Bastian moved cautiously, careful not to disturb the disarranged boxes in the storeroom as well as hoping that Solitarie was open which would help him escape. As soon as he heard voices, he halted and tried to tiptoe near the entrance of the storeroom.
“Yes, yes. Okay. I have packed up the rest of Erska’s stuff. Did her parents come by? That’s good then. We’ll be right there,” said Haruhi as she clicked off the phone. “Quincy! Saw Mrs. Delaney?”
“Yup! I got the keys to lock the store too!” Quincy said. “How’s the situation at the hospital?”
“Erska’s parents dropped a few minutes back. Thank God,” she said as she re-checked Erska’s belongings. “If we had listened to her and had not called them, then they would have never seen her alive.”
Quincy sighed. “I don’t understand why is death testing her like this. Hopefully, she’ll be at peace. Being constantly breathless, getting all giddy over and over again? I got frightened seeing her scream last night! How long is she going to suffer?”
Bastian instantly held his hand against his mouth and suppressed an impulsive scream. What?
“She’s still fearless, I bet even after this one she’ll be like did Bastian find his way home after getting that congee or is he hiding in someplace?” mimicked Haruhi.
“But…Haruhi, I really wish we did not have to chain up Bastian. He could have left after seeing her, for one last time, “Quincy insisted which riled her up.
“Quincy. Do you remember what happened to you? Do you remember how much it pained? I’m trying to protect Bastian here, our kind here. We’re the punching bags for all the other realms! As if our existence means nothing! And, we’re not supposed to meddle with human lives due to our jobs but we end up hurt! Do you know how many friends have gone heartbroken and rogue?” She began shaking Quincy’s shoulders vigorously. “Humans die and what about us? He’ll live with it for the rest of his life! Isn’t that why it is better not to do anything in the first place? And isn’t that also the reason why you wanted to protect Bastian in the first place?”
“The thing is,” Quincy explained, hoping she’d be patient. “He’s fallen for the first time. It was pretty obvious from the beginning but that guy is a fool, didn’t know how to differentiate things. It might even be his only one, the last one – it is being deprived naturally but why increase its chances? What if he never gets closure, Haruhi? Initially, I did agree but now, I hope for something different. Are you sure we could do nothing? Talk to Orfer?”
“No, Quincy,” she replied firmly, not an ounce of emotion displaying on her face. “I’m not going to do that. Let’s go.”
Maybe it was them talking or the medley of emotions playing the fiddle in his heart, Bastian had crouched to the floor, unable to control his sobs, biting his fingers hard. By the time they had finished their conversation, he understood that there was no other choice but to pass through them.
“But before we go, Quincy, I think it is better to make sure that we’ve locked all the counters and-”
Bastian’s haggard appearance had startled both of them. Haruhi’s first instinct was to pick up her Draphacon and dial but Quincy was quick to swat it off her hand and kick it across the floor.
“Quincy! If we are going to harbour a prisoner, you’re dead in my hands,” Haruhi said as she was prepping herself for a fight.
“Haruhi, Calm down! Let’s listen to him!” he as he looked at his friend with sorrowful eyes.
“Listen to him? He has defied orders. What else do you think he wants? He wants to see her!” she fumed, ready to punch the living daylights out Bastian if not for Quincy separating the two of them. He looked at Bastian’s bandaged wrists. “Are you alright?” he asked, pointing his hand.
“Ye-Yes,” Bastian replied, rubbing them. “But, how is Erska? Is she..okay?”
“Presently, she’s stable once again but she has had an attack yesterday, early morning,” explained Quincy. “Her vitals keep drastically fluctuating though..”
“Did-Did she ask about me?”
“Yes, checking her phone all the time and to be frankly speaking, I think that is adding to her stress. So, we forcibly took it away from her,” added Quincy which earned him a hit from Haruhi.
“What?! I-I have to go. Where is she admitted?” Bastian asked, frantically looking back and forth.
“There’s no way you’re going, Bastian,” Haruhi said as she pushed Quincy from her way as if he weighed nothing. She pressed her index finger against Bastian’s chest consecutively and said, “You’re going back and I’m making sure you do.”
Without a warning, she attempted a jab at his abdomen but Bastian’s senses that were abruptly heightened for the past few hours defended rather vaguely, dodging it as he staggered back. This frustrated Haruhi even more as she tried to aim once again but a force from behind pulled her back.
“Quick! Room no. 405! Marshmore Hospital! Grab a taxi!” screamed Quincy was trying hard to hold Haruhi who began wriggling. He was careful not to place his feet at her reach in case she stepped on it.
Panicking, Bastian ran out as he looked at Haruhi attempting to bite Quincy’s arm as a last resort but he had to abandon Quincy for the time being.
“Ouch! Fuck!” howled Quincy as he began incessantly rubbing Haruhi’s teeth marks that were imprinted across his arm.
“How are you defy me, Quincy?!” Haruhi raged. “Do you actually think he’ll have it easy after all this? Or do you think Orfer would go easy on you?”
“Whatever it is, Bastian won’t regret it. I know that for sure,” defended Quincy, still rubbing his bruise.
Haruhi began laughing hysterically. “Since, when did you become a romantic? Just wait and see how far the HQ would go-”
Their conversation was interrupted by what seemed like a herd of horses galloping towards them. From the storeroom, five Draphas of the Umbra emerged in plainclothes and assembled in front of them. The one at the front was a green headband wrapped dark-complexioned woman wearing checked shirt and beige pants. She took the lead forward and pulled out her Draphacon which had a black gem on which the name ‘Nakia’ was signed. “Under Orfer’s orders, we’ve been sent to bring prisoner Bastian back as soon as possible. So, we ask that you comply with it..”
While Quincy stood speechless, Haruhi walked forward and shook hands with Nakia. “With pleasure. Marshmore Hospital. The assignment, Erska Saphine, would most probably attain her demise there. Bastian would have gone there.”
In response, Nakia turned her in-ear piece on and said. “Nakia here. Directions to Marshmore Hospital. And details on the assignment, Erska Saphine.”
“Right on it!” came the answer from Alejandro on the other side, the Drapha Surveillance Head working on it himself.
“Umbra!” screamed Nakia. “Turn on your earpieces and you’ll find directions. We better not mess this up, okay?”
“Yes, mam!” they replied in unison, turning their earpieces on which served both functions – discrete long-distance communication and a projector that displayed required details to the wearer only.
Nakia nodded in acknowledgment at Haruhi as she left Solitarie, the troops following her out.
“Erska Saphine! No.1-1…umm 105. Yes. Room no. 105!” said Bastian, tapping the reception raucously in a frenzied manner, his legs involuntarily moving back and forth.
Before the receptionist could protest, some other person interrupted them. “Bastian?”
He turned around swiftly, ready to throw a punch this time. “Fyre. What-” He took a moment to comprehend the scene. Fyre was licking a green coloured popsicle along with a funny blonde haired man and….Erska’s mother?!
“Bastian. Nice to see you,” muttered Alice with her hands folded. “Are you okay?” she asked as she looked at his wrists.
“I’m-I’m fine…” he replied, still wonderstruck.
The blonde, blue-eyed man showed him the pink popsicle in his hand. “You gotta try this, Bastian. It is real good.”
“Who… are you?”
Alice scoffed instantly. “You have no presence at all, Richard.”
“Oh please, Alice. Look at him. Obviously, lovesick for our daughter,” he commented, surveying Bastian’s dishevelled self up and down.
“Oh..Ohhhhh..you’re her dad..love-lovesick? No. No. I…” Bastian mumbled incoherently, his eyes drifting as he rubbed his palms nervously.
“Calm your horses down, Bastian. Just walk down the end, you’ll find the room that you’re looking for,” Alice said, pointing to the corridor behind them. “You’re worrying too much. She just started whining that she wanted toast when it is forbidden ”
“Oh.. umm..thank you, Bastian said as he passed through them and tried to run only to be stopped by a nurse who scolded him severely. He kept apologizing to her as he ran past her.
“Are you approving him, Alice?” asked Richard as he offered his strawberry popsicle for the sixth time.
Alice shook her head. “I’m not sure about all that but I have to loosen up,” she said, tightening her the fingers around her bag. “After all, the whole lot of them did support Erska. I’m not stuck up,” she added, also indicating Fyre who did a quick bow in response.
“Really? All these years of marriage and I did not realize you could easily approve someone,” Richard retorted, flashing a smile.
“Keep up like that and I’ll make sure you can never step inside the house,” Alice shot back.
Richard slid his hand around his wife’s waist mischievously only to have it swatted away, instead he parted her salt and pepper strands waylaying her eyes. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I would for sure. What should I do when you prefer staying with your second wife? Just stay at work,” she grunted as she plucked the popsicle from his hand, hitting his jaw. “Serves you right.”
Richard rubbed his jaw and planted a quick kiss on Alice’s wrinkled forehead. “I’m gonna stick with you till the end. Who else has got the patience in the world to deal with a crook like me?”
Bastian exhaled, his fingers quivering as it held the doorknob. One hand was in his pocket, grasping the Ambrosial Liquid filled vial. Hopefully.
“Out of the way!! Out of the way!!” screamed a doctor, thrusting Bastian from his position carelessly and opened the door. In the flash of seconds, all that Bastian could see of Erska was a glimpse of her as the door shut on him. He pushed the door and peeked in.
“I don’t care if you’re the goddamn family nurse or something, but you can’t be feeding her this!!” scolded the doctor as the nurse lowered her head in apology while she exchanged glances with Erska who was pissed off.
“But, Miss Saphine really likes the toast from the hospital can-”
“I’ve got better work to do,” cut off the doctor as he grabbed the plate of food from Erska’s bedside table before she could reach for it. As he turned around, he was surprised to see a messed up head peep from outside. “How can I help you?”
That caught Erska’s attention, staring hard at the missing Congee guy who had ghosted on her for almost two days. “Let him in,” she said with her hands folded, looking even more pissed off.
The doctor rolled his eyes as he gestured the nurse to follow him. The nurse threw an apologetic glance at Erska while letting the way for Bastian.
Bastian walked in cautiously, closing the door behind him. “Hey.. how are you…?”
“I had a heart attack and you’re asking me that?” she barked but as Bastian tried to sit beside her on the bed, she made space rather than rejecting him.
“I’m sorry….I’m not sure how to explain…” he mumbled but his eyes looked dazed as they kept wandering, taking in her face, how it had changed in just a day. Her cheeks looked sunken, slight paleness was visible and her lips seemed browner than the usual peach. He cupped her cheeks as he put his forehead against hers. “Are you okay?” he asked, almost sobbing as his eyes got teary. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I know…I shouldn’t have left you… I’m sorry,” he repeated as he left a trail of soft, subtle kisses around her cheek, her temple, her nose and her forehead. “I’m sorry... I can’t explain.. I won’t ever do that…again..”
Anger that she had been holding in for the past twenty-four hours seemed to subside each time his lips touched her skin and her heavy heart melted with time. Her hands held onto Bastian’s grasp on her cheeks. “How could you….how could you..” She wanted to shout and scream but her present health allowed her voice to whimper. “Do you know how scared I was? Do you know much it pained? Everything just ripping out of my body. I thought... I thought…..you left me like you did previously. Like you just fled without an explanation, a reason… after that night…” Only when Bastian wiped her cheek, did she realize that tears had dripped down involuntarily and she was unable to stop it. Hastily, she began wiping them in a rash manner, not wanting Bastian to be an audience but he held onto her hands and kissed her fingers. “I won’t ever leave you and yes, we have to talk… about that night… but first, I want you to stop worrying. I’m here, okay?” he reassured her, stroking her palms as he placed his finger on her forehead to ease out the frown on it.
She laughed in response which got him perplexed. “That’s what you did... at the Gala. Remember? You were weird… for a stranger…” she said, hitting him in the arm as she noticed his bandaged wrist for the first time.
“I almost forgot. I’m glad you remember it too,” Bastian said, smiling as he combed her hair.
Erska took the time to look at him carefully. While his pearly whites were flashing a smile, the smooth fair skin on his hands and face had slight cuts that were seemingly invisible. She began touching his face in a hurry, terrified to find that the usual suppleness was replaced with uncharacteristic coarseness. “How am I only seeing all this now? What happened to you? Did you get into a fight or something?”
Baffled at her suspicion, he said, “I’ll explain. After all this is over, okay?” While she nodded in response, his brain was chugging in a different direction. All this is over? Why so soon..? Suddenly, his insides were overcome with grief and misery that began pouring out along with whatever was holding him back for the past few hours. His eyes welled up, ugly crying as he kissed her on the lips frantically in intervals slowly, taking his time and savouring the taste until it would be forcibly taken out of his grasp. It had overwhelmed Erska so much that she started hitting his fingers, gasping for breath when his grip around her jaw tightened
“Bastian!” she fussed which brought him back to reality as he retracted his hands. “Keep your hands to yourself, mister. No more kissing until we talk about our exact relationship….”
He began wiping his face. He had no control over his tear ducts presently and let it do whatever it wished. He was unable to scream at the authority who was responsible for all this mess. Neither was he able to sort anything out. Application of logic was impossible and all he could do was be frustrated and terrified at the same time.
“Did I scare you?” Erska asked, patting dry his cheeks but stared in awe at his glistening green eyes and messy tresses. “I never knew you were this emotional. It’s okay. I’ll be alright,” she reassured him as she massaged his palms. “We’ll slowly talk about everything. You also went through something. I can see that,” she continued, looking at his wrists. “Let’s get some rest but …don’t leave me..”
“I won’t,” Bastian replied firmly, holding her hands in his. “That won’t ever happen. Even if this world is going to end, it won’t,” he spoke, his face all serious.
She smiled, planting a quick peck on his lip. “Help me down, I’m sick and tired of that doctor being all parent-sy on me. As if I hadn’t enough..”
Sliding his arm around her shoulder, Erska lowered her body so that it would recline to the position of the bed. She snuggled into her blanket and patted down the bed, asking Bastian to sit with her.
“I thought that the doctor wanted you to take healthy food instead of toast,” he reprimanded and Erska frowned once again.
“I’m sick, man. I need good food,” she complained.
“Shhhh,” Bastian said, placing a finger on her lips. “I thought you wanted to take some rest. Sleep, okay?” he said as he held her palms. “I’ll be holding your hand. So, know that I won’t leave you, okay?”
“And isn’t that because you are just finding an excuse to touch me, you sly fucker,” Erska responded as she took her palm away playfully from Bastian’s grasp yet he was quick to pull it back, feeling it against his cheeks.
She stared at his sudden motion with a shock. Bastian seemed different. Usually, he was cheerful and sarcastic but once again, it seemed like he has gone hollow. She closed her eyes, putting herself to sleep while Bastian stroked her hand, she thought of the first time she kissed him, often wondered what it would be like to be in his arms. Yet seeing Bastian’s condition, he was the one who looked like he needed saving. First, heal yourself, Erska. Then, unwind everything one by one. Until the fog clears. You can handle that much, love.
Seeing that she was fast asleep, Bastian carefully placed her hand underneath the blanket and got up from the bed. His pocket jiggled. The vial! Fuck, I should have given it to her… He took the vial out of his pocket, thinking of the possibilities of feeding it to her when Waldo’s words hit him.
“Death is inevitable, Bastian. You know that better than anyone. To make her suffer more than she deserves? Don’t make the same mistake as I did.”
Bastian looked at the vial and then, he looked at Erska sleeping, like a baby, smiling. That warmed his conflicted heart all of a sudden but looking at the vial and then, at her, he whispered to himself as, his voice shivered, “Oh… what am I supposed to do now, Erska? How can I send you away just like that?”
The door opened and Bastian quickly slipped back the vial into his pocket and turned around. “Oh hello doctor,” he said to the green head wrapped woman wearing a white coat. “She just fell asleep. Is there something I can do?”
She leaned back and talked to someone on the outside. “Secure the perimeter until the job is done.”
Bastian frowned and closed on her, his fists readily curled up to fight. “How can I help you?”
“Bastian, you can help us by coming back,” said Nakia as she moved forward. “If you don’t go with us, then, we must take you forcibly,” she said as she grabbed his wrist and applied pressure. He howled in impulse but bit his already injured lips upon seeing Erska’s sleeping figure. He tried hard to stay on the floor, glancing at Erska but it was in vain as Nakia dragged his weak body. Is this how it is going to end? He wanted to scream Erska, wake her and see her one last time. He struggled his best to stay but he was no match for Nakia’s muscular build and let himself get treated like play-dough. However, it lasted seconds when he felt himself falling along with Nakia on the floor.
Nakia turned around to see what had prevented her from procuring her target. “Are you defying my orders?” And she was answered with a swift punch to her face, falling flat.
“Sir!” called out Alejandro hysterically. “We just lost Nakia!”
“What?!” asked Orfer as he got up. “Didn’t you just tell she has got Bastian?” Orfer had the Umbra and Drapha Surveillance on the run to bring back Bastian, scratching his head for the past one hour, wondering why procuring one person was so hard.
“Yes but her earpiece just got disconnected and her last words were – are you defying my orders…which means..”
“Which means…” Orfer pondered, rubbing his chin. Something clicked. He turned towards the rest of the members of Umbra. “Did you guys find Waldo yet?! You better-”
And the said person just walked in, two Umbra members bringing him as Waldo marched with a cheer. “Orfer, my friend!” he said in acknowledgment.
“Where did my fellow friend go off to after causing all this mess?” asked Orfer, preparing to slap him.
Waldo cowered in impish glee and said, “I was just making a small bet. I didn’t know it would cause a problem.”
Orfer’s hand dropped. There was no use in getting riled up. “Anyone in the Incubation Chamber gets tempted with that goddamn liquid. You knew Bastian had it. Why did you let him go? How can you be so sure that he would not use it?”
“Oh, how you did find out he had the vial? All the alarms were disabled, after all.”
Orfer drove his hand through the desk to Alejandro’s dismay which got his systems wobbling. “Stop taking me for an idiot! Someone was very messy with handling the vials!”
“Oh…. I should have cleaned that up.” Waldo shrugged. “I don’t know. I made a gamble.”
Orfer clicked his fingers against his ears, making sure it was audible. “Come again? Did you just say a gamble?”
“Yes,” Waldo affirmed. “I wasn’t sure if he would use the Ambrosial Liquid or not. That’s his choice. Whatever he chooses, he’ll have to face the consequences. So, does the girl. It’s all in his hands.”
“And if the other realms start pointing fingers at us, are you ready to face the consequences? Once again?” shot back Orfer, getting tired of his antics.
“Oh,” he said as he rubbed his chin, mimicking Orfer’s actions. “I hadn’t thought that far. But still, we, Draphas, always got each other’s backs.”
Orfer sighed. “What a waste of time. Seriously, at the Umbra too? How many of your people have you planted?”
Waldo stepped back, looking offended. “Planting people? Orfer! That’s incredulous! I don’t plant people!” Then, he smiled sheepishly. “We just help each other out.”
Orfer rolled his eyes. “I’m seriously thinking about resignation. Forget kangaroo meat.”
“Sir, we just lost all connections!” conveyed Alejandro as all the signals went off.
“Never mind,” said Orfer, waving him off. “We’ll handle the whole lot of them after this thing gets over. The headaches you people give me..”
Bastian slowly looked up, like a cock staring at the three faces that had surrounded him.
“Don’t worry,” said the woman dressed like a nurse. “We won’t hurt you but you must return as soon as you can. We’ll all be here until it gets over,” she said.
Bastian surveyed their faces once again as he got up, turning back to look at Erska who was still sleeping and once again, back at the other Draphas.
“How do I know you won’t blackmail me all of a sudden?” Bastian questioned, shifting to a fight stance.
“How do you think you woke with your hands untied? If it weren’t for us, you wouldn’t have made it until here!”
That caught Bastian off guard. “What?! But aren’t-”
The door dashed open and a man dressed like a security guard knocked Bastian down as soon as he saw him. Bastian fell on the floor, hugging his chest.
Soon, the man was held back by his teammates but they were still struggling to hold him. “How dare you guys disobey the orders?” he hissed, seeing Nakia lying unconscious on the floor. “The Umbra does not fall for slimy lines!”
Bastian staggered as he stood up, clutching his chest, his eyes hazy. Seeing that his fellow Draphas were struggling, he tried his best to do a roundhouse kick that got the guy falling down.
He placed his hand against his heart, breathing in and out. With no proper food or water for two days, getting beaten up and beating others – it had taken a physical toll on him. He wanted to fall to the ground and lie and sleep for a while. Maybe Erska and I could-
The hair on his body stood up while his heart began beating faster, every passing second. It was clear, the deafening, shrill sound of the cardiac monitor which had been blinking in consecutive intervals previously had gone mute. He turned around to see the fluctuating lines on the monitor go straight. He looked at Erska as he rushed towards the emergency button and pressed it. She was still asleep, still smiling. There is no way. There is no way this is happening right now.
“Move!” shouted the doctor as he rushed towards the bed, the nurses following behind him. He looked at the monitor and at Erska. He held her wrist for the pulse and let it falter.
“Doctor, she’s just sleeping, right? She told she was going to sleep,” mumbled Bastian nervously as he intertwined his fingers in Erska’s.
The doctor looked at Bastian and then, at the other Draphas who were looking on. He turned to Bastian again. “Are you the guardian?”
“No-No but why-why. Isn’t she..”
“Nurse, get her guardian in here right now!” the doctor commanded.
No. No. No. Not now. Not now. Bastian furiously turned towards the doctor and grabbed his collar. “Tell me right now! What is going on!”
Used to rash reactions, the doctor said in a calm tone. “She is no longer here..”
“No! You’re lying! She just said she was going to sleep! How can she die? How is that possible? Are you kidding me?” Bastian raged, his eyes twitching while shaking the doctor as if he was a scarecrow.
“That means she had no symptoms? Did she not call you out?” he asked, trying to diagnose.
“No,” Bastian replied firmly, shaking his head.
“There’s a possibility she had a silent heart attack, then,” the doctor said and added in an attempt to console, “If she passed away in her sleep, it must have been less painful for her. I’m sorry for your loss.” The doctor removed Bastian’s grip over him and let his hands down while he left the room.
Bastian’s mind went blank, his fingers fidgety as stood at the edge of the bed. It was surreal, she was still there in front of him, real as she can ever be but she’s gone. The life in her, vanished. He reached and grasped her arm and whispered, “Erska, baby, it’s time. Wake up.” Her cold, reactionless form started scaring him as he trudged towards the bed, falling into the white mattress, carefully cradling his arm underneath Erska’s body as if it was the most fragile antique he had ever handled while the other hand brushed off the lavender strands off her eyes, tracing her face as if he was embedding in his head, every single accent of her face that was partially emaciated due to her long battle with sickness. “Girl, not now… don’t do this to me now, after all this time…” he mumbled, planting a peck on her eyelids that would forever remain closed. He kissed her lips, hoping she’d swat him off for teasing her but the usual taunts were long gone.“How can you still smile, you idiot,” he whispered as he pinched her cheeks and began caressing it as if it still held the same warmth. “No, I must have been the idiot. How did I ever not notice you when I’ve been with you for so long? It must have been hard for you.” Tears began streaming as he kissed her forehead. “Why would you ever fall for a fucking douchebag like me? Why oh, why, Erska?” His sobbing turned loud. He hugged her, snuggling against her neck while he searched for her vanilla scent that had withered hours ago, a beating heart or her arms that would embrace him back yet truth was a fucker from hell. His low sniffles turned into a howl when he was not able to find anything that he was looking for, his oasis long gone now that he was in a barren desert searching for something that could never be found. “I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry, baby girl. I’m sorry I was late.” He planted a peck on her neck every time he apologized. “I’m sorry I never told you that I loved you.”