Velocity Over Time


I must deny the lullaby
The skin the touch that makes me high
I must deny not knowing why
The truth has left me dumb tongue-tied
You don't feel my pain
And me I wear my heart
Like a red stain

I fear
That I am not enough for you
I just don't measure up
I fear
This constant condition
My strange strangelove addiction

- Supreme Beings of Leisure, Strangelove Addiction


The luxury of discretion.

- BMW M-class promotional literature


Crawford liked Swiss pastille mints, the kind that tasted like aniseed and herbs not readily identified. Schuldich watched him tap out a transparent lozenge from a Victorian wrought-silver snuffbox. It was a strange object for a modern businessman to be carrying, but that was typical of Crawford. He liked frivolities only if they were easily pocketed. His appearance otherwise was perfectly sober, and expensive to boot. Real Rolex, real Vuitton, real Savile Row... God knows how long an American would have to jet around all expenses paid in Europe to pick up such deceptive good taste. Yet Schuldich could read the trust it engendered in those who were rich and tasteful themselves, as if it were a common language they spoke in the strange land of the unmoneyed and unassuming. Crawford was deep in conversation with their host, Lorenz Neckermann of department store fame. His hands' motion had the economy and unconscious grace of long habit. Lighting a cigarette, loading an ammunition clip: like that.

Schuldich remembered Crawford smoking. Benson and Hedges mint filters, in a cream and gold foil package he'd crush before depositing in the ashtray. About a pack a day, more under stress, never in bed. He'd smoked when Schuldich had first met him, and all through their séjour in London. Sometime during the intervening five years he'd quit. Schuldich had not...

Been with him then.

The futile train of thought bore teeth. Schuldich swore at himself and pushed away from where he'd been leaning against the wall, trying to avoid the crush of thoughts and bodies. He didn't want to be working. The scent of gardenias lingered in the smoke-filled air, from the greenhouse or some woman's perfume (he remembered with sudden vividness the dark-eyed girl from yesterday, violet blood like a cosmetic stain on her lips), and it quickened his senses. Made him restless. His mind brushed against the American's barriers. Crawford.

What is it? Mild annoyance, like the warning flick of a feline ear.

I'm sick of this place. It's a goddamned birdcage. I don't sense him, Crawford. Do you even know if he's going to come up?

If he's not here now, he will be before midnight. Schuldich picked up echoes of Neckermann's discourse on currency unification. Just keep moving. Let me remind you that this is your job, Schuldich, a routine exercise. Try to keep your mind on it for once.

And he broke contact.

Schuldich swore again, softly. It would be one of those nights.

Neckermann liked trendiness, for viewing if not for himself. The music was loud, the crowd young and pretty. Slatted screen-windows divided the darkened suite from the balcony patio, casting blades of moonlight in which cigarette smoke swirled, rising languidly in the closed-in heat. He turned away and met the blue eyes of a girl in waiting uniform, her cheeks rosy with warmth and movement. The staff had been picked with care as well. She smiled and offered a Chinese-lacquered tray, twists of red ribbon positioned starlike. Bright poppies against the black wood.

Schuldich inhaled quickly but shook his head, flashing her his best seductive grin as he stepped back. (She wondered if he were money or just decorative - money being her preference.) He snagged a shot glass off the next tray he saw that had crystal on it.

Never again. He'd be tempted all his life, but never again. If this hadn't been arbeit...

He had needed help getting off the needle twice. The first time was in the beginning, not long after London - the Organization's vaunted efficiency - and in his poetic memory the two miseries were twinned and intimate. The second time was after he'd been assigned to the elite operative team under Crawford, and the American had walked in on him jabbing a hypodermic pen into his upper arm. Schuldich had explained that it killed his taste for crude downers as long as he kept on using it; Crawford had nodded, said "I see," and that had been the end of the subject for half a year. Then SS had sent them to Borneo.

It was right before they'd picked up Farfarello and Nagi, so there had only been the two of them. He'd read the path from their guide's mind at the outset, and half an hour into the jungle Crawford had shot the man and turned the jeep around. A helicopter landed on a private beach had taken them to a treatment center in a mansion outside Jakarta. Up to that point Schuldich hadn't even realized the detour had been for his sake.

It had transpired that SS liked to keep their stronger espers on a chemical leash. The pharmaceutical Schuldich had thought of as a high-end alternative to methadone had been engineered to keep him steadily addicted without compromising his talent; without in fact ever affecting his emotional state. Withdrawal would have rendered his training useless and killed him. It had taken them thirty-six hours and fifty thousand of Crawford's own dollars to burn away the drug's hold with injections that reprogrammed the receptors in his cerebral cortex, and he'd been helpless against their mind-voices for the duration. A full-blown modern medical miracle. Crawford had stayed with him throughout. Schuldich remembered his straight-backed silhouette behind the glass of the observation screen, and the way his gaze never turned away from Schuldich's pain. He had no recollection of being touched, but that presence was enough. On the third day Crawford had waived the psychological stage of his therapy and taken him back to the jungle. The "treasure" that time had been some class of a statuette they'd sealed in a lead box and couriered to Berne a week later, and as far as he knew SS remained none the wiser. They still sent him the hypodermics with every tech package. Schuldich made a semesterly ritual of locking himself in a hotel bathroom, taking the cylinder apart with one of Farfarello's stilettos and flushing the active ingredient. Then he filled it with physiological saline and made a show of using it for the hidden cameras every once in a while.

Crawford had regained his loyalty after that, if not his... trust.

The spirit turned out to be Grey Goose, not as chill as he liked. The apartment was sweltering. He downed it and reached for something attractively golden, in a highball glass that clinked with ice. They'd started playing techno outright: the beat filtered through a hundred awarenesses with nothing better to do than abandon themselves to the rhythm, that bass heartblood pounding... The old country had spawned some sorry shit, the Organization being high on that list, but at least its DJs were good. Thoughts kaleidoscoped behind his retinas, refracting into iridescent shards of coke-joy, booze-dreams, adrenalin, discarded memory, sex. He couldn't block them without botching the mission. Somewhere in the back of his head he wanted the girl, last night's vampire; he wanted a beautiful stranger who would occupy his mind for a few hours, because if Schuldich were left alone with his own weapons for too long he tended to hurt himself as well... If he stepped out onto the balcony he'd be met with lush hibiscus spilling over from stuccoed containers, and the swaying tops of young banana palms. Below were the gleaming blue jewels of a chlorinated miniature lagoon and jacuzzi. If he looked up he'd be treated to moonlight, and the grating whisper of snow sliding off the angled glass roof of the greenhouse. Firs mounded high with Christmas white dotted the condominium lawn. The surreality and heat of the glass cage in which he knew himself enclosed only increased his disorientation. He almost envied Nagi and Farfarello, staking the exterior from Schuldich's red roadster in undoubted disgruntlement. The hell Crawford was thinking? And that girl...

Doko ka e ikenai no? Futari de.

Schuldich halted in his tracks. He'd been picking through the intruding thoughts idly (routine exercise), looking for Ikumori, but the linguistic echo gave him pause.

Hadn't that...?

Someone pulled one of the shutters back, letting cool blue light flood into that part of the study. Schuldich caught incoherent protests, and the echo of laughter beneath the music. He was about to turn away when she stepped into the light. Just for a moment. Just enough for him to recognize milk-white skin and wide dark eyes. She was wearing a dress the color of burgundy wine, and the curve of her lips was like a doll's.

Then the shutter swung closed again, and darkness descended.

Schuldich stood stock-still for a moment, then cursed and started pushing across the impromptu dancefloor. SS made no allowance for coincidence. An urgency took him, and he prodded with unwonted mental roughness to part the sweaty, twisting bodies. Not fast enough. She would have moved -

There was a sort of nightlight on a stand in the entrance hall, a curving glass sculpture that glowed rose and gold when someone passed by. Schuldich caught a glimpse of burgundy by that sudden illumination and spun. The girl smiled seductively and twined an arm about that of the man by her side, who leant in toward her lips. By the incongruous pink lighting Schuldich recognized the craggy features of Ikumori Yutaka: Japanese antiquarian, owner of a ceremonial jade hand axe of unclear properties coveted by the Organization and current target of a level-one Schwartz search-and-retrieve mission (deployment of lethal force permitted but not required).

The door opened, and closed.

Schuldich felt the pain in the room before he even walked in.

He'd followed on instinct. Twenty flights of stairs had only put him behind by a minute or two. Crawford was the only one who had a key to Ikumori's fifth-floor apartment, but the plan was shot any way Schuldich looked at it, and he had no desire to explain himself. His blood was up; if the door had been locked he would have gone over the balcony.

It wasn't.

Ikumori kept his rooms furnished in traditional Japanese style. The girl knelt on the tatami in the middle of the living room, the papery skirt of her wine-coloured balldress spread out about her. It rustled at her slightest move. Ikumori sprawled with his head on her lap and she gazed down into his face, ruffling his hair tenderly. It made a touching picture until one noticed the lay of his body wasn't quite right.

Spine, Schuldich thought, surveying the scene with a trained eye. Not a technical kill - Ikumori's agony and terror were a sweet buzz at the back of his brain - but sever between the right vertebrae and everything goes. Gets you every time...

"You know," he said, "guys are big suckers for pretty girls. I bet you could get one to lie down in your lap without having to knife him."

The girl turned luminous brown eyes on him. "I remember you," she said. "I saw you last night."

Schuldich realized that he was unarmed. The knowledge sent a thrill through him.

"Score one for the young lady," he said. "I believe you just might have."

"Are you following me?" Ikumori made a desperate, constricted sound, and she patted his cheek absently. Her accent was even worse than Nagi's.

"Not a bit. Amazing, isn't it? I guess we're just destined to make each other's acquaintance, fraulein - "

"My name is Eiko," she said.

"Eiko-san. The pleasure's entirely mine." He scanned her mind, but she didn't seem to notice any more than she did the previous night. Again he met a void edged with normality. She laboured to recollect social pleasantries in German, and her name really was Eiko. Makoge Eiko. Whoever had put her together had done a good job. He laughed.

"Would you prefer speaking in Japanese, Eiko-san? I've had to pick it up."

She inclined her head, biting her lower lip in coy indecision. Her hair fell over the white swell of her decolletage. "Perhaps yes," she admitted finally. "Doitsu-go wa taihen muzukashii wa ne... it is very nice of you."

Schuldich grinned at her. The layout of the room was actually identical to that of Neckermann's condo upstairs, but its lines were obscured by the custom glass-fronted display shelves lining the walls. They all seemed to contain bits of ceramic or tarnished bronzes, nothing that gleamed like jade. Though a place like this should at least have a... ah. Yes.

He lifted the kodachi from its ornamental stand. Too ornamental by half, but freeing a few centimetres told him it was well-oiled and sharp. These things were best for enclosed spaces, too. He was in luck.

Now about that axe...

"Do they let you out often, Eiko-san?" he asked in Japanese, hefting the slender weapon. The pain in the room was rising to his head with the alcohol he'd just consumed; he would have to take care. "I mean, you're quite the heartbreaker. Not to mention other body parts."

She giggled. "You're cute."

"Oh, I know. Even cuter than I'm nice." He circled the room in cautious sidewise steps, flanking her without quite turning away. "You should see me in pigtails and bobby socks: I out-cute Hello Kitty any day of the week." She was overly delightful. He couldn't read her motivation, because she'd been given none. No memories to get hold of, no conscious control to twist...

He wondered if she remembered how to hurt.

Ikumori's breath rasped suddenly in his throat. Schuldich stilled.

Eiko finished rolling the Japanese man onto his stomach and bent over him, jerking the jade axe free from where it had been imbedded at an angle in his back. Schuldich caught her intent a moment before she swung it with short-ranged precision, sending near-violet blood gushing from Ikumori's severed carotid. Just enough time to step back and get his dress shoes out of range.

Yappari, as Nagi would say: they'd been on the same mission after all.

She didn't drink the way she did the night before. Schuldich supposed the appetite he'd witnessed was still half-sated. Instead she cupped her hand by the gash in Ikumori's throat, raised it to her lips and sipped. All that time her eyes were on him, and her other hand tight on the carved grip of the axe.


"Uun?" Blood dripped from her wrist and ran into the blue shadow between her breasts. She sucked each of her fingers clean in turn, her full lips pursed chastely. Schuldich had a sudden vision of those lips that had nothing to do with precognition, and it made his breath speed up. He shifted his weight, bringing the kodachi up in an angled preparatory stance.

"Let's play a little game together," he said softly. "Shall we?"

She smiled and came at him. Fast. If he hadn't been expecting something out of her momentarily he would have lost his sword arm, and as it was he had to dodge. And dodge again. He caught her third swing on the blade of the kodachi, and as he expected the jade failed to shatter the way it should have. He shoved her away and she jumped back, crouching defensively. Her skirts fluttered and settled about her in a whisper of silk.

His blood was in her mind now.

Schuldich ran the tip of his tongue over his lips absently. Then he attacked.

The sword was not his primary weapon, but he'd sparred with Farfarello often enough that he knew the rhythm of a blade's dance. She parried his first blow, but he was faster than she and his second left her open to the reverse stroke. Schuldich laughed aloud and scissored her legs from under her. He caught her by the wrists as she fell; she kicked upward and he dived to one side, throwing them both to the floor. Before she could break his grip he reversed his hold on the kodachi and stabbed the blade through the palms of her hands, pinning them to the tatami.

She made a sound in the back of her throat, too choked to be a scream except in thought.

After a moment Schuldich pushed himself up, sitting astride her hips. She was trembling with shock, spasms so strong they translated to his body, but she said nothing. Makoge Eiko... to think she must have had a will of her own once. Her mind was a whirlpool, the emptiness disturbed, but he could catch nothing of who had sent her. That he'd have to go deeper to find. The jade handaxe had fallen to one side, and he reached for it.

"My axe," she gasped. Schuldich felt the corners of his mouth turn up. Oh, if Farfarello were here to see this. If Crawford...

He paused, a peculiar rage rising within him at the sudden constriction in his chest. Then the reminder was banished. The axe was warm and sticky in his hand; he set the serrated edge against the neckline of her dress, letting it press into her skin with the heaving of her respiration.

"That's right, Eiko's pretty axe. You know, there's this buddy of mine I'm real sorry I can't call up here. You've got quite a common language..."

He dragged the blade downward, shearing through her dress with a sound of renting fabric. Her bared flesh glowed like porcelain, the nipples shiveringly erect. Such a pretty puppet. He bent down, licking between her breasts where the blood had gathered and dried. She struggled and he forced her legs apart. At the same time he sliced deeper into the void of her mind, pushing in, letting himself fall. There might be a trace of light at the bottom. Some clue or hidden memory he could run through his fingers. From far away he heard himself laugh: an angry, satisfied sound. Oh, she hurt, yes, not so that she understood it but she hurt, not like his pain but she...

She screamed, her back arching.

Someone caught Schuldich by the back of his collar and tossed him halfway across the room. He landed badly, rolled and came to his knees just as three silenced shots rang out with their dampened sound. Crawford stood over the girl, his mouth tight and his gun arm still extended; from Schuldich's angle he could only see the disjointed sprawl of one white leg, like a doll that an earthquake had knocked off a collector's shelf. That and the extra splashes on the wall.

Her blood was arterial, and brighter.

They said nothing to each other as they left the condominium complex. As soon as they'd pulled onto the autobahn Schuldich reached for the M5's stereo controls - and Crawford caught his wrist before the movement was half completed, without looking.

"Don't," he said.

The surface of his mind was devoid of feeling. Schuldich contemplated struggle. If he goaded Crawford into using force he would have an excuse to strike back. To draw blood, if he got lucky. His nails dug into his palms.

The hesitation cost him. Crawford flung his hand away as if it were a foreign object. Schuldich let go of the breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and it burned.

"Say it, you fuck," he said. "Go ahead and say it."

"I don't see that there's anything so pressing."

"Fuck you, Crawford. I did the work. I got your fucking art object." And despite the interfering designs of... whom? He'd never gotten to find out. God, he was still hard. The afterimage of Crawford's fingers around his wrist was like a taste of hell. "I wasn't finished with her - "

"We were finished." Crawford's voice was still level, but it carried a whetted edge. "Actual acts become superfluous in certain situations, Schuldich. Whatever variation on rape and asphyxiation you had in mind can be saved for an audience less... inured... to the charm of predictability. There's the small matter of biological evidence as well."

"You fuck," Schuldich repeated. It came out as a whisper.

"The sentiment is mutual. I'm tired of guarding the mission against your screw-ups. You could stand to develop some self-control."

It felt as if something broke. A lock, a barrier, bulletproof glass.

Schuldich stared at the American, letting the incandescent rage sweep over his sight. It didn't drive out the other ache. The bastard, the motherfucking bastard in his perfect tailored white, eyes cool behind his Armani frames and hands steady on the wheel. He still remembered what those hands could do. What the fuck did Crawford know about self-control?

He didn't even feel himself move.

Crawford threw up a deflecting arm out of assassin instinct when Schuldich touched him, and the car swerved violently. He jerked the wheel back with an oath. Schuldich gave a sharp laugh, arching his back to mold himself against Crawford's side, drawing his long legs up out of the way of the gearshift. So he didn't always see it coming. He buried his lips in Crawford's throat where Oxford cotton met skin.

"No visions, Herr Crawford?"

"Get off me."

"No." He couldn't read anything from him. He licked at the lobe of Crawford's ear experimentally, and caused only the tiniest hitch in the other's breathing. God, he wanted to break him. It wouldn't be payment enough.

"I'm giving you three seconds," Crawford said tautly.

"Three seconds what? To put my seatbelt back on?" He undid buttons without looking, slipped his hand under Crawford's dress shirt. A conflicted surge skittered along the surface of Crawford's mind before he blocked it; Schuldich drank it like liqueur, reckless with anger and the sweetness of that thought. "Keep your eyes on the road, love. Self-control, remember? You're supposed to be good at it."

"Schuldich, if you're trying to - "

"Pull over if you want to free your hands; I'd appreciate that. Or you could just ignore me." See if you can, he added mentally. He slid his other arm around Crawford's shoulders, the pale fabric of the jacket bunching under his fingers as the other man tensed. There was no more swerving, though, and the speedometer held steady at a hundred eighty clicks. Oh, Schuldich would choke him with his self-control!

He tilted his head, kissing Crawford's throat, the line of his jaw, the flutter of his pulse. Brief, sweet, messy kisses. He wanted to take Crawford's glasses off, but - he bit his lip - that would send them off the road too soon, and the danger effervesced like Moët-Chandon in his blood. He wanted Crawford's mouth on his. His hand ghosted over Crawford's chest, feeling for the heartbeat.

"You'll regret this, Schuldich," Crawford said. Angry? Oh, yes. Crawford's threats were never empty, no matter how calmly he delivered them. Schuldich took a deep breath, filling his world with Crawford's scent, his taste.

"Pull over then," he said. "Make me regret it."

And he thumbed the catch of Crawford's seatbelt, releasing him.

Crawford jerked back when Schuldich began to tug at his belt buckle; he caught the redhead by the front of his shirt, ready to toss him back into his seat. Schuldich fought him, hanging on, and the short but vicious struggle that ensued saw the M5 veer into the passing lane and nearly over the yellow line. Crawford, snarling, had to release him. He wrenched the car back into its proper lane just as an Alfa Romeo roadster shot past in a blast of angry horns. Schuldich laughed again, breathless, tossing his hair out of his eyes and draping himself over Crawford's lap. He didn't have to read Crawford's mind to know he would never pull over.

Don't let us fall under a hundred sixty, he thought at Crawford, uncaring whether the American's self-imposed block allowed him to hear. Wouldn't want to obstruct traffic...

Rage, lust. He'd never felt so alive.

A good yank got the belt out of the way, and Crawford's trouser button followed, slipping irretrievably into some crevice in the leather. The American stared out the windshield, disregarding Schuldich's ministrations, but his breath came rapidly between gritted teeth.

Schuldich touched him, his sure fingers making a mockery of pretense.

"Bastard," he murmured, his hand sliding around Crawford's ready length. Stroking. "You goddamned fuck." His hair brushed against Crawford's chest. Emotion flashed through Crawford's untouchable barriers, searing Schuldich's synapses like heat lightning when he opened to it. Too fast for him to read. "I'll give you self-control. You make me so fucking hard..."

The ache was too familiar. Without thinking he pushed himself off the sculptured upholstery, sliding down until he was kneeling on the floor of the car, his upper body pressing against Crawford's knee. It was his pedal leg; he felt the sudden acceleration in his bones.

"Schuldich," Crawford said, no longer steady. Schuldich sensed him struggling to barricade his mind. He grinned, gaze lowered so his lashes shadowed his eyes.

"Use your talent, damn you," he said. "Watch for oncoming."

Then he lowered his head and took Crawford into his mouth.

Crawford's curses died on his lips.

The sedan leapt forward, responsive to every vagary of handling. Schuldich paid no attention, pressing closer in greed. His lips slid over Crawford's erection easily, wanton and wet. The American swore again, his words clipped and unintelligible. Then he opened himself to prescience and let his defenses fall.

His mind read as a mirror image of Schuldich's own: a roil of hatred and vengefulness and aching want. The redhead moaned softly as the contact broke over him, clutching Crawford's shirt for purchase with one hand. The other went down between his own legs. He threw the sensation at Crawford as he touched himself, his hair falling over his face as he worked Crawford's shaft with his mouth, and received the raw mental edge of a snarl in return. There was a sudden flash of headlights, and the M5 swerved again to the side. Another car. Crawford was steering on sixth sense and body instinct, but instead of slowing down he was accelerating. They must be going over two hundred now. Two hundred and ten?

He felt Crawford's hand tangle in his hair, tugging painfully.

We're going to crash, he thought. But he couldn't bring himself to care. He'd die sooner or later anyway; wouldn't it be fine to go like this, with Brad Crawford's fingers in his hair and his cock shoved into his mouth. Gott in Himmel, he was burning up -

Crawford said his name again, whispered, almost pleading, and pushed harshly against him. Making Schuldich take it deep as he came, spurting hot and sweet against the back of his throat.

Then he slammed on the brakes.

German racecar engineering and a no-doubt-foreseen lack of other vehicles were all that saved them. Schuldich's head flew back, slamming against the wheel hard enough that he was dazed. For a vertiginous second all the night followed them into a tailspin, then they were sliding down the snowy embankment, still miraculously upright.

Crawford wrenched the gearshift into neutral. Schuldich had doubled up over his knee, coughing. He grabbed the redhead by the collar again, dragging him up and sending him sprawling over the front seats of the sedan. Then he kissed him.

It lasted a long time.

Schuldich blinked up at him when they broke apart, washed up on an ebb tide of adrenalin. He tried to speak, failed.

"Who the fuck asks for a Bimmer without airbags?" he croaked finally. But of course a prophet might. A prophet who drove a sedan with four hundred ponies and a stick shift. If he laughed now he thought he would pass out.

Crawford gazed into his eyes searchingly, one hand still pinning him by the throat with casual killer-ease. It was Schuldich's turn to wall himself away. A careless thought was as a careless word with him, and he didn't trust himself like this.

He still wanted Crawford.

It hurt.

A moment later Crawford had released him. He was unreadable again; Schuldich could not tell if he had found what he wanted. If he did, it didn't make him smile.

"Get out of my car," he said.

Too cold to be tired. Too tired to be horny. Too horny to be riled - anymore.

Why couldn't he just get over it?

Schuldich let himself into the house and found Nagi still up. The Japanese teen was curled up at one end of the black leather sofa they'd inherited from the previous inhabitants, swathed in a polar fleece throw blanket and nursing a steaming mug. The banked fire glowed, and the room was redolent of spiced wine toddy.

It felt homey. Though anywhere warm would when one's feet were half-frozen.

"Good little boys should be in bed," he said, kicking off his shoes. The salt slush on the roads had just about ruined the leather.

"Fuck you, Schuldich," Nagi returned evenly.

"There's my day in review. Any more where that came from?"

"On the stove." Schuldich moved past him into the kitchen and found the saucepan on low heat. Nagi had made it, he supposed; he ill imagined Farfarello or Crawford in here, dicing oranges and spooning sugar at two in the morning. As for those last-

Gone, Nagi thought when Schuldich reached out for the relevant memories in his mind. He rarely blocked outright, but he had a way of parrying rummaging with conversation. Schuldich paused. Both of them?

Farfarello went out again as soon as we got back here. So did Crawford when he showed up. Nagi allowed him a brief glimpse of Crawford striding out the front door in a different suit, impeccable again except for the shadows under his eyes. "He's gone to Berne," he added aloud. "Said he saw they had another mission for us."

Schuldich set his mug down carefully. "How long ago was that?"

"About an hour ago. He should be over the border by now." Nagi twisted to look at him, indigo eyes cat-bright with reflected firelight. "He said you'd be back though. Said to make you something; that you might be cold."

Schuldich assimilated this for a few seconds, then he started laughing. He laughed so hard he shook and dropped to his knees on the kitchen tile, bracing himself against the counter to keep himself upright. When he tried to stop he found he couldn't.

Nagi regarded him steadily for a while, then kicked away his blanket and approached. He tugged at Schuldich until he was forced to stand and half-dragged him back to the sofa. Using his talent probably, but Schuldich couldn't tell: his body was as exhausted as his nerves. Nagi dumped him on the seat, threw the blanket over his legs and went back to the kitchen for Schuldich's mug and an extra coaster. By the time he returned Schuldich's laughing fit had died away to weak chuckling, and he was sprawled over the leather with his arm thrown over his eyes.

"I must be going insane," he said. "How about it, Nagi? You think I'm going insane?"

Nagi deposited the coaster on the polished Jugenstil coffee table. "I don't know. Are you looking for me to be nurturing or realistic?"

Schuldich peered up at him from under his arm. "Nurturing? You have a nurturing side?"

"My nurturing side says shut up and drink this swill before it gets cold, given that I waited up with it for you." Schuldich made a face at him but took the mug. Nagi picked up his own, retreated to the other end of the sofa and stuck his feet under the common blanket. Schuldich.

Yeah? The toddy warmed him up quick. He figured he'd managed to evade pneumonia, which gave him good odds on surviving the backlash of the night after all. Unless Crawford took the opportunity to have him kicked off the team, which came in marginally worse than death in Schuldich's book.

You set yourself up every time. You do realise this.

Oh, spare me. Schuldich leant his head back on the armrest. The hell you know about what I do, kid?

Nagi sipped at his drink. You drive Crawford up a wall. The rest of the world doesn't even know how. I'd be cheering, but I happen to have to live with you people - and one of these days I'm going to let Farfarello take care of you after you screw up. Fair warning, Schuldich.

"Nagi," Schuldich said aloud with deep feeling, "go fuck yourself."

Nagi gave him a malicious look. "Screw-up doesn't cover it tonight, does it?"

"Not even in the same order of magnitude." Schuldich lifted his head enough to drain his mug and set it on the table, missing the coaster by a couple of inches. "I can't help myself. I mean, it's so much fun working for a jerk who fucked you over in a job you can't quit. Everyone should try it."

Nagi swung his legs down and stood. "Credit me for the eyes in my head, Schuldich. You wouldn't leave if Crawford threw you out."

"Am I still looking at the nurturing Nagi Naoe?" The supine position made him sleepy. He felt Nagi pull something else over him that he couldn't identify, but that was blissfully warm. "You got anything in realistic mode to say?"

He felt, or imagined, a hand brush his hair from his face.

"Realistically speaking," Nagi said, "it's late in the day for any of us to be worrying about going insane. Now let me go to bed."

Schuldich closed his eyes.

Kulchur notes

1) Doko ka e ikenai no, futari de: "Can't we go somewhere? Just the two of us."

2) Doitsu-go wa taihen muzukashii wa ne: "German is awfully difficult, isn't it." (Not that Sabina's Japanese is all roses either.)

3) 180 clicks (km/h) = 110 mph ^^;;