May - August 2001 (October 2001)

Disclaimer: They aren't mine, except for the ones that are mine. My deepest gratitude to elynross, ari, and C. All errors are mine. Do not archive this story without permission.

And a thousand more

Klaus lit another cigarette. He put the lighter back in his pocket and blew a thin plume of smoke over the balcony rail; it dissolved into the air of the night-dark garden. Party sounds trickled out through the French doors: voices, laughter, a scattering of soft notes from a piano, the sudden loud pop of a champagne cork that he would not, this time, mistake for a gunshot. The garden was, by contrast, almost completely quiet, with only a faint rustle of leaves, as though from an evening breeze coming in off the sea.

He tracked that faint rustle through the shrubbery and across the brief stretch of lawn, over the flowerbed, up the drainpipe, until a black-clad figure dropped down on the other end of the balcony, much too close to pretend to be an evening breeze any longer. "You must have seen the glow from my cigarette," Klaus said. "Even you aren't stupid enough to miss that."

"No," Eroica agreed cheerfully, tugging the hood off his catsuit. In the dark, his hair looked blueish-grey, like a spill of thick smoke. "You looked terribly lonely, standing here all on your own. I thought perhaps you could use some company."

"No." Klaus flicked ashes into the flowerpot at his feet that had served him as an ashtray since he came out onto the balcony.

"Not enjoying the party, Major?" Klaus didn't dignify that with a reply, and after a moment, Eroica went on, "Or did the hostess ask you to wait outside before you could threaten to slaughter any more hapless champagne bottles? Really, I had no idea you were so violently opposed to Moët et Chandon."

"I am not here to drink," Klaus said curtly. Champagne, in his opinion, had no place at a summit meeting, regardless of quality. "I am here to make sure that nothing disturbs the treaty signing tomorrow, and that you do not steal the Contessa's brooch. I understand that it is famous." She had certainly told them so, repeatedly.

"Please." Eroica sniffed. "The Star of Diana is vulgar, loud, ostentatious, and grossly overvalued. Give me credit for some taste." He leaned against the balcony rail with one hip, idly twirling the detached hood in his fingers.

"You are vulgar, loud, and ostentatious," Klaus said, though the words seemed a little inappropriate with Eroica all in plain black. "It should be just your kind of thing."

There was no acknowledged insult in Eroica's eyes or in his smile. "I have developed a taste for functionalism," he said. "There is nothing as beautiful as something perfectly suited to its purpose. Surely you must know that, major, with your love for guns. Isn't there something beautiful about the way the grip fits your hand and the bullet finds the target?" Klaus almost nodded, though beautiful was not a word he would have chosen to describe it. "You're beautiful that way — as beautiful in action as you are in—"

A shrill scream cut the words off. Klaus let out the breath he would have used to tell Eroica to shut up, turned, and strode back inside. He recognized the voice; the Contessa had screamed just that way when he'd aimed his gun at the champagne bottle, and when one of the junior diplomatic aides had trodden on a rare flower in her garden, and when the toast had been slightly too dark at breakfast. Perhaps she did it from pure peevishness. The Contessa hadn't been entirely happy to be chosen as hostess for a meeting such as this, but despite her flawless current credentials, she had a slightly shady past, and was hence persuadable.

Now she stood by the far wall, flanked by two ordinary-looking men who commanded the military powers of two rather large and unstable nations, staring down into a plain wooden box. She looked up and caught sight of Klaus, and ignored everyone else in the room to cry out to him, "It is gone! The masterpiece of its era! The Star of Diana, it is gone!"

The Contessa held the box out. It wasn't empty. On the thick blue velvet where the brooch should have nestled lay a card: From Eroica With Love.

Klaus felt a vein in his temple start to pound. He took the box out of the Contessa's hands and slammed it down on the nearest table. Looking around the room, he caught the eyes of the three men present who were not either diplomats or aristocratic flotsam invited for extra camouflage. Words were unnecessary. Z had already begun to herd people out of the room while simultaneously calling for reinforcements. He had a little trouble with the men whom NATO's security briefing had designated Alpha and Omega, and whom Klaus had been referring privately to as Arsch and Oberarsch ever since meeting them. They both seemed to feel they were too important to be sent to their rooms, and their respective aides were adding their vocal support. A was going out to secure the house; G, in a peach silk outfit that drove Klaus' blood pressure up every time he looked at it, was giving orders to secure the perimeter of the estate.

Turning abruptly on his heel, Klaus went back onto the balcony again, strode up to Eroica, put him in a headlock, and pressed a gun to his temple. It was quite a satisfying thing to do, even though it meant having to deal with rather a lot of hair falling forward over his hand, tickling him. He began to drag the thief with him into the house, except that dragging wasn't really necessary; Eroica followed him as though this were an uncomfortable dance step they had rehearsed beforehand. "You thieving pervert," Klaus snarled, "you have no self-control."

The sound Eroica made was suspiciously close to a chuckle. "I have no self-control? My dearest major—" Klaus tightened his arm, and the words cut off in a gasp that still managed to convey amusement. He marched Eroica over to the table and practically shoved his face into the empty box, and was pleased to feel all traces of laughter leave the man's body.

"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"

Eroica's reply was quiet but heartfelt. "Bloody hell." He held still for a moment, then wriggled, digging his chin into Klaus' arm. "Major, please get your gun out of my face and let me breathe. You do realize that I can't have stolen the brooch. I was out on the balcony talking to you. You are my alibi."

"You could have done it earlier," Klaus said. The Contessa had worn her brooch last night, and then locked it away under B's supervision, while chattering to her most powerful guests, at three in the morning. The theft could have happened at any time since then.

"But if you like holding me, by all means, continue," Eroica went on. Klaus jerked his arm away. He glared at Eroica, who smiled blithely back, but there was an edge of steel to the smile. "Someone is trying to frame me. As if I would steal anything so tacky! This is an insult."

Klaus looked pointedly at the catsuit and tapped the barrel of his gun against the toolbelt he'd noticed while Eroica was pressed up against him. There was only one thing that could make Eroica forgo his usual fripperies for an outfit as plain as this one. "Then what were you planning to steal?"

Eroica opened his mouth and closed it again when Klaus waved the gun in his face. "Major, you did ask—"

"You were going to say something disgusting and perverted." Klaus had learned over the years to read the tilt of Eroica's eyebrows and the curve of his mouth; he knew when something outrageous was coming and could often shout loud enough to drown it out. It was a valuable skill that had helped to preserve his sanity on many occasions. "You should concentrate on important matters. Could anyone else have entered the estate the way you came in?"

"No." Eroica shook his head decisively. "Not without being spotted either by your men, or by my crew."

Klaus nodded. He jerked his head towards the wall-safe. "How difficult would it be to break into that?"

Walking over to examine the safe, Eroica was silent for a few minutes, and Klaus used the time to make certain that Z had managed to clear the room. All the party guests were gone; it was probably too much to hope for that they were in their rooms, but at least they were out of the way, and the large room was almost empty, glasses abandoned on tables, the piano still open, with a sheet of music waiting to be played.

Z stood by the door, politely telling the Contessa that she could not come back in just yet. She hissed out a surprisingly rude word, and Klaus spared a moment to be grateful that Z did not take offense easily. He listened to G, instead, and pieced together from his brief comments what the perimeter team was saying. Not much, it seemed.

"Very few people could do it fast," Eroica said behind him. "Quite a lot of people could do it with unlimited time at their disposal, but this room has been occupied for most of the day, hasn't it?"

"Yes. And no one has left the estate. Unless—"

"I doubt it, but I'll check." Eroica stepped away to the other side of the room, tapping at something around his wrist that Klaus had taken for stealth jewelery. It seemed that Eroica had succumbed to the lure of gadgets. Klaus hoped he would not become as much of a nuisance about it as that blithering idiot Lawrence. The last thing he needed was Eroica playing at being James Bond.

While Eroica spoke rather tersely to his men, Klaus stared at the empty box that had held the Star of Diana, its velvet still showing a star-shaped imprint. This was a political summit meeting on a level of top international security. An attack on one of the leaders present could cause a war; Arsch and Oberarsch were both valued by their countries, though Klaus would have sent them both to Alaska given half a chance. Instead, someone had apparently broken into the house to steal an ugly, useless piece of jewellery.

"And why put the blame on you?" Klaus asked out loud. He'd accepted that Eroica wasn't behind the theft; the thief did not exhibit any of his usual post-coup smugness.

Eroica tilted his head to one side, letting his hair fall across his shoulder. It appeared to be a studied pose. Klaus resisted the urge to shake him out of it. "Because you're here, I expect," he said. "Everyone knows we go together like fish and chips, like Fortnum and Mason, like love and marr—"


"I only meant to say," and how someone like Eroica could look so innocent was beyond Klaus' comprehension, "that if anyone wanted a scapegoat—" The innocent look was replaced by a thoughtful one, much less affected. "Why would anyone want a scapegoat?"

"That's what I was asking," Klaus pointed out in a half-growl.

"Deliberate misdirection." Eroica took out a colorful hairtie from an invisible pocket and pulled his curls back in an unaccustomed, almost businesslike ponytail. It made him look a little less foppish, but also showed that he wore rose-shaped earrings. "The question is why."

"The brooch is valuable." The security briefing had not given much time to the Star of Diana, but the rough estimate of its worth had been outrageously high for what looked like a lopsided starfish with jewels thrown on it at random intervals. Klaus couldn't imagine anyone wanting to own it, much less wear it, but the Contessa had flaunted it at every opportunity.

"Very much so. Also infinitely easier to steal when the estate isn't crawling with diplomats, military guards, and NATO agents." Eroica eyed the safe again. "Not everyone enjoys a challenge quite as much as I do."

Klaus was still choosing between all the possible answers to that when there was a commotion at the door. Not the Contessa this time — men's voices. He stalked over and glared across Z's shoulder at Oberarsch's aide, a weedy-looking man with no chin. "What?"

The aide puffed his chest out. "We demand that this meeting be moved immediately! This location is clearly not secure!"

A moment later, Arsch's aide joined them, pushing his round glasses higher on his nose. "Security has been compromised! We request instant relocation!"

The two aides glared suspiciously at each other. Behind them, the Contessa reappeared and burst into full cry again as soon as she caught sight of Klaus. "The Star of Diana! A masterpiece! My most precious possession, gone!" She stared imploringly up at him.

"It was insured, wasn't it?" Klaus said, with what he thought was commendable mildness. He looked at the aides, each in turn, until they shuffled half a step backwards. "No one leaves this house until I get to the bottom of this. Either go away, or shut up."

He turned back into the room, leaving Z to deal with the raised voices; it would toughen him up. Eroica was kneeling by the safe again, looking at things, touching with long fingers. Klaus considered yelling about fingerprints, but he very much doubted that whoever pulled off this theft had left any clue behind that would contradict the planted card. Eroica could fondle the safe to his heart's content; the man made even the touch of fingertips to metal look faintly obscene, suggestive.

Walking over to the French doors, Klaus looked into the garden and saw his men at work, a much less disturbing sight. They had turned on all the outdoor lights, and the sweeping beams from their heavy flashlights sent stripes of illumination over the flowerbeds, sometimes gleaming white off a marble statue. At least they were doing what they should. He suspected that around the perimeter, his team's efforts were being supplemented by Eroica's men, but he wasn't going to ask; as long as no one told him, he could pretend he didn't know.

"Major," Eroica said behind him. Klaus turned around. Eroica was sitting back on his heels, still looking at the safe rather than Klaus. "This has to be an inside job."

Klaus nodded. That much seemed obvious. He didn't relish the prospect of searching the estate and the people on it, particularly not with Arsch and Oberarsch and their aides dogging his every step, demanding relocation for security reasons, and the Contessa hanging on his arm, wailing about her lost heirloom. Still—

"Since the brooch is still here, I will find it."

"It could be anywhere." Eroica got up off the floor. He wore heeled boots, Klaus noticed with some distaste. At least they were just plain black. "I'll help you."

"Help yourself, more likely."

Eroica smiled unexpectedly, a bright, happy smile that made Klaus' jaw clench. "Don't worry, major. I told you, the Star of Diana doesn't appeal to me at all." He kept watching Klaus, and his smile deepened into an expression that Klaus did not care to think about too closely. "And I'm always glad to work with you."

Another scuffle at the door, and Klaus turned to drive the politicians and diplomats away, only to find that it was A and G returning to report, bringing B along. No one had left the house; no one had left the estate. No one had been seen to enter the estate, either. Which was, as Klaus knew, entirely misleading.

G caught sight of Eroica, and his face lit up, but he kept on with his report; for his part, Klaus listened to G and not to Eroica, who had turned away again and was talking just quietly enough to be ignored. If Eroica's men had information that contradicted A's and G's, no doubt he would hear about it. When G had said what he had to say, which wasn't much, Klaus dismissed him with a nod, and he immediately went to talk to that damn thief.

"B," Klaus said, and B snapped to attention. "Communications?"

"Nothing on any monitored radio frequency," B said.

Klaus snorted, and B nodded cautious agreement. That did not mean anything. There was a click: Z closing the door, with himself on the outside. At least Z had some backbone. The sound of the Contessa's lamentations grew muffled enough that Klaus could hear G say something about spring fashions, and Eroica's knowing chuckle. He scowled. "Phone?"

"R is taking care of it," B said. "He should be here any moment."

To get away from the fashion tips, Klaus walked down to the other end of the room and turned to survey it. Champagne still bubbled in rows of delicate crystal, and more bottles waited in buckets of melting ice. The safe yawned wide open. Someone in the house had taken the Star of Diana. He imagined for a moment Arsch or Oberarsch wearing the brooch, preening the way the Contessa had preened. Eroica chose that moment to laugh out loud, as though he had seen the picture in Klaus' mind. He patted G's shoulder and wandered over to Klaus, snagging two glasses of champagne on the way.

"Isn't this fun? It's like a locked-room mystery." Klaus scowled at him in disbelief. The long, filmy curtains by the open doors fluttered a little in the night breeze. Eroica tried to hand him one of the glasses, and Klaus refused it with a curt shake of the head. "Well, locked-estate mystery, then." Eroica drank some champagne and went on, "I can't believe anyone at this terribly serious gathering would even know enough to try to frame me, actually. Don't people have to pass background checks to be allowed to a party like this?"

Klaus looked at the closed door. He could still hear raised voices through it, the Contessa's piercing soprano carrying over the men's darker grumbles. He supposed Z was too polite to tell her to shut up. "Yes," he said.

The door opened, and R came in, closing it quickly behind himself. Klaus went to meet him, trailed by Eroica, who had finished the first glass of champagne and started on the second one. R turned to Klaus, looking a little apprehensive. "There's been one outgoing call, major," he said, "to this number. It goes to—"

"An insurance agent," Klaus said, brushing aside the note R held out to him. He went past R, flung the door open, and stared down into the Contessa's face. She broke off in mid-lament, and Klaus took her arm and dragged her into the room and kicked the door shut, not particularly caring if Oberarsch's tenacious aide got his fingers clear in time.

"My God," Eroica said behind him, in a tone of revelation. Klaus ignored him. He hauled the Contessa into an empty corner and boxed her in with one arm against the wall.

"What is this?" she said, chin up, but her voice quavered. "Major Eberbach—"

Klaus stared down at her. "You have one chance. Pretend that you found it again. I am not going to let this meeting be ruined by your stupid insurance scam."

The Contessa looked up at him and seemed about to lie, so he leaned closer, steeling himself against her sweet, heavy scent. Even in heels, she barely came up to his shoulder. She blinked, and her mouth grew uncertain. "I— But I said it was stolen. And there's the card."

"You can say that I gave it back," a cool voice said over Klaus' shoulder. "Really, Lise. Married up a bit, didn't you? Changed your name and everything."

The Contessa squeaked and turned a shade paler. Klaus straightened up a little and half-glared at Eroica, who had come up behind him and now leaned against the other wall, shutting the Contessa in completely. She looked more frightened of him than of Klaus. "I have no money," she faltered.

"You always were a spendthrift." Eroica looked very casual, supporting himself against the wall with one elbow in a way that somehow looked very different from how Klaus was doing the exact same thing. "Not a very clever scheme, this, I must say."

"A house like this, it costs a lot to keep up, and since my husband died...." The Contessa made a little gesture of resignation.

"You could have been paid by NATO," Klaus pointed out. "You still can be, if this matter is settled quickly, discreetly, and quietly." Eroica chuckled. Klaus decided that he didn't want to know why. The suggestion of the brooch having been returned again was not useful to him; it still left them with compromised security. "Did anyone else actually see the card, or did you only show it to me?"

The Contessa's carefully lipsticked lower lip quivered on the verge of a pout. Then she caught Klaus' eyes. "Only to you," she said quickly. "I don't think they saw into the empty box." She looked down. "I'm sorry," she said, and when she looked up again, Klaus realized that she was apologizing to Eroica, not to him. "But when I heard that Major Eberbach was in charge of security — everyone knows about the two of you, and I thought—"

Klaus hit his fist against the wall just above the Contessa's head, and she jumped. "Everyone knows what about the two of us?"

"That we're meant for each other?" Eroica suggested. Before Klaus could take issue with this, Eroica went on in his previous cool tone, "Lise, do what the major tells you, and I will forget this ever happened. But you'd better take care that it doesn't happen again."

That voice seemed to be effective. The Contessa plastered herself against Klaus. Klaus took a step backwards, bristling at Eroica for somehow putting him in this position, and at the Contessa for being afraid of a useless fop. When he looked over the top of her head, Eroica met his stare with a look that was half amused, half deprecating, shrugged, and winked. Klaus looked away at once and grabbed the Contessa by the arm. Keeping her at arm's length, he dragged her over to the open safe. "Do you have the brooch on you?"

"Yes." She started to extract it from her cleavage, and Klaus stared at the safe until she was done. "Here it is."

The Contessa pressed the brooch into his hand. It was warm from being next to her skin, and the tips were sharp, so it must have been uncomfortable. Klaus handed it back at once. "It's no use giving it to me," he snapped. He bent and took out a jewellery box from the safe that was roughly the same shape and size as the one the brooch had been in, and had the same blue velvet inside. It was empty, and the mark left behind hinted at a rope of pearls. Probably she'd been selling off her jewels, then. "You found it in this one," he said, holding it out to her. "You had put it back in the wrong place."

"I'm going to look so stupid!" the Contessa wailed.

"Yes," Klaus said, with some satisfaction. "Now do it." He got a good grip on her elbow and steered her towards the door. A, B, G, and R were watching with almost identical pole-axed expressions on their faces, though G looked a little more distressed than the others. Klaus pulled the door open and pushed the Contessa through it. Arsch, Oberarsch, and their aides were still arguing with Z, who seemed ever so slightly harried.

Klaus squeezed the Contessa's elbow harder to keep the slithery fabric of her dress from moving under his fingers, and she took half a step backwards and planted her heel on his toes. Then she smiled brightly at her guests and said, "It's the stupidest mistake! Look, here it is, the Star of Diana! I had put it in the wrong box!"

Oberarsch's aide paused in his demands for relocation. "Really?"

Some people always needed the obvious pointed out to them. "There has been no breach of security. The treaty signing will progress as planned." Klaus lifted the Contessa by both arms and put her down well away from his feet. She was heavier than she'd probably like for people to think, and her hair, when it brushed his hand, was stiff with hairspray. "Z, inform the other guests."

Z nodded. He looked a little thoughtful, but didn't question what he was told, not in front of Arsch and Oberarsch. The Contessa prattled on cheerfully about how silly she had been and how sorry she was that everyone had been put to so much trouble. She wasn't a bad actress. Klaus wiggled his toes, decided nothing was broken, and turned back into the room to dismiss his men. G and A were already taking steps to call off the search for an intruder, and he nodded at them to carry on. "B, R, go to assist Z."

"Yes, Major," B said, picking up the empty champagne glass Eroica had drunk from and putting it away unobtrusively.

The thin white curtains still fluttered by the open French doors. Eroica was conspicuously absent from the room. Klaus went out onto the balcony and looked down into the garden again, dark and quiet now as it had been before. He lit a cigarette against the lingering traces of the Contessa's perfume, and once again blew a thin plume of smoke over the balcony rail. Then he turned his head and looked towards the other end of the balcony. "Well?"

"Well, what?" Eroica was sitting on the balcony rail, dangling one leg, but he got to his feet as Klaus walked over to him. Only his face and hands were clearly visible, his black-clad body just a suggested shape in the dark.

Klaus blew his next breath of cigarette smoke into Eroica's face. He kept his voice low; if anyone other than a member of his team came out onto the balcony, it would be clear that there had, in fact, been a breach in security. "You came here to steal something. Don't you fucking say that it was my heart."

"Oh, no, major. That's a long-term project." Eroica smiled wickedly. "All I'm after is this." He took half a step closer and pressed his lips to Klaus'.

Klaus dropped his cigarette. Eroica's mouth was warm, and his tongue tasted of champagne. After a moment, he became aware of Eroica's fingertips against his jaw, subtly angling his head to one side. After another moment, he became aware that Eroica was kissing him.

Kissing. Him.

Klaus grasped Eroica's shoulders and thrust him away. He drew a deep breath, and then he heard the clink of glasses and some stray notes from the piano, and knew that if he raised his voice now, everyone inside was jittery enough to come running out onto the balcony. "I'd like to break your neck," he hissed.

"And just when we were getting along so well," Eroica said, melting out of Klaus' grip like a shadow. "Next time, try to curb those homicidal urges." He was off the balcony, down the wall, and on the ground, and Klaus stood where he was as that quiet little not-a-breeze rustled its way across the garden. He knew that Eroica could move through the grounds without making a sound, and he knew that Eroica knew that he knew.

When he heard no more sounds, nor made out any moving shadow, Klaus turned away. His fallen cigarette lay on the balcony floor, still smoldering, and he stepped on it as he walked inside. Arsch was talking to the Contessa, Oberarsch was talking to a group of Klaus' agents, who did not look nearly as bored as he suspected they were, and the aides had made it up and were attempting to play a Joplin tune together.

Klaus walked over to the sideboard and took a glass of champagne, ignoring the surprised look he got from Z. He drank half the glass down in one gulp, trying to wash the taste out of his mouth. Goddamn pervert. Fucking idiot. He wasn't going to think any more about this. It didn't happen. Klaus glared at the open French doors and finished the glass.

But the champagne only reminded him of Eroica, and the taste lingered.

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