Part Six

    Seven days.

    Seven days out of three weeks.

    I can feel a muscle in my jaw twitch as I stare out the car window at the grocery store. In the driver's seat, Crawford takes the key out of the ignition and looks at me. I can see his faint reflection on my window but I can feel his stare easier than that. A minute drags between us before I finally reach out and pop open the door. He follows me out into the parking lot and I close the car door with a foot. Crawford's door slams almost in time with mine and he starts for the front doors. Keys jangle softly as they're tucked inside a pocket and I fold my arms tightly across my chest and follow him.

    Seven. Seven out of twenty-two days are all that I have.

    Crawford's waiting on the curb for me and hands me a hand basket. I try not to clench my fingers around the handle and instead offer him a smirk I don't feel or believe. He searches my gaze, either checking what's showing around my smile or checking his visions for this visit. Whatever he finds- if he finds anything at all- he keeps to himself. Without a word he turns around and steps through the sliding glass doors. I have no choice but to take a deep breath and follow.

    I recognize the cashier at the register closest to the door and she flicks me a nervous look. I turn the ice in my smile up a notch and she looks quickly away, returning to her job. I, in turn, do my job and follow Crawford down the first aisle. Fried food stands line the left and milk and juices are on a cold aisle to the right. Crawford picks up a milk carton and puts it in the hand basket I'm carrying. I adjust it and tell myself it's not nervous fidgeting.

    It's the same path we've followed every other time we've come here. He always starts on the same side of the store, always picks up milk first, always. It's not one of his ridiculous obsessive compulsive habits; it's him trying to build a routine for me out of the rubble. This is our twelfth trip here in these three weeks, and I have yet to make it all the way through and home.

    Twelve trips out to this stupid grocery store, me and Crawford, and no matter how far I've come since the first one- where my mind gave out just a few streets away from our house- I still can't do it all the way. I have a focus and I have Crawford and it's still not enough. I go shopping with Crawford and then I find myself waking up in my room or coming back to myself in the kitchen, staring at the fridge.

    It's getting really, really old.

    What am I doing wrong? What am I doing wrong that is dragging me down like this?

    Milk. Juice. Meat. Bread. It's all in the same damn order and I just follow behind Crawford. These trips of ours are silent now. I don't know if it's because talking breaks a routine when every trip can't have the same conversation, or if Crawford is just so sick of dealing with this and me that he has given up on being civil and conversational. He's the only one I've seen in the seven days I've been aware. Farfarello has been out doing work with Kritiker, though I know Crawford has to be with him when I'm out of it. I'm glad for the absence, even if my collapses mean I can't keep an eye on those two. That pisses me off more than anything.

    We finish our trip with the fruit. Crawford picks up Farfarello's peaches and tucks six into a bag. He hands it to me and moves down the line, and I squeeze all of them before tucking them into the cart, hurrying them towards their bruising and rotting. I meet Crawford at the cash register and we're rung up, and we take the groceries towards the car.

    I put the bags in back and get in the passenger seat, and Crawford gets in beside me and turns the key in the ignition. I sit tense in my chair on the drive, one hand tangled in my hair as I watch the streets go by. They're familiar and tainted, the same they've always been but somehow changed. Bit by bit they're more familiar, and we're on our street. I don't realize until Crawford parks the car and takes the key out of the ignition that we really are back.

    I look over at him and he looks back at me.

    At last- at last- he offers me a faint smile. I haven't seen it in weeks and I feel something clench in my gut at the sight of it. Relief? Need? I don't try and give it a name because Crawford's talking. "Congratulations," he says, very simple, almost quiet, but sincere.

    I flash my teeth at him behind a smirk. "Fuck yeah."

    I feel *good* as I tote the bags inside, and even if Crawford doesn't help with the bags, he does hold the door and that's enough. I kick off my shoes at the door just to hear the noise it makes and Crawford doesn't call me to order, just neatly steps out of his own. Farfarello's boots aren't at the door but Farfarello has a habit of wearing them inside the house anyway. I hope he's not here. As long as I'm sane and aware and at home where there's not so much a risk of flickering anymore, I want to have Crawford to myself.

    I put the groceries away how I want to do them and mess up the magnets on the fridge just to watch Crawford put them back in order. He does so with neat precision and goes to start the coffee pot. I watch the amount of grinds he puts in and look at the clock.

    "He's home?" I guess, and I don't bother to keep the annoyance out of my voice.

    "I only take you out when he is here," Crawford answers. "I will let him know we are here."

    I move in his way when he starts for the door. "Try not to ruin things, Crawford. I just went to the supermarket and came back again. The least you could do is stay here with me."

    He offers my smirk a calm look. "You succeeded today after weeks of trying," he says. "You've shown marked improvement each time we go out. You have cleared the hurdle that keeps you from going out into society and I am confident your success there means you will have no problems with other such stores or going out on your own. You will have a chance to prove this when I send you out to find dinner alone tonight."

    I can feel a bit of my sense of accomplishment crumbling but I refuse to let it show on my face. He wants me out in Tokyo alone? Who does he think he's kidding? "We just bought groceries."

    "You're going to go find takeout," he tells me.

    "You're a pain in the ass."

    "You'll be fine," he assures me, and starts to take a step around me.

    I move in his way, planting my hands on his hips. "Don't shrug me off."

    "Further questions can wait until the coffee is done."

    "You could just wait here until it's done," I point out. "Why do you have to run off to see Farfarello? He heard the car but he chose not to come out and say hello. Leave him alone; he likes being alone." I lift my chin a little in defiance and try to thaw a little of the ice out of my smile. "I've only been awake seven days this month. Are you really that sick of me already?"

    "This is not always about you."

    "Right, it's about getting Farfarello's ass. I forgot."

    "You're out of line, Schuldich."

    "I'm drawing myself a new one that's more appropriate. Can't you see it?"

    "As Schwarz and your teammate, I am proud of your ability to buy a few groceries and stay sane," Crawford tells me, and I can feel myself bristling at the words. He says them so calmly, but the sincerity from the car is gone and I know this neat tone of Crawford's all too well. Out of everyone I know, he's the best at making supposed praise into a chastisement. "However, you are still too blind to understand this situation fully and you've made no efforts to. Step aside."

    "Then enlighten me," I tell him, moving in his way a third time when he tries to step around me. "Tell me what I'm missing, all-seeing eye who couldn't even see the tower fall, who couldn't even see Nagi's death."



    "I will tell you just once more to step aside," he says, every word a quiet warning. "If you do not move, I will move you."

    "Then move me," I invite him. "You're not a telekinetic, which means you have to touch me to move me. If you'll touch that sort of madman, why won't you touch this sort?" I reach out, planting a hand against his abdomen. "He doesn't need you."

    His hand clamps down around my wrist and I have to move with it when he twists it, pulling it up to bend my arm at an angle that sets fire to my shoulder. I feel the pain and recognize it, but it's muted against the feel of his fingertips against my skin, against the way I have to stare up at him through my hair from where I followed his pull.


    I glower at him. "You know he's a fucking psycho. Everyone knows it. That was his selling point for Schwarz."

    "But his insanity isn't tearing apart my team," Crawford reminds me. "Yours is."

    "Fuck the team."

    The coffee pot gurgles. "Get our mugs down," Crawford says, and he pushes me to one side and leaves the room. Only after he's stepped out do I really feel the pain in my arm and the freed muscles are jumping in little spasms. My hand is trembling as I rub carefully at my wrist and I gaze across the room at the coffee maker where it's going quiet.

    I don't hear Crawford knock on Farfarello's door. Not a single knock. I just hear the knob turn and the door click shut behind him.


    I refuse.

    I won't allow that.

    I cross the room in four strides and dump the coffee down the drain, then stuff the coffee pot in the nearest cabinet. The maker is unplugged and shoved into the sink and I'm across the room again, shoulder glancing the doorframe as I turn too sharply into the hall. Four bedrooms and a bathroom, and every door is shut. I go straight to Farfarello's and press myself against it, listening. I can't hear anything for several seconds, and then there's a creak. Bedsprings.

    I twist the knob and push the door open, knowing that what I'm going to see could send me flickering. But Crawford and Farfarello aren't in bed together, though they are on the far side of the bed. Farfarello is kneeling on the floor and propped against the bed, one arm stretched out across the mattress and the other bent so his hands are tangled in his hair. His eye is closed and his head is lolled against white bed sheets the way only sleeping people can loll. Crawford, standing behind him, is leaning over with a hand on his shoulder. He looks up at my entrance but Farfarello doesn't budge.

    "What are you doing?" I demand.

    "Getting him off the floor," he answers calmly, and he goes back to his work. He gets an arm around Farfarello's chest and lifts him some, enough that Farfarello's fingers slide free of his hair. His arm hits the mattress like a dead thing and Crawford shifts his grip a little. I lean against the doorframe, arms crossed over my chest and fingers drumming out an agitated rhythm on my sleeves, and eye them.

    "Why?" I ask at length.

    "Because I'm masochistic," he says, and I scowl at him for such a nonsense answer.

    "Just leave him there."

    "The coffee, Schuldich."

    "Fuck the coffee." I kick the doorframe next to me, forgetting I've taken off my shoes, and the pain has me grabbing at my foot and swearing harshly.

    The bang is what wakes Farfarello, which is stupid, because he *should* have woken up the first moment Crawford stepped into his room, or at least when Crawford touched him. He comes awake with a lurch and Crawford just barely avoids getting an elbow in his face. It takes Farfarello half a second to recognize me in the doorway and he goes still, glancing over his shoulder at Crawford. Crawford arches an eyebrow at him and Farfarello plants his hands against the mattress to get his own balance. As soon as he has his footing he shoves Crawford's arms roughly away, but he doesn't straighten. Instead he settles heavily on his bed and slouches back against the head board.

    "Did it work?" he wants to know.

    "It worked," Crawford answers.

    Farfarello thinks on that for a while and then glances my way. I offer him a black look but he doesn't work up anything more than a blank mask to offer me, and then he slides across the bed in my direction and gets to his feet. I don't miss the way he plants an arm against the wall for balance, even if it's just for a moment. Then he's starting towards the door and Crawford is coming around the bed to follow him. I push myself off the doorframe to stand in the middle of the doorway, a neat little barricade.

    "Move," Farfarello warns me, "or I'll move you."

    I smile at him. "You're barely staying upright," I tell him. "How will you move me?"

    He shows me with a foot in my gut just a heartbeat later, but even as I crash into the wall behind me, Farfarello has to grab at the doorframe to stay standing. More fun than watching him fight for his balance is seeing the hand that comes up over his mouth as he stumbles and I can see his entire body give a small lurch. Looks like someone's sick. My smile is so wide it hurts.

    Crawford, standing behind him, offers him neither a hand nor more than a considering look, but he's still watching him. Farfarello pushes himself out of the doorway and vanishes down the hall to the bathroom and I smirk up at Crawford as he steps out into the hall.

    "Should have let him sleep."

    He closes Farfarello's door behind him and says nothing to me. He goes to the kitchen and I take up residence in the living room, sitting in his chair, and listen to cabinet doors open and shut as Crawford finds everything to start another pot of coffee. The second pot is done before I hear Farfarello's footsteps in the hallway and I get up from my seat to join them in the kitchen, not wanting them alone together. Crawford says nothing to Farfarello, who says nothing to him. I watch from just inside the doorway as they ignore each other, but it's not really ignoring. The way they move so easily around each other as Farfarello finds the mugs just in time for Crawford to pour the coffee, giving Farfarello enough time to find a peach in the fridge and close the fridge door before he takes his mug…

    They're not ignoring each other at all, and I grind a few layers off my teeth at that realization. I say nothing about it but take my own coffee, and we sit down at the table in silence to nurse our drinks. We've just about finished up when Crawford says, "I want your report."

    His words come out of nowhere and with little explanation, but Farfarello understands. He answers with an "Mm" into his last sip of coffee, and then he drops his mug off on the counter and leaves. Crawford doesn't watch him go. Crawford doesn't have to, because he already knows where Farfarello's going. Crawford never has to watch Farfarello, because he understands. They were never ignoring each other, even back in the days where they never acknowledged that the other was there. It was never disdain; it was never apathy. It was some sort of respect, from one alpha male to the other. Finding that out now is a bit of a sucker punch.

    "He'd better not be contagious," I tell Crawford, heavily annoyed by their little trick.

    "I wouldn't worry about it," Crawford answers.

    "That's a shitty ass answer, Crawford."

    "That's life," he tells me, and the firm tone of his voice says this conversation is over.

    He sets his mug on the counter and leaves, and I watch him go. I hear their voices in the living room as they talk and offer the doorway a sneer.


    I get to my feet, leaving my mug behind, and go over to the fridge to stare at the groceries I helped buy. My groceries. My food. I went out and bought these and came back. I'm a large step closer to being balanced, a large step away from where I was a month ago. It'll be weeks more, surely, before I can go on jobs with them, but—I adjusted. I can do this. Bit by bit, I have to.


    I open up the fruit drawer and pull out the bag of peaches we bought, spinning the bag this way and that to watch them blur together. I spread my fingers and let the bag fall, and one socked foot crushes them all through the plastic. The hard pits dig into my foot but I push down harder, forcing the flesh to burst, forcing it all to turn to mush.

    He can't have these. He can't have these anymore. They're orange. Not the right orange, but orange. Everything orange is mine.

    The strings that tie Schwarz together get more fragile by the day, but as long as that string between Crawford and Farfarello snaps, I don't think I care.

Part 7
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