It all seems anticlimactic after Unicorns.
Well, this turned long for no reason at all. The theme for the month must have been switched to rumination, but there is some kissing, thank god. I promise there will be more actual, and not implied, murder (and toe nail polish) in the next one.
Fandom: Weiss Kreuz
Characters: Crawford / Schuldig
Notes: Poisons, missing digits and shopping lists. I claim no one but Olin. The rest are some weird, Jungian memory.
“Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind . . .” – Shakespeare
There is wax beneath his fingernails and a string of bloodied rumors in his head. He arrives ten minutes earlier than his target, because his watch is ten minutes late but the atomic clock in his mind is precise and unburdened by coils and gears, enviable engineering
The hotel lobby smells of funeral lilies and disinfectant. He takes a seat beside a waterfall in the lounge. A stone-block walkway forms a broken bridge across the ornamental pond below the sheet-wall of water. Agoraphobic waterways make Schuldig nervous. Torrents shouldn’t be contained beneath a roof. The table where he sits is situated precariously close to the water. Schuldig busies himself by picturing the averages taken to measure the footfall-distances between the stone blocks. What is an average stride, he wonders, and does he have one? Would a child accidentally misstep and fall into the water? Or would he, recently released from Rosenkreuz and granted all the privileges of maturity endowed with that honor, do well if he skipped every other block if forced to exit quickly in that direction. Schuldig hates getting his feet wet.
It means little to the koi; their minds are inarticulate, floating, passive. They think in blocks of color, in half-beats of light toward the left end of the spectrum.
“Two whiskeys no ice,” Schuldig says to the server, and allows his mind to drift along the tables and bar until the server returns with his order.
Schuldig taps a waxed envelope, thin and sharp-cornered, from the cuff of his sleeve and takes his time opening the triangular flap. He moves the powder from one side to the next before he slides the contents into one of the two drinks.
Forty seconds to spare. He pushes the empty envelope back up his sleeve and imagines that the folded paper feels softer without the poison – the habit of most containers.
The powder dissolves into milky swirls that fade to nothing during their slow descent to the bottom of the golden liquid in the glass. Once assimilated, the poisoned whiskey looks no different from the other.
Schuldig arranges the glasses and glances to the tables around him. Beneath the thoughts of strangers, there is one consideration that Schuldig cannot digest no matter how hard he tries to make sense of it: Crawford fucked him in the Rosenkreuz library. Crawford left the next day and Schuldig spent the next four months wandering the halls as if the school was a labyrinthine lobby where Schuldig was supposed to bide his time waiting for an appointment he had no recollection of making. Since then it has been business as usual.
“You’re on time,” Schuldig says. “I ordered for you.”
Crawford places his phone on the table and casts an annoyed glance toward the loud, incessant flow of the waterfall before he takes a seat.
The hotel lobby is open by design, an unfortunate mixture of modernism and draping plants. The glass encased cubes of the elevators rise and descend at the periphery of Schuldig’s vision, geometrical and neat, like Crawford, whose only unchanging attachment seem to be to his dry cleaner and the amount of starch used on his shirts.
“How considerate of you,” Crawford says and Schuldig’s heart flutters with a swell of preemptory success.
“I know what you like,” Schuldig says, leveraging his hope on the likelihood that Crawford’s mind is so involved with the details of their current job that he will have no energy left over to explore other possibilities. If, and only if, Crawford can see the future.
“You procured the item?” Crawford asks.
“I did.” Schuldig watches a priest walk across the lobby.
Crawford is pleased. “Where is it?”
“I left it with the contact like you told me,” Schuldig says, and returns his attention fully to Crawford.
“Ten thousand, as we discussed. He initially asked for forty. Slippery art broker,” Schuldig says. The item was a strangely-etched, brass plate the size of a tea saucer. The poison was a fortunate, unforeseen bonus pilfered from the broker’s lovely thoughts and secured by obfuscated thievery. Who would have guessed that the employee of the local firm that deals in antiquities is also a chemist?
“Is he living?” Crawford asks.
“Of course or else I would taken the plate for free. Did you not see the way it would happen?” Schuldig fiddles with his sleeve.
It is new to Schuldig, this game of testing Crawford’s limits. Schuldig is not accustomed to invisible mechanisms. He wants to know just how much Crawford sees, if he sees anything at all. Anyone with a touch of luck can appear precognitive in hindsight. They have successes, the two of them, and when the work is complete Crawford always says, “See? I knew how it would happen.” But did he know? There are several ways to test his limits, one certain way in particular, but Schuldig feels this way is the most definitive.
“I was occupied with something else,” Crawford says. “Do you always need me to monitor you?”
“I don’t know how you work. I’m curious.”
Voices echo across the lobby and for a moment Schuldig does not know whether the sounds are internal or external, so focused is he on the table and glasses, on Crawford’s index finger flicking a corner of the napkin beneath the whiskey. Luck is the layman’s form of precognition.
One of them might drink; one of them might not.
It’s hot as hell outside, the server thinks as he passes by, glancing at the untouched drinks. He meets Schuldig’s glance. Schuldig urges him to walk by. The empty envelope seems too small to be harmful sticking to the sweat against his forearm.
“You’re entitled to your doubts,” Crawford says. “But it’s not my job to alleviate your worries.”
“Who said I doubt?”
“You will in” – Crawford glances at his watch – “soon.”
“You make things seem certain because you want them to be. I don’t believe you know.” Schuldig says this with the certainty of a recent, religious convert.
Crawford ignores the accusation. “I spent the morning meeting with the liaison to the coffee grower in Venezuela.”
“Tell me again why we’re investing in coffee?” Schuldig asks as he watches Crawford absently twist the whiskey glass in circles within the square of the napkin beneath it, an outlet for frustration that would otherwise be flung across the table. Schuldig has no aptitude for professional detail but he has ample reserves of attention to exhaust toward inconsequential detail: the glass, the blunt nails that should be claws at the tips of Crawford’s fingers, koi, the afternoon storm brewing in people’s thoughts as they enter the lobby, the easy brevity of chance, the empty envelope, the art of interpretation.
“Coffee shipments” – Crawford says, his gaze calculating. “Large shipments of coffee. . .” He pauses. “Must I spell it out?”
“Yes.” Schuldig says.
“Are easy to hide things in.”
Oh. “I see now,” Schuldig says.
“Yes. You see now,” Crawford agrees, and runs his fingertip along the rim of the glass.
Schuldig reaches out, removes Crawford’s hand from the whiskey, finger by finger, and slides his own glass across the table, replacing one for the other like a street-con’s trick, as he wonders which Crawford will choose. Schuldig winks and explains, “Yours seems less full.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Crawford pushes the glass to the side and slaps a folder down between them. He removes a hand-drawn diagram from the top of the file, and Schuldig scans what he can of the image though it’s obvious Crawford does not intend to share his notes. The sheet looks like a subway map radiating from a central station, but there is no city large enough to contain that many stops.
“Pay attention to tonight’s plans,” Crawford says, his voice low and commanding. Schuldig instinctively, regrettably, sits straighter in his chair. “You will leave the hotel at nine and take a taxi to a bar near the river. There you will meet with a man named Manuel and you will talk to him about the weather and traffic until coincidentally he realizes that you have a common acquaintance. “
“Who would that be?” Schuldig considers the few people he knows in the city.
“Me,” Crawford says, smiling as if his answer should make perfect sense to Schuldig. “And you will have no trouble pretending that I am the source of both of your problems. I don’t think it will be a great stretch for your acting skills.”
Schuldig flexes his fingers against his knee before reaching out to push the folder away so that he can align the whiskey glasses side by side in the middle of the table. He stares at the glasses for a moment before glancing back to Crawford. “Then what?”
“You won’t let him know that you know what he’s thinking. I’ll give you a list of things to find, foremost on the list, an account number.”
“Those are fucking hard to see and you know it.” Passwords are simple, ever-present, stored right in front, a cognitive function. Account numbers that have not been memorized, as they seldom are, live in an image, a photo copied neuron.
“You’ll have all the time you need,” Crawford says.
“Why don’t you retrieve the number the other way? I could always get the wrong one or be one number off or something. You know how it works. You need precision for this one and my mind doesn’t work like that.”
Crawford ignores him. “Then you will drive him home.”
“This is sounding more and more like a date.”
“He will be too drunk to drive himself. Take his car and meet me after midnight at the place we went last night. We’ll finish things together and we’ll drop the car before coming back here.”
Schuldig bites his lip and considered all the ways things can happen before the evening. “Do you see any problems?” he asks, rotating the whiskeys once more. He pushes one over to Crawford and takes the other for himself, but Schuldig does not drink.
“Not at all,” Crawford says.
Schuldig hesitates. They stare at each other for a moment. “To a successful finish,” Schuldig says, clacks their glasses together and watches Crawford peer closely at the drink he has been given. The sound of the waterfall drowns out all the voices in the lobby. Finally, Crawford drinks the whiskey down as he would some bitter medicine.
Schuldig hesitates again and wonders what lines divide the crudely drawn map of their loyalty. “What am I to you?” Schuldig asks but he doesn’t give Crawford time to answer. “Part of your process, your contingency plan? Or did you see it and feel you had to have it?”
“Don’t ask ridiculous questions,” Crawford says and Schuldig, incredulously, watches him glance toward the nearest table.
“You’re afraid they’ll overhear us talking about this and you weren’t worried about the details of the job?” Schuldig grows louder and places the glass down so that he can lean closer. Voices return above the sound of the water and the thoughts coming from the adjacent table catch his attention. He peers at the people and smiles. The smile fades as he returns his attention to Crawford; he makes his next words unreservedly clear. “We’re the least of their worries. Why go to all that trouble to search me out when that thing in the library had nothing to do with them placing us together? If anyone knew, it would have achieved the exact opposite. I don’t understand you and I don’t believe you. So tell me, how the fuck am I supposed to work with you?”
“You don’t trust me because I fucked you?” Crawford says, quietly.
“I’m not talking about that.” Schuldig thinks about leaving but he doesn’t know where he should go.
“Do you know what you’re talking about?” Crawford flips through papers beneath the diagram, selects one, and begins to read.
Schuldig chews on the inside of his cheek and thinks how wonderful it would be to shoot Crawford in the face, but that outcome wouldn’t prove his point. He reaches for his own, untouched, glass of whiskey.
“Don’t.” Crawford does not look up from the papers.
Despite Crawford’s warning, Schuldig picks up the glass. He knows it’s not worth it, doing something so huge to prove something so small, but he cannot think of anything else to do. He could ask to be moved, but there are worse people to be placed with.
“I said don’t.” Crawford still hasn’t looked up but he grips Schuldig’s wrist until the glass grates against the table. “And if there is a trace of powder on the envelope you shoved up your sleeve it will be absorbed through your skin so I suggest you dispose of it now. Lucky for you I haven’t seen anything that will come of that.”
Schuldig feels his mouth turn up in a seldom-used smile. He can’t help it. The summer storm scrapes the branches of ornamental trees against the dark, wet lines of windows leading out to the city. All the minds around him think storm while Schuldig is happy to be wrong for once, and Crawford could be thinking anything, but at least Schuldig finally knows he’s not a fraud.
“I thought you just made shit up,” Schuldig says, still smiling.
“I do.” Crawford finally looks up. “It’s not real until it happens.”
“Is that why you won’t touch me?
Crawford, with a dismissive flick, releases his grip on Schuldig’s wrist. “It might have more to do with the fact that you’re carrying poison.”
“See?” Schuldig presents the envelope, rotates it for Crawford’s appraisal and slides it beneath a napkin. “All gone.”
Crawford stares straight through him, expression inevitably unreadable, as if Schuldig is nothing but an ever-changing screen of possibilities. It might be the answer to the question Schuldig does not know how to ask. Poison – Crawford doesn’t mean the envelope. Acquisitions, transactions: Schuldig is trained to find things, Crawford is trained to buy them. The water suddenly seems too loud, the koi too vibrant, the storm too prophetic. Schuldig wishes he could skip the next few hours, forget the point he tried to prove, go take a nap, and fast-forward to the bar beneath the bridge beside the river. Wanting does not make it real either.
“Give me a pen,” Schuldig says, his hand held out, demanding.
Crawford doesn’t question but carefully retrieves the empty envelope from beneath the napkin, and reaches down to dispose of it. He finds a pen in the process, neatly kept in the front pocket of his worn, leather satchel, a suitably distressed replacement for the one he lost in a car fire the week prior.
Schuldig takes the pen as forcibly as possible, smoothes out a napkin and writes the number one. He means the list to be only for himself, in case he should want to work through his bone-deep mistrust once more, but the empty paper makes him feel oddly generous, as if he has no right to claim something that hasn’t happened. He knows that it will all be inevitably linked to him if the outcome is unsatisfactory. Schuldig comes by his name honestly.
“Five things,” Schuldig says. “Tell me five things that could happen to you in an hour.”
“Unfortunately every possibility involves you as well.”
“You know what I mean. Five things. Tell me,” Schuldig says.
“I should have let you drink.”
“Don’t see that one anymore, do you?”
Crawford leans back in his seat, stretches his arms, laces his hands behind his head and stares at Schuldig as if the potential list is written on his face. There is a pause before Crawford starts laughing. The laugh is not superior – it is quiet and is filled with an easy, strange delight. Schuldig is suddenly alarmed by the thought that he still might, unwittingly drink.
“No,” Crawford says at last. “It would have killed you. Don’t get me wrong, you’ve built some tolerance to various chemicals over the years, as we all have – but this one was manufactured for a purpose and it would have worked painfully and quickly. We can’t have you ruining the job on a whim.”
Schuldig considers what he says and decides to change the subject. “Where are we?”
“You don’t know?” The question doesn’t surprise Crawford as much as it should.
“I wouldn’t ask if I knew. You put me on planes, you send me on errands, but you never tell me where we are,” Schuldig says.
“Get it from their minds. I assumed that’s what you were doing – or you might read your boarding pass.” Crawford gestures to a table behind them where a man with a crooked, loosened tie sits alone with a fashion magazine and a vodka tonic.
“He doesn’t know where the fuck he is,” Schuldig says.
“He has to know the name. The country.”
“You’d be shocked if you knew the subjective maps they draw in their heads. Ask him.”
Crawford frowns, but then he turns and says, “Excuse me?”
The man lowers the magazine and reaches, habitually, for his drink so that he might better answer any question that follows.
“What city is this?” Crawford asks in German, though they’ve been speaking English since Crawford walked into the lounge.
The man isn’t prepared for that question. “Atlanta,” he says, smirking to hide his confusion. He understands the question but he answers and thinks with an unusual stress to the language. Schuldig realizes for the first time that Crawford’s accent in any language is not flavored by dialect, foreign or regional – his accent is empty, crisp as a white napkin.
“In what state?” Crawford glances over his shoulder to give Schuldig a superior look that says he’s about to move in for the final, authoritative blow.
The man laughs. “Georgia, of course.”
“Which is beside?” Schuldig interrupts.
The man takes a lengthy sip of his drink while he thinks. He almost places the drink down, reconsiders, and takes another sip.
“He doesn’t know,” Schuldig says, picking up where they left off in English.
“What about all the people who work here, live here?” Crawford asks.
“People do not think in maps.”
“What’s your point?” Crawford speaks over his shoulder
“If we’re going to do this. . .” Schuldig gestures between them as if their working relationship is an invisible but tangible thing that follows them around waiting to take on some twisted shape. “ You’re going to give me more detail or else I’ll occupy myself with other things, such as: stealing poisons, wandering off, thinking. Out with it – five possibilities for the next hour.”
“Thank you,” Crawford says to the befuddled magazine man. He turns back to Schuldig and leans forward, elbows on the table. “I’ll speak simply so your hand can keep up.”
“Your memory’s shorter than mine if you think there’s much my hand can’t keep up with.”
Crawford ignores that comment and moves on to the list. He speaks and Schuldig dictates, handwriting growing smaller with each item.
1. I refuse to list numbers 2-5, in which case I leave to arrange an early flight because you will purposefully sabotage tonight’s job – not past fixing, but we’ll need to be out of the by dawn.
2. The poisoner who works for the “art brokerage” has made use of his extensive contracts to track your location to this hotel in order to retrieve the envelope you stole after he allowed himself to be willingly molested. He will arrive at the hotel in half an hour and he will find you sitting with me in the lounge. He will demand that you take him up to your room so that you can discuss the matter privately. You will reluctantly refuse – you think he’s beautiful, so it’s difficult for you to pass that offer up –because you have already disposed of the product. I will leave to arrange an early flight because you are unaware, as are most, that the poisoner is the head of the firm’s grandson.
Schuldig’s pen slows on the last sentence.
“Really,” Crawford adds, “you should have caught that when you were busy with your tongue in his mouth. Not much of a multi-tasker are we?”
Schuldig tries to think of a quick reply and settles instead for the truth. “You should know. Go on.”
3. You leave to take a nap, I bribe the desk clerk to ensure the poisoner’s interest is diverted to another hotel where two rooms are reserved in the same names. All the while the server, who believes no good whiskey should go to waste, clears the table and decides to drink your leftovers. We continue with the job tonight and leave town as soon as we can in the morning.
4. We continue to argue in circles around your actual question for twenty minutes until the poisoner arrives and you placate him with a facsimile of the stolen poison.
Crawford reaches into his satchel again and retrieves an indiscernible replica of the filled, waxen envelope.
“Put it in your pocket,” Crawford says.
“What is it?”
“How did you get it?” Schuldig asks incredulously.
“I bought it last week.”
“To replace this?” Schuldig points to his drink.
“No – for you to put into the drink of the man you’re meeting tonight. We’ll have to come up with something else.”
“I don’t know yet. The poisoner – who is extraordinarily lovely, if one is into the tall, bruised sort – will leave without too much prodding after you return the stolen powder. Feeling generous, you will pour your unfinished whiskey into the pond, killing two koi, and you will then leave to take a nap.”
“I thought you said you were keeping the possibilities simple,” Schuldig says.
“This is as simple as it gets.”
“One more,” Schuldig says.
5. Similar to number three, you take a nap, I divert the poisoner, the sever drinks the whiskey with a twist. The only difference is that I will go back to my room, call Rosenkreuz and tell them that you are more trouble than you’re worth and they should send someone to come get you immediately. I’ll finish the job by myself. When you learn of this turn of events you will drink the poison in your pocket and I will dump your body in the river.
Crawford looks at his watch. “Five is really just a beginning.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. You made the last one up.”
“Try me. The poison’s in your pocket.”
The napkin is unfolded to reveal the entirety of the list. Schuldig rotates it for ease of reading and pushes it toward Crawford. “Which one do you want to see happen?”
“This is your version of being involved?” Crawford does not, quite, smirk.
The only one. The only son of a bitch that Schuldig cannot read. He studies Crawford’s face as Crawford makes a very good show of feigning to read the napkin. “We have seventeen minutes,” Crawford mutters.
“Choose fast. I’m disappointed that none of the possible futures involved you touching me.”
“You said to list things that may happen within the next hour.” Crawford still stares at the list.
“You mentioned tonight.”
“I mentioned the job.”
Schuldig taps the pen beside the list. “Pick your poison.”
Crawford looks up. “Number four. You go to a lot of trouble to get what you want.”
“You don’t know what I want,” Schuldig says, but neither does he know what Crawford wants, which is the problem.
They both sit back. “While we’re waiting,” Crawford says, “this is what I want you to do tonight . . .” They occupy themselves with details of the job for the next sixteen minutes. Schuldig gives the matter his full attention and is troubled by how easy it is to do so.
The storm has passed and an eerie green light suffuses the lobby. Schuldig hears the poisoner approaching the table before he sees him, followed closely by the two others he met earlier in the day – a stern girl with a missing finger, an unfortunate welding accident, and a blond guy who spent an inordinate amount of time explaining to Schuldig the measures their firm employs to secure their objects. Schuldig took that to mean the art, the poison and the poisoner. “Showed him,” Schuldig says quietly, content to have acquired two of the three – the other was rightly purchased.
“Hello Olin,” Schuldig says brightly to the poisoner, who stands near the table with his horde, obviously having no interest of joining them for a drink.
“You took something that does not belong to you.” Olin’s accent is faintly British, from the right schools, vowels elongated from a childhood in the American south. He thinks in crisp outlines like the icons his family sells. Olin thinks of plants and bottles and someone he once loved very much. He is angular and symmetrical and dark. He tastes like juniper.
Crawford kicks Schuldig’s shin beneath the table.
“I’m sorry,” Schuldig smiles and pulls the envelope from pocket, places it in Olin’s perfectly carved hand. “I didn’t realize I had it until I was gone.”
Olin examines the packet, frowns and looks to Crawford. “I don’t believe him. But it wouldn’t matter if the substance wasn’t so rare. All of the products are spoken for.”
“I was carried away,” Schuldig explains.
“Is that what you call it?” Olin turns his gaze back to Schuldig
They stare at each other until Crawford rises and offers an apology for them both. “We appreciate your company’s services and look forward to working with you in the future.”
“You should choose another courier,” Olin says and looks once more to Schuldig. “No more surprises.” His companions share a glance behind his back. They’re relieved, happy the exchange went so smoothly and that the poison is back in its creator’s hands. Schuldig tries to see who intends to purchase it, but they think in turn of lunch and shopping, no names, no faces. They’ve been trained well, or else they’re really that simple.
“We’ll be seeing you,” Olin says. And then they’re gone.
Schuldig watches them cross the lobby. “I could drink his memories up.”
“You might was well drink his poison,” Crawford says, and he does not elaborate. But Schuldig knows what he means and he takes it, for the first time, as hope. Schuldig rises and stretches.
“Where are you going?” Crawford asks, as if he does not know.
“To my room to take a nap. I’ll see you tonight. Call and wake me up.”
The elevator is empty. As the ground swoops away from his feet, Schuldig presses his hands to spotless glass and watches the server place the glass of poisoned whiskey on his tray at their abandoned table. The possibilities shift and the stories merge. Schuldig holds the crumpled napkin list between his thumb and forefinger against the glass. All the futures are possible at once. He smells juniper and window cleaner and alcohol. He sees Crawford walking to the front desk. The elevator dings and a woman steps on.
“That was some storm,” she says.
Schuldig glances at her bright expression, her carefully crafted hair and whitened teeth.
“Anlamiyorum?” he says and shrugs. The woman thinks in frames of her meticulously arranged children and a husband that she hates. The woman she loves, a best friend from childhood, her first kiss, lies in the periphery of her thoughts like a purposefully aged photograph, brown, jagged edges, impossible to re-create. Schuldig smiles and steps off when the elevator dings at the next floor.
He leaves a trail of clothes from the bathroom to the bed because there is nothing more decadent than sleeping in the afternoon and there is no one around to tell him that he cannot. His hands ache from all the things he has stopped himself from doing throughout the day: unbuckling the poisoner’s belt, reaching for the drink, strangling Crawford.
“But the fucker would see it coming,” Schuldig says to the room, his voice hardly audible above the air conditioner.
He turns the machine off and slides the window open as far as it will go. He smells tarmac and ozone, despair and anxiousness. He was never taught what to do with all the nervous energy in his body so he smokes and stares at the street. It’s so new, the world and the possibilities. He was twelve when Rosenkreuz found him, and two months of traveling in the wake of Crawford’s certain footsteps does not make him more certain of himself and of his purpose. They said the assignment was temporary – that he’d be sent from place to place until he proved himself. He is months away from a permanent assignment.
Schuldig pulls the heavy bed covers onto the floor and lies on top of the sheets. A cool breeze blows through the window, but the summer heat chases it away – his skin is too hot.
The poisoner’s memories of his past love are like tangled, sheets, irritating, binding, made worse by the recollections of murder. You cannot keep too much in this life, Olin thought. The most coveted art fetches the highest price. Value is supplied by the market – a poison is only found by the authorities if it is suspected. “Drink this,” Olin said, handing Schuldig an early afternoon glass of rich, red wine.
Toxicology. Geography. Neurology.
The night in the library, Crawford had searched for Schuldig, had found him and said he was leaving in the morning. Schuldig could have choked from jealousy, can still taste it like a crushed aspirin at the back of his throat, though he is thousands of kilometers from his old school. Crawford was trained to lead and Schuldig was programmed to follow. Schuldig had counted every second of the time Crawford promised at that last meeting, We’ll see each other again soon, not because he longed to see the son of a bitch, but Schuldig translated soon to be somewhere else, away from Rosenkreuz, and that was supposed to be good enough.
Several months into his release, knowing the freedom of being a useful, skilled employee, Schuldig realizes he will only be in Crawford’s safekeeping for a while before he is sent out to work on his own: the final exam. If he passes, there are dozens of worse managers Schuldig could find himself working for – counting only the ones he is aware of.
The library started out as one thing and ended up as something else. It took little knowledge of geography to figure that out. Schuldig might not know where he is, not really, but he knows what it means when someone can’t stop kissing, when the world buckles in on itself, there at the end, no matter what the person says when they’re finished, chaos righting itself back into sterile, perfect order.
Schuldig can give a fuck about order, what it looks like on the outside – he knows what goes on inside and it’s anything but tidy; it’s screwed up, messy, sloppy as mouths become when verges of thought grind to a halt.
That’s the way it is, even if Schuldig cannot see it with his eyes; he hears it. That night in the library, he remembers how it tasted but he cannot remember how it felt. He knows he has inserted other people’s recollections of how meetings like that should be into how it was. The poisoner’s memories are sharp-edged, jagged like splintered glass, but real. Schuldig’s first impulse was to fuck the smug knowledge of look what I’ve had, however briefly, out of Olin’s head and then stop all thinking with a well placed knife. Instead, Schuldig stole the poison to conduct his own experiment, the results of which are inconclusive.
Schuldig realizes that this is what it means to see the world. He lies on the bed and allows himself to slip down, down to the white noise of other people’s worries, images, black and white, like procedure films for living. He hears all the people around him in their purchased rooms, all of them imprisoned by the ability to choose. He falls asleep lulled by anxieties and fears and ghosts, failed expectations, all the usual stuff.
He wakes to something else.
There might as well be a gun held to Schuldig’s head, so shocked is he that someone made it into the room without him waking up. A weight sinks down against the mattress.
Schuldig does not move to see who it is before he speaks. “Oh – it’s the dead mind. I just came to the conclusion that you don’t have barriers up to keep me out; you’re just that empty.”
“Shut up,” Crawford says.
“Alright.” Schuldig shrugs as he sits up. They both rest there, side by side, staring at the unplugged television. Schuldig doesn’t like cords left in outlets.
Crawford’s been to his own room because there’s no sign of his things; he’s without his jacket and his shoes are elsewhere – possibly at the foot of the bed, but Schuldig doubts it. There’s no use fighting, Crawford will make his intention known whenever it suits him. Schuldig is pleased to discover he’s figured that much out, that he doesn’t need airports or schedules to teach him this lesson.
The silence is intolerable. “The job . . .” Schuldig begins.
“I said . . .” Crawford doesn’t have to repeat his command for silence.
“Alright.” Schuldig arranges the pillows behind his back. Sieges are aided by comfort.
He turns to Crawford, opens his mouth, shuts it quickly and studies, instead, Crawford’s profile, thinking that he’d bitten that jaw, and liked it. He can taste Crawford’s cologne in the back of his throat. Schuldig smiles. Some details are very hard to forget.
Crawford turns and sees Schuldig’s ridiculous expression. “What?” he asks, lowly, more a movement of his lips than sound.
“Nothing,” Schuldig mimics, silently. He rakes his hair back from his face and sighs dramatically.
Crawford seems to consider several possibilities and finally appears to decide on one. He frowns and pats the bed. “Lie down,” he says, again, so quietly he might not have spoken at all, or Schuldig simply imagines it. He does as he is told and Crawford slides down so that they lie together, facing.
Schuldig is suddenly, deeply, uneasy. Crawford is not wearing his glasses and the last time Schuldig had so close a view they were doing much more than staring. In an effort to fill the silence, albeit silently, Schuldig mouths, “What?” with enough conviction of expression that he hopes Crawford realizes he is giving the moment his undivided attention.
He wonders if he’s failed some integral test and the others are on their way to, reprogram or exterminate him. He wonders if he has overlooked some important matter of security. He wonders if Crawford has had his fill and decided to commence with number five from the lounge list.
Again, Crawford seems to pour through a list of possibilities.
“I hope you’re considering all the different ways you can have me,” Schuldig says, bored suddenly with the necessity of constantly bowing to Crawford’s superior gift. If the fuckers come for him, at least he knows where he’ll be going. And like a mirror held up to the idea of superior gifts Schuldig suddenly wonders if there is anyone out there who knows can read his thoughts. He’s never considered the next level up.
The realization is what Crawford is waiting for. He leans closer, close enough for a kiss. Instead, Crawford speaks – the ghost of words, no sound – but the meaning is clear enough to taste, if words can be drank like whiskey. Schuldig bites his own lip to keep from interrupting.
“Everything we do is being watched,” Crawford says.
Instinctively Schuldig fights against the lethargy of his recent nap, the ease of being free to walk from one place to the next, the freedom of airports and destinations for which his mind has no internal map. He barricades himself as if someone has walked into the room and shouted, “Time’s up!” He forces his thoughts into Attic Greek, an old fall back that buys him time by transcription.
He feels the ghost of Crawford’s words caught up in his mouth, but Schuldig refuses to swallow them down whole. So he stares at Crawford’s nose until the roiling jumble of alarm dies down to a low murmur.
There has to be something wrong for Crawford to come secretly like this. He searches his memories for any disastrous misstep. Schuldig does not value his life; he values his freedom. Swallowing a poison is his own choice; he will not have the poison chosen for him.
He leans close to Crawford’s mouth to simulate a reply and is perplexed when he feels his eyes close as they would for a kiss, some memories don’t need prescience.
“What do you mean?” Schuldig whispers, but he’s always known they must watch. If they don’t get it the first time, they ask you to repeat it and they use whatever force it takes to make you honest. Schuldig learns best by example.
“I can’t tell you,” Crawford says.
Immediately regretting his transfixion by proximity, Schuldig shoves Crawford roughly away and sits up. “What the fuck? I’m sick of you. I can’t imagine how irritating you’d be if I actually fucking knew you. This” – he gestures at Crawford’s head – “is bad enough.”
Oddly, Crawford seems genuinely bothered, an unusual set to his brow and an exaggerated sternness to his mouth, as if he wants, finally, to say something but he cannot. He punches the bed angrily and motions for Schuldig to come near again.
“I’ll be over it in an hour, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll do your goddamn job, I’ll pass my test and I will be very, very good so that everyone will praise you and I’ll move on to another manager, and I’ll do what I’m told – they’ll all say, ‘Look! Crawford achieved the impossible – he kept the new telepath from killing himself. . .’ ” Schuldig considers the last statement . . . “so far.”
As Schuldig rants he’s thinking that Crawford is trying to say something, so he should shut up and listen. But he can’t stop his mouth and he can’t get far enough out of his head or far enough into the thoughts he wants to hear. In an act of distraction, he forces his focus into the next room. Empty. His gaze shifts to the wall, toward the direction of his attention, and he goes to the next room and the next – all occupants off to dinner. At the end of the hall he finds a man watching porn. Schuldig lingers there a moment until Crawford’s voice draws him back.
“What are you doing?” Crawford waits until he has Schuldig’s full attention. “I can’t see your future Schuldig, if that’s what you want. I can only see mine.”
“I don’t understand you.” Schuldig punctuates each word with a jab to Crawford’s chest. The unusual sternness has left Crawford’s mouth, to be replaced by the usual. Crawford moves forward and Schuldig fears that he’s about to grab his hand and break it, but Crawford grabs it to still it and reaches behind Schuldig to seize the notepad and pen beside the hotel phone.
He stares at Schuldig gravely, motions for him to be silent – throws in an adamant gesture of throat slitting to punctuate his sincerity – and waits to be certain his orders will be obeyed before pressing the pad to Schuldig’s knee and beginning to write his own version of a list.
1. They listen to everything we say.
2. There are places in the world where they cannot hear us.
3. This is not one of them.
4. I will find these places.
5. We have work to do.
6. You need to become a better liar.
7. If you want me to touch you, you will be absolutely silent.
8. We will work apart and then we will work together again.
9. I take no small pleasure from visions of your death.
10. You must trust me.
Schuldig reads upside down and chokes back a laugh as Crawford finishes the last point. He takes the list, reads it again from left to right to be certain he’s not missed anything and does his best to give Crawford a look that imparts his absolute mistrust. The look on Crawford’s face brings him up short – it’s the closest he’s seen to honest without his hand shoved down Crawford’s pants.
Crawford reaches behind Schuldig again and returns with an ashtray and Schuldig’s lighter. Out of habit, Schuldig keeps his gaze on Crawford and blindly reaches for the cigarettes that should naturally accompany the lighter but his hand closes on the crumpled napkin. He forgets the cigarettes and tightens his fist.
The sun falls behind the buildings outside the half-closed window. The grey light suddenly makes the room seem more secure, quieter, as if a constant, chattering voice has been silenced. The space around them illuminates violently as Crawford sets fire to the notepad. The shriveled pages drop down into the ashtray until Crawford is left holding a scrap of the burning corner. At the last moment, he drops it and they both watch the last of the list incinerate like a thousand possible outcomes rendered impossible, leaving only once choice, invisible, between them.
Impulsively, Schuldig takes the lighter from Crawford’s cold hand and holds it to the crumpled napkin. The paper is damp from Schuldig’s palm and takes a moment to catch, but once lit, it burns quickly. Schuldig knows nothing about premonitions, but he feels that this is not the last time they will sit together and watch futures burn to dust.
Crawford gets up from the bed and Schuldig hears him flush the ash down the toilet, their secrets swimming down to the sewers. Water runs in the sink and Crawford returns with the ashtray neatly dried, the glass polished as if nothing was ever said. He places it carefully on the table, stares at it, moves it slightly to the left, and when he finds it perfectly ordered, pushes his hair back from his face and sinks back down on the bed.
It is then that Schuldig decides to trust him, even if Crawford is the best liar he’s ever seen. The decision does not make Schuldig more comfortable as he lies down next to Crawford, nor does it make Crawford’s mouth seem more inviting as they return to the conversation began in the library the night before Crawford left Rosenkreuz. Schuldig lets his mind slip like a silent, burning snake to the man down the hall. Then he reconsiders and draws his thoughts back. He shuts out the hotel, the city, the country, the rest of the world, wherever they are.
In the end Schuldig does not know who wants this: the man with the magazine, the poisoner with a broken heart, the dying server, the woman on the elevator, the man down the hall, the jealous kid in the library. They all want this, whatever it is. But no one gets it, not even Crawford.