Author's note:

Well well, so I had deleted the author's note when I re-uploaded this chapter... sorry about that!

Anyway, it might be worth noting that this story is a sequel to my completed epic "Mount Robillard" -- and even though that one is a looong read, I still suggest reading it.

Why? Because, 1) the background is there and I'm assuming that you are already familiar with certain things, so I won't need to explain everything for a second time; and 2) from chapter 6 onwards, this story will contains big spoilers for "Robillard"! Consider yourself warned.

But in case you decide to read this first, just one thing: we are not on Earth here. So if there's something odd, that's the explanation.

And one more thing: everything I write contains slash (i.e. homosexuality, male/male relationships), so if that's not your cup of tea, you've been warned. However, considering the current rating of this story, there will be nothing too "hot". The rating may change later as necessary.

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Traces of Doubt

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1. Unbidden

The balcony above was close. The one below was closer. Which was a good thing, because he was going downwards, and the rope-hook mechanism he was using didn't have room for a very long rope. He slid lower, unwinding more cable from the small device with one thumb, felt his feet touch the tiled floor of the balcony -- wait, this was more of a terrace really, a few meters elevated from the ground, but there wasn't another suite underneath it. So this was the ground floor of the hotel. Good.

He pressed another button, heard a tiny click from above and reached out a hand to catch the grappling hook that had released itself from the balcony above and recoiled into a nicely rounded weight. It fell soundlessly into his palm, and he retracted all of the rope inside the handle. Such a nifty thing, that.

He glanced around in the darkness; there was some light seeping out of the windows of the suite to which the terrace belonged, but otherwise only the bright dots of three moons illuminated the landscape. A magnificent landscape, he registered once again with a mild shock, looking towards the gently rolling waters of a huge lake that could be seen behind the tops of a cluster of palm trees. He had now been in the position to admire it for a full week but still it gave him a jolt, every time. The air was full of delicate scents, of blossoms and fruit, it vibrated with the sounds of nocturnal birds and cicadas. He caught a glimpse of a sailing boat far away on the lake, some faint music wafted to his ears along the gentle breeze. He turned around soundlessly and smiled a little. Such an absolutely fantastic place, the ultimate realization of the subconscious human idea of what Paradise surely must look like. It was pleasantly warm, not too much but still warm enough for him to feel thoroughly pleasant in his thin, black body suit.

But now, back to reality. However warm and fragrant and peaceful the night was around him, it didn't erase the fact that he was in a place where he shouldn't have been. He was outside the hotel he was staying in, on the terrace of a suite that did not belong to him, not even temporarily. And by all accounts he shouldn't have had any business to be there, really. So it was high time for him to stop standing and dreaming and get back to his own rooms. He had already accomplished his task for the night. Time to have a nice bath, maybe stroll to one of the restaurants to have dinner, or maybe he'd be too lazy to get dressed and just order something from the room service. After all, it wasn't often that he got to enjoy a place like this, and even if all of his costs wouldn't be automatically covered -- hadn't he been warned not to indulge in any extravaganza, in case his wait proved long? -- he felt that he could spoil himself a little. And the suite he had all for himself was just across the six-meter gap between terraces. No problem, really.

If there had been somebody to watch the slim, lithe man right then, the watcher would probably have been rather surprised to see his next actions. The watcher would, of course, have already seen him descend with deceptive ease, fly-like, a couple of stories along the outer wall of the hotel and land quietly on the terrace. But the swiftness with which he hurled himself over the railing at the first tiny rap of sound at the door leading to the adjacent suite of rooms, might still have startled any onlookers. As it happened, nobody was outside the hotel to watch. The dense park was totally empty.

The casual watcher would probably have missed the fact that even as the man had quietly jumped over the railing, he had still somehow managed to latch the grappling mechanism to it. But that he had done, and now he was hanging by one arm just out of sight, provided that nobody came to stand right above him to bend over the railing and look straight down. Considering how unlikely that was, he felt relatively safe at the moment, even though he clearly heard that the door to the terrace above him was being pushed open.

The man quickly went over his options. He was not high up, there was more than amply enough rope for him to glide slowly to the ground and hide. Or he could hang there, hoping that the inhabitant of the suite had only wanted to let in some night air and maybe hear the birds singing, too, and then make for the inviting dark shape of his own, smaller terrace. He decided to wait and listen for a moment longer. This kind of acrobatics were nothing new to him, he was feeling comfortable enough and besides, nobody had come to the terrace. No use wasting effort then and going down only to climb back up again. He could drop himself down quickly enough if it should prove necessary, and the terrace substructures weren't all solid concrete anyway. There even was a very helpful lattice he could support himself against.

Steps. Someone was walking to the terrace, someone with bare feet. The steps went to the side farthest away from him and stopped there. For a moment the night was quiet except for the birds and insects, and then the black-clad man stopped breathing for a moment in a puzzled effort to hear better. Had that been a sob?

After listening tensely to another two or three shuddering breaths he rolled his eyes in exasperation. Really, this was the last thing he needed -- he was apparently the unwilling witness of a lovers' spat, or rather, what followed it. Now that he came to think about it, the suite was almost certainly for two persons. So there had to be another one living in it, too, in addition to the someone standing outside late at night and crying. With his luck, the other party would probably come soon, then they'd decide to set things straight again right there and then, outside their room. And he would be forced to stay in hiding and listen to the whole thing, all the stupidities people said when they were upset in any way, be it in anger or love or something else. What an absolutely delightful prospect. It was so quiet right now, he didn't want to take the risk that the person on the terrace might hear anything suspicious. So he latched himself more tightly to the stone lattice and relaxed his muscles as much as he could without falling down. Waiting it would be, then.

A door was opened and closed inside the suite. On his hidden perch, Juri heard the sound but what caught his attention more was the startled gasp of the invisible somebody standing outside the rooms. He perked his ears, interest rekindled. That had not been a gasp of delight, of that he was certain. Damn, surely he wasn't going to be hearing anything too unpleasant?

"Salvador?" A man of perhaps forty, judging by the voice. Not sounding too happy, either. "Salvador?" A demanding tone that bordered on a threat. Juri had just enough time to quickly revise his imagined setting -- okay, two men, then -- when the person standing a few meters from him answered. After hearing the name Juri was not surprised to hear that it was a rather youthful male voice, but the words nearly made him let go of the supports.

"I'm on the terrace, sir."

Sir? Juri clamped his teeth together before his jaw dropped completely. What the hell?

"You do not call me 'sir', Salvador!" The older man was already stepping out of the door, sounding displeased. "What is wrong with you? Why do you keep doing it?"

"I'm sorry, s-- Calvin." The younger man's voice was not much above a whisper. Juri heard the rustle of clothes and fought against the urge to climb a little higher to take a peek. Rather more than that, though, he wanted to go and kick the bastard hard. What had he done to the younger man to make him cry like that, and why in heaven's name had the young man called him 'sir'?

Hold it, Juri told himself. They have a relationship, a kinky one. And the older man doesn't like his partner slipping, because he might even slip in public. You are forever jumping to conclusions, and one day it's going to be dangerous for you.

"What's the matter?" The older man's tone softened.

"My head is aching," the younger voice said weakly. And real bad too, Juri added quietly to himself, if your voice is to be trusted. "It's so hard to think at all... Calvin."

"You should sleep. You are staying up too much, you're tired."

Like talking to a stubborn kid, Juri snorted in his head. Really, you should now hold him close and kiss it better. Or just hold him and let him sleep next to you. No stupid, potentially dangerous games when your partner obviously isn't up to it. And maybe it's your fault too, maybe you bastard have --

"No, I can't. I can't sleep, the dreams come again." Now the young man sounded seriously anguished and Juri clutched harder to the lattice to keep his hands in one place. He felt this strong and very irrational desire to climb up and hug the young man tight, and had to sternly remind himself that being impulsive was really one of the least useful of his characteristics. That his success as a spy was definitely due to his ability to keep it under control rather than succumb to it.

"You are just tired, Salvador." Now the older man was clearly making an effort to be placating and reassuring, and Juri felt another quick pang of revulsion. "Come, let's get you to bed. I'll give you something to help you sleep."

"No!" The young man nearly cried it out, then an involuntary whimper of pain escaped him. "No, I don't want anything. I'll just dream more." He breathed hard for a few moments and then said, so softly that Juri hardly heard it: "I need to find him, Calvin. Why can't you help me find him?"

"How many times do I need to tell you that I don't know what you're talking about?" The man was angry now. "You must stop this rubbish and focus on your task!"

"You don't understand! I have to find Troy!"

"Salvador!" The man was certainly grabbing him, Juri could practically feel the hard hands grasping slim upper arms. "For the hundredth time, you don't know anyone called Troy! It's just your imagination. Come, now we go inside."

Some more rustling, determined steps and bare feet following reluctantly, then the door closed with a definite click. If there were more sounds, they didn't carry to the outside through carefully sound-proofed walls and glass.

Juri stayed in his hiding place for another couple of minutes before hoisting himself once more to the terrace. After a quick look around he threw the grappling hook to his own side, secured another hook to the railing next to himself, tightened the narrow cable and swung himself to safety along it, using the handle part as a slide.

At last he was back in his own small suite. He took a deep breath and slipped out of his body suit, carefully deposited it together with his equipment once more in an inconspicuous case and stuck the whole thing back into the cupboard. After putting some soft background music on he went into the luxurious bathroom and lowered himself into the shell-shaped bathtub. As water gushed out of the numerous taps and began to submerge his slim, toned, olive-colored body under a rapidly growing mass of bubbles, he raked fingers through a mass of short, black curls and looked his reflection in the mirrors beside the bathtub sternly in the eye. The mirror image stared back, dark eyebrows frowning above a pair of clearly slanted eyes.

Juri couldn't stop thinking about the conversation. It kept playing in his head, growing more and more intriguing with every loop. Even more puzzling, though, was his own reaction to it. He kept feeling a deluge of unpleasant emotions. Fear, confusion, revulsion, desperation, each one more incomprehensible as the previous. Why should he all of a sudden feel so concerned about the goings-on of a couple he knew nothing about? He had accidentally landed there to overhear it, and he knew a lot better than to pay any attention to such things. He was here for a purpose, he was dead set on fulfilling that purpose, and nothing must come between him and his goal.

There had been diversions before, but never had the pull of anything been this infuriatingly strong. And for goodness' sake, he didn't even know what the people involved looked like! Now, if he had seen them and if the young man in question had been physically alluring, it might have been understandable. After all, he knew very well that he swung both ways and a good-looking young man could well possess external qualities that would coax out his innate protective streak... not that he wouldn't have successfully avoided such traps before. Juri Lombard was a professional in his line, and he was proud of his abilities. The mission came first, and everything else only a long way behind it. And yet now he was having trouble tearing his mind away from a potential diversion, after only listening to a dubious conversation. How unprofessional was that?

Juri relaxed in the bath and turned the water off. He leaned back, resting his head against the smoothly rounded edge of the bathtub, closed his eyes.

Salvador?

I'm on the terrace, sir.

"What the hell was that about?" Juri mumbled to himself.