The banqueting hall was vast, timbered with huge beams, the vaulted ceiling so far above it made Bodie dizzy to look up at the massive crystal chandelier hanging there, shimmering with points of light.
The table was seventy feet long; at one end, the furthest from the CI5 lowlies, was a shorter table set perpendicular to make the whole an elongated T-shape. Here sat Cowley and the dignitaries. If he leant forward and peered, Bodie could just see the sandy wisps and broadtoothed smile of his chief, who was apparently having a good time at this celebration of CI5's longevity, his glass lifted high.
Well, somebody had to be enjoying themselves.
Bodie was utterly disenchanted.
He had hated the fussy over-sauced food, the array of solid silver cutlery, the shirt and tie he had had to wear which was tight around his throat, making him fidget. He hated the silly curly candelabras dripping pink wax onto the starched and scratchy tablecloth. Hated the flower floating in his fingerbowl, and the napkin supposed to look like a rose stuffed in his twisty-stemmed wineglass.
Hated the fact that he was sitting between Williams (MI6) who was a wet blanket of the first order, and Anson, who was okay, but who smoked relentlessly between courses and who kept treading on Bodie's foot, Bodie long ago having ceased to try to determine whether Anson intended some covertly meaningful message by this or whether it was just Anson's innate clumsiness.
Give me a takeout from McDonald's, any day.
Spaced out on alcohol and nervous tension, he was ill at ease and edgy, longing for the ceremonial dinner to be at an end although even that would only mean the speeches were about to start. 'Well gentlemen, I'm sure you're all hopin' this will be brief - ' the chummy smile, the pause for the ripple of approving laughter, and fuckin' 'ell you're more convinced than ever you'll be here till midnight listening to the old stuffed shirts rambling on about other old stuffed shirts.
He stuck a morose fork into his cheesecake.
Prefer the packet kind anyway.
Williams was rather drunk - he was just the type to get overly dignified on two pale sherries - and was telling Bodie about his fiancee Daphnis and the plans for their wedding in two weeks.
Bodie had not been listening for the past hour.
Instead he had switched off to inside himself and was surrounding his psyche with little comforts, such as the day off tomorrow to drive home, he and Doyle together sharing both the miles and profane and pithy remarks of their impressions of this, the preceding night, which would wipe it all out and make it all okay, just another thing to laugh at once it was all in the past.
'Do you remember - '
Yes, they had a lot to remember, he and Doyle: they went back a long time.
" - married?"
Like a timeslip, the words spoken loudly in his ear shot him back into the as-yet awful present. He was staring straight into Williams' clouded owlish eyes, courteous interrogation carefully plastered onto his doggedly-concentrating choirboy's face.
"What? Sorry, I missed that?"
A timely explosion of laughter further up the table lent credence to the excuse. Williams repeated it, slurring less this time. "You any plans to ge' married?"
Marikka chased briefly across the shadows in his mind, and was blotted out.
"No," Bodie answered, "No, that's something I don't need."
Patient and witless, Williams waited for more.
Suddenly detached from it all, Bodie shrugged. He gave Williams a smile, swift and careless. "Got all I need," he said, throwaway, and Williams looked away and reached clumsily for his glass, suddenly uneasy, his fuddled mind clutching back for the cause but all it came up with was Bodie smiling, and it passed forever forgotten as the waiter at his elbow poured coffee.
Bodie's eyes traced idly over the guests; he was looking for Doyle, suddenly needing to see him. If Doyle hadn't been here, Bodie wouldn't have come. Just knowing Doyle was here in this unfamiliar nerve-racking situation immediately eased the tension, not least because he knew Doyle would be suffering as he was, perfectly in harmony.
Sentimental. You got very attached to your partner, everyone knew that. Bodie'd been told as much on joining CI5 but never really believed it until it happened. He grinned across at Doyle, who had turned away from his neighbour - Murph, who was feeding on grapes, reaching forwards with absurdly delicate finger and thumb to pluck the choicest - and was looking back over his shoulder right at his partner.
Telepathy, again. Must be; it happened far too often for chance.
Wrinkling his nose, the obscenity Bodie had been about to mouth never formed.
With that meeting of the eyes, the link between them deepened, enclosing them as if everything else had been switched off. Doyle had an odd expression on his face, a flying feyness lighting his eyes, a little smile on his mouth; he had days when he looked ugly, and days when he -
Bodie's guts knitted in response, his breath catching. Doyle continued to look at him, eyes gleaming a little; he tilted his head slightly, his curls shining bronze-tipped in the erratically dancing light of the candle and chandelier. Not knowing what else to do, Bodie smiled at him, quite an impersonal smile, then looked down at his plate.
His heart was kicking fast and furious at his ribcage. He scythed the remaining cheesecake into wedges with his fork, then pushed it aside.
"Drink your bloody coffee, 3.7," boomed Anson, leaning towards him and exhaling a noxious grey stream of smoke his way. Unprepared, Bodie stayed unflinching in the full blast of it.
He drank his coffee in enormous, ungentlemanly gulps. When he next looked up, Doyle's curly head was leaning away from him, up towards Cowley's end.
The speeches were beginning.
Bed was dormitory style. Three by three, almost like the Ark, counted off from the dining table as they left. Anson, Williams, Bodie, nearest the door. He lay, strangely unable to sleep though he was bonetired and dizzy on drink and overload.
The speeches buzzed in his mind; the clatter of cutlery, the scrape of chairs, people talking, talking; the scent of meat juices, spilt warm cognac.
Restless, he rolled onto one side and stared into the darkness. Anson sighed and coughed in his sleep. Williams twitched and muttered, one leg thrashing at the sheet. Daphnis! you lucky, lucky girl.
Not for me.
'Got all I want.'
And yet, he had nothing.
Sod it. He thumped the pillow with a fist, pounding it back to plumpness. Go to sleep. Sleep perchance to dream.
Lying on his back, one hand stroked down the smooth skin of his chest to drift in dense curls. Anson coughed again, shifting. Abruptly, he took his hand away. Bloody, bloody hell.
Angry for no particular reason he threw back the covers and got out of bed, not caring if the floorboards did creak.
The fifty or so agents were housed largely in the servants' quarters and up here there was no sign of the luxury that had invested the dinner with such sickly opulence. Bodie was happier here, on the scrubbed bare boards of the corridor, lit only by moonlight through dormer windows, the air cool from numerous draughts here at the top of the house; the plain bathroom he eventually came to complete with the original bulky white prewar plumbing. Everywhere seemed quiet: when he used the facilities it sounded like Niagara starting up. He shook himself, tucked himself back into his pyjamas, and turned to leave.
Doyle was there, outside the door.
Pressed against the wall, he looked like some wild creature of the night, hair riotous, untouched by light, only his eyes gleaming. Bodie stopped in shock. Doyle's arms reached out, dragged him close, and locked their mouths together.
Teeth clashed coolly, startlingly harassed beneath the softness of lips; then instinctively their mouths eased around into comfort. The kiss was savage, and wholehearted, full of the passion Doyle was throwing into it with every atom of will at his command.
Now Bodie knew he was dreaming. In the silent rays of the moon, locked against his partner, feeling the warm hard suppleness of him through thin cotton: yes, this was the stuff which fed dreams, Doyle drinking from his mouth with the desperation and singlemindedness of an infant suckling.
It was darkly, sweetly erotic, to have Doyle's tongue inside his mouth. But something weird would happen in a moment, Bodie thought, like he turns into Betty and I come and then I wake up with a wet belly and a very peculiar sexy dream behind me -
Hey Doyle, guess what I dreamed last night.
Doyle would show no surprise. He knew that as surely as he knew the touch of his partner holding him, Doyle's hand beneath his armpit, the other gripping his upper arm; the thin fingers dug. He drew back then and Bodie gazed into the flawed, shadowed face, taking a deep breath as if to speak.
And then suddenly Doyle was gone, elusive and tricky as nightlight; no word spoken.
Dazed, Bodie made his way back to his room, almost stumbling; the tenderness of bruised lips was real and he knew whatever else it might have been, that savage, desperate little struggle in the dark while the giant house slept had never been a dream.
How, then, to sleep now....
He lay awake, fists clenched in the dark, his mind in a turmoil.
The scent of Doyle was pressed onto him, the familiar subtle fragrance that clung to Doyle even when he was sweating. The clothes he took off always carried it: at home in Bodie's wardrobe was a shirt of Doyle's he had left there once and Bodie was always forgetting to give it back. Okay, so it must derive from something quite prosaic, like a brand of soap he always used, but still.
What the hell was Doyle playing at?
Capricious as only very attractive people can be, Doyle always had had a tendency to be flirtatious with him, when the mood was on him.
Him, too - "send someone in to scrub your back - " and Doyle, arch, looking back, hands on his narrow dirty-jumpsuit-clad hips....
Like his beauty, icy coldness flitted in and out of Doyle and when he turned on the charm it was therefore all the more compulsive, light flooding over dust, picking out highlights here, and there, so that you could no more drag your eyes away than sweep it all into dullness with one scudding flash of a broom.
Bodie's insides ached.
What did he want?
Someone: on this lonely night of too many nights, he wanted someone for his own.
Doyle must have been feeling that way too. Be asleep now, reassured; even comforted in some strange way, as Bodie had been just to see him across a crowded table when they were, for one moment, alone together. They should have put us to sleep together, he thought; it's only natural, always paired off in CI bloody 5, they expect us to die together for chrissake so why not sleep together?
Something was wrong with tonight.
How the hell could he be lying here seriously agonising over being split from Doyle for one night, and moreover, trying to rationalise it as if it were a normal reaction?
You're a mess, 3.7. Need a session with our Kate, you do. God, she'd have a field day over this. 'Well, doctor, first our eyes met across a crowded room. Then I couldn't sleep for thinking of it so I went off for a pee. Then he came along and kissed me - yes, I did say kissed me. After that I was worse than ever.'
You're not kidding, mate. Sleep. Now.
The bed was hard. It smelt of camphor and mildew. He closed his eyes, tried fantasy, something warm and nubile against him, soft, feminine illusions -
He could not make them real.
He threw back the covers with such force they fell to the floor and stalked from the room with mad eyes, just another ghost with a vengeance, a sorrow to share. Or perhaps he was a warrior, scouring the night to find his companion in honour, scything obstacles in his path.
For all that bravado, he was shaking when he entered the room where Doyle was. Only two beds in here, and one huddled form in a sleeping bag on the floor. Red hair - Linsey. One bed contained Murphy, snoring loudly; the other, crammed in between a dressing table and an old sewing machine, Doyle.
Bodie didn't know what he expected, standing by the bed with cold feet on bare boards, chest too tight to breathe. Bloody stupid - sanity drenched him like a snowfall, but before it had time to chill Doyle's hand reached out and took him gently by the wrist. His heart storming thunderously in his chest, he slid in under the sheets, into a different world. It was strange and sweet and frightening; he was terrified of being found here, of his own feelings, and momentarily of Doyle himself. But Doyle had come close, fitting into his arms as if he had been there before, close to Bodie's heart like now: he knew Doyle was awake, his eyelashes kept fluttering softly against Bodie's chest.
This bed didn't smell of mothballs, nor mildew; it was warmly, headily permeated with his partner and the faint perfume of his aftershave. Shifting a little, Bodie's hand accidentally brushed his chest, got snagged in dense folds of cotton. Doyle was wearing his pyjama jacket. Not up till now prepared to face up to this as an openly sexual encounter, Bodie suddenly became very aware; of the nakedness of Doyle's skin beneath the thin pyjamas, the warm bare feet touching his calf. A surge of triumph, joy rose up in him, a vague yet defined sense of, oh yes, that's the way, this is the answer.... A whole new world, and just one step away, just one, across the chasm.
Tacitly waiting for something to happen, he brushed the back of his hand down Doyle's cheek, and stilled it. Onehanded, Doyle began to undo the buttons of his own jacket, parting it, also waiting. Bodie slid both hands around him, thumbs stroking him strongly, rippling the thin fleshed skin over ridged bone. One touched a nipple and Doyle sighed against his throat; intrigued by the rough puckering Bodie dropped his head and touched his mouth to the other.
It was nearly the undoing of him, because in his wildest sexual fantasy he had never come close to the sensations the taste and feel of Doyle's nipple against his tongue gave him.
Oh, beautiful. He wanted to talk to him, tell him about the excitement, the tenderness set loose and coursing through him alongside the fierce arousal, but Doyle's gentle fingers touching his hair told him that he knew, anyway. He slipped his hand down Doyle's front, rubbed his navel with the palm of his hand, Doyle so warm and pleasant to every sense that even so innocent a touching was nearly enough. Doyle was quiet, still, giving him freedom to explore; but suddenly and unaccountably shy, Bodie left his hand where it was, fingers just dipping beneath the waistband of the trousers, one fingertip on an intriguing prickle of hair. His other hand travelled on over the sharp upthrust of the hip, slipped down the material to bare Doyle's rounded rump. Dark and shielded by covers, his mind supplied the images transferred from his gliding palm; Doyle swathed only partly in material, most of him free and bared, and excitingly, beautifully naked. Bodie lingered, exploring him with the flat of his hand, and then fingertips, which dipped into the cleft there which opened for him, dark and slickly velvet.
I need -
Doyle's hands urged him on, and carefully, almost clumsily, Bodie moved so he was lying on top of his smaller mate, pressing him into the bed, his lips against the warm skin of Doyle's throat. Just daring to touch and be touched in this way, the newness of it all; so close in this very sexual, oddly innocent way: it took no more than that. After a few moments Doyle arched, his body taut, trembling; and there was a sudden wet warmth, spreading between them as Doyle muffled his whimper against Bodie's cheek, and Bodie clenched his eyes shut very tightly and let it spill out, let his own warm seed pulse from him in warm waves of soft, easy pleasure so sweet he wanted to cry out but Doyle's mouth was there, stopping his lips....
Warm, and comfortable; Bodie was half-aware of being tensed for the aftermath rejection so characteristic of nearly every woman he had bedded, dashing to the bathroom to wash his private precious wetness from them as if it were dirty: but Doyle was quiet, just letting him be there, accepting him; Doyle wet and sticky with their moisture but not fussed about it, content to let it lie on his skin.
They had shifted so Bodie was lying between Doyle's thighs; lean and muscular they pressed once around his own legs, a gesture of reassurance; it's okay, I'm here, I'm okay. Doyle's pyjamas being still tangled down around his calves, Bodie's thigh was pressing against the tender softness of Doyle's sticky genitals; Jesus Christ but they were going to be a sight in the morning, Doyle covered in dried white streaks from belly to groin. Bet it's all over his pyjama top as well.
He stirred; Doyle pulled him closer. "Better go back," Bodie whispered into his ear, the first words they had spoken.
A fingertip traced a line around his mouth: a murmur in his ear.
"Oh stay. Stay with me."
And he stayed.
It was nearly dawn when Doyle woke him, a blurry undignified scramble in silence, sliding like a wraith through bleak corridors to a cold, clammy bed. Anson was awake when he got back, but said nothing. Bodie lay there awake, scarcely believing it all, remembering every tiny, earth shattering detail down to the last, furious kiss shared in silence before Doyle had let him go out into the cold. Ferocious, Doyle had been, in his loving as in everything else, singlemindedly giving all he had even in that limited struggling room which was all they had had for that first sweet fierce coupling -
Bodie didn't sleep again.
He recognised the signs in himself with delight: he had not felt this way for years and always before it had come to nothing, but this time - perhaps not. There was that little heightened awareness, looking for a glance, a secret smile; conscious every second of the other's presence, butterflies in his stomach, a warm wanted feeling that was all too alien to Bodie to go unnoticed.
Breakfast was served in the great hall. Only the rabble seemed to be there; presumably the worthies, including Cowley, partook of breakfast in bed. Bodie ate heartily, every nerve pricked waiting for Doyle, scarcely conscious of McCabe's chattering as he uncovered delicacy after silvertopped delicacy: kippers, buttered eggs, porridge.
And suddenly he was there, sliding into a seat opposite Bodie; sweet the sight of him warm and alive and near, though he didn't look sweet, not at all.
Unshaven, with grey-blue stubble marking out the rounded willful chin, the wanton mouth perhaps a little fuller than usual, pale skin, greyish eyes heavylidded. He scowled at the toast as he pulled it towards him as if to eat it would merely be a way of sinking his teeth into something. He looked used, abused, sullen, and as sexy as hell.
Bodie grinned, delight and absorption and sheer goddamned happiness lighting up his face. "I think I'm in love," he said aloud, and nobody took any notice because Lucas was regaling them all with an account of his dream, which was long, crude, and embroidered, one suspected, with anything that popped into his head as he went along.
Doyle heard though, and the scowl left his face, upper lip unwittingly curling away from sharp teeth as he gave Bodie a smile, acknowledging the remark. They watched each other's faces attentively for a moment, curious, discovering.
"'Ere, stop gazing into his eyes a moment," and Bodie's elbow fell off the table as Lucas rammed it cruelly with his arm. "Listen about this afternoon - we got a boat race planned, across the lake - "
Bodie groaned; looking away, he met Anson's curious gaze on him.
" - without the boats," Lucas delivered the coup de grâce with triumph.
"Why didn't the Oxford Women's University crew win the boat race this year?" enquired Doyle of no-one in particular; he wiped a marmalade-streaked hand down his lapel.
"See you have oars, right, but not actual boats - "
Doyle was looking at him to see if Bodie was going to laugh at his joke, since no one else would. Bodie raised a smile, but he felt self-conscious now, and certain of one thing.
He needed to be alone with Doyle, even if just for a while. The fifty agents were assigned to four bathrooms between them, so ablutions en masse inevitably took some time. Doyle didn't wait for one to fall vacant; he took his coffee through to the small lounge on the first floor. He was still clad in his pyjamas, though Bodie, none better, knew just why Doyle was so casually careful about keeping his bathrobe close around him.
His heart leapt at the thought, then dived. Doyle, watching him over the rim of his coffee from across the room, raised an eyebrow.
"My stomach is turning cartwheels," Bodie managed. Doyle was probably just as keyed up. Both hands on the window ledge, he leaned out, gazed at the calm country estate unrolled before his gaze: an exhibition of topiary, green trees shaped into an arbour of giant peacocks; a lake, the dappled mutable green of Doyle's eyes, with lofty white birds serenely atop it. He felt Doyle's breath on the back of his neck and would have turned, but the door behind them opened and clattered shut.
"Whoee, babes," it was Linsey, and Woods, in skittish moods; Murph behind them, and others. The moment of peace erupted into babble. No one was taking any notice of them, all full of the plans for the day. Bodie met Doyle's eye, made an almost imperceptible motion of his head towards the door and they exited, Doyle to the bathroom and Bodie to pack. When he had filled his own case he packed Doyle's, neatly and speedily, knowing exactly which of the scattered garments, combs, shavers among the others belonged to his partner. He had just finished when Doyle arrived in the doorway, one towel over wet curls, another tucked around his hips.
"Eager to get going, are you?" he asked, indicated the cases. It was customary to stay for the Sunday, but not obligatory; they had decided before setting out to break off the first moment possible, both having a current hot girlfriend to attend to in every spare moment though of course all that had changed now -
Bodie knew a moment of uncertainty; what, if anything, had changed? What if Doyle saw things differently?
"Yeah," he muttered shortly, not looking Doyle's way as his partner dropped both towels and began to dress.
"Let's go for a walk first," Doyle said, briskly zipping up his jeans and pulling his belt tight.
"A walk?" Bodie did look up at that, amazed.
"Yeah, in the grounds."
And outside, under the benevolent gaze of fifty mullioned windows blinking benignly in the sun, the yellow stone of the mansion a safe distance away, it was easy.
"Do you remember last year," Bodie said at last, indicating the maze of privet on their right, "on the Sunday we had a treasure hunt in the afternoon."
"Only there wasn't any treasure," finished Doyle, remembering, "but you and I won because we lied the most about having actually spotted it - "
" - before the giant albatross swooped down and carried it off. Yeh, and the year before that was the archery contest, in fancy dress - "
"Whaddya mean, fancy dress," said Doyle affronted, "I always wear the William Tell hat when I'm arching, 's only good form, innit?"
Bodie grabbed him then remembered the serpent had entered their garden, and checked all around quickly; they were quite safe, shielded on one side by the bare shining expanse of water, and on the other by the wall of privet. It was funny, he was thinking, I'll never be able to hold him again, touch him in public; always be wondering if anyone's noticed, if there's a kind of difference in the way I hold him -
And it was true; the relaxed way Doyle was leaning on him, looking up at him with unblinking cats' eyes, had changed.
Doyle said: "Why did you come to me last night?"
"Because you wanted me to," he answered, adding, "because I needed you."
"We'll go home, then," Doyle said.
"Yeah." Bodie found, absurdly, he was patting Doyle's hand over and over. Silly, sentimental fool; but Doyle was smiling at him. He thought about telling Doyle about Anson, but did not. Wait a while. Give Anson's guesses real substance.
There was a sudden splashing sound behind them. Bodie whirled to see two white swans settling majestically into the water, folding their wings close to their bodies, curved necks held high. The smaller of the two turned to preen her feathers with a long black beak. The male ignored them loftily.
"Swans mate for life," said Bodie, staring across the water, "did you know that?"
"Everyone knows that," came Doyle's gentle voice behind him. "Dumb crud."
And Bodie nodded, contented. He slipped an unobtrusive arm around Doyle as they walked together along the bank, the swans keeping pace with them. Doyle broke the silence.
"It's been worth it."
"That godawful dinner yesterday."
"Oh, that." Bodie had lost sight of it already in the larger events.
They walked on.
"What the hell do we have this for, every year?"
"What?" Bodie was rapt in his contemplation of the future which had all, unexpectedly, fallen into place today; he wished Doyle would stop chattering.
"This. What the hell's it the anniversary of?"
"Oh." Bodie stopped and thought, drawing Doyle with him, away from the lake into a leafy avenue of the privet. "I dunno," he finally conceded. "But - " with infinite care he threaded fingertips into the curls framing Doyle's face, just before they kissed - "I know what it'll be the anniversary of, next year."
-- THE END --