~9~

The Major paced and prowled his hotel room, smoking even more incessantly than usual.

Anything for the mission, he reminded himself.

But if it meant conceding a victory to someone else, well, perhaps he could find some other way to accomplish his mission. If he could just concentrate, that would be enough.

On the unsteady little table were a stack of reports he really needed to go through, but his usual iron discipline had not applied itself. Instead he kept remembering the idiotic conversation on the airplane coming here.

"Doesn't it ever occur to you not to do something you want to do, because you know that it's wrong?" the Major had demanded. "To restrain your desires in the service of some higher purpose?"

"Patently not, darling. I'm a thief and a pervert, remember?" Eroica had remained unruffled by the criticism, as ever, and continued studying the photograph of the statue he meant to steal as a fringe benefit on his latest NATO assignment. His costume this day was reminiscent of a matador, with the short blazer, high-necked white shirt, short black tie, wide red belt, and annoyingly snug pants, though without the brocade an authentic costume would have boasted, and without a rose through his teeth. To compensate for that lack, however, he was wearing an eyepatch. Klaus supposed this was Eroica's flashy idea of making lemonade; the patch concealed the black eye Klaus had given him a couple of days before.

"What a pointless life, being a slave to your passions," the Major retorted coldly.

Eroica looked elaborately pensive. "You know, if you repress your desires, eventually they come to control you completely. Best to allow them what they need so they stop bothering you and you can get on with things."

"You never stop bothering me!"

The robin's-egg eye that was showing lit with wicked glee. "Does that mean I'm one of your desires, darling? How long before I start controlling you completely?"

With a great effort of will, Klaus prevented himself from looking around the plane at the alphabets to see how they'd taken this. He could see enough peripherally, and their faces were all carefully blank in the way that announced they were ready to dive for cover when the moment came.

"Beating you to a pulp is one of my desires," the Major snapped. "But, since we need you to open that safe, I'll have to restrain my desires in the service of a higher purpose."

Dorian laughed. "That is so like you, darling. So noble of you to let me live for the sake of the mission."

"Be grateful for that mission," Klaus warned.

"Oh, I am. It's allowed me to be near you."

"Which is not a safe place for you to be." He snatched the photograph of the statue away, studied it for a split second -- a nude Aphrodite, probably the only naked woman Eroica would ever take an interest in -- and tossed it back at the thief. "As long as we get those blueprints, pick up whatever other trinkets you want."

"Oh, I will," the Earl assured him cheerfully, his visible sky-blue eye dancing. "I always get what I want."

I am not blushing, Klaus told himself. My face is red with anger. That's all.

Trying to give the impression that he found Eroica's flirtation more tiresome than enraging, Klaus remarked, "Eventually all adventurers choose a prey too big for them. It's seldom a pleasant end."

"But often a dramatic one," Dorian opined. Well, Klaus should have known better. "You know, my favorite stories are those whose plots, at their simplest level, can be summarized as: What happens when an irresistible force," he tossed his abundant yellow curls negligently, "meets an immovable object?" He allowed his lashes to flutter at Klaus.

"That idiotic old schoolboy paradox -- there's no such thing!" the Major snapped.

Eroica's eye widened prettily. "As an immovable object?" he baited.

Klaus made himself look as disgusted as he knew how. "Or an irresistible force."

"But what an... explosion they make when they collide," Dorian said in his most velvety innuendo-laden tone.

Klaus snorted. "You're a conceited, frivolous, narcissistic, perverted idiot."

Dorian's smile was sunny. "Sure an' ye've kissed the Blarney stone," he said in a deliberately ludicrous fake accent that owed more to Hollywood than to Ireland. Would Klaus never realize that insults never fazed Eroica? With a pout, the thief remarked, "I suppose you'll have the alphabet soup to chaperone you when I bring you your precious blueprints."

"I think my Magnum will be chaperone enough," he retorted. "You'll have already carried out your assignment, so NATO won't mind if I kill you then."

The entire flight had gone like that, with the Earl baiting him and the Major trying hard not to take the bait, but eventually taking it, as always.

One more cigarette, the Major thought, and lit it before forcing himself to sit down and look at the reports. That is, he pointed his eyes in the direction of the printed words on the paper. The letters refused to translate themselves into words in his mind. This was insane. He was far too distracted. He was going to wreck his mission.

It was that thought that made him stand up and stub his cigarette out. Anything for the mission, he recited to himself, though this particular sacrifice wasn't one he had ever expected.

As he walked down the corridor, he reminded himself of his many responsibilities. To NATO, to Germany, to the Eberbach line.

Dorian opened the door promptly to his knock. Klaus elbowed him aside, strode in, and locked the door behind him without a word.

Eroica smiled, too sweetly. He was wearing a decadent robe of rose-colored silk, and still had the idiotic eyepatch on.

"I told you I wouldn't come to you again, darling," he cooed. "Sweeping you off your feet was well enough for our first time, but for our second -- I told you that you would come to me."

"You've won," Klaus interrupted curtly. "Don't gloat over it unless you want some bruises."

Dorian actually laughed. Why, why was this maddening thief the only one who wasn't afraid of him? "Not a very good loser, are we, darling?" he purred as he stepped closer to the Major.

"That was your last warning."

Dorian's next laugh was low and husky and sent a warm breath against the Major's ear. "All right, darling. I do have much better things to do now than talk...."

 

 

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