Part Two: The Patients
AN: sorry in advance, this is literally 10k words of dialogue. if only they had like a wii or something on the ward. in other news, thanks to all the reviewers for getting the fic to a thousand reviews!
Of all the people to be sat together, it was Soma and Snake in the leisure room, heads bent together. With Alois' bedroom door shut and the staff disappearing to deal with what they'd found, everyone else had retreated to their bedrooms, while Ciel had been escorted off by Agni.
Even though it was Agni, Soma didn't like the timing of this supposed guest.
'He has an Aunt,' Soma said to a question Snake hadn't asked, shrugging, 'Must be her.'
Soma wasn't expecting an answer. He wasn't really looking for a conversation, truth be told. He was just too restless to go to his own room. Snake had never spoken more than a word to him before, so when he actually did respond, Soma stared in disbelief.
'What about Alois?'
Soma's resulting stare made him shift uncomfortably, colour rising in his cheeks.
'Alois?' Soma frowned, chewing on his bottom lip. 'We never really talked. Outside of arguing, I guess. I don't think he has -' a harder bite, '- had any family. Ciel's the only one I can think of out of all of us who does, actually.'
Soma didn't include himself in that. It was better not to think of that.
'Do you?' It was so rare for Snake to talk to him, Soma couldn't help but try to keep it going. 'Any family?'
Snake struggled to look Soma in the face, fidgeting compulsively.
'No.' He scratched at his cheek, the rough, discoloured skin there. 'No family.'
A while passed and other patients joined them. Jumbo, Wendy and Dagger settled in on the couches, a sense of normality being forced. It occurred to Soma that that was why Snake had sat with him. A show to the staff that they were unaffected, or rather, unaware of what had happened. They were not supposed to know yet, after all, and there had never been a time when all the patients hid in their bedrooms during the day.
Empty conversations passed back and forth, just to make noise. Soma took part for a bit, but it exhausted him soon enough. All he could think of was Alois' bedroom door. He wished he hadn't gone in that morning. He wished he hadn't seen. Even Ciel had barely looked, but Soma had needed to be sure.
His eyes were sore now, but finally dry.
A while longer and Ciel returned to the ward. Soma smiled hello, receiving a brusque nod in return. That usually would have been it, but oddly enough, Ciel seemed to second think himself at his bedroom door and instead joined them on the couches.
Any other time and Soma would have been overjoyed. Right then, all he could think was that Ciel wasn't maintaining a show of normality for the staff, and that in itself was too unlike him.
'Where's Joker?' Ciel asked.
'In his room. He's not feeling too great,' Jumbo replied. 'I've been thinking - I ran it by Joker before and he seemed to think it was a good idea - maybe we should sleep in pairs from now on. It might mean some people sleeping on the floor but I think it's wise for the time being.'
Jumbo looked at each of them, gauging their response.
Already, Soma could hear Ciel's rejection, outright refusal at the prospect of having anybody in his room, anybody around him while he slept -
'Mm, sounds wise,' Ciel agreed easily, same as everyone else.
'You with me?' Ciel asked him, as though the very prospect of having somebody else invading his space wasn't the single most horrifying thing he would face that day. Considering the day they had had so far, it would have been more than a little in character.
'Yep!' Soma grinned, mustering up some of his usual cheer. As soon as Ciel looked away, he dropped it. Something wasn't right. Lowering his voice as the others chatted amongst themselves, he asked, 'So who was the visitor?'
Ciel looked at him from the corner of his eye.
'My Aunt. They were trying to send her away - she didn't call in advance, as usual - but Agni got me half an hour with her. Tell him thanks for me, by the way.'
'Oh?' Soma cocked his head. 'What's the latest? She's pregnant, right?'
'Yeah, and showing. I think she's... six months gone? I got an earful about that, but she was more concerned with the wedding.'
'Wedding?' This was more detail than Ciel usually gave, especially considering how little Soma was prompting him compared to usual. 'I thought she already got married earlier in the year.'
'Not her wedding. My cousin's. It's sometime this month.'
With that, Ciel looked away, pulling Snake into conversation.
On the face of it, there was nothing weird about anything Ciel had said, yet it wasn't sitting right with Soma. Just how much he'd said, and the timing of the visit, the fact that he was sitting out with them and instigating conversations himself. It wasn't like him.
Soma sank lower in his chair.
Of course it wasn't. Ciel wasn't himself today. How could he be, how could any of them be, after what they had discovered that morning? What was he doing, second-thinking Ciel like that, finding suspicion where there wasn't any. Ciel was grieving just like him. It was only natural that he'd seek out other people's company at a time like this.
Seeing Alois had hit Soma harder than he himself had realized. If he wasn't careful, he was going to end up as suspicious of their own as Drocell.
Joker jolted awake, just about managing to mute his groan. Gingerly, he lifted himself up from where he was sleeping on the rug, trying to keep his ruined arm as still as possible. Squinting to see in the dark, loose strands of fabric from the rug had gotten under the skin of his most recent scab. As he had turned in his sleep, they had pulled free, tearing the small wound open.
This was far from his ideal wake-up call.
As quiet as he could be, Joker pushed away the blanket and crept over to the bathroom. Jumbo didn't stir, fast asleep on the bed, even when Joker locked the bathroom door.
It was Jumbo's bedroom so naturally Joker had insisted that he take the bed. Although Jumbo had argued, he was no match for Joker's stubbornness, and so the sleeping arrangements were established. Not one night in and Joker was already regretting that decision.
His back ached, the muscles stiff from the cold of the floor. Even with the rug, the chill seeped through, stealing all the warmth from him. His legs were cramped from curling up as small as he could go to stay warm. His arm was the worst, though.
The pain he could manage. It was the itching that was driving him round the bend.
He had taken to biting his nails like Beast to spare himself the cuts, knowing that the last thing he needed was to tear open the messily scarred stump. But the spreading black veins told him all he needed to know, that maddening itch a warning sign even he could recognize. The recent fevers were the last thing he needed, on top of everything else.
His friends were scared. One of their own had been murdered. And now Joker felt himself weakening to the infection Doctor had barely been managing to keep at bay.
Joker ran the tap, splashing his heated face.
There was a light tap at the door before it opened.
'You're taking the bed,' Jumbo stated, no room for argument, 'This whole doubling up thing was my idea. I don't mind the floor.'
Joker was too tired to fight him on it anyway. His head felt too heavy, arm throbbing hot.
'It was a good idea,' Joker said when they were both settled again, 'Was gettin' sick of everyone bein' too scared to sleep. Not that I can blame 'em.'
'This'll blow over,' Jumbo asserted.
Joker was glad for the dark, so he didn't have to see the lie on Jumbo's face.
There had been no discussion over who was taking the bed and who was taking the floor, not that Soma had expected one. For all his illusions of grandeur, Soma knew his dubious claim to royalty held no water when it came to Ciel and Ciel's things.
Ciel took the bed. Soma took the floor. No questions asked.
It was cold, hard and not as clean as he would have liked, but Soma drifted off easily enough. Agni often said he could sleep on a rope, and while he considered that a sort of praise, he didn't fancy trying it any time soon. The floor was uncomfortable enough.
Soma probably would have slept through the night, if only Ciel's eyesight could manage in the dark. As it struggled enough during the day, Soma was rudely awakened by a foot to the shoulder, a muffled curse and the distinct sound of stumbling.
'Owwwwww,' Soma whined, rolling over. He was still half asleep, so it took a while for it to register. When it did, he waited to hear the flush of the toilet or running of the tap.
Sleep crept away from his reach.
'Ciiiiiel, what're you doin'?' Soma sat up, rubbing the shoulder Ciel had tripped over. 'If you're not using the bed, then -'
The urgent whisper shut him up. Soma screwed his eyes shut, the world slightly clearer when he opened them again. It took him a moment to realize that the dim light wasn't coming through the little window but beyond the open bedroom door.
The bedroom door that was supposed to be locked.
Ciel was silhouetted against the light, tense as a coiled spring. It wasn't just the bedroom door that was open, but also the ward door. That was where the light was coming from, the hallway dimly lit. Even at this time of night, the leisure room should have been lit up too, someone on duty on the ward. But the room was empty, left in darkness.
'Ciel,' Soma pushed himself up off the floor, 'Come back in.'
Ciel just waved him off, squinting into the dark. There was no one in the hallway who could have opened the ward door, and certainly no one who could have opened the bedroom door either. The keycards only kept the locks open for a set amount of time before they closed. More than thirty seconds had passed since Soma had been staring at the ward door and it had yet to swing shut.
'Ciel,' Soma repeated, moving towards his friend. Ciel was scoping the leisure room, trying to find a hidden figure, someone who was toying with them like this. Soma's eyes were better, had already adjusted to the dark, and he could see that the room was empty. Yet his heart wouldn't calm, fear spiking higher and higher with every step Ciel drew further from the safety of the bedroom.
'Soma, it's fine, stay there.' Ciel turned back to look at him, gesturing him to stay in the bedroom. No sooner had the words left his mouth did Soma's choice get snatched away, the bedroom door swinging shut of its own volition.
Soma caught the panic in Ciel's eye then, how he started to run back to his room, to Soma. And he tried to catch the door, to hold it open long enough. But the mechanism forcing it to lock was stronger than Soma, and before he could even get a grip on the handle, it had slammed shut.
'Ciel!' Soma pounded his fists against the door. His fear was a bitter wetness rising up his throat. 'Ciel!'
'I - I'm fine,' Ciel called from the other side of the door, words slow and halting, 'Don't panic.'
'Stay there, promise!' Soma stumbled back, trying to see Ciel's shadow under the door. His stomach dropped when he saw it growing smaller, though he was not a bit surprised. 'No, no, don't go looking, just stay there!'
Ciel said something then, but he'd strayed so far from the door that Soma couldn't hear him.
When Joker was next woken up, it was not to the pain of a broken scab but to the sound of shouting. Loud banging. Soma screaming Smile's name. And then a ghostly quiet.
'Everybody calm down.' Drocell looked as sleep-deprived as the rest of them, eyes shadowed, temper short. He may as well have been talking to a wall, for all the good it was doing. 'We don't know anything happened to him -'
'They took him' Soma snapped, too frustrated for tears, 'Who else could have done it?!'
'Yeah, whose side are you on?!' Dagger was all in Drocell's face, looking for a fight. 'You defendin' them?'
Drocell just rolled his eyes, beyond done with those accusations.
'All I'm saying is that Soma's story seems a little strange to me.' Before Soma could object, Drocell rose a hand. 'I'm not calling you a liar. I believe what you said happened. I just find the details... suspect.'
'No, no, let 'im talk,' Joker said as an angry buzz began amongst them, 'What you gettin' at?'
Drocell sank back into the sofa, crossing his legs. There was room enough for all of them to be sitting together in the middle of the room, but only because their numbers had now dropped by two. Drocell couldn't blame them all for being on edge, but their utter resistance to listening to sense was beyond frustrating.
'Joker, say you woke up to find your bedroom door had been opened, the leisure room empty of any who could have opened it, and the ward door also open; what would you do?'
A muscle in Joker's jaw jumped. He gave the question serious thought, looking over at the closed ward door sceptically.
'Personally, my initial impulse would be to make a run for the door. But I wouldn't, because I'd know that something would go wrong. The door would shut just before I got to it. Or someone would be waiting for me in the corridor. Even if I made it off the ward unharmed, what then? I don't know my way out of the building, and to my knowledge, the main door of the building requires a keycard to open. So taking all those things into consideration, I would reason that staying in my room would be the safest option.'
'You're... not wrong,' Joker allowed, somewhat reluctantly. He seemed to be a step ahead the others in seeing where Drocell was going with this. It wasn't somewhere he liked, but he'd been the one to quieten everyone down.
'Would you do differently?'
Joker sighed softly, 'I'd... probably check things in 'ere out, at least. If someone opened the doors then hafta assume someone'd be hangin' about.'
'And if they weren't? If, like Soma said, the room was entirely empty?' Drocell pushed the point, backing Joker into a corner he didn't much like.
'Then yeah, I'd leg it back to my room,' Joker shrugged, losing patience, 'I'm a coward like that. Smile's got more of a spine than me an' you, clearly.'
Drocell ignored the backhanded insult.
'Any one of us would have put caution first and stayed in our room. Soma too, you didn't leave the bedroom, did you? Because you knew better. You recognized the situation for what it was and didn't leave the bedroom.' Drocell looked around at them all, voicing the thought they had all had that morning. 'So why did Phantomhive?'
Even Soma looked to the floor, teeth gritted. No matter how many times he replayed the events of the previous night, he could make no sense of Ciel's actions. Exploring beyond the bedroom door, fine, that could be put down to having the nerve to do it. But Soma knew, had the situation been reversed, Ciel would have thought him an idiot for doing the same, would have demanded Soma stay in his room.
Even so, Soma could excuse it. But he couldn't rationalize why Ciel had left. Why didn't he just stay by the door after it shut? Why didn't he stay talking to Soma so he'd know he was safe? Where was the common sense, the logic, in leaving like that?
Ciel was smart. That was his thing. But there was nothing smart about leaving the ward in that situation, unless -
'- unless he was expecting it,' Drocell was saying, having continued his theory while Soma zoned out. Immense guilt washed over Soma, to find that he was thinking the same thing as Drocell, suspecting his best friend of something like that.
The others spoke up then, dismissing Drocell's theory out of hand. There wasn't even anger in them. They just found it ridiculous. But Drocell wouldn't let it go, so sure he was of Ciel's guilt, his festering mistrust over the last few months finally bearing fruit.
'Just consider it! Isn't the timing of all this too convenient? Trancy dies, and then the same night, Phantomhive disappears. After the death of a patient, he knew things would be confused, the staff off their guard. And Trancy was in his room that night. I can't be the only one who finds that strange.' Drocell looked around the other patients, seeking even the slightest uncertainty. 'And Agni took him off the ward yesterday afternoon for a visit. I can't believe that, I just can't. The timing is too good. After all, just who is Agni friends with?'
Soma looked at the others too, seeing the seed of doubt beginning to take root. His throat felt too tight.
'Don't bring Agni into this,' Soma said, 'Agni wouldn't do what you're saying. And neither would Ciel. He -'
'He wouldn't just abandon us!' Freckles exclaimed. Ever since Soma had burst from the bedroom and told everyone what happened, she had been sat with her head in her hands, silent. But she looked up now, eyes fierce. 'Who was the one who saved Joker back then? Who was the one who checked in on you for Snake when you got taken to the infirmary? Don't you dare accuse him of abandoning us, he wouldn't -'
'I was the one who told him to find Joker!' What little patience Drocell had maintained broke. He jumped to his feet, voice rising. 'You think he would have done it if I hadn't planted the idea in his head? He wasn't saving Joker, he was just testing his control over Michaelis when the man was still new. Joker was a means to an end, nothing more.'
Freckles stood too, unintimidated by the height Drocell had over her.
'You don't know him. You don't know any of us,' Freckles' lip curled, shaking her head slowly, 'You close yourself off in your own little world and only bother to associate with us when it suits you. Why would any of us trust your judgements when you clearly don't trust us, when you don't care about us enough to associate with us when you don't have to? No, you're wrong, and if you'd turn on Smile this quick, I don't see why any of us should trust you.'
'Enough!' Joker pinched the bridge of his nose, teeth gritted against the pulsing pain in his arm. 'Just... both of you, sit down. This ain't gettin' us anywhere.'
Matching glares on their faces, Drocell and Freckles returned to their seats.
'Look. I can honestly say I don't give a shit why Smile got me outta The Room. When 'im and Black walked through that door and got me out, I've never 'bin more relieved, alright? Motives aside, the end result was that I got out, and that's all I care about... that bein' said,' Joker sat up straight, nodding at Drocell, 'I don't doubt Smile had his own reasons for doin' it. He's a tricky guy and he's always calculatin' somethin'.'
Joker held up his good hand as Soma and Freckles both began to object.
'I'm not sayin' I don't trust 'im! But I dont think the sun shines outta his ass like you two do, okay? I owe Smile my life, but I gotta admit, I've been side-eyeing him these last few months an' all. All this stuff with Alois, and don't get me started on Black. I gotta wonder what's goin' on, and I can't say I like what I've seen. When Black was a guy we could trust, sure, but now... Drocell might be onto somethin'.'
Drocell didn't look entirely pleased to be agreed with. A part of him had perhaps been hoping for another explanation. Contrary to popular belief, he didn't want to mistrust his fellow patients. However, if it meant his survival, he couldn't turn a blind eye to the evidence right in front of him.
Joker's face fell, 'Why would he go out there? He's smarter than that. Only a moron woulda just walked on out in a situation like that.'
'He's not a moron,' Drocell said, willing to be the villain if they'd finally see sense, 'Which means he was expecting those doors to open. What he wasn't expecting was for Soma to wake up and see him, so he had to make a play of it. But once Soma was shut in the room, he didn't have to delay anymore.'
'No.' Soma shook his head, even more resolute now than before.
'You explain it then.' This time, it was Beast. She was frowning, conflicted. There was blood on her mouth from her torn fingernails. 'Why else would he have walked out there, if not because he knew who was opening the doors, for him.'
'No.' Soma couldn't explain it. Explanations that could have worked for someone else - stupidity, bravery, simple curiosity - couldn't be applied to Ciel, who took caution in all dangerous situations. But even though he couldn't explain it, not to himself and not to the others, he couldn't agree with Drocell's conclusion. 'You're wrong.'
But even with his certainty of that, the others had made their judgement.
In their eyes, Ciel was guilty.
It was almost noon before the ward door gave its three shrill beeps. By that point, they had all stopped expecting any staff members to show up. It was becoming more common by the day for them to be neglected until evening, and even then, it was a meagre meal and perfunctory check-in before curfew.
So when the door was unlocked just as morning was ending, a chill ran through them. Never mind that this was how things were supposed to be, and that being left to themselves all day should have been the concerning thing. Even knowing that, they watched the person enter with bated breaths.
'Who the hell is that?' Dagger muttered, eyeing the strange man as he carefully shut the door behind him.
The question was more than justified. Not a single one of them had ever seen the man before. In a smart black suit like some sort of office worker, he had snowy white hair, his moustache twitching as he gave them a mild smile. In fact, everything about him was mild, the sort of air to him that calmed the people around him. Naturally, this had the exact opposite effect on the patients, who had long since learned that men like him were the ones to fear.
Joker rose to his feet, gesturing for the others to stay seated. As the man approached the group, Joker moved to stand before them, blocking his way.
'Who're you?' Gone was the perpetual grin, the shammed friendliness he usually gave to people he had never met before. In its place, there was only hostility, a predator with its teeth bared. 'Stay where you are.'
The old man froze, seeming surprised at the less than warm reception. He regained his composure quick enough. The placid little smile made its return.
'I can only apologize for the poor manner in which this situation has been handled. I understand this must be very hard for you all, and I'm sorry if I alarmed you in any way.' The man inclined his head, as though bowing. 'My name is Tanaka. I am the founder of St. Victoria's.'
Even without seeing their faces, Joker could feel the fear of everyone behind him intensify. He tried to keep his own fear from his face. The founder of St. Victoria's, this frail looking old man before him, the cause of all their misfortune. It was hard to believe. He looked so... ordinary. Not the monster they had formed in their minds, cruelty given human form.
Joker steeled himself, teeth gritted. He couldn't let his guard drop just because Tanaka looked unthreatening. He had made that mistake too many times before. Never again.
'Pleased to meetcha!' Joker summoned up that tired old grin. 'Well, apology accepted. That's all it takes for you people, right? "Sorry we brutally murdered an innocent kid, whoops!" But to think the founder of all people came to apologize to us lowly scum. Now that's an honour right there.'
'Joker.' Beast put a hand on his arm, glancing warily at Tanaka. She was waiting for the other foot to drop, he could tell. Seeing her so visibly afraid - someone who had earned her nickname through her ferocity and pride - only made Joker's temper worse. His head was pulsing, he was hot all over, and that damn itch was creeping its way higher and higher up his arm.
'No, no!' Joker exclaimed, caution lost to the worsening fever. 'We should be honoured! The founder of this remarkable establishment took the time out of his busy schedule of pen pushin' and kiddy torture to check in on us during a very difficult time. I'm sure Alois would be overjoyed!'
Beast's grip on his arm tightened; a warning. Jumbo took him by the shoulders, pulling him back. Somewhere during his rant, he had gotten right up in Tanaka's face, but the man didn't flinch away at all.
'I'm sorry,' Jumbo was saying, 'He's not well right now. He's not himself.'
Joker shrugged them both off, 'Don't apologize to him!'
It wasn't until Drocell of all people pushed him back onto the couch that Joker began to calm down. His head was spinning, so much so that he had to lean down, eyes scrunched shut. For a while, he was genuinely worried he was going to throw up. To think someone could have such an impact on him, to make him lose his cool with only an introduction.
No one spoke, not even Tanaka. Only when he was sure he wasn't going to be sick did Joker sit up again, meeting Tanaka's eyes.
What he found there made all his anger fall away.
The old man was crying. Tears were falling down his cheeks, a grief Joker couldn't begin to understand in his lined face. There was no shame in him either. He didn't try to hide the tears, nor to wipe them away. Was this a trick? A display of emotion to lull them into a false sense of security? But for all his certainty that the man wasn't to be trusted, Joker couldn't help but believe those tears.
Voice thick, Tanaka spoke again, but he didn't say anything that Joker was expecting.
'What happened to your arm?'
Not long after Joker's return from The Room, Dagger had take it upon himself to tear the right sleeve from all of his tops. Joker appreciated the gesture, though the act of manoeuvring what was left of his arm through the hole was still his least favourite part of the day. Doctor had said it was best for the arm to be uncovered, however, so uncovered it remained. Plain for all to see, and Tanaka couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from it.
How could he? It wasn't often you got to see the framework of an arm; the discoloured bones, the tired muscles and tendons, the ragged and badly healed lumps of skin. And to see it move, at least a little. Joker had no control over the arm anymore. At first, some control had remained. He could bend the elbow for almost a week following his return. But all that had eroded with the strength of the muscles, leaving the skeletal arm useless, nothing but a grotesque reminder of what had been done to him.
Tanaka asked what happened, but Joker could scarcely put it into words. His body remembered the agony, his mind remembered the horror, but there was no way to articulate that. Some things just couldn't be reduced to mere words.
'St. Victoria's happened,' Joker replied, the only answer he could give.
Tanaka hung his head, the tears falling faster. It seemed, on some level, he had expected those words.
'We need to keep his temperature down. Don't worry about spilling the water. And Joker, if you need to be sick, that's fine. That's what the bucket is there for. Even if you miss, I'll clean it up, alright?'
Beast followed Tanaka's instructions, wringing the cloth out over the bowl of freezing water. When she placed it on Joker's head, she could almost feel his relief, the difference between the cool water and his scorching skin so stark.
Jumbo unwrapped the old bandages Joker always hid the top of his arm in, as per Tanaka's instructions. For all that they wouldn't allow him anywhere near Joker, they followed his word without question, sharing his concern. Jumbo had suspected something wasn't right with Joker for a while, but with everything else going on, he hadn't thought it was this bad.
The stump was badly swollen, the skin enflamed, with black veins spanning almost to his shoulder. There were scabs the entire way around the arm, and more than half of them had broken, some even oozing.
Jumbo cringed to see it, running his fingers gently across the overheated skin.
Joker paid him no mind, staring at Tanaka questioningly.
'You can't be this stupid,' he said, shaking his head slowly as he slumped further down on the couch, 'You can't expect us to believe you just don't know.'
Tanaka's hands stilled over the meagre supplies he had retrieved from the infirmary. A mess of medicines and cold compresses, all as useless as each other. He hadn't even been able to find any pain killers, more a warning sign than anything.
'Ignorance is no excuse,' Tanaka said, resuming his search for anything remotely useful amongst the rubbish, 'But it's the truth, I'm afraid. I haven't worked hands-on here in over ten years. I thought I was leaving the running to responsible people, but clearly I was wrong. They didn't even show up to the meeting yesterday...'
Tanaka shook his head, turning to meet Joker's glare.
'But that changes now. For a patient to have died while under our care, an enquiry will take place. Tomorrow morning, the police will be here to investigate just what happened to Alois. I understand you're all wary of strangers, and from what I can tell, St. Victoria's is the reason why. But what happened to Alois, and what I can see has been done to you, I need to know the truth -'
'Police?!' Dagger interrupted, incredulous, 'Are you bein' serious? You're bringin' police here?!'
Tanaka blinked owlishly.
'Well, of course. Someone died under our care. We need to find out just who is responsible for it. If you all don't mind, the police will want to ask you some questions. I understand that will be intimidating, but the sooner we get to the bottom of what happened, the sooner things can return to normal.'
'Like proper police, though? Legit ones?' Dagger wouldn't let it go, hanging over the back of his chair, 'An' they're gonna be lookin' around the whole buildin'?'
Beast kicked him in the shin, shaking her head pointedly.
'The whole building?' Tanaka looked puzzled. 'Well, certainly the areas that are relevant to Alois' case, yes -'
This time it was Wendy.
'It's not just Alois,' she said, hands fisting the material of her pants, 'Alois isn't the only one they took.'
Tanaka put down the packet of paracetamol. With caution, as though not to frighten them, he approached the seating area and took a vacant chair a distance away. For all that he wasn't afraid to face the problems clearly going on in St. Victoria's, he was visibly on edge to hear what Wendy had to say.
'They... took? Can I ask what you mean by that?' His voice was coaxing, a gentle request. He was nothing but gentle with them, too aware that they were more fragile than any children he had dealt with so far. They were like that because of St. Victoria's. Because of him.
'Wendy.' Beast tried to stop her, but it was a half-hearted attempt. Any other person and she would be firm in her resolve, that they reveal nothing, say nothing, play pretend like they had always had to do. But Tanaka was swaying her and that was terrifying in and of itself. What if it wasn't genuine? What if this was some new ploy, a new method of cruelty? She wanted to believe in the gentle old man who cried for them, but trust had been stripped from her heart years ago. It was too hard to trust now. The risks were too high.
Wendy hesitated for a moment, looking to Beast. Beneath her hands, Joker was barely managing to keep his eyes open, the infection in his blood now. Because of what they had done to him in The Room. Because he had gone to find Peter.
Wendy met Beast's eyes and shook her head. She had kept silent for long enough.
'There have been far more than Alois,' she affirmed, sounding years older than she looked. For all that she had the appearance of a child, she was possibly the oldest of them all. She was now, without Peter. 'The only difference is that Alois couldn't be covered up, not with the way he was killed. But the others were made to disappear. Would you like to know their names?'
The question was barbed. An accusation.
Tanaka didn't back down, accepting the responsibility of that accusation.
'Please,' he implored, 'Tell me them all.'
'Peter. Grimsby. Irene. Carl. Patrick. Lau. Ran-Mao. George.' Wendy paused for breath, searching Tanaka's face. The man was hiding nothing. He wore his horror, plain for them all to see. 'And they're only from my time here. Jumbo, you were here before me. Have I missed any names?'
Jumbo looked up from tending to Joker, stricken.
'I... was only here a short while before several of the patients were taken. I didn't know them particularly well, but... there was a little girl with dark hair. They did something to her feet, it left her in agony. She was taken to the infirmary and she never came back.' Jumbo's time before Joker's arrival was something he didn't think about often. With Joker had come camaraderie, patients banding together, a sense of hope amidst the gloom of life at the institute. But before that, it was every person for themselves, to the point that Jumbo couldn't even remember that little girl's name.
But someone else could.
'Sieglinde.' Snake spoke up for the first time since Tanaka had arrived. He wouldn't meet anyone's eyes. 'She... liked being in the garden. She said she knew all the types of flowers but she always got them wrong. She was nice.'
Drocell took hold of Snake's hand, giving a comforting squeeze.
'After her, Maurice went. He... wasn't very nice. But he didn't deserve...' Snake scratched at the patchy skin of his cheek, a touch too hard, leaving behind a nasty red line. 'Then McMillan. He was friendly, at first. Then he just got quiet. After him, it was a while, but then four went all at once.'
'I remember that,' Jumbo said, softly. Snake finally looked up and Jumbo nodded to him. 'What were their names? I spoke sometimes with Herman, but not the others.'
For once, Snake didn't panic at being directly addressed. It seemed the topic was serious enough to take precedence even over his anxiety. He managed to maintain eye contact, though his grip on Drocell's hand bordered on painful.
'Edgar. Lawrence. Gregory,' Snake supplied, 'It was after they went that new people came in.'
'The ones Wendy was talking about,' Jumbo clarified for Tanaka, 'Before them, god only knows who. The only one of us who'd know would be...'
Jumbo stopped himself, looking around at the others. None of them seemed sure how much they should say about Ciel either, considering his disappearing act.
'My point is, Alois is far from the first death we've seen,' Wendy said, thankfully pulling the conversation back around, 'So why is it the first one you care about?'
Even the other patients looked at her in surprise. It had been a long time since any of them had heard her talk so expressively. She had never been the same after Peter. Now, it seemed, some of that old poise was making its return. Even if anger was the driving factor behind it, she was nothing but self-possessed.
Tanaka didn't answer. Looking every year his age, he slowly put his head in his hands, the weight of a dozen names crushing down on his back. They heard him muttering softly to himself, muffled through his fingers. Even Wendy didn't push him further when she realized just what it was he was saying.
'Peter. Grimsby. Irene. Carl. Patrick. Lau. Ran-Mao. George. Sieglinde. Maurice. McMillan. Herman. Edgar. Laurence. Gregory. Alois.'
The names Tanaka had only known on paper. The names of the children he had once again failed. He repeated them until their names no longer felt like strangers to his tongue. He committed them to memory, to his ever-growing list of regrets.
When Tanaka sat up again, he looked at Joker and wondered if that name would too be joining his list.
'Tell me what happ -' Tanaka stopped himself, breathing deep, 'No. Tell me what they did to you.'
Beast wrung out the cloth again, luke-warm water tinged with blood and pus. There was nothing they alone could do about the infection spreading, but following Tanaka's instructions, she had cleaned the cuts Joker had given himself when scratching. It didn't look good, but it certainly looked better, some of the inflammation going down.
Joker was with it enough to cool his own temperature now, holding a clean cloth against his forehead. His eyes had cleared of the haze from before, his cheeks no longer flushed. He still felt rotten, but it was better than it had been for the last few days.
His stomach was even starting to growl.
'Wonder what the guy's gonna make,' he mused out loud, 'Gonna make 'im try it first, o'course.'
'Reckon the geezer can cook?' Dagger rocked uneasily on the edge of the sofa, eyeing the ward door with impatience, 'Poisoned or not, I'd eat anythin' at this point.'
The atmosphere had calmed somewhat in the last hour. They had shared to an extent, but they had not hidden from Tanaka that they kept much more back than they had given. The thought was at the forefront of all their minds; This is a test. And if it was a test, they had failed by saying anything at all. The only thing that mattered now was what their punishment would entail.
Those tears, though. Joker couldn't help but believe in those tears.
They had kept it basic. The descriptions of their treatments were kept vague, though the detail they had given had been enough to drive Tanaka to the bathroom at one point, a muted retching through the walls. They had been more in detail about the general conditions; their isolation from the outside world, their restricted time outside of the ward, meagre meals and unsanitary conditions. Anything that did not implicate a person, they were unreserved in discussing.
But that wasn't what Tanaka was interested in. He could see the general conditions for himself and was disgusted. But it was the people he was interested in. The men and women he himself had hired, had allowed near vulnerable people, and who had abused their status to treat the people they were supposed to be protecting as subhuman.
He had become insistent, then. Pushed them for names, for the dirty details.
But the patients wouldn't be fooled. No names. No accusations. Nothing that they could be punished for.
And yet, Joker believed in those tears. So he had given Tanaka something.
Joker's right arm. Beast's left leg. Dagger's right leg. Jumbo's back. Wendy's stomach. A show of scars, for Tanaka's eyes only. Wordless proof of what Tanaka already knew.
Seeing this proof, Joker had expected the man to cry again. A part of him wanted that, needed that visible compassion to put any trust in him. But Tanaka had not cried. He had stared, long and hard, and then said, 'You're all so thin.'
Disappointed probably wasn't the right word. At least, Joker hoped he wasn't disappointed. Being disappointed would imply he had been expecting something in the first place. He knew better than that, to expect anything from anyone.
'Forget the food!' Drocell snapped, pacing a circuit around the room. Even Snake wasn't bothering to stop him. 'We shouldn't have said anything to him. You really think he's gone off to cook us a nice dinner? He's gone to tell them everything we said.'
'Maybe.' Jumbo rubbed at his eyes. 'Or maybe he's cooking us dinner. There's nothing we can do either way.'
'Yes, there is,' Drocell said, coming to a stop. Everyone but Soma looked to him, all varying degrees of sceptical. The day had been long, hard on them all.
'Drocell, just... sit down, will ya?' Freckles gestured at the couch. 'We ain't mind readers, y'know. I don't trust the old guy either but... we could be dealin' with worse guys. You saw his face when he first got a look at Joker. I dunno, I don't think he was fakin' that.'
Drocell surprised them all with his response, 'Nor do I.'
'What, you believe 'im? You?' Dagger laughed.
'I believe he's a pen-pusher whose only claim to St. Victoria's is in name and money,' Drocell reasoned, easily ignoring Dagger's mocking tone, 'And I believe that Alois' death really is the first he's heard of something going wrong here. But I don't believe that makes him innocent, and I don't believe that means we should trust him.'
'He doesn't claim to be innocent,' Jumbo reminded them, playing devil's advocate, 'He said himself, ignorance isn't innocence.'
'I believe his claims of ignorance. But I don't think that we should be letting our guards down as though his ignorance to all of this makes him safe for us.' Drocell looked around at them all. 'We'll never be safe here. All this means is that he is as much a target as we are. And if it comes down to it, I don't think we should put ourselves at risk for his sake.'
'What're you talkin' about?' Dagger ran a hand through his hair, looking to the others in confusion. 'What make-believe scenario you got goin' on in your head? Coz from where I'm sittin', the biggest risk we're facin' from 'im right now is whether we're gonna get salmonella or sumthin'.'
Dagger may have been in the dark, but Beast was a few steps ahead of where Drocell was going.
'It wouldn't work and it would put us in a worse situation than we are now,' Beast stated, shaking her head. She ignored the confused looks she received, meeting Drocell's resolute stare. 'We wouldn't even get out of the building before they got us.'
'They wouldn't know to look for us,' Drocell replied firmly, 'It's a frightening prospect but is it any more frightening than what we're already facing?'
'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow it down for the rest of us,' Joker interrupted, 'What wouldn't work?'
Beast and Drocell remained silent for a moment, neither wanting to be the one to say it. But Beast was never one to ignore Joker.
'I noticed it, and I noticed Drocell notice it, as well,' she began, folding her arms across her chest, 'Tanaka, he... wears his keycard on his belt.'
Joker's eyes widened.
'Just consider it,' Drocell implored, frustration peaking, 'I'm not saying we hurt him. We outnumber him. Even in the states we're in, we're stronger. We take the keycard and lock him in here. Someone will come let him out eventually, and by that point, we'll be long go -'
'Where?' Jumbo rubbed his hand over his face. 'We'll be long gone where? We have no place to go to. No one to help us. Tanaka said himself, the police will be here in the morning. If we make a run for it, we're only making ourselves look bad in their eyes. They could be the ones to help us.'
'I don't know about that,' Beast disagreed, 'I don't trust this police thing either. They could easily be in the institute's pocket. I just don't think attacking Tanaka would be worth the consequences we will end up with. None of us are in any states to be doing a runner, Drocell. We'd be lucky to get to the gates. Then what? Joker can't climb it. Even if we got past the wall, we wouldn't know where to go. God knows how far from London we are. None of this is worth the risks.'
'Agreed,' Joker said, nodding, 'Drocell, we're all as scared as you are, but we can't go rushin' into somethin' like this half-cocked. It'll only end bad. I say we wait it out 'til mornin', see how this police thing plays out, yeah?'
The others all murmured agreements, falling behind Joker's judgement as always.
Drocell grimaced, 'Snake, what about you? You agree with me, right?'
Snake jumped at being addressed so suddenly, looking like a deer caught in headlights. He was far from a deciding factor in the already finished argument, yet he panicked at being pushed to make a decision, scratching at his cheek once more. He didn't draw blood but the skin began to flake, only highlighting its unusual texture.
'I... ' He dropped his eyes to the carpet. 'I don't...'
Drocell's face fell, but there was little more to argue about, when even the sole person always on his side couldn't agree with him. Disheartened and once more relegated to the villain role, he sank down into his seat, lapsing into silence.
They smelt the food before they saw it. They couldn't remember the last time they had been presented with something so appetising. Generous portions of vegetable stew, with slices of soft white bread on the side, a small square of butter each. Steam rose from the plates, the meal scorching hot. By the time they were usually fed, they were lucky if the food hadn't gone stale. But that wasn't the case here, everything fresh and hot, made especially for them.
It was hard to resist digging right in.
There was quiet for a moment after they were given their plates and Tanaka stepped back, no one moving to take a bite. Then, without having to be asked, he moved from person to person, plate to plate, taking a single spoonful of each meal. He even wiped the spoons afterwards, a crisp white handkerchief tucked into his chest pocket.
'A bit weak on the salt, I'm afraid,' was all he had to say with an apologetic smile.
Since he didn't seem to be dropping dead right then and there, everybody tucked in. Or at least, nearly everybody.
Soma had said nothing since that morning. His plate rested on the arm of the chair. He stirred the broth absently, spoon clinking against the sides. For all that he hadn't eaten a proper meal in days, longer depending on your definition of meal, his stomach clenched at the prospect of trying to eat.
The seat next to him was empty and that fact stole his appetite away.
Soma wanted Ciel to be sat next to him, picking at his food like the fussy-eater he would never admit to being. Soma wanted Alois to be there too, making little jabs about it, no dessert if you don't eat dinner. Soma wanted Joker to be loud and laughing, not slipping down in his seat from a fever they could barely keep at bay. Soma wanted Drocell to stop being the most scared of them all, hiding behind a double-edged logic.
More than anything, Soma wanted Agni to come, to answer all his questions and tell him what was really going on.
But the seat next to him was empty, and Agni hadn't answered honestly in months.
While Soma's food went cold, the others cleaned their plates. Dagger looked ready to be sick, having eaten so quickly. His hunger had had more of an edge than the others'. He had been giving most of his food to Beast, pretending to have eaten his fill.
Tanaka cleared away the plates, pausing in front of Soma.
'I'm sorry, didn't you like it? I can make you something else.'
Soma stared up at him, seeing nothing but a grandfatherly old man.
Soma could feel the others shooting him sharp looks, Joker whispering his name, but he ignored them. They could believe the worst if they wanted to. He knew better than to think Ciel would just leave them behind.
Exasperation built in Joker and it was all he could do not to toss the dirty rag at Soma's face. The question was asked now, though, so little good it would do. So much for not giving Tanaka any more than they needed to.
Joker watched Tanaka's face, searching in those expressive eyes for a hint of something, anything. The food hadn't been poisoned, the tears had been real, he had even thrown up when hearing the most minor of the cruelties they had been subjected to. He had proven himself to be an honest man, or at least good at pretending to be one.
This would decide which was true. Depending on Tanaka's answer, Joker would decide whether or not to take the risk and trust him.
Tanaka crouched down with some difficulty, his bones creaking at the effort. On the same level as Soma now, he replied, 'I... don't know. I was already considering putting the ward on lock-down, but after finding out a patient went missing in the night... I should have done it sooner, while Ciel was still safe. I'm so sorry.'
Soma's bottom lip began to tremble, eyes burning. He hung his head, pulling his knees up to his chest. He said no more after that. There was no more he could say.
'But we will find him. I will find him. That I promise you.' Impassioned, Tanaka stood, addressing everybody now. He looked at each of them, heart worn so openly on his sleeve. It was difficult not to be pulled in by his sincerity. 'I don't know what happened here in my absence, but I'm going to find out, and they are going to be held responsible for every last thing they've done. This should have been a safe haven for you all. That was the least of what you deserved. I will give it to you, if it's the last thing I do.'
Tanaka's gaze dropped, despondent.
'I don't expect you to trust me. St. Victoria's has destroyed your ability to trust and I hold myself responsible for that. You and the children before you were under my care and I've failed you. All of you.' His voice shook. They were swayed, every last one of them, swept along by the strength of Tanaka's remorse. 'All I can do is try to make things right, as much as I can.'
'And how do you intend to do that?' There was no anger in Joker's question. He wasn't mocking Tanaka or accusing him. He genuinely wanted to know. Despite himself, there may have even been some hope in his words. 'After everythin'... how're you gonna fix this?'
Tanaka stood up straight, 'First by finding the person responsible for Alois' death and ensuring justice is done. And the same for all the other children before you. Ciel will be found. I've informed the police and the search will begin in the morning. They'll also do a full investigation of St. Victoria's, from head to bottom. Any hint of misconduct will be investigated, culprits found and punished. These things I can guarantee, beginning tomorrow.'
Tanaka took a step towards Joker, kneeling down before him as he had done for Soma.
'And after that, I will do everything I can to right the wrongs done towards you all. Joker, you'll be taken to a real hospital and given the treatment you should have received when you were first harmed. Whatever can be done to mend your arm, no matter what the cost, will be done.'
Tanaka didn't stand this time, staying on his knees below them all.
'This place holds too many bad memories for you all. You won't be forced to stay. But I will personally see to it that you receive the help you all need, psychologically, physically and financially, to begin building lives for yourselves outside of St. Victoria's. You need never be afraid for your safety again, that I can promise you all.'
It was too good to believe. The picture he painted, that hope-filled future, offered so freely. It was only too easy for them to imagine it. All they had done for their stolen years was imagine that freedom. And now it was here, and they need only give one thing in exchange for it.
The patients all looked to Joker, eyes bright with a hope they hardly dared to let themselves feel, and he felt it too. He felt it so intensely it hurt.
'Tanaka, we -'
But before Joker could answer, a shrill sound pierced the air, one that the patients had never heard before in all their varying years at the institute.
The colour bled from Tanaka's face.
A siren screamed, and the ward door opened.
For a long moment, no one dared even breathe. Time stood still as they looked through the empty doorway in disbelief, the cry of the lock system failing. Then Tanaka moved, blocking their freedom with his arms stretched wide. There was fear in his eyes.
'Stay calm,' he implored them, 'I don't know what's happened to the locks system, but I guarantee, the ward is the safest place for you all right now. The police won't arrive until morning. Until then, whoever killed Alois and the others is free to do more harm. I know you're all frightened, but -'
Drocell strode forward, purposeful.
'Move,' he demanded with an expression of steel.
'D-Drocell.' Snake hesitated to follow. He exuded uneasiness, feeling the change in the atmosphere more so than the others. He had seen Drocell's growing hysteria over the last few months first-hand. He wasn't sure what Drocell would do, but he knew that one way or another, if he wanted to get through the door then he would.
'Hey, hey, let's relax, yeah!' Joker struggled to his feet, the world tipping beneath him a bit. Beast was quick to steady him, watching Drocell apprehensively. 'You said this mornin' you wouldn't go wanderin' off the ward if somethin' like this happened. Why the change of heart? Tanaka's got a point. Whoever did this to Alois -'
'Could easily overpower an old man!' Drocell barked, cringing along with the rest of them as the siren began to grate. Noises could have a powerful impact on state of mind, and this noise was doing nothing good for Drocell's. He rubbed at his ear, a painful pulsing starting up. 'Maybe he's genuine. Maybe he means everything he says and he's going to give us all our fairy-tale ending. Or this is another play. Would you put it past them? It's not the first time they've let us think we'd have a way out!'
As quickly as it had brightened, the atmosphere once more turned dark. They each thought back to those moments of shattered hope. A promise of a trip beyond the gates, hints of their imminent release, only ever used to make the subsequent treatments all the more painful. As they recalled those times, whatever hope that had been growing in their hearts because of Tanaka's words shrivelled down to nothing.
Joker looked around at his friends, seeing the moment their decision was made.
His heart sank.
'Let's just... relax, yeah? We're all gettin' a bit stir crazy here, tempers short an' all -'
'Joker, c'mon.' Dagger looked hungrily at the open door. 'This... it's our best shot.'
'We... can't trust that he's telling the truth,' Wendy agreed, somewhat reluctantly, 'They've lied before and they'll lie again. We can't risk everything on his word.'
Even Jumbo gave a silent nod, albeit not meeting Joker's eyes.
'Beast?' Joker looked to her, turning cold.
Her hand tightened around his good arm, steadying herself as much as she was him.
'We just,' she whispered, brows knitted, 'We just don't know if he can do the things he's saying. What if we stay and it turns out to be a lie, Joker? What will we do then?'
Only Freckles, Soma and Snake remained silent, watching the argument without a side. As for Freckles, she would follow wherever Joker decided to lead them, no matter how tempting the thought of running through that door was. Tempting, but equally as terrifying. With the siren's scream around her, she could only picture disaster, but then, that was surely all that awaited them on the ward as well.
Joker gritted his teeth, shaking his head forcefully.
'C'mon, guys, what're you sayin'? Even if we walk outta here, there's no guarantee we'll get out the front door, y'know!' he cried in frustration, 'The door's open but're you lot not spooked by that siren? You think anythin' good's waitin' out there with that thing wailin' on?'
'I'll take my chances out there,' Drocell replied, unmoved. He turned back to the silent Tanaka, 'Out of the way. You heard us. We've made our choice.'
Tanaka dropped his arms but didn't step out of the doorway.
'Please, Drocell,' he said, beseechingly, 'Give me the chance to prove you can trust me.'
'Yeah!' Joker shook off Beast's hand, staggering over to stand between the two. 'Look, the police'll be here tomorrow, right? We can -'
'So he claims.' Drocell shrugged dismissively. 'He can prove himself by not sending them after us, if he's so keen to earn our trust. If he does that, we can get in touch with him and he can make good on the rest of his promises.'
'Sounds fair to me,' Wendy mused, inching closer to Drocell and the door.
'Oh, right,' Joker sneered, 'The police show up to all the patients havin' made a jail-break and Tanaka's supposed to just tell 'em not to worry about it, he's sure we're fine? Bullshit -'
'Whose side are you on?!' Whatever facsimile of patience Drocell had tried adopting, it broke then, his hysteria leaking through. His voice was high, taut with panic. 'You're nothing but talk! You think you're protecting anyone? Look at us!'
Frightened, scarred, hopeless. Joker's friends, his family, always looking to him with nothing but trust. Trust that he would keep them safe, trust that he would one day save them from this place. A trust he had desperately pulled from them, needing that validation in his own existence, even when he knew he could never make good on the promises he was making.
Peter had looked at Joker with those trusting eyes, even when those eyes had seen so many more years than Joker had. And where had that trust gotten Peter? Stolen away without even a goodbye, no body and no closure to put him at rest.
Because of adults like Tanaka.
Because Joker had chosen to put faith in adults like Tanaka.
'You're a coward,' Drocell hissed. He was shaking all over, whether from fear or rage, even he couldn't tell. 'Peter died because you made him believe you could protect him. Ciel had to go save you, and it's a miracle he didn't end up the same way as Peter. And you saw just as well as the rest of us what was happening to Alois, but did you do anything? No. Stop pretending you have any more right to make these decisions than the rest of us do. You don't get to have that sort of power over us. You've let too many of us die, all because you -'
It was as though Drocell was pulling the words straight from Joker's mind. Those hateful little thoughts were given voice, laid out clear as day for everyone to hear, and it was too much. To hear them out loud, to know others were thinking it too, to see their dismay. It was too much.
'Shut the fuck up!' Joker launched himself at Drocell, the both of them crashing to the ground. It could hardly be called a fight when Joker could barely keep himself upright and Drocell had no intention of raising his hand against the other, but there was a half-hearted scuffle on the floor before Joker was bodily lifted off of Drocell, neither all that worse for wear.
Joker panted raggedly in Tanaka's grip, scowling down at Drocell.
Drocell just shook his head.
'How many more of us need to die for you to see sense?' Drocell asked softly, the anger gone from him. In its place, there was only a cold logic. 'Someone like him can't be trusted. The stakes are too high.'
Joker looked around, seeing Drocell's words reflected in the faces of his friends.
He felt hollow, but he knew what he had to do.
He couldn't bear for any more blood to be on his hands.
'Tanaka,' Joker turned in the old man's arms, steadying himself as he faced him, 'I'm sorry.'
Tanaka didn't argue, or plead, or even fight against them. He simply lowered his head. Of all the things Joker had expected to see in his eyes, understanding was the last thing he had wanted.
'No,' Tanaka said as Joker lay his good hand atop his head, 'I'm sorry.'
Before he could change his mind, Joker moved quickly to the side, smashing Tanaka's head into the wall. The old man went limp, his breathing steady. Although blood began to trickle down the side of his face, something like that wouldn't kill him, but it would buy them enough time to make it out of the building.
Jumbo lifted Tanaka up into his arms, leaving him to lie on the couch.
'Satisfied?' Joker couldn't look at Drocell. He couldn't look at anyone right then, shame a bitter tang in his mouth.
The siren continued its shriek.
With no one to stop them, the patients moved forward, making their escape from the ward that had been their home and their prison for too many years.
AN: it's pretty late on my end so i'll reply to reviews tomorrow, thank you guys for leaving them! :D ciel's part is up next. maybe some answers, probably more questions. y'know how it goes~