Klaus had expected colours to be muted, but they were sharply vibrant instead. Blue sky, silver clouds, the bright gold of wheat stems nodding above the shallow ditch, an opaque red stain spreading into the fist-deep water where he lay.
He stared up, at a jarring angle, toward the breeze-bent stalks that flickered between shadow and rich afternoon sun. Their colour was the same as Dorian's hair, by lamplight.
Klaus remembered running his fingers through that silken mass, as Dorian made love to him for the first and last time in their lives. Remembered whispering endearments mixed with tears and curses, as he made love to his best friend, Best Man, and nemesis -- knowing, as Dorian did not, that it _was_ the last time.
Dorian was not the only secret Klaus had brought to his wedding-day.
Somewhere back in the wheatfield, where his overturned and bombed-out Jeep had exploded behind him, the fire spread through dry grass. Faint crackling sounds and an intermittent whiff of smoke told Klaus the flames raced in his direction. No wonder none of the damned traitors had come to finish him off. The fire was between him and them.
G and the other Alphabets had reached the helicopter and were long gone. His agents were on their own, now, and he had no doubts about their ability to survive. He'd drawn off pursuit, to buy them time.
Shouts carried toward him on the breeze. Something about water, and threats, and about taking him alive.
The Jeep had thrown him clear of the explosion, but a bullet had caught him as he tried to leap the ditch. Klaus remembered a flood of agony, a crunching sensation in his back as he hit the ditch sideways, then --
No more weak, rasping ache in his lungs.
No pain at all.
He couldn't move his head, but his eyes tracked down to look at his left hand, splayed limply in the red mud next to his face. The wedding ring still glowed there, pure and fair and stern. Just as it had all the six months since Adelinda had placed it on his ring-finger.
What kind of irresponsible fool was he, that he felt only relief at leaving behind a woman five months pregnant with his son and heir? From their first night together, she had known he couldn't love her as she deserved. But there had been a friendship beginning there, sprung from marvel. Of all the stupid shallow cows his father might have chosen -- Adelinda had a brain, logical and brave as any agent he'd ever known.
His child would have a good mother.
"You shouldn't push yourself so hard," she'd said just a few days before. She knew about the cancer in his lungs. It wasn't common knowledge at NATO, though Klaus was certain his Section Chief knew.
"One last mission, before they put me out to pasture," he'd told her, surprising both of them by kissing her forehead.
That was the first moment he'd known, from the look she gave him, that he wasn't coming back to her. And that she knew it, understood it, and forgave him. Words were unnecessary, and he surprised them both again, by kissing her on the lips.
"Go," she'd said, and turned her swollen but still-elegant body away, hands folded protectively over the new life within.
Klaus didn't know what he'd meant to do after the mission: check into some private clinic to await the inevitable, drive off a cliff somewhere, or seek out Dorian.
He hadn't told Dorian about the cancer that had sped up the timetable of marriage and breeding. It would only have hurt the man worse. Given Dorian the chance to fuss and coddle, daydream and anguish. Dragged into a long farewell what should be a quick, simple passing from day into night.
Not that Klaus would have disliked a few months of coddling and fussing, even knowing the scars they'd leave on Dorian's soul later.
Daydreams. He had a dying man's sudden whim of how it should have gone, without the cancer, in a different life. Married, respectable, happy. Sheltering his wife from her oppressive family, supporting her own goals that had never known approval or financial backing. Loving Dorian as he pleased. For Dorian, discreetly, would have been as much a part of that family as the rest. As much as if Klaus now wore a ring with three names graven inside it, instead of two.
_My family_, Klaus thought, holding that image in mind. It was a good thought, even if it was just foolish fantasy. He felt grateful that the choices had all been taken from him, then guilty at his cowardice, then simply tired.
The smoke was thicker now, threading grey into the brilliant blue of the sky, tendrils of grey snaking between
the wheat stems. A crackling sound, like radio static, filled the breeze –- or maybe the sound was all in his head, the waxing and waning of his ragged pulse.
More smoke blew down into the ditch, a heavy pall scented like all the autumns he'd known in childhood: burning fields, scorching leaves, bright flame searing away the debris of summer and harvest. Making the world pure again, for winter.
His dogtags wouldn't burn. Nor the ring with its identifying inscription: his name, and Adelinda's, and the date of their marriage.
The Alphabets wouldn't leave him for long. They'd be back with reinforcements within the hour. Grass burned hot, yet fast. There was a chance he wouldn't be touched at all. That he might live through this, if he was careful to hoard lungfuls of clean air.
Smiling at his own habitual reflex toward survival at any cost, Klaus breathed deep of the thickening smoke.
It wasn't tobacco. But it would do, for the moment.