Werner was sent by Scorpio to investigate possible True Conductors in the AAC movement. Unbeknownst to anyone, Werner had begun to medicate himself using chlorowheat in order to suppress the impulse to protect that was beginning negatively impact his daily life. After an episode overdose, however, his addiction was laid clear and he was set to recovery.
The first six minutes following his admittance were a haze he was not fully mentally present for. There were questions asked, answers given, and instructions disseminated. Individuals entered and exited his vicinity. It was a blur of motion.
It was only six hours after his admittance—-as he rested uncomfortably on the small bed that had been provided for him—that shame hit him full-force. The words he had carelessly said and the damage they had caused paired with the reality of the weight of his actions seized his thoughts and would not let go.
This was a mistake—an error—he couldn’t rectify. Despite the clear salience of this error from the very beginning, he had not been able to recognize it for what it was. Up until that moment just before Cadence and Olive had looked at him with stricken horror, he had believed there was nothing amiss and that everything was under control. Only when he had felt their curling pain and hurt, only after Atienna had stepped between him and them, only after Maria had come in physically to push him back, only after Jericho had gently offered him help through Alice that was he finally able to admit it.
The admittance: he was addicted to chlorowheat.
Appearances were everything. And yet he had just dismantled his image in the eyes of the people that mattered the most to him with his own two hands. Instead of appropriately addressing the fates of his subordinates, he had opted for an escape. Instead of protecting, he had neglected. It was unacceptable. He was insufficient.
His shame and guilt only increased tenfold when Cadence and Olive returned to his side following his outburst. Their eyes, however, did not seek to blame—nor were they filled with anger. Instead their eyes sought comfort and to be comforted. Their immediate acceptance of his apologies just drove the knife further into his chest. Being forgiven for such egregious actions felt unnatural. The pain and discomfort, however, was temporarily numbed when they both had come to his side, held his hand, and remained at his side.
“Stay,” had been Cadence’s singular request.
It was a simple one.
The proceeding six hours following this were agonizing. He had sustained numerous injuries on the field prior to this and he was always able to bear them while continuing on with his services without detriment. This pain felt different: radiating out from the core of his body instead of pulsating out from a more exterior surface. The pain came in waves and was paired with nausea, vomiting, headaches, feverish rolling shakes, trembling that prevented him from holding his hands steady, and profuse sweating. It was an unsightly condition and—
Protect, protect, protect.
The thought continued to pound in his head ceaselessly as time passed on. From this locked room in Francis’s jurisdiction, however, he was unable to even lift a finger to act on the thought. In fact, he was doing quite the opposite: spilling pain out onto the others through his connection with them. The guilt was crippling. However, he had put himself into this position—he knew—so there was no point in feeling pity for himself. He needed to recover quickly in order to minimize any further potential leakage of pain and to be able to return to his duties.
That protect, protect, protect, however, was not the only thing that would not leave him.
He could not elude the thought either: just one more taste, one more perfectly measured amount, and then—he could be free. Free for just one moment, one hour, thirty-five seconds, two minutes. The time-frame did not matter. The freedom did: absolutely nothing, complete silence, and with a pleasant spread of airy euphoria fitted perfectly in-between the two. One more time would do minimal damage—
No. No more.
He berated himself for his cravings as he feared his thoughts could spill on towards the others, but it was not something he could control no matter how hard he tried. Regardless of his failure, everyone was kind. As they had promised, they visited him frequently both synchronously and physically. He was not, however, fully cognizant during their initial visits. But he still felt them. He was not one to be poetic; however—taking a passage from one of Atienna’s more favored fiction books, their presences were a “warm light in the dark.” They distracted him from the pain, the cravings, and the thoughts as did the first few sessions he had with Doctor Alice Kingsley through Jericho. Distractions had always been something that he had labeled as a negative, but in this instance he could only attribute positives.
However, the shame and pain remained.
Nico had offered temporary solutions to the latter: benzodiazepine derivatives and pain killers. Taking medication used to be something Werner had formerly found unnecessary and something to be used as a last resort, but he now found himself accepting it rather easily. The former aided in dampening the connection he had with the others during the more intense waves of pain. It also dampened the pain itself and the pounding protect, protect, protect. It, however, did not come with the light and airy feeling that accompanied taking chlorowheat.
Werner took the medication on the day Maria was to confront Alpha. In his condition, he knew he was only a detriment. He was certain that if Maria confronted Alpha while synchronized, she would have an advantage in battle. However, when he awoke as the medication wore off on the day of, he was met with chaos. Throbbing pain and exhaustion, panicked thoughts, fear, anger, apprehension—it was disorienting but he straightened himself and evaluated the situation.
The ones who were closest to the matter were Jericho and Maria, so Werner reached out to them through their connection. A clouded wall prevented him from successfully contacting Maria so he pressed further for Jericho. Information descended to him shortly after: Maria’s encounter with Alpha, Maria’s arm, the poem, Maria’s arm, Jericho’s arrival with Leona, Maria’s arm, Alpha’s and Leona’s capture, Maria’s arm.
In the distance, Werner could see Jericho standing in between a bound Alpha and a bound Leona in one of Francis’s less furnished rooms. Faintly, Werner could feel his distress.
“Jericho, having Leona in custody here is dangerous,” Werner managed through his own haze as he pulled himself out of bed. “We’ll gain unwanted attention from Scorpio as soon as her absence becomes apparent. We need to return her somehow—no. She may divulge sensitive information about our processes here. We need to regain control of the situation.”
“I thought we could work ‘something’ out.” Jericho said out loud, seeming to try at increasing the synchronization on his end. He whipped around, stared past Leona’s shoulder, tried to meet Werner’s gaze. “I have it under control, Werner. This is okay. I think. But. Maria—she. Werner, it did not go ‘as planned.’ What do we do?”
Werner could not think of how to respond because his thoughts were soon clouded by thoughts of Maria—just as everyone else’s were. Moved by such thoughts, Werner reached out through his connection with Jericho to place a confirming hand on the man’s arm before physically traversing to Maria himself through Francis’s gate.
The surgical procedure Maria had gone through had been completed an estimated 16 hours earlier according to the thoughts that were filtering in from the others. Maria herself had been awake for a portion of the surgery and was still awake. The others had all visited her within this timeframe.
Upon entering the designated room, Werner first registered Maria’s who was laying on a small bed placed along the middle back wall. She was conscious, covered in sweat, and surrounded by blood-soaked linen and various buckets of water cluttered with surgical tools. Doctor Fabrizzio—who he faintly recalled performing the operation—was nowhere to be seen. Present were Conta, Simon, and Raul who were seated on a sofa in the corner.
Simon startled as he entered. “You’re—”
Werner offered the priest a curt nod before briskly making his way over to Maria’s bedside. Maria smiled at him as he approached. She even waved with her right hand. He could not focus on any of those aspects. His attention was fully captivated by the emptiness that occupied the area where her left arm was supposed to be.
“Maria, you…” Werner’s hands hovered. Touching the area further could cause potential infection or exacerbate the pain. The numbers, studies, and statistics were there. Chance was non-existent so he would not take it. And so, he lowered his hands which was when came to a realization: this was her dominant hand.
Werner clenched his fists.
He wanted to berate her for her recklessness for rejecting the others during a pressing moment, but couldn’t bring himself to. How could he? He had done the same. Not only that but he had not been present at all. What had he been thinking approving of her confrontation with Alpha? They should have waited and made more concrete plans.
In the end, he had made the same mistake once again. He had been absent in a moment of need. As a result, he had failed to protect. Someone he held dear had lost their—
No. This was not about him. This was about Maria.
“Oh, Werner, are you worried again?” Maria studied him with a smile, eyes bright despite the clear fatigue. “I’m sorry if I reminded you of bad things that happened with Gilbert, but this is nothing. We have Alpha now. Everything will be alright, Werner.”
She didn’t sound quite right.
Werner couldn’t remember the details of the rest of this encounter because Maria’s pain began to bleed into his own and his into hers. He felt her slip into unconsciousness before he followed her into the dark. When he woke up an unknown amount of hours later, he was back in his bed with Nico by his side.
Werner began to try redirecting the other four to Maria whenever they visited or synchronized with him. They were already evenly splitting their visits between him and Maria, but he rationalized that Maria would profit more from them given her condition. This, of course, would leave him alone more often with his thoughts, but it was a reasonable cost compared to the benefit. Regardless of his instruction, however, their visitations remained as scheduled.
He felt useless. Time slowed.
Then one day Werner awoke to discover an alarming development unfolding on Olive’s end. The fibers of the development wove their way into his consciousness slowly: a train, a skirmish, a decision, a connection, a gamble. Reality solidified when the gate to his room and Olive physically stepped on through.
“Werner—I can explain,” Olive stammered, hands raised as he walked briskly forward and stopped short a foot away. “I-I have a plan.”
Werner rose to an unsteady stand as the full details of Olive’s latest escapade filtered down to him. His head spun from nausea. “Olive.”
“I have a plan, Werner,” Olive insisted, looking up at him. “Don’t stress out. We need allies—like you said a while back. I mean, we were doing good with that in the beginning, I think. Then… things got out of control—but that doesn’t matter. Now we really need them.”
“What happened during the Week of Blindness was a turning point for us,” Olive continued. “But that was their turning point. We need to make our own turning point, Werner.”
Werner felt something stir in his chest and regarded Olive in surprise. Those had been rather moving words.
Olive averted his gaze then and mumbled, “I mean… I don’t think they—the Sagittarians—would gain anything by spreading information about this place. And… we can’t have another Sagittarius—like you said—flying around again. We have to…”
Werner placed a hand to his mouth as he turned over the secondary and tertiary possibilities and routes and then compared them to the current route Olive had selected for them. After a pause, he asked, “You’re confident that you can reach an agreement with the Sagittarians?”
Olive startled, stiffened, before he met Werner’s gaze and nodded firmly. “Cadence gave me some ‘negotiation’ suggestions and I… think they’ll work—but I’m still being careful.”
Caution was good.
Finally, Werner let out a breath and nodded. “Given our recent losses”—his chest throbbed and he felt Olive’s gaze intensify—“I do agree with the need for stronger alliances. Your call was correct. Good work. I just wished you would have communicated your plan to the rest of us prior to acting.”
Warm relief spilled out from Olive’s chest into Werner’s at the approval. After regarding Olive for a moment, Werner found himself reasoning that it would be best if he made himself useful at least in this instance. Meeting with the Sagittarians under a guise seemed reasonable.
Olive frowned. “Wait. No, Werner, you need to rest—”
No, he had rested enough. He needed to protect—
“Werner…” Olive stiffened and frowned, reaching out his hand before retracting it. “Can we… just wait a minute and talk? Like… talk talk?”
Protect, protect, protect.
Werner held his gaze. “What would you like to discuss?”
“Just… things…” Olive muttered, staring at the wall past Werner’s shoulder. “Not… serious things, but sort of serious things. Not a distraction—I promise. I… it’s stuff that’s been bothering me.”
Protect, protect, protect.
“Do you have the time to discuss this right now?” Werner asked. “Building an alliance with the Sagittarians is of high priority at this time. If this discussion is regarding me, it can wait—”
“Wait, no—Cadence says that I should ‘let ‘em stew’, so Sagittarians can wait.” Olive nodded slightly before he made a face. “Sometimes I think she enjoys herself too much whenever she offers advice like that…” He moved forward hesitantly and sank down at the edge of Werner’s bed. “So…?”
Stiffening slightly and wishing he’d made his bed before addressing Olive’s arrival, Werner nodded and sat down beside him. They sat in mutual silence for a moment.
“Werner… about the… uhm… well—”
“—Olive, I apologize for reacting negatively earlier when your only intention was to help me.”
Olive startled. “What? Werner, it’s fine. You already apologized so many times for that anyways…”
Werner studied Olive carefully as Olive’s faint concerns slowly slipped on down to him. He pieced together the boy’s fragmented thoughts and feelings to form a coherent picture of doubts and fear.
So that was how it was, Werner thought. A false belief in need of correcting.
Despite the answer being clear, Werner struggled for a moment to properly put his thoughts into words. Speaking of numbers, strategy, gains and losses came easily to him. Conversations like this had always been difficult. Finally, however, he managed, “I… also apologize for making you doubt that I cared for you—”
A confused look spread across Olive’s face before he flushed “Oh—you heard that? That was just… It’s fine—”
Werner’s lips pressed downwards. “I know this is something that has been bothering you for some time. It’s why you wanted to speak now: am I correct? I ask that you be honest with me, Olive. I know this is a forward request since I was dishonest with you regarding my—”
“No, no, it isn’t,” Olive interjected quickly, flailing his hands slightly. “I… It’s not forward at all… It’s just my thoughts are… stupid… sometimes… ”
“You are nowhere near stupid, Olive.”
Werner said nothing else. Instead, he waited.
“It’s pretty… pathetic,” Olive muttered finally after a long stretch of silence. “I just didn’t have a lot of people in my life before all of this, okay?”—he gestured around the room— “but that’s my own fault. Anyways… I don’t know. I… Sometimes I wonder if the only reason we’re all ‘together’ is because this connection is making everyone like each other…”
Werner digested these words before asking, “What is your feeling regarding this connection and the group?”
Olive snapped up to look at him. “Wha—of course I care about you guys. I really do—but… like you and Cadence always say. I’m also naive or whatever, so…” He trailed off.
“This connection does help facilitate feelings of affection,” Werner drew after a beat. “This is something we cannot deny.”
Olive stilled and quieted.
“However…” Werner paused to collect his thoughts. “What makes you think we feel any different from you?”
Protect, protect, protect—
Olive’s relief melted into concern and apprehension. “Scorpio…”
So that was the concern.
Werner ruminated on this and on one of the first sessions he’d had with Alice weeks prior. “I admit I found this connection a detriment and a complication in the beginning. We are divided by nationality, values, goals, and politics. Our respective different statuses, political beliefs and standings, and aspirations could cause conflict not only within our group but external to our group as well.” He let out a breath. “I still believe this. However, there are other things that are more important to me than those realities at the moment. I’m unable to pinpoint the exact moment when this scale of importance changed—”
Olive peered at him cautiously.
“—but know this: I cared for you before our encounter with Scorpio just as I care for you now. When we were dealing with ELPIS in the Twin Cities, you and the others were concerns of mine. This was outside of the political developments at that time.” He reached out and placed a hand on Olive’s head. “The difference is that I’ve now realized the fact—”
Werner was cut off as Olive abruptly flung his arms around him and squeezed tight. After a momentary pause—originating mostly from the aching muscle pain that resulted from the hug—Werner returned the gesture. He did not return it gently like he’d done back in the capital, however. Instead, he squeezed back just as hard.
An anchor: this was what Olive often felt dragging down his chest in his darkest moments—Werner had become steadily aware of this. He also had become aware of the fact that instances like these relieved the weight of that anchor from Olive’s chest.
Werner too felt had started to become familiar with this anchor. Contrarily, however, it only appeared for him in moments like these. Unlike Olive, Werner found comfort in this anchor. It held him in place and temporarily assuaged the protect, protect, protect.
To find relief in such a thing from someone nearly a decade younger was unorthodox and undignified. Werner was well aware that both Olive and Cadence looked up to him, so feeling this particular way was unseemly—
“No, I… I know you’re only human, Werner… I—this is normal,” Olive mumbled, slowly pulling away. “I don’t think you’re perfect or something. That’s not why I… look up to you… that’s not why I look up to Maria either. You both are… Even when things get bad, you both keep going. I… I didn’t. Not until I met you guys.” His lips thinned and he rubbed his eyes. “I know I say this whenever something bad happens but. With Maria—what happened when she was younger and now… it’s… just really sad… It’s awful. What do we do…?”
A familiar question that Werner was still having difficulty answering.
“Uhm… Sorry for being over-emotional or whatever…”
“You needn’t apologize. You have a good heart, Olive,” Werner drew after a pause. “Although I still don’t believe emotion should motivate action, having set goals often requires a person to maintain forwardness and a strong mental fortitude in order to achieve that goal. Or: heart. A drive to find a solution in other words. That is admirable.”
Olive was beginning to pinken again and he mumbled something incomprehensible under his breath.
Werner evaluated Olive carefully, recalling the first time he had synchronized with Olive in that town near the border of Aquarian and Capricorn and comparing it to what he recalled of Olive’s confrontation with the Sagittarians. “I don’t believe in giving praise unless it’s warranted, so believe me when I say this,” he finally said: “It’s been a pleasure to have witnessed your growth over this past year, Olive.”
There was a beat of silence.
Olive opened and closed his mouth. “I-I-I—uh—T-Thanks, Werner. I mean—you too. I mean, I feel the same—not that I’m older than you and watched you grow. But—”
“There is still room for improvement, of course, as there always is.”
Olive pursed his lips.
“I appreciate you coming here and the time you’ve taken out of your day to see me,” Werner continued gently, “but again: you should visit Maria more often.”
Olive’s eyes widened and his brows furrowed. “I do, but Maria… won’t talk with me. With any of us. Really talk, I mean.” He started playing with a strand of his hair. “I think… Atienna’s also having some issues with Maria. Atienna is—”
Werner conjectured Olive held the same concerns regarding Atienna as he had held with him.
“Atienna is only doing what she believes is best,” Werner interjected. “Given my current condition at the moment, I put my trust more in her judgement than my own—”
“That makes me feel both honored and nervous. It’s a wonder what compliments can do, don’t you think?”
A buzz at the back of Werner’s head followed this statement, and he turned slightly to register Atienna synchronizing in beside him. He could only faintly make out her surroundings, but from the memories trickling down to him, he conjectured she was in a bedroom at Aldéric’s villa.
Olive hid his face from her briefly as a wave of embarrassment spilled from him into Werner’s chest. Olive then let out a breath and looked up to Atienna. He opened his mouth to speak, but Atienna spoke first:
“Is there something else bothering you, Olive?” she asked gently. “Other than what you and Werner just discussed now?” She smiled faintly and held up a placating hand. “Oh, please don’t worry—I didn’t intrude on your private discussion. The privacy rule is still very important, don’t you think?”
Werner tensed at the silent accusation until Atienna offered him a wan smile.
Atienna returned her attention to Olive and studied him for a moment as silence stretched on. With a cautious yet deliberate demeanor, she proceeded to ask, “How is Lavi?”
Olive abruptly fell back onto the bed and covered his eyes with a grimace. “I mean… she’s still Lavi. I’m still working on how to separate her from Aries and how to make it so she can actually exist without me…” He paused. “Aries—if it weren’t for Aries, I would’ve died on the day of the Tragedy. And it’s not just that dream I had that’s making me say that. It’s just…”
A stretch of silence followed.
“My aunt and uncle knew about Lavi’s candidacy. My parents had to know too. But if they knew…” Olive lifted his hand to look at Atienna then at Werner. “If they knew…”
His eyes were wet, Werner realized. His pain was sharp, and in his mind, Werner could see that he was comparing Werner himself and Atienna to his late parents.
Protect, protect, protect—-
His concerns about them truly caring for him stemmed from his concerns about his parents not caring for him and his sister.
A sharp observation.
Atienna looked over at Werner. This topic is difficult to approach, don’t you think? Though—reassuring people that you’ll be a constant presence of support will better help instill in them confidence to stand on their own.
Atienna was always knowledgeable about the most surprising subjects.
After my mother’s accident, I did some rather embarrassing deep-diving on topics regarding… parenthood. I suppose I was a bit too serious at the time… That being said, I can’t let you handle the reassurances all on your own, can I?
Atienna passed Werner and came to Olive side. She reached towards Olive’s face and rubbed a ghostly tear from Olive’s cheek. After a pause, she asked, “I wonder—would the truth change anything about how you feel, Olive?”
Olive held her gaze.
“I’m sure it would change some things,” she continued. “All added truths cause a change in perspective, but the question is how much will it change…? Adding white paint into a bucket of black paint won’t result in white paint no matter how much of the former you add, wouldn’t you say?”
Olive’s hand cusped her own and he gave it a squeeze before he sat back up and rubbed his eyes. “I should probably go back to the Sagittarians now.” He rubbed the back of his neck as he approached the gate and mumbled, “Uhm… thanks, you two… for… literally everything.” He dipped his bed. “And I hope you feel better soon, Werner.”
With that, he exited the room through the gate leaving Werner alone with Atienna.
“We’re filling out quite interesting roles now, don’t you think, Werner?” Atienna offered him a genial smile.
A tease. Werner never knew how to respond to this side of Atienna even after all this time.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
Atienna’s own personal visits had always been pleasant. Her choice of books varied from novel new fiction series to dense non-fiction texts. Her focus in dissection of these works no matter what genre was something Werner admired.
“Nico believes my”—he paused, shame unfurling his chest once more— “symptoms will alleviate by the end of the week at the latest. I’ll be able to be more useful and more involved following this.”
Atienna hummed in response, but Werner could not dissect the sound’s tone.
“How are the developments with Albertine?” Werner inquired. “I see you’ve been able to maintain his cover for the time being.”
“Yes… Albertine’s connection is still in its early stages,” replied Atienna slowly. “His synchronization with the person in his circle is—well—rather asynchronous. It’s like Claire explained to Olive back then. Albertine and his other are communicating through only past memories at this point. Their ‘times’ haven’t yet… ‘aligned’ properly in a sense.” She placed a hand to her cheek and seemed to ruminate. “I wonder if things will improve once their synchronization improves. From what I understand, it doesn’t appear as if he gets along too well with the person he’s connected with. It does make you think, doesn’t it?”
“We were lucky to have found connection with people who were agreeable,” Werner surmised her thoughts.
“To think the ones in our group who we all thought were least agreeable ended up being the most agreeable,” Atienna responded with a faint smile, “while those we thought were most agreeable ended up being quite the opposite.”
Werner regarded her.
“Setting that aside, our case is a unique one, don’t you think…?”
She was referring to the mysterious seventh. The potential identity of this seventh: Shion Myosotis.
“Werner… do you remember anything from that time we overrode you around the Week of Blindness?” Atienna murmured. She studied her hands and then his gloved ones from a distance. “Anything from interactions with Scorpio perhaps? Anything at all?”
“I can only recall vague feelings,” Werner replied just as he had all the times she’d asked before. “I know something occurred, but I can’t recall what it was.”
“Perhaps that failed recollection is for the best,” Atienna murmured. She returned her attention to her hands. “These people we find ourselves constantly facing share a commonality in projecting their inner disdain onto the exterior world, don’t you think? Alpha has a sense of disappointment towards not only Ophiuchus but himself and that’s reflected in his ironic obsession with lack of attachment and freedom. Scorpio’s fixation on the inevitably of repeated mistakes made him indirectly cause mistakes to be repeated in themselves. Even Theta’s own disappointment fed further into itself what they did in the Twin Cities. Of course, that’s merely simplifying them into a sentence, but… Well, what do you think, Werner?”
“That is a succinct analysis, Atienna.” Werner nodded. “The question is in what manner can we apply this?”
Atienna faltered. “I am sorry to say that I don’t have any use for this information quite yet… They are just my thoughts…”
“I wonder if I can face her…” Atienna’s lips pressed thin as her image sank down beside him. “I’m referring to Maria, of course. You’ve… heard my thoughts about her. I’m sure everyone has. I feel terrible about it, but…”
Werner had indeed heard Atienna’s thoughts regarding Maria. The anger behind them was not something he could fully understand. He could, however, align with her feelings of frustration and disappointment. It was best to keep one’s emotions in check during these types of situations, however.
“Your feelings are understandable, but I believe it would be best to communicate your regrets directly to Maria. Middlemen are inefficient.”
Atienna again offered him a wan smile.
Werner had also heard her thoughts regarding himself. Her perspective and criticisms had, however, provided him a guideline for him to follow. There was always room for improvement, and he admitted he had been too lenient as of late. He had to approach this logically—even if he was failing to protect by doing so.
“Werner…” Atienna moved closer to him. “My thoughts are just that—thoughts. If I ever go along with those thoughts or if they ever come to be, I know I’ll only be disappointed and dissatisfied with the outcome. That’s just how I am—although admitting it doesn’t do much, does it?”
Admittance was the first step, as Alice had said.
Atienna reached out a hand to his face, dropped it, reached out a hand to his hand, dropped it. She then slowly leaned against his shoulder leaving a ghost of a warm impression. “Please do understand—I prefer you just as you are just as I prefer Maria just as she is…. I’m just someone who is never satisfied…”
Werner allowed himself to enjoy this anchor she provided him momentarily before he said, “You should still try to reach out to Maria. Miscommunication is the downfall of every group.”
“I wonder about that…” she lifted her head. “From the very beginning, Maria and I have been opposites… but I should try to talk with her again…” She closed her eyes briefly. “My perspective is just too different from everyone else’s—even yours, Werner…”
“I believe a perspective like yours is absolutely needed, Atienna,” Werner replied. “There are times when that perspective is the best one to utilize in order to achieve the most favorable outcome.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
Deciding to address the concerns the others had with Maria promptly as well as following up with his own concerns, Werner headed to Maria shortly after. He took the last of his painkillers and the derivative and waited for them to take effect before he went to see her. When he entered her room again, he took note of the fact that Simon and her other companions were not present. Maria, however, was fully present. In other words, she was conscious.
“Werner!” Maria exclaimed, waving as he stepped into her arm. “Simon and the others are off in a different place, I think. My mini crew and my big crew were getting bored with being in here all the time, so they went around to the other rooms. Francis was very nice about it. I was thinking I should join them soon. Oh—unless you wanted to see Andres and Dominic? They’re in another room too—”
Werner neared her bedside, folded his hands behind his back, and evaluated her condition. She seemed no different than before—at least on the surface.
“I wanted to see you, Maria.” He unclasped his hands. “The others have brought me their concerns about you.”
“The others? Concerned?” Maria cocked her head to the side. “A lot of things have happened recently, but this is still my story. This is my part. It’s mine. No one gave this to me but myself, do you see? So, of course I’m alright—”
This was what Maria truly believed. Werner could tell as much. However, he could perceive something existing on a deeper level that his eyes could not exactly see.
Protect. Protect. Protect—
Werner reached out his gloved hand. He did not place his hand on top of her head, however. That was not what their relationship amounted to and that would not be the correct method of approach. Instead, he placed his hand on her cheek.
“Oh? You are being very gentle and nice, Werner,” Maria noted, still smiling. She reached out her good hand and cupped his cheek too. “I like you when you are like this. If you were like this when we first met, we would have gotten along much better.”
“Maria, I dislike making presumptions but I believe you may be going through something similar to what I went through during the fallout of the Week of Blindness,” Werner drew slowly. “Sense-of-self, purpose, identity: I admit that your strength in these areas far exceeds mine. However, no one is infallible in any area. Perfection can be neared. Not obtained.”
Maria’s smile slowly began to drip from her face.
“I dislike commenting on nebulous topics or ones that involve psychological concepts, but even if something is given to you—forcibly or not—” he continued “—you can still make it your own.”
Maria pulled her hand away from his cheek and instead cupped his hand. “Oh my dear Werner. You worry too much. It would be nice to understand easily like you do.”
Not so long after this conversation, Jericho came to physically visit him in his room. Werner was surprised as Jericho had started to bide most of his time trying to extract additional information from Alpha and Leona.
Jericho brought with him into Werner’s room his suitcase. He walked rigidly over to Werner’s bed just as Werner was rising from it and sat down promptly before Werner could even pull his covers off. Upon situating himself at the edge of the bed, Jericho opened his suitcase and procured his sketchbook and his pencil. He proceeded to start sketching without any further explanation.
Werner took a moment to pull himself fully out of his sheets, straighten his clothes to appear somewhat presentable, and checked his pocket watch.
“… Good morning, Jericho.”
“Good morning, Werner.”
Werner watched him draw for five minutes before he said, “We still need to address the issue with Leona.”
Jericho nodded. “Yes, okay. I will work something out with her. Don’t worry, Werner.”’ He smudged a line of graphite with his thumb. “I am just spending time with you today.” He brushed away eraser shavings. “I spent time with Maria earlier. It was different than before. Did you say something to her?”
Werner nodded. “I addressed some concerns.”
Jericho returned the nod. “Do you still want it?”
It—meaning the chlorowheat. The straightforward and abrupt question startled Werner. Although he tried to not let his surprise show physically, he knew the emotion had already bled through to Jericho through their connection. Denial would achieve nothing.
“Yes, Jericho. I do.”
It was an itch that could be scratched but one he didn’t want to scratch.
Jericho’s brows met and his lips pulled downwards: a rare show of expression. “I am sorry, Werner. I can help take away the pain, but I can’t take away that. I don’t know how to.”
“You aren’t required to take away anything, Jericho,” Werner amended. “You have other priorities you need to deal with. Taking on my symptoms will only deter you. On the other hand, I am completely un-preoccupied at the moment.” And insufficient.
Jericho’s brows furrowed slightly but he returned his full focus to his drawing. A line there, a circle here, a broad stroke there. The sound of the graphite dragging down the bumps of the parchment paper was pleasant and comforting. Werner closed his eyes briefly to enjoy it.
“Did you not trust us?” Jericho stopped moving his utensil. “Trust me?”
Werner opened his eyes, frowned, and turned to find Jericho staring at him. “Of course not, Jericho. I do trust all of you.”
Jericho started sketching again at a slower pace. “Then why did you not tell me? Tell us? You hid. Like Cadence hid from Francis. Like I did…” He stopped again. “I understand: you wanted us to not ‘be hurt.’ But addition: you also didn’t want to ‘be hurt.’ That was the easier way. Yes, I understand. Because I thought the same.”
Werner clenched his fist as the unwitting accusation was laid clear.
“Yes, you’re right—”
Jericho pushed the sketchbook into Werner’s hand. “For you.”
Werner studied the sketch and immediately recognized what it was. Dark fur. Wide eyes. Pointed ears. Fenrir.
“I can feel that you miss her,” Jericho explained. “I drew her from your memories. It is not exactly ‘right,’ but I hope I was ‘close enough.’”
Werner held the piece delicately as he took in all of the fine details. “It’s perfect, Jericho.”
Werner nodded. “Thank you—”
“You helped me, Werner.” Jericho set down his utensil and stared at the sketch. “In the Twin Cities. In Die Hauptstadt.” He perked up suddenly. “Intuition: I should avoid cities.” He looked back at Werner. “You should too, Werner. Nothing good ever happens in a city…” He ruminated for a moment. “No. Correction: I met Olive in New Ram City, I met Cadence in the Twin Cities, and I met all of you in Die Hauptstadt in person for the first time. That was good.”
Werner felt the corner of his lips twitch slightly at Jericho’s thought process. “Yes, I admit I felt a sense of relief at that meeting. It’s difficult to fully describe the reason.”
Jericho reflected the smile faintly. “Yes, it was the same for me.” His gaze trailed to the side. “Maybe there is no reason needed, Werner.”
Reason. Alpha. The One.
“…I would like for you to trust me like I trust you,” Jericho continued. “At the same ‘level.’ I want to help you like you helped me. No: help everyone. I want you to be able to rely on me. I want the others to be able to rely on me. I tried to do that by helping you talk with Alice, but it’s hard to do that now because of Leona. I apologize.” He paused. “I rely on you, on Atienna, on Maria, on Cadence, on Olive. I want to be relied on—”
“We do rely on you for your—”
“No, not in that way.” Jericho’s brows furrowed. “Not like in the way the others rely on you, Atienna, and Maria. I know. I’m different. I know I’m strange. I know I’m strange…”
Werner felt his lips pressed down and reached out to place hand on the man’s arm. “You’re not strange to me, Jericho.”
A beat of silence.
“You’re not strange to me either, Werner,” replied Jericho. “You are just Werner.” Lips pressing down a moment later, he cast a glance at the gate on the opposite wall. “Benì and Talib—I don’t want to lose anyone else in that way again: they are still here, but they’re not really here.” His brows furrowed again. “I… don’t want to lose you or Maria in the same way, Werner.”
Guilt began to expand out from Werner’s stomach to his chest and melted together with the pain beating in Jericho’s chest. It was an uncomfortable feeling that Werner was becoming more and more familiar with.
“Would you like a hug, Jericho?” Before Werner realized it, the question had slipped from his lips.
Jericho perked up immediately. “Yes.”
Werner tensed in response and shook his arms slightly before he turned to Jericho arms spread. Jericho was already waiting for him—arms spread. Admittedly, Werner felt rather awkward initiating such an intimate gesture, but Jericho
Werner then recalled his short but prominent sessions with Alice that were completed through his connection with Jericho.
“It’s not about what I want to hear, Werner. It’s not about me at all,” Alice had told him at one point. “It’s about what you need to tell me. It’s about what you feel like you need to say. Discussing your feelings can allow the unpleasant feelings to go away. Discussing them can help you understand them when they come back.” The last thing she had told him before the last session was, “Simple approaches are just as effective as complicated ones, Werner.”
Jericho began to pull away which stirred Werner from his recollections. He proceeded to push up his glasses and offered Werner a thumbs up.
“Thank you,” he said. “I will try and ‘negotiate’ with Leona now.”
Werner nodded before quickly gathering all of Jericho’s belongings, stacking them neatly, and handing them back to him. The only object he did not help pack and instead kept for himself was the sketch of Fenrir.
Werner still found it shameful to be treated as someone who needed to be handled with care. It was indicative that there was something wrong with him—which there evidently was. The unpleasant feeling of uselessness and weakness were ebbed away to some degree as a result of his conversations with the other five and with Greta and Gilbert whenever they managed to come, but the feelings still remained. They were, in fact, connected together by the strongest feeling of all: shame.
The only moments Werner would not feel the faintest hints of shame at all were during Nico’s visits. This was because Nico expected nothing. Werner knew this because Cadence knew this, but unlike Cadence, Werner found comfort in the particular attribute of his.
Nico shared a rotating schedule with Greta and Gilbert with medically-oriented visitation. Sometimes Nico would come by prescribing additional medication and painkillers. Other times he would merely do a physical checkup and spend the rest of the time talking idly.
Today, however, Werner took the forward approach. As Nico entered the room through the gate as scheduled, Werner greeted him as per usual before requesting a refill on his bottle of painkillers and benzodiazepine derivatives. It was a reasonable request. He would only take it up until his symptoms cleared completely, and he had just finished off the last pill this morning.
Upon hearing the request, however, Nico led Werner back to his bed, sat him down, took the pill bottle, and rolled it in his palm. “Werner… we can’t have you takin’ this almost every day.” He pocketed it and studied Werner’s face as worry knitted his brow. “This stuff can mess you up too… It’s not as addictive as stuff like morrowheat but it’s still… dangerous.”
Werner tensed. “I understand. I apologize. The repercussions should have been obvious—”
“Hey, no—I get where you’re comin’ from. It’s just risky since we’re tryin’ to wean you off somethin’ right now.” Nico raised his hands. “It’s faster goin’ cold turkey like we’re doin’ now to get you back where you were, but we need to be extra cautious.”
Werner nodded stiffly, acknowledging the truth that he had almost slipped into another form of escape. After internally berating himself, he allowed Nico to go through checking and monitoring his vitals. A stethoscope to the chest, a light to the eye, a sphygmomanometer around the arm: a stepwise and familiar procedure. Following this, Nico packed his devices in the satchel he’d brought with him and gave Werner a light tap on the back.
“Looks all good, Captain,” he said before proceeding to fall back on the bed with a heavy sigh. “Mind if I rest here a tiny bit? Just for a wink?”
Werner was quite familiar with this development so he gave the man a nod. Nico let out an even heavier sigh in response—this time one of relief.
“You’re a life-saver, Captain. I’m not bein’ dramatic. For real. I owe you.”
Suppressing a chuckle at the dramatics, Werner nodded before reaching under his bed and procuring a small notebook no larger than the size of his palm. “I actually have something for you.”
Nico sat up immediately.
Werner handed the notebook to him. “I saw through Cadence that you were having difficulty keeping track of AAC members so I created a list of names for you and wrote comparative adjectives that you can associate with them. It’s lightly coded as a precaution, but I hope this aids you in the operation.”
Nico gingerly accepted the notebook and flipped it to the first page. “Werner, you didn’t have to—oh, what’s the rest of this stuff?”
“I also noticed you having difficulty sleeping and I know there is little to bide your time when you’re not undercover. I understand it’s difficult to find entertainment in an isolated town such as Polovinastadt,” Werner explained. “I transcribed and translated some poems that Atienna has read through in the past few weeks in there as well. They can also help serve as cover for the notes on the initial pages.”
“Aw, Werner…” Nico began to slowly flip through the notebook. “Thank you—oh, wow. Your handwritin’ is really pretty—pretty neat.” He rubbed his thumb over a stanza and whistled. “It’s literally just like it’s right out of a typewriter…”
Werner cleared his throat. “They taught handwriting in the language courses at the military academy. Others who graduated from the academy have similar handwriting. It’s nothing—”
“You call in nothin’. I call it talent—art!” Nico gently placed the items to the side before flipping open his satchel. “Anyways, I got you something too. I was goin’ to save this for later, but…” He pulled out a thick, small pastel blue book and handed it over.
Werner accepted it tentatively. The title read, 1000 Cakes.
“To keep you busy,” Nico explained. “I know Francis’s taste in things is really peculiar now so I figured the books here can’t be the most excitin’ reads or align with your tastes much. I remembered you mentionin’ that you really enjoyed bakin’ that cake for the prince, so… ” He tapped the cover. “I asked around a bit and got this from an AAC member at a meeting. Apparently, there’s only 20 copies of this. Rare stuff. Checked it for mediums so no worries about that.”
Werner flipped it open and was rather pleased to find that the recipes were written in a uniform and orderly fashion with ingredients listed on the left and instructions on the right. A unit conversion scale was at the far left corner of every page as well as a sketch of what the final product should look like.
“Everythin’s exact to the T. Went through it myself and tried to bake somethin’—didn’t turn out to great, but I never was the best with bakin’. Cookin’ is a different story though. I’m even better than Fortuna and Carl at that.”
“I don’t doubt that statement.” Werner smiled briefly. “Thank you, Nico.
“No problem, Captain,” Nico chimed. After a beat, he asked, “Mind listenin’ to me complain again?”
Werner set the book neatly on top of his pillow case. “Is this about Cadence and Gilbert’s behavior?”
Nico sighed and sank back onto his back. “You’ve seen them, right? They’re always at each other’s throats—well, Gil’s at Cadence’s. Look. I really like Gil and all, but I’ve known Cadence for way longer. So—I mean, I love Gil—but I have biases…”
Werner remained silent, listening.
“Why do you think they don’t get along? I mean—besides from the things that happened in…” He cast a glance in Werner’s direction. “…the Twin Cities… It just all feels like a lot more than that. But it’s weird… ‘cause Gil and Cadence both get along with almost everyone. And Gilbert doesn’t seem the type to hold grudges.” He let out another long sigh before he stared up at the ceiling. “Carl and Gilbert are kinda alike, don’t y’think? Or maybe Gilbert and Allen?”
It was these types of conversations that allowed Werner to feel some semblance of normalcy.
Werner chuckled briefly. “Yes, I’ve also given that comparison some consideration. Gilbert is reliable, amicable, and trustworthy. However, he can be disagreeable at times.” He recalled Gilbert during their academy days and almost smiled fondly at the memory before he straightened himself and said seriously: “They’re adults. Acting as a middle man in their case may exacerbate things given your relationship with them.”
Nico looked away, smile falling as he sighed. Werner was troubled to see it go.
“Yeah, you’re right.” Nico hummed. “Well, enough about me. How are you holdin’ up? It probably gets pretty borin’ in here even with the connection with the others—hey, if you ever need anyone outside of them to lend you an ear, I have two of them. Can even transmute a third or fourth one for you if you want.”
Werner chuckled briefly at the proposition before he thought of Alice’s lingering words. What she labeled as important had been labeled as least important to him: communication regarding feelings. Perhaps, however, his negative impression on this type of communication stemmed from his difficulty engaging in it. It was even difficult engaging in this communication with the other five.
“There is something I would appreciate your perspective on,” Werner tried carefully.
Nico sat up slowly as he studied Werner’s face. “I’m all ears, Captain.”
Werner presumed it was his familiarity with Nico through Cadence’s familiarity that made it easier for him to speak more openly like this.
“Scorpio: you recall how he operates with his mediums and spores? The mechanism of action and the effects?”
“Yeah, I remember.” Nico nodded. “He messes with your head while his vitae is inside of you and… somehow… become hyper-focused on one thing after he leaves you.”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Yours is…” Nico smiled just slightly. “…more heroic than other people’s though, Werner”
Heroic. For a reason Werner could not exactly place, the word gave him a pleasant feeling. It was rather ridiculous.
“What is it?” Nico murmured. “Do you… Do you hate it? That… ‘protect’?”
“No, it’s not that.” Werner clasped his hands together in front of him as he leaned forward. “I do value this purpose despite its origin. I dislike speaking in terms of personal satisfaction, but being able to be someone that people can rely on and to be someone people seek shelter in—it brings me something akin to happiness.”
Nico’s gaze softened. “Werner…”
“But… at times it’s so loud, Nico.” Werner put a hand to his temple as he tuned into the quiet impulse whispering there. Quiet—for now. “It’s—” He resisted a grimace as he forced himself to make the admittance once again: “—debilitating. It’s becoming difficult to make the logical choice that leads to the least amount of loss. It also makes me increasingly aware of my failures. I failed to protect Otto. I failed to protect Brandt, Bergmann, and Kleine—”
“Hey, hey—I read the papers, Werner,” Nico said quietly, peeling Werner’s hand away from his face. “They couldn’t fully identify half of the bodies that were there. They were just goin’ off the military tags. There’s a chance that those three pulled one from the old book and made it out of there alive. Like you always say—nothing’s concrete and confirmed until you have all the evidence laid out, right? And callin’ it a failure is a bit much, isn’t it? You don’t have responsibility for things that are way beyond your control. Not havin’ control sometimes is a part of life.”
It sounded like an excuse. Regardless, Werner turned to face Nico and continued with difficulty, “I’m afraid all of these complications will cause me to harbor negative feelings towards this purpose. I don’t…” He struggled again. “I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want the others to feel that happening.”
Nico held his gaze for a moment. “Werner… sometimes we love the things we’re passionate about and sometimes we hate it. It’d probably drive a person insane if they loved somethin’ on maximum overdrive all the time. That’s when passion becomes obsession.” He stared at the ceiling for a moment before he continued, “I feel that way sometimes about medicine. Sometimes the pressure and stress and death is just too much—I just wanna just rip myself from it and run away. Then I spend some time away from it and do some other things and then I realize I can’t give it up ‘cause I love it too much.”
“Focusing on another activity is what Alice recommended.” Werner provided. He digested Nico’s words before looking the man over. “I’ve said this previously, but you can be surprisingly philosophical at times, Nico. Now and back then.”
“—oh, are you talkin’ about the umbrella thing?” Nico chuckled. “I’m surprised you remember that.”
“It was a memorable moment,” Werner replied. He let out a breath. “Thank you, Nico. For listening and for your words.”
“Aw, no need for that.” Nico shrugged. “I’d like to think that Francis is rubbin’ off on me and makin’ me sound wiser than I actually am.” He stared at his feet for a moment. “Anyways, I’ve been thinkin’ about some things recently, so I gotta ask: have you gotten any clues on this ‘seventh’ person in your group? It’s just a bit sad thinkin’ about it. Bein’ forgotten, I mean…”
“Atienna brought that subject up recently, but I… haven’t given it much thought as I should,” Werner admitted after a pause. He leaned forward slightly. “Olive has many opinions and feels strongly about learning more about them. I also have my own curiosities, but we also need to focus on the present. I don’t want to but we have to approach this realistically.”
“Well if it helps, you mentioned a while back that Francis suggested lookin’ into weird past behavior, right?” Nico leaned forward too so they were eye-level. “I did notice a couple of weird Cadence-y things when we were younger. If that helps….?”
“Could you elaborate?”
“Yeah, no problem.” Nico chuckled briefly. “Though I have to warn you—Cadence was a pretty weird kid. Well, we were all weird. It was a weird time.” He seemed to think more on it and laughed. “Now that I think about it, times are even weirder now. We’ve probably only gotten weirder too.”
Werner tried to recall his own childhood. He did not do so often as reflecting on the past didn’t feel a good use of time, but as he tried to do so now, he could only touch upon Cadence’s childhood memories. “I do recall some fragments from Cadence’s childhood memories that are… somewhat alarming.”
Nico chuckled. “Uh-oh.”
“I know I’ve said this before, but you’ve changed a considerable amount since you were younger.”
Nico flushed, then laughed again. “Well, I hope so. Can you imagine? Someone points a conductor at me out there and I just run cryin’ and screamin’ to you or Gil?”
Werner considered the idea. “It would be detrimental behavior and you’d be discharged almost immediately, but”—Otto abruptly flashed through his mind again followed by Kleine, Bergmann, and Brandt.
“—but I will admit that the behavior was somewhat endearing.” Werner paused, unsure of why he’d even said such an odd thing. Perhaps it was bleed through from one of the others.
“Endearing?” Nico chuckled. “Well, if we want to talk endearin’, I actually had a kid crush on Cadence when we were younger.”
Something stirred in Werner’s chest. It was uncomfortable, but manageable.
“She just seemed so heroic at times,” Nico explained. “I have a thing for heroics, you know? I probably played the damsel in distress a little too well back then. I’d like to try being a knight myself one day though—preferably the fairy tale kind, not the Cavallo kind.” He offered a sly smile “And maybe better than the Cadence kind.”
“The white knight and the black knight of the Romano Family,” Werner recalled the monikers.
“You think I could play the knight in Cadence’s case nowadays?”
Werner hesitated. “I don’t think I should comment on your personal relationships, Nico. It would be… inappropriate.”
Nico merely smiled in response.
“Goin’ back to the whole ‘mysterious seventh’ thing…” Nico glanced at him. “Cadence did protect me a lot from bullies when I was younger. Got a few punches in too—took a couple of hits even. Do you think… that might’ve been… one of you?”
“I mean—you probably synchronized some when you were younger if you were connected back then, right?
“Cadence cares for you, Nico,” Werner replied. “I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to think Cadence’s childhood acts of protecting you were of her own merit.”
“Yeah, I know Cadence’s defended me a lot in the past—which I’m grateful for—but her bravery’s kind of a different flavor than throwin’ fists and givin’ encouragin’ speeches.” Nico studied him for a moment longer before he pulled back and ruffled his hair. “Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter too much. I just thought I’d test the waters, Captain—-” He trailed off, gaze wandering to Werner’s cheek.
Werner resisted putting his hand to the area.
The tattoo—it must have made its way back onto his face.
Nico seemed to notice the twitch of his hand, however, and visibly blanched. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. It just—when it moves—”
“It’s alright, Nico,” Werner responded stiffly. “It’s of little importance.”
“Hey, I know it bothers you,” Nico said, leaning forward. “It’s normal for those sorts of things to bother people, isn’t it? I mean if I woke up one day and found a tattoo of a banana or somethin’ on my arm without me askin’, I’d be pretty upset.” He leaned forward even further. “I’ve been reading around a bit and I think I can figure a way to get out without doin’ too much damage. For real this time.”
“You don’t have to go out of your way,” Werner replied after a moment. “You have more important things to be focusing on at the moment than something like this.”
“What? Like idlin’ around the AAC since they halted our investigation? Tryin’ to avoid my dad whenever I can?” Nico smiled and tapped his temple. “Multi-taskin’, Captain, multi-taskin’. Isn’t that what you’re always sayin’?” He eyed Werner’s cheek again. “What that guy did to you, to Cadence, to all of you—-I get that he used to be the friend of that detective Cadence talks about sometimes, but what he put you all through was awful…”
Nico lifted his hand. “Can I?”
Werner paused, considering. Nico had inspected the tattoo numerous times before in attempts to remove it in more controlled settings. This was no different than the physical examination Nico had conducted half an hour ago. Thus, Werner consented with a nod.
Nico moved his hand to the left side of Werner’s face and his thumb brushed against Werner’s cheek. It tickled due to the gentleness of his touch as his usually did. Nico tilted Werner’s chin up slightly as he leaned in even closer—but his eyes were not trained on the tattoo. Rather, they were trained on Werner’s own eyes.
Werner froze, his mind unable to determine whether this was an unusual or commonplace action—whether this was a familiar or unfamiliar sensation. Head tilting to the side, Nico leaned in closer and closer—so close that Werner could see the flecks of gold hidden in the brown of his eyes. Those flecks of gold disappeared, however, as Nico abruptly closed his eyes. Still, he drew nearer, nearer—and then suddenly Werner felt something warm brush against his lips.
Werner’s heart began to pound ferociously in his chest as he tried to logic out exactly what was developing. A pleasant haze bled. Nico leaned in further as the feeling continued, and Werner found himself mirroring the man: leaning forward, tilting his head to the opposite side, and closing his eyes. It was only half a second afterwards that Werner reached his conclusion: this was a—
Werner tensed and his eyes snapped open as he fully realized and understood the development. Stiffly, he pressed his hands against Nico’s shoulders and pushed him away.
Nico startled, eyes snapping open. His cheeks reddened and he suddenly looked as if he’d been slapped. “I-I—sorry, Werner. I should’ve asked. Wait, no. I shouldn’t have even done it to begin with. know you’re going through a lot. I don’t want to take advantage of you or anythin’. It’s just that with everythin’ that’s happened between us. And then on the train with Cadence. I thought—”
“I understand that, and I am aware of what happened during your train ride with Cadence.” After a pause, he added, “I’m glad you two made amends but—”
Nico flushed deeper and began to chuckle nervously.
“But there’s a reason I haven’t discussed that with you.” Werner held Nico’s gaze before looking away and saying with an air of finality: “We don’t have time for these things—these distractions, Nico.”
“Distractions…’” Nico’s face fell. “Yeah. You’re right—”
Werner felt an uncomfortable feeling stir his chest as he registered the man’s expression. “I apologize. Labeling this as a distraction was overly callous of me.”
Nico’s expression fell even further.
“I’ll be curt and honest with you, Nico, because I don’t believe it’s fair to leave you without a concrete explanation—”
“It’s alright, Werner, really—”
“I’m also uncertain if my feelings towards you now are a result of Cadence’s own personal feelings or if they are my own.”
Nico paused. “Cadence’s feelings…? Towards me?”
Nico stared. “You’re… connected to her, aren’t you?”
It was a peculiar question with an answer that Nico should have known the answer to. Regardless, Werner affirmed: “Yes, that’s one of the criteria for being a True Conductor.”
“I mean…” Nico blinked and pointed to Werner’s chest. “Cadence’s feelin’s for me? Are you talkin’ about our… relationship? I mean, our relationship with each other? Me and Cadence?”
Werner nodded. “It’s not my intention to intrude on your… overall relationship with her, but her feelings towards you do bleed into mine.”
Nico scrutinized him. “But you know—you’re connected to her—Cadence is a…”
Werner nodded again. “Her sense of self is rather formidable and her feelings can be intense—”
Abruptly, Nico laughed long and hard. His laughter wracked his entire body and he even threw his head back.
Werner studied him in alarm, trying to gauge the tone of his laughter. It clearly was not a morose chuckle. There was no sign to indicate that he was in any emotional pain. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Unable to determine the appropriate course of action, in the end, Werner opted to remain silent. Eventually, Nico’s laughter subsided into quiet chuckles.
After counting fifteen seconds in his head, Werner regarded Nico cautiously and asked, “Are you… alright?”
“You don’t need to worry about me, Captain.” Nico wiped a tear from his eye. “Your health is more important to me than any of that. Honest.”
Werner felt uncertain about Nico’s answer and proceeded to clarify his thoughts: “I will tell you this Nico: your medical knowledge and expertise are some of the best that I’ve seen during my service. Your constant presence, charisma, and reliability were beneficial to the unit’s morale and therefore their performance. You, Gilbert, and Greta are the three people that I… trust the most outside of the other five.”
“I hope this does not damage things between us and that we can continue on as we were.”
Now, Nico smiled and rose to a stand. “Like I said, no worries, Captain. Nothing’s changed.” He stretched a moment later, swung his satchel over his shoulders, gingerly picked up the notebook Werner had gifted him, and looked at it almost fondly. “Thanks for this again. I’ll definitely be goin’ through this tonight.”
Werner rose to a stand as well and bid Nico a casual farewell before leading him to the gate. Once Nico stepped through it, Werner headed back to his bed, sat down, and stared at the gate for an unknown amount of time in a slight daze. By the time he recollected himself and checked his pocket watch, he discovered that two whole hours had already passed. After a pause of consideration, he paced back up to the gate slowly and placed a hand against it. Still faintly warm.
That had been an unprecedented development, but it had ended acceptably. Yes, Werner was certain that—
The gate began to hum with familiar pale orange light beneath his palm. A new visitor, he realized—and he was already aware of who it was. He took one step back as Cadence—just shedding off her transmuted guise as Dieter—emerged from the gate. As soon as she stepped fully into the room, Werner became cognizant of everything she had been engaging in the past day and a half: the confrontation with Ricardo, the set timeline of Alpha’s plan, and the revelation regarding Seamus Dolby.
Werner tensed. “Seamus Dolby is a True Conductor—”
“Hey now—aren’t we changin’ the subject a little too quickly, Captain?” Cadence slinked forward, rapping a knuckle against his chest. “You and Nico had an interestin’ thing just now, didn’t ya?”
“That was a civil conversation between adults, Cadence,” Werner stated evenly. “It’s irrelevant in light of what you’ve just discovered. Alpha’s timeline and the new True Conductor circle—”
“Adults, huh? How adult are we talkin’ here?”
“Cadence, this is serious.”
“Werner.” Cadence patted his chest. “It is serious. I only got half the details here. I need more.”
She was being difficult.
Feeling something uncomfortable burn at his cheeks, Werner turned away from Cadence then and paced to his bed.
Cadence chortled, trailing along behind him. “Ya’ve killed over a hundred men and ya know all the strategies in the book, but ya still get all flustered when it comes ta dealin’ with feelin’s.”
Werner proceeded to re-straighten his bed while simultaneously attempting to hide the book Nico had gotten for him beneath his pillow.
Cadence gasped suddenly, causing him to turn to her out of concern. “That was your first, Werner! It was your first, wasn’t it? Werner—you’re a novice! I think even the kid’s had his first kiss before already! Aw-”
“Cadence, we need to focus on the topic at hand—”
A strange sharp sound that reminded Werner of an unoiled door hinge cut him off short. He turned as the sound resounded again and soon realized its origin. It was emanating from Cadence’s suit jacket.
Cadence lifted the left flap of her suit, reached into the inner hidden pocket, and procured a small white object. A mewling sound confirmed its identity. It was a kitten no larger than the size of her palm.
“Ta-da!” Cadence sang, presenting the animal fully to Werner so that he was now able to see the sky blue of its irises. “Imagine I did that but with a rabbit instead. Like a magic trick.”
Werner stared at the kitten in confusion.
“Seamus gave it as a gift…” Werner realized as the memory of the event reached him. “Did you check it for mediums?
“Yeah, I did—no worries. Seamus’s an interestin’ one…” Cadence shrugged. “Anyways, I named her Alice ‘cause of the blue eyes—”
Werner frowned. “That’s inappropriate, Cadence.”
Cadence merely shrugged again before she held Alice out to him with a sly grin. “Wanna pet her?”
Werner held up a hand. “That’s alright.”
“What?” Cadence chortled. “Not much of a cat fan? Usually quiet, shy types like you are alI about feline companions, ya know? Though I guess ya bein’ more of a dog person makes sense. You’re a military man. Huh—do they even have military cats?”
After a pause, Werner reached out and placed a gentle and hesitant gloved hand on the kitten’s head. It mewed in response and began to purr. Werner admittedly was pleased with this development and continued to stroke the cat until it abruptly let out one loud meow and bit down on his finger. Frowning, he retracted his hand and returned his attention to Cadence.
“This new information is extremely useful, Cadence. Good work—”
“Wait…” Cadence’s smile fell and she put the kitten down onf the ground. “Before we get into that—I… have somethin’ I need ta tell ya.”
Werner studied her for half a second before the memory of her phone call with Viktoria finally reached his awareness: Mother was ill. His heart seized in his chest and a numbing coldness spilled out from the area into the rest of his limbs at the revelation.
With difficulty, Werner maintained his composure. “When?”
“A coupla days ago,” Cadence explained. “Toria didn’t have a lot of details. Even the doctors seemed confused apparently. I… tried ta tell ya earlier, Werner, but ya were in and out.”
He’d relied too heavily on the medication Nico had given him. This failure of communication was his own fault.
“I apologize for that,” he stated. “Thank you for telling me.”
There was a lapse of silence.
Protect, protect, protect.
Werner tried to gather his tumbling thoughts and form a coherent sentence but the words slipped through his fingers before he could catch them.
Mother was ill.
“Do ya want me to visit her for ya, Captain?” Cadence pressed. “Things with the AAC are a lot more complicated now than before, but we got Seamus and the lot half-on on board. Veles’s got a terrible relationship with Maria though. I dunno. I was thinkin’ maybe Maria could patch things up with him somehow. Either way, I can still go down for you as myself—”
Protect, protect, protect.
Thinking of Nico’s and Alice’s words, Werner grounded himself with the pounding thought.
Protect, protect, protect.
Using this as the groundwork, he began to piece together the information he’d just received from Cadence to structure a logical method of approach. A plan. A blueprint.
Protect, protect, protect.
Then, he reached a successful conclusion.
“No,” Werner stated with an air of finality. “We’re now aware of what day Alpha plans to invade Ophiuchus. From what I understand, the ELPIS leader Rho will still move forward with her invasion even though she doesn’t have contact with Alpha at the moment. We can use this opportunity to our advantage.”
“Opportunity?” Cadence did a double-take. “But—the kids—”
“Prevention is always the best strategy. In this case that would be preventing the captured children from stepping foot in Ophiuchus. However, given our lack of information on their current location, we cannot go this route.”
Cadence frowned slightly.
“I’m not saying that we abandon the children,” Werner elaborated. “The children will remain our priority. However, we will use the invasion to our advantage. While the saint candidates are distracted and preoccupied with the ELPIS raid, we’ll have the opportunity to launch a multi-pronged, synchronized rescue operation and retrieve the hostages the saint candidates have against us all at once. If the parameters allow, we can also attempt to retrieve Hilton and Louise. And retrieve the children.”
Eyes widening, Cadence whistled. “Can’t believe I’m the one sayin’ this but that sounds risky, Captain.”
“It is a risk,” Werner agreed. “However, there will be no better opportunity to make for an escape out of the restrictions of the saint candidates. We can’t arouse any suspicion prior to this, and visiting Mother may draw unwanted attention. We also need to factor in Jericho’s situation with Leona and consider utilizing any alliances we currently have since this will be a reasonably large operation.”
Cadence whistled again before she abruptly frowned—he could feel her digging through his thoughts. “Wait…”
“Nico has informed me previously that I’ll be able to be ‘discharged’ in a sense at the end of this week,” Werner continued. “I’ll use that opportunity to contact Weingartner and Heimler and recruit them into the operation. I believe they’ve been biding their time and expanding their resources, so—”
“Wait, wait, wait. The last time we saw Weingartner, he was in Zhūshā Cheng, Werner,” Cadence interjected. “That place is a hotbed for morrowheat, chlorowheat, all-the-above wheats.”
“Are ya sure you’re up for that, Werner?” Cadence’s eyes were wide, fear leaking in through their connection. “Wait no. Let me go instead of ya. You can take your place back at the AAC—wait, no. That’s just as iffy—”
“Cadence, you are handling not only the AAC investigation but also Seamus’s new True Conductor circle and the Romano relations. Your hands are full.” He reached out a hand towards her head. “You’ve done more than enough—”
“No!” Cadence snapped, pulling away. She looked just as surprised as he felt by her outburst but pressed regardless, “Ya don’t understand, Captain. I haven’t. I’ve barely even scraped the surface of makin’ things up ta ya.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “Almost all of the problems ya had were because of me. And ya still keep doin’ things for me.”
Protect, protect, protect.
“Cadence, I need to do this—”
“Werner,” Cadence pressed, shaking her head. “I know we went over this already, but I don’t want this all just ta be brushed aside and things to return back ta how they were—actin’ like nothin’ happened and actin’ like I didn’t do anythin—”
“It’s not as if I haven’t wronged you either,” Werner responded evenly. “I inappropriately lashed out at both you and Olive. In that moment, I said something that I knew would hurt you. I used our connection to my advantage and I used chlorowheat despite knowing your history with—”
Before he could finish, Cadence abruptly closed the distance between them and slowly wrapped her arms around his waist. She then buried her face into his chest. “Yeah, ya pulled a real jerk of a move. Hurt and still hurts like hell.”
Werner’s heart sank at this and he moved to wrap his arms around her. “I apologize.”
“See—I’m acknowledgin’ that, ain’t I?” Cadence mumbled. “So you gotta acknowledge my mess-ups too.”
Werner moved one of his hands to rest on her head as he listened. “Okay.”
“Please just let me help ya, Werner. Like really help ya. Not just a one and done deal. That means if I ever become a billionaire, ya gotta let me spoil ya rotten and take care of ya. Ya can finally kick back and relax and—ya know what I mean.”
“I understand.” Werner held Cadence just an increment tighter. Another anchor.
“… sorry if that was out of the blue,” Cadence mumbled after a pause. “I’m just a bit wrung out with everythin’ that’s happened with Ricardo, Seamus, and—well—everythin’.”
“It’s alright, Cadence.”
“Yes, I’m still listening.”
“Your mom… my mom…. our parents…” Cadence tightened her hold, burying her face deeper into his chest. “They’re—we can’t keep makin’ up excuses for ‘em and tryin’ ta reason it all out.”
Werner tensed at the suggested disrespect, and his palms began to develop a familiar phantom itch.
“Francis said this a while ago, so—yeah—I’m takin’ one from him, but basically all kids deserve good parents but not all parents deserve kids. I know you’re an adult now but… She hurt you, Werner. I-I know I hurt ya too, but… she’s always hurtin’ ya. She’s the main reason why it still hurts so much. Ya know I’m right.”
Werner’s lips pressed thin as he tried to logic and reason out why and how Cadence was wrong in this area—no, he was trying to think of an excuse. That reality was unpleasant to come to terms with and caused an uncomfortable pressure in his chest. Still, he nodded. “I understand, Cadence. It’s just… difficult for me.”
“Okay, I gotcha.” Cadence relaxed in his hold. “That’s reasonable. As long as ya understand.”
Understanding. Werner conjectured that if anyone understood him best it was Cadence and if anyone understood her best it was him.
They stayed like that for a bit longer. Werner didn’t bother counting the seconds—the minutes—as they passed by.
“I need to do this, Cadence.”
Cadence grimaced, sighed, and then looked up at him. “Okay… but if you’re really gonna try to contact Weingartner, let Nico come with ya.”
Zhūshā Cheng, Xing Clan Territory, Sagittarius.
Stepping back out into open air felt peculiar. The evening streets of Zhūshā Cheng were dense, heavily populated, loud. The windows of the skyscrapers leaked out cold blue light, while the lanterns hanging from the fronts of the slightly shorter, roof-tiled buildings bled out red light from the lanterns lining their fronts.
Werner did not allow himself to linger long on the sight for longer than six seconds and instead turned his attention to the pedestrians and passersby. The crowds keeping to the sidewalks were densely populated, while the skies were streaked with air Elementalists riding on conductors. The commotion stirred a faint pounding at the back of Werner’s head and nausea in his stomach. Still, he maintained his composure.
The pocket watch weighing down in his chest pocket acted as a reassurance that he was carrying out this operation within the correct time-frame. The pistol strapped to his leg acted as a reassurance that he would be able to carry this operation out undeterred. It had been approximately one month since he had last carried a weapon and approximately five months since had carried one assigned for military use. Still, it felt natural to have it by his side. An additional reassurance was—
“Saints. This is somethin’ else.”
Werner paused and turned to look over his shoulder. Nico stood two meters behind him, taking in the city view. He was wearing one of Olive’s Marta-rings and had donned the guise of a middle-aged Sagittarian man of the Xing Clan: silk garments, dark hair and eyes, and a mustache. Werner wore a similar guise—although the one he’d transmuted for himself was of much younger appearance.
“It’s like the Twin Cities,” Nico marveled, “but… colder… and—” He chuckled. “Bluer.”
Werner nodded. “Yes, the infrastructure appears to be somewhat similar, although the designs are unique in themselves.” He paused and studied Nico. “Do you have a preference between the two?”
Nico arched a brow with a smile. “I’m still Twin Cities through and through, Captain.”
Yes: things were normal.
Following along with the memories from Olive’s last visitation of this city, Werner—with Nico just a step behind—wove through the noisy streets, dipped down several alleyways, before finally reaching a familiar pair of sliding doors nestled in a dark alleyway. This door, however, was covered in yellow tape marked with Sagittarian characters.
“It’s police tape,” Nico murmured, inspecting the tape further. “Says ‘crime scene.’”
“You know—I wanted to be an officer when I was really young,” Nico added suddenly in a whisper. “Was charmed by Giustizia of all people.”
Suppressing a chuckle, Werner carefully slid open the door without disrupting the tape, stepped inside of the dam, quiet room, and scanned the darkness. There were two familiar beds pressed against the wall but they were bare. The entire room shared similar bareness.
Werner approached the empty singular shelf beside the cold fireplace at the back of the room and began to search it for possible clues. As he ran his fingers along the top shelf, he felt a small lump in the far corner. He extracted it and inspected the object in the darkness. It appeared to be something wrapped in plastic. Only half a second later he recognized what that something was. That shade of green was one he’d become accustomed to seeing.
Werner’s heart hammered ferociously as he stared at it, and he felt sweat begin to break across his back. He could almost taste it, could almost feel the euphoria, could almost feel the tendrils of oblivion reaching the edges of his mild.
It was such a small amount. Perhaps it was 25 mg at the most. It probably wouldn’t have that strong of an effect even if he took it. Yes, it most likely would not affect him operationally at all. Even though he had cleared it from his system, taking this small amount would not disturb the equilibrium he had just recently achieved. It was best to hold onto this for safe-keeping. A situation where using it would prove necessary was a possibility. Therefore, Werner reasoned that holding onto this chlorowheat was sensible.
He proceeded to slide the packet into his pocket—
—but a hand on the wrist stopped him short.
Upon turning, Werner registered Nico standing directly behind him and studying him with a frown.
There was no disappointment in the man’s eyes. Only concern. That alone brought Werner back to reality. He allowed Nico to take the chlorowheat from him and watched as the man threw it into the fireplace.
“That is literally… everywhere…” Nico muttered. “It’s pretty terrifyin’ actually…”
“Yes,” Werner agreed, lowering his hand. He regarded Nico for a moment before saying, “I apologize. Thank—”
The paper doors behind Werner abruptly flew open, cutting him off short. He turned just in time to see two men barge into the room waving flashlights around in the dark.
“Excuse me, sirs,” one man said in the language of the Xing Clan. “What exactly are you doing here?”
“This room is under investigation by our department,” the other man said. “State your purpose here. You’re trespassing.”
Werner berated himself for his lack of caution and for being distracted by the chlorowheat as the officers approached them. He resisted wincing as one of the officers beamed the flashlight directly into his face. After his eyes adjusted to the sudden light, Werner was able to make out the officer fully. The first thing he noticed about the man, however, was not his graying beard nor the pressed badge—engraved with the characters 警察— hanging on his chest. No, the first thing Werner noticed was the familiar curl of dark blue on the man’s skin just barely visible beneath the collar of his uniform.
Spores of Scorpio. Why were they here? The most logical conclusion was that Scorpio had discovered Weingartner and Heimler’s activities in this area and was now launching a full investigation on them. This was dangerous.
“I asked you a question,” the officer shining the light in Werner’s eye pressed.
Werner reached out to Cadence for assistance, but before he could make full contact, Nico stepped forward and bowed deeply.
“I am so, so, so sorry, Officer,” Nico replied in the language of the Xing Clan and in a pained tone. Abruptly, he reached over and cuffed Werner’s head. “My son here is always getting into trouble—hanging out with the wrong people and crowds. His ‘friends’ dared him to break into this place for money, and this stupid son of mine went ahead and did it. I have been searching for him all night, officers.”
The officers exchanged looks.
“Lock him up!” Nico snapped abruptly, grabbing hold of one of the officer’s arms. “For at least a week—no, a month! No, a year! No, a decade! Then he’ll learn. I can’t teach him any other way. He—”
“Er—” the officer began in concern. “That seems excessive, sir—”
Nico whipped around to face Werner and placed a hand to his chest. “You’re always breaking my heart. Can’t you see that?”
There was a stretch of rather awkward silence.
Nico jerked his head slightly.
Werner fumbled for a moment before pressing, “Father—”
“This is evidently a domestic dispute,” the other officer interjected. “Please keep this within your household. We’ll let you off this once but don’t ever come back here again.” He paused and frowned at Werner. “And you—be grateful for your father’s sacrifices.”
Nico gave a grateful bow in response before dragging Werner quite literally out of the building, down two alleyways, up five streets, before finally doubling over and letting out a heavy sigh. He laughed lightly. “Haven’t done that in a while.”
“That was… impressive,” Werner noted. “Good work.”
Nico perked up with an arched brow and a slight smile. “I’m not as good as you-know-who with these kinds of things, but I did pick up a thing or two back in the day.”
Nico proceeded to reach into his pocket and pulled out a black notepad. Its cover was imprinted with the characters 警察 in gold. Stolen from one of the officers, Werner realized.
“Lucky for us, the police take good notes.”
Werner took the notebook from Nico and began to flip through and soon discovered that the police had narrowed their search of Weingartner and Heimler—accused of chlorowheat smuggling which was most likely a lie and a cover-up—to one section of the city.
Following along with this lead, Werner made the decision to divert their attention temporarily to surveillance. A better scope and understanding of the locations where Weingartner and Heimler were expected to appear would be useful in locating the two men.
Pulling on a synchronization with Cadence, Werner was able to talk his way with Nico to gaining access to the roof of a six-storied hotel at the center of the police investigation radius. Soon, they were up on the hotel’s roof and peering down into the city below. Some of the city’s lights had begun to dim, leaving patches of black in the network of glimmering ruby and sapphire lights. Despite the height of the building, Werner was still able to see pedestrians moving up and down the streets and sidewalks below him. The crowds had died down some, it seemed. This was an advantage: it was now easier to scope out the area.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Nico noted after approximately two hours had passed. “So pretty it can almost make you forget everything that’s happenin’ below the city… or around it, actually.”
“It is beautiful,” Werner agreed, “but we should maintain our focus—”
A commotion from two blocks over caught his attention. Faintly in the dark, he could make out two figures dashing down a narrow alleyway. Tailing behind them were five police officers—two of whom had sputtering blue conducting blades drawn out.
Werner couldn’t quite make out the running duo’s faces so he instead turned his attention to the path ahead of them: it was a dead end. The two men soon reached the dead end wall and turned to face their pursuers. It was only when they turned that Werner was able to identify them: Weingartner and Heimler.
Weingartner conjured a pistol, while Heimler pulled out his own pistol. The police officers slowed as they approached, and several of them drew out conductors and pistols. They did not make any movies and neither did Weingartner nor Heimler. A stand-off, but Weingartner and Heimler were at a clear disadvantage here.
Werner pulled out his pistol, calculated the wind speed and direction, considered the angles of height, and proceeded to line the mouth of his weapon up with the back of the conductor-wielding officer that stood closest to his captain and former subordinate.
Just as he was about to move his finger to the trigger, however, a metallic rattling stopped him short. It took him a second to realize what it was: his hands were trembling and the pistol’s parts were clacking against each other as a result. Werner stared at his hands, unable to fully comprehend the development.
Why? Withdrawal symptoms still? Or was it because he had tried to take some of the chlorowheat earlier? Was it because he neglected practicing his skills when he’d been contained in Francis’s room? No—
Protect, protect, protect.
He had to be useful. He had to protect the others. He had to reach Weingartner and Heimler. As he was now, he was insufficient—
A pair of hands abruptly wrapped around his own and steadied his shakes. The pistol stilled in his hand. Werner’s eyes followed the pair of hands to their owner: Nico.
“Can you see?” Nico mouthed the words.
Werner could see. He could see Nico’s warm gaze clearly through the transmuted guise.
Shaking the thought aside, Werner nodded before returning his attention to the scene below. After quickly ensuring that his pistol was still aligned properly and re-evaluating the wind direction and angles and heights, he pulled the trigger.
The bullet whizzed through the dark before it struck its target head on. The officer let out a yelp before collapsing onto the ground. The officers around him startled in alarm before whipping around and searching the darkness blindly.
Werner proceeded to aim the pistol once more and—with Nico steadying his hands—he fired again and again and again. Soon, all the officers were on the floor groaning or unconscious. As expected, Weingartner and Heimler both startled and began backing away as the bodies dropped around them. Werner had their attention. It was now time to utilize it.
Pressing his fingers to his lips, Werner proceeded to produce a three-note whistle. Weingartner and Heimler both straightened at the sound, indicating that they’d heard. A moment later, they exchanged looks before darting back down the alley in the direction where they’d come from.
“Was that a Capricornian signal?” Nico whispered beside Werner, hands still wrapped around Werner’s own. “Now what?”
Werner nodded. “Now we head to the tallest building within a twenty mile radius and wait.”
It took approximately one hour to locate the designated area which was located twenty blocks down from their building. Nico went to the building’s edge as soon as they gained access to the roof and peered down into the glittering lights below. After ruminating for five minutes, Werner joined him.
“Things are always so complicated these days, Captain.” Nico sighed after a stretch of silence. “I mean things were complicated back then, but it’s even more complicated now. Not only the situation—but people too. It’d be nice things—if people—were simpler. It’d be easier to be honest and communicate. ‘Productivity,’ like you say.”
He was mostly referring to his confrontation with Allen.
“Yes,” Werner agreed after a beat, “it would be nice if things and people were simpler, but that’s simply not the case.”
A creak followed by padding footsteps drew Werner’s attention away from the city lights. Upon turning, he registered two figures approaching him out from the doorway leading to the rooftop. Weingartner and Heimler. They both looked aged and worse for wear, but their eyes were still sharp and focused.
Werner resisted throwing up a salute as the two men hesitantly approached them.
“That was an interesting call signal you used,” Weingartner drew, coming to a stop two feet away and looking Werner and Nico up and down. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but you don’t look like the type of person who would know what that signal means.”
“Appearances are deceiving,” Werner replied.
“So they are.” Weingartner nodded. “Now: am I being deceived now or is this something else?”
“I have an opportunity for you,” Werner explained, “but I feel it would be wise to disclose this opportunity in more private conditions.”
“Private conditions?” Heimler pressed, exchanging a look with Weingartner.
Werner nodded, clasping his hands behind his back. “I’m aware that you have an additional person—a non-combatant—in your group—”
Weingartner tensed at the mention of his daughter.
“—but I was hoping that you would have additional members in your group. That resource would be very beneficial in the context of this opportunity.”
“I do have resources,” Weingartner provided, regarding Werner carefully. “Do you have an estimate of the likelihood of success of this… opportunity?”
“I don’t have the exact estimates which I apologize for,” Werner acknowledged, extending his hand, “but I assure you this opportunity has the highest probability of what we can ‘consider’ success.”
Weingartner reached forward and accepted the gesture before offering a wan smile. “It’s good to see you again.”
A/N: I had a mental breakdown editing this chapter. anyways HA you thought werner was emotionally stable enough to hold a relationship–well, i guess most of you must’ve figured otherwise. i know the chapters for this section are a bit on the longer end but we’re actually heading into the finale after this section so //fingerguns. anyways, i nearly punched a wall writing certain scenes of this chapter