"You've brought yourself to quite a state, haven't you?"
The man with the raging hangover opened his eyelids very gingerly. The vertigo hadn't passed yet, not entirely, and the room spun slowly in a nauseating fashion. Silently he renewed the morning's vow concerning cheap alcohol. He closed his eyes again; one brief glimpse had been more than enough to confirm the evidence of his ears, that his visitor was the one person he'd dreaded seeing.
"Come to gloat?" He endeavored to suppress all emotion from his voice; bad enough it creaked like a rusty hinge.
"Gloat?" His guest's voice also was carefully even – there was no way to determine if gloating had been his true intent. Probably not, though if anyone had cause to mock Ray's current sorry state, it was Florian.
Silence persisted, and at long last Ray could bear it no longer, and pried open his gritty eyes. The room jiggled and swirled alarmingly before settling down to the ccasional jitter. He swallowed bile, willing his uncertain stomach to calmness. Definitely he'd have no more of that particular vintage – damn stuff was nearly vinegar anyway.
As expected, Florian was still there, but he'd crossed from the door to peer out the garret's only window. "You can't see much from here. Only rooftops."
"My cell had no windows at all." Ray shifted in his chair, feeling the tug of healing flesh across his back. He tried to suppress a flinch and saw the slight narrowing of Florian's perceptive eyes. "I'm surprised the setting doesn't appeal to your romantic nature, Florian. It's terribly 'la vie de la Boheme,' don't you think?"
"That's a good attitude," Florian prompted. "Keep up your spirits."
Annoying brat! "If you haven't come to gloat, why the hell have you come?" Without waiting for an answer he pulled himself from the sagging chair and flung open the ancient bureau. His fingers sorted through his meager possessions, clawing underneath everything, searching to no avail for the stub of a smoke he'd saved from the night before. "Where's that damn cigarette—"
There was a cigar in Florian's outstretched hand, a slim, perfectly-rolled cigar, the kind Ray'd always smoked…before. His mouth watered at the mere sight of it. His nostrils flaring in expectation, he ran it under his nose, nodding in approval. "Well, now. Thank you, Florian."
He fumbled for a match; Florian took it from his shaky hands and struck it. A fear of what he might see in Florian's eyes made Ray turn away once the cigar was lit, sprawling defiantly in the chair as if daring his former bondsman to comment. He drew the aromatic smoke into his lungs, closing his eyes in bliss. It'd been so very long since he'd been able to enjoy expensive tobacco such as this; in prison, waiting for trial, he'd been lucky to scavenge the occasional cheap cigarette. "Ah, Florian. I taught you well about the finer things in life, didn't I?"
Florian sniffed. "You hardly needed to teach me, Noir. I am a de Rochefort, after all."
"Much good that did you." Ray took another long drag on the cigar and regarded his guest. "Are you going to stand there all day? Sit, sit. I'm sure you'll find a seat to your liking – try the bed. I'd offer you wine, but I'm afraid I drank it all last night, and I haven't got a sou left to buy any more. Wasn't up to de Rochefort standards anyway."
Florian eyed the sagging bed with a dubious glance, settling instead on the chair by the rickety table. Ray smoked, watching him through slitted eyes. "So. You haven't answered my question. Why are you here?"
"I wanted to see you. That's all."
"And what do you see?" Ray waved expansively at the garret. "Would you care for a tour of my glorious estate? My extraordinary possessions?"
"More likely you've come to see the famous ruin, eh?" He laughed, trying to blot out his bitterness. "My possessions given away, my famous jewels gone, my estate auctioned to some rich nobody…"
"…the artworks in that secret chamber by your bedroom in the grubby hands of middle-class merchants…" Florian flashed him an arch look. "Or do you suppose the new owners haven't discovered that room yet? Wait – were you planning to steal everything back?" Florian shook his head and waggled a finger, much like a schoolteacher. "I shouldn't try it, if I were you; the police are watching you, Noir."
"'Noir' doesn't exist any more. There's nothing left of him. I assure you my spirit is quite broken."
"Surely you're not despairing...or are you just sulking? There are more important things than money, you know."
"Are there? Money is better than poverty, Florian – if only for financial reasons." Ray snorted. "Oh, that's a rather good epigram, if I say so myself. I'll have to remember it."
"You're ruined, Noir." Florian's brows drew together. "That's hardly a laughing matter."
"Who said I'm laughing?" Ray drew on the cigar again, but it tasted bitter now, no matter how expensive the tobacco. He tamped it on a plate and left it to sputter out. Perhaps later it would taste better. After Florian had gone.
"So," Florian inquired, "what will you do now?"
"Now? I've no earthly idea." Ray shrugged. "But I expect I'll think of a plan. Someone's bound to need me for something."
"You mean you'll hire yourself out as a thief? Noir, Ray, I meant it about the police watching you. Solomon told me—"
"No, I'm done stealing," Ray said, dismissing the suggestion with an airy wave. "I was thinking more about selling. Maybe after these lashes heal I can––"
"What, sell yourself?" Florian protested. "But you can't!"
"Think nobody'd want me? I admit I'm a little worn around the edges, but I've still got my looks—"
"NO!" Florian bolted upright, striding across the room to kneel at Ray's feet. There was fire in those glorious amethyst eyes, fire and emotion, and Ray was reminded of the first time he'd seen Florian's impassioned expression. Beauty indeed, and the rarest, most exquisite jewels in the world. "You mustn't, Ray. I won't allow it!" The hand on Ray's leg was warm, nearly feverish. "The things they'd do to you, the debasing, horrid things––"
Ray could do nothing but drop his head back and roar with laughter. "Oh, Florian – you're so utterly predictable! You never change. Did you think I'd prostitute myself as rough trade for sailors? No, my dear boy. I assure you I was thinking more of ladies of a certain age, who like to be on the arm of a dashing, somewhat disreputable charmer. Don't you think I'd fill that bill?"
He was surprised to see how quickly Florian's flush faded to an ivory pallor, how his passion cooled to frank appraisal. The steady gaze unnerved him, but nowhere near as much as Florian's next words. "No, Noir, I don't think you fill that bill. Not any more." The young man stood, regarding Ray's surprised expression. "I think you're finished in society. For good. Perhaps I may never change, but you have, and the saddest thing is you don't even realize it.
"It would've been different if they'd sent you to prison. I agree; the shallow women you speak of would've found you irresistible under those circumstances. There's nothing quite so attractive to them as a man with a past. But Ray, they whipped you instead – publicly! – and then let you go, as if you didn't matter. You were made a laughingstock, not a hero." Florian's intense eyes skewered him. "I'm sorry, Ray, but they stripped Noir of his mystery, and took your dignity in the process. That isn't something one recovers easily."
"Oh?" With great effort Ray controlled the rush of indignation rising inside him, but his cheeks heated nonetheless. "And you're an expert on this, I suppose—"
"—But I am." Florian's voice rose, colored by passion. "Once you've been put into chains, forced to act against your will, made to obey a master's whims because you had the misfortune to be sold to him—" Ray flinched. "—Not to mention having your innocence taken from you by force…well, Ray," Florian leaned closer, his eyes glittering with diamond-sharp light. "I'd say that makes me an expert on humiliation, wouldn't you agree?"
His voice quavered a bit at the end, but Florian's face remained strong, and Ray had to admire his courage even as he felt the unfamiliar stirrings of shame. Images flashed into his thoughts, images and memories of Florian chained, beaten by his command; Florian, eyes downcast, acting as his servant; Florian writhing in a fever, devastated by opium addiction. He thought of Azura, and a tide of despair swept through him. Damn you, Azura. Damn us both for what we've done. "Florian," Ray murmured. "I'm sorry.”
"Sorry. That erases it all, I suppose. Are you waiting for me to forgive you?"
Ray shook his head. "No. I'd hardly expect you to. I wouldn't, if circumstances were reversed."
"Spare me. Humility doesn't suit you. But you may thank me, if you wish."
"Why do you think you were released, instead of hanged?" Florian drew himself up to his full height and looked down his aristocratic nose at the ruins of Phantom Thief Noir. "I was the one who begged for your release, Ray. I was the one who suggested the public humiliation of a whipping instead of a hanging or a prison term. I was very convincing. Because of me you're free, Ray, free to enjoy whatever kind of life you've got left. So yes, perhaps you should say 'thank you.'"
Florian laughed. "Me? I'm not the bastard here. I'm pure Bourbon blood, remember? Apparently that blood is good for something after all, if only for impressing the magistrates." He leaned down, his hands on the arms of Ray's chair, and looked him squarely in the eye, his face triumphant. His eyes blazed, boring through Ray's soul. "I've finally paid you back, you see. With interest."
Dammit. When had life become so unbearable? Not even the poverty, the disgrace – he'd been poor, and survived. But this… He had to admire Florian, really he did. The boy had ruined him completely, all in the name of saving his life. Brilliant. He hadn't known Florian had it in him.
But more than the strike of the lash, more than the disgrace he'd borne and would continue to suffer, it was the loss of Florian that stung him the most. It was quite clear Florian hated him. Perhaps he deserved it, but it pained him more than he would have imagined.
Ray gathered himself, forcing a casual attitude. "So, you're free of me at last," he said mildly. "Free to do what you please."
Florian straightened. He regarded Ray for another moment, and then turned away and crossed the room to look out the window again.
"You seem to like that view."
"It's deceptive. So open and so limited at the same time. All that sky and sunlight, and yet one can't reach it through this narrow frame. Leaves one greedy and always wanting. Rather like you, I should say."
"Yes, well, you 'say' bluntly, Florian, that's for certain."
"I learned that from you." Florian turned to face him. His expression was as clear and unclouded as the sky beyond the window. "I should be going."
"I suppose you'll return home now?"
"Home?" Florian shook his head, a rueful smile touching his lips. "No. I shan't be returning 'home,' at least not to my family estate. It burned to the ground, remember?"
"Of course. How stupid of me. Then where—"
"You needn't worry about me, Ray. Rather surprisingly I've inherited money from a relative in America. A great-uncle. I didn't know him, but apparently he was quite successful, and he's left his fortune to me. I'm the last of the de Rocheforts, you see."
"Are you, indeed." Ray murmured. "Well, that's lucky for you, isn't it? You're not only free,you're rich." He laughed then, because really, there was nothing else he could do, and the situation seemed darkly ironic. "Quite a reversal of fortune, isn't it? You're out there in the limitless sky and I'm stuck in this dark hole." Damn. How he wished he had a drink. "So go the scales of fate, eh?"
"Perhaps they're the scales of justice."
"Ouch. There's that bluntness again; don't overdo it, boy." Yes, a drink, an entire bottle, that's what he needed – and not that vile near-vinegar, but good wine, the kind he'd stocked in his cellar. The kind he used to—
He stopped before he embarrassed himself by wallowing in despair. Wishing had never gotten him anywhere, and being maudlin did not suit his nature. Better to change the subject. "So, will you stay in Paris, Florian?"
"Not far away." Florian answered airily. "I've purchased an estate that became available rather suddenly. By the way, I've offered Laila a position, and she's accepted. I imagine she'll drive the staff mad, but I want her there. She was always very kind to me."
"That's…very good of you," Ray said, discovering he meant it. "She deserves a decent life. "Besides, she keeps showing up here, weeping all the damn time over my sorry state. I can't stand it. You'll have to distract her, Florian, keep her away."
"She loves you, Ray. I doubt she'll stay away completely." Florian frowned at him. "You're still appallingly selfish. Completely heartless."
"I cared for you, Florian," Ray said, the words coming before he had time to stop them.
"Did you?" The blond head turned again. "Well, that doesn't matter now, does it?"
"I suppose not." Damn it. Damn it all. Time to end this charade of manners. "Well, I'm sure you've seen what you came to see, Florian. Go back to your new estate and be happy there." Go home, go away, before I embarrass myself further.
Florian peered out dreamily over the rooftops, as if mesmerized. "I shall. It's a charming place, lavishly appointed. Almost a Moorish sense of décor. You’d like it."
"I don't know; that sort of thing can be gauche, if it's overdone."
"Perhaps." Florian pushed the hair out of his eyes in a gesture so charmingly familiar that Ray's heart clenched. "I was lucky to get it for the price. Apparently the owner had a sudden reversal of fortune, and the property was auctioned for a rather modest sum, part and parcel – including a great many artworks hidden in a secret chamber off the master bedroom."
Ray suddenly understood what it meant to have one's jaw drop in shock. Stunned, he rose from his chair, ignoring the pull on his back, and staggered towards Florian. "You mean…you…you bought my place?"
"Well," Florian said casually, "there wasn't any likelihood you'd be able to afford it. And I did come to like the décor…overdone though it may be."
"It's not overdone," Ray gritted between his teeth, "it's in perfect taste."
"Ah, but it's not my taste, Ray." Florian moved closer, examining him intently. "And I'm the master now."
So this, Ray thought, a smile growing on his face despite his absolute shock, this is true retribution. Dawning understanding deepened the smile to a grin of utter delight. "And I suppose there was no rich uncle, was there? You stole my paintings from that room and used the money to purchase the estate."
"And to purchase your freedom. I'm afraid Bourbon blood doesn't really count for much." Florian cocked his head and smiled proudly. "If I do say so myself, it was quite a feat stealing the paintings out from under the noses of the police. Quite thrilling, in fact."
"I'm impressed," Ray acknowledged, inclining his head in an appreciative bow. "You are indeed the master."
Florian beamed brightly. "I'm so glad you understand. And I confess I learned quite a bit from you. Which reminds me, Ray. I did want to ask your help with something."
"How can I refuse? Apparently I'm in your debt."
That earned him another radiant smile. Was it possible that Florian didn't hate him after all? Ray considered that he must have truly lost his mind, because Florian's smile seemed the best possible reward.
"You see," Florian continued, "though I have an excellent staff, including Laila, it appears I'm lacking a valet. I require someone with taste and acumen, who can be of assistance to me as I assume my position as master of the estate." His gaze traveled slowly up Ray's body, coming to rest on his face. "I wouldn't mind if he were decorative, as well. Perhaps with burning emerald eyes, if I may be disgustingly poetic."
Heart thudding, Ray finally comprehended the truth: the Hand of Fate is relentless, but it is not always cruel. "Please do," he managed.
"Of course," Florian said, "he'd have to be someone willing to do exactly what he's ordered, promptly and without protest. And certainly he'd have to be discreet, as the assistant to the new Phantom Thief Noir." He stepped into Ray's space and looked up at him, a deceptively innocent expression in his remarkable eyes. "Can you think of someone who could fill those requirements?"
"I think I can," Ray replied. "In fact, I believe I know just the person for you."
Florian regarded him a moment longer, and then reached inside his coat pocket and withdrew another expensive cigar, placing it between his own lips. "In that case, Ray," he said, sounding perhaps more than slightly smug, "light my cigar, will you?"
A smile quirked Ray's mouth as he reached for a match with steady hands. "Certainly," he answered graciously. "As you command…master."