Algy looked in the back as von Stalhein heaved again. "Wearing off, is it?" he said unsympathetically. "You'll feel worse in a while."
"Have a heart, Algy, he's in a bad way," Biggles said.
"If ever a man deserved it—" Algy muttered, but he passed Biggles another airsickness bag. "What are you going to do with him?"
"Just let me go," von Stalhein muttered weakly, but when he tried to stand up, he fell back into the seat.
"We're not making any decisions until you're fit to take care of yourself," Biggles said. "I'll give you a choice. I drop you off at a hospital, or you come back to the hotel with us, on the understanding of truce."
"Hotel," von Stalhein said at last. "And truce."
"So long as he shares your room and not mine," Algy said.
"I thought you'd be sharing with Ginger," said Biggles in a perfectly neutral voice, and was entertained to see Algy blush.
On arrival at the hotel, Biggles knocked up the night porter, who retrieved three room keys from the cabinet behind the reception desk.
"I think we're going to have to re-shuffle the rooms a little," said Biggles. "Let's see what we've got. Algy, yours was a single, wasn't it?"
Algy confirmed that it was. "Room 7," he added.
"All right," Biggles separated one key from the others. "Bertie, you shift to Algy's room."
"Righto, chief," said Bertie cheerfully.
Biggles picked one of the two remaining keys, and handed it to Algy. "You and Ginger have mine—it's room 4. Von Stalhein and I will take the one Ginger and Bertie were sharing before. Where were you two?"
"Room 3," said Ginger.
"Right. Everyone sort out your kit, and try and get a few hours' shut-eye. We'll head back to London after a rest." He glanced at Algy and Ginger, who were both mud-streaked and a little bloody. "And perhaps a bath."
Von Stalhein silently accompanied Biggles up to the hotel room, occasionally pausing as if losing track of where he was and what he was doing. Biggles chivvied him on with a hand in the small of his back, and unlocked the door.
Ginger and Bertie had had the smallest of rooms, a pair of twin beds with barely space to walk around them, and a door to an equally bijou bathroom. Von Stalhein blinked at it, made for the nearest bed and fell across it. He closed his eyes like a man who hopes that when he next opens them he will find it was all a bad dream. Biggles let him be and rummaged around in his kit, unfolding his pyjamas and stripping off with the quick habitual movements of years of military life. He was half-undressed when he realised that von Stalhein had opened his eyes again and was watching him.
Having retrieved their small kit from their respective rooms, Algy and Ginger made their way to room 4. As soon as they opened the door, they understood why Biggles had allocated this one to them.
Tucked in the corner was a large double bed.
Algy looked at the bed, then at Ginger. "I'm going to kill him," he said. "Why didn't he keep this one with his darling Erich, anyway?"
"It's got pillows and a blanket," said Ginger, yawning immensely and dropping his kit on the floor, "it looks fine to me." He crossed the room and made as if to lie down immediately. Algy grabbed him.
"Oh no. Not covered in mud you don't. Go and get cleaned up."
"And wash behind my ears?" Ginger said. "You're not so fragrant yourself. Would you really kick me out of bed for a bit of dirt?"
Algy's traitorous memory brought back Ginger sleeping with his head on Algy's lap on the short flight back. "I'd hold you under the shower and scrub you myself," he shot back.
Ginger raised an eyebrow. "Sounds like fun. Is that the bathroom?"
"I believe it is," said Algy. "D'you want to go first?"
Ginger took a deep breath. "Listen, it’s been a long night, and we’re both exhausted. We ought to try and get as much kip as we can. Maybe, just, y’know, in the interest of saving time, we should ..."
Despite his tiredness, and his sore head, Algy grinned. Maybe he wouldn’t kill Biggles just yet after all.
"What a sensible suggestion. I’ll draw the bath. And you," he gave Ginger a slow look up and down, "get that dirty kit off."
Biggles stilled. Von Stalhein was looking at him openly and without self-consciousness. He met Biggles’s gaze and blinked slowly.
"Are you all right?" Biggles asked, just to break the silence.
To his astonishment, von Stalhein smiled at him. A warm, genuine smile that softened the steely blue of his eyes. "Yes. I am quite all right."
"Good." Biggles was unsure what to do. He had, of course, undressed in the company of others on too many occasions to count, but it felt oddly uncomfortable to do so while von Stalhein was staring at him in that way. He deliberated a moment, then picked up his pyjamas and went through to the bathroom.
When he returned, von Stalhein was still sprawled on the bed as if movement was entirely beyond him, but also relaxed, as if he didn't mind. He watched Biggles tidy away his clothes, still with that warm intensity in his gaze. Biggles glanced back at him stretched out like a sleepy cat, the habitual lines of strain and anger gone from his face, and hastily looked away and seized on the nearest distraction. The hotel room had the usual kettle and set of mugs on a tiny table.
"I'll make some tea," he said, and von Stalhein gave another relaxed smile. Biggles went off to fill the kettle and set it to boil.
"Why are you doing this?" von Stalhein asked, his voice low over the sound of the water beginning to boil. "You won't ask me questions, but you can't object to me asking you. Why are you doing all this? Why not just—" he waved one hand vaguely at the door as if conjuring them back to the forest "—leave me?"
Biggles turned sharply. "You think I should have—what? Violated your privacy, forced you to betray your employers and then left you to freeze in a ditch? What kind of man do you think I am?"
The kettle boiled and Biggles set two mugs of tea to brew with excessive emphasis. Von Stalhein responded, "Oh, so this is what you'd have done for anyone?" Another languid gesture around the room. "You rescue all your, your enemies and tuck them into bed with a cup of tea?" His voice changed slightly. "You don't... do you? No, I would have observed it." He paused. "You would have done it for me before now, if you made a habit of it. After Paradise Valley, I had six hundred miles of jungle to get through with nothing but the clothes on my back, I wouldn't have minded being rescued then..."
"Erich, this is ridiculous." Biggles picked up one of the mugs, stared at it, then carried it round to the little table between the two beds. Von Stalhein caught his arm before he could move away, and Biggles made no effort to break his grasp. "What do you want me to say? You're right. If any of those other villains had been drugged to the eyeballs, I'd have seen them to a place where they couldn't come to any harm, and then left them for the police to sort out. But anyone else wouldn't have been following Ginger and Algy around like a lost duckling and, as far as I can tell, saving them several times over."
"I was not following them like a lost duckling," von Stalhein said with rather more animation. "They told me to! At gunpoint, even."
"Nobody told you to get Ginger free from that American fellow. Are you telling me any of my enemies would have done that? I was very relieved you were there then."
"Oh." Von Stalhein blinked several times as if he'd lost the thread of the conversation. He released Biggles, raised himself onto one elbow and picked up the tea with exaggerated care.
Algy had his shoes, socks and jacket off and the bath half-full when Ginger came in, mostly undressed but still wearing his vest and underwear. Algy drew breath to comment on this, but as he took in the details of Ginger's appearance he said instead, "What have you done to yourself?"
There were purpling bruises on Ginger's thighs, and several raw scrapes on his shoulders and angry red marks at his neck. Ginger looked at them as if unaware of their presence and said, "Dunno. Squeezing through that window, maybe? Or the van? Or that business with Dickie, or Rick or whoever he was? I don't really want to go over it all and try to work it out right now. Is that bath ready?"
The water was still running, and the mirror was starting to steam up. Algy was beginning to feel properly warm again for the first time in hours. "Just about. You planning to keep your vest on in the bath?"
Ginger flushed and said, "You've got all your clothes on."
Algy was just starting to wonder whether, now that it had come to it, now that the adrenalin and the excitement of the night were wearing off, Ginger had realised what an impossible thing this was and was trying to back out, when Ginger moved closer to him and unfastened the top button of his shirt. Algy put a hand on Ginger's chin and tilted his head up, and Ginger's hands stopped on the third button.
The kiss was gentle, and quiet, just a bare brushing of lips before they pulled apart. Algy's brown eyes held Ginger's green ones for a couple of seconds and then they both moved at the same moment, Algy shifting his hand to cup the back of Ginger's head and Ginger tugging at the front of Algy's shirt as their mouths came together again, more urgently this time. Ginger fumbled his way down the rest of the buttons and slid Algy's shirt from his shoulders, delighting in the feeling of warm, bare skin under his hands. They moved with each other easily, he found, Algy barely breaking the kiss to pull Ginger's vest off over his head in one swift movement.
Ginger shivered at being so suddenly exposed, but he had no time to feel self-conscious before Algy's hands were on him, bracketing his waist, thumbs skimming over his hipbones. The sensation made his knees wobble. He dropped his hands to unbuckle Algy's belt, simultaneously planting a trail of heated kisses down the side of his neck and along his collarbone, and Algy made an unmistakably appreciative noise in response. Ginger lifted his head, breathless, as he pushed Algy's trousers off his hips and let them drop to the floor. Algy appeared faintly dazed, his pupils blown wide and a slightly loopy smile on his face. Ginger had a strong suspicion that his own expression wasn't much different.
He reached up with a tentative hand and placed it flat on Algy's chest, then let it drift slowly downwards, keeping his gaze fixed on Algy's. Algy sucked in a breath as Ginger's index finger slipped below the waistband of his underwear.
Just at that moment, the sound of trickling water indicated that the neglected bath was beginning to overflow. They sprang apart, and Ginger hurriedly turned off the taps while Algy rescued their clothes from the floor, both giggling like schoolboys who had narrowly avoided being caught in the pantry.
"So," Algy said briskly, once the water had been drained to a sensible level, "how do you want to do this?"
Ginger tensed, blushing at Algy's matter-of-fact tone. "Well, I mean—I hadn't—hadn't really thought, exactly—" he stammered.
Algy snorted. "I was talking about the bath."
Biggles perched on the edge of the other bed and sipped at his tea. It was still too hot to drink, but he felt that he needed the distraction. He was relieved that von Stalhein appeared, for now, to have stopped asking questions that he would prefer not to think too closely about. Damn the man, he thought irritably, even strung out and half-insensible he still had an uncanny ability to get under Biggles's skin. He had put his cup down and was humming to himself, Biggles realised, and the tune was so unexpectedly familiar that it took him a moment to place it.
"It's a Long Way to Tipperary?" he said wryly. "Really, Erich?"
Von Stalhein looked pained. "You should hear Lacey sing it." He shuddered, as if the thought were simply too horrible to contemplate.
Despite himself, Biggles laughed. "I've had the pleasure of Algy's singing before. He does it in the bath. Once heard, never forgotten."
"That is certainly one way to describe it," said von Stalhein with a grimace. "What happens next?" he said abruptly.
Biggles frowned. "Next?"
Von Stalhein gave another vague wave of his hand. "Next. Tomorrow. When this foul stuff has worn off. What happens then?"
Biggles placed his cup on the table, and sighed. "To tell you the truth," he admitted, "I hadn't really planned that far ahead."
Von Stalhein's bed gave a creak of protest as he sat up, a little unsteadily, and swung his legs to the floor. He ended up facing Biggles, their knees almost touching in the narrow gap, and he cocked his head to one side, smiling. The gesture was so uncharacteristic of the man that Biggles almost laughed again, but his amusement was cut short by the sudden pressure of von Stalhein's hand on his knee.
Von Stalhein sat still, gazing at Biggles with a blazing intensity. Then he leaned forward, resting his weight on Biggles's knee and almost closing the small gap between them. "Kiss me," he said.
Biggles thought he would have been less stunned if von Stalhein had pulled out a gun and fired it. He didn't, couldn't, move.
"Tomorrow," von Stalhein went on, "you'll try to lock me up and I'll get away somehow and you'll make another report about what a dangerous monster I am and Zorotov will make another report about what a mess I made of it and everything will go back to the way it was. And if you keep wandering around the world looking for trouble, and if I keep on—keep on working too, then sooner or later one of us will be killed and the chance will be gone. So kiss me now."
He leaned a little further forwards and Biggles reflexively put out a hand to steady him before he overbalanced altogether. Von Stalhein twisted a little so that the hand that Biggles had intended to be calmly on his shoulder was cupping his cheek instead. He made a pleased sound and pushed against Biggles's palm like a cat asking to be stroked.
Combat was a dance, if you didn't follow where your enemy led then you couldn't fight at all. Biggles curled his fingers around the nape of von Stalhein's neck, running his thumb up to the corner of his mouth, then pulled him the last few inches closer and kissed him.
Biggles had intended it as a quick peck on the lips, just to humour him, but his intentions evaporated in the blazing heat of von Stalhein's response, his lips parting, one arm snaking around Biggles, his back arching. And it was true, there would never be a right time for this, a wise time for this, not when death lurked in every corner. A rush of matching heat was rising through him, his twitchy post-mission nerves converting themselves to a different kind of excitement.
Then they both were leaning sideways, and von Stalhein overbalanced and reached wildly for the bedside table to catch himself. The light deal table, an old War Utility design, tipped. Biggles caught him and steered him back onto his own bed, but the damage was done. Both mugs of tea slipped slowly sideways and landed one after the other on Biggles's bed and spilled their contents over the bedding.
Five minutes of experimentation, involving far too many knees and elbows and Ginger's towel being sacrificed to wipe up a second flood, proved that there was no really satisfactory way to fit two airmen into one short narrow hotel tub. The best they could manage had Algy crammed against the back of the tub and Ginger spooned against him, which was almost comfortable provided nobody tried to move in any way, or wash.
"Were your knees always this knobbly?" Ginger muttered. "I'm going to have bruises on my bruises from this."
He leaned back until his head was on Algy's shoulder, and Algy scooped up water in his hand and poured it over Ginger's chest, then watched it trickle down his body, his hands lingering. "You don't look like you're that unhappy about it," Algy murmured.
"Happy, yes, comfortable, no."
Algy laughed, his chest vibrating against Ginger's back, and his hand trailed lower. Ginger gave a jolt at the touch and sent another little cascade of water onto the bathroom floor. He sat up quickly and fumbled for the soap.
"Let's just get clean."
"Give me that." Algy took the soap from Ginger's hand and began to lather Ginger's back with long firm strokes. Ginger groaned as Algy rolled his thumb over a tight knot of tension below his shoulderblade. "Still want to just get clean?"
"I didn't think you were going to let me in the bed otherwise," said Ginger, wriggling contentedly as Algy continued his ministrations, "although if I don't get there soon I'm likely to fall asleep in this tub."
"Well, we can't have that," replied Algy softly. He balanced the soap on the edge of the bath and set to work rubbing Ginger's back with both hands, digging his fingers into the tight spots, pleased to discover that some of the noises elicited by this attention bordered on the obscene. Letting his hands slide round Ginger's ribs to soap his chest, Algy's attention was caught by the fine spray of freckles across his shoulders, and he had a sudden desire to press his lips to each one, to map them with his tongue… well, he thought, why not? He leaned forward to kiss the nape of Ginger's neck, the movement causing another outpouring of water over the side of the bath. "Oh, this is hopeless," he muttered irritably into Ginger's hair. "You're clean enough. Come on, out you get."
Ginger twisted awkwardly, and gave Algy an arch look over his shoulder. "Clean enough for what, exactly?"
"Bed," said Algy, his attempt at an innocent expression somewhat ruined by the fact that he was grinning from ear to ear.
Getting out of the tub proved to be almost as tricky as getting in. It took a lot of splashing, and at one point Algy slipped and almost measured his length on the bathroom floor, but eventually they managed to extricate themselves.
"If you were any sort of a gentleman, you'd share that," Ginger complained, indicating the dry towel—the only remaining dry towel—that Algy had just picked up.
"As Biggles is constantly reminding us both, you're out of luck on that score. 'Fraid you'll just have to stand there and drip," Algy replied cheerfully. "Besides, I'm rather enjoying the view."
Without warning, Ginger shot out a hand and snatched the towel away.
"Hi, give that back," Algy protested.
Holding it out at arm's length, Ginger backed into the bedroom. "Come and get it."
Biggles swore and sprang to his feet, making to pick up the fallen mugs, but von Stalhein grabbed his wrist with a surprising swiftness.
"Leave it," he said.
"But, the bed—"
"Leave it," von Stalhein repeated. "It is done now, it cannot—" he flopped inelegantly back down on top of the blankets. "It cannot be taken back."
Biggles knew he wasn't only talking about the tea. "No," he said quietly, "I don't suppose it can."
"Would you, I wonder?" Von Stalhein had rolled onto his back and was staring at the ceiling.
"Would I what?"
"Take it back. If you could take it all back, everything that has led us here. Would you do it?"
Biggles stood in silence for a few moments, and then sat down on the bed. "Not all of it, no." Von Stalhein turned his head to look up at him. Until tonight, Biggles hadn’t realised that his habitual haughty expression was a mask he put on every day in the same way that he buttoned his jacket and laced his boots; now there was no trace of the usual cold suspicion in his steel-blue eyes, only the glowing embers of what had passed between them.
"Nor would I," said von Stalhein. He reached for Biggles's hand, and returned it to its previous position against his cheek, covering it with his own. Biggles made no attempt to resist.
"This doesn't change anything, Erich," he murmured. "Afterwards—tomorrow—you'll make your report and I'll make mine, and it'll be just as you said."
To his surprise, von Stalhein groaned and rolled his eyes. "I envy Lacey."
"Algy?" asked Biggles, startled. "Why?"
Von Stalhein raised an eyebrow. "Do you think he is having this same conversation with Hebblethwaite?" He kissed the inside of Biggles's wrist. "Or do you think they have found something better to do?"
"I was trying not to think about it at all." A muffled crash followed by a quickly curtailed shout of laughter came through the wall. "I have to work with them both in the morning."
Von Stalhein laughed too. "Someone should have given you a dose of this poison. It was quite unpleasant earlier, but this part is nice. Relaxing."
"I can see that." Biggles sighed and moved his hand from von Stalhein's face to his shoulder. "And so you should go to sleep now."
Von Stalhein firmly recaptured his hand. "I'm not one of your men, Bigglesworth, you're not responsible for what I do. And you should know by now that I'm not good at taking your advice. You may think this is unwise, but you always think what I do is unwise. Besides, where would you sleep?"
"I've slept in worse places than the floor of a hotel room."
"There isn't any floor in here." Which, glancing around, Biggles had to allow to be true. Von Stalhein began to fumble with the buttons on his jacket, then placed Biggles's hands on them deliberately. "If you want to save me from myself, you can start by saving me from these."
"I don't claim to have heard as many lines as Algy tells me he attracts," Biggles said with a half-suppressed smile, "but that one's pretty bad, Erich." He unfastened the first button, then held von Stalhein's gaze as he worked his way down. It felt like the moment when you step out of an aeroplane, those three endless seconds of freefall before opening the parachute. Only one way down.
"They must all be blind fools if they're propositioning Lacey rather than you. He's not without his attractions, of course, but—" Von Stalhein punctuated his words by taking Biggles's face in both hands, as delicately as a man might handle a live grenade.
"There may be nowhere else to sleep here," Biggles said, turning his head and placing a kiss on von Stalhein's palm, "but I'm not getting into that bed with you until you take your boots off."
"Oh." Von Stalhein looked at Biggles in his pyjamas, then down at himself with a faint confused line between his eyes. "Yes. I can see your point." He sat up slowly and unlaced his boots, his long military training suddenly in evidence as he got up to set them tidily at the foot of the bed, then hung his jacket fastidiously on the chair alongside Biggles's. When he sat down again on the bed, Biggles turned him and loosened his tie, fingertips brushing against his throat, against the leaping of his pulse. Button by button he worked down the shirt, von Stalhein's breath shallower, faster, his eyes wide.
"I don't say that," Biggles said suddenly. "In my reports. Dangerous, yes, very dangerous, I don't want them letting anyone but me tangle with you these days. But a monster? Anything but that." He slid the shirt off von Stalhein's shoulders, hand following fabric along the strong line of his back, leaning over him close enough to feel the heat from his skin.
"It would be very disappointing," von Stalhein said hoarsely, "if they ever sent anyone but you after me."
Algy leapt after Ginger and the towel and they careened into the bedroom, where Ginger would have crashed still dripping wet onto the bed if Algy hadn't tackled him and pinned him to the wall. Ginger grinned at him and deliberately pulled Algy against his wet limbs. Algy seized the towel and began to rub vigorously at them both, saying, "You monster, now I'm all wet again!"
They struggled together like puppies, Ginger trying to duck away and twist under Algy's arm as Algy flailed at him with the towel, both laughing until Algy's enthusiastic scrubbing struck a bruise too hard and Ginger's laugh changed to a yelp.
"'s all right," he said quickly as Algy tensed in dismay. "Just caught a sore spot, that's all."
Algy ran a hand very gently over the bruise as if checking for himself. "Shouldn't have pinched my towel," he said gruffly. "C'mere." They were mostly dry now anyway, and warm after the exertion.
Ginger flopped against him dramatically, his arms around Algy's neck. After a brief startled moment Algy realised he was being teased and pretended to let Ginger fall. Ginger laughed and leaned back against the wall, pulling Algy with him, letting himself be pinned. Algy let himself bask in the sensation of having Ginger there, skin against skin, heat against heat. Ginger was planting kisses a little at random over Algy's shoulders and neck. He nibbled at Algy's earlobe and Algy gave a little gasp. Encouraged, Ginger did it again, then slid one leg between Algy's.
Algy pressed against him, dropping the towel to the floor and bringing his hand up to rest at the small of Ginger's back, holding him close. He turned his head a little and caught Ginger's mouth with his own, kissing him deeply and insistently. Ginger clung on around his neck purely to keep himself upright.
"This is a bit different from earlier," he observed when Algy broke off to nuzzle into his shoulder.
He felt Algy smiling. "Considerably less clothing, although from what I remember, you seemed to be enjoying yourself at the time." He nipped Ginger's ear, making him squeak. "There were some rather interesting noises."
"I did enjoy it, but it wasn't—it didn't feel right. You were all sort of... vague. It was like you weren't really there."
Algy lifted his head to meet Ginger's gaze and raised a hand, brushing his cheek with the backs of his fingers. "I'm here now," he said quietly, "and I don't regret it." His dark eyes were alight with warmth and humour and something else; something hungry and molten that sent a ripple of anticipation up Ginger's spine. He took Algy's hand and brought it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the palm and then to each fingertip in turn.
Algy, apparently knowing exactly what he was thinking, said, "I know I wasn't too concerned at the time, but I'm awfully grateful that you didn't let him shoot my hand off."
"You're very welcome." Ginger's expression turned serious. "Although, since you mention it, I've a bit of a confession to make," he said gravely.
Algy raised a quizzical eyebrow, then his breath caught as Ginger sucked the tip of his index finger into his mouth before releasing it with a faint pop. Slowly, slowly, Ginger drew Algy's hand down, skimming over his chest and ribs and down past his stomach.
"I'm afraid it wasn't a completely selfless act."
"N-no." Ginger stammered, gasping a little at Algy's touch and letting his head drop back to rest on the wall.
Algy worked his mouth along Ginger's jaw. "Have plans for it, did you?" he murmured, lips brushing a sensitive spot just below his ear. Ginger could only nod in response. He felt entirely weightless, Algy the only thing anchoring him to the floor. "What exactly did you have in mind?"
Ginger swallowed hard. "I thought," he began, sounding a little strangled, "I thought we might make a start on that very comprehensive list of yours."
Algy drew back, the expression on his face caught somewhere between delight and near-fatal embarrassment. "Well," he said after a moment, "if you absolutely insist." He picked Ginger up bodily and deposited him on the bed. Ginger had barely had time to register this rapid change of circumstances when he was knocked flat on his back, with both wrists pinned above his head and Algy sitting astride his hips.
Biggles hooked a finger into the waistband of von Stalhein's trousers. "Now," he said, with a wry smile, "do you need me to save you from these as well?"
"Yes, I believe I do," von Stalhein replied.
"Stand up, then."
Von Stalhein complied with the instruction, leaning on Biggles's shoulder for balance. "Enjoying giving me orders?" he asked drily. His hand was warm, and Biggles was aware of an almost overwhelming need to feel it against his bare skin.
"Enjoying the novelty of you doing as you're asked," he replied lightly, unfastening von Stalhein's belt and trousers and letting them fall. He curled a hand round one lean hip and squeezed, then got to his feet. "Get into bed, Erich."
Von Stalhein gave him a look which clearly said: more orders? Nevertheless, he folded back the covers and lay down in the middle of the bed, then held up the blanket and indicated that Biggles should get in. Biggles looked at von Stalhein, and at the narrow gap which had been left for him.
"You're going to need to shift a little. I might not take up much room, but I'm not going to fit in there." Von Stalhein sighed and shuffled over, by perhaps an inch or so, and made a gesture of invitation. Biggles laughed. "Fine. Have it your way."
He did not try to squeeze into the narrow space, but put one knee into the mattress against von Stalhein's hip, then, half an eye on his face in case this proved unacceptable, slowly lowered himself until he was lying directly atop von Stalhein, propped up on his elbows. Von Stalhein made a low sound in the back of his throat, but did not attempt to rearrange their positions. "There are three ways I could kill you from here," he remarked, almost casually.
He raised a hand to circle Biggles's throat with his fingertips, a gesture that would have been more menacing if he hadn't immediately trailed down to his collar and began, one-handed and showing no sign of his earlier lack of dexterity, to unfasten the buttons of Biggles's pyjama jacket. Biggles shot him a suspicious look, and was returned a slight satisfied smile.
"Only three? Surely a man of your resourcefulness could think of a few more. Perhaps you're distracted." Biggles shrugged out of the jacket, and von Stalhein's hand between his shoulderblades pressed him downwards until Biggles could feel the swift shallow rise and fall of his chest. He kissed the base of von Stalhein's neck and along his collarbone, not quite hard enough to mark him. Von Stalhein's head tilted backwards, his hands fumbling to push down the waistband of Biggles's pyjamas. Biggles kicked the pyjama trousers off, raising himself up again to get them free. Von Stalhein's hands ran down his chest and stopped.
"This must have half killed you," he said, tracing a ragged mess of scars on Biggles's ribcage.
"Just about," Biggles agreed. "Monaco, towards the end of the war."
Von Stalhein's hand pressed over the scars as if he were trying to hold back bleeding a decade too late. Then he jerked his hand away and said roughly, "Well, it wasn't me that time," and pulled Biggles down to kiss him fiercely, his fingers digging into Biggles's back.
"If suffocation isn't on your list," Biggles said when he reluctantly had to break away to breathe, holding von Stalhein's face between his hands, "it should be."
Von Stalhein's blue eyes were darker now, his face and chest flushed. "Four, then," he said breathlessly. "Maybe five if you don't—yes, there." He angled his hips into Biggles with a groan, and for a moment Biggles thought it was going to be all over within just a few minutes, and he was half afraid that von Stalhein would be up and out the door as soon as that happened. Taking a few deep breaths to control his own reactions, he drew back, then began to work his way down von Stalhein's body with hands and mouth, exploring his responses as thoroughly as he had ever tested out a new aircraft. Von Stalhein had his own map of old scars and Biggles made no comment on them, but when he came to an obvious burn scar on von Stalhein's hip, von Stalhein said, "That was you."
There was an odd strain in his voice, which could have been anger or regret or, Biggles suspected, due to the precise location of his hand at that moment. "So is this," he murmured, and von Stalhein caught his breath. Biggles let his mouth join his hands, but when von Stalhein tried to put a hand on the back of his head Biggles shook him off, wanting to set his own pace.
"Shall I lie back and think of England, then?" von Stalhein said, then with a gasp, "No, don't you dare stop—"
"Then don't ask damn silly questions. It's like trying to make love to a porcupine."
Porcupine or not, von Stalhein stilled on that word, love, and he said nothing more. Biggles watched his face, saw the moment when he lost control completely, and used his hands on von Stalhein's hips to limit his motion to what was comfortable. Von Stalhein made no sound other than a rapid stuttering gasp, shuddered, and then went completely limp, breathing hard. Biggles rested his head on von Stalhein's stomach for a minute, then pulled himself up alongside him, one arm and one leg over him. Von Stalhein blinked languidly at him, a stunned smile hovering on his lips, then closed his eyes.
His breathing gradually steadied, and Biggles slid against him hopefully. Von Stalhein did not respond, his leg twitched and Biggles realised he was falling asleep. He gave a wry laugh. "I might have expected you'd do something like that," he said aloud.
Von Stalhein roused slightly at his voice and mumbled, "Liebe Bigglesworth... sorry... I'll make it up to you in the morning..." He rolled over so that his face was against Biggles's neck, his whole body utterly relaxed, and dropped at once into a profound sleep.
Biggles did not try to rouse him, but kissed his forehead, then closed his own eyes. "You'll be gone by morning," he whispered. "All the same, I'll hold you to that, one day."
Algy leaned in, and had just pressed a kiss to Ginger's collarbone when there was an unmistakable creak of bedsprings from the next room.
"Sounds like the chief's doing his bit for Anglo-German relations," muttered Ginger. Algy froze, and then rested his forehead on Ginger's shoulder, his whole body shaking with silent, helpless laughter.
"Of all the things I didn't want to think about right at this moment, that takes the cake," he grumbled.
Ginger grinned. "Let me have my hands back and I'll do my best to take your mind off it."
Algy obliged, and Ginger made good on his word. What started as a slow, tentative exploration quickly became fevered and urgent, eager hands sliding over flushed skin and searing, insistent kisses landing wherever they might. Algy had never been to bed with someone who knew him the way that Ginger did, someone who could read his every panting breath and faltering movement, and seemed to know instinctively how to respond.
Ginger was enjoying himself immensely but he could tell that, as keen as he obviously was, Algy was holding back, handling him carefully—beyond simply being mindful of his bruises—and he couldn't help feeling that he knew why that might be.
"Algy," he said eventually, after another subtly frustrated attempt to move matters on, "I've done this before, y'know. You don't need to worry that you're despoiling an innocent here."
Algy lifted himself up onto his elbows, looking startled, then gave a slightly abashed smile. "I did wonder," he admitted. "Wasn't sure if it was polite to ask, having already got this far."
"Well, now you know." Ginger reached up and placed his hand on Algy's cheek. "So you can stop dithering," he added fondly.
Algy laughed. "Demanding, aren't you? And here I was, trying to be a gentleman like you asked." He dipped his head to lick an agonisingly slow stripe up the side of Ginger's neck, making him squirm, then nipped his earlobe. "Message received and understood."
There was a brief interlude while Algy rummaged in his kit bag, and Ginger raised his eyebrows when he saw what Algy apparently included in his definition of "essential items".
"How often, exactly, d'you find you need that on missions?" he asked teasingly. "Or is that one of those questions I'm better off not knowing the answer to?"
Algy just shrugged. "Can never tell. Anyway, you should be grateful that one of us came prepared and we're not having to do without. Now, c'mere."
Ginger did as he was told, allowing himself to be pushed back onto the bed, and was delighted to find that Algy appeared to have shed the last of his reserve.
Their damp foreheads touched, Ginger biting down on his bottom lip, eyes squeezed shut, Algy open-mouthed and gasping, brows drawn together as though he was in pain. Ginger had both arms around him, fingers digging into his shoulders, as Algy gripped the nape of his neck with one hand and his hip with the other, hard enough to bruise. Algy shifted the angle a little, and Ginger began cursing under his breath; a steady, fluent stream of profanity followed, punctuated by little whines of pleasure.
Algy could have stayed there forever, savouring every last second and committing each moment to memory, but Ginger's helpless noises and the fingers scrabbling at his back combined with an intensity that he was wholly unable to resist. He crashed desperately over the edge, choking out an oath and burying his face in Ginger’s neck to stifle a cry. The feel and the sound of him going so completely to pieces was too much for Ginger, who followed a second or two later, clinging tightly to Algy's shaking shoulders.
They remained like that for a few moments, both entirely reluctant to let go. Algy wrapped his arms around Ginger's waist and nuzzled into him, trailing lazy kisses from his throat to his ear. Slowly, gently, they disentangled themselves, and Ginger immediately burrowed under the blankets.
"You," Algy murmured, stretching out next to him, "have got an utterly, utterly filthy mouth on you, d’you know that?"
"Oh, you've no idea," Ginger replied sleepily, snuggling into his side, "but give me a chance to get my breath back, and maybe I'll demonstrate."