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Judicial Assistant Barok van Zieks

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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...?

“Come, then.”

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.”

“Hm?”

“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.”

“How so...?”

“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...”

“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.”

Asogi?”

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.”

“Yes... well.”

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.”

“Then how...”

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.”

“It’s not?”

“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.

“Did I—”

“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...”

“... sorry?”

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.

 

Chapter Text

Ryunosuke woke up, blinking, on his office couch.

What was he doing here? And why was there a cup of tea on the low table in front of him, still steaming? Professor Mikotoba had given him the set of furniture to celebrate the opening of his office, but as Susato-san had been at great pains to inform him, the couch was for clients, not naps. And if he recalled, he’d actually had a client that day, or rather not a client but—

... Lord van Zieks.

He bolted upright. The “blanket” that had been covering him nearly fell to the floor. Ryunosuke grabbed it in time, and found it was his own suit jacket. But when had he removed it- and how did—

He forced himself to freeze, and slowly took in the office before him as his mind caught up.

The high sunlight coming through the office windows told him it was just after noon. The warm tea on the table before him could not have been made more than a few minutes ago. He was in his shirt and waistcoat, and everything was buttoned properly; he was in fact decent aside from the suit jacket. But he had not gone anywhere near the couch, had he? He had been in the library, sorting through materials with...

... with his judicial assistant. And then events had occurred and he’d fallen asleep. But then the only way he could have made it to the couch was...

Elementary! The Sholmes-taught portion of his mind proclaimed.

Oh help, Ryunosuke thought, remembering everything at last, and put his rapidly reddening face in his hands. 

He’d just unceremoniously confessed to, undressed, and then had his way with Lord Barok van Zieks. And then he’d fallen asleep - and van Zieks had been conscientious enough to carry him to the couch and even make him tea. Furthermore, judging from the sounds of shuffling coming from the library, his “judicial assistant” was there now, tending to the aftermath of the bookshelf that Ryunosuke had knocked down through his own carelessness. And Ryunosuke himself had just slept through everything.

He wanted nothing more than to sink through the cushions and hide under the couch. But after a moment, he slowly raised his head, braced himself, and smacked his face hard.

“... you must understand the responsibility you hold to both yourself and to others - that is where your confidence will come from.”

That was why all of this had happened in the first place. Van Zieks had offered him the support and freedom needed to find his own confidence, and Ryunosuke had taken him up on it. He hadn't exactly expected that confidence to end up taking him here - but whatever the case, he had caused van Zieks to open up about his own true feelings, and finally put a word to his own as well.

So he couldn’t hide now, could he? He had to take responsibility for what his resolve had gotten him into... somehow.

Pulling himself together with a breath, Ryunosuke took the tea left him and drank it slowly, letting the warm bitterness drive off the last of his sleep. Then he got up and walked to the library doorway. Although he hesitated before entering, he did not let himself stop.

“... Lord van Zieks?”

From a kneeling position next to a growing pile of re-organized books and papers, Barok van Zieks looked calmly back up at him. “You’re awake.”

He looks as impeccable as always...

That was Ryunosuke’s first thought, staring at the man he’d last seen lying disheveled beneath him on the office floor. Even his suddenly heightened senses had to admit that there wasn’t a hair out of place on van Zieks’s head, and even while kneeling on the floor he still looked every inch the imposing noble British prosecutor, his expression betraying nothing. If it weren’t for the mayhem of the fallen books - the bookshelf had already been set upright again - Ryunosuke might have thought that the entire morning had been a dream.

But... he had already walked nearer, half out of utter shame at not having helped to clean up his own mess, and half unconsciously wanting to look at his “judicial assistant” more closely. And when he knelt next to van Zieks, perhaps a little too closely, he saw then quite obviously a faint red blush appear across the man’s pale countenance.

Ah.

“Sorry,” Ryunosuke said, and was glad to find his voice only a little bit hoarse. “I should’ve been cleaning this up myself.”

“It is no trouble. You seemed... tired.”

There was a pause at that.

“Are you, um—”

“I am quite well.”

Now both of them were slightly red. In the face of van Zieks’s disaffected words and gaze that just barely didn't meet his, Ryunosuke found that he had no idea how to thank him - or even start to talk about what had just happened.

But maybe that wasn’t the important part, he suddenly thought. Taking responsibility wasn’t just about talking, after all, and in that instant he just wanted to help.

“Nevertheless. I’ll do my part here too. Let me...”

His hand accidentally closed over van Zieks’s - for the second time that day - when Ryunosuke reached over to take the books he was holding. But although both of them froze for a moment at that, neither jerked away this time. Van Zieks finally slowly relinquished the books to him.

“... as you wish.”

The few stacks that had been organized consisted of mostly English books, for obvious reasons. Ryunosuke busied himself with collecting the Japanese ones from the rest of the pile, and soon they settled back into a more ordinary sort of back-and-forth. Though they did not speak much for a few moments except to direct each other, Ryunosuke slowly found himself a little more at ease - this had been the way they’d worked earlier, after all.

But when he went to carry one stack back onto the shelves, he was stopped - by a touch on the shoulder, and then van Zieks seemed to realize his own forwardness and quickly drew back.

“You will leave that to me. I am tall enough that the higher shelves pose no issue - the same is not true for you.”

“Er, but—” 

He only noticed then that the mangled remains of the wooden stepstool had been set off to the side, apparently crushed by the falling shelf, and belatedly shuddered. Van Zieks was right then. Ryunosuke, given his perfectly ordinary height for a Japanese man, really would not have been able to help much with most of the bookshelf. But as he gingerly handed the stack of books in his arm to van Zieks, for some reason he felt rather more useless than he expected.

He couldn’t tell why. Perhaps it was due to his memory of van Zieks dragging him away from the bookshelf just in time, or the warmth of the tea he’d been left with upon waking earlier. Or maybe it was everything he’d finally realized that the prosecutor had been doing, in his stoic and understated way, over the last months. But Ryunosuke knew then that he wanted to return the favor. He wanted to help. Even after what they'd done in the library, there was something more he knew he needed...

But what exactly could he do?

Then his stomach gave a disgruntled rumble, and Ryunosuke remembered at least one thing.

“Lord van Zieks,” he said abruptly, looking back over the much-shrunken pile of remaining papers on the floor. “Before we tackle the rest, I have a suggestion.”

“Yes?”

“Would you like to grab lunch first?”

******

Early afternoon sunlight beamed down on them as they left the office. Ryunosuke’s office was set a little apart from the more expensive and Westernized parts of the city, a quieter area full of smaller buildings and residences for those who conducted business indoors. And it being a work-day, there were not many people on the street, so although they received a few curious glances - van Zieks being a good head taller than everyone else - there weren’t many people around to really take interest.

Even so, Ryunosuke thought resignedly as they walked towards their unlikely destination together, he really was still too self-conscious.

“I know of a few Western-styled restaurants in the area—”

“... hm. I find that I’ve had quite enough of Western fare recently. If there is a more traditionally Japanese establishment you frequent yourself, I would not be opposed.”

So van Zieks had said, to his surprise. And now Ryunosuke was taking him to a soba stand of all things. He'd eaten there often and could vouch for the food, but... was he still nervous about the refined palate of a British aristocrat encountering ordinary Japanese soba? Or was it just that he couldn’t stop noticing how closely they were walking together, now?

Then just as Ryunosuke was casting about desperately for a subject to take his mind off that dangerous topic, van Zieks spoke. “Is this your usual habit?”

“Er— Sorry?”

Van Zieks coughed. “For meals. London’s working classes make use of chop houses and taverns for luncheon, if they do not have servants or family to prepare it for them. I am curious whether the Japanese do something similar - I assume you in particular do not prepare your own food regularly.”

“Ah.” At least the former Reaper had not in fact learned to read minds, he thought with some relief. “Well, no, that’s true...”

Susato normally did prepare lunch along with her other judicial assistant duties. But after she’d left to visit family he’d had to fend for himself. Ryunosuke explained as they walked, and was happy to find that the discussion distracted him. Though as their conversation slowly turned to the typical fare Japanese workers and students ate and how it differed from the meat-and-vegetables basis of British cuisine, he found himself musing less about the topic than about their conversation itself.

Lord van Zieks, asking after Japanese customs seriously and taking note of the explanations? It wasn’t something he would ever have expected two years ago. But was this part of the “learning as much about Japanese law as British” efforts that he had mentioned earlier, Ryunosuke wondered, or was it more of a personal interest?

“Oi! Lawyer-san! And who’s your big Western friend, eh?”

Both he and van Zieks blinked at the sudden shout. He’d somehow led them to the soba stall unawares, and its old proprietor was grinning at them from behind a counter full of utensils and toppings. Ryunosuke managed a sheepish smile back before remembering, looking at his assistant, that he should translate.

“He’s asking about you - er, hi again! This is just... my friend, Lord van Zieks—”

The old man’s bushy eyebrow went up. “A lord is it? Guess he sure looks like one - and His Lordship’s come a long way for my soba, ain’t he?”

“Well...” Ryunosuke sighed, tried to avoid a grin at the look of bemusement on van Zieks’s face, and quickly translated as much as he dared.

“We’re, uh, just here for a quick lunch, so just your usual for both—”

“Gahaha! Hey, obaasan ! Get your best noodles out for a big Westerner! Man looks like he could use some more growin’!”

He decided not to translate the last part. Quickly leading van Zieks to the end of the row of seats before the stand, a little apart from any other eaters, Ryunosuke motioned for him to sit, grimacing. “Sorry, I... forgot how enthusiastic the old man is here. I guess he doesn’t see many Western customers...”

“I do not mind it.” Van Zieks paused for a moment, looking over the counter in front of him with a skeptical eye, then shook his head. “Though you seem to be quite familiar with the man. You’re a regular, then?”

“Something like that. Oh, first, let me describe how the food works here...”

He explained soba quickly, including the dipping sauce offered and the usual styles of eating it, and for some reason kept catching himself wanting to laugh as he watched van Zieks taking in the unfamiliar toppings with stoic puzzlement. In many ways the soba stand was no different from the bar of a British tavern or pub, but neither were places he had ever expected to see the aristocratic prosecutor frequenting. Maybe that was what he found so fresh about the whole situation.

Though when his explanation moved onto the chopsticks provided for patrons, Ryunosuke noticed van Zieks’s expression turning slightly grim, and realized that he might have missed something. 

“Oh. Actually, do you know how to use...”

This time it was van Zieks’s turn to sigh. “You will have to pardon me if I embarrass myself with these... chopsticks, is it?”

He probably should have considered that himself as a good host, Ryunosuke thought ruefully. But they’d come this far now, so there was no point in regret. He took a couple in hand himself and tried to demonstrate with the grated ginger set before them. “Don’t worry, it’s not that hard, really. Like this...”

After several clatters of one or both of van Zieks’s chopsticks falling to the counter, the only change Ryunosuke could notice was his companion’s expression growing increasingly darker.

“I suppose I will admit defeat. I may be more suited to blades and cutting implements than to the finesse and dexterity these require. Perhaps I should resort to using these as skewers?”

“Well, perhaps...” Ryunosuke stopped suddenly, remembering a memory from years ago. The first time he’d visited the Prosecutors’ Offices in London to see van Zieks, there had been a truly detailed scale model of the Great Exhibition there. At the time he’d cracked jokes with Iris about whether the foreboding prosecutor had made it himself, but if he actually had, then it really wasn’t a matter of manual dexterity, was it?

“No, actually let’s try again. Here, let me show you an easier method...”

He took van Zieks’s hand in his own, and with the other placed the chopsticks between his thumb and forefinger, gently arranging the other fingers as a supportive base. “I think I learned this way. The idea is to keep one steady and use your two most dextrous fingers to slide the other against it like a clamp, which works just as well, so...”

After a few minutes, the chopsticks finally moved once again, hesitantly - and a piece of ginger was lifted with them.

“Yes! Good work!”

“... mm. Thank you.”

Van Zieks’s voice was a little strange. And then Ryunosuke realized three things, just as he had turned to grin encouragingly at his judicial-assistant-slash-student. The first was how close he’d unknowingly gotten in his enthusiasm to demonstrate. The second was the way van Zieks couldn’t seem to meet his gaze, staring at his chopsticks with a determinedly fixed and somewhat flushed expression. And the third was that he’d essentially been holding van Zieks’s hand for the last few minutes.

He felt his own face going about as red as the togarashi pepper flakes before them. “Oh! Uh... well, good...”

Then their soba finally came out, to Ryunosuke’s immense relief. As he hastily dipped and then stuffed too many noodles into his mouth at once to avoid having to speak again, he couldn’t help wondering if he’d actually seen the old proprietor wink knowingly when handing the tray to him.

They both ate quietly for a few minutes afterwards. Despite his own mortification, when Ryunosuke snuck a glance over he found that van Zieks was in fact successfully using his chopsticks. That seemed to give him back a modicum of confidence, and he finally swallowed his last bite without immediately stuffing more into his mouth.

“How is it?”

“Unique in texture, but the flavors of the buckwheat and the sauce pair well. It is quite acceptable.”

‘Quite acceptable’ from van Zieks seemed like high praise. Despite knowing the prosecutor wouldn't have been impolite enough to outright insult the food regardless, Ryunosuke found himself relieved. “That's good! It’s a pretty common dish in Japan because it's simple to make and to eat. I went to a lot of soba stands while I was in university. This one’s one of the best...”

“I see.” Taking another bite, van Zieks looked down at his tray for a moment thoughtfully, then shook his head.

“I suppose that may be why. You really have seemed more in your element since we arrived.”

Ryunosuke looked back at him, swallowing a mouthful of noodles. “Sorry?”

“You recall our earlier conversation at La Carnevale, I assume. I said then that you may wish to practice your confidence and assertiveness, and offered my assistance - for at the time you seemed hesitant at anything that did not involve a courtroom. But...” van Zieks paused for a moment. “I may have made the assertion with insufficient evidence.”

“How do you figure?”

A pair of blue eyes were turned on him. “I have only ever seen you in unfamiliar environs. Whether it was the streets of London, the halls of the Old Bailey, or that eatery La Carnevale - these were not places you were at ease within. You could cover for it when your innate determination to seek the truth came out in court, but the rest would understandably be a struggle. Here in familiar territory in your homeland, however, you assert yourself with natural confidence. It is... quite a difference.”

He’d probably gone a bit pink at the unexpected praise - for it was praise, no matter how roundabout. Ryunosuke stuffed more noodles into his mouth, and chewed for a moment to try to gather his thoughts.

Finally, he said slowly, “that may be true, but I don’t think it’s just because this is familiar. I was just as wishy-washy in Japan before as when I was in London. But...”

“But?”

“Well, I think...” he paused, realizing he’d talked himself into an embarrassing admission, then finally decided to just meet van Zieks’s gaze straight-on. “It’s like what you said. When I have a truth to seek in court, it’s easier to assert myself. But I think you’ve helped me figure something else out as well - I’m better at being confident when it helps other people. So, that’s why...”

Van Zieks stared at him with a strange expression for a moment, then dropped his gaze, his voice a little softer. “... I see.”

Ryunosuke had the feeling that he was suddenly in pursuit again, though he did not know to what end - and after all they were still chatting at a soba stand. Finally he just continued, a little more quietly, himself.

“I’d also meant to ask. But since you brought it up... how have you been taking to Japan?”

He wondered if he ought to explain further then, but van Zieks seemed to understand, following his earlier words about unfamiliar territory. After a little while, he spoke again.

“I will not lie that it has been entirely simple to adjust. Though your homeland is modernizing at a rapid pace, there are still many changes and advances that have yet to reach it, as well as an unfamiliarity to the style of living. And my own limited knowledge of the language remains a challenge. I confess to some longing for the distant shores of Britain at times. Yet nevertheless...”

He paused, his expression thoughtful.

“... it has its own beauty. Its people strive just as powerfully as the British do, and often in much the same ways. As you said once, it does not matter whether it is the Empire of Great Britain or the Empire of Japan - the hearts of people are the same. The more I allow myself to see of it, the more that fact impresses itself on me."

"So I am grateful to have the opportunity to come to learn that, and for what you’ve shown me today.”

He had not realized that van Zieks remembered their conversation from so long ago - or that this might've been his reason for proposing Japanese food today. Ryunosuke found himself at something of a loss for words. “Lord van Zieks...”

But then the other man shook his head, his voice returning to its usual matter-of-fact tone. “Regardless, you need not concern yourself with my stay here.”

“How do you mean...?”

“I chose this path myself, and will pursue it to the best of my ability. Besides, I would be utterly unable to look you in the eye again if I could not last months in your nation as a distinguished guest, when you spent a year in mine as a rookie taking residence with that ‘Great Detective’... do you not think?”

His words were as dry as ever, but Ryunosuke felt as if he understood then, and found himself smiling. He almost dared to imagine he saw the corner of van Zieks’s mouth twitch.

“You’re right, when you put it that way. It sounds absurd. But still...”

Despite the aptness of the comparison, this was not Britain, and Ryunosuke was not the stoic British prosecutor who’d once considered him a hated foe. And neither was Barok van Zieks, now. He reached out and squeezed van Zieks's hand on the table.

“I still want to do whatever I can to help. Like I said earlier. So, if you want to go see any more of Japan, or try more food, or - well, whatever - I’d be glad to take you.”

Blue eyes turned to meet his, and Ryunosuke found a complex expression on his “assistant’s” face. Van Zieks opened his mouth as if to speak - but then he suddenly turned towards the counter.

“It would be ungrateful of me to not return such a generous offer. I will pay for this meal.”

“Huh?” Ryunosuke blinked. “Wait, I should be—”

But he was too late. He hadn't realized it, but van Zieks had already somehow found the coins and was handing them to the proprietor, saying in passable Japanese, “for the meal. Thank you.”

He turned that around on me so quickly...! 

As the proprietor bustled away with the coins, Ryunosuke could only sigh to himself. Despite his efforts to take responsibility and prove his willingness to help, his assistant was still two steps ahead of him. He could not underestimate Lord van Zieks, could he...?

Though when had this become a battle? And why on earth was he keeping score?

As he was trying to untangle his thoughts, the proprietor returned with the change. Unexpectedly, he also held a box used for soba delivery, which he pressed into van Zieks’s hands along with the coins. The prosecutor’s face took on a mirror of Ryunosuke’s confusion. 

“This is...”

“For the road, Your Lordship! And for you, Lawyer-san! Come back soon, eh?”

They were effectively shooed away from the soba stand. It was only a little distance away that both of them collected themselves again, and van Zieks finally stared down at the box in his hands.

“This is Japanese hospitality?”

“Not that I know of...” Ryunosuke wished his own voice didn’t sound so bewildered, though the last few events had left him rather at a loss. “I’ve never seen him do this before. Maybe it’s to thank loyal customers... or a message?”

He opened the box at a nod from the other man. There was only ordinary soba inside, as he’d expected, though it was topped with a healthy serving of grated nagaimo yam.

“Just tororo soba. It’s only... a...”

Van Zieks turned a perplexed gaze on him as he abruptly slammed the box lid down, blushing furiously. 

“What exactly—”

“I’ll tell you later! Let’s... let’s just put it in the icebox at the office for now!”

Though as they kept walking, Ryunosuke resolved that “later” would never come if he had anything to say about it, and it was quite likely he would never be able to visit that soba stand again.

******

Once they’d finally returned to the office, the remaining work in the library went more smoothly. Lunch seemed to have smoothed over any lingering awkwardness between Ryunosuke and his assistant. So aside from a few casual touches here and there - increasingly blatant on Ryunosuke’s part, apparently unconscious on van Zieks’s - they got through clean-up quickly and returned to paperwork.

In fact, by late afternoon Ryunosuke found they had some time to investigate. Van Zieks had turned up a few interesting leads to the cases set before him, his piercing gaze missing little about witness statements despite Ryunosuke having to translate. Ryunosuke’s admiration had been tinged with intimidation as he’d realized just how much more experience his “assistant” had. It once again reminded him he’d wanted to do more: to take responsibility, or to hold up his end of their odd partnership, or to prove... something. He did not even know whether he wanted to prove it to van Zieks or himself.

Maybe that was why he’d finally made another proposal to his assistant as the golden light of late afternoon poured through the office window. Or maybe he just hadn’t wanted the day to end yet.

“I know your offer of assistantship was for office work. But I’m planning to go question the defendant before visiting hours end. If you’d like to come with me...”

“I have no objections. Lead on.”

Van Zieks proved as insightful an investigator in the field as behind the desk. Their meeting with the defendant in jail went more smoothly than the last time he visited; Ryunosuke wasn’t sure if it was because he had to translate the man’s words and thus had to consider them more carefully, or if his prosecutor-assistant’s skeptical observations had provided a different angle than his own. But whatever the case, they were soon able to leave to investigate with much more information in hand.

Though, Ryunosuke had eventually mused to himself, his new "assistant" being a towering scarred grim-faced Westerner might also have loosened tongues. One young witness they encountered on the street had jumped and tried to offer his wallet, before Ryunosuke gently stepped in and managed to convince him they were not highwaymen. Van Zieks had been subdued for some time after that encounter.

“I still appear so fearsome, do I...?”

“No! It’s not - people here just aren’t used to seeing Westerners, that’s all!”

“You have little skill in deception, Mr. Naruhodo.”

But aside from that witness, their investigations turned out startlingly well. As the day finally turned to dusk and they began heading back towards the office, Ryunosuke reflected on how easy it'd been to just discuss the case with his new assistant. Despite his own initial trepidation, and despite Lord van Zieks being nothing like Susato or Iris - there was still that odd freedom of being able to just say what was on his mind. He’d missed that since Susato had been called away; he was very glad for his companion now.

And, Ryunosuke suddenly realized as he gazed at van Zieks’s silhouette against the fading light, he would deeply miss this as well - if this were the only time they would ever work together as defense and assistant.

The thought seemed to dump cold water on his head. But he couldn’t ignore it any more. Van Zieks had simply offered assistance to him as a favor; this was no ongoing assistantship like Susato’s, or a friendship like Iris’s. Ryunosuke couldn’t ask him to just assist for free, not a man with his own goals like the prosecutor before him, and offering money would have just been insulting.

And that was not even getting into the subject of what had happened that morning...

He had not forgotten the feelings they’d confessed to each other. But although the knowledge had made him much bolder that day, he still hadn’t been able to bring them up again to Barok van Zieks. Ryunosuke had tried to continue with their “judicial assistantship” as much to gather evidence as to find his footing in this strange new normal - but now it was nearly about to end, and he still had not come to a satisfactory conclusion.

So what exactly did they have now? An assistantship? A relationship? Or...

“Mr. Naruhodo?”

Van Zieks was looking at him now, and Ryunosuke realized he’d been staring. But his assistant’s expression was not severe. The blue-purple twilight seemed to soften even his hard features, or perhaps he simply had not minded.

Wrenching himself out of his thoughts with a great effort, Ryunosuke opened his mouth - and realized he had one last lead he’d yet to pursue.

“There’s... a night market on the street near my office. Since you’re here already, would you like to go and see the sights?”

The night market bustled by the time they reached it. The advent of gaslamps in Tokyo had made shopkeepers willing to keep their wares out past sunset, and travelling food-stall owners had taken advantage of the increased foot traffic to set up business. With the crowds of passers-by in both Western and Japanese wear, just released from daily work, the atmosphere was festive. Ryunosuke was able to busy himself with introducing van Zieks to some of the myriad traditional goods and foods on display, and for some time managed to evade the trepidation dogging his footsteps.

He knew he would have to raise the question soon. He’d found one last opportunity, and he couldn’t squander it again before his assistant finally departed. But that didn’t mean he had to do so on an empty stomach, right? So Ryunosuke thought as he came back from the next stall with two sticks of dango , and handed one to van Zieks.

“This is?”

“Rice flour dumplings, with sugar syrup. It’s a usual snack - it’s chewy, mind - ”

He was met with a raised eyebrow. Then Ryunosuke finally realized how much food he’d already pressed on his assistant while they browsed, as van Zieks shifted the other skewers of fish cakes, grilled meats, and one imposing octopus tentacle into his other hand to receive the dango .

“Perhaps we ought to take stock of the evidence you’ve gathered first,” he said mildly, and Ryunosuke sighed and had to agree.

They found a low raised wall in a small side street with few people passing by. Ryunosuke wondered briefly whether his aristocratic assistant would take to the idea of street food, but van Zieks raised no objection. They sat and worked their way through the skewers for a little while in amicable silence, the warm late-spring night and muted sound of the crowds filling the space.

But then at last van Zieks spoke. “Mr. Naruhodo. I admit there is one thing I have noticed today.”

“What is it?”

“You have been quite solicitous. More so than usual. It is not unwelcome, and I thank you, but...”

Ryunosuke felt his stomach sinking a little at that. In the dim light of the nearest gaslamp, as they sat side by side on the wall, it was hard to make out van Zieks’s expression. But his voice had lowered - as if he were heavily considering his words as well. Then they would be having that conversation now, whether he was ready or not.

Nevertheless, that thought calmed him. At least now he would be able to put down the hanging feelings he’d carried in his throat for the whole day. Even if the next words out of van Zieks’s mouth were “your aid is unnecessary” or perhaps “I no longer think it appropriate to be so casual”, Ryunosuke could accept it - anything rather than this doubt.

“But...?” He finally prompted, quietly.

“... I still do not know what I could possibly do for you in return.”

His train of thought grinding slowly to a halt, Ryunosuke stared at his assistant. “You... what?”

Van Zieks sighed then, and looked down at his hands resting in his lap. The resignation in his words did not seem to be directed at Ryunosuke.

“I have not forgotten our encounter earlier today in your library. I cannot imagine you have either. The affection you showed me then, indulging my own foolish sentiments... I have been considering how to repay you since. But I seem to still have little talent for it.”

“What do you...”

He found his mouth was hanging open, and closed it with an effort. “How do you mean, little talent? You’ve been helping me the whole...”

Van Zieks shook his head. “I have only helped you as an assistant and not as one who holds personal affection. In contrast with your generosity, all I have done is react, and provide the service I previously promised you. That is not... what one ought to do for those they care for.”

There was a small silence.

“Lord van Zieks... perhaps I don’t understand.”

“What is there to not understand?”

“Because, this whole day...” Ryunosuke took in a breath. “ I’ve been trying to do the same thing for you because I felt the same way. That I didn’t do enough.”

The ice-blue eyes finally turned back toward him at that. Though van Zieks’s face was as stoic as ever, there was a strange expression in his gaze.

“You shall have to explain. What could you have felt lacking about your own...”

That’s my question, Ryunosuke thought. But if someone had to go first - to try to clear up the misunderstanding they’d both had - it might as well as be him. He paused again, and the vague thoughts he’d had began coalescing at last.

“You told me, during our dinner. If I assert myself, then I must take responsibility for it. That’s been on my mind ever since I asked you to reveal your feelings - even though I felt the same way, I didn’t think just showing feelings was enough to count as taking responsibility. So I... I wanted to prove that you weren’t wrong to tell me how you felt.”

He sighed. “Before, when I had... relationships, I always just went along with what other people wanted, because that was the easy thing to do. But that’s not something I want to do now. Because you’re you, Lord van Zieks, you’re brilliant and commanding and, um... I think I’m stronger and better for having met you. And so I wanted to be someone you could rely on too. Not just in a courtroom, but doing everyday things, talking about yourself...”

“... I think that’s why I wanted to do everything I could for you. But I’m not sure any of it was that helpful. So maybe I have a long way to go...”

His rambling finally trailed off, and Ryunosuke couldn’t help but grimace. Somehow even three years of arguing in court hadn’t prepared him for declaring his own feelings. But the response that came surprised him even more.

“Mr. Naruhodo. I thank you for your words, but... I will apologize for my behavior. I have left you with unjustified preconceptions.”

“About... what?”

“About my worth. As a romantic partner, and how much effort you need to expend in that regard. There is little that you would gain by it. I am... not a man capable of great affection or care.”

Staring back at the shadowed expression in those blue eyes, trying to collect his scattered thoughts, Ryunosuke suddenly remembered something. As they’d lain sprawled across the floor of the library, van Zieks had tried to reject his feelings - even after his own were revealed - by describing himself in much the same way as he did now. At the time, Ryunosuke hadn’t been willing to consider it, fired with the need for more direct pursuit. But now...

He took in a breath and met his companion’s gaze more steadily.

“You’ve said the same thing before. That you ‘have nothing to offer me’. Could you at least tell me why?”

A moment passed. Then the other man shook his head. “Is it worth knowing? It is simply my own weakness - there is no meaning or excitement in the retelling.”

“I should like to know, nevertheless. If you’d trust me with it.”

There was another pause, and he almost wondered if he’d pressed a little too hard, but finally van Zieks looked back at him, resignation in his face.

“I should not. But... unjustifiably, I suppose I do. So I only pray you will not laugh.”

Six years ago, at the nagging of well-meaning family friends and his own sense of ennui, the then-retired Reaper of the Bailey had attempted to court a wife.

He made little progress at first. His reputation, temperament, and visage combined to scare off any woman who dared to be introduced to him, and he did not try very hard to keep them. However, in the end one woman remained. She was of a similarly noble house, the right age, kind, and a fine enough wit - and most importantly she did not seem to mind him. They had begun courting then through chaperoned visits and walks in the countryside, and he’d come to believe that he could feel something for her.

But in the end, that proved to not be enough for either of them.

He did not find it enjoyable to speak of himself to her, because he did not trust others to know of his life. She became sad and dissatisfied with his coldness, for no matter how they talked, he did not show her outward signs of his interest. In some frustration with himself, he had even perused etiquette manuals and guides to romance - only to find them all frivolous and banal and cast them all aside. He had not been able to understand what was missing.

Then he had stumbled across Klint van Zieks’s saved letters to Lady Baskerville.

He’d spent a sleepless night in the attic of the manor, reading over the words of his brother and the sister-in-law that Klint had loved. Then the very next morning, he'd sent a letter to his paramour ending their courtship and wishing her well, and then once again shut himself away in retirement with only his law books as companions.

“What?” Ryunosuke said blankly. “But... why?”

“Because Klint had truly loved his wife, and she him. And against that shining example, I…”

Barok van Zieks looked away for a moment, sighed, and then seemed to come to a conclusion as his eyes met Ryunosuke’s again.

“When I was young, I believed wholeheartedly in the ideals of romance - of truth and love and a deep understanding beyond the senses. After Klint’s death, I decided such beauty did not exist in the world. My path taught me not to trust others, and my curse taught others to fear me. I believed that all love was calculated for status and favor, and thought my feeble courtship was as honest as any love could be."

“But then I found Klint’s letters. I realized I was wrong. The honest affection they expressed, the ways they understood one another unbidden... every memory I had of them was full of that same sincere adoration. So true love always did exist. It was something worth striving for...”

“... but I had become too cold a man to be able to feel or show it.”

He closed his eyes. “The woman I courted was the one person I’d ‘loved’ in the last 12 years, until... your arrival. Yet all I could say for her was that she did not fear me, and I could tolerate her. But I was incapable of either trusting her, or speaking of myself to her, or desiring to spend time with her - let alone expressing my affections. I do not know now if I even felt any for her.”

Silence fell. At last, van Zieks let out a tired breath.

"That is all of my tale. You understand, then, why I have little to offer you as a partner? I do not seem capable of the warmer sentiments humans hold. So you ought...”

“Lord van Zieks,” Ryunosuke said quietly, “I don’t think that’s actually what you’re like.”

He had managed to catch the man off-guard. Van Zieks blinked at him for only a moment, but in that moment Ryunosuke found the rest of the words that had been burning in his chest.

“I can’t say how you felt back then, six years ago. But we have just spent an entire day together. You could have left at any point - pushed me off you in the library, gone while I was asleep, made an excuse after lunch, or begged off when I asked you to help investigate. If you were truly as cold as you say… why didn't you?"

He saw the sudden doubt flash through the eyes before him. Their owner seemed to struggle with his words. "I… I had given my word. It was only duty—"

“Does duty include what we did in the library today?”

By the way van Zieks’s voice abruptly broke off, he'd realized the same flaw in his argument. Ryunosuke went on, silently willing the fire in him to carry him through the pursuit before he faltered again.

"I don't think any judicial assistant would have done what you did out of duty. You helped me at every step even when it had nothing to do with my work, or when the only thing you achieved would be spending time with me. Everything we did today— it wasn’t just assistantship, was it? You came to the market with me... paid for lunch... you even let me teach you how to use chopsticks. "

"What I believe is that you felt deeply. Maybe you couldn't say it in words - or you didn't know how - but that doesn't mean it wasn't there. In fact, I think it was so obvious that, well…"

Ryunosuke paused then, taking a breath himself to push through one last thought - and suddenly found he understood. That was why he'd been so desperate to prove himself the whole day, was it?

"... the reason I tried so hard to help you was because I'd already felt how much you cared for me.”

For a long moment, his words seemed to echo in the silence between them.

“I wasn’t mistaken about that, was I?” Ryunosuke asked softly at last. He knew the answer, but he also knew the man before him could have given any of a dozen other explanations if he’d wanted to. Ordinarily he wouldn’t have tried to corner Lord Barok van Zieks with just his own observations or feelings; the dripping sarcasm he’d have received from the other side of the court would’ve been more than enough dissuasion.

But “ordinary” hadn’t applied since he’d found himself atop his rival that morning, and maybe what had been ordinary in the last two years was very different from that long-ago courtroom. And it seemed van Zieks understood that just as well. He did not try to evade again, and when he finally spoke his voice was very hoarse.

“You... were not mistaken, no. But…”

"... but?"

"Do you honestly claim to be satisfied with this? With what I..."

His hand reached out then, uncharacteristically hesitant, as if bewildered by its owner’s decision - and gripped Ryunosuke’s. Against the heat of his palm and the roughness of long-worn sword-calluses, Ryunosuke had the impression of being held by the paw of a lion, as gingerly as if he had just removed a thorn from it.

Suddenly very aware of his own heartbeat, he met van Zieks’s half-shadowed gaze and firmly squeezed his hand in response.

“Yes, I do.”

Earlier, they’d sat side-by-side barely a shoulder’s width apart to eat, but somehow they were even closer now. Even sitting, his “assistant” still loomed over him like the grim statues Ryunosuke had jumped at seeing in British cathedrals. But there was no such severity in the expression he turned on Ryunosuke now.

When van Zieks spoke again, his voice was rough - too proud to plead, and too honest to do anything but.

"I cannot promise you that I will become any more adept at affection than I am now.”

“I’m all right with that.”

“And if all the care I show you remains so…” He gritted his teeth, “muted and unstated, then…"

Ryunosuke shifted his weight to turn to face him full-on.

"Lord van Zieks," he said quietly, "even if you were never able to say how you felt out loud, we somehow became friends anyway. And we’re here because I figured your feelings out regardless, so that’s not the problem. I think there’s only one thing I have to ask you."

The intensity in van Zieks’s eyes as they stared at each other, so close that his breaths brushed hotly against Ryunosuke’s cheek, made it perfectly clear he understood. His lips parted almost imperceptibly.

“What then?”

“Do you still want me to do this?” Ryunosuke asked softly, and pulled him down. And his judicial assistant obeyed, his seemingly bloodless lips revealing smouldering heat as Ryunosuke met them.

Ryunosuke kissed him then, as determinedly as he could. He wasn’t sure if he was trying to draw the fire from those lips or fill them with his own, but his partner’s breaths growing ragged made it clear that either was more than fine. A powerful arm had wrapped around his back, embracing him with almost crushing force - van Zieks had finally abandoned all pretense at protecting himself - and Ryunosuke found his own hand entangling itself in his hair, holding him firmly in place. For all of his sharpness and hard edges, his hair was softer than Ryunosuke could have imagined.

They did both eventually have to come up for air. When van Zieks met his gaze again, his breaths shallow, his eyes seemed to have taken on some of the heat in Ryunosuke’s own chest. “Naruhodo. You...”

Ryunosuke did not let him finish speaking, and the stifled sound van Zieks made as he was pressed once again indicated he had abandoned his argument as well. This second pursuit was fiercer and more deliberate. He gripped his partner’s chin, tasting the lingering sweetness of the dango on his tongue, exploring his mouth at leisure and teasing forth somewhat indecent sounds from him for a public street. It’s dark anyway, Ryunosuke thought heatedly, and unconsciously leaned his weight into the warmth of that broad chest, and late enough now that—

And then the man pressed against him made a startled noise, and Ryunosuke suddenly felt his stomach drop as his balance tilted forward precariously - and then they toppled off the wall with a crash.

“Ow! Nngh— Lord van Zieks, are you all ri—”

He scrambled to try to rise, his face burning furiously, hoping against hope that he’d at least avoided headbutting the other man during the fall. And so it took Ryunosuke quite a few frantic moments to realize that Barok van Zieks, lying on his back beneath him for the second time that day, was laughing.

“... oh! I, uh...”

“Mr... Naruhodo...”

It took his companion some moments to collect himself, and Ryunosuke, still half lying on top of him, could not take his eyes off the sight. Those grim brows raised, his stiff lips parted, his shoulders quaking in barely-controlled mirth - Ryunosuke decided then he wanted to remember this for the rest of his life. Even more, he wanted to see it again... though he couldn’t imagine any other vantage point as good as the one he had now.

Eventually van Zieks did regain a little of his composure. But he did not make any effort to get up, and so neither did Ryunosuke, for his gaze was filled with an undeniable warmth that caught Ryunosuke’s breath. He knew they were still lying in the street, which was mercifully deserted. But Ryunosuke found that he didn’t particularly care either way.

“I suppose...” Van Zieks’s voice, when it finally came again, was low. “You now have a rather distinct honor.”

“An... honor?” He found his own voice going just as low.

“Yes. You are now the only man who’s ever left me lying disarmed and prone before him twice in the same day. I cannot even begin to guess if it is your skill or my... luck.”

His words were casual, and the roughness of his voice was anything but. Ryunosuke fought - and then realized he had no reason to fight - a sudden urge to trace his fingers along that stern jaw. He did so lightly, and felt van Zieks’s breath catch under his palm.

“Or, perhaps...”

“Lord van Zieks?”

“Perhaps it’s simply that look in your eyes. The look of one who hunts, and seizes command...”

And after a pause, his gaze never leaving Ryunosuke’s, van Zieks’s next words came even more softly.

“I suppose if there’s any man I’d allow myself to fall before, then...”

They both went silent for a moment. Then finally, with the blood pounding in his ears and his throat seeming to have gone dry, Ryunosuke slowly reached down and took his companion’s hand once again.

“You would allow this... would you.”

His fingers entwined with the other man’s. He practically felt van Zieks swallow at that, pressed against him.

“Yes. But at a sane location.”

“Then—”

******

Ryunosuke did not recall their subsequent retreat to his office, only that they just barely did not disgrace themselves in the eyes of passers-by.

Nor did he remember much of the arrival. But he did recall taking van Zieks by the hand again - “not here,” he’d said - and leading him up the stairs to the first story, where Ryunosuke's living quarters were. The small rooms over his office would’ve been very humble to a British aristocrat, but his companion made no comment other than asking where to set his boots before stepping onto the tatami. Ryunosuke found that consideration warmed him just as much as the hand in his did.

Then at last he stood in his small bedroom over his futon, gazing up at his prosecutor-assistant against the dim orange glow of a lone oil lamp. Van Zieks was practically too tall for the room, his towering presence threatening to fill the cozy space he’d been brought into. Yet the man himself only stood quietly before Ryunosuke now, looking down at him with soft eyes - filled with some uncertainty.

He hasn’t done anything like this in at least 12 years, Ryunosuke thought suddenly, remembering their conversation. That thought calmed the nervous energy in his own chest a little. Limited as his own experience was, at least there was something he could still instruct his rival in. His hand rose then to rest against van Zieks’s chest, and the heat of his body and his heartbeat surged under Ryunosuke’s palm even through layers of fabric.

The other man took in a somewhat shaky breath. “What would you... have me do?”

“Come down where I can reach you first,” Ryunosuke said, and was gratified to hear a surprised and somewhat amused huff at that. Almost too easily, he pushed van Zieks onto the futon, and knelt beside him. But the other man stopped him as his hands went to his cravat.

“... allow me.”

Without hesitation, van Zieks began to undo his own clothing this time, and Ryunosuke could not stop himself from looking as the waistcoat and tie fell away again. The way the thin white shirt hugged his body, stretched over his muscles as he moved, and opened over the curve of his broad chest - the effect was somehow less decent than if he hadn’t worn anything in the first place. Ryunosuke arbitrarily wondered if he was the only one who’d ever seen this sight, then ruefully corrected himself. Most British gentlemen used valets to dress, as he knew, but he suddenly hoped that van Zieks didn’t.

Though he supposed most valets wouldn’t have been in quite this position with their employers...

“Naruhodo.”

He had not been discreet about staring. A deep red flush had crept across van Zieks’s face, complementing the heat rising in Ryunosuke’s own stomach, though he said nothing more in the way of dissuasion. Ryunosuke reached out before he could think better of it, and with a light hand traced the well-defined curve of his chest through the shirt, pausing over one nipple before grazing each fingertip over it with deliberate pressure. He heard a heated breath at that, and blue eyes turned again to meet his, their owner’s blush having deepened at that gesture.

“I had almost thought,” van Zieks said hoarsely, “you would be content to devour me with your eyes only.”

“That, uh... doesn’t seem like it’d satisfy either of us,” Ryunosuke murmured in response, and before embarrassment could hit him, bent down to press another kiss on his assistant. The hungry reciprocation he received laid his doubts to rest as much as it inflamed his mind. He stripped off his own garments with more haste.

They were soon bared again, entirely this time. As he finally gazed down at the man before him, powerful limbs and mussed hair spread against the futon, Ryunosuke could not help being reminded of a great lion languidly awaiting his command. A great, battle-worn lion, that was - for in the orange lamplight, the dark scars crossing van Zieks’s body stood in even starker contrast against his pale skin. Though he’d explored them just that morning, Ryunosuke found his hand going to another scar running along his side, and at the touch van Zieks closed his eyes, but did not stop him.

“... that is the last I received, six years ago. I was incautious during the time I made attempts at courting, and my enemies in the city hadn’t forgotten about their grudges against the Reaper.”

A silence. And then, as if he anticipated Ryunosuke’s next question, “I did not tell her of it either. A normal woman - or man, I suppose - did not need to know of such things.”

Ryunosuke found he couldn’t really say anything else, but the implicit trust in those words was not lost on him. He nodded, gently tracing along that scar for one moment further before finally rising to reposition himself, guiding his companion’s thighs apart with a firm hand and kneeling between them. Van Zieks allowed him to do so with no resistance, though his breaths came a little more heavily as he looked up then, a silent question in his gaze.

“Just tell me if anything is uncomfortable,” Ryunosuke said quietly, and then, “I don’t want to hurt you again.”

Ordinarily that statement might’ve been met with dismissal or incredulity. But though Barok van Zieks’s words were as collected as ever, his gaze back at Ryunosuke was soft.

“I would not be here if I feared you would. Do as you will.”

They had delayed some with undressing, so at first Ryunosuke just let his hands trail along the curves of his partner’s body, alternating light touches and heavier caresses up his side and lingering once again to tease against his chest. As the heat seemed to return to van Zieks’s gaze and his breaths grew less regular, Ryunosuke allowed one hand to meander down again, following the line of his hips to the curls between his legs. He was already half-erect, and at Ryunosuke’s hand gently stroking him he stiffened quickly.

But as much as he wanted to, Ryunosuke did not take him in hand then, instead continuing down to take hold of his thigh, lifting his leg and pressing his own knee against it, leaving him opened more widely. The sound van Zieks made at that seemed to be a mix of frustration, embarrassment, and arousal.

“Are you quite...”

“Almost,” Ryunosuke whispered, and tried not to think about how hard he suddenly was at the sight of the prosecutor letting himself be so exposed before him. Not yet— he reached for the jar of clove oil he’d brought earlier, dipped his fingers in, and felt the slight numbing sensation of the oil taking effect as he brought his hand back between his partner’s legs. Though when his fingers found the entrance and pressed against it, he felt van Zieks tense up, his thigh muscles tight against Ryunosuke’s leg. His face was turned away as well, as if finding it too difficult to face him then - though Ryunosuke thought he’d likely have denied the charge. He didn’t push then, and instead ran his other hand along van Zieks’s thigh, attempting to calm him a little.

“Try to relax, Lord v... Barok. It’ll be easier to...”

He heard van Zieks give a stoic sigh at that, but then the tension did at last seem to release from his body. Ryunosuke slowly slid the first finger into him, working the clove oil into the opening as he did, and letting his partner catch his breath before resuming. He was so hot and tight inside that Ryunosuke wondered how far they would be able to go, but as he continued gently massaging, even that tightness slowly withdrew - while at the same time van Zieks’s breathing grew shallower and more ragged.

“Are you still all right...” Ryunosuke began, and was interrupted brusquely.

“Get… on with it.”

But the irritation in his words was completely negated by his voice, breathless and unsteady. Taking a few deep breaths himself to try to keep calm, Ryunosuke obeyed, sliding in a second oil-slicked finger a little more easily than the first. Moving more purposefully with both fingers, drawing them out and back in to try to spread the oil more evenly - he heard the way his partner’s breath caught in his throat on each movement, and...

And then he curled his fingers up against one spot, and van Zieks made a choked sound, his hips jolting. Ryunosuke looked up, half-alarmed, but found his expression hard to read - for he was determinedly covering his face with one hand, as if no longer able to hold back his voice without it.

“Don’t, I need to see y...” Ryunosuke began, and then something in him kindled at the sight, and he abruptly reached out and gripped van Zieks’s wrist.

“Barok - look at me.”

His own strength shouldn’t have been nearly enough to overpower the man once known as the Reaper of the Bailey. Yet almost too easily, he’d pinned van Zieks’s arm against the futon and revealed his face again, flushed with the pleasure he couldn’t hide any further, eyes half-lidded and dark, lips parted in heated breaths. For a moment Ryunosuke only stared at him, drinking in that uninhibited appearance - and then they both seemed to realize something else at the same time.

The moment Ryunosuke had pinned his wrist - the moment that van Zieks had let himself be pinned - he had gone so hard that his erection now pressed against Ryunosuke’s stomach. At that realization, van Zieks’s expression took on a mixture of furious embarrassment and deep confusion, his blush scarlet.

Yet he did not try to shake off Ryunosuke’s arm. “I... I don’t...”

Ryunosuke found, suddenly, that he couldn’t describe the urge roaring to life in him.

He began to stroke more roughly with his fingers without a word. Seeking that vulnerable spot again, he drew hoarse gasps from his partner with each motion, each sound setting himself a little more alight - and finally he knew he’d found it when van Zieks almost bucked against him again, an unrestrained moan tearing from his throat. His free hand gripped Ryunosuke’s shoulder then, almost hard enough to bruise.

“Naruhodo— enough, just...!”

— with one last viciously gentle stroke that sent shudders through his partner’s body, Ryunosuke withdrew his fingers. He wrapped his arm around van Zieks’s thigh to raise him into position, and the pillow he normally slept on went beneath his hips for support. He just barely remembered to slick himself with the oil as well - and then he was pressing his erection against the opening, feeling his partner shivering against him at the touch. Or maybe the shivering was his own.

“I’m going to...” he said, then stopped. The words sounded too useless for the intensity of feeling in him then. But van Zieks seemed to understand anyway.

“You need no permission,” he whispered hoarsely.

Ryunosuke nodded, gritted his teeth, and pushed himself in.

His first thought was fear that he hadn’t done nearly enough preparation. The gasp that van Zieks had let out, his head falling back, and how tightly he now squeezed Ryunosuke - but then Ryunosuke realized that gasp had not been one of pain, and as he sank to the hilt his rational mind was surpassed by a burning hunger . His throat dry as bone, the strong warmth gripping him igniting every nerve, he paused for a single moment to take in the sight of the man pressed beneath him.

Then he began to move, and the stifled groan in his throat was answered by van Zieks’s own rough cry.

He was too much. Ryunosuke could not describe him any other way. No one so powerfully built and scarred should have allowed himself to be this defenseless, his whole body yielding to Ryunosuke’s unsophisticated movements, trembling with each thrust. No one— let alone this brilliant rival he’d once thought entirely unapproachable, now lying captured against him. His no-longer-severe countenance was so agonized with pleasure that Ryunosuke found he couldn’t look away.

This time van Zieks finally couldn’t hide himself - nor did he seem to want to any more. The desperate sound of his voice each time Ryunosuke pressed into him, deeper and hotter...

“Barok,” he heard his own voice helplessly rasp, hoarse with exertion as he moved.

He didn’t know how van Zieks even heard him. But after a few moments further his gaze met Ryunosuke’s again, eyes half-dazed and aflame. His lips parted between breaths as if to speak, but no words came. He seemed almost lost then; Ryunosuke could not tell whether in pleasure, or in what he saw in Ryunosuke’s eyes.

Maybe it was all the same. The look in his eyes was enough to make Ryunosuke realize he couldn’t hold out for long like this. Suddenly forgetting his fatigue, he found his movements growing more aggressive, almost driving the breath from the other man’s throat in heated moans. And that forcefulness seemed to finally bring van Zieks back to himself, if only for a moment. His pinned hand slowly turned to clutch at Ryunosuke’s.

“Naruhodo, you— please —”

Even though Ryunosuke hadn’t needed permission, the sound of that plea...

He gripped van Zieks’s erection then and began to stroke him with a sudden fervor, gritting his teeth, his own thrusting going erratic. He couldn’t lose himself before he’d satisfied his partner. He had to make sure - but then van Zieks was gasping something, his fingers digging into Ryunosuke’s hand as a shock seemed to course through him. Then another - his body had gone as taut as a bowstring, every muscle tensing. And he was now squeezing Ryunosuke with such strength and heat that he couldn’t—

“Barok,” Ryunosuke whispered again, and forced himself forward one last time. The moment before his own mind was overwhelmed, he felt heat splatter against his chest as van Zieks arched against him, hoarsely crying out his name.

He trembled through the aftershocks in a haze of light, aware only of the man beneath him, anchored by his solid presence and the grip of his hand. Then at last night fell again. The darkened room came back into view, the oil lamp having burnt out while they were too preoccupied to notice. With an effort, Ryunosuke pulled out and let himself collapse against that broad chest, too spent to care about the mess he was making - and felt strong arms encircling his back.

A hot breath, still ragged with exertion, rustled his hair.

"Naruhodo. I—…"

Van Zieks's voice - rough and sincere and suddenly desperately struggling for the next word - stopped as quickly as it'd begun. His arms tightened around Ryunosuke for a moment, almost helplessly. "I…"

Even if he couldn't say it in words...

Ryunosuke wrapped his own arms around him in response. Despite his entire body feeling as if it'd gone boneless, sunk in that already-familiar embrace, he heard his own voice clearly.

"Just stay. Lord van Zieks… assistant or no, just..."

Another breath came then, rumbling soft and acquiescent against him. He felt van Zieks’s hand stroke along his back, the rough warmth of his fingers tingling against Ryunosuke’s skin.

"... I shall. Assistant or not... as long as you will have me, then whatever is in my power to do..."

"And I will... as well," Ryunosuke murmured.

Half listening to his partner’s slowly steadying breaths, half soothed by the strong hands against his back, he finally let himself drift off to slumber once again.

And the next time he awoke, blinking in the morning light, he found Barok van Zieks still asleep at his side. Though he looked no less formidable asleep than awake, some of the tiredness seemed to have lifted from his brow, and his arm was still wrapped gently about Ryunosuke's shoulders.

******

Epilogue

"You have not yet told me about that gift of soba we received yesterday."

So van Zieks had said as they'd dressed themselves again, and Ryunosuke had sputtered and then tried to hide his dismay that he actually had remembered. Judging by the dry look van Zieks turned on him, he didn’t hide it very well.

“Out with it, Naruhodo.”

Ryunosuke sighed. “It’s... the topping. There's a mountain yam that’s traditionally grated into a paste called tororo, so... that’s the white stuff you saw earlier. It tastes fresh, so people eat it with green onions and soba, or rice, or just on its own. It’s popular...”

“That does not explain your reaction.”

“... it’s traditionally popular with Japanese men. Because of the, um, texture, and the appearance... it’s considered an aphrodisiac.” He suddenly wished his English language learning had not been quite so thorough. “And because it’s very... slippery, it’s often used for, well, intercourse...”

Van Zieks blinked at him for a moment, and then suddenly turned away - as if unable to keep his composure, or determinedly trying not to laugh at the look on Ryunosuke’s face.

“... then I suppose the gift was simply a well-wish. Steeped in tradition, as it were. Perhaps you should pay your thanks to the old man for his... thoughtfulness?”

Objection!

(They eventually returned to that soba stand again, but only quite some time later. Ryunosuke had to admit - and eventually van Zieks did as well - that it was the best place for soba he’d ever found.)