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13 June 1989 @ 10:41 pm
Desert Rose, 3/4  
Desert Rose, by kishmet, part three of four.



He's comfortable when he wakes, snuggled into a nest of pillows and bedding so deep he can't even feel the bed frame beneath him. Yawning, he nuzzles his face into a cushion of silk, opening one eye to see what color it is. The pillow is a deep shade of scarlet, like a rose in full bloom. He likes it.

Ryoma always takes a long time to rise, and today is no exception. When someone nudges him in the side, he mumbles a few words under his breath and uses one of the blankets to shield his face from the sunlight. The next nudge is a little more insistent, but he only kicks out aimlessly with one foot and connects only with the mattress, and then curls up more tightly.

This time the nudge sends him tumbling and flailing wildly for a handhold to stop himself from falling off the edge of the bed. "That wasn't nice," Ryoma grumbles, rubbing his eyes to clear the sleep from them. He scrambles back into the center of the sheets, blinking owlishly at Atobe. "You slept on the floor?"

"I always sleep on the floor." Atobe's sitting like a cat, tail wrapped around him, the tip of it twitching slightly. Ryoma wonders if he ever forgets that it belongs to him, like a kitten, and chases it in circles. Probably not, and he doesn't ask.

"With this bed here?" Now that he's properly awake, Ryoma can look around at it. The sheets are the same color as the red cushion, and the pillows range from pastel pink to dark violet. "Like roses," he says aloud.

"What?"

"Nothing." Ryoma rests his chin on his hand, watching Atobe thoughtfully.

"Don't change the subject," says Atobe irritably. "What did you say?"

"Nothing important," says Ryoma. "Did you move me up here?"

"No, I left you on the floor and you sleepwalked your way up there." Atobe sighs, deep voice rumbling in his throat. It tickles Ryoma's ears when he does that sometimes, though he's never said anything about it.

"Oh. I have good taste even when I'm sleepwalking, then." Ryoma grins, waiting to see if Atobe will rise to the bait.

"Of course I moved you," Atobe growls, exasperated. "I wouldn't have, if I'd known you'd never wake up."

"I'm awake now, aren't I?"

"Yes, and it's already past midday, in case you couldn't tell."

Ryoma can tell, actually, because the huge, heavy velvet curtains are partway open. Now that he can see the room in daylight, he looks around. In the middle of the floor, there's a large woven rug like the one in the hallway. This one is even more shredded, with gaping tears all through it. There are pieces of furniture littering the room, some overturned and broken, all as fine as the bed, which looks to be made of red-brown mahogany. Long, jagged slices have been slashed out of the intricately carved wood.

Atobe must be telling the truth about sleeping on the floor, though, because the bedclothes don't have any claw marks in them. The blankets are whole and smooth, and made of the best silk and cotton Ryoma has ever felt. He runs his palm discreetly over them, enjoying the touch of the fabric.

"Still shouldn't have pushed me," says Ryoma absently, gaze trailing up the bed, past the pillows and the headboard. "What's that?" There's a curtain up there, the same kind as the ones on the windows, but this wall backs the library, not the outside.

Suddenly the atmosphere in the room changes, and Atobe tenses, rising to his feet. "Nothing that concerns you."

"Fine." Ryoma's in no position to argue, in Atobe's room and Atobe's bed, even if it's a bed he doesn't use. Still, he peers at the curtain out of the corner of his eye, wondering what's behind it. "So, what's for breakfast?" he asks, trying to lighten the mood.

"What do you think I am, a kitchen lackey?" The banter is the same, but Atobe is still on edge.

"Well…" Ryoma begins. He's interrupted when the double doors burst open, and a kitchen cart hurtles through them like a deadly projectile. Ryoma cringes inwardly when Atobe leaps into the way, catching the cart with his shoulder before it can hit the far wall.

There is a loud, metallic clatter and much cursing as several different household implements are thrown from the cart and into a tangle of waving limbs and corkscrews. "Your breakfast, my lord. My lords," Choutarou manages to amend before he falls over again.

Atobe mutters something about incompetence, picking Hiyoshi off one of his horns and depositing him onto the floor. "Thank you, my lord," says Hiyoshi, as serious as a talking mug can be.

Ryoma stifles his laughter when Atobe shoots him a dirty look.

***

"Read anything interesting lately?" Ryoma asks casually, while they're eating a lunch that's light by Atobe's standards, sumptuous by anyone else's.

Atobe gives him a wary glance, as though he expects Ryoma to leap at him with a knife next. "Nothing worth mentioning," he says, and lifts his fork to take another bite of the salad.

"What, nothing?" Ryoma says, and Atobe lowers the fork again. "You're in there reading most of the time."

"I've read most of the worthwhile ones already." Atobe eyes him even more suspiciously. "What are you trying to do? Make friends with me, or something idiotic like that?"

Ryoma grins. "Yes. Is it working?"

"You tell me."

Ryoma munches the salad, which is covered in a delicious vinaigrette dressing. "Then yes," he says, mouth still full of lettuce. "It's working."

Atobe snorts down at his plate and touches the bandage around his paw, in what Ryoma thinks is an unconscious gesture, performed whenever Atobe's repressing the urge to smack Ryoma across the room. Atobe does it quite often, though admittedly, Ryoma tries to provoke it more frequently than he should. "What, you don't want to be friends?"

"I am very choosy in my associations," Atobe informs him.
"Oh." Ryoma pushes a strand of hair out of his eyes and looks thoughtfully at Atobe. "So why haven't you kicked me out yet?"

"Because… because I am a gentleman of my word, that's why." Atobe touches the bandage again and scowls.

Ryoma grins, lifting his glass in order to hide his amusement. Atobe gives him a stern look anyway, as though he knows exactly what Ryoma is up to.

***

"I found your horse," says Atobe abruptly, over breakfast one day.

Ryoma drops his spoon with a clatter, and glances up from his porridge, wide-eyed. "You what?"

"I found your horse," Atobe repeats, looking at the lavish, gold-lined wallpaper instead of at Ryoma. "That animal you're always talking about. He looks like a half-breed to me, haphazard conformation and-"

Ryoma is already out of his seat, dashing for the door as quick as his legs can carry him. "I'll get dressed, take me out to see him!" he calls back, grinning like an idiot as he runs to his room, throwing on the shirt, trousers, boots, and cloak that are already laid out on the bed for him. Atobe shakes his head when Ryoma flies back downstairs into the entrance hall, ready to go out, but Atobe's dressed, too, in a fine shirt and riding leathers tailored to fit him.

"You look good," says Ryoma, without a hint of teasing.

Atobe laughs, and then tries to cover it with a growl. "Flattery will get you nowhere." He offers his arm and Ryoma takes it, for once walking fast enough to keep up properly and even to move ahead, taking four steps for every one of Atobe's.

The stables are better-tended even than those of Ryoma's father, huge and airy, the scent of horses swallowed by the rose perfume that overwhelms all else on the grounds. "Not bad," Ryoma comments, still grinning as he bounces impatiently from one foot to the other. "I've never seen the stables up close before."

"Then you haven't seen my horses, either. My mares are born to fly over the sand," says Atobe, pride clear in his voice as he surveys the stables, standing as straight as he can with a spine built for walking on all fours. "Each possesses a royal pedigree, transcribed on silk by the desert tribes who breed them."

Ryoma glances dubiously into the nearest stall, at the pure white mare who inhabits it. She watches him with blue eyes and then snorts, flicking her delicately pointed ears back and forth to catch the sounds made by the other occupants of the stable. "Horses can be royalty now?"

"Royalty among others of their species, superior in every way," Atobe says loftily, in his low grating voice. "Certainly superior to your mongrel. What pedigree does he boast?"

"Don't know." Ryoma shrugs. "My dad's mare got out one day, and a year later…"

"So none at all." Atobe snorts, sounding remarkably like the horse.

"Just because it's not written down doesn't mean he doesn't have one," Ryoma retorts. "He could outrun any of your nags any day."

"Excuse me, nags? Is that a challenge?"

"Yeah." Ryoma grins slowly. "I think it is."

***

Ryoma's reunion with Karupin is a joyful one, though Karupin finishes guzzling his bucket full of grain before deigning to turn and nudge Ryoma. "Are you getting spoiled by all these royal mares?" Ryoma teases him, wrapping his arms around Karupin's head and hugging him close. "I missed you," he says, reaching a hand up to brush the long forelock out of Karupin's eyes. "You shouldn't have run off. You could have been getting this treatment all along, and Atobe isn't as bad as he looks. A lot better, actually." He falls into thoughtful silence, stroking the horse's head absently.

Karupin lets out a whuff of air and nuzzles Ryoma fondly, smearing horse hair and saliva across the front of his shirt. Ryoma just laughs and pats Karupin's neck.

He hears a sound outside of the stall and glances up at last to find Atobe watching him. Before he can open his mouth, Atobe is gone in a whirl of deep purple cloak-fabric. "I should thank him, shouldn't I," Ryoma muses. Karupin nods, but it's just a way of using Ryoma to scratch an itch on his head.

Still, Ryoma unfastens the latch on the stall and slips into the aisle, following Atobe at a jog. Mares' heads in all different colors pop out of their stalls as he goes by, ears all flicking in unison to catch the sound of his footsteps. "Atobe," he calls. "Atobe, wait."

Atobe can't pretend he doesn't hear, and pauses, ears flickering like a mare's. He turns partway to Ryoma, not far enough to meet his eyes. "Yes?"

Ryoma takes a few steps forward, stubbornly placing himself directly in Atobe's line of sight. "So where did you find him?"

"With the desert tribes," says Atobe. "As I said, my own horses are bred from their stock, and we're on friendly terms. They gave him to me without a problem. As I said, he's a mongrel anyway, and they would never allow him to mingle with their own animals."

"Their loss," says Ryoma. "Did they bring him here, then?"

Atobe hesitates, and sounds like the words are forcing their way out of him when he says, "No, they didn't."

"So how did you know they had him?"

Giving a cough that's meant to be delicate, but has all the horses peering out at him in alarm, Atobe says, "I've been searching for awhile now, ever since you brought him up. I assumed he'd crossed the desert and returned home, but I felt it wouldn't hurt to be sure the nomads hadn't laid hold of him."

"And they had," Ryoma says, wonderingly. "You went out looking?"

"Yes," says Atobe grudgingly. "Only because you wouldn't shut up about it, and I hardly thought you'd accept one of mine in exchange, seeing as you're so attached to that-" he stops, because Ryoma's set a hand on his arm.

"Thank you," says Ryoma. This time he's the one who can't meet Atobe's eyes instead of the other way around. "Thank you for bringing him back."

Atobe stands awkwardly for a moment, and then relaxes, putting a tentative hand on Ryoma's back, the claws not even pricking the fabric of the shirt. "You're welcome."

Whispers ripple through the air around them, murmurs that aren't the nickering of horses or the munching of oats. When Ryoma glances down the aisle, everything goes still and quiet, except for a bucket that hops belatedly back into place with a clunk that rings through the entire building. The stable hands, probably, as prone to gossip as his fathers', though Ryoma can't fathom why they care so much about a simple expression of gratitude.

Atobe rides the white mare, who's named Elizabeth. "Not so impressive," Ryoma says dismissively, as Elizabeth and Karupin prance along beside each other, happy to be out of their stalls. Karupin, unfortunately, doesn't share his opinion. He reaches over and pokes Elizabeth's neck with his nose, and Elizabeth turns to share an affectionate nuzzle with him.

"Traitor," Ryoma mumbles, and Atobe gives a rumbling chuckle. They amble for a few minutes, the horses growing more and more anxious to be allowed to run. Karupin cavorts to the side when a bird flies in front of his hooves. Ryoma glances at Atobe, Atobe catches his eyes, and they both nudge their horses into a faster gait. Karupin breaks away first, into a headlong sprint, and then Elizabeth catches him, like a streak of white lightning in passing.

Neither of the horses pauses at all when they reach the desert, sand flying beneath their feet in a bright, golden spray. "Purebred, you said?" Ryoma calls merrily. "Sure she's not a mongrel?"

"I'll mongrel you!" Atobe urges Elizabeth to pass Karupin, but Karupin and Ryoma are both caught in the spirit of the competition, and Karupin shakes his head and his strides lengthen.

When they return, all four of them are sweating and content. The horses walk close to each other, bumping noses once in awhile just to make sure the other is still there. "So who won?" Atobe asks.

"We did," says Ryoma, except Atobe says the same thing at the same time, with a perfectly straight face. Ryoma stares at him for a second and then they both laugh and can't stop, sliding out of their saddles and leaving the horses in the care of the rakes and shovels who meet them at the stable door.

***

By now, Ryoma has seen most of the rooms in the castle in his explorations, led by Oshitari, Shishido, Atobe, or whoever is amenable to guiding his way. He's been to Atobe's wing only a few times: the first time, of course, and then again by invitation. "Invitation," in Ryoma's book, means following Atobe without being told to stop, and dirty looks don't count.

On this day, though, he's been left to his own devices. He stops in the library for awhile, to read over Atobe's shoulder and turn pages for him when claws won't do the trick. Then he wanders out by the library's side door, which he's only been through once.

He finds himself in a maze of hallways even more twisted and tangled than the rest. There's a room off to one side that's full of portraits. All of the painted visages are imperious and proud, and from that alone Ryoma can decipher that they're probably related to Atobe. One of them is missing, though, judging by the blank, discolored patch of wall. Ryoma studies the blank space for several seconds and then the portraits on either side of it, a man with graying hair and a noble, solemn look on one side, and a beautiful woman on the other. The man has handsome, if stern features, and the woman is smiling slightly. She has Atobe's clear, intelligent blue eyes.

Ryoma looks at these two for a long time. Then he walks to the far end of the room and leaves it, heading once more into the veritable labyrinth of corridors.

Somehow he manages to find his way to a door he's never seen before, encountering only a candle or two on his way. They don't stop him, so he assumes he has permission to enter this room, seldom-visited though it seems to be. The door is simple with a sun motif carved into it, its only form of decoration. He pushes it open, the hinges screeching dreadfully as he does, and then he steps inside.

The room is large and circular, with arched windows all around, curtains pulled over them to block out the sunlight. Ryoma tugs open the nearest set of curtains just enough so he can see what else is in here. First he looks up at the great domed ceiling, like the vault of the sky itself above his head. He can make out the vague outlines of something painted there, covered in enough dust and grime that he can't tell what it is.

For the most part, the floor is empty, just a wide expanse with its own layer of dust thick enough that he leaves footprints as he goes. There is something on the far side of the room in a dark corner. He has to step close to see what it is, and then when he does, he touches the rich mahogany wood of the pianoforte, amazed. He's seen them before, but never the size of this one, and never so finely-crafted, for the expensive ones are more trouble than they're worth for a trader to carry, heavy with no guarantee of a sale at any destination.

There is no dust on this, at least. Someone's been taking meticulous care of it, and when he presses one of the keys gently, its tone is deep and beautiful, echoing back to him from the walls.

Another curtain opens suddenly, and Ryoma closes his eyes for a moment against the ray of sunlight that falls across the instrument. "You've found my lord's pianoforte," says Oshitari, hopping over to lay a hand on one leg of the bench.

"Atobe's?" Ryoma asks, and sits down, holding his hands above the keyboard. "Does he play?"

"He did," says Oshitari, his tone wistful. "He took lessons from the time he was old enough to remain upright in front of it, and after his parents were gone, he took much enjoyment in playing."

The black and white keys beckon, but Ryoma doesn't know how to play, and has to content himself by imagining a song in the air. "He doesn't play anymore?"

"No, I do not." Both Ryoma and Oshitari glance back, startled by Atobe's near-silent entrance. "I cannot." he adds, with a touch of bitterness. He flexes one paw-like hand in demonstration. "Not with the hands of an animal."

"Oh." Ryoma falls silent, pressing another, higher key. The note sings, echoes, and fades into the dust. "I can't play either," he says. "But because I don't know how."

Atobe's laugh carries little or no humor in it. "A fine pair we make, then. If only we could trade our traits as we pleased, though I suppose I wouldn't wish my state and your lack of refinement on anyone."

"Well, sorry," says Ryoma, to lighten the mood. "Not all of us were born spoiled little princes, you know."

"Which leads me to wonder how you ended up such a brat," says Atobe, shaking his head. "One would think your parents would have bothered imparting some of the finer graces."

Ryoma grins slightly. "Who said they didn't try?"

"It figures. Now, move," Atobe says imperiously.

Ryoma moves, but only far enough to give Atobe space beside him on the bench. Atobe eyes him warily, gauging the size of the seat Ryoma's left for him, and then sits, remaining far enough to the side that there is a good hand's breadth of room between them. "You've been keeping this clean, I see," Atobe observes, glancing down at Oshitari.

"You were so fond of it previously, I thought you might appreciate it being kept in good condition," says Oshitari, looking away.

"A useless venture." Atobe settles his hands on the keyboard, his claws forcing him to bend them uncomfortably in order even to be able to touch the keys. Then, too, his fingers are so large that each rests on one key and then both beside it. "You see?"

"So, teach me how to play." Ryoma leans down to pick Oshitari up, and places him on the smooth wood cover of the pianoforte, just above the keyboard. "It's stupid, having this huge room for a piano and never playing it."

"True," Oshitari agrees, brightening. "And there's nothing to prevent you from teaching him, is there, Atobe? My lord," he amends, when Atobe gives him a look.

"There's nothing," says Ryoma firmly, and places his fingers on the keys beside the ones Atobe's covering. "Teach me."

"First of all, you are meant to begin in the middle, not to the left." Atobe pauses thoughtfully. "But for the moment, you can learn well enough in any octave. Hold your hands this way. Yes. No, your thumbs on the C key, for heaven's sake." He falls easily into the role of tutor, though Ryoma isn't quite as accustomed to playing the good student.

Still, when Atobe guides him through the first simple melody, the notes ringing clear and true through the wide room, all three of them are enchanted, Ryoma listening spellbound to the music produced by his own fingers pressing the keys. "Well," he says after. "I guess you do know how it's done."

"Of course I-" Atobe begins indignantly, and then stops when he sees the mischievous look in Ryoma's eyes. "Whatever happened to showing your teacher respect?" Before Ryoma can reply, Atobe nudges him, a little nudge which, from Atobe, is more like a shove, and sends Ryoma tumbling onto the dusty floor with a yelp of surprise.

Ryoma dusts himself off, giving Atobe a dirty look. Atobe is unfazed, wearing a superior smirk. "Well? Coming back for more?"

"Yes," Ryoma says, and plops himself determinedly back onto the bench. Oshitari is laughing behind his hand, and Ryoma pays him no mind. "Teach me another song."

"Master this one first, and then we'll talk." Atobe makes him run through it fifteen times more before pronouncing himself satisfied, and Ryoma complains bitterly all the while, mostly because he's not strong enough to knock Atobe off the bench in retaliation.

***

Something about supper tonight is different, and everyone knows it, although neither Atobe nor Ryoma have stated it aloud. It has to be different, though, because Atobe's asked Ryoma to join him for the meal, formally, and Ryoma's accepted without saying a word about how strange it is that Atobe's asking. The servants are present either in large groups or not at all, preparing for an unspoken something. And when Ryoma goes back to his room to dress, Taki accosts him and spends an hour prattling about Ryoma's coloring and his hair as he bundles Ryoma into his outfit for the evening.

Ryoma stares at himself in the full-length mirror by the door. He turns slowly, glancing back to see what he looks like from all sides. Then he stops and folds his arms, facing the looking glass straight on. "This is…"

"Elegant? Gorgeous? Perfectly complementary to your eye color? I know, believe me," says Taki, admiring his work. "Now if we can get Shishido in here to work on your hair, you'll be all ready."

"No." Ryoma shakes his head emphatically. One of the straps falls farther down his shoulder, and he grabs for it before it can send the whole dress sliding off of him. "I'm not wearing this. I'm never, ever letting Atobe see me in this. Ever."

"But why?" Taki asks, puzzled. "It sets off your features to such advantage, you have to admit that."

"I don't have to admit anything," says Ryoma, and casts about for his usual clothing. "Where did-"

Taki smiles serenely. "I put those away already, of course. The maids will be along to pick up and launder them shortly."

Ryoma stomps his foot and catches the edge of the dress beneath his toes. He stumbles and nearly falls over, catching at one of Taki's knobs at the last second. "No," he manages to say. "Give me my clothes!"

Just then, someone knocks at the door. Ryoma freezes. The knock is too hard and too high up for it to be Oshitari, Shishido, or Choutarou. Atobe calls through the door, "Ryoma, I would like to speak with you."

"How about later?" Ryoma calls back, desperately looking around to find anything else that might serve as attire. The curtains are hung to high for him to reach the rod and take them down. The blankets on the bed would work to cover him, at least, but his face went crimson at the idea of facing Atobe clad only in those.

"Why later? I would prefer to speak with you now."

"Well, all right," says Ryoma. "Go ahead."

There is a silence that lasts for several moments, and then Atobe says, "Are you going to open the door or not?"

"No. You can talk through it, can't you?" Ryoma tugs at one of Taki's drawers, but Taki won't let him open it. "Oh come now, he'll love this on you. It's so fetching," says Taki encouragingly. "Unless you want something in blue instead?"

"I want something with trousers instead," Ryoma tells him indignantly.

"What are you two doing in there?" Atobe inquires, sounding bemused and slightly irritated. "Taki, open this door immediately."

"Immediately, my lord," Taki agrees. Ryoma throws himself between the bureau and the door. He's not heavy enough to hold anyone back, but the door won't open properly with him in the way. "Don't you dare," says Ryoma, gritting his teeth.

"Stop being ridiculous and open the door," Atobe commands. "Whatever he's done to you, it can't be that bad."

"It certainly isn't," says Taki. "I'm sure you would concur, my lord."

"I don't care whether he concurs! I don't!" Ryoma hisses, digging his heels in as Taki tries to nudge him away from the door. "He can't see me in this getup!"

"But you're wearing it to supper," Taki points out.

"No I am not!" Now both of the shoulder straps have fallen down, and it's all Ryoma can do to keep his position and to stop the dress from slipping off.

Atobe knocks again, harder this time. "Either come out here or let me come in there!"

"No!"

Taki times his next nudge so that it coincides with Atobe's knocking. The combined force of the two sends Ryoma tripping and stumbling away from the door, the hem of the dress tangling with his feet. The door flies open, banging into Taki, who quickly scurries back to his place. "All right, what is all this about?" Atobe asks, and stops dead in the doorway.

Ryoma glares at him, vainly trying to pull the dress into some semblance of decency. The straps have fallen so far that half his chest is showing, and he's hiked up the skirts in one hand. "I told you not to come in."

"Why are you wearing a dress," says Atobe slowly.

"Because he took all my other clothes!" Ryoma says, pointing an accusing finger at Taki, who beams at him.

"Doesn't he look quite splendid, my lord?" Taki inquires proudly.

"Well," says Atobe, taking note of Taki's expression and Ryoma's dark scowl. "Yes, he does."

"Why you-" Ryoma starts to say, indignant.

"But I think something suited to his gender would be more appropriate," Atobe adds, and Ryoma's glad he'd fought back the urge to leap at Atobe and strangle him. Taki never would have let him out of the dress after that. "Change it." Atobe waves a paw at them and leaves, though he doesn't seem to snap out of the daze Ryoma's ball gown has put him into.

"See?" says Ryoma.

"He thought you looked lovely," says Taki, giving Ryoma a mournful look. But he finally brings out a fine white shirt with ruffles at the throat, and a black jacket, trousers, and a myriad of gold accessories to go along with it. Ryoma gladly clambers out of the dress and into the new outfit, which matches his eyes and hair just as well as the dress does, or better.

***

He's highly gratified when Atobe appreciates the more masculine clothing as well. "You look… very nice," says Atobe, clearing his throat and looking away, and then looking back. Ryoma grins and poses for him, and Atobe's eyes wander before snapping back up to his face. "Very."

"So do you," says Ryoma, gaze roaming over the outfit that's all in shades of blue, from robin's egg for the shirt, all the way to navy. Atobe is bedecked with jewelry, just as Ryoma is, though all of Ryoma's is gold and onyx, while Atobe's is silver and sapphire. They make a striking pair, Ryoma thinks, without a trace of remorse for the vanity. "Very."

Atobe shifts under his scrutiny, likely unaccustomed to it after years of living in a castle full of people who wouldn't ever think of him as anything other than their lord. "Come on," says Atobe, tone gruffer than usual. "Supper has been laid out for us already." He offers his arm to Ryoma in true gentlemanly fashion. Ryoma accepts, tucking his own arm securely through Atobe's. Atobe ushers him to his customary place at the table, pulling out Ryoma's chair for him, something Atobe's never done before.

By the time this act of courtesy is finished, of course, Ryoma's slipped away and seated himself, cross-legged, in Atobe's large chair at the head of the table. Atobe looks at him and flattens his ears. "Going to sit down?" Ryoma asks innocently.

"Once everything's in its proper place." Atobe plucks Ryoma out of the chair as though he weighs no more than a feather, and deposits him in the seat meant for him. "There."

Ryoma laughs and flicks at Atobe's nose with no intent to actually hit it. "What, you don't want to share?"

"Very difficult to eat that way," Atobe remarks dryly, smoothing his coattails before he sits.

On cue, the table comes to life, the servants lifting the covers on the trays to show off the dishes inside of them. Ryoma watches with growing delight as he realizes they've prepared all of his favorites, a medley of courses from every corner of the world. He glances at Atobe, who is pretending to study the table, and Ryoma knows who's ordered all of these meal choices. "I didn't know you paid so much attention," Ryoma comments, half-teasing, half real wonderment at the idea.

"To what?" Atobe asks primly, and lets one of the servers ladle soup into his bowl. It's the type with thin noodles and beef broth, Ryoma's favorite again.

They finish astoundingly quickly, considering that there are at least twenty different types of food prepared for them. Ryoma eats a large helping of each, countering Atobe's "Where do you put it all?" with a response that will still be acceptable for a few years yet: "I'm growing."

He'll have to grow faster if he's going to eat this much all the time, though, or else he'll probably explode. By the end, he's gazing longingly at the sweets and cakes still left, but his stomach rebels at the thought of taking another bite.

"You don't have to eat it all." Atobe sounds amused. He's devoured as much as Ryoma or more, but then again, he's twice Ryoma's size. "There are other things we could be doing, if you'd like your mind taken off food for a few minutes."

"Oh?" With an effort, Ryoma pulls his attention away from the remaining desserts. "Do you have anything planned?"

"Well…" Atobe trails off uncertainly. "Come with me and I'll show you."

Ryoma takes his arm again, and Atobe escorts him out of the dining room and through several twisting, turning corridors. He's not sure where they're going until they're right outside the door, and then Atobe leads him into the music room. It's been thoroughly cleaned out, candles set into all of the brackets on the walls. The floor is covered in mosaic tiles, he sees now, and they've been polished until their colors shine brightly. He cranes his neck to look at the ceiling, and that's also been cleaned to reveal the mural there, angels and Heaven and lovers and Earth, and everywhere roses, red, yellow, white, pink.

There is music playing softly in the background, and Ryoma searches for its source. Oshitari is using a red-brown mahogany violin with Shishido's assistance, and the piano seems to be playing by itself. From here, Ryoma can't tell who's in charge of that one, but he'll wait until later to ask.

"Oh." Ryoma can't think of anything else to say, so he says it again. "Oh."

"I haven't danced in a long time," says Atobe.

"I've never danced," says Ryoma. "We're even, so long as you don't step on my feet."

"I can't promise that," Atobe replies, and sweeps him off into a flawless waltz. Ryoma follows the steps as though he's known them all his life. It's Atobe's skill, not his, that keeps them on course, but Ryoma doesn't take long to catch on. Atobe waits until Ryoma knows the basic movements, and then leads him into a graceful spin, out and then back in again.

This dance shifts into another, faster one, encouraged by a merry tune from the piano and violin. This one leaves both of them laughing and breathless, trying to keep pace with the music, so it's a good thing that their musicians segue from that into a slower melody. The candles fade gradually, leaving them in the dim light together, able and wanting to see only each other.

Ryoma sighs and leans close. Atobe is warm and smells faintly of lavender soap, and Ryoma has to rest his head against Atobe's chest, just so, in order to avoid the sapphire pendant around Atobe's neck. He smiles slightly. He'd do it anyway, but with the pendant he has an excuse. Atobe has relaxed since the beginning, and now he's as easy and calm as Ryoma has ever known him to be.

"I never thought I would dance again," Atobe says as they meander out to the balcony. "I used to hate it, you know."

"You never found the right person to dance with," says Ryoma. "That's all."

"Yes, well. So," says Atobe gruffly, gazing off into the desert. "What would you like to do now?"

"I want…" Ryoma studies Atobe, gauging his mood. There's no real agitation in Atobe's face, and no anger or irritation in his eyes when he glances back over to look at Ryoma. "I want to walk in the garden. With you, this time."

Atobe exhales slowly. "I-"

"Yes, go on, it's such a romantic idea-" And then, a moment later, there's a clatter from behind the curtains. "Shishido, whatever was that for?" Oshitari complains.

"They can hear you, you utter dolt!" Their argument subsides into furious whispers and rustles of the curtains, and Ryoma hears Choutarou's voice added in worriedly, shushing the other two.

"Even just for privacy's sake," says Ryoma pointedly, and puts a hand on Atobe's arm. "We don't have to go…there, if you don't want to."

"It's fine." Atobe's other hand hovers over Ryoma's, and finally settles there. "You've already seen everything of interest, though I trust this time you've learned your lesson, and won't go touching the damned thing?"

"I'd rather keep my eyesight intact, thanks," Ryoma replies, truthfully enough even though he's grinning. "Come on." They stroll onto the grounds, and they're not alone out here, either. There are shovels and rakes lying in odd positions by the path, and their whispering is too loud for anyone to believe they're really inanimate.

Atobe shakes his head and mutters, "Gardeners," under his breath. Ryoma laughs, and the tools hush as though that will conceal the fact that they're eavesdropping.

"Race you," Ryoma says suddenly, and tugs his hand free, bursting into a sprint. He glances back, still laughing, when he hears Atobe's snort of confusion and subsequent growl of comprehension. Atobe drops onto all fours then, and he flies over the neatly trimmed grass, catching up in just a few bounds. He paces Ryoma instead of pulling ahead and says, "That was cheating."

"So's having four legs," Ryoma retorts, and puts on an extra burst of speed that does him no good whatsoever. Atobe snorts, with mirth this time, and easily holds his position beside Ryoma.

At this point Ryoma changes tactics, darting to the left and colliding with Atobe's side. Atobe lets out a surprised whuff of air, and then they're both tumbling, head over heels over claws over tail. Ryoma ends up on top, smug and victorious. "Got you."

"Only because I was taking care not to disembowel you," Atobe grouses, and pokes Ryoma lightly with the tip of one claw. It tickles, and Ryoma squirms, hiding his face in the soft brown fur that shows above the collar of Atobe's shirt. "Now that's not fair," he says, and yelps when Atobe does it again. "Stop that."

"You're the one who got yourself into this," Atobe points out, and then draws in a sharp breath when Ryoma tries another new strategy that's not a strategy at all, more an impulse, nuzzling against Atobe, letting out a contented sigh and looking up to make sure he hasn't crossed any boundaries. "That's least fair of all," Atobe says softly, his voice rumbling in his chest and against Ryoma's cheek.

"Why?" Ryoma asks, fingering a lock of hair from Atobe's mane, letting it curl around his fingers. Atobe's hair flips out and curls naturally, falling in long waves any woman would envy.

"You know why." Atobe brushes the back of one claw gently along the side of Ryoma's jaw. "You know very well what I mean."

"Even if I did, I'd just pretend not to," says Ryoma. "You know that."

"You are a brat, yes," says Atobe, and sends him tumbling head over heels onto the lawn. Then Atobe stands up and shakes himself like a dog after a bath. Ryoma laughs, and leans against Atobe's shoulder when they start to walk again.

The gardens are full of exotic perfumes. There's more variation in rose scents than Ryoma ever would have imagined, and all of these are sweeter than any he'd known back with his parents. Maybe it's his imagination, then, but he's not prone to flights of fancy. He hadn't been, anyway, before he'd fallen into this world that feels suspiciously like a romance novel, the same kind he'd looked and scoffed at in the library. He chuckles at the thought.

"What is it?" Atobe asks, halting before one of the rose-covered arches.
"Oh, nothing," Ryoma replies, and when Atobe shoots him a look of disbelief, he chuckles again. "You don't want to know."

"Probably not, no," Atobe acknowledges, rolling his eyes. "Tell me anyway."

Ryoma starts walking again, tugging Atobe along with him, before he answers. "I was just thinking that this, all this. You. It feels like something out of a book."

Atobe surprises Ryoma by saying, "One of those ludicrous pieces of purple prose? Yes," he snorts, "Oshitari adores them."

"I don't mind them," Ryoma says. "Especially not when my life's turned into one."

"I think the romantic heroes generally have a little less hair than I do."

"Who said you were the man?" Ryoma asks cheekily. "The women all have long, flowing tresses. Yours do gleam chestnut in the moonlight. Do you think you could pull off a swoon?"

"Excuse me," says Atobe, drawing himself up to his full height. "Which of us was wearing a dress earlier?"

"That was Taki's fault!" Ryoma protests immediately. "I am nothing like a woman."

"Mmhm."

"I'm not."

"Mmmmhm."

Ryoma huffs and pretends to sulk for a minute, until Atobe pulls him closer and nuzzles his hair, tousling Taki's work on Ryoma's coiffure beyond repair. "I forgive you, then," says Ryoma, as though he's conferring a great favor. "This time."

Somehow they've wandered nearer and nearer to the center of the garden, and when they arrive in the clearing with the rose in the cage, Ryoma wonders if Atobe's brought him here on purpose. Atobe tenses a little, and Ryoma puts a hand on his arm in silent reassurance.

"I suppose I wanted to bring you here." Atobe's voice is steady, although he's not entirely at ease even now. "With permission, now."

"Can I?" At Atobe's nod, Ryoma disengages himself from the embrace, managing it only because he makes a private promise to return to it as soon as possible.

The rose hovers inside its golden cage, the sparkling threads circling slowly around its stem like fish around the edge of a pond. This time Ryoma inspects it without fear, though he doesn't touch the rose itself, only the bars and the pedestal. The rose is still a deep blood-red, but now there are petals scattered over the bottom of the cage, and the outside row of petals droops too far outward. "It's part of the spell?" Ryoma asks, looking at Atobe.

Atobe nods, eyes fixed on the flower. "The part of the spell. When the last petal falls, I will be trapped in this form forever. The castle staff, as well. We will all be trapped here for the rest of our lives, perhaps for eternity. Even I do not know everything about our curse."

"But there has to be some way to break it," says Ryoma thoughtfully, reaching into the cage to pluck one of the fallen petals from its place. There is no burst of light, only a mild tingling in his fingertips. He curls his fingers around the petal, and the tingling travels up to his wrist before fading.

"There is."

Ryoma glances up from his closed fist. "What?"

"There is a way," Atobe repeats. "I know that much, and I know what must be done to break the curse."

"You do? Then what is it?" Ryoma asks curiously. "Why haven't we tried it already?"

Atobe lets out a short laugh. "I'm afraid I cannot tell you how the spell may be broken, because that, too, is a part of it. But I will say this," he adds, and pins Ryoma with his intense, almost leonine gaze. "Half of what needs doing is already done."

For some reason, Ryoma's cheeks heat, and he puts his free hand to one of them and turns away. "That's good. But you know," he says, suddenly inspired. "Even if the curse was never broken, I'd stay."

"Would you?" Atobe's ears flicker back. He looks startled already, and his expression turns stunned when Ryoma leans up on tiptoes to kiss him, curling his hand into Atobe's mane. "You… you-" Atobe stammers, his composure entirely lost.

"I would," says Ryoma firmly. "What do you think, that I'm just waiting around for you to turn into a handsome prince?" He snorts and studies Atobe's face, his mane, his ears, his horns. "You're handsome enough already." He plays with the silky fur, letting it trail through his fingers.

"Not by anyone's standards but yours, I'm sure," Atobe mutters, looking anywhere but at Ryoma. He could be blushing beneath his fur, but it's difficult to tell "You probably like me because I remind you of that horse of yours."

Ryoma pauses, and then nods slowly. "Oh, that must be it. No, definitely. You remind me of Karupin, aside from your temper, your attitude, your growling, your claws. Oh." He smiles mischievously. "And your table manners. His are much more efficient."

"What, you want me to slobber all over your shirt the way he does?" Atobe asks, mock affronted. "I'm sorry, but my upbringing won't allow me such a breach of etiquette."

"Your loss," says Ryoma, and shrugs, grinning up at Atobe. "I'd let you slobber all over my shirt any day."

"That-" Atobe cuts off and looks quickly away again. "As though I'd ever be so graceless."

"It's not graceless if you have permission," Ryoma reminds him, still toying with Atobe's mane. "So are you sure you want to break the curse? You won't look so much like Karupin if we do."

"Oh, hush," says Atobe, too flustered to give any other reply. Ryoma leans his forehead just below Atobe's shoulder and smiles.

***

Atobe leaves the castle about a week later, to trade for the goods they need. There aren't many, only certain food items they don't grow or raise.

"If we have a feast every night, of course we're going to run out of food," Ryoma remarks, as Atobe dresses in a hooded cloak, boots made specially to fit his claws, and a shirt and trousers that completely cover any hair that shouldn't be present on a human.

Atobe gives him a look. "So what do you suggest?"

"Bread and water?" Ryoma suggests, flashing his most charming smile. "Gruel twice a day?"

"Plebeian attitudes, plebeian appetites," says Atobe loftily. "Now don't do anything I wouldn't. Don't set Shishido on fire, don't wander into a sandstorm. None of that." He opens his mouth as though he's about to go on, but then Ryoma kisses him and nuzzles the fur onto his cheek, and Atobe falls mysteriously silent.

"I won't do anything stupid if you won't," says Ryoma, meeting Atobe's eyes and grinning.

Atobe, for some reason, seems reluctant to leave after this, but leave he does, after leaving strict instructions for Choutarou and Shishido to feed Ryoma only bread, gruel, and water. "You heard him," says Shishido briskly. "Do we have gruel?"

"I don't think he was serious, Shishido," Choutarou replies, on the verge of laughter. Shishido doesn't look as though he believes it, but it's obvious who's in charge of the kitchen by Ryoma's supper, which consists of chicken, several kinds of cheese, and various fruits.

It's different without Atobe. Oshitari is still around, though he's preoccupied with courting one of the spoons, and Shishido is still bustling around, making sure everything gets done even while the master is gone, and there's Hiyoshi, and Choutarou, and Taki, and Kabaji, who's just as silent as an oven as he'd been as a master chef, according to those who've known him both ways. Ryoma's not lonely by any stretch of the imagination.

But then again, he is.

It's not an intention to go behind Atobe's back that entices him into the west wing, where Atobe's rooms are located. Ryoma knows he should ask, or at least try this when Atobe is in a position to catch him and stop him. Even so, he also knows that he may not have another opportunity like this one for a long time, and even now, with what's passed between them, Atobe guards some of his secrets as closely as before.

Ryoma wouldn't do it, but for the insatiable urge to learn everything he can about Atobe. He has to know in order to accept, in order to-

No, he realizes. He doesn't have to know everything in order to feel the way he does about Atobe. And that, more than anything, drives him into Atobe's bedchamber on his own.

He pushes one of the double doors open carefully, just enough to allow him to slip inside. The room is as dark as ever, but he's brought the candle this time, one of the few objects in the castle without a personality of its own. He walks across the stone floor, bare feet making a soft sound with each step. The stone is cold, and he finally relaxes when he reaches the woven rug, avoiding the places he knows have been ripped back to reveal the floor beneath.

There is some moonlight that shines through a crack in the curtains over the great glass picture windows, enough that Ryoma covers the candle flame with a hand. The flame somehow seems intrusive, in this room that looks abandoned even though Atobe occupies it. The fire flickers, licking at Ryoma's palm and warming it, never quite burning him.

Ryoma has to uncover the candle when he comes to the bed, which is tucked against the shadow of the wall. He sets the candle on the nearest low shelf, which is intact aside from its missing drawers. The bed is just as he remembers it, vast and comfortable with its sheets of dusty silk. He pauses in the middle of climbing onto the bed; with all the dust, Atobe is going to know he's been here no matter what.

Still, it's too late now, and he won't leave before his curiosity is assuaged. Once he's on the bed, he reaches over to pick up the candle, hissing quietly when a drop of melting wax burns his finger.

He has to stand in order to reach the curtain on the wall, and balancing is difficult on the soft mattress, probably stuffed with goose-down or swan feathers, knowing Atobe. He almost falls when he tries to find a secure foothold among the nest of pillows at the head of the bed, which would be a disaster with an open flame. He regains his footing in time, steadying himself against the wall.

When he reaches out and touches it, he finds that this curtain is lighter than the ones on the windows. It pushes easily aside, and he squints to see what's behind it, raising the candle. He sees the gold frame first, simple in its design but obviously costly. Then he draws in a breath as he leans closer to see what's inside the frame.

A portrait.

As he moves the flame, he sees different pieces of it, a puzzle coming together before his eyes. A lip curled just slightly into a haughty expression. A strong chin, a graceful neck, a fine shirt in some dark color with a ruffle at the base of the throat. Moving up again, he sees an eye that is probably blue, but not definitively identifiable with only the moonlight and the candlelight. The other eye has been slashed down the middle, a tear in the canvas that goes from upper right to lower left. The eye he can see is thoughtful, though, even if the overall impression given by the portrait as a whole is arrogance. Ryoma recognizes those eyes, and the hair, a light shade of brown.

He traces a finger over the hair, the line of the jaw, and then over the rip in the picture. Several more drops of wax run down the back of his hand, but he barely notices them. He tilts his head to the side, looking from a different angle. The face is that of a stranger, but a hauntingly familiar stranger.

"You shouldn't be in here."

Ryoma turns and sees Shishido standing in the dim beam of light from the hall. "I had to see it," he says simply.

"So you knew what was under there?" Shishido asks.

"I didn't know," Ryoma answers honestly. "I guessed, though."

"He won't be happy if he finds out."

"When he finds out," says Ryoma. "My footprints are all over the sheets."

"You knew he'd find out before you even looked at the portrait?" says Shishido. "Why didn't you just ask him?"

"Because it's easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission," Ryoma says, tongue in cheek. When Shishido starts to protest, Ryoma adds, "Because he would have said no. And I had to see it."

"You sound like Oshitari." After a moment, Shishido shakes his head, and turns silently toward the door. Ryoma watches, and after another moment, Shishido turns back to him. "I'll have the maids dust in here," he says. "He won't see the footprints."

"Now who sounds like Oshitari?" Ryoma teases. Shishido gives a disgusted little snort. "Shishido," says Ryoma, before he can leave. "Thanks."

"Don't thank me," says Shishido gruffly. "I have enough on my conscience as it is." With that, he's gone, hopping down the hall, each tap just audible on the rug there.


Part Four.
 
 
Lindralindra on June 13th, 2008 08:26 am (UTC)
oh, kish. MY HEART.
pat_ace87 on June 14th, 2008 07:48 am (UTC)
;_; ..... you got me tearing up a bit here ...... ;_; ........ And I LOVE all the nuzzling that's going on XXXXXXXXDDDDDDDDDDDD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!