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Moonlighting

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Her stomach is flat. This, Roberto registers with some alarm -- until his math catches up with him. One year ago, Sister Anna Dolores was four months into her pregnancy.

Which means that the infant sitting in Saul’s arms is perhaps seven months old. And very enthusiastically gumming at what appears to be a flat plastic octopus. Thus occupied, Saul nods by way of greeting. Anna Dolores smiles brightly.

“Brother Hiraga! Brother Roberto!” She stands to deliver a kiss to each of their cheeks. “It’s so wonderful to see you again.”

“Such a pleasant surprise,” Roberto assures her, as they all take their seats around Saul's desk. “I thought you were in Tel Aviv?”

“I was, but my request for a transfer was finally granted! Zion’s Law has branches in a few major cities,” she explains. “And so they’ll still be able to provide security as long as I’m near one.”

“You’ll be staying in Rome, then?” Hiraga seems pleased by this development, only for his countenance to falter when she corrects him.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Actually,” Saul supplies, clearing his throat. “Sister Anna Dolores has a request for us.”

“I’d like to borrow your support in an investigation,” she says.

“An investigation?” Roberto doesn’t miss the way Hiraga’s eyes catch his–- before straying to the infant in Saul’s arms. Neither, evidently, does Sister Anna Dolores. She laughs softly.

“Not that sort of investigation,” she says. “I think one miracle is plenty for me at the moment.”

“Right…” Roberto offers her a smile in return. “I pray we’ve reunited under less exciting circumstances.” Though he braces himself for disappointment. And rightly so, for Anna Dolores cocks her head.

“I wish I could say. Perhaps you might be able to shed some light on things for me.” She rests her hand upon a stack of documents as deep as half a finger’s length. “I’d like you to have a look.”

The file is some compendium, he discovers, upon spreading it open on the desk between Hiraga and his self. A great number of corporation names and records of transactions. Copies of what appear to be legal agreements. Satellite images, though of what Roberto cannot tell. Prints of official-looking e-mail correspondences.

“Part of our work at Zion’s Law involves surveillance. The more extensive reconnaissance is reserved for parties we’ve flagged as suspicious, but we cast a broad net in our research. And there are certain things you learn to look out for.” She pauses, looking thoughtful. “Certain behaviors or patterns, if that makes sense to you.”

Roberto nods. He thinks he follows, so far.

“Recently, we’ve noticed some unusual behavior in the orbit of a shell company based in Monaco. It isn’t so uncommon in and of itself, but we tracked the payments back to their source, a Santi Nantrabo, based in Oslo. Naturally, we had to follow the thread, and check them out.”

“It turns out that Santi Nantrabo has been undergoing consolidation in the past year. They’ve been closing down research laboratories and branch offices in Norway and moving their center of operations to France.” She flips through several pages of legal files, indicating the breadth of the changes. “Even so, they’re funneling money through a shell company in Monaco –which–” and she regards Hiraga and Roberto both intently– “is very peculiar, when taken in conjunction with rumors that the current CEO has undergone a sudden and dramatic change. Monsieur Achille de Gaulle.” Anna Dolores turns to his profile sheet. Hiraga gasps.

“That man–” Roberto leans in to peer at the grainy black and white image. It’s no more than four centimeters tall, but he thinks he’d recognize that face at any resolution or scale. The deceptively gentle eyes, and the arrogant cut of his chin– and then, all at once, he recalls.

“We know that man,” Roberto says. “That isn’t Achille de Gaulle, and you should be warned, he’s dangerous.” Sister Anna Dolores’s face breaks into a broad smile.

“I thought you might. It’s true what they say, wherever trouble goes, you two really aren’t far behind.” If Saul has anything to say on the matter, he graciously controls himself, offering his finger for the baby to squeeze. The baby squeals and exchanges the teething toy for the offered finger. “Then our friend here is…?”

“Julia Michael Borge.” Hiraga’s features and voice take on a stony cast. “He’s a murderer and an operator for an organization that calls itself Galdoune. And he isn’t to be treated lightly.” Anna Dolores grasps for a pen to write this down in the margins of the file.

“Yes, perfect,” she says, hastily scribbling the relevant names. “And can you tell me what you know of them?”

“Not significantly more than you at this point,” Roberto offers apologetically. “We know they were founded by alchemical researchers of the Bourbon dynasty and have connections around the world. As to their interests and goals…well.” Roberto shrugs. “As yet unseen.”

“And you’ve encountered this man before?”

“We’ve crossed paths,” Hiraga concedes. “A few times in our investigations.”

“Why, you’re practically experts!” She produces another profile for them, with another familiar face. Roberto recognizes Ruggieri Rutherford, the diamond magnate, and his easy smile.

"What's he doing in your file? We do know him, too, but he's just a businessman. Diamond Line Enterprises."

"He's a known associate of our target. He's been flagged for observation as well."

Roberto stares at the file in stunned silence. He hadn't-- he wouldn't have thought. It sits ill in his stomach, but Anna Dolores seems, to the contrary, rather pleased. She claps her hands together a few times in delight. The baby wriggles as if in sympathy. “Excellent, then you’re just the right ones for the job.”

“The job,” Roberto echoes. Oh, he doesn’t like the weight of that proclamation.

“Yes.” Anna Dolores reaches across the desk to retrieve another dense file. “Our friend ‘Achille de Gaulle’ will be hosting a party at the Château du Lac d'Or in the Loire Valley of France. My suspicion is that he’ll be using the party as a cover for some illicit dealings. We haven’t worked out quite what or with who– but that’s where you come in! You’re probably the best suited to perform an evening’s reconnaissance on Mister Borge.” Roberto looks to Hiraga. Hiraga cocks his head.

“Reconnaissance?”

“That’s right. You’d be going undercover for us.” The gleam in Hiraga’s eyes is almost instantaneous. Oh, heavens, Roberto thinks. It’s already decided, then, isn’t it? “Just watching him and making a note of his movements and dealings. If you could scout the castle for evidence, it would certainly be a plus. Nothing dangerous, nothing life-threatening. And you’ll have backup of course.” Hiraga looks to Saul, nearly bristling with excitement. He might argue his case, perhaps, and convincingly so. It’s a testament to his character that he awaits Saul’s judgment instead.

Saul examines Sister Anna Dolores and her files with a careful eye. His consideration is not won lightly; Roberto expects he is weighing the advantages of Zion’s Law’s indebtedness. Sister Anna Dolores doesn’t so much as flinch. Roberto reminds his self that this the same woman who wrote to them unhaltingly with faith in a supposed miracle. The differentiation between courage and zeal might be, he reflects, an atom’s-width thin.

“If you could guarantee their safety,” Saul says, when several long moments have passed. “So I will personally review all your proposed measures.”

“I’m so glad you asked!” Good Lord. Sister Anna Dolores is beaming dangerously now. “They know to look for two young men.” Anna Dolores reaches into the bag beside her seat and removes a manila folder. From inside of this she produces two surprisingly thick packets of paper. She smiles, face coming alight with a slyness Roberto has not seen on it before. “They won’t think twice if it’s an older pair.”

“Lisette Devereux, age 46,” Hiraga reads from his. His eyes scan the page, deep in thought. “Born in Provence. Independently wealthy through her deft investments and looking to headhunt another.”

Roberto turns his attention to his own designated stack of papers.

“Armand Devereux, age 44. Born in the Loire Valley. Philanthropist and advisor to his wife.” The rest of the pages are devoted to technical information and a great deal of the research Zion’s Law has compiled about the constituent attendees of the gathering. Roberto gives these a cursory look.

“They have the same last name,” Hiraga observes. One hand has made its way to his lips and he has begun to worry at the fabric of his gloves with a tooth. The baby in Saul’s arms squirms.

“Yes,” Anna Dolores agrees. “They’re married. You’ll be going undercover as a married couple.”

 

The nuns, however, seem to find it all quite funny.

“I honestly never thought I’d hold a tube of concealer again,” one of the older sisters remarks. She taps a bit into the hollows beneath Hiraga’s eyes. “And yet, here we are.” Roberto watches the paste turn from a smear of color into a thin film under her direction, into skin, more or less. Creams and powders soften Hiraga’s features, round out his cheeks and turn slim lines of bone into elegance. One sister carefully paints dark lining around his eyes with a brush that looks best suited to manuscripts or miniatures.

“You’ve got nice eyelashes,” she says. “Really, this is just gilding the lily.”

“Well, the less he looks like himself, the better.” The woman who replies is reading a tutorial of some sort on a phone, comb in hand. “Try the lipstick, too.”

And he almost does look like an entirely different person. Almost. Roberto does not think he could ever mistake those features, no matter how they are recast. Yet…before him also sits a stranger, hair combed elegantly from their face, sophisticated, lovely. The cassock will have to go, of course, but Roberto must agree with the comb-wielding nun when she declares: “Good. It’ll work.” And then the real trials begin. For who would have thought the fine details of a disguise to be such a point of contention?

“Mrs. Devereux should look wistful,” one Sister Maria Fernanda says as they convene for a planning session one afternoon, penciling a heavier line below Hiraga’s eye. This she smudges with a small brush. “Classic. Like Clara Bow.” But Sister Maura taps at her chin in thought, frowning.

“It’s too old-fashioned. Mrs. Devereux is a modern woman, she should look the part.” When her turn to man the makeup chair comes, she reaches for a vial of liquid that Roberto can only assume is another type of liner. The shape she traces above Hiraga’s lashline is much sharper. Roberto watches as it reshapes Hiraga’s features in dots and strokes. “Bold, but subtle. What kind of woman is Lisette Devereux? Remember, a disguise isn’t just a face.  You have to inhabit the role.”

“She’s an intellectual,” Hiraga supplies. He does mean to be helpful, Roberto reminds himself. Though his enthusiasm for the undercover position does seem to be eclipsing his interest in establishing concrete details.

At the vanity table, examining each jar and tube and brush and tray, Sister Anna Dolores smiles to herself, shoulders rocking with private laughter. Sister Maria Fernanda sighs, piling her stiff, aching self into one of the unoccupied chairs at the mirror. Her raised brow is not unfond.

“Oh? Care to share with the class, dear Sister?”

Sister Anna Dolores idly taps a shadow-laden brush against the paper-clad surface of the war zone. “I was just thinking, we may have overlooked a key problem.” She wheels her stool around a hundred and eighty degrees. “Brother Hiraga, do you think you could replicate any of these makeup regimens on your own?”

 

 

It takes the both of them the better part of an hour with Sister Anna Dolores’s guide list. Start with a clean face, the notes instruct them. This she has punctuated with a doodle of…a fresh daisy with an uncannily human face.

“First, apply foundation. Apply a small amount to face and blend until even.” Okay, sounds easy enough. Hiraga gamely applies a pump of cream from the tube to the sponge he’s been provided. He dabs it on, experimentally at first, at odd intervals. A pat on his chin. One on his nose. One on his cheek, which he pulls with the sponge until it meets his jawline. He smooths each pat, spreading the makeup from center to edge, until the streaks form a web, then the web, a layer of almost-skin. Roberto rolls a thumb in the hollows beneath his eyes to blend it where he has missed some.

“I don’t look any different,” Hiraga observes of his reflection.

“I think that’s normal?” For next, the sheet bids them: “‘Apply light powder above cheekbones, and dark powder below’.” This Hiraga let Roberto take over, and Roberto brushes a bit of the paler stuff onto his cheekbones in steady lines. Roberto can see where the powder sits upon the mask, but from afar he can’t see much change. He’s less liberal in his application of the darker powder. Bronzer? He has to switch to a new brush, per the instructions; it’s for the best, as the powder sits far more heavily upon Hiraga’s skin. Roberto does his best to blend it with his fingertip. The nuns have provided them with a shaping guide, and Roberto does make an effort to emulate it.

“Don’t be afraid of the eyeliner! Just trace the eye with the pencil, like you’re drawing.” It’s not terribly comforting. The nuns had a great deal to say about eyeliner, and it had all sounded very complicated –- controversial, even, a great schism of self-construction among its devotees. And Roberto must admit he has some reservations about taking a sharpened implement of any sort to Hiraga’s eyes.

“You’re blinking,” Roberto reminds him. He can’t quite seem to find a point of access. How do people do this on a regular basis? At the very least, hand calligraphy grants the grace of a flat, unmoving canvas.

“Am I?” Hiraga’s lashes flutter. (Again. An involuntary reaction, he knows.) “I’m sorry, I wasn’t even thinking about it.” Fortunately, there is a month in which they can practice before the mission. Hiraga laughs to see his own features in the mirror, with the kohl smudges making breaks for the edges of his face, and Roberto cannot help laughing as well himself.

Hiraga gamely wears his face throughout dinner to better acclimate to the feeling of the makeup on his skin. Even so Roberto cannot keep his countenance for long at the sight before snorting into his salad.

“Do you suppose there’s a way to eat that won’t take my lipstick off?” Hiraga puzzles at a slice of tomato before attempting to cut it into a smaller bite.

“I haven’t the faintest,” Roberto concedes. “I think we may need to do some research.”

After they have eaten, they retreat to the living room space with Hiraga’s laptop, the makeup kits, and another bottle of wine.

“Perhaps something easy.” Roberto refills his glass. “Beginners should start from the beginning.”

“That does sound reasonable.” There is a moment of furious typing. “Ah! This girl can do her makeup in five minutes?!” Roberto leans over to see the screen. The video timer counter does, indeed, read “5:00”.

“I don’t believe that.” Nobody could do this in five minutes. “…click it.”

After dinner, Hiraga retreats to the bedroom for a long moment, abandoning both his glass of wine, and Roberto with his own glass. Roberto does his utmost to politely pace his drink– but stress has him draining the drink and onto a refill by the time the heavy clacking begins. The bedroom door swings open.

Out wobbles Hiraga in a pair of dress shoes, with slim heels nearly as long as Roberto’s forefinger. And wobble he truly does, for he can hardly keep his balance long before bracing himself against the wall. Wine trickles down Roberto’s chin. He’s going to ruin many, many shirts before this mission has run its course.

“They suggest I try wearing them at home to acclimate to the feeling,” Hiraga explains, as Roberto hastily collects himself to join him. Roberto scrubs haphazardly at his jaw and sets his glass down; Hiraga gratefully accepts his proffered arm. He has to lean on Roberto in order to make it to the sofa, and he hits it hard when taking the weight off the balls of his feet. Roberto winces. It must be profoundly uncomfortable. Hiraga tips his head sideways to look at him.

“Supposedly it’s fine to begin seated. I’m told it will get easier as I get used to them.” Roberto lowers himself onto a knee to trace the straining muscle of Hiraga’s foot. He whistles. It’s pulled as tight as it can stretch. “I’ve been practicing. I really thought I’d be able to surprise you.” Roberto works his thumb into the edge of the shoe so he can sink the pad into the arch. It’s so tense.

“You’ve already surprised me plenty in that you can so much as stand. I think of the two of us, you’ve been given a real handicap, my friend.”

On Monday evening, their dance lessons begin. Sister Anna Dolores meets them in a spacious room Roberto did not know had been hidden away in the maze of chambers comprising the Holy Seat. It has long, wide windows that permit sunlight to bathe the room in the colors of summer sunset. Accompanying Anna Dolores are Sister Maura and a nun Roberto doesn’t recognize.

“Sister Maura here used to do theater in her previous life,” she explains, making her introductions. “She’s graciously offered to be your acting coach in preparation for this mission.” Sister Maura extends her hand to shake each of theirs. “And Sister Augustina is knowledgeable enough about dance to teach you the basics.” Sister Augustina, a long, slim woman, greets them with a polite curtsy.

“Now then. Sister Anna Dolores tells me you have a ball to attend?”

“Yes,” Hiraga replies. “We’re on a top-secret mission for her.” Sister Maura’s brows rise in mirth, while Sister Augustina laughs and claps her hands together.

“A top-secret mission!” She’s apt to lose her wimple, so she composes herself to the best of her ability. “Oh, that’s fantastic. Alright, then. I won’t ask about all those classified details.”

“Such as your cover identities, in order to assist you,” Maura adds in amusement. “I wouldn’t worry, she was part of your costume crew. We’re each of us the soul of discretion. If the mission is compromised, you can rest assured it won’t have been us.”

“Who hasn’t wanted to be a spy?” Sister Augustina says. Hiraga gently knocks his knuckles against Roberto’s leg.

“I couldn’t agree more,” he chimes.

Sister Augustina has already taken the liberty of setting up a record player in the corner. This she retreats to long enough to set a record to playing before joining them in the center of the room.

“Now! Let’s begin! Come here, Father Hiraga, Father Roberto. Don’t be shy.” She gestures for each of them to take their places face to face. “Closer, please, you’ll need to be touching for this.”

Sister Augustina brings their hands together, Roberto’s left to Hiraga’s right. Roberto’s unencumbered arm is relocated to Hiraga’s back, between the shoulder blades. He’s so thin, Roberto thinks. One cannot help but worry. The sharp edges of his bones are stark even through the sturdy wool. His hand is feather-light upon Roberto’s arm where Sister Augustina rests it.

“Good, she tells them. "Hands at two o'clock–” she guides their extended hands into place. “Like that. All right. Everyone comfortable?”

Roberto thinks it’s meant as a joke, but one can never be too sure.

“Then we’ll start with a box step. Now comes the tricky part.” Sister Augustina leans into the periphery of his vision, just over Hiraga’s shoulder. She’s winking. “The one where you try not to crush each other’s toes. Brother Roberto– no, Monsieur Devereux. If you will. Take one step back, left foot. Madame Devereux, you follow with your right.” It sounds simple enough. Roberto shifts his weight and begins to raise his foot; Hiraga’s breath stutters as he fumbles to match him. A simple step forward, and yet he teeters precariously. Fortuitous, that he’s not yet been required to try in heels. Sister Augustina catches him deftly and steers him upright.

“Remember, keep your weight balanced.” She eyes their arms, readjusting them for greater security. “You’ll have to pay careful attention to each other’s motions, body awareness is the name of the game.” To Roberto she says: “Your responsibility is to lead without faltering. Your partner depends on the stability of your movements.” To Hiraga she explains: “And you must learn to read your partner’s body carefully. Don’t overthink it, but do feel him, and respond.”

The microscope precision of Hiraga’s gaze strikes him off his guard, for suddenly Hiraga is examining him with that single-minded care he reserves for the most ardent of his passions–- a particularly curious sample, or a clever node upon a go grid. For the half a heartbeat in which he has the chance to acknowledge it, Roberto is able to endure it scanning his belly, his arms, his shoulders, his breast–- but his eyes-– when Hiraga’s eyes meet his, he is suddenly too cognizant of the space between them. Of Hiraga’s hands upon him. Of the body and the blood, and it crushes him helpless as a specimen between two fragile slips of glass.

When they have the evening to their selves for practice, he finds himself better prepared for the duress of Hiraga's attentions. He has his own record player, and his own music he may supply for their practice. Feeling bolstered by the effects of wine with dinner, it is he who makes the suggestion that they make another attempt of it. Hiraga's mouth lies open an instant before he gather his self.

"Yes, I think it's for the best--"

But Roberto may have been liberal in his application of Cabernet to the problem, and his limbs are leaden and aching. Hiraga does his utmost to match his each step, but their legs betray them. The best they are able to manage is a half-hearted sway to the time of the waltz, Hiraga with his palms and his temple at Roberto's breast.

"I feel silly," Roberto admits. "I don't think this constitutes dancing at all."

"Perhaps not," Hiraga says. "But it is very comfortable, and I do think I like this more."

 

It's bumpy going, this project of theirs. Sister Maura shakes her head. “All wrong. Try it again.” She places her hands on Hiraga’s shoulders and presses them downwards. “Put your weight over the small of your back. Keep your motions slow and deliberate.” Hiraga wobbles in place, attempting to do as instructed. His shoulders cannot seem to stay back for long, too accustomed to curling forth over his work. “You are a person who knows their worth– and there’s a great deal of it. Lisette does not need to extend herself to make an impression. Simply let others come to you. Like so.”

A sweeping change comes over Sister Maura’s person, as she steps back half a pace and assumes a posture of quiet command. She lifts a hand slowly, led by the wrist. “Madame Lisette. Monsieur Armand. A pleasure.” Ah, alright. This exercise, Roberto can certainly handle. Moving with great purpose, he accepts her hand, and, dipping a deliberate bow he mimes pressing his lips to it.

“The pleasure is mine, madame.”

“Wrong again.”

Roberto falters.

“I– sorry, what?”

“You shouldn’t be so eager to kiss another woman’s hand in front of your wife.” She turns to Hiraga instead. “Show your deference by allowing Father Hiraga to direct the greetings.” She extracts her hand and slips it instead into Hiraga’s grasp. She holds his hand with delicacy, but unmistakably with intent. “Your greeting is far less formal, but much more difficult. You must demonstrate a carefully constructed openness. Your modus operandi must be cautious– but intimate.”

Hiraga does his best to mimic her gestures, but his own rendition is stiffer by far. And that's not even to speak of the core conceit of their act. Roberto has a horrible feeling in his gut when Sister Maria Fernanda sits them down in the canteen after some week or so of preparation. It can’t be his imagination that she’s exuding more gravity than usual-– and that’s saying something. Even Hiraga seems to have realized the tone of the gathering has shifted, and he sits uneasily with his hands folded upon the table. Sister Maria Fernanda takes a long mouthful from her cup of tea and sets it back down with great deliberateness.

“It’s time we spoke,” she says.

“Alright,” Hiraga agrees gamely, though to what they’ve assented in this meeting is anyone’s guess, Roberto thinks.

“Dear Sister, such foreboding! Surely it isn’t so grave.” Or so Roberto hopes. One is certainly allowed hope, if nothing else.

Sister Maria Fernanda adjusts her weight upon the bench so that her aching back is better supported, and sighs.

“Grave, perhaps not. But I’ve been dreading this bit of your training.” She looks them each squarely in the eye. “It’s the most difficult part– and perhaps the most essential.”

This has Hiraga’s interest almost instantaneously; he’s very much enjoying this little spy game.

“Rest assured that we can handle it, Sister.” He smiles, turning to Roberto to solicit his support. “Can’t we?”

“Of course. We’re prepared to face any of the challenges this assignment may bring. We gave Zion’s Law our word. Please, speak freely.”

Sister Maria Fernanda presses her lips into a line and draws in a deep breath.

“If you’re to pose as a married couple…you’re going to have to be able to act like one.” She eyes them pointedly. Oh. So that’s…well. He doesn’t entirely blame her for her reticence on that matter. Hiraga nods, though, intent as he listens.

“Of course,” he says.

“Good, then we’re understood.” Sister Maria Fernanda picks up her tea again. “Let me see how you hold each other’s hands.”

Roberto looks to Hiraga, who has turned his attention to his hands before him on the table. They are folded neatly, one hand curled atop the other. Hiraga turns the topmost hand over and examines his palm a moment before speaking.

“Hold hands?” He frowns. “I hadn’t thought of that. How careless.” Roberto feels his skin shrink several sizes as Hiraga considers him as well. It’s over fast, but his heart is pounding by the time Hiraga’s eyes fall on his own hands. He swallows.

“Certainly, we can’t-–” he begins, but the twin stares he is met with rebuff any protest. It’s true. They “can’t” nothing, not of what’s been asked of them. Neither Maria Fernanda nor Hiraga needs so much as mount an argument. The battle is already lost.

“You’ll want it to look natural,” Sister Maria Fernanda says, and takes a drink.

“Yes, of course.” Hiraga studies his hand one last time, then lays it palm-up between Roberto and his self. “Then we’d best start practicing.”

It’s as if Roberto's heart is going to drop from his breast. All thought fades into television snow at the sight; He can hardly make sense of his motor controls. His hand clenches instinctively, nerves firing with no direction. Maria Fernanda waves by way of permission. Hiraga speaks to him softly:

“Come, Roberto.”

The real miracle is that his hand moves at all-– and fits itself palm-to-palm with Hiraga’s, fingers woven together. Hiraga’s hand is surprisingly cold, he observes. It’s said to be a sign of poor circulation.

“I don’t think we’re very good at this,” he concedes, with the strangest sensation that the extremity in Hiraga’s grasp is someone else’s entirely. Hiraga gives his hand a gentle squeeze and smiles with an intimate bow of his head.

“I suppose that just means we need a little practice.”

 

It’s easier, Roberto finds, if he pretends they are other people. The conscience of Roberto Nicholas cannot weather the lock of Hiraga’s knuckles between his. But the Operative has no such reservations.

It’s a full-body shock the first time Hiraga takes his hand without warning. There’s a great deal of preparation to be done for the mission: not only the disguises, but the site research as well. Zion’s Law has furnished them with plans of the Château and surrounding town and countryside, profiles of several attendees of interest, and a game plan for the evening’s surveillance and interference. It’s a lot to commit to memory, and their frequent dinners become nightly instead.

One night when exhaustion has overcome them too much to put in a real evening’s work, they manage to scare up an old spy film with far too many explosions for Roberto’s taste, and too few gadgets for Hiraga’s. But they pass a pleasant evening analyzing the leading role’s methodology  -–“unorthodox and inadvisable”, they’ve been warned of such films–- and wondering how theirs might fare in comparison.

“I thought memory-wiping pens weren’t real.” Roberto finds the words heavy on his tongue from this glass of wine, the number he knows not which. Hiraga’s head falls back against the backrest. He squints in focus.

“It could probably be done, though. The basic technology is there, the problem is being sure of how to apply it. If one were to target certain neural pathways, it should be a simple matter of resetting the connections. Like a computer.” He flicks a finger, as if shutting off an unseen monitor. “Beep.”

He’s so serious about it that Roberto cannot help but laugh.

“If there were anyone who could do it, I’m certain it would be you,” Roberto admits. Hiraga’s cool hand closes around his. Tipsy as he is, Roberto can only lie limp and allow it.

“We’re going to save the day,” Hiraga says, giddiness creeping into his voice. Well, goodness, Roberto thinks, when he puts it that way-–

It becomes as natural to their way as all else they share. Dinner, research, and preparation. Hiraga will take his hand without provocation, simply to acclimate to the sensation. And slowly, Roberto finds himself acclimating just the same.

“Dear,” Hiraga says to him, seated beside him at the counter one night, nearly startling his wine from his throat. Roberto fumbles for his napkin and dabs at the liquid streaming down his chin. It’s a lost cause, however, and he can feel the wine soaking into his collar. Hiraga regards him with wide eyes, pushing his chair out to stand. “Heavens, Roberto-–”

Roberto holds up a hand to pacify him. Oh, damn it all, the last thing he needs is another ruined shirt. “I’m– fine–” The words are raw in his throat. Hiraga purses his lips, but concentrates his efforts on drying the laptop screen instead.

“I thought it would help the illusion,” he says at last, when there’s nothing left he can do. The blueprints of the château are streaked in iridescent pixels where the wine has left tracks on the screen; Hiraga sits with his hands in his lap.

“It’s certainly effective,” Roberto concedes. In some manner, to say the least. Though his heart has not yet calmed down by the time he has finished changing. Hiraga is not wrong. They will need to outdo themselves if they are to survive the night; he hasn’t the luxury of harboring any misgivings. The stained shirt he treats as quickly as he can and he outfits himself with a new one. Hiraga is still quietly reviewing etiquette tutorials when Roberto returns.

“Are you alright, Roberto?”

Roberto braces his self, head swimming, for what he knows he must do.

“Yes.” God above, his mouth has never felt so dry. “Yes, thank you…darling.”

As Roberto pushes back into his seat on the stool, Hiraga settles a hand around his once more. Roberto watches, helpless, as Hiraga gathers it to his lips and brushes his lips to the bare skin on the back.

"I'm glad."

Roberto does not, in fact, meet his demise by grace of his training-- though it is a near thing. So long as he wraps his self in the shroud of the Operative, he can endure it. After all, they are still their selves. Hiraga is still brilliant, a stroke of divinity made flesh, his partner. And once the mission has ended, nothing will change. If it's only a role he puts on for a short while, he can endure the warmth of Hiraga's fingers between his. Hiraga's kindnesses and sweet words cannot eat away at his will. What does threaten to undo him is the training.

Sister Maura positions Hiraga's right hip against his left, fitting the two of them to an intimate distance so Hiraga might thread an arm through the bend of Roberto's elbow.

"Remember, chin down. That's the important part." She adjusts Hiraga's silhouette until she's satisfied. With a nod to denote her approval, she moves on to their hold. "And try to use both arms, dear. Hand on his arm. You love him. He loves you." To Roberto, she amends: "Try to walk more from your hips. I need to see more gravity in your motions." Roberto understands, in theory-- though she'd lost him there momentarily.

 

Of course, their regular duties aren’t to fall to the wayside. Roberto’s translations are expected on schedule, and while Hiraga is able to secure some shift changes at the lab, Roberto must meet him for their Wednesday practice session in the late afternoon.

He’s not quite sure what he expected. Awaiting his arrival is a tea service, seemingly arranged by Sister Maria Fernanda’s crack team. The nuns are gathered about the table, talking, laughing, and spreading sparkling red jam onto pastry.

And in their midst, looking quite beside himself with dread, is none other than poor Hiraga in a simple white shift. It’s ill-fitting and gapes about his breast and wrists. His makeup has been done again, and his hair combed back smooth. He sits with his spine straight, turning his own flaky morsel this way and that, as if a solution to his white cotton quandary lies hidden between the layers of dough. One of the nuns, Roberto knows not who, lays a hand upon Hiraga’s shoulder and mutters something into his ear.

Whatever she has said, it hasn’t quite allayed his doubts– Hiraga surrenders his treat to his plate and begins to work the edge of a fork into it instead, frowning with the effort. Roberto is able to corral the threat of laughter into a quiet clearing of his throat to announce his arrival instead.

“Good evening, Sisters, Brother Hiraga.” He comes to stand behind Hiraga’s chair, hands clasped behind his back as he peers at the table spread. “I do hope you won’t mind if I join you.”

Sister Maria Fernanda sits back in her seat with regal ease. Sister Anna Dolores hides her smile behind her cup. “We’ve had quite the project in training your partner here today.” Maria Fernanda gestures broadly to the table. “May as well sit down and join us. We’ll need to see the damage.”

Roberto can’t help the blush of pride that his table manners pass muster. Though he also cannot help taking it personally that his gestural language must be adjusted to fit his role. The deliberate movements of a man of means don’t come as naturally to him, as much as the graceful movement of a woman of means don’t come to Hiraga. There’s camaraderie to be found in their shortcomings, at least. For when he sneaks a glance Hiraga’s way, Hiraga smiles right back.

After table training comes yet more practice with their postures and gaits. The team produces a heavily padded bodysuit for him to wear, which gives him a more distinguished appearance to match his more-distinguished age in his role. The movements are easier to adopt with a form to match– Hiraga and he fall into a comfortable pace around the perimeter of the room. Hiraga leans in close to speak with him. It feels horribly intimate.

“You’ve gotten quite good at this,” Hiraga observes. “I think you might have made an excellent secret agent.” His eyes, though kohled and lacquered unrecognizable, shine with delight.

“You flatter me,” Roberto responds, though his heart lurches in his breast to be so esteemed in Hiraga’s regard.

“Back straight, Father Hiraga!” Sister Maura calls from across the room, though her voice is leaden with fatigue. Well. That must have been the afternoon’s struggle, then. Without complaint, Hiraga adjusts his weight over the small of his back so that his shoulders are level again. Roberto adjusts his weight in turn, so that he is walking from his hips. It’s an awkward sensation, but not half so awkward as Hiraga’s breath on his skin.

“Hardly. It isn’t flattery if it’s true. I do admire how capable you are.” He stops where he stands, looking up at Roberto. Without warning, his hand finds Roberto’s jaw and he rises up on his toes– to press a kiss to the corner of Roberto’s mouth.

“Excellent, Father Hiraga!” Sister Maura’s slow applause echoes through the room in time with Roberto’s faltering pulse. “Father Roberto, reaction! Faster!”

God take it all. Roberto can hardly master his self quickly enough– he takes Hiraga by the waist and rests his forehead upon Hiraga’s.

“My word, but you’re much better at disarming a foe than I, old friend.” His voice cannot shed itself of the laughter within. Mirth gathers the muscles of Hiraga’s face taut. And Sister Maura’s applause sounds very far away.

“There you go! Much better.”

“You needn’t be so reserved,” Hiraga tells him, stroking his thumb along Roberto’s cheek. “You know I trust you with my life.”

“I– ” Roberto swallows, though not without effort. “Your esteem is too kind,” he is able to say.

“As is your consideration.” Hiraga rises up on his toes to kiss Roberto again. This time his lips find Roberto’s in full, and though the kiss is gentle and chaste Hiraga takes his time in indulging it. It is a strange sensation with the Sisters watching from the wings, and it is this knowledge which grounds Roberto in his time of need.

“You may touch me, you know,” Hiraga says quietly, when he has drawn away at last. “I do not mind.”


He does his utmost to restrain his self, but it is a horrid balance to maintain. Hiraga holds his hand when he may: graceless, to be sure, but with such casual comfort that one could easily be mistaken in one’s reading of it. His hands are Roberto’s saving grace. Although Hiraga may see no issue in gathering Roberto to him for a kiss, Roberto must draw the line somewhere, lest his heart give out on him.

He permits himself the liberty of running his fingers along the backs of Hiraga’s hands. Or, when divine inspiration leads Hiraga to touch his cheek, Roberto will allow himself to linger with his hand upon Hiraga’s. Something of it seems to sit ill with Hiraga, though Roberto dares not ask Hiraga to give yet more of his self. Permission it is, perhaps, but what else?

And in such a manner, the days pass all too quickly.

 

The morning of Achille de Gaulle’s Lac d'Or soirée dawns golden and clear upon their flight’s departure. Naturally, everything has been pre-arranged by Zion’s Law, and while Fathers Roberto Nicholas and Kou Josef Hiraga depart from Rome, it is Armand and Lisette Devereux who hail a cab from the terminal of their arrival.

It isn’t so drastic a change just yet, the both of them still in casual wear. Hiraga has donned a sunhat and sunglasses, as well as applied some lipstick while changing in the solo restroom. Roberto has removed his own knit hat to reveal his hair, now run through with streaks of silver, and donned a set of thick-rimmed glasses. And then there is the earpiece. His earpiece, along with Hiraga’s earrings for the evening, will play host to their communications with Anna Dolores in her workstation. The rest of their disguises can be addressed later, he supposes. He isn’t feeling too keen on sweating under the bulk the padding of his will afford. So long as they pass for other people at a glance, it will do.

As designated for the fête’s more-circumspect attendees, the cab leaves them at the back entrance of a sprawling château seated upon the famed Lac d'Or. The venue is beautiful, Roberto must admit. The drive up brings them through garden and grove in the manicured style of the French aristocracy. Up close, the manor itself is no less spectacular. What appear to be guest wings and satellite edifices connect to the main body of the château by way of arched bridge galleries at the northern and southern wings. Roberto identifies a chapel and a keep from their vantage point, before a liveried staffer collects their forged invitation and ushers them to their room.

“Compliments of the host,” Roberto sighs, turning over the paper card upon the marble console by the window. He draws back the curtain with a finger. Other guests are arriving sporadically, it seems, and with varying degrees of surreptitiousness. There is a muffled sound as Hiraga’s back hits the soft bedding of the massive four-poster that forms the centerpiece of the chamber. When Roberto turns, he finds Hiraga is lying with his hat upon his belly, sunglasses escaped to the crown of his head and quickly making way for the bedtop as well. “He’s provided champagne.”

“Monsieur de Gaulle must be hoping to court a great deal of favor tonight,” Hiraga remarks. Roberto defers his reconnaissance a moment to inspect the label of the bottle instead.

“A house vintage. Curious.” He holds the bottle up to the light. It doesn’t look as though it’s been tampered with, but Anna Dolores has cautioned them to be careful even so. Bit of a shame, it does feel like a waste. “I don’t recall seeing vineyards on the way in.” Hiraga tips his head to watch Roberto.

“Me either. Are they common for such estates?”

“Some yes, some no.” Roberto sets the bottle back down and lies upon the opposite side of the bed from Hiraga, their head's level with one another.

They’re both fouled from the flight and the ground legs of the trip and showers are more than due for them both. And yet beneath the layers of grit and grime, Hiraga still smells like his self. Certainly Galdoune won’t know them by scent– he thinks. Roberto turns his head, just a few degrees, to peek at Hiraga lying lax at his side. Hiraga’s eyes are closed. Nevertheless, Roberto averts his.

“Tired already, my dear?” This question he directs towards the silks of the canopy.

Hiraga exhales.

“I think the carsickness took a bit out of me. I’m feeling better now, though.”

“Mm. We’ve several hours of daylight yet. The party won’t begin until seven. Perhaps some sleep is in order? Before we begin our preparations, that is.” Roberto hasn’t attended such a high-profile affair before, but he imagines the personal grooming involved must be extensive. “And a preliminary survey of our terrain, if there’s time.” He pushes up onto an arm and it is then that Hiraga looks upon him.

“Mm. I like this plan. Would you like to rest, then?” Hiraga moves, beginning with his shoulders, as if to make room on the bed to fit them both.

Heart leaping, Roberto stops him with a hand on his arm.

“It might be best if we take shifts,” he says, voice distant in his own ears. “That way one of us will always be able to keep on alert for danger.” Hiraga’s face falls, so Roberto adds: “I don’t mind taking second shift. My book’s just gotten very good.”

Roberto reads a while by the window, enjoying the view it affords of the estate. The book is airport nonsense, and it hasn’t his attention so rapt as he’d promised. The estate is very beautiful, however, and it’s no great sacrifice to pass the better part of an hour watching birds alight on the sills. Some of the bolder ones he furnishes with seeds from their luggage snacks. He hasn’t quite made friends by the end of the hour, but it’s heartening to have fewer hostiles about. Guests continue to arrive, though Roberto cannot discern much through the tinted car windows before each vehicle pulls behind the building and out of sight.

When Hiraga’s breathing begins to lose its even rhythm, Roberto decides he may as well get a head start on running a bath. The washroom is as luxurious as the rest of the suite. The tub is a pretty antique thing on four clawed legs, and the furnishings all marble. The room is equipped with comforts to anticipate one’s reasonable needs–- and a few less reasonable. One of the ceramic dispensers pumps a lavender-scented gel that froths under running water; Roberto takes the liberty of adding it to the tub as well and is pleased to find it disperse into a rich foam.

Hiraga greets him from the edge of the bed, upright but still quite bleary. He’s got his legs folded and the heel of his hand pressed into the vale of an eye as he asks:

“Was I asleep long?”

Roberto scours the inside of the room’s resident wardrobe until he is able to produce two terrycloth robes.

“Only an hour,” he reassures Hiraga. “Sleep as much as you require, I expect we’ll need it tonight.”

“Ah, yes. The business of saving the day. I think I’m alright, though.”

“I’ve found bubble bath,” Roberto offers, and checks the time on his phone. A little before four. He could get some rest during Hiraga’s bath, allowing time for them both to dress as needed. This is the plan. And naturally, plans do have a way of becoming derailed.

The mountains of bubbles in the tub dwarf Hiraga. Roberto knows he ought to hurry and see to that nap, but the expression of pleasure on Hiraga’s face is such that he can’t bring himself to abandon the sight just yet. Hiraga rests his arms on the side of the tub to look at Roberto, seated beside him on the stool.

“I take it you approve, then?” Roberto sweeps a finger through the clouds of foam, depositing the puff he gathers onto Hiraga’s forehead. Hiraga laughs softly. Through the bubbles, Roberto can see him rolling his shoulders and stretching against the aches of their trip. When Hiraga settles again, it’s with contentment suffusing his form.

“It’s wonderful, thank you.” He lowers his chin onto his arms. “You needn’t delay on my account,” he reminds Roberto. “I have this much covered, I think.”

Roberto has a strange sleep, and uncertain dreams.


When Roberto surrenders to wakefulness, Hiraga has dried his self and sat down at the bedroom vanity. He has his robe fastened at the waist but has allowed the upper portion to sit loose at his hips as he combs his damp hair back from his face. He is emptying a small measure of clear gel into his palm at the moment Roberto sits up, and works carefully to smooth it into place in sections so that he is still working when Roberto joins him at the mirror.

"How is our time?" He asks, standing behind him to watch. The new style lends Hiraga a look of uncharacteristic meticulousness; at the same time, his features seem rounder, and less his own.

"It's not yet five," Hiraga replies, and gathers the hair at his nape in the back. He's permitted it to grow in some for the disguise, and the fine cut of it underneath has vanished. Roberto swallows. "You'll have plenty of time for a bath."

"Even so, I should, ah." Hiraga watches Roberto's reflection; Roberto's pulse swells in his ears. "Should get started, then. To explore some before we go." His retreat to the tub is shamefully transparent.

 

There's time enough to take a short walk around the guest wing. It appears most are opting for discretion and remaining in their chambers when they are not masked. The guest wing isn't so extensive as Roberto had at first thought, and it takes him ten minutes to traverse the full length of it. Perhaps another five to descend the stairs to the next floor down, where he finds the layout is much the same. He takes his time in making his way back, pretending to inspect the historic interior of the château. Nothing of the space stands out in such a way as to suggest Galdoune may be basing their activity there. Roberto can only infer that their operations are being run from the part of the building in which the studies and offices lie. Which will mean that they will need to mount the most intensive portion of their investigation during the evening's main event.

It shouldn't be so much trouble so long as they are not recognized, and are not missed.

Hiraga is barely dressed by the time Roberto returns to their suite. Roberto opens the door to find him standing before the mirror in only stockings, underwear, and a cincher for his waist. Their dedicated costumers have really spared no detail. To accompany the crimson dress and black trimmings are a set of matched undergarments and shapewear– the delicate rippling weave of the cincher. The fasteners, so dainty Roberto fears to touch them. A web of ribbon, perhaps, or something like it suspends the stockings from his waist. And Hiraga is struggling with an adjustment cord at the small of his back.

“Roberto,” he breathes, and turns to face him properly. He is flushed, lips swollen from where he has worried at them with his teeth as he worked. Roberto keeps his gaze studiously fixed upon Hiraga’s forehead. “Perhaps I could have some help with this? I can’t seem to get the tension right on my own.”

Hiraga braces his forearms against the wall beside the bed to offer Roberto his back. Heaven help him– Roberto takes hold of the satin laces in one hand, presses another to the seam of eyelets along Hiraga’s spine, and slowly begins to pull.

He fears to pull too roughly. He couldn't forgive himself if he were to injure Hiraga, and Hiraga sucks in a breath as if in pain. "Easy," Roberto tells him, stroking where the cincher gives way to skin. "Just breathe out a bit. Gently, now."

Hiraga does as he is bid and the eyelets draw closer together.

"One more time."

Hiraga breathes in gently, and then out again. Roberto pulls. The cincher settles into a neat curve at Hiraga's waist. Roberto ties this off quickly, and Hiraga sighs his relief.

"That's only the first of the gauntlet," Hiraga laughs.

Roberto considers himself fortunate, that his own toilette takes considerably less effort. He’s forbidden to fuss too aggressively with his hair, and so he instead resigns himself to combing it from his face. It makes his forehead look rather exposed. The grey threaded through it helps, for he does have the strangest sense of disembodiment when faced with his own reflection.

Hiraga sits at the vanity mirror, coaxing an even line from his kohl pencil. A little attention with a sponge at the pencil’s other end replicates the intended look quite passably. The theory of it is simple, though Roberto doesn’t envy him the task. He dutifully discards his daywear, girding his self for the packaging-in ahead. If duty doesn’t claim him tonight, the heat of so many layers just may do the trick.

“Each time, it feels as if I’m defusing a bomb,” Hiraga says, sitting back when he is satisfied. “One wrong move could be my undoing.” He spies Roberto shrugging into his evening shirt with some difficulty. It clings to the fabric of his bodysuit, and Roberto is left stumbling around to leverage his arms into the sleeves. Hiraga rises to help him into his clothes.

“You needn’t,” Roberto assures him, taking Hiraga’s hands in his. “Heaven knows you’ve got enough to manage as it is.”  He squeezes Hiraga’s hands gently.

“Nonsense.” Hiraga slips free of his hold to fumble with the fasteners of Roberto’s shirt. “Let me help you as you’ve helped me.” He’s inexpert with the minute white buttons, barely visible but for their silhouettes in the light. His focus is intense–- and Roberto thanks God and Sister Anna Dolores for both Hiraga’s inattentiveness to detail and the security of so much padding alike, for Hiraga surely won’t feel the speeding of his heartbeat as his hands pass by. Hiraga lingers at the topmost button, splaying his bare hands against the rows of delicate pin tucks. Roberto thinks his heart might stop. Hiraga is looking him over, picking him apart with those eyes. His gaze flickers from throat to temples to meet Roberto’s eyes and back again.

“I don’t know how to tie a tie,” he concedes, mercifully drawing away. He busies himself reading upon the bed while Roberto diverts his focus into completing his preparations. He commits himself to the process with more intent than necessary, deliberate with each step of the way. He fits to perfection the tie, the white vest, the coat, the cufflinks, lapel pin, and so on and so forth. It's all quite stodgy-looking for his own tastes, but Armand Devereux is perhaps just as stodgy. He checks his hair. And then he checks his hair again-- and leaves it. Armand Devereux would perhaps also not be quite so particular as Roberto Nicholas, he thinks.

He is unprepared for the sight before him on the bed when he is finished. For the full effect of Hiraga's disguise is…

Incredible.

He has never known beauty to be an experience of the body, never like this. Michael and Madonna alike, Baroque and beautiful, at his repose upon the bed. Hiraga has begun to doze while reading, darkened lashes fluttering in vain against the siren call of more sleep. The silk of his dress (disguise, Roberto reminds himself) pools around his knees, gloves forgotten, slung over his hip. Drawing closer, Roberto peers at his throat. It’s wrapped carefully in a cascade of jewels. He thinks if he put his fingers to the jewels, he might feel where the swell of Hiraga’s larynx gives him away.

Hiraga stirs.

“Darling,” he murmurs. Try as he may, he cannot will away the somnolence with each blink.

“You don’t have to keep up the charade in here,” Roberto reminds him, coming to sit beside him on the bed. “Our room is for relaxing.”

Hiraga rolls his shoulders and shuts off the digital reader so that he may better acquaint himself with Roberto’s disguise. The grey hairs at his temples make his reflection seem another man. “I’ve always thought it would be so exciting to be a spy. Have I ever told you that?" 

Twenty minutes remain until the party begins, and so, like spies, they take the opportunity to review the blueprints they've been supplied of the château. The private studies lie just off the gallery adjacent to the ballroom. It wouldn't be an especially long trip out of the way. But they will need to plan their investigation carefully, so as not to be caught in the act.

"It would be a nice bonus if you could manage it," Anna Dolores admits. "However, we'd be quite satisfied if you were able to monitor de Gaulle's activity through the evening. The ideal situation would be your establishing a rapport. If he's interested in your support, we'd arrange something that would give us an in to his financials. So get out there and be the most charming investors you can be!"

Right. Sure. How very simple she makes it sound. Roberto sighs, rolling up the blueprints and hiding them away in his belongings. Hiraga has retrieved his mask, a pretty red thing that covers only the upper part of his face. It's as delicate as a Carnival mask and lined with black beads and piping, and Hiraga begins to tie it into place. Roberto's own mask is, conversely, a near photo negative of it, made of sculpted black leather and detailed in fine red. All together, they are a handsome picture to behold. How curious, he thinks, that they really don't resemble their selves any longer. Some sort of espionage magic, he grants. He takes heart in this as they make for the door.

"Just a moment," Hiraga says, pausing at the threshold. "A kiss for good luck?" His voice changes, suddenly, sitting back in his throat and easing into a far more lurid register. "My dear?"

The masks do make it unwieldy, but Roberto never could deny him what he wished. Roberto does not have more than an instant to reach for his mask to hold it in place before Hiraga seizes him by the arm. He's entirely defenseless. To Hiraga's credit, it's the perfect opportunity to pull him close and seal their lips together. Perhaps it is something chemical and unseen that makes Hiraga’s scent so heady to breathe, and his bare shoulders so intoxicating. In spite of the felt backing, the mask is cutting into Roberto's nose. He suspects he is tellingly slow in pulling away.

Hiraga applies his lipstick afresh and they depart for the battlefield.

And a lovely battlefield it is. The grand ballroom of the Château du Lac d'Or has been fitted with a massive chandelier and boasts a floor-to-ceiling window with a view overlooking the famed lake. The evening's crowd is eager and has begun to swell to fill the venue before Hiraga and Roberto arrive. Polite conversation buzzes away over the sound of a small chamber ensemble. They linger a moment at the window to enjoy the vista.

"How beautiful," Hiraga remarks, nearly pressing his self up against the window.

Roberto bastions him with an arm at his waist, to keep him at a safe distance from pushing through the glass.

"A scenic vision," he agrees. "And on such a fine night. The moon is very beautiful." A staffer with a tray of glasses passes them by. "Wine, my dearest?"

"Oh," Hiraga follows his glance, masked features lighting up. "Why, yes, thank you." The change in his carriage and his speech is remarkable. There's no doubt about that. He moves with the grace of one accustomed to eyes upon their self. Roberto signals to one of the waiters and steals them each a glass. For a while they hold position at the window, making small talk and monitoring the floor. Roberto may not be a spy, but he would be hard pressed to believe that the host of a party would put forth such effort and not show face. Julia will be here somewhere, sooner or later.

They are able to finish the first of their drinks without incident, and so Roberto makes an executive decision. Having returned their empty glasses to capable hands, he turns to Hiraga and bows, providing him with his upturned hand.

"Now. If my dearest would honor me with a dance?"

Roberto’s heart misses a step when Hiraga smiles; Hiraga curtsies regally and takes the proffered hand.

"I'd be honored, kind sir.”

Roberto imagines holding the delicate wrist to his lips. The gloves are silk. Beneath, Hiraga’s hands are still dry, flaking from his work in the lab. But Hiraga’s laugh is lovely, low, and kind.

“Oh, no,” Roberto assures him. “The honor is entirely mine.”

A slow waltz is easy enough that they manage a dance without incident.

"Good, good." Anna Dolores' voice is a comfort as it returns to his ear. "Spend some time blending in. You are here for a ball, after all."

Roberto makes a sound of assent, one he hopes will pass for human idleness to the casual listener within earshot. The music takes a stately meter, and Roberto leads Hiraga on into another dance. Four songs appears to have done the trick, for when they break again to refresh their selves with some water, Roberto discovers a small contingent of older gentlemen watching them. Peculiar. But perhaps not threatening in and of itself. He tips his drink towards them; this seems to be all the excuse their audience requires to bid them join in the conversation.

"I couldn't help watching," one gentleman says, in a golden mask and heavily mustachioed. "You two cut quite the striking figure." He addresses Hiraga: "And you're a lovely dancer. Might I be so privileged as to make your acquaintance?"

“You're too kind. I am Lisette.” Hiraga curtsies, smiling very intentionally shyly. These last four years, Roberto has known Hiraga to blush at nothing. He has been practicing, Roberto thinks. Hiraga accepts the hand he is given and allows his to be kissed.

“And Monsieur?” Their masked companion turns to Roberto.

“Armand.” Roberto likewise allows the gentleman a handshake. “Armand De–”

Dear,” Hiraga cuts in, resting a palm against the small of his back. It’s quite warm. Hiraga taps his own mask playfully.

“Ah. Of course. Thank you, love.” Their companion studies them, expression unreadable behind his disguise.

“Yes, well. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

"Could I borrow you for a dance, Madamoiselle?"

Hiraga shoots a look towards Roberto as if by way of apology.

"Madame, rather," he corrects the gentleman. "But by all means."

(It is true. It's a pleasure even just to watch Hiraga dance.)

In the seating along the wings, Roberto swirls the wine in his glass, watching the scarlet sparkle under the light of the chandeliers. In his earpiece, Anna Dolores is preparing to sign off.

“That’s alright. It’s all part of the surveillance game. Just keep your eyes open! I’ll be back in a few minutes, I need to go feed–” but the connection surges and crackles, before cutting off at last. And Roberto is alone with his wine, his grey hairs, and the padding in his suit. At the very least, the wine is good quality stuff; he is perhaps a little liberal in his consumption. Only slightly.

He counts two waltzes and a particularly brooding sarabande before Hiraga can excuse himself to rejoin him in the wings. Hiraga’s chest rises and staggers to evenness as he takes a seat; piling himself into the chair with so much skirt to negotiate requires all his training to be in play. Roberto spares a glance to each side to ensure they are relatively at leisure to speak. But one can never be too careful, he supposes.

“I see you’re in high demand, my dear,” Roberto says, as Hiraga liberates the glass of wine and sips at the remaining contents. His long lashes flutter with satisfaction as the wine reaches his tongue.

“It’s rather the exacting crowd.” Hiraga coughs softly to clear his throat, and takes another mouthful of wine. “So far no sign of Ju– ah. Our friend. Though I think I’ve spotted a man who looks quite a lot like his compatriot. The man in the half-moon mask, it's terribly showy, you couldn't miss it. He’s off the dancefloor for now, but he’s been making contact with a number of guests. I imagine he will be back.”

Roberto catalogues this information: light hair, imperious manner, conspicuous taste in jewelry. At an affair such as this, just about anyone might match the description. Hiraga tips his head curiously.

“It’s alright,” he promises. “I’d recognize his voice– I’ve got an excellent memory for these things.”

“Goodness.” Roberto sighs. “I’m beginning to feel just the slightest bit extraneous!” He taps Hiraga with his elbow, jostling the whole silken affair and the wineglass alike. Hiraga laughs, covering the glass with a hand so that it does not spill. (Which of the nuns taught him that?) “I hardly know what to say.”

“Hush, you. You needn’t say anything at all. Just stay by my side.”

Roberto must weigh his reply cautiously.

"...I should like nothing more." Still no sign of their marks in the ballroom. It's becoming suspicious, and Roberto does not like to think that their time will have been wasted. It isn't yet late, either. There are still other options available to them. "I think I will go for some air," he says, hoping to have impressed his meaning upon Hiraga. Hiraga makes as if to set aside his wine, looking this way and that for somewhere he may offload it. Roberto puts a hand to his knee to stop him. He is careful to meet Hiraga's eyes this time, and then askance towards the more official wing of the château. "I urge you to enjoy the party at your leisure."

"Oh." Hiraga turns his focus towards the surface of the wine in his glass. Ah, there. So he has understood. Roberto takes his cheek in one hand and draws him close.

"I'll be careful, I promise. Wait for me."

He won't be long.

It should be safe, at very least, for him to begin his investigations if Hiraga has one eye on the dancefloor. And it will certainly be easier for him to negotiate any contingencies that arise. In his padded suit, admittedly, but far easier than Hiraga might.

He begins this undertaking with a fresh glass of wine in hand. The Château du Lac d'Or, a former summer retreat for nobles prior to the Revolution, had been left untouched by the flames of unrest; consequently, the interior has been largely well-preserved. Much of the decor and furnishings are original, or so Roberto’s research would indicate. And it plays host to a remarkable private collection of art.

Roberto strolls one of the quieter galleries, paneled in gilded oak and lined in rich portraiture. They’re masterful pieces, if a bit married to pomp. He struts up to a tableau of three white-wigged young ladies posed as Classical goddesses of the seasons. When he has spent quite enough time with the young Comtesses du Lac d'Or, he moves on to a portrait of the patriarch with hunting hounds and globe.

Cover thus established, Roberto sips at his wine in what he hopes is an insouciant manner. He casts a glance to his left, and to his right– and leans his self casually into the closed room off the corridor.

“Where are you now?” Anna Dolores comes back on the line. Roberto speaks quietly, between his teeth.

“East wing, main gallery. I’d like to find that study.”

On his end of the line, Hiraga’s voice is faint.

“Second target is back, I see him,” Hiraga whispers. “Roberto, stay there. I’ll distract him.” There is a bone-wrenching sound of something dragging across the earpiece, perhaps Hiraga fussing with his hair. There is a faint exchange as Hiraga politely hands his glass off; Roberto sighs, but eases himself into the room. A quick look tells him he hasn’t found his mark. It seems to be a receiving chamber with a low table and some admirably reconstructed chairs in the rococo style, but not much in the way of evidence. On to the next chamber, then.

“Monsieur,” he hears Hiraga say, slight of breath for his rush to the floor.

“Madame.” A moment’s silence. Roberto can envision it, Rutherford bowing excessively for Hiraga’s benefit. Perhaps kissing his hand. “Stunning, truly. And an honor to make your acquaintance. I trust you’ve been enjoying yourself this evening?”

The next chamber is more promising– a library of sorts. The desk is small and the storage space minimal. That in itself is indicative of nothing.

“I’ve found the study,” he says.

“Good,” comes Anna Dolores' approval.

“It’s been lovely. Though lovelier still if you could humor me for a dance.” Good God, how on earth did they teach him that tone? Even without a visual, the sweetness of Hiraga’s voice creeps down Roberto’s spine like heavy treacle. He shivers, closing the door behind him. First comes the desk. He smooths his hands over the wood as he thinks. The dance will buy him a few minutes, but he ought to work fast. Searching the drawers yields some expensive-looking writing supplies, but nothing especially incriminating. It doesn’t appear to have seen much recent use, it’s almost a set piece.

The song ends, and the band segues into a new waltz. Rutherford speaks, evidently having not seen a need to end their dancing. “Such a dazzling necklace,” he observes. “Do you fancy diamonds?”

“I like them well enough,” Hiraga replies, though it sounds as if his focus is on the placement of his feet. Roberto supposes it could be mistaken for a casual affect. “Do you?”

Rutherford laughs.

“You could say I’ve got a personal interest.”

The other most likely suspect is the bookshelf. He doesn’t spot any books to immediately raise brows, but he spends a few minutes poking and prodding at their housings to check for hiding places. One doesn’t leave one’s ill gains out in the open, of course.

He discovers proverbial gold hidden in a false book, easily identified by the scent of the adhesive used to bind such devices together. It stands out like a sore thumb among the others, and Roberto levers it free of the shelf. Within the hollowed-out volume of an outdated encyclopedia is a thin sheaf of papers. Contracts of some sort, or some type of legal document. Roberto hurriedly works his phone free of his pocket and sets to the task of snapping pictures. He cannot make much of the matter of the papers, nor of the names of the co-signatories, but he recognizes the flourish with which 'Achille de Gaulle' has adorned these pages. If they find nothing else tonight, then this at least may aid Anna Dolores in her work.

The waltz dies down into a song in a minor key. Roberto can hear Hiraga thanking Rutherford for the dances. Hastily, he tucks the papers back into the book and restores it to its place. It won't be prudent to be missed for too long, besides. He checks briefly that everything is to rights and makes his exit.

 Someone outside is running down the corridor.

“Darling!” Hiraga is flushed, skirt gathered up in his hands so that he might jog ever so slightly faster without tripping on his own hem. Roberto certainly hopes he hasn’t run all the way from the ballroom to the east wing. “Ah, that is–” He corrects himself, slowing as he approaches. “Dear.” He tips his head knowingly, lips curling into a sweet smile. “There you are.” Roberto casts a look about the gallery. It’s clear, so they may yet be alright.

Roberto leans in close to take Hiraga’s arm. From afar, they ought to look in intimate conversation. “I was able to get some photographs, though I hadn’t the chance to read all of the documents. Sister, will that suffice?”

“Splendid!” Anna Dolores applauds. “It sounds as if you’ve got things under control for the moment. As soon as you’re able, do send those images– encrypted connection please! And I’ll go check in on another team.”

With a dull click, the connection cuts, and the two of them are alone. Hiraga winds his hands about Roberto’s forearm.

“Marvelous, you’re really very good at this!” Roberto takes a moment to prepare to send the requested photos. How does one check the security of the connection again? Hiraga leans over his arm and swipes a few of the necessary settings into place. Roberto laughs.

“I dare say you’ve been holding your own this evening as well.” He bumps Hiraga with his elbow. “My dearest.” Hiraga’s smile cracks into something altogether less practiced– but more radiant by far. He casts his eyes left– then right– and draws Roberto aside into the shadow of a velvet curtain. Roberto stumbles along his trail.

“What,” he too turns to check behind himself. “Have we been spotted?”

Without a word, Hiraga cups his gloved hands about Roberto’s face and rises forth to touch his lips to his jaw. They’re so soft. His heart stutters. Their masks catch, sequins scratching upon silk. When Hiraga pulls back, he recompenses the loss with his fingers in the hair at the nape of Roberto’s neck. He’s close enough still that Roberto can feel the ghost of his breath, shrouded as they are in the curtain’s folds.

“Perhaps it’s not appropriate of me to say with the stakes being what they are, but I’ve been having so much fun.” He strokes the ridge of Roberto’s spine with his thumb. Roberto allows his hands to settle upon Hiraga’s waist, stiffened to alienness by his disguise. It’d be disingenuous to deny he’s felt the same– and uncharitable to allow Hiraga to suffer his doubts alone.

“I can’t deny it’s been thrilling,” he concedes. “It’s very…” Hiraga looks up at him, ecstatic, and his thoughts falter. “…well, it’s very cool.”

“Yes! Precisely!” Hiraga steps back until his hands rest just at the tip of Roberto’s grasp, and gives him a sly glance. “Look, I’ve even come prepared.” He releases Roberto to begin gathering up the hem of his skirt, layers of silk and tulle crackling in his grasp. Roberto swallows hard, forcing his gaze steady until Hiraga’s bared to the thigh and grinning for the cleverness of his plan. “See?”

At first Roberto thinks he is seeing things. Perhaps it is the nerves of the mission, or the strain of maintaining all the evening’s masquerades. Perhaps he has been too liberal with the wine. But no–- Roberto drops to his knees right then and there. It’s not a hallucination. (Unless, he supposes, someone has been at the bar supply with cocaine – stranger things have happened.)

Fitted about Hiraga’s bared thigh is a neat, black suspended garter. And tucked into a strap on the garter, flush to his pulse, is a flat blade. It’s more a slip of metal than anything, but it’s a blade none the less.

“You weren’t joking,” Roberto breathes. He puts his fingers to the satin strap holding the weapon in place.

“Of course not.” Hiraga regards him with faint curiosity, skirt still hiked up his hip. “I didn’t think I could fit mace or acid this time, so I thought a knife would have to do.”

“You’re really something, Madame Devereux.” The pad of his thumb finds the edge of the blade and presses where warm metal meets warmer flesh. He looks up at Hiraga. “I can’t decide if this is brilliant or completely mad.”

“Must it be either? I only wished to be cautious. We’re in danger here tonight.” Hiraga lays a hand upon the crown of his head. His touch is pleasantly grounding, for it’s all so much to absorb, and Roberto cannot be certain it’s not the wine getting the better of him. “Let me protect you.”

Roberto rests his head against Hiraga’s knee, though he cannot keep his shoulders from shaking with mirth.

“…dear?” Hiraga says, a hesitant retreat into the safety of their little pantomime. Hiraga’s skin has begun to flush, creeping sweet down his thigh to meet him.

“It’d be an honor, my love.” Roberto’s lips receive his blush with grace.

Hiraga’s head falls back against the curtains, the lush scarlet pile of the velvet such a comely counterpoint to his lips and his reddening flesh. His pleasure is spreading across his cheeks, down his neck and along his shoulders. Roberto brings his lips to the flat of the tip of the blade. The metal is smooth; Roberto fasts his mouth to it– and gently sucks.

A shiver courses through Hiraga like the peal of a bell, powerful clarity resounding between Roberto’s lips and the wall that bears his weight. His fingers thread into Roberto’s hair to anchor his self. Roberto steals a look upwards. Ah, what a view it is, Hiraga’s mouth parted, lashes heavy in the eye cutouts of his mask. Roberto nuzzles against his thigh.

“You’ll let me protect you,” Hiraga asks again, his voice careful in the laying of each word between them, as if he must step back to watch each move he plays in the context of the longer game. Roberto strokes at his knee.

“Of course. Anything you wish.”

The smell between Hiraga’s legs is overpowering. It’s thick and heated, and there is a touch of something delicate. Ah, yes, Roberto thinks, that’s right–- Hiraga had mentioned something about a moisturizer. Roberto pauses a moment to appreciate his labors with a brush of his lips upon his thigh.

Hiraga trembles, hem of his skirt clutched tight in his other hand.

“Oh, my darling,” he breathes.

Roberto stretches to touch his lips to Hiraga’s gloved knuckles.

“Shh.” Roberto could drown in the scent of him, he really could. He buries his face in Hiraga's groin and turns to gather as much of the skin of Hiraga’s thigh as he can hold between his teeth. Hiraga’s grasp tightens; his leg reflexively tenses. “Shh,” Roberto appeases him. The bite, he soothes with his lips and tongue.

“Someone could see us,” Hiraga breathes. Lipstick has escaped to the corner of his mouth. The jeweled pin in his hair hangs loosely. A very becoming tableau.

Roberto nuzzles Hiraga’s leg where the garter meets flesh. “Yeah.” It’s certainly a possibility. But possibility is a distant dream, and reality is searing beneath the grasp of his hands, under his lips. Hiraga gasps and lets his head fall back against the wall. There is a scraping at his shoulder, as if one of the paintings knocked askew. And so Roberto accepts Hiraga’s blessing to press his lips to the front of his underwear. The dark silk is truly lovely on him, the red flower design stitched on with a delicacy only Hiraga’s features could match. His heat is sweet liqueur and Roberto drinks, and drinks, and drinks–-

The front of Hiraga’s underwear grows damp under his tongue; Roberto can feel the silhouette of his cock hardening against his mouth. Inside his mouth. Roberto groans to think it, Hiraga’s cock inside his mouth.

He seals his lips about the tip where it presses insistent against the silk, impressing the memory of it upon his senses. The gentle swell of the head fits his mouth like a dream, and through the damp fabric he thinks he can very nearly taste Hiraga’s desire. Hiraga rocks against him, stretching Roberto’s lips wider to accommodate his hunger. Tears are collecting at the corners of Roberto’s eyes– would that he could take it all. Would that he could give his self to his drunkenness–-

He draws back to lay his tongue to it in broad strokes. The drag of tongue on stretched cloth scrapes inside his skull, his own need an even tattoo with each heartbeat between his legs. Roberto aches. Wants him. Needs him. He palms at his self. Tries to, rather, but he cannot focus on the movements when Hiraga’s–- there, in all of his senses. Arousal has stretched the fabric, that the hems for his legs to pass through have yielded. There the flesh is warmer, and when Roberto tips his head his nose brushes coarse hair and soft silk. He abandons touching himself to devote his hands to Hiraga’s thigh and the underside of his cock, stroking as he pushes his tongue into the gap.

Hiraga cries out. It’s faint, breaking on on the rocks of its realization, and though Hiraga mutes it as best as he can with the one hand to his disposal, Roberto can feel it in his gut. Hiraga’s legs are trembling in his grasp, and he eases them with his palms. He fits a hand under the garter and pulls, just to feel it give. The fabric is soft, though not as soft as Hiraga’s thigh, nor as intoxicating.

“Please,” Hiraga gasps. “I don’t think I can-–”

“Just-–” Roberto cannot bear to pull his mouth away, but he pauses long enough to plead. “One more moment-–” So that he can bury his face in that heat, seal his lips to Hiraga’s testes, suck at the skin of his groin.

“My legs.” Hiraga’s voice is shattering. The shards pierce Roberto’s breast to his very heart. Oh, such exquisite pain.

“I’ll hold you.” Roberto gathers him behind the knees. Hiraga clasps at the wall–- at the curtain-– before finding purchase atop Roberto’s scalp. Silk gloves, silk underthings, silk flesh, conspiring to undo him. The beads on the gown rattle as Hiraga winds tighter and tighter under his hands. In the recesses of his mind, it occurs to him that Hiraga must be close. His muscles flex with the strain of pleasure, and his breathing has gone ragged, voice seeping into each draught he takes of air. His fingers mold to Roberto’s skull, the tips pinpoints of the pressure of abandon. Roberto recovers enough of his self to fumble in a pocket for his handkerchief, fitting it through the leg hole to the head of Hiraga’s cock. And when Hiraga comes, his legs give way at last, until he is in Roberto’s arms waiting for the tremors to subside.

How lovely he is like this, Roberto thinks, stroking the handkerchief along Hiraga’s belly and softening length; Hiraga shivers, still sensitive. The heavy mascara highlights the languor of his pleasure, his eyelids’ every flickering clear as acid etching. The jeweled pin dangles helpless at his temple. Roberto kisses him. Hiraga’s lips are yielding. Eager, even, and though Roberto only means to…to touch him once more, he thinks, Hiraga’s hand is upon his jaw, knees sharp against his shoulders, and the heat between them searing away all else. When he shifts away to catch his wind, Hiraga’s chin tips to follow him and steal his breath again. The sequins rasp on his skin. Everything is warmth, he thrills in the pleasure of it. It’s as thunder in his veins, roaring, crashing, rattling the earth.

Hiraga snaps to with a start.

“Ah–-”

And from the ballroom, a scream pierces the air.

Roberto freezes; Hiraga goes stiff as well, and suddenly Roberto is all too painfully aware of the reality of his mouth on Hiraga. And all too painfully aware of the embers of arousal in his own belly. Hiraga clasps his shoulder, and when Roberto finishes extricating his hands from beneath the skirt he sees that Hiraga’s head is turned towards the ballroom, towards the sounds of panic. His face is flushed, where the mask does not cover, and his lipstick has gotten smudged in spite of it all. But he’s right. The music has died away.

Roberto levers himself to standing, and Hiraga as well. (He tries to tell himself it is just his knees and the years at work.) Though he allows himself one more lingering stroke of his fingertips along that garter and that knife –a knife, honestly, he thinks, and not unkindly– before they are separate once more. Roberto combs his fingers through his hair as quick as he can, for at least propriety’s sake. Hiraga watches him with an uncharacteristic attention in his eyes. He doesn’t shy away from the fingertip with which Roberto sweeps away the stray lipstick.

“Dear,” he breathes. His voice is his own.

“…we should go,” Roberto says.

 

The southerly wall of the Château’s grand ballroom has seen some changes since their last visit– namely the gaping hole in the massive glass window overlooking the lake. Ragged remains of glass claw at the moonlit sky; crumbling, smoldering plaster anchorage steams rather sadly. Hiraga touches a gloved hand to his lips, though he is still flushed from their, ah. Dalliance in the corridor.

“This is new,” he observes, taking in the sparkling tatters of the former wall. The explosion has only just begun to sink in, the partygoers in turn seeking calmer shores. Security radios crackle not far beyond. A guard in glistening black livery steps forth to usher them from the site. He spreads gloved hands, and Roberto takes notice that even the guards filing celebrants from the scene are masked for the evening.  

“If Madame and Monsieur would kindly vacate the room.” He stops just short of physical contact, but it’s clear to see in his movements and bearing that there is no negotiating the matter.

“But,” Hiraga begins to say, when Anna Dolores is at their ears. Hiraga lets his glance stray towards the shattered window again. “Is it safe to–” he trails off, allowing the guard to fill in what he may.

“We’ll have the area secured, there’s nothing to fear.”

“Gentlemen, out.” Anna Dolores commands them. “Now, please.”

“Come, my love,” Roberto says, taking Hiraga by the elbows. “If for nothing else, then for your safety.”

Hiraga sighs, and relaxes into his grip. “Dearest,” he concedes. How peculiar to hear it in the richness of the voice of Lisette once more. They retreat arm in arm from the ballroom via one of the side doors; this leads them to a conservatory of sorts. A quick sweep reveals they are alone. Hiraga retires to one of the wing chairs, Roberto to the low leather sofa, where he allows his limbs to decompress along the skeleton of the thing. Anna Dolores sighs heavily.

“I was worried something like this might happen.”

“You’d thought as far in advance as an explosion?” Hiraga’s mouth falls open in surprise.

“That’s amazing!”

In spite of it all, Anna Dolores laughs. The baby gurgles faintly at a distance. “Nothing quite so thorough. But I feared they might take some sort of drastic action if they suspected they were to be compromised.”

“It certainly has all the hallmarks of our friend’s particular style.” Roberto rolls his shoulders. The padding of his suit is beginning to weigh on him.

“Your friend has dramatic tastes,” Anna Dolores observes. There comes the sound of typing. “And you can rest easy! Your backup has found a point of entry and is ready to make contact. Do you think you could make your way over to the north wing, in the men’s room on the first floor?”

Hiraga peers out the window, craning this way and that until he has found the moon. “There we are. I think I’ve figured out our position.”

“Anna Dolores can also guide us there,” Roberto offers, as gently as he can manage.

“Ah. We’ll do that, then.”

She steers them clear of the chaos in the ballroom, taking them instead through the château's foyer and through to the northern part of the building. Roberto doesn't think they might have found the restroom in question on their own, for it's tucked quite out of the way in one of the side halls leading off the main galleries, where the corridor curls around towards the main road. It's subtle. An ideal spot for meeting a covert contact. Roberto motions for Hiraga to stay close while he checks about them for any idle passers by.

Both ends of the hall appear to be clear, but it never does hurt to be prudent. Roberto does harbor some reservations with regard to sending Hiraga in first, but then, if they do have an ally awaiting them, it should be safe. And far better than to leave him in the hall to answer should they be intercepted. Hiraga pushes on into the entry lounge. It's empty. Hiraga frowns, and makes for the inner door, the one leading to the men's room proper, and pushes it open. He gasps.

Damn it all, he should have known. He should have been more careful. Roberto is fast to his side, shoulder-first through the doorway and ready to throw his self between Hiraga and the source of his alarm-- only to find his self face-to-face with a man in the evening staff's livery, leaning against the sink with his arms crossed and a foul expression upon what shows of his face. There is a toothpick seated between his teeth.

"Father McGee!" Hiraga shuffles in to make room for Roberto to join. "Hello!"

"Good heavens," Roberto says. He puts a hand to his chest to try and soothe his still-hammering heart. "You scared me. I was almost certain we'd been cornered. But...ah, if you'll forgive me for asking...what exactly are you doing here?"

“…..I’m your contact.”

Father McGee –-well, Roberto supposes, just Mr. McGee, probably-– regards them with a look of utter exhaustion. The static of the feed in Roberto’s ear crackles.

“It was in the briefing,” Anna Dolores tells them. “Didn’t you read the briefing?”

Hiraga falters, wordless, for a moment, but Roberto feels his face growing warm.

“Of course I read the briefing!” He’d just…been a little distracted. The disguises have been very distracting. “It must have been an error. Of some sort. Please,” he insists. “Carry on.”

“Not reading your briefing gets agents killed,” Anna Dolores reminds them patiently. Elsewhere in her command center, the baby is chittering gentle nonsense.

“Like. All the time.” McGee turns his toothpick over on his tongue. It has a little gold foil tuft on the end; the effect is perhaps more comical than he’d prefer, but then, Roberto must concede, in such a high-stakes affair, there can be no smoking in the boy’s room.

The door to the outer lounge creaks open, sending McGee bolting for a stall. His feet are up and hidden from view on the toilet seat faster than Roberto can blink, and he hisses: “Distraction. Now.

“Distraction?” What does he mean, distraction?

Anna Dolores politely clears her throat. “It may be untoward of me, but I can think of one reason why Mrs. Devereux might join her husband in the restroom…”

All that prevents Roberto from stammering like a fool as they are beset upon in the room by merrymaking restroom visitors is the sheer whiplash of Hiraga shoving him up against McGee’s stall door– and forcing one hand down the front of his pants.

Several things happen all at once. Somewhere, Roberto hears the inner door to the restroom proper creak open. Roberto’s skull tips back against the stall door. Hiraga’s forehead meets his shoulder. And Hiraga’s fingers close around his cock.

The barrier of his underthings provides a blessed respite from the sensation– though Roberto gasps nonetheless. Hiraga’s hands aren’t refined about it, oh, to be certain. But he’s as decisive as they come. The gasp –-such a little thing-– falls upon the now-quiet room with such gravity that Roberto can feel his face begin to grow red.

“My love,” Hiraga breathes, and cradles Roberto in his palm. Good grief-– let it never be said the fellow does anything by halves. Roberto raises unsteady hands to clasp at his back.

“Yes-– ah,” and he pauses a moment to think, what ought a man say in the heat of his passions to truly sell the act? But by then the inner door has fallen shut, and when Roberto chances a glance from the corner of his eye, he finds they are alone once more. Roberto swallows. Hiraga’s thumb is idly stroking along his length and it’s threatening to become a fairly dangerous arrangement very fast.

McGee clears his throat. The radio clicks back on.

“Well done, gentlemen!” There is a tapping as if a computer is in consultation on Anna Dolores’s end of things. “Now, where were we?” A pause. “That’s right, Father McGee is your contact. He’s been tracking the motions of our friends with Santi Nantrabo on the ground for this investigation. Isn’t that right?”

McGee’s tired eye appears at the slit of the stall door. Or at least, Roberto supposes it must, for McGee’s voice is very suddenly at his shoulder.

“Well, there’s no point trying to play the long game with de Gaulle now. Pull your pants up, it’s time for a change of strategy.” That terrible heat in Roberto’s face blooms all the way to his ears. Hiraga is slow to remove his hand, but retreat he does, and Roberto does his utmost to compose himself before McGee rejoins them. Pushing his way out of the stall, McGee regards the both of them with something that can only be described as resignation.

“De Gaulle won’t bolt on us just yet. If he really is the host, then he’s got big plans for this evening. A little snag like this can’t get in the way.”

“Then we need to investigate!” Hiraga looks from Roberto to McGee and back again. Roberto follows his glance once more to McGee, who chews at the toothpick so that it seems to bounce at the corner of his mouth. He has to remove it to speak; Roberto observes that he holds it between two fingers like a cigarette.

“Alright. Fair enough.” He assumes a more relaxed posture, one arm crossed over his chest, the toothpick-bearing elbow resting upon it. “But you’re the experts on these guys–- so. In your professional opinion. Where do we have the best chance of striking gold?”

“The study, perhaps,” Roberto suggests, as Hiraga blurts: “The grand ballroom.” It’d be rather comical if the situation weren’t quite so dire. They exchange glances: Roberto, apologetically, Hiraga the same.

“The ballroom is guarded now,” Hiraga concedes. “We won’t have easy access. And the study may be guarded now as well.” McGee listens with his expression as unreadable as ever. Roberto wonders if this is due to training. It could just be his face. McGee tips his head, seemingly in thought.

“We could always do an external check.”

“The window of the grand ballroom looks out on the Lac d'Or.” Anna Dolores is quiet a moment as she reviews the information. “There are gardens flanking the wings of the building, you could probably start there.”

“Alright. Then that’s our plan. Mrs. Devereux, you’ve dropped an earring and the mister is coming with. Or something. Make up whatever you want, but it better be convincing–- or we’re dead. I’m your security escort.”

“Lovely! The closest point of egress to the garden will be via the North wing terrace, it isn’t far. Might I suggest making it an heirloom? Nobody can fault you if you tell them it was your grandmother’s.”

She is correct. Roberto is amazed how much leeway such a story provides them, but McGee shrugs them down the terrace stairs, his backlit face unreadable.

Sister Anna Dolores laughs. "So much of espionage work is really just psychology. You only need know how to use people's socialization against them."

"Oh!" Hiraga puts a hand to his lips in thought. "Like before, in the bathroom!"

McGee sighs, rubbing at his temple. "Yeah, sure. Like that. C'mon, into the garden."

True to the style of the era, the gardens of the Lac d'Or estate are cleanly cut as if to showcase man's dominion over nature. And in keeping with the style, the paths throughout are winding and labyrinthine. Anna Dolores must supply them with directions by satellite, lest they find themselves lost in the manicured hedges en route to the ballroom's exterior.

She guides them south and west, towards the lake, Roberto thinks, for he can feel cool air pouring in through the gaps in the branches. Marble statues dot the garden-- a rather tawdry display of wealth, Roberto observes with distaste. Nudes and seminudes, gods and nymphs. Some of the muses. It's heavy on style, and light on thematic substance. Above them, the skeleton of the window of the grand ballroom whistles where it catches the wind.

Hiraga stops him very suddenly with an arm before his waist.

"Wait," he breathes. "Do you feel that warm air?"

"I...sorry?" Roberto regretfully does not. But Hiraga is quick in stripping his self of one glove and licking along the pad of his finger. Then holds his slick thumb in the air and waits.

“It’s coming from that way,” he concludes, turning to his left. He follows the path of the warmth a hesitant step at a time, Roberto and McGee trailing in his wake. “The temperature gradient is creating a current in the movements of the air, I’m certain of it. There's something we ought to investigate here.”

"My word," Roberto remarks. "You really are possessed of a divine spirit when it comes to the pursuit of your quarry." Hiraga smiles, and beckons with his chin for them to join him.

They follow his lead right up to a towering marble statue, a woman in a flowing chiton, girdled with slim gold belts studded with stars. She sits upon a simple throne, one hand extended to the heavens-– the other holds an intricately-carved golden disc.

“From here,” Hiraga says.

“A statue.” McGee looks her up and down, unsure of what to make of this discovery.

“Urania.” Roberto speaks without thinking. “It’s the muse Urania, who presides over astronomy. The other statues were the other Muses.”

“She’s hiding something.” Hiraga sounds pleased at the prospect.

“Yay.” McGee, on the other hand, is less enthusiastic by far.

“Ah. Well, then. Let’s relieve her of her burdens, shall we?” Even as he jokes, Roberto begins to walk the perimeter of the sculpture. Her plinth is seated upon a map of the heavens in the Hellenistic style, the paths of the sky’s bodies plotted out in spiderweb arc at her feet. There doesn’t appear to be an immediate opening to whatever lies in her care. McGee digs a bit at the earth about the base with his bootheel.

“It won’t be so simple, I’m afraid,” Hiraga tells him.

“Indeed. If we know anything about Galdoune, then it’s very likely to be a puzzle of some sort.” Roberto finishes his turn around Urania’s plinth.

Anna Dolores hums her approval in their ears. “I told you they were perfect for the job!”

McGee takes a seat upon the nearest bench, digging in his pockets for something. “Yeah, yeah, alright. I’m excusing myself for the next five minutes. This one’s in your court, Fathers, and I gotta have a smoke.” Roberto takes no issue with this plan of action. He turns his attention to the front of the statue once more.

“Galdoune built this château for their organization’s use. If there’s a secret to this puzzle, it will be something of relevance to their concerns.” He stops, examining her placid expression, the gilded details, and her posed hands. “Urania is the muse of astronomy. So why astronomy?”

McGee frowns. “Galdoune’s deal is alchemy, right?”

“Alchemy has more to do with chemistry than anything.” Hiraga puts his bare knuckle to his lips as he thinks, glove gripped in his other hand. “It was something of a forerunner to the field of study.”

“It was really a philosophy in and of itself,” Roberto explains for McGee’s benefit. “I suppose the earliest alchemists wished to find a divine order in all things. A continuity of reason in chemistry, in nature, and the heavens.”

“Yes.” Hiraga nods. “The signs of the known planets even came to stand in for their associated metals. Like mercury.”

“Exactly!” Roberto feels the warmth of his fondness take hold in his breast. He truly has a kindred spirit in Hiraga; it’s a poor substitute that he may not show his esteem in any other way save a smile. “The ancient symbols for the planets came to represent, in the field of alchemy, certain metals as pertaining to the philosophical hierarchy of– ah-–”

Oh.

Hiraga and McGee both look to him-- Hiraga, quizzically, McGee, unimpressed.

McGee takes a long drag of his cigarette, exhales a stream of smoke, and taps the ash off before asking: "Yeah? The hierarchy of...?"

Roberto slaps his hands against his face, uncomfortably, as he's momentarily forgotten his mask might interfere. "Metals. Of course. Alchemy and astrological symbols. It isn't so far-fetched." He examines the golden disc in Urania's hand once more. It's a gorgeously wrought thing, seemingly modeled after an astrolabe. Within the main body of the disc is a second openwork piece that turns upon a central rivet. A long pin spans the front from center to edge like a solitary hand of a clock. The outer rim is engraved with twelve sections indicating the hours of the day. The inner frame bears the twelve stellar signs of the Thema Mundi.

Roberto tugs at the pin. The pin moves; nothing more happens.

"It's almost like a combination lock," Hiraga observes. "I've never been very good with those. I can never get my locker open at the lab." Roberto can imagine. Someone else there really ought to have the combination as a backup. Roberto turns the pin again.

"Alright....so..." McGee lets the remains of his cigarette fall and snuffs it out with his heel. "Any idea what the combination is?"

"My best guess would have something to do with the alchemical hierarchy of metals, if we're looking to bridge the gap between astronomy and alchemy. Which would mean....gold..." Roberto spins the dial clockwise a few times to reset it, then places it upon the symbol for Leo. "Then silver...the moon. So...Cancer..." A counterclockwise turn of the dial. Clockwise again to Virgo...counterclockwise to Libra...

"Eight, nine, seven, six, five, four...three," Hiraga says as Roberto sets the dial one final time to the three o'clock position at Capricorn. "That's not terribly difficult at all."

"No," Roberto agrees. "Once you know the trick to it, it's quite simple."

There is the heavy sound of tumblers falling into place. A seam opens in the plinth, and the nameplate of the statue falls back and into the earth, forming the first of several steps vanishing into a cellar beneath the statue.

McGee crosses his arms. "Why is it that things get goddamn weird whenever you two turn up?"

"It's an incredible talent," Anna Dolores says.

"I certainly didn't plan on this." Roberto motions to the open cellar. Rows of lit sconces illuminate the passage; several flicker as the air stirs. "I had been promised a simple stakeout, after all."

Hiraga begins to walk towards the door, the hems of his skirt scraping in the dust.

"Sister Anna Dolores, will you be able to advise us while underground?" He asks this carefully, transfixed by the path open before him.

"I won't. Especially if the passage is lined in stone. You'll have to be careful in there."

Roberto half-expects McGee to mount a protest. Instead, McGee removes a compact gun from a holster inside his coat and checks his ammunition. With a heavy grunt, he reseats the magazine and switches the safety off. "Alright, then I'm counting on our weirdness experts here. Don't fuck it up, boys."

"Father McGee--" Roberto protests.

Hiraga reaches under his skirt for the blade in his garter. "I told you," he says, turning to Roberto. "I'll protect you, I promise." McGee doesn't appear impressed with this declaration, nor with the flimsy knife, but Roberto flushes with the memory of Hiraga's skin beneath his lips.

"Ah, yes. Of course." He exaggerates scratching an itch upon his nose to cover his embarrassment. "Let's be off, then," he beseeches Hiraga, McGee.

McGee nods.

"Hm. Well. Lead the way."

It's hot underground. More so than a subterranean passage reasonably ought to be, Roberto notes, and doubly so under his extra layers. He's visited catacombs before and found the stone and layers of earth provided insulation from the elements outside. It may well be the flames of the torches along the walls and the presence of live bodies which has warmed the tunnels.

And a veritable warren it is, for not five meters of progress into the underground space does the passageway open into a vast vaulted chamber, lined along its flanks with yet more tunnels and dark galleries. It's a great deal easier to breathe the cooler air here, and Roberto sighs his relief. Stealing a torch from the wall, he peers down one such gallery-- to find it plays host to the characteristic narrow niches of burial sites. The associated doorways are ringed in Greek inscriptions.

Hiraga marvels at the space, eyes and scarlet mouth wide.

"Incredible! I'd heard some species of microorganism had adapted to underground conditions, but I've never been so lucky as to explore such a setting myself. He pushes his head past Roberto to inspect the burial niches. "I've been told many strains are bioluminescent. Pity we've so much light..."

McGee groans. "Are you guys always like this?"

Roberto steers Hiraga back towards the main chamber with his unencumbered hand.

"It's fascinating, yes," Roberto grants Hiraga. "But we do have a mission, and no great abundance of time in which to execute it. Hiraga is eyeing the faint green coating on the stones as though he'd like to put it to his tongue, but it's easy enough to dissuade him with the promise of further tunnels to explore.

They select the broadest and most grandly decorated, for it seems only logical that were anything of significance to be squirreled away anywhere down here, it would be done so with much pomp and circumstance. The Greek inscriptions culminate in a series of interlocking roundels upon an arched double door, mimicking Urania's Thema Mundi. The door yields with little pressure applied to it. McGee is at the ready with his weapon drawn, but no impediment befalls them in their egress. The little things, Roberto supposes.

The adjoining passage is narrower, but as intricate as the doorway had been. Roberto observes more heavenly iconography, and spiraled, fluted pillars to support the ceiling. Just what is going on beneath the Château?

Hiraga pauses with his hand braced upon the distal door of the chamber. "Shall we proceed?"

What choice have they? Hiraga pushes on, and they exit the passage into a brightly lit chamber draped in red velvet. A chamber where waits a solemn, masked congregation. Hiraga inhales a breath of surprise. McGee cocks his gun.

Whatever ritual it is they are enacting, they are not so rapt in their ceremony as to ignore the intrusion. The circle of congregants shifts, rippling like water with the disturbance, and parts. In the center of their gathering, an elaborately wrought brazier gleams bright as magnesium, breathing incense fumes into the air. The beam of McGee’s flashlight thins in its glow. Roberto’s hand finds Hiraga’s wrist. And Hiraga stiffens; when Roberto follows his gaze, he does as well.

At the head of the congregation is a throne cut from gold, with two long spires rising up from behind the shoulders. Rich scarlet velvet binds the cushion and the backrest. More velvet still is draped along the throne as if a sash. And seated upon the throne is a figure in white, smooth silk woven finely as cobweb, so finely that it ripples with the entry of air into the chamber. Across the breast of the figure lies a heavy pectoral, engraved with the axes of the heavens; from the center hangs a chain with a single teardrop garnet, resting at the figure’s waist. Even with the golden mask in the likeness of the sun that covers the better part of the face of the officiant– Roberto would recognize that cruel smile anywhere.

“You received my invitation,” says Julia Michael Borge. Roberto's blood runs cold. He'd known he'd have to prepared to face him again. Accepted it, even. Yet still his stomach roils to see it through. "Shame about the ballroom, it was splendid. But I do so love fireworks."

"You could have killed someone," Hiraga spits. He is bristling, anger gathering in his shoulders, and it though Roberto does not doubt it is born of his righteousness and grace, it frightens Roberto.

"I suppose." Julia leans on one arm. "But when my dear cousin told me he thought he'd spied you in attendance, well. I just had to see for myself! I was sure he had to be wrong. It seems not." His lips curl upwards, horribly. "I didn't know you could dance, Father Hiraga. You'll have to honor me sometime."

"You knew!" Hiraga steps forward; Roberto must catch him by the back of his gown lest he do something rash.

"Oh, certainly. And don't think I didn't notice your visit to my study, Father Nicholas." Julia turns that awful, insidious gaze upon him. "For what little good it will do." He feigns sympathy. "What, you were hoping to take those documents to tribunal? Poor dear. You really don't understand the power of Galdoune, do you?"

"Okay, yeah." McGee's features darken with distaste. "You know what, you're right. Fuck this guy." Roberto feels a spear of panic as he remembers that McGee is armed. The last thing he needs is two hands on two metaphorical triggers at once, whilst more or less surrounded. He warns McGee between his teeth, "Wait! Don't just-- you can't--"

"Oh, come on. I'm not stupid." McGee glances at the other congregants. Whether or not they're prepared for a fight, the worshippers still have their little entourage outnumbered. "Give me some credit, here. It's going to be real satisfying when the law brings in your friend here."

Roberto does not like the look the smile that has returned to Julia's face, even less than he cared for it before.

"Is that what you think?" Julia draws a deep breath, and calls out, "Maxim!"

A robed figure pushes over the brazier in the center of the room, spitting embers and sparks across the flagstones. Roberto pulls Hiraga to his chest. McGee's left arm snaps upwards to cover his face-- but it's no use. When the sparks settle and the congregants have scattered, Julia is gone.

He hasn't much of a start, but he has the advantage of surprise. McGee is the first to recover, bellowing over his shoulder as he bolts for the door. "Hurry up, we'll lose his trail!"

Julia's figure is as a beacon in the dark, white robes shimmering under the torchlight as he runs for the crypt entryway. He's clever enough to begin shedding unnecessary hindrances before they can slow him or make a trail. In the vaulted chamber they find the mask and pectoral discarded. By the foot of the statue, the robe. He's a streak of white in a simple shift, disappearing into the maze of hedges.

"Dammit." McGee skids to a halt at the mouth of the labyrinth, gathering his wits about him. "Sister! Target's escaping on foot, I need overhead!"

"Roger that!" Anna Dolores' voice, cheerful as ever, rejoins them on the radio line. "I expect that white spot heading north through the gardens is our friend?"

"That would be him," Roberto says.

McGee is locked on to his pursuit, and unshakable.

"What's north of here?"

"Northern terrace, chapel, wine cellar, garage."

"Got it. You two." McGee jabs a finger towards Hiraga and Roberto. "You're on standby at the main entrance. I'm going to swing up to the garage. If he comes by, I want you to radio. I'll be back."

They hurry for the the entrance so as not to lose their quarry. Hiraga is as quick upon his feet as one can be in heeled shoes, and Roberto must slow his strides to match his speed. They are both breathless from the effort, but Roberto would like to think they have made good time and an admirable attempt for themselves.

Five minutes pass. Then ten. Roberto shifts uncomfortably in the shadow of the doorway. He clears his throat. "Sister Anna Dolores," he tries. "Do you still have a visual on the, ah," Roberto sees Hiraga stifle a laugh. "Target?"

"Copy, Father Nicholas, he's made his exit from the gardens and is heading on towards the main road leading into town."

"Then he's getting away!" Hiraga's humor swiftly fades into distress. "McGee's not back yet, and--"

"Patience, Father Hiraga! He'll be with you shortly!"

"Shortly?" Roberto frowns. "I don't see him--"

But the roar of a car engine interrupts this thought, as a snarling black sports car of some sort with an open top curls down the gravel path and crunches to a stop before them.

"The hell d'ya take me for." McGee frowns.

"We're chasing after him?" Hiraga takes a step towards the car. "You mean, in an actual car chase?"

Now it's Anna Dolores' turn to laugh. "Yes, gentlemen, you'll have the privilege of enjoying a car chase. If you'd step inside the vehicle please."

"Get in." McGee revs the engine as if to punctuate the order. “And make it quick.”

Hiraga gleefully pushes himself over the side of the car, collapsing into a veritable vortex of silk and tulle. Laughing, he kicks one leg, still equipped with the garter and knife (and scarlet bruises, Roberto notes, down his thigh). “This is so exciting!”

Roberto, for his part, opens the door and takes a seat beside McGee. If McGee is at all troubled by their company, he does not say; his expression, rather, does all the speaking. He slaps a pistol rather roughly into Roberto’s grasp. The cool of the metal and the weight of the thing are damnation in his hands.

“I need to concentrate on driving, so you two will have to pick up the slack.” He pauses their debriefing to perch a cigarette between his lips and light it. And take a drag. And exhale. “You,” he instructs Roberto. “Will handle clearing our front.” He scowls into the rearview mirror. “And you,” he tells Hiraga. “Take the one under the seat. You’re covering our backs.”

With this, he slams the gas pedal to the floor – rocketing their conveyance onwards and into the night.

McGee has brought quite the arsenal with him. Roberto's foot strikes a solid case that rattles, packed with ammunition. It's unsettling more than anything else, and feels unclean against him. He tries to lever it out of contact range. Meanwhile, in the backseat, Hiraga is having the time of his life. "Father McGee! Is this a sniper rifle?"

"What the--" McGee checks the mirror. "No! It's not, and put that down! Handgun! Stick to the handgun!" What Hiraga's holding does indeed appear to be some sort of rifle, as best as Roberto can tell. It's nearly half Hiraga's size.

"Target has secured transport and is heading towards town." A vivid green grid appears on the car's navigation system, a small dot blinking along the road a short distance from their vehicle. "You're looking for a sport motorcycle with the license plate number listed on your display."

"I feel I should tell you," Roberto shouts over the rushing air around them. "I've never shot a gun in my life! I'm-- you know we are real priests, correct?" McGee is stony-faced and fixated on the road before them. The boundary of the town is fast approaching, low buildings and cobblestone streets. They're closing in on Julia's motorcycle, too, the gleaming body of the beast shining in the streetlights. "You can get your ass killed if you want, not my problem."

Roberto balks.

"What McGee means," Anna Dolores says, and not without caution weighing down her voice, "is that nobody need shoot anybody. Just make yourselves a difficult target!"

"I-- I don't know what that means!"

This is insanity. Hiraga sits up in his seat. "Father McGee! We have pursuers!" Indeed, two black cars are trailing them, at comparable speed.

"So fucking lose them for me!"

Julia bolts into the city center. McGee slams the gas to close the distance. Roberto watches dumbfounded as Hiraga gathers up his skirts and props a knee against the backrest for support. The wind whips at his gown, snapping the hem this way and that. Roberto swallows at the glimpse it provides of the garter.

"Losing them," Hiraga says, training the rifle at the ground before their companions.

Roberto really isn't sure what he expected. The muzzle erupts in a cloud of smoke. But Hiraga hasn’t the chance to see the result– the recoil is a punch to the body that lays him out across the back seat, ragdolled over the seatbelts and buckles and ammunition kits. It must have struck his face, for his hand falls to his chin. The rifle clatters to the car floor, muzzle still smoking faintly.

Roberto whips about proper in his seat. “Hiraga!” His body is taut with panic.

Hiraga raises a hand…in what Roberto suspects is meant to be an upwards direction, probably, his world must still be quite turned around. “I’m fine,” he calls, as loud as he can over the sound of the city rushing by. McGee works the gas and sends their poor conveyance screeching into a side street. “The rifle packed a bit of recoil.”

“I told you to stick to the handgun!” There is a dreadful noise as McGee switches the car into reverse and backs them at full speed into a pedestrian stairway. “Goddamn amateur hour with you two.”

It seems a little harsh. Roberto reaches over to thumb the blood away from beneath his nose, murmuring: “I thought you looked pretty cool.”

It had looked pretty cool. It doesn't, however, do a great deal to shake their pursuers. The lion's share of that responsibility falls to McGee's maneuvering behind the wheel. As Julia leads them down a narrow side street, McGee snaps the car to the right, and along a broader thoroughfare.

"You should be able to meet him two intersections away if you take the next left and maintain sixty kilometers an hour," Anna Dolores advises them. Roberto can see on the map display that it seems like a considerable gap to close. McGee dutifully does as instructed. Roberto is already lost; evidently, their entourage is as well.

"On it." The car jerks violently on the left turn, and there is a muffled "oof" as Hiraga strikes the seat hard again. Two blocks rush by. And then the wall of buildings opens, yielding to a grand stairwell that leads down into a central piazza, fountain and all. Roberto has scarcely the time to absorb this and what it might mean-- before the car goes sailing through the air over the stairs at an incredible altitude. They soar clean over Julia's head, passing him by in a perpendicular line, and the motorcycle cuts an arc in an attempt to rectify this. The car strikes the ground, shockwaves rocking Roberto to his very teeth. McGee rides the centrifugal force of the landing, turns about the fountain, and takes off down an alleyway. Julia is hot on their trail.

"Wh- what?" Hiraga sputters.

"Ugh." McGee looks over his shoulder. "He's going to try and ride us down. He wants us to get careless," he says, amending this with the observation: "Asshole. Just hang on tight, I'm going to try and box him in. Anna Dolores, we got a place for that?"

"Just a moment!" Furious typing. "I don't see anything that..." More typing. "If you could...perhaps lead him to..."

There's a loud bang, sharp as a gunshot. Julia's bike gutters and swerves-- and clatters to the ground. Roberto swivels in his seat as McGee slows. And there is Hiraga, leaned over the back of the car, one hand rested on the seatback, the other clutching a small cardboard box.

"I found some nails!" Blood is still trickling from his nose, but he's uncannily delighted with himself. "If I may be so indulgent: they made fairly effective caltrops!"

Naturally their friend is not so quick to surrender. Julia flees his ruined bike for the safety of the next turn, only to find his self in an alley enclosed on three sides. McGee stops the car; Hiraga vaults out to prevent Julia's escape. Julia is not prepared to accept this without a fight, it seems; something changes in his carriage with the realization that he is cornered, and it speaks of murderous intent. Hiraga braces his self, each muscle coiling as a serpent poised to strike. Something glitters in his hand. It is the knife, Roberto realizes, slowing to stand at his side. When had he drawn his knife?

Julia charges. Hiraga cries out. Julia grapples at his arms, and Hiraga struggles to cast him off. It all happens so quickly--

And Julia is upon the ground. Hiraga wipes at his face, but it only serves to smear the blood streaming from his nose anew and stain the satin of his gloves. There’s going to be no saving the dress, either, spattered with blood as it is.

Julia is sprawled, transfixed, upon the cobblestones. His face is taut with revulsion as he stares at the gash opened along his forearm. He turns to Hiraga, to the flimsy blade in his grip, and then to his wound once more.

“How…dare you,” he manages at last.

Hiraga looks nearly as perplexed himself. He regards the blade with something akin to disbelief. “…I did that?”

Lightning-fast, Julia lurches to his feet –-good lord, how is he so fast?–- and straight for Hiraga, hands outstretched. Roberto hardly has time to so much as blink before Julia has Hiraga in his grasp, meeting the ground with Hiraga beneath him-- so hard Roberto himself feels the impact in his teeth.

Julia’s bare hands wrap themselves around Hiraga’s throat; Roberto sees Hiraga’s entire body jerk as his air supply cuts off. The knife falls from Hiraga’s grasp, clattering to the stones beside his hand. Julia makes no move for the blade, only squeezes, perhaps as hard as he can. Sluggish trails of blood ooze down his wounded arm, streaking Hiraga’s neck and shoulders in crimson.

There isn’t any time to think, Roberto can only throw his weight forwards and into the center of the fray at Hiraga's shoulder. His hands scrabble at Julia’s grip on Hiraga.

“How dare you!” Julia’s face is twisted in rage, those elegant features almost unrecognizable. Good heavens– and he’s astonishingly strong. “You– ingrate! After everything I’ve done for you!” There’s so much blood, Roberto can’t–- it’s too slippery, Julia’s hands are-–

-–they can’t hold well, either. Julia’s grasp falters and Hiraga gasps for air. The diamonds at his throat are stained scarlet, the blood pooling in their settings. Julia makes a sweep for Roberto’s eyes, all vicious nails. But Hiraga kicks and flails and manages to compose himself well enough to drive a fist into Julia’s jaw. Which only stokes his anger further. Julia screams, and instinctively moves to drive his hands for Hiraga’s throat once more.

“Roberto! Get down!” Roberto raises his head to find the source of the voice-– and has just long enough to register the sight of McGee over Julia's shoulder. McGee with his gun trained upon Julia’s form from behind. Right, then. Down it is: Roberto hits the cobblestones. A shot rings out. Hot blood strikes his skin.

Roberto goes still. The spray of blood is nauseating in its warmth along his cheeks and nose. He has hardly the time to process this development, as more pressing is grasping what has changed in that split second on the other side of the gunshot.

Julia’s features have taken on a pallid cast and his eyes are fever-bright and wild. He stares, with disembodied astonishment, at the rosette of ruined flesh blooming on his shoulder. The gun cocks again, faintly. And clicks. Roberto glances past Julia to see-–

“Shit-–” McGee mutters, releasing his empty clip and throwing it to the ground. He begins fumbling for its replacement– but not quickly enough. Hiraga twists and strains to pull free of Julia’s weight upon him, reaching for his weapon once more. Julia draws his uninjured arm back and strikes Hiraga across the face.

“Bastard,” he spits. And strikes him again. “Ingrate!” Hiraga gasps with each blow that connects, hand splaying on the cobblestones, unable to think long enough to close about the knife. His other hand pushes fruitlessly at Julia’s breast. There’s no time to dawdle; Roberto lunges forth on his knees to seize a handful of Julia’s sweat-tangled hair and pull.

Julia’s head jerks forward like a marionette with its strings cut. The air leaves his lungs in a single, painful groan, and he pinwheels over Hiraga’s supine form, nearly collapsing atop Roberto in his trajectory. Julia’s elbow almost clips his chin; his false glasses clatter to the cobblestones. Roberto releases his hair.

Behind Julia, Hiraga is pushing onto his side, groping for his knife. The click of McGee’s fresh magazine slipping into place reverberates like thunder in the empty alleyway. Three heads turn to face him.

“Checkmate,” he growls, and levels the gun. Julia’s chest is heaving with each labored breath. His hair lies tangled about his shoulders, leeching blood where it meets his wound. Roberto could almost feel pity for him, to see him cornered like this– almost. But the scarlet trickling from Hiraga’s nostril snuffs out any remorse he might harbor. Hiraga props his self up on shaking arms, knife fisted in one hand. He wipes distractedly at his nose as McGee takes aim once again.

Later, Roberto will reflect that it must have been an effect of the adrenaline, that time seemed to slow for those few moments. It’s with a horrible jolt that the smooth black car screeches to a halt at the mouth of the alley and time resumes once again. McGee pivots, the new arrival more immediately a threat than the injured man on the cobblestones. The driver’s side door opens. A white leather shoe meets the ground. And when Roberto follows it to its source, he finds Ruggieri Rutherford, reaching behind him for a heavy wooden cane as he leans from the car.

His countenance is unusually somber as he takes stock of the scene. Julia flinches visibly as Ruggieri’s gaze falls upon him. “Julia.” There is something unseemly about his tone, something oily and condescending to the way his forehead creases with what ought to be concern.

McGee’s gun cracks. The bullet ricochets off the car’s casing and into the dark, scattering fragments of steel and enamel into the street in its wake. By then it’s already too late– Ruggieri lunges– and with a flash steel slides free of oak and McGee is bowing back out of the sweep of a slim blade. He curses, bobbing and swaying, but Ruggieri has him pinned too close for him to get a shot.

“New orders,” Ruggieri spits. “Tonight’s a failure, we’re withdrawing. Get in.”

“No–!!” Julia clambers forward on his hands and hip, staggering under the weight he bears on his injured arm. The pain and fatigue have him shaking violently– his progress, aborted quickly. “There’s time, we can still-–”

Ruggieri ought not be listening, for McGee is leading him in circles, and it’s to his credit that he’s able to drive McGee back against the alley wall, sword laid across his breast so they might struggle blindly for McGee’s gun at his own advantage. He spears his body weight into McGee with his shoulder. McGee grunts, but does not lose hold. With his teeth grit together, Ruggieri repeats his command:

“Julia. Get–- in–- the car.”

McGee shouts, a violent, awful thing, and forces his knee into the suited mass of Ruggieri upon him. Roberto supposes he must have struck a vital muscle in the thigh or something, for Ruggieri’s form buckles. But yield he does not. McGee has him by the lapel and is already on the offensive again, his knee trained on Ruggieri’s jaw even as he labors to keep the blade at a safe reach.

Hiraga has found his knife some arms' lengths away and is moving slowly to reclaim it. This does not evade Julia’s notice. He spies Hiraga’s movement over his shoulder, and in that instant a change seems to overcome him. It’s something in his eyes, frightening in their sudden clarity. Gone is the madness, the pain of his tattered shoulder, gone is the weight of Ruggieri’s judgment– there is only the knife– and the way forward.

He pushes off his knees, bolting for the blade one last time. Hiraga scrambles across the cobblestones to claim it first. Julia catches him by the hem of his dress and pulls. The seams crackle under the strain, but Hiraga is slowed. Roberto starts so that he may intercept. Julia is faster. His shaking hands cover the knife, yielding only to drive an elbow into Hiraga and keep him at bay. The blow leaves Hiraga’s lip trickling blood afresh, and his nose along with it. He stumbles back onto his hip, disoriented.

And Julia screams. He clambers forth in a jagged crawl, sweat and grit and bloodlust, and Hiraga cannot keep pace fast enough to outstrip him-– Roberto clambers on-– he has to–- he cannot sit by while Julia-– no–-

He hears the heavy thump before he realizes what has happened.

Oh. He’s been stabbed. Roberto looks down at the knife, lodged in his belly. What surprises him most is less the pain from the penetration of the blade, and more so the impact. Julia’s eyes meet his, unseeing in their rage. He wrests the blade free with an animal howl, drawing back to strike again. Without a thought, Roberto turns, gathering Hiraga into his arms. Let the die be cast as it may– so long as Hiraga might live. Hiraga stiffens against him, fingers catching upon his lapels.

“Roberto-–”

The blade strikes. Splitting pain erupts between his ribs. Blood trickles down his stomach, he can feel it tacky beneath his clothes. He grips Hiraga tight.

“No,” Hiraga gasps, pushing to free himself. But Roberto holds fast. “You can’t, Roberto, let me go-–” The blade strikes again. And again. And again. Roberto lifts his fingers so that he can see-– it really is blood. How strange, he thought it would hurt more. He thought there’d be more blood. Curious, indeed. Distantly, Ruggieri wrests Julia into the car, and careens off into the night. McGee staggers to a knee, breathing heavily. And then there is Hiraga. The world spins about him, until Hiraga’s features above him are wrenched taut with grief, tears threatening at the corners of his eyes. Roberto reaches up to touch his face; he forgets himself, the blood from his fingertips is so vivid upon Hiraga’s skin.

“You can’t leave me,” Hiraga pleads. He clasps Roberto’s hand in his, holding him close. How Roberto longs to speak freely to him, at least just this once, with nothing between them. No roles, no masks. He supposes this is the best he deserves.

“Oh, my love,” he breathes. Tears begin to stream down Hiraga’s chin, ashes of kohl swirling in their tracks. They are hot where they strike Roberto’s skin. Roberto cannot bring himself to release his grasp. He– can’t. He can’t let go. He doesn’t want to–-

Hiraga lowers himself to press one last kiss to Roberto’s lips.

In Roberto’s ear, the radio crackles to life.

“…gentlemen?” Anna Dolores pauses a moment. “I know it isn’t the best kevlar on the market, but really, there’s no need to be so dramatic.”

McGee hits the ground, exhausted. He pulls out a cigarette and lighter, and with a quick spit to clear his mouth --Roberto winces-- gets right back to business.

"Yeah, yeah, we made it. Asspats all around. So." He takes a long drag of his cigarette, visibly relaxing as the smoke fills his lungs. The light of the end casts a sheen on his coating of sweat. "Let's talk about clean-up."

 

Mission successful. It's rewarding to say, and each time Hiraga whispers it, it's with barely contained laughter.

"Mission successful," he says, shaking Roberto's arm from behind. In the driver's seat, McGee sighs heavily and flips the stereo on to a hard rock channel. It's offensive to Roberto's ears and to his tastes, but the adrenaline is running high, and he can hardly be bothered to level a judgment on the trip's entertainments. It's a relief regardless when McGee deposits them back at the rear entrance of the château.

"So, yeah. Extraction is in motion, but it's gonna take a bit," he says, leaning one arm over the door. "You got a little time to go back to your room and clean up. Get out of the monkey suits." He eyes the scattered bloodspots along Roberto's front. "Plug up a few holes. Won't be less than an hour, though, so stay put and keep a low profile. Alright?"

He pulls away with a wave and another burst of hard rock music.

Hiraga nudges Roberto with an elbow. "An extraction."

"Pretty cool."

"Very much so."

Roberto stretches. Now that things have quieted, he's begun to feel somewhat stiff. Perhaps he really would be better off shedding the inner suit. Kevlar vest. Whatever the thing is. Doing his utmost not to yawn, he offers Hiraga his arm.

"Well, then, Madame. Shall we return to our chambers?"

 

Hiraga is giggling all the way to the suite. And giggling quite a bit once securely within it, too. His heels are the first thing to go, and the gloves and dress soon after. Roberto is all too pleased to strip off his own disguise. Once he peels away the Kevlar layer and lies bare to the waist, he finds that the punctures in his front are not nearly so terrible as he'd imagined at first. Sure, there are a good handful of them, and they've made an impressive mess. But they're shallow, hardly enough to endanger his life. Hiraga seats him at the vanity to survey the damage. He frowns, pressing a bare knuckle to his mouth.

"It's not serious at all," he says carefully.

"I'm afraid not. I suppose I shall live another day."

Hiraga's hands find his shoulders; with a forceful tug Hiraga's lips are very suddenly upon his. Roberto gasps against his teeth-- it isn't gentle in the slightest, but there's no equivocation to be had in it, either. It's over as jarringly as it had begun, and Hiraga is grasping him tight.

"I'm glad. But please do remember that the next time you wish to do something foolish, Roberto," Hiraga tells him, and vanishes to the bathroom for a wet cloth. Roberto submits to his cleaning in silence, lips and mind still buzzing with the kiss. Smudged lipstick adorns his reflection, and he averts his eyes instead to the cloth. The mission is over. They needn't play at lovers anymore. And so Roberto must consider the simplest explanation. Hiraga's tears --his plea-- are too fresh in his memory.

"I'm sorry," he says, for he knows not what else to say. "I couldn't bear to lose you. I think...surely you must understand." He touches his lips with his fingertips. He can't feel the lipstick mark. Hiraga doesn't look away from his work, daubing each puncture with antibacterial from a first-aid kit in his luggage. When he has finished with Roberto's stomach, he stands to do the same for Roberto's back.

"I know." He winds his arms around Roberto's shoulders, resting his temple against the back of Roberto's head. "I do understand, so much more than I could say. And I am ashamed. I'd promised to protect you."

"Makes us quite the pair, you and I." Roberto laughs. Perhaps Hiraga has begun to forgive him, if only a little, for he breathes his relief against Roberto's ear before releasing him. For what it is worth Roberto attempts to take over the application of squares of gauze to his front, but Hiraga is insistent that Roberto let him continue undisturbed. Roberto grants that he owes him the courtesy of at least this much. He watches the mirror quietly as Hiraga secures the bits of gauze to his back. 

"Come, lay down," Hiraga says when he is through, and leads him to the bed. "It'll be easier like this." Up close on his belly, the little bundles look ridiculous. And watching Hiraga's hands upon him is torturous. Each minute movement is magnified by their proximity, to overwhelming scale. Hiraga spreads his hands along his stomach. "I don't think it will scar," is his assessment. He rolls a piece of gauze so that it is tripled in thickness and tapes it in place.

"That's...nice, I suppose." Roberto hadn't quite thought of that. There's been such a great deal else to digest, after all. He lets his eyes linger upon Hiraga's hands and once he has gathered his courage, steals a moment upon his face. Oh, how it unmakes him. His breast aches to behold the tenderness of Hiraga's attentions.

"It's very brave-looking." He kisses Roberto again. Roberto sighs against his lips. What a night. It's all so terribly raw that it feels the very seams of his person are unraveling. To have survived the mission. To have been given-- this--

Hiraga draws away and Roberto must behold him. He cannot look away from the sight, Hiraga is radiant. When he smiles, something indescribably bright in his manner makes Roberto’s heart flutter. He lies with his arms braced about his head, so close Roberto can feel his breath, and his own thrilling heartbeat.

"My beloved friend.” He studies Roberto’s face, so fondly it twists at Roberto within in ways he cannot place. “My dearest.” To feel him say it is to feel all its weight. Roberto places a hand to Hiraga’s chest. He means to stop him, he really, truly does.

“We’ve gone and done it this time, my friend,” he cautions Hiraga instead. A paler response by far. But Hiraga only laughs softly, airily, and lays his forehead to Roberto’s.

“We’ve saved the day.” Hiraga pauses, drawing back as his own words register. His expression is washed over first in astonishment, and then glee. “We’ve saved the day.

“Yes, I suppose that’s admirable enough–- ah-–” Any thought of protest evaporates with the shift of Hiraga’s weight– and the touch of his lips to the gauze-covered wounds. Roberto watches, giddy, as Hiraga lays the blessings of his kiss to each puncture. Carefully. As if he might dispel the pain. Naturally, he can’t. But he can provide a spectacular distraction from the twinge of each wound with the spread of his hands over Roberto’s hips.

“I’d been so sure I’d lost you this time.” Hiraga follows the rim of a patch with his finger, idling with the fraying tape as he goes. “It was unbearable. For an instant I was forced to imagine a lifetime without you.”

“You’ll not be so easily rid of me,” Roberto jokes; it’s only his due, then, that Hiraga silences him with a kiss. The pressure of his lips is inexorable-– as unrelenting as his steadfast faith. And Roberto can no more deny the benedictions of the former than can he mount any rebuttal against the latter. Hiraga’s tongue is tantalizing heat as it beckons his lips to part. Roberto moans. To think: one might survive the slings and arrows of the night’s treachery only to be done in here and now.

And what a way to go. One could grow drunk on the pleasure of it all, the soft blankets and plush pillows. The heat of Hiraga between his legs. Hiraga sighs into his mouth, grip upon him growing careless. Roberto flinches as his fingers catch upon a gauze pad. The sting of the cuts isn’t so terrible. Not when he can feel the silhouette of Hiraga’s arousal, as intoxicating with heat as his mind recalls. And as his body recalls, as well. For it isn’t much longer after Hiraga’s settling between his legs that he feels his hunger stirring to life. The sheer silk of the underwear masks little of the sensation against him, and his nerves sing where the fabric catches his skin. Heavens above, this is really happening.

"Seriously,” he breathes. “After the night we’ve had?” He isn’t complaining, necessarily. It’s just…rather more trite, honestly speaking, than he’d hoped to give Hiraga. Hiraga, however, only regards him with curiosity in his expression.

“And why not? Research shows the pattern is very real, there’s no shame in seeking out the intimacy of a loved one in times of emotional distress.” He gathers Roberto’s cheek in his palm, thumbing at the hair along his ear as he surveys Roberto’s features–- his jaw, his lips, his brow, his eyes. “I should like nothing more than your company. You are alive, and you are mine-– only this, in all creation, could bring me such pleasure.”

(His, Roberto thinks, and his heart trips upon its own beat.)

With this, Hiraga turns down the hem of his underwear, over his hips, until his cock is bared to Roberto’s view. Roberto aches to touch him. He’s flushed with arousal, and lovely to look at; to have him in his hands, or his mouth, Roberto grows taut inside with his own greed for him. Hiraga must have caught him staring, for he smiles broadly.

“Permit me this,” Hiraga bids him. It’s as leaden heat in his gut, spreading through him as if to crush out what reason still remains. His hands grasp at Hiraga’s waist, flexing involuntarily with tension.

“I–- yes, of course,” he begins. He draws his lip between his teeth. Where to even start? He searches Hiraga’s face; Hiraga’s laughter is soft warmth on his skin, and it tickles, faintly, more so than he’s ever been aware of. “I mean that– truly, anything you wish-–”

“You are good to me.” Hiraga seals his lips to Roberto’s, sliding forth to let his weight rest entirely between Roberto’s legs. Roberto gasps, nails scraping against the brocade of his cincher. Hiraga rocks his hips, sighing his relief to Roberto’s tongue as he feels Roberto’s cock against his. “So,” and he cannot seem to manage the whole of each word before returning for yet another kiss-– “–-so very good to me.”

Roberto’s wounds are burning, and the silk so smooth, such a peculiar counterpoint to the texture of skin on skin. He is drunk on the bastioning of the plush pillows, and on Hiraga’s touch. He keens, pulling Hiraga’s hips closer-– pushes himself against his arousal-– closer, just to hear Hiraga moan-– and in turn, Hiraga fits a hand beneath his knee, guiding Roberto’s leg up and around his waist.

“To know you is to have known such joy.” He palms the swell of muscle of Roberto’s thigh. He turns his head close to Roberto’s ear to better speak to him in a hushed and private voice. “Permit me to show you the pleasure you bring me.” Roberto shivers, for the offer strikes a visceral vein within him. It would indeed be so easy to yield to the headiness of it all. The ache deep within him should like nothing more than that he lie lax and allow Hiraga to reap his pleasure-– or rut against him, mind gone to his greed. Hiraga would not likely fault him for surrendering. Yet, still.

“Anything,” Roberto promises him, stroking along the eyelets of the cincher, which straddle his spine. How lovely is the rightness with which their bodies join; how neatly it matches the curve of his hand. “Anything you desire, it is yours.” The jewels of Hiraga’s necklace are cool on his breast. And Hiraga’s eyes, when he trains them upon Roberto, are alight with euphoria.

“…yes,” he says. “I suppose it is.”

He rolls his hips again, sweet friction along the length of Roberto’s cock; Roberto bucks to meet the stroke and keens when the head catches upon his belly instead. It’s tantalizing. It’s perfect. Roberto lets his hands roam as Hiraga moves again, and again. Along the curve of his rear, measuring the breadth of his hips and of his shoulders, cradling his skull and holding him close though one haphazard kiss after another.

“Hiraga-–” His voice is alien in its hoarse timbre. “Oh, Hiraga-–” Would that he could chant his name as prayer, had he only the presence of mind. Each minute movement of Hiraga’s cock against him unseats all thought save for the heat between them and the need roiling inside him. He wants to commit to memory the shape of him, though he cannot bring himself to relinquish his hands’ hold so that he might. This does not pass Hiraga’s notice.

Hiraga slows the rocking of his hips a moment so that he may regard Roberto in full. As if by instinct, Roberto’s legs grasp him tighter in place. Hiraga thrusts once, roughly against him. The pleasure registers deep within; Roberto groans. So he supposes it is only reasonable that Hiraga sees fit to treat him to a repeat performance.

Orgasm comes upon him, vicious in its rapacity. He is already in mourning when he feels the headiness of it building. The steady rhythm of their bodies is relentless, not least by grace of the hunger of Hiraga’s lovemaking. He’s ravenous to the end, steadfast working his self against Roberto– even as Roberto loses himself to the sparking in his nerves. He clings to Hiraga as a lifeline throughout, and is still senseless, a vise about Hiraga as he abandons all to claiming his own pleasure in turn.

Hiraga does not release him after, either, not to allow Roberto to clean their selves up nor as he untangles their bodies to lie upon Roberto’s arm. Roberto reflects that he really ought to have expected it when Hiraga puts a finger to the mess upon his belly. Hiraga turns his finger under the the light, just once, before bringing it to the tip of his tongue. So engrossed is he in this experimentation that Roberto is sure he has gone crimson again.

“Interesting,” Hiraga observes of his study. He repeats the examination, tonguing thoughtfully once more at his finger.

Roberto clears his throat. “You really needn’t. I can take care of it, if you don’t mind.”

His study concluded, Hiraga’s finger comes to rest upon his lip as he thinks. “But you’d have to get out of bed,” he says, with some hesitance. “Perhaps it’s selfish of me, but I’d like to hold you a while longer, if I may.”

Something twists in Roberto’s breast; he finds himself faltering for words, and coming up short he can do nothing but press his lips together. “Yes, but–” He looks down at his belly. Damn the mess, he’d hate to pull Hiraga close to him and risk causing him any discomfort. But his skin aches for his touch. “You deserve the courtesy.” Roberto stares at his belly until he can bear the sight no longer-– and then shuts his eyes. “I’d always hoped –were I ever to make love to you– to treat you to better than this.” The scene he’d had in mind would have given Hiraga softness and moonlight, Roberto’s best records and steaming espresso. Slow lovemaking, and easy kisses upon the veranda. Style.

Hiraga’s weight shifts as he turns onto his side, stomach and chest flush to Roberto’s flank. “Better than this?” There is laughter in his voice, musical and bright. He leans in, close as conspiracy, to comb his fingers through Roberto’s hair. “You flatter me, old friend, but I could hardly think of better.” He pauses. “Perhaps a second round. But our extraction may arrive sooner.” He yawns, not bothering to cover his mouth.

“I don’t expect they’ll be here in the half-hour,” Roberto ventures. The nearest headquarters is in the nearest urban center–- well away from the château. Anna Dolores won’t be checking in with the dispatch notice until ten-thirty. “I imagine there’s enough time for you to get some rest, if you need.”

Hiraga lays his head upon Roberto’s shoulder. “I think so. Twenty minutes is generally considered optimal for a nap.” He tucks his self close to Roberto’s side. “Will you wake me if we are called?”

Roberto stretches his arm to retrieve his earpiece from the nightstand. Sure enough, the line is shut on the other end. He replaces it in his ear never the less. “I will. Rest easily, my friend.”

Thus absolved, Hiraga allows his eyes to fall shut. Sleep overtakes him awfully quickly, Roberto observes. And rightly so, for they’ve had quite the evening. Unless it just happens to be that Hiraga is the sort of man prone to post-facto naps. It thrills him to think he may yet find out.

For about ten minutes Hiraga dozes, and in this period Roberto is not lacking for occupation. He’s not permitted himself to examine Hiraga so closely before. The opportunity proves itself rewarding, and he enjoys the time to acquaint himself with the way Hiraga’s chest swells gently in his sleep. His lashes flutter with the minute movements of muscle. His lips are parted, slightly. Roberto swallows. He’s felt those lips on his own, and he keenly feels the lack of them now.

At ten-thirty Anna Dolores’s side of the line clicks back on with the news that their extraction is en route. Roberto thanks her, and at his shoulder Hiraga begins to stir.

“We’ve been called,” Hiraga observes, though blearily. Roberto nods.

“There’s half an hour yet. You can sleep a bit longer.” Hiraga’s brow furrows as if in thought. But his faltering eyelids betray his considerations. “I’ll wake you in another fifteen minutes.” Hiraga’s eyes close and he exhales his assent.

A moment later he adds:

“So you had hoped to make love to me.”

Roberto nearly chokes on his own tongue. Hiraga's head jerks with the jolt of his shoulders, and Roberto stammers. "That's-- rather, I--"

Hiraga blinks away the confusion, not evidently eager for his rest to be disturbed. "I'm glad," he explains, lying down once more. His skin clings a little where their bodies meet. "I thought I must have gone mad. There were moments I was so certain I understood you perfectly. Those were the happiest of times, incandescently so-- it felt like breathing to be of the same mind as you. But with time the doubts began to gather. You're really an excellent actor, you know. I'd begun to think it was only my imagination..." He wraps Roberto's hand in his own and presses his lips to Roberto's knuckles. Roberto's breast aches at the thought; he secures the hold of his arm about Hiraga to say what his lips cannot.

 

With ten minutes remaining before their extraction, they remove themselves from the bed, Roberto with mild rue and Hiraga with much resistance. The fatigue truly has caught up with them. Roberto expects he'll be feeling all this excitement tomorrow, if not for some days after.

The radio snaps to life with Anna Dolores' cheerful voice. "Well done, gentlemen! Bravo! You've made it through your first mission as undercover agents! I do hope you're proud of yourselves."

"...in a word." Roberto opts to leave it at that, shaking out his pants from the plane trip and working a stiff foot into one leg hole. Hiraga has stripped off his cincher and garter and furiously begun re-amassing his belongings haphazardly into his suitcase.

"I just wanted to give you your ten-minute warning. The extraction team is making good time, so you may want to gather your things if you haven't already. Don't forget those phone chargers, hm?" Sure enough, Hiraga has to retrieve his from beneath the bed. How it found its way there, only heaven knows.

Roberto's shirt puckers and swells in odd places from the bandage bundles beneath it. He really does hope nobody directs much attention towards it. It...certainly isn't his finest look. He's sweaty and smells rank, of catacombs and flesh. He folds the poor, haggard tuxedo to the best of his ability and helps Hiraga pack away what remains of his own costume. His hair is still smooth with lacquer, his makeup dusting and flaking, and the travel clothes stretched from wear. It's all so very peculiar. Like peering at their own selves through the proverbial looking glass.

There comes a knock not from the door of their chambers, but from a panel in the interior wall beside the wardrobe. Roberto must check twice to make certain he hasn't misheard. He leans close to the offending panel. He feels rather foolish, though it's not unfitting of the evening's tone at this point.

"Ah...hello?"

An unfamiliar woman's voice replies. "Retrieval team for Fathers Nicholas and Hiraga."

"That's them," Anna Dolores confirms.

"Yes, er. Certainly. Please....do come in?" How would one...Roberto puzzles at the seams of the wall panel, and is spared further embarrassment when it swings open into the room, revealing two uniformed agents standing in a passage hidden in the wall. Oh. A secret passage. Of course, why not. He looks to Hiraga. "Our ride is here."

Hiraga is struggling with the zip of his suitcase. At the sight of their escort, however, he abandons this endeavor, wheeling his half-closed pack towards their exit. "I'm ready." And that is that. One of their guides, the woman, beckons for them to follow. Roberto takes hold of his own luggage and levers it over the entry to the passage.

Hiraga places a hand at his back to help keep him steady. "Take care, please," he cautions. "You know you can lean on me, if you need."

"...I know." Roberto feels his breast warming within. "I know." Their guards scan the passage with their flashlights, motioning their clearance to proceed.

And on they press, into the darkness, on, towards home.