Not the Only Fruit
They'd had to dig up half the orchards in Spain thanks to that bloody thief. If Eroica hadn't taken a fancy to the painting Klaus's contact had left them as a clue, they would know exactly where they should be searching instead of relying on Agent B's distinctly dubious memory. How a trained intelligence operative who'd been ordered to study a picture could fail to recall what type of fruit trees it depicted boggled the mind.
Klaus glowered as he left the car and stalked through the orange grove. At least the agents here were actually digging, unlike that group of slackers he'd surprised at the last site. He could see Agent Z through the trees, sweat glistening on his skin where he'd stripped out of his shirt in the heat.
Z was a good agent, maturing into the role now that he approached thirty; no longer the naïve boy he'd been when he was just a rookie, but still keeping himself in excellent shape compared to his lazy compatriots. Not yet aware of Klaus's observation, he was nonetheless hard at work, putting his back into the effort of digging. Klaus watched him bend and shovel the hard-packed earth with supple grace. No fat on him, just toned muscle, his smooth chest slightly bronzed from the sun. Z paused to brush his hair back from his forehead before bending to his task again.
Working up a good honest sweat, from exertion rather than strain. Klaus approved. He stood watching from under the shade of the orange trees, appreciating the sight of a competent agent at work for once.
Which was really no excuse for failing to notice a threat to his person approaching.
"Admiring the view, Major?" said a richly amused English voice from just behind his ear. "Not that I blame you. He is a lovely sight."
Klaus whirled about, his heart pounding, mouth agape as he spluttered for a response. The Earl of Gloria stood before him with a beatific smile, golden curls falling across the shoulders of his ridiculously blousy shirt, a stolen orange held in his long fingers.
He continued to smile pleasantly as Klaus's mouth worked in speechless fury, trying to find strong enough words to castigate the thief for bringing his filthy insinuations to a perfectly innocent- an entirely reasonable-
Something in his mind froze up as it occurred to him that he didn't, in fact, have a very good explanation for why he'd been standing staring at Z for so long. There really wasn't any reason at all he should have been so captivated by-
He tried to slam a mental door on that thought, but with the Earl's grinning face in front of him it was harder to do, as if that degenerate had somehow mastered the art of projecting his thoughts outwards, filling Klaus's mind with treacherous images of lithe, muscular sweaty bodies. Bodies that were entirely the wrong shape for that kind of thought to be appropriate.
Worse, something new was gleaming in the Earl's wide blue eyes - something as avaricious as it was wondering. He cocked his head with the beginnings of an awed smile. "You really were, weren't you?" he said. He hid a delighted titter behind his hand. "Major?"
Klaus snapped. It felt like something literal breaking, perhaps that burst vein people were always claiming his temper would bring about. Blood roared in his ears, and he could feel himself trembling with the surge of unchained emotion.
The effect must have been visible, because the Earl squeaked and turned to flee, tossing the purloined orange at Klaus as he went. It bounced off his chest and he caught it automatically, lurching forward a step in pursuit before sweeping dizziness came down over him and he clutched a tree for support. He panted, a chill spreading through him despite the strong sunshine and his thick suit. The shadows were deepening, colours distorting- was this a heart attack? A stroke?
"Major?" The cry reached his ears as if from a long distance. He turned to see his men rushing towards him; Z at the forefront of the group, still shirtless and still-
Beautiful. The word managed to sneak in past the customary mental blocks that Klaus dropped on unwanted thoughts. If it had been Eroica or G who'd caught his eye, the excuses would flow easily - fops, of course, were flamboyant, they deliberately dressed and acted to provoke attention, they had to be watched in case they did something outrageous, the surge of heat he might feel at the sight was anger, always anger...
But Z wasn't a fop, he was a decent young man; a handsome young man. And Klaus had, in fact, been staring. If not outright ogling. Worse, he'd been caught at it by that infuriating pervert of a thief, who was certainly not going to be willing to forget it and give Klaus the chance to do the same.
The reality of his situation was rising up in his mind, like the ominous shape of nuclear sub long lurking beneath the surface. A shadow previously glimpsed, but determinedly ignored every time - until, at last, here it was in all its horrifying inevitability.
He couldn't breathe. As Klaus clutched his seizing chest, darkness spread across his vision and the world dropped away.
The relative bliss of unconsciousness lasted only seconds. Klaus came to slumped at the base of an orange tree, with his men's voices whispering nervously above his head.
"He could have been poisoned."
"The Earl wouldn't do that!"
"What if it's something contagious?"
"Maybe he's allergic to oranges."
"We should loosen his clothes."
That comment was definitely G, and enough to make his eyes snap open in alarm. He found it wasn't only G who'd snuck dangerously close, but also Z leaning over him in all of his bare-chested glory. "Major?" he asked earnestly, blue eyes wide with concern as he reached for Klaus's neck to take his pulse.
"Waaugh!" Klaus hastily rolled away from the invasion of his personal space, the encroachment rather more than he could handle given certain uncomfortable personal revelations. He needed to get away, to- well, the last thing he wanted to do was think about this, but if he had to, then he didn't want to do it here.
He struggled to get up, his heart still pounding painfully. Z stayed close by, ready to assist, oblivious to the fact that he was the source of the discomfort. Klaus's first instinct was to roar at him for his unacceptable, perverted- But there was no way he could turn this around on Z, and a certain degree of miserable guilt lodged in his stomach at the panicky impulse to try.
This perversion was his alone, and he was fairly sure he couldn't even blame it on Eroica, although he could certainly resent the bastard for dragging it out into the open instead of leaving it in the dark where such things belonged. He started to hyperventilate again, grabbing for the nearest tree.
"Sir, you just, um, lost consciousness," Z said, clearly opting for the most neutral way he could think of to describe it. "Maybe you should-"
"Nonsense!" Klaus snapped, drawing himself up straight. "I was merely... overcome with disgust at that fop's insinuations."
"Yes, sir," Z said dutifully, though if M and P didn't think he could hear them whispering to each other in the back, they were sorely mistaken. "But-"
"I'm going back to the hotel to deal with the mess you idiots created with your incompetence," he said, before Z could suggest it and make it seem like the retreat it was. "I expect you to find those files before nightfall, if you have to dig up every fruit tree in Spain to do it!"
The Alphabets blanched and scurried back to work like a swarm of frightened rodents.
Well, at least that was one thing he could still cling to.
Klaus lay on his back on the hotel bed, too miserable to care that he was supposed to be working. The siren song of the minibar was strong, but he knew Eroica wouldn't stay away for long, and the last thing he wanted was to be drunk when he arrived. He might say something dangerous, like the truth.
The terrible truth. He stared up at the cracked ceiling, trying to convince it by sheer willpower to fall down on his head. It refused to be obliging, leaving him with the far less palatable alternative of having to think about what had happened.
Nothing had happened. His heart pounded at the thought. He hadn't... done anything, except look.
His Catholic upbringing helpfully reminded him that looking was more than sinful enough in itself. Especially since it hadn't been the first time. Memories he'd determinedly shut away in their own little boxes were resurfacing to join the dots that he'd always avoided inspecting for any sign of patterns.
Football practise in his youth, the way that he'd always stopped to stare at Johann's graceful footwork. Sven from his old unit, standing smoking endless cigarettes as he watched the streets below with intent eyes. And yes, even that bloody thief at times, when he stopped his swanning around and shut his mouth to do his job, all elegant economy of movement. Displays of competence: he could tell himself that was all that he admired. But it wasn't admiration that made his heart pound and his throat tighten, or that certain feeling flutter in his belly. It wasn't his training in observation that drew his eye to elegant fingers or long tanned legs in football shorts.
Over the years, the obscuring curtain of rote excuses had been wearing increasingly thin. And now it had been yanked aside, and he was forced to face what lay behind.
The fact that he, Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, heir to Schloss Eberbach, NATO Major, the globally feared Iron Klaus, was... a man who liked to look at other men. Might, in fact, be the kind of man who wanted to do more than look.
He swallowed thickly past the lump in his throat. It was... unfair. He'd done everything right. He'd tried his hardest. What else could he have done? Should he have made more effort to pursue women? But all that had ever done was drag the creeping, unwelcome awareness that something wasn't right closer to the surface.
Now it was out - and Eroica knew, which meant that Klaus had to do something about it. What, he didn't know, since he had the unpleasant feeling that making some ultimate violent gesture to drive the thief away wouldn't actually solve the underlying problem, and all other potential courses of action were completely terrifying.
Maybe the minibar wasn't such a bad idea after all.
The stealthy sound of lockpicks turning in the door was far from unexpected. Klaus took vindictive pleasure in standing right behind the door to bounce it back in the thief's face as he tried to slip in.
The startled squawk as Eroica stumbled backwards from the door did a lot to lift his mood, although the warm buzz of alcohol through his system might also have had something to do with it.
"That was very unkind," Eroica said, stiffly and also somewhat nasally. He rubbed his injured nose and pouted indignantly.
"Serves you right for breaking into innocent people's hotel rooms," Klaus said, and returned to contemplating the remains of the minibar. Not much left now but suspicious girly drinks. Probably too late to worry about being compromised by those, though. He grabbed the nearest bottle.
Eroica smiled, quickly recovering his aplomb. "Ah, but you're not so innocent, are you, Major?" he said, stepping close enough to hook Klaus's tie and trail it over his fingers. "Beneath those oh-so-staid and businesslike suits beats the heart of a passionate man."
"An infuriated man," he corrected, pulling his tie away, though the mellowness of his mildly drunken state robbed the remark of its proper vehemence.
"Oh, come now, Major," he said, perching on the edge of the bed in a deliberately artful pose - and dammit, why couldn't he go back to the blissful state of not noticing things like that, or at least managing very well to convince himself he didn't? "You can't possibly pretend you weren't admiring young Mr Z's many charms back at the orange grove."
"I'll pretend what I like!" Klaus snapped. Wait. Was that what he'd intended to say? He eyed the small bottle in his hand accusingly. Damned fruity drinks.
Eroica's grin broadened, and he leaned forward to lay a hand on the side of Klaus's face. Klaus's reactions were slowed, and he could only stare in wide-eyed horror as the Earl leaned in close to speak in seductive tones. "Dear G told me you came over all faint in the heat earlier," he purred. "Perhaps I should help you to get out of those warm clothes." Klaus stood frozen until elegant fingers made a play to unbutton his shirt, and then he leapt back with a yelp.
"I'm cold!" he defended himself, folding his arms across his middle. He was definitely shivering.
"Then I'll warm you up," Eroica said, launching himself forward to wrap his arms around Klaus. "My dear, delightfully stubborn Major," he said fondly. "Why not allow yourself a chance to indulge, just this once? I'm sure all this self-denial is very virtuous, but isn't it frightfully depressing to always look and never touch?"
Klaus took perhaps longer than he should to extricate himself. "What does a hopeless degenerate know about self-denial?" he demanded. "You touch everything you can get your thieving hands on."
Eroica laughed, a rich deep chuckle that was far more masculine than his foppish clothes suggested. "Ah, but why resist something that you know you want when it's right in front of you... ripe for the taking?" He spread his arms and closed his eyes, tilting his head up towards Klaus. His lips were slightly parted, and Klaus found himself transfixed, for the first time having admitted that he might, in fact... want.
Drunk and defeated by the weight of the evidence against him, he allowed himself to for once to truly look. The ruffled shirt was ludicrous, of course, the tumble of long golden curls entirely impractical - not that Klaus could claim to have much higher ground on that front. But underneath the surface frippery Eroica was no delicate fainting boy like Caesar Gabriel. Broad shoulders and a strong jaw, an artist's hands and the lithe muscles of a gymnast. A citrus-scented aftershave, none of G's flowery nonsense.
Masculine things. Things that Klaus found... not entirely unappealing.
He was, it seemed, exactly the kind of pervert that he'd always been taught to despise. No amount of wilful denial and stubborn pretence had made it go away, and now he'd acknowledged it, how long could he keep resisting temptation? Maybe it was better to give in here and now, with a self-admitted degenerate who'd been chasing him for years, than risk betraying himself with some blameless young innocent like Z.
Would it really be so wrong to just surrender...?
Eroica lifted one eyelid, stealing a peek that was effectively a wink. "Still fighting yourself, Major?" he said, lips quirking slightly in a knowing grin. "Maybe you need some assistance to take that final step."
"Nein!" he barked, slipping into German for the emphasis the fop's soft-edged language lacked. He stepped forward to seize a handful of Eroica's ruffled shirt and yanked him close.
Then he shoved him out into the corridor and slammed the door behind him.
He might be a homosexual, but he was still Iron Klaus, and surrendering had never been his style.