"Neither Silver Nor Gold–A Gorgeous Carat Christmas"
Florian slammed the door to his room and tried to slide the deadbolt into place. Not that it was any use against a man like Count Ray Balzac Courland. There wasn't a lock made that could keep out Noir, the famous...and infamous...cat burglar and jewel thief. Indeed, no sooner had the emotionally drained blond collapsed upon his bed than he heard the doorknob turn.
"In polite company, a closed door, not to mention a locked one, is accepted as an indication that a person wishes to be left alone, " he pointed out in a dry tone, without deigning to turn around to face the intruder. "At the very least, in polite company," he continued, "a person who wishes to enter another person's private quarters would at the very least knock and wait for permission to enter."
"What a pity that you do not find yourself living among polite company, then, isn't?" The cool jeering voice of Noir was low and controlled, but the man was at his most dangerous when he was controlled, Florian had learned long ago. The low purring voice continued, chilling the blond man. "Shall I remind you what is accepted behavior between master and possession, so that you do not confuse the two again, and think to instruct me, the master, on what my behavior should be? I do not care..."
A loud crack of the whip emphasized the word and against his will, Florian jumped and rolled to the far edge of the bed, finally lifting his face to look at Noir. He did not think that the whip would be brought into this, this...whatever this was, when it only ever appeared now by mutual agreement and for mutual pleasure. His shock and sense of betrayal was apparent on his face and if it gave Noir pause the younger man was too angry to let it show. At least not then.
"I am not to be ignored nor am I to have doors slammed in my face by you, do you understand?"
"I...no." Florian lifted his chin. His shaking hands were hidden beneath the pillow he held clasped to his lap. His face reflecting the shock he still felt, he looked into Noir's eyes, his own amethyst colored eyes glittering with the tears that he wouldn't let fall. How had their fight over celebrating the holiday, both if and how to celebrate it, gotten them to this place?
"What do you mean, no? You can't tell me no." Ray felt bewildered, although unlike Florian, his face showed no sign of his true state of mind. He looked just as harsh and cold as the first time he'd brought Florian back to his mansion after purchasing him from his mother to settle the de Rochefort debts. The innocent young Duke, sold by his own family to the notorious moneylender Count Courland. They'd come so far since then, saved each other's lives, well, Ray saved Florian's, but Florian tried to save Ray, and in doing so, ended up getting saved by Ray again, defeating fate and evil time after time. In the process, they'd fallen in love. Despite all that, here they were, seemingly back where they started. Worlds apart. At times like this, Ray doubted that the pampered aristocrat would ever understand him, a former street rat, and he wondered if he would be better off letting Florian go back to his own kind of people. He was sure Florian felt the same way, especially when that snobbish ducal chin was lifted at him in that regal way. If only he weren't bewitched by those amethyst eyes. Eyes which, at the moment, were sparkling with anger.
Florian spoke, his cultured voice measured and polite despite his anger and fear at seeing the whip.
"I think that the word no is one even a man of your limited formal education can understand, since we both know you have a remarkable intelligence and are very bright."
Ray didn't know whether to be insulted at the slur to his education or flattered by the compliment to his intelligence. He mentally shrugged; neither, he supposed, since Florian was merely stating facts. If he weren't so annoyed still he would admire the way his lover had picked up Ray's style of verbal sparring and adapted it to his own mode of speech. He lifted his eyebrow in warning, and Florian hurried on with his speech.
"But I assume you mean to ask what I mean by daring to answer no. I think that is just as obvious. I wish to celebrate Christmas in the traditional manner. With decorations in the house and gifts for the staff and a party. Maybe even alms for the poor and attending services at the Church. Is that too much to ask?"
"What do you mean, yes?"
"I would think that a man with your elevated noble status would have had sufficient formal education to understand the affirmative response, yes. It is the opposite of the word no, and means..." Ray smirked at the chance he had to turn Florian's words back at him but stopped when the other man sprang from the bed and stalked toward the doorway.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm leaving. You know, if you wanted me to leave, all you ever had to do was tell me."
"You are crazy, you know that?" Gone was the calm, purring voice. Ray was shouting now. "I asked you what you wanted for Christmas, damn it! I would have bought you anything you asked for, but no, you had to make things difficult. No one wanted you to leave. Instead of simply asking for a present, you started this fight!"
Florian turned back towards Ray, incredulous. "I started this fight? You're the crazy one! I wanted to give you a wonderful Christmas! The kind you never had! The kind of Christmas that is special, not something you buy. You can't buy everything, Ray."
"I bought you, didn't I?"
The words, which Ray knew he shouldn't have said as soon as he said them, hung in the air. He wished for some way to take them back without losing face but he was never one for doing apologizing; it always took Florian to resolve this type of stupid fight between them. From the hurt look on his lover's face, Ray knew Florian wasn't going to be making the effort any time soon. Yet he didn't know how to tell Florian why he couldn't give him what he asked for, why the type of Christmas Florian wanted was too painful for him. They looked at each other, both lost in his own pain, until Florian turned away.
"Maybe you shouldn't buy anything without a money back guarantee...most unlike you to be foolish with your money Ray. It's clear that you and I don't fit. You'd be better off without me."
"Say what you mean. You'd be better off without me," Ray whispered to the closing door.
Florian wandered through the streets of Paris. How had the fight with Ray gotten so ugly so quickly? They both had hot tempers, but normally one of them would find something amusing about the situation and defuse the other one. Or even better, the anger would turn to passion. Ray was a couple years younger, but it was he who introduced Florian to all of the pleasures of the flesh. A smile curved the sculptured lips as he thought back to Ray's gentleness as he waited for Florian to recover from his fears after the abuse suffered at the hands of Azura, Ray's former mentor. Thinking of Azura made Florian think of the hard life Ray had known for so long. It was one of the reasons he had wanted to show Ray what a real old fashioned Christmas could be like. Of course, he'd needed money to do it like his mother and father had done it, which is why he'd made it part of his wish for his own present, but he would have done all the planning...
Florian knit his brow. Perhaps a Christmas like his parents had spent theirs wasn't quite the right way to show Ray the true spirit of the season after all? Now that he thought about it, his parents spent a good deal of money, but very little true Christmas spirit went into their preparations. They gave their servants small gifts of silver coins, a traditional gift, but spent untold amounts of gold trying to impress their society friends with food and drink at parties. The parties of course created a great deal of work for the servants, and no doubt kept them from their own hearths through the holiday.
As he walked, Florian came upon a group of small beggar children huddled near a trash can fire for warmth. Troubled by the pinched look of their faces, especially one small dark haired boy with green eyes, he searched his pockets for loose change. It wouldn't be much, but it would chase away the cold for a night if he could find enough to buy them some coal, he reasoned. Feeling a bump against his side, he reached out automatically and grabbed a small arm. Looking down, he saw the small green-eyed boy look up at him apologetically.
"I'm sorry sir, I stumbled. It is so cold, I can't feel my feet. I didn't mean to bump a fine gentleman like yourself. Please don't call the police on me!" The green eyes looked at him pleadingly, the small body tugging against his firm grip. Florian smiled ruefully.
"I would be happy to give you a bit of change, you and your companions, imp, but give me back my wallet and watch please. You need a bit more practice before you're quite up to Noir's league."
The green eyes widened with awe. "Do you know Noir?"
Trust Noir to be a hero to the street urchins, Florian thought. "Hmm, let us say I've run into the fellow. He would want you lads to stay safe and warm. The shelter over by..."
"The shelter isn't safe for the likes of us," one of the boys said, coming to stand over the green-eyed boy protectively. He looked at Florian suspiciously. Florian was struck with a strong sense of deja vu, yet for a time and place he'd never lived through. He nodded to the older street boy solemnly and gave him some bills.
"Take good care of them."
The older boy nodded then the children all vanished, chattering happily over their windfall. Florian realized that his little bit of money had probably done more good than the "alms" he'd wanted to donate as ostentatiously as his parents ever did to the Church's poor box. This direct gift, placed directly into the hands of the street children of Paris, would help them survive another few days and perhaps even give them an easier Christmas. Not silver or gold, but maybe food in their stomachs and some warmth for a night or two.
He continued walking until his attention was caught by the sounds made by a party of men leaving a club. One of the men was darkly good-looking, and clearly wealthy, the center of all the attention. Several expensively but scandalously clad women and nattily dressed men encircled him as he descended the steps of the club. The man himself had a slim cigar in one hand and a drink in his other as he stood, waiting for his car to be brought around. His entourage vied for his attention but he looked bored as he waited, his restless gaze darting around his surroundings. When his gaze met Florian's, it held for a moment, and Florian was startled to see how much the man resembled Ray...but a Ray whose lean body was bloated and whose keen eyes were deadened by boredom and decadence. After holding each other's gaze for a moment, the wealthy man and Florian looked away from each other, neither one seeing anything they wanted in the other. That man had no use for innocence and Florian couldn't bear to see what the empty pursuit of wealth and pleasure did to a man.
Florian turned around and headed home.
Meanwhile, Ray tired of waiting and had decided to take a walk and see if he could discover where Florian had gone. In truth, he worried about the other man when he disappeared like this at night. For all that Florian had lived in Paris all his life, Ray considered him to be a child when it came to being able to take care of himself in the large city. There was a seamy side to every city, even one as beautiful as Paris, and Noir considered himself at home in that side of any city, the side that he tried to protect Florian from ever discovering.
It was dark haired Noir, dressed in his customary dark colors, who walked quickly through the cold, gas lighted streets, his cane held lightly in his hand, and his top hat tipped rakishly to one side. He made a debonair appearance as he passed by the small pack of children huddled by the fire, now eating the meat pies that had been purchased from one of the venders. The street merchant had been happy to sell them cheap since it was the end of the evening and the theater crowd had left. Thinking of Florian and his wish to give to the poor made Ray frown. So many times, he and Azura had been tricked by seemingly charitable people, and had learned to their detriment that do-gooders were often people who wanted free labor, or worse, were in the market for pretty boys. Even the Church couldn't be trusted. Only Azura could be trusted back then.
With a practiced flip of his cane, Ray sent a gold piece flying over to the largest boy, then another to a smaller boy. Both caught them with ease and pocketed the pieces before looking over expectantly for more. He laughed to himself. Counting the number of children quickly, he sent over silver pieces for each child, including the first two boys. He stepped into the shadows and watched how the two biggest boys doled them out evenly. He smiled when he saw the biggest boy give the last silver piece to the smaller boy. Azura would have done something like that...once upon a time. He made a mental note to stop by the area again and keep an eye on these children. Perhaps Laila could drop by with some cast off clothes. As long as she didn't try to feed them, he thought.
He swung forward, cheered by the sight of the children, knowing that he should probably be depressed by the thought that there were children living on the street at Christmas time. Florian no doubt would want to take them all home. Ray shuddered at the thought. But, he knew that he had survived the streets and he suspected that those boys would too. He could probably make it easier for them. He resolved to try. Maybe that was all that Florian would expect of him? To try? He knew how hard it could be, and he knew that for everyone like himself who did make it, there were those like Azura who were changed for the worse, forever. If he could stop that from happening to those two boys he saw tonight, the bitterness that comes not from lack of silver or gold, but from the lack of someone caring, then he could be that someone, couldn't he?
As Ray pondered that thought, he came to the club where Florian had reached his turn around point. He too looked up, and in the doorway, he saw a blond nobleman coming down the steps, accompanied by his companion, a swarthy male. The blond man, wearing all the trappings of his title, was being harangued by his clearly low born, but wealthy lover, who was berating him for some perceived slight. Ray paused in dismay as the swarthy man, not content to limit his abuse to the verbal, started shaking the blond violently, punctuating his points with slaps to the smaller man's face.
Ray started forward, about to intervene when the manager of the club scurried down the steps and interrupted the assault.
"Mr. Connault, please, desist. I will have to summon the police again. Please take Lord Monroe home...I cannot have this on our premises."
"Certainly...I will take his Lordship away and continue our discussion in private. Apologize to the good gentleman for disturbing his fine establishment, Henry," the nasty man urged his companion, who swayed on his feet, but spoke the required words in a soft voice.
Ray felt sick. The blond man looked over at Ray before he was ushered into a waiting vehicle and his defeated looking eyes were the same deep shade of purple that Florian's were.
It was a trick of the light, Ray told himself. It wasn't like this is what Florian's life would have been like had Ray not been part of it, had his mother chosen someone else to whom to sell him, a little voice said. That same voice reminded him of the wealthy Englishman that some rumored she was considering, so his shame would be far removed from her and Ray found it harder to silence.
Disturbed by the thought, and even more disturbed by what he had seen, Ray decided to hurry home. No amount of silver or gold could ever purchase what was truly important in what Florian had brought to his life...the part of himself that Florian had given freely. If the man wanted a ten foot tall Christmas tree and ornaments over ever inch of it, he would have it, Ray decided.
He found himself running all the way back to his home, praying that he would find Florian there when he arrived.
Florian looked up from where he sat cross-legged on Ray's bed as the man burst into the room, out of breath and disheveled.
"You're back!" They said in unison. Although Ray was admittedly much more out of breath to start, Florian found that staring at Ray's heaving chest and windblown hair was doing funny things to his own ability to breathe. The man was literally breathtaking.
"I've reconsidered and you can have the kind of Christmas you want. Just don't ever leave me," Ray requested. Well, he ordered it really, but he meant it to be a request.
Florian smiled radiantly. "But I've reconsidered, and I think that the best kind of Christmas would be for us to spend it quietly together. Maybe in the afternoon we can walk around the city together and let our pockets get picked by some junior pickpockets...if you don't mind the professional competition."
Ray raised an eyebrow. "Are we done fighting and do I need to understand the pickpocket thing before making love to you?"
Florian laughed and pulled Ray on top of him. "Yes and no. Promise me that you will never leave me, not for me, but for you. I can't bear the life you would have without me."
For once, Ray didn't need to ask any more. He'd seen the life his Florian would have without him, and he wouldn't wish that on his love either. They both had what they wanted this Christmas, and it wasn't to be found in silver or gold.