The only thing more idiotic than staging an information-drop at an ice-cream vendor’s place, Klaus thought, was doing it the middle of goddamn _winter_.
He didn’t care that the weather in this part of Italy was as unlike a decent winter climate as possible: balmy air, gentle breezes, wonderful vistas of azure seas, pink granite cliffs, elegant buildings, palm trees, and flowers _everywhere_. Ice-cream would go well in this environment, even if it did offend his sense of seasonal propriety. Bad enough, that he had to do this dressed _casually_, like a bloody tourist. Worse, that several parts of the mission required the presence of one exasperating, uncontrollable, and startlingly _talented_ thief. And oh, look, surprise of surprises, here was Eroica now, back from his reconnaissance of a cruise ship down in the harbour.
Klaus hoped his habitual surliness hid a sudden flare of pure delight. He didn’t care if the man seemed bent on corrupting everything in sight. Klaus knew it was an act. Was just beginning to know the real Dorian, a heady mix of competence, tenderness, and passion -- completely unexpected if one saw only the masks of sly thief and flouncing Earl.
“You again?” Klaus snarled out loud. “I just got rid of you!”
“I missed you, too, darling,” Eroica purred.
“Fuck off,” said Klaus, trying very hard not to collapse in laughter. This was a dangerous new game, using insults and opposites to convey love-words in public, while Eroica went on being even more shamelessly direct.
“Find anything useful in the market?” Agent Z asked, obviously trying to be polite in the skirmish of words and wills around him.
“Not much.” Eroica grinned. “Not for our Auntie Martha in Bonn, anyway. I did spot a pair of emerald and gold ear-cuffs that looked positively _piratical_, and wouldn’t require ear-piercing at all --”
“What,” growled Klaus, “have I told you about your kind of _shopping_?”
“Well, now, I wasn’t thinking of them for _me_,” Eroica sighed. “The price wasn’t too dear. Though I wasn’t certain they’d be properly appreciated.”
_Earrings,_ Klaus thought, intrigued in spite of himself. It wasn’t as if he’d ever wear them in public. At least they were plural. He wouldn’t have to ask Dorian which ear to adorn, and whatever complicated homosexual code that conveyed. And they wouldn’t be tasteless -- he’d discovered that Dorian’s embarrassing fashion sense did not extend to the elegant and understated things he gave to Klaus. Probably because he _knew_ Klaus couldn’t stand kitsch, of any sort. And from the start, they’d agreed Klaus could accept no stolen gifts.
“Useless frippery,” Klaus snorted. “You’re better off without them. I hope you didn’t waste too much money, or your stingy-bug will have a fit.”
“Huh,” said Eroica. “Some people have no sense of romance!” He looked around the shop thoughtfully. The owner and her staff were in a back room at the moment, changing out deep trays of freshly-made ice cream. No other customers in the front area, though a few parties sat and gossiped at the tree-shaded tables on the sidewalk. Eroica leaned on the glass counter, dressed as inconspicuously as Klaus had ever seen him. Not that it mattered. It seemed like every woman in the little plaza (and a disturbing percentage of the men) gave pause to admire that trim figure in a powder-blue silk jogging suit. Those stunning sea-coloured eyes were half-lidded, as Eroica surveyed Z in a way that made Klaus want to growl.
“Well, Z dear, it looks like they’ve got dozens of flavours,” the thief peered at the calligraphy signs in front of the trays. “What would be your favourite, I wonder?”
“I’m on duty,” Z said stiffly, eyes darting around for a convenient escape.
Klaus felt briefly sorry for the younger agent.
“One little cone won’t hurt.”
“I think I might be lactose-intolerant,” Z tried again.
Eroica chuckled, shaking that improbable mop of silky gold curls. “What’ll it be? Peppermint? Strawberry?
Chocolate? Peach? _Cinnamon_?” the thief’s warm gaze flickered for a moment toward Klaus, a reminder of past adventures.
“He doesn’t have a favourite,” Klaus snapped, moving away from his casual sulk against a column. Eroica was only teasing Z to make Klaus squirm -- and it was working. _I will not allow you to make me jealous. And you will not start one of your food fantasies while we’re on duty,_ he thought, hoping his resolve was understood through their private code.
“And you, Major? What’s _your_ pleasure?” Eroica flirted outrageously.
Klaus hid a sigh. He could either bear this until such time as he could manage some soundproofed privacy with his maddening lover -- or go on the offensive and carry the battle. It would be refreshing to see _Dorian_ squirm for once.
“Vanilla,” Klaus said.
“Va?” Z coughed, innocent blue eyes going wide.
“Vanilla?” Eroica asked, drawling the word almost scornfully.
“In a cup, mind you, with a spoon. Not one of those sissy cones.” Klaus stalked to the counter, tapping the service bell.
They’d commandeered one of the inside tables. Klaus sat in the corner, of course, keeping watch over the door and decorously eating a tiny bowl of brown-flecked vanilla gelato. Z had given in to the blandishments of a waffle cone: raspberry swirled with caramel and cream. Dorian did suggestive things with his agile tongue to a cone brimming with a trifle of dark chocolate, coconut, and black cherries. Klaus ignored him, sensing the grandiose gestures of an opponent who _knew_ he’d been out-flanked, but not _how_.
“Vanilla,” Dorian said again, in a disappointed voice.
“We’re in one of the loveliest spots in Italy, at an award-winning establishment known for its unusual treats. And _you_ choose vanilla. There is no hope for you, Major.”
“I like it,” Klaus answered with a shrug. Thank Jesu for his impassive face. The Major was certain his maniac grin was hidden. “Long as it’s _good_ vanilla, with all the dark bits.”
“It’s ordinary!” Now Dorian sounded offended.
Good. He was taking the bait; now to string out the battle until one of them blinked and gave over the field. “It’s subtle,” said Klaus in an offhand tone. “Common.”
“Deceptive, and worth the effort to appreciate it,” said Klaus, dangerously close to sincerity, but knowing he had Eroica on the run now. There was also a faint sense of insult. So Dorian considered _Klaus_ predictable, by association? The Major knew he hadn’t been as adventurous a lover as Dorian might have wanted. He had reasons. But those hadn’t been as urgent, since the night Dorian had first pleasured him, had shown the reserves of trust and compassion that Klaus had so desperately needed. And now Klaus felt a new, restless _need_ under his offended pride.
The food games were getting old. Safe foreplay leading to to predictable conclusions. They’d flirt decorously, behind a screen of insult and innuendo. Go somewhere safe, where Dorian would suck him off or rub erection against erection, or let Klaus plunge into that exquisitely-silken sheath until climax shook them both. It would be good, whatever Klaus chose to do with his blond lover. It always was. But -- Klaus struggled for a moment, trying to clarify his thoughts without revealing them. It was something known and comfortable now, still wonderful. But not quite _exciting_. And quite the worst thing about it was that Klaus knew he was being trained, delicately and carefully conditioned, all his inner demons soothed at every step of the dance. Baby steps, when what Klaus wanted, he decided, was the grand and glorious waltz itself.
“Major?” Dorian asked, trying to read Klaus’ face and silent pause. “It’s just vanilla.”
“So you say. Try some.” Klaus reached to a dispenser for a clean plastic spoon -- never mind that in private, he and Dorian would have savoured the ice-cream in one shared bite! Klaus tried not to think of that, of the sweet slickness of cool tongues twining slowly -- “Gelato side down,” Klaus ordered brusquely, “Or you’ll only taste plastic.”
Sweet God, they were at it again, Z thought, wanting to be anywhere but in the crossfire of double-entendre and blunt refusal. It was exhausting. After so many years, any two reasonable people would have killed each other -- or _done_ it already and gotten on with life!
The Major seemed to be handling Eroica’s sallies with more aplomb than usual. No yelling at all today, and just the usual cursewords peppering sentences more amused than offended. Eroica had better watch out. When the Major was _that_ tranquil, heads would soon roll.
The Major scooped a tiny amount and offered it to a suddenly-blushing Eroica.
He even held the spoon, as Eroica leaned forward, cherry-stained lips closing over the ice cream. The Major’s hand was rock-steady, and his manner calmly challenging.
Eroica was _trembling_, trying to hold back laughter. Z saw it, in the way his eyes crinkled at the corners, and the tiny twitch of muscles in his narrow jaw.
_What the hell?_
Z began to look closer at the unlikely pair.
Eroica obeyed, eyes wide. Swallowed -- and Klaus was supremely grateful for his iron control, because watching that throat move was pure erotic torture, now that he knew what it felt like when rippling around his own shaft.
“Well?” Klaus asked.
“It’s very good,” Eroica admitted, recovering enough for another volley. “More flavour than I’d thought. More depth. Quite nice, once you get used to the refreshing simplicity.”
“Not a lot of nonsense in the way,” Klaus sniffed, glancing at Eroica’s half-eaten dessert.
_I can’t watch this_, Z thought. _It’s wrong and foolish and beautiful. How long have they been lovers? No wonder the Major’s been calmer, lately!
Eroica muttered something about ‘too much being in the way --‘, and the Major drew breath for a more-traditional retort.
“It’s made from an orchid,” Z interjected helpfully.
The other two turned to stare at him, and just the way they’d been jolted back to remembering he was there -- _Mein Gott! I wonder what the betting pool is up to, these days. If I want it -- I’m sure there’s enough there for a nice vacation at the Hamburg Blues Festival._
“An orchid?” Klaus growled.
Eroica’s eyes had narrowed, drilling at Z with all his undisguised skill at reading weakness and intent.
Z was having none of it. He had his own armour, after all, such that these two had never seen behind it. “Ja. Saw a documentary about it once, on one of those cable channels. A pretty yellow-and-white tropical orchid, and the vanilla comes from the seed pods. I’m sure they have some here -- I can show you.”
Hoping his face wasn’t showing his internal glee, Z got up and charmed the shop owner into lending him a jar of vanilla beans.
This, Z decided, was going to be good. As a loyal subordinate, his sympathies should rest with the Major. And it did look as if Eroica was the tormented party, this time. With luck --
Z blessed his own earnest deadpan expression, perfected in many years of NATO service with the grouchy Major as his boss.
With luck, he’d get the other Alphabets out of the hotel tonight on some pretext. He didn’t need money for tickets to the festival, not when he’d been saving for them. And it was the quietly-honorable thing to do – give these two fools a chance at the privacy they so obviously needed. Before they flirted in front of the wrong person, and revealed too much!
Z shoved aside a flicker of unfocused jealousy. It wasn’t his business, anyway, what they did with that privacy. Not when he couldn’t even decide which of them _he_ wanted more!
“See?” the blond agent reverently set down the glass
jar. Four long, dry brown seed pods rattled against the sides, their length crusted with pale-brown crystals. “That’s the vanilla, seeping out from inside. They scrape it off, to make flavourings. But the crystals re-form again and again.”
Z opened the jar. A rich wave of vanilla scent drifted out. Courteously, with only innocent curiosity on his face, Z offered the Major a pair of slim plastic tongs.
Klaus sensed another crossroads. If he flubbed this one, Dorian would find a way to turn the tables on him. An orchid! Mortified, Klaus imagined what Dorian could do, armed with that imagery. Rose and orchid bouquets. A new silk tie, woven with subtle tropical designs of vines and vanilla orchids. Orchids tucked into Klaus’ hair, when he was asleep or too passion-blind to care --
It was too much to think about! At least _Z _ wasn’t playing a damn game with him!
Eroica’s eyes were half-lidded again, misty with new plots.
So. It was fight or die, now? Klaus took the tongs and fished out one innocuous brown seed pod. With yet another spoon, he scraped some of those crystals down into the palm of his hand. He replaced the vanilla bean to its shrine, then raised his hand to his mouth.
“Careful,” Z warned. “Without sugar, it’s very bitter.”
“I see,” said Klaus, and tasted it anyway. Yes -- it was harsh, but only in the way of something concentrated to its purest essence. And worth the tongue-stinging taste, to see the suspicion growing in Eroica’ blue eyes.
_Yes. My mouth will taste like vanilla for hours, and you won’t be able to kiss me!_
A bell rang cheerfully, as the outside door opened.
Klaus shoved the jar across the table to Z. A frazzled-looking American couple wandered in: balding husband, ultra-thin chic wife, two pre-teens moving in a near-perfect example of random Brownian motion.
“I want chocolate!”
“Makes you break out! I want strawberry. Do they have Snicker bar topping?”
“Yuck! You’ll want gummi-worms, next. Ooo, look, what’s that?”
Klaus stood smoothly, intercepting the family as he returned the jar of vanilla to its owner. His hand was still clenched around the crystals.
“Will you two settle down?” the father sighed.
“They’re a handful to be traveling with,” Klaus said, counterfeiting a sympathetic smile.
“Broadens their minds while they’re young, their gran says. I say it just costs more, and keeps the wife and me from all the good places.”
“Now, Charles!” said the mother, blushing and turning to say something to Klaus. She froze; he endured the silent, appreciative once-over, as the father prattled on.
“Wait ‘til they hit college,” said the man. “I
Swear --” He dropped a canvas tote on the tiles, spilling the contents: tourist brochures, maps, souvenir menus. Trash, hiding something important. Klaus knelt to help him gather it up, deftly twitching one folded-up garish map into his own smaller camera-case.
An opportunity presented itself via a wayward elbow, and ended with the vanilla crystals dusted down inside the front of Klaus’ undershirt. He felt them tickling as he stood up, a grainy trail already at his flat belly.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the man. “You’ll reek of the stuff, now, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll manage,” Klaus said disdainfully.
He managed beautifully for the next few hours. The lingering scent of vanilla gave him many opportunities to snarl at Eroica and _dare_ the man to comment. The map got transferred safely to its new owner. Various incompetent British agents were aimed at equally-useless Saudi counterparts. Eroica’s thieves were on their way back to Britain with artwork liberated from cronies of said Saudis. Z marshalled the Alphabets into an efficient clean-up operation that never troubled the local authorities.
Klaus found himself rapping once on the carved door to Dorian’s expensive suite, in a very expensive hotel. The confection of wood and gilding opened just far enough for him to slip through.
The suite inside was of a piece with the door: marble floors, more wood, more gilt, decadently-comfortable furniture, some painted and beaded velvet drapes that managed to look almost restrained as long as they were in shadow. The drapes were firmly closed. The door snicked shut behind Klaus, nudged by one graceful arm that pushed past him without touching.
He still felt its heat; Dorian had chosen to greet him without wearing a stitch of clothing.
“You wicked, wicked man,” Dorian purred, leaning up against Klaus. “You’re learning. Making me suffer so, all day. Now that I know what all that bluster and cursing _really_ means --”
“And what is that?” Klaus said, pulling that warm
sleek flesh closer against himself. His other hand stroked down Dorian’s spine, and splayed over firmly-rounded buttocks.
Dorian nibbled at his throat. “Oh, let’s see. Just
today, you’ve told me that you missed me, wanted me, valued my help on this mission, trusted me, and liked the little gifts I find for you. And with one spoonful of gelato, you reminded me why I love you -- my subtle, elegant, and so deceptive Major.”
“Ah. And how have you suffered?”
Dorian inhaled ticklishly against Klaus’ throat. “Because in six hours that goddamned vanilla has blended perfectly with your own musk, my darling, and it’s driving me so _mad_ I may have to eat you for dessert.”
“Should I take a shower and clean off?” Klaus teased.
“_Don’t you dare_,” Dorian snarled wantonly, his fingers flying over the buttons on Klaus’ polo shirt. “Come to bed this instant!”
Klaus submitted to the tugs that stripped away his own clothing, and urged him into another room. “Dorian -- remember that night with the cinnamon toast?”
“The first night, out on mission? Or the second?” The blond’s rich chuckle brought back memories of the Bonn flat a few weeks before. Of a night when Klaus had carried through on his promises. “_God_,” Dorian groaned hungrily, “Just the thought of you in me, as you were -– ”
“Hmmm, ja,” Klaus answered, dizzy with his own memories of loving Dorian the way the thief had wanted all along. It hadn’t seemed horrible, or perverted, or even strange, while he’d been thrusting into that tight, welcoming flesh. It had been unbelievably _good_. Even in the tumult of release, he’d wondered what joy Dorian got from the act -- because Dorian had _felt_ something glorious enough to drive him into orgasm in tandem with Klaus. Twice. “Liebling,” Klaus whispered now. “I want that. I want to try it again.”
The man looked as if he might swoon, and Klaus’ arm tightened around him. “Are you certain, my love?” Dorian whispered. “Here? You might be more comfortable if we waited until we got back to Bonn. Your flat?”
Klaus wanted to say _if we wait, I might lose my nerve._ Aloud, he said, “I spent half a day reeking so much of vanilla that the Alphabets’ eyes watered. The Saudi agents are probably wondering if it’s all some new code. I looked like an idiot!”
“No, you didn’t,” Dorian soothed, pulling Klaus onto the big bed and its soft linen sheets. “You looked like a strong, brilliant, _dangerous_ agent – who just happened to smell like vanilla when one got within five feet of you. It had quite an effect on _me_!”
“So I won?”
Dark-golden eyelashes fluttered down. “I wasn’t aware there was a contest, darling.”
Already moving groin against groin in slow friction, Klaus laughed. “There’s always a contest when we are in public. Who can be the most outrageous. And who can be the most unaffected. Who walks away whistling, and who _squirms._”
“I didn’t know you felt that way,” Dorian murmured sincerely, all his faggish artifice paradoxically set aside when he was actually in the _act_. “It’s just a game, darling. A way for us to say ‘I love you’ out in the world. And you’ve said yourself, we can’t change the way we’ve always interacted, without causing suspicion.”
“It’s over the top,” Klaus said, trying to ease the moment with more friction and a slow kiss. When passion throttled down enough to let them breathe again, he asked: “Gone too far to be a valid disguise. Did it make you feel _good_, to want me so much this afternoon?”
“Mercy, no! I thought I’d slip up any moment. Everybody knows I want you. I could prance around with a hard-on all day, and people would just roll their eyes. But I was afraid I do something worse, reveal how much we both -- Oh.” Dorian’s eyes were wide, and his steady thrusts against Klaus’ groin faltered.
“Ja. That is what I face, _every moment_ I am with you,” Klaus told him. “Dammit, I want you that much.”
“_Major._” Dorian burrowed against him, the intensity of his delight making Klaus tremble in sympathy. “I want you, too. Take me now, please?”
Klaus took a shuddering breath. So tempting, and he already knew how good it could be, and that with practice it could only get better for both of them. Still, he faced those nagging questions -- what did _Dorian_ get out of that act? And why was Dorian still protecting Klaus’ sensibilities? He wasn’t a shattered, silently-weeping child anymore -- but the Iron Major of NATO. A von dem Eberbach. A grown man! “No,” said Klaus. “I will not ‘take’ you.”
Fingernails dug into his shoulders. “Why not? Am I being punished, still?”
“No,” chuckled Klaus, and rolled in the bed until his lover was sprawled on top of him. “I want you -- to do that to me. Take me. Claim me. Make love to me. Teach me. Because it looks damned _good_, from my view.”
“_Oh, Klaus_. I’ll make it even better, for you,” Dorian said, face bright with a proud grin. “I’ve been waiting for this _so_ long. I’ll make certain you can never taste plain vanilla again without remembering this night,” his hand dipped to caress Klaus’ erection, “ - my sweet, lovely, _priceless_ steel orchid --”
“Don’t call me that,” grumbled Klaus, even as he arched up into that shameless touch.
“Why not? Because it’s silly? I’m a silly sentimental man, sometimes. Because you don’t want to think of yourself as a fragile and vulnerable flower? And you’re the one asking me to _fuck_ you?”
Klaus groaned, thrashing against Dorian’s hands and pressing body. “Want to know what it feels like. Done right. Why you love me. Why I love you.”
“_Darling man_,” Dorian gentled the kisses and caresses, and Klaus felt his lover’s long body tremble from head to toe. “It’ll rock your world and make you scream my name when you come. But a good shag won’t answer anything.”
Dorian tongued the hollow of Klaus’ throat, and whispered there: “Time. Trust. As many mornings-after as we can manage. I suspect that’s how you really _know_, by what you feel together when you’re _not_ in bed.”
“You mean you don’t know?” Klaus was struck, suddenly, by how unsure Dorian seemed. Was all this for just another of the thief’s selfish conquests?
Dorian nipped lightly at Klaus’ collar-bone. “I’ve never felt like this with _anyone_ else, dear one. Sex, I know. Love -- I don’t, at least until I’m with you. Lovemaking with you is wonderful, Klaus, but so is the cuddling afterward, and all our idiotic games in public. Why, I even --”
“You talk too damned much,” Klaus decided, hearing Dorian falter. Kissed him silent, in another tangle of lips and tongues and warm limbs. Then, when Dorian was pacified for the moment, Klaus murmured into his ear: “Would you not agree -- that to get to the morning-after, we need the night before --?”