Part Five

    When Crawford comes home later that evening, Farfarello and I are still sticking to separate rooms. Farfarello is in the living room and I'm in the kitchen, more out of spite than anything else. Farfarello's not going to come in here as long as I'm here, even if he's thirsty or hungry. He skipped lunch and it's pushing close to being too late for dinner. I dig my fingernails into the holes Farfarello left on our tabletop and watch the doorway from where I've taken over Crawford's chair. I hear Crawford's footsteps down the hall and the rumble of his voice tells me he's greeting the first teammate he comes across- the sullen Farfarello. I expect him to linger there as Farfarello tells him about the day, but just a few moments later, Crawford's entering the kitchen.

    "You've stabilized," he notes, and it sounds so clinical. A day ago- no, a week ago, because yesterday didn't exist for me- I would have been glad that he acknowledged my efforts to stay sane. Today I realize I should only feel resentful that his first words to me are always about my sanity. He's just the leader checking up on his subordinate's mental state since I've been wandering around like a broken robot for a week.

    I offer him a tight smile. "Good to see you, too," I say.

    "Ah, you even sound familiar," Crawford notes, and he goes to pour himself a glass of water from the fridge. "If I had known breaking your mind again would have returned you to some part of what you were before the fall, perhaps I would have tried to do it sooner."

    I turn sharply in my chair to glare across the room at him. "And was that it?" I demand. "Were you going to fuck him up against our fridge just to fix things?"

    He glances back at me, calm in the face of my anger. "No," he answers easily, and he sets the water pitcher back in the fridge and shuts the door. "You didn't factor into any of that."

    That simple truth hits hard. I feel it like a wrench across my gut and whatever's left of my gift and I turn away from him, glowering across the room towards the door. I listen to Crawford's footsteps as he starts back across the room and he sits across from me, taking my chair since I'm in his. Farfarello appears in the doorway, arms folded across his chest, and watches us in silence. I offer him a sneer before Crawford's setting his cup down on the table, and that movement draws my attention back to him.

    "We lost Nagi," Crawford tells me, "but we are still Schwarz because we are strong enough to exist as such. Losing Nagi doesn't mean we have to lose our work or team, and we chose weeks ago to hold Schwarz together any way we could. I have complete faith in your ability to put your sanity back together, as does Farfarello. We are trying to help you."

    "And doing a fantastic job of it," I answer, and the look on his face tells me to save my smart remarks for the end of this little spiel of his.

    "We are a team," Crawford says again with quiet emphasis. "We will stick together and kill together, and we will fix your mind as long as you're willing to try. But this," and he gestures between me and himself, "and this," a gesture back towards Farfarello, "are different and they will remain different."

    "Why?" I demand.

    "Because that is how things have turned out," he answers simply.

    "No," I tell him, and Crawford gazes back at me in silence as he processes my flat denial. "They won't be."

    "That is not for you to decide," Crawford tells me, the same words Farfarello tried to throw in my face.

    "I want to know why," I insist. "Because I'm a fucking deadweight and a liability? Because I'm completely worthless and he's still up and moving?"

    "I have already said that you don't factor into it," Crawford says, and I know the patient tone of his voice is a lie. I can see it in his eyes that this isn't something he feels like discussing, but he's going to give me an answer or I'm going to give him hell. "This was in place before the tower fell. Your slips towards insanity don't tilt it either way."

    "But your messing around is only going to make it worse," I send back at him.

    "You want things to stay the same," Farfarello tells me flatly, "but they can't. They've already changed."

    "They're done changing," I warn him.

    "That's enough, Schuldich," Crawford says.

    I slam my fists against the table and it shudders beneath the impact. I'm already leaning forward over it and I stare through the orange bangs that have fallen into my face to glower at Crawford. "You want me to fucking stabilize and I told you a week ago I'd try. I told you a week ago that I'd take a chance on you being right when you said it was possible to put things back together. I said I would *try*, Crawford, but you're going to fuck everything up if you waste your time with him."

    "Waste," Crawford echoes, and that soft tone is every bit a warning.

    "You saw what it did to my mind when I walked in on you," I continue, ignoring that interjection. "If you want this to work then maybe you should try to meet me halfway."

    "Maybe you can remember for just a moment, then, Schuldich, that up until a week ago you weren't going to try," Crawford says, and the hard edge to his tone is almost enough to give me pause. That's the voice Crawford uses when his patience has run out and he's about to switch to shooting people. "Up until a week ago you were fragile and helpless and you were overly focused on your doubts of ever recovering. Up until a week ago there wasn't a halfway because we were the only ones reaching out to you. This is not just about you."

    It's the truth, but that doesn't mean I have to listen. Things were ultimately different a week ago. A week ago I found out that Crawford has much more invested in Farfarello than he does in me, which means it gets me ever closer to being too much trouble to keep around. Why the fuck should they be happy if I'm not? Why are they in perfect shape when my gift is in ruined? Why don't they seem to care that Nagi's gone? Crawford's gone and sold us to Kritiker, of all things.

    I look past him at Farfarello, forgetting the precog in favor of my Talentless teammate. ~You remember what I told you,~ I send at him flatly, and I see his mouth thin to a hard line as he picks up on the words. ~You remember what I said. I meant it.~

    "Schuldich, look at me," Crawford says, but I keep my eyes on Farfarello.

    ~Your mind is embedded with my gift,~ I tell him. ~You don't have the shields Crawford has. Guess who's going to take the fall with me when my gift gives out?~

    There's a muted sort of anger in his stare as he glares across the room at me, but he doesn't have anything to offer up as a response to such a real threat. Farfarello's good with his knives but his skills won't mean anything if my gift eats my mind and takes him with it. He chose to walk away this morning when I let him have my throat, and he gets to live with that decision- every single unpleasant moment.

    He looks away, and I've never felt any victory more keenly. "Crawford," he says shortly, and he pushes away from the doorframe to disappear out of the room.

    Crawford lingers for almost a minute, staring me down across the table, before getting up and following Farfarello away. I'm left alone in the kitchen and I gaze at the doorway through hooded blue eyes. Fingers tangle in my orange hair as I toy with the memory of Crawford's face tinted orange through thick hair.

    Orange, hm?

    Orange is me, is mine. Everything orange belongs to me.

    Why should you get him, Farfarello? Why should you be happy? You don't fucking care that Nagi's dead or that we're working for Kritiker. You don't need him, not like I do. You'll never need him like I do. How is he going to be strong enough to help put my mind back together if he's distracted by you? You're already sane and you're already strong. You don't need anyone or anything. And maybe I hate that I've been kicked to a place where I can feel such a desperate need, but that doesn't mean I can change it.

    I feel a smile twisting on my lips and I jerk in my seat, bringing my foot up to drive my socked heel into the leg of the table. The table lurches, sways, and crashes loudly against the floor. I get to my feet and shove the chair after it before going to see what we can eat for dinner. I pull open the door to the freezer and gaze in at the frosted contents. One hand tugs on my hair and the fingers of the other trace Nagi's name onto the outside of the door.

    You died so we'd live, Nagi. So I'm going to live the only way I know how. You once referred to me as a parasite, so I'll be a parasite. I'm going to live. I remember what we were like before the tower fell. I finally remembered. I saw how much fun it was, how perfect it was, and if you chose to duck out early, well… You probably knew what you were going to do to my gift and you did it anyway.

    See, Nagi, I'm a parasite, but I'm a parasite on a very, very vital emotion: hate. It's been heating in my veins all day and I feel more alive now than I ever have. But I'll stop hating you for the time being. I'll find something new to hate. I always do.

    There's a footstep across the room and I look back to see Farfarello standing in the doorway. His expression is closed off as he stares at me, but even with the distance between us I can feel the tension radiating off of him.

    "One month. Get it together," he says, and then he's gone. I hear the front door slam just a few seconds later and I turn back to the freezer with a smile on my lips. Fingernails curve out a different name this time and I drag my nails down over it, tasting blood and salt and sand.

    "Don't do this to him," comes a quiet, hard voice from the doorway. I don't bother to look back at the precognitive, but I feel my smile spreading wider on my lips. Farfarello left and Crawford stayed with- for- me. "Not to him and not after everything your collapse has done to him."

    "That sort of favoritism shouldn't be allowed," I send back at him.

    "You are quite welcome to hate me for my decisions," Crawford tells me, as if I would ever focus my hate on him, "but that will not change the fact that I made them. He suggested we wait until your mind was better. I chose not to."

    "You were spitting out reassurances to me when you weren't sure of them yourself," I say to spare him the trouble. "And the little human part of you that said 'What if' also said 'Take advantage of it before it's too late'."

    "This conversation is over."

    "Just as easily as your relationship," I drawl.

    "I will not tolerate this sort of attitude and disrespect from you, Schuldich. If you want Schwarz, then you will have it as it was, which means you will remember that I am still in charge. Is that clear?"

    "Crystal," I answer easily, and I know Crawford's not satisfied with how the conversation went, but he still leaves and that's all that matters.

    You destroyed this team, Nagi. You destroyed me. But don't worry, I'll find a way to put it back together.


    For four days, there are never three of us in the house all at the same time. It's either Crawford or Farfarello here and never both of them, and they don't even pass each other as they come and go. I don't know what they do about sleeping quarters when they take turns spending the night out, but I don't really care. Their avoidance of both me and each other tells me I've won and that I'm going to win. I'm content to be ignored for four days because I spend those four days actively focusing on my hair and what we were before the tower. Hours go missing here and there but I stop counting them, deciding instead that the hours I remember are more important. I still have nightmares, but this time I wake up alone.

    On the fifth day, things seem normal again. When I make my way into the kitchen, Crawford and Farfarello are both there. Farfarello is watching the coffee pot while Crawford sits at the table with a newspaper. I lounge against the doorframe to consider them, idly moving hair into my face so that I can peer at Crawford through it.


    The coffee pot gurgles and Farfarello brings two mugs to the table. His expression is the same calm look I remember from before as he sets the cups neatly down, and he returns to nurse his own mug by the sink. One is left behind for Crawford and the other is near my empty seat. It's enough incentive to leave the doorway and I take my chair at last.

    "Kritiker has a job for us tonight," Crawford says now that we're all here and have caffeine close at hand. "It will require two of us. They would prefer three, but you'll be staying here." He finishes his article then and sets the newspaper to one side. His gaze is unreadable as he turns his attention to me and Farfarello watches us both from the counter.

    "Farfarello and I have been working with them individually these past several days," Crawford tells me, "but we are still conditional agents. These next few jobs will be important for us. Farfarello and I will secure their trust in us, but you have work of your own to do. Now that you have a focus and have shown yourself mostly flicker-free for four days now, we are going to start reintegrating you into the outside world. This is going to have to be done very carefully and there are several steps in between now and your first job with us."

    "Sounds fair," I answer.

    "Good," Crawford says. "Then you will accompany one of us to the grocery store tomorrow."

    "Not him." I wiggle my fingers at Farfarello. "If I'm triggered by being out in public and flicker, he's not strong enough to pull me free. He never has been."

    Crawford considers that for only a moment. "Then I will go," he says, "but you are to concentrate on your focus before relying on my shields to help you."

    I wave a hand in dismissal, not needing to be reminded of such a trivial thing, and we finish our coffee in silence. Farfarello disappears into the living room and Crawford goes to take the first shower. I stay in the kitchen until I hear the water cut on and then get to my feet and pad into the living room. Farfarello is sitting sideways in Crawford's chair and playing with one of his knives. I sit in his chair and slouch down, hooking one leg over a cushioned arm.

    "Four down, twenty-seven to go," I tell him.

    "I can do arithmetic."

    "Another big word," I note. Farfarello tunes me out. I recognize that look on his face that means he's going to ignore me, but that doesn't work anymore now that he can hear me. "Suppose he'll still want you in four weeks?" I want to know. Farfarello doesn't answer, so I turn my gaze towards the wall. I can hear the pipes humming as water runs through them and try and imagine Crawford standing under the spray. I've seen him shirtless often enough that it's an easy enough mental image and I focus on it to make sure Farfarello picks up on it.

    Maybe if Farfarello was smarter, he'd keep his mouth shut because he knows speaking up will only encourage me. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't think before he speaks. "Stop it," he warns me.

    "I'll think about whatever I want to think about," I tell him. "Stop being so territorial. He belongs to both of us."

    "Not like that."

    "Maybe not now," I answer with a shrug, and Farfarello flicks a look my way. "You don't need him. Give him to me, Farfarello."


    "Territorial *and* selfish."

    His hand moves and I see the light flicker along his blade, but he stops himself before he can throw it at me. Maybe he knows that even a warning shot could turn into a hit when fueled by his anger. It's funny that he won't even risk it and I smile at him.

    "You should have killed me when I gave you the chance," I tell him. "If you won't give him to me, then I'll take him from you."

    "You don't know how," Farfarello tells me flatly.

    "You don't need him."

    "You need him too much."

    "That's just how things turned out."

    Farfarello pushes himself out of his chair and I watch him as he starts for the door. "Retreating again," I mock him. "Why don't you stay and fight?"

    "You're a pathetic opponent," he sends back, jerking to a halt near my chair to turn an acid look on me. "Everything about you is."

    "But you didn't kill me, and that was your decision. So why'd you make it? Why didn't you kill me when you wanted to? It's not like you to bow your head against the leash that chokes you." I smile up at him again, every inch of it scorn. "I suppose it's just habit from bowing your head to him, but you won't be doing that anymore."

    I don't see Farfarello move, but I feel the unyielding ground as it slams into me. It takes a dizzying moment to realize his hit threw me off the chair and that the ground wasn't what moved; it certainly hit hard enough that he could have picked it up and beat me with it. It takes two tries to suck air in and I push myself up into a sitting position.

    Farfarello's already crouching at my side and white fingers knot in my hair to jerk my head back. His blade bites a line through my throat; I can feel the familiar sting of a shallow cut. "Get over this," he warns me. "Get over yourself. You want to fix it, so fix it, but fix it on your own. I want no part of your madness."

    "Then you should have killed me."

    "Do you want to die?" he asks, and he pulls my head further back by my hair even as he pushes the knife up harder. The pull keeps him from severing a few vital arteries but it's not enough to keep the cut from deepening. I feel blood bead up against quickly warming metal and smirk up into Farfarello's face. "We already lost one teammate. We chose not to lose another."

    "I'm glad it was that easy for you."

    Something twists on his face. I don't know if it's incredulity, resentment, or hatred. Maybe it's all of them, but I only catch a glimpse and it's not enough to decipher it. Just that glance and I'm already moving again, pushed forward by the hand in my hair. His knife ducks safely out of the way and he slams my face hard against the carpet. The carpet is rough against my skin, rough like sand along a cruel beach, and I inhale a lungful of salt water.

    I wake up in my dark room, gasping for breath and scrubbing desperately at my face to get the sand out of my nose and eyes. My heartbeat is thudding as loud as ocean waves in my ears as I struggle to calm down, and at last I find my gaze drawn to my nightstand. My clock shines back at me that it's half past three, but the numbers are blurry through the cup of juice that was left there at some point while I was asleep. I throw both the cup and clock across the room.

Part 6
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