SNAFU: The World According to Schuldig

Part Fifteen
You can't seriously ask me to believe.

    Dear Mom. Been a while, yeah? Yeah. I think I hit my head in that last firefight. Did you see the firefight? We kicked ass and then got our asses kicked in turn, but at least the policemen were all dead then so it's not like they're going to tell anyone. So. Yes. Hit my head, because I'm looking at someone who looks like a bird raped a human and spat out a robot-human… thing. Where do babies come from, anyway? You can't seriously tell me women squeeze them out of that dime hole. Yes, I know what it looks like. You never did learn how to close your door. Anyway, that's beside the point. Whoever spat this baby out probably didn't survive the birth.

    "Am I really supposed to be smoking this?" I want to know.

    Tot pats my knee in response. "Yes," she assures me.

    I go back to smoking, but it does nothing to stop my fingers from twitching where I've tangled my free hand in my hair. Crawford and Farfarello are stretched out in parallel beds with two women standing between them, and bird-woman over there keeps looking my way. I twitch a little more.

    "Are they dead?"

    "No," Tot promises me.

    "Ask her if they're dead," I insist.

    "They're going to be fine," the normal-looking one says without even glancing at me. She's too busy scribbling on a clipboard to look up and she keeps leaning over to look at Crawford's face. I don't know what she thinks she's writing about. It's not like she's done anything for him but wash his head clean and lay him out on a bed.

    The fourth woman comes back then, prancing through the sliding doors with her obnoxiously gotta-be-fake tan hair bouncing around her head. "It's clear," she sends at Normal Lady, and at last the dark haired woman sighs and sets her clipboard down. We all watch as she pinches the bridge of her nose, eyes closed as she thinks, and at last she turns away from the beds.

    "Schuldig," she greets me, plucking her glasses off her head and coming my way. "I suppose our introductions are overdue."

    "You think?"

    She holds her hand out to me and I switch the cigarette-looking thing to my other hand so I can take it. "You may call me Hel," she tells me. "We are the female counterpart of your Schwarz team, known as Schreient, designed and put together by Oracle for today. You have already met Tot." She lets go of me to rest her hand on Tot's head, and Tot flashes me a peace sign. "Our companions are Schön and Neu."

    I point at Neu. "What's wrong with her face?"

    Hel looks back at Neu and the woman reaches up and pulls off her head. There's another head under there but this one's human, and I realize very belatedly that she's been wearing a helmet. I look down at the smoking thing in my hand, thinking it's probably not a good idea to keep puffing it, but Tot reaches out and touches my hand in encouragement. I poke it between my lips once more and eye the four of them.

    "Can you fix them?" I want to know.

    "Can you?" Hel asks me.

    "If you've got a band-aid big enough to cover Farfarello's eye with, probably any jackass could fix them."

    "Their minds," Schön says, sounding impatient. I just stare back at her. "You are the telepath, aren't you?"

    "He's new," Tot says for me, patting my knee again as a show of support. "It's too soon."

    "When they're both this weak, it doesn't take much," Neu points out.

    "But if he's not strong enough, he'll just damage them further," Hel says, planting her hands on her hips as she studies me. "He's virtually untrained."

    "Considering who his mother was, it wouldn't take much," Schön insists.

    "But you remember how she turned out." Hel waves that aside and goes to pull the curtains open.

    "Hi. My name is Schuldig. I'm lost." I look from one to the other. "What the hell? My mother?"

    "Your mother was an enviable woman," Hel says as she stares out at the dark sky. The lights are dim enough in here that they don't cast much of a reflection on the window and I can see city lights through it before she jerks the curtains shut again. She turns away with a grimace, apparently not liking the view, and flicks a sharp look over at the sleeping two. "She just wasn't strong enough in the end."

    "Being exiled from Rosenkreuz will do that to you."

    I almost inhale the cigarette thing and end up coughing so hard Tot has to grab me to keep me from falling off the couch. "Rosenkreuz?" I echo. "What?"

    "Didn't Crawford teach him anything?" Schön demands, and she turns a flat look on Tot. "Didn't you?"

    Tot fidgets a little at that accusation. "Japanese," she says. "Crawford said Crawford will teach about Rosenkreuz. Said not Schreient's job."

    "We're running out of time," Neu says. "We're going to lose all of them."

    "When we can only afford to lose one," Hel adds.

    I wave at them. "Hi, I'm still sitting here and wondering what we're talking about."

    "Crawford said it," Tot says. "Crawford knows best."

    "If he's even still a precog," Schön says with a snort.

    "Today came," Neu says quietly.

    "Precogs can't see two years down the road," Schön sends back.

    "Look," Hel says flatly. "We're running out of time. They're not waking up. When Estet finds out that Silvia's out, this whole place is going to be crawling with goonies. Their closest safe house is in Beijing, and it won't take them long to get the word to come over here. We need Rosenkreuz and they're not going to help unless he's salvageable."

    "Okay," I say, getting to my feet. "You people are all fucking insane and useless. Give me my teammates back. I'm going home unless someone starts explaining all of this."

    I wait, but they're all looking at each other. I wait a bit longer, just because I want those answers, and then I have to follow through on that ultimatum. I was rather hoping they'd just start explaining. "Fine," I mutter, and I head over to the beds.

    Hel's managed to patch up Farfarello's face and she's moved his eye patch over to cover up his left eye. It looks a lot better now than it did forty minutes ago. Whatever Farfarello hit on the underside of that car, it crushed his eye right in his skull. Still, it's not really the memory of crushed flesh that's making my stomach churn.

    "An automobile accident," I say.

    "Hm?" Neu asks from beside me.

    "He said Crawford gave him an eye patch… because he lost his eye in an automobile accident."

    "And?" Schön presses.

    I drag my eyes from Farfarello's face to Crawford's. "Then what does that make me?"


    Farfarello and Crawford wake up at the same time. I'm curled up in a corner of the room with my knees bent and Nagi tucked between my thighs and my chest, holding fast to him while keeping an eye on them, and they come awake simultaneously the way people really shouldn't. Crawford wakes up coughing and Farfarello with a colorful curse. Crawford eases himself into a sitting position and just stares over at Farfarello, and I try and decipher the look on his face. It's there for just an instant before pain washes it away, and Crawford digs his fingers into his temples as he gets to his feet.

    Farfarello's arm moves as if he's going to reach for his face, but he doesn't get far when he's wrapped up in a straitjacket the girls loaned me. "You bloody bastard," Farfarello snaps at Crawford. "Untie this."

    "I put it on," I tell him, and he looks over at me, fury in his yellow eye.

    "Undo it."

    "I won't," I say quietly. "You went for Crawford's throat. I don't trust you with your hands free." He snarls something I can't understand and starts wriggling, trying to figure out how to undo it. "Just calm down."

    "I will get us some medicine," Crawford promises him, and he smiles over at me. "Hi, Schuldig."

    I just stare back and squish Nagi closer against me. Hel's parting words of warning were to not mention the girls or Silvia in front of Farfarello on account of bad blood and a pretty serious sounding death wish, but they're not the only questions I have that need answers. I have to press my mouth into a hard line to keep them inside and Crawford considers the sick look on my face for a minute, looking concerned. "Schuldig?"

    I bury my face against Nagi and offer up a muffled answer. Crawford leaves the room a few seconds later to get medicine and water for himself and Farfarello, and Nagi jingles when I squeeze him. Whatever the girls gave me to smoke is keeping me from panicking, but it doesn't stop that gnawing sense of wrongness that's growing in my chest. I'm almost prefer panicking to being unsettled.

    Crawford has to feed Farfarello his painkiller, but the Irishman glares him down the entire time. "There, see?" Crawford asks. "This will help."

    Farfarello spits some of the water back in his face and Crawford wipes it off with his sleeve, looking a little disappointed in his teammate's reaction. "Just give it time," he promises Farfarello, and he turns to face me. "You drove us back," he says.

    "What else was I supposed to do, leave you there?"

    Crawford comes over to me and I squish tighter into the corner. "No," he assures me. "You did a good job." He holds out his hand, either for me or Nagi, but I'm not interesting in giving either of us up to him. I wrap myself in a ball around Nagi. Crawford puts a hand on my head and I push it away.

    "Don't touch me," I warn him. "Just- don't."

    "We can talk about it," Crawford promises me, patting my head again.

    I push myself to my feet abruptly and shove past him. I feel his fingers brush against my elbow when he makes a grab at me but I don't slow long enough to let him catch hold. I lock both me and Nagi in the bathroom and set Nagi down on the back of the toilet while I take a long shower. I use up every bit of hot water we have and end up just sitting in the tub while the spray beats into my head and shoulders. I'm still shaking a little when I finally cut the water off and I rub my hands together, trying to get them to stop, but it only makes the nervous quivering worse.

    Crawford said Farfarello would lose his eye in an automobile accident.

    Crawford said that- and Tot said-

    Rosenkreuz? Darwin? Schreient? Estet?

    I press both shaking hands against my mouth as my body heaves a little.

    He's not a precognitive. I said I'd come here and buy into his world but some part of me still knew that it was all just make-believe. It's the same as playing any other game; you accept that it's fake but you pretend not to see the rules that lock your little game in its box. I finally reached the point where I had absolutely no problems being a telepath for him, but that was because it was still a game. He wanted me and he wanted me as his telepath, and that was enough to finally play.

    But this?

    'Crawford gave me the patch after I lost my eye in an automobile accident.'

    'Remember that police chase you wanted?'

    Crawford said on our first job run that the drugs had to do with him getting fucked. And then he made us take it and-

    'Rosenkreuz is a school in Austria. They train people with psychic powers.'

    My mother?

    "I can't do this," I moan against my hands. "I can't do this."

    I don't know which way is up or if there's even an up anymore. Everything in Japan is backwards and tilted off to one side funny and tonight is doing wonders to snap my ability to stomach it and keep going. I just- We killed eight people tonight and Farfarello's face was in pieces and Crawford was bleeding out his ears and Schreient and Mom--?

    Who is Tot? Who is Schreient? Who are Crawford and Farfarello, really?

    "Coincidence," I tell myself. "It's all a bunch of bloody coincidences."

    It has to be a bunch of coincidences because I'm not-

    I take another ten minutes before getting out of the tub and Nagi watches as I scrub skin off under fierce jerks of a towel. I look over at him, mouth open to tell him to mind his own business, but the words die somewhere in my throat and I start laughing instead. It sounds hysterical even to me and I guess whatever Tot gave me is wearing off.

    "Now what?" I demand, snatching Nagi up with hands that are rubbed raw and red from heat and harsh terry cloth. "Now what am I supposed to do?"

    He just stares at me and I give him a fierce jerk to hear him jingle. Now what??

    He doesn't answer me and I wonder if I expected him to. "Some prodigy," I sneer at him, and I storm out of there with Nagi squashed against my chest and my towel wrapped around my waist. Crawford and Farfarello are arguing as well as one psychotic liar and a spider-eating retard can argue. I only spare them half a mind as I jerk some clothes on but they're still going at it when I snatch Nagi up from the bed and start for the door, and I snap and slam my hands into the doorway of their bedroom.

    "Shut up!" I yell at them. "Shut up! Just shut up! Jesus fucking Christ just go to sleep! It's four in the morning and one of you had your eye gouged out on a car! Can't you two just shut the fuck up and give it a rest?"

    They stare back at me in a stunned bit of silence, Farfarello with a blank look on his face and Crawford with something torn between surprise and admiration. I don't wait for either of them to recover but go for the door, and I'm out in the hallway before I've even made sure my shoes are on all the way. Nagi and I hit the stairs at a run and we're out into the dark night. I don't know where to go at this time of night, but an hour of aimless wandering brings me to Yoshinoya. It's still open, so it doesn't really matter that I'm not hungry. I sit and order food for the both of us and jab my wooden chopsticks into my empty bowl in irritation.

    By then the subway is running again, so I get to be one of the first to take the train into the city. I don't really know where I'm going until I get there, and I study the numbers stamped across the back of my train pass. It's still got half a thing left, so I tuck it back in my wallet and take the stairs up.

    It's not far to the Magic Bus from here and I take the elevators up to find Tot's friend. A nurse tries to stop me, assuming that I'm lost just because I'm a shiny foreigner wandering around one of the top floors. I'm not lost; I just can't remember what room number to use. She tries to get me to sign in at the front desk and I tell her where to shove it. She just stares at me all agape and I find the right room then and shut the door behind me.

    I stare down at the dead body for a long minute, listening to machinery blip around us, and then set Nagi down beside the pillow.

    "Am I a telepath?" I ask.

    Nagi falls over and jingles. I pick up him and squeeze him, but he doesn't jingle this time. I give him a shake and he's silent, and I frown down at his unblinking black eyes. I shake and rattle him but he just stares back, uninterested in jingling at me. "Shit," I mutter. "Crawford's going to kill me when he finds out I broke you."

    I turn him over, wondering if he's got a seam anywhere where I can reach in and fix his bells. I find a loose thread and pull, deciding that I can shove Nagi off on Tot to sew back together. Girls know how to sew things, and if she doesn't know, maybe Birdwoman or Fake Hair can help out. I tug harder until I can get two fingers inside, and I poke them through into the cotton. I have to sit on the bed so I can flatten Nagi against my thighs, and only then can I reach. My fingers touch cool metal and then something harder, and I frown as I hook my fingernails in it and pull it out.

    It looks like paper, so I start unrolling it. It's been wadded up tight to fit but it unrolls into a piece as big as my fist, and a small yellow pill is taped in one corner. I look from the pill to the note, and the message written there is enough that I throw it away from me with a strangled curse. It doesn't go very far before it flutters back on top of Nagi, and I stare down at the letters written on it.

    'Will you take one more leap of faith for me, Schuldig? More lives than you know are riding on your ability to follow where I lead. I owe you an explanation, but it is impossible for me when Silvia is so close to us. Prodigy would be happy to give you the answers, if only you will take the leap. There should be a glass of water on the table beside you. I ask you to take this pill. It will hurt, but you have been through enough by now that I know you can pull yourself down. Just remember to breathe, Schuldig. Just breathe. I need your help.'

    It's signed by Crawford and dated back two years, and I remember Schön saying in irritation that Crawford couldn't see two years down the road. I look up from the note to the beside table and see a glass of water there, and I wonder what it's doing in here when it's not like the patient behind me could use it. I rub a shaking hand against my mouth, then scrub so hard that I actually feel my lip split.

    "No," I whisper raggedly. "No. This is-" I throw Nagi across the room and bury my face in my hands. "This is not- I'm not-"

    I'm a step away from hyperventilating. I can feel it in the shaking that almost knocks me off the bed, in the empty, sharp breaths I'm sucking into my lungs. My fingernails are digging into my forehead hard enough to break the skin and I start laughing again, but this time I can't stop. "You can't seriously ask me to do this. You can't seriously ask me to believe."

    'I need your help.'

    'Will you make me leave in the morning?'

    "I won't," I whisper raggedly. "I won't."

    'I was looking for you.'

    I drag my fingernails down my face, taking skin with them, and stare down at the letter where it's fallen to the floor. I think about my mother and Germany and the jail cell and the apple and the airplane and Crawford's hands on mine trying to help block out the noise of the airport. I think about Tot and Moriyama and our job run and Farfarello's lies and Tot's pictures and Crawford's mouth under mine and Crawford kissing my elbow where I banged it into the wall. Crawford catching me when I was falling when I tripped over the step at our entrance and Farfarello going for his throat last night.

    "I can't," I say again.

    'I need your help.'

    My hand is shaking when I pick up the paper, but I peel the pill off just the same. I sit with it in one hand and the glass in the other and just stare at it for several minutes, feeling like I'm going to be sick. It's a long time before I can finally tip the pill into my mouth but I hear a whimper in my throat when I swallow it. I drain the entire glass and set it aside and bury my face in my hands.

    In the next instant, there's a brutal wrench in my head, and fire. My mouth twists against my hands but I can't draw the breath to scream. It feels like nothing I've ever felt before and I jerk against my hands, needing to scream, needing to get that clawing pain out of my skull. I hit my own stomach, trying to force air into my lungs, but only get enough to throw up blood, and I end up crumpled on my hands and knees on the ground beside the bed. I break my fingernails on the polished floor when I try to claw grooves in it and knot bloody fingers in my hair again.

    "Breathe," someone tells me. "Just breathe."

    I realize I haven't breathed yet. My mouth moves but I can't do it, not through the pain, not through the ache that's crushing its way through my skull and down my spine. Everyone's talking and they won't shut up, they won't shut up and I don't even know where they all came from.

    "Schuldig, you have to breathe," that voice insists, cutting through all the rest.

    Somehow I manage one gulping breath, and then another.

    "Good. It's all right. It's going to be all right. Just listen to me. Just listen to ME, okay?"

    I nod against the blood and the tears that are tracking their way down my face and just struggle to breathe. It gets easier, and the noise gets quieter, but it doesn't go away. It's just enough that I can struggle back to my knees and I grab at the bed for balance as I try and get to my feet. I don't make it there and end up sagged against the bed.

    "You're going to be fine," the voice tells me.

    I remember that I'm alone in the room. "Who the fuck-?" I manage to get out.

    "My name is Prodigy," the voice says, and I drag my eyes away from the sheets to stare at the sleeping face. "It's good to meet you at last, Mastermind."

Part 16
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