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

Nicked, 3/3

Nicked, by kishmet, part three of three.

When such as I, who have no certain roof but the coffin lid, and no friend in sickness or death but the hospital nurse, set our rotten hearts on any man, and let him fill the place that has been a blank through all our wretched lives, who can hope to cure us?




Ryoma could find something to complain about, no matter where they were. With so much space outside, he commented on a regular basis, why were they cooped up indoors so often? They didn't go to church here, because it was too far away and neither Atobe nor Ryoma wanted to, really, but then that meant Ryoma wasn't sure Atobe would oblige and let them go anyplace more interesting than the library or the study.

Atobe surprised him by saying briskly, "Very well. It's time you learned to ride, at any rate."

They had to dress up in riding trousers and boots, though the clothes weren't so different from the ones they wore every day. These were a bit tighter, though, and Ryoma tugged at his every once in awhile, trying to loosen them up. He stopped thinking about them once they headed over to the stables, and had to do his best not to prance along in front of Atobe like an overeager puppy. Atobe glanced at him, and snorted. "You can skip through the grass if you would like. Anything is preferable to you looking as though you're on your way to your own funeral."

"Don't want to skip," Ryoma said, lifting his chin, and he didn't. Not too badly.

"Mmhm." Atobe concealed a smile, but Ryoma saw it anyway, and reached up to cuff Atobe's ear. Atobe yelped and stared at him.

"You deserved it," said Ryoma, and then set off like a bolt of greased lightning. Atobe came after him, just as Ryoma had known he would, but with so much room to run, Ryoma wasn't going to be cornered the way he'd been when he'd first met Atobe. He dodged and hurtled through the grass (golden oat-grass, or whatever it was), laughing like a madman and calling taunts back over his shoulder.

Atobe caught him just as Ryoma came skidding to a halt at the edge of the stableyard. "Got you," Atobe murmured, and held onto him just a second too long. Ryoma didn't mind; he needed a second or two to catch his breath, and Atobe was supporting him while he did. Ryoma leaned against Atobe's chest, smelling sweat and mint and flowers.

Suddenly Atobe pinched the edge of his ear, and Ryoma pulled away, spluttering. "You deserved that," said Atobe smugly. "Now come on."

"Didn't deserve it," Ryoma groused, rubbing his ear. It didn't hurt so much, but he was put-out that he had to stop leaning on Atobe. He couldn't quite figure out why.

He didn't have much time to think about it, because there were two horses were waiting for them in the yard, saddled and ready to go.

"This is my horse, Elizabeth." Atobe patted the neck of the white mare, who shook her head, making her bridle jingle. "That one will be yours, the bay. His name is William."

Ryoma eyed the horse, who was being held by one of the stablehands. "I have to get up on that thing?" Horses were all right to sleep by and usually all right to be around the rest of the time, but they were nearly twice as tall as Ryoma was.

"How else would you think you'd ride?" Atobe inquired. When Ryoma still wouldn't go nearer to the horse, Atobe sighed and handed Elizabeth's reins to another stablehand. "I'll help you on. Although you've got to be closer to him than that," he remarked pointedly.

"Fine." Ryoma dragged his feet on the way over. William seemed a nice enough horse, reaching out to sniff Ryoma's hand when it was offered, but still he loomed over Ryoma, seeming even bigger up close. "What do I do, then?"

"Put your foot up in the stirrup," said Atobe. "This." He tapped the metal loop attached to the saddle.

"I know," Ryoma said irritably. "All the way up there? Can't reach."

"Then just lift your other leg. That way, yes." Atobe linked his hands beneath Ryoma's knee. "I'll boost you onto his back."

"Just don't throw me over." Ryoma wouldn't admit to being nervous, of course not, but he got snappish when he was trying not to show his nerves.

"Of course not. One, two, three… there." On the count of three, Atobe lifted, and Ryoma sort of leaped his way up, guessing that Atobe probably needed a little help on his part, even though Atobe didn't much deserve it.

And then Ryoma was all the way up on the horse's back. He clutched at the black mane, involuntarily clenching his legs together to keep himself on. William started to walk forward.

"Don't move your legs unless you want him to start," Atobe instructed, sounding more amused than he should've, in Ryoma's opinion.

"I noticed," said Ryoma crossly. "Now how does he stop?"

"Pull back on your reins. Gently, mind you. Don't go ruining my horse's mouth."

"I know." Ryoma wasn't going to saw the mouth off of anything living. He bet that iron bar in there, what had Atobe called it, a bit, that was it, wasn't too comfortable with a rider pulling on it. William stopped obediently, shaking his head to rid himself of a fly. Ryoma clutched the mane tighter. Even that little movement threatened to send him falling off the horse's back.

Atobe had gotten himself onto Elizabeth when Ryoma wasn't looking, and brought her over at a faster pace than Ryoma would've liked. What if William saw, and got the idea that he was supposed to take off too? He gave the reins another little tug, just to be sure.

"Oh, stop that. He's not going to run," said Atobe. "William is an old gelding, hardly inclined to go dashing off at anything."

"Horses always dash places, way I've seen them." Ryoma had mostly encountered either tired horses in their stalls or wild, fast carriage horses in the streets. The latter had made him wary, and taught him that horses had two paces: stop, and bolt, and they didn't care who was under their feet for the second one.

"Not when they've been properly trained. Squeeze him a little with your legs, get him moving." Atobe set Elizabeth walking forward. Ryoma barely had to move to get William to follow.

It wasn't so bad, once he got used to the bumping. Nice for a change, too, because William was a little taller than Elizabeth, so Ryoma was the same height as Atobe. "Shouldn't have taught me this," said Ryoma, grinning. "I can see eye-to-eye with you now, no mistake."

Atobe drew himself up, which could have been dignified except he was just trying to make himself taller again. "Yes, well. One must sacrifice height if one wishes to ride the faster horse."

"Faster?" Ryoma looked at Elizabeth. "Want to see who'd win? She's just little, and a girl."

"Oh?" Atobe chuckled. "Only a moment ago you were apprehensive about riding at all, and now you want a race? I think that should wait."

"And once I've learned, I'll pick my own horse, and a faster one than yours," said Ryoma.

"I'm sure you will," said Atobe with another chuckle. "For now, I think you'll do best on that old nag."

"Can't be that bad," Ryoma retorted. "You wouldn't own a horse that was."

"Touche," said Atobe. "Which means 'touched' in French, by the way."

"I know. You think my lessons aren't doing me any good?"

"With you," said Atobe, "nothing at all is certain and you know it."

***

They ambled across the grounds at a leisurely pace, and the sun was sinking by the time they came back. Ryoma would've liked to stay out longer, riding through the forests he'd never seen before, even though Atobe told him they were tiny compared to real wild places. "We can go out again tomorrow," Atobe promised him, and looked off into the distance. "Today has been most enjoyable."

He'd said the last bit in French, so Ryoma retaliated in Spanish. "It was nice. Horses aren't so bad."

"Not at all."

The stablehands were waiting to take William and Elizabeth back, but Atobe dismissed them, and he and Ryoma led the horses to their stalls without help. "He's hungry," Ryoma noted, when William plunged his nose into the bucket of grain that was waiting for him.

"They are always hungry. If we had worked them harder, we would have to wait before allowing them to eat. They would gorge themselves sick." Elizabeth and Atobe were in the stall next door, and Atobe finished removing his horse's saddle and bridle before Ryoma was done with his.

He came out of the stall and around, opening William's door. "Do you need any-"

"No, got it." Ryoma staggered some under the weight of the saddle, with the bridle draped over it, but he got them out the door, and even closed that with his foot. "No trouble."

"Of course not." Atobe carried his saddle with considerably less difficulty, but didn't argue Ryoma's determination to do it on his own. He showed Ryoma to the hooks where the horses' tack was kept. The saddles went on shelves, each with their own place. Ryoma had a hard time of it, as William's saddle belonged on a high one, but by scrabbling around on some of the lower ones and the wall boards, he managed to heave it up there.

"Could've helped me," said Ryoma, hiding a grin as Atobe lifted his saddle up with only a little trouble.

"I thought you were dead set on hauling that thing around by yourself." Atobe hung up Elizabeth's bridle, too, right by the saddle's shelf.

Ryoma still had William's bridle in hand, toying with one of the leather straps he'd undone to take it off the horse's head. When Atobe reached up to straighten William's saddle, Ryoma saw his chance and flicked Atobe on the backside with the strap.

He'd never heard a man give such an undignified squeal, but that was sure the sound Atobe made. "Couldn't have hurt that much," said Ryoma, scoffing. He knew he was right, too, since he hadn't been aiming even to bruise.

"You thrice-damned little imp!" Atobe lunged for him, and Ryoma danced back, sticking out his tongue. "Get back here!"

Ryoma would've gotten away, but the reins tripped him up. Atobe got hold of him. "Must be getting slow, if an old man like you can catch me twice," said Ryoma, trying to duck out of Atobe's grip.

"Or I'm getting quicker," Atobe retorted. He grabbed the reins up and took his revenge, swatting Ryoma with them.

"Not fair!" Ryoma yelped, stepping backward and snagging the reins from Atobe at the same second. This time it was Atobe who tripped on them, and Ryoma dropped the bridle, thinking to use the opportunity to escape.

Cursing, Atobe stumbled and fell onto the straw, but managed to drag Ryoma along with him. Ryoma scrambled to get himself on top, laughing at the gentleman who thought he'd make it against a long-time street fighter, even when the gentleman was Atobe. "What, haven't done this before?" Ryoma taunted. "I can tell."

"As a matter of fact…" Atobe did something sudden, so quick that Ryoma barely had time for a startled yelp before he was flipped and pinned. "Wrestling," Atobe remarked, slightly out of breath. "Like fencing… necessary for a young man of quality."

"Quality?" Ryoma wrinkled his nose up at Atobe, trying to squirm his way free. But Atobe had him in a good and proper hold, as effective as any Ryoma had learned on the streets. "What kind of quality they going for?"

"Are they," Atobe corrected him. "Not just they. What kind of quality are they going for."

Ryoma grinned impishly. "I knew that."

"Of course you did. You know everything, don't you?" The tone of his voice wasn't quite scoffing, as usual; in fact there was something strange in it that Ryoma hadn't heard before. Or maybe he had heard it before, Ryoma thought, studying Atobe's face. When he'd gotten a lesson right on the first try, or when he'd shown up the tutor because he knew more already, Atobe had that same sound in his voice.

"Not everything," said Ryoma. "Thought that was what you were trying to teach me." Atobe was awfully close, with his scent of mint and, what was the other thing? Jasmine, maybe, that was it. The flower Ryoma had seen in the book. Boys smelling like flowers was different, but all right, if the boy was rich like Atobe, anyway.

"Hardly," said Atobe, sounding more speculative than amused. "Even I don't know everything."

He'd loosened his grip, getting all distracted like that, and Ryoma never got distracted enough to miss an opportunity, not even when that scent of mint and jasmine and Atobe was making him slightly dizzy. He caught one of Atobe's legs between his own and in one brief moment of struggle, flipped a surprised Atobe onto his back like a turtle. "You didn't know that was coming," said Ryoma, smug, folding his arms on Atobe's chest and leaning on them. Atobe was comfortable and warm, like the times Ryoma had stayed in someone's stable overnight and slept against one of the horses. Only with Atobe it was… different.

"No, I didn't." Atobe watched him for a minute, and all Ryoma did was watch right back. "Would you care to learn something else?" His voice was barely more than a murmur, funny for a man who'd just been beaten at wrestling.

"Sure. Long as it's part of everything," Ryoma said.

"As long as," said Atobe, teasing him. "You need the first 'as' in there, if you're going to seem as though you have some class."

"There's already one, who cares about the other?" Ryoma countered. "You going to teach me something, then? Or are you just trying to cheat your way out of this?"

"Certainly not." But Atobe didn't seem affronted. He ran a hand through Ryoma's hair, doing more to ruffle and put straw in it than to flatten it. The hand came to rest at the back of Ryoma's head, fingers still stroking gently through Ryoma's hair. Then he leaned up and pressed their lips together, warm and sweet and tasting of minty straw. Ryoma, ever a quick learner, tilted his head to let Atobe's mouth slide along his. Strange, but he liked it. He'd never been kissed before and he'd never done any kissing either, and what he'd seen hadn't looked so nice, more like wet and filthy. Maybe to do it properly it had to be done with a dandy, but Atobe wasn't exactly one of those, either.

Ryoma licked his lips when Atobe pulled away. "So," he said, and the smile that had come across his face turned to a roguish grin. "You going to teach me to tumble like a milkmaid in the hay?"

"Of course not!" Even after the kiss, Atobe was indignant. "You… you brat!" He pushed Ryoma off of him, but kept his arm underneath so that Ryoma wouldn't land right on the hard floor. "Teach you to tumble… milkmaid indeed. And I was concerned that taking advantage would be an issue. Ha!"

"Shouldn't have worried about that," Ryoma commented, and could only laugh when Atobe threw a handful of the straw at him.

***

Ryoma had thought those kisses meant the start of something new, but then everything was the same as it always had been. Well, not quite everything; he caught Atobe looking at him over dinner as though he wanted to eat Ryoma instead of the roast. When Ryoma commented on it, Atobe's cheeks flushed, and he told Ryoma to eat his spinach. Ryoma obediently did, because he had more important things to think about than where to dump his vegetables.

He thought for sure that whatever was going to happen would do it after the meal, but Atobe just told Kabaji to prepare his nightclothes, wished Ryoma a goodnight warmer than he'd ever done before, and went off to his bedroom.

Atobe's rooms had always been off-limits unless he'd had something to fetch, and taken Ryoma along with him. This didn't bother Ryoma much, and he wondered why he'd never thought of doing it before as he padded down the hall in the unfamiliar wing of the house. He copied Atobe and knocked at the door, pushing it open before he'd got a response.

"Come in," said Atobe, sounding distracted.

"Don't mind if I do." Ryoma shut the door behind him, looking around. This room was smaller, but nice, with paintings of horses and hunting scenes hung on the walls, and a round, woven rug that looked like it would be cozy to lie down on.

Atobe was folding the cuffs of his nightshirt. He glanced at Ryoma and stilled, then looked away, continuing what he was doing. "Hello." No "good evening" or anything like it. Atobe was definitely rattled.

Ryoma cut straight to the point. "Are you going to do it yet?"

Atobe turned to him again, startled either by the question itself, or by Ryoma's insertion of the proper 'are' at the beginning of the sentence, something he didn't usually bother with. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," said Ryoma impatiently, "are you just going to kiss me a couple times and have done with it? That's all you want?"

"That is hardly a gentlemanly thing to-" Atobe began, then seemed to realise that being a gentleman had nothing to do with this. "You know that it's not considered… that it is not acceptable to all… to most persons of good character."

"So?" Ryoma asked, blunt as could be.

"Are you saying that you wish to-?"

Ryoma rolled his eyes, disgusted by this 'gentlemanly' hedging. "No, I'm a priest, come to call you on your moral failings." Then, when Atobe still hesitated, he added sarcastically, "You think?"

"Ah." Atobe was silent for another moment, and then he said, "I don't think you are aware of the many possible ramifications of this particular-"

Ryoma was bored with Atobe's excuses, so he flung himself forward, quick as lightning, when Atobe was still in mid-sentence. He sent Atobe stumbling back against the wall, tripping over his own stupid fancy shoes, which had been left lying on the floor, on the way. Atobe opened his mouth indignantly, but since the point had been to shut Atobe up, Ryoma stood on his toes and kissed Atobe as firmly as he could manage without taking out a few teeth in the process.

Against Ryoma's mouth, Atobe made a kind of incoherent, sputtering sound. Ryoma didn't mind, because at least Atobe couldn't go on saying reasons why they couldn't do this. They obviously could, since here they were doing it, and the rest of high society wasn't bursting into the room to stop them.

Anyway, Atobe didn't go on objecting. Instead he put his arms around Ryoma and pulled him close, one hand just above his arse, and one on the back of his neck, not that Ryoma was going to try to go anywhere. "This is a terrible idea, you know," Atobe murmured.

"Tch. You just say that because I thought of it."

"I was the one who made an advance before you'd ever considered the possibility!"

"Well, you'd never have done anything else about it!"

"A gentleman," Atobe informed him, "knows when to speak and when to be silent." And before Ryoma could say anything back to that, maybe asking why Atobe didn't take his own advice, Atobe sneaked his tongue through Ryoma's lips.

Oh. That was nice, that was, Atobe's tongue running along his own, swirling around it and finding places that made Ryoma shiver. And that was nice too, Atobe's hand lower than before, on his-

Ryoma pulled away and looked up suspiciously. "You've done this before," he accused.

Atobe raised an eyebrow and mimicked Ryoma from a few moments before: "You think?" Then the hand on Ryoma's arse squeezed lightly and tugged their hips together, so Ryoma couldn't even muster a comeback.

After that, things went fast, like the scenery from a carriage where the horses were galloping, only nothing was moving around them, they were moving. Ryoma got his clothes stripped off quicker than anything, then had to wait while Atobe got out of his. He didn't wait very patiently though, giving Atobe kisses and reaching a hand down Atobe's trousers before they were all the way off.

"Done this before yourself, have you." Atobe's tone wasn't quite as reproachful as he'd probably meant it to be.

Ryoma grinned. "Nah. Just have a good teacher, is all." He curled his fingers in Atobe's hair and pulled him in for another long, open-mouthed kiss, laughing into it as Atobe struggled to get the shirt over his head while nibbling at Ryoma's lips.

No more talking once Atobe had gotten the trousers off, though, because then they were against the same wall, kissing and catching gasps of breath when they could and doing things that felt fine alone, but felt even better with two people. Ryoma had never thought much of this sort of thing out on the street, but then, he reasoned, he hadn't met Atobe by that time. He'd seen people doing this plenty of times, in the alleys or in the stables, but to him it had just looked messy and uncomfortable and unnecessary.

Well, it turned out that it was messy, obviously, and maybe unnecessary, but nowhere near uncomfortable. Ryoma shuddered in the circle of Atobe's arm, which was probably the only thing holding him up and pulled on Atobe's hair harder than he'd meant to, biting down on Atobe's shoulder at the same time.

For some reason that made Atobe draw in a hoarse breath and tighten his grip around Ryoma's waist, then he was sent tumbling over the edge too, his hips jerking into Ryoma's hand. Not very gentlemanly, Ryoma didn't think, but Atobe was the one who cared about that.

Atobe's forehead pressed against Ryoma's for a bit, not quite hard enough to hurt, just hard enough to feel, all sticky and sweaty, both their hair damp and loose, Atobe's falling all about his shoulders.

"That was nice," Ryoma commented, and yawned. He was sleepy, suddenly, warm and acutely aware that he felt safe, one of the first times in his whole life he'd ever felt that way, completely like this anyway.

Atobe kissed the tip of his nose, just brushing his lips over it. "Yes, it was."

"Even with a brat off the street?" Ryoma asked, unable to resist even though he was tired.

"Especially with a street brat," said Atobe, then kissed him again, adding, "Only with a street brat."

"Good," said Ryoma, satisfied. Then: "You're a mess." Once an urchin and a brat, always an urchin and a brat, after all. He couldn't let Atobe get used to his being sweet and cooperative, or Atobe would forget he'd ever been any other way. Then again, that might be fun; then Atobe'd be pretty surprised next time Ryoma came out with a smart remark.

"So are you," Atobe retorted, and Ryoma knew that Atobe would never ever forget what a brat Ryoma was. And that, startlingly enough, seemed a good thing. Atobe glanced off to the side. "There's a basin by the bed."

"Oh good. Wouldn't want to explain this one to the help, would you?" Ryoma inquired, and laughed at Atobe's expression. "Unless they're used to it."

"Hardly," Atobe replied dryly. "I don't advertise things like this, believe me."

***

By the time Atobe murmured in his sleep, stretched, and began to wake up, Ryoma had already been awake for a bit. He grinned and finished pulling on his right stocking. "Up, finally?"

"Mm. Yes." Atobe wasn't nearly the gentleman he was while awake when he was sleeping. He tried to cuddle like a stray dog looking for warmth in an alley, and he stole the covers all the time. Ryoma didn't mind, though, because he'd found that a good kick made Atobe stop for awhile, sure enough. Atobe yawned, stretching again and bringing more bare skin out from under the blankets.

Ryoma looked appreciatively down the smooth, pale skin over Atobe's ribs, down to his hips, still covered partially in the sheet, and right on down his long, curved leg. Ryoma's tutor had taught him about horse conformation and what a good horse looked like, but in Ryoma's opinion, Atobe looked better than any old horse. "Couldn't take jumps so well, though, probably," he mused aloud.

Atobe opened one eye. "What?"

"Nothing," said Ryoma, nonchalant. "Just thinking you can't jump over a log so well as Elizabeth and William."

"That… what?" Atobe didn't seem quite awake enough for this yet. He narrowed the open eye, then opened them both to look at Ryoma. "And why, exactly, are you comparing me to horses?"

"What you said, about conformation and all." Ryoma let his gaze linger on the skin he could see, then said with another grin, "Nice."

"Conformation has nothing to do with humans."

Atobe swatted at him, and Ryoma dodged easily. "Too slow, old man," he teased. He squeaked with surprise when Atobe pounced on him, and then started making some entirely different sounds, a minute later.

And that was the way things were, all the while they were in Atobe's country house.

***

When all the brightly-colored red, orange, and yellow leaves had drifted from the trees, they went back to the city. "No one winters out here," said Atobe when they'd bundled into the carriage, decked out in coats and scarves and thick gloves.. "They would freeze to death."

"Near froze to death in winter back home, before you got to me." Ryoma wasn't much pleased to be returning. Snowy days held only a few good memories for him; the times when he'd got hold of a shingle and slid down the icy gutters on it, along with some of the other lifters, for instance. The rest were just cold and miserable, holed up in some doorway where he'd be swatted away with a broom, come morning. With the rich ones off the streets, there was nothing to be done but scrape along each day, nicking what food he could, begging on street corners when there was none to be found.

"Well, I'm grateful that you survived, in that case." Atobe kissed him, which was cheating, in Ryoma's opinion. He could never keep up a sulk long, not with the way Atobe kissed.

***

"I'm what?" Ryoma asked incredulously.

"Hosting a party," Atobe repeated, and nuzzled Ryoma's neck in the same distracting way he'd done the first time. It was hard to listen and understand what Atobe was saying while Ryoma was perched on Atobe's lap. "It is one of the few entertainments available during the winter months, and there are none yet scheduled until the nineteenth. Hanamura's, I believe. We will be required to attend, but not to- stop that."

Ryoma had flicked Atobe's chin to gain his attention, and Atobe flicked his nose back. "Don't care about all that," said Ryoma. "What'd you say before it, about the party?"

"You will be hosting a party on the sixth, and I am sure you will be the most gracious and eloquent host this city has ever seen," Atobe told him, leaning in to nibble on Ryoma's ear until Ryoma flicked him again. "Would you stop that?"

"Would, but I'd rather not," said Ryoma.

"You need a proper introduction to high society since you will be staying with me for the foreseeable future." Atobe carried on as though Ryoma had raised no objections, and Ryoma decided he ought to resort to drastic measures. "The last party you attended was something of a disaster, although I admit that- stop that!"

Ryoma had got a hand down the front of Atobe's trousers. "Stop what?" he asked innocently.

"That… would… don't you…"

Each time Atobe tried to protest, Ryoma moved his fingers a little more. "What?" he inquired.

Atobe never responded too coherently to that question, which was exactly as Ryoma had intended.

Even so, preparations for the party began right away, or close enough to it. If Atobe thought the kissing meant the end of their real quarreling, he was dead wrong. Then again, he seemed to like fighting just as well as Ryoma did, though he was easier to tease. "You can't serve everything for supper, that is preposterous!" Atobe fumed, waving the list at Ryoma. It said just what Atobe had claimed: EVERYTHING, written in all capitals in Ryoma's scrawling script.

"We have it when it's just us two often enough," said Ryoma, shrugging carelessly. "Why not for the party?"

"Just because we have a wide variety of dishes does not mean we are having everything, as you well know," said Atobe. "Prepare a more reasonable selection at once, or I will do it for you!" He stalked out of the room, most probably to shout at some maids, who always fluttered away like a bunch of frightened pigeons when he started bellowing.

"Here." Ryoma rummaged in his jacket and pulled out a different list, one that said quail, salad, potatoes and all, and handed it to the bewildered cook, who'd rushed into the room after Atobe.

Then they argued over the flowers. Ryoma wanted jasmine, Atobe wanted poinsettias, and Kabaji seemed to think roses would be better than either of them. "Poinsettias are fine and good, but there's loads of them all over," Ryoma told Atobe, which was true. Everyone had poinsettias in their windows, all the shops, all the houses on Atobe's street, all of them.

"There is a reason they are so popular," Atobe shot back. "They are the most appropriate flower for a party at this time of year. Am I not correct, Kabaji?"

"Yes, sir," said Kabaji, passing by with a single white rose in hand.

Ryoma refused to relent, and so did Atobe, because he thought the fact that he smelled like jasmine most of the time wasn't a good reason to have it at the party. "At my party it is," Ryoma grumbled, not cross enough to abandon Atobe in favor of his own bed. He snuggled closer, poked Atobe in the shin with his toes and got a kick for his troubles, and fell asleep.

Next morning when he woke up, the room was full of jasmine scent. Ryoma sat up, wide-eyed, and saw that every bit of space was covered in white, sweet-smelling flowers. They were in pots and vases and planters and even hats, some of them. Atobe stood in the middle of them, his arms crossed, looking smug. "There, you have jasmine," he said.

"Still not having your poinsettias at my party," said Ryoma, leaning down to sniff a sprig of jasmine, hiding his wide smile behind it.

In the end they had roses, so neither of them could complain too much.

Ryoma thought it was ridiculous that he had to write out the invitations, to people he'd never met, or didn't remember if he had. "All these by hand?" he asked, staring dismayed at the piles and piles of cards on the desk.

"Yes," said Atobe firmly. "A handwritten invitation causes the guests to think well of the host, and to believe that he meant to invite them specifically, rather than having his servants address one to every house in town."

"Don't know any of these." Ryoma sifted through the piles. "Ryuuzaki, Wakato, Tachibana, Shishido-" he looked up. "Shishido's invited?"

"Just think how shocked he will be when he sees how you now comport yourself in the public eye," Atobe replied.

Ryoma grinned; he could well imagine the look on Shishido's face when he said hello, and asked him if he wanted any of the wine.

They also had to go out and buy new clothes for both of them, and for the servants, but Ryoma didn't much mind that. He liked peering in the shop windows and trying on the silly new fashions. High waist, low waist, collar, no collar, long trousers or short, it was all the same to him as long as he had a warm coat to wrap himself in while it was so cold. Atobe bought him a nice new outfit to match his dark hair, and a few new shirts in green and gold and blue and red.

After that, Ryoma got to choose what Atobe was going to wear. Deliberating for some time over the decision, he finally picked a dark grey coat and trousers over a lavender shirt and a darker lavender cravat. "You'll look fetching in this," said Ryoma, as the tailor took Atobe's measurements for the alterations. "Charm all the ladies, you will."

"I appreciate the thought," said Atobe, with a significant lift of his eyebrow that only Ryoma could understand.

On their way back home, Ryoma whipped around suddenly as a boy passed them. "Oi," he called. "Lost something?" He brandished Atobe's wallet, which had been first in Atobe's pocket, and then in the pickpocket's. The boy's eyes widened in fear, and he looked set to run. "Hang on then," said Ryoma amiably, and tossed the wallet onto the street between them. "Go on, have it."

The lifter had already scampered without looking back, after snatching the wallet from the cobblestones.

"So you have an altruistic spirit after all," Atobe commented, as Ryoma had known he would.

"Nah," said Ryoma, and held up a bank note. "Only gave him half."

"Excuse me," said Atobe pointedly, as Ryoma started slipping the money into his own pocket. "That came from my wallet."

"But I could've saved it for you," Ryoma said, batting his eyelashes sweetly. "You don't think I deserve a reward?"

"Could have, those are the key words." Atobe snagged the money and tucked it inside his jacket, where it would be harder for anyone to nick it. But he bought Ryoma a whole bag of macaroons and things from the sweet shop with it anyway, so that was all right.

***

"And of course, we will plan the dancing and the musical entertainment for after supper-"
"Still don't know how to dance," Ryoma interrupted.

Atobe paused in his litany of the evening's schedule and glanced at Ryoma. "What do you mean?"

"Shishido showed me once, but never again after." Ryoma made a sour face. "Don't think he much likes dancing, not with me or anyone."

"That is most probably true." Atobe rose from his seat. "Very well then. I will make up for the knowledge you currently lack." He gave Ryoma a deep, sweeping bow and extended his hand. "If you will do me the honor?"

"Honor?" Ryoma was dubious. What he'd seen of dancing from Shishido wasn't so impressive, and no honor, that was certain. He took Atobe's hand, and they started to move.

"Forward, and back, and to the side, and clap," Atobe directed as they went along. Ryoma followed his instructions and found, to his astonishment, that dancing wasn't so awful. "Turn about, face me, take your opposite number's hand. Good."

Even when the dances called for four people all turning and stepping at the same time, or more, Atobe managed to show him where to go, and how. "Have to dance with girls at the party, don't I," said Ryoma glumly.

"Yes, that will be one of your duties as host." Atobe caught his hand on the next twirl and pulled him close, something Ryoma didn't think was supposed to be part of the dance. "But afterward, we will dance again, if you have performed your duties well. If you would like," he added, one of the few times Ryoma had seen him uncertain about anything.

"Mm, I'd like," Ryoma assured him, twining his arms about Atobe's neck and pulling him down for a kiss.

***

The evening of the party came quick, and the maids were all beside themselves on the day, running up the stairs and down and into the kitchen and back out again. There were clatterings and clangings from the kitchens, and Kabaji had taken it upon himself to place the roses where they were supposed to go.

Ryoma would've liked to see the food being made ready, and maybe sneak a few pieces of it before suppertime, but his job, according to Atobe, was to get dressed and look nice. Like a spoiled rich boy, in other words. He thought he'd managed it pretty well, but Atobe still wanted to look him over.

"You remember how you are going to behave tonight, I assume?" Atobe asked, folding his arms and studying Ryoma critically, from his head down to his toes.

"Like what you see?" Ryoma jutted out his hip like a street girl and pursed his lips, and yelped, composure all lost when Atobe swatted at him and caught him right in the head. "Shouldn't ogle me then, if you don't want me to ask!"

"I'm not ogling you, I'm making sure you're dressed properly," said Atobe, prim as he ever got, which was very. He also had his eyes turned up at the ceiling, meaning he wouldn't be able to control himself if he looked down at Ryoma.

Ryoma smirked.

When Atobe dressed, Ryoma got his comeuppance, though, because Atobe made a finer picture even than he usually did. The jacket, shirt, and trousers had been perfectly tailored to match the curves and lines and angles of his body, and his boots had been polished until they gleamed bright black in the candlelight. "Clean up nice, you do," Ryoma breathed.

"I don't 'clean up' anything, I am always perfectly groomed," said Atobe, striking a pose just as enticing as the one Ryoma had struck before.

"Make a good street girl," Ryoma said, nodding. "They'd all be after you." He was about to take off running, but Atobe grabbed him by the shoulder before he could.

"You will scuff your boots on the floor if you tear around the house the way you generally do," Atobe told him.

"And you'll scuff yours tearing after me," Ryoma noted, and laughed when Atobe turned his nose up instead of answering.

***

Guests started filtering in at the expected time, greeting Atobe and Ryoma and sizing up their outfits. "Still best," Ryoma whispered to Atobe out of the corner of his mouth, once a woman and her tall, silent husband had passed them by.

"What's still best?" Atobe asked.

"Our clothes. Didn't say it so anyone else could hear, so hush," Ryoma put in, before Atobe could reprimand him. "Oh look, Shishido."

Shishido approached them as warily as ever. "Atobe. Ryoma." He inclined his head. "I have not had the pleasure of seeing you in some time, Ryoma, but I hope you continue to progress as well as you did under my tutelage."

"Good evening, Shishido. My lessons with Atobe are progressing reasonably well, thank you very much." Ryoma bowed his head politely. "Would you care for a glass of the merlot?"

The look on Shishido's face was just as good as he'd imagined, if not better.

Supper was as good as Ryoma had expected, not so good as eating alone with Atobe, but not so bad as that first party had been. He was complimented on the food, his clothing, the roses, the string quartet playing softly in the background, everything. Ryoma resisted the temptation to reply with "Thanks, but it's his money that's bought all this," and jerking his thumb at Atobe, though with the roses, he did say, "Kabaji chose them, and I think it was a fine decision."

To that, one of the ladies said, "Oh yes, thank heavens you're not displaying more of those poinsettias here. They're simply everywhere, and these roses are a breath of fresh air."

She missed the momentary glower on Atobe's face, and the grin of triumph on Ryoma's.

Dancing with girls wasn't even so bad, not when Ryoma knew he could dance with Atobe once they'd been left alone. Still, he liked playing the pianoforte better, and hearing Atobe play it best of all. The applause when Atobe was done wasn't quiet and polite, it was real, since he'd played so well, and such a complicated piece. Ryoma clapped louder and longer than anyone, and never mind what any of the guests thought.

"You have improved beyond all measure since our last lesson," said Ohtori, smiling and congratulating Ryoma afterward.

"I have had two excellent teachers," Ryoma replied, ducking his head modestly. "I fear I still cannot equal either of you in skill."

"If you continue your practicing, then I have no doubt you will overtake me, and perhaps your patron as well." Ohtori clapped him encouragingly on the shoulder, and then went to take his turn on the instrument, at many of the other guests' urging.

"Not bad," Ryoma said under his breath, slipping into the seat beside Atobe.

"Not bad yourself," Atobe returned, lifting his glass so that their hands "accidentally" brushed together.

***

"Glad that's over with." Ryoma closed the door to Atobe's bedroom and leaned against it with a sigh. Then he ambled over to where Atobe was undressing in front of his mirror. "Vain thing," he teased, wagging a finger at him. "So how did I do?"

Atobe stopped unbuttoning his shirt and turned, slipping his arms around Ryoma's waist. "You did very well," Atobe murmured against Ryoma's hair,. "Comported yourself as a gentleman at every moment. Nearly every moment, in any case. Yes, very well indeed." He pressed a kiss to Ryoma's left temple.

"Did I?" Ryoma asked, grinning slightly at Atobe's reflection in the mirror. "Good enough for me to be rewarded with a dance, you think?"

"Mm, most definitely," Atobe purred, sounding like he was going to be rewarding himself at the same time.

"Mm. Good." Ryoma turned and nuzzled Atobe's neck, slipping a hand into the pocket of his own trousers at the same time. He came up with an elegant silver watch on a chain, one that didn't belong to either of them, and held it up between two fingers. "That mean I don't have to give this back, then?"


But that's not all. Follow the link back to June 13th, 2005.
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