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

By Any Other Name

by Kay Reynolds

 

Chapter Six

 

As a child, Dorian Red Gloria had learned to welcome change. He thrived when confronting the unexpected and blossomed in challenging dilemmas that would have sent other mortals into hysteria, shock or both. Throughout his life, Dorian had maintained an inborn knack for finding adventure and amusement in almost any situation.

Still, sometimes, no matter how he played the game, things just didn't work out the way he'd planned. The Earl sighed. There was no use panning for gold in a dry creek bed.

Blam! Blam! Blam! The Major was up in the loft now boarding up the window. A past storm had rocketed a tree limb through shattering the glass and taking out most of the frame as well. Months of wind, rain and other elemental saturation had taken their toll, alternatively leaking or piling down into the rest of the cottage. Dorian had spent some hours clearing it out, his first assignment - after helping Klaus with the generator. ("Hold this," the Major had been full of commands. "Hand me that. No - that!" And so forth.)

Next, Dorian had headed into the bath and cleaned that out. It was better, he supposed, to get it over with first so he'd have time to recover from the disgust and consider using these facilities at some point during their stay. Whomever had last occupied the safehouse had neglected to straighten up afterwards. Perhaps they had been forced to leave suddenly. Regardless, the sink and the tub were a sight, the toilet looked as if someone had been seriously and repeatedly ill. The floor ... well, Dorian hadn't allowed himself to look too closely at the floor, had he? He'd just held his nose, looked the other way and scrubbed blind until the worst was up.

The kitchen had been almost as bad. Once again, the tenants hadn't bothered to clear out their leftovers before departure. Dorian had discovered entire new lifeforms when he'd opened the refrigerator door. Lifeforms that had lived and died - and lived, somehow, again. He doubted that even Mr. James would have found any salvageables.

Then again, Mr. James would have probably attempted to procure the molds to peddle to some sort of scientific establishment. He might have even tried to bottle-up the odor as a source for a new chemical weapon.

There was a significant pause in the hammering above. Dorian gazed up at the ceiling, almost hopeful. Tromp - tromp - tromp! The Major crossed the floor, approaching the ladder. There came a noise of tools clattering about, then it was tromp - tromp - tromp again, followed by the inevitable, Blam! Blam! Blam! The sound speared Dorian's aching head like a bullet. He uncorked a bottle of his newly purchased Beaujolais and splashed the ruby liquid into a glass. Held it up to the light.

Now this was a sweet surprise. The last thing the Earl had expected was to find Baccarat crystal, Dresden china and Georgian silver stashed away amongst the jelly jars and plasticware. He hadn't thought to locate good linen or down comforters or marvel-ous, antique quilts in the cupboards. They had popped up throughout his cleaning-excavations like little treasures waiting to be revealed, anxious for his loving touch and delighted eye. These discoveries had forced him to regard the cottage with a more analytical eye. Now Dorian noticed the antique flooring and woodwork, not a single nail supporting the lot but carved and fitted together with a true artist's touch. The walls were exquisite, paneled oak and Italian plaster, the doors and windows sporting their original handles and fastenings. The mantle was a bit of an Edwardian masterpiece and the fireplace tools looked authentic to the period. True, most of the primary furnishings, the short, over-stuffed, chintz-covered couch and the bargain-market chairs, were tacky enough to make him shudder. Still, the ancient wrought-iron bed - which no one had ever, thankfully, painted - in the back room was magnificent enough to bring him nearly to tears.

Throughout this heady and complex confusion of cleaning and discovery, Klaus had remained intent upon his mission of repair. First, there had been the generator. Next adjustments in the plumbing. Well, at least that had gotten the hot water running again. Then there had been something to do with the electrical source that kept the lights from flickering out. Now, the Major was upstairs sealing the damaged window. That was well done. The interior had already become much warmer.

Dorian took a tiny sip of wine. It tasted quite lovely even though it would have been better to let it breathe for a bit. Unfortunately, he was far too dry and famished to wait. He allowed himself another, larger sip. Then tore off a chunk of fresh French bread and slathered it with a great gob of Mrs. Lynn's paté.

"Eroica!" The Major's voice boomed overhead.

Bread poised, Dorian raised his eyes towards the offending ceiling. "What?" he demanded.

"Come up here."

"No."

"What?"

"I said - no." Dorian ate his bread and paté, then proceeded to prepare another piece.

Tromp - tromp - tromp. The Major marched to the ladder and down. He crossed the room, scowling, heading for Dorian's bright kitchen alcove.

"Why did you not come when I called?" Klaus began. "I have placed a temporary repair over the window. Now there is a hole in the roof that requires patching."

"Major, it is now 3 a.m."

"That is late." Klaus looked somewhat surprised - but he shrugged it off. "Nevertheless -"

"Eat!" Dorian snapped. He shoved a chunk of bread and paté into the Major's mouth. It made an effective silencer.

For a long minute, Klaus simply stood there and stared at him, storm-green eyes wide and fathomless, without a word or movement to indicate if he was angry or not. The Major chewed. And swallowed.

"What was that?" Klaus demanded.

"Food."

The Major considered momentarily. Then issued a curt, affirmative nod. "Yes. It would be a good idea to stop and eat something now. I am hungry, too."

Klaus reached for the bread. Dorian slapped his hand away.

"You'll wash up before you touch anything," the Earl commanded. "There's soap and clean towels in the bath. I'll make us some sandwiches."

The Major's scowl deepened but he stalked off to do as he was told. Dorian finished his wine and poured another glass. He began to slice bread and lay out condiments, fruit and cheese. Soon, there came the sound of running water and splashing about.

Please don't make a mess in there, Dorian prayed silently. I might just have to kill you if you do.

The Earl heaped a platter full of corned beef and ham on pumpernickel, roast beef and cheddar on stone ground wheat. He sliced and cored apples, washed and drained the grapes. Then balancing platter, wineglass, wine bottle and all, he made his way across the room to the fireplace and collapsed onto the floor. Dorian propped himself up against the couch frame and stretched his legs out towards the flickering flames.

"I put your beer in the pantry," Dorian called out when Klaus re-entered the room. "The food's over here."

Klaus got his beer and crossed over to sit on the floor opposite the sandwiches. He didn't waste time with preliminaries, just grabbed a fistful of pumpernickel and ham and dug in. Dorian was already indulging himself with the roast beef. The Earl had let his appetite be his guide in the kitchen. The sandwiches were fat and dribbled bits of meat and cheese whenever they were bit into. Dorian spent almost as much time picking up and consuming things from his sweater and lap as he did finishing the roast beef. He ate his first sandwich and reached for another - just as Klaus began a grab for his second. Their hands collided almost hard enough to crack knuckles. Both yelped, winced and withdrew, shaking out damaged digits.

"Whoever invented the conventional rules of dining never knew genuine hunger." Dorian laughed. "May I have another - or will I have to fight you for it?"

The concept of the Earl physically battling him over anything brought an amused grin to the Major's face. "Manners were never intended for a starving man," he said. "Help yourself."

"Thank you," Dorian said and purloined a corned beef sandwich as thick as his wrist.

"It is looking much better down here," Klaus said between mouthfuls. "It smells better."

"Thank you again." Dorian lifted his glass. "And I must say it's nice to have running water and electricity."

Klaus tapped his beer bottle against Dorian's Baccarat and went back to feasting in contented silence. Now that he had paused in his labors, he could feel fatigue settle into his body. It was not such a dreadful sensation, the weariness of honest toil. And, yes, he had to agree with the Earl that it was nice to have hot and cold running water. Klaus leaned back against the couch and listened to the crackle of the fire and the country silence. It was a quiet that was never completely still. Always there was the rush of wind over leaves, the clatter of branches and the brittle harmony of nocturnal creatures.

"Did you find any traces of rats while you were moving things about?" the Major asked after a while.

"Rats?" Dorian was startled out of his drowsy reverie. "No. Nothing."

"Gut."

"I thought so, too."

Dorian munched a tart slice of apple, contemplating. Rats, he thought and shook his head. Trust the Major not to forget about the rats. He had heard of married people and life partners who had been together long enough to share the same dreams, concerns and intuitions. Some of them had been together so long, they talked alike, even looked somewhat alike - finished each other's thoughts and sentences ... reached for the same sandwich at the same time....

Dorian sighed. There were times when he felt that he and the Major shared all of the odd afflictions of marriage without any of the benefits. He darted a quick glance towards Klaus from under thick, lowered lashes. What he would really enjoy most now was a cuddle. Not sex, necessarily. Just a lovely snuggle.

Although sex was not completely out of the question, he corrected himself. It was just completely out of this universe as far as the Major was concerned. Dorian sighed again and poured the last of the wine into his glass. The room shifted in and out of focus. He shook his head slightly, trying to clear his sight. Oh, well played, idiot, Dorian rebuked himself. Get yourself well and truly sloshed and collapse here on the floor. That will make an impression.

The Earl shifted position, staring into the flames. He let his head fall back on the couch and cradled the wine glass between laced fingers. The rim made a lovely little musical sound when he rubbed his thumb along the edge.

"Cook had a dog," Klaus said after a very long while. At least, it seemed as though a long while had passed. Dorian started at the sound of the Major's voice. He had been drifting along the edge of sleep and wasn't sure how much time had elapsed.

"I beg your pardon," the Earl said, searching for the thread of the conversation.

"Cook had a dog," the Major said again, carefully articulating each word. "A dachshund. Her name was Schotzi."

Dorian had to assume Klaus meant the dog as opposed to the cook. The Major never addressed anyone by their given name if he could help it. He even called all of his agents by code.

"Schotzi ..." Dorian murmured. "What color was she?"

"She had a black coat with tan markings on her face and ears and feet." Klaus sighed. He leaned forward, wrapping his arms around his knees, and fell into silence. It was the most dismal sound Dorian had ever heard.

"Those are very sweet but fierce little dogs," the Earl said. "Very loyal. Weren't they originally bred to hunt badgers?"

"Ja."

"It's difficult for me to imagine a puppy at Schloss Eberbach."

"Schotzi was in the household before I was born," Klaus explained. "It was very hard at that time with everyone still recovering from the war. There was some financial difficulty, I understand. Complications. The house was very understaffed."

"All families suffered during that war." Dorian sat up, too. "Some more than others."

"There was no one on the staff to take care of a baby so I stayed with Cook down in the kitchen."

"And with Schotzi, too, I'll bet."

"She was always there. I never remember being without her."

"I suppose you didn't get to see much of your father," Dorian said.

"No. I did not see much of him."

The Earl's eyes widened at the vehemence in Klaus's voice and retreated into silence, uncertain as to what he should say next.

The Major turned to stare at him. "You loved your father." It was almost an accusation.

"Yes. Very much." Dorian hesitated, then continued softly. "He wasn't at home very often. He was away almost all the time. But when he was home, when he had time for me ... he was quite marvelous. Dad had a way about him that made you feel very special, as if you were the only person in the world that mattered. Mother used to say he was like that with everyone. She said - says it was just his way, so he could get next to you. So he could get what he wanted."

"Do you believe that?" Klaus had become very intent.

"I didn't really care about it," Dorian said. "I still don't."

"But you miss him?"

"Yes. Every day." The Earl paused and considered. Then released a sad little laugh. "But I missed him almost as much when he was alive, too."

Klaus turned his gaze back to the fireplace. "I do not enjoy spending time with my father."

"I've never had much luck getting on with the Countess," Dorian offered and gave a little shrug.

Klaus looked surprised. "All mothers love their children."

"No, they don't." The words tumbled out before Dorian could stop them. He shifted about, uncomfortable. "As you noted in your fairy tales, Major, it isn't engraved in stone that parents have to love their children, just provide for them. Some won't even accept that much responsibility. Ask anyone on my staff. Well, almost anyone. Mr. Bonham comes from a lovely family. But most of the others ... well, they're gingerbread children, aren't they? The ones the witch built her house out of, remember? Didn't you ever wonder, looking in those story books, what a grand, big place she had and how it came to be so large? Where did she find all those children? Why hadn't anyone come to look for them? I always understood it was because they weren't wanted. Those children had been abandoned, tossed out. They weren't loved."

Dorian picked up the wine bottle, then set it aside, regretting he'd finished it all so quickly. Another drink would have been very nice.

Klaus leaned over and tipped some of his beer into Dorian's glass. The Earl downed it gratefully, relishing the bitter taste. It washed out the flavor of ashes.

"Tell me more about Schotzi," Dorian said. "I like hearing stories about dogs and cats."

"Cats." Klaus made a face.

"Cats are lovely. Graceful and clever -"

"And thieving and sneaky."

"Yes," Dorian agreed. "But much more affectionate and loyal than most people give them credit for. Anyway, it's important for children to have a pet, a dog or a cat. They're our fur-covered guardian angels, you know. Makes them so much nicer to cuddle. Children do best with a bit of cuddling."

Klaus stood up and made his way back to the kitchen alcove. He returned with two more beers, handing one to Dorian. "Schotzi saved me from a rat once," he announced proudly.

"Really?"

"Ja. She did. Herr Haselmann told me about it." Klaus sat down on the floor again. "Our household was understaffed, as I said, and the area was in much turmoil with re-building and all of that. Cook left me sleeping in the cradle in the kitchen. A rat must have smelled the milk from the bottle and climbed inside. Herr Haselmann said I awakened and began to cry but, before anyone could come, Schotzi found the rat and killed it."

"Bravo, Schotzi!" Dorian lifted his bottle in salute, Klaus brought his up to meet it. The Earl's smile returned to his lips. "You see, it's as I said. Schotzi was your guardian angel."

"Perhaps that was so." Klaus nodded and settled back into watching the fire.

Dorian lurched up to his knees to put more logs on. He took the poker and stirred up the flames, then sat down again, letting the warmth pour over his back. Dorian wrapped his arms around his legs and laid his head on his knees. Sleep was the next item on his agenda but he was reluctant to end this peculiar evening. His eyes flickered open to gaze fondly at the Major. Klaus continued his firelight examination, watching pictures in the flames that Dorian couldn't see. A tiny frown settled over the Earl's face. Klaus wasn't smiling like Dorian felt he should have been.

"What's the matter?" Dorian asked.

"I do not think I was much of an angel for Schotzi." Klaus' voice had gone quite deep, mournful and laced again with that note of self-reproach that Dorian was so familiar with. The Earl stifled an urge to touch him.

"Were you really such a bad child, Major?" he asked softly.

Klaus gave him a sharp look. "I killed her," he snapped. "I was as bad as that."

"I don't believe it," Dorian said flatly.

"Why should you not believe it? That is what I do, yes? Kill things."

"Never without justification and never for sport."

"How do you know that? How can you be so sure?"

"Because I am," Dorian insisted. "I have frequently staked my life on that. I expect I will again sometime. Tell me what happened."

"My father had come home after a long trip. Like your father, I never saw much of mine but I was not so sorry when he went away." Klaus hurtled on, defiant in his dislike, almost angry. "I heard them talking. Schotzi had been sick, she had made a mess. My father said she was an old dog and it was time she was put down. Cook was listening to him and she was crying but there was nothing she could do to prevent it. My father was master of the house. Cook had no choice in the matter."

"What did you do?"

"I waited until they went to sleep. Then I went downstairs and I took Schotzi and we went away."

"How old were you?"

"I was eight years old at the time." Klaus swallowed more beer. He nearly drained the bottle.

"What was it like - running away?"

"Very dark. At first, it was an adventure."

"And it was exciting to be on your own, too, wasn't it?" A tiny smile licked the corners of Dorian's mouth. His eyes glowed softly. "Thrilling to be in charge, to think about how your father would find out and that he was helpless to prevent it."

"Ja! Exactly." Klaus' eyes glittered back, caught by the memory and enjoying it. He was surprised that the Earl understood so precisely. "You have run away, too?"

"Nearly every day." Dorian raised his head slowly, stretching to ease stiff shoulders. He tossed yellow curls back from his face and sipped at his beer. "When did you go? Was it summer, winter?"

"In the fall," Klaus continued. "Just as the weather was turning to cold. I recall that the wind was blowing hard, pushing us along, away from the house like it was helping us along. We walked for a long time. It was very dark outside. Everything looks different in the dark. Everything sounds different."

"Did you have a plan?"

"Well, I thought I would find a job somewhere and a place for us to stay." The Major blushed and glanced furtively at the Earl only to be met with wide, serious blue eyes. Dorian wasn't laughing at him. "However, I did not get the chance to look."

"Your father caught up with you."

"Ach - he was furious with me. I had never seen him so angry."

"Were you scared?"

"He was a big man. Yes, I was very frightened. But, also, I was angry with him and when he began to yell at me, I ran. I would not stay and mind him. I had my own plans, you see."

"Then what happened?"

"As you can guess, it is not too difficult for a grown man to catch a boy. It was dark and the frost was out and the ground was very slippery." Klaus clasped his fist against his upper arm. "Father caught me - here - and shook me. I kicked him - there - in the leg." He slapped at his shin. "So then he hit me and I fell down. All of this time, Schotzi was barking, and when my father struck me, she went for him. Here." Klaus indicated his crotch.

Dorian caught his breath and winced.

"Father got her loose and threw her down," Klaus continued. "She came at him again and he kicked her away. By this time, Herr Haselmann had come out from the car, too. And, when I went to her, Schotzi was dead. The fighting was too much. She was too old–"

"And your father had kicked her," Dorian gasped out between clenched teeth.

"Das stimmt." Klaus nodded once. "Father was so angry...." His words had the sound of an old refrain. "He would not even let me take

Schotzi home. We left her on the street there, in the trash and rubble. Inside the car, Father told me how I was to blame, that I was responsible for Schotzi and for ... he told me that I was responsible for many bad things that had happened. So - I must apologize to Cook. I did. She was dismissed afterward. Cook went away and I never saw her again. In the next week, my father brought home with him a German Shepherd puppy. But I would not accept his gift. We argued again. Then I went away to school and we did not see each other so we did not argue so much for a while."

Klaus finished off the rest of his beer. He hefted the dark brown bottle in his hand. Raised it up and hurled it into the fireplace. It exploded against the rear wall with a significant crash. He wanted to say something else, something sarcastic or smart, anything that would break the silence that crackled throughout the room. But none of the words would emerge. His throat was far too tight, Klaus felt as if he might strangle.

What is wrong with me? The Major floated on a rising tide of panic. It was difficult to breathe. What have I been saying...?

Klaus closed his eyes and concentrated on taking small breaths - in and out. Something brushed against him then and he looked up, startled. Dorian had moved much closer. The thief had actually had the nerve to touch him, covering Klaus' fists with his hands. Klaus jerked back, trying to withdraw, but the thief's hands closed around his wrists. The grip was gentle but quite strong, too.

"It's all right," Dorian murmured. "Don't close me off, Klaus."

"What do you want?" The Major was as stiff and formal as fall frost.

"Nothing ... not for me." Dorian reached up to brush a raven lock away from Klaus' eye. He smoothed the back of Klaus' head and let his fingers come to rest against the back of his neck.

The Major tried to move away again, twisting his head aside. But the maneuver worked with the caress of Dorian's fingertips, not against it. Clever, tender fingers worked at loosening the knots from wire rope and the sound that tried to make its way from Klaus' lips became one of pleasure, not anger. The thief inched still closer and brought his palm up to rest against Klaus' cheek.

"It's all right," Dorian murmured again, nearly as much to himself as to Klaus. "Es ist schon gut. Komm'in hier, meine liebsten."

Green eyes flashed with fury. "Nein. I do not want your pity," Klaus growled. "I do not want you."

"I understand," the Earl assured him, gravely. "Iron Klaus needs no one - especially no one like me. He is completely autonomous, totally self-reliant like a good soldier should be. But there was a child once who was very hurt. What that boy required, there was no one there to give. And so, he went without."

Dorian took in a deep breath. Klaus stared at him, fascinated. It seemed that the Earl's long lashes had become covered in tiny diamonds. They sparkled in his great eyes and spilled down his face. No wonder Mr. James was so obsessed by this vision - spun gold hair, sapphire eyes, skin of purest pearl ... but so very, very warm and soft to his touch, like rain-cleansed petals beneath his hands.

"Once there was a child who could have used a friend," Dorian continued. "Someone to help him over the loss of another. I have never allowed a child in my care to come to harm, remember? You know that's true. Let that child take what I can give him. There is no evil to you in it, liebsten, no shame. Do you honestly think I could ever hurt you, Klaus? Ever willingly allow you to come to harm?"

Klaus tried to speak again but that agonizing tightness had returned and the only sound he was able to make came out like a snarl. Anyone else would have shown better sense and gotten the hell away from him. Anyone except that lunatic thief.

And Dorian would not release him. He cupped his hands around Klaus' face, breathing out a mixture of English and broken German - simple, childish words of comfort. The Earl shivered, suddenly completely sober and very awake, drawing Klaus against him. It was like opening his arms to a wild and wounded wolf. One wrong move would see him torn to bloody shreds. Not for the first time, and probably not for the last, Dorian wished he could simply reach into Klaus' heart and pull out the darkness that lodged inside, drag out all the hatred, all the grief. He would smash it against the wall, hold down the shards of it and bathe it in flame until it was ash, until it was nothing more substantial than smoke.

He held the Major hard against him and felt Klaus burrow in against his shoulder. Dorian smoothed silky, midnight hair again, pressed his lips to it.

Klaus seemed to uncoil a little under his touch; his body loosened. He relaxed under Dorian's gentle assault, allowed himself to be held and stroked and rocked into peace, into sleep.

Behind them, a log snapped in the fireplace and shot up a spray of vivid sparks that splashed their shadow across every wall. Dorian's eyes burned from the half-glimpsed vision - a silent and vigilant angel cradling a mangled warrior ... an ill-used child. Then, in a flash, the picture was gone.

For an instant it seemed that the shadows which always surrounded the Major's face had grown less pronounced. In the morning, the Earl knew they would return - along with the suspicion, the contempt, the rage.

But for those few hours left between night and waking, Dorian could keep those shadows at bay and offer up something golden instead. An alternative to darkness.

And so he did.

Touch the glowing spheres around the dragon!

Sleeping on the floor of the safe house, Klaus von dem Eberbach dreamed of wayward angels and small, fierce dogs with wings. As a child, Cook had told him the angel stories - something his father had considered more proper than the other fables young Klaus had devoured in secret.

"Once upon a dream, there was a mischievous little rascal angel," Cook's stories would begin. "He had a good heart, that angel boy, but he was always getting into trouble."

At the time, Klaus had been certain Cook was talking about him but now he understood differently. She had meant the great golden haired angel, Eroica. In this nocturnal adventure, Eroica had lost his halo. Well, you could tell how it would be a big catastrophe for an angel to lose his proper headgear. How they'd had to search for it, in the Louvre, at the Tate, the Metropolitan, the Chrysler - big museums and small ones, in and out, all around the world. Such interesting treasures they had uncovered. Many people had chased them but they were never, never caught.

Klaus opened his eyes smiling, which was something he rarely did. For a few seconds, his dream remained as vibrant as a sunrise with a feeling of reality that surpassed daily routine - even a routine as fantastic and varied as the kind Klaus was used to. He stifled a laugh, because that was the way he automatically handled all amusement, remembering some bit of nonsense. Then relaxed and let the smile return.

Until he discovered that, not only was he sleeping on the floor of the safe house, but that the "angel" was sleeping with him. Actually, the angel was lying across his body, curled around him like a shield.

Klaus' first instinct was to simply levitate. Unfortunately, that ability was beyond his skills. Besides, although he would have never admitted it, he was comfortable. The fire had gone out and the house was worse than cold, it was positively icy. The only warmth in the room was where his body touched Dorian's.

What the hell happened last night? Klaus wondered. How drunk was I? But he could not force himself to blame the beer, his code of ethics interfered with that particular fairy tale. He shook his head slightly, negating the line of thought, and found his skull cradled against an ancient sofa cushion. He couldn't remember anything about that. Had Dorian pulled it down for him once they had collapsed on the floor? Klaus ground his teeth in grim certainty. It was very probable. The thief was always seeking out little ways to please him, to get next to him. That's what the Earl's mother might have said. And for all that Klaus had made it very clear he could not bear his presence. He did his best to maintain the distance between them. Klaus could not abide that voice, that glance, that touch....

And yet, he felt quite certain last night that, without the thief's touch, he would have surely perished. He would have broken apart, shattered into a thousand irreparable bits. Klaus did not have to search far for that memory. He remained very much aware of how Dorian's skin had felt, smooth and warm against his own. He had known and welcomed the strength in those slim, undeniably male arms, strength that was married to a tenderness he would not have believed possible without experiencing it first hand. The silken texture of those yellow curls had burned his face like a brand. Klaus could not have let go if his life depended on it.

If the truth were faced and admitted, he had not wanted to let go of Dorian. He had wanted to get closer. He had wanted to be held tighter. He had wanted ... more. The Major had felt that longing circling deep inside him even as sleep had closed down around his fractured soul. Unfortunately, - and here Klaus stumbled upon another truth - he didn't know what more he wanted. Worse, he didn't know how to ask for it either.

His mind probed gently around the edges of that thought. Backed away from it. What am I doing here? Klaus agonized on the next wavelength. Answered himself almost immediately, Because you wanted to be. This was your idea.

Too true. It had been Klaus who had proposed they go away into the country. Together. Alone. To find out more about Victor Marsh? That was only an excuse. To put Dorian's questions to rest regarding his ancient misadventure? That seemed more likely. The Major did not want the thief prying about in affairs that were best forgotten, stirring up old memories, old tales. Klaus had worked hard to put all that in the past. It was a closed file. No one in his office knew about it now. No one except the Chief - who would bring it up from time to time as he felt the occasion warranted. Just to watch Klaus cringe.

Klaus' lips tightened in a grim smile. Well, if his career was to end in this current office of skilled renegades and clever eccentrics, he could take some satisfaction in knowing that his Section Chief had reached the limit of his promotions as well. The man could only do but so much damage with his eternal politicking and ass kissing.

Klaus would find some way to explain to Dorian, some way to keep him out of the past, away from the old ghosts. And, if that didn't work, he was certain he would find a way to keep the thief quiet. Klaus could do that. If he had to.

Dorian stirred gently, awakening, nestling against Klaus' shoulder like a cat. "Gut," the thief murmured. "That's so good."

Klaus became aware that he had been stroking the thief's back. The gesture was reminiscent of how he had comforted the injured feline in his not-so-very-old nightmares. But now Klaus discovered that he had actually run his hands up under Dorian's sweater to lay them against bare flesh. The Major broke contact immediately.

"You stopped." The accusation fell from sleep-sulky lips.

"I was attempting to awaken you," Klaus said curtly. "Now you are awake."

"I could go back to sleep. You could begin again."

"Nein. We will get up from the floor now."

"All right." Dorian's accompanying sigh sounded more like a groan. He lay his palms flat on the floor on either side of Klaus, shoved himself up and rolled away. Pain from his shoulder made him wince.

"There is something wrong?" Klaus demanded.

"It'll pass. I've got a bruise - where Marsh hit me with his cane." Dorian kneaded the wound gingerly. The muscle was still sore and would certainly remain so for some weeks to come. The place on his hip ached as well, probably due to the cold more than anything else.

"Show me," Klaus ordered.

"There's nothing to be done about it."

"Show me. Now."

Dorian pulled claret-colored cashmere over his head and shivered. He shivered again and caught his breath when Klaus moved his hair aside to finger the blackened flesh of his shoulder. The Major's touch held all the impact of an electric shock, waking sensation Dorian had struggled to keep dormant. Startled, he gave a little leap. Klaus placed a steadying hand on his other shoulder and the Earl almost groaned aloud. Every pore in his skin seemed to open, trying to absorb the contact of skin on skin. The pleasure of it was almost too much to bear and live. If I say or do anything at all now, he'll kill me, Dorian's safety-voice warned him. Then, If this is what it feels like when he simply touches me, I'd never survive our making love together. And then he thought, Shut up, shut up, shut up! DON'T even THINK about it!

"There is not much we can do about this," Klaus said eventually. "It will heal in time but heat will help you feel better. Why not take the first shower while the water is most hot? I will build a new fire. There is a furnace in the basement. Perhaps I can get that to work today."

Dorian scrambled silently to his feet, not trusting himself to talk, clutching his sweater against him like a shield. Klaus was being far too nice. It was confusing, almost distressing. He had been prepared for anything after last night. The Major didn't take emotional outbursts very well. The least Dorian had expected was angry words, a snarl, perhaps even the back of a hand or a fist. He padded quickly across the room towards the bath, grateful but perplexed. Then came to a screeching halt near the kitchen alcove. Something large and gray and covered in fur moved along the counter, rooting among the remains of last night's meal.

He must have made some sound because Klaus was by his side in an instant.

"What?" the Major demanded.

"There!" Dorian pointed. "On the counter."

"I see it." Klaus slipped quietly towards the kitchen. His hand snaked out and curled around the bread knife Dorian had left on the bar.

The fur-creature tensed suddenly, sensing peril. It paused in scarfing down the remains of the roast beef and looked up. Klaus rushed forward.

"Major, wait!" Dorian leapt after him. "That's no rat!"

A large gray cat yowled, hurtling off the counter and across the bar, right under Klaus' arm. It scurried across the floor, jumped up and careened off the opposite wall, bouncing back towards the kitchen. Klaus swiveled about, leapt and cleared the bar chasing after it. Dorian dodged around him, placing himself between the Major and the cat.

"Don't hurt it!" Dorian cried out.

"Get out of the way!" Klaus shoved him away.

"No!"

Dorian twisted from his grasp and dove after the cat. Klaus shouted again, grabbing air this time. The Major could only see a vast amount of exposed flesh and a fur-covered, vermin infested hellion with sharp teeth and claws.

The cat managed to bounce up on one of the chairs and onto a shelf of decorative plates. The dishes exploded like little bombs as they hit the floor in its wake. Next, the cat executed a series of fantastic jumps from shelf to couch and back to mantle. It raced to the opposite end of the fireplace and soared out onto the floor, racing back towards the kitchen. The two men scrambled after.

At the last, Dorian flung out his sweater and snagged the animal. Klaus dove for Dorian's legs, hoping to tackle him and thrust him out of the way. All three went down in a heap. Dorian and Klaus grappled together, trying to hold onto writhing, cashmere-covered fur. There was an inordinate amount of gasping, yowling, shouting and hissing. Finally, the cat burst free, rocketing up and out of the room. It dashed into the kitchen and under a cabinet door. Klaus and Dorian heard a mad, scrabbling sound. It quickly grew fainter. Then there was silence.

The cat had escaped.

"Well," Dorian panted, trapped beneath Klaus' weight. "Now we know what the noise was last night. Now we know why there aren't any rats about. Or mice."

"You idiot!" Klaus roared. "Were you trying to get yourself clawed to death?"

"No. But how lovely to think you might care."

"I do not care!"

"Really? Well, at least one part of you seems to feel differently. Or have you started carrying your gun in another area?"

Cradled in the valley between Dorian's legs, pressed against him with all the force of gravity and rage, neither Klaus nor Dorian could ignore what had happened. The Major's arousal screamed at them in a way that could not be denied.

Dorian forced himself to hold Klaus' gaze. To look away now would be suicidal. As if, he realized, his tongue hadn't started him well along that path already. "It's a good thing you're such a pretty and cuddle-some lad, my little kitten," Nanny Sybil had constantly warned him. "It's the only thing that will ever save you from that mouth of yours. One day you'll have to learn to think before you speak out."

Dorian groaned inwardly. Apparently, he hadn't quite got the hang of it yet.

Klaus leapt off the thief as if he'd suddenly caught fire. In the next instant, he had reached down and dragged Dorian up to his feet. The litany of familiar abuse was pouring out of the Major's throat before Dorian could catch his balance.

"Pervert! Queer! Faggot!" Klaus shook him brutally, his fists leaving new bruises where he held him. "You can not leave anything be. Everything you must make dirty with your unnatural passions."

"It's not dirty," Dorian blazed back. "And besides, it wasn't my passion. Not this time."

Klaus glared at him, fingers gouging into Dorian's arms. He was too angry to speak, too shocked to issue a new response. There was a part of him that could have very easily killed the Earl at that moment.

And then what? Klaus wished he knew.

Dorian watched the confusion wash through jade green eyes and felt his own anger melt away. He longed for the unexpected intimacy of the night before when they had been able to communicate through touch, through tears and murmured comfort. It had all been so different then. Not simple, of course. Nothing ever skated along simply, not where the Major was concerned. But how to salvage this...?

"Oh, let it be." Dorian closed his eyes and lowered his head. He forced himself to relax in Klaus' grip. "It's nothing to be alarmed about,

Major. You're a more virile soldier than even I would have guessed. It was the chase, that's all. And morning ... you know? I'd worry more if something wasn't happening down there." He opened his eyes again and darted Klaus his most coquettish, sidelong glance. "But if you've suddenly changed your mind about my various offers ... if that's the case-"

"No!" Klaus released him abruptly and stepped away. "I have not changed my mind."

"Too bad," Dorian purred. The sound made more effective armor than his sweater. Klaus retreated farther. Once the Major had attained a safe distance, Dorian dropped the camp. "I hope you're not about to start quoting Bible verses at me or reiterate the fine points of any particularly morbid legislation?"

"No."

"Good."

"Eroica, I did not come here to fight with you," Klaus said sternly. "It would be best if you did not bait me."

"Thank you, darling. I'll try to remember that and keep myself in line." The sibilant purr had returned. Dorian turned and began to walk towards the bathroom door dragging his red sweater along behind him. He put everything he had into that walk. He paused at the door and peered back at Klaus from over his shoulder. "The last thing I'd ever want to do, Major, is ... disturb your peace of mind."

Klaus blinked his eyes shut a few seconds after the bathroom door closed. Mistake. He could still see broad white shoulders, slim hips and long, slender-muscled legs moving across the room as if the picture had burned itself onto his retina. How could anyone, man or woman, move like that? Instinctively, he guessed that it was not a skill which could be taught. He shook his head and tried to clear it. Didn't work. Now he saw that last teasing glance, the amusement that had sparkled in Dorian's grand eyes lashing out at him from beneath thick, lowered lashes. He saw the curve of cheek and lip, the way ripe, golden curls had kissed that face, those shoulders and back.

Klaus' mouth had gone very dry - and his anatomy had nowhere near returned to normal.

The Major wandered into the kitchen and put water on to boil. He wasn't surprised to find his familiar Nescafe among the recently procured groceries. Klaus opened the jar, popped the seal and ladled a large spoonful into a mug.

How do his hips move like that? Klaus wondered. Too smooth and too graceful to be considered defective. Abnormal, yes! Surely some demonstrative symptom of his affliction. And the way buttocks shifted in those well-tailored slacks, round, high and firm, sort of like an inverted heart. Klaus recalled another time, some years back, when he had caught a more intimate view of that sculpted form. In an argument over underwear, of all things, and hidden micro-dots. There he had seen Dorian very exposed - and at the Major's command, too. He had stood with his back to Klaus, weight centered on one leg, the tails of his tuxedo jacket parted over cream-colored flesh - which was in turn divided by an eternally dark and provocative crease. Klaus could no more have turned away from that mystery than he could have attempted to breathe underwater - although he imagined the sensation would have been very similar. But then, everyone else had been staring as well. And thinking their thoughts, too, Klaus guessed. It had made for an embarrassing and very public moment for both of them. The Major swallowed, again dry. Dorian's provocative attempt at modesty had plagued his nights for quite a long time.

Of course, there had been other moments. Less public. And even more revealing ... like that time in Rome ... in the baths.

Klaus heard the water go on in the shower as the kettle let out a shrill whistle of steam. He removed it from the heat before the sound could climb to a scream. The Major poured boiling water into his cup and watched the dark crystals dissolve. The hot water would be kind to the thief's bruises, the old one and those that were new. He did not expect that Dorian would leave the bath until the water had run itself cold. Probably very cold. Then Klaus would take his turn.

Which was just as well.

Touch the glowing spheres around the dragon!

Klaus made it very clear that he preferred to execute his repairs alone and proceeded to busy himself about the cottage in a detached but conspicuous frenzy. He took pains to make it obvious that Dorian could have disappeared into another country or vanished through the looking glass for all he would have noticed.

Meanwhile, the Earl covertly admired Klaus' handiwork. He was impressed. As always. The Major was quite an able mechanic, plumber, electrician and carpenter. He had a talent for figuring out how things worked. The so-called "temporary" patch he'd placed on the roof was solid enough to last until the second coming. Dorian expected the rest of the house would fall apart first.

Still, the patch was a timely restoration. Midafternoon brought the snow that had been threatening to fall for days. It began as a gentle drifting of flakes, then thickened until the air was smothered in a curtain of shifting white. Dorian piled in wood for the fire and kept it stoked high. Klaus took one cursory glance outside, grunted his acknowledgment of the change in conditions and retreated to the basement and the furnace.

An hour later, Dorian called down after him. "But it's the first snowfall. It's absolutely gorgeous. Don't you want to see?"

"No."

"Aren't you tired?"

"No."

"Can I get you anything? Do you want something to eat?"

"No. Leave me alone."

Blam! Blam! Blam! The hammering started up again. Dorian grimaced and closed the basement door. He was certain the Major was knocking things about on purpose, erecting physical walls to join his mental barricades. The Earl wandered back into the main room to gaze out of the window.

For some hours, Dorian had amused himself searching for more treasures as he tidied things up. While he'd uncovered a few curiosities, he hadn't found anything as interesting as he had the previous night. He rummaged through the kitchen supplies and put a stew on to cook trying to remember everything he'd noticed Bonham doing in the past. That had taken up an enthusiastic if experimental hour or so. Unfortunately, the contents inside the pot did not look much like his lieutenant's customary results. Uncertain, Dorian covered the concoction, left it to simmer and retreated. But the sight and odor of cooking food left him feeling guilty. He had to wonder what had become of the cottage's permanent resident. The cat. Poor little thing. Was it shivering and starving to death out in the snow? Dorian launched into a new investigation and discovered at least six tiny security breaches where the animal could have entered at will. It was a beginning. He armed himself with a generous portion of smoked salmon, snugged himself into coat, scarf and hat and took off on his quest.

There had been a break in the snowfall. Except for the line of trees and shrubs, there was little to differentiate the snow-choked sky from the whitened landscape. It would probably start up again before the end of the day. Dorian analyzed the exterior positions of the cat's possible entrance holes, set his bait and trailed off to examine the surroundings. He explored about the house and shed, then walked towards the woods.

There were two schools of thought regarding safehouses. One was to find an inconspicuous flat or townhouse in a busy metropolitan area where a person or group could blend unnoticed into the background and disappear. The alternative persuasion incorporated isolation as its main defense. People simply bricked themselves up in a remote, difficult to access - once again, inconspicuous type of place - and holed up for the duration. Dorian wondered why agencies never thought to safeguard themselves within some comfortable chateau or Riviera manse? The Earl had always sub-scribed to the Samuel Clemens rule of thumb that the best disguise was naked - and why not enjoy yourself while you're at it, too? But government agencies and law enforcement types always seemed to operate under the edict that all parties involved in clandestine ventures must suffer. No matter what game was afoot, you couldn't be thought to be having a good time of it. In a way, it made him think of little boys playing fort - all those so-serious children with their low-drama histrionics, their pretend weapons and wounds and deprivations. Except that these games could be ever so much more lethal.

If I actually thought it could all end tomorrow, I'd want to have as much fun as it was possible the night before, Dorian told himself. What's wrong with that?

He wandered through the woods considering the problem and enjoying the frosty silence. The snow cushioned everything with its perfect, cleansing cover. No, Dorian corrected himself. It doesn't actually clean anything. It just hides things, the old dead trees and the trash. He shivered, remembering the scars on Klaus' body. What had happened there? Why had the Major taken such pains to hide those wounds, why be so fearful of discovery? He couldn't believe - he wouldn't believe that Klaus had taken part in any shameful act or misdeed. Still, someone had taken the Major to task - but who? And why?

Those were old scars, old wounds, Dorian recognized. It would have happened long ago, I imagine. Perhaps when he was first starting his career. Could he have bungled something back then? Possible ... but not probable.... Whatever happened, wasn't it enough? Whatever he did, didn't he pay for it?

Dorian worked his way through the trees, circling the perimeter of the safe house, studying it across the stark, white expanse. He was careful to watch for alarms and traps; it was not inconceivable that Klaus would activate available security equipment. His thief's sense honed in, searching for holes in the defenses. Penetration was possible, the cat had achieved it. How would he break, enter and plunder, given the opportunity?

How would he get Iron Klaus to stop mucking about the damn house and talk?

Answer - not until he was bloody ready. Which might mean never. So then what?

Dorian frowned, seeking answers that continued to evade him. He leaned against one of the ancient oaks, folded his arms over his chest and stared at the cottage, losing himself in the mystery.

"Tut-fucking-tut, my boy," Charlie Kello spoke up behind the Earl. "The state love brings one to. If I were from Interpol, I'd have your lovely ass in permanent custody by now."

"Bloody hell, Charlie." Dorian started and wheeled about. "You gave me a shock. What are you doing out here? How did you find us?" He glanced about quickly, searching to see if the American had brought his black widow partner with him. But Charlie Kello appeared to be alone.

"I have friends in official places, too," Charlie began. "When I gave out the particulars of my inquiry, it didn't take them long to come up with a location for you and Major Eberbach. As to why I'm here...." The American regarded Dorian with frank brown eyes. He wasn't smiling. "Vacating Duxford for a time seemed a good idea what with all the official types suddenly lurking about every nook and cranny. Your German Wolf didn't waste much time setting the pack out, did he?"

"The Major saw you with me at Mrs. Lynn's." Dorian gave a small shrug. "He acts very quickly."

"So I noticed. I stand impressed." The voice was light and teasing. Still, the eyes remained grim.

"Klaus is like a force of nature. There's no stopping him once he's decided upon a course of action. He couldn't know you were about and not report it to the proper authorities. If you haven't learned that by now, I'd say it's time to pack it in, darling."

"I suppose it was just our bad luck, running into you here. An unfortunate coincidence."

"If you like."

"No, actually. I don't like it." Kello closed the gap between them. "You've got to do better than this, Eroica. I want straight answers from you. I want them now. What are you two up to here?"

"I told you before, it's nothing to do with you or your affairs. And none of your business." Dorian's eyes widened slightly, he dropped his head to one side, the picture of baffled innocence. "You do enjoy these inquisitions, don't you? Now you've come all the way out here, braved blizzard and all to take me to task for alerting the gendarmes. I'm flattered you've gone to the trouble. What do you plan to do with me, pray tell? Something involving handcuffs, I hope. And maybe a drop or two of hot, scented oil?"

A reluctant grin broke through Kello's grim facade. "You have always been the most charming, outrageous and versatile liar I've ever known," he said. "Relax. If I really thought you'd ratted me out to Eberbach, we certainly wouldn't be standing here talking about it."

"Is that so?"

"Sable thought we should have killed you right off after you'd stumbled on us in town. She wanted to take the Major down, too. Just to keep a clean trail, you know. Nothing personal." Charlie's expression bounced back to its usual radiant good-cheer. "I convinced her it would be too much trouble to kill you both. That would have really brought in the troops. Your men, too. You'll have to forgive her enthusiasm. Sable tops the most wanted lists in a couple of countries now. Interpol's been on our ass for months. It makes her a little paranoid."

"I suppose she was already psychotic," Dorian returned. He re-sheathed the hidden Renaissance stiletto that had dropped down into his palm at Kello's arrival. "Charlie, you have the most ... exotic taste in women. I thought the last one was something of a challenge but this one tops the lot, darling. Or bottoms it out. It's difficult to say."

"Well, nobody's perfect. If your sister had only had the same streak of larceny in her as well as your blue eyes, I might have had a very different love life." Charlie shrugged.

"Too bad you didn't stop to consider that back then." Dorian took out a cigarette and allowed Kello to light it for him. "You broke Meagan's heart. It wasn't very nice of you."

"I never meant to hurt the girl. It's just the way things worked out. You know." Kello shrugged again, more eloquently. "How is the family?"

"Well."

"Paid off all your father's debts, I see. Kept all the estates intact."

"Yes. How do you know about that?"

"I've always been concerned about what happens to you, my boy. And the girls, too. I followed it all from a distance. Jerked a string or two where I could - for old times' sake. For the sake of your father. He was always a good friend to me." Charlie wrapped his arms around himself, slapped at his shoulders. "It's fucking freezing out here. Let's either go back to my car or walk about. I'm beginning to root."

"Let's walk," Dorian agreed. "I'm going a bit solid myself."

They fell into step together, moving farther into the woods, still cruising the border of the house. Charlie brought out a silver flask and took a swallow, offered it to Dorian. The Earl accepted the liquor with a mixture of gratitude and suspicion. Still, the taste and warmth of fine cognac was difficult to refuse.

The two men walked a short while in silence until Charlie finally said, "This may be none of my business either but what, pray tell, are you doing wandering around alone out here in the snow?"

Dorian's immediate thought was, So if I'd come out walking with Klaus, you would have shot him? Tried to kill us both? But the response appalled him with its cynicism. He decided against that line of conversation and replied, "The Major is repairing the furnace. He likes to work alone."

"Lover's tiff, eh?"

"Nothing of the sort." Dorian frowned. Then laughed. There was an edge of regret to the sound. "The Major and I are hardly lovers."

"You're joking."

"No. Honestly. I'm still quite unrequited."

"I don't believe you," Charlie snorted, derisive. He took another drink and offered the flask again. "Everybody knows you two are lovers."

"Well, then, everybody's wrong." Dorian took several deep swallows. "Balls - I wish they were right but it's never happened, not like they think. And not for lack of trying on my part, I assure you. It's the one treasure I've never successfully purloined."

"Bullshit."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me. I said `bullshit.' Meant it, too."

"Well, darling, I think I would know if it had happened." Laughter teased the corners of Dorian's mouth even as his heart ached. He passed the flask back. "It's not something I believe I would have slept through."

"You are so accomplished a liar, you're even good at deceiving yourself." Kello was grinning like a fiend. "I've never seen the like of you, Dorian Red. That man is well and truly besotted. Anyone can see that. Everyone has, don't try to tell me different. The German Wolf is thoroughly snared. If you haven't pulled him in yet, there's no one to blame except yourself."

"Lovely." An edge of razor ice crept into Dorian's voice. "And just how have you managed to deduce all that?"

"Elementary, my dear Dorian." Charlie lengthened his stride and quickened his pace, energized by his own enthusiasm. The Earl began to feel a bit warm keeping up; he felt the sheen of cognac perspiration on his body. "Without a doubt, you've one of the biggest hearts I know. You've kept up and looked after that whole damn tribe of yours despite the way the lot of them have maligned and forsaken you throughout the years. Kept them all in the lifestyle your dad got them used too, didn't you? Kept all the lands together for your little nieces and nephews and the whole undeserving bunch. Meanwhile, you've put together another family, the one you cart about with you hither and yon on all your little escapades. Everyone knows how loyal they are. They'd drop over in a second if you asked them to. And you'd put your life on the line for them as well. You have put your life and your freedom at risk for them time and again, haven't you? But this thing with the German is different. Letting someone like Eberbach come in that close, that's another story. The Major could crimp the style of your comfortable little set up big time - and you know it."

Dorian shivered but not from the frigid air. He would have liked to walk away from this conversation but short of breaking and running, there was no way to end it. The steel in Kello's voice was as precise as a surgeon's scalpel.

"You've always been a very determined lad. I remember that from the time you were just a little bird of a boy," Charlie went on. "It's always been all-or-nothing with you. But the Major ... he wouldn't be the type to be grateful or easy to manipulate once you took him in under your wing. Eberbach's got his own agenda, his own loyalties."

They had come to a stop beneath the bare-branched oaks and ash. Skeletal limbs stretched dark fingers of distress against the winter-white sky. Charlie raised his flask to his lips, took a tiny sip and watched the anguish dance across Dorian's face. It should have moved him. And did to some extent.

The sky opened up and began to snow again.

"It's hell, isn't it? Loving someone who's so completely wrong for you?" Charlie continued on relentlessly, his voice low and dark. "No. Don't answer. You don't have to say anything."

There was no fear of that. Dorian couldn't find words to speak.

"Yes ... keep looking up like that," Kello hissed. Anger had returned to his voice. "Let me watch the snow fall on your face. You're absolutely perfect. A prettier picture than the whole lot of those canvases you've lifted and ransomed throughout the years. You look like you did that night you came after me on Meagan's behalf. Absolutely stricken. Positively raw with it. If I'd ever fancied boys, you would never have been safe from me."

"Who has ever been safe from you, Charlie Kello? Answer me that?" Fury lodged and blazed in blue eyes.

The American held Dorian's gaze unflinching. "You've been safe enough ... till now," he said. "Did you know the NATO code name for you is Engel ... Angel? Do you know who gave you that name?"

Dorian shook his head, confused. Charlie changed track faster than he could keep up.

"Does that mean you don't know - or that you don't want to know?" Kello's smile deepened unpleasantly.

The Earl drew in a long, shuddering breath. "I think this conversation has reached the limits of its potential, don't you? I've had enough of it."

"Oh, come on now. Lighten up," Charlie urged. "Someone needed to talk with you about these things. I guess I elected myself. There's been enough talk among the Cartel. Didn't think you were aware of it, is all. I thought I should give you a warning."

"A warning? What kind of talk?"

"There's been some question as to your loyalties among our little outworlder family," Charlie explained. "You've played on NATO's side too often, too long and too well. Outlaws are a suspicious lot - not without reason. When you spend your life walking the tightrope, you've got to be able to trust the man who holds the line."

"So ... you're saying the Cartel no longer trusts me?" Talons of ice closed around Dorian's heart locking in disappointment, hurt ... fear.

"Let's just say there are those who have become suspicious with respect to your long-term loyalties. Eroica knows a lot of secrets."

Dorian thought about that, digested it carefully. Then threw his head back and laughed. "To quote a celebrated dealer in arms - bullshit!" The smile returned to his lips but the fire remained in his eyes. "I don't believe you. It's too absurd. I've run with that circle since I was a child. None of my work with NATO has ever compromised them. Why are you trying to frighten me?"

"I thought I was trying to help you. Maybe I am something of an alarmist. An old crook is a careful crook." Charlie handed over the flask again. "Go ahead. Finish it off." He paused, while Dorian drained the last of the cognac. Then added, "I've got the antidote right here in my pocket."

The smile dropped from Dorian's face, sliding off with the color. Disbelief coupled with rising panic in a lusty riot of revelation. The liquor knotted in his stomach like a fist of flame. He shook his head slowly.

"You're ... joking," Dorian whispered. "You wouldn't...."

"Wouldn't I?" A dark brow jutted up over one glittering black eye. "I have my own operations to protect, don't I? No fucking thanks to you." Charlie strode forward, gathered up Dorian's jacket front and pulled him in close. "What the hell do you think, Eroica? How far would the Shoemaker go to protect his tribe?"

Kello shoved him away. Dorian tumbled into the snow, hit the ground and rolled. Suddenly, the stiletto was in his hand again. He let it fly as Charlie advanced towards him. The blade arrowed in close enough to Kello's head that the American felt it whisper against his scalp. It hit the tree and stayed. In the next instant, Dorian pulled a second knife from his boot. Charlie froze in his tracks.

"Good - stay there," Dorian purred. "You know I'm a perfect marksman with either hand, Charlie. And I'm feeling somewhat pissed with you right now."

"Is that all?" The American scowled. "Just pissed, is it?"

"Don't push me."

"You're quite a deadly little angel when you want to be, aren't you?"

"When I have to be," Dorian corrected. "Please don't fuck with me anymore, Charlie. I really don't want to hurt you permanently."

"Even though I may have poisoned you?"

"But you didn't - did you?"

Kello hesitated. Then shook his head. "No," he admitted. "Just wanted to make a point, is all. I couldn't do you like that. But I thought you should know, it could be done."

"Perhaps," Dorian returned, blunt. He got to his feet, brushing the snow off his clothing. He didn't put his knife away. "Death-dealing has become your way of life. You deal in weapons that send thousands to their graves. I don't understand that. I never will."

"It's not the bombs that do the killing, angel-face. It's the men behind them. And the women. Wars are a very human business. We are the source of all our mayhem. We carry it inside us like a disease, all the rage, the bigotry, the indifference. No matter how hard we try, we just can't seem to love each other. At least, not enough. It's a pity isn't it? Human beings have such capacity for love. We've got such potential for it." Charlie picked up the flask Dorian had dropped to the ground. "But in the end, we always resort to this. A threat of poison to a friend. A knife in the back. A bullet from a sniper's gun...."

Dorian watched silently, puzzled but cautious, still holding the knife ready. Charlie turned the flask about in his hands.

"Grenades and rifles hold no grudges, bullets enforce no jihad," Charlie continued. "Before all this technological destruction, people used rocks, fists, anything they could get their hands on so don't think I'm starting anything new. Besides, I only deal in the business, I've never been the one to set them off. If they didn't buy arms and munitions from me, they'd only find another broker. At least I have no special ax to grind. Anyone can buy from the Shoemaker. Everyone does." A wry smile whipped back onto Kello's lips and eyes. "Missiles play no favorites. When they start coming down, it doesn't do any good to run or hide. I discovered this when I was a boy. Bombs don't seek you out, they either hit you - or not. It's the law of chance and fortune. In that first war, I dashed about with the mob, hid in the shelters, all of it. Most of the time, I was scared to pants-pissing death. The carnage was remarkable. I watched people blown to scrap-meat before my eyes. Watched homes burn by the row. Sometimes a piece of shrapnel would single out one man in a crowd. One child. One woman ... and that was it. Still, I was never hit. Never. One night, when it was especially bad, I recall I just stood there. I'd been cut off from the herd, from the shelters. I watched it rain down lightning-fire and death. The sound was like the devil screaming." Charlie paused, remembering. "As you can see - just like I said - I was never hit. That was when I figured out that it didn't matter. It just didn't matter." The American basked Dorian in the genial warmth of his particular brand of good will. "I met your father a few days after that."

Dorian shuddered, trapped in Kello's eyes. "What does matter to you, Charlie? Surely there's something...."

"You ask too many questions. Expect too many answers." Charlie tossed the flask at Dorian. The silver glittered in the cold, stark light. The Earl caught it with one hand.

"Keep it, angel face. It's my gift to you," Charlie said. "I'm sorry. This is not the kind of reunion I'd planned on. Let's hope the next time we meet we'll lift a cup or two the way old friends should."

Dorian watched Kello walk away, striding off through the snow. The late afternoon sun lengthened his shadow into a long-legged, long-armed stick man joined to Charlie's feet. It stalked along, step-in-step with the American, coattails flapping in the brisk, winter chill.

`I am become Death,' Vishnu had announced in the Bhagavad Gita. No fanfare, no histrionics - just plain and simple fact. `For certain is death for the born and certain is birth for the dead; therefore, over the inevitable thou shouldst not grieve,' the Gita continued.

In the past, Dorian had always found comfort in the lyric beauty of the ancient Hindu canon. Regrettably, he could not take consolation in it now.

 




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