This review features not only a very atmospheric fanfic but also two different podfic versions of it. Podfics can beautifully add to and transform a fanfiction. In the case of a manga fandom such as Eroica, podfics are good at providing an extra layer of characterisation because we get to hear how Our Heroes might sound. Since ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’ hinges on a series of complex and hard-edged confrontations between Dorian and Klaus, listening to the story’s two podfics is especially rewarding. Even if we fans already know a lot about our beloved characters, we all have different answers to questions such as: is Klaus’s voice more exasperated or more calculating? How ironic is Dorian, exactly? How vicious are they to each other? As readers, we answer such questions more or less automatically, until a podfic comes along and suggests another perspective, and it variously challenges or validates our particular take.
Fayjay’s narration goes for an overall faster, upbeat tempo; Klaus’s anger is hotter and Dorian’s rejoinders more impatient. Dorian is mocking and a little pushy, and his lines are delivered in a lighter tone. Dorian’s aristocratic drawl is particularly enjoyable. Podfic_lover starts at a more leisurely pace, even if the narration builds up as Klaus thinks increasingly angry thoughts, which I thought was clever. Klaus also sounds somewhat more resigned at Dorian’s behaviour, and Dorian slightly wistful in his demands. I had a lot of fun listening to both podfics, and savouring their different takes on the characters. I was also unexpectedly intrigued when I noticed that my familiarity with one of the podficcers’ previous work also played a role in how I related to the podcasts, in the same way that watching a film with an actor I already know well colours my response. Both podficcers—the one I was familiar with, and the one I’d never encountered before—did a great job. Bravo to both of them for an excellent interpretation of Liviapenn’s story, and in general for spreading the Eroica love and bringing the characters to life in different ways.
‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Sounded Like This)’ is a retelling of several Eroica-involving missions from Klaus’s point of view. However, the missions are not chronicled in their entirety. The story unfolds as a series of vignettes; we can infer what’s going on but we’re not given a complete rundown of events. We first encounter Klaus mopping up a failed mission, until Dorian shows up with the intel Klaus had vainly tried to obtain. Very interestingly, the first thing Klaus wants to know is whether Eroica succeeded by blackmail or seduction. Dorian replies somewhat obliquely that "Blackmail is such a nasty word. Let's say I gave your troublesome Mr. Svoboda an incentive to cooperate." Klaus pulls no punches, and neither does Dorian. I quote:
"You'd think a queer like you wouldn't care to use blackmail as much as you do," Klaus remarked. It wiped the smile off Eroica's face with satisfying speed, but that was all.
Klaus had expected Eroica to sputter and flail, mortally offended, or to over-dramatically whine about his hurt feelings. He did not expect the thief to draw himself up and lean forward, meeting Klaus' eyes directly.
"People who allow themselves to be blackmailed," Eroica said, each word crisp and cold, "deserve what they get for being hypocrites. I am nothing like them... If you'll excuse me, Major."
He buttoned up his coat and stalked to the door. Klaus watched him go.
The topic of blackmail is raised again when Dorian prepares to steal a Raphael from the Louvre so that Klaus can retrieve a microfilm hidden in the frame. Dorian comments scathingly on their respective approach, and I quote:
"It's interesting to compare our strategies," Eroica said, coming closer. "You must be safe from blackmail, in your line of work. So... you play by the rules. You follow orders. You never do anything wrong. You let them tell you how to live your life, and you do it letter-perfectly. You give them no ammunition to use against you. Now, blackmail would kill my career just as quickly as yours. But I do as I please, I refuse to play it safe-- and I cannot be blackmailed." [. . .] "I am more free-- more safe-- than you will ever be," Eroica said, smiling like a shark. "For you the mere appearance of impropriety is fatal. For me... there's nothing I could do that people wouldn't already expect."
Dorian then proceeds to end the mission before it’s begun, by revealing that the microfilm is already in NATO’s hands, and he was just enjoying having them scurry around on a wild goose chase. Klaus retaliates viciously to being mocked, deprived of his adrenaline fix and taunted about his shortcomings. I quote:
"Our respective positions when it comes to blackmail." Klaus said calmly. "You can do anything you like. It's true. But for someone like me..." [...] "I could be so in love with you," Klaus said, low and rough and earnest. "I could want you. Need you. [...]
"We're speaking hypothetically, of course," Klaus said, and he felt a smile curl at the corner of his mouth. Or something that felt like a smile, anyway. "It's not your fault. You are what you are. But think about it. Even if I really did want to be everything you ever wanted, even if I was dying for it--" He shrugged. "Couldn't do it. Not with a fucking blackmailer."
The irony is, Klaus is using blackmailing tactics here. Klaus is basically saying that he is denying Dorian because Dorian is not behaving the way Klaus wants him to. Do and be what I want, or I’ll punish you is classic emotional blackmail fodder. Klaus certainly takes first prize for cruelty, but both of them are portrayed as hard men, and neither cares overmuch about being liked, or likable. As Klaus points out, “He and Eroica were really far more alike than Klaus liked to admit.” Their sparring is quite ruthless, but while Dorian is mostly devious, whimsical and infuriating, Klaus is seriously nasty and mean-spirited. What he says to Dorian is a very low blow, and it’s delivered in cold blood: much like the way Klaus punched Dorian in Rome, which is referenced explicitly to make sure we don’t miss the analogy. Nerves are being hit on both sides; Klaus snaps, but calmly so, as if in slow motion. It feels like he'd been rehearsing his point for ages—and he probably did. I can easily picture Klaus making endless lists of ‘reasons for not giving in’ while staring sleeplessly at the ceiling.
The third mission provides the final rematch. This time we’re in the middle of things: Klaus has been wounded by the KGB and is hiding precariously in an old wrecked car, abandoned somewhere remote and freezing behind the Iron Curtain. Dorian shows up out of the blue, and they confront each other again. The situation is tense, volatile. They’re not just sparring: there is a real possibility that they end up killing each other. I quote:
"You play a dangerous game," Klaus finally said. He wondered what Eroica would do if he actually did try to take the case. Perhaps it wasn't really anything incriminating, and he would return to Bonn only to find that Eroica had pulled a bait and switch once again. Or perhaps it would be the last straw, and he would die here in this ice-cold car, a knife in his ribs-- Klaus had pointed a gun at Eroica's head once, and he still didn't know why he hadn't pulled the trigger. Eroica was no better at controlling his temper. You just had to know what buttons to push.
Unsurprisingly—to us—Klaus is confused and conflicted about his feelings: “As it turned out, unbridled lust for Eroica felt a lot like unbridled fury did. Unlike anger, though, Klaus didn't know what to do with it.” Klaus is equally confused as to Dorian’s actions and motivations: when Dorian shows up with Mr Svoboda’s intel at the beginning of the story, Klaus immediately thinks Dorian got it either through blackmail or seduction, rather than thievery. This is intriguing. Is Klaus projecting his fears and anxieties when he mentions seduction? Or is he referencing actual past events? In the episode ‘The Seventh Seal’ Dorian canonically entrapped a man for Klaus to blackmail.
To be totally fair, Klaus’s confusion has got a bit of a point. The first time I read the story I thought that Dorian was equivocating a little too much, because the phrase “an incentive to cooperate” might equally be used to euphemise blackmail or (forced) seduction. The forced seduction/blackmail nexus comes up a few times in the manga, and not always as benignly as in ‘The Seventh Seal,’ where Dorian is quite cool with being bait. In the ‘Midnight Collectors’ side story, Dorian seems to believe that as a 13-year-old he consented to sex with Lord Price because he had “an incentive to cooperate” in the Giorgione painting; he recasts the episode as forced seduction (we, and teenaged Dorian, know it’s basically rape).
I found myself wondering about the course this story would have taken, had Dorian used seduction to get Klaus his prized file—or just told Klaus he had. How would have Klaus reacted? Would seduction (when not on Klaus’s orders) be worse or better than blackmail, in Klaus’s books? What type of ugliness would he have dredged up? How about Dorian’s ways of exacting revenge?
But I’m digressing. Back to Liviapenn’s fanfic, where we get to watch both characters go through a range of conflicting feelings, often at the same time, which is one of the hallmarks of a well-characterised story. We are treated to an enjoyable succession of anger, love, annoyance, and resignation… What’s not to like? I was particularly intrigued by Dorian’s rarely-seen resentment over the pervasive homophobia a flamboyant gay man had/has to deal with. It’s a topic I haven’t seen explored very often, and yet it must be looming in Dorian’s life; even if his social status and wealth insulate him considerably, he was born when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK, and Klaus (and others) never miss an opportunity to display conspicuous homophobia. In Liviapenn’s story we’re not actually told much, but what Dorian says speaks volumes by implication. I quote:
"I am not every fucking queer in the world," Eroica spit out, and Klaus blinked, silenced. "I am what I am, I have no secrets. Using blackmail may make me a criminal but it doesn't automatically make me a hypocrite. Who the bloody hell are you to tell me that I ought to play nice with the straight world?"
I was also impressed by the bravery and daring that Dorian displays by meddling with the Mafia. It’s not only that he put his fate in Klaus’s lethal and blood-soaked hands; the mere fact that he gathered evidence against Volovolonte would have Dorian dead, if the Don ever realises he’s been investigated. Dorian will have to seriously watch his back for a very very long time. The story doesn’t dwell too much on the possibility, which is ok in the context. This is an extremely competent and capable Dorian, and the story’s finale guarantees that whoever wants to get to him will have to go through Klaus first. Maybe the ongoing little frisson of danger will even help spice things up and bind Our Heroes further together. And maybe someone at some point will write a fanfic where Volovolonte does find out Dorian’s been snooping around…
Structurally speaking, the tightly-focused episodic structure works well: there is a good balance between plotty elements and character development. The story unfolds scene by scene, exploring the blackmail theme in depth as the missions are retold in Klaus’s characteristic matter-of-fact way. Another day at the office, except they get shot at. I like stories that normalise Dorian and Klaus’s highly unusual and dangerous jobs because it feels realistic. People moan and bitch about their jobs, but don't see them as outlandish: it’s just what happens day in day out. They grumble a bit and carry on. And so does Klaus. I quote:
Mischa must be hard up for help these days, Klaus thought as he tried to bandage up his arm. Fucking amateurs. They didn't deserve to be called spies. He had accomplished his objective, but shots had been fired and they'd clipped him in the arm. Despite that he'd still gotten away clean. Now he just had to tend to his arm and get out of the area. This was proving harder than expected. It was just a graze, nothing too serious, but it had bled badly, and bandaging it with only his left hand was proving to be a bitch.
The writing uses a range of sensory details to great effect: the feel of cold wet gloves, the spatial awareness of a body at close proximity, headache pains, the sound of the rain, the “dusty, wooden floor” and the mention of various food and beverages—and that’s just the first scene. I found Dorian’s first appearance under a red umbrella an especially vivid image. I think there’s an Aoike illo where Dorian’s holding a red umbrella, but the description of his clothes doesn’t match the one in Liviapenn’s story. The dialogue’s very good, which was evidenced by the way it felt and sounded in the podfics.
The story includes a few lighter element—Klaus’s opinion of the painting and Dorian’s bogus shopping list are quite funny—but overall ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’ is a realistic, hard-boiled Cold War spy story. Liviapenn gives us a thorough exploration of some of the less savoury sides of Dorian and Klaus’s psychology and behaviour, with an eventual happy ending. The fanfic is very well written, thoroughly engaging, and enriched by two excellent podficced versions: a hat-trick of fannish delight!