"This isn't the best idea you've ever had, I hope you know," Z said, propping her feet up on the arm of the sofa in a way that would probably give her mother a conniption fit were she there to see. She looked outrageously comfortable, smirking over at Ryan and drumming her heels on the soft cotton, clearly admiring her knee-high boots far more than she was willing to admit.
Ryan glared at her. "You're not being very helpful," he said, fumbling with the laces of his bodice, and Z grinned, standing up and crossing over to him. She took off her gloves and tied the laces for him, fingers moving quick and deft. Ryan scowled. He was actually pretty proud of his plan, but he was a little pissed at the fact that Z's costume was so much easier to put on; she hadn't even had much trouble with her neckcloth, tied negligently a la Byron. She looked good, too, the long portion of her hair tucked into her ridiculous feathered hat, the short front curls escaping to make her look like a foppish gentleman in the latest fashion. Her waistcoat was a deep sable, her coat yet more black, and a scarlet-trimmed short cloak fell easily around her shoulders. Her boots came up to her knees, fitting tight and smooth over her breeches. Z looked like a daring nobleman with wicked, dark eyes, if also looked rather short. (Or, okay, very short.) Ryan mostly looked like a guy in a dress.
The dress wasn't even on properly, and Ryan struggled again, rolling his shoulders awkwardly against the delicate material. Z smacked his shoulder, forcing him still, and began adjusting it, tugging it down until it lay smooth, putting the hem straight, letting the lace fall down the train at the back just right. She bit her lip, cocking her head to the side and squinting, then nodded and stepped back.
"There," she said. Ryan turned to the mirror hopefully, and sighed. The dress looked nice enough, a pale blue with midnight blue trim, but Ryan looked stupid and awkward, and his feet seemed way too big for the not-dainty-enough slippers he'd had to get custom made. The shoemaker had squinted at him so suspiciously; he'd been sure that the man had guessed. How could anyone not guess, Ryan wondered. He looked ridiculous, and told Z so.
"Well, yes," she said, then smiled, touching the side of his face. "We're not done yet, Ryan, just – a little touch of paint, and the wig, and it'll be different, you'll see."
"This is still a bad idea," Z told him calmly, and Ryan scowled.
"Just the execution of it," he said. "Actually, the plan is perfect. You just enjoy my humiliation."
"I enjoy your crazy obsessions," Z said, busying herself at the chest of drawers, then coming over with the dark-curled wig and a terrifying handful of pins. Ryan eyed her warily, and Z pushed him down on the couch. Then she set to digging the pins with more than a little glee into his head. Possibly some of the wig was going on, too, but Ryan was too busy being stabbed to a slow and painful death to pay much attention to that. "This was really the best way you could come up with to spend time with him?" Z said, frowning around two pins held between her lips.
"I'm just – ow – curious," Ryan said defensively. "And we can't talk, because of his stupid uncle and my – my father –"
Z touched his hair quickly, light and soothing, and Ryan drew in a breath. It had been nearly two years, and having his inheritance all to himself, being free of his father's drinking and scandals – that was always going to be a good thing, he knew. It was just – there had been hope there, with his father, at the end, and then it had been taken away so abruptly.
"Anyway," Ryan said. "Since due to the stupid antics of decrepit relatives, I'm not allowed to talk to him properly, even though – family feuds are too Shakespearean even for my taste. I just thought. I thought he was nice."
"I thought he was nice," Z said in a high, squeaky voice, and fell about laughing when Ryan glared at her. "Sorry," she said, "sorry, I'm totally with you all the way, continue."
Ryan folded his arms, glaring. "I just want to talk to him again," he said, dropping his gaze to his hands in his lap. "I want to – he was interesting. I want to know more about him. And I'm not allowed to talk to him, but – but Miss Georgina Elliot is."
"Uh," Z said. "Hate to tell you this, darling, but no, she isn't."
Ryan turned his head, blinking. "What?"
"Your voice is never going to pass for a girl's," Z told him, pushing his head back into place. "You can't say anything, it'll give you away immediately. We'll have to tell everyone that you're sick, or a mute, or something."
Ryan stared at her in the mirror. "That won't work! The whole purpose of this is so I can talk to him!"
"I thought the purpose was that you could stalk him in a creepy but hopefully endearing way?" Z asked, then laughed, ducking when Ryan flailed out a wild hand at her. "Sorry, okay, sorry. But you can just – just tell me what you want to ask him, and then your gentlemanly brother can do all the talking." She swept him a bow, and Ryan half-smiled.
"Alright," he said. "I guess that'll work."
"Exactly," Z said. Her own husky voice would pass for a man's light tenor fairly easily, Ryan admitted.
She adjusted one last curl, then dragged out a lacquered box of powders and paints. Ryan gave them a dubious look, but closed his eyes meekly when Z told him to. The paints felt odd being applied, cold and foreign, and when Z told him to open his eyes and look up, the little instrument she was using felt perilously close to gouging his eyes. Then she was brushing along his cheek bones with a tiny brush, and, after a hesitation and a long, considering glance, she applied something lightly to his lips. He touched his tongue to it, uncertain of the taste.
Z drew back, gave him another all-over look, then turned away, clattering all her instruments back into the box. "There," she said. "Better?"
Ryan stood and moved in front of the glass again. He sucked in a breath. Somewhere in the last few minutes a girl had emerged out of that awkward, gangly figure. The chestnut locks piled on top of his head, one or two escaping artfully onto his neck and curling against his cheek, transformed his face, framing large eyes dark with anxiety and subtly drawn out with paint, and a reddened mouth that looked somehow fuller, the lower lip trembling a little. The gown, falling in graceful folds, completed by white kid gloves that covered his arms above the elbows, transformed his body from stickish to slim and a little vulnerable.
It might just work, he thought, afraid to move in case the illusion shattered.
"Yes," he breathed. "I. Thank you, Z."
"Not at all," Z said, flinging herself back onto the sofa. "I still can't believe that you're calling yourself Georgina, though. So unimaginative."
Ryan turned around, narrowing his eyes. "Why?" he asked. "What are you going by? I thought we agreed on Jack."
"No, that's what you said," Z said, and grinned with all her teeth. "I'm going to be much more interesting than that. Also staying true to my roots."
"Z," Ryan began.
"No, no," Z said. "Tonight I'm Zachariah."
"Alright," Z said. "Zeus. I'm going for the Classical tone."
"You're really, really not."
Z grinned. "Zadoc?"
"I'm a girl right now, too," Ryan reminded her. "Technically, I could hit you without dishonour."
Z sighed. "Ryan, you really need to relax," she said. "Just, you know, try and remain calm and collected. I'm not stupid, I'm just teasing."
"Alright, then," Ryan said, turning back to look at himself in the mirror again.
"My name," Z said, sure and easy, "is, of course, Zebadiah Elric Elliot."
She was still laughing when Ryan picked up his skirts and swept out of the room.
They didn't need to sneak out of the house, when dusk rolled around and they set out. Z's mother and father were at their estate in the country, and her sister was attending a gathering at an artist friend's house this evening. There were the servants, of course, but all of them were quite used to Miss Elizabeth's quirks and fancies, and fanatically loyal in a way that Ryan found remarkable. (His own father had barely been able to convince servants to stay in a place three months, and his mother had coldly treated every one of them as the silverware thieves she believed each to be.) Hedges, the Bergs' butler, bowed them out with barely a raised eyebrow.
Ryan had spent the intervening forty minutes practising moving about the house. The skirts were distracting, but not impossible to move in, and Z, telling him he was getting off lightly, had barely laced his corset at all, since his waist didn't need tightening and he hadn't anything to make a figure out of no matter how much they laced. The shoes weren't so very bad after all – the heel was of a height with his own evening boots, and it was only that they had less support about the calf, and were of a more delicate cut. The wig, and the small ribboned hat pinned upon it, were more difficult; they added a weight to his head, and a significance to his nods and chin tilts, that he found deeply disconcerting. All in all, though, he was beginning to enjoy himself. It was a shame he couldn't talk, but he thought that he could pull this off.
Now he adjusted his mask, tipping it more firmly into his eyes as he nodded to Hedges. Z turned at the foot of the steps and offered her arm for support, her eyes dancing above her own mask. Ryan grinned, quick and sharp, then shyly ducked his head, accepting her arm. Z laughed and tugged them into a skip for a moment, before they settled into a more sedate stroll along the cobbled street.
"It doesn't matter what ridiculous Christian name you decide to call yourself by, anyway," Ryan said, keeping his voice low for the passersby. "You'll only be Mr Elliot to everybody we introduce ourselves to tonight."
Z raised her eyebrows, squeezing his arm in the crook of her elbow. "Sister, your lack of faith crushes me. You can't think I won't find the opportunity. Dropping a Christian name into conversation is the easiest thing in the world."
Ryan's mouth twitched. "I don't think Zebadiah so much drops into a conversation as it thuds like an anvil."
"I may not go with Zebadiah," Z said, waving that off. "There are other options, you know. I didn't get to them all. I could –"
"If you say Zedekiah, I swear I'll ..."
Actually Ryan couldn't think of anything horrible enough, but it didn't matter: Z clapped her hands together. "I knew there was another Old Testament one I was forgetting!"
"I hate you," Ryan informed her. "I knew I should have waited until Alex got back to do this."
"Oh, shut up," Z said. "You know he'd be just as bad. And besides, we're not speaking his name, remember? Going off on adventures without us."
"It is a travesty."
Z sniffed regally. "And we will never forgive him for it," she said, tossing her head.
Ryan quirked his mouth, elbowing her. "That may have been the least masculine gesture ever made by somebody in trousers."
Z frowned, thinking about this. "You're right," she said. "I'm going to forget what I'm doing if I'm still thinking of myself as me." She chewed her lip for a moment. Then she deliberately dropped her shoulders, tucking her free hand into her breast pocket and settling into a loose saunter. Her mouth curved, wicked and warm, with an arrogant tilt at the corner. She'd chosen a simple black domino, cut sharply away at the cheek. It made the panther cant to her stride even more effective.
Ryan leaned away to examine her. "You look like a tom cat got into the cream," he decided.
Z tilted her chin at him. "Baby girl, I am the cream."
Ryan bent double laughing. Z had to hold him up by the arm, leaning her head on his shoulder and pressing her own laughter into silence.
It was a pleasant enough walk to Westminster, and they took sculls there to carry them across the river. Vauxhall Gardens came into sight sooner than Ryan was expecting. He sucked in his breath, attacked with second thoughts. Spencer had remarked in a throwaway fashion that Brendon meant to squire his mother and two of his sisters to the masquerade tonight. Ryan hoped he hadn't changed his mind. He shook his head. They were committed to this now, anyway.
At the garden gates, Z offered Ryan her arm once more, and they stepped inside.
They made a striking entrance. Z looked the most complete gentleman of fashion, lithe and confident, the swagger in her steps designed to make up for her lack of height. Her coat was cinched in at her waist, and her hessians hugged her calves, buffed to a shine. The set of her shoulders made her look smart, and the black domino made her look wicked.
Ryan had chosen a decorated turquoise mask, soft blue feathers stroking his temple. The paint Z had applied about his eyes, and the charcoal darkening his lashes, gave his eyes beneath the mask the dusky appeal of mystery, even in the glass at home. Here in the gardens in the shadows and golden lantern light, surrounded by fantastical costumes and carnival music, he knew the effect must be even better.
They were Miss and Mr Elliot, elegant strangers to London, and they were going to cut a dash tonight; Ryan was determined.
It was already coming down dark, the walks and avenues of the gardens lit with a constellation of golden globes. The rowdy sounds of an orchestra and more than one smaller musical ensemble filtered through the walks, over the laughter and excited shrieks of the small parties in masquerade costume weaving among the trees. Z doffed her hat at the ladies they passed, causing a couple of blushes. Ryan found himself being quizzed by passing rogues; at one point he was so in danger of choking on his own laughter that he had to unfold his fan and hide behind it.
This was possibly the best thing they had ever done. Ryan would have to make sure Z remembered that if she started on about it being a bad idea again. Not that he thought she would; he squeezed her arm and got the most brilliant smile back, her eyes shining under the black half-domino.
"Any sign of Urie?" she asked, leaning close.
Ryan shook his head, looking around again.
"Come on, then," Z said, "let's make for the Grand Quadrangle. Ten to one he'll have secured a box for his sisters, or they'll be dancing or some such. I think I want to dance."
Ryan raised his eyebrows, mindful of the part where he wasn't supposed to speak (it was already chafing). "Oh, what," Z said. "I've practised with you. I can definitely lead; better than you can, probably."
The avenue of trees opened up into a large central space, with festive booths for refreshment set up in two wide semicircles. Ryan and Z had dined before they came, and it looked as though the parties in the booths were beginning to scatter for dancing or trysts in the gardens. The orchestra was in full swing, set up beneath trees hanging with more lanterns. Ryan's eyes skimmed the milling crowd of dancers and over the length of the Quadrangle, stopping with a jerk at a box across the way. Brendon Urie was standing with one foot on the barricade, laughing up at the ladies seated inside. He was facing away from Ryan, but Ryan recognised the set of his shoulders immediately.
His breath came short, and he realised in a rush that he was really going to do this. He was going to find a way to spend some time with Brendon tonight for the first time – or the first time since that interrupted conversation at the Monroe ball last year. And maybe he couldn't talk, and maybe Brendon had to think that he was a lady and a stranger, but Ryan could look at him without making it seem as though he wasn't. He wasn't going to get another chance like this. He curled his fingers into a fist, determined.
Z followed his gaze, making a low, impressed sound under her breath. "Is that him?" she asked, and Ryan nodded quickly. Z cocked her head to the side, and Ryan was willing to bet that she had her eyebrows raised, undeniably sizing Brendon up, mouth curved in a wicked grin. Brendon didn't move in their circles – family feuds were the worst, seriously – and Ryan knew Z had only seen Brendon in passing before, never somewhere she could stop and regard him. Now she wasn't even bothering to be subtle about it, staring blatantly through the crowd. Some of the people around them were already looking, raising their eyebrows at a gentleman obviously checking out another gentleman, and as Ryan watched Brendon himself turned, with the half-curious, half-startled expression of someone realising he was being observed.
I hate you, Ryan thought, as loud as he could, glaring at Z. Hate, hate, hate, but Z wasn't looking at him, she was tilting her head and smiling, mocking and altogether too interesting for Ryan to feel entirely comfortable.
"Shall we take a stroll, Sister?" Z said. There weren't enough people around them to hide it if Ryan stamped on Z's foot; he settled for scowling at her even as she took his hand and put it under her arm, giving it a little pat. "Come on," she said, smiling and nodding at people as she led them through the crowd. "This'll be fun."
The trouble with Z's idea of fun was that it very rarely fitted with anybody's idea of proper. Most of the time, Ryan liked this about her a lot – especially when he was trying to convince her to indulge in some casual cross-dressing – but not being proper when it came to Brendon Urie had already gotten Ryan in trouble once. He thought it was best that they did things tonight with as much decorum as possible, especially with what felt like such a potentially flimsy disguise. Z, apparently, was of a different mind, and when she reached Brendon she was grinning in an entirely inappropriate manner.
"Brendon Urie," she said, and Ryan bit his lip to keep from groaning aloud.
"I'm sorry," Brendon said, looking politely confused. "I don't believe we've been introduced."
"No," Z agreed cheerfully. "We're new in town. Your name, however, precedes you. Zedekiah Elliot," she added, "is mine. It's a pleasure."
Brendon's eyes widened behind his white half-mask, his mouth twitching. Ryan thought it was entirely ridiculous for him to feel suddenly warm at the way Brendon hid his amusement even when he was obviously surprised and caught off guard.
"Yes, certainly," Brendon said, bowing slightly to Z. Z bowed back, with rather more enthusiasm, and only Ryan's well-timed yank on her elbow kept them from bumping heads. Brendon was smiling a little more freely now, and he looked at Ryan, eyes dark and smiling in a way that made Ryan's breath catch. "And may I presume that this is Mrs Elliot?"
"Oh, no," Z said. "I'm sorry – please allow me to present Miss Georgina Elliot. My sister. We've just come from the country for the season."
"Welcome to the city," Brendon said, smiling crookedly.
Ryan smiled awkwardly and curtseyed, trying to convey How lovely to meet you, here, for the first time, with the angle of his head.
Brendon bowed over Ryan's hand. When he straightened he tilted his head to the side, and Ryan could imagine the raised eyebrow behind his mask. "I feel a little at a disadvantage, knowing only your names when somehow you've managed to hear of me." He sounded especially curious about that, which Ryan supposed was fair: Brendon Urie was not actually a famous name in the city.
"Life in the country can be awful dull," Z said easily. "We get long lists of all the attendees at balls, and who they danced with, and who left early, and who stayed rather too late." She laughed, conspiratorial, and Ryan bit his own lip.
"I shouldn't be surprised at the travelling power of gossip, I suppose," Brendon said dryly. He glanced at Ryan and then looked back, longer, watching Ryan seriously. Ryan tried not to flush. "Are you enjoying your stay, Miss Elliot?"
Ryan stared back at him, helpless. Z said, "You'll forgive my sister her silence, Mr Urie. She has been mute since birth."
"Oh!" Brendon said, eyes wide behind the mask. "I'm sorry – I didn't mean to –"
"Nothing to worry about," Z said. "It is an easy enough thing to explain. And certainly it comes up."
"That's terribly sad, though," Brendon said, and looked at Ryan, the corner of his mouth lifting in a hesitant smile. "It would be nice to talk with you properly."
Ryan was going to complete his disguise absolutely by swooning.
"I can talk to you!" Z said, grinning. She was very close, Ryan was sure, to putting her arm on Ryan's shoulder and leaning on him casually while she talked, which was a bad sign. "Are you enjoying yourself tonight?"
"Yes," Brendon said, turning his attention back to her. "A masquerade is always so much more fun than other balls, I think. And the musicians are really talented."
"Oh, aren't they?" Z said. "I noticed when we came in. The fiddle-player –"
"Oh, Miss Geronimo!" Brendon beamed. "She's brilliant, isn't she?" Behind him, a severe gentleman Ryan vaguely recognised from various occasions – including that night at the Monroe ball – cleared his throat, and Brendon's face fell. "I mean," he added, voice thick with reluctance, "it's a very strange occupation for a young woman to choose –"
"I'm going to talk to her," Z decided, ignoring this last. "I didn't know her name. She's fabulous." Brendon darted another look over his shoulder and didn't say anything, but his eyes were dancing, and he was smiling again. Which was all very well, but while Z was making lists of new friends she could shock her mother with, Ryan was standing silently like an idiot and not even finding anything out with it. He shifted, bumping his hip against Z's.
"Oh," Z said, looking a little guilty. "Um. Mr Urie. You enjoy music, then?"
"Yes," Brendon said. "I play, a little. Mostly I leave it to more talented people."
"Really?" Z said. "What do you play?"
"Oh, uh," Brendon said, "piano, mostly. And the harp, and I've dabbled with cello on occasion. I sing, too, but not in polite company."
God, Ryan wanted to hear Brendon sing. He folded his hands in his skirts, trying to look genteel rather than awkward, but mostly just needing something to do. It felt very strange, standing in a dress without saying anything; so different to the balls he attended with Spencer, whispering sly remarks to each other between dances, or the nights he spent with Jon shunning balls in favour of drinking absinthe on rooftops. He didn't know how to be, here, and he knew he only had so long before Z got bored and went off to find the acclaimed fiddle player. God only knew what other trouble she'd run into on the way. Ryan wouldn't even be able to join in properly this time, more was the pity.
He was a little impressed at Z's ability to get into trouble as well as she did, in her normal dress. He wondered how she managed it. The skirts seemed to get everywhere, and he was holding himself straighter than usual, upright and breathing deeply. There was something about this garb he couldn't put his finger on, the feel of the cotton and silk against his skin. The effect of it with the lit-up masquerade and the press of people and Brendon Urie smiling at him was enough to make Ryan feel just slightly light-headed.
"That's an impressive array," Z said, smiling easily. She was playing the part pretty well, Ryan had to admit. Ridiculously, but well. "One would almost think you were aiming for something more than ornamental gentility. Something useful, even. God forbid."
Brendon laughed. "I don't think being able to stumble my way through a few tunes quite counts as useful," he said. "But it's enjoyable. Do you play?"
"Now and again," Z said, waving an absent hand. She slanted a glance at Ryan and Ryan froze, thought, oh, no, not yet, but he couldn't interrupt her, and in any case Z was already saying, "Will you be attending Lady Smith's picnic this coming week?"
Brendon's smile turned polite, stiff in the corners. "I am afraid I am not," he said. "I have a prior engagement."
"Oh, do come," Z said. "It promises to be great fun, and we should certainly like to see you again. Surely your engagement can be rescheduled?"
"Um," Brendon said, and then, lowering his voice, "unfortunately, I am told that Mr Ross may be there, and there is – tension between our families."
"Oh," Z said, eyes wide. "Goodness. Really?"
Brendon shrugged one shoulder, his mouth twisting downward. "Mostly it is the contrivance of relatives now dead or senile," he said. "But it persists enough that ... conversation can be awkward." His mouth twisted, an expression Ryan couldn't quite read.
"How sordid," Z said, smiling, and Brendon laughed.
"Indeed," he said. "My family's dramatic past. I have an idea the original feud was something hopelessly pointless. Still, one must uphold family obligation, or something."
"Right," Z said, nodding. "Well, then, we shall have to take full advantage of our time with you tonight. Although I am a little distracted by the dancing. Do you dance, Mr Urie?"
"With great enjoyment," Brendon said, "though not much skill."
"I find that hard to believe," Z said. Ryan threw her a slightly frantic look – this wasn't on the set of questions they had agreed upon. "Will you show us?"
"All on my own?" Brendon said, smiling, but he darted a quick look at Ryan. Ryan's mouth was dry.
Z smiled. "Mr Urie. May I present my sister as a charming dance partner?"
Ryan felt frozen. He gave Brendon a tiny, weak smile.
Brendon's own smile was warm and bright. "Miss Elliot? Save me from the mortification of dancing on my own?"
Ryan raised his eyebrows. Brendon flushed, ducking his head and laughing a bit, but he held his arm out.
Ryan dipped a curtsey and accepted. His chest felt tight and a bit panicky. He darted a look at Z as they began to move away. She was grinning, her eyes bright, one hip cocked and her hand in her breast pocket. She looked like a pocket-sized bandido, confident and amused, and probably every eye in the place was on her.
Ryan only hoped that would mean they wouldn't be on him as he attempted to dance a minuet from the wrong side. Z was right, they had practised, but Ryan wouldn't have been confident in his ability to remember how to do it even if he wasn't confronted with Brendon Urie, who pretty much made Ryan forget everything ever.
He gulped a breath and concentrated on not passing out.
Z watched Ryan and Brendon go with a gleeful feeling in her chest. Ryan would thank her as soon as he had remembered that getting close to Brendon was actually the point of tonight. And if he didn't, Z would still know that she’d sent Ryan Ross off to dance with Brendon Urie in front of five hundred people, and nobody had known.
Now she got to amuse herself, at least until the dance finished and Ryan needed rescuing again. She doffed her hat at Brendon's father, revelling in the frosty stare she got in return, and turned on her heel.
She decided to do as she'd said she would and seek out the acquaintance of the lady violinist. She was playing with a chamber orchestra in one of the smaller podiums, away from the crush of dancers Z had sent Ryan and Brendon to. Z flipped her coat tails out of the way, slipping her fingers into her pockets, and wove her way in that direction.
A lady in a cherry-red hat and tumbled curls caught her eye, and Z tipped her hat, smirking, and moved on. A couple of natty gentlemen swinging fob watches strayed into her path, one of them hitting Z's elbow with the watch as they passed.
"Did you strike me, sir?" Z demanded, swinging about.
The gentleman gave her a cool look. "Terribly sorry," he said. "Didn't see you there."
Z drew herself up, curling her lip. "Do you insinuate that I am short?".
The gentleman's friend jumped in, looking anxious. "Not at all, only not paying attention to the way, you know. Dreadfully clumsy of us. Do have a good night." He doffed his hat and tugged his friend away.
Z flicked her coat tails out of the way again, her mouth curving as she watched them leave. She strolled on towards the podium. It was all she could do not to crow with glee.
There was a smaller crowd here: ladies seated on outdoor chairs while the gentlemen squiring them leaned on the chair backs, bending to exchange conversation behind spread fans. It had an air of genteel garden party mixed in with intrigue, with the golden lamp-lit tree branches above and the whispers and fantastical costumes below. Z wandered along the outer aisle.
The fiddle player was taking a break, smiling at the young woman refilling her glass of water. Z had begun to make her way over when she saw the other girl.
She was sitting on the railing, leaning forward with her hands on her knees. Her ankles were tucked out of sight, somehow ladylike even though it ought to have been the least ladylike pose in the world. She was watching the cellist, the only member of the small orchestra who was still playing, his head ducked as he went over one of the trickier passages in the piece they had just finished, ignoring the polite clamour of the audience.
Z looked back at the girl on the railing. She was dressed in a demure gown the colour of new spring leaves, her hair smoothed away from her face in soft waves, but her gaze behind her green mask was intent on the cellist, and the fingers of one hand were tapping out a rhythm against her skirt. Z was almost sure it would be a piano accompaniment if you could hear it.
Z moved closer. She was barely conscious of it until she found herself standing beside the girl's perch on the railing.
"Are you enjoying the music?" Z asked. Her voice sounded diffident in her own ears, after all the swaggering she'd been doing.
The girl looked up. "Oh," she said. She smiled. "I beg your pardon, sir, I didn't see you there."
Z liked her voice a lot. She gave a bow, touching her hat. "My name is Elliot. I apologise if I'm intruding on a private thought. It's only that I don't see anybody else here paying attention to the music as you were."
The girl regarded her for a second, then presented her hand. "Tennessee Thomas. And I suppose I was rather rapt. I find it difficult to pay attention to anything else when somebody is playing." She adjusted her mask, flashing a grin at Z.
Z decided that she had absolutely no where else she wanted to be. She leaned against the railing beside Tennessee. "Do you play yourself?"
Tennessee shrugged one shoulder. "Only in drawing rooms." She sounded wistful.
Z knew the feeling. Sometimes it seemed as though her entire life consisted of being called upon to play and sing in an endless parade of drawing rooms, to musically uneducated guests who applauded only because she was wealthy and eligible. Or at least, wealthy enough that a certain degree of ineligibility, like a reputation for cutting a dash in town and causing scandals, didn't matter.
Z couldn't say any of that, and she was in danger of forgetting her role here. Instead she let her mouth curl in a smile, looking away to the chamber orchestra, who had begun to play all together again.
"The curse of gentility," she said. "Would you make yourself something splendid up there on that podium if you weren't a lady, Miss Thomas?" She glanced up at Tennessee, laughing with her eyes, and caught Tennessee's expressive grin.
"Maybe I can't play to raucous crowds at masquerades, but I'm not such a lady, really," Tennessee said. She kicked her feet a little. "My father's a physician. I think there are only so many bones you can help splint and still keep your genteel sensibilities intact."
Z laughed. She took Tennessee's hand, stepping back. "In that case, would you dance with me?"
Tennessee tilted her head. "Here?"
Z gestured with her free hand. "We have music, we have lantern light, I see a glade through the trees. I'd far rather dance here than bump elbows in the pavilion." She frowned. "Is there some buck around here I'll upset by carrying you off?"
Tennessee looked around. "My father, somewhere? I don't know, I just followed the music when we got here."
Z snatched Tennessee's hand to her mouth, pressing a kiss to it. "Come on, then." She tugged Tennessee off her perch.
Tennessee let her, her eyes bright.
"I hope you don't mind me hiding you away like this," Z said as she led Tennessee past the musicians and into the glade beyond. There were hardly any other people there: an older couple taking a stroll, one young man bending to lace his boot before he rejoined the festivities. "I'm just not of a mind to vie for your attention with a hundred other people."
"I think it can be said that you are at an advantage, Mr Elliot," Tennessee said, her voice thick with laughter, and Z beamed at her. She dropped Tennessee's hand to sweep her a bow, and Tennessee dropped into a much neater curtsey than Z could manage, barely rumpling her skirts at all.
"This way, though, I can talk to you more freely," Z said, stepping into the first position. She walked the first measure of the dance side by side with Tennessee, one hand clasping Tennessee's lightly, the other held behind her back. She had to concentrate on keeping her shoulders high; it was much easier to slump without a corset, and Tennessee was already at least half a head taller than her.
"It's a little unnerving to not have to shout," Tennessee agreed, spinning neatly under Z's arm. "Hardly a real ball at all."
"We must make do," Z said. "Your father's a physician, did you say? And he allows you to assist him in his work?"
"He's a military doctor," Tennessee explained, "serving under General Wentworth. My mother died when I was young, and he never much liked the idea of leaving me with an aunt, so I accompanied him on several campaigns. If you can help, in such situations, you must. They are less concerned with proper decorum and education for young ladies, you see." She smiled ruefully. "I'm afraid I don't count as much of a lady at all."
"I think you're delightful," Z said decisively. "And clever, too. You can mend broken bones, then. What else?"
Tennessee laughed, picking up her skirts to skip in a small circle around Z. Some of her hair was falling out from the pins; loose, fair wisps that framed her face. Z was a little transfixed.
"I can bring down a fever fairly well," Tennessee said. "Remove a bullet, and stitch up the wound. I'm a dab hand at bandages by now." She winked at Z, twirling easily back into Z's hold. "And my bedside manner is impeccable."
It was kind of hard to be a gentleman. Z thought of half a dozen hilarious responses, none of which were even remotely appropriate right now. "How fascinating," she settled on, regretfully. "That is an interesting life you've been leading, Miss Thomas."
"Only from the outside," Tennessee said. "Anyhow, tell me of yourself. I don't believe I've seen you before. I am almost sure I would remember."
"No," Z said. "My sister and I are only recently arrived from the countryside. This is our first great city extravaganza."
"No wonder you prefer dancing away from the crowd," Tennessee said sympathetically. "I suppose this must be quite overwhelming for you. What part of the country have you come up from?"
Z froze, stumbling over the next step of the dance. "Oh," she said, trying to come up with a place she'd spent enough time in during the last five years to be convincing about. She came up blank: Z didn't spend nearly enough time in the country. "Actually, until recently I was travelling, in, uh. In India!"
"Oh!" Tennessee's face lit up. "Really? Where? My father and I spent quite some time in India; sometimes I miss it dreadfully. The sun shines so pale here."
"What a coincidence," Z said weakly. "I was in, um." She thought rapidly, calling up details from some of Alex's letters. "In Madras." She prayed she'd remembered the name correctly.
Tennessee actually stopped to clap her hands in glee. "My father and I kept a house there!" she said. "Oh, how lovely. Did you have much opportunity to explore the fort? Or to visit any of the temples? The Kapaleeshwarar Shiva Temple is quite awe-inspiring, don't you think?"
"Um," Z said. "Yes. I mean – we should compare experiences at some later point, when I'm not concerned with tripping you over. Perhaps I'll see you again while I'm in town?"
"I'd like that," Tennessee said, smiling. "Are you here long?"
"A short time," Z said, with a pang of regret. "We're staying with our aunt, Lady Berg, or really with our cousin Lady Elizabeth."
"I know of Lady Elizabeth," Tennessee said, with the knowing smile that almost always accompanied Z's name. Z found that she didn't mind it nearly as much when Tennessee did it; there was a brightness in her eyes that wasn't even slightly smug.
The music finished with a flourish, and Z took a reluctant step backwards. "Thank you for the dance," she said.
"Thank you, sir," Tennessee said, and curtseyed again, still smiling at Z. They looked at each other quietly for a moment, and then the musicians started up again, and Tennessee sighed. "I love this tune."
Z held out her hand without thinking and Tennessee laughed, taking it without hesitation. Z sent her spinning out again.
At first the only things Ryan could concentrate on were the steps of the dance. It was a cotillion, and Ryan had been dancing the cotillion since he was ten years old, but that almost made it worse – the steps were all backwards to where his feet wanted to go, and it was twice as confusing as dancing something unfamiliar would have been.
At least it meant Ryan wasn't so hyperaware of Brendon's fingertips at his waist, Brendon's hand grasping Ryan's own to lead him out and back in. It wasn't until the last measure that Ryan looked up and met Brendon's eyes.
Brendon was watching him, dark-eyed and queerly transfixed. Colour rose to his cheeks as Ryan gazed at him, and Brendon swallowed, ducking his head. They stepped away as the dance ended, Ryan remembering to dip into a curtsey while Brendon bowed.
Brendon cleared his throat. "Another dance?"
Ryan jumped a little, catching himself simply gazing at Brendon, and nodded, curtseying again before Brendon led him back into the dance.
This time it was a waltz, and it was easier; Ryan didn't need to count out the measures under his breath, although he still needed to pay more attention to his steps than was comfortable.
"You dance so seriously," Brendon said. The words were said with an impulsive air. He shook his head, his gaze seeking out Ryan's again; he was half smiling and half in earnest. "I feel as though this dance must be much more important than I knew, and you'll be judging me on my form at the end."
Ryan gave him a helpless smile. No, he signed, shaking his head. He waved a rueful hand at his feet, I'm minding my steps. A curl escaped from its pin, tumbling over Ryan's forehead as he looked back up. He lifted a hand to move it away, but Brendon stopped him.
"Here," he said, sounding hoarse. "You can't see to fix it, but I can."
There was a moment where they were the stillest point in the world, the clamour and sway of the waltz twirling about them, and Brendon's hand gentle on Ryan's hair. Ryan felt as though he could feel the heat of Brendon's fingers even though his gloves, every touch somehow charged. Brendon gazed at Ryan, his lashes a shadow against his eyelids. He was biting his lip. Ryan felt as though his breath was crushing his chest; he gazed back and the moment stretched on.
Brendon let his breath out, a soft laugh escaping, and Ryan felt him tuck the curl back into place. Then Brendon's arm came lightly around Ryan's waist once more and they eased back into the dance.
Ryan was relieved and disappointed at once. He hadn't thought he would get this close to Brendon; hadn't thought he would be this affected if he did. Ryan had only wanted the chance to meet Brendon Urie when he wasn't Ryan Ross; he hadn't been prepared for how overwhelming it would be. He really hadn't been prepared for dancing or long glances or Brendon's hand which was still burning sensitive points against Ryan's waist, through Brendon's gloves and Ryan's dress and all of its layers and corsetry.
Ryan ducked his head, hiding his face against Brendon's shoulder, and breathed.
"Your kind of silence is dangerous," Brendon said quietly, beneath the chatter of the dance. He took a long breath and let it out again, shuddery against Ryan's neck. "It makes me forget the polite distances I'm supposed to keep up, with questions about your mother and your home and you local parish."
Ryan shivered; he felt as though he was dancing as an automaton, no conscious direction from his head at all. Probably that was a good thing.
"It means I will either tell you things I shouldn't about myself," Brendon said, his voice only just audible, "or I'll forget that I don't already know you past the need for words."
The dance ended. They stepped back once more. Ryan stumbled, unsteady on his feet, and Brendon looked concerned. Ryan cast around for something to distract his attention from how near two dances had brought Ryan to – to passing out, or something equally mortifying. He lifted his hand, fluttering it at his throat.
Brendon's eyes widened in understanding. "Oh!" he said. "A drink?"
Ryan nodded. Brendon looked determined. "Of course," he said. "There are refreshments in my sisters' booth; I'll get you a glass."
He twined his hand through Ryan's, leading him through the crowd.
The mention of Brendon's sisters had made Ryan wonder guiltily if he'd been keeping Brendon from his proper duties: he was there to squire them, wasn't he? Although his father was here too, so maybe not. There was no sign of either the girls or their mother and father when Brendon and Ryan reached the booth, anyway, and Brendon didn't seem concerned that they were gone.
"Mother's probably clamped onto Captain Pilkard's party," Brendon confided, vaulting over the barrier. "She's nearly got my sister engaged to him; it should only take one more night like this."
His back was to Ryan as he said the last, pouring champagne from a bottle on the table at the rear of the booth. Now he came back with two flutes, one of which he gave to Ryan. He nearly tripped over the barrier getting out again, and his cheeks looked warm as he presented the glass. Ryan rolled his eyes a little, grinning.
"Would you like to dance again?" Brendon asked, self-conscious.
Ryan hesitated. Part of him wanted to go on dancing all night, and another part was sure it was much more dangerous than he'd meant tonight to be. A third, and increasingly insistent, part of him was focusing on the pinch of his tightly laced slippers, the unfamiliar cut beginning to wear unbearably now that he was away from the dance floor. He gestured to his feet, apologetically.
"Your shoes?" Brendon guessed, looking sympathetic.
Ryan grimaced in agreement, taking a gulp of his champagne.
"I did wonder if your shoes were pinching," Brendon confided, a low laugh in his voice.
Ryan shot him a look, his eyes narrowed beneath his mask.
Brendon looked alarmed. "I mean," he said. "You looked – of course you dance beautifully. Very – definitely graceful, I didn't mean to imply –"
Ryan gazed for a moment longer, his mouth tight and hurt. Brendon opened his mouth again, obviously about to try for another apology, and Ryan lost his poise and collapsed into soundless laughter. It nearly killed him to keep it silent; his shoulders shook and his drink slopped over the rim of the glass.
Brendon's shoulders relaxed, all his breath escaping in relief. "Oh my God," he said.
Ryan mimed out Brendon's alarm, the frantic hand gestures and wide eyes, and collapsed into laughter again.
Brendon was laughing too, weakly. "I don't think I ever want to see you actually offended, Miss Elliot," he said. "You were far too good at that."
Ryan was aware that a good bit of his hilarity was the emotional tension of the dance and the disguise and Brendon looking at him so much. He smiled beatifically at Brendon, taking another gulp of his drink, another tremor of laughter shaking him as he sipped.
Brendon took a breath, clearly still regaining his composure. "That," he said, "is unfair too. That you can laugh and drink champagne without snorting the bubbles up your nose. That was the chief cause of my suffering at my parents' dinner parties growing up."
Ryan looked up at him, pressing a hand to his smile.
"My mother never felt it was quite a becoming thing for company," Brendon said thoughtfully. Then he grinned. "Which, speaking of, we seem to be surrounded by the damned stuff at the moment. What shall we do?"
Ryan liked that it didn't seem to occur to him that Miss Elliot might be offended by his language; or that they, as strangers, might have spent enough time together this evening. The thought made him pause, suddenly conscious of the time. He should check in with Z. He'd dragged her here, and if she'd become uncomfortable he owed it to her to take her home. Or let her take him home: this cross-dressing thing was confusing.
Brendon saw him casting around. "Oh," he said. "Do you wish to return to your brother?"
Ryan looked back at him, biting his lip as he nodded. (Lied.) (Sort of lied. He was a little eager to be away from Brendon, so that he could think again, but at the same time when this evening was done it would be done forever. Even with everything, Ryan hadn't been prepared for how desperately he didn't want that to be true.)
His expression must have been a complicated one. Brendon stared at him for a moment, his gaze dark and caught. Then he shook his head, holding out his arm. "He said he was going to speak to Miss Geronimo, didn't he?" Brendon said. "Let me take you there."
When they reached the small pavilion, however, Miss Geronimo was playing a spirited solo and Z was nowhere to be seen. Ryan frowned, vaguely irritated. She really ought to have been checking in on him; he was the one in danger of falling in love with Brendon Urie.
The thought had crossed his mind before Ryan could stop it. He heard himself make a startled, sick little sound, his stomach clenching. He would have found it hilarious if it hadn't been so sharp inside.
Brendon swore. "Are you okay? Here –" He led Ryan quickly out of the pavilion. "It's too close in here, come out where you can breathe."
Ryan had got over the pained second of shock by this time, and he was mostly feeling ridiculous. And a bit as though he'd been hollowed out. He gave Brendon an embarrassed smile. Falling in love wasn't allowed. That wasn't part of tonight's deal.
Brendon was still looking at him carefully. "I think you should stay out among the trees," he said. "And if we walk a bit, we may find Mr Elliot." He extended his arm, and Ryan rested his hand on it. There was the same tingle of consciousness, the breathless feeling of being near, but Ryan wasn't going to think about it.
Probably, he decided as they began to wind their way into the shelter of a lane lit with more golden lantern globes, it was just the mood of tonight, anyway. They said there was going to be a fireworks display, later. Nobody could be held accountable for his heart on an evening that included fireworks. Things would dissipate in the morning, when Ryan wasn't Miss Elliot and Brendon wasn't wearing a damnably attractive domino, one boyishly tousled lock falling over his eye. This wouldn't be real anymore in the morning.
Ryan wasn't really sure what he was going to do if they couldn't find Z. He supposed that eventually Brendon would have to return to his family, but he didn't think Brendon would leave a lady on her own, either. It was going to be difficult to organise and awkward to communicate, and Ryan was starting to get annoyed at Z. Best friends shouldn't be allowed to just up and disappear when you were in danger of – well. Probably the best strategy was just not to think about it.
"There are fewer people around here," Brendon said, as they wandered along the path, through the long shadows. "But I have a feeling your brother would stand out even in the crowds back there, if he'd been present." He grinned at Ryan, and Ryan couldn't help but smile back. It helped that Z wasn't a girl tonight, or at least not one that the society matrons could disapprove of, but it didn't feel like Brendon was mocking her, either.
"Besides," Brendon continued, quieter, "it's kind of – nice out here. With, um. Just us."
Ryan had stopped moving, he realised belatedly, standing fixed in place and staring at Brendon. He could feel the colour rising on his cheeks, but he couldn't quite look away, and Brendon's mouth was slightly parted, like he had been caught unawares.
Low laughter reached them from further down the path, and Ryan started, turning to see a couple approaching. Panic darted through him, and he wished Z would appear out of nowhere to complete his disguise again. Brendon ducked his head and smiled; touched Ryan's arm and started them walking again.
"Well, I mean," Brendon said, "for certain definitions of 'just us'."
Ryan turned and smiled at Brendon, and Brendon laughed. When Ryan looked up, the two figures were much closer than before, and Ryan's heart almost skipped a beat. Fuck, he thought, and then Jon Walker had reached them, with Cassie on his arm, nodding easily at them. Ryan tried to subtly press himself a little closer to Brendon's side, holding his fan up to his face and staring at the ground. He loved Jon, he did, but Jon wouldn't know discretion if it bit him, and Ryan felt suddenly clumsy and obvious in his dress, too tall, hands too big, face too recognisable.
"Hello, Brendon," Jon said. "Been a while."
"Hey," Brendon said, grinning. "This is an unexpected honour. I thought you weren't much for these things?"
"He's accompanying me," Cassie said, looking amused. "He's forced himself into a suit for the occasion. You may even notice the lack of stubble."
"My God," Brendon said, laughing a little. "What will happen next?"
"You never know," Jon said. "I'm a settled man, these days. Everything is new."
"Indeed." Brendon cleared his throat. "You must forgive me my rudeness – allow me to introduce Miss Georgina Elliot."
Ryan drew in a deep breath and risked raising his eyes.
"Charmed, Miss Elliot." Jon bowed. "Jonathan Walker, at your service – and may I present my bride, the new Mrs Cassandra Walker?"
Cassie laughed, swatting Jon on the shoulder with her closed fan. "Are you going to get tired of doing that any time soon?"
"Never," Jon said, beaming at her.
Cassie's eyes were sparkling, and Jon was smiling down at her, and Ryan drew in a breath of relief. They were too wrapped up in each other to pay attention to him. There was a chance that he'd gotten away with this.
"I haven't wished you happy yet," Brendon said, grinning. "I heard the wedding was a lovely affair."
"Yes," Jon said, looking up. "Small and –"
"Quite perfect," Cassie finished, turning her ring on her finger.
"Certainly quiet, at any rate," Jon said, laughing. "Even with Ryan and Z there."
And Ryan was back in hot water again. He stared at his feet, willing Brendon to move on.
"Ah," Brendon said. "Yes. Ryan Ross does seem to be followed by adventure."
"Dogged by it, even," Jon said dryly. "It was a mercy any of us escaped unscathed."
"It did help that Alex is currently abroad, I think," Cassie added.
"True," Jon agreed. "Ryan and Z were practically in mourning without him."
Brendon scowled. "Oh, Greenwald," he said, scoffing, and Ryan stiffened, not quite able to help it. It wasn't Alex's fault that his hair was unfashionably long, or if it was then it shouldn't be a fault at all, and anyway the rumours that were spread about him were entirely unfair. Alex was as far from a rake as Ryan could imagine, but he was friendly to everyone – and then Z had gotten caught climbing through his window one night, which had done a lot to seal both of their reputations.
"Careful, Brendon," Jon said, shaking his head and looking far too amused. "Jealousy isn't a good look on anyone."
"Well," Brendon said quickly, "it was lovely running into you. We must be on our way, though. "
Jon grinned, his eyes sparkling. "Uh huh. Goodnight, Brendon. Miss Elliot, it was a pleasure."
Ryan curtseyed as Cassie bid a cheerful goodnight, already tucking her arm back into Jon's and leaning her head against his shoulder as they passed.
"Jon and I lived close to one another when we were boys," he told Ryan. "We move in different circles now, but he's a good sort, despite some of the company he keeps."
Ryan couldn't help but scowl.
"Oh, no," Brendon said quickly, "I'm not speaking of your cousin. I don't know Lady Elizabeth, but she seems a fun sort. It's – Jon Walker's friends are more bohemian than bad, I guess. Alexander Greenwald, and – do you know Ryan Ross? He's a close friend of your cousin's, I believe."
Ryan's heart was caught in his throat. He just managed to shake his head.
"He's – a little strange," Brendon continued, smiling briefly at Ryan, "but I had the opportunity to speak to him once, and for an evening he was – not at all as bad as people make him out to be."
Ryan couldn't quite make out his expression. He tried not to stare, willing Brendon to speak more about it.
Instead, Brendon laughed a little and shook his head. "Onwards?"
Ryan smiled, wondering if Brendon was honestly expecting him to demand in mime to be taken back and left alone. He pressed Brendon's arm, just a little.
Brendon ducked his head, his cheeks flushed. "Well, then," he said, and led Ryan on down the path. Ryan was privately starting to doubt there was any chance of their finding Z; they were drawing into the quieter parts of Vauxhall Gardens, the sound of music fading behind them, and he doubted Z would want to be anywhere that was even slightly cut off from the action. He didn't want to go back, though. He wanted to stay here, Brendon holding his arm, and pretend to be someone Brendon could look at the way he was, like Ryan had done something magical and brilliant without saying a word.
He shivered, and Brendon said, "Are you cold?"
Ryan glanced at him and shook his head, lips pressed tight.
Brendon frowned. "Your dress is quite thin – it's getting darker back here, you're sure you're not –" He reached out and touched Ryan's arm, light on the skin where Ryan's gloves ended, and Ryan shivered again, couldn't help it. He could feel his cheeks heating, and when he looked up Brendon was staring at him. Ryan swallowed, and took a few quick steps down the path, dragging Brendon forward until Brendon started moving again.
"Possibly we won't find your brother tonight," Brendon said after a moment, voice low. Ryan risked another look at him. Brendon's face was in shadows, and Ryan couldn't see him properly. "Do you have any other family here?"
Ryan shook his head.
Brendon said, "A carriage?"
Ryan shook his head again.
"Maybe," Brendon said, slowly, "you'll let me escort you home. I can – if it is close by, we could walk, or maybe hire a sedan chair if," he shot Ryan a small smile, "if your shoes are still pinching." He looked at Ryan. "Would that be acceptable?"
Ryan drew in a breath, and nodded.
"Rank insolence!" someone said, and knocked into Ryan heavily, pushing him off the path. Brendon jumped with Ryan, wrapping a protective arm around Ryan's waist, opening his mouth, but the men who had bumped into them stormed past without stopping. "Really," the first man continued, "the youth of today –" and Ryan blinked. This was why he didn't come to balls that often, he remembered, catching his breath. There were inevitably the kind of people there who hated him just for not being old, or for not pretending to be old.
"Are you alright?" Brendon said, breathless, and Ryan realised that they were standing closer than ever before, off the path in the shelter of a large tree, branches spread up and around them. He blinked at Brendon and nodded, but Brendon didn't let go of him; his grip tightened, if anything, and Ryan was caught in the circle of Brendon's arms.
"I'm being horribly forward," Brendon said, voice rough, "but you keep looking at me like that, and it's, it's a little hard to keep my head."
Ryan stared at him, and Brendon looked away, mouth twisting down. He looked as though he was about to step away, and Ryan couldn't deal with that, not tonight. He only had tonight. He leaned in, instead, closing the tiny distance between them, and pressed his mouth uncertainly to Brendon's.
Brendon breathed in sharply. Ryan adjusted a little, their noses brushing, their masks catching against each other as he kissed the curve of Brendon's mouth. Brendon's eyes were closed tight, and for a moment Ryan wondered if this was it, Brendon was going to push him away and lead him stiffly away for a lecture on the proper behaviour of ladies – or, God, what if Brendon decided that a lady would never do this, what if he leapt backward and cried Aha! and Ryan would be destroyed, no matter the inheritance his father had left behind. He knew exactly how dangerous this was.
Then Brendon sighed, and Ryan realised that it could be something very different. Brendon's eyelids lifted, and he raised his hand, pushing his mask up and away, his hand coming back to Ryan's waist with the mask dangling by its ribbons from his fingers. Ryan curved his hand around Brendon's cheek, stroking at the skin of his temple and down to his chin, tilting Brendon's mouth up, and Brendon reached up to hold on to Ryan's wrist. His eyelashes were fluttering very slightly against his skin, and Ryan wanted to stare at him like this, skin so vulnerable with the mask gone. Ryan wished he could talk, wished he could ask: Have you ever done this before?
Brendon opened his mouth and Ryan pressed light, darting kisses against it. His own mask was still pressing into Brendon's cheek, but Brendon didn't seem to mind, didn't try to push it away – seemed to know Ryan needed it there. Brendon's fingers dug into Ryan's waist and Ryan gasped and licked into Brendon's mouth.
He was doing a horrible job at staying in character, he knew – Z would be disgusted – but he couldn't bring himself to care, especially when Brendon made a startled, stammering sound, low in his throat. Ryan closed his eyes and sank against Brendon, glad for Brendon's steadying hand at his waist. He was still shivering, and his knees felt weak. Ladies were probably allowed to swoon, he managed to think, then suddenly he was leaning back against the tree and Brendon was pressed up all against him and Ryan was revising his thoughts about Brendon's previous experience, because he was being kissed more thoroughly than he had been in a long, long time.
Brendon broke away, finally, chest rising and falling, two spots of colour high on his cheeks. Ryan was struggling to breathe through the damned corset, though he was rather glad for the restricting layers of his skirts. Brendon stammered, "I didn't – I'm sorry, I shouldn't," and Ryan reached for him again, pulled Brendon in and made a breathless, grateful noise when Brendon kissed him again, winding his fingers in Brendon's hair. Brendon moved back a tiny bit, frowning, and said, "Did you just –" and Ryan kissed him again, to ward off any more awkward questions.
Eventually Brendon stumbled backwards and stroked at Ryan's face with a burning hand, tucking a curl of hair behind his ear. Ryan turned his mouth into Brendon's hand helplessly, nuzzling against his palm. Brendon, he mouthed, Brendon's skin salty and hot against his lips, and Brendon said, "I should, I should get you home."
Ryan looked up at him. Brendon was pale and looked uncertain again, but his eyes fucking burned when they rested on Ryan, and it was all Ryan could do to keep from lolling back against the tree once more.
"That is," Brendon said, "if you are not too dreadfully offended, at least."
Brendon's hand was still warm on Ryan's hip. Ryan leaned forward and put his arms around Brendon's neck for a moment. He tucked his face against Brendon's neck, above the high collar, hiding his face there. Please, he mouthed, and Brendon's hands tightened, holding Ryan right there.