Touch the glowing spheres around the dragon!
Touch the glowing spheres around the dragon!

By Any Other Name

by Kay Reynolds

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Of course, they ended up flying to Gatwick, not Paris, arriving with an armed RAF escort and landing in the midst of a media circus. The subsequent time - which lapsed into days - fell into a cross between de-briefings, briefings and interviews which annoyed both of them. Klaus was aggravated because he didn't like explaining anything to anyone. Also, he loathed the press with a passion bordering on mania. Orders to "project and enhance a positive law enforcement image and preserve cooperative working relations in the international community" only transformed idle aggression into active hostility. On the other hand, Dorian was beside himself at being photographed and splashed across international front pages and news reports in less than pristine condition. However, afterwards, he rallied holding court from his hospital room ... until boredom set in. It didn't take long.

"Well, just think of it this way, rosebud," Bodie had told him. "It will be very, very difficult for anyone to pursue charges brought against you on practically anything in this country anymore. May I congratulate you on your reprieves to come?"

"Thank you. How's Major Cowley taking it?" the thief inquired graciously.

"Not very well," Ray Doyle said frankly, green eyes glittering with mischief. "You've foiled his dreams of permanent incarceration. For the time being."

"Chief Inspector Shaffer's pitching a bitch, too. Did you read this? `These so-called intelligence officers are monumental egotists. Their lives have meaning only as long as they can manipulate, deceive, bully and eliminate their enemies, real or imagined. They thrive on situations of crisis and turmoil - which they usually instigate and exploit themselves. They surround themselves with allies of a similar bent and breed catastrophe....' Blah-blah-blah." Bodie's eyes widened in mock alarm. "My goodness. Notice how he got the word `bent' in there? Sounds like a personal problem to me."

Dorian smiled sweetly. "I certainly hope so."

"Well, nobody reads the back bits anyway." Bodie tossed the paper into one of several foot-high stacks. "So, how's your friend from the planet Krypton getting on?"

"Klaus? He's busy being official. They would have kept him in hospital if they could. Ringan's nail bomb cracked ribs and bruised kidneys but you can't keep the Major down. A reporter might find him, he might be required to be civil." Blue eyes flickered darkly. "It would have gone worse for him without your help, Ray. Much worse. Thanks."

The agent shrugged, grinning. "Don't mention it, sunshine."

"Don't I get any thanks for carting the bastard up to the bloody plane?" Bodie demanded, indignant. "Your Major Eberbach wasn't the most pleasant of passengers, I'll tell you. Always shouting orders. It's a wonder I'm not deaf."

"Well, thank you, too, darling. You were quite wonderful as well."

Bodie smirked, very smug. "I was, wasn't I?"

Dorian grinned. "Never tire of hearing that, do you?"

"Do you?" Bodie returned.

"Be interesting to see Eberbach and Cowley butt heads together, wouldn't it?" Ray mused, playful.

"Too interesting." His partner shot him a look. "I've always known there was a nasty, perverse streak in you."

"What? You're only just noticing?"

"What about your friend from the antique arcade?" Bodie continued, jumping tracks. "Did he get out all right?"

"Mr. Dainty was having tea with a mutual friend at the time the bomb hit. But his poor shop...." Dorian shook his head, distressed. "It's just a shambles. Nearly everything was destroyed."

"That was amazing strategy. Absolutely amazing." Bodie couldn't keep the awe from his voice. "Every available unit was locked into that mess while O'Connor set up his real target at the museum. They came damn close to pulling it all off."

"Yes," Dorian said, softly. "Didn't they?"

Ray Doyle frowned, watching Dorian. "What's eating at you?"

"Sable Volovoi, I suppose. She's still out there. They've been searching all over but they haven't found her yet, not a trace. Klaus wanted to go after her himself right away. But they wouldn't let him. He can't consider the operation a success because she's still `at large,' so to speak."

"She might have some trouble with her sources back home," Bodie said. "Talk is the Russian Mafia is pushing itself into the nuclear arms business. They've never been willing to share either money or glory. Can't see them welcoming Madam Volovoi into their affairs."

Dorian smiled. It wasn't a happy expression. "Sable will have them at each other's throats faster than you can finish the first chorus of Midnight in Moscow."

"She's sure got a way with the fellahs," Bodie said,

"Yeah," Ray agreed. "Right through the heart with a .45 long."

"I thought her tastes ran more to shotgun weddings."

"You mean divorces, don't you?"

"Saves loads in solicitors' fees."

"Please," Dorian groaned. "That's not at all amusing."

"Well, it makes for a hell of a honeymoon. All that suspense, the anticipation...." Bodie's chuckle had an evil ring to it. "If you live that long."

Touch the glowing spheres around the dragon!

Dorian tossed on his bed, trying to find a comfortable position. He was supposed to be resting. Nurse Hatchett, who was actually very kind despite the name, had chased all visitors and staff from his room with extremely explicit orders not to return until evening visiting hours. At first, the silence had been peaceful but then the mental wheels had begun to turn - with all the relentless persistence of a rack.

Germany seemed so far away. And it was becoming less accessible by the minute. Dorian had received word that Klaus was returning to Bonn on the 6:00 p.m. flight. It didn't seem they would be able to have a real good-bye. Actually, they hadn't even been able to enjoy a real hello since the Lancaster had landed. Constantly surrounded by others, they couldn't do more than revert to their usual patter of check and stalemate. Dorian wanted to be alone with Klaus so badly, there were so many things he wanted to say ... to talk about. Events had transpired so quickly during Ringan's raid, he hadn't had time to deal with the emotional impact of it. Official chatter hadn't really helped. If they could have had just five minutes together....

But that wasn't possible.

Lying alone on knotted sheets, Dorian couldn't help but think of other things, too. The strength of Klaus' body, the glint of green eyes under sooty lashes, firelight on black hair - the spark it made, static-kissed in the dark. The music of his mouth. The poetry in his hands. The sun-baked strawberry texture of his tongue.

Talk might not be so necessary if their five minutes could be spent in each other's arms.

Nothing's actually changed much, Dorian told himself. You used to be an unrequited ass. Now you are a requited one.

Well, at least that seemed to be healing up all right.

The Earl slumped back against his pillows, internal aches aggravated by the external ones. Perhaps he should have accepted Nurse Hatchett's offer of pain killers. "It's nearly time for your medicine," she'd advised. "I'll just have to wake you up for it later."

But Dorian had refused. He hated the way the drugs left him feeling, fuzzy in brain as well as limb, as if he'd been packed in multiple layers of cotton batting and left out on display.

Irritated, he blinked when the door opened letting in a shaft of light from the corridor. It wasn't very strong light but it was noticeable. Generally, the room was kept in tones of almost-light and almost-dark except during those blinding minutes when a doctor appeared and began poking about. It was enough to set one to screaming if he'd been brought up with fewer manners.

"Good," said a lush, female voice from the doorway. "You're awake. Mind if I come in?"

She didn't wait for permission - but that was not a character trait among his family. Meagan Red-Darnell, Duchess of Chauncby, swept into the room with her customary confidence. She brought up the lights and crossed to her brother's bed. The woman gazed about slowly, taking in the abundance of floral arrangements which had arrived almost hourly throughout Dorian's stay. Of course, the Earl's staff had done their utmost to make the room acceptable even though there was only so much the hospital would allow them to do. Still, champagne silk lounging attire had been deemed permissible if not absolutely essential. After a quick inspection, Meagan's attention returned to her brother. Her face was solemn but her eyes flashed sparks of deviltry.

"Pooling for samples, darling?" she asked, casually. "Planning to open a floral boutique?"

Dorian made a face. "Not in this lifetime."

"My, we are in a mood, yes?"

"I think I'm on the verge of cracking up. It's an interesting sensation."

"Then I haven't arrived a moment too soon." Meagan removed her coat and draped it over a chair. She seated herself on the edge of the bed. "You must tell me all about it."

Dorian smiled, infinitely cheered. All in all, his eldest sister was a remarkable woman. A remarkable beauty, too, although for some years there had been considerable doubt. Meagan had been born with the Gloria chin and nose, a dreadful trial for any child to endure, much less a child whose family put such store in appearances. That her brother was consistently pointed out as the beauty in the family had only gilded the humiliation. It didn't help either that Dorian was as loveable and loving as he was attractive. How marvelous it had been to discover the Earl-to-be's talent and inclination towards thievery. The jewel, at last, was found to be flawed and Meagan was able to adore Dorian nearly as much as her little brother worshipped his big sister.

"I have become a media sensation. Again," Dorian began. He squashed a button that raised the back of the bed and pushed himself up to a sitting position. "There really isn't much to tell that you can't read in the papers or hear on the telly."

"Yes." Meagan reached around him to help rearrange pillows. There was a slight accusatory tone to her voice. "I've been reading rather a lot about you lately."

"Oh?"

"Dorian, I've been trying to find you for ages. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I'm bored ... but I'm fine." He picked up his water glass and took a sip, watching his sister over the rim. "It's nothing to be concerned about - just the various bruises, nicks and punctures. I developed something of an infection so they determined to keep me about. Actually, I think it's just their way of keeping an official eye on me until the dust settles. I'm perfectly all right."

"I'm glad to hear it but that's not exactly what I'm talking about." Blue eyes fixed on blue, striking in their similarity. "I read about Victor Marsh, the whole bloody scandal. They kept the `unnamed sources' unnamed but I read through that immediately. So, I'll ask you again - are you all right?"

"And I'll tell you again. I'm. Fine."

"How rude." Meagan smiled. "You must be feeling better."

Dorian smiled back. "How's everyone? Do fill me in."

"The children are outrageous. The twins are unstoppable. Nanny Elvira is marvelous beyond belief. Everyone's looking forward to Yule with Uncle Dorian. We're still on for the twenty-first, aren't we?"

"Of course."

"Let me know if I can be of any help," Meagan told him. "Let's see ... sister Beatrice is off stalking innocent animals somewhere. Claire is hovering about in Mother's shadow. Edwin's well enough."

"Is that all? He's just `well enough?'"

"He's become even more mundane than the last time you saw him. I know you'll never be the sort of man to indulge in a mid-life crisis. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But lately I find myself hoping it would hit Edwin full tilt. I'd feel so much better if he would just let himself go wild once in a while. But Edwin's shuffled papers for so long, he's begun to believe that it's not only vitally important but terribly challenging as well. Can you imagine?"

"No." Dorian shook his head, solemn-eyed. "I can't."

"Well, if the poor dear ever does crack, I'm sure it will be stunning." Meagan's smile brightened again. "Meanwhile, the children adore him. And what with their mother being such an eccentric, I suppose it's good that their father is so ... stable."

"One of you really should be. I suppose."

"Yes."

"You're looking rather fantastic," Dorian observed. "New lover?"

Meagan lifted a gloved hand, waggled it horizontally. "Perhaps."

"Duchess, how you do get around."

"Absolutely." She laughed. "I'm a slut and you're a thief. And Mother is living in complete denial."

"Where is that located? Egypt? Lovely there this time of year."

"It's hot, full of sand and insects, and tedious in the extreme. I've never cared much for those desert climes you're so fond of. Of course, the fashions are quite striking."

"Of course."

Meagan handed over a thick sheaf of envelopes. "I brought your mail. The nurses told me it's the third lot you've received today, all hand delivered. You're making life very interesting for them, love. I do hope you've been suitably charming in return?"

"I can but try." Dorian accepted the stack and began to leaf through them. Meagan watched him, quietly gorgeous in an original Balanciaga of deepest aqua silk.

The awkward duckling had transformed somewhere in her late teens and become even more lovely with age. Her fair skin and wide, brilliant blue eyes were a match for her brother's. Her hair had the same natural curl with a red sheen to it which, as their Nanny Sybil had told them, was a sure sign of the goddess' blessing. Meagan wore it up in a sophisticated twist under a small, veiled hat which served no purpose except to draw attention to her remarkable eyes. She had long foresworn the fussy little girl garb of yesteryear and draped herself in tailored designs. Her body was long, lithe and taut despite the fact that she had borne several children including one pair of twins. The secret of her continued excellent health and appearance was sex, motherhood and horseback riding. She'd tell anyone, all they had to do was ask ... and be prepared to accept the answer.

The sex part of that reply had a tendency to make her husband, the equally noble Edwin Nolan Darnell, Duke of Chauncby, beam with pride. Dorian, however, knew the truth of it. Meagan had been raised to be a good girl and a good girl she would have certainly remained, too, except that the Gloria blood had ways of asserting itself. Meagan blossomed late and quickly developed an uncanny knack for attracting bad boys. Her first affair with Charlie Kello had proved disastrous, a learning lesson. Rogues as a rule, both the gentleman and roughneck variety, did not settle peacefully into domesticity no matter how attractively packaged. As a matter of fact, they tended to take flight at the first hint of permanent affiliation. Revenge-minded and on the rebound, Meagan married safe. She married money. She married a title - whose genealogy was discovered to include ties to both the Greystoke and Locksley families. It was a fact which proved that even in distress, Meagan Red Gloria-now-Darnell had a irrepressible talent for searching out and conquering rogues of all sorts no matter how well disguised.

At first, Meagan had been very relieved that Courtney's true paternal origin had remained undetected and she'd kept a low profile for some time. But, as the years went by, she found her instincts impossible to resist. The siblings had discussed it over several bottles of an excellent bordeaux one evening, determining that their respective talents were not gifts to be wasted. The next morning had found them dreadfully hungover but not in the least repentant.

"You needn't answer if you don't want to," Dorian had ventured on parting, consonants still difficult. "But do any of those children belong to Edwin?"

Meagan had considered long and hard. She'd finally taken hold of Dorian's hand, not-too clumsily, and patted it with sisterly affection. "Let's just say," she began with only a slight slur of her s's, "that I'm refreshing the bloodlines and we'll leave it at that. You weren't planning on producing any heirs, were you?"

Meagan was one of the few women with whom Dorian felt comfortable. The Earl picked through his mail without interest.

"I suppose you heard about Charlie," he said.

"Yes. I heard."

"I'm sorry."

"Darling, what for? Charlie Kello's been trying to kill himself for years. He finally succeeded. It's sad but...." Meagan sighed. "He was a lovely, funny, romantic lunatic. I will miss him. Court will, too. But Charlie never forgave himself for living through that dreadful war and watching all those people die. He pursued La Mort successfully this time. What can I say?"

"You sound as if you're still angry with him."

"Well, I am. A little." Blue eyes softened. "He was my first love. I adored him and he left me. You never quite get over that, my dear. But one does go on to other things."

"Quite a few others, actually."

"You've had every chance - if not more - to be as successful in love as I but you've hung your star on the impossible." Meagan frowned and a little line appeared vertically between her artfully shaped brows. Dorian smiled, nostalgic, remembering the homely but equally maternal girl of years past. "I do wish you'd get yourself laid," she finished, exasperated. "Safely, of course. It might do to keep you away from other people's belongings."

"I doubt it." The Earl laughed, delighted. "Lord and Lady, Meg. I suppose you've got someone picked out?"

"As a matter of fact...." She hesitated, watching her brother's face light up as he pulled a large, gray linen envelope from his mail. "Oh my, what's that - the boar rampant? Where have I seen that coat of arms before? It looks so familiar...."

"It's been a lovely visit, Meagan. I'll look forward to seeing everyone on the twenty-first."

"So I'm to be dismissed am I, just like that?" She cocked her head to one side. Her smile went very sweet. "That blow to your head must have rattled your brains loose."

Dorian began to make some glib reply but his sister leaned forward, laying her fingers across his lips before he could speak.

"That does look painful," she said, suddenly serious, indicating the bruise on his cheek. She bit her lip, shook her head. "Look ... I know better than to tell you to stop so I won't. It would be like killing you. But if anything ever happened to you, that would be like you killing us. So don't, all right?"

"All right." Dorian took Meagan's hand in his, lacing their fingers together.

"It just keeps getting nastier out there," she went on, intense. "The world has changed from when you first started all this. People have become cruel in ways they never were before. Just to prove they can, as if they're trying to top one another in atrocity."

"Well ... it's a terribly challenging profession," Dorian said and gave her hand a squeeze.

"But not vitally important," Meagan returned, sharp. "You make me so angry sometimes. It's probably a good thing they've kept you in hospital or I'd never be able to catch up with you."

Dorian regarded her, curious. Meagan blushed, her hand fluttering up to smooth immaculate hair.

"That was a rotten thing to say." She covered embarrassment with anger. "Listen to me. I sound just like Mother."

"No." Dorian shook his head, solemn. "You're nothing at all like her."

"She's been on a tear ever since she heard about that evil old snake, Victor Marsh. As if she expects Daddy to rise up from the grave and take her to task again. I told her the only person able to do that would be you and that you had better things to do. Well, it's her way of manifesting guilt, I suppose - and decades too late."

Dorian shifted, uncomfortable. He had planned on avoiding this subject permanently. His first impulse was to soothe and silence his sister. But the closet doors were refusing to stay shut.

"I don't remember Dad being involved in any of it," Dorian said.

"Well, he was. You were such a mess, poor darling. I'd never felt so badly for anyone before in my life. The only thing I can compare it to is the feeling I get when one of my own children have been hurt or taken ill." Meagan sighed, folding her hands in her lap. "It was such a dreadful time ... I kept wondering why Nanny didn't stop her, why she didn't call in Daddy. I was angry with you, too. It was easier to blame you for all the upset than to try to do anything about it myself. I'm very sorry about that."

Dorian lifted his shoulders in a little shrug but remained silent.

"When I finally went to Nanny, I was just raging. Everything was so miserable and I wanted to put a stop to it. She told me that I was the only one who could do that."

"How?"

"I had to contact Daddy myself and get him to come home. I had to tell him what had been going on."

"You had to go against Mother."

"Yes.... Not that I actually told her of my plans."

"If you had, she would have stopped you. She would have talked you out of it."

"Yes, I knew she would. And that was very tempting," Meagan said. "But doing that would have been worse. Like continuing to go along with her but pretending I hadn't, that she'd taken it out of my hands."

"That was quite a declaration of independence."

"I had always been Mother's right arm, right or wrong. I didn't want to lose that position."

Dorian looked surprised. "But you didn't."

"No, that was the oddest part," Meagan said. "If anything, she seemed to rely on me more afterwards. We never spoke of it. Daddy made such a row. And he went straight for Marsh, he very nearly killed him. There was quite a scandal."

Dorian shook his head, mystified. "I don't remember any of it."

"I'm not too surprised. We all worked very hard at putting it behind us. I tried to sound you out about it once. I suppose that in my way, I was trying to apologize. Trying to make sure you were all right -"

"Or if I was holding any grudges."

"Yes." A conspirator's grin flashed across Meagan's face and disappeared. "But you weren't having any of it. I could only suppose you wanted to forget about it, too."

"So the whole incident just got bottled up and nothing more was ever said."

"Until Marsh made headlines again." She gave a short, harsh laugh. "Last time Dr. Marsh made the papers, there was barely a mention on the back page. You had to read very hard between the lines to get it. As I said, times change. Now pedophilia is splashed across the front page, body counts are listed like football scores and villains are promoted like heroes."

"Like celebrities, perhaps, not heroes. Still, it's a change for the better, darling, not the worse." Dorian recaptured his sister's hand. "These are terrible things to read about, especially over breakfast coffee, but it's much better than ignoring them because it's not polite to notice."

"How can you say things are better?" Meagan scoffed, frustrated.

"Because I know my history. England was one of the first to champion children's rights, remember? Back in the 1800's, it was considered quite a triumph when the legal age for prostitution was raised from nine to thirteen. We've come a very long way since then."

"That's supposed to give me comfort?"

"What I have discovered is, in this time of nuclear bartering and drug cartels and fiends who'd rather kill their lovers than endure a messy break up, it's best to take what comfort you can. Yes. That little anecdote puts a certain misery in perspective and gives me quite a lot of peace, thank you."

Meagan hovered on the edge of acceptance, still not satisfied. Finally, Dorian said, "You're worried about your children, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"I'm glad to hear it, although it doesn't surprise me in the slightest. You're quite a marvelous parent, Meagan. I've never once seen you put your own desires - which are just as considerable as my own - above anything that really mattered. Like your children, yes?"

"So...?"

"Things happen all the time which are beyond our control, some good, some bad. And the world is absolutely crazy, filled with danger and promise. But that's nothing new ... and it never will be." Blue eyes flashed. "The hell with governments, their laws and procedures. Do you really think either of us would allow anything to happen to one of our own? Our back up sources and contacts are quite considerable. We hail from a rather large and significant extended family which includes both sides of the law. Trust me."

"I do."

"I'm glad you told me about going for Dad and about how he went after Marsh. I didn't remember anything about that. What I did remember...." He shook his head. "Well, it just goes to prove what I said. We do care about each other. Don't we?"

"Absolutely." A smile danced back to her lips. "It's awfully hard not to care about you, you ass."

"Do you talk to your children like this?" Dorian asked, amused.

"As they deserve it."

The phone rang on the bedside table letting off a series of soft chimes. Meagan snagged Dorian's arm, stopping him, as he reached for it.

"Damn," she said, wincing. "I thought I'd have more time."

"For what?"

"How can I put this? I'm heralding two surprises for you. One of them is quite lovely, the other is...."

"Wretched?"

"Probably, yes." Meagan let go of a weary little sigh. "Mother's coming up to visit. I made her promise that she wouldn't arrive unannounced, that she'd ring up first. I'm supposed to tell her how you are."

"I'm dying, that's how I am. I'm critical. I can't see anyone!"

"That won't do any good, she'll just bash in anyway."

"Tell her I'm seeing someone unmentionable. That I'm doing something unmentionable. That always stops her."

"Not this time, I'm afraid," Meagan said. "You've made yourself too much the media hero. You know how the Countess pursues status. She can smell a photo-op at a hundred miles. Darling, she's interrupted her season at Cannes to fly in to see you."

"I'll have Mr. James purchase first class return tickets if she'll just fly back," the Earl wailed. "Immediately!"

"Dorian," Meagan began in a tone usually reserved for transgressing children. "She is ... worried about you. After all, she's your mother. There is no way you can avoid her." She gave a small shrug. "Why not be a good sport and get it over with?"

Dorian's mouth fell into a pout, his brows beetled together, seriously distressed. Meanwhile, the phone chimed on relentlessly. "What's the lovely surprise?" he grouched. "It had better be good."

"Dinner," Meagan snapped, reaching for the receiver. "I'm having something nice brought in. I thought you might be tired of hospital fare."

"I don't know why you bothered. I'll never be able to eat it."

"Well then you can play with it like other children do when they believe they're being put upon." Meagan took up the offending phone, placing her hand over the receiver. "Would you rather I had let her be a real surprise? Left you to face the Countess alone? I know how you two get on."

"We don't get on. That's the problem."

"Honestly, Dorian. Little Lucian is only one and a half years old and he's got better manners."

"Little Lucian is still young but he will learn." Dorian cocked his head to one side, eyes narrowing. "And how is Lovejoy these days? I haven't seen him in ages."

Meagan raised a warning finger. "Watch. Out. You don't want to threaten turn-about games with me in front of Mother, do you, little brother? We have too much on one another." She took her hand away from the receiver. "Mother? Well, yes ... I just knew it would be you. We're expecting you...."

Dorian's battle-scowl fell into an expression of doomed resignation as he listened to his sister's side of the conversation. Unfortunately, she was finished before he could think of a good evasion or escape.

"I am going downstairs to meet Mother and bring her up," Meagan announced, setting the phone down. "I'll send in dinner and we'll all have something together. Afterwards, we'll leave you to your own devices and you may or may not recuperate as you like. Why don't you read the Major's letter while I'm gone? Perhaps that will cheer you sufficiently into putting on a good face for the Countess - or depress you to the point where she'll think you're really ill and leave right away." She strode to the door, then turned and paused dramatically, fixing him with an unblinking, mother-sees-all-and-knows-what-you're-up-to expression. "You will behave yourself," she assured him. And left.

Dorian thought about that. Behave himself? Unfortunately, he had to concede that he probably would. Sighing, setting the other mail aside, he turned Klaus' letter about in his hands. How perceptive of Meagan to remember the Eberbach crest. But then few details escaped her sharp eyes.

The envelope was provocatively lumpy, something was obviously sealed inside. Delaying no further, Dorian picked up a thin, razor-sharp blade from the bedside table, slipped it under the flap and broke the seal. He pulled out a card and a little nugget of tissue paper wrapped around something hard. When he shook it, he heard a distinctly metallic rattle from within. He opened the card, whose message began without salutation or preamble,

Mr. Dainty was appropriately distressed regarding the damage done to his business. As his insurance was lacking with regard to personal effects, I have taken steps to rectify the situation.

In view of your recent confinement, I am relocating the cat, Miriam, to Schloss Eberbach. She is well but regrets the absence of your companionship.

I trust that soon you will recover from your injuries.

Checkmate.

"Checkmate?" Dorian wondered aloud. He set the card down and busied himself unrolling tissue paper. Shortly, a tiny, battered blue and gold enameled box lay revealed on the palm of his hand - Ned Dainty's prized Elizabethan flea and louse box. Dorian didn't know if he should be repulsed or thrilled and settled on a mixture of both. Very carefully, he pried open the lid. A chubby, tan-colored cherry stone winked back at him, rolling about and bouncing off the sides of its golden confinement.

Dorian threw back his head and laughed, the first genuine, life-affirming laugh he'd had in days. He re-read the letter again and then a third time even though he'd committed it to memory from the first.

A letter from Klaus - written in his own hand! And a gift, an expensive and extravagant little joke, but a gift nonetheless. It was definitely the sort of thing lovers sent to one another although no one else would ever be able to tell. He laughed until tears blurred his eyes.

Suddenly, it was impossible to feel anything but fantastic.

"M'sieur seems to be in good spirits."

Dorian looked up, dazed. A fat chef in a great, floppy white hat and an equally floppy mustache had wheeled in a grand cart laden with silver-covered platters and accompanying china and crystal.

"M'sieur is feeling wonderful, thank you for asking," Dorian replied happily. "That looks lovely."

"Merci," the chef enthused. "Doubtless, it will be an incredible improvement over your recent bill of fare." He rolled the table up against the bed and made a great show of arranging place settings which were already perfection. A genuine performance it was, too. The poor man was so large that his girth nearly exceeded his grasp. He bumped the constantly rolling cart with every gesture setting china and silver to rattling in a brittle musical accompaniment. Dorian glanced away, covering his mouth with his hand; he could feel his smile heading towards a giggle.

"And what will the hero of the day be having for his dinner?" the chef demanded cheerfully.

"I don't know. What have you brought?"

"Well, let's see, shall we?" The chef lifted an ornate silver cover with a flourish. "Voila!"

Two small, lop eared bunnies sat upon a nest of lettuce and chrysanthemums. They gazed about with very round brown eyes. Dorian's eyes went nearly as large, staring back, in return. The chef started back a few steps, hand to his heart, appalled.

"This cannot be!" he wailed. Two more lids were lifted, one in each hand. A trio of snow white doves soared up to the ceiling chased by an incredibly large parrot in brilliant shades of yellow and blue. The other cover revealed a skunk garlanded in daisies sitting beside a spray bottle of Channel No. 5.

"Are you sure you have the right party?" Dorian lifted a quizzical brow. "I understand the children's ward is on the floor below."

"Oui, oui, monsieur. This is the right room. You are the right party," the chef gasped out in a state of utter panic. "I do not understand!"

A battalion of fluffy yellow chicks began to march out of the bread basket. They hopped down and spread out over Dorian's bed, then broke formation and scattered as the bunnies invaded ranks. Amazed, Dorian gathered up Klaus' letter and gift, clutching it to him as the menagerie advanced. Fan-tailed goldfish suddenly appeared in water goblets. Wine bottles exploded in sequence with a spray of confetti and streamers. The chef made a futile grab at a fluffy-tailed red squirrel who was attempting to massacre a centerpiece arrangement of yellow roses and bluebells just as a fat piglet, which had appeared from somewhere beneath the cart, dashed between his legs. Abruptly, the man was down. Devastated, he took one incredulous look about, then threw back his head and began to sob. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to mop his streaming eyes. Yards of parrot-hued silk appeared trailed by a tiny, glittering blue lizard with copper streaks across its head. The chef let out another shriek.

It was the final touch. "Oh dear," Dorian began but it was impossible to keep a straight face. Torn between concern and hilarity, he tried holding himself very still but he couldn't keep it up. His shoulders began to shake and, soon, an audible giggle burst forth.

"Oh no...." the chef wept from the floor. "Disaster ... disaster!"

"Come now," Dorian tried again - then dissolved into another burst of giggles. "Someone's playing tricks." He wanted to say something reassuring but his voice disintegrated into bright peals of laughter. One of the bunnies hopped over and regarded him curiously.

"Tricks!" the chef blustered, furious. "So it's tricks they want, is it? Than tricks they will get!" He heaved himself up from the floor amongst a swarm of leaping frogs, his face gone scarlet with tears and rage. "No one plays tricks on the greatest chef in all of Europe! No one!"

The man began swelling up to amazing proportions. His face puffed out until the eyes disappeared into the folds between cheek and forehead. The suit expanded until it became the size of a miniature white blimp. Small animals began chirping about frantically. Dorian caught his breath and drew back, bringing his legs up to his chest - waiting. Absolute pleasure coiled like a spring in the pit of his stomach, anticipating release. There was only one who could and would go to such elaborate extremes both to baffle and to entertain. At the last minute, Dorian let out a shrill cry of delight just as the chef's costume exploded in a fountain of glitter.

When the smoke cleared, a slim, dapper man stood grinning ear to ear in the midst of the debris. The parrot glided down to land on his shoulder. It blended quite adequately with the red jacket and the deep blue shirt.

"Arsène!" Dorian crowed, applauding vigorously. "I should have known."

"C'est moi." The French master thief, Arsène Lupin III, gave a deep bow. The parrot spread its wings again but did not forsake its perch. "I suppose you're wondering what's for dessert?"

Before Dorian could answer, Lupin produced a wand and tapped the bird lightly. There was another pop-flash of smoke and the parrot disappeared with a mechanical "Squawk!" Bowing from the waist, Lupin presented Dorian with small plate holding a delicately crafted bit of puff pastry shaped in the form of a swan taking flight. Wings and back cupped a mound of fresh strawberries. The whole affair floated on a cloud of whipped cream and dark chocolate swirls.

"The best needn't always arrive last," Lupin said.

Dorian's mouth formed a perfect "o" of child-like pleasure. "Strawberries!"

"Your favorite. I know."

"I love them - almost as much as I love a spectacle. That was wonderful, darling."

"Definitely not your average dog and pony show." Lupin plucked a camellia from a nearby arrangement and tucked it into his lapel. "There is such lack in imagination when it comes to remembering our friends in hospital, neh?"

"Be kind. Not everyone has your flair for the dramatic."

"So true."

Dorian held out his hand. Lupin took it and sat himself down on the bed. They embraced warmly amidst wandering bunnies and chicks.

"It's so good to see you," Dorian said. "I didn't know you were in town."

"We were on our way through when you began making headlines again. Obviously, a detour was in order." Lupin stroked the blond head on his shoulder. "Was it very bad?"

"Yes." Dorian exhaled, letting out a sigh he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Some of it was dreadful."

"But you have survived - which is fortunate. I am glad to see you are not so very hurt," Lupin said. He sat up and helped himself to one of Dorian's strawberries. "You're not hurt, are you?" he asked, pausing with the berry at his mouth.

"Not really. Not any more."

"Bon."

"That's good to hear, Goldilocks."

The salute came from a deeper, gruffer voice from a figure who had positioned himself just inside the door. The man was dressed in a rumpled brown suit, his hat was pulled low over his eyes. Like certain other parties, `No Smoking' warnings held no meaning for him. A half inch of ash hung from the end of his cigarette.

"Jigen - how marvelous." Dorian beamed. "Does that mean -"

"Goeman's downstairs with the car," Jigen explained. "This place is crawling with cops."

"Oh dear...." The radiance dropped a notch or two. "You don't have to leave straight off, do you?"

Lupin gave an eloquent shrug. "I am afraid so, mon frère," he said. "But since I have shanghaied your dinner and you are now feeling so much better, perhaps you'd allow us to treat you to supper at some less sterile location?"

The Earl's face took on a look of impending panic. "Dinner...." he groaned.

"There is a problem?"

"You might say that. Some people were supposed to meet me here for dinner. I'll wager this wasn't what they expected."

"Probably not. When I saw the cart downstairs, I knew it could have only been meant for you," Lupin confessed with a touch of pride. "These small creatures were just leaving after a trip through the children's ward. Suddenly - there was a plan! I could not resist it. Improvisation, it is, as you know, my specialty."

"I know."

"A thousand pardons if I have upset your arrangements ... still, you don't sound very enthused about your impending guests."

"Well ... I'm not actually."

"Excellent! Then your plans are changed. No more arguments."

"No, really, I can't." Dorian shook his head, adamant. "I -"

"I've brought along a tempting little appetizer," Lupin broke in. "As you can see."

The master thief removed a slim, velvet covered box from his jacket and snapped the lid open. Within lay a six-strand pearl choker interspaced with diamond clusters, a confection of snow and ice lying against a black satin background.

"It's part of a set," Lupin explained. "There are initials on the back of the clasp."

Dorian lifted the choker and studied the item in question. "The Hapsburg crest ... this is Leonid's, a minor but adventurous noble. It was a gift to Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst before she became Catherine the Great. She returned it to him as a token, a reminder and request for help during the rebellion against her husband. Rumor has it, he brought the jewels back personally - along with the required troops." His words came out in a husky purr as he held the choker to his throat. A series of graduated teardrop pearls hung suspended from the center jewel and he closed his eyes, relishing their movement against his skin. "Leonid was late and the rebellion had already been accomplished. But it was a lovely gesture nonetheless."

"Apparently Leonid kept adding to the collection through the years," Lupin said. "Throughout their lives, these jewels were passed back and forth between Austria and Russia. Always growing in volume."

"Until they disappeared in transit." Dorian sighed, eyes fluttering open. "Do you know how long these have gone missing?"

Lupin nodded, happily. "Time they were found, yes?"

"Oh, yes. And I wish you much success in doing so ... but why tell me?"

"Because you could be of some assistance in their recovery. You hold the key to certain contacts in Berlin that would be useful. If the grapevine runs right, they owe you a favor or two."

"If it's who I think you're talking about, they owe me three big ones."

"Berlin can be such fun at this time of year," Lupin mused.

"Berlin is beginning its annual ice age." Dorian frowned, puzzled. "What's your point, darling?"

"Berlin is close to Bonn."

"Well, they're in the same country. So?"

"So, when do you think your Mr. James will loosen the purse strings enough to let you travel again?"

"That's a simple enough answer. When hell freezes over. Much like Berlin."

"C'est ça." Lupin spread his hands. "You want to wish your Major a happy Christmas, yes? After the grand adventure you shared together?"

"Why you think the Major would want to see me -"

"It's not so much that," the Frenchman broke in. "It is you who would want to do the seeing, yes?"

"Regardless -"

"You are quite a fine thief, cher ami," Lupin interrupted. "That goes without saying. But - you are a very loving man. Your Major Eberbach, never have I met a man more in need of such loving. I was thinking that, with your recent success, the timing might just be perfect, neh?"

"And having such success with love yourself, you've decided to give me a hand?" Dorian returned archly. "How generous. I hardly know what to say."

Jigen didn't even try to stop his laughter. Lupin glared at him balefully but it had no serious effect. The gunman settled back against the door jamb, shoulders shaking with unsuppressed mirth.

"There's no need for insults," Lupin muttered. His mastery of larcenous activities directly contradicted his efforts in the realm of romance. Lupin adored women most enthusiastically. Unfortunately, they usually scorned him with nearly equal ardor.

"You want my help, don't you?" Dorian mused. "You weren't really just passing through. There's a lot more involved than the Catherine jewels, yes?"

"It will be my pleasure to tell you everything," Lupin promised. "Over dinner."

"Arsène, you never tell anyone everything."

"So...?" There was another elaborate shrug. "I always tell you enough."

Dorian gave a woeful little laugh. He passed the choker back. "Mr. James is already quite put out with me. You are trying to get me into a lot of trouble, aren't you?"

"From the looks of this room," Jigen said, "I'd say he's already done that."

"I suppose they will not be sorry to see your backside here." Lupin snapped the jewel case shut and returned it to his inner pocket. "Even though it is a very nice backside."

Dorian tucked Klaus' card and box into his pocket. He slid out of bed and fished for slippers, testing the effect of weight on his injured leg. "I hope it's not too dreadful outside." He put on his robe, tied the sash.

"Take this." Lupin picked up Meagan's coat. He paused, momentarily entranced, running his hand over the thick pile. "This ... is an interesting scent."

"Yes - and female - as in sister," Dorian told him, snatching it away and swirling it around his shoulders. "We had better hurry. Is there a back way out of this place?"

"There is always a back way, you know that," Lupin chided. "Are you nervous about something?"

"Probably trying to avoid his company," Jigen offered as said-company walked in - and a frog, a squirrel and the skunk rushed out.

A very long silence permeated the room punctuated by various squawks and chirps. Eventually, someone in the hall noticed the skunk and began making a fuss. Others quickly joined in.

Meagan fixed her attention on Dorian. Waited. In the past, Dorian had discovered that staying quiet was helpful in situations like this. He employed that technique now.

Lupin tried a favorite technique of his own.

"Good afternoon, ladies." He turned on the full Lupin-smile. It had never worked before but the thief remained optimistic. "M'lord, you did not tell me your sisters were visiting."

"Actually," Meagan said drily. "Lord Gloria has three sisters although this lady is not one of them." She turned to the tall, thin woman beside her and took her arm. "Mother, would you like to sit down?"

That didn't seem possible. Frozen in place, the Countess Gloria wasn't moving except to inhale and exhale in shallow little gasps. She regarded the room with a kind of wide-eyed alarm as if some ultimate nightmare had been realized.

Finally, Dorian said, "Hello, Mother."

"Hello?" the Countess choked out. "That's all you have to say - Hello?"

"Well, I'd ask you in but you're already here." He searched for a civil approach. "How have you been?"

But the Countess wasn't up to courtesy. "No matter how hard I try, I'm never prepared for these visits. How long has it been since we've seen one another? A year? Two years?" Shock transformed into disapproval. "I interrupt my season to fly to your bedside and what do I find when I get here? Complete chaos, a room full of rodents and my only son consorting with thugs. I ask you - what mother doesn't dream of a moment like this?"

"That's why I saved it up for now. I know how you love to put me in my place." Dorian's smile froze on his face. "Watch the name-calling, if you please. These gentlemen are my friends."

"Of course they are. I know the kind of company you keep. You're worse than your father." She heaved out a great sigh. "How did you manage this?"

"This is not an attack, nor was it aimed at you," Dorian said evenly. "It was meant to entertain me."

The frankness of his reply shocked them both into silence.

"Madam," Lupin began again. "You must not be angry with your son. I am entirely responsible for this debacle. You see -"

"Monsieur...." Meagan held up a restraining hand. "Please do not attempt to explain. Words only detract from the experience. There are times when all one can do is savor the moment, n'est-ce pas?"

"Your sister's going to kill you later, isn't she?" Jigen whispered to Dorian. The Earl stifled a groan.

"Gentlemen," Meagan concluded, rescuing her coat. "May I suggest that, whatever it is you're doing or about to do, don't let us keep you."

"Good idea," Jigen said. "Boss - you heard the lady. Let's go."

Dorian and Jigen headed for the door, not fast enough to be considered tripping over each other but close. Lupin, however, remained locked in place. He was staring at Meagan Red-Darnell with a besotted expression. Meagan returned his gaze, bemused.

Dorian took hold of Lupin's arm. "Arsène," he implored.

"Arsène...?" A little light of recognition danced into Meagan's eyes. "I believe I may have heard your name before...."

It was a prompt for introductions if ever he'd heard one. The absurdity of it all hit him like a ten ton safe. Among the Earl's social circle, introductions were very much a part of everyday existence. But in Eroica's world, people were not big on them. Ingrained codes of secrecy, silence and conspiracy precluded idle chatter, especially people's names. In that world, names were still a source of power, the essence of pagan mystique. For a moment, Dorian thought about simply dragging Lupin from the room. Jigen could be relied upon to help. Afterwards, he could explain everything to various parties - whatever they wanted to hear. Still, at the moment, everyone was staring at him, waiting for some cue ... everyone except Lupin, of course, who having found his focal point, stuck with it.

"Is there something wrong, young man?" the Countess demanded, drawing back. "You're not contagious are you?"

"It's nothing," Lupin choked out. "Merely an affliction of the heart."

Lupin looked gallant if idiotic. Meagan appeared to be entertained. The Earl was reminded of the title of an ancient science fiction film, When Worlds Collide....

But Dorian's attention was dragged back to his mother. Despite the crowded confines of the room, the Countess had managed to create an island of isolation around herself. She was as rigid and inflexible as sculpted stone. Dorian sighed. Well, she had always projected the image of the gracious yet sophisticated matron. But her actual touch, her gaze, was as hard and cold as Carrara marble.

What must her life have been like, he wondered, married to a rogue like his father? And then, of course, keeping rein on a brood of oddities which had never aspired to any of her admittedly routine tastes? No one would ever be bursting into her room showering her with an avalanche of baby animals and puff pastry expecting high praise for his ingenuity. The Countess despised surprises, they were too vulgar.

Dorian sighed again, tense and weary. He slipped his hand into his pocket and closed his fingers around Klaus' gift. He found a chair and sank down, checking first for wandering animals.

Germany was so far away.

"Are you all right?" Meagan asked, concerned.

"Yes," Dorian said. "But I've got to get to Heathrow. Now."

"Now?" Lupin's attention was finally diverted.

The Earl nodded.

"But I've only just arrived," the Countess protested. "I would have thought you'd manage to find time for your mother."

"Yes, I suppose I should," Dorian said. "But what can I say? I'm living down to your expectations as usual. You didn't envision any more from me, did you?"

"Dorian...." His mother frowned, voicing a distinctive, three-syllable warning, a tone the Earl had been familiar with since infancy.

"What?"

"We need to talk."

"About what?" Blue eyes never wavered. "Piano lessons?"

He hadn't planned to bring the subject up. It had leaped out seemingly of its own accord. He watched the smile tighten across the Countess' face. Two bright spots of color appeared beneath the sheen of immaculate face powder.

"You don't want me to talk," Dorian said. "You want me to shut up."

"You have the oddest notions." The Countess gave a small laugh. "You have such an imagination."

"I have a good memory - and it's getting better all the time. I can remember incidents from long ago, you and father going at it. Father going away. You staying behind to sharpen teeth and claws on me and Meagan, Claire and Bea. I remember what was said. Who said it and why. I remember how much you liked to win. And how much it hurt other people. But you didn't care about that." Blue eyes glittered. "As nice as it would be to think otherwise, I know exactly why you're here now."

"Do you?"

"You want to know what I told the police about Victor Marsh," Dorian said frankly. "You want to know what I plan to say in future. You especially want to know what I've said or am going to say about you."

"Darling, you're wrong," the Countess protested, drawing room slick. "I simply wanted to see you. You're quite the hero these days."

Except for the animals, there wasn't a soul in the room who hadn't practiced the art of truth-alteration for the better part of their lives. Virtuosos of deception, they knew a lie when they heard it. There followed a not-so-subtle shift of focus, a sense of heightened awareness.

"Piano lessons?" Lupin wondered aloud, taking an active interest. "What a fascinating subject."

"It can be," Meagan agreed.

Dorian felt the ranks closing protectively around him with the touch of Lupin's hand on his shoulder and was heartened. Warmed. This was the way families were supposed to feel.

Let the past remain past, he closed his eyes in quick and silent prayer. I don't want this in my life. Not now ... not ever again....

"Mother, you've no need to worry," he said. "What's done is done. I want an end to it, too. More than you'll ever know."

"Now -"

"This meeting is pointless," he cut her off, shaking his head. "You've wasted your time coming here. We have almost nothing in common, we never did and we never will. You don't really care for me and I see no need to pretend otherwise. All this hero business isn't going to change anything. I'm still a homosexual. I'm still a thief. I'm not ever going to change. The best you can hope for in our relationship is embarrassment." He smiled up at Lupin and shrugged helplessly. "Sorry, love. I didn't mean for you to get caught up in this."

Lupin shrugged back, grinned, and put his hands in his pockets. Meagan stood beside Jigen, watching events unfold, her eyes wide and bright. The Countess drew herself up to her full height.

"Dorian, I understand you've been under stress," she said, "but I don't believe this is the time or the place to discuss our private affairs."

"I told you there's nothing to discuss. If you must draw it out into some sort of dialogue, perhaps we can get together later. But right now, I have to get to the airport."

Light-headed, the Earl got to his feet and made his way to the wardrobe. Determined, he opened the doors and began rifling through the meager selection. He'd always believed in telling people exactly what he thought. It cut through the standard smoke screens and allowed one to get straight to business. Dorian had discovered early on that, even though people were usually quite aware of what others thought of them, they were very surprised when those opinions were voiced out loud and to their face. Still, this was the first time he'd tried his technique on the Countess. He wondered if she'd try to push the issue.

He wondered how he'd respond if she did. It was strange to feel such empathy for her, such pity at her self-imposed isolation. But, on the other hand, he could not dismiss her actions regarding the Victor Marsh affair.

How can I feel sorry for her? Why should I? Nothing's changed, Dorian realized. She'd do it again - in a minute -

He suppressed an urge to scream. Then glanced back over his shoulder, gauging reaction. The Countess wasn't used to being crossed; she was the one who always issued judgement and walked out. She looked to be in the process of digesting this new attitude herself, literally chewing on it from the way her jaws were working.

"Do you need a ride to Heathrow?" Lupin asked, cool as ever.

"Bonham should be downstairs. I'll ask him to bring the car around.

You and I can meet up later tonight, if you like, and make our arrangements." Dorian selected a dove gray suit. He latched the hanger over the wardrobe door. "I need a moment to change. While I'm gone, perhaps you could assist my sister in rounding up the petting zoo?"

"It will be my pleasure," Lupin said, darting a little beam in Meagan's direction.

"I'll fetch Bonham for you," Jigen said, darting Lupin a look of his own. "But first, a word - Boss." He grabbed hold of the back of the thief's jacket collar and whisked him out into the hall.

Dorian selected two shirts, one a dark lavender, the other a pale, blush rose. He held them against the suit jacket.

Meagan said, "I like the rose best."

Dorian said, "Me, too," and began stripping off his robe. He longed for a shower, a shampoo - the full treatment, but there wasn't time.

The Countess cleared her throat. "I suppose I should be leaving now."

"Back to Cannes?" Dorian queried politely.

"Downstairs - to the atrium." She smoothed her gloves over her hands. "In case you decide to come to your senses and behave like a member of this family."

"Mother," Meagan stated flatly, "Dorian is the current earl of the line. You can't be any more `family' than that."

"A technicality."

"But impossible to ignore."

The Countess' eyes glistened with what might have been pleasure but wasn't. "It seems to be my lot in life to have been fated with strong willed daughters."

Meagan stared back, obviously amused. "A strong son, too," she added.

"So I should go downstairs, drink my cup of wormwood and be on my way?"

"If you like."

"You don't care what you do to me, do you?" the Countess said bitterly. "You've never cared for me at all - either of you."

"That's where you're wrong." Dorian smiled sadly. "The strangest thing is, I do care. I don't know why ... but there it is. At any rate, that's why I'll play your game. For now."

"It's sounds like an excellent offer to me," Meagan said. "I'd go for it if I were you, Mother."

"You haven't left me much of a choice," the Countess snapped.

"There now." Meagan smiled benignly. "I was sure you two would work it out given the opportunity."

Dorian began a reply - reconsidered - and cut it off. "I hear they serve a very adequate tea downstairs," he said instead.

"If you'd like to go ahead and get a table," Meagan suggested, "I'll join you shortly."

The Countess made her exit without uttering another word. Once the door was shut, Dorian collapsed back in his chair.

"Well," his sister said brightly. "That went pretty well. Don't you think?"

"Lord and Lady, Meg. All that's missing are the bodies. Give it a rest, won't you?"

"I don't know if I should."

"What's the problem now?"

"You never introduce me to your friends anymore."

"Oh, please.... Leave Lupin alone, Meagan."

"Why? He seems sweet."

"He is. I adore him."

Meagan's brow dipped down over one eye. "He likes women, doesn't he?"

"Passionately. I should have thought that was obvious."

"You don't feel the need to protect me, do you, dear?"

"Not from Arsène. Good heavens." Dorian blinked. "Sort of the opposite, if you must know. The women in this family are made of stronger stuff than any human male should have to endure."

"You're just in a stew over the Countess' visit. You can't really blame her this time. You've no idea how it looked when we first entered the room," she said. "The only thing missing was the duct tape."

"That is so revolting, I won't allow myself to respond."

"You know what she thinks -"

"Yes. I know. It's very obvious. It's always been obvious."

"Darling," Meagan soothed. "Lighten up."

"Don't look now," Dorian managed. "I'm trying to."

Meagan shook her head. "I knew this was a bad idea - but I couldn't stop her. You know how she gets."

"Perfectly."

"Yes. We both do. Well, you've effectively told her to piss off ... in front of witnesses no less. The Countess ought to get lots of mileage from that. Is there anyone else on your hit list?"

"Not unless you're pushing for an honorable mention."

"No."

"Good. I don't mean to start with you. Or with Mother either. I don't want or mean to hurt her feelings, I really don't." The revelation came as a surprise to both of them. "It just occurred to me, when she came in today, how lonely she was ... how isolated. How miserable."

Meagan continued to stare at him, curious now.

"Still, she's always been like that. It's been her choice - but it's not mine," Dorian concluded abruptly. "She can't just keep barging into my life expecting me to play the attentive, dutiful son. Not with her track record. God, Meagan, even the lowest mongrel will fight to keep the predators off her pups."

Meagan's voice was carefully neutral, "They have that reputation."

"I can't forget what happened. I can't forgive her. I've tried to put it behind me it hasn't worked. And there's nothing I can do about it either. Not a thing." Dorian wrapped his arms around himself, fingers digging into flesh. He took in a deep breath, struggling for control. "I can't believe she came here like this. She wasn't sorry about any of it. She doesn't care at all."

"Oh, she cares all right, don't worry yourself about that." Meagan gave a short laugh. "The whole affair makes her come across very badly. Can you guess how her friends would react if this business with Marsh came to light? Dorian, she's afraid of you. You can ruin her."

"But I'd never do that. What would be the point?"

"Revenge, I should imagine. Power, control ... you know how she operates."

"Yes, but...." His voice trailed off, confused and distressed.

"Listen, darling, no one expects you to forget what happened," Meagan said gently. "How could you ... not unless you're planning on having a lobotomy or some such operation?" She offered a smile but her brother only continued to regard her with large, solemn eyes.

Meagan continued on, determined, "This business of forgiveness is much over-rated. It's a Christian concept, not Pagan. It's the sort of psychology priests have used to control the masses for generations. True healing does not require you to understand and forgive the person who hurt you. Enemies have no right to forgiveness. You know that. I'll wager even your Iron Major knows."

"What are you saying?"

"If the Countess wants to make it up with you, she's got to do it herself. She can't keep blaming you for everything that went wrong in her life and expecting you to make it right."

"But she can. She does."

"I know. And, honestly, I don't expect her to change." Meagan frowned. "That's your problem."

One of the lop-ears had made its way down from the bed. It hopped over to perch on Dorian's slipper. Silently, the Earl leaned down to pick it up. He held it cradled against his chest and smoothed its fur.

"She's never considered herself at fault for the business with Victor Marsh. Right or wrong, she blames you," Meagan said. "It's vicious and unfair but it's true. She ladles on guilt with a bloody trowel. It's her control. Her weapon. Believe me, Mother likes it best when you're feeling sorry for her - when you're trying to understand her and forgive her and be friends with her. She hasn't ever been your friend, darling. She's no one's friend, not even mine. We're allies or enemies depending our current needs. Why do you think Beatrice and Claire and I were so eager to tattle about your misdeeds when we children? Because it was so lovely to have someone else play scapegoat for a change."

Dorian regarded his sister, stricken. "Meagan, that's appalling."

"Isn't it just?"

"She's our mother."

"That doesn't automatically make her a saint. She's a bad parent, a dreadful parent. It happens like that sometimes - but it's not your fault. It's not mine either." Meagan dropped back against the wall, resting her shoulders against the surface. "I don't know who's to blame, if anyone. I suppose she's had her share of problems. But who doesn't? It's not easy being a parent. It's damn hard. You've got to work at it just like anything else, harder than anything else. I don't think the Countess actually liked having children. She liked attention. She liked trophies. She kept at it until she produced the proper heir." A scowl locked onto her mouth. "I believe she thought to control Daddy through you but it didn't work out that way. It's not in your nature to be anyone's little pet."

"That's not news," Dorian said. "She's never made a secret about what a disappointment I've been."

"Darling - here's the latest flash - we have all been disappointments to her." Meagan grinned suddenly. "But I outrank her now. And she can't stand it."

"When I think of how hard I tried to get through to her." Dorian breathed out a long, shaky sigh. "All along, I kept thinking it was my fault that she didn't care for me. That I'd done something wrong. Then I thought, `Well - if she wants me to play the bad seed, I can do that.' So I did."

"And a particularly evil seed you've been, too." Meagan laughed softly, although her eyes remained dark. "We've all remarked on it. Often."

"Who's remarked on it?"

"Who do you think, idiot? I think they fall under the category of the `usual suspects.'"

The ghost of a smile returned to Dorian's lips.

"Just remember, when the Countess keeps you apologizing, when she keeps you dancing about trying to make things right, she's in control," Meagan told him, serious again. "When she gets you to play the bad boy, she doing the same thing. Today was the first time I've ever seen her lose ground with you. That never happens." She considered, then added, "It was well done, too. I felt like cheering."

"But you'll go downstairs and have tea with her instead."

"I can hardly wait. What a triumph it will be."

"Gods, Meagan...." Dorian returned the bunny to its companion on the bed. "You've picked up a habit or two from her."

"We both have, darling. Admit it." Meagan laughed again. "She's had her way with me, too, throughout the years. I know a victory when I see one - and I intend to enjoy it. She can swallow her venom like the dear fiend she is. I'll drink a toast in your honor, M'lord."

Dorian looked uncertain.

"You needn't be so apprehensive. The Countess will bounce back, she always does. Come the new year, she'll be just as poisonous as ever, full of plots and plans. I wouldn't be surprised if she comes up with another potential bride for you. Wait and see."

"But for the moment, Mother's in her place - and I've got the means to keep her there." He twisted a curl around his finger and sighed. "So what now?"

"So ... you can go on," Meagan insisted. "Get on with your life. Get past it. What's done is done, it's part of you now - it's part of what makes you what you are. Whatever happened in your past, it doesn't define you. It doesn't confine you ... not unless you let it."

Meagan went quiet, waiting for her brother to respond. Watching his shoulders tremble and longing to touch him, knowing that would be the wrong move. The silence lengthened between them.

Finally he sniffed and tossed his hair back over his shoulders. "How did you get to be so intelligent? Nanny Sybil didn't teach you all this."

"She taught me enough. The truth is, I'm a mother myself now." Meagan gave a little nod. "Growing up, I learned exactly what not to do."

"Hm.... I hope you're not going to say that what doesn't kill me makes me stronger or some such rubbish."

"No. I don't know if I believe that. What doesn't kill you can cripple you for life - if you let it."

"All right, all right," he groaned. "Enough."

"I was just making sure." Meagan smiled wickedly. "Just remember. Forgiveness isn't like mercy, it has to be earned. The Countess will be better off for a humbling experience or two."

Dorian paused, then said lightly, "So, perhaps we should consider hiring a hit man before the next visit? That would solve a multitude of problems."

"Only if you've got a contact among the Yakuza. Your Italian friends gossip too much. We'd be found out."

"You know how the Japanese are about family, even bad family. There's no one there I wouldn't have to sell my soul to first. Still, the

Triads or the Colombians...." He went back to pawing through his wardrobe. "Well, I suppose next time the Countess is in town, we'll get together and have a proper falling out just like we always do. But now -"

"You've got to get to the airport."

"Yes."

"All right, have it your way. Not that you're offering any alternatives." Meagan nodded slowly, almost to herself, and gave a knowing laugh. Dorian ceased his search for the perfect tie. He looked at his sister, eyebrow raised, inquiring.

But all she said was, "That must have been one hell of a letter."

And then walked out of the room.

Touch the glowing spheres around the dragon!

"Major Eberbach," Doctor Ashe began, leafing through the thick sheaf of medical records. "I have a question."

"Only one?" Klaus re-buttoned his shirt and tucked it in.

"Have you ever had a cold?"

Klaus paused, adjusting his tie. "Not recently," he said.

"It's such a normal malady, I was just wondering if you ever took time for something like that." Ashe closed the folder and hefted it in his hand, gauging the weight which was considerable. "This is quite a history," he continued. "From what I see here, you've had six concussions in the past four years. Prior to that, there's been a ruptured spleen, a perforated stomach, two crushed disks, multiple fractures of the arms, legs and collarbone. You haven't a rib that hasn't been broken or cracked at some time or other. Under that shirt, your skin looks like ten miles of bad road. Then there are the various work related illnesses ... dysentery, pneumonia-"

"So you are telling me I should not be too concerned about my cholesterol?"

Ashe peered up from over the top of his glasses. "It's the nicotine that will probably do you in. If the next grenade doesn't take you out first."

"There is always that." Klaus put on his jacket. To his great satisfaction, he didn't wince when raising his arms.

"You've been working in the field a long time, Major, and you've been luckier than most ... luckier than the dead agents. Still, you must understand you've managed to take some years off your life."

"Is there a point to this conversation?"

"That's up to you. You're not just a soldier, you're an officer. You work in one of the most lethal fields in the service. I understand more than you think, your situation is not that unusual. Other people have jobs but to men like you, this is more like a calling. It's like joining the priesthood. You're all so completely driven."

Klaus waited, stone-faced, prepared to leave but willing to grant the doctor a moment to finish.

"There's more to life than work, Major Eberbach. I hope you find that out one of these days. And soon, too," Ashe said more gently. "Whoever you're thinking of spending your retirement with, I'd get in touch and book reservations. Now."

"Is that all?"

"Watch out for blood in the urine." The doctor sighed, surrendering the folder. Klaus packed it away in his briefcase. "If it starts up again, contact our office in Bonn. Immediately. And be careful with those ribs. No heavy lifting, no running, no-"

"I know what to do," Klaus broke in. "There is no need for this concern, Doctor. The Eberbachs are a long-lived family."

"There are exceptions to every rule."

"I will take that under advisement." Klaus walked to the examination room door, opened it.

Ashe shook his head. "I'm just doing my job," he said.

"Exactly," the Major agreed. "So am I, Herr Doktor. Guten tag."

"Would a desk job really be all that bad?" Ashe called after him.

But Klaus had gone, moving out into the hall, down the elevator and onto the street. Altogether, he didn't mind the doctor's line of questioning so very much. In their brief time together, he had found Ashe's insight into the military and mission-related injuries and trauma to be honest and practical. They had talked of the unique problems facing officers, of having commanded men in battle, of giving orders that led to the deaths of subordinates and civilians. They had touched on the guilt of surviving when others didn't ... about how it was so much easier to maintain distance in order to avoid the pain of loss. Klaus had retreated from that line of interrogation almost as soon as it was brought up.

As in the past, the Major had been aware that this verbal examination was as much a part of his medical checkup as the x-rays, blood work and urinalysis. But Ashe had been a good listener, his viewpoints insightful and compassionate if not persuasive. Their interview had continued on longer than usual. Oddly enough, Klaus had contributed a good deal of the talking. Memory deepened the lines around his mouth. He couldn't remember having spoken so freely or at such length before.

Of course, the thief was to blame for that! They had spent far too much time in conversation back at the safehouse. Well, that was part of the problem, Dorian had always known how to draw him out. And how to keep him talking, too - even in times past when he promised himself he'd never even speak to the thief. Not a syllable! Klaus was savvy enough to understand the intoxication of confession, that once begun, it was impossible to stop. Previously, he'd always been able to withstand the intimacy of conversation. But in the days that followed Ringan's raid, it was hard to say what he missed more - the talking with Dorian or the touching. It annoyed him that he could feel the want for either. There was weakness in those desires. Still, he wasn't as distressed about it as he thought he should be.

And that was an interesting development, too.

The freak snow and ice had disappeared. It was a typically beautiful fall afternoon outside and, since there was time before the plane, Klaus decided to walk for a while. He set Agents A, B and Z to follow at a discreet distance in the car and moved out on foot. There was a part of him that envied the English their soft winters, their fragrant seasons. He could smell the flowers planted outside in containers and windowboxes mixed in with the odor of pine from holiday decorations. London was wreathed in a wealth of Yule spirit. He wondered if his lover had been outside to see it yet.

My lover.... Klaus' thoughts coiled around that new identification. The knowledge caressed the back of his neck with the texture of sun-warmed fur. At the same time, it curled in a knot of anticipation in the pit of his stomach.

He waited for the light and crossed the road with a pack of wary pedestrians. Ancient feudal law still applied on British highways. Except now those in the vehicles held the high hand while those on foot raced across the asphalt like serfs leery of an angry lord. Klaus didn't even lengthen his stride.

They hadn't had five minutes alone together since landing at Gatwick. Now he was returning to Bonn and the chance of a private meeting had become even more remote. England was so far away. With respect to their needs, the island country might as well be on the moon.

And how could you manage to see him even if he were in Bonn? Klaus rebuked himself. You are too absurd.

The Major walked on, keeping to well-populated paths. He found himself near Westminster Abbey and, after brief reflection, made his way towards tiny St. Margaret's Church. Here, only a week later, the Remembrance Day celebration was still very much in evidence. Memorial plots were assigned to each regiment of the British empire and their allies who had seen service during the war. Families and former comrades in arms kept alive their personal memories of those who had fallen by placing tiny wooden crosses, most affixed with the traditional scarlet poppy, in the appropriate site.

Klaus wandered the grounds, passing a caretaker who kept watch over a pile of burning leaves and rubbish. He found a position and stood, gazing about him. The sun was very bright and warm, beaming a pre-sunset glow across the rows of tiny crosses but the wind blew hard and left a chill. The field had all the look of a tiny cemetery.

Alert at the sound of new movement, the Major turned. An elderly woman bundled up in a brown coat and kerchief was shuffling towards him, stepping carefully along the ivy-bordered lawn. Her eyes were bright chips of blue peering out between wrinkles.

"Excuse me," she began. "My eyesight's not what it used to be. Is this the Royal Regiment of Engineers?"

Klaus read the lettering beneath the crest on the regimental post. "Yes," he said. "It is."

"I want to place a remembrance." She took a small wooden cross and mallet out of her purse. "Would you help me?"

"I would be honored." The Major spied about for a good location, then kneeled down. "Would this be all right?"

The old woman nodded. Klaus tapped the cross into the soft earth, making sure that it stood straight beside its fellows. He saw that there was no inscription. The plain, wooden marker could have been meant for anyone.

Klaus stood and returned the mallet with a brief, formal bow. She tucked it back into her massive bag. For some short time, they stood together and felt the wind blow around them.

Finally, the old woman said, "You're German, aren't you?"

"Yes. I am."

She thought about that. "My Harry always said you Germans were good soldiers." Her smile grew wistful. "A little too good."

"I am sorry for your loss," Klaus told her, meaning it.

She nodded.

"Where did it happen?" he asked.

"Dunkirk. It was a long time ago." She sighed. "And then, sometimes, it seems as if it all took place only yesterday."

"I understand."

The old woman cast him a sharp look. "You look too young to understand such things. But that's the way of it today." She turned to regard the field at her feet and the thousands of tiny markers. "You'd think, after all that, they might have learned a different way to go about things."

Klaus remained silent.

"Well ... war's no good for anyone, is it?" She gave a little sigh, hitching her coat more tightly around her thin frame. "Thank you for coming by, for taking time to remember. And thank you for your help. It was so kind."

Klaus made an effort to thank her in return but found he didn't dare speak. He nodded instead. The old woman turned and slowly walked away. He watched her until she disappeared behind St. Margaret's, then turned back to the rows of nameless markers. There were so many of them ... so many.

These soldiers had been much younger than he when they had died. Klaus took out a cigarette and lit it up. It had been a long time since anyone had thought him young or had taken the pains to tell him so. Coming as it did on the heels of Doctor Ashe's pronouncements, the observation was especially startling. Once again, he wondered what had provoked the doctor to comment on his retirement companion - as if there were some common knowledge that Iron Klaus had finally chosen someone. Then again, it could have been just a passing remark. The Major chewed that bone over from a variety of angles, then set it aside.

So ... is this the way it shall be now? he mused, exasperated. His relationship with Dorian had opened a whole new field of paranoia. The actions of the last few weeks had changed his predictable existence forever, transforming it into a Hydra's head of confusion. Whenever he tried to reason out one problem, it branched off into two or three other possible dilemmas. When he investigated those puzzles, they changed into something else altogether.

Klaus knew nothing about affairs of the heart. Then again, he'd never wanted to know. His lack of experience left him feeling rather helpless and he didn't like that. He wished he had someone he could talk to about these things, someone he could trust. But the only person who would have fit that category was unavailable. What would he give for an hour in Rudy Löwen's company? More years off the end of his life? How many would that leave him?

Before you make the deal, Wolf, be sure you can pay the price, Löwen would have said. But remember, if you only do things when they are easy, are they worth doing?

The Lionheart would grin, asking a question like that, to take the bite out of his words. Klaus longed to see that deeply bronzed face before him. He closed his eyes, remembering.

"It doesn't matter if it is easy or not," Klaus replied as if Löwen had been there to hear his answer. "Anything worth doing is worth doing well - difficult or simple."

And you've still got to be the best at everything, don't you?

"I do." Klaus nodded, adamant. "Don't you?"

The wind blew more harshly, the chill became more pronounced. With it came the odor of smoke lingering ... of burning. Ashe did not warn me about hallucinations, the Major told himself. His lips twisted into a grim smile.

So, how have you been keeping yourself? Löwen's presence became more distinct. Klaus detected a sense of warmth within the cold. Still kicking ass and taking names?

Klaus nodded. There was no need to ask how Löwen was. They both knew the answer to that.

You still hold the rank of major. You haven't lost your commission.

"I have not advanced any further either. Nor am I likely to." Klaus' smile went slightly feral. "There have been times they would have had me demoted or removed from service. If they could."

Well, you're welcome. There was a rustle of noise like faint laughter. Once you were not so pleased with your rank.

"I changed my mind."

That's not all that's changed.

"No."

Klaus opened his eyes. The sun was going down, twilight had settled in. When he looked straight ahead, down at the ground, he saw two shadows stretching out, side-by-side, across the memorial plots. It could have been a trick of the light. Then again.... He crushed his cigarette out and pocketed the remains so as not to disrespect the grounds.

I have known men like you before, the wind whispered. Strong, brave, smart - the kind who, for whatever reason, have stripped away their feelings. You taught yourself not to expect much from people.

"They are less disappointing that way."

Absolutely. You set the standards for your own behavior and, if other people didn't measure up, it was their loss. Your integrity remained intact. Your honor. You told yourself you were content to be alone.... The wind sighed across his skin like a caress. But now all that's changed. You've let someone inside and you don't know how to feel about that.

Klaus nodded, unable to speak. He felt as if his throat were caught in a vise. There were too many things he wanted to say, too many questions. All his words were knotted up like a fist.

You were safe before ... invulnerable in your solitude. Complete. And now....

"Now the standards I set for myself are no longer enough. I have always trusted my instincts, trusted them to be right. But if I am wrong about this, then I am wrong about everything. I will have been weak. I will have been a fool." Klaus' voice was harsh, little more than a whisper. He sounded angry. "I miss him."

Ah....

"I have never missed anyone before," Klaus protested hotly. Then paused and reconsidered. "No one except you."

Once again, there was a sense of warmth intensified. Klaus sighed, feeling the tension in his shoulders decrease.

Tell me about him.

"He is a thief and a show-off. He talks too much and he dresses too loud. He is a self-infatuated, spoiled brat. Always, he is interfering with my work, my mission. He makes me so angry." Klaus drew in a deep breath. "He is British."

Well, that explains a lot.

"No." Klaus shook his head in confusion. "It explains nothing."

Just so.

"Sometimes...."

Yes?

"Sometimes he reminds me of you."

How?

"He may be a thief but he is an honorable man. And he is very loyal."

I see.... The voice floated away, then drifted back strong on the twilight. Honor can exist alone, for its own sake. But loyalty is a reciprocal concept. It takes at least two to accomplish it.

"What do you mean?"

It is a social contract between two or more parties that they will keep faith with one another. That they will respect one another, trust one another. That they can rely on each other.

"Like the oath of a soldier to his government."

You've developed a sense of humor over the years, Wolf. I won't believe you've remained that naive.

"No. That went away a long time ago." Klaus hesitated a moment, then asked, "What happened over there, Löwen? No one ever talked about it. What happened to you?"

I died ... that's what happened, Wolf.... You read the reports.

Klaus gazed out into the horizon, remembering. The brigade had walked directly into the ambush and been hailed with a barrage of incendiary grenades. White phosphorous, the substance was worse than napalm. Once ignited, it couldn't be put it out. It couldn't be drowned. It couldn't be smothered. It just kept burning, eating its way through flesh and through bone, long past the victim's death. In a sudden flash-vision, Klaus pictured it raging its way through the crust of the Earth's surface and down. This was the stuff Hell was made of.

"Lord Gloria believes you were set up by someone in the government," Klaus said. "First, during that time in East Germany with the Heidenreich defection. Then again when the Brigade was sent into the Soviet Union. He thinks you suspected this betrayal and that is why you had me promoted out of the group. Is that true? Is that what really happened?"

Silence formed a wall around him. The usual city sounds disappeared, traffic, sirens, the murmur of passing pedestrians. Even the wind-sounds in the park had vanished.

"Tell me, Löwen, is it true?" Klaus persisted, desperate. "Everyone said you lost your nerve, you lost your heart. They said it was your fault. Did you know you were about to be set up?"

Klaus waited. If he could have used physical force to pull an answer from the elements, he would have. But all he could do was ask again, "Is it true?"

Yes.

Klaus released the breath he was holding and staggered a step forward. For a second, he felt the strength of a hand on his shoulder, holding him up. Then it was gone.

No proof ... I had no proof ... just felt it. Something wrong ... an instinct.... The words whistled across the grounds, rustled through the trees.

Klaus nodded, eyes narrowing, focusing. "That last time we were together, when you came to me at the house, you knew...."

There was no accusation in his voice, no bitterness. The sorrow that flew back at him fused with his own.

"I have missed you," Klaus said. "I think of you every day. All these years, we lost so much."

We had more than you think. More than most. There wasn't a day that passed when I didn't love you....

The wind enveloped Klaus in a towering whirl of mist where a face and form nearly coalesced before him. It blew the hair back from his face, caressing his skin. There was a pressure of fingers sliding across his scalp. Klaus tasted the salt of grief, it was all over him.

You're going to investigate this when you get back to Bonn. Stir things up.

"Yes."

Everyone has forgotten about it.

"No." Klaus shook his head. "Not everyone."

You will dig up a lot of ancient earth. It's bound to annoy someone.

"Good. I mean to."

Why?

"Because Lord Gloria was right - somebody ought to. Somebody ought to care. Loyal men were sent out to be destroyed, to be shamed in order to promote a cause ... to set up a mole ... because some ass-wipe in uniform wanted to make a name for himself. Whatever the reason, someone should find out why. Someone should care."

Still the same iron will.... There was no humor this time. What if you don't like your answers?

"I will not know that until I get them, will I?"

A sigh crossed the grounds. You know who you are, Wolf, you don't need to worry about changing. Those who love you know that.

"I cannot change, I cannot be different from what I am. To be anything less is unacceptable."

He understands that. Dorian understands....

Klaus' brows lifted, puzzled. "How do you know?"

Could you ever care for anyone who didn't?

The Major rocked back on his heels, silent, lost in thought, reluctant to commit.

You're a strong man, Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. You like to win. You enjoy overwhelming your opponents. The man who loves you would have to be just as strong, just as determined.

Klaus remained quiet, considering. Unconsciously, he reached inside his coat pocket, took out another cigarette and lit it up. The fading wind left him standing alone, a giant towering over a miniature graveyard. With the ghost wind gone, it was still very quiet, the kind of deep silence that comes just after sunset announcing the change of seasons. One could hear the ground crackle underfoot and the trees creak in the wind.

A tiny, chilled gust dashed back, determined, a cold slap across his face leaving a final message:

Don't blow it, Wolf....

Touch the glowing spheres around the dragon!

As usual, Heathrow was a miracle of orderly chaos. Thousands of international travelers made their way through the airport daily despite its reputation as a terrorist target. The Major strode through the terminal heading towards his boarding area trailed by dutifully observant agents A, B and Z. As he moved through the crowds, Klaus took everything in, noting possible ambush sites as well as areas of cover and concealment. He checked for signs of booby traps and suspicious faces. He kept a running tally of good fields of fire. Dressed for the business of travel, Klaus wore a black custom tailored, three piece suit in a wool blend, a white shirt and collar pin underneath the tight four-in-hand knot of a silk tie. The tie was slate gray with flecks of jade and teal patterned into the fabric. The points of a matching handkerchief showed in his breast pocket. Black over-the-ankle boots glistened with fresh polish. He carried his trenchcoat over one arm. A Lincoln green canvas cat carrier containing an equally alert Miriam hung from the opposite shoulder.

He kept an ear open, filtering through the announcements that came over the loudspeaker. Klaus was nearly at his gate when he heard, "Miss Scarlet paging Oberst Senf. Please pick up the nearest white courtesy phone." The un-subtle disguise did not mask that distinctive English voice. The broadcast was repeated twice more, once in French and once in Portuguese, before he found an appropriate phone.

Klaus snarled into the receiver, "I am not Colonel Mustard."

"Then I suppose I'm not Miss Scarlet," Dorian returned, amused.

"I have told you before, you have too much equipment down below and not enough up top for that." Klaus gave a short, annoyed snort much like a bull about to charge. "You have broken into the airport communications system."

"Ah, you noticed."

"Of course I noticed. What are you doing here? You are supposed to be in hospital."

"Why don't you come up to Hospitality Room B on the second floor and find out?"

"I have no time. My plane is leaving in fifteen minutes."

"Check your boarding update, darling. I understand there'll be at least an hour's delay."

"What have you done?"

Dorian gave a low laugh. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"This is no place for games. Do you know the kind of security they have here?"

"As a matter of fact ... I do."

That blithe self-assurance was as infuriating as usual.

"God-fucking-damnit! You idiot!" Klaus roared and then launched into an impressive head-turning stream of German invective. He slammed the phone down and wheeled about to face a trio of pale and trembling subordinates. Passersby walked rapidly, maintaining a safe distance. Klaus took no note of them, he headed for the escalator.

"Where are we going?" Agent Z asked, scrambling to keep up.

"Hospitality Room B," Klaus spat. "On the second floor."

But first a trip through the ceiling, the agent thought. Z shook his head. It had to be Eroica on the phone. No one else could elicit this kind of intense and immediate reaction even in the admittedly volatile Major.

Heart pounding, Klaus reached the room in question and skidded to a stop. He turned on his agents again.

"No one - but no one is to be allowed through that door!" Klaus barked. "Do you understand?"

There was nothing else to say but, "Yes sir!" The Major slammed through the hospitality room door and smashed it shut behind him. The trio outside exchanged forlorn glances.

"Do you think, maybe, we ought to get some help?" B squeaked.

"Do you think, maybe, you'd like to go back to Alaska?" A returned.

"Let's just wait and see ... uh, listen to what happens," Z urged. "If we hear any gunshots or screaming -"

"There's always screaming with those two," A grumbled.

"We'll figure out what to do then," Z concluded.

Meanwhile, Klaus did not waste time figuring out what to do. On the one hand, as he crashed through the door, he thought he might strangle Dorian. On the other hand, Klaus was sure he would strangle Dorian. But as soon as he was confronted by the Prince of Thieves, he could feel his feet - and intentions - begin to slide.

Dorian stood at the bar at the end of the room. He had filled one glass with Blanc de Noir and was in the process of topping off another. He looked tired, a little frayed around the edges ... he also looked a lot wonderful. Watching him was like watching a celebrated thespian performing his best role - animated, intimate, compelling, radiant, rich with subtleties and layers of overtones that had to be studied again and again in order to appreciate the full impact. Even then, Klaus knew he'd never come close to understanding everything. All one could do was to try to relax and enjoy the spectacle.

Momentum carried Klaus forward until he stumbled to a halt.

Confusion rushed over him. His brows knotted. He searched for the right words.

Dorian beat him to it. "I'm sorry," he said.

"What?"

"I didn't mean to thwart your plans nor was it my intention to humiliate one of the best law enforcement systems in the western hemisphere." He smiled gently. "My motives were entirely selfish as usual. I needed to see you. Just once. Alone. Before you left for Bonn."

"Humph."

Dorian held out a glass of champagne. "I was hoping you might feel the same."

Klaus took the glass. "You are infuriating."

"I know. So does the rest of the airport."

The Major nodded, scowling and holding his glass.

"It's not as if I can call you and ask, `Busy this weekend, darling?'" Dorian said. "`Shall we go to the opera or the beach or would you like to just stay in bed and make love all day and night?' We have to take our opportunities where we can."

"The middle of Heathrow is not what I consider an opportune meeting place."

"It's all right. I've already disengaged the security system in here. There are no working monitors, no recording devices of any kind - no film or tape at eleven." He grinned. "As long as you don't shout any more, we should be quite safe. No one need be humiliated if they don't know we're here."

Defeated for the moment, the Major draped his coat over the couch and set the cat carrier down.

"You've brought Miriam!" The thief knelt to open the catch. He brought her out, taking her up in his arms. "You look well and happy. Pleased with your new accommodations, are you?"

"She is thriving," Klaus said, relieved at the change of subject.

"I'm sure she'll be a welcome addition at Schloss Eberbach," Dorian said. "But what made you decide to take her with you?"

"I had no choice." Klaus took a small sip of the excellent wine. "I sent my subordinates to retrieve the car and our belongings. Soon I received a call from them saying they could not enter the vehicle."

"Miriam wouldn't let them in?"

"She would not. I had to go myself."

"And?"

"I watched Agent A and Agent B try to get into the car. It was very gruesome. Very loud. Very bloody."

"But she came when you called?"

Klaus shrugged. "She allowed me into the car and then we drove to London where I was able to remove her. She was hungry."

"And lonely, too. I can just imagine, poor thing." Dorian smiled, nine parts delighted child to one part imp. "So now you've a reputation as a cat-fancier."

"Absolutely not! Miriam is a specially trained attack cat, an experimental animal."

Dorian raised an eyebrow. "It's amazing, the courses they offer in correspondence school these days, yes? I suppose she even has a degree?"

"Ja," the Major admitted reluctantly. "The Iron Claw."

"Oh my. That's fairly vicious for a lady like Miriam."

"She is no lady, she is a cat. That is all."

Dorian regarded him, approving. "Well, at least you've recognized she's female. You've stopped calling her `it.'"

Klaus opened his mouth to launch another objection, then paused. The cat in question was looking at him, peering up from her position in Dorian's arms with what could only be called a cat smile. She wasn't quite laughing, that's what saved her.

Klaus knocked back his glass of champagne and crossed to the bar to pour another. Dorian continued to croon at the creature, smoothing her fur and mouthing nonsense. The Major fell back against the bar, watching them and remembering how the animal had first snarled at him, ears flattened and fangs bared when he had appeared at the car door. No matter how large her opponent, she had been prepared to take him on in order to preserve her domain. So small and so fierce - completely inadequate to the task at hand. Another man might have shot her, used gas or any number of incapacitating methods to get around her. Klaus had called her name and held out his hand, the way he'd seen Dorian approach her at the safe house.

After the first introductory sniff, Miriam had allowed him into the

Mercedes - glad to see him but annoyed, as well. She'd sat herself down in the passenger's seat and set about smoothing rumpled fur, glaring at him from imperious green eyes as if to say, "Well, you took your own damn time about it. Where the hell were you? And what have you done with Curly?"

Klaus had offered the only reasonable explanation, driving the car back to London - his only option since everyone else had proved completely inadequate. He was nearly at the city when he realized he was talking to a cat. Shock overcame embarrassment. He stared at the cat. The cat stared back.

"I imagine you are hungry and thirsty," Klaus had said, uncomfortable. "We will take care of that in the city." He paused for a painfully long moment, then concluded, "You did a good job taking care of the car except for the shredding of the upholstery."

With that, Miriam had put her head down and dozed off into sleep. Klaus had finished the drive to London in silence.

Now, sipping at his champagne, the Major thought about how he'd found Dorian on board the Lancaster, crouched back against the wall, bruised, bloody, weaponless, outnumbered - and ready to fight. When Klaus had heard his story later in the debriefing, it startled him to discover that not one of the terrorists had actually been able to lay a hand on him. No one except Ringan O'Connor - but the bastard had had the advantage. It took no great skill to beat a man in handcuffs. Well, Klaus had expected no less. It was the sort of tactic men like Ringan used.

He'd had plenty of time to think about that on the way up in the Tiger Moth. He'd thought about it while he was shooting out the turret and moments later, moving out onto the wing, his boots sliding on the ice, hands frozen around the supports - all the elements working against him. At the last instant, the little plane had hit an air pocket and dropped. Klaus had lost his footing, his hands had been torn free. For one incredible moment, he'd hovered there between planes, cursing at the top of his lungs, the gale tearing his words away. Sheer force of will - and a shove from providence's hand - had dropped him in through the Lancaster's blasted turret.

Now the plot had been foiled and the terrorists dead or captured. Considering the possibilities, there had been only a minimum of civilian casualties and most of that in property. Dorian's efforts had made this success possible although Klaus could not bring himself to admit it out loud. Generally because he couldn't quite believe it at all.

There was one other detail he could not forget. All throughout the situation, he had worried about the thief, his lover. Klaus shook his head slightly, frowning. No ... `worry' was not the right word. He had feared for Dorian in a way that became an absolute physical sensation. It was a creature, a dragon-insect with a barb-tipped spike lodged in the base of his skull, its tail wrapped tight around his throat. All he'd wanted was O'Connor's death. Something ... excruciating and personal. He still felt put out because Volovoi had beaten him to it.

Yet his fear had not incapacitated him. Klaus had been able to work, to finish his job. If anything, he had felt a certain edge in his efforts, an edge he hadn't known since his days as a lieutenant. God, he'd never thought to feel like that again.

Dorian's smile dimmed at the Major's continued silence. "You're still angry with me," he sighed.

"Angry? Shieß." Klaus' scowl became more pronounced returning to the subject at hand. "I am furious with you. As always."

"I see."

He couldn't hide the hurt. Dorian turned his back, cradling the cat against him. Klaus stared at him. He was never sure how he was supposed to react, he didn't know the proper moves. Instantly, his anger returned full force, focused and cleansing. Things had been so simple at the safehouse. He'd known what to do then.

Well, no, Klaus admitted, grudgingly. That is not exactly true....

As it turned out, he hadn't known much of anything. But he had learned very fast.

The champagne sparkled in his glass. The Major's throat was parched, his mouth was dry but wine wasn't what he craved at the moment.

Klaus reached for Dorian, stepping forward, placing his hands on his arms. The thief shivered beneath his touch but remained silent. Klaus tightened his grip, moving closer until his body was aligned against his lover's back.

"I have missed you," Klaus whispered, leaning down to bury his face in that mass of curls. "I think of you every day." He faltered for a moment, caught between past and present. Then finished simply, "I will not condone your methods but I am glad that you arranged this meeting, liebling."

Dorian released Miriam and turned in his arms, radiance reborn. They regarded each other, both experiencing a rush of elation and relief. Klaus moved his hands up Dorian's arms to his shoulders, his throat, cradling his head in his palms. His movements were as delicate as they were deliberate. He was willing to acknowledge that the thief was right about some things. This tryst was so necessary ... and so overdue.

It was very nice to kiss again, to feel Dorian's mouth against his rather than to just remember it. The remembering hadn't been such a terrible ordeal but it certainly wasn't as fine as the reality.

Dorian returned his embrace, sliding his arms around Klaus, his fingers playing along the small of his back, bringing their hips together. They kissed again, savoring each other, watching each other for reaction beneath half-lowered lashes. Dorian took in a deep breath through his nose and Klaus felt it come out across his lips in a long, contented sigh which left him feeling very pleased, very alert. Then suddenly, they both tightened, holding each other with a force that brought a cry from Klaus and a startled gasp from Dorian.

The thief lifted his face from Klaus', inquiring - breathless but concerned, "Was that sound supposed to be pain or pleasure?"

"It was both." Klaus winced, lowering his arms from where he had wrapped them around Dorian's shoulders although he still kept him in a close embrace.

"Well, you do have cracked ribs," Dorian said. "How are you feeling?"

"Frustrated." Klaus frowned. "Could we try that again?"

"I don't want to hurt you."

"If you do not kiss me now, I will be very hurt."

"Thank god. At last," Dorian said and kissed him again.

In a little while, Klaus managed to ask, "How is your leg?"

And Dorian murmured, "Healing...."

Eventually, Klaus said, "And your wrists?"

"Also healing," Dorian managed some time later. "All body parts ... on the mend...."

"I asked before but you did not answer," Klaus said between breaths. "Why are you not in hospital?"

Dorian drew back a little and said, "You actually want to talk?" His tone was a mixture of reproach and curiosity.

"I want to know how you are." Klaus brushed a handful of curls out of blue eyes.

Dorian licked his lips and swallowed, searching for composure. "Checked myself out, didn't I?"

"Why?"

"Why not? I felt like I was on display at the bloody florist's. It was just too accessible."

"You had guests."

"Oh, yes. Lots."

Klaus stared at him, waiting. His brand of patience was better named relentless. Unperturbed, Dorian stared into Mosel green eyes, fascinated and fascinating.

"The Countess - my mother - dropped in to pay a courtesy call to the bed ridden," Dorian told him. "We both ended up drawing blood without benefit of surgeons or scalpels. I was already missing you hideously. All along I'd been thinking about how much I wanted to see you, about how much I needed to see you. But everyone was around and you were heading back to Bonn and there just didn't seem any chance of it. So then I thought, You are Eroica and you make your opportunities. All beauty, all love exists only for you. If you want it, you take it.... I knew it would take some doing to arrange things properly - Heathrow is a little complicated - and I was just wasting time lying about. So I checked out. Fortunately, Bonham works very fast."

"But you are not going back after I leave?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Like yourself, I have a career to attend to."

Klaus started to speak again but Dorian placed his fingers over his lips. "Please," he whispered. "Don't ask questions you don't want answers to. We are too close to each other for lies. I won't lie to you anymore." He stopped. Sighed. Then lowered his eyes. "Well," he concluded, "I promise I won't lie much."

It was such a performance that Klaus didn't know if he should applaud, kiss him or reconsider murder. He kept his arm around him instead, urging him towards the couch.

"Let us sit down," he said. "I am tired of standing. I have been walking all day."

"Walking where?"

"Around. Here. There." Klaus sank down, sitting sideways on the couch. It didn't offer much support, but knowing it was airport furniture, he didn't expect it to. "My back aches," he said. "And you are very warm."

Pleased, Dorian took the hint, settling into the corner of the couch, letting Klaus lean back against him. He reached up towards the bar and snagged the bottle of champagne, handed it to Klaus.

"Thirsty?" Dorian asked.

Klaus nodded and took a drink from the bottle, passing it back to Dorian. They sat like that for a while, quietly passing the bottle back and forth, satisfied with each other. Dorian couldn't keep his hands from Klaus for long. He brushed the hair back from the Major's brow and massaged his temples and forehead. Soothed, Klaus let his eyes drift shut. He opened them again to find himself the object of narrow-eyed, feline surveillance.

"That cat looks jealous." Klaus' grin was more of a smirk.

"I'm the one who should be jealous," Dorian returned. "She's the one who gets to go home with you. She'll have the run of the house, come and go as she pleases."

"As long as my father keeps away." Klaus captured Dorian's hand and held it. "He is not fond of animals without pedigree."

"We'll have to get something drawn up then. A certificate from that correspondence school, perhaps. Shall I design something official for you?"

"So forgery is among your talents as well?"

"What forgery? This will be an original."

"The cat will be of no consequence once I return to Bonn." Klaus drew Dorian's arms around him, held them. "He will be angry about other matters, I expect. I plan to investigate Löwen's death, the last mission of the Shotgun Brigade. I will find out what happened there."

"I knew you would."

"Ja."

"You're going to make trouble for yourself, aren't you?"

"There is no way to avoid it." Klaus leaned back into the warmth of Dorian's body. He would remember it - and miss it - in the cold confines of Schloss Eberbach. "Twitterswell will not mind at first ... until there is pressure from those higher up." He glanced back over his shoulder at Dorian and grinned. "There is always pressure from those higher up."

Dorian grinned back. "Always," he agreed.

"My father will surely become involved."

"Really? Why?"

"Because there will be trouble. Since the reunification and the breakdown of the Soviet bloc countries, everyone has been playing nice with one another until they figure out who has the most power and how to get it. Everyone is trying to pretend the old covert activities never happened. The new Germany is here. We are all friends now, yes?"

"No."

"Exactly. There is so much happening now. It is hard to care about something so old."

"Will your father care?"

"What if he does?" Klaus took another swallow of Blanc de Noir. "He will not stop me."

Dorian bowed his head to drop a kiss on top of raven locks. There was a lifetime of anger in that voice, of sickness and despair - of a parent and child hustling in and out of each other's existence, one demanding absolute perfection and obedience. The other repressing the certain knowledge that, no matter what he did, he wasn't going to measure up, yet doggedly fighting to achieve his independence, make his own way his way. To be his own man....

Meagan was right. It must be damn hard to be a parent, hard to find the right balance. Some parents didn't care enough. Others, too much. What happened, he wondered, when the perfect son refused to meet his father's standard of perfection? What steps might the man take to eliminate an unsuitable influence? How did one bring about a new Germany anyway?

Klaus glanced behind him. "You are shivering," he said. "Is something wrong?"

"I was just thinking."

"Cold thoughts."

"No ... warm ones." Dorian smiled down at him. The imp had returned and brought his friends. There wasn't much angelic about that smile.

"Oh no," Klaus warned. "There is not enough time."

"But I owe you one from the kitchen." The voice had gone into purr-mode. "We're not going to see one another for a long time. Besides ... from the state of things below, it doesn't look as though it should take me too long...."

"It is too dangerous here. Anyone could walk in."

"I doubt that. You left orders that we weren't to be disturbed, yes?"

"Ja ... but...." Klaus sank back against the warmth behind him. "This is impossible. You are impossible."

"Not infuriating?"

"That, too," Klaus agreed although he smiled a little when he said it.

And then neither of them spoke again for quite a while.

Touch the glowing spheres around the dragon!

Bonham all but skidded to a stop outside of Hospitality Room B. He was sure he had the right place because Agents A, B and Z were loitering about the door. Well, loitering wasn't quite the word for it. No one could exhibit that amount of tension and be classified as loitering.

"The plane's taking off for real this time," Bonham gasped. "The Major's got ten minutes tops. Nothing more we can do."

"Major Eberbach said we weren't to open the door," Agent B squeaked out.

"Do you think he'd mind a knock or two?" Bonham asked. "You don't have to open anything unless he gives the okay."

"He'll be plenty mad if he misses his plane." A's voice held genuine concern - for life and limb.

Taking matters into his own hands, literally, Agent Z raised his fist and rapped on the door. He held his breath and waited for a response.

They all held their breath.

"Komm."

There was no mistaking the authority in that command. Agent Z opened the door and stepped over the threshold.

"Mr. Bonham, sir," Z announced. "To see you."

Bonham scurried in while he had the strength of numbers around him. He opened his mouth to make his announcement and -

Stopped.

There was something very odd in this room, his thief's instincts were howling at him. Still, nothing seemed amiss that he could put his hand to. The room temperature wasn't any different than that in the hall but it felt close inside. Warm. The Major stood near the Earl, trenchcoat draped over his arm, cat bag slung from his shoulder. The Earl had his back to them, as splendidly garbed as usual. He finished a final, delicate sip from his glass and set it down on the bar. The champagne bottle was empty.

Bonham blinked rapidly. So what of that? The two had plenty of reason to celebrate together, there was nothing wrong with that.

Except they never celebrated anything together.

"Bonham," the Earl began, peering at his lieutenant from over his shoulder. "Do you plan to stand there all evening with your mouth open? Is anything wrong?"

"The plane is preparing for take off, M'lord," Bonham choked out. "Ten minutes."

"You'd best be on your way then."

That was the Earl talking to the Major.

"Ja."

That was the Major talking to the Earl.

And nobody was screaming. In a way, the civility was unnerving ... like the crack that came just before the dam broke and the whole valley got flooded out.

The Major walked towards the door with the Earl following. This was more like usual, the black knight with his bright-angel shadow. Bonham watched reaction kick in on the three agents. Well, he was used to the Earl and the constant air of sensuality that accompanied his presence. It wasn't always deliberate; generally, all he had to do was breathe. And then, of course, there was the smile.... Still, Lord Gloria took some getting used to and it amused him, on occasion, to watch it hit others. Most of the time, folks had no idea just what they had collided with. It was very amusing.

Or it could be.

So why didn't he feel like laughing ... not even the quiet little inside-laugh no one could ever see? A and B shifted, disturbed, on either side of him and Bonham knew they had noticed it, too. Something was different. Something had changed.

And they all saw what the moment the Major walked past them into the hall.

Agent Z was the first to react, stepping forward, reaching up to pluck and palm the evidence from the Major's shoulder.

"Excuse me, sir," Z said, briskly. "Cat hair on your suit. From the cat. That is."

Green eyes flashed dangerously under midnight brows. "There's no need to be personal," Eberbach snapped. "Next time just tell me."

"Yes sir. Sorry, sir."

The Major and the Earl walked on, heading towards the escalator. The Earl glanced back at them briefly, darting an electric blue bolt over his shoulder. Hot enough to melt glass, Bonham thought.

It was all falling into place ... swollen lips, flushed skin, one head of hair just a tad too-neatly combed and the other's wild as a fallen angel-gone rock star in heat ... that lingering bouquet of musk....

... and a long, curling strand of gold on the shoulder of a black, custom tailored, Bond Street suit.

The four men stared at their evidence and then at each other.

A and B shared a single voice, "It's finally happened. They did it!"

But Bonham and Z remained silent, eyeing each other, both locked in the same thought, No - they've been doing it. A lot.

Touch the glowing spheres around the dragon!

At the bottom of the escalator, Klaus started, alert and on guard. He stared back at the floor above, frowning. "What was that noise?" he demanded.

"I don't know." Dorian looked puzzled. "It sounds like cheering."

 




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