A Sergei/Dorian sidestory, sequel to Baghdad on the Thames


     Green vines grew over the window, the vines that are found only down in the lowland plains. They blocked the sun and filled the room with dancing shadows that flickered on his closed eyelids. Warm and drowsy, not quite awake, he saw in his mind the leaves shaking in the wind-- a wind blowing from the forested hills in back of the school, herding puffy clouds across the blue sky. Morning: the rough linen pillowcase rucked under his cheek; the bedclothes tossed off somewhere in the night; the heavy breathing warmth that was his roommate wrapped about him in sleep, their arms and legs tangled up together as always. But no, as he remembered, and amazement catapulted him fully awake, not as always, because last night- he and Jahn- last night they had-

      He opened his eyes in shock and joy and disbelief--

      -his eye-

      -saw blue eyes and a glory of ringletted hair and the unearthly carved features of a Botticelli Apollo gazing wordlessly at him, and his soul stumbled in wonder and dismay-- You? I thought it was him-- Was it you after all? Too beautiful to be mortal, touching a small chord of otherworldliness that made his heart contract in undefined fear. But at the same time his senses registered all this as familiar, the faint perfume of roses and the firm warmth of this body he knew--

   "I'm real," the divinity said. A slight English trace to the French words- French--

   "Yes," he said in the same language, "Yes. I know." But who are you? His mind said 'Dorian', and he knew it was Dorian, his two days' lover, but Dorian wasn't-

   "I think he's gone," Dorian said. Yes. Yes, Jahn was gone. He remembered now, like a fact learned in school, that Jahn was dead, that he'd died twenty-one years ago. But at the same time he knew that Jahn had been with him last night, warm and alive, and his soul quaked at the thought. "That boy," Dorian specified.

   That boy. That boy. That disconcerting redhead, the immature and experienced killer... The one with the talisman, yes, and the puzzling little ritual, and the things that had followed from that-- The strangeness rippled through him again, and the hairs rose on his neck. "Good," he said.

   "And to think he seemed so young," Dorian mused.

   "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings..." he said, trying for a light tone.

   "Don't be so beastly literal."

   He laughed, but stopped at once. Hysteria was too near. "Would you prefer the one about 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio?'"

   "A sensible man, Shakespeare," Dorian said, the sensible Englishman.

   "Dorian." Solid, real, the unshakeable essence of here and now. But last night-- where had Dorian been last night, when it seemed to be Jahn who lay in his arms?

   "I'm here, Sergei. I'm me."

   "I know." Sergei held him closer. "Dorian. Let's stay in today."

   "You're afraid?" Dorian asked him, as he himself had once dared to ask Majek, and "Yes," he said, as his oldest brother had answered in a surprising moment of honesty. "A little. And I'm not- not quite ready for-" He stumbled, unused to speaking his heart, "--for the sensible world out there- the one that's as ordinary as the turnips they sell at Les Halles..." Not yet, not for a while yet. Somehow, he didn't know how, Jahn had been here. He'd held Jahn's hot body in his arms; he'd seen Jahn's black eyes smiling into his own. And he'd made love with Jahn, made love at last, the way he'd always wanted and never dared ask to do when Jahn was alive. But last night Jahn had wanted it; Jahn had wanted him; finally, finally, he'd been granted the aching wish of his youth and the everlasting regret of his manhood, and the joy of it even now was like a flame eating his heart. It was impossible. Of course it was impossible. Such things don't happen, and when he was back out in the ordinary world he'd know that for a fact. But here in this room, in this bed, with this man beside him, he could believe otherwise. And so he'd linger a while longer in the place where that sweet desolating consummation had been possible, and hope Dorian would forgive him the small infidelity.

   "Alright, Sergei. We'll stay in."

   "Right here?"

   "Right here."

   "Kiss me?"

   Dorian moved closer, the skilful carved mouth settling on his own, and Dorian's hand closed about him below. His body responded at once. Such a relief, as always, such a pleasure, to have warmth about him, to have strong fingers stroking the loneliness of his flesh- soothing it, making it worse, soothing... to feel the boundaries of his self beginning to loosen and dissolve into the other world of sex. And if it felt a little like making love on a grave, well, no matter. Let this be his farewell to the miracle and the memory; when he came back he'd be himself, living in a sunlight world of reason. But just now, at this moment, he felt himself slipping free of the bindings of the present and the memory of the past, felt himself sinking into that familiar place where there was no Sergei or Savijc, no Paris or Circassia, only the insistent ache between his legs and the hand that worked at it and the wet tongue in his mouth and the hot body pressed to his own and no words, no words at all...


   The jangling phone roused him from his luxurious post-coital nap. He rolled off Dorian and caught it on the second ring.

   "'Allo allo?"

   "M.Serge?" A man's voice, and a Faubourg accent.

   "Oui, c'est moi."

   "My apologies for waking you. It's Gontran de Lavallée. We met yesterday evening..."

   "But of course, M. le Duc. The apologies are mine." He propped himself on an elbow. "Please excuse our abrupt departure last night. A contretemps with an acquaintance." Dorian, awake, leaned his warmth against Sergei's back, and Dorian's mouth found the nape of his neck.

   "Not at all. I know it's short notice, monsieur, but I wondered if you and Lord Gloria would be free this afternoon? I have a dealer coming to the house with what promises to be an interesting discovery." Dorian's hand reached in front and began playing with him distractingly. "A seventeenth century painting. The provenance is unknown but it belongs to the school of Giorgione." Sergei's chin came up in surprise and interest, but Dorian's hand-- He caught hold of it and held the fingers still, trying to pay attention to the duc.

   "-- can't be sure, but there are features which suggest a possibility- well, you'll see."

   Dorian was prising Sergei's fingers loose with his other hand. "Indeed? A Giorgione, you say?" Dorian's hand froze on the instant. "But of course, monseigneur. An honour. What time, and where?"

   "Shall we say three o'clock, number 25 Quai d'Orsay?"

   "Certainly. We'll be there."

   "Oh, marvellous. A bientôt, then."

   "A bientôt, monseigneur." He hung up and turned smiling to meet Dorian's eager gaze.

   "We're invited to the Duc de Lavalleé's this afternoon to view a new picture from the school of Giorgione. I hope you don't mind."

   Dorian kissed him in exasperated affection. "You said *a* Giorgione, liar."

   "It seems there's more to it than that. The duc wouldn't say what, but there's a little mystery to this piece."

   "Ah well- that's better." Dorian collapsed back against his pillow. "A possibility for the afternoon." He smiled over at Sergei. "It seems you made a conquest last night."

   "Or you did." Sergei smiled back. "He seemed to like you kissing him. The direct approach works so much better than discussing painters' techniques."

   "Maybe we both did. Shall we tell him we're a matched set- can't have one without the other?"

   Sergei laughed. "You're jumping the gun a little, m'ami. The duc's interest in us- or you, or me- could be quite platonic at this point. Remember that before you start suggesting threesomes to him."

   "So we're going out today after all?"

   "Yes, of course."

   "Breakfast, then?"

   "A shower first." Dorian's arm encircled his waist at the word. "Separately, if we want our breakfast sometime before lunch." He swept out of bed and into the bathroom, locking it against his outraged lover. But as he soaped and washed himself leisurely he was still aware of Dorian, naked, standing just outside the door. The insistent pounding penetrated even through the racket of water from the shower head. Naked and pounding on the door- what a good image for the Earl of Red Gloria. That walking aphrodisiac, that half-trained cocker spaniel, had bounded into his life with an effect little short of miraculous. He noted ruefully the half-reaction even now to the memory of Dorian's body. Maybe he should let him in after all? But no. Dorian was no respecter of place: they'd be here for hours if he once let them start. He smiled, and noted how strange it seemed to smile like this- at nothing, for no reason.

    Less than a week ago his world had all been known and mapped, its pleasures certain and settled but devoid of surprise. That was what he'd wanted: a calm, civilized life with a few friends and a few lovers; graceful affairs followed by graceful partings that left pleasant memories and no regrets. And then he'd looked up from a folio a few days ago to find a dream made flesh standing at his side, introducing itself in slightly accented French. Dorian's beauty had seemed impossible then, and so indeed, in quite another sense, Dorian had proved: a stranger to restraint, unacquainted with decency, an unrepentant thief, and so exuberant that there was no defending oneself against him. A good-natured earthquake that had quite unmaliciously shaken Sergei's careful house to pieces.

    Sergei lathered his sponge with Aramis soap and began washing his back, thinking that after all the Chinese had it right. A revolution every so often does wonders for the system. He hadn't felt this alive in years. Dorian was as enlivening as an amphetamine, and no doubt could become as addictive. A good thing, perhaps, that the Earl's affections were rooted elsewhere. It would be too easy to become greedy, to try to keep that vivid golden energy all for oneself; and that, he knew without even thinking, would be fatal. Whenever he reached his hand out for something, disaster followed. At least he'd learned that lesson, finally. Into his head, faintly, faintly like a song heard out in the street, came the sensation of black eyes fixed on him, full of admiration and boyish devotion... He shut the door on the memory at once. Never again. He was Sergei in Paris now, a man who took the casual bounty of the world when it came to him without asking for more. It was just that the world had never thrown a Dorian up on his shore before now. He smiled again and unlocked the bathroom door.

   The Earl was waiting with an aggrieved expression.

   "I had to go all the way downstairs to pee," he said reproachfully, as he took possession of the bath.

   "Pauvr' petit." Sergei gave him a kiss in passing, then addressed himself to his shaving. The mirror, misting from showers past and present, needed constant wiping, but he was in no hurry. He soaped his jaw in slow contemplative fashion, listening to Dorian's vocal exercises in the shower. The concert began with a few bars of 'Voi che sapete' to clear the lungs, then a song that was partly in English but hard to follow, about someone or something called Bonnie Doon. Sergei started on the tricky area below the ear on his blind side as Dorian shifted to a minor key and informed the world that he'd had a dream the other night.


    ...Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,

    I had a dream the other night,

    Lowlands away.  


   After one plunge of his heart, Sergei went on calmly shaving. A common English name, John. A coincidence.


    I dreamt my love came standing by,

    Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,

    Came standing close to my bedside,

    Lowlands away.


    His hand stopped abruptly. Staring unseeingly at his face in the misting mirror, he listened to the rest of the incredible words.


    He lies beneath the windy lowlands,

    Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,

    And never more coming home to me,

    Lowlands away.


    He lies beneath the lowlands low,


    ...where the shadows of clouds blowing down the mountains darken the deep grass...


    Lowlands, lowlands away, my Jahn,

    And nevermore shall I him know

    Lowlands away.


    Deliberately he brought the razor back to his cheek and finished removing the stubble, while Dorian began an exhortation to the men of some place called Harlech that took him out of his natural tenor range. Sergei shaved in quick strokes and left the bathroom before Dorian was finished his shower.


   The coffee was perking away in the samovar when Dorian finally descended, shaved and dressed.

   "Croissants or bread?" Sergei asked him, putting on his coat and taking the string basket for his visit to the baker.

   "Both, why not?"

   "As you will." He kissed him briefly and went out onto the chill staircase, willing the familiar sensations of Paris to dispel the small strangeness that lurked in a corner of his heart like a disquieting shape seen at the edges of one's vision. He descended slowly, one hand caressing the time-smoothed wood of the bannister, noting as if for the first time the shallow dip in the centre of each stone stair made by the passing feet of past inhabitants. How many decades, how many centuries, had that taken? A hundred years, a hundred and twenty... The flagstones of the passage leading to the street showed the same worn channel. Quite without intention, merely in the course of everyday life, the human element of Paris had marked even this Normandy granite. As a monument to the power of the everyday, it was, in its quiet way, impressive.

   The Rue Galand was empty on this Sunday morning under a cloudy sky that showed, from time to time, patches of pale blue far above. A city sky, the accustomed ambiguous sky of civilization: shifting silvery light that softens all lines, making everything compromised and undecided. Hard to tell even which is sky and which cloud here. It becomes simply a matter of opinion...

   ...unlike the deep blues and pure whites of the other place, where all is definite and unarguable and one man's opinion counts for nothing. Unlike the unyielding mountains that refuse to let you even step on them-- pinnacles of stone and broken crevasses that remind you of your little place in the universe... Unless perhaps you were a giant like Majek, who could crumble mountains and turn the course of rivers like the old songs. But for an ordinary man like himself...

   Who could still, if he wished, break down that wall over there with a thought. His footsteps stuttered at the realization. Could he really? Somehow, in this Parisian street, it seemed unlikely. Among the mountains and the savage air of Circassia, perhaps, but here? Surely it wouldn't work. He half-stretched his hand out in the old gesture and then stopped. And if it did work there'd be damages to pay, far more than he could afford, and the police to be satisfied that he was not in fact carrying explosives, and probably an overnight stay in jail at the very least. He gave a wry smile, aware of relief. His family's power belonged to the other place, untamed and primitive. Let it stay there. There was no room for it here in this civilized world of francs and centimes, of police and property and indemnification: of all the man-made institutions that make the world safe.

   "Bonjour, M.Serge." The concierge of the apartment two doors down, sweeping the pavement by the entrance, greeted him automatically.

   "Bonjour, Mme. Vigneault." He returned to the casual daily contacts of Paris, brief, civil, and reassuring.

   "Bonjour, M.Serge." Farther along the thin little daughter of the family who lived above the pharmacy was skipping in the port-cochère.

   "Bonjour, Nadine. Ca va?"

   "Pas mal," she said with six-year-old nonchalance. "Vous allez où?"

   "To get croissants for breakfast."

   "It's almost noon." She frowned her disapproval of his irregular habits.

   "We went to bed late last night," he explained.

   She clicked her tongue, evidently writing him off as a wastrel. "It's bad for you," she said, severely. "C'est vachement mal, se coucher tard."

   "That's true," he agreed humbly, and she nodded emphatically before skipping away into the courtyard.

   He entered the bakery, empty of the morning crush of buyers.

   "Bonjour, Mme. Bellemain."

   "Bonjour, M. Serge." A brisk little woman, no longer young, which in this country meant she was now at her best- certain, civilized, mature, her auburn hair skilfully coloured and her eyeshadow subtly but impeccably applied. One of the exquisite Parisians, so reassuring because they were, like himself, basically so unbeautiful. Art is a necessity among these people, and so the Parisians create the necessary artifice to supply their lack, and then gild the whole with intelligence, sensuousness and charm. Yes, even the bakers' wives. Maybe only in a city like this could he have had the success at love that he'd had. And he had, god knows, been successful...

   "A baguette, please, Madame. And are there any croissants left?"

   "Three or four."

   "I'll take them all." It had the feeling of being a hungry day. Evidently Dorian had managed to excite more of his appetites than one. He smiled again and caught the quirk of Mme. Bellemain's plucked eyebrows, curious, speculative, and apparently pleased by something she'd just noticed. Well, naturally. The French have a sixth sense for these things. He gave her a swift smile under his lashes, inviting her inquiry.

   "A new friend, M. Serge?"

   "Yes," he said. "An Englishman."

   "Chouette. Is he nice?"

   "Decidedly. Blond, beautiful and very spoiled."

   "Oh là là," she smiled, and handed him his change with distinct satisfaction.

   A trifle bemused, he headed back to the apartment, looking curiously at the houses in the Rue Galand, where he'd lived for more than three years now, as if he'd never seen them before. Today they seemed to glow with an undefined splendour beneath the brisk clouds of spring. Somehow, without his noticing it, the city of his exile had become home. He found himself experiencing an odd fondness for this little street on the Left Bank, with its old apartments crowding each other wall to wall. Mundane and functional, these Third Empire buildings, but beautiful in their own way. Not unlike the people who lived in them, in fact. Rational and solid, his Parisian friends, good bourgeois with their feet on the ground and their minds on business; but vivacious as well, a spirited and argumentative race. Intellectual and sensuous both, insisting on the importance of food and ideas, of sex and love, of good workmanship and good manners and good conversation. Good republicans that they are, the Parisians make sure the best life has to offer is within reach of everyone, aristocrat, bourgeois and worker alike; available even to the passing foreigner like himself.

    He thought of his graceful high-ceilinged apartment, of the books that crowded his study and the pictures that hung in his hallway; of his dark canopied bed from Lille, the Recamier sofa he'd bought for a song at les puces and had recovered, of his desk from the Belle Epoque glowing with the polish of ninety years. Beautiful, comfortable, and eminently functional, all of it. Whether he ate at home or out in a bistro, his meals were the best domestic cooking, cheap but satisfying: patés, mussels and sweetbreads, the occasional entrecote or roast lamb, accompanied always by mustardy salads, crusty bread and a sturdy red wine. Night brought pleasant companionship, easily acquired and easily parted with. For the day there was his small but flourishing business, his circle of clients and acquaintances, the trips abroad in search of rare and beautiful items. He'd never thought much about his life in Paris, the little daily details like this, and so had never realized what a delight in fact it was. Except for the taxes and the traffic, of course; but such are the drawbacks of civilization everywhere. Paris was a charming affectionate lover, not one for tantrums or reproaches, not one that would demand your soul of you in return for lodging. One who, like all the best lovers, makes you feel beautiful yourself. Paris gave him happiness and success with no hint, no possibility even, of the failure and shame that dragged at him elsewhere. He'd found a life for himself here that was right- settled, polished, complete. Satisfying. 'And like a man long since prepared', his mind said, 'like a courageous man...'

   His steps faltered.


   'As it becomes one who has had the honour of such a city

    Bid farewell to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.' [1]


   He stopped, unseeing. The pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Strange, the ways of the mind. Was that what it was, then, the cause of this present nostalgia? Was that all it was, that had brought the past from its grave and conjured a dead man into his arms last night? The promptings of the subconscious and half a bottle of wine. Well, yes; it seemed only too likely. His own mind had brought him close enough to insanity before this for him to doubt its power. But he hadn't thought- or hadn't wanted to think, perhaps- that it could have such an effect on him, this return to his native country. To Circassia.

   Circassia. The very thought of it was darkness. He'd thrust the thing away from him completely: put it all behind him and made another life for himself out here in the light. And tomorrow he was going back there, back to the source of all the pain and wrongness in his life. Going back because he had no choice: because if he didn't his brothers would destroy each other. They'd abandoned him in his worst need and he'd cast them from his heart forever. But still... Majek and Halim still had power over him. If Majek was dead, if Halim was set free with no check on his desires, something of himself would be lost. He needed them, needed to have them alive- safely far away in a different world, where he could see them as small and human-sized and even a little ridiculous: but there, if only to mark the distance he himself had come.

    The distance. He smiled painfully. What distance? A leaden weariness was closing on him, a soulsickness he knew from long ago: a sense of coiling vines and stagnant water and rot. Nothing had changed. They were all still there, all the fetid and poisoned emotions of the past. The confused unwilling love that never made anything different; the corrosive anger that harmed only himself; and the grief- oh god, the grief and guilt that made the very air of Circassia stink. For Jahn, whom he had killed; for Szincza, Jahn's shadow, whom he had-- He cut the thought short, but the pain that always came with the memory of his nephew was like a physical ache. It was still waiting for him, that old old dance. If he went back, Sergei the successful civilized Parisian would vanish, and he'd become Savijc of the Aouilles again: Savijc the cripple, Savijc the failure, Savijc the traitor who had turned his back on the birthright of his clan. Savijc who could never make atonement enough to silence the accusing ghosts of Circassia.

   'I'm insane,' he thought in anger and misery. Like a fool who leaps unthinkingly into a chasm and sees the jagged rocks below only as he falls. What had he been thinking of when he'd made that rash plan Friday night? Had he really believed he could just go to Circassia and leave again untouched? 'This is suicidal. I swore I'd never go back.'

   Just as you swore never to kiss another man, his mind reminded him. He blinked in surprise. Yes, he had. He'd made that silent vow twenty years and more ago, and he'd broken it Friday as well. And look what amazing- what unbelievable- things had come of that... Thoughtfully he began walking again. That vow of his- it had been a boy's romantic fantasy from the sagas of his youth. A grave-offering to his friend's spirit: what had been Jahn's would never belong to anyone else. Past time, surely, that he'd given it up. He was a man now, a rational man who lived in a rational world, much too old for pointless sentimentality. And someone else had come to demand his kiss, someone who refused to be denied. Dorian Red Gloria, beautiful and desirable and no respecter of anything at all. Eroica the thief had taken what was Jahn's--

    Well, no. He might as well be honest. Dorian made him want to give it. The man was like that- so beautiful himself and so transparent in his desires that you wanted to give him what he wanted just for the pleasure of seeing him happy, like a much-loved younger brother. Who knows? Perhaps the paintings Dorian stole also felt a wish to belong to that perfect unconscious beauty, and slipped off their museum walls happily into his hands. He smiled at the conceit. The man was a menace, quite unfit for civilized society-- and the man was waiting now, impatiently no doubt, for his breakfast. Sergei's spirits rose. Well, the impetuous Earl of Red Gloria would have to wait a little longer, because now, since he'd thought of it--

   He rang Mme. Vigneault's bell. The Parisian concierge is a third sex, like the Catholic religious, and the charm and tact that belong to other Parisians is not encoded in their DNA. He believed Mme. Vigneault was not ill-disposed to him, but being a concierge she could only express her goodwill through a manner that was, marginally, not one of total disapproval. He'd always known better than to try any kind of pleasantry or familiarity with her. Even a smile could be taken for a sign of damnable frivolity and self-conceit, so he kept a blank face as he explained to her pursed mouth that business called him from the country for a few days, asked that she look in on his place once or twice during that interval, and gave her his key to the apartment. No mention was made of what she was to do there, though they both knew she'd collect the mail and water the plants and pick up any details of his private life she could, it being the business of concierges to know everything. Neither was there mention of any remuneration. He merely handed her a folded hundred franc note along with the key. Oddly enough, Mme. Vigneault gave no indications that the sum was either too small or too large. She even allowed him to leave without trying to make him feel a fool. Surprised, Sergei saw that she must really like him.

   The discovery touched him oddly. Returning bemusedly up the stairs to his flat he found that contrary to expectation, Dorian had actually locked the door behind him after he'd left. He rang the bell and waited, but it was an unfamiliar step that sounded in the hallway before the door opened.

   "Well, there you are finally. What kept you?" The red-haired young man from last night took the string bag off his arm without so much as a by-your-leave. "Come on in. They're in the salon. I'll be ready with this in a jiffy." He turned and started down the corridor to the kitchen.

   "Make yourself at home," Sergei said politely to his back. The youth turned a startled head, but Sergei walked on past and into the living room. Dorian stood up as he entered. His friend was looking distinctly put out, either by this high-handed invasion of the apartment or, like himself, by the unexpected reappearance of the uncanny young man himself.

   "Oh Sergei, love. Good. This is Major Bancoran from M15. He wants to debrief us, I think. We were waiting for you to get back."

   The man sitting in the armchair with his back to Sergei rose up, and a waterfall of liquid black hair rose with him. Impossibly long, heavy and silken, whispering a little silkenly as well, it swung with a life of its own as the man turned to face him. 'Formidable,' Sergei thought, only a little sardonic. Some gestures are so overdone that admiration is the only possible response to them. Anything else looks churlish. He could have guessed that the Englishman would be a different kettle of fish from Dorian's Major, but he wouldn't have guessed at this much of a difference. He pulled his gaze upwards, prepared to find the face an anticlimax. Why cultivate that mesmerizing sea of hair, if not to compensa--

   His stomach lurched in shock as though dropping through space. Only his years of training in the fighting arts kept him on his feet and stopped his knees from buckling. How did the man dare-- A wave of heat, sweet and unbearable, washed up through him, blurring his vision, even as part of him registered fury at the unspeakable effrontery, the hand placed openly on his crotch, offensive and intimate and appallingly exciting--

   "Monsieur Serge," Bancoran said in a perfectly ordinary voice. He was holding his hand out. Sergei shook it automatically, mind spinning in confusion. The man had- had- had done nothing, evidently. But all the evidence of his senses, the tingling warmth that ran through his veins and the aching hardness of his groin, said otherwise. He looked at Bancoran in puzzlement and felt the hot erotic flush again. There. The eyes- dark eyes, knowing eyes, jaded and debauched-- saurian, almost, under bluish lids-- Those heavy eyes stripped his clothes from him and surveyed his nakedness as if they were already lovers. 'I know you,' those eyes said, 'I know what you've got under those trousers, don't pretend with *me*. I know what you want, now you can have it, you can have me in your mouth, you can have me up your arse, I'm everything you've ever wanted--' He was used to men looking at him with longing or lechery, but their small human lusts were a world away from this intimate authority. Intimate and familiar- he knew this man already, he'd known him all his life. This was the one he'd been looking for in every lover he'd ever had, this was the one he'd wanted. The dark eyes were like masterful fingers on his flesh, squeezing his buttocks and cradling his cock- like a voice murmuring in his ear, low and tender. 'We're in this together, you and me, no need to pretend, I'm closer to you than your own skin-' and hot powerful hands pulled his pants down and held his cheeks open...

   Sergei's fingernails bit into his palm and he heard Bancoran's voice saying in an unremarkable fashion, "--telling Lord Gloria, your involvement last night will be kept quite unofficial, but naturally--"

   "But naturally you want to be sure we won't run off and tell the world," Dorian said with irony.

   "You're vouched for, Lord Gloria, but M.Serge is an unknown quantity. I just wanted to see the lie of the land for myself."

   "Well, and how does the land lie?" Dorian challenged him. 

   "I don't know yet," Bancoran said, with a trace of impatience in his voice. "Look, couldn't we sit down?"

   "Of course," Sergei said, realizing the Major had been waiting for his invitation. Such punctiliousness after that open lechery was-- was-- unlikely, at the very least. He took a chair diagonally across from the Major's, watching him with a curiously split vision. Bancoran's voice and his manner were all business. There was nothing suggestive in his mouth, his posture. And yes, it was reasonable that he'd come to check the two of them out, after they'd got themselves mixed up in his investigation yesterday. It all made sense-- if he didn't look at Bancoran's eyes. He chanced another careful glance, met their knowing stare, and looked away hastily, blood pounding. Those insinuating eyes seemed unconnected to the rest of the man. It was as though Bancoran was sitting there with his fly open, talking mundane business while he waved his penis in their faces. Sergei's groin informed him of the inadvisability of thinking along those lines. He dropped his gaze to the carpet, resisting the urge to look up again. The animal sensuality radiating from the Major spoke directly to his gonads, bypassing the brain completely. He'd never felt so at odds with his own body before. Some obscure impulse made him reach under his hair to cover his wounded eye. He wanted the man gone- out of here- and now.

   "Monsieur Serge?"

   "Yes," he said, hearing his voice from far away. "What is it?"

   "Is something the matter? You seem not to have heard--"

   "Nothing is the matter, Major. If you're concerned about my discretion or my bona fides, apply to Major von dem Eberbach of NATO. He'll vouch for me as well as Lord Gloria."

   "Really?" Bancoran sounded surprised. "Are you an agent too, then?"

   Before Sergei could answer the youth had come into the salon, carrying a tray that rattled slightly with crockery and spoons. The smell of coffee and hot milk came with him.

   "Here it is," he said, putting it down on the table. "Café au lait. And he's not an agent. He thinks we're all the same as assassins." He gave Sergei a friendly smile and seemed put out when Sergei didn't respond.

   Bancoran said, "Then why do you say Eberbach will--"

   "You ask a lot of questions," Dorian interrupted. "Why do you think you're entitled to know all our business?" He brought two bowls of café au lait and croissants over to Sergei and sat down on the sofa next to his chair. "And if you'll excuse us, this *is* our breakfast. We'd like to eat in peace." To demonstrate, he dipped a croissant claw in foaming milk and put it in his mouth.

   "Lord Gloria, you know better than that, and if you don't, you should. I'm sorry to intrude on your weekend, but you were the ones who intruded on our investigation in the first place. I just need to get you properly placed in the scheme of things and then--"

   "Easily done," Dorian said, chewing and swallowing. His casualness seemed intended to offend and, given his usual courtesy, probably was. "I was asked by Major Bancoran of M16 to open a safe for an M16 operative in Paris. I did. I was promised my usual fee-" he smiled sweetly at the redhead- "but under the circumstances I'll waive it. That's all. Now you can go."

   Bancoran gave an exasperated groan, the sound a man makes during sex with his mouth buried in your hair. Sergei's fingers tightened on the bowl of coffee, letting it scald him. The pain was a relief. He was going mad, with that man sitting over there radiating sex at him like heat from a wood-burning stove, and Dorian sitting here next to him, his warm rose smell carrying insistent memories of nights past. Sergei wanted to rip his clothes off and fall on one or the other or possibly both of them at once.

   "Fine. That's your part of it. And where do you fit into this, M. Serge?"

   Concentrating on the distracting discomfort in his hand, he answered, "As I said, you'd better ask Major von dem Eberbach."

   "I don't have the time. I want to know what your story is."

   "Story?" Sergei gave him a cool glance, which was a mistake. Their eyes met again and his cheeks flamed. Enough. He was going to have that man now. And as he gathered himself to spring, the telephone rang out in the hallway. The strident shrilling cut through the red mists in his head. He put his bowl down carefully, got up, and managed to walk not too crookedly out of the room. His mind made sardonic noises about his vanity, and he smiled a little grimly as he picked up the receiver.

   "M.Serge? This is the Hôpital Général. Your friend M. Fersen has regained consciousness. He's somewhat upset at his present condition. Perhaps you could come and explain what happened? He seems to desire-" there was a distinct bureaucratic sniff- "that we let him go home and he refuses to understand how unadvisable that is."

   "I see," he said. Good. That should get rid of them. "There are friends of his here now. They'll be along shortly." The voice nattered at him querulously and he answered automatically, "Yes indeed. Of course. Quite. Good-bye."

   He turned and found the young man standing not a metre away from him.

   "What was that all about?" the youth demanded fiercely.

   "Fersen's regained consciousne--"

   "Damn Fersen!! You know that's not what I meant!" The violet eyes were full of fury, but beneath it Sergei sensed angry bewilderment. Bewildered himself, he frowned at the boy. "What did you mean by that scene back there in the salon?"

   "I don't know what you're talking about."

   "Bancoran- you blushed when you looked at him, you could barely stand up in front of him-- You--" He clenched his fists. "How old *are* you, anyway??"

   Sergei raised astonished eyebrows. The boy was raving. A fever, perhaps?

   "What does it matter?" he asked, moving to get past. A fast knee came up, aimed at his groin, and made slow by surprise he blocked it barely in time. His other arm moved, a little obviously, into an attack position. The boy, no fool, backed off a little, but there was no easing of the intensity of his attitude.

   "What does it matter??" he hissed. "What does it matter??? You twenty-five if you're a day. Why are you acting like this?"

   "Thank you," Sergei said. "I'm forty next February. And I still don't know what you're talking about."

   "Fourteen?" the boy said dazedly. "You can't be." Definitely a fever, if he was having such trouble with basic French.


   "I don't understand," he said, sounding almost like a child. "It's impossible."

   "I am. Why does my age make such a difference?"

   "Because-- You want Ban. You can't deny it. Anyone can see." His eyes went pointedly to Sergei's groin. Thanks to Circassian tailoring, Sergei knew perfectly well that anyone couldn't see, but the hint cast some light on the young man's behaviour. A pathological jealousy, then- and quite justified given the Major's behaviour.

   "In that case, you should get him out of here as soon as possible. The sooner the better, as far as I'm concerned." He walked past, unhindered this time, and into the salon. Resisting the drag of Bancoran's gaze, he addressed himself to the room in general.

   "That was the Hôpital Général. Fersen's awake and acting up. If he tries to check himself out, I don't think they'll stop him."

   "Better get over there then," Bancoran said to the youth who stood glowering at Sergei's back.

   "And leave you here?? With him?? In your dreams!" the boy retorted fiercely.

   "With whom?" Bancoran sounded astonished.

   "Him!!" The boy pointed an hysterical finger at Sergei.

   Bancoran threw a brief uncomprehending glance in his direction before turning in concern to his companion.

   "Maraich, are you well? Do you have a fever?" He put a hand to the young man's forehead. "No-

   Maraich struck it away ferociously

   "I don't have a fever and I'm perfectly well and I saw what you did to him and I won't have it! I won't *have* it!!" He was flushed red and his voice was going shrill. "I don't know how or why but if you're going to go sniffing after men now you'll have to do it over my dead body!" His voice cracked in rage. Dorian, wide-eyed, caught Sergei's glance. Sergei tapped a finger to his temple. Dorian grimaced and looked uncomfortable. His friend was a proper Englishman at heart, and embarrassed by the open display of strong emotions. Even his extremely improper compatriot seemed at a loss.

   "Look, Maraich--"

   "Don't 'look, Maraich' me! We're leaving and we're not coming back! *Now*!!"

   Bancoran took a deep, resigned breath.

   "Alright. Alright. We'll go." Sergei heard the frustration in his voice and caught a glimpse of his expression. Fingernails deep in his palms, he rode the physical reaction without changing countenance. Just a little longer-- "But you're still a security risk as far as I'm concerned, M.Serge. I won't be forgetting you."


   Sergei decided. "Major-- Alright. I'm known as one who keeps his own counsel. But if that's not enough for you, I'm also working in conjunction with NATO. I leave tomorrow on a confidential mission for them. Eberbach can confirm that."

   "A mission? Where?"

   "Circassia. My native country."

   "Ahh- I see." Satisfaction loosened the tension in Bancoran's body. "That's what you weren't telling me?"

   Sergei nodded.

   "And for the rest," Dorian said, "as far as we're concerned we didn't meet your friend yesterday and we didn't meet you today. Alright?"

   "Fine by me." Sergei heard the smile in Bancoran's voice. "Alright, Maraich, I'm coming." The boy was dragging him bodily towards the corridor.

   Sergei went with them. There were no good-byes. Sergei was counting from one to ten in his mind, repeatedly and monotonously, as he let them out and locked the door and bolted it and returned back down the corridor. He wasn't running by the time he got to the salon, but it was a near thing.

    [1] C.P. Cavafy, The God Deserts Anthony