In his own bed, in his own room, in the castle of his ancestors, was one of the extremely few places where Klaus could relax. But not even there could he shake the reflex that for well over a decade had been part of his life: to wake instantly. So while nothing had alerted or actively woken him by a prod or a spoken word, Klaus went directly from oblivion to complete awareness of everything: the faint smell of the newly laundered sheet under his nose - he had managed to push away his pillow again - the silky feel of his hair under his cheek, how the blanket stretched tight over his legs and how the pajamas top had bunched up under his chest. He heard the very faint, steady tick of the alarm clock, even rustles in the leaves of a tree by the window, barely audible through the old, thin glass.

He shifted cautiously and was rewarded by only minor discomfort in his back - he must have slept on his belly most of the night, as not to put weight on the bruises received in a fight the day before yesterday, when a table had unexpectedly dropped on him. An old wound in his left ankle twinged, but only briefly. So, all in all he felt fine. He opened his eyes and started to get out of bed.

And, mid-way through the movement, he froze.

There.

On the chair by his bed, where he usually laid his clothes from the previous day.

An eye-sore.

Red.

With golden hearts.

And a gold-colored ribbon in an elegant rosette.

Not to mention a long-stemmed rose, the red flower itself larger than Klaus's fist.

"Scheiße!" Klaus aborted the movement to leave the bed, instead twisting around and pushing until he sat with his back to the head board, blanket carefully pulled to his nose. His eyes rapidly scanned the room, but no further horror revealed itself. "Scheiße. Scheiße. Scheiße. Scheiße."

What a fucking way to start a day, much less a birthday.

Not that he ever celebrated the 15th of May much - in fact he did his damnedest to avoid having to celebrate the date. One year closer to death - big deal! Now a limey homosexual had invaded his bloody bedroom to leave him a fucking birthday present!

"Scheiße!"

It could be no other, of course. That packet had certainly not been there when Klaus had retired for the night. Occasionally Herr Hinkel would enter Klaus's bedroom, even when he slept - Klaus would wake, but not fully, merely to recognize the known presence and then fall back to slumber - , but for anyone else to do so was strictly verboten. The maids would clean, of course, but never when the master was actually present. And Herr Hinkel knew perfectly well not to leave Klaus such an atrocity!

Well, the peacock seemed to at least have had the minimal brains not to actually wait for Klaus to awaken. Too bad, even if Herr Hinkel frowned on pools of blood on the bedroom floor. Klaus got up and proceeded to prepare himself for the day. It was a Saturday, so at least he would be spared hollow birthday wishes from colleagues and subordinates. Saturday was actually a comparatively acceptable day for a birthday to occur on, if occur it must. While more preferable than a work day, a Sunday was still close enough that most others would still see fit to congratulate him come Monday, whilst on Saturdays the extra day in between allowed most everyone to "forget" about the occurrence. Which suited Klaus just fine.

Right. The pervert had evacuated the premises. Klaus ignored the stupid packet in favour of getting dressed. Though while he changed he had to wonder what the pansy had sent him this time. The packet was a flattish square. So, not wine. Another time he had received an old muzzle loader - though the gun had been hideously decorated Klaus hadn't been able to bring himself to have the antique destroyed, but had tucked it away in the armoury - not on display of course, he didn't want to give the poofter any more ideas. And then there had been the packet of cigarettes he had accepted without thought - well, he had asked for a smoke, so that couldn't count, just because the mop-head refused to take back the packet!

Dressed in a jogging outfit, Klaus sat down on the bed again and finally lifted the so called gift. A shake revealed nothing, but the packet was far lighter than he would have guessed. Still, Seven Star cigarettes wouldn't weigh much. And a good hand gun didn't weigh much either - though Klaus hoped that the galling la-di-dah hadn't bought him an actually useable gun, as that might actually prove too tempting. Not that his Magnum wasn't in tip-top shape and suited him perfectly, but he always liked to learn the little nuances between guns as one never knew when one might have to rely on a stolen or borrowed weapon.

His foldable army knife - not of the much hoola-balooed Swiss design, but a good, German brand - swiftly cut the gaudy ribbon - on very close look, they were patterned with pale hearts, also golden. The wrapping gave under his searching fingers and fell away to reveal ... a box. A solid paper box, flat and white, about 40 times 45 centimeters with "please read note before opening" written on it. Written on both sides, a quick examination showed. Rolling his eyes, Klaus reached out for the note that still lay on the chair. It was one of the half-wit's usual notes, with the message in florid, inefficient calligraphy.

I WAS OUT SHOPPING, SAW THIS AND THOUGHT OF YOU. I OFTEN THINK OF YOU. IT IS WORTH A VERY BIG TANK, SO PLEASE DON'T DESTROY IT!
FROM EROICA WITH LOVE
P.S. IT WAS MADE BY A GERMAN ARTIST, ANTON VON DEM MESSER! VERY TRADITIONAL! CULTURAL HERITAGE! DON'T DESTROY IT!

Yeah, yeah. Klaus snorted. Whatever.

Though he loathed to admit his weakness, over the years the swishing masturbator had - somewhat - trained him. Nowadays he didn't thoughtlessly destroy all useless, artsy objects - he just got them out of his interest sphere - and if the dope spied on him Klaus usually did so by way of dumping them in a waste basket. Granted, then the gadabout would rescue whatever rubbish it was, so that usually amounted to the same thing. And a German cultural heritage worth a very big tank sounded potentially worth saving - possibly to sell and buy a very big tank for.

Klaus decided that he should at least have a look at whatever it was. If nothing else so that he could think out some appropriately deprecating remarks to use the next time he and the imbecile crossed paths. He lifted the box again. It was held together by interlocked tabs. Then the object inside - very thin and wrapped in silk paper, which fell away at his touch.

As he had already guessed, the box contained a painting.

What he hadn't guessed was that the painting was actually decent.

No skin showing, no blatant posing, no sexual connotation. As far as he could tell, it was a portrait of a non-smiling man with a strong chin and determined-looking features. Dark hair curled in to frame his face. Dressed in black, which almost melted into the dark background. Klaus could even understand if the image had made the wayward nitwit think of him - there was a faint resemblance. Not another image of Pumpkinpants, or anyone else he recognised as a relative. The painting appeared old, though, so perhaps from far back in his family tree or a sub-branch or whatever, which the shirt-lifter had stumbled across. It was nicely done, very realistic - Klaus might not be artsy fartsy, but he hated those color clouds and dotty disasters even more than he disliked the realistic stuff. At least old portraits were understandable, since they had no cameras back then. Portraits, if often flattering to the point of ridiculous, could be used for posters of wanted or missing persons, to identify perpetrators and so on. And this must be a portrait, rather than made from fantasy, judged by the obvious personality displayed. A strong man, Klaus decided, secure in himself. Very able. A man that could be trusted to handle his end of business. Klaus found himself looking into the painted eyes, trying to gauge what hid behind them. There was nothing, of course - it was just a painting, but for the briefest second he could have fooled himself into seeing life in their depths.

"Hm."

He would decide his course of action later. So he put the portrait against his pillow and got up. A long morning jog was the way he preferred to start a birthday, not being the victim of indiscriminate gift-giving.

On his way out of the Schloss he grabbed the stack of newspapers Herr Hinkel each morning put on the table next to the main entrance for this particular purpose, and then he was off.

*** D/K *** D/K *** D/K ***

For several minutes Klaus just ran. He usually began a round with strong, long strides, not at top speed, but quick enough to get his breathing up minutely and his heart to start pumping faster. The weather was unseasonably warm and muggy, and seemed to herald thunder. Klaus liked both the heat and the pressure, since the combination helped put some strain on his morning jog. With a little effort he might even get decently warmed up in time for breakfast.

After about a quarter of an hour of the faster tempo, he slowed slightly, falling into the steady plod that would let him read his newspapers while still moving at a decent speed. To learn to read while running had been tricky, but was one of his best decisions, as it saved him considerable time to do both at once. The sheaf of newspapers turned out to contain the usual three, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Die Zeit and Welt Kompakt. He decided to start out with the Allgemeine, then run quickly for a while without reading before turning around and do Die Zeit and Welt Kompakt on his way home, ending again with a quicker run to finish off. That should work out fine, he gauged.

So, tucking back Die Zeit and Welt Kompakt under his arm, he folded the Frankfurter Allgemeine. The main headline was about the European Cup, Germany's win over Norway the other day. Not that Norway could be counted on to put up much of a defence and their goal keeper was pitiful, but Klaus still felt pleased. Germany winning in sports, that was as it should be. Especially in football.

Then he glanced further down the page, to the second headline.

EROICA ROBS THE LOUVRE - AGAIN!

And suddenly he felt cold all over.

The night between the 13th and the 14th, the criminal master mind known only as "Eroica" robbed the Louvre of some of the world's greatest art treasures. Unlike the previous time, only a handful of paintings were stolen, and no demand for ransom left. It has been speculated that something interrupted the heist, but as the paintings were collected from multiple wings of the great museum, this appears unlikely. The paintings seem instead to have been carefully collected, possibly indicating that the greatest art thief of our days decided only on certain objects in advance. Among-

Shopping! He said he had been out shopping! Damn him!

-the stolen objects were da Vinci's "Saint John the Baptist", Perugino's "Saint Sebastian" and "The Centaur Abducts Deianira" by Guido Reni. Also -

There was an image as well, of a half-naked guy tied to a pillar - and with arrows shot through him - very sadistic, just the vice-given Casanova's type. Minimal loincloth, slipping even - and very little blood, probably to show the skin better.

Klaus desperately tried to recall a signature on "his" painting. He hadn't really studied it, but there must have been some name on it. The names listed didn't ring any bells.

The article continued on pages 12-13. Klaus turned and started running back, as he did flipping to page 12. There were pictures of another painting - a bunch of cows! What would the hare-brain want with bovines? - , of the Louvre and of one of the bloody "These will be treasured always. With Love, Eroica"-notes. Nothing about a stern-looking man in a portrait. Nevertheless. Once Klaus had scanned the article he resolutely stuck all three newspapers under the top of his jogging suit, to have his hands free. Then he started running for real. Not the quick, effective pace he had kept at first, and certainly not the more leisurous strides adopted for the actual reading. Now he ran full tilt, arms working hard, legs pumping, profile low.

As he ran he wondered what the fuck he'd do when he got home. Call the Louvre? Call Interpol? Call North Downs? Get to work and deal with things from there? Get to the airport and go to ... Paris? London? Pack up the painting again and mail it to the Louvre? Smash it up in really small pieces and burn the evidence? Hide it? Just go back to sleep?

The latter options felt very tempting. Especially the last - some days one just shouldn't get up. Though he couldn't smash the painting. He crossed out both option eight (smash) and ten (bed). The painting was a cultural heritage of Germany and should not be destroyed. And he wasn't childish enough to think he could just sleep out the fact that his wanna-be-lover had robbed the Louvre and sent him part of the spoil as a bloody birthday present.

Going in to work wouldn't really help much, he then decided. Scratch out option four.

And while hiding the evidence would probably work, even if it seemed as more and more organisations each day connected him with the fop, that would be a coward's way out. Iron Klaus dealt with his problems: he didn't push his head into the sand and pretend he was invisible. Fuck, if he pushed his head into the sand and pretended to be invisible, the lecherous dimwit would pinch his arse! If he had wanted to keep the bloody painting, he could have hidden it, but he didn't - it might be decent, but it was also from the art-glutton and if Klaus kept it the barmy idler would assume Klaus was weakening or - worse - encouraging his outrageous courting behaviour! Erase option ten.

Would calling North Downs really help? He'd get flirted with and the glitzy washout would either deny or admit the whole thing. But even if he did admit to stealing the painting, would he actually do something? Help Klaus return the painting? Take it back and do whatever perverted things the Ero-bugger did to his art (Klaus had suspicions regarding this) - no, that was not an option. The man in the painting seemed decent enough and did not deserve such a fate. The showoff certainly wouldn't turn himself in, for all his fancy talk of "loving" Klaus and offering to do anything for him. Yeah, right - "anything" - in bed, that was ...

No, calling would gain very little, though yelling at length at the thick-headed wanker would make Klaus feel considerably better about his birthday.

No, not option three. Option six then, go to London? Or wherever the primping ignoramus had gone to ground. Klaus would still get to yell at the art junkie at length, but could then bodily drag him to the Yard and have him arrested.

For the first time, Klaus's powerful steps faltered. Have him arrested. Have him thrown in jail. Have him charged. Have him in court. Have him convicted. Have him in prison. Have Dorian ... gone. That ... didn't feel right either. Well, he didn't have to decide on a definite solution yet, he was still just examining his options, wasn't he? He kept running.

Interpol agents couldn't find their arses with clues, detailed maps and a tour guide. Klaus shuddered as he imagined calling Saint-Cloud and getting that Bannai maniac on the phone. Scratch option two. He would deal with the problem himself, in his own way. Bannai would probably try to arrest him for the theft, accusing him of being Eroica! Bannai was worse than Lawrence, though unfortunately Klaus had to deal with Lawrence far more often than the schizophrenic Interpol agent. Besides, if Klaus "helped" Bannai by giving the lunatic the bloody painting, Interpol would make it seem like they had done some immense work - gloryhounds, all of them!

The Schloss was in sight now, so he increased the length of his steps, forcing himself to go faster.

Packing the painting up and send it away? No. Far too many potential witnesses who might remember him dropping off the packet. Not to mention that the French Post would undoubtably manage to lose the packet entirely or play darts with it. Better scratch option seven and instead branch out the Going To Paris option: 5a) get to the Louvre and talk to people there and 5b) get to the Louvre and dump the painting where it would be found.

Note to self, if 5b chosen: don't forget the fingerprints.

He reached the main stairs and rushed up.

With 5b and minimal luck, he would then be on-site in Paris, so if necessary he could doubleback to 5a and contact the Louvre anyway. Not mention his painting at all, but offer to help them with their Eroica-infestation. He was, after all, the world's leading - if very reluctant - Eroica expert, no matter what that idiot Bannai claimed, not to mention one of NATO's best. The Frogs should cry with joy if he deigned to assist them.

Herr Hinkel unexpectedly stepped out of the dining room, but Klaus barely slowed, as the old butler flattened himself to the wall and thus avoided collision.

Some people would question his presence in Paris over a weekend, but it was his birthday, after all, and he could make up some cock and bull story about always wanting to see Paris in the spring, insert gag noises here.

The tiny, tiny steps of the stairs always annoyed him - he had to take them three at a time so as not to feel like he was nancying, but even that felt unnatural.

Even better - 5c: go to Paris, offer his help, then "find" the painting during his investigation. Liking this option better Klaus scratched out 5b, but kept both a and c for further consideration. He smoothly branched off option 1 to 1a - calling the Louvre and admitting to having the painting and 1b - calling the Louvre and offering help.

With the door to his room in sight he remained undecided. Either calling or going directly to the airport. The latter tempted, either to Paris or London, as he had always been a man of action. He wanted to be on site and do something, not just lift a piece of plastic. That would also give him more time to think things through. Only, should he bring the painting or not? If he brought the portrait to London, the garish, dodgy thorn in Klaus's side might steal it again.

Though, of course, if the painting gets stolen-

He opened the door and stepped inside.

-it's out of my hands and that might not be-

A ninja sat on his bed.

-all that bad. The fuck?

Oh. Not a ninja. A cat-burglar dressed in black. And while a veil conceiled most of the face Klaus had seen those eyes much too often not to recognise them. In fact, he would have recognised that vivid shade of blue, those thick eyelashes and the perfectly symmetric shapes ever since that first time he had seen them, in the Eberbach Collection Hall one floor below.

"Major von dem Eberbach! I thought you'd be out running for a while yet! What a pleasant-"

By then, however, Klaus had the thoughtless, third-rate Lothario by the neck and violently shook him back and forth.

"Idiot! Idiot, idiot, idiot! You double-damned, stupid, fucking idiot!" Klaus accented each word with brusque shake.

The painting remained on the bed. By the look of things the audacious dandy had been sitting there, admiring it, as Klaus burst in. Though beside it lay a second packet, identical to the first, except slightly larger.

"What? Breaking in and gift-giving? The first one didn't land me into enough trouble for you? What's in that one, then? The fucking Hope diamond? Or the bloody crown jewels of England? At least the Pope won't fit or I'd be worried."

By now the abnormal prick clung to Klaus's wrists and batted feebly at them. Oh. Right. Oxygen. Klaus relented and let the scatterbrain fall back onto the bed. The bed. His bed. Klaus grabbed the flamboyant trickster again and this time dumped him on the floor.

"Ow! Major! That was mean of you! I just wanted to give you your birthday present!"

Klaus got out the papers from under his tracksuit and dropped them on a chair. "Get engaged to someone and send me an invitation to your bloody wedding! I won't show, but that's a present from you I'll actually like!"

The fool ripped off the veil and looked at him haughtily from his position on the floor. "You'd better show for the wedding, darling, as I'm not having you jilt me. If you try, there'll be a shotgun wedding instead, using your own Magnum, dear. Though if you dislike weddings, we could always elope."

"I'll elope you straight to a prison cell! Get up! What the fuck do you mean, giving me stolen property? Out shopping - my arse! You went to the Louvre, you broke in, you stole dozens of paintings and you're trying to force one on me!"

Finally the brainless, offputting sycophant rose. "Firstly, about your arse, I just want to say-"

"No! No, no, no, no!" Klaus made aborting gestures. "Forget about my arse! You-"

The blue eyes widened. "How could I possibly forget about your arse? It's right there! Every time you turn away, I can't help but-"

"No! I said no! No talking about my arse, no looking at my arse, no thinking about my arse and under no conditions touching my arse! Understood? And you're avoiding the subject!"

"Well, you distracted me! Every time you turn around you distract me!"

"The Louvre! The paintings! That painting!" Anxious to leave the subject of his posterior Klaus pointed sternly at the blond-haired man. "You stole it! You gave me stolen property! I'm a NATO agent! I have to uphold the law! Have you any idea what kind of dilemma you've put me in?"

At least now, option six had been rendered obsolete, since "London" had decided to come to him instead of the other way around. Oh, he should have known that the lavish art-zealot wouldn't be satisfied with just leaving the gift and going on his merry way, oh no, the lustful offender had to linger and try to get Klaus into an even deeper mess. What - the fucking American bloody declaration of some sort of pathetic independence? "And why are you back now?" he asked, suddenly very suspicious. "You left Sour Puss over there in the night and you probably masturbated looking at my sleeping body - why are you here again?"

"I did not! Seriously, Major von dem Eberbach, the things you accuse me of are getting more and more ridiculous." He even pulled off looking very wounded. "Besides, you had pulled your sheet up over your head and I didn't even see a centimeter of lovely, bare skin! I was quite disappointed! It's warm outside or haven't you noticed? Open a window! Sleep naked! Toss and turn a bit! Give a voyeur a chance!"

Klaus measured a fist to the man's chin, but he hastily backed up. "The Louvre!" Klaus instead growled. "The paintings! That painting! Why are you here?" Maybe if he very carefully added nothing extra to his statements, the madcap would have no choice but to start answering.

The decadent naff still pouted, but quickly rallied. "Happy birthday, darling!"

"Don't call me that! And yeah, yeah, fine, whatever. Louvre! Paintings! Why are you back?"

Finally, he got a reaction, as a faint blush unexpectedly appeared on cheeks still pale after a long, British winter. The vermin eyed him with a strange expression. He looked suspisciously as if, had he been a less composed man - British nobility to the end, stiff upper lip and all that bloody nonsense – he would have shifted his shoulders and scraped a foot on the floor in embrassment or shyness. "Well, the thing is ..." He cleared his throat. "The thing is ... I was kind of hoping that you, ah, hadn't opened your present yet, so I could, ah, switch it for this one, instead." He waved towards the other packet.

Klaus eyed the still wrapped whatever-it-was with considerable distaste. Then he turned his gaze hard at the imbalanced art-junkie. "Gave me the wrong one, did you? Delivered mine to some other hard-working agent that you are also trying to get into the pants of?"

"No! Darling! How can you say such a thing, after everything we've shared? Of course not!"

Klaus snorted. Well, actually, he hadn't really thought that. He would have heard if the tasteless bastard had gone sniffing around one of Klaus's brethren agents. And besides, Klaus had finally decided that sometimes a cigar really is a cigar - and what looks like a love-smitten, kleptomaniac fag might just be a love-smitten, kleptomaniac fag, rather than something more sinister. "Talk then - and quickly or I'll make you watch as I put Sour Puss through a wood chipper."

"No!" Actual fear shone from the startling blue eyes. "You mustn't!"

Figures! Is he afraid when I threaten to shoot him or bash his brain in or to hand him over gift-wrapped to Interpol? Oh no! Then he's all lovey-dovey and flirting and making all kinds of innuendos! But God forbid I'd scrape one flake of color off some dusty old fart in a painting, then he acts like I'm raping his mother. Pea-brain.

"Spill, then."

This time he actually did scrape a foot. Klaus was getting rather interested - whatever had the nincompoop bothered was apparently something serious. "Wait, I'll guess. Stingybug sold Sour Puss without telling you and you're so accountant-pecked you couldn't tell him off?"

"No, no, that's not it at all! James knows better now than to sell anything before I've looked at it. And he knew I only picked things I wanted this time. No, the thing is ... ah ... Well ... ah ... This one?" He motioned to the still wrapped painting. "Ah ... Which I didn't steal from the Louvre at all. I actually bought it. Here. In Germany, I mean. In Berlin. And it's also by a German painter, a very important, very cultural one. I always wanted to have it. And that one, the one you got, Il Condottiero? Which I did happen to steal, yes, at the Louvre."

"Hmm. Il Condottiero? That doesn't sound particularly German. Doesn't that mean 'The Leader' in Italian?"

"I believe Anton von dem Messer lived in Sicily for a few years. Might have gone a bit, ah, native." Blue eyes, yes. Oh so very innocent: wide and guileless like a baby seal's.

"Hmm. So you did give me a stolen painting. What the fuck were you thinking? Idiot! Pea-brain! Stupid!"

Head bowed sadly, a baby seal gazing up at him through thick lashes. "I know!" was said pitifully. "I didn't think things through! And when I realised it I decided to give you this one instead of Il Condottiero! I'm so sorry, Major von dem Eberbach!" The neck straightened and now the eyes looked hopeful, more like those of an earnest puppy that had performed a trick and now expected to get petted and praised.

Klaus watched the display for a few seconds, firmly ignoring the little voice whispering in his mind that the tosser really did look just a little bit endearing that way. "No," he finally said. "I don't buy the act. The truth, this time, or it's the wood chipper for both of them."

"No!" With surprising swiftness, both the wrapped packet and the bare painting were gathered up and pressed to the black-clad chest. "Major, no! Please - in the name of all that is decent and holy, don't destroy my paintings! Ravish my body instead!" The eyes glittered invitingly.

"Your paintings? Ha! That one is property of that Frog museum and I have doubts about the other one as well. Besides, you gave me Sour Puss. And stop that bloody squirming! You're pathetic! That was the worst attempt yet to distract me! Wood chipper!"

The squirmings did stop and the gaudy wastrel put down the paintings again. Then he shrugged. "Can't blame a bloke for trying. Well, obviously you can, but- No, don't! I'll explain! Fine. Ah, the thing is ... Ah, the thing is, is that I, I-"

"Are about to see two paintings be put through a wood chipper?"

"No! The thing is that I've always loved this painting." He motioned towards the still wrapped one. "I alway wanted it. And now that I finally too- Ah. Now that I finally managed to trade for it, see, I got it last night, trading it for another painting from the Louvre-"

Klaus snorted.

"-and I was so happy about it. And I left you Il Condottiero because he makes me think of you. And then I got back to Gasthaus Rose and I sat up looking at this painting for a long time and then I, well, I, the thing is ... I think I want Il Condottiero more."

"Mein Gott. Nothing can keep your attention for two seconds, can it? So you broke back in to trade them?"

"Yes."

The other managed to look genuinely miserable. Klaus could have relented - it wasn't as if he cared about the bloody art, after all. "So," he said instead. "For once you gave me a nice thing. A good, decent painting. By a German painter, even if he apparently got un-hinged and left Germany for some unfathomable reason. No bare skin, no indecent angels, no fat women. And now you show yourself untrustworthy. Betrayer. Indian giver! Pha!"

Cornflower blue eyes opened wide, with what looked like actual horror. "But Klaus! You don't like art!"

Guilty as charged, Klaus shrugged and waited, never letting his eyes waver from their accusing stare.

Finally the man visibly wilted. He hung his head and perhaps Klaus's eyes betrayed him, but he could have sworn that even the blond curls had lost some of their bounce.

"Maybe," Klaus added slowly, making his suggestion sound like an afterthought, "if you showed yourself more trustworthy, I would take your attempts to get closer to me more seriously."

There. And then let the randy hen-brain make what he wanted of the statement. Klaus had certainly not promised anything, and if confronted he could maintain he merely meant that he would have to defend himself with more force. Of course, by the even more wild-eyed look - and the curls, which Klaus could have sworn bounced right up in place again - the egotist had taken the statement in a completely other way. Which wasn't to say that it was the entirely wrong way, either.

"Ah ... Klaus, I. You. I. You. We. I ... You can have ..." The paintings were gathered and hugged tight for a moment, and then suddenly thrust towards him. "You can have both of them!"

Klaus snorted again and shook his head, though inwardly he was slightly impressed. Sure, it had taken very unsubtle hinting, but still, the fairy did seem willing to sacrifice both prizes. And for him, that was a great effort made, far more than any normal man should ever associate with a few brushstrokes of paint on cloth.

"I have a better idea," he said. "You shall do as I say and if you do, perhaps I will consider trusting you." A small part of him had wondered lately if maybe he could do just that after all.

"Anything!"

"You will return Herr Sour Puss to the Frog museum. With apologies."

"What? Apo-"

"Or you could help me get the wood chipper started?"

"You're horrible! Oh, all right then, I'll do it!" The pout was fully-fledged now. A long-fingered hand stroked lightly over a corner of the exposed painting. "But darling, they don't appreciate him! They hung him in this long gallery with hundreds of other paintings: no-one was paying much attention to him at all. It should be criminal!"

"Stealing is criminal. Now get him out of here, give him back, sans any fingerprints, don't forget that, have them verify that you're not foisting off a fake and then we might talk about trust again. Understood?"

The inappropriate Don Juan actually came to what approximated a half-decent attention. "Jawohl, Liebling! I'll go at once. Parting is such sweet sorrow, but I will return with due haste." He was up and on his way towards the window, blowing Klaus a kiss with his right hand.

"Stop. I'll keep the other painting. Should I use it for kindling or is that one also worth a big tank?"

Again, the paintings were clutched. Klaus waited, arms crossed. While not letting this show, he followed the displayed emotions with interest - outrage, brief panic, despair and finally grudging acceptance. "A huge one," was muttered.

"Bare skin, much?"

"Ah ... Only a little bit. But it's of a saint."

"Great, if it isn't a fat naked woman, it's a religious nut, I should have guessed. German painter?"

"Court painter of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa. Ah ... Leonard von dem Winch."

"Hmm. So, German cultural heritage?"

"Practically part of the Nibelungen hoard."

"Perhaps not the wood chipper, then."

"No! Please, Klaus, please-" He took a step closer. "I'm serious-" And he looked it. "-it's very ... Ah ... It'd be a real tragedy if it got hurt. I'd never forgive you. Or myself. I mean it. I'm not playing around. I'm serious." He sounded it, too.

"Hmm. Well, I guess trust goes both ways, eh? Get Sour Puss back where he belongs. Then we'll see."

"Trust?" Blue eyes studied him with uncertainty. Klaus waited, one eyebrow slightly raised. "Trust. Ah ... The thing is? Klaus? That other painting? Ah ... I might not have been entirely truthful. The thing is-"

"No! Not a word! I don't want to hear it. I'll keep it and you won't steal it again! That'll teach you not to tell lies or you'll lose everything."

"But, it's not actually-"

"From Berlin? Yes, I guessed. Now scram!"

"Yes. Klaus. Parting is such-"

"The painting."

"Oh. Yes. The painting. Yes. Here you go."

The packet was finally held out. When Klaus took it, their fingers briefly touched. He was studied for a few seconds longer. "Trust," the other then said again, in a low voice as if trying to convince himself of something. Then he climbed out the window, carrying the unwrapped painting with considerable care, and was gone.

Klaus sat down on the bed. After a suspiscious glance towards the window, he undid the red ribbon of the remaining packet, so that the band fell open. Pushing away the silk paper, he lifted the new painting - and was caught by a pair of dark, intense, seductive eyes.

"Saint, my arse," he said and then glanced once more towards the window, not wanting a repeat conversation regarding his rear, should the ruddy, slutty thief be eavesdropping.

The so called "saint" was half-naked, wearing only some bloody furs. Klaus wasn't even fully sure if it was a man or a woman, though he leaned towards the former due to a certain width of a bare shoulder. More nakedness was hidden by an arm crossing the canvas, finger of the hand pointing due heaven. The other hand was held to the chest in a very fey gesture. Dark, tightly curled hair, either reddish blond in shade or brown lit by some light to gold. The man bore a small resemblance to what that unethical bugger must have looked in his younger days. Perhaps some relative of him as well? The only thing "religious" Klaus could see was the pointing finger and - oddly out of focus, as if hadn't been part of the original intention - a thin cross all but levitating in a corner. Klaus turned the painting so that the tilted face righted itself, as he tried to judge if the nose was crooked or not. Something about the enigmatic smile made him think the guy had some secret - something he invited the looker to try to find out. The eyes were dark and deep, matching the background. At first Klaus found them empty, then misaligned, before he realised that he had looked into them for well over a minute, captivated, trying to understand something he had a nagging feeling lay beyond him. He abruptly put down the painting again.

How long will it take him to get rid of Herr Sour Puss? he then wondered. To the airport - or did he have that black blimp along? Get to Paris, drop the painting at the Louvre, get back? Hours? All day? Yes, he judged. So, plenty of time for Klaus to figure out what the fucking hell he thought he was doing.

The man was a defective, pouncy gimcrack, not to mention an importunate, unforseeable dick-head and a deleterious, unforgivable queer. On the other hand ... He was also, undoubtably ... alluring.

Klaus had already decided on one thing, though. He might show himself to be just a hint more ...accessible. Sure. Fine. Whatever. That didn't mean he had to make anything the least bit easy for the fawning degenerate. And pulling Dorian's leg was one of the things Klaus enjoyed most in life. Should they, eventually, get together he would probably have to tone that down a little. So he had better make the best of every chance he got before then. Taking the painting, Klaus retreated to his bathroom. The room was sparse and functional. No frilly decorations nor any amusingly shaped holders of ear cleaners or what nots. There was a small bureau by the bathtub, though, just opposite to the toilet. Already anticipating the sticky-fingered featherbrain's reaction to finding the painting in such a humid, deregatory place, Klaus carefully placed Leonardo da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist on the bureau. Then he returned to his room, grabbed the newspapers again and left to continue his morning jog.

The End