torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
November 27 - December 2, 2003

Disclaimer: I tried to give Dorian some fashion advice, but he wouldn't take it. Written for Ekaterinn Duval as part of while we tell of yuletide treasure 2003. Do not archive this story without permission.

The rest of your life

Klaus did not have any strange or unusual dreams. Strange dreams were not acceptable. Dreams were something to be sloughed off on waking, or not remembered at all.

"We have a list of names," Klaus said. "We do not care about the replicas, but one of these dealers has bought the original statuette."

"How very inconvenient for you." Eroica, perched on the edge of the desk, looked through his lashes. "The usual NATO consultant rates?"

"Yes."

"And I suppose all your sweet little agents come with you? Honestly, Klaus, your travel expense claims must be the bane of the NATO accountants' existence."

"Yes," Klaus said, grudgingly. "But this is not a mission that requires manpower." He eyed Eroica's striped lilac and cream sweater and large, floppy velvet beret. "Or stealth, fortunately. It requires only myself and the approved NATO consultant."

"Ooh, how exciting. Just the two of us." Eroica smiled. "And how cosy. Do we share a room?"

"No."

He slept as well, as efficiently, in strange beds as in his own bed at home. He could sleep in cars and on planes, on the floor and on the ground, because sleep was important, and a sleep-deprived man did inferior work. Dreams were merely a side effect of sleep, and a well-regulated mind did not need to concern itself with them.

It was too much to expect, of course, that the first dealer they visited would have the statuette. Klaus was resigned to spending a certain amount of time in Eroica's company. He was also resigned to the fact that he could not wear earplugs while driving. He paid attention to the road, he paid attention to the other cars on the road, and Eroica talked and talked.

"It's practically a paid vacation," he said. "A road trip, beautiful weather, pleasant company..." Eroica looked sideways at Klaus. "Very good-looking company, at least. My dear major, must you grind your teeth quite so loud?"

"This is not a pleasure trip," Klaus said.

"It could be." Eroica eyed him with an all too familiar light of speculation in his eyes. "If you wanted."

Klaus had no strange dreams, not ever. No dreams that confused him, no dreams that lingered upon waking, whispering in his mind throughout the day. Certainly no dreams that made him wake up in a cold sweat at four in the morning, every muscle locked in trembling tension. They stopped for a late lunch, and Klaus had fried potatoes. With breaded veal cutlets and sauteed mushrooms and green beans, but the fried potatoes were the essential thing. Eroica stole one off his plate. Klaus glowered. "Eat your own food, thief."

"I'm a consultant, not a thief," Eroica said primly. "At the moment."

Klaus moved his plate. "Then if you want potatoes, consult the menu."

"Major!" Eroica widened his eyes. "You made a joke!" He grinned. "Just when I thought I couldn't adore you more."

"Shut up," Klaus muttered, jabbing his fork into a potato slice. "I could have found another consultant, you know."

"Oh?" Eroica stole another slice. "But you didn't, did you?"

He never had trouble falling asleep; his body obeyed him in this as in everything else. Time set aside for sleep was most usefully spent in sleep, not in worry or idle speculation. A tired mind did not think incisively, or even clearly.

Eroica picked the statuette up from the display case and looked at it, turning it this way and that, as if letting it catch the light from as many different angles as possible. After a little while, Klaus realized that Eroica wasn't looking with his eyes so much as with his fingers, touching each surface in turn with a light brush of his fingertips.

It was not, Klaus reluctantly saw, a delicate, frivolous touch. Eroica touched the statuette the way Klaus touched his gun, with complete faith in the competence of his hands, with a firm certainty where not a single motion was wasted.

Klaus found it disconcerting. He cleared his throat, and Eroica looked up, abstracted detachment still lingering in his eyes. Klaus raised an eyebrow. Eroica shook his head. "Thank you," Klaus said sharply to the antiques dealer. "We will not take up any more of your time."

Klaus knew himself. There was nothing lurking in the depths of his subconscious that could surprise or shock him. He would never wake gasping for breath, blinking desperately to clear his mind of images that wanted to linger. He would never feel, in the press of sheets and down comforters against his skin, the echo of an imagined touch.

"You took the wrong turn back in that village with the fifteenth-century belltower," Eroica said. "You should let me drive, Klaus. I don't know what you're thinking about, but you're not paying attention to the road."

"Shut up," Klaus said. He pulled off by the side of the road, just before a narrow stone bridge. "Where's the map?"

"Back seat." Eroica unfastened his seatbelt and twisted around, leaning between the seats. "I'll — wait, I'll go around and get it." He opened the door and got out of the car, then opened the rear passenger door, picked up the map, and handed it to Klaus. "At least you got us lost somewhere pretty."

"I did not get us lost," Klaus growled, a waste of breath, since Eroica had left the car and was strolling up to the bridge, looking around as though he were any other tourist appreciating the beauties of the countryside.

Any other tourist would probably not have jumped up on the stone railing and kept on strolling with the same air of unconcern, though. Eroica paused at the center of the bridge and stretched, arms above his head, the sticky afternoon sunlight catching in his hair like a fuzzy halo.

Klaus looked down at the map. He could not remember the name of the village. He could not remember any belltower.

He never had dreams that terrified him with the knowledge that they could become reality, that he had only to reach out his hand, to speak a single word, to make a choice.

The hotel was small and smelled of floral carpet shampoo and frying onions. There were two paintings in the lobby, and Klaus came close to smiling when Eroica ostentatiously turned his back on them. The rooms were cheap, and quite cramped, but very clean. Through the white curtains, Klaus could see hills and trees. When he opened the window, he looked down into the garden at the back of the hotel.

The garden was small, too. Eroica was standing in the middle of it, studying a lopsided birdbath. He turned from it to crouch by a rosebush, touching the branches with long, careful fingers; petals from the last overblown roses seemed to scatter as he breathed on them. After a few moments, he rose and stood by the garden wall, looking towards the hills. He stood there for a long time, at rest, and Klaus stood in the window for a long time, watching.

Then Klaus leaned forward, and Eroica turned around, tilting his head back, meeting Klaus's eyes.

Klaus gripped the windowsill so hard it made his hands ache. "Dorian," he said.

Dorian smiled.

Klaus never left his door unlocked. He never waited.

* * *

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