The Unkindest Cut

The prisoner glared up at them with defiant eyes. Wine-bottle green, the agent who'd first spotted him had called them in his report, together with some highly unprofessional rambling about flowing raven tresses. Blue Weasel blamed this heretofore unnoticed tendency towards poetry in his agents on the decadence of the West. Paris was no place for a self-respecting arm of the KGB to operate.

But it had paid off, and he now had in his grip the infamous operative who had many times eluded his comrades Red Fox and Green Raccoon, and even escaped the legendary Mischa the Bear Cub himself.

He smiled, standing over the German agent where he sat bound and handcuffed to a chair. "So, the great Iron Klaus is humbled at last," he said.

Klaus smiled back, a charming squint-eyed expression of false happiness that Comrade Denisov was no doubt composing new odes over as they spoke. "NATO Intelligence already knows where I am," he said with matter-of-fact cheer. "You don't have the authority to cause an international incident."

"Is that so?" Blue Weasel delighted in drawing the blade out of his inner pocket. Iron Klaus lived up to his name and reputation, maintaining the smile without so much as a flinch at the sight of the weapon.

Behind him, Denisov showed no such aplomb, shifting nervously. "Comrade, the Kremlin-"

He gritted his teeth, wondering what he'd done to be cursed with such idiot underlings. Comrades. Inferior, junior comrades. "I am well aware of what was said in our last communication from the Kremlin," he said. "Perhaps our next one should discuss your imminent transfer to Siberia."

Denisov fell back, cowed.

He turned his attention back to the prisoner, baring his teeth in a mocking grin. "You are right, Major, that I did indeed promise I wouldn't harm a hair on your head. However," his smile widened as he raised the blade, "I must confess... that was a lie."

Agent A led the Alphabet team into the abandoned safehouse at a run. B had reported the KGB agents departing nearly ten minutes ago. There was no evidence they'd had the resources to leave a bomb behind, but they'd almost certainly left something far more volatile to deal with - a thoroughly pissed off Major von dem Eberbach.

It had taken them almost two hours to locate him. A made a mental note to ring his wife and check she'd repacked his Alaska bag.

The KGB had managed to turn the boarded up shell of a former Parisian nightclub into something that looked bland and institutional. "They most likely kept the Major imprisoned in the basement," Z said. G practically elbowed him aside in his rush to get to the stairs first.

A wasn't going to fight him for the honour of being first to be skewered by the Major's glare. G probably got off on it - nothing else could explain his penchant for turning up to work in skirts and full makeup. At least right now he'd had the sense to trade the latest floral monstrosity in for a sensible suit, even if it was in a highly indiscreet shade of lilac.

A trained his weapon on the door at the base of the stairs as Z moved to kick it in. So far as they knew all the KGB operatives were accounted for, but the Major had taught them to be ready for anything.

That training, however, had utterly failed to prepare him for the sight that greeted their eyes beyond the door.

Three jaws dropped in unison. G swooned, clapping a hand to his mouth in horror. "Those beasts!" he gasped. "How could they?"

The Major glared up at them from the chair that he was bound to, familiar green eyes staring out of a face that had been rendered almost unrecognisable by the KGB's treatment.

"You idiots!" he bellowed. "Don't just stand there gawping like old ladies at a flower festival. Get me out of these ropes! And find my cigarettes!"

They scrambled to obey.

It was a strangely subdued Alphabet that Dorian spied upon from his balcony across from their hotel. They almost seemed to be in mourning, and he would have been quite panicked if he hadn't already seen the Major come striding back to the hotel earlier. That appallingly unflattering cap might have been enough of a disguise to fool some, but never Dorian; he knew the lines of the Major's body as well as he did every brushstroke of Giorgione's Young Shepherd. Such splendid works of art should be admired on a regular basis.

If only the Major would allow his lines to be admired from close up. Dorian wondered at the way he'd returned so bundled up, and at the identity of the mousy little man with a leather bag who'd been summoned to attend him in his room. Perhaps his heroic Major was bruised and battered beneath that stoic military exterior.

Mmm. An appealing thought. He brought a gloved hand to his lips in contemplation. He really should go over there and make sure that the Major was taking proper care of himself. A nice soothing hot bath would certainly work wonders, and if he should be stiff from his injuries, why, a massage would be just the thing. It would be positively unkind of Dorian not to visit the Major and offer his expert services.

Thus decided, he drew a grapple from his discreet bag of thieving equipment, and fired a thin line across from the balcony to the roof of the Major's hotel. After all, a surprise visit was no fun if the staff in the lobby rang ahead to tell your target you were coming.

Locating the Major's room inside the building was no trouble. He had an excellent sense of direction, and he was well-practised at visualising the layout of buildings he'd only seen from outside. As he excited the stairwell, he found himself faced with a group of Alphabets in their customary flustered disarray.

G was in floods of tears, his face flushed an unfortunate red that really didn't complement his blusher. As the most junior agent present, Z had been stuck with the job of offering awkwardly consoling pats. They didn't seem to be achieving much.

"It's awful! Just awful!" G wailed. "Ohh, how could they be so cruel?"

A and B were making a pretence of guarding the Major's door that looked a lot more like hovering. They both broke out in nervous sweats at Dorian's arrival.

"Lord Gloria!" A blurted, eyes wide with alarm. "Um - you really shouldn't go in there right now."

"The Major's in a really bad mood," B confided. They shuffled, as if not quite sure if they were brave enough to block the door.

"Oh, now, I'm sure he wouldn't mind a visit from an old friend," he said with a smile. Guiding hands on both their shoulders was all it took to make them leap out of the way. Honestly, he could be quite offended if they weren't such obviously twitchy creatures; the side-effects of long-term exposure to the Major. That man really did need to find more healthy ways to work off his stress. Dorian could think of a few to suggest. "It will lighten his heart to see a familiar face," he said, making for the door.

A still tried to put up a show of resistance. "The Major was really very firm-"

"Oh, yes, he so often is." Dorian sighed wistfully. "So wonderfully forceful in everything he does." And so much fun to imagine how that might extend to other contexts.

A fell back, looking stricken by the vision of his superior that Dorian was weaving. Quite understandably so - it was an arresting thought. Dorian patted him on the shoulder and threw the door wide open.

And faltered in shock. Standing by the dresser was the familiar rigidly upright form of the Major - but something was wrong with the picture. So very wrong. As the Major swung about to bark at the intruder, Dorian could only gape in horror at the way his most favourite work of art had been so crudely defaced. It was clear the scurrying little man with the bag who'd been summoned to fix it had done his best, but there was only so much of a miracle one could work on scorched earth.

Where once had hung the Major's long sleek curtain of dark hair, now only remained a crude approximation of a crew cut, hacked viciously close to the scalp in some places and unevenly longer in others.

Dorian clutched the doorframe for support. "Oh. How positively ghastly," he said weakly.

Beneath the hack job of a haircut familiar green eyes blazed with a fresh fury.

"Out!" the Major bellowed. "Get out! Perhaps this will finally be enough to convince you to turn your perverted attentions elsewhere. If I'd known that a quick trim was all it would take to deflect your fickle affections, I would have done this years ago." But beneath the fire Dorian was sure he could see a quiet misery.

He rallied, taking a step forward. "Oh, Major," he said softly. "You must know by now that there's absolutely nothing fickle about my feelings for you. Why, you could tattoo yourself blue or grow a moustache or hide those lovely eyes of yours away behind dark glasses for the rest of your life, and my love would still remain as true as ever." He tried not to shudder too visibly at the images that conjured. His love might be eternal, but that didn't mean he lacked a sense of aesthetics.

The Major bristled with frustration. "Is there nothing that will deter you from this demented obsession?" he demanded.

"Not a thing," Dorian said brightly.

The Major sank down to sit on the edge of the hotel bed, apparently too depressed to even recognise the risks inherent in adopting such a position with his current company. "Get out," he repeated, with such weariness that Dorian decided to be merciful and leave.

But only so he could withdraw and formulate a new plan of attack.

The next Alphabet to approach him as if he was some kind of grieving widow would be taking the first plane out to Alaska.

Ridiculous, to suggest that a man could be upset over something as insignificant as an unwanted haircut. Perhaps a frivolous fop like the Earl had nothing more important to occupy his mind than his appearance, but Klaus was a trained agent with a job to do. Allowing his hair to grow long was no more than an act of camouflage, casting doubt on the first impression caused by his clear military bearing. It would grow back soon enough, and until then, there was no point dwelling on it.

Not when he had far greater annoyances to deal with - like the antiquated offices the French had provided them to work out of for this mission. No wonder his Parisian counterpart had spent so little time at his desk; there was an irritating cool breeze from the window that kept blowing on the back of Klaus's neck.

On the other hand, if he left the inner office, that meant spending time in the company of his agents. He was in no mood to indulge G's melodramatics, A and B's nervous twitching, or Z's... Well, Z was always the model of a proper agent, but right now his earnestness was irritating. If Klaus had to share a room with them in his current mood, he was liable to open fire on the lot of them.

As it was, the susurrus of their whispers just outside the door was driving him to distraction. He was about to throw the door open and bellow for silence when it fell without need for his intervention. He would have liked to imagine his agents had just discovered the spirit of professionalism, but judging by G's theatrical gasp, they had merely been surprised by a new arrival.

With any luck, it was the Russians, come to finish him off. As the babble resumed on an ineffective theme of, "No, please don't go in there!", Klaus grinned around his cigarette and drew his Magnum to greet the intruder.

The brightly grinning face that appeared in the doorway, under a quite ridiculous hat that would have looked at home in that painting of Pumpkin Pants, almost tempted him to pull the trigger. "Major! I do hope you're not sulking in here. I assure you, your unparallaled good looks remain as distinguished as ever." He beamed as Klaus spluttered. "In fact, in order to prove it to you, I've arranged a minor demonstration." He swept the hat off and bowed low.

Klaus choked on the breath that he'd drawn in to let out a roar. For a moment he could only stare speechlessly at the bewildering sight before him. The Earl touched the back of his mass of springy golden curls self-consciously as he straightened up.

His decidedly shorter, decidedly less of a mass of golden curls. Where once his hair had poured down his back in a lengthy waterfall, now it reached barely further than the nape of his neck. "See?" he said, with perhaps a slight hint of a tremor to his voice to suggest he wasn't quite as blasé about the situation as he tried to appear. "It's a bit of a drastic change, I must admit, but even you have to agree that I look every bit as handsome as I ever did."

For a moment Klaus half wondered if the KGB were on some demented vengeful hair-cutting spree before the reality of the matter caught up with him. "You cut your hair?" he demanded in shock. There was a distinctly G-like wail of distress from the outer office. "Stop listening at doors, you useless wankers!" he shouted.

The Earl raised his chin in what was, embarrassingly, a better approximation of attention than most of the Alphabet could manage. "It was a gesture of solidarity with my poor, denuded Major," he said, reaching out a hand that almost brushed against Klaus's now closely-cropped hair before Klaus realised what he was doing and jumped back.

"Pervert! Must you bring nudity into a perfectly unrelated conversation?" A perfectly mad conversation. "You're an idiot," he said. Why must the Earl always confound him with these unfathomable gestures of ill-placed devotion? "It will take much longer for your hair to grow back than mine. Besides, it... doesn't suit you," he mumbled reluctantly.

Not that the Earl's former mane was a remotely acceptable hairstyle for a man, but he somehow looked wrong without it. The flowing locks were a warning sign of his degenerate nature; why, now, if it wasn't for the appallingly skimpy clothes he was wearing, he could almost have passed for an acceptable member of society. No wonder Klaus found this change in him so unsettling.

In fact, "It looks hideous," he said, warming to his topic. Here was an angle of attack that might sting the Earl's vanity enough to remove this constant thorn in his side. "It disgusts me to even have to look at you."

But the Earl only got that unnerving warm look in his eyes, a broad smile spreading across his face. "You preferred the way I wore my hair before, then?" he said.

"I-" Klaus had the sense of a yawning chasm opening beneath his feet, and swiftly regrouped. "I have no interest in the way you look, you self-centred wanker! When will you get it through your impossibly dense skull that I have no desire to see your face whether it's shaven-headed, bearded, or painted bloody purple!"

It didn't help. He was still smiling. "Oh, you needn't be so shy, Major," the Earl said, sensibly skipping back further out of range. "I must admit that I prefer it a little longer myself - but these are the trials that I go through for my love for you."

"The only trial you'll be going through is when I have you arrested! I should call Interpol and tell them you've been spotted in the vicinity of the Louvre." What other reason would that reprobate having for being here in Paris?

"I can see you're still upset, Major, so I'll leave you to your own devices," he said, beating a retreat towards the door. "Just remember, no matter how unfortunate the situation may seem right now - it will grow back." He fled the scene before Klaus could decide which of the epithets running through his head he most wanted to shout.

Klaus stalked over to the doorway, daring his Alphabets to comment with a glare before he slammed it shut. That bloody interfering thief. As he returned to his borrowed desk, he couldn't help but run a hand over the bristles of his shortened hair.

"Idiot," he muttered, and got back to work.