SNAFU: The World According to Schuldig

Part Twenty-Four
I want to stay.

    I wake up when the door creaks open, more because of the mind that's skirting across mine than the noise. The sliver of hallway showing around my visitor is dark, but my eyes are accustomed to the shadows enough that I can imagine the blue in her hair. She's standing still in the doorway, uncertain whether or not she should enter. The second bed in the room is empty, and that gives her enough encouragement to push the door open further. Her mouth opens to call out my name, but I beat her to speaking by waggling a hand at her in a beckon. She's across the room in a heartbeat and climbing up onto my bed.

    "Do you have any clue what time it is?" I demand, but my voice is slurred enough from sleep that it doesn't sound very threatening.

    She doesn't answer but buries herself up against my side. For a second I consider pushing her off the bed, but it passes and I sigh as I tug at the sheet. No bed is sacred, it seems, but I guess it's all right if it's just Tot. I manage to get the blanket somewhat over both of us with no help from her and close my eyes, ready to go back to sleep.

    A minute drags by, and then another, and at last my sleep-fogged brain realizes why I can't relax again: Tot is trembling. I blow hair out of my face and stare down at the top of her head. "Are you shaking?"

    Her answer is muffled against my shoulder but it sounds like an apology. I thunk her for such a useless response and she just starts shaking in earnest. A second later she's crying, and I freeze with my hand still hovering by her head. She tries apologizing again but it breaks into a wail, and her fingers dig desperate bruises into my arm. Her thoughts are flashing around in miserable circles, everything from having to watch Schwarz leave the first time to having to plan ahead for Schwarz's destruction to putting Schreient together and losing them six days ago to the knowledge that Schwarz is leaving again. She's been trying to keep going over the last week, but denial only works for so long and she can't do anything but have a meltdown.

    For a while I lay still under the onslaught of her grief and tears, but I finally manage to move. I roll onto my side to face her, temporarily dislodging her from my side, and pull her hard up against me. A hand against her shoulderblades tugs her up against my chest and she tangles her hands in my shirt. It's silent permission to grieve and she just cries harder.

    I prop my chin on her head and stare out at the darkness. Tot and I, life never gave us anything to start from. We had to scrounge around until we found it, and now life is taking that away, too. Listening to Tot cry is a harsher wake-up call than anything else so far. Now that I have so much, why should I have to lose any of it?

    There's a soft tap of a shoe at the door and I turn my gaze that way to see Crawford. Either he's come to investigate the noise or he was just hoping to come to bed at last; whatever his original intentions were, they've changed now. It's pretty hard to ignore Tot and the noise she's making, and I expect him to turn around and leave again until she's finished. It's not like he'll get any sleep when she's like this.

    He lingers there for several seconds as if debating his options, attention on the girl resting against me, and at length enters the room and shuts the door behind him. Instead of heading to his dresser, however, he comes up between the two beds. I level a warning look at him that he has to feel even if he can't see it in this darkness, but he ignores it. He touches a hand to Tot's shoulder and leans over, and I stare hard at his face as he murmurs something in her ear. I can't hear the words, not with her choked sobs filling the air between us, but I can catch the tone, and it sounds like quiet reassurance. She nods at whatever it is and I feel a little of her anxiety melt, but she still needs to get all of this off her chest and she doesn't even slow in her tears.

    Crawford straightens and pulls at the blanket, fixing it so that it's actually covering both of us. I just stare at him as he turns away to get changed for bed, momentarily forgetting about the girl who's trying to make a new Japan Sea on my night shirt. If Crawford notices that he's managed to completely capture my attention, he doesn't acknowledge it, and I watch him until he's in his bed across from mine. I look from Tot to him to the closed door, then back at him again, and I feel some anxious knot in my stomach finally relax.

    Looks like I found the dominant personality. Maybe Farfarello was the one that was acting as a filter against the world, wrapped as he was around Crawford's shattered mind, but the one who was acting and reacting was some warped bit of Schwarz's 'flawless' precognitive.

    Tot's finally slowing down to thick sniffles and I drag my attention back to her. She leans a little away from me, not to escape my hold but because her clogged nose makes it hard to breathe and she needs more space than what she had plastered up against me. I shift my grip on her and she finally relaxes her hold a little, and her thoughts are much better between that release, my presence, and Crawford's words.

    Crawford, hm?

    "Hey, Crawford," I send at his mind. It's questionable whether he hears it with those shields of his, but that's all right. "Even if you eat the spider, the web's still there. Who's going to step up and guard those strings now?"

    He opens his eyes to look at me and we stare each other down over Tot's head. He says nothing to that small challenge, but that's all right. The man only recovered from six months' of insanity a week ago. I'll give him another day or two before I start kicking him. Satisfied, I shift my grip on Tot again and look down at her.

    "If you get boogers on my shirt, we can't be friends anymore."

    She manages a little giggle at that, followed by a strained "Oops."

    I sigh heavily. "Dork."


    Tot's in better spirits in the morning, but things aren't really fixed. Two of Schreient are gone, leaving just Tot and Birdie, and we still don't know what's going to happen next. The girls are set up on a different floor than Schwarz, and the six of us are the only guests here at this resort. I don't want to know what Crawford had to pay to reserve every room in the place for a week. As long as it's not coming out of my cut, I guess it's okay.

    After a week here, it's time for Schwarz to sit down and talk. I was too out of it yesterday to be much use to any of them, but today's the most we can put it off. The four of us stare each other down over lunch in an otherwise abandoned cafeteria. Nagi is looking much better than he did a week ago. He's sorry that Tot's sad, but he doesn't really care about Schreient or Weiß, so that showdown with Estet was a complete victory and he's feeling viciously satisfied over Silvia's demise. Across from him, Farfarello is still maintaining yesterday's air of passive disinterest, but that's cool because my death isn't anywhere in his thoughts.

    Crawford is sitting across from me at our square table, which gives me plenty of opportunity to look at him. He's looking perfectly cool and calm, but I'm fine with that. I saw Crawford last night. Maybe he's not a beaming, indulging goof anymore, but some semblance of consideration is buried deep beneath the mask of a man who has to keep a team like this together. Drugs and guns and crooked politicians mean none of us can be friendly people, but Crawford can't lead a team without some real interest in what we want. And wasn't Crawford the one that referenced emotional investment in that plush just because it was named after Nagi?

    Crawford's not cold at all. I was just too startled by the abrupt personality change to see it immediately.

    Working on the assumption that he values our input to some degree, I decide to kick-start the conversation with an: "I don't want to leave Japan."

    "You don't like Japan," Farfarello reminds me.

    "It grows on you like mold, given enough time. It's not as itchy, though."

    "What's wrong with Japan?" our resident native asks. I just look at him and he frowns at me, missing the issues entirely, so I start counting them off on my fingers.

    "The shoes are too small, people eat with sticks, everyone looks at me funny, they've got spaghetti for subways, and they sell things like mayonnaise and shrimp chips."

    "I like those," Nagi points out.

    "Was that an argument to stay or go?" Crawford asks me.

    "Stay, I said," I send at him.

    "Why?" Nagi wants to know.

    I think about that. "I don't know," I answer at length. "It's easy to think up a list of things I don't like, but impossible to put into words what I do like. It's not Germany, but that's not all of it. I just know that I want to stay."

    I look over at Crawford, who studies us over the rim of his water glass. "It's possible that Rosenkreuz's Cabinet would officially assign us to Tokyo," he tells us. "Takatori could prove to be a valuable asset in Japan."

    Nagi and Farfarello exchange looks, communicating without words. I watch them and I'm smirking when they finish. Nagi hears my quiet snort and glances my way. His mouth is open to answer Crawford, but he forgets his words at the look on my face. He drops his attention to his plate, a little flustered, and Farfarello answers for the both of them with a shrug. At some point we'll have to teach the potato muncher what "communication" means.

    Crawford gives it a few more seconds to see if anyone has anything else to add. When we're silent, he gives a slight nod. "I will put it before the Cabinet. Whether or not they accept is up to their discretion. Either way, we are still required to put in an appearance in Austria. They will wish to hear firsthand about the past six months and they need to meet Schuldig to register him with Schwarz."

    I feel my stomach twist. "I don't want to go unless we're driving there."

    "Unfortunately, that would take too long, and your father is not a man to be kept waiting."

    It's hard to swallow my water around where my heart is lodged in my throat, but I manage somehow. Until this psychotic mess started, I'd just always assumed the man was dead. I'm not sure what to think of having a father- in particular, one who Crawford obeys. "I don't care."

    "He is on the Cabinet of Rosenkreuz," Crawford tells me. "Don't disrespect him."

    "I don't care," I insist again. "He can screw off. They wrote Schwarz off as useless six months ago, didn't they? Some support group. Besides, I don't follow him or his crabby Cabinet. I follow you. When you took me out of that cell, it was to be Schwarz and your telepath. Rosenkreuz didn't factor into that decision. I haven't said I'll give a rat's ass about them yet."

    "Such blind loyalty," Nagi muses.

    "It's not blind loyalty if you're following a precognitive," I point out.

    "You don't even know him," Nagi reminds me, though I get the feeling he's arguing with me out of curiosity rather than any real wish to shake my faith in the Oracle. "You were interacting with insanity."

    I just offer Nagi a lazy smile. "I'm a telepath. I'll figure it out."

    He says nothing to that and neither do the other two. The silence stretches between us until Crawford nods. "I will let Takatori know that we will be unavailable for a few days," he says. "Farfarello, I leave Schuldig's shields to you. We will leave for Austria in the morning."

    "Speaking of Takatori…" I start.

    Crawford just gestures to Nagi. "Nagi can trace the children."

    "Children?" Nagi asks blankly.

    "Those kids Takatori's thugs brought in the country," I tell him. "I'm going to tell Weiß where to find them, so you get to figure out where he scattered them to. I traded the kids for Weiß's help against Estet."

    "That doesn't mean you have to follow through," Nagi says. I just look at him and he looks at Crawford. "Is that really all right?"

    "Takatori won't be able to trace it back to us and Schuldig prefers it this way," he answers. "He secured Weiß on his own, so it is his choice how to deal with them."

    "Why?" Farfarello asks me bluntly.

    I give him my 'Hi, are you a retard?' look. "They're kids."

    "Not yours."


    "For all you know, they were sold by their parents," Nagi tells me. "If you send them home again, they'll just spring at the next opportunity to make quick money."

    "And if it's through Takatori's ring, I'll just send Weiß to gather them up again. They're useful like that with their whole 'vigilantism is cool' fetish."

    "Why do you care?"

    I look around at them where they're all three watching me. "Because I can," I answer.

    They continue to stare for a minute more before Nagi's expression relaxes a little. "They're nothing alike," he observes, speaking to the other two, "but I guess that's all right. Mm, Farfarello?"

    Farfarello just eyes me. "Mold," he decides at last.

    I flick a bean at him for that, but he catches it before it can splat against his temple. That's probably all that saves my sorry excuse of a life, judging by the look of cool warning he sends me. I turn back to the safer task of stuffing my face and Crawford leaves us there to arrange things with Takatori and Rosenkreuz.

    I'm the only one who watches him leave.


    There's a huge bathroom on the first floor of the resort with a swimming pool for a tub. Instructions in Japanese have rather explicit rules about how one is supposed to go about bathing in such a ridiculously oversized tub, but I ignore all of them and plunk down in the water. One of the walls is all glass sliding doors with a clear view of trees and mountains and I fold my arms on the edge of the tub to stare out at it. I'm tense and sore from Farfarello messing with my shields, but I can feel the heat starting to relax me.

    I've almost dozed off when Nagi shows up, and he makes himself comfortable squatting on the tiles a short distance down from me. "We're heading into the city," he tells me. "Tot and Neu are going to be staying in our rooms at Moriyama's until we figure out what to do with them. Farfarello and I are going with them to get our things out of Schreient's headquarters and put them somewhere safer, and we're going to spend the night in the city."

    "Should I ask Crawford if you're going to get any tonight?"

    He does his best to pretend he didn't hear that. "Schreient should have a secure computer somewhere in their building, and I'll use that to track the children for you."

    "For Weiß," I correct him. "Little cat's number is in my cell phone. He's the only one besides Tot who's called me, so it should be easy to find."

    He nods at that. "We're taking Schreient's car and leaving the other one here. You and Crawford will drive out and meet us at the airport early tomorrow morning. Crawford says our flight is for half past eleven, so we need to get through security around ten."

    I wonder if I should ask how far away Tokyo is, but I don't really want to do the math and see how early I have to wake up. Instead I nod. Nagi nods back at me and straightens, but he's only taken a few steps when I speak up. "Who's not alike?" I want to know.

    Nagi looks back at me. "You and McKay," he answers, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "I had nothing against him, really, but the two of you are polar opposites personality-wise. He believed in Rosenkreuz's ideals and his own strength."

    "He was self-centered," I conclude.

    "Everyone is self-centered to some degree," Nagi points out. "The more powerful people, more deservedly so, perhaps."

    I think about my mother and taste blood and dust. "Strong people aren't supposed to be self-centered," I tell Nagi. "They just end up crushing other people beneath them."

    "And what, the weak should be protected?" Nagi asks, a little mockingly.

    "The weak just get their asses kicked," I answer. "If he was strong, he should have cared more about Schwarz than his own power. Maybe that's why Crawford couldn't find a way to save him in the end."

    Nagi tilts his head to one side, considering me. "He had faith in all the right things, Schuldig. He was everything Rosenkreuz and Crawford needed him to be."


    Nagi frowns at me, not understanding that challenge, but I ignore him in favor of my thoughts. He says something that sounds like a farewell and leaves, and I count the minutes that tick away after his exit. At last I push myself up out of the tub. There are towels in the changing room at the front, but I don't slow to get one. It doesn't really matter; the floor in the hallways is all polished wood and the trail of water I'm leaving can be cleaned up easily.

    I go up to the second floor where my bedroom with Crawford is and push the door open. Crawford's working in a notepad that has the resort's logo on it, making a rough draft of whatever report he's going to file with Rosenkreuz, I assume. A plate of apple slices is on the nightstand and I wonder if he cut them up himself before deciding it doesn't really matter. The resort staff are still on hand, but they're keeping a good distance from us at Crawford's request.

    I wait until he looks up and I stare at him through dripping orange hair. He blinks at the sight of me naked and soaking wet and I watch his eyes instinctively glance down, following pale skin all the way down to where two small puddles are forming around my feet. The bath was hot but I'm cold now and just growing colder as I wait for him to look me in the eyes again.

    "I'm selfish," I tell him. "I'm selfish and childish and retarded and I can't do anything about that. But who else is ever going to make you their number one? I never had anything before Schwarz, so I have nothing else that can be the center of my universe. Isn't that enough? Can't I be enough?"

    Crawford considers me in silence for a few seconds. "You know nothing about me," he reminds me.

    I take the first step into the room. "Don't make me leave in the morning and I'll have time to learn."

    He doesn't say anything to that, so I close the rest of the small gap to his bed. He doesn't say anything when I climb onto his sheets, either, but he does move his notes safely out of the way of my dripping. I catch his face in both hands to kiss him, and it's almost hard enough to hurt. It doesn't freak me out now like it did just a week ago and I press forward, wanting more. I want him to tell me again that I'm not worthless. I want him to tell me again that I can stay. If he won't say it, then I want to feel it.

    I'm still practically a stranger to Crawford, just a vision made reality who did exactly what Crawford needed me to do with Estet, but he still reaches up. I feel his fingers curl around the back of my neck and my first thought is that he's searching for a grip to pull me off. When he doesn't, I don't really care if it's because of my words or because his body wants this. Whichever one it is, I have plenty of time to kick it into what I want.

    Somewhere between the second and third kiss, I'm not the one leading anymore. He kisses me like he kissed me up against the side of the car just a week and a half ago, all strength and surety, and I trade my grip on his face for a knotted hold on his shirt. His hands smear away the water on my skin to leave heat behind and it's hard to think I was cold just a few seconds ago. I push at him and he pushes at me, and I end up on my back on the mattress.

    There's a fleeting flicker of panic, a memory of the last time I let someone push me down. Two dozen-odd alleyway encounters and one hard bed, and it always ended with a door slamming in my face. I know Crawford's different; I know that I'm Schwarz. But there's still a sharp spike in my stomach and I know Crawford sees it on my face.

    We stare each other down, testing the dangerously unstable line between us. Maybe Crawford's gift is enough to warn him what he's getting into with this and I wonder if he's looking at me or at a future. I don't ask. I don't want to know. I barely have enough faith in the present; I'm not going to start worrying about the future if someone else is around to do it for me. I just twist my hand in his shirt and at last he leans down to kiss me again.

    "You are my telepath," Crawford says, "whatever that turns out to mean. You'll be leaving here in the morning, but not alone."

    Not alone. Crawford and Nagi and Farfarello- and Tot, when we come back to Japan, because I'm sure Crawford can convince the Cabinet to send us back here. Schwarz. This man is holding the rest of my life behind those shields of his. It feels lighter when someone else gets to carry the weight of it. I just get to worry about the better things, like the weight of his body against mine.

    "Good enough," I tell him. "Good enough."

    He tastes like apples when he kisses me.

    Funny how life always comes full circle.


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