Aria: Gomen! I know this is extremely late, but there's a good reason. I'm out of the country, and I only just got Internet, so I could only post this today. Also, I hope has fixed it's posting system!
Here it is, finally, the end of Vanilla, unless I ever decide to rewrite it, which is possible, but highly unlikely. I already feel as if I'm beating a dead horse by posting this epilogue, but I hope I will be forgiven by my few fans out there.
To my reviewers: you have been my light and inspiration through all of my writing, and I owe you more than you can know. I have many more projects in the works, to be posted in the coming months. Check my profile, or my author's livejournal, at livejournal dot com slash users slash ariamarier.
And yes, I realize I've rephrased a few of the flashbacks.
A month later, Seto had to work late. Afternoon had slid thoroughly into the cool of a late-summer evening that he walked rapidly through, appreciating the fresh cool air against his tired face, but by the time he walked through the entrance to the park, stars were already winking into the clear night sky. He walked a little faster, his footsteps sounding lonely in the empty park. Purple-dark shadows stretched their long fingers over the cooling blacktop, pooling into thick blacks and blues as the moon rose to the east and spilled a silvery half-light over the walk, so familiar in day, now strange and dangerous in the beginning night.
Fall was definitely creeping in now. Seto could feel the slight shill of it on the back of his neck, where air whispered between his skin and the collar of his shirt. The air was getting slightly cooler, slightly moister. Soon the trees in the park would start to change colors; already the leaves were losing their glass-like translucency. The shade was thicker, deeper in the afternoon sun than it had been; the evenings came a little bit earlier, the mornings a bit later.
But the park was the same. The ice cream was the same, it was the same girl serving it, and it still tasted delicious when he tasted it in Joey's mouth.
He halted under the cover of trees, standing at the edge of moon-induced shadow and a flood of slivery green grass, shaggy and glowing softly in the weak moonlight. Nearby a lamp splashed a pool of thick yellow light onto the grass, but only a few paces away night had settled deeply in.
White teeth glittered for a moment in the dark, and then Seto stepped over the edge and moved deeper into the shadows.
He heard Joey before he saw him; heard the rustling and easy breathing from a corner of the dark field, and narrowed towards it, letting the stress of the day run away from him like water. When he judged he'd gone far enough, he halted, closing his eyes, unwilling to allow his sight to adjust to the dark.
He liked the dark.
Especially when Joey was waiting for him in it.
A moment later, strong hands came out of nowhere and slid around him, flattening against his stomach as a warm solid figure pressed against his back. Seto smiled faintly and leaned back as the arms locked around his waist, feeling Joey's chest expand gently as he breathed, when a low chuckle brushed his ear and the arms disappeared into the cool darkness, along with the warm presence at his back. Seto listened, but couldn't hear past the warm land breezes sweeping through branches thickly filled with leaves. His eyebrow flicked, and the low chuckle sounded again, this time in front of him.
"No cheating. Keep those eyes closed."
He stood, concentrating on the feel of cool, moisture-rich night air against his skin, the dew forming on the grass, listening to the rushing of leaves in the wind and the occasional flutter of thin wings as a bat sped past him in pursuit of his supper.
Minutes passed, and he couldn't hear Joey. Another minute, and it seemed clear that he was alone.
One more minute.
He opened his eyes, blind in the dark, and never saw Joey as he came rushing out of nowhere, hitting just at Seto's waist and throwing long arms around him as they both thudded down onto the wet grass, and now Seto could feel Joey warm against him, his body shaking with helpless laughter as they fought on the ground, rolling over and over until they were both soaked and panting. Seto pushed Joey off him, and he rolled to a stop a foot away, giggling helplessly.
"That's right, mutt. You're a real riot." He moved over to where Joey was calming slowly down, giving the occasional hiccupping giggle as he lay back in the damp grass to look up at the night sky, hazy with moisture and late summer warmth, and looked up through his lashes so that the stars shone with dancing points. A darker shape loomed above him, and he tilted his head with a grin, allowing Seto to pin him down gently, long fingered pale hands on each of his wrists, pushing them back into the damp ground.
"Just thought you could use a little action after a long day at work." Joey jerked his head up as Seto settled himself over him, missing slightly and kissing his chin instead. "Why'd you want to meet so late today, anyway?"
Seto shrugged. "Something a little different, I guess. Besides, how was I to know you'd actually show up? It's not like I asked you to wait here for me."
That was true. Since the afternoon on the bench a month before, virtually nothing had changed. They still met in the park, still talked and read and did work together, still had their little habit, albeit the frequent breaks for ice cream often had different results than there had been a few weeks before.
And they still never hinted at the likelihood of their meeting tomorrow or the next day—they simply came to the park, day after day, when they could, and pretended not to wait for each other. It was never suggested that they meet at a certain time or place, only understood that they would.
It was also never suggested that there would be any difference in their association outside the park's limits. It was understood that there would not be.
Seto had not, in fact, asked Joey to meet him, at night, in the park. He had merely mentioned to Joey that he would be working late for a few days and that it wasn't likely he'd be able to leave the Kaiba Corp building until sunset or nightfall. In fact, he hadn't seen Joey for the past few days because he'd been working late.
But he had come to the park every night.
Just in case.
"Noooo, that's true," Joey conceded, wriggling beneath Seto's taller frame, "but you knew I'd be here anyway." It was the first time either of them had mentioned their unspoken agreement, and Joey winced slightly, wondering what would come of it. He was getting tired of meeting Seto in the park, tired of not being sure if Seto would be there, or even if he, Joey, wanted to continue with the whole game. The park was like a dream, but now he wanted something real. Something with substance, something to hold on to when he had himself convinced, before he went to sleep at night, that none of it had ever happened.
Although, to be sure, he would have been highly surprised, and probably fairly amused, that something similar was running through Seto's mind during the long hours he spent at work, or typing with his eyes glued to his screen until the small hours of the morning.
Because nothing, really, had changed.
Abruptly, he rolled away from Joey and stood up, feeling his shoulders crack. Beneath him, Joey scrambled to his feet, running long fingers through his hair and wondering if this was where the trail ended.
"What's the matter?"
Seto picked his briefcase up from where it had fallen in the thick grass, and brushed it off. "Too chilly to be outside."
Gripping the handle of the briefcase, he strode off in the direction he had come with Joey staring after him in confusion.
"Well, are you coming, or not?"
Blinking, Joey paused while the insinuation filtered through. Seto was leaving. Seto was inviting him to come with him—to his house. Out of the park.
Out of the park.
Joey jogged to catch up with Seto's swift stride. "I guess so, if you're gonna be that way about it. Didn't wait around here all night for nothing, you know."
Seto snorted, keeping his eyes on the path. "All night? It's only a few minutes past nightfall, Wheeler."
Shoving his hands deep into his pockets to get away from the chilly evening air, Joey only shrugged. It wasn't really worth rising to the occasion, Seto was clearly only speaking the lines, not really playing the part. But he did have to reply. "Don't get on your high horse, moneybags, or maybe I won't come after all."
In the dark, a slim brown eyebrow arched, and a thin smile gleamed momentarily. "Maybe you shouldn't, then."
Joey snorted. "Oh, please. And rid you of the joy of my company?"
A large, almost theatrical sigh came out of the darkness, and Joey grinned. Much as Seto would deny it, Joey had certainly had an influence on him. Seto never used to be this playful. "This is was I get for adopting strays."
In rather the same vein, they reached the house.
Seto stopped to key in the password, feeling smug. He'd been thinking about this all week, wondering if it was really the best thing to do, the right thing to do, or if it was just the mutt's stupidity rubbing off on him, before coming to the satisfactory conclusion that it didn't particularly matter. He wanted it.
And that was good enough for him.
So when he felt Joey's hand land on his shoulder, he only paused, then looked slightly back at him, waiting.
To his surprise, Joey looked—nervous.
His eyes narrowed.
Joey shuffled his feet slightly, then glanced up at him. "Just wondering something, that's all."
Seto turned, crossing his arms. "Wondering what?"
If I should be here. If you should be here with me. If this whole thing should have started in the first place. What we're going to do when we get inside. Why you brought me back. What you think of me. What I am to you.
He settled for the most basic. "If you were going to let me know where things stand with us."
One slim dark eyebrow arched, black in the pale lamplight. "There's an 'us'?"
Joey glared at him. "Don't get smart with me, Seto." He knew he shouldn't have come here. The bastard.
Seto just smiled slightly, and finished unlocking the door. "Why don't you come in and find out?"
The mansion was, of course, huge, but not in quite the same way Joey had often imagined it, with giant empty rooms tastefully, but sparsely, furnished. There were huge empty rooms, yes, but the majority of those seemed to be closed off or totally unused, whereas the kitchen was neat and bright and cheerful, and the living room next to it littered with video game cartridges, books, pillows from the couch, and empty soda cans. Joey looked around, amused.
"Looks almost like home. Messy."
Seto smiled ruefully. "Mokuba. Not as neat as I might wish."
Joey flopped onto the couch, spreading his arms along the back, running his fingers over the rich leather. "That's good, though. Kid his age, it'd be weird if he wasn't messy." He looked over at Seto, still standing, leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed. "Don't you ever just want to dump your things into an unholy mess? Kinda spiritually cleansing, dontcha think?"
"I think you have no idea what you're talking about," Seto told him, but his lips curved into a hint of a smile, and Joey was heartened.
"So you don't like mess of any kind, huh?"
"I like you, don't I?"
Joey smiled warily. "Do you?"
It took only five steps for Seto to cross the rug to the sofa where Joey was sitting, and four more to bring him around the sofa until he was standing behind him, watching the warm yellow light from the table lamp reflect off of glittering golden hair. He reached down and gently patted it.
Joey's hair was so soft.
Joey looked up. "Come sit."
They sat for a long time, in silence, as Seto sifted through his briefcase, marking some papers, disposing of others, and making notes of his laptop, typing slowly with Joey dozing against his shoulder. But something—Joey frowned, thinking.
Something was missing.
A soft grunt.
"Do you have any ice cream?"
This was good, this was familiar, sweet vanilla melting over his tongue, even though the surroundings were different—cool where it had been warm, soft materials taking the place of velvety grass, and Seto—Seto near, Seto sitting next to him, Seto wanting him here, outside the park, into reality—although, Joey had to admit, this was pretty close to a few of his daydreams as well.
They were back in the living room, dark, since Seto had only turned the table lamp closest to his laptop, and he was licking vanilla ice cream off his spoon while Seto finished up work, typing quickly to finish, wondering what he was going to do once he did.
"Too much ice cream is bad for you," he said.
Joey shrugged. "Guess I'll have to settle for being unhealthy," he said, and licked his spoon with relish. "Besides, you've eaten almost as much as I have."
Blue eyes flicked towards him. "I have not."
Joey grinned, but said nothing, and Seto, apparently satisfied, turned back to his computer.
"So why'd you have ice cream in the fridge? If you don't eat it, that is."
The typing paused.
"It's for Mokuba."
Joey arched an eyebrow. "Funny, I would have thought that would have been the double-chocolate with caramel, not the plain vanilla."
The typing stopped.
The laptop shut.
Joey looked at him warily. Something was about to happen, he knew that much, and he knew it was probably something good, but he also knew Seto, and so he decided to err on the side of caution. "Finished work?"
Blue eyes slanted up at him, thin lips smiled. "You want to know why I have vanilla ice cream in my fridge?"
Joey blustered. "Well, it's not really a pressing concern, but, you know, I, um...yeah." He grinned sheepishly. "I do."
That thin grin grew, predatory and delighted, and Joey was definitely feeling more than a little nervous now. "Um, Seto...?"
"It was so when you came over, I could do this."
He took the bowl and spoon from Joey's hands and cut out a smooth curl of ice cream, held it up to Joey's mouth, and he opened his mouth silently and tasted smooth vanilla and cool metal, and Seto put down the bowl, and put down the spoon, and leaned over to taste vanilla on Joey's lips, in Joey's mouth, and Joey kissed him back with his hand sliding over cool skin and up into silky brown hair. Seto reached up to unbutton his shirt, smiling slightly as Joey loosened his tie, felt smooth cool material slip over his shoulders and along the skin of his back, brought his hand back to Joey's waist, grabbed the edge of his shirt.
Joey's lips moved. Seto pulled back, leaning his forehead against shining soft bangs, looking into serious dark brown eyes, and felt a chill. After all, summer was over now.
Fall was coming, and the long-fingered hand spread against his pale chest was trembling like a leaf about to fall.
Slim brown eyebrows frowned slightly. Perhaps they weren't meant to be real, after all.
Joey looked up at him for a long moment, watching sea-clear eyes—
He was hungry
Pale fingers paused, blue eyes flicked in his direction, and then the typing continued. "You know you're not allowed out without your license, Wheeler. Aren't you afraid you'll be sent to the pound?" He smirked, but then a drip of melted vanilla that had been flowing unnoticed over Joey's fingers fell onto his exposed wrist, and he looked at it, surprised.
"Oh," Joey said, looking down. "Um, sorry."
"How astute of you," Kaiba said, amused. The scent of vanilla rose in the warm air.
"Is it any good?" he asked, curious, remembering the small taste he'd had a few weeks ago. Joey shrugged.
"I like it," he said, and then offered the cone up. "Want a taste?"
Kaiba hesitated, surprised by the artless familiarity of the action, but the scent of vanilla was rising sweetly through the air, so taking the cone, he licked off a small mouthful of cold, sweet, slightly melted ice cream and handed it back to Joey.
"Thanks," he said, and licked a trace of vanilla off his lips.
Joey watched him for a moment, and then turned back, flipping to the next page, and wondering briefly at the bizarre factors that had lead them to this; sitting in the warm late afternoon sun, only a few feet apart and not wanting to kill each other.
And then he shrugged it off and became immersed in the book, sparing only a few extra seconds to register a craving for vanilla ice cream.
There was enough of a certain well-known dreaminess in his voice that Joey had to look up, and he saw Kaiba's white throat pale in the warm summer light, saw a loose light shirt and the way it creased against Kaiba's lean chest and stomach, how the delicate fingers threaded through silky green grass. He saw fine dark lashes flutter slightly against pale cheeks, and one thin brown eyebrow twitched in response to a sudden and temporary shift of light and shadow over Kaiba's face.
He tasted vanilla; warm vanilla as it slipped down the cone to land on Kaiba's white hand, tasted it slowly as he looked at Kaiba.
"It's like vanilla," he said.
Like vanilla. You didn't want it, but took it anyway, because you wanted ice cream. Like you didn't want to talk to Kaiba---
"Seto," he insisted, quietly.
And now you crave it. All those times, sitting talking with him, you wanted vanilla. And every time you had vanilla, you wanted to see him, too.
"Thanks for bringing me my book," he said, quietly, and, hesitating, looked up to see Kaiba's response, but the blue eyes were closed and the lean chest rose steadily and smoothly in even breaths.
Joey just looked at him, studying the paleness of his skin, the smooth material of his shirt, the way brown silky hair weaved into soft green grass. Leaning forward, he traced a strand of brown, feeling the smoothness against his callused fingertips.
His eyes closed against the bright sunlight, Kaiba smelled vanilla, and almost smiled.
Joey stared at the ruined cone, at his handful of vanilla, and shook his head, walking to a bush and dumping the mess into thick green leaves. He shook his hands out, watching droplets of ice cream fly off his fingertips, and wanted to laugh, or yell, or maybe just sink into the warm black pavement and avoid ice cream, fragile cones, and Kaiba for the rest of known existence.
So he almost missed seeing Seto look at the vanilla on his hand, and, had he missed it, he would have missed too the sudden wary pause in the blue eyes, usually hidden behind dark glasses or washed with sun these days. He recognized it. How could he not? He'd been watching that face for months.
The smell of vanilla was everywhere.
"Do I gotta spell it out for you?" he asked, stepping forward. "You're egotistic, and a know-it-all, and a rich arrogant bastard and smart and actually nice when you want to be and so fucking beautiful that I can't take my eyes off you, as I'm sure you've noticed. And now I guess we're just going to go back to hating each other, since the other option clearly isn't going to happen, and I'm sure as hell not gonna stick around now that you know all this, you rich bastard. So stop toying with me."
He took a breath, and steadied from the rush. He could feel his nails digging into his palms, his hands forced into fists, his whole body was trembling with anger and nerves and maybe just a little bit of anticipation.
So he waited.
And watched as Seto turned and walked off, one hand in his pocket, the other wrapped around the silver handle of his briefcase.
The scent of vanilla swirled in his wake.
"I guess I do know that," he said, "about it not being my fault, or my move, or whatever. But, you know, I still wonder."
"Why he's never looked at you and said to himself, 'Maybe that Wheeler kid's not so bad?'"
Joey pounded a fist into the pillow. "Yeah."
He shifted to glance at Seto.
"If you wanted some ice cream," he told him, "you could have just asked."
Blue eyes looked up from blue screen, and moved from the melting cone of vanilla to Joey's roguish grin, and he reached out to take the cone. The scent of vanilla rose steadily through the warm air as he licked at it and took a large bit, so that when Joey leaned over and kissed him, he tasted vanilla—cool vanilla melting slowly in his mouth and in Joey's, sitting together in the park with the afternoon cooling into blue-green night.
—he didn't want to have to ask.
He had to ask.
"I want to know," he said, and was surprised by the way his voice came out in the silent room; rough, interrupting.
He tasted vanilla on his own breath.
Seto just looked at him, blue eyes unreadable in the lamplight, and Joey felt the rush of anger again, wondering if he was being toyed with after all, if none of it was real.
Maybe none of it was supposed to be real.
What we are. If there's a "we."
If there's an "us."
Tell me there's an "us."
"You didn't answer my question from before."
A pause, while he caught his breath and tried to slow his racing heart. "You said you'd tell me inside."
Brown eyes blinked, suddenly gold in a new shower of light as Seto pulled away, feeling cold spread over skin as warm bodies separated.
Seto looked at him. "I can't...tell you."
Like the park.
But was that really real?
"You can't tell me? If 'we' exist?" If there's more to us than a dream on a summer day?
"No. I said you'd find out."
The couch shifted, Seto shifted and moved and started to stand, only to be brought back down, hard, by a warm brown hand wrapped around his wrist, by warm brown eyes that smiled at him.
"Then let me find out."
And then—thudding of heartbeats, quickening of breath, heated fingertips dragging over smooth skin, sweet, sweet vanilla.
And when Seto pulled Joey's shirt over his head, he leaned back against the armrest and watched while Seto traced a word onto his tanned stomach, white vanilla over golden skin, and watched as Seto licked it slowly off again, and smiled.
Because Seto had written this:
Joey smiled, slowly.
And he turned the light out