White Rose Blooming

By

Kadorienne

The students who took Professor Caesar Gabriel’s art history classes were motivated by love of beauty, but not necessarily in the form of paintings and statues.

Only twenty-eight years old, the professor was wand-slim, a fact which his shapeless, randomly chosen slacks and sweaters could not hide. His straight blond hair extended well past his shoulders, but only because he could never remember to get to the barber’s. His skin was clear and fair, protected from the sun by a lifetime spent in libraries and galleries and classrooms. His features were delicate and finely etched. He attracted admiring looks from men and women alike wherever he went, and remained, despite years of such gazes, completely oblivious to them.

In his entire life, there had only been two pairs of eyes that he had wanted fixed on him, and both, in the end, had found another sight more compelling.

"When you consider this Rembrandt of an old man thought to be—"

"He looks like Evan Andrews!" a voice from the classroom interrupted Caesar’s lecture.

Caesar looked away from the image projected onto the wall. "Who?"

"You know, that tycoon who died of an overdose last month."

The students chuckled softly; Professor Gabriel’s ignorance of headlines was a joke throughout the university. Coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of art, languages, and history, it had cast him in every student’s mind as the quintessential absent-minded professor, and stories of his astounding ignorance were circulated regularly. It was said that, on the day the verdict was announced, he had wandered into a roomful of people discussing it and blurted, "OJ Who?"

Caesar looked at the student who had spoken for a moment. "He didn’t die of an overdose," he said matter-of-factly. "He was assassinated by a government agent."

The room was suddenly on the verge of exploding with suppressed laughter. "What government might that be?" one student managed to ask, his face red with glee.

Caesar thought for a second. "Some Arab country. Evan Andrews’ company was working on some kind of oil process they didn’t want perfected."

This time there was no holding back the giggles. In two seconds flat, half the students had fallen out of their chairs, holding their sides. The rest were bent over their desks, faces flushed.

The Professor looked around at them blankly. "I know that wasn’t very technical, but I don’t know anything about refining oil," he said bemusedly. And thus was born another legend of the absent-minded Professor Gabriel.

The Major sat alone in a corner of the hotel bar, morosely downing a dark beer.

Some might consider this a celebration, or at least a time to celebrate. Another mission accomplished successfully, without any of his agents getting killed, and without undue Eroica complications. In fact, as dealings with Eroica went, they had been rather smooth this time around. Of course, the pervert was annoying as ever, and Klaus had yelled at him constantly, but there hadn't been any blatant passes like that time in the Roman bath, nor had he been compelled to lay violent hands on the damned thief. That qualified as a success. So perhaps this lone, quiet beer qualified as a celebration.

Dorian definitely considered this time for celebration. He had swept in, flirted with Klaus a bit, ordered some ludicrous drink with cream and fancy garnish, and started dancing. Alone at first, and then a succession of women had joined him, even though they couldn't have been in any confusion about what kind of man Dorian was. Good God, the fact that he was a pervert was bad enough — did he have to flaunt it like that? But the way the women smiled at Dorian — they seemed to think it was cute.

Everyone was looking at the Earl. Not that that was surprising. The man was six feet tall, had a cascade of golden curls that any woman would have to envy and a face that was too pretty by half. Years ago, the pretty face and long curly hair had seemed incongruous with the strong arms and chest, but somewhere along the way, Klaus had gotten used to it.

There was, however, no getting used to Dorian’s wardrobe. Tonight he was wearing a flashy ruffled red shirt, belted at his narrow waist, that fell halfway over his slim hips, and black leather boots along with his skin-tight black pants. And of course the dangling bracelets, the black choker around his neck, and the earrings, jet disks that were quite striking against the golden hair. By contrast, the simple gold band on the third finger of his right hand was conspicuous in its simplicity. And that sunny smile lit up the dimly lit hotel bar.

Dorian blossomed as he always did when he was the center of attention. Klaus decided not to mull over any of the thief's past attention-getting ploys. With a mission just completed successfully, there was no point in getting angry.

Instead, he thought about how Dorian had been earlier that day, on the mission. The gamboling butterfly currently making a spectacle of himself on the dance floor was not the man who had coolly gotten them past a state-of-the-art security system as if it were as simple as saying, "Open sesame." The brains that man must have, and the nerves of steel — why in God's name did he hide it under all that foppish bullshit? And how could he have wasted such natural gifts to live a life of crime and perversion? He could have been a really first-rate agent, if he weren't so bloody narcissistic and self-indulgent.

Speaking of self-indulgence… a man was approaching Dorian. A man who was not particularly foppish, but something about the slight purse to his lips, and his somewhat prissy hand gestures, and the way he looked at Dorian, showed his nature clearly enough. Klaus turned his head away. He would not watch some stray faggot propositioning Dorian.

A couple of minutes later, when he finally glanced over again, Dorian was walking with the man, but looking right at Klaus. Not with flirtation or mockery, but with an unfathomable expression. Klaus glared back for a second before turning away again, and Dorian left the bar with the man he had just met.

Klaus downed the last of his beer and signaled for another one. He wanted to drink enough so that when he went to bed, he wouldn’t be thinking about what that sick bastard was up to.

Damned hot-pants pervert had no self-control.

The man took Dorian’s hand, twining their fingers together as they reached the sidewalk. Dorian felt his blood warm at the contact. Had it been Klaus’s hand on his, he would have been on fire.

"I didn’t catch your name," the man said softly.

"Dorian," he replied unhappily. He had grown to hate these moments. He tried to pull his hand away. The man held on to it, gently.

"Lovely name," he murmured, smiling at Dorian.

Dorian wanted to continue — his body was crying out for it, was demanding that the years of starvation come to an end.

He stepped away, withdrawing his hand decisively. "You’d better be getting home, darling. It’s late. I wouldn’t want your mother to worry."

He had to look away from the flash of hurt and embarrassment in the man’s eyes. He quickly went back inside the hotel and headed for the elevator, glancing about to make sure that Klaus had not seen his return. As he rode up to his floor, he wished he could apologize to his suitor of the night, explain to him.

This game had been amusing, once. No one would admit that they hadn’t bedded the easily bedded Earl of Gloria, and so each believed that he was the only one to have been rejected. But now Dorian knew how they felt, and it wasn’t any fun anymore.

The elevator dinged and the doors opened onto Dorian’s floor. Dorian went to his room and went to bed.

Alone.

Naturally, they all had to meet at nine in the morning for debriefing before catching their planes home. Dorian would be going back to England, not Bonn, and so he would be on a different flight. It meant that this meeting would be the last time he saw Klaus for a while. He would have to make the most of it.

Accordingly, he went against his nature and rose at dawn so that he could dress in a way that was certain to make an impression. That it would probably not be a favorable one did not stop him. Since he could not have his Major’s affection, he would settle for attention.

Red was always good for annoying the Major — why the man had such issues with the color red, Dorian had never learned — but he had worn red yesterday. He considered a matador-ish ensemble, but Klaus had seen him in one of those on their last mission together. And had made all sorts of jokes about bullshit, some of them quite clever.

At length, Dorian decided to dress conservatively — for him. Black silk shirt, white tie, white slacks and blazer, and a white fedora.

He’ll hate it, Dorian thought gleefully as he pinned a white rosebud to his lapel. Over the years, coming up with new ways to irritate the Major had become a game. Though it really wasn’t necessary. All anyone had to be to irritate the Major was present.

Dorian swept into the conference room, amused at how Klaus’s agents cringed at his entrance. The poor darlings. He supposed the Major must be a bit less difficult when he wasn’t around. Though not much.

Klaus was sitting at the table with a stack of newspapers, a cigarette and a cup of that awful Nescafé. As always, he was dressed in a crisply pressed suit and tie. Navy blue suit and unimaginative striped tie. The severe lines of the suit could not hide the muscled physique beneath it. His dark brown hair had grown a bit past his shoulders, a little longer than usual; Dorian supposed he was due for a trim. He already looked irate, but that was only normal. His scowl deepened as he looked up.

"Good morning, Major," Dorian sang out. "Love the suit. It makes me want to take it off you."

"Pervert." Klaus took a drag on his cigarette. "You are fortunate that I prefer not to punch people before breakfast. Sit down."

Dorian sat down. He answered the boring questions Klaus needed for his boring paperwork cooperatively, and listened nicely to the things Klaus felt it necessary to tell him. Klaus looked tired; paperwork was a terrible chore to him. Dorian wished he could smooth his hair, knead the tension out of his shoulders, hold him closely and make him forget everything. When Klaus was finished with his questions, Dorian kept his seat, gazing at his beloved.

"What do you want?" Klaus growled.

Instead of making the reply he would have truly liked to, Dorian smiled, leaned forward, and began to whisper to him. In the middle of the second sentence, Klaus shot to his feet, his face scarlet. "PERVERT!!!" he shouted.

Dorian was the picture of injured innocence. "But darling, you asked," he protested.

The Major’s emerald eyes narrowed. Suddenly he glanced around at his alphabets.

"Everyone except Eroica out of here," he ordered.

The alphabets rushed to obey, all of them shooting worried glances at Dorian. The poor darlings are all certain he’s going to kill me one of these days, Dorian thought affectionately. But, watching the way they fled, Dorian wondered, sadly and not for the first time, if Klaus had even one friend. If so, Dorian had never heard about it.

But now they were alone together, so it was imperative that he be obnoxious. He gave Klaus his most smoldering sidelong glance.

"You wanted to be alone with me," he murmured, putting a wealth of suggestion into his voice, knowing he was pushing it. "Is it because you didn’t want witnesses to my murder?"

The Major fixed Dorian with a cool, warning look. "Do not give me ideas. The fact is, I have been waiting for a moment to speak with you." He swallowed the last of his Nescafé and plunked the mug down. "This is none of your business, Eroica, but I am telling you so that you will not hear it second-hand."

"What’s that, darling?" Dorian replied, fluttering his lashes. It was an encouraging sign that Klaus hadn’t hit him yet. Maybe he wouldn’t, this time.

Klaus stubbed out his cigarette. He parted his lips to speak. And the world came to an end. "I am getting married."

On the whole, Dorian would have preferred a punch in the face.

Dorian froze, trying to breathe. Absurdly, he felt as hurt as if he had some right to be.

It makes no difference to me, Dorian reminded himself. Even if he were free, even if he wanted me, I couldn’t have him.

It didn’t help.

After a long and heavy silence, Klaus lit another cigarette. As he pocketed his lighter, he said, "I am telling you this because I thought you might make trouble if you learned of it some other way."

Dorian closed his eyes. "You really do think the worst of me, don’t you, Major?"

"Is there any reason that I should not?"

Dorian stood abruptly and crossed to the window. He knew he should be camping, pretending it didn’t matter, something, but he could scarcely stand up, let alone hide his anguish. He knew that his face was mortifyingly naked. The only reason he did not kick and scream was that he was in too much pain to do so.

Looking out the window, he swallowed with difficulty and forced himself to ask the question that his heart was shouting. He did not want to hear the answer, but he had to know. "Do you love her?"

"She is an intelligent and refined young lady from one of Germany’s best families."

Dorian managed a rueful little laugh. "And to think I was going to be jealous of her. The poor girl."

"Not everyone can squander their lives in self-indulgent searches for pleasure as you can," Klaus snapped. "And you are an Earl. One day you will have to marry and produce an heir as well."

Dorian’s mouth twisted bitterly. "That’s why my parents had me. Not because they wanted children, or loved me, or — oh, the hell with it. I think it served them right, getting an heir who is doing them no good whatsoever. And never will." He turned to face Klaus. "Doesn’t it trouble you, to think of the loveless home you and your wife and your children are going to live in? Was your own childhood so wonderful that you want to inflict it on others?"

Klaus glared at him. Then his expression eased to become merely serious. "Not everyone can talk about serious emotions as casually as you can," he said carefully. "That does not mean that we do not feel them."

Dorian turned paler. "So you do love her," he whispered.

"Are you going to cause trouble for me in this?" Klaus demanded.

Dorian swallowed. "No. I wouldn’t stand in the way of your happiness. You should know that, Major."

"Idiot."

"I hope she makes you happy," he said quietly, and turned to leave without another word.

Dorian arrived at Chandler’s home wearing one of his more eye-catching costumes, a tight sleeveless shirt of turquoise silk, an equally tight pair of black silk pants, and a flowing black jacket over them.

Chandler greeted him with open arms. Dorian returned his mentor’s embrace with relief, resting his chin briefly on top of the man’s head. It reminded him of the very first time the man had hugged him, the first time they had met. Then it had been Chandler’s chin on the top of Dorian’s head. And even though Dorian had been only fourteen, he had known instinctively that this embrace was purely fatherly; there had been no threat in it. That had always been important.

Chandler stepped back and cast an indulgent glance over Dorian’s attire. "Let’s have some tea," he said, leading the way to his study. Dorian found himself relaxing at the familiar, comfortable environment: the overflowing bookshelves lining every wall, too many for this tiny house; the clutter of a man with better things to do than tidy up; the worn furniture, exactly the same pieces that had been there thirteen years ago, and probably longer. The only room here that really changed was the basement. That was where Chandler kept his burglary tools, and samples of all the latest locks to practice on. It was there that Chandler had tutored Dorian in the skills of their trade.

Dorian curled up on the divan, accepted a cup of tea, and waited for the inevitable rebuke.

"I understand you accepted another NATO mission," Chandler began with gentle reproof.

"I just returned. And nothing happened."

"No more Roman bath incidents?"

Dorian could not help coloring a bit as he looked away. "I couldn’t help myself that time. He walked right in and I was — I didn’t plan that encounter. I never dreamed he’d come in while I was in the bath." Even after all these years, the memory was embarrassing.

Dorian stared in shock. He could not believe the uptight Major would actually come in here, not with him naked in the bath. The Major’s emerald gaze was focused on his face coldly, as if his nudity were unimportant.

"It is time to get out of there," Klaus ordered grimly. "Get out of that bath now and get to work."

The thought of getting out of the water with Klaus right there made Dorian’s head spin. Did Klaus actually not mind seeing him naked? And good God, had it not occurred to Klaus what effect his presence would have on Dorian?

No. There were too many reasons for him not to get out. Not just now. Perhaps when the Major left, he could take a very quick cold shower….

"After I’ve finished my bath, Major," he said as casually as he could. He knew that he was blushing, but if Klaus noticed, he gave no sign.

Klaus strode purposefully closer to the edge of the bath. "I am going to stay right here until you get out," he declared, to Dorian’s amazement.

He looked so terribly serious. Dorian suddenly realized that Klaus was so intent on his purpose that Dorian’s nudity or the oddity of the situation had not even occurred to him.

With a sudden flick of mischief, Dorian slid the soap across the tile floor, where it obligingly went right under Klaus’s foot. Instantly Dorian was contrite — suppose the Major was injured? But Klaus, cursing, merely went down next to the edge of the bath. One grey-trousered leg brushed against Dorian’s arm.

That contact, slight as it was, was all it took. Dorian could not help himself. He grasped Klaus’s leg, noticing with appreciation the hard muscles under the fabric, and pulled him right where he belonged, into the water and Dorian’s arms. Every other purpose in his mind was forgotten; he knew only that this man belonged in his embrace.

Klaus did not struggle, not right away, and at the moment, this seemed only natural. Without a thought, only the need to touch and see this beautiful man, Dorian began to undo the knot of Klaus’s tie. "Why don’t you take a bath before work, too? You can get to it feeling refreshed, you know," he murmured absently as he tossed the tie away and began to unbutton Klaus’s shirt. The numerous and excellent reasons why he should not be doing any of this evaporated from his mind, because this was right, this was the proper way of the universe.

Klaus had been frozen, staring at him. As his shirt opened and Dorian’s fingertips brushed his skin, sending fire through the veins of Dorian’s arms that spread swiftly throughout his body, Klaus flinched and seemed to come to life.

He grabbed for his tie and tried to pull away from Dorian’s embrace. "I don’t want a naked man to touch me!"

God, no. Dorian could not let go now. It would hurt too much. It would kill him. He could not live without touching this man. He tightened his hold on Klaus.

Klaus froze again, staring at Dorian as if mesmerized. Dorian leaned closer. God, the man was beautiful, so delectable with his shirt half undone and his dark brown hair darkened further with water….

"Jet black hair," Dorian said softly as he moved slowly closer, prolonging the delicious moment before their lips would meet. "The color of wet crow’s feathers.... very sexy." He reached for Klaus’s buttons again, drawing the precious moment out. He had never known touching another man could be like this. And this was only the beginning, oh God, he was beautiful…. "You’re dripping wet, and it gives me a tingle in my spine just to watch you drip... Major...."

Dorian’s fingers came to rest on Klaus’s elbows and moved slowly up to his shoulders. Klaus, still gazing enthralled, suddenly gave a quick shudder. An instant later he had torn himself from Dorian’s arms and out of the water. Not looking at Dorian, he shakily rebuttoned his shirt and put his tie back on, more as if he needed something to occupy himself with than anything else.

He walked to the wall and planted himself there with his back turned decisively on Dorian. "Now I am getting chills," he snapped tensely.

You aren’t the only one, Dorian reflected bleakly. Humiliation was curdling in his stomach. He felt certain that he would never again be able to look anyone in the eye. He battled the urge to walk over to Klaus and try again. Good God, how could Klaus not feel it? This was a law of nature. The sun rose in the east, and Klaus belonged in Dorian’s arms. His absence was physically painful.

Dorian suddenly covered his face with his hands, grateful for Klaus’s turned back. The lack of Klaus’s touch was agony enough. The humiliation of the rejection was worse. And on top of all that, the knowledge of how close he had come to tossing his vows out the window — this was a kind of insanity.

Frustration made his movements agitated as he climbed out of the bath. All of his certainties had been obliterated. At that moment, he would have considered Illumination well lost for the touch of a man who despised him.

Well. Nothing to do but carry on.

He despondently reached for a towel. Glancing over at Klaus, still wet and shivering with his back turned, Dorian groped for something Eroica-ish to say.

"Weren’t you going to wait until I got out?" was the best he could manage, and he knew his tone wasn’t coming off as it should. He pulled on his robe and left for his suite without another word. He could use the time it took to dress to compose himself.

"Anyhow, nothing came of it," Dorian said. "Not even a kiss."

"You can’t take any credit for that. You lost all self-control. If he hadn’t run away from you—"

"Do you have to keep reminding me of that? It was years ago!"

"Need I remind you that you took a vow, Eroica?"

"You needn’t. But you needn’t worry, either. Being in love with Major Eberbach is the best possible defense for my chastity." The aristocratic voice broke. "He hates me. And he hates — queers."

"I still don’t understand why you feel the need to tell everyone that you’re gay when you don’t act on it."

Dorian arched an eyebrow, smiling wryly. "Do you think that if I didn’t tell them, no one would suspect?" He tossed his curling mane over his shoulder and allowed the lacy cuff of his sleeve to flutter as emphasis.

Chandler shook his head ruefully. "You weren’t made for celibacy, Eroica. You are too capable of enjoyment."

Dorian’s lashes cast a shadow over his cheekbones as he lowered his gaze. "That’s true. But I took my vow, and — I’ll keep it."

"Everyone knows that you’re pursuing him, Eroica. It would be best if you avoided him altogether."

Dorian sighed. "In the future, I shall."

Chandler stopped, raising a brow. "I’ve been telling you to stay away from him for years. You always insisted you had to see him even if you couldn’t have him. What’s changed? Have you finally gotten over him?"

"I’ll never get over him. I’ll love him till I die, and after." Dorian swallowed. "He’s engaged." It was the first time Dorian had said it aloud. The words were bitter on his tongue.

Thus far, Dorian had resisted the temptation to send someone to find out who she was and what she was like. He was scarcely able to drag his mind away from speculation, however. Was she tall and blonde, or had Klaus chosen a petite dark girl, as different from Dorian as possible? Was she pretty? Kind? Shy or confident?

And most of all, did she love Klaus?

Worse was the painful curiosity about what Klaus was like with her. How he spoke to her, looked at her… and more. The speculation was going to drive Dorian mad.

Chandler waited a tactful moment before speaking. "I know that must be difficult, Eroica, but it’s probably for the best."

"Yes. He needs someone. I just hope she can—"

"I meant the best for you."

"Haven’t you ever been in love?" Dorian demanded in exasperation.

Chandler sighed, looking suddenly sad and resigned. "Yes, I have. And I remember. Don’t think I don’t realize what you’re going through. But I think I have something interesting to distract you."

Dorian looked up, sipping his tea. He drew one knee up and rested his wrist on it, negligently holding the cup with his little finger crooked. "Another mission? Is this to the library in Tibet?"

Chandler shook his head slowly, regretfully. "We sent an advance team to Tibet. Everything there was destroyed," he said flatly.

That news did not hurt quite as much as Klaus’s engagement, but almost. Dorian closed his eyes. "All those millennia of knowledge?"

"Destroyed."

Dorian nodded slowly, painfully. "My God. Those animals. That must have been the greatest reserve of arcane wisdom in existence."

"It can be salvaged!" Chandler said fiercely. "What was learned once may be learned again! And there are other repositories of wisdom in the world!"

Dorian tried to smile through his grief. First Klaus, now Tibet. Not a combination that would occur to many people. "And I presume that you’re going to send me after one of them."

"Yes, but not a library. A man."

"Who?"

"An acquaintance of an old friend of yours." Chandler rose, crossed to the sitting room, and beckoned to someone. A minute later a slender young man about Dorian’s age, with long straight blond hair, a pretty face and large eyes entered shyly. "Eroica," Chandler said with a smile, "I think you’ll remember Professor Caesar Gabriel."

Dorian rose and clasped the boy’s hand — even though they were the same age, or nearly so, it was impossible not to think of him as much younger. The look he gave Dorian from under his long lashes was as shy as ever, and there was a trace of his old infatuation there, though only a trace.

The boy was as lovely as he had been the last time they met, Dorian thought, and he looked much the same, except that his features were a bit more sharply defined as the roundness of youth had fallen away from them.

"Lovely to see you again, Caesar. I still have the exquisite statue you modeled for."

"Caesar has joined the Illuminati," Chandler explained.

"High time!" Dorian replied with a smile. He glanced at Caesar’s right hand, and sure enough, there was the simple gold band on his ring finger, like the ones that Dorian and Chandler both wore, the token of membership. "When did we first invite you? Ten years ago?"

Caesar smiled slightly. "Yes, but the vow of chastity put me off."

"May I ask what made you decide to take it, then?"

Caesar flushed a bit, quite adorably, and looked at the floor. "Leopard and Sugar got married a couple of months ago."

"I see," Dorian said gently. He did not ask which of them Caesar had been pining for. So I am not the only one.

"And after taking his vows, Caesar told us how he and his friends acquired their powers," Chandler put in.

"Yes?" Dorian asked, sitting down again, idly brushing his hair over his shoulder. Caesar sat in the straight-backed chair across from him, perching on the edge of it.

"When Leopard, Sugar and I were young, we were in Peru with our parents. We got lost in the wilderness for three days. We were about to collapse, when an old man approached us. He — I don’t know how he did it, but it was he who gave us our powers."

"Which are?"

"Sugar can see the future, sometimes. Leopard has very fast healing and reflexes. And I — I simply know things. Without knowing how I know them."

"Such as? What do you know about me now?" Dorian challenged lightly.

Caesar looked at the floor again as he considered. "You’re very unhappy." Dorian said nothing. Caesar raised eyes full of compassion. "You’re in love with someone who hates you and loves another."

Dorian’s mouth tightened. "What is our mission?" he asked Chandler. He felt a bit guilty at Caesar’s rebuffed expression, but he did not want to talk about Klaus’s engagement.

"To find the man who gave Caesar and his friends their powers."

"You said he was old. He might not be alive, after so many years."

"A man with such powers might well be. And if he isn’t, surely someone would have been appointed to carry them on."

"Do you have any idea where he is now?" Dorian asked Caesar. "Or what his name is?"

"None."

"So our plan is to go to Peru and wander around in the hopes that we’ll find him?"

"With Caesar’s abilities, it could work. And there are other things worth looking into. Caesar knows things instinctively about works of art, you know. You must take him to look at the Nasca lines, and Cusco. And there are Incan treasures which might need rescuing."

"When do we leave?"

"As soon as you can gather your team, Eroica."

James, of course, seemed to be on the verge of a stroke at the suggestion of a trip to Peru.

"It’ll cost a fortune!" he wailed. "There’s all kinds of things you could steal right here in England, my lord!"

"But the things I want to steal are in Peru," Dorian explained patiently.

"He’s right, me lord," Bonham had insisted unhelpfully. "I just got wind of some wonderful emeralds in Portugal, and a buyer who’ll pay—"

Dorian shook his head. "How many times must I tell you all that I cannot steal for money alone? I must be inspired."

His team had all nodded in resignation, not much happier about the prospect than James. He had looked at them for a minute, coolly told them, "Pack everything up and leave at once, preferably tonight. I want you all to go there a couple of days ahead of me to set things up," and turned on his heel for the sanctuary of his bedroom.

His team was like his family — more so than those who actually shared his blood. And as was often the case with a family, he loved them all and knew he was loved in return, but seldom did he feel understood. So often he tried to tell them about the things dearest to his heart — art, beauty, Illumination, and of course the Major — and saw their faces and knew that he might as well have been speaking Sanskrit. None of them, of course, knew about the Illuminati.

When he insisted, they would go along with his plans, would follow him to the ends of the earth if he led them there, and yet they did so as if they were humoring a child with grand notions.

"Is bringing me down from being a hero to a comic role the divine ordeal designated for me?" he demanded aloud of the empty room.

Alone among his favorite treasures, he sat on his bed — a luxurious but narrow single bed, a constant reminder to himself of his vow of celibacy — and gazed about at the works he had so unlawfully acquired. The Giorgione shepherd, with its large and soulful eyes. The angel for which Caesar had modeled. An obscure but striking portrait by Romaine Brooks, of a middle-aged woman who, like all Brooks’s subjects, seemed to regard the viewer with a level glance full of self-awareness and dignity. And many other works which would have fetched several kings’ ransoms had Dorian allowed his people to sell them, but which no force on earth could induce him to part with.

What was it about these particular works that compelled him? Dorian could not have said. They spoke without words of mysteries, of the depths of the spirit, of the indefinable power that lay dormant in every soul.

Art, the Illuminati believed, was one key, one path to unlocking that power and elevating humans to the godlike status where they belonged. All of the Illuminati’s various pursuits had one goal: to bring what were vulgarly known as psychic powers within reach, to Illuminate the hidden depths of the human mind. It was not the next step in human evolution, it was the key to reversing the species’ decline. Comparing the works of Egypt to those of the present convinced Dorian that decline it had. The world was dissolving, not in evil, but in banality. He would find the way to rescue the human race from mundane idiocy if he possibly could.

When the Chief summoned Klaus the day after his return, he resolved that no matter what the requirements of this mission, he would not allow the Chief to strong-arm him into hiring Eroica this time.

In his office, the Chief shoved a photo over to him, of a young man with long, straight blond hair and a rather pretty face. "Do you remember this chap?"

Klaus scowled at the photo. "Caesar Gabriel. That sniveling brat you thought was psychic." Investigating that boy had been the first mission that Eroica had mucked up for him.

"And you concluded that he was not."

"That is correct, sir."

"Something happened recently that has renewed our suspicions."

"Does NATO have good reason to believe that such powers even exist?" Klaus demanded skeptically.

The Chief met his gaze stonily. "If such abilities exist, we cannot afford to ignore them."

Klaus nodded curtly. "What happened with this boy?"

"He’s hardly a boy now. He was lecturing to his class and someone brought up Evan Andrews’ recent death by overdose. Gabriel remarked off-handedly that Andrews’ death was not an overdose, that he was murdered by an assassin from a Middle Eastern power who want an end to certain research that his company is conducting."

Klaus’s brows met. "Are you telling me that the boy was right?"

"Entirely."

"That news story was a cover."

"Yes. And we’ve been monitoring the news; there have been no leaks."

"Perhaps he simply guessed."

"It’s a cynical guess, and Gabriel is not a cynical person. He’s one of those artistic dreamers. And Andrews’ company’s research is quite hush-hush. Only a handful of people know about it."

"So you think ESP told him the truth."

"Either that, or else he heard it from a reliable source. In which case, we need to track that source. Find Gabriel and find out how he knew. This could be very critical indeed."

"At once, sir."

On the way to his office, the Major jerked his head at A, who quickly rose to follow. Inside, he showed A the photo. "Remember this brat?"

"Yes, sir. The alleged psychic."

"Pull all of the files on him and find out his current whereabouts. And find out if he is still associating with that curly-haired bugger."

"Yes, sir."

"Dismissed!"

Only a short time later, B tapped on the door. He entered with a thin file, which he laid on Klaus’s desk without a word. Klaus opened it, dismissed B with a nod, and looked at the printout and photo before him for quite a while.

Years ago, he had given B a short list of names and given him the assignment of constantly monitoring those on that list, and notifying him whenever information came along. Over the years, the list had gotten slowly shorter. Now there was only one name left on it.

Santiago Gonzalez. Current whereabouts: Lima, Peru.

An hour later A entered. "Sir. Professor Gabriel just flew to Cusco, Peru yesterday, with his friend Leopard Solid. I found out the name of the hotel where he’s staying. And there is no record of association with the Earl in the last ten years."

"Peru?" Klaus looked meditatively at the file B had brought in. Several years ago, he had believed that the world operated by random chance. Since then, he had experienced enough coincidences to believe in Fate. Though he did not consider Fate to be a benevolent force. Fate had a malicious sense of humor. Eroica was proof of that.

"Book a flight tomorrow," Klaus ordered. "Me, you, B, G, Z. Cusco, Peru." He didn’t really want G along, useful and dedicated though the simpering transvestite was, but the Chief deserved the separation for making him hire Eroica on the last mission.

"Yes, sir."

Evening found Klaus sitting stoically in a limousine beside his father. He did not expect to enjoy this dinner, but it was his duty to withstand it.

"You and Greta should set a wedding date tonight," his father said. Ordered, really. "When I was your age, I was already married and had a higher rank."

Klaus set his jaw. "I will speak to her," was all he said. He had to concede that his father was right. He and Greta had been engaged for nearly a year now, and still had not formally announced it, much less set a date. She had pressed him, gently, to set one a few times. There had been so many delays, his work being what it was, but it had been long enough.

He should have told Eroica sooner, though. The result of the news had been a relief. He had been certain it would either cause a blowup of unprecedented proportions, or else rid him of the nuisance forever. Dorian’s wistful question about whether Klaus loved his fiancée had inadvertently shown him the way to discourage him. The thief hadn’t sent an ounce of flirtation his way since. Who would have thought a pervert would have such respect for betrothal. His stricken look when he heard the news had been more than Klaus expected. He supposed the perverted idiot must actually mean the things he said.

Klaus’s father had arranged this evening’s visit to Schloss Holbein without consulting him, knowing that Klaus would accede to his duty to his father and to his fiancée and go along.

It was time he had a serious relationship with a woman, Klaus thought. All the women in his life had passed through it in a matter of hours. The encounters had been unsatisfying at best. But it was small wonder, considering that he had never been with a woman he cared for or respected. Two years ago, after another awkward night with a beautiful woman of dubious character, he had realized it was time for something more.

Accordingly, at the tedious social functions his family’s position required that he attend, he had looked over the eligible young women whose parents did not neglect to introduce them to him, and found Greta. He liked the way she looked him, and everyone, right in the eye. She did not unleash a barrage of flirtation on him, but spoke intelligently. She was well-educated and articulate, and not vain even though she was rather pretty, in a quiet way. He had liked her at once.

He had begun a courtship, in formal terms which he later realized belonged to his father’s generation, or perhaps even his grandfather’s. She had seemed amused by his old-fashioned, correct advances.

She had fallen in love with him.

At Schloss Holbein he greeted Greta first, taking her hand, remembering to smile and compliment her dress, and then made the correct remarks to her parents and visiting aunts. He was filling every social protocol perfectly, he congratulated himself.

He submitted dutifully to the hour of cocktails and tedious small talk with the entire family. Greta, he noted with approval, withstood it better than he did. In fact, her sensible nature and gentle humor improved matters a great deal. She spoke to her elders with respect, even when they made remarks he knew that she disagreed with. Her poise never faltered; her manners were perfect. No man could ask for a better wife.

It was about an hour after the Eberbachs’ arrival that Greta’s mother suggested, with studied casualness, that the young couple might like to take a walk around the grounds. Klaus offered Greta his arm properly and escorted her outside. The sun was beginning to set; the clouds were turning colors, and there was still plenty of light.

When they were a short distance from the castle, Greta broke the silence. "When did you return from your mission?"

"Three days ago."

"And you didn’t come to see me until today."

Klaus frowned as he realized his error. "Forgive me. I should have. The only excuse I can claim is that of exhaustion. But after all, we will see plenty of each other once we are married."

She did not smile. "Weren’t you even a little impatient to see me?"

This, Klaus judged, was a good opportunity. "I am impatient to set a date, Greta. Though I am about to depart on another mission, and there is no telling how long it will take, so we must not make it too soon—"

Greta stopped and searched his face. "You are finally ready to set a date?"

"Yes. Do you think in about six months would—"

"Why? Why are you ready now?"

Klaus was a bit taken aback. "Well… it has been a year. We have waited long enough."

"I would say so. How long would it have taken you, today, to arrange to be alone with me? My mother had to suggest it."

"I was certain that a convenient moment would come," Klaus began, but Greta turned away from him and resumed walking. He followed obediently.

"Is it strange that I think that my fiancé should be impatient enough to see me alone after being away for six weeks that he wouldn’t be willing to wait for a convenient moment?" she asked softly.

He drew a breath. "Greta. Listen to me." He stopped, and she did as well, meeting his eyes seriously. "We have been through this before. I have never pretended to be the sort who can spout idiotic poetry or any such nonsense. But you will never have cause to complain of me."

"I’m sure," she said sadly. "Klaus, tell me. Have you ever been in love?"

Klaus frowned, unsure what to answer. Greta smiled ruefully.

"The correct answer, Klaus, is ‘Of course I have, with you.’ You could at least pretend. It would be polite."

"There’s no one else. I have been completely faithful to you since the day we met."

"I don’t doubt that. I wish I could. It would be more flattering, if I could believe there was someone else." She sighed, turned her profile to him. "Klaus… mine is one of the oldest families in Germany. For what it is worth in this democratic age, we are titled. I’m also unfortunate enough to be the sole heiress to a very large fortune. I have always known that I could not hope for a love match. I have too much to offer besides myself. But I always hoped that some man would be grateful that a good family had produced an heiress like me." She gave him a searching look. "That he would consider himself lucky to find a woman who was not only well-born and wealthy, but also pretty, intelligent, and — passionate."

Klaus had been going to protest, but the last word made him flush. He scowled. At last he sidestepped the remark. "Greta, ever since I was sixteen, I have had to endure constant attacks from eligible young ladies and their mothers. I know what that is like. You should not think I was only…." He tried to find the right words.

"It’s been a month and a half since you last saw me, and you haven’t even kissed me yet," she said sadly. "Klaus, you don’t want me. Not even a little."

"I proposed to you, didn’t I?"

She laughed mirthlessly, shaking her head. "Klaus…." She tried several times to say more, but at last, blinking away tears, she silently removed his mother’s diamond from her finger and held it out to him.

He frowned reprovingly. "Greta, you are being childish. I will not falter in my obligations to you. I—"

With a little sob, she dropped the ring to the ground at his feet, turned, and ran away, covering her face with her hands.

Klaus stared after her, with no idea what to do next. He hadn’t thought she was in earnest. He hadn’t taken her complaints especially seriously.

After a moment, he bent and retrieved the ring. It was still warm from her flesh. Brushing it off carefully, he pondered whether he should find her and try to change her mind. But the fact that he had not even realized what the problem was convinced him that he should not. They were not as compatible as he had hoped.

He put the ring in his breast pocket. He regretted Greta’s distress, but he already was feeling guiltily relieved to be free of her.

When he returned to the others, Greta was not present. Her mother looked at him sharply, then resignation settled on her features.

"Where is your fiancée?" Klaus’s father demanded.

"I suppose she went to change," her mother said smoothly. "Have you seen the new opera house, Herr Eberbach? I think I rather prefer the older ones, though it does have all the latest amenities."

Klaus’s father shot Klaus a suspicious look, but allowed Frau Holbein to change the subject. Greta did not rejoin them for dinner.

Klaus’s reprieve ended the moment they were inside the limousine. "What’s wrong with Fraulein Holbein?" his father demanded.

Without a word, Klaus took the ring from his pocket and handed it to his father. Herr Eberbach took it with deep discontentment.

"How did you bungle it?"

"I didn’t. She was planning to end our engagement before she saw me."

"Why? What did you do?"

"She wants someone romantic," Klaus said flatly.

His father shook his head and made a small noise of disgust. "Women. In my day, parents wouldn’t have allowed a girl to ruin a good match over such foolish considerations."

"Did you talk romantically to my mother?"

His father ignored the question. He had hardly spoken of his wife since her death thirty years ago. "You should have talked some sense into her."

"I tried."

"You obviously did not try hard enough."

Klaus stopped arguing. He listened to his father’s recriminations in silence for the rest of the ride home. When they reached Schloss Eberbach, his father demanded, "Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"

Klaus looked straight ahead, his jaw set grimly. "Nothing, sir."

His father glared at him for a minute. The chauffeur opened the limousine door. "We’ll discuss this more tomorrow," his father said before stepping out. Klaus also got out and went to his own room without a word. He saw no need to mention that he was catching a flight to South America tomorrow.

He changed into workout clothes and went to his gymnasium. He was upset and needed exercise. In spite of the ashamed relief that he no longer had to try to behave in the unnatural way required of a dutiful fiancé, he was troubled. It was partly because he had hurt Greta, which he had not wished to do. He focused carefully on that aspect of his disquiet.

But under that was the knowledge of something else. He had hoped that marriage would solve things for him, problems he had never quite put into words. He had expected it to give him a certain safety.

Face it, Eberbach, he told himself as he glanced in the mirror. You’ve lost another battle.

He drew a breath and lifted his head. One battle was not the war. It was not in him to give up. He would find another way to fight, and this time he would win.

Dorian’s team was already ensconced in the best rooms of Cusco’s most comfortable hotel and had a two-bedroom suite waiting for Dorian and Caesar.

"I can’t get used to hearing you called by Leopard’s name," Caesar told Dorian in a low voice as Bonham drove them to the hotel. All the airport employees had addressed Dorian as "Señor Solid". "Do members of the Illuminati always travel incognito?"

"Not often. I simply thought no one would consider it amiss that you were travelling with your old friend."

"Why would anyone consider anything amiss?"

Dorian shrugged. "I suppose I’ve simply picked up paranoid habits from association with NATO. I imagine I’ll grow out of it now."

"Why?"

"Because I am not working for NATO anymore." Dorian quickly leaned forward to speak to Bonham, eager to change the subject. "Is this car going to hold up for our visit?"

"The engine’s in great shape, me lord."

"Then I suppose James didn’t choose this vehicle."

"No, he cried buckets when we bought it."

Dorian laughed. Caesar, who had already heard numerous James stories, asked, "Why in the world do you tolerate him?"

"Because he’s one of my own," Dorian answered promptly, and then added, "When my father died, he left no money and a stack of debts that would make your blood run cold. James is the one who kept me out of bankruptcy."

"James and your own light fingers, me lord," Bonham reminded him. "We did a bit of advance scouting, me lord," he remarked a minute later as he pulled into the hotel’s parking lot, "so we already know of a few odds and ends that might merit your attention. Sadly mistreated, and worth their weight in gold to the archaeology blokes."

But Bonham waited until they were walking up the stairs to their suite before admitting, "We didn’t tell James that you were bringing the professor, me lord, so—"

This information was cut short by a piercing shriek. "Oh, no! No, my lord! Not that horrible boy again!"

Dorian sighed. "James, he’s just here to identify artworks for us—"

"You said he was your obsession! I knew you would go back to him in time!"

"James, that was ten years ago," Dorian reminded him in exasperation.

"And now you’re going to share a suite with him!" James stopped whining and commenced howling. Dorian gave Caesar a resigned look.

"Would you mind rooming with Jones, Caesar?"

"Not at all," Caesar murmured, stunned by the entire exchange.

"There, you hear that, Jamesie? Now go get your things and put them in one of the rooms in my suite. Caesar will take your room!"

James’ tears evaporated instantly and he bounced back into his former room for his things, caroling his stroke of luck to all within hearing. Dorian winked at Caesar and entered his suite.

It was Cusco’s best hotel, but would have been considered scarcely acceptable in Europe or the States. The plumbing was only barely adequate, but in South America, better could hardly be expected. But this was not the first time Dorian had foregone his admittedly beloved creature comforts for the sake of a mission for the Order — or for NATO. The furniture was comfortable and the cracked stucco walls he saw out the window and overgrown flowers had a charm of their own, as did even the heavy humidity.

A complete change of scenery, and a new companion. Precisely what he needed. Inhaling the overpowering fragrance of the flowers, he reminded himself that the Major’s engagement was the best thing for all concerned. The Major needed someone. Desperately. It would have been nice if Dorian had been that someone, but then, he could not be, and not only because Klaus hated queers. Dorian was grateful, in fact, that the one serious temptation to break his vows had been removed once and for all. That gratitude was not whole-hearted, but it was genuine. Now he simply had to accustom himself to a life in which Klaus had no part whatsoever, even the tantalizing, unsatisfying part he had had in the past.

It would be easier, once he had lived with it for a time.

A commotion across the hall distracted him from his musings. Dorian quickly went into the hall. The commotion was coming from the room Jones was going to share with Caesar. Dorian walked in without a word, thinking a cool head might be needed where Caesar and James were concerned.

He entered the little sitting room between the two bedrooms to find Caesar stretched out unconscious on the sofa, as Jones tried to revive him and James ranted something about specimens for entomologists.

"What happened?" Dorian asked in the calm voice he used for Jamesian events.

"There was a monster of a spider in the bathroom, milord," Jones explained, "and the professor walked in and saw it and just keeled right over."

"So he still has the habit of fainting, me lord?" Bonham asked at Dorian’s shoulder.

"Evidently. I had hoped he would have outgrown it," Dorian sighed as he went to sit at Caesar’s side. His lids were flickering as if he were dreaming. "I’ll wake him, Jones. You deal with the spider."

This evoked another screech from James. "Don’t kill it! It’s a huge specimen! We can sell it to a scientist! Bug experts always need specimens!" He followed Jones into the bathroom, still carping.

Dorian dipped his handkerchief in the glass of water Jones had had ready for Caesar and moistened the boy’s brow.

"So Uncle NATO didn’t teach him any of his virility, it seems," Bonham remarked.

Dorian’s mouth twitched. "Please don’t bring the machine maniac up, Bonham," he said quietly, not taking his eyes off Caesar’s pale face.

Bonham sent him an inquiring look. "Hem… any particular reason, me lord?"

Dorian drew a breath. "He’s engaged," he announced flatly. There. That was the second time he had said it. In time, it would become easy. He hoped.

Bonham was evidently groping for something sympathetic to say. He was saved from the necessity by James’ triumphant emergence with a drinking glass in which the arachnid in question was imprisoned. Looking at it, Dorian didn’t altogether blame Caesar. It was enormous. James charged down the hall, announcing his planned profit to the bemused tourists who peeked from the other rooms. Dorian shook his head, sympathizing with the unsuspecting entomologists who were about to be accosted.

Caesar sat up abruptly, opening his eyes with a gasp.

"It’s all right, Caesar," Dorian said soothingly. "It’s gone."

Caesar shuddered and put his face in his hands.

"Were you having a bad dream?" Dorian asked gently.

"Whenever I faint, I have — flashbacks."

"Flashbacks?"

"To previous lives. It’s been this way ever since I got these powers."

Dorian was at once intrigued. "What did you remember?"

Caesar drew a breath. "I’ve recalled bits of this life before. It seems to be the late eighteenth century, and I was a police detective in New York."

"Did they have detectives back then?"

"They must have. Leopard and Sugar were there, too," he added. "But that time, she chose me."

Dorian put a comforting hand on Caesar’s arm.

"Well, he got killed," Caesar admitted glumly.

"What a pair we are," Dorian said ruefully. "Let’s try to distract each other, shall we? After all, we have important work to do. Let’s wash up and go to some museums."

Klaus and G both attracted attention when Klaus and his alphabets checked into a hotel in Cusco. Pretty blondes were not very plentiful in this corner of the world, and of course G looked like a girl even when he wore a suit. But today he was in his preferred dress and hose and high heeled shoes and makeup. And his diminutive stature and slight build made him a very convincing transvestite. Christ, even Eroica was more masculine than that. And at least Eroica did not feel the need to simper and pretend to be helpless except at the most urgent moments, as G did. Eroica’s dandified affectations were downright powerful by comparison. Why the hell did queers feel the need to pretend to be airheads?

"Keep those lechers away from G," Klaus muttered at the other agents, much to G’s disappointment.

Klaus pretended that he did not notice his own admirer, a tall, shapely redhead in a tight, expensive dress. She had been crossing through the lobby with two besotted men in tow when she caught sight of Klaus, standing at the desk, and found some excuse to loiter, trying to catch his eye. He was aware of her appreciative glance, but carefully did not look in her direction. He was annoyed. He could not see any reason why people had to lust after him. It was a plain nuisance.

The clerk handed them their room keys. Klaus led the way up the stairs. He scarcely gave them time to put their suitcases down before saying, "Find out where that boy is right now."

Cusco was sufficiently magical that Dorian was able to forget the Major for minutes at a time. There was seemingly no end to the artifacts, both beautiful and fascinating, the city offered. Caesar could distinguish real from faked at a glance, even more quickly than Dorian could. And in the patterns on the items they looked at, there were, now and then, tantalizing hints at the mysteries they pursued.

A few of the many museums the city had to offer were good enough to pass Western standards, their treasures adequately protected from the ravages of time. Most were not, and Dorian was already making plans to rescue certain items from irresponsible care.

One day, as they were prowling through another substandard museum, Caesar suddenly looked up from the shelves of pottery, an expression of uncomplicated fright passing over his pretty face.

"That German Major is after me again!" he exclaimed.

Dorian felt as if cold water had been dashed on him. "What?"

"Major Eberbach — remember him? That fierce NATO Major? He’s coming after me again!"

Dorian put a soothing hand on Caesar’s arm. "Caesar, are you certain about this?"

"Of course! These feelings are never wrong. I only wish they were!" He put his head in his hands.

"Why on earth would he be after you? Can you sense the reason?"

Caesar shook his head hopelessly. "Maybe the same reason he arrested me last time, to test my powers."

"And he’s come all the way here to do it?" Dorian asked incredulously.

"He’s here! You have to believe me!"

"All right, all right!" Dorian turned to Bonham. "You and Jones go to the hotel and get our things. Don’t let him see you, if he’s hanging around, and don’t check out. We’ll head for the Lines at once."

"But my lord, if we don’t check out, we’ll have to pay for the rooms!" James whined.

"If we do check out, we’ll all be handed over to Interpol," Dorian snapped, exaggerating the risk as he always did when dealing with James.

"But we can’t leave without getting the things you said you would!" James wailed. "We need those to sell for the expenses!"

"I’ll go back for them later, James," Dorian said with all the patience he could muster.

"But the Major isn’t stupid, milord," Jones objected. "He’s going to guess where we’ve all gone. We’ve got to have a distraction for him."

Normally Dorian would have jumped at the chance. But now….

"I suppose there’s no help for it," he said reluctantly. He felt irrationally annoyed at Klaus. Why was Klaus always getting in the way of his missions? "Caesar, you will continue to travel — under the name Leopard Solid. I will travel to Lima as Caesar Gabriel. The Major will follow me away from you."

"No!" James screeched. "You’re going to be lovers with the Major, aren’t you?"

The knife twisted. Dorian gave James a weary look. "James, he’s engaged. He might even be married by now."

"You wouldn’t philander with a married man, would you, my lord?" James asked hopefully.

"Of course I wouldn’t—"

"But you can’t go alone! When he sees you he might forget his fiancée!" James declared.

Dorian indulged for a few seconds in a wish that such an eventuality was within the realm of possibility before realizing that James had a good idea. He didn’t want the Major to linger around him; his presence would be more painful and frustrating than ever now, and on a pragmatic level, the longer he lingered, the more likely he was to realize that the real Caesar Gabriel was actually in Peru. With James around to make a nuisance of himself, the Major would probably flee the country within minutes.

"I shan’t be alone, Jamesie," Dorian said coolly. "You’ll be coming with me."

That sniveling brat Caesar had always been a nuisance. Much more trouble than he was worth. Now, as soon as Klaus had tracked him down in Cusco, the brat had suddenly taken off to Lima instead. Of course, Klaus needed to be in Lima, but the brat had upset his plans.

Accordingly, Klaus promptly dragged his alphabets to Lima and set them to covertly learning what they could about Gonzalez while he took care of his official mission. It shouldn’t take long, and then he would be able to devote himself to Gonzalez.

The boy professor was away from his hotel room at the moment, so Klaus let himself in — not as easily as Eroica would have managed it, but easily enough — and searched it. It was rather more luxurious than he would have expected of the bookish youth he remembered, but perhaps the brat had changed in ten years. There were a few books on Incan artifacts, as expected, but not so many as Klaus would have anticipated. The wardrobe was also different from the drab slacks and sweaters the boy had worn a decade ago, the indifferent attire of one who leads a life of the mind. Now the closets held tunics, frilly shirts, and tight trousers. Seeing them, a nasty suspicion and dread formed in the Major’s mind, which was confirmed when he stepped closer to examine the clothes more carefully and caught a whiff of rose scent.

"Scheisse!" he muttered, and chose a chair to wait in.

A little more than an hour later, the door opened. Dorian strolled in cheerfully, that blasted stingy-bug on his heels. Both of them stopped in the doorway when they saw him.

"Come in," the Major invited, his tone a parody of politeness.

James glared fiercely, wrapping possessive arms around the Earl’s waist. Dorian, whose too-pretty face was flushed from the hot sun outside, had looked startled when he had first entered, but he quickly regained his usual aplomb. He struck a pose and examined the .22 which Klaus was aiming at him, more for form’s sake than as actual threat.

"Why, Major," Eroica drawled, arching an eyebrow at the small pistol, "what aren’t you compensating for?"

"Close the door."

Eroica did so, though the operation was a bit tricky with the stingy-bug clinging to him so tenaciously. "I don’t think Mosel's Wehlener Sonnenuhr is readily available in South America. Shall I order some other vintage sent up?"

"Where is Caesar Gabriel?"

The Earl smiled charmingly, toying with a curl. Somehow, he nearly always looked tousled, as if he had just— "Having a delightful time among my treasures at North Downs, I should think."

"Why are you travelling under his name?"

"Really, Major. In our professions, travelling under one’s real name is downright foolish. And the dear boy’s credentials are most convenient in gaining access to all the best places out here."

Bloody foppish longhairs, always screwing up his missions. Still, at least the Earl’s idiot impersonation had given Klaus an excuse to be in Peru. Klaus bent down to put the .22 back in its ankle holster. Then he stood.

"Don’t tell me you came all this way to see Caesar," Eroica said.

"I had no intention of telling you anything," the Major retorted, heading for the door.

"Why on earth are you looking for him? Should I be jealous?"

"Don’t make those perverted assumptions!" Klaus stopped to yell.

To his surprise, Dorian actually looked a bit contrite for his words. "How tactless of me. I was so surprised to see you that I almost forgot that you must be a newlywed by now." His eyes flitted to Klaus’s left hand, looking for a ring. "Or soon will be."

Even broken, the engagement was defending him.

Klaus glared for a second, again more from habit than anything else, and stalked out without another word, ignoring Dorian’s call of, "Do feel free to drop ‘round again sometime, Major."

James had not let go of the Earl’s waist the entire time.

"Are you certain it is Iron Klaus?" Santiago Gonzalez asked in a low, tense voice.

His informant nodded slowly. "Would I have dared to tell you if I were not certain?"

"How many agents does he have with him?"

"Only four. But those thieves he hires are here as well."

"The Eroica gang?"

The informant frowned. "Yes, but Eroica himself does not seem to be with them."

"Perhaps he plans to join them later. In any case, the gang will be useful to us. Is the old monastery in Nasca still secure?"

"Yes."

"Excellent. Call the others. We must avenge our fallen comrades."

That night, Klaus retired early, as was his habit. He hummed to himself as usual, but this night the conditioned reflex did not follow its path; after five minutes, he was still humming and still awake.

It was because of that curly-haired bugger. The thief was a damned nuisance, in numerous ways. Getting in the way, mucking things up, distracting Klaus from his missions.

The Major’s mind was well-disciplined. Most of the time, when it went along unproductive paths, he was able to school it in the safe routine of mentally taking apart and reassembling his Magnum, or reciting every kind of tank currently in use in alphabetical order, or taking some random sentence and translating it into ten languages. But occasionally his mind rebelled and insisted on venturing where it wished to. And where it wished to, more and more over the last few years, was Eroica. Damn him.

Drawing a breath of irritation, Klaus rolled out of bed onto the floor and began doing sit-ups. Fifty of them didn’t help. His thoughts were still wandering into dangerous territory. If only the bloody thief would leave him alone.

He sat on the floor glowering into space for a couple of minutes. It was not even ten o’clock yet. He knew what he had to do. He didn’t like it, but he was going to purge himself no matter what it took.

His jaw set, he rose and dressed.

As he had expected, the red-haired woman was still parading herself through the hotel’s nightclub. None of the alphabets were around, but Klaus would not have allowed their presence to deter him in any case.

Three men were gathered around the redhead, all hanging on to her every word and endeavoring to impress her as she held court, keeping them all at bay with lazy amusement, doling out just enough encouragement to keep them attentive. Idiots. Klaus’s natural dislike of such antics had inadvertently taught him the proper approach. He took up a spot at the bar, ordered himself a dark beer, and instructed the bartender to give the lady a drink. He did not glance her way as she accepted the drink and interrogated the bartender. Even a few minutes later, when she shook her three satellites loose and came to sit beside him, he did not look at her, but concentrated on his cigarette. One sign of interest, and he would have given her what she wanted and she would move on.

Come to think of it, perhaps he should have tried that strategy on Eroica. But no, after a moment’s consideration, he did not believe that would have worked on him.

He waited for her to begin the conversation. He volunteered nothing, making her ply him with questions. Unasked, she offered the information that her name was Vanessa, that she was from California, and that she was, in her own words, "a madcap heiress." A series of bored nudges from him eventually turned the conversation in the necessary direction, and he was invited to her room for another drink.

Once they were in her room, he knocked back the drink she offered him promptly to fortify himself. Then he looked at her and simply waited.

He did not have to wait long. The woman regarded him in a predatory fashion, sipping her drink, before setting it down on the bedside table, walking slowly to him, draping herself against him, and kissing him.

Klaus forced himself to hold still as the woman unbuttoned his shirt. He hated the vulnerable feeling of nakedness; even when he was alone, he dressed the moment he emerged from the shower. Still, he supposed he should reciprocate. Stiffly, he fumbled behind her for the zipper to her exceedingly tight dress. How could she breathe in this?

He wondered, as he always seemed to at such moments, how in God’s name he’d gotten himself into this situation. But of course he knew. She was strikingly beautiful, with all the right kinds of curves, clear skin and coppery hair. He had never had a redhead before. Perhaps, he thought without optimism, that was what he needed. He had heard, from numerous sources, that she was an expert. If she was, she might be able to solve the problem. The problem, which he never actually put into words, even in his own thoughts.

She took his hand and drew him in the direction of the bed. "Relax," she cooed, her eyes moving over him with feral possessiveness. He resented the look, as he resented her assumption of her right to touch him, but he complied. He only hoped she would not make too many… demands. The last time a woman had asked more than the most basic of cooperation from him, he had virtually fled from her room, and had not gone near a woman for two years afterwards. Not until guilt forced him to try again.

The redhead was working on his zipper now, and gave him an inquiring look when she found he wasn’t ready. Instantly his whole body tensed, and he felt a slight moisture of sweat on his forehead. These moments were so bloody embarrassing. But he had learned how to deal with them. With a slight, derisive smile, he taunted, "It seems you aren’t as good at this as I’d expected."

The spark of anger in her eyes was expected. She promptly set about proving him wrong. The touch of her mouth and fingers was skillful, he thought, and after a time, his body relented and responded to it.

He felt that he really ought to do more, but he could not bring himself to. Try, he ordered himself. He ran his hands over her body without interest. He tried to notice the pleasant feel of her skin, her beauty, her perfume — musky, not flowery, certainly not rose.

As he had expected, it did no good. She was beautiful. She was a skilled lover. His body was still responding only to the friction of skin on skin.

Would Dorian’s touch be as sure? What were those fingers, so agile at picking locks, capable of on another man’s body?

Klaus could not combat the rush of combined arousal and disgust that followed this thought. The redhead smiled smugly, believing that she had finally found the proper approach. He ran his fingers through her hair, forcing himself to pay attention to the fiery color. He had avoided blondes for years now; they made it too difficult to avoid the wrong kind of thoughts.

He suddenly wondered if Dorian lay in other men’s arms and pretended they were him. He closed his eyes against the thought.

Abruptly, he decided to get it over with. He made his wishes known in the briefest way he could voice. She looked a bit surprised and a bit annoyed, but at least she did not argue. She, too, seemed to decide to finish with the matter. Klaus wished he could simply walk out, but he could not quite summon that degree of rudeness. Not in this situation.

When it was over, leaving him unsatisfied but too spent to try for anything more, Klaus did not even light a cigarette before rising to wash and dress, hurrying so that he could return to his room and shower, wash off the feeling of her body. She lay finishing the drink she’d poured before they had started, the sheets pulled up around her chest. To his relief, she did not attempt conversation. Some women had, which only made it the more awkward. She did look rather put out. It was an expression he had seen before. He supposed he was something of a disappointment in this arena.

Well, hell. He couldn’t be the best at everything. He was Iron Klaus, not James Bond.

Two years earlier, after an encounter like this one, he had convinced himself that the problem was that the woman in question had meant nothing to him. Accordingly, he had sought out a woman he could have feelings for. After a long search, he had found Greta. He felt ashamed when he thought of her. She had been deeply wounded by him. And he had never intended that, and he was powerless to mend it. To do so he would have had to love her, which he had tried very hard to do, and failed. Just as he had been failing since he was fourteen years old.

Klaus had few friends throughout his school years. The few he had were not so much friends as classmates who shared pursuits such as sports with him, and their association consisted of those pursuits and not of friendliness. But there was one exception, when Klaus was fourteen, that lasted several months, and that was Gustav.

In later years, Klaus was unable to recall what he had seen in Gustav to capture his attention. Gustav’s abilities could not compare with Klaus’s either academically or athletically, though he was more than competent in both spheres, with respectable achievements. But he had one thing that Klaus utterly lacked: charm. He never seemed to want to argue, yet stood up for his own interests in a quiet way which never offended. He treated everyone with an automatic respect and friendliness, as if it never occurred to him that they did not deserve both. It was impossible not to like him. And he was always charming to everyone. Even to Klaus.

Perhaps that was Gustav’s appeal, that he seemed to like Klaus and enjoy his company. Klaus was not accustomed to being liked. He was too impatient, too intense, too overbearing, too often right. Gustav’s friendly gestures to Klaus were no greater than those he made to many other boys, but to Klaus, they were a novelty to which he responded as if he had been starving. Which, of course, he had.

For once, Klaus sought someone out. Gustav’s easy friendliness was a balm to burning wounds Klaus had not known he had. Klaus had forced himself to be patient with the time Gustav gave to other boys, to his many friends. The moments when Gustav chose to make him, briefly, the center of his attention were golden and precious.

Klaus found himself trying to impress Gustav. Gustav remarked that doing something or other would be clever, and Klaus did it. Gustav expressed disapproval of some mischief a couple of classmates were getting into, and Klaus put a stop to it. Gustav remarked that doing something or other would be fun, and Klaus promptly arranged for them to do it.

Gustav was always appreciative, but never did Klaus get the kind of enthusiasm he was aiming for. It did not matter. He would still go to any lengths to fulfil what he suspected were Gustav’s wishes.

His own world began to revolve, for the first time since his mother’s death when he was very small, around another person. His school day was made up of classes he shared with Gustav, separated by classes he did not. During the former he was aware only of what Gustav probably thought of the information being imparted, of Gustav’s expression as he listened to the nuns instructing them, of Gustav’s moments of inattention, of whether he seemed interested or not. When Gustav answered the teachers’ questions correctly or made a good grade, Klaus felt far more proud than when he himself did so.

A good day was one during which he spent time with Gustav. A wonderful day was when, for a little while, studying or walking around the school grounds talking or anything, he had Gustav to himself. He kept a journal to record the details of those interludes, and replayed them over and over in his mind.

His eyes were always on Gustav. He could have sculpted an image of his friend from clay wearing a blindfold, so well did he know Gustav’s form: his height — just four inches less than Klaus’s own, his trimly muscled figure, his properly straight back, his well-shaped hands, the slight waves of his light brown hair, the firm line of his chin, his rather wide-set dark eyes. Klaus observed Gustav’s every movement, the simple grace of how he smoothed his hair back, or picked up his books, or kicked a ball on the field.

Klaus tried, with unaccustomed subtlety, to discourage other boys from approaching Gustav. He did not succeed. There were a few in particular, boys who had been close friends of Gustav’s for years, who roused Klaus’s jealousy. Low-key attempts to alienate them did not work, and Klaus felt that his usual aggressive tactics would have annoyed Gustav, so instead he did his best to befriend the boys himself. His efforts were unconvincing, but they tolerated him because Gustav liked him.

Once, just for a second, to get his attention, Gustav put his hand on Klaus’s arm just above the elbow. The touch warmed Klaus all over, and he glowed from it for the rest of that day.

Once or twice, other boys remarked on the attachment, but wariness of Klaus’s well-known violent temper kept the remarks moderate. That temper, incidentally, was never unleashed upon Gustav. On more than one occasion, Klaus had begun working up to a fury, and Gustav said easily that it wasn’t worth getting mad over, and Klaus accordingly forced his rage down and endured it quietly. Gustav was able to gently tease Klaus without provoking an outburst; when he did it, Klaus saw affection, not malice. He wished Gustav would take the trouble to tease him more often.

In later years, when Klaus remembered Gustav, which he tried not to do, there was one moment that inevitably came to mind. They had been sitting under a large tree by a river not too far from the school, where they technically were not supposed to be, but a favorite place of theirs to come to study and talk together, and for Klaus to smoke, a vice Gustav did not share with him.

Gustav was not very good at math, and Klaus had pressingly offered to help him, an offer to which Gustav occasionally indifferently acceded. There was going to be a test the following day, and on this afternoon Klaus was quizzing Gustav on the formulas, refreshing his memory with a patience no one else had ever received from him, before or since. Gustav did not notice when an insect settled on the suntanned skin of his arm. Klaus did.

"Hold still," he said. It was an order, but spoken gently, as if Gustav was the one person in the world who Klaus did not consider under any obligation to follow orders from him. With care that far exceeded the operation’s requirements, he brushed the insect off, careful to take it by surprise so that it did not bite Gustav. Klaus would not have cared if he himself had been bitten.

And then, without thinking at all, Klaus laid his hand on Gustav’s arm where the creature had been and simply looked at him and smiled. Smiled with pleasure at the general sense of the wonder of Gustav. His soul responded to the simple physical contact like a plant to rain and sunshine, as if the world were only in order when he was touching Gustav.

Gustav returned the look, and did not smile.

He frowned a bit, as if something had just occurred to him. When Klaus’s expression did not change, something altered in Gustav’s eyes. Nothing definite. But abruptly there was a chill, a distance there which Klaus had never seen when that gaze was turned on him. From Gustav, it was a killing frost.

Feeling cold all over, Klaus froze, his smile fading. The beautiful moment had suddenly turned quite ugly.

A few seconds later Gustav had stood, moving his arm away from Klaus’s touch, a lack which mattered absurdly much.

"It’s time to get back to the dormitory," Gustav remarked.

An observer would have thought that the two boys were the same together as always as they walked back, except perhaps that Klaus was a bit less cheerful about being in Gustav’s presence than usual. But Klaus knew, with a coldness in the pit of his stomach, that things had changed. He had given offense. He had presumed too much.

In the weeks which followed, Klaus was certain that it had not been his imagination. Gustav had cooled towards him. There was nothing definite or overt. He was as charming as always. But there was no more time with the two of them alone, and no more moments in the sun when Klaus, of all Gustav’s companions, was singled out. Klaus was merely one of several, with no special notice given him.

This was Klaus’s version of the lowest circle of Hell: the outer circle of Gustav’s friendship. And he knew, knew that he had lost what little special claim he had on Gustav’s affection. It could never be reclaimed. He had ruined it.

He tried to tell himself that Gustav still liked him as much as he ever had, but he did not believe it. He knew perfectly well that Gustav was trying to put distance between them. Suggestions of time together, without others, were met with cheerful, offhand excuses which could not possibly give offense, yet which twisted Klaus’s innards as painfully as the most emphatic rejection could have.

He moped. His grades fell off, though only slightly. He burned his journal. His free time was spent mulling over his lost friendship, and asking the universe, with a cry of anguish, Why? Why had he lost the regard of the only companion he had ever cared for?

And as often as he asked that question, he very seldom answered it. The answer lurked beneath the surface of his thoughts, like a deadly beast concealed by the darkness, ready to attack at the first relaxation of vigilance.

And occasionally Klaus’s vigilance did relax, and in those horrifying moments, he knew. He knew why Gustav had forsaken him. He knew what would have happened had Gustav, instead of turning cold, smiled back. He knew, God help him, what forbidden and ugly wish Gustav had seen in his face that day by the river. The fact that at the moment it had felt quite pure and beautiful made no difference. At the thought that Gustav had seen this, that Klaus had been for one instant so vile and Gustav knew it, that Gustav had perceived in him something so repugnant that he was forced to flee, Klaus shriveled inside.

And so he locked that knowledge inside. Where he was able to disregard it for some years. If anyone noticed that he quite suddenly excused himself forever from the even the outer circle of Gustav’s friends, no one connected this with the sudden increase in his already violent temper. Fighting — especially an all-out brawl with two or more worthy opponents — was a relief, an outlet for the pain he did not acknowledge.

By the time he was at university, he had known that he was afflicted with desires that he would have to fight. He did not think of them as a part of himself, but as enemies which occasionally attacked him from within, trying to drag him into depravity. He avoided thinking about them, when possible. When he could not, it was with a combination of guilt and anger at the burden the universe had struck him with. He never allowed himself to consider the matter enough to untangle troubling conflicting emotions the issue raised. It was not something to be understood, but to be fought, at all costs.

Dorian put down the phone and frowned, staring at nothing.

"What is it, my lord?" James demanded anxiously. "There hasn’t been a stock market crash, has there?"

Dorian couldn’t help laughing at that. "No, Jamesie, don’t fret about that. I’m just wondering why the Major hasn’t gone back to Bonn yet."

"He’s still here? In Lima?" James’ eyes welled up. "He’s staying here to be near you! I knew it!"

"James!" Dorian snapped. At his tone, James was startled out of his imminent wailing. "I don’t want to hear another word like that! The Major has never had any interest in me and now he’s engaged to some woman who’s probably only after his rank and fortune and you can damn well shut up about it!"

James resorted to quietly whining, as he always did when Dorian lost his temper with him. Dorian moved to the window and gazed out it absently, pondering. He was getting bored, here in Lima with only James for company, and was itching to find out what Caesar was learning in Nasca, but while the Major was still here, he didn’t dare draw attention to Caesar’s actual whereabouts. Why on earth was Klaus still here? It certainly couldn’t be on his account.

A familiar pounding sounded on the door. Dorian whirled, too stunned to move to answer. For one insane second, he believed that James’ self-pitying speculation had been true.

Another loud knock, and James incautiously scurried to open the door, apparently not recognizing that distinctive hammering. When the door swung open to reveal the Major, grim and tight-lipped, James recoiled with a screech.

"I knew it!"

"Shut up!" Klaus and Dorian both snapped in unison. James cringed.

Klaus’s gaze went to Dorian. He looked serious, but not angry. Dorian braced himself. "Major. To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"What was your team doing in Nasca?" Klaus asked in a peremptory tone.

Dorian smiled slightly. "What do you think?"

Klaus closed the distance between them in a few long strides and seized Dorian by his shirt front. "This is no time to joke, Eroica," he snarled.

"This is a business trip," Dorian said patiently.

Klaus gave him a little shake. "Be more specific, damn it."

Dorian sighed. "We’re looking for artifacts that need good homes, what else? And of course we meant to take a look at the Lines before we leave."

"You did not have anything else up your lacy sleeve." Klaus’s eyes were boring into Dorian.

"We were also hoping to meet a mysterious, wise old man who would give us magical powers. Other than that, no, Major. Why do you ask?"

As if remembering himself suddenly, Klaus released his shirt and stepped back. When he spoke, it was in his approximation of a gentle tone.

"Eroica… your team has been kidnapped."

Dorian’s eyes widened. "What…? Are they — do you know—"

"They will be fine," Klaus said curtly. "I know the people who have them. But I have to get them out."

Dorian slumped against the wall.

"How much ransom do they want?" James was demanding anxiously.

"What do they want?" Dorian whispered.

"Me," Klaus answered grimly. When Dorian’s eyes widened, he explained, "One of these criminals is… an old acquaintance of mine. When he found out that I was here, he took your team hostage and notified me — he knows of our association." He scowled. "I did not intend to endanger your people, Eroica."

Dorian nodded numbly. "I’ll get them back."

Klaus pinioned him with a fierce glare. That expression really ought to be a registered weapon. "You will stay the hell out of my way."

"While my people are in trouble? I have a responsibility to look after them and Caesar. I have to—"

"Caesar?"

Dorian bit his lip, then made himself return the Major’s glare. "He traveled here with us to study Peruvian artifacts. When we found out you were after him, I was naturally concerned for his safety. I sent him away and distracted you to protect him."

"Protect him." Klaus’s face was hard.

"Yes! We haven’t forgotten the last time you took an interest in him."

"So you sent your lover off to Nasca to protect him."

"I never said he was my—"

"Idiot!" Klaus started shaking him again, harder this time. "I was assigned to find that sniveling brat, and now he has been kidnapped by those— That is the result of your trying to protect him!" Klaus abruptly shoved him away, apparently bored with shaking him.

"I’ll get him back," Dorian repeated. "James, pack my tool kit and fetch—"

"I told you to stay out of my way for once!" Klaus yelled.

"You stay out of my way," Dorian replied irritably. He was already going insane with worry for his team and Caesar. The last thing he needed was to be inconvenienced by NATO. "You think I’m going to let a friend of mine be fought over by two sets of psychopathic kidnappers?"

Klaus seized his shirt front again and raised his fist. Dorian braced himself and averted his face so that the right side of it faced Klaus, literally turning the other cheek.

"Could you get the other side for a change of pace, darling?" he said in the lightest tone he could muster.

Klaus froze, his angry mask dissolving for a few seconds. Then, with a curse, he shoved Dorian away.

"These are my people whose lives are on the line, Major," Dorian pointed out, straightening his blouse.

Klaus’s snarl faded, and Dorian almost thought that what replaced it might be grudging respect. After a moment, Klaus spoke again, in his usual commanding tone. "You are coming with us."

"Pardon me?"

"I can see that short of strangling you, there is no way that I can keep you from running to your lover’s side—"

"It’s silly of you to assume that just because we’re—"

"—so you are going to work with us, where I can keep an eye on you."

Dorian sighed. "That really isn’t necessary, Major. I’ll get him back."

Klaus looked at him incredulously. "Are you refusing to work with me?"

"Yes," Dorian said gloomily.

The silence that followed was heavy.

"You are working with me," Klaus informed him. "I can put you in handcuffs and have B keep you in custody, or you can cooperate."

Dorian considered making a joke about the handcuffs, but decided it wasn’t worth the bother. "I’ll cooperate," he said, defeated. "Just stay out of my way."

Klaus was stalking to the door, manfully ignoring Dorian’s last words, when he stopped suddenly and turned, skewering Dorian with a glance.

"How did you know that I was looking for him?"

Dorian bit his lip again. He had probably given something away. "You should be more careful who you ask questions of," he suggested as if idly. "They might find it more worth their while to tell others you’re asking than to tell you the answers." Which was true in principle, but in fact had nothing to do with the case at hand.

Klaus accepted the answer, however, and nodded grimly. "You have ten minutes to get your equipment together, Eroica," he said brusquely. "And I suppose your foppish clothes as well."

"Would you prefer I left all my clothes behind?" Dorian said automatically, but without his usual Eroica flair. His heart really wasn’t in it.

"Pervert," Klaus retorted as he strode out, but he sounded half-hearted as well.

When the door closed behind the Major, Dorian closed his eyes and drew a breath. His team and Caesar were in danger and he was going to have to work side by side with his beloved who was now more unattainable than ever. Things could probably be worse, but offhand he really couldn’t see how.

"He’s going to strangle us both!" James howled, apropos of nothing. Dorian opened his eyes reluctantly.

"Only if we’re late. Pack up my tools, Jamesie," he ordered, pushing himself off the wall with an effort.

Klaus stalked to the Jeep parked in front of the hotel. "Caesar Gabriel’s with the pervert’s team," he snarled to A.

"Then Gabriel’s being held hostage, too?" A asked, distressed.

"Probably," Klaus said grimly, getting in. "Do not tell that curly-haired bugger how dangerous Gonzalez and his cronies are. Bad enough having him around without having him in hysterics."

"’Having him around’?" A echoed nervously.

Klaus glowered at nothing in particular. "Short of shooting him, there is no way I could stop the idiot from attempting to rescue his team himself. As long as he is going to be mucking up the works, I decided it would be best to keep him where we can watch him."

"Yes, sir," A said dolefully.

Half an hour later Dorian and James joined Klaus and his alphabets at their temporary headquarters. The agents were dashing around — it looked like chaos, but Dorian knew there was order to their frenzy. They all paled when they saw Eroica, but did not pause in their tasks. The poor darlings paled even further when Klaus discovered that he was out of cigarettes. G ran off to buy some. The others continued loading things onto Jeeps and looking at maps and generally looking busy. James started harassing A about their fee, ignoring Dorian’s attempts to explain that they hadn’t been hired.

Dorian mostly tried to stay out of the way. He was feeling rather numb. Just when he’d thought his life was changing, becoming less complicated, his quest nearing its object at last, all at once he was back where he’d been for the last ten years: trying to work with that appallingly attractive madman and keep his hands to himself, while pursuing a mission not to his taste at all.

Klaus prowled all over the room, glaring at everyone and everything, snapping orders in machine-gun rapid German. He paused by Dorian to snap, "Did you give your stuff to A?"

"You saw me do it," Dorian said composedly. "You can ask you if you don’t believe me."

Klaus nodded curtly as if unaware of the impudence in Dorian’s reply, or of his own error. He reached for his front pocket and then let his hand fall, irritated. Dorian smiled to himself, recognizing the gesture of a frustrated smoker, and reached into his own pocket.

The Major was turning to bark an order at another of the alphabets when his eye fell on the open pack of Eckstein No. 5 unfiltered German cigarettes that Dorian was holding extended to him. Klaus would smoke anything, though given the choice he thought the stronger the better, but a couple of years earlier Dorian had bribed several people to learn Klaus’s favorite brand, an expensive and elusive one. Germans had been making Eckstein No. 5 for a century, even shipping them to their soldiers in the first World War. Their history had to appeal to Klaus, as did the flavor, good but far too rich and strong — much like the man himself.

The Major scowled at the pack. The typical Klaus-ian reaction to thoughtfulness made Dorian want to smile, but he suppressed it.

"Since when do you smoke real cigarettes, Eroica?" the Major demanded irritably. "I thought you liked those pansy things that taste like paper."

"I do," Dorian replied serenely, holding Klaus’s gaze. Though the fact was, he smoked perhaps twice a year. "I got these for you, Major."

Klaus took a cigarette from the pack and held it between his lips as he took the pack and stuffed it into his pocket. He reached for his lighter, but Dorian already had his own ready and ignited a couple of inches from the tip of Klaus’s cigarette.

Klaus stared at Dorian’s gleaming gold lighter for a second before conceding. He leaned forward slightly, and when the cigarette’s tip did not immediately meet with the flame, he steadied Dorian’s hand with his own as if automatically. Dorian’s lips parted at the slight touch, the more precious because it was treated so casually. God, if only this could be normal.

Those emerald eyes had been fixed on the cigarette and lighter, but without warning they snapped up, meeting Dorian’s. Klaus’s eyes gave nothing away, but they also did not evade Dorian’s. Dorian did not breathe. But Klaus inhaled, drawing in the overpowering flavor of those unsubtle Ecksteins even as he held Dorian’s gaze.

If they could have spent eternity standing like that, their eyes locked and Klaus’s large hand curving around Dorian’s more slender fingers, Dorian would have been perfectly content.

But of course it ended. The cigarette ignited. Klaus straightened and his hand dropped away as if nothing of moment had occurred. Dorian released the lighter’s button and then slowly lowered his hand. Their eyes were still locked, and they were standing closer than could be comfortable for either of them.

Klaus’s eyes narrowed just slightly. Then, almost gently, he blew a cloud of smoke right into Dorian’s face.

Instinctively, Dorian closed his eyes and averted his face, grimacing slightly. When he opened his eyes a second later, waving the smoke away, Klaus was already stalking off, yelling at B to find some map he wanted.

"You’re welcome, Major," Dorian informed his beloved’s swiftly departing back.

G returned with cigarettes and an armload of other last-minute supplies. Klaus snatched the cigarettes — apparently there was no such thing as too much tobacco — and snarled at G to pack it all on one of the Jeeps. "We are leaving in half an hour," Klaus barked.

"To do what, exactly?" Dorian spoke up at last. "Is there a plan?"

"Of course—" Klaus stopped abruptly and scowled. "I suppose having you in the mix changes things."

"Naturally. Now that you have my skills at your disposal, surely your plan can stand improvement," Dorian said tranquilly. From the corners of his eyes, he noticed the alphabets bracing themselves.

"Use one criminal to rescue more criminals from still more criminals," Klaus said acidly. "Makes sense. So what is in that devious brain of yours?"

"A simple enough strategy. The rest of you will take the most obvious route to the — where did you fellows say my friends are being held?"

"In an old monastery in Nasca," Z supplied.

"Nice to know Fate hasn’t lost her sense of irony. While you fellows are basking in their attention, I will take a different route, sneak in the back way as it were, and break my team out by my own methods." Dorian gave the Major a level glance that was a shade too respectful. "And while I’m at it, I’ll be happy to pick up anything the other chaps have that’s caught your fancy, Major."

"If you think I am going to let you run off alone and get up to God knows what," Klaus snarled, "you are an even bigger idiot than I thought you were." He added as an afterthought, "Besides, you would get yourself killed."

"True." Dorian turned a charming smile on the alphabets. "Maybe one of you brave lads could come with me, to chaperone me and beat up anyone who needs beating up."

"The strategy is sound, sir," Z said nervously. "If you decide to go along with it, I’ll volunteer to accompany Lord Gloria—"

"Nein! I am not putting any decent German boy where he can—"

"Oh, for Heaven’s sake," Dorian snapped. "It was your idea that I shouldn’t go alone. I promise to be a perfect gentleman. In any case, I believe Z can defend himself."

Klaus shook his head impatiently. "If an inept fighter like you is going in as half of a two-man army, you need someone who can easily fight for two and keep you out of trouble to boot!"

In the silence that followed, everyone realized who that had to be.

Dorian closed his eyes and covered his face with one hand.

"God damn it to fucking hell," Klaus groaned.

"I’m certain Z will manage me quite nicely, Major," Dorian said tonelessly.

"The hell he will. I am going with you to get your team and your lover out of there."

Dorian sighed. "If you insist."

Eroica’s odd reluctance to be accompanied by the Major did not go unnoticed by the alphabets, but none remarked on it. James, however, did.

"My looooord!" he wailed. "You promised!"

Klaus crossed to James in three long strides and lifted him by his shirt front, shaking him and snarling, "Shut. The. Hell. Up."

Dorian’s eyes sparked with anger. He moved to them quickly and seized Klaus’s wrists, insinuating himself as close to in between the two as he could. "You leave him alone! If you want someone to beat up on, beat up on me, not my people!"

Klaus turned his head to look at Dorian, looking faintly stunned. Dorian held his gaze, glaring. The alphabets held their breath.

"I knew you cared, my lord," James sniffled smugly into the silence.

Klaus shoved James at Dorian, knocking both of them off balance. A minute later, with Klaus prowling over the Jeeps deciding what he and Dorian would need and lots of commotion going again, Z deemed it safe to help them up.

"Better not let him catch you being nice to me," Dorian sighed. Generally he had ignored his beloved’s hostility toward him, accepting it as simply the way Klaus took the world, friend and foe alike. As often happened at such moments, he felt sudden, surprising compassion for his Major. Surely even Iron Klaus could not like to be so isolated. Dorian found that there was one corner of his soul that could be genuinely glad that the man he loved was getting married. If ever a man needed someone, it was Klaus. He was a martyr, bearing a double cross and saving the lives of many... and hopelessly clean and abstinent.

As for Dorian… he was simply tired of it all. Tired of the entire struggle, the whole decade-long fight. And as he had anticipated, having Klaus present and untouchable was more painful than ever now. It seemed that one more barrier between them should not make much difference, considering how impenetrable those already dividing them had been. With homophobia and a vow of chastity already keeping them apart, what difference did an engagement make?

A great deal, at least to Dorian’s heart. Every time he looked at Klaus, it cut deeper.

It was no better when the alphabets and James took off in two Jeeps and he and Klaus left in another, heading in a different direction, just the two of them. Rejecting his past tactic of trying to make conversation, Dorian sat quietly, watching the view as ramshackle houses gave way to rocks and barren dirt, not looking at Klaus.

"I have never seen you this quiet," Klaus snapped about half an hour outside of Lima. "What the hell is the matter with you?"

"You mean besides that all of my friends have been kidnapped and the man I love is going to marry someone else?"

Klaus looked grim even for him. "We will get your people out," he said a minute later. "And I can personally guarantee that their kidnappers will not bother you or anyone else ever again."

Dorian hesitated before answering. "You shouldn’t take so many risks anymore, Major."

"Why the hell not? It is my job."

"Because you’re engaged. You don’t want to make her a widow before she’s even a bride, do you?"

Klaus shot him a suspicious look. Dorian looked straight ahead, his face grave. "She will have to accept the risk," Klaus said.

Dorian thought for quite a while before speaking again. "You don’t sound like a man in love."

"What should I do? Devote a week to systematically wreaking havoc on her life in every way imaginable, and then, when she asks me why, announce in front of a room full of strangers that I did it because I love her?"

Dorian’s cheeks burned. "Point taken," he said in a small voice. "Major—" He broke off and looked away.

"What?" Klaus demanded after a long and tense silence.

Dorian shook his head, defeated. "Nothing."

"Tell me what you were going to say or I will stop the vehicle and shake it out of you."

"You could try just asking, Major."

"Then spit it out."

Dorian twined his fingers together on his lap and looked at the rocky cliff rising on one side of them, nearly twenty feet high, stretching perhaps half a mile ahead of them. In spite of the inhospitable rock terrain, a scrubby tree had staked out a home in a small, deep hollow in the cliff wall where wind and rain had deposited a modicum of soil. It was probably scarcely enough soil to nourish the tree and brace its roots at all, but the tree was stubbornly clinging to its spot, its branches twisted oddly as they reached out of the cliff face for sunlight. The tree looked downright crippled, but still it had put out a few bright yellow flowers in the face of overwhelming odds.

Dorian found his voice. "I was only hoping we could make some kind of peace with each other, since with any luck we won’t be seeing each other again after this mission."

"If you stay away from me and stop mucking up my missions, that will be peace."

"Do you ever unbend and act like a human being? Just for a minute?"

"Not for perverted thieves, I do not."

"Of course not." Dorian fell silent for a bit longer. "We have to work together for a few days, at least. Shouldn’t we try to get on?"

"Go ahead."

What do I see in this brute? Dorian thought, but he had stopped asking himself that question in earnest long ago. He knew the answer perfectly well. He loved Klaus because Klaus was Klaus. It was as simple and incomprehensible as that.

Had Klaus been anything like Caesar, or any of the other men Dorian had met, the ones who had wanted him, Dorian could have been just as indifferent to him as to the others. He had a great deal of practice, after all. He had built up immunity to most kinds of charm.

Dorian had chosen his path in life on the night of his first attempted theft, and he hadn’t looked back since. At the age of fourteen, scant weeks after a truly beastly man had tried to force his attentions on Dorian, a vow of celibacy had not seemed at all daunting. The experience had frightened him so that it even seemed a relief; no need to ever face it again, ever.

His love for Klaus had never made him reconsider his vows, but it had made him wonder if he would be able to keep them, on the off chance that he ever had the opportunity not to.

He was, strictly speaking, bending the rules when he stole the occasional kiss from some lovely young man. But his tastes aided him in this. Perhaps from a desire to reclaim his more innocent past self, or perhaps from a need to control his flirtations after that frightening experience, he was drawn to innocent, pretty, waifish young men. Such men were generally too uncertain to make any advances themselves. Dorian could safely steal a few kisses from them, knowing they would be too awed to press the issue and insist on more. Though few had been as easily turned aside as Caesar; no other man had ever passed out after kissing him. It had been rather flattering.

Yes, Dorian had liked pretty boys like himself, slim, winsome, artistic young men, poets and ballet dancers. Men with hard muscles and harder souls had had little appeal for Dorian. He did not care for men who were like wire ropes.

Until one wire rope showed him the beauty of highly polished steel.

Dorian believed that was what had done it: the total incongruity of the man's iron spirit and his hidden romanticism. Only a dyed-in-the-wool romantic could possibly devote his life to such a quixotic quest for perfection. The man was as big a dreamer as Dorian was. And the unusual form of his dreams only made them the more compelling.

The instant they had met, it had been obvious that Klaus was not his type. This had made him feel free to flirt outrageously, gleefully enjoying the stuffy Major’s furious reaction. When they had ended up in that tank together, he had been concentrating on distracting himself from Caesar’s semi-conscious charms, thus leaving himself totally undefended against the sudden revelation that there was a human being inside that crisp uniform of the Major’s.

He had scarcely realized what was happening to him as he suddenly acquired an appreciation for the beauty of highly polished steel, and abstinent uniforms, and angular muscled physiques. Had Klaus made an overture at that moment, he would have been powerless to resist. As it was, when he emerged from the tank, he realized that there was a new brand of temptation in his life, more potent if only because it was new.

It was like a trashy romance novel: his heart had been untouched, until he had encountered a tall, dark and handsome Alpha male able to take him in hand….

Consequently, he had resolved to avoid the stunning, austere Major after that. But as always, Fate had plans of her own. In Greece on business of his own, he’d found himself right into the middle of a NATO operation, headed by none other than Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. The belligerent oaf had threatened him, on that cliffside. Dorian had somehow found the right words to break through his fury, and once more Dorian had glimpsed a chink in that armor. And once more he had been charmed by it.

Then in Persia, Fate had given him a chance to safely embrace his beloved and kiss his sandpaper cheeks, inhale the scent of his cheap aftershave and expensive tobacco, with at least two dozen witnesses to prevent Klaus from either killing him or succumbing to him. After nuzzling that wonderful strong jawline, Dorian had thought he was going to faint. How could he do otherwise, holding six feet and two inches of deadly German muscle and iron shivering faintly with impending violence in his arms? Good God, this was no awed boy who could be given a few kisses and dismissed. If Klaus had wanted him, Dorian’s vows wouldn’t have stood a chance.

But Dorian had allowed himself the dangerous game of infatuation, certain that it was safe because his feelings would never be returned in the slightest measure.

Then came his first job for NATO, and the Hallelujah Express.

Dorian had absconded from the train to make copies of the blueprints for his people to go over. He had returned via helicopter in time to obstruct one of Mischa’s snipers, who was aiming at Klaus. Was that the first time he had saved Klaus’s life? They had rescued each other so many times, over the years….

The sniper foiled, Dorian dropped the ladder from the helicopter and climbed down. Trying to jump into a moving train was much more difficult than jumping out of it, he found. Scarcely had he gotten a handhold on the door when an iron grip had seized him and hauled him aboard.

The Major, of course.

"'Lo, Major," Dorian had said with all the aplomb he could muster, considering that he was being held at a precarious angle by a large handful of his "flashy" red shirt. "Thanks for greeting me."

Klaus had been so furious that he had been unable to form a complete sentence. He shook Dorian until his head knocked back and forth, snarling, "You — you — this — bugger — you — God damn—"

"Don't shake me so much!" Dorian had snapped. "You’re driving me crazy."

"You are crazy to begin with!" Klaus’s grip on his shirt had tightened.

"I can't breathe—" Dorian had tried to protest.

"SHUT UP!"

Dorian shut up, pressing his lips together and waiting with raised eyebrows. It seemed to calm Klaus just a bit, enough to stop shaking him and start berating him instead.

"How dare you leave the train!" the Major demanded. "You have quite a nerve, Lord Gloria!"

"I kept my word," Dorian said coolly.

"Who the fuck can believe your frigging words!?" the Major snapped, becoming angry again.

Dorian dropped the blasé pose and spoke seriously. "Didn't you wait for me because you trusted me, Major?" he asked softly.

The Major’s fury evaporated instantaneously as he realized that Dorian was right. They locked eyes. Dorian could not have said later how long they looked at each other like that, but it felt like years.

Dorian was aware of Klaus’s body tantalizingly close, of course. It was always distressing when an attractive man came into such close contact. But there was more.

Dorian had known that the Major was dangerously sexy. He had known that the Major was dangerous, period. He had known that any encounter of two personalities as extreme as theirs was bound to be explosive.

But until that moment, with Klaus’s unguarded eyes boring into his, the Iron Major’s usual masks of fury and stoicism dropped, leaving only a perplexed and fascinated human being… until that moment, Dorian had not realized that he loved him.

He loved him.

Without warning, Klaus shoved him roughly away, turning his back and heading for the door with a curse. Dorian, to his own amazement, found himself watching the characteristically irascible behavior with delight. Klaus was wonderful. He was always so very, very like himself.

Klaus whirled back to Dorian suddenly, though Dorian had made no sound, and found Dorian watching him with what must have been a thoroughly soppy and adoring smile. "What is so funny!?" Klaus had demanded furiously, as if anxious to make up for having behaved like a human being for an entire minute. "What are you so happy about!?"

I love you, Dorian thought. But the Major’s face was angry again, and there seemed to be just a hint of fear in his eyes, or did Dorian imagine it?

In any case, Dorian was not going to let the Major ruin this moment for him.

"If I told you, you'd get mad again," he said, flirtatiously half-hiding his little smile behind a gracefully curled hand. It was all he could do not to giggle. He felt downright giddy.

Those lovely emerald eyes darkened. "Then don't. More foppish bullshit, no doubt. Excuse me," Klaus snapped. Dorian wondered how Klaus could make even conventional pleasantries like that sound like insults. It really was adorable.

Klaus had turned away again before Dorian realized that he had the means to stop him. He just wanted to bask in the wonder of the man’s presence for a bit longer. "I'm returning the blueprint," he said, extending the envelope. "I've made a copy of it. My men will study the plans and prepare things so that when we get to Rome we can get started with it."

Klaus snatched it back and stuffed it in his breast pocket. "Is that the way you do it?"

"I don't tell my professional secrets even to you. You have lots of things you can't tell me yourself, don't you?"

That set Klaus off again. It never did take much. "Don't equate my keeping international top secrets and your greedy craftiness, you idiot!"

"Understood, U.N. Army!" Dorian had teased. Even this light taunt made Klaus glare ominously. The man was just a walking bundle of rage. He was amazing. He was magnificent. If iron were to ever lose its iron-ness, that would be the end of the world.

"It's NATO! Do not ever do this again! Understand?"

With a little smile, Dorian raised his hand as if to take an oath. "Yes, I promise."

"I will put a guard at your seat."

Dorian decided to believe that Klaus was showing concern for him. He knew better, but he could pretend. "Do as you wish."

"Then get back to the seat." The Major pointed imperiously in the proper direction.

Dorian couldn’t go. He couldn’t tell Klaus of his discovery, of his love. Klaus would be furious, and that would spoil it. But he could perhaps let him know, obliquely, that he cared. "Major... that was Mischa the Cub over there. Snipers were aiming at you."

Klaus seemed struck by the information for only a second. Then his indifferent façade was back in place. "Trying to make me feel indebted, are you?"

It was probably Klaus’s version of "Thank you." Dorian smiled, hitching his shoulders just a bit. "No. Even if I were, you wouldn't be, would you? I just meant to say…." Dorian groped for words that Klaus would not classify as "foppish bullshit". He didn’t find any, so settled for, "I'm glad you're in one piece." Unable to stop, he blurted, "Let's take good care of ourselves until we get to Rome. That's all," he finished lamely.

Klaus looked at him like he was an idiot. For once, Dorian didn’t blame him. He felt like an idiot. Walking away, Klaus tossed over his shoulder, "Do some aerobics or something, then."

Dorian turned his own back and salvaged his pride with a parting taunt: "I'll do that, Defense Army."

Dorian closed the door on Klaus’s shout of "It's NATO!"

I’m in love, Dorian thought giddily as he floated back to his seat.

As he sank into his chair, giddiness dissolved into dire trepidation. The sheer impossibility of the entire situation came crashing down on him. He put a hand to his forehead, twining tense fingers in his hair.

Oh, no, he thought. I’m in love.

He laid awake that night, trying to talk himself out of it. The Major wasn’t even his type; he liked pretty, sweet boys, not bundles of muscle and iron and rage. And Klaus had been furious enough at the most flippant hints that he was attractive; being loved would probably make him homicidal — a prediction which was to be completely borne out a few days later when Dorian declared his feelings.

And the Major hated him. Dorian closed his eyes in the darkness. That was, of course, his own fault. They had gotten off to the worst possible start. But then, Dorian hadn’t known that it was ever going to matter. What difference did it make if Herr Stuffed Shirt hated him? It had been amusing to bait him, to provoke that hair-trigger temper. And now it was too late to go back and start again. Had Dorian known that one day he would care what the Major thought of him, he would have acted differently from the start, instead of making outrageous public overtures and stealing things from under the man’s nose just to see the resulting tantrum. He would have been completely different, and perhaps they could have been friends, and Dorian could have kept his love unspoken and, perhaps, done the lonely man of iron some good.

Perhaps.

But after all, perhaps it was best that they had gotten off to such a bad start. If there were any chance that Klaus might ever give in to him — and once every blue moon, for a few insane seconds Dorian thought there might be — Dorian’s embarrassing antics would effectively keep him at bay, protecting Dorian’s vows. After all, not everyone could be like Caesar Gabriel, conveniently passing out every time someone made an overture.

The dangerous moments were not the ones when Klaus pointed a gun at him, or hit him. The dangerous moments were when Dorian inadvertently got through the iron shell and they had one of their rare but very precious amiable interludes. They never lasted long, but they existed. Dorian wondered, on nights when he couldn’t sleep, if Klaus played those memories over in his head as Dorian did.

Dorian tried not to dwell on those times. It was never long before they were bickering or even at each other’s throats again. Klaus’ walls were of iron and three feet thick. Dorian’s were a mass of thorny rose vines like those which hid the Sleeping Beauty. They were equally formidable. If Klaus didn’t start it before long, Dorian would come to his senses and do so himself, generally with an obnoxious pass guaranteed to fail, even had it been directed at a more receptive target.

Yes, the pattern of their relationship had already been set. Dorian resolved many times to avoid the foul-tempered Major. He had thrown himself into his work. He distracted himself, or tried to, with harmless flirtations with men of his own sort. Yet again and again he was unable to resist the temptation to see Klaus again. The repressed, irascible, beautiful psychopath was the moon, the stars, the flowers and the dreams to Dorian. He could live without Klaus’s touch or Klaus’s love. He could not live without Klaus’s presence.

The sun was low in the sky when the silence between them was broken once more. "Look straight ahead," Klaus said evenly.

Dorian did. When Klaus spoke calmly instead of yelling, he knew it was important. "What at?"

"Doesn’t matter. Just do not look behind us. We are being followed."

"Anyone we know?"

"Friends of the kidnappers." His eyes narrowed. "When we get to that curve, I want you to take the wheel and do a hairpin turn to go up that ridge so we can take the high ground. As soon as you do, I am going to turn around and start shooting."

"Ready when you are."

When they reached the curve, Dorian seized the wheel and turned it fiercely. Klaus turned in the driver’s seat, holding to the back of the seat with his left hand as he swiftly unholstered his Magnum with his right. He fired three shots, not fazed when Dorian floored the gas to take them up the ridge. The car swerved wildly as Dorian steered it from his awkward angle.

"Right here," Klaus barked several yards up the ridge. Dorian stopped the Jeep at once. They were at a high point that allowed them some cover — only a bit, but the low cropping of rock could make all the difference. Klaus stepped out and crouched behind the Jeep. "Get out," he snapped at Dorian.

Dorian did, stealing a glance over his shoulders at their pursuers. Another Jeep was stopped below them, this one dirty and some years older than Klaus’s and three hard-faced South Americans were gathered around it, glaring in their direction. Klaus had shot one of their tires, and from the look of things, they were going to be bad sports about it. One had a jagged scar all along one side of his face. Scars would have improved the appearance of the other two. They were all wearing ancient olive drab, and all were armed to the teeth. If he hadn’t had Klaus at his side, Dorian would have been quite frightened.

Apparently telling him to get down was too much trouble, because Klaus instead took the simple expedient of shoving Dorian, quite roughly, to the ground behind the Jeep. Well, Dorian had to concede that standing up to get a look at their pursuers wasn’t the wisest thing he could have been doing. Before Dorian could begin to rise, Klaus’s left boot was planted firmly on Dorian’s long curling hair, effectively keeping him down.

Dorian was able to turn his head just enough to look up at the Major. Klaus’s lovely green eyes were narrowed ruthlessly at his target, the sun was bringing out the faint auburn cast to his dark brown hair, and he had his right arm extended, his Magnum seeming to be an integral part of him, his left arm hanging negligently at his side. Show-off, said a voice at the back of Dorian’s mind, but the fact was, he was enjoying the show.

It occurred to him that, had Klaus been an enemy, he could have taken the moment of recoil to seize the man’s ankle and knock him off balance and make his escape. But of course he wouldn’t endanger Klaus that way, and besides… somehow he simply couldn’t bring himself to move.

In between shots, Klaus glanced down, for no more than half a second. Their eyes locked. Then the Major was sighting his target again, and the fleeting instant had passed.

Looking up at that powerful, perfect, lethal body stretching above him, Dorian realized with new clarity that he, quite simply, belonged to Klaus. Whether Klaus ever claimed him was irrelevant; he was owned nonetheless.

She can never have this, Dorian thought with sudden ferocity that startled him.

She might have Klaus’s name, his body, even his icy heart, but she would never have this violent moment of communion.

After several more shots, the return fire ceased. Klaus had gotten them all. Of course. Looking coolly in the direction of the other Jeep, Klaus holstered his weapon and, as an afterthought, moved his boot off of Dorian’s hair, not looking at Dorian.

Dorian was glad. He didn’t like to think of what Klaus would have seen in his face before he was able to sit up and turn away, shaken.

It reminded him of that insane moment in Austria. Some nasty spy had grabbed Dorian, had been about to punch him. Dorian had been bracing himself when suddenly the other man had fallen over, stunned by the impact of Klaus’s fist.

"No one hits this guy but me," Klaus had snarled before racing off, perhaps unwilling to face the moment.

As for Dorian — he had been instantly and painfully aroused at those oddly protective, possessive words. Had Klaus asserted his claim by beating him black and blue in that instant, Dorian would not have complained a bit. Complained? He would have welcomed it.

This odd passion frightened Dorian. Was he even more of a pervert than he had thought? He thought of ascetics mortifying their flesh, scourging themselves. Was this what celibacy could do to a man, make him desperate for any touch, even if it was a violent one? Instead of self-flagellation and hairshirts, he cherished the idea that Klaus wanted exclusive punching rights over him?

Or was he simply so madly in love that anything his beloved did aroused him?

And now, beside the Jeep — he had to get away from the man, if only a few yards, a few minutes. Dorian stood awkwardly, brushing himself off, and began to walk away, into the wilderness.

Until the shot rang out.

Klaus turned in time to see Dorian fall. Without his consciously willing it, his Magnum was in his hand again and he was emptying it into the one terrorist who hadn’t been quite dead. Having corrected that oversight, Klaus moved swiftly, apprehensive at the red staining Dorian’s light khaki shirt.

Without a word, Klaus squatted beside Dorian to examine the wound. He resumed breathing when he saw that the bullet had lodged in Dorian’s right arm, above the elbow. A nasty wound, but he would live.

A soft groan from Dorian reminded Klaus that there was a human being attached to the wound. Dorian’s face was pale and drawn in pain. "You will be fine," Klaus informed him curtly. He felt slightly irritated — for him, giving reassurance was the most difficult thing about dealing with injuries. Klaus automatically made the practical preparations he would have for any wounded agent, removing his jacket to serve as a makeshift pillow to elevate Eroica’s head, fetching the kit from the Jeep, and using his pocket knife to slice Dorian’s sleeve open to bare the wound. But he had to make an effort to remember to say things like, "It will be all right. It is not a bad wound, though I am certain it hurts like hell. I will have it fixed up in a minute."

Dorian’s eyes and lips were pressed tightly closed. Opening the medical kit, Klaus suggested, "Yell if you want. There is no one to hear you for miles."

"You can fix it?" Dorian asked in a strained voice.

"Of course," Klaus informed him impatiently. "Combat medicine is part of the basic training of any soldier."

Dorian groaned and closed his eyes again.

"This is going to hurt," Klaus stated.

"So it’ll be fun for one of us, at least," Dorian mumbled.

When Klaus’s long tweezers pulled the bullet out, Dorian uttered a string of words that were normally too unaesthetic for his foppish tastes. Klaus couldn’t help but grin.

"You are enjoying this, you bastard," Dorian accused while Klaus rummaged for something to clean the wound with.

"It is good to hear you cuss like a man for a change," Klaus said, opening a bottle of Mercurochrome.

"Just don’t throw that at me," Dorian groaned. His voice was higher pitched than normal with the tension of pain. "You ruined my Givenchy blouse last time."

"As I recall, it was already in shreds," Klaus pointed out.

Dorian fluttered his lashes a couple of times. "Why, Major. I didn’t think you’d noticed."

Klaus snorted.

A minute later, as Klaus continued dressing the gunshot wound, Dorian asked through gritted teeth, "Have you ever been shot, Major?"

"Of course I have."

"Of course you have. What do I think you are, some kind of yokel who’s never even been shot?"

Klaus did not answer, but he supposed it was a good sign that Dorian’s fey sense of humor was operational. If he was telling his Wildean jokes, he couldn’t be in too bad shape.

"How many times?" Dorian asked.

"Three."

"Were you badly hurt?"

"Only once." Klaus put Dorian’s arm in a makeshift sling and tied it. "There. Stand up."

Dorian did not look eager to do so, but he sat up slowly, then extended his left hand. "Give me a hand."

Klaus grasped his wrist and hauled him to his feet. Dorian winced, but was able to stay vertical. "Major."

"What?" Klaus snapped.

"Is my arm going to be all right? Will it heal properly?"

"You will be able to pick pockets again," Klaus assured him tersely. "Now get back in the Jeep."

Before they reached it, however, they both stopped, sniffing the air.

"Verdammt."

"They shot the Jeep," Dorian said.

Klaus lifted the hood and scowled inside. "And made a hole in the gas tank."

"We could take their car."

Klaus stomped down to the other Jeep, shoving the dead terrorists off it. Gonzalez’ comrades. Had they detected his plans, or was their appearance coincidence?

He took the dead men’s weapons and quickly searched the Jeep. There was nothing that might give him any useful information, and nothing of any use in the vehicle, either, besides a couple more guns. He kept the guns, though he wasn’t sure they could be trusted — these lowlifes probably hadn’t maintained their weapons properly. The Jeep and the guns were dirty, even by civilian standards. He replaced the tire he'd shot with one from his own Jeep and drove the Jeep back to his own vehicle, where Dorian was sitting on the ground with his head leaning against the Jeep’s door, his eyes closed. He opened them briefly as Klaus neared him, then closed them again as if exhausted. Well, maybe he was. Getting shot was strenuous work.

Klaus started loading their supplies onto the terrorists’ Jeep. "You have a perfect excuse for not helping," he remarked gruffly.

Not opening his eyes, Dorian replied, "That is precisely why I got myself shot, Major."

Eroica was holding up surprisingly well, Klaus had to admit. No whining, no hysterics. He had all a fop’s frivolity, but none of the underlying weakness. Bloody waste.

They silently got into the second Jeep and drove on for an hour, Eroica occasionally groaning when they hit a bump.

That was when the engine started knocking. Loudly.

Klaus stopped at once. Seizing a flashlight, he jumped out and lifted the hood, then swore profusely.

"What is it?" Dorian asked, appearing beside him.

"Those damned idiots do not take the least care of their vehicles," Klaus said in disgust. "The piston rod is broken."

"Can you fix it?"

Klaus looked at Eroica incredulously. "Fix it? With what, duct tape and a bobby pin?" When Dorian only looked at him blankly, Klaus resumed, "Fixing a broken piston rod would take — never mind, you would not know what I was talking about. No, I cannot fix it. It is dead." He slammed the hood shut, swearing some more.

"Darling. Most men just run out of gas when they want to be alone with someone. But you always have to overdo things."

"If you had not been shot, I would slug you for that."

To his surprise, Eroica sighed. "Sorry. I’m trying not to flirt, honestly."

"Why not?" Klaus asked suspiciously.

"Because you’re engaged," Dorian reminded him in the patient tone generally used for slow children. Before Klaus could reply, he asked, "How long do you suppose it’ll take us to walk to the monastery?"

"You want to walk?"

"We could have a go at sprouting wings and flying, if you prefer."

"Are you not in pain?"

Dorian had the nerve to look exasperated. "Yes. So perhaps I should simply lie on the ground and whine. That’ll help matters."

Klaus looked at one of his maps, even though he didn’t really need to. "We should get there around dawn, if we move quickly. If you do not collapse."

As he had expected, Dorian looked annoyed at the last words. Eroica didn’t seem to care much about what it meant to be a man, but even so, that kind of insult generally served to put him on his mettle. "Let’s go, then," he said with a casual air that almost made Klaus laugh.

Klaus shouldered a couple of guns and other absolute necessities and they started out, following the stars, the crunch of gravel under their feet loud in the stillness. But after a while, Eroica’s pace began to slow.

"Let’s stop for one minute," Klaus ordered curtly. He made Dorian drink some water, then shone his flashlight into Dorian’s face — much to the Englishman’s displeasure — to examine his pallor. "Eroica. Listen to me."

"I’m listening," he said. Klaus began to worry. If Eroica neglected to make a wisecrack, it was time to worry.

"Eroica. I did not wish to alarm you before, but… the men who have kidnapped your team — and your lover — are very dangerous. They are killers. Brutal ones. If you cannot keep on your feet tonight, your people could die. Unpleasantly."

Dorian’s eyes were wide. "Do you think—" he began, but broke off.

"I think that you had better keep moving for as long as you possibly can."

Dorian nodded and resumed walking, more swiftly this time. Klaus had to admit he was relieved. The thief was holding up surprisingly well for a foppish civilian. Still, his steps weren’t entirely steady.

A short time later, his pace slowed despite his obvious efforts, and abruptly he fell to his knees and was extremely ill.

Klaus rummaged in his backpack while he waited for Eroica to finish. When he saw the dim flash of Dorian’s white handkerchief as the Earl wiped his face, Klaus handed him another flask, this time the one with whiskey. Dorian took a quick swallow and grimaced. Klaus took the flask back and put a hand to the other man’s forehead. It was cold.

"You are in shock," he said grimly.

"I’m all right," Dorian insisted in a thin voice.

"The hell you are." He would have to appeal to the thief’s pride. "Dammit. Why did it have to be you? There is no way a pansy could make it through this."

Dorian laughed shrilly. "You’re about as subtle as one of your tanks, Major."

"You may rest for another minute. Take deep breaths." As he spoke, Klaus removed his jacket, which had been a shade too warm for South America anyway. Without it, on the other hand, was a shade too cold, but heat and cold were a matter of discipline, after all. "Put out your arms," he ordered, and put the jacket on Eroica, carefully guiding the sleeve over Dorian’s injured arm. "Keeping you warm is about all the treatment we have available," he warned.

Dorian nodded and stood up without help, though with obvious effort. When his steps wove a bit, Klaus capitulated, moving to Eroica’s left side. Without a word, he pulled Dorian’s good arm around his shoulders and wound his own arm around Dorian’s back, supporting him. That was perfectly innocent, after all. Eroica was injured, and besides, they had done this before, on a couple of occasions. The warmth of the man’s body and the rose aroma were familiar.

"Thank you, Major," Eroica said softly. Klaus did not reply, and they were both quiet for several minutes, to Klaus’s relief. Eroica was not going to take advantage of the proximity this time, it seemed. Who would have thought a degenerate would have such respect for an engagement.

Dorian moaned suddenly. In the moonlight, Klaus could see a faint sheen of clammy perspiration on the other man’s brow. "Eroica, if you cannot keep going, I can go on for your people and come back for you. But it might not be safe for you out here alone."

"I can keep going," Dorian said firmly. "But — could you…."

"What?" Klaus demanded suspiciously.

"Just — talk to me," Dorian said through white lips. "Give me something else to think about."

The request was reasonable enough. "What should I talk about?"

"Tell me… hm… why you joined NATO."

"It was expected of me that I should serve in the military. All the men of my family did. Besides, I like fighting."

The ghost of a smile touched the pale lips. "So why NATO instead of a tank division?"

"I would have liked that better," Klaus conceded, "but when I first graduated from officers’ training, I was assigned to an intelligence unit. I was not trained for that; I was only hired muscle. But my commander decided I had potential for espionage and kept me on."

"Were you disappointed?"

Klaus felt vaguely surprised. "No. I was honored that he thought so highly of me."

In Major Johann Alexander, Klaus had found what he had been looking for all his life, and found in no one else: someone whom he could admire without reservation. Alexander’s steady eyes had seen almost everything that people could possibly do to each other, bad and good, and still looked without flinching. Sometimes Klaus fancied that in those eyes he could see the secrets locked away behind them. With Alexander, one had a sense of only ever seeing the tip of the iceberg. And yet, in spite of the tremendous burden he carried, of duties, secrets and memories, his shoulders never sagged under their weight.

Alexander was absolutely ruthless when it came to getting results from his people. He had no qualms about pushing them to their limits and beyond. His agents achieved things they would never have believed themselves capable of, because Alexander bullied them into it. It was for that ability to push Klaus even past his considerable limits into greater achievements that Klaus admired Alexander.

Alexander’s men were all afraid of him, with the exception of Klaus, who understood the purpose behind the harshness and found it a relief to be given no quarter whatsoever. Those who encouraged him to settle for good enough in himself had always been nuisances to him, interfering with his need to constantly strive for better. No such soft nonsense from Alexander. But even as Alexander intimidated his own men, not only did he get outstanding results from them, he also lost fewer agents than anyone else. And he drove himself at least as hard as he drove the others. Nothing stopped Alexander from achieving his mission. No matter what he had to do, he did it.

In later years, when Klaus had men under his own command, he tried to emulate Alexander’s furious driving of his subordinates, but he knew he did not succeed. He intimidated them into doing excellent work, yes, but his temper was too explosive for Alexander’s carefully controlled ruthlessness. He could not inspire the trust that Alexander had. And Alexander’s subordinates had feared him, but not in the panicked way that Klaus’s alphabets feared Klaus. Klaus had often seen apprehension in the eyes of Alexander’s men. In those of his own, he saw outright terror. It was rather disheartening, and fueled Klaus’s temper, which made matters worse.

In Klaus’s opinion, mercy was frequently weakness, or even squeamishness. Alexander was not weak. Klaus had seen him being completely ruthless when circumstance required, and walking away without visibly turning a hair. But in time, he knew Alexander well enough to know that the things he had to do at times affected him. The effect was difficult to discern from the outside, but definitely existent. And alongside this ruthlessness that left even Klaus awed at times, Alexander was also the kindest man Klaus ever knew. Kind in a quiet, nondemonstrative way that drew no attention to itself, but kind nonetheless. He knew, for instance, when a young agent truly needed reassurance of some sort, and he gave it — sparingly, but he gave it. And the very rarity made it more effective when he doled it out.

Sometimes his kindness took odd forms. Once an agent had screwed up royally. He had taken his courage in his hands and informed Alexander of it. Alexander had listened quietly, punched the man in the jaw, helped him up, and assigned him a harrowing workload to undo the damage he’d done. All without a single flicker of wrath, only his usual steady sternness. That agent was assigned the most grueling schedules and arduous assignments for the next several months. The penalty had allowed the agent to feel he had redeemed himself, eventually. But only Klaus saw this as kindness.

Alexander had, for reasons Klaus never knew, taken a special interest in Klaus. Though Klaus was intended only to be a strong-arm, Alexander decided early on that he could be trusted with more, and that was that. His harshest diatribes and penalties were reserved for Klaus. The others pitied him for it, but Klaus felt honored. If Alexander did not see exceptional potential in him, he would not have driven him so. And occasionally, their eyes would lock in the middle of a reprimand and Klaus knew that they understood each other in this, that Alexander’s tirades were in fact the highest praise. That understanding created a strong and unspoken bond between them.

On one occasion, Klaus remarked about another agent, "He is no longer reliable. He has lost his nerve."

Alexander had nodded calmly, with resignation and no surprise. "He just had his first unqualified failure. I tried to prepare him, but I thought it would break him, when it happened. That’s why I picked you — I knew you wouldn’t crumble when you had the inevitable failures."

"Why were you so certain?"

"Because you understand."

"Understand?"

"That you don’t fight just so that you can win. This is a quixotic line of work, Eberbach. Many of us die young, without achieving our aims. Even if we succeed, we die unsung. And our enemies are never quite defeated. A few decades ago, it was Nazis. Now it is Communists. When you are my age, Eberbach, evil will be wearing a new face. It will always be with us, and we will always have to fight it. But you understand that the point is to fight, not to win."

Klaus didn’t understand, not entirely. "You are right, it has been a long time since I believed that I was certain to win because I was wearing the white hat. But I do not know why I keep on fighting, if not to win."

"You fight for your soul," Alexander had said simply.

The discussion had ended there, but Klaus had known the other man was not talking religious nonsense, salvation and damnation. He was speaking of the ability to look at oneself in the mirror and sleep at night. Klaus could do both. He knew this was only because he kept fighting. Even if he had been certain the fight was completely hopeless, he would have had to continue with it, for his own soul.

Once in a shootout Alexander was wounded, his arm grazed by a bullet. Klaus had without reflecting moved to shield him and blown away their attackers with a concentrated fury beyond even his normal intensity. Alexander had silently stepped out from behind Klaus, refusing to accept the shelter, and had stood shooting beside him while blood ran down his arm, reddening his shirt.

Klaus had approved of Alexander’s refusal to accept his shielding. It was the act of a brave man, and he would have expected no less of himself. Had Klaus reflected, he never would have offered shelter to begin with. At the same time, he found himself oddly disappointed, that his offer had been tacitly declined. He would have happily died defending Alexander. He would have done anything to prove himself worthy of Alexander’s regard.

Later, when the dust had settled and they were safe, holed up in some quiet room somewhere, Klaus, uninjured, had turned to Alexander. "Let me bandage that for you," he had said, almost in the tone of an order. This must have occurred to Alexander, because a faint smile touched the corners of his thin lips, but he complied without a word. He took off his bloodsoaked shirt and dropped it in the sink and then stood still as Klaus washed the blood from his arm. Klaus applied Mercurochrome to the wound; it had bled a good deal, but was not deep. Klaus had tended the wound with the same care he would have given a much more serious injury. Neither spoke as he worked; Klaus found himself feeling oddly peaceful as he wrapped gauze around Alexander’s arm.

When the job was done, he finally looked at Alexander’s face. Alexander was watching him with an unreadable expression. They looked at each other for a minute. Klaus had the impression he was being evaluated in some way.

Klaus abruptly stepped away, realizing that he was behaving inappropriately. Alexander was his superior officer. He had no business being so familiar with him.

"Is there anything else, sir?" he asked properly.

Alexander started to speak, but then he seemed to change his mind and said only, "No, thank you, Eberbach," with a light pat to his shoulder. Even that slight gesture of affection was unusual for Alexander.

They had gone into the outer room to sit and wait, a chore Klaus found irksome when it was not shared with Alexander. He felt they understood each other in those long silences during stakeouts. Alexander sat in a low armchair. Klaus wanted to clean his second gun, and the one table was too small for him to work properly, so he sat crosslegged on the floor near Alexander, spreading the gun’s parts out on a towel as he polished them.

Alexander spoke after they had been sitting for a long while, apropos of nothing. "Eberbach. You are too hard on yourself."

"I did not become Iron Klaus by being easy on myself," Klaus had replied, promptly defensive, and a bit disappointed to hear this from Alexander, of all people.

"I was not referring to your constant quest for perfection. That is commendable. But you strive that way because you have a demon. You can release the demon and still keep your quest. It may take you some years to learn to do that, but if you do not, eventually the demon will kill you."

Klaus was stupefied. Alexander never talked like this. His conversation was always brusque, practical, and very succinct. "What if you cannot get rid of your demon?"

"Make terms with it," came the prompt reply. "Learn to live with it. Even if it means partly giving in to it. Insist on keeping your quest even while making your treaty with it."

Klaus had not answered, troubled. Something in him instinctively rebelled against the words, but he was not in the habit of disagreeing with Alexander.

Alexander had considered for a time before speaking again. "Do you know why man invented God, Major? In order to have someone to forgive us."

"Forgive us?"

"Because we cannot forgive ourselves. Even the lowest of persons — if they believe they have done something, anything, wrong, they condemn themselves to hell. We spend our time chasing people who have convinced themselves that wrong is right. They are not troubled by guilt. And there are people, many people, who have not internalized any moral sense. They regard those with consciences as slightly mad dupes.

"But no matter how low someone's moral stature, if they become at all convinced that they have done something wrong, they will destroy their entire lives as punishment for the smallest sin. Unless, of course, God forgives them. We cannot forgive ourselves — I have never met anyone who could — and so we create Someone who can. There must have been a time when you believed that Someone heard your confession and wiped your young soul clean."

Klaus was thoughtful. "Then small wonder that religious people are capable of so much evil," he remarked, thinking of Inquisitors and Crusaders and conquistadors and Middle Eastern terrorists. "They have someone to forgive them."

"And you could use someone to forgive you, Eberbach. No man is good at forgiving himself." Alexander had, with odd deliberateness, put his hand on Klaus’s shoulder. "You are the worst at it that I have ever seen. And by the same token, you are among the most deserving."

Klaus smiled bitterly. "That is kind of you to say."

Alexander had allowed his hand to rest on Klaus’s shoulder for another minute before removing it and leaning back in his chair.

They were silent for several minutes before Alexander had placed his fingertips against Klaus’s brow in an odd gesture, as of benediction, and said quietly, "I forgive you."

"For what?" Klaus asked, startled.

Alexander had smiled sadly. "Whatever you need it for. I am not God, but I suppose I will have to do."

It was only later that it occurred to Klaus that perhaps he should have returned the favor.

If there was any whisper of the forbidden in Klaus’s feelings for Alexander, it was so quiet that he did not know it was there. But then, Alexander was many things, but handsome was not one of them. He lacked Gustav's winsome youth and Eroica's flashy hair and pretty face. He was bald on top, with a good but not sharp chin, a hawk nose, and pale blue eyes that were a bit too piercing. His expression, in repose, was grim.

Five terrorists had caught Major Alexander. Alexander had been interfering with their attempts to blow up public buildings. Klaus had been tailing one of the terrorists’ associates that day — Alexander had assigned him that duty, sending him away where he could not defend him — Alexander had been on his own, outnumbered.

By the time they found him, it was too late.

From the look of things, Alexander’s death had been neither swift nor painless.

Klaus had made a list of those responsible for that death. Over the years, he had eliminated names from that list when opportunity allowed. There was only one name remaining on that list.

Santiago Gonzalez.

"And this is your chance to get him," Dorian said quietly.

"Ja." Klaus shot the thief a sudden sharp glance, but Dorian’s expression was grave. Klaus fell silent, wondering why he had told the thief so much. Eroica was distressingly easy to talk to at times. When he was not twisting the most innocent remark into perverted innuendo, that was.

That was what made the pervert so infuriating, that there was never any telling which of his masks he would don. At any moment, he could be the foppish libertine, the cool professional, the wounded innocent, or even, at times, the doting man in love who actually seemed to care more for his beloved than for himself.

"I don’t know how much use I’ll be in the next few days, what with my arm," Dorian said softly, "But if there’s any way I can help you with Gonzalez, you know you need only say the word." He glanced at Klaus with a slight smile. "We’ll keep it from James, so there’ll be no charge."

"I do not need your—" Klaus stopped himself. And said instead, rather formally, "Your offer is appreciated, Lord Gloria."

Dorian smiled and said nothing. Why couldn’t he be like this more often? Then perhaps they could get along, they could—

Klaus stopped that thought and clamped his jaw. He thought the other man noticed the sudden obstinate nature of his silence. In any case, Dorian did not speak again.

They continued walking in silence for perhaps half an hour, until Dorian stumbled to a stop. "Oh, God."

Klaus looked at him sharply. "What?"

"Could you check the bandage? I think…."

Klaus looked quickly. The bandage was slowly darkening with what could only be blood. "Hold still," he ordered, tying it more securely with another layer of bandaging. Then he glanced at Eroica’s face. Dorian’s lips had gone from white to grey. He would pass out if measures were not taken. "Sit down. Put your head between your knees and take deep breaths."

Dorian complied without a word. After a few minutes, he straightened, still pale but no longer ashen. He reached for Klaus’s arm and resumed walking without a word. Klaus watched with grudging respect. The tightness of Dorian’s mouth, the tension in his arm gripping Klaus’s telegraphed clearly the pain he was in. Klaus knew what every step was costing him.

Klaus had never admitted it, but the fact was that he admired many of Dorian's qualities. The use he put those qualities to was another matter.

His courage, for instance, flaunting his true nature before the world, inviting the disapproval of all. His refusal to compromise by toning it down in the slightest. Even the outspoken scorn of the man he loved did not lead him to change his habits even slightly; on the contrary, he had nailed his flag to the mast. His skill as a thief - those skills were quite valuable in espionage. Though Eroica's flamboyant personality precluded his being an efficient spy, of course. Loyalty - the quality which had had Klaus tearing his hair out for ten years. And the way he was almost the only person Klaus knew who wasn't afraid of him, even when he had reason to be.

Klaus thought it was Nietzsche who had said that "the great man is the play-actor of his own ideals." He would hardly call Dorian a great man, but he was indubitably the play-actor of his own ideals.

"Do you know why I do not like you?" Klaus said suddenly.

Dorian’s eyes widened, and his face relaxed a bit. "Why?"

"Because you could have been so much more than you are. You were not fated to be a criminal or a hedonist or a slut." Dorian winced at the last word. "You have excellent natural abilities. You could have been a man I could respect."

Dorian did not reply for a time. "Thank you for telling me that," he said at last. "It means more than you know, to know that you don’t entirely despise me."

"I do. I would despise you far less if you had been born to be useless. You have committed a grave crime against yourself, against your own potential."

"I see." He smiled ruefully. "I suppose that’s as close to a compliment as I’m ever likely to get from you."

"Most likely."

For several paces neither spoke, until Dorian said, "I’m still glad that at least you can see that in me." Suddenly he added, "Is that what you despise? Not my perversion, but my — promiscuity? Would you still despise me if I were faithful to one man?"

"Not as much," Klaus replied without reflecting. At Dorian’s deep sigh, he glanced over and saw that his expression was pained. At once he realized his error. The purpose had been to give Dorian something better to think about. "This is not productive," he said.

"I infer that this is your version of an apology."

Klaus was annoyed, but forced himself to remember the other man’s injury. "You talk, then. I have told you why I joined NATO. You tell me why you decided to waste your life on thieving."

The corner of Dorian’s mouth twitched. Then he sighed. Klaus realized the memory he had invoked was not a happy one, but before he could introduce another subject, Dorian had begun. "One of my father’s friends had an exquisite painting. A shepherd boy by Giorgione. That painting was my first love. Every time we visited him, I would stand in front of it for hours. One day when I was thirteen, my father wasn’t around, and his friend offered to give me the painting if I would do something for him."

"He wanted you to steal something?"

Dorian chuckled dryly. "Oh, no."

It took Klaus a moment to realize where the story was going. He turned his face away quickly, his stomach curdling. "I do not want to hear about it!"

"It didn’t happen," Dorian said flatly. When Klaus, intrigued despite himself, did not protest again, Dorian continued. "When I realized what his plans were, I fought to get away from him and ran out of the mansion."

"Why?"

"Why?" Dorian echoed incredulously. "You mean why didn’t I let him?"

"Well, yes. After all, you are gay."

"So I should give myself to the first man who tries for me?" Dorian sounded outraged. It seemed that in addition to honor among thieves, there was honor among perverts. "He didn’t kiss me or try to romance me or give me pleasure or even tell me what he was going to do! I was only thirteen, but I knew I was being taken advantage of! He thought I’d be too innocent and intimidated to refuse him. I hate to think how many boys he must have abused that way. And the ones who weren’t gay probably grew up thinking that’s what gay men are like, seducing innocent boys, and they hate all of us as a consequence."

"Caesar Gabriel," Klaus stated.

"Is a year older than me. And all he ever gave me was a few kisses."

"Until recently."

Dorian looked to the horizon. "Maybe we’re just friends."

"Maybe pigs will whistle."

Dorian laughed at that, and promptly groaned as the shaking of laughter jolted his injured arm. Klaus supported him as he swayed. When he had regained his balance, Dorian said in a strained voice, smiling, "You know what Bonham said about you once?"

"I am not sure that I want to know," Klaus growled, but he noted that Dorian’s attention had been entirely taken away from his pain.

"I was complaining about you — I forget whether it was your unromantic nature or your utter lack of any sense of humor — anyhow, he said, ‘Never try to teach a boar to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the boar.’"

Klaus did his best to look annoyed, but Dorian’s giggles, though a bit high-pitched from the tension of pain, were encouraging. If the idiot could be encouraged to keep prattling, he could probably stay vertical. And Eroica had seldom needed much encouragement to prattle. "Sound advice. So how did that get you started stealing?"

"Ah. Well. On my birthday a few weeks later, the painting was sent to me. Even though I hadn’t done the favor he wanted in return." Even fourteen years later, there was venom in Dorian’s voice at the memory. "I suppose he was afraid I would tell on him. Which I didn’t; I was too ashamed."

"Why was your father allowing you to associate with queers anyway? Did he not realize you would pick up bad habits?"

"My father was gay." The Earl’s voice was hard, daring Klaus to make an issue of it.

"Oh." Klaus was too staggered by the concept of a homosexual father to say more for a few minutes. "Then no wonder you turned out the way you did."

Dorian laughed sharply. "Is there even a word in German for tact? And the fact that my father was gay and always had gay friends around had nothing to do with it."

"That is preposterous. Of course it did."

"No, it did not. His father wasn’t gay, and certainly didn’t fill the house with queers. And most of the queers I know have straight parents and never met others of their own kind until they were adults. You don’t grow up gay because you’re encouraged to. Most of us spend decades trying very hard not to be."

"It should be obvious that spending your impressionable years surrounded by—"

"Impressionable years my foot! You’re born gay or straight, and nothing changes it, no matter how hard you try."

"You think you were born that way, eh? I suppose that absolves you of any responsibility, if it is in your chromosomes—"

"It isn’t in your chromosomes."

"You just said it was not environment. Now you say it is not heredity. What does that leave?"

"Destiny," Dorian answered quietly. When Klaus raised his eyebrows, he said softly, "Our orientation depends on the sex of our soul mate in this incarnation."

Klaus snorted. "You and your fairy tales." Before Dorian could expand on any drivel about soul mates, he brought them back to the topic at hand. "Get back to how you became a thief."

"The painting that man sent me was a forgery."

"How did you know?"

Dorian gave him an impatient glance. "I had spent hours studying that painting. How could I have been fooled? I was furious. First he tried to — not even seduce me, just use me, like a — and then he tried to cheat me, as if I were stupid enough to be taken in. I decided to take what was mine by right, and exact my revenge."

"So you stole the painting."

"Yes. I have it in my bedroom."

"Bloody hell! Everything about you is a twisted version of the proper way to do things. You still have the first painting you ever stole. I still wear the belt I bought with my first pay."

Dorian looked at him. "That’s not the one I stole that time, by any chance?"

Klaus glared, discovering he was still angry about that incident. Even though Dorian had returned the belt eventually. "Yes."

Dorian lowered his eyes. "I’m sorry." At Klaus’s snort, he protested, "Truly. If I’d realized it had such sentimental value, I would have stolen something else from you."

Klaus glowered in order not to laugh aloud at this typically Eroican logic.

Distracted by Klaus’s menacing expression, Dorian stumbled slightly. Klaus retrieved the thread of the conversation. "So you got away with stealing that painting."

"Not exactly. Not then. I stole it several years later, after the bastard died. That night when I was fourteen — I tripped the alarm. His dogs chased me — I haven’t liked dogs since. Next thing I knew, police cars were coming toward the mansion with their sirens blaring. I was scared to death, even more scared than I had been when he was trying to — And then I caught sight of a man in an alley, frantically beckoning to me to join him."

"You accepted an invitation to join a strange man in an alley?" Klaus asked queasily.

Dorian smiled slightly. "It does sound bad when you say it that way, doesn’t it? But he was a friend. He helped me hide, and comforted me — I was quite upset, as you can imagine. You’re probably too much of a gentleman to ask, so I’ll tell you: there was never anything… like that between us. He was a professional thief. He thought I showed potential, and he took me under his wing and taught me."

"Mein Gott. This is what a lack of proper role models does for a boy."

"And what sort of role models did you have? Was your father a psychotic repressed militaristic machine like you?"

"You would probably say so," Klaus answered shortly, and cast about for another subject. He did not want to talk about his father.

Perhaps Dorian understood Klaus’s abrupt silence, because he asked in a forced imitation of his usual light tone, "So tell me why you can’t fix a piston rod with duct tape and a bobby pin."

For the next twenty minutes Klaus was forced to explain how engines worked. How any man could be so ignorant about machines was beyond him, though Dorian was intelligent enough to grasp the concepts quickly enough.

Klaus abruptly stopped in his tracks. "Did you hear that?"

Dorian shook his head, knowing better than to answer aloud. They both held their breaths and strained their ears. A moment later, the sound came again, faint but unmistakable: a human voice.

Silently, they continued in the same direction. The voices became louder. Another minute, and there was a faint glow ahead, a light. Klaus glanced around sharply. "You wait by these trees. You might as well sit down and get some rest. I will go see who is there."

Dorian sat on the ground, his back resting against the rough bark of a tree, gazing into the darkness and letting the noises of nighttime insects lull him. These occasional intervals of amiability between him and Klaus only made things more difficult. But right now, he was too exhausted from blood loss and the long walk to be miserable. He knew he could keep functioning until his people were safe — there was simply no choice about that — but he also knew that it was going to be quite difficult. He could pick locks with his right arm injured, but it was going to take longer, and it was going to hurt.

So rest up to build your strength, he ordered himself, and forced his thoughts to still and his breath to slow. He wasn’t worried about the Major, running off to pick a fight with whoever was out there. The Major could handle anybody.

Distinctive firm footfalls began to sound in the darkness. Dorian kept silent even though he knew it was Klaus. No one else in the world stomped like that.

"It’s me," came the familiar deep, faintly accented voice as the steps neared.

"I know. Did you kill them?"

"No. Come along."

Dorian sighed and accepted the Major’s proffered hand to rise. The movement made his arm throb dully. He was too numb with pain and fatigue to ask more questions. It was not until they were almost upon the crumbling adobe hut that Dorian realized Klaus had taken him right to the source of the light and the voices. As Dorian lifted his head in surprise, one voice spoke louder for a few words, long enough for Dorian to recognize it. He stopped, gasping. Then he looked at Klaus.

Klaus’s expression was probably the closest approximation to a smile that the blasted wire rope could manage.

"You bastard," Dorian breathed with relief. Then he ran inside. Where his team was gathered about, resting and talking, free and safe and sound.

"Me lord!" Bonham exclaimed happily when Dorian appeared in the doorway. Dorian stopped there for a moment, looking at his people, feeling that he was about to weep. Instead he stepped forward and embraced Jones, who happened to be the closest, and then every one of them in turn. They were all here, all safe and sound, though a bit ill from the food the kidnappers had given them. Klaus stood leaning against the doorframe, watching expressionlessly as the Englishmen gathered round Dorian, each carefully embracing their Earl in turn, reassuring him and fussing over his injured arm.

"How did you all get out of there?" Dorian asked.

"We picked the locks on our cells. We’re thieves, too, you know." Jones looked quite pleased with himself. "They didn’t realize our capabilities. Once we were out, we just walked — staying away from the road, of course — until we found this old place. It isn’t really habitable, of course, but we thought we’d rest here till morning."

"Where is Caesar Gabriel?" Klaus demanded. Dorian glanced around. He had been so dazed and relieved that he hadn’t noticed that Caesar was missing.

An uncomfortable silence fell. Then Bonham drew a breath to speak. "Those nasty chaps don’t have him, is all we know." He turned to Dorian. "Me lord… the professor disappeared the day before we got kidnapped. We haven’t any idea where he is."

Naturally, the Major did not let the team’s illness stop him from grilling them about the terrorists and what they had seen of the hideout. Dorian scarcely managed to get them all, thieves and alphabets, installed in a decent Nasca hotel and their unheroic ailments tended to before Klaus was putting the screws to them. The Major’s interrogation paused only when the Major himself fell asleep, putting his head down on the table and passing out from sheer exhaustion in the middle of a sentence directed at Jones. Everyone had smiled and tiptoed out, leaving the Major alone until he awoke a few hours later and marched out to ask more questions.

Dorian, after being seen by a doctor, had spent the morning sleeping through Klaus’s interrogation of his team, and was now draped decoratively over a chaise lounge in his suite’s parlour, while those of his people who were awake lolled about with tea, plain crackers, and Alka-Seltzer. A and G were out making inquiries about Caesar — "A blue-eyed blond will be easy enough to find in this part of the world," Klaus had assured them all curtly. James was working on a bill to NATO for Dorian’s injury and the others’ illness, despite Dorian’s attempts to discourage him in that endeavour. At the moment, Dorian was feeling favorably disposed toward Klaus, who had after all worked very hard, if unnecessarily, to save his team. Though if Klaus annoyed him, he might sic James on him after all. On the other hand, if James voiced just one more speculation about what had happened between the Major and the Earl in the desert, Dorian just might go on a Firenze shopping spree that would turn the accountant’s hair white.

When the Major entered, raking his fingers impatiently through his slightly mussed dark brown hair, Bonham spoke up before the questions could start in again. "I was too frazzled before to think clearly enough to remember, but while we were at the monastery, I noticed something that might be of interest to you NATO chaps."

Klaus did not bother to express his annoyance at being designated as a "NATO chap", just as he made no acknowledgement of the cup of Nescafé Dorian handed him besides grasping it as if he had expected it to be there. "Let’s hear it."

"In one of the rooms we passed as we were leaving, I noticed a lot of rockets."

"Rockets?"

"Missiles. Little ones."

"How many? What did they look like? About how big?" Klaus demanded.

Those who had glimpsed them estimated there were at least a dozen of them, and the description made Klaus grim. "Stingers," he pronounced. "Probably Soviet SA-7 Grails."

"Bonham said they were small," Dorian ventured.

The Major’s eyes narrowed. "Yes. Small enough that a man can prop one on his shoulder and shoot it by hand."

"Oh. That doesn’t sound good."

"Not good at all. It means that there is no way I can apprehend those scumbags, not without a small army. If my alphabets and I moved in on them, they would obliterate us." Klaus glowered and began to prowl back and forth, deliberating.

"Then it’s time for a bit of strategy," Dorian remarked.

"Yes. If I could lure them away from their precious Stingers, and prevent them from getting at them—" Klaus broke off, still scowling, stumped. Dorian smiled.

"If you could get to those missiles, Major, could you disable them?"

Klaus stopped his pacing and locked gazes with Dorian. "I could. But getting to them…."

"Me lord," Bonham said regretfully, "those blokes were nasty sorts. You won’t catch me trying to get back into that place." He chewed his lip for a second before saying gently, "Let NATO look after its own business, me lord."

"It is a good idea," Klaus conceded sternly. "But I am sure I can break in by myself."

Dorian quickly turned to view the expressions on his subordinates’ faces. They did not school them quickly enough. "Can he?" Dorian asked softly.

Eroica’s team exchanged reluctant glances. But their lord would never forgive them for endangering his beloved, so at length Jones reluctantly said, "It’s a job for a professional, milord."

"I’ll do it," Bonham said quickly, reluctantly.

"You’ll do nothing of the kind," Dorian informed him serenely. "It’s far too dangerous a job, especially considering that you have no stake whatsoever in it."

"Neither do you!" Klaus snapped. "And I have problems enough without a dead Earl on my hands."

"I have a great deal of stake in this, Major."

Jones cleared his throat. "You’ve been injured, milord. You aren’t in top form."

Dorian drew himself up haughtily, ignoring the dull ache in his arm. "I am Eroica," he reminded them all. "I can pick any lock I’ve ever seen left-handed."

Bonham appealed to the Major. "Can’t you talk him out of it, Major?"

"No," Dorian said tranquilly. "He can’t, because little as he likes it, he needs me for this and he knows it. Now you lads tell us everything you can about the security and the layout."

Klaus glared, looking at Dorian as if he would like to throttle him. To the others, he announced sourly, "I will get him back alive."

They decided that the dark hours before dawn would be the best time to break in, when the terrorists would be tired and their vigilance lulled. Accordingly, they both retired to get what sleep they could while daylight lasted.

Bonham followed Dorian into his room and stood by the door, chewing his lip again.

"I’m going to do it, Bonham," the Earl said before the other man could say a word.

"But why, me lord? You could be killed!"

"I don’t think he’ll let that happen," Dorian said tartly, changing into white silk pajamas. "Dead Earls are a terrible nuisance, you know. Lot of paperwork involved in getting a Peer of the Realm killed."

"You don’t mean a thing to him, me lord," Bonham said, as gently as he could.

Dorian sighed. "That’s true. Occasionally, I’ve thought perhaps — but I was being a fool."

"Then why?"

The Earl looked at his right-hand man with shiny eyes. "Because he means the world to me, Bonham. Why can’t anyone understand that?"

Bonham dropped his eyes. "We were all glad to hear you meant to stop working for NATO, me lord. We’ve always worried…."

"I know. I have no intention of dying tonight, Bonham."

"It’s too dangerous with your arm—"

"Bonham, I need to get some rest. Please go."

"Yes, me lord," Bonham answered reluctantly, and left Dorian alone.

Once more, two Jeeps set out toward the old monastery by different routes, one carrying the armed alphabets, the other the Major and Eroica. They departed at midnight. Both groups would leave their vehicles well out of earshot of the monastery and walk the rest of the way, the alphabets remaining hidden ready to provide backup if needed.

They had been driving for an hour when the Major spoke for the first time since setting out.

"Why are you doing this?" Klaus demanded out of the blue.

"I can't resist doing you favors, darling. It makes you so angry."

"Idiot," was Klaus’s predictable reply.

Dorian sighed. "I suppose I can’t argue with that."

They fell silent, and did not speak again until they reached the spot where the Major had decided to stash the Jeep. He stopped the engine and hesitated before getting out. Dorian waited, curious.

"Lord Gloria," Klaus began awkwardly, and stopped. Dorian raised his eyebrows, his curiosity piqued still further. Klaus generally called him that only when he was trying to be amiable.

"Yes?"

Klaus frowned, looking into the darkness. "I… will see that NATO properly compensates you for your efforts tonight."

Suddenly feeling lighter than he had since learning of Klaus’s engagement, Dorian smiled, simply and happily.

"You’re welcome, Major," he said.

"Idiot," Klaus retorted. And as it occasionally did from Klaus, the word sounded… almost affectionate.

They walked in silence the mile to the monastery. When they arrived, they kept cover, watching the lack of movement in the building for some time before moving in. There were fewer vehicles in front of it than Eroica’s team had mentioned, so some of the terrorists must be elsewhere on this night. All the better.

Dorian straightened and began to make his cat-footed way to the monastery with a cheerful heart. This was to be his parting gift to his Major, the only fulfillment his love could ever have. Something that the woman who had managed to win that stony heart could never equal.

There was only one half-awake guard for Klaus to quietly put out of commission. Once that was done, Dorian set to work on the large and admittedly quite good tumbler that locked the door. It was a bit awkward left-handed, but only a bit; Chandler had insisted that he learn to do everything with both hands, and on some jobs Dorian would pick the locks left-handed simply for the joy of showing off.

The most complex lock was on the door to the stairwell that led to the second floor, where the missiles were supposed to be. Dorian set to work on it, forced to use both hands for the job, trying to conceal the twinges of pain as the wounded muscle moved, twinges which became progressively worse. It took a few minutes, but he succeeded, of course. Klaus stopped him from going through the door first with a heavy hand on his shoulder, and led the way up the stairs with his Magnum drawn. Eroica followed cooperatively. They reached the doorway Bonham had described. There was no real door — they could clearly see the Stingers — but there were several chains strung across the doorway, and several padlocks. Picking them without making a racket would be a challenge. Left-handed, no less, Eroica gloated as he opened the second lock with scarcely a sound. A few minutes later, he was keeping watch while Klaus started messing with the controls on the missiles.

Each one took a nerve-wrackingly long time. "If you show me what to do, I could help," Dorian offered in the softest of whispers.

"Let you near a high-tech explosive? I am not suicidal," Klaus retorted in an equally quiet whisper.

"Roger," Dorian whispered back with a smile. Klaus grimaced, putting a finger to his lips, and Dorian nodded and resumed keeping a lookout in silence.

They both froze at the sound of movement downstairs. A couple of male voices speaking in Spanish, and footsteps. The steps moved close to the stairs, and passed them by. Dorian’s pulse quickened, but he remained still and silent. Klaus beckoned, and Dorian crept to his side. Klaus leaned to whisper in his ear, disconcertingly close.

"Put the chains and locks back up," Klaus said, just above a breath.

"With us still in here?" Dorian whispered back.

"We shall leave by the window." Klaus leaned over to resume disabling the missiles, his posture telegraphing his heightened alertness.

Dorian began following Klaus’s instructions as silently as he could, placing the chains in their former configuration and thinking glumly of the prospect before him. Climbing out a second story window was generally child’s play for Eroica, but Eroica generally hadn’t been shot in the arm the night before. Judging from Klaus’s manner, he had totally forgotten Dorian’s injury. Dorian thought of reminding him, but it would serve no purpose; there was no other exit for them now, not with wakeful men downstairs.

When Dorian had finished the touchy task, his right arm aching more insistently with every minute as if to remind him of its plight, he turned to find Klaus standing by the window, apparently through disarming the missiles. Klaus jerked his head at the window impatiently, and Dorian approached with resignation.

What the hell was the damned pervert waiting for? Klaus swiftly made his way out the window and down to the ground. The pitted, crumbling adobe made for plenty of hand and footholds, for a man who knew what he was doing. In his trade, Eroica was probably better at climbing walls than the Major was.

On the ground, Klaus stopped and waited, his arms folded over his chest. What had gotten into the idiot? He was climbing down, but slowly, almost clumsily. Klaus knew perfectly well the thief was strong enough to support his own body weight; he had seen him do it. Those ridiculous frills Eroica affected covered strong muscles. Muscles which were clearly revealed by his skintight burglar’s catsuit. In keeping with Eroica’s idea of simplicity, his only jewelry was a pair of gold stud earrings and the eternal gold band, almost like a wedding band, except that it was on the wrong hand.

To the Major’s amazement, Eroica actually slipped as he climbed out. Instinctively, Klaus stepped closer, ready to catch the thief if he fell. Dorian seized the windowsill with his right arm, but gasped and lost his hold.

Eroica’s arm! Klaus cursed himself as he realized he had forgotten the thief’s injury. And the idiot had gone right ahead and climbed out the window just the same. Sometimes the curly-haired bugger was too brave for his own damned good.

Klaus reached and managed to break Dorian’s fall before the idiot hit the ground, but the impact upset his balance and they both tumbled to the ground, Klaus on his back, Dorian inelegantly atop him.

As soon as they hit the ground, Dorian quickly moved to get up, averting his eyes, trying to avoid giving offense.

Before he could move off of Klaus, Klaus had seized him automatically by the waist, holding him in place.

They both froze.

Klaus released Dorian, not meeting his eyes, but he did not otherwise move. It was too late and he knew it. He let his hands lie idly at his sides.

So now they both knew.

There were no sounds besides the night insects chirping, no alarmed footsteps or shouts, only the slightly labored breaths of the two men lying on the ground together.

When Dorian made no move, Klaus at last met his gaze. And when their eyes locked, Klaus knew that he was lost.

He waited for Eroica to say something annoying and flirtatious and break the spell.

But Eroica only stared at him as if he were a vision. His eyes were wide and searching, his lips slightly parted in wonder. Damn him. Why did the man have to be so damned beautiful?

"I had not known you to be capable of such restraint, my lord," Klaus managed to say dryly, but the words sounded forced.

"I’m hardly in the habit of leading married men astray," Dorian whispered, sounding as if he were reciting Eroica’s lines. "Or engaged men."

They looked at each other.

"My fiancée returned the ring," Klaus said finally, expressionlessly.

"Why?" Dorian blurted, and Klaus responded as if Dorian had had a right to ask.

"Because I did not love her."

Klaus was certain that Dorian would understand a great deal more than he had said, and a great deal more than he had even thought, in those words. He waited.

Dorian drew a breath, closed his eyes for a moment, and slowly stood up.

Klaus stared in shock. It took him a few seconds to gather the presence of mind to rise as well, and then he stalked in the direction of the Jeep, wishing he were with anyone in the world right now besides Eroica. He was grateful for the night, masking his hotly flushing face.

He heard Dorian’s soft footfalls behind him, and slammed a mental door on the thief, on the moment that had just passed, on everything. He knew how not to think about things. He had been practicing since the first faint shadow of a beard began to creep over his chin. He was not going to think about this.

Neither man spoke another word as they walked back to the Jeep and drove back to the Nasca hotel. Once there, Klaus locked himself in his room. Alone.

Alone in his own suite, Dorian sat awake with the light on, holding an exquisite Incan amulet that Jones had already rescued for him. The magnificently simple geometric lines of it spoke to him of the primordial powers of the human soul. Gazing at it made him feel he had made some sort of contact with those powers, with Illumination. This was the purpose to which he had devoted his life, for which he had labored and broken the law and resolved to be forever alone.

For years, Dorian had been telling himself how fortunate he was that Klaus did not want him. He had never wholeheartedly believed it, but the fact remained that Klaus’s indifference had been convenient. Many times, he had reflected that his vow of chastity would never have been able to withstand a Klaus willing to help him break it. Certain of his own weakness, he had relied on Klaus’s rejection to keep his vow.

Now at last his guilty wish had come true. Klaus did want him. He could have shattered his vows into dust on this night.

And he had thought of his life’s work, and had had the strength to walk away.

Dorian supposed that when he was fifty, he would be proud of himself.

But fifty years old was a long way off when one was twenty-seven and a virgin and lying alone in a double bed in which one could have had company.

Dorian was tired, but he got very little sleep that morning.

When G returned to the hotel from the morning’s information-gathering at noon, A hurried out to meet him. "Have you found any sign of Caesar Gabriel?"

"Not yet. That is, there were a few sightings of young men who match Caesar’s description, but we haven’t tracked him down yet," G said, moving toward the hotel entrance. A stopped him.

"If you have any excuse to stay away from the Major, I’d take it."

G looked up at him, wide-eyed. "What’s gone wrong now? Was last night’s mission botched?"

"No, went off without a hitch. The Stingers are disarmed and both of them got back all right. But he’s been worse than ever all day. There’s no living with him now."

"Why?"

A shrugged. "I can only assume the Earl made another pass at him. I don’t know what else could be wrong."

G lifted an eyebrow and gave A a sidelong look. "Perhaps the problem is that the Earl didn’t."

A’s eyes bugged out as he stared at the other agent. When he was able to breathe again, he glanced around furtively and muttered, "You could probably get sent to Alaska just for thinking that."

"I notice that you didn’t disagree," G remarked blandly as he headed back to the Jeep.

It was late afternoon when Z showed up. Dorian saw him charging through the lobby and followed him to the Major’s room uninvited, careful to look at the alphabets instead of Klaus as he entered. Klaus had, of course, transformed the decent hotel room into an office of sorts, and he and his operatives were up to their elbows in the papers and radios and phone calls that somehow or other got them their results.

"Sir!" Z was quietly triumphant. "I think we’ve found him! A young man matching his description was seen at a hotel on the other side of town!"

Dorian exclaimed, "So he’s all right?"

"So it seems. He and a young Peruvian woman got a room yesterday."

"A woman?" Klaus echoed incredulously. "I thought he was a queer!"

Eroica tossed his hair. "What, because he kissed one man ten years ago? Really, Major."

"Then what the hell was he doing running around with you faggots?"

Dorian gave him a sharp glance before looking away. Klaus’s expression was hostile as always. So it was back to things as they had been. They never really changed, it seemed, no matter what. "His job. I told you he wasn’t my lover."

"Let’s go," Klaus snapped. They all hurried out to one of the Jeeps. No one argued when Dorian climbed in too.

"Why on earth did he just wander off without telling anyone?" Dorian wondered aloud as they sped down the street.

"Because he is an idiot," Klaus retorted.

Dorian made no answer. Z parked in front of the hotel. It was a seedy place. Dorian wondered what on earth Caesar had been doing in such a place. They all hurried out. Klaus terrorized the desk clerk into giving the proper room number and they all rushed upstairs.

Klaus pounded on the door. "Caesar Gabriel! Come out of there!"

Silence answered them. "You probably frightened them, Major," Dorian said mildly. He stepped forward and tapped. "Caesar? It’s Dorian. We’ve been so worried!"

No response.

"Get back," Klaus growled, keeping his distance rather than shoving Dorian out of the way. The distinction was not lost on him. Dorian obligingly stepped back. Klaus drew his Magnum and kicked the door in.

He took two steps through it, glanced around swiftly, and turned to block the way. "Z. Take Lord Gloria back to the Jeep."

Dorian’s eyes widened in alarm. "Why? What’s wrong?"

Klaus took a step closer to the door, trying to obstruct Dorian’s view. Dorian shoved his way past before Klaus could smother his reluctance to touch the Earl, and saw what was there to be seen.

A rumpled bed, long hairs of gold and black strewn on the pillows, and a pool of half-dried blood on one pillow.

"No," Dorian whispered, his hand to his mouth.

"Z!" Klaus barked. Z deferentially took Dorian’s arm and gently urged him out the door. Klaus looked wearily at A. "Help me search the room. Let’s find out what we can."

Which turned out to be nothing, besides that Caesar Gabriel really had been in this room.

Dorian could not refrain from weeping quietly on the drive back. Z furtively offered him a handkerchief. Klaus totally ignored his existence.

"Me lord! What happened?" Bonham asked as Dorian stumbled into the suite.

Dorian’s throat was too tight to speak.

"What did you do to our Earl?" James shrilly demanded of Klaus, outraged.

"Shut up, rubbish!" Klaus roared back.

"Stop it, both of you!" Dorian blurted, then turned and went blindly into his bedroom to be alone. In the outer room, he could hear Jones restraining James, and Z explaining what they had discovered in a low voice.

They left Dorian alone for several hours, before Bonham entered quietly. "Me lord, I’m sorry."

Dorian looked out the window without answering.

"’E could be all right, you know."

"He disappeared without a trace except for a lot of blood on his pillow," Dorian said flatly. "I rather doubt he’s all right."

Bonham hesitated, searching for something encouraging to say. But there was nothing to say, and so he finally left his lord alone.

Dorian sat staring out the window for a very long time, hugging himself, his knuckles white with the tension of his hands. His body was absolutely still, but his thoughts were in a whirl.

And what emerged from his maelstrom of grief and fury was this: If Caesar, who had actually achieved a degree of the Illumination that Dorian and his associates strove for, could be murdered so easily, of what use were his powers? Were they indeed real?

In the course of his quest, Dorian had seen people do amazing things which should have been impossible, if Illumination did not exist. And he had seen those exact same people completely unable to duplicate those feats the following day. Illumination, it seemed, came and went. Always there was just enough doubt that one could never be wholly certain, one way or the other. Illumination demanded a great deal of faith.

If Caesar could tell that the Major was coming to question him, surely he should have been able to detect that someone was trying to murder him in time to stay away from them. But he had not, and the Illuminati’s high hopes for him were now destroyed. Not only because he was, as far as they could tell, dead, but also because his powers had failed him.

And as Dorian pondered these things, his sense of betrayal and disappointment grew and coupled with the other strong passion of his soul.

Klaus was planning on an evening of serious drinking. He would have preferred to get on the next flight to Bonn, but as long as there was some chance Caesar Gabriel was still alive, his mission was not complete. Even so, given the circumstances — which he carefully did not name, even in his own thoughts — he might have allowed himself to do sloppy work for once in his career and assume the brat was dead and gone home, if it were not for Gonzalez. Gonzalez was far more important than… anything else.

The knock at his door surprised Klaus in the middle of opening a bottle of dry gin. He opened it to discover Eroica, his face very solemn and his eyes blazing with quiet intensity.

He was utterly beautiful.

"May I come in?" Dorian asked when Klaus said nothing, in a low voice completely unlike his usual arch tone. Alarm signals started flashing in Klaus’s mind.

"No. Go away."

He began to push the door closed, but Dorian shoved his way in, his eyes forlornly on the floor. Klaus closed the door, berating himself for not having the willpower to throw the pervert out. He tried to tell himself that it was possible that Dorian had something appropriate and important to say.

"What is it?" he demanded, as unfriendly as possible. Dorian only looked at him with enormous blue eyes. Softening just perceptibly, he asked, "Is something wrong?"

"Klaus. I have to talk to you." Dorian’s face was pale and very determined. Klaus’s stomach twisted. Dorian sat down and knotted his hands in his lap. Klaus slowly came to sit across from him, at a safe distance. "I need you to just listen for a minute, to hear me out."

Klaus stood up. "Get out."

Dorian looked a bit disappointed, but he lifted his chin and spoke with quiet dignity. "I am not leaving until I have said what I came to say."

Klaus glared at him. "The answer is no."

Dorian closed his eyes, swallowed, and opened them again. "Klaus," he said very quietly, "I love you."

"Pervert."

"This isn’t just about getting you into bed. As much as I want to. And this isn’t a game. This is serious. I love you. I always will. No matter how you feel about me. Klaus. Just tell me what the problem is. Is it just that I’m a man? What is so terrible about that? Does being a man make me unworthy of love?"

It did sound ridiculous when Dorian put it that way. "Pervert!"

"That’s not an answer. Why? Why do you believe that loving another man is so wrong? Just tell me." Dorian’s face was passionately serious.

The only answer Klaus could come up with was another question. "Why must you intrude yourself where you know you are not wanted?"

The words hurt Dorian, there was no doubt of that. His usual blithe façade had completely evaporated. It was a bit dizzying, to see Dorian’s emotions so openly displayed, to see him baring his throat to be ripped open. "What do I have to do, Klaus? Just to get a chance. You want discretion? Secrecy? You can have it. You know damned well I can keep a secret; I’d be in jail if I couldn’t."

"Eroica. Shut up."

"You want me to give up stealing? Reform? I’ll do it. Anything else? Name it."

"I want you to leave me alone." Klaus wondered why he could not summon more rancor into his voice.

Dorian drew a breath. "I can’t. I love you too much. Klaus, please just talk to me. Maybe — maybe we could… just spend some time together. I won’t… won’t make any advances. Just talk to me, be around me, find out who I am. Give me that chance. You’ll see. I would do anything for you–"

"Then get out."

"Klaus! Don’t do this to me. Don’t tell me you don’t feel anything for me. I know you feel something."

Damn him. Had this man been sent by the God he did not believe in to torment him? "I feel a great deal for you. None of it good."

Dorian’s eyes shone with unshed tears, but he did not budge, only shook his head slowly. "No. I don’t believe that. Klaus, listen to me. I love you. Give me a chance. That’s all I’m asking. On any terms. Let me show you that I mean it. You and I were meant to be together, can’t you see that? Give me one night — God, give me one hour and I’ll prove it to you!"

"STOP IT!"

Dorian unlaced his fingers, then laced them again. Then he stood.

"Klaus." His voice was husky, his eyes pleading. He took a step closer, and another. Klaus took one step back, and then found himself frozen. Dorian’s arms went around him slowly, gingerly, and Klaus could have sworn they were a steel vise, rendering him completely powerless to move. Dorian’s whole body was lightly touching Klaus’s.

"Make love to me," Dorian whispered pleadingly.

Klaus could not breathe. He shuddered.

Then he dealt Dorian a backhanded slap that knocked him five feet away.

Dorian covered his face with his hands and sobbed once before falling silent.

His chest tight, Klaus walked to the door and held it open.

"Get out before I throw you out." He was unable to muster his usual growl. But a moment later, Dorian fled, and Klaus locked the door behind him.

His hands shook so badly that he could scarcely light a cigarette. After a few tries, he managed it. Several drags on it enabled him to fetch the gin. He drank his way through two bottles and part of a third before he passed out.

Klaus woke late the following morning lying on the floor, with a five-alarm hangover. He crawled to the sink for a glass of water and a hair of the dog, his head threatening to explode at every move.

You deserve it, he told himself sourly as he began the tedious process of rehydrating himself.

A tapped on the door in the middle of Klaus’s attempts to revive himself.

"I am ill!" he yelled through the door, disgusted with himself for lying. And more than that, disgusted with himself for having been drunk, for having slept on the floor fully dressed, for being unshaven and dirty and no doubt stinking of gin. And for other things he was trying not to think about. "Come back in half an hour — and get me some breakfast!"

"Yes, sir," was A’s muffled reply through the door. Wincing at every move, Klaus washed down more aspirin than were strictly wise with another glass of water. The water probably wasn’t that clean, but if he was ever going to function again, he had to get some moisture into his body.

And on it. He showered as quickly as he could, and emerged feeling reasonably close to human again. Still in pain, but it was marginally bearable now; and still disgusted with himself, but now that he was ambulant he could make some effort in the project of self-redemption. A project which was hopeless, but not to pursue it was to be doubly damned.

He was shaving when A returned with a decent healthy breakfast. The thought of eating made Klaus’s bile rise, but he knew he would feel better after he had done it. "I will see you all in here in half an hour," he ordered. "We still have a great deal of work to do here. Eroica will have no more part in it."

"Yes, sir."

When they were all gathered, Klaus ignored the lingering pounding in his head and the general sense of fatigue to announce, "We have to move in on these terrorists before they notice that their Stingers are no longer operational."

As they began to chart their strategy, no one remarked that Klaus’s plans were more daring than usual.

He was going to get Gonzalez if it killed him.

Dorian spent the next two days alternately sulking and drinking, sometimes both. He had never been a hard drinker, was seldom drunk, but now he understood the need to dull reality.

Reality, after all, was intolerable. He had now lost everything he had ever wanted.

In the middle of the second afternoon, for no particular reason, Dorian sat up. He shoved the bottle to the floor and left it there.

He was being childish. So he couldn’t have what he wanted. So what. He had far more than many people. He had no right to sulk. He still could make himself useful so long as he was alive. Life might not be beautiful, but it was not totally pointless.

He could plod along, learning what he could from the treasures and mysteries of Peru. He could make a little progress in unlocking the mysteries of the ages. And his work would bring someone else just a bit closer to the answers. Not the dramatic triumph he had hoped for, but… perhaps the Major was right and he needed to outgrow such notions.

Dorian rebelled at that idea. No, such notions should be clung to. They made life bearable. But not everyone had those dramatic triumphs, and Dorian would have to accept that he was not going to be one of the lucky few.

Perhaps this was true dedication, then: knowing that you will not get everything you want, but doing what you can just the same. It was a bleak beauty, but it was beautiful, and infinitely better than the self-pity he had been indulging in. In time, perhaps the disappointment would fade, and he would learn to find satisfaction in less radiant rewards. He rebelled inwardly at that prospect too, he found. No, he would not settle. He would resign himself to less than he wanted, but he would never be satisfied with it. That would be wrong. That would be a betrayal of his ideals. Serving an unattainable ideal was one thing; not minding that it was unattainable was a desecration. His ideal was high, but he might have to settle for the reality at hand.

Accordingly, he set himself to continuing the planned investigation of artifacts. It was not as joyful a task as it once had been, when his optimism had been in full force, but it was soothing, and gave him something to do other than brood.

It would be the salvation of his soul.

It was in the midst of this project that Bonham and Jones entered hesitantly. "Me lord… we thought you might want to know…."

"Yes?"

Bonham stopped, biting his lip.

"We have to tell him," Jones said.

"Have to tell me what?" Dorian asked, instantly on the alert.

Bonham sighed and nodded. "Don’t know if you want to hear about it, but… we were just chatting up the Embassy chaps, and they were on about it… Uncle NATO’s been captured by those terrorist blokes. His alphabets, too." Bonham watched Dorian’s face turn immobile before adding softly, "They think he’s still alive."

Dorian carefully closed the book he had been looking through and neatened the stack of papers on the table before speaking. "In that case, springing him might be a bit of sport. I’ve been getting rather bored."

Klaus checked Agent A’s pulse again. Was it a bit slower than the last time he had checked? At least the bleeding had stopped; they had tightly bandaged the deep gash across A’s abdomen, and it seemed to be enough, for now. Though A kept felling asleep, worn out by the blood loss and his body’s attempts to mend itself. If they could get him to real medical care, Klaus thought A would be all right… probably….

Glancing around at the other three agents, Klaus knew that none of his worry was showing on his face. For years he had schooled himself to conceal uncertainty. As long as he looked like he knew what he was doing, his subordinates would be all right.

Though in this case, it was likely that all he would be able to do was keep them calm and reassured until they were killed.

Klaus stood and resumed prowling around the cell in which they had been locked. It was not large enough to hold all of them comfortably. It was dirty and bare, with no furniture of any sort, adobe walls and adobe floor and a tiny window eight feet from the floor which was far too small for even G to fit through. The door was made of iron bars. Klaus’s attempts on it had been useless, and every time he had tried again, men had come from somewhere to put a stop to it, alerted by the sounds. As long as the terrorists did not hear the bars clanging or rattling, Klaus and his agents were left alone.

Gonzalez was not there, but one of the terrorists present had recognized Klaus, had known that he was the man Gonzalez had been hunting. The terrorists had pummeled Klaus till he had forced himself to stop fighting, not so much from the pain as from realizing that there was no escape for now, and more blows would only incapacitate him later, if there was a later…. Klaus and the alphabets owed their continued survival to the fact that Gonzalez’ compatriots believed that Gonzalez would like to kill Iron Klaus himself.

Gonzalez would be there soon, they had been promised.

Klaus wanted to punch himself. He had finally done it: he had made a mistake, and his subordinates were going to die because of it. His own death would have been a fair enough price for Gonzalez’, but his alphabets — they had been his responsibility, and he had screwed up…. And it wasn’t even a real mission that he had gotten them killed over.

And that unauthorized mission had failed. Gonzalez was still alive. And very, very annoyed about the disabled missiles. The terrorists had not guessed Klaus’s part in that, but they had prevailed over it.

But Klaus was an officer as long as he was breathing, and it was his duty to think of something. And what his tortured mind eventually came up with was a desperate, thin possibility that would almost certainly get him killed very soon, but which just might, conceivably, save the lives of his agents. Or some of them. Maybe.

"Listen to me," he ordered abruptly, in a low voice. They all looked up alertly, and all looked calmer at the possibility that he had a plan, that he was going to take care of everything and make everything all right, like a superior should. "Eventually, they are going to have to open that door, for some reason or other." He saw no reason to mention that the reason might well be to take them all outside and shoot them. Or maybe shoot them right here. Or do something worse. They all knew it, after all. "When they do, I will attack one of them to create a diversion. I will keep as many of them busy as I can, for as long as I can. B and Z, you carry A, and all of you get the hell out. You can probably steal some weapons along the way. Do what you have to, but get out of this building."

"And what about you, Major?" B asked. The others’ eyes flicked to him and away, silently. B must be badly worn down if he was asking idiotic questions like that.

Klaus looked B in the eye and told him the most time-honored lie in their profession.

"I’ll catch up," he said.

Everyone nodded respectfully. None of them believed it.

Z hesitated, then spoke up. "Sir, I could attack instead—"

"Shut up," Klaus said without rancor. Z did. "Does everyone understand what is expected of you?"

He was answered with a medley of Yes, sir’s and that closed look of people steeling themselves to do something they don’t really want to do.

"Gut. Get some rest." And Klaus himself tried to take his own advice, but his thoughts were racing. And every time he stilled them, the thing they were running from returned.

A single quick, stifled sob. A golden head bowed, slender hands covering a face.

I did not mean to hurt him, Klaus thought carefully. Told the damned idiot to stay away from me, didn’t I? From the start.

It made sense, Klaus told himself, that he felt regret. He didn’t entirely hate Eroica. The thief could be useful, on occasion, when it suited him. He had his good points. If he hadn’t thrown himself away on a life of crime and perversion….

That single sob was excessively disturbing. A shameful display of tears would have been easier to forget.

Dammit, I never encouraged him! Never gave him reason to think…. With one exception, which Klaus sternly refused to think of.

Stop blaming him. It is your own damned fault and you know it. But Klaus did not put into words what "it" consisted of.

Suppose the bloody pervert really means the idiot things he says, Klaus thought reluctantly, and quickly added, He is too fucking sensitive.

Suddenly, the image of Dorian’s hurrying out his door with his face buried in his hands merged with that of Greta, casting his mother’s diamond at his feet and hurrying out of sight, proudly wishing to shed her tears alone.

The only two people who ever loved me, and I let them both down. Not to mention those who had depended on him, his alphabets, the Eberbach line, NATO….

And he had let down Alexander as well. One of the man’s murderers was still alive, and it would take a miracle for Klaus to have another chance at him.

Klaus closed his eyes against the thought. Alexander had understood the only thing that had made life bearable for him, the only thing that had made it possible for him to forgive himself, in any degree, for his many sins. Fight, even when victory is hopeless. Do what is right, though you know you will never get recognition or any other reward for it. Save your soul, not from a pit of fire after death, but from the hell within.

Well, Klaus would, shortly, take his very last shot at salvation.

A commotion outside disturbed his thoughts. He lifted his head. It was an engine, a Jeep, and high-pitched, laughing voices.

Klaus stood and moved swiftly to the window. "Z," he said. Z promptly came and knelt beneath the window. Klaus climbed onto Z’s shoulders to look out.

"Nein," he muttered to himself. But as the Jeep drew closer and then stopped right in front, there was no room for doubt. He rested his head wearily against the edge of the window. "God damn it to fucking hell…."

"What is it, sir?" B asked.

"Eroica. Who else?"

Eroica, and his entire team. All of them, with the exception of Bonham, who was driving, wearing brightly flowered — and strategically padded — dresses, with wide-brimmed hats and scarves and even high heeled shoes, for Chrissake, and gaudy cosmetics and cheap locally bought jewelry, anything to distract from the signs of masculinity that could not quite be hidden. Dorian’s shoulders were too muscular for a woman’s, for instance, but Klaus doubted the terrorists would notice, given the phony but generous cleavage there to divert them. And while he was far too pretty for a man, he wasn’t quite pretty enough for a woman.

"Does he do this just to embarrass me?" Klaus groaned.

"Do what, sir?" G asked urgently.

Klaus drew a breath of resignation. "I feel certain that he has a plan."

"Oh, how quaint!" Dorian’s voice rang out, pitched higher than normal. Still a bit low for a woman’s voice, but it would do for an uncritical audience, and transvestism, after all, was a product of decadent industrialized nations. "An old church! How charming! Girls, let’s get some pictures! Oh, here’s the locals! Where’s that phrase book?"

The terrorists had all emerged to greet their "guests" as soon as the engine had been heard. Now guns had been put aside in favor of predatory grins. Dorian was in full dizzy-blonde mode, trilling about how lovely the building was and reciting labored phrase-book Spanish to the smirking terrorists, who were answering with unveiled amusement. Had these really been women, Klaus would have shuddered at their imminent fate.

"Men! They always believe that blonds are dumb," G said smugly, listening to the exchange outside.

Certainly the terrorists believed so. One, the largest of the lot, went right to Dorian, having apparently already chosen "her", leaving the other "women" to his cronies. Leering, the lout took Dorian’s arm, just as the other terrorists were making their first advances to the other bewigged, painted, skirted thieves. Klaus could make out giddy nonsense from the thieves and Spanish gloating from the terrorists.

Dorian’s expression changed only an instant before his dartgun appeared, an expression Klaus had seen a few times before, of contempt for those who were so easily lulled by appearances. A toss of golden curls and a flutter and so many were ready to dismiss Eroica — leaving him free to work his schemes, unsuspected and unnoticed.

The lout’s expression of surprise did not have time to fade before the dart was in him, and it took only a couple of seconds for him to pass out. All of them were dropping like flies, and when the last terrorist fell, Dorian’s team set to busily shackling and disarming them all. Dorian, meanwhile, hurried inside.

"Here comes the cavalry," Klaus muttered sourly as he climbed off Z’s shoulders.

"What happened, sir?"

"Those bloody queers tranked all the terrorists. We are saved," Klaus informed them. He did not sound especially happy about it.

G leaned over A, who was half awake. "A? Are you listening?"

"Mph," was A’s reply.

"Help came. We’re safe. We’re going to get you to a doctor."

A’s face relaxed a bit, and a few seconds later he was asleep again.

Dorian ran up the stairs, his heart hammering in his chest as he prayed to the God he did not believe in that he had not come too late. "Major?" he called.

"Over here!" It was Z’s voice. Dorian hurried towards it, and there, in a tiny cell behind iron bars, was Klaus, his face bruised, glaring at Dorian as if Dorian were the villain of the piece. "Thank God," Dorian breathed. Then he swiftly surveyed the others. "Oh no. A…?"

"He’ll be all right, thanks to you, my lord," G said happily, with an adoring smile. "Oh, Lord Gloria, that dress is you."

Dorian smiled back. "This old thing? You can borrow it sometime," he said, just to see if Klaus’s angry flush could get any darker. It could. Some other time, it might have been fun to watch. "Sorry it took us so long to get here — we didn’t bring any of our sleeping gas, we knew we’d never get it through customs, so we had to lift some tranquilizer darts off some zoo fellows—"

"Idiot!" Klaus yelled. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Saving your life, or didn’t you notice?"

"Are you hoping I will be grateful?"

Dorian laughed sharply. "I’m not that much of an idiot." He extended Klaus’s Magnum through the bars. "That bounder who tried to paw me had this. I believe it belongs to you, Major."

Klaus took it quickly, feeling like himself again with the familiar weapon in his hand. Dorian stood well back without waiting to be told. Klaus shot out the hinge of the door, and it swung open.

"B, Z, get A," Klaus barked.

"Let my boys get him," Dorian suggested briskly. "I’m sure you lot are all exhausted." Already a few of Eroica’s people were making their way up the stairs. Jones and Carlton lifted A carefully and carried him out. "Come on, all of you. I’m sure there’s enough vehicles out here to get all of us back to civilization."

With that, Dorian leaned against the wall, fatigued from relief. He and Klaus watched as the others filed out. Then Dorian shoved himself away from the wall to follow, but hesitated as he noticed Klaus’s thunderous expression.

"I apologize for rescuing you and your men," Dorian said flatly.

Klaus continued to glower. "You saved my men’s lives." But he didn’t have to like it, apparently. "It was… commendable of you." The words were ground out from between gritted teeth. His eyes moved over Dorian’s attire with undisguised displeasure.

"I suppose you’d feel better if I got rid of this dress."

"Yes." Klaus glared, then looked alarmed. "Wait, I meant—"

Dorian tossed an ironic glance at him as he pulled off his red-and-white flowered dress to reveal the sleeveless khaki shirt and shorts beneath. Klaus pressed his lips together, scowling.

Dorian sighed as he took out his handkerchief and wiped off his lipstick. Well, he hadn’t expected the Major to be happy about being rescued by a bunch of fairies wearing dresses, after all. In fact, at one time, Dorian would have considerably enjoyed the Major’s annoyance over it. But now… now he was simply tired. He turned to the door to follow the others.

Klaus’s voice stopped him. "You still have not explained why you are here."

"The Embassy fellows mentioned to my people what happened, that you’d been captured."

"And you came here to get me? That is, us?"

Was it so utterly incomprehensible? "Yes."

"After… after the last time we saw each other?"

Dorian felt vaguely irritated, and too weary to argue. And that evening was something he wanted only to forget. "Of course." At Klaus’s continued frown, he snapped, "What was I supposed to do? Let you rot? Of course I came for you."

"Why?"

The man was still beautiful, damn him. Dorian gave him a look of exasperation, tempted to make an easy joke about possible remuneration, but he couldn’t. "For the salvation of my soul," he said wearily. Klaus continued to stare at him as if he had never seen him before.

He turned to leave, but was stopped again by Klaus’s voice. "Dorian! Wait!"

Dorian?

Not Eroica? Or Lord Gloria, or pervert, or idiot?

Dorian stopped and turned… and found himself pinioned by a gaze so intent he seemed to feel it as a physical touch. Their eyes met and held, and Dorian found that he could not bring himself to flirt or camp and break the moment. Not with those emerald eyes boring into his so searchingly, as if trying to read the riddle of his soul. And good God, that gaze was so piercing and Dorian’s usual masks were so thoroughly dropped that the entire truth must be written quite plainly on his face. His love, beyond a doubt, but also his faith, his quest, his chastity….

Which would not last another hour, not if Klaus wanted to take it.

It was inevitable that when eyes met that way, lips should follow.

Klaus’s hands were large and the skin of them rather rough against Dorian’s cheeks. Though they held his face with a light touch Dorian would not have thought those iron hands capable of, the strength in them was evident. Dorian found himself putting his own more slender hands against the sandpaper of Klaus’s jaw, not quite daring more.

Had Dorian been capable of any rational thought whatsoever, he might have been surprised that his beloved, who had been fleeing him for a decade as if he were the Devil himself, kissed so completely, so fiercely, without the least trace of hesitation. But Dorian’s senses had been scattered to the four winds and his being consumed completely by the movement of Klaus’s mouth on his. This was nothing like stealing a kiss or two from some sweet boy. This… this experience was more primordial than beauty or art or Illumination.

At last they had to separate, and they spent a long, breathless minute studying each other. Dorian saw, incredulously, that Klaus actually looked as if he might weep.

Before Klaus’s face convulsed, just for an instant, as if he had suddenly felt some intense pain. A moment later he had shoved himself away from Dorian and strode out the door without looking back.

Dorian sank to the floor, his back against the wall, and put his face in his hands as reality bleakly returned to him.

The Major slipped away from the others at the first opportunity. That opportunity was a while in coming. A had to be taken to hospital, first and foremost. The terrorists had to be turned over to proper authorities, who had tiresome questions about it. Most of the terrorists were wanted in several nations. Klaus foresaw a great deal of quarreling over which nation got to try them. That was fine with him, as long as he got to interrogate them once the tranquilizers wore off.

But at length there was nothing more to be done but wait. So the Major sent his agents to their rooms to rest, and even though he was tired, dirty and unshaven, he got in one of the Jeeps and got on the road once more, leaving civilization behind at a rapid pace. He needed to be good and alone for this. More than alone. The only company he wanted on this night was the God he did not believe in.

The moon was high in the sky when Klaus suddenly felt tired. He pulled off the unpaved road and walked for a bit. He chose a spot, essentially at random, and sat down on a rock. And there his flight ended. There he stopped running.

Klaus had kissed many women. He had never much liked doing it, though sometimes it was not so unpleasant.

A man’s lips were not much different from a woman’s. It made no sense that this should have made all the difference in the world.

Almost absently, he ran his fingertips over his own mouth. The decidedly masculine muscles and short dark hairs of his arm could have been reassuring, but they were not, not anymore.

It was time, at last, to face it. He could no longer ignore it or fight it or explain it away. These desires of his were not some sort of outside force that periodically attacked him.

When the suspicion had first dawned, it had been a terrifying beast and he little more than a child, unequipped to contend with it. And so he had built thick high walls around it, and dug a moat, and arranged all sorts of traps and warnings that had kept him, ever since, from even approaching the fearsome thing caged within. And now, as an adult, taller and stronger and braver, he faced down the alarms and traps and broke through the walls, and found that they were far more fearsome than the creature they had confined. And just as his uncle’s dog had been a giant monster that terrified him when he was five and then transmuted into a friendly companion when he was ten, so this creature was no longer a threat beyond his capability to face.

In his youth, it had been utter horror, that constant fear never even fully articulated: God help me, am I… no, I can’t be… I don’t want to be…. Now, as an adult, it did not seem so dreadful. Bad, but not fearsome. He was not at all pleased with it, but it was something he could face.

Accordingly, he allowed his mind to string the words together for the first time ever.

I am a homosexual.

He flinched once as the sentence formed, and then it was over.

It was not a happy thought, but there was a certain peace in having admitted it to himself.

So what did he think of that now? As an adolescent, it had been a Lovecraftian horror always just a step behind him, pursuing him relentlessly. Now….

Was it sick? Possibly. He could not see any good reason for nature to create such freaks. Wasn't the propagation of the species the point of it all? Homosexuality could hardly have any place in the scheme of things. But it existed, so perhaps he simply did not know what that place was.

Was it wrong? But he had never chosen to have these desires, had never wished to have them. It could hardly be wrong when he had no choice in the matter. Even a Catholic conscience could not be held responsible for this.

Would it be wrong to act on these desires? Examining it ruthlessly, he could not see that it would hurt anyone, not in and of itself. But the consequences were another matter.

What would it mean to his life if it became known? It would destroy his career, small doubt of that. Of course, his Chief got away with pursuing G, but then, the Chief's last promotion had been a very long time ago. And the Chief was married; it made his indiscretions easier to ignore. And G — G was never going to get past the place where he was right now. He would be lucky just to stay where he was. If Klaus’s nature were known, would his agents ever be able to view him with the same respect? Or had they been watching his tug-of-war with Eroica and suspecting the truth all along? And enemy agents — Klaus turned cold at the thought of Mischa armed with a new set of insults to hurl at him. And all the incidental people in his life, the dentist and the tailor and his servants — would they look at him differently, if they knew? His butler would have a heart attack, no doubt about it. And his father… that didn't even bear thinking of.

Should he try to do something about it? A psychiatrist, perhaps? But he recalled reading that psychiatrists had dropped homosexuality from their list of officially recognized mental illnesses on the grounds that they were unable to cure it, therefore it could not be an illness. And if twenty years of intense effort on his own part had not made the slightest difference, it seemed unlikely that anything else would help.

And if it wasn't an illness, and it had no obvious useful function in the survival of the species, what had made him this way? He tried to remember something in his childhood that could have done this to him. Nothing occurred to him. He would have to take some time to consider what could have caused it. But it seemed to him that he had little in common with any other homosexual he knew of.

He thought of the visible homosexuals he had seen in his life, the ones who "showed". He had nothing in common with any queer he had ever met. For two decades that had been a reassurance for him, that he had never dressed either sloppily or foppishly, had never waxed sentimental over useless frippery, had never subscribed to half-baked, naïve political notions, had never shrunk away from even the most onerous duties of manhood. Nor had he ever wished to. And if he did none of those things, then surely he could not be queer, because queers were people who did those things. Examining himself ruthlessly, he could find only one hallmark of queerness in himself: that he wanted to touch another man, and be touched in return.

He had no wish to join others of his kind on the outskirts of society, sneering at "the Establishment" and flaunting every rule they cared to. No. Regardless of whether his desires were sick or wrong or not, society's disapproval of them was not enough to turn him against society. He still believed that the world needed structure — unlike those hippie types, he had seen firsthand what happened when there were no responsible people in charge. He had seen it in Africa and Arabia and South America, and had no desire to see it in Europe. He still believed in right and wrong. He still believed in doing things well, and that there was a right way to do everything. He still believed in contributing something of value to the world. No, this changed nothing about who he was, and none of his convictions.

What he was going to do about it was another question. Announce it? Impossible. Go on with his plans as if nothing had changed? Could he possibly marry, knowing what he knew about himself? But letting the line die out was equally impossible. Start looking for a man who would not mortify him with that sudden, wary look as Gustav had? He who faced enemy agents and professional assassins without flinching cringed inwardly at the thought of seeing that look on another man’s face. How did Dorian endure it?

Which brought him to the second truth he must now reluctantly admit.

Dorian was a decadent fop, an effete aristocrat, a narcissist, a hedonist, a criminal. And Klaus wanted him. Without sense or reason, Klaus wanted him. The thought of touching some strange man off the street, however attractive, revolted him; the thought of touching a man he knew and did not respect was even more nauseating. But there was an odd sort of respect in the bewildering mix of his feelings for Dorian, in spite of everything.

That did not change the fact that Dorian was clearly out of the question, and not only because he was a man.

Wanting something one should not have was one thing. Acting on lawless desires was another matter entirely. Wasn’t that what made him Iron Klaus, after all — the fact that he did not give in to his own lower nature? To the urges of all humans to laziness, cowardice, vice, weakness….

Still. He was quite disappointed in himself. What was wrong with him, anyway? Had he desired a man he could respect without reservation, he might have been able to be reconciled to that. This… this was unacceptable.

No, he would do the only thing he could do: continue on his chosen path in life. The difference would be that now he knew exactly what he wanted, and he also knew that he would never, could never, have it.

Dorian gazed at the Line known as the Star. He could only see a small segment of it; in order to appreciate the shape, the Line had to be viewed from the air. Still, he liked to be this close, to see the concrete reality of this mystery.

For decades people had been marveling over the Nasca Lines, and still no one knew for what purpose they had been made. Guesses ranged from religious monuments to extraterrestrial landing strips. But the explanation that intrigued the Illuminati was that the Lines were intended as guideposts for the wandering souls of shamans on visionquests.

Dorian had planned to take Caesar to see the Lines. He had thought that after looking at them, Caesar would be able to tell them the truth of the Line’s purpose. But even if Caesar had indeed had that capability, he was gone.

For years, Dorian’s life had made sense. Steal artworks, keeping those that embodied that ineffable spirit that the Illuminati sought. Serve the Illuminati, bringing psi powers closer to human grasp. See the Major when possible in order to commune with his heady presence, secure in the knowledge that his vows were safe from the one man who could have induced him to break them. It had not been a completely satisfying life, but an interesting and rewarding one, with all sorts of objectives to pursue. Now….

Now Dorian was no longer certain of anything. His work for the Illuminati was in shambles. He had not merely weakened, but had actively attempted to break his vows. Caesar, who was both a friend and a valued member, was gone. And Klaus — there was no longer any telling what was in Klaus’s head. Given the man’s rigidity, he was quite capable of having a complete breakdown over that single kiss. In any case, he had avoided Dorian so completely ever since that it had to be deliberate.

Well, if Klaus wanted to avoid him, Dorian wasn’t about to press the matter. Not when he was so uncertain himself.

A flicker of movement on the horizon caught his eye. He glanced over, irritated. It was two people, and since neither of them was Klaus, he had no desire to see them. He wanted to be alone.

He peered over the Line again — and then turned sharply back to the approaching pair, fumbling for his binoculars.

His incredulous impression had been right. It was Caesar, leaning on the shoulder of a very old man with an alert, faintly amused expression.

Dorian ran to meet them. "Caesar!" he called as he drew near. "Where have you been? Are you all right?"

Caesar smiled shyly. "I’m fine. And we’ve accomplished our mission." He inclined his head to the old man. "My benefactor."

"Why on earth did you run off like that? We’ve been so worried! We thought—"

"He can tell you about that later," the old man interrupted calmly in an accent Dorian could not place. "For now, I want to talk to you, young man."

Dorian was a bit taken aback, but Caesar smiled at him and walked on toward the spot where Dorian had left his backpack. He sat down comfortably on the ground and gazed serenely in the direction of the Line.

The old man took Dorian’s arm. "Come."

"Where are we going?"

"Just far enough to be safe from other ears, Eroica."

Dorian restrained himself for a few paces, but could not hold the questions back. "You gave Caesar and his friends his powers? How did you do that?"

The old man’s sole answer was to shake his head. Dorian stifled his curiosity with effort.

When they were a good distance away from Caesar, the man stopped. Dorian watched his face anxiously. The man’s face was lined beyond belief, but his eyes were alert and twinkling.

Dorian looked at him expectantly. Without speaking, the old man reached out and began to unwrap the bandage that covered Dorian’s gunshot wound.

Dorian was surprised, but held still and waited. He could not suppress a wince when the wound was revealed; the delay in getting to a doctor had caused it to become slightly infected, and the skin around it was angry and red. It was hideous, and it still hurt every time he moved.

The old man smiled and placed his hand over it. The wound felt warmer at the touch, more so than the mere contact should have made it, but it was pleasant. The dull pain faded completely. Dorian held still.

The old man removed his hand, and Dorian’s eyes widened.

The angry wound was gone, leaving only a very small white scar, as if it had healed years ago.

Dorian gingerly touched the wound with his other hand, but it remained a thoroughly healed scar.

The old man waited patiently for Dorian to finish gaping. Then he took one of Dorian’s hands and examined it for a moment, the fine muscles and long, slender fingers. "Excellent hands," he pronounced. "Capable of almost anything." Releasing it, he looked Dorian in the eye again. "You are wasting them."

Feeling rather as if cold water had been dashed on him, Dorian could only nod. Then he said, "If you mean that I should give up stealing… that would take an awful lot of discipline."

"You are capable of it. That was the original point of the vow of celibacy, you know. Not that the flesh was evil, but as a measure of devotion. Other measures are acceptable." He patted Dorian’s arm affectionately and walked away.

Dorian watched him go, wanting to call him back but knowing better, his mind in a whirl. When the old man was out of sight, he went back to Caesar, who looked tired but very peaceful, and in good health.

"I suppose I’d better go see that NATO Major," Caesar said quietly.

"You don’t have to if you don’t want to," Dorian replied, helping him up.

Caesar shook his head. "There’s something I need to tell him. A few things, actually." Smiling tiredly, he said, "It’ll be all right."

Dorian wanted to chuckle at this reassurance, but didn’t.

Klaus had intimidated assorted local authorities and pulled every string he could for the chance to question the terrorists once they awakened. It had not proven to do a great deal of good, in the end. They had given him plenty of information about Gonzalez’s whereabouts. But it had all been wrong. Whether it was willful or coincidental inaccuracy, Klaus had no idea, but the fact remained that Gonzalez was nowhere to be found.

At the end of a sheerly exhausting day of tracking down false leads, the Major had to admit that it was a dead end. It was time to begin from scratch. Iron Klaus’s workaholism was legendary, but even he was too tired to do one more thing tonight.

"That is enough," he informed B, G and Z, to the surprised relief of all of them. "Let’s eat and get some rest. We shall have to begin again tomorrow."

They all repaired to the hotel restaurant, where they ate, for the most part, in silence, all too fatigued for much conversation.

It was into this pall that two tall, slender men with long yellow hair and pretty faces marched.

"Look who I found," Dorian announced as he and Caesar, arm in arm, approached the table. Klaus and the alphabets shot to their feet.

When Dorian glanced at Klaus, he knew at once that something had changed. Klaus looked unhappy, but at the same time ten years younger. He looked — not truly peaceful; for a man of his profession, that was likely impossible — but as close to it as Dorian had ever seen him. Resigned, perhaps. His soul was off the rack. And when his gaze fell on Dorian, he looked… sad.

"Where have you been?" Klaus demanded of the boy.

"Wherever it is, he must be tired and hungry," Dorian pointed out quietly. B held out a chair for the boy and signaled the waiter.

After taking a long draught from a glass of water, Caesar began. "After I arrived in Nasca, Lord Gloria’s team and I made the rounds of the museums there. The second day, I went to a museum alone, and fell into conversation with an American millionaire."

Klaus tried not to groan aloud.

"It turned out that he was thinking about buying some Peruvian art treasures, the sort of thing he would have trouble taking out of the country. He had been invited to a distant hacienda to look at them and discuss how he might smuggle them home."

"Oh, no," Dorian interrupted, covering his eyes with one hand.

"What?" G asked.

Dorian gave G a rueful smile. The petit agent was wearing a spring green business skirt and blazer, but he evidently had not had time to properly do his makeup that morning; all he was wearing was mascara, though his mouth showed the traces of pink lipstick long since wiped away. He looked dreadfully tired. Dorian hoped that Klaus wouldn’t torture his alphabets too much to make up for that kiss.

"It’s a standard art scam," Dorian explained. "The targets are usually Americans, because there are so many complications in taking artworks from other countries to the States. No nation wants the colonials getting their hands on their cultural heritage. Though at least the Americans take good care of the things," the Earl remarked. "The rooks will tell their mark about some choice paintings and take them off somewhere to see them. They confide that customs will not permit such valuable works to be taken out of the country, but they offer to have another, worthless picture painted on top of the valuable one. Once the mark has taken his camouflaged artwork home, he takes it to a restorer to remove the cover painting — and of course, another, equally worthless painting is beneath, not the valuable one the mark thought he was getting. It’s a very safe scam, because the mark can’t very well complain without admitting that he was trying to break the law himself."

"He asked me to go out there with him and give my opinions on the artworks," Caesar said.

"So you just wandered off with a strange man?" Dorian interrupted. "Without even telling my team where you were going?"

Caesar bit his lip. But there was only one answer. "Yes."

"That’s a habit you really need to break, Caesar," Dorian informed him.

Caesar shrugged. "I didn’t really think about it. So we went to the hacienda. It was quite a drive outside the city. It was late when we got there, so we all decided to look at the paintings the next day, after a night’s sleep. The next morning, they showed us their paintings, and I told the American that they were forgeries."

"You said that right in front of the con artists?" B asked apprehensively.

"Yes," Caesar answered ingenuously. His listeners winced. "They were good forgeries, but they were. I didn’t tell him all about the cover painting trick, though. The men with the pictures insisted that I didn’t know what I was talking about, but I have three Master’s degrees and I told them so," Caesar announced with a spark of anger. The Major started massaging his temples. "I told them not to insult me that way, and we argued for a while. Anyway, the American got mad and walked out in a huff and we drove back to Nasca.

"When he dropped me at the hotel, I discovered that all of Lord Gloria’s people were gone," Caesar went on. "I waited till the next day, but they didn’t come back and the hotel people didn’t know where they were. So I went looking for them."

"And how did you go about that?" Dorian asked, genuinely afraid of the answer.

"I went to all the museums they were planning to rob and asked the employees if they had seen them."

The Major and the alphabets sent amused glances in the direction of Eroica, who was silently reevaluating the practical applications of psi powers.

Caesar continued his tale. "I spent a whole day doing that. It didn’t do any good. It was getting late, and I was too tired to go back to the hotel, so I got a room near the last museum I asked at. It wasn’t a very nice place, but all I needed was a roof and a bed, after all. I don’t think you would have liked it, though, Lord Gloria."

"Go on," Dorian prompted in a strangled voice.

"Well, I asked the people in the lobby if any of them had seen any of you. I offered to pay for information about you. See, I did everything possible," Caesar announced with a touch of pride.

"And you showed them some cash so that they would know you really had it," Klaus supplied, carefully expressionless.

"Yes!" Caesar confirmed readily. The alphabets exchanged glances. Dorian seriously considered sliding down in his seat so that no one could see him. "A few minutes after I went to my room, a young lady knocked on my door. She elbowed her way right in. At first I thought she worked for the hotel, that she was a chambermaid or something, but she — she wanted—" Caesar broke off, blushing profusely.

Dorian patted his hand soothingly, not meeting anyone’s eyes. "There, there, laddie. We understand."

Caesar blushed harder. "Anyhow," he continued with relief, "that — she bit my ear! In the middle of trying to — and I can’t stand the sight of blood, my lord. My ear was bleeding all over the pillow, and I saw it and fainted."

"So what happened when you woke up?" Dorian asked gently.

"Well, since I couldn’t find you or your team, I decided to see if I could find the old man I met the last time I was here. I met him by getting lost in the wilderness, so I went out to the wilderness."

"And?" Klaus demanded, looking as if his credulity were reaching its outer limits.

"And after I wandered around for a long time, he showed up, and brought me right to Lord Gloria," Caesar announced with satisfaction.

Everyone else sat quietly for a long minute.

"God protects fools and drunks," B said softly.

Caesar looked at Klaus. "Why don’t we go and talk, Major?"

Klaus looked startled, but he obligingly rose and went with the boy into the foyer.

"I want you to tell NATO that my psychic powers are a lot of twaddle," Caesar said, nervously but with a serious undercurrent.

Klaus glared at him. "And why would I do that, you little pipsqueak?"

"Because I can tell you where Santiago Gonzalez is." Caesar paused, drawing a breath for courage. "And a few other things as well. For your ears only, Major."

Klaus studied the boy irately for a long moment before seizing his arm and steering him up the stairs.

Santiago Gonzalez slouched on the bed, downing cheap liquor, and wondered how long it would be before he could risk leaving this room.

He had been warned of his compatriots’ capture in plenty of time to move before the German could come after him. He had kept moving until he found a rented room in Lima where he didn’t think he’d be recognized. It was filthy, but it was also in a building full of people with things to hide from the authorities. It was unlikely anyone would give him away. No one here wanted to be on the side of the law.

Gonzalez was in a foul mood. He had thought that Iron Klaus was in his grasp. Too many of his comrades in the Revolution had fallen to that man, dead or imprisoned thanks to Major Eberbach. He had owed the German a painful death for a long time.

Well. He would deliver it. It would simply not be this time.

When a powerful kick smashed the door open, Gonzalez jumped. The shock of the sudden explosive sound, followed by the sight of his longstanding enemy stepping through the door with a Magnum pointed straight at him, seemed almost to stop Gonzalez’s heart. When he recovered his breath, he dove for his weapon, but Iron Klaus was too quick for him. Another swift kick and Gonzalez’s gun was out of reach.

Gonzalez froze, looking down the barrel of the Magnum.

"How did you find me?" he demanded after a minute.

Major Eberbach was staring at him as if he were surprised to have found him there. "Magic," he stated.

Gonzalez he put his hands up in an air of surrender.

"Very well. I go to your prison for a few years," he sneered.

The Major smiled slightly. Gonzalez’s sneer faded.

"So." Gonzalez’s eyes narrowed. "You are going to kill me yourself. And you mean to take your time about it." The Major said nothing. Gonzalez met his gaze with angry resignation. "You are more like me than I thought."

Klaus’s face became more iron than before.

"You should have realized that sooner," he said through gritted teeth before putting a bullet through his enemy’s windpipe.

He watched Gonzalez until he was completely dead. It was not nearly as slow or painful as Major Alexander’s death had been. But it was neither quick nor pleasant.

When it was over, the Major holstered his Magnum and walked out. No one stopped or questioned him. No one dared.

He saw no need to make any official report on this. It had been, after all, a personal matter. And now, after over a decade, it was finished with.

Dorian had locked himself in his suite with a canvas and a pile of tubes of oil paints. Bit by bit, a rocky cliffside was becoming clear on the canvas, and a tree twisted desperately out of shape in its determination to survive in an inhospitable environment, boasting a few defiant, joyful blossoms as battle flags.

Dorian had dabbled in this pursuit for years, and now the procedure was familiar and soothing, a relief from his circling thoughts.

He was only now beginning to realize just how flattering Klaus’s phobia of him had been. If he now constituted no threat, that must mean that Klaus had no desire for him. Klaus had finally faced whatever it was he felt, Dorian thought, and he had decided that he could get by without Dorian very well, thank you very much. It was more galling than the vehement rejections of the past.

But then, his vow was now mortifyingly safe. And he was left with a solitary life of serving the Illuminati.

Dorian’s brooding was interrupted by a familiar hammering at the door. His stomach knotted. The prospect of seeing the Major unsettled him as it never had before. At least in the past, he had known what was going to happen: he was going to flirt outrageously at the slightest sign of decency from Klaus, just to make sure the Major kept his distance, while still, obliquely, doing everything for Klaus that his vows allowed. If he could not kiss him, he would steal microfilm for him. If he could not make love to him, he would face down KGB agents with an unloaded gun for him. If he could not be with him, he would help him disable his enemies’ weapons. It was better than nothing.

Now — now he knew nothing.

Reluctantly, Dorian opened the door. Klaus looked wary, but marched right in without a word. He stared at the painting for a minute, then at Dorian, who was still holding the doorknob as if he had forgotten to let it go after closing the door.

Klaus’s eyes went to the small white scar on Dorian’s arm, that had been a gaping bullet wound only a couple of days earlier. Then his eyes met Dorian’s, hard and warning.

"You have a lot of explaining to do," he stated.

Dorian sighed. "Then sit down, Major."

They each took a chair, sitting facing each other. Dorian opened a bottle of wine with composure he was far from feeling and poured them each a glass. Klaus took his, but did not drink from it.

"Well?" he demanded.

"Did you get Gonzalez?"

"Yes. Now tell me what you have been up to all this time."

Dorian considered. "I’ll tell you what I can. I probably won’t be able to fully satisfy your curiosity, Major. I have taken vows of secrecy. Even my team doesn’t know anything about this."

"You will tell me everything." As usual, Klaus spoke in the tone of an order.

Dorian regarded him levelly. "I cannot do that, Major. Any more than you could tell someone all about your work."

"Do not compare my—"

"Do you want me to tell you about it or don’t you?" Dorian interrupted irritably. Klaus gave him a glare and subsided. Dorian thought about what he could safely tell him. At last he just started right in. "I do not steal only for my own private purposes, Major. I am a member of the Illuminati."

Klaus snorted. "Bullshit. The Illuminati is a myth."

Dorian nodded. "I certainly hope everyone at NATO intelligence believes so."

Klaus’s eyes went to his. Then he sat back, frowning, to listen.

"I can’t tell you the identities of any of the members, Major, but I can tell you our purpose, and my place in it."

An hour later, Klaus was stunned but fully convinced. He sat staring at Dorian, trying to see everything that he had not known.

At last he spoke. "I do not believe it." But his tone and expression said otherwise.

Dorian rose wearily to go to the window and look out at the surrounding trees. He was tired, after an hour of trying not to reveal too much to a trained interrogator. "Don’t you? You always said you didn’t understand why I wasted my abilities on nonsense."

Klaus frowned. "That is true. I never could bring myself to despise you as I knew that I should, based on everything I believed about you." He stood and spoke formally. "I was wrong about what kind of man you are."

"Not entirely," Dorian said bleakly. "I’m still a pervert."

Klaus looked at him for a long moment before replying. "Then there is only one thing to do now."

Dorian turned to look at him. Before he could draw a breath to speak again, Klaus had closed the distance between them in two long strides and wrapped his arms around him, twining the fingers of one hand in his golden hair. Before Dorian could recover from the shock of this close, unhesitant embrace, Klaus’s mouth was on his, driving every other thought completely out of his head. Without reflecting, Dorian’s arms returned the embrace and their bodies and mouths were locked so tightly together it was impossible to imagine that they had ever been separate.

When they finally had to break apart, Dorian felt certain that it was impossible to breathe without that contact. He swallowed. Klaus’s gaze was strangely calm, as if his questions had finally been answered.

"Klaus?" he whispered when he could draw air again.

Klaus lifted his chin in the manner of one about to take a punch. "I know. I know, all the things that I have said — reproach me for it if you wish. I deserve it. But it is true." He drew a breath, and for the first time said the words aloud. "I am gay. I have been trying to deny it to myself all my life, but I cannot any longer." He paused, frowning and lowering his eyes for a moment as he groped for words. "I do not wish to any longer. That is, if you… if…."

"I love you," Dorian whispered, and they kissed again.

They had almost lost track of words a few kisses later, immersed in each other’s mouths and arms, when Klaus whispered, with what would have been shyness in any other man, "Dorian, you know I have never — that is — I do not know what I am doing…."

Dorian drew a deep breath as the reality of their histories returned. Unable to meet Klaus’s gaze, he cast his eyes down. "Neither do I."

Klaus froze. "What?"

Dorian tried to look up, but promptly dropped his gaze again at the sight of those piercingly incredulous green eyes. "Members of the Illuminati must take vows of chastity."

During the long, stunned silence that followed, Dorian felt his cheeks turn as red as the roses he loved.

"But — all those–"

"All those men I was seen with. Seen drinking with, and dancing with, and talking to." Dorian still could not meet Klaus’s gaze. This was just too embarrassing.

Klaus put his hand under Dorian’s chin and forced Dorian to look back at him. Dorian finally complied, feeling his face flush even more hotly. Emerald eyes bored into him.

After another long silence, Klaus asked, "Then… you will lose your membership, won’t you, if…."

At that, Dorian was able to look up. "I don’t want it!" He added more calmly, "I don’t need it anymore." His voice lowered. "I don’t want it anymore. Not my membership in the Illuminati, and not my virginity."

Klaus held him even closer. He smiled just a little, looking almost helpless. Though he did seem more at ease, now that he knew he was not facing the formidably skilled partner he had expected.

"What are we going to do?" he asked ruefully.

Dorian found himself smiling shyly but quite happily in return. "I suppose we’ll just have to figure it out." A minute later, he found the boldness to whisper, with his face buried in his love’s dark hair, "I want to try everything."

Klaus’s arms tightened around him, and the answering whisper had the sound of a smile in it. "We will."

For Dorian, the next hour was like a movie about 1950s teenagers gleefully necking in a back seat. The mood was one of joyful, exuberant discovery. Neither of them knew how to go about this, and neither cared.

One minute was sufficient to obliterate any lingering notion Klaus might have held that this was wrong. Whatever the love that dared not speak its name was, whatever caused it and whatever purpose it might serve, it was indisputably healthy and right and beautiful. Without ever putting a name to it, he had always felt that being with women was… perverse. It was not meant, in the proper scheme of things, that he should lie with women. But now — he found that he responded to Dorian's touch like a plant to water and sunshine.

He felt passion, yes. Fire, lightning, shooting a Magnum one-handed with deadly aim — none of it could compare to what he felt now. Yet at the same time, it was comfortable. Dorian's embrace was his proper place in nature. He moved into that embrace as unerringly as if gravity drew him. Quite simply, their bodies belonged together.

It was odd to see Dorian being demure. His arch words and seductive glances were completely gone, now that this was real, and he had become quite earnest and almost shy. His touches began hesitantly, and his face was unguarded as a child’s.

They lay exhausted in each other’s arms, trying to catch their breath, clinging to each other. Klaus found himself burying his face in an abundance of tousled golden curls. As his pulse slowed, he found that he felt… relaxed. It was a sensation even more novel than the frenzy of the last hour.

In terms of physical satisfaction, this first attempt had not been a complete success, for either of them. Yet Klaus felt peaceful, comfortable in Dorian’s embrace, and not at all troubled. In fact, he felt an unfamiliar emotion which might, possibly, be a glimmering of happiness.

They just needed practice, that was all.

Dorian lifted his head and gave him an exhausted smile of the purest happiness.

"You are beautiful," Klaus said softly. Dorian’s smile widened a bit and his head dropped as he cuddled closer. Lazy caresses gradually became more demanding, and soon they found themselves trying again.

Sure enough, their second attempt was far more satisfactory. Giving pleasure was not so difficult or mysterious as Klaus had feared. He simply indulged his own desire to apply lips and hands to the leanly muscled body in his arms, and if the result was moans and writhing, that meant he was on the right track.

When Klaus awoke, it was mid-morning. It was disorienting to awaken without the usual pajamas and undershirt, with sheets in disarray around him, and with the warmth of another body beside him. He would have thought it would be impossible to sleep with someone else in the bed with him, but after the third time last night, they had wrapped their arms around each other, and that was the last thing he remembered.

As his mind awakened fully, the Major discovered that his emotions were in full contradiction of each other. Looking at the Earl’s sleeping form, sprawled comfortably in utter relaxation, he felt absolutely certain that all was right with the world.

On the other hand, there was reality to be dealt with. And he could not help feeling that there was more reality to be contended with than usual.

He sat up, picked up the phone on the bedstand, and dialed Z.

"Major! I knocked on your door a couple of hours ago—"

"I was not there," Klaus interrupted. "How is A?" Dorian’s eyes blinked open at the sound of Klaus’ voice.

"I just spoke to the hospital a bit ago. He’s doing fine. They say he may be able to travel by the end of the week."

"Gut. You, B and G, in my room in half an hour." He hung up.

"That’s not long to eat and wash," Dorian remarked drowsily.

"I will eat later," Klaus said, rising and stretching briskly. "You do not mind if I shower here?"

Dorian sat up, looking troubled. "Of course not." He hesitated before saying, "Why don’t I join you?"

"Because you would distract me and I would be late," Klaus informed him. Then he glanced at Dorian sharply, suddenly grasping the reason for the other man’s worried face. He went to sit on the edge of the bed and wrapped his arms around Dorian, who returned the embrace with relief. "I must take care of things," Klaus explained softly. "I will be back here later."

"Fine," Dorian murmured. The sound almost distracted Klaus anyway, but he tore himself away and went to take his shower.

Dorian rose reluctantly — Good God, it wasn’t even noon yet — and started working the tangles out of his curls, a secretive smile playing about his lips. When Klaus got out of the shower, Dorian decided, he would give him a good, thorough kissing before letting him escape.

"What did he mean, he wasn’t in his room?" G demanded as they walked down the hall to the Major’s room.

Z shrugged. "That was all he said. I didn’t ask. I plan to live to be thirty." He tapped on the Major’s door. There was no response. He knocked again, more loudly. Nothing.

Then the elevator doors opened, and the Major emerged, his expression a shade more tense than usual as he stomped down the hall. If it had been anyone but Iron Klaus, the alphabets would have thought there was something defensive in his face.

Instantly picking up his tension, the agents became nervous. They knew that something was off, but it was not until he drew near that they realized what it was.

With exceptional docility, they listened quietly to his orders to return to Bonn on a flight that afternoon, and his explanation that he would stay here in Peru until A was able to travel. G blandly offered to stay with A instead, and the Major nearly bit his head off with his brusque refusal.

Throughout it all, the three agents tried to pretend that they could not smell the cloud of rose scent that clung to their superior.

Once they were in the hall again with the door closed behind them, before they repaired to their rooms to pack, G looked at B meaningfully. He cleared his throat and put out his hand.

B sighed, dug a twenty-mark note from his pocket, and handed it to G.

Z was too dazed to comment.

Dorian had to be quite firm to make his team return to North Downs without him.

"We’ve got a lot of work to do, me lord," Bonham pointed out. "There’s that exhibition of John William Godward next month, and I found out about some very nice—"

"I’m quitting."

That quieted everyone down.

"Did… did that Major ask you to—" Jones began tentatively.

"The Major has nothing to do with this," Dorian informed them. Well, it was true.

"You can’t do that, my lord!" James wailed. "How will you pay our expenses?"

"What are you going to do with yourself, me lord?" Bonham asked.

Dorian drew a deep breath. "I am going to create beauty instead of merely pursuing it," he answered.

As he had expected, this led to an argument that still had not concluded that night when he saw them off at the airport. "We’ll discuss this more when you return, me lord," Bonham stated firmly.

"If you insist," Dorian sighed.

Once the plane took off, he went back to the hotel. Where Klaus was waiting for him.

"Mein Gott…."

"Mmmmm. Yes."

"That was…."

"Yes. It was. My God, you’re wonderful."

"No, you… you are…."

"You’re adorable when you blush."

"I am not blushing!"

"Of course you’re not. Silly of me to even suggest such a thing."

"Dorian…."

"Yes?"

"…I think that was better than… anything else we have done."

"Really? I liked last night better. Not that I’m complaining about this, mind you. In fact, why don’t we try it again, after we’ve rested a bit?"

"I am not certain I could endure it twice in one night."

"Maybe if we did it the other way ‘round…?"

"Mein Gott…."

Klaus visited A and called Bonn every day. When he had dispensed with those duties, he returned to Dorian and they worked on making up for lost time. Not all of their experiments were unqualified successes, but just the same, they found themselves exchanging besotted smiles and staying locked in Dorian’s suite for hours on end.

They were both careful not to speak of the future.

It was less than a week before Klaus entered Dorian’s suite and announced, "A has been released from the hospital. He and I have a flight to Bonn early tomorrow morning."

Dorian, who had risen when he heard Klaus’s key in the lock, sat down on the sofa slowly. "I see," was all he could think of to say.

Klaus came to sit beside him. He looked awkward. Dorian stole a glance at him and decided to forestall words he did not wish to hear.

"Your reputation is safe with me," Dorian informed him flatly. "Regardless of… of what happens in the future."

Klaus pulled out a cigarette. He had a bit of trouble with the lighter. Watching him from the corner of his eye, Dorian suddenly realized that Klaus was not trying to break bad news. Klaus did not know himself what came next.

That uncertainty in his always so-certain darling gave Dorian the courage to suggest, "Perhaps we could meet up back in Europe?"

Klaus scowled fiercely at the curling trail of smoke from his cigarette, as he often did when deep in thought.

"I have a lot of vacation time accumulated," he said tiredly after a minute’s deliberation. "My superiors are always after me to use it. I could take some of it soon."

"Sounds lovely. Where would you like to meet?"

Klaus shrugged. "I suppose you have someplace in mind."

"Maybe," Dorian agreed with suspicious demureness. "Is Italy all right with you?"

"If you can refrain from stealing the Pope this time."

Dorian laughed happily. "Not Rome. Someplace more modest and out-of-the-way."

"As you wish. Wait for me to contact you. I will telegraph you with the dates of my vacation. You can wire me back with the location."

Telegraph? Dorian thought. A brusque, impersonal way to communicate. Which, come to think of it, was probably the reason Klaus had suggested it.

So they hadn’t gotten to the "ever after" bit yet.

Well. Stiff upper lip and all that.

"Whatever you say, darling. Now let’s make the most of our last night here, shall we?"

The Illuminati was not happy to hear that they were going to lose their most talented thief. Chandler was even less happy to learn that Dorian had already rendered himself ineligible to remain a member.

Dorian’s team did not believe that he truly meant to quit stealing, but as the weeks passed, they became more alarmed and the rows about it more frequent.

Dorian was constantly tempted to reverse himself and acquire things that caught his eye, but by now he was an expert at resisting temptation.

He steadfastly resisted the temptation to call Klaus. Wait for me to contact you, Klaus had said.

Dorian had been waiting for ten years. He could wait a few more weeks.

Part of Klaus had hoped that those few days of debauchery in Peru would satisfy his curiosity and leave him able to continue with his life as it had been before. Not that he had been happy or even content before, but at least he had known where things stood. Adding Dorian to the equation would change everything.

But after a couple of weeks back in Bonn at his old routine, it was clear that things had changed already. For years, it had been difficult to keep Dorian from his thoughts. Now it was completely impossible. At the most inappropriate times — on a stakeout, during debriefings, while going over his subordinates’ reports — he found himself remembering, with crystal clarity, what it was like to have his face covered with silky rose-scented hair. Or how the soft soles of Dorian’s feet had felt against the backs of his thighs. Or how red wine tasted on Dorian’s lips. And a thousand other details he could never have imagined.

At length, he had to concede that if he did not see Dorian again, he was going to lose his mind.

"WILL TAKE TWO WEEKS HOLIDAY JUNE 25 STOP YOU PICK LOCATION ACCOMMODATIONS STOP WIRE ME REPLY STOP MAJOR EBERBACH"

Dorian spent ten minutes being ecstatic that Klaus had finally contacted him and that he was going to honor their agreement to meet again. He spent half an hour wishing that he could tear up what had to be the most unromantic assignation message in history without answering it. He spent an hour reminding himself that if iron were to lose its iron-ness, that would be the end of the world.

What Dorian wanted most right now was reassurance. But he knew his darling well enough to know that, if ever a man needed to be left alone to think, Klaus did right now.

Stiff upper lip, he reminded himself.

June 25 was nearly three weeks away.

In the following weeks Klaus had plenty of time for doubts. He awoke in the middle of the night several times, bleakly aware in the vulnerability of such hours of the havoc he was about to wreak on his orderly life. A few times, he wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t be wiser to stop before it was too late. But he knew perfectly well that it had been too late the day they had met, ten years ago. It had always, he realized now, been only a matter of time.

He also found time to worry that Dorian would change his mind. He had, after all, often believed that it was only the thrill of the chase that kept Dorian after him. Things had changed, but there was yet room for doubt. In the moments when he was not panicking at the thought of the likely upheaval in his future, he was fretting that Dorian had already had enough of him, or soon would have, and would move on.

He worked out half a dozen possible courses of action for the future, depending on what occurred between them during his vacation. And in spite of the circles in which his mind was going, he knew which of those courses he preferred.

All in all, Klaus was ready to pull his hair out by the time he walked into the suite Dorian had reserved for them, at a charming, well-equipped hotel in a medium-sized town in southern Italy. Dorian was inside waiting for him, and one glance at his beautiful face revealed the same anxiety that Klaus had been feeling.

And his physical presence dispelled every doubt.

Neither of them said a word. They looked at each other for perhaps one full second before they were in each other’s arms, mouths pressed together fiercely.

If there had been any room for thought in his mind, Klaus would have been surprised that he relaxed into Dorian’s arms so easily. He would never have believed himself capable of feeling so at ease with anyone. Every pore of his skin seemed to be thirsty. Without words, the conviction formed in his soul: He could not give this up. Not now. Not ever.

"Ich liebe Dich," Klaus murmured as their lips parted.

Dorian pulled back, his eyes wide. "Klaus?" he whispered incredulously.

Klaus didn’t blame him; he was surprised too. He hadn’t known he was going to say it. But it was right.

"Shh," he answered. There were tears in Dorian’s eyes. Klaus kissed his forehead reassuringly. "I love you," he repeated. "I can see now that I have for a long time."

Dorian buried his face in Klaus’s neck. "Oh, God. I love you so much."

Their hands were roving almost of their own accord, and their bodies pressed very close together. All in all, it seemed acceptable to talk later.

"What shall we begin with?" Klaus asked huskily as he tried to find some kind of fastener on Dorian’s ruffled shirt. It was the kind of flashy garment that would have annoyed him, before. "Verdammt. Undo this thing before I tear it off you."

Dorian laughed, quite happily, and a few seconds later the offending garment was cast to the floor. "Let’s… do something that won’t take a lot of preparation. I’m impatient."

"I as well. Very well, I have an idea."

"Now, there’s something I haven’t seen you do very many times before."

"What?" Klaus asked nervously. Dorian laughed again.

"Smile. What did you think I was going to say? Hmm, and now you’re doing something else you haven’t often."

"I am afraid to ask this time."

"Blushing again. It’s adorable. Ah, I think I see what you have in mind." Dorian’s voice lowered to a murmur.

Klaus did not answer in words, but Dorian’s guess was proven correct.

They found themselves continuing until nearly dawn, neither wishing to sleep or pause. For the time, they both forgot everything that existed outside the candlelit bedroom. The only words they spoke were incoherent endearments and exhortations.

They slept till noon — which outraged all of Klaus’s proprieties — and ordered in. They had no inclination to emerge during the afternoon, but when they began to get hungry again in the evening, Klaus decided it was time to stop ignoring reality.

He began by suggesting they go out to a restaurant instead of ordering room service again. As usual, he wore a spartanly simple suit, a tan one with his preferred razor-sharp crease in the trousers, and a tie with slanting blue and tan stripes. Dorian dressed like himself, in a flowing magenta tunic that looked almost like a toga, over his usual tight black pants. Klaus carefully did not comment on it, not even when Dorian added dangling gold earrings and a couple of gold necklaces and bracelets to the ensemble. It was outrageous. But then, Dorian was supposed to look outrageous.

Klaus supposed the two of them could not look more different.

Only the completely unsophisticated could possibly take one look at Dorian without knowing that he was gay. Everyone who saw him knew.

Klaus, on the other hand, would have to make an effort to reveal the truth about himself.

Accordingly, when they were shown to their table, he gestured for Dorian to precede him, and as they walked through the restaurant, he rested one hand on Dorian’s back, as he would have if he had been there with a woman.

He pretended not to pay any attention to the other diners, but in fact he was hypersensitive to the eyes on them. It wasn’t that everyone was staring, but a few people noticed them. They attracted glances. Some were disapproving, others indifferent, but they obviously knew. Klaus felt himself flushing, but he kept his eyes resolutely ahead. As a final gesture, when they reached their table he gave the waiter a slight start — quickly concealed with professional nonchalance — by pulling Dorian’s chair out for him. Dorian cooperated, with a mixture of amusement and annoyance on his face. When Klaus sat across from him and met his even gaze, he saw that Dorian understood exactly what he had been doing.

"No stampede out of the restaurant yet," Dorian remarked blandly. He took a white rose, its petals open in full bloom, from the arrangement in the center of the table and toyed with it, an affectation Klaus had once told himself was annoying.

Klaus shrugged. It was not the reactions of others he had wanted to gauge, but rather his own tolerance of those reactions. It was decidedly irritating, but he could live with it, he decided. Now there were other things to be concerned with.

"How has your team reacted to your change of profession?" he asked.

Dorian sighed. "We’re still arguing about it. They’ll probably go to work for someone else."

"You will miss them."

"Very much."

"They are still trying to change your mind?"

Dorian held his gaze. "Yes. But I won’t change my mind." Something in the way he looked at Klaus made it clear that he knew this was what Klaus had really been asking. He knew Klaus had wondered if Dorian might return to his former criminal activities. And with that, Klaus realized that mind reading was one more thing he might have to learn to live with. And not only Dorian reading his mind, but his reading Dorian’s as well; for years now, he had been able to guess with fair accuracy what went on in that rather contrary mind.

Though not always. He could not have expected Dorian to suddenly remark, "If you don’t wish to cause talk, you’d better not make a habit of pulling out my chair."

The waiter returned for their order then. When he had departed once more, Klaus replied, "I did not intend to make it a habit. As for talk… let them."

Dorian studied him. "Are you saying that you don’t intend to keep me — us — a secret?"

"That is what I am saying. Unless you fear you would be damaged by association with me."

Dorian laughed, but quickly became serious. "Klaus… my love… have you forgotten that you’re an Army officer? I don’t want you getting kicked out on account of me."

"I will not be. Merely relieved of my security clearance and my command and given a choice between early retirement and a nice quiet desk job."

Now Dorian’s eyes were wide, and the slender fingers that held the rose were still. "Who are you, and what have you done with my Major? You would lose your mind if you never had a chance to shoot people."

"If the Army shows me the door — which it probably shall — there are other ways for me to serve my country. NATO needs contractors other than thieves, for instance." Klaus stopped there. He did not wish to discuss the comparatively mercenary career path he had tentatively sketched for himself, not right now.

Klaus looked at the Earl’s stunned expression and allowed himself to secretly enjoy it. For all the times Eroica had flummoxed him and turned his life upside down, this was a gratifying payment.

When Dorian finally found his voice, he said dazedly, "You are serious about this?" When Klaus only looked at him evenly, Dorian shook his head, his face a study in awe. "My love… I can’t tell you how touched I am, but — I would never ask you for this. To jeopardize your name and your career for me. It isn’t necessary, truly. I’m quite willing to sneak around with you. Frankly, sneaking around is more than I ever hoped to have."

Klaus frowned. "It is about time I did something for you," he said sternly. He had spent an uncomfortable amount of time during the last month remembering his innumerable unkindnesses to Eroica. "But I must be honest and admit that it is not for your sake alone that I will do this." He paused, searching for the right words again. "Now that I have faced the truth, I cannot be untrue to it." He tried to analyze Dorian’s expression, but attentiveness was all he could be certain of. "I have never backed down from a fight in my life. I see no reason to start now."

Dorian closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when he opened them again, at least one thing had come into them clearly: admiration. "Don’t you ever get tired of torturing yourself because it’s the right thing to do?"

Klaus considered that. "No," he answered gravely.

Dorian gave a little laugh. "You have got to be the Germanest German I have ever met." Smiling, he spoke softly. "It thrills me to hear this, my love, but I don’t want you to regret—"

"My mind is made up."

"But do me a favor. Wait a bit longer. Allow yourself more time to think it over."

Klaus’s impulse, as always, was to argue, but he stifled it. "I will wait a while longer, because you ask it. I will not change my mind."

"I won’t hold you to that." But Dorian’s face was glowing as he held the rose to his face and breathed in its scent.

Late that night, Klaus found himself feeling afraid again. Love, pleasure, touch — this was uncharted territory for him. It was frightening. It was a game whose rules he did not know.

He knew that he had endangered himself in an entirely new way. This was not safe, nor could he fight his way through it. It was the most dangerous thing he had ever done. He wished he could weep with the awe of it as he clasped Dorian close and they grappled together in the candlelight.

Above him, Dorian opened his eyes and smiled shyly at him. In those robin’s-egg eyes Klaus saw his own trepidation, but also trust.

Trust had never come easily to Klaus, even before he entered Intelligence. But his years in this trade had taught him that people who were capable of trusting others were themselves the most trustworthy.

That was the last coherent thought he had for quite a while, but it was a comforting one.

When he caught his breath, Klaus reached to the bedstand for a cigarette. He had only taken one puff when Dorian gently plucked it from his lips. "Darling, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about these dreadful weeds of yours," Dorian began sweetly.

"Oh, hell." Klaus snatched his cigarette back and took another drag on it. "I wondered how long it would take you." Greta had tried to coax him to quit as well. He had steadfastly refused to even discuss it.

Dorian smiled. "Now that I’ve finally got you, I want to make sure that I get to keep you for a while. That you’re around to be kept."

Klaus slowly exhaled a cloud of smoke. "You realize I could be shot any day. I am not a good life insurance prospect in any case."

A shadow crossed Dorian’s angelic face. He licked his lips. "Getting killed on the job, on a mission — that would at least have some purpose. You would consider that a fair price." Klaus nodded. "There is no point in poisoning yourself."

Klaus looked at the cigarette for a minute. Dammit. He liked smoking.

Dorian regarded him silently. Well, at least the damned fop wasn’t going to nag about it.

Klaus slowly, deliberately took another drag.

"We shall see," was all he said as he stubbed the cigarette out. His tone did not invite optimism, but of course that didn’t stop Dorian from lighting up the dim bedroom with his 100-watt smile.

And that might just turn out to be worth it.

Klaus propped himself on his elbow and carefully removed Dorian’s earrings. "They were scratching me," he explained, setting them on the bedstand. Then he removed the gold bracelets from Dorian’s right wrist. As he did, he noticed a line of pale skin around Dorian’s ring finger. "What happened to your ring?"

"I can’t believe you noticed it was gone." Dorian pulled him to cuddle close, languidly stroking Klaus’s disarrayed straight hair.

"There is a tan line. Besides, I always wondered about that ring. It was so simple, such a contrast to your other jewelry. I thought it must have some sentimental value — a gift from an old lover, perhaps…."

Dorian smiled. "It was a sign that I belonged to the Illuminati," he explained. "But of course, I no longer qualify, so I returned it."

"I am sorry. Well, no, I am not."

Dorian’s smile widened. "Neither am I."

"But — if you wish, I will give you another, to replace it. Only… you will have to wear it on your other hand."

It was a long time before Dorian replied, a time during which Klaus found that his chest was tight with all the fear he never felt when facing terrorists or enemy agents. He felt an almost dizzying relief when Dorian finally said in an awed voice, "You are so traditional."

Had he committed some sort of faux pas? Were queers not supposed to be traditional? "That is not an answer," he said stiffly.

"Have you thought about—"

"No. I just came up with the whole idea this instant."

Dorian could not help but laugh. "Forgive me for asking such a silly question. But still—"

"You have not answered."

Dorian closed his eyes, burying his face in Klaus’s neck. When he could control his voice, he said, "You will have to let me give you one in return."

"So long as it is not stolen."

Dorian’s voice was almost a purr in the darkness. "Have you forgotten, my love? I gave up stealing."

"And nothing foppish."

Dorian laughed aloud. "Would you like a plain band of pure iron, darling?"

"Idiot," Klaus said automatically, then amended, "That is not what I meant to say."

Dorian’s chuckle was rich as cream. "What did you mean to say, then?"

The words still did not come easily. Well, perhaps with practice. "I meant to say that I love you."

Klaus could feel Dorian’s smile against his neck. When Dorian spoke, his tone was as amused as it was affectionate.

"Idiot," said Dorian.

 

 

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Eroica