V: A Shoulder to the Wheel


"Get out." Crawford didn't bother to look up when Schuldich opened the door to his study. Locked door at that, but larceny was old hat to the redhead.

"And abandon you during a fit?" A smile like a gun trained on the heart. "This is too rare an opportunity to squander." He rested elegant fingertips on the edge of the mahogany desk, casting a shadow over the computer screen. " Such a wonderful opportunity that I wonder if you didn't do this out of a subconscious impulse." Laughter. "If you allow me, we can find out."

Crawford almost had to laugh with him. The impulse was anything but mercifully subconscious: Schuldich could not tell him anything about it of which he was not already persistently aware. "You've come to rely too much on you power Schuldich - " lightly, no point in taunting a hungry wolf already drawn by the scent of blood - "if your ability to assess another's composure is so deteriorated." His cool tone was betrayed by the difficulty he was having accessing his mission files.

"Don't bluff on a poor hand Brad. My senses aren't quite dulled enough that you can just brush this off."

"You seem rather certain that lingering with bring you something other than swift expulsion." He cursed himself for leaving such sloppy openings in the usual, evasive dance of their repartee, but his nerves were approaching frayed.

"I have a pretty good knack for sensing when something's to my advantage." Schuldich, it seemed, had decided that he had time to play along. Or perhaps he was waiting for Crawford to procure enough rope to hang himself.

"That's odd. I seem to recall you had a pronounced weakness for things that caused you harm." It was low, the allusion to Schuldich's old habits. But then he wasn't inclined towards fighting fairly.

Schuldich chuckled, brushing aside the barbed reminder. "I said I have a good sense. I don't always act on it."

"True. Someone with any sense of self-preservation would have known not to come barging in here."

A hiss. "Self-preservation?" He slid from the desk, moving behind Crawford so that he could deliver his question in the man's ear. "And tell me Brad, what do you know about the self-preservation of a telepath?"

There was an unfamiliar venom in the voice, and Crawford's fingers paused on the keyboards a moment before hitting 'send' on the confirmation log. "I know it ought to be intimately linked with restraint."

"Indeed?" Schuldich paused, like the brief tensing of the hunter before it springs. "Because I don't believe you have a fucking clue about the former." He wrapped strong fingers around Crawford's jaw and jerked the man's gaze away from the computer screen.

"Have you ever had to clutch for your own thoughts amid a sea of others?" Those flashing eyes that could pinion one, now just inches away, darkened to the shade of pine needles. "Do you know what it means to be buffeted by hundreds of minds whose very touch is loathsome?

"Would you like to find out?"

Crawford's barriers were shot from the rigors of the day, and he felt the first wisps of the other's mind breach them. A screaming cacophony of ugly, alien regrets, desires, hopes and cruelties lapped against his mind like the first waves of an incoming tide. Gentle insistence that promised a drowning. He turned to give Schuldich a forbidding glare. "Enough." More than he ever wanted to know, really.

The host of voices died away to the barest whisper of a single presence. Schuldich. "I had to stay afloat in my own head." The nonchalant voice was punctuated with a shrug that could not offset the intensity in his eyes. He fell forward now with infinite slowness, a snake coiling tenderly about it's prey. "Every desire and impulse buoyed me." Butterfly kisses trailed their way down the path from Crawford's earlobe to collar.

Breathing suddenly seemed a task to Crawford. Was there ever a time he had done so naturally? The very air seemed to fight him. "Why now - " he paused, untangling the telepath from around his shoulders, forgetting to even apply warning force to his grip, "why now, even after you have been trained to keep them out?"

"Some traits are hard to break. And some can't be lost without demolishing foundation walls." Schuldich smiled, boneless as he allowed himself to be held at arms-length. "Are you so eager to see me crumble apart?"

Crawford was silent. He studied the other's sharp features, contemplating the expression that managed to be slyly clever, sure and desperately hungry at the same time. The lips parted slightly in expectation, poised on triumph. Those eyes usually held more languid assurance than promise; that assurance was wanting now, replaced with a watchful and desperately neutral expression that he dimly recalled seeing only in flashes of peripheral vision. He wondered what his own eyes looked like right now.

He disengaged his hands, firmly pushing Schuldich aside as he rose. "I should ask the same of you."

Schuldich blinked at the sudden movement. He sat absently in the vacated chair, staring with shadowed eyes at the quickly-receding figure. At the sound of the car pulling from the automated garage, his gaze tore itself away from nothing. When he spoke again, it was with full equilibrium restored. "That is a habit you must be broken of. You will be made to unlearn control." Schuldich tried to smile through the onset of a familiar, lancing pain. "Just as I have been made to learn patience."

...But I think that you will always stay like this
When you put your idle shoulder to the wheel

- Bel Canto A Shoulder to the Wheel