Two months earlier
I wake up choking on salt water. Sand tears open my hands and arms even as I'm jerking upright in bed, and I sit up so fast I fall off the mattress. I hit the floor knees first and elbows second and I'm gagging against the floor. Smooth wood is cool from the air conditioning and nicer against my lips than the shore was when I was thrown face-first into the shallows. Fingernails scrabble over its polished surface as I heave and I realize the crashing of waves in my ears is my own desperate, ragged breathing.
It's still another minute before I can calm down, and I push myself up onto my knees with unsteady hands. There's a thick sliver of light across my room that runs over one leg and up onto my bed and I tilt my head to one side, following its path to the door. Farfarello is leaning against the door frame, arms folded across his chest.
My throat is parched from the memory of salt and my words come out hoarser than I mean them to: "I wake you?"
"No," he answers, and he pushes open the door with a foot. A glass of juice dangles from one hand and he crosses the room to bring it to me. Just the sight of it has my stomach twisting and I turn my face away when he holds it out in offering. In the dark, apple juice and water look the same, and I don't want water anywhere near me. I've had enough to last a lifetime.
Farfarello waits in silence for me to take it and at last the crumbling in my throat forces me to reach up for it. I imagine my lips splitting open under the tang of its flavor and I taste blood. It adds salt to the sour and suddenly everything's salt water and blood again.
Fingers clench in my hair and Farfarello gives my head a shake. "It's juice," he says flatly.
I reach up, presumably to knock his hand away, but my hand forgets to shove after it grabs hold of his wrist. I force myself to choke down the blood and eventually it's apple juice again. I set the empty cup down on the floor and Farfarello leans over to pluck it up. I wipe my mouth with the side of my hand and force myself to let go of his wrist. He straightens and taps his fingernails against the glass and I can feel his eye on me. It's a heavy enough weight that I feel my skin crawl. At last he turns and starts away and only when his back is to me can I find my voice again.
"What time is it?" I ask.
"Late," he answers, and he pauses in the doorway with his hand on the knob. He sends me a questioning look over his shoulder and I shake my head, so he leaves it open when he goes. I listen to the soft padding of his feet down the hall to the kitchen and push myself to my feet. I know my arms are healed now but I check them just the same, searching for blood and scratches. Unmarked skin stares back at me and I scratch my fingernails down my forearms, feeling the ghosts of scabs that fell off a week ago.
Blue eyes seek out the clock on my nightstand and find it to be half past three. I turn the clock over with a sharp smack of my hand and abandon the shadows of my room for the light of the hall. I give the knob a half-hearted tug as I go and listen to it creak as it falls short of clicking shut. Down the hall I can hear the television, but the closer sounds are from the kitchen. I look the other way down the hall, gaze sweeping past the darkness of the bathroom and Crawford's closed door, down to the door at the far back that will never open again.
I feel a shudder work its way down my spine and into my guts, and I press my hand against my mouth. Unsteady feet take me towards the kitchen and I prop myself against the wood of the doorframe. My teeth leave bloody marks on my hand and I stare over my knuckles to where Farfarello is rinsing my glass. I count three mugs.
/Crawford?/ I ask Farfarello.
"You were broadcasting again," he answers. "He'll be up."
I hear the click down the hall before he's finished and wince, stepping further into the kitchen without looking back. I make it to the table before Crawford joins us and Farfarello flicks his fingers towards the coffee pot where it's brewing by the stove. Crawford says nothing to that but moves up to the table alongside me, and I flick him a sideways glance. For someone who was just woken up by a telepath's nightmare, he gives the impression that he was planning to be up at this time. Crawford doesn't let us see him when he's not looking his best. I have to guess that he was in shoddy shape when the tower fell, but I remember only scattered snatches of that time. My mind was too busy imploding as Nagi's mind was wrenched from our link.
"Good morning," Crawford says when I have nothing to offer him.
"Is it?" I ask, looking away.
"Morning?" Crawford asks. "Very much so."
I don't bother to correct him; I know he knows what I meant. I listen to the TV in the new silence between us, trying to figure out what Farfarello was watching, but it's temporarily drowned out as the coffee maker gurgles. Farfarello fills the mugs and Crawford goes to take his. Farfarello hands it over neatly, white and peach fingers careful not to touch on the blue ceramic, and then brings mine to me. I debate whether or not to sit at the table and pull a chair out to help the debate. It doesn't do much and I'm left with a mug in one hand and a chair back in the other.
Farfarello leaves the room, returning to his program, and I feel Crawford's eyes on me. "We're going to have to fix that," he says.
I answer him with silence and forget the chair in favor of my coffee. There's no mistaking this for anything else, not blood or seawater or anything. It's just a blackish liquid mess that burns on the way down. I feel my eyes sting as I take several deep gulps and then Crawford is pulling it away from me. I let him take it and press my numb tongue to the roof of my mouth. My whole mouth hurts.
I want to tell him I don't know where to start, but the words have burned to ash somewhere beneath the boiling coffee I swallowed. I just nod and Crawford puts my mug down on the table. I listen to his feet against the floor as he leaves to join Farfarello in the other room and at last I sit down in the chair I pulled out. I pick up my mug with careful fingers and watch the coffee rock back and forth inside. Before I know it, my hands are moving, helping keep up the rocking, and then there are small waves across the surface. They lap up against the dark blue walls and some splashes out to burn my fingers.
Drip drip drip against the table top.
Four weeks ago Schwarz had everything, but then we reached too far. We wanted what Estet wanted: a world for ourselves. We wanted a world of our own making, a world free from people like Estet and Rosenkreuz and Kritiker, a place where we could do whatever the hell we wanted. We were so, so close. So very close.
I'm laughing suddenly and it hurts to laugh through a scorched throat. I hear something shatter and realize it was my mug, hurled across the room. Its pieces are crackling out in every direction like sharp fireworks and my coffee has left a stain on the cabinets. Streams of it run down the old wood to drip against the linoleum floor and all I can hear is that dripping. I clap my hands against my ears to tune it out and my fingernails break the skin along my skull. Drip drip drip and I jerk in my chair so hard that my knees hit the underside of the table.
Tumbling end over end over end and into water so cold it feels like falling against a solid chunk of metal. Sinking and sinking and then everything rips—
Sand and salt and NAGI—?!
Two hands are on mine, fingers digging into mine, and I feel the weight and warmth of elbows on my shoulders. There's a chin on my head and a line of heat against my back. I don't remember someone falling with me in the sea but it doesn't matter because his voice is in my head, twisting through my thoughts with a quiet intensity that has never failed to instill calm in this chaos.
~You have to come down from this,~ Crawford tells me. ~That's over, Schuldich. Find something else to hold onto.~
'I can't,' I want to say. I can't I can't I can't.
~You can,~ is his firm response. ~You have to.~
His shields press up against my mind and I lean back into them, needing that stability like I need air. I focus on those walls until at last water gives way to memory. Crawford holds on as I fight to drag myself back. It's a slow fight but at last I can focus on the room. Farfarello is across the room, pressing paper towel into the puddle my coffee made. I never heard him enter to start cleaning but I suppose it doesn't matter. All that matters is that these two are here, that the final pillars to my sanity are still breathing and well. My fingers relax against my head and I can feel Crawford's heartbeat in the palms of his hands where they're touching me.
"This isn't working," I say quietly.
"It has to," Crawford tells me. "One day at a time."
He doesn't let go. Maybe he can sense just how fragile my grip is right now. Maybe he needs this warmth, too, but that's ridiculous. Crawford needs nothing, least of all a half-mad telepath.
I listen to ceramic clink together as Farfarello sweeps the mess up and a part of me says that I should offer to get it. The words don't materialize and I settle for watching him instead. He gets all of the pieces and throws them away before joining us at the table. His gaze is distant as he studies my face and he lets his gaze travel up, considering mine and Crawford's hands before turning his attention on Crawford's face. I wonder if he's weirded-out by the idea of Crawford being the one to dole out physical comfort, but I don't really care.
"At least now we only have three blue mugs," he says. "The fourth was useless."
I bare my teeth at him and he just offers me a bored shrug.
Four weeks ago we had everything. Then again, four weeks ago there were four of us, too.
Four weeks ago we tried to one-up Estet and we failed. Not completely, sure, because the Elders still died. But Schwarz isn't Schwarz anymore, not really. Nagi died to shield us on the way down, giving up everything he had left of his gift to make sure we lived. Unfortunately, things aren't that simple, not with telepaths in the mix. We survived the fall but it's the aftermath that's taking its hardest toll on us. Estet isn't the threat anymore; Kritiker means nothing to us. Right now the one hovering on the edge of bringing Schwarz down is me.
I have a gift that's constantly trying to tear my mind apart. Years ago, when I decided I could really trust my teammates, I anchored myself to them. Three shielded minds in close proximity to me meant that I could have a spider web of sorts for my gift to stand on. When Nagi died, he yanked my footing out from under me, and my mind did everything it could to keep itself from shorting out. The only thing it could do was take the backlash from Nagi's mind and cement me to my remaining teammates. My gift is gone, now, unable to work outside of our minds. Within our minds, though, the balance is still off. My teammates used to be able to shield themselves against my power, but they can't now. Every twist and drop my gift takes threatens to take all of us down with it and I don't know how to fix it.
Schwarz lost a lot more than its dreams that day. It lost its telekinetic, its telepath, and all hopes for a strong future. I was unconscious for three weeks after Nagi's mind winked out of existence and I took my teammates with me. Ambulance workers going to investigate the chaos by the sea found us and brought us to the hospital, and Crawford checked us out when we woke up. We've spent the last week trying to adjust to the way everything has so completely changed around us, but it's a bitter thing to swallow. Nagi's gone, I'm little more than a dead mind, and Farfarello and Crawford are saddled with a half-mad teammate.
"We're going to fix this," Crawford says. I don't know if he's talking to me or Farfarello or both of us.
I wonder if he believes it, because I sure don't.
"I need to eat something," I say, though I'm not feeling at all hungry. It's just the first thing that comes to mind and I grab it and spit it out, needing something to distract me from Crawford's empty promises. It's an eerie thing to not believe Crawford's word, because I've gotten this far in life by believing him. Then again, Crawford's word got us to the tower by the sea.
"Every god has his flaws," Farfarello speaks up.
I grimace, tasting blood and bile even as Crawford's pulling away. It makes my skin crawl to know that my gift is working the opposite way it used to. The shields in their minds keep me from picking up much from them, but with my gift twisting and breaking like it did, it recognizes my ties to their minds as easily as it does the ties within my own. They hear me a lot more than I hear them. Fortunately for me, Farfarello hears me more than Crawford does- our precog's mind is too well-protected to absorb most of my thoughts.
"Even yours?" I ask Farfarello.
"More than the rest," he answers, and he toes open the fridge to show me its contents. It's practically bare, just a few cans of beer in one corner and some lunchmeat in the rest, and then Tupperware storing the remains of last night's dinner. I don't even remember what we ate. I don't remember eating. Maybe that's my serving in there, but I can't dredge up any sort of interest in figuring out what it is.
"Beer," I decide.
"That's not food," Crawford tells me.
"Really?" I feign surprise. Farfarello's already tossing a can to me and I catch it from the air. He pushes the fridge shut and leaves the room, done with babysitting me for the night. Crawford takes the chair across from mine, deciding to sit with me considering how quickly I slipped when he first tried to leave the room. I focus on drinking my beer and ignoring him, and it's another hour before I decide to go back to bed.
As I shuffle down the hall towards my room I hear the television turn off, and a glance over my shoulder as I push my way into my bedroom shows Farfarello going back into the kitchen at last. I shut the door to close out my teammates and the hall light and promptly stub my toe on my dresser. Breath hisses through my teeth as I limp over to my bed and I let myself fall against it, feeling the coolness of the sheets on my face.
I don't bother to pull the covers up over me and instead lie there like that until I fall asleep.
I gaze in at the fridge, one hand on the door and the other buried in the pocket of my pajama pants. Blue eyes consider the three shelves that I'm sure were bare yesterday but are covered with food today. Drinks fill the left side, from those little coffee drinks Farfarello's become addicted to, to juice, to milk, and so on. The other side has fruits and marinades and random other things that I can recognize as food even if I can't name. It means Farfarello filled the fridge, because only he divides a fridge's contents in such a way. Crawford and I – and Nagi – are sane enough to reserve each shelf for certain things.
The important thing isn't his quirky brand of obsessive compulsiveness, however, but the fact that there's food here at all. There wasn't any last night, and even that Tupperware of leftovers is gone.
"That was two nights ago," a calm voice says behind me, and I flick a quick look over my shoulder. Farfarello is sitting slouched in a chair by the table, boots propped up on the wood as he picks at his nails with a knife.
I close the fridge, losing interest in it. "How long have you been there?" I want to know.
"Does it matter?" he asks, and he quirks an eyebrow without looking up from his work.
I move to the coffee pot and find it empty. I started it when I entered the room, but there's nothing there now and the pot has grown cold. I feel my throat clench as I pull open the top to start a new pot and there's the solid thunk of metal in wood.
"It's in the microwave," Farfarello tells me.
I look back at him where he's buried his knife in the tabletop and then past him to the microwave. I'm not sure I want to know what he's talking about. I feel sick and dizzy already and I claw at the back of my hand, trying to wake myself from this dream. Farfarello pulls his knife free and buries it in the same spot, and finally he looks up to meet my gaze.
"It's in the microwave," he says again. "You left it out and forgot about it."
I cross the room on wary feet and open the door. A blue mug is inside, filled with coffee. It's hot.
"What's going on?" I want to know.
"You're flickering," Farfarello answers, as easily as he would tell me that it's raining out. "Quit triggering yourself."
"I'm not-" I slam the microwave door shut and whirl on him.
He's not there anymore. The rest of the angry denial is forgotten and I turn back on the microwave, wanting caffeine, wanting anything that'll snap me out of this. A hard poke of my thumb against the button has the door swinging open, but it's empty inside.
I grab the microwave in both hands and give it a hard yank, hearing the cord pop out of its plug somewhere behind the cabinet. I'm already turning, ready to throw it, but two hands are waiting there to stop it. Crawford grunts a little at the impact and I freeze with the microwave trapped between us. It's shaking. My first thought is that it's an earthquake. A moment later I realize it's me.
Crawford takes the microwave out of my limp fingers. "Just go to bed," he tells me. "Sleep it off."
Sand and salt and blood and I'm jerking awake in bed. I feel the room lurch around me and I clutch at my mattress to keep from falling off. Gasping breaths aren't quite enough to give me back the air I lost in the fall to the ocean. My clock tells me it's half past three in the morning and I turn it upside down with a slap of my hand before getting out of bed. Fingers twist knots into the strings of my pajama pants and I stumble down the hall for the kitchen. I make a detour to the sink and heave my guts into it. It tastes a lot like sand.
A cup is set down beside me. When I manage to stop choking I turn on the sink and look up to see Crawford standing beside me.
"Is it morning?" I want to know.
"Afternoon," he answers.
It's enough to thaw the ice in my veins and I drink the water he offered me. I try and swallow that eerie dream with every gulp. It's made easier by the way Crawford's watching me drink; his heavy stare makes me wonder what I've done wrong. He takes the cup back from me when I'm finished and goes to set it in the dishwasher, and I look towards the doorway when I realize Farfarello has joined us. He's propped against the doorframe as he gazes in at me and I don't like the distant look in his eye.
"You need to eat something," Crawford tells me.
I realize that I'm hungry for the first time in days and nod, reaching for the fridge. Farfarello sighs at the doorway and that's almost enough to distract me, because Farfarello doesn't sigh. It's almost enough, but I'm already opening the fridge.
It's full, and neatly arranged the way Farfarello likes it. The only difference from my dream is that several of the peaches and coffee drinks are gone.
I feel my stomach tear into shreds and slide down my legs into my toes. "It wasn't a dream," I say softly.
"We're going to fix this," Crawford says.
I throw the bottle of juice at him, but he catches it neatly from the air and sets it on the counter. I slam the fridge closed and stalk towards the exit, and Farfarello slides back into the hall to let me pass. I lock myself in the bathroom and turn on the shower, and I do my best to drown myself until the water runs cold.
I trace Nagi's name into the steam on the bathroom mirror and put my fist through it.
The first aid kit is waiting on my bed when I return to my room. I ignore it in favor of bleeding all over my sheets.
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