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Pas de Deux

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"I suppose I should be flattered."

"How so?"

"I'm unarmed, and alone, and you still consider me a sufficient threat that I need to be restrained."

To Biggles's surprise, von Stalhein crouched down in front of him and gave him a searching look.

"Alone, perhaps, but we both know that you did not come here unarmed. You may be a brave man, but you are not stupid." He reached out and took hold of Biggles's right ankle, sliding a hand up his trouser leg. "Ah," he said softly, when his questing fingers found the automatic that Biggles had taped to his calf.

Biggles shrugged, cursing inwardly but endeavouring to project an air of indifference. He would have to hope that the others found him. "Can't blame a man for trying," he said lightly.

Von Stalhein, his hand still loosely gripping Biggles's calf, seemed in no hurry to remove the gun.

"I will not make the mistake of assuming that was your only weapon," von Stalhein murmured. Biggles set his jaw as von Stalhein's cool hands ran up his legs, forcing himself not to react to the firm, insistent touch. He circled Biggles's waist, reached into all his pockets one by one, feeling around inside each and producing a clean handkerchief, a lighter and a box of cigarettes, and a stick of chewing gum.

"I thought I'd finished those," Biggles said, his voice deliberately light, as von Stalhein placed his finds on the table.

"Pilots," von Stalhein said, setting the gum down with distaste. He returned to his work, his hands probing up Biggles's body to his shoulders, very slowly and meticulously. Biggles did not stare into the distance, pretending it wasn't happening: instead he looked straight at von Stalhein's face, forcing him to make eye contact. Forcing him to acknowledge what he was doing. Von Stalhein did not look away. He slid his hands along Biggles's arms to the wrist, then gave a satisfied smile and took half a step back. "Excellent," he said. "You know, Bigglesworth, I think this calls for a celebration."

"I don't see why," Biggles said. "It's not like you haven't captured me before. Several times. You don't seem to get anywhere with it."

Von Stalhein made an annoyed sound as if he felt it was rude of Biggles to mention this.

"Perhaps we should have a wager on how long I remain here for today," Biggles went on.

"It would be taking your money," von Stalhein answered. He opened a black lacquered cabinet and pulled out a dusty bottle of champagne and two glasses. "Your men are all far too busy elsewhere tonight. This time, Bigglesworth, I have you." With a deft twist of his fingers he released the wire cage and eased the cork out with a gentle pop, then poured champagne into both glasses. It bubbled up musically and von Stalhein smiled.

"Ah, I see there is a small problem with this plan--never mind. Champagne, Bigglesworth?" He raised a glass in toast to him, took a sip and gave a judicious nod. "Better than I expected. Won't you try some? I would not wish for you to think me an ungenerous host." He took the other glass and perched on the edge of the desk beside the chair, leaned down and put the rim of the bowl to Biggles's lips.

For an instant Biggles considered resisting, spitting the champagne in von Stalhein's face, using his chin to knock the glass out of his hand. Von Stalhein didn't press him; he smiled, waiting, and with a mental shrug, Biggles swallowed.

To the extent that Biggles was any judge, it was good. Von Stalhein was careful, precise, not knocking the rim against his teeth or allowing any champagne to drip. Casually, he rested his other hand on Biggles's shoulder.

He wanted to shrug it off, to rid himself of the faint, prickling heat permeating through his jacket and shirt from von Stalhein's palm, but he resisted the temptation. Although his brain was working furiously to try and come up with a way out of his current predicament, he was well aware that--for the moment, at least--von Stalhein was holding the cards.

Something must have shown on his face, for von Stalhein gave him a curious look. "Are you comfortable?" he asked abruptly.

"As much as one can be, under the circumstances," Biggles replied, "but I am a little warm," he added honestly.

"And I suppose you would like me to free your hands to allow you to remove your jacket?" Von Stalhein asked, his voice somewhere between suspicion and amusement at what he clearly saw as a transparent attempt to escape.

"I'd like you to free my hands to allow me to leave," Biggles responded frankly. "But I've learned not to expect too much from you."

Von Stalhein tutted. "Bigglesworth. Anyone would think that you were ungrateful for my hospitality."

"Thank you, you're very kind," said Biggles, not without a faint trace of sarcasm.

"See, isn't that better?" said von Stalhein. "A drink, a pleasant conversation between friends, instead of all this unseemly bickering."

"Forgive me, but in my experience pleasant conversation between friends generally doesn't involve one party being tied to a chair."

Von Stalhein hummed thoughtfully. "Perhaps not." He paused, then gave a knowing smirk. "In your experience."

Biggles felt his ears turn pink, although he wasn't entirely certain why. He wished there was a little more space between them, but von Stalhein gave no indication that he was planning to move away.

"Another mouthful?" he offered.

Biggles hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Please."

Again, von Stalhein tilted the glass against his lips. Perhaps he tipped it a trifle too sharply, or it may have simply been the bubbles, but this time Biggles choked a little and a drop of champagne escaped the corner of his mouth. He was about to wipe it on his shoulder when von Stalhein took hold of his chin with one elegant hand and brushed it away with his thumb, meeting Biggles's gaze as he did so.

As Biggles watched, holding his breath, von Stalhein seemed to shake himself before pulling his hand away sharply. For a moment he looked as though he was about to put it back on Biggles's shoulder, but he apparently thought better of it and instead leaned against the desk in an attitude of nonchalance.

Biggles watched von Stalhein. One of the most important lessons he had learned over the years was this: in a tight enough corner, anything could be a weapon. A light fitting. An empty bottle. A glass of champagne. All that was needed was the nerve to use it.

That strange hunger in von Stalhein's eyes could be a weapon too, if he had enough nerve. And von Stalhein had blinked now, in that drawing back. And when your opponent showed you his tail, that was the time to return fire.

And what of your own feelings, said a voice in the back of his head that he couldn't quite dismiss. Are those a weapon too?

"A good host doesn't leave his guest's glass empty," Biggles murmured after the silence had stretched. Von Stalhein startled, as if he had been lost in some reverie of his own, finished his own glass and refilled them both. He took a sip, and Biggles gave him a speaking look.

"Or you could free my hands," he said. "One hand, even."

Von Stalhein seemed to steel himself, his ice-blue eyes going colder, and he offered Biggles the champagne as clinically as any doctor administering medication. Biggles smiled, but decided that licking his lips would be too far. He could feel heat from von Stalhein's body as he leaned over Biggles, a betraying contrast with his eyes.

The other problem with this plan, Biggles realised as the bubbles fizzed on his tongue, was that he hadn't eaten anything all day, and his days of being able to drink half a bottle of whisky before flying in combat were long past.

"Thank you," Biggles said easily. Tied fast, he could not lean back, but he tilted his head back a little in a pose of confidence, relaxed his shoulders, stretched his legs. "It's been a very long day. You took a lot of finding."

"And look what your labours have bought you," said von Stalhein. "You are always so very active, Bigglesworth. You would live longer if you relaxed more."

That brought a genuine snort of laughter to Biggles's lips. "You're one to talk! If you were to retire from this--this one-man crusade, I might be able to relax. It's knowing that you're out there looking for some new way to cause problems that keeps me awake at night. I can only rest when I have you under my eye."

"Then rest while you can," von Stalhein retorted. "I promise, I won't go anywhere else tonight."

Biggles looked down ruefully at his bound wrists. "Nor will I, apparently." His head was beginning to feel a little muzzy, but he was sure he saw von Stalhein's thin lips twitch with something that might have been mirth.

"It seems you are doomed to disappointment," von Stalhein observed drily, offering the glass again. Biggles accepted, and took a long swallow.

"It seems we both are."

"On the contrary, I already consider this evening a success." Biggles was about to point out that von Stalhein's success would inevitably be short-lived, when he spoke again: "Would you give me your word that if I untie you, you will not attempt to escape?"

Biggles scented an opportunity, although for what he wasn't certain, and weighed up his response carefully.

"Just let me get this blasted jacket off," he said eventually. In truth, he was beginning to get uncomfortably warm in the cramped room, and he could tell that his cheeks were starting to flush, although whether from the heat or the alcohol he wasn't sure.

This seemed to satisfy von Stalhein. He set the glass down carefully on the desk, and leaned over to release Biggles from his bonds. He untied the knots with deft fingers and Biggles stood.

"Thank you," he said. He shrugged out of his jacket and placed it neatly on the back of the chair, smoothing the shoulders while he considered his next step. He was free, at least. Feeling the back of his neck prickle and knowing that he was being watched, he gave a languid stretch. Then, in a single movement, he spun around and swung his fist at von Stalhein's face. He had, however, not reckoned on being quite so unsteady on his feet and he stumbled slightly as he turned, with the result that the blow all but glanced off.

Von Stalhein stared at him, and for a brief moment it looked as though he would ignore the outburst, but suddenly his arm shot out and the back of his hand cracked viciously across Biggles's jaw. The force of it snapped his head to the side, and he staggered but managed to keep his feet. Dazed, he shook his head to try and clear the ringing in his ears.

"That," spat von Stalhein, "was not gentlemanly. You gave your word."

"I don't think I did, actually," Biggles retorted, looking up to meet von Stalhein's furious gaze. His stomach lurched when he recognised the expression in his eyes, and he forced himself to look back without flinching. He could feel his face growing hot, and he knew this time that it had nothing to do with the champagne.

If ever there had been a moment for sheer nerve, this was it.

He stepped forwards, just one slow step, knowing that if he lunged again he would be back in a fight he couldn't win. Von Stalhein had locked his gun in a desk drawer and pocketed the key, and Biggles had seen that von Stalhein's own gun was in there too. If he could make it out the door, he could get away, so all he needed some way to incapacitate the man long enough to flee. Some way to distract him.

Biggles raised his hand, telegraphing his movements in a deliberate attempt to disarm resistance. He placed his hand on top of von Stalhein's on the table, lacing their fingers together, and von Stalhein jerked as if Biggles had struck him.

"Bigglesworth--" he began harshly, but cut himself off as if any question would be too revealing.

Biggles advanced another step. Von Stalhein did not move at all. Neither of them broke their gaze.

Some years ago when they had been working in the jungles of Brazil, a butterfly had landed on Ginger's elbow. Ginger had stood perfectly still for five solid minutes while the enormous blue wings stretched and fluttered in the sunlight, never taking his eyes off the creature. Biggles had never seen that same transfixed expression until today.

He could see von Stalhein's chest rise and fall, the pulse beating in his neck, the beads of sweat at his hairline from their exchange of blows. He lifted his other hand to von Stalhein's cheek, feeling the slight stubble there, the skin drawn tight over his cheekbones.

Then, as if that movement had been the key to unlock some tightly-fastened box, von Stalhein surged forwards. Biggles stumbled backwards, knocking over a chair as he went. Von Stalhein pushed him against the wall and held him there with his entire bodyweight, and kissed him, hard and angry. Biggles let his mouth open, tasting champagne and some German brand of cigarettes, and von Stalhein made an odd sound in the back of his throat. Von Stalhein's hips slid against his, and Biggles groaned involuntarily. He was aware of a terrible temptation to forget about escape, to forget why he was here and let himself relax in his enemy's grasp.

Instead he looked over von Stalhein's shoulder, measuring the distance to the door, trying to turn them so that the overturned chair would be in von Stalhein's path. Too late he realised that von Stalhein was aware of his distraction, and its cause.

"You--dare--" he snarled, shoving Biggles back against the wall and pinning both his wrists. "Do you think me a fool, Bigglesworth, or do you rate your attractions so highly that--how dare you!"

He had never heard von Stalhein so furious before; he had never heard him sound betrayed before. Biggles felt an odd queasy sensation in his stomach, a sense that he had been here before. He wondered what Marie had been thinking when she'd kissed him.

There were some weapons a man couldn't use. Not if he wanted to be able to look himself in the mirror again.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't tie you back to that chair, set two guards in here with you and leave you," von Stalhein snarled.

Biggles drew breath and tried to steady himself. "Please let go," he said quietly.

Perhaps it was the tremor he couldn't quite control in his voice, perhaps it was the unexpectedness of the request, but von Stalhein let his wrists loose. Biggles staggered, caught himself against the wall, and stumbled over to the remaining chair. Von Stalhein tracked his movements tensely, only relaxing as Biggles sank onto the chair. His eye fell on the champagne bottle and pair of glasses.

"I cannot give you my word that I will not attempt to escape," he said at last. "You must understand that. But--in deference to your hospitality--I will do nothing until the champagne is finished."

Von Stalhein studied his face, still breathing hard. "A gentlemen's agreement indeed," he said at last. "Very well."

He gave a little mocking bow and then resumed leaning on the desk. The hectic colour was already receding from his face and Biggles envied him his composure, even if it was feigned. He wouldn't have been prepared to wager any amount of money on his own ability to stand, had such a thing been demanded of him.

Von Stalhein moved as though to pick up his glass but seemed to change his mind, and instead reached for the box of cigarettes on the desk. Watching this, Biggles realised that he was trying to cover the fact that his hands were trembling. Never before had he seen von Stalhein so affected, and he wondered how much of his agitation was due to Biggles's own rather clumsy attempt at deception, and how much to the kiss itself.

Accepting the silent, slightly brusque offer of a cigarette, Biggles lit up and took a long draw, letting the smoke out slowly in an effort to persuade his taut nerves to relax. When he trusted himself to speak without stammering, he said: "I'm sorry. That wasn't ... sporting." Von Stalhein's jaw tightened, but he made no other acknowledgement of Biggles's words.

They smoked in silence for a few minutes, each determinedly avoiding the other's eyes. Biggles could still feel von Stalhein's mouth on his, the strong hands at his wrists and the weight pressing him against the wall, could still feel that dizzying moment when he had almost given in to it. The memory made heat lick up his spine, and he toyed with his glass purely for the sake of having something to do with his hands.

"Do not feel that you must stand on ceremony for my sake," said von Stalhein abruptly.

Biggles looked up, puzzled. "What?"

"Drink it," snapped von Stalhein, indicating the champagne saucer in Biggles's hand. "Why draw things out? I am sure you would like to be on your way." As if to emphasise the point, he snatched up his own glass and drained it swiftly.

"We both know you're not just going to let me walk out of here when that bottle runs dry," Biggles replied, with a wry smile.

Von Stalhein inclined his head, conceding the truth of this statement. "Then I suggest you use the time to try and come up with a more ... effective escape plan than your previous one."

Biggles almost laughed. "I shall do my best, although it may take a while. I don't think as quickly as I used to." To his surprise, von Stalhein gave a derisive snort in response. It seemed an unusually undignified reaction for a man who normally armoured himself in a cool veneer of propriety.

"You expect me to believe you? When you-- before-- exactly how long had you been thinking about that? A whole minute, or mere seconds?"

Biggles weighed his next words very carefully indeed. He was sure he could sense a softening of von Stalhein's brittle demeanour, but he was acutely aware that if he had misjudged him then he would undoubtedly find himself tied to the chair and left here. With no idea of what he hoped to achieve, only that he had no chance of achieving it while von Stalhein was so on his guard, Biggles decided to try something that he was sure he wouldn't see coming.

"To tell you the truth," he said carefully, "I've been thinking about that since Palestine."

Von Stalhein dropped his glass and it tumbled to the floor, where it smashed into glittering shards.

"The truth," he sneered, but badly, his gaze flickering between Biggles and the fragments of glass circling his feet, his face white around the lips. "Is that what you were thinking of while you were blowing up my water supply, or while you arranged an ambush for me at Sidi Arish? Or perhaps it was--"

"All of that and more," Biggles broke in quietly on what he suspected would be a long, long list. "You cannot suppose that I would allow any purely personal considerations to interfere with my plain duty."

Von Stalhein stared at the broken glass on the floor and stooped automatically to pick it up, as if he could recover his composure with it. Biggles leaned forward and caught his hand. "Leave it, you'll cut yourself."

"Wouldn't you kiss it better for me?" von Stalhein snapped. He did not pull his hand away.

"Would you like me to?" The retort escaped Biggles's lips before he could stop himself, and von Stalhein's gaze flickered across his. Yes, his eyes said, but every other line of his body was screaming with tension. Biggles swallowed, tried to find better words. Words that would let him escape? But if von Stalhein had been bleeding on the floor he would not escape until he knew his enemy would be cared for; he could not leave him in the middle of this either. "Ever since the end of the war, I've wanted to get on better terms with you. I've told you often enough, I've hoped you would... But even without that, even as things stand now--oh, you were the sharpest man I ever met in Palestine and you still are now, do you really need me to spell it out for you in words of one syllable?" He lifted von Stalhein's unresisting hand and kissed the tip of his forefinger, and felt the shiver that went over his enemy. Then von Stalhein traced his finger over Biggles's lips, a slow circuit that set Biggles's heart racing.

Apparently he did not need to spell it out in words of one syllable.

"Palestine," von Stalhein said, little more than a whisper. "Do you imagine I have any memories of you there that I would care to revisit, after everything you did to me?" But there was no hostility in his tone. "How you had the nerve to carry through what you did--I only spent a few hours here and there in the British mess, I kept away as much as I could. But you--you faced me down every day." His hand curved around Biggles's face, tilting it upwards, his eyes searching Biggles's expression. For betrayal, for truth?

Biggles rose to his feet, von Stalhein stepping backwards as he moved forwards like a pair of dancers, the champagne glass crunching beneath their shoes. Von Stalhein was not guarding himself now, no longer poised for a fight. One hard shove forwards and he would go over backwards on his bad leg and land in broken glass, and Biggles was between him and the door. Biggles stopped moving. His face was heated where von Stalhein's hand still rested on his cheek. He caught von Stalhein around the waist, steadying him, pulling him close enough to hear the tiny gasp as their bodies touched, and then it was almost as if they hadn't stopped, von Stalhein's mouth hot and urgent on his.

Betrayal, escape, truth: Biggles let all such thoughts go as his hand wound around von Stalhein's neck, fingers twisting in his hair, worn a little longer now than the severe military crop of Palestine. But in Palestine he hadn't known this man as he did now, faced him in dozens of desperate encounters. Five minutes in combat could tell you more about a man than a year of ordinary acquaintance, and now Biggles found he moved easily in tandem with von Stalhein, as if they'd done this a hundred times before. Know thine enemy indeed.

"You can't possibly trust me enough for this," von Stalhein said at last, breathlessly into his neck. "Not after everything that's gone before. I didn't hit you that hard--have you no head for champagne at all?"

"I was already your prisoner," Biggles pointed out. "And perhaps I do. Trust you enough for this." He tilted back his head, gasping as von Stalhein's mouth worked down his neck, pulling von Stalhein's shirt loose so that he could find warm skin beneath it.

Von Stalhein raised his head, and Biggles heard himself make a small disappointed sound as the firm grasp holding him loosened. Deliberately, von Stalhein half-turned back to the desk and with a swift swipe of his hand, knocked the remaining glass over. The champagne ran slowly over the desk and began to spill down to the carpet, still bubbling a little as each drop hit.

"The champagne is finished," he said softly. "Go, if you wish. I will not stop you."