“For some reason…” Hoffmann says, “for some reason…I find myself quite pleased by all of this.”
The ground explodes beneath us then, sand and rocks flying upwards. Nagi forces his power back against Mosuli’s, fighting as hard as he can to protect the rest of us. They are evenly ranked but Mosuli was taught all of the particulars of his gift, whereas Nagi has been throwing his. But he tries, forcing everything he can around us. Another blast hits us, coming from the front, and we all slide back a few feet before Nagi can block it. We’re back in the water again, up to our ankles. Nagi makes a strangled sound in his throat, his arms folded in the air in front of his face, and he struggles to take a step forward. The air crackles white and black around us and Nagi’s arms are shaking.
“You’re a pitiful defense,” Hoffmann calls down to Nagi. “You haven’t been properly trained. You have a rank eight gift but you only have the mentality for a four.”
An impact without sound follows his words. I feel it jar my bones. Nagi grits his teeth and takes another step forward. Mosuli keeps up the pressure against my teammate’s shields as he lifts the Council towards the ground. They are lifted from the cliff and gently set down on the sand in front of us, and his gift never wavers. Mosuli tilts his head back, staring down his nose at the boy, and offers a lazy little smile. He slowly lifts both hands from where they were hanging at his sides, and I prepare myself for the hit I know Nagi won’t be able to stop. When Mosuli uses his hands it means he’s going to hit with everything he’s got.
I can see it as it comes; the force twists the air much like heat from a fire does. And just before it can reach us, Nagi throws his hands out to the sides. The rest of Schwarz is scattered, flung off to the sides, and I land roughly against sand and rock. Green eyes are wide as I watch the full blast hit our youngest Talent alone. The sound of it hitting his small body will forever echo in my ears. His body is thrown like a rag doll, but Mosuli catches him before he can go too far and brings him back, throwing him down against the sand instead. Nagi gives a harsh cry of pain and I struggle to my feet, starting towards him. I only get about three feet when I run into something. There’s nothing in the air but it’s like running into a brick wall, and I go stumbling back.
He pushes himself up on his hands and knees, and I can see blood dribbling down from him to the sand. Mosuli steps towards him and I push against my teammate’s shields, beating at it as I struggle to get through. The African comes to a halt just five feet away from my teammate and Nagi tilts his head back to meet his stare. A crackle of power washes between them but Nagi has given too much up already, has spent too much so far and is devoting everything he has left to the rest of Schwarz.
In one breath, I hear the sound of Mosuli’s gift hitting him again, hear the sick thud and squelch. In the next, I see blood spraying everywhere, hear Nagi’s scream, and realize- with a horrified shout of my own- that Mosuli has punched a hole right through Nagi’s middle.
Nagi slumps forward, his arms around his abdomen, his forehead touching the ground. His eyes are wide and unseeing, his mouth open as blood trickles like a sticky river from his lips. The sand beneath him is one crimson circle and for several feet past it there are splotches of blood.
Mosuli kicks him- takes a few quick steps forward and kicks him. His gift aids it and our telekinetic goes flying, landing a few feet from the water and rolling until he’s where the tide washes against him. He leaves a trail of blood behind him and the shield in front of me gives out. I was leaning against it and go stumbling when it vanishes, taking a few staggering steps forward both from the loss of my support and from the nausea and horror that is threatening to rip me apart.
Nagi murmurs something across our bond, but it is too weak to understand, and then there is a wrench in my head and I feel him disappear. I can’t stop the harsh cry of pain as I feel his mind ripped away from mine, and my hands go flying up to my head to tangle in my hair. I manage to get Nagi’s name out again but it’s harsh and barely audible. I feel like I’m the one who’s been punched in the middle, and I can’t tear my eyes away from my fallen teammate’s form to look back at the Council.
This was- this was my choice.
Crawford said Nagi would die for Schwarz, that he’d die for me. This was my fucking choice and Nagi died for it.
This is- my fault.
It is almost painful to breathe.
Farfarello is the first one of us to move, feet flying over the sand as he races towards Mosuli. The telekinetic lets him get within two feet and then uses his gift to send Farfarello crashing towards the ground. Sand goes flying everywhere under the impact and I twist my fingers through my hair, giving the long locks a savage yank as I rip my eyes from Nagi’s bloody form to where Farfarello is crumpled.
We have always known that facing the Council could mean death. We have always been certain that not all of us would walk away, deciding that we weren’t that lucky. But I never really stopped and thought, never really realized, that it would hurt, that it could hurt so much.
Mosuli’s gift crashes against me and I go flying backwards, hitting the sand and rolling. The force of impact rips my jacket; I can hear it tear and feel the sand biting into me. Mosuli is laughing as I force myself to my feet. Farfarello is struggling to get back up and Crawford is past the Irishman, getting up from where Mosuli threw him as well.
“Is this what you wanted to accomplish?” Hoffmann calls to us. “Is this what you wanted?”
Before I can answer, a gun shot rings out.
It takes all of us by surprise; the seven of us freeze as we try to figure out where it came from. And then Jean makes a small, strangled sound, and goes tumbling forward. I take a few quick steps forward, looking around, and finally spot the shooter. Ikida is standing about fifty feet away, his gun still raised. My mouth opens and closes soundlessly as I struggle to react. Mosuli reacts first, lifting his hand. Ikida is sent flying, out of view. He hits something and is out; he’s still alive but he’s unconscious.
“Stupid man,” I whisper, but there’s something like choked admiration lacing the words.
Then Farfarello is moving, flying up from the ground in a shower of sand. He leaps up, wrapping himself around Mosuli from behind so that his arms are hanging over the telekinetic’s shoulders. There is a flash of silver as he drives his blades home, sinking them both deep into the African’s middle. Mosuli makes a harsh sound and lashes out with his gift. It hits Farfarello with a sickening crack but he refuses to be knocked off just yet. I see him tilt his head to one side, his cheek brushing Mosuli’s, and he murmurs something into the other man’s ear that I’m too far away to catch.
Farfarello’s power explodes. I feel it surge over our bond, feel it pulse through the air. I’m dimly aware of Hoffmann’s startled sound as Farfarello forces his empathy into the African, forces his gift to twist the same way Hoffmann twists his. He drives the pain where he wants it through the tall telekinetic’s body, enforcing it enough that the pain is manifested in a physical reaction. Blood sprays everywhere; the wounds Farfarello made are stretched, racing outwards until Mosuli is cut clean in two. His face is frozen in an expression of shock as both halves fall towards the ground, and Farfarello falls to the sand with him. He doesn’t get back up; whatever Mosuli hit him with is enough that he can’t rise again.
“That,” I tell Hoffmann, taking a few steps forward. “THAT is what we want.”
The German whirls on me, his expression livid. “You impudent little shit,” he snarls, and I feel his gift explode across me. I feel skin tear and hot blood sprays everywhere, but for some reason I can’t feel the pain. I decide, therefore, to ignore the wounds and keep moving towards him.
“Why are you throwing everything away like this?” Aine had demanded.
“Freedom,” I had answered.
“You wouldn’t know what to do with it!”
“We can find something,” was Nagi’s reassurance.
What would I do with freedom…?
I draw my gun and aim it at Hoffmann. The skin on my knuckles splits and I can hear a crack as Hoffmann breaks the bones in my hand. The gun falls down to the sand and I regard it for a moment, then eye my hand. It still doesn’t hurt. Curious. Then I feel Farfarello’s mind washing over mine and realize he’s acting as an empathic shield. A slow, chilling smirk curves my mouth and I lift my eyes from my hand, tilting my head back to meet Hoffmann’s stare. Hoffmann realizes then what Farfarello’s doing. His icy blue eyes flick towards Farfarello before turning back to me, and I have the satisfaction of watching his eyes narrow to furious little slits. I’m only dimly aware of Crawford and Ahmed fighting thirty feet away.
Freedom is… a life without nightmares. The memories will always remain but the dark stain cannot be spread any further. Freedom is a chance to heal, a chance to be able to look over your shoulder without fearing what’s hiding in the shadows.
Freedom is a chance to stop being someone’s puppets, to make our own decisions and act how we like without having to check it with anyone. It’s where no one can tell us what to do or tell us that we’re doing things wrong.
Freedom is a pair of honey brown eyes and raven hair.
And freedom has always been worth dying for.
My feet fly over the sand as I blur towards Hoffmann. He catches my wrist before my fist can land and we whirl, snarling hatred at each other. I can feel his gift thudding into me, can feel the pressure of skin giving way. I ignore it, bringing up my hand to crash the heel of my palm into his chin. It throws his head back and while I know it doesn’t hurt him, the dark delight in landing such a blow feeds the hatred, feeds the adrenaline and the need to see him dead. You died for this, Nagi. And maybe I’ll die too. Maybe we’ll all die. But they’ll learn, they’ll all learn what it means to have tried to control us. They won’t have won anything in the end.
It’s a deadly dance, hits and kicks and a vicious power flying between us. I’m not slowed by what he’s landing on me because Farfarello keeps me from feeling it, so I use my speed to flit around him, use it to make sure I can land my own hits. I get a kick to his side that sends him stumbling, and I feel something give beneath my boot. Then something thuds within my leg and I realize he’s broken the bone. I struggle for balance, stumbling a little, and he comes charging forward to drive his fists into my stomach. It drives the air from my lungs for a moment I’m slumped over his fists.
“I’m not going to kill you today,” he whispers in my ear. “I’ll take you back with me, and you’ll be mine again. You’ll be an example to everyone, but this time there will be no one to fix you. You’ll die, but only when I want you to.”
I force myself upwards, surging upright even though I feel something grate in my broken leg, and land a ferocious blow to his face. “I’ll die one day,” I tell him, my words heated and twisted with hatred. “But I’ll die when I say so, and not before!”
He snarls something and kicks me. I can’t dodge it, and I can’t get my balance back when his foot lands in my stomach. My leg gives up and I go falling backwards. I push myself up to a sitting position, eyeing the bloody sand beneath me with some surprise before looking down at my outfit. Am I really bleeding so much? Then my eyes land on my gun and I reach out with my good hand, snatching it up and twisting to face him. Hoffmann tilts his head to one side as I point it at him and I know he’s about to shatter this hand as well.
Sand explodes upwards around me, forcing Hoffmann back. I don’t take the time to question it but pull the trigger. The sand falls away and Hoffmann has stumbled a few feet back. I’ve blown half of his throat away, and he stares down at me in stunned disbelief. He lifts a hand to the wound and his mouth opens, but only blood slides forth. I push myself to my feet though it’s damn difficult when one leg is broken, and I stare at Hoffmann in silence. Blood cascades down his front, sliding between his fingers and out from under his hand to stain his suit. His mouth moves again.
“Now you’ve done what my mother asked of you,” I tell him. “Now you’ve made me happy. She is on my side today.” With that, I lift the gun, aim at his forehead, and fire again.
He falls backwards, hitting the sand with a thud, and blood rushes outwards from him to stain the sand. I stare down at him for several moments. The gun falls from my hand and I look out at where my arm is still outstretched. My fingers are shaking badly and I finally pull my hand back, putting my trembling fingers over my mouth.
Dead, dead, dead.
My personal Satan is killed.
I turn to find Crawford, almost falling down as I do so because I can’t use my broken leg. My vision tilts in front of me. Black sparkles dance before my eyes. I see Farfarello first, and maybe I’m hallucinating, or maybe I’m dead and seeing another ghost, but Nagi is kneeling beside the Irishman. They’re both watching me, and I think maybe Nagi is a ghost because his face is white as a sheet when I turn towards them.
“Schuldich…” He gets out, and my name is hoarse on his lips.
I look past him, still searching, and finally I spot Crawford. Ahmed is sprawled out on the ground and Crawford is still standing. Their fight just ended, and even from this distance I can see that my precognitive is breathing heavily from exertion.
“Crawford,” I try to call him, but for some reason it doesn’t come out very loud. I feel warmth trickle between my lips, down my chin. Somehow Crawford hears me anyway, and he looks up towards me. I feel my lips pull into a smirk as my vision starts to swim, and I reach towards my lover as I try to take a stumbling step towards him. The step is too much and I stumble, unable to get my balance back. I see the sand for a few moments before it swirls to a pool of black and I realize that I’m falling.
I can barely feel the hands that catch me before I hit the ground, and think maybe I’m imagining them, anyway.
“Is this what freedom tastes like?” I wonder. “It tastes so much like blood…”
My television flicks itself off and I scowl at my guest. He sends me an unrepentant look in response, stepping through the room and inviting himself to sit on the end on my bed. “Don’t you think you watch a little too much television?” Nagi asks me, lifting a hand to brush his bangs out of his face and turning to rest his back against the board at the foot of my bed. “It’s all you do.”
I arch an eyebrow at him. “What else am I supposed to do?” I ask, gesturing around at the rest of the room. “I’m bored as shit here.”
“You could read,” he offers, and I make a rude noise to let him know my opinion of that. Someone else moves into the doorway and Nagi turns a smile towards her, reaching out his hand to beckon Tot closer. She offers me a smile in greeting and steps into the room, coming to stand behind Nagi. She’s made a little wreath of flowers and she hooks it over the pole at the foot of the bed.
“A little color,” she announces proudly. “I thought it would liven things up a bit here.”
“How sickeningly sweet. I’m touched.”
She just grins at me, leaning forward to drape her arms over Nagi’s shoulder. She perches her chin on his head, and I study them for a moment in silence. Once upon a time, Nagi stole a serum for immortality to protect this girl. But he had no time to be gentle with the shot, had no time to explain anything, not when the rest of Schwarz was upstairs and about to come out, not when everyone else was in the middle of a fight. It hurt her, and she hadn’t understood what he was doing, so she yanked it back out and stabbed him in retaliation. I dimly remember her looking up the stairs towards us where we were carrying Fujimiya Aya, one hand closed over her arm where Nagi had injected her. I remember Nagi being sick for days afterwards, as the serum had never been meant to be injected into a Talent.
But it was still enough, in the end, without anyone knowing it. I am willing to forgive Tot everything, for being enough to drive Nagi to do such a thing for her, for being so upset as to stab him with the shot back. I am willing to forgive her everything, because I watched Mosuli punch a hole right through my teammate, because I felt him die, but in the end we didn’t lose him- even if that’s not what Tot intended to do when she stabbed Nagi back.
Nagi arches an eyebrow at me under the scrutiny. “You two make me sick,” I declare. “My stomach twists at the abnormal cutesiness.”
He just smiles, a ghost of an expression. “Crawford will be by soon.”
“And that means what to me?” I ask primly, finding a cookie from a tin one of the nurses brought me. I nibble on it, offering Nagi a bland look. I haven’t seen a lot of Crawford these last two months, mostly because I’ve spent the majority of the past sixty days unconscious. I still sleep a lot, and I always seem to miss Crawford when he stops by. I’m starting to think he plans it that way, and it makes me want to kick him. I see Nagi, Tot, and Ikida a great deal. I chat with Farfarello a lot because he’s in the next room over. Mosuli broke just about every bone in his body and a couple things in addition, so we’ve been trapped under Ikida’s care since that day. The good doctor spent a long time chewing me out for what we did, not because he thinks it was wrong but because we put so much at risk. I’d let him fuss at me with a smile on my lips and then sent him to fetch me some coffee.
Nagi’s eyes are amused and he lifts his shoulders in a slight shrug. “Either way, I just came by to let you know that I was accepted.”
“Were you?” I ask, arching an eyebrow at him.
“We both were,” Nagi says.
I regard them for a moment, turning this news over in my head. Nagi had thought to go back to school. I’d told him that he might as well wait and take a few months off to relax, but since the school year is about to start again, he reasoned that waiting meant he would have to wait a year. I didn’t see what the big deal was about such a thing, but hey. It’s Nagi’s life now. A long time ago, I told him education would get him nowhere. I believed it. But that was a long time ago, and so much has changed since then. We are free men now, and that gives Nagi the right to go to school, the right to try and find something else. And as free men… I know he will succeed.
Not that I’ll ever say that to him. Instead I give a heavy sigh and an exaggerated shrug of my shoulders. “Whatever rocks your boat.”
“Right,” he agrees. Tot untangles herself from him and he slides from the bed, padding over towards the window. He flips the lock out of place and rolls it up, letting a cool breeze sweep through the room. “For some fresh air,” he says. Tot finds his hand and leads him towards the door, and they pause before stepping out. “Ikida says just a little longer… So hurry up and get better.”
“Maybe I’m comfortable right here,” I send back.
Nagi just offers me the ghost of a grin and follows Tot through the door. I reach for the remote to turn the television back on but my hand pauses before I can get my fingers around it, and I study it for a few moments. Finally I sigh, shifting from where I’m propped up in bed, and turn my eyes towards the open window to study the blue sky beyond.
Crawford stops by not even an hour later, and I’m actually awake this time. It’s maybe the fourth time in two months that it’s happened. I’ve been drifting in thought since Nagi left, but I tuck everything aside as the precognitive steps through the door and wiggle my fingers in greeting. There’s a small chair beside my bed that Ikida uses, and Crawford lowers himself to sit in it. It makes me taller than him, and I look over at him with a grin. Mosuli hurt him with some hits and Ahmed roughed him up, but he never had to be admitted to the hospital’s care. He got off lighter than any of us. Well, Nagi was scratch free when he got back up from the sand but to get that way he’d had his insides punched out. I think Crawford wins with the better deal.
“I’m honored you’re gracing me with your presence,” I drawl. “What’s the occasion?”
“Pieces of Rosenkreuz have been stopping by,” he answers, and I arch a brow at him. “They want to know what they’re supposed to do from here. The school is in an uproar, close to shambles, with the Council gone. We are the highest ranked Talents.”
“So they came to you…” We killed the Council. We have ranks even to what they were, save for Farfarello, who is somewhere above where Hoffmann was. My grin twitches on my lips. “Was” is such a beautiful word. “What did you tell them?”
“I told them that I didn’t care what they did, and to leave us alone.”
I laugh. They’d come here because they didn’t know what else to do, because the hierarchy of the school had been upended. They’d come to us because we were the ones to do it and we are the most powerful Talents standing. They’d come to us- to see if we were going to take the Council’s spot. I turn the thought over in my head, only half amused. They’d come to see if Schwarz would be the new Council. And Crawford had spoken for all of us when he told them to get lost. Let the school struggle to fix itself on its own. We are free men. Free… It’s an exhilarating thought.
“So…” I say, tilting my head to one side to regard Crawford. “What comes next?” We’ve defeated Estet. We’ve defeated the Council. Aine asked what we would do with such a freedom. Now we have to figure that out.
He considers me in silence for a moment, studying my eyes. At last he gives a slight shrug. “Whatever you want,” is his answer.
I feel a slow smirk curl my lips. “Wirklich?” I taunt him.
Silence again. We study each other, green and golden brown judging each other and all that we have been through. A light breeze washes through the room, tugging at our hair. I can smell the flowers, can smell Crawford’s cologne. I reach up to push my bangs out of my face and my hand brushes Crawford’s as he moves to do the same. I pause, falling still, and watch him carefully as he brushes orange locks to one side.
And then, the edges of a smile twitch at Crawford’s lips. “Wirklich,” he echoes.
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