"Come in," she says.
There's a grit to her voice that sets his teeth on edge. He can't help the feeling that it's falling apart already, before it's even started.
He swallows down the trepidation and steps through the door, gingerly. They've had a few false starts with this particular aspect of the mission. But this time, there's nothing spontaneous about it - no whims to begin the act and no whims ending it prematurely. They had planned it down to the minute of their meeting, over lunch.
He had thought she would be looking away. That she would glance around the room like she was looking for something she'd forgotten, or stare stubbornly at her feet – and his stomach would sink, sink, until she resurfaced, conjuring up a level smile and a pat on his shoulder that was more perfunctory than warm. That was how it normally went, whenever he was brave enough – or simply forgetful enough – to make some kind of advance.
Instead, her eyes are on him like a wild animal. Stark, alert. The way they are during the scant few joint missions that they've had so far, yet this time it doesn't match the rest of her stance. She doesn't stand with her spine straight or her chin high. Elizabeth gives the impression of a deer that walked out knowingly to face the headlights, bracing for a blow without an inch of movement, not in her face, and not with her feet.
It's far from what he imagined.
"Hi," he says. Her shoulders are bare and her cheeks hollowed by long shadows. She wears the air of resignation proudly, like an ill-fitting coat. Still, the sliver of streetlight from the parted curtains is kinder to the rest of her, casting yellow light on her bare stomach and her bare breasts and her bare-
He chokes down a gasp of surprise. His mouth opens and closes and opens again, and it must be noticeable, because she takes pity on him and swaps her expectant stare for the hint of a smile.
He cannot smile back. There's blood in his ears, coursing hot into his face at the sight in front of him.
He steps towards the bed, limbs askance. The smile disappears.
"Tonight or tomorrow night is our best chance," Elizabeth recites, shifting to sit on her knees on the uncovered bed. It sinks under her weight. He likes his American mattress, usually, but the image feels absurdly decadent in the face of what they're about to do.
"You should... undress," she continues. He thinks of her standing with the telephone four hours ago, her back to him, corroborating with the Centre. Her tone is the same.
His hands are numb and they fumble at his zipper. It's quick work, interrupted only by the furtive glances he takes at her. There is a pressing thread of arousal mixed in there, without a doubt, but somehow, having Elizabeth naked before him isn't having the same effect that he imagined it would.
He sheds his t-shirt and clambers awkwardly onto the bed, facing her, her perfect mirror. For a moment they only assess each other. The burn in his cheeks doesn't subside, but now it makes him bitter. Elizabeth doesn't appear affected, so maybe he shouldn't be.
Or rather, she should be. They are husband and wife. Nothing less.
But nothing more, either. He chases away the aggravation by duly clearing his throat.
He had imagined it recklessly, with his heart on his sleeve. It wasn't hard to. Everything in his day to day here eggs him on, enticing him to see her as a piece of this faultless suburban facade. If he has a house big enough for three families and a car to bring him back to it every night, why shouldn't Elizabeth be a part of that reality too, when the doors are closed?
The day creeps up, sooner or later. it's this same bed, the same time of day. The frequent hum of cars passing by is the same, and of course, Elizabeth, naked from head to toe, is the same.
They danced around each other, maybe for weeks. They had braced against the ways of their new life in each other's company, so naturally, they end up seeking comfort from the other in other ways. A child isn't the goal so much as a helpful consequence.
He had imagined the exhaustion grinding in his bones would be after the fact, not before.
Elizabeth takes her hair in a careful clump and moves it behind her ears. "It wouldn't– I'm not gonna be offended if you think of someone else."
He wishes he could say the same. The breeze is swift and makes the hair on his arm stand on end. He wonders when he had gotten so used to the weather, to actually find himself feeling cold.
It's smooth. They perform their routine in the travel agency – and it is routine now – and it slips seamlessly into their routine at home, and after that it's only natural that the routine in the bedroom becomes nothing exceptional. It becomes comfortable, in its own way, to lie next to this stranger in the dark. He feels her eyes on him in the dark like he sometimes does, but this time, it does not cease until they are drawn together and touching. He kisses her first, or in some versions, she kisses him. They always undress each other, together.
The rest he creates in similar detail, though it's a blur if he tries to recall it afterwards. He's happy to recreate another scene in his mind often enough. They branch off indefinitely, his and Elizabeth's imagined trysts.
They embrace, and it's like the coldness in the air of the entire room dissipates as her hands draw around his neck.
He isn't nervous of the act, only nervous of her presence. Of the gravity of what must be done. Her kiss is surprisingly hesitant but she lets him coax it from her mouth, from her open arms. Even after one kiss, it's clear that an understanding blooms between them – in the space between their bodies which is now nonexistent.
There is no small amount of rearranging of limbs – they're both out of practice and it's painfully clear from the knocking of elbows and quick, whispered apologies. Still, he wraps his arms around her and relishes it. It's been a long time since he did this. He hasn't, since Irina. The Jenningses, he supposes wryly, might be considered virgins.
She lets him pull her into his lap. It's a measured move, when she sinks down onto him. Despite how much he craves it in the moment, the industrious, repetitive way she grinds down into him, fingers clenched hard around his forearm as if to keep him in position, is a stark reminder of the purpose of this meeting.
She laughs at his fumbles, kindly, the way she has started to laugh at his half baked jokes over the breakfast table. Her legs are lithe but strong braced over his, her skin silky warm from the hot shower in the master bedroom.
The tickle of her hair falling over his chest is what his brain always returns to. A whiff of that shampoo is enough, and then he flips her over. It might be fervent, secretive, slow, but not methodical. Never methodical.
Her face is red, though, mottled all the way down to her shoulders, and she won't meet his eye no matter how much he tries. He grabs her hips and when she doesn't flinch, that's enough permission to do it his way, to ease her haste and relax the whole operation. Elizabeth moans, not so much encouragement but an assessment of the impact. He grinds harder, dares her to do better. And for one perfect stretch of a moment, she cries out, her face shoved in his neck and her hands tangled in his hair.
They're on the same page, physically, if not by any other metric. He won't last long like this so the least he can do is make sure she gets hers out of it.
There is no measurement, no calculation in the time they spend together. Afterwards, they spend lazy minutes sinking into the mattress together, legs tangled. Elizabeth opens her eyes, pulls up a smile, and turns her head to him, all in slow motion. There's nothing demure about it, no trace of that treacherous first impression in Zukhov's office almost five years ago. He smiles back, thrilled by it all, by the knowledge of her trembling sighs in his ear and her nails digging in his shoulder. He focuses on the moment, tries to keep it all fixed in place within the bounds of his vision.
He tilts her face to him and kisses her, and her smile grows even more coy, her eyes darken again. The training had been nothing short of exhaustive when it came to seduction techniques and he can detect a false lure just as well as he can employ one.
He doesn't detect any now.
In the end, there is still a deep comfort in it, even in the superficiality of the act. When they're caged in this house and caged outside of it, he supposes there comes a point when circling each other isn't enough. Especially with a deadline looming over their heads.
Elizabeth climbs off him gently and tugs her dressing gown over her, pulling it taut and knotting it quickly, like shutting the curtains in summer. He tries not to wince. Her shoulders still shake a little. He looks down; his hands do too.
"We should try again tomorrow, to be safe." There's only a trace of panting breath left in her voice, subsiding far too quickly. He tries not to imagine it like the sand in an hourglass; his last chance at their first time pouring away in front of his eyes.
He nods even if the idea is considerably less alluring than it was half an hour ago. Then turns on his side and rubs a thumb over her hand, gently – his show of consolation. She turns to try a meagre smile – hers.
As he looks at her he can't help wondering for the millionth time if he would do the same in her place. The thought comes unbidden, wretchedly unwelcome. He knows instantly that he wouldn't. Not that he could begin to fathom it, carrying a stranger's child in a strange land. But Elizabeth's truth and his are not the same. She will do anything for the cause.
They will do this – bring a child into the world, a new life, one whose entire world will be a crafted lie from the moment it takes its first breath. The moment of its conception, even. It makes him want to puke and in his worse moments, it makes him want to claw his eyes out that Elizabeth won't deign to share what her mind is making of the matter.
There's no daydream he can paste over this one. He calms himself for the moment with the promise that he'll try to be a good father if he can't be an honest one.
"Paige," Elizabeth says, possibly a long time later, tucking her hands under her armpits. By now he's halfway to sleep. It surprises him little that she's still here, considering how fast she had scrambled to get back in her clothes. He had thought she would have taken her leave by now, slipped out into the kitchen and found a steaming cup of tea to warm her hands instead of him.
"If it's a girl." Her hair is mussed, falling in awkward angles, bouncing off the satiny slump of her shoulder. He watches through eyelids, his body weighed by drowsiness, a familiar weariness and – despite it all – some satisfaction.
"And if it's a boy?"
Elizabeth cracks a grin. "Then I'll let you decide."
He lets out a puff of breath, head buzzing pleasantly. When he places the hand on hers again, far too late to be a side effect of the sex, she doesn't pull away.
"I mean, we'll have to get approval from the Centre either way––"
He retracts his hand, uncomfortably awake. Elizabeth straightens.
"Is it their kid?"
He rises on an elbow to look at her. "Is it their kid, Elizabeth?"
It's not about the name. Of course, the name will have to get approved. It's the principle of the thing, pillow-talking in their damn marriage bed.
The silence stretches until there's a mile between them again, in a manner of seconds. Elizabeth's friendly manner vanishes, before reappearing as something softer. She looks almost apologetic. Almost.
And then her clean, furrowed brows dip into a familiar sternness.
It's Philip who excuses himself to the kitchen in the end, gulping for air.