Major Eberbach stopped in mid-stride, glaring at the blood-red rose in a crystal vase. It sat in solitary splendor on Z's desk. It had, apparently, just been delivered, since the ripples of whispering spreading outward from ground zero hadn't yet reached the outer fringes of the office. Z, on the other hand, was a recruitment-poster advertisement for serenity and dutiful attention to his computer screen.
"From Eroica?" the Major grated. There was a card dangling from the rose stem. At some point in the day, if his energy flagged, he'd have to look at it and jumpstart his blood pressure.
"Yes, sir," said Z, not looking up.
"At least you managed to intercept this one before it landed in my office."
"Not necessary, sir," said Z, calm blue gaze rising from the screen to the Major. "It was for me."
B approached the Majors door with only the normal amount of apprehension. He had lifted his hand to knock when G warned from his desk, "I wouldnt."
"But this is important"
"Unless a nuclear bomb has decimated a major city, I think it can wait."
B tiptoed away from the door. "Whats going on?" he asked in a low voice.
"Zs in there with him."
"I dont know. But theyve been in there talking for three hours now, so whatever Z did, it must"
"THAT IS NOT THE ISSUE!" came a familiar bellow from behind the closed door. B jumped.
"Thats the eighth time hes said that," G confided quietly. "Every time, hes said it a little bit louder. Maybe he thinks that if he says it loudly enough, Z will understand."
"What is not the issue?"
"I havent a clue. But I hope Z owns plenty of warm clothes."
"Hm." B looked at the documents in his hand. They could wait. For a little while, at least.
"But sir, I dont understand," Z was saying, in the unflaggingly reasonable voice he had been using all day. "Youve made it quite clear that you arent interested in Eroica yourself, so why should you mind if"
"THAT IS NOT THE ISSUE!" the Major bellowed for the ninth time that afternoon. Judging from Zs polite expression, the decibel level still hadnt been enough to penetrate the younger mans skull. "A healthy German boy should carry on a healthy, constructive life! You should never engage yourself in foul homosexual activity!"
They had been talking in circles for hours. Now Z deviated from the trodden path. "Why not?" he asked respectfully.
The Majors mouth dropped open and his cigarette fell unnoticed onto his desk, where it began to burn a hole in an official document.
"Why not?!? Because its perverted, thats why not!"
"With all respect, sir, one mans meat is another mans poison. Just because"
"Shut up!" the Major snapped. He glowered for a minute, noticed the trail of smoke rising from his desk, and quickly stamped out the tiny flame which had half consumed the document, emitting German curses which made Zs ears turn pink.
When the flame had been extinguished, the Major frowned at Z, re-evaluating his strategy. When he spoke again, he was far calmer.
"Z," he said, in the almost paternal tone he occasionally used with his favorite agent, "have you considered the risk to your career if it becomes known that youre running around with perverts?"
"Yes, sir," Z answered promptly and still respectfully. "Ill do my best to be discreet, but Eroica is worth the risk."
The Major stared at Z as if he had abruptly and without warning sprouted a second head.
"Worth the ?" the Major sputtered at last.
"Yes, sir. And really, Id be a coward if I let risk stop me from taking a chance at something I wanted."
Major Eberbachs face went absolutely blank. Z realized that his words had in some way shocked his superior. He tried to think of a way to mend his remark, but since he had no idea what had been wrong with it, he remained courteously silent.
Major Eberbach stared at Z in intense silence for a full two minutes before barking, "Dismissed!" Z left quietly, wondering how close hed come to being sent to Alaska.
"So how am I as a consolation prize?" Z asked late that night in the sitting room of the Earls hotel suite. The two of them were sharing pink Portuguese wine and a concerto by Rachmaninoff.
Dorian smiled at him over the rim of his glass. "Do you think thats what you are?"
"I might ask you the same question."
Two pairs of blue eyes met and held over slowly growing smiles. After a moment, the Earl set his wineglass down and leaned forward to kiss the other man.
When they broke apart, the Earl said, punctuating his phrases with little kisses, "The first time I saw you on the train en route to France before I knew you had any connection with that militaristic machine I enraged my accountant by saying, How cute."
A few minutes later, Z murmured, "On that same train ride the Major said to watch my trousers around you."
"Well then. Ill just put them over here where you can see them."