Cadence is now fully joined by Maria, Jericho, Tau, and Conta in her search for the children kidnapped by Alpha. Alpha has also stolen the Romano Family’s chlorowheat which the Foxman brothers had been shipping out for them unbeknownst to Francis. As her lies shroud those Cadence holds close and as the True Conductor hunt begins to take its toll, the consequence begin to fall out like dominoes.
Werner’s idea was working—as always. Werner continued to work together with Olive and Atienna on something Olive called ‘predictive modeling’ and Werner ‘strategic modeling’—charting out all the possible locations Alpha could appear using Jericho’s ‘data’ from Ophiuchus to cross-reference everything. They also threw in orphanages with the word ‘Primera’ in their name to the list to boot. After all that, they ordered all the locations from most-to-least likely through some fancy thing Werner called geospatial analysis, and they’d even pinned up cute little thumb tacks over a map Jericho had drawn. Sometimes the trio’s modeling worked so well that their search ran directly parallel to the ELPIS Department’s investigations.
Cadence even physically ran into peacekeeping agents from the ELPIS Department a couple times during their guided search. It was a bit awkward since she knew some of them personally—well, not personally but personally. Jericho’s desk-mate Reba was among them as was his quarter-time lunch companion.
Good news was that Cadence wasn’t very fond of them. Well, she hated their guts—which was saying a lot because it took a lot for her to really hate someone. The reason for her hatred was simple: they’d been ass-hats to Jericho. Snide comments about his ELPIS past here and there and even a jab at his lack of social awareness once or twice.
Thankfully, whenever Cadence and the others did encounter peacekeepers, they went unnoticed due to her conducting. They were questioned once or twice by a peacekeeper or two, but Cadence easily gave the agents the slip despite Jericho and Maria being part of the equation. Admittedly, Cadence did steal a couple wallets as retribution for the good detective.
Maria joining them full on in their search really did help a whole lot. With both sunshine and the detective on board, their group ended up physically clashing a couple times with an oddly lone Rho. During one encounter, Maria somehow managed to rip the woman’s entire left arm off. Several encounters in and they even managed to free some of the children Rho brought along with her. The kids screamed, bit, and kicked as Jericho and Maria tucked them under their arms and carried them back to Francis’s exitless rooms. They only quieted once Jericho had shown them his own vitae—though they whispered something about his vitae not being ‘free’ enough. That was all those kids talked about—freedom. It was a miracle that Maria and Jericho managed to tame the lot. Cadence suspected that was because those two were children at heart too.
Jericho getting pulled out to Leo with Leona mid-March did put a damper on things and so did Morandi’s deteriorating health which kept Maria and even Conta bound to Comientzo more than half the time.
February had been a particularly bad month and March wasn’t looking much better. Olive’s birthday had put the ‘party’ in ‘birthday party’ at the tip of the month, but everything that came after was a downhill spiral. Cadence herself hadn’t had the greatest time but she couldn’t really complain in light of what the others were going through—so she’d offered a couple pats on the backs here and there. Atienna’s strategy, on the other hand, was to comfort without exactly addressing the issue. As for Werner—Werner was absent half the time. He was always there when they really needed him—reliable in that sense like always—but otherwise he was radio silent. Synchronization meetings got pushed back; and whenever the meetings did happen, Werner was always far away and distant.
Olive attributed it to overwork, the AAC investigation, and the hunt, but Cadence wasn’t too convinced. The anxiety gnawing at her stomach just wouldn’t go away, and it had only gotten worse as March dragged on.
But it was Werner, was the internal thought that she had to fight whenever she thought about it. He was reliable and was always trying his best for them. It felt wrong to question him after everything he’d sacrificed. It was like being ungrateful.
But Cadence knew personally all about putting people on pedestals. She’d put her mother on a pedestal, she’d put Alma on a pedestal, and so on. The problem with pedestals was that the only direction to move when one was on it was off and down.
This particular week near March’s end had been especially fruitless—Tau ranted about it heavily after every single one of their ventures. They kept missing Rho by hours. Ran into the ELPIS Department thrice. At one point Cadence had to pull Tau away from the peacekeepers when the man started regaling civil liberties demanding a search warrant after they were all strip-searched by the lot. Tau had been an intimidating enemy back in the Twin Cities, but as an ally…? He was kind of stupid. A fish out of temporal water—just like all the other ELPIS Leaders. It was a wonder why the Twin Cities police officers that Tau had taken under his wing admired him so much.
While thinking of all these things and more, Cadence found herself now returning from another fruitless search with Francis, Tau, and Maximallian. Francis and Tau immediately pulled away into a separate exitless room together, while Maximallian grumbled about grabbing some food and departed too.
This left Cadence to herself in the exitless room she’d since designated as her own. It was minimalistic and classy, being furnished with a grand piano and a very lush couch. A couple of the drawings Kent had made with the other ELPIS kids were tapped up on the wall above the couch; and as Cadence relaxed onto the sofa, she spent a moment appraising them. After considering the piano for a couple minutes, she opted to reach out and see how the other five were doing instead.
She could see Olive in the distance chatting Claire up, Maria curled over Morandi’s bed, Atienna turning in for the night, and Jericho wandering through some off-town in Leo with Leona. Everyone was up later than usual—save for Werner. Since she couldn’t see him, she assumed he was already knocked out. Which was weird. Earlier that morning, she and Atienna had to help Olive with his debacle with Hideyoshi and Scorpio all by themselves—which was fine, of course. It was just unusual that Werner hadn’t at least touched point yet.
Despite her curiosity, she figured that she shouldn’t disturb him if he was sleeping. Not polite and all that. She waved the consideration off a second later as a familiar unease began to boil in her stomach.
Eh—who the hell cared if he thought she was annoying? Charming and annoying were separated by just half a degree. And so, Cadence started reaching for him and toying with the thin invisible string that connected them together.
She was half-asleep on the couch when she finally broke through to him. As soon as she felt the ghost of his presence, however, her vision was immediately sent spinning. She rolled off of the couch in confusion and clamored on the ground on all fours. An overwhelming wave of anguish wracked through her entire body, and paired with it was an intense hunger and desperation.
Something wasn’t right.
Heart hammering, Cadence scrambled up to her feet and leapt to the black-painted door just behind her couch. She whipped out Francis’s proto-conductor and shakily jammed its tip against the wall. It immediately burst with light.
“Francis, Polovinastadt near the Aquarian-Capricornian. Please, Francis, hurry—”
She wasn’t sure if Francis heard her but she stepped through the gate a second after anyway—
Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border
She was immediately met with a whipping gust of snow that almost sent her flying back into the gate. Rising around her were wooden buildings that would have otherwise been undetectable to her in the darkness and flurry if it were not for the fact that all their windows glowed a warm orange.
The despair, desperation, and hunger were stronger now.
As soon as Cadence took ten steps forward, her heart began to beat erratically in her chest. Off rhythm. Not good. The irregular thrumming spread out to her limbs, and before she knew it was she was trembling so violently that she couldn’t even stand.
She felt like she was dying. Again.
A familiar smell filled her senses. Chlorowheat.
It was Werner.
Memories from that dark night in the Twin Cities hammered their way into her brain—Werner had bore all her beatings without a second thought, but here now she couldn’t even take a couple of stupid dumb steps for him?
Cadence urged herself forward, forcing herself up to a stand as she dragged herself through the snow. Fighting back tears from the cold, she stumbled forward twenty more steps towards the direction of Werner’s inn before falling forward again. She didn’t hit the snow again this time, however, and was instead caught by a pair of warm but sturdy hands.
“A-Are you okay?” A familiar voice.
Cadence squinted in the darkness to find a woman’s face that was knitted with concern. “Greta?”
Greta stared back wide-eyed. “How do you know my name…?”
Cadence grabbed onto her arm. “It’s Werner. Something’s wrong—”
Greta startled in confusion. “H-How do you know Werner?”
“Please help me get to him,” Cadence pleaded. “Please.”
Greta stiffened before nodding tightly.
With her help, Cadence made it to the inn in less than a minute. They burst through the doors together and stumbled into the lobby area. The bright v-lights above burned Cadence’s eyes and started a migraine at her temple, but she managed to still make out the fancy staircase at the back of the lobby through the pain. She glanced to her left and saw a familiar line of phone booths built into the wall there. One had a receiver that that was dangling off of its main body by a chord.
Cadence looked forward to find Gilbert and Nico coming down the stairwell.
Greta gasped, her hand darting to her mouth. “G-Gilbert, your arm—”
“Werner, Werner, Werner,” Cadence tried to explain as she fought against the shivering. With difficulty, she detached herself from Greta, brushed past the two men, and scrambled up the stairs and tore down the hall at the top.
After several twists and turns, she collided with someone coming down in the opposite direction. She stumbled backwards and looked up to find a grimacing Knovak. Pounding footsteps echoed behind her; and upon turning Cadence registered Greta, Gilbert, and Nico at her back.
“What the hell are you doing here, Morello?” Gilbert demanded. “Aren’t you supposed to—”
“Who the hell is this?” Knovak snapped, before looking over at Greta and jerking his head at her. “Who the hell is that?”
Ignoring them, Cadence brushed past the Aquarian and scrambled down the hall. Identical doors lined the walls, but Cadence found herself drawn to the one at the farthest end on the left. She ran up to it and tried the doorknob. Locked. Mind buzzing, she began pounding her first against it and kicking it.
Knovak ran up to her and pulled her away with Gilbert’s help.
“What the hell is going on here?” Gilbert demanded.
“P-Please just open the door!” Cadence pleaded as she tried to get her shaking under control and fought against them both. “It’s Werner.”
Knovak’s eyes widened slightly and he turned to the door and tried the knob. When that didn’t work, Gilbert moved forward and began to throw his body weight against it. Knovak pulled him back after four tries before proceeding to deliver hard, solid kicks to the door’s center. On his third kick, a crack resounded and the lock gave way.
As soon as it swung ajar, smoke spilled out from the bathroom and into the hall and clouded Cadence’s vision. Greta and Knovak both immediately covered their noses and mouths, but Cadence was too horrified by the revelation to follow suit—the smell of the smoke and the haze of it was familiar. Gilbert stepped forward into the bathroom and waved his hand r to clear the smoke. It was only that Cadence could finally see him—see Werner on the floor against the wall, motionless, pale, just like her mother had been when she’d passed away entangled in her bed sheets.
Cadence didn’t know when she stopped screaming—probably sometime after she’d run to Werner’s side. He looked even worse up close; and when she reached out to touch his face, her fingertips somehow felt even colder than they were before. Nico gently pushed her to the side once her screaming had stopped which was when she was able to see the shattered vial and the needle scattered side-by-side together on the floor.
Her vision swam.
Gilbert, Greta, and Nico started shouting. Kramer and Knovak too. Cadence could barely think straight above the noise and pain. In a panic, she pulled Francis’s proto-conductor out from her pants pocket and spilled the black liquid all over the floor. The liquid slipped in-between the tiled cracks of the floor and carried away some of the glass shards with it.
Cadence tapped the tip of the proto-conductor against the liquid and winced as the bright igniting light intensified the migraine pounding at her temples. She grabbed hold of Werner and Nico before pulling them both into the gate with her—
A moment later, she fell forward with them onto cold, hard, beige ground. Shivers continued to wrack her body making it increasingly difficult to keep herself upright. Still, she was able to crawl onto all fours and desperately scan for Francis in the room she’d landed—
Francis stood in front of the opposite wall with his conductor-gloved hand pressed up against the stain there. He looked surprised as did Pi who stood beside him. Kent, who hid behind the latter’s leg, looked terrified. Cadence’s short-lived relief faded once she registered that those three were not the room’s only occupants. Sitting at the circular table in the far corner were Fortuna, Cavallo, Agape, Bendetto, Carl, and Allen. All six of them ogled her with either astonishment, alarm, disbelief, or worry.
“What is this…?”
Cadence turned to find Kramer, Knovak, Gilbert, and Greta stepping into the exitless room from the open gate behind her. Greta appeared much more alarmed and flabbergasted than all the others, but she shook herself and ran to Werner’s side immediately.
Kramer pulled out the pistol strapped to her leg but didn’t move to point it at anyone. Instead she kept it stiffly at her waist. Knovak, on the other hand, had to be held back by her.
“What is the meaning of this?” Cavallo demanded as he rose from the table.
Allen, Carl, and Fortuna finally seemed to register Nico, and they rose collectively from the table. “Nico?”
Fortuna eyed the man for a moment before she studied Gilbert, Kramer, and Knovak. She proceeded to whisper tightly in Geminian, “Cadence, are these Aquarians? Capricornians? Did you check to see if they were infected?”
“Geminians,” Knovak muttered under his breath as he scanned the room. He stopped short as his gaze fell on Pi. “Mladen…?”
Pi pulled Kent slightly closer to him in response before looking to Francis beside him.
“ELPIS.” Kramer took a step back, gaze flicking to the tattoo on Francis’s face. She raised her pistol but still kept its nose pointed to the ground.
“Francis,” Cadence pleaded with difficulty as shakes wracked her body. She clutched her chest as her heart began to beat even more erratically. “Please help.”
Francis crossed the room immediately, bypassed Kramer, and sank to the floor beside her. He held her arms and assessed her. “What’s wrong?”
“Not me,” she managed, jerking her head back towards Werner just behind her.
Francis’s gaze drifted to him, and he tensed before moving over to the other man’s side. Greta stiffened upon registering the tattoo on Francis’s face while Nico gave him a grateful, desperate look.
“I-I think he took chlorowheat. Too much of it…” Cadence began to whimper slightly despite herself. “I-I think he took too much of it.”
Allen and Carl stiffened before exchanging looks with Fortuna.
“Chlorowheat?” Francis reached out towards Werner’s pale face with his gloved hand.
Greta immediately reached out a hand to stop him and trembled as she did so. Her eyes were locked onto the tattoo on his face.
Nico looked between them. “It’s okay. Francis is good.”
“I’m here to help, Miss,” Francis informed Greta calmly before turning his head and calling out, “Pi, conjure me N-Allylnoroxymorphone.”
Pi tapped his temple and made a panicked ‘X’ with his fingers before shaking his head.
Francis frowned before facing Werner again. “We’re going to have to do this the hard way then.” He nodded at Nico. “I need your help—”
“A-Anything,” Nico insisted. “I was thinking that we should—”
Francis held up a hand, proceeded to reach into his belt, pulled out his knife. He cut along his palm and spilled blood out onto the floor before placing his gloved hand against the spot. As the gate their flickered with light, Cadence started forward as did Gilbert.
Francis held her and Gilbert back with a raised hand. “We’ll handle this. Please be patient.”
With that, he sank with Nico, Werner, and Greta into his gate, leaving only silence behind. Once they were no longer in sight and the light from the gate faded, Cadence finally collapsed on the ground and curled into herself as the hot tremors intensified their ride through her body. Cold sweat broke out on her back and she wheezed as she took in a ragged breath.
“Shit…” Gilbert was at her side now. “Are you alright?”
“Move aside, damn it.” Carl—now at her side too.
“What’s going on?” Fortuna.
Their shadows encircled Cadence’s dimming vision but she couldn’t hear the rest because a cold darkness claimed her swiftly.
* * *
When Cadence opened her eyes again, she found that she was lying on a couple of chairs with what appeared to be a coat—Gilbert’s—draped over her. Her mind was foggy and it took a moment for her to collect her baring and recall everything that had led up to this point. Nausea took her just a second after, as a frigid terror expanded out from her chest.
It had to be a nightmare, she reasoned. It couldn’t be real.
But when she drew herself up to a sit, reality created her. The Romano caporegimes sitting at their dining table, Carl and Allen were on chairs that were drawn out a little bit closer to her, and Fortuna was standing in the corner with crossed arms. Pi was standing at the back wall, looking nervously towards Kramer and Knovak who were staring at him from the opposite side of the room. Gilbert paced back and forth just in front of the duo.
Just like her parents.
Cadence buried her face in her hands as she tried to stop her thoughts from bouncing up and down, side to side, everywhere. The other four were reeling too—she could feel them. They buzzed back and forth at the back of her mind, but Cadence couldn’t focus on what they were saying.
“Saints, Cadence.” Carl was at her side now and shaking her on the shoulder. “Your guy’ll be fine. He’s in good hands. You’re still alive so—”
“No! He won’t be fine!” Cadence slapped Carl’s hand away as she leapt up and away from the chairs. “Dammit, Carl—he won’t be fine! He won’t be fine!” She lowered her hands a second afterwards as she felt everyone’s gazes. With difficulty, she cleared her throat. “Sorry, Carl. I’m just agitated ‘cause of the situation is all. Body’s achin’ too.”
“Yeah, your mind buddy got you all kinds of fucked up, huh?” Carl arched a brow. “That was the Capricornian who was here a couple months back, right?” He jerked his chin in Gilbert’s direction. “Him too?”
Cadence followed his gaze to Gilbert. The man was still pacing back and forth mumbling to himself. Tentatively, she approached him and reached out. “Hey—”
Slapping her hand away, Gilbert whipped around and jabbed a finger at her chest. He pulled out something from his pants pocket and shoved into her fast—the chlorowheat. “You! This—this is your shit, isn’t it? This is the shit you used to bargain with the Argoans back then.” He pulled back, eyes narrowing. “What? Getting him fucked up last autumn wasn’t enough for you? You had to bring this shit here too to poison the rest of us?!”
Agape stiffened from across the room, while Cavallo’s frown deepened.
“I-I didn’t know, Gil,” Cadence stammered. “I just found out just now like you. Honest—”
“Don’t fuckin’ call me ‘Gil.’” Gilbert’s glare cut Cadence deep. It was like receiving a glare from Francis or Nico.
“I-It’s the chlorowheat. It messes with conducting and our synchronizing. It’s like an override or like when we go to sleep but stronger,” Cadence tried to explain. Indignation squirmed in her stomach uncomfortably and she gestured loosely to him in response. “What about you? You were with him the entire time, weren’t ya? You… You were literally right there! Why didn’t you notice something’?!” She pulled back a moment after as she realized all of her words were more aimed towards herself than anybody else. ”
Gilbert bristled. “He was off doing his deep-level AAC shit all the time, okay?! You don’t think I tried to keep an eye on him…?” Gilbert jabbed another finger at her chest—
—but Carl stepped forward, smacked his hand away, glanced at Pi who was looking between them in confusion. “Hey, watch who you’re pointing your finger at. And keep your damned mouth shut.”
Gilbert shoved Carl back immediately. “Oh, shut up! You were just pointing fingers at Werner just an few hours ago.” He turned and gestured towards everyone at the dining table. “Well, the whole fucking cabal is here, right? The Geminian oligarchs giving our military underground weapons in the autumn so we can fight a meaningless battle and then doling out chlorowheat in the spring so you can fuck up my friend—”
A draft filled the room.
Fortuna’s lips thinned. “Calm down. We aren’t the ones who’ve been actively supplying your friend with the chlorowheat.” She crossed her arms. “Nor are we the ones encouraging him to take it. That choice was his own. You can stop pointing fingers now.”
Chuckling haughtily, Gilbert rolled up his sleeves. “Oh, you fucking bitch—”
“It would be best to discuss this matter elsewhere,” Cavallo interjected, hands folded. “I understand your personal vendetta—”
“Elsewhere? Elsewhere why?” Gilbert snapped before his eyes widened as he glanced over at Pi. “The ELPIS guys don’t know, do they? They don’t. Of course not. They have sticks up their asses.” He glowered. “Well, there’s a fucking stick up mine too then.” He nodded at Pi. “Hey, why don’t you tell Fran—”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Carl snarled, grabbing Gilbert by the scruff. “Don’t you remember how we helped you in the damned winter? Show some damned respect.”
“Hey, hey, Carl!” Trembling still, Cadence shakily put one hand on Carl’s shoulder and the other on Gilbert’s. “Tossin’ each other around won’t do any good, right? We’ve got enough enemies already. No need to make more on either party.”
After a moment, Carl released Gilbert who in turn brushed himself and sent the man a glare.
“You didn’t help us.” Gilbert snorted at Carl. “That guy—Francis, your brother—is the one that did. You and your other damned brother just sat around watching us and eating fucking popcorn.”
“No fighting…” Pi murmured nervously suddenly from his corner. He made a familiar ‘X’ with his arms when the entire room looked at him.
“What the hell is wrong with you…?” Knovak asked in Aquarian, looking Pi up and down. “You’re not Mladen, right?
Pi studied him then Kramer tentatively for a moment. “Pi.”
“We do need to be civil about this,” Fortuna pressed. “We’re offering our assistance to your friend—”
Gilbert bristled again. Cadence felt herself do the same—which was hypocritical, she knew.
“Fortuna, that ‘friend’ is connected ta me,” Cadence said, trying to keep her voice even and light. “That’s kinda why I was dyin’ on the floor over there earlier.”
Fortuna’s expression changed immediately and there was a flicker. “Why would you let him take it then? How long has he been taking it?”
“Ya think I let him?” Cadence recoiled before she faltered. “I-I don’t know how long—”
Gilbert glowered. “You people really like pointing fucking fingers don’t you.”
“That Capricornian an adult, isn’t he?” Allen asked thickly. “He can make his own decisions.”
“Like I said,” Fortuna replied tightly, “we weren’t the ones who—”
The room fell dead silent at the request. Ears now roaring and head pounding, Cadence turned towards the owner of the voice. Francis stood at the opposite wall in front of the glowing tangerine gate that was now beginning to dim back to black.
“Francis,” Allen acknowledged him with an unreadable expression.
Carl tensed. “How much did you hear…?”
Damn it, Carl.
Francis’s eyes narrowed at the question. Instead of answering, he scanned the entire room and held each individual person’s gazes for a stretch of time. When his eyes landed on Cadence, he said calmly, “We’ll deal with this first and discuss that later.” He paused before adding, “Werner should recover and awaken soon.”
Cadence felt some of the tension in her shoulders leave, but the knot in her stomach remained. She felt like puking.
Francis nodded at Kramer and Knovak. “You’re Miss Kramer and Mr. Knovak, correct? From what I understand, you’re under surveillance by Scorpio at the moment. As much as I would like to offer you refuge here—all things considered—I believe it would be best for you to return to the border for the time being.”
Kramer regarded the tattoo on Francis’s face for a long time before she nodded. “Yes, that would most likely be best.” She nodded at Gilbert. “First Lieutenant Wolff, I’ll do my best to cover for you and Captain Waltz for the time being.”
Gilbert lifted his head in surprise before nodding.
“This place”—Knovak gestured around the room just before he stepped with Kramer into the gate Francis opened up— “Would make good military base.”
* * *
It had been over fifteen minutes since Kramer and Knovak had left. No one had spoken a word since then. Cavallo and Agape—still seated and calm—were the only ones who seemed to be at ease with the situation. Beside them, Bendetto kept thrumming his fingers against the table and sneaking peeks at Francis who stood at the center of the room. Fortuna, Carl, and Allen had taken a seat on the chairs they’d pulled out, while Pi nervously shifted from foot-to-foot in the corner.
Cadence had tried her best to keep a calm appearance at first, but her thoughts continued to bounce around erratically. Thus, she’d given up on the facade and instead now sat on her chair in the corner with her head buried in her hands.
After ten more minutes passed, Francis approached Gilbert with an extended hand. “Herr Wolff, may I see the chlorowheat you have there?”
After glancing briefly at Cadence, Gilbert handed it to the man.
Francis inspected the chlorowheat for what felt like hours before he asked quietly to no one in particular, “How long have you been shipping this out?”
“Well, Francis,” Carl tried, “we ain’t sellin’ it—”
Carl glanced at Allen who didn’t answer. Then he looked to Cadence. Cadence avoided his gaze.
“Production started officially late December into early January,” Cavallo answered calmly. “Shipments began around the same time to Argo. We stopped production around then due to technical difficulties but continued to ship out the product up until the end of January. At the time, the ships we rented out that held the product were stolen by ELPIS. We’ve lost control of product circulation since then.”
“‘Ships rented out.’” Fists now clenched, Francis looked across the room towards Carl and Allen. The room began to shake as the gates began to pulsate faintly. “So the reason the Romanos were assisting in this search for Alpha was not to aid the children but to try and retrieve their chlorowheat. I was naive to think otherwise.”
“We needed the money, Francis,” Carl explained. “The kids’re expensive. We’re not makin’ enough money from the casinos and bars and we’re not shippin’ conductors anymore either. We pushed the people you told us to push, but it just ain’t enough. We need to make a living. The Romanos do too. It’s for the kids.”
Dust rained down from the ceiling as the shaking intensified.
“Listen to yourself. Who do you think is impacted the most by these substances?” Francis asked quietly, fist clenching tighter. “Who do you think the blood of your consumers and clients bleeds down to? Still even after everything you take advantage of the vulnerable—”
“Enough of your poetry, Francis,” Fortuna interjected. “If this happened last summer, you wouldn’t even question it. You’re being a hypocrite.”
“What’s your point?” Francis met her gaze. “You’re speaking as if people’s don’t grow and change. Is it hypocritical to acknowledge your mistakes and choose a path opposite of your former one? If you think that’s the case then I advise you to look up the definition again.” He scanned the room again, and his eyes finally fell on Cadence.
“Cadence, you too?” The hurt in his eyes was clear as day. “I trusted you, Cadence.”
“Francis, I—” Cadence opened and shut her mouth. “I just—you still seemed liked you were still havin’ a hard time. I didn’t want ta stress ya out any more than ya already were.”
“Do you believe that’s what Herr Waltz was thinking by keeping his usage of chlorowheat a secret from the rest of you?”
Cadence felt like she’d been slapped—no, stabbed. Cracks began to appear along the ceiling, causing everyone in the room to visibly tense.
“You of all people, Cadence, know a lie is never told completely selflessly. Did you make Jericho and Maria lie for you as well? Were your words of comfort on that day just the same?”
A sharp pang of shame gripped Cadence’s chest tight. Her own remorse came a second later.
“Francis, ya know they weren’t,” Cadence assured him. “I meant every word I said. I wanted ta tell ya back then—honest—but—”
“Francis, your head still isn’t on right,” Allen finally said, arms crossed. “You can’t blame us for not telling you. Look at what you’re doing now.”
“My head isn’t right?” Francis released his clenched fist, and the gates began to dim. “Who are you to put judgment on what I should or shouldn’t be like? Do you think it’s ‘normal in the head’ to have such a blasé attitude towards the ramifications of your actions?” His gaze swept over all of them again as the room stopped shaking. He clenched his fists again a second after. “You gave Alpha an advantage with your product—”
“Let’s not get worked up now,” Bendetto interjected, eyeing Francis warily.
“That’s a hypocritical viewpoint on two fronts, Francis, isn’t it?” Agape challenged. “You condemn the use of conductors while simultaneously condemning something that would curb the usage of them. You want to care for your children and yet you’re not willing to do what it takes to care for them. The reason you’re able to live and speak comfortably is because you’ve done the same thing your brothers are doing now.”
“Don’t lecture my damned brother, Agape,” Carl snapped. “He’s technically older than you.”
Agape frowned. “You can point the fingers all you want, Francis, but—”
“You’re the one who is pointing the fingers. If it’s not ‘in your world’ then it doesn’t matter?” Francis looked down on her from the distance. “You’re a selfish fool if you think like that. In the end, as the cycle turns, everything returns at some point to where it was. If it easier for you think in these terms then let me put it this way: karma is a bitch—or so you’ve seen with Alpha has been able to do with your chlorowheat.” After a pause, he gestured to Cadence. “Does the threat have to be imminent for you to act?” He lowered his hand. “I am, of course, in no way blaming Herr Waltz for this predicament. While the consequences may not touch you immediately, they will immediately befall the people around you. One day, it will hit too close.”
Cadence stiffened, feeling her stomach do flip flops as she felt Carl, Allen, and Fortuna’s gazes dart to her.
“You fear losing things, so you lie to keep them close. You fail to notice that closeness has also become an illusion,” Francis continued, handing the chlorowheat back to Gilbert and crossing the room. “You have made a mistake and have failed to acknowledge it. Now you’re using me and the children to try and rectify it.” He brushed past Allen and Carl. “Acknowledging one’s ability to fail, to make mistakes, to be weak leads to prosperity, while ignoring it leads to desiccation.”
“It just got outta control,” Carl said after a long pause of silence. “You know we only want what’s best for the kids. How the hell else were we supposed to do it?”
“‘You know what the difference between a gangster and a mobster is?’—that’s something Cadence asked used all when were kids. A riddle-lesson or something.” Francis came to a stop in front of the black-painted door at the wall. “The answer was ‘one of them thinks ahead and plans for a future, while the other one just reaps the rewards of the present. One is caught and jailed after a short spree, while the other lives rich, old, free.’” He placed his hand against the gate causing it to glow. “I’m sure you’re well aware of where you all fall.”
“Francis.” Allen rose to a stand. “Where are you going?”
“I’m not running away if that’s what you’re asking,” Francis replied. “I learn from my mistakes and I intend to make up for them. Pointing fingers and trying to find victim and perpetrator is no use at this time. My intention now is to discuss this issue with Mr. Ricardo directly with Tau.”
Fortuna whipped around. “What…?”
“As for Herr Waltz…” Francis turned to Cadence briefly. “Cadence, he will be going through severe withdrawal symptoms soon and will be in need of your support. I suspect he will try to hide—just as you have.”
* * *
Werner woke up a day later. Greta hesitantly returned to the exitless room that Cadence and Gilbert had been camping out in to bring them the news. She cautioned to them that he was still disoriented before she started demanding a more thorough explanation for everything that had happened since the Aquarian-Capricornian border. It sounded like she got sparse details from Nico. True Conductors? Saint Candidates? Conducting without a conductor?! ELPIS? Energy levels?
Gilbert answered most of her questions, although he sounded pretty confused about everything himself. When he brought up the Week of Blindness, Greta quietly reached and touched his stub. Gilbert grimaced in response and reached out to pull her into an embrace when she started to cry. Cadence watched them, wanting to say something but knowing that she couldn’t because they didn’t know her like she knew them.
Half an hour later, they collectively traversed through Cadence’s gate to the exitless room Werner resided in. Gilbert entered first, Cadence following just behind him but hiding behind him to be out of eyesight. Greta followed suit, standing tense behind Gilbert. Peering over the man’s side, Cadence was able to make out Werner sitting up on the small bed pressed against the beige wall. Nico sat beside him, silent.
Cadence started to feel nauseous and uneasy.
After staring at Gilbert for what felt like a whole minute, Werner finally seemed to register him and acknowledged him with a head nod. “Gilbert? Good. I was just briefing Nico on what I just discovered. Matthias Alfhild is a confirmed True Conductor. I witnessed him utilize two conducting types during the previous meeting.” He began re-buttoning his shirt. “Most likely he’s connected to Constanza Groth. The situation with the secretary has also deteriorated. Beyond that, I believe there may be a collusion developing between Aquarius and Capricorn—”
Hesitantly, Cadence stepped out from behind Gilbert.
“Cadence? What are you doing here?” Werner stared at her uncomprehendingly. He scanned the room. “Where is this?” When Greta stepped out from behind Gilbert too, he stiffened further.
“Werner, do you remember what happened before waking up here…?” Greta drew quietly. “Do you remember meeting me?”
Werner stared past her towards Cadence, and Cadence could feel him trying to search through her memories for an explanation. Said explanation seemed to come to him as Cadence could feel shame curling in his stomach. Instead of answering or acknowledging his realization, however, he slowly rose from the bed as he finished buttoning his shirt.
“How long have I been unconscious?”
Cold sweat broke out the back of Cadence’s neck as she felt her heart sink.
“Around a day and a half,” Nico answered quietly, rising with him and holding out cautious hands. “I think maybe you should sit down a bit, Werner—”
“Did we already report into our Ophiuchian contact?”
“I’m not sure,” Nico replied hesitantly. “Kramer and Knovak are handling that I think—”
“Then I’ll discuss it with Kramer shortly. We need to return immediately,” Werner said as he approached Gilbert and came to a stop in front of him. He glanced at Cadence before nodding at Greta. “Greta, our operation of investigating the AAC is of high priority and is highly classified, so I ask for your discretion. I understand where you’re coming from in your membership of the group, however, and I understand the AAC’s concerns. I will do my best to relay this information to groups that can handle it, but—out of concern—I would like you to dissociate yourself from it if possible.”
“Out of concern…?” Greta stared at Werner before looking him up and down as if seeing him for the first time. She shook her head. “Wait, Werner. I… I don’t fully understand what’s really going on here even after they explained it, but this… True Conductor business… being able to conduct without conductors and use other conducting types… it sounds big— dangerous.” She looked at his bandaged arm. “But before that, Werner—”
“We can discuss that later. We should return before—”
Werner pressed forward pushing past Gilbert, but the other man held out his hand and stopped Werner from reaching the gate. At the same time, Cadence felt the other four strongly synchronize and saw them appear around her collectively. Olive kept his eyes glued to his feet and Atienna stared just over Werner’s shoulder, while the other two held Werner’s gaze. Werner tensed.
They had all had a lengthy discussion on how to approach this half an hour earlier, but even with all that planning, Cadence had a gut feeling everything was going to go south quickly.
Gilbert abruptly swore, curled his fingers around Werner’s scruff, and pulled him back. “Werner, come on. You know we can’t just leave it like that.”
Protect, protect, protect.
Cadence could hear it now loud and clear. The pulsating desire, passion, urge. Werner’s gaze passed over her and then the other four before he took a step back and met Gilbert’s eyes.
“I apologize for my… earlier behavior. That was an inexcusable lapse in judgment,” Werner said. He turned to Cadence and then dipped his head at the other four. “I endangered your lives and that was absolutely unacceptable.” He paused, then explained, “Matthias revealed a new chlorowheat product to me, and I wanted to evaluate its effects before presenting the information to our Ophiuchian contact—”
Gilbert did a double-take. “Werner, are you hearing yourself? What—some guy gives you some weird ass drug shit that you’ve never seen before and you go— ‘Oh, I’m going to stick this right in my arm to see what happens?’ And you ‘apologize’? For fucking nearly dying?” He gestured to Cadence. “And for nearly dragging them with you? Do you know what fucking happened yesterday? You almost…”
Werner stiffened as his gaze shifted back to Cadence.
Protect, protect, protect.
“Gilbert,” Nico warned, reaching out to touch Werner’s shoulder. “Let’s try not pointing fingers, okay?”
Cadence could feel the self-disappointment and guilt curl in Werner’s stomach as the man flinched away from Nico’s touch—
“Yes, I agree. It was a lapse in judgment. Again: I apologize. I won’t allow it to happen again. I promise.” He paused, looking at Cadence then at Olive. “I’m sorry.”
The silence that stretched on afterwards was unbearable. Cadence searched her mind desperately for something to see but for once she couldn’t come up with any words. She looked to Atienna but the woman remained silent.
“Okay fine. Let’s say that you had a lapse in judgment.” Gilbert dug into his pocket and procured the packet of chlorowheat. “I still have questions about this.”
The way Werner’s eyes lit up for a brief second made Cadence feel like she’d once again been stabbed in the gut. Werner reached for it but Gilbert—eyes wide because he must have seen it too—pulled it just out of reach.
“Werner…this is the shit we were supposed to turn into Otto, isn’t it?”
Otto. Otto. Otto.
Cadence winced at the sharp pain in her chest that followed the mantra. Werner looked at her in concealed alarm.
Protect. Protect. Protect.
After a moment of hesitation, Werner took another step back and met Gilbert’s gaze calmly. “I found that after you lost it originally. I kept it on my person so we would have it available to turn into our contact.”
Oh, saints. Werner was lying—just like how her parents had lied about being too tired to play with her when she’d been younger. The reality was that they were too busy shrouded in a cloud of morrowheat to pay her any attention. If Werner was lying like they were, then this was bad. No, this was the worst case scenario. And this was all her fault. She could’ve prevented this.
Werner’s attention turned to her again.
“I can hear you, Werner,” Cadence explained. “I…” She glanced at Gilbert. “He’s… lying.”
Cadence felt a prick of irritation followed by deep disappointment. Werner’s disappointment was not directed at her, however, but at himself—for being caught in the lie. The realization sent Cadence’s mind reeling.
“I thought my jokes were finally landing and that you were finally learning how to fucking loosen up.” Gilbert faltered for a moment. “But you… you were just taking this shit, weren’t you?”
Protect, protect, protect.
Werner’s expression folded into concern as he looked Gilbert over. “Gilbert, I assure you there’s nothing to be alarmed by. As I said, what happened won’t happen again. I apologize for lying, but I was doing what I believed was best. I took that chlorowheat to replace the chlorowheat that a doctor had prescribed to me. I lost the original prescription during our travel from the capital to Polovinastadt. I planned to retrieve additional chlorowheat to turn into our contact.”
“Wait, wait—what?” Gilbert did a double-take, shaking the chlorowheat again. “What fucking doctor prescribed this shit to you?”
“Doctor Euphorieson,” Cadence realized along with the other four, before glancing up at Werner sharply. “I thought all he gave ya was that ointment and that tea?”
“He did, but it wasn’t effective,” Werner replied evenly. “He prescribed sleeping pills that contained trace chlorowheat but its effect also waned. I had my subsequent consultations with the doctor which is when he prescribed me the chlorowheat. I consulted with him at night time when you were all asleep and wanted to keep the situation private which is why you were unaware of this.”
He’d abused the unspoken privacy rule.
“I merely didn’t want to disturb you.” Werner paused for a moment, glancing briefly at Olive with a look akin to hurt, before nodding at Cadence. “The pills containing chlorowheat are a common prescription to individuals who were infected by Scorpio during the Week of Blindness.”
“Why the hell am I just hearing about this now?” Gilbert pressed.
“Pharmaceuticals most likely isn’t your department.”
“That’s not what I mean—”
“It was and still is a personal health matter,” Werner replied evenly. “We’re both adults, Gilbert. My health is none of your concern.”
“None of my concern?” Gilbert recoiled. “Werner, don’t go back to this shit again. You’re my friend. Of course I should be fucking concerned.”
Protect, protect, protect.
Protect, protect, protect.
Protect, protect, protect.
“Werner… I noticed that you’ve been pushing back the synchronization meetings,” Atienna finally drew slowly. “Sometimes we don’t have them for weeks when we used to have them at least twice a week. I understand that you have a lot on your mind, but I don’t believe this is the best…”
“I…” Jericho’s apparition glanced towards Maria’s image. “I ‘miss’ our one-on-one talks. In the office. Paperwork. We don’t talk a lot anymore.”
Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect.
Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect.
Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect—
“I can’t offer you any other explanation than what I’ve already given you.” There was agitation in Werner’s voice now, and he was starting to sound less like himself and more like how Cadence’s mother had sounded on one of her bad days. “I was still able to access the deeper levels of the AAC and obtain information on their movements. I was able to confirm that Matthias is a True Conductor.” He turned to Cadence then and addressed the other four. “And I still come when you call for me. I had a lapse in judgment, and I intend to correct it. I’m sorry. I assure you that despite the recent development I have this under control.”
Olive looked to Atienna nervously, uncomfortably; and Cadence could feel his anxiety began to spill out in waves. It only amplified Cadence’s own.
Atienna rubbed her arms. “We’re not doubting you, Werner—”
“Werner.” Gilbert grimaced before he slipped into Capricornian. “It doesn’t fucking matter to me if you can get into the AAC or whether you can. What matters to me is what this shit is doing to you. I don’t want to be thinking that I’m going to find you dying on the fucking floor every time I use the bathroom. What the hell were you thinking—”
“Gil,” Nico warned again. “Like I said… let’s not get accusatory here.” He turned to Werner. “Werner, why… did you start taking the chlorowheat? Why was it prescribed?”
There was a pause.
“Scorpio’s manipulation leaves behind impulses as you all know,” Werner replied evenly, glancing from Greta to Gilbert then from Cadence to Olive. “It’s become increasingly difficult to manage the impulse which is my own fault. I’ve also been dealing with parasomnia, and I didn’t want for any of you to be exposed to it since it would deter your daily activities ”
“Werner, you don’t have to take it for us,” Olive murmured, wide-eyed with alarm. “A-And it’s not your fault either—”
Gilbert stated more than asked, “It’s that fucking bad.”
“I’m unable to think straight without it,” Werner admitted evenly in the silence that followed. “It’s more an asset than a—”
Cadence’s heart skipped a beat. “Can you think straight with it?”
Werner looked up at her sharply but she didn’t find the sympathy or empathy that she’d been expecting in his gaze. Instead, his eyes were as cold as they were when they’d first met during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.
Cadence’s voice caught in her throat at the sight but she still tried, “I know it feels like ya have control of it, Werner, but—” She stopped short as she felt his words before he said them—
“Just because your parents were unable to control and restrain themselves, Morello, doesn’t mean that I can’t.”
His words rattled inside Cadence’s head and winded her completely. If she’d heard those words from anyone else, she could have easily brushed it off without a second thought. Hearing it from Werner’s mouth felt worse than being gutted.
He doesn’t mean that, someone reassured her. He’s not—
It didn’t make Cadence feel any better. The look of confusion on Gilbert’s face melded into an expression of realization and sympathy—of all things—a second after. Olive meanwhile paled, appearing absolutely stricken.
“Werner!” Atienna snapped, eyes wide. Her brows furrowed and her expression became unreadable. “How could you say that…?”
Werner’s gaze remained hard. “Atienna, you make excuses for her all the time. She needs to take responsibility for her actions—”
“Responsibility…? Excuses?” Olive looked between them in confusion. “Werner, what are you talking about—”
Olive stiffened at the formal address and hurt bled into their connection.
“—you are making reckless decisions and forming unstable alliances without discussing it with the rest of us,” Werner continued. “Your interaction with Hideyoshi earlier was reckless. You consistently act without thinking about the consequences. You’re as negligent as she is—”
“Werner!” Nico interjected, finally reaching out to grasp Werner’s shoulder. He jerked the man backwards before he turned to Cadence and said gently without meeting her eyes, “I think you should go for now, Cadence. And uhm—” He scanned the room. “The other one—the kid prince—should probably go too. I’m not sure how this synchronization thing works, but I think it’d probably be good if you two pulled back for a while…”
Olive bristled and scowled, looking Nico up and down challengingly. Cadence could literally taste an insult on his tongue.
“Kid,” Cadence interjected, “he’s right.”
Olive whipped to her in confusion. What? Why—
Because Werner knew they looked up to him.
Olive’s eyes widened at this thought, and he looked back to Werner but avoided the man’s gaze. Staring down at his shoes again, he nodded before he began to fade from Cadence’s vision.
Cadence then turned on her heels and dazedly exited the room using Francis’s proto-conductors. She mumbled to be transported to the Dioscuri Bridge before stepping through the gate but she wasn’t too sure if Francis had heard her or if he’d oblige to her request if he did. Much to her surprise, however, when she stepped out form the gate, she found herself stepping out onto the slippery wet stones just below the bridge. The ocean waves whispered around her as the bridge lights hummed above her.
Through the darkness, she made her way along the rocks until she reached one of the many steel bars that held up the entire structure. She then leaned against it, sank to the ground, and tucked her legs tightly to her chest. Grimacing, she buried her head into her knees. She let out the breath and coughed as a whimper caught in her throat. The tears spilled burning out from her eyes before she could catch him; and even after taking in gulps of air, she couldn’t dampen the sobs. Before she knew it, she was outright bawling.
Oh, saints. Werner was going to end up like her parents, wasn’t he? This was her fault, wasn’t it? She’d brought the chlorowheat up in Argo and thought she’d been brilliant for using it as leverage at the time, but now everything had spiraled out of her control like it always did. Why hadn’t she tried to stop Allen and Carl before? Why hadn’t she said something to Francis? Oh saints—Francis. Damn it. Situation and circumstances didn’t even fit into the damn equation.
She knew what it could do and still she’d just accepted it. Why? Because it didn’t affect those close to her? At least, she thought it didn’t. Francis was right—
Cadence swiped at her eyes and sobbed again.
Oh, no. What if Werner didn’t get better? What if this would be with him for the rest of his life? Even if he got better, the damage was still done.
Saints—no, stupid, dumb saints.
Scorpio—it was all his fault.
Why hadn’t she done anything?
Cadence looked up through a haze of tears and found Atienna’s image sinking beside her.
It’ll be alright. I promise.
Here Atienna came—comforting without addressing the problem. Like always.
Still, Cadence allowed Atienna to comfort her and reached back out towards Werner just enough so she can peer into his surroundings.
Werner was facing Greta, Nico, and Gilbert still with Jericho and Atienna standing beside him. Much to Cadence’s surprise, Maria was nowhere in sight. She reached out to Maria in confusion which was when the gate behind Gilbert began to pulsate. Out from there emerged Maria who swept into the room without missing a step. Greta leapt back in surprise, while Maria merely flashed her a grin.
“Oh fuck… It’s you,” Gilbert muttered under his breath, taking a step back too.
Instead of warmly greeting the trio, however, Maria walked forward towards Werner, extending her hand out towards him and touching his chest. Brief looks of confusion flashed across everyone’s faces as Maria continued walking forward, forward, forward. She pushed Werner back, back, back, until he hit the bed and fell back onto it. Maria sank to her knees before him as he straightened into a sit and reached out to cup his face in her hands. Werner stared in confusion.
“You are Werner—my Werner, not that woman’s Werner, not this thing’s Werner, yes?” Maria pressed. “You are smart. You are dependable. You are always on time. You like cake because it takes a lot of time, care, and precision. You can be boring sometimes and worry and think too much, but you are kind. You protect—”
Werner finally faltered and pulled away. “No, I can’t, Maria. It’s impossible. Not everyone.”
Leave it to Maria to break down an impenetrable wall.
Or maybe, came Jericho’s thought, there were already cracks in the wall to begin with.
Maria cocked her head in confusion before her eyes widened.
Werner abruptly held his head as a wave of nausea spilled on over through their connection. “This True Conductor hunt. I can rationalize what we need to do and why we need to do it: to ensure the safety of the group and to protect it for as long as possible, but… Louise, Hideyoshi, Matthias, Constanza—they deserve the same. I can’t…” He didn’t elaborate but he didn’t need to.
Atienna pressed both her hands to her mouth and averted her eyes, while Gilbert, Nico, and Greta drew nearer. Greta appeared thoroughly confused and alarmed so she stood slightly back, while Nico sank beside Werner on the bed.
“Come on,” Gilbert urged, “talk to me, Werner. ”
There was a long stretch of silence.
“Gilbert,” Werner finally said, a pained look crossing his face, “there was an ELPIS attack on the outpost Bergmann, Kleine, and Brandt were stationed at.”
“Their names were on the death toll list. Like Otto.”
Nico and Gilbert simultaneously paled. Gilbert grimaced, buried his head in his good hand, and swore under his breath. A second later, he kicked the bed frame and swore.
“Gil!” Nico clicked his tongue before turning back to Werner. “Hey, the news gets things wrong all the time,” he drew slowly. “I’m sure they’re fine. They’re smart. They’re survivors.”
Werner held Nico’s gaze before grimacing. “I don’t know what to do.”
The unspoken thought bled out—it hurts.
Cadence suppressed a whimper.
“If I don’t take it then my judgment will be negatively affected. I know it will. I won’t be able to take the correct course of action and make rational choices. I’ll endanger everyone. And the parasomnia—”
“Werner, you know with these kinds of things…” Nico began. “I’ve had to treat a lot of patients that had morrowheat… addictions back when I was working in the Twin Cities.” His expression tightened. “These things—they seem like they’re helping, but they’re really not. I know you know that deep down. They’re just temporary solutions. And…” He paused. “And… they make… you do things that you regret.”
Werner stiffened as his hand drifted to his face. “I don’t know why I said those things. I didn’t mean them. I need to apologize… That was unacceptable.”
“Hey, let’s focus on the big picture first,” Gilbert said, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. He moved to sit beside him. “Nic’s right.”
Werner held Gilbert’s gaze for a moment before his eyes trailed down to the man’s missing hand. Greta followed his gaze before her lips thinned and she averted her gaze.
“Werner, this shit isn’t your fault,” Gilbert reassured him, glancing briefly at Greta and jerking his head at Maria. “It sucks but this crazy Leonian probably saved me a lot of heartache by lobbing it off. Not that this shit isn’t a headache in itself, but—don’t worry about it.”
Werner stared at Gilbert’s stump for just a moment longer before his hand moved to his temple again. “It’s just so loud. I need—”
Cadence’s heart sank into even deeper depths than before.
“You do not need it, Werner,” Maria said quietly, reaching out to hold his face in her hands again. “You want it. I also have a hard time separating what I want and what I need, yes? But you are smart, no? You know the difference. And you are strong too, yes? For telling us this, no?”
Atienna spoke gently through Maria, “Will you please let us help you?”
The shame that Cadence felt curling at the pit of Werner’s stomach was intense as was the itching at his palms. Still, slowly and silently, he offered a nod.
Nico, Greta, and Atienna visibly relaxed at this while Gilbert hung his head and let out a breath. Gilbert then nodded to Nico and asked, “What next? I’m not good with this shit, and to be honest, Capricorn usually just shoves things like this to the side.”
“Well, when Francis, Greta, and I were…” Nico looked away. “Francis showed us how to remove most of the chlorowheat from your system. You’re probably starting to feel it already but once the chlorowheat is completely cleared from your system, it’s… not going to be a good time. It could last for a week or more. I’m not sure—”
“The others will share my experiences,” Werner muttered. “Is there a way to prevent this?”
Nico winced and shook his head. “Not that I know of. I’m sorry.”
Cadence could feel Werner’s thoughts began to stray to that.
“It’s okay, Werner. I can take some of the pain,” Jericho offered, his image falling to a crouch beside Maria. “Yes, I can also help. I am here.”
Werner closed his eyes briefly. “I’m sorry.”
“Perhaps…” Atienna drew slowly after a beat. “With situations like this, there’s commonly something else that needs to be done, isn’t there? What Scorpio did and… your parasomnia…” She held her arms. “We should try handling that issue as well, don’t you think…? Perhaps it would make it easier for you….”
“I can ask Alice,” Jericho added, nodding almost enthusiastically. “You can talk to her through me. She is my friend, but she isn’t your friend, so it should be okay. Not ‘unprofessional.’” He offered a thumbs up. “Okay…? Werner…?”
Cadence pulled herself away from the connection, buried her head in her arms again, and closed her eyes. Her head felt numb, her eyelids heavy from the tears. Shivering slightly one last time, she allowed herself to be carried off to sleep.
* * *
Upon stirring an unknown amount of time later, the first thing Cadence noticed was that someone was sitting right next to her. She immediately yelped and flung herself backwards only to come face-to-face with Nico who was swallowing a shriek of his own.
“Saints, Cadence!” Nico put a hand to his chest. “You gave me a heart-attack.”
“Look at the pot callin’ the kettle black…” Cadence sighed, hanging her head and relaxing back into her spot. “How did ya even find me anyways?”
“I figured you’d be here…” He gestured up to the bridge above them. “This was our spot when we were kids. Can’t forget it.”
A v-train was pulling into the station and shaking the entire structure. The dull rumble almost matched the soft whispers from the crashing ocean waves.
“Gotta admit that I didn’t think that we’d end up meetin’ up again like this,” Nico murmured, picking up a stone from the ground and rolling it around in his hand. “You know when I asked you to leave earlier, I didn’t mean it like—”
“Yeah, I know.”
Nico tossed the rock towards the waters a couple meters away. It skipped twice. “I… can’t believe I didn’t notice.”
“Werner’s smart,” Cadence mumbled. “He might not be a sleuth, but he’s strategic, which is pretty much the same thing.” She picked up a stone herself and stared at it. “Will he…”
“You know I don’t know, Cadence,” Nico replied quietly. “It’s up to Werner.” After a beat, he added, “But Werner’s strong, you know? And—not to sound cheesy—but he’s not alone.”
Cadence considered this for a moment before rubbing her eyes and throwing her stone out too. It skipped twice. “Say, do you remember what happened back on the train in Capricorn?”
Despite the tiredness in his eyes, Nico scoffed. “How can I forget it? Took me twenty rounds of washin’ to get those wine stains out of my shirt.”
“I’m sorry about that.” She added after a beat—“Well, kinda. I’m sorry about throwin’ the alcohol at ya at least.”
Nico frowned. “Well, at least it wasn’t Geminian wine. That would’ve been a real travesty. I don’t think I could forgive you for that.”
Cadence chortled briefly. “I meant what I said still—you runnin’ away and all that—”
Nico frowned deeper.
“—but I admit that I was sayin’ it for selfish reasons. I was just frustrated—plus that Scorpio kept yappin’ in my ears.”
“Scorpio…” Nico’s eyes narrowed before he shook his head. “I still stand by what I said. I’m not runnin’ away. I know I’m helpin’ people more by bein’ out of Gemini. But you’re right—I should’ve checked more into things back here. This is home. I was probably afraid. I probably didn’t want to know—”
Atienna stirred in the distance.
Cadence sighed. “After gettin’ to spend some real quality with the good doc, I don’t blame ya from tryin’ ta get away. After what happened with Francis earlier too…”She thumbed the city behind her. “All of it is just… no good. It’s not like when we were kids.” She sighed, shaking her head. “The doc though… glad we didn’t call him in. Probably would’ve treated W-Werner…” She took a moment to collect herself. “Like a science experiment.”
“Yeah… but I’m startin’ to realize how useful some of things I learned workin’ under my father though,” Nico admitted. “I was about to call him before Francis whipped out all his know-how.”
Cadence’s stomach twisted at the mention of Francis as she recalled the look of hurt he’d given her. She proceeded to recall all the looks of hurt Nico had given to her all those times she’d lied to him. And yet here he was still comforting her even though he was probably hurting too.
Cadence dipped her head. “I—look—I’m sorry for pullin’ ya this way and that throughout the years—for pullin’ the wool over your eyes. Ya mean a lot to me, and I honestly wanted ya ta stick by me forever. Give me someone ta lean on no questions asked. But I know I’m not the only who needs ya.”
Nico turned to her in surprise at this before nodding once. After a beat, he said, “Gilbert and Greta are headin’ back to Polovinastadt for the time bein’. That—er—Maria left too.” He leaned back against the bridge. “I’m sure you know already if you listened to our talk earlier, but Werner needs to stay isolated from… anything that might potentially… make it easier for him to get access to the chlorowheat or anything like that. That means he can’t continue his AAC investigation, so Gilbert and I were thinking that maybe you could step in for him for the time being? Disguised as him?” He frowned. “I… don’t want you to be exposed to any of that stuff either though and I know you’re lookin’ out for those kids too. Still, I thought it’d be best to let you decide…”
Cadence tensed, recalling her father requesting her to disguise herself as her mother following her mother’s death all those years ago. His smile and her own desire to please—all of it operating in perfect harmony. Things were different this time though, Cadence knew. She wasn’t trying to win anyone’s affection or please anyone.
Thinking of Werner, she offered a thumbs up. “Can do. No two sweats about it. I’m pretty good at multi-taskin’. Probably can talk my way out of goin’ into those smokin’ dens in a jiffy.” She lowered her hand and studied his face. “How… How long do you think…?
Nico let out a breath. “The good news is that he’s only been on it for a handful of months, so it could be much worse. There’s no one answer with these kinds of things though. Anything could happen. Relapses are a thing, but you’re here, I’m here, the others are here…” He rubbed his neck.
“I can’t believe Werner of all people…” Cadence began. She felt her eyes burn again, so she buried her head in her knees. Nico scooted slightly closer to her in response, and they sat together in silence for a very long time.
After a while, Nico said something about touching in with Gilbert temporarily before exiting through the gate. Not soon after, Olive appeared by her side. He squatted down beside her, squirmed for a moment, drew, “Cadence…”
* * *
Cadence let out a breath as she stepped from Francis’s gate at the Dioscuri into the exitless room housing Werner. Olive’s image stood rigidly beside her, nervously fiddling with a strand of his hair. She looked away from him and ahead to find Werner lying on the bed against the wall with his back to her. There was a glass of water on the floor at the foot of the bed and a bucket just beside it.
Cadence took a step forward—
Cadence stopped short.
“I’m sorry,” Werner continued, “Chance, Morello—”
“Aw, come on, Captain. Let’s not go back ta the military jargon, aight?” Cadence chortled, rubbing away the ache in her chest. “It’s… okay.”
Werner remained silent for some time before he said, “Cadence, Olive, my behavior was unacceptable. I let my emotions take control, and I said things that hurt you. I’m sorry you had to see that.”
Cadence exchanged a look with Olive and continued forward. “It’s alright, Captain. You’re goin’ through some stuff—”
Cadence halted immediately.
Please don’t look at me.
Cadence faltered. “W-Werner, ya know I don’t care how ya look. You’ll always be a looker in my book—and ya know that’s sayin’ a lot since ya know how my tastes in things goes. Appearances ain’t everything ta me anyways. Ya know that.”
“I don’t care either…” Olive mumbled. “I’ve seen Derik in the mornings. Nothing can compare.”
After a long while, Werner stopped pushing them away through their connection and allowed them through. Cadence hesitantly drew nearer and nearer to him until she reached his bedside. After an evident pause of hesitation, he turned to look at her.
Werner was pale and pallid, his hair disheveled, his eyes accented below with half-moon bags. But he looked like the Werner she knew because his eyes were not cold but concerned. Cadence felt her eyes begin to burn again.
Are you alright?
“A-Are you alright?” Cadence stammered.
Stupid question, Olive thought.
I know, Cadence thought back.
“I’m sorry. I thought I had it under control,” Werner said, suppressing a grimace and covering his eyes with his hand. “I deeply apologize—”
Biting her lower lip, Cadence hesitated for just a moment before she flung herself forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. Werner stiffened in her embrace; but as the quiet protect, protect, protect pounded into Cadence’s thoughts from his thoughts, he slowly returned the gesture. But that just hurt all that much more.
“I… I love ya, Werner,” Cadence murmured, “I know we can get a bit annoyin’ sometimes. But please don’t leave. Not like that. I don’t mind any of your Werner-ness—no matter what shape or form it takes—so please don’t leave.”
After a pause, Werner promised, “I won’t.”
Cadence pulled herself out of his grasp and laid her head down at the edge of his bed as he resettled himself. Cheeks flushing slightly, Olive followed suit, sinking to his knees and folding his hands beneath him. In the distance, Cadence could see him resting in his hotel in Scorpio.
Cadence placed her hand above Werner’s chest on his blanket before turning her hand palms-up. Werner seemed to understand her unasked question and hesitantly placed his hand in hers. She felt the roughness and scars etched into his bare palm—and she knew he felt it too because he began to pull away—but she curled her hand around his before he could escape.
“I’m sorry, Werner,” she murmured, eyes burning again. “I shoulda stopped it. There was no win in chlorowheat, but I let it happen even though I knew. I thought I had it under control. And now—”
“It’s not your fault, Cadence,” Werner said.
“It’s not your fault either,” Olive added, holding Cadence’s gaze
Werner remained silent and instead pressed his palms into his eyes as a wave of dizziness rushed out from him and into Cadence. Cadence nearly puked then and there, but swallowed the bile rising up her throat.
“We-We can rotate being here,” Olive stammered, looking green as he lifted his head. He wiped his mouth. “I mean not here here, but…. I read that it was good to do that in a book… Uhm… You know.”
Werner lifted his hand and frowned. “No, you have more important things to manage than keeping your synchronization with me—”
“Werner, come on.” Cadence sighed. “You’re gonna lose your mind cooped up in here all the time. Ya need some entertainment.”
After a moment, Werner gave in. Like clockwork.
Following this, Werner proceeded to toss and turn in bed for six hours—groaning and sweating profusely. He puked into a bucket at his bedside thrice and shivered violently the entire time. Cadence did too—but seeing Werner in pain hurt her more than their shared pain did. He kept checking his pocket-watch the entire time. It seemed to be acting as a lifeline.
Eventually, Nico had to come in and give him some sort of liquid drop from a glass pipette. Cadence was apprehensive about it, but Nico reassured her that it was something Francis had prescribed—which just made Cadence feel all the guiltier. She was surrounded by too many good people.
After three more hours, Werner fell asleep. The pain, shivering, and nausea left with him.
As soon as he was out cold, Maria, Jericho, and Atienna synchronized in fully. Atienna was looking a worse for the wear while the detective looked tired and sunshine almost somber. Maria’s image approached the bed and sank in-between Cadence and Olive. She then leaned in close and studied Werner’s face.
“We… can’t…” Olive murmured, rising to a stand. “We can’t keep doing this. Just giving them what they want… putting other people down just so we can have a bit of freedom. It isn’t even freedom.” He gestured to Werner. “I know that Scorpio has his spores all over our family, friends, but… we can figure it out somehow.”
“Are ya suggestin’ all out rebellion, kid?” Cadence arched a brow. “‘Cause that’s ballsy.”
“So just to protect your own group, you sacrifice other groups and claim it’s for the greater good,” Hideyoshi had said. “You’ve turned something beautiful into something ugly.”
Paired with the man’s words came flashes of Renée’s desperation in that cave with Louise as well as Francis’s ultimatum—
“You’re the one who is pointing the fingers. If it’s not ‘in your world’ then it doesn’t matter? You’re a selfish fool if you think like that.”
“Yeah, well…” Olive scowled. “Maybe I haven’t learned anything, but if that ‘anything’ is damned apathy and just letting things be, then I’m glad not to have learned it.”
Jericho turned to Olive sharply. You swore. He nodded a moment after upon looking down at Werner. “Yes, I agree.”
Atienna remained silent.
Cadence studied her for a moment then nodded at Olive. “I’m all for no longer being under the saint’s thumbs but the thing is we still got the kids and Alpha ta worry about.” She glanced at Werner. “The captain’d say somethin’ about recklessly fightin’ a war on two fronts or somethin’.”
A beat of silence followed.
“Alpha is not my final destination,” Maria drew, rising to a stand and turning to face them.
A flicker of simmering heat burned at the pit of Cadence’s stomach.
Maria abruptly pointed to Jericho’s chest. “He is not your final destination either, my dear Jericho. He is a detour, no?” She clenched her fists as her eyes blazed. “It is almost time, yes? I will take care of this detour myself alone and clear the path for us.”