At a quarter to five I decide to try sleeping again and push myself to my feet. Farfarello is already leaving the kitchen in favor of the living room and I leave Crawford alone at the table as I cross the room to rinse my mug out in the sink. The silence between us is easier than it has been in days and I keep my eyes on my hair where it has fallen over my shoulders, not really caring how good of a job I do on my mug. At last I cut the water off and set my mug to one side, and a towel hangs from the handle of the oven for me to dry my hands on.
A glance back shows me the lines along his shoulder again and I wonder how Crawford could have possibly missed rips in his jacket and shirt when he changed for bed their night in Kyoto. They had to have happened that first day, because I know I didn't see torn cloth when he came back. It's not that strange that Crawford wouldn't include the scratches in his short explanation of how things went in Kyoto, but it's still unbelievable that Farfarello would have looked so surprised by them. Farfarello is our best hand-to-hand man. He's fast, he's skilled, he's got no sense of mercy at all… and just as importantly, he can track the battlefield perfectly with just that one eye of his. Farfarello misses nothing. How could he have missed this?
I know he has to hear the questions and confusion in my mind, but the Irishman doesn't appear in the doorway to explain himself and I'm not surprised that he doesn't show up. I cross the room to Crawford to stand behind him, gazing down at the marks, and he tilts his head to one side in a question.
"It sucks," I tell him. "The thought that you let Weiss walk away knowing that they almost had you."
"I wouldn't worry about it," Crawford assures me. "I know what I'm doing."
I lift my hand and let it hover just behind his back, studying the pale skin pulled so neatly over hard muscle and bones. I think of Farfarello's solid heat but I don't dare touch Crawford to see if he's the same. It's one thing to touch Farfarello and be touched by him, though it sounds ridiculous in my mind. Farfarello isn't big on the whole physical contact thing, but there's still… I don't know. "An understanding" sounds stupid and corny, but… Either way, things have always been different with Farfarello. I can grab him or poke him and he can steady me and it's fine. But touching Crawford is… something I don't do. Something I'm not supposed to do. He's Crawford, after all. He's Oracle; he's the head of Schwarz.
But he let Hidaka lay a blow on him. And Farfarello caught hold of him today, didn't he? He pulled Crawford around as if he had a right to.
Crawford's head is still tilted to one side, not enough to see me, just enough to let me know he's waiting to see if I have anything to say. Waiting to see if I cross that line?
Why does there have to be a line? Why does there have to be a difference?
I want things to stay the same. Stability is safe. But I want things to be different because the three of us almost died weeks ago in the sea. I have my hair to focus on but it's not as impenetrable as Crawford's shields, not as warm as human flesh. Farfarello's hands on my shoulders was... Comforting. Fuck. Stupid soft words; it twists everything out of proportion. I stare down at his back between my fingers, just a breath of space between us, and wonder if he can feel the warmth from my hand. I can feel it from his back.
"Schuldich?" Crawford asks.
"We're not the sea," I tell him. "Funny, isn't it?"
"In what way?"
"Water doesn't die," I answer. "Water doesn't bleed red along the sand. Water doesn't break."
"The sea lasts forever," he returns easily. "We don't."
"Then why are there so many rules when they don't matter in the end?" I want to know, and I tilt my hand forward. Just the feel of his skin under my hand is almost enough to make me jerk away, because I can feel him breathing against my palm and I can feel his heartbeat in my fingertips.
A sharp clink from the door has me snatching my hand back and I look up to see Farfarello lounging in the doorway. His mug is propped against the doorframe. I can't read anything on his face as he gazes back at me but something about his stare has the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. We stare each other down in silence for a long minute and then he rocks his cup a little, letting it connect with the wood once more for another clink.
I fold my arms across my chest and step away from Crawford. Farfarello looks over at the clock and I follow his gaze there without meaning to, seeing again that it's almost five. I remember that I was going to go to bed and I start towards the door. Farfarello steps inside the kitchen, passing me on his way to the counter, and I eye him as I slip by, wondering what's set him off. He doesn't return the look and I can hear him fiddling with the coffee maker before I'm even out of the room. Maybe the sleep deprivation is getting to him.
I'm halfway down the hall when it occurs to me to ask Crawford if he told Kritiker about my condition. Did he barter the truth about Schwarz for unemployment? It's an unpleasant thought and I look back over my shoulder, reaching up to tangle fingers in my hair. What would Weiss think if they knew the telepath they hated was just a giftless wreck now?
I give my hair a hard yank before I can get lost in those thoughts and turn around, starting back towards the kitchen. I hear chair legs scratching against the floor before I can reach the doorway and stop just a foot down from it, waiting to see if Crawford is leaving. If I can get him away from Farfarello's weird mood, that'd be better.
"Even still," Crawford says, and I know I've missed the start of their conversation. I listen to the soft tap of his feet against the linoleum, but his footsteps are going the wrong way. I decide not to cut in yet, hanging back in favor of eavesdropping. "He is doing better."
"Not enough," Farfarello answers. The water cuts on and I hear a cabinet open and shut, and with a quick mental judge of the sounds, I decide it's safe to peek around the doorway.
Crawford is putting the coffee filters away while Farfarello washes his hands, probably washing grinds from the last filter off his fingers. I'm about to duck out of view again when Crawford reaches over his shoulder to touch his fingertips to the scratches. Farfarello notices the movement and eyes Crawford's fingers, and I go still where I am, not wanting to move and draw their attention to the door. They've still got their backs to me, but with Farfarello's head turned to watch Crawford's hand and Crawford's attention on Farfarello, I'm on the edge of their peripheral visions.
Farfarello reaches up then and Crawford lets his hand fall away. The Irishman takes a half step closer so he can turn his hand better and I watch as the fingers of his left hand fit neatly along the lines. He traces them down and lets his hand fall away and I feel something in my stomach twist. Something about this—
Why can Farfarello touch him so easily?
Why would I even care?
Something about this is—
"You have some nerve telling me you didn't like it," Crawford says.
"Shut up," Farfarello sends back, and he's already starting to turn away. Crawford catches at him, more a push than a grab, and Farfarello shoves back. The fridge shudders as Farfarello hits it first and Crawford second, and then my younger teammate is pinned neatly against the fridge. Farfarello could break that hold in a heartbeat but instead of throwing Crawford across the room I see his hand twist in the hem of Crawford's dark pants. In the next heartbeat they're not fighting at all- or at least not the sort of I fight I'd expect from them, and I'm rocking back away from the doorway before Crawford's mouth has even found Farfarello's throat.
Something about this is—
No. No no no no no.
Waking up hazy-minded in a dim hospital room, staring blearily at the clock on my nightstand. 3:29 and I have no clue what day it is or where I am or even who I am. Just staring at the numbers wondering what woke me up and then hearing papers shuffling. Someone's in the bed next to mine and someone else is standing beside it, digging through a clipboard. Medical charts. The machinery around the bed is clicking and I can almost figure out a name for the one digging so hurriedly through the papers.
Salt? Gritty sand and salt. I feel myself falling under and I curl my fingers against the sheet, struggling to stay awake.
At last the other man finds what he's looking for and sits down on a stool or something to read the last sheet. I watch him as he reads, wondering what he's looking at, wondering what we're all doing here. Dark blue eyes and dark brown hair and someone screaming. Salt. What the hell is with this salt? I can taste it all along my teeth and lips.
The other man sets the clipboard to one side and the click of it against the nightstand is enough to jar me from those spiraling thoughts. He gets to his feet and stares down at the other sleeper in silence, not moving or saying anything. The clock blinks beside me and I drag my eyes towards it. 3:30.
There's a noise at the other bed and I look back, wondering what's going on. The man is leaning over the bed now but trying to pull back, but he can't when there's a finger hooked in the collar around his throat. A collar? Right. An Irishman showing up on our doorstep three years ago, sent over from the Rosenkreuz labs. Farfarello. Crawford. Me. Schuldich. Telepath. Schwarz.
Fucking salt and seawater and blood and Nagi is—?
"You looked dead," Farfarello says at length. "I wondered if you were breathing."
There's a quiet laugh from the bed that sounds tired and all sorts of drained, but still amused. "Liar," comes the easy answer, and Crawford tugs at the captured collar to drag the other man down. Farfarello goes tense as he's pulled down into a kiss and I can just stare, mouth open on a silent protest, mouth open on silent alarm and shock. Even in the dark I can see when Farfarello relaxes against our precognitive.
Everything shatters and leaves nothing but blood and salt in its place.
I'm standing in the kitchen, staring down at a peach in my hand. My fingers are curled around its fuzzy skin and my fingernails have broken through. Juice dribbles over my fingertips and down the sides of the peach to pool in my hand. I lift my eyes, studying the sunlight that filters in through the small window above the sink, and at last drag my gaze to the side to stare at the clock.
"What time is it?" I ask.
"Read it yourself," Farfarello answers, and I turn to look towards the table. Farfarello's in the chair that I usually sit in, the one with its back to the doorway. The chair is pushed back and he's sitting low in it, and his boots are resting on the table and crossed at the ankles. His gaze is calm as he stares back at me but I'm more interested in the way his arms are folded across his chest. Defensively? Defiantly?
"What day, then?" I ask.
There's a pause. "It's been a week," he answers at last.
"A week," I echo. I want to feel surprised, and I do, but beneath surprise there's just a twisting sickness.
"Your mind almost collapsed," Farfarello tells me. "It was a bit more than a flicker."
I look back at the clock, then over at the fridge. A week ago, Farfarello and Crawford were standing here, and they were…
"You should have been asleep."
"I wasn't," I answer, turning to look back at him. I can't make the picture work in my mind, but then there are memories to fill in the gaps. Pale and paler, white and whiter, Farfarello's fingers on Crawford's skin, Farfarello standing by Crawford's bed in the hospital to make sure the precognitive was all right after such a prolonged sleep-
"Stop it," Farfarello warns me.
Orange orange orange.
Peaches are sort of orange, but not like my hair is orange. I knot my free hand in my hair and give it a vicious jerk. "How could you?" I demand.
"It's not your business."
"It fucking *is* my business," I snap back.
At half past three in the morning, I woke up in the hospital for the first time after the fall of the tower into the ocean. Nagi was dead but they were more concerned with the fact that they'd survived, and Farfarello had been digging so rapidly through Crawford's paperwork to see if the precognitive was stable.
Salt and blood and *orange*. I hear hair snap as I jerk some strands out and I let them fall to the ground, struggling to stay in the here and now.
"You didn't care Nagi was dead," I accuse him.
Farfarello gives me a flat look. "Nagi made his decision. He chose to let us live."
I feel more of the peach give way beneath my fingers. "You didn't fucking care," I say again. "You only cared that Crawford lived."
Farfarello, trying to pull back before Crawford realized what he was doing, and Crawford, stopping him and pulling him back, accepting an offer Farfarello hadn't even meant to make then. Salt and blood and water and the shadows of the hospital room against their skin. The thud of the fridge as Farfarello hit it, content to be pinned in between its cool surface and Crawford's hot skin. Scratches down Crawford's shoulder.
"It's not your business," Farfarello says again and I know he's reading my thoughts.
"What did you do in Kyoto?" I demand. "Was there even a fucking deal with Kritiker?"
Farfarello bares his teeth at me and straightens in his chair, letting his feet fall to the ground. "Crawford didn't lie about Kritiker," he says. "He's with them now, running the job without us. I was left to watch you."
I think about Farfarello digging in his feet against the idea of taking a trip with Crawford, and Crawford's explanation to me: "He and I have some things to work through. You know that of the three of us, the links between the two of us are the most unstable. We need to fix that."
I was left here to struggle with my sanity while they went to Kyoto and *fucked*.
"Stop it," Farfarello warns me.
"I won't," I snap back, and Farfarello pushes himself to his feet. I taste bile and blood on my tongue and for once it doesn't taste like salt water. Farfarello's already turning away, done with this stilted, angry mess of a conversation, but I'm not going to drop this. My sanity and my team are all I have left, and they're going to take it from me.
"You're an ingrate," Farfarello sends at me.
"You're a fucking traitor," I send back, and Farfarello flicks his fingers in an angry gesture as he starts for the door. "I won't let him want you more than he wants me. You can't have him."
The silence following that is almost physical. It's funny how there can be such a loud sound in nothing at all, and then I hear the soft slide of Farfarello's boot against the floor as he turns to look back at me. We stare each other down across the room and there's something shut off about his expression to go with the tight lines in mine.
"What did you say?" he asks, but it's not a question. It's a threat. I don't feel intimidated, because my words were meant as a warning.
"You can't have him," I repeat. "I won't let you."
"That's not for you to decide."
I offer him a slow smile and dig my fingers in tighter, feeling the way the peach ruptures a bit in my hand. A wet chunk slides down over my wrist and plops to the floor. Drops hit my foot and for a moment it feels hot like blood. "Then kill me," I invite him. He just stares back at me, giving nothing away, giving too much away with that stony edge in his eye. "If I die, my telepathic clusterfuck gets taken out of your minds and you and Crawford can go on your happy merry fucking way. If you choose to let me live, then you live how I say until my mind is stable. If you touch him again, my mind will drop, whether it's because it does or because I make it. You're not going to have him. You can't. I. Won't. Let. You."
Farfarello is silent for a moment in the face of that ultimatum, and then he's turning fully to face me. I hear metal hiss against a sheath as he draws a knife free and he's starting across the room towards me. I watch him come, not caring which path he chooses to take, the icy smile on my face daring him to use that knife against me.
The blade comes up against the underside of my chin, but it's just the lower edge of it and most of the hilt. He forces my head back and I eye him down the length of my nose. There's violence in his eyes and his mouth is thinned to a hard line, and I wonder why he's even hesitating before slitting my throat open.
"Do it," I invite him.
His free hand comes up, catching me in my shoulder to shove me back. I hit the counter hard enough that my lower back feels cold from the numbness spreading through it. The knife is gone; I feel heat and ice along my palm and Farfarello is turning sharply away from me. I watch him stalk towards the door, wondering whether to be satisfied or disappointed as he vanishes through the doorway. At last I look down at my hand, at the peach that he cut perfectly in half through the small gaps between my fingertips and thumb. I uncurl my fingers to let the peach fall to the ground and see the red line that goes across my hand where the tip of his knife cut through the skin.
My smile widens and I leave the peach there to wash my hand.
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