Pre-series. Crawford and Schuldig have just been posted to Japan.
Autumn was sharp and then thickly sweet with the musk of rot. Blackberries, that was it. Childhood. But why that smell now? He was on the other side of the world and the morning smelled of wet tarmac, and he was eating noodles for breakfast with sugar-water in place of tea because there was no more in the flat, and no more authoritative figure to tell him to eat properly.
He pulled his jacket tighter around his ribs and turned the collar up. The mornings were getting colder. Not cold enough to feed coins into the meter, though, not worth that admission to a change in season that was just barely seeping in around the corners of the days. Autumn mornings, that is, they were the same everywhere. That cold-breath misting up of windows and a lump of sleepiness in his throat from unaccustomed early rising that took a while to burn away in the chill air. He'd carry his sleepy-eyed sleepy-headedness out the door and on the subway to work and at work, just going through the motions of being awake until it wore off. The routine was almost comforting.
The phone rang, twice. The third time it happened, he picked it up. Crawford, of course, speaking neat, precise Japanese, demanding to know where he was.
"Ore wa koko ni iru n da," he replied, a lazy drawl. The foreign words felt thick on his tongue today. "Mou shitte ita na. Doushite denwa suru?"
Crawford's voice rattled tinny in the receiver, but Schuldig couldn't pick out the words any more. He tried shifting the receiver to his other ear. The sound there was even worse. He thought he heard a pause.
"Brad?" he said - and then, almost panicking, "Brad, ich kann dich nicht hÃ¶ren!" The voice on the other end said a curt something, then hung up. Schuldig felt suddenly close to tears.
They met outside the mirror-faced building, exchanged greetings. Crawford pretended he hadn't been waiting for Schuldig to turn up. They spoke in German.
"How's the apartment?" he asked.
"It's fine," said Schuldig, unusually evasive. He made some comment about rocks, and then looked sideways across the road at the bright sigil-written advertisement hoardings, pointed, and said, "Those'll come down next time the earth moves. Great big fuckers, all the neon pouring out like that, you know, shards. And something about a frog."
Crawford smiled, a bit sadly. "I know." He thought for a moment. "Not the frog, though."
"I know you know," retorted Schuldig. "Your mind." He made a mock glare. "You'd better make sure we're not here when it happens."
They went inside, Schuldig grinning arrogant-flippant and self assured again.
Later, he elaborated.
"It has cockroaches," he said, "and a middle-aged couple the floor above who always put on jazz records before they have sex."
They ended up in Crawford's tiny flat anyway, with a bottle of sake and a bag of mushy Chinese food. Three quarters of the way down the bottle, Schuldig got to the point.
"The thing is," he said, "the point is, it just doesn't make any fucking sense." His cheeks always flushed bright pink when he was drunk. "Because, you know, it was - I mean, fuck, I have scars from that place, you know, it was, shit, it was a fucking hellhole." He wound his thin arms around his ribs, curled in. "This place should be some kind of fucking paradise on Earth in comparison."
Crawford was Brad again, and understood. Tongues were hot and slippery and their teeth knocked together on first contact, but the flesh was sake-numbed. The shuddering breaths could have signalled any emotion at all. A cold-fingered hand loosened Brad's flies and teased underneath for his cock.
/Just like back at school/ - and some trace of bitterness floated on the thought, and it might have been either of them.
His heartbeat flipped oily and arrhythmic. Smoke in the air.
"We're out." He felt Crawford's appraisive gaze. "You should be fit enough to run that far, Schuldig."
"Fuck it. You. Fuck." He was going to pass out. "Wait." His knees buckled for a moment and he hauled himself up on the other's shoulder, clenching his eyes shut until the dizziness passed and he could drag his spent shell back to the surface. They regarded the burning building in silence for a moment.
"So he died, huh?" said Schuldig. "Shit."
"It doesn't matter," replied Crawford.
Sparks streamed up into the clouded sky and out across the water. The smoke was acrid like industry and like bonfire night, too, and the approaching sirens sounded oddly festive. He pulled out a half packet of cigarettes and a lighter and lit one, still shaky. Crawford turned away. They no longer had any transport out of there, but he knew that at that moment, they could turn around and walk out of there, brazen and covered in soot and dirt; they could do things like that.
"Come on," he said.
Schuldig followed him.
In the frost-skinned winter Schuldig wore heavy layers of clothing, padding his gaunt frame with cotton-bale bulk. In and out of centrally heated department stores and office buildings, skin flushed and dry from the seesawing change in temperature.
His hair was dyed, gaudy-carroty like orange poster paint. The roots, and his eyebrows and lashes, were pale and gingery. His skin was translucent enough that when he shut his eyes, the irises could still be seen like shadows underneath. He was pretty like kaleidoscopes, Schuldig that is, that was the thing. Convoluted and shard-edged and artificially coloured; and he'd grin lopsided in a too-angular face and walk upright and self contained from knowing, in a way that comes from really knowing he's not like anyone else.
He brought food back, actual dried pasta and cheese and vegetables that time, not takeout. Under the bridge and then kicking metallic snow off his boots on a galvanised steel stairwell; and he could sense, or maybe just thought he sensed, the coal and oil burning off a tight fog-laced sphere of winter, fending it off with small aggressive humanity.
He lit a cigarette in the shelter of the doorway, one of the cheap sweet-flavoured ones that Brad always complained about, the ones they marketed to kids. The box was decorated with bold katakana figures that Schuldig could read at a push, though he didn't normally bother. The words were nonsensical anyway.
((Trans: 'I'm here. You already knew that, didn't you. Why'd you phone?' 'Brad, I can't hear you!'))