Living with his father again was less of a strain than Klaus had expected. He and the old man hadn't shared a home or even a country since he was in his twenties, and yet somehow it still came as a surprise that his father was now, indeed, an old man. He remained every bit as demanding as he'd ever been, but nowadays he lacked the energy to spend his every waking moment checking up on Klaus's responsibilities. Klaus could choose to evade him whenever he desired, knowing the old man was too proud to acknowledge having wanted to track him down and thus reveal his inability to do so.
Unfortunately, he was also too proud to admit when the demands of his strictly regimented routine became a bit too much for him, so there were times when he was not where Klaus had expected him to be.
Such as today, when he returned home to find the stubborn old goat seated on the chair he'd had installed near the foot of the main stairs - ostensibly so he could oversee the servants about their duties, but really because the grand central staircase of the Schloss was now too much of a struggle for him to climb without a rest.
"Father," Klaus said with a respectful nod, forced to abandon his original plan of hurrying up the stairs to change out of his wrinkled travelling clothes before the butler could catch up to him. Herr Hinkel was also growing too old to manage his duties with his former ease, but the last time Klaus had raised the idea of retirement he'd burst into such appalling floods of tears that Klaus had simply resolved to start taking over all the man's functions himself without further discussion. He'd never liked having the staff flutter about him in any case.
His father, on the other hand, considered it his due to be heeded and attended at all times. "Klaus," he said. "May I trust that your business in Italy is satisfactorily concluded?"
"Yes, sir," he said, keeping his fuming on the inside. Did his father think he would have returned here otherwise?
"Good. You have been away from your duties here too long," he said sternly.
Klaus had no desire to linger and hear a list of the ways he had, as ever, been a disappointment, but he also hesitated to simply stride on by and leave his father to the indignity of being seen and perhaps helped upstairs by the servants.
"Father, do you... require assistance?" he asked stiffly, shoulders tensing as he anticipated the certain outburst of temper.
But instead, after a long and burning pause, his father just inclined his head. "Thank you, Klaus, that would be... appreciated."
The calm acquiescence was more unsettling than it was a relief. As Klaus positioned himself to take his father's arm, he was conscious for the first time of the old man's frailty. In his mind, his father still remained the forbidding presence of his youth - an impression reinforced by his unwavering military bearing and always impeccable appearance - but now Klaus could feel just how thin he had become, how easy it would be for a man with his training to snap the fragile bones under his hand. They ascended the staircase together with slow care, Klaus knowing it would only humiliate his father to attempt anything close to his own customary pace.
Once, he would have given almost anything to best the old man and make him concede Klaus had outdone him, but now that time had brought him the opportunity he found he had no taste for the victory. Perhaps because he'd already begun to feel the warning signs of advancing age himself.
They reached the top of the stairs, and Klaus allowed a tactful break while his father pretended to harrumph over the minutely displaced hang of the curtains.
"Disgraceful," he said, with a fierce scowl. "Why, in my day..." Then he sighed, his shoulders sagging in a way that made Klaus uncomfortable. He was silent for a long time before speaking again. "I have become an old man, Klaus," he said wearily. "And you are certainly no longer young."
Klaus stiffened, sensing the inevitable slide back into familiar arguments, but there was nothing he could say to refute an obvious truth; neither of them had ever had time for those kinds of empty sentiments.
"I had hoped that before my time came to an end I would live to see you suitably settled down," his father continued. "I have made my peace with the fact that you will never present me with an heir of my own flesh and blood..."
"I am perfectly well settled," Klaus said, hastening to cut that avenue of conversation off.
No such luck. "But there is still time for you to marry," his father pressed on regardless. "At your age, perhaps a widow with a grown child of her own who might yet be tutored to take over the family estates..."
Klaus shuddered at the thought. "I have no interest in marriage," he said, as he had so many times before. He had long since given up on stating it any less plainly - not that it ever made a difference to the predictable path of the conversation. Now would come the lectures on his responsibilities, the need to ensure that Schloss Eberbach and its priceless treasures stayed in suitable hands, the matter of preserving the family's good name among the local community...
But instead his father only sighed again, and bowed his head. "Do you know why I returned to Germany?" he asked. His tone had changed from lecturing to something Klaus didn't quite recognise, and he hesitated, wary of what verbal traps might lie ahead.
His father didn't wait for his response. "I came back here from Switzerland because I was old and alone, and this was the only place I had to go," he said simply. "Now I no longer have many years left to me, and Conrad is barely any younger. So what home will you have to go back to, Klaus, when you are old and alone?"
His father's disconcerting openness left him without immediate defence, and he found himself reaching for the only honest answer that he had. "England," he said.
"There is something for you there?" his father asked.
That was a difficult question for him to answer, still. "There is someone who will take me in," he hedged.
He hesitated. "...No."
He braced himself for the flurry of furious questions, but his father didn't ask. Instead, he turned to look out of the big windows over the grounds. "It took me five years to decide that it was time to come back home," he said, seemingly changing the subject. "I could think of every reason why it was not time just yet... until I received word you had been shot."
Klaus struggled, but he found he could barely remember the incident. The Prague mission, perhaps? Or Moscow, when that idiot thief... but no, best not to think of him right now. "I have been injured worse before," he said.
"Yes." His father closed his eyes briefly. "And perhaps you will be injured worse again. That was when I realised that though I could make a thousand excuses for why I could wait to go home, one day home might not be waiting for me." He turned back, holding Klaus's eyes with his piercing green gaze. "How long can you be sure that your place in England will keep waiting for you?"
It was a question Klaus had found himself pondering with increasing frequency of late, as he felt his own age begin to take hold in his bones, the dark spectre of retirement drawing near with all its promised horrors of inactivity and lack of purpose. But still... "I... am not ready to go yet," he said. After all, he had his own dose of his father's pride, and it had been a steep enough climb down to the point where 'never' had become, perhaps, 'not yet'.
His father seemed to accept that. "Then just make sure that you don't fail to notice when it is time," he said. He turned and slowly shuffled off back to his room. Lost in brooding thoughts, Klaus stood and watched him go until he'd disappeared.
Which was when Dorian burst out from behind the curtains beside him. "But you'll be ready to come soon?" he asked eagerly.
Klaus spluttered in startled outrage as he swung towards him. "I- You sneaking, interfering pervert! What makes you think I was talking about you?" he demanded. "You break into my house, spy on my private conversations-"
"Entirely by chance, I assure you," Dorian said, holding up his hands. "I just came by to visit an old friend."
And that was when Klaus noticed the wrapped bundle concealed by his back. The suspiciously painting-shaped wrapped bundle.
The Man in Purple!
"You are nothing but a common thief!" he shouted in appalled indignation. To think he could have been thinking- even considering...
"Now, really, Major," Dorian said, with a warm and knowing smile. "You know very well that I'm an entirely uncommon thief."
Despite the grey that had started collecting in his golden hair, he still had no difficulty throwing open the windows and lithely diving off the balcony with the painting in hand, secured by a fine, near-invisible rope attached to a harness on the back of his catsuit.
And, however much Klaus might have been feeling his own age of late, it turned out that he was not yet too old to chase a thief.