Klaus could tell from the Director's obvious glee that it was going to be a horrible mission. The odious little man was practically chortling to himself as he prepared to brief Klaus on his objective.
He was also sitting hunched forward with his hands on the edge of the desk as if prepared to duck under it at a moment's notice, which boded even less well.
The photograph he pushed across didn't immediately reveal the source of his delight and trepidation. A tall man with a hard face, long black hair swept back into a ponytail; no one that Klaus recognised.
"Reinhold Krüger," the Director supplied. "Involved in the manufacture of weapons components, and as of three days ago, dead in a skiing accident. No suspicious circumstances - it seems that he took on a trail that was too advanced for his skill level, against the advice of the instructors."
Klaus snorted around his cigarette. "Idiot." It was a fool who went off to play around in the mountains without good reason, and a bigger one who failed to survive it.
"He was scheduled to move on to a second resort at the end of the week - this first trip was apparently an attempt to brush up on his skills to impress the people he was meeting with. We've had our eyes on Krüger for a while as a potential suspect in passing secrets to the East, and it seems this skiing holiday may be a pretext for a first face-to-face meeting with others involved in the plot."
He picked up the picture to study it, noting how his own build and the dead man's were superficially similar. The implications were obvious. "And you want me to take his place." He narrowed his eyes at the Director. What was the catch?
The Director drummed his fingers nervously on the edge of the desk. "We've managed to locate the chalet where Krüger was supposed to be staying, and we'll be able to insert you there in time for the meet. You'll be given false specifications for the weapon systems that his company was working on."
Klaus hummed impatiently, sensing his superior was dancing around something.
"However, there's a complication," he blurted, and tensed, preparing to duck. "Krüger planned to bring his lover with him as part of his cover, and the contacts will be suspicious if they see you there alone."
Klaus gave a scowl that caused the Director to quail. If this was another ploy to set him up with some vapid female... "You expect me to take a woman with me on a mission?" he said.
The Director only cringed harder. "Ah, no," he said. "The description we have of the lover was of a pretty... young... blond... man." This time he did duck his head beneath the edge of the desk.
It wasn't enough to protect him from Klaus's outraged roar as he leapt out of his chair. "What? You- This-" For a moment he could only splutter incoherently.
"It's a very important mission!" the Director bobbed up to say before shrinking back down again. "No one else can take it!"
Klaus curled his hands into fists, concentrating on not drawing his Magnum. If he wanted to murder his superior, the middle of Bonn NATO headquarters was not the place to do it. He calmed himself by mentally compiling a list of better locations.
He fixed his eyes on the Director with icy disdain. "And who would be playing the role of this..." he wobbled on the last word, barely able to imagine choking it out, "companion?" he managed.
The Director grinned, his stupid moustache quivering. "Ah, well, naturally, there's a very suitable candidate you've spent more than enough time with to make a convincing pair."
A horrible thought struck him like a reverberating gong, and his eyes widened before he planted his hands on the desk and bellowed with almost enough force to blast the smirking tub of lard right off his seat. "If you think I'm going to play at being lovey-dovey with that imbecilic pervert of a thief-"
The Director slipped entirely under the desk as if to use it as some kind of bomb shelter. "Agent Z!" he squeaked from beneath. "I meant Agent Z!"
Klaus wasn't sure that was much better.
The rest of the Alphabet had promised to give Z a nice funeral. Well, apart from G, who'd threatened to scratch his eyes out. "It's not fair," he said, falling back on his chair in an artistic swoon. "I'd be perfect at playing the role of the Major's lover." His eyes took on a faraway dreamy look. "I've been studying for it all my life."
"You haven't known the Major all your life," B pointed out.
"But it feels like a thousand lifetimes." G glowered at Z as the daydream broke. "And anyway, I'd be far more convincing than Z," he said acidly.
Z was inclined to agree. "I don't know why the Director picked me," he said miserably. The other agents all had far greater experience - not that any amount of experience could have prepared him for the task ahead. He thumped his head against the wall again.
"The Major likes you best," B said, crowding into his space accusingly. "He didn't send you to Alaska when he sent the rest of us."
Z's face paled as he remembered. "I would rather have gone." That hadn't been favouritism; it had been outright torture. Days on end alone trapped with a frustrated Major, with no one else to help take the brunt of his wrath or shoulder his impossible demands.
And this mission was going to be like that, only a thousand times worse.
"Z!" the Major shouted as he stormed through the room. The rest of the Alphabets scattered like startled wildebeest, diving for cover behind their desks. The Major looked round, drew the breath to bellow, and then sagged and deflated as if deciding it wasn't worth the effort.
Oh, God. That was never a good sign.
Z trailed him out of the room with a strong sense of being led to his doom. Their destination turned out to be the first office that was suitably deserted. He barely restrained his squeak of fright as the Major slammed the door to seal them in.
"You're aware of the role you have to play?" he said without preamble. Z gave a petrified nod. "We fly out to the ski resort tomorrow. The meet is believed to be arranged for two days' time, but we should assume there is a possibility of surveillance from the moment we arrive at the chalet. We will behave as..." he visibly steeled himself, "a couple on an ordinary skiing holiday until contact is made. From that point on, your role will likely be limited - but stay alert! They may have plans to use the lover as a hostage against Krüger's good behaviour, or let information slip around you as a supposed civilian."
The Major turned, apparently considering that lecture enough preparation for the mission. Z swallowed and took his life in his hands. "Er, Major, shouldn't we... rehearse?" he said. He quailed under the glare that swung his way.
"I have no desire to spend one second more than necessary playing the part of some degenerate fop!" the Major roared.
"Yes, sir, it's just that... well, it shows," he pointed out.
"As it should!" But he was calming down, his sense of duty reasserting itself. Iron Klaus would never shirk from doing whatever was required to complete a mission. "Fine," he said stiffly. "Then we will rehearse." For a moment he looked even more lost than Z felt. At least Z had his experience with women to draw on; he wasn't sure the Major had ever even been in a relationship. He never seemed to be interested in the women that threw themselves at him, and it was hard to imagine him romancing anybody.
Z contemplated his experience with women, and how successfully it could be applied to the Major. Um. Maybe he wasn't any less in the dark.
But the Major was waiting for him to elaborate on his idea, his look beginning to sharpen into a fresh glare, so he scrambled for something to say. "Well... Krüger is a businessman, so he'd want to be relatively discreet," he said.
The Major harrumphed. "Then he shouldn't be taking up with other fruitcakes in the first place!"
Z wondered if it was too late to request a transfer to Alaska. "So, er, there's probably no need to be too demonstrative," he forged on. "Small gestures ought to be enough to be convincing." Thankfully.
"Such as?" the Major demanded, with deepest suspicion.
"Um..." He looked down, sweating as he searched for an example. What could he suggest that wasn't going to cause the Major to leap back and draw his Magnum?
The Major had set his hands down on the table, leaning forward impatiently as he waited for a response. Z steeled himself, and reached across to lay a hand on top of his.
The effect was electric, and not in a good way. The Major went completely rigid under his touch, and began to tremble faintly with what could only be suppressed rage. His face was turning purple. Z was about to jump back, duck under the table and beg for forgiveness when the door to the borrowed office opened and one of the secretaries from Accounting looked in.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" she said, covering her mouth as they leapt apart. "I thought this office was empty." As she backed out and left, Z heard something that sounded suspiciously like a smothered giggle.
He looked towards the Major with dread. In place of the expected fury, he was looking distinctly queasy, breathing hard and gripping the edge of the table as if he felt faint. On anybody else, Z would have said it was a panic attack; on the Major, he wasn't sure what it was. Possibly the first sign of the Apocalypse.
"Sir?" he said tentatively. The Major didn't seem to hear him, but he sensed that a touch to draw his attention would be a bad move. If not a fatal one. "Um, that was Ilse from Accounting. I know her pretty well. I can go after her and explain..."
That snapped the Major out of it, though not quite the way that he'd hoped. "Flirting with members of other departments?" he barked, straightening up. "What have I told you about getting involved with women?"
"Sorry, sir." He hung his head with a gulp.
The Major gave the door a suspicious glower. "Anyway, we can't rehearse here with gossiping secretaries wandering in and out," he said.
Z raised his head. "What about at your house, sir?" he suggested.
"With that interfering butler lurking about?" he demanded. "No, we'll go to your flat, after work. And don't be late!" He swept out.
Z collapsed in a sweaty heap. Spared for now - but the prospect of greater horrors hung over him. He quailed at the thought of the evening to come. It was almost like having arranged to go on a date with the Major, except with a high probability of getting a Magnum shoved in his face if he happened to put a foot wrong.
Actually, that sounded exactly like having arranged a date with the Major.
He let out a whimper.
Klaus assessed the flat with an experienced eye. It was, he decided, acceptable. Suitably Spartan in furnishings, though there were too many personal touches for it to be ideal. An intelligence operative's quarters should be devoid of anything that might give information away to their enemies.
Ordinarily he would have shared that advice with Z, but their current task left him unusually off-balance. What exactly did rehearsals for such a performance entail? He had a limited idea of what perverts actually did together, beyond the obvious; observed evidence seemed to suggest a lot of clinging, wailing, leering, and making lewd remarks, but possibly he was working from a biased sample of complete lunatics.
Klaus cast his mind back to his butler's dimly remembered advice on courting women. He'd tuned most of it out as inapplicable even back in his teenage years, geared as it was towards cautioning him not to push girls to do things he didn't want them to. His brief, abortive forays into the socially expected rituals had mostly involved fending off predatory women who were trying to force those kinds of things on him.
It was a bizarre, distasteful and unpleasant business that didn't seem remotely as natural as literature tried to claim, so he could only imagine how much more awkward it must be between two men.
Z certainly didn't seem to know what he was doing with himself, scurrying about tidying the flat as if Klaus was here to inspect it for standards of cleanliness. Was that an expected part of foppish courtship? If so, it was the first sensible aspect that he'd heard about. No one wanted a romantic partner who was a slob.
He moved to look over Z's shoulder, which caused the young man to jump and turn about, shoving the magazines he'd been gathering behind him like a guilty secret. "Major! Er..." he faltered, clearly aware that wasn't a suitable term of address for this endeavour, but too nervous to offer up a different one.
"We are practising our cover identities," Klaus reminded him. "You should call me Reinhold." He refused to adopt some insipid pet name, even as part of a cover.
"Yes, sir. Er, Reinhold," he corrected himself. He looked around wildly for inspiration. "Would... you like some coffee?" he said, and barely gave Klaus time to nod in assent before racing off to the kitchen to make it.
The initial sweep of the room had mercifully pinpointed an ashtray on the coffee table, and Klaus sat down at the end of the small sofa to be close to it. He needed to smoke. He was already irritable, that frustrated sense of restlessness that came of sitting around waiting without a clear goal or routine to fall into. Social objectives were too nebulous, required too much upkeep; what was the payoff in charming people when you just had to keep doing it?
At least Z knew what to expect from him, not like the twittering women his father tried to foist off on him, who seemed to think he would respond well to fluttered eyelashes and sickly sweet utterances of affection. Z knew better than to even think about bringing him sugar with his coffee. He set the cup down in front of Klaus, and then sat down on the sofa next to him, unnervingly close in a room where there were other seats on offer. Klaus tensed, but reminded himself that it was all part of the mission. Familiarisation techniques. Know your enemy.
There was an echoing silence, during which he could almost feel Z sweating. Their bodies weren't quite touching, but Klaus could sense the heat radiating off him, an uncomfortable degree of intimacy. He didn't normally allow people to get this close unless it was in combat.
"Newspaper?" Z thrust it at him nervously, as if for approval.
Klaus had already read all the day's local and international news during his morning jog, but he appreciated Z's selection of an appropriate pastime. He laid the paper down on the arm of the chair and sipped his coffee while Z switched the radio on, also tuned to a news broadcast. Acceptable.
They sat. Klaus smoked, and drank coffee, and was aware with every moment of Z's presence beside him. At first unsettling, but gradually becoming... peaceful. Z was not a threat to him, and nor was he right now any annoyance. In fact, he rarely was, unlike most of the idiots Klaus had to deal with on a daily basis. He was quiet and competent, free of the compulsion to gossip and chatter and fly into hysterics that drove Klaus to distraction with his other subordinates.
It was no great hardship for Klaus to spend an evening with him, even when, once or twice, Z reached across him to retrieve an item from the coffee table, or set a hand upon Klaus's arm or knee to rise. Part of the acclimatisation process, he recognised, and though he waited warily for other, more demanding gestures, it seemed that Z had no desire to push him too far.
Eventually they ate dinner together: a simpler repast than the staff would have prepared at Schloss Eberbach, but more than adequate, considering Klaus had never much liked fancy food in any case. The conversation was light without being annoyingly trivial; they spoke of the newest fighter jets NATO had commissioned, and how they compared to the Russian models - superior, naturally. Klaus even allowed himself a single bottle of beer. Before they rose from the table, Z repeated his gesture of laying his hand over Klaus's, and this time Klaus barely even tensed at all, though he couldn't quite return Z's tentative smile.
Did it really take so little, this pretence of a romance? Then why did others make such a ridiculous production of it? Flowers and declarations and gushing embraces and sickening pet names. This quiet companionship with occasional small contacts was scarcely anywhere near as distasteful.
Awkwardness returned when the time came to leave and Z escorted him to the door. "We'll depart for the ski resort tomorrow," he said. "Make sure you have the details of your cover identity memorised."
That should have been Klaus's cue to depart, but he hesitated, feeling something more was needed. Should he thank Z for the evening like a guest, or perhaps commend his subordinate for the idea of rehearsing? He had to concede that despite first impressions it had been a wise move. He was now considerably more relaxed about the daunting performance that awaited them tomorrow.
That relaxation vanished fast as Z, in a sudden burst of unanticipated daring, lurched forward to plant a clumsy kiss on Klaus's cheek.
Klaus reared back in shock, folding his arms across his chest defensively. "What-?" He choked off the roar in mid-splutter, belatedly recognising a continuation of their role-rehearsal, but still too flabbergasted to respond.
Z shrank in on himself, looking terrified. "I'm sorry!" he blurted. "I thought-"
Klaus cleared his throat, scowling sternly in an effort to control the flood of adrenaline still surging through his body from the perceived attack. He was the one who'd overreacted. Z hadn't reacted inappropriately within the bounds of the mission.
But forcing those words out of his mouth proved impossible, and he glowered further. "The rehearsal is over," he said, aiming for a neutral tone but obviously missing it from the way Z continued to cower. "We'll resume tomorrow." He stalked out, still rattled.
All the way home, he was conscious of the skin on his cheek tingling, as if he'd been stung by the contact.
Z somehow made it through the next day's flight and the drive without being murdered. Of course, the Major was more than enough of a professional to be willing to defer the kill until they got to a suitably isolated location. Z looked out over the icy slopes that greeted them and swallowed.
At least the area wasn't completely devoid of witnesses. There were other cars outside the chalet, covered in a layer of the previous night's snow. It looked pretty deep, and he hoped they weren't going to end up trapped here for longer than the mission required. The Major was not the kind of man to enjoy an enforced holiday. Especially not one where he had to maintain the fiction of Z being his lover.
Z cringed to see him get out of the car without a word, and scrambled to undo his own seatbelt and follow. Before he could, the Major suddenly appeared, looming outside his window. Z squeaked, expecting to be skewered by an impatient glare, but even worse, he was smiling that broad smile he got when someone was about to be in pain.
"Act less nervous," he grated, through unmoving lips. "You're supposed to be on a skiing holiday with your rich lover."
Oh. Their cover. Z realised the Major was holding the door for him in the semblance of a courtly gesture. Did men even do that for other men?
He wasn't sure that men even did it for women any more. But of course the Major would; he was old-fashioned when it came to his ideas of being a gentleman. The way you might imagine an aristocrat would behave - if you'd never met the Earl of Gloria. Although even he had unconsciously perfect manners, when he wasn't being deliberately outrageous; grace and dignity seemed to come as naturally as breathing to men like him and the Major.
By contrast, Z felt young and awkward as he climbed out of the car. Would anyone believe he could be the lover of a man like the Major? Women did seem to consider him good looking, but women and men both swooned over the Major. Not that he ever paid them the slightest bit of attention. Even the most gorgeous women just seemed to annoy him, and, well, if he was even the smallest fraction interested in men, surely the Earl's persistence would have got him somewhere by now.
It just seemed wrong to imagine the Major in any sort of romantic context. And so it was doubly wrong to feel an arm slip around his shoulders as they made the walk along the path of packed snow to the chalet. Last night the Major had barely been willing to accept the smallest touch without a flinch; Z should have realised it would be different as soon as his laser focus was brought to bear on the task of completing their mission.
All the same, his grip tightened to more of a crush than a casual embrace when they stepped into the chalet. The interior was a large open space with cosy armchairs and rustic wooden tables tucked in among the exposed beams. Stairs to the rear led up to the bedrooms on the upper level; there were five bedrooms, and any of the other guests or the chalet's owners could potentially be Krüger's contacts. The two of them would have to maintain their act the whole time they were here.
Starting now. A matronly woman somewhere in her forties turned towards them from the kitchen area, greeting them with a smile that didn't falter at the sight of their over-friendly embrace. "Ah, you must be Herr Krüger." She cocked her head to take in Z with a sharp-eyed curiosity. "And... guest?"
"This is Stephan," the Major said curtly. He didn't really manage affectionate, but Z supposed aggressive possessiveness counted for something. His shoulders were being compressed tightly enough that his arms were starting to go numb. He tried to look like he was happy to be squeezed.
"Well, good to see you've arrived safely," she said. "I'm Ingrid Neumann, and I'll be looking after you during your stay here, so talk to me if you ever need anything. The others are out on the slopes at the moment, but you'll get a chance to meet them at the evening meal. Will you be joining us for dinner tonight?"
The Major gave a crisp nod. "Which one is our room?" he asked.
"Third on the left as you go up the stairs," she said with a smile.
There was a brief awkwardness as they headed upstairs, the Major clearly not accustomed to manoeuvring in tight spaces with someone on his arm. But they made it up with their luggage, and Z let out a sigh of relief as the Major finally released his death grip.
It didn't last long, his hopes plummeting as he got his first look at the bedroom.
'Cosy' was no doubt the word the tourist brochures would use to describe it. 'Cramped' was a little more accurate. Angled beams brought the ceiling down low at the rear, leaving limited room to fit furniture. The large double bed was flanked on both sides by small bedside tables with lamps, and beside the door stood a bulky wooden wardrobe. There really wasn't much room for anything else; Z supposed a sofa had been too much to expect, but he'd dared to hope for a comfortable chair, or at the very least enough floorspace for, say, a reasonably tall adult male to sleep stretched out on the carpet.
No such luck. He gulped and eyed the bed with trepidation.
The Major's thoughts had clearly followed the same trajectory; he scowled darkly, then turned a fierce look on Z. "You will stay on your side of the bed," he commanded. "I trust I don't need to put up a barrier to enforce the border?" He looked like he was considering it anyway. Possibly with barbed wire and gun emplacements.
Z would rather have gnawed off a limb than crossed that imaginary line in his sleep. Especially given his sinking awareness that he'd come underprepared for this assignment in one rather crucial way.
It wasn't his fault; he'd assumed there would be somewhere else in the room that he could sleep, and it wasn't as if there had been time to go shopping before they left for the mission...
"Hmph." The Major apparently accepted his deer in the headlights look of terror as obedience, and turned to begin unpacking his suitcase. He tidied his clothes away with such military efficiency that he was finished before Z had even had time to disentangle his socks. He stood and watched Z unpack his own case with first impatience, then growing suspicion.
"I thought I had impressed on you the importance of an agent travelling light," he said. "Do you have another bag to bring up from the car?"
"No, sir." Z would have been happy to dodge that bullet if he didn't know what was coming was going to be worse.
"Then where are your pyjamas?" the Major demanded, with the deep bewilderment of one who never left the sanctity of a locked bathroom without at least two full layers of clothing.
Z tried not to cringe too visibly. "Um, sir, I don't own any pyjamas," he admitted. "I usually just sleep in my underwear."
Judging by the Major's wide eyes and poleaxed expression, it was probably just as well he hadn't mentioned that he only bothered with the underwear on missions and the rest of the time he slept naked.
Socialising. Even when it was part of a mission, it grated. Klaus's jaw was beginning to ache from the effort of maintaining a polite smile.
Worse still was the ever-present tension of keeping up appearances with Z. He had to constantly fight down the instinct to roar in indignation at the liberties taken with his personal space and the knowing looks and subtle comments from the others at the ski chalet. Right now his agent was an unfamiliar warm weight on his right side, head resting on Klaus's shoulder as if in sleep. It was a disconcerting intimacy, not as unpleasant as he might have expected, but something he felt uncomfortable with in front of witnesses.
Not that there would have been any need for such a display without witnesses. He shifted position, Z's soft hair tickling his neck. If he'd genuinely fallen asleep from the warmth of the log fire, Klaus would not be pleased.
The pair of young blonde female students sitting opposite kept giggling together and giving the two of them nauseatingly fond looks. Klaus knew he should be more approving of the attitude of the dour old man, Berger, who had eyed them with ill-concealed distaste before retiring to bed early, but somehow it only filled him with a contrary urge to draw Z closer and glower in defiance. Z was a perfectly good German boy, undeserving of such ignorant disdain.
He should never have accepted this mission. For all he knew, the whole thing was merely an invention of the Director's, intended to humiliate him at Z's expense.
So far none of their fellow skiers had revealed themselves as Krüger's contacts, though most of them had revealed themselves as imbeciles. Aside from Berger and the two gigglers, they were sharing with a middle-aged French couple, the male side a crashing bore and the female an inveterate chatterer. They had eventually followed Berger upstairs, leaving him and Z with the company of the students and a pair of loud, drunk, boastful young men who were competing to win their attention.
If any of them had plans to make contact tonight, Klaus had lost his patience with waiting for them. He rose abruptly, dislodging a surprised Z, who did indeed look suspiciously bleary-eyed.
"We are going up to bed," he announced, and fought the tensing of his shoulders at the ripple of giggling whispers that followed them upstairs.
The beckoning double bed was as ominous as an open grave. Klaus retreated from the field, leaving the room to Z while he locked himself in the bathroom to put on a fresh undershirt and his pyjamas. Heat and cold were a matter of self-discipline, of course, but no man should walk round showing skin without a good reason. It just wasn't right.
Apparently he'd forgotten to impress this lesson on Z. He felt a shiver of unease when he returned to the bedroom to find Z already sleeping, bare shoulders visible above the bedclothes. It took a deep breath and an act of will for Klaus to turn the covers back, and only the sight of Z's skin beginning to develop goosepimples stirred him to finally get in beside him.
He should sleep. Klaus lay flat on his back and closed his eyes, mentally reciting the familiar words that always helped him blank his mind. Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb...
But tonight the usual ritual wasn't working. He was too conscious of Z's presence, a hyper-awareness that he couldn't quite explain. Z made an inoffensive bedmate, his breathing soft and shallow without any hint of a snore. He wore no cologne or perfume to irritate Klaus's nose; he was just clean, with a faint scent of plain unperfumed soap. He didn't sprawl or squirm in his sleep, but stayed on his side of the bed, too far away to bother Klaus with excess body heat - which should in any case be more than welcome in this weather.
Klaus still felt far too warm.
He shifted onto his side to see if Z had perhaps found some stealthy way of wriggling much closer, but no, he still lay on the far side of the bed. He was turned partly towards Klaus, one arm stretched out across the bedclothes but not crossing the unmarked dividing line.
His face looked even younger and softer in his sleep. So innocent; more of a boy than Klaus had been at that age. Klaus wondered if he even had to shave with that fair hair.
He realised with a sudden thrill of horror he was on the verge of reaching out to check. He hastily rolled onto his back, hands bolted down by his sides as he stared rigidly up at the ceiling.
Maybe he should have accepted this mission with Eroica, or held out for G. He'd be fending off advances from the other side of the bed all night, but that would still be better than sharing it with this trusting young innocent who wouldn't recognise it if things became inappropriate.
Not that Klaus would ever think of doing something inappropriate. He cleared his mind again and thought determinedly of sleep. All it required was more willpower.
Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb...
Z was woken by the rapid creak of the room's wooden floorboards, which he realised after a few bewildered foggy moments was the Major doing press-ups at a frantic rate. He sat up, shivering a little in the cold room as the bedcovers slid down to pool around his waist. Maybe the Major was onto something with his multiple layers of clothing. He was probably even wearing underwear beneath his pyjamas, given his abject horror at the prospect of baring skin.
Z flinched in alarm at the stray thought, half afraid the Major would somehow pick it up from his mind and explode with rage. He hastily turned away to look at the clock. It was before six - early even by the Major's standards. "Sir?" he asked, wondering if something had come up. The Major bolted upright like a startled rabbit, looking unusually flushed in the face. Z had seen him run for hours without breaking a sweat - how long had he been exercising? Maybe he hadn't slept. "Did I keep you awake?" he asked.
The Major paled dramatically. "What?" he barked. "I-" For a moment he seemed tongue-tied, then he snapped upright. "All this lazing around in bed is unhealthy!" he said abruptly. "I'm going for a run."
He charged out of the room before Z had time to ask if that directive applied to him as well. When the door swung shut without the Major bellowing at him to follow, he snuggled back beneath the bedclothes, and resolved to do his bit for keeping their cover identities by sleeping in to a more reasonable time.
There was no point trying to understand the Major's moods.
A cold shower and a good brisk run through the snow worked wonders for Klaus's constitution. He returned to the ski chalet in a good mood, having cleared his mind of - well, he no longer remembered whatever it was he had found it necessary to clear his mind of. Perhaps a nightmare...? He blocked off that avenue of thought before recollections could stir, knowing he must have decided to erase the distraction for good reason. It was imperative to focus on the mission.
He had arrived back in time to join the others at their breakfast. He located Z, and found him smiling over coffee with the two blonde female students. Klaus glowered his disapproval. Flirting with women on a mission - how many times did he have to yell at his agents before they learned not to become distracted by females? It was a mystery to him what they found so irresistibly magnetic about the creatures; one pretty face was much like another as far as he could see.
He stalked across the room to join his agent, which only caused the girls to titter further, exchanging covert whispers behind their hands. Unless theirs was a truly elaborate cover, he couldn't imagine either of them was the operative that they sought.
Z smiled up at him with a bright warmth that took him aback before he remembered the nature of their mission. Klaus reluctantly realised that it would look odd to sit anywhere but directly adjacent to him on the sofa. As he sat down, Z leaned into him, and Klaus draped a hesitant arm around his shoulder.
Strange, and strangely not uncomfortable; almost pleasant, the shared warmth of another body after his run in the cold. He tensed abruptly. Small indulgences like this were dangerous, a gateway to deeper degeneracy. He should shove Z away and stand up, but the mission demanded otherwise. Klaus held a neutral expression, allowing the conversation to wash past unmonitored to avoid having to listen to infuriating inanities.
Z smelled clean as he had the night before, a hint of appropriately masculine shampoo clinging to his fine hair. His body was slender but strong-shouldered, a lithe swimmer's build that lacked the soft curves of the women Klaus had occasionally been forced to embrace in similar circumstances. Nicely muscled without going to the vain excesses of the gym-obsessed; just the right shape for a man. His body temperature seemed a few degrees warmer than normal where their skin came in contact.
These were the rational, logical observations that any good field agent would have made in his position.
The breakfast served by Ingrid Neumann was not to a standard that he would have tolerated at the Schloss, but it was adequate, and his unusually early start on the morning's exercise had given him the appetite to pretend to be a man of Krüger's more excessive tastes. Nonetheless, he was finished well before the others stirred themselves to move. Such laziness bewildered him. Why go to a location specifically to ski and then waste valuable practise time sitting around chatting?
"Now, of course you'll want to get out on the slopes," Ingrid said eventually, as the remnants of their meals were cleared away. "Herr Krüger, you said you're already an experienced skier?"
Krüger would boast as much, while Klaus himself had greater skills than that idiot could have dreamed. But separating from the group would not help accomplish their mission. "I am, but Stephan here is still a novice," he said, giving Z's shoulders a squeeze and offering him what he hoped was a fond smile. "I will teach you," he said, with perhaps an awkward beat of silence where there should have been some endearment.
All the same Z smiled back, a dazzling beam, and Klaus was struck by the alarming insight that now was the time that a couple might share a kiss. His breath caught, anxiety gripping his chest. Should he try it, or would the move startle Z, display his own clumsy lack of expertise?
Z's eyes locked onto his, inquisitive, blue. It would support the mission... but Klaus was paralysed, unable to turn thought into deed.
The clatter of a plate broke the moment, and he realised that the opportunity was gone. He sat back, his tight stomach flooding with chill relief and something else that he found harder to name.
Disappointment in himself for failing to pursue mission objectives, he diagnosed after a moment's churning. It was rare for him to fail to do his job to the highest standard; that was surely why he felt this strange mix of regret, dismay and shame. As for the strangling, quaking fear that had held him frozen... there was no sense in it. The act would be distasteful, true, but espionage entailed many distasteful things. There was no reason to fear kissing a man would be any different to other unpleasant tasks he had steeled himself to undertake, and then gratefully forgotten as soon as the job was done.
No reason at all.
Klaus found himself watching Z's lips for the rest of the conversation. Rehearsing. Preparing himself for a future chance. For the good of the mission.
Even by the usual standards of working for Major von dem Eberbach, Z was having a very weird day.
Considering what those standards had entailed up till now, that fact was pretty worrying.
The Major wasn't happy to be wasting his time on pretending to give Z basic ski instruction. Whenever the others were at a suitably safe distance, he supplemented the lessons with some far more advanced training tips on cold weather survival. Unfortunately, combining that training with their pretence of being lovers made for an extremely surreal experience.
Z was used to a reality where the highest praise from the Major was not being yelled at and threatened with deportation to Alaska. Being rewarded for his successes with warm smiles and affectionate squeezes was frankly a bit overwhelming.
The Major had a very nice smile, Z had discovered, once he'd relaxed enough to stop baring his teeth in that terrifying rictus that he used to fake niceties under duress.
It was hard not to admire the Major. Even his enemies had to admit he was impressive. He was completely dedicated to the job, and he never rested when there was work to be done. It was almost superhuman how he could block out pain and suffering to focus on what needed to be done. Given that he was also handsome and from a wealthy, well-respected family, it was no surprise that women were all over him. Yet the Major only seemed to find their attentions annoying. Was he really just not interested at all?
Z wasn't sure. Most people thought the Major was a kind of human tank, bulldozing over everything in his path, but Z knew there was more to him than that. He had a self-conscious side that came out when he was in a good mood and trying to do something kind, as if he wasn't sure how it would be received. If Z hadn't known the other Alphabets would laugh at him for thinking it, he might almost have said that the Major was shy.
He didn't seem to spend much time with people outside work. Did he prefer it that way, or was he secretly lonely?
Z lost himself in slightly guilty daydreams about becoming the Major's... companion. Not lover! Of course not. He blushed at the thought. Just someone that that the Major could eat dinner with, and talk to, and smile at.
And maybe squeeze around the shoulders sometimes. Just a bit.
It was almost a relief when their return from the ski trails was interrupted by a trio of figures in dark clothes who stepped out in front to bar their path. Two of them he recognised as Victor and Josef, the young men who'd kept them up late last night with their drunken attempts to flirt with the girls. The third was the chalet owner, Ingrid Neumann. She no longer looked quite so matronly, dressed in sleeker, less frumpy clothes and with her pleasant beam swapped for a cooler, more intense stare.
"Herr Krüger," she said, with a crooked smile. "Good to get a chance to speak with you alone. I trust you brought the package we discussed in our prior communications?"
Victor and Josef attempted to loom, in a way Z was sure he might have found vaguely intimidating if he wasn't used to the KGB and the Major's bad moods. He tried to look like a nervous innocent, cuddling close to his supposed lover's side. Focused wholly on the mission now, the Major absently accepted the embrace without so much as a twitch.
"Reinhold, what is this?" Z said, trying to sound whiny and hoping he wasn't overacting. "You promised you had no business and we were just here to ski."
"Nothing to concern you, Stephan," the Major said with a soft, fond smile that made Z a little jealous of the non-existent Stephan. "I've simply made some arrangements to ensure we'll have extra funds during our stay." Only a subtle tightening of his grip betrayed the fury smoking away behind the smile. Z knew few things incensed the Major quite so much as traitors who were motivated purely by greed.
"No doubt your young friend will be quite bored by our business negotiations," Ingrid said pointedly. "I'm sure Victor and Josef will be happy to keep him entertained while we talk."
The two men loomed harder.
"Very well." The Major stepped away from Z somewhat stiffly. "I will see you on my return," he said.
Polite, by the Major's standards, but not exactly hugely affectionate. Ingrid's eyes sharpened in suspicion. "So undemonstrative in parting?" she said, raising her eyebrows. "From what I've heard, such discretion isn't like you."
Z gulped, but the Major took the challenge calmly, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Stephan is shy," he said with a smiling shrug.
"Ah, but you're among friends here." Piercing eyes studied them both. Z knew that if they didn't put on a good show of affection their cover would almost certainly be blown.
He also knew that leaving it up to the Major to make the right moves would be like expecting the Earl's stingy accountant to settle an outstanding bill. A squeeze and a smile wasn't going to do it now with their contact's doubts already raised.
Z steeled himself and, before he could stop to contemplate his likely future in Alaska, stepped forward to throw his arms around the Major's neck. The Major whipped round to stare at him, eyes wide with surprise and something else that almost looked like panic. There was no chance to analyse it; if he hesitated now, the Major's reactions would give the game away. Z tugged him down into a closer embrace and captured his lips in a passionate kiss.
Alaska? He was going to Siberia. The Major's lips were rigidly unyielding under his. At least he seemed too paralysed to jump away and shout. In fact, he was so motionless Z was half afraid he'd had some kind of aneurysm. If he didn't show some sort of a reaction soon, they were in trouble.
Realising the Major either didn't know how or was just too shocked to put on a show of faking it, Z pressed insistently at the unmoving lips with his tongue. The little jump he got was probably more startled gasp than true response, but it gave him the chance he needed to push his way in past a surprising lack of resistance.
And now he was really kissing the Major. With tongue. Was there a form of exile more remote than Siberia?
The Major's mouth was slack against his, unresponding. For a moment Z was sure that he was just going to stay frozen - but then slowly, very slowly, his gloved hands came up to rest on Z's shoulders, touching him as carefully as if he were a glass sculpture that might shatter with pressure.
A tentative shift of the Major's lips against his, the first stirring of that stunned quiescent tongue, and- oh, God, no, there should be absolutely nothing sexy about coaxing the Major into a timid response, nothing, nothing, no. But nonetheless, there was a heady sense of power in realising that he was the one in control here, that the Major was nervous and unsure and following his lead.
Plus, of course, there was the chest-freezing terror of what the Major might do when he pulled away helping encourage him to draw the kiss out further. By the time he pulled back, he was breathless, and the Major's grip on his shoulders had tightened enough that he found himself pinned in place when he tried to step away.
He stared up into the Major's face, waiting for a reaction, but the Major only stared back, eyes as wide as saucers and lips still agape. A discreetly cleared throat from their observers made them jump apart in alarm.
"Well, that was certainly... enthusiastic," Ingrid said. Her two goons looked vaguely embarrassed, studying the snow. Z swallowed, suddenly remembering the reason behind their impromptu demonstration. If she wasn't convinced by the performance...
But it seemed they'd done enough to pass the test. "Take him," she said, with a careless gesture to her two men. "Herr Krüger and I have things to discuss."
Z allowed himself to be escorted away, not entirely needing to fake his look of nervousness. He might have escaped retribution so far, but the Major never forgot when punishment was due. He'd let the rest of the Alphabet complete an entire mission before he'd made good on his threat to send them to Alaska. Z should probably start updating his will.
He stumbled away in a daze, still struggling to process what had happened. Oh, God, I kissed the Major. But it was worse than that. Far worse. He swallowed hard.
And I think I might have liked it...
It was as well that Klaus's role required nothing more demanding than the handover of some pre-prepared fake documents. He was struggling to keep his focus on even a routine conversation, his mind drifting back to Z's unprecedented molestation of his person. He felt hot and strange, the cold weather gear suddenly seeming overly tight and itchy against his skin.
Had he picked up something infectious? Kissing had always seemed a highly unsanitary practice to him. He'd never been able to understand the appeal; on the rare occasions he'd been unable to avoid some audacious female pressing her lipsticked lips to his, he'd found the experience distasteful enough to break away immediately. Men, of course, he never allowed close enough to have the opportunity - but this time, circumstances had forced him to endure, and as a consequence he'd been... invaded.
It was hard not to keep running his tongue around the inside of his mouth, feeling for the source of the lingering strangeness. He could still feel the skin flush of Z's transferred warmth and the phantom sensations of another tongue moving against his own.
Wrong. So wrong. How had he allowed such a thing? He should have found some way to avoid it, protected himself from the breach of his defences. He should possess the mental fortitude to push the whole disturbing incident from his mind.
Yet the traitorous sense memories remained.
He parted from Krüger's contact with only a shamefully vague idea of what they had discussed. Z was waiting for him in the company of Neumann's two associates, unharmed and with an anxious smile that Klaus felt vaguely guilty for not returning, though he didn't care to try to pin down why.
Thankfully, once they were safely out of earshot of the others, Z's words were purely concerned with the mission. "Sir? Was she convinced?"
Z was a good agent. Professional. And that was all that kiss had been. Klaus ignored the disturbed twisting of his stomach. By all standards, this mission had indeed been a success; the East had been supplied with false weapons specifications, and better yet, by identifying Neumann they'd opened a channel through which to pass misinformation that would serve NATO's ends.
Klaus gave an awkward nod. "You played your part well," he allowed.
Too well for Klaus's comfort, truth be told. His mind again retraced the movement of warm lips against his own. So wrong...
Z perhaps took it for a comment on the weather, raising his head to look up at the clouds. "What now, Major?" he asked. "Josef said that there's a snowstorm on its way. Should we stay here at the chalet until the weather improves?" He looked faintly hopeful at the thought, perhaps anticipating an extended holiday.
Klaus considered the idea. It was true that it would make sense to remain here for the night. A longer stay had already been paid for with Krüger's money, and there was no urgent need to return to the Bonn office early. With the main mission over, they could afford to relax and stop watching their neighbours so closely. He could treat Z to a meal at the resort restaurant, perhaps have a few beers to wash the more disturbing aspects of the mission from his mind. And when they came back, there would be no need to linger in the common areas now; they could make their excuses to retire early, and climb the stairs together to their room with its shared bed...
He was clenching his fists so tightly that his whole body shook.
"We leave at once," he said, and pushed past to march away towards the chalet.
He wouldn't let himself look back at Z.