Part Three

    I'm eating lunch when my teammates come back. One hand tears my sandwich into shreds as I sit slouched in Crawford's chair in the living room, but the sound of a car engine growing louder and cutting off alerts me to their arrival. I gather my shreds into a pile in the middle of my plate and get to my feet, padding out of the living room before they open the front door. Crawford has this thing about eating in the living room that I don't get. He lets us take drinks out there and I don't see how that's any different from food; coffee would make just as big a mess on that gray carpet.

    I prop myself against the wall as the knob turns and my teammates step back into our flat. Farfarello's first, his small overnight bag held in place on one shoulder by pale fingers. He arches an eyebrow at me when he sees me up and waiting for them but keeps moving wordlessly down the hall to let Crawford come in. The American pushes the door shut behind him and follows Farfarello towards me. Farfarello stops behind me and Crawford a short distance to my front, and I meet the precognitive's gaze with an almost defiant look on my face.

    "He seems sane," Farfarello says.

    "He is," Crawford answers, and he offers me the faintest smile of approval.

    It's an expression I was looking for, an acknowledgement I'd needed. I don't relax the look on my face, not wanting him to see my reaction to his smile, and instead answer "For now," and turn to head towards the kitchen. Farfarello tilts his head to one side, offering me a look that's a little too knowing, and I ignore him. "Did it work?" I want to know, and they follow me into the kitchen. Their bags are set down against one wall and Farfarello sits across from me while Crawford starts a pot of coffee.

    "It will work," Crawford answers, and I frown at him for that change in wording. "Kritiker and its headpiece are skeptical, but they also can see the logic behind us turning to them for employment. They've seen what we can do on the field and they can't afford to pass up our power or influence, so they will take us on as conditional agents. We will be monitored, of course, but they will like what they see. Our first job is this upcoming weekend. Kritiker will send a representative with us to report on our performance."

    I consider that as I start eating my sandwich again, but it's hard to think when Farfarello's watching me. I turn my gaze from Crawford to him, meeting his gaze steadily. One day I'd like to know how he can outstare so many people with just one eye. I quirk an eyebrow at him in a question and his gaze drops to my sandwich.

    "Make your own," I tell him. Crawford glances over, noting the two of us at the table, and sets the coffee pot to brew. I look up from Farfarello as the American heads over to the fridge. "Did you not stop somewhere to eat?" I ask, and I can't stop myself from wondering if they came straight back here just in case I was off my rocker. Surely Farfarello's mind would be an indicator, since he's got the clearer view of my mind and gift.

    "No," Crawford answers. "We weren't hungry."

    I find myself grinning a little at the thought of the two talking about something so ordinary as whether or not to eat lunch when they used to talk about nothing at all. It's an amusing mental image and I look back at Farfarello, letting him see the amusement in my eyes to go with whatever he can hear from me. "I'm proud of you two for not killing each other," I drawl.

    "I'm sure he thought about it," Crawford says.

    "Hand," Farfarello says.

    I blink at him, not really seeing where that fits in with this conversation. Crawford is setting deli meat on the counter for what seems to be another sandwich, but Farfarello's non sequitur catches his attention as well.

    "Your hand," Farfarello clarifies. I frown at him, but show him my hand just the same. He gives me a look that says he has little patience for my stupidity. "The other one."

    I look down at the table and realize only one hand is resting against the wood. The other is sitting on my lap, and I lift it up. My fingers are curled into a fist and only now that Farfarello's pointed it out do I realize my fingers hurt from being clenched so tightly. It hurts more to uncurl them and I'm left to stare at a crumpled piece of white paper. I realize what it is just as Farfarello catches my wrist, and I'm too late in trying to pull away.

    "Let go," I warn him, clamping my fingers down around his as he makes a grab for it with his free hand. "Let go. Mind your own business. I'm fucking stable and that's all that matters."

    Farfarello doesn't look pleased at all. "The deal was that you focused on something else," he reminds me flatly. "Something of your own. This won't work if you're holding onto us."

    "Let the fuck go."

    He gives my wrist a harsh wrench that brings me up out of my chair. I'm spitting obscenities even as I claw at his hand, but the pain knifing its way down my arm has me loosening my grip on the paper. He snags it and I grab at it, but I only manage to claw skin off his knuckles.

    "The deal was to find something of your own," he insists again, scooting his chair back when I make another grab at him. I'm about to come up over the table after him when I realize Crawford has moved up behind Farfarello, and the sight of the American is enough to stop me in my tracks.

    Crawford holds out a hand and Farfarello passes the crumpled paper over. I watch Crawford unfold it with the taste of bile on my tongue and my mind twists bile into Farfarello's blood in violent anger. It gives way to salt and sand too quickly and I throw a handful of sandwich shreds across the table into Farfarello's face. He is not at all amused, but Crawford's hand on his shoulder stops him before he can reach for something a little more damaging than meat and cheese.

    Crawford's gaze isn't on either of us but on the note he left me in the microwave, a note I've been carrying around for twenty-four hours, and I know that any approval he felt for me when he walked through the front door has evaporated into disappointment. I can read it in the smooth lines of his face as he studies his crease-lined words of encouragement and I don't wait for his verdict. I'm already turning away and starting for the door.


    His voice catches me before I can make my escape and I come to a dead halt in the doorway. He's waiting for me to look back but I won't. I won't. I'm not this fucking weak, I'm not this fucking thing that needs to be babysat and has to carry around my leader's encouragement for a day to stay sane. I'm not. I won't.

    "Schuldich, look at me."

    I won't.

    I reach up with one hand, digging my fingernails into the side of my mouth to force it into a smirk. "I guess this means I'm not going with you this weekend," I say, and that sounds like me, that tone sounds like me. Maybe the hate in it is directed more towards myself than it used to be but it still sounds only a breath from real. It still sounds like a complete fucking lie weak weak weak.

    "I wasn't planning on taking you," Crawford answers, and I stop myself from flinching only by biting through my lip. "Soon," he continues, "but not yet."

    I look back at him, baring my teeth at him even as I feel blood trickling down my chin. He's still standing behind Farfarello, who has slouched down in his chair enough that he can prop one leg up on the table further down. His knife is out as he picks at the edges of his fingerless gloves with the tip and he's watching me. I wonder if he can see the hate in my eyes when I look back at him, and I wonder if I want him to see it. I'm sure he can hear it anyway, so I force my gaze up to Crawford again.

    "Soon," Crawford says. "I know you can."

    I want to believe him. I want to believe. But how can I?

    "Soon," I echo.

    I leave them there and take a shower, and I stay under the spray until the hot water has run out.


    I lie awake long into the night, thoughts twisting down curved pathways as I think about the fight we had this afternoon. I've stayed away from them the rest of the day, but by the time one a.m. rolls around, my annoyance and anger towards Farfarello has faded into a dull sort of exhaustion. Only these twelve hours later can I admit he was right in calling me out on what I'd done, because Crawford had left me here with the trust that I would try for them. Crawford trusted me and I let him down, and it's something I haven't done in years. I'm dragging this team down but they're waiting patiently for me to find my feet again instead of just taking the faster road of killing me.

    "Soon", Crawford said. He keeps saying "soon". He keeps saying "You can do it". And Farfarello, though he doesn't spit the same sort of encouragements- not that I can ever see him saying such words- keeps an eye on me.


    Why can't that soon be now? Why can't it be here yet? We've been awake for a over a week now and I know it's too soon for my gift to put itself back together, but…

    Weak weak weak.

    I don't want to be weak. I don't want to be stuck like this. I don't want to keep falling. But every time I dig my feet in, the sand gives out beneath them, and I—

    Twisting water and blood and the feel of falling. The prickling ice of Nagi's gift curving over my skin and I press the heel of my hand into my forehead, struggling to push it out of my mind.

    "Stop it," I hiss through clenched teeth. "Why don't you stay fucking dead like you chose and stop dragging me down?"

    'You feel guilty that he died and you lived.'

    I'm not feeling guilty. I'm pissed. I have no reason to feel guilty over this. None of us *wanted* the kid to die, but Farfarello and Crawford had less riding on his life than I did. I beat my hand against my forehead sharply, struggling to find something to focus on. Focus on something. Something not Farfarello, something not Crawford. Something not the safety and strength of Crawford's shield and quiet encouragement. Something not his smile of approval when I've done something right. Something… something me. Something mine. But what do I have? What do I have to focus on that won't just slip away in another telepathic flicker?

    Weiss. No. Weiss was at the sea and they're living people. Something me. My hair? I knot one hand in the locks and give them a hard tug, feeling the pain of it along my scalp. It's long to fade and I slide my fingers along the locks, feeling the way it shifts against my fingertips. Orange. The sea was blue. Nagi's eyes were blue. Nagi's hair was brown. This is orange. Farfarello and Crawford don't have orange. Just me. This is just mine.

    I tug again, wrapping my fingers tighter in the locks, and think of a bright orange ball until I finally drift asleep.


    Farfarello is already standing by my bed when I jerk awake later that night. His hands catch my shoulders before I can fall out of bed. My first thought is to push him away; my second is to tell him to get out. I do neither and instead just sit there, head bowed, as I focus on breathing. When he decides I'm not going to keel over, he lifts his hands from my skin and plucks up the cup of juice he brought me. I reach up, sliding my fingers through my hair to the heat he left on my skin. It's funny how warm other bodies can be. They're something hot and solid, a far cry from the death and ice and chaos of the ocean.

    "I was broadcasting," I guess, and I hate the hoarse sound of my voice.

    "Mm," he answers, passing over the juice. I close my eyes against the sight of it as I sip, but the first tang of it against my tongue has my eyes jumping open in surprise. I pull the cup away from my mouth to stare and it's not pale at all. It's dark, almost like coffee, and it tastes like grape. I look up at Farfarello, peering through my bangs at him, and he offers me an unreadable look. I stare him down, wanting an explanation, and this time I win the staring contest.

    "You didn't like the apple," he says.

    I look back at it, wondering when he stopped by the grocery store to buy grape juice, wondering how it occurred to him to pick such a thing up. I feel… How do I feel, to think that he changed this for me?

    I think of my nightmare and think back to the images that still linger, the dream that morphed into something I couldn't control. Before death there was blood, but it was the blood we smeared across our hands and clothes willingly. Before the sea there was Schwarz.

    Can three people still be Schwarz, even if I'm ruined? My initial reaction to Farfarello taking an extra step for me is resentment, just because it's become easy to resent being the weak one here, but…

    "You're hard to please," he notes, but he doesn't sound annoyed by my indecision. He's already turning to go but I reach out with a free hand to catch his wrist. He goes still obediently but doesn't pull free, only tilts his head to look back at me. I consider his hand where it hangs from mine, feeling the pulse against my fingertips.

    "We lived," I tell him, as if he hadn't noticed. "Nagi didn't, but we did."

    Warm and solid and life. Farfarello's strength and Crawford's support. I let go of Farfarello's wrist and turn on my bed to get to my feet. He steps to one side to let me stand and I offer him a guarded look. "I don't really hate you," I admit, because I know I was broadcasting it at him earlier.

    He gives a quiet snort at that. "Sometimes you do," he answers easily, and he shrugs and starts for the door. "That's life."

    That's Farfarello for you.

    I grin into my juice as I follow him towards the door and he stops in the doorway to look back, giving me a look that's almost wary. It only makes my grin widen as he searches my face. "Why are you happy?" he wants to know.

    I let my grin fall away, not because my good mood is ruined but because I don't need to wear it for him. "Will I get better?" I ask him.

    "Your gift will never recover," he answers, not quite what I was asking for. "But your mind can if you try. Crawford said so."

    "And you trust him," I say, but it's not quite a question.

    "You do," he points out.

    I think about the note that left creases in my palm from holding onto it so long. "I do," I answer.

    Farfarello just shrugs again and steps through the doorway, padding down the hall towards the kitchen in his black pajama pants. They're too long on him but he got them that way on purpose so they'd muffle the sound of his footsteps. Nagi had been happy to see them, which I'd told him was silly when Farfarello could sneak up on the boy easier. Nagi had just looked at me and said that Farfarello couldn't move as easily in pants that were too long for him, and he said Farfarello wearing pants that would foul him up in a fight meant that he knew he'd never be picking a fight with us.

    I follow Farfarello to the kitchen and sit at the table while he considers the clock. I follow his gaze there to see it's half past three.

    "What's so magical about half past three?" I grumble, folding my arms across the table for a prop for my chin. Every night I wake up from nightmares, it's always at this time. I'm getting sick of it.

    "Something significant that flickered your mind badly," Farfarello answers, and he makes a decision and starts for the coffee pot.

    "But what?" I want to know, and he just flicks his fingers in a sort of "Who knows?" gesture.

    I hear Crawford's door open and shut down the hall and glance over my shoulder as the precognitive joins us. Farfarello gestures in my general direction; I see it out of the corner of my eye. "He had an epiphany," he says.

    I look back at him. "Since when do you know big words?" I want to know.

    "He said it first," Farfarello answers, and he has to mean Crawford.

    "What triggered it?" Crawford wanted to know. "Twelve hours ago you were content to rot in the fall of your gift." The words aren't nice but the easy tone makes up for it a little. I wonder how he can always sound so calm and understanding when I wake him up with nightmares in the middle of the night.

    I just shrug, feeling a little awkward, as he steps into the room. "I remembered what it was like before," I answer. "I had a dream about Schwarz before the tower fell." I tug on my hair and remember my focus, and I sit there considering the strands where they wind between my fingers. "I found a focus," I offer up, wondering if it's too late to repair what I did yesterday. Idly I wonder if it's enough to make up for waking them up at such an hour.

    "Good," Crawford answers, and the coffee pot gurgles to interrupt him. Farfarello pours three mugs and Crawford starts across the room to get his. I look up as he goes past me and sit up straight in my chair, staring at the lines that go down his back. They start along the line of his shoulder and rake down towards his shoulder blade, a dark pinkish color.

    "What the hell?" I ask, startled. "Did Weiss do that?"

    Crawford looks back at me, but Farfarello either sees it in my mind or can see where I'm looking. A pale hand against Crawford's shoulder turns him and I see Farfarello lean back a little in surprise at the sight of the marks along our precog's shoulder.

    "Hidaka's never managed to land a blow on you before," I accuse Crawford, pushing myself to my feet. "Tell me you let him do it this time to give Weiss a sense of power."

    Crawford looks at Farfarello for an explanation and the Irishman draws his hand free. "Scratches," he says simply. I can watch Crawford's eyebrows creep up on his forehead and Farfarello scowls at him as he turns away. I reach them then and eye the marks. From up close, it's easy to see Hidaka only grazed him with those damn bugnuks, but still. The thought of any of Weiss landing a hit on Schwarz's leader is almost repulsive.

    "He didn't draw blood," I report. "He probably tore your shirt up, though. You'll have to get it repaired."

    "I'll look into it," Crawford answers easily, reaching for his mug. Farfarello mutters something into his own coffee that I miss, but the tone doesn't sound very pleasant. I wonder how Farfarello could have missed such a thing and get my coffee from where it's still sitting on the counter. Crawford's still looking at Farfarello, who gazes back with a look of muted defiance on his face. At last Crawford just gives a quiet laugh and leans back to rest against the counter. I frown at him, wondering how he can be so amused by all of this, but he's already turning to me. "And your focus?" he asks, and I know he's not going to say anything more about the marks along his back.

Part 4
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