The documents were gone. Viggo stepped back from the small safe, closing the door gently before sliding the picture back in place. The metal under his hand was warm to the touch, as if it had been recently heated, but there were no outer signs of scorching or melting, and once it had cooled, there would be no evidence that it had been tampered with at all.
His employer would not be pleased; he had been sure he could easily extract the contracts tonight, right after they had been received, and with only the barest minimum of smoke and mirrors. Yet here he was now, alone in the library, obviously bested by a quicker hand, perhaps only moments before.
Moments. Viggo frowned, curling his fingers into his palm, still feeling the warmth of the safe in his skin. Perhaps it was not yet too late. Perhaps, if he could catch up to whomever had got to the safe first, only a little persuasion would be required to get the papers back. A quick glance around the room confirmed that everything was back in its rightful place, and then Viggo was off, past the still-sleeping maid and out the door.
He clattered down the front steps onto the street, narrowly avoiding bumping into a gentleman laden down with packages. A raised eyebrow from the man was all it took to make Viggo aware of what he must look like, rushed and agitated, so he deliberately slowed down, took a deep breath and murmured an apology, accompanying it with a light tip of his bowler.
Once the man passed, Viggo attempted to blend in a little more, fit better with the part of someone simply taking a casual turn around the block. Yet even for this time of day, the street was crowded, ladies and gentlemen out for a stroll in the warm weather, hansom cabs clattering down the cobblestones, and dirty little urchins dodging in and out, looking for discarded coins and treasures while avoiding horses' hooves.
Frustrated, Viggo craned his neck, scanning the crowd for anything that stood out as strange. An anxious individual, an outfit not quite right for the time of day, a scent on the air; anything at all that was the least bit suspicious, the tiniest bit odd, could help him achieve his goal. Around him, people continued to carry out their mundane lives, the ebb and flow of the city never-ending. As the seconds ticked by, the possibility of Viggo's success trickled further and further away, his heart knocking against his ribs in fear of losing his first truly lucrative commission since he had moved to this country.
There. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a flicker of something, his intuition prickling enough to nudge the rest of his senses into high alert. Yet when he turned to look, he saw nothing but an ordinary blond gentleman, dressed immaculately in a dark frock coat, cravat and John Bull topper, the only splash of colour in a sudden red flash of a patterned vest as the gentleman continued on his way down the sidewalk.
Yet there was something... Ah, yes. Viggo squinted, and the strangeness suddenly came into sharp focus, popping into being as if from nothing.
The only hint that there was anything extraordinary about this perfectly ordinary gentleman was the nearly-transparent creature of smoke and shadow that perched on his shoulder, tail curled about his neck. It fluttered in agitation as it sensed Viggo's gaze, twisting its body as it whipped around, talons gripping the material beneath its feet. Its beak opened in a soundless shriek, and Viggo was certain that if he strained his senses just a little more, he'd hear its piercing call. As it was, he needed to be careful to hold it in his mind, for it was a thing that would wink out of existence the moment that focus wavered. As if it was about to take flight, it stretched its wings, the tips dissolving in corkscrewing trails of smoke. Its movement seemed to alert the man, who stepped neatly to the side of the stream of foot traffic, turned in a half-circle, and almost immediately locked eyes with Viggo. He tilted his head to the side, stirring his little creature further, and smiled.
Viggo swallowed heavily, his throat suddenly dry.
Viggo handed his bowler off to the valet, plucking his notebook out of a deep pocket and shrugging his outer coat off a scant moment later. He murmured his thanks as he stepped further into the theatre foyer, slipping his pocketwatch out to discreetly check the time. Perfect
. He was late enough to blend in rather fashionably with the rest of the theatregoers, but not so tardy as to draw attention to himself. A short word with a passing ticket-taker had Viggo quickly pointed in the right direction, and he found his way to the private party with no trouble at all. Flashing his invitation -- all embossing and gilt -- he was past the quite large and rather solid attendant and into the mingling throng in no time.
The Gaiety was looking her best; Viggo could do no more than stare upward at the beautiful curving wood, the new plaster, the carved frescos. Hollingshead had done the theatre proud, breathing new life into a great lady.
He smiled, taking in each curving inch and vaulting arch, letting his gaze play over sculpture and paint before fluttering downward to take in the bulk of the guests in front of him. Reaching for a glass of wine as a nearby server and his tray moved closer, Viggo prepared himself for an evening's work. After that debacle with the lost documents, he was grateful for any work, even if it was a simple, straightforward eavesdropping contract: an engagement and impending wedding between powerful families always generated business for people as talented as Viggo. As he understood it, tonight's entertainment was to be an operetta that had been garnering good reviews; it was a shame that he would hardly have time to pay attention to it, as he would be far too involved in observing the audience itself to truly listen and enjoy.
Slowly, Viggo began his first circuit of the room, positioning himself unobtrusively at the edges of conversations, smiling pleasantly when acknowledged, but making no effort to fully engage. It was easy to pick up little fragments of gossip, slivers of chatter, barely requiring his talents to divine the secrets underneath. His employer had not yet arrived, he noted, no doubt preferring to make a suitably grand entrance, and hopefully also taking Viggo's counsel: there could be no doubt that the bride's family would also have hired help here this evening, and the less time the groom's family was present to linger, the less time there would be for their version of Viggo to uncover any potential weaknesses in the groom's economic and political influences.
The sentimental part of Viggo found it sad how easily love was usurped by money and power, connections and obligations driving the fates of well-placed sons and daughters, but the practical part was more than willing to set all that aside in service to his own welfare. There would be time to be compassionate later; for now, it was important he continued to be able to pay rent and eat.
First ten, then twenty minutes passed, Viggo diligently circulating, coming up with nothing more than the banal secrets of the very rich and very dull. Soon, he found his attention wandering to the theatre walls, his fingers itching to draw the artistry around him. Perhaps he could find a vantage point where he could perch, sketch and listen, his passions acting as cover for his true purpose. He glanced around, looking for a bench or chair, and suddenly, through the crowd, he caught sight of a familiar face.
He had disappeared so easily on the street; one minute Viggo had been caught in the gaze of piercing green eyes that seemed intent on evaluating his worth, and the next minute the crowd surged between them, obscuring Viggo's vision for no more than a second. When it parted once again, the space the gentleman had occupied was empty, as if he had been nothing but an illusion.
But here he was again, this time dressed in muted grey, his patterned vest a royal blue, for all the world looking like he belonged to this affluent world in a way Viggo was certain he himself did not. The man nodded at Viggo, briefly raising the glass in his hand before he let his attention shift. He smiled at an older woman standing near his elbow, leaning in to murmur something that made her and her younger companions laugh.
Obviously a far different observational strategy. Viggo frowned. There was no scenario in which that man was merely a guest. With very little effort and the tiniest amount of focus, the small smoky creature came into focus for Viggo, perched on the man's shoulder just like last time. There was no doubt this man was talented; the creature was proof of that. The question merely became how. The little creature rocked as it clung to the man's shoulder, flapping its wings slightly and flicking its tail, looking for all the world like a frustrated child or pet that would not be soothed.
As Viggo watched, the man raised a hand to his shoulder, ostensibly brushing away an errant -- and invisible -- strand of thread off his otherwise immaculate jacket. Yet from Viggo's point of view, he could see the man's fingers run over the creature's claws as if they were solid, real things, obviously imparting some kind of comfort, as it pulled its wings into its body and settled down. Not one of the man's conversational companions so much as blinked, completely oblivious to the talent in their midst.
It wouldn't do to approach him directly and openly. Not without being formally introduced, and certainly not without some vague sense of how he would react. London society was difficult enough for an American to navigate without throwing in the dangers of blindly approaching one of his own kind. Viggo opted instead for the circuitous route, passing close by the man before moving beyond him into the larger crowd, making no move to conceal his presence. As he brushed past, he gave in to the temptation to look directly in the little creature's eyes. Up close, it was far easier to identify it as some sort of small dragon, its scales surprisingly detailed for all it appeared to be made of nothing but smoke.
To Viggo's surprise, this time he could hear its irritated squawk as it glared back at him, the sound sharp and loud in his head.
Its owner, however, behaved as if he'd heard nothing at all.
Viggo shook his head and shifted his attention to finding a reasonably comfortable vantage point from which to take in the man, his dragon and the rest of the party. He settled on a low bench as near to an exceptionally beautiful wall carving as it was to a group of the bride's friends. Opening his notebook, he began to sketch the carving, appearing for all the world to be engrossed in the art around him while keeping his ears open for weightier information than this season's hat styles.
Minutes passed this way, Viggo learning far more than he ever wanted to about the latest bustles and some hushed, scandalous murmurs of something called the Kensington Society. Viggo made a small note in the margins of his page to investigate the latter further. It wouldn't do to have the groom marrying into a secret guild. Not one that wasn't already approved by the groom's father, that was.
Happily, his sketch was coming out beautifully, better than he would have expected with his attention so divided. He found that he only needed to use his ears, his eyes full up with the grandeur of art coaxed from nature.
This was likely why he didn't notice man and dragon approach him until a soft voice murmured, "That's a bit obvious, isn't it?"
"Obvious?" Viggo glanced up into a surprisingly kind face, the other man smiling as if they were pleasant acquaintances revisiting old memories. The corners of his eyes crinkled with his smile, his expression open, warm, and inviting. Viggo realized almost too late that he was falling rather quickly and easily into feeling utterly secure and trusting under this man's gaze. He blinked, tipping his head to the side, hoping to dislodge the feeling. He looked to the dragon, hoping a small reminder of the artifice in play would help, and was rewarded with a startling, angry screech as it spread its wings and launched itself from its shoulder-perch, disappearing upward into the vaulted ceiling.
Seemingly unconcerned by the choleric disposition of his small companion, the man nodded at Viggo's notebook, subtly gesturing at the growing column of coded scribblings running down the margin. "Taking notes."
Viggo shrugged, closing the notebook with a soft but insistent snap. "I find it the best way to remember important things." He waved a hand at a nearby carving of cherubs behind the man's shoulder, marvelling again at the beauty surrounding him. "Like how the person who carved that took such great pains to work the grain of the wood into the overall design of the piece."
The man turned to the side to take in the art, giving Viggo a long moment to examine his profile: more angles than curves, strong nose and jaw, soft blond hair, and not a trace of stubble. As he turned his attention back to Viggo, Viggo caught sight of the hint of a scar slashing through one eyebrow, close enough to his eye to have been worrisome whenever it was acquired, yet old enough to be easily overlooked. He would make for an interesting subject, Viggo thought, although the possibility of getting this man to sit for him was unlikely in the extreme. People in their line of business were used to being circumspect, and tended to be extremely private when it came to their own affairs. It was the spies that were most concerned about being spied on, after all.
Still, it would be a worthwhile pursuit all the same. He could easily see himself sketching a small portrait, something light and airy, scant lines and careful detail meant to capture the openness of his expression, a few well-placed shadows to hint at the hidden life underneath. Viggo let his gaze slide down the man's body, taking in the expert cut of his tailcoat and vest, the crispness of his shirt and cuffs, the soft knotted cravat, the dove grey of his gloves, the fit of his trousers, the shine of his shoes. Taken together, they spoke of a quiet, understated wealth, someone accustomed to a particular style of life, but prudent enough to obscure its full extent. Wetting his lips, Viggo itched to see beneath the cloth, to get a glimpse of the body beneath, look for signs of the softness of habituated wealth or the hardness of muscles spent on achieving greatness.
"Ah. I see." The man chuckled, bringing Viggo back from his musings. He blinked, feeling his cheeks warm as he realized he had been caught looking. "You're an artist, are you?"
Viggo nodded, leaning forward slightly, letting his hair brush over his shoulders in the hopes it would momentarily hide his flush. "I have a certain appreciation for it."
"You must at least have a small measure of talent, if that sketch is anything to go by." The man gestured at Viggo's notebook, making Viggo wonder how long he had lingered before Viggo had become aware of his presence. The man sipped his wine, his tonguetip flicking briefly against the rim of the glass, catching an errant drop.
"I dabble. On occasion." Viggo hesitated, watching the man's attention turn back to the rest of the room, wondering if this was an opportunity to gently fish for a little more information. "And you must be interested in the arts as well, hmm?"
The man's shoulders rose and fell. "Theatre is a reasonable distraction." His eyes were on Viggo again, that same kind smile gracing his lips. "But I do find the gatherings around it deadly dull."
"Is that so?" Viggo looked out at the gathering, letting his gaze linger on one feminine form, then another, finally resting on the bride herself, a vision of loveliness, all happy grins and glowing skin. At least one person present was fully-faithful to the ideals of love. "I find aspects of them quite charming and agreeable."
He was not prepared for the ungentlemanly snort, badly covered by one of those beautiful grey gloves. "I do believe she's promised to a young gentleman. I would not get your hopes up."
That was the confirmation Viggo was hoping for. This man was definitely here in the employ of the bride's family, no doubt gleaning from even the most casual of bystanders each and every small snippet of information they let slip regarding the groom and his very powerful parents. Feigning disappointment, Viggo sighed, then smiled hopefully. "Perhaps not all of her companions are in the same happy situation."
"Perhaps." The snort was followed by a chuckle, and something like skepticism passed over those inviting features, marring their warmth. "And perhaps I should leave you to your pursuits." The dismissal was short and abrupt, not at all what Viggo had expected. The man straightened a little, tugged at his vest, quite obviously preparing to conclude their tête-à-tête.
Viggo could feel his eyebrows rising. "Pursuits?"
The man nodded, gesturing again at Viggo's notebook, then inclining his head in the direction of the bride and her friends. "I wouldn't wish to get in the way." Whatever it was that was irritating the man, it wasn't losing its hold.
"Ah." Viggo opted for a pleasant response, hoping to leave the door open to future discussion. He flashed the man as winning a smile as he could muster. "I suppose I should let you do the same."
The man laughed softly, shrugging the suggestion off his strong, elegant shoulders. "Do enjoy the evening, Mr...?" He held out his hand, waiting.
"Mortensen." Viggo took the proffered hand, mildly surprised to feel the heat of his skin through the glove. He wasn't at all surprised, however, to see the man's expression flicker for a moment as he gripped Viggo's hand, almost immediately smoothing into something far more neutral. He wasn't the first person to react to Viggo's touch that way, and if things continued the way they were going of late, he wouldn't be the last.
"A pleasure to meet you. Good luck with your... pursuits." The man withdrew his hand quickly, as if even touching Viggo through a barrier of cloth and stitching was a wholly unpleasant experience, his withdrawal barely meeting the minimum of tact.
"You as well." But before the man could turn to go, Viggo chuckled, low and soft. "It's rather poor manners to ask a man's name and then not share your own."
Those eyebrows went up again, tugging ever so slightly at the line of his scar. The man smiled pleasantly. "My apologies, of course. Paul. Paul Sheppard."
And there it was. As if plucked out of the air, as if spoken directly inside his head, Viggo heard it. No matter how easily those words slipped past his lips, no matter how practised and polished they were, this man's name was not and never had been Paul. That was the problem with names. They encompassed so much of one's self, it was virtually impossible not to have them at the forefront of one's mind. No, as "Paul" spoke, his secret self gave him away, whispering the truth: Sean Bean. Viggo smiled. He had found he had to be all the more careful around other talented people, as any deep-delving seemed to vibrate against their own senses, alerting them to the invasion, but surface thoughts were still easy enough to skim. Names held power, but it was a power Viggo had long ago mastered.
What he wasn't prepared for was the wave of thoughts that came on the heels of the name.
...easy to undo his trousers and take him here...sink to the floor, take his cock in my mouth...wonder what he tastes like...have him twice behind the side staircase, handkerchief might be enough to muffle the screams...
It was a happy miracle that Viggo was seated, for he was sure if he had been standing he would have staggered backward at the pure force of lust roiling into his head. He blinked against the words arriving in his mind as if he had thought them himself, a whole wash of jumbled images pressing against the back of his eyes. He saw himself thrust up against a wall, struggling to hold still as Paul -- No, Sean -- broke the fastenings of his trousers, thrusting his hand down their front. He felt the warmth of a naked hand curling around his cock, a smooth cheek rubbing against his own, wicked lips murmuring filthy, sinful, savage promises into his ear.
He swallowed hard as Sean stripped him of every stitch of clothing, baring him to the air, Sean's hands gliding over his skin, raising goose bumps Viggo was certain were real. He heard himself gasp for breath, begging for more as Sean pressed a knee between his legs, the grin on Sean's face thoroughly smug as Viggo desperately rubbed himself against Sean's thigh. His eyes widened as this separate-self cried out, back arching, hips thrusting against nothing. He hoped the whimper he bit back was entirely imaginary as he watched Sean grip the base of his cock, making him scream as his body twisted, shuddering hard against this denial of release.
Just as he thought he was mastering himself, the images turned darker, strange rooms lined with whips and irons, odd leather contraptions akin to horse tack, but used on no horse Viggo knew. He saw himself tied to a bed, gagged with a small bit, jerking and struggling as Sean loomed above, riding crop in hand. Viggo shook his head, attempting to dislodge these thoughts, rid himself of unbidden, unwanted words painting the inside of his head red as a harlot's lair. It took a surprising amount of effort to pull back and put the familiar wall in place, a self-preservatory block against a world filled with other people's errant thoughts.
He wet his lips, trying to focus once more on the man standing in front of him. Sean was smiling mildly at him, one eyebrow raised, completely unruffled, as if he had never, ever entertained an even slightly dirty thought in his entire life. He did, however, look a little concerned, tipping his head to the side as he regarded Viggo. "Are you all right, Mr. Mortensen?"
Viggo made a soft noise as he nodded. "Yes. Yes, I'm fine. Just a bit warm. ...And it's Viggo."
Sean smiled. "Viggo, then. Please do call me Paul." He nodded at Viggo, once again turning to leave, although this time he hesitated, his gaze ever so briefly flicking down Viggo's body. "I do hope we'll cross paths again."
It was difficult not to bite his lip. "I'm sure we will." Viggo returned the nod just as the clear, rich tones of an usher called out the first warning for the start of the operetta. He reached for his notebook, slipping it into his coat's inner pocket, shifting to tidy himself before rising. "Do enjoy the performance."
"Thank you." Sean bowed slightly as he stepped away, moving to join the crowd in its collective wandering towards the darkened theatre and row upon row of seats. As Viggo watched his back disappear amidst the other guests, he caught sight of the little dragon swooping down from the ceiling, alighting on Sean's shoulder and looping its tail around the back of his neck as if it had never left. Viggo chewed on his lip, finally taking a moment to reflect on all he had inadvertently picked up. It wasn't as if he had never entertained the idea before, and he certainly had his share of youthful experience, but even so, he had not expected such overwhelmingly passionate desires of one man for another.
And it certainly wasn't as if Viggo was now entertaining those self-same thoughts. ...Was he?
Viggo swallowed heavily, his throat suddenly dry.