Ryunosuke Naruhodo stumbled over a loose cobblestone, nearly dropping the notes from the case he’d just defended, and sighed.
He should've been familiar with the route by now. It was a straight-line path from the Supreme Court of Judicature to La Carnevale, and he'd already dodged this very same loose cobble several times before. But the post-case discussion he’d just extricated himself from refused to leave his mind. The distraction made him clumsy. And Susato’s absence - she'd been called away on family business some days ago - didn't help, as now there was no one to keep him grounded.
It hadn’t even been a very fraught discussion, Ryunosuke thought wearily, and shifted his grip on the papers. Sure, he'd been ambushed by a gaggle of fellow attorneys when he went to the judge's chamber to debrief about the case. And yes, a debate over the finer points of the Meiji Constitution could've been complicated. But the discussions had been respectful, and he'd fought plenty of harder trials in the courtroom - both in London, and in the intervening two years since he'd established his own independent Tokyo law office.
He'd truly become a lawyer now. He could say that much. Arguments about legal matters should have been second nature to him. So why couldn't he—
“... you pay more attention to your cases than to where you go, I trust.”
A large black shadow loomed before him without warning. Ryunosuke started, jumped to the side - then managed to drag his mind back to the present at last. He found to his surprise he was already standing before La Carnevale, and the black shadow...
Lord Barok van Zieks gazed down at him dryly. “Was the theft case truly so engrossing?”
“Yes— ... no,” Ryunosuke said, took in a breath, and then collected himself and managed an apologetic look in return. There was no hostility in his dining partner’s voice, but that just made him more conscious of how late he was to their meeting.
“Sorry, were you waiting for long? I should've—”
“No, no matter.” Van Zieks motioned behind him, and the restaurant’s doormen sprang into action. As the oak doors were swung open, the warm lights of La Carnevale spilled out into the late-afternoon streets and silhouetted his tall dark form. It wasn't an unpleasing sight - but Ryunosuke shook the stray thought away with an effort. He'd been having more of those recently, but was this really the time...?
They entered and were seated promptly, as the waitstaff still seemed too awed by van Zieks to dally. When their usual orders had been taken, van Zieks pulled out a bottle of red wine and two of his “hallowed chalices”, poured both, and handed one to Ryunosuke. Ryunosuke accepted it with a nod of thanks, and once again shoved down the urge to ask him how much effort it had taken him to import all of his chalices and vintage from Britain.
“To your victory,” Van Zieks said, clinking the glass with his, “and to the pursuit of the truth. Now as I observed from the gallery, assuming my translator capably described your case, there were several different points you could have made...”
And as their conversation picked up, Ryunosuke found himself musing. He wasn't sure whether it was because of the wine, the low lighting, or the strange mood he'd had for a while, but it finally struck him once again how incredibly unlikely this scene would have seemed two years ago.
Defending Barok van Zieks from murder charges hadn’t made it easier to speak with him. Neither had Ryunosuke’s subsequent return to Japan. But when he’d sent a letter to Kazuma offhandedly asking after van Zieks, and gotten a very blunt telegram in return - “be a man write him yourself STOP” - Ryunosuke had finally gathered his resolve and reached out.
That first letter to van Zieks had been embarrassingly unplanned, really. He'd just ended up rambling about life in Japan for most of it, along with well-wishes - but he did recall mentioning that his cases seemed weaker now without his rival's constant opposition from the other side of the court. Although he'd sent it with no expectation of a response, several months later, he'd received a reply on the finest stationary he'd ever seen. The prosecutor had responded cordially, with incisive legal advice and discussion - that had been surprising enough on its own.
What had taken Ryunosuke a week to wrap his head around was how sincerely respectful the response had been. The Reaper of the Bailey had asked after his health. And that was why, half incredulous and half curious about this strange side of his former rival, he'd written back. Against all expectation they’d continued the correspondence ever since, exchanging legal discussions and friendly anecdotes about life in Japan. Eventually, almost on a whim, Ryunosuke had even invited him to visit - and then months later van Zieks himself had actually shown up at the Naruhodo Law Offices.
"I've come as a legal advisor and scholar of the new Japanese legal system,” he'd said, ignoring Ryunosuke's gawping. And so here they were, dining together in the middle of a Western restaurant in Tokyo, discussing Ryunosuke’s cases and Japanese law as seriously as they had in their letters.
By all rights it was a friendship among legal equals, and he was indeed glad for van Zieks’s advice, Ryunosuke thought, not for the first time. So why couldn’t he shake the thought that there was more to their meetings he had not discovered? And why had he developed the bad habit of paying more attention to van Zieks’s face than his words, especially the curve of his jaw when he raised his chin for emphasis?
“Your meal, sirs.”
A waiter set forth plates before them, interrupting Ryunosuke’s reverie, for which he was suddenly glad. At least his dining partner had not noticed his staring - but then as he turned to the meal, he found himself grimacing for a very different reason. He'd ordered his usual dish of chicken with sauce, hold the lemon, yet the lemony bitterness in the sauce was clear to his nose.
But the waiter was already bustling away, so there was nothing for it but to tough it out. Resigning himself to the acridity, he took a bite.
“If you do not enjoy your meal, it is easy enough to call the waitstaff to task.”
He blinked, realizing that van Zieks was looking at him, and swallowed hastily. “Sorry?”
“You order the same meal each time, and they make the mistake with the lemon more often than not.” The knife and fork in van Zieks’s hands carved his own steak skillfully, even though his eyes were still focused on Ryunosuke’s face. “A normal man would have either ordered something else or become incensed by now. Is there any reason you have not?”
“It’s not so bad, really. This is a good dish when they remember, and I wouldn’t want to trouble them...”
He mentally sighed at how feeble his own justification sounded. Van Zieks himself set down the knife and fork, looking at him with an odd expression.
“Then you will pardon my saying so, but I have observed something.”
“What is it?”
The icy blue eyes seemed to bore into him. “You are a lawyer of unparalleled focus and determination in court, and your competence has only grown in the last two years. You let no inconsistency stand in trial, so why do you have no such presence or willingness to pursue the same in your daily life?”
Ryunosuke grimaced. Their earlier near-collision as a result of his distraction came back to mind, as did the discussion at the courthouse that he’d almost managed to forget about. He’d even heard the same assessment from Kazuma, years ago - though at the time Ryunosuke had simply been a carefree English student. He’d had much more of an excuse for lack of focus then.
“Kazuma told me before too, once. But it’s that bad, is it?”
“My apologies for the lack of courtesy.” Van Zieks inclined his head. “I do not mean you should be like Asogi. One of him is quite enough for a generation. But...”
“No, I understand. You’re probably right.” Now that the subject had been put on the table by the Reaper himself, it was actually easier for Ryunosuke to acknowledge. He let out a breath, recollecting the events of the day that had started to make him notice it himself - especially the argument in the judge's chambers.
Finally he said, “it might be that I don’t know what to hold to be true.”
“That seems unlike you.”
“Well, it's... I should explain. When I was kept at the Supreme Court earlier, it was because of a discussion with the prosecution and other attorneys. They’d had their own opinions on the new codes of law describing the duties of Japanese subjects, and wanted to know my thoughts on it...”
“A reasonable discussion subject.”
“It was, but...” He fought for the right words for a moment. “That was when I discovered I didn’t know what I really thought. I’d defended my client by seeking the truth just minutes ago, but without a client there, it was like I couldn’t tell 'how' to find the truth. Was the opinion I believed in really the right answer? Or was I misleading myself?"
"I guess that’s what it is in the end. I can believe in others, but maybe I just don’t believe in my own feelings enough to assert them outside of a courtroom.”
Van Zieks looked at him silently. Ryunosuke sighed. “But, well, you're right. As an attorney that others trust, I should have more confidence... I actually admire you for that, Lord van Zieks.”
“You seem to be certain of most things - you’ve always been assertive and judged situations according to what you value.” That at least was the truth, though some of his past judgements had certainly caused headaches for Ryunosuke. “It’s a strength to always know where you stand, I think. Maybe it’s a talent that I lack.”
But for some reason van Zieks was shaking his head at that. “It is not. In fact, it is not so much talent as training... are you familiar with the upbringing of the nobility in Britain?”
“No, well, not outside of novels...”
“Being raised in the ranks of the nobility teaches one authority from a young age.” Van Zieks glanced away for a moment, his eyes casting over the waitstaff bustling by them to other tables. “The condescension of nobility isn’t innate, it’s learned - from growing up with a household of servants who you hold command over, and from practice interacting with those who defer to your birth. The authority one believes they hold comes from sheer experience of using it, nothing else. So what assertiveness I have is really just practice - I claim no true skill.”
But that wasn’t really true, was it?
Looking back at his dining partner then, Ryunosuke found himself noticing once again the scar crossing that stern brow. Van Zieks might have been an aristocrat, but he’d also been feared and hated for years as the Reaper and a highly skilled prosecutor. It clearly took more strength and resolve than an ordinary nobleman had, to live under that name and continue seeking the truth. Especially after discovering the truth of the Professor’s case...
Though after Ryunosuke had returned to Japan, he'd never been able to ask about what had happened. And van Zieks had not mentioned it even in all of their letters. He couldn’t bring it up now, could he?
“... maybe so,” he finally said, silently annoyed at himself for not being able to think of a better response. He could only attempt to force his thoughts back to the topic at hand. “But, well. If that’s the case, I suppose I can’t really practice the same way. It’d be odd to just hire someone to give orders to so I could practice being confident...”
“No, you do not seem the sort.” But as van Zieks turned back to face him, there was a thoughtful look in his eyes. “On the other hand, perhaps... there is one way.”
Ryunosuke blinked at him. “What is it?”
“If it’s just the issue of finding someone willing to obey you, then that's simple enough to remedy. I can easily play-act as your servant for an occasion or two.”
He barely avoided choking on the sip of wine he’d just taken. “W- What? ”
“It would provide you experience, and I seem to have ample free time at the moment. You need not pay me either. What issue is there?”
No, that... that wasn’t the problem. Ryunosuke stared back at him.
“But you— hold on! Would that not be... uh... proper? You’re a lord and...”
“Not in your country." Van Zieks's expression was wry. "In any case, has that ever stopped you from making absurd comments in my presence?”
“Yes, well, sorry— no, that’s not it!”
He fought off the urge to smack himself awake. The barely veiled amusement in his dining partner's voice was obvious; Ryunosuke didn’t want to give him any more ammunition. He even more didn't dare to entertain the thought that had just snuck into his own head. Ordering around this brilliant man seated before him, and having him actually obey —
After an immense effort, he finally managed to find his way back onto the train of thought that had been derailed by van Zieks’s assertion.
“It’s just that... it’s not that I’m not grateful for the offer. But ordering others around...” he tried, and failed, to think of how to say it without denigrating the entire system of British aristocracy, “it doesn’t seem like it would help with assertiveness ‘the right way’. I want to become someone who can advocate for the truth when needed, not to simply... force others to obey me.”
But his rival did not look offended at that. In fact, he almost seemed approving. “And demanding that others obey is, in fact, not the point.”
“Authority comes with responsibility to those you command. Only petty tyrants believe otherwise.” Taking a sip of his own wine, van Zieks continued, his voice calm. “Those under your service trust you to know what is best for the situation at hand, and you must trust that your orders are correct and that they can carry it out. In short, you must understand the responsibility you hold to both yourself and to others - that is where your confidence will come from.”
“I guess I hadn't thought of it that way. It makes sense, but..." Ryunosuke shook his head a little helplessly. "It still doesn’t feel real to me. Commanding other people, I mean.”
“Mm. It may not seem immediately obvious. But, perhaps...”
The prosecutor paused for a moment, and finally focused his gaze on Ryunosuke. “It should not be unfamiliar to you. It’s akin to the trust between defense and defendant, after all.”
Ryunosuke blinked again, the words slowly working through his mind. Finally, as he met the gaze of the man across from him, he understood - Barok van Zieks, who had once been his defendant, did in fact know what trusting him to give commands meant.
He had a sudden thought then. Was it the alcohol? Or was there really an inscrutable shimmer in those ice-blue eyes then, almost golden in the candlelight around them? But in the end it was van Zieks who broke eye contact first, his voice as unperturbed as before, so Ryunosuke could not tell exactly what he’d seen.
“You have always done well in trusting your clients, and you have not misplaced my trust since I gave it two years ago. So I expect you will have no issue with the concept of command. If this play-acting will help you gain the confidence you need to make use of your talents, then I do it gladly.”
He knew well enough how the man in front of him had already had to swallow his pride, once, to accept him as defense. And after what had been revealed at the end of that case, van Zieks would also naturally understand how hard it might be to hold onto that trust when all seemed dark. But even so... setting aside the peculiarity of the situation, this strange rival-defendant-friend of Ryunosuke’s still seemed willing to offer his help.
And that was a gesture he did not want to reject, Ryunosuke found. He could not have described why if he’d tried, but he felt warmer at the thought.
“Then...” he let out a breath, trying to arrange his words clearly. “Thank you, Lord van Zieks. I’ll gladly accept your trust if you wish to help. But...”
“I’d like to suggest a small change.” That was it. There was one sticking point in particular, but Ryunosuke realized as he spoke that he had some idea how to resolve it. “I don’t really know how to have... servants. But that’s not the only way to show command, right?”
Van Zieks looked at him quizzically. “What are you considering?"
“Miss Susato will be away for some time, so maybe this is a good chance...” Ryunosuke gathered his courage. “Would you like to come to the office as a judicial assistant?”
Having asked so confidently, Ryunosuke nevertheless found himself with a case of nerves the morning that his new “judicial assistant” was due to arrive.
He’d grappled with the thought for the last few days, ever since that fateful dinner at La Carnevale. He’d half-heartedly cleared his desk of his myriad collected papers out of anticipation, stuffing them into his library bookshelves and only managing to organize them with an effort. But he’d finally had to conclude that - as Kazuma had used to put it - he could be a real idiot sometimes. How exactly was he supposed to “command” Lord Barok van Zieks, the once-Reaper of the Bailey and the most feared prosecutor of London, as a judicial assistant? Especially on a day with no other appointments, when it would’ve just been the two of them?
Susato’s assistantship with him was a relationship of equals; she ordered him around more often than not, so there wasn’t really a lesson to draw there. Ryunosuke had instead tried to think of the others he knew, but found it was still no help. Kazuma as an assistant would’ve just berated him until he did the work he needed to. Herlock Sholmes might’ve ended up in a corner somewhere reading, or otherwise dragged him off on a tangent, and Iris wasn’t exactly legally trained. The fanciful thoughts had made him smile, at least.
But even after considering everyone else in his mind, Ryunosuke couldn’t imagine van Zieks as an assistant at all. And maybe the issue was just that, unlike everyone else, he had no idea what his relationship to van Zieks even was at the moment. He didn’t fear the man, and he had never been concerned about being laughed at when in court against him, and they were essentially friends now besides... but what did he actually feel?
Sighing at that intractable question, Ryunosuke ran his hand through his hair for the fifth time that minute. Then he jumped at the knock on his office door, hastily went to open it - and a familiar voice greeted him with unfamiliar words.
“Good morning, Mr. Naruhodo.”
“Oh. Good— good morning!” And Ryunosuke took a moment to realize that the arrival standing before him in unfamiliar clothes was unmistakably Lord Barok van Zieks, unless there was another scarred, stiff-faced, far-too-tall British man currently in Japan.
He’d left behind his usual collared black coat, gloves, and prosecutor’s sash. Ryunosuke realized belatedly that of course he would have: those were the accoutrements of public and court appearances, not office work. But in a simpler jacket, black waistcoat, and cravat, van Zieks looked almost... gentle. Less like the Reaper. More like the image of the man whose cordial letters Ryunosuke had come to look forward to over the last two years.
But he was staring, and his guest was looking down at him patiently, and Ryunosuke shook the thought out of his head. “Uh— please come in. Would you like tea? Or...”
“As you are aware,” said van Zieks wryly as he stepped into the office, “I am intended to be your judicial assistant, not your guest, and you do not appear to have tea ready at the moment.”
Oh. Without Susato to remind him, and given how nervous he’d been, he really had forgotten to even put the kettle on. Ryunosuke grimaced at that, but luckily, van Zieks seemed willing to take pity on him. “Well, as your assistant, shall I assist?”
“Ah! Yes, I— I suppose.” Maybe he really wasn’t cut out for command, Ryunosuke thought resignedly.
“Then would you, um... please make the tea? The leaves should be in a tin near the stove...”
Van Zieks nodded, waved off his offer of further assistance, and went to the small stove at the side of the office to begin boiling water. And despite sitting back down at his desk and trying to pay attention to his own work, Ryunosuke couldn’t help his distraction, and eventually just found himself watching with a mixture of fascination and disbelief as the former Reaper of the Bailey made tea in his humble office.
He’d almost expected the aristocratic prosecutor to have never made tea himself before, but van Zieks’s movements seemed practiced, and the way he poured water into the cups to temper the boil was almost graceful. He even seemed to know what to do with the kyusu rather than treating it as a Western teapot... when had he learned the Japanese method of tea making?
“Here, Mr. Naruhodo."
A cup of sencha was placed before him, interrupting his thoughts. Ryunosuke started a little before catching himself and belatedly thanking his "assistant". Then he noticed something, just as van Zieks made to go to the small desk that Susato usually sat at.
“Hold on... are you not making a cup for yourself?”
Van Zieks shook his head matter-of-factly. “Servants and assistants in Britain do not expect to take tea with their masters as equals.”
Maybe that was how it was done in Britain. But Ryunosuke suddenly found he didn't agree. Here in the middle of Tokyo in his small office, it didn't seem right for him to give orders by acting like someone else would - and even besides that, he couldn’t imagine van Zieks working at a desk built for a woman half his height. Looking back at his odd judicial-assistant-not-servant, he felt a sudden resolve.
“But, well, we're in Tokyo, so... Judicial Assistant van Zieks, would you make a cup for yourself, and come sit at the desk with me?”
It was van Zieks’s turn to look surprised. Ryunosuke nearly forgot to breathe as he met those blue eyes for a single long moment - and it was van Zieks once again who broke eye contact first. He nodded, heading back towards the teapot, and Ryunosuke let out the breath he’d been holding as soon as he left earshot.
What fury had seized him then, exactly? He’d been so blunt about asking, but it had felt good. So had seeing the respected rival he’d once been intimidated by willingly listen to him. Was this what it meant to command, or was it because what he'd said had been some sort of truth? Or...
He sipped the tea before him to stave off further thoughts, and found it brewed skillfully and without bitterness, a little stronger than Susato’s but with a simple fragrance. Knowing who’d made it, it was strangely calming, and Ryunosuke came to a decision then.
He’d accepted van Zieks’s offer of assistance and legal expertise. He could not waste his rival’s- his assistant's time by jumping or hesitating at every unfamiliar situation. He forced his attention back down to the upcoming cases and reports he had to prepare, and found that this time he could focus. By the time van Zieks returned with his own tea, drawing up another chair at the desk, Ryunosuke was able to hand him a few English forms to review. And as they settled down to work, the imposing and warm presence beside him somehow felt natural. He was not sure what to make of that.
For a while they sat in companionate silence, Ryunosuke breaking it every so often to muse about a point or a reference he came across, and van Zieks responding promptly with a wealth of knowledge about British law, case precedents, and in one case maritime trade routes for a particular cultivar of rice. When Ryunosuke had looked at him in surprise, he’d pointed out that even the nobility had to manage their familial estates, so of course he’d have had to learn the economic realities of trade. Ryunosuke had come away from that both more impressed and more distracted than he’d been before.
He was all right as long as they were speaking side-by-side, he found. But every time he looked over at van Zieks, something new about the man’s bearing or face would catch his attention - whether it was the etched lines of his profile and jaw, the sharpness of his gaze, or the refinement of his movements either writing or speaking. Ryunosuke found himself musing that he had never seen this side of his former rival before. Quite literally, in one sense; he’d always been facing down van Zieks, either in court or respectfully over a dinner discussion. But this unassuming collaboration at his side had a frank closeness - almost vulnerability - to it that Ryunosuke had never felt anywhere else.
Perhaps that made him bold. When van Zieks noticed his teacup was empty, and made to take it, Ryunosuke asked a question he’d forgotten about until then.
“Thank you for the tea - it was very good. When did you learn to brew Japanese-style tea?”
Van Zieks inclined his head. “It is only a small skill. Asogi was kind enough to... instruct me.”
He failed to hide the surprise in his voice, but he really hadn’t remembered Kazuma being interested in tea-making. He even more hadn’t expected van Zieks to be forthcoming with information. Had the atmosphere made him bold as well?
“Yes, he...” Van Zieks paused for a moment. Then the corner of his lips curled wryly. “I found him obsessively pouring boiling water between teacups one day, incensed. Apparently he was practicing the motions from a tea-making tome he’d obtained on a whim, but could not perfect the temperature needed for the leaves. And when I asked what exactly he was doing... he translated the instructions and then challenged me. So I suppose we learned at the same time.”
Ryunosuke almost laughed, but stifled it at the last moment and settled for grinning. Only Kazuma would have found it a personal affront to not be able to make tea correctly. To think he’d even roped Barok van Zieks of all people into it.
“That does sound like him. Still... I’m glad you found it worth remembering.”
For some reason, van Zieks’s gaze lingered on his face a moment, but before Ryunosuke could react he’d looked away again. “It was a refined example of Japanese technique. I thought it to be rather elegant.”
Perhaps he’d thought that was enough information, but Ryunosuke found he didn’t want to let the man go that easily. Most of their previous dinner conversations had been focused either on legal matters or on Ryunosuke’s own experiences; only now, in this strangely intimate atmosphere, did he actually feel empowered to press van Zieks about himself.
“Tell me how the competition turned out, then. And how have things gone since I left Britain? You did not mention before...”
To his credit, van Zieks did not wave him off, even though Ryunosuke peppered him with questions as they turned back to the papers and resumed work. He spoke stiffly in some cases and seemed to find it hard to describe ordinary life, but each word felt as if he were hesitantly taking a step forward, and Ryunosuke kept the conversation going as much as he could.
“Iris and Mr. Sholmes are doing well, then? We’ve received letters from them, but, well, Mr. Sholmes is as obtuse as usual, and...”
“That detective is as he is. But Iris is quite well. She...” Ryunosuke could not help noticing van Zieks’s countenance softening as he spoke.
The familiar feeling of half-distraction half-intense-focus was flooding back with a vengeance. He was once again taking in more of van Zieks’s face than his words, trying and failing to avoid staring longer than he should. But it did not feel bad, necessarily. In fact there was a warm feeling inside him. He did find it satisfying to see his companion willingly indulging his whims and questions, and he could not tell whether it was because it showed van Zieks’s trust in him, or...
Unfortunately, that thought was abruptly interrupted by more mundane concerns. Reaching for one of the references he usually kept on his desk, Ryunosuke found it missing, and recalled his earlier “desk cleaning”. He sighed involuntarily, and van Zieks glanced at him. “Something the matter?”
“Oh, um. There’s just a reference I recalled that I might need...”
“I will fetch it. What should I look for?”
Ryunosuke had been about to get up, but at his “judicial assistant”’s words he recalled that he hadn’t done much commanding as a result of becoming engrossed in the conversation. He shook his head a little ruefully. "Thank you. It should be in a bookshelf off in the side room - a red-bound book of notes filed under ‘judicial procedure’...”
Van Zieks nodded and left. For some reason, Ryunosuke felt the sudden absence more acutely than he expected, and tried to take his mind off of it by setting aside that document and going to the next. It nevertheless took him a couple tries before he could refocus on it, as his previous documents had been in English, but the next were all in Japanese, and handwritten to boot. And this report from a rural policeman was not written in nearly so neat a hand as Susato’s—
He was an idiot, Ryunosuke suddenly realized. They had been speaking in English the whole time, as van Zieks stated his Japanese was still too poor for legal matters. But he’d just sent his assistant off to find reference materials in the small library that he’d organized and Susato had labelled with her excellent handwriting - only in Japanese.
He shoved himself from the desk and almost ran to the adjacent room. “Lord van Zieks - I apologize, I forgot about—”
But he paused when van Zieks turned to face him, as he was carrying the exact red notebook Ryunosuke had indicated.
“This is it, as I understand?”
“Oh! Y... yes.” Ryunosuke stared for a moment before meeting van Zieks’s gaze, bewildered. “Ah, um... you could read the Japanese labels, then?”
“No, not very well. I guessed at many of them.”
For some reason, van Zieks looked down at that without responding for a moment. Finally his voice came again a little more quietly. “This is not the first time I have been a judicial assistant.”
“The last time was almost twenty years ago, before university. When my brother was still alive.”
Ryunosuke found that he suddenly did not know what to say. Van Zieks went on, as if not expecting him to respond.
“I trained under Klint before I pursued my own studies. I would assist him at his office, and learn of justice while fetching materials for him. He was no cruel taskmaster, of course, but I was eager to assist. So I took it on myself to learn how his library was organized by heart... it seems I have not forgotten since.”
There was a faraway look in his eyes when he looked back at Ryunosuke. “It’s strange, perhaps. You and he have such similar methods of organizing your information, across so many years and miles of sea.”
Ryunosuke remembered then a conversation they had had more than two years ago through a prison door, just before van Zieks had allowed himself to request his defense. “You told me once... that I reminded you of him, and of Genshin Asogi.”
“... I recall.”
“I suppose...” The words stopped on his tongue. The look on Barok van Zieks’s face made Ryunosuke unexpectedly feel an odd desire to reach out and take his arm, possibly to even comfort him - if such a thing were even possible. But though there were no prison bars between them now, he felt as helpless to do so as if he’d been chained himself. What exactly could he do for Lord van Zieks to soothe his memories?
“... I suppose we are quite similar, then.” he finished feebly.
“No. Back then, I was wrong. You are not like him after all. That look in your eyes... has not been darkened by what felled him.”
Ryunosuke blinked. Van Zieks seemed to realize his own unexpected vehemence at that, and turned away almost self-consciously. But he did not make to leave immediately, and Ryunosuke did not let him. He’d finally recalled what it was he’d wanted to ask.
“Lord van Zieks, please tell me,” he said quietly, and found his voice calmer than he expected. “what has happened with the Professor case since I left London?”
He had not originally thought to bring it up. Van Zieks had not told him in either letters or in dinner conversations, and Ryunosuke had been willing to respect his reticence and the privacy of his family. But that was then. Now, as they stood a little too close to each other in Ryunosuke’s small library, the pain that flashed across van Zieks’s face when he spoke was unmistakable. Ryunosuke knew then that he did not want to let this go, for the sake of the rival he now called a friend.
And ultimately it seemed that van Zieks did not want to either, for he eventually spoke.
He’d begun publicizing his brother’s name as the infamous Professor shortly after Ryunosuke left Britain. But at the same time, Mael Stronghart’s trial and conviction had begun a a backlash that placed many prosecutors and investigators under scrutiny. In this atmosphere, Barok van Zieks’s straightforward acknowledgement of past faults had caused the whispers and political murmurs around him to grow louder, and opposition to his stance on the pursuit of truth to grow stronger. Finally, the interim Lord Justice had strongly hinted to him that the former Reaper’s presence was “complicated” for prosecutorial authority at the moment, and that he might consider retiring again before anything came of it.
“That’s—” Ryunosuke couldn’t tell what expression was on his own face as he stared at van Zieks. Shock? Anger? “That’s horrible. You’re the most honest prosecutor I’ve known - if you were censured just because of that...”
“I thank you.” Van Zieks's voice was softer for a moment. “Though at any rate I would not have retired the bench willingly. Asogi might have smothered me in my sleep if I had been so cowardly. Even beside that, I had already faced Stronghart himself - this man’s threats were not worth mention. However...”
He shook his head, as if shaking away the threats themselves. “At that point, I happened to receive your last letter.”
“The last—” Ryunosuke gazed at him, understanding dawning. “When I invited you to Japan...?”
Van Zieks inclined his head. “You would not have known of my concerns then, but it was a welcome message. It reminded me that I had another choice, apart from surrender or dashing my head against the opposition arrayed before me. If I was to become capable of promoting further change in Britain's legal system, perhaps I had to first think outside of it myself - to learn from rising stars and newer minds. I knew of no better source...”
Ryunosuke realized then, as thoughts rolled into his mind slowly, that he’d always assumed that Lord Barok van Zieks had simply happened to have other business in Japan. It’d been too difficult to believe that his invitation could actually bring London’s top prosecutor halfway across the world, just to visit a fledgling defense attorney he had opposed in court several times before. So even when van Zieks had visited him at his office, and offered to sit in and observe his trials, and even proposed their post-trial dinner discussions at La Carnevale... he’d thought it was just a professional courtesy or a whim. Van Zieks himself, with his usual stiffness, had certainly said nothing to discourage the impression.
But at hearing those earnest words, it finally occurred to Ryunosuke that he’d been wrong. He had not been the only one who’d looked forward to their discussions. The man before him...
Their eyes met for a moment before van Zieks looked away again, but in that moment, Ryunosuke saw a strangely flustered expression flash through those ice-blue eyes.
“I made arrangements with some of my remaining connections.” Van Zieks was continuing, as if trying to distance himself from the very thought. “I am grateful that the Japanese judiciary was receptive to my proposal, and allowed me to come as an advisor and a scholar to study. And I plan to remain until I can claim to be as learned in Japanese law as in British. Perhaps that may take years; there is a great deal I have yet to grasp about the nuances of your nation's code and culture. But if that is what I need before I am able to affect true change...”
“Then let me assist you in any way I can.” Ryunosuke said without hesitation.
Surprised, those blue eyes finally turned to meet his again. Ryunosuke held van Zieks’s gaze this time, and waited.
“You...” for some reason, van Zieks sounded disconcerted. “Do not trouble yourself. I chose this curse and this path willingly, so I do not seek pity. I would not ask you to give it regardless...”
“It’s not pity, Lord van Zieks.” Ryunosuke said quietly. “This is just what friends do. I said once, two years ago - I could not have gotten here without everyone I walked alongside. That included you. So I’ll do as much as I can to help you as well.”
Van Zieks only stared at him. For the first time since Ryunosuke had seen him again, he seemed lost for words. Would he have even used that label for Ryunosuke? Or was this heated feeling of solicitous concern burning in Ryunosuke’s own chest even friendship?
Ryunosuke realized he didn’t care. He understood then that this was what van Zieks had meant by asking him to take “command”. Rather than needing a courtroom and a defendant as a guide for him to seek truth, there was truth inside himself - a burning desire to do the best he could for what truly mattered to him, and for the people he cared about. Especially the gloomy man towering before him, whose grim expression no longer intimidated him and had not for some time, and whose seemingly unconcerned words only starkly revealed the effort he’d taken to conceal his feelings.
Ryunosuke found unexpected firmness in his voice as he went on.
“I know our agreement only extends to my office. I can’t command you to do anything, or accept any assistance with legal matters, or language, or resources, if you don’t want it. But I think this is just the truth I’ve found, Lord van Zieks. Since you’ve put your trust in me, then I’ll offer you mine as well. That’s all.”
And van Zieks let out a breath, shutting his eyes tightly for a moment before turning away.
“Then do as you will. I am not such a boor as to refuse. You truly are a clear-eyed man of the highest caliber... though why is it your gaze is only so sharp when directed at me...?”
His last words trailed off, and Ryunosuke couldn’t tell what exactly he had heard, but the gruff acquiescence in his assistant's voice was more than clear. Sudden relief coursed through him, and he found himself grinning. Van Zieks himself appeared almost lost in thought as he looked back again, but then he seemed to notice what he was still holding.
“Here.” The red notebook - that Ryunosuke had came to fetch and then entirely forgotten about - was finally held out to him.
“Oh! Right! Thank you—”
His hands inadvertently closed over the other man’s as he reached out to take the notebook. It was only a single moment - but van Zieks jerked away as if he’d been burnt. Ryunosuke blinked at him.
“I will go deal with the remnants of the tea.”
And without even waiting for a response, van Zieks turned and left him standing alone in the room.
What had just happened?
Ryunosuke stared towards the empty doorway. After they had just willingly discussed the past and his own troubles with little issue, and even seemed to come to an understanding... what had caused van Zieks to leave so abruptly?
The best explanation was that he had offended the man after all. But that did not make sense. Van Zieks’s words had been grudging, but he would not have lied for Ryunosuke’s sake, and Ryunosuke knew the former Reaper too well to believe he could have been coerced to accept anything he hadn’t agreed with. But there was nothing to the notebook that would...
The impression of warm hands, refined but strong, came unbidden to mind.
No, Ryunosuke thought, a sudden thought ramming into him like an omnibus, there's no way...
But he could not imagine any world in which he could have asked Barok van Zieks such a question. Even if he was technically in command... even if he suddenly, desperately, wanted to, recalling the strange feelings and thoughts he’d had in the last few months. But did he even have the right? The way van Zieks had almost jumped away from Ryunosuke... would he hurt the man again by doing so?
He could not go back to the desk while his mind was in turmoil - and while he did not know what to say to van Zieks. Slowly, Ryunosuke turned to look back up at the bookshelves in an effort to think of anything else at all, and finally managed to focus his attention on one thing. He’d stuffed most of his papers into the shelves earlier, but that had probably been a mistake. He might as well fetch them again while he was here; he had gotten used to having them close at hand.
And he couldn’t ask his assistant to do so now, after what had just happened...
The small stepstool he and Susato usually used to reach the higher shelves sat in a corner. Ryunosuke dragged it over and clambered up, trying not to drop the notebook he was already holding. He’d been conscientious about filing things away earlier, which unfortunately now meant he had to fetch them again from each section. In some cases he’d crammed them into over-full shelves, so even removing them again proved to be a struggle. Still too distracted to really notice, he pulled a little harder at a notebook on the top shelf than he’d intended.
He did not free the notebook. Instead, it and the rest of the shelf moved as one - and the bookcase itself rocked and began to tilt towards Ryunosuke.
“ Oh. No. No— ”
The shelves descended towards him almost in slow motion. And he was neither strong enough to push the bookshelf back, nor could he jump away, the stepstool beneath his feet unstable—
Someone roared his name. The very next moment, Ryunosuke felt a vicelike grip seize him around the waist and drag him bodily sideways. The bookshelf fell, missing him— but he was also falling, maybe flying— he shut his eyes.
The resulting crash of a hundred books and papers and a shelf hitting the floor stunned him more than his own impact did. But at last there was silence, besides the pounding of his own heart in his ears, and Ryunosuke came back to himself slowly. He was lying prone, but not on the floor. His face - no, his entire body was pressed against something warm, or someone. And even before he opened his eyes, he already knew who’d taken the brunt of the fall, and whose arms were still wrapped protectively around him.
He opened them anyway, and met Barok van Zieks’s ice-blue eyes.
“Naruhodo,” van Zieks rasped. Then he stopped mid-sentence - as if he’d suddenly realized his position lying sprawled on the floor beneath Ryunosuke, or how close their faces were, or how hoarse his own voice sounded. Ryunosuke noticed all three in rapid succession, and a fourth and fifth thing on top - the unmistakeable flush that had risen across van Zieks’s pallid countenance, and the too-rapid beating of his heart, centimetres from Ryunosuke’s own.
“Get— get off. If you are all right, then...”
“Lord van Zieks,” Ryunosuke said, almost not believing the words that were coming out of his own mouth, “thank you for protecting me, but hold on a moment.”
Van Zieks stared at him. His hair had been mussed from the fall - Ryunosuke suddenly fought an unbidden urge to brush it away from his eyes.
“Do you truly want me to? Get up, I mean.”
“Don’t speak nonsense. What else could I possibly—”
He seemed to realize then, his eyes widening just as Ryunosuke pointed it out. “You haven’t let go of me yet.”
The arms holding him loosened hastily, but by then it was too late - the white-hot feeling of pursuit inside Ryunosuke had flared back up with a fury. It was almost as if he were standing in court hunting down an elusive truth while facing the Reaper himself - instead of lying on top of the man, so close that he could feel warm breaths against his cheek.
Van Zieks could have thrown him off at any point. Nothing Ryunosuke could possibly have done would have stopped him if he had been so inclined. But he did not even try. He only stared at Ryunosuke, obstinately perched on top of him, without speaking - as if he did not trust his own voice.
“You helped me realize earlier,” Ryunosuke said quietly, finally breaking their silence with a voice calmer than even he felt, “that everyone has their own truth. And I think whatever that truth is should not be ignored. Shying away from the truth will eventually cause hurt and pain... I don't want you to be hurt again. So if there's, um, anything you wanted to say...”
“This is folly.” Van Zieks turned his head, closing his eyes tightly as if trying to hide - though they were far too close now for that, and he would have known that as well as Ryunosuke. “You do not know what you are asking.”
“I do.” How was his voice still so steady, even though he knew his own heart was pounding just as loudly as van Zieks’s? “You gave me your assistance because you wanted me to pursue the truth. I want to do so to the best of my ability. I don't want to betray your trust.”
“So will you tell me the truth? Lord van Zieks... what is it you think of me?”
There was a lengthy silence.
And then van Zieks let out a long breath, and whispered, his voice hoarse, “you must know already. You have seen through so much... how could you not? This untoward attachment could not have escaped your gaze...”
“Untoward... attachment.” Ryunosuke repeated.
“Yes. Affections. Desires... beyond what one should have for a friend or benefactor. I did not wish them to affect you. I made every effort. And yet...” a grimace crossed his scarred brows at that. “it seems I was too weak. I should not have...”
Van Zieks was right. He had already known. After everything he’d just noticed, Ryunosuke had understood before the man had even opened his mouth. But the feeling that went through him at the frank acknowledgement still pierced him to the core, as he gazed down at his rival-friend-strangely-reluctant-admirer whose words were spoken with such pain.
“Why would you not want to tell me?” He finally asked, uncomprehending.
As if with a great effort, van Zieks opened his eyes again to focus on Ryunosuke’s face. There was no anger or coldness in his gaze, only regret.
“A man such as I does not have the right to ask. I already owe you my life - I could not impose such a ludicrous request upon you. And I have shown you enough discourtesy already. I swore it already, two years ago - I would not allow any other prejudice or unwarranted feeling to affect my respect for you. And I had no such intention even when I met you again...”
That had been it? That was all that had made him put himself through this pain and denial?
A calmer side of him knew the struggle it had taken van Zieks to even say what he did. The tragedy, the ten years of losing trust in everyone, the Reaper’s curse, and subsequently the Professor’s true shadow - Ryunosuke knew all of that. But he suddenly found he didn't care. He wanted to grab van Zieks by the shoulders and shake him—
The man beneath him did not seem to notice his thoughts. Exhaustion was clear on his face now, as if he’d fought a long battle. “That is all. If you will let me up now, I may perhaps make reparations for my misconduct—”
“No. That’s not... I don’t need reparations.”
Van Zieks looked at him without understanding. “Then why did you force me to confess to—”
“Because,” Ryunosuke said, “I didn’t want to do this without you saying so.”
And with blood roaring in his ears, he leaned down - or maybe “up”, as their difference in height meant he had to stretch - and brushed van Zieks’s pale lips with his own.
It wasn’t anything so elegant as a kiss, or any of the more florid descriptions used by the English romantic writers Ryunosuke had once studied. But the effect of his act on the other man was like a gunshot. In their three years of acquaintance and six unbelievable trials, he had never seen Barok van Zieks so stunned.
“Wh...” van Zieks croaked, paused - staring at Ryunosuke with widened eyes - then shook his head in disbelief. “No. This— you... you cannot be serious. This is a poor joke...”
“It’s not. I—” Ryunosuke fought for the right words. “I feel the same way. This is only—”
But he almost felt van Zieks tremble as he averted his gaze - or perhaps it was just his voice, filled suddenly with an emotion Ryunosuke could not even describe. “You do not understand what you mean to say. I am not— I have nothing to offer you even should you choose this. This is not something you may assent to with fine words—”
Pushing through the frustration of the refusal, Ryunosuke suddenly realized what he had to do.
“Lord van Zieks,” he said firmly, “Look at me.”
They were entirely past play-acting commands at this point. But as slowly as if he were dreaming, van Zieks’s eyes turned back to meet his.
Their relationship had never been one of words alone. Challenges, cross-examinations, pressing each other, evidence... that was their courtroom relationship, and even their dinners and discussions had something of the same cadence. So van Zieks had been correct about one thing after all. Ryunosuke had asserted his claim, but he had not proven it.
“I meant every word I said,” Ryunosuke said quietly, “and if you want, then I can give you evidence.”
“What do you...”
And his question stopped abruptly, for Ryunosuke had taken ahold of the cravat around his throat, and begun to unpin it.
It was not a complex knot, but while the heat inside Ryunosuke had propelled him forward and made him bolder than he dared imagine, it had not made his fingers any more dexterous. He fumbled along, and half-expected to be stopped by a stern voice or a hand at any moment - it would have been the rational thing to do for both of them.
But no rebuke came. Van Zieks neither stopped him nor tried to shake him off; his eyes only bored into Ryunosuke’s, filled with astonishment, disbelief... and something else deeper. It almost seemed as if he had frozen - but then as the tie came away and Ryunosuke’s fingers went to undo the first button of the silk shirt underneath, they brushed lightly against his throat.
His skin was as hot as coals - and the breath that van Zieks took in at that smallest of touches was like coals thrown onto the fire inside Ryunosuke. He did not recall undoing the remainder of the buttons, nor the waistcoat. But somehow before either of them had come back to their senses, he was pulling open van Zieks’s shirt, and laying bare the broad, well-sculpted chest beneath... covered in scars large and small.
“I did not wish you to see this.” Van Zieks’s voice was ragged.
Until that moment, Ryunosuke had not really grasped what ten years of living under the name of the Reaper meant. But every sign of being feared and targeted was writ large here, old red and dark cuts still etched across pale skin. The most prominent crossed his sternum, a large gash from one side to the next, and Ryunosuke found he could not imagine the fight that had caused it - or how the man before him had survived.
He must have been staring, for van Zieks murmured, resignedly, “you need not continue. You’ve proven your sincerity enough. I would not ask for more—”
The words cut off in his throat with a stifled gasp as Ryunosuke lowered his head and pressed his lips against that scar.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, lifting his head. Before van Zieks could respond he pressed another kiss down, and another, trailing the scar as his hands moved unbidden - one hand to gently trace along his collarbone, the other to run along his side. And as Ryunosuke proceeded, it did not take long for one thing to become clear to both of them.
For all of the evidence of hard-won battles on his body, the Reaper of the Bailey seemed to have absolutely no defense against his touch. Van Zieks’ breaths, hot against Ryunosuke’s hair, had already gone ragged and uneven at his caresses; pressed as he was against the man, Ryunosuke felt his body shiver with each breath or gasp. And when Ryunosuke’s hand found and began to tease at one nipple, the sudden sound the other man made - before trying and failing to bite it back - almost sent shockwaves through him.
He did not know what he was doing. He suspected van Zieks had even less idea. But the fire that fueled Ryunosuke's actions was clearly not unwelcome to either of them - the growing hardness pressing against him, and his own hardness in response, was evidence that even the prosecutor could not try to deny. He slid his knee between the other man’s legs, rubbed against it - and drew from van Zieks an even more poorly-suppressed gasp.
Ryunosuke wondered when he would come back to his senses, and decided he did not care. His vision had narrowed so much that there seemed nothing else but the man pressed beneath him, scarred and exposed and helpless before him, once-cruel lips unconsciously parted in shallow breaths. And Ryunosuke’s hands, moving steadily downward, were now tracing along his hips, reaching for his belt—
“... Naruhodo ,” van Zieks whispered with intensity, and Ryunosuke finally started at the sound of his name, and looked upward to meet his gaze once again.
“You...” his voice was so hoarse as to be barely audible. “How far do you intend to go...”
All the way - if that’s what I’ll need to prove my case to you, was Ryunosuke’s first thought. I want to see you unable to deny it at all - how much I honestly feel—
But then he stopped. Van Zieks’s face was flushed, he panted heavily with exertion, and his eyes had gone half-closed as he gazed back at the tormentor he seemed unwilling to stop - but the intensity of emotion in those blue eyes had not diminished in the slightest. They pierced Ryunosuke, and he suddenly felt if he’d sunk his face into a bucket of clear cold water.
Was he in fact a petty tyrant, trying to enforce his feelings on the man beneath him? He had already proven his case more than enough. That truth was plain to both of them now - but once they’d acknowledged the truth, what did they do with it afterwards? He hadn’t wanted just to command or dominate his former rival into acknowledging the feelings between them. What he truly wanted was still the same thing he’d felt when van Zieks had spoken of his exile - the desire to do what was good for those he cared for.
“I...” Ryunosuke began, paused as he realized he did not have the words, and then slowly let himself fall back to rest against van Zieks’s chest, wrapping his arms about him.
“I wanted you to understand how I felt. I guess I thought it would bring you some peace. But...”
He sighed. “I'm sorry. I got carried away...”
There was another silence.
And then, as if in response, he suddenly felt the warmth of strong arms encircling his shoulders.
“No. It is... my fault.” van Zieks’s voice was as rough as the sea, “It was unbecoming of me... I should not have forced you to prove such a self-evident case.”
"What?” Ryunosuke asked, not understanding. Who had been forcing whom - wasn’t that obvious?
But the man beneath him - holding him - let out a long breath then, a soft, bleak sound that rumbled against him. His words came so softly that it took Ryunosuke a moment to finally understand.
“I did not mean to, but I could not... not without seeing the look in your eyes. That look of such piercing conviction... I wanted to trust in it. As I could not trust myself...”
Ryunosuke looked up then and met his gaze. There was contrition in van Zieks’s face, still flushed with self-consciousness and desire, but also the deeper emotion that Ryunosuke had not known how to describe earlier. He suddenly realized then, or maybe he’d known all along. How little Barok van Zieks allowed himself to believe - and how much he desperately wanted to.
And perhaps that had been the real truth of the judicial assistantship. The determination that Ryunosuke had wanted to find for himself... there was one other person who wished him to find it just as badly.
“Lord van Zieks...” he said again, and pushed himself forward. This time, when his lips found the other man’s, it could have been properly called a kiss. And this time after only a small hesitation, the strong hands holding him pulled him close, and his own fingers entangled with van Zieks’s mussed hair and tilted his chin up. As the man beneath him yielded to his touch, Ryunosuke couldn’t tell if the heartbeat pounding in his ears was his own.
And this time when Ryunosuke finally released them both from their momentary trance, gasping for air, van Zieks said, hoarsely, “do you plan to finish this? I believe... this has gone on long enough...”
“I will,” Ryunosuke murmured, “so... will you help me?”
Their urgency did not allow for disrobing entirely, or anything complex. And furthermore they were still sprawled across Ryunosuke’s office floor, next to a pile of collapsed bookshelf and papers that Ryunosuke had decided not to think about. He simply unbuckled van Zieks’s belt and trousers, and allowed the other man to help undo his clothing. And though van Zieks did so far more hesitantly than Ryunosuke had earlier, they were soon bared before each other, chests and hips - and erections - pressed together as Ryunosuke straddled him. Van Zieks’s hands held his hips, as if afraid to let him go again, and Ryunosuke’s arm circled his back. His other hand...
“Lord van Zieks,” he said softly, and his hand slid between their legs, taking both of their erections into his grip, and van Zieks bit back a small groan and whispered, “just... Barok...”
His scarred face was too flushed to tell whether from embarrassment or arousal. “There’s no meaning in titles now, of all times. You may as well just...”
“Barok,” Ryunosuke whispered, the name strangely smooth over his tongue, and van Zieks let out a breath, as if startled at the ease of his own request. But as he opened his mouth again Ryunosuke began to move, grinding his hips against the other man’s, his hand guiding and rubbing their erections together, and van Zieks’s next words were lost in a gasp.
The broad chest pressed against him was hot as a furnace. Ryunosuke moved, and felt every sensation scored across his own skin, sensitive and insensitive parts all aflame as the heat inside him quickened - and the man beneath him responded in turn. Van Zieks shuddered with each motion and stroke, his voice restrained at first, but as his breaths grew hotter his control seemed to fail as well, and his grip tightened against Ryunosuke’s hips, as if pressing him down would bring them even closer together. It was almost painful, but Ryunosuke wanted nothing else in that moment.
Maybe if he bruised... they might be considered marks of the Reaper as well, he thought almost giddily, and left another kiss against the scarred chest beneath him, for he could not reach van Zieks’s face from this position. The man really was too tall... there was so much of him to explore. Ryunosuke thought suddenly that he wanted time - he wanted a more comfortable place for them to slowly discover each other, after so much hidden emotion - but then van Zieks whispered his name and Ryunosuke forgot everything else again except the man pressed against him.
“Barok,” he said again, and van Zieks’s body trembled against him, and his own grip tightened unwittingly at that, stroking and pressing both of them together with force. A jolt went through his whole body, and his soft gasp was echoed by van Zieks’s voice which he could not stifle in time. That sound - and his reaction - sent an entirely new wave through Ryunosuke.
He could not last any longer. He had not known how much he wanted to see his respected rival and friend like this, helplessly, willingly, and completely at his mercy - and the sounds that van Zieks made now, no longer able to hide his voice, were about to drive him mad. Ryunosuke let the fire inside him flare and began to move almost without thought, grinding roughly against the other man, practically pressing each gasp and moan from his throat as his own mind filled with heat and light. A powerful hand was gripping his shoulder now so tightly it hurt, as if clinging to him for dear life— his partner arched against him, almost lifting both of them—
Van Zieks’s exclamation cut off in a wordless cry; light erupted behind Ryunosuke’s eyes at the same time. As a wave of white crashed through him, the only thing he could be sure of was the man pressed against him, gripping him, surrounding him— he could no longer tell who was clinging to whom for dear life. All he could do was hold on and let himself be held.
He didn’t know how long it took him to come back to himself. But the arms around him never wavered, even after Ryunosuke finally became aware of the room again, the hardness of the floor, and the heartbeat of the man he rested against. He lay for another moment in the warmth of that embrace, his cheek against van Zieks’s chest, not wanting to let go.
But unfortunately, his mind was already calming down enough for self-consciousness, and Ryunosuke could finally feel the stickiness of his skin, the effects of their exertions, and the exhaustion from it all. He must have looked a mess, he realized ruefully, and for the man beneath him... had he calmed down enough to realize as well? Perhaps he was now thinking better of all of this...
“... Naruhodo,” van Zieks’s voice was soft.
Ryunosuke looked up then, and those fears faded away like mist. The ice-blue eyes that met his bore no hint of injured pride or resentment. They were only full of concern - and a warmth that he had never before seen on the prosecutor’s face.
“Are you...” van Zieks seemed to struggle for words himself, "all right...”
At that hesitant question, Ryunosuke suddenly discovered one last bit of resolve. Pushing himself up and forward, he raised himself over van Zieks, who looked up at him in surprise - before finally burying his face against the man’s shoulder, wrapping his arms about his neck in a quiet embrace.
“Thank you,” he murmured, and knew he should have been the one to ask in the first place. After everything he had done to his rival and friend - with his willing assent, but nevertheless - this did not feel like nearly enough. He could only hope van Zieks found it comforting and not insulting. “Lord van Zieks... thank you for your trust in me. I...”
And then, perhaps because it had really been a long series of events, Ryunosuke found himself falling asleep - with the impression of a warm hand stroking his hair.