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

Nicked, 2/3

You may notice that this entry is dated back to June 13th, 2007. That's because, although I did give you a gift last year, I thought you could do with another one for that birthday, and maybe for some other birthdays when I wasn't yet around, too. :D Pay attention to those entry dates...

Nicked, by kishmet, part two of three.

The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes.




"Don't need one!" Ryoma shrieked and yowled and tried to claw his way out of Atobe and Kabaji's combined grips, but it was no use. "Had one just a week ago! About then!"

"That's why you need another one," Atobe told him, loud enough to be heard over Ryoma's caterwauling. Ryoma wondered vaguely what anyone on the street thought of all this, and then he remembered that they'd pretend not to care. Nobody minded what anybody did at home, so long as they had enough money and fancy clothes.

"Not even any dirt on me- no!" They dropped him straight into the tub of water that they'd set up beforehand. Cheating, in Ryoma's opinion, since he'd figured those kettles the maids were carrying past him were meant for Atobe. "No, no, no!" Ryoma's head ducked under water with all the flailing he was doing, and he spluttered. "Drowning, you're drowning me in here!"

"Stop being so melodramatic," Atobe said, and nodded to Kabaji. "You may go."

"Yes, sir." Kabaji bowed and left the two of them alone. Ryoma thought he might have a better chance, now that it was only Atobe, but he couldn't fight and climb over the walls of the tub, which were steep and slippery.

Ryoma glared up at Atobe and stopped fussing, feeling like a cat soaked in the rain. "There, got me all wet now. Clean enough?"

"Not by half. Take off those clothes."

"What?" Ryoma squawked. "Bloody pervert after all, aren't you!"

Atobe heaved a sigh. "You grow a sense of modesty now? I'm not turning my back, if that's what you're after. You're going to slip out of there and run off someplace where I can't reach you."

"Wouldn't," Ryoma muttered, though that had been the gist of his plan. "Can bathe just as good with clothes as without."

"Just as well," said Atobe.

"So if you say as much too, stop telling me to get this off!" said Ryoma triumphantly.

"You know very well I was correcting your speech, not agreeing." Atobe plucked at the top button on Ryoma's shirt. "You can't clean skin that you can't see. Off, now."

"Fine." Ryoma grumbled and mumbled the whole way through stripping off his clothing, and then he sat glowering at Atobe, arms crossed. "There. Clean."

"No, you're not. You need soap first." Atobe handed him a funny white bar. It had been a long time since Ryoma had seen any soap, and he eyed it suspiciously. "What's it made of?"

"The skin and bones of the thieves I had in here before you," said Atobe. "Now use it."

Ryoma gave a little disgusted noise, but Atobe didn't seem likely to let him out until he was well and thoroughly scrubbed. So Ryoma lathered himself up everywhere, fishing for the bar of soap whenever it slid through his fingers, which was often.

"Your hair is still atrocious. Give me that." Atobe snagged the soap and went after Ryoma's hair with it. Ryoma thrashed a bit at first, then found out he couldn't move without getting suds in his face, and kept perfectly still, eyes shut tight.

"Never doing that again," said Ryoma sulkily at the end, drying off with the warm, fluffy piece of cloth Atobe had given him.

Now Atobe had his back turned to protect Ryoma's privacy, which was stupid since he'd seen everything already. "Every week, you mean."

"What?"

***

Ryoma couldn't very well keep staying awake, not when he had so much food to digest and so many things to wear him out. When his stomach had been grumbling at him out on the street, it had been easy enough not to be comfortable, but on a bed full of feathers in a nice big house after a nice big meal, it was a bit more difficult. He curled up in the middle of the coverlet and started dozing despite himself, both eyes drifting shut.

But he shot bolt upright when he heard the door, and looked wildly at the light from the window. About two, by his reckoning. He'd been sleeping hours without even realizing.

"I'm sorry." It was Atobe who'd entered, and he spoke quietly, closing the door behind him. "You're sleeping better than you did last night."

"Think so." Ryoma hugged his knees close to his chest. "Come to check up on me?"

"I've come to make sure you're getting the rest you require." Atobe stood with his hands folded behind him, studying Ryoma. "You didn't feel safe enough yesterday?"

Ryoma shook his head and laughed a little. "Never slept through a night before. Could've been you'd pitch me out on my head, come morning. Sit, would you? Making me nervous, you standing there like that."

Atobe frowned slightly, but walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed. He was dressed in nightclothes too, a loose white shirt and grey trousers. Ryoma never would have pictured him in anything but that frock coat of his and all his frills. "I would never have brought you home to begin with, if I had intended to deceive you."

"Figured as much, now you've done all you have." Ryoma rested his head on his knees. "Don't think you'll do me in, anyway, whatever else you've got up them lacy sleeves of yours."

"My arms, nothing more, I assure you," Atobe replied, a smile taking the place of the frown. "Although you seem to think learning manners is a fate worse than death, and you still have quite a few of them to be taught."

"Long as you keep feeding me, that's all right," said Ryoma, curling up again. He couldn't keep his eyes open, even after all that time he'd spent soundly asleep. Getting soft, he was, and letting Atobe tuck him under the covers probably wasn't going to help.

The next morning Ryoma wasn't sure if he'd dreamed the whole thing, because Atobe was cranky as ever. But when he plucked at Atobe's sleeves and nodded, satisfied, saying, "Just arms in there, that's certain," Atobe gave a ghost of the smile he'd given the night before. "I told you."

***

"Haven't been out of the house in ages," Ryoma complained daily, and it got more and more true as the days went by. He didn't mind so much, but once he'd explored the whole building, there wasn't much left to do but to practice his reading and writing, or to rummage through any drawers that had been left unlocked. He didn't need to fence the bits and bobs he'd been snitching, not with the way Atobe kept him fed and clothed, but he'd never even have a chance for it if he always stayed indoors. Besides, learning manners didn't do much to keep him lively, which was part of why he kept up the filching. Even now he didn't dare forget how to live on the streets, on the off chance Atobe got sick of him and pitched him out on his arse.

So at the end of the week, Atobe had the servants put out Ryoma's best clothes, and they took the smaller carriage, the one that only seated two, and went straight to church, where Ryoma was promptly sorry he'd asked to leave the house. Some of the songs from the beginning were all right, full of singing and music from the organ, which was like a pianoforte only enormous. The church was pretty, too, with a roof so high Ryoma had to crane his neck all the way back to see it from the inside, and windows that had pictures on them, and sparkled each time the sun hit them. And there were whole messes of candles all around the place, up in front and on the sides, and more by the statues in the back.

But then the priest started in, reading things that made no sense and telling them that they'd best not steal or fornicate. Ryoma wasn't sure what fornicating meant, but he thought he could guess. For a bit he occupied himself picking out marks from the rest of the churchgoers. That lady's bauble would be worth a pretty penny, and the workmen's wives would pay a pretty penny for those brown and black-barred feathers in her hat. He knew which jackets and coats were of good material and which just looked it, and he dismissed the fakes right away. If they didn't have the money for real quality, they wouldn't have much worth taking.

The gentleman off to their right was the honest rich kind. His handkerchief, which he kept using to wipe his nose, was as nice as the ones Atobe carried, though they didn't have the letters stitched into the corner. He hadn't got a wife, Ryoma figured, that was probably why the hanky was so plain.

His fingers started to itch, and he had to fold them to keep from stealing the brooch off the woman in front of them. That game had to be done with, then, and the man up front still hadn't stopped his tongue-wagging. Ryoma yawned and fidgeted and flipped through the hymn book three times before Atobe hissed "Behave yourself!" at him.

Luckily, with all the people around and the quiet all through the church, Ryoma could pretend he hadn't heard, and Atobe didn't dare whisper again. Ryoma's dad had never thought much about God and things, except that he could sometimes snag a few coins off the collection plate come Sunday. Ryoma took after him in that, at least, along with his looks.

"You believe all that?" Ryoma asked, when the priest up front finally stopped talking, and the people on the benches started their own nattering. "Hellfire and damnation and all? Why's he allowed to say those, anyway, if they're curse words?"

"They are not curse words in their proper context," Atobe told him primly.

"All right when he's running his mouth up there, and not when I bang my thumb?" Ryoma didn't think that was very fair. The priest had been damning lots of people, and all Ryoma wanted to damn was the pianoforte cover. Besides, Ryoma had known plenty of nice whores and thieves, even though the priests said they were all going to hell, every one, unless they stopped doing what they did. Fair enough for the rich folk to say whoring or nicking a bit of shine was wrong, but they'd never had to sleep a night in the gutter when the rent came due and they couldn't pay.

"Father Sanada considers his usage of those words with great care and piety, and does not use them any more often than necessary. Certainly not while he's fighting with the pianoforte," Atobe said pointedly.

Ryoma gave him a lopsided grin. "Can't say that. We've neither of us heard him get his fingers caught in one of them."

"He has an organist to do that for him."

"What, curse for him?" Ryoma let Atobe shepherd him out of their bench row and toward the door. He'd been ready to leave for half an hour that had felt more like half a day.

"No," said Atobe, and cuffed his ear on the side no one else could see. Ryoma let out a yelp that he could've held back, and he smirked when some of the other dandies walking out looked their way to see what was going on. "To practice the pianoforte for him, you heathen," Atobe was saying. "It's a wonder you weren't struck down by lightning the moment we entered the building."

"Lightning's outside, not in," Ryoma pointed out helpfully. "Never had a very good tutor, did you?"

"I am aware that lightning naturally occurs outside. I meant that Our Lord-" Atobe made it sound like capital letters, even though he was saying them out loud. "-would smite you as an unbeliever and a heretic."

"Haven't known anyone hit by lightning indoors yet," said Ryoma, idly trying to tap Atobe's knuckles every time Atobe's hand swung by his, with each step they took. "Never did answer my question, either. You believe what he says?"

"In civil society, one must demonstrate properly pious behavior," said Atobe, sounding like he'd practiced what to say in case someone asked.

"That's a no then," Ryoma said, satisfied. He flicked the edge of Atobe's longest finger. "Knew even you couldn't be daft enough to believe it."

"Behave yourself," Atobe ordered again.

Ryoma wasn't sure whether Atobe meant about the church, or about their hands. Probably both, Ryoma decided, and ignored Atobe's command in either case.

***

"Very good." Ohtori, Ryoma's music teacher, gave him the warmest smile he'd ever seen. Then again, Ryoma'd never been smiled at too often. Nicking anything that wasn't tied down didn't make people so happy. "Oh, and it seems that your regular tutor has arrived. Shishido." Ohtori stood and greeted him with a nod and another smile.

"Ohtori." Shishido returned the nod, and almost managed the smile. He couldn't quite, though, because Ryoma waved to him, and Shishido scowled. "I will be taking over here, then."

"Yes, of course." Ohtori gathered up his sheet music and paused. "Until next week, Ryoma."

"'course." Ryoma grinned at him. Ohtori was a dandy, right enough, and he'd never seen a day's hard work in his life, going by his pretty hands and fingernails, with no dirt to be found underneath them. But he was all right anyway. He didn't keep pestering Ryoma about pronouns and accents or any of that, only about practicing his music. Ryoma wasn't keen on playing it himself, but when Ohtori sat down at the pianoforte, or someone talked Atobe into it, the tunes were nice.

"Of course," Shishido said, when Ohtori had left the room. "You know that."

"Why you still trying to teach it to me, then?" Ryoma asked.

"Because your patron is paying me an enormous sum that increases each time you purloin one of my possessions," Shishido sniffed.

"Thought you said you didn't talk about that to the ones you're teaching." Now Ohtori was gone, Ryoma could sprawl over the pianoforte bench on his stomach, cheek against the cool wood, which was good when the weather was still so warm. He regarded Shishido out of the one eye that wasn't pressed to the bench, letting his fingers dangle so they almost touched the floor.

"I did not tell you exactly how much." Shishido seemed more inclined to snap than usual, which was funny since he was so touchy to begin with. "Now. Today I am to teach you the fundamentals of-" Shishido grimaced like he'd swallowed something bitter. "-dancing."

"What?" Ryoma looked curiously up at him. "But dancing's for girls."

"No, dancing is for both ladies and gentleman in high society, where it is considered one of the many pleasures of a fine dinner party, and most civilized people you will encounter enjoy it as a recreational activity, and no, I'm no more thrilled with today's topic than you are, so let's get it done with." Shishido said all this in one long burst of words, and Ryoma had to backtrack in his head in order to figure out what he'd meant by it.

"Oh," said Ryoma, actually agreeing for once. "Right."

Ryoma found out a few seconds in that he didn't much like dancing. Shishido stepped as though there were rocks tied to his feet, clunking around the room in front of Ryoma. "Theater girls dance better," he commented, purposely treading on Shishido's toes. "Least they move, and make it look nice."

"Theater girls?" Shishido eyed him the way he did when he thought Ryoma was about to say something awful. "What do you mean?"

"The ones with the scarves," Ryoma explained, knowing full well that Shishido would pitch a fit over it. "They take 'em off, until all that's left is-"

"Enough!" Shishido exclaimed, looking on the verge of panic. "That is enough dancing for the day. Let Atobe know I've gone."

Well, Ryoma thought, watching as Shishido ran out of the room like his arse was on fire. That bit of dancing wasn't so bad.

***

"Going to leave me alone, then, are you?" Ryoma asked, after swallowing a mouthful of toast. He'd talked while he was chewing the first week or so, just to make Atobe snap at him, but the game had quickly stopped being worth his while when Atobe took the rest of his food away every time he did it.

Atobe glanced up from his breakfast. "What do you mean?"

"Well," said Ryoma. "Only you just see me at breakfast and supper nowadays, don't you? And church, too. Rest of the time I'm shut up with Shishido, or wandering 'round the place when you're gone."

"You clearly need more time with Shishido, as you don't seem to have grasped the concept of syntax yet." Atobe reached over and picked up Ryoma's napkin off the table, flicking it expertly so it would lie flat. "Put that on your lap."

"Syntax?" Ryoma asked innocently, playing the part of the stupid street urchin to perfection. He'd had years working on it, so if he had nothing to show for it by now, it'd be fair pathetic.

"Proper sentence structure," said Atobe. "And one of these days you will learn to drop that atrocious street accent."

"What street accent?" Ryoma inquired, tilting his nose in the air, which seemed to be the only way to play at being one of the rich ones. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Will you please pass me the butter?"

All the lessons he'd gone through were almost worth it, just to see Atobe gaping at him like that. Atobe probably would've dropped his silverware, if he'd been holding any, he looked that dumbfounded. "If you can do that," Atobe said, sounding for all the world like he'd just witnessed some sort of miracle. "Why do you persist in speaking the way you always have?"

Ryoma shrugged. "Feel like it," he replied cheerfully, and snagged the butter himself, since it didn't seem as though Atobe was going to recover before the toast had gone cold.

***

"Haven't got any."

"No, the correct way to say it is 'I don't have any,'" said Shishido, glaring at Ryoma and grinding his teeth just a little. Shishido ground his teeth a lot when he was angry, Ryoma had found out. He wondered how long it would take for Shishido's teeth to be ground down to nothing, but he didn't think Atobe would much appreciate him testing it. If, however, Shishido just happened to wear his teeth all the way down in the course of their lessons, well, it couldn't be Ryoma's fault, now could it? "Say it," Shishido commanded.

"Don't have any." Ryoma dropped the 'I' on purpose, staring out the window and pretending to be bored, which he wasn't really. He liked working Shishido up to the point when Shishido would storm out again if he said one more wrong thing.

"We have discussed this. A pronoun belongs at the beginning of that sentence, in order to inform the listener of your- do you know, I have just about had it!" Shishido slammed his hand down on the desk. "No fee is worth this."

"But Shishido," said Ryoma, wide-eyed and innocent. "I don't own any carriages, although my esteemed patron Atobe does possess at least two."

He'd thought Shishido would've been used to this sort of thing by now, and wouldn't gape like a virgin maid who'd laid eyes on a man in the bath anymore, but Ryoma was lucky. Shishido never got used to anything.

***

Ryoma chewed thoughtfully on the end of his pen, then sneezed. He'd chewed the other end at first and ended up with ink all over his face (which had made Atobe laugh far too much), but this end wasn't much better, it being a feather and all. It tended to tickle his nose. "Politics, no one cares," he muttered. He was supposed to be writing about the government, which, in his own opinion, didn't concern him. He'd never be part of it; why did he have to learn about it, then?

Luckily Atobe knocked on the door just then, saying, "I'm coming in." He'd done that ever since walking in on Ryoma the first time, though it didn't do him much good. Ryoma wasn't going to tell him to stop anyway, even if he was half-naked (or completely naked) when Atobe came to the door.

"Did you steal your tutor's watch?" Atobe asked, coming over to stand behind Ryoma, looking over his shoulder. "What on earth are you writing?"

"About Parliament or something."

"Yes, I can see that," said Atobe. "As the only thing currently written on your paper is the word 'Parliament' in all capital letters. I assume that Shishido wanted something more than that."

"Tch. Might not have."

"Also, I know for certain that Shishido would appreciate having his watch returned to him. Stop chewing that." Atobe pulled the feather from Ryoma's teeth, sending a droplet of ink onto the P in 'Parliament.'

"Ruined it now," Ryoma observed. "I'll have to write it all over again now."

"And I'm sure that will be quite the struggle for you," said Atobe. "Now tell me where you've put that watch."

"Might not've been me who took it, ever think of that?" Ryoma pushed the old paper to the side and looked up at Atobe. "Give my quill back."

Atobe snorted in a way that was perhaps less gentlemanly than he'd intended. "Oh come now. You've stolen his cufflinks, his handkerchief-" here Atobe gave Ryoma a pointed look. Ryoma pretended not to know what he meant. "And any money he's happened to have on his person. I'm supposed to believe that you're innocent this time?"

"Always think I'm guilty," Ryoma muttered. "There's lots of lifters still out on the street, you ever think of that? Not everything's my fault."

"I never said it was." Atobe's tone softened a bit, and he held out the quill. "But you can understand how I would see you as the prime suspect in this case. If I am mistaken, I apologise, which is the way of a gentleman, in case you'd like to use this as an example."

"Thanks," said Ryoma, and took the pen.

"I'll let you return to your work then. Shishido will, in fact, expect more than the word 'Parliament' on this sheet of paper." Atobe turned to go.

"Oh, hang on." Ryoma rummaged in his pocket and came up with a fine gold pocketwatch, dangling from a chain that was just as gold and just as fine. "Looking for this, weren't you?"

Atobe, who'd turned again so he was facing Ryoma, turned an interesting shade of red. "What- you- you said that you hadn't taken it!"

"Didn't," said Ryoma smugly. "Only said I might not've."

Ryoma could see Atobe trying to collect himself and stop himself from sputtering and being indignant. It was interesting to see which side would win out, the gentleman side or the brat side, because Atobe definitely had a brat side to him, and no mistake. To Ryoma's amusement, the gentleman side got the best of the brat, mostly. Atobe snatched the watch from Ryoma's fingers and then said coolly, "Carry on with your lessons. I will expect you to do the gentlemanly thing and apologise to Shishido tomorrow."

"Think he'll bring the watch again?" asked Ryoma. "Bet I could steal it two days in a row."

Atobe's interesting shade of red became an interesting shade of purple. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then left without saying another word. Or almost without saying another word, because as Atobe walked out the door, Ryoma heard him say, under his breath, "Brat."

Ryoma grinned.

***

Even with the way Ryoma was still prone to filching everything not tied down, Atobe decided that he knew manners enough to have a debut, which was pronounced "day-bew" even though Ryoma thought it should be said "dee-butt." He brought the idea up to Atobe, who hated it, which was the point of bringing it up to begin with.

"My acquaintances have been asking after you," Atobe informed him. "At this gathering they will have a chance to see how much my generosity has improved your situation and habits."

"Well," said Ryoma. "Gained some weight, I have, anyhow." He patted his stomach, which was flat but a bit more filled-in, with all the meat and bread and even vegetables he crammed into it every day.

"I mean the differences in your speech, when you make an attempt to sound educated, though certainly your appearance has also become more acceptable." Atobe looked him up and down like a man wanting to buy a whore for the night. Ryoma snickered at the thought, and Atobe's eyes snapped up to glare at him. "What?"

"Want to rent this for the night, milord?" Ryoma asked, running a finger up from his thigh to his chest, fluttering his eyelashes coyly. "Make it worth your while, I will."

"You-" Atobe spluttered, going scarlet and biting his lower lip. He stared at Ryoma for a second until Ryoma coughed, snapping him out of whatever trance he'd fallen into. "I assume," said Atobe, lifting his chin, "that you will show the other guests at the party none of the vulgarity you've just displayed to me."

"Can't promise anything, if they stare the way you were," Ryoma retorted.

For that, Atobe ordered Ryoma into the bath that night. Ryoma didn't need to be tossed in anymore, or watched to make sure he scrubbed behind his ears, but he complained before and after, as usual. "This lot's wearing my skin away," he groused, stomping out of the bathroom in one of Atobe's fancy robes, the ones that were far too long for him and trailed after him when he walked, but they felt nice.

"A little scrubbing is good for you," said Atobe absently, as he passed Ryoma in the hall.

Ryoma had to dress for the party the next night in even more clothes than he wore the rest of the time. "What's this for?" he asked dubiously, about five different times. But in the end he was dressed, and looking as much a dandy as Atobe ever did.
"Very good," said Atobe approvingly.

"Rubbish," said Ryoma, gazing at his reflection in the looking glass, slightly dismayed. If he were to walk down the street in these trappings, a lifter would peg him as a mark in no time flat. "Looks all right on you," he added, eying Atobe sidewise. "Next to you I'll look a street brat forever, that's certain."

"Don't be preposterous." Atobe's hands were gentle as they tugged his jacket into place and straightened his cravat. "You look very well indeed."

"Very something," Ryoma mumbled. He didn't know what had got into him, anyway, giving Atobe a compliment like that.

They took the carriage, and a lucky thing, too, because they would've both been robbed blind otherwise, dressed as they were. The home the party was located in was large, grand, and decorated with far more frills than belonged on a lady's dress, much less on the walls of a house. All around were fine mirrors, paintings in golden frames, archways, expensive carpets, vases with huge fresh-smelling flowers in them, vaulted ceilings, and various members of high society clucking away to each other like a bunch of hens.

"Not so big as yours," Ryoma observed.

Atobe set a hand on Ryoma's shoulder and leaned down, looking as though he was about to start gossiping like those hens. Instead, he murmured sharply, "One does not comment on the comparative size of one's host's home to one's own. It is considered extremely impolite."

"How about how fancy your clothes are?" Ryoma tapped the velvet of Atobe's jacket. "Yours're better than those." He nodded at the man next to them, who'd been eavesdropping on their conversation while pretending he wasn't. The man looked shocked and opened his mouth as if to say something, but Atobe steered Ryoma away into another room before he could do any more damage.

"No, that is also not an appropriate topic of discussion," said Atobe.

"Then why wear something like that? Like saying you're better than them, right out."

"I am, in fact, more well-off than the majority of the people in attendance." Atobe was still whispering so quietly that no one could hear him but Ryoma, clearly used to carrying on conversations like this one. "But I do not wear this clothing in order to advertise that fact. I wear it because I am indeed wealthy enough to afford it, and must not wear anything that falls below my social standing."

"What, or they'll think you're poor all of a sudden?" Ryoma asked. "Sounds like you're advertising your money to me." He grinned suddenly. "S'why I picked you, back on the market street. Looked like a walking purse full of gold, you did."

Atobe sighed, exasperated. "Behave yourself, and don't mention your former… profession again. You will disconcert the other guests, not that you haven't accomplished that already."

"Good, then my work's done." Ryoma settled into silence. For all his sniping at Atobe, he knew how to watch people and listen to them instead of talking, and he knew it was a good idea to learn what he could from what he saw and heard. He followed Atobe around, being introduced to people and hearing snippets of information as he went: this one thought that one was going to marry this other one; this one's sister was sick and kept in bed; that one's brother had run off with some tavern maid and left the country with her. Ryoma didn't know why they whispered all that behind their hands, when everyone seemed to know it anyway.

They had dinner, not as grand and glorious as it was at Atobe's, but not bad. Sugared pastries, fresh fruits, pork and beef and loads of other things that Ryoma knew the names of only from his lessons. He made certain to eat with the exact right forks and spoons and knives and what-had-you, mostly because Atobe was watching him like a hawk watching a mouse.

"So we can go, then?" Ryoma asked, once dinner was through.

"Of course not," Atobe said. "Now comes the time for dancing and other entertainments."

"Dancing?" Ryoma liked the sound of that even less than he'd liked wandering through the rooms talking with all the highborns. His further dancing lessons hadn't been bad, but not that good either. Dancing was easy, boring once you knew the basic steps, and his instructor hadn't been enjoying himself any more than Ryoma had.

"Yes. You are going to have to dance," Atobe informed him. "Several young ladies have been watching you all evening."

"Have they?" Ryoma asked, disinterested. "Don't care."

"I don't care. That sentence requires the pronoun at the beginning. And they do care," said Atobe. "And you will be expected to take their feelings into consideration. Provide polite conversation as you dance, by which," he added pointedly, "I do not mean comparing their dresses to my jacket."

"Your jacket's better. Less lace."

"Oh, for heaven's sake. Next you will tell me that you'd rather dance with me than with one of them," said Atobe disgustedly.

"Would," said Ryoma. "I would," he corrected, when Atobe gave him a look. "You're smarter than them by a long ways, anyway."

"Yes, well, that also would not be considered a proper subject about which to converse." Atobe guided Ryoma to one group of young ladies, who twittered more like sparrows than like hens as Atobe and Ryoma came by. The one Ryoma ended up with had hair far too long and wouldn't look up at him, even though the dance lasted for ten whole minutes. For the next one Ryoma didn't have to try and think up polite conversation, because she chattered at him the whole time.

"You could at least attempt to look as though you're enjoying yourself," Atobe commented, when Ryoma escaped the clutches of that last one. "Dancing is a leisure activity."

"Not for me, it's not." Ryoma made a face. Atobe was giving him a strange look anyhow, like he couldn't decide whether to be pleased, or to seem that he'd swallowed a lemon. "Doesn't look like you thought much of me doing it, either. Can we go now?"

"May we," said Atobe, and brought his watch out to check the time discreetly. "Yes, we may go. I will tell our hostess that you have a headache."

"So lying's fine?"

"The art of the social grace is far different from the dubious art of falsehood," said Atobe loftily, and proceeded to lie to their hostess while Ryoma did his best to look like he wasn't in pain.

On their way back to Atobe's home in the fine carriage, Ryoma said, "You really like dancing?"

"Yes," said Atobe. "I do. The various dances are complicated to learn, but once you can understand the flow and the measure of them, they are appreciable on an entirely different level, much like music."

"You should've taught me, then." Ryoma leaned against the side of the carriage. "Tutor doesn't like it any more than I do."

"Hm." Atobe studied Ryoma, looking reflective. "We shall see."

Overall, Ryoma thought, the party had been pointless. If he wanted fancy food and dressy clothing, all he had to do was stay at Atobe's, and then he wouldn't have to listen to hens, or sparrows, or dance with them, either.

Then he grinned to himself and reached a hand into his pocket. Of course, if he hadn't gone out, he'd never have had the chance to lighten all those highborn's purses for them, and that would've been a shame.

***

"The city is not yet prepared for your presence, nor you for its company," Atobe declared one day. Ryoma was curled up in his favorite chair, waiting for lessons, and he'd perked up when Atobe had entered, and made his proclamation. "I am taking you to my estate in the country, where I will complete your instruction in proper forms and etiquette."

"The country?" Ryoma asked, trying not to sound too excited. He'd heard of the country, all the urchins had.

Atobe glanced at him. "You know it?"

"'course," Ryoma replied nonchalantly. "It's got grass and open spaces, streams with milk and honey in place of water, and no carriages to run street brats down."

At that, Atobe gave him a skeptical look. "You don't mean to tell me that you credit those stories as the truth."

"Well, not every piece of them," Ryoma allowed. "There's no open spaces left in all the world, I reckon."

He paused, and waited, and a second later Atobe chuckled and ruffled his hair, only it was less a ruffle than a gentle brush, pushing a few locks away from Ryoma's eyes. "I will make you a believer in open spaces yet," said Atobe, voice solemn even though his mouth and eyes were still laughing.

"Go on, pull the other one," said Ryoma playfully. The country had to be good, if it put Atobe into a mood like this.

On the day they were meant to leave, he trailed after as Atobe made his way through the house, distributing orders to the servants. "They're packing for us?" Ryoma asked.

"That's right."

"How d'you know they'll get all I want?" Ryoma watched a pair of maids bustling up the steps.

"They are packing everything you could possibly need while we're away," Atobe told him, and stopped to say a few words to a manservant. The man nodded and hurried off in the direction of the kitchens.

Atobe headed for the front door, where Kabaji had already brought their carriage around. He went outside and Ryoma followed, squinting in the bright sun.

"All that, just for us two?" Ryoma surveyed the carriage from a few paces away. Four horses seemed enough for twice that number of people, and more, too, if they were closer to Ryoma's size.

"The two of us," Atobe corrected. "And no, it's not only for the two of us."

"What?" That was the first Ryoma had heard about anybody else coming along. "Who's coming with? Shishido?" Or maybe his music instructor, though Atobe played the pianoforte at least well enough to keep up with Ryoma's lessons.

"No. Kabaji will, of course, be driving, but there will be no one else accompanying us in the carriage." Atobe looked over at the door all of a sudden. "Ah, good. They've readied our luggage."

Ryoma looked over too, and his jaw nearly hit the pavement, it dropped so hard and fast. Atobe had set what seemed like all the servants in the house to hauling trunks outside and tossing them into the back of the carriage. Coffin-sized, some of them were, made of wood, huge, and unwieldy. "That what we're really going away for, then?" Ryoma asked, interested, watching as the first few coffin-trunks were loaded up.

Atobe glanced at him. "What do you mean?"

"Got some bodies to be rid of?" Ryoma asked, and grinned mischievously. He flicked a gesture at the boxes. "In there?"

"What are you- of course not," Atobe said, drawing himself up like he was Queen of Sheba or God Himself or any one of the other deities Ryoma had heard the other lifters pray to. "I don't know how you obtain these ridiculous notions."

"Not too ridiculous," Ryoma said, eying the trunks contemplatively. "Bet you'd knock somebody off if they were bad-mannered enough."

"Untrue." Atobe stared imperiously down at him. "If that was the case, you would have been in a box months ago."

Ryoma broke into laughter that probably wasn't too appropriate, but since Atobe did it right along with him, he figured it was all right after all, just this once.

***

Ryoma liked the country. Atobe was right about the open spaces, great green stretches filled with grass and trees and bird fluttering about, every which way. "If they've got so much space out here, why's everyone so shoved together in the city?" Ryoma wanted to know, gazing raptly out the window. There was a rabbit down there by the pond, even, plump and sleek instead of skinny and wiry, the way the live ones Ryoma had seen had always been.

"If everyone came here instead, the space would be gone," said Atobe, logically enough.

"Maybe just a few could come…" If he'd known the tales about the country were mostly true, he'd have hitched a ride on a carriage bound this way a long time ago. "Well, we're here anyhow, good enough." Ryoma grinned up at Atobe.

"Very true." Atobe had kept up his good mood since they'd set off, though when he'd caught Ryoma trying to filch a bracelet from a girl at one of their stops, he'd cuffed Ryoma's ear, making it sting for an hour after. Ryoma would have gone on sulking longer, but then they'd left the town and headed out this way, and he'd clear forgotten what he was meant to be cross about.

"So, you approve of your room?" Atobe asked, gesturing around at it.

"What room?" Ryoma said, only half in jest. He wouldn't be spending much time indoors if he could help it, not with those fields outside and no city stink anywhere, except a little by the stables. Even that wasn't so bad, not with the trees and flowers to cover it. He glanced around the room, though, just to make Atobe happy, and found he did approve. "Picked this out for me yourself, did you?" There was a pastel mural on the ceiling, a large hearth with gold trim, a desk with seashells and other odd ends sitting on it, and a small pianoforte in the corner, about half the size of the one back home. Ryoma startled a bit when he thought of that. When had he started calling Atobe's house "home" in his head? Awhile back, that was when.

"I did, yes," said Atobe quietly.

"It's your room, usually," Ryoma decided, with a quick look at Atobe to see if he was right.

Atobe blinked and nodded slowly. "I should stop underestimating you, shouldn't I," he said.

"Probably. And stop leaving letters out with your name signed to them." Ryoma grinned and pointed to the desk. "Right out there."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," said Atobe, and started laughing for the second time in as many days. Ryoma was pleased as punch to join him again. Now if only Atobe had started laughing at himself right from the beginning, Ryoma would've stopped thinking he was just a prissy dandy sooner.

Well, maybe not.

***

The first night they were at the country house, Atobe looked in on him. Ryoma was in bed, but he had his arms resting on the headboard and was watching out the window. "Look there," he whispered, when he heard Atobe's familiar tread on the floorboards behind him. He pointed at the lawn, where a pair of deer were grazing in the moonlight.

"Two does," said Atobe softly. "Beautiful."

"Never seen those before, not live ones." Ryoma wasn't given much to fits of wonderment or awe, having lived on the streets for so many years, where he'd had to be practical every second of every day, but this time was worth it. "Easy to see why it's nice being rich, seeing things like this."

"It is one of the many benefits," Atobe agreed, sitting lightly on the edge of the bed.

"So, come in here just to visit, did you?" Ryoma asked, without tearing his gaze away from the deer.

"I remembered how it was, your first night at the other house," said Atobe. "I wanted to make sure you were sleeping well enough."

"Fine, I think, once I try it," said Ryoma. Now he looked back at Atobe, and it seemed like Atobe had been looking at him all along. His cheeks felt like they were on fire, and he was glad it was so dark so Atobe couldn't see. "Not the same, now."

"No?"

"I mean, you're both places, aren't you?" Ryoma's tongue got ahead of him, saying things he'd never meant to be said aloud. "Not the same anymore. You're here, with me, and you've never stabbed me in the back, nothing like that."

"I would hope not," said Atobe wryly, and then, more gently, "I'm glad you're comfortable here."

"Mm." Ryoma turned back to face the window so Atobe was sure not to see him blushing. "Night, then."

"Goodnight." Atobe stood up and left, and a minute later the deer bounded away, one after the other, into the shadow of the trees.

***

Lessons with Atobe were far better than lessons with Shishido, but they took more time. Atobe wanted to teach him French and Italian, and maybe Spanish and Portuguese too. "Why should I learn all those?" Ryoma asked, slightly indignant.

"If you ever go on holiday to France or Italy, you will want to know the native language in order to converse with any locals who may invite you to their dinner parties," Atobe informed him.

"What, me?" Ryoma tilted his head to the side so he could make sure Atobe wasn't having him on. "Go on holiday to France and Italy?"

"With me," Atobe supplied. "If you would like. I have taken trips to both in the past, and certain regions are very pleasant."

"Sure, the bits where they speak proper English." But Ryoma learned the languages as he did everything else, cheerfully stringing whole sentences together when Atobe started to proclaim that teaching him was hopeless. Once he'd figured out what Ryoma was up to, Atobe stopped sitting him down at the desk for lessons, and began switching from English whenever he wanted to trick Ryoma into answering in some other tongue. He'd catch Ryoma off-guard and tell him supper was ready in Italian, and Ryoma would reply absently, also in Italian, and then Atobe would be unbearably smug the rest of the day.

Luckily it didn't take Ryoma long to learn the rules of the new game, and so he started responding in some language other than the one Atobe was using: French, Portuguese, or German, which he'd learned a bit of from Kabaji on the side. The manservant was half German, or about that, and he didn't seem to mind teaching Ryoma, as long as Ryoma did most of the talking.

Atobe wasn't nearly as put-out by Ryoma's retaliation as Ryoma thought he ought to be, and declared that Russian would be next on their list, and maybe some of the Oriental languages after that one.

Not only that, but in addition Atobe wanted to teach him about the countryside. "There is a difference between meadow foxtail and oat-grass," said Atobe, pointing to the illustrations on two pages that faced each other.

"Oh, come off it." Ryoma sighed. Atobe had been talking about grass for the past half hour, and even though Ryoma preferred this to the sermons at church about damnation and salvation, at least those ones included angels and demons and interesting things sometimes. "Let's go back to the flowers. Those aren't all green."

"Neither is golden oat-grass." But Atobe flipped through until they reached the flower section again. "Roses you've seen, of course."

"Never so nice as those ones," Ryoma commented. Some men brought roses for their sweethearts, but they usually looked at though they'd been run down by a carriage and sprinkled with dust. None he'd ever seen were so brilliant as the book's pictures.

"No, they have to come from gardens and hothouses, not from half-rate city florists." Atobe turned the page. "Lilacs, and jasmine."

"Jasmine?" Ryoma squinted. "Never seen that before."

"No, but you've encountered its fragrance," said Atobe. "Ladies frequently wear that scent-" Ryoma wrinkled his nose. He'd never paid enough attention to girls for him to remember what they smelled like. "-as do I," Atobe finished, eying Ryoma like he knew exactly what he was thinking.

"Oh." Regardless of Atobe's disapproval, Ryoma thought he could recall that one. "The sweet one, not too strong?"

"That's right," Atobe agreed. "Although I cannot imagine why you chose to remember my favorite scent."

"Smells good," said Ryoma amiably. "You always do, with mint or jasmine or roses and all. Except that one time."

"Oh yes." Atobe's expression was a peculiar mixture of contemplation, amusement, and irritation, changing back and forth from one to another to the next. "Yes, yes, I know, I'll never wear lavender fragrance again."

"Good," said Ryoma, nodding in satisfaction.


On to part three!
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