L is for . . .

LONDON suffered an unseasonably cold rain the day Peter and Charles departed. Serves you right, Peter thought spitefully as they boarded the train. Go on and cry.

It was easier to be angry than allow himself to feel the heartbreak. London had been home for fourteen years, the place he had always come back to. Now nothing he owned remained there; it had all be shipped abroad for storage, as if even his very possessions might be contaminated. Never mind all the years of work Peter had done for Queen and country.

How shoddy our foundations. One might think he was building on sturdy rock only to find shifting sand below. A carefully constructed life and career brought down by—

“Say all your goodbyes?” Charles asked quietly.

Peter turned to where his companion sat beside him.

“The letter you mailed.”

“My parents,” Peter answered shortly.

“You could have rang them,” said Charles.

Peter didn’t bother to respond. Charles knew better, or if he didn’t he should have. Not that Charles had ever met Peter’s parents. But Charles must have known Peter never called them either. No, not even when being exiled.

Ah, God, what had Charles done to him? Peter had been so sure his heart was solid ground, and Charles had fallen over it like the very rain of London and made it soft. And now, without the necessary support to hold it, his world was crashing down.

“I might just go get some tea,” Charles said, rising. “Care for any?”

Peter had to swallow hard to move the bitterness out of the way of his reply. “No. Thank you.” And then, as Charles turned away, “Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Phone your parents? Tell them . . .?”

“No. Perhaps I’ll send them a postcard or two.” And with that, Charles stepped away in search of tea, and the train began its slow pull out of the station.

K is for . . .

Peter could have gladly spent several days in the relative peace of KYOTO‘s botanical garden. Even with the steady trail of tourists roaming through, he found the place relaxing. Having ducked off the marked paths (much to Charles’s sputtering protests), they had located a spot near a green pond that was mostly hidden and not frequented by other visitors. Peter lay back in the tall grass while Charles kept nervous watch.

“You’ll fall asleep if you stay like that,” Charles told him.

The only sign that Peter had heard was the quirking up of the corners of his mouth.

“If you need a nap . . .” Charles insisted.

Peter found Charles’s tension creeping into his own form; he could not be easy if Charles were not. Reluctantly, he sat up, only to be met with a chuckle from his companion.

“And flowers in his hair,” said Charles, reaching to brush the adornments free.

Peter glanced down at what had fallen. “It’s only grass,” he said with a mixture of relief and irritation; he would never have sat on the flowers. And even if he would have, Charles never would have let him.

“Less poetic that way,” Charles pointed out.

“I’m a poem now, am I?” An odd trickle of pleasure at the idea ran up Peter’s spine. No one had ever compared him to anything so lovely as a poem before.

“I’d say you’re poetry in motion, but that’s just trite,” Charles said. “Now can we go before we do get caught and in trouble? That would be decidedly unpoetic.”

Charles stood and Peter followed suit, checking once more to be sure he hadn’t, in fact, sat on any flowers. But it was all grass.

“Where to then?” Peter asked.

“Tea. And maybe one of the shrines,” suggested Charles.

Peter nodded and allowed Charles to lead the way.

J is for . . .

Peter wasn’t sure how many more forts he could stand to visit; JAIPUR seemed filled with them, and Charles’s love of history compelled him to visit each one in turn.

Though as an Intelligence agent Peter had traveled quite a bit, he’d never been called to Jaipur. There was something refreshing about that, about being in a place that didn’t feel old and dull to him, that wasn’t haunted with ghosts of past encounters. Being in such a place made Peter feel strangely light in the shoulders. He hadn’t realized until then the weight of other cities, cities with which he had a history, until he’d come to this one.

Charles was amused by it, too, for instead of Peter being able to lead the way, he had to consult the map and guides as much as—or more than—Charles.

“Well, that’s it for forts,” Charles announced as they exited yet another. “Shall we do palaces or gardens next? Or there are the temples . . .”

Peter glanced down at the list in Charles’s hand; it appeared to be a long one. “If you intend to see and do all that, we may be here for a while.”

Charles’s face fell a little. “I could narrow it down, I suppose.”

“No need.” With a glance up at the blue vault of sky, Peter said, “It’s a fine day. Let’s start with the gardens.”

I is for . . .

Peter couldn’t help but wonder whether he was getting a bit too old for IBIZA. Oh, the days were fine, wandering the old port with Charles and watching the sun set, but while Peter was sure he could manage Sant Antoni after dark, he discovered he didn’t much want to. What did that say about him? Had he finally settled down?

He glanced over at where Charles was inspecting some Phoenician ruins as if they actually meant something to him and concluded with tiny sigh, yes, he must have.

But when Charles straightened and caught Peter’s eye and gave him a wink, Peter decided he didn’t regret it.

“Let’s go to the market,” Charles suggested, “I know you want some of that handmade soap.”

Peter glanced around at the piles of rocks amid which they stood. “But I thought you . . .”

“And I’ll lather you up myself later,” Charles went on.

As Charles took his arm and led him down toward the wharf, Peter decided settling down didn’t have to mean settling for less.

H is for . . .

It was not yet the rainy season, but it might as well have been. HONG KONG was blanketed in grey clouds and fog, spitting rain every morning and evening, leaving the days a humid swelter. There had been reports of landslides in the mountains.

Peter had thought the bustle of the city, similar in some respects to London, might appeal to Charles (or maybe more to himself), but found upon arriving both he and Charles shared a lackluster feeling for the place. They had only been there three days, yet it seemed likely they would move on before the week was over. While Peter usually liked being somewhere crowded, somewhere he could get lost in the shuffle, Hong Kong had given him the growing sense of someone looking over his shoulder.

He should have known better, he supposed; Hong Kong was crawling with Agency—Peter had visited one of the satellite offices in the region not long ago; much had changed in a handful of months—and they would know he was there, with Charles, and would be watching.

Charles seemed to sense it, too. Instead of his open and affable demeanor, the cabbie had taken to glancing left and right over his shoulders whenever they were out.

“I feel tall here, and I never feel tall,” Charles remarked at one point. “I can’t imagine how you feel.”

But there were enough tourists and visitors that they were not so out of the ordinary, even with their fair coloring and Charles’s vivid blue eyes. And yet Peter couldn’t help thinking they were easy marks for his ex fellows, or for any other conglomerate who might take interest.

His suspicions were confirmed when late one night (or early one morning) Peter had gone down to the hotel bar in the hopes of something to help him sleep. He could just as easily have taken something from the minibar, but he hesitated to wake Charles, and truthfully Peter’s restlessness required more movement than a few steps across the room. He was waiting on his whiskey when a lithe young Chinese woman slid onto the barstool beside him. Peter spared her a glance, and she smiled with too-red lips and slid a small envelope the same shade as her lipstick across to him.

Frowning, Peter opened it, though he kept careful watch of the woman through his peripheral vision.

A gift for old times’ sake.

Peter sighed, ready to refuse the offer. It was nice to know his old guard were loyal, but surely they also knew he had no interest in a prostitute. Unless they were hoping to change his mind about Charles somehow.

He was sliding the note back into the envelope when something touched his thigh. Peter might have jumped but his training warned him to stay very still as his eyes only briefly moved downward to glimpse what now rested on his leg. Too cold and heavy to be the woman’s hand. And dark.

Peter used one hand to slide the note back to the woman and his other to hold the “gift” on his lap and keep it from falling.

A gun.

The woman smiled again and drifted away.

Peter’s whiskey arrived, but it was now a certainty he would not be getting any sleep that night anyway.

G is for . . .

It felt good to be on British soil, even if half a world away from what his heart would always call home. GEORGE TOWN was hot, even in December, which didn’t bother Peter at all but seemed to have dampened Charles a bit—literally as well as figuratively. Even the gusts of air blowing in from the water were warm, so that Peter couldn’t decide whether it was better to have the humid breath of the breeze or no breeze at all.

Because at least half of the people in the city were tourists, Peter and Charles fit in admirably. For the first time in a long while, Peter felt himself relax. He was happy to spend days on the beach or by the pool reading beat-up and yellowed paperbacks, though he sensed Charles was getting restless. There wasn’t so much in George Town to sate Charles’s desire for history, and after almost a week there they’d exhausted more or less every avenue of exploration, as well as practically every decent restaurant (and some not so decent besides). They’d even snorkeled, which was something Peter had never planned or expected to do. Not that he had anything against it. He’d just never had much reason for it, either.

Charles collapsed into the chaise beside Peter, droplets of pool water flying onto Peter’s arm, book, and (most irritatingly) sunglasses. With a small sigh, Peter removed them and used his towel to wipe the lenses clean.

“Staying fit with all those laps,” Peter remarked mildly.

“Sweating off any extra weight in this heat,” said Charles with uncharacteristic irritability. “I only go in the water to keep from cooking.”

“Well, as soon as I finish my book we can go if you like.”

Charles looked over at him. “Go?”

“I borrowed it from the hotel manager. I just want to finish and return it before we leave.”

“Go where?” Charles asked.

“Wherever you like. Someplace cooler, I suppose.” He half expected Charles to run back to the room for his collection of travel books, but instead Charles said, “You do look nice with a tan, though.”

Peter snorted, if only to keep from laughing. “You’re an imbecile,” he said, in the most affectionate way possible. “Now let me finish this damn book, or else we’ll be here through Christmas.”

______________________
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.

F is for . . .

FRANKFURT was enjoying an unseasonably warm fall, which made it all the more difficult for Peter to find excuses to stay in the hotel room as Charles champed at the bit to be out and about, exploring and gazing moonily at the architecture.

“Go on then,” Peter had told him more than once, though he privately hoped Charles would stay with him instead. And thus far Charles had, though his solicitous demeanor had nearly made Peter send him out after all.

“Are you okay?” Charles kept asking. “Not feeling well? Maybe you need the fresh air. We could just go down to the café on the corner.”

Yes, the café on the corner, which happened to be the very place where, two years before, Peter had met co-agent Jules Maier hours before Jules was caught and killed by German counteragents. But Peter couldn’t very well explain that to Charles. Nor did he relish the kind of redoubled efforts such a confession was likely to produce: more petting and sympathy, a balm so thick Peter would surely slip when he walked. He loved Charles, but didn’t always like his way of dealing with things.

Peter turned his head on his pillow just enough to see the slice of brilliant blue sky out the window. A lone cloud, white and fluffy and unthreatening, hung in the stillness of the heavenly vault with no wind to urge it on its way. Lazy. Just as Peter felt.

“All right then,” Charles sighed, rising from the chair in the corner of the room where he’d stationed himself like a visitor to a hospital patient. “If you’re sure you’ll be fine on your own for a few hours.”

A sudden, inexplicable fear rose into Peter’s throat then. He would be fine, could take care of himself, but Charles? In a foreign city? He didn’t even speak the language.

Peter stirred himself. He hated Frankfurt, but he loved Charles enough to face the city regardless. “I don’t like the place on the corner,” Peter said as he swung his feet to the floor, and Charles turned a startled visage in his direction, “but I know another place that’s good.”

E is for . . .

“We can’t go to EDINBURGH . . . Can we?” Charles asked.

Peter swallowed against the hard lump in his throat—the physical manifestation of homesickness—the question had produced. Even so, his short answer came out a bit hoarse: “No.”

The terms of their agreement were that they would not set foot in the UK again; indeed, any sign of their passports would land them in custody and probably worse. The Commonwealths were fair game, however, and Australia was on their list of places to visit.

“Shame,” Charles murmured. He was flipping through a travel magazine as if it were a menu; meanwhile, his actual café menu sat ignored on the table before him. “Would have liked to have gone there.” He paused. “There’s not some kind of statute of limitations, or an expiry . . .?”

“No,” Peter said again, in a tone meant to end the exploration of this particular topic.

Charles gave a little sigh. “I think I’ll have tuna.”

D is for . . .

For the first time in a long while, Peter dreamed of DERBYSHIRE, of S. Anselm’s, and of his brother Phillip.

He supposed, when he woke, that all the travel had brought forth the old memories of other places—those green hills and the park. And Bakewell, too, in the Dales.

But mostly the dream had been of Phillip, walking always just ahead of him on one of the trails. Peter had rushed to keep up, like always. But Phillip had continued to get farther away, and taller . . . At the start of the dream, Phillip had been just a boy, but by the end he’d grown into the sandy-haired young man who’d died too young. And Peter? What had he been? A child the whole time? Or had he aged too?

Either way, young or old, Peter was still the great disappointment of his parents. They had not been in his dream, but Peter could feel their dissatisfaction upon waking. And that terrible void in him, the place that had belonged to his older brother. Phillip had known but shown no contempt, had only ever offered Peter kindness and sympathy. And advice: “Don’t tell Mum and Dad, whatever you do.”

Advice to live by. And yet his parents’ grief at losing their first child had rolled into a kind of antipathy toward their second, even without the extraneous truth. Well, but Phillip had always been the favorite. Even Peter’s. Phillip had been the nexus, the cartilage holding the bones of the family together. Without him, the skeleton broke apart. In the twenty years since Phillip had fallen from his horse, Peter had only gone home to Derbyshire twice. Neither visit had been pleasant.

On the way out of England, Charles waiting patiently on the train station platform, Peter had mailed a final letter. He hadn’t told his parents about his work, no, that would be too much, and they’d never shown any interest anyway. But in the sporadic phone calls and short notes they’d always asked whether Peter was ever going to settle down.

Don’t tell Mum and Dad, whatever you do.

But what difference could it possibly make now?

C is for . . .

It was colder in COPENHAGEN than Peter would have liked, but the chill and drizzle failed to dent Charles. Peter, being taller, was responsible for holding the umbrella, though the way Charles sometimes darted out whenever something caught his eye, Peter felt his efforts were considerably wasted where his companion was concerned. At least Charles was smart enough to wear a hat.

It was the architecture, of course, and the surfeit of old churches and the like, that had Charles so excited. Peter only wished they’d come a little later in the year when the weather would be better; the grounds of Rosenborg Castle would have been much more pleasant then.

“Dutch Renaissance style,” Charles told Peter, then confessed sheepishly as if he’d somehow cheated, “I was reading about it last night.”

Peter glanced up at the brick, darkened with damp. “You know more about it than I do then.”

“You’ve been here before though,” said Charles. “Your work . . .”

“Yes.”

Charles appeared to understand Peter’s short answer and did not press for further details, instead glancing ruefully up at the grey sky. “I can see why it was a summer residence.”

In an attempt to catch Charles’s enthusiasm, Peter asked a leading question. “Was?”

“Well, and twice under emergency circumstances, but it hasn’t been occupied as a royal residence for . . .” The blue eyes slid slyly in Peter’s direction. “But you don’t really care, do you?”

“I only care that it makes you happy,” Peter answered honestly. “Though I probably should have brought you when the tulips were in bloom.”

Peter was acutely aware of Charles’s bright eyes on him, scrutinizing. It was not so different from when other agents tried to read him, and again that pang sang through Peter’s heart: The feeling he’d missed something important, back in London, back in that interrogation room . . . But to look at Charles now, to turn his head and meet that gaze, Peter knew, would be to give away all his hidden fears.

Still, Peter was startled when Charles drew close and took his free hand—so startled he nearly lost the umbrella, and it took him a moment to right it.

“We’re in bloom,” Charles said. “That’s all that matters.”