Duo stood in the huge, empty hall, feeling alone and dreadfully out of place. The movers and house staff eyed him without confidence, and he didn’t blame them. To avoid their skeptical scrutiny, he stared down at his scuffed boots, but the gleaming white of the marble floors did little to reassure him. A pattern of light played across the smooth slab, reflected from the crystal chandelier above his head.
Marble and crystal? What the hell have I gotten myself into?
Two men maneuvered a rosewood Hepplewhite credenza into the wide hall and looked to him for instructions. Duo pointed to the long wall beneath the sweep of the staircase. He held his breath as the men set down the delicate, elegant piece; one of the few surviving relics of Zechs’ childhood, it had come from the Sanc palace. If he let anything happen to it, he’d never forgive himself.
Duo looked up at a man with a clipboard and a harried face. “Sorry. What do you need now?”
“Where would you like these to go?”
Duo recognized the boxes and felt his face warm in spite of himself. All of his belongings had fit into a few cartons, hardly enough to fill a corner of the new Ambassador’s residence. “Upstairs, I guess.”
“In the master suite?”
He thought of his things, a shoddy little hodgepodge that he’d managed to hoard despite a life spent on the run, and he tried to imagine them fitting anywhere in the Ambassador’s glittering residence. The picture made him grimace.
“Uh, no. One of the others. I don’t care which.” He couldn’t remember how many bedrooms this place had.
“Shall I have them unpacked?”
“No!” Duo frowned, unwilling to have strangers go through his possessions. They might not be much, but damn it, they were his. But then he remembered that Zechs was depending on him to manage the whole moving operation, and this guy was just trying to do his job. Act like you’ve done this before, buddy-boy.
“No, there’s nothing in them we’ll need right away.”
Duo wandered to the enormous living and dining rooms. Zechs had explained that the public rooms of their house had to be on a grand scale, and Duo had learned names like Chippendale and Sheraton, Waterford and Limoges, Aubusson and Savonnerie. Zechs took the title of Earth’s Ambassador very seriously, and he intended their residence to be a showcase of everything that was fine and beautiful about the planet of his birth.
Duo agreed that the house was beautiful. But it wasn’t home.
I miss my apartment. It was tiny and cheap, but when Zechs was with me, it was all I needed . This place…shit.
Two movers unrolled a huge Oriental carpet in the dining room. Duo smiled in spite of himself, remembering the day they’d purchased it. Unable to decide between two equally magnificent Persian kilims, Zechs had shrugged and turned to Duo.
“What do you think?”
Duo studied the two carpets. He didn’t know shit about Oriental rugs, but he wasn’t about to admit it in front of the weaselly little man who owned the shop. He kept watching Duo as though he were going to run off with the till or something, and it was starting to piss him off. Crossing his arms, he tried to convey the image of someone choosing between two not-quite-satisfactory options. Either rug probably cost more money than he’d ever had in a year, but something about the one on the right, with its muted jewel tones, appealed to him.
“That one,” he said, glaring at the shop owner, daring him to challenge his choice.
Instead, the nervous little man muttered something about “Sir’s excellent taste,” and scurried to make arrangements for the carpet’s delivery.
Zechs smiled at him, a mischievous glitter in his blue eyes. “You made him happy. But how did you know this is the better—and, I might add, more expensive—one?”
“I didn’t, not really. I just thought…well…” Duo ducked his head, feeling his cheeks warm with a sudden, embarrassed flush.
Zechs lifted his chin. “What did you think, darling?”
“Aw, shit, Zechs.” Duo squirmed away, unwilling to meet his lover’s eyes. “I thought if I was going to steal one of them, which one could I fence easier?”
Zechs’ laugh, rich and clearly delighted, startled him, but no more than the swift, hot kiss the Ambassador planted on his mouth. “My little thief,” his prince murmured against his ear in a tone that promised everything, “I love you.”
“Excuse us, sir.”
Duo broke out of his reverie as two men carrying carved wooden chairs nudged past him, and he scrambled to get out of their way.
“Yeah. Sorry.” All this “sir” stuff is getting to me. “Um. Hey,” he said to no one in particular. “I’ll be upstairs if anyone needs me. ‘kay?”
Duo turned on his heel and bounded up the curving staircase, his boots pounding a staccato on the shining hardwood treads. The broad landing split the upstairs into two wings, one of guest suites for visiting dignitaries, the smaller leading to his and Zechs’ private rooms. Duo turned right toward the master suite.
Master suite. I like that. He smiled as he turned the knob and let himself into his new rooms. Sweet master…
Duo stood in the foyer of their rooms. Foyer. Shit. What kind of bedroom has a foyer?
Someone had already placed a huge bouquet of hothouse flowers on the console there, and the scent permeated the room. He stepped into the main room of their suite, surveying it with the sense that he opened the door by mistake. Even though he knew better, he kept feeling as though he were masquerading and any moment now, he would be found out.
Two enormous picture windows faced the gardens. A set of French doors separated them, opening onto a wide terrace. With the curtains drawn back, light filled the space, playing on the warm wood furniture. The room itself was easily as big as all of Duo’s old apartment, decorated in neutral shades from cream to chocolate brown, a style at once both masculine and comfortable. Even with the doors open, no street noise intruded, and the whole atmosphere of the suite was one of calm and security, a respite for Zechs from the pressures of politics and a shelter for Duo after a lifetime of wandering.
Hesitantly, as if someone might scold him for his impertinence, Duo eased himself down onto the sofa. Overstuffed cushions drew him into their embrace, and he leaned back and sighed. Okay, maybe this isn’t so bad after all.
He let his braid drape over the back of the sofa as he wriggled deeper into the softness of the upholstery. He closed his eyes, folded his arms behind his head. The soft currents that crept through the open doors held none of the scents he’d become accustomed to on Earth. There, every place had its own distinctive odor: cities, countrysides, even individual buildings. Weather had a smell, too—the indefinable scent before rain, the tang of ozone after lightning, the hot, sharp odor of pavement in the summer sun. Here, the air had been filtered, sanitized, regulated. Every place, every day smelled the same. But he found comfort in the familiarity and predictability.
Lulled by the quiet and bone-tired from the move, Duo drifted into half-sleep. His mind wandered, chasing blurred images and unformed embryos of thought until he floated in a timeless, weightless place. He had no sense of how long he sat, dozing, before something brought him back to full awareness with a rush.
He didn’t open his eyes, didn’t twitch a muscle. Anyone watching him would have thought he still slept. But something had triggered his reflexes. He was being watched.
He opened his eyes to a bare slit just as a warm wetness laved his ear. Platinum wisps of hair swept at his cheek, and he tipped his head to look up into his lover’s eyes. For a moment, he allowed himself to do nothing but bask in the wonder that he loved this man completely and that his love was returned. The feeling was still new enough that it awed him.
Zechs nipped at his ear again, just enough to tease him, then walked around the sofa and sat beside him. He slid his arm around the younger man’s shoulders and pulled him close. Duo shifted and rested his head against Zechs’ chest, breathing in the clean spiciness of his cologne, content to sit in silence with him.
Zechs toyed with the end of the long chestnut braid, brushing it playfully across the tip of Duo’s nose. “How has the move gone? Downstairs looks magnificent.”
“Really?” Duo stopped himself from wriggling like a puppy under Zechs’ praise, but the encouragement warmed him.
“Really. Better even than I imagined.” He rewarded Duo with a long, lingering kiss. Duo would have happily taken the kiss from tenderness to passion, but Zechs gently broke away. Stroking Duo’s cheek with the back of his hand, he said, “But I think I prefer it up here.”
Duo smiled up at his lover, a little rueful at the kiss’s ending. “Yeah, me, too.”
Zechs smoothed Duo’s hair away from his face. “Are you happy, little one?”
“What brought that on? I’m with you, aren’t I? How could I be anything but happy?”
Zechs smiled. “That wasn’t quite an answer. What’s the matter? Are you missing Earth after all?”
Duo leaned his head into the hollow of Zechs’ shoulder. “No, it’s not that. It’s just that it seems so…so much. Downstairs—damn, I feel like I’m in a museum and someone’s going to tell me not to stand too close to the paintings or something.”
Zechs chuckled and tugged on Duo’s braid. “Imp. It’s your house, and you may get fingerprints on whatever you choose.” He stroked the shining chestnut hair. “I think this is a case of ‘be careful what you wish for, you may get it,’ no?”
“You haven’t shown me the rest of our rooms yet.” He stood, took Duo’s hands, and pulled him to his feet. “Come on.”
Grudgingly, Duo led Zechs into their bedroom. A huge bed dominated the room, and he noticed Zechs’ speculative smile. Then his prince looked around and nodded with approval at the rest of the furnishings. Duo smiled back at him, relieved. Zechs’ taste tended more toward antiques, but Duo had never had a new piece of furniture in his life—a TV didn’t count, the Ambassador claimed—so he’d given his young lover free reign here. Strangely, though it gave him satisfaction to have brand new furnishings, Duo found that he liked pieces that looked old, giving them a sense of permanence so long absent from his life.
“Something’s missing.” Zechs surveyed the room, then frowned and stared hard at the bed. “Where is it?”
“In fact,” Zechs continued as though Duo hadn’t spoken. “Everything’s missing. Duo, where are your things?”
“Your belongings. I know we packed them. If those fools of movers have lost them, I’ll—”
“No. No, they’re upstairs somewhere. I had them store the boxes in one of the other bedrooms.”
Zechs frowned, clearly puzzled. He looked into Duo’s eyes, his face framed by soft blond hair. “And why would you do that?”
Duo faltered under that clear blue gaze. “I-I thought…I figured you’re tired of looking at my trash. So I didn’t unpack those boxes.”
Zechs sighed, then cupped his palm over Duo’s cheek. “Darling, what did I do to give you that idea?”
“Nothing.” Duo resisted the impulse to look down and scuff his feet like a penitent schoolboy. “I guess I just thought my stuff would be out of place.” Just like I’m out of place.
Duo found himself wrapped in the embrace that had become a haven to him. “My foolish little one. I want to be able to see your belongings, to feel your presence. I need to know that you’re here with me to stay. And I want you to know that you’re home. Now, let’s find those boxes.”
It took several minutes of searching through the guest rooms, but Zechs persisted, and they found the small pile of movers’ cartons that held everything Duo owned. Together, they carried the boxes back to their suite, Duo still feebly protesting, Zechs shushing him first with words, then with a firm kiss.
“Stop this, love, and help me look.” Zechs knelt down and began rummaging through the jumble of Duo’s possessions.
“Look for what?” Duo blinked, still bemused from the kiss.
“Here it is.” He drew a length of faded blue cloth from the box, and Duo recognized his old comforter. He had a sudden urge to take it from Zechs, to hug it to him like a child who clings to his blanket for security. Zechs must have seen something in his face, because he shook out the cover, then draped it over Duo’s shoulders, wrapping him in it like shawl.
Zechs folded him in his arms, and Duo nuzzled against his chest, reveling in their closeness. Suddenly, a sense of security, of belonging surrounded him. He felt warm, settled, as he never had before. His chest ached, but it was a good ache, somehow.
Zechs tipped Duo’s chin up with his finger. “What’s the matter, baby?”
Duo found he had to swallow before he could manage to speak. “Feels really strange, like…like I’ve been here forever. Or maybe like I was gone for a while, and I just got back.”
“Duo, love, don’t you know?” Zechs smiled down at him. “That’s what it feels like to come home.”