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Aftermath

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Algy looked around the clearing one last time before darting across to the prefabricated hut in its centre and pressing his back against the wall. He felt somewhat exposed now that he was out in the open, but there didn't seem to be anyone around and there was no sign of any movement from inside the hut itself. He drew his weapon silently and peered around the corner of the building. It was small and raised slightly off the ground, with steps leading up to a peeling, mesh-screened door flanked by two high windows. 

Creeping round, he risked a peep through the closest window then ducked down again. He had seen what appeared to be a cramped sitting room-cum-office with dusty, mismatched furniture and an air of long-term neglect. There was nobody inside, but something about the room had seemed off-kilter in a way that he couldn't quite put his finger on. 

Algy stood on his tiptoes and looked through the window again. Due to its height, he could only see the tops of things. A tattered sofa, a black lacquered cabinet of some kind, the neck of a glass bottle, a curling map pinned to the wall, a jacket on the back of a chair. 

A twig snapped somewhere behind him, the noise like a gunshot in the silence of the clearing. Algy whipped round, heart thumping, and found himself levelling his automatic at Ginger, who had stepped out from the cover of the trees twenty yards away, both hands raised in apology and a somewhat sheepish look on his face. Algy placed a finger to his lips, and pointed to the forest at Ginger's back.

Stay there, he mouthed. He had no idea what he might be walking into, and wanted to make sure that at least one of them remained at liberty. Ginger nodded his understanding and retreated from view. It had cheered Algy to see him, not least because he wouldn't have come here unless Bertie had matters well in hand back at the main camp. He had no intention of letting his guard down, however – a cornered von Stalhein was still von Stalhein, and potentially even more dangerous than usual. Algy edged towards the entrance of the hut.

The door opened at a touch, and he left it standing wide in case a hasty retreat was needed. Stepping inside, Algy was surprised to note that there was an empty champagne bottle standing somewhat incongruously on a folding card table, and he was sure he could see a fresh one through the half-open door of the lacquered cabinet. He felt, rather than heard, a crunching underfoot and looked down to see that he was standing in broken glass; a champagne saucer, he thought, a match for another which was lying on its side on the table. Two glasses?

Algy took in the rest of the room. There had been a struggle here, that much was obvious. A fallen chair, a pile of papers strewn across the floor where they had been knocked from the desk, a sticky patch on the threadbare rug where champagne had dripped from the toppled glass. Scratches on the floor and wall showed where the desk itself had been roughly shoved out of position, as though something had slammed into it. Something, or someone. His stomach tightened. Where was Biggles? He had been here – the jacket on the chair was his – and it appeared that there had been a brawl, but where was he now? If he had come off best, Algy wondered, why hadn't he come to find them, and why had he left his jacket behind?

He realised then that the room he was standing in was smaller than the building allowed, and only had one window. He had seen two from outside. To his right was a door which he had initially assumed was simply another way in, but must in fact lead to a second room. He picked his way over to it, careful not to disturb anything that might betray his presence to anyone on the other side.

Holding his breath, Algy turned the handle and pushed the door open a crack. Thankfully, the hinges didn't make a sound, despite the damp forest air and their obvious age. At first he could only see a blank wall. He pushed the door open a little further, wide enough to put his head and shoulders – and, obviously, his gun – through it. The next thing to catch his eye was the edge of a rust-spotted metal bedframe. And, he noted with a start, a bare foot and skinny ankle poking out from under the sheet. 

Algy grinned, delighted by the thought of catching von Stalhein at such a disadvantage. He was so busy thinking about the infinite ways he could use this to his benefit that he almost tripped over a shoe, carelessly abandoned by the door. A shoe that he recognised. His brow furrowed. What an odd coincidence, he mused, that Biggles and von Stalhein should wear the same brand. But then it struck him: there was no way that shoe could belong to von Stalhein. It looked to be at least a size smaller than Algy's own, and the Prussian was half a head taller than he was. 

Which meant that it could only be ... noiselessly, he pushed the door open sufficiently that he could step into the room, and surveyed the scene before him in silent astonishment.

Biggles was lying half on his side and half on his front, sound asleep and more relaxed than Algy had ever seen him. Both feet stuck out at the bottom of the sheet, which was draped loosely across his hips. Algy could see the faint notches of his spine, the contours of his ribs as they rose and fell, and a purpling, distinctly mouth-shaped mark at the junction of his neck and shoulder. His head was turned to the right, and his right hand lay loosely curled on von Stalhein's pale chest, directly over his heart. The wrist that Algy could see was red and chafed where it had obviously been bound. Algy wondered idly if that had happened when von Stalhein's men had taken him prisoner, or if it had come later. 

Von Stalhein lay on his back, one arm under Biggles's tousled head and the other resting across his own bare midriff. He, too, appeared to be sleeping deeply, dark lashes fanned across his cheeks and his usually supercilious expression notable by its absence. He looked, for the first time in Algy's long experience, at peace.

Noticing an abrasion on von Stalhein's cheekbone and the shadow of a bruise on Biggles's jaw, Algy drew his own conclusions, from that and from the upended furniture in the next room. He could well imagine how it must have been between them: neither giving any quarter until all of that vicious, urgent desire had been spent, making way for this fragile, faintly battered tenderness. 

Glancing back at von Stalhein, Algy flinched when he saw that the Prussian’s icy blue eyes were open and regarding him warily. He looked deliberately towards Biggles and then in the direction of Algy's automatic, which was pointed at his face, then met Algy’s gaze again. Algy shrugged one shoulder as if to say, wouldn't stop me. Von Stalhein glared in annoyance, pulling the sheet up to his chest as though it might stop a bullet; or perhaps simply to protect his modesty.

Algy suppressed a laugh and lowered the gun, but didn't put it away. He looked from von Stalhein to Biggles and back again, and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Von Stalhein gave him a slow look up and down, then indicated the empty space in the bed beside him. Room for one more. It was Algy’s turn to glare. Von Stalhein simply smirked at him in response.

They looked at one another for a few moments, seemingly both at a loss as to how to break this entirely unexpected impasse.

Algy was the first to move. He nodded at Biggles's sleeping form, and jerked his head towards the door behind him. Von Stalhein raised a hand, long fingers splayed. The meaning was clear, and Algy stared at him incredulously. Was he really asking for five more minutes?

Just as Algy was about to mouth something unprintable in reply, Biggles's fingers twitched and he mumbled incoherently in his sleep. Algy and von Stalhein both turned to watch him as a tiny frown creased his forehead and his eyes moved restlessly under their lids. Von Stalhein flicked a glance towards Algy then looked back at Biggles.

On anyone else's face, Algy would have called that expression fondness.

If he wasn't standing here, Algy realised, von Stalhein would kiss Biggles’s face and gentle him, taking that fine-boned hand in his own and soothing him through the nightmare. Suddenly, Algy felt the weight of what he had unwittingly walked into, and relented with a soft sigh. He pocketed the automatic and held up both hands, palms outward. Von Stalhein inclined his head, just slightly, never fully taking his eyes from Biggles. He almost looked grateful as Algy backed out of the room, closing the door after him with a quiet click.

Algy slipped out of the hut and paused halfway down the steps. He turned and went back inside, re-emerging a few seconds later to wander nonchalantly across the clearing, much to the bewilderment of Ginger, who was still standing under the trees. 

"Is everything okay? Where's the chief? And where on earth did you pinch that from?" He indicated the unopened bottle of champagne swinging from Algy's hand.

"Courtesy of von Stalhein's drinks cabinet. And I didn't pinch it, I've earned it. Believe me. The skipper's still got some business to attend to, so we shall have to amuse ourselves for a little while." He began to untwist the wire cage holding the cork in place. "Got anything we can pour this into?"

***

Inside the hut, Biggles stirred awake. He opened his eyes and immediately squeezed them shut again, convinced that he could not possibly have seen what he thought he had seen. But when he opened them a second time, Erich von Stalhein was still looking at him, his aristocratic face barely a foot away from Biggles’s own.

"You will find Captain Lacey waiting outside," he said, in a voice tinged with regret. "And where he is, I assume Hebblethwaite will not be far away." Biggles couldn’t help noticing that von Stalhein pronounced the name perfectly, lending credence to Algy's theory that he only pretended to struggle with it in order to aggravate him.

"Algy was here?" Biggles half sat up in consternation, feeling his cheeks redden at the idea that Algy knew, that Algy had seen ...

"Yes," Erich replied, sounding mildly amused by Biggles's reaction. "I need not tell you that he does not approve." He paused, and raised one elegant hand to Biggles's face. "But I think, perhaps, he understands."

"In that case," said Biggles, one corner of his mouth quirking up in a smile, "he'll understand my making him wait a bit longer. I'm sure he and Ginger will come up with a way to pass the time."