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Pas de Deux

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He hadn't seen it coming. He should have, in hindsight it wasn't like Sphinx had been at all subtle, but he just ... He hadn't seen it. Hadn't dared. There were some things a man wasn't supposed to even think about. That way lay security risks, and blackmail, and one-way mission assignments that mysteriously made their way onto only one desk.

Though it was a little late for that, too. He'd always known the section chief suspected. Even as dashing a womaniser as Agent Michael White could slip up sometimes. He must have. There must have been a glance somewhere, a micro camera lingering for a second too long on some handsome male face, a hint of unwarranted empathy while reporting an agent turned by threat of blackmail for certain indiscretions. Something like that. He'd tried so hard for so long to hide himself, to become the epitome of what an agent was supposed to be, but he guessed ...

He guessed the truth must have shown somewhere. Lies only lasted for so long. It was one of the first things you learned in this business. Everyone just thought that their lie would be the one that made it through.

More fool them, and more fool him.

Sphinx was going to kill him. He hadn't gotten around to it yet, content to leave Michael shackled underneath the waiting laser for a while first, but sooner or later he'd do it. Thing of it was, Michael wasn't even sure he blamed the man. In the end, it was really no one's fault but his own that he'd ended up here, that he'd angered a supervillain into making his death drawn-out and special. If he'd been on form, if he'd been paying attention and not both seeing things he shouldn't want and trying to convince himself they weren't there at the same time, then maybe it wouldn't have ended up like this. Maybe neither of them would be here.

He had a reprieve, for a little while. It seemed that Sphinx HQ operated strictly nine-to-five. A warning klaxon blared out, literally the very second Sphinx' finger was poised to send him to an early grave, and abruptly the entire facility powered down, readied itself for shift change. Sphinx stopped, there and then with his finger on the button, and simply ... walked away. Left Michael alone, shackled and under guard, to wait for him to change his mind.

He knew where the man was going, of course. Even for a mission he hadn't been intended to come back from, intelligence had made sure he was prepared properly, just in case he had a chance. Sphinx had a family. Nobody knew exactly who or where they were, but the couple of infiltrators they'd managed to briefly insert into his organisation had picked up that little tidbit fairly quickly. It was the subject of a lot of gossip in the ranks. Sympathetic gossip, even. Sphinx' people were loyal. Genuinely, honestly loyal. It was the reason his organisation was never more than briefly infiltrated.

So the man had a wife and kids. The most feared supervillain in the world, the man who professed ... professed jealous desire for Michael himself, and he had a family. He had a wife. God, it was laughable. Even Sphinx, huh? Even Sphinx, with his flamboyant prosthetic and his evil organisation and his unabashed dance moves out of nowhere, even he pretended better than Michael did. Enough to maintain a family. Enough to have a cover that strong and that protected.

There'd been that look on his face, though. When the klaxon sounded, the summons home to his family. It hadn't been the look of a man going home. It had been ... the look of a man steeling himself, putting the lie back on and getting ready to go back into cover.

Because it was a cover. The family. Maybe it had been real once, maybe parts of it still were, but it was a pretence now. A hollow shell, trying to disguise the fact that Sphinx was ...

Someone who wanted men. Someone who wanted Michael. Or had done, at least. Somewhere at the start of this, when Michael's cover hadn't been broken yet. When he'd been stiff and uncomfortable out of sheer surprise at what he thought he was seeing, when he'd half flirted back on sheer instinct before realising what he was doing. When he'd stumbled so much, off guard at what he thought was happening, that something had slipped through. Let them know what he was. Let Sphinx know he was betrayed, and the handsome man nothing more than another enemy agent sent to bring him down.

Lying there, listening to the vague hum of the powered-down laser, Michael wondered what he'd have done if he hadn't ... if he hadn't been so surprised. If it hadn't hit so close to home, if he hadn't been so desperate not to react when he knew the section chief suspected him anyway. If he hadn't ballsed it up from start to finish.

Would he have played on it? He'd seduced people for the sake of the mission before. Women. He'd lied to them, made himself everything they wanted. If he hadn't had that shadow hanging over his record, if he could have lied to the chief and claimed it was only another pretence like all the others, would he have tried to seduce Sphinx too? Lured the man into believing in him, more than he'd been tentatively willing to even then, and strung him along until the agency could strike? Would Agent White have done that?

He didn't know. Damned, damned if he understood why, but he didn't know. It was different, maybe, when the desire was actually real. When the warmth in his belly that had so panicked him had been genuine, when that man with his scarred face and his fluid movements had made Michael's palms sweat without even trying. Lies were one thing, Michael traded in them all damn day, but the truth ...

It didn't matter now. None of it mattered. He'd screwed up, let himself be captured and revealed. He was going to die, Sphinx was going to kill him, probably at nine-oh-two on the dot the next morning, and whatever slurs people spat over Michael's unmarked grave were hardly going to matter to him any more anyway.

He just ... he wished Sphinx would hurry up about it. He didn't want to die. He'd realised that when he saw that finger on the button and felt that surge of raw, instinctive terror. He knew he didn't really want to die. He just didn't want to draw it out, either. He wanted it over, one way or another. He wanted this to stop.

The lights blazed back on. Suddenly, shockingly, as if in answer to the thought.

Michael startled upright, straining against the cuffs in confused alarm, and watched as ranks of henchmen filed hurriedly back into the laser room, a couple of harried scientists fluttering through in their wake, and then ...

Then Sphinx, his fluid motions now sharp and jagged in agitation, rushing down onto the laser floor and barking out a flurry of orders. And then spinning instead, his body apparently moving without much conscious thought, a compulsive dance expressive of a violent confusion. Nobody batted an eye. In the middle of the song and dance, his people even paused in their assigned tasks to sing along, offering the supervillain what seemed like genuine support. The evil zzzzaapppp of the laser coming back online distracted Michael from it somewhat, made him unable to think of much beyond the death suddenly looming over him once again, but a part of him noted it. Some part of him noted that Sphinx' people saw no problem with who and what their boss was. That, unlike Michael's agency, Sphinx' people were willing to back him up even when it came to this.

It was almost enough to make him welcome the beam. Not quite, though. Some battered, terrified instinct cried out against it, railed against the unfairness of being asked to die, of being strapped down here and murdered for this stupid string of lies. He didn't want to die. All he could think was that he didn't want to die. He watched Sphinx snarl, watched him raise his hand to stab at the killing button, and then ...

Then Sphinx looked away convulsively. He swiped the raised hand before his eyes instead, blocking out the sight of Michael's terror, and strode off behind the table with the button still unpressed. Michael sank back against the metal in confused, unwilling relief, before straining his head to try and catch a glimpse of the man and what he intended. He didn't manage it, couldn't quite torque his head around enough, but after a moment he didn't have to. The click of the shackles opening themselves around his wrists was answer enough.

He rolled instantly and instinctively off the table. He didn't know what was going on, but he did know that he wanted to be out of that laser's line of fire before anyone else figured it out. He came to his feet, turning instinctively to face Sphinx, to face his enemy and see what he was doing. A squad of guards flocked down off the upper level in response, moving instantly onto the laser floor and raising their guns between him and the turned back of their boss. As if Michael had wanted to attack. As if he had anything else in mind beyond staying alive.

Sphinx called them off. He didn't turn all the way, he didn't look at Michael, but he raised one commanding arm and had his troops back off even as Michael turned to flee. There was ... there was such an expression on his face ...

Michael paused at the top of the steps. He pressed himself against a concrete column, hid his face from the guards still ringing the room. The door was right there. For whatever unfathomable reason, Sphinx had made it clear that he could use it. He was free. He could leave. Go back outside, go back to the agency and the one-way missions and the lies. Steel himself and head back into cover. Ignore ... Ignore everything that had ...

Michael's hand shook, his palm striking the concrete in an echo of Sphinx' earlier, convulsive confusion. The supervillain was turned away from him, his head bowed, waiting for Michael to leave. To just ... run away. Sphinx had been able to kill him. He'd had Michael right there, the laser primed and ready to go. And then he'd ...

Michael turned. Not out, not away, but right back towards the laser floor. Down those steps, back towards the man who'd claimed to love him, claimed to want him more than anyone else ever had. The man with a wife and children, a family Michael almost couldn't bear thinking about. A family that made ... made jealousy seethe inside his veins. He said that out loud. He threw caution to the wind and sang it out exactly as the man himself had done.

I get a little bit Genghis Khan / Don't want you to get it on with nobody else but me.

And Sphinx' face. The smile there as the man turned, slow and dazed and disbelieving. That smile in that scarred face, those blue eyes so wide and startled above it. God. God, it had been the right choice. It had, it really had. Michael knew that even as he strode towards the other man, his motions sure and fluid, matching themselves instinctively to the ones he'd watched danced out around him for this entire mission. They were different now. Matched, paired, more free. The delight in Sphinx' face, the disbelief and amazement, were almost more than he could bear. He'd never had anyone look at him like that. No one before this man.

It felt ... It felt good. It felt amazing. Wild and terrifying, like jumping out of a plane when the parachute had already fallen first, and so incredible. So stupid and amazing and real. The troops moved around them, all of Sphinx' ridiculously loyal and protective henchmen, bopping along like they couldn't be happier for their boss, like the fact that he'd found ... whatever this was ... with an enemy and an agent and a man meant nothing at all. They'd have shot Michael ten seconds ago, and now they didn't care in the least that he was making eyes at their employer while his arms and legs swept intimately along in echo of the other man's.

Michael had no idea how this was going to work. He had no idea what it was, how the hell they were going to work it out and keep it safe in a world where ... in a world where people like Michael got sent on one-way missions for their desires, and people like Sphinx had wives and children and families in deep cover to protect. He didn't know, he didn't know anything at all, and yet ...

Yet when Sphinx drew silently up against him, their hands warm and strong inside each other and their bodies merging smoothly together out of their lunges, Michael knew he'd fight for it. Whatever it was, whatever he was doing, whatever Sphinx wanted.

No matter what it was, Secret Agent Michael White would fight and die for it from this moment on. Harder than he ever had for anything before. As screw-ups went, he had an idea that this might well have been the best one he'd ever made.

And for the first time in his life, he felt just fine about that.

Chapter Text

For a second after the dance stopped, the pair of them just stood there. Chest to chest, panting slightly, their hands still clasped together. Neither of them did anything. Michael thought that maybe they should, that one of them should do something, but he didn't quite know what. If this had been ... if it had been a woman, another pretended seduction, he thought this would be the moment for a kiss. Seal the deal, that sort of thing.

This wasn't a deal, though. Or a pretence. So he didn't ... he didn't quite know what to do about it. He didn't know what he wanted, what was all right. So he didn't do anything. Just stood there, panting and bewildered, and hoped that Sphinx had a better idea. Hoped that the other man wouldn't mind, that he hadn't just ruined things straight out of the gate.

The way his luck had run lately, he wouldn't have been at all surprised. The laser had been dialled down again behind them, but that probably wouldn't take long to fix if Sphinx decided he really wanted it.

But no. No. Sphinx just took a step back, that baffled, delighted smile still on his face, and tugged Michael's hand after him. Kept hold of him, pulled him along behind as Sphinx strode over to the centre of the laser floor to ... to address the troops that had fallen back into expectant stillness around them, apparently. Michael swallowed a little, looking around at the patient ranks surrounding them, and hoped this wasn't about to get ugly yet again.

The thought didn't appear to so much as cross Sphinx' mind. He beamed out at them, even getting a couple of indulgent smiles back, and waved his free hand in a vague dismissive gesture.

"All right, everyone," he said, turning a little in place to address all of them. "Looks like the operation is over for the night. Agent White and I need to have a private discussion. Those of you on night shift, you can get back to your regular duties, and everyone else, late start tomorrow and don't forget to file your overtime with Regina in the afternoon. Thanks for coming in, guys. I appreciate it."

One of the guards snorted. Michael wasn't sure, he'd been focusing rather strongly on something else at the time, but he thought it might be the same one who'd given Sphinx an impromptu backing singer while Sphinx had been debating killing him earlier.

"Wouldn't have missed this for the world, boss," the man said cheerfully, before nodding slightly at Michael. "You sure you want to be alone with him, though? He's still an agent after all, and you've only just hooked up. Could be a trap. I could send a detachment with you, just in case?"

Michael winced, unable to stop the tightening in his shoulders and the automatic sweep of the room for weapons and/or a way out. Sphinx turned to him, though, squeezed his hand and drew him a little closer to Sphinx' side. When Michael dared to look at him, he still had that soft smile on his face, turned a little wry now at the corners.

"I think if we have any further desire to kill each other," he said, looking at Michael and not at the guard, "we'll handle it like gentlemen. In private. I think we've disturbed enough of everyone's evening, don't you?"

Michael wasn't entirely sure which of them that was addressed to, but he nodded anyway. Somewhat fervently, maybe, but he did ... He wanted a private conversation right now. Or even private alone time. There was an itchy feeling at the back of his neck, a sensation of consequences crashing down around him now that they were ... now that they were talking instead of dancing, and dealing with all the little practicalities of life once more. Something must have shown itself. His poker face apparently wasn't even fit for the dogs right now. Sphinx' expression softened, and he turned to grip both of Michael's hands instead of just one, squeezing them both reassuringly as he turned his head to address the guard.

"We'll be in my office, Jeremy. If you want to set up some extra patrols, make yourself feel better, feel free. The office will be privacy locked, though. Mr White and I need to talk."

The guard, Jeremy, just shrugged at that and tossed off a lazy salute. "Suit yourself, boss. I'll just put a couple of people at the door in case of murders then. And an extra patrol on perimeter. I know they're a bit late, but just in case AAE gets their head out of their arse and tries to rescue him, yeah?"

Michael did flinch at that, and had to close his eyes for a second. "I don't think you need to worry about that," he said tiredly, and found Sphinx frowning at him in some concern when he opened his eyes again. He put on his best fake grin, then changed it to a more honest grimace almost immediately as he shrugged. "They'd have come for me yesterday evening if they were coming at all. The amount of time I've been out of contact, I'm well dead by now. Not much point sending anyone at this point, is there?"

Sphinx frowned. a glimmer of something dark and very much beyond Michael's experience in his expression. Above them, Jeremy snorted again, disdainfully this time. "Bastards," he opinioned, giving Michael an almost sympathetic nod. "I'll put the patrol on just in case, though. No offence, Secret Agent, but you lot have been known to lie. Just occasionally."

Michael ducked his head, a small, involuntary smile on his face. "Occasionally," he agreed, abruptly very, very tired indeed. "No offence taken, er. Mr Jeremy, was it?"

Jeremy grinned at him. "Captain Anders to you," he said, but not entirely unkindly. "If you haven't shot the boss or otherwise broken his heart before tomorrow lunch, we'll have a think about anything else. All right by you?"

"Jeremy," Sphinx growled, almost protectively, and Michael laughed suddenly. A bit nonsensically, maybe, but hell with it. He'd just all but declared his love, or at least lust, for a male supervillain. And then had a song and dance number about it. There was just about nothing Captain Anders could say at this point that'd be more pointed that what was in Michael's own head, and if nothing else he had to admire the man's aplomb in dealing with ... all of this. Sphinx, him, everything. Whatever else you could say about him, Sphinx hired good people. And kept them, too, which was more than you could say about many supervillains, or even many agencies either. Might have something to do with the man's apparent happiness to let underlings snark at him to his face.

Or with his willingness to pay overtime, either. How did that even work, anyway?

"... Come on," Sphinx said softly, squeezing Michael's hands again, and Michael blinked a bit to realise that a) everybody, including the redoubtable Captain Anders, had apparently moved off again, and b) he appeared to have been giggling hysterically for a few minutes there. Ah. Oops. God, he just really wasn't the cool, calm secret agent tonight, was he?

Of course, from this point on, it was possible that he wasn't a secret agent at all. That thought sobered him, hit him like a bucket of ice water to the face, and Sphinx tugged him gently but insistently into following him. Up the stairs off the laser floor. Down a corridor, the other way from the door to the outside world. Away from what was either danger or safety, and damned if Michael knew which anymore. It was too late for that, though. He followed his supervillain deeper into the man's lair, and tried not to think too hard about what he was doing. Not yet. Not just yet.

He thought about it when Sphinx' office door clicked shut behind him, though. He couldn't help it, numb and shaking as he dropped into a surprisingly mundane brown office chair, and Sphinx moved quietly past him to the minibar installed to one side of the desk. Michael didn't even glance up at the offer of a drink, and accepted the martini handed to him purely on instinct. He took a sip, and then damn near teared up when he realised it was absolutely perfect. Just exactly to his taste. Oh god.

"You're all right, you know," Sphinx tried, propping himself on the edge of his desk and looking down at Michael carefully. "I'm really not going to shoot you. If, ah. If that was what you were worried about. I don't usually shoot my, uh. Well, my ..."

He trailed off, stammering slightly, and Michael barked out another laugh, harsh and ragged, before more or less inhaling the martini and coughing vindictively at himself for a couple of moments afterwards. Sphinx stared at him, hesitant and alarmed. Michael closed his eyes, and put his glass very carefully on the floor.

"What happens now?" he asked, tiredly and plaintively. "What have I ... Did I just join forces with a supervillain? Is that what I just did?"

Sphinx eyed him warily. "Ah. Possibly?" he said, looking increasingly worried for Michael's sanity. "I mean, you haven't really said anything yet. I don't know. You just ... You didn't leave." He paused, looking down slightly while a very naked emotion crossed his face. "You didn't run away. I'm afraid I don't know anything after that."

Oh god. Michael put a hand to his mouth, wishing desperately for another gulp of a martini. Or just vodka, neat and burning all the way down. He'd ... It had been him, hadn't it. Not Sphinx. All Sphinx had done was let him go. Michael ... Michael had been the one who'd chosen to stay. Now ... if only he knew what he'd decided to stay for.

But he owed the man that, didn't he. He owed Sphinx an explanation.

"... I've never been in love with a man before," he said quietly, after the smallest of moments. Sphinx' head came up, that shocked, hopeful expression on his face once more, and Michael clenched his hands into fists. Strangled the instinctive terror in his chest, the horror at this kind of admission, and made himself keep talking. "It's not ... It's not allowed. It's why I ... My chief knows that I ... Look, there's a reason they're not coming for me tonight, all right? There's a reason it's me, when you've ... When you've killed every other agent who's made it through your doors. I didn't want to ... to let them know they were right. But I ..." He stopped, dropped his chin onto his chest and exhaled raggedly. Waited until he could say it steadily. "I don't want to live a lie anymore. I don't know if you meant it, I don't know what you want, but ... whatever it is, even if it kills me, so long as it's real I'm not sure I care."

There was a long, long pause after that, long enough that Michael's fingernails started coming close to drawing blood, so violently were they pressed into his palms, and then ...

"... They meant for me to kill you?" Sphinx asked, low and soft, and with a tone that reminded very, very viscerally that this was a man who would cheerfully sing about murdering someone before frying them to death with an experimental laser. "You were here to ... They wanted you to die? They sent you here so that I'd kill you?"

Michael lifted his head, managed an old, instinctual shrug, casual in the face of death. He was an agent after all, one of the best. He hadn't entirely lost that.

"You do have a reputation, you know," he said quietly, trying on a little smile. "Given your people's loyalty, how impenetrable your ranks are ... You're a relatively sure bet as far as death sentences go. I mean, if I'd managed to pull it off, somehow inserted myself into your confidence and made off with your plans, I'm sure they'd have patted me on the back before picking something equally lethal to point me at. But, ah. Generally speaking, yes. You are considered something of suicide mission. Something to ... to send the more expendable agents against. If you follow me."

Obviously, Sphinx did. He followed very well indeed, if the slow curl of his lip into a snarl was anything to go by. The edges of the expression curled against the hard edges of his metallic nose, and just for a second he was every inch the supervillain once more.

"I've got a very big laser, you know," the man said softly. "Or I will soon enough. You didn't get as far as those plans. The little one in there, that's just the test module. The big version will be more than capable of taking out the global HQ of my choice. And I think I've just figured out what that choice will be. Ambersley Film Studios, isn't it? AAE headquarters?"

He straightened up, stood to attention with that snarl on his face as if he intended to march outside right then and there to lay in the coordinates, and Michael lunged up without a thought, grabbed hold of the man's arm before he could think to go anywhere.

"Don't you dare!" he growled, while Sphinx darted a startled glance down at his imprisoned arm. "Look, it's just the way it is, all right? There are laws, codes of behaviour. It's just the way things are. And, all right, the high ups might be a bunch of bastards, but there's a lot of agents working there who are just doing their jobs, and if you plan to kill them, to blast them off the face of the earth, then you are not doing it in my name! I may have just fallen in love with a supervillain, but that doesn't mean I've completely lost my moral standards!"

He didn't know what he expected from Sphinx at that. The man might be one of the milder supervillains out there, at least when it came to questions within the ranks, but he was still a supervillain. The laser test module was still right outside if he wanted it. But he didn't ... There was that startled expression again. That soft amazement. It took Michael a second to figure out why, what he'd just said, and then to get to grips, yet again, with how apparently sincere the man really was about it. Whatever it was between them.

Enough to let an enemy agent go free. Enough to just stand aside and ... and let Michael leave if he wanted to, information and all.

Michael swallowed. His hand, which had clenched tight enough around Sphinx' arm to leave rucks in his sleeve, started to let go, to slip free, and Michael only twitched a little bit when Sphinx caught it instead. He only flinched a little, and then he followed it up with a smile, small and tentative.

"... I won't kill them if you don't want me to," Sphinx said quietly, with that little helpless smile as he stepped back into Michael's space once more. "If they don't attack us first, I mean. I won't go after them just for you. If that's what you want."

"... What I want," Michael repeated. He shook his head, his smile going soft and bewildered, and then he looked Sphinx right in the eyes. He looked straight at him, shaking and determined. "What do I want?" he asked. "What do you want? I don't know what I'm doing here. I only turned back because ... because I didn't want to lie anymore. Because I couldn't bear thinking about you with anyone else. I don't know what you want from me, or what I'm supposed to do about it. I'm betraying everything I used to be just standing here. Help me out, Sphinx. I don't know what to do."

Sphinx looked up at him, the scarred skin around those blue eyes creased and hopeful. He stepped in closer again, almost chest to chest, and brought up his other arm to grip Michael's elbow gently. Bracket him, hold him. Maybe keep him safe. Michael stared at him, feeling tears wanting to spring back into his eyes. He fought them down. He did it desperately, deliberately. Sphinx very carefully made no sudden movements.

"We can do whatever you want," he said softly, while Michael only blinked at him. "I just want you. Nothing else. Just you, with nobody else but me. You don't have to do anything you don't want to. I promise."

Michael exhaled raggedly, looking down between their chests at his feet. "I'm beginning to understand that," he said, a little wryly. He'd definitely gotten the 'nobody else but me' part, and the bit where Sphinx had simply let him go did speak rather well for the freedom of choice part as well. But there was still ... "What about your family?" he asked, very, very quietly. "I know you want me, but what about them? Did you want ... What way did you think this would go?"

The man flinched. He looked down, an odd mix of anger and shame and something else on his face. Not despair but ... resignation maybe. An old emotion. Michael remembered the look on his face before, when the klaxon had sounded. Resignation, yes. A man putting his poker face back on, getting ready to back into cover. An ingrained reflex, summoned even by just the mention of the mission. God. What kind of life did the man lead that going home to his family was a mission?

A life built on lies, maybe. One lie, at least. The kind of life Michael had just joined up with a supervillain to escape.

He reached out, wondering even as he did it how he dared, and rested his hands carefully around the man's waist. There was nothing ... nothing sexual in it. He'd meant it mostly to comfort. Sphinx' head snapped towards him anyway, that wide, startled look in his eyes again. And then ... then something else. Something stronger, more determined. Sphinx' shoulders straightened. He drew himself up, his hands tightening on Michael's arms, his body firm and powerful between Michael's hands. Michael's mouth went dry in response. He swallowed that. He put that carefully away for the moment.

Only for the moment. If this went ... if this went all right, he had plans to revisit the sensation later. Mission first, though. Mission first and seduction later.

"... I'd stay here if you wanted," he offered, not meaning it in the slightest but saying it anyway. Giving the man the choice, the way Sphinx had given him the same. "If you need them, I ..." God, he didn't want to say it, but the man should have a choice. "Well, it's a tradition, isn't it? Admittedly the villain's work mistress is usually a woman, but ..."

"Don't be stupid." It was hard, breathless, but there was a little grin on the man's face as he said it. A sort of wild, desperate expression, like a man jumping out of a plane when the parachute had already fallen out ahead. His hands were almost bruising on Michael's arms. "I'm not ... Don't be stupid. I've done enough lying. Well, I mean. On a personal level. Professionally speaking I ... Not the point. You're right. You were, back there. I don't want to lie anymore. Barbara doesn't deserve it, either. I think she's known. She has to have done. We haven't been right for years. I wasn't ... I thought I could pretend. I had kids. I thought it would be ... I thought I could make it work. But I can't. Not like that. Not by lying. Not anymore."

Michael stared at him, barely breathing, an aching, desperate hope building through him. A need, just for one more piece of confirmation. "What ... What do you mean?" he said, everything he was feeling audible in his voice. "Sphinx. What do you mean?"

His villain smiled up at him. The creased, cocky expression of a man who'd made up his mind, the kind of man who could take over worlds once he'd decided to. Sphinx took a step back, trailed his hands down Michael's arms until he could catch his hands and pull them after him. Michael followed helplessly. Trailed after him in his turn.

"I want you," Sphinx told him, hard and quiet and earnest. "If you're going to give up your life for me, I want you. All of you. I want you in my life. I want you in my family, I want you as my family. I don't care about anything else. Any laws, any enemies, anyone who'd try to stop us. I don't care. I've killed people for one hell of a lot less. I want you in my home. I want you beside me. If ... if you want that too."

Oh god, Michael thought, while his knees took that second to threaten to give out from under him. God, what a question. Like there was ever going to be more than one answer, like there had been another answer from the moment he'd had that door in front of him and turned back to the laser floor and the man at the centre of it instead. But all right. All right. If the man needed the answer that badly, Michael could certainly give it to him.

"... Let's get a little bit Genghis Khan, huh?" he said, smiling crookedly, and god, god, he didn't think he'd ever get used to the way Sphinx' face creased in answer, the raw delight and perpetual disbelief in those bright blue eyes.

"... Don't want you to get it on with nobody else but me," his villain agreed, his smile all wide and dazed, and there, there, that was moment for the seal-the-deal kiss. Every instinct Secret Agent Michael White still had told him that it was. If years of experience meant anything at all, this was the moment where he put them to use.

And judging by the sounds the man made, judging by the way his villain all but fell into his arms and tried to climb inside his skin ...

Well. It looked like this time, his instincts were right on the money for a change, didn't it?

Chapter Text

"... You realise you make no sense, don't you?"

Michael wasn't sure he'd meant to say that out loud. It had just ... popped out, watching as Sphinx' organisation calmly and cheerfully decommissioned the test facility in case of future AAE interference. It had always been one of the more annoying facets of hunting the man down, the fact that apparently all of his individual facilities were low-key and interchangeable enough to simply be packed up and abandoned as required. Most of them lacked all the more flamboyant features your standard supervillain lair tended to boast, making them bloody difficult to find in the first place, the loyalty of his staff made them bloody difficult to infiltrate, and then he just up and bloody packed once the infiltrators were discovered. It was bloody annoying.

It was also, Michael realised with some vague cheer, not his problem anymore. Now, he was watching it from the other side, and it was something of a fascinating procedure.

Most of what the man moved were people and information. The physical infrastructure, even large parts of the laser assembly itself, a few key components aside, were left as they stood. It was files and data and scientists that the organisation prioritised, and it was files and data and people that were moved in the most rational and low-key manner humanly possible. There were rental trucks involved. An industrial complex packing up and moving to a new site, nothing more. They didn't even go very far. With the tests largely completed for this phase, the move to a larger weapons facility could be delayed until all the data had been run through, which as a bonus meant that a large portion of the staff could maintain their local cover positions for a while longer as well. They could just ... blend back into the surrounding area, ordinary workers who might never have been involved in supervillain activities at all.

It was, really and truly, incredibly bizarre. Michael had infiltrated nearly two dozen supervillain lairs and facilities over the years, and they ... none of them were like this. Things didn't work like this. Supervillains didn't work nine-to-five, clock off and commute home to their families. They didn't pay people overtime to show up at midnight and help them murder enemy agents. They didn't run medical benefits and honest-to-god, non-horrifying private hospitals and clinics to take care of wounded henchmen. They didn't provide cover stories, and family housing, and retirement benefits for their private armies. They didn't make their facilities so normal and banal and nondescript that they could be packed up with a minimum of fuss and just ... moved out of the line of fire. The game just did not work like that.

Supervillain lairs were things like abandoned missile silos and private islands and Siberian nuclear bases and armed compounds in the middle of various wastelands. They were elaborate lairs built onto sea beds and constructed in miles of secret tunnels underneath major cities. Henchmen were disposable entities, as often killed by their own employers for failed missions as by enemy agents, temporary and often unstable hired guns with a tendency to brutalise kidnapped scientists to distract themselves from their own expendability. Not always, of course, there'd been the odd decent military-esque command structure or corrupt corporation thrown in there, but generally speaking. The kind of people who blew things up with experimental weapons and took over small countries for fun did not, usually, make for the best employers or the sanest and safest of workplaces.

Sphinx wasn't like that. His organisation wasn't either. If it weren't for the experimental laser and the whole planning to ransom various parts of the globe thing, plus the odd murder of an enemy agent or twelve, the entire operation would have seemed ... almost normal. Almost sane. Which was, in its way, almost more terrifying than any of more vicious specimens Michael had dealt with over the years.

It made sense of a few things, though. Not only the difficulty in tracking down and finding the man over the years. It made sense of the loyalty he inspired. It made sense of how his organisation was so damned difficult to pin down, so difficult to infiltrate and sow discord inside. His people never betrayed him, because almost all of them genuinely wanted to work for him.

Most of them, Michael had learned, had been picked up and chewed up by various other supervillain organisations over the years. The scientists and the soldiers, anyway. Private military forces tended to be a small world, and the global science community as a whole were well used to be preyed on by every megalomaniac with the budget to kidnap them. Since the war, and the explosion of supervillain activity after it, careers in most of the hard sciences were among the riskiest in the world. Almost everyone in the handful of Sphinx' facilities around the world had served or been forced to serve under someone else before, and by comparison to most of them Sphinx must have seemed practically a godsend. Hell, Michael had thought that himself, hadn't he? Somewhere in the back of his head, he'd been comparing Sphinx and his people to the AAE, and in the end it hadn't been the supervillain who'd been found wanting.

People had sensible working hours with Sphinx. They had the option to have families, social lives, loved ones that would been given covers and protected. His private forces had training and medical support and options to retire after injuries. Facilities had evacuation procedures and drills for civilians and limited weapons training for those in high-risk areas. Experiments went according to practical schedules. Relatively speaking, very few things blew up on Sphinx bases that hadn't been intended to in the first place. They were, all in all, just generally pretty safe places to be working by almost any standards, and practically unheard of in supervillain circles. As Michael had rapidly found out, you couldn't have pried some of these people away from Sphinx with a nitroglycerine-enhanced crowbar.

And a lot of it, Michael discovered, a very great deal of it, was because the man himself didn't live it up at their expense. Even beyond just not killing people for general failures and rendering his entire workforce paranoid and skittish like a lot of other supervillains, Sphinx also didn't tend to lord it over people. He commuted, for crying out loud. He worked hours alongside his people and went home to his family at the end of them. He lived in a suburban family house just like most of them, didn't spend any noticeable amount of the organisation's money on personal benefits, didn't sit up in a luxury private apartment on base and casually drop recalcitrant scientists down trapdoors for their insolence. He wore a uniform. He quite possibly washed it himself (or would do now, if his tight lipped expression after going home to his family was anything to go by). He was just ... he was ridiculously, impossibly normal. If it hadn't been for the golden prosthetic and the occasional dancing fit and the fact that he was, in fact, still a supervillain, he could have been any normal general manager in the world.

And the craziest thing of all was, it worked. It made people feel good, feel appreciated, feel safe. It made them feel like their boss was one of them, like he'd look out for them when it counted, and not even wrongly so. From what Michael had seen so far, from what he'd witnessed in six months of trying to infiltrate the organisation and a few days of being part of it, that feeling of general safety and protection wasn't false. Sphinx could and would cheerfully murder entire enemy organisations to protect even one of his own people. Once you proved that he could trust you, once you proved that you could be counted on to keep him and the rest of the organisation safe in your turn, there wasn't a lot Sphinx wouldn't do to keep you safe.

It left ... it left a warm feeling in the gut. It really did. There wasn't a lot of safety to go around in this business, not on either side of the line. AAE sent 'problematic' agents on suicide missions. Half the supervillains in the world would kill underlings as soon or sooner than genuine enemies, if only because the underlings were closer to hand and more aggravating on a daily basis. Finding someone safe? Finding a boss who'd be reasonable and practical and wouldn't shoot you the first time you dared to complain? That was the holy grail of henchmen everywhere. These people would shoot someone for even a suggestion that he meant to harm their boss. The fact that Sphinx had ... had loved him, had wanted him alive, was probably the only reason Michael himself wasn't buried in very small pieces somewhere right now.

It made no sense. It made every sense, in a rational world, but it made no sense whatsoever for who the man was and what profession he was in. Sphinx had to be the strangest supervillain Michael had ever seen, and now that the laser was back off the table (and decommissioned), he felt more than happy to say so.

His ... lover, Michael could say that now, his lover blinked at him, a little nonplussed. “What do you mean? Because if it’s the dancing, I’ll remind you that you do a mean two-step yourself--”

Michael shook his head, waving a hand to cut him off. “No,” he said, smiling faintly. “I’m not a complete hypocrite. There’s nothing like a good show dance to liven things up a little. I meant the …” He paused, gestured helplessly at everything around them. “The way you run the place. Overtime. Shared profits. Family cover stories. The fact that Anders makes almost as much out of it as you do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a supervillain base operate like this in my life, and I’m not exactly inexperienced in that regard. You are … You are very strange. Efficient, I’ll grant you, nobody else has managed to hold onto me before, but … strange. You do know that, don’t you?”

Sphinx narrowed his eyes at him, crossing his arms warily. "It's not a problem, is it?" he asked, a little defensively. "I mean, if the money is going to be an issue, or--"

"No!" Michael said, very quickly. And then, more gently: "No, it's not a problem. I don't need ... Well, I'd like to think I didn't need luxury to choose to be with someone. I wasn't looking to be your kept man. I'm not ... The money isn't a problem. Really, it isn't."

Sphinx' shoulders eased down from where they'd been tightening up under his ears. He looked more relieved than Michael would have expected, until he remembered that the man had spent a large portion of the last four days having 'discussions' with his wife. Which Michael was trying to stay out of, because he didn't think there was anything he could do except make the whole thing a whole lot worse. It wasn't ... he'd played the other man before, for the job, but this wasn't ... this was different. This was real, it was personal for him as well as them, he knew he'd already damaged enough that he didn't want to make things any worse.

Also, if Barbara was anything like her husband, there was the distinct possibility that she'd actually just shoot him the second he showed his face in her vicinity, which Michael had an inkling would end badly for more than just him. That wasn't the kind of thing he wanted to happen in range of Sphinx' kids. As introductions to the family went, he'd really like to try for something less traumatising and less lethal, if at all possible.

So he understood, a little, why Sphinx looked both hunted and relieved that Michael wasn't going to take issue with ... with their take-home pay. God. That wasn't something Michael had thought about in years. He hadn't had a home to take pay to in years. He lived in a hotel between missions. A variety of hotels, usually, depending on who he'd pissed off most recently and how likely they were to be able to track him down. He wasn't ... This wasn't an issue for him. Mostly because he didn't know what the hell he was doing, but still. Of all the things he was concerned about right now, money was very far from the top of the list.

"Are you sure?" Sphinx asked him, eyeing him a little hesitantly. Michael blinked, and the villain tentatively uncrossed his arms to move closer to him. "Look, I know ... I know there's a certain amount of glamour in the life of a secret agent, I know AAE provided a lot of ... If it's problem I--"

"It's not," Michael said, very firmly, and reached over to catch Sphinx' hand gently and tangle his fingers through the other man's. "It's not a problem, Sphinx. The glamour was all ... It was all a lie. Just another lie. I didn't own any of it. I'm not sure how much I owned of anything. And, well, I was paying for it with my life, wasn't I? So it was a rather expensive lie as well." He looked down at their linked hands, held them a little harder than he meant to before he caught himself. "I'd rather something real. A home. I don't care how much it costs."

There was a pause for a second there, a beat in which Sphinx apparently didn't know how to answer that, and then ... then the villain tugged Michael forward abruptly, brought his arm up around him and pulled Michael down into ... into a hug. Just a hug. Not even a kiss, nothing remotely sexual or seductive at all. Sphinx pulled him down into a hug, and before Michael knew it he was wrapping his arms almost violently tight around the other man in turn, clinging to him fiercely and blindly. Sphinx' hand was warm in his hair, the hand that had been poised to kill him or free him a few days ago, and right this moment Michael wouldn't care if it never let him go again. Not in all the rest of his life.

"I really am going to kill those bastards," his villain growled quietly in his ear, rubbing a hand up and down Michael's back. "I know, I know. A lot of them are only doing their jobs. I'll research it first, all right? I'll make sure they're complicit before I get Subramanyam to shoot them with some of his more interesting inventions. He's been wanting to field test some of his smaller, more interpersonal work anyway."

Michael hiccoughed around his laugh, squeezing his villain gratefully and ignoring the couple of 'Awwws' from Sphinx' personal guard behind them. He leaned in, hid his face in Sphinx' neck, despite having to stoop a little to manage it.

"Do you promise to do that for everyone you pull out of someone else's organisation?" he asked lightly. "Do you murder everyone who's hurt one of yours?"

He didn't entirely expect an answer, but Sphinx straightened a little in his arms, a stiff, angry strength to his spine. "When I can," the villain said, low and cold and entirely serious, and Michael pulled back a little bit to look at him, to blink down at his lover in bemusement. Sphinx looked right back, one eyebrow arching stiltedly beneath the gold of his prosthesis. It wasn't a joke, Michael realised. Not even close.

"... You really do, don't you," he said, feeling a strange swooping in his belly that was somewhere between guilt and horror and warmth. He'd no excuse. He'd had an idea, listening to the stories around the base the past couple of days, remembering that first night and how dangerously close Sphinx had come to simply wiping AAE off the map altogether. He should be horrified. He should be a lot more horrified than he was. It was just that it did leave a warm feeling in the gut. It really did. The world they lived in, supervillains and agents alike, there was something ... so guiltily wonderful about being defended on that level. It didn't happen often. It just wasn't a regular feature of their world.

"I do," Sphinx said, casually icy. "It's good for business, of course. Getting rid of the competition is always useful. We take private requests, though. It's not easy being a henchman out there. Villains tend to take liberties." He smiled, a cold little curl of his lip, and reached up to tap the metal across his face gently. "My first employer gave me this. Golden Solomon. Eritrea, '54. The man was very free with molten metal in a temper. Almost got everyone on the base killed with his little melt-down during evacuation. Some people deserve to be shot in the head and dumped in their own crucibles, you know?"

Michael opened his mouth. Probably to agree, that was a sentiment he didn't think a lot of people would argue with, but for a second he ... he was too caught, just for a moment, with that image. Gold on Sphinx' face, next to his eye, and 'molten metal in a temper'. Michael had spent a fair bit of his career strapped down on various people's tables, threatened with a whole variety of interesting fates, but just that thought, that image, Sphinx ...

"... I know," he said, very distantly, his hands curling delicately into fists as his sides. "I know exactly what some people deserve. I really do."

Sphinx squinted at him a little, apparently not quite following that. Maybe he thought Michael was still thinking about his section chief at AAE, the man who'd sent him to die, but really the bastard was one of the furthest things from his thoughts. It was another bastard entirely, one apparently almost a decade dead, that Michael was currently imagining rendering down into very, very tiny pieces. He wouldn't even follow it up with something pithy and smart. Some people weren't even worth a smart comment while they died.

"... All right then," Sphinx said, still confused and slightly wary, but willing to go with it for Michael's sake. He offered a little smile, a shy, affectionate thing, and patted Michael on the arm. "I'll go tell Subramanyam to pick out a few things for field testing, then. He'll probably thank you. He doesn't get half the chances he really wants for his more personal projects. I mean, we do try, but in between operations there just aren't a lot of spare targets ..."

He wandered off, shaking his head as he visibly tried to think of ways to give his scientist more interesting opportunities for testing lethal oddities on people, and Michael stared almost dazedly after him. His hands were still flexing gently in and out of fists, vague murderous impulses humming under his skin and oddly not conflicting in the slightest with the other, softer impulses that even just the thought of Sphinx was beginning to inspire. Michael wondered distantly if that was what it was like to love a supervillain, or if it was just what it was like to love Sphinx. He wasn't the usual supervillain, after all. He was very far from it indeed.

"So," Captain Anders said, moseying up beside Michael and smiling almost sympathetically over at him. "Tell me honestly. Just how many AAE agents would you murder right now to keep him safe?"

And Michael blinked at him for a second, and Michael looked back to follow Sphinx' absently dancing figure across the remains of the base, and when Michael finally answered, it was with complete sincerity and only the smallest twinge of guilt.

"... All of them," he said, and wondered if he should be worried at how much he truly meant it.

Captain Anders, though, just clapped him cheerfully on the back as he moved past, and called back over his shoulder as he followed the boss:

"You might as well call me Jeremy, Agent. It's what everyone who sticks around does."

Chapter Text

The base was almost fully decommissioned by the time Sphinx actually brought him home. Michael had been ... he hadn't been beginning to doubt, exactly, he knew that kind of thing took time, it wasn't ... He hadn't doubted. It was just that promises had a way of not getting carried through in this business, that was all. It trained a man to expect certain things.

But no. Sphinx wasn't like that. If nothing else, if the man said he'd do something, he followed through. However lethal and/or impossible the thing might be. Or just, in this particular case, however emotional and exhausting and horribly difficult it might be.

"Barbara won't be there," his villain explained, pacing nervously around his office. He kept smoothing one hand back across his head, then bringing it back down and wringing it gently against the other one. He was more nervous than Michael had ever seen him. "She said ... She said she doesn't object, and she's not leaving the kids, but she wants time to think. Away from me. From us. She's going to ... She won't be there. I think she meant to be gone by the time we get home. You probably won't meet her."

"... Oh," Michael said. Rather blankly, but he wasn't sure what reaction he was supposed to have to that. Relief? Was relief acceptable? He didn't want to be difficult, but he also didn't want to get shot. Or face someone whose life he had taken apart. He'd done that a time or two before. It never ended well, and it always made him sick to his stomach. He didn't want to start a ... a possible life with Sphinx that way.

Maybe some of that came through. Some hint of ... worry, or guilt, or blank terror. Sphinx paused in his pacing, those sharp blue eyes coming back to Michael and taking in his expression, and then ... Sphinx came over. He moved to stand in front of Michael's chair and held down both his hands, waiting patiently until Michael took them so that he could brush his thumbs gently across Michael's knuckles. It made a knot come loose in Michael's chest. He didn't know why. It also made tears almost spring to his eyes.

"I know this isn't easy," Sphinx told him quietly. "It's not your fault. Barbara and I ... It's my mess, not yours. I made mistakes, made them years ago, and I ... I let them continue. Because I didn't want to have to change things, because until you came along I had no reason to make the effort. That's my fault, not yours. I'm the one who lied to her, by omission if nothing else, and I'm the one who hurt her. That's my mistake to make right. You don't have to worry about it."

Michael huffed out a little laugh at that. "No offence," he said, glancing sideways, "but most mistakes I've come across in this business tend to be the fatal kind. I think I'm allowed to worry about that, aren't I?"

Sphinx gripped his hands, tugged them up to make Michael look at him. His expression was fierce, intense, when Michael dared it.

“No one will be killing you,” the villain growled determinedly, and then paused to look mildly uncertain and a bit sheepish. “And Barbara and I won’t kill each other either. Probably. She wouldn’t do that to Ellie and Robert. I’m nearly sure she wouldn’t.”

“… Reassuring,” Michael commented dryly, and shook his head at Sphinx’ apologetic grimace. “No, it’s all right. I’m sorry. It’s just the whole … Things like this don’t happen to people like me. I’m an agent, you’re a villain. It’s almost contractually required that things like this don’t work for us. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, that’s all.”

Sphinx huffed agreeably. “I do know what you mean,” he said, smiling warmly as he moved over to sit beside Michael instead, perched on the arm of the chair. Michael was vaguely tempted to tug him down, into his lap, but refrained for the moment. “But it can work, you know. We can make it work. Barbara and I did, at least for a while. You and I can manage that much as well, and more. I'm sure of it.”

Michael paused there. Hesitated, because the question he wanted to ask was almost certainly very unwise, and more than a little masochistic as well. But, much like the urge to poke at bullet wounds, it wouldn’t go away. So he asked it.

“Did you love her?” he asked, very carefully. “Do you still? I mean … What you had with her is unusual enough itself. I haven’t met too many married supervillains before. Not the way you two are. Why did you … Did you love her?”

Sphinx paused, an odd expression flickering across his face. He didn’t seem upset, though. He didn’t seem angry to be asked. He mostly seemed confused, in a slightly less violent fashion than he’d been when struggling with his desire for Michael these last few months.

“I don’t know,” the man said at last, soft and distant. “I thought I did. At the time, I mean. But I’ve never … I don’t remember it feeling like this, like you. There wasn’t the same … I don’t remember this heat, this desperation. It wasn’t like that with us. I don’t know what that means. She wasn’t … We wanted something different. The both of us. I think we wanted … to prove that we could have it.”

Michael blinked at him. “Have what?” he asked, curiously and cautiously. There was something strange in Sphinx’ face just then. Something he didn’t know how to read.

Sphinx looked back at him. “A life,” he said, both simply and with a world of very complicated things behind it. “We wanted to prove that people like us could have a life. She used to work for one of the big names in the business. I met her when her employer captured me. She was supposed to … She was meant to kill me. She was very good at that, back then. She terrified everyone who ever met her. I’d been trying to … I hadn’t quite made it as a villain in my own right yet, I was trying to start out, and several of the bigger supervillains back then objected. Her employer was one of them. But then it turned out … that Barbara wasn’t.”

Michael stared at him, at the expressions on his face, fascinated. He probably shouldn’t have been. He should have been worried, terrified, jealous. At the fact that the woman he was helping Sphinx to betray used to kill people for a living, at the deep fondness in Sphinx’ voice, talking about this, about her, and the wistfulness too. It should have made Michael sick with fear and jealousy. But instead he … there was so much he didn’t know about his lover yet. So many things. He knew almost nothing about Sphinx. He didn’t even know if the man’s name was ‘Sphinx’, he realised distantly. It couldn’t be, really. That had to be an alias, a nom-de-guerre. It hadn’t seemed very important before. Names had never been the important part of Michael’s … He’d been thinking ‘relationships’, but he’d never had any, had he? Not like this, not since he’d become an agent. Nothing real. The lack of a name, of knowledge and familiarity, had been habit. He’d been letting it ride, following his training and keeping his distance as an agent without ever even realising it.

He’d been content not to know anything. These past few days, he’d been content not to ask too many questions, and mostly because … because it didn’t feel real yet. Because the other shoe was still to drop. Because relationships like this didn’t work. So he’d been waiting for it not to. He’d been content with only the promise of the thing, because he knew the reality would never arrive.

God. God, a man did get used to living a lie, didn’t he? So much so that he might never even notice.

“You’re not really human, you know,” Sphinx was saying, almost absently to himself. “Actually, I suppose you would. When you work for one of them, you’re just pieces in the game. She wanted something else. I wanted something else. She’d heard enough about me to listen. She rescued me, I helped her kill the bastard. And, well. I suppose it’s easy to love someone who spares your life, and who wants the same things as you. Or think you love them, maybe. I suppose we just thought ... I'm not sure I knew there was anything else."

"... Anything else like what?" Michael asked. He hadn't meant to. He hadn't intended to be so blatant about his need for reassurance. It was only that ... Loving, or thinking you loved, someone who spared your life and wanted the same things as you. That didn't sound familiar at all. And if it hadn't worked for Barbara ...

But Sphinx looked over at him, that shy, amazed smile on his face again, the corners of his eyes crinkling with confused delight. Confusion. They'd both been so bloody confused by it. This thing, whatever it was. This love.

"This feeling," his villain said, looking down at his hands, now calmer against each other in his lap. "Warmth. Tingles. Wanting to dance. All the time, you're very annoying that way, even my people can only take so many musical numbers a day. Heat, too. I don't think I ever had that with Barbara. We wanted ... We tried, and it wasn't bad, and then we had Ellie ... She was so perfect, you know. This tiny little screaming bundle of anger and joy. We wanted that, so we kept going, but then Robert came, and those assassins almost found them, and Barbara didn't want any more. Children. I don't ... I don't know whether or not she wanted anything else. I never asked. I don't know ... if it ever occurred to me." He grimaced, looking back up. "I may not be the best of partners. You ... you should probably know that in advance."

Michael didn't laugh. He didn't, Sphinx looked too serious and ashamed for that, but it was a close thing. It would have been mildly hysterical, had he let it out, so it was probably best for the both of them that he hadn't. But really. Sphinx was a supervillain. They were well past the point of less-than-ideal partners here. And Sphinx wasn't ... he hadn't ...

"... You make me want to dance too," Michael said, quietly and a lot more sappily than his dignity would once have allowed, but it was worth it to see shame morph into baffled delight once more on his villain's face. Michael reached out, rested his hand on Sphinx' arm. "You're probably the first person who's ever done that that's been willing to have me as well. Anything else ... anything else we can work out as it comes. All right?"

Sphinx beamed at him, that dazzling, disbelieving smile all over again, and god, god, Michael needed him to stop doing that. It was so hard to think when the man did that. Michael had played the seduction game with a lot of people, even if most of them had been the wrong gender to really hook him, and he'd never ... he'd never seen anyone smile like Sphinx. How the hell was it fair that the supervillain had the most honest and breathtaking smile Michael had ever seen? How was that fair to anybody?

And he needed ... he needed to stop thinking like this, too. He realised that, catching the reserve on the edge of his thoughts, realising that he was trying to distance himself again. What did it matter if it was fair? Sphinx had already caught him, hadn't he? It wasn't like Michael needed a clear head to maintain his ... his objectivity and his ability to sell the man down the river the second the opportunity presented itself. He wasn't going to. He'd made a choice, he wasn't going to go back. He didn't ... he didn't have to think anymore. At least not about this. He didn't have to shove his emotions aside, strangle the hot, aching thing in his chest the better to be able to betray the man. He didn't ... he didn't have to. Not anymore.

That was freedom, wasn't it. That's all it was. Being able to feel, and not having to betray it. Oh god. This thing was going to kill him. This thing was going to kill them both.

Hell of a way to go, though. And there, too, Michael was something of an expert.

"... What's your name?" he asked, an odd, squashed sort of humour in his chest. Sphinx blinked rapidly. Well, it was a bit out of the blue, Michael supposed. Sphinx wasn't a mind-reader. A pretty good interrogator, yes, when he needed to be, but he couldn't read minds. Even if he could have, Michael wasn't sure his own thoughts would have been coherent enough to follow. He grinned crookedly, gathered one of Sphinx' hands into his own. Explained a little, because why not? Why not be honest now, when there was no going back? "It occurs to me that I don't know it, you see. I'm, ah. I'm meeting your children this evening. I'm ... going home with you. And I still don't know your real name."

Sphinx blinked some more, this time in a sort stunned realisation as well. Michael could almost see it, see how the issue hadn't occurred to Sphinx either. He wondered vaguely how long it had taken him and Barbara to learn each other's names. If they even had? Had she been calling him 'Sphinx' all this time too? The thought was almost funny, and rather unbearably sad.

"... It's Reg," Sphinx said at last, almost dazedly. "Reginald. I don't ... I don't really have a surname anymore. We usually just pick an alias. It was ... It was Sphinx Barbara married. I've been Sphinx since Eritrea. When we pulled out, those of us who'd survived Solomon, we regrouped in Egypt. I saw ... and you know, with his gift to me, it seemed appropriate." He grinned vaguely, gestured down across his face. "I just ... I never looked back. But I'm Reg. Under it, I suppose, I'll always be Reg. Just ... Reg Sphinx now, I guess."

He huffed out this little laugh, as if only just now realising this himself, and Michael felt something squeeze in his chest. This wave of ... of something, some swamping, desperate fondness, a need to protect and kill for and keep safe. He'd never felt anything like it. He'd never wanted, never loved quite like this. Not once. Not ever. Only this man.

He licked his lips, eyes bright and voice heavy with that feeling, and tugged Sphinx' hand towards his chest. "Pleased to meet you, Reg Sphinx," he said, feeling his face crinkle with his smile. "I'm Michael White. And yes, despite what you may have thought, it is my birth name. It's ... It's been a pleasure to fall in love with you so far."

Sphinx, Reg, stared at him. Just for a second. Then this smile crossed his face, this great, savage thing, and he reached up with his spare hand to catch the back of Michael's neck, to hold it gently and guide Michael in to rest their foreheads against each other. The gold across his eyebrow was surprisingly warm, if still cooler than his skin. His hand against the nape of Michael's neck felt like the most perfect thing in the world.

"The pleasure's been mine, Mr White," his villain growled happily. "The pleasure's been all mine. I can't wait to have you home. I can't wait to show you ... They'll love you. Ellie and Robert. I know they'll love you. You have a knack for making people do that."

Which Michael wasn't at all sure about, his stomach lurching slightly at the thought, the terror of it, but he ignored that for now. Same as he ignored the new and niggling knowledge that Mrs Barbara Sphinx had apparently been an assassin of some note once upon a time. He shoved those aside, for once pushing away practical concerns in favour of the feeling throbbing in his chest, and leaned in to press a kiss to the tip of his villain's golden nose. The corner of his mouth. The centre of it. Michael leaned in and, for once in his life, let emotion have control.

"Do you mind if we tango for a bit?" he asked roughly, when he leaned back to find his villain blinking up at him, his face soft and his eyes half-lidded. Michael swallowed, the hot feeling in his heart swooping southward, and tried a dazed, savage grin of his own. "I want to ... to work out some nerves, and maybe work up something else. Do you mind?"

Sphinx took a second to parse that, still half lost in the kiss, and then he laughed. Bright and soft and happy. "I'd dance with you from here to eternity, Michael," he said, with complete confidence and sincerity. "You lead on. I'll follow."

Which was the inverse of the rest of their new life, Michael thought with some humour, but that hardly mattered either.

Because lead or follow, from this point on, they were taking their steps together.