when the gales of November come early (kishmet) wrote,
when the gales of November come early
kishmet

Desert Rose, 4/4

Okay, I know that I'm a stupid sappy idiot, but I couldn't think of any more fitting day to backdate this post to. This fic never would have been written without it, after all. That's partly because it was written especially for Donya, who was born on June thirteenth, nineteen eighty-eight. It's not just because she wouldn't have existed, but because I wouldn't be as happy and as driven to complete longer and longer fics the way I am now. Donya, you're a huge part of what's made my life worthwhile for all the time I've known you. I am crazy about you, as is probably obvious, given this series of posts, and I am soooo, so thankful that you were born.

Happy Birthday, you amazing girl. ♥ And feel free to thwap me if I've screwed up on any of the backdating.

Desert Rose, by kishmet, part four of four.



The attack comes so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that Ryoma can do nothing to prevent it. He hears a sound like a footstep to his left down the hall, and then someone grabs him, smashing a hand against his mouth to stifle any cry for help he might make. Ryoma struggles wildly, but they've pinned his arms to his sides, and then something else is pressed over his nose and mouth, a damp handkerchief with a chemical reek to it, and then he can't remember anything more.

When he wakes, he's muzzy-headed and his mouth is painfully dry. "…water?" he hears someone say. It sounds as though they're very far away, but he nods anyway, reaching blindly for a drink of something, anything. Cool hands soothe him, though they feel wrong, somehow (no fur, is that it?), and someone puts a cup to his lips. He drinks all of the water, and more when they bring it. Then he's tired, too tired to eat, and his stomach roils at the thought of food.

He sleeps again.

When he wakes this time, he's lucid, though his temples and the back of his head throb dully. He sits up and takes in the unfamiliar surroundings- no. Familiar ones, but it's been awhile since he's seen his old bedroom, in his parents' house.

Ryoma's thirsty, as before, but now he can ignore it. Confusion and dread well up in him, and he pushes them impatiently aside. His body wants more water, but his mind wants an explanation even more, and overrules mere physical desires. He throws off the sheets that cover him and pads across the room, barefoot, clad only in nightclothes and a light robe.

His mother is waiting for him outside the door, and she offers him a cup full of what looks like water. He waves it away, but lets her embrace him. "Thank goodness you're all right," she says, pulling back to look him over. "How is your headache?"

"It doesn't matter." Ryoma touches his forehead, and then asks, "What happened? Why am I here?"

Rinko puts her hand to his head, the way she's always done to check for a fever. "Yukimura brought you home," she says quietly, and lowers her hand.

"Yukimura." Ryoma grits his teeth.

"Your father was very worried for you," says Rinko. "So was I. One of the men I love returned to me. The other did not."

"Because I…" This is difficult for Ryoma to say, especially to his mother. "Because I was happy." He feels a surge of cold fury, not at his mother, but at the two responsible for this turn of events. "Father knew I would be. Where is he?"

She takes him to Nanjiroh's study without asking any more questions. Ryoma slams the door open, and Nanjiroh glances up from a book, grinning slowly. "Up and about, are you?"

"No thanks to you," Ryoma replies. It's all he can do not to throttle the grin right off of Nanjiroh's face. "What did you give him?"

"Who?"

"That bastard Yukimura."

"Didn't take much," says Nanjiroh. "One of my better routes. Why do I need to keep it a secret anymore, when I have all these, eh?" He gestures to the texts lying spread on his desk, and Ryoma sees what they are. His hands clench into fists at his sides. Atobe's books, the ones that had been so peculiarly organized amidst the general chaos of the library. "Heh. Yukimura never guessed what I was after. A pair of concerned parents, willing to do anything to fetch their son back. And it wasn't so hard to take these right out from beneath his nose."

Nanjiroh is cut off mid-chortle by a slap across the face. His hand flies to his cheek and his eyes widen. So do Ryoma's. Rinko stands in front of the desk, her arms folded. "I knew it was something," she says. "I didn't know it was this."

"Rinko," Nanjiroh whines plaintively. "It was all for the best…"

"Not according to our son," says Rinko. "This is your responsibility, and you will put things right, Nanjiroh. Ryoma." She turns to him. "You're going back?"

Ryoma doesn't have to hesitate even for a moment. "Yes."

***

Ryoma rides a hard two weeks out to Atobe's castle and back again, this time with proper supplies and preparation for the harsh desert climate. The gardens are there, untouched. The enchanted rose remains in its cage, its few remaining petals drooping, edged with the black of old age. Atobe is gone, and so are all the denizens of the oasis, save one.

"They took them," says Hiyoshi, once he's been coaxed out of the corner of the portrait room. "Everyone."

"We're getting them back," says Ryoma simply. He tucks Hiyoshi into his pack and rides back to the place he no longer considers home.

***

When Ryoma returns home for the second time, he is greeted in the courtyard by his mother and his properly chastised father, along with a few of his father's most trusted men. "He wasn't there," Ryoma says flatly. "Yukimura must have taken him."

"So we've heard," says Nanjiroh, with a sidelong glance at Rinko. "Yukimura's been spreading rumors about his newest acquisition. An addition to his… menagerie. Not public yet, no one's actually seen it," he hastens to continue. "But the rumors are definitely intentional."

"He wanted us to hear about it, he did," Momoshiro puts in. "We never hear anything about what Yukimura's doing unless he's spread it around on purpose."

"All right." Ryoma stops to consider his options. "All right, then. How close can you get me to his house?"

Momoshiro blinks, and swallows nervously. "You mean dead, or alive?"

Ryoma gives him a disgusted look. "Dead, obviously."

"What?" Momoshiro's jaw drops, and then he realizes that Ryoma doesn't mean it. Ryoma rolls his eyes, missing Atobe and his sense of humor more keenly than ever. "Oh."

***

They can only skirt the perimeter of Yukimura's territory on horseback, keeping even greater distances between themselves and the guard posts. Ryoma doesn't think they're spotted even once, and when they're between outposts, he calls a halt.

"What are you doing?" asks Kikumaru. All of them peer curiously at Ryoma as he slides off Karupin's back, and starts undoing the pack strapped to his saddle. Ryoma ignores them and comes up with a fine drinking mug, which opens its eyes and blinks up at him.

"We're here, Hiyoshi," Ryoma tells him. "Can you get that far on your own?" He points into the distance, to the tall and foreboding shape of Yukimura's home and fortress.

Hiyoshi nods shortly. "I'll make it." He's not one for long farewells, and he hops away, hopefully small enough not to attract undue attention, but large enough to cover so much ground.

"He's going to look for the others," says Ryoma to his companions, who are gaping at him as though he's gone insane, or they all have. "And Atobe. Don't tell anyone."

As he swings back into his saddle, he hears Momoshiro say dazedly, "Who would believe it?" and a general murmur of assent.

***

Three agonizing days pass by. Momoshiro and Rinko try to keep Ryoma distracted with games, and books, and riding, but everything reminds Ryoma of Atobe. Finally he shuts himself into his room to avoid them, lying on the bed in the dark, indulging his fears and doubts and absurd worries.

There aren't many people who would thoroughly trample such a clear wish for privacy. Ryoma's father is one of them and, Ryoma thinks, burying his face in the pillow, probably the worst.

"Hey, boy." Nanjiroh plops down on the side of his bed without so much as a by-your-leave. "What are you up to, alone in the dark like this?"

"Plotting your death," Ryoma mumbles. "As painfully as possible."

"Of course it's painful, plotting the demise of your beloved father." Nanjiroh slaps him affectionately on the back, purposely misunderstanding his meaning. "Shouldn't shut yourself in here too long. You'll waste away."

"I don't care." Ryoma curls up on his side, facing away from Nanjiroh. "Leave me to die in peace."

"Oh? Hm." Nanjiroh stands up and stretches; Ryoma knows because he can hear his father's joints popping. "Thought you might want to know that cup of yours is back, and he's got that feathery broom with him. If you'd rather die in here, though-"

"What?" Ryoma is on his feet already, grabbing his robe and bolting for the door. He doesn't glance back to see that Nanjiroh's looking as satisfied as the cat who's caught the canary; Nanjiroh is predictable enough that he doesn't have to.

***

Shishido and Hiyoshi are waiting for him in the courtyard. Nanjiroh's men are standing a respectful distance away, either because they want Ryoma to have the first chance to hear their report, or because they're still terrified of the walking, talking household objects.
Ryoma skids to a kneeling halt in front of them. "Shishido."

"My lord," says Shishido, and bows belatedly.

"What happened?" Ryoma tried not to sound too demanding, but it's difficult, especially after all the days he's spent with no word from any of them.

"We kept still." Shishido paces distractedly. "All of us. Oshitari's idea, and it was probably better. They would have destroyed us instead of-" he stops and scowls. "We're all cowards. I am never listening to Oshitari again."

Some part of Ryoma is glad that Shishido and the rest are safe, but now that he knows this, he has more pressing concerns. "Atobe." Ryoma grabs Shishido and shakes him a little. He can hardly help it; every muscle in his body is trembling. "Where is he?"

"I don't know, stop that!"

Ryoma does, forcing his hands to obey him. He takes a deep, calming breath, and Shishido does the same, or whatever a fly whisk does in order to steady himself. "I don't know where my lord is," Shishido repeats.

"Where did you last see him?" Ryoma asks, not bothering to disguise the urgency he knows Shishido shares.

"Out-" Shishido hesitates, and then continues reluctantly, as though every syllable has to be dragged from him by a team of wild horses. "Outside, when he came home. He didn't realize they- when he saw they had you, he went… insane. Worse than I've ever seen him. They were ready. He didn't stand a chance."

Ryoma swallows the painful lump in his throat. There's a peculiar metal tang on his tongue that he can't identify. "They didn't- Shishido."

"They didn't kill him," Shishido replies, and shakes his head. "Not that I saw. He left the castle alive, tied up with ropes and chains all over him. The first ones wouldn't hold him, so…"

"So Yukimura still has him." Ryoma straightens up and turns his gaze in that direction, even though he has no chance of seeing the place from here. "You came from that house of his?"

"Yes, my lord," Hiyoshi replies.

"Right." Ryoma is still staring into the distance. "That's where I'm going, then."

***

Much as his mother, father, Shishido, Hiyoshi, Momoshiro, and everyone else in range attempt to talk him out of it, Ryoma insists on infiltrating Yukimura's fortress of a house on his own. It will be easier for one man to slip inside than a party of them, and Ryoma's been in it before, though he doesn't mention that he'd never made it farther than the entry hall, and of course Yukimura's study.

He relents in the end and brings Shishido and Hiyoshi along, with strict orders that they are to find the rest of the servants from the castle and perhaps set up a distraction for the guards. They fit inside the pack he carries and guide him along the best route, between guard posts, where he stands a lesser chance of being killed.

Ryoma's breathing seems loud in his ears as he finds whatever cover is available, using it to conceal himself whenever he hears or sees something out of the ordinary. Twice it's only a desert hare, and once it's a bird, but twice it's also guards on patrol. Shishido and Hiyoshi start to bicker after ten minutes crouching in a stand of bushes, and Ryoma pokes the pack to silence them.

He lets them out in the shade along the side of the house, and they lead him to the door they'd used before, a side door that connects to the kitchens, and to the servants' and guards' quarters. They wait until a group of guards passes by, and then they all slip inside and split up, with an agreement to meet back in the kitchens, if they can.

Creeping through Yukimura's stronghold is far from easy, even for someone as small and quiet as Ryoma. Guards pace the halls in pairs at regular intervals, and these guards don't distract each other with chatter. They're as silent and stoic as Yukimura's personal bodyguard, and constantly alert.

Ryoma keeps to the wider corridors, where he'll be able to slip by two people at once. He skitters from doorway to doorway, occasionally ducking into a room full of strange art or torture instruments. He's too preoccupied by his mission even to be unnerved by that one, though he doesn't linger long enough to study the instruments' purposes. It's a gamble every time he opens a door, never knowing whether his death will be waiting on the other side.

He takes the first set of downward-sloping stairs he can find. At the bottom of these, he has his first close run-in with a guard pair. One wears lenses that obscure his eyes, so Ryoma can't tell whether he's been spotted or not. He assumes not and hightails it to the nearest door, which leads to a flight of steps that leads upward. Groaning inwardly, he follows these, having no other choice in the matter. From there, he takes a series of doors and staircases that mix him up and turn him around time and again.

But he's never concerned, except for Atobe's safety in this hellhole. He has experience navigating enormous old buildings, after all. Finally he finds an alcove where he can stop and get his bearings. He has to resist the urge to smash the large, expensive-looking vase that's in the alcove with him, and he does refrain in the end, mostly because he knows Yukimura will only replace it with an even more costly one.

Thinking back to the windows he's passed, Ryoma realizes that he's below ground now. He grins to himself and steals into the hall again, keeping close to the wall. This is when he sees the first sign of unprofessional behavior from Yukimura's underlings: the guard pair from before, the one with the spectacles and the other with wild, white hair, are engaged in a passionate embrace, giving occasional moans and sighs of pleasure, hands lost in each other's clothing. Ryoma chokes back a laugh and tiptoes right by them, to another set of stairs.

This set is more gloomy and forbidding than any of the previous ones. Ryoma decides this is probably a good sign and heads down the grey, damp steps, watching his feet to make sure he doesn't slip on any of the wet patches. He glances up quickly when the first drop of water hits him in the head, and then ignores it when it happens again. The farther he goes, the drier the stairs become, though there's still mold lurking in the corners.

Ryoma's not looking forward to traversing a dungeon just as convoluted as the higher floors, but as it turns out, he doesn't have to. There's a single door at the bottom, unguarded, crisscrossed with black iron. There's a lock on the handle. He squints and searches in the dark for a key, and finds a faint glimmer in the stone corner to the left of the door. He crouches and feels around in the mold and slime until he comes up with a key that matches the lock. He turns the key, the lock clicks, and the door swings silently open. Ryoma slips inside and kicks off one of his boots, using it as a prop to keep the door unlocked. He takes off the other boot as well, for ease of walking, and turns around, tucking the key into the pocket of his trousers.

There's definitely someone being kept in here. Not much light trickles through the cracks toward the top of the room and the slight space between the door and its frame, but enough that his eyes adjust when he starts forward, straining his vision, trying to see if he's found what he's been looking for.

A strangled gasp escapes him when he sees how they're keeping Atobe restrained. He's in a cage on the far side of the room, with steel bars wider than Ryoma's upper arm. Two sides of it are backed by the heavy stone walls in the corner, while the other two are open to the air, no less impregnable. There's a door in front, chained shut and fastened with an enormous lock.

Worse yet, they've put a collar around Atobe's neck, the kind worn by mules plowing a field. This has a pair of metal links on either side of it, and these have chains hooked to them, chains that trail down to steel loops embedded in the floor. Atobe's wrists and ankles are similarly bound with leather cuffs and more chains. He can barely move, even with his inhuman strength; that much is obvious.

His ears flicker at Ryoma's soft exclamation, and he glances up. Immediately, Atobe's eyes widen.

"I heard you were here," says Ryoma, walking slowly forward to rest a hand on the bars of Atobe's prison. "I had to-"

"You fool!" Atobe snarls at him, unexpectedly, as wild as he'd been at the first. His eyes blaze, and his claws screech on stone as he flexes them. "Stupid, thoughtless fool!"

Ryoma doesn't back away; instead, he closes his fists around the bars and stares at Atobe, trying to fight the conflicting emotions welling in him. "Not a very nice thing to say to your rescuer."

"Rescuer?" Atobe gives a short, sharp bark of laughter, and Ryoma winces. The laugh sounds like a hunting mastiff's call, an animalistic noise of a type he hasn't heard from Atobe in months. "You honestly think you'll be able to save me from this?" He lashes out with a front paw, making his chains clatter, the same chains that bring him up short, just before he can slash Ryoma's fingers. "Fool!"

"I made it in here, didn't I?" Ryoma shoots back, growing irritated despite his attempts to remain calm.

"Yes, you did," Atobe replies bitterly. "Are you thinking you've been clever? Do you imagine that monster in human clothing would leave so many weaknesses in his defenses? Do you think he'd let you near his prize if he didn't have something to gain from it?"

"Oh." All of Ryoma's annoyance collapses in the face of this logic, and he knows that Atobe is right. He doesn't begin scanning the room for escape routes, because he knows there will be none, if Yukimura's intention is to trap him like a rabbit in a hole. If Yukimura wants to let him go, there will be a way out, regardless of whether he finds it now, or in half an hour. "Fuck."

"Yes," says Atobe. "You expect me to be grateful to you, for throwing yourself heedlessly into such danger? You are an idiot," he spits. "You would have done better to remain with your mother and father. Risking your neck for a beast? An animal like me?"

"At least I can tell you're a bastard, just looking at you," says Ryoma, honestly. "Didn't I tell you that before? Much better than that Yukimura's pretty face."

"You liked my old face well enough," Atobe growls. He sinks back down to the floor, unable to hold the chains and collar up any longer.

In the face of this startling revelation, Ryoma blinks. "You knew?"

"Of course I knew!" Atobe snaps. "A room that hadn't been dusted in a decade, suddenly clean? I knew there was a reason behind it, and Shishido's loyalty is still to me, not to you. He told me you saw the portrait, when I confronted him."

"Yes, I did." There's no point in lying, not now. Atobe growls under his breath and closes his eyes. "But," Ryoma adds, "I don't care if you never look like that again. You're you, not a portrait. Not a pretty boy like Yukimura, either, even if you were before."

"Thank you," says Atobe sarcastically. "Compliments from an idiot are so meaningful."

Ryoma grins slightly. "You sound like you again, so I can't complain." He reaches through the bars, extending his arm as far as it can go, and just manages to touch Atobe's mane. "I missed you," he says softly. "I was worried."

"You were stupid," Atobe grumbles, and closes his eyes. "You still are."

"So you do care for him. How interesting." Ryoma whirls, pulling his arm out of the cage and he can't see Yukimura right away. Atobe lifts his head, growling low and menacing in the back of his throat. Then the door opens further, and Yukimura's guard steps through, bowing his head deferentially as Yukimura walks inside.

"Now I have some leverage. Don't you agree?" Yukimura's tone is still perfectly conversational, as though they're discussing the weather or fish prices. "I'm sure no one would find fault in my destroying the captive animal, once it turned vicious and killed one of my men. Bunta, do you think?" he inquires, turning to his bodyguard, the same one Ryoma had seen in his office. "Or Akaya? Hm, he may prove useful in the future, but then I wouldn't have the treasure of my menagerie dispatched for someone of less value, would I?"

"No, Yukimura," says the bodyguard, inclining his head. He raises it again to glare at Ryoma, as though Ryoma's the one conversing casually about which of his own men to murder.

"You heartless son of a bitch," says Ryoma, meeting Yukimura's gaze. He doesn't flinch away from the eyes that are rumored to cut like knives. "If you touch him, I'll make you regret the day you were born."

"I don't think you're in a position to be making threats, Ryoma," says Yukimura. "However, if you'll give me your father's remaining routes and contacts, I'll be more than happy to release your pet here."

"Fine," Ryoma snaps, still wincing from Yukimura's use of the word "pet." It's a small price to pay for Atobe's safety and freedom; even smaller after all that Nanjiroh's done. Besides, Ryoma's father still has the books taken from the castle. Any private routes he loses will be made up for, and more, by the information detailed in those texts.

"Though of course, your own freedom will take a little more bargaining." Yukimura smiles, looking bizarrely like a pure, serene young woman. "Those books your father spirited away from my men. I'm sure he'll be more than willing to hand them over, when his heir's life is at stake."

Atobe roars furiously when Yukimura turns around, snapping his fingers for the guard to follow him. The guard kicks the boot out of the doorway and it falls shut with a final and definitive slam. Ryoma puts a hand in his pocket and takes out the key, which is useless on this side of the door.

"Oh, well done," says Atobe. "Now I'll have some company down here. Just what I've always wanted. What are you doing?" This last is snapped incredulously, as Ryoma puts a leg through the bars of the cage.

"Keeping you company." Ryoma gets an arm through, along with the leg, and starts trying to squirm his hips and shoulders in to join them.

"You are an idiot." Atobe only sounds mildly surprised as he watches Ryoma wriggle his way into the cage.

Ryoma's finally through, and he puts a hand to his tailbone, wincing. "Ouch." It won't bruise too badly, though, by his estimation, and so he leaves it and sets to tugging Atobe's chains.

"If I can't break them, how can you?" Atobe demands.

"I don't think I can, actually." Ryoma gives up and sits down on the floor, leaning against Atobe's side. "Oh well."

"Oh well indeed." Atobe closes his eyes in defeat.

***

Atobe's been quiet for several hours in a row, Ryoma estimates by the light. "You know we're going to get out of here," says Ryoma, idly stroking Atobe's fur with his fingertips. It's silky as ever, though there are some tangles, something Atobe's never permitted before, not while Ryoma's known him.

There's no reaction, though Atobe shifts a little, chains clinking faintly.

"We have to get out," says Ryoma. "You have to finish teaching me piano." No response. "You have to keep serving those stupid banquets for just the two of us." A flick of the ear greets that one, so Ryoma presses on. "You won't be able to stop me from taking your chair if we don't get out."

"If you'll leave me alone, you're welcome to it," Atobe grumbles.

Well, at least that's something. "Atobe." Ryoma leans in and kisses his ear lightly. The ear flicks again. "Atobe." Another kiss, another flick. "Ato-"

"What?"

Now that Atobe is actually looking at him, or glaring, more accurately, Ryoma says, "We have to dance again. I'll even wear Taki's stupid dress," he adds, in a fit of inspiration. He kisses Atobe's ear until it's flicking back and forth like the tail of a nervous cat. "But we have to get out of here first."

"You can get out without me, if your idiot father pays him," says Atobe, though Ryoma can tell his resolve is wavering. "You can dance with anyone."

"But not the right one," Ryoma points out. "Because he's here in this cage with me."

There is a long silence, and then Atobe says, "You're not going to leave me alone, are you."

"No," says Ryoma. "Never."

***

A guard comes twice to feed them, each time only a short while after Ryoma's stomach has started grumbling for attention. Ironically, they receive bread and water first, and then water and gruel for the second meal, along with some raw red meat, presumably for Atobe. "Just what you ordered, isn't it?" Ryoma asks, tearing off a tough crust of bread with his teeth.

Atobe gives him a long-suffering look. "Why do I put up with you?"

"Because you like me," Ryoma points out, accurately enough. "At least there's no mold. Or maggots. That would be disgusting."

"This is disgusting already." But Atobe accepts the bread when Ryoma tears it apart to feed it to him. He drinks the lukewarm water as well, straining so that he won't spill a single drop.

"They didn't bother making sure you could eat or drink, did they." For that alone, Ryoma would be happy and willing to strangle anyone involved in this affair.

"I've eaten," says Atobe. "Some."

"What you could reach." Ryoma spends an unproductive few minutes glowering at the door, willing someone to enter so he can at least spew obscenities in their direction. Yukimura's men are nowhere near so obliging, however, and the hot streak of rage has faded by the time the next meal is brought to them.

No one enters after that, and even the light from the top of the room fades. Ryoma curls up close to Atobe, and Atobe moves as best he can to cushion Ryoma from the hard, cold stone floor. It does little real good, but Ryoma smiles and puts a hand on Atobe's paw, snuggling nearer. "See," he murmurs. "You like the company."

"A moron is better than nothing."

"Mmhm. Goodnight."

Ryoma is capable of sleeping anywhere he can sit or lie down, and Atobe's presence is comforting enough that it doesn't take him long to fall into a restful slumber. He's not sure whether Atobe sleeps, but once in the night he wakes up, and Atobe's breathing is deep and even beside him. Ryoma says something, he never remembers what afterward, and dozes again.

He snaps into full wakefulness by a loud bang at the door, and another, and then another. "Good morning," Atobe growls, staring watchfully through the bars. "Any idea what our friend Yukimura is trying to do?"

"Maybe they lost the key?" Ryoma suggests. "Maybe-"

He's interrupted by another bang, louder than all the others combined. And then he's stunned when Taki bursts through the door. Oshitari and Shishido are on his head, and they are accompanied by various pieces of silverware that tap-tap-tap across the floor to the cage, cheering and congratulating each other. "Your salvation is nigh, my lords!" Oshitari proclaims.

"My face is ruined," Taki laments.

"What in the-" Atobe sounds even more shocked than Ryoma feels.

"Oh," says Ryoma. "You found them. You found everyone?"

"Everyone," Shishido confirms, glancing nervously down at the floor.

"Do come on, Shishido," Oshitari urges him, and after several false starts on Shishido's part, Taki twitches and sends him tumbling across the room.

"We had a man on the inside," Ryoma informs Atobe smugly. "Well. A whole lot of men, actually."

Oshitari hops over to them. "Lift me up, please?"

Ryoma puts an arm through the bars and, with some difficulty, gets Oshitari up to the lock. Oshitari finds a limb that looks somewhat like a corkscrew, sticks it into the lock, jiggles it a little, and then the lock opens with a tiny click. "There," he says proudly, as the door swings open.

"Why did you insist on ruining my face, if you could do that all along?" Taki asks pointedly.

"I wasn't sure I could," Oshitari says, waving a hand of dismissal at him. "Now, about my lord's chains…"

He has to make creative use of his various extensions in order to get the job done, but in the end, all of the chains fall to the floor. "I think I'm some type of lock-picking device," Oshitari muses.

"No," says Atobe, yanking off the mule's collar, his last barrier to freedom.

"Really?" Ryoma puts in, and laughs when Atobe gives himself a good shake. "So everyone else is keeping them-" he points up. "-busy?"

"Terrified out of their wits, more like." Shishido puffs up his nonexistent chest in a curious maneuver that Ryoma will never be able to reproduce in his head. "We've got them on the run!"

"You didn't do anything," says Hiyoshi, who's followed the silverware inside.

Shishido whips around and glares menacingly at him. "I encouraged you all. I'm a fly whisk, what am I supposed to do?"

"Come on," says Atobe with authority, silencing all of them. "We need to get out of here."

"I told you so," Ryoma whispers, on the way up the stairs, and Atobe doesn't even snort at him, just elbows him lightly in the side.

***

The building is in a state of uproar. They pass a few men running for their lives, pursued by divans and footstools. Some corridors are entirely abandoned, with no guards patrolling the whole length of them. A few turns later, and they can hear the sounds of battle in front of them. Ryoma peers around the nearest corner and sees that the hall is blocked off by the fight raging in it. Yukimura's men are outnumbered, but they have the advantage of size over the utensils and rugs and pieces of flatware that are attacking them. The plates, especially, have to dance out of reach whenever anyone swings at them, for fear of being shattered.

"The two of you, get out if you can," Shishido directs Atobe and Ryoma. He glances around at Oshitari, Taki, and Hiyoshi, and nods. "We'll stay and help."

"But-" Ryoma protests.

Atobe's already dragging him in the opposite direction. "Don't be stupid," he says sharply. "They'll be fine."

"You're worried too," Ryoma accuses him.

"More worried about you," Atobe counters. "You'd throw yourself right onto one of their swords, and then everything…" he shakes his head without finishing, and hauls Ryoma along with him.

Their progression through the house is remarkably uneventful, considering that they would've been killed before they'd gone a few steps, several hours ago. Ryoma squirms enough that Atobe releases him and lets him walk on his own, or trot, more accurately, as Ryoma has to take about four strides for every one of Atobe's.

But Ryoma can't remember the way out, not for certain. Atobe grows impatient as they hit their third dead end. "You said you'd been through here before," he says pointedly.

"I have, but I was looking for you…" Ryoma opens a door and finds a room full of suits of armor, made for men and horses. "Not there, either."

"Where were you looking?" Atobe asks. "Behind the portraits?"
"Maybe," says Ryoma, pacing to the other end of the hall. "You're small when you curl up."

"Not that-" Atobe stops, because this hallway opens into a huge, vaulted chamber that Ryoma recognizes well. And on the other side of this chamber are Yukimura and a troop of guards, moving toward the exit. Yukimura spies them as soon as Atobe and Ryoma hurtle forward as one, toward him.

"Take the boy!" Yukimura commands, lifting his chin. "The beast won't touch us, once we have him."

At that, Atobe snarls, and so does Ryoma. They won't use him as a hostage again, not while he's awake and alert enough to stop them. He turns and grabs an elaborate candelabrum, starting to apologize until he remembers that not every piece of furniture here is a human in disguise. He grips it in both hands, ready to use it as a weapon, but he never has the chance.

He sees, now, what Shishido had meant about Atobe going insane over this. Atobe won't let any of the guards anywhere near him. They scatter like a flock of birds, though not of their own volition; some fall hard to the floor, and others are shoved away, stumbling and bleeding, raked by Atobe's claws. Atobe is a deadly whirlwind, so fast Ryoma can't follow his movements. Ryoma almost misses it, almost, when Atobe roars and surges forward.

Yukimura, who's made it to the door, is ready to push it open, in fact, whips around, startled. Atobe doesn't give him a chance to move. He hits Yukimura, and Yukimura's head snaps back, and then Yukimura slides to the floor, his eyes fluttering shut.

There's no room for celebration, except for a private one inside of Ryoma's head. Another group of guards has just entered the room, more of them this time, and there are yells and cries from them when they see what's been done to their employer. Ryoma drops his makeshift weapon and grabs Atobe's arm. "This way!" They run for Yukimura's study, and just make it before the first of the men hits the closed door. Ryoma throws the lock and the bolt into place, but he doesn't know how long those will last.

Atobe throws himself against the door, and Ryoma joins him, adding his more paltry weight to their effort to keep the guards out. "Was this the entirety of your escape plan?" Atobe inquires.

"It wasn't mine!" Ryoma retorts. "Oshitari and Shishido's, maybe Hiyoshi's."

"I've got to hire some new help." Atobe braces his feet on the carpeting, holding steady when the men outside hit the door. They might have something to use as a battering ram, Ryoma isn't sure. "Maybe Yukimura's head," Ryoma says under his breath, although he doesn't think they'll be that lucky.

Atobe glances at him. "What?"

"Nothing." Ryoma braces for the next impact, too, but he's still jolted back when it comes. "Atobe. Atobe!"

"What?" Atobe looks at him, undoubtedly wondering what in the hell is so important. Ryoma waits until he's sure Atobe's eyes are locked on his, and then, holding his gaze as steady as he can, says, "I love you." He has to raise his voice to be heard above the din from outside the room, but he can tell Atobe hears from the way his ears flicker, his eyes widening.

"You don't," says Atobe finally, incredulously.

"Why would I say it if I didn't?" Ryoma counters. "Why would I say it now?"

"I have no idea!" Atobe growls back, and they both lurch like drunken sailors when the impact against the door comes again. Ryoma digs in his heels against the edge of the woven rug, lending what support he can with his lesser weight.

"That's not the way you're supposed to answer when someone tells you they love you," Ryoma reprimands him, grin flickering across his face despite the circumstances.

"For heaven's sake," says Atobe, exasperated. "You know already that I love you, too!"

Suddenly he doubles over as though he's in pain, slouching more heavily on the door. Ryoma puts a hand on his shoulder, startled and on the verge of fear, adrenaline redoubling its surge through him. He instinctively strokes the silky fur, twines his fingers through it, trying to offer any possibly comfort. "What-" Ryoma begins, and then has to flinch away, shutting his eyes tightly against the golden burst of light all around them. On the other side of the door, the shouts turn to alarmed cries, the glow showing into the hallway, so bright that it's like staring into the sun, even when Ryoma's eyes are closed. The hammering on the door ceases momentarily.

The fur beneath Ryoma's palm is shifting, changing, disappearing and leaving smooth skin in its place. The skin makes Ryoma's arm tingle the way the rose does when he touches the gold strands of light around it. Just as abruptly as it had come, the glow fades, and Ryoma blinks away the dark spots in front of his vision. He sees a blurred figure, not the shape he's come to expect, and he slides his hand down a decidedly human arm, trying to touch, to feel, to understand what he already knows.

Blue eyes look up and meet his. These eyes are framed by a mane of long, light brown hair that falls to the shoulders, but no farther. The clothing is large and loose around a frame that's become drastically smaller. "That's it?" Ryoma breathes. "It's broken?"

"Yes," says Atobe irritably, and if Ryoma had possessed any doubts as to whether it was truly him, those doubts would have been dispelled. Then they're both thrown inward as the men outside ram the door again. Atobe recovers first, throwing all his weight against the door. "You could've chosen a better time for this!" he yells.

"No, I couldn't have!" Ryoma yells back. "They won't want a human in a menagerie, will they?"

Atobe stares at him. "You mean-"

Ryoma nods emphatically, just as Yukimura's men hit the door once again. Atobe pitches backwards, about to fall, and Ryoma tries to catch him. Unfortunately, Atobe's still larger then he is, and they end up sprawled on the floor, with Ryoma on top. "Oh, so now they'll just kill us," Atobe says. "What an excellent plan.."

"Shut up, would you," says Ryoma, amiably enough, and grabs Atobe by the collar of his shirt, dragging him down into a kiss.

When the men break through, Ryoma is still kissing Atobe, and Atobe, in between complaints, is kissing right back, fiercely, as though he's never going to stop unless it's to tell Ryoma what an idiot he is.

***

They don't end up dead, as it turns out. And though they're gaped at a bit by Yukimura's men, and then again by Nanjiroh's comrades and Atobe's newly-humanized servants, who have come to rescue them, they don't end up in a menagerie either. "You had better make an honest woman of my son!" Nanjiroh declares jovially, when Atobe and Ryoma finally break apart, slight smiles on both of their faces, with eyes only for each other.

"Think we should invite him to the wedding?" Ryoma murmurs, so that only Atobe can hear.

"No," says Atobe firmly, and pulls Ryoma down into another kiss.
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