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Walking and Falling

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You're walking. And you don't always realize it, but you're always falling. With each step you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself from falling. Over and over, you're falling. And then catching yourself from falling.

Kelly unstrapped his shoulder holster and stowed it away, then settled gingerly on the bed.

"Still pretty bad on that left side, huh?" Scotty said, looking up from unloading his own weapon.

Kelly didn't think he'd been limping enough to notice--but of course, this was Scotty talking. He slouched back against the headboard. "It'll do."

"Do what, is the question."

"Whatever I want," Kelly said, striving to sound casual. "You worry too much, there, Aunt Mabel."

But that just earned him a long, steady stare, and Kelly was too beat to fight it right now. So he stripped off his jeans, smudged with gunpowder residue and brick dust, and sat back on the bed, his bare legs outstretched.

Scotty came to him and knelt down, frowning at the knee. He laid his hands on it, cool fingers and thumb digging, testing the tendons, ligaments, and muscles, finding the range of motion. His eyes flicked expertly to Kelly's face as he worked, gauging the pain level. Discomfort, the doctors always said, but Scotty and Kelly had had enough pain in their time to call it as they found it.

Finally, Scotty settled back on his heels, one hand still resting on Kelly's thigh just above the knee. "Gonna cause some trouble this afternoon. We have to win the match."

"We will. Orizaga likes a long defensive game--I can keep the points short, stop him from getting into his groove."

"I know you can. Question is, should you." He put his other hand on Kelly's leg too, holding on to him gently. The bracing circle of his hands let Kelly relax his leg for a second, easing some of the tightness. "Last assignment didn't do the knee any favors either, and you kind of need it."

Kelly looked hard at him, at the creases furrowing his brow. "You said it yourself: I gotta win. We win, we get to go to the ceremony tonight. The ceremony's in the mansion, the mansion has the file."

Scotty smiled a little, but wearily. "And the pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle. Look, you use that leg up in the game, what's gonna become of you when we run into the heavies after?"

"That's not the point."

"Yeah, it is." Scotty's smile faded. "I'll figure something out, just in case. There's other ways to get in that house."

"I can do it," Kelly said sharply. He twitched his leg out from under Scotty's hands. "I'll win the game, and you and the heavies can eat my dust." Scotty's hands moved slightly, reflexively, as if he'd reach for the knee again, but he didn't. Kelly crossed his right leg over his left and gave him a smile.

With an effort, Scotty stood up, moving slowly. "Okay, champ," he said. "We'll do a few warm soaks, with ice in between. I'll wrap it for the game. You'll keep the points short." He turned and headed for the bathroom, undressing as he went, leaving a trail of rumpled clothes.

The impression of his touch remained on Kelly's knee for a minute afterward, easing the ache a little, but the relief didn't last. Kelly took some deep breaths.

Scotty's shower lasted maybe five minutes, if that. He came out rubbing his chest with a towel and got dressed; even though his shirt was fresh, it sagged as if it had soaked up the general exhaustion in the air. Kelly watched him vaguely, too heavy to move, too worn to think. Scotty rummaged in their suitcases and headed out, pausing by the door.

"You better get that knee in the tub before it locks up."

Too late, Kelly thought. "Yeah, all right."

"And sleep a little, if you can manage it without drowning yourself. I'll bring back some ice."

Kelly yawned. "If you say so." He let his eyes close and slowly started on his shirt buttons. He could tell Scotty was still in the room. Still looking at him. Get out, he thought. He took extra time with the next button. Please get out, before I have to stand up. He got one shirt cuff unfastened, then the other, concentrating on looking as lazy and distracted as he could.

Finally, though, he was all the way to the bottom of the shirt, out of buttons, and he was just going to have to sit up and get walking. "Hey, listen--" he began brusquely, opening his eyes.

Scotty was gone.

The water was good and hot in this hotel. Part of why they always came here. How long had it been? Years, anyway. Years and years.

He sank down into the water, letting himself favor the knee, just for now. The heat closed in and around him, pressing down. He melted, boneless, and closed his eyes.

Way back when they first got their cover story, he'd never thought about it. Of course he could carry on in the tennis circuit and do the real work underneath at the same time. He could climb over the rooftops, outrun the bad guys, change into his whites, win a match, get his photo taken, and have a quick-draw shootout before his hair was dry from the post-game shower. That was the story, and that was the job.

But now they were nudging into a new decade. The other players on the circuit looked younger and younger, and he was still here. He'd never have predicted it. He'd never had a lucky streak like this in his entire life.

So: match today, mission after. Left knee going. Ribs not so good either. Old and tired, and backing a partner who trusted him. Now what?

Now you win, he told himself. You win like you promised. He saw himself delivering blistering serves one after the other, keeping Orizaga unbalanced and uncomfortable. He ran through the whole match in his head. He reminded himself how important it was to keep the volleys quick and hard against a defensive opponent. Just like Scotty always told him in practice sessions, in fact.

He drowsed, the phantom sensations of imaginary serves and volleys humming just beneath the fibers of his muscles. Eventually, he drew in an enormous breath and blinked his eyes open. The bathwater was definitely going cold--he'd slept longer than he meant to--but the rest and the soak had done his knee some good. He flexed it back and forth, feeling the knot in his stomach ease up a little each time.

Until he drew his legs under him and tried to get to his feet, that is. Then the pain made itself known again from wherever it had been hiding. The only good thing about climbing out of the tub and over to the towels was the practice he got in keeping his expression still.

The room door opened, and Kelly cleared his throat and called out brightly, "Is that the iceman who cometh?"

It was, and soon Kelly was stretched out on his bed under the ministrations of icepacks alternating with hot towels. He wasn't quite up to the light, aimless chatter he had planned for, but then, Scotty didn't have much to say either. So Kelly wrapped his arms around a pillow and pretended to sleep. Every few minutes came another touch from Scotty's hands, firm and professional, warm and cool.

Kelly had played Lito Orizaga before, and watched him play others; they knew each other casually, as part of that loose fraternity of tennis players on the circuit in this part of the world. Orizaga was known for a long, deceptively lazy game, steadily grinding his opponents down and slipping through their guard. He was also known for being amiably superstitious in a way that Kelly associated more with baseball players--a lucky sweatband worn literally to tatters, a certain roll to his socks with one higher than the other, that sort of thing.

What he wasn't known for was being a bad sport.

Kelly had kept the points short and his serve ferocious. The knee, wrapped in Scotty's best style, had been mercilessly shoved to the back of his awareness and left there. He wondered what the other trainers would think if they knew this skill had also been used to get him through little extracurricular things like gunshot wounds, or pliers in tender places.

It hadn't hurt that Orizaga was obviously off his game. Not just from the speed and the pressure, either--there was something else, something tentative about him. If he'd had any joint wrappings, Kelly would have suspected a bad knee, but then, he kind of had bad knees on the brain, in a manner of speaking.

After the final score was called, Kelly tried not to limp up through the forecourt, breathing in gasps. The racket felt hot in his hand, raw against his skin; heat coursed through the muscles over his shoulders and down his back, and pulsed in his knee. He eyed the net, hesitating. The custom around here was for the winner to jump it for the handshake--some did it showily, some gracefully, some in a tangle of limbs as if to underline just how hard they'd been working.

Kelly'd always done it before without thinking. Now, though, he couldn't shake the image of taking a bad jump, snagging his foot, and coming down wrong on the left leg. Fade out, the end. It held him where he was, but just for a second or two.

Orizaga, standing midcourt with his racket dangling loosely from one hand, caught his gaze and held it. His eyes were narrow and bright, and silver lines of sweat shone down his face. Slowly, he stretched his lips into a mirthless, toothy smile. Then his racket clattered to the ground, and he turned his back, heading for the clubhouse. His trainer--Pablo, was it? Or maybe Raul?--trotted to his side and murmured to him, head bent in close, one hand hovering just behind Orizaga's back.

"Gimme." Scotty's voice, close to his ear. Kelly opened his fingers and felt his racket disappear from his hand. Just like magic. Orizaga dwindled into the distance, slipping through the clubhouse door with his trainer right behind him.

"I was gonna jump over," he said, watching the door. "I just needed a minute."

"I know," said Scotty, and wrapped a warmup jacket around Kelly's shoulders.

"What's his problem?" Kelly tugged the jacket closer around himself.

Scotty didn't answer.

Instead of following Orizaga into the clubhouse, they went back to the hotel room.

As the post-awards party wore on, they took turns wandering away to search bedrooms and closets on the upper floor. Luckily, it was one of those packed, booze-fueled, competitive events where no one kept an eye on anyone else for very long--always an eye over the shoulder of your conversation partner for someone better, always breaking off to mingle your way to the top. Kelly and Scotty just made sure to mingle their way through every unoccupied room they could find.

It was Scotty's turn, and Kelly lounged against a wall by himself, the din echoing all around him in the dim scented warmth of the crowd. Scotty had re-wrapped the knee post-game after some more soaking and ice, but that inner heat didn't seem to be going anywhere.

"Nope!" Scotty had returned, and had to speak right into his ear.

Kelly considered, then leaned to Scotty's ear in turn: "The mail?"

Scotty just shook his head casually, as if turning down a drink. Kelly figured he was right; these guys might be amateurs, but even they wouldn't trust such important documents to the international mail, and there were no nearby couriers they could trust. The flight out was tomorrow. They must be hand carrying it. But where?

He finished his drink--watery, but welcome--and leaned on Scotty's shoulder, grinning, speaking in the cadence of a dirty joke. "Hey now. Know what else wasn't in any of those closets?"

Scotty blinked. His brows rose. "Uncle Sam, meet Uncle Samsonite," he said, and turned to leave.

Kelly grabbed his arm. "Ah-ah. My turn."

So what if Scotty clearly wasn't happy about it. Kelly handed him the empty glass and strolled out, making sure the left leg was easy and steady all the way. How about that.

He was right: the luggage had already been packed and put into the cars. Earlier wandering (combined with some recreational lockpicking) had revealed a little office with a row of hooks and chauffeur's keys, so Kelly had no trouble opening the trunks. It was just a tedious and paranoid business, slipping out one suitcase at a time and carrying it well into the shadows down the sides of the long driveway, to rummage around inside and seek the file by touch. What could he do otherwise? Gee, fellows, I was drunk and having a good time, so I decided to unpack your jockey shorts?

He finished the third case and got up off the ground, though a little too slow for his liking. The knee burned when it was still and twanged like a plucked guitar string when it was moving, and he didn't even have the concentrated adrenaline of a tennis match or a torture session to help him bury it.

A familiar step sidled around the cars. "Nice night for it," Scotty whispered.

Kelly painstakingly eased up the trunk lid, slipped the case back into its spot, drew out the last case from that particular car, and lowered the lid until it was just closed but not latched. Then at last, he replied in an even hush, "Checking up on me, are we, sir?"

"Many hands make light work."

Kelly unlocked the trunk of the next car. "Many noses make light snooping," he answered. "Have at it."

Scotty took a nice leather garment bag, Kelly eased the lid almost closed, and they headed for the shadows. Getting out of the house's sightlines without any noise or complications went fine. But this time, as Kelly jogged with Scotty down the side of the driveway, concentrating on keeping away from the last of the lights as well as keeping his knee straight, he stepped in it. Almost literally.

"Well hi, Kelly Robinson," came a shaky voice from behind a tree just ahead, and Kelly's hand darted for his inside holster before he remembered that of course he hadn't been able to wear a weapon tonight.

Orizaga sure had one, though. His voice wobbled and his eyes were overbright in the shadows, but his gun hand was clenched and steady. The muzzle moved deliberately from Kelly, sideways to Scotty, and back again.

"Hi, Lito," Kelly said cautiously. Now this was one thing he hadn't expected. Granted that he didn't know every single spy in the spy-yard, but he'd had no idea Lito could even have been...spy-adjacent.

"Hiii Lito," Orizaga echoed, twisting Kelly's American vowels into mockery. Back and forth went the gun, like a pendulum, or a windshield wiper. Kelly felt Scotty right at his shoulder, strangely stolid and unmoving. By now, there'd usually be some plan or other humming between them.

Orizaga did seem to be taking his time getting to the point. So Kelly ran through a quick set of plans on his own...and ended up discouraged. He was too far away to take out the gun hand in one kick. He and Scotty were too close together to effectively split his attention long enough. A sudden blitz could knock Orizaga over but also get one of them gutshot.

"You guys enjoying the party?" He sounded off, his words mushing together.

"Ah. Well, now that you mention it..."

"Why not?" Orizaga said. "Not enough pretty girls? Not enough to drink?"

Kelly offered him a grin. "Sounds like you've had plenty for the three of us, my man."

"I'm not your man. Hombre."

"Okay, no problem." Kelly spread his hands peaceably, longing to throw an elbow right into Scotty's sternum and get him to help out a little.

"Lito," Scotty said abruptly, as if Kelly's wish had actually come true. His voice sounded tight. "You okay?"

"Shut up," Orizaga said. The gun swerved Scotty's way. "Shut your mouth. I'm talking to Robinson here. Robinson the big winner."

"Uh," said Kelly. He looked Orizaga up and down, the disheveled air, the slurring, the lack of focus. Yeah, he'd been too quick to think this had anything to do with the file at all. But, you know, when the guns came out... "Is that what this is about? The game?"

Orizaga's attention moved fully to Kelly now, his eyes as dark and empty as the pistol's muzzle, but he didn't answer.

"Well, Lito, come on," Kelly said. "It was a good game. know, just a game."

Orizaga's entire body seemed to twitch as if he'd had an electric shock, and the gun jerked in his hand. Even in the shadows, Kelly could see that his face was suddenly awash with loathing. "Good game!" he cried, like a kid whose coach made him spit that out to everyone who beat him. "Good game, Kelly!"

His finger was inside the trigger guard. This was when people got shot by accident. Kelly tensed and tried to ease his weight forward onto the balls of his feet, ready for a blitz as long as he could keep Orizaga's attention.

But suddenly Scotty let out a quick, low breath and took a full step forward. The gun twitched to him at once, Orizaga's eyes wide with furious alarm. "Stand still!"

"It was my doing," Scotty said quietly.

"Scott, if you don't--"

"Kelly doesn't know anything about it." Scotty cut in easily, though he hardly raised his voice. "Look, I talked Raul into it, and he talked you into it. He didn't want to, but he knew how much you needed the money."

Kelly's stomach tightened like a sudden, spasmodic fist, like a knot tied right under his heart.

"Needed the money." Orizaga's voice was thick. "You got that right."

"It's okay," said Scotty. "That's on me. The whole thing."

But the gun was still not wavering. "Look how quick I was to take your money," Orizaga said. "Look how quick I was to let him make me crawl for it." He jerked his chin toward Kelly. The gun might have followed by reflex, if Scotty hadn't calmly put out his hand. The muzzle stayed firmly on him.

"You didn't crawl." Scotty's hand was relaxed, palm up. "You did what you had to."

Orizaga blinked at Scotty as if he weren't quite sure how he'd gotten there. After a few seconds, he said, "It was a good game, wasn't it?"

"Yeah," said Scotty. "It was a good game."

"I might've even lost anyway."

"Maybe so."

Orizaga gave a watery smile. He looked very tired...everywhere except the gunhand. "I never thought I would do that. Never."

Kelly held very still, watching Scotty's subtly tensing shoulder, his reaching hand. He was getting the situation settled down, but still, Orizaga's body language wasn't relenting. Kelly knew Scotty was going to grab for that gun, and there'd be a wild-card moment when it very well might go off. Orizaga would feel bad about it when he sobered up.

Kelly took a half-step forward, watched the gun turn his way. "I'm sorry," he said, or tried to say. His voice caught, and he cleared his throat. "This is--"

"What," said Orizaga. "What is it, Kelly. Tell me."

Kelly edged another half-step. "Hard."

"Sure, sure, it's hard," Orizaga said. He smiled, that same humorless biting grin from the end of the game. "It's hard to lose. Takes practice. So why don't you try it."

They were at a balanced point for a moment: Scotty closer, Orizaga's attention as well as his weapon on Kelly. In a half-second they could spring--

But then: chaos. It unfurled in slow motion like a car accident.

Behind them, charging down the driveway, came heavy running steps in the gravel and shouts in Russian. Orizaga startled just as Scotty was starting to shift his weight, and the gun as well as all his panicked focus swung irrevocably to Scotty. The trigger finger curled.

Kelly leapt as best he could past Scotty into a lunging forward kick at the pistol. His foot connected, barely, nicking the gun away but not very far, and he came down in a bad hop, his left leg folding sideways. The heat in his knee flared to rage and fire. Through the sudden mist over his eyes, Kelly thrust out his hands and grabbed what he hoped were Orizaga's legs, yanking to knock him down.

There was shouting over him, scuffling. A light shone into and past his eyes, dazzling him, leaving the shadows an unrelieved black.

A gunshot.

Someone cast something over his head--felt like a heavy leather jacket, smelled like cigarettes. Hands lifted him awkwardly at elbows and ankles--the knee screamed, and Kelly did too, though with his mouth shut tight and his teeth pressed to his tongue.

Doors slammed. He was carried for a little while. His pockets were quickly emptied, his arms were tugged behind his back and something was tied quickly around his wrists. Then the carrying hands swung him slightly, back and forth, like a child being tossed into the pool, and let go. He landed on a hard floor. A lock turned.

For a while there was pain, through which he could do very little but try to draw air. Then there was pain and cold, which at least let him know that more of his senses were finally coming back to him, so he wouldn't be stuck forever with nothing but the universe of white-hot needles embedded in his leg and scratching up and down his spine.

At last, there was pain, cold, and the sound of his own rough breathing in his ears. He opened his eyes, then he opened them again, but it didn't do much good either time. The floor was chilly and slick to his cheek--linoleum, he guessed. His left hip and shoulder pressed against it uncomfortably, but at the moment he was as likely to be able to roll over as he was to win the Davis Cup. Ha ha.

He closed his eyes, since there didn't seem to be any real reason to keep them open. If he had had the mental capacity, he would have thought about that gunshot, and about just why he was alone. Instead, he breathed in and out, and counted each slight easing of pain as a tiny victory--the only kind he could have right now.

It's hard to lose. Takes practice.

"Well, Lito," Kelly muttered against the floor, "I sure am working on it."

The problem with having less pain, Kelly decided after a while, was that it let his head clear. And a clear head let him think.

He thought about how many Department field agents he knew with ruined knees. Maybe a shiny little crutch, physical therapy on the weekends, assignments tailored to their limitations. Oh, right: none.

He thought about how he'd dozed in the tub and woken to cold water, how long Scotty had been gone from the hotel room (and had that just been earlier today? How time flew.). He thought about Scotty's voice in those shadows under the trees.

Then he thought about Russ Conley and Mike Fane. He hadn't done that for ages--as little as he could help it, in fact. But he could see them both now, in kind of a time-lapse picture-book: welcoming him in, teaching him, laughing with him, drinking with him. Hearts forged with his under fire, the truest way he knew. Then a few years later (just a few years, Kelly had thought at the time, but now he knew they were very, very long years), each of them with that old face, graying hair, a hard set to the jaw and a hard glint in the eye. Completely solitary. Patched together, brittle inside their self-made armor. Out for the main chance--and if it took tossing their boy Kelly Robinson to a wolf or two to make it happen, that's what they'd have to do. The Department had eaten them up and thrown out the bones, so why shouldn't they flip that on its head for a minute and get what they could get.

He hadn't understood them, not really.

Now he did, he was starting to, from the inside out. And it made his knee practically fade into the background.

He had hung in there through some hard things. Bad things. Things he'd thought were almost the worst. But he hadn't known. Now, something was coming, and no amount of hanging in there was going to do him any good at all.

He opened his eyes to the dark. Stared into it.

Some time later, the lock rattled and the door opened. Kelly was facing away from it and saw his own huddled shadow cast for a moment onto the bare wall. A few capped pipes stuck out of the plaster--maybe it had been an auxiliary kitchen, or an unused bathroom.

A heavy thump against the floor behind him, and the slam of the door--an echo of his own arrival, which felt like it had been a week ago. Kelly pulled in a long, slow breath and held it, jaw clenched, holding completely still. For a moment he didn't really know why, until he realized he was listening, trying to hear past the dull heartbeat in his ears.

Listening, his chest tight. Until he heard breathing--regular and rough, and so familiar. He let his own breath out in a thin, shaky sigh. And just as he did so, he heard the other breathing draw in and hold, waiting for a few seconds with Kelly's breath as the only sound in the room before letting go.

Kelly lay with his face, shoulder, and hip all sore against the linoleum, his knee frozen fire, the faint sound of Scotty's existence right behind him. The silence stretched out, settling over them in a heavy, muffling press. Kelly opened his mouth, wetted his lips, closed it again. He realized that it wasn't that speaking was unnecessary--it was that he had nothing to say, and the little room all at once felt as big and cold and formal as a mausoleum. As if Scotty's arrival had really been Scotty's departure, leaving a hole where he had once been. Time to get used to it, Kelly thought. All the time there was.

He heard a soft shifting and rustling. And against his hands, in the small of his back, he felt Scotty's hands. His fingers were warm, almost hot, but tentative. Kelly was still for a moment more. At last, he bit his lip and stiffly uncurled his own fingers one by one. His hands were so cold, though, and the left one was falling past pins-and-needles and into solid sleep. He reached as best he could and felt something tied at Scotty's wrists, but he couldn't seem to get any purchase on it. He fumbled and scraped, trying to will his fingers back to life.

Scotty's hands slipped carefully around his, bringing their warmth. For a minute he just let the heat transfer between them, soaking in and casting off the chill. Then he squeezed tightly, let go, and squeezed again; heat and pressure, steady massage, and slowly the blood and the feeling were returning. Kelly tried once more and got a good hold on the cloth around Scotty's wrists; this time he could tell it was a scarf of some kind, rather than a rope, and tracing along it he found the ends. He set to work, and after a moment, Scotty did too. They lay there back to back, picking at the knots in silence, rescuing each other.

It didn't take too long; the bonds, though awkward, weren't professional. At least they hadn't had to use their teeth. Now, though, Scotty's hands had left his, and the room was very quiet. Kelly blinked into the darkness toward the wall he couldn't see. With a sudden indrawn breath, he said, "You okay?"

"Yeah," said Scotty after a few seconds. "Yeah."

"Where you been?"

"They wanted to ask me a few questions."

Kelly strained his eyes back toward Scotty's moving voice in the dark, and wished desperately that there was even the dimmest hint of light. Or that he could sit up. "You sure you're okay."

"Mm-hmm." Scotty was slowly edging around from behind him, not quite touching.

"Would you even tell me if you weren't?"

He hadn't meant that to come out quite so sharply. Scotty laughed a little, under his breath--the saddest laugh Kelly had ever heard from him.

"They were just asking," he said, settling right in front of Kelly. "I really don't think they had the heart for more than that. You know...yellers."

Kelly did know. Something eased inside him.

"Where are you?" Scotty asked.

Kelly thought that obvious one over for a second, before concluding that Scotty probably was trying to orient himself further so he didn't end up conversing with Kelly's navel. "I a locked room," he answered.

Scotty's hands brushed over Kelly's hair, his forehead, down his neck to his right shoulder. He began to feel his way carefully down the arm, the diagnostic post-game fingers gentle and probing. "You should feel honored. This is the VIP wing."

"Very injured person?" He was aiming for cheer, but didn't quite make it.

Scotty traced a few of Kelly's ribs; from the pattern, he was obviously far too familiar with the ones that had already gone bad. "Man, you won't be feeling very sympathetic, but you scared the borscht out of them, you know it? They hadn't even done anything to you. No idea what was happening."

"There's a lot of that going around." Kelly tensed as Scotty checked down the right leg, his fingers within an inch of the tangle of fishhooks that his left knee had become.

Scotty finished the right ankle and paused. "Let me just see for a second."

Kelly breathed in and out. "Yeah. Why don't you tell me a story."

"About a handsome prince and a locked room? And his deadbeat friend who needs a haircut?"

He almost smiled for a second there. "Where's Lito?"

Scotty touched his left ankle and shin, easing up along the leg, and Kelly couldn't even brace himself. He could only wait.

"They let him go before they got to the yelling part," Scotty said. His voice was as warm as his hands. Kelly's knee felt huge, like one of those compacted ice-balls thrown up by the wheels of a semi truck, filthy and knotted and grinding with dirt and gravel.

"Cover?" Kelly said breathlessly. Despite the cold floor, sweat ran into his eyes.

"I pitched one, and he rolled with it--not bad, either. Goes like this: lucky he was passing by. He happened to stop us from pilfering those nice suitcases full of expensive clothes."

Kelly managed a tsk-tsk sort of noise.

"Yeah," Scotty said. "You and I have taken to thievery, you see, to support our many bad habits. They seemed to buy it, after they'd yelled at me a little. But they still booked an earlier flight out." At last, he left the knee, and gave a perfunctory check to Kelly's left arm and hand. There might have been a momentary squeeze to Kelly's fingers before he let go.

Kelly let out the world's longest breath. "You know," he said into the linoleum. And then his throat seemed to close, and he couldn't finish.


A few breaths and a swallow, and Kelly went on. "I don' this locked room. I really... really don't." Then he had to stop talking.

Scotty was still for a little while, sitting close to him. Just being with him. The darkness made it seem so very quiet--and the quiet made it seem so very dark. But he could hear Scotty breathing. He could almost hear his blood circulating.

Then there was a sudden rustling as Scotty moved, ending up behind him again. His hands settled firmly on Kelly's right arm and leg. "Hold on, now."

The process of being eased over onto his back was a whirl of sharp seconds like shattering glass.

He had closed his eyes at some point, and he kept them closed, forcing air in and puffing it out. Scotty was cradling Kelly's left leg, lifting it slightly, moving, doing something Kelly couldn't track against the sunbursts beneath his eyelids. When finally he was lying still again, trembling, he could feel that his shoe was gone, and the leg was curved in a gentle angle over something warm and yielding, with a very slight but painless rise and fall. It was Scotty himself, in fact, resting beneath Kelly's leg, his abdomen supporting the entire knee, the blood heat warming Kelly even through their layers of clothes.

His breath stuttered and choked him at first; his chest ached and he couldn't quite get back into the pattern. But the faint sound and feeling of Scotty's breath gave him that undertone to hang on to, and finally, he felt himself settle into it. Eventually, and almost shockingly, the worst of the pain was not just easing, but steadily subsiding, sinking like the water level in a draining bathtub. Still there, but not leaping and gouging and constantly surprising him with its teeth.

Finally, his head cleared enough to think of something. "Hey. That wasn't Lito's gun going off, was it?"

"Uh-uh." Scotty's voice rumbled beneath his leg. "Their guy shot in the air to make him drop it."

"Good thing he dropped it, then."

Scotty replied after a pause, and his voice was soft and strained: "He didn't want to hurt anybody."

"No." Kelly pressed the heels of his hands over his eyes and rubbed hard. Lito hadn't hurt anybody, and he'd stopped a robbery and been sent safely home. He had the payoff money fair and square, as well as a little more knowledge about himself whether he wanted it or not. Compared to a lot of the other people Kelly had trampled over in his late lamented career, this was a five-star happy ending.

Always best to go out on a high note, he supposed. Only one last thing to do.

"So, what's your next move?"


"Your next move, Spy King."

"I think...about a quarter-inch to the left." Scotty shifted just a bit, suiting the word to the action.

"Uh-huh. Funny. You're still going after the file, right?"

"Benched," Scotty said. "Once they're gone to the airport and we can make a call, let the spies handle it from here."

Kelly chewed on that one for a long minute. "Alexander," he finally said, very firmly.

"You will never," Scotty said. "Never. Be my mother."

"I'm not kidding."

Scotty's silence was stubborn, as hard and unyielding as the floor they lay on.

Kelly squeezed his eyes tightly shut. "I can't, Scotty," he said in a rush. "I can't do that to you. Don't make me."

"Damn right you can't."

"And you can't do that to me." He grasped for something, some weapon. Finally, he just said, "You sent me out to the sandbox to play a pretend game."

Silence again, but this time he felt like he'd scored a hit. There was no triumph in it.

It took a few minutes, but finally Scotty said, "Listen...I'm sorry." His words vibrated faintly through Kelly, muscle and bone.

Kelly opened his eyes again and gazed upward. The darkness looked different from this angle, somehow. "Me too."

"I'm sorry," Scotty said with a different intonation, "but I’d do it again."

"I know you would."

Scotty's hand touched Kelly's sock foot, pressed it. "Do you, Kel? Think on it. Do you, really."

Kelly frowned, but thought on it. It was easier to think without every single nerve ending jabbing for attention at once. But the day's events kept getting tangled with his picture book of Russ Conley, of Mike Fane--hell, even of Troy, though God knew Kelly had gotten plenty of clues along the way as to just what sort of path Troy was setting himself on. Kelly saw his face in theirs, aging and hardening and tired, so used to lying that it got to be the only comfortable way to live. The only safety was in turning on everyone else before the last of them turned on you. Alone and self-armored. But his leg kept saying something different, warmed as it was, held in that perfect braced curve that kept the pain at bay like something livable. Not fixable--not a state of denial, not pretending to avoid the specter of change that crouched right here in the room with them--but livable. As if there were actually still plenty of living to be done, not despite everything, but because of it.

Yeah. Maybe he couldn't quite believe it, but nevertheless, he did know.

"I do," he said. "I think."

"Then you know I got problems."

Kelly was startled into a laugh.

"I mean it," Scotty said. He sounded very sober, even ashamed. "I don't know if you thought on it quite enough."

"Okay, you're right," Kelly said. "I guess I've been a little distracted."

Scotty let out a long, long breath, Kelly's leg sinking down with it. "You have to understand. Sometimes I just can't."

"Can't what?" Kelly spoke carefully. Coaxing speech from a stone, sometimes it was a miracle.

"Help it."

Kelly waited, but it sounded like the stone had dried up again. There was a lot to consider, though, in those few words. This whole thing, it wasn't just about what Kelly needed. It was so easy to forget that sometimes. "Yeah," he said softly. "I get it. Whenever I stop thinking about myself for five seconds."

A deep breath in. "All right then," Scotty said. "Try not to forget, will you?"

Kelly's eyes stung. "'Fraid I can't guarantee that, Chumley. You know me."

Scotty gave a comfortable grumble, which felt good to Kelly's leg. "Uh-huh. Guess I'll have to remind you."

"I wish you would."

In the distance, engines started up, roared, and dwindled.

"Off to the airport," Scotty said. "Ollie-ollie-in-free. You ready to get up, see if they left any working phones? It's time we handed this assignment off."

Kelly felt a pang at that, swift and very real, sharp as an icepick. He breathed through it, felt Scotty's breath beneath his leg in rhythm with his own. That pain was bound to happen, and to keep happening for a while, maybe even forever. He’d try not to get wrapped up in it. There was more going on than that. Scotty would remind him.

"Bring the block and tackle," he ordered grandly, lifting one arm in a regal gesture to the darkness. "And let us hoist away."