December 2011

Disclaimer: I'd never even heard of the webcomic Teahouse before yuletide 2011. Beta by elynross; cheerlearding by Mary Crawford. Do not archive without permission.

sprinkles & cream

Rory looked down at his hands. They were empty. That couldn't be right. He'd had a plate full of cupcakes, just now, just moments ago he'd been carrying a large plate and now he wasn't and he had no idea where he'd put it down. That wasn't good. He was very grateful that he got to mess around in the kitchen, he loved baking, and he loved to make pretty cupcakes even if, his thoughts faltered a little, even if Reed didn't want them... well, everyone else at the Teahouse wanted them, anyway, so that was all right.

But if he'd put them down somewhere and couldn't find them again, that would be bad, and they might draw cockroaches or mice or, or rats and the Teahouse would get a reputation for being unclean and Mr. Atros would be so angry and everyone would yell at him and Reed would certainly never come back and--

"You should breathe more often," a voice said behind him, and he jumped and squeaked and breathed. Mercutio grinned at him, grinned down at him, taller than usual, and Rory resolutely didn't look down to see what Mercutio was wearing on his feet. He probably didn't want to know. "What are you thinking about so hard, pretty? That toy you got? Getting on all right with it? I could show you the best way to--"

Rory made another squeaking sound. "No! No, thank you." His conversation with Mercutio about toys had been the most excruciatingly embarrassing one of his life, worse than when Reed asked him if he was a virgin and told him to jerk off, worse than when Reed told him he was too tight, worse than...

His thoughts circled a little around the fact that Reed was involved in all his most embarrassing recent memories, one way or another. Reed made bad things happen in his life, like severe embarrassment and sex toys. And a crick in the neck.

But other things, too. Rory tried to look soberly and practically at it: Reed's patronage had given him a certain status here at the Teahouse, and as long as Reed wanted him he wasn't, he wouldn't be, he was entirely safe from other people doing things. To him.

Reed did things to him. Reed touched him with an assurance that bordered on ownership, and that was wrong, because Reed didn't own him, except that the way things were now, Reed... sort of did. Remembering the way Reed had touched him, remembering where Reed had touched him, Rory flushed hot.

And all those things had felt so good. He'd been prepared for things happening painfully and fast, or maybe that should be fast and painfully; he'd known what his life would be like here and the things that would happen, even if he couldn't make himself name them even in the privacy of his own mind, and now Reed was changing his expectations and giving him new things to anticipate and be afraid of, not that he was afraid of Reed, precisely, except that he was, in a way, even if Reed had made him feel, had done that to him and made him feel so...

"Do you need some time alone, pretty?" Mercutio sounded amused. "Or can I watch?"

Rory flushed harder. "Have you seen my cupcakes?" he burst out.

Mercutio looked startled now, and then amused again, as if the expressions were only masks that he was trying on for fun, much like he tried on Claret's shoes. "Since it's you, I'll assume you really do mean cupcakes," he said. "No, I haven't."

"Oh." Rory tried to remember all the places he'd been since leaving the kitchen. "I put them down somewhere." He looked up at Mercutio. "W-would you help me look? If you're not busy?"

The amused look intensified. "Oh, I could probably--"

A loud clatter interrupted whatever Mercutio had been going to say. The sound of something falling with a porcelain rattle and crash, a loud thump, and a voice that steadily rose in volume. "Fuck! Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!"

Running footsteps, and Rory hurried forward just in time to catch a glimpse of red hair before a door slammed. He looked down and saw bare footprints outlined in whipped cream.

"Well," Mercutio said behind him. "Now we know where you left the cupcakes."

Rory made a distressed sound and started following the footprints backwards, hoping Axis had stayed away from carpets, that Axis had stayed away from furniture, that Axis had just accidentally dropped one cupcake and become disproportionally upset because, after all, it was Axis, who always reminded Rory of those plants that had grown by the side of the path down by the river, the ones with the seedpods that you touched very carefully with a fingertip and sometimes nothing happened and sometimes they just burst open and made you jump back, seeds spraying everywhere.

He thought about telling Mercutio that, and then thought some more and stopped himself just as his mouth was about to open, because telling Mercutio about seedpods bursting and seeds spraying out was just asking for trouble. And besides, he hadn't been alone, there on the path by the river. Probably best not to think any more about that.

There was cream on the carpet. Cream footsteps on every other step of the blue runner all the way up the sweeping curve of the stairs. Rory bit down on another distressed sound. Why had he even put whipped cream on some of them, anyway? Yes, it had looked pretty, but now there was such a mess, and Mr. Atros would be furious.

The small group of furniture nestled in the curve of the stairs was a mess, too. The small table was overturned, the plate had fallen to the floor and broken, and most of the cupcakes were upside down and trampled and smeared and... lying on top of a ruined broadsheet. Better than on the floor, Rory thought, and dropped down on his knees to start picking up the cupcakes, putting them back on the largest piece of the broken plate. Some of them didn't look so bad, they could probably be salvaged.

Rory looked down at the broadsheet and gasped, because that, right there, that was a picture of the man in the fancy clothes, Reed's friend, and in this picture he was wearing something even fancier than when he'd come to the Teahouse and his face looked stiff and cold, though that might just be because of the artist who'd drawn him, maybe. Below the picture was text, and Rory stared incredulously at the words *smear of cream* --eloved Crown Pr-- *smear of cream* --ticipated marriage.

"That's Rhys," he said slowly, the name coming back to him filtered through teasing conversations, Axis's growl and Mercutio's insistent prodding. Sometimes quite literal prodding, with whatever he happened to have in his hands at the time, which invariably made Axis growl even louder. "Isn't it."

There was another picture next to the one of Rhys, but one of the cupcakes had been crushed into the paper right on top of it, so all Rory could see was a cloud of dark hair. Cleaning away cream and crumbs as best he could, he could make out the word fiancée. "Oh, I see," Mercutio said, suddenly leaning over his shoulder, reaching out to snag one of the better-looking cupcakes that Rory had set aside. "So our Axis has been having it away with royalty, has he? How grand for him."

Rory frowned worriedly. "I hope whoever paid for this broadsheet won't be too upset that it's ruined."

Mercutio shrugged. "They can get Axis to buy a new one." He tapped a finger against his chin. "He might even know where to do it. He's showing unexpected depths. And here I thought he didn't even know how to read."

Rory sat back on his heels and sighed. He looked at the ruined broadsheet, the crushed cupcakes, the overturned table, the sofa kicked askew, the footprints leading away. A movement higher up caught his eye and he saw that Argent was moving very slowly down the stairs, scraping away Axis's footprints with a knife and wiping the mess on a handkerchief.

"But," Rory said, not really caring much about Axis's depths, unexpected or not. "But did he have to ruin my cupcakes and, and do all this," he gestured, "just because Rhys is the prince and getting married?"

Mercutio looked unwontedly serious for a moment, though his eyes were hidden by the fall of his hair. One corner of his mouth curled up, but not in a smile. "Yes. Yes, I rather think he did." Then he licked at the frosting of the cupcake and grinned. "Axis is so intense about things, after all, he can't just relax and accept a new turn of events. If he'd just borrow a few things from me I think he'd learn to stretch his--"

"Oh, shut up," Rory said, waving a hand in the air to push the words away. "I don't want to hear it, and you know he won't do it, and... Argent? W-would you like a cupcake? I know they look bad, but."

"But they taste good," Mercutio said, sticking his tongue out to show a smear of icing and sprinkles. "Unless you pick the one that Axis put his dirty feet in, of course."

"Of course." Argent finished the last step and came close enough to choose a piece of cupcake ruin. "I'll notify the cleaning staff." She disappeared -- Rory hadn't even known there was a door there, the way it blended into the wall. Moments later she was back with Annamaria, who was carrying a mop and bucket. Rory watched in quiet fascination as Annamaria picked up and mopped, and Argent righted the table and the sofa. After a very little while, everything looked as it always did. Annamaria went back through the secret door, and Argent, well, Rory never really knew where Argent went or what Argent did, and he probably wasn't supposed to, so.

"Well." Mercutio bent a speculative look on Rory. "If you're free right now, pretty, I could show you the best way to use that little toy you got for yourself. You look like a boy who'd take instruction well."

"No!" Rory went and sat down on the sofa, plumping up a cushion, finding one stray sprinkle on it and eating it. "No, we're not going to do that."

"Oh, you're no fun." Mercutio pulled something out of an inside pocket. It had spikes. "Maybe this would--"


The front door opened abruptly, and Rory jumped where he sat. Someone walked in with long strides, a tall someone wearing a man's coat over a long floaty dress, someone with a cloud of dark hair. A thundercloud, Rory decided, looking at her face. The heels of her shoes clicked against the marble floor as she strode up to them. "Where is she?"

Rory shrank back against the cushions. "Wh-who?"

She put her hands on her hips, which changed the drape of the coat a lot, and made it more obvious what shape she was underneath it. "I know that my fiancé has been sleeping with some little slut here. There are some things that need to be made clear to her, since evidently I haven't made them clear enough to him."

"Oh," Rory mouthed voicelessly. "But, but that's..."

"Nothing easier," Mercutio said. He turned his head and called up the stairs. "Claret! Claret, could you come here a minute?"

Claret came down the steps, leading with her chest. "Mercutio, did you take my new shoes? I just can't find them anywhere, and--" She caught sight of the tall stranger and drew herself more or less upright, then curtsied. "I, I'm sorry."

"And so you should be," the stranger said briskly. "You've been sleeping with a man called Rhys. Don't do it again, there's a good girl. You've never seen him. You've never seen me."

Claret looked as bewildered as Rory felt. "But you're standing right there."

"No, she isn't," Mercutio cut in, tapping the thing in his hand against his other palm for emphasis. "You have no idea who she is." He smiled at the tall stranger. "She really has no idea who you are." Then he turned back to Claret and mouthed a word at her that Rory couldn't make out. "And you won't sleep with Rhys again, will you? No matter what he says?"

"But I'm a-- And besides, he--" Claret took another look at the tall stranger. "No," she said quickly. "No, I won't."

"Good." The tall stranger seemed to settle down a little. She turned her head, and for the first time, got a good look at the object in Mercutio's hand. "That's." A deep breath and a second attempt. "That's quite an interesting... item you have there."

"I have a lot more," Mercutio said, and now his smile was downright gleeful. The next thing he pulled from inside his coat seemed to be made of leather straps, mostly, and all of them snapped menacingly in the air when he flicked his wrist.

The tall stranger cocked her head, and her hair swayed like trails of smoke. It was really very pretty, Rory thought. Her long fingers twitched as though she wanted to take hold of that leather thing and be the one to make it snap. More. Harder. Rory pulled a cushion into his lap and hugged it. Things could be so much worse, he thought, than Reed.

"That's nice," she said, with an undercurrent of something in her voice that Rory didn't quite want to name.

"You could come and look at my selection," Mercutio suggested cheerfully. "Since you're, ah, not here anyway."

"And try them out?" The stranger smiled, and it made her look beautiful and terrifying, especially when she lifted a hand and gestured with all her long, thin, strong-looking fingers at Claret. "On her?"

"No!" Claret squeaked.

"Yes, of course," Mercutio said, reaching out to close his free hand around Claret's wrist and mouthing the word customer at her; that one was pretty easy to make out. "This way, if you please."

They all went away together, Mercutio smug as anything, the tall stranger less irritated but more scary than before, and Claret visibly bracing herself, throwing a wide-eyed look at Rory before Mercutio's shoulders hid her from view, but not the kind of look that said rescue me!, which was good, because Rory really didn't know how he would have done that.

She had Mercutio to look out for her, though. Not that Rory thought Mercutio was particularly trustworthy or reliable, but there were some things that Mercutio took seriously... well, just one thing that Rory could think of, actually, but that was the proper use of all those strange things he carried around with him, so he wouldn't let the scary and beautiful stranger do anything wrong with them, which presumably included really hurting Claret.

Or so Rory hoped, before his thoughts shied away entirely from the subject of what those three would be doing. He didn't want to know. He really, really didn't.

Rory let go of the cushion he was hugging and fluffed it up properly, setting it back in its place. He found another sprinkle, a pink one, and ate that, too, a tiny burst of sugar on his tongue.

The front door opened, and another tall person stalked in. This one was a man with glasses and hair that was probably meant to be slicked-back, only it was a windy day outside, and he breathed as though he'd been running, which was strange, because this man certainly looked as though he could afford a carriage. Rory wished he were still hiding behind the cushion. No, behind the sofa. Maybe behind a thick wall.

The newcomer fixed Rory with a look that was half command and half panic. "Where is she?"

"Um." Rory tried to think of the best thing to say. "Who?"

The newcomer came over with long, quick strides, looming over Rory where he sat. "Don't be disingenuous. You know perfectly well who I'm talking about."

Rory was pretty sure, yes, that the newcomer was talking about the tall woman who had just gone away with Mercutio and Claret. He was also pretty sure that it wasn't right to just let this newcomer find them and interrupt them. Maybe this was her husband, but then he'd surely have said so, and besides, Rory had been trying quite hard not to put two and two together about this woman who had a cloud of dark hair like in the ruined picture and a proprietary interest in Rhys.

"I'm not," he started a sentence that he had no idea what how to finish, and then Argent was there, right at the man's elbow.

"Is there a problem, sir?"

"I'm sure we can help you," a light voice drawled, and oh, that was Lilith, her hair up in ribbons and her mouth like a rosebud, somehow making room for herself between Argent and the newcomer, and Rory could tell Argent wasn't best pleased about that.

The newcomer looked down at Lilith. "I'm looking for a woman--"

"Of course you are," Lilith purred, linking her arm with the newcomer's arm. "Just come with me."

She began to tug him away, and Rory's eyes widened, because Lilith wasn't usually so... well, he didn't really have a word for it, but Lilith usually tried to look as though she was high up somewhere and people had to climb to reach her, but that wasn't how she was treating this man at all, and it was just really difficult to imagine that she was trying to do something nice for Mercutio and Argent, or the woman with the floaty hair, so Rory couldn't make sense of it at all.

It was a relief to see the man with the glasses disappear up the stairs, though, either way.

"Are you all right?" Argent asked, and Rory nodded so hard he nearly hurt his neck. "Good." Argent looked after Lilith and the man with the glasses for a few moments, and Rory realized that Argent was just as confused as he was, and wasn't that a disturbing thought.

"Who's that?" the man with the glasses said from up above.

"That is not a woman," Lilith answered with her voice dipped in frost, cold but still sparkling, and Rory's lips shaped another silent oh, because now things were starting to make a lot more sense.

Glancing up at Argent, he saw that Argent had understood, too. It didn't seem right to Rory, this strange hostility between Lilith and Linneus, because it seemed to him that in a place like this, with a profession like this, and with time moving in only one direction the way it did, you'd need all the allies you could get.

But Lilith didn't like Linneus, and Linneus didn't like Lilith, and it was just another of those things Rory had to learn to either ignore or maneuver around, somehow. He wasn't entirely sure which one of them he most wanted to be on his side, anyway, though he was entirely sure that sooner or later, at some point, he'd be pushed into making a choice, and not all the blank stares in the world would get him out of it.

A gentle clink and chirr was the sound of Linneus coming down the stairs, jewellery swaying with every step. Argent looked up and nodded, and then drifted away slowly; Linneus came to sit on the sofa with Rory. His eyes were wide and bright and slightly red-rimmed, and Rory wished he had a cupcake to offer, or something. He wasn't very good with talking, and he wasn't very good with that silent disappearance thing that Argent did, either, though he was wondering now if she'd teach him, maybe, if he asked right, because that would be so, so useful to know.

"This sofa smells like sugar and butter," Linneus said after a moment. "Or is that you?"

Rory glanced down to see if a forgotten cupcake lay underneath the table. Or maybe Axis had kicked one in under the sofa that Annamaria and Argent had missed. "I, I hope it's me," he said, sniffing at his wrist. "I was baking. Before."

"I thought you might have been." Linneus looked up over his shoulder, very casually, but the landing above them was quiet and empty now. Rory thought that was good, was very grateful that Lilith had gone and taken the man with the glasses with her, but Linneus slumped down a bit, as if his jewellery had suddenly tripled in weight.

"I was going to give you one," Rory said, feeling hollowly that an offer of cupcakes wasn't much good without any actual cupcakes to back it up. "It's just, there was a--"

The front door opened, quietly this time, and someone came through and closed it just as quietly and pressed up against the wall right next to the door, and Rory thought it must be very hard to become invisible when you were that size, so tall and broad and hung with, um, weapons, that was a sword right there, and he was just trying to listen for Argent's inaudible footsteps when he realized Linneus was very faintly smiling.

The large man peeled away from the wall and came towards them, and he really was very tall, quite as tall as Reed, Rory thought, but with more bulk to him, or at least he dressed as if he wanted people to think there was more bulk to him. He had a big scar on his face and a slightly sheepish grin. "Hello, dove."

"I didn't think I'd see you here again so soon," Linneus said, but in a way that made it sound like he was very pleased to see this large man after all. Rory tried to commit that particular intonation to memory.

"Seems like I have some spare time," the large man said, glancing over his shoulder back towards the door so quickly that Rory would have missed it if he hadn't been watching so closely. "Can think of better places to spend it than out here, though."

The large man bent down a little, and then he just picked Linneus up from the sofa, as effortlessly as if Linneus had been nothing but a small child. Rory's eyes widened as the man went to the stairs, completely indifferent to the way Linneus slapped at his shoulder and said "I can walk!" in a voice that was half laughter and half dismay. That really wasn't the way people acted here in the Teahouse, most of the time; people were smoother than that, more... refined than that, Rory wanted to say, and this large man was anything but, but it was very clear that Linneus wasn't at all afraid of him, so it was probably all right, then.

Rory craned his head to watch them up the stairs, Linneus outright laughing by now, until they went too far and he would have had to twist his neck too much. He had a fine view of the other half of the landing, though, where Mr. Atros stood in the shadow of a half-opened door with a look on his face that Rory really very deeply hoped was never going to be aimed at him. He wondered if Mr. Atros was going to do something, if maybe Mr. Atros didn't think this large man was a good enough customer for a place like the Teahouse, but Mr. Atros didn't move and didn't say anything, so Rory tried to pretend like he hadn't seen anything, either, and settled back on the sofa.

Except he thought if anyone came in following the large man, for whatever reason, he'd much rather not be here. Rory stood up, caught sight of a third sprinkle on the floor -- white, very hard to see -- and bent to collect it before sneaking through the nearly invisible door he'd seen Argent and Annamaria use before.

This was almost like a secret passageway, Rory thought, pleased, only very short, and then he came out in the kitchen hallway. Rory grinned to himself and went into the kitchen, where the first thing he saw was the remains of his cupcakes, scraped clean of dust and cream and cut down into small neat pieces and set out on one of the cheap plates that never made it upstairs.

The second thing he saw was someone climbing in through a kitchen window and landing in the sink.

Rory's first thought was Burglars! but then he recognized the fancy coat, the dark hair, and the slightly supercilious expression. That made everything even stranger, though, because apparently the crown prince had just climbed in through the kitchen window. And landed in the sink.

It didn't take Rhys long to lever himself out of the sink, though, landing on the floor, straightening his clothes, and fixing Rory with a sharp look. "Where is he?"

Rory didn't think Rhys meant the large man with the scar and the sword, but you could never be quite sure. "Who?"

"Don't be obtuse." Rory wondered if that was anything like disingenuous, whatever that was. Then he thought about Rhys running into the tall woman with the floaty hair in a corridor here at the Teahouse, and shuddered. Oh, that would be so bad.

"'M here," came the slightly raspy reply, and Rory jerked his head to see Axis in the kitchen door, one arm propped against the doorjamb, face dark with something that went past cranky and well into unhappy. "Didn't expect to find some kind of princely highness in the kitchen."

"You know, then." Rhys shrugged, and Rory thought it was mostly to settle his coat more firmly across his shoulders. "I chose this way in to avoid--"

"The fuck didn't you tell me?!" Axis exploded.

"Perhaps I thought it was none of your business," Rhys said. He was tugging on his sleeves now, not looking at Axis. "Or do you feel that our transactions so far somehow entitle you to know about my personal affairs? Because frankly, I disagree."

Axis made another rasping sound, and Rory fervently hoped that he wasn't going to spit on the floor. "You don't have personal affairs. Anyone who buys a broadsheet can find out--"

"Yes," Rhys said, apparently having settled his cuffs to his satisfaction, because now he looked up, eyes glinting, and stalked across the floor. Rory eeped and dove out of the way. "And you certainly don't have personal affairs. Anyone who buys you can find out how to make you purr. Kitten."

It sounded sweet, it sounded like a pet name, but Axis was clearly furious now. Rory didn't know if it was the offhand kitten, or the plain statement that Axis was a whore. He didn't quite understand why that would be a point of contention. They were whores. There was nothing unclear there.

Axis seemed very touchy on the subject of male customers, though, even after going with Rhys several times. Rory thought that was very strange, but he'd learned not to say anything about it, after a comment about an exchange of money and a change of sexual orientation not being the same thing had gotten him a lengthy rant, flavored with tobacco smoke.

"I'll just leave you to your kitchen fun," Axis snarled.

"But Alice," Rhys said, reaching Axis and gripping him by the shoulders and yanking him into the room, "you are my kitchen fun. My little backstairs, low-class entertainment." Before Axis could explode into words, and this time Rory would certainly have understood it, Rhys shoved him up against the kitchen counter and kissed him.

That was an education all by itself, Rory thought. He wasn't sure he liked either Axis or Rhys, to be honest, but the way Rhys kissed Axis, biting his lip, silencing his protests, taking his mouth with complete assurance, was quite something to watch.

Rory wondered if that was what it looked like when Reed kissed him.

Axis's hand fisted in the back of Rhys's coat, tugging as if trying to tear it apart, clawing against the expensive white cloth. His back arched. Being pressed into the kitchen counter like that had to be uncomfortable, but that arch looked more like a movement closer to Rhys than a movement away from the counter edge. Then Axis jerked his head back, freed his mouth, and gave Rhys a look that by rights ought to have set fire to his hair. "Fucker."

Rhys chuckled. "Fuckee."

Axis slammed his free hand down on the counter, and the cupcake plate rattled. Rory decided he would much rather be somewhere else, anywhere else; he was even prepared to stand in the front hall and lie to the municipal guard about whether he'd seen a tall, heavily armed stranger recently, anything as long as he could get out of here, because now Rhys was sliding a hand up inside Axis's shirt, and Axis growled, but there was more than just anger in the sound.

They probably weren't going to do anything here, the kitchen was a whole different working part of the house, and customers were not allowed back here, except here Rhys was and he didn't look like the kind of person who liked being told where he could and couldn't go.

Rory made a face. Rhys would probably just point out that it was his country.

Taking advantage of a moment when Rhys had his face turned away, nipping at Axis's neck, and Axis as a result had his eyes closed, Rory took a piece of cupcake for himself and trotted out of the kitchen as quickly and silently as he could. He took a step towards the secret door, the one that led out to the front hall, but then he changed his mind and went back and up the stairs the usual way, eating as he went along. He passed one door that let through a faint murmur of conversation, then one that certainly wasn't thick enough to hide the rhythmic thump of headboard against wall.

Rory swallowed the last fragment of cupcake. Maybe someone ought to talk to Lilith about moving that bed. He really didn't feel it should be him, though.

Instead he went into his own room and washed his sticky hands clean of crumbs, then rinsed his mouth with mint water for good measure. One thing Rory had taken to very fast here at the Teahouse was how easy it was to get clean, and stay clean. All this running water and soap was wonderful, and it hadn't taken him long to realize that Axis's insistence on having bare and dirty feet was nothing but an affectation.

Well, either that or laziness.

Rory opened his door a crack and listened carefully, then slipped outside and made for the front hall again. He had a very nice room now, yes, not to mention bathroom, but staying in there for any longer amount of time made him terribly bored. A person could only take so many baths, after all, and he'd spent a good half hour earlier making sure he was clean between his toes and behind his ears.

Rory wondered if Reed's views on hygiene might be contagious, somehow.

The landing was empty; the half-open door where Rory had seen Mr. Atros before was now completely and uncompromisingly shut. He went down the stairs, looking carefully but seeing no sign of creamy footprints, nor any footprints shaved out of the carpet pile. That was a relief. Rory went over and sat down on the nearest sofa.

He looked at the front door, but it remained closed. Rory relaxed, shoulders dropping at least two inches, and then he started to turn cushions over, looking for stray sprinkles. They probably wouldn't go bad or anything, he didn't think they ever did, but the pink ones could probably leave stains. He pictured Lilith with a bright pink stain on her butt and had to smother a giggle.

"Phew!" Quick footsteps came down the stairs, half-running, almost-tumbling. Rory looked up just in time to see Claret catching herself against the bannister. Her cheeks were flushed, her hair was a tangle, and her blouse was slipping off one shoulder. "Have you been sitting here all the time since we left?"

"No." Rory craned his neck a bit more, but he couldn't see anyone else following after Claret. "Where are the others?"

Claret shuddered. "Mercutio's finally found someone who actually wants to know where to buy things and how to care for them." She grinned a little. "I think he'd be happier if he got to finish a sentence, though. That lady is very... demanding."

She came all the way down the stairs and slumped down on the sofa next to Rory. Since she didn't even wince when she sat down and leaned back, Rory guessed that she hadn't had to experience any of Mercutio's more aggressive toys, the ones that made everyone else wince just looking at them. After a few moments, she tugged her blouse up over her bare shoulder and tucked her hair back behind her ears.

"A man came looking for that lady," Rory told her quietly. "But he's with Lilith now."

"Ooh." Claret's eyes widened. "I hope she keeps him a long time, then." She pulled her legs up and curled sideways on the sofa, turning towards him. "Why does this sofa smell like sugar? Or is that you?"

"There were cupcakes," Rory explained. He sniffed the air, wondering if he'd missed a whole heap of sprinkles somewhere. "Axis threw them on the floor."

"That's awful!" Claret said. "And wasteful. Why did he do that?"

"I think he was upset because the crown prince is getting married," Rory said.

Claret scrunched up her nose in confusion. "But everyone knows that. Why on earth would he--" She broke off. Her eyes went so wide, Rory worried that she'd do herself an injury. "No."

"Er. Yes."

She gripped one of his arms and shook it a little. "I've... With the crown prince. Oh my god." Then she made a squeaking sound and gripped his other arm. "And that was his fiancée, wasn't it. So that's why Mercutio... Oh. Oh."

"Ow," Rory said as her nails started to bite in. He leaned back and tried to disentangle himself, but Claret in the grip of an epiphany was relentlessly strong. ”That's why Mercutio what?”

”He kept trying to say something about the succession. But of course with Axis, that can't possibly be a problem. Although that lady...”

”Yes.” Rory nodded, wondering if Claret had drawn blood yet.

"You know," Claret said thoughtfully, "that is not going to work out at all. Oh, I'm sorry!" She released his arms. "But those two, together? I don't think they could pretend long enough for anyone to even get their clothes off."

Rory was doing his best not to think about it, but he couldn't escape the mental image of Rhys and the tall lady in a bedroom, circling around the bed, snarling at each other like wolves, each of them waiting for the other to give the smallest sign of surrender. Then his imagination added a few of Mercutio's toys in the lady's hands, and he couldn't hold back a small spurt of laughter. "No," he agreed. "No, I don't think they could."

The front door rattled, swinging open slowly, and another stranger slipped inside. She was as well-dressed as the scary lady, but her dark hair was sleek, and she looked quite sweet and a little nervous. Rory smiled at her, and she came closer, her steps surprisingly firm after all. Next to Rory, Claret leaned forward and smiled, too.

The newcomer looked at them both. "I've had a terrible day, listening to people arguing," she said abruptly. Her voice was deep for a woman's, steady and smooth. "I've heard that this is a place where... I was hoping you could make my day better."

"Of course!" Claret said, very nearly jumping off the sofa. "I think you need a hot bath." Claret smiled. "To start with."

The newcomer blinked, and then finally smiled back. "Yes," she said. "Yes, that sounds lovely. To start with."

"If you would please come with me?" Claret reached out and took the newcomer's hand, and Rory was pleased to see that their fingers tangled together almost immediately. They went up the stairs hand in hand, with Claret talking in a low voice about bubble baths and relaxing salts and maybe some soothing tea, and then...

Rory hoped she'd get someone else to make it and bring it. He would have offered some cupcakes, but those stripped-down remains in the kitchen weren't nearly fancy enough to offer a lady like that, and remembering how pretty his cupcakes had looked once upon a time was enough to make him think some fairly dark thoughts about Axis, who had probably been driven out of the kitchen by now, or at least Rory really hoped so, because Annamaria wouldn't take kindly to any other activity than food preparation happening on the kitchen counters.

He slumped down on the sofa and was bored for all of a minute as the sound of voices died away, and then the front door opened again and Rory's heart leaped into his throat. Not a stranger, this time. It was Reed, and this time Rory's thoughts spun in crazy loops around the certain knowledge that Reed should have a title, an honorific, that he was Lord Reed, only in Rory's mind there was just Reed, a name that had no need of ornamentation, that was already outlined in fire and heavier than iron.

Reed didn't need a lot of steps to cross the stretch of floor between the front door and Rory's sofa. His face was expressionless as he looked down at Rory, but the first thing he said was, "Good."

"...Oh?" Rory looked up and up, and felt that familiar crick in his neck again. "Welcome to the Teahouse. Did you, do you want--"

"Yes." Reed looked at Rory, and Rory got to his feet without even thinking, and they moved together towards the stairs. "Where's Rhys?"

Rory stumbled on the first step of the staircase. "Um, I don't know." Because he didn't, really, Rhys had been in the kitchen a while back but Rory really, really hoped that he wasn't any longer, and now he might be anywhere, although some places were more likely than others, of course. "Did you come here to look for him?"

"No," Reed said very emphatically. "I came here to find you."

"Oh." Up the stairs, along the landing, no touching at all, and Rory couldn't help thinking about Claret and the pretty newcomer-lady and their linked hands, not that he wanted Reed to hold his hand, that would be completely unsettling and just the thought made him want to squirm with discomfort, and now they were turning into the hallway leading to his room and once they got there they would, Reed would probably--

Rory's mind gave a tiny whimper and shut down.

The door to Rory's old room, Axis's room now, was standing just slightly ajar, and Rory moved to close it out of sheer tidy-mindedness, and then he heard the sounds. Someone was moaning, high and strained, a desperate ah, ah almost drowning out the squeak of bedsprings. Rory flushed and nearly stumbled over his own feet, then nearly stumbled again as he was caught by Reed's powerful grip, meant to steady him.

"I really have no interest in looking for Rhys," Reed said, reaching out and slamming the door shut. It seemed to Rory that someone shouted something, inside, but Reed wasn't stopping and he was pulling Rory along, until they were both at the right door, through it. "Are the sheets clean?"

"Yes. No." Rory tried to find his own balance when Reed let go of him.

Reed arched a brow. "Which is it?"

"They were put on fresh yesterday," Rory explained. "Then I slept on them."

"Acceptable," Reed said. "Take your clothes off. Have you been working on making yourself less tight?"

Rory felt his breath catch in his throat, and kicked off his shoes. "Yes," he said to his toes. He wondered if there would ever be a time when being alone with Reed wouldn't be quite such an excruciating experience. He began to unbutton his shirt, very slowly, until he looked up and saw that Reed was clearly about to come over and do it for him, then he speeded up the pace of his hands a little.

Outside the door, there was a sudden, loud crash and clatter. Rory froze, seized by a sudden premonition, and then he went to the door and looked outside, because he had to know.

Just as he'd feared, Claret was standing in the middle of the hallway, with a white-knuckled grip on a tea pot on a tilting tray, and on the floor at her feet were two cups and two saucers, one broken, and two spoons and a plate of cut-down cupcake remains. Her mouth moved in a silent "Oh, no."

Another door flew open, and Axis stumbled out, wrapped in a sheet. "What the fuck--"

He stepped in the cupcake pieces and seemed to draw breath for some more inventive curses when Rhys appeared behind him, marginally more dressed, and clamped a hand around his arm. "Don't move, or you'll cut your feet."

"I'm so sorry!" Claret said.

A third door opened, and the lady who'd gone upstairs with Claret leaned out. "Is everything all right? I heard--"

She caught sight of Rhys and cut herself off abruptly. He grinned at her, Claret turned scarlet, and Axis tried to back away into his room again, except Rhys was in the way, so they just ended up pressed together; Axis tried to push at Rhys, and then had to grab quickly for the falling sheet. Once again he left cupcake footprints when he moved.

A fourth door opened and Lilith stepped out, fully dressed and very proper-looking, though her hair wasn't put up in the same complicated fashion as before. "Please don't be so noisy," she said, sounding very cool and refined. The man with the glasses came out after her, looking a little less neat and tidy and a lot more relaxed. At least until he caught sight of Claret, Claret's customer, Axis and his sheet, and Rhys. Then he went rigid, and his eyes behind the glasses went very wide.

Rory saw Rhys's lips shape words that looked suspiciously like oh, shit.

Turning his head away, not wanting to look too closely at this complicated silent conversation playing out between customers who really should never have met, Rhys saw that at the other end of the hallway two people came walking. One of them was wearing high-heeled shoes and a perverted grin, and the other one was tall and scary and had floaty black hair and was probably Rhys's fiancée. Rory whimpered. She came closer and caught sight of them all, and snapped a leather strap between her hands with such force that Claret finally let go of the teapot, as well. Hot tea splashed on Axis's feet, and he jumped and cursed and dropped the sheet.

Rory whimpered louder. Then a hard grip closed around his shoulder and he was yanked back into the room, and Reed slammed the door shut just as the shouting started outside.

"I'm not here to see those people," Reed said, and Rory was worried about Claret, he really was, but he thought Reed had a point. Besides, if there was real trouble, Argent would sort it out. "I'm here to see you. Take off your clothes."

So Rory whimpered a tiny little bit, quietly, to himself, and then he did.

* * *

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