Too Good To Be True
It had become like a mantra over the years, so often had Klaus reminded himself of it all.
When someone offers you friendship, frisk him for weapons. When someone pats you on the back, check to see if he's holding a knife. When you have a stroke of good luck, ask yourself who could have orchestrated it for you, and why. And if something seems too good to be true, it invariably is.
In fact, if it's good at all, it probably isn't true.
The Earl of Gloria was good.
Everything about the Earl of Gloria was perfect. The face, sculpted and beautiful. The mannerisms, elegant and lazy. The hair, luxuriant and yellow as wheat. The body, graceful and slender as a reed.
How had they known?
And, more importantly, who were "they"?
The first time they'd met had been annoying enough. Klaus had come home to his own castle, and there Dorian was, lolling decoratively before the family portraits. Extravagant golden curls. A lazily graceful demeanour. A delicately sculpted countenance. The kind of man who always made Klaus' blood race, and obviously, radiantly gay.
Just the kind of man Klaus had always wanted to come home to. Sentimental idiot that he secretly was under his iron facade. You'd think he'd learn.
And the Earl had started flirting with Klaus immediately. "I also like military uniforms, in a way," he'd said with a sidelong glance that had scattered Klaus' wits to the four winds. "They make me think of an abstinent beauty of a man... of the passion hidden inside.... It has a certain erotic beauty that makes one want to strip off the uniform that's worn so neatly."
Klaus knew what to do when one's fondest wish was dropped in one's lap.
"I have no desire for you to strip off my uniform!" he'd said with effort, hoping everyone would take his consternation for revulsion. Then he'd thrown the Englishman out.
Even had Klaus been free to accept the offer, it was clear enough that it wasn't in earnest. It was merely the frivolous Earl amusing himself by taunting an obviously stuffy and supposedly straight military man. Klaus had reacted as expected, as if the mere idea of having a lovely golden-haired man strip off his uniform was repulsive to him. What a joke. He'd spent a great deal of time that night, alone, musing over just that impossible possibility.
At the time, he'd thought it was mere coincidence. It was to be expected that occasionally he would meet men he found attractive, after all, and his requisite aloofness might make it amusing to them to taunt him.
But the lovely blond fop had shown up in his life again, and again, and again. Not coincidence, not at all. First he stole the family portrait. Then he kidnapped that sniveling boy Caesar. Then he'd returned the portrait, and taken Klaus' Leopard tank in return, of all things. That was the most lunatic gesture Klaus had ever heard of; what use did an art thief have for a blasted tank? Eroica had done it just to taunt him. Just because he'd said sarcastically, "Guard it well, so nobody can steal it. But I don't think anybody fancies to." He hadn't realized what a fanciful man Eroica was.
The next thing Klaus knew, every damn mission he tripped over a very annoying, very tempting thief. In time, the nuisance had even wangled his way somehow or other into being a NATO contractor.
Whoever was putting him into Klaus' path was doing a thorough job of it.
How stupid did they believe that he was? Stupid enough to think that it was pure chance that, of all the skivvies in London, Eroica's stingy accountant just happened to buy the pair that had the code hidden in it? Stupid enough not to be suspicious when, of all the statues in the world, Eroica stole the Achilles that had top-secret microfilm concealed on it? Stupid enough not to draw conclusions as to why Eroica showed up in Iraq, not exactly a normal vacation spot for either of them, just when he was there, and ended up needing to break into the exact same building that he did, on the exact same night? There were indeed jewels and works of art in proximity to most pieces of data that Klaus had to obtain in the course of his work, but only an idiot would not have wondered why those were always the baubles that Eroica set his sights on, and at just the same time as Klaus was there.
The Major was a spy himself. He knew how spies found things out, and thus how to keep his own secrets. He never indulged himself when he was on a mission. He never allowed himself anything imprudent anywhere close to home. He never committed indiscretions in the same place or with the same man twice. His liaisons were fleeting and anonymous. He hated that, but it was the only choice left to him in this world, if he was to carry out his duty.
Still, he wasn't an idiot. If someone were sufficiently determined, they could find out. He was certain that a few of his superiors knew about his preferences -- they had to; they were spies, after all. Not the Chief, Klaus believed, or the old reprobate would have let on that he knew. But surely someone somewhere in the hierarchy knew, and if the need ever arose, the information would be used to control him.
But someone else had found out. And the one they had sent to work him over could not have been more perfectly chosen.
In many ways, that wasn't surprising. As few and far between as his bed partners had been, observation of just two or three would have shown patterns enough. The prettiness couldn't have been too difficult, for instance. Pretty men abounded in that walk of life. Also men of slender build, not muscled and angular like his own. And his decided preference for blonds must also have been quite manifest; he rarely bothered with anything else. Though, to be sure, he rarely bothered at all.
So anyone who wished to get under his iron skin would not have to be too terribly clever -- not by the standards of this game, at least -- to send him a willowy blond with long lashes and high cheekbones. Dorian looked lovely in the tunics and snug pants he generally favored. In a frilly shirt, with his abundant curls, he looked like the perfect movie pirate or highwayman, blithe and dashing, only waiting for some lawman of iron to arrest him, to shackle him and bind him.... In a burglar's catsuit, he looked like a lion: a lean, slender body contrasted with a wild, radiant mane of hair. He even looked lovely disheveled, dirty, shaking from a brush with death -- on the cliffside in Athens, it had been all Klaus could do not to seize that curly-haired son-of-a-bitch and hold him close for the rest of their lives.
Yes, dammit, Eroica was beautiful. It was only good sense for them to send someone who looked like that. But other things about his taste could not have been so obvious. No matter which of his few partners they had observed, none could have revealed the appeal that the aristocratic had for him. Klaus never had a chance at the aristocratic sort, after all. Even if they were willing, they were too high-profile for a man in his position -- and, most likely, theirs. But... if Dorian liked to think of stripping off a neatly worn uniform to find the passion hidden inside, Klaus liked to think of shattering the bone-deep poise of a man who has been called "my lord" from infancy and transforming it to gasping, writhing desire. Did Dorian lose his blithe self-possession even in the heat of passion? How would that elegant voice sound breathlessly panting his name?
Klaus tried not to speculate.
He had little success.
Certainly Klaus had never seen Dorian lose his aristocratic aplomb yet, even under the worst of circumstances. Less than a full minute after narrowly escaping death, he had had the presence of mind to spout poetry at Klaus: "I think an entanglement of wire rope and a rose vine is a rather sadistically wonderful combination."
This artful offer of exactly what Klaus wanted and knew did not exist in this world, not for him at any rate, had enraged him. "If you say any more of that frigging nonsense, Ill dump gasoline over you and burn the shit out of you!" he'd snarled. The Earl always did inspire him to new lows of profanity.
And how could they have known how he would envy, admire, and yearn for someone who didn't hide his orientation? There had not been a day of his adult or adolescent life that he had not wished he did not have to hide. More times than he cared to think of, frustration had made him want to simply stand up and shout it at the top of his lungs, for any random passerby to hear. And if any of them didn't like it -- his Chief, his other superiors, his agents, his father, the nuns who'd educated him, anyone -- they could get stuffed. But of course he never did shout it. He didn't even whisper it.
It was Dorian, not Klaus, who let everyone get stuffed. He proclaimed the truth about himself from every available rooftop, cheerfully and proudly. Not for Dorian the carefully schooled expressions and paranoid secret excursions for gratification. Not only was he everything Klaus wanted, he also had what Klaus wanted. A masterful stroke on their part. Whoever they were.
The perfection never stopped. How did the damned thief always know how to hit every blasted nerve? Dorian was the only one who was not afraid of him. Or at least, who did not let fear stop him from behaving exactly as he wished toward Klaus. His relentless advances were not stopped by glares, cutting insults, or even physical violence. If he was intimidated, ever, he hid it masterfully. And though of course Klaus would have walked over hot coals before admitting it, it was a relief to him. The Major had to be intimidating. It was his job. His subordinates had to be willing to go to any lengths to achieve their mission rather than face the wrath of Iron Klaus. Enemy spies had to shake in their shoes when he entered the room. And the Major did not pretend to himself that he did not relish his power to make brave men blanch with a chilling little half-smile. He loved it. But a steady diet of cringing deference became tiresome. Eroica's blatant effrontery was a breath of fresh air.
Like that time Klaus had grabbed the idiot by the front of his flashy red shirt, that showed off his golden hair to excellent advantage, and raised his fist menacingly. He was not bluffing. He would have hit Dorian. He would have, if only Dorian had looked even slightly afraid, or angry, or anything like that. But Dorian had smiled composedly as if they were standing in a drawing room sipping cocktails and chatting about the weather. Even when Klaus was in a drawing room trying to endure polite chitchat, most people were afraid of him. Dorian, however, had drawled in a slightly amused tone, "Let go. I'm not built to shoot a Magnum with one hand, unlike some people."
Was the flashy fop calling him a bully? Well... there was some justice to that. But it was the serene manner, not the words, that disarmed him. With grudging respect, he'd released the thief instead of giving him what he deserved. Another round to Dorian.
Dorian had even been clever enough to discern his hidden streak of odd romanticism, his secretly poetic love of machines and metal. Once Klaus had read a line in a book which came as close to explaining it as anything did: "Most of the sciences are someone's wish, and someone's guess, and many people's lies. Steel is steel."* But those who cared for machines seldom had any appreciation of the poetry in motion of a perfectly functioning machine, and would give him odd looks if he alluded to it. And those who cared for beauty saw none where he saw it most, in the stark, unforgiving gleam of steel and iron, uncompromising as duty, ruthless as Fate.
But Dorian did.
Or rather, he had pretended to, ever since that day in the tank. Huddled close for warmth, in the intimacy of the close, quiet space, Klaus had let down his guard enough to say, "Well, my lord, you told me you like beautiful things. The color of highly polished steel is also a very beautiful thing, you know. It's a foppish thing to say," he'd added, embarrassed. It was the sort of statement he rarely made when there were witnesses about.
Dorian had, unfortunately, taken the cue admirably. "You who find beauty in the color of steel may be as big a dreamer as I am," he had said. For a long time Klaus had wished someone could understand that. He was even ashamed of the wish, foolish as it was. What right had he for such self-pity? Self-pity which had grown contemptibly stronger when he realized that the only person who would ever even pretend to understand it was someone he could never trust even slightly.
The blasted thief had then snuggled closer and rested his head on Klaus' shoulders. Klaus' protests were answered with a cooed, "Shut up and cope."
Klaus had coped. Clasping the slender man close, inhaling his scent of roses, he had allowed himself, just for a few minutes, to pretend. Even though he knew Dorian's character already, he had pretended for a few minutes that what he wished were true and possible, that this man could mean something to him. Or rather, that he, Klaus, could mean something to the other man. A dangerous game, and a foolish one. Danger was his life... but foolishness had no place in his life.
Even Eroica's lawlessness was appealing. Klaus knew what was right and what was wrong. His code was not merely a matter of the traditions he happened to have been schooled in; he believed in it, believed in all of the many, rigid rules he lived by and enforced. Even so, sometimes the fences around his life were too confining even for him. He believed in respecting one's father, for instance. But Fate had given him an unusually difficult father, so demanding that Klaus could scarcely move without defying him. Klaus also believed in respecting one's superiors. So why did his own immediate superior have to be a corpulent lecher who carried on conflicts of interest with his own underlings, with one of Klaus' most dedicated (if eccentric) agents, no less? He was surrounded by challenges to the code he wished to uphold. Caged as he was, how could he do other than marvel at a free spirit like Dorian? A truly free spirit. Not a sullen dropout like most who aspired to that title, but one who had truly broken off the fetters within as well as without. A law unto himself.
But then, Klaus kept reminding himself, Dorian was not entirely free. Someone ran him, after all, and that someone had sent Dorian after Klaus.
How exactly did they hope to use Dorian against him? Was it to be blackmail? "You can give us those confidential documents, Major, or we can give these interesting photographic studies of you and the Earl of Gloria being creative with chocolate syrup to your superiors, your subordinates, and your father. Nice contribution to the family album, hm?" No, if the plans were that simple, they would surely have already managed to photograph him with one of his anonymous bed partners. If they had been able to find out all that they patently had, that wouldn't have been beyond their capabilities. No, they must have grander designs, to go to such lengths to compromise him. They must want someone to win his trust. Someone who could get close enough to really endanger him and his work. Someone who could coax his secrets from him, perhaps. Or perhaps they hoped that he would fall in love, making Dorian an ideal hostage.
If that was the objective, then it had been as good as achieved, had they only known. He was not exactly in love, but he was... captivated, which was just as powerful. Why else did he keep saving the idiot's life? He'd gotten Eroica out of jail more than once, despite his frequent threats to hand the nuisance over to Interpol. He'd beaten up a crew of seajackers who were holding the useless Earl for ransom. More times than he could count, he'd seen a gun pointed at Dorian and shot it out of the would-be assassin's hands. He asked himself why he didn't just let someone eliminate the problem for him once and for all. Was he hiding some sort of secret, idiotic hope that the thief might be sincere? Surely he knew better by now. Perhaps Dorian had simply become a symbol to him, a symbol of everything he'd resigned himself never to have, and that was why he could not bring himself to let harm befall him. If it did, that would be the final proof that there was no hope.
Which led to the most unkindest cut of all.
"Why do you always muck around me?" Klaus had demanded of the damned thief one day in Rome. Don't hang around me, reminding me of everything I want and can't have. Don't pretend to be something wonderful that I know doesn't exist. Don't make your offers that cut me to the quick with the knowledge that they are made with ulterior motives. Just don't.
Dorian had hesitated prettily. He did it well. Klaus wondered cynically if he'd practiced that hesitation in the mirror. "Can I really say it?" Dorian had asked softly, in his lovely aristocratic accent. "You won't like it, though...."
As Dorian must have expected, that wop Giulani had urged him to speak out. With a show of sincerity worthy of an Oscar, Dorian had lowered his eyes with a shy little smile, and whispered, "'Cause I love you."
Klaus felt as if he'd been turned to stone.
He supposed it wasn't too mysterious how they had known about this most secret of his desires. It could easily have been a simple matter of deduction. He was a dutiful but decidedly estranged son. His superiors endured him grudgingly because of his abilities. His subordinates were terrified of him. His lovers, if one could call them that, were anonymous men chosen for their appearance and their willingness, forgotten within hours. He didn't even remember the doubtless false names they gave him. He'd realized long before his intelligence career had begun that this was all he could ever expect. Snatched nights were difficult enough; love was an impossible dream, especially the honorable, committed love he would have preferred, had he had the choice. They would have had to be idiots not to figure out that Iron Klaus was lonely. That he wished for someone to be loyal to him. To care for him.
To love him.
And so, as if it weren't enough to dangle this beauty before his eyes, constantly tantalizing the desires he'd spent a lifetime learning to keep under control, they also had to make him a bogus offer of the one thing he knew he was fated never to have. Even in this business, he thought, it was a nasty trick.
It felt to him like he spent hours frozen like that, after hearing those blessed, blasted words that he only wished to God were true, but later others seemed to think it was only a second.
In any case, he had stood up eventually.
He had said quietly, "Good reason."
If it were true.
He'd tossed his cigarette away.
And then he'd given the lying thief the vicious punch in the jaw he deserved.
Though for one eternal second, he'd thought he was going to grab the bastard and kiss him within an inch of his life.
It couldn't be true, because life was never that perfect. Even before he'd entered the down-and-dirty intelligence field, he'd found that out. When Fate gives you everything you yearn for on a platter, check for hidden explosives, or at least germ-carrying vermin. When you get a gift horse, check its mouth for electronic listening devices. When someone compliments you, ask yourself what he stands to gain from you. When your dreams come true, pinch yourself. When the perfect lover throws himself at your feet and begs you to take him, check your wallet. And if something seems too good to be true, it invariably is.
In fact, if it's good at all, it probably isn't true.
*We The Living by Ayn Rand