Lazy tobacco smoke teased his sensitive nose. Along with it was the rich smell of roses, a fainter scent that he couldn't name, and the stronger, headier scent of the man.
He tensed slightly, but continued to gulp down the food in front of him. The man had promised him a full stomach after all, and he meant to see that the promise was kept.
"You don't mean to tell me that this . . . this is it?" The voice was cultured, confident, amused. It grated on the ears of the boy and he scowled. He didn't like this one already. "You may be in trouble, my dear Milliardo."
"I agree it will be a challenge . . . but then it would not be an interesting wager otherwise. And he has spirit . . . I believe that cleaned up he will do adequately." The man spoke assuredly.
"He will need more than cleaning."
This new voice was different from the other two. Softer, without the grating arrogance, but still somehow sure of itself. It sounded different too, the accent somehow wrong. He looked up to see a boy, leaning against the wall, watching him with a slight frown on his face. Even his disapproving expression could not hide the fact that he was extremely pleasing to look at--smooth skin the colour of warm honey, hair like black silk and intent dark eyes. For a moment, the boy's mouth ceased its work and he stared--
Oh, he'd seen Asians all right at the docks, burly sailors and shriveled opium addicts, but he hadn't seen anything like this boy.
"He eats like a pig."
That stung. The boy looked down, his long hair falling over his face to hide the colour that flooded his cheeks--whether out of anger or shame he wasn't exactly sure himself. But to have that . . . boy criticise him! It wasn't fair . . . not when he was already immeasurably greater than he could ever be . . .
"Can you blame him? This is, no doubt, his first decent meal in years." The man stepped forward, patting the top of the boy's head with one gloved hand. "Once he is no longer hungry, I'm sure he will be easily ammenable."
"If he continues to eat that way," the Asian youth said. "He will be sick."
The other man laughed his arrogant, amused laugh. "Exposing him to such a rich selection of foods so soon might not be a good idea either. Still, I suppose it will soon work out. Join me for a glass of something in the salon, Milliard? I'm sure Wufei can manage from here. He is--" a gloved hand carressed the side of the boy's face--"most capable."
Wufei didn't blink. "If I am to get him cleaned, then I would like the use of the lilac bathroom for the rest of the afternoon and a servant on hand to bring water. Two, if I am required to wash his hair . . . we would be better off cutting it all off."
The boy tensed. They couldn't--he would run, he would--
"You will not cut his hair," the Man said. "I am very particular on that point."
Wufei inclined his head. "My lord," he said.
The boy was pleased to see the back of his exquisitely tailored uniform, and even more pleased to see the back of his companion's maroon dressing gown. He picked up the chicken bone he'd been eating before and paused. His stomach did feel kind of queasy . . .
"Are you done?" the Asian boy asked.
In answer the other boy curled up and retched.
He heard a muttered curse then all else was lost in the contortions of his stomach.
He was startled, therefore, when a hand gently rubbed his back and a soft voice asked, "Are you done?"
"I think so," the boy answered, but was immediately proved wrong as the last contents of his stomach forced their way out.
"Easy," the voice cautioned, and a glass of water was held to his lips. The clear liquid took away the rancid taste in his mouth but when he tried to gulp it down the glass was removed.
"Slowly does it, unless you want a repeat of this," the voice said and a towel patted gently at his mouth and front. "Can you stand?"
It was not until now that the boy realised it was Wufei who was helping him. He hadn't expected someone as well groomed as the Asian youth to willingly touch him--especially now he smelled of vomit--and Wufei had clearly expressed his contempt for the boy. He stood somewhat dazedly at Wufei's bidding.
"Clean this up," Wufei ordered a servant crisply. "You," he spoke to the boy. "What was the last thing you ate?"
"The last meal you ate and kept down. What was it?"
The boy frowned, shoving matted hair out of his face. "The father gave me some bread an' gruel--"
"Go to Sally," Wufei instructed the servant. "Ask her to send up some bread and some thin soup--nothing fancy."
The servant nodded and hurried away.
The boy was startled as Wufei linked his arm through the boys. "This way," he said.
Although the boy's first instinct was to pull away from the contact, he was awed enough by his surroundings and his companion to know he didn't want to cause offense. He merely stared as they walked through room upon elegantly decorated room, full of crystal, and colours and silks and--
They entered a soft room decorated from floor to ceiling with tiles of varying shades or purple. Some of them were of such rich shades that they almost seemed like gems. Soft scented steam drifted through the room, emanating from a deep tub that had been set in the floor and that was filled with sweetly scented water--The boy realised he was staring, but couldn't help it.
"Wh-what is this place?"
"The lilac bathroom," Wufei said. "You know what a bathroom is, I hope?"
They had more than one? "Of course I know," the boy snapped. "I'm not an idiot." And this was so different from the tub Sister Helen had wheeled out on a Saturday Evening . . .
"I'm glad to hear that," the Asian youth said dryly. "Hop in."
"Get in the water." The Asian boy had pulled his overshirt off and now faced him bare chested. "Undress," he said slowly as the boy stared at him, unmoving.
"You heard them tell me to get you cleaned up? I can't very well do that with your clothes on, can I?"
The boy reluctantly shrugged his jacket off, then fumbled with the piece of rope he used as a belt. He looked up to see that Wufei had removed the rest of his clothes and sat on the edge of the inset tub, waiting for him. Awkwardly Duo stepped out of his trousers and into the sweet smelling water.
"Duck your head under the water," the Asian boy instructed.
His manner was starting to get on the Boy's nerves but he obeyed. He came up spluttering--the water was hotter than he'd expected.
Cool fingers probed at his scalp as Wufei rubbed a scented lotion into his hair. "Relax," he said.
After initial awkwardness, the boy found himself lulled into a sense of peace by the heat of the water and the carefulness of Wufei's attentions to him. The fingers working through his hair were through and strangely soothing . . .
The servant came and left food, taking the boy's clothes with him.
"Burn them," Wufei instructed.
The boy was moved to protest but by then the servant had left. "They're my clothes, you know."
"They were lice-infested, and not fit to be worn by anyone."
Sulkily, the boy subsided. "What is going to happen to me?"
For the first time in his careful cleansing of the boy's hair, Wufei paused. "He didn't tell you?"
"He tol' me I'd have a roof over my head, decent clothes an' a full stomach."
Wufei continued his careful ministrations. "What's your name?"
Wufei was silent a while. "You'll be cleaned up, dressed, and introduced to society," he said. "Mr. Merquise wants to make a beauty out of you."
"Society?" Duo began to laugh. "What the hell?"
"Time to rinse," Wufei said sharply and the boy had barely time to register the words before cold water was dumped over his head. Spluttering, he had just enough time to gasp a breath before the process was repeated. "Such language is not seemly."
"Seemly?" Duo echoed as Wufei pulled a lever and the water that had been so clean and sweet and was now a murky brown began to drain. "Am I to be a gentleman?"
"You are to be the plaything of a gentleman," Wufei told him, bundling a towel around Duo and then lying him down on a low tiled bench beside the bath. Two servants had entered and were refilling the bath. "You will amuse him with your conversation and charm, serve him as a glorified housekeeper, entertain the guests at his dinner parties, and please him with your appearance. You may even share his bed." He was rubbing another lotion into Duo's skin, with a brush of what felt like nails.
"Me? Do that?" Duo knew there had to be some mistake. "Yer kidding. Me . . . amuse a gentleman? Who's brilliant idea was that?"
"Mr. Merquise made a wager . . . Lord Septem was of the opinion, which he did not trouble to hide, that the real reason behind Mr. Merquise's failure to acquire a companion was the expense involved in attaining one. Mr. Merquise argued that no great expenditure was necessary, that a streetrat could be transformed into a companion worthy of a lord with the right grooming . . . and here we are."
"Careful--I need that skin," Duo grumbled as Wufei continued his work. "So what--yer that great pansy's slut?"
There was a discordant clang. One of the servants had dropped the bucket they carried.
Wufei stood. "I think the bath is full enough. Go, I will send for you when we need you again."
Duo half sat as the servants scuttled out. They looked frightened--
"I'll tell you this once," Wufei said, his voice ice. "And once only. What goes on between myself and Lord Kushrenada is between us. If you ever speak of the matter again, you will regret it."
"Ya think I'm scared?" Duo scoffed. "I've never heard of a noble that could take their own blows--but yer not a real noble, are y--"
Wufei seized his arm and twisted it. Duo cried out in pain.
"I could break this if I wanted," the Asian youth said coolly, then released Duo. "I was a warrior once, believe me when I tell you I can hurt you."
Rubbing his arm, Duo decided not to argue.
Wufei tipped the last bucket of hot water into the tub. "That's deep enough. Get in."
They filled the tub twice more before Wufei was satisfied that Duo was clean. The streetrat blushed as Wufei slipped a dressing gown around him.
"Your skin is very fine--very pale under all that dirt. Its almost luminiscent . . . and remarkably free of blemishes . . . perhaps this won't be as hard as I thought," Wufei mused as he pulled another gown loosely around himself. "Well, follow me."
This time as they walked through the house Duo was alert enough to notice the many gilt edged picture frames and crystal vases that decorated the rooms. Any of which would make a nice enough haul for a thief--
There were servants too, who stood and bowed as they approached--but who whispered furiously to each other once they'd continued past.
Wufei stopped finally in a bedchamber relatively free of decoration. "Have a seat," he said ushering Duo towards the bed.
Duo sat gingerly on the bed, and looked at the vanity set laid out on the dressing table--tortoise-shell brush, comb and mirror--worth more money then he'd seen in his life. As Wufei picked up the brush and settled behind him, Duo mentally calculated the value of everything in the room--his eyes fell on a crudely built altar of the sort he'd seen above the door in opium dens and he stared. It had been given center place in the corner beside the window and--
"Ow!" Duo winced, putting a hand to his head. "What are you trying to do, pull my head off?"
"I'm trying to brush your hair," Wufei informed him crisply. "Sit back down again please--"
"Do you have to pull my hair out in the process?"
"Hardly. Sit down and stop whining," Wufei said. "This will take a while."
It took two hours.
Duo had to admit, his respect for Wufei had increased. Throughout the long struggle with Duo's matted locks, he had remained gentle, unravelling by hand those knots that could not be brought out by comb, cutting out those that were beyond repair with a pair of gold edged scissors.
He was rubbing a soft scented ointment into a sleepy Duo's skin when there was a knock at the door.
"The master wishes to know if you have made progress with Mr. Merquises 'find'," a curiously staring servant girl reported. "He and Mr. Merquise are in the salon. They're ready to discuss garments."
"Tell them we'll be with them shortly," Wufei said, standing. He pulled open a wardrobe, displaying a richer array of garments than most dressmakers shops of Duo's knowledge contained.
"It's impolite to stare like that," Wufei informed him, pushing a pair of black trousers into Duo's hands. He selected a pair of white trousers for himself and a red shirt, cut without sleeves.
"What about undergarments?" Duo asked.
Wufei gave him a look. It wasn't hard to define it--almost pitying? "You won't need them," he said.
"Don't I at least get a shirt?"
"Later," Wufei told him, adjusting the garment he was wearing. "They'll want to see you for now."
Feeling very weird, Duo followed the Asian youth back through the house. Quite apart from having his chest uncovered, his hair, free from years of grime, floated around him like a cloud. This time they did not have far to go. Wufei led him down one corridor and into a salon. A fire had been lit and Treize and the Man sat in armchairs, smoking. They both broke off their conversation and stared as Wufei and Duo entered.
"Wufei!" Treize said at last. "You have out done yourself . . .!" He held out a hand and Wufei went to take it.
Duo watched him go with an odd sensation. He wouldn't say that he liked Wufei. But the Asian youth had at least been gentle with him, and now he'd left Duo alone in the centre of the room--alone too in the penetrating gaze of the Man.
"A diamond in the rough--wouldn't you agree Miliiard?"
The Man inclined his silvery blond head. "He's cleaned up even better than I expected," he said. "You've done well, Wufei."
"I did nothing," the Asian youth replied. He'd been half pulled onto Kushrenada's lap and sat there, seemingly heedless of the caresses currently being lavished upon him. "Duo has numerous natural advantages."
Treize stirred interestedly. "He has a name? You didn't mention that, Milliard--"
"I didn't know," the Man said, not interrupting his leisurely examination of Duo. Something in his unhurried stare angered the youth.
"You didn't ask," he said. "Maybe its time to rectify that, huh?" He stuck out a hand. "My name's Duo, Duo Maxwell." No need to tell them he only knew what rectify meant because Wufei had used it--
The Man's eyes considered him and then he nodded, taking Duo's hand and shaking it. "I have been remiss. I am Zechs Merquise, you may call me Mr. Merquise." He waved an elegant hand. "This is my associate, Lord. Kushrenada and his . . . protégé."
"Spirit . . . Zechs, you lucky fellow." Treize took Duo's hand and kissed it. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Maxwell," he purred. "And of course, you've already met Wufei--"
The Asian youth had taken advantage of the introductions to free himself from Kushrenada's hold. He bowed, formally. "Chang Wu Fei," he said.
Duo bowed back. "Nice ta meetcha." He concentrated. "Wu Fei."
He saw the Asian youth's mouth curl up briefly and knew he'd gotten the pronunciation right. The gentlemen hadn't even noticed.
"A toast!" Treize was proclaiming. "Wufei, the champagne glasses. Duo is going to take London by storm!" He patted Zechs's shoulder. "I can't wait to see Septem's face when--"
"We have a long way to go yet," Zechs cautioned but accepted the champagne anyway.
He'd never even tasted alcohol before in his life and he was going to try champagne. Duo's head spun with the excitement of it all.
"Go slowly," Wu Fei cautioned him. "It affects you more than you'll think it will."
It was bitter but danced on the tip of his tongue like nothing else. Duo sipped happily at his glass, listening to the discussion around him.
"Have you thought about outfitting him yet?"
"I'll have a tailor come by tomorrow. What colours do you think would suit?"
"Well, a rich blue might be nice . . . something with gold . . ."
"Gold would overwhelm him. With his colouring you'll want to stick to silver," Wu Fei draped a swath of gold fabric over Duo, then one of silver. "See?"
"I suppose you're right . . . any other comments, Wufei?"
"You'll want black to accentuate the colour of his skin--and purples to bring out the colour of his eyes . . . " Wu Fei studied him carefully. "I've never seen a colour like it--"
"A truly rare find," Treize murmured, studying Duo from the corner where he sat. "You are a fortunate man, Merquise . . . to be taking a creature such as this to your bed--"
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
But Zechs had already replied. "I assure you, I have no intention of sharing my bed with a boy we picked up off the streets. Unlike you, I find no pleasure in owning my own private whore--"
Duo stared at Wu Fei. He had gone a deathly pale. The fingers that held his champagne flute trembled with rage.
Zechs and Treize glared at each other, a red mark standing out boldly on Zechs's pale as ivory cheek.
"Such a comment is unworthy of you," Treize said coolly.
Milliard sneered. "You can delude yourself all you want," he said. "But that boy does not love you--"
Wu Fei tugged urgently at Duo's shoulder. "We're leaving," he said in an abrupt whisper. "Come on."
"But--" Duo looked at the two men still arguing fiercely. "Shouldn't we stop them?"
"It's not our place to interfere in quarrels between gentlemen," the Asian youth said as he pulled Duo out into the hallway. "Come on--"
Wu Fei once again led the way through the house in silence but this time it was different. His anger could be read in the terseness of his movements. A vase that caught on his arm was casually thrust against a wall. Duo winced as it smashed but Wu Fei didn't even spare it a second glance.
It wasn't until they'd reached the room they'd occupied before that he spoke again.
"I'm sorry you had to witness that regrettable lack of self control on my part just then," he said. "I apologise."
"It's all right," Duo said. "If anyone had said that about me . . . well, I wouldn't have smashed just one vase, you know what I mean?"
Wu Fei sat down at the chair and looked out the window. Duo said down awkwardly at the bed.
"I'm sorry about what I said before," he said. "I didn't know . . . how'd you feel?"
"I've had worse," Wu Fei sighed. "I will live. Now, you must be hungry, Duo?"
A servant was sent with instructions to bring back something sensible to eat. This proved to be a bowl each of something Wu Fei called rice that had to be eaten with a spoon, and a hearty beef stew.
Duo told him about how he and Solo had managed to pass themselves off as the Mayor of London's nephews and snuck inside an official dinner to get the best free meal of their lives.
Wu Fei told him of the first time he'd seen people in the London streets selling 'hot dogs' and how it was impossible for the English to cook rice properly.
"Yer eating this," Duo pointed out, his mouth full.
"Talk or eat but don't do both at once," Wu Fei told him. "And that's because Sally isn't English."
They were still eating when Treize came by.
"My dear Wufei!" he said. "I am more wounded than I can express--and how you must feel--"
"You need not concern yourself for my sake," Wu Fei said. "I am fine."
Duo, blushing, turned his back to give them privacy. It wasn't that he was a prude--he'd seen worse in fact--but there was something about the way Treize and Wu Fei interacted that made him feel very uncomfortable.
When he was through kissing Wu Fei, Treize informed them that Zechs had left. "It was not a serious quarrel," he said. "But we both recognised that we needed space to clear our heads and that if we continued--things might be said that could not be unsaid."
"I am sorry to hear that," Wu Fei said. "But what of Duo?"
Duo shivered at the speculative look in Treize's eyes. "Duo . . . well, Duo will stay with you," Treize decided. "After all, he was going to come back here tomorrow for the tailor to outfit him and so that you could instruct him in his duties--"
Wu Fei nodded.
Duo felt a twinge of resentment that things were decided without him even being consulted, but the maid arriving then with a tray of fruit pie and something called sorbét was enough to change his mind. He'd tolerate this as long as the food kept up--and the moment they tried anything funny he was out of there--along with the silverware, the crystal and all the gold he could carry.
"If Duo is to stay the night," Wu Fei said. "Then could you have a servant send up a basin of water and some sandpaper? I'm going to try and clean his teeth."
"What's wrong with my teeth?" Duo demanded.
Wu Fei and Treize sighed.
"You have a busy night ahead of you, my love," Treize said, kissing Wu Fei's forehead. "I shall leave you to it. I have the engagement with the Donnargh's you know."
By the time he'd had his teeth cleaned Duo was almost ready to leave the house, food or no food.
"Trust me," Wu Fei told him. "It's an improvement."
Duo put down the mirror wincing. His mouth felt like it had been scrubbed raw--and everything tasted of soap. "Says you. I can't make out a blasted thing in this ditzy little mirror."
"Would you like to see yourself in a better mirror?" Wu Fei said. "Come with me."
He pushed back a full length wall hanging to reveal a corridor behind it. Duo followed him curiously.
"What the hell is this?"
"I am so sorry, noble sir. What the fuc--"
"That will do. It's a hidden passageway," Wu Fei said as he pulled open the door at the other end.
Wu Fei did not offer any explanation of the room but from the heavy scented roses and the lingering traces of tobacco, Duo thought he had a pretty fair idea of who it belonged too.
"Here you go," Wu Fei said, drawing open the wardrobe to reveal a full length looking glass attached to the inside. "What do you think?"
Duo stared. He'd caught glimpses of himself in the little mirror but he hadn't somehow connected them with him--"Wow--that can't be me! I look--" he moved a little and the reflection moved with him. "I look like some kinda noble!"
"At least until you open your mouth" Wufei murmured leaning against the wall to watch.
Duo spun around, noting the way his hair fell. "Man this is weird . . . It's like a whole nother person--who'd a thought I had this in me, huh?"
"It's a surprise to us all."
"Solo'd piss himself laughing," Duo said, still staring at himself. He was still sharp-eyed enough to catch the yawn that Wu Fei hid behind one elegant hand. "Sorry--you want to go?"
"It's been a long day," Wu Fei admitted. "And it will be a long day tomorrow--I would like the rest."
Duo followed Wu Fei back through the corridor. "What are we doing tomorrow?"
"How to walk, how to dress, how to eat properly, how to talk and then we're going to work on your background knowledge. Fashionable artists, composers and plays, we may even," Wu Fei said, as he slid the wall hanging back into place over the door, "take a carriage around to the Museum."
"Fun," Duo said.
"Silent, you," Wu Fei had gathered Duo's hair up into a plait and now tied it off. "That'll keep it tidy while you sleep," he said. "Now let's find you a bed of your own."
"What's wrong with me bunkin' with you?" Duo asked, surprised. "It used to be five to a bed this size at the Church--"
"Well--if you don't mind, then I'd welcome the company," Wu Fei said. "Get changed into these."
Who'd a known nobles had separate clothes just for sleeping in? Duo snuggled happily in Wu Fei's silk nightshirt. He'd never been in a bed so comfortable in his life. "What are you doing?" he asked.
Wu Fei didn't answer immediately. He was sitting before the altar in the corner, his eyes closed and his lips moving slightly. Praying? Duo shifted uncomfortably, he didn't get that God stuff. But Wu Fei opened his eyes and set two thin sticks in a holder on the altar, and then lit them both with a match.
"Incense," Wu Fei replied, climbing into bed beside Duo. "It is an offering to the spirits of my ancestors."
"Oh yeah?" Duo said. "What did you ask them for?"
"I ask them to watch over my family and our farm while I am away. I ask them to keep them safe and that I might return to them soon."
Now he knew what the faint smell that had puzzled him when he had first met Wu Fei was: the Asian boy smelt of smoky, spicy incense. "What Zechs said before is true, then, isn't it? You don't love Treize." Duo bit his tongue too late, remembering Wu Fei's words of that afternoon. "I'm sorry--"
"I do not. Now, never speak of it again."
Wu Fei's tone made it clear the discussion was over. Duo frowned, but turned over onto his side to sleep. Just that morning he'd thought that having food and a roof over your head was enough to mean you didn't have any worries--now--he wasn't so sure.