"Ah, Major? Darling?"
"Um ... I just wanted to say ... When you felt what you thought was my hand on your buttocks ...?"
A fresh wave of anger swept through him. He clung to his composure by his teeth, knowing that the opening ball of the military conference in Paris was neither the time nor the place to show his displeasure to the fop the way he really wanted to. Lots of bigwigs all over the place and Klaus had to "play nice". Be NATO's "good boy". "Yes?" he asked stiffly. What the fuck is he thinking, daring to approach me again? As if the last time wasn't disastrous enough, you little shithead.
"It wasn't me."
Dorian's blue eyes shimmered innocently.
Men shouldn't have eyes like yours. You're wearing make-up, for fuck's sake. Bloody pervert. And those stupid, girly earrings! "Then whose hand was it? You were the only one I saw behind me, when I turned." For once I'm having a decent conversation with a decent man – for an American, that is - enjoying myself, to be honest, and you have to come and ruin it!
"His. That man's. The one you were talking to."
Da scheißt doch der Hund ins Feuerzeug! "Colonel Hannibal Smith? During our conversation Colonel Hannibal Smith reached behind me and ... pinched me?"
"Yes! I couldn't believe he had the nerve, but I saw him! Klaus, you've got to believe me!"
He just couldn't take it any more, so he socked the Earl a good one. It felt even better than that time in Rome well over a decade ago after Eroica had kidnapped the Pope. As the poof went down Klaus growled, "At least have the decency to be honest and don't blame upstanding soldiers for your perverted lusts!"
"I hope you realize, Major von dem Eberbach, that to have a NATO employee – someone who is suppose to be one of our finest men – get into a knucklefight with—"
"'t was hardly a knucklefight! I gave him one little punch and he went down like the spineless sissy he is."
"—get into a knucklefight with one of England's noblemen, sent here expressly on the wish of Her Majesty the Queen of England Herself—"
"I didn't know he was there in an official capacity! I thought the poof was just there to follow me around and simper like he usually does."
"—of Her Majesty the Queen of England Herself to keep Her informed of what happened."
"You can't really buy that. He probably bribed someone. Or offered to steal something for the old biddy, or—"
"Major von dem Eberbach! Are you accusing the Queen of England of consorting with criminals?"
"Well, if she really did send Herr Sticky Fingers to—"
"Major von dem Eberbach! You slugged a peer of the British realm! Right in front of a hundred or so of the most decorated military men in the world!"
"He ... took liberties!" Quite apart from that outrageous story of the American colonel being the one who did it. Klaus knew all too well the feeling of Eroica's hands on his body. He hated the touch; dreaded it; especially loathed the warm feeling which flushed him when the long fingers made contact.
"Ah yes. You claim that this British nobleman is secretly in love with you—"
"'ts not a secret! He'd scream it from the fucking roof-tops!"
"—in love with you, Major von dem Eberbach! Do you realise what a scandal this would create if it leaked out? We would be the laughing stock of the world!"
"Really isn't a bloody secret," Klaus grumbled. "'s been doing it for fifteen years now!"
General Adamo paid no attention to his protests. "Major von dem Eberbach – you're suspended."
"Su-spen-ded! For assaulting a civilian. Three months. And to be frank, Major von dem Eberbach, you're lucky we don't toss you out on your arse."
Bloody pervert! Klaus thought as he marched through his office to his desk. A handful of the Alphabets were present. They stared at him as if they expected him to explode. This is all your fault! Pinching my arse and blaming Colonel Smith! Fucking following me around!
He began to shuffle his stuff into his briefcase. Purely technically he knew that the Earl never meant for him to get suspended. After all, that had never happened before. The General was new at his post and likely wanted to be seen dealing firmly with potential troublemakers. Still. The suspension would only be temporary, but meanwhile someone else would sit at his desk, doing his things, ordering his Alphabet about!
I hate you, you detestable sodomite! Can't you just leave me alone? I wish we had never met!
With forceful movements he righted the papers on the desk, glancing through them to see if there was anything he absolutely must leave notice about – not that he felt like helping NATO with anything at the moment, since NATO so obviously didn't want to help him. His eyes fell on a document that had arrived only recently. It was marked TOP SECRET, as so many of the others. The first sentence was interesting, though. Very interesting. He quickly riffled through the rest, then with a sleight of hand that even the fruity Earl would be proud of him for, put the document in with the last of his personal effects.
Glaring so hard at the 'bets that they pulled back to the further wall of the room, he marched off.
I do wish we had never met. And maybe ... just maybe my wish can come true.
He almost wanted to contact the Earl and ask for his help. Yes, ask. Nicely, even. That would have been extra sweet. Maybe imply that he would be very, very grateful for the help. Grateful enough to overlook a few future liberties taken. The fop would lap it up, that was for sure. Klaus would even apologise for the incident at the ball. Yes, to force himself to apologize would have been worth it, to finally – blessed world, finally! – be rid of the pest. He seriously considered calling North Downs, but in the end decided against doing so. The degenerate probably would have tried to test this change of heart, somehow. He might have tried to get some of these future liberties in advance or something. He might even have feared some sort of trap. Which it would have been, in a way, so he wouldn't have been all wrong, scheming little queer that he was. But to involve him would have been sweet.
Would have served you right! Klaus thought, as he slowly swam through the murky water. Although he wore a wet suit, the chill was slightly sharper than even he found tolerable. Of course, it's not as if you would have known, afterwards.
That was the only thing he would regret – Eroica wouldn't know how Klaus had played him. Of course, him actually knowing would sort of defeat the purpose.
A few minutes later, Klaus reached the small island off the coast of Denmark. In the depth of the frosty bushes just beyond the beach he quickly shed the wet suit and took a brief breather before he slowly made his way towards the island centre. From the document he had learnt that the island was mostly used for keeping sheep during the summer months. Now, at near winter, it was empty – or would be, if not for the secret project being carried out there, quite without the knowledge of the Danish government. In fact, the NATO source wasn't sure of just who funded the research – possibly the Russians, but equally possibly the Chinese or even the Americans. The scientists were of mixed origin and the main language English.
The security was considerable. He might not have made it without the very detailed information he had received. And he had to admit that perhaps it wouldn't have been a bad idea to bring Eroica along after all. Say what you want about the degenerate, but he certainly could get into anywhere he wanted and come out with booty. But Klaus was no slouch at breaking and entering himself. Nor did he have a timetable to keep, save for the end of the night. The research ended each day at six o'clock sharp, only to be resumed again at 09:00. In the meanwhile the facility should be off limits to all personel. The guards themselves only patrolled the perimeters and the outer corridors. Once the Major – Currently suspended! he reminded himself glumly. The punishment still grated – had bypassed them and reached the inner sanctuary, he found himself quite alone.
Nice not to have the Alphabet dogging me, he admitted. Sometimes they did get a bit annoying, especially on more delicate operations.
A trip through an air vent took him to the final chamber. There it stood. Not much to write home about. Far more fragile-looking than, say, a tank. Looks as if I could kick through the side of it. At the same time it looked clumsy; rotund like a baby elephant. About the size of a small car, with a creamy gold surface, layers of pale lines in all directions, shimmering and seemingly twisting the faint light. Klaus went up to it and, unable to resist, put a gloved hand to the metal. He hissed in surprise when an electric fizz made his skin tingle. The sensation only lasted for a second though, then he could touch the machine without interference. While the lines had made him think that the surface would be scratchy it turned out to be smooth as if heavily glossed.
Why scrape it up just to gloss it over? Just sloppy workmanship or do they serve some purpose? The papers hadn't mentioned the lines.
On the opposite side he found a set of more distinct lines and a hollow. When he touched the latter a door opened in the hull of the machine. The inside reminded him of a very snug plane cockpit - made for one man only. There were no windows, only panels upon panels upon panels. He could figure out the meaning of some, while others left him puzzled. No matter really. As long as everything worked as it should, he would have no need of knowing their meaning. And if things went wrong, well ... Something had gone wrong, in the third trip, and the pilot had returned as a puddle of rather smelly fluids. While the scientists swore they had corrected the problem, this had led to a rather embarrassing lack of young men willing to risk their life for the past – or for the future, as it might be.
The controls which mattered to Klaus were the start button and the two sets of five wheels that would let him set the time for when he wanted to go and for when he would return. In proper order, too – Klaus hated it when countries insisted on their own order of dates. He still double- and triple-checked. One of the scientists' strangest discoveries was that the machine would only obey the wheels once for each pilot. Apparently the laws of time had their own ideas as to what mortals should be allowed and disallowed. Oh, Klaus would be able to go back repeatedly if necessary – but only and always to the exact same point in time. Sadly, the original pilot's test jump had been to ten hours prior to take off, just as a starter to check the controls. For the next jump he had set the date for further back, but ten hours back he had gone, not a second more.
The second set of wheels was easy enough. When to come back to. With great satisfaction Klaus entered the date of the gathering in France, about three hours before the actual thing. That should give him time enough to have a good cup of Nescafé before going. Normally he disliked such events. But he would be able to have that interesting discussion with Colonel Smith again – and a longer discussion this time, sans pinches from amorous Earls. There would be no Earls at the gathering. At all! At least not of the pope-stealing kind. Which meant no chance of slugging the idiot again, which was a pity, but also meant no suspension afterwards.
He wouldn't kill the man, though, even if that had been his initial idea when faced with the possibility of going back in time. That would have been sweet, yes, but not even the fop deserved that. During their first meeting Klaus had been polite, though – much too polite. Obviously the idiot had interpreted that as inviting, somehow. This time, Klaus would with great delight and in no uncertain manners, tell the frivolous limey exactly what Klaus thought of him and why his presence was unwanted – in any shape or form.
The first set of wheels he carefully arranged to a couple of hours before that first, fateful meeting at Schloss Eberbach, since that was when all his troubles had started. It only made sense to be thorough about things and eradicate the vermin before it had time to burrow in.
Finally, he double-checked the straps holding him in place and pressed the start button.
He didn't just see stars – he saw galaxies. They rose from darkness, swirled around his head, then spread so far that they no longer appeared as units; until the very universe surrounded him. Then the sun rose in his eyes, blinding him. He was shaken so hard that he wondered if the process had gone wrong somehow still; if he would end up like the former pilot. Won't the scientists be surprised come morning? he thought, fighting an odd urge to chuckle.
He felt nauseated, as if his stomach alternatively cramped and pushed out, like the beating of a misplaced heart. His cranium felt too tight. In a moment so fleeting that he shouldn't even have been able to feel it, he knew ... everything. It made perfect sense and he saw the connection – so easy; so obvious; so natural – that when the moment had past the loss made him bite through his lip. The taste of blood mixed with an overwhelming, sourceless sweetness that shouldn't have been there. Voices whispered in his ear until he realised they were his own thoughts.
Then he was thrown, with the same effortless ease as a child tossing its ragdoll. He tumbled through the world – now with his head up; now with his feet, over and over again. Until just as suddenly his body stopped. Not with a crash or even a jerk, it merely found itself in a still position. His self – mind? Brain? Soul? – kept rolling, this time with his body as the axis. Unable to make the separate parts of him connect, he screamed – in silence, since his body couldn't sense his will. Slower and slower the spins took him; closer and closer to the husk of flesh that belonged to him – which he belonged to?
Finally, blessedly, he sank into the muscles and bones and fat and nerves and other tissues; melding thankfully – and promptly turning his head sideways as he was violently ill.
When he was able to move further than centimetres at a time without having the contents of his belly make a rapid reappearance, Klaus shakily sat up. Then he could finally determine that he was in a stall in the men's room at NATO headquarters. A foggy memory informed him that he had just sent B to fetch the car for the ride to Schloss Eberbach. An equally foggy memory protested this, saying that he had just travelled from the future to rid himself of an insistent nuisance. The two different awarenesses fought for dominance, but as he started to rise their bickering subsided and he was left with the presence of them both.
His body felt as if he had gone eight rounds with Mischa – with his hands tied behind his back. In contrast his clothes were immaculate, save for the vomit splatter. The old suit. And his hair – longer than he had worn it for some time. It felt like a protective helmet around his head – ultimately futile, unable to do anything to protect him, but still forming a veil between him and the world; hiding his nape and ears to fall soothingly on his shoulders. Though his muscles hurt he could move freely. After having wiped the remnants of his nausea off his face and shoulder he carded his fingers through his hair to make it lie properly. Then he took a deep breath and left the stall.
They repainted the walls. Yes – eight years ago. Autumn. Bloody nuisance. I had forgotten about that. The way to the office he would never be able to forget – he could get there dead drunk in his sleep while drugged to his gills. It felt like walking in a dream, though, with everyone so much younger than the last time he saw them. At the same time everything looked just as it should, his other/older/more time-relevant set of thoughts held firm. The 'bet was at work; the old gang. "J!" he blurted.
"Yes, Major?" the called for agent promptly replied. He gazed warily at his superior.
It's good to see you, Klaus wanted to say, only he couldn't. The young agent had died fourteen years ago, of a rapidly developed cancer. Even if I warned you now there would be nothing they could do.
"How is your ... " He's gathering information on the Polish situation, an old/relevant memory whispered. "... information gathering coming along?"
"The consulate replied just now, sir! I'm working on a written report right away, sir!"
"Good," he said and nodded. After such a long time he no longer remembered what had been going on – though he knew fully well that the Polish Embassy had received threatening letters and wanted NATO to investigate, insisting the perpetrator was Russia. 't was a prank. School boys. We'll catch them. Scare the piss out of them. The warring sets of information were slowly giving him a headache. At least the physical reminders of his trip had begun to abate; his muscles no longer hurt more than as if he had run for a couple of hours. Wish I could do that – clear my head some more.
B should have gotten the car by now, he realised, so he went down to the parking lot where, sure enough, B waited. Mein Gott, he looks like a baby, Klaus thought, but got into the car. They drove off. When, some time later, a bright red sports car cut them off, he almost smiled. The game begins.
"What a flashy car, though," said B.
"It's a Lamborghini," he replied, hearing the words echo in his mind.
"Oh. That car is all the rage now."
"I loathe people who own them." Especially you. "Nothing but shallow, egotistical bastards."
He was so focused on the upcoming scene that he almost forgot to answer the butler's greeting. Then he opened the door to the hall hosting the Eberbach collection. There he stood. The Earl of Red Gloria. Although it had been fifteen years since this meeting, Eroica looked just like Klaus remembered –in vivid detail. That stupid red, sleeveless shirt! Those ridiculously tight, blue trousers, like the sky behind thunder clouds. Almost knee-high, black leather boots. Red scarf tied around his neck. Armlet of gold and bracelet of gold with emeralds. Eyes and hair like a courtesan. Flaunting yourself, you English peacock!
On automatic, he ordered B to gather the art.
"I'm so dreadfully sorry," Eroica said, calling for his attention. "I didn't see you come in. I was much too taken in by this painting."
"By the way, I'm Earl Dorian Red Gloria."
"Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach," he replied coldly. "What are you doing here?" A little note pinged in the back of his head.
The Earl pouted, possibly put out that Klaus hadn't immediately thrown himself at his feet, begging to be allowed to worship him. "This collection must be among the best, even in Germany. It's most splendid."
"I asked - what are you doing here?"
"I'm enchanted by this painting in particular. I love this sort of thing. Is he related to you? I mean, he does resemble you."
"Answer me or leave."
"I'd like to have this painting."
"It's not for sale."
"Yes, yes, but I'm completely enamoured by it."
"Major von dem Eberbach to you!"
"Oooh, a soldier. I should have guessed. I do like army uniforms. I find them manly and stoic. And they 'sheath'—"
He heard the words before Eroica had a chance to utter them. There had been many a night when he had heard them in his dreams. "–a certain 'passion' underneath. I find them a bit of a turn-on frankly. Enough so that I would like to strip off a good and proper uniform and get to what's underneath." Klaus pulled his Magnum, aiming it at the centre of the blond's forehead. "I advice you to think very carefully of what you are about to say, Herr Gloria."
Eroica's cornflower blue eyes widened as his mouth fell open. His body pulled back and hands rose as if they had any chance in Hell to ward off the Magnum bullets, should Klaus's trigger finger apply just a few more grams of pressure. "M-m-maj-maj-major! Wha-what-what—"
Music to his ears. "Or should I say ... Herr Eroica?"
The lithe figure twitched and he heard the sharp breath. "Ma-major Eb-berbach! I-I—"
"I know who you are. Thief! How dare you come into my home? I should shoot you for just looking at my paintings!"
"You—I—You can't! I—"
Feeling a heady rush engulf him, Klaus took a quick step forward and slapped the queer with enough force to toss him to the floor. Not hard enough to break his neck, though - after all, he had used his left hand, rather than his right. "I can!" he growled with considerable satisfaction. "I can do anything I want to you, Lord Sticky Fingers!"
Eroica remained on his back on the floor, staring up at him. Klaus ignored how the sight made his blood heat up, just a little, in certain parts of his body that should take no interest in the proceedings what so ever. He quickly knelt and put the muzzle of his gun to the thief's chest, at the bottom of the long, narrow V formed by his "décolletage". Eroica gasped.
"Yes, NATO knows about you. NATO knows everything. We know your identity, your hideout in North Downs, your involvement with the Rogues' Gallery and your connections in Italy." He proceeded to rattle off Eroica's hideouts and associates and everything else he figured might rattle the Brit. "Now you are wondering – if we know all this, why aren't you serving time as we speak – no doubt having the time of your life as some muscle thug's pretty toy? We can hand you over to Interpol at any time we so wish, is this clear? Clear?" He emphasized the word by jabbing the gun.
"Clear!" Eroica cried out. "It's clear!"
He sounded ... terrified? Klaus hid a sudden sense of unease behind a mask of tranquillity. "Good boy," he said approvingly. Then, lest this would be taken as any sort of invitation, he rose and kicked the limey's hip. Again, not hard enough to shatter bones, but enough to bruise for a few days. A choked cry rewarded him and Eroica curled up on the floor.
Klaus straightened further. "If NATO has needs for your services, you will be contacted. Now, you pervert, you will leave Schloss Eberbach. You will never come back."
Eyes turned his way again; filled with a mixture of pain and disbelief. "How can you do this to me?" they seemed to plead. "I only ever wanted to love you!" Only, this Earl of Red Gloria would never love a NATO Major.
Klaus felt his heart skip a beat. Then he bit his teeth together hard so that he wouldn't say something he would later come to regret. "Scram!" he growled.
Like a hunted deer, Eroica fled.
"Major! He's leaving."
Klaus heard the hesitant voice as if from a distance. Oh yes. B. The young agent sounded odd, scared almost. "Open all of the windows," he said slowly. "Get some fresh air in here. I feel sick."
He did feel sick. 'ts just some leftover from the time travel, he told himself. Like jet-lag or some shit like that. Not that he ever got jet-lag. Adjusting to time changes was a matter of discipline, just like heat and cold. But perhaps even Iron Klaus could be forgiven being disoriented due to a jet-lag of 15 years?
Knowing from the information in the scientists' notes that he would remain in this time for another couple of hours, he went through the motions of checking B's collection, then returned with the young agent to Bonn. Since his time schedule allowed, he then pigged out at a little restaurant far from NATO headquarters. He only went there on very special occasions – once a year if even that, but they had some lovely potatoes and he had missed it ever since it closed several years ago. An hour before the time limit he withdrew to his flat and waited for time to catch up.
The trip "home" was as long and uncomfortable as the going back. He could have sworn he felt both arms and legs break, not to mention eardrums erupt, over and over again. While it couldn't have taken very long, he watched galaxies die.
The end was the same though, being twirled around his body, slower and slower until the two finally merged. It hurt more than the other time, though, as if his mind was more reluctant to be forced back into its body. For a long, long time he lay gasping for breath, grateful for the dim light in ... wherever he was. Not his hotel room. Below him was wet and both hard and soft. Earth? Did I go out for a run? Even to think ached, but he tried his best to get his bearings. Where could he be? He had set the dials for 15.00, giving himself three hours before the start of the ball. Had he known how disorienting time travelling would be, he might have tried for 12.00 instead, or even morning. While he normally detested lazing around "napping", some rest would have been nice. Oh well, without Eroica to mess up things, I should be able to leave around nine – ten at the latest. I'll see if I can find Colonel Smith from the start. He did have some interesting stories. There's a man who can give orders. If he had had the misfortune to be born an American he wouldn't have minded serving under Colonel Smith. Much.
This time he waited longer before he began to move, not wanting to puke his guts up again if he could help it. Slowly the aftershocks from the journey abated. Instead he became aware of a rather insistent odour. Smells like something died here. And then ... he saw something. Something ... round. Something ... poking out in a globular fashion. Something ... located just below his chest area.
He blinked, trying to clear his eyes from the persistent hallucination, only ... it remained. I ... I ... Someone! Yes! When I was unconscious! Someone put something under my shirt! Yes! He lifted a shaking hand towards the absurd protrusion. I'm undercover! It's a rubber fake! But when his hand made contact, it was obviously, inescapably clear that the mound was his own flesh.
After three minutes of violent hyper-ventilating, Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach fainted.
The next time Klaus came to his senses he didn't pass out again. He wanted to, but a lifetime of discipline and forcing himself to handle any situation as it cropped up, kept him awake and alert. Besides, he was not in the habit of ignoring reality, no matter how far it seemed thrown off its axis. The indisputable fact remained. He, Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, had a ... beer belly.
Once he was able to look past the monstrosity, he realized that he wore clothes which were a far, far cry from his usual, spotless attire. And that thing that had smelled as if something had died? Him. A quick touch to his face for purpose of rubbing his eyes revealed that he sported a beard. Klaus had never grown a beard; had never even attempted to. And certainly not this shaggy, uneven thing, with what those young people would call "dreadlocks". His hair was long too, but that was of no concern. His fingernails were yellowish and had a peculiar look with flat ridges.
I'm undercover, he assured himself again. Deep undercover. Very important mission. Duty requires sacrifices. It's all a mission. Undercover. Deep undercover.
Only ... it wasn't. Not a mission, not undercover and not a sacrifice to duty. The memories from this 15 years worth of life time slowly surfaced, throwing him into bleak despair.
15 years ago, he had yanked Eroica firmly to heel. History had diverged from that point. Not so much at first. Nothing to worry about. There had been no stolen paintings and certainly no singing in a later stolen tank. Had that been the only difference he would have been ecstatic. The Apollo had happened, though as soon as Eroica became aware of NATO's involvement he had ceded the field and withdrawn. During their brief meeting aboard the Michelangelo, the thief had avoided his eyes and had held himself stiffly away from Klaus rather than draping over him as Klaus helped him walk. No skin off Klaus's nose. Then Maya Bulgakova, in Greece, with G and that stupid Buddha statue. Eroica had been there to start with. He had seen through G's disguise easily enough, but had then vanished. Which had made the mission easier, so that wasn't a problem either. Then ... the peace summit.
Once more Eroica had been present to start with. As had the rest of the so called Rogues' Gallery. On learning the identity of North Down's owner, Klaus had gone there. The other agencies' men had followed him and Eroica had even yelled regally at them all, just as he should do. In fact, that Eroica had been very much like the one Klaus's original memories remembered. Only ... there had been no phone call from Eroica in bed. Eroica and his crew, together with the rest of the Rogues' Gallery presumably, had vanished – perhaps taking the mountain to Mohamed in Paris. Bringing Dorian's unmentionables along. It was by sheer accident that Klaus and half the 'bet hadn't been at ground zero when the bomb detonated. The rest of the 'bet; not to mention the world leaders and many, many others, were not so lucky.
He and his team hadn't been blamed, of course – but he had blamed himself. That's when he had his first depression – mainly drinking too much. The core of the remaining Alphabet – Z, A, B and G - had confronted him and shook some sense into him. So he had steeled himself – used some of that "iron will" - and gotten back into working order.
Iran. No hugs and kisses. No offer of emeralds either.
In this second timeline he hadn't had much contact with Eroica; not really. When the time came to try to break into the Vatican, the Chief hadn't thought to force him to hire the thief. On the pro side that meant no kidnapped Pope. On the con side ... the mission turned into a total failure. Another nine 'bets dead – Z and G included.
He had never flown to Alaska. NATO had suspended him indefinitely. He retreated to Schloss Eberbach. His father soon arrived and berated him further. Like a wounded animal, needing solitude to lick his wounds, Klaus fled Germany. France; Belgium; Norway – he wandered aimlessly, getting lost in his own mind, ignoring his surroundings. He drank too much and ate even more, to dull the pain. The one thing he never lacked was money. Thanks to his seldomly accessed account he still had a sizeable sum at his disposal.
Shit, he thought, dropping his head back into the mud. He now knew that he lay in a remote part of a garden, where he had passed out the previous night and managed to sleep more than half the day away. How could things go this fucking wrong?
But he knew very well how things could have gone so fucking wrong.
For a few moments longer Klaus lay in shocked despair. Then he sat up again and lifted his head, tilting his jaw up. Many men – sadly, most of them dead in this reality – would have recognized the expression. His mind made up, Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach devised a plan.
He had few resources. Some money, true, that was in his favour. No Alphabet. Of the men he had known from his first life, which still felt closest to his heart – only A, B and R remained. B was still at NATO, at a desk job due to his amputated hand, at least last this sad excuse for a body had heard. R too, though he had transferred to another department. A had opted for early retirement. In short, Klaus's situation was the same as for the Klaus who had thrown himself to the wind. Unlike that wretched creature, however, the current Klaus had two very distinct advantages. The tradgedies hadn't happened to him, though he remembered them as if they had. Other memories, more insistent ones, overshadowed them, protecting him. He knew Z to be alive; even if he also remembered cradling the young man as he bled to death. However, and what was far more important; Klaus also knew that things needn't have gone the way they had. There was a way to put everything back as it should be. On a little island off the coast of Denmark.
He laid down. Crossed his arms over his chest. Brought his feet up closer to his body. Took a breath. Then curled into a sit-up. Winced at how horribly out of shape the other he had allowed his/their body to get.
One. ... Two. ... Three. ... Four. ... Five. ... Fuck this! Six. ... Seven. ... Eight. ...—
Since he had ended up in a town in southern Sweden to go to Denmark proved easy enough. For some miraculous reason, his stupid identity had at least managed to keep hold of his passport as well as his Magnum and his licence to carry it, so he simply took the ferry across, then a bus to the town closest to the island. There he rented a room and proceeded to prepare for his mission. He had done it once, so he could do it again - no problem. Should be a breeze.
A week later his body's condition still wouldn't allow him to get cracking. It was rather sad, to be honest; he could only do two hundred sit-ups before breathing heavier and forget about running – four hours tops!
He sat at the hotel restaurant, staring morosely at the bland meal of sausages and boiled potatoes he had ordered, when his sharp ears overheard voices not speaking Danish at a table close by. Wondering if it might be the scientists he listened closer, but the chatter turned out to come from two Swedish ladies. His Swedish wasn't very good, but enough for him to barely be able to follow a general "how do you do"-type of conversation. He tried to hone it by listening to them. There wasn't as if there was anything else interesting for him to do.
"—trodde verkligen att de fortfarande hade fåren ute på ön. Men visst hade vi trevligt ändå? Martin sa att—"
Får = Sheep. Ön = The island. Only one island near the town kept sheep during the summer.
He went over to their table. "My ladies?" he said and gave a short bow, knowing how this would charm most women of their generation. He let his accent deepen a little as well. "I couldn't help but to overhear you mentioning the sheep island. I hear it is exceedingly lovely this time of the year. Did you go there?"
They were charmed, all right. They were also of the talkative type and both spoke fluent English. Soon he had been informed of something that made his heart sink to the level of his well-shined boots. He still smiled faintly the entire time, with his face muscles locked into his "good boy" expression. The women – together with the fair haired one's fiancé, Martin, had, indeed, gone to the island. They had wanted to see the sheep; not knowing that the animals had already been collected for the autumn. Since there had been no woolly little mammals about, they had instead wandered across the entire island. Finding nothing. At all.
Martin made an appearance, so Klaus took the opportunity to make his getaway. The ladies – Anita and Marianne – did offer for him to join them at their table, but even should he have wanted to join them he had suddenly lost all of his appetite.
23:00 found Major von dem Eberbach snorkelling through the cold waters of Denmark. Admittedly, he was a little out of breath when he reached his goal. The island wasn't very large at all – it took him a quarter of an hour to walk across it. Had the terrain been better he could have done so in half that time. There were no sheep. He saw very few other animals either. No humans. Nor any hidden scientific facility. Certainly no time machine.
On returning to the mainland Klaus felt unaccustomedly tempted to get a glass – no, a bottle - of something strong and supportive. Of course, he didn't return at his hotel until threeish in the morning. By then it would be difficult to get his hands on something alcoholic with less than breaking into someplace. If Dorian had been here he would have gotten me something, Klaus thought morosely, sitting on his bed. Then he wondered why he called the limey by his first name. Besides, he didn't want to drink. This body craved alcohol. Who knew if he could manage to stop drinking if he started "again".
What did they fucking do with it?! I'm later than I was last time; but only by days! They couldn't have removed an entire bloody complex without leaving any trace of it!
Fact remained: the facility had vanished. By the look of things the scientists had never been on the island in the first place.
But they must have built it! The technology ... They have the knowledge, so they must have done it!
That his own life had gone down the drain due to him giving Eroica the cold shoulder – yes. A very unexpected complication, but explainable. But how could him doing that have an effect on the scientists? No matter if it had proven cumbersome, no government worth its salt would resist the lure of building a time machine. He just couldn't understand why they wouldn't be on the island.
Though he couldn't deny either that his decision had effected others than himself and Eroica. The Alphabet – all but wiped out. By extension: a weakened NATO. The Summit Meeting Tragedy, with accusations made against all and sundry; dozens of terrorist groups claiming responsibility and countries in shock. NATO and Germany's frosty relation with the Catholic Church. Big things had changed. Something might have happened to the scientists too. He still didn't know who had sponsored them. They might have been diverted to some other project. Or perhaps even killed.
A new wave of despair welled up within him. He left the bed, swiftly undressed and went to stand under the showerhead; letting the water cool to just the right side of "icy" to wake him up and help him to concentrate.
I must find out whatever happened to them. If any research at all was done, I need to get the information. Get them started again, if I can find them. Or just started, if they never even tried. Even if it had taken them the full 15 years it shouldn't very well take them longer than that this second time around. Maybe even less, considering the technical advances. They might need financing, though. I need money and lots of it. Not impossible either; not for a man of his talents and knowledge. He might be forced to do many things he would rather not have; but NATO had washed its hands of him and it was for the good of the world. In the end, everything would be better for it. That was worth a few sacrifices.
I can't leave things as they are. I must put everything back together again.
He returned to the fatherland for the first time in over a decade. As he read the newspaper on the plane he realized that the world had changed far more than he could ever have dreamed of. Or hadn't changed as it should have, as it were. The wall had never fallen.
There were many other changes; too numerous to take in; but the sight of the wall in the newspaper shook him to the core. He had always thought that the things he did was ultimately futile: that they would never change the evil of the world. But they had! Maybe not much, maybe they even were futile, but he had made a difference. Together they had made a difference. He and his men; he and NATO; he and ... that British poof.
Back in Bonn Klaus went to the NATO headquarters. It had been twelve years since the Pope incident. Surely, that 'indefinite' suspension could now be revoked? Surely, with the world in such chaos, NATO would need its Iron Klaus again? Surely there was something for him there?
"Frankly, Major, they were glad you left and overjoyed when you never returned. And all these years you've been gone, Major, that's simply ... too long."
R. Who had greeted him well enough and spoke to him with respect but who, very regrettably, could not help him in any way.
"Lena is four, Lillian six and Miriam ten," A said, proudly showing Klaus pictures of the three. "We're hoping for a boy next."
Considering that A's wife must be pushing forty-five, Klaus wondered silently if it could be healthy for her to keep popping out babies, but he said nothing.
"If it really is a boy, Major, me and the wife were thinking ... wondering ... if you would consider ... I mean ... Would you mind terribly if we named him Klaus?"
Feeling something swell in his throat, he shook his head.
A was still his man. After all that had happened, A remained his. However ... Klaus just couldn't bring himself to ask A to help wipe out the idyllic life he had arranged for himself.
B refused to see him. He had blamed what happened on Klaus and there was really nothing Klaus could say about that. So the refusal was predictable, but still a disappointment.
His father had died three years ago from a heart attack. So Klaus found himself the new Graf of Eberbach, even if the title no longer held any sway. The butler greeted him with a distinctly frosted tone.
With all that had happened, Klaus couldn't grieve. In the clearest part of his personality, his father still lived. Or he had. Before. He might again. If Klaus succeeded. At least the unexpected inheritance solved part of the monetary situation.
This just isn't bloody working! Klaus thought as he burned off some excess energy by pacing back and forth across his study.
He had dug, but he simply didn't have his net of contacts any longer. The few he did call on were wary of talking to him or flat-out refused. Nothing he tried gave any results. A bit of whisky – just a small glass of the sharp stuff, sounded better and better.
Would help me fucking relax a little, if nothing else, he thought hesitantly. The first evening back at the Schloss he had ordered the butler to remove all bottles, but he knew they hadn't gone far. They were in the deep cellar, ready for their master to come to his "senses".
He left the study, heading towards the kitchen. Just one drink though. Not more.
The kitchen staff was all too helpful to fulfil his request and moments later he headed up again, towards the small library this time, where he would be left alone with the little crystal glass and the golden liquid. He hadn't visited there since his return. The room was used mostly for drinking in and for retreating to when too many guests hounded the castle. It was a good place to relax in, though, especially during the winter with a fire going in the fire place. Sometimes, when he had been a little boy his father had let him into this inner sanctuary, to sleep on the now removed wolf-pelt in front of the fire. Or to play with his tin soldiers or his stuffed boar – probably also gone now. Or up in the attic somewhere, waiting for a next Eberbach generation.
He sank down in his favourite leather chair and sniffed at the glass. The whisky smelled very nice, very comforting, with a hint of smoke. Trying to think of nothing at all, he tilted back his head with his eyes open, yet unfocused – until they met the determined stare of another eye. One eye only, as the second was concealed by a truly impressive hat. Klaus startled – and spilled whiskey on his lips. The taste slammed into him – but as a memory; of Alaska, of sharing a bottle with Dorian, even if he had – for "sanitary reasons" made the Earl drink from his cupped hands.
Fuck, I treated him like a beast.
He abruptly put the glass down and lifted his gaze to meet that of Tyrian again.
I wonder what happened to him. After Iran. In this timeline he hadn't had any reason to keep track. He felt a sudden need to know.
The butler denied any knowledge of having moved The Man In Purple to the small library.
The poof left a far more trackable trace than the elusive scientists. All Klaus had to do was go to the library news search and type in "Earl Dorian Red-Gloria", which produced some three thousand hits. The Earl was, it seemed, one of the darlings of the British news hounds. He always took time to wave at them; even talk to some of them – the newsletters had learned to send the right type of reporters to follow him – and he always went to the interesting parties, met the interesting people, often accompanied by interesting young men. Since he was British, rich and titled no one seemed to think negatively of his leaning. Klaus saw a handful of photos. Not that he was an expert on the subject of male beauty, but he thought the Earl looked healthy enough; still very flamboyant, very distinct and with perfect features. The only thing out of place from Klaus's previous memory of the time period was the cane. Thankfully, not a white one. It looked to be covered in gold, with a multitude of flowers, predominantly roses, "growing" from it, shimmering with precious stones. He held it in all pictures from the last seven years, often leaning heavily on it.
Eroica was a different matter. Eroica featured prominently in the newspapers; about six to ten times a year – stealing things of beauty and leaving his teasing, bloody notes. Not always managing to get what he came for, but most often so. Up until seven years ago. One month a note about a very rare pink diamond in the traditional shape of a heart, stolen from around the neck of a sheikh's favourite dog – apparently as the dog won a race against nine other greyhounds. At first it was assumed that the dog had dropped it, but then a note from Eroica showed up. Wonder how you pulled that off? After that – nothing. A few references to heists past, that was all. Nothing new. That, combined with the cane, led to a rather unsettling realisation.
Bound to happen sooner or later, Klaus told himself. You had a fool's luck, but I suppose it had to run out.
Only, he couldn't help remembering the Eroica of his world – all grace and with the ease of a man twenty years his junior. At least with a fucking cane you can't sneak up to pinch my bloody arse.
The Summit Meeting Tragedy had taken out not only the house in which the meeting had taken place, but also a great deal of the surroundings – Castle Gloria included. So the Earl had moved to House Gloria in London. That's where Klaus went next, only to hear that the Earl was away on a retreat. The servants – young, slim men, predominantly blond; none of the "old gang" that Klaus remembered – wouldn't tell Klaus where this retreat was – but the Earl would return in a few days. No, they couldn't tell him how many.
Asking himself numerous times what the fuck he thought he was doing, Klaus rented a hotel room a few blocks away and waited. He used the time to work out relentlessly in the hotel gym; running through London and, in between, trying to find out more information about the missing scientists. With little luck. Every day, at twelve o'clock sharp, he rang the stupid, rose-shaped bell at House Gloria to inquire if the Earl had made his way back home. Every time the answer was the same, until eight days later, when he was asked to leave his card. As he carried none, he scribbled a message on a note brought to him by the effeminate servant.
Ten minutes later he was shown into a library every bit as homey as his own back in Eberbach – though with a bit more colour to the book collection. Numerous modern pocket books nestled in with the old leather titles. The walls had a warmer, yellowish hue. And, of course, there were paintings that – if real and not on a list headed by "Interpol's Most Wanted" - would be worth roughly the equivalence of a small country. The servant offered Klaus a choice of beverages. They didn't stock Nescafé, so he accepted whatever coffee was available.
He had to wait some more and began to wonder if the Earl was playing with him. Either that or primping himself, he decided. Normally, Dorian wouldn't keep him waiting. The fop would rush in and all but sit in his lap in a display of over-affectionate behaviour. Unless he was just out of bed, in which case Klaus might as well come back in a couple of hours. He remembered the third time that Roly Poly had informed him of that there would be a "slight delay" due to "'s lordship just got outta bed, see?". He had asked for a cleaning rag and gone over his Magnum – he always brought with him a tiny vial of his favourite gun oil among his pack of necessities. The memory of Eroica walking in on him had the tips of his mouth twitching upwards.
He heard the Earl's approach before the doors opened; slow steps and a steady "thud" of a cane. So he stood, as was proper when greeting the gentleman of the house.
When his lips started to form the D-word, he quickly transmuted it to the safe, "Herr Gloria."
"Major von dem Eberbach." The Earl's tone was light, yet held a world of questions, balanced by a small dose of fear.
Dorian wore tight, red trousers and a black, gold-patterned blouse-thing. His hair had been combed back in several plaits leading back to a pony tail. He looked much like Klaus remembered and would have looked just right if his expression had been leering rather than leery.
"Why are you here, Major? If NATO has decided to cash in, I'm afraid you are just a bit late. Seven years or so." He waved the cane, then seemed to overbalance and hastily put it back to the floor. When he went over to the chair opposite to Klaus, he limped just enough to be noticeable.
"You are lame, then?"
Dorian shrugged. "I never leave home without my cane. It's more than that, though. I'm alone. I don't think you ever met them, but normally I work with some men in my employment."
"Of course I've—" Met them. Only, he hadn't. Not this time. At least he had never been introduced to them. "—heard of them. Bonham. James. The Whisperer. Joseph Stardust." He stopped rabbling the names, as Dorian had closed his eyes as if in pain.
"They're all dead. There's only me now. Seven years ago ... A job in Prague. We were caught. I don't wish to discuss it."
Klaus mentally winced. "Understood. Herr Gloria ... I am no longer a NATO employee."
"Oh. I heard you left, yes, but ... I thought you might have returned."
"I tried. They have no further use for me."
"Oh? I find that hard to believe."
Klaus studied the Earl suspiciously. "His" Earl certainly would have meant far more with that statement than what first might be apparent. This Earl, however, by the looks of things, didn't.
"You say you're retired, Eroica. Do you still have your net of contacts?"
"The mob boss, those fawning Arabs and the rest of that Rogues' Gallery of yours? Could you contact them if you needed? Ask them to find something out for you?"
Dorian frowned. "I'm not sure what kind of game you're playing, Mr von dem Eberbach—"
"'m not playing a game. I need certain information and I can't get it. Herr Gloria, it is a matter of life or death. I would pay you for your assistance."
"I don't need your money, Mr von dem Eberbach." Dorian turned away his head. "I have all the money I'll ever need. Money won't give me back my Bonham. My James. My family. That part of my life is over now. I'm sorry, but I won't be able to help you. Jess will show you to the door." He reached for a bright blue tassel hanging from the wall.
"I can give you 'The Man In Purple'."
The hand reaching for the tassel dropped. Cornflower eyes blinked at him. "The what?"
"'The Man In Purple'. Tyrian Persimmon. I know you want it."
"Then, Maj—Mr von dem Eberbach, you know more than I do. I have no idea what you are talking about."
Klaus felt a slight headache creep up on him. "'The Man In Purple'. It's what you've been after all along."
"You've said the name three times already – it doesn't help if you repeat yourself when I don't know what the thing is."
"The painting you wanted!"
"To raise your voice doesn't help either, Maj—Mr von dem Eberbach. I keep wanting to call you Major, sorry about that. I guess it just suits you, somehow. The painting? Oh, yes, the painting. The one I was looking at when we met? Oh heavens, that's fifteen years ago now, Mr von dem Eberbach. Do you have any clue as to how many paintings I've seen since then?"
"But ... you said you were enchanted by it! You were completely enamoured by it! You called it splendid!"
"I did? Well, I'm sure I did. I mean, I'm sure I was. But again, Ma—oh, I'm doing it again!—Mr von dem Eberbach; that was fifteen years ago. I hardly even remember it now. A man, you say? In pumpkin pants? Yes – he had a large hat, didn't he? With feathers. Rather handsome chap. Looked a little bit like you, didn't he?"
Klaus gritted his teeth. "Ja."
"I do have a very vague memory, but I'm sorry to say, Major, I really don't think I'm interested any longer. I could recommend you a very good art dealer, though, I'm sure he will be able to sell it for you. You may tell him my name, if you like. He does have a bit of a weak spot for me. Very discreet."
"I don't need to sell it! I need you to help me! I need to find out certain things."
They can help you too! Fix everything for you! Only, he couldn't say that. Not to this Eroica. The other Eroica – his Eroica – might have believed him. In the end. After having teased him and put him through some paces first; but Dorian would have believed him and helped him. Not this ... this ... pale copy. "I need to find some scientists. The future of the world might hang on it." My world, anyway. And perhaps yours too, it seems.
"NATO obviously didn't believe you. Why should I?"
Mein Gott! I wish I could just put my Magnum to your fucking chest and bloody hell tell you to! But he had learned his lesson about doing things that way, hadn't he? He had to fight not to raise his voice. "I am telling you the truth. It is very, very important. I can't tell you more about it, because it would jeopardise your safety." A lie, but a white one, all things considered. In a way it would, though. If he did find the scientists and persuaded them to go on with their work; if they succeeded; if he went back again – this Dorian would never exist. But you would be happier. You're not happy now, I can tell that much. Your hair doesn't shine and you have little wrinkles around your eyes and mouth. You don't care as much as you should any longer.
"That's very sweet of you, dear, but not very inductive to get my help either. I'm sorry. I will have to ask you to leave now."
"You can have me."
He didn't make the offer lightly; had to force the words out. It won't be too bad. He knows what he is doing. A few hours – a night, tops. Close my eyes and think of Germany. It'll be worth it. To put everything back. As it should be. Then it'll never have happened. He had already noticed how the memories of this timeline gradually became clearer, while those of the other greyed out. Presumably the same would be true if he went on a second trip.
"Me. You can have sex with me. If you help."
Not in a million years did he expect the Earl of Red Gloria to laugh at him.
"Think a lot of yourself, do you, dear? Well, you are a handsome one, I give you that. I bet the boys and girls just throw themselves all over you. However, don't let the cane fool you; I'm not lacking for company. Besides, you're not really my type, you know. I don't particularly fancy thin men."
Mouth open, Klaus could only stare at him. You, you – you imposter!
Feeling humiliated beyond belief, Klaus fled back to his hotel room.
I don't want to be in this reality any more! his wounded pride cried. I want to be back in my own world, with my own butt-pinching Eroica!
To quiet the pain he ordered up to his room a double portion of fried potatoes, gobbling them down until his belly felt extended like a pregnant woman's. Then he sat, staring, at the mound under his shirt. That's why! Ha! 'I don't particularly fancy thin men.' I'm not thin! I'm fat! He felt an urge to go to the bathroom and vomit – the way his stomach protested against all movement certainly felt as if to do so would be a simple affair. But the thought of actually putting a finger down his throat sobered him. This solves nothing. He carefully laid back in bed instead and closed his eyes, waiting for the discomfort to disappear the natural way. Never again. Two rounds of running tomorrow. Morning and evening. I'll run later today too.
While his belly calmed, he tried not to think of what had just happened, but instead of his next move. Only – he didn't really know what he should do. Eroica had felt like his last resort; only even he had let him down! He's just a fake anyway ... he tried to tell himself. His Eroica would have helped him. God help me – will I have to build a new contact net? That would add years – possibly decades - to his quest. Turn mercenary? Be a fucking Soldier of Fortune? He was getting too old for that kind of shit. It seemed to be the only answer, though.
He waited half an hour before going out, at first in a slow jog and then, when his body didn't protest too much, at a faster pace, taking a route through London's busy streets which took him an hour and a half away from the hotel – with an additional hour and a half going back. As always, to run released some of his body's tension. Surely there must be some people who still remember Iron Klaus, he thought. Perhaps I could recruit some good men, get a team together. Or maybe Colonel Smith would be interested? Get back in business any way I can, I guess.
On returning to the hotel he judged himself merely tired, not exhausted. So he forced himself on a second round, this time taking the long route around the fake Eroica's lair. He limped the last streets going back, took a very short shower and collapsed in bed.
Klaus had been surprised to find that some habits and reflexes belonged entirely to the body, rather than to the mind. Try as he might, he had yet to retrain himself to fall asleep on command. Some other things had perhaps never been forgotten. Like how to instantly initiate The Eagle when startled out of sleep by something brushing against his cheek – to stab his fingers into the chest of the person above him, to try to gain purchase to bend the ribs outwards.
The Eagle worked best, all in all, when there was someone actually stupid enough to stand directly above him. It did, however, give him momentum to slide up to a sitting position, to hit out simultaneously with arms and feet to try to reach whoever had slipped close to him when he believed himself alone.
"Who do you want to pinch your butt, Mr von dem Eberbach?"
"As flattering as that answer is, Mr von dem Eberbach, I can hardly credit it. I know I have charm, but we've barely met, my handsome German friend. You were mumbling in your sleep – something about never eating fried potatoes again if 'he' would just pinch your butt. Who is the man you dream will fondle that pert part of your anatomy?"
Since he knew himself to be decently covered he marched to the door and slapped on the overhead light. "What are you doing in my hotel room!?" he growled.
Eroica sat with his legs pulled up on the nightstand by Klaus's bed, dressed in his cat suit, though without the concealing veil. In one hand he held a long, burgundy feather of the fuzzy kind. For a moment Klaus just stared. Yes, he had recognized the voice at the first words; Eroica's teasing, inquisitive, insinuating tone. Still, he didn't think he had ever seen a more welcome sight.
"I thought you had gone lame," he said.
The Earl smiled winsomely, then lowered his long legs and slid down to instead lean against the wall in one of his god-damned poses. "I said that I never leave my house without my cane. Which I don't. Unless I really want to." He lifted his leg a little, angling it back and forth. Strong, lean muscles flexed.
Klaus fond himself staring at the proffered limb. Then he hastily looked up at the thief's face. "You slippery limey. It's all a facade, isn't it?"
He was given a brilliant smile. "That it is, yes. But Eroica did retire. With the others gone – I just didn't have the heart to continue without them."
"Why are you here, then?"
The Earl tossed his head, making his blond mane fall like a wave around him. "I don't know," he said with a strange smile. "When you came to me today I didn't think much about it, to be honest. 'It has nothing to do with me,' I thought. But I couldn't stop thinking about you all day. I do remember you from 15 years ago, you know. So proud and fierce. Now, too, but ... I don't know. There's something about you that just pulls me to you; calls me to you. Also, I find that some part of me wants the excitement again. I remember it – how it felt to pull off a really nice heist. I want to feel that again. Maybe seven year is a long enough hiatus. Maybe it is time for Eroica to make his triumphal return." His bright, blue eyes glittered up a storm. "My Lord von dem Eberbach – the Prince of Thieves is at your disposal."
As if Dorian had brought Klaus's luck with him, things at once moved in the right direction. Unlike Klaus's own, Dorian's contact net had held. The Rogues' Gallery with friends welcomed him back like a long lost son or lover; fawning over him, adoring him and falling all over themselves to obey his least suggestion.
Things almost felt real to Klaus. Sometimes he would even turn around to give an order to G or I or M, lulled into thinking that everything was back to as it should be. Occasionally the differences did show, though. Eroica did admit to finding him fascinating. At first Klaus had waited for the inevitable, "So, I could have sex with you, you said? Well, how about you dropping those pants, dear, and bending over that table over there, hmm?" Especially since he had offered and it would be no more than fair to pay the Brit – anything else would be to cheat. Besides, Klaus couldn't well afford to alienate his one true ally in this whole nasty business. Only, no such indecent request ever came. Which was – of course! – a good thing! Never the less, the near indifference grated. If he ever did offer himself to Eroica, the Earl was supposed to say something flowery and fluffy and poofy, but which inevitably boiled down to, "There's the nearest flat surface. On your belly and spread 'em."
A delighted Volovolonte lent Dorian twelve men and one of his signet rings, to show that the Englishman was to be taken seriously. With that help, the scientists – Klaus had seldom been as grateful for his trained memory, which spit up the eight names with ease – were quickly located. Happily working on a joint project. A, or so the rumour claimed, successfully working time-travelling project. In Germany. To be more precise, in Bonn.
They flew to Germany. Not in Eroica's Zeppelin nor in a NATO-issued plane, but in a normal charter plane – albeit first class. Dorian fell asleep mid-flight and, cat-like, managed to stretch out enough to claim Klaus's shoulder as his pillow. Klaus sat stock still the entire time, glaring at the passing co-passengers. Dorian smelled strongly of lavender; oddly comforting and pleasant. Only when the sign for fastening the seatbelts switched on did Klaus shrug his shoulder enough to dislodge the affectionate weight.
The scientists worked in a warehouse near the river. Klaus knew the area well. He wanted to go there at once, but Dorian insisted that they take time to eat. To Klaus's astonishment his favourite restaurant was still in business. How could that possibly have been affected? Still, not one to miss a good meal, he took Dorian there.
They found the warehouse without difficulties and spent the rest of the evening staking out the place. Volovolonte's information was every bit as good as the NATO detailed report Klaus had read regarding the Danish island. No guard moved unless scheduled to do so on the list. No one came or left unexpected.
"I'm going in tonight," he told Eroica.
"We are, darling."
"I can handle it alone."
"Humour me. I am a little out of practice, I admit, but the security system on these maps? Oh, please! It was more difficult to break into my sisters's make-up cabinets when I was six. Besides, why did you drag me all this way if you won't let me have any fun?"
Klaus, who hadn't really considered why he dragged the thief along once he had the necessary information, shrugged. Perhaps it is best that I keep him where I can see him, so that he doesn't follow anyway and get me into trouble.
At ten to two they slid in like shadows through a forest. Once Eroica donned his cat suit Klaus felt as if they were back to business as usual and they worked seamlessly together. In half the time it had taken him in Denmark, they reached the inner sanctuary.
There it stood, the golden baby elephant time machine. Shimmering and criss-crossed with lines, just like the last time.
"The document I need can be pretty much anywhere in here. Cream white folders with the NATO logo on," he lied, adding, "You search over there," and waved for Eroica to go to the other part of the bisected room to search for the document Klaus had claimed were necessary for his mission. To get into the time machine would only take him a matter of seconds. Once he got the door closed, Dorian wouldn't be able to stop him.
"I don't think so," said Eroica and by-passed him swiftly, heading for the machine. "That is it, isn't it?"
Klaus normally wouldn't have hesitated to knock Eroica out if a mission demanded – or even timidly suggested – it, but ... Damnit! You've behaved yourself so well, you silly poof. "The documents, Eroica – we haven't got all night."
They were only meters from the machine, when the Earl turned back to him, smiling ever so softly. "Oh, Major –" They had quickly enough agreed that Eroica could just call him that, since he kept doing it anyway and Klaus expected to hear it. "—don't be silly. We're not here for some stolen NATO documents. I'm not a simpleton, you know. I read that information which dear Volovolonte gave me before giving them to you. I asked him to get me more information as well – about you. Something happened to you in Malmö, didn't it? What was it, dear? Were you visited from the future?"
After weighting his options for a moment, Klaus closed his eyes. Sometimes Dorian's leaps of thought were uncanny. "No," he said gruffly. "I came back. From the past."
The blue eyes widened a little. "So you went back ... and then came here?"
"Things went wrong?"
"You're going to put them right?"
"I see. Is there room for two in that thing?"
He shook his head mutely, then found his voice. "'m sorry."
The enthusiastic gleam left Dorian's eyes, but only for a moment, then it returned in force. "Never mind. So ... Does this have anything to do with him?"
"Him. The guy who you want to pinch your pert little arse."
"I didn't—" Klaus started to yell, then broke off. To argue is to waste time. And besides ... "Ja. In a way."
The Earl smiled and took a small step closer. "He's a lucky guy."
To his mortification, Klaus felt himself blush. There was nothing he could say, though, so he just waited.
"Well, since you're about to ... leave, Major ... And considering that I did get you the information you needed ..."
Something vaguely along the lines of, Flat surface. Fuck. Table. Shit, echoed through Klaus mind. His stomach clenched hard and his fists balled quite on their own accord. At the same time a strange heat spread outwards from his belly – mostly downwards, really.
"... would you be a dear and tell me to avoid Prague seven years ago?"
Klaus blinked. Then he nodded. Only I can't. I can't change anything this time. He disliked lying. It was a thoroughly white lie, though. It'll work out. They won't die. They hadn't in the "real" timeline, so everything would be all right.
"Thank you." Eroica took another small step closer. Suddenly they stood chest to chest. Then Klaus found his mouth claimed in a slow, leisurely kiss. His first impulse was to tear himself away and beat the rapist to pulp, but he found himself unable to move. He felt as if paralyzed; frozen by the touch of a man's lips to his. Lips soft yet firm; only skin, yet with a rich, full taste that was a miles-wide difference to the flavoured kisses from lip-sticked females he had kissed previously. Then, he was released, almost gently. "He is a lucky man, indeed," Eroica said, sounding wistful.
After having had his mouth violated Klaus saw clearly that he had two possible courses of action:
a) They were all alone. Nothing of what happened would ever be known to anyone else. In fact, it would never have happened, as soon as he left. If he was to beat Eroica to within an inch of the poof's life; step on that pretty face – there would be no repercussions. No reprimand, no suspension from NATO, no jail-time. Not even if he actually did go all the way and killed him.
b) They were all alone. Nothing of what happened would ever be known to anyone else. In fact, it would never have happened, as soon as he left. If he was to–
Dorian started to move away, so Klaus stopped him with hands on his biceps. He leaned closer, forcing himself to touch the other man's lips with his own, just briefly. It is payment, he told himself. Nothing more. He will be gone soon. Never having been. He could stop me. Instead he's letting me change things. What does it matter if I give him just this little thing? "It's you," he said as softly as he was capable of. "I have never had another man in my life." Which wasn't actually a lie. "It's always been you."
How the Brit's eyes sparkled! The man looked inhuman; like something out of a child's fairytale; ethereal and otherworldly.
Fingers traced over his cheek in the ghost of a caress. "I always had the devil's own luck. I thought it had abandoned me. Seems it only took a side track, eh? Go back then, my own, and put everything right again."
Pain like knives sliding along his muscles, starting at his feet and working their ways up. Each stroke was so hot that surely all wounds must be burned shut immediately, keeping him alive. When he screamed, his ears bled. He drowned in white. The colour changed. It didn't darken, yet turned itself inside out, becoming black. He fell through eternity.
'm sorry, A, was his last conscious thought.
He hadn't even tried to change his destination; though he had dutifully put the dials to the same dates as previously. So he wasn't at all surprised when he found himself back at the stall in the men's room at NATO headquarters. The pain was just as bad as last time - the headache, if physically possible, even worse. Hoping that history would indeed repeat itself and no one would enter the toilet right then who might chance to see his boots under the partition to the other stalls, he remained there for some time. Finally he forced himself to, on rather shaky legs, rise and make himself presentable. Now he had three sets of memories clamoring for attention as "what I just did". The earliest had weakened some though, rather than be reinforced by the second returning - not good at all, since those were the ones he wished to repeat. On the positive side his stomach had returned to its usual, flat self and his muscles actually obeyed him.
To step into their office felt like coming home - more so than ever. They were dead, he thought to himself and almost misstepped at the thought. He still went up to J. "You are working on the Polish situation report?"
He put his hands briefly on the other man's shoulder. "Good." You I'll never see again, regardless.
Soon enough he and B drove towards the Schloss.
"What a flashy car, though," said B.
"It's a Lamborghini," he repeated. Again the words echoed in his mind.
"Oh. That car is all the rage now."
"I loathe people who own them. Nothing but shallow, egoistical bastards." Though you did do good by me before.
The Schloss Eberbach. He half expected the butler to frown at him, as he had done the last time that they had met in the future, but he was greeted the same as always. Vaguely remembering to tell B to come along he marched to the Eberbach collection and flung open the door. At the other times - especially so the last time - it had nagged him how carefree the Earl stood there; not even bothering to turn around to see if the intruder posed a threat. This time the sight made him feel something that bordered on relief.
"Major?" B asked.
"Herr B. Gather the art on this list. I'm taking them to the embassy in London."
"I'm so dreadfully sorry," Eroica said, calling for Klaus's attention. "I didn't see you come in. I was much too taken in by this painting."
"By the way, I'm Earl Dorian Red Gloria."
"Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach," he replied. "I'm the head of a family related to the German branch of the Hapsburg." Though Father is alive now. Again. Still. I must remember to give him a phonecall when I get back. Or send a post card.
"I am so pleased to meet you, Klaus Heinz—"
Klaus never did like anyone using his full name – it reminded him too much of his father dressing him down for getting caught smoking in school. "Call me Major von dem Eberbach," he said and turned, pretending not to have seen the proffered hand. Something pinged in his head, a little note of pain somehow.
He had to work hard not to tense in advance as he waited for Dorian to reach around for his hand – and not to knock the other out cold when he did so. The Earl's bright smile startled him a little – had the Earl smiled like that the first time? He couldn't quite remember.
"Then I am very pleased to meet you, Major," Dorian replied, stressing the rank unduly.
Klaus shook off the unwanted touch and turned away.
"Oh, do forgive me," Dorian said. He sounded amused. "This collection must be among the best, even in Germany. It's most splendid."
Since he had now learned of Dorian's knowledge of art, he knew this to be high praise indeed. "It wasn't me who put it together," he said and then went over to B, to check the agent's progress.
"I'm enchanted by this painting in particular. I love this sort of thing. Is he related to you? I mean, he does resemble you. Major?"
"Not right now, I have to do this now," he replied over his shoulder.
"I'd like to have this painting."
"Come again?" Yeah? So much you will have utterly forgotten about it in fifteen years. Still a bit annoyed, he found it easy to inform the Earl that the Eberbach collection was considered a part of the cultural heritage of Germany and, so, he couldn't sell it.
"Yes, yes, but I'm completely enamoured with this painting. It's a splendid work of art."
Anticipating what would follow, he said dutifully, "It is valuable, yes."
"Oh, so you do understand its worth?"
I'm not a bloody simpleton either, you silly Brit. Since Dorian didn't look at him, he smiled a bit wider. "That painting alone is worth a Leopard Tank."
Oh, yes. Right up into falsetto. Wish I could have seen your face.
Dorian twirled. His eyes were wide. "I'm at loss for words. You would equate this beautiful work of art with an iron machine of war? It ... would appear that we have different sets of values."
You're not at loss for words, stupid – you just spoke them. "Naturally. I'm not a spoiled, hedonistic aristocrat who has both money and time to waste."
Dorian laughed. Klaus's stomach turned – that he definitely would have remembered from before. That can't change anything, though.
"You're such a soldier," Dorian said, sounding affectionate. "The very epitome of one. Really. It's summer and yet not a spot of perspiration stains your handsome uniform."
"Heat and cold is a matter of discipline." No, that wasn't what I said. Was it? "And incidentally, I would never wear something as insipid as a red, sleeveless shirt." He all but felt Dorian's eyes caress his body.
"I wouldn't expect you to, soldier. But I do like army uniforms in some ways. I find them manly and stoic. And they 'sheath' a certain 'passion' underneath."
Klaus's stomach turned a little, in preparation for what would come. Just a little bit longer, he reminded himself firmly.
"I find them a bit of a turn-on, frankly. Enough so that I'd want to strip off a good and proper uniform and get to what's underneath."
Their eyes met. Klaus felt trapped. Dorian's eyes had been smouldering like that just before he had kissed him. "I ... have no intention of ... letting you strip off my uniform."
Dorian winked at him. "Relax, soldier. Who said I was talking about you?"
The way you stare at my crotch is making it kind of obvious, you pervert! At least you didn't call me "thin" this time ... He had never really quite gotten that comment, if it hadn't just been a not too well thought out insult designed to annoy him. "Where your preferences run—" This isn't really a fitting comeback any longer ... "—is none of my business, but ... I hate what I hate." Though "hate" is too strong a word now.
"Well, and I like what I like. And what I like, I always make mine." Dorian looked at him for a moment longer, then turned his gaze slowly towards Tyrian. "I like this painting. A lot."
Klaus took a deep breath to get ready for one last effort. "Enough is enough. Everything here is mine. I wouldn't sell it to you, no matter how many marks you might flash at me."
"That might be so, but I have a little policy. Whatever I want, I get. And at a bargain, too. This painting is worthless to you. Why not buy a tank instead?"
Thrown off track by the suggestion, Klaus stared at the limey. "I ... find you loathsome even to look at," he said. "Get out."
"I'm sure you do, soldier boy – sorry, Major," Dorian said, giving him a jaunty smile. "Good day."
To slam the door felt very satisfying. "That idiot!" Klaus growled.
"Major – he's leaving," B reported moments later.
"Good. Open the windows. Get some fresh air in here. I feel sick." Which he actually did. Well, it didn't go too badly, he assured himself and walked over to The Man In Purple, carefully lifting it down.
"Ah ... Major?"
"I know it's not on the list. We're taking it to London, too. The degenerate might come around when I'm gone."
"Do you ... know him?" B asked, sounding very confused.
"No! Why would I know such a man? Why do you ask?" You didn't ask last time, damnit!
"Well, I ... I ..."
"Well, I just thought since, since you-you ... you smiled, sir."
"Y-you sm-sm-smiled at-at-at hi-hi-him. Sir. When you were talking. Sir. You smiled at him almost the entire time."
Oh fuck ...
The hours until he returned were tortuous in themselves, as he dreaded whatever future he would find. Then followed the actual torture of the trip. Heat, this time, like lava burning through his body, inch by inch until he should have been nothing but ashes. If he hadn't been cut off from his body he might have sobbed like a baby.
He moved before he should have, unable to help himself. Only his hands, though, and only a distance of a few centimetres. The effort made his arm muscles ache so fiercely he suspected that he really had been on fire and was now a mere husk of crisp skin. The nausea that followed forced him to continue to move, though – to let his head fall sideways so that he could vomit without the nasty dregs either splattering all over his chest or asphyxiating him going back down. His throat burned. Involuntary tears welled up in his eyes. To have moved was worth it though – worth all the pain and more besides.
No matter what would happen/had happened/was happening, at least he wasn't a fatso this time around.
Having made certain of this – he really didn't think he would have the strength to go through that again - he let himself rest for several minutes. The traces of half-melted food in his mouth and on his lips – not to mention the sharp, acid stench – disgusted him, but he felt utterly wiped out in a way he hadn't been since ... had never been, really, without the external push of some sedative.
Fuck! I never want to do that again. Ever!
Though while he was temporarily incapacitated, he could still think, albeit somewhat sluggishly with the multiple memories lining up, clamouring for his attention like a herd of untrained puppies. Shut the fuck up! With a violent effort he subdued them, refusing himself to access the streams that bubbled near the surface of his consciousness. That 'humans only use ten percent of their brain'-shit? Hope to fuck it's true. Think 'm fillin' up. The headache felt worse than the one caused by a bullet grazing his head that time in Norway.
Who am I? he demanded.
Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. Also known as Iron Klaus, came the prompt answer. A faint voice protested, but he recognized it as the middle timeline – the failed one.
Where do I work?
NATO. Subdivision Bonn. The Alphabet Squad.
Thank you! He wasn't quite sure if he had a God to thank, but to give thanks he must. State of Germany? Since he asked himself he felt no need to elaborate further.
After a moment's hesitation, during which he held his breath, the answer came, As the first time. Meaning no J. S and T had also died, some nine years ago. A and C had retired, while Z had finally gotten his promotion. They had all been replaced, of course.
Eroica breezed through as he should, that silly show-off.
The fop kidnapped him. Twit.
He closed his eyes in relief. Despite the misgivings of how the meeting had diverged from the first time around – it had worked. He had done it. The world was back to normal. For the first time he looked around. Dimly the details resolved themselves to a rather nondescript room. Tastefully decorated, but anonymous. A hotel room. He recognized it, vaguely.
Paris. For the conference.
As it should be. He moved again. Perhaps due to the relief or perhaps since he had stayed still for a while, his muscles no longer screamed in protest, but obeyed him grudgingly. He stood shakily and hobbled over to the bathroom, where he washed his face and mouth. Back in the main room he fell into bed. With waning strength he grasped the alarm clock on the nightstand and set it for two hours later, so he would have time to get ready. Then he closed his eyes.
"Major von dem Eberbach? You keep looking over your shoulder. Are you waiting for someone?"
"Sorry, Colonel Smith. Ah ... Yes. In a manner of speaking. An associate of mine. He always seek me out at times like this and ... play a little practical joke on me. I try to stay on my toes; watch my ... back. Go on. What did your pilot do then?"
The story was really interesting and the multi-layered plan that the small group had managed to pull off despite their limited resources impressed Klaus. He glanced behind himself now and then, but the Colonel didn't mention it again.
No pinch came. You saw me looking around, didn't you, poof? You know I won't be so easy to creep up on this time.
At the end of the story, the Colonel excused himself for a moment. Klaus stayed. The area was fairly open, so he should see Eroica approach. He looked around again, trying to spot the man who would stand out as a cat in a kennel.
"Is something wrong, sir?" he heard Z's calm voice to his right. When he turned to face the other man, Z gave him a deferential head nod.
The memory of Z clutching his shirt as the younger agent's blood spread in a pool around them and how the bright blue eyes had glazed over in the end, tore at Klaus's mind. "Eroica, Hauptmann Birchwast. Isn't it always?" he said and lifted his eyebrows.
Z frowned. "Ah ... I do believe it's Bach, sir. Or something by Händel."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm fairly sure it isn't Eroica, sir. The Eroica symphony is mightier than this."
Music played. Very very softly. Either an orchestra far away or – far more likely – a sound system.
"I didn't mean the fucking music. He's here, with the British delegation. Sent by the Queen of bloody England. He's going to embarrass me, so I want to keep an eye on him."
Z's frown deepened. "Him, sir?"
"Eroica! That fucking Earl of Red Gloria!"
Z nodded. "Yes, yes, I do know him. But, ah ... Major? Come, follow me, sir." He began to walk towards the end of the hall, still half turned towards Klaus.
Klaus followed. "What is it, Hauptmann Birchwast? Have you seen someone suspicious?"
"Ah ... No, sir. Are ... you feeling all right?"
"Why do you ask?"
Z stopped just outside the doors. He turned fully towards Klaus and looked ... concerned? "I believe you are either ill or drugged, sir. February!"
"Yes, sir?" a tall, red-haired young man answered promptly at Z's elbow.
"Find a medic."
"Yes, sir," February replied and was gone.
"Ill or drugged? What are you talking about, Hauptmann Birchwast? I'm perfectly fine!"
Z shook his head. "Perhaps you can't feel it, but something is wrong with you, sir. You're disoriented."
Well, after all that bloody time travelling, who the hell wouldn't be? "How can you tell?" Klaus asked suspiciously. If going back and forth in time like a yoyo has fucking done something to my mind, I'll—
"Because you keep talking about Eroica, sir."
"So what of it? I just don't want him to surprise me again! I hate it when he does that."
"But sir ..." Z shook his head. Now he really looked worried. "Eroica died seven years ago, sir. In Prague."
Klaus sat silent in the chair as the medic went over him. He stared blankly ahead as he finally allowed his mind to feed him the information of what had happened during the last fifteen years, starting with the meeting at the Schloss.
Eroica had somehow drawn the conclusion that Klaus was a somewhat repressed homosexual, and had interpreted Klaus's mess at trying to put things right as a rather failed attempt at flirting. While charmed, he had perceived Klaus to be a too easy a conquest – and too risky as well, considering Klaus's line of work. Still, fate had thrown them together repeatedly – London, the Michelangelo, Greece, North Downs and so on. Since the fop hadn't made every possible move to seduce him – had in fact kindly, but firmly informed Klaus that he wasn't very interested - his leaning hadn't bothered Klaus much. Then Klaus had, on the Chief's orders and since he knew of Eroica's skills, called for the man's help in getting into the Vatican. He hadn't been sure if the master thief would be cooperative. After all, there was little in it for him, even with what NATO offered to pay. But Eroica had come through for him, even considering the hen-brained popenapping.
At some point, over the years, they had become friends. Not best buddies or anything, but enough so that Klaus would trust the other to stand at his side and come when called. For eight years they had worked well together. And then. Prague. Klaus had considered asking Dorian to help recover a lost map. Only the lost map lead to a lost treasure which he knew oh too well that Dorian would want, a mirror allegedly belonging to Alexander the Great. He hadn't wanted to tempt Dorian needlessly. Besides, he had also heard from Bonham through G that Dorian had plans of his own. And it wasn't as if the map retrieval really needed a top thief, merely some muscles and the right words in the right ears. So, he and his men had gone by themselves. He had never seen the Earl again.
"Major?" Z asked. He had hovered behind the doctor the entire time.
"Is the 'bet outside?"
Klaus got up, forcibly moving the doctor when the small man got in his way. "Good. Hauptmann Birchwast, do you trust me?"
Z studied him for a moment, then nodded. "To the death, sir."
He stepped close enough to pat Z's shoulder once. "You're a good boy. I always said so."
"Major – I really do think you should sit down again."
"I know what the problem is," he said instead, annoyed with the fussing. "I can fix it. Trust me, if you do as you say you do. Get the rest in here. We have a new mission." Or a last one, perhaps.
"Can I help you, Major?"
"Get me a plane. We're going to Denmark."
The 'bet, unlike Dorian, did obediently search for NATO documents when he told them to. Not bothering to set the dials this time, he pushed the start button.
While he now was fairly prepared for the pain and confusion of the time travel, the asphyxiation still drove him beyond madness, into the strange realm of utter clarity he had felt only once before. In that brief moment he saw a colour which transcended all others. Then all his sensations warped - his fingers no longer sat at the end of his hands, but moved like snakes under his skin. His blood tasted like foreign sunsets. Each flare of pain came with an equal flare of meaning – searing or oblique. Time beat in rhythm to his heart.
He had spent both trips – from Paris to Denmark and then from Bonn to Eberbach concentrating on one thing only; that first, fateful meeting; what he had said and how he had said it; what he had done - to get it absolutely, completely, utterly right. There would be no fourth time. Neither his mind nor his body would stand the strain. Perhaps that was why the other pilot had died? Rather than an error made, perhaps it had been his mind that had not been able to withstand so many trips?
What he hadn't prepared for was the flood of emotions that welled up inside him at the sight of Dorian. He wanted to go over there and take him into his arms and ... yes, damnit, kiss him! Worship him like the Sun God avatar obviously expected to be worshipped; lose himself in him completely. Instead he did his very best to act disgusted. He didn't doubt that the hurtful words ran off the self-secure Earl of Red Gloria like water off a duck, but they burned Klaus's mouth when he spoke them. There was no pinging note, though, so he could only hope he had done well.
On the last trip, he died. Then he was nothing and a sudden peace spread across the world. To wake up hurt beyond anything he had ever imagined.
"You seem a little tense, Major von dem Eberbach. Is something wrong?"
"No, Colonel Smith. I'm just—" Then he yelped and twirled – to look into Dorian's large, blue eyes. Mentally he breathed out a huge sigh of relief. There you are! His mind had assured him that everything was all right this time – everything really was as it should be, every little detail - but he had been unable not to worry. Only now, when he saw the mane of silly curls; that outrageous red costume and those green earrings, was he able to relax, finally. "There you are," he said.
Dorian, looking frantic, pointed to behind Klaus. "It wasn't me, Major! It was him!"
You silly fop, Klaus thought affectionately. Then he took two unhurried steps closer to the Earl of Red Gloria and put his arms around him. "I was waiting for you," he said.
When he got no reply, he pulled away a bit. The Earl just stared back at him. After several seconds, Dorian blinked. I think I broke him, Klaus thought. So he leaned closer again and hesitantly brought their mouths together. His life-saving technique must be up to par, for mere moments later the body pressed against his came alive and Klaus was once more kissed by the Prince of Thieves – out to steal his breath, apparently, or possibly his heart.
He heard raised voices around them, but decided that they could all go fuck themselves. Twice NATO had thrown him out – if it even hinted at Lucky Three he would go regardless. However, he was not ready to give them a show. When Dorian's hands began to map his body he caught them. Dorian twined their fingers together, then pulled back. "Now, Major? I follow you for fifteen years and now, out of the blue, in the middle of a military gathering, now you kiss me?"
He shrugged. "The time seemed right." To prevent further talking, he leaned closer and resumed their kissing. Then strong fingers once more availed themselves to a small portion of his behind. He flinched hard. "Damn it!" he growled into Eroica's ear. "Stop pinching me!"
"Ah ... Darling?" Dorian said softly.
"What?" He already felt his anger melt away. To be angry with the silly fop for long was impossible after having lost him so recently.
Dorian squeezed his hands. Both his hands. With both of his own.
Startled, Klaus looked up. Over Dorian's shoulder he saw a grinning Colonel Smith, cigar in mouth, turn away.