The sound doesn’t echo, but it carries, a meaty thud. Then another, a grunt, and another. Then only the sounds of boots against packed earth. Although they mostly work it out on the training ground, about every other week there’s a scuffle of some kind. Unless someone has found and shared a bottle, they can all be trusted to keep it hand-to-hand.
Barnes hears the sounds as he walks toward the encampment from the house. Wilde arrived after dinner, and Barnes went up to welcome him and get any urgent news. Turns out everything could wait, but they enjoyed a drink and an idle hour. The conversation tomorrow will be interesting, and they’ll likely leave the day after. Barnes is looking forward to finishing a chapter in the book he’s reading and getting some sleep.
Coming down the path, he sees people in the lantern light spilling out from the door of the common tent, two fighting, the rest watching. Seems to be the poker players. He stops at the edge of the lighted area just in time to see Carter take another punch to the ribs and go sprawling.
Carter gets his feet under him and stands in one fluid motion, launches himself at the other person, but shoving, not hitting.
Plessa, the one with the fists, rocks back when Carter shoves her, then steps forward and shoves him hard in the chest. He goes down and just sits there, breathing hard. Hands on hips, Plessa steps forward until her feet are between his feet.
“Don’t. Just, don’t, and I won’t have to kick your ass.”
“You don’t ever have to kick my ass. It’s not required.”
“It is though.”
“I didn’t cheat.”
“You did though.”
This time Carter scrambles up and from the edge of the light Barnes watches as he reaches for a knife, then stops, fighting his own habit and muscle memory and anger.
Carter crowds in and she lets him until they are toe to toe. “Believe what you want, I didn’t cheat.”
Plessa snorts. “You say not. I say so. You should consider this a warning.”
“You should consider playing the game better.”
One of the others steps up to them, puts a hand on Carter’s shoulder and gently pushes him back. He’d do the same to Plessa but she is much harder to move.
“Tomorrow then,” he says, looking from one to the other, once, twice. Plessa snorts again, turns back to the lighted doorway, and Carter turns away into the dark toward the tents.
The one who stepped in gives Barnes a nod and heads back in after the others. Barnes follows Carter toward the tents.
Carter is stripping off his knives. He has some system, Barnes knows, because he can be fully armed and out the door in minutes. Watching him, though, it looks like a tantrum. He manages to slam them down without making much noise at all. And not muttering, exactly, but a hissing hum.
He starts on his shirt buttons then just pulls the shirt over his head, drops it, pushes his hands through his hair. Seated on his cot, Barnes just watches.
“What. Just don’t.”
Carter turns, just stands. He’s still breathing fast, and keeps rolling his right shoulder.
“Come here. You’re all right.”
Carter steps from his cupboard in the corner to stand near to where Barnes is sat, his knee next to Barnes’ knee but not touching. He rolls his shoulder again, shifts his weight.
Carter lowers himself to sit cross-legged, still facing Barnes. His hands grip his knees and his eyes move from Barnes’ face to his feet to his own hands, then around again. There are already bruises blooming on his ribs.
“If you turn around I’ll get that kink out of your shoulder.”
Carter swivels around until his back is to the cot, and Barnes slides over until he is behind him. Barnes puts his right hand on Carter’s right shoulder, can feel the tension, just leaves his hand there.
“Yeah.” Carter inhales deeply, blows out. “Hate this.”
“I know. Again.”
Carter takes another deep breath. Barnes puts his left hand on Carter’s left shoulder, resting gently. Another breath.
Barnes takes his own deep breath, moves his thumbs over the taut cords at Carter’s neck, hard enough not to tickle, soft enough not to hurt. He’s leaning forward to reach, Carter still sitting upright in front of his feet.
After a few more breaths, Barnes closes his hands over Carter’s shoulders, pulls. As Carter scootches backward, Barnes moves his feet and legs until his feet are next to Carter’s hips, Carter’s back just in front of the edge of the cot. They’ve done this dozens of times, and shift until Barnes has the right leverage.
“There you go.” Barnes moves both hands to Carter’s right shoulder, holding the knob of the joint in his right hand, the strong hand, fitting his fingers into the muscles and working the tight muscles of shoulder and neck with the other hand. He pushes the shoulder into a tight shrug, then a guided release and a gentle press to counter the tension. Carter’s next exhale is a hmmmm of relief.
Barnes shifts his hands to the other shoulder. “Hands,” he says, softly. Carter flips his hands from gripping his knees to lying upturned. As Barnes works on his shoulders and back, the muscles in his arms twitch, sometimes a finger.
Barnes rubs his thumbs vertically up Carter’s neck, one tight column at a time, slowly, in time with Carter’s breathing until Carter’s head starts to droop, the release of tension curving the ridge of his spine.
“She shouldn’t have hit me.”
Barnes goes back to Carter’s right shoulder, is able to roll it without as much resistance.
“I didn’t cheat. Not today.”
“Don’t need to cheat with that lot.”
“Get my boots?”
Carter swivels slightly, starts to untie Barnes’ boot.
Barnes is working on the big muscle in Carter’s back, opposite to the way he’s turned.
“Did you see Wilde?” Carter is tugging loose the laces, creating slack, leaving even loops from the tops all the way over the instep.
“Course. That’s where I was.”
“Did you and him?” Carter’s voice is low, but even. He twists the other way, tugs the laces on the other boot. Barnes’ hands move to the other side of Carter’s back.
“No. That’s done.”
Barnes pushes his fingers into the curls behind Carter’s ear, grabs, tugs. “You know why.” Carter swivels his head to look up at him, a flash of smile.
“So why is he here?”
“New mission. Debrief the other. He has questions.”
“Shit. Is he mad?”
“Not any more, I gather. He liked your drawings.”
“Huh. That shoulder again, yeah?”
Barnes moves back to Carter’s right shoulder. Carter is rubbing his hands, part massage, part nerves.
“What you said, the other day.”
“Did you mean it, or were you, you know, messing around? Because I thought maybe, something, you know, might happen? And it didn’t. So do you even want to, any more, if you really did.”
Barnes can feel the flush at his throat.
“I really did. Do. Mean it.” His hands are still, grasping Carter’s shoulders.
“Me too. I want to.”
Barnes pulls Carter back, wraps his arms around him, leans his cheek against Carter’s head so his mouth is at Carter’s ear.
“Good,” he says, low, breathy, and Carter jumps, then shivers.
“That feels amazing, or terrible, one. Do it again.”
“Hush,” Barnes growls, and Carter shivers again, starts to twist around.
Barnes holds steady, keeps Carter in the same position, moves his mouth from Carter’s ear to the join of neck and shoulder, kisses hard, hugs hard around Carter’s shudder.
“So what about right now?”
Barnes kisses the same spot, but softer.
“I intend to have you in a bed. In a room, with a door.”
Carter shivers, again. “Oh.”
“Yeh,” back at his ear, and when Carter tips his face up, Barnes kisses his mouth, not softly.
“What if I just start, you know, kissing you and stuff. What would happen?”
“You know.” With Carter looking at him, the blush spreads, but he doesn’t look away.
“Mmhmm. It’s a close thing.”
Carter reaches his arms up, crosses them over Barnes’ arms and squeezes, leans his head against Barnes’ knee.
Then he unwinds Barnes’ arms from around him and pushes on Barnes’ knees to stand.
“Guess I’m for the shower, then.”
Midmorning the next day, Wilde meets them in the courtyard, ushers them into the suite of rooms that is his hideout and technically his base of operations, although lately he’s been with the main group in Cairo more than here. He looks mostly the same, hair a little longer, face a little thinner.
There’s a work table in the corner with chairs and a couple of rolled maps, some stacked papers, a water pitcher, clay cups. Wilde gestures them into chairs at the table, pours water, straightens papers, finally sits.
“Well,” he says. “Here we are.”
“What’s going on?” asks Carter. “Are we in trouble?”
“Why, have you done something you should be in trouble for?”
“No,” says Carter. “But that doesn’t stop it, usually.”
Wilde smiles. “True enough. But no, I wouldn’t say trouble. Interest, certainly. The rescue and what happened during that, um, encounter, caught the attention of some rather senior people. Add on the retrieval of the artifact in Cairo and you are quite the topic of conversation, Mr. Carter.”
“Really? What are they saying?”
Wilde holds up a hand, starts ticking off on his fingers.
“Navigating the tomb in Cairo and getting that thing out. Nasty piece of work.” Seeing Wilde shudder somehow damps down Carter’s sudden nausea.
“Then, you managed to take down a squad we’ve been after for a year.”
“Well that was definitely not just me. That wasn’t even mostly me.”
“I read the report,” Wilde says. “That’s the point, that the two of you together--”
Both Carter and Barnes interrupt, “-- with Bes.”
“With Bes, of course,” continues Wilde. “The last try for them took out three fighters and both hostages. It was awful. This was risky.”
Carter looks at Barnes. “Did you know?”
Barnes looks back across the table with that flat stare. “Of course I knew. Didn’t matter, did it?”
“If we’d lost those children it would have been devastating. Think for a moment about who they are, the families with homes in this area. The leverage.”
“Fuck you, Wilde, leverage. They’re children."
“Even so,” says Wilde. “Children. Safe at home, now. And you two, blooded.”
“And,” Wilde folds down a third finger, “you burned down a house. That was unexpected.”
Carter ducks his head. “Sure was.”
“I said, it sure as fuck was unexpected.”
“Interesting,” says Wilde. “You didn’t want to set the house on fire?”
“I wanted something.” Carter leans toward Wilde, intent, but his eyes brush over to Barnes as he speaks, then back. “I was so angry. Scared. Fighty."
“Could you do it again?”
“Don’t know.” Head down, Carter looks across at Barnes. His hands are under the table, but by the set of his shoulders they must be fists. “Sure don’t want to feel like that again.”
“Nor I,” says Barnes.
Wilde looks from one to the other, straightens the papers in front of him.
“We’ll leave that for now, then. Carter, there’s a tin of cakes in the pantry, would you mind?”
Carter gets up, gives one of his head-to-toe shakes and steps across the room to the large cupboard.
Crossing back to the table, Carter levers the lid off the tin and drops it with a bang onto the table, then drops into the chair with a huffed exhale. Barnes uncrosses his arms, raises his eyebrows. Carter rolls his eyes, shrugs a little, reaches to the tin for one of the honey cakes.
Wilde folds down another finger. “The descriptions and drawings in the report put us onto a connection we didn’t even know was there. That’s not actually relevant, but you should know. Curie and the others have been looking out for a particular type of expertise, and based on those field notes in combination with the other circumstances, there’s quite an opportunity.”
Carter brushes crumbs from his hands, sits up straighter. “What kind of opportunity?”
“What do you know about catacombs?”
“They’re a kind of tomb. I’m an actual expert, as you said.”
“Have you been to the Kom el-Shoqafa in Alexandria?”
“Only once, a quick tour after I arrived one time in Egypt. We had to put in at Alexandria because of storms or something and had an extra day before leaving for the dig. Only saw the barest part.”
“That makes sense. The catacombs are extensive, some parts in disrepair. We need some expertise to see if they’ve been tampered with.”
Carter leans forward. “Tampered with? Like robbed?”
“That, or if they are being used for something.”
“They could still be active catacombs, you mean.”
“Or something else. Did you hear what happened in Paris?”
“The dragon, you mean,” says Barnes.
“Before the dragon. What was found under Paris, to be more accurate. In the catacombs there.”
Barnes and Carter exchange a look, shake their heads.
“Someone built a huge machine under Paris, hooked it up with les ordinateurs, ended up with control of the European financial system and connections to banks in other places, including Cairo.”
“And there might be something in Alexandria?” Carter asks.
“We want to make sure there isn’t,” says Wilde. “And the city is still considered under Meritocratic direction, what with the library, and the naval station.”
Now Barnes sits up. “Let me guess, you’ll want us to visit that station as well.”
“Indeed. The last information we have is months old. Then you need to convince them to carry you to Palermo.”
“What’s Palermo?” says Barnes.
“It’s a where, not a what,” says Wilde. “Actually both, I suppose. A city, on an island in the Mediterranean, with more catacombs.”
“Best lay it out for us,” says Barnes. “Then we can talk about sailing the Med.”
Wilde pulls the stack of papers closer. “Seems everything these days comes with a piece of paper. You can read through everything today, ask any questions over dinner. Einstein will be here at sunset.”
“Tonight?” Barnes says, not looking at Carter, who is not looking at him.
“Yes, tonight,” says Wilde. He pulls the first paper off the stack. “This is a letter to a Harlequin contact in Alexandria who has a guest house you can use for as long as you need it. At least a few days, to get ready, visit the library and the naval station. Maybe relax a bit away from the usual.”
“Speaking of the library, another letter, head of the department, etcetera, etcetera. Carter, this is your bailiwick. Oh, and here.” Wilde stands up, goes to a case standing half-open on the sofa. He pulls out a book and a small, flat box, hands them to Carter.
The book is a leather-bound journal, very like Carter’s old book that is currently stuffed in the bottom of the cupboard on his side of the tent. This one is new, with smooth covers and two finger-widths of paper. The flat box opens on the long side with a hinge, pencils of various weights on one side, oil pastels on the other.
“Fresh start,” says Wilde. “New tools. I have pens for you, too, in my other bag, and an ink spell to teach you.”
Carter has the book open on the table, running his hand over the blank page. “That’s, well.” He swallows, and when he starts again his voice has some of the ring to it that Wilde remembers from Cairo, a year and more ago. “I look forward to exploring the catacombs, learning what we can, and this, these will be most helpful. Thank you, Wilde.” Carter closes the book, puts the box on top, rubs a hand through his hair, grins over at Barnes.
“You’re welcome. This is where it gets interesting.” Next on the stack is a dark green folder with something embossed in the center. Wilde runs his fingers over the raised letters. “It says Tahan. As in the bank, and the family, and the cultural foundation that is funding this expedition.”
“Hah!” laughs Carter. “We have funding. What’s the racket?”
Wilde’s smile gets wider. “You are an expert. The charter says explore the catacombs, take notes, in consideration of future expeditions. There’s a real committee and everything. The racket, as you say, is what we said. Look for something amiss. That’s for me, not for the committee.”
Barnes covers a yawn. “Sorry.”
“Almost done. These are for emergencies, letter of credit, couple of contacts in Alexandria, the usual. Barnes, I couldn’t find anyone at the naval station, so you’ll be on your own there. There should be enough cross-posting to find some English. You could take Mr. Carter with you to translate, perhaps.”
“We’ll sort it,” says Barnes. “Let me think on it and tell you at dinner.”
“Fair enough. One last letter of introduction, Palermo local gentry, actually an acquaintance of mine from university.” Something in his voice makes Carter look up from the page he’s reading, raise his eyebrows.
“Friend, then. Fellow traveler. In any case, he lives there and can arrange for lodging, access to the catacombs, all that. There’s a daughter, studies the catacombs actually, who could be a help. Lovely girl.”
Wilde gathers up the papers, sets them to rights in the stack, tugs the folder from Carter’s hand and lays it on top.
“So. An adventure. Information gathering. Exotic locations. As far as I know, neither Alexandria nor Sicily has cases, but vigilance, always. Questions?”
“Supplies? If we’re teleporting today, no chance to stock up.”
“In the case is coin, enough for provisioning in Alexandria. Also in the case are clothes for you, Carter, a bit less mercenary and more thanatologist. In fact, why don’t you step into the bedroom there and try them on, no use taking something that doesn’t fit.”
“Sure. Haven’t had new clothes in an age.” Carter stands, stretches, picks up the case and walks down the hallway.
Wilde stands, too, and walks to a shoulder bag hanging on a hook next to the outer door. Whatever he takes out is hidden in his hand until he sets it on the table in front of Barnes, who looks up with a grin, ears pink. It’s an earthenware bottle, more a jug, with a flared cork stopper.
“You left this, at the safe house,” Wilde says. “I took the liberty of refilling it. Unless my powers of observation have failed me, you’re likely to need it.”
“More than likely,” says Barnes, “Wondered where that got to.” He tucks the oil jug into his pack.
“I wish you well, and better than well,” says Wilde. “I know that you are good for him. I think he can be very good for you. Let him.”
“Wilde, excellent taste, I must say, and a good eye for size,” Carter says as he comes in from the other room. “This is the nicest shirt I’ve ever had on.”
“Look there. You could be up front of the class, not slouching in back with the other reprobates,” says Barnes. “Let’s go, there’s packing to do. Wilde, will you come down for dinner?”
Wilde is tucking the papers into a flat leather case. “For tonight I will.”
“See you later, then,” says Barnes, shaking Wilde’s hand and taking up the case of papers.
“Carter,” says Wilde, holds out his hand. Carter shakes it, then puts his other hand over the top.
“Wilde, thanks. Not just for the shirt, and the book, I mean thanks for those of course.” Carter stops, takes a breath, still clasping Wilde’s hand in both of his. “It feels like getting another part of my life back. Part of myself. Thank you.”
“You’re most welcome, put it all to good use. Take care of yourself. And him.”
“Will do. Yes. See you.”
As they walk down the path toward the encampment, Barnes reaches up and curls his hand around the back of Carter’s neck.