by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by sairobi
“Archaeology is the search for fact. Not truth.” It was how Dr. William Ford began every one of his introductory undergraduate courses; it usually came followed by a rattle of how if any of his students were pursuing a career of adventure and treasure hunting, they were more likely in for a life of bronchial infections from inhaling dust, and back pains from hunching over the tiniest shard of something that might have been of interest to someone two thousand years ago. It discouraged some of them. Some.
Unfortunately most of them had heard the stories. That professor there, yes, the one in the bow tie and the glasses, don’t you think he’s handsome? Oh, well, of course you do, but did you know? Oh, did you know he’s gone off to South America, or to the Holy Land, or even to Darkest Africa, searching for lost secrets and antiquities? Arizona Ford, they call him, and isn’t that just exciting? Isn’t that romantic? the gaggle of eighteen-to-twenty year old girls (and the always appreciated cluster of boys) would sigh and giggle about every year.
So what if it was true? Dr. Ford–and yes, most of his close compatriots just called him Ari–had seen his share and more of adventures, but he knew the truth of his field to be mostly a dull science of dirt and death. The adventure that had come to him had been by chance only; he’d been in the right place at the right time, with the right passion for the right artifact. If he was even stupid enough to believe in luck, he wouldn’t be able to say if he’d been blessed with the good or cursed with the bad; the accolades and scars he’d received were in balance.
Tenure was tenure, though, and he kept teaching, as that was what gave him the luxury to jaunt off to Siam at a moment’s notice (or at least, at only the notice of an apology to staff and some canceled classes). At least two or three times a semester, too, he’d find some real love for the subject in the depths of all the sighing and eyelash fluttering; those were the ones he’d find sticking with him, sweaty in the field in their graduate studies, and waiting to take his place.
Hell, there was even one boy who had taken to calling himself “Illinois”, for whatever stupid reason…
A tentative knock came at his classroom door while he was in the midst of writing out the syllabus on the chalkboard. He rolled his eyes, his students laughed, and then through great fortune (and Ari’s own inability to start a class on time), the bell rang to let the class scurry off to their next valiant attempt at learning. Ari shouted out to remind them that next week would start with Egyptology, and his office hours would be kept. On his way out, one boy snuck a bright red apple onto his desk. At least lunch was taken care of.
“Lucius.” Ari nodded at his interrupting visitor before he gave the apple a scrub on the tweed of his jacket and took a bite. “Something the matter?” he said through crisp, cool apple, and took his glasses off to get a sharper look at the expression on the man’s face. He’d only relented to the damn things two years ago, at the age of thirty-seven, and even then he only bothered with them for reading or for class.
Lucius Welby had been in Ari’s orbit since he was a teenager, always dallying about on his father’s flights of fancy for a time before returning to the sanity of his museum. He had stayed a good friend through Ari’s adulthood, though, and had often provided him with the first hint of what would later be a great discovery. The heavy envelope held nervously in his left hand made Ari’s mouth water, and he took another bite of his apple.
“Letter for you, actually, Ari,” he said and held out the letter. Lucius hadn’t lived in England for nearly forty years, but his voice still ended up crisp in times like this. “I believe it’s from Gerald Watterson… actually.”
Gerald–! Ari choked a little on the bite of apple in his mouth and snapped the envelope out of Lucius’s hand. Sure enough, he’d know that penmanship anywhere, thick lines, all capital letters, always desperate to do everything the Roman way, Gerry…. Ari put the half-eaten apple down on his desk and pulled the letter open, and it’s contents into his hands.
“It’s most certainly from Gerald Watterson,” he mumbled as his eyes scanned over the page. “He’s the only one a pest enough to write me in Ancient Greek.” Not everything the Roman way, he supposed… Ari chucked the apple into the trash and leaned a hand back on the desk to begin his translation.
“Well… Ari, what does it say?” Lucius bothered as Ari snapped his glasses back onto his face.
My dearest William, was how it truly began, but Ari coughed down the last of the apple in lieu of an accurate translation; the truth of translation was always in interpretation, after all. “‘By the time this letter finds you, I may be gone,'” he began, and stopped to clear his throat as his eyes fuzzed for a moment over the next few lines of Greek. “‘But so I send to you a key to something that absolutely must stay safe. Enclosed is what should be a third of the map to the–‘” Ari’s eyes stayed sharp, but his mouth went dry; he kept speaking only for Lucius’s pleading gaze. “‘–to the only remnants of the True Cross.'”
“The True–? Surely he can’t mean–” Lucius slipped beside him to read over his shoulder, but he’d always been a Latin man, himself. “Does he really?”
Ari brushed his thumb over the paper, as though he could smudge the ink; it stayed fast to the page. “Gerald was never one for foolishness,” he muttered. “If he says he’s found something, he’s most certainly found something. God only knows if it’s an honest relic.”
“God indeed!” Lucius snorted.
“Mythology is mythology,” Ari said, as he unfolded another slip of paper that was tucked into the envelope. It was a map in only the vaguest sense, borders vague, topography little more than doodles and labeled in Arabic, which Ari had never been too sharp on. “We hardly believe in the power of Athena now, but we strive to keep the Parthenon in its original pieces. Even if this is not really the wood from the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified to, someone revered it as such, and so…” He looked Lucius in the eye, and raised his eyebrow. Lucius sighed appropriately.
“Yes, it belongs in a museum.” He waved his hand at the letter. “Is that all it says, then? No other hints to the rest of this damnable map?” Lucius had taken the thin paper for himself from Ari’s hands to squint at it, tracing lines with his finger and sounding out Arab syllables.
Ari adjusted his glasses and took in the rest of the letter. “‘At least one other part of the map is with Dr. Roland Schaller, originally of Austria, now residing in Faro, Portugal. I entrusted the map with him, as he is a–‘” Ari stopped to clear his throat again, and feign hesitation over his translation. “‘–most trustworthy man.'” The actual wording had been something more like willing, but Lucius had already heard enough rumors to fuel a lifetime of chatter; no need to give him more in Ancient Greek. “‘I cannot stress the importance of recovering this artifact to safety enough. In the wrong hands, it would prove a terrible danger.'” Himmelreich, Ari thought, but beat that notion down before just thinking the name caused the man to appear. Ari folded the paper closed again, over Gerald’s fond farewell to him.
“Well, dramatic, isn’t it?” Lucius said, as he handed the piece of the map back to Ari.
“Gerald always has been.” Ari took the map from Lucius, and folded it twice to fit back in the envelope, and that inside his jacket pocket.
“Well… Ari, what are you going to do?”
Arizona Ford’s lips curled up at one side, and he took off his glasses again. “Could you see about getting my classes canceled for a couple of weeks, Lucius? I’ve got to go to Portugal.”
“Ah… Onde está a universidade?” Ari’s Spanish was sharp, but his Portuguese hadn’t been used since the last time he was in Brazil, and that was in 1928, and had hardly been an academic excursion. His pronunciation was good enough, though, and the girl he’d accosted for directions pointed him up the hill, to the very university-like buildings that he should have seen to begin with.
With enough stammered ‘Eu necessito ver o Dr. Schaller‘ Ari eventually found himself pointed to an office with exactly that name painted over the frosted glass. He at least bothered knocking a few times before turning the knob and peeking inside.
Within, he saw the back of a very blond head, attached to the rest of a man sitting at a desk and very obviously reading a letter written in what was very likely Ancient Greek, and considering a fragment of a map covered in vague scribbles and Arabic writing. “Sim? Com quem estou a falar? Terá que esperar até amanhã. Hoje estou muito ocupado.” His Portuguese was thicker in accent than Ari’s own, but more comfortable; he’d been here a while, no doubt. Ari slipped inside of his office and shut the door behind him.
“Dr. Schaller? My name is William Ford.” The man in the chair straightened up at the sound of English; at least they’d have that going for them. “I’ve got a feeling I’m mentioned in that letter you’re holding.”
Roland Schaller turned his chair around, and Ari was faced with the fact that the man had to be at least ten years younger than he was, and that was the estimate that left his ego intact. Roland’s fine, light hair was cropped short, far neater than Ari had ever been able to keep up with the tangle of hazel mess that he mostly kept hidden beneath his fedora. The young man’s features were fine, all sharp-cheekboned and hawk-nosed, with sharp pale eyes peering at Ari beyond the angles of his face; hell could only know why a man who looked like that would bother leaving Austria. But looks were the second or third least important thing going on right now.
“So you are Dr. Ford,” Roland said calmly as he folded the letter and the fragment of the map up, and tucked them into the breast pocket of his linen shirt. “Gerry told me much of you…” He hesitated long enough for a smile, and tapped at the folded papers now resting over his heart. “Before this even.”
Something in Ari bristled–it must have been the accent, he told himself, but really it had to be the fondness there as he said Gerry’s name. He let his teeth grind for a moment and tipped his hat. “Hope it was all good, Dr. Schaller,” he gritted out.
Roland broke into a smile then, and rose from his chair to take Ari’s hand in his own and draw him into a halfways embrace, clapping his shoulder as he squeezed his palm with long fingers. “I have been waiting for you,” he said, softly, against Ari’s cheek, as he came close enough to scrape his own nigh-invisible pale stubble against the roughness that had grown on Ari’s cheek on the long plane ride. He kept hold of Ari’s hand even as he drew back. “You have the map?”
Ari freed his hand to tap at his chest, where Gerald’s letter and it’s more precious contents still hid against his heart. He and Roland had a few things in common already, it seemed. “Just the part Dr. Watterson decided to send me.” He withdrew the envelope and held it just from Roland’s reach. His eyebrow quirked, and he let his mouth twist. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, Dr. Schaller.”
“With pleasure, Dr. Ford,” Roland said, and withdrew the sheaf of papers from his pocket, pressing them to Ari’s hand. “And I insist that you call me Roland.”
“Roland, right,” Ari said, half distracted as he juggled papers in his hand to get the two thin scraps of map out and aligned different edges together until the lines of ink flowed from one piece to the next. “Hm.”
Roland had slipped beside him, and brushed a hand against his to take both of Gerald’s letters from where he’d managed to wedge them between his third and fourth knuckles, setting them back on the corner of his desk. “Don’t be greedy, now, Dr. Ford,” he said, a light laugh in his tone. “Let me have a look, too.” Ari squared his shoulders a little and held out the ends of the map so Roland could see. “Hm, promising. I had been suspecting that this–” He traced out a line on the upper part of the map with his finger tip. “–might be part of the Northern African coastline. This–” He tapped down at a part Ari nearly had covered with his thumb, a tiny smudge of Arabic writing near scribbles that could represent mountains. “–seems to support that thought.”
“You know any Arabic?” Ari asked.
Roland sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “Not a word, I’m afraid.”
Ari harrumphed a little and went back to squinting at the map. His glasses might be helpful now, but for some reason he always seemed to conveniently forget them on trips overseas. He held his arms further out, instead. Roland placed a hand on Ari’s shoulder as he kept pointing at the map, the weight of his forearm causing the leather of his jacket to wrinkle.
“It seems that all we are missing is…” His hand moved to the negative space where the last of the map needed to be, and he drew a little X in the air with his finger. Ari smirked and eyed him sidelong.
“I always tell my students that X never marks the spot, you know.”
Roland drew back from Ari, the flat of his palm brushing between his shoulderblades as he put a step’s space between them. “And I tell mine to never discount any possibilities.” He quirked up one of his pale eyebrows, and Ari tried not to think too hard about how he had students that had to be older than Dr. Schaller. He gave the map pieces a few more moments of squinting before folding them up and replacing them in the inside of his jacket.
“Gerald didn’t send you any other pieces of the map, did he?” Roland shook his head as he plucked the two letters off of his desk again. “Damn… but knowing him, he’s left some sort of hint to where the rest might be.”
Roland smiled a little over the edge of Ari’s letter, which he was reading openly. “He’s terribly fond of such tricks, isn’t he?” His eyes kept skimming the page even as Ari scowled. “I’ve never understood why he couldn’t simply be more forthright, but I suppose it is a hazard of of the field…” He trailed off as he read the last few lines of Gerald’s letter. “And a necessity, if finding this relic is as important as he says.”
Ari took the other letter out of Roland’s hand just a bit too quickly. Roland hissed in a little breath, and brought his knuckles to his mouth to soothe the papercut he’d left in the webbing of his fingers. “Sorry,” Ari mumbled, and put his eyes anywhere else than on Roland’s mouth. Guys like him tended to be all teeth and thin lips anyway, but Roland’s mouth was full, and the tip of his tongue pink as it brushed out over the tiny well of blood. But Ari was looking at the letter, right. “How d’you know Gerald, anyway?”
“A collegue,” Roland said, and the corner of those damned lips curved up a little. Looked like while he might lack in Arabic, his Ancient Greek was just fine. “And you, Dr. Ford?”
“Yeah, the same,” he said, and unfolded Gerald’s letter to Roland. This one was in Aramaic–Gerry was really too clever by half, and Ari was going to have to give him a few words when–if–he saw him again. He glanced up to find blue eyes far too fixed on him, and felt he had no choice but to take off his hat. Damn office had poor ventilation, Portugal was hot this time of year, and a couple of other excuses he’d come up with if anyone asked him. He tossed to to land on a stack of papers on Dr. Schaller’s desk. “A terrible danger in the wrong hands, huh?” Both letters were much the same, down to the fond greetings and promises of willing behavior. “Any ideas?”
“I think you should know,” Roland said as he reached over to pluck Ari’s hat up and move it neatly to hang on the edge of his chair. “The certain threat that has been facing some artifacts, especially of this type.”
Ah. Right. Hell, it hadn’t even been a year since Ari’d gone on a wild goose chase after what was supposed to be the Lance of Longinus–damn thing turned out to be nothing more than a half-broken Roman arrowhead lashed to a too-thick shaft, but that hadn’t stopped him from having to fight a group of Nazi soldiers off to get to it. Now that he thought about it, the one who’d ended up kicking Ari out of a moving motorcycle sidecar looked a little like Roland. Except Roland was somehow more blond. No, that was just the afternoon sun coming out from behind a clouse and in through the window behind him, lighting him up around the edges and casting his face in shadow as Ari squinted. It was funny, though, the light seemed to change something else…
“There are many rumors and legends about the True Cross, as I’m sure you know, Dr. Ford.” Ari knew a lecture voice when he heard one, having given more than enough himself, and tuned out a little as he squinted through the sun at Roland. “It has been said that the tree from which the wood was born came from no less than a seed of the Tree of Life itself. A shard or a splinter held upon one’s person could be enough to bestow immortality, or so it has been believed…”
Ari cut off any further lecture with a little click of his tongue and a gesture. “Hold it, hold it…” He pointed at Roland’s left hand, the one holding Gerald’s letter. “Lift your hand up a little more, into the sun…” Roland made a little questioning noise, but did as asked. Ari broke into a grin. “Ah, Gerry, you old bastard…” Where the sunlight shone through the paper, letters written on the back of the page in a pale, watery version of Gerald’s solid Roman script appeared. Of course, the letters didn’t make any sense, but…
“Brilliant!” Roland laughed, and held out his hand for the other letter, which Ari was already eagerly holding up to the light… to find it nearly opaque and lacking any hints of hidden messages. “Ah…” Roland sighed, disappointed. “Perhaps the first is some sort of code, then? I had not thought Gerry a fan of cryptology…” He hated it, actually, so that couldn’t be it. Roland tapped his tongue on the tip of his teeth in a very distracting gesture of thought as he rubbed the paper between his thumb and his forefinger. “…Dr. Ford, did you get this wet at some point?”
“What? No! I…” He’d kept the letter in the inner pocket of his leather jacket through the entirety of his flight into Lisbon, his train ride down to Faro, the sweaty taxi ride to the university, the hour or so he’d spent running around the campus looking for Dr. Schaller’s office… “Er.”
Roland snapped his fingers. “Ah! Saltwater, then.” He hopped up from where he’d been perched on the edge of his desk, and handed Ari his hat. “Perhaps you and I shall take a little stroll down to the beach, then, Dr. Ford?”
Ari jammed his hat back onto his head, heat be damned. Nothing was worth anything if you didn’t put a little sweat into it, he’d always said. “Call me Ari, why don’t you?”
Roland smiled and pressed the two folded letters into Ari’s hand. “To the sea, then, Ari?” He stepped past him to open the door to his office. “Although perhaps you should let me carry the pieces of the map.”
Grudgingly, Ari had to admit he was right.
A dip into the surf had meant a pair of wet socks for Ari, and a set of letters on the back of Gerald’s letter that spelled out their next destination.
“Rueda Abbey?” Ari questioned over his shoulder to Roland, who was standing a few feet back, safe from having the waves sully the hems of his pants. He could see the wheels turning in his head, and could almost hear the click.
“Spain,” he said, and put a hand to his chin for thoughtful tapping. “Aragon, to be more precise, to the south of Zaragoza. Founded in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, although I’d hardly expect anything of use or worth to still be left there. It’s not been in use as an abbey proper in at least a hundred years, you see, since the–” Ari chucked him lightly in the shoulder to break off the lecture. Roland wavered a little on his feet and looked startled, and Ari just grinned.
“I’m getting the funny feeling this sort of thing is your specialty.”
Roland’s lips curved a little as he brushed some invisible dirt off of his shoulder where Ari’s knuckles had connected, a playful spark in his eyes when they met Ari’s. “Christian artifacts, actually. The architecture is just a hobby.”
“Cute,” Ari said, and slapped Roland between the shoulders. “As long as you know where it is.” He shook off the damp remnants of Gerald’s letters and put them back into his pocket; they’d presumably served their purpose, but hell if Ari didn’t half suspect some other message wouldn’t appear during the right phase of the moon or if left to ferment. “Up for a little trip?”
Roland pressed back against Ari’s hand before he turned and began to head back up the beach. “I just have to cancel my classes!” He set off at a jog back to the university, leaving only his eager footprints in the sand.
Willing, indeed, Ari thought, and set off to test how well he could book travel arrangements in Portuguese.
Roland’s company made the many, many hours it took for them to make their way across the Iberian peninsula much more pleasant than Ari was accustomed to travel being. He’d canned the lectures and gone for more interesting conversation instead, including a debate on Atlantis that had gotten the both of them shushed by a train conductor. Somewhere outside of Barcelona he’d dozed off, his head drooping to rest on Ari’s shoulder. He looked even more like a kid when he was asleep, his face all soft and his lips parted, but somehow it just wasn’t bothering him as much anymore.
It was nightfall when they’d finally made it to Rueda–the irritable farmwife and her horse-drawn cart that they’d had to bribe to take them out into the countryside had taken exception to some way that Ari’d looked at her and booted them off to walk for the last two miles. Ari wasn’t surprised; he’d never had much luck with women. It was for the best, in any case, that they made their approach as quietly as possible, and under the cover of darkness. He had a bad feeling about this.
The abbey was half in shambles, left to fall into a state of disrepair that seemed to cause Roland almost physical pain. He’d opened his mouth to no doubt begin some kind of speech about preservation of historical sites, but Ari cut him off with a hand over his lips. Looked like his bad feeling had been entirely right–they weren’t alone.
It wasn’t monks, or farmers, or even delinquent kids who’d taken up resident in the abbey. “Nazis,” Ari growled as he pulled Roland with him behind a half-crumbled rise of perimeter wall, out of the possible line of sight one one of the jack-booted bastards patrolling the area. He smirked at Roland. “Looks like you were right.”
Roland raised his eyebrows in a gesture of vague triumph, and then lightly bit at the inside of Ari’s fingers to get him to take his hand away. “What are we going to do?” he asked in a quick whisper.
Ari poked his head up over the edge of the wall. One soldier was watching an empty inner courtyard, with his back facing them. Nice broad back, with wide shoulders… good height, too. Ari shook his head, and said, “Looks like we’re going to have to do this the hard way. Sit tight, don’t make a sound.”
Ari kept himself ducked low as he crossed the yard between him and the soldier, sticking to the shadows and keeping his footfalls as soft as he could on wet grass. He stood up straight when he made it directly behind the Nazi, and gave him a little tap on the shoulder.
“What are those boots, about a size ten?” Ari asked, and socked him hard enough in the face to send him spinning in place. Ari caught the soldier before he hit the ground with a thump, and dragged him back to where Roland waited.
“Impressive, Dr. Ford!” Roland whispered as Ari dumped the unconscious Nazi next to him.
“I was a Golden Gloves champ in college,” he said, shaking out his fingers. “How about you, can you throw a decent punch?”
Roland laughed a little and held up his hand, lithe-boned and long-fingered. “I’m a scholar, not a fighter, I am afraid.” Ari’s adrenaline was pumping too hard for him to be cautious or rational anymore. He took hold of Roland’s hand and scowled at it for few moments, turning it over and brushing his thumb against the center of his palm before taking hold of his fingertips and bringing Roland’s knuckles to his mouth for a brief kiss. He dropped his hand quick, then, and started grinning giddily.
“You get the fun part, then,” Ari said as he peered back over the wall, spotting another soldier on patrol. “Get him out of those clothes and dump him in the bushes back there.” He glanced back at Roland to give him a long look from head to toe, stopping for a long while on the blush that looked so damn good on his cheeks. “I’m going to go find one for you.”
“You’re too kind!” Roland murmured, and began unbuttoning and unlacing as Ari went stalking through the shadows again. Bad feeling or no, any day where he got to punch a few Nazis and steal a kiss couldn’t be that awful.
Ari lucked out and managed to track down a soldier who could’ve passed for Roland’s brother–actually, he thought as he brought his fist up under the man’s jaw with a satisfying crack, he’d rather not think too hard about that kind of resemblance. Cousin, maybe, he decided as he tossed the reeling Nazi onto his back in fireman’s carry to keep his bootheels from dragging loudly on the stones. Second or third cousin, at the most.
“Got you a present,” he murmured when he returned to Roland, dumping the soldier at his feet. “Hurry up and unwrap it.” Roland had made quick work of the first man who’d met Ari’s fists, and presented him with a uniform that was even neatly folded.
“Dr. Ford, I hesitate to say this, but it seems as though you are having fun,” Roland whispered through curving lips as he started divesting the other Nazi of his clothes. Blue eyes flashed up to catch his as Ari was unbuttoning his own shirt.
“Everyone’s got to have a hobby,” he said, and shrugged out of his own jacket and shirt to replace it with uniform brown and grey-green drab. This wasn’t the first time he’d ended up “borrowing” a uniform like this, and he thought the same thing he always thought as he straightened out his tie and did up his buttons: he’d begrudgingly admit that the Nazis could cut out a not-bad looking uniform, but damn if the things didn’t itch like no one’s business. He distracted himself from the scratch of wool as he traded his pants for the uniform’s by sneaking a few peeks of Roland as he went through the same motions. Ari savored the long eyeful he got of Roland’s lean, pale back as he turned away to change his shirt. When Roland unfastened his trousers, though, he cast a glance over his shoulder, and Ari had to look away. Everyone’s got to have a hobby, Ari thought before he snuck one more quick look, then focused on getting his feet into the uniform boots.
Not a size ten. Hell, not even close. For such a big guy, that Jerry sure as hell had delicate little ballerina feet. Great, now Ari was going to itch and have blisters. The things he put himself through for the preservation of antiquity.
Ari hooked the last buttons, fastened all the damn belts, and replaced his own fedora with the uniform cap before taking a look at Roland again. Looked like he’d picked out a perfect fit. Ari hated to say it, but he made the damn thing look good. “Got the map?”
Roland tapped his breast pocket. Somehow even the simplest motions looked sharper and more ominous in that getup. The whole effect was a little creepy; Ari made some quick plans for the future involving getting the both of them out of these clothes. “I am assuming the next part of the plan is that we split up and look for the third piece?”
“Yeah, you think I just felt like playing dress-up?” The little twitch of Roland’s lips was small, but Ari caught it. “Don’t answer that.” He cracked his knuckles and rolled his ankles in the too-small boots. “If anyone gives you trouble, you just talk your way out of it.” He gave Roland a little grin. “Give ’em one of your best lectures.”
“My accent will be a terrible giveaway,” Roland said, arching one eyebrow.
“Not nearly as bad as mine.” Ari held up his fist. “I’ll stick to the universal language if anyone gives me guff.”
Roland bent down to give the unconscious and nearly naked Nazi at their feet a small nudge, to send him rolling off down the slowly slanting hill to rest with his comrade in the low brush. “When I need to find you, I shall simply follow the sound of fists against flesh.”
“You make it sound so damn brutal,” Ari said, and with one last wink and a point of his finger to indicate which way Roland should go, headed into the abbey.
A girl Ari’d known back in his undergrad years had told him that the right clothes would make you fit in anywhere. He hadn’t paid her much attention at the time, since she was trying to wheedle him into going dancing, but hell if her words didn’t end up true in situations like this. The derelict abbey was a hive of Nazis, but as long as Ari kept the right tight step and sharp motions, no one gave him a second glance.
He wound his way deeper through the halls, keeping an eye peeled for anything remotely of interest or suspicion. Most of the guard seemed to be little more than wound-up tin soldiers, following their ordered paths without any thought to the reason. It was when Ari found himself in a row of old monk’s cells (ducking into an alcove briefly to curse a very quiet blue streak at his boots) that he caught sight of one door with a guard posted in front. That had promise, Ari thought, and made his approach.
He didn’t even need to throw a punch. The young soldier stationed in front of the door took one look at him, and rolled his eyes back in apparent relief. “Ach, endlich!” he said, and stepped away from the door. “Gut, meine Füße tun mir weh.” He gave Ari a serious nod and a clap on the shoulder before heading down the hall with a strange, pinched stride. He held his position as the new guard for this door for long enough to see the soldier limp off down the stairs, and then he slipped back into the door behind him.
As he’d hoped (but not really expected), the third piece of the map was waiting for him, neatly spread out on a simple wooden table pushed up against the far wall. “Why can’t it always be this easy?” Ari took three steps towards the map, and got close enough to see that the damned thing actually did have an X on it before he heard the door open and close behind him. He didn’t turn quite fast enough. He felt the pain spreading through his skull before even heard the crack of impact, and the last thing Ari saw before blackness was the grey-green of uniform fabric.
He awoke with his head pounding, his hands bound, and his damned feet still hurting. A few blinks unblurred his vision; he was still in the same room, although now bound at his wrists to a wooden chair. The rest of the haze on his eyes cleared, and he saw before him a Nazi soldier, his back facing him so that the only defining features Ari could make out were his short-cropped blond hair, and the fine, delicate-boned hands holding together all three pieces of the map to the True Cross.
No! Ari gritted his teeth hard as he struggled against the bindings around his wrists. If they had the whole map, that meant they’d gotten Roland, too? What kind of idiot was he, letting him go off alone like that? If anything had happened to him, he’d never forgive–
The soldier in front of him turned around, and Ari stopped thinking as he watched the smile that curved on those full lips. “As I told you before, Dr. Ford,” Roland said, as he neatly folded up all three pieces of the map. “You should never discount any possibilities.”
“No!” Ari shouted, loud enough to make the back of his head throb. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Roland! You can’t possibly be–tell me you aren’t!”
“I only wish I could keep telling you what you want to hear,” he said, and the accent that had really begun to grow on Ari now seemed to grate directly into his spine. “But instead I will simply thank you for all of your contributions.” Roland stepped closer to him, stopping barely half a foot in front of Ari. He held the folded map pieces in his hand. “It would have been much more difficult to collect the complete map without your… willingness.”
“Son of a bitch!” Ari growled and pulled at the ropes around his wrists until his skin burned. “Gerald trusted you!” Roland placed the completed map into the breast pocket of his coat, which seemed to fit far too perfectly now. He swallowed hard and bit the inside of his lip. “I trusted you, god damn it!”
Roland clucked his tongue against his teeth, and brought his hand to Ari’s cheek. His fingers were sheathed in the supple leather of the same gloves that Ari’d neglected to include in his own stolen uniform. Their touch was smooth, and the heat of Roland’s skin muted.They brushed across his jaw, over the stubble that had shadowed there in the very long day since his last shave, and up to his cheekbone. Ari hissed in a little breath as the touch suddenly stung; he must’ve cut his cheek somewhere in his journey from getting knocked out to getting tied to this damn chair. “And thank you for it, Ari.”
Ari tried to turn his head away and shake off the touch, but that only won him Roland’s fingers falling to his throat. “All your lectures meant nothing, then?” he said, a low growl to rumble against where Roland’s thumb brushed his windpipe. “You know these Nazi bastards don’t give a damn about history or fact or the past!” He jutted his chin out, even though it exposed his throat further, to meet Roland’s eyes. “Is that all you are? Anything to be at the top of the pile?” Roland’s face stayed even and calm as his thumb stroked Ari’s throat, pressing a little harder with each downward movement. Ari had to show teeth. “You know, I don’t think they’re that crazy about your type, even.”
Roland’s eyebrow arched up, and his thumb stopped its motion to press a little harder. “And what type is that?”
Ari grinned fully and kicked one of his feet around the back of Roland’s heel, hoping to catch him off balance. “You know. People like you and me.” He hooked his ankle against Roland’s heel and jerked backwards, making the leather of his boot creak. “Scholars.”
Roland brought his foot up out of Ari’s hold and pushed forward, knee slamming to his chest as he sent the chair toppling backwards. Roland’s hand slid behind Ari’s head to save him another skull-cracking, a strange kindness, even as he settled his weight atop Ari’s chest, sandwiching Ari’s arms and hands painfully between the back of the chair and the hard floor. He straightened his back and stayed astride Ari as he slowly pulled off first one glove, and then the other, letting them drop to the floor beside Ari’s head. “We knew each other only a brief time, Dr. Ford,” he said, and rose to his feet again, stepping away to leave Ari on his back like a turtle. “You should not presume to know so much about me.”
Any retort Ari had stayed caught in his throat as Roland grabbed a fistful of his shirt and hauled him back upright, the legs of the chair scraping against the stone. Roland’s hand stayed wrapped around his loosened tie as he hauled him upwards, causing the ropes to chafe hard into his wrists, and, in the last thing that Ari expected at this moment, crushed that full, warm mouth to his.
“As I said, though, I thank you,” he murmured against Ari’s mouth before bowing in to take another kiss, and this one had teeth, scraping Ari’s lower lip between waves of heat. “And please pass on my gratitude to Gerry.”
Ari was beginning to wonder just how hard he’d hit his head.
Roland tugged the knot of Ari’s tie loose and unfastened his collar in his eagerness to show his gratitude. The tickle of his fingers against the hollow of Ari’s throat, and the rub of his knuckle against Ari’s adam’s apple had him so distracted that he didn’t quite notice when he started returning Roland’s kiss. He caught Roland’s invading, twisting tongue with a scrape of his teeth, and a moment of pressure just hard enough to make him moan, but not enough to make him stop. Ari had never been able to say he was above taking advantage of a situation.
Roland pulled away from his mouth with a wet sound and a breathless little hint of laughter. He couldn’t keep up that stern expression he’d had moments ago, even in the uniform, not when his cheeks were flushed and his lips gone to a blood-rushed red. He put forth a striking counterattack, though, tangling his hand in Ari’s hair to draw his head back so that he could sieze upon his exposed throat.
“Son of a–” Ari’s half-hearted curse turned into a bitten-back groan as Roland traced a hot line with his tongue down from his jaw to the base of his throat. His mouth slid over where the uniform collar had chafed and itched, only serving to make his skin prickle more. Ari bit the edge of Roland’s ear as it passed in range, as his face pressed into his pale hair. He smelled of sharp, clean sweat, and it made Ari’s mouth water. Why did things like this always have to happen when he was concussed and tied to a chair?
Roland kept at his neck, biting and sucking a path along the heat of his pulse that would no doubt leave marks enough that Ari would have more than just the bump on his head to remember him by. His hands, those damn clever hands, were quick to unhook buttons and unfasten belts until Ari was bared enough to feel the scrape of short nails down the center of his chest.
“You know, if you were really grateful,” he gasped as Roland’s fingers explored his skin, ticking against a nipple and then up to rub into the scar tissue of a years-old bullet wound in his shoulder. “You’d untie me.”
Roland drew back from his throat with one last pinch of teeth and met Ari’s eyes with a little apologetic smile. “Not yet, I am afraid, Dr. Ford.”
“It’d really be the best way for me to show my appreciation for–” Roland’s fingers dipped down, past his belly, past his belt, to rub the erection he hadn’t even considered trying to deny through his trousers. The rough wool scraped against sensitive skin, and Ari hissed breath over his teeth. “–your… gratitude.”
“It will have to wait,” Roland said, and dropped to his knees with more grace and dignity than Ari’d ever seen a man have in this situation. It had to be the uniform.
Roland leaned forward to trace that little devil’s tongue down Ari’s belly, only making him hiss more as that little tickle went straight into his spine to become heat. Roland’s fingers were quick at button and belt again, and he drew back to appreciate the sight of Ari’s cock bobbing free of his trousers, rock-hard and red-blooded and an utter traitor to American values.
Ari’s fingers curled up, first to press little half-moons into the meat of his palm, and then to scrape helplessly at the ropes as Roland just continued to appraise him. Here he was, prick dribbling onto Nazi wool, and Roland just kept looking at him like an artifact under glass. He clenched his jaw and growled, “God damn it, Roland…”
He laughed, a sound jarringly warm and friendly for this situation, and spread his hands out over Ari’s thighs, forcing his knees apart. “Your hot-headedness is ever what puts you in trouble, Dr. Ford,” he said lightly, as he leaned in near enough so that the breath of each of his words made the hair on Ari’s stomach stand on end. He had some mercy in him, at least, and he saved Ari the burden of having to come up with another clever retort. His lips were smooth as silk, and knew how to make a perfect fit over Ari’s cock.
Ari let his head drop back, and the world swam behind his fluttering eyelids, far less the fault of the ache in the back of his head than the fault of Roland’s almost unbearable mouth. His thumbs pressed into the inner curves of Ari’s thighs as he took him deep, his lips tight on Ari’s cock all the way down to nearly the root. Ari’s mouth worked; he gasped and hissed but kept down the groans that wanted to escape. He looked past the slow rise and fall of Roland’s head to the door, and could just imagine it opening and the room filling with all of the Nazis he’d passed earlier. Not his top choice for how he’d want to die, but at least he’d go happy, because god…
Roland’s so recent betrayal (which, Ari dimly thought, was seeming less and and less convincing with each passing second, for some reason) was far from Ari’s mind as Roland’s lips slide off of his cock with the kind of sinful wet sound that made him break into a sweat. Ari glanced down long enough to catch the sight of blue eyes watching him, and a reddened tongue trailing up his length to curl against the tip. Ari bit into his bottom lip.
He wanted nothing more than to break his hands free and push his fingers into Roland’s hair, to curl a hand at the back of his neck and guide him to an even more perfect rhythm. But he’d wanted to do that in that stuffy office in Portugal, he’d wanted to see him sprawled out on the sand when he’d been wet to his calves on the beach, and he’d even wanted to drag him into the train’s toilets on the way from Barcelona. If there was anything Arizona Ford had a lifetime’s worth of practice at, though, it was not getting exactly what he wanted. But what he did get was damn worth it all, anyway.
Roland’s fingers worked with his mouth, slipping from a tight grip on his shaft to a shiver-inducing ghost of a touch over his balls. Ari couldn’t hold back a groan when Roland went from bathing the head of his cock with the broadest, hottest part of his tongue to sliding it beneath his foreskin in some obscenely clever twist. His boots were too tight to let his toes curl, so he stomped his heel into the stone floor again and again, until he heard–until he felt–Roland echo his moan, and that was the end of him. Roland swallowed him deep as he came hard, his body jerking and jittering enough to send the chair jumping and scraping over the floor. He couldn’t keep himself quiet at all, groaning and growling and inventing new and profane words, but he’d never had the skill to show restraint at times like these. As Roland’s mouth wrang out the last shudders from him, more arcs of heat spreading up his spine than he thought his body capable of, he had the giddy little thought that these were probably just the right noises for a one-on-one Nazi interrogation session like this.
Roland didn’t bother to put Ari’s uniform back in order. He rose to his feet and put the back of his hand neatly to his mouth, and wavered a little on his feet. At least Ari wasn’t the only one out of breath. He brought his hand to the underside of Ari’s chin and tilted him up just enough so he could accept another kiss, sweet and gentle and thick with Ari’s own taste. Roland brushed his hand across Ari’s cheek again, catching the dampness of a sigh in the shallow of his palm, and then kicked the legs out from Ari’s chair.
With nothing to catch him this time, Ari’s head thudded hard against the stone. The last words he heard before the world went black again were Roland, leaning down to murmur near his cheek, “Fès. But not too quickly.”
When he awoke, he found himself stuffed behind a curtain in an alcove, with his hands freed, his limp prick still hanging freely from his opened uniform trousers, and an even worse headache than he’d had before. His own clothes were neatly folded–neater than he’d ever folded the things in his life–at his feet, though. Ari put his fedora back on his throbbing head and worked on figuring out the fastest way for him to get to Morocco.
Ari’s head was still aching by the time he made it to Fès, not nearly fast enough for his tastes. He’d barely gotten more than a few moments of sleep since staggering his way out of Rueda, barely avoiding any further Nazi molestations. Roland wanted him to follow–he’d not only told him just where to go, but just in case that wasn’t enough, given him a long enough look at the completed map for him to practically memorize the thing. What the hell was the point of all this chase?
Ari shielded his eyes from the sun with a hand extended beyond the brim of his hat as he made his way to the southeast of the city, to the spot he’d seen marked out so damnably clearly in ink on that map. Some tiny voice of reason (one he’d actually thought had died in roughly 1924) spoke up in the back of his mind, asking him just what he thought he was doing. The True Cross–if it was even the actual artifact, and not just another of any half a dozen pretenders he’d seen in his time–was probably lost by now, in Nazi hands, and Roland… He could still feel Roland on his skin, and that was enough to keep a thread of hope that all of this treachery was some kind of game.
Someone had been on this path before him, and not so long ago. He’d spent summers as a boy out in Scouts in the state he’d taken his nickname from, and had learned a thing or two about tracking. Out through the rough scrubland, and into the hills… he’d find someone waiting for him there. Hell, there was a chance as good as getting a heads on a nickel-flip that he’d be strolling in to a nest full of Nazis to wish them all a “guten Tag“. Or “gute Nacht“, depending on how damn far out in the hills the spot that X was marking was. Ari kept the sun to his back and followed the faded trail of footprints.
He found the temple small and forgotten in between two rises of earth and rock, old and decayed enough to make Rueda look like a recent development. Ari couldn’t see any soldiers, or signs of cars, and that was promising, at least. He made his approach as the sun started to slide behind the edge of the hills, and for the first time, wondered why he’d come this far without bothering to bring a weapon.
Just as he got close enough to brush his feet over the temple’s stones, a figure appeared in its doorway. Roland, out of that damned uniform, and once more caught in the light of the setting sun. To Ari’s surprise, he greeted him with open arms.
“Oh, thank god, Ari, you came!” He’d closed the space between them and had his arms around Ari’s shoulders before Ari could think to object. “I’m sorry I had to mislead you like that,” he murmured into his ear, and drew back to linger a few inches from his face. “I can only hope you will forgive me.”
Ari stuttered, sputtered, and stammered, and then finally settled on saying, “Just what the hell is going on, Roland?”
Roland sighed and stepped back to reach into his shirt pocket–Ari noticed only then the small, but ornate reliquary he was holding in his other hand, by god, was that really it?–and produced a neatly folded letter, with unmistakable solid Roman lettering. “I am afraid… it was Gerry’s idea.” He unfolded the letter and placed it in Ari’s numb hand. Ari’s glasses were sitting in a desk drawer an ocean away, so he settled for squinting while Roland summarized. “He said, ah, while your help would be useful for recovering the last section of the map, it would be best advised I discourage you–” By any means possible, that Gerry had written in plain English, in extra-broad, dark letters that Ari could read clearly. He knew he was pouting when he met Roland’s eyes, but damned if he felt much reason to stop. It was enough to make Roland sigh a little and reach out to brush his thumb over Ari’s lower lip. “It seems you have a history of… a lack of success when it comes to endeavors such as this,” Roland continued. “The relics of this sort that you seek out more often than not end up lost forever, stolen, destroyed, or in enemy hands.”
Grudgingly, Ari had to admit he was right.
Roland lifted up his other hand, letting the metal of the reliquary catch the fading beams of sunlight, and smiled. “But I have it! All should be well enough now…” He laughed a little and shrugged. “Gerry would have had me leave you in Rueda with no scent to follow, but I think I could not deny you the pleasure…” His hand slipped back across Ari’s cheek, slipping over that small cut to brush through his hair, coming to rest gentle and soothing over the knot in his scalp. “I wish you’d not been so eager, though. I’d have found you in the city and saved you the walk.”
Ari crumpled up Gerald’s letter and tossed it over his shoulder. “You could have just told me, you know,” he said, leaning close enough to murmur the words nearly against Roland’s mouth.
“It would have only encouraged you, had you known, would it not?” Roland asked, one eyebrow curved high. Ari let one hand slip to rest at his hip, while the other took the reliquary out of his hand.
“Ah, hell, you’re probably right.” This was worth a little more pouting; the sight seemed to make Roland adopt a very fetching smirk. “Did you have to hit me so hard, though?”
Roland shrugged and brushed his fingers down from the sore spot on Ari’s head to the back of his neck. “I seem to not know my own strength.”
Ari’s tongue slipped out to wet his lips before he let them curve up into a grin. “I guess we’re gonna have to learn a few things about what you can and can’t do, huh?”
Roland laughed and turned his head away a little, letting the sunset’s light catch on his cheeks. “Ah, Dr. Ford, I suppose you have much to teach–”
The gunshot echoed through the hills, and Roland crumpled like a ragdoll at Ari’s feet, ending sprawled limply on his back in the dust. Ari’s hand tightened around the reliquary as he looked to where the shot had come from.
“I am so sorry, Dr. Ford,” came an accented voice that was far too familiar. “It seems I was interrupting… something.”
“Himmelreich!” Ari spat. Ulrich Himmelreich had begun as a thorn in his side, and advanced to nothing less than a spear between his ribs. Whenever a relic Ari pursued ended up lost forever, stolen, destroyed, or in enemy hands, it was Himmelreich, always Himmelreich behind it. “You son of a bitch!” Ari wanted nothing more than to kneel down and tend to Roland, but the gun in Himmelreich’s hand kept him still. Any fleeting, flattering thoughts he’d had about the cut of a German uniform were gone, now; it sure as hell didn’t look good on him.
“As always, Dr. Ford, you are kind to us.” He stepped forward, over Roland’s prostrate body, and held the gun pointed directly at Ari’s chest. “You are possibly the easiest man in the world to follow. You always do all of the dirty work, and allow us the spoils.” He snatched the reliquary from Ari’s hand, and held it up before his eyes, smiling sickly. “All it might take is a single splinter from this relic, woven in to the uniforms of our soldiers, and–” He broke off and snatched the reliquary out of sight. “Ah, but it would be terrible of me to spoil it.” The barrel of his gun nudged under Ari’s chin. “Just as it would be terrible for me to kill you now, and miss out on all the other treasures that you will bring to my hands in the future.”
“You won’t get away with this!” Ari growled, but he knew it was already over. The light was growing dim, and he couldn’t see Roland moving at all.
Himmelreich leaned close to his face, as close as Roland had been only moments before, close enough for him to smell tobacco on his breath. “Ah, William… but I do. And I will. And we will.” With that, he brought the butt of his gun to the side of Ari’s head, sending him to the ground. It was enough to send him reeling and put stars behind his eyes, but the kick that Himmelreich landed in his solar plexus was what sent the world to black once more.
When he came to again, night had fallen, and he was alone. Ari scoured the area for any sign of Roland, but there was nothing, nothing at all. No footprints, no scraps of cloth, not even a spatter of blood or an imprint in the dust where he’d fallen.
It was a long walk back to Fès.
Field work was good for the spirit, especially when he could sit back and let his students, with all of their interest and eagerness and young back muscles, do the hard work. Although more often than not, “sitting back” meant something more like getting down on his knees in the dirt and berating a graduate student about the sloppy way he handled a brush. Well, there was no rest for the wicked, or the tenured.
Ari leaned back to let his spine pop, and removed his hat to wipe the sweat the Argentinean sun pulled from his brow. He lifted his head as a shadow fell on him, and saw another one of his students, a handsome young man named Edgar, looking down at him nervously.
“Yes?” he asked, and put his hat back on to shield out the sun.
“Ah, Dr. Ford, someone’s… someone’s here to see you.”
Ari squinted one eye closed. Here? At an archaeological dig site in the middle of nowhere in Argentina? “Who?”
“He didn’t say, but, uh, he’s back there by the tents.” Ari rose to his feet with only a minimum of cracking from his left knee, and looked off to where Edgar was pointing.
Arizona Ford had seen a lot of pretty damn impossible things, but this had to be near the top of the list. His mouth went dry as dust, and he put a hand on Edgar’s shoulder to push him out of the way. “You… you take over, here, Edgar, see if you can… uh… you tell James to do better.” He left the boy behind, and walked towards the man who absolutely, in no way, could possibly really be Dr. Roland Schaller.
“Ari,” he said as he drew close enough, and those two syllables were enough to convince him that this was the real article. There were ten more years of lines on his face, but it was Roland, through and through, alive and in the flesh.
“How… how in the hell?” Ari reached forward to grab hold of Roland’s arm, to feel that warmth. “You were dead!” he said, loud enough that his students looked around. He winced and pushed Roland further back, away from the dig site and further in to camp. “I searched all over for you, and there was nothing. Nothing! The university in Faro said you never came back…”
Roland laid a hand on top of his. “I had to go into hiding, Ari, I’m sorry… but it was for a good reason.” He reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out small scrap of wood. Ari’s eyes grew wide. “It’s the real thing, Ari,” he whispered. “The reliquary was empty. I had a feeling something would go wrong when I found it and… I was right.”
Ari couldn’t keep himself from reaching out to touch the splintered edges of the wood. The thrill that seemed to prickle through his skin when he touched it had to be adreneline, or his imagination, or both. “But… you were shot,” he murmured distractedly, and Roland put fingers under his jaw to bring him up to meet his eyes.
“It’s the real thing, Ari,” he said again, and his mouth curved. “I know you don’t want to hear a lecture.”
“It’s… made you immortal?” Just saying it made Ari feel ridiculous, and Roland had the decency to shrug a little.
“I don’t know about that, but I have found myself conveniently… bulletproof.” His fingers were already brushing along the line of Ari’s jaw, curving behind his ear. He clucked his tongue a little. “Surely you must have suspected that something of this sort had happened when your side did not lose the war.”
“To be honest, it all seemed pretty far-fetched to begin with.” He took the fragment of the True Cross from Roland’s fingers, and put it neatly back into his pocket.
“You must never discount any possibilities, Dr. Ford,” Roland said, laughing a little. “Wait a moment, I will go tell your students that…”
Ari caught him by the wrist. “Tell them later. Right now I…. you know, I really owe you one, Roland.”
“Oh?” His eyebrows raised high. “But it would seem I’ve caused you nothing but trouble–”
Ari hadn’t grinned like this in years. “No… I mean, I owe you one,” he said, and pushed Roland back in the direction of his tent.
“Ah? Ah!” Roland was laughing by the time he pushed the canvas flap out of the way. “I see, very clever…”
“I do my best,” Ari said, and let the tent flap close behind him.
Dr. William "Arizona" Ford....... H_______ F___
Dr. Roland Schaller....... Wikipedia
Ulrich Himmelreich....... Himself
McGuffins provided by....... ladysisyphus
Linguistic consultants....... kuniopt, jokersama
Set design....... sairobi
Costumes by....... Hugo Boss
Catering by....... Delivery.com
Unrealistic depiction of head injuries provided by....... Hollywood