V is for . . .

“A ball?” Charles asked in astonishment.

Peter was surprised at his own disappointment, the sensation of his heart dropping two inches in his chest. “You don’t want to go.” It was more a statement than a question.

“Of course I do,” Charles said roundly. “But I haven’t those kinds of clothes.”

“We have a day,” Peter said. “I’m sure we can work quickly enough.”

VIENNA was the last great bastion of grand balls of the kind once so common and popular in the early nineteenth century, and Peter liked having a reason to dress in his best—and better yet, a reason to dress Charles. Though Charles was the one with a better sense of style, Peter was the one who knew what would be most appropriate for the Hofburg Palace. After pulling old strings with a number of connections, they soon had Charles tailored and ready.

But while for Peter a tuxedo meant a certain kind of armor, he saw by the way Charles practically trembled in his shining new shoes that formal wear hadn’t nearly the same effect for him. “What is the matter?” Peter asked him quietly as they waited to enter the state rooms of the palace.

“Will I be expected to dance?”

Peter frowned. “Only if you see a young lady without a partner.”

Charles shot Peter a glare, a rare show of temper in the usually mild cabbie that Peter took to mean his companion was truly frightened. “And will you? Dance?”

“Not with you. Not here,” Peter said. Indeed, he would be sure to refrain from overt signs of affection for Charles, no matter how lovely he looked in that tuxedo.

“I meant the debutantes,” said Charles. “Will you dance with them?”

They were moving into the ballroom, keeping to the crowded margins so the dancers had space to move. “It is considered rude for a gentleman not to ask if he notices a lady who is being neglected.”

“They will work to be neglected once they see you in all your togs,” said Charles with a tiny pout that pleased Peter more than it should have; he liked the idea his easy-going Charles might actually have a jealous streak.

Charles glanced left and right, his natural curiosity breaking through his concern. Then, “Oh, God, there’s one already.”

Peter swung his head in the direction Charles was pointed and saw a young lady eyeing the two of them speculatively. “She’s looking at you, not me.”

Charles gave a laugh that might have been a hiccough. “Not bloody likely.”

They were saved when another gentleman swept in to petition the lady for a dance, though she looked over her shoulder at Peter and Charles until she was lost to them in the crowd.

“It’s looks to be a long night,” Charles sighed.

Before Peter could respond, a fine-boned blonde in a frothy ice blue gown came to claim his attention. “Peter Stoller! Never say you’ve been in Vienna and hiding from me.”

Peter glanced swiftly at Charles, whose eyebrows went up and mouth quirked in bitter amusement. “Uh, Astrid,” said Peter haltingly, “may I present my associate Charles Toulson. Charles, this is Astrid Bieler. An old friend.”

Astrid’s pale eyes dipped over Charles’s form before returning to Peter. “You’re not working, are you?”

“Not tonight,” said Peter.

“Good, then you can ask me to dance.”

“I haven’t had enough wine for that,” said Peter.

Astrid gave him a slap on the shoulder. “You terrible man! What about your friend then?” She looked at Charles.

“I haven’t had enough wine to dance with him, either,” Peter told her and was aware of the long breath Charles slowly let out beside him.

“You’re impossible,” said Astrid. “Fine, no dancing. Wine?”

“Are you offering?” Peter asked, and just as Astrid appeared ready to become truly irate, he acquiesced. “I’ll fetch some. For both of you,” he added with another glance at Charles, “so long as you promise only to say nice things about me while I’m gone.”

“Who could say otherwise?” asked Astrid as Peter began the push through the crowd toward the refreshments. Once he was out of earshot, she turned to Charles. “Is he as good in bed as I remember?”

Charles turned a startled look on her, and she gave a tiny shrug. “You’re making things difficult, what with all the travel,” she told him as she watched Peter maneuver through the press. “You should get settled somewhere soon.”

U is for . . .

All right, you’ve made a liar of me. Here’s one from Charles’s point of view.

Charles lay awake and listened to the even breathing beside him, so soft he had to strain to hear. At one point he even bent his head a little farther on the pillow to assure himself Peter was still alive. Peter did sometimes talk in his sleep, and often fidgeted, but those things never bothered Charles. It was nights like this one, when Peter seemed to sink beneath something heavy and then slept like one dead, Charles found it difficult to sleep himself.

He must have done, however, because next he knew he was roused by the loud, low tolling of a bell. Which church were they nearest? UTRECHT had dozens of them; they’d visited just a couple the day before. Only two—no, three—because they’d arrived in the afternoon and hadn’t much time for sights. They would do more the next day. Today, Charles told himself, peering through the gloom in vain for some sign of the time. Had the church bell been ringing the hour? But no, it was still going, slow and mournful, and with a sudden constriction of his heart, Charles realized it was a death knoll. But who would hold a service at this time of night? No one. So someone had only just died, then.

In an irrational moment of superstition, Charles leaned toward Peter’s slumbering form once more, in case the churches in Utrecht knew something he didn’t. How had the bells not woken him?

Charles moved in close, trying to see through the night that had gathered in their hotel room and surrounded them. Then, with a start, realized Peter’s eyes were open after all. Charles shot backward in surprise, but with calm assurance, Peter’s arms caught him and pulled him closer again.

“What are you doing?” Peter asked, his voice thick, and Charles understood Peter wasn’t yet fully awake.

“Making sure you were breathing,” Charles told him. It sounded ridiculous but had the benefit of being true.

“And am I?” But before Charles could answer, Peter turned an ear toward the windows. “What’s that racket?”

“I think it’s a funeral bell from one of the churches.”

“You were making sure I hadn’t ascended to Heaven without you,” Peter surmised. He pulled Charles a little closer, and not for the first time Charles marveled at the strength in Peter’s muscles, the grace in him, and ease with which he utilized these blessings. Like a lion, so sure of itself and never questioning its right to take or do whatever it pleased.

“Now you’re not breathing,” Peter murmured, and Charles realized he was holding his breath in anticipation. He let it out slowly and allowed himself to relax into Peter’s warmth.

“I promise,” Peter whispered, “not to go without you. There is no Heaven for me if you don’t come, too.”

T is for . . .

The blue-grey slate roofs of TOURS were darkening as the sun slid behind the buildings. Peter drained the last of the Chenin from his glass. White wines weren’t his favorite, but this one was local and sweet, and Peter found it remarkably easy to drink.

Charles, meanwhile, sipped at his tea, eyes ever roving the medieval façades of Place Plumereau. While being there made Peter feel as if he were in some kind of theme park—it was what he imagined parts of Disney Land might look like—the history of the place suited Charles’s love of all things old and monumental.

“The church down there,” Charles said after a moment, his tone suggesting what he was about to impart might be of particular interest to his companion, “is Saint Pierre le Puellier.”

Peter looked in the direction of the rue that led to the old church. “Not as if there aren’t thousands of things named for Saint Peter all over Europe, if not the world,” he remarked.

Charles cocked a bright eye at him and set his tea cup beside his half-eaten salad. “And were your parents religious?”

Peter almost laughed at the thought, though what actually came out was a kind of cough. “Hardly. It’s a common enough name, isn’t it?” For some reason the implied connection between him and—what? old things, religious things? or just the idea that his parents had put any real feeling into the job—made Peter suddenly and inexplicably irate. “Should I ask if your parents were monarchists because they named you Charles?” He was no historian, but he was relatively certain there had been several kings of a few nationalities with that name.

A corner of Charles’s mouth lifted, but Peter knew from experience the seeming amusement was a mask for Charles’s acute discomfort at the truculent response. Still, when he spoke, Charles’s tone remained light. “Not too many kings named Charles did so well for themselves. Maybe I should phone my mother and censure her for wishing me ill.”

Peter sighed. “I’m sorry. I . . .” But he had no rational justification for his behavior, could not elucidate his feelings.

“Maybe we should move on,” said Charles, pushing back in his chair.

Peter looked up at the sky, now a deep and darkening blue. It had happened so fast, night falling, as if it had stolen over the city while no one was keeping watch. And now instead of sharp edges Peter saw everything in a kind of soft light and realized all at once he’d had too much wine.

“Peter?” Charles asked. He was standing now beside Peter’s chair; Peter looked up and saw Charles’s face furrowed with concern.

“Do you want me to tell you about them?” Peter asked.

Charles glanced around at the sea of café tables, most of them occupied. “Let’s walk. You’ll feel better if you get some movement.”

But Peter shied from Charles’s attempt to take his arm and guide him out of his chair. “You might as well know what you’re really getting, being stuck with me.”

“I know what I’ve got,” said Charles, and Peter refocused on his face. “You’re you and that’s all that matters to me. Well, that and getting you back to the hotel. So come on.”

This time Peter allowed Charles to help him up.

S is for . . .

SALZBURG?” Peter asked, and then, unable to help himself, “Why?”

Charles turned his head to look out the hotel window, the spring sunlight slanting over his features and making the blue eyes seem somehow paler than usual. He looked tired, Peter realized, and maybe there was nothing more to be said. They’d been traveling for months, having fun of course, but the bare truth was they were homeless. And exhausted.

“It’s spring,” Charles said, “and Salzburg seems lovely in the spring.”

_______________________
If you’re coming in late, go here for an explanation of what’s going on. Rest assured you needn’t read all of the alphabet to enjoy these installments! Though they utilize the same core characters, each letter is independent.

R is for . . .

Peter and Charles stood on the hotel balcony overlooking RIO DE JANEIRO‘s Copacabana Beach, glad to be above the press of bodies. It was Réveillon and nearly midnight; soon the fireworks would whistle into the air and pop open over the water like star-spangled umbrellas. Not that Peter thought they were likely to hear much over the music and crowd noise.

Four hours before, he and Charles had quietly toasted the new year over a dinner they’d taken in their suite. Because four hours before it had been midnight in London. Now they merely waited for Rio to catch up.

“It’s also a religious festival here,” Charles remarked as they leaned on the railing. “It’s why so many are wearing white. They will offer gifts to the Queen of the Seas in the hope of good luck for the coming year.”

“If only it were so easy,” Peter murmured. What had the past year brought him? Six lovely months with Charles before he’d traveled for work and come home to Hell. Peter thought of the pretend passport with which he’d first lured Charles to his flat. Only so very real now, and like Dante, Peter was now a world citizen, welcome anywhere but home.

Below them, the crowd began a low chant that gradually got louder, and Peter realized they were counting down the final seconds of the year. Shortly afterward the first garden of fireworks bloomed in the dark skies. Beside him, Charles stepped closer, slipped an arm around him. When Peter turned to look at him, Charles planted a wine-infused kiss on him, and for that moment Peter forgot to feel sad. “Beatrice,” Peter sighed when their lips parted and was immediately sorry when Charles flushed, looking stunned.

“You,” Peter hastened to explain. “You’re my Beatrice. My guide through . . .” He gestured at the the beach, the ocean, the world beyond.

“But better than a figment of your imagination, I hope,” Charles said, still eyeing Peter as if unconvinced of his veracity.

“Well, I’m no writer,” said Peter. He looked again at the writhing crowd and thought it looked very like a pit of Hell. What circle might this be?

“It’s been nice traveling,” said Charles, his gaze following Peter’s, “but we’ll have to pick somewhere to stay eventually.”

“Not until spring,” said Peter, his words weighted with reluctance. “Places are always at their best in spring.”

The last of the fireworks ebbed away, but on the beach the people showed no sign of dispersing. They would dance and drink and shout and sing through the night then jump into the waves at daybreak. And the Queen of the Seas? Would she accept them or spit them out?

All at once Peter couldn’t stand to watch or listen any longer. He turned away from the railing and met Charles’s uncertain eyes, and before Charles could turn away, Peter caught hold of him and returned the kiss one hundred fold. Because if his homeland was to be Hell, Peter was determined to enjoy it.

Q is for . . .

Peter was concerned the helicopter to QUEENSTOWN would make Charles airsick, and by all indications it nearly did. “Bus next time,” Charles had half gasped upon stumbling free. “Or just a regular plane.”

“Better view from the ‘copter,” said Peter, adding with a wry twist of his lips, “though I’m not sure you saw much of it.”

Charles turned narrowed eyes to him, and for the first time since their having met over a year before Peter thought he might have caught traces of active dislike in his lover’s expression. But it was gone so swiftly, Peter couldn’t be sure he hadn’t imagined it as Charles turned his squint toward the terminal building as if looking for a further exit, some additional distance between himself and the offending helicopter.

“Come on, then,” said Peter, shouldering his bag. They’d only brought enough for two, three days at the outside, having left the majority of their luggage back in Dunedin, though Peter was already wishing he’d planned a longer stay. Then, with a glance at Charles, he thought it might be just as well they wouldn’t be long.

“We’ll take a coach back,” Peter promised as they strode across the tarmac. “In the meantime, maybe some time on the lake will be more to your liking.”

P is for . . .

PARIS was one of their first stops, Charles having put it at the top of his wish list of places to visit. Once there, he walked the pavements with his mouth partly open and his brilliant blue eyes wide as he turned them here and there, as if he would swallow the city whole just by optic ingestion. He even stared at the pigeons with a kind of fascination, as if a French one must somehow be different from those on the other side of the Channel.

“You speak French,” Charles had marveled when they’d checked into the George V and Peter had used his fluency at the desk.

“Certainly,” said Peter. Even before his service, he’d learned French at school; indeed, he had a knack for languages that had served him well given his occupation. Or ex-occupation. The remembrance of Monsieur Durmont, his rigid back and perpetual scowl, prompted Peter to remark, “You must have taken some kind of foreign language in school.”

“A bit of German,” Charles confessed, “but it didn’t take.”

Two days later, as they walked through the Tuileries, Peter found Charles’s awe oddly charming. He glanced around and tried to see it all for the first time, just to recapture, if possible, that sense of wonder. But it was all too familiar, and Peter’s eyes were trained for other things: quick movement, inexplicable behavior, the suggestion of a weapon under the drape of someone’s coat.

Peter closed his eyes briefly as if to reset them, then looked again at Charles, who had slowed to look at one of Rodin’s statues outside the Orangerie. “She looks very sad.”

“That’s Eve, expelled from Eden,” said Peter, and if Charles flinched a bit at this, Peter chose not to remark on it, instead saying, “I much prefer this other Rodin. La Baiser.”

Charles turned a confused gaze first at Peter then in the direction of the gesture that had accompanied Peter’s statement. The intertwined bodies of the statue required no further translation, and Peter was gratified by Charles’s quick blush. Peter leaned in, felt the vacuum as Charles sucked in a short breath. “Here?” Charles asked in a fervent whisper.

“It’s Paris, love. Let’s do Rodin one better.”

O is for . . .

The letter caught up to them in OSLO. “Oh!” the young man behind the concierge desk exclaimed as Peter and Charles returned from a full morning of exploring the city, “Mr. Stoller, you’ve a message . . .”

Peter slowed his steps across the glossy lobby and sensed how, behind him, Charles did the same.

The concierge (surely he was too young for it?) offered up a creamy envelope with a seal Peter recognized only too well. Still, he managed to keep his hand steady as he accepted the missive. The young man waited, brown eyes wide with expectation, but Peter dare not open the envelope until back in the safety of the hotel room. So with a generous tip and a “thank you,” he turned on his heel and went for the lifts, Charles half scrambling after him.

“What is it?” Charles asked once they were sealed inside the box and on their way up. No one was with them.

“Nothing, I’m sure,” Peter said. The doors opened and a woman with a small dog boarded, giving them each a quick appraisal before bestowing a smile.

“God morgen,” she chirped.

“God ettermiddag,” Peter responded blandly. He might’ve been amused when she checked her watch, but the letter in his hand felt too heavy for his spirits to rise that far.

The lift stopped with a chime and Peter and Charles stepped out. “Ha det bra!” the woman called, and the dog gave a yap, but though Charles turned to waggle his fingers in a kind of wave, Peter marched on down the corridor without looking back. By the time Charles caught up, Peter had already opened the door to their room, was standing by the window and lifting the seal on the envelope.

. . . special permission under the circumstances . . . These were the first words Peter’s eyes picked out of the familiar scrawl, Gordon Lessenby’s own handwriting. He then checked the date on the top of the note. The service had done its work well; the letter was only four days in finding them. Which meant they were being watched, of course, but Peter had expected as much.

“What is it?” Charles asked again.

Peter gave his head a small shake. “Nothing really. Just as I thought.” But he went back to the start of the letter and read it through anyway.

Dear Peter,

I’m so sorry to have to be the one to inform you that your father passed away . . .

He was being given special permission to visit for the funeral, though it having been four days meant it may very well already be over with. Mum wasn’t one to wait; her efficiency knew no bounds.

Peter re-folded the card and wondered what emotion Gordon had meant to convey by using his best stationery. Kindness? Formality? Was it warm or cold?

“It’s not nothing,” said Charles. “I can see that much. Or is this one of those things you can’t tell me?”

“My father died,” said Peter. Might as well get it over with, he supposed. “And Gordon is giving me permission to come back to England for the funeral if I like. Which I don’t. So it’s nothing.” Turning from the window, Peter started to drop the note on the writing desk then thought better of it and went over to the luggage rack to put it in the pocket of his suitcase. He couldn’t brave looking directly at Charles just then. Not if he wanted to keep his composure.

For a long moment there was nothing but a kind of booming silence. Then Charles ventured with, “Was he ill?”

“Gordon says it was heart failure.”

Peter found himself rummaging through his bag as if looking for something, though really he only needed something to do. His hands wanted to be busy; they began unfolding and refolding the neat stacks of clothing.

“And your mother . . .” Charles went on, speaking to Peter’s back.

“Has the kind of steel running through her they put in buildings to keep them from falling in earthquakes. No need to worry about her.”

“Is that where you get it?” Charles half muttered. Peter pretended not to hear but could not ignore it when Charles said more audibly, “I’m sorry I’ll never get to meet them.”

“Don’t be,” Peter told him. “You’re not missing much.”

“But you must miss them,” Charles persisted. “And they . . .” Here Charles faltered. “Or your mother at least . . .”

“I assure you they did not and do not miss me,” said Peter. “And I was through missing them long ago. Death is not any more permanent an absence than is already in effect.”

_______________________
If you’re coming in late, go here for an explanation of what’s going on. Rest assured you needn’t read all of the alphabet to enjoy these installments! Though they utilize the same core characters, each letter is independent.

N is for . . .

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking all of America is like this,” Peter warned. He and Charles were sitting in Café Maspero off Jackson Square in NEW ORLEANS, the windows thrown open to the humidity and sometimes raucous foot traffic. Lazy fans pushed the thick air around. Somewhere in the distance a street performer drew long, mournful notes from his trombone.

“The food is certainly unique,” Charles admitted. He eyed his plate speculatively, though it was half empty already, Charles having attacked his muffaletta with gusto. “I wonder how easy it would be to make.”

“I would think the trick would be in finding the ingredients,” said Peter. He’d finished his French onion soup and was picking delicately at the side salad, more out of boredom than any lingering hunger.

“You’ve been here before?” Charles asked between bites.

“Only twice. And never for very long.” Peter watched Charles’s eyebrows quirk and his brow furrow as he tried to work out what that might mean. “America wasn’t really my venue,” Peter added by way of clarification.

“Oh.” Clearly the statement had done little to enlighten. But then Charles brightened. “Then there must be less for you to worry about here.”

“I’m not worried. I haven’t been,” said Peter. “But if we’re talking about, say, friendly countries . . .”

“Allies?”

“We don’t really . . .” Peter began, then, “I don’t feel like talking about it, actually. Are you done? I’d like to maybe see the holiday decorations in the Square.”

M is for . . .

“A gun.”

“What?” Peter asked as he emerged from the shower, one towel secured around his waist as he used a second to dry his hair. Outside their open windows and below their balcony stretched MONTE CARLO, a slice of the Riviera burning off its last bit of blue before the sun set. Peter and Charles had spent the morning out and about, had spent the afternoon in, and were collecting themselves now with the idea of a nice dinner.

“You have a gun,” Charles said. “I thought they made you give yours up when . . .”

“They did,” said Peter. He dropped the second towel and crossed to where his bag lay open, knowing he’d never left it that way. Years of careful habits were not easily broken. “Were you looking for something?”

“I was going to make sure your shirt wasn’t wrinkled. You don’t need it,” Charles added stubbornly.

Peter’s eyebrows went up. “My shirt?”

“A gun.”

“Someone thought I might,” said Peter.

“Someone?”

“Hong Kong.” When Charles only stared blankly, Peter explained, “The men from the satellite office sent it along as a going away present.” Peter slid the offending firearm back under a pile of clothing and extracted his trousers. “These?” he asked. Charles had a better eye for style than he did.

But Charles was not to be deterred. “You’re out of it now.”

“There’s no such thing as out of it,” Peter stated. “A network with old information might still think I was in. Or might think I know something even if I am . . . retired. Now,” Peter went on with the air of someone turning a page to the start of a new chapter, “have you seen my cufflinks?”

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Wondering who Peter and Charles are? Read my novella St. Peter in Chains to find out and then watch for the sequel St. Peter at the Gate coming later this year.