To Droston, for her birthday, and to Lux, for everything. A note: certain circumstances as involve the concept of Crawford testing Schuldig were devised through a combined force of brain power, and the scene belongs as much to me as it does to Xai. No one stone me, this is a weird-ass fic.
since I cannot prove a lover,...
I am determined to prove a villain
-Richard III, Shakespeare
Schuldig's blood pressure is low. In this winter with the laziness of hibernation he spends a lot of time on the couch, and what time he spends getting up from the couch, though minimal, is infiltrated by spotted dizziness and momentary blackouts. His fingernails turn blue. He feels trapped inside a cocoon, embalmed, mummified and without hunger. This is the winter of their reinvention. These are the short, dark days which build into long, cold months. If Schuldig were in exile he would understand the impatience itching at his fingertips. He wants to be in control of the world again, as sure of himself as ever. He wants to see Crawford in control of the world again, quiet in the middle of a crowded room, one finger on every string. Schuldig has never been in full control of his body and left only with his body he is discontent.
In between daytime talk shows Schuldig prepares himself snacks he doesn't eat. He leaves the refrigerator door open, spiteful and petulant. He throws out slices of perfectly good bread because he hates whole wheat. He makes milkshakes out of peanut butter, cookies and milk. He visits Farfarello with these offerings, feeding him to build up his energy. In a far corner of the room he watches as Farfarello gnaws at the fabric of his straightjacket. Schuldig is given the impression of a stir-crazy pet, an undomesticated animal bred in captivity. Farfarello's dangerous hands are twisted, hidden beneath white fabric against his biceps. They stretch both wristless sleeves tight in struggle. His gold eye rolls back and forth over each inch of the white room. Schuldig remembers when Farfarello put his head in a bucket full of bleach. He's not even an albino; he's fake, a self-made monstrosity. He's built out of days spent in the darkness, of artificial light, of bathing in bleach when no one was watching. He's just an Irish religious freak. Who cares, Schuldig thinks, this nut job isn't so special. Schuldig is dissatisfied with Farfarello television. He crosses the room. He touches him to change the channel, to illicit wild, snapping responses. They have one long conversation in German, Farfarello preaching and theorizing, Schuldig telling him to go fuck himself. "Go fuck yourself," Schuldig says. His English is always nasally broken, perfect but inescapably foreign. He knots his skinny fingers in Farfarello's bristled hair. It feels dead like wire, pleasant like stubble, rough like brillo in the sink.
"Now is the winter of our discontent," Farfarello says. His head rolls around and around. Schuldig imagines it holding onto his hands instead of the other way around, catching Schuldig in the circular current. "Now, now, now," Farfarello hums. "Now, now, now." Schuldig remembers when he was an uninspiring redhead with three head voices and one brogue voice. Farfarello thinks in poetry today, iambic pentameter adopting singsong tunes through the rhyme and the rhythm. Schuldig knows if he'd ever gone to school, if he'd ever picked up a book and wanted to read it, he wouldn't feel so freaked out by the library in Farfarello's brain. "Our bruised arms hung up for monuments," Farfarello is saying, "our stern alarums changed to merry meetings." The corner of Schuldig's eye twitches. It feels like habit. He traces the line of Farfarello's eye patch, pulls himself free of Farfarello's brain like quicksand, takes the sticky milkshake glass, and leaves.
The kitchen sink is piled high with his own empty dishes. It's a lazy sight. He washes peanut butter from the inside of the glass, scrubbing with his fingernails. Nagi is at the counter beside him, buttering bread before he puts it in the toaster. It's late March. Schuldig hates late March. It's a seasonal limbo, an indefinite stretch of vacationless time. Is it winter? Not exactly. Is it spring yet? Not for a while. The sky outside shifts gray upon a canvas of more gray. Will it rain? No. Will the sun make its daily appearance? Maybe. There is only a cold humidity and the flipping a-rhythms of Schuldig's heart because he hasn't eaten yet and the cold has become a part of his blood. He imagines it growing thick in the chambers of his chest, in the weak-muscled ventricles, slipping backwards into wrong directions, filtering old blood into new. The mental image is so disgusting he wants to vomit. "Now is the winter of our discontent," he says. The starving silence devours his words. "What the fuck is that from?" Nagi scrapes butter off the butter knife onto the crust. An abrasive sound. Schuldig wants to be deaf.
"Richard the third," Nagi says. "Shakespeare." He gestures towards the bread, white bread, sliced appropriately in front of him. An offer Nagi hopes is just interesting enough.
"Sure," Schuldig says. "Why not. It's four o'clock and I'm hungry." Nagi butters two more slices. Schuldig wonders if he's been put on babysitting duty, if this is just a ploy to make Schuldig eat a meal for once. There's something too comforting about toast, for one thing. Too homey. Nagi lays the butter on so thick Schuldig wants to ask him if he's going to have a little bread with his fat but the truth is, it looks good. Greasy and shimmering in the middle of the table, it looks damn good. Schuldig thinks of all the foods in his life that look good. Macaroni and cheese, chocolate cake, vanilla fudge ice cream, cheap beer, breakfast sausage, bacon, rice krispie treats, bread and too much butter. The whole world, Schuldig decides, is designed to make you a fat lazy asshole with high cholesterol and a bad heart. His heart agrees, choking on the rhythm, reminding him of his blue fingernails and the white shade of dizziness familiar behind his eyes.
Waiting in the kitchen for toast affects the passage of time. Schuldig rearranges the plain black magnets on the refrigerator-freezer while Nagi watches the toaster oven. The sound of the kitchen clock is infuriating, moving not in a straight line but curling all around Schuldig's head. It smells like melting butter and burning bread crumbs until the toaster oven pops with a zing or zings with a pop and Nagi slides the four pieces out onto two plates, sucking his nearly-burnt left forefinger. "Pick a plate," he says. Schuldig points at random. Nagi picks up the other and they take their toast into the living room where the television is trying to get them to buy Viagra.
"Just think, just look at these assholes," Schuldig says. "Just look at this motherfucker. He probably has a wife somewhere who hates him because the only work he can get is selling penis pills." Nagi bites into his toast. He watches to see if Schuldig will eat. Schuldig takes an obliging bite, big and noisy. "Are you happy? Toast. It's fucking delicious. I'm going to have a fucking infarction, but an mm-mm good one."
"Why do you talk in slogans?" Nagi asks him.
"Commercials," Schuldig says. "I like commercials." The question 'why' is imminent. Schuldig doesn't even wait for it. "At least they don't pretend they're not trying to sell you something," he explains. "They want you to buy something from them, make them rich, give them their vacations to Florida or the, what is it, the fucking Bahamas, they tell you. They say 'Buy our shit, our shit's the best,' and sometimes they hire a nice pair of tits for it, too." Schuldig takes another bite of toast and chews without consideration and swallows roughly. "I've always wanted to go to America," he adds, "because that's all it is. One giant goddamn commercial. Tokyo comes close, Tokyo's all right, with the lights and shit, but it's not what Japan is. It's what America is. Someone tells you to buy his shit, his shit's the best, everywhere you turn."
Nagi shrugs. Schuldig says things like this all the time and whether he means it or not isn't important. It sounds good, crass but good, but it just means he's bored. His brain has nothing else to do. "Let's watch a movie," Nagi says. He flips the channels. "Something funny, maybe."
"I want to see someone's head blow up," Schuldig says.
"All right," Nagi acquiesces. "That's OK, too."
Schuldig dreams often. Whether they are his own dreams or the conglomeration of others is unimportant. They are a coded vocabulary, maze-like and wandering, which follow the inevitable patterns of language. Schuldig -- watching, participating, translating -- is never lost.
It was in this way he followed Bradley Crawford halfway across Germany without ever having been introduced. It was in this way he first saw him, the white angle of a hard strong jaw and the proud neat profile, the young face young only when it wished to be but ordered as a stockbroker's, collected as an accountant's, powerful as a murderer's. He looked like a Roman emperor, unstable and godly, stepping out of a car or drinking a cup of European coffee or straightening his tie. Schuldig watched him as he checked into his hotel in Belgium and watched him as he dined that evening on moules et pommes frites and watched him as he opened the door to room three-oh-five. It had not been enough then to steal from the eyes of the desk clerk checking him in, the waitress serving him, the bellboy eavesdropping on sex in room three-oh-seven. Schuldig, fourteen and a thousand pre-pubescent angles, followed him that night through the stepping-stones of sleep, from bedroom to bedroom. He began halfway across town and followed each dreamer as if the pathways of their dreams were a network of tightropes. He clung to each thread with his toes and swayed in the uncertain balance. At times he almost fell into the dark space of the subconscious. Once, he was chased across his tightrope by a dream-tiger; he was almost hung by his neck in dream-homicide; he barely escaped a tidal wave so high it blocked out a dream-sun. He made it to the post-coital dreamless relaxation of room three-oh-seven. For a precarious moment he paused between stones and looked down into the black water where past and future met: the single ripple of the present at the very center and all its causes and effects circling infinitely outwards. For a precarious moment he found him, Bradley Crawford as young and asleep as a human being, the steady and automatic breathing, the reality of a strong body relaxed in the inevitable natural, the unreality of pre-dawn gray with indecision. Then, Crawford felt him, spider fingers on his hippocampus. The kick was as physical as a boot in Schuldig's stomach and he woke halfway across a dark room with blood pouring from his nose and his heart like a jackhammer deep in his belly, where the blue-black bruise had bloomed sometime that morning. It was noon. The sun was high. Bradley Crawford was knocking on his door.
Tonight Schuldig dreams in rural undertones. This is the Germany of his youth, the sprawling green, the freedom of gypsies. Here are his mother's skirts, the lack of fixity, the fine broad back of his father in the setting sun. He does not know if he was a gypsy, if these dreams are his to dream, if his father's nose was ever broken the angle at which it now protrudes from the rest of his tired face. He does not know if he is German; perhaps he is Austrian, perhaps this is France, perhaps the sun belongs to Liechtenstein or perhaps the snow will fall soon where his feet make no mark on Russia. Schuldig has been left too long to himself. He has thought about himself in what capacity he may and has learned he is as illusory as the voices which pass, shaking hands idly, from synapse to synapse in the back of his brain.
Schuldig brushes his teeth after almost finishing an omelet. He is going out today. His face in the mirror is pinched and white, his wide lips too wide, his grin an odd angle. The line of his jaw where it meets his neck is tight. He sees each muscle move when he swallows, the ribbed outline of his pale throat stark in the mirror. He has held an esophagus in one hand before, he has felt the ridges against his fingers, he has known intimately the translucent tube. The comparison makes his stomach clench. Eggs are disgusting, he thinks. He is never eating eggs again, and certainly not scrambled, and certainly not with American cheese. Fuck America, he thinks, and fuck American food products, and fuck American commercials. If he sees another car commercial he's going to start blowing factories up. He's going to start with Toyota because he hates the goddamn songs they keep using. While he's at it, he's going to blow up light beer companies. Light beer tastes like piss-water.
Schuldig sticks his head out the window. The weather report is always wrong no matter what. The wind bites at his cheeks and someone in another penthouse passes by the picture window, sees him in his underwear, and nearly trips over a footstool. Schuldig gives him the finger and ducks back inside. Socks, he tells himself, then pants, then a shirt. A sweater. A hat. A denim jacket hanging loose and unbuttoned. Sneakers. He slips into his pocket a pack of unfiltered cigarettes hidden in the bottom drawer with his boxers. If he's going to chain-smoke in the park, he's going to do it right. It's not going to be some momentary indulgence, some half hour of nicotine neuroses. He's going to smoke so damn much he won't be able to look at a cigarette for weeks because they'll cease to be a novelty. If he can just flood himself with too much of one thing, there won't be anything new in it left to interest him.
It's why he likes eating breakfast across the long white table from Crawford. Every day the newspaper is different. The routine is in the way Crawford holds the newspaper in one hand and drinks his coffee with the other. The excitement comes from the headlines changing and whatever Crawford is thinking changing. Always on the outside Crawford is impeccable and implacable as ever. He never lets on that Schuldig has seen him mentally naked in his sleep. Schuldig has seen him stripped down to the essentials, the core, the sixth sentience. They don't talk about it.
The combination of stability and insecurity drives Schuldig wild with the thrill of addiction. There's something new each day, beneath the lie of coffee grounds and fried eggs. There are few things Schuldig works for; he isn't consistent, he isn't dedicated and he doesn't pay attention. But some mornings he knows that he found Crawford instead of the other way around, and if he just keeps digging he'll get something in return. He has empty fingers, but he wants full hands. That's determination. That's what Crawford wants from him, he thinks. After working with Crawford so long and knowing so little, he gets just wild wondering about what will happen when he wins.
On some late night science program, Schuldig's strategy was explained to him in evolutionary terms. If he ducks his head enough times, if he deploys deference, then he'll get fed every night, he'll have a place to stay, he can pull his shit and there will always be a glass wall between himself and the law. More than that, he knows he'll come out on top. Crawford promises the world. They could have drowned, sinking with the rubble into the water. They could have been just like those three old bastards, failing with everyone else, prone to the limitations of human bone, muscle, skin. But they aren't. They're better. Crawford, settling into his chair at breakfast, pouring himself one cup of black coffee at eight o'clock sharp every morning, promises the world like an egg over easy on Schuldig's plate.
With the future in mind, the present is stale in comparison. It tastes bitter in Schuldig's mouth with the memory of toothpaste burning at his gums. In the room all the way down at the end of the hall is the schizophrenic. In the room just off the bathroom Crawford is working. Schuldig can hear the sound of the computer keyboard through the thick door and the even thicker walls. Crawford is remote, nearly invisible, in a world which Schuldig would only intrude upon. Crawford is planning something. In the room across from Schuldig's Nagi is doing whatever it is pubescent boys do, masturbating or looking up porn on the internet or, knowing Nagi, reading. Schuldig is going to have to teach him how to masturbate some day so he stops looking so serious. Schuldig scratches the back of his shin with the toe of his shoe and heads down the hall.
"I'm feeding the pigeons," he tells Farfarello before he leaves. "How many do you want?"
"Three," Farfarello replies, "three, three."
Fujimiya Aya is chewing cinnamon gum. It is almost losing its flavor, so that she draws it out along her tongue and sucks the last sharpness of spice back into her throat. The flowers are arranged alphabetically in a semi-circle around the shop, ordered from Alstroemeria to Zinnia. That was Sakura's touch, still more organized than Aya has found herself capable of. She pauses in sweeping the floor to blow a bubble. She snaps it back. She pushes hair from her eyes. Certain habits from the unclear mess of memories labeled Before have remained with her. She wears her hair in two equal braids, which she keeps tucked behind a bandana when working. Her movements are schoolgirl-childish. She has skinny legs, delicate hands, a very pretty face. As if it is ritual and expected, her mind is wandering, transcending the categorical flower buds and thinking of her brother. Were she as the external suggested, she would be normal, unimpressive, bland. She would have a boyfriend, she would have quiet thoughts, she would have something other than a distracted smile fading in and out of shadows over her face. There is more to her than the motions of a young woman. She doesn't go to concerts, to clubs, or even to restaurants; she doesn't know how to flirt; she doesn't want to know. A span of years stretches uncharted and unchanged through her conscious. It's a stumbling block, a high-rise wall, and on both un-bridged sides are segments of herself.
Once, she found two pieces of a worm in the park, one dead and one struggling short movements in the dirt. Aya's fingers pause on a rose, re-arranging her favorite arrangement. She feels like that worm, but she is unsure which side of her is dead and which struggles forward towards hope of regeneration. Dull music filters in from the flower shop speakers. Outside a woman bends over to smell the Azaleas. Aya is assured of her body's position, bent over as well, one white sweater sleeve rolled up, the knot on her apron neat, her fingers clutched in unexpected hunger around the rose. She has always liked the rose, she reminds herself. It has always been her favorite flower. An unoriginal choice, but hers. She is good at mending and cooking dinner and making dessert and her lithe fingers are excellent at the minutiae of origami. She is a dedicated worker and she is skilled at flower arrangements. She synthesizes colors well, she understands how to balance textures, she knows that stem length and flower scent is also important. Sakura is kind to her but Aya catches herself wondering if they are really sisters or if their resemblances are a cruel joke. Sakura braids her hair as if they are best friends, though at first Aya would not have been able to guess her favorite color, her favorite flavor of ice cream, or any of the myriad details that signify friendship and intimacy. Aya wonders if this is unkind of her. If she could remember the long years in the hospital it would be easier. But her memories move from the sudden, blinding green of the car lights just after the explosion to the smell of sea salt, waking to the night sky and Sakura and the beautiful redhead all that time later. There is nothing in the space between. It is as intangible as a hidden dream. It is as sudden and as infinite as death.
Schuldig liked her more when she was comatose. Now, she thinks too much, moving back and forth in the window of the familiar flower shop. She is plagued with uncertainties. Granted they are wholly her own. They are unique and original. No one else is thinking her thoughts. But there is no vast canvas of gentle white for him to hide in now. As a safe haven she has been ruined. She is a person again, with all the loud niggling worries of humanity, with all the ins and outs of constant thought, with none of the beauty of her pristine, internal, dead silence. Schuldig lights up another cigarette and watches her, back and forth, back and forth, in the display window. Sakura left for her lunch break fifteen minutes ago. He wants to go up and introduce himself and take the pretty Fujimiya Aya out to lunch. He wants to run her over again with a car so that she'll be who she was once, what she was, when he held her in his arms. A deep dark tunnel to bury himself in. A human graveyard. An anomaly. Abandoned by time. A vessel filled with absolute silence. To tell the truth, he'd once been a little frightened by her. Listening to her now makes him angry because she's just an accidental girl. She won't be anything ever again, not in a meaningful way, not made to last or broken into something glorious.
She could have taken over the world. Now, she's rearranging roses.
What's especially funny to Schuldig is that she just doesn't know. Her crazy-as-fuck brother spent so long trying to get her back that he didn't know what to do with her now that she's up and running again and he's out of the picture. She isn't useful to Kritiker anymore and they're not sticking around to explain anything, either. She's stuck with a crazy old lady running a flower shop and a girl named Sakura who never knew anything about the situation to begin with. They go about their lives in daily anonymity, boring little chess pieces, not worth Schuldig's time.
Except one beautiful thought in Fujimiya Aya's mind rises high above the others. It opens white wings; it unfurls purple petals. It's the color of a bruise and tastes like a plum. Schuldig draws smoke into his lungs and breathes it out with shaky breathlessness. Aya is thinking about her brother, one young memory by the side of a pool. It is summer. They kick their feet out before them. They search for no other company but themselves. They hold hands. Their parents are at the far end of the pool and as their toes brush buoyant in the chlorinated water, Aya watches her brother with thirteen year old adoration and Schuldig sees through the fringed lashes shading her eyes the first boy she's ever had a crush on.
"Shit," Schuldig says. He doesn't have a PhD but he knows more about the workings of the mind than the rest of the over-analyzing population of psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts and all the other lunatics looking to cure themselves using other people as guinea pigs. He knows what he's seeing. He knows what he's listening to. He doesn't put it through any filters; he doesn't need to read between the lines. This isn't subtle. Emotions rarely are. Words are where the limitations of vocabulary come in but when you're thinking in chlorine-blue and sunlight and the high cheekbones of your brother's face nothing's been lost between memory, realization and denial. The mind is a machine with all the machinations of one, cogs and gears, gray matter and white matter. Schuldig's just lucky enough or fucked up enough to hear each whirr and buzz and each pattern of organized mental movement as words he understands. Some speaker in the back of his brain picks right up on it. Surround-sound world. Truth in telepathy. "Shit," Schuldig says. He forgets about Farfarello's pigeons, about half a pack of cigarettes left untouched. He forgets about the long weeks of no productivity. Sunlight is coming out from behind the trees.
He takes the long way home.
Chinese food for dinner. Schuldig is peeling his sesame chicken into layers. Nagi has long since grown disgusted and left the table, and now Crawford watches Schuldig with the stern dissatisfaction of a disappointed role model. Schuldig has all the sesame seeds piled up in one corner of his plate. His fingers, sticky and sweet, dissect his food. He was bored with eating before he began. One meal a day is too much. It tries his patience. He ate this morning under Crawford's watchful eye and now he's putting on a show until Crawford gets sick and tired of the indulgence.
"Schuldig," Crawford says. Seven fifty five. Crawford is right on time. Five minutes of Schuldig's bullshit is five minutes just enough.
"Abyssinian," Schuldig says. "I always remembered him because he was that member of Weiss who wanted to fuck his sister. The one in the coma. Fujimiya Aya. You remember." Of course Crawford remembers. "I saw her today," Schuldig continues. "In the flower shop." Crawford's expression says this isn't relevant. "No, no," Schuldig says. "Listen. She wants to fuck him, too." Maybe Crawford is the wrong person to tell. Farfarello would get a kick out of it, Nagi's last vestiges of youth and vulnerability would panic at the mention, but Crawford is stoic as a statue. For a long minute it's as if Schuldig is talking to himself.
"Interesting," Crawford says. He doesn't mean it.
"Are you eating that?" Schuldig gestures with chopsticks.
"Go ahead." Because the food is on Crawford's plate Schuldig has given it extraterrestrial values. It's a piece of pork, red around the edges. He eats it with exaggerated chews.
"She actually wants to fuck him," he insists, between bites. "She's got a head like two rooms with no door, and on one side she misses him and on the other side she's looking at him all the fucking time with this crush on him like he's a boy in her math class, not her own fucking brother." Crawford's expression says why are you telling me. Schuldig eats the last of the pork, a supplicant gesture to get what he wants. It's what dogs do, in the wild, with humans. He feels the surge of adrenaline in his blood that means he wants to go out and get this hibernation out of his bones. He wants to mix signals and break something so he can fix it, or leave it broken, or watch it explode into countless shining shattered pieces. Crawford senses his eagerness and the brief flash of tomorrow shifts almost unnoticeably across his irises. Schuldig has been trained to watch such changes, to know them thoroughly. Prophetic visions touch only the very center of Crawford's eyes, dark as the minutes before dawn, the two circle-centers of his power.
"The emergency button," Crawford tells him, "once pressed, will give you one hour while the mechanisms reset." He lifts his own plate and carries it to the sink. Schuldig watches his back shift beneath his dress shirt, muscle beneath fabric. The sound of the running water doesn't soothe, but it's familiar. Schuldig rearranges the pieces of chicken on his plate into a face. He isn't good at planning. He has ideas, bursts of inspiration, unchecked impulses. Crawford never gives him parameters without directions.
"Who the fuck knew this shit got you off," Schuldig says. He laughs slyly. Crawford turns and looks at him over one straight, taut shoulder.
"It keeps you out of trouble," Crawford replies. As an afterthought, he adds, "The red button. One hour. No katana." Rolled up shirtsleeves, wet hands, an infinite presence, on the verge of something big, indulgent and proud. "Enjoy."
It feels like Schuldig's birthday. The air is crisp and not without promise. He leaves clues all morning long, converging paths leading to his proverbial doorstep, scattered signs, planted puzzle pieces. Fujimiya Ran is neither here nor there at first but Schuldig has known him in the full flush of swordplay, has seen him move, has watched Crawford parry his slim katana blade with his bare fists. Schuldig finds him easily: he is closer to his sister than Schuldig would have expected but just far enough away for safety. Schuldig grabs hold of the relevant memories and brings them to the forefront, so that by lunchtime the assassin formerly known as Abyssinian scuttles like a bug beneath his palm. Ran cannot think beyond that starless night high above the glistening water, Schuldig's laughter as the floor collapsed beneath them, the sounds they made when they thought they were drowning. The wet ways they struggled onto dry land, the misgivings they harbored, the lost evidence sinking deep beneath the soon still water. Schuldig insinuates every second fresh doubts over the forced complacence of Ran's thoughts. Somewhere in this world, Ran finds himself thinking, the people who kidnapped his sister are still alive. They could be just behind him in the crowd. At any minute they could decide it is a nice day for flowers. Schuldig digs his nails into the back of Ran's brain and pulls him closer.
"How rude," a woman says. She brings a rose close to her face, breathing in deep. Ran hears her voice somehow, rising like a divine warning above the noise of the crowd. "He looked like a foreigner. Flashy. Sunglasses. A green suit. Just knocked into me, didn't even apologize."
There is trouble around every corner in the world, Ran remembers. There are assassins in every doorway. The paths of Weiss and Schwarz were not made to meet for a moment, form unimportant interstices, create soon-forgotten crossroads. A sign on a bus reminds Ran: THIS IS WHERE THE PAST MEETS THE FUTURE. Graffiti above a bodega's awning screams SCHWARZ in red spray paint. There is no such thing as déjà vu, Schuldig's fingers insist, there is no such thing as the accidental. He follows Ran across the grid of hints he has established. As if he is drawn by an invisible string, Ran is pulled ever closer through the hollow afternoon. The world fades behind him, around him, leaving only what lies ahead. Ran thinks he is a white knight, Schuldig reminds himself, and Schuldig is only triggering some half-buried instinct in him to hunt. Civilian's clothing can't make him a civilian again. Schuldig can see him as no one else sees him: a sword sheathed in a t-shirt and jeans, a coiled spring made of steel.
Schuldig retires into the abandoned apartment building. His muscles feel used for the first time in weeks. His body feels quick, alive, filling all its familiar spaces. The elevator offers up all its corners to him, a box of perfectly angled shadows. His hands fist at his sides.
"Schwarz." The door creaks open, twilight filtering into the long hallway. Ran's voice reaches Schuldig only faintly.
Closer. Schuldig's fingers have learned a language all their own. They don't speak; they create. A hollow reverberation of impulses inside Ran's skull, a trick Schuldig has only just taught himself. When he refines it, he'll tell Crawford. It isn't speaking mind-to-mind. It isn't planting words of his own. It's triggering the words he wants, where he wants them. The elevator. In the elevator. The sound of Ran's footsteps are delicious. The hallway is made out of old marble. Each sound echoes and reverberates, searching to bury itself away from its own disruption of the silence. Closer elevator closer. Schuldig can just make out Ran's shadow-elbow bend, Ran's shadow hand reaching for his sword, the ripple in Ran's silhouette of a full-bodied curse when he remembers what limitations are on him now.
"It's a terrible thing," Schuldig says, throwing his voice into the opposite corner of the elevator, shrouded in darkness, "being just another motherfucker in the crowd."
Ran lunges as the doors begin to shudder shut. The success of the moment relies upon timing so split-second Schuldig can only watch in fascination as time unfurls. Ran is inside the elevator, which shakes and rumbles, moody. Schuldig listens as the doors groan shut and the mechanisms overhead strain. They lift with a jerk, dragged upwards for not more than three seconds before Schuldig is everywhere at once, one hand at the emergency button, casting his shadows out around him and slowing Ran's vision synthesis, a physical cog in the works. It gives Schuldig just enough time before Ran lunges again to start the clock. One hour to keep this fucker from killing him with his bare hands. One hour to convince this fucker to screw his sister. One hour to do what Schuldig does best, though what Schuldig does best changes from day to day. One hour and he can expect a promotion, a raise, or a pat on the head and dinner at a restaurant, or maybe for Crawford to make spring start at last.
The idea comes to Schuldig over the heady flavor of panic surging blood and tension against Ran's temples. Schuldig is never as in his element as when he has plunged himself into a stupid situation. The idea is brilliant and glorious and undefined. Schuldig hopes he won't sever anything permanently. The last thing he needs is to fuck Abyssinian up, make him a paraplegic. It'll be a mess. Without any refinement and operating on impulse Schuldig grabs hold of the appropriate nerve endings and pinches them shut. Ran, the color of rice paper under the emergency overhead lights, is brittle, livid. The important thing is, he can't move. His hands are curved in twitching anger. They were just about to reach Schuldig's neck, just about to close and claw and choke, when Schuldig turned him off.
"We have one hour," Schuldig tells him. "Sit down. Relax a while." The nerves, which Schuldig can almost see just behind his eyelids, are puppet strings. Schuldig tugs and pinches. Ran's legs fold up beneath him. He sits Indian style in one corner of the elevator. Fifty-eight minutes. Schuldig smoothes a wrinkle in the lapel of his blazer and crouches opposite. He steeples his fingers between them. "So," he begins. "It's the funniest fucking thing. I saw your sister the other day."
Memories are almost kept on file, like a giant rolodex. Not quite. There's no alphabetization. Cards keep slipping free. Sometimes cards are half chewed up, like a puppy's gotten to them. Sometimes cards are glued to other cards, or thrown in a dark corner, or buried intentionally. Sometimes there's more than one rolodex. Sometimes you find little rolodexes hidden within the larger ones, like a present, like an Easter egg. But on the whole you can rifle through them if your fingers are quick enough and you know what you're looking for. An order made out of disorder, an arrangement made out of constant rearrangement. Most memories are never in the same place twice, flitting from brain-space to brain-space to keep out of the way of the real action. But they leave little clues in the gray matter behind them. A lot of the time, they want to be found. Selfish little fuckers. One memory on the whole isn't important. It's the splay of memory pieces, all together, concurrently, that make the man. Schuldig thumbs through the circular rolodex pathways like a pro. He moves faster than he knew he could, finds the proper files, and slots them in at the frontal lobe, pasting them down one at a time.
Let's start here.
Coming home to the sweet thick smell of gas and the prostrate sprawl of his parents' bodies, dead in the bedroom. The house was the safest place to be in the morning, but not in this moment. It's growing up in the span of a second to the sudden realization that shit happens every second. And in ten seconds, shit's going to happen all over again. The first thought is rather an absence of thought, a blank period of displacement and adjustment. But then animal instinct makes its way to the forefront, and he screams run like it's all that counts. "Run, run, run," over and over, until she listens to him, and he can listen to himself. They run like a dream, getting nowhere in the final seconds. When their house blows up, he can feel the heat at his back, see his own shadow as he's knocked up into the air, scrabbling to surpass gravity. As if he's God, or something. As if he isn't able to die. This is his world, his life, his story, and his whole body is alive with shock and heat. He shoves his hands out in front of him. Childhood bike riding instinct. No, don't think about riding a bike. This is how it is to fall. The pitch, the sickness, the inevitability of the pavement. The thick sound, scraping his palms along cement, hitting his cheek, a brief instant of unconscious. When he gets back into himself he realizes he's still breathing. For a moment, it's all right. This is the head of the pin upon which all things hinge. He struggles to his knees, bent over and coughing, and hears the car before he sees it. The slash of green taillights in the wet darkness. The sound of the fender and Aya's body connecting, preordained and unstoppable and suspended in time.
What a motherfucker, can't you move on?
All right, here's something. The simpler memories are always just below the more pivotal ones, seldom repeated but intense and insistent. The sun, bright. The scene, sweet. It's an ice cream cone kind of summer. Who wants to go to the beach at midday, bringing a picnic lunch? Aya. That's the kind of girl she is. Beautiful back in her bathing suit, licking vanilla from her fingers. And here he is, beneath an umbrella's shadow, sunglasses locking out the sun. They'll have to wait to swim again because Aya enforces rules: no swimming on a full stomach. Clips and phrases of dialogue make themselves known forcefully. "No swimming on a full stomach!" "There's ice cream -- right there!" "Well, you didn't have to come to the beach. But I think you wanted to." Over the faint hum of the sea-rhythms, the drumming of each water splash on the shore and the rumbling of the sand, he is content. He doesn't say it, not out loud. She sees it, at least. She sees it in the comfortable way he has eased himself over the beach towel. She, more like his mother for a moment than he can bear, cleans the ice cream off the corner of his mouth with her thumb. "Will you go swimming with me?" she asks. Leaning over him, hair undone, sticky and uncombed and matted with salt water. Like a mermaid. A selkie. For one afternoon of his life he has her, with slim legs and vibrant laughter. For one minute of his life he has her, leaning over him, framed, backlit, by the sun. He has sheltered her with sunscreen and has watched her swim, feet dancing like fins high above the water. He will buy her a thousand vanilla ice cream cones, if that will make her watch him for even a second loving him as unfalteringly.
No wonder you fucking wanted her to wake up.
Where next, sick motherfucker?
In here. Lying, back down, knees up, in bed. There's no one home. Just him and his hand in his pants. What's wrong with him? Curtains pulled tight, lights turned off, door locked. Everything just- in-case. Eyes closed, so he can pretend he's somebody else. He's her boyfriend, someone who knows her intimately -- he's not himself. He's some guy who can touch her, eager and innocent, he's some guy who can let her touch him -- it's the first time he's ever done this. He wants to crawl beneath the bed and do it in a ball, so that his head is buried and he doesn't have to think about it. What if he says something? What if there's more than just his breath choking and he has to listen to her name -- like this? He bites his lip and his hips arch upwards. He thinks hard about what this not-him looks like. Nothing reminiscent of his own face. Someone with a less feminine jaw, bright eyes, dark hair, bigger hands. Pulling her down close onto him. At the beach, maybe. On a damp beach towel. She leans over him, matted hair swinging back and forth over her chest. Her breasts small and neat inside her bathing suit. She arches back, presses down onto him, the backs of her smooth thighs sliding over him. Her fingers fumble with the clasp at the back of her bikini top. He's the luckiest asshole in the world, he tells himself, don't ruin it, don't ruin it. If only he could just -- her breasts pale and half-shadowed in the bright sunlight -- what she must look like, white and water-freckled deep in the sea -- smelling like salt and seaweed -- climax, groaning orgasm -- a limp self-hatred burning at last, drowning in wanting it anyway.
Jesus Christ. Will you fucking get a load of this. She's hot. You're right, she's fucking hot.
Here you go. One last present for the road. The sterile hospital walls. The yawning, sprawling, early hours of the morning. He has washed his hands so many times they are pink with cold. He watches her now, white on white, hair plaited darkly over her shoulders. One earring catching the sunlight. Her unresponsive, delicate face. He touches her cold cheek, always harming her with the truth of his hands, always incapable of doing otherwise. A whispered admission. A quiet moment. A ritual before leaving.
Schuldig staples these memories to the front of Ran's brain. They war with one another, innocent moments, shameful moments, intimate, destructive. He overlaps one onto the other. He shuffles them, rearranges them, until he is satisfied with the way they play off one another. He has fourteen minutes left, his watch tells him. The duration of memory time is longer in real time than it appears in the brain, just like dreaming. Schuldig is reclining, comfortable and a little turned on by his sojourn in Ran's head. There's nothing as hot as years of longing coupled with years of denial, the secret perversions of a desperate mind. Ever since puberty, Schuldig figures, this guy has been wanting to fuck his sister. How do you live with that? How do you brush your teeth with that? Killing people probably has something to do with Ran's coping mechanism. Administering world justice when what he really wanted to do was crawl into that hospital bed with his sister and fuck her alive again. Or maybe something a little less twisted. Schuldig doesn't really care that Ran wants to screw his sister in particular. Schuldig would care if it was his mother or his father, but when it's his sister it just doesn't seem all that messed up. Schuldig's going to call Ran a sick motherfucker from here to Wednesday, but finds he doesn't really mean it. Just so long as Ran uses a condom, Schuldig couldn't care less.
Then again, Schuldig doesn't think his opinion means all that much. The status quo has a stick up its ass, but people pay attention to it a whole lot more often than not. The common consensus on how to live your life, all based on peer pressure and What's Normal and What Isn't, as if life is some blueprint, one size fits all, that everyone has to adhere to. Go to school and get a degree, don't blow people up, don't fuck your sister. The status quo. What total bullshit.
"How long?" Schuldig asks. Ran doesn't answer. Sullen bastard. "I could just as easily find out," Schuldig adds, "and we've got some time to kill."
"A while," Ran replies. Each monosyllable is grudging, ground out through clenched teeth. Schuldig lights up a cigarette, finding the old pack like a pleasant surprise in his back pocket.
Schuldig takes a long drag. He watches Ran's face, dark with juvenile rebellion, as if he hasn't grown up past the first time his mother ever caught him jacking off. He has an excuse. He's fighting those memories back, struggling with them, but they hold fast. Knowing he can't win is pissing him off. He needs to relax a little. He needs to take a few deep breaths and get over the external influences keeping him from taking what he wants. The whole world, Schuldig thinks, is designed to make you a fat, lazy but most importantly repressed asshole, too busy looking over your own shoulder to reach out and enjoy yourself from time to time. He scratches his chin and watches Ran wrestle with himself. There's very little time left, but the hard part is over now. All Schuldig needs is a good closing statement, that final punch packed into his argument. Where logic and reason and sexual fantasies don't work, Schuldig figures, threats will. "You haven't gone to see her," Schuldig says. Ran bristles.
"You've been watching?"
"It's like television, in a way." Schuldig blows smoke out through his nostrils, two twin trails in the uncomfortable light. "You spent all that time fucking killing for the money to keep her hooked up and now you don't even drop by for a visit? You're pretty damn good at punishing yourself. Too bad you're a fucking idiot. And don't," Schuldig presses, "give me a half-assed sob story about how you did it for her and now you're not good enough for her; about how you're dirty or you're unworthy or you disgust yourself, because those aren't even original excuses. You enjoyed yourself. You fucking enjoyed slicing people up. Some people work in banks, restaurants, libraries. That's not you. Get the fuck over it." Schuldig crushes his cigarette out on the elevator floor. He loves old buildings, the memories in the walls, the smell of abandonment. "Look," he says. The elevator grinds into action without warning. Exactly one hour has passed. Schuldig stands and sniffs his fingers, which are stained and smell of tobacco. "Either you drop by and say hello, or I do. Tomorrow's convenient." If only, Schuldig thinks, everyone could be as helpful as he is. He sets a time release on Ran's basic motor functions as the doors roll open and resolves to take the stairs on the way down. You just can't trust elevators in old buildings.
Crawford, in his own inimitable way, is up to something. The penthouse, its large rooms altered to suit their needs, is not completely quiet. Farfarello is half asleep, Nagi is at school, and from the back of Crawford's room comes the muted rhythm of a boxer's routine. Schuldig closes his eyes, fingers dangling out the window, and imagines each flex of muscle, each uppercut, each knuckle impact. Schuldig's hands are made for hotwiring cars, for stealing wallets, for cleverness and trickery. They wouldn't withstand the continuous impact, which Crawford practices now so familiarly. Schuldig is an alley cat; Crawford is a panther. They are irreplaceable as complements because neither of them is capable in what the other excels. It is what evens the balance, what keeps the scale from tipping. Schuldig can think about Crawford's broad back tensing for each blow all he wants, and he never has to harbor the misimpression he should be like that, too. His arms are too skinny, his heart too weak. He's dangerous over short distances, the sort of man who ducks and dodges instead of parries, and he fights dirty if he finds the need to fight at all. Crawford hits a person square on in the face. He prefers to break a man's nose, shatter the bone deep into a man's brain, than to evade the subject of death at hand. This is why Crawford is a boxer and Schuldig is not. Schuldig doesn't have the patience for technique, for rules. He learns by experience and impulse and he doesn't have strong hands.
The door to Crawford's room is never locked. There is an understanding between Crawford and the rest of the household. If you want him, you knock. Once, Schuldig opened the door just to see what would happen and got the butt of Crawford's gun so hard across his face he was out cold for three minutes. Like a mutt, Schuldig was trained through trial and error. He learned quickly that if he doesn't want a swollen jaw and a dark fuzzy feeling behind his eyeballs, he knocks first. Schuldig bites the knuckle of his forefinger and raps twice. The sound echoes throughout the curious hall. Schuldig hears the thumping thick pounding of Crawford's fists, three last blows, and imagines the punching bag leather sagging, deflating, sinking defeated to the carpet. Crawford, when he opens the door, is a world of white skin, tight over tighter muscle. Just as Crawford keeps his gun polished, he keeps himself polished. There is the faint insinuation of sweat on his shoulders. Schuldig's fingers twitch.
"New things," Schuldig says. He enters the room, looks in each corner, and sits at Crawford's desk. As if Schuldig has never interrupted him, Crawford closes the door and returns to the punching bag. Schuldig is allowed to be present but he is never allowed to interrupt. He studies his fingernails in childish surliness but listens to the rhythm of Crawford's room. Part study, part office, part boxing ring, part bedroom. Schuldig kicks his feet up on the desk, stares at the lonely bones of his knees, and rolls in the swiveling desk chair. "He masturbated," Schuldig elaborates at last, "thinking about her."
"The details, please," Crawford says.
Schuldig tells him everything. There's no alternative. He speaks in layman's terms of his self-discoveries, of each new invention. The reason he is so invaluable is his ability to think on his feet. He isn't educated, he doesn't read, he couldn't do long division even if his life depended on it. If asked to discuss literature with a second-grader the second-grader would come out on top. Crawford didn't see a great analytical mind in Schuldig. Crawford wasn't in the market for a scholar. He was looking for a bastard who could think on his feet. Schuldig specializes in impulsive creation, imaginative resourcefulness, and a stubborn streak that doesn't let him think the better of his actions. A wild and impetuous artist of the brain, well-versed in the mechanisms that count. Philosophy would wreck the rough nature of him, the odd mixture of ruination and purity. Schuldig knows what his job is: never to get old. Every day, he reinvents himself. Every day, he's something more. Schuldig, version whatever-and-then-some. He wakes up in the morning, picks at breakfast, and thinks what new trick can I pull out of my ass today.
Today, he pulled more than one new trick out of his ass. He unravels his actions for Crawford, re-sets each clue, relives each innovation. This is how he found Ran, across the crowded city streets. This is how he made Ran remember him. This is how every memory Schuldig had made earlier converged despite the crush of so-many-people living their own, untouched lives. This is how Schuldig reinvented déjà vu and this is how he used it. Crawford makes a few sounds of approval, the muscles in his back stretching and tensing, stretching and tensing, in predictable patterns. Schuldig watches and longs to force himself upon that strength, spread his arms along Crawford's arms and his belly against Crawford's lower back, know just for an instant the impossible ineffability.
"When you put your hands in there," Schuldig explains, gesturing, "you don't feel it, you see it. Yourself. It looks more like a machine than a brain and you just sort of take the wires you're looking for -- they're all color-coded -- and you pull them right out. You fucking pull them right out. You know you've got it right because it's satisfying. An easy fit and an easy out. There are plugs -- electrical sockets -- and unless you want to fuck someone up for good you take them out there. You don't break them." If Schuldig were an artist he could paint endless pictures of how a brain looks from the very middle of it, translating every pulse of blood, every neuron-twitch, into the mechanisms of a technological monolith. Schuldig isn't an artist. "Let me -- I want to show you." Crawford finishes the last few punches, driving each home. The punching bag lets out groans and sighs of shifting fabric and broken punching bag intestines. "Right, you've killed him, you've fucking kicked the punching bag's ass. Let me show you. I can't fucking explain it." Crawford wipes sweat from the bridge of his nose and for a glorious moment he stretches. A panther, Schuldig thinks, a panther, a panther. Schuldig can see Crawford poised just above him on the branch of a tree, glasses glinting like teeth. Schuldig wants to validate himself, to prove the intensity of his improvements. Crawford slides his glasses high up onto the bridge of his nose and looks at Schuldig through them instead of over them.
"You're sitting in my chair," he says.
They exchange seats with some degree of animal animosity. Schuldig stands behind Crawford and puts his hands on Crawford's head, one on either side. The softest part of his palms, just at the heels, fit against Crawford's ears. Schuldig's hair swings in an uneven arc over one shoulder. He waits for the single pathway to open. "Sharing is caring," he mutters. The trapdoor gives. It swings away from him, into a long dark tunnel, which Schuldig plunges himself into, a mental floppy disc, a human zip-drive insertion. He finds himself in one of the infinite white rooms of Crawford's brain space. This is how it was, Schuldig explains. With an internal combination of recollection, translation, and pantomime, Schuldig shows him.
Schuldig takes a ladder on the way out, the usual steep and reluctant climb. The white fades beneath him into an upward rise of darkness towards the little locked door above him marked EXIT. Schuldig realizes this is Crawford's impression of himself. Perception and reality in a man's mind are one. Crawford thinks of himself as a library of the future. Schuldig remembers the rows upon rows of untouchable snapshots, the shelving system, the precise order Crawford has stored the future in. He has never asked. Crawford cannot move into Schuldig's mind and explain the complex workings of each freeze-frame he has captured. Schuldig knows they are stolen from mistakes in the continuum of time, mistakes that only Crawford has the foresight to see. They have only English between them to recreate the internal paranormal. It's ironic. Schuldig enjoys his sojourns in Crawford's brain because it's direct communication, experience to experience.
He comes out of it with his eyes glazed. He feels dizzy and disoriented. He has to remember how to move his fingers and how to keep his knees from buckling beneath him and how to breathe into his own lungs. Crawford recovers more easily; the lines defining him are more distinct. Where Schuldig is a hodge-podge of dreams and voices synthesized into one human vessel, Crawford is unmistakably himself, a vast ego, a natural born leader. Schuldig drops his hands to Crawford's shoulders. He breathes in deeply. He listens to his heart beating sloppy, cold-fish rhythms in his chest. The blood moving into the wrong places. His ventricles confused, his equilibrium off.
"Take a hot shower," Crawford tells him. There is no respect, there is no acknowledgement, there is no deeper understanding. Schuldig has just taken a field trip into the grooves of Crawford's gray matter and Crawford is telling him to take a hot shower. Schuldig knows he's going to have to have some hard evidence that this isn't just in theory. It has to be applicable. Schuldig doesn't affect the tangible, never directly. But results must be achieved. Goals must be realized. Success is a given, rewarded only when in reached in the present.
Schuldig goes to take a hot shower.
Late at night Schuldig brings Farfarello a snack. He doesn't do it because Farfarello is hungry but he also doesn't do it for the sake of someone to talk to. Schuldig wants someone to watch. Schuldig wants someone to talk to him. The night is boring at best when you can't sleep, and Schuldig's dreams are short, scattered, anxious touches to electrified synapses. He wakes after each to bursts of sudden light and fire exploding in his belly. There's no time like dream time for moments not of remorse but of realization. Not everyone can do what he does. No one else can do what he does. It makes him proud. His dreams are all that are left to check his pride. They keep the edge of danger in his work, the element of surprise. Farfarello would tell him his dreams keep him humble, or try to, messages in an internal mailbox from the high holy. Schuldig doesn't believe in that bullshit. But sometimes, he just wants to sleep the night through in relative peace.
At night, Farfarello's room is one giant, windowless box of gray. Time doesn't touch him. Schuldig swings the door open and sees Farfarello sitting the same way he was sitting when Farfarello looked at him that morning. He's like a statue, a gargoyle, with deep grooved scars in his stony skin. Presumably Farfarello moves and moves often, pacing the length of his wide white room. Presumably when he is not in his straightjacket he moves with the intent to keep his cat-like muscles ready for the day of retribution. He's explained to Schuldig often in wild, unsedated moments that he practices on men and women what he will do to God's angels. Schuldig doesn't like to talk theology with him. Bringing him tattered copies of Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost is as close to the idiotic theoretical as Schuldig wants to get.
"Here," Schuldig says. He offers Farfarello the bowl of cereal. Farfarello's lone eye looks at it, bemused as Schuldig expected but also realistic. Farfarello's hands are wound up tight, his arms twisted in front of him. He sits on his knees in the middle of the floor, watching Schuldig slide the bowl closer and closer to him. "A midnight snack. A little something for everyone." Schuldig folds his long legs up underneath him and pushes hair out of his eyes. He is a messy flash of color in the bloodless room. They sit across from one another when Schuldig would rather they sat side by side staring in the same unspecified direction.
"Do I eat it face down, or do you feed it to me?" Farfarello's voice is hoarse. Earlier he was screaming, denying every ultimate injustice. Schuldig has no compassion. The more tender side of humanity has fortunately been trained out of him so young that Schuldig doesn't believe he ever had it. But Schuldig's seen the empty cavern of Farfarello's other eye, the one he ripped from himself because, he once said, it was better to live in darkness than to see the bright wisdom of the truth. (He also said that was one mistake in a sequence of many, one wrong step on the road to Hallelujah. Schuldig had told him to shut the hell up.) To Schuldig, the excuse sounded like a messed up Hallmark card. But he still looked beneath the dark patch. He still remembers exactly what it looks like under there: an empty hollow, only shadows curving around the inside the socket.
"Answer me this," Schuldig says, "and I'll let you feed yourself." Farfarello, scrutinizing, nods. He looks like a goddamn guru, peaceful and omnipotent and waiting to bestow on Schuldig every pearl of wisdom Schuldig can't find on his own. Schuldig hopes the question will shake him up, just a little. It won't. He might smile, though, and that's a start "If you wanted to fuck your sister -- if your entire life revolved around wanting to fuck your sister and not being able to do it -- what the fuck would you do with yourself? I mean what the fuck would you do? Would you just sit around going 'Fuck me, I want to fuck my sister,' getting nothing done and knocking your head into things anyway -- just for wanting -- or would you go ahead and give her a good screw, give the entire world the finger, and get on with it?"
"You ask the strangest questions," Farfarello says. He leans forward onto the balls of his feet. In his tight, tied-together pants, Schuldig can see the muscles of his calves stretch. "You foul-mouthed guttersnipe."
"I just want an answer," Schuldig insists. Farfarello twists his head from side to side, keen eye thoughtful. It pierces the colorless night.
"I'd be a nasty bastard," Farfarello answers. Here comes the poetry, Schuldig thinks. If there are too many metaphors he's going to throw the bowl of cereal in Farfarello's face. Better yet, he's just going to leave it there in front of him the whole night long, so he can either eat it like a dog or stare at it, his choice. "I'd make a pale predicament out of life. I'd feel like marble and stone, as if my God was testing me. I would pray and I would wait for the answer in scripture, inspiration, healing." His eye rolls to focus on Schuldig and sparks with mischief. "But you don't believe in that bible-thumping madness, do you? You want an answer you can fuck, and fuck me but I'll give you one." Farfarello looks to the cereal. Schuldig thinks he'd cut his own eyes out if the truth in his life was having to spend all his time just wondering if he could feed himself on his own tomorrow. Schuldig thinks he'd cut the eyes out of the bastard dangling food in front of him for kicks. Luckily for Schuldig, he's not the one tied up in a straightjacket. He doesn't have to care, so he doesn't. "I'd fuck my sister," Farfarello says. "And here's the kicker: I wouldn't be penitent."
"You cut out your own eye," Schuldig mutters, "shows how fucking good you are with judging a situation." He grins as he leans over to undo the straps. "So how about sex in a confessional?"
"Get your filthy tongue out of my ear," Farfarello replies. His voice is flat and humorless, but the black-flecked gold of his good eye laughs beneficently. Schuldig watches him eat cereal the whole night through. When morning comes everywhere but Farfarello's room Schuldig ties him back up and goes to sleep in the far corner, hoping when he wakes up Farfarello won't be nuts and chewing pieces out of his skin.
Fujimiya Aya rarely goes somewhere on her lunch hour. She enjoys making her own lunches early in the morning, before work. It wakes her up. It gives her a sense of purpose. In the warm scent of tea and early morning sunshine, she finds the time to pause at the kitchen window, to watch the day begin. She is an honest young woman but she is quieter than she used to be, more solemn. She reads often and remembers going to school. She feels older in her bones than her face suggests. There are so many questions she wants to ask. In the shower she refines each one and recites all of them, muted under the shower spray. She wants to know where her brother is and if he's all right; her sixth sense about him is sometimes not enough. And why hasn't he come to see her? That question is for Ran and Ran alone, though whatever the answer is she knows she will forgive him. That same sixth sense, instinct and love, tell her he knew her during the long years she did not know herself. She wants them. She wants his reassurances.
Today she sits amongst the roses and eats with thin fingers. Her lunch tastes like a solemn affair. Encircled by the dark roses, she has the impression of being at an infinite funeral. She wants normality above all else, not the perfume of the flowers nor the nagging feeling of timelessness in her bones. She remembers her old self as being unrelentingly normal; she used to wish for sudden adventure, romance, passion. But what young girl doesn't want just that for all the long aching years of their adolescence? Adventure, Aya knows now, is a dark night and a stomach full of terror and years of emptiness. There is no climax to it, no ending. She is not particularly extraordinary. She has been elevated from anonymity into nothingness, and plunged back into disoriented anonymity once again. She has no more moments of desire. The one thought that rises above the rest is that perhaps she should get a cat to keep her company. A kitten would be practical for the mice, and for her own peace of mind one would be quiet but comforting. She wouldn't have to explain anything to a cat in her lap, because no explanations would be demanded of her. Companionship without conversation is just what she tells herself she needs, while the nagging voice beneath that tells her she's lying.
If things continue this way, she thinks wryly, she'll start talking to herself. She re-packs her unfinished lunch -- waste not, want not -- and goes to flip the sign on the door from CLOSED FOR LUNCH to WELCOME: WE'RE OPEN. Across the street is a red convertible, top rolled up, windows tinted. It has no license plates. Aya contemplates the possibility of having so much money, what a car that sleek must cost, or how it would feel to go over the speed limit. The thoughts touch nothing inside her. They start no excitement. They kindle no longing. She is turning to go inside when something compels her to stop: a real sixth sense, coincidental instinct. Her hand holds still and white to the doorknob. Her brother is standing next to the Gentians.
"Welcome to Kitty in the House," she says, behind the glass. "How may I help you?"
It is human nature to be unprepared for the unexpected. It is human nature to land anywhere but on your feet. Reunions are always awkward. The longer two people are parted, the clumsier they are when they are reunited. The more they want something, the less capable they are to receive it. Aya watches her brother, listens to the bell above the shop door jingle, feels very far away. If only she were very far away. The distance, the time, between them might be too great to reconcile. They might leave less satisfied than even this miserable unsatisfied moment, separated too irrevocably. She hasn't felt so awake and so alive since she opened her eyes to the second section of her life, but the fear of living with such immediacy is too much. She doesn't want it. She wants to tell Ran that when she woke the first thing she said was his name. She wants to tell Ran that her hours have been long and dizzy and without distinction because she has missed him so completely. She wants to tell Ran that if he cannot find some way of telling her everything -- if he cannot improvise a veritable miracle -- then he simply needs to leave the way he came, expressionless and without any noise. "I haven't finished lunch," she tells him. "If you want to come up, I can fix something. For the both of us." Ran looks around the shop as if he once knew every inch of it, before an unknown renovation. Aya is reminded of the holes in her memory, the gray voids of knowledge. In Ran's eyes is recognition and remembrance. Aya envies it. On her part it is a cruel second of desperation: that Ran should have made memories while she made none, that he should have grown, that so much life has been lived without her. She chases the nasty voice away. "You've been here before?" she asks.
"I used to work here." Ran looks older. His cheekbones and his jaw have a hardness she doesn't recognize. His eyes are chill dark slats. She is unsure if he is happy to see her or if he has been forced into coming here. She can't even find the courage to embrace him.
"A coincidence?" she asks.
"No," he says.
"Come upstairs," she offers again. "We'll have lunch. Together." Aya knows she hasn't changed at all. She looks just like she remembers looking. If she's so eerily familiar to her own self, Ran can't possibly want to look at her. It's strange. She's strange. It isn't just a feeling; it's a physical reality. It's Ran, avoiding her eyes. They're still brother and sister, she tells herself, but it isn't her right anymore to ask 'please.' It's been too long. She can't bring herself to do it.
"There isn't," Ran begins. Aya touches him without exactly meaning to, without thinking, resting her hand on his forearm. He is wearing an orange sweater. This is her brother, Aya thinks, in an ugly sweater and old jeans. He's nearly unrecognizable, but he's her brother. He touches her hand hesitantly. "Lunch hour is almost over," he amends. "There isn't time. You'll be late to work." It's a stupid excuse. Aya wonders how they can be so close at last without any joy or resolution. She presses her thumb against Ran's. He doesn't flinch. It's enough to encourage her. He was always awkward, Aya remembers, though happier. Her presence was the easy one, uninhibited and relaxed, intimate. Now she remembers. She takes his hand tight in her own, both their fingers cold.
"Come upstairs," she repeats. Ran looks to the back door and wonders how long he's been waiting for this very question. Can he refuse the offer?
That morning Schuldig woke
early. In the shower he felt himself all over with wet hands, taking personal
inventory. He had decided sometime in the night that if he didn't know himself
as a vessel for independent action, he would cease to have a home for his
personality. That wouldn't do. He couldn't take a tip from Crawford; there were
too many differences. But there was something to be said for knowing your own
body. There was something to be said for knowing every inch of himself. The
scars were the most fascinating, oblique puckered skin, deadened lines of
no-sensation. There was one in the indent of his lower back, stretching between
the backs of his hips. Elbows bent, he traced the single raised ridge with his
thumbs, branching outward from the center. The scar on his chest was almost
healed completely, older and more familiar. The heart operation that caused it
is a vague and unimpressive memory, flashes of color and ribbons of dialogue.
Doctors cracked his ribcage open and he has almost no memory of it. He could
have watched it happen elsewhere, out of the haze of his body's drug-enforced
sedation, but there was something too sickening about the thought of his heart
open to the air. He had been fifteen. It had been too much. Now, he would
almost like to see the center vessel of all blood and life. It would be
first-hand reassurance. There isn't any paper Hallmark creature living inside
him, just a mess of barely adequate muscle.
Then came the minute worm-thin scars, closing in on themselves, on the soft underside skin of his elbows. He dehydrated twice. He needed blood three times. Painkillers straight to the veins. Vaccinations. Tests. Tests, tests, tests. No one could believe what poor condition he was in, doctors clucking like over-stuffed chickens at the charts above his bed and Crawford, late at night, a dark shape in a dark-filtered room, reading, writing, re-ordering white papers inside manila files. After all that time spent in the hospital, Schuldig learned to play poker like a professional hustler, discovered he hated chess and developed a dislike of needles in his own skin. Cigarettes, he decided on his own, were enough of an addiction. He didn't need to poke more holes in himself. There was no longer any danger in it; he was no longer interested.
On his belly is the only lasting memento of Takatori Reiji. He had been an ugly, pompous old man, with unfortunate sideburns. The orderly schedules of his plans were self-important, unrealistic and amusing. Schuldig always had a fun time listening to him think he was important. It was stupid to kill his bastard daughter, though. It was impulsive and wonderful and stupid.
Schuldig had always thought Crawford would let the old asshole beat him up over it, and that would be that. You could never explain to Crawford 'But I wanted to' and get away with it. Crawford imposed self-restraint and foresight onto everyone, even when it didn't apply. That's why Schuldig brought Farfarello with him that night: because it was dark but cloudless, because he was bored, because Farfarello was good for starting trouble while Crawford was always there in the end to finish it. But even he admitted killing Takatori Reiji's illegitimate daughter had been stupid. Schuldig had expected repercussions, but he hadn't expected to be on his hands and knees in the middle of Takatori's office with Takatori's nine-iron beating holes into his belly, while Farfarello laughed like Christmas had just come early. Some people, Schuldig remembered thinking while the club came at his cheek, are such sick sadists. Listening to Takatori enjoy beating the crap out of him and getting the crap beaten out of him all at once made him want to throw up. Or maybe that was the nine-iron connecting with his stomach, over and over and over.
Schuldig didn't even think then: about Crawford, about fighting back, about jamming the man's golf club up his own ass. He just jumped into Takatori's head and hid there, enjoying beating the shit out of himself. Crawford hadn't been pleased. He hadn't intervened on Schuldig's behalf. Schuldig could see that in the cool control of his fist, the white tension in his knuckles, as he caught the club in one hair and time suspended for only half a moment. Schuldig felt blood in his throat. It wasn't the first time, though. He made sure Takatori saw it in his eyes. He wasn't about to limp on his way out. What a rich idiot, thinking Schuldig hadn't had his chest cracked open and a chair broken over his back, that a golf club meant something lasting over time. It was his last fling with defiance, because Crawford's anger snapped and hissed long after they'd left Takatori to his helplessness and grief. "No one," Crawford said on the drive home. He didn't elaborate. He sat there, stoic and silent, in the front of the car, with Schuldig curled like a fetus in the back and Farfarello petting his hair, feeling nothing at all. Nagi was quiet, too. Nagi kept acting like whatever Crawford did, he had to do. Schuldig kept telling him to get a new role model, delirious and close to vomiting up six feet of intestines all over Crawford's upholstery. "Are you bleeding?" Crawford asked. He heaved Schuldig out of the car mechanically. Schuldig choked out an undefined no. Somewhere, Nagi was taking care of Farfarello. Lucky Nagi. All you had to do with Farfarello was make sure his cuts didn't get infected, because he healed fast and didn't feel anything. You had to tie him down if anything was broken, but that was it. Schuldig was different: frail wrists, veins visible across the back of his hands, a certain vulnerability in the sharp bones at his elbows.
"Didn't you see it coming?" Schuldig asked. Crawford pulled Schuldig into the bathroom and ripped Schuldig's shirt off, because Schuldig couldn't lift his arms. "I liked that shirt. Motherfuck." Crawford surveyed him like a horse that needed to be shot. Schuldig didn't even want to look at himself. It was one thing feeling like your stomach was a big blue mess and something else seeing it. It was always worse to look at yourself and know the damage visually. Schuldig didn't think he had a stomach anymore to throw up from, but he didn't want to test that theory.
Crawford checked both Schuldig's cheeks. Only one was purple and swollen. With the back of his hand he caught Schuldig on the other cheek, knocking him to his knees halfway across the tiled floor. "No one," Crawford said again. He was colder when he was angry, remote and handsome and terrifying. There was always a great egocentric rage seething inside him, Schuldig had figured, and one day Schuldig wanted to tap the very core of it. But it was still terrifying to think that he might succeed. Schuldig shielded his face with his spindle arms, coughing blood all over the floor.
"I bit my tongue," he explained. "My tongue, my tongue, I bit my tongue." Crawford would want to know if he was throwing blood up or if it was a superficial wound, which would need no immediate attention. Crawford was rolling up his sleeves to just underneath the elbow. Through the fall of his hair Schuldig saw Crawford's pale forearms and the grooves of muscle over bone. No one, Crawford had been saying. No one beats you black and blue; no one else has that privilege. Schuldig was almost dizzy enough to ascribe that intention to those two words. He wondered if Crawford was going to hit him again, once for every time Takatori's golf club connected with his flesh. If only his stomach would shut up. If only his muscles would stop cramping. If only he'd gotten the chance to stick around to see the girl die, this whole mess would be worth it.
Instead of hitting Schuldig again, Crawford was over him, grabbing a fistful of his hair and pulling him to his feet. "Where," Crawford demanded. Schuldig crumpled against him, mouth bleeding on his shoulder. Crawford's arms slanted under his armpits held him up.
"Do I look like a fucking golf ball to you," Schuldig asked. "Do I look like a fucking golf ball?" Crawford sat him on the edge of the bath. He took his face in both hands and surveyed both blows. The one from Takatori's nine-iron didn't hurt half so bad, at the time or even now, as Crawford's backhand. If Crawford wanted a bruise that will last longer on its own flesh-to-flesh merit than anything Takatori administered, he had it. It was his. Schuldig gave it to him freely, too dazed and wild and limp to deny what Crawford could and would take.
"The man is a fool," Crawford said. He had such capable hands. They were strong hands, hands made for breaking bones, but Schuldig could see them set to any task they wanted. They didn't take no for an answer. They eased Schuldig's arms away from his body and straightened his back, one hand on his spine, one on his hip. Schuldig didn't mistake the actions for tenderness. They were the ministrations of a self-centered asshole who fancied himself proficient as a doctor, among his other talents. "He won't have an empire to fall with him when he falls. He is easily forgettable." Schuldig thought for the first time that Crawford was an elitist, which meant he could never respect Schuldig as a partner, only as a subordinate. Schuldig wasn't an intellectual, he wasn't about to read Sartre or Camus, and while he'd seen a Shakespeare play once he'd fallen asleep halfway into the first act. One of Crawford's books, which he'd picked up in a fit of compulsive boredom, had said that Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself, and now Schuldig knew what it meant. It meant Crawford was going to spend forever cleaning the blood off his shirt before he ran the cold water for Schuldig's bath, unless Schuldig had the plague and his life depended on cold water. Schuldig could see Crawford's back, broad and never bent. He leaned over at the waist, testing the water with one capable hand. Schuldig wanted to rip Crawford's throat out of his neck with his own teeth. "Don't," Crawford said, ineffable more than coincidental, but continued with purpose, "think he won't fall hard. No one," Crawford repeated. He turned and looked Schuldig through and through.
"No one," Schuldig agreed. He wasn't even surprised when, later, fingers pruning in the bath, painkillers kicking in, he discovered he meant it.
After the shower, Schuldig had breakfast without nostalgia. He's glad now, though he was sick earlier, because he doesn't want to miss a minute of this reality television because he's distracted by the novel idea of food. He smokes cigarette after cigarette to keep his fingers busy. Just outside the tinted convertible window, just across the street, he's found himself a vacation. He can crawl inside Fujimiya Aya's familiar skull and sit just at the back of her optic nerve to watch and listen. When she makes American-style grilled cheese and hopes her brother will like it, he is more entertained than he has been in months. It's an equal trade. She isn't a void anymore; she's a girl with a voice and all the noise of a city with electricity after a long blackout. But when she slices the bread, Schuldig is thrilled by the clumsiness of two ordinary people together. This too is simplicity of a different flavor, unpretentious in its miserable inexperience. Schuldig leans back, props his feet up on the dashboard, and listens to music made out of tactile sensations and shifting colors. The scar on his stomach, a second of distended flesh, doesn't hurt at all. Life is a good deal.
She is unchanged. She is also not hungry. Ran watches her in the guarded way he is glad he has of watching people. She has eaten a few polite bites but she is too nervous for anything more. She used to be fed through a tube, while Ran was elsewhere selling flowers or killing with her name. He doesn't want to be at the same table with her because, in the end, he'll tell her the truth. If it comes to explanations, he'll tell her what he can of Crashers and of Weiss and of Kritiker, of the blade he learned so well, of how easy it is to kill a man or a woman and clean the blood off afterward. Knowing the truth is the only feasible option is the one thing worse than how her pale arm had looked, flat, penetrated by one sleek needle. These are selfish thoughts; he is making her uncomfortable because he has imposed these rules. Still, he has taken care of her too long; it's no longer a force of habit but a force of nature. He knows they will inevitably be separated. To touch her now would be too much for them both.
"You worked at a flower shop," she says. Her voice is light and pretty with a deeper thread somewhere, wise and lonely. "This flower shop." He nods. No one has made him lunch in a long time. A part of him wants to wrap it up and take it home and keep it for when no one will make him lunch in the future. "You haven't talked in a while," Aya says, "have you." She doesn't mean here and now. Her voice has softened. She leans across the table, hands folded before her, braids falling forward but looped back over her shoulders. They might be sharing a teenage secret. Ran is almost relieved. She hasn't asked him how he afforded the hospital bills yet, though her eyes are dark and sad that he hasn't already told her.
"Not over lunch," he admits, "no."
"Well." She smiles. "Neither have I."
They fidget in silence.
"Sakura said she knew you." Aya's resolve is firm. If Ran won't speak, she will. Ran recalls how brave she always was, polite but daring. "I didn't ask her where you'd gone," Aya assures him.
"There was a woman -- with red hair, very tall, very beautiful -- who said I could write her if I wanted to know anything about you. I didn't. I thought maybe you and she were," Aya falters. "She was very beautiful."
"No," Ran says quickly. "No."
"Is there anyone?" The hope in Aya's eyes is a lie and Ran knows it. There are certain immutable bonds between them still, which Ran holds fast to as guidelines, to remember himself, themselves. They were never this way before the accident, searching for words to fill the quiet unevenness keeping them apart. "Someone who took care of you," Aya explains. "You were never very good -- but no, no." Aya shakes her head, watching her clasped hands. "There wasn't, was there. There isn't."
"No." Ran's fingers want Aya's, a sudden and undeniable surge of want. He holds his hands in sturdy fists. He thinks of his katana. It's been a long time, but just remembering how to hold it brings a cooling sanity to his heart. There is no room for impulsive emotion in a swordsman's life. There is a very convenient mesh wall between himself and the rest of the world, with such luxuries as physical affection.
"I can't tell you," Aya says, "anything about myself." She reaches across the table and grasps both his fists in her hands, as if she is about to grab him close, as if she is about to forcibly shatter the distractions between them. "If you don't want to be here, you don't have to stay. I don't know what to tell you. I don't have anything to say."
"No," Ran begins. There's nowhere else to go. "What do you want to know?"
"The little things," Aya replies. "The big things. Everything medium and unimportant." She takes a deep breath. "How you met Sakura. Who the woman with red hair was -- who she is. Why I woke up in a car instead of a hospital; why I'm here; why you never -- why I never heard from you." She wonders if she sounds accusatory. She doesn't mean to. She doesn't want to. If her heart would calm for a minute she could re-organize her questions into the composed ones she has memorized from long showers. The last thing she needs is to chase Ran away with wild demands. Already his face looks pinched and pale. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair. "I'm sorry," Aya says. "I'm sorry."
"No," Ran says. He's well aware that he's said that too many times to count. She's right; he hasn't spoken to anyone in a long time. Conversation feels far away and unattainable. So does Aya. Her hands are on top of his, but he doesn't know what to do with them. He hears that Schwarz bastard echoing the past through his head and remembers things he doesn't want to remember. There's too much happening behind his eyes, too much he'd rather not say. "I don't," he attempts, "there are some things I can't tell you." Her gaze shutters. Her lips are expressionless. She bows her head and seems to collapse inwardly, like she's just lost an inch of strength and height.
"Brother," she says. "Brother, if you can't tell me, I can't know who I am." Ran's fingers fumble. His hands shake free of Aya's. He lifts them to her face, touching her because he can't help it and because instinct tells him what's best for her isn't always going to be protection. She was helpless before. He sees that helplessness in her now, and while he couldn't even touch her in that hospital bed he can't leave her without reassurances now. He doesn't want to look at his thumbs against her cheeks, his palms against her jaw, but he doesn't want to tell her where his hands have been.
"I visited you every day," he begins, "and stayed as long as I could."
There's only so much touchy-feely Schuldig can take. After a while it just gets tedious. He's run out of cigarettes and he's run out of patience. The main problem with people is that they spend too much time getting to the point. They take too long saying what they mean, if they ever say it at all. Schuldig's had enough of Ran trying to be heroic and Aya trying to coax full sentences out of him. It was more fun when he was rifling through Ran's thoughts and listening to his discomfort. After all that, the simplicity in their embarrassment and basic human confusion offered only a few thrills. It's already slipped in with the rest of the tedious world's thrashings to became one part of its overwhelming tedious inelegance. Schuldig doesn't stick around to be bored. He disentangles himself, writes a note on his hand with a pen to come back tomorrow, and runs a few red lights. If he were Fujimiya Ran, he wouldn't be thinking so hard about being unclean. If he were Fujimiya Ran, he'd already have bored himself to death. To each his own, of course, but some people need a little kick in the right direction. Schuldig doesn't have a sister, but Ran does. Schuldig's fingertips are itchy again, but that's the pleasure of waiting for it. He likes having something to set his mind to, someone to play with, a little way to pass the time. It's relative, no matter what Crawford thinks. Time is an interpretation, not a reality.
Nagi's in the kitchen when Schuldig gets back, twisting the tops off Oreos and scraping off the cream with a butter knife. Schuldig snatches the cookie back and perches cross-legged on the counter. "I hate Oreos," Schuldig says. Nagi shrugs. Schuldig is amused by him, pale boy with a glass of milk in his right hand. "You've got some chocolate," Schuldig adds, "right there." He gestures with his thumb. Nagi goes for the napkins. The kitchen doesn't feel quite as tight as it did two days ago. Schuldig wonders what an Oreo milkshake would taste like, and if Farfarello would drink it without question. Farfarello occasionally does. That's why he's so much fun. Schuldig pulls the two halves of an Oreo apart and shifts the cream filling from half to half. The sound of the cookie grating against cookie keeps him entertained for a minute. "You back from school?" Schuldig tosses the pieces towards the garbage can. They almost miss, but suspend in mid-air just before they bounce off the rim and skitter across the floor. Nagi's showing off -- big deal, Oreos -- but Schuldig's not entirely disinterested. The cookie halves hang there for a moment, rotate, and then jerk in the opposite direction, plunking in the center of the bag. Deep down. Satisfying. "Well," Schuldig shrugs, "I'm not a basketball player."
"I'm back from school early," Nagi says. He scrapes another Oreo clean. Schuldig hopes down from the counter and cross to the kitchen table. He tastes the cream with his forefinger. He doesn't blame Nagi for scraping it off; it has a grainy texture, much too sweet. It lodges in Schuldig's throat on the way down. "I finished a project in advance," Nagi explains. "Don't eat that, it's disgusting." Schuldig licks his finger a second time, but makes a face. Nagi almost cracks a smile, but doesn't. His face is forming more and more adult lines, not that Schuldig charts the progress or cares, and too bad he's trying to model his adulthood after Crawford. There's something to be said for a grin once in a while, or a smirk, or maybe a big mean laugh. Of all the colors Schuldig's dyed his hair, he's never gone for brown or black. There are enough plain faces with dark bangs and unexpressive facial muscles in the apartment already, in Schuldig's life already. Farfarello is a relief. Schuldig's own face in the mirror, framed by a bright fake red, is a relief. Anything to break the secure monotony that Schuldig both craves and rages against is a relief.
"See what finishing projects in advance gets you?" Schuldig says. "An empty house and Oreo cookies." He plunks the bag down on the table. He leans his hip against the side of a stool. The clock is ticking. Across the city, above a little flower shop, Fujimiya Aya and Fujimiya Ran are brother and sister, as always, but kept apart, also by a kitchen table. "Guess what I did today," Schuldig says. "Just, guess."
Ran fumbles with the right words. There is no easy way to make a confession, no simple language to aid him in this destruction. He worked in a flower shop, yes. He tells her as much. "I worked in a flower shop. This flower shop." He watches his hands in front of him, uncomfortable with himself. There are memories sneaking across his memories of her, dark alleyway memories, burning memories, explosion memories, memories of Botan dancing with the force of the bullets, memories of helplessness and power both in every kill. It was easier then, to be what he was and still is -- because such a profession is not simply a job to pay the bills; it is a way of life, instinct, nature -- since there was no bright open face requiring explanations. Each night, Aya would have asked him where he was going; he wouldn't have gone. There are things a man does when he is at last a man, driven by necessity and fueled by want, but out of context they are murderous and corrupting. A sister puts things out of context. A sister out of context, blank and empty in a white bed for long white years, shines the world in a stark light. For Ran, there was too much context. He learned each sheath of control with the diligence required of him. He fought for her sake, but tried always to pretend it wasn't for her. He looks at up her, like 'I can't tell you,' and says instead, "We should have lunch tomorrow." If there's more time, he thinks, if there's only just a little more time, and a bright face in the spring sunlight to look forward to, he can tell her.
"What did you do today?" Nagi asks. He sounds skeptical. He always sounds skeptical. It's disaffected youth, or a wild stab at pleasing someone with a mock-up of Crawford's own general indifference, or he's been listening to too much imported American emo bullshit. Music has turned into too many people whining about how much their lives suck. Schuldig was never a fan of music to begin with, but now he downright hates it. He wants to take all those solo artists with their classical guitars complaining about their girlfriends and throw them out skyscraper windows.
Aya doesn't see that she has another choice. She nods. The night will be long and sleepless, the rest of the day passed in sections of vagary. She won't smell the flowers or see their bright colors in the spring afternoon. Sakura will do the laughing, the talking, while Aya will ring up each purchase and count change out perfunctorily. She senses barriers very well, these days. There is one stationed inside her head; there is one between her and the world outside the flower shop door; there is one separating her from her brother. She is lucky, she thinks. There are only three walls. If there were four, they would form the equal angles of a square, which is nothing more than box in disguise. But there's some slant of light the sun passes through. There's an opening, an escape, a promise of hope. There's lunch with Ran tomorrow. She schedules her mind in terms of what will happen next, not what will happen now. The future holds a café or a restaurant, glasses of cold soda, some sweet shared dessert. She fools herself for the sake of Ran and the sake of tomorrow. "I've missed you," she says. Ran's eyes betray him for a moment; he is living in a past about which Aya knows nothing. She is sequestered in a future that has not yet begun. Their common ground is a present of their own devising but while they don't know the other halves they can't reach the middle ground, the whole center, the bonding point. "I've missed you," she says again. They can touch. She knows that much already. Her hand rests on Ran's cheek and for a moment he embraces her. Tomorrow, Aya promises herself. For now -- which does not entirely exist -- it must be enough.
"You remember Abyssinian." Schuldig drinks some of Nagi's milk. He wipes it off his upper lip with the knuckle of his left forefinger. "Kept screaming shit all the time, thought 'shi-ne' was pretty fucking clever, acted like a Goddamn psycho only nobody'd thought to put him in a straightjacket yet." Schuldig remembers those days -- Schwarz pretending to work for Takatori and pretending to work for Estet and working only for themselves -- with an actor's fondness. Those were good times. Schuldig had a lot of fun. There had been a unifying purpose to their endeavors but within that unifying purpose were many variations on the theme. Schuldig was allowed to blow old buildings up, to get his hands dirty, to mess with Schreient, to dangle thread and mice before kittens and lead them towards each chaotic end. The final explosion, in his white suit in the dark midnight, was the climax to the most incredible sex Schuldig had ever had. But it left his world flat-lining. There are only conclusions, without thrill or promise. There's no great build towards a plunge. There's tingle of excitement in Schuldig's fingertips, no years of suspense, no pressure from the future sending the present spiraling deliciously forward. He's a river with no waterfall. The age-old motto, to survive where others may fall, has always promised a certain end. Schuldig doesn't want to take over the world for the sake of having the world. He's with Crawford and the plan with Crawford is chaos and domination, because Schuldig just wants to know he can. No one's ever taken over the world before. People have come close but it's never been done. Schuldig wants that challenge. He and Crawford have done a lot, all leading toward the ultimate test, not prize. It's not the world they want. It's the triumph. The display of power. The control, on Crawford's part, the planning, the strategies, the brilliant calculations. The fun, on Schuldig's. Taking over the world and then letting it go to Hell or wherever afterward sounds like fun. "Anyway," Schuldig says, "anyway, I went for a visit. That was yesterday. I saw his sister. You know. Fujimiya Aya. And just like a fucking idiot, Abyssinian spent all that time looking for revenge and keeping her hooked up and alive and he never once went to visit her after. What a fucking idiot. But I've been to see them both. I brought them together. I'm such a fucking outreach program. What the fuck would the world do without me?"
Aya leaves out the back entrance. He can't see Sakura today, her similarities to Aya no longer sparking the lonely, hungry false hope he needed so much when they first met. They'll only wound him now. Schuldig's fingers -- filtering through old memories, ones Ran would have rather he killed along with his old self -- have changed too much. Ran tells himself he would have seen Aya again in time, but under his own terms. When they were ready. He isn't ready yet. Aya isn't ready yet. He's too used to thinking for her, filling with his care and his work and his adulthood the spaces she left within him. He's never hated Takatori Reiji more than he does in this moment. He pauses outside the door to let doubt bloom in him, hating Takatori Reiji more and more. There's nothing he can do with the hate. The man's already dead. There's no one to kill. Ran's fulfilled that quest for revenge already. Picking up the rescued pieces is, not unsurprisingly, the hard part. Somewhere behind him, Aya is pausing at the roses. He can almost see her. He can almost feel her. He imagines himself up against her back, brushing the soft hairs away fro the base of her neck. They slip out of the two even braids halfway through the day and curl against her pale skin. Ran closes his eyes, and tells himself he must stop remembering her: because she is here. Because to remember her is to destroy her.
"So you just walked him into the flower shop?" Nagi twists the Oreo bag shut. The air hisses out through the top in one struggling gasp. "That doesn't seem likely." He starts to return the bag to its appropriate cupboard by hand, then stops and lets it glide through the air instead. The door opens halfway across the kitchen. The bag settles itself in amongst the chips and the other cookies with the shifting of depleted Oreos. The door swings shut. Nagi doesn't even watch it, putting his glass of milk in the sink and the carton in the refrigerator.
"Don't be a fucking show-off," Schuldig says.
"Why not?" Nagi asks. His fingers still on the countertop. "You are."
The balcony is the perfect place for smoking late at night. Schuldig isn't the sort of guy to survey a city, to enjoy a truly beautiful view. But he likes the city to be stretched out before him, countless tiny, twinkling light bugs. He likes to blow smoke out over the horizon and pretend he's making clouds. He likes to dangle his fingers over the edge and drop ash onto the silent nighttime street below. The street lamps criss-cross directly underneath him, creating geometric grids that spread in all directions. It's very late. Eleven thirty, maybe twelve. Once or twice someone crosses the street below. Sometimes Schuldig hears the hum of a car. The sounds of electricity in a big city are dwarfed out by the sounds of life. Dreams. Sex. Insomnia. Late-night television. Schuldig smokes his second cigarette of the night to these a-rhythms. His heart follows the same haphazard grid work of people patterns, not the structured angles of the streetlamps illuminating flashes of cement. A cool breeze moves against Schuldig and through his hair. He pulls Crawford's sweater closer around his shoulders.
The only warning Crawford gives before standing next to Schuldig is the slide of the glass door, opening onto the balcony before closing behind them. Schuldig waves his cigarette in the air for a moment, creating an arc of smoke. Crawford's going to be mad about the sweater. He turns, leaning his shoulders against the balcony railing, bending his elbows, smelling all over of nicotine. "People," Schuldig says, "don't know how to take what they want. They spend a whole lot of fucking time thinking about it, but when it comes to actually getting up off their asses all of a sudden they're fucking cripples." Crawford says nothing. Instead, he takes Schuldig's cigarette and puts it out. "Don't worry," Schuldig says, "I'll put the sweater in the wash. You won't smell a fucking thing."
Crawford folds his arms over his broad chest, looking calm behind his glasses in his white dress shirt, loosened tie, rolled up sleeves. Schuldig listened to him for hours earlier, typing away on the computer, answering a lone phone call, putting in a CD of Wagner, reading. It's easier to listen to someone read than most people think. Different people have different ways of turning the pages. Sometimes they make noise, laughing out loud or breathing differently or shifting often. Not Crawford. Crawford's just a steady rhythm, each page turned as if on cue, every sound dictated by an inner metronome. Not that Schuldig spends a lot of time listening to Crawford exist. The rhythms he makes are ever-present. Schuldig hears them because they're always just inside his inner ear, whether he's listening for them or not.
"We're going to take down Kritiker," Crawford says. Out in the open, Schuldig thinks. Funny. Maybe Crawford's so confident about it he doesn't care if anyone hears. It's been a long time coming, though. Kritiker is weak, its factions disorganized, its agents losing contact. Schuldig knows every one of them, scattered throughout the city, throughout the country, throughout the world. He can pick them out as many miles away as he wants. They're like little sour-tasting coins. They smell like sweat on an American penny. They all have a certain instinctive hypocrisy that lets them feel they're important enough to save the world, that lets them act on it. "And then," Crawford adds, "we're going to take down Estet."
Crawford told Schuldig the history of Estet once, and Schuldig, because he was bored, because he was trapped in a hospital room, because he was much younger then, had listened. Estet and Kritiker, paranormal checks and well-trained balances, playing a game of human chess since the mid eighteen hundreds. Schuldig doesn't remember any of the founding members' names. They don't matter. They're dead anyway. They set their pawns in motion and left marks on the world that were too few and too shallow. Their successors are self-important and uninspiring. Schuldig has never had any respect for them because they died without taking and took without leaving signatures.
To take one over-confident side down wouldn't necessarily be to secure the success of the other. They're too used to relying on one another's antagonism. But to take down both would leave the world free of complications. They think they're Heaven and Hell, Schuldig's fond of saying, and they bore the fuck out of me. The idea of picking off Kritiker agents one by one is delightful. The world needs fewer martyrs. The idea of going after Estet is a thrill and a challenge. Schuldig knows the statistics of every telepath, telekinetic, pyrokinetic, precog, empath and the countless other unclassifieds. There are some of them he hates, some of them he's simply indifferent to, and some of them he's wanted to kill since he was twelve and first found himself in Rosen Kreuz.
"So getting Abyssinian to fuck his sister isn't as important anymore," Schuldig says. It doesn't seem like it could be. It's so small in comparison, so unnecessary now that Schuldig has something else to do. Watching people get over themselves, watching a brother and a sister come together and want to touch one another and fail, has its charms, but it doesn't mean the world. Schuldig drums his fingers on the railing. Crawford's eyes shift into darkness as he turns his head to look out over the city. His profile is illuminated by moonlight and the flicker of a few brave streetlamps. Schuldig gets a deep clenching in his stomach, a knot of anticipation, just watching Crawford watch the world like he owns it. Nobody beneath knows it yet; nobody inside knows it yet. Only Schuldig can see him, poised at the edge of the balcony with his hands before him and his back straight, an emperor, a dictator, a demigod.
"No," Crawford says. "No, you can finish that first"
The clouds are already drawing close to one another over the sky when Ran meets Aya in the back of the shop, amidst the smell of Gardenias. She is taking off her work apron, tightening the ties at her pigtails. He sees her back first and leans against the glass window to watch her, arms crossed, eyes bright. Even framed in moments of simplicity, folding the apron and setting it aside, she reminds him of how much he's missed her. He doesn't want to disrupt the moment, to distract her from living. He wants to watch her only, he realizes. He wants to see her without changing her. If he manages the latter, it will inevitably be for the worse.
"Are you going to stand there all day," Aya asks, without turning around, "or are we going to lunch?" Ran's lack of involvement is impossible. They are inextricable. They are brother and sister. Still, more than just blood binds them. Ran has the feeling that, if he tells her everything, she will smile and be sad and hold him closer. She doesn't realize how a past she wasn't even a part of will rear its blood-colored head in her direction. It's only lying in wait before it harms her. There's always the possibility that she won't let Ran protect her from it. She might be stubborn; she might insist on protecting herself. Ran's spent too much time looking after her, directing the nurses hovering over her, watching her remain motionless and powerless. He can't tell her he's used to a more necessary level of control. He can't speak of the nightmares in alleyways or destroy her new life. He lets her take his arm and keeps his eyes angled elsewhere. For the time being, deflection will be enough.
By the time they reach the café, in a quiet and secluded part of town, the sun is half-filtered and half-obscured by the pale clouds. It's going to rain. The air smells of it, humid and pregnant and shower-sweet. A sudden breeze turns into a gust of wind and Aya laughs. She curls against her brother's side. He's unsure of what to do with her, delicate back and slender hips. His mind echoes recollection: the beach, the sand, the sudden intonation of sunlight. As if it had a voice. The clouds above them knit together in distraction; it begins to rain.
They have a long lunch, trying to outlast the unexpected shower. It fades in and out of intensity, sometimes beating at the windows, sometimes letting sunlight through onto the puddles. Eating alone in a corner, drinking milkshakes with their lunch, Ran is encouraged. He speaks more freely than he thought he would, especially of the flower shop though not of its other employees. He speaks of visiting her. He even describes the hospital room, so vital to those lost years. He tells her where the bed was, how the light came in during the afternoon, who shared the room with her, what times he visited her and what flowers he brought. "Each month," he says, "I brought different flowers." It was easier after he came to work at the flower shop. He was always seen with flowers; no one thought to question them. For a long time no one followed him or found her, though the discovery was inevitable. Ran wasn't surprised -- only deeply angry with himself -- when Omi learned the truth. How could he have hoped not to harm her, he wonders, how could he have thought he was protecting her? Her name, he thinks. He even took her name. Was it loneliness only that drove him to it?
"Your friends," Aya urges. "Who were your friends?" Ran thinks of Ken, of Omi, of Yohji, of obligation, of how he never allowed himself to think anything other than necessity kept them together. He wouldn't count them as friends, not entirely. But he did trust them. They were his partners. They'd saved one another's lives, even if they'd put one another in danger often enough as well. It didn't quite equate friendship. It had been something both deeper and more superficial than that. There hadn't been any companionship on Ran's part. Still, all four of them parted, Ran can think now of what they really were to one another. The world has no name for it. They trusted each other. That was all, but that was enough.
"I did things I'm not proud of," Ran tells her instead. His throat feels thick. "I can't tell you the details. It's dangerous for you to know." All this time drinking their milkshakes and laughing has lead to the truth of the matter. They've been waiting for it to worm its way into the conversation. Outside the rain is letting up. They should walk home now; they have no umbrella. Ran looks out the window, at the far end of the café. "I needed the money," Ran says. "I needed to protect you. There wasn't anything else."
"Don't," Aya says. She reaches over, touches his cheek. "Do you do it now?" Ran shakes his head. It's been a while. A long while. Kritiker has grown silent. The Weiss he knew, disbanded. The past is out there, waiting to catch up with him, but for now his own self-imposed hibernation, living off savings and odd jobs, has kept him one step ahead. The only thing to combat being a murderer, Botan told him once, is the unfailing appearance of normalcy. Ran learned too late to follow Botan's advice. "Please," Aya insists. "Let's go home." Ran opens his mouth to say he never questioned the morality of killing people. It never hurt him as it once hurt Tsukiyono Omi. It never left him darker and pained as it left Hidaka Ken. It never gave his eyes that mist-over-jade that it gave Kudou Yohji. He just did it. It was his job. As some men worked in a bank and others worked at bodegas and others served people coffee, Ran went out every night and killed people and never thought twice about it.
"All right," Ran says instead. Aya doesn't want him to tell her. It isn't a secret he's keeping from her if she's decided she'd rather not know. There's almost liberation in that, almost excitement. Ran almost feels something lift from his shoulders.
It's on the way to Kitty in the House, when the rain starts again, and heavier, that one burden lifts entirely. Ran holds his jacket over Aya to keep her dry. They run, not chased but eager. There's something about the rain: purifying, sweet, clean. The walk, which began in humid silence, has come to this hurried pace, Aya drawn close once more and laughing with rain in her eyes. Botan also said, 'There's always some way to go forward, even if there's no way to go back.' Botan was a wise man. He's dead, but his words echo with Ran's footsteps over the puddled pavement. Each wet smack of Ran's feet against the cement is a longer stride matching two of Aya's own. Botan's favorite piece of advice was, 'Don't be such an idiot.' Ran's sneakers tap out the rhythm, don't be such, don't be such, an idiot, an idiot. Don't, don't, don't. He pauses for Aya to catch her breath under a shop awning, and looks at her for the first time in this new light: half-clouded, half impossibly bright. She looks at him, too. Her hair is wet. One of her pigtails has come undone. She wraps the end of it around her fingers, lips parted, breaths deep. Where next, sick motherfucker? Ran remembers the white room. He remembers the white room more than all other memories. It has become one all-encompassing memory, endless memories merging into one. Aya, Ran has had to tell himself, isn't a white room. He touches her shoulder. The rain falls on three sides. The fourth, humid-sticky wall at Aya's back, shields them from the sunlit spring shower. In here. Let's start here. A few people run by them, with umbrellas or briefcases held high above their heads. The rain comes down heavier. Aya's breathing has slowed. No one on these streets knows who they are to one another, that Ran made his money in homicide, that their lives were paused in the shrieking of breaks and the burning rubber of tires. To the rest of the world at present they're anonymous lovers hiding from the rain and watching each other. Ran wonders what Aya's thinking and will never know it's how beautiful he is. They've almost reached one another when the rain stops.
Aya dries her hair with a towel, watching Ran halfway across the room. What nearly occurred sits between them, waiting for one or the other to speak of it. At first it had been a comfortable silence; now, it suffocates. Aya feels a low and steady hum ache inside the hollows of her chest. It clutches like invisible hands at her ribcage, one finger curled around each rib, pulling her body tight around her heart. She wonders how it continues to beat, struggling against the truth and the crush at once. It's possible that Ran has seen too much. It's possible he's done more than she can comprehend. She won't ask for it. They're pieces of him she doesn't want to put together. They don't belong to her; those years will never belong to her. She can't get them back because they were never hers to begin with. The future is going to have to be enough, and the future is only ever in the present.
"Ran," she says. She catches sight of herself in the mirror, hair wet still, skin flushed. There's nothing particularly beautiful about her. She doesn't sing or dance. Her thumbnail is bitten down to the quick out of a recent nervous habit. Even her hair is rebelling against her. She pushes it behind her ears, self-conscious. There's too much to worry about. Yesterday she wanted a kitten. Today she wants her brother to kiss her. She knows nothing about tomorrow. All she needs is a sign, a glance of want, an expression of longing, one common hunger shared between them. She'll know what to do when Ran looks at her. "Brother."
He looks up behind a fall of dark hair, red and wet and no less beautiful. He's always been able to look like a statue, a painting, a work of art. Aya's envy is an old stab, something that reaches her in the present all the way from the past. It reminds her of who they are and who they must be to one another. Ran and Aya. Inseparable, immeasurable together, and incomplete apart. She never used to dream about boyfriends. She used to dream about Ran. Her world was small and insular, and she never asked for anything beyond the four walls of their home. Without Ran's company, she draws inward only onto herself. With him, it doesn't feel like shrinking.
They speak at the same time, fall silent at the same time, watch each other cautiously but immediately. Ran's trying not to look at her. It won't do, Aya thinks. It won't do at all. She's unlovely and wet and instinctively afraid, but she's not helpless anymore. "Ran," she says again, "brother." If she's the only one of them who can cross the distance, then she's wasted enough time already. She moves across the room faster than she knows how to and kisses him with all the inexperience and all the recklessness of a virgin.
Crawford's taking a bath. Schuldig heard the running water earlier and hears nothing but relaxation and silence now. He's supposed to knock, he knows, but triumphs make him irresponsible. In Ran's apartment, which feels so close as a room away, Aya's kissing her brother. One of those slow, sweet kisses that only a first kiss can be, clumsy, awkward, but irreverent of its own inadequacy. With the thoughtlessness comes a certain lack of inhibitions. A now or never attitude. Unskilled, but not about to let its own failings stand in the way of what it wants. Schuldig likes that. He licks his lips. The first step to being happy is taking what you want. The second step is knowing when to leave it behind, once it stops satisfying you. Schuldig keeps moving on, shedding whatever he can. He wants what he wants when he wants it, takes it when he can get it, doesn't think he owes it anything to keep it around. He doesn't like Aya because he doesn't generally like anyone, but he's pleased she caught on. Ran's still a hypocrite, but Aya's got the right idea. Schuldig's just glad he could help. It's the spirit of giving and receiving. What they want to do just so happens to be what Schuldig wants to see. What they don't know about their own lack of privacy won't hurt them. They feel happy, Ran's hands moving awkwardly to Aya's lower back and the kiss pausing in intensity, trying to find itself. Schuldig takes it into himself, lets it pass through his blood.
He doesn't stop to let Crawford know he's coming. Since Crawford always knows everything, Crawford can figure this one out on his own, too. Schuldig pushes the bathroom door open and lets his eyes readjust to the dim bathroom light. Steam is trapped between the tiled walls. It smells like some sort of heavily scented soap, or hidden incense. Schuldig wonders what ritual he's interrupted, what routine, when Crawford stands, water running from his shoulders to his elbows, from his lower back down his thighs, from his hips to his knees. Each little rivulet curves around Crawford's pale skin, holding close to it. He gets out of the tub with a sigh of sinking water. He doesn't move to put his glasses on. Schuldig almost has the time to tell Crawford of his success when he catches Crawford's eyes. They're the color of old blood, of black coffee, of the only anger that can stop Schuldig where he stands.
"Before you come in," Crawford says, "you knock." Schuldig looks him up and down, naked but still powerful. Even without his glasses he bristles with guarded power. Schuldig braces himself for impact. Crawford's muscles shift as he crosses the distance between them. His pace is calm, unhurried. There's no use running. There's nowhere to run. Schuldig holds himself firm until they are inches apart, firm when there's only a breath between them, firm when the entire length of Crawford dripping wet is against him and Crawford's hand is tight at his throat. "It's a simple rule." Crawford's grip tightens. Spots of white flash behind Schuldig's eyes. If Crawford means to kill him, he wants Crawford to break his neck, not squeeze the life out of him. There's no respect in this.
When Schuldig was eighteen and Schwarz -- then only the two of them -- was on the verge of independence, Crawford tested him. It was a dark night in the heart of Berlin. Schuldig knew the streets like he knew the veins on the back of his own hands, but even that didn't help him. Crawford turning on him was so unexpected that Schuldig was caught unawares and he spent the better part of fifteen minutes running. He thought then that Crawford intended to kill him. Crawford had his gun drawn. Crawford had a dark look in his eyes like death. Crawford ran with an enviable rhythm, steady and unflagging. Schuldig's heart wasn't strong enough. He could fool anyone else to think he was faster but Crawford was different. He couldn't get past Crawford's skull to toy with his perception of reality. And Crawford was always one step ahead of him, anyway. The alleyways that had been Schuldig's only hope boxed him in. Everywhere he led Crawford followed. The night drew closer as the walls drew closer. Only a few stray cats made noise around them, shifting through garbage cans, searching out edible trash. Schuldig felt his lungs contract and his muscles scream and the gun in his hand stank of sweat from his palms. He thought he was going to die. It was a compliment to be killed by Bradley Crawford, American prodigy, Estet's favorite pet operative, but Schuldig didn't think he wanted to die yet. If Crawford was going to kill him then Schuldig was going to give him a chase. Schuldig was going to give him the finger. Schuldig was going to give him a goodbye he wouldn't expect. If Crawford was going to force Schuldig into proving himself then Schuldig was going get a few shots of his own in to show he wasn't anyone's Goddamn toy mouse.
The idea came to him out of nowhere, through the bloodless haze behind his eyes and the ache of his shuddering chest. There wasn't anywhere he could run. There wasn't anywhere he could hide. There wasn't any secret Schuldig knew that Crawford wouldn't uncover. Crawford was always one or more steps ahead of him. Schuldig was going to have to trip him in the future. Schuldig was going to have to even the playing ground. He turned left and ran just enough to get him off the side streets and into a busier neighborhood. Some passed out motherfucker nearly tripped him. He shot a cat in his way. He made as much desperate noise as possible. Crawford would know he was at the end of his rope. Crawford would figure he'd exhausted himself and this was it. Crawford would be making plans for finding a new telepath. Schuldig stumbled out underneath the bright lights of a sex shop and sped towards a main street. He'd always wanted to kick a few hookers and he did, getting them out of his way. He led Crawford through another side street and out into sudden noise and light. Crawford would figure Schuldig just wanted witnesses. Crawford would assume Schuldig was going to make this as messy as possible. A well-dressed man called out for them to stop. Passers-by cleared a pathway. Schuldig raced ahead, dodging between cars, in the middle of traffic.
Up ahead, the street forked. There were two choices. There were two possible destinations. Schuldig picked left. With everything he had in him, Schuldig thought right. He told taxi cab drivers, businessmen, young couples, children, tourists, shop clerks, waitresses, the homeless, even pets. Everyone in Berlin for three miles around thought, This Redhead Named Schuldig Is Going Right. For a split second, Schuldig almost believed it too. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody's there to hear it, Schuldig thought, somewhat deranged with dehydration and the cacophony of his shrieking muscles, then it doesn't make a sound. If Schuldig turned left but the world thought right, then direction was only a matter of perception. Schuldig couldn't alter time. Schuldig couldn't reach into the future with his own hands. But Schuldig could alter everyone else's awareness of time and Schuldig could change their knowledge of the future. And what was the future, if not an assembly of thoughts? What was time, if not a collection of people there to watch it passing?
At the last second, Schuldig ran left.
It was the only time he ever found himself with the opportunity to get his gun against Crawford's head. They were at an impasse; the ruse had worked for only the merest fraction of a second. It had been enough. Life was a collection of circumstances and conversations and victories amounting only to enough. Whether they would both die or whether Schuldig had proved himself worthy of living remained to be seen in Crawford's future. The real future. The future made of actions and reactions, of bodies interacting with other bodies. Schuldig breathed heavily, deep, unsteady breaths, his chest heaving with each. Crawford's gun was trained on Schuldig's heart; Schuldig's, right between Crawford's eyes. "All right," Crawford said. And Schuldig lived.
Schuldig can't breathe. He's older now, less impressed with the idea of being killed by Crawford. Even if you're killed by the best, you're still dead. It doesn't mean anything. A lot of nobodies have been killed by Crawford, too. Their faces broken, choked, shot in the head. At least it'll be a neat death. But for walking in on Crawford in the bath? It's not exactly a second offense. Schuldig's a little angry at the treatment, beneath the pervading struggle for air. His role in life is to keep changing, to be surprising, to do things no one expects and to get stronger because of them. He just orchestrated something so incredible that Crawford's treatment is inexcusable. Schuldig's in no position for reprimand, but he's still angry. His eyes flash. He isn't going to claw at Crawford's hand around his throat or pry at his thumb just underneath his jaw. That's too predictable. That's too pathetic. Schuldig wants to know what the hell Crawford's doing and how he can stop it. Schuldig twists his head, jerking his body forward in half-futile, pinned motions. Crawford bears down harder on him, which is just what Schuldig wants.
"If she puts," Schuldig gasps, "a condom -- on him I'm going to -- crack the fuck -- up." All of Schuldig's power lies in surprise. It's why Crawford holds him down so well. Crawford sees everything coming. Schuldig can't pull the same trick twice. "You're not even going to -- let me see them -- fuck?" Schuldig rips one hand free, dislocating his wrist in the process. He barely feels the pain over the insistence of his blood, which needs oxygen now, or else. Every second is a jarring warning that he can't breathe. He knows he can't breathe. He doesn't need his body to tell him. At least, in comparison to impending suffocation, all senses are numbed.
Aya feels all right. She's kissing her brother and she feels all right. He's touching her back and she feels all right. His apartment is unfamiliar; she bangs her shin on a chair moving after him. It feels all right. He kisses her with enough thrilling skill to tell her he's never done this before but this is what she does to him. She doesn't feel white or empty or blank anymore, just electric. Every inch of her is hooked up to sockets. Every second of her is a heartbeat too fast to track and laughter too much to let out and electricity no one human should have. She could turn on light bulbs with her toes. She could make toast with the backs of her knees. She could propel a train with her elbows, but she can't stop thinking incredible stupid thoughts. Ran holds her tight around the waist. Little words are lost between their mouths. Her shin throbs. Her socks are wet from the rain. So are Ran's jeans. So are his hands. She has them at her back and she feels all right.
"They're -- about to," Schuldig says. Crawford looks up at him, mouth in a tight line. The strength of Crawford's left hand is lifting Schuldig up off the floor. His feet search for the ground beneath him. "You're fucking -- overreacting," Schuldig points out. His voice sounds like only semi-formed, rough air. He wants to kick Crawford between the legs.
Aya touches Ran between the legs. It's by accident. But he moves against the doorframe when she does it and she knows it feels more than just all right.
Schuldig gets a better idea.
Schuldig's right hand is trapped between them. His left is useless, limp. He ignores it. He can feel Crawford's hip right there, the slide of his white thigh. Schuldig twists his own arm around at the elbow. It hurts. He doesn't care. He lets out one last struggling exhalation and grabs Crawford's penis. There's always something else, he wants to say. There's always something else I can do. You can't kill me yet. I'm worth a billion fucking surprises. Crawford, not entirely in agreement, drops him.
Ran is down on his back like in too many dreams. He can only look up. He only wants to look up. Aya's hair frames the light around them. She is too many colors to count. Ran doesn't remember the girl from the hospital whom he suffered next to for hours. This isn't the same girl. Her arms are strong, her fingers dancing everywhere. She is a body alive with light and movement and pulled neat over his hips with his hands on hers. He looks up at her, sitting there, poised against him, perched on top of him. He can see the curves of her breasts from beneath. He lifts one hand to touch her stomach, soft around the hips. Aya has a slim waist. His thumb brushes against her navel. His index finger discovers where her ribs begin. He doesn't believe dreaming is an option because the smell of her is real, like a flower shop, like a milkshake, like rain, like a girl.
Crawford slams up against Schuldig, knocking him into the wall. Schuldig can barely hear the sound of his shoulder blade cracking over the ragged gulps of air he's taking. It's too much all at once. He's going to hyperventilate. With his hand wrapped around Crawford's penis, he'd think Crawford would be more careful with him.
"Did you come here to do this?" Crawford asks. "What the fuck are you thinking?"
"I came here to tell you," Schuldig says, "I came here to -- Abyssinian and his sister -- share."
Crawford knocks Schuldig across the face. Crawford has a nice penis, so Schuldig lets go before he goes flying and takes it with him. His head hits the side of the tub. His lungs are grateful, but the rest of him isn't.
"She's got incredible breasts," Schuldig says, wondering if he's delirious. "Incredible breasts. Ow. Fuck."
No one's ever touched her breasts before. She has her hand down his pants and he's touching her breasts and neither of them knows what they're doing. They should have gotten undressed first. Ran gets the feeling that he's going to pull something because jeans weren't made for whatever this position is. His hip hurts. She's heavy. He doesn't know what to do with her breasts and she doesn't know what to do with his penis. He wonders how people ever get good at having sex. He wonders if he should have listened to Yohji's stories. He wonders what the hell he's going to do now that he's touching her breasts, round and smooth and the right size to fit against his palms. Indecision is going to kill him. If that doesn't, hunger will. If he can't decide what comes next, if there's no divine inspiration coming from somewhere else, then they'll be tangled like this forever or at least until one of them has to go to the bathroom. "I don't know what to do," Aya admits. Her voice sounds soft and far away. Ran opens his mouth. He closes it. He's about to give up when inspiration hits, with a nasal accent and a flash of red and green.
Schuldig takes another deep breath, still waiting for Crawford to kill him. Crawford doesn't. He's not about to let Schuldig set up a direct connection between his brain and how it feels to put your lips on Aya's left breast, but the idea is enough to make him pause. Schuldig draws himself up onto his knees. There's blood running down the back of his neck from the base of his skull. He wipes at it, incredulous. "Right now," he says, "right now, he's putting his lips on her breast. I told him to." Crawford says nothing, does nothing. He looks down at Schuldig with an incomprehensible expression. He isn't even breathing heavily. He hasn't even broken a sweat. He probably knew he wasn't going to lose his penis today beforehand. Schuldig wants to bite it off. Schuldig wants to shoot it off. Schuldig wants a lot of things, all of them coming together at once and making too much sense for his dazed brain. Crawford: above him: naked. Schuldig looks up, up, all the way along Crawford's thighs and over his hips and, yes, his penis. They're like old friends now. Schuldig heaves himself to his feet using the lip of the tub and only then does Crawford move, knocking him back into it. The splash is loud. Water gets in Schuldig's nose and ears. Blood gets in the water. It's an even trade.
"All right," Crawford says. He descends onto Schuldig in the bath, wet arms on either side, hair falling into his eyes. "Show me."
Schuldig wants to laugh. Instead, Schuldig puts his hand between Crawford's legs. This time, Crawford shudders. It rolls down the length of his back and through his powerful, tight thighs. Schuldig presses his forehead against Crawford's and bites at his nose. Schuldig shows him.
Aya's asleep. Her stomach rises and falls with an easy rhythm, though Ran has pillowed his head on top of it. Sometimes, she sighs. Ran listens to every sign of normal life from her. He'd eat it, if he could, devour it, swallow it whole. The reality of her is impossibly beautiful. He's curled against her left leg with his ear over her belly, listening to her sleep. He knows how it is to kiss her breast. He would hide inside her if he could, or hide her inside him, but neither option is possible. They're just two people. These are the idle pleasures of their days. Nothing changes. Nothing's changed. There's only the sound of her breathing, up and down, up and down, into the late night.