Curt was on a commercial flight a mile above London, cursing the irony of feeling lightheaded while reading about heavy water.
The article was from some science editorial called Popular Mechanics, and it had mysteriously appeared in his bag after Barb had time alone with it. She’d probably noticed the Autosport still zipped in the outer pocket and assumed that he liked to read magazines now. And given from how long he’d manage to pay attention to this article, Curt had to begrudgingly admit that she was right. The noise-blocking earmuffs she’d packed him didn’t hurt either.
He remembered seeing Barb yesterday in perfect detail, from her purple headband brushing the hair out of her face to the way she nervously flitted around the laboratory. She had been thanking him at the time- “Gee, Curt, thanks for the signed headshot from your Monaco trip! I don’t really have time to go out to the movies these days, so I don’t know who she is, but the lady in the picture has beautiful handwriting.”
Curt had just shot her a sheepish smile and wished he’d managed to swipe the submarine blueprints instead. That would’ve been a hell of a souvenir.
Souvenirs aside, the conversation had ended on a troubling note. Barb had turned her full attention to him and said, “I’ve heard stuff about what they’re working on in Russia, and- well, it’s probably all boring to you, but I just want you to stay safe. Don’t let them get in your head.”
It had been a bit out of character for the scientist, who was usually much too talkative to come off as cryptic. Curt had brushed it off initially, but as he saw the amount of redacted information in his case notes, the worry came back. It occurred to him that he knew a very small amount about the mission when he’d accepted the request to come along. He just knew the location- Stalingrad- and his assigned partner- Owen Carvour.
And at the time, when he was happy and loose from the wedding celebrations, just the second bit of information had been enough for him to swear his safety away and jump in headfirst to the next assignment. But he was a bit of a fool for his job, and now for his partner, what else was new?
It took until Curt had landed at Gatwick Airport, made his way through the terminal, and was waiting in the stuffy air outside that he realized what exactly was new. The mutual “foolishness” him and Owen shared for each other was out in the open. It had been spoken aloud by both of them, like some kind of spell, and Curt had to ensure it wasn’t written all over his face when Owen pulled up to the curb to pick him up.
Owen was dressed more casually than Curt had ever seen him before, in jeans and a grey shirt that looked surprisingly soft and a dark jacket, despite the heat outside. He exited the car and greeted Curt with a wordless handshake before gently placing his luggage in the back. And then, they were off.
“I see you got here in one piece.” Owen said. Curt would’ve responded, but he was distracted by the new sensation of being in Owen’s car. It felt strange, like getting too close to a spider and noticing how many eyes it had.
“I’m surprised it doesn’t smell like cigarettes in here.” Curt mused. “Are you finally kicking the habit?”
Owen snorted at the comment. “That’s because it’s not my car. Just something temporary to get us to Stalingrad, courtesy of my superiors. I haven’t had the heart to light one up in here yet.”
“I knew you had a heart somewhere.” Curt said, but the joke felt flat as it came out of his mouth. Those digs made sense on their earlier missions, when Owen showed all the emotional depth of a shadow, but not now. Not with what had happened after the wedding- which, the less he thought about that, the better.
“So, are we driving straight to the Land of Rus? Because I might need you to pull over for snacks.” Curt changed the subject.
“We have a few stops in between.” Owen said, turning the wheel sharply to turn the car down a crowded street, before parking directly in front of a storefront. “Here’s our first one.”
Curt squinted up at the sign above the storefront, and didn’t recognize the language, but he definitely recognized the logo of a laundry machine in the window.
“Really, Carvour, picking up your Sunday’s best here?” Curt joked. “I wasn’t expecting the full tourist experience but this is-”
“It’s a different sort of errand.” Owen said, and then pulled his keys out exited the car abruptly. Before Curt could leave as well, Owen had circled around the car and was opening up the passenger door with the grace of a gentleman. He continued as soon as Curt could hear him again. “We need to get you a some identification.”
Curt got out and slammed the door behind him. “At a dry-cleaners?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be a spy? It’s just a dry-cleaners in the front, but the back of house is where we’re heading.” Owen said, digging through his coat pockets. “M16 has to outsource certain operations to keep everything running smoothly up top. This wasn’t worth going to HQ about.”
“Damn, I’ve always wanted to see The Circus.”
“The fact that you use that nickname means you’d just be disappointed.” Owen said, and after producing a few shiny coins from his pocket, turned away from Curt to face the meter. “We don’t have any lion tamers.”
“I think you’d make a good ringleader.” Curt was suddenly aware of the hot sun beating down on him through his polo, and reached an arm towards his partner. “Wait, Owen.”
He didn’t need to touch Owen after all (a thought that filled Curt with a sick sort of disappointment), as the other man turned around as soon as he’d heard his name. “Yes?”
“There’s a bottle of shaving cream in my luggage. I, uh, don’t want it to melt in your car. It’ll be useless after that.”
The sides of Owen’s mouth twitched upwards for a second, as if Curt had said something funny, but nodded in understanding. “I’ll park in the shade. Just waltz right in and let them know you’re there for a new suit.”
Curt did as he was told and was immediately ushered upstairs by the woman at the front desk. He was greeted with a wooden door at the top of the stairs, and gave it a hard knock. The door swung open to reveal a tan man of middle-age, wearing thick glasses, the brown hair on top of his head dusted with grey specks.
“I’m here for a new suit.” Curt said, but the man immediately looked over his shoulder. The sound of footsteps on the stairs behind him clued him in that Owen must’ve caught up.
“Hey, Graham.” Owen pushed past Curt gently and walked into the room, a messy office with film negatives and bits of paper scattered everywhere.
“Carvour!” The man, Graham, pulled Owen into a hug. “I was wondering when you’d show your face round here again.” He closed the door behind them. “So, what happened? Did you lose the new passport already?”
Owen gestured towards Curt. “It’s not for me, it’s for my friend here.” He produced a piece of paper out of his pocket. “Here’s all the specs. If you can give it a little wear and tear, even better.”
“Alright. Tell your friend to get the chair and I’ll get my camera ready.” Graham said. He read the paper and shook his head, looking in Curt’s direction. “Actually, scratch that. The new you has a scar.”
“Where?” Curt said.
“Left cheek. I could try and doctor the photos, but since you need legitimacy, you might as well just get dolled up. There’s a makeup kit in the cupboard, if you’ll do the honors, Carvour?”
Owen nodded politely. “My pleasure. C’mon, Curt.”
Curt shrugged and followed the direction he was turning in. “Doll me up.”
A few minutes later, Curt was seated in a little wooden chair in what was actually a cupboard, albeit larger than he was expecting. Owen was bent over the cosmetics kit, mixing together some kind of sticky solution until the mixture was a white-pink. The situation reminded Curt of childhood Halloweens, a holiday that usually found him sitting in the kitchen as his mom loving applied drops of fake blood to his face.
“Never thought you’d be the one to leave me with a scar.” Curt said, trying to move his mouth as little as possible as Owen started his work.
“I told you there’d be surprises on this mission.” Owen said, tickling a brush lightly over Curt’s cheek. “Is this your first time wearing makeup?”
Curt waited to answer until he’d blinked a few times, feeling the powder stinging his eyes.
“No.” He said, and and then, worried he’d have to explain further, decided to ask Owen the same question. “What about you? You seem pretty handy with that brush.”
To Curt’s surprise, Owen nodded. “Yes, but I didn’t start out handy. I broke into my mother’s cabinet as a boy and made a mess with her cosmetics.”
“How much damage did you do?”
“I don’t recall all of it, but I do know I ended up with lipstick in my hair.” Owen said, smiling at the memory. “Mum had the last laugh when she cut it all off the next day.”
“Is that why you keep it so long now? Still rebelling against your mummy?”
Owen’s smile faded, and Curt wondered if hair was a point of insecurity for his partner. “Spare me the psychoanalysis. I grew my hair out because I prefer it that way.” He tucked a lock behind his ear as he spoke. “Before we met, it was even longer, if you can believe that. But I had to sacrifice a bit of it for professionalism’s sake.”
The image of the agent in front of him, younger and wild-haired, brought a smile to Curt’s face that was wide enough for Owen to move the brush away in protest.
“Wipe that grin off, unless you want a crooked scar.”
“I don’t mind crooked.” Curt said, pausing as Owen gripped his chin and moved his face to the side. Once the hand had been withdrawn, he continued. “Adds character.”
“We need realism, Mega, not character. Now be still.” Once Curt had relaxed his face and stayed quiet for a moment, Owen smiled and patted the cheek not currently itchy with powder. “There you go, not so hard is it?”
Curt closed his eyes and pretended his face was just red from the brush irritating his skin. Only twenty minutes later, they were leaving the laundromat with Curt’s new driver’s license and passport, sporting a new name he’d need to perfect pronouncing and the realistic scuffing of a well-used ID that Graham had promised.
He spent a little too much time in the car once him and Owen got on the road again, looking at the thumb-sized image of his own face. The pictures turned out alright, even if Curt felt embarrassed his flushed cheeks had been immortalized in the final shot. But the scar looked good, so real that Curt felt strange once he’d washed it off afterwards, as if he’d just shaved. Oh well, Owen had promised it would be back once they reached Russia. Curt resolved then that he’d take time to learn how to apply it himself, figuring that the farther away Owen was from his face, the better it would be for both of them.
Curt realized his attempts to put some space between them would have to wait for later once Owen told him their next destination.
“My flat,” He had said after a half hour of driving without much conversation. The sun had set while they were in the laundromat, and the car windows were rolled down to let in the newly cool air. “I figured you’d be safer with me than in some hotel in Sussex.”
For some reason, the concept of Owen having a neat little address somewhere made Curt laugh. After Owen shot him a puzzled look for that reaction, Curt sighed and admitted, “I didn’t think you had an apartment.”
“Oh. So you thought I was a responsible homeowner? Can’t say I’m not flattered, I suppose.”
“Nah, not a house either.” Curt said. He was embarrassed to say the next part of the sentence that came to his mind, but it was the truth. He needed to get better at telling Owen the truth. “I just... never thought of you going anywhere when we said goodbye.”
“Well, this is where I go.” Owen said a few minutes later, parking the car once again. “A walk-up in Little Cairo. It’s not much, but it’s reasonable. Hopefully enough for your American tastes.”
They reached the apartment by a narrow stairway. Owen grabbed a single unassuming key from his pocket, not attached to any ring, and opened the door, ducking his head in before inviting Curt inside. Curt noticed Owen taking off his shoes before walking any further than the entrance, so he followed suit and then set his bag down on the nearest surface, a coffee table. Owen hadn’t been lying when he said “not much”. It was the kind of apartment that a realtor might call “quaint” and that Curt, if he wasn’t a guest, would call “cramped”.
He felt as if he was being watched, and turned around to find he was- Owen was looking at him. Looking for approval? Maybe. He could give approval, that was simple enough.
“Not a bad bachelor pa-” Curt began, but to his surprise Owen shushed him.
“Be quiet, I don’t want you waking my flatmate.”
“You have a flatmate?” Curt said, too surprised to remember the term “roommate”, which he was more accustomed to.
“Yes,” Owen said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “And she’s wonderful, so I’d rather not scare her off with too much noise.”
Her brought up a whole slew of other questions, but Curt held his tongue. Owen had already let him privy to so much of his life today, and he knew the man preferred to be mysterious when possible. He could respect that. Just like he would try to respect the decor of the apartment, with its cream walls almost bare save for a few framed postcards. There was a bookshelf in the corner with a few full shelves, a houseplant that looked like it had been well taken care of, and a window that overlooked the now empty street. The only recognizable item of Owen’s was an empty pack of Imperials on the kitchen counter. Curt sat down at that same counter without really thinking, half surprised the barstool didn’t crumble beneath him like a prop. The place reminded him more of a film set than a house where two people lived.
“I could eat.” Curt said coolly, trying not to seem too eager. In reality, he was starving, but he hadn’t been a guest in a friend’s home for a long time- he found himself nervous about the proper etiquette, a state that was not natural to him.
“I would grab us some stuff down the street, but restaurants close early here on the weekdays. Hope you like rice.”
“I won’t complain.”
Owen light up his stove and got to work, while Curt sat and watched and tried to ignore the creeping guilt. Owen cooking for him, making small conversation, pouring a glass of seltzer water without needing to be prompted- it all felt frighteningly domestic. Owen had said it himself after the wedding. The two of them “needed to be professional, not playing house”. And yet here Owen was, the image of a housewife (although Curt loathed the comparison, he couldn’t think of another word for it), serving up a warm bowl of chicken, brown rice and tomatoes with a soft smile.
The chicken was a little chewy, the rice a little crunchier than Curt was accustomed to eating, but he wasn’t about to complain about a home-cooked meal. In fact, the imperfections were a blessing. If Owen was a great cook as well as a great spy, Curt might’ve felt inadequate in comparison. Instead, he could treasure the warm feeling of having something to be better at.
Thankfully, he didn’t have the temptation to voice these feelings, as they barely talked over dinner. Curt asking for a napkin broke the silence at last, and after he’d wiped the bits of stray rice off his face, he felt comfortable asking about the sleeping arrangements.
“I noticed the blanket on the couch.” Curt said. “You don’t have a guest room?”
“The guest room is my room.” Owen said, a statement that wasn’t a joke but made Curt laugh anyway. Owen clarified almost too quickly, as if afraid of the implication, “I mean, I’ll be on the couch tonight.”
“You know, Carvour, you don’t have to-”
“Please.” Owen said. “I insist. With the trip ahead of us, you should be grateful for a good night’s sleep.”
Curt couldn’t argue with that. “Alright. Is your bed nice? Just want to know what I’m getting into.”
Owen gave him a funny look and turned away to wash the dishes. “It’s fine enough.” He said over the water. “Been pretty cold these days, but that’s par for the course.”
Unsure of how to respond, Curt shifted on the barstool awkwardly. When Owen turned back around, plate and rag in hand, he looked... young and calm. Curt had the sensation of something inside him tugging and coming loose, like untying a curtain, and it definitely wasn’t a desire to help with the dishes.
“Owen,” He said, testing the waters. “How’re you doing?”
“The same way I am before every mission, Curt. Just fine.”
“I mean, how are you...” Curt didn’t know how to phrase it. “How are you doing with your secret?”
Owen smiled for a polite moment, and then put the plate he was drying down and leaned closer to Curt over the counter.
“Life can be lonely after a revelation.” He said. His voice grew even quieter than before, but Curt had a feeling it wasn’t for his sleeping roommate’s sake. “Lately, I feel like I’m the only homosexual in London.”
Curt's chest felt funny at how casually Owen said the word, at first he thought it was discomfort but after a moment of thinking, he realized it was more akin to pride. “I have great news,” he said, smiling as a joke came to him. “There’s two of us now.”
Owen laughed loud enough that he clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle the noise. When his face was less red, he spoke again, the words falling out of his mouth quickly. “You know, I can’t believe you’re in my home. Feels... I don’t know, like some strange dream.”
Curt smirked. “Aw, why? Too good to be true?”
“It’s just different with you here.” Owen said with a dismissive gesture, and then excused himself to get ready for bed, leaving Curt to sit in the darkened film-set-of-an-apartment and try to piece together if different was a good or bad thing.