are troublesome and unruly, and you are the worst thing that could ever happen to one of my Talents.”

    I can’t quite catch the words in time. “I’m flattered.”

    I don’t remember falling back to my knees; it’s lost in the flare of pain that eats me alive from the inside out. When the fiercest edge of the blast fades and I’m left with the lingering echoes I realize that I’m kneeling. I’m gasping for air and choking on the blood that trickles more freely from my mouth. I gag on it but have to swallow it, as Hoffmann has leaned over to keep his grip on my chin. It keeps me from moving to spit the blood off to the side. He gives me a moment to cough, but I can’t get the ragged edge from my breaths. Crawford’s eyes are still on mine, and I blink away the black sparkles dancing in my line of vision.

    “I will not allow you to screw this up for us,” Hoffmann tells me, his voice several shades of ice. “The quickest and easiest thing to do would be to shoot you, but I must cling to the hope that your sorry hide can still be useful. Therefore, I will simply correct the mistake I made several months ago. Get used to sleeping in your own bed, Mastermind, because you’re not going to be welcome in the other one.”

    Before the words are even finished being spoken, Crawford takes a staggering step back. I can hear his shields creaking and splitting in places as Hoffmann forces his gift through. Nagi’s eyes bounce from me to Crawford and he watches with a wide-eyed stare. I throw my gift outwards, forcing myself through the cracks Hoffmann has made, telepathy and empathy racing side by side. I fight my way all the way down to the personal bond that fuels Schwarz’s mental room and throw everything I have against it, giving up several layers of my own shields to protect it. I have to retreat as Hoffmann’s mind brushes up against mine and I can only hope that I’ve done enough. I cannot stop what Hoffmann is doing but we can’t afford for his gift to break into that room and damage everything we’ve been working so hard for.

    I can feel the shaved edges of my shield when I return back to my mind; the voices are a lot more distinct now. Farfarello has always been clear and Nagi, what I’ve always been able to hear from him, is generally quiet. Now they are sharper and closer than ever before. Past them, even with Hoffmann's mind this close to mine, I can hear everyone in Takatori's estate. It's almost nauseating to feel them so keenly when I'm used to having them as a hum in the background. The only good thing I can say is that that damn chorus that’s been haunting me is washed away, labeled as my own thoughts and pushed down under what my gift is bringing in for me.

    Then Hoffmann releases Crawford, and the precognitive blinks a couple times, trying to reorient himself in the backlash of the empath's touch. Crawford straightens, reaching up to fix his glasses on his nose. His eyes, when they meet mine again, hold none of the tolerant amusement I've grown used to. They're the cool and distant eyes he used to always turn on me, back before he fell ill. I can only hold the stare for a few moments before looking away.

    Hoffmann lets go of my chin and straightens. I don't bother to get up, and the Soul Shaker turns and heads towards the door. "Do not screw up again," he says, and his words are directed to Crawford.

    "Yes, Mister Hoffmann."

    Dead silence follows his exit. Nagi and Farfarello look from Crawford to me. I keep my eyes on my burned arm for a few moments, gingerly touching the ruined flesh with a fingertip. It hurts; damn, does it sting. But above that sting is a sharper bite as I consider what Hoffmann has just done. Green eyes lift to Crawford’s face, searching the steady gaze that lingers on me for something, any sign that Hoffmann missed what he was going for. But Crawford’s eyes…see me without seeing me. They’re not my lover’s eyes, they’re Oracles eyes. Hoffmann didn’t destroy me with his gift this time like he has every time before that I’ve pissed him off, and yet…

    “Clean that up,” Crawford says, moving past me out of the room.

    …I can hardly tell the difference…

    “Ja…” I say quietly, but he’s already gone.

    Nagi leaps to his feet, hurrying over to me to examine the burn. I pull my arm out of his reach, giving him a rough shove away. He grabs at the hand that shoved him, fingers clenching tightly around it. “What did he mean by that?” he demands, a sharp edge to his voice. He knows what Hoffmann did, but he doesn’t want to believe it. “What did he do?”

    “Fuck off, chibi.” I yank my hand out of his grip and push myself to my feet. Farfarello watches in silence from the other side of the room; I can feel my teammates’ stares on me as I step into the hall. Crawford moves into the doorway of our bedroom, and he holds out a few things of mine. It’s not an offering; it’s an order. He wants all of my things out of his room. His room. Not mine. Mine is next to his now.

    I move towards him, reaching out with my good hand to take my things away. Nagi and Farfarello have moved into the hall to stand as quiet witnesses. Crawford leaves, heading towards the stairs. I watch him go in silence.


    When the numb shock of Hoffmann’s punishment wears off, I’m pissed. I’m pissed at everyone- Hoffmann and Schwarz both. I’m pissed at the Soul Shaker and I’m pissed at my now ex-lover. I’m mad because I can be, because it’s the only way I can react. A few weeks ago, Crawford told me he’d been watching me for a year. Seven months ago, I faced the Council down, forfeiting my life in hopes that they would let Crawford live. I killed Adashi and stormed away to their office to demand that they listen, to tell them to their faces that I wouldn’t be a part of Schwarz if Crawford wasn’t there. For months I visited him at the hospital, for months I did what the Council wanted and behaved because they’d decided to give me what I wanted. For months I watched as Crawford recovered, I watched his progress with his physical therapy. And he came home and we had sex for the first time and it was a night that changed everything about how Schwarz was run.

    A year. Seven months. So much time waiting and we were rewarded with a few weeks together. Hoffmann has taken it all away in one brutal sweep. My relationship with Crawford made me uneasy but I didn’t want it to end, especially not cut so sharply to pieces by that bastard’s gift. I’m mad at Hoffmann for doing it, mad at Crawford because he wasn’t strong enough to resist the German’s power, and mad at myself because I can’t keep it from hurting.

    I’m maddest at myself.

    I’m mad because I don’t want to room by myself, because I don’t want to just accept Hoffmann’s decision. I’m mad because I don’t like looking at Crawford and seeing that cool look in his eyes. I’m mad because I shouldn’t be bothered, because seven months ago I wouldn’t have cared, because somewhere along the way I’ve grown weaker when I’m supposed to be invincible.

    I give Ikida’s door a violent kick and send him a sharp mental summons. I had to come to his apartment because he’s not at the hospital for once. He practically lives in his quarters under the hospital, but now and then he returns to apartment. I happen to need him when it’s one of those times. I could have just made him come to Takatori’s estate, as I have the authority to beckon him wherever I wish, but if I didn’t put distance between Crawford and myself, I think I might have taken a swing at him.

    I redirected Hoffmann’s anger from him to me on purpose this morning, and the only thing Crawford has to say to me- the only thing he _can_ say to me- is to clean myself up. I need something to distract me. I need something to vent on. I need something to shred to pieces and destroy so I won’t have to worry about myself.

    It shouldn’t bother me so much.

    Ikida opens the door, mouth open to offer a greeting. He knows it’s me; I’m the only telepath outside of Rosenkreuz at this moment. The words die on his tongue when I thrust my arm forward instead, forgotten when he sees the burn that covers my arm. His eyes widen and he moves backwards out of my way quickly, beckoning for me to come in. I stalk past him and he shuts the door, throwing all four bolts into place. The doorway down the hall leads to a small kitchen, so I head there. Ikida hurries after me, gesturing for me to sit at the bar that must serve as his kitchen table. I plunk myself down on a stool, toss my jacket onto the stool beside mine, and glower in his general direction. He vanishes and returns moments later with a basin, which he fills with water and lugs over towards the counter. I ease my arm into it and he turns concerned eyes on me.

    “One must wonder how you’re drawing Hoffmann’s attention to yourself,” he says. “He assured me that he needed you in full working order for this newest job, saying that my presence would not be required.”

    “I _am_ in full working order,” I tell him acidly. “I came to you on my own two feet, didn’t I?”

    “That’s some consolation,” he agrees. Ikida, as the one who has always had to clean up behind Hoffmann’s little episodes with me, has a special spot in his heart where he does nothing but fear for my safety and sanity. Ikida and I go way back. He was there when Hoffmann had me for a year, healing my body while Hoffmann continued to shatter my mind. He worked with the telepaths to get me back in working order when I was finally released to Crawford, and he watched me for the first year after I was turned over to the precognitive, since I was skittish and had nightmares every night. It was his experience with me that got him transferred to Japan when Schwarz moved there, because Hoffmann wanted him nearby in case the fucker decided to show up and check on me.

    “That doesn’t explain what Hoffmann was doing with Schwarz,” Ikida says, washing his hands at the sink before coming over to the opposite side of the bar. He sets his hands in the basin, gently washing water over my arm. I pull my arm away, lashing out with my other hand to crack him upside the head.

    “That hurts, asshole.”

    “I guess you’ll have to get over it.” He pulls my arm back into the basin, a bit roughly. My breath hisses through clenched teeth and I have to make a fist on my pants leg to keep from socking him again. I settle for glowering at him. He ignores the glare, going back to rinsing the wound. “These are bad burns,” he says, turning my arm this way and that. “I don’t think there are any third degrees, but there are definitely spots that could be second-degree burns. Give me your hand.” He points to the one I hit him with. I glare at him a moment longer, quite content to vent some of my irritation on the doctor, and he stares back steadily. Finally I offer my hand, just because it hurts. He eyes the burns that mark the back of that hand and nods before putting it under the water as well. “These will heal fine. These,” and he nods his head at my arm, “are going to scar.”

    “I don’t want them to.”

    “Your vanity has nothing to do with it. It’s going to scar.” He goes back to testing my arm, fingers gently moving up and down the burn. It doesn’t matter that he’s trying to be careful; it still hurts like hell. “I’m going to guess,” and he gives me a intent look, “that this has something to do with Hirofumi Takatori’s murder.” When I don’t bother to answer him, he says, “It was all over the paper this morning, but I didn’t pay it much attention. I figured it was something the Council ordered you to do. But,” and he turns a significant look on my arm, “I guess it wasn’t.”

    “Apparently I distracted Crawford from seeing it coming,” I bite out.

    He offers me a faint smile, moving away to get a clean towel from a drawer and the soap from the counter. “It sounds like an educated guess.”

    Well, I won’t be distracting Crawford anymore. A dark scowl curves my lips before I can catch the expression and I turn away, fixing my glare at the wall to my side. Ikida turns back to face me and eyes my face, considering the dark look. He knows something has happened; he’s dealt with both me and Hoffmann long enough to know that Hoffmann wouldn’t have done this to my arm unless he was pissed, but usually it takes just amusement or aggravation for him to destroy me. He wonders why Hoffmann stopped there, and he’s wondering if the older German really did. It’s not like Hoffmann to just back off like that. But he’ll never guess what’s happened, and it’s not like anyone’s going to tell him. Well, Hoffmann might, just for shits and giggles.

    Ikida comes and stands on the other side of the bar, studying my arm in thoughtful silence. I ignore him. Without him poking and prodding at the burns, the pain slowly starts to fade. Finally he beckons for me to lift my arm and I let him wash it, gritting my teeth as he does so. The water ends up with both bits of burned skin and soapsuds in it, and I eye the messy water with disgust. He has me rest my arm on the counter while he rinses out the basin and refills it, and he washes the soap back off before patting my arm dry. I let him put cream on it and watch him bandage it up in silence. He says nothing else until he is done. “I want you to come by the hospital every day for the next few days,” he says. “I need to monitor the healing process and make sure there’s no infections, and I don’t think we’ll need skin grafts but I have to keep an eye on that, too.”

    “Whatever…” I grab my jacket and push myself to my feet.

    “Keep the arm raised as much as you can,” he says as I start towards the door. “You don’t want it to swell.”

    “No, I sure don’t,” I toss back at him, the sarcasm of the words buried under the acid tone. I let myself out and head down the walkway, passing the other apartments that line this floor. The metal stairs creak under my feet as I start down towards the ground floor and Ikida moves to the railing to watch me as I go. I shrug into my jacket although it’s uncomfortable around the bandages. The buttons hurt to fix, because even though only one hand has light burns on it, I can feel twinges in my arm as I pull them into place. I start off down the sidewalk, easing my hands into my pockets as carefully as I can. I walked here to make the trip longer, and my mood is still as black as it was when I headed out. It’s a mix of what Hoffmann’s done and the fact that my frayed shields are letting more in. I’m getting the beginnings of what promises to be a tremendous headache. I need something. I need some sort of distraction.

    When I reach the intersection, I find myself staring across the street at a mob of squealing girls. Their thoughts are high-pitched and grate against me, and I grit my teeth, trying to force them away. Narrowed green eyes bounce to the shop sign to see what could be so fascinating, and I find myself staring at the Koneko no Sumu Ie. Well, well, well…The litterbox itself. I push through the girls’ minds, shoving roughly through them. Our little samurai, the boring two, and…little Tsukiyono Omi. Ouka’s most precious. Hoffmann’s eyes.

    The day might be looking up.

Part 14
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