THE INVITATION

- Chapter I -


"This," said D, "is a spectacularly bad idea."

"But it's perfect!" Leon sounded desperate. "Look, it's just one or two bugs, okay? And maybe a wiretap. I'll get the Chief to clear 'em for me. He will, 'cause he wants Ruiz in the slammer as much as I do. If we can nail this guy - "

"I have no interest in, ah, 'nailing' Miguel Ruiz. Or in planting devices on him. He's a loyal customer, and he treats his animals well."

A few months ago, Leon would have accused D of caring more for animals than he did for human beings, but it seemed that even Leon knew an ineffectual argument when he saw one. What would he try next? Threats or bribery?

"Think about it. If you help us now, we'll be willing to - to reduce your sentence when we arrest you. And we will arrest you."

Threats, apparently. "What for, Detective? You know that I run a respectable establishment."

"Respectable, my ass. You're selling people, D. I have witnesses. Former pet owners who swear that their little kittens turned out to be girls in cat suits."

D raised his eyebrows. "My, my. What vivid imaginations you Americans have. Are you quite sure that they weren't cats in girl suits?" He leaned forward to pour himself more tea, because it was evident from Leon's glare at the kettle that he didn't want any.

"Listen, D. It's no use hiding the truth. Why else would Ruiz send you an invitation?" Leon waved the embossed envelope in D's face. "To his fiftieth birthday bash, no less. Only Hollywood stars and business tycoons are attending - but then there's you. The owner of a pet shop."

"Being invited to a party is hardly a sign of guilt, Detective."

"It is when the guy who invites you is allegedly involved in human trafficking."

"Allegedly. You're fond of that word, aren't you?"

Leon growled. D quickly raised his cup to his lips, to hide the smile he could never contain in the face of Leon's righteous indignation. And oh, that growl - it was almost as lovely as Tet-chan's. More tame than feral, perhaps, but with those broad shoulders and those large hands, D could almost...

"Why did Ruiz invite you, then? Old friend of your Granddad's?"

"Mine, I'm happy to say. He was kind enough to support this shop when it first opened."

"Support how, exactly? By supplying slaves for you to sell?"

D sighed. "Again, Detective? As charming as I find your game of cops and robbers, I'm afraid I've grown tired of the chase." Now that was a blatant lie, but what Leon didn't know couldn't hurt him. D had always enjoyed being pursued, although none of his suitors had ever been quite so dense.

Not that Detective Orcot would admit to being a suitor, of course. Nightly visits and gifts of chocolate notwithstanding. It was far safer to play the pious policeman, out to catch the suspicious Count.

"Tired or not, I will catch you. There's something fishy about you and Ruiz."

"Well, I did sell him some tropical fish, once..."

Another growl. This time, D couldn't resist a chuckle - not even when Leon ran his fingers through his hair and let loose a string of quiet, rather original curses.

"Biscuits?" D set down his cup and offered Leon a plate.

Leon looked at them with loathing. "They're cookies. And no, I don't want any. I swear to God, D, if you keep feeding me sweets, you'd better be ready to pay my dentist's fee."

"My friend is a dentist. She'd be delighted to assist you free of charge, were I to request it."

Leon went pale. "You mean... That dominatrix girlfriend of yours?"

"She isn't my girlfriend, Detective."

"Really?" Leon cleared his throat. "Could've fooled me."

"I had no intention of doing so." Another lie. It had been very pleasant to see Leon's jealous blush. A not-so-distant cousin to the blush Leon was sporting right now...

"Anyway. You're going, right?" Leon slapped the invitation back onto the table, his voice gruff. "You'll be a great help."

"Just a few moments ago, you were accusing me of all sorts of unpalatable crimes. I'm not very disposed to granting your request, I'm afraid."

Leon threw up his hands. "Whaddaya want me to do? Jesus. I've offered you a reduced sentence. I've told you what a nasty piece of work Ruiz is, and how much we need to get him off the streets. I've..." Leon trailed off, his eyes widening. Ah, an epiphany. It was always amusing to watch Leon have one of those.

"Yes, Detective?"

"Godiva," Leon breathed, as if he'd struck the jackpot. And - well - he had. D couldn't suppress the joyous quiver that ran through him at the word, and it was annoying to think that Leon had learned to read him so soon.

Annoying. Yes. Not gratifying, not in the least.

"How about that? Whatever you want from the catalogue. Price no object."

Oh, dear. Being bribed with chocolate... There was only one other treat Leon could bribe him with, and it was tightly wrapped in that horrid T-shirt Leon was wearing.

As sweet and toothsome as those pectorals must be, Leon could at least do them the honor of packaging them appropriately. In a tuxedo, perhaps...

"Count?"

"Hm?"

"Your eyes are glazing over."

"Are they?" D dragged his gaze back to Leon's face. It wouldn't do to ogle too obviously, not at this stage in the game. Cops and robbers, indeed. But what would the cop do if the robber stole him? "My apologies."

"Ha. You're doing it, then?"

"I am," D replied smoothly, although he'd been planning to go to Miguel's party from the start. Playing hard to get wasn't something D had ever bothered to do before, but it was proving to be quite an entertainment. "Under one condition."

"Godiva, right? You got it."

"Not just Godiva." D picked his cup up again, curving his lips along the rim. "You."

Silence fell between them. How long would it take Leon to panic, this time? D began counting the seconds.

One. Two. Three.

"I... W-what?" Four seconds. Two less than the last time; that must mean progress. "What - what does that - I mean, uh - "

"What on earth are you imagining, Detective?" D blinked guilelessly. "I was merely asking that you accompany me to the party."

Leon's jaw clenched. Unclenched. D had the alarming - and rather thrilling - premonition that Leon Orcot was going to leap across the coffee table and assault him. Violently.

Instead, Leon only pounced on a biscuit and munched it vengefully.

"I thought you didn't want any," said D, in a tone of complete innocence.

"I don't." Leon's eyes were narrow with fury, and his cheeks were flushed.

This was uncomfortable. D would never have sunk so low if Leon hadn't forced him to. He knew Leon well enough, by now; if D didn't needle the detective at regular intervals, with teasing comments or cryptic flirtations, Leon would grow complacent with their 'friendship'. Damned thing that it was.

"You should accompany me," D continued, softly, "to protect me."

"Why?" Leon grabbed another biscuit. "Don't you think it'll be more dangerous to have a cop with you?"

"It is unlikely that you'll be recognized by any of the guests - unless you know many Hollywood stars and business tycoons."

Leon scowled at having his own words thrown back at him. "Point taken. And Ruiz has never seen me before, nor have any of his staff members."

"Of course, Miguel would be very offended if his dear friend D brought along a bodyguard."

"As good as saying you don't trust him, yeah. So what am I..." Another epiphanic pause. "No. No way. No way, D."

"Read it for yourself, Detective." D slid the invitation back towards him. "I'm allowed to bring a companion."

"A date."

"Yes, if you like."

"If I - " Leon sputtered. "This isn't about what I like!"

"Ah, but I think it is."

Leon stared at him. D had a strange flashback to the first time he'd won a game of chess against his grandfather, and how he'd had to suppress the urge to clap his hands and crow, Checkmate!

It would be even more ridiculous to clap his hands now.

"You..." Leon looked at the invitation, then back at D, then at the invitation again. "Why do I feel like I've been played?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"Sure you don't," Leon huffed sourly, and sat back with his hands behind his head. The angry flush was less angry, now, but it was still very much present. Perhaps it was one of pleasure, instead? Could D hope for that? "You're really something, you know. Not that I know what that something is."

D made a noncommittal noise. "Whatever I am, I'm in need of an escort. I'm hardly going to plant transmitters on Miguel Ruiz without protection."

"Protection." Leon's mouth tightened, ostensibly thinking about the harm that Ruiz might do to D. "I'll watch your back, don't worry. Just shake his hand and get the bug on him. He'll never figure out who planted it, not with all the people he'll be meeting that day."

"Speaking of meetings, I refuse to introduce my lover to Miguel in anything less than the finest tuxedo." This was the crux of the matter, and the whole reason D had 'accidentally' shown Leon the invitation in the first place.

"What?" Leon blinked. "I'm sure I can rent a tux..." And then he seemed to realize what else D had said. "L-lover? What - who - " He held up a hand between himself and D, as if to ward off an evil spirit. Not very far from the truth. "There is no loving going on here, D. No nothing, no - nothing. Absolutely nothing. I'm going as your date, because I'm a cop and I'm asking you to help me and it'd look really bad if you got shot doing something for me, but I - "

"Detective. You're rambling."

Leon's mouth snapped shut. His ears were so red that it was a wonder they hadn't combusted. Finally, he gritted out: "It. Is just. A date. You don't have to introduce me as - as anything."

"Why not?" Oh, this was fun. D hoped his eyes weren't gleaming. "Knowing my hobbies, it is unlikely that Miguel or anyone else will believe that I am bringing a friend."

"Your hobbies?" Leon's voice cracked. "Like tea-drinking? Pet-rearing? Bonsai-trimming?"

"Among others," D agreed. "Not all my hobbies are so conservative. I am a young man, after all."

"Even though you talk like my Granny and collect tea cosies and dresses?"

D simply sipped his tea, watching Leon with hooded eyes.

"Right. I guess... those things aren't very conservative. For a young man."

"I suppose not."

"Uh. Then - who's your - current hobby?"

It was tempting to torment Leon with more tea-sipping, but D had tormented the poor man enough. "I don't have one."

"Right," said Leon. There was a peculiar non-expression on his face, very rare for its blandness, but D supposed that Leon couldn't decide whether to feel relieved or disappointed. "Right, yeah. Because if there was someone, you'd be asking her. Him. Whoever. To the party."

"I would, wouldn't I?" D set his teacup down and stood, heading for the escritoire. He opened its lid and extracted a business card. "As it is, I require a bodyguard, and a well-disguised one at that." He returned to the sofa, holding out the card until Leon took it.

"What's this?" Gilt lettering on the card read Arthur Cambrook: Atelier, followed by a downtown address. "Who...?"

"Your fairy godfather. He'll dress you up for the ball."

"My - " Leon looked disturbed, and reached for another biscuit as if to distract himself. "You know this guy? I've never seen you in a suit."

D smiled - the very particular variety of smile that lulled people into compliance. "I know him very well. A most dignified, if rather elderly man."

"Elderly, huh?" Biscuits were, evidently, as calming for Leon as chew-toys were for Tetsu.

"He was one of my grandfather's hobbies, you see."

Leon choked on his biscuit.

"Tea?" D proffered, already pouring out another cup. It wouldn't do to have Leon asphyxiate to death, not before D saw him in a tuxedo.

Leon grabbed the half-full cup, wheezing, and drained it in one gulp.

Such a powerful throat it was. Very sinewy. Very... chewable. D could appreciate T-chan's point of view. It was a good thing Q-chan was tonight's babysitter for those newborn puppies in room 3, or T-chan would've made a meal of them by now.

"You gotta warn a guy," gasped Leon, and D found himself unfurling a much more genuine smile.

Perhaps he hadn't tormented Leon enough, after all.


The night of the party had finally arrived - not that D had been waiting for it, or anything of the sort. If he had spent several hours getting ready, it was only because his grandfather had always taught him to bring honor to his family at any social gathering.

The cheongsam D had chosen wasn't exactly honorable, however, given that it was a product of modern couture, and that it was cut open all the way from D's right thigh to his left foot. This curve was strategically placed to alternately hide and reveal the wearer's legs with every step - not a tease so much as a natural flaring of fabric. Or so D hoped.

Ah, yes. The fabric. It felt positively delicious - sheer and silken and warm all at once, like a second skin or a breath of air. All of D's cheongsams were form-fitting, but this one clung to him in the most interesting ways. The cloth dipped between his thighs with an intimacy that should have been embarrassing, but was strangely liberating, instead. It would be obvious to anyone who looked that this cheongsam was the only thing D was wearing, tonight.

The young American designer who had sold him the cheongsam had called it 'sex incarnate,' but surely that was an exaggeration. The colors were far too simple for that. The base was pale silk, a white so pure that it glittered - but that purity was punctuated, in ecstatic bursts of color, by blood-red peonies as large as Leon's palms. There was one blooming open on D's left shoulder, and another on his right hip - almost like markers, or crosses on a map. Leon might be remarkably obtuse, but even he could follow directions.

It was ten minutes before eight, and Q-chan was hovering near the door in an angry flurry of wings. He knew that Leon was coming, and he wasn't too pleased about it; he'd had an even stranger reaction when D had mentioned that Leon was being outfitted by Arthur, but D couldn't make any sense of that. T-chan and Pon-chan were sulking, too - Pon-chan because she wanted to go to the party, and T-chan because he'd been denied his feast of puppies.

"I'm coming in," Leon announced just after ringing the bell. "Keep that bat-thing away from my - hey!" He stepped in with one arm curled protectively over his head, which turned out to be a wise decision, because Q-chan immediately launched himself at it. "Ow! Not the hair! I just got that Cambrook dude to - ow!"

"Now, now, Q-chan. Let the good detective be." D plucked Q-chan from the air, letting him go only when he calmed down. "We wouldn't want to assault a police officer, now, would we?"

"Yeah, right. Your pets have assaulted me plenty of times alrea..." Leon looked at D, and fell suddenly silent.

D arched an eyebrow at him. "Yes?"

"Uh..." Leon closed the door behind him, but his eyes never strayed from D. "That's... I mean, you're..."

This was flattering. Another man might have spouted poetry, but from Leon, the startled heat in his eyes was enough. Far more eloquent than anything those other fools had managed.

"I hope my attire is suitable. I picked it out in a hurry..." T-chan snickered, and D resisted the urge to kick him.

"It's amazing. I mean - it - isn't a dress."

"You've always called my cheongsams dresses, Detective."

"But this one's... different. It kind of makes it obvious. That you're."

"That I'm...?" It was delightful, the way Leon ducked his head.

"A guy." Leon coughed. "Um. Anyway..."

D decided to take pity on him, and to steer the conversation to safer waters. "Was Arthur helpful?"

"Er, yeah." Leon slid off the overcoat he'd been wearing, revealing the tuxedo below. "Dunno if he did any good, though..."

Any good? Arthur was a genius, and it showed. Not that Leon didn't usually look edible, but the way this tuxedo fitted him was downright - dangerous. It brought out the nobility in Leon's fierce features, and the quiet strength in his arms. Leon had always been something of an elemental creature, driven more by instinct than human frippery. That was why D had been drawn to him, after all. He had feared that formal attire would dull the detective's edge, but Arthur's skill had only sharpened it.

Yes. That was the word for what Leon looked like. Sharp. A blade barely sheathed...

"So?" Leon fidgeted. "Do I look stupid, or what?"

"Not at all," said D, faintly. Q-chan made a disgruntled sound; D ignored him. "I have - something for you. If you wouldn't mind wearing it."

"For me?" Leon looked apprehensive. "Look, if it's one of those weird ribbons Cambrook tried to tie around my hair, you can forget about it."

"Not a ribbon, Detective. A ring." D slid it off his own index finger, holding it out to Leon. "Consider it a kind of signal. While you wear this ring, no one at the party will question your presence."

"What kind of signal?" Leon took the ring from D, looking at it closely. "Are those, like, symbols on it? Chinese characters, or something?"

"Or something," D nodded. The truth was that this ancient dialect was known only to the Ds. It was an arcane, if convenient, spell of disguise.

"It better not be some kind of mafia thing. Is it?"

"I promise you, Detective, that it is nothing of the sort. It is merely an ancestral ring. A charm of goodwill."

"More of your voodoo stuff."

"You could say that. Additionally, Miguel happens to know - thanks to a casual conversation in the past - that all members of my family must bequeath this ring to their partners. If you're going as mine, then you should have it." This was patently untrue; the ring was for another purpose altogether, and a far more cabalistic one, but D was charmed by the idea of putting a ring on Leon. Not the sort of ring he'd often fantasized about, but still...

Leon's eyes narrowed. "A casual conversation, huh?" Goodness. Did the Detective even know how possessive he was? "Well, whatever. I'm not your 'partner', but what the hell - you're doing me a favor by going, so I'll do you a favor by wearing this." He slid the ring onto his finger. His ring finger, too. "There. Happy?"

"Very." More than Leon even realized. "And you? Do you have your 'bugs'?"

"Right here." Leon dug into his pocket, and slapped whatever he found there onto D's outstretched palm.

D stared. A pair of dark, miniscule discs - each barely the size of a fingernail - gleamed dully against his skin. "These are your... monitoring devices?"

"Yup. Pretty neat, huh? They transmit location and sound. Like GPS with benefits."

Such a curious thing, human technology was. At its best, it almost rivaled the most primeval magicks... "Where would you like me to 'plant' them?"

Leon shrugged. "Anywhere on Ruiz you can, provided it ain't easily visible. Like, under his collar. Maybe you could, I dunno, hug him, or something? You guys do that when you meet?"

"Sometimes."

"Then you oughta be able to, today. Since it's his birthday. Hug him and say something like, 'Happy birthday, man!' Or whatever you call him. Just sic this on him, from the palm of your hand to the nape of his neck, under his collar. It'll transfer easily; just make sure the shinier side's against the cloth. It'll stick. Do the same with the other one, maybe slide it under his cuff when you shake his hand, or something. Think you can pull that off?"

"Most definitely."

"Good." Leon bounced on his feet. "Try to use 'em both, though, got it? The Chief went through hell just to get the department to clear these for us; we aren't even supposed to have stuff like this, you know. Strictly FBI material. But we got a special pass, since Ruiz is one slippery son of a bitch, so don't blow this chance, okay?"

"I assure you, I will not." If D could prove himself useful to Leon, he might win more of Leon's trust, not to mention a favor in return for his services. And he could imagine many, many uses for that most singular favor...

Oh, dear. His eyes were glazing over again.

"D? You good to go?"

"Very much so." D couldn't keep the purr out of his voice.

Leon twitched. "Um." His eyes flickered down D's body, along the length of that sinfully cozy cheongsam. He gulped. "Yeah, uh. I've got a... cab pulled up in front of..."

"The shop?"

"The shop! Yeah. A cab's pulled up in front of... the shop. We should, um. Get going. The party's at nine, and it'll take us about a half hour to get there."

"Indeed." D slipped the discs into the tiny little slit - not quite a pocket - on his silk-clad hip, and saw Leon's eyes follow the movement. "The Ritz is at the other end of the city, is it not?"

"You should know. Supplied octopi and crabs for their designer aquariums, didn't you?"

D affected surprise. "You've done your research."

"When it comes to you? Damn right I do my research."

"I'm flattered."

Leon snorted. "Don't be. You're a criminal, and criminals - "

"Merit your undivided attention, I'm sure." D smoothed a hand along his hip, as if to make sure that the discs were secure, and the way Leon's nostrils flared was certainly promising. "Like I do yours."

Leon tore his gaze away from D's hand. "And don't you know it, you bastard."

D didn't even try not to smile. His lips, subtly rouged, curved of their own volition.

Leon made an exasperated sound - then held out his arm, sullenly, like a delinquent at a school dance.

D laughed. He couldn't help it. And took that arm, linking his own with it, noticing, with satisfaction, that Leon didn't balk.

Of course he didn't. He was going undercover, after all. For once, D was grateful for Leon's professionalism; at least it gave the poor detective an excuse to do this, to be this, to have this night with D. And D wasn't about to begrudge him that pretense, or begrudge either of them the pleasure of it.

"Shall we go?" Leon's arm was warm against his.

"Sure," said Leon, and pulled D a little closer. "Let's go."


to be continued.

(This is Part 1 of 3.)

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