Nicked, by kishmet. AU, Atobe/Ryoma, PG-13/R, 23,400 words. This takes place at an indeterminate time in an indeterminate place, and any mention of England, English, Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, etc. is purely coincidental. Italicized quotes are taken from Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, which is the inspirational basis for this fic, except this fic is way gayer. Unless you ship Dodger/Oliver, that is.
She was a pretty young lady, green dress made of fine linen, simple but expensive-looking gold pendant, definitely carrying some money, the way she lagged behind her friends peering into the stalls and shops. Ryoma grinned, stalking her from the shadows. There was another boy across the way doing the same thing, but Ryoma motioned to him: Mine. The other boy shook his head hesitantly, no, and Ryoma shrugged and motioned again: Fight for it? That was enough to send the other reluctantly back into the crowd, searching for another target. If they both went after this one, they'd bring the law down on them both, most likely.
The market row was the best place to work in the whole quarter of the city; there were servants out to do the marketing with fat purses full of gold from their masters and mistresses, and then there were the masters and mistresses themselves, out for walks, of course, never to do the marketing, but to look down their noses at everyone poorer. Usually the rich ones were the best to steal from, not just because they didn't keep a close watch on their pockets, but also because Ryoma got a perverse thrill of pleasure taking from people with such attitudes.
He grimaced, abandoning his current mark. He'd thought the furry lump in her arms was some kind of fancy muff meant to protect her hands, but it was really one of the little dogs some of the rich ladies had. Those dogs weren't good for much, to Ryoma's way of thinking, but they could scent a pickpocket from a league away.
Someone else, then… he tucked his hands into his pockets and strolled through the crowd. He was smart, smarter than most of the others working the district, and smarter than all of the marks. Every time he came out for this, he washed himself up as well as he could in one of the fountains the night before, scrubbing away the dirt from the streets and the blood from the fights, changing into the one pair of decent clothes he'd managed to purloin. Anyone would look twice at a filthy boy sneaking around the shops; no one minded a clean, handsome boy who looked like he came from the middle or upper classes.
Now there was a worthwhile mark right there. Finest clothes Ryoma had ever seen, short of the nights when one of the rich ones had a party, hair put into one of those stupid styles favored by the highborn men, this mark screamed money from his head all the way down to his delicately tapered, midnight-black shoes. Not only that, Ryoma had tried for this one before, at least twice in earnest, and he'd always had to give up at the last second. It could have been luck one time, but more than that and Ryoma started to think his mark knew that someone was watching him.
Maybe not this one, though. He was a 'gentleman's gentleman' or whatever it was they liked to call that in high society, living in his world of perfect clothes and perfect houses and perfect dogs and perfect horses and perfect people. He'd probably never gotten a spot of dust or a scrape on him in his life.
Ryoma, grown up on the street, knocked around, kicked, and taught by experience to knock everyone else around instead, hated the man on sight.
This time he'd get away with it for sure, and when Ryoma determined he'd do something, it happened. Sometimes he ended up with bruises along the way, but he'd always had bruises, so he didn't think anything of it.
He stalked his prey like a cat stalked a wary mouse; pretending like he wasn't interested with one eye, keeping the other eye on his target. He let the crowd carry him closer, which was safest. With any luck, by the time the mark noticed something missing, Ryoma would be hidden by the people around him. Much as he couldn't stand being short, his height was an advantage sometimes.
Closer, there, that was right, could've taken that lady's purse but it was flat anyway, and he had to keep watch on the man he wanted to catch. The handkerchief hanging from his front pocket would be an easy lift, and would fetch a fair price after any monograms were picked out of it. It would take longer to be missed than jewelry, too, or it usually did.
"Sorry." He purposely ran into one man before hitting his mark. That way, if he was caught and they called someone else in to speak against him, everyone else on the street would say they'd seen him stumbling around. He was small, too, easily jostled; his story would be easy to believe.
Then he brushed against his mark. "Oh, sorry."
Something made him look up, a thing a boy on the lifting lay learned never, ever to do. The look in the man's eyes said that he knew what Ryoma had done, that he wasn't going to let him get away with it. But the man didn't raise a hand, didn't grab him or make a fuss. Ryoma fought the instinct to run, picking up his walking pace instead.
Behind him, he heard footsteps as his mark's pace increased as well.
Damn. He did know, then, and was going to try to follow. Ryoma wasn't going to bolt, oh no; he'd been working too long to do something stupid like that. Everyone would know he was guilty if he ran. The handkerchief was safe down the side of his trousers where no one could see, and any rich man would have a hard time picking a single urchin out of the crowd.
Ryoma headed for a back alley without turning to see if the dandy was still following. He snorted. Probably a rich man would be afraid of the alleys, afraid he'd be robbed of something more than a handkerchief. He let himself break into a trot once he'd turned another corner. No way would the man come down this way, where it was dark and away from the other highborns.
"There you are."
Ryoma came to a halt, skidding on his heels in order to make himself stop. There was his mark, arms folded, somehow having managed to get in front of him.
There was a time for nonchalance, and there was a time for running like a bat out of hell. This was the second kind of time, Ryoma decided, and hurtled down an alley to his left. The man didn't yell, but Ryoma could hear the footsteps pounding after him. They faded, though, and Ryoma felt a surge of triumph. He was faster than some rich man in his fancy shoes.
And then he hurtled headlong into said fancy-shoed rich man, who grabbed and held him. The man smelled rich from here, of mint and some other thing Ryoma couldn't recognize, no trace of street-stink about him. "I don't think so. Not this time."
"Let me go!" Ryoma spat, kicking and writhing.
"Stop. You're going to muss my shirt, and then you will owe me even more than you already do."
Ryoma wouldn't give up for another minute or two, but he wasn't nearly strong enough. Slowly he subsided, scowling. "Fine. What d'you want?"
"My handkerchief back, for one thing."
"Got to let go of me for that," Ryoma muttered.
"No." The man took hold of both of his wrists, allowing Ryoma only enough space to reach down the side of his trousers for the bit of silk. Ryoma brought the handkerchief out and the man let go with one hand to take it.
Ryoma knew very well that he couldn't escape, not with his prize, but he was going to make this stupid dandy suffer.
The dandy marched him down the street, and he was a right idiot for sure, because he kept trying to talk to Ryoma. "Your name, boy?" When Ryoma stayed silent, the dandy shook him.
Ryoma turned and glared, and muttered sullenly, "Haven't heard yours yet."
"Keigo Atobe," said the man, without a moment's hesitation. Oh, this one was full of himself, not that any of them weren't. This one was just worse than usual. "Now please, do me the courtesy of returning the favor."
"Ryoma Echizen," Ryoma said, not so sure about revealing his real name to this pompous peacock, but thinking also that it wouldn't be such a good idea to lie before he knew how smart the man could be. "You hauling me off to the workhouse, then?"
"No, I am not," Atobe informed him, tugging him along behind despite the carefully averted gazes of the passers-by. "I am taking you somewhere infinitely more civilized and humane."
"Prison, then?" Ryoma was somewhat dismayed. He'd been in there once before, his father's fault, and he didn't fancy a return engagement, though most of the prisons in this part of town were easy enough to slip out of, with a few coins or nimble fingers, or both.
Atobe gave him a funny sidewise look. "You prefer prison to the workhouse."
"Sure." Ryoma shrugged. "In prison you've got two square meals and a bed, if you're lucky. In the workhouse they work you 'til you can't anymore, and no work, no food, either. Can pick up the fever both places, anyhow, and the doctors don't care to fix you up, if you haven't got the coins to pay."
"That is reprehensible," said Atobe decisively, and pulled Ryoma's arm to make him trot a little faster, and catch up.
"Can't keep up, your legs're too long," Ryoma mumbled, though he was plenty able to walk fast enough and more. Still, dragging his heels was the only way he could annoy Atobe, maybe enough to get himself let go. "So where're you taking me, then?"
"My house," Atobe replied.
Ryoma darted a glance at him. He'd heard of boys and girls pulled off the streets by the rich ones, and none of the stories turned out so good, at least not the true ones. Rich men could be sneaks and perverts, as easy as the poor ones, only it was easier for them to keep what they'd done hidden. Money could buy just about anything, and no one much missed the few pickpockets, beggars, and cutpurses who went missing. Plus, he'd known others who'd been caught by a mark or by the coppers, and they'd ended up indentured servants for life, just for stealing a bauble or bit of silk. "Why?"
"Because I am feeling generous, and because you seem intelligent enough to benefit from my intercession." They were heading toward one of the nice parts of town, the parts where a normal street urchin would stick out like a sore thumb. "Because you are clean and well-groomed, and it seems a shame to let you go, knowing that you'll most likely be dead in a year."
"Will not!" said Ryoma indignantly, struggling again for the first time since Atobe had caught him. "Been on my own since I could walk, near enough. Think you'd live a day out there, with that pretty face?"
"Hm." Atobe didn't seem to think much of what Ryoma was saying. His grip tightened a little, and Ryoma thought about biting him and twisting away, but decided a fancy gentleman would taste like soap or worse. "Your face is as handsome as mine, if younger and more feminine."
"Like a girl's," Atobe supplied.
At that point Ryoma started fighting like a wildcat, even though he knew it was true. He'd been told plenty of times that he ought to work in the whorehouse or even onstage, in women's clothes, but he liked lifting better. There was better money in playing the part of a girl, but Ryoma wasn't going to lower himself that far. He'd played a tavern wench once and that had been bad enough for the night or two he'd done it, men grabbing his arse or asking him out back every minute. "Let go!" he snarled. "Let go!"
He tried out his favorite escape move, a sudden jerk to the side and then a duck down, in the direction his captors usually didn't think he'd go. Atobe lost his grip with one hand, but caught onto Ryoma's shirt with the other. While he should've been distracted, Ryoma lunged forward to knee him in the groin. To his surprise, Atobe blocked him, and then grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. "Enough," said Atobe. "I meant nothing by that, save the truth. I will not use you for indecent purposes, if that's what you're afraid of."
"S'what all the perverts say," said Ryoma rebelliously, and dug his heels in even more when they turned up the walk to one of the biggest houses on the street. He promised himself not to gape or seem impressed, no matter if Atobe had his floors paved with gold and diamonds.
Ryoma couldn't help staring, though, as Atobe dragged him into the enormous foyer of the house. The floor wasn't made of gems and jewels, but it was close enough. There was a pretty mosaic underfoot, in all sorts of different colors, reminding Ryoma of a painted church window. The room just inside the door was high and sloped on the inside, creating a dome above them, with a crystal chandelier hanging down from it. With his quick eyes, Ryoma surveyed the chandelier, its proximity to the balcony above, and how much the thing would be worth if he sold to the right fence.
"Stop eying my things as though this is some kind of free-for-all," said Atobe with a sniff. "Kabaji! Take this to the maids, I'll need it washed immediately. And order some clothing brought up to the guest suite, his size, or as close as you can get to it."
"Yes, sir." The tall, near-silent servant nodded his head, took the handkerchief Ryoma had stolen, and walked away. Ryoma watched curiously after him, wondering why anyone would show Atobe such respect. The pay was good, he decided, and maybe the servants here were paid extra to keep quiet about what a pompous ass their master was.
"So what'd you bring me here for, really?" Ryoma asked suspiciously.
Atobe raised one of his high, gentleman's eyebrows. "I told you already. To teach you that- ah, good." The tall servant had returned, and with a bow, handed over a handkerchief identical to the first.
"They never washed that so fast," said Ryoma, not willing to believe that it was so. Even the dandies had some limits on what they did.
"Of course not." Atobe tucked the cloth into his pocket where the other one had been, making sure this time to fold it down far enough that no piece of it showed. Ryoma scowled. "One does not have a single personalised handkerchief made. That would be ridiculous."
"Ridiculous making a fuss over one, when you have more anyway," Ryoma muttered. "Could've let me have that one."
"If all my things were free for the taking, I would be living on the street, the way you are. Were," Atobe amended. He headed for the stairs with Ryoma in tow, though he'd loosened his hold. Ryoma wasn't much inclined to run anyway. There were servants to stop him, and besides, he wanted to see if what Atobe had said was on the up-and-up. If it was, he'd be a fool worse than his father for turning it down.
The staircase was wide and pretty, like everything else Ryoma had seen in the house so far. He had to take two steps for every stair, but now Atobe was better about it, slowing down so Ryoma didn't have to hurry much. It gave him time to run his hand over the banister, which was dark brown wood, and carved with all sorts of flowery designs. "What'd you pay for all this?" he asked curiously.
"What?" Atobe looked to see what he meant. "The house? You would have to ask a distant ancestor of mine. This house has been in my family for centuries."
"So I was right," Ryoma mused, and gave a smirk. "You've never lifted a finger your whole life." Then he yelped when Atobe cuffed his ear, and held a hand to the injured spot, and gave Atobe an accusatory look. "Didn't deserve that."
"Yes, you did." They reached the top of the steps as Atobe spoke, and rounded a corner. "I take you in, and this is the thanks I get? The ingratitude appalls."
"Never asked you to do it," said Ryoma stubbornly, still cradling the side of his head, which had stopped hurting just about right when it started. Atobe hit softer than any girl Ryoma had ever met.
When Atobe led him into another big room, Ryoma couldn't manage to stop himself from gawking again. This one was smaller than the foyer and the ceiling was flat enough, not domed, but the rest of the room was just as fine. The bed had four huge posts at the corners, towering over the rest like trees, and there were curtains to pull for privacy. Not just that, but there was a wardrobe and a bureau, and they matched each other and the bed perfectly. Then there were flowers on a table by the window, fresh ones, by the smell of the place, and a desk in a corner, and a nice rug on the floor, patterned with animals and leaves. There was also a mirror near the door, from almost the floor up to Ryoma's head. It was surrounded by an ornate metal frame.
"This your room?" Ryoma breathed, gazing around in awed wonder.
"No, I have the master bedroom," said Atobe. "It's down the hall, though I would prefer it if you knocked before entering."
"Don't know why I'd want to," Ryoma retorted. "Enter, I mean. So who's this belong to?"
"You, for the duration of your stay."
At that, Ryoma threw his head back and laughed, long and hearty, close to collapsing on the floor with how funny the idea was. "Go on!" he gasped, tears filling his eyes until he couldn't see properly. "Pull the other one!"
"Why is it so incredible that I would give you decent quarters?" Atobe sounded irritated for the first time, but Ryoma was too busy laughing to be much pleased about it. "Cease that at once, unless you would like to be put in with the servants."
"What," Ryoma said, choking back his laughter so he could say something. "You serious on this one?"
"Yes, I am serious, and you would do well to remember that a gentleman never speaks a word he does not mean." Atobe turned on his heel, looking every inch a dockworker's woman who'd been scorned, or cheated on. "Your clothing is on the bed. I expect you to be changed by the time you return," he said over his shoulder, and left with a final haughty sniff.
Ryoma had to take a few seconds to stop the last of his chuckling. Then he reasoned that he might as well obey, to see where all this took him. He stripped off his shirt and then his trousers, dropping them onto the floor. The whole house was clean, anyway, and he didn't much care about his clothes anyway. They were the best set he'd had for a long time, but now if Atobe was going to throw better his way, he'd take it. If he ever got out and went back to lifting, no one would ever suspect what he was in this getup.
He went over to the mirror because he was curious, and looked at himself in it. Thin, but not scrawny, with large gold eyes, dark hair, and pale skin. Not bad, or it wouldn't be once he grew and started looking less like a girl.
Someone tapped lightly at the door, and a moment later the handle made a soft click as it was opened, and Atobe walked in. "Are you finished yet?" Then he turned around quickly and gave a heavy sigh. "For god's sake, you just undressed yourself in the middle of the room?"
"'course. Didn't think you'd walk right in."
"That," said Atobe, with feigned patience, "is what the screens are for. There, in the corner of the room." He had to turn around again to point, though he kept his eyes off of Ryoma.
"Huh." Ryoma hardly glanced at them. "Too big to sell anywhere."
"Yes, thankfully that should deter you from stealing them. Have you no shame?" Atobe demanded, as Ryoma went to fetch the clothes from the bed. "Take those behind the screens."
Ryoma ignored him, trying to decide which order to put the clothes on in. He had trousers, but also another something that looked like it went onto someone's legs. Underwear, there, now he knew that went on first. He started stripping off his own gray pair to replace it with the white, softer ones.
"Oh, for… even with that?"
"Who cares?" Ryoma certainly didn't. There, the skinnier trousers went on first, maybe, then the other ones. There were stockings, too, but Ryoma didn't put them on. It was summer, and everyone went barefoot in summer except for the highborns, and he didn't plan on turning into one of them. He frowned at the wide assortment of shirts in the pile; they couldn't want him to wear all of those! He picked up the simplest and pulled it over his head. It was soft as anything, except maybe his new underwear were softer. "Done," he announced.
"You are not," said Atobe, sounding disgusted. "Ladies would faint at the sight of you, half-dressed that way."
"I do. You are going to dress as though we were going out so that you have some idea of what a civilised human being wears." So saying, Atobe strode over and picked up another one of the shirt things. "Now this."
"I've already got a shirt on," Ryoma protested, not seeing the sense in wearing two of the same thing. Then again, maybe it was like Atobe's handkerchiefs, and the rich ones were all this greedy. Reluctantly Ryoma wriggled into the shirt Atobe gave him, and the coat, and the belt, and then the stockings, which he complained bitterly about but was still made to wear.
"Stupid," Ryoma grumbled, picking at one of his sleeves. "Who wears all this when it's warm?"
"A gentleman does," said Atobe. "And you are going to learn to be a gentleman, no matter how much it goes against your essential nature."
"If you're what a gentleman is, I don't want to be one, that's sure," said Ryoma under his breath, but followed Atobe out of the room. There was a heavenly scent coming from downstairs, proof, hopefully, that he wouldn't be living on a tavern's table scraps tonight.
"Your first lesson here will be learning to eat properly." Atobe let his tall manservant pull out the chair at the head of the table for him, and then sat in it, his back perfectly straight, his nose in the air.
Ryoma didn't bother holding back a snort of laughter as the manservant draped a clean white cloth over Atobe's lap. "What, don't know how to do it for yourself? Don't think I want to learn that kind of lesson, thanks anyway."
Atobe gave him a prim look. "I am capable of doing anything and everything for myself. Just because I don't does not mean that I do not know how. A gentleman should know these things, but should avail himself of good service when it is paid for and offered."
"Huh. So looking stupid is the gentlemanly thing to do?" Ryoma feinted and dodged around the servant who was pulling out a chair for him, and slid into the chair beside it with a satisfied "oof." The table was huge and ridiculous, especially since only he and Atobe were eating at it. There were maybe twenty spaces for other people, since none of the servants were allowed to eat with the highborns (and whatever urchins said highborns dragged in from the street). Ryoma raised his chin and did his best to look just as haughty as Atobe did. "See, I can get my own seat just fine."
"So can I, as I was just explaining," said Atobe.
"Yeah?" Ryoma asked. "Never seen you do it, so you'll have to prove it sometime. So what's for dinner?"
"Supper," said Atobe, "will consist of a roasted side of beef and a whole roasted quail basted in white wine, fresh and cooked vegetables, potatoes with butter and garlic, and whatever else the kitchen prepares for us."
Despite himself, Ryoma's mouth started to water. All that sounded a fair ways above the bit of bacon and bread crusts he'd had that morning. He started to wonder why he hadn't gotten himself dragged home by a mark before.
Then Atobe's lips curved into a smile Ryoma didn't really like. "However, you will not eat a bite of it until you prove yourself capable of eating properly and politely."
Oh, thought Ryoma, disgusted. That was why.
He would've spent an absolutely agonizing dinner staring longingly at each new course of food that was brought out, while Atobe explained which fork was used for what and why the spoon for the soup couldn't be used for the potatoes and when it was appropriate to sip at the wine and when it wasn't. Lucky for him, Ryoma had been lifting practically since he was born, and his fingers were light as feathers. He snagged a piece of meat as a maid carried the tray by him, picking off pieces and munching them while Atobe talked, responding only with a "Huh," or "Uh-huh," or "Mm," every once in awhile.
"Good supper conversation is a must, also," said Atobe pointedly. "If a gentleman cannot carry such a conversation, he is called dull in his social circles."
"Bet everyone's calling you dull and you don't know it," said Ryoma, and then grinned innocently when Atobe eyed him. It was hard to dole out insults when his mouth was full of the best beef he'd ever tasted in his life, save that one time he'd sneaked into a party in one of the big houses. He'd only been there for a few minutes before one of the servants tossed him out, but it'd been a few minutes in heaven.
"I am one of the most sought-after guests among persons of my acquaintance. I don't believe that any of them would call me dull."
"Well, guess they're all lying to you then." Ryoma was going to lift another piece of meat, since his first one was down to bone and gristle. But he'd barely raised his hand when Atobe reached over and delivered a sharp smack to the back of it. Ryoma yelped and snatched his hand back like it'd been burned, giving Atobe a baleful look and cradling his fingers against his chest. "What's that for?"
"I let you have one piece because you might have been starving out there on the streets, for all I know," Atobe replied haughtily. "But for the rest, you will eat politely. No more of this grabbing food with your bare hands and picking it to shreds."
Ryoma reluctantly brought his other hand above the table, dropping what was left of the meat onto the fancy china plate. "What good's eating anyway, if you can't even enjoy it," he mumbled.
"Gentlemen enjoy their food and observe proper etiquette," said Atobe. "The two are not mutually exclusive."
"Just bet they're not." Ryoma huffed and crossed his arms, slouching in his chair. He glowered down at his plate and wondered if Atobe would notice if he picked just a little bit more fat off the bone.
"Don't you touch that again. You will make yourself look like a real street rat, gnawing everything you can off of it. There is more meat, and you may have it if you ask politely and eat it properly. Say please," Atobe prompted, when a minute had gone by and all Ryoma had done was look at him dubiously.
"Thought I was through begging when I went on the lifting lay." Ryoma picked up one of the forks by his plate and poked at the meat with it.
Atobe put a restraining hand on his wrist. "Firstly, that is also not polite. Secondly, that is not the fork you use for the main course. Thirdly, you are not begging, you are asking."
"Fine then." Ryoma would've given anything for a little more of that savory taste in his mouth. This was the biggest meal he'd got a chance at in months, and he wasn't going to waste the opportunity. He'd begged for years when he was little and looked pathetic enough, and he could do it again now. "Please can I have some more meat?"
"May I, not can I. And no, you may not." Just as Ryoma's jaw dropped in dismay, Atobe snapped his fingers and the maid came over with a bowl full of greens and some other things Ryoma couldn't even recognize.
"That's not fair!" said Ryoma, indignant. "Said I could have it if I asked right, you did!"
"You may have more meat after you've eaten your salad course," said Atobe with authority, the same voice the coppers used when they said a lifter could go, long as they could empty his pockets first. The maid started spooning green stuff onto Ryoma's plate.
Ryoma eyed the greens distastefully. "Don't need any rabbit food." He'd got a bit of that a few times, meaning to lift some other edibles instead, and he knew better than to think it made a good meal. Few leaves of that wouldn't fill anyone; it'd take a whole bagful to do the least little bit of good.
"This 'rabbit food,' as you call it, is far healthier than what you usually eat, I can promise you that." Atobe nodded to the maid, and she finally stopped loading Ryoma's plate and started loading Atobe's instead. Once she was done with that, she put the dish back on the table. "Eat all of that, and then you may have more meat."
Ryoma poked at the greens with his fork, too. They made a sound like autumn leaves underfoot. "Don't know why anyone's got to eat leaves." He wasn't sure why someone so rich would eat something that could be found on trees and on the ground all over the place. "Call this eating good? I can find leaves anyplace around."
"It's called lettuce and spinach," Atobe informed him.
"Looks like leaves to me." Ryoma picked up a piece of it on his fork, pausing to make sure he wasn't using the wrong one again. Atobe nodded, and Ryoma took a nibble off the edge of a darker green one. He made a face. "Tastes like leaves too."
"Don't be ungrateful when somebody finally offers you good nutrition." Atobe took up his own fork and began to eat his vegetables. Ryoma eyed him suspiciously to make sure he wasn't dropping them into his napkin or something, and was forced to conclude that no, Atobe really was eating his greens. He didn't look like he was enjoying them, but maybe it wasn't polite to enjoy food. Ryoma wasn't quite sure.
After a supper like that, the announcement of bedtime was a blessing. Ryoma couldn't remember a time he'd been so full; he'd eaten all the leaves, even, or all the ones he hadn't stuffed into his pockets instead. That was what he did first, once Atobe's tall, quiet manservant had shown him back up to his bedroom: he took the leaves out of his pocket, undid the latch on the window, and threw them out. The rats would get that mess, and welcome they were to have it.
Ryoma stripped down to one pair of trousers, one shirt, and bare feet, tossing the rest onto the floor, since his old clothes had disappeared from there while he'd been at supper, probably taken away by the ever-present servants.
He curled up in the middle of the bed with a contented sigh. The soft mattress was a fine thing, but it seemed silly to have goose-down pillows along with it, when he was so comfortable already. He wasn't going to sleep much anyway, not tonight, not until he knew whether the people wandering the house were trustworthy.
So he did what he'd done so many times before, and rested, keeping one eye open. Atobe could decide to have him killed, if he wanted, or thrown out. Worse things had happened before on the streets, like the time Ryoma had thought of before, when he'd acted as a tavern wench for a little while. He'd deserved being tossed on his head on the pavement, even he had to admit, but then the man whose ale he'd replaced with water from the pig trough had deserved that, too, for pinching one time too many.
Somebody opened the door partway around one, though Ryoma couldn't see enough to tell who it was, and a maid came in at half past three, if the light from the window was right. He watched her carefully, but all she did was pick up his clothes and take them out.
At seven or so, he was still awake and alert, and he sat up the second he heard the knock. "Come in," Ryoma called, and rubbed his eyes. They were watery and tired, but some tea or coffee would fix that, especially the kind they'd get in a house like this one.
Atobe walked in, and folded his arms, looking very stern. "You slept in your good clothes."
"Oh, these?" Ryoma glanced down at himself. "Said I couldn't wear just these downstairs, didn't you? Thought they'd do for nightclothes, then."
"No, they are not suitable as nightclothes," said Atobe, looking down through his nose like he was a judge passing a sentence. "Today it can be forgiven because you did not know any better. Tonight you will wear the nightclothes from the bureau."
"No wonder dandies like you have to have all that money to spend." Ryoma swung his legs over the side of the bed and padded to the bureau, to inspect whatever could be found there. "Wear two sets of clothes all day, and another again at night? Could clothe all the lifters in the city with half what you wear."
"You are the only pickpocket I am concerned with clothing at the moment. Go behind the screen." Atobe put a hand over his eyes and let out an exasperated sigh as Ryoma started undressing right there again.
Ryoma waited, naked as the day he'd been born, until Atobe chanced a look, and then grinned cheekily at him. "What, never seen anyone bare before?"
"In civil society, it is never appropriate to be undressed in front of another person," said Atobe primly. "When one is with ladies, one must observe the customs even more closely, and wear a full outfit at all times."
"Didn't answer the question," Ryoma observed, concluding privately that Atobe had seen other people without clothing, and most likely in less-than-gentlemanly circumstances, since he wouldn't talk about it.
There were more clothes in the bureau, like the ones he'd worn the day before but in different colors. He marveled at the waste that had gone into making all these clothes that were meant for only one person. Small wonder with this, too, that the ones who scraped their livings on the streets could barely find shirts for their backs, if the rich ones were using them all.
He hadn't quite got the order of clothing down. The bottom half was simple enough, from thinnest to thickest, and then the stockings and the boots. Ryoma puzzled for a good minute over which shirt sat next to his skin. Then a hand rested briefly on his shoulder, and Atobe tapped the white shirt in his right hand. "That one."
"Right, thanks." Ryoma put the other one down and tugged the first on, then the second over it. "Not going to make me go out in all this, are you? I'd swelter to death, this time of year."
"No, indeed you will not be going out today," said Atobe. "We will take our breakfast, and then your schooling will begin."
Ryoma didn't like the sound of the schooling bit, but there was no way he was going to argue with another meal.
Breakfast was as good as supper had been, though Ryoma didn't let himself gorge the way he'd done the night before. He had to stay fit and quick, so he finished only half the huge bowl of porridge and one slice of warm white bread. He couldn't resist the tray of sausages quite so well, and wolfed four of them before his tongue and stomach were satisfied.
Atobe watched him closely while he ate, and halfway through Ryoma looked up, flashing a grin. "Thought I'd forget how to use this overnight?" He brandished the fork, the second one from the outside. It wasn't too hard to remember to go from the outside in with the silver.
"I wasn't aware that you were listening to me at all yesterday evening," Atobe remarked, and finally lifted his own knife and fork. "I am most pleased to learn otherwise."
When he was done, Ryoma tried to hightail it away, but Atobe collared him. It seemed like a special skill of his, and Ryoma wondered how many lifters he'd caught before. Good thing Atobe wasn't a copper, anyway, or else there'd be no pickpockets left, and what a shame that would be. "Come along," Atobe commanded, not leaving Ryoma much choice in the matter.
They wound their way through a maze of halls, one of which was lined with portraits of men and women. "That your dad?" Ryoma asked, peering at one that looked too much like Atobe to be a coincidence.
"My grandfather," Atobe replied. "That one is my father." He pointed to another portrait a little farther down, larger than the first. "I never did bear much resemblance to him."
"Lucky, that," said Ryoma, almost wistful for a moment. "They took me in a few times when my dad'd done something wrong, just to get me to squeal where he was holed up. No hiding that I was his son, not ever."
"Well, as my father was never particularly criminal in his behavior, I would not have shared that problem even if we did look alike," said Atobe dryly. But his touch on Ryoma's arm gentled, and he added, "It is a shame that the son would be punished for the misdeeds of the father."
"Oh, by then I was already snatching baubles off dandies like you," said Ryoma cheerfully. "They would've hauled me in anyhow."
Atobe stopped and stared at him for a second, then shook his head and muttered something about undeserved compassion.
Their destination wasn't far by then, just at the end of the corridor. The room they ended up in was large, with more windows than any Ryoma had seen so far, all of them draped with lacy white curtains. There were all kinds of fancy furniture, including an enormous pianoforte in the corner, and a writing desk on the other side. There was also a man in there, who stood when they entered. He didn't look quite so prissy as Atobe, but made along the same lines.
"This is Ryou Shishido, and he is to be your tutor." Atobe presented the man like he was the king himself. Shishido didn't look much like a king to Ryoma, just another dandy with more money than sense. "He comes highly recommended by an acquaintance of mine, and I'm sure he'll give you the finest education possible."
"Pleasure to meet you." Shishido bowed and then looked up, waiting for Ryoma to do the same, probably.
Ryoma scrutinized him, appraising the worth of those cufflinks. "Doesn't look like much to me," he said, meaning both the gold bits (fake, gold-plated not solid) and the rest of Shishido too.
Shishido stared at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"Have to beg harder than that, if it's going to work on me." Ryoma looked at Atobe, who was wearing that expression that meant he wanted to slap Ryoma but was too refined to do it in mixed company. "Can I go now?"
"I think not." Atobe's tone was colder than the ice that sometimes froze on Ryoma's eyelashes in midwinter, when he couldn't find a proper place to lay low for a night or two. But Ryoma could hear a note of satisfaction in there, too, like Atobe was frothing now, but he was going to do something for payback soon.
"Maybe I'll just-" Ryoma edged for the door and would have scampered through it and to someplace where Atobe wouldn't find him until he'd cooled down a little, except Atobe was quicker than he was and grabbed him by the back of the collar. Ryoma choked, surprised, and had to backpedal so Atobe wouldn't strangle him to death. If only he'd been wearing one of his old shirts, he thought ruefully, one of the one so worn that it would rip as soon as anyone laid hold of it.
"I could return later," Shishido spoke up, staring like he'd never seen a fight before, not that this was a real fight. Ryoma couldn't take Atobe, he knew that, and besides, he was at least going to wait until after he'd eaten another fine dinner that was probably worth more than the purse Ryoma had tried to steal in the first place.
Ryoma shook his head vehemently, feeling like an alley cat who'd snuck into a tavern kitchen and been grabbed by the cook. Atobe had him good, that was sure. "If I can't get out, you can't either," he informed Shishido.
"Where are your manners?" Atobe demanded, shaking him a little and making him feel even more like a stray kitten being chastised for stealing scraps.
"Don't know, guess you must've thrown them away with my good clothes," Ryoma retorted, squirming and trying to get himself loose.
Atobe snorted, incredulous. "Good clothes indeed! I have seen rags used for cleaning in better shape than what you were wearing when I hauled you off the street."
"Well, you've got fine everything, so I guess you've got silk rags in here too." Ryoma tried lunging forward, and only managed to choke again. "Most of us've got to make do with plain old rags, Your Highness."
"That is a title reserved for the son or the daughter of a king, and as I am neither, it is not appropriate here." Atobe's voice said he knew he'd won already, which made Ryoma furious, not that he could do much about it. "You will remain here for your first lesson with Shishido, which is to commence immediately. Heaven knows that you need it, and badly."
"Ah…" Shishido looked about to say something, but by the time he'd got past the first sound, Atobe had released Ryoma and swept out of the room, slamming the door firmly behind him. Ryoma wondered if he'd locked it from the outside, which wouldn't make either him or Shishido very happy, he'd bet.
Shishido eyed Ryoma warily, not looking like a gentleman at all, more like some boy fresh on the streets, not sure yet who to talk to or where to find the best free meals.
"Going to teach me or stare at me?" Ryoma asked, flopping onto the only comfortable chair in the study, because he sure as anything wasn't going to take the straight-backed, hard wooden one.
Clearing his throat and making a little, polite sound that probably didn't do anything at all to make talking easier, Shishido pulled out the chair Ryoma hadn't wanted and sat in it, straight and proper, the way Atobe sat at the dinner table. "That is what I am to do, yes. Teach you, that is."
"How much is His Highness paying you for that?" Ryoma didn't bother putting on good posture. Useless anyway, it was, like sticking a brushtail on a pig and calling it a horse.
"He-" Shishido cleared his throat. "I do not make a habit of discussing fees with my pupils."
"Hell of a lot, then," said Ryoma, with some satisfaction. He'd figured out now that if Atobe was going to lay down so much money over him, then he was probably safe enough, or at least his life was. He couldn't say the same for his honor yet, not for sure, but by his reckoning he'd never had much of that to begin with.
Shishido drew back like Ryoma had slapped him across the face. "A gentleman generally does not use, ah, profanity, in mixed company."
"Profa-what?" Ryoma asked, cocking his head to the side.
"Profanity." When Ryoma kept eying him, not quite sure what he was trying to say, Shishido coughed. "Curse words. Hell, and damn, and so forth."
"Should get that cough looked after," Ryoma observed.
"And the company's not too mixed here, now is it?" Ryoma looked around, shrugged, and pulled his feet up on the chair beneath him. "Just you and me, not even His Highness around to say what's right and not."
"Well, yes. No. That is my job, actually," said Shishido carefully. "To ensure that you know what is right and wrong in various social situations. Although Atobe didn't tell me it would be so… difficult." That last bit was to himself, Ryoma could tell.
He answered anyway. "Bet that's not so polite, either, saying how difficult I am."
Shishido backtracked as soon as Ryoma was done talking, just the way Ryoma thought he might, his eyes going wide, hands clutching at the arms of his chair like he was about to faint. Now that would be no good; entertaining, maybe, but not so fun when he had to explain to Atobe why Shishido had ended up sprawled all over the floor. "Not how difficult you are, more the- the," Shishido started to explain. "Circumstances. You haven't been raised in a manner that would facilitate the-"
"A street brat, that's what I am." Ryoma yawned, not bothering to cover his mouth for it. "You done yapping yet? Worse than one of those dogs, you are. The little puffball ones."
Shishido opened his mouth, and closed it, and opened it again, looking for all the world like a landed fish. Ryoma smirked.
"Do you have any idea what you have done?" Atobe stormed into Ryoma's room, and Ryoma glanced up from twiddling his thumbs. He was lying on the bed on his stomach, since he didn't want to let such a nice piece of furniture go to waste. He'd promised himself he'd spend as much time as he could on it. "The finest private tutor in the country, one of the few people capable of instilling some semblance of civility in you, and you've chased him off in under an hour. Do you know how much I paid him for this one afternoon?"
"He wouldn't say." Ryoma kicked his legs idly in the air behind him. "Hell of a lot though, s'what I said."
Atobe glared death at him, which didn't faze Ryoma much. He'd been glared at often enough on the streets, and here he was, live to tell about it. "Yes," Atobe spat. "One hell of a lot, you damnable little wretch."
"This mixed company?" Ryoma glanced left and right. "Only Shishido said you're not supposed to curse in it. Say," he said, perking up. "Is wretch a profani-whatever? He said about hell and damn, and then I know bloody and fuck, both."
"A gentleman never uses those words, no matter where he is or what he is doing," said Atobe, his voice and his look both cold as ice. Ryoma thought they might give him chilblains if he was around them long enough.
"Well," said Ryoma thoughtfully. "How about whore?"
He never found out whether whore was a curse or not, which was all right, because it meant he could use it in whatever company he wanted until someone told him otherwise. Ryoma would've been pleased with himself, but when Atobe was dragging him around the house by his ear, it wasn't easy to be pleased by anything.
"You will extend your profuse apologies to Shishido, and assure him that nothing of the sort will ever happen again," Atobe informed him, marching him down the hall to the room with the desk and the pianoforte.
"Can't, because-" Ryoma yowled and struggled against Atobe's grip on his ear, which had just tightened until it felt like the side of his head was going to come clear off.
"You will say it, and mean it," said Atobe firmly. He hauled Ryoma into the room and closed the door behind them, trapping himself, Ryoma, and that prissy tutor all inside. Shishido didn't look too happy about it, and Ryoma didn't either. When Atobe finally let go of his ear, Ryoma skittered across the room as fast as he could and then scowled, fiddling with the cuffs on his shirt. "Shishido," said Atobe, ignoring Ryoma's glaring at him. "My young ward has something he would like to say to you."
Ryoma crossed his arms and glowered.
"Or he had better," Atobe said pointedly.
Well, it wasn't like Shishido would think Ryoma meant it anyway. It was the outside of the thing, not the real inside that mattered to dandies, Ryoma guessed. "Sorry," he offered, sounding more sulky than apologetic. "Didn't mean to send you running. Didn't think you'd go, not with all His Royal Majesty's paying you."
"What?" Atobe eyed him dangerously, and Ryoma winced, putting a hand to his ear, which suddenly smarted with remembered pain. "What did you just call me?"
"Nothing," Ryoma muttered, looking down at the floor. "Sorry."
"I am certain that your lessons together will go far more smoothly from here on." Atobe swept out of the room, and Ryoma stuck his tongue out after him, where Atobe couldn't see, but Shishido could. Shishido did what he'd done before, clearing his throat to try and tell Ryoma he wasn't being polite. He didn't have to; Ryoma hadn't meant to be polite in the first place.
"Right." Ryoma huffed a little, not well pleased that he had to do what he didn't want to, and went for the chair he'd sat in earlier. He plopped down in it and looked at Shishido, who looked back like he was afraid of having his eyes clawed out. "He's laid down the law well enough, but I won't do this, not without my say," Ryoma told Shishido. "Stop coughing when there's nothing in your throat. Can't teach me if you don't talk in words. And quit looking like I'll bite you, not like you wouldn't taste horrible anyway."
Shishido nodded slowly. Maybe there was a brain in that head of his after all. "All right. I will do all of that, if you will stop treating me as though I'm an idiot." Somehow in the middle of that, Ryoma realized, a bit startled, Shishido had started glaring at him. A grin spread across Ryoma's face. Maybe the two of them could get along.
Anyway, Shishido had handkerchiefs just as nice as Atobe's, Ryoma reflected, feeling the one that he'd tucked in his pocket.
This way to part the second!