"Heart rate is normal considering his status, and his vital functions don't indicate any abnormalities." The doctor closes his briefcase with a snap of closures and rises from the chair next to the bed, straightening his tie and smoothing the wrinkles in his grey suit. He is an elderly man with manicured fingernails, hair perfectly parted to one side to cover the bald spots of impending death.
"What are his chances of recovery?"
He looks at the man who asked the question and tilts his head to the side as if weighting his answer; the still form on the bed behind him now should be answer enough he thinks, but this is not what Brad Crawford wants to hear, and Kusanagi knows that.
"Physically, he is all right, as I've already indicated. He's just, how do I put this, out of it. Closed off."
Crawford nods at this, letting his chin sink down to his chest nearly, eyes on the man on the bed, then glancing at the person sitting in the chair opposite of where Dr. Kusanagi sat.
"So we just leave him as he is, and wait for a miracle?"
"Yes," comes Kusanagi's answer. "You have my telephone number, if any changes in his physical appearance occur, do not hesitate to contact me. There is nothing I can do for him at this point."
"I'll escort you to the door." Nagi quietly offers, opening the door for the doctor, and leaving the room with a worried, tight expression on his face.
Crawford waits until Nagi's and Dr. Kusanagi's footsteps have faded down the corridor before he crosses the room, stopping at the foot of the bed.
"You have a psychic link with him. Is he in there somewhere?"
"I don't know," Farfarello answers softly, moving only his lips. "All I hear is silence and water."
"Yes.like waves slowly moving over sand. Calm. Peaceful." He turns his head away from the still form on the bed, golden eye meeting eyes behind glasses. "He will wake up again."
"I hope so." Crawford crosses his arms over his chest. Schuldig looks as though he is sleeping, his eyes tightly closed, not even a tremble of eyelashes marring the perfect illusion of peaceful rest. "In this condition, he is useless to us."
Farfarello never moves his gaze away from Crawford's face; the words just spoken touch a chord within him that demands he should rip Crawford's face off for that comment, but he cannot bring his muscles to obey his mind, cannot rise, cannot draw a knife, cannot carve a smile into their leader's emotionless face. So he at least forces his muscles to turn his head and locks his eye on Schuldig's face again.
"We shall keep him in this room; Schuldig is a powerful psychic, perhaps the best mind reader I have met in my time. If there is one person who can find their way out of a mind, then him. We'll wait and see." Crawford turns from the bed. Reconsiders, and looks back over his shoulder. "I hope this does not interfere with our working relationship."
"How would it?" The Irishman's voice is low and even. Perhaps too even, Crawford thinks. He is surprised by Farfarello's reaction to it all, surprised the man has not started ranting and raving yet, as Crawford would have expected him to.
"You obeyed Schuldig more than you ever obeyed my direct orders. If you start disregarding orders now, I will have you killed."
Farfarello only nods.
When the door to his and Schuldig's room closes, he rises from the chair and steps closer to the bed, looking down at Schuldig. Peaceful. That is the only word that comes to his mind to describe what the German looks like in his coma. He thinks about the mornings, or midday's, or nights he woke up next to him, staring at his face until Schuldig woke or Farfarello fell asleep again. There had been something incredibly soothing about just watching Schuldig sleep; knowing how constantly on the move Schuldig was while awake, watching him sleep was the only time Farfarello could really watch him. Watch how that chest rose and sank with the even breaths. Watch how those eyelashes trembled, or how that mouth smirked when the German was dreaming. Even in sleep, there had been times when Schuldig's smile had been nothing but malicious, as if even in sleep, he was planning, or listening, or trespassing into someone else's mind.
Toeing his boots off, he slips his shirt over his head and lets it fall to the floor, followed by his knives and his belts. Barefoot, he walks around their room, drawing the shades and dimming the overhead lights. Then, when all is to his satisfaction, he slips into bed next to his pain, curling up into a small, tight ball, and closes his eye, nestling his head into the pillow.
He wants to sleep.
And finds he cannot.
Eye sliding open again, he lets his gaze follow the thin plastic IV that connects Schuldig's body to a bag filled with clear liquid. One by one, drops fall from that bag, flowing into Schuldig's veins to keep him nurtured, because he cannot eat of his own accord. Cannot piss of his own accord. Cannot speak. Cannot laugh. Cannot smile.
And yet does live, this parody of life, like a photograph in a frame hanging on a wall to keep a memory alive, of times that once were; better times, good times.
Times before the explosion.
"Kusanagi says it might be good if we hired someone to take care of Schuldig's, eh, physical needs."
Crawford looks up from the report lying on his desk and studies Nagi for a long time. The youth is standing in the doorway to Crawford's office, and the American knows he feels so much like a trespasser.
"I don't wish for someone from the outside to have access to this apartment, Nagi. Not even someone from Eszet."
"Well, we can't just leave him lying there all day. Farfarello is going to think we're neglecting him."
"Afraid for his well-being?"
"Afraid for my own." Nagi leans against the doorjamb and frowns, staring a hole into the carpet of Crawford's office. "Farfarello ... I don't know. He is too calm. I'm afraid I'll wake up one night pierced to my own bed like a butterfly to a piece of cardboard. Schuldig was ... is the only one who can really keep him calm."
"Farfarello isn't stupid. He knows that if he wants to keep Schuldig alive, he better sticks to orders."
Nagi glances up, sighing. He has been awake for more than 24 hours now, following the aftermath of what happened at the Kourin Research Center. A mad rush to get there and pick up the pieces, so to speak, followed by forcing Farfarello into stillness with his powers to allow Kusanagi to tend to the Irishman's three broken ribs, have taken their toll on the youth. Crawford, he is sure, fares no better - there are dark shadows under their leader's eyes, lines carved into his forehead. Crawford's suit is wrinkled; oddly enough, to Nagi, this is the most clearly readable sign that something is not right. Crawford takes great care of his physical appearance.
He remembers how Crawford suddenly sprang up from the couch, those 24 hours ago, hand reaching up to his throat as if something had grabbed him there, choking him. The usually calm, cold eyes had been wild behind their glass shields, nearly panicked - now, they are calm and cold again, yet underlain with something Nagi cannot pinpoint. The mad rush is in the past and has left its traces, but Brad Crawford looks to the future, not the past.
"Doesn't help us much if he decides to kill us first and then watch Schuldig until Eszet comes to eliminate him." Sighing again, Nagi shakes his head slowly. "I just feel uncomfortable with him all ... silently lying there as if he were already dead. None of us knows how to treat someone in a coma. We'll have to wash him."
"I will think of something." Crawford's eyes fall away from Nagi's face perhaps a little too quickly, returning to the report before him. "Now go to sleep. We need to find out what happened at Kourin. The entire building has been nearly razzed to the ground, and Takatori is not happy with it. The fire department is still pulling 'horribly disfigured victims of the fire' out of the ruins."
Better than calling them monsters, Nagi thinks, suppressing a shudder of disgust. He and Crawford had arrived before the fire that started in the underground lab began to eat at the rest of the building, and found their team members lying in the middle of the old school yard. How they had come there was anyone's guess; both had been unconscious, and according to Kusanagi, Schuldig must have been put in his current state with a single blow. Farfarello had not been the one carrying the German out there, either - his own words describing a horrible noise and then nothing. Crawford, at least going by what the American has let on about what he has seen in his vision, only saw them both thrown in the air by the explosion, not what happened before or afterwards.
Nagi turns, reaching for the door handle. Without looking at Crawford, he asks, "Do you think he will wake up again?"
"I don't know." A heavy sigh. "I can only see so much, Nagi. And the future constantly changes."
The youth nods. He hasn't really expected an answer, anyway.
When Nagi has left, Crawford turns his chair so it faces the window. A new day is dawning, the first light of a slowly rising sun creeping over the sky from the corner of his window, bringing with it rosé and mauve shadows, white clouds.
Waiting. There is only the monotone ticking of a large clock on the opposite wall and the occasional nurse hustling by, busy with a chart or an armful of medication. It is rare that anyone pays them any attention safe for the glance in their direction and maybe the raising of eyebrows, or a slow twisting of the mouth.
And really, they prefer it that way.
In the sterile, white corridors of the hospital, Youji, Omi and Aya appear like a black smudge of dirt. The smell of old blood and smoke hangs heavily around them; adding to that the smoke of Youji's cigarette, the fifth in a row. Even Aya is too tired to bitch at him about it; even in the ritual of Youji lifting the cigarette to his mouth lies something calming, soothing. There is an air of fatigue around them, an air of accepting desperation.
They look up as the door to the room they are waiting next to opens and rise as the doctor comes to stand before them with a somber look, a chart in her arms. There is a serious, guarded expression on her face as she takes in the three young men; all of them with dirty faces, bruises, blank eyes. She has been working for Kritiker for a long time now, but has never come face to face with the members of Weiß; now that she sees them, she is a little bit ... disappointed? Her mind does not come up with a better word. One of them seems too young to be a killer.
But then again, one is never too young for killing.
"You are his teammates?" She asks although she knows. In the last two hours, she has been fervently working on the broken body of Ken Hidaka with Manx standing in a corner of the room, the Kritiker agent's melodious voice muffled by the antiseptic cloth covering. For someone whose team has just been literally ripped apart, Manx had appeared remarkably calm.
"Yes." Aya Fujimiya answers her, a weary look on his blood-streaked face. He is moving the fingers of his right hand absent-mindedly, rubbing the thumb and index finger together as though he wants to remove something from his skin. Midori Anda suspects it is a nervous habit he has picked up over the time; she would not be surprised to be told he chewed on his fingernails.
"How is he?"
"Well," she holds the chart up before her, flipping pages. His eyes, she notices, are fixed to a point between her eyes, as though he could not bear to look into them directly. "He has suffered severe burns on 89% of his body, including the face. Seeing that Mr. Hidaka was closest to the center of the explosion, I guess you can say he was lucky he came out alive at all. We had to amputate his right hand." She looks at them. "The metal of his bugnuk was fused with the wrist bone."
No word from any of them. Youji Kudou's face has gone slack, the cigarette hanging forgotten in the corner of his mouth. Omi Tsukiyono's eyes are suspiciously bright; oh please, do not start to cry. Please.
"His right lung has been nearly rendered useless," Doctor Anda goes on, flipping another page. "We have him on a respirator for now, it remains to be seen if he'll be able to breathe without one in the future. Lips, nose, gums, tongue, and the front of his throat are burned down to nearly bone - I suspect he inhaled some of the fire. Both his eyes were burned out. Seven ribs are shattered, arms and legs are broken, and the back part of his skull has been nearly crushed. Again, he was lucky. I've treated patients who'd undergone the same and were in a much worse state than he is in now." Midori Anda sighs and tilts her head. "By all means, he should be dead."
"Will he live?" Aya's voice cuts through her report, making her look at him. A moment of silence passes as she takes in his tight features, the grim line of his mouth.
"Yes," she finally answers, flipping the pages back and holding the chart beneath her arm. "Yes, he will live - however, I can't tell you yet how. With any luck, if he makes it through the next four weeks without a heart collapse or a serious lung problem, he'll be able to walk on his own. Needless to say though, his time as a member of Weiß is over."
Aya nods curtly.
"Can ... can we see him?" Omi Tsukiyono asks haltingly, refusing, as Aya, to look at her directly. Casting a glance at the closed door to Ken Hidaka's room, Midori Anda nods thoughtfully.
"Ten minutes. Make sure you don't touch him. We have him under a sterile tent - an infection at this point in time will kill him."
They wait until she has disappeared around a corner down the corridor, and then just stare at each other. It is Omi who finally opens the door and enters first. Youji and Aya look at their youngest team mate's back, then at each other. It is clear that neither of the two really wants to go in there. As if on unspoken command, Youji turns and follows Omi, spitting the butt of his cigarette to the floor, grounding it out with his heel before he enters.
Aya is last. Right index fingernail scratching the side of his thumb nearly raw. He does not want to go in there. He doesn't want to see this. He hates hospitals.
Nevertheless, he follows.
A respirator is a machine that, crudely put, pumps air into a body not capable of doing it itself. It does that with a rhythm that, listened to long enough, sooner or later will remind one of the sound of Darth Vader's breathing through his black mask of death in the movies of Star Wars.
Now if only Ken's face would like even remotely like Darth Vader's, it would be an improvement, Omi thinks mirthlessly as he peers into his best friend's face, a plastic plane between them. The room is filled with a steady hissing sound and the rhythmic pumping of the respirator; it takes Omi a few moments to find out where that hissing comes from: another air pump, filling the tent Ken lies under with cleansed air. It is with detachment that Omi takes in the respirator tube between Ken's teeth; teeth, because Ken doesn't have lips anymore. He is grinning around the clear plastic because he has to - the eternal grin of a skull. His eyes, or rather, the place where his eyes used to be, is a ruin in black, charred flesh. A thick, moisturizing paste has been smeared over the planes and hollows of his face to keep it from drying out. It makes him look as though he is fresh from the womb, still covered in the fluids of his mother's body.
Omi is thankful that the rest of his body is covered with a sheet. No, not covered. Not really. The sheet has been tied to metal hooks in the plastic plane, keeping it raised a good ten inches above Ken's chest. Probably to avoid the cloth from sticking to the skin.
A heavy sigh makes him stand up and look over his shoulder. Youji is standing behind him, staring at Ken, his hands shoved into the pockets of his torn, dirty coat. The brunette's face is blank, his eyes wild.
Aya is hovering by the door. A part of Omi frowns at the thought of Aya not wanting to come closer, of Aya not wanting to look at Ken. Is it fear? Revulsion? Omi doesn't know. The black thoughts that come with the thought taste so much like honey gone vile.
"Afraid to look?" he snaps after minutes of leaden silence have passed, and steps away from the bed, pointing at it with a harsh gesture. "That's Ken in there, you know? Don't you want to see him?"
Aya does not answer, but he steps closer. Under the black smudges and bruises on his face, he is very white. His eyes wander, over the plastic tent, over the machines, finally coming to rest on the still form cradled amid all the technology and plastic. If Omi has expected him to flinch or turn away, he is now disappointed, for the silent redhead simply stares at Ken from where he stands, taking everything in like a sponge sucking up water.
"I have seen him," Aya announces after a moment has passed, shifting his gaze from the tent to Omi, and then to Youji. Omi can only shake his head - too much mixing together now, too many emotions running havoc within him. His arm drops from where he was pointing at Ken while Aya looked. The silent stare-down between Omi and Aya continues until Youji clears his throat.
"We should go. Ten minutes are over."
Aya is last to leave the room.
Back in the flower shop, Omi wordlessly walks up the stairs to his apartment and bangs the door shut behind him. He ignores Manx, who is standing in the middle of the sales room, not even sparing her a glance. The woman does not turn to look after him, either, instead fixing her eyes on the two remaining members of Weiß, who enter through the back door like empty shadows, bringing with them the scent of death and blood.
"We have much to discuss," Manx announces as soon as Youji closes the back door, and turns. Youji and Aya follow her into the kitchen, where she puts her purse on the table and takes a seat in one of the chairs, folding her hands on the table top. "Well, sit down."
After a moment of hesitation, Youji sits down opposite her. Aya slips out of his coat and throws it on the counter, where it lands with a jingle of buckles. He paces the length of the kitchen, arms crossed over his chest.
"Say what you need to say, Manx."
She sighs. "There is no need to be hostile towards me, Aya. I didn't fuck up this mission."
"No. You didn't. We did," Youji says tonelessly, reaching into his coat pocket for his cigarettes. "And we fucked up grandly, didn't we?" His voice takes on a note of mirthless humor. "Oh yeah, we did. Fucked up good and well. Fucked up - "
"Be quiet," Manx interrupts him sharply, seeing the signs of hysteria. "The mission was not a total loss."
At this, Aya stops his pacing and turns to her, composure gone rigid and cold. "Ken is in a coma, and you're telling me the mission wasn't a total loss?" He takes two steps, ending up next to Youji, hands slamming down on the table top as he leans over it, bringing his face close to Manx's. "What is a total loss? All four of us in a hospital breathing through a fucking tube down our throats? All four of us buried?"
A frown creases Manx's brow as she leans back in her chair, away from him. "I didn't say that."
"No, that you didn't." He straightens back up, a wall of ice descending over his features; at once, he is again Aya Fujimiya, composed and cold member of Weiß.
"Kritiker agents have gone through what's left of the underground lab you discovered. You were on the right trail - Masafumi Takatori did have his hands in the monster attacks that have been plaguing Tokyo for the last few weeks, we managed to retain some of them as samples. In that, the mission was not a total loss. The bodies of Masafumi Takatori and two females were found among the ruins." Manx takes a slow, deep breath. "We could identify them. The blonde's name is Karen Kitaura, she was a former model for Act & Beauty Industries. What she was doing there with Masafumi is a mystery to us. The other, Aoi Chizuru, was a member of the Japanese Self Defense corpse about three years ago prior to her dismissal based on "unethical behavior. She was a trained scientist. Both were reported missing to the police. They were believed to be dead up to now. "
"There were two more," Youji remarks, lighting a cigarette. His hands are shaking. "One with blue hair, a girl still. Couldn't have been much older than eighteen. Another - "
"We found only two," Manx interrupts again. "Kritiker did a very thorough search of the accident site. Do you want to know how the explosion happened?"
Neither of them answers, but Manx goes on nevertheless. "We believe Ken accidentally caused a short circuit, thereby overloading the generator that kept all those machines running. While fighting with Kitaura, he must have stabbed his bugnuks into one of the machines. Karen Kitaura's body was nearly fused with one of the stabilizers."
"Then how do you know it's her?" Aya asks.
"We found her head." At this, Manx looks at her folded hands. "She literally ... exploded."
Silence at this. Both Aya and Youji imagine how lucky - if lucky it can be called - Ken was.
"The reason why I'm here though ..." Manx trails off, reaching for her purse, " ...is this." She pulls a flat disk case from the purse, holding it up between two fingers for Aya and Youji to see. "This is the replica of a surveillance video that could be salvaged from the rubble. Luckily, our teams got there before the fire started to expand from the lab to the upper floors."
She rises. Aya and Youji follow her with their eyes as she walks over to a cupboard and slides it open, revealing a small TV screen behind the wooden pane.
"I don't want to see some fucking surveillance strip now," Youji snarls, crushing his cigarette out. "I just saw my friend lying in a hospital bed, barely alive anymore. Can't this fucking wait?"
"No." Manx inserts the disk into a slot on the bottom of the TV screen and presses a few buttons, then steps away so Aya and Youji can see. For long moments, there is only static bristle, the screen black. Abruptly, the picture changes: they are looking at the square yard that lies in the middle of the Kourin Research Center, barely illuminated by security lights. Both Aya and Youji flinch as a loud explosion rips through the silence of the scene, followed by a cloud of gray wallowing into the picture from the right side.
"The security cameras are triggered by motion. If triggered, they follow whatever is moving around in the yard," Manx comments, briefly looking at the two. "A few minutes prior to what you see now, there was a scene recorded where something obviously triggered the cameras, but our people couldn't find anything. It must have been a cat or something, that, or whatever was moving down there was gone too fast for the cameras to pick up. Now look."
The scene changes again. The cameras is doing wild swings as an orange glow begins to flicker from where the dust cloud came from, and finally holds still, capturing a small, grainy scene playing out in the yard.
Youji leans forward. "What the hell ..."
Even from afar, even with dust and fire nearby, Aya is clearly recognizable on the TV. His black coat flutters about him like a scarecrow's wings. He is carrying someone; black-clothed like he himself, the two figures merge for seconds as Aya leans down to put the other on the ground and disappears from the scene, only to reappear moments later, carrying another person. Dragging, more like it.
"Who are those two, Aya?" Manx asks quietly as the Aya on the screen puts the second person down and disappears again. The screen stays on the scene for a moment longer before it suddenly blackens out. "It's neither Omi nor Youji."
The screen stays black until Manx pulls the disk back out of its slot and slides the cupboard shut again. She remains with her back turned to the two for a moment, counting the silent seconds as they tick by. Youji looks from her to Aya, who has gone as still as a frozen forest.
"You had time to drag two strangers out of there," Omi's voice cuts into the silence, cold, shaky, but underlain with steel, "but you didn't have time to help us?"
Aya closes his eyes.
There are hazy images of a face above him, leaning over him as the world comes crashing down. His ears are ringing from the deafening blast only moments - or hours? - ago. The face is young, dirty, smudged with black and blood. He cannot move. There is something heavy pinning him down, something too heavy for him to move or shove away.
"I'll get you out of here."
He can barely hear the words above the din of the fire and falling ceilings. Hands brushing something silken; turning his head he sees Schuldig curled next to him, face turned away from him. There is a small pool of blood under his pain's head, soaking hair that in the orange light of the fire seems to have a life of its own. He opens his mouth to call out to him, tell him that he will not leave him, but all that comes out is a rough croak and a mouthful of blood.
Hands on his shoulders. The heavy weight pinning him down is lifted. Turning his head back to the stranger above him - looking familiar, looking awfully familiar, but there is no name he has for this one - Farfarello blinks, once, twice, and slips away into darkness.
And slips out of darkness again as he opens his eye to the dim light of the room he shares with Schuldig. His head is nestled into something soft - Schuldig's hair, fanned out around his head. The Irishman lies still, contemplating the way his arm is draped carefully around Schuldig's still form, watching how the limb rises and falls with Schuldig's breathing. It is rhythmic, this breathing. Comforting. He shifts his gaze upward, slightly moving his head, and looks at Schuldig's profile in the dim light. He doesn't know how much time has passed, and right now, he does not care. In sleep, he has molded his body to fit Schuldig's, lying with their legs and torsos touching. Now he has time to study Schuldig, and he does, until the door to their room opens and Crawford strides in.
"Farfarello. Get up."
His eye shifts again, to the American standing in front of their bed, arms crossed over his chest. Once again, Crawford's suit is impeccable, hair perfectly combed save for those few errand strands that escaped. When Farfarello does not move, the American sighs and uncrosses his arms, stepping closer.
"Takatori has called. We don't have much time."
Not an outright order this time, no, more of an explanation. The subtle difference makes all the difference to the Irishman as he slowly rises, carefully lifting his arm from Schuldig's chest and drawing the blanket up to the telepath's throat. He can feel Crawford's eyes on his body as he stands and stretches, can feel them sliding over the bandages covering Farfarello's waist.
See something you like, Oracle?
Crawford averts his gaze, studying one of the photographs hanging framed on a wall above a small dresser. Farfarello smirks.
Didn't think so.
"What does the old man want?" He finds his pants and slips into them, now and then glancing back at Schuldig on the bed. It was strange, getting dressed, knowing he would soon go somewhere with the telepath staying here, the living statue.
"Answers." Crawford steps closer to the photograph he has been looking at. It' s black and white, showing the banks of a river, a bridge peeking out of banks of fog slowly rolling across the water. "It seems the surviving members of Schreient turned up."
"Ah." Farfarello finishes lacing his boots and reaches for his vest, slipping it on without a shirt, lacing it.
"Have you eaten?"
"No." Two serrated daggers, slipped into ankle sheaths. Two throwing knives, hidden in his belt. He can feel Crawford's eyes on him again as slowly, twelve knives find their hiding places on his body. Twelve knives he can draw in the blink of an eye. "I'm not hungry."
"Schuldig took care of that, didn't he?"
"I know when to eat!" He snaps the answer, turning on one heel, arms at his sides. To his satisfaction, he sees Crawford sway; not take a step back, but sway. A miniscule retreat.
To an onlooker, the two could not have been any more different. Crawford in his perfect suit and shined shoes, designer glasses perched on his nose. Farfarello in his black leather, soft and worn with age, combat boots, scarred skin. White hair against black hair. Warm brown eyes against yellow. Even their posture tells them apart. Crawford stands ramrod-straight, shoulders pulled back. If he does it to appear taller or because he has been raised to do so - no one knows. It all adds to the perfect picture he makes.
Farfarello stands nearly slumped, one hip cocked, head slightly tilted. Everything about him speaks of the uneasy feeling one gets when staring at a tiger with nothing but bars between. There is nothing perfect about him to a casual observer; only in fight, Farfarello is perfect. The perfect killer machine. Not even Crawford, with his ability to foretell an attacker's moves, dares to go against him.
"Let's go." Crawford turns. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees Farfarello look at the telepath on the bed, sees him hesitate. "We'll be back in a few hours."
If it was meant as a reassurance, then it is not clear whom it is supposed to reassure: himself, or the Irishman.
"Aya, who were they?"
Manx's voice holds a modicum of impatience as she strides towards him and slaps her hands down on the table, much like he has slapped his hands down on the table a few hours ago and leaned over it to look at her. This time, the roles are reversed.
"I don't know," Aya answers. Again.
Across the kitchen, Youji and Omi stand silently, if one does not count the silent sobs wrecking Omi's body from time to time. He is sheltered in Youji's arms - confined, more so. Youji is holding his wrists, loosely, but ready to grab on should the youth made a move toward Aya at the table. In Omi's eyes, accusations and hatred chase each other, flow in two silent rivers down his cheeks. He is trembling, but if it is with rage or sadness, Youji does not know.
Youji himself does not know what to think. It is hard for him to believe that Aya dragged two complete strangers out of the burning underground lab while the rest of Weiß fought to get to Ken, whose screams of pain were the only indicator that he was still alive. For a while, at least. When the screams had died down, Youji and Omi had dug at the rubble barring the entrance into the room Ken had chased the blonde woman into with renewed vigor, fire licking at everything around them. Maybe it had been simple stubbornness not allowing them to turn away and safe their own skin. The brunette can barely remember how he and Omi had picked their way across parts of a slowly collapsing ceiling, trying to get through a wall of fire that parted them from Ken. He had forgotten about Aya.
Only when a blast from a fire extinguisher had made them a way through the fire wall, had Youji remembered about the redhead. After that, nothing. The next thing he knew was waking up to sirens and nausea, a Kritiker agent bent over him, yelling his name. They had been in a car, on the way to a hospital under Kritiker's wings. How they had gotten out of the research center - that he does not know.
But he can still smell the sickeningly odor of burning flesh and melting bones.
He shies away from thinking about the monsters trapped in the underground lab, about how their glass coffins have become their final coffins. It is with sickening irony that he realizes Manx is right about one thing: the mission was not a total loss.
They had gone there to stop monsters.
There were no monsters anymore.
"Aya, please - I know you're under a lot of strain, but please try to remember. Have you ever seen any of them before? Was one of them a woman? Was it two men?"
"I don't know," Aya repeats, and sighs. "I don't remember them. I didn't even know there was someone in the building except for us and the four women."
Manx straightens up and sighs as well, reaching up with her right hand to pinch the bridge of her nose as if warding off a headache. They have been at this for an hour now. An hour of asking the same questions, an hour of getting the same answer.
"Don't know my ass," Omi whispers balefully, biting back more tears. "They weren't with us down there. They must have been on the stairs, or somewhere near to us, but they weren't with us. You went through the entire lab and up the stairs to drag them out - both of them. How did you know there even was someone?"
"I don't know."
"Omi..." Youji holds the youth tighter, but Omi struggles against his grip, teeth bared.
"Fuck you!" Omi repeats, louder. "Do you hear me? FUCK YOU!"
"I heard you." Calmly, Aya looks at his team mate and rises from the chair. He turns to walk to the door, but Manx's voice stops him.
"We'll have to investigate this, Aya," she says softly. "Omi is right in what he said. You had to know somehow that there was someone."
"I didn't lie," Aya says, remaining with his back turned to her, to Omi and Youji. He steps out of the door, closes it behind him, and walks through the flower shop. At the swing door leading to the stairs leading to their respective apartments, he stops and lifts his hand to look at his fingers. There is dirt under each fingernail, he can feel it. Pushing through the door, he slowly makes his way up to his apartment.
No, he has not lied. But he hasn't said the truth, either.
"I want that disk." Omi's voice is still thick with unshed tears, but at least he has won back some control over himself. Youji, at the table, looks up from lighting a cigarette.
"Why?" Manx stops on her way to the door and looks back at him.
"I can try to enhance the images."
"Omi, Kritiker's best computer specialists have tried that. There is no - "
"I want that disk."
The Kritiker agent hesitates. Her gaze shifts to Youji, but the brunette only lifts a shoulder in a slight shrug. She has three copies of that disk. One in her purse, the other two in Kritiker labs. What could it hurt?
Omi's eyes gleam hungrily as Manx places the disk on the kitchen counter and leaves without another word. He makes his way across the kitchen and snatches it up, cradling it against his chest as one would cradle a treasure, or a child. Distantly, he can hear Manx close the back door to the flower shop.
"Omi," Youji says softly, "what are you looking for?"
"Answers." Comes the curt reply.
"Answers." Reiji Takatori's voice is calm. Much too calm, Farfarello thinks, for someone who has lost his son barely two days ago. "I want answers."
In a corner of Takatori's office, the two surviving members of Schreient are huddled close together on a couch. Tot and Neu are bandaged, and Tot's left arm is in a sling. The girl is sniffling, too afraid to cry, the fingers of her right hand twisting the hem of her ripped, dirty skirt. Her knees are bruised, and there is a long gash bisecting her forehead. Next to her, Neu holds herself rigidly still, the lack of her visor making her face appear naked. A good part of her hair has been singed away in the fire she has escaped from with not much more than her life.
In the other corner of the room, Crawford reaches up to adjust his glasses. Nagi, his back turned to the window, has fixed his gaze on the carpet. Farfarello, hovering by the door, is staring at Takatori.
"My son just died in a fire. With him died a lot of research, and the fruits of this research." Takatori moves along the length of his desk like a caged tiger. "Crawford, two of your men were there."
It is not a question, neither a statement. Crawford nods, measuring his next words. "I had sent them there because I had foreseen trouble for your son. I didn't, however, see exactly what happened."
Across the room, Farfarello is staring daggers at him, but Crawford ignores him for now, the lies slipping from his lips easily. "Schuldig and Farfarello were sent to investigate. They were not prepared for what occurred. Nor are they responsible for it."
Across the room, Farfarello slips a small blade from his belt and drags his finger across the edge, easily parting the skin. Crawford sends him a warning glare, his right hand flat against his thigh. He is slightly taken aback by the fire burning in the Irishman's single eye; a fire directed at him. Farfarello's face is drawn tight with anger; it is boiling beneath the surface, ready to explode forth. Crawford's mouth draws into a grim line, lips draw back from teeth to mouth a silent "no". At the window, Nagi is observing Farfarello's every move.
Tot, on the couch, is watching the display with wide, scared eyes.
Takatori does not notice it. "It was Weiß," he states, still moving. "Again. They have once again interfered with my plans. This time, they went too far."
"Yes, sir." Crawford does not take his eyes from the Irishman.
"I want them dead," Takatori says lightly. He stops his pacing and looks at Crawford, noticing with annoyance that the leader of Schwarz is not even looking at him. Following Crawford's gaze, Takatori looks at Farfarello. The nutcase. The beast of Schwarz, as Masafumi has once jokingly called Farfarello.
There is something unsettling about watching Farfarello, Takatori decides. For as long as Schwarz have worked for him, he has paid little attention to the silent, white-haired Irishman; now he does, for maybe the first time, really. He takes in the scars, the deathly white skin, the unusual color of the single eye. Takatori knows Farfarello and Schuldig are lovers; he is not fond of either man, but as long as they do their job and guard his back, he is able to overlook certain things. And if there is one thing Farfarello is good at, then it is killing, and Takatori knows this. He has seen people Farfarello killed. Or rather, what was left of them.
"Why don't you let our Irishman here do the job, hm?"
At this, Crawford turns to him, a nearly startled expression on his face. "Sir?"
"Well, seeing that it was Weiß who caused his ... lover to be in a ... less than functioning state now, I'm sure he'd appreciate the chance to get back at them?" Takatori lifts his chin. Farfarello's gaze has settled on his face with an intensity only found in a snake's stare; the Japanese refuses to look away, refuses to give in. "With your back-up, of course."
Crawford doesn't answer to this. Takatori turns to the two women on the couch, seizing them up. Neu's face is passionless. Tot seems scared out of her wits. He sneers as he thinks that his son trusted either of them to protect him, or the experiments. In Takatori's opinion, women should not be trusted with jobs meant for men. Women are soft, fallible. They act on emotions rather than on calculation.
"I want to help," Tot suddenly pipes up.
Across the room, Farfarello snorts. Even Crawford and Nagi cannot keep the smirks off their faces, circumstances aside. The youngest member of Schreient defiantly lifts her chin and attempts to stare Takatori down; he gives her credit for this. Not a lot, but enough to smile. A fake smile, of course.
"And what, little girl, do you want to do to help?" Takatori asks smoothly, leaning against his desk, his arms crossed over his chest.
Even Crawford is surprised as her gaze turns to Farfarello. He watches the Irishman closely as he watches Tot.
"I'll do whatever I have to do." Tot's mouth quivers, but she manages to look at the snake's stare.
Neu, silent up to now, nods suddenly. She turns, looking first at Crawford, then at Takatori, and finally, at Farfarello. The Irishman raises an eyebrow.
Crawford would give anything to be a mind reader right now. Anything.
Part 3: Chapter 5 | Fanfiction