Ok, I'm sorry. 2013 was a pretty crap year for me all round. The less said about it, the better.
I'm even more sorry to say that the next chapter doesn't look like it'll be appearing any time soon as I have a horrendous on call rota at the moment with few days off and those that I do have are spent revising for what is reputed to be the hardest post graduate medical exam in the UK. Go me! (note the sarcasm on that last sentence).
So folks, thank you for still being with me and I'm sorry for being a poor responder to reviews and an incredibly slow updater.
It's not likely to get any better.
Disclaimer: I don't own PoT. I don't even have ownership over most of my weekends any more.
He couldn't believe what he was seeing. Here before him was the sprawled body of his friend's father, looking as though he had passed away mere moments before he arrived. Nanjiroh's face was slack, his eyes half-lidded and his gaze was vacant. He looked like Eiji's brother did when he'd taken too many painkillers for his broken ankle: dazed and just, out of it.
Eiji enjoyed a brief moment of calm as he categorised the aspects of Nanjiroh's broken body and then, the panic took over.
'Oh my,' his mind began swirling in a vortex of alarm as his thoughts flew past faster and faster like a flock of sparrows. As his head was spinning faster, so was his breathing and he thought he was about to pass out from how quickly and shallowly he was breathing.
"This isn't happening, this isn't happening, this isn't happening," he said aloud, his voice tremulous and weak. His hands began to flap, like a pair of inefficient wings and his heart was beating in his chest; a trapped bird trying to escape.
Moments before he had a mental breakdown, he could feel it. Something flitted across the borders of his mind, a brush of something so familiar it sent a shiver down his neck. The small hairs on his nape began to stand on end, rising as a result of the primal instinct humans never really lost; the instinct of prey. He looked around, trying to see where the touch had come from, but the dark church looked the same as it did moments before.
And then, the whisper once more; a memory from the Fudoumine case and Eiji knew what he was feeling.
"Oh, Ochibi," he lamented mournfully, "I'm so sorry." And silent tears broke their cage and wound their way down his cheeks in sorrow for his friend. For an untold number of minutes, he kneeled there, next to the inanimate body of his friend's father; a man he met earlier that very day but had such vigour about him, it was impossible not to get sucked into his orbit.
A push against his mind from the younger Echizen caught Eiji's attention once more. He could only imagine what the young telepath was going through but he could feel him in his mind. There was no anger or sadness. Simply reassurance and a plan. Eiji could see it before his eyes, he knew it in his mind, he could taste the words on his tongue.
"Alright Ochibi," he said, straightening up and steeling his resolve, tear tracks drying on his cheeks. His indigo eyes tinted with a determination as hard as diamond as he set his shoulders and exhaled a breath with little more than a hitch.
"Show me what to do."
Oishi was standing with the others, staring at the trio in front of him, locked together as though frozen in time. He stood on the sidelines as Eiji joined the fray with the two Echizens. He had known Eiji for many years to the extent that he was regularly at the other's house. Consequently, he knew more about Eiji than most, probably even more than Eiji's own mother. He knew what the redhead looked like when he was happy, how he acted when he was upset, what he said when he was afraid.
And, as creepy as it sounded in Oishi's head, he even knew what Eiji looked like when he was asleep. And, knowing all that he knew and having a veritable encyclopaedia of Eiji expressions in his memory, Oishi could say with an absolute certainty that this was the stillest he had ever seen Eiji. Even in his sleep, Eiji was a mass of energy, an uncontrollable sprawl of uncoordinated limbs and heavy breathing.
Eiji looked liked he had been captured in time, frozen for the world to see as though a statue made from looking at a Gorgon of Greek myth. A melancholic photograph for all to witness.
Oishi could also say that it scared him. Eiji wasn't meant to be still. Eiji was made for twitching and leaping and smiles. This pale, frozen imitation in front of him was not his best friend and wasn't even registering to Oishi empathically any more to the extent that Oishi, for one brief moment, thought he was back at St Rudolph once more. Eiji always gave of an impression to Oishi, a psychic marker that Oishi could always feel, no matter how far away the other was. But this, this thing pretending to be his friend gave nothing away, as though all the life and feelings of Eiji had been sucked away.
And it made Oishi want to throw himself to the floor, beat his arms and legs and wail like a child to have his friend back.
It was close to two minutes since Eiji's hand came in contact with the young telepath's arm but to Oishi, it felt like an eternity. The trickle of blood on Echizen's neck had long since dried; a vermillion river, wending down to his collar, reminding him that the three before him were not simply frozen but all was not well within the confines of the mental space. Oishi traced Eiji's face with his eyes, looking for any indication of what may be happening within but, like his body and his feelings, the redhead's face had become disturbingly blank.
To Oishi, Eiji's face was akin to an open book; easily read and easily understood. Even when laughing, Oishi could tell when Eiji was crying. He had seen an entire myriad of expressions on the redhead over the years but he had never seen it so devoid of emotion, as though he had been replaced by an automaton.
And then, the three sprung into activity, and they sprung apart as though touching a live wire. Despite intellectually knowing that Eiji was alright, Oishi rushed to him as the others crowded around the father and son who had both collapsed to the floor in an ungraceful slump. The council room descended into chaos, a cacophony of sound rising from the clamouring councillors and shouts from the concerned psis interspersed amongst them. Oishi was relieved to see that Eiji was still standing although he was wavering unsteadily at an alarming frequency. He approached the redhead in a daze, ignorant to the cries around him.
He could vaguely see the others reaching the Echizens, circling them; a flock of buzzards dancing around a carcass. He could distantly hear Tezuka's and Atobe's voices, competing for attention with Ryuuzaki-sensei's commanding bark.
"He doesn't have a pulse," Tezuka dictated, managing to convey a calm tone with a sense of frenetic urgency. Fuji was quick to jump into the fray with Kawamura, the pyrokinetic delivering chest compressions as the receptor psi pressed his lips to the body beneath him in a firm manner (1).
Atobe was barking orders on his phone, demanding an emergency ambulance with Sakaki-sensei intoning on his to alert the nearest hospital equipped for psis.
"I have a pulse on this one," Ryuuzaki-sensei curtly said and Kevin and Momoshirou were swift to move the unconscious weight into the recovery position and were even swifter to move out of the way when the Echizen began to vomit profusely, bleeding crimson streaked clear fluid from his nose and ears (2).
The rest of the Hyoutei squad were doing damage control with the assembly, placating them with hand gestures and soothing words and leading them from the hall with promises that they would be in touch. Ohtori and Shishido began to shepherd the counsellors to another room, a brief glance from Atobe confirming that they were to stay put until further information came through, along with the council members.
All this clamouring occurring in the background, Oishi was aware of it but it was as though on a television screen. Background noise, nothing he was a part of. His focus was on Eiji. He was relieved when the trio broke apart, happy when Eiji sat himself down and was grinning openly when he reached him.
That smile quickly slid off him like warm butter and his growing jubilation vanished when he saw the look on Eiji's face (3).
The Emergency Room at Lennox Hill Hospital (4) was, in a word, pandemonium. The harried receptionists were doubling as triage nurses as they tried to prioritise cases based on the people in front of them. The waiting room was packed with people ranging from a two month old child who, Atobe suspected, had colic to a seemingly ancient old man who looked about ready to keel over. Feeling uncharacteristically altruistic, Atobe stood and gestured to the man to take his seat, gaining a relieved look in return. Just as the frail old man reached it, he was uncerminoniously shoved aside by a heavily stumbling young man, smelling strongly of alcohol.
He was disinclined to sit there however when the seat strangely iced over in a threatening display of icicles. The old man seated, Atobe joined the rest of the teams who had decided it would be safer to set themselves against one of the walls. When the paramedics had arrived and bundled the two Echizens and Kikumaru into the ambulances, Oishi, Sakaki-sensei and Ryuuzaki-sensei had ridden with them and were now wherever they had been secreted, leaving Atobe and Tezuka to attempt to rally the others together. They had made it successfully to the Emergency Room and, after Tezuka had informed the receptionists of their arrival, they had formed a line along the wall.
Atobe had to say, looking at them, they formed an intimidating bunch. Kaidoh was scowling and hissing up a storm, standing next to a poster about "The warning signs of stroke" and Momoshirou was next to him, glaring at a stain on the tiled floor. At the other end, Fuji was grinning manically, scaring more than his fair share of people, especially when coupled with the poster next to him stating "Feel free to ask us about flu-vaccines" and a thumbs up sign.
Atobe signed heavily. He thought his squad was hopeless at times but Tezuka's took the biscuit. It seemed that they had lost any modicum of social skills and were standing around like angry robots.
Although, if it had been one of his squad on the other side of the barred doors, Atobe and the Hyoutei squad would have been tearing at the doors like an angry tiger. In that respect, he was amazed at Tezuka's composure.
He himself felt a small urge to go on a motherly rage after seeing what had become of the young telepath and the others. He had become a little fond of the snarky black haired boy since they first met in the park that day. It wasn't often someone freely bantered with him in a scathing tone that matched his and when Echizen responded to his egotistic remarks with acerbic comments, it made him feel, well, normal.
Although he partly blamed this fondness on a little traumatic bonding on his part.
And so, Atobe took this feeling and did all he could to help Tezuka. He pulled strings with the authorities, sweet talked the leaders and threatened the underlings and got them to the hospital in well under five minutes.
And when Tezuka nodded at him, a briefly grateful look in his eyes, Atobe knew his actions were not for naught. Had he been in Tezuka's position, there would have been no force on earth that could have withheld him from his injured team member.
He motioned across to the entrance with his eyes, pointedly looking at Tezuka and departed. Half a step after him, Tezuka pushed away from the wall as well and followed him, neither teams making any mention of the departure of their captains aside from a brief look exchanged between Oshitari and Fuji. Picking their way across the waiting room, avoiding dubious looking stains and even more dubious looking people, they went through the automatic doors and took a brief walk to the smoking shelter next to them (4). The smokers in the shelter briefly looked up at the newcomers and promptly ignored them, all of them stubbing out their cigarettes and rushing back inside when the temperature became sub-arctic.
Knowing Atobe's intention, Tezuka quickly formed a soundproof barrier around the now empty shelter and they had their perfectly secretive, seemingly not-so-secretive, place to talk.
"What do you think happened?" Atobe asked, sitting on one of the benches and wrinkling his nose primly in disgust. Tezuka could almost hear his internal diatribe at the cleanliness of the surroundings.
"I am uncertain," he responded, thinking through all the information to hand to try and achieve a conclusion, "but I believe that a psychic trap was triggered, by whom I don't know. All I can extrapolate is that the trap must have been triggered and then, defying what was said earlier, they somehow got out."
"As is the brat's wont," Atobe muttered. At Tezuka's glance, he elaborated, "defying what was said earlier. Seems to be Echizen's modus operandi, doesn't it?"
At that, Tezuka's cast iron expression melted into something a little softer. Going from platinum to gold, a mere iota more approachable than his usual stony facade.
"I suppose it is. We cannot determine the extent of detrimental effects until they are all awake, however, nor can we determine which council member had the trap implanted in their mind without them telling us."
"So, we're basically back at square one except we're now down three people?" Atobe asked.
"Not really. Now we have concrete evidence that someone is interacting with the minds of the counsellors; that the Sword and the dampeners are not as tamperproof as previously believed and that the threat is genuine."
"So what do you propose we do?"
Tezuka sat and thought about this for a while as Atobe watched the traffic as flashing blue lights approached the hospital at a much slower speed than desired due to the traffic.
"Contact Sakaki-sensei when he comes out and I'll do the same with Ryuuzaki-sensei. I think we need more help on this case than first anticipated. Do you know what Rikkaidai is doing?"
Atobe couldn't help it, the frown appeared automatically on his face. "Rikkaidai?"
"Yes, we may need the extra manpower and Yukimura's ability would come in useful with this case. If nothing else, they have better contacts with the underground network than we have."
There was a long pause as both looked up to the steel grey clouds covering the city.
"This is a lot bigger than it started out as isn't it Tezuka? And to think, this was supposed to be a practice match originally."
Tezuka stood and dropped his barrier with a short slashing hand motion.
"Haven't you realised by now Atobe? Nothing's ever simple for us."
In a darkened room, across the Pacific Ocean, a crowd of people gathered. At the head sat three statues; not people as people would have reacted to the hustle and bustle around them. No, these were people carven from stone; stoic and uncompromising.
"The trap has been triggered," a shadowy figure said, his voice carrying an ounce of madness and a ton of malice.
"Thank you, Devil," one of the statues replied, gentle and soft. A juxtaposition of his appearance. With that obvious dismissal in hand, the messenger left, leaving a faint cackle in his wake.
Left alone, the three statues were silent; unmoving and unrelenting in their stillness. After what seemed like an age, the one furthest to the left spoke, his eyes as hard as the stone he emulated.
"So, the second act begins."
The Emergency Assessment Unit was, like the Emergency Room, busy, noisy and not a place anyone would choose to be. There were a staggering number of people crowded together in small cubicles, narrow trolleys not designed to take the average person's weight and a veritable cacophony of beeps, whistles and moans.
Oishi, who was silently having a nervous breakdown, was crammed on a hard, uncomfortable plastic chair in a cubicle at the end of the row, its walls thicker than the others with a psi dampener affixed to the wall next to the uncompromisingly bright light. He looked across the tight cubicle at the even more uncomfortable trolley that Eiji was laid on, curled up like a small child. In the excessively bright lighting, Eiji looked even paler, gaunt and, well, sick. His jaunty hair had lost its angle and was beginning to look washed out and his eyes, seated above the darkened rims, were flat as he gazed at the wall next to Oishi's head.
Since the catastrophic events at the Psi Council, Eiji hadn't said a single word. He had gazed blankly into space when the paramedics arrived and had been completely catatonic to all the bustle around him as they bundled him into the ambulance.
He had remained silent and still throughout the not-so gentle ministrations of the staff taking blood pressures and ECGs (6) and had said nary a word. Worse, in Oishi's opinion, was the lack of response from him, like anything the empathy said wasn't being received; two radios set to different stations.
He sighed and returned to filling out Eiji's paperwork. He was the best choice to complete it, second only to Ryuuzaki-sensei, as he knew most about the redhaired duplicator. It was as he was on the dotted line asking for Eiji's mother's maiden name that he heard a faint rustle from across the cubicle. Glancing up, he could see that Eiji had finally moved out of his foetal position and was staring blankly at the ceiling.
What made Oishi get up from the uncomfortable plastic chair of pain was the tears that were swimming in Eiji's eyes, unshed and pooling.
"Eiji?" he asked gently, as though coaxing a small animal, "Are you ok?" Eiji turned to look at him and slowly shook his head, the tears finally spilling over and cascading down his cheeks. Oishi gently bundled him up, holding him close and began to whisper like a mantra, uncertain who he was trying to reassure, Eiji or himself.
"It's going to be ok. It's going to be alright."
And that was how Ryuuzaki-sensei found them, rocking back and forth slowly with murmured placations drifting in the air between them.
"Oishi?" she questioned, an eyebrow faintly raised accompanied by the softest voice he'd ever heard her speak in. He glanced up at her and back down to Eiji, who had calmed down and looked at Ryuuzaki-sensei as well with a slightly more alive look in his eyes.
"Ryuuzaki-sensei," Oishi said and was suddenly reminded of the other two people that had been brought in with Eiji. He immediately felt a crushing sense of guilt, having forgotten them for such a time. Not really forgotten, but Eiji was, and probably always will be, his first priority. "How're Echizen and Nanjiroh?"
Eiji, who had begun to waken from his catatonia, seemed to perk up at Echizen's name. "Ochibi?" he questioned, his voice tremulous with worry.
"He hasn't woken up yet. They've taken both Nanjiroh and Echizen to the intensive care unit for further monitoring," she replied, and Oishi really looked at her and noticed that, for the first time, she looked her age. In the horrid lighting of the cubicle, he could see every wrinkle and line on her face and the bags under her eyes were worsened and shadowed. She looked defeated.
"I have counsellors clamouring for my attention and explanations. I have had Ohtari on the phone to me from where we have had the counsellors escorted to saying that they are either shouting accusations at one another or shouting at Shishido, which is going down like a treat with him. I have Sakaki-sensei telling me that the hospital is creating roadblocks with red tape and the rest of the squad is no help as they are currently looking like they should be in a rugby team." All of this was delivered in Ryuuzaki-sensei's way: calmly, quickly with no added words. Although she never hurried her speech or raised her voice, Oishi could tell that she was stressed and quickly losing her patience.
"So, I would like to know what happened now. I've done as much as I can without answers but I need some soon."
She looked at Eiji at this, her gaze expectant but not overtly demanding, waiting for the redhead to make the first move. Oishi was delighted to feel that Eiji was slowly becoming less like an automaton and more akin to his previous self. He slowly raised his head away from Oishi's protective embrace and pulled himself along the wall so that he was sitting sideways on the trolley, back to the wall. Oishi formed a barricade on one side, shielding him from the world as Ryuuzaki-sensei took the uncomfortable chair Oishi had vacated.
Taking a deep, slow breath, Eiji began to tell the tale of what happened inside.
"Alright Ochibi," he said, straightening up and steeling his resolve, tear tracks drying on his cheeks. His indigo eyes tinted with a determination as hard as diamond as he set his shoulders and exhaled a breath with little more than a hitch.
"Show me what to do."
A rush of information filled his brain, pictures showing him what had happened. He saw, as though a movie, Nanjiroh approach the strangely coloured candle. He saw the young girl flit past his vision, her hair in wispy pigtails. He saw the candles flicker and go to sleep, their lights extinguished as Nanjiroh fell to the floor. And he saw a faint sight of a bear trap begin to enclose Nanjiroh's head; the metaphysical representation of the psychic trap.
And, just as imperceptibly as the trap itself, he saw Ochibi, holding its jaws open; wrestling with the beast.
Looking back at Nanjiroh's form on the floor, he could see the weak outline of Ochibi there, his arms circling his father's head, a bear trap lodged into his skin.
He had literally been his father's shield.
Eiji had barely a moment before more images assaulted his mind. Images on what he should do and how he could do it.
"Are you sure Ochibi?" he whispered, uncertain he could do such a task despite the enormous advantage being presented to him by the short telepath in front of him. Echizen nodded sharply, his eyes commanding and nary a word spoken.
And Eiji reached forwards and his hand connected with Echizen's.
As though a dam had burst, he was flushed with power previously untapped by himself, but it was not his power. Echizen, like with Kevin earlier that day – 'Has it only been a day?' Eiji thought – was lending him his power. He could see the church projection around them flux and flex as Echizen diverted more psionic energy from maintaining their surroundings into Eiji. Eiji saw little of the dust falling from the ceiling nor the shuddering of the oak beams as distracted as he was by this newfound power.
Following Echizen's plan, he made two duplicates of himself and he and one duplicate began to slowly ease Nanjiroh from within Echizen's arms whilst the other copy took Nanjiroh's place. It was slow work, seemingly taking hours but Echizen stayed firm, his arms moving only with the intermittent shaking that encompassed his entire form.
And it was in that moment, when Eiji glanced up from where he had been clutching Nanjiroh's form like a teddy bear and saw Echizen than he noticed it. Something made clear now; not on the Fudoumine case, nor even in Meino Nanako's house, but now. That Echizen, despite all his powers, all his cockiness and all his surety, was a child.
And Eiji held the safety of his father in his arms.
Noting the gaze upon him, Echizen looked up, beads of perspiration littering his face. He looked right at the redhead, staring deep into his eyes and Eiji knew. No telepathic communication passed between the two nor any verbal but Eiji knew right at that moment that this plan was going to hurt.
Echizen smiled faintly as he reached this realisation and mouthed two words at Eiji: "I'm sorry." And he moved his arms away from the trap.
And in that moment, all Eiji knew was pain.
There had been some speculation in the Psi community, especially amongst the scientists, as to whether duplication talents were actually duplication, division or clones. Whether the other people they created were parts of them, copies of them or mirrors. Whether the original could feel all that the others underwent.
Eiji could safely say, at this moment, that the duplication of himself, with its mind currently in the psychic trap, was in pain. And Eiji felt it.
It was as though someone had taken a hot poker and none too gently, pushed it into his eyes and ears. The all encompassing burning that had taken over his brain clouded all thought and tears streamed down Eiji's face immediately. It was an eternity in a second, and then it was over.
The copy couldn't take it and had essentially, died; its mind forever locked in the trap, unable to manage. Eiji dispelled the copy, unable to look at, what was in essence, his dead body, and then he felt the true impact of what he had done.
For a part of himself that he never knew he had, had died. And he would never regain it, no matter how many copies he made, nor how much he searched.
He glanced up, through his haze of tears and saw Echizen. His large golden shaded eyes grateful beyond reason, for Eiji had saved his father. He held a hand out to Eiji , as though to take them back to the physical world when he seemingly collapsed in on himself.
And so did the church.
"As Nanjiroh said, once something triggered the trap, it wouldn't let go. But Ochibi held the trap open long enough and then one of my copies took Nanjiroh's place. The trap took the copy instead, thinking it had the person who set it off," Eiji finished his tale, his hands shaking finely. Ryuuzaki-sensei and Oishi looked on aghast.
"But, part of you died, Eiji," Oishi said, his countenance reflecting the sorrow he felt. Eiji drew himself taller on the bed, his head held high.
"Yes, part of me is dead. But because of that, all of Nanjiroh is alive." And Eiji reaffirmed what Oishi knew all along: that he was more mature and more caring than anyone could hope to know.
Ryuuzaki-sensei was mulling over all the information presented to her. She realised that the split second of pain that Eiji experienced must have been amplified for Echizen. The length of time he spent holding the trap open must have augmented his pain. It was no wonder he was yet to wake. And whatever had happened to Nanjiroh must have occurred when the trap was triggered. Even Echizen couldn't have prevented the trap from setting off and Nanjiroh must have suffered a small part of the intention of the trap.
"Eiji," she said, attracting the redhead's attention. He still looked a little shellshocked but he was beginning to regain a semblance of his old self, "you mentioned seeing what Nanjiroh saw before the trap was set off. Do you remember which council members mind Nanjiroh was in?"
Eiji's face took on a thoughtful look but he shook his head moments later. "Sorry, I don't remember who it was. All I remember was that the person was familiar to Nanjiroh."
Ryuuzaki-sensei sighed, it was a long shot anyway. Who could it have been? As far as she was aware, Nanjiroh didn't have any acquaintances on the Council, but he had met many of them due to his son. What about Rinko, did she have any? Maybe it wasn't about aquiantances but about something else? Had anyone been in the news recently from the Council?
Questions and questions were swimming in her mind, dizzying with their speed and nauseating with their cycling. She had gotten her answers as to what happened in the council room but she was no closer to solving this case.
It was frustrating.
And at that moment, her mobile phone rang.
"Ryuuzaki," she answered, short and crisp, "Sakaki-sensei? Yes? When? Ok, I'll be right up."
She turned to the two boys in front of her, their gazes expectant.
(1) I know that the current basic life support advice, as given by British Heart Foundation and Vinnie Jones on the TV, states to only do chest compressions however, if you are TRAINED in life support (i.e. Basic life support, Intermediate, Advanced, Advanced Trauma, Paediatric etc) it still states to use emergency breaths in a 30:2 ratio if you feel you want to take the risk of rescue breaths.
(2) In case you couldn't tell: medically a bad sign.
(3) Yes, I'm being purposefully obtuse as to which Echizen is which in this scene.
(4) Google maps have told me this is quite close to Turtle Bay. Not living in NYC, I have no means of knowing if Google is lying to me or not.
(5) As of 2006, it became illegal to smoke in public buildings in England. Although this has been enforced in hospitals for a number of years, to smoke you have to be in special smoking shelters and not on the front steps of buildings. That being said, I do not think this is true for the USA however, I like the idea of them talking in a smoking shelter and I'll stick with it.
(6) Electrocardiogram. Sometimes known as EKG, depending on how you spell "cardio". A tracing of the electrical activity of the heart during a rhythmic cycle of 60 seconds.
So, Chapter 21 done. Once again, I'm sorry for the delay and I don't think Chapter 22 will be up in the very near future.
Many thanks for still sticking with the story and my atrocious update schedule.
As always, R&R