*2052

XXIII Anti-venom

Protea

It was nearly four hours before Drakey and I received news of Kruger. The over-crowded hospital was not the place to treat emergency patients, but it was the best option we had had aside from a Medbay, which we didn't have. I sat in silence, breaking vigil every now and then to check on the boy stuck in the same stunned silence as me. I found it absolutely incredible, if not completely impossible that Drakey had found me. I didn't know if Kruger had tracked me somehow, or if I had simply been that bad at covering my tracks. Either way, the only feeling I had was a swelling sense of happiness. I was happy that fate had brought the cobra and I back together, regardless of the dire circumstances.

Eventually, the doctor met us in the waiting room and explained what had happened to Kruger.

"You two are the… next of kin?" The doctor was only inquiring, but I don't think he appreciated the derisive snorts he got from both Drakey and I. He continued with a small scowl. "Friends, then? Either way, you two were very lucky to bring Agent Kruger in while you did."

Drakey and I looked concernedly at each other, wondering morbidly what could've happened. The doc went on.

"I've notified his team and coordinators. CCB, eh? They'll be here tonight to pick him up—"

"Um, no," I interrupted him, speaking purely out of impulse, "we'll be taking him back to his home." Drakey looked at me questioningly, and I improvised with, "H-He asked us to. We are friends…of his. So…Um, yeah. You can send the bill to his address…"

The doctor looked at me strangely, but seemed to buy it. "Alright then… Anyways, it was extremely good of you to get him here as soon as you did. He was very nearly dead by the time he was wheeled into ER, and he actually expired before we got him on the bed." The doctor held up his hands in reassurance as both Drakey and I gasped in horror. "We were able to revive him though, using a shot of C3-25 adrenaline and a good old defibrillation. If you know what that is, you'd guess that we had to restrain him. It's got a big kick to it. Also, you should know that there was a near toxic level of alcohol in system," he said sternly. "You should let him know about that when he wakes up. We've also set him up with a drip to flush the alcohol out his system." The doctor studied us both. "Keep an eye on him. If you're the only ones he has, I'd suggest staying that way.

My heart began to hammer at the thought of staying with Kruger. I reached out with a shaky hand and thanked the doctor. "Thank you, doc, for doing all you could," I sighed honestly. The gut-wrenching feeling I got when I thought of Kruger dying… It was bizarre. Although, I thought to myself, I think we're over the "I'd like to see you dead" phase and into the "I'd much prefer you alive" stage… With a heavy heart,I trudged back to the waiting room with Drakey. The doctor told me that he would ferry the bill to Kruger's team, and graciously comply with my wishes of sending it out a day later. He also said that since they had Kruger under sedation, a sister company to Mercy hospital would "deliver" the mercenary to his home. Perhaps it was because he was a mercenary that they did this for him. Either way, the boy and I were grateful we didn't have to drag a sedated Kruger the whole way home in the dark.

The staff at the hospital were kind enough to lend a hand in carrying Kruger out to the cab. We thanked them again and got in the CCB army truck that acted as our own private coach. The personal cab brought the three of us back to Kruger's apartment later that night. I received special instructions on how to operate the nifty little portable drip Kruger would need for the next 48 hours. It was neat device, probably a token from the CCB for their men to use in emergencies like this. I had asked why Kruger needed the drip. The doctor had explained that in all his years of medicine, he had come to trust his hunches - this developed into a thought about the mercenary's state he was in when I had found him. He said that foam from the mouth doesn't happen spontaneously, usually, and that he wanted to cover all bases, just in case.

"In case of what?" I had asked.

"Poison."

A shiver had gone down my spine then.

We arrived at Kruger's apartment and somehow managed to drag him up the single flight of stairs. Within a half hour, Drakey and I had hauled the deadweight up the stairs and laid him on his bed. He was still groggy, but blissfully unaware of his situation. He slept deeply, unhindered by anything.

Drakey and I settled in the grungy living room. I noted that it was the cleanest room of the house, one of the only ones without a dozen empty beer bottles in it. The boy stretched out lazily, reclining further into the surprisingly soft couch. I looked over at him, wondering how he could persist in staying by Kruger's side. Perhaps it was where he was meant to be, he seemed like the soldierly type, definitely. But not now. He was so young, and anyone would know Kruger was probably the least responsible adults Drakey could end up with. I snorted with dark humour at the thought of Drakey calling the mercenary "dad".

I must have drifted off, for when I woke up, sunlight was pouring in through the ratty blinds of Kruger's apartment. It even took a moment to register where I was, and when I did, adrenaline spiked me awake. Part of my body screamed at me to run, while the other told me to stay perfectly still, like a mouse caught in a trap.

Curiosity overtook me and I rose silently from the couch and walked towards the sleeping Kruger's bedroom. Taking extreme care to keep silent, I cracked the door open just enough to peer into the dingy, darkened room. A sliver of light cut through the boarded up window in the dark bedroom, landing squarely across the mercenary's bare neck and shoulders. I took a deep breath and opened the door a little further. Drakey was asleep in another room. His bedroom, from what I gathered of the situation. I stole a look at the mercenary again, musing at how much I had misjudged his capacity for compassion.

Approaching Kruger sleeping was just as you might think it would be; like creeping up on a sleeping lion, praying you wouldn't wake it because you knew it could rip you to pieces if it wanted to. I studied him from a distance, thinking about the last week, and thinking about how much he had changed in my perception.

I guess I've changed pretty drastically in his eyes, too…

My thoughts were interrupted as Kruger stirred slightly in his bed. My heart kicked into arrhythmia. I briefly wracked my brain for reasons I should be here. I really shouldn't. I should leave. What could possibly keep me here? In Los Angeles for that fact, let alone Kruger's home. His crew would be here. What would they say if they saw me here? This was a dangerous place to be, like in the back of a snake's pit, waiting for the serpent to come back and find an intruder in it's nest.

Is that what I am here? An intruder?

As I battled with the idea, a little six-letter F-word formed partially in my head. I shivered at the thought of it. I continued to watch Kruger shift a little in his bed, watching the muscles in his chest contract as he breathed. I couldn't tell now why my heart was beating so madly; the fear or the fluster. Curious, I checked the drip attached to Kruger's arm.

It was a pen-like device that had a thin clear tube sticking out the bottom of it. The end of the tube disappeared into a shapely metal plate in Kruger's forearm, a similar attribute I noticed he bore now all over his body. Pieces of metal on his face, chest and arms that looked to be part of something else. Either way, the metallic bits were a part of him.

As I was monitoring the drip's liquid levels, keeping a hand on Kruger's pulse and an eye on the clock, as I was told to, Kruger woke up.

He woke up slowly, first sighing deeply to wake up his body. Then, after very long moments, he opened his eyes. His head was turned towards the window, away from me. As he stared lazily at the pinprick of light, I held my breath and slowly crouched low. I didn't move my hand from his wrist, just stared up at him from the edge of the bed fearing these were the last moments of my life. The moments before the lion recognized your presence, before it attacked. He muttered something unintelligible, and yawned.

Bolt out of here, he can't catch you when he's like this. You can go free forever.

My thoughts were of no solace. I thought I had already done that, gotten away. And I did. But… I came back.

My warring thoughts were almost enough to knock me off balance. But I stayed put, still as a statue, as Kruger's eyes turned slowly to meet mine.

Time seemed to stop in that moment.

Kruger

Time froze.

Her eyes, her eyes… They were right there. Right here, right in front of me… I doubted reality. This couldn't be real. Protea had vanished, run away from me. She had gone. Forever…

But no. No, this wasn't real.

Right hand, clench…?

Moments passed… My hand did as it was commanded.

Eyes, blink…

My eyes fluttered in disbelief.

It'sreal

Protea's eyelids fluttered, too. She was just as confused as I was, but for different reasons. I was wondering where I was and what had happened. I thought for sure I was dead. I was sure that was Hell. That light, though… What had it been? Thoughts of confusion, surprise, shock, anger and fear crossed my weathered mind as I tried to compute everything at once. Finally, mercifully, the only thought that eventually flooded my mind was relief.

"Hi…"

Her voice was like a soothing blanket around my trembling shoulders. And though I was not cold, or trembling even, it was enough to quell the fire I felt in my brain. I could only blink in response, still shocked as to why she was here. I still couldn't trust my eyes.

Suddenly, my bedroom door opened, and Drakey appeared in the doorway. His face lit up as I watched him, and he came bouncing up beside the apparition that looked like Protea.

"Kruga!" he cried softly. "You're awake! I knew you'd make it." The boy slung his arm around the girl, behaving as though she were there. I blinked madly, trying to adjust my eyes, thinking it was just a trick of the light.

"What happened…?" I managed to ask through gritted teeth and a hoarse throat. Protea's eyes seemed to go glassy, and a look of relief passed over her face. I thought it strange she would be concerned in the slightest for me. She…hated me. Right?

"Drakey found me," Protea started, a little shakily.

"You were almost dead, boss!" the boy shouted, throwing his arms in the air. "Actually, ya did die…"

I blinked, trying to understand, looking to the supposed Protea for information. She responded by blinking just as madly. "By the time we brought you to the hospital… You were dead. They said that you died as they got you on the bed." I tried to understand what she was saying. Could this have been why I had seen and felt such a vision of Hell? Maybe I had actually been there and back.

Scary.

"They had to revive you with C3-25 and a shock," Protea explained, looking worriedly at Drake.

"Must've hurt like a bitch…!" I laughed weakly, having felt the pain of the wicked strong adrenaline before. Maybe that explains the freakish nightmare I had…

Protea hardly chuckled. Drake put an enthusiastic hand on her shoulder. "I'm gonna go git somethin' to eat. Ya have any chedda', meisie?" he asked Protea, sticking out his other hand.

"No, sorry, Drakey," she apologized, shaking her head.

The little boy straightened up, a proud grin on his face. "Well, then… I guess I'll just have to make some." Protea's eyebrow raised in question. "Steal it, Protea! Sheesh…" With that, he bounced out of my bedroom and out into the streets to pick many a innocent bystander.

Good kid, I smiled inwardly.

"It's good to see you can smile after all this."

I was caught off-guard by her eyes on mine. I guess I'd actually smiled a little after the boy. A defensive scowl crossed my face and I sneered in derision. "I don't smile…" I growled.

The girl nodded, smiling a little herself, albeit in an annoying, teasing way. "Yeah. Okay, sure…" In a movement that looked tense, she cautiously sat on the edge of my bed by my feet. My body tensed. She looked sad. Or confused. Or tired. Something like that. Either way, she looked about as defeated as I felt. "You know… The first time we met wasn't actually the first."

"Eh?"

"We've met before."

I wracked my brain for an answer. I couldn't conceive of one. "I don't recall…?" I ventured curiously, propping up on one shoulder to get a better view of the girl.

"It was years ago… You shouldn't remember." Protea took a deep breath, looking thoughtful. "I was young, maybe sixteen, give or take a few Medbay-shedded years… I was with my dad. You were just a soldier then, I think. I remember walking with my dad through the CCB. He was repairing some of the equipment in the military's wing. He brought me along cause he wanted to show me how the Medbays worked from the inside out…" She smiled, as if looked back on fond memories. "He was so great at fixing things… I mean, he ought to be, considering he built the things—" Protea stopped herself, shutting her mouth. My eyebrows furrowed in confusion, silently asking her what was wrong. "You know…" she eventually said, "When you asked me why I left Elysium? I didn't really have an answer. Part of me wanted to stay, but… Part of me didn't want the weight of my family on my shoulders…"

"The weight of your family…?" The curiosity in my voice surprised even me. Suddenly, I felt guilty for interrupting. I grumbled something that may have been an apology, and ducked my head away, grunting at her to go on. I heard her sigh again, and continue.

"Well… My family - my father - was actually the first to…to develop the Medbay technology…"

I was thankful that Protea couldn't see my eyebrows jump up in surprise and amazement. I hadn't ever given much thought to the admittedly awesome technology that the royals on Elysium had access to, the tech that could theoretically give immortality. As I was thinking about all that power, Protea went on and I shut my thoughts off.

"I just didn't want the responsibility of my father's legacy… I wasn't ready… Regardless, he sold the invention to Elysium, and since he was the only one who knew it's base programming, was invited to board Elysium as one of it's first citizens. That's how I ended up there. I was born there… Anyway… Um. So he took me with him that day to the CCB, to the prison… Only, it wasn't a prison then. It was more of a military hangout, I guess. It was a place where mercenaries and soldiers got their new weapons and gear. What do you call that? A bunker? Never mind. But… But that day I saw you. I swear, thinking about it now, it was you."

I felt Protea's eyes on my turned away head. It took strength to keep from looking back at her. I

wanted to, but I didn't. I shook my head in understanding, though I did not, and urged her to carry on.

"I think it was, anyway…" she mused to herself. "Did you wear your hair shorter back then? Around *'52? All I remember is my father pointing out each of the soldiers in the room, and telling me each one's names and their strengths."

What was mine?

"Yours was your cunning, your ruthlessness, at such an early stage in your tour… Your… Eagerness to destroy"

Protea trailed off, as if the sentence had somehow changed who I was in front of her eyes, as if the last few days didn't exist. I could feel the fear in her as she gazed at me sidelong. I could scarcely make out her profile as I gazed sidelong at her, too. I was reminded of what I was, what I am. Suddenly I felt afraid. Afraid of losing her for the third time. This strange, unidentifiable attachment to her, this possessiveness had taken over my thoughts the last week. I couldn't name what it was; I had never known it before.

This must be some sort of syndrome, I thought bitterly. Suddenly, I felt the weight lift off the foot of my bed. I bolted upright, a jolt of adrenaline rushing through me at the thought of Protea vanishing. My heart just about burst when I saw the look of shock on her face.

You're still here…

Panicked, I thought madly of something to say. "Eh… Please, eh… Pl-Please stay… For a little while…l-longer…" The word 'please' felt strange in my mouth. Foreign. I stared into her eyes, as if there were some invisible tether that held her to me, and I bade her to return to my bed. I shifted slightly on my shoulders, though not reclining back.

What the fuck is wrong with me?!

Protea was shaken by me, but she nodded briskly, afraid.

Please, don't be afraid…

Her eyes flickered around me, around my face and body. I couldn't tell what she was thinking. Her body read flight. She was ready to run again. Like a startled bird, prepared to whisk itself away from danger in a second.

I would do anything to keep her from getting away again.

I went to lunge for her, to grab her. I managed to grab hold of her wrist. She fought against me, flinging her arm in different directions to try to throw me off. My grip was soft, but firm; I did not want to hurt her, but I could not let her go. If only she could understand! She continued to fight, lunging with her other hand to rip away mine. Protea grabbed my wrist and slammed it down next to my head, sending me falling back against the bed. The force with which I fell brought her tumbling forward down on top of me. Abruptly, she stopped fighting. She stared, panting down at me, eyes wide and pulse racing.

Protea

I could hold myself back no longer.

Feeling the breath, terror and tension explode forth from me, I kissed Agent Kruger with such ferocity I could hardly decipher what I was doing.