Colonel Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach almost forgot his cane as he quickly stepped out of his chauffeured Benz. But he reached back for it with a little grimace. He had never been truly reconciled to the blasted thing, but the front steps of Castle Gloria were a bit much for him to negotiate without it these days. As he had learned on several previous visits.
The door was opened before he reached it. "Colonel. Thank heavens."
The speaker was Stefan, one of the Earl's many hirelings. None of those Eroica had had when they had met were still with him. Stefan had been hired twenty-five years before, when he had still been very young and disgustingly attractive. Klaus and Dorian had had quite a row over that, and over every attractive new employee Dorian had hired to replace those who died or retired or even reformed. Eroica had steadfastly refused to hire anyone who wasn't gay and nice-looking -- "But darling, I have to look at them all the time, of course I want them to be beautiful!"
Klaus's jealous rages had only served to flatter the bloody thief. It was infuriating. But Klaus had to admit, if only to himself, that Stefan was as devoted as the thief's original team had been... and that Dorian had in fact been faithful to him since several years before their first night together. Not that his eye had ever stopped roving where it would, but his body had been Klaus's alone.
"Is he awake?" Klaus asked Stefan now, not saying what he really meant.
"He was a few minutes ago. Ambrose is sitting with him." Stefan stood back as Klaus marched through the door, grudging the support the infernal cane gave him. "If you need it, I can help you up the stairs."
Klaus's head whipped around to glare at the boy. Oh, he must be in his forties now, but nevertheless.... Stefan had a slight teasing glint in his eyes, despite his apparently respectful expression. Klaus snorted and stomped up the vast winding staircase without help, his spine stiffened by the offer.
One thing about canes: it was awfully tempting to use them on impudent young people. One of these days, the Colonel wasn't going to be able to resist that.
Just as a day had come when he could no longer resist a certain beautiful and maddening thief.
Speaking of thieves... as Klaus tromped around the curve of the stairs, the open library doors came into his line of vision, giving him an unimpeded view of a painting over the fireplace. His eyesight had suffered with age, but in the direction of farsightedness rather than myopia, and he recognized The Man In Purple. The last time he'd been in the Gloria library, the picture in that spot had been of some prettified shepherd boy. Klaus assumed that Dorian had kept Tyrian Persimmon's portrait out of his sight from motives of tact. Or perhaps from apprehension that Klaus might reclaim it despite their agreement.
You are welcome to that particular pair of pumpkin pants, Lord Gloria, Klaus thought, smiling in spite of his errand.
Thirty years ago, he had hired the best art forger alive, a Maurice Devereaux, to copy The Man In Purple. He had hidden the real portrait in the towers of Schloss Eberbach. When the forgery had vanished, he had yelled at Dorian for form's sake, but allowed himself to be mollified with the return of his tank. Which, he conceded, had been in good condition.
Over the years, it had often been quite tempting, when Dorian was driving him up the nearest wall, to inform the thief that he'd been duped. But of course he couldn't let on. Still, when his lover became too exasperating, which was often, it was a soothing thought.
Stefan trailed behind Klaus, but Klaus knew the way to Dorian's bedchamber; he had been there plenty of times, after all. He threw the door open without preamble.
The pretty young man sitting beside the bed must be Ambrose. The truth was, Klaus had trouble telling Dorian's employees apart, with a few exceptions. It hadn't usually seemed to matter. Everyone else faded into the background in the presence of the man who now lay immobile on the lacy, overcushioned bed.
Klaus stopped in the doorway. The golden curls had long since turned silver, and the once slender body was now much too thin. The face, too -- the aristocratic bone structure could not be hidden, but the smooth planes of youth were gone. Only a few hints remained of the beauty that had tormented and snared Klaus, over four decades ago. But Klaus remained equally tormented and equally snared.
Eyes still vividly blue blinked open, and Dorian managed a little smile. He lifted a hand weakly.
"Knew you'd be here." The voice rasped slightly, but it was the same voice.
Klaus took the seat which Ambrose vacated and clasped his lover's hand. "I didn't expect to be."
"Me neither," Dorian replied with his usual teasing candor as his employees closed the door behind them, leaving them alone. "Thought some bullet would have taken you out years ago. Thought I'd have to go it alone again."
"And now you're deserting me instead." There was no use pretending between them, not about this. They had both known for nearly a year that this was coming.
Dorian squeezed his hand slightly. "Sorry," he murmured.
Klaus shook his head slightly. "There's no need to talk, liebling."
Dorian took him at his word and seemed content to lie still and look at him, the way he always had, with that same adoring expression that had never ceased to embarrass Klaus. It embarrassed him now. What did the lover of beauty find to admire in him now? Iron grey hair, cut short a decade ago and slicked back for convenience; a body that was stubbornly wilting despite his intense workouts; a limping gait, thanks to a bomb he hadn't quite escaped from; and on his angular face, a line for every enemy he'd shot down, and for every agent he'd seen fall in the line of duty.
"'S not fair," Dorian said suddenly, with a playful pout. "Butches age better. You're still handsome."
"And you're still impossible," Klaus retorted, turning pink.
"And you still blush. Remember our first time?"
"How could I forget?" Klaus said, his face getting hotter. "And as I recall, you did your share of blushing that night."
"I was flushing," Dorian corrected. "'S different. Blushing is for when you're embarrassed. Flushing is for when you're in the throes of ecstasy." He smiled. It was lovely to see, but Klaus still wished he wouldn't; he suspected it took most of Dorian's swiftly vanishing strength. "You never told me why you changed your mind."
"You never asked." Neither of them had been inclined to waste time on words that night.
"'M asking now."
Klaus wasn't entirely sure himself what the answer was. There had been a mission, finally, when he'd been forced to be alone with the thief for a while. He hadn't managed to shake the mesmerism Eroica commanded quickly enough. He had found himself getting kissed.
More to the point, he had found himself kissing back.
When Dorian had finally released his mouth, Klaus had punched him, though not very hard. Just enough to knock him down so that Klaus could flee. Which he had.
Two weeks later, he had gone to his Bonn flat, the only place where he had any degree of privacy, and called Castle Gloria. "Can you meet me in Portugal next week?" he had asked without preamble.
"Is this for a mission?" Dorian's tone had been guarded.
It had taken Klaus a full minute to steady his voice enough for a single syllable. "No."
"Name the date."
Klaus had. Dorian had reminded him of his Portugal address, and they had hung up without wasting words. A week later Klaus had stalked nervously into the Portuguese mansion. Dorian had been the only one there, his team conspicuously absent. Klaus had set down his small travelling bag and kissed Dorian right there in the entry hall. They had managed to get to the bedroom, but it had been a close thing. Klaus had indeed blushed a great deal, almost continuously through the night in fact. Besides endearments and breathless, incoherent requests, they had not spoken at all. The following morning, they had made up for it with a roof-raising quarrel. The next night, they had raised the roof again with a different, more pleasant sort of commotion.
And things had continued pretty much along those lines for the next four decades.
"It got to the point where I couldn't stop thinking about it. About you," Klaus conceded now to the silver-haired man lying feebly in bed.
Dorian smiled at that, before his smile disappeared and his eyes closed. Klaus leaned closer, alarmed, but it seemed Dorian was only resting. "Thank you for coming," the Englishman mumbled at last.
"Of course I came."
Dorian opened his eyes and looked at Klaus seriously. "Do you regret that you didn't marry and carry on the line?"
Klaus shrugged. "I've got cousins. The line will go on. It'll just take a slight detour."
"You don't wish you'd gotten married?" Dorian insisted.
"Stop fishing," Klaus ordered. "You know that I couldn't." When Dorian raised his eyebrows, Klaus capitulated. "I couldn't, because I loved you too much."
"Past tense?" Eroica never did stop when he was intent on anything.
"Stop pretending you don't know the answer to that," Klaus growled. He had only said the words a few times over the years. But Dorian knew. He always had.
Dorian chuckled at that, closing his eyes to rest from the effort. "Oh, darling. I do love you. You haven't changed a bit."
Klaus shook his head slightly in bemusement as he stared at his lover. "What you found to appeal to you in a hard, sour man like me I will never know."
"You're not such a hard case as you pretend," Dorian teased, opening his eyes. "Letting your lover get away with stealing your ancestral portrait."
Klaus shrugged. "I knew it would be well cared for at Castle Gloria." His gaze dropped for a few seconds, and his smile deepened. "Devereaux did a good job, didn't he?"
Dorian startled his lover by laughing aloud, a wheezing sound that still held some of the music of years ago. "I wondered if you'd ever own up to that."
"You knew?" Klaus knew he must look poleaxed. Eroica had always been able to do that to him. Still could, even now, at the end.
Dorian was grinning. "You didn't really think any forgery on earth could fool me, did you? At fourteen I knew the forgery of Giorgione's shepherd from the real thing, and I'd know The Man In Purple from a thousand copies."
"Why didn't you say anything?" Klaus was feeling foolish. An effect Eroica had often had on him. The man just never stopped driving him mad.
Dorian chuckled. "You were so pleased with yourself. And it gave me an excuse to give you that wretched tank back -- do you have any idea how much those blasted things cost to maintain?"
"Do you want the figure for the year you returned it, or adjusted for today's prices?"
Dorian's smile waned tiredly and he looked serious again. "Do you love me?"
"I love you."
"Then I suppose I can go now."
Klaus felt the blood draining from his face. "Already?" he asked, then berated himself. All the deaths he had seen, and now he was behaving like a child over this one, trying to wheedle just another hour, just a few more minutes before bedtime....
"You're here," the Englishman answered quietly, his voice becoming weaker. "'S finished."
Klaus sighed, but only tightened his hold on the long, slender hand. Dorian closed his eyes and let his head fall back more comfortably on the pillow, going still. They both sat silently, the only sound Dorian's slow, labored breaths. Breathing shouldn't sound like such hard work.
Go, then, Klaus thought. I promise I won't keep you waiting long, if there's anywhere that we'll be together again. I haven't the heart to.
The eyes, still the color of a robin's egg, opened and found the energy to twinkle at him with familiar mischief. "So where do you keep your copy?"
"Of The Man In Purple?" Klaus blinked. Well, even when the Earl had been young and healthy, his mind had always worked eccentrically. Small wonder it dwelled on trivialities now. "In the tower at Schloss Eber--...." His voice trailed off. Then returned, louder this time. "What the hell do you mean, copy?!?"
Dorian laughed aloud again. "Well, it didn't make any difference to you, so I thought I'd keep the one that was worth a tank...." He closed his eyes, and his triumphant smile slowly faded for the last time.
Klaus sputtered for a moment before choosing a word to yell. "EROICA!" he shouted, and stopped in frustration when the growing coolness of the hand in his registered. He clutched Dorian's limp hand in both of his, as if he could pull him back from where he'd gone to.
"Verdammt," Klaus muttered. There was something in his eye. He blinked it away insistently, not bothering to ask himself what it was. "Come back here so I can yell at you."
But as usual, the thief disregarded orders.