The Truth Shall Set You Free

Sequel to Too Good To Be True.

by Kadorienne

 

For spies, it is imperative to choose those... who are inconspicuous in appearance but strong of heart, who are fast, powerful, and brave, who are immune to seduction, who can endure hunger, cold, and dishonor.

~Du Mu, commentator on Sun Tzu's Art of War

 

His mission completed, Major Klaus von dem Eberbach reported to his superiors: his Chief and three other high-ranking officers. They listened to his report in their usual grim manner. When he was finished, one of them silently shoved a manila envelope across the desk toward him.

Assuming it was his next assignment, Klaus took the envelope and opened it briskly. And froze.

He closed his eyes for just one second. Just one. Before forcing them open, to face his superiors squarely.

It had finally happened.

The envelope contained several black and white photos of him and the man he had spent a night with in Hamburg a couple of months earlier.

"Major von dem Eberbach, do you know this man’s name?"

"No, sir."

A grey eyebrow lifted. "You don’t?"

"He told me his name was Stefan, if I remember correctly," Klaus said, forcing his voice to remain steady. "But then, I told him that mine was Johann."

Colonel Zimmer gave him a disapproving look. Klaus clamped his jaw.

"His name is Vasily Brassilhov. He is an agent for the Soviet Union."

Klaus set the envelope back down on the desk without a word and stood straighter than he ever had before, his chin high, his jaw set, his eyes straight ahead.

"I did not give him any information whatsoever," he stated. "We hardly exchanged three sentences."

His superior looked down at the photos and back at him. Klaus flushed, but did not drop his gaze. "So I gathered," the older man said dryly. "You do realize this puts you in a position to be blackmailed? And that it compromises NATO security?"

There was nothing to say to that except, "Yes, sir."

"Do you have any extenuating circumstances to cite, Major?" the colonel asked.

"No, sir." Klaus bit off the words. And braced himself for the blow of the expected next words.

"Major Klaus von dem Eberbach, it is my duty to relieve you of your command and your security clearance and assign you to a non-combat position. Your new duties will begin immediately." The colonel paused, and seemed actually regretful of the blow he was delivering. "Your new office is on the eighth floor. Room 809."

Where most of the pencil-pushing Klaus had always detested took place. "Yes, sir."

"You are dismissed, Eberbach."

"Yes, sir." Klaus turned on his heel and walked out.

I'm lucky, he told himself. A few years ago I'd have been kicked out altogether.

He didn't feel lucky as he walked into Room 809, however. A desk job. He was going to lose his mind.

They probably hope I'll quit on my own.

Well. He wouldn't.

Room 809 was lined with filing cabinets, and there were four desks, three already occupied. A pale, scrawny man looked up as Klaus entered. "Major Eberbach? We were told to expect you." He indicated the empty desk, and he and the other two pale, scrawny men introduced themselves.

Klaus sat down and started to read through the papers on his desk grimly.

If I've beaten up five terrorists with a bullet in my leg, I can do this, he told himself.

But it wasn't the same, and he knew it.

***

In North Downs, a telephone rang. "It's your Bonn informant, me lord," Bonham announced good-naturedly. "Sounds like he has news of Uncle NATO."

Dorian took the phone immediately. "Anything juicy, darling?" he asked.

"Are you sitting down?"

Dorian settled down comfortably. "That sounds promising," he purred, and listened.

A moment later, the contented commotion of Castle Gloria was shattered by a shrill, "WHAT?!?"

***

Meeting people Klaus knew was an ordeal. Word had spread quickly, in the inexplicable way of such information. People started to avoid him, though not everyone did. The latter was perhaps more galling.

The Chief leered at him whenever they met, gloating over his dishonor. Klaus had to remind himself often that strangling one's superiors was against regulations. Worse, the Chief's presence was a constant unwelcome reminder. If Klaus had been willing to play the game, to get married and toady to those in high places, his indiscretion would probably have been overlooked, just as the Chief's were. But his nature did not permit that. If he had to debauch himself, he would do so honestly. And take the consequences on the chin.

Agent G made a point of greeting him in a friendly but polite fashion whenever they met. A simpering transvestite wasn't exactly the kind of person Klaus would have hoped to receive loyalty from, but he was getting it. B looked as if he would like to speak to him, but was too cowed.

Agent Z was good at making favorable first impressions; when he had first joined the alphabets, Klaus had rather liked him and had expected him to develop into a reliable, first-rate agent. Time, however, had shown him to be a spineless idiot who would hump anything that moved, male or female. Now he reacted just as Klaus would have predicted: by avoiding him as if he were highly contagious.

Agent A took him aside a few days after the revelation and said nervously, but with desperate earnestness, "Sir... I just want you to know that it doesn't make a bit of difference to me. You're the best commander I ever had, and if it were up to me, I'd keep right on working with you."

Klaus drew a breath. "Thank you, Herr A," he said carefully.

"And if there's anything I can do for you, please tell me, sir."

Klaus skewered him with an emerald glance. A looked intimidated, though not as much as he used to. It was annoying. "There is something, A. Answer a question honestly."

"Yes, Major?"

"Did you know? All of you?"

A's eyes widened. "No, sir!" he exclaimed with obvious sincerity. "None of us could believe it when we heard — that is — we were all... I mean... well, why else would you have turned down Lord Gloria? I mean, I don't care for men myself, but he's... he's...." His voice trailed off and he turned pink.

Klaus nodded, relieved. "Right. Thank you." He turned and walked away. Eroica had done him a favor, after all.

He had no idea how his staff found out, but he knew that they had. It was clear the minute he entered Schloss Eberbach one evening and found himself attended by several pale, unusually serious faces. No one said a word to him, but he knew the reason. After dinner — which Klaus ate perhaps three bites of — his butler informed him, very quietly, that several staff members had left that day, and asked for permission to hire new personnel. Klaus granted it and dismissed the man, wondering what decent servants would be willing to work at Schloss Eberbach now.

It was three days later that the butler made the announcement Klaus had been dreading. "Your father is here to see you, sir. I showed him to the library."

Klaus felt his face grow harder. "I’ll be there at once."

He did not allow his steps to falter or slow on the way to the room where he had spent some of the most harrowing hours of his youth. He marched into the library with his head held high and his jaw set as it always was when he was in a fight and knew he was going to have to take a punch. Very quietly, he shut the door behind him.

Servants passing by for the next three hours were apt to hear Colonel von dem Eberbach’s voice raised, though no words could be distinguished. Throughout the schloss, the staff spoke in hushed voices, tiptoeing as around the mouth of an active volcano. No one spoke of the two men in the library, and no one thought of anything else. When an underbutler dropped a tray, the cook jumped a foot and screamed.

In time, the senior Eberbach threw the door open and stalked out the front door to his waiting chauffeured Mercedes, not speaking to the butler or anyone else.

Several minutes later, the younger Eberbach emerged, pale and quiet. All of the servants had contrived to be out of sight, so he was not forced to face anyone as, stony-faced, he ascended the stairs to the roof of the schloss.

This had been the haven of his childhood, and now he spent the rest of the day there, lying on his back on the hard stone, staring at the sky.

All in all, the Major was too shellshocked to be much fazed when Eroica showed up at the restaurant where he usually had lunch.

Spotting the Earl striding toward him, Klaus shoved his plate away, already knowing he wasn't going to be able to swallow any more of the fried potatoes. He did not glance again at Eroica, though in his peripheral vision he could see the thief ignoring the waiters who offered to seat him. And Eroica's purposeful course through the crowded restaurant had the other patrons watching him curiously, detecting a scene imminent.

The damned Earl never had the least compunctions about creating a scene. No matter who was watching. If Klaus had ever yielded to his advances, his secret would have been out years ago, and he would have lost years of service to his country.

When Dorian reached his table and stood beside it, looking down at him, Klaus lit a cigarette and pocketed his lighter before looking up at the man who had haunted him for the past eight years.

Dorian was still beautiful, and Klaus was affected as always by his beauty. He had the perfect balance of delicately sculpted features and strong jawline and firm muscles. Why couldn't that face have belonged to a man who was trustworthy?

Then again, why couldn't Klaus feel desires which were not forbidden?

Damn you, Eroica, Klaus thought, for the thousandth time. Why did you have to be so damned perfect?

And what was the bloody thief doing here now? Probably assumed that now, with one little push Klaus would be in Dorian's bed rattling off state secrets like a back fence gossip.

But Dorian’s lovely face was oddly expressionless. No flirtation, no crocodile tears, no false sympathy. He looked, in fact, more serious than Klaus had ever seen him.

Eroica met his gaze with peculiar intensity. Klaus met his look coolly, waiting to brush off the inevitable advances.

"All these years," Dorian said after regarding him silently for a moment. "You knew. You knew you were like me."

The other diners, who had been watching with wide eyes, exchanged glances. Klaus could not help flushing. He had an impulse to protest. He might be queer, but he had nothing else in common with Eroica. But there was no reason to argue with the damned thief. He said nothing.

"All these years I’ve been breaking my heart over you. And how many strange men did you fuck?"

The vulgar word sounded odd in the Earl’s elegant accent. Klaus held his gaze silently.

Eroica leaned nearer. "How many?"

Everyone was listening with bated breath.

"Probably not as many as you did," Klaus replied quietly.

With slow deliberation, Dorian picked up Klaus's mug of beer. Klaus had plenty of time to snatch it away, but he didn't bother. Instead, he sat perfectly still as the Earl dashed the mug's contents into his face, only closing his eyes. Then he opened them and looked at Dorian again, his hands resting open on the tabletop. He said nothing.

Dorian’s eyes were shiny with tears. He had always been a good actor, Klaus reflected bitterly.

"God damn you," Eroica whispered, and turned on his heel to stalk out.

It was the most embarrassing moment of Klaus's life.

As if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, Klaus wiped the beer off his face carefully with his napkin, put enough money on the table for the tab and a large tip, and stood to leave. He was never going to be able to show his face here again. None of the other diners said a word until he was almost at the door.

Klaus went to the Schloss first, to wash up and change clothes. He was not going to return to work smelling of beer; a rumor that he had taken to drink was all he needed now.

It took all of his iron will to go back to work at all. But he was damned if he was going to let anyone run him off. He wouldn't leave NATO until he was kicked or carried out.

***

"Milord, you're going to run out of hankies," Jones admonished gently.

"Stow it," Dorian muttered, burrowing his face in his satin-covered pillow preparatory to another round of weeping.

Jones sighed with the eternal helplessness of the comforter who can do nothing but offer an absorbent shoulder. He patted his employer's back inadequately.

"I just don't understand," Dorian said in a muffled voice. "If he knew — if he was sneaking around already — why didn't he sneak around with me?"

"Now, milord, you know what his position was," Jones said reasonably, knowing his words would be useless. "He had to be discreet. He had to—"

"I would have been discreet!" Dorian burst out.

This surprised Jones sufficiently that his hand stopped its futile patting and his eyes bulged. "You would?" he blurted.

"Of course I would! I would have done anything—" Dorian stopped abruptly, his sobs stilled.

For a few minutes, they were both silent.

At last Dorian raised his flushed face. He had stopped weeping, but his eyes held a deeper tragedy now.

"My God," he said softly. "What an idiot I was."

Jones could come up with no reply.

"I need to be alone now, Jones," Dorian said at last in a dead voice.

Jones nodded his assent and left feeling gloomy. "Leave him alone for a bit," he advised everyone. "And — be ready. He's in for a rough few months now."

***

Klaus was not going to resign.

Though if things continued on their present course, he would qualify for a psychiatric discharge.

He had known that a desk job would be worse than a cage to him. It was. It was so tedious that his energy level plummeted. It became difficult for him to get through his normal strenuous evening workout. And without its normal outlet of purposeful violence, his temper grew worse.

After two months, he had to reluctantly concede that he might have no choice but to resign, before he lost his mind.

It was the day after he first had that thought that he was called on the carpet again.

"We may have a mission for you, Eberbach," Colonel Zimmer announced.

"'May' have, sir?"

"You're quite welcome to decline. This is a solo mission. No alphabets. No backup. Just you. And it has a low survival probability."

Klaus smiled coldly. "You must realize that at this point, I am delighted to go on a suicide mission."

The Chief's eyes narrowed in satisfaction. "You see, even men of your sort can be useful under the right circumstances."

Klaus held the Chief's gaze. "I'm sure you would know, sir."

Zimmer cut into the Chief's sputters. "We received word that one of the factions currently struggling to take control of Ruritania has acquired some highly dangerous weapons technology from a German laboratory."

Klaus frowned. "Ruritania is in chaos. How likely is it that anyone can actually build a new weapon in the current situation?"

"As usual, you'll be told only what you need to know, but the information on that microfilm would not take a great deal of time or money to implement. We need you to go to Ruritania, get that microfilm, and deliver it to your contact. He's a grocer in Slatvia, a Lev Cherdyakov. You will hand it over to him under cover of making a purchase, and he will move it out of the country before they catch up with you." And kill you, the Colonel didn't say, but they all knew that's what he meant. It wasn't the kind of mission people generally came home from.

"When do I leave?" Klaus asked.

"Will three days from now give you enough time?"

"Yes, sir." It was enough time to put affairs in order and make a last confession and say goodbye, except that Klaus had no one to say goodbye to.

Too much time, in fact.

***

Ruritania had changed governments approximately once every two decades for the last century. Before that, it had centuries of occupation by one nation after another. Perhaps that was why their attempts at self-rule were now fumbled. A mere month ago, the monarchy which had uneasily ruled Ruritania for seventeen years had been toppled by a handful of wild-eyed radicals, and instantly the entire nation had been plunged into chaos as other factions sprang up overnight like mushrooms to assert their own claim to power. This early, there was no sign of which would prevail. More stable powers were quietly lending a hand to those factions they considered in their own interests, but remaining officially uninvolved.

And while those who wished to rule squabbled with each other, and the rest of the world stood back, the ordinary citizens of Ruritania were starved and robbed and massacred. Even an oppressive regime or an occupying foreign power would be better, in Klaus's opinion.

But that was not his decision. His role was to wander the nation in the guise of a foreign correspondent, using the comparative immunity of that task to preserve his own safety, and trying not to let the suffering he saw all around him affect his performance.

He had never had the slightest compunctions about killing enemy agents or assassins. Nor had putting his own men and himself in the line of danger troubled him unduly. It was their path in life. But the distress of the people who wanted only to live their own lives in peace, the ones who lacked the ruthlessness to annihilate the lives of thousands of others to experiment with their own utopian visions, that distress had never ceased to appall Klaus. He seldom spoke of it, and never showed the effect it had upon him, but he felt it, deeply. It was part of the reason he did what he did.

Years ago, he had been convinced that he was doing some good in the mess. Now... he still knew that he was, but he also knew how unsavory the means he employed were. Over the years, he had done many things in the course of duty which he would have believed impossible to him at the beginning of his career. He had started out convinced that the end did not justify the means, but along the way, he had found himself employing all sorts of means in order to attain various ends because those ends were absolute imperatives. He could not regret the things he had done, but he could regret that he had had to do them. And more, he regretted discovering just what he was capable of, if the stakes were sufficiently high.

Self-knowledge was a dangerous thing. Klaus grew old quickly.

All of these thoughts added to the numbness he already moved in. The months of inactivity and frustration and embarrassment, the realization that everything he had lived for was now taken from him, and the knowledge that he probably had less than a week to live had drained him of emotion. He would do one more service to his country and the world, understanding full well that he was trading his life for the privilege.

He asked himself if there was even one reason for him to continue existing in his current state. There wasn't. Accordingly, he executed his mission with his customary efficiency.

He did not pull off the theft of microfilm as smoothly as Eroica would have, but he managed it effectively enough, and left a dummy in its place. He was in another city before the switch was noticed.

But as Klaus traveled toward Slatvia, a tiny item in one of the nation's currently innumerable papers — there was at least one for every faction — stated that the faction controlling that province of Ruritania at the moment had arrested a grocer named Lev Cherdyakov for "sedition". The charge would probably be changed every few days for as long as Cherdyakov lived, Klaus reflected, but then, that probably would not be for long.

Klaus was not a fool. They would catch him. His chances of eluding them were astronomically small.

He had to find some other way of getting the microfilm out of the country.

He promptly changed his route, avoiding Slatvia and heading for a city called Brakov, large by Ruritania's standards. There would be genuine journalists there, and perhaps other foreigners. Klaus could find someone else to transport it. A German, preferably, but a citizen of any NATO country would do in a pinch.

In Brakov, he questioned some people and called in reports in keeping with his alleged profession before going that night to a tavern he had heard was popular with journalists and other foreigners foolish enough to be in Ruritania. It was a likely place to find someone to take the microfilm off his hands. The instinct every agent who survived more than his first few missions developed was telling him that time was short. He didn't altogether trust that instinct — instincts simply went against his grain — but it had been proven right too many times for him to dismiss it out of hand. He had to give it to someone before he was caught.

Accordingly, he chose a table in a dark corner from which he could watch those who came and went, as well as survey the windows for passerby. He sat for a time, drinking abominable dark beer and smoking, evaluating the other patrons. There were no Germans among them.

It was getting late. He had almost decided to take his chances on a couple of Americans who were sitting together at the bar, much as having anything to do with Americans went against his grain, when Eroica strolled through the door.

Klaus stared in shock. Over the years, he had gotten accustomed to tripping over the damned thief during missions, but he was certain that it had been several years since such an encounter had been a coincidence. But he had not expected to see the Englishman ever again. Not now. Now that Klaus was no longer valuable to NATO, there was no more reason for Eroica to work him over.

After a few seconds Eroica's gaze passed over him and then returned to him, wide-eyed. That shock was not manufactured. Eroica was surprised to see him.

After a few moments' hesitation, the Earl came to stand beside his booth. Klaus looked at him from a distance of a thousand miles, feeling a distant sadness through the numbness. He said nothing.

Dorian was pale and looked distinctly apprehensive. Klaus could not recall ever seeing him look so intimidated, not even at gunpoint. "May I talk to you?" Dorian asked quietly. His exquisite features seemed more fragile than ever.

No, not fragile. Dorian had never been fragile. Sensitive, rather.

Klaus made no response for a long minute. At length, he waved one hand slightly, an indifferent consent.

Even though he had wanted to talk, Dorian was quiet for a couple of minutes, fiddling with a coaster and staring at his fingers as if he’d never seen them before. Klaus did not help him, only sat smoking in silence. But after a time, Klaus asked, "What are you doing in Ruritania?"

"Shopping on the black market. When regimes fall, artworks go for a song," Dorian explained.

Klaus nodded impassively. "A Rembrandt for canned soup."

"I give far better prices than anyone else is going to, I'll have you know," Dorian informed him. "I'm not that kind of thief."

Klaus did not reply to this, but continued to drink and smoke silently.

"I wanted to apologize," Dorian said at last, his words tumbling out. "For the way I spoke to you, the first time I saw you after…." His voice trailed off.

When he did not continue, Klaus raised his eyebrows. Dorian reddened, not meeting his gaze.

Klaus despised tact.

"After what?" he asked bluntly. Only the slightest note of irony in his voice revealed that he knew the answer already.

Looking very slightly angry, Dorian lifted his chin. "I… I went about it all wrong. I… I acted like a complete idiot over you."

Klaus could not help a snort of derisive laughter. Dorian winced a little, but ploughed on.

"I never meant for it to…. Well, when we first met, it was fun to bait you. You were so easy to get a rise out of. I had no idea it was ever going to matter, what you thought of me. By the time it did, we had already gotten into these… habits. I didn’t know how to break the pattern. And frankly, I didn’t really think about it."

Klaus was looking at him now, still silent and unmoving, but attentive.

Dorian drew a breath, fumbling for words. "I never stopped to think rationally about your position, or what you needed. If I had, my approach would have been completely different. More discreet, for one thing. Less public." He studied the tabletop forlornly.

After a long pause, Klaus said slowly, "It’s true. Your behavior never made any sense at all."

Dorian stole a glance at him. "Well… for what it’s worth, I’m glad that I’m not the one who got you in trouble. And… it’s too late now, but I want you to know that, in spite of the way it looks, I haven’t been playing with you all these years. I really do love you."

Dorian waited, not meeting Klaus’s gaze. Klaus, meanwhile, was searching his face quite intently for something he had never looked for before. He sat perfectly still, but his mind was racing.

Had he surrendered to any of Dorian’s advances, given their public nature, it was highly unlikely that they would have been able to keep any affair of theirs secret. And if it were known, he would have faced exactly the same consequences he was living with now, which would have considerably lowered his value for any kind of blackmail.

Dorian’s actions had not, after all, been well calculated to gain any sort of powerful wedge into NATO.

Could Dorian be telling the truth?

Had Klaus been wrong about him all of these years?

A glimpse of a police van passing outside in the darkness jolted him back to his present situation. His decision was made in an instant.

"Eroica. I am going to ask you to do me a favor."

Dorian, who had been disconsolately rising to leave, sat back down, his expression timidly hopeful. "Yes?"

"As you probably guessed, I am here on a mission—"

"They still let you—" Dorian broke off again.

"For reasons I am not at liberty to divulge, I was the best man for this job. Consequently, for this occasion, they overlooked the fact that I am a faggot." The Major’s voice was flat. Dorian flinched. "I have already accomplished the first part of it, but to complete it, I must move on within the hour. It would save me some time if you would deliver this to my Chief for me." Klaus slid the microfilm out of his pocket onto the table. Dorian palmed it glibly. Best not to give Eroica any hint of how important it was. Just in case his new insight was wrong. Always hedge your bets. Always second-guess yourself. Never believe anything that you want to be true.

"What's on all this microfilm and computer chips and whatnot you're always having me steal, anyway?"

Klaus shrugged. "Usually I don't know either."

"You don't?"

"Of course not. I don't need to know. And the less you know, the safer you and your mission are. I have no idea what's on that," he exaggerated. "It could be a casserole recipe for all I know. Can you deliver it?"

"Of course, Major." Eroica sounded drained. "Is there anything else I can do to help?"

"Nothing. Thank you. I am certain NATO will compensate you."

Dorian shrugged.

"You can conceal it so that if your bags are searched, it won’t be discovered, can’t you?"

"Don’t you have a challenge for me, Major?"

They both stood, and Dorian turned to leave without another word, dejected but resigned.

Klaus followed him out of the tavern a few paces behind. Dorian was heading briskly away, apparently trying not to make too much of a scene, for once. But Klaus found he could not look away from that retreating head of golden curls.

"Dorian!" he said, before he knew he was going to.

Dorian stopped. After a moment, he very slowly turned around.

"Do you realize that’s the first time that you’ve called me by my name?" he asked in a low voice.

Klaus’s throat closed. "Yes. I...."

Dorian looked at him, waiting, not daring to allow hope to show on his face.

Klaus was paralyzed for a long minute before abruptly taking three long strides, closing the distance between them, and pressing his lips to Dorian’s.

And it was perfect, just as perfect as everything else about Dorian. Lips firm but yielding, tantalizing pressure meeting his own less practiced movement, a hint of a taste which could not be described but which intrigued his senses, and the silk of curling hair twined in his fingers.

In that moment, Klaus had everything he had ever wanted.

But of course the moment had to end. There were all sorts of other things that had to be tended to. Oxygen, for one. The people who were planning to kill him, for another. The mission, on top of that.

He reluctantly stepped back.

"I have to go," he said quietly. Dorian nodded. In the dim light of the street, Klaus caught the glitter of unshed tears.

God damn it, he thought as he walked away.

He walked for perhaps half an hour before two broad-shouldered men stepped out of an alley in front of him. It was almost a relief to see them. Klaus drew his Magnum and shot one of them before something heavy collided with the back of his own head, and everything went black.

 

***

Dorian didn't bother to phone the Chief in advance. Instead he simply presented himself at NATO headquarters and asked to see the man. When he was shown in right away, he strolled into the man's office and set the microfilm on his desk without a word.

Amazed, the Chief seized it. "How did you—" He broke off and looked up at the Earl, then gave him an appraising leer. Dorian tried to hide his disgust. He never had liked the lecherous way the dreadful old man always ogled him. He didn't know how G stood it. "Ah. So Eberbach went and commissioned some help on his own. Smart move."

Dorian gave the Chief a cold look. "Not exactly. I bumped into him in Ruritania quite by chance. He asked me to deliver this." The Earl turned to go.

Probably trying to make the pretty Earl stay longer, the Chief said to his back, "I'll have Accounting send you your usual fee, then. The Major would have wanted me to, I'm sure."

Dorian stopped in his tracks.

And slowly turned back to the Chief. Who was looking rather uncomfortable now.

"Would have?" Dorian echoed at last.

The Chief looked at his desk for a minute. "He was captured on the fourteenth." The very day Dorian had last seen him. "We believe... that is...."

Numbly, Dorian reflected that it was perhaps to the Chief's credit that after years in this field he could still, on occasion, feel awkward about breaking bad news.

Dorian wasn't sure how or how much time passed, but at length he realized that he was reclining on the Chief's cramped sofa while G urged him to sip from a shot glass he held out. He numbly swallowed a bit of it. Generally Dorian preferred wine or champagne, so he couldn't identify the drink, but whatever it was, it was strong. A damp, cool cloth had been placed on his forehead, G was checking his pulse, the Chief was saying soothing things. And the whole world had changed.

Dorian felt dizzy, and his stomach was turning over and over. He also felt cold. And his lips felt too stiff to talk. Nevertheless, he cut into the Chief's platitudes.

"You... you sent him... him... on a suicide mission."

The Chief's eyes flickered. "Don't be absurd. This was a high risk mission, of course, but it wasn't the first he's gone on, and anyone in this line of work knows that—"

"You knew he would be ready to die. He had lost everything he cared about. Everyone had abandoned him." Including me, Dorian thought bitterly. "He would have jumped at the chance to die honorably. You knew that."

G spoke up gently. "Would he have wanted to die in bed, do you think?"

Probably not. Still. "After what you all did to him, he was still willing to... oh, my God." Dorian swung his legs off the sofa and planted his feet on the ground. He stood, swaying only slightly, and looked down at the Chief. "That was monstrous."

The Chief gave a slight sigh, but did not answer.

"Why don't you let me help you down to your car, Lord Gloria," G suggested nervously. "You have someone to drive for you, don't you?"

"Yes... Bonham drove me...."

"Then let's go." G took the Earl's arm with concern and gently urged him toward the door.

When Bonham saw the virtually catatonic Earl emerging, leaning heavily on G's shoulder for support, he jumped out of the limosine to help G maneuver him into the passenger's seat.

When they had closed the door on Dorian, Bonham looked at G with resignation. "So Uncle NATO's finally killed in action?"

G bit his lip. "There's a small chance... but I wouldn't want to get the Earl's hopes up. Because it's very small. There's no reason they wouldn't have killed him when they caught him." G tried to sound matter-of-fact. Death was part of the job, after all. No sense being silly about it. He looked at the tinted glass of the limosine's windows. "Can you all... look after him?"

Bonham put a reassuring hand on G's shoulder for a moment. "We've been planning for this possibility since our Earl first fell for that machine maniac," he admitted. "We knew the man might get himself killed one day, and what it would do to me lord." Bonham shook his head. "He's been so glum since the Major got outed, but he seemed to cheer up after Ruritania. Now... this isn't going to be pretty. But yes, we'll all look after him."

Bonham got into the driver's seat. Dorian sat mutely in the back. After a few minutes he broke the silence.

"Bonham. I'm going to join MI5."

Bonham was grateful that his back was to the Earl, concealing his wince. "Very good, me lord. But why not the French Foreign Legion?"

"Do they still have a French Foreign Legion?" Dorian asked distractedly.

"Well, we'll figure it all out when we get home, me lord." Bonham navigated the traffic smoothly. He and the rest of the team had expected that insane plans would result from this contingency. Their chief strategy would be to delay the Earl's hare-brained schemes until he got new ones into his easily turned head.

Bonham resigned himself and the others to several months of saving the Earl from himself.

***

The Major was not surprised to wake up in a dingy, barren, badly lit room. He had been in rooms like this before. Though generally he had known that someone would be knocking down the door any minute to haul him out. And of course, on some occasions, he hadn't been the one tied to the chair.

"He's awake."

Klaus blinked quickly, trying to make his eyes focus. His head ached from the blow they'd given it, and he seemed to have a few other bruises as well. Or maybe he was just cramped from being in this position for who knew how long.

He took in the room quickly. No windows, only one door, solid concrete walls. Three large men, lounging on chairs more comfortable than his own, regarding him with sharklike cold eyes. No visible guns, but a few other things that could serve as weapons were scattered on the single, rickety table. A baseball bat, a couple of knives.... Klaus didn't let his gaze linger on them. He'd think about having those implements applied to him when they did it.

Each of the men rose and came to stand around him. They put their hands on their hips and glared down at Klaus. Standard intimidation stance. Klaus almost smiled at the thought. The idiots didn't think he didn't know this game, did they?

"Where is it?" one of them asked.

At this Klaus did smile. "Where's what?"

He expected the blow. It didn't faze him. It did, however, hurt.

"Where is that microfilm, kraut?"

Klaus looked up at the man who had spoken. He had known back in Bonn that it would probably come to this. He had planned it all out. His next move, according to plan, was to tell his captors that it was already out of the country and there was nothing they could do about it. They would then kill him, and if he was lucky, they would do it quickly, and then it would all be over. There was no reason for a man on a suicide mission to subject himself to even one more minute of suffering than necessary.

Klaus looked at them and smiled again, slowly and disdainfully.

For three minutes that seemed much longer, all three men punched him over and over without pausing. He had to gasp for breath every time a fist planted itself in his stomach, and blood dripped onto the fabric of his slacks from his nose and mouth. He didn't waste energy cursing them aloud, but he couldn't help his wrists straining against the cords that bound them together, striving uselessly to defend himself.

They all stopped abruptly. Klaus's head was spinning. He panted, his head bowed, for a long minute before forcing himself to straighten in the chair.

"Where is it?"

Klaus tried to smile, but his lips hurt too much. "Look up your—" He was cut off by another punch to his stomach.

Twice more they assaulted him with a volley of punches and then asked him where it was. The third time, he gasped out, "All right... all right... I'll tell you...."

Their fists ready, they listened.

"In... in the hotel I stayed in, in Karlswalde... there's a church right across the street... I hollowed out one of the prayer books and left it at the bottom of the stack... but it'll be picked up any minute, you'd better hurry...."

"We brothers of the revolution thank you for your help," one of them said dryly, taking a none-too-clean knife from the table. He came behind Klaus and yanked Klaus's head back by his hair.

As the knife touched the skin of his throat, Klaus found that now he could manage that smile. "How do you know I'm telling the truth?"

The knife froze without cutting. The men exchanged looks. The one with the knife put it down.

They spent another hour pummeling Klaus, but Klaus stuck to his story about the church. The three discussed it heatedly for a time, and at length decided they would have to keep the German alive until they knew for sure where the microfilm was. They told him what they would do to him if it wasn't in the church. Klaus wasn't looking forward to their return from Karlswalde, but he adhered to his story unswervingly.

When they dragged him to a cell somewhere — he tried to walk himself, but to his frustration, he couldn't, quite — and tossed him inside, he simply lay on the hard floor and rested. It was going to get worse, he knew. All they'd used tonight was their fists. They were clever — they were keeping something in reserve. They would let it get progressively worse and worse until he broke.

But then, he doubted their regime's hold on the city would hold out as long as he could, he reflected with a cold smile right before he fell into exhausted sleep. Sleep, and dreams of fragrant curly hair twined in his fingers.

***

Klaus thought he had been imprisoned for about a week. It was hard to be sure, since he had no access to a clock or watch and hadn't seen the outside since they had apprehended him. But it was long enough that he knew that he was losing weight; they gave him only enough food to keep him alive. He was keeping count of the sessions of interrogation from his captors. Four so far. And they always went the same. He would let them beat a new false location of the microfilm out of him. They would investigate, and return for vengeance when they reached another dead end, and he would give them another red herring. And every time he saw them, they made it a little worse.

He wondered how many more times they would be willing to investigate his claims. They must want that weapon very badly, or he would have been dead days ago. Still, their patience had to be wearing thin. Fortunately, he was certain that so was their hold on the city. If he could just hold out until a new faction took over, which couldn't be long, not in this atmosphere....

He tried not to shift on his cot more than he had to. It made his right arm hurt. They had broken it, a couple of days ago. Which was only a smart move, given what he was capable of with functioning arms. When they had taken him back to his cell — he had yelled all the way, furious and unable to stop himself — he had asked for something to splint it with. They had left, snickering, but half an hour later, one of them had returned with a hard wooden chair. The man had broken it against the wall and walked out. Klaus had used one of the chair legs and strips of cloth torn from his shirt to splint his arm. Setting your own arm hurt more than he had thought anything could hurt. But then, he had been in such constant pain for the last week that he seemed a little desensitized to it. Not much.

Shouts and loud footsteps in the hall made him open his eyes, though he remained lying still. He wondered if it was his turn again. But then... there was something different about this commotion. Doors opening and clanging shut, one after another. And the shouts were ones of camaraderie, as old friends were released from their cells by their comrades-in-arms.

Carefully, trying not to wince at the movement, he sat up. This was the opportunity he had waited for.

After a few minutes, his own cell door was thrown open, and two officers stood in the doorway examining him. Klaus had to narrow his eyes against the stronger light from the corridor, but he recognized the uniform. The Ruritanian Catholic Liberation Army.

Before they could say a word, he exclaimed, "Praise the saints!"

They both looked somewhat startled. "The prison manifesto lists you as a NATO spy," the older one remarked.

"Spy? I was sent here as part of Germany's covert aid to a fellow Catholic nation," Klaus said, and then leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. It wasn't difficult to feign exhaustion; after all, he was exhausted. He didn't move again or reply to any more questions, but while he was being carried out on a stretcher, someone started reciting paternosters, and he mumbled the prayer along with them.

Thank God I'm Catholic, he thought, fully mindful of the irony, heightened by his atheism.

Now, as long as he didn't encounter anyone who knew he was a sodomist in the next few days, he would be just fine.

***

As always, it was good to be back in Germany. Even if Klaus was in a hospital, at least it was a German hospital. The medical care that Christian charity had afforded him in Ruritania had gotten him home alive and in one piece, but it really wasn't up to Western standards. And it was good to hear not only his own language again, but proper homegrown accents as well. Though an English accent would not be unwelcome at this point. But it seemed that word of his resurrection had not yet spread far. If it had, he probably would have received dozens of duty gifts and truckloads of flowers. Once after he'd been injured during a mission, that foppish thief had actually sent him stuffed animals, of all the idiotic, useless things. Stuffed animals. It was the kind of silly thing fops did. They were probably still at Schloss Eberbach, somewhere. He'd have to find out where.

Of course, given that Klaus was disgraced and presumed dead, there wasn't really anything in Germany for him anymore. That didn't matter. Germany was part of him, just as he was part of it. He would never be able to stay away from it for long.

"We're going to have to re-break the arm and re-set it, I'm afraid, Herr von dem Eberbach," the doctor informed him reluctantly. "It's healed somewhat crookedly."

Klaus nodded. "I'm not surprised. I set it myself."

The doctor's eyes bulged. "Yourself?" Even for a doctor accustomed to treating combat injuries, this was out of the ordinary.

"Yes. Will it heal straight this time?"

Still taken aback, the doctor stammered slightly as he answered, "It may not be possible to make it perfectly straight now. Still, it will be much improved, and you'll only lose a small degree of use."

"Guess I'll have to hold my Magnum with both hands from now on," Klaus agreed with a cheerfulness which was not entirely derived from the powerful painkillers he had been given. "What else is wrong with me?"

"Minor internal damage to the kidneys from repeated blows," the doctor said. "And you'll have to see a dentist about that broken tooth. You've got some bacteria in you from that unsanitary prison, but antibiotics will fix that. Otherwise, nothing's wrong with you that a couple of months of exercise and decent food won't fix."

"Great. When do we break my arm again?" Klaus asked with a smile.

The doctor laughed. "Glad you're looking forward to it, Herr Major. I'll schedule it for this afternoon. And I think I'll decrease your painkillers," he joked as he left.

Shortly after the doctor left, the Eberbach family lawyer arrived, looking uncomfortable.

Before the man could speak, Klaus supplied, "I suppose one of my cousins has already been named my father's heir and installed at Schloss Eberbach?"

The lawyer cleared his throat. "Well. Er. You see, everyone thought you were...."

"'Dead'," Klaus supplied, as if the lawyer merely did not know the term. Klaus looked at the ceiling for a minute. He felt lighter than he could ever recall having felt in his entire life. Still, it wasn't without a twinge.

"I won't contest it," Klaus said. "He can keep it."

The lawyer, who was opening his briefcase, froze and stared at him. "But — you're the rightful heir!"

Klaus gave the man an amused look which seemed to make him nervous. "Part of an heir's duty is to produce more heirs," he commented. "I have a feeling that's going to be problematic for me."

The lawyer, who doubtless knew of Klaus's scandal and disgrace, turned very red. After a minute, he stammered something about discussing it further when Klaus was out of the hospital and scurried out with his briefcase.

Colonel Zimmer came to see him the next day.

"So. You came back alive," the Colonel began, unsmiling.

Klaus smiled cheerfully back at him. He didn't recall any other time in his life that he had smiled so much. Painkillers really were wonderful things. "Inconsiderate of me, wasn't it?"

Judging from the dour look his superior gave him, he did find it inconsiderate. He regarded Klaus coolly.

"Cheer up," Klaus suggested. "I'm sure you can find some excuse to discharge me."

"Not at all. Your desk is waiting for you," the Colonel informed him coldly.

Klaus didn't want to think about that desk right now. He wasn't sure he could bring himself to face it again. And if not, then what was he to do? Perhaps it was time to bring his demotion to court, contest the policy, now that he had nothing left to lose. He would think it over.

"Did the microfilm get back to you?" Klaus asked.

"Eroica delivered it. You should have informed us that you intended to hire him."

"I didn't. It was a chance encounter."

The Colonel didn't look as if he believed Klaus, but he did not argue.

"So Eroica got it to you? And you examined it? It's the right document?"

"It's the right document. And he refused payment. At least, monetary payment."

Klaus looked his superior in the eye. "What are you saying, sir?" he asked, his voice level and challenging.

The older man held his gaze only for a moment before looking away. "I merely meant that he seemed to regard this service as a favor to long-term associates."

Klaus let his head fall back on the pillow. "I forget when the doctor said I could go back to work, but I suppose he'll tell you, sir."

The Colonel turned to go, but halfway to the door, stopped and looked back at him.

"Good work, Major," he said with grudging approval, and left.

***

Agent A was seated alone at his favorite cafe, eating a sandwich, when a familiar tread made him look up.

"Major!" he gasped, standing quickly.

It was the Major. Disturbingly thinner, his arm in a sling, and a couple of small scars on his face that hadn't been there the last time A had seen him, but the Major nonetheless.

And something else was different, too. The Major didn't look annoyed. He looked almost... cheerful. It was unnerving.

The Major smiled slightly. Not his usual cold reptilian smile, the one that had alphabets buying Alaska guidebooks and enemy agents calling for their mothers, but an actual genuine smile, albeit a small one.

"At ease, Herr A. Please, sit down. May I join you?"

"Of course! Shall I have them bring you—"

"No, thank you. I just have to ask you something." They sat, and the Major reminded him, "You said to tell you if there was anything you could do."

"Yes, sir?"

The Major suddenly looked more like his usual stern self. Though A wasn't quite convinced. "I need to know... where Eroica is right now."

A visibly suppressed a smile. "Of course, sir. I can find out quite easily. I hear he's gone... well... a little crazy since you went missing."

"Oh?"

"Yes. He applied to join MI5, for starters."

The Major smothered a laugh. "Did they take him?"

A grinned. "No, sir. But by the time they'd told him so, he'd taken up with some nutty religious cult. The cult was after his money, but Mr. James made sure they didn't get any of it, so they didn't argue when the Earl lost interest. Anyway, I'll call you the minute I find out, sir."

"Not at the Schloss. I'm staying at my flat in town. You still have the number?" A nodded. The Major stood up. "Thank you, Herr A," he said quietly before he left.

***

It had been a couple of years since Dorian had been to his lodge in Grindewald, Switzerland. He supposed his team had suggested it in an attempt to distract him. It wasn't really working, but for their sake he was cooperating.

Still. He didn't have the heart to really enjoy the place. Right now, most of his people were skiing, and probably picking up the professional ski team currently training in Grindewald. They had tried to get him to take an interest in one of the handsomer members of the team, but it was useless. The truth was, he would rather have been left alone to sulk this morning, but Jones and Bonham had both claimed they didn't feel like skiing either, and all three were curled up around the fire, desultorily playing cards and chatting about nothing in particular. They never let Dorian be alone for more than a few minutes anymore. He was constantly babysat, as if he were going to do something crazy.

Well, Dorian knew they loved him. If following him around made them feel better, so be it.

When someone pounded on the door, Dorian was happy to seize the interruption. "I'll get it," he insisted, rising quickly and crossing the room.

Dorian opened the door.

And standing outside it, bundled in a navy blue parka, looking nervous and thin and rather the worse for wear, was Klaus.

Dorian stared. The apparition returned his gaze, trying to find words. Dorian hesitantly lifted a hand and delicately touched Klaus's cheek, which had a new scar on it. He was solid, real. Not a hallucination.

Dorian stepped closer and kissed him without knowing he was going to.

"You're alive," he murmured inanely when their lips parted.

"Yes." Klaus glanced at Jones and Bonham. They quietly got up and disappeared somewhere.

Dorian shivered, and realized they were both still standing in the open doorway. As if in a dream, he took Klaus's hand and pulled him inside. As if it were a matter of course, he unzipped Klaus's parka, tossed it aside, and then embraced him, pressing his face against Klaus's chest. Which was much thinner than it had been, the muscles wasted away. "I'm sorry," Dorian whispered.

He felt Klaus shake his head. "It was my fault. I—"

Dorian straightened and smiled up at Klaus, laying his fingertips on Klaus's lips. "Hush. I have an idea, darling. Let's not do this." At the flash of alarm in Klaus's eyes, his smile widened joyfully. "No, I meant, let's not argue over whose fault it was."

Klaus nodded and pulled him close again. Dorian could feel his ribs too clearly. He didn't like to think of how they'd gotten that way. Or what else he was going to find out had happened to his beloved in Ruritania. "You look terrible."

"You look wonderful."

They kissed again. Then Dorian blurted, "What happened? I thought... you weren't going to come back from that mission."

"I didn't expect to."

Dorian looked Klaus directly in the eye, very serious. "Don't ever say that again."

Klaus drew a breath that could have been relief. "I won't."

Dorian shook his head slightly. "After what they did to you, just for loving men, and you were still willing...."

Klaus frowned a bit. "You don't understand, Dorian. Soldiering isn't an exchange."

Dorian closed his eyes for a moment and opened them smiling ruefully. "Why did I have to fall in love with a hero?" he asked, the warmth in his eyes belying his words. But his face quickly became troubled again. "You went to Ruritania expecting...."

"It was a suicide mission, yes."

"What did they do to you?" Dorian whispered.

Klaus shook his head slightly. "It's over."

Dorian swallowed. "Tell me."

Klaus made a dismissive shrug. "I could have stopped it at any time, by telling them that the data they wanted was already out of the country. That was the plan, actually. To get myself killed as quickly as possible."

Dorian shuddered. "Why didn't you, then?"

Klaus actually looked a bit shy. "Well... after we met in Ruritania, I thought... that I might have something to come back to."

At this Dorian's renewed embrace nearly crushed the breath out of Klaus. "Klaus... I was such a bloody idiot all these years, making such a spectacle of us both...."

"Hush, liebling."

Dorian pulled back to look at him. "Say that again," he whispered.

Klaus could not resist letting a tiny smile tug at the corners of his lips. He was too happy to even try. "Hush," he said obligingly.

Dorian hit him lightly on the shoulder. "Beast."

Klaus smiled, a real smile this time. Something Dorian hadn't seen on him very often. "Liebling," he repeated softly.

Dorian closed his eyes. After a moment, he managed to whisper, "So, even for the machine maniac, love conquers all?"

"No," Klaus said, smiling very slightly as he shook his head. "Love does not conquer all. But it makes conquering all worth the bother."

 

Eroica