SNAFU: The World According to Schuldig

Part Twenty-three
I have strings.

    It's hard to tell immediately that I've left my mind behind for reality. The smell of burnt things and death is just as strong here as there, and the fire has gone out to leave the night pitch black. I stare out at the seemingly endless shadows, wondering where I am and what's going on. It takes me several moments before I can make out shapes. My teammates have left my sides, but Tot has fallen back to stand in front of me like a true bodyguard. Eventually I can hear the distant sounds of fighting through the ringing in my ears, but it's hard to make sense of much of it. My head is a total mess.

    "Anyone die yet?" I ask. It comes out as a hoarse croak, but Tot hears it.

    She whirls around to face me, mouth open, but the words die on her tongue when she sees my face. "Schuldig! Not good! You look sick!"

    "Thank you, Captain Obvious." I taste blood and wipe a thick trail away from my mouth. "Who's dead?" I'm too battered to want to reach out and feel it for myself, but through the haze my gift knows that we're down several bodies.

    Tot doesn't answer that; she doesn't want to. We stare at each other as I wait for her to speak, but I can't scrounge up the energy it would take to grab her and shake her. Instead I find the least sore spot in my mind and peek through with my telepathy. We're down two of Schreient and six of the eight of Estet, and one of the cats is unconscious and pretty unstable. The rest are bleeding rather profusely.

    Farfarello's not in particularly good shape, but Nagi's gift is doing a fair job of protecting the three. It's draining defending three people against other powers, though, especially when he's been comatose and unable to touch his telekinesis in half a year. I draw my gift back with a small wince and pull it together into a tight knot.

    "Tot?" I ask.

    "Schuldig?" she returns.

    "Move." I think I point, because she obediently shifts a couple steps to the left. Her eyes are pure concern as she stares at me and I refuse to meet her gaze, staring out across the field.

    Crawford's voice comes at my ear from half a battlefield away, sounding rather firm: "Don't try it."

    "Try and stop me," I answer him, and a heartbeat later I feel Farfarello's bruised mind shifting to do just that. I just smile, and in the next moment, I take everything that's left of my telepathy and slam it forward. If Estet feels it coming, there's nothing they can do about it. Telepathy moves as fast as thoughts do, and I'm not in any mood to pull my punches tonight. If I just killed my own mother- twice?- I can't feel anything at all for two miserable nobodies of Estet.

    I feel my power hit their minds, feel their brains rupture under the force, and then there's nothing but a blank roaring in my ears. I can't feel the car hood beneath me, but that's probably because I'm falling forward, and Tot isn't enough to stop me. I don't feel the ground when I hit it, too lost in the pain of a mind and gift ripped too far. Tot's pulling at me, sounding desperate and worried, and then the backlash reaches her.

    I hear her scream; hear the surviving minds around the field shudder and splinter as my gift continues to drain outwards. I can barely breathe, much less control that power, but Tot's ragged voice cuts through everything. I struggle desperately to pull it all back in, but I don't know where to start. My mother's death destroyed the last of the shields around my mind, and my head is too much of a bleeding, rotting mess for me to control my wayward power.

    Luckily, not everyone out here can feel pain. Farfarello's mind hits mine like a freight train and I feel his gift wrapping tight around me. It's Farfarello's gift versus mine and we're both in pretty shit shape, but he manages. Talk about willpower.

    He makes a shield around my mind the same way he helped shield Crawford's gift, though I can taste blood that isn't blood where my power is cutting him open. He's damped it down enough that I can start pulling it desperately inward. Tot is crying softly somewhere off to my side, but tears are better than screaming. My mouth moves around an apology I can't voice and I end up inhaling dirt and blood. I wonder if it's mine.

    Aside from Tot, the rest of the field is silent. It's a long minute before Tot goes quiet and I feel her trembling hands work through my hair. Crawford is the first to materialize out of the shadows. I recognize his shoes where they stop somewhere near my face, and I listen to the crunch of footsteps as Nagi and Farfarello join him. Whoever's left of Schreient doesn't bother to come back, more interested in checking out the bodies of her fallen comrades, and Weiß is barely holding onto consciousness in the wake of a vicious fight and my unbridled gift.

    There are four of us here, four of us and Tot, and that's all I really care about. I let myself fall away, but it still hurts when I hit the bottom.


    I wake up facing a window, and the lush trees and mountains that stare back at me are unexpected. I blink at them and the branches sway in the breeze in response, and I shut my eyes again. I take mental stock of my surroundings, starting with my own mind, and I carefully feel out the delicate shields that are starting to grow. I can still feel Farfarello rather strongly, but he's not as deep as he was the last time I was conscious, so I guess that means I'm better.

    Funny; I don't feel any better.

    Well, technically, I don't feel like I'm dying anymore, so that's a definite improvement. Maybe.

    My gift rustles a little at the approach of another mind and I turn my head to bury it deeper into the pillow. The doorknob rattles as it's twisted and the door creaks quietly as it's pushed open, and both noises are louder than the mind that's come to check on me. I don't turn over to face Crawford, but I do open my eyes to stare out at the trees again. His shoes tap quietly against the wooden floor as he approaches the bed, but he stays out of my line of sight.

    "We're not in Tokyo," I tell him, as if he hasn't noticed the lush surroundings.

    "No," he agrees easily. "Your shields are still too weak to go anywhere near the city. Farfarello wouldn't be enough to keep your mind from imploding."

    I think about that and decide Crawford has good decision-making. "Estet's dead?"

    "That was six days ago," he tells me. "Silvia's team was dispatched and we sent an official report to Rosenkreuz. They are waiting on you to be conscious and travel-ready before we go to Austria to meet with them. They will decide then what they wish to do with Schwarz."

    "Do," I echo, a press for an explanation.

    "If our team is fully functional, they will sponsor us once more and give us our new assignment."

    I frown at the window. "Our team," I say, not out of confusion but to try and test that notion. I think about Rosenkreuz the way it was burned into my mother's mind, the bitter images and acrid aftertaste. "We'd leave Japan?"

    "I am allowed to request a location, but the decision is the Cabinet's."

    "What about Tot?"

    "Tot's place is here with Neu."

    I think about that. "What about Moriyama?"

    "Moriyama has a guest house to run."

    "What about my bed?" I demand stubbornly.

    "There are new beds," Crawford answers. "I was under the impression that you did not like Japan."

    I scowl a little at the window. "I don't like airplanes," I inform him. "I'm looking for the lesser evil."

    Silence follows that. It's another minute more before we speak and I count the seconds that pass us. I think I can smell his cologne from here, but it's probably my imagination. My fingers twitch against the bed sheets before I knot them in the cotton and pull. "She was in my head," I tell Crawford. "She was rotting away in my head."

    He doesn't ask who. Maybe he already knows. Maybe he doesn't care. I finally roll over onto my other side and peer up at him through tangled orange hair. "Is that going to be me one day?" I ask him. I don't want the answer, but I can't stop the question. "Is that going to be me?"

    He considers me and that question for a while and I hate the pause. His expression is smooth and calm as he gazes down at me, a far cry from the manic smiles and freely displayed emotions of just a week ago. I take advantage of the stillness and the quiet to study his face, memorizing the real Crawford. It's a much better thing to think about than my mother's sorry state.

    At length he gives the smallest shake of his head. "Burnout is never a guarantee."

    "Your mother broke her," I tell him, but I know he knows. Crawford knows everything. "She claimed it was an accident, but it wasn't, was it?" My mother recognized Crawford because he's the spitting image of his father. The Crawfords and Lucille used to be on the same team, back when my mother was still sane. His mother broke her shields the first time to shatter her gift, starting her down the road to madness, but with Crawford's father on the Cabinet with my mother's lover, there was no way anyone believed it was anything other than an accident during the heat of a battle.

    Son of a Cabinet member; no wonder Rosenkreuz didn't just toast him when he went batty.

    "My mother had a special paranoia and hatred for telepaths," Crawford answers, which is a long way of saying 'yes'. "She was the one that killed Darwin."

    "Fantastic," I tell him. "This is my trust of the Crawford name going from bleak to 'yeah right'."

    "But you do trust me," Crawford points out easily.

    I ignore that. "How bad is your blood? How weak is mine?"

    "You belong to Schwarz," Crawford reminds me. "You are part of my team. I will not let you go mad."

    It sounds so much like an 'I won't make you leave in the morning' that I bite my lip, needing the blood to ease the sudden dryness in my throat. "You still lost McKay," I point out, and I pinch myself for saying such a thing. Nagi's words about the pyrokinetic right before the battle started should have marked the man as a 'don't touch' conversational topic, and the new, cooler edge to Crawford's expression confirms that. Which just brings up my handy dandy revelation before the fight started.

    "You were tested," I tell him. "Before you left Japan, you were tested. Tot told me so when I went to the hospital thinking you'd given me sexual rabies or something. If you didn't see me coming, then what were you doing?"

    "What significance does it have to anything else?" Crawford wants to know.

    "It's significant to me," I insist. "That's a good enough reason for you to answer it."

    Crawford just looks at me, silently contesting that, and I'm content to stare him down. At length he flicks his fingers in dismissal or disinterest. I'm not sure which one and I wonder whether it's calculated or an honest "Whatever" on his part. "McKay and I were involved," he says, and my stomach twists into a thick knot. "It was a no-strings-attached arrangement meant to be for stress release and to keep us from looking outside of Schwarz."

    I stare up at him as I try to digest that. "You were what?" He doesn't repeat himself. He knows I heard. I push himself up into a sitting position and wince a little as moving makes me dizzy. "Nagi didn't know that," I tell him, and in the same breath, I realize that Farfarello did. I guess it's hard to hide a relationship from an astral traveler potato yuppie. One more reason for Farfarello to distrust me, if he came back out of Crawford's insanity and McKay's death into that.

    "There was no reason for Nagi to know," Crawford answers.

    I don't answer that, just stare up at him. I push around the puzzle pieces that are Schwarz in my head in an attempt to find my place amongst the mess. I haven't found it before Crawford starts speaking again.

    "Farfarello will be by later to work on your mind more," he tells me. "He knows how to construct shields and he will be the best to monitor your progress, as he can see inside your mind to see that you are building them correctly."

    I don't appreciate the change in topics. He's already started turning away but I reach out and snag his shirt sleeve. He looks back at me, a patient look on his face. I open my mouth, but the words die somewhere in my throat, and eventually I let go. Crawford waits for just a few seconds more before turning away, and I watch him as he walks back to the door.

    "I have strings," I tell him, and Crawford pauses with his hand on the knob to glance back at me. "I have more strings than a spider web."

    He just blinks at me for that, as if it's too far beneath him to actually bother with a response. He walks out of the room without a goodbye. Only when the door has shut behind him do I let myself fall backwards on the bed, and I stare up at the ceiling.

    I fall asleep before long, but I wake up when Farfarello comes back. I'm waiting on the Irishman when he makes it to my room. Crawford stayed standing, either to keep himself above me or because he thought the visit would be brief, but Farfarello pushes a chair over to my bedside. I guess this is going to take a while.

    I stare hard at his face as he sits down and he returns my gaze coolly. The malice and blood-soaked wishes that were there the last time I was conscious are gone. I guess I proved myself useful enough to stay alive after killing Silvia.

    I still offer a, "Crawford told me to kill her," as an excuse though, just in case.

    Farfarello isn't interested. That was days ago. She's dead and rotting and he's moved on to better things. He doesn't bother with small talk but sets to work inspecting my head, and only when he's assured himself of my progress does he start talking to me about shields. I listen because I have to know, but I find myself more distracted with my new teammate. He seems a lot less threatening today, and therefore a lot more interesting than he was when I first found out who Farfarello really is.

    "You're not listening," Farfarello says.

    "Maybe I am," I answer. He looks at me and I lift one shoulder in a shrug. "Or I'm staring at you," I admit.

    "Don't," he warns me.

    I brush that aside with a haughty wave of my hand. "Just fix my head like a good potato man." Farfarello's not impressed and I try not to wince at the small twitch in his head. At least his impatience doesn't bring a death threat with it. I peer at him for a few moments longer. "Did Weiß live?"

    "Does it matter?"

    "Would I ask if it didn't?" He just looks at me. I scowl at him. "Insert 'yes' or 'no' here."

    "Yes," he answers. "Why?"

    "We owe them a present."

    He says nothing to that, maybe because he's waiting for me to explain that, but I'm not interested. We stare each other down for a bit before at last he just goes back to work. I treat myself to a moment of superiority before it fades under the pain of pulling shields together. I don't quite understand what he's doing or how, but that's all right. His instructions are pretty short and to the point in an almost antisocial way, which means they're dumbed down enough for me to follow.

    It takes us the better part of an hour to make any progress and then Farfarello grows bored of my company and leaves. I'm okay with that, since I have a headache, and I don't even wait to watch him leave before pulling the covers back up over my head. I'm too awake to sleep, but that's all right. I've got too much to think about to waste time sleeping just yet.

Part 24
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