(Quick note: if you jumped directly here from another site, here are a picture of the guys and a little bit of background for the story.)
HE TRAVELS FASTEST
It was a fleabag. Or, actually, it had been a fleabag, while it lasted. Once the mission was over, once the fake information was safely behind the Iron Curtain and the other side believed Gary Colt had died giving it up, the Department had quickly and unceremoniously booted Kelly and Scotty out of their nice digs (with a balcony, yet!) and right into a tiny local fleabag. For vacation, they said. Give Mr. Scott time to recuperate, they said. But not on the company payroll, they said. So Scotty had prepared himself to nurse his gunshot shoulder back to some kind of health in a little rented room fifteen feet square with two sagging beds and an old-fashioned cracked enamel washstand.
However. As he had already demonstrated was his habit, General Colt had come riding to the rescue. He had borrowed a swanky villa outside of town, the better to feast his beloved son--not to mention that Gary had a little bit of recuperating to do himself, what with the torture he'd gone through for the sake of realism. And when Gary found out that Scotty and Kelly would be shacking up in a fleabag, Gary told the general, and he sent a car over with instructions to get packed and get in. And so they were off for a week in the Italian countryside.
Scotty turned to watch the little place dwindle and disappear through the back window of the car, keeping his left arm as still as possible in its sling. "Arrivederci, Signor fleabag." Don't call us, he thought, we'll call you.
Kelly was absently patting and gripping all of his pockets, one after the other. "Haven't I told you that it's not nice to whisper sweet nothings in dead languages?"
"They're in your gym bag," Scotty said.
Kelly stopped all the patting and gripping. "What?"
"Your sunglasses." Scotty slipped his own sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and put them on. "They're in your gym bag, inside your left tennis shoe."
"What would my sunglasses be doing inside my left tennis shoe?"
Scotty shrugged. "The right shoe has a broken lace."
Kelly squinted against the noonday sun all the way to the villa.
The car decanted them and their belongings onto some enormous marble front steps surrounded by lush flowerbeds, classical Roman architecture puffed up and frosted with modern extravagance. As the car lumbered away, the villa's front door opened to reveal Gary, his face lighting up in a proud smile as he trotted toward them.
"Hi, fellas. Didn't I tell you?" He waved around in the air to encompass the whole spectacular estate. "Something else, huh?"
"You said it," Kelly answered, smiling and reaching for Gary's hand. "How you doing?"
But Gary held his hand up, palm half-curled in kind of a hesitant stop signal, grimacing slightly. "Sorry, but I can't do much shaking with this today." Looking closer, Scotty could see that the kid had new bandages wrapped around both forearms, and his right arm was visibly more swollen than it had been yesterday. He was lucky he hadn't lost the use of his hands altogether.
"Well, at least you've still got something to shake with, when you're back in a shaking mood." Kelly nudged Gary with a friendly elbow. "It seemed all right yesterday--nothing going bad on you, I hope?"
"Oh, no," Gary said. "The doctor just says it'll get worse before it gets better." He reached with his left hand for one of the suitcases.
"Hey, now." Scotty dodged in and went for the suitcase himself. "Around here we don't let heroes tote other people's bags."
"Then you should give that to me," said Kelly, and he yanked the case away from Scotty, giving him a little of the old evil eye. "How about you two casualties get inside before you swoon or something."
Scotty thought about pressing the issue, but Kelly was already scooping up every piece of luggage for himself. No points for fighting there. And they really should get in out of the sun before Kelly pinked up; the Roman heat could be fierce. Scotty followed Gary inside; he accidentally jarred his left arm against the doorway and hoped he'd remembered to restock the aspirin in Kelly's kit.
General Colt stood in the wide marble foyer, straight-backed, just as proud as his son even if his pride only showed mainly around the eyes. "Gentlemen! Welcome."
"Thank you again, sir," said Kelly, somehow managing to radiate formal respect despite being festooned with luggage like a pack mule. Scotty wondered if it was an old Army trick, like a secret handshake.
The general brushed the thanks away magnanimously. "It's my pleasure. You've done a great deal for us, one way and another. And thanks to you, my son's on his way into a whole new life." He dropped one hand on Gary's shoulder, and Scotty saw Gary straighten up under the touch, practically growing and broadening an inch or two before their eyes.
"Dad's having some of the people from my new job come over tonight for a big party," Gary said. "They're putting me into one of the Department research labs."
Scotty glanced over at Kelly, who was hanging onto his poker face, although his poker face had never really been very good. This was a new one on them. They'd been told the kid was being shipped back to his old hometown to live semi-anonymously under some semi-assumed name, not that he was being dragooned into the business.
"That's great," Scotty said after about a beat and a half. "You can discover a new kind of gasoline that makes exhaust fumes smell like flowers, and clean up every city in America."
General Colt patted Gary's shoulder once, briskly. "Why don't you go see about the caterers," he said, and Gary departed, a man on a mission. His father watched after him for a few moments. "Let me show you where you can put your things."
He led them through the palatial living room, around the glossy black grand piano, and down a couple of wide hallways, until they emerged into a sumptuously-appointed bedroom decorated in rich wine colors. "Eastern exposure," he said, putting his fists on his hips in a modified parade rest. "Nice and cool in the afternoons. But the morning sun doesn't get in too early--there's a grove of shade trees right outside." He sounded well satisfied, as if he'd planted them himself.
Kelly dropped all of the bags in a heap and stared up at the ornate mosaic-style patterns lining the borders of the ceiling. "Will you look at that," he said. "We've ended up in The Last Days of Pompeii." He turned to Scotty and opened his mouth to say something else, but the general interrupted.
"If you'll follow me, Mr. Robinson, I'll show you your room. It's in the north wing."
Kelly blinked at Scotty, his mouth still open, then swiveled to watch Colt's back disappear through the door. He looked hastily around the room and bent to grab a couple of cases out of the pile. "Right. Uh--the north wing, the man says."
"Right," said Scotty, sitting down gingerly on the bed. Now that he thought about it, he had wondered where the other bed was. He guessed he had assumed it was around a corner or something...it was a pretty big room.
"Yes," said Kelly. "Okay."
The general poked his head back into the room questioningly, and Kelly was led away.
Scotty kicked his heels and drummed his fingers on the coverlet for a little while, looking vaguely around at luxurious acres of nothing much. There was a bird cheeping tinnily right outside the curtains--those shade trees were probably very popular with the egg-laying set. Even if the first rays of the sun didn't wake him, the gargling birds just might. He figured Kelly was lucky not to have this room. He needed his sleep. It's true, though, it was nice and cool.
He noticed that Kelly had left one of his own suitcases and taken one of Scotty's. He hauled Kelly's bag up on the bed beside him and rummaged through it one-handed; unearthing the bottle of aspirin made things look a little brighter.
The pillow was plump and smooth, the pillowcase cool against his cheek. He thought maybe he'd just rest his eyes for a minute.
He half-opened his eyes to find the room's shadows had shifted, and the cheeping bird had split someplace or other. Kelly stood in the doorway, tentative, one foot tucked behind the other calf--not the way he usually stood, not that lazy hipshot thing he loved to wave around. He was holding a chessboard and a box for the pieces. Come in, Scotty meant to say, for heaven's sake get in here and unfold that thing, let's get into it. But he closed his eyes to blink and forgot to open them for a while.
When he woke for real, there was no Kelly and the shadows had gone deep. Gary was tapping on the door and calling his name.
"Yeah," he said, sitting up carefully and rubbing his good hand over his face.
Gary came in, all dressed up, bow tie and dinner jacket and everything, his hair combed shining smooth. "I wanted to see how you were feeling. If you felt up to it, that party's going to get started in maybe another half an hour. Depending on how fashionably late everybody is."
Scotty cocked his head. "These are...scientists, you said?"
"Department scientists, yes."
"Okay, they're not going to be too fashionable. Give me that half-hour and I'll pull myself together."
Gary smiled and left, his hand still a little awkward with the doorknob.
It took more than half an hour, though, and by the end of it Scotty was sore in mind and spirit as well as in body. He stepped into the shower on automatic, shedding clothes behind him as he went, but he forgot about the bandage--it soaked through and sloughed off like an old skin, which at least cut down on the pain of ripping off the tape, but the water's spray didn't feel so good directly on the wound, so he had to do a bit of dancing and dodging around that. And then he couldn't quite manage to rig up a fresh bandage with only one flexible arm and no prehensile tail, so he stood naked in front of the mirror for far too long, yanking at sliding gauze and trying to rip tape with his teeth. He gave it up as good enough for now and slid into some dress clothes, shorts and tux trousers and socks and moderately-shiny shoes, starting to come together--except that his clean tuxedo shirt was in the bag that Kelly had mistakenly carted away, and he had no idea where this north wing was or whether he'd need to take a gondola to get there or what. The party must be swinging by now, and he wasn't about to go sloping through the marble halls looking like Duke Ellington from the waist down and Brother Can You Spare a Dime from the waist up.
So he dug around in Kelly's stuff, trying to use both hands and getting achier in the shoulder, until he unearthed a shirt with French cuffs that seemed fresh enough. It had one of Kelly's cufflinks hanging off it--lazy laundry habits, they'd lead him to a bad end someday. He put it on and tied his tie and tried to nip the other cuff closed with an old safety pin from one of Kelly's jacket pockets, re-adjusted his sling, and then told his reflection Go Get 'Em Tiger and headed out in search of a room full of scientists and hors d'oeuvres.
He could hear the piano, and it led him like a siren's song back to the living room. Tuxedoed men and gowned women stood in groups, discussions getting into gear, beer and wine evident in abundance, waiters circling with trays of bite-sized food and fresh drinks. Scotty leaned in to one young guy with champagne and asked him for a cola; to his credit, the boy didn't raise his eyebrows or ask him to repeat himself, he just headed off, presumably to the kitchen or the bar or wherever the liquid lived around here.
Scotty wandered among the happy scientists, smiling, returning greetings given in various languages, catching bits of conversations about fume hoods and ignition points and the Eastern Bloc. He fetched up at last at the piano, which stood serenely like an ebony island amid a sloshing human sea.
"Evening, doctor," said the piano player, a fair-haired man with a soft Italian accent and a moustache that was growing in darker, almost brick red. He gave the keys a little glissando in the middle of the passage he was playing without breaking pace. "You have a request?"
"I'm not a doctor." Scotty leaned against the piano, feeling the bass notes tingle comfortably through his body. "I'm a...hanger-on."
The piano player shrugged. "Even a hanger-on might be allowed a request now and then. On special occasions." He wasn't really smiling, but his eyes looked amused.
"Sure, why not." Scotty looked around the room, caught sight of the waiter returning with a tall glass of cola, and gave him a little wave. "How about...'Someone to Watch Over Me'."
Now the piano player did smile, spreading his hands out over a series of easy chords going down the scale until he could slip into an interestingly-syncopated version of the new tune. "In honor of all the watchers gathered here today."
Scotty loved it when the Department-issue support staff had a sense of humor about things. "Right on," he said, and he sipped his drink and listened to the music in a pleasant reverie, watching the Department's brains go around kicking up their heels a little bit. He finally saw Kelly--the top of Kelly's head, anyway--bobbing around out in the thick of the crowd, amid the festive ladies' hats and several turbans and skullcaps and neatly-groomed haircuts from fair to dark to grey. There wasn't anybody with crazy Einstein hair going on, though. Kind of a shame. Maybe that would help put them over the top, scientifically.
He finished his cola and ordered another, as the piano player moved into a sweet rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin," and Kelly mingled around the room, slowly swinging into Scotty's orbit. When Scotty could see more than the top of his head he looked all right, working on little glasses of scotch and ice, smiling and joking and giving coy sideways glances into people's eyes. He winked at the girl he was talking to and swiveled to trade his empty glass for a full one going by on a tray, and his gaze caught Scotty's. Then the crowd moved in and muddied things for a second until Kelly came plowing through, fresh drink clutched askew in one hand.
"My man," he said, planting his free hand on the piano and leaning in. "You made it."
"Somebody had to be fashionably late."
"Yeah, that's you, Mister Fashionable." Kelly raised his brows. "Speaking of which...that shirt looks awfully familiar."
Scotty returned his gaze levelly. "I'm in disguise."
Kelly snorted into his scotch and settled comfortably against the piano next to him. "I tell you, there's nothing better than a brilliant girl. Except maybe a room full of brilliant girls."
"Gary seems to think so too," said Scotty, at last catching sight of him far across the room. The young man was holding a glass of red wine, listening intently to a woman in glasses and a flowing sari.
"That kid." Kelly swirled his glass until the ice cubes rattled. "That poor kid. He has no idea what kind of shark tank he's been invited to swim in."
"You think?" Scotty watched Gary a little longer, considering. Gary replied to his companion and smiled gravely at her, a dark-eyed Galahad in a tuxedo and a halo of underplayed glory. "I don't know."
"Oh, come on, Scotty, seriously now. The guy is green as a pool table. You can file his picture under 'An Innocent Abroad.'"
"Yeah, maybe. But he seems to be adapting all right." Scotty watched a tray full of appetizers going past, and his stomach growled. People were surrounding the waiter, swarming over the food like happy piranhas; he paused for a moment, stricken. One hand: cola glass, damp with condensation. Other hand: all slinged up and out of commission, at least as far as reaching was concerned. Grand piano: fine wood painstakingly polished to a rich dark luster, obviously never touched by some dimwit's wet glass without a coaster. His brain had a traffic jam for just a second over the alternatives, and he would have had to watch every last morsel disappear into the mouths of scientists had Kelly not shot out one long arm and scooped up the final piece.
"Have you tried these? They're pretty good." Kelly held it up. It looked good. It certainly smelled good. It seemed to be wrapped in bacon.
"I haven't tried anything," Scotty said, mesmerized. "I was too busy being fashionable."
"Then stop playing The Little Match Girl and open."
Scotty opened up and Kelly fed him the tidbit. Oh, it was wrapped in bacon all right. "Mmphm."
"You're welcome." Kelly applied himself to the last of his drink. "Mi arm es su arm."
Catching sight of another tray in the vicinity, Scotty pressed his glass into Kelly's free hand and made for it, returning with a handful of warm little cheese-straw things. He ate them with single-minded devotion to duty, until he was down to the last one and noticed Kelly making long eyes at him in a truly pathetic fashion.
"What? You want this? You'd take food from the hand of a dying man?" Scotty said.
"Oh, heaven forbid," Kelly said. "If I get you a coaster, can I stop with the two-fisted drinking?"
Scotty stuffed the last cheese-straw into his mouth and said indistinctly, "Have at it."
"No no," said Kelly daintily, "allow me." He went off and returned victorious with fresh drinks and high-class cork coasters, and in the meantime Scotty had made a few more successful single-handed forays into some very spiffy hors d'oeuvres. Kelly set down the scotch and the cola and eased back into his niche next to Scotty, against the warm humming wood of the piano. Together they eyeballed the guests and exchanged a little harmless Department gossip, and Scotty finally felt content, sling or no sling.
The mass of partygoers circulated past, some stopping to chat with them briefly and then moving along. It was pleasant to have the room mingle around him for once instead of vice-versa. As Scotty was just finishing a pleasant exchange with an older gentleman who had recently been transferred down from a tiny lab in the Italian Alps, Kelly nudged him.
"Scotty," Kelly said as Scotty turned, "this is Sasha--" he touched the hand of a pale woman in a midnight-blue dress--"and this is Lisette. Ladies, I'd like you to meet Alexander Scott, daredevil extraordinaire."
"Is that how you injured your arm?" Lisette asked, eyeing the sling with what seemed like a combination of personal interest and professional curiosity. Her accent sounded southern Italian by extraction, and her dark and dramatic looks did not belie that.
Scotty grinned. "Daredevilling? Not really. More like clumsiness."
Kelly put an arm loosely around Scotty's shoulders--his touch felt tentative, obviously mindful of the potential for jarring. "Don't let him fool you. Why, this man here almost beat the international pole-vault record. He woulda made it, too, if it hadn't been for a tragic case of pole sabotage. The authorities are still looking into it."
Both women exchanged little glances with Scotty, hiding their smiles in their drinks, Sasha shaking her head slightly but without scorn. It was a good sign when women didn't roll their eyes at an opening like that. Scotty kept the patter going, and he and Kelly tossed the chit-chat around with Sasha and Lisette for quite a while. They were brilliant, like Kelly had said before, and certainly lovely, and fairly willing to abandon shop talk in favor of just plain playing. It made the evening almost effortless. No assignment, no undercurrents. Just a party for a change.
Much later, when Scotty returned from a brief visit to one of the villa's elaborately gold-plated bathrooms, he found Kelly draped against the piano in a thoughtful pose without either of the girls in sight. The groups of partygoers were smaller and friendlier now, the talk more intimate, and the piano player was working on a medley of Fats Waller tunes.
"Tell me they just went to powder their noses," Scotty said.
"Sorry, Jack. But!" Kelly pulled a slip of paper from his jacket pocket with two fingers. "The address of the lab in Rome where they work. We have a standing invitation to lunch."
"An actual invitation, or a 'let's have lunch sometime' invitation?"
Kelly tucked the paper away. "For you, I couldn't say. As for myself--" he smoothed his pocket with elaborate care--"I'm sure I have an actual invitation."
"Yeah, you wait," Scotty said, reaching for his glass and finding it empty. "That'll be the address of the nearest church."
"Or the police station." Kelly grinned and raised his scotch. "To brilliant women."
"I can't toast. I'm out." He looked around for his favorite waiter, but the guy was nowhere to be seen.
Kelly finished his drink and leaned a little closer, putting his arm gently around Scotty's shoulders again. "Okay, now you can tell me."
"Tell you what?"
"What in the world this is." Kelly pressed carefully on the lumpy, bulky excuse for a bandage Scotty had rigged up in his post-shower struggle. "You carrying a parachute in your jacket or what? I've been wondering all night."
Scotty gave a one-sided shrug. "The shower melted my bandage off, so I wrapped myself up in about three miles of gauze."
"A shower?" said Kelly, rolling his eyes. "You should've taken a bath and left the doctor's bandage where it was. You'd think you'd never been shot before."
"Well, you know how it is," Scotty said. "You get shot often enough, things start to slip your mind."
Kelly continued to tug at the shoulder of Scotty's jacket, muttering darkly. Scotty could feel that the tape had come loose in patches, making things slide around.
"Okay, look," said Kelly at last. "This isn't gonna work. When we get back to the--uh, later, how about I come over to your room and fix this thing. You can't just--"
"Shoulder acting up?" It was Gary, slightly rumpled, carrying a half-full champagne flute.
Scotty smiled, giving Kelly a light elbow to the ribs. "No, no. It's just Kelly doing the acting up. How are the hands?"
"Oh, they're getting there. The wine sure doesn't hurt." Gary settled against the piano next to them and took a swallow of champagne.
Kelly had straightened up and seemed to be behaving himself. For the moment. "The general really knows how to throw a party," he said.
Gary nodded, gesturing with his glass. "Look at him." General Colt, in dress uniform, was holding court over a group of what looked like lab directors and a few deputies from the inner warrens of the embassy. "He's having the time of his life."
"And how about your life?" Kelly asked, lowering his voice. Scotty watched Gary watching his father, and he thought he knew the answer to that one already. But Kelly persisted quietly: "A little overwhelming?"
"I think it's wonderful," Gary said, his eyes gone dreamy, still watching the group across the room. "I've met so many great people. I'm looking forward to really digging in. Getting involved."
Kelly picked up his glass of melting ice and reflexively tried to drink from it. "Well. It's not all cocktail parties and pretty scientists."
Before Scotty could jump in, Gary turned to Kelly, that dreaminess fading. "No," he said, looking a little hurt. "I know."
"Hey, even cocktail parties can get old," Scotty put in, his tone light. "I mean, I bet the Prodigal Son must have wished after a while that his dad would cut it out with the fatted calf and all that." He grinned at Gary. "Indigestion."
So Gary smiled, and Kelly smiled and chewed on an ice cube, and after a little while they actually left the bulwark of the piano to deliver their regards to their host, who was shining as brightly as his medals. It was getting really late, though, and once the general had taken Gary aside for an intent discussion with one of the deputies, Scotty faded into the woodwork and retraced his steps back down through the hallways and byways to his room, Kelly tailing him.
"Welcome to my humble home," he said, sitting down on the bed and watching Kelly stop at the doorway.
"Gee," said Kelly, "I love what you've done with the place." He wiped his feet on the nonexistent mat and came in. "Now let's have it."
Scotty pulled off his sling, carefully eased out of his jacket, and worked on the shirt studs; Kelly wandered into the bathroom and back again, returning with the first aid kit, then slouching against the foot of the bed with his arms crossed. When Scotty slid the shirt down from his shoulders, the pathetic wad of gauze and most of the tape came with it. Kelly laughed behind one hand.
"Okay, okay, Doctor Schweitzer," Scotty said. "Lay it on me."
Kelly settled on the bed, eyed the wound, then sized and folded a new bandage. Scotty watched him work with his head bent silently over his task. But then Kelly looked up. "He thinks it's wonderful," he said tightly. "Fresh out of school, scrubbed bright and shiny. Villas and cocktail parties. They're getting to him."
"Maybe he's getting to them."
Kelly tore off pieces of tape and stuck the ends to Scotty's forearm, lining them up in a handy row. "He has no idea what he's doing."
"Come on, Kel. You're making him sound like an idiot."
"He's a kid," Kelly said as he held the gauze over the bullet wound with one hand. The pressure hurt a little, but it was a good clean dull hurt, not the jagged hot spike of an infection, and it was already miles better than it had been yesterday. "He's a college kid. He's a chemist. He juggles test tubes."
"I was a linguist," Scotty said.
Kelly yanked the pieces of tape off Scotty's arm one by one, expertly anchoring the bandage in place. "You're different."
"No, I don't think so."
"I do." Kelly gave his handiwork one last long look and stood up. "You're set. Try not to fall in the ocean or anything before tomorrow."
Scotty started unbuckling his belt. "You don't have the bag with my pajamas in it, do you?"
"At this point, who knows," Kelly said. "Now hand over my shirt. Shirtnapper." But he didn't sweep out on that line; he stood there tossing the balled-up shirt from hand to hand.
"Pajamas," Scotty retorted, cradling his left arm to his side and struggling out of the tuxedo trousers. "Make yourself useful."
Surprisingly enough, Kelly actually did unearth the pajamas on his first aggressive foray into Scotty's bag, and soon Scotty was buttoning himself up slowly with one hand, finally giving the arm a rest from all the robing and disrobing.
Kelly was wearing the wrinkled tuxedo shirt around his neck like the world's most ungainly French-cuffed scarf. "Okay now?"
Scotty chased another button into its hole. "Yeah, this should only take me another seven years or so."
Kelly looked around aimlessly, rocking back on his heels. If there had been a chair in the room, Scotty was sure he'd have flopped down in it and continued to heckle the pajama-wearing process. But there wasn't. Just miles of marble floor and elaborately-patterned rugs.
"Night, then," said Kelly. And he left.
Scotty was still a few buttons from the top, but he figured he'd leave the rest. Why bother? It wasn't like he was on display in the Capitoline Museum. He turned off the light, slid under the blankets, and lay flat on his back, draping his arm across his stomach, the new bandage comfortably snug.
About an hour later, he turned onto his right side, figuring this might help him get to sleep.
After another hour, or maybe two, he flipped flat on his back again and counted angles in the ceiling mosaics by moonlight.
Over the next half hour, on and off, he slowly buttoned all the remaining buttons with his right hand.
Well, what do you know. The general was right. The morning sun didn't get in too early...though the birds had a few things to say about that.
The bandage was holding up well despite the fitful night, so Scotty just tidied himself up in the bathroom, donned casual clothes, rigged up the sling (getting crumpled now, but still de rigueur in the fashion shows this season), and found his way back to the living room. It had been rearranged into its former pristine glory; the Department caterers must have had almost as restful a night as he had.
From there he followed currents of fresh air and the muted sound of a voice out onto a vast shaded terrace, where a table had been laid for four. A tousled young manservant was filling General Colt's coffee cup, and the general was turning the page of the newspaper.
"Good morning, Mr. Scott." He gestured with his cup. "Coffee? Massimo will be bringing out orange juice in a few minutes."
"Just coffee, thank you, sir." Scotty settled into one of the wrought-iron chairs and smiled at Massimo. "Grazie." The coffee was dark and fresh, though still uncomfortably hot.
"I hope you slept well," Colt said, neatly folding his newspaper into a sharp-creased rectangle.
"It's a beautiful room," Scotty said. "Beautiful. Love the trees."
The general drank some of his coffee and checked his watch. "Gary should be here any minute."
"Sure," Scotty said easily. "Let me tell you, sir, you two showed everyone a really good time last night. It's just the ticket to kick off a good vacation."
But it was unclear whether the general was actually listening. He seemed just to be waiting for Scotty to stop talking, which wasn't the same thing. "Mmm." He glanced over at the door. "I can't imagine why he isn't here already."
"Well, he did make a pretty late night of it. I wouldn't be surprised if he needed a little extra rest." Scotty hadn't counted Gary's glasses of wine, but he supposed he also wouldn't be surprised if the kid needed a little extra aspirin. Or maybe he'd do what Kelly did sometimes and dunk his whole head in a sink of cold water. He didn't know personally how well it worked, but it was pretty spectacular to watch.
"He's always been an early riser. Takes after his old man."
"Yes, sir," Scotty said with a polite smile. He devoted himself to his coffee as Massimo brought the general a small glass of orange juice and set the silver coffeepot in the middle of the table. Birds were chittering and divebombing each other in the adjoining gardens. He could swear he recognized a couple of those little voices.
After a few minutes and a few more of Scotty's abortive attempts at conversation, there was another check of the watch.
And then another.
Scotty tried to keep his eyes on the gardens. He didn't get hangovers himself, but he figured it was never too late to develop a headache. Just on principle.
Just as General Colt finished the fifth pretend sip of his orange juice and had begun to drum his fingers in a tight staccato rhythm on the folded newspaper, a most marvelous apparition appeared from behind a stand of trees off at the far edge of one of the gardens. It was Kelly, taking a run. He looked good, slowing to an easy jog through the winding garden paths, his T-shirt only lightly sweaty, the sleeves of his blue tracksuit jacket tied low around his hips. Scotty gave him a little waggle of his fingers, although he felt like leaping to his feet and signaling HALLELUJAH in full-blown semaphore. One more minute and he'd have been forced to make talk about the weather, with the general stewing like a prune before his very eyes.
Kelly trotted onto the patio and took the last few steps at a walk, stretching his legs. "Morning, officers and gentlemen!" He grinned and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "And you too, Scotty."
"You gonna sit and have coffee with us, or is someone chasing you?" Scotty said, slouching a little more comfortably.
"Coffee sounds good." Kelly sat across from Scotty and peered into his empty cup.
"Good morning, Mr. Robinson," said the general. He checked his watch once more and rose, setting the newspaper perpendicular to his tableware. "If you'll both excuse me for a moment." He went into the house, leaving them alone in what was turning out to be a beautiful but slightly odd morning.
Scotty whistled under his breath and touched the back of one hand to the coffeepot. Still piping hot.
Kelly raised his brows. "I guess I missed something."
"He's waiting for Gary." Scotty poured Kelly a brimming cup and watched his eyes light up.
Kelly lifted the cup reverently, took a sip, and smiled widely. "Hey, now, look here." He reached into his shorts pocket and pulled out his sunglasses, unfolding and donning them with a little flourish.
"Good thing you found them before you tried to put your left sneaker on." Scotty paused, struck by a thought. "Where'd you find a fresh lace for the right one, anyway?"
Kelly shrugged, pushing the sunglasses up on top of his head. Scotty leaned abruptly sideways and stared under the table--Kelly's right shoelace was jerry-rigged with knots like some kind of Frankenstein's monster. If Frankenstein had made tennis shoes. "You did not go running around in that condition."
"Well." Kelly blew on his coffee. "You have all the shoelaces. Like there's gonna be some kind of embargo."
"That's all we need is for you to sprain an ankle or something because your gear falls off."
Kelly smirked into his cup. "Another tragic shoelace-related death."
"Very funny. And if you're going to hang around out here in the shade without changing into some clothes, at least put your jacket on. You'll get a chill, all sweated up like that."
Kelly untied and untangled the tracksuit jacket and pulled it on, shooting Scotty several martyred looks in the process.
"Don't give me that. Now drink your coffee before it gets cold."
"So I can grow up big and strong?" Kelly sipped with evident pleasure. "Not much chance of it getting cold. I think the water gets hotter here, somehow."
Scotty rested his chin on his hand. He was starting to feel relaxed instead of tired, and he liked the change. He figured the coffee must be kicking in. Or perhaps it was the fragrance of the garden blossoms, warmed by the morning sun, waiting for the honeybees to visit. Hanging out little welcome mats.
Kelly raised his coffee cup ceremonially, and for a second Scotty thought Kelly was toasting him--or maybe obliquely asking for a refill--until he heard a soft step behind him.
"Hi, Kelly. Morning, Scott." Gary slid into the one fresh spot at the table and smiled at them. He didn't look like somebody who'd just woken up--or like somebody who hadn't gone to bed yet, for that matter. He didn't look like somebody who'd overdone it at a party, either. He looked, in fact, like someone who'd been up and busy for a while and was already well into the rhythm of his day. He was neatly dressed, but not fresh-from-the-shower neat. He had a tie on, but his jacket was nowhere to be seen, and his shirtsleeves were rolled halfway up over his bandaged forearms.
Scotty reached for the coffee to pour out, but Kelly had beat him to it and was topping off everybody's cup. "Your father find you?"
"No," Gary said absently, spreading his napkin on his lap. "Wasn't he out here?"
Scotty shifted in his seat and prepared to explain--if there was any way to explain that wouldn't get him overly involved in a commentary on whatever family business was going on behind the scenes--but he was saved by the bell. Or the door. Flying open.
"There you are," came the general's voice from the doorway.
"Morning, Dad." Gary blew on the surface of his coffee.
The general came forward to stand by his own chair, one hand gripping the back. "Where were you?"
He looked at his father and sat up straighter. "I had some phone calls to make. Major O'Brien kept me on longer than I'd expected."
General Colt pulled out his chair and sank into it, keeping to his dignity. He cleared his throat. "Ah. Department business?"
"Yes." Gary's tone got a little stiff. "I'm sorry I was late."
"Oh no, no." He waved that away, trying not to look abashed; as if on a signal, Massimo appeared with two steaming platters. It was a hot American-style breakfast, eggs and skillet potatoes and whatnot, and as large helpings were doled out, Scotty attempted to catch Kelly's gaze. Kelly, though, had tipped his sunglasses back down over his eyes and seemed to be contemplating his reflection in the coffeepot. By the time he stirred, removed the sunglasses, and tucked them back into his pocket, the moment was behind them and lost, and they were both being drawn into the talk around the table.
And so they ate, and so they talked; with Kelly there it was easier to keep the conversational balloon in the air, that was for sure. Gary was a good host, friendly and inclusive without getting so chummy that he left his father out in the cold. And while the general didn't ever entirely unwind--Scotty wondered if he was too conscious of his age and position for that--at least now he was listening. And talking, too, about the countryside, the history of the house and the colleague who was lending it to him, and other kinds of light breakfasty topics. Scotty and Kelly had been in and around Rome a lot by now, so they offered a few stories that seemed to keep General Colt interested and made Gary grin into his orange juice.
Kelly was in the middle of a slightly-censored exposť of the corridors beneath the Colosseum when Massimo and an older maidservant hurried out onto the patio, talking together in soft, rapid, colloquial Italian. Scotty caught something about floors and trouble before the two reached General Colt.
"Carmela answered the door, sir," Massimo said, "and they are here."
"With their truck and all the workmen together," broke in the woman, clearly agitated. "I don't know where to put them. Their boots are all over mud."
The general frowned. "Here already?"
Massimo's shrug was eloquent. "If I turn them away, sir, who knows when they come back. They say it is for today only they must work."
"They're sending over a few stonemasons to repair the top of a garden wall and part of a portico roof," the general said, mostly to Kelly. "I didn't expect them for a few days, and I have meetings until the afternoon. But--we'll strike while the iron is hot." He turned to Massimo and Carmela and said firmly, "Send them through. Gary will take them up and show them what's to be done."
Carmela went hastily back into the house, no doubt with disastrous visions of muddy boots and expensive carpets. Massimo began to clear the table.
Gary set down his cup and wet his lips with his tongue. "I--can't, I don't think. I won't have time." He looked taken aback. "I have a few meetings today myself--I'm in on that first one with you and Mr. Sorenson, remember?"
"I'm sure he won't mind." The general drank the last of his coffee.
Gary hesitated, and smiled faintly. "I'd mind." In the second it took for his father's brows to draw together, Gary was already turning to Kelly. "I'm really sorry, I know you're on vacation. But could I ask you to--"
"Sure, sure. Don't you worry about a thing. It's my pleasure." There was an odd edge to his heartiness, but he gave Gary a quick smile and tipped his head courteously at General Colt.
Carmela returned, leading five men wearing plaster- and paint-spattered coveralls and dungarees. The oldest one, gray-haired and dark-skinned, pulled off his cap and looked expectantly at the general.
The general spoke after a heavy pause. "Tell him Mr. Robinson will be helping them today."
Kelly rose and smiled at the men as Carmela translated; Scotty noted that she added a stern admonition about going around the side of the house from now on, rather than through the living room.
"Count me in," Scotty said suddenly.
The general folded his napkin in thirds and stood up. "He most certainly will not," he said, in a tone that was not to be brooked. "It's enough that he's spending his first morning here up on a roof--I'm not having you and your shoulder put at any further risk." His expression softened a bit. "Get some rest. You're here to get well."
Scotty looked around the table. Gary's sudden self-possession was already wavering; Kelly gave a slight and almost imperceptible shrug. With a deep breath and a smile, Scotty tried to capitulate gracefully. "Yes, sir. One convalescence, coming right up."
"I'm glad to hear it," said the general, heading for the door. "You are hereby ordered to relax." And he was gone.
Gary checked his watch in an unknowing echo of his father. "I'm sorry," he said, rising. "These meetings. Please, uh, make yourself at home. If you need anything, you can ask Massimo or Carmela, or you can have someone come get me--"
"Hey. I'll be just fine," Scotty said. Gary's expression cleared; he went into the house with a brisk step, rolling down his sleeves as he went.
Carmela began to shepherd the workmen along one of the gravel paths and out onto the grounds, with Kelly trailing behind, his hands in his jacket pockets. Scotty sat and watched them all go, long after the path had led them to the far side of the garden and off behind a stone wall, even longer after their mass of crunching and scuffing footsteps had faded to silence. Now there was just escalating birdsong, and the occasional muted buzz of a cicada warming up for the heat of the day.
He stretched his legs and crossed them at the ankles, looking thoughtfully at the distant garden wall, listening to the soft clinking and scraping of the table being cleared. Massimo appeared at the extreme edge of his peripheral vision and made a smooth, sweeping gesture with both hands, tossing them outward; Scotty puzzled over it for a few seconds until little birds started to flit and scramble in from all edges of the garden, landing to peck and scratch and bully each other for the scattering of toast crumbs.
Sun and shadows dappled the stone wall. Birds squabbled over leftover toast. He jittered his right leg up and down. Massimo removed the last of the dishes, but paused with his hand on Scotty's coffee cup.
Scotty pulled his gaze away from where the path curved and vanished. "Sorry, did you ask me something?" he said in Italian.
Massimo replied in Italian as well, with a shy smile. "I thought perhaps you might want a little more coffee."
"No..." Scotty looked at the dregs in his cup and grimaced. "Thanks, but no. Too much and I get nervous. Uh, in English we say 'jumpy'." He switched back into English on the last word, and forced his right leg to hold still.
"Jumpy," said Massimo, trying it out. "Yes, sir."
Scotty gave him a salute. "Right."
Massimo retrieved the coffee cup and piled it on a tray with the rest of the dishes, hefting the whole thing onto one shoulder and disappearing back into the house.
It took about sixteen or seventeen more minutes of watching the gardens without really seeing much of anything, trying to recognize different little birds from their coloring or the particular way they hopped or pecked, occasionally noticing his leg wanting to jitter some more and consciously keeping it still. Then Scotty slowly stood up from his chair, feeling the lack of sleep dragging at him again. He stretched, letting his right arm extend to its full length, but only flexing the left shoulder far enough to feel an itchy and faintly painful pull on his stitches. He was vacationing, yeah. He was ordered to relax. That didn't mean he had to sit on this terrace like an exhibit, the World's Most Boring One-Armed Man. Nobody could blame him if he felt like taking a walk. So he hooked his right thumb into a belt loop and strolled off the patio into the sunshine, his footsteps softly crunching down the neat gravel of the garden path.
The main path arced away and behind the far garden wall, but back there out of sight of the terrace was a three-pronged fork in the road. A trident, to stay Italian and mythological about it. He supposed he could pick any direction. There were bound to be nice places to wander pretty much anywhere he went. He could flip a coin. But instead he stared at the intersection for a moment and then forged ahead to the left. Tracking footprints through gravel was ordinarily a challenge, but with enough people to follow, wearing enough muddy boots, it was a piece of cake. A chunk of cannoli. He was in Italy, after all.
That left path eventually led him along the edge of a large, well-tended olive grove, the leaves fluttering from dusty green to almost-silver as they were caught by puffs of warm wind. On the far side of the grove, in the distance where the land swelled into easy hills, was a cluster of buildings flanked by a sturdy stone wall. Why, look here. What a small world. A damaged portico, a crowd of men and wheelbarrows, a buzz of distant and slangy Italian. And Kelly.
He was distinctive even from this far away, noticeably taller than the workmen, rangy and expansive and somehow American in his posture and gestures. His lack of much relevant conversational Italian didn't seem to be hampering him--he scrambled up and down ladders and handed up buckets of mortar or whatever with big grins and expressive waves of his hands, and the workmen crouched on their heels or dangled their legs over the edge of the roof, grinning and chattering back at him, comfortable and charmed. Of course.
Scotty hung far back beneath the scattered shade of the grove and watched. Kelly had already tied his tracksuit jacket back around his hips, his T-shirt gleaming white in the sun. The oldest workman got into a lengthy exchange with him, both of them eventually gesturing like they were conducting private orchestras; finally Kelly seemed to get the full gist of whatever it was, and he cocked his head and let out a clear shouting laugh, bending to grab a big stone from a wheelbarrow and giving it a lazy, powerful hoist over his head to hand it up atop the wall. A triumph for American-Italian relations, really. Sock Kelly into the United Nations and watch the world beat a path to his door.
Scotty gripped an overhead branch with his right arm and let himself sway back and forth, feeling the pectoral stretch. This might be a nice place to settle down and get a little vacationing done, if there had been a hammock in the grove or something. But no such luck. He thought about approaching the working party, maybe flipping over one of the bigger empty buckets and having a seat, a spectator in the ranks. He could wander casually up to the wall and slide into the conversation--good thing he already spoke Italian, because he wasn't in the condition to go waving his arms around in a Kelly-style pantomime. He could translate the nuances back and forth and make private jokes with the men about Carmela and her carpets. But despite the tentative scenarios he kept building in his head, he stayed right where he was, eventually letting go of the branch to scratch carefully at a trickle of sweat winding along his arm beneath the sling. He was on vacation. They didn't generally offer tourist packages for watching other guys work, and for good reason. He was supposed to be resting. And recreating. Or something.
He walked thoughtfully back toward the house and the main gardens, straight through the olive grove this time instead of obediently following the path along the edges, weaving around the crooked trunks and ducking beneath low sprays of leaf and branch. He was going to take it easy and have some proper vacation-style relaxation, or die trying.
As afternoon slogged toward evening, Scotty was slouched on the terrace frowning at yet another game of solitaire. It was "Empress of India" this time, a large and complicated four-pack game he had once tried to teach Kelly during a day-long flight over the Pacific in the belly of a cargo plane. The patio table made a good base for the increasingly elaborate layouts of his monumental solitaire tournament, and after a few close calls he had almost found a way to successfully play another pair of cards . His shirt was off, folded over another chair, his sling was chafing the back of his neck, and his lunch plate was stacked with an empty glass and a few stray crumbs that hadn't yet gone to the garden birds.
Sometimes, during the long solid hours of the day, he had imagined himself sole lord and master of his own personal villa. It wasn't hard, really, when the only people he saw hide or hair of were Massimo, Carmela, and a couple of deliverymen who arrived around one o'clock to bring milk, oranges, two fresh newspapers (English and Italian), and other sundries from town. He had read both newspapers, plus a Tarzan comic book he'd found in the side pocket of the bag Kelly had left in his room. He had walked through the gardens, flowers and fruit and vegetables and cool sprawling ground cover. The herb beds grew up around a fountain shaped like a turtle. He had discovered a small swimming pool and dangled his feet in it, tugging wearily at the sling that prevented a comfortable afternoon doing mindless laps. He'd even found an old clay tennis court--it wasn't as well maintained as he'd like, and there was only one net pole up at the moment, but he nevertheless planned out and choreographed a set of shot drills to run Kelly through his paces. Somebody had to keep him sharp.
Lunch had appeared at his elbow in the early afternoon as he sat on the patio re-reading the Italian-language newspaper. It turned out that the general and the young master were having a bite over a meeting with some of the important visitors, and provisions had already been carried out to the work party some time earlier; Massimo apologized for making Scotty wait, but the platters were heavy and had taken a while to manage. Scotty made jokes, put him at ease, handed back the glass of wine, and asked for milk instead. Watching Massimo yawn over his afternoon chores made him think about perfecting his siesta--there was no point in flouting local custom--but in the end he decided not to. That nap yesterday had ruined his night's sleep. He wouldn't make the same mistake again.
Now, and for about as long as he could remember, he was lost in the middle of the world's longest professional solitaire tournament. He traced his thumb slowly back and forth along the table's edge, looking from pile to pile, thinking hard. He almost had it--until the distant sound of footsteps rose on the gravel path, crumbling the strategy he'd been building in his head. He sat up straight and watched the far garden wall for a moment. Nothing yet. He made himself put his head back down and concentrate. It must be the workmen, coming for a break or a nap or something, and they didn't need an audience. And this ten of clubs needed somewhere to go, for crying out loud, or he'd never clear the way for that last red five.
A moment of soft, indistinct talk, then footsteps, footsteps...oddly, getting softer instead of louder. Okay, this wasn't helping the ten at all. He squinted at it, hard, as if he could change it to a six with the power of his mind alone.
"Well, if it isn't her Imperial Highness," Kelly said from behind Scotty's shoulder.
Scotty had a lot of training in acting unsurprised. He casually picked up the eight of spades to lay it on a foundation pile.
"You've gotta wait for the red five, your majesty."
Scotty clenched his hand on the eight and turned in his chair. "Hey, I thought you slept through most of that lesson. What happened, the rules soak in by osmosis?"
Kelly had the T-shirt and tracksuit jacket both hanging precariously over one shoulder. Sweat shone on his chest and trickled down his body to disappear under his low waistband. His tan was getting a little too red around the edges, though. There was dust in his hair and flecks of mortar haphazardly spattered over his shorts and the golden skin of his legs. He was barefoot; the battered tennis shoes hung loosely from two fingers. Well, that explained the stealthy approach, anyway.
"Where's the rest of your gang?" Scotty asked, eyeing Kelly up and down.
"They went around the side like they were supposed to." Kelly waved his shoes. "Me, I'm going inside, right over those nice clean floors. Keep it under your hat."
"You done already?"
"Uh, gee, Ebenezer," Kelly said with a roll of his eyes, "in case you haven't noticed, some of us have been working on the railroad all the livelong day. It's nearly time for dinner."
Scotty looked at his solitaire layout in dismay. "Dinner?"
"Aw." Kelly nudged Scotty with one dusty hip and stepped back. "I better go hit the showers. I do hate to see a grown man cry."
Scotty buried his head in his hands.
"If you hurry, maybe you can uncover the red five just in time to take it all down," called Kelly from the doorway.
"When I want your help I'll rattle your cage," Scotty said to the tabletop.
"By telegram. Long distance. Care of the north wing." The door creaked. "There'll be a candle in the window."
Scotty turned to reply, but Kelly was gone. He leaned over the table and carefully laid the eight back down in its tableau, neatly spacing it between the other cards. Then one sweep of his good arm scrambled the Empress of India beyond repair.
It turned out dinner was to be held inside, in the smaller of two dining rooms, but it was too late to salvage the grand tournament. And in the end, Scotty didn't really want to keep the game for later. He felt like he'd lost his taste for solitaire for the moment, anyway. Waving off Massimo's offers of help, he scooped up all four decks into one huge multicolored stack, balanced their boxes on top, and awkwardly carried the whole heap off to his room. He didn't drop it--not quite--but he barely made it to his bed in time to let most of the slippery jumble fall onto the middle of his blanket. He stooped to chase down a few errant face cards that had fluttered to the floor, and while he was down there, he noticed that Kelly's bag was gone. His own missing bag had been returned, stacked next to the rest of his luggage. He picked it up and hefted it in his good hand. Well, that was helpful. Like the tooth fairy. Very nice. He slung the bag down hard against the wall and went into the bathroom.
There was no time for a bath, especially with his shoulder fouling everything up. He washed his face, though, and dressed for dinner, sportcoat and tie. Even after ouching his way through a Windsor knot with both hands, the bandage hadn't budged. Proof he hadn't sweated enough today. He was going to sit around playing solitaire until he turned into The Blob, and then the next time they were running from the bad guys Scotty would just have to ask them to slow down a little, please, guys, consider my delicate constitution.
Tomorrow, arm or no arm, he was getting in that pool. Or something, anyway--Kelly might play Florence Nightingale and put the kibosh on the pool. If he were around.
Scotty abandoned the room and the strew of cards that was his bed and struck off in search of dinner.
Gary was late to the meal again, though this time the general sat still, resolutely buttered his bread, and waited rather than forming a search party. Kelly and Scotty were both there to take the conversational brunt, so all in all it wasn't too bad. And when Gary did show up--not so very late, and he was subdued and apologetic about it--Massimo was right behind him with the first course as a distraction.
Kelly dug into his soup with the gusto of a laborer. Of course, he always had the gusto of a laborer, even when he'd spent all day floating on an air mattress in a swimming pool with a gin and tonic balanced on his navel. Scotty didn't have as much appetite as usual, though. And that was a shame, because the acquacotta was excellent, and he passed along his compliments to the chef.
General Colt stirred his soup slowly, watching the vegetables swirl around in the broth. "Yes, Carmela does do a good job with the food here. Although, really, acquacotta is best served right away, before the bread dissolves in the bowl." He put down the spoon and sipped at his wine. "My apologies. Apparently Gary was off somewhere with--who was that man, son, the one who didn't stay to talk to me?"
"The guy with the tortoiseshell glasses? Oh, yeah. Sorry about that," Gary said, smiling ruefully around the table. "You can tell I don't have much skill at managing my time, huh? I think it's the military that made my dad so good at it. You can't waste time on the battlefield." He raised his brows at Kelly. "You were in the military, weren't you?"
Scotty watched Kelly's face and posture change in that way that no one else ever seemed to notice, the way he always did when his army experience came up. "I was," Kelly said, and it must have sounded perfectly fine to everyone else.
"Which branch?" Gary asked.
"Army. First lieutenant." Kelly took a long drink of wine and held up his glass for a refill.
This caught the general's interest. "Really! I had no idea. Where did you serve?"
With his full glass safely cradled in both hands, Kelly gave him a basic (and well-expurgated, Scotty knew by now) rundown of his infantry division, brigade, and battalion, which launched the general into a discussion of Korea that lasted until the soup bowls had been removed and the main course served. The saltimbocca sparked tablewide admiration, and the conversation moved on to food, restaurants, and the merits of dining in Rome versus in the countryside.
It was toward the end of this course that General Colt shook his head and said, "Of course you'd know a lot more about the countryside than I do, Mr. Robinson. This is the most I've seen of it--this house, and a little bit of the grounds. Your people tell me we're supposed to be laying low for now." He grimaced. "Give me a hotel in the city any day. We're isolated out here."
"Oh, I don't know, Dad. We weren't so isolated last night."
"A special occasion," the general said.
Gary didn't seem to take his sharp tone amiss. He just smiled, wistfully. "It sure was."
General Colt toyed with the last of his food for a moment then gestured abruptly to Massimo, who stepped forward and removed his plate. "Was he here last night? The man in the tortoiseshell glasses. I think I would have remembered him."
"I think he was," Gary said uncertainly. "I didn't pay attention to everyone, but I think he might have arrived late. With Lieutenant Wiley's group."
The general had already opened his mouth to reply, but at Gary's words he started, and his mild expression of discontent deepened into a tight scowl. "Lieutenant-Colonel Wiley," he said. "You'd use 'Colonel' in direct address." As Gary looked sheepish and averted his eyes, the general leaned forward, his back straight as a ruler. "You didn't call him 'Lieutenant' last night, did you?"
A stricken pause. "Uh..."
"...I might have." Gary's head was low now, his posture sagging, his tone verging on sullen, adolescence rising to swamp the emerging man.
"For God's sake! You should know better. You, of all people--my son--were you purposely trying to embarrass me?"
The tirade, slightly stifled but all the more intense for that, went on from there. Kelly was buried in his wineglass, polishing up his best oblivious facade, but Scotty watched with interest--not obvious interest, if he could help it, but interest nevertheless. He ate his food and drank his milk and kept a good eye on Gary with his peripheral vision.
General Colt wound down with a few loaded question-and-answers about whether Gary's carelessness would lead to him referring to his major-general father as a major rather than a general. Gary gave the right answers, but in the wrong tone, which kept the parental dissatisfaction at a simmer. Scotty noticed Gary casting a few subtle pleading looks Kelly's way, probably fishing for rescue, but Kelly didn't even oblige with a nibble; he was working his oblivious racket for all it was worth, glancing past Gary as if he hadn't seen a thing, even turning to signal Massimo for more wine. Scotty steeled himself to pick up the ball.
"Yeah, you gotta be careful with that," he said, mildly admonishing, but letting the hint of a smile show. "You don't want some bird-colonel to get confused with some bottom of the barrel lieutenant. Like Kelly here."
There was a second when General Colt seemed stuck on the edge between irritation and cooperation, but as Scotty had figured, he was looking for some way to back gracefully out of the lecture without losing authority or destroying the evening's mood altogether. "Oh, come now," he said, turning his attention to Scotty with a bit of effort. "Not so bottom of the barrel--after all, there are second lieutenants to consider."
Kelly emerged from a thoughtful sip of his fresh glass of wine as if he had just been passing by and heard his name. "You should've met our second looey. Bright as a button. Could tie his own shoes, too. And he was only fifty-two years old."
His willingness to pick up the slack helped the conversation complete its unwieldy turn away from the family squabble, and even Gary smiled slightly as Kelly launched into a relaxed little anecdote about a platoon of privates all bucking unsuccessfully for private first class.
After dinner they adjourned to a comfortable sitting room just off the living room, and Massimo distributed coffee and brandy. Scotty passed up the brandy gently as a matter of course, but rebuffed the coffee with a brusque reluctance. If he'd been on a night job, he'd have loved a few cups right about now--they made good coffee here. But caffeine kept you up, which was sort of the problem. No point in jinxing things. He didn't ask for milk or anything, but Massimo nevertheless brought him a small glass of mineral water, and he sipped it with great enjoyment as a cooling digestif. He gave Massimo a wink and a thumbs-up, which brought a smile in return. Nice kid.
The general made some noises about possibly playing bridge, and Scotty sighed internally over the thought of the two packs of cards that he had scrounged from the living room, and that currently lay all over his bed tangled up with his and Kelly's two decks. Luckily, no one else sounded crazy about the bridge idea either, and the general was distracted shortly thereafter by Carmela with some household business. Then Gary unearthed a snazzy leather backgammon case and challenged Scotty to a game. They made light conversation over the click of the dice. General Colt read the English paper. Very homey. Kelly, slouched down with his feet propped up, slowly and wordlessly smoked a cigarette, and had Massimo pour him another splash of brandy.
Scotty wasn't concentrating, and Gary squeaked by to a narrow win. Okay, maybe Scotty would have lost even if he had been able to concentrate--he hadn't been well-schooled in the deadly art of backgammon. Gary, grandly victorious, moved on to chivvy his father out from behind the paper and challenge him to a game. They settled in on opposite sides of the board, and despite their differences in coloring and build, their blood relation cried out from every shadow of their stubborn profiles. They played and played again, affectionate and brittle by turns, each of them setting his jaw in real irritation at a setback or answering a playful joke with a smile both shy and proud. Scotty watched openly now, unnoticed, fascinated. Kelly, though, was back in his pretense of preoccupation, shifting in his chair, lighting another cigarette over the cold ashes of his last one and focusing his eyes on the faintly twisting wisps of smoke.
When Kelly finally mashed out his second cigarette, he made no move to start another. Instead, he stood by weary degrees, gave a long, slow stretch, and smiled at his hosts.
"Well, folks, that's it for me."
Gary looked up, the dice cupped in one hand. "Already?" He had big, disappointed eyes, almost a fawn's eyes--though why he'd be disappointed when Kelly had been very carefully not watching him, Scotty had no idea.
"Fraid so." Kelly's smile curled up on one side, apologetic. "I guess I had a little bit of a workout today."
"Hey--thanks again for that. Really." Gary reached out, offering a handshake. After a very slight pause, maybe of surprise, Kelly shook.
"Don't worry about it," he said, and nodded to General Colt. "Sir."
"Lieutenant." The general's tone was warm with respect. Kelly turned away, and only Scotty saw him drop his smile like it was weighing him down.
Gary watched Kelly leave, then he and his father both went back to the game; Scotty stood and slipped from the room during the next roll of the dice.
Kelly had almost been swallowed up by the depths of a side hallway before Scotty softly called to him. He stopped, face and body striped in darkness. They looked at each other.
"Thanks," said Scotty after a moment.
Kelly's face was a little unfamiliar at that distance, in the layering of thick shadow. "For what?"
"My bag. I saw you traded them back."
"Oh yeah." Kelly propped one shoulder against the wall and began to loosen his tie. "I wondered if you were gonna bring it by sometime."
Scotty shrugged and fought the urge to pick at the knot of his own tie. His good hand, though, couldn't help but fidget with the hem of his sling.
Kelly let the ends of his tie dangle and undid his collar button one-handed, tipping his head up to expose his long throat in the dimness. "Yeah, so. Then I needed it."
A little more silence, and one more of Kelly's shirt buttons undone, before he spoke again: "You got my comic?"
Scotty shook his head, looking past Kelly down the hallway for a second. "It's in the bag. I must've put it back in the wrong pocket."
"All right." Kelly slouched upright from the wall and took one step back, and one more, watching Scotty steadily--his eyes glittered faintly in the darkness, unwavering.
Scotty took one mirroring step forward, wondering if maybe Kelly had a chair in his room for someone to sit in, all the better to hassle you from, my dear. He felt curious, and eager, and strangely relieved, like someone had lifted the knot of the sling off the back of his sore neck and eased the constant pull. But before he could take his second step a sudden reaction flooded through him, an intense and instinctive distrust of his own relief, with a sharp edge--it couldn't be fear? He stopped. He dug in and resisted the dawning relief, pressing it down, taking control.
Kelly took a third slow step backward, pulling on one end of his tie until it slithered from around his collar and lay tangled over his fingers. There was time for a long breath in, and a long breath out. And another. Then he smiled, lifted his chin in half a nod, and turned away, his back fading down the dim hall until he turned the corner.
Scotty went directly back to the sitting room and watched the continuing backgammon saga, quashing all other thought.
Father and son had rolled their dice for awhile longer, love and conflict chasing each other around the board. Scotty had held a newspaper in his lap and looked vaguely over it at the ongoing contest, turning down a couple more of Massimo's attempts to get him another drink or even something more to eat. And when the general won another game, putting him just one ahead of Gary (Scotty could swear that Gary had let him win, though very subtly), Gary had smiled, shaken his head with humility, and called it a night.
Now Scotty sat on his bed in nothing but undershorts, his left arm unslung for once, bare back resting against the headboard, legs crossed to keep away from the scattered heap of cards monopolizing the bottom half of the coverlet. He was still slightly damp here and there from his bath--there'd been some awkwardness in managing the towel--but his shoulder had kept good and dry, and Kelly's bandage was still holding tight. He smoothed down the tape again and again with two fingers, tracing gently and absently over the curves of his shoulder, following the path of Kelly's hands.
Warm baths were good for getting people to sleep. Usually. But he still felt wakeful--more than that, uncomfortable, actively restless in the muscles of his legs and the pit of his stomach. The wound looked good, healing clean, and he couldn't feel any trace of fever, so he ruled out some kind of developing infection. His arm's range of motion was slowly increasing. He wasn't sick, really. He wasn't hurt, not much more than usual, anyway, and that was stitched up and doing well. He was fed and bathed and not too hot and not too cold. He was on a nice bed in a very nice house. He had a successful mission behind him and he was on vacation in Italy and he loved Italy, for heaven's sake.
His thumb and forefinger pressed tightly on his eyelids, making him see sparks and squares in the sudden blackness. He had felt better, and surely slept better, crammed in a hot, airless little closet all night on a revolving-watch stakeout with Kelly's knee repeatedly poking into his back. That was ridiculous. A professional, a true professional agent, could sleep anytime and anywhere, and the lap of luxury should surely be a damn sight better than a crowded closet or a fleabag hotel. He unfolded his legs with an abrupt lurch; this ran one of them right through the playing cards, and he jerked his eyes open just in time to watch a heap of cards slide over the edge of the bed and scatter on the floor. Marvelous. It was just marvelous, is what it was.
Bending straight down from the waist for too long got his pulse thumping in his shoulder, so he had to crouch and grope for cards one-handed. He stood up with some effort, dropped back on the bed, and glowered at the heap. This bed wasn't big enough for the both of 'em. There was nothing for it but to start sorting. Blue back. Gold back. Gold back, Bicycle, Alitalia. Blue back, blue back, Alitalia, gold back. Alitalia, gold back...oy. This was what he had been reduced to. He flipped a Bicycle card end over end into its pile. Whee.
Another minute of it, though, and it started to prove oddly soothing. His identification got quicker and more accurate. He practiced putting a little English on his tosses, like a curveball. A curvecard. And who knew, the task might help in the long run--after all, some guys counted sheep.
Four neat decks, side by side. He double-checked and counted each one, tucking them into their respective boxes with their respective jokers. Very nice. The two decks from the living room he set on the nightstand, to return tomorrow. His own deck he tossed in a low, easy arc to land solidly on top of one of his bags. Kelly's Alitalia deck remained, perched on the slope of his thigh, slippery cardboard balanced just right against the friction of his skin. He could keep it. But Kelly had all of his belongings back now, in his own room. It wasn't very neat or orderly to have just one thing left over.
Scotty pulled on his pajama pants and gingerly slid into the pajama jacket, leaving it unbuttoned, careful not to dislodge the bandage. The deck went into his pocket. No sling; his neck was officially tired of it. He braced his arm against his body instead, forearm curved over his waist, palm and fingertips cool against the skin of his stomach. Barefoot, he stepped out into the hall, swinging the bedroom door half-shut behind him to leave just a thin slice of light showing. That would have to do instead of a trail of breadcrumbs.
The path back to the living room, and from there to the sitting room, was familiar enough by now. That got him quickly to the shadowed passages where Kelly had faded back into the side corridor and turned out of sight. From here, though, it would be a guessing game. He knew where north was, but that was about it. And there were no helpful tracks on the thick carpet runners or the pale, cool tiled floors the way there had been through the gravel of the garden. But then on the other hand, there was no one with a gun waiting to pop out and make life difficult--presumably--so that meant he was free to poke around. As long as he didn't go poking right into the general's room. That might require an explanation, and Scotty wasn't sure he had one to give. I wanted to return a deck of cards. Yes sir, in the middle of the night. No sir, I wasn't dropped on my head when I was a child. Plenty of times since then, though.
There were narrow doors that were most likely closets. A couple of doors hung slightly ajar, revealing an office and something much like a study or a small library; he poked his head into the latter and inhaled the dusty sweetness of old books. At an intersection, a broad flight of stairs led upward, presumably to a master suite on the second floor, and the ground-floor hallway split in two. He peered down each dim branch of the passage and at last turned to the right, stepping carefully and softly, tracing his right hand along the wall as a guide.
One more turn and he saw a light, a definite glow from underneath one of the doors. Somebody was up. He stood next to the door for a minute, listening, and then moved closer to ease his right ear up against the surface of the wood. There was a sound like paper rustling, maybe pages turning. Awake and reading. So there was no time like the present.
He waited another two minutes, though, breathing very quietly--not standing right in front where his shadow might show beneath the door, but a couple feet to the side. He could drop the deck right here, or maybe on the little telephone table down the hall. He could just go back to his room. He knew the way now. He could take the deck with him and casually hand it over at breakfast, oh by the way, here you go, I could have brought it by but I didn't, please pass the milk.
Oh, sure, or he could mail it, or bury it in the flowerbeds, or pick some other way to be even twitchier than he already was. Forget it. He reached out and, with one false start before making solid contact, tapped his knuckles lightly against the door.
There was a silent pause before a muffled voice said "Come in?", and even as Scotty was turning the handle and pushing the heavy door inward, he knew he was in the wrong place. Even through a wall and through the heartbeat in his ears, he could tell the voice wasn't the voice. But the door was open now, and it was Gary there, sitting in bed with the blankets cast back, looking up inquiringly from a folder of papers. He was wearing gray sweatpants and a T-shirt with a faded map of New Mexico on it, and the bandages wrapping his forearms were rumpled and uneven.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, no." Scotty smiled and patted the air with one hand, and Gary visibly relaxed. Scotty couldn't really follow that up with a good reason for being here, though--or, in fact, a good reason for his strong reluctance just to explain his wrong turn and ask for directions--so he took a detour instead. "You doing all right?"
"Oh, sure." Gary answered a little too quickly right off the bat, and then hesitated, ill at ease. "You want to come in?"
Scotty stepped inside and closed the door. There was no chair in here, either--he didn't know what was with these interior decorators. Maybe none of them had any friends. But Gary moved his legs to make room on the foot of the bed (and shoved the folder he'd been reading partly underneath a pillow, Scotty noticed), so Scotty sat down there and tugged his pajama jacket closed, propping his left arm on his lap to take the pull from his stitches.
"How's your shoulder?" Gary asked, watching him settle in.
"Better every day. What about your arms?"
Gary held them out for inspection, rotating palm down to palm up. "Same here." He flexed his fingers closed and open and closed again with a thoughtful frown. "Some of the Department doctors are coming again tomorrow to test my fine motor control."
More house calls. And multiple doctors. Now that was very interesting. "Lots more meetings tomorrow?"
"Yeah. Uh..." He shrugged. "I've been setting up some extra ones."
It sounded almost like a confession. Scotty let a few seconds go by, glancing at the pillow on top of the folder and back to Gary's troubled face before saying, gently, "Without your dad."
Gary nodded. He pulled the folder out and held it between his hands, bending it back and forth.
"Doesn't he know you're being recruited?"
"Course." His tone wasn't entirely convincing. Not bad, though. Given more experience he was going to be a pretty good liar.
"But he still thinks you're going into the research labs," Scotty said, whipping the tablecloth right off the elephant in the room. Gary's eyes went hunted, even a little panicky, before he did his best to calm down and look faintly quizzical. Man, the kid was a perfectionist. Already putting pressure on himself for not fooling a professional fooler, and then for not hiding his reactions from a professional snoop. "Easy, now. We're all in this together."
"...I know," Gary said after a moment, looking abashed. "I know that. I guess I was just..."
He smiled. "Yeah."
"Like at dinner." This time Gary's startlement was much more subtle. He really was starting to get a handle on all this.
"You noticed that, huh?"
"I noticed." He considered the folder. "You've been reading up."
"Uh-huh." Gary riffled one thumb across the pages, looking tentatively pleased. "Evasion techniques, comma, conversational." His smile widened. "It always drove my dad crazy when I used to make mistakes on rank titles."
"I can imagine," said Scotty, and after just two days in their household, he believed he could. "So the guy, the tortoiseshell glasses guy. Your recruiting contact. He's a secret?"
Gary's grin faded, and he sighed. "I don't know. Not really. I mean, no one told me my dad can't know any of it. It's not like they're trying to make the lab cover fool him too. He's in so deep already, you know?"
Scotty nodded, staying quiet, letting him talk it out.
"He gets so happy, talking to all these people, and his boy the bookworm became his boy the hero, it's like a dream come true for him. And for--"
And for me, Scotty heard him swallow the phrase.
"--And I know he'd love to hear I was getting out of the lab, out of the books and into the field. But it's just that they're not recruiting him. They're not going through him to get to me. He has his debriefings and all that, but my meetings, they're mine. This job...it's mine." He stopped abruptly, ran his tongue over his bottom lip, and made an attempt at a wry smile. "Crazy, huh? Wanting it both ways."
"Crazy comes with the job description," Scotty said. "And anyway, it'll all come out in the wash. He's bound to figure it out for himself pretty soon, if he doesn't know already."
"You think so? I mean--he hasn't said anything."
"Well, secrets are pretty fragile things. That's what our business is all about. You saw that during the mission, didn't you?" Scotty smiled at him, coaxing out a little more of that fledgling savoir-faire.
"Yeah. Yeah, I did." Gary plucked at the blankets. "Guess I'll get used to it."
"And it'll all get easier once they put me with a partner, anyway. Will they do that before I go into training school, do you think?"
Scotty felt a tickle under the bandage and frowned. "No," he said, slipping his right hand under the fabric of his pajama jacket, rubbing his fingers on the skin around the tape to try to distract the itch. "I've never heard of them doing that."
"So, not until I get there?"
"No. If they give you one, it'll be a lot later." He pressed his hand against the bandage, but it didn't really help.
"If?" Gary's man-of-the-world air started to waver again.
Scotty mentally cursed the recruiting section. They obviously hadn't gotten any better at prepping the incoming students since Scotty was green. They probably did that on purpose, but it didn't make it easy to get the new guys up to speed. "Look," he said. "Training isn't about other people. It's about you. Just you, and can you get the job done."
"But I saw--you know, you and Kelly, and I guess I hoped--"
"Yeah, there are some pairs." Scotty interrupted him emphatically. He felt very strongly that he had to make this clear. "There are some squads of three or more, too. But most agents are in the field alone, or they only work on temporary teams. Listen to me, now: your career is about you, yourself, and can you get the job done."
He stopped himself, eased up, took a breath. Gary was looking a little deer-in-the-headlights, so Scotty smiled at him again. "Get in, do the assignment, get out if you can. He travels fastest who travels alone. Get it?"
"I get it," said Gary slowly. "But I--could I--" He stumbled and then forged ahead. "How did you end up with Kelly?"
Gary still looked anxious, expectant. He was probably hoping for some personal details. Insights. Secrets. Things Scotty didn't even know himself...or at least things he didn't usually have the time to think about. And that was for the best. Navel-gazing, Scotty told himself firmly, was a luxury the busy spy couldn't afford.
"It just worked out that way," he said. "We were the right tool for the right job."
"What about me?" Gary asked, with a lightness that ill-matched the worry in his eyes. "What kind of tool am I?"
Scotty hesitated for a second, then grinned. "What kind of tool am I, who never fell in love," he sang, in his best Sammy Davis Jr. impression (though he knew Kelly would have pointed out it wasn't really good enough to be anybody's "best" anything). And he kept riffing on "What Kind of Fool Am I" until Gary started to laugh. A genuine laugh--or at least the best lie he'd told yet.
The night was just crawling on by.
He lay on his back, pajama jacket hanging open, Kelly's deck of cards on the nightstand. The first hour or so he spent replaying his conversation with Gary, sure that he'd done nothing better than just make sure two people in this house would have trouble sleeping. Way to knock the new guy around before he even got into the game. He remembered his own spy-school arrogance, and thought that must be the best way to get into it in the end: cocky and aloof and dumb. Learn about the downsides of things later, run into the walls on your own.
Go to sleep, he ordered himself. Just sleep. You're a pro. It's what you do: you do what needs doing.
He breathed slowly, deeply, as if he were already asleep. He tried letting his mind wander. He tried concentrating. He tried tensing and relaxing each muscle in turn, starting with his toes and moving up along the entire length of his body, even to his eyelids and his forehead. He flipped his pillow over to the cool side. He silently recited Aristophanes to himself, and then Homer, keeping the syllables as slow and rhythmic as a lullaby. He made anagrams out of some of the bosses' names; when he got to Russ's full name he explored the possibilities of "Russell Gabriel Conway" for ages, finally settling on "a reliably snug scowler," which he felt even Russ would have to give pretty good marks for accuracy. And certainly more flattering than "a senior ugly screwball." That one didn't seem quite fair, somehow.
The whole time, as the night crept and ticked and turned in place, Scotty kept having that feeling like he was just about to be able to sleep. He'd get poised right on the top of a slope, and he'd let go in body and mind, but he just never went rolling down into the dark. And after a while, of course, the more he wanted it, the more he longed for it, the worse it felt to have it just out of reach. So at long last he took a deep, despairing breath and lurched out of bed. He left the room lights off this time and just wandered his whole careful way by touch, thinking about warm milk.
The kitchen was tidy and silent, lit with surprising brightness by clear shafts from the full moon; the whitewashed walls practically glowed with it. Herbs hung in bunches along the windowsill, and he identified a few of them by scent--rosemary, mint, a braided rope of garlic--but the rest were a fragrant mystery. It had been a long, long time since he'd had any kitchen that was even partly his own. He lifted down a little saucepan from its hook and poured in milk from one of the bottles in the icebox. A bracket bolted to the wall held wooden matches. Lighting the stove made him squint and flinch; the match-flare, then the brightness of the burner's flame, even turned down low and glowing ghostly blue, dazzled him for a minute and swamped the subtleties of the moonlight. He had to grope around on the counter before his fingers recognized the sugarbowl. A good sprinkle of sugar in the milk, and he swirled the saucepan over the heat for a little while, watching the orange spots in his night vision fade to green.
And then there was a sound behind him. A constellation of sounds, actually, and so faint as to be almost below a conscious level: the whisper of a step, the soft exhalation of breath at a certain pitch and key. And something less definable, just the sense of another body entering the space, disturbing the air currents, soaking up some of the ambient room echo. Something.
"Of course," Scotty said without turning. "As soon as food gets involved, you pop out of the woodwork."
"Hey, careful with the mouth," Kelly replied. "I might've been the general, for all you know."
Scotty swirled the pan once more and let it rest on the burner. "You always forget about my Spidey-sense." He turned to a little shelf of stoneware mugs and looked over at Kelly, who was leaning back against the wall, limned by moonlight. He wore boxer shorts, a silky dark short robe tied loosely at his waist, loafers on his bare feet. "I suppose I have to pour you a cup now?"
"Oh, no. So much effort, you'll rupture something."
"I'm used to it," he said, and lifted two mugs off the shelf with one hand.
"Yeah, I guess you're already pre-ruptured."
Scotty poured the milk without spilling a drop. He turned to Kelly with one mug held loosely in his good hand.
Kelly stayed where he was, arms crossed, the long muscles of his bare legs silvered and cool. "Well?"
Scotty shrugged--carefully, minding the milk. "There's a surcharge for delivery."
A small smile flickered over Kelly's mouth. He pushed off the wall and came forward, but instead of taking the other mug from the counter, he plucked Scotty's out of his grasp. "Right. I should've remembered."
Scotty took the other mug, sipped. It was hot. And good, too, although a little vanilla wouldn't hurt.
"What else are we having?" Kelly had his face close to the cup, breathing in the faint curls of steam. "Waffles?"
"I ain't making you no waffles."
Kelly slouched against the counter. "How come you never make me waffles anymore?"
"I have never made you waffles."
"Good thing, too. Probably poison us both, and just imagine the headlines."
Scotty's stomach and legs were gradually unclenching, and he took another sip, shooting Kelly a well-practiced haughty look. "Listen, Mighty Mouth, I could whip up a breakfast that would knock you out of your socks. If you'd bothered to wear any."
"Don't you tell me they sent you to chef school while I wasn't looking."
Kelly jumped in before Scotty could say his next word. "Mom."
"I used to make breakfast for the other kids so she could get to work on time," Scotty said. He felt a little smile touch his mouth, and Kelly smiled back for a second with that fond, vulnerable look he always got when it came to Mom.
"I should write her tomorrow," Kelly said.
"Tell her you haven't been taking care of yourself."
Scotty blinked. "What?"
Kelly shrugged, his eyes hooded, back to watching the steam dissipate over his cup.
"You better not," Scotty said after a second. "I can produce documentary evidence that I've been eating my greens." He looked pointedly at Kelly's mug. "And I thought we agreed I'm probably not trying to poison you. Not just now, anyway."
But Kelly still wasn't drinking. He looked up again from the cup. Just watching him.
"What?" Scotty asked at last. "Too hot?"
Kelly said, "You should wear your sling."
"Come on, you should wear it. Looks good on you."
"Not while I'm sleeping."
"Yes. Certainly. But you're not sleeping."
Scotty sighed. Drank. "No, I'm not."
Kelly's hands were folded around his mug, fingers interlaced, as if he were absorbing the sweet milk right through the stone. Scotty didn't fool himself that Kelly would overlook that last remark. If he had been a little more on-keel he never would have said it. At least not quite like that.
And of course Kelly picked it up: "You all right?"
"Yes. Can we just--"
"Can we just forget it? Okay?" He clenched his left fist where it rested against his stomach, stared at Kelly. "Please." He didn't often say please.
A long silence. Kelly looked back at him, motionless, the angles of his face and throat softened by moonlight like a sculpture. Then he sighed. "Okay, Jack, okay." He tipped the mug to his lips and took long, deep swallows.
Scotty finished his milk and busied himself tidying up, wiping the counter, washing the cups and saucepan. His left arm was working much better. Good enough for now, anyway. He bent his head over the sink, pouring rinse water from the pan, stacking pan and mugs on the drainboard. He'd lost sight of Kelly from his peripheral vision and hadn't heard him leave, but assumed he must have.
But when he turned from the sink, rubbing one damp palm down his pajama jacket, he saw Kelly standing in the kitchen doorway. His eyes were dark and patient.
"I could do your laundry while I'm at it," Scotty said.
"Why not? We could hire you out." Kelly looked him up and down. "Remember, I know how you look in an apron."
"Let's not think about it."
"We could add a feather duster. Little lace cap."
Scotty smiled, despite himself. "There's something wrong with you."
"Don't I know it." Kelly stepped back into the dark of the hall, leaving enough room for him to pass.
Scotty padded tentatively into the mouth of the hallway, his eyes adjusting anew to the shadows there. Kelly stood flat and deferential against the wall. "Night," he said.
"Yeah," Scotty said. But he didn't move past; he just leaned against the wall on his own side, and a companionable silence descended. He could breathe so much easier right here. He could just tip his head back against the wall and sleep like that. He wondered if Carmela would mind finding him here when she came in to make breakfast.
They stood like that for a while, mirrored. Kelly's features were indistinct in the dark, but now and then Scotty caught the shine of his eyes when he shifted his weight. He didn't seem eager to be gone, though. He seemed relaxed. Willing to wait there as long as Scotty wanted him to. Needed him to. He rubbed his fingers fretfully around the bandage; his eyelids felt grainy and sore, heavy with the desperate need for rest.
"I've got your deck in my room. From solitaire."
"Oh, yeah. How'd the Empress turn out?"
Scotty turned his head and rested his cheek against the coolness of the wall. "Not so good."
"Well, I'm sorry about that. She can be a little heartless."
Quiet rose again, undemanding. Scotty squeezed his eyes shut. "Come on back with me, you can pick it up."
Kelly's voice sounded amused. "Let me guess. There's a surcharge for delivery."
"Something like that." Scotty straightened up and started down the hall. Kelly didn't say anything else, but he fell into step, sometimes close enough that their shoulders brushed. Even in the dark, neither of them made any wrong turns.
He flicked on the light (thoroughly startling his night-adjusted eyes), bowed Kelly hospitably into the room, and waved toward the rumpled bed. "Take a load off."
"Is that a crack?" Kelly flopped down and leaned against the footboard. "After I went running just this morning?"
"And after you ate half the eggs in the district."
"Have mercy," Kelly said, both hands to his heart. "I'm on vacation."
"You're gonna be on a permanent vacation, tournament-wise, unless we can get through some shot drills pretty soon."
"Yeah, I guess my poor racket has been getting a little lonely." He scooted over, making room, and Scotty sat down against the headboard and slid under the covers, rolling onto his right side. Kelly's legs were stretched out next to him.
"Don't you go putting your dirty shoes on this nice clean bedspread," he said, eyeing the loafers.
"These shoes are the cleanest they've ever been," Kelly protested, shucking them off nevertheless. "The floors, they've been scrubbed and polished within an inch of their life. I mean, you could eat off 'em."
"The floors, man, the floors."
There was a comfortable pause, and Scotty was starting to unwind again when Kelly spoke.
"So where's my deck?"
He gestured vaguely. "Night table."
Scotty tugged the covers up more tightly and drew a shallow breath. "Thanks for the loan."
There was no reply. Scotty didn't look down to the footboard to see Kelly's expression. Instead, he lay and watched Kelly's legs, and wondered when he'd see the muscles start shifting to climb down off the bed and away. The guy had big feet. Not broad, though, like his own. Long. Kind of narrow. Like, if his own feet were snowshoes, Kelly's were skis. The skin was slightly paler until the tan line at the ankle from tennis socks; they hadn't been to the beach recently enough to even him out.
His leg felt relaxed and easy under Scotty's hand.
It took a few moments for him to realize that he was holding on to Kelly--loosely, comfortably, his palm curled over one shin and his fingertips curving round the calf muscle. He hadn't done it on purpose. At least, he didn't think so. But the last thing he wanted right now was to have to let go. He let his hand rest there, dark against Kelly's faint tan, and tried not to think about it.
Kelly wiggled the toes on both feet, slowly and deliberately. "Scotty?"
He didn't have much to say, so he didn't say anything.
"Um, Earth to Scotty, come in. Over."
He slowly looked down along the bed, up along Kelly's legs and the easy length of his sprawled body, to his face.
"Look." Kelly spoke very softly now. "Would you...you've got to help me out, here."
"It's nothing for you to worry about," Scotty said at last.
"Uh-huh. You want to tell me what the matter is?"
"It's nothing," Scotty said again. "It's stupid."
"Oh, is that so." He smiled, mostly with his eyes. "Well, sir, I've heard some pretty stupid things in my day, what with all the hanging around with you. So you'll just have to do better than that."
Scotty's throat worked soundlessly for a moment. And then he just said: "I miss you."
Kelly slowly cocked his head. "I'm right over here." His voice was quiet and thoughtful.
"I know. And I miss you." He resisted every syllable as soon as he heard it come out of his mouth; it sounded even worse hanging there in the air than it had felt pressing against the inside of his throat. He shook his head. "I said it was--"
"--stupid." Kelly said. "I heard you." But he didn't look like he was hearing something stupid.
Scotty pulled his gaze away, shifting restlessly, and patted Kelly's shin. "Can't say I like this. Your leg feels a little too hot to me."
"Your hand's a little too cold. And don't change the subject."
"There is no subject." Scotty spoke as flatly as he could manage. Closed for business. Bridge out. Having said it once was bad enough.
"All right. Yes. Nothing more to see here. Consider it dropped." He nudged Scotty with the side of his leg. "Now go to sleep."
Scotty flexed and relaxed his left shoulder, feeling the stitches pull a little. At last, very low: "I can't."
"Of course you can't. Not while you're still talking." Another nudge. "And shut your eyes."
Scotty closed his eyes, letting out a long, martyred breath.
"I live to bully you, you know that. Now simmer down." Kelly paused, and when he spoke again, the good-natured brusqueness had faded before a tone somehow both gentler and stronger: "I'll be here."
Lying there, his eyes obediently closed, his hand relaxed across Kelly's leg, Scotty began to feel all right for a change. His shoulder didn't hurt. The tautness of his stomach and legs was easing off. His mind wasn't stripping its gears or anything, and he didn't need to occupy himself or kill time. He could just rest. He let himself drift a little bit, thoughts widening and rising like smoke. Kelly's skin was warm under his hand. Kelly said he wasn't taking care of himself, but what did Kelly know. Well, okay, he knew plenty. But he didn't have to talk about it so much. It was just fine now. Nobody'd have to go writing anybody's mom.
Dimly, Scotty felt the bed shift as Kelly got up, sliding out from under his grip. Heading off for the long hike back to the north pole. The north wing. Stays nice and cool in the afternoons. Scotty sighed. Sleep, he told himself, sleep now, go to sleep.
In the next moment, though, he knew Kelly hadn't gone any place of the kind. He'd gotten up, all right, but there was the sound of a door latch, the click of a light switch, and here he was again, climbing onto the bed full-length. He stretched himself out along Scotty's back, close against him on top of the covers. He nestled his head into Scotty's pillow.
Good God, there was nothing better. The last of the tension uncoiled, dissolving that nameless knot in his belly that wouldn't let him go under. He basked in the feel of it. For a while.
Before long, though, he found himself trying to resist again. The sheer magnitude of relief was something dangerous, a bad symptom. If he couldn't stand alone, he couldn't travel fastest. He was dependent. He could be the biggest teetotaller in the world, and it wouldn't keep him from being weak. But no matter how the steely part of him strained against it this time, it was no use. He couldn't help it. There was just nothing better, and he needed it, and he was so tired. At last he knew he was really going to sleep. Every thought, every ache, every self-condemnation dissolved away as he subsided into a boneless heap against Kelly's body.
"Hey," Scotty said after a minute, with great effort.
"Mmm?" Kelly's voice was muffled.
"Don't fall asleep."
It was so quiet in the room. The room with the eastern exposure. The grove of trees. Not even a night bird singing. Kelly's breathing was quiet, too, and peaceful, and close.
Scotty couldn't have opened his eyes for love or money, but he was clinging to consciousness just enough to speak again: "Seriously. Don't go to sleep."
"I won't go to sleep." He was talking into the back of Scotty's neck now, very low and easy, his lips almost grazing the skin.
"I mean it," Scotty said. "You better go back to your room before you fall asleep."
"Jughead," Kelly whispered, his words a puff of warm air under Scotty's collar. "I am not. Falling. Asleep."
"...Well...I am..." Scotty managed. "Make sure you...."
But he was sliding now, losing track of the words and of everything else, and he had just a second to feel Kelly's chest rumble in a quiet laugh before the last thread of thought went dark.
He's weightless. Slow, easy, floating in a world of utter blue, so far under the sea that only the faintest fringe-end of sunlight filters down. It's cool here, and completely quiet.
Quiet. No noise. No noise means no rush of bubbles. No bubbles means no air. He realizes he's been holding his breath, though he doesn't know for how long. And he knows he can't do it forever.
Arms and legs give one powerful stroke, all his limbs together, propelling him upward. But he's too far down, isn't he, too far even for the sun to reach. The last ripples of wavering light twist and flicker through the heavy blue and make the whole world a hall of mirrors. He blinks--the salt water shivers like a roomful of smoke--and floating in the middle of everything, there's Kelly. Long legs dangling down, head tipped back a little, weightless as he is himself.
But there's one difference. Of course, he thinks, of course, I didn't think of it before. Kelly's made of air. He watches Kelly move one of his arms in a curving sweep--is he waving?--and it leaves a trail of bright silver bubbles.
He swims closer. He can feel the tightness building in his chest now, gripping his lungs, the last bit of breath getting used up. He sees the thin shine of air along Kelly's shoulder, his neck, his waist. Kelly grins, saying something he can't hear. Bubbles shimmer from his lips, his bright teeth.
Scotty reaches for him, wraps them close. He twines his legs around Kelly's, their thighs and calves slipping along each other's in the cool liquid dark; he slides his hand around Kelly's back and fits them together at chest and hip. He feels the air against his skin. He can breathe now with his whole body, and the tightness lets go with one great, satisfying inward rush. His mouth is at Kelly's mouth, as Kelly is laughing, soundlessly talking, and Scotty leans in and breathes. Breathes in. Breathes of him.
He half-woke, drifting, disoriented. Warmth beneath his hands. Warmth against his body, living warmth that moved with him and breathed with him. In that haven of sleep and sea and darkness he reached for it, pulled it close, struggling to find it, to keep it, to let himself sink into it again.
There was light pressure on his back, stirring his muzzy brain slightly, and he started hearing sounds that only slowly coalesced into something he could understand.
"Shh shh shh," came Kelly's voice, almost too softly to hear, the wordless soothing sounds you gave an invalid or a sleepwalker. It was Kelly's hand smoothing rhythmically along his back, Kelly's body in his arms, warm against him in the dark. He was aware that he was on his left side now, burrowed in close, his right fist gripping a handful of satin robe. Their legs were kind of tangled together--as much as they could be, anyway, with Kelly on top of the covers and him underneath. His pulse was thumping rapidly in his shoulder, but he didn't turn back over. He couldn't make himself do it. Instead he pressed his forehead against Kelly's chest, where the robe fell aside over warm muscle. Drawing a slow, shaky breath, he opened his mouth to the taste of Kelly's skin.
There was a sudden shiver beneath Scotty's lips and tongue, a twitch running through Kelly's body from head to foot. The comforting hand stopped its easy passes and clutched at him. Scotty made a vague sound and moved up along Kelly's throat.
"Scotty." Kelly spoke rapidly, breathlessly. "Scotty. You awake?"
He murmured indistinctly into the underside of Kelly's jaw.
"Scotty." A strong hand grasped the back of his neck, tugged him away. "Come on--come on, now. Don't."
This got through. The warm, indistinct sense of twilight drift faded at last, and he came more fully awake. He shook his head slightly, gasping for air. "Sorry--"
"You're all right. Take it easy."
He forced himself to start turning over, trying to roll away onto his other side again. But it took effort, especially with his legs still wound in the blankets, and once he was flat on his back, he subsided. Kelly wasn't moving away or getting up. He still lay curled next to him, sharing the pillow. Breathing hard.
Scotty cleared his throat. "Uh. How long was I out?"
"Maybe an hour, hour and a half," Kelly said, his voice still uneven.
"I hope I didn't kick you or anything."
"On the contrary."
"Yeah." He stared upward at the dark ceiling, his head still buzzing with the confusion and low inhibition of sleep. "I'm sorry about that."
A long sigh, soft against his neck. "Don't be sorry, man. Just...get some rest. You'd blame yourself in the morning. And maybe me too."
They lay quiet for a minute, Scotty still looking at the ceiling he couldn't really see. He could feel Kelly watching him.
"I don't suppose you wanna talk about it," Kelly said after a while.
"You don't suppose right."
"So you do wanna talk about it?"
"No. I mean you're right when you don't suppose I do."
"So you meant I don't not suppose right."
Scotty let his eyes slip closed, smiling slightly. "I don't know. I'll have to parse it in the morning."
"You must be clear with me at all times," Kelly said primly. "I'm remarkably thick in the head."
"Remarkable." The end of the word was swallowed in an enormous, surprising yawn. As he was wondering what to say next, he fell asleep.
He's coming back to save her, and this time he's gonna do it right. He shoves open the door into the same stuffy little Hong Kong backstreets room, smelling of smoke and sour sweat and ancient mold. Angel is still in there--though this time she isn't sitting at her vanity, but, oddly, in a shabby green easy chair Scotty remembers from his youngest childhood, before the new building. Stuffing spills out of a rip in one of the arms, and he can see bugs through the hole, seething and crawling down inside the upholstery.
"Alexander," Angel says, drawing the word out in a long, musical slur. Her pupils are huge and glassy in her weary face; cigarette ash sifts across her body like cobwebs.
"Come on, honey, let's get out of here." He grabs one of her hands and pulls. But when her arm extends, he sees a needle socked into the vein, the barrel full to overflowing with dirty yellow liquid.
Angel laughs at him. "Here you go, hero. Been saving this for you." And with her other hand she pulls the needle from her arm with a slow, thick pop.
He tries to let go of her, but he can't move. He can't speak.
She leans forward, still grinning that cruel, sleepy, lost grin. "I told you. Everybody's got his bag," she says, and jabs the needle up to the hilt in his shoulder.
He jerked instantly to full awareness this time, eyes opening to bright morning light, stomach churning with adrenaline, mouth dry and bitter-tasting. He was on his left side again, and his shoulder ached from the pressure. The other side of the bed was empty beneath his outflung arm. He could have sworn the imprint on the coverlet still had a touch of Kelly's warmth, though it was hard to tell. He looked dumbly at his hand laying flat on the blanket for a second, then clenched his fist. Kelly was gone, that's all. Rubbing his eyes, he dragged himself up to face another cheery day.
The birds carried on outside the window, accompanying his dressing process with sounds like an opera made up entirely of arguments. Instead of thinking about any of last night's events or dreams or all of the above, which he really couldn't face just yet, he occupied himself by putting names to each of the major birds he could hear (not species names, he was pretty hopeless there, but names like "Harold" and "Egbert" and "Screechy Fred"), and eventually humming along with their repeated themes. He donned the sling with some resentment and poked around for aspirin to quell the ache before remembering that Kelly had switched their bags back. Swell.
After making sure he had at least remembered to fasten his jeans and put the right shoes on the right feet, he slowly followed his nose out to the terrace--he wasn't very hungry, but the savory, rich smells were still tempting--and it was only as he stepped through the door that he realized what this meant: they were already eating.
The muted sounds of conversation and the clink of tableware stopped. Gary looked startled, the general discomfited, and Kelly...he stared at Kelly the longest, probably to a noticeable degree, but Kelly kept his head down, studying his hands and his coffee cup with the intensity of a bombardier.
"I'm sorry." Gary rose, clutching his napkin in one hand. "I thought you were sleeping in."
"Don't worry ab--" Scotty began. But it seemed like he had hardly opened his mouth before Massimo was there, laying him a place, volubly agitated and apologetic, losing his English altogether. A different accent and wording increasingly spilled into his rapid speech--sounded like a dialect, like Romanesco. Made sense. He must be a poor kid from the neighborhood. Scotty could relate.
"Hey," he said in Italian, catching the boy's eye, wracking his brain for the bits of Romanesco he knew, letting the consonants go liquid. "It's all right. Keep it down, huh? You'll scare the chickens." He shot a wry glance around the table at this last, startling Massimo into a slow smile. Scotty sat down, steadfastly ignoring everyone's eyes upon him. Almost everyone's. Kelly's cup apparently remained fascinating.
The food was good, but not really what his sour stomach was asking for; after a couple of experimental bites, he mostly nibbled on some toast and watched his wavering reflection in cup after cup of coffee. Massimo had settled down, though it felt like every time Scotty paused for a second, his cup was full again and hot toast was in the rack.
It was morning, and there was food and light and coffee; his body reacted obediently, perking up to some degree, well trained by years of unpredictable deprivation. His mind, though, that was another story. Normally, losing this much rest meant they were on a job, and when they were on a job he kept his mind alert and occupied with the tasks at hand. He did the assignment, he second-guessed the bad guys, he figured out a new way to escape or something. But now he couldn't get ahold of anything so concrete. No one had a gun to his head. No one was depending on him to run to the rescue. He was stuck with his own increasingly uncomfortable thoughts, gone hazy with exhausted confusion. He'd never expected to miss being tied up in a locked room somewhere.
"Scott?" Gary was looking at him with some concern. Scotty wondered for a wild, blurry moment if he had spoken that last thought aloud. Maybe they'd end up calling for doctors and a padded truck, and then he'd get the best of both worlds: a long rest, and getting tied up in a locked room. Kelly had always said he looked dashing in a straitjacket.
He bit down on all this and just smiled vaguely around his toast. "Hmm?"
"That would be okay with you, if the staff took your laundry into town with the rest of the house laundry?"
"Well," he said, swallowing, "I don't want to give them extra work or anything--"
"It was their idea. They mentioned it to dad first thing this morning."
Scotty looked around, but Massimo must have been in the kitchen. "Hey--thanks, that'd be great. We're always running low by the end of an assignment."
"Especially when some of us go and get a bullet hole punched right through a perfectly good sleeve," Kelly said, reaching for the syrup. He ostentatiously slopped it over the last bite of his eggs; Scotty shuddered and lifted his coffee cup to block the view.
General Colt and Gary were finished by now, using their napkins, draining the last drops of coffee from their cups; Massimo arrived and began stacking their plates. "Take your time, gentlemen," the general said, checking his watch. "I'm not certain we'll be able to have lunch with you--we might be in another meeting, like yesterday." Gary, behind his father's shoulder, glanced expressionlessly away.
Kelly's mouth was full, so Scotty said, "Don't worry yourself, sir. They took good care of us yesterday--we're in clover." He exchanged smiles with Massimo.
The general nodded pleasantly enough, but his mind was obviously already elsewhere. He left, ushering Gary into the house.
Scotty pushed his chair back and sighed, propping his head on one hand, looking out at the gardens. The sounds of the birds and the bees were somehow not as comforting as they had been yesterday.
He felt a light touch on his good shoulder. Massimo stood by his chair, a tray of dishes propped on one hip. "Sir," he said (in school-standard Italian this time, the Romanesco accents smoothed back under), "would you like to get a little sun? My mother always says that sunshine helps heal...things." He nodded uncertainly at Scotty's bad arm. "Especially country sunshine. I set up some chairs for you." His gesture drew Scotty's attention to a grouping of furniture a short distance from the house: two reclining lounge chairs and a small table.
Scotty shook his head admiringly and patted him on the arm. "That's perfect," he answered in Italian. "Absolutely perfect."
Massimo ducked his head, smiling again, and presented Scotty with one of the saucers from the tray--it was full of leftover crumbs. Scotty turned to ask Kelly if he felt like playing Lord of Bird Manor, and closed his mouth as he saw Kelly's chair sitting empty and heard the door of the house swinging shut.
So he gave Massimo some more thanks, about a thousand of them, and made a beeline out into the garden, awkwardly peeling off his sling and shirt as he went. He tossed the shirt and sling onto the little table, dropped heavily into one of the chairs, swung his legs up, and stretched out. The saucer balanced just fine on his bare belly. Behold, the living birdfeeder. Now this was a pose made for a vacation. Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply in and out. The air smelled sweet, warm and damp and heavy, the morning's crispness burning quickly away. His eyelids filtered the sun into a dark reddish haze. A nap would hit the spot. Any fears he had of ruining his night's sleep had fled before the need to get some kind of rest, whenever and wherever. Just to shut down for a little while. He took a breath, held it, let it go. His heartbeat kept slow time in the faint achy pulse of his shoulder. He remembered how his insides had unwound last night, his legs, his knotted belly. But he remembered Angel's face, too. Everybody's got his bag. Everybody.
The saucer was sliding as he breathed. He could feel it slipping to the side, where it would overturn and fall and feed the birds all in one go. Scotty couldn't bring himself to care. He figured it was probably a more up-front transaction than making a big deal out of it, tossing the crumbs all over and making the critters hop and scramble for their supper. Two more inches. One. Almost liftoff.
At the last possible second, though, he relented. Massimo had gone to some trouble, and anyway, maybe bribing the birds would make them fat and sleepy and well-disposed toward the insomniac in the east wing. His eyes still closed, he reached quickly across his body with his right hand to grab the plate as it tipped.
His fingers smacked into something, jamming his thumb for a quick and painful moment, and he yelped and opened his eyes. Kelly sat on the edge of the other lounge chair, bent forward, frozen, the falling saucer caught in his cupped hands. Scotty could see his own distorted face reflected dimly in Kelly's sunglasses.
"Ow," Kelly said mildly.
"How long have you been here?" Scotty replied. It came out forceful, maybe even accusatory.
Kelly paused a moment before answering, his face expressionless behind the glasses, the lenses glossy black like the eyes of a bug. "Little while."
Scotty took the saucer back and set it on the table atop his sling, struggling with a complicated rush of both relief and dismay. "You could warn a guy."
"You don't usually need a siren," Kelly said. He stretched out on his side in a lazy sprawl, his head propped on one hand, his legs and feet dangling off the end of the chair by quite a bit.
"You people all want me to relax, right? So, I'm relaxing!"
"Oh yes. I can tell. You're practically boneless."
"Yeah, well." Scotty resettled himself in the chair. "You startled me, that's all." He forced his gaze to the saucer, stirring the crumbs with his forefinger. Maybe he could read them, like tea leaves.
"I hoped you were sleeping."
"I'm working on it."
They sat in silence for a minute or two. The dampness of the air was building into thick humidity. Scotty wiped his forehead and shifted uncomfortably at the feeling of clammy sweat building up beneath the bandage, the chair creaking under his weight.
"Look," he burst out at last, looking resolutely at a distant garden wall. "Don't you have anything else to do? Or is your lurking quota not filled up yet?"
He heard the flick of a lighter. Kelly's answer came slowly, after a smoking interval. "I'm on vacation, Duke."
"Yeah. So am I." He crossed his legs with showy deliberation. "Do I look like I need company?"
"I got nowhere else special to be."
"Seems like you've had plenty of other places to be this morning," Scotty said, surprising himself.
"You know me," Kelly said, his voice maddeningly casual. "Flitting from blossom to blossom. Love 'em and-or leave 'em. Wham, bam--"
Scotty finally let himself look over, his eyes narrowing. "Don't. All right?"
Kelly took the cigarette out of his mouth abruptly. "What?"
"Why don't you leave me alone." It was not a suggestion.
"What is the matter with you?"
"Nothing," Scotty said tightly. He hated the way his voice sounded, but it was like he had to speak or rupture something--there was a mounting pressure in his throat, at his temples and behind his eyes, and he had to let it out. "Nothing that I can't fix myself. So get out of here."
Kelly stared at him. He dropped his cigarette, ground it out underfoot, and said evenly, carefully, "Scotty. It was a joke."
The words sat there, reverberating in the silence between them like the crash of breaking crystal in the middle of a society event. Scotty's face felt hot. He had to look away again, staring hard into the distance, wishing for an earthquake, volcanic eruption, maybe the earth spinning into the sun. Anything, so long as it happened quick, and happened now.
"You know very well where I was," Kelly said, his voice still mortifyingly cautious, like he was talking to a crazy person. "I didn't want them to come looking for us, and you needed the sleep. So I told them to start breakfast without you."
Scotty nodded slowly.
"And if I didn't get back in there quick before Carmela did, when she picked up our laundry she was also gonna find a few other goodies. I don't know about you, but I'm not longing for my pistol to come back cleaned and pressed, light starch."
Scotty took a hard, short breath against the weight in his chest and managed to keep it together. "I know," he managed. "I mean...I should've known. I know now."
"Will you please--" Kelly began, but Scotty spoke up, cutting him off flat.
"Let's just drop it. A little beauty sleep, I'll be back on the ball."
This would be the part where Kelly grudgingly agreed. Whenever Scotty pushed a point this far, Kelly knew enough to let him be. He'd chew it over in the privacy of his head, get past it, and move on with his life.
But then he felt Kelly's hand take hold of his left forearm, gripping tight. He turned, startled, and Kelly was sitting up, on the edge of the chair again, leaning urgently forward, his lazy vacation pose gone as if it had never been.
"Scotty," Kelly said. His voice was strained. "I can't. You're..." He hesitated, squeezing Scotty's arm painfully. "Listen, this is starting to scare me. We're not--"
"I know I'm not up to par," Scotty said firmly. He didn't want to hear the end of Kelly's sentence. "I just need a little more time, that's all."
"Don't be an idiot."
"I've got it under control." That pressure was building in Scotty's throat again, and he barely stopped himself from yanking his arm out of Kelly's grip, stitches or no stitches. Only just. He made himself hold still and look right into the sunglasses' blank gaze. "It's nothing. It's exhaustion."
"It is not," Kelly said through his teeth.
"What do you know about it?" Scotty spat back. "Huh? You're sleeping like a baby!"
"Yeah, that's right." But Kelly's voice rang hollow, and his hold on Scotty's arm slackened just a bit. Scotty wasn't reading him at all well today (and that was a painful understatement), but this finally came home to him, even through the layers of exhaustion and distraction, like he'd been hit with a brick.
He sat up, swinging his legs around so he was sitting on the edge of his chair, facing Kelly, who'd gone very still. With his good hand, he reached out to Kelly's face and carefully slid the sunglasses off of him. One of the earpieces caught behind Kelly's ear for a second and then came free, and Scotty saw what he should have seen before, what he'd been missing the whole time.
Kelly's eyes were red, bloodshot, the lids faintly swollen, shadows smudged deep below them like twin shiners. His face was drawn and lined. Scotty remembered him coming back from that morning run yesterday, out and about and fully-exercised before Scotty had even reached the patio--this guy, who usually had to be dynamited out of his bed in the mornings. And last night, just coincidentally happening upon Scotty in the moonlit kitchen, well after midnight and into the wee hours.
Don't fall asleep, he'd commanded with his last moments of consciousness. I won't, Kelly had said. And laughed.
"Kel." Scotty's voice caught in his throat. He couldn't look away from those eyes, those worn, worried eyes. He felt Kelly touch his hand, trying to take the sunglasses back with cold, hesitant fingers. Scotty gripped the glasses more tightly. Stalemate.
They sat there for a few seconds, the only sound the building cacophony of birdsong and cicadas. Kelly watched him steadily, wearily, as if he were waiting for something.
"Hey," Scotty said at last, and tried for a smile. "You didn't think you could fool me for long, did you?"
Kelly let out a long breath. "Scotty...."
"Go ahead, you can tell me."
"Tell you about what?" His eyes were still worried, but there was an edge to his voice.
"Nightmares," Scotty hazarded. "You having nightmares?"
Kelly stared at him.
"What, you don't want to talk about it?" Scotty rubbed his thumb along the earpiece of the glasses, tugging slightly; he couldn't seem to make himself let go, but Kelly's hold on them showed no sign of loosening. "You know you'll feel better if you do."
No reply. Kelly's lips were pressed firmly together.
"You've gotta get some rest," Scotty said. "Go on and stretch out here. Massimo says there's nothing like country sunshine to cure what ails you. Or--" he felt a tingle of adrenaline, his breath coming short-- "we could go on back to my room. Lie down."
"Like last night," Kelly said. His voice was soft, very soft, and husky.
Kelly took in a long breath. "Man," he said, his mouth twitching into a strange, tight smile, "you really are a piece of work."
It took a second for that to sink in. "What?"
"You," Kelly said more forcefully. "You know, they shoulda had you go out with those stonemasons yesterday, not me."
"What are you talking about?"
"'Cause you build the best and biggest walls of anybody in the business." Kelly released the sunglasses with a flourish.
Scotty wished he could cross his arms comfortably. As it was, he just clenched his fist around the glasses. "Now what's your problem? You think I'm getting out of line? You think I'm pushing you into something?" He made his voice as scornful as he could. The best defense was a good offense. But he could've sworn he hadn't read Kelly that wrong.
"Yeah, I think you're pushing," Kelly snapped, his chin lifting. "I think you're pushing me back two-three steps so I'm not so close to figuring you out. Well, pally, it's too late. So do me a favor and don't try."
Scotty stood up, his shoulder complaining at the rapid shift in position. "Whatever you're getting at, why don't you go get at it somewhere else."
But Kelly just stood up as well, close to him, too close, looking him in the eye. "It's an easy place to go, when things get too risky, isn't it? Let's go look after poor old Kelly. It's a good distraction. Is Kelly having trouble sleeping? Is Kelly having nightmares? Then it's all right. Then it can just be circumstance. Accident. I couldn't help it, Kelly needed me."
Scotty felt the edge of the lounge chair behind him pressing into his calves, blocking his escape. His world had narrowed to Kelly's face, angry and tired and sorrowful, filling his field of vision. He couldn't say anything.
"It's dangerous. Can't you see that?" Kelly's voice, still sharp, took on a pleading edge. "Can't you see why I can't let it happen like that?"
"Leave it," Scotty said unevenly.
"Scotty. This is really important, now. I mean important. It's not the bad guys and the guns and the running around and whatever. This is something else. This is us. And you've gotta step up to it."
He found his voice, but hardly knew what he was saying, hearing himself rasp, "You're crazy."
"It takes one to know one," Kelly answered, with steady, humorless emphasis.
It felt like a long time, as Scotty stood there, Kelly so close, their eyes locked. His head hurt, his shoulder hurt, his stomach churned with the urge to break and run. But Kelly was waiting, worn out, expectant.
"I miss you," Scotty said, finally.
"Yeah, that's what you said."
Scotty swallowed. "I need you."
"I know," Kelly replied. "And it's okay."
"No, it isn't." He paused, licked his lips, and forced out the last few words: "I shouldn't. Not this much."
Kelly gave a cold, tooth-baring smile. "But it's okay for me, though, huh?"
Scotty just shook his head, breaking his gaze from Kelly's and looking blindly past him.
"Uh-huh." Kelly leaned in, speaking with barely-suppressed force. "Listen here. You know I would. You know me well enough by now to know that, if you know anything at all. But I won't be your excuse. You get it? I will not be an accident, and I will not be the monkey on your back."
Scotty couldn't help but look at him again in hasty alarm. He wondered if he'd talked in his sleep, during that last dream. That awful, helpless moment.
"You understand me?" Kelly went on. "You're not gonna just fall into something and then hate me for it. Or worse, hate yourself. I won't let it happen. If you want to...kick the habit, if you really do, I'll help you. We'll be fine." He leveled a finger at Scotty's chest. "But you're gonna have to do things on purpose. You can't walk around with a bag over your head, and you can't play both ends against the middle forever."
All he could do was stare, caught. Everything was too close. He thought for a wild moment about throwing a punch, clearing the path that way, but the ache in his shoulder warned him otherwise. Kelly hadn't touched him, but he wouldn't stop looking. Right into his eyes. Seeing everything.
The moment stretched, unbearable.
"Son of a bitch!" came the shout, as the door of the house crashed open and ricocheted hard off the wall. Their gazes snapped apart; Scotty ducked automatically, crouching just a bit, hand darting for a nonexistent pistol as he looked to the sound. It was the general, storming onto the patio, his face red.
Scotty took a breath and moved, sideways and back, out from under. Away from the chairs, out into the gardens. Just anywhere. He heard heavy footsteps, and the general beginning, "Robinson! What the hell do you think you're trying to do to my son?"
But he wouldn't wait to figure it out. Right now, the farther, the better.
He took the first available path and hurried away from the house, away from Kelly and whatever predicament Scotty had abandoned him to. He couldn't go indoors; indoors meant his room, and his room was full of thoughts he couldn't think right now. The path led him blindly through trees, the trees thinned out, and--there was the stone wall. Terrific. Scotty stopped, wiped his forehead, and tucked his left hand into his pocket, trying to keep his shoulder still without benefit of his abandoned sling.
The best and biggest walls in the business.
Scotty turned and retraced his steps, picking another path, working as hard as he could on changing the subject in his head. But when he looked up again--there was the tennis court. The red clay was as scuffed and abandoned as it had been yesterday, and the shot drills he'd worked out for Kelly jostled for attention in the back of his mind. He could practically see Kelly as he always looked in the middle of his drills, forehand to backhand to forehand, dancing on his toes, sweat soaking through his shirt and shining down the taut muscles of his legs. His face brightening as he made a tricky shot and looked gleefully into Scotty's eyes.
You know me well enough by now to know that, if you know anything at all.
Scotty felt like Sisyphus, rolling his boulder as hard as he could in a safe direction, only to find it bouncing off invisible barriers and landing back where it began. He turned once more and cut randomly across paths, walking over garden beds he probably shouldn't be stepping on. Every spot he came to looked familiar, and Kelly's shadow haunted every single hiding place. He came upon the swimming pool and turned away hastily, helplessly seeing Kelly there as well--Kelly, smiling at him, silver-bright, made of air for a drowning man.
You're gonna have to do things on purpose.
This was not going to work. He couldn't fight it off anymore. He was just so tired. He couldn't help it; the thoughts he'd been running from pushed and surged their way forward, crashing over and around the last of his barriers, and he actually felt physically lightheaded. He walked almost blindly, his eyes unfocused, looking inward. Seeing things he didn't want to see.
Over and over it came back to him, the dream and the reality, Angel and that little Hong Kong room. She looked up at him, floating in sick, sleepy ecstasy, her blown eyes and her sour smell so damn familiar. Everybody's got his bag, she'd said. And he knew that very well, he'd learned it up close and personal, well-tutored by a long line of losers. Everybody has a poison, a craving, a secret. Everybody. The question is, what are you going to do about it? Give up and take the needle?
I will not be the monkey on your back.
He stumbled over a rock or something in the path and took a couple of heavy, jolting steps before catching his balance. He noted distantly that he was breathing fast and shallow, and there was a roaring in his ears. He marveled at it, and wondered if he was actually going to pass out. He hadn't even passed out when he'd been shot. He'd knifed the guy, staggered to his feet, and retrieved his pistol, knowing that he had to finish clearing his part of the house and make it to Kelly. After that, it didn't matter: once he found Kelly he'd be fine, because--
I need you.
I know. And it's okay.
Kelly had made it be okay, sitting him down, giving him first aid, keeping him awake until they could call in the cavalry, who brought guards for the prisoners, body bags for the unlucky, and an ambulance for the rest.
Anything Kelly needed, he'd always been glad to offer, up to and including his own life. They didn't even think about it, let alone talk about it--it was second nature, just how it worked between them. It wasn't so long ago that Kelly was the hurt one, tossed unconscious into Scotty's little cell on Sam's boat. And Scotty had butted him awake, kept him talking, warded off his despair at losing Bessie, gotten him out of his daze. One got hit, the other helped him; one stumbled, the other picked him up. It went back for years, and for the life of him he couldn't think of a time when he'd thought of Kelly as less than whole, even when it was his cosmic turn to take a fall and need a hand.
As carefully as he could, he let his mind turn back to the reality of that Hong Kong room. Angel sat there, laughing at him, choking his senses with terror and despair. But there'd been one other factor in that little scene, just out of sight: Kelly. Poised back-to-back behind him, a pistol in each hand, keeping two groups of heavies at bay just so Scotty could indulge himself. Because of Kelly, he'd been able to try one last time to get Angel out from under the dragon, and only because of Kelly had he walked out of there in one piece. The dream had cheated, skipping that fact.
He took a few slow breaths. His vision was clearing, and his ears too. He still felt wobbly, though--it was getting awfully hot. A little shade would be good. Looking around to get his bearings, he took the only path he didn't remember from yesterday; a humid wind pressed on his bare back as if to usher him along, sweat building up slick on his brow and under the waistband of his jeans.
This path led through a sparse old grove, the trees looking shabby and faintly sick, and emerged at a smooth, level patch of neatly-mowed grass. A small soccer field, maybe. Or--there was a cluster of colored balls lying to one side, probably bocce. Who knows, you could put wickets up and have a giant croquet tournament. A little polo, if you had a few ponies in your pocket.
He eyed the nicest patch of shade at the edge of the grass and headed for it, and only realized when he'd gotten closer that the lumpy shadow at the base of one of the trees was Gary. His knees were drawn up, his arms draped over them, and his hunched back signaled trouble before Scotty had even gotten a look at the scowl on his face.
Scotty sank down against the next tree over and leaned on his knees as well, chin on his good hand. He still had Kelly's sunglasses, and after a few seconds he slipped them on against the day's mounting glare. Now that felt better.
"If he sent you, tell him I don't want to hear it," Gary said, obviously striving for dignity but mostly sounding shaky.
"Nobody sent me," Scotty replied. "Quiet. I'm brooding."
A little choke of surprised laughter. "Yeah, me too."
"Nice day for it," Scotty said.
They sat brooding in silence for a while. Scotty knew he was cheating, since he had the question of Gary's mood to occupy him. But you grabbed the life ring closest to hand.
"What're you brooding about?" Gary asked at last.
Scotty snorted. Not in a million years. But if he didn't answer, of course that was a signal in itself, so he automatically waved his good hand toward his left shoulder. "Can't quite seem to get over this."
"Oh," the boy said, sounding particularly young. "I...guess I thought you'd be used to getting shot. You seemed calm enough about it at the time."
Scotty shrugged with both shoulders, ignoring the twinges of pain; the tree's bark scraped against his back as he shifted, and he focused on that instead.
"Maybe if you didn't poke at it so much," Gary said.
Scotty shot him a suspicious look. Gary, to his credit, seemed a little taken aback at his own boldness. "I just mean...you keep acting like nothing's supposed to be wrong with it. Maybe you should wear your sling."
"You talk like Kelly," Scotty said.
Gary surprised him with a smile. "That's starting to sound familiar."
Scotty's mind put two and two together even before he opened his mouth. "Is that what your dad's so busy flipping over?"
The smile went, and Gary curled his hands into loose fists; the bandage around his right forearm was coming loose. "His debriefings stopped this morning. And my meetings...didn't."
"He didn't like that."
"Not at all." Gary hesitated. "It didn't go smoothly. We were in one of our meetings together, you know, like he was used to. And then Dr. Brusco--you know Dr. Brusco, from the Rome office?"
"Well, he stood up and shook Dad's hand. You know--thanks for coming, General Colt, we appreciate your cooperation, don't let me keep you any longer, we have a lot to do. And he basically ushered Dad out into the hall and shut the door on him."
Yeah, that sounded like Brusco all over. "So if he didn't know what you were up to before," Scotty said, "he sure does now."
Gary sighed. "And he hates it."
"Even though it means you're out of the books and into the field? A proper Colt at last?"
"Oh, I don't know," Gary said irritably. "I don't understand him at all."
Yes you do, Scotty thought. You saw this coming. But he kept his mouth shut; it wouldn't help, and the kid would just have to get through it himself. You either did or you didn't. He let a little more brooding time elapse, and then asked, "When's your next meeting?"
"Around lunchtime. Instead of eating, I guess. Dr. Brusco's bringing back some equipment and a few more people. Sorry to abandon you--I doubt Dad's going to be good company to eat with."
Scotty clambered to his feet, tossing the sunglasses lightly to the ground. "How'd you like to learn a little something to take to spy school with you?"
Gary looked up at him, the forlorn expression quickly giving way to excitement, and he jumped up without being asked twice. Yeah, he was raring to go. Might as well keep him busy.
They took off their shoes and socks, moved farther out onto the grass, and squared off; Scotty took him through the rudiments of a few different kinds of footwork, attack and defense, with some modified leg strikes and sweeps. They both kept their hands protectively tucked to their chests--Scotty had no desire to accidentally hit Gary's healing arms and set his recovery back. Brusco would hunt him down and use him for medical experiments. Instead, he kept it to legs and feet only, struck at quarter-speed, and pulled his sweeps at the last second, moving through a few standard patterns over and over until Gary caught on.
He might've been new to it, but the guy had a lot of physical promise. Scotty saw that gameness and toughness in him that had been apparent when he'd volunteered--the same sense of being more than the sum of his parts that convinced the head office he might be a good candidate for taking some voluntary torture. He looked a little hapless sometimes, and laughed when he got tangled up in his own legs, but he learned quickly.
"Don't watch my feet," Scotty warned, rapping Gary smartly on the anklebone with a kick that must have stung. Gary hopped sideways and looked up, flustered. "Watch my eyes, and leave your peripheral vision good and relaxed."
Gary stared him in the eyes, concentrating, and managed to defend against the next sweep pretty well. But the run of attacks after that got through easily, hitting his knees and shins, pop pop pop, and Gary's eyes kept darting sideways over Scotty's shoulder.
Scotty took a step back and relaxed his fight posture, exasperated. "What's so interesting?"
Instead of looking embarrassed, Gary jerked his chin up in a pointing gesture. "Kelly."
It would be. Scotty turned, wiping his sweaty forehead, and saw Kelly leaning against one of the trees right where the path emerged. His hands were stuffed in his pockets, and the patchy shade made it hard to see his face.
"Little hot, isn't it?" Kelly asked.
Scotty shrugged, ignoring the sweat trickling down his ribs. "Bite your tongue. It's like a sauna. People pay good money for this."
Kelly eased upright and sauntered out into the full sun. Scotty took a good look at him. No split lip, anyway--and more to the point (given the general's age and condition) no bruising about the knuckles, which means the altercation must all have been verbal. Kelly had too much class to give in to petty provocation, anyway. Scotty wondered if they'd been ordered to pack their things and never darken the Colt doorstep again, like some kind of Victorian novel.
"You'd stay in the shade, if you were smart," he said as Kelly drew closer.
Kelly smiled slightly. "It's hotter back at the house." The extra meaning was clear--even to Gary, who stepped up to Kelly with worry written all over his face.
"I'm sorry," the kid said. "I...apologize for him."
Kelly eyed Gary, his expression fading to a neutrality that made Scotty uneasy. "Oh, you do."
"Do you think--" Gary asked hesitantly. "--I mean, is he very angry?"
Kelly didn't answer. He nodded, as if to himself, and kicked off his shoes in a couple effortless moves. "All right, Jack. Get your bullet wound out of my way and let me in on your little training session."
"Just footwork," Scotty said, padding out of the impromptu fight ring.
"Yeah, I saw." Kelly shook out his leg muscles and started circling Gary, slow and easy. Gary smiled at Kelly with a kind of hopeful pride, and went into his newly-learned defense posture.
A few minutes later, Gary wasn't smiling anymore. Not because he was taking a beating--he certainly wasn't. And that was the problem. Where Scotty had kept pushing, zapping him hard enough to hurt now and then, Kelly was practically wrapping him in a baby blanket. Every touch Kelly made was soft and deliberate, sliding in through the fumbling defense and tapping him with an insulting gentleness. Every response to Gary's attacks was slow and insolently lazy, as if Kelly could scarcely be bothered to react. Kelly's posture stayed relaxed, his eyes heavy-lidded. He was sweating--you couldn't avoid it, the air was getting thicker and warmer by the moment, the sun broiling down through hazy clouds--but nothing like Gary, who was drenched.
"Dammit!" Gary spat, as he tried another sweep and Kelly leaned around it like he was bored. Gary's movements were getting jerky, angry, and he jumped around off-balance and kicked out at Kelly with increasing desperation. He was glaring at Kelly's feet, just like Scotty had told him not to do, and sometimes he'd glance up and look at Scotty, frustrated, like a boxer hoping the ref would stop the fight. Scotty just watched, cradling his left arm with his right. He didn't know what was going on, but he did know that things got a lot worse in training. If the kid wasn't up for whatever game Kelly was playing, he'd never even make it through second-level washouts.
The takedown, when it came, was hard and final. Gary, teeth clenched, lowered his head and ran at Kelly like a bull--no active defense, no plan whatsoever. Kelly waited, judged, then hooked his leg out sharp as a whip, shifted his weight, and knocked the kid over backwards. Gary fell fast, which was good--less time to bend something the wrong way--but he had lost his protective arm tuck long ago as his temper got the better of him, and he instinctively flung one hand out behind him as he went down. That injured forearm must have taken a solid wrench, judging from his yelp.
Kelly lifted one foot and placed it, almost delicately, on the spot where Gary's chest joined his abdomen. It rested right over the solar plexus and the nerve bundle beneath. A hard enough blow there could stun or kill, but it was clear that wasn't Kelly's plan. Gary struggled for a moment, his face flushed and wild, and Kelly pressed very slightly, just a bare shift in his stance. Gary subsided. The restraint was gentle and absolute.
"So, you're apologizing for him," Kelly said conversationally. He wasn't even out of breath. "You're worried he might be mad."
Gary nodded, his eyes darting from Kelly to Scotty and back again. He looked scared, but also still angry, which Scotty was glad to see. Anger didn't help fighting much, but at least it showed his spirit was intact. Scotty remembered getting through some tough training sessions on anger alone, in the early days.
"Why?" Kelly asked. He looked down at Gary, not kindly, but calmly.
Gary stared at him, defiant. "Why what?"
"Why do you care what he thinks? What he does?"
"I--" Gary gaped at him for a moment, floundering. "He's my father."
"Mm-hm. Yeah, I get it. Your father," said Kelly. "Your father, who heard you screaming while you got tortured. He listened to his little boy get tied down and beaten with rubber hoses. A few more strikes could've crippled your hands for life." He leaned over, looking intently into Gary's eyes. "And when we galloped in on our white horses, what did your father do?"
It was all too clear now, and Scotty's skin crawled with horror and sympathy. Gary's breath hitched in his chest, but he didn't reply.
"Your father refused to untie you," Kelly said matter-of-factly. "'You spilled like a'--what was it?--'like a ruptured watercan,' he says to you. That good red-blooded American says to his only child."
"He didn't mean it," Gary said, his voice choking.
"For all he knew," Kelly went on, his voice soft and remorseless, "you were just his little bookworm. Captured. Scared. Hurt." He lifted his foot off Gary and crouched down right next to him. "He called you a traitor."
"He didn't know!" There were tears now, and a last grasp at rage, but even without the restraint, Gary stayed flat on his back.
Kelly spread his hands. "He didn't. And he never can again. From now on, he gets the same stories everyone else does. He might have to believe you broke under torture. He might have to believe you're no good at the job, or you're shady, or you got fired. He might have to believe you're a Rhodes Scholar who for no particular reason pitched it all to go around the world looking after some reprobate."
Scotty didn't make a sound, and Kelly didn't turn to look at him, but Scotty felt a thread quivering between them all the same. He wondered just when he had stopped feeling it, and why it had taken him so long to let it come back.
"You told us you wanted him to be proud of you," Kelly said. He touched Gary's shoulder, then withdrew and stood up. "And you were lucky he got the truth this once, since that's what it took. But it won't happen anymore. It can't ever be about that again. You understand? You can't have it. So if that's what any of this is about, you better call it off right now. You'll be dead in a year. Dead or crazy."
Gary was crying, trying not to, struggling. "I'm doing this for me," he managed. "Not for anybody else. Not even for him."
The smile on Kelly's face was painful to see, regretful and haunted. "If you can keep saying that until you believe it, you just might make it."
He turned, stepped into his shoes, and walked back toward the path, stooping as he went to retrieve something from the base of a tree--Scotty's shirt and sling, which he draped around his neck. Gary covered his face with one arm, outright sobs starting to escape him, and Scotty moved away to leave him his privacy. He tugged on his socks and shoes, picked up the discarded sunglasses, and followed Kelly into the grove.
They ended up side by side, wandering slowly, sticking to the shady paths. Definitely not heading back to the house. Scotty didn't need to use his peripheral vision to get a sense of Kelly's strain, his remoteness; now that he'd let himself become aware of Kelly again, he could feel it without looking.
"So what happened?" Scotty finally asked, squinting in a northerly direction. Low, heavy cloudbanks loomed in the distance, the air shimmering with heat.
"With the general? Pretty much what you'd expect," Kelly said. "We're butting in where we're not wanted. Using our wiles. Stealing away his property. That sort of thing." His voice had a sharp, bitter edge to it. "So now I've successfully alienated both halves of the Colt dynasty."
"Batting a thousand."
"They say I'm a very promising rookie."
Scotty tapped the sunglasses against his leg. "Should we expect him to come popping out from behind one of these trees with a shotgun? Pistols at dawn?"
"Pistol in the back of the head, maybe," Kelly muttered.
"Well. It was nice while it lasted," Scotty said.
Kelly stopped; Scotty hesitated and turned to look directly at him. His eyes were guarded. "You think so?"
Scotty sighed. "Not really."
They set off again, Kelly scuffing his shoes in the gravel.
"Tell me something," Scotty said.
"Mm." Kelly's reluctance was audible.
"Why aren't we gone yet?"
"Manners, Alexander, manners," Kelly replied. He sounded relieved to be able to keep things light. "The car went into town with the laundry. And the right honorable general wants to look like a good host, so we can't hike out of here on foot with only the clothes on our backs and the guns in our pockets."
"Can't?" Scotty chewed that over, discontented. "I guess it is a pretty long walk."
"He told me to wait until the car gets back with our stuff, so we can 'depart properly'. All ramrod, playing stiff upper lip. He wants to keep things...you know..."
Kelly's grin flashed. "I always said you were too smart for your own good."
"Never where I could hear you."
"Of course not. Only in my copious spare time behind your back."
"Is that what that noise was." A thought struck him. "You don't mean we have to sit around and play nice with him over lunch!"
"I hope not," Kelly said, "but be brave."
They exchanged a glance and their pace slowed even further, but they didn't head back toward the house; they just kept wandering, as the wind picked up and the air grew positively spongy with moisture. Scotty noticed they'd passed the same herb beds four times, and figured out they'd been going in giant figure-eights. But frankly, he was fine with that. He who skulks and runs away, lives to skulk another day.
Turns out the weather gods weren't cooperating, however. The clouds stopped looming and started boiling up in earnest, reaching and covering the sun in a startlingly short amount of time. The hot brightness turned yellowish gray. The wind felt heavy, electric, and the leaves trembled on the trees.
Scotty, staring upward, opened his mouth to say something cautionary and got a few preliminary raindrops right in the face. Retreat was indicated. He turned reluctantly for the house, Kelly at his side. Thunder rumbled faintly in the distance.
"Maybe they're back already," Kelly offered as they slipped in the back door and pushed it shut against the rising wind. But a quick reconnoiter showed them nothing but empty rooms gone dim with the lack of sunlight. They made their way to the living room and stood by the big northern windows, watching the storm advance.
"If Gary's still out there, he's in for it," Scotty said. Lightning flickered beyond the gardens, followed a few seconds later by more thunder. The rain hadn't quite let loose yet, but it was surely just a matter of minutes.
"Gee," Kelly said. "Poor kid might get wet behind the ears."
Scotty eyed him, but didn't reply. Kelly crossed his arms and looked out of the windows, his lips pressed tightly together. After a minute or two, he spoke again.
"He needed to hear it." He sounded disgusted with himself.
"I know," Scotty said. In the end, everything Kelly had said was true. They'd both seen promising recruits flame out too quickly over that very thing, or something much like it. And while Scotty had never gotten the full story, he'd always sensed that Kelly in particular knew the problem far too well.
But Kelly didn't seem comforted. His jaw was still clenched. "They're gonna send him to spy school, teach him to be a sitting duck. A sitting duck who thinks he's the Lone Ranger."
"He'll meet other people there," Scotty said. "Make some friends."
"Most of his friends will get killed." Kelly spoke flatly, with no drama.
"Yeah," Scotty said, in the same tone. "A lot of 'em will."
"No one to help him." Kelly's gaze was firmly fixed through the window, where the wind bent the treetops lower and lower.
"He'll help himself. Most of the time."
Kelly stewed. Then finally, he turned toward Scotty, one side of his face touched with the window's wavery gray light. "Who'll be there when it all goes bad?"
"I don't know, Kel." Scotty looked at him, at the way his eyes caught the scant flashes of light, at the drawn tightness of his face. He wondered how he could ever have missed noticing just how desperately tired and unstrung Kelly was. "But...look. Maybe he'll run into somebody. It's been known to happen."
Kelly shrugged, his gaze dropping to Scotty's shoulder and quickly coming up again.
Scotty watched him a moment more. "You never know, someone might blunder in. Someone almost up to his level."
Kelly blinked at him, and the flat exhaustion in his face faded just a bit before a touch of a knowing smile in his eyes. "Almost?"
"Maybe kind of an annoying guy."
"A know-it-all," Kelly said.
"A smart aleck," Scotty said right back.
"A guy with no taste in shoes."
"An utter philistine, who wouldn't know fashionable footwear if a loafer hit him right on the nose."
"Sure." Scotty paused, then leaned in. "Somebody he didn't expect. Like the world's best piece of luck that he didn't deserve."
Kelly's eyes weren't smiling anymore; they'd gone soft and unguarded. He swallowed, but didn't say anything. Scotty reached out tentatively with his good arm and took hold of his own shirt and sling where they still lay draped around Kelly's neck. He held on, but didn't pull, and they stood together quietly as the storm's shadows deepened.
Another muffled thunderclap, and Kelly spoke, hoarsely. "Kind of a chance in a million."
"At least," Scotty said. His face felt warm. He let the material of shirt and sling slide through his fingers as he moved his hand slowly up to rest on the familiar warmth of Kelly's shoulder. "Listen. Kelly. Will you--"
It didn't even take the tiny flicker of Kelly's eyes to tell him someone was there. He sensed it in every unexplainable way he'd ever sensed anything reflected from Kelly, down perhaps to the tiniest electrical current radiating from his body through Scotty's fingertips. Scotty just knew, that's all, and he stopped speaking instantly, letting go of Kelly and turning with a relaxed and casual speed to see General Colt coming toward them from one of the darkened hallways. Second time today he'd popped up at a bad moment--Scotty would almost suspect a conspiracy, except that the general had clearly and repeatedly demonstrated during the assignment that popping up at bad moments was practically all he ever did. He could take out a patent.
"Gentlemen." He sounded formal, and his gait as he approached was stiff and hesitant.
"Sir," Kelly replied. He was staying relaxed, which Scotty appreciated--relaxed enough to seem disdainful, perhaps, which a childish part of Scotty also appreciated. They were supposed to be the unwelcome guests, the bad boys called on the carpet, but it was the general who radiated discomfort.
"I telephoned the laundry we use in town," General Colt said, clasping his hands behind his back. "They said the car left some time ago. It should be here any minute." He couldn't seem to meet their eyes.
"That's wonderful," Scotty said mildly. Yeah, he was enjoying this. Mom would not be proud.
Kelly gave a vapid smile that made Scotty bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. As if by pre-arrangement, they let the conversation (such as it was) lag, waiting for the general's next desperate salvo. Scotty bet himself ten bucks it would involve the weather; this guy was not at his most creative when it came to small talk.
"I do hope they make it ahead of the storm," General Colt said, turning to look out the window. Scotty promised himself he'd use his victory sawbuck to buy something very unmilitary. Maybe something in pink.
Kelly opened his mouth to contribute something (surely something painfully banal, for the fun of it), but was forestalled by a peal of thunder, much closer now. Rain was falling more heavily, blowing almost sideways in the wind. Scotty was wondering if he should say "too late" out loud, or if it was enough that everybody was thinking it, when he heard the front door open with a heavy crash. They all sprang for the foyer.
The driver, whose name Scotty hadn't caught, was there, his hat and shoulders soaked. He was struggling under the weight of two large laundry bundles, and Scotty quickly went to give him a hand. He reached with both arms first, but caught himself, and hoisted one bundle away with just his right arm. He was carefully not looking to see if Kelly was watching him and disapproving of his efforts, but Kelly foiled all his not-looking by barging right past him and out the door into the rain, where Massimo and Carmela were opening the car trunk.
They unloaded the car as quickly as possible, hurrying up and down the slippery marble steps, ducking fruitlessly in the face of the building storm. The general held the door, possibly because he wasn't sure if he should lower himself enough to actually carry things. Or, thought Scotty, relenting a little, maybe he had a bad back. In any case, by the time everything had been brought in and divvied up, the driver, Massimo, and Carmela, along with Kelly and Scotty themselves, were wet and breathless, and everyone was grinning around at each other like friendly conspirators.
"You made it!" came Gary's voice, and he arrived from the direction of the sitting room. He didn't look wet, so Scotty assumed he'd left the garden some time back, probably straight to his next meeting. He did, however, have a scrape on his cheek that hadn't come from their garden gymnastics. "I'm glad--it looks like it's going to get pretty nasty."
Carmela nodded respectfully to both Colts, and started a fusillade of instructions in Italian to Massimo and the driver regarding what to carry where. Both men stepped to it, but when Scotty and then Kelly tried to help again, they were firmly waved aside. Massimo in particular shot Scotty and his shoulder reproving looks as he scurried away to do Carmela's bidding.
Kelly and Scotty's suitcases full of clean clothes sat alone on the marble floor. It'd been fun, making the general that extra little bit uncomfortable, but Scotty figured enough was enough, and they might as well retreat with a little class.
He smiled at Gary, and then at General Colt. "Well, sirs, we'd better be on our way. Thanks again for the vacation."
"Yes indeed," Kelly said. He even sounded sincere. "Let me just go grab one thing from the room before your driver gets back." Scotty wondered just where he'd hidden the little gun duffel.
The general was playing along, making polite noises, and Kelly started to head off. But Gary unexpectedly threw a stick in the spokes.
"You don't mean you're leaving right now," he said with a frown.
"Yeah, I thought we would," Scotty said. Kelly paused in the archway to the living room.
"Come on, it's awful out there!" Gary's objection was underscored by the rising howl of the wind and the staccato rattling of the rain, even through the massive front door.
"Don't worry, we won't melt." Scotty wiped one wet hand across his equally wet bare chest, avoiding the soaked bandage. At least Kelly wasn't carrying Scotty's shirt and sling anymore, so they must be someplace dry. He looked around, and saw them dangling from the coatrack.
Gary shook his head. "It's too dangerous. The storm's only going to get worse, and the road will probably be washed out."
Scotty glanced at Kelly, who didn't show any signs of wanting to step in. So he kept it up: "I don't know, it hasn't been raining all that long."
"But it's getting bad," said Gary. "You know how rough parts of the track are, for the first few miles. And if you're not worried about yourselves, think about Oscar. He handled that whole drive back here, and he's wet and tired. He probably hasn't eaten yet. And the staff usually have a couple hours off around now, anyway."
As much as Scotty wanted to get out of here and back to something approaching normal, he knew Gary had a point.
But there was still the general to consider. He stepped forward, clearing his throat, as awkward and formal now with his son as he was with his disgraced guests. "It's time for them to go. We have discussed it."
Gary turned to face him squarely, but didn't show overt signs of emotion. "You've declared it, you mean."
Oh, this was going to be terrific. Scotty resigned himself to a commotion. Though he wished he weren't dripping--things were so much easier to handle when you were dry. He sidled toward the coatrack.
General Colt looked down at Gary, his jaw firmly set. "Don't make a scene."
"No, don't worry," Gary said sincerely, and his voice and body seemed thoroughly relaxed. He really sounded like he was reassuring his fretful old man. Which, predictably, ruffled the general's feathers up but good.
"I'm not worried," he said, standing on his dignity. "I've told them to leave."
"That's irrelevant," Gary said calmly. "They're my guests as well. And losing your temper doesn't change that."
His calmness only seemed to make the general more upset. "I am not losing my temper!"
"Everything's fine. They'll stay and have a meal, Oscar can get rested, and if they're still interested in leaving, they can go when the storm is over."
"They can go now." General Colt's dignity was wobbling, affronted and off balance. "I welcomed them in, and they took advantage."
Gary actually smiled. It wasn't a mocking smile, or an aggressive smile--it was a soft, pitying smile. "I know you'd like to think so. But none of this was their idea. I'm not being shanghaied." Gary shrugged, his voice still effortlessly reasonable, casual: "Anyway, it's none of your affair. Not any more."
General Colt's face was actually turning red, Scotty suspected from embarrassment as much as from frustrated fury. "How can you say that to me!"
Careful, Scotty thought. You're backing him into a corner, and that won't get the job done. You've got to leave him some room to maneuver. He spared another glance at Kelly, who had slouched against the archway and wasn't looking right at the conflict, as absent as a man waiting for a bus.
"Besides, I bet you haven't had your lunch yet either." Gary was overlooking his father's challenging stance, sticking with the kindly, detached manner. "Come on in with us and have a little something."
It might've ended there, with someone who could unbend more easily, but General Colt wasn't having it. "Not while they are in the house."
That seemed to be the opening Gary had been waiting for. He nodded, not obedient, but regretful. "If that's how you feel, I understand. We'll tell Carmela to save you something." He stepped around the general and gave a friendly smile. "Shall we, fellas?"
This surely wasn't the path General Colt had expected his ultimatum to take, and the easy deflection left him at a loss. In the face of his father's shocked silence, Gary led Scotty and Kelly toward the kitchen.
Now this was more like it. They ate thick toasted sandwiches and a simple salad at the big kitchen table with Massimo, Oscar, and Carmela (Scotty even struggled into his shirt for the occasion--he wasn't a total heathen). When the wine started going around, Massimo jumped up and, unasked, brought Scotty a tumbler of cold milk, and they grinned at each other. This was the kind of meal he could get behind, cozy and informal, warm and safe inside while the storm thrashed around outside. And nobody was arguing. Certainly not Gary and Kelly, though their interaction was so light and breezy as to be completely weightless, signifying an effort on both their parts.
Massimo cleared the table and washed up (again frowning Scotty into submission when he tried to help); Carmela tossed some flour and stuff into a bowl, probably making bread; and Oscar yawned off toward the servants' wing. It sounded like the rain was dying down a little, so Scotty, twirling his sling idly in one hand, headed back to the big living room windows to take a look.
The wind had calmed down drastically. But the rain, while not pelting sideways anymore, was still falling at a steady clip. The sky was dark, full of low clouds and scattered with occasional lightning. It felt like the storm was settling in to stay awhile.
Footsteps came up behind him, and Kelly and Gary stood by the windows and gazed out. They were all quiet, watching nature wreak a little havoc. Scotty could see their reflections in the glass. And Kelly must have been taking a look at them too, because after a while he broke the silence:
"Your cheek all right?"
Gary turned toward Kelly, one hand going to his face for a moment. "Oh. Yeah."
There was a moderately uncomfortable pause. Scotty figured Kelly couldn't think of a way to ask, so he spoke up instead: "Walked into a door?"
"No, I was..." Gary hesitated, light dawning. "No! No, fellas, it wasn't that. Him, I mean."
Kelly looked dubious, but kept it to himself. "It's bleeding again."
Gary dabbed at the scrape with a fingertip. "Yeah." He smiled at Kelly, suddenly and surprisingly. "Look...you don't need to worry. I know it sounds funny, now, but he's really all bark."
"All bark all the time," Kelly said under his breath, but he sounded relieved. The atmosphere was indefinably easing, and Scotty was grateful.
"So what did happen?" Scotty asked.
Kelly groaned. "Oh, you're kidding me. With the fake doctor? And the hard reflex hammer? Tell me they didn't."
Gary shrugged elaborately. "I guess they did."
Scotty and Kelly both winced. They'd gotten a smack in the head with that hammer a time or two themselves, when they were brand new babies. It was really way too James Bond, to sic a fake doctor on you when you were still just a little walking talking slice of starry-eyed patriotism--but, Scotty thought with grim amusement, it did start you out on the right foot, even if you didn't know it at the time. Don't trust the bosses too easily. Be smart, try to pick and choose among them, and always keep your weather eye open. You never really knew when the smiling guy in the white coat was gonna turn around and deck you.
"Well," said Kelly with a sympathetic grimace, offering his hand, "you're in for it now, brother. Welcome aboard."
Gary reached out without hesitation--his eyes brightening, however hard he tried to downplay it--and they shook. But Scotty could see what it cost him to use that hand normally, and he knew Kelly could too. Kelly let go, and said, still keeping his tone collegial, "Jammed it up pretty good, huh."
"It'll be all right." He didn't sound sullen, or martyred, or even vulnerable. He just sounded realistic. For the first time, Scotty could really hear the tone of an agent in his voice.
"A little aspirin might take the edge off," Kelly said. It was a suggestion, but not a push.
Gary glanced out the window for a second. "Yeah, you never know."
"Come on, then. I stuffed it in with the guns." Kelly headed across the living room. As if the back of his head could see Gary's quizzical look at Scotty, he called out, "Doesn't everybody?"
So they followed Kelly to the north wing. Turned out Scotty had taken two wrong turns last night--and even if he'd found the right hallway in the end, he still might have mistaken Kelly's room for the master bedroom, despite having passed the staircase to the upstairs suite. It had carved double doors, and it wasn't just bigger than Scotty's big room, it was seriously fancy, too. Scotty's might have had a mosaic border around the ceiling, but Kelly's had inlaid mosaic floors and honest to goodness hanging artwork. With little angled lights to show it off, even.
And still, with all that acreage, there was no chair. Scotty decided the decorators had some grudges to work out.
Kelly snapped on the bedside lamp against the storm's gloom, then reached under the bureau and brought out two little kit bags he'd separated from the laundry run. "Open your mouth and close your eyes, and you will get a big surprise," he recited as he rummaged through one of them. Gary held out a hand, instead. "Oh, you're no fun," Kelly said, dropping a bunch of aspirin into his palm. "There's a clean glass by the bathroom sink, if you want to take 'em now."
Gary leaned against the wall, dry-swallowing the tablets one by one. Scotty made a face; that was a little too John Wayne for him. But Gary had his new life to make, and if being John Wayne was part of it for now, Scotty wouldn't kick. He seemed to remember a little pointless machismo in his own past, anyway. Possibly.
They stood around the room for a minute while Gary took his medicine, just three beat-up spies on the government payroll. Rain drummed and spattered on the windows.
"Well..." Gary rolled his shoulders and stood upright, checking his watch. "It's back to work for me."
Scotty thought about warning him about the test with the rigged blood pressure cuff and the electrified stethoscope--that one had left him with a headache for hours. He exchanged a glance with Kelly, and they decided not to.
"You know," Gary continued, "I really would like it if you decided to stay. You were invited for a week, and you're more than welcome." He met their eyes. "You're my guests."
"We appreciate it," Scotty said, off a flicker of a look from Kelly that passed the decision over to him. "But we better get back to work ourselves. And this guy has some socializing to do down at the tennis clubs. Keep the cover at a regular simmer."
Kelly put a hand on his heart. "It's hard work, with the drinking and the gambling and the girls--"
"--but somebody's gotta do it," Gary finished. "Yeah, I understand." He paused with his hand on the doorknob. "And thanks."
"See you in the trenches," Kelly said. His conflicted expression told Scotty that he found that warm, earnest gratitude hard to take.
"Be good," said Scotty. "You never know, we might drop by spy school one of these days and check up on you. Make sure you're behaving yourself."
Gary smiled and slipped out, closing the door behind him.
"It's always hard when they leave the nest," Kelly said self-deprecatingly.
"You may have to get a puppy."
"Why should I? I want someone to paper train, I always have you."
"Remember, I don't fetch."
"Tell me about it," Kelly said.
Scotty sighed and crossed slowly to the bed, a giant, pillowy affair with a glossy bedspread. He sat on the edge, looked up.
"Hey." His mouth felt dry, and it was amazing how hard it was to say something so simple. "Will you help me?"
Kelly looked at him steadily for a moment, fresh tension showing in his shoulders. "Course. I said I would, didn't I?" His voice was purposely calm.
"No, I didn't mean--not that, man, not kicking the habit."
The relief showed in Kelly's very posture, even though he was clearly trying to clamp down on it. "What, then?"
"For starters, can you do something about my shoulder?" He tugged at his shirt where the rain-wet bandage had soaked through. "I was thinking...you know, maybe I oughta take better care of it."
"Oh, newsflash," said Kelly, dropping into an angular crouch to grab one of the kit bags.
"Be sure to rub it in," Scotty grumbled.
"Never you fear, my little lab rat." Kelly stepped up to him and plopped the bag on the spread, looking down benevolently. "You're just lucky I haven't had a chance yet to squeal to Mom."
"You would, too. Quisling." Scotty yanked his shirt over his head clumsily with one hand, and felt Kelly take hold to help him pull it the rest of the way over and off.
Kelly clicked his tongue against his teeth. "My, my. Look at you." He insinuated his fingers carefully under the wet, curling tape strips and eased the bedraggled bandage away from the stitches. "All my good work, going to seed."
Scotty, eyes half closed, relaxed into Kelly's touch as he inspected the wound, cleaned the area with disinfectant, and applied a fresh bandage. His hands felt warm. "It's looking much better," Kelly said.
"Is it?" Scotty didn't feel like moving. He wished the process could take longer. He'd stretch it out for days if he could.
"Although, the funny thing is, it'd be even better by now if someone would give himself a break and let it rest for half a minute."
Scotty smiled, feeling a little dopey. "Yeah. That's funny, all right."
"Ho ho ho." Kelly tidied up, skinned off his own damp shirt, and went into the bathroom; Scotty just sat there and listened to him washing his hands. He came back without the shirt--probably left it to dry over the shower rod--and set both kit bags against the wall by the door, ready for departure.
"You wanna know something?" Scotty said.
Scotty mulled it over hazily. "I don't think this vacation was...exactly what I had in mind." And he started to laugh--first just a little bit, through a closed-mouth smile, but then it fed on itself and turned into hilarity. He couldn't help it, it just bubbled up from his chest and made him full-out laugh until he was gasping for breath. He flopped over backward and lay on the silky bedspread, the laughs only slowly dying away, his eyes wet.
Kelly leaned over him, peering down. "You okay?"
"Uh, no." Scotty took a big breath. "But then, you had that figured even before I did, didn't you."
"Don't you even," Scotty said firmly, stomping on Kelly's words without compunction. "You just better not be."
Kelly gave a soft, wry smile. "All right, all right."
"I'm so tired, Kel."
"I know you are."
Scotty looked up at him. Kelly was tired too, his eyes ached with it, but that had been taken off the table. Scotty knew now what he wanted--needed, even craved--but at the very thought of letting himself have it, he felt the old warning sign, that intense relief, the kind of relief it was easy for him to distrust. He'd spent a lifetime looking out for it, keeping a good grip on his own borders. And then, all that policing the battlements and what happened? It just snuck up on him, is what, wove itself into his being through the everyday give and take, the instinctive back-and-forth he'd found with Kelly alone. It shook his hard-built foundations, yeah. But still. Still. The world's best piece of luck, walking in on its own two big feet.
It was hard and strange to let himself give in, even a little--but more than that, it was dizzying. "I could really...C'mere, wouldja."
Scotty toed off his shoes and moved to the far side of the bed, on his back, his head sinking into the pillow. Kelly quietly watched him, his thoughts for once kept to himself. Then he went to the window and closed the shutters, locked the door, kicked off his loafers, and lay down. The bed was roomy, so they weren't touching. But just the ordinary sense of him, the space he took up, the indefinable sound of his existence--it wrapped Scotty up, it untied the knots. He turned onto his left side to face Kelly, and with the cushioning of the new bandage he hardly even noticed.
Kelly noticed, though. "Will you quit that? I just fixed--oh, for--wait a minute." He climbed across and over Scotty, rolling his eyes and making a production of it, and nudged him until they'd switched sides of the bed.
Scotty lay on his good side now. They looked at each other across the expanse of bedspread, the rain muted and steady outside.
"I was thinking," Scotty said eventually.
"There's always a first time."
"Are you determined to air out the whole room, the way you keep flapping your mouth?"
Kelly looked chastened. Chastened and angelic, which is how Scotty knew it was fake. "Please, sir, your humble servant. You were thinking."
"We could just...sleep. Until the weather clears."
Kelly nodded into his pillow. "Or until a hundred years have passed, whichever comes first."
"Kel Van Winkle."
Scotty yawned. "Good night, then."
"Good afternoon," said Kelly, chidingly. Scotty grunted and closed his eyes.
It was a good afternoon, actually, which Scotty wouldn't have expected, given the way the day had started out. Even if part of him still felt a warning constraint, it was good just to lie here and soak up Kelly's presence. More than good: it was perfect. Almost perfect.
He shifted, getting more comfortable, and his knee bumped against Kelly's. The sleekness of the bedspread had probably made him slide toward the middle of the bed. But that was okay; he could live with colliding knees. It was kind of nice. He flexed his legs, settling in, and bumped against Kelly again.
"Enough room?" Kelly said dryly.
"I can't hear you. I'm sleeping."
One more full-body stretch and shift, and he had his lower legs sort of mixed in with and resting on Kelly's. That was definitely better.
But not...quite. Not quite enough. Scotty felt a chill go up his backbone. The part of him that patrolled the boundaries was still stirring, and the distant warning alarm hadn't fallen entirely silent. Isn't this proof, it said. Doesn't this show you that you're fooling yourself? You think you can just let go a little. You think you can give in a little, and you'll still have a grip on yourself. But everyone thinks they can just have a little. Just a taste. Just enough to get to sleep. Isn't that right.
It's not the same, he thought stubbornly. It's not giving in, to take a deep breath. It's not losing.
But he couldn't deny that he was afraid. Sleep should've come, it should've swept over him like the tidal wave he'd been expecting. He was tired to the bone, heart and body and mind all fragile and teetering on the edge. But there was also still a need in him, smoldering, buried and savage. Unleashed, it might not ever go back in its box again.
It might be too late, though. He felt too tired, too starved to resist. He so wanted to be close enough to put this new strange feeling to rest. Just to feel that inrush, not to have the eternal tight watchdog riding the back of his neck.
He gingerly put out his left hand, eyes still closed. His fingers brushed against Kelly's arm, fear and exhilaration mingling in his chest like electric shock.
"Are you awake?" Kelly asked tensely.
"Yeah," Scotty said, opening his eyes. "Look, I...."
But he didn't have an end for that sentence, and he had nothing reassuring to say. He was scared to death, reaching out for the very thing that scared him. Not Kelly, Kelly couldn't scare him if he was running straight at him with a bloodcurdling scream and a machete. It was this hunger.
So many reasons not to--every reason in the whole entire world. Except that he wanted to. He needed to. No harm in that. But...what if he'd called it wrong, and it was giving in after all?
Fury seized him, impatient and willful and blind. What if, what if? Stop. Either let it go, or get what you need. Jump. See who catches you.
He grabbed Kelly's upper arm and shoved him onto his back, rolling to lie half atop him. His legs wrapped around one of Kelly's, thrusting against the press of his thigh. Kelly stifled a sound. Scotty obstinately ducked his head and bit the soft muscle along Kelly's shoulder, pushing, rocking their hips together; but all he got was a hard, hissing breath. Yeah, Kelly knew how to keep a secret.
Scotty licked and bit at Kelly's neck, his chest, holding him down--Kelly had his head thrown back, his legs winding tight with Scotty's, twisting into the friction. Noises, forcibly repressed, clicked in his throat. Scotty sprawled up and over him, pressed his lips to Kelly's ear.
"--I had you on an--island somewhere--" he whispered, breathless, "I'd get that--shout outta you--" He fumbled at Kelly's waist, got his jeans open and shoved his hand down inside, gripping and stroking. Kelly's teeth snapped on empty air.
"Uh huh," Scotty gasped almost voicelessly, his grin feeling wolfish. Quick and hard, he drew Kelly's body tight as a wire, watching Kelly's face go slack and his mouth fall helplessly, pantingly open.
Relentless, his vision almost red with the fierce, unholy joy of it, he made Kelly come. Even then there was no noise, but Kelly's lips formed silent words in the air.
Scotty eased himself up, slowly running his hand up the length of Kelly's body. He touched Kelly's mouth with two fingers, tracing the echo of those words as if he could read them by Braille.
"Hey Scotty?" Kelly said at last, his lips moving under Scotty's touch, his eyes closed.
"I'm not gonna ask if you're sure." His voice was faint and shaky.
"Good," Scotty said. "Because who even knows anything anymore."
Kelly opened his eyes, and Scotty looked right into them. He knew they were in someone else's house. He knew the rain could stop any minute. He knew nobody was on their side. He even knew this could get complicated, and very much so. But he touched Kelly's mouth and looked into his dazed eyes. He didn't have any excuses now, no dream state, no sleeping, no accident.
"It's on purpose," he said, and leaned in to Kelly, both hands sliding along the faint roughness of his jaw, kissing him like a drowning man. Like a breathing man. Kelly held on to him, those long hands sliding around his waist.
And Kelly took his revenge, too, if you wanted to call it that. He slowly turned them over, kissing back like it was his life's mission, his thigh rubbing tantalizingly against Scotty just out of perfect range. Scotty rolled his hips, but couldn't get Kelly to keep in the sweet spot. And when Kelly pulled back at last, his lips parted and his eyes heavy-lidded, he was smiling.
"You...." Scotty growled.
"Me," Kelly agreed. He lazily unfastened Scotty's jeans, licked his palm--but after he'd curled his hand just right, he suddenly moved, sinuously bending down, and used his mouth.
Scotty had to bite his own forearm, squinting his eyes closed so hard he saw firebursts. He couldn't think. And who'd want to? It was the strangest, most electric, most foreign, and most perfect feeling, and he gave himself up to it. Defenseless, careless, he lay open to Kelly and knew he was safe.
He didn't move, other than to clench his fist and press his arm against his teeth. He didn't need to. All of his urgency and desire seemed to thrum through his body and into Kelly's, and the responses were vigorous and sure. He just kept quiet and sucked in air, dizzy, spinning and falling beneath Kelly's steadying hand, coming at last into his welcoming mouth.
"Yes," Kelly murmured against the rapid rise and fall of Scotty's belly. "We can just sleep 'til the weather clears."
Scotty gasped out a laugh. He couldn't do much else, not even if someone paid him. Or more likely, given his lifestyle, not even if someone had a machine gun on him. He could scarcely open his eyes again after each blink. The mattress held on to him like a magnet.
Kelly sat up, eased his spine back and forth, and sprawled next to Scotty with a satisfied puff of breath. "Maybe we shoulda spent the day building an ark, instead of fighting."
"True." Scotty slid his hand weakly over to the side, encircled Kelly's wrist.
"But hey, listen here. Maybe the bed floats."
Scotty opened his mouth to reply, grinning foolishly, when he just...went out. Pow.
Waking was easy: not a jolt, but not a slog through the mud. He came to consciousness, his eyes opened to the dim room, and he could think again, one, two, three. The bedside lamp was off, and the noise of the rain had stopped. Light showed along the top edge of the shutters.
He was tucked in underneath the spread now, which he appreciated, especially because his jeans were still haphazardly open. He reached down and fastened himself up, and took a look at the shapeless lump next to him. Only the crown of Kelly's head showed above the bedspread, his hair fluffed into disordered whorls.
Scotty poked him. And poked him again. And again, with four stiff fingers this time. He thought he should be embarrassed or defensive or something, but he wasn't. Maybe finally getting some good sleep had sent his mind out of whack. The peculiarity of the whole situation wasn't bothering him at all, really--and it felt increasingly normal now, if only because this part was completely par for the course. Barring true gun-toting emergency, Kelly would vastly prefer a forklift when it came time to get up.
"Noah?" Kelly's voice sounded far away.
"Not even Shem, Ham, or Japheth," Scotty said, and poked hard, this time including his thumb. "You better pull yourself together, my man, because Ararat awaits."
A long pause. Scotty readied his poking hand.
"...Time is it."
"No idea. It could be next week, for all I know."
"Oscar might be sleeping. Like smart people." Kelly's head slithered further down, only a tuft of hair remaining.
"Looks like there's light outside."
"House is on fire."
Scotty flung back the spread and leapt up, not just because it bugged Kelly so much, but also because he felt plain happy. "Let's go, Leroy. If we don't get while the getting's good, the getting won't get any...gooder."
Kelly groaned from deep within the center of the earth. Scotty cupped his hands around his mouth, stage-whispering.
"If we stay here another night, we might have to have breakfast with El Generalissimo."
Amazing how fast such a tall guy could move. Kelly was up and zipped and smoothing his hair before the cartoon motion-lines behind him had faded. They pulled on their shirts and shoes; Scotty managed it alone, and his shoulder didn't give him any serious trouble.
"I feel kind of sorry for the man, actually," Scotty said, running a hand over his hair, trying to smooth out the nap a little.
"It's the brain fever," Kelly assured him. He confirmed that both kit bags were closed, and prowled the room in a last-minute check for belongings.
"I mean it. He has no idea what hit him. Things are never going to be understandable for him again."
Kelly ducked into the bathroom, calling, "You mean under his thumb."
When Kelly came back, Scotty picked up one of the bags with his right hand. "He's lost his control. He'd gotten too used to it. Now it's...adapt or die."
"Like the dinosaurs," Kelly answered, but his tone had relented. He held out Scotty's sling, thoroughly wrinkled and disreputable by now.
"And I didn't get you anything." Scotty set the bag on the bed and took the sling. He tightened the knot, slipped it on, eased his arm to a good angle, and let it rest.
It turned out it was only sunset, and Oscar was not sleeping. Massimo loaded their cases into the trunk and responded with shy enthusiasm to Scotty shaking his hand. Gary was still off in the clutches of some Department ghoul or other, probably being played like a xylophone. So the car pulled slowly away, and Scotty looked back long enough to see the general standing in silhouette behind one of the windows, his shoulders bowed, raising one hand hesitantly to them as they passed.
"Say, Holmes," Scotty said after a couple miles. The track was muddy, but not dangerous, and they were bound to go faster once they hit the paved roads into the city.
"Speak to me." Kelly yawned.
"Let's not go back to the fleabag."
"And defy the orders of our lords and masters? Surely you jest."
Scotty leaned closer. "I'm still supposed to recuperate for another week or two. On the wounded list and all. The Department might lay off us for a little while."
He saw Kelly's eyebrows climb, even in the darkness of the car.
They had Oscar drop them at a fair-to-middling place they used sometimes, when they wanted to stay out of the Department's hair and keep a low profile without having to live like Oliver Twist.
More importantly, the beds there were bigger. And they didn't squeak.
Scotty thought about it later--much later--that night. Yeah, they wouldn't be able to manage it all the time. And who knew what the next hour would bring, let alone the next day or the next year? But hey, they'd take it as it came. They were good at that.
He lay feeling sleep wash over him again, Kelly's ruffled head heavy and comfortable against his shoulder. No waiting, this time. Quick and sure. Out like a light.
Thanks to PFL, Kay, and Jill, for all the help and encouragement.