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Crimson-Shell

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Complete darkness engulfed Claudia.

It wasn't a threatening darkness though; it felt warm, soothing even, wrapping around her like a soft blanket and keeping every harm away as she slumbered. Nobody could disturb her like that, sunk so deeply in the eternal blackness. Claudia had long forgotten when she started sinking, her memories fading gently the longer she dwelt in there. Everything disappeared, the pain along with the happiness, until nothing was left anymore. A part of her heart ached though, as if forgetting hurt something deep inside her, but she didn't remember why it would so she ignored it.

For the longest time she remained so detached – until the first dull calls reached her.

“Claudia... Claudia...”

The calls were distant, the voice somehow familiar but then again not, growing louder and louder as time passed. Persistent the voice kept calling for her, repeating her name over and over again, forcing her out of the lethargic slumber steadily. And the more she awoke, the clearer her mind seemed to turn. Memories came back to her, dear pictures of her past with her friends. What first were foreign faces soon gained a name again – Baines. Les and Ruskin. Melissa and Robin. Wilhelm.

And then... eventually Xeno.

The dear memories overweight. The peaceful loneliness she experienced with Wilhelm since the day she awakened was followed by the funny years she spend outside of her room with Xeno and the others. Times where Melissa tackled her with hugs and Robin tried to advance her. The countless fights with the Infected of the Black Roses. How Wilhelm appeared sometimes frustrated with her decisions but still stayed by her side loyally.

However suddenly the memories became dark and painful. She saw her friends getting hurt and killed even – Baines being pierced by her own thorned vines and the life drained from his body. Robin getting shot by a white-haired boy with purple, murderous eyes in a cellar. And eventually, how Xeno fought her until he got back to his senses.

“Claudia...”

The call echoed through the darkness and suddenly she recognized it.

With fluttering eyelids, Claudia opened her eyes with a weak whisper.

“... Xe... no...?”

Her sight still blurry, the first thing Claudia realized was the top of her bed – a white, simple cloth that spread between the bedposts covered in rose-embroided curtains.

“Good morning, Dia.”

Weakly she turned her head, blinking tiredly at the person sitting in a chair by the bed. The moment she looked into the pale, golden eyes she instantly felt more at ease.

“Will,” she gasped, trying to turn to her side but her body failing to obey her.

Instantly Wilhelm reached forward to assist her. “Slowly. You've been asleep for a long time,” he said, his hands gentle and endlessly warm against her skin. He moved securely when he pushed his arms underneath her, aiding her to sit on the soft mattress. It was odd; somehow, Claudia's upper body swayed horribly when she tried to stay up on her own, as if her muscles forgot completely how to work.

Then, realization slowly began to sink to her.

She had been fighting Shion in the secret lab, where Xeno stayed behind as-

“What's with Xeno?” she asked, her hands tightening into fists when a wave of fear took over her body. She turned her head around, her eyes barely staying open as exhaustion caught back to her. Why was she so tired?

Wilhelm didn't reply. Instead he looked at her, his eyes painfully caring.

Claudia knew that look. He always wore it whenever the answer was going to be painful to her.

Tears began to fill her eyes, hot streams running down her cheeks already. “Please,” she begged, her chest hurting already so badly whatever Wilhelm had to say couldn't possibly be worse.

But he just shook his head. “You're still too weak for this, Dia. Please rest a bit more.” With that he gently placed her down again, her body shaking when she struggled to stay up. “I'll tell you everything later. A lot happened while you were asleep,” he added, lowly, and though Claudia fought against it her eyes slid shut, the tears never stopping until she drifted away once more.

~*~

The next time Claudia woke up, she felt considerably stronger than earlier. Wilhelm had moved her while she napped, the large pillow behind her back allowing her to half-way sit in her bed. She was alone when she opened her eyes and took the chance to take a look around.

She was in her room in the greenhouse, but somehow everything was different. The plants she owned were no longer the same – many had grown larger and thicker, carrying considerably more flowers than they used to. New plants had joined as well, all of them blooming and the sweet scent lingering in the air.

When the horrible incident happened, fall was about to approach. Not a single of her flowers had as much as a bud back then. To find them suddenly all blooming and full of life was quite unnerving, to some degree.

Claudia wasn't alone for long; shortly after she was fully awake, the door opened and Wilhelm came in. “Good morning, Dia.” A gentle smile was on his lips when he walked closer, a plate with treats and a bottle on a small tablet he carried in his hands.

“Is it even morning?” Claudia asked, her head instantly craning when she picked up the sweet smell of cocoa. Her eyes lit up when she recognized the food – small, soft loafs of bread made with cocoa butter. Though she didn't need food – apparently, Roses lived off pure water and human life only – she still loved the taste of the sweet treats. Melissa had introduced her to the dish and ever since, Claudia was deeply found of it.

When Wilhelm was close enough, she tried reaching for one of the small loafs – but her hand barely lifted off the mattress and shook so hard she dropped it after a few seconds again. “Why am I so weak?” she murmured, eyebrows furrowing in deep thought.

“I'll explain it to you in a minute,” Wilhelm promised while he set down the tablet. He broke off a bite of the bread and pushed it against Claudia's lips. Surprisingly quickly she snatched the piece up with her teeth, a happy humming coming from her as she chewed. “Water as well?” he prompted, but she only shook her head. Wilhelm still poured a glass, as if he knew better, and his smile faded away when he made himself comfortable in the chair.

Silently Claudia studied him, red eyes blinking once in a while when she waited for him to start.

“It may sound incredible, but since you discovered the hidden laboratory, more than three years have passed.”

Her eyes widened in shock, her jaw stilling though the still had food in her mouth.

Wilhelm locked his eyes with hers when he proceeded, “You were in a strange comatose state until recently. Even when your wounds healed, you just wouldn't wake up. In fact, we started to believe you would never awake again at all.” He paused, his expression looking haunted for the blink of an eye, but he covered it up so quickly Claudia thought she might have been seeing things. “Perhaps you exhausted yourself too much in the fight against the Jet Rose and the wounds from the Death Scythe were more severe than expected. The scientists weren't able to figure out the cause up until now.”

“Three years...” Claudia quietly repeated. She remembered about the strange experience from before she opened her eyes for the first time, how Xeno called her name through the dull darkness. Had it been a dream? Or was it a twisted memory from the time she was in coma?

“What are you thinking about?” Wilhelm asked, his head cocking a bit.

With a swallow Claudia forced the bite of bread down. The taste had faded once she shock started to sink in, so there was no point chewing on it further.

“I heard Xeno's voice while I slept,” she stated, her heart twinging a little as she spoke. “He called me, that's why I woke up.”

Wilhelm studied her for a moment, but she avoided his eyes. “It must have been a dream. Xeno probably died three years ago when the laboratory collapsed.

Suddenly Claudia perked up. “Probably?! Why just probably?” She may not have been the brightest person, but she knew Wilhelm enough for watching his language closely. Whatever he said, he always put a lot of thought into his choice of words.

“Don't get your hopes up too high,” he warned with a sigh. “Neither his nor Shion's bodies were discovered in the laboratory. Apparently some items and papers are missing as well while the rest has turned worthless. It's uncertain whether they managed to escape or somebody removed their corpses before we were able to reach them.” He broke another bit off the bread and left it on the plate.

A small grin laid over Claudia's lips. “I'm sure he's out there,” she claimed, her body feeling stronger at the mere thought of meeting Xeno again. “And I'll find him, no matter how long it takes. This time, I'll be the one saving him.” Her eyes carried a nearly wild gleam in them, the look strong and lively.

Wilhelm sighed again, his lips pressing together into a straight line. “You're not in the shape to save anyone right now. We should stay inside the greenhouse until you recovered.” He leaned forward, his hand reaching for Claudia's while his head rested on top of hers. “You were hurt too much already. I'll be damned if I fail to protect you ever again,” he spoke, voice serious. If she were able to look into his eyes, she might have been able to discover his real intention behind his claim.

Closing her eyes, Claudia leaned against him for a moment, feeling his pain. It was unusual for him to act so open, but apparently the years of sleep took their toll on him as well. She wanted to jump up and start her search for Xeno right away, but for what seemed like the first time she was also aware of Wilhelm's needs. She was certain he'd assist her in every possible way to reach what she wanted, but for now she had to wait and allow them a short break.

“Can I have another bite?” Claudia asked after a while, breaking the silence between them.

“Of course.” Wilhelm pulled away again and reached for the piece he prepared a moment ago. He fed it to her like he did before, a relieved smile on his lips when she energetically chewed on it.