A Rich Man's World
Author's disclaimer and notes: I don't own them, I just dream of doing so. Feedback is better than very ripe bananas. Corrections to my language (and other things) are also most welcome! Ask if you want me to archive it anywhere. You may link to this story if you want or to my main page. 13.699 words. Written mostly in September 2006.
WARNINGS: This is not Klaus/Dorian. Dorian isn't really nice in this one. This is also a somewhat different style than my usual.
Betaed by Heather Sparrows (thank you!), Kadorienne (Almost against her will. But thank you!) and Maf (thank you!).
If you want you can also read/download the story as a doc file (without graphics).
Klaus had waited for the old man to die for what felt like forever. When word reached him of his father's stroke, though, he still felt surprised. Rationally he knew of his father's mortality and that he must die one day, just like all men. Klaus had just assumed that he himself would get shot during a mission or get captured and "disappear" long before his father's eventual demise. Not that he allowed the Chief to see any of the emotions that flittered through him.
"Thank you for informing me, sir," was all he said. "I need to take today and possibly tomorrow off. He wishes to see me. I will also need time, afterwards, to see to his affairs."
"Of course, Major. And I want you to know that you will always have NATO's support. If you need—"
"I need nothing," Klaus interrupted. "Just time off. I will return to my duty as soon as possible."
Five hours later he entered his father's room in the intensive care unit of the Wiesbaden hospital. His eyes at once sought the bed. His father looked back at him and for a moment Klaus was convinced that the entire thing had been just a strange joke played on him, for his father's pale eyes looked as sharp and clear as ever. Yet in the same glance he took in the yellow-hued skin, the sharply drawn lines in his father's face and the way his father's hands curled as if in preparation for his death-rest.
"Sir," he said and walked up to the bed where he sat down carefully on the visitor's chair.
His father very seldom called him that. The old man doing so now made Klaus all too aware that it might be for the very last time. He wasn't sure what to say. "I'm sorry" would sound trite. He was sorry in a way, he had come to realise, but not even NATO's Iron Klaus could stop death by sheer will. No matter, the situation must be addressed. He didn't want his father to die without having said something important to him. "I will miss you, Father."
The old man snorted. "I'm not dead yet, Son. Water."
Klaus quickly located a glass on the bedside stand and handed it over, then helped hold it steady as his father drank.
"Before I die, I need to know that the family will prevail."
Not this again. Klaus had feared that his father would bring up their old disagreement. "You wish me to marry." He had held off for as long as he could, but on the old man's deathbed he could no longer refuse. "I am sorry that you will not see your grandchildren."
"That is a later matter. What is imperative right now is that you marry and that you marry rich."
Had Klaus been any less self-controlled his chin would have dropped, for that was not at all what his father usually pressed him for. "Rich? I don't understand."
"By the flowers. In the brown envelope. Read it."
So he took the envelope and read the papers within. Slowly the truth dawned. For a long time he thought he must have misunderstood, but eventually the situation became too obvious for him to delude himself. How it could possibly come to be he still didn't have the faintest clue to, but there it was, undeniable, in black on white on official documents and all. Finally he refolded the papers and stuck them into the envelope, which he returned to its place by the flowers. Then he turned back to his father who watched him with eyes that might look a bit tired, but held neither shame nor regret.
"We are broke?"
"In debt, my son. You must marry rich to save the Schloss."
When morning arrived Klaus sat, bleary-eyed and with his hair in disarray, in the windowsill in his room and watched the pink dawn spread colour over the Schloss garden. The garden that technically belonged to the Salomon Oppenheim & Cie, since his father had used their inheritance as a security to borrow large amounts of money - money lost through unwise investments and bad advice in financial matters. Kept secret from Klaus - or not spoken to him about, which amounted to exactly the same thing. He had little time to spare to go through the family's financial situation on a regular basis and the bank would have no reason to contact him.
His father still lived, but that had little bearing on the situation. As the de facto new family head, it fell on him, Klaus, to deal with the unexpected unpleasantness. "How could he allow the situation to get so bad without even telling me?" he muttered. His father had explained the situation, if only a little, after having dropped his bombshell. Apparently things had happened very fast and once the ball had been set rolling, there would have been nothing Klaus could have done either. Then the stress had taken its toll on the old man, sending him to the sickbed. The deterioration continued, getting worse with each passing month. Now ... even if the bank took the Schloss, they would still be heavily in debt.
"Marry rich," he mumbled. "Bwha!" He brought up both his hands and massaged his temples. Marry rich. But what other options did he have? The monthly payments the bank demanded exceeded his salary as a NATO Major.
In the morning light, the roses in the garden shimmered like drops of blood.
He could sell the Schloss, pay most of the debt with that money, take a new loan - somehow, he had a vague suspicion that for someone with such a risky job as himself to get a loan would be difficult - and pay off the second loan for the rest of his life. Doable. A bleak future, but he didn't actually need luxuries or the Schloss. Only ... his father was right. The head of the family's duty was to keep the family inheritance. Besides, for him to do so was his father's dying wish. "Marry." Even the word sounded strange coming from his mouth. Surely it had nothing to do with the likes of him. "Marry rich," he tried again. No, the idea was ludicrous. Not even as a teenager had he enjoyed the games of flirtation and pairing off. To do so had always seemed like an undignified waste of time, nothing else. He wasn't the marrying kind. How would he go about attracting a rich woman? He wasn't the type to kiss someone's hand, flirt, go on walks in the moonlight and make someone fall in love with him. The very notion made him shudder.
To start with, how would he find a rich woman? Oh, he knew bundles of them. He had met what felt like thousands of the creatures at the social events his father sent him to or, on occasion, his duty demanded that he navigated. How could he be as dishonourable as to lie to them about his financial situation? Women, even rich ones, had been interested in the past, yes, but the Eberbach fortune was well known and respected. A position as his wife would have been a trophy to any noble lady of the nation. Without his heritage he strongly suspected that their interest would vanish like dew on a hot day. "Shallow creatures," he muttered, filled with loathing, before he realised that if he intended to marry rich he himself must take into serious consideration his prospective other's financial solidity.
He did go to the banks. As he suspected, further loans were out of the question.
He did go to balls, dressed in his finest. As he suspected, the word had already - somehow, like these things are wont to do - spread. Well-born ladies smiled and danced with him with every sign of enjoyment, but only one dance, then they were off to their next beau. The few who seemed genuinely interested were approached by others and quickly excused themselves from his presence.
Klaus slouched at his desk, overlooking the Alphabet diligently at work. At least he still had a place where he could relax. Though not even the sanctuary of his work remained undisturbed. What he looked down on, when he judged the 26 men under his command to be working with enough fervor, was not reports from previous missions or information regarding NATO or KGB or CIA or any other abbreviation. The paper wasn't even an interoffice memo, a note from the Chief or one of the countless forms his daily work required him to fill out. On working time he - in code of course, so that no one would be able to detect what he did - compiled a list of things he could do to earn more money. He had months of vacation time to take, should he be forced to. Used wisely, he could get plenty done during that time and buy himself some respite. To do so would, however, leave the miserable A through Z on their own for far, far too long. Weekends could be dedicated - evenings, lunch breaks. Surely, a man with talents such as his own had options. He could become a special consultant. A bodyguard. A weapons trainer. Then there were the ... less legal options. Most of them also dealt with firearms. But to break the law would be contrary to everything he believed in. He might as well start robbing banks and little old ladies.
A sudden hush enveloped the Alphabet, so he looked up, following their scared looks towards the door and the shock of curls that seemed to attract all the light in the room. A fist in Klaus's stomach turned. Oh yes. And then there was that alternative. He forced himself to take a long, even breath. Then he rose and strode up to the door. Beside the blond Earl he noticed the diminutive figure of the greedy accountant and promptly ignored him.
"Lord Gloria," he said in way of greeting. "Why are you here?"
The thief smiled shyly. "I heard about your father. I—"
"He isn't dead yet."
"I know. I—"
"This is a subject I don't wish to discuss at work."
"I understand. But I do have something important to talk to you about."
"I will leave for lunch. If you must, come with me."
His entire being protested against giving even that much to the sticky-fingered Earl, but he also knew that he must keep a much tighter grip on his emotions than usual or else he would end up killing the man simply for talking to him.
Shortly thereafter, he found himself at his usual haunt close to NATO headquarters where no Alphabet ever went and where the staff knew to give him plenty of room. He only ever lunched there when the Alphabet was extra ornery and he needed time away from them, something that likely reflected in his behaviour during his visits. The waitresses seemed flabbergasted to see him in company and didn't even protest when he insisted on only two seats. He assumed that the greedy one ate too, but hopefully the pest would take himself elsewhere if Klaus showed clearly enough that he wanted nothing to do with him and certainly wouldn't pay for his meal. Not that he wanted the fop there either, but he knew he had better listen to what the Earl had to say.
"I really am sorry to hear about your father's illness."
He snorted rather than answering. Such niceties had always annoyed him.
"I, ah, heard other things as well."
Of course he had. Despite himself Klaus felt ever so slightly impressed by the power of gossip, that the news of his situation had already reached the Earl. Unless the limey had his own spies out to catalogue Klaus's activities. Which wouldn't surprise him in the least. He grunted, continuing to eat. He wanted to get as much down as possible before the subject matter surely ahead would put him off his food entirely.
"About your castle."
"If you still wish to buy The Man In Purple I might be persuaded," Klaus admitted. To be honest, he wasn't sure if he any longer had the moral right to sell anything, but the money would come in handy in the interim and he hadn't had any calls from the bank lawyers as of yet. Besides, he had a vague feeling that only the fop's perverted interest in him kept him from just stealing the painting, something that surely must be child's play for the man who once stole John Paul the Second. With the blasted thing in someone else's possession it would doubtlessly be relocated due North Downs post haste. So Klaus might as well get some money off it instead.
"Ah ... No. Well, yes, I might be, but— Ah, I thought, maybe ..." The blond swirled a lock of his hair with his finger, a pointless gesture that never failed to annoy Klaus.
"What?" he prompted, when no continuation came forth.
"You have a monetary problem."
People stating the obvious annoyed him most of all. "Ja."
"I have money."
"I don't want your money, Eroica."
The master thief blinked once. Then he blinked once more and smiled. "I know you are a proud man, Major. I respect that. Really, I do. You don't want to be in my debt. I realise that. But I was thinking that if we were together—"
"We are not."
"No, but if we were—"
"Which we won't be if I have a choice in the matter."
"But, I could—"
"Lord Gloria!" he growled and nearly stabbed his knife into the plate. "I am not a whore. Do not try to turn me into one."
Brilliant blue eyes opened wide. "No, no, no, I didn't m—"
"You didn't imply that if I were to enter a physical relationship with you, you would give me the money to cover my family's debt?"
"Ah, well, yes, but I didn't—"
There was something strangely liberating in keeping the man so off balance. Far from being nauseated Klaus still put his utensils down and stared into the British bugger's eyes. "Please listen to me for once, Lord Gloria? Over the years you have proven to be a somewhat trustworthy companion, when our goals do not differ. I have come to trust you, in as far as I trust anyone. However, I do not wish for a physical relationship with you. As far as I know I have never done anything to lead you to believe I might be open to such a thing. If I have, you have my most heartfelt apologies. And do tell me what I did, so that I will not repeat it with you or with anyone else. The truth is, Lord Gloria, that you are not what would be called my 'type'. I do not find you attractive."
Which was true. On the rare occasions Klaus sought a sex partner, he tended to go for someone not so much like himself in height and width. There was also something strangely satisfactory in seeing Eroica's mouth fall open.
"You-you-you don't find me attractive?" He sounded lost, as if the very idea had never occurred to him.
Klaus picked up his knife again and used it to gesture. "I would have to be blind not to see that you possess a great deal of ... pleasing aesthetics, Lord Gloria. I did not say that you fill me with loathing, only that I do not find you attractive. If forced to, I would be able to perform in bed with you. It is merely something I do not want and I ask you to respect that. I am not desperate enough to allow you to take liberties with my body. Yet."
The Lord of Gloria had visibly wilted during Klaus's speech. "You make it sound as if I would rape you."
Klaus raised his eyebrows. Then he bared his teeth in what some people – blind people, for instance – might call a smile. "Perhaps I'm not as fluent in English as I should be. If one were to have sex with someone when they clearly don't want to, but must submit due to circumstances outside of their own making, what should that be called, if not rape?" Then he went back to eating.
"I'm not a rapist," the Earl said, almost in a whisper.
Klaus shrugged, but didn't immediately reply. Only when he had finished chewing and swallowed did he say, still without looking up, "You wouldn't drug me and tie me up and fuck me, no. I'll give you that." Which was the only way they would ever have sex, as far as he was concerned. "But if I came crawling, begging you?" He made a disgusted snort, aimed both at the pathetic image and his opinion of the other's ability to resist such temptation. "Though I would prefer you to many of my other alternatives, Lord Gloria."
There was no reply. Finally, he glanced up again. The thief looked very pale and fiddled with his hair like mad. "I-I find that this conversation has quite put me off my food," the Earl said. "I think I will take my leave now."
Klaus hrrumphed acknowledgement. As the Brit left he continued to eat. That went well. He actually seemed to hear what I said this time. At other times when he had tried to dissuade the limey, he had had the odd impression of the man hearing something entirely different than what Klaus actually said, as if, "Geht das endlich mal in deinen dicken Schädel rein, dass ich kein Interesse an dir habe, du englische Schwuchtel?!" actually translated closer to, "Not right now, you gorgeous creature."
He vaguely wondered how things would play out if he did ever get desperate enough to approach the Earl on his own. Not crawling, of course, he'd rather slit his wrists, but more amenable to the other's attentions. He shuddered.
He only had a few forkfuls left of the meal, when he realised with a start that the fop might have left, but he still wasn't alone. Somehow the greedy bug had slithered into the opposite chair without Klaus even noticing. I'm getting old. Or this is more stressing than I thought. Perhaps a few days off would be a good thing, regardless. The little thing stared at him with one huge eye. It looked scared - and rightly so. The mood he was in, Klaus would welcome any chance to yell and shout. At the same time he felt oddly sapped of strength. To speak clearly to the Earl was its own special brand of exercise. Though the conversation had gone well, so he could afford a trace of benevolence. "You can ask the personnel for a doggy bag," he grudgingly offered and indicated the Earl's unfinished plate with his fork.
"I will," James said, but did not move. Instead he said, "I wasn't sure if you would take him up on his offer or not."
"As it should please you to know, I turned him down, at least for now. The money is safe."
"That does please me."
"Good. Now leave. I want a few moments of peace before I go back to work." He wasn't even sure why he hadn't yelled at the bug already.
Klaus frowned and made a shooing motion with the knife. "Go, bug, before your master buys something really expensive."
The one eye widened and sought the door, as the bug was clearly torn between doing just that and whatever else he thought he was doing by still annoying Klaus. Then the small man took a deep breath, as if to fortify himself. "No, I shan't go. I need to talk to you."
Klaus couldn't help but to feel a tiny bit curious as to what the greedy bug wanted. "I already told you I turned your master down. I won't be doing 'it' with him."
The accountant actually smiled at that, a very small, sad little smile. "He never does 'it' with me either," he said and shrugged. "But that's not why I wanted to talk to you."
Klaus had reached his limit. "I have no wish to speak to you. Go away, before I kick you out."
"No!" the accountant said with surprising sharpness. Then he took a couple of swift breaths. "No," he repeated. Unexpectedly he shook his head, making his forelock fall back. A second eye peered out at Klaus and the strangely single yet dual attention made the major still the words that had started to rise on his tongue. "You let Lord Gloria talk to you," James said. "You gave him a chance to give you his offer. You have to be fair now. You must give me the same chance too!"
"You?" Klaus said and suddenly felt very, very stupid, for obviously he had missed a central part of the conversation. "What do you mean, bug?"
"Don't call me that! My name is James. I really would like for you to call me James."
The greedy one spoke back? The world suddenly seemed like a stranger place than he had woken up in. "I will call you whatever I see fit. What did you mean about me having to give you the same chance as Lord Gloria?"
"Because I—" said the bug and straightened - his shoulder raising all of an inch, "—can give you a much better offer than he did."
Apparently, Klaus no longer even occupied the same universe he had woken up in.
"What kind of offer could you give me, sting— eh, Mr James?" he said, feeling as if Mischa had got him but good.
"What Lord Gloria offered, but ... ah ... without the ... the ... without 'it'."
Klaus felt tempted to look out the window, just to verify that the sky remained a clouded blue and hadn't turned, say, green and pink. "Why would you— And how— I mean—" With a frustrated growl he forced himself to take a long breath to collect his thoughts. As he did, a reasonable explanation presented itself. "The Earl put you up to this?" That would be just like the fop, to have a back-up plan ready for when Klaus turned him down.
He got a quick headshake in reply, which made James's forelock fall back into place. Somehow that made Klaus feel better. A two-eyed Mr James could be something totally alien.
"But why? You hate me. And how? You have no money."
The accountant had the gall to look affronted. "Yes I do! I have lots of money! I don't spend my money! I save my money. Money likes me and I save it and it grows and I used to not have any money at all, but now I have lots of money."
"Thief money; stolen money - just like the Earl's." Which was Klaus's secondary defence, though he hadn't had to resort to it with the fop.
"No! I earn my money! The Earl pays me, you know. Not much, but he pays me. And I invested them. Money likes being invested, you know! And I went to Las Vegas and I had this system and it worked and now I have even more money. I have lots of money and it's all mine and I can do whatever I want with it."
All that was news to Klaus. He had always assumed that the greedy one's greed came simply from a lack of money. Why would Mr James be so greedy if he did actually have money? Lots of money too, by the sound of things. "Why are you still with Lord Gloria, then?" he asked, the first thought that jumped to his mind.
James looked down, and then shrugged again. "He used to do 'it' with me. He doesn't any longer, you know, but he used to. That was nice. I like him. I like him a lot. But ... I need to think of myself too, sometimes."
Klaus shook his head, hoping to clear it. The hallucination before him didn't go away. "You just offered me money explicitly without 'it'. Why? Just to ensure that I don't come crawling back to the Earl if I find no other solution?" Which would be twisted enough to suit the strange little man, if not for the enormous expense that should have sent him into cardiac arrest.
The accountant suddenly blushed fiery red. "No! That's not it at all! It's just that I— I— There is something I do want from you. It-it just isn't 'it'. I mean - I would never force you - or anyone - to do 'it' with me. I don't— I— There's something else I want."
"I will not betray my country or NATO for you." During the many long hours when sleep eluded him he had pondered his problem, he had reached those definite conclusions. Should he get a secondary job of whatever sort, those where his primary guidelines. Apart from that, he had very few limitations, though some things he would do far more willingly than others.
"No, no, I would never ask you to do anything like that, either," said the small man. Klaus noticed that he scratched at his left wrist and wondered if this was due to a rash or done as a nervous tick. Whatever he wanted to ask of Klaus obviously had him very worried of Klaus's possible reaction.
"So, what's in it for you?"
The scratching increased and the little accountant's chest rose and sank in quick successions as if he fought not to hyperventilate. "I ... have always been poor. We never had any money. I was always ashamed because of that. Now I do have money. A lot of money. Much more money than Lord Gloria does. I'm ... rich. But ... I'm still ashamed."
"Ashamed of what? It was not your fault that your family was poor. You did well by making money, even if you had to work for someone like that degenerate to get it."
"Don't say bad things about the Earl! He believed in me when no one else did. I owe him a lot. But ... I'm ashamed because ... I'm still nothing. I want to be something more than what I am. I don't want to be just the Earl's accountant."
"If you have enough money to bail me out, you have money to do whatever you wish. Be whatever you want to be."
James shook his head. "No. That's just it. Money ... I love money. And money likes me. But ... money—" He shuddered and his cheeks slowly colored. "—can't buy everything, you know. No matter how much money I have, money can't buy me ... respectability."
"You want to be respected?"
The little head moved up and down.
"That I can understand. Not how you expect me to help you, though."
James blushed even harder. "You are respected."
"Yes, but that's—" He found himself wanting to explain, but unsure how to articulate his thoughts. "—because I'm Iron Klaus. No one dares disrespect me. And I'm an Eberbach. We are an old family. Very respected."
Frantic nods. "Yes! That's exactly it. That's what I want!"
"I still don't understand."
James made a frustrated sound. Then he quite deliberately pushed his forelock back behind his ear. His mouth settled in a determined line. "I want the respect you have. I want the respect your family has. I want you to marry me, Major von dem Eberbach."
The Alphabet has exchanged worried looks for over an hour. An hour! The Major never abandoned them for lunch breaks longer than 30 minutes. And to top things off, he had allowed the Earl of Gloria to accompany him. While nothing had been said officially they knew of their Major's situation and considering his normally short fuse, especially concerning the Earl, they could only imagine an epic eruption waiting just around the corner. Some agents had begun to whisper amongst themselves, speculating in that the reason for the Major's unprecedented tardiness might be that he had finally got around to offing the Earl and that it took him a while to dispose of the body. There were other speculations as well - mostly from G, who cried a lot, but most bets were on the killing option. Tentative voices had just been raised about sending out a team to assist the Major with whatever he might need assisting with, when the door didn't slam, just opened quietly on well-oiled hinges to admit their commanding officer. All gossiping immediately ceased and the agents rushed back to their respective desks. The Major utterly failed to yell at them for being incompetent idiots who slacked during working hours. He slowly walked down the aisle to his own desk, where he sat down. They saw light reflect in his moss green eyes, yet he seemed not to notice his surroundings. Much too slowly, as if he swum under water, he took up the paper that had occupied him all morning. The trained agents, who over the years had learned to pay attention to their superior's least expression, all saw him blink once and take a deep breath. Then his hands moved on the paper, gripping the top rather than the sides. Slowly he ripped the offending document in two, the sound deafening in a room otherwise quiet as the grave. Then he looked from one torn part to the other, forcefully brought together the two and balled them with strong, determined movements, as if preparing the mother of all snowballs, before throwing the result, full force, into the paper bin.
The Alphabet once more traded worried looks.
"What are you staring at, you worthless pieces of lazy whales?" their Major growled, sounding so much like himself that they all breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"Not now, James, I'm too tired."
Dorian did sound tired. Exhausted even. Maybe I better wait until tomorrow to tell him? James thought. However, Dorian had been totally listless for four days now, ever since That Day, when they had lunched with Major von dem Eberbach. Nothing had got their normally so energetic boss in a better mood. He hadn't even bothered to join in when Bonham had staged a game of "Let's Steal The Crown Jewels".
"No, My Lord, I really need to talk to you now!" Three times James had built up what little courage he had and twice he had allowed himself to avoid the confrontation, but no more! Three times was the charm and James felt that he would need all the extra luck he could get.
Dorian made a shooing motion with one long, elegant hand. "Good grief, James, surely whatever it is can wait until the morning?"
And it could, of course it could, but Dorian had asked the very same question the previous night as well, and James had been nice and waited, but when James had tried to breach the subject again at breakfast Dorian had sent him off to calculate last month's earnings.
"I'll be quick, my Lord. Very quick, I promise."
Dorian lifted his other wrist from his eyes and sighed theatrically. "Well, what is it, then, Jamesie? And I need a tally of next months' expected expenses. Don't forget my visit to the Louvre on the 12th. We need a new batch of the new version of the knockout gas too. Perhaps some more of the strawberry extract this time, see how that works."
"You'll have to find someone else to tally the expenses for you, my Lord."
The refusal caught Dorian's interest and he actually sat up. "What's the matter, my dear Jamesie? Are you feeling poorly? Your breakfast bananas really did look overripe to me."
Oh, how blue and glittering Dorian's eyes were! His lordship really was one of the handsomest men in the world! He scratched his wrist hard. "They were perfect, my Lord, just perfect."
"Well, why don't you want to tally the expenses, then? I bet you can find some way to make them less than last month's."
And that's the only reason why you keep me. Oh, I must be strong now! "Of course I could, my Lord, if you would just stop spending so much money! But I won't. Because ... I won't be here next month."
"What do you mean, Jamesie? You're not going to Vegas again, are you? Why won't you be here?"
"Because ... Because I'm going to marry Major von dem Eberbach next month. And-and-and I quit!"
The Earl's distraught scream could be heard all over North Downs. However, when the men finally broke into his bedroom, he refused to discuss what had upset him so. And where Mr James had gone, nobody knew...
Klaus finished filling out the papers that would, after the signing of the partnership registration documents, grant James power of attorney over him should something happen, give the man the NATO spousal benefits, and so on. He wouldn't file them until after the ceremony, but an unexpected moment had opened up between missions and he had decided to get the unpleasantness over with. There was no use trying to keep the "relationship" a secret and besides, should something happen James must be told - possibly even protected. And considering that gossip acknowledgedly spread faster in the NATO building than any other type of intelligence ...
"Listen up," he said. There was no need for him to either raise his voice or even growl the brief sentence. Somehow the entire Alphabet had learned how to identify the sound of him pulling in enough air to speak and they shut up on cue to be able to obey him. Handy, that. "This Saturday, at 10.00-hours Eberbach City Hall, I will marry Mr James. Afterwards there will be a brief lunch reception at the Schloss. You will all attend. Z, you will stand up as my witness. Now go back to work."
He called his father to inform him of the news. "I am to be wed, Father. And I am marrying rich, as you requested. The Eberbach heritage is saved." Then he hung up. While he knew that his acceptance of James's offer had been the least bad of his options, Klaus vaguely hoped that his father would die before he found out exactly what his marriage would entail. On the plus side, perhaps it would keep Eroica away for a while.
James looked at the suit for a full five minutes before putting it on. It was brand new. He had managed to haggle the price down to 50% of the original asking price and had got the shirt thrown in for free, but still. He had actually bought a brand new, form-fitted suit, in classic, elegant black. Not only that, his shoes were also brand new, though he had bought them in a fire sale and would be able to wear them everyday, unlike the suit. The suit was very special, though. He would get married in it.
Don't get too sentimental now, though, he cautioned himself. The marriage – or registered partnership, as it was called, Registrierte Partnerschaft - was, after all, nothing more than a business arrangement. At least, it is as far as he is concerned. Him being, of course, the tall, handsome NATO Major to whom he, little James, would be wedded to within the hour. He moved to look into the mirror and combed through his hair one more time. He had even gone to a barber rather than cutting it himself as he usually did - not that anyone ever noticed and not that Klaus would care in the least. The very thought of his husband-to-be made James smile wide. Yes, the partnership was merely an arrangement to Klaus, undoubtedly a rather unpleasant one at that, but it happened to be very real to James. He had found the German terribly attractive from the start and had, over the years, come to admire him with increasing fervor. He had, of course, never told anyone. Whom would he have told? Dorian would have been livid, the Major would have killed him, the Alphabet would have been scandalized, Bonham would have pitied him and the rest of the Eroica crew would have laughed at him. No, James had kept his feelings to himself and worked actively to save the Major from Dorian's amorous clutches. He had known that he would never have the man that his heart longed for, but to work for Dorian if Dorian had had the Major as well would have doubled his pain.
Only ... now he would have the Major! Oh, yes he would! Not in the biblical sense, of course, but he and none other would carry the man's last name. He couldn't resist. "James von dem Eberbach," he whispered. As always his belly twitched in delight. He would be James von dem Eberbach! And while the Major might not love him - didn't love him, he forced himself to admit, the Major's pride and honesty would never let him cheat on a spouse no matter how unloved. James was also fairly sure that Klaus didn't exactly hate him. Felt annoyed by him, oh yes - sure - James knew that he annoyed most people. Hated the situation forced upon him, oh yes - the Major never could follow another's drum willingly. However, Klaus was very business-minded. He had agreed to the deal with surprisingly little hesitation. He had only insisted on a time limit to the "marriage". They had settled on ten years, which James found fair; one million for each year. Ten golden years! Before then they could only break off the partnership by mutual agreement, but afterwards neither part would protest a filed divorce. During the decade both parties would do their best to bring in money to their mutual account. James would stay at the Schloss, but would be welcome in Klaus's flat in Bonn, provided that he gave Klaus ample warning and that he'd respect Klaus begging off a visit due to work or circumstances. Klaus would treat James with as much respect as he gave anyone and would accompany him to a minimum of four events of James's choosing a year, events that would help James get the respect he craved. Since the couple obviously couldn't bring forth an heir the natural way, it fell on James to arrange an alternative, by adoption or through a surrogate mother. If necessary, Klaus would contribute with sperm, that was all.
Which is the only sperm I'll ever get from him, James thought as he adjusted the purple and white orchid in his buttonhole. No, no, no, silly Jamesie, no complaining now. You'll get everything else you ever wanted. You've gone years and years and years without 'it' anyway, you don't need it. Besides, this way Lord won't have him either - no one will!
The door to the little room creaked open. "You finished?" said Bonham. Good, reliable, trustworthy Bonham. Bonham the friend, who had sneaked away from the Earl to stand up as James's witness.
"Yes," he said and smiled shakily. "I'm ready." And then he left the room and went out to marry Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach.
Fourteen days later Klaus stopped the car in the exact same spot as he always parked in when visiting the Schloss. Routine felt extra important now that he knew beforehand that his usual habits would be disturbed. This was his first visit to the Schloss as a married man, excepting the brief wedding lunch. With two free days he had been unable to think of a valid excuse to stay away and he certainly wouldn't let his own irrational hesitation keep him from his rightful home. So at the end of the workday he drove to Eberbach, rather than to his Bonn flat. The butler met him at the door.
"How are things going with James?" Klaus asked, curious to hear what might have happened during his absence. Lately he had felt the tiniest bit guilty for just leaving the helpless employees with the skinflint. One morning he had woken up with a distinct memory of a dream during which he had returned to discover that James had cut the forest, sold the timber, ploughed the fields, planted tomatoes all over the rose garden, fired the help and started a casino in the basement. With strippers.
The butler gave him a polite smile. "Everything is perfectly fine, Master Klaus. Master James is a gem. We are very pleased that you brought him to us."
Feeling not a little pole axed, Klaus could only keep walking. "No problem with the ... money, then?"
"Money, Master Klaus?"
"Pay checks, building upkeep, things like that?"
"Master James has gone over the Schloss's finances and is dealing admirably with everything."
"Oh. No ... wailing?"
"Wailing, Master Klaus?"
"Master James said that if you were to come he would like to join you for dinner, if that would be convenient for you."
"I see. Where is Mast— James?"
"Still in room next to yours, Master Klaus. He insisted that you were to have separate bedrooms." Something in the butler's tone indicated that he disapproved of this decision.
"Good. Inform him that he may join me for dinner at 18:30."
"Yes, Master Klaus."
When Klaus stepped into the dining hall, the diminutive accountant already waited by the table. A shining eye glittered in his direction, managing to convey both a hint of fear and what took Klaus a few moments to identify as welcoming. "Welcome home, Major von dem Eberbach."
"Thank you, James."
They sat down, Klaus at the end of the table and James to his right. The butler started directing the servants to serve the soup. In the meanwhile the husbands traded short glances.
"I trust that your stay has been to your satisfaction?" Klaus finally asked. He had resolved to try to keep calm and polite, as long as the greedy bug did him the same favour.
"Oh yes! It's wonderful here! Really beautiful. Warm and nice and cosy. There are some things that need to be looked after, though. I-I made a list, if you want to see? You don't have to, if you don't want to."
Klaus nodded. "I better look." A list sounded ominous, but at least he would be able to veto any too outlandish propositions.
As the main course was served, he at once noticed a difference to his fried potatoes. Nothing necessarily bad-different though, in fact something good-different, but different never the less. He smelled them and licked one discreetly to try to pinpoint what had made him react, but he quickly concluded that the change lay in the potato itself, rather than in the fat or spices.
He noticed that the little man beside him watched him intently, so he raised an eyebrow in wordless query.
"It's a special brand of potatoes," James quietly offered. "M-much better than the kind which is common in this area."
Klaus grunted. "Cheaper too?"
A dark eye widened, then looked away. "No. I must protect my investment," was said in a light tone. "They're not cheaper, just better for you."
"Ah." He considered thanking the man, but to do so would have felt unnatural. They were just potatoes, after all. "They taste good," he finally said and hoped that the bug would understand. Suddenly a rather shabby box appeared next to him on the table. "'s this?" he asked and pushed at the cardboard.
The accountant blushed and looked away, mumbling something. His right hand crept in under his left arm's sleeve.
Klaus removed his finger from the box as if burned. He knew of the custom, though it was not a German fashion. "We had no night for there to be a morning gift."
"I know, but I wanted to give you something anyway." James's hidden fingers had begun a repetitive motion below his shirt.
"You provided me with the means to save my family's heritage. There is no need for such a sentimental gesture."
"But I want you to have it!" James said with unexpected intensity. "I want you to know that I'm not such a tight-fist that I can't even buy a morning gift when I get married."
Klaus swallowed another piece of the mighty fine potato together with some of the hesitation he suddenly experienced. He had to admit that if the partnership/marriage hadn't been a scam, and the custom in use, he still wouldn't have expected a morning gift and just for that reason - he would have assumed James too cheap to buy something. Not that the packet could contain anything particularly valuable. He forced himself to swallow some pride as well. If he and the other were both to survive the ten years he would have to keep a very tight rein on his temper and save his anger for when the bug really did do something stupid. The giving of a gift hardly counted as something to complain about. "I see. Thank you, James."
He found himself on the receiving end of a brilliant smile, as if he had actually been the one giving the present away. "Open it, then," the little man beside him urged. He had stopped scratching and instead held his fingertips together as if in prayer, giving the general impression of vibrating in place with tension.
Klaus used his table knife to make short work of the scotch that held the packet together. Small, white protective balls filled the inside.
"Be careful," James said with alarm just as Klaus eased his hand into the box. "It's very sharp and I forgot to wrap it. I'm sorry!"
Moving his hand with less force than he otherwise would have, Klaus searched the box. Almost at once his hand touched cold, flat metal that abruptly ended when his fingers tried to encompass the object. He moved sideways and instead felt something rounder and made from a warmer, non-metallic material, something that automatically made his hand open up to grip, as if his flesh recognized the handle of a knife. For that was what the thing must be. Once he held it, there was no other option and he lifted the knife through the polystyrene to reveal a sleek, yet solid blade, straight and double-edged, about 15 cm long. The stainless steel was mosaic damascus with a lacquer finish, the handle some type of carved horn, inlayed with gold wire and decorated with an engraved, handsome boar. It was obviously handmade; the work of a good smith and worth likely twice the amount of his Magnum, if not more. Klaus pulled the fine edge lightly over the back of his left hand, breathing in a pleasured sigh at the icy bite that came with as little effort as from a new razor blade.
"You are being very traditional," he commented, looking up from the knife into the eye of his husband.
James still seemed worried. "I thought it might be appropriate."
"You shouldn't have cast me as your bride, but I appreciate the gesture. I doubt that I will have cause to use it against you."
At which James blushed and they both went back to eating, Klaus with the bridal knife by his right hand. When they went their separate ways for the night, he placed the knife within easy reach on the nightstand. Then he sat down and studied the swirls in the metal as he wondered what James actually meant by the strange gift. Traditionally, a morning gift of a knife had been given so that a wrongly treated virgin could take vengeance on her deflowerer if she so chose - and as a way for her to permanently end a marriage without fear of retribution from the man's family. Should he or James die during their marriage, both would inherit from the other. If Klaus really wanted to get out of the situation, there were ways. Not using the pretty knife, certainly, that would have been much too obvious, but his excellent training afforded him dozens of easy way to accomplish a divorce in blood. He lifted the knife and stroke a finger along the edge. As he did he couldn't help but to wonder if that was the silent message of the knife - that if Klaus felt taken advantage of, James would respect the ancient tradition of a wronged bride to slay her husband. Such a thing seemed foreign and outside the odd little man that now carried an Eberbach family ring, but never the less - the knife had been given. Klaus returned his gift to the nightstand and went to bed.
After the successful first visit to the Schloss, during which James's presence hadn't bothered him, Klaus found himself returning regularly. There were moments of difficulties, of course, when their differences made themselves known, such as when James found out about the regular donations the Eberbach family made to various good causes ... James' motion to sell off the unnecessary cars were also vetoed. All in all, though, James worked actively to simplify Klaus's life by dealing with all the small details and ensuring that Klaus's every need was met. One evening, as they dined together like they usually did, Klaus commented upon the pronounced transformation James had gone through from Eroica's greedy accountant.
"But you don't spend money like the Earl does," James explained with a shy smile. "So I don't have to stop you from going on shopping sprees. You just buy necessary things. And the Schloss is a little bit mine too, now, in a way, so it is in my interest to keep it looking nice and respectable. Ah ... I've been thinking of adding a new outside shooting gallery, like they have in those police movies when they go into an alley and targets jump out and they have to decide who is good or who is bad? W-would that be a g-good idea?"
Klaus shook his head. "Agents come in all forms and guises - even as children sometimes."
James turned bright red. "Oh. I didn't think of that. Sorry. I guess that was a very stupid idea." The little accountant bent closer to his food.
Klaus felt his mouth open before he was completely sure of what he would say. "We just have to make it harder. Choose a target at random. Show it to me quickly, then have it appear in disguises for me to see through. Something like that. It would be a good exercise. I could bring the Alphabet sometimes."
James sat up straighter. His eye shone and he smiled once more. With a start Klaus realised that he had pleased the little man. I did nothing, he assured himself, I was just being practical. If practicality pleases him, then so be it.
"I will arrange everything," James promised.
With German efficency on the builders' part, the new gallery stood ready a few weeks later. It worked better than Klaus had hoped for. Another week down the line the scenario had changed and so far he had yet to see the same villain twice, with the exception of Mischa, who appeared at irregular intervals and whom Klaus took great pleasure in shooting. He never knew what he would face and found himself returning to the Schloss more eagerly than ever.
Three months after the wedding Klaus's Bonn flat received a most unexpected guest. Not Eroica. Eroica was still expected - Klaus had no doubt that the fop would show up sooner or later.
He almost couldn't believe his eyes. "Father? You are feeling better?" Klaus had, of course, been kept informed of that his father had not yet died and that he, in fact, seemed to regain a little of his strength, but he had in no way expected the old man to be up and walking again anytime soon.
"Yes, Son. But sadly too late to save us from the embarrassment you've dragged the Eberbach name into." His father sounded determined, even if his voice had lost a good deal of its strength.
Klaus might have winced had he had any less training. "You gave clear instructions as to what I was to do. I did as told. The bank loan has been repaid and our affairs are once more in good order."
The elder von dem Eberbach stepped up to his son, then put a hand on Klaus shoulder. Klaus had to consciously keep himself from shrugging off the unwanted touch. Only the slight shiver in the hand kept him from moving. "That you did, Son, but - a man? I wouldn't have dreamed to think that I would have to specify the gender of your ... marriage partner."
"An heir will still be arranged, Father. We have not yet discussed the matter in detail, but the problem will be dealt with. The Eberbach line will continue unbroken."
"A child should be procured in the marriage bed, Son. As were you."
"The child will be of my blood and legitimate in the eyes of the law. That is enough for me."
"And you will let that pervert raise your child? Touch your child when you are not present?"
Klaus's hands balled into fists quite on their own, not that he blamed them. "You are implying that James is a pedophile, Father. As far as I know he has no leaning in that direction. I thank you not to speak of him in that manner."
His father made an annoyed noise, vague enough to imply a world of unpleasantness. "At least you fixed our monetary problems."
Something about his father's tone prevented Klaus from relaxing, but he answered a curt, "Yes, sir," all the same.
"Now to solve the problem you created by marrying that little queer." The old man looked around, then walked slowly over to one of the kitchen chairs and sank down. "I will tell our associates that the whole fiasco was part of a more unpleasant sort of NATO mission."
Klaus thoroughly disliked taking NATO's name in vain. Furthermore, "Anyone with half a brain will see right through that, Father. Should it be part of a mission, I would never have told you so. Should I, for whatever reason, have let it slip, you certainly would never have added to my indiscretion by gossiping about my mission to our associates. An undercover mission is very delicate, not something one spread information about to all and sundry."
"Naturally, Son. Not while it lasts. But after the mission has ended - successfully, of course, then what's the harm in an old man accidentally telling a friend the truth about his son's so called 'marriage'?"
Klaus shrugged. "Ten years is a long time. I hope you are still alive at that point. What you say then won't bother me." Blaming NATO actually would bother him, but with so long a time to persuade his father to do otherwise, he could afford to let the matter rest.
"You will, of course, file for a divorce right away."
"I and James agreed on ten years."
"Does he have that in writing?"
For a moment Klaus floundered, then his resolve strengthened. "No. But I gave James my word."
"Which is all good and well, but you have the family's honour to consider before your own. You will file for a divorce."
In Klaus's mind his and the family's honour were as one - if he broke his word he would tarnish the family far more than by keeping it, at least in this matter. "I will not do James that disservice."
"If you still want to be my son, yes, you will."
"Is everything all right, Major?" James asked when they sat down for dinner the following night.
"Yes," he lied.
They ate in silence for a while.
"I've redesigned the shooting gallery for you. Another suburb, more oriental this time. I hope you will like it."
They ate some more.
"Z called. He asked if something had happened. I-I think he worried about you."
Klaus bit back one of his more colourful expletives. He had thought he'd gone through the day well enough. Apparently not so. He would have to have a serious conversation with Z about going behind his back to contact James. "Everything is fine. I will talk to Z."
"Tell him to come over, like he did last week. If-If you want? I'll make myself scarce; I know he's not comfortable with me."
"He's getting used to you." Which was true. The Alphabet had been as sceptical as Klaus himself at first, not that anyone had dared to tell him so to his face. Over the months they had all visited the Schloss, though, and he had overheard several agents comment on how calm and pleasant James had become.
They ate some more. As he finished up, Klaus came to think that perhaps he should try to be polite in return. "And you, James? Is everything all right with you?"
"Oh yes, Major! Everything is just fine! I made lots of money yesterday. 50 shining coins, all mine! Eh .. Ours, I mean. That nice Lady Bebel, whom we met at the ball three weeks ago? I helped her buy a couple of prints she wanted and she gave me 10 percent of the sum as a finder's fee. Ooooh, that was fun! You can look at them later, if you want?"
"No, that's fine. The prints weren't illegal, I hope?"
James's lack of response made Klaus turn towards his husband, who regarded him with a sad eye. "No, Major," James finally said in a small voice. "A bit difficult to come by. Artwork of the risqué kind. 100 % legal, though. I'm not a thief any longer. Thanks to you."
He realised that his automatic question had hurt the little man and that he perhaps ought to apologise. "My father will disown me if I don't divorce you."
James's eye bugged out and his face turned ghostly pale. With exaggerated care he put down his knife and fork. "Oh. I ... Oh." The lone blue eye - which Klaus knew from experience could shift to a startling dollar green on occasion - glazed over. Then the little man bent his head, shaking it so that his hair fell as a protective shield between them. When he spoke again, all his happy prattle had vanished and his voice sounded flat and tired and burdened. "I'll be out of here within the hour, then."
Twelve weeks. Fifteen, if one counted the "engaged" weeks prior to the wedding. Fifteen weeks. That was it? The best time of his life. Free from the constant hunger for recognition and respect, living in a dream - complete with a castle and his very own, raven-haired, surly knight. Fifteen weeks. He had hoped for more, but then, life always had a way of slapping him down as soon as he dared to reach for happiness. Fifteen weeks weren't all that bad. Fifteen weeks were certainly better than fourteen weeks or ten weeks or no weeks at all. Fifteen weeks were a happy memory to be cherished.
He rose and stepped away from the table, carefully pushing the chair back in place. His fingers scratched nervously against his wrist and he wanted nothing more than to slink somewhere dark and quiet and hug himself.
Why not sixteen weeks though? Would that have been so bad? How about fifteen weeks and a half? Couldn't Klaus have waited just until tomorrow morning? Of course, Klaus could just as well have dropped the news the moment he stepped through the door. He hadn't had to wait until after dinner.
"You would not contest a divorce?"
He looked up into the sharp gaze of his for-a-very-short-while-still husband. As always a shiver went through his body. "Of course not, Major. I gave you the knife, didn't I? So how can I complain when you cut me with it?"
James turned away, his face still stiff and white before being hidden by his hair.
"What about the money?"
"Ten millions for twelve weeks of marriage? 833.333,33 a week or 119.047,62 a day. 4.960,32 an hour, 82,67 a minute. Your company come at a high cost, Major." Then the accountant turned back and shook his head to reveal his second eye. "But Major? Every minute was worth its price."
The quiet words cut Klaus just as the aforementioned knife would have. All things considered, he would have preferred the steel.
"Our deal was for ten years."
"I have nothing in writing."
"I gave you my word."
"You word as an Eberbach, yes. If your father disowns you you wouldn't be an Eberbach any longer. I understand. Of course your family is more important to you."
"My name would still be Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. I just wouldn't inherit from my father. And I wouldn't live here anymore."
"So, no Schloss for you either. Or invitations to balls and other respectable things. Personally I find that sort of things tiring and a waste of time, but since those were conditions to our agreement you should know that I no longer would be able to fulfill them."
He truly wanted for James to understand that he, Klaus, wouldn't ask for a divorce for his own sake. To do that would be hypocritical and a mark of shame he would never be able to wash off. But since James would lose no matter what, at least if they divorced Klaus might be able to salvage some of the situation. Perhaps some of the money could be returned. Perhaps he could still make sure that James would get invited to the events and have some of the respect he so often referred to.
James made a crude noise. "That was never why I suggested the deal in the first place." He turned to the window, but when he continued his voice gained in confidence for each word. "Sure, I wanted that too. I'm greedy, we both know that. I don't consider greed to be a bad thing, necessarily. I wanted everything, you know. But m-most of all I-I wanted you, Major."
What does he—? He wants— I— He— He wants— "Me?"
"Yes, Major. J-just like Eroica. Only ... I knew that the way he was going at it didn't work. I figured, if I modified the offer a bit, made it acceptable to you, I could at least get a little of what I wanted. And I did! Not for ten years, maybe, but at least for a few weeks. And they were very nice weeks. I will always remember them. You treated me civilly. Not even he did that, much."
"He" meaning Eroica, of course. Klaus didn't particularly like being compared to the thief, not even when he was in favour. He studied the narrow back in front of him. "Not being allowed to stay in the Schloss wouldn't bother you, then?"
"Of course not, Major."
"Nor losing the ability to make social contacts?"
Klaus took a deep breath, then walked up to his husband. On reaching him, he put a hand on his shoulder.
James promptly jumped two feet in the air, whirling mid-jump to stare at Klaus with a scared eye. Tears glittered on his cheek. "I would have preferred it if you had used the knife though," he said, just loud enough for Klaus to hear.
Klaus turned his head to the side, puzzled by the odd remark. "Why?"
"Well ... You're good with a knife. Quick and skilled. I bet that you can kill someone in an instant, right? You're not the type that would make someone suffer before they died. Perhaps you could have slipped into my bedroom and killed me in my sleep one night? And then I would have died happy, wouldn't I?"
Is that truly what you think of me, little man? Klaus knew that he had a bad reputation, but he hadn't thought James would believe something like that of him. "I take my word very seriously. And while I don't have a Schloss any longer, I still have my flat in Bonn. You said you could be out of here within the hour? Well, pack then and we will be on our way." Truth be told, with the way his father had treated him, he didn't feel all that happy living in the Schloss at the moment.
A huge, huge eye glimmered at him. "B-Bonn?"
"You want me to g-go with you to B-Bonn?"
"Stay in your apartment w-with you in B-Bonn?"
"It has room for two. Perhaps we can look for something larger, later on. I will want a new shooting gallery."
"Y-you still want to b-be ma-ma-married to me?"
"Marriage is for life. And certainly for the period agreed upon by both parties. My word is my bond, except for when given to the KGB, the FBI and the likes. Should you still wish for us to be married, despite the change in circumstances, I see no reason for us to stop."
"Y-you would let your father d-d-disinherit you?"
"To have to leave the Schloss is ... not a good thing, but yes. I don't care to bend to the will of a man who would disinherit me for keeping my word. Besides, I don't believe in divorces."
"Oh. What about when the ten years are over then? We will divorce then, won't we?"
"Only if you insist. I had thought we would merely move apart. I have no intention of re-marrying." Besides, that would keep his father from trying to meddle with his life any further, should the old coot still be alive.
"Oh. But ... If you don't believe in divorce, we could annul, couldn't we?"
Klaus snorted. "That's the same thing, really. Like getting off on a technicality."
"But if you want out without a divorce we could do that. So your father doesn't disown you."
"I have made up my mind. My father can hang himself. We will go to Bonn tonight."
James's eye shone and he fairly bounced on his heels. "Oh, Major, I'm so happy!"
Klaus patted the small man's shoulder, once. "Call me Klaus. I'm getting tired of hearing my rank from my husband's lips."
James was very pleased with how things had turned out. From their originally rather strained relationship, things had vastly improved. His husband treated him with more than just cool politeness, actually asking about his - James! - day as if he cared, paying attention to his little stories, filling him in with information - in the most general of terms, of course - of his working day and the Alphabet's latest antics. James had come to realise that the Alphabet was, in fact, 26 pets kept by Klaus - complained about in every way, but at heart loved and cared for, and prized for the small tricks he had been able to teach them over the years.
On Klaus's days off they once in a while took a walk together and after realising the unfair advantage his long, long legs gave him, Klaus slowed down enough for James to keep up. While James took care of everything that needed to be done at the apartment, Klaus paid all the bills. He as often as not used James's money, he just always spared James the horror of actually paying the bills, which the small man hated above everything else. Klaus also drove James when James needed to go somewhere by car and he never once complained when James haggled with the lady at the super market.
On occasion an Alphabet followed Klaus home and James slowly learned the names of all his husband's subordinates. When the big scary mobster kidnapped James, Klaus rescued him and snarled at the Italian until the horrible man ran away. Klaus had then given James a very brief hug. "Don't get kidnapped again," he had ordered and had proceeded to pretend that nothing at all had ever happened.
Yes, things were going very, very well. And then Eroica returned.
In hindsight, it amazed James that the Earl had taken so long to regroup. The move to Klaus's apartment might have forced the thief to face up to the impossible; that the terrible Iron Klaus Major of NATO and little James had set up home together.
James had got up in the middle of the night to use the loo. On returning to his room, he smelled a faint odour of strawberries in the air. Very faint. So faint, in fact, that most people wouldn't even have noticed it nor would they, if they had, find the presence in any way threatening. Most people associate strawberries with nice things. As did James - after all, he had made a nice little sum picking and selling wild strawberries as a child. However, in later years he had come to associate strawberries with other things. Champagne, for one, for together the two were the staple wares of the Earl's more lengthy, luxurious breakfasts in bed. True, James had worked hard to prevent most of them, but once in a while he had succumbed to Dorian's pleas. The second thing that always came to his mind when confronted by the sweet smell was the Earl's favoured knockout gas. Originally it had been odourless, yes, but Dorian had claimed that a bit of strawberry was just the thing the concoction needed and that the romantic association would have the additional benefit of giving happy dreams to their victims.
At the first sniff James whirled and ran towards Klaus's room. He only ever dared to enter there to sweep, in order to give Klaus as much private space as possible, but this was an emergency. Was the strawberry really a sign of the Earl's presence, and not the result of some freak perfume accident, Klaus must be instantly alerted.
He needn't have run.
"Ah, Jamesie. Fancy meeting you here. I do hope life treats you well?"
"Yes, my Lord," he automatically responded, for he was so used to answering his lordship's questions and the Earl sounded so normal, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened between them. As if James hadn't gone behind his boss's back and stolen his Major!
Lord Dorian Red Gloria, the Earl of Gloria, stood by the window, looking dashing as always, dressed in one of his sweeping yet tight creations, black-based as to melt into the night should he so choose. James glanced anxiously towards the bed. The Major slept - or, more like it, lay unconscious, knocked out by the gas. As James himself would have done, had all his previous exposure not left him more or less immune to the stuff.
"So, you came to steal him back?" he forced himself to say, feeling sad and empty. Twenty-two, he told himself. At least twenty-two weeks.
"You know my policy, dear James. What I want ..."
"He's not a piece of art! And you can't keep him in a cage!"
"Well, you do, don't you? If I had known him to be this easily domesticated, I would have kidnapped him and put a ring on his finger years ago. He will soon forget all about you."
James's heart squeezed tighter. "I don't keep him in a cage! And I never force him to do anything!"
"You somehow must have. If it was just the money he'd have thrown you out of here months ago."
Something James himself had at numerous times wondered why Klaus hadn't. Still, "It is just the money," he insisted. "And his word. He gave me his word. And he doesn't believe in divorces."
Dorian took a step closer and moved his head so that the light sparkled in his curls. "Maybe. But he would never do 'it' with you without a force of some sort. You heard what he told me!" He grimace in distaste. "You are sweet, dear Jamie, you know I think so, but I can't believe that he would do it with you when he could have done it with me instead."
James felt astonished that Dorian would even think such a thing. "We've never done 'it'!" Not even in his dreams he had dared to do any more than to kiss Klaus's cheek. Most of the time he had been hit even for those little pecks - in his own dreams!
"You haven't?" Dorian sounded amazed.
"No, my Lord."
A pleased smile spread over Dorian's lips. "Ah, excellent. An annulment, then, rather than a divorce, followed by a proper marriage. I have friends that can arrange everything smoothly."
"You can't force him either! That's wrong."
"Ah, not to worry, James. I have something he will want, just as you had back then. He will be mine."
James entire body squeezed tighter. The Earl knew the Major, probably better than anyone. If the Earl thought he had something that important ... "What do you have?" he asked, wanting desperately to know what he was up against.
"What he wanted the last time, of course. Schloss Eberbach. Your money helped, but then his father made another mistake, a much bigger one this time. Perhaps his illness clouded his judgement. This time I happened to get the bonds before the bank did. If you can do it, so can I. Klaus may have the Schloss back, but only with me as part of the deal."
"Oh." The Schloss. The one thing he had wanted to give Klaus - had given Klaus, for those brief first weeks of their partnership. The reason for their marriage, really. What had got Klaus to marry him in the first place. Now in Dorian's possession and with that, surely the key to ... certainly not Klaus's heart, but perhaps his allegiance.
"I'm not angry with you, James," his lordship said and smiled that brilliant, irresistible smile that was his signature. "You're welcome to come back with us. I've missed you. I really do need an accountant and there's no one as good as you, Jamesie."
"Unfortunately, James is otherwise occupied," said a sharp, German-accented voice from the bed. Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach's left hand covered a yawn, his eyes were merely slits and he obviously fought sleep, but the Magnum in his right hand pointed unwaveringly towards the Earl of Red Gloria.
"You call him Klaus?"
"Well, he is my husband," James replied, with a certain amount of pride. "And he told me I could do it, so there!"
"Both of you, quiet! Lord Gloria, turn around at once! James, my clothes over there, on the dresser, bring them here."
James hurried to follow Klaus's instruction. Then he turned away, even if Klaus hadn't specifically requested him to, to give Klaus privacy in which to dress. He felt very proud that Klaus hadn't told him to, though; that Klaus had trusted him to do so on his own. Or, more likely, had forgotten to tell him as he concentrated on the intruder.
"How did you escape the gas?" Dorian asked, sounding a bit petulant.
"Same reason why you don't fall down yourself," Klaus answered, sounding smug. "Since it is your favourite weapon of choice I built up a tolerance. I wouldn't want you to be able to catch me napping again."
James found himself smiling. He wondered if Klaus had punned on purpose or not. It was hard to tell with Klaus. "How much did you hear?" he asked, trying to remember if he had said something bad.
"Lord Gloria, you may turn back now. Of your conversation? All of it."
Dorian twirled a lock of his hair and then took a step closer to the Major. "So you heard about the Schloss. I can give it to you, Major."
"I told you that I have no wish to be your whore, Lord Gloria. That has not changed."
"Of course not. And you won't be, I promise you! But it is your Schloss, Klaus, I—"
"You will address me as Major von dem Eberbach, Lord Gloria. We are not friends and you just drugged me in my own home. Furthermore, the Schloss is not mine, nor was it ever mine. It has always belonged to my father, even if he doesn't seem to see fit to take proper care of it any longer. I got it back for him once - I will not do so a second time. If you wish to make a connection with the Eberbach family, you will have to go directly to my father."
"Don't be absurd, darling!"
"Don't you dare call me that! I'm a married man and you will respect that or leave right now. In fact, I would prefer if you left anyway, as you intrude somewhere you have no reason to be."
His eyes locked into Dorian's. For an eternity James knew that he no longer existed in the same room as the major and the art thief. A battle was waged and while he had a faint notion that he himself sat in the precariously balanced scale, he dared not move either way to tip weights.
"But, da— Kla— Major?" When Dorian spoke again, he sounded lost, his voice small and fragile. "You don't have to stay married to James any longer. Why do you stay with him?"
"He is my husband. For better and for worse, I promised him. In sickness and in health. I take my vows seriously, Lord Gloria. And I want you to respect them."
"But you don't love him?"
"That is not the issue, Lord Gloria. I will stay with him. A marriage is not something one can enter light heartedly into; it is something that should last a lifetime."
"You can have it annulled."
Yes. Just that. Yes. Such a simple, short, elegant, tiny little word. The great yes of the universe. Yes. James felt the three letters tear at his soul. So easy. So simple. Only that. Yes. Of course Klaus could. James had offered him that way out once himself already. Klaus knew that he wouldn't protest. He saw Klaus go up to the Earl, take the other's wrists firmly and pull him close. Then Klaus lead the stunned-looking Earl over to the window, lifted him up and, in one swift movement, tossed him out.
"Klaus!" he wailed and rushed up.
His husband snorted. "We're on the second floor and he is a cat at heart. Look - he landed on his feet."
"I can't believe you threw out His Lordship!"
"Why not? He doesn't belong here. He intruded in our home. He tried to knock us out on gas, in case you missed it?"
"Ah ... no, I didn't miss it." Besides, Lord Gloria had all but said that he intended to kidnap Klaus, perhaps keep him captive even. Though James suspected that Dorian would have come to his senses before doing something irrevocable. "Do you think he will keep away now?" he said, not quite sure what to think. Dorian mustn't kidnap Klaus.
"Undoubtedly not, until we give him ample enough evidence that I will not leave you."
"You won't?" What James himself mostly worried about was how long it would take before the Earl's insistent attempts would make Klaus see the light, or start thinking that James wasn't worth the trouble.
Klaus made a half-growling noise. "And perhaps until you believe it yourself. No, my husband, I will not leave you. Why doesn't anyone believe me when I say that?"
"Because you are Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach and you don't follow anyone else's drum but your own. I tricked you into marrying me."
"No you didn't, little man. You gave me a clear enough offer, spelling out exactly what you wanted and what you would give. I accepted. No trickery was involved."
"You didn't know that I ... wanted you as well."
"True. But you never as much as tried to sneak into my bed like the fop has done numerous times. You have never initiated a touch between us since the ceremony, when we shook hands. You respect my limitations and for that I trust you."
Then Klaus smiled at him! The Major reached out and carefully tucked James's hair behind his ears. With his other hand he pulled James's fingers away from his wrist, where he had been scratching himself. Then he went down on one knee in front of his husband, so that James found himself looking down at him, for once - not by much, but down never the less. "The fop was right, though. As were you, before. The marriage has not been well founded and can still be dissolved. Perhaps the easiest solution would be for us to correct that oversight. Perhaps then my word will not be doubted and we will have peace."
And then he reached up and kissed James sweetly on the lips.
The following morning Klaus gave James a container with tasteless poison that would leave the body looking exactly as the victim of a heart attack. James didn't think that he would ever have use for his morning gift either.
For their fifteenth anniversary, they honeymooned in Tynemouth.
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