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Wealth Seeks Company

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It's Sean that convinces Mark to go to the City of Elua, to leave the University at Angeloume behind. Mark can hardly disagree with Sean's assessment that his ideas and designs need to be spread further, which will never happen if he keeps attending useless lecture after useless lecture in Siovale, so he carefully packs up his drafting materials and travels east in the spring.

The City itself does not impress Mark. Putting so many nobles together in one place makes for ridiculously unimportant social intrigue that Mark has precisely zero interest in, but having no interest in which noble ladies visit which Houses of the Night Court doesn't stop the gossip from getting in the way of Mark trying to have serious conversations with people who have the means to fund his ideas. (Mark, technically, is a member of the nobility. Compared to the rest of the families in the City, though, his lineage hardly gets his foot in the door.)

After a month of spinning uselessly around the noble quarter trying to garner support, Sean finally gets around to paying Mark a visit.

"I think you could use a visit to the Night Court," is the first thing Sean says after looking Mark up and down.

"If I hear one more useless thing about the Night Court, I am going to pack up and go to Tiberium," Mark replies. "I'm here for business, not to waste money on a courtesan."

"It wouldn't be wasting if we go to Bryony House," Sean argues.

"I don't care what kind of sexual pursuits you consider worth it, I'm not going. I am not very happy with you right now, Sean." Mark tries to close the door, but Sean shoves his foot between it and the jamb in time to stop him. His wince does not engender any swells of sympathy in Mark.

"Hey, hey, I'm here to help. Bryony House, Mark, is full of budding financial geniuses that just happen to serve Naamah. I mean, yeah, they're known for gambling, but Bryony adepts that make their marques work for the palace treasury all the time. Anyone who has money knows an adept or four at Bryony -- the House motto is 'wealth seeks company.'"

"I'm listening," Mark says and steps back to let Sean in the door.

***

The Court of the Night-Blooming Flowers takes up a significant portion of the City of Elua, especially when including the seedy area surrounding it that everyone calls Night's Doorstep. Mark thinks it is all a waste of space.

Mark has only heard it called the Night Court, and suspects he would doubly mark himself as an outsider to the City were he to use the full name. Not that he wants to talk about anything having to do with Naamah's Servants, but it's inevitable when half the gossip in the City revolves around them.

Sean spends an hour extolling the virtues of each of the thirteen houses of the Night Court, his words lingering lovingly on the adepts of Jasmine House, whose motto is 'for pleasure's sake'; the delicate otherworldly beauty of the adepts of Cereus House; the never ending laughter in Orchis House. He speaks less glowingly of the other Houses, Mark could care less about the comfort and healing to be found in the arms of a Balm House adept, or the modesty of Alyssum House.

Bryony House, though, contains the courtesans most gifted in mathematics and gambling, producing financial advisors and treasury agents out of adepts who have paid back their House by completing their marques.

Sean laughs unkindly when Mark questions him about marques, elaborate tattoos that run from the nape of the neck to the base of the spine, the sign of Servants of Naamah. Mark snaps at him that of course he knows what they are and what they mean, and Sean changes the subject after grudgingly explaining that when an adept accepts an assignation, they expect a patron gift in addition to the fee given to the House to help earn their marque. The completion of an adept's marque signifies that they have repaid their House for the training and are free stay or to leave to pursue whatever they choose.

Mark is loathe to use part of his savings on a courtesan, even for potential financial gain, but he's forced to admit to himself that nothing he's tried on his own has worked, and he is willing to do anything for a chance at changing everything.

***

The Second of Bryony House greets them at the door because Sean, Mark has learned, has something of a reputation around the Night Court. It isn't a surprise, but if Sean's excessive spending gets Mark special treatment, he doesn't mind.

It also isn't surprising when Sean abandons him within five minutes of their arrival, slinking his way across the common area of the House, which is full of lounging adepts and tables upon tables of games of chance being played. The last time Mark sees Sean that night he's already got money down on a game and a petite blonde leaning over his shoulder, pointing at his cards.

The Second leads Mark to a small antechamber, away from the adepts vying for patrons and the general din of the common area.

"I understand that you are here for advice on a business venture," the Second says, gesturing for Mark to sit. "Lord Parker mentioned the amount you are willing to part with in order to obtain this advice, and I must warn you that it will only get you an adept who has yet to complete their marque, and thus is less experienced."

"That's fine." What he ultimately wants is an adept that can be persuaded to work for him -- as a financial advisor, of course, not a personal courtesan -- if everything goes well, and one who has already chosen to stay at Bryony House and tithe a portion of their earnings after completing their marque would not be an ideal candidate.

The Second looks at him for a long minute, like he's expecting Mark to have something else to say. When Mark remains silent, he asks, "Do you have a preference for a male or female?"

"Male," Mark answers without thinking, though he'd intended to remain neutral.

The Second smiles at him for the first time. "I think you'll be best off with Divya or Eduardo. Let me see which of them is available." This apparently involves little effort on the Second's part; he sends a young apprentice running off somewhere with a flick of his wrist. The silence that follows is probably uncomfortable by most standards, but Mark studies a painting on the far wall and waits.

A few minutes later an apprentice comes dashing back inside, Mark isn't sure if it's even the same one. She whispers in the Second's ear and he nods once before sending her away again.

"Divya is occupied, so let's see if Eduardo is to your liking, shall we?" he says, standing up and gesturing for Mark to precede him through the door. Mark wants to say that it doesn't matter if the adept is to his liking or not, but Sean's warning to not offend someone as important as the Second of a House echoes in his ears and he holds his tongue.

***

The adept is waiting in a corner of the common room, smiling widely and extending a hand when the Second introduces Mark and leaves them, like it is nothing more than a normal introduction for business purposes, like Mark isn't paying for the dubious privilege of being there.

Eduardo is taller than Mark. He has dark hair and even darker eyes, his expression is friendly and open, the smile curving his lips is altogether too charming. He is a patch of quiet calm in an otherwise exuberant setting.

Eduardo is to Mark's liking.

It's a problem.

"I think it would be best if we went somewhere more private to discuss your business venture," Eduardo says with a wave of his hand at the rowdy game tables. There's an adept across the room slowly unbuttoning her patron's shirt; Mark catches Eduardo rolling his eyes at the display.

"You're not like them," slips out of Mark's mouth -- he hadn't intended to say it, but it's too late to take it back. Eduardo raises one thick eyebrow and Mark gestures to the other Bryony adepts in the room, strewn about the various tables like brightly colored flowers, their patrons pallid shadows near them rolling dice, turning over cards. Sean is there, somewhere. Eduardo is as richly dressed as any of the adepts that Mark can see, but his tunic and pants are of a more sedate hue. The lack of bold color, however, does nothing to disguise the length of Eduardo's long limbs, lithe and graceful. Mark swallows and looks away.

"Well, that's why you're here to see me and not any of them, isn't it?" Eduardo replies with another smile, a gentle hand on Mark's shoulder guiding him down a short hall, away from the noise.

"Explain," Mark demands. He needs to know that he will get what he has come for.

"Games of chance are amusing, but I prefer using my skills in ways that matter," Eduardo replies, then a corner of his mouth quirks upward. "That and I was fostered in Balm House until I was ten, so I'm a bit calmer than most of the other Bryony adepts, but you aren't here to listen to this. Tell me about your idea," he prompts, opening a door to reveal a small but well-appointed room, a bed the most prominent feature, but a desk of elegant dark wood with neat stacks of paper covered in figures is what catches Mark's eye.

Mark begins to explain in short bursts, words and phrases tumbling over each other in their haste to come out. He watches Eduardo's hands as he goes through the motions of making tea; not having Eduardo's full attention would normally annoy Mark, but he doesn't get the impression that he is being ignored, even when he realizes he has just explained the same thing three different ways, momentarily distracted by the way the long sleeves of Eduardo's tunic hitch back to expose his wrists as he pours two cups of tea, sliding one across the table to rest in front of Mark's chair.

Mark only realizes he has stopped talking when Eduardo begins to, asking surprisingly intelligent questions for someone who has all of five minutes' knowledge of Mark's ideas. He refills Mark's cup two more times during the course of their discussion, and each time Mark cannot look away from the jut of his wrist bones.

"You have seed money?" Eduardo questions, stretching lazily out on the couch, one knee bent to rest his bare foot on the arm.

"I have some, but not enough," Mark replies. "And I'm here spending some of it on you, so I hope you'll provide a good return on my investment."

Eduardo laughs, his head thrown back, long neck on display. "I could go to the game room right now and double your money," he offers casually.

"Oh?"

"Yes. I can tell you don't believe me, you know, it's in the set of your shoulders. Ah," Eduardo says, getting up and crossing the room until he's behind Mark's chair, his hands resting on Mark's shoulders for a moment before unexpectedly squeezing. "Don't tense up, I'd be a poor representative of my House if I couldn't read you, but you are a harder study than most."

Mark can't help the way his head drops forward when Eduardo digs his fingers into the nape of his neck, it feels too good to do otherwise, and he's paying for this -- there's no benefit in resisting.

"There," Eduardo says after much too short an interval, circling back around to perch on the table directly in front of Mark, knees mere inches away. "Now, I've got some potential investments for you to look at to start building on your seed money, and while you're doing that, I'll make good on my claim. I'll be back."

It turns out Eduardo can't just double Mark's money, he can triple it.

"How did you...?"

Eduardo shrugs. "The other patrons didn't realize I was playing on behalf of my own, so they were more careless with their money," he replies honestly. "And I looked at them like this," he demonstrates, looking beguilingly through the dark sweep of his lashes at Mark, who swallows, mouth dry.

Eduardo either doesn't notice his reaction or chooses to ignore it, laughing a little to himself as he sits back down on the couch.

"Does," Mark licks his lips and tries again, "does this mean you think my idea is viable for the current market?" he asks, knowing Eduardo's answer could mean the end of this partnership before it has scarcely begun, but if Eduardo doesn't understand that what Mark intends will change everything, it's better to walk away now than waste any more time on this beautiful adept, gambling successes or no.

"Of course not," Eduardo replies. "There's no place at all for something like this, you'll have to carve that out for yourself. But if you can do that, I think this will be one of the most brilliant things Terre d'Ange will ever see."

"I like you," Mark decides aloud, and gives a third of the money Eduardo had won back to him as a patron gift to put towards his marque. The smile he gets in return is worth it.

***

Sean never has to coax Mark into visiting the Night Court again, but the knowing grin and wink he directs at Mark whenever he goes to see Eduardo obviously means he thinks Mark is sleeping with Eduardo in addition to the consulting work -- which he isn't. The most contact there ever is between them is the impromptu shoulder and neck rubs Eduardo seems to think are necessary for Mark's wellbeing, but Mark sees no need to let Sean know he can't even attract the interest of the courtesan he's paying.

The route through Night's Doorstep to the Night Court becomes as familiar to Mark as his own invention, as does the way through Bryony House to Eduardo's room. The investments suggested by Eduardo are doing well, Mark's been able to start work on a new prototype on the proceeds.

Each time he visits Eduardo, which has become more and more frequent over the past few weeks, he leaves a patron gift. Sean has told him repeatedly that he is giving too much, but Mark doesn't care as long as Eduardo's advice continues to prove invaluable, which, so far, it has. And, he reasons, every bit he gives gets Eduardo closer to completing his marque, closer to being free of his debt to Bryony House. Mark doesn't think about the money Eduardo is surely getting from his other patrons. Ones he probably sleeps with.

"Yes, well, Lord Parker's idea of paying for an assignation and giving a patron gift is shoving a bag of coins into the front of his pants and telling adepts to retrieve it," Eduardo says with obvious distaste when Mark mentions Sean's opinion on patron gifts.

"Oh," Mark says, something clicking into place in his head. "After the first time, your fee went down -- the House fee. I didn't think much of it at the time, but it was because we're not having sex, wasn't it. You can still use the patron gift towards your marque, though, can't you? Without the sex," he clarifies needlessly, trying not to think about what he hopes the answer will be.

"I'm still doing you a service, aren't I? It's enough," Eduardo replies, a faint blush rising on his cheeks. "Though I do owe you for the first assignation, as I was led to believe that you, ah, wanted pleasure as well as financial advice. I mean, it's fine that you don't, I'm used to it. I can find another adept to trade for, if that would please you," he says quickly, looking down at the rug.

"No." Mark frowns, trying to puzzle out the meaning behind Eduardo's words. "No, this is fine."

***

A week later, the detritus of Mark's latest prototype are strewn over every available surface of Eduardo's room excepting the bed and an Eduardo-sized space on the couch -- Mark doesn't think he's left for longer than an hour in the last three days apart from going home to sleep. Eduardo is sitting on the couch, bent over columns of figures from Mark's latest investment, as if it's perfectly normal for a patron to spend so much time with him.

Mark is trying to work out the crick in his back while surreptitiously taking in the sight of Eduardo hunched earnestly over his accounts, dark hair falling carelessly into his eyes, the long column of his throat bare -- it does strange things to his thoughts.

"Don't most adepts have their full marque by your age?" Mark asks in a rare fit of personal curiosity, unable to stop staring at the smooth, unadorned skin at the base of Eduardo's neck. He realizes a moment later that the question is incredibly rude, implying that Eduardo is somehow inferior to the other adepts of his House when Mark feels exactly the opposite.

Eduardo just laughs from where he's bent over the stack of papers. "Some do," he allows. "Mine is almost complete, though, thanks to you," he pauses, and Mark can tell he's thinking carefully about whatever he is going to say next. "It's considered gauche to display an incomplete marque, but -- do you want to see? Since you've paid for most of it." His manner is almost shy as he peers at Mark sidelong, one hand rising to rub at the back of his neck.

"I -- yes." There are very few things that Mark would like to see more, but he isn't prepared for the casual way Eduardo stands and strips off his shirt like it means nothing to him, turning his back toward Mark, and Mark feels the hot burn of jealousy as he wonders just how many other patrons have seen the marque in more intimate conditions. Of course it's beautiful, even in its unfinished state. The design is based on the leaves and curling tendrils of the bryony plant, which Mark only recognizes after walking the halls of Bryony House so often. It spans the full width of Eduardo's back, stopping a few inches below his nape. When it reaches there, it will be complete.

Without thinking, Mark reaches out and traces the delicate loop of two entwined tendrils, a stylized cluster of berries limned just to the left of Eduardo's spine. He hears Eduardo suck in a sudden breath through his teeth, feels the shiver that runs up his back through his fingertips, still pressed against warm skin.

"It suits you," Mark mutters, snatching his hand back as if burned.

Eduardo bows his head, unmoving. "Thank you," he says quietly. "You're the only one that's seen it besides my marquist."

"I don't understand," Mark finally says. "You're here, you're a Servant of Naamah, you must have other patrons whose company you enjoy far more than mine. Am I preventing you from seeing them? Why do you let me stay?"

"No, Mark. What is there to understand?" Eduardo asks, moving away and pulling his shirt on with his back turned, covering the marque. "The Second must have told you."

"Told me what? We barely spoke, he was mostly interested in expressing how unimpressed he was with the amount of money I had to spend."

There's a small snort of cynical laughter from Eduardo. "I'm sure."

Standing, Mark circles around to face Eduardo, because he has no idea what he is supposed to know and why it has upset Eduardo. His arms are crossed over his chest, holding his unbuttoned shirt closed. Eduardo meets Mark's eyes for a moment before looking away. "If he didn't tell you, you're even more confusing than I originally thought."

"Would you just tell me whatever it is I'm supposed to know and stop being cryptic?" Mark demands, impatient. "I need to have this prototype finished before the meeting Sean arranged with Lord Thiel, and if you don't tell me I'm going to be distracted for hours and I won't get as much work done and that is not acceptable."

"The Second, he didn't tell you that I -- that I'm flawed?"

"Flawed?" Mark repeats, baffled. He cannot fathom how that word could ever describe Eduardo and tells him so before he can think through what he's saying. "No, he didn't say anything like that. I don't see how that could possibly apply to you."

"It's why -- why my marque isn't complete yet," Eduardo explains haltingly, "my patrons, they come to me for investment advice, usually not anything else, so my fees are lower -- your patron gifts are -- if you didn't know, then why..."

"You aren't making sense," Mark says brusquely, catching Eduardo's arm where it's folded tightly against his chest and pushing him to sit down on the couch, Eduardo doesn't put up any sort of resistance. Mark sits down next to him after moving a pile of his own sketches, close enough to touch. "Start from the beginning."

"Okay," Eduardo says in a small voice, completely opposite to the usual confidence he exudes when explaining the algorithms he uses to predict the investment markets. "Do you know anything about Favrielle no Eglantine?" Mark looks at him blankly, he only recognizes the name Eglantine because it is one of the other Night Court houses and Eduardo smiles a little at his reaction. "Of course you don't."

What Mark gleans from Eduardo's story about Favrielle is this: she was injured by a jealous rival before she could officially become an adept of Eglantine House, her face scarred, and for some inane reason the scar meant she could never become an adept because she no longer met the appearance requirements of her House. But she was yet indebted to the House, so she still had a marque price, which was later paid in full by a wealthy patron that liked the clothing she designed.

Mark has no idea what Favrielle has to do with Eduardo.

He studies Eduardo's face carefully, wondering if he'd somehow overlooked some small, irrelevant scar on his skin, but sees nothing besides the features he's become so accustomed to over the last months. During a pause in his narrative Eduardo catches him looking and smiles lopsidedly. "Not my face," he says, "otherwise I'd never have been allowed to become an adept."

"Then what?"

"You're so impatient," Eduardo says, but his tone is fond. He lectures Mark at least once a week to be patient and wait, money doesn't fall from the sky.

"Tell me something I don't know," Mark replies, wishing Eduardo would just get on with it. "I'm going to leave if you don't get to the point soon."

"Fine."

Mark is not prepared for Eduardo to stand up and take his shirt off again, this time facing him, not to display the marque on his back. He averts his eyes automatically so he doesn't embarrass himself by staring at Eduardo's bare chest.

"No, look," Eduardo says, boldly reaching forward to cup Mark's jaw and tilt his face back; Mark tries not to look directly at his nipples, pink and taut in the cool air of the room. In his effort to not lean forward and do something entirely inappropriate, like run his tongue up Eduardo's sternum, he notices a network of fine white scars crisscrossing his chest, so old they are barely there at all.

"That's flawed?" he asks, disbelief clear in his voice, failing once again to control his impulse to reach out and touch Eduardo, tracing one scar from beginning to end. Eduardo abruptly drops his hand from Mark's chin.

"For a Servant of Naamah in the Night Court, yes," Eduardo says, taking a step backward to break the contact between them. The expression on Eduardo's face when Mark looks up from his body is one of grim satisfaction, like he's expecting Mark to pack up and go now that he's revealed he's human after all.

"That's ridiculous," Mark says flatly. "Are you really trying to tell me that your patrons don't sleep with you because of that?"

"You don't," Eduardo blurts out, crossing his arms over his chest again. "But if the Second didn't tell you, and you never even noticed before now, I really -- I really don't understand," his voice drops to a whisper.

Something tightens in Mark's chest, clenching painfully, but he can't think of anything to say.

"Sometimes... sometimes I think you want me, but you've never done anything even though you've bought and paid for me," Eduardo continues. "So I thought the Second must have mentioned it, and you didn't -- you're so hard to read. I'm sorry, this is -- I shouldn't have said that, any of it, I can pass your accounts on to Divya, he's just as good as I am -- "

"What? No." That is the last thing Mark wants. "I need you. How am I the confusing one here?"

Eduardo chokes on a laugh, eyes wide and dark with an expression Mark can't put a name to. "Trust me, you are."

"Fine," Mark says, annoyed. "For the record, I don't see why I'm supposed to care about a few scars or why you think they make you at all unattractive. I'm going back to work now."

He brushes past Eduardo on his way to the desk, sitting down heavily and staring blankly at the diagram in front of him. He picks up one of his pencils with the intent of altering a few dimensions before trying again with the actual materials, closing his mouth abruptly when he realizes he's on the verge of questioning Eduardo about the scaling. Mark can't help glancing over at him, taking in the slump of his shoulders, the tilt of his head, his expression a perplexing cross of confusion and something Mark can't place.

Mark spends the next two hours pointedly ignoring Eduardo. Eduardo ignores Mark right back, laying on the bed, shirtless, his back to the room -- Mark can't concentrate, sketches of spade-shaped bryony leaves appear in the margins of the drawing he's attempting to modify as if of their own volition. He sighs in exasperation and pushes back from the desk, breaking the uncomfortable silence by asking, "What is the top going to look like?"

"The top of what?" Eduardo replies after a few long moments, voice muffled.

"Your marque."

Mark looks away as Eduardo rolls over and starts fishing around under the bed; he startles a little when Eduardo is suddenly beside him, holding out a brass tube with a sheet of heavy vellum tucked inside. Mark unrolls it meticulously, careful not to touch the inked lines, careful not to show what the warmth of Eduardo's hand on his shoulder is doing to him.

He traces the intricate knot of tendrils with his eyes, trying to imagine the patience it would take to have the design limned onto the skin. He freezes when he feels hot breath on his cheek, his fingers tighten on the edges of the vellum. "Mark," Eduardo says softly in his ear.

"What?" he gets out in a relatively normal tone, trying to move as little as possible, but he still feels Eduardo's lips brush the shell of his ear, can't help the jolt the touch sends through his body. He puts a little space between them by leaning over the vellum to carefully roll it up, tucking the design safely away. When he turns to hand the tube back, Eduardo is still uncomfortably close, kneeling on the plush carpet next to the desk.

"Let me give you what you're owed," says Eduardo, carelessly tossing the design back under the bed without looking, eyes dark and trained on Mark.

"That's not necessary," Mark replies stiffly, anger flaring at the implication of obligation running under the surface of Eduardo's words.

He starts to stand, but Eduardo reaches out and places his hand on Mark's knee. "Wait."

"What?" Mark snaps again, but feels no satisfaction when Eduardo jerks his hand away and curls it into a fist in his own lap, dropping his gaze.

Then Eduardo sets his jaw, looking back up at Mark with a defiant tilt to his head, lips pressed together in a thin line. "There isn't a Night Court adept alive that will agree to a patron that they don't find pleasing in some way. In the end, it's our choice, and our choice alone. Lord Parker could offer my marque price a hundred times over and I'd sooner go trawling for patrons in the most disreputable tavern in Night's Doorstep than let him near me."

Mark says nothing, irritation cooling into confusion.

"Naamah help me," Eduardo mutters under his breath, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "You're brilliant, but sometimes you're so dense I think I could throw you in the Aviline River and you'd sink like a rock."

"Is there a point to this, or are you going to continue to insult me?" Mark grits out, the urge to leave like a lodestone on his chest, pointing him any direction but here.

"The point, Mark, is this." Eduardo moves quickly, rocking forward on his knees, bracing himself on Mark's thighs, long fingers spanning them easily. Mark's eyes are open as Eduardo kisses him, his lips part on their own accord, unthinkingly pliant. Eduardo kisses with purpose, tongue tracing the ridge of Mark's teeth, sliding invitingly against his own.

When Eduardo draws slowly away his eyes are heavy-lidded, lips wet and red; Mark is powerless to look at anything but Eduardo's mouth. "The point is," Eduardo repeats, the husky timbre of his voice low and alluring, "I want you, and I'd still want you if you were a goatherd without a penny to your name."

***

Mark's attention and energy has long been devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, books and diagrams, the heady rush of creation, obtaining wisdom when it crosses paths with his single-minded focus.

The rush of Eduardo's hands sliding under his shirt, leaving trails of heat in their wake, the feel of his lips pressing against his stomach, the weight of his arms curled around Mark's waist -- it feels like creation, the discovery of something significant but entirely unfamiliar. It's like nothing before, not his half-remembered fumbling with an unremarkable girl, nor the sharp, brittle memories of the sometimes-lover he'd left behind without a regret at the University.

The feeling of Eduardo's lush mouth wrapping around his cock defies description, his hands grip Mark's thighs tightly, leaving him awash on a wave of pleasure so strong it leaves him breathless, gasping, wanting. Their eyes meet when Eduardo looks up the length of Mark's chest, gaze hot and passionate, and Mark cannot look away. He jumps when Eduardo's fingers slide lower, but they do nothing more than stroke the skin. Mark has never been touched quite like this before, it makes his toes curl in the carpet and his hips jerk upward, seeking more.

"Stop, wait," he pants, knowing he is far too close to the edge and not wanting the end to come so soon, not if this is the only time he's owed.

Eduardo runs his tongue along the underside of Mark's cock as he slowly pulls off, one last lap at the tip leaving Mark trembling. The fingers retreat to the crease of his thigh, brushing lightly. Then Eduardo stands, and for a moment the evidence of his arousal is in Mark's direct line of sight before Eduardo takes his hands and pulls him out of the chair and toward the bed Mark has never touched.

"What do you want?" Eduardo whispers against his ear, head bowed as he mouths at the skin, the faint scrape of teeth against his earlobe makes Mark's breath catch in his throat. He's vaguely aware of Eduardo tugging at the sleeves of the shirt he's still half-wearing; he shudders and pushes forward, pressing his face against the cool skin of Eduardo's shoulder, arms curling around his waist once they're free of the restrictive clothing, his saliva-slick cock staining Eduardo's dark pants with precome.

Mark swallows, tries to force out coherent words. "Anything, everything." He tips his head to the side to allow Eduardo better access to his neck, shivering at every nip and kiss, unsteady on his feet.

"We've got all night," Eduardo laughs softly against his skin, Mark is hyper aware of every puff of air.

One night, Mark reminds himself, one night.

A single tug at the belt of Eduardo's pants is all it takes to hastily remove them, and Mark steps all the way out of the rest of his clothing as Eduardo does the same. Eduardo lays Mark out on the bed, the covers cool and silky against his back, the same spot where Eduardo had laid as Mark tried to ignore him, tried to forget that he wanted him. Mark runs his hands down the length of Eduardo's spine, picturing the scrolling lines limned there, pretending he can make out the patterns with his fingertips.

He watches in rapt fascination when Eduardo pulls away to prepare himself, the twitch of his cock leaving a damp impression on his stomach as Eduardo's fingers move slickly in and out. Mark wraps his hand around Eduardo's cock, wanting to feel the weight of it in his palm, a tiny thrill goes through him when Eduardo moans and thrusts forward into his grip even as he writhes against his own fingers.

"Mark," Eduardo breathes out; no one has ever said his name like that, like it means everything and nothing all at once. Mark pushes himself up with his other hand, licks along the lowest pale white scar on Eduardo's stomach as he moves his fist slowly. Eduardo only allows it for a few seconds before he pushes Mark back down.

The sheets are on the verge of tearing in Mark's grip when Eduardo finally slicks Mark's cock, but Mark stops him before he can finish positioning himself to sink downward. "I want to see -- your marque, can you -- "

A strangely pleased expression flickers over Eduardo's face and he leans forward to kiss Mark, almost roughly licking his way into Mark's mouth with a muffled moan that vibrates against his teeth. His thighs flex as he changes positions, glancing back over his shoulder as he repositions himself over Mark's cock. Mark reaches down to hold himself steady, biting back a groan as the head pushes inside.

Once Mark is fully sheathed inside him, Eduardo pauses; Mark can hear his harsh breathing even though he's facing away. "Wardo," he gets out, barely able to recognize his own voice. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, yes," Eduardo gasps, somehow pressing down even further, and Mark can't tear his eyes away from the cleft of his ass, the marque starting barely an inch above it. This is the part of Eduardo that is his, Mark thinks, eyes tracing the leaves etched onto his skin. The knowledge that Eduardo will carry the marque with him forever, the marque only made possible by Mark, brings an exhilarating rush of possessiveness.

Then Eduardo rises up for the first time, sinking back down excruciatingly slowly, the flex of his muscles causing the patterns of the marque to move in mesmerizing ripples. Mark uses his thumbs to trace the inked tendrils just above the swell of his ass, rubbing circles over the leaves as he digs his fingers into Eduardo's hipbones, using the grip as leverage to thrust upward like he so desperately wants. A choked whimper comes from Eduardo and he begins to move with purpose, using his weight to keep Mark's hips pinned to the bed with each downward motion.

After a minute Mark gives up and just lets Eduardo ride him, and he soon finds a rhythm that leaves Mark breathless and panting and craving release, watching his cock move in and out of the tight heat of Eduardo's body. His teeth dig into his lower lip and he can feel his orgasm building steadily, every moan and cry from Eduardo dragging him helplessly closer until he snaps his hips up instinctively, pulling down on Eduardo's hips at the same time to bury himself as deep inside Eduardo as possible as he comes. He has no idea if his vision blacks out or if he closes his eyes but it doesn't matter, nothing matters but the way Eduardo moans and the heat of him around Mark.

Eduardo moans again and tightens around him, a second later Mark feels Eduardo's climax and shivers, already spent cock twitching weakly. Eduardo slumps forward, catching himself on trembling arms and Mark remembers to let go of his hips, rubbing his palms over the small of Eduardo's back in mute apology for the bruises that will surely be there in the morning, mingling with the lines of the marque.

A strangled sound escapes Mark's throat when Eduardo pulls off of him, moving away to stand shakily next to the bed for a moment, gripping the headboard for balance. Mark can't bring himself to move from where he is sprawled, boneless and sated in a way that is wholly unfamiliar.

Mark doesn't remember closing his eyes, but they open when there's a soft touch on his hip and Eduardo is there, gently cleaning him off but it's almost too much for his oversensitive skin to take. He rolls onto his side, facing the wall, curling in on himself. One night.

"Mark?"

He grunts in response, but the mattress dips under Eduardo's weight anyway.

"Did you -- can I -- what do you want? I can sleep somewhere else, you can stay here."

"Leave if you want," Mark says without turning around.

Eduardo has the audacity to laugh at his sullenness before draping an arm over Mark's waist and pressing his chest to Mark's back, dropping a kiss on the nape of his neck, nuzzling into his hair. "Brilliant," he murmurs, "but dense." It's the last thing Mark remembers before he drifts into an exhausted sleep.

***

Mark wakes to the feeling of a warm body against his back, a hand on his naked hip, and a hard cock a band of heat nestled against his ass. The fingers at his hip trail lazily over the skin in a swirling, circular pattern that causes the muscle in his thigh to jump and arousal to spike up his spine.

"Awake?" Eduardo's amused voice is close to his ear, lips brushing against his neck. Mark grunts in response and tries to wriggle away, which has the unintended effect of pushing himself against Eduardo's obvious arousal. A puff of breath gusts over Mark's face when Eduardo gasps at the movement.

Eduardo's hand drifts lower, fingers curling around the base of Mark's cock with an easy confidence, like there is no doubt in his mind about Mark's willingness to allow the touch. A brief thought of payment flits across Mark's consciousness, but Eduardo starts to slowly pump his fist up and down, thumb extended to smear the bead of precome over the head of his cock, and Mark ceases to think.

He turns his face to muffle a moan against the pillow, trying to simultaneously push his hips forward into Eduardo's grip and backward into the hard cock sliding against the cleft of his ass, which feels surprisingly good, satisfying, undeniable proof that Eduardo is not indifferent to Mark. Eduardo's breath stutters as he begins to firmly rub himself against Mark with short, jerky movements.

Mark comes with a sharp cry when Eduardo sinks his teeth into the juncture of his shoulder and neck, spilling wetly over his fingers. Eduardo licks the bite and stops moving his hips, though he is obviously still hard, panting harshly against Mark's skin.

"Why'd you stop?" Mark asks after he trusts his voice not to waver.

"Didn't know if you wanted me to…" Eduardo mumbles, tone rough. His cock twitches, betraying his desire. Wordlessly, Mark presses backward, letting out a soft 'oh' of surprise when Eduardo grabs his hip as tightly as Mark had held on to him the night before, setting a hurried pace, like he expects to be told to stop at any moment. It is unfathomable to Mark that anyone would deny Eduardo anything; he finds himself twisting around on the bed without a conscious thought to do so, pressing his face to Eduardo's chest and wrapping his hand as best he can around Eduardo's cock.

The noise Eduardo makes is something between a groan and a whimper; it makes Mark feel powerful and wanted. It doesn't take long before Eduardo moans Mark's name and comes, making an even bigger mess of the bed. Mark brings his hand up and stares at it for a second, his cheek still resting against the flat planes of Eduardo's chest.

"Mm, here," says Eduardo, dragging a corner of the sheet up from the floor to wipe his seed from Mark's hand. That done, he wraps an arm around Mark's back and pulls him close, once again nuzzling his way into Mark's hair with a contented sigh. He stiffens slightly when he feels Mark's fingers between their bodies, tracing over the scars on his chest, but doesn't move away.

***

The second time Mark wakes up, Eduardo has disappeared, but there is a basin of steaming water on the dresser with a soft cloth that Mark uses to wash away the evidence of the morning, leaving him naked and damp. His clothing has also vanished, so he hunts around in the drawers of the dresser until he finds a soft gray robe that Eduardo sometimes wears when it's late and he's half-asleep but still trying to carry on a conversation with Mark before he leaves for the night.

The option of leaving having been taken away for the time being, Mark sits at the desk and goes back to work, stubbornly ignoring the way he can't help but glance over at the rumpled bed and lose his train of thought to the memory of Eduardo moving above him.

"Do you ever stop thinking?" Eduardo asks, voice warm. Startled, Mark turns in the chair in time to see Eduardo tuck his legs under himself on the couch, a bundle of clothing Mark presumes is his next to a pile of paperwork on the low table in front of him.

"Not often. You're lucky I didn't have anywhere to be today," he says, nodding toward the clothes.

Eduardo snorts indelicately, lips curving into an unguarded grin. Mark resolutely looks back down at his diagrams. "I'm very sorry for stealing the clothes you've been wearing for the last three days to have them washed, and for the apprentice who'll be bringing food shortly."

Mark grunts and hunches over the drawings, carefully erasing the bryony leaves from the margins, wondering if Eduardo had noticed them.

The room is quiet except for the soft scratch of his pencil, leaving Mark entirely unprepared for Eduardo to put a hand on his shoulder and lean over to point out a mistake. "You've got an error in the torque calculation there," he says, the dark fabric of his sleeve pulling back to expose his wrist. Before Mark can acknowledge the correction and start to breathe again, Eduardo has moved away to strip the covers from the bed, bundling them into a sack by the door.

An apprentice comes with food and leaves with the soiled sheets, a serious expression on her face as she nods in response to Eduardo's quiet instructions. Eduardo leaves a plate at Mark's elbow before gathering up an investment report and sitting back down on the couch, and Mark stupidly finds himself wondering if it had all just been another business transaction to Eduardo, one he will check off in his book of figures as paid, debt fulfilled.

"You're staring," Eduardo murmurs without looking up.

"Is there a fee for staring?"

Eduardo's head jerks up at that, and he returns Mark's gaze without speaking; Mark can only stand to meet his eyes for a few seconds before he has to look away, inexplicably ashamed of his careless words, an apology waiting behind his lips that, even stranger than the shame, he wants to give voice to.

"Wardo," he calls softly, mouth tightening when Eduardo remains focused on the papers in front of him. "I'm sorry," he eventually gets out, words foreign on his tongue. "I didn't mean that." The apology is worth it to see the pleased smile break over Eduardo's face.

"Most people are relaxed after sex, somehow you've become more tense," Eduardo replies conversationally. "I'm sure there are all sorts of reasons, but perhaps you could just tell me so I can stop guessing."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Mark says flatly to his diagrams, chest tight, the openness of the previous moment entirely gone. "I'm not tense."

There's a sound suspiciously like smothered laughter from behind him, but Mark determinedly recalculates the torque and finally, finally manages to lose himself in the numbers.

***

"Mark," Eduardo calls after a few hours have passed. At the sound of his voice, Mark looks up from where he's reworking a calculation for the third time, thoughts resurfacing slowly to focus back on the present. He absently notes he's still wearing Eduardo's robe, belatedly remembering the availability of his own clothing.

When Eduardo sees he has at least a little of Mark's attention, he continues, "You look so beautiful when you're completely focused on your work that sometimes I want to get on my knees and see if I can distract you."

All the air leaves Mark's lungs as his eyes widen; he presses his pencil down with enough force to snap the tip and tear a hole in the paper as his body begins to respond to the vivid mental image that comes readily to mind after last night.

"I thought that would get your full attention," Eduardo says with a low laugh, suddenly close enough to touch.

"I only overpaid one assignation," Mark points out, though he's sure Eduardo is as aware of that fact as he is.

"Why don't you let me be the judge of when you've been sufficiently compensated," Eduardo says, pulling Mark unresistingly to his feet. "It may take longer than you think."

***

The meeting with Lord Thiel takes place in one of Sean's opulently appointed sitting rooms; Mark is certain that one footstool would pay for his lodgings in the City for a year, yet Sean still professes not to have any money available to invest in Mark's venture.

As they wait for a servant to escort Lord Thiel to them, Sean absently pats Mark's knee. "If you impress him, you won't need to go back to the Night Court ever again."

Mark blinks at him, shaking the hand off his knee. Intellectually, what Sean says makes a certain amount of sense; if Thiel invests Mark will have enough funding to purchase a bit of land and begin building in full size, no more of the scaled down prototypes he's had to work with for the past year. But the rest of the money, Mark's money, the money Eduardo has so carefully tended, it's still a significant amount. Enough, maybe, to run a small household. Mark shakes his head to clear his thoughts; there's no use in planning anything before he even meets Thiel.

***

Making his way through Bryony House, elation thrumming in his veins, Mark is abruptly stopped short of his goal by someone he assumes is a Bryony adept, this one dressed in bright orange and yellow, nothing at all like Eduardo.

"Lord Zuckerberg, right?" the adept asks when Mark tries to walk past without acknowledging his presence. Mark hasn't been called Lord since he left the University, it sounds strange, especially here, especially now that he's used to all the different ways Eduardo routinely sighs and grumbles and moans his name.

When the adept actually goes so far as to follow him down the hallway, Mark pauses and inclines his head briefly, but does not speak.

"I'm Divya, the Second said you were almost a patron of mine," he says with a half-smile, like it will mean something to Mark after he's spent months contracting Eduardo's services. Divya seems off-put by his silence, but Mark cares very little what this man thinks of him, he just wants to find Eduardo and tell him the news that feels like it is threatening to burst from his chest. "I just wondered if Eduardo is meeting all your needs."

The words stop Mark dead and suddenly inching away from Divya is no longer important. "You seem to be implying that Eduardo isn't capable of doing so," he says flatly, meeting Divya's eyes squarely.

"Of course not," Divya says smoothly, reaching out to catch Mark's elbow. "But you've been so loyal to him, how do you know that they can't be met... better? It's not a crime to have assignations with other adepts, you know."

Mark cocks his head to the side, staring at Divya as if gauging his worth. He does not have to remove his arm from Divya's touch, the adept drops his hand all on his own when faced with the icy composure of Mark's gaze. "You're very presumptuous," Mark observes. "You should go now."

Divya goes.

Mark continues on, the strange encounter weighing down the buoyancy he'd felt earlier, but the news is still good and Eduardo greets him at the door with a soft kiss that Mark deepens without a moment's hesitation, their tongues sliding together warm and wet, familiar yet still new.

"Hi," Eduardo says, moving back to let Mark get past the doorway. "You're in a good mood."

"It was better a few minutes ago," Mark says, bypassing the couch to head directly to the bed, which is perfectly made with a small mountain of useless throw pillows resting on top. (Not entirely useless, Mark recalls, having used one or two to achieve the best angle more than once in the past several weeks.) "Does Divya usually try to poach your patrons?"

Eduardo frowns and follows him across the room after locking the door, his fingers begin to unbutton Mark's shirt without a second thought and Mark reciprocates by attempting to untie the weird sash holding Eduardo's shirt closed. Mark will work later, he's given up pretending that he'll be able to concentrate properly without doing this first, and patience has never been his strong suit. Mark has been treating every time like it's the last, with Eduardo's marque inching closer and closer to completion he has no way of knowing when Eduardo will decide that they're even -- a tiny, uneasy voice in the back of his mind keeps repeating that when that day comes it will be the last time he sees Eduardo, but Mark is determined to prove it wrong.

"I don't think so," Eduardo says, and Mark has to think very hard to remember that he'd asked a question. "Why?"

"He was just -- " Mark sucks in a gulp of air as Eduardo pushes his shirt off his shoulders, thumbs dragging deliberately over his nipples in the process. "Just - ngh." Eduardo grins and leans forward for another kiss, Mark can still feel the smile against his lips. "Wait," Mark tries as Eduardo ducks his head to mouth at his jawline with the faintest suggestion of teeth that never fails to make him shiver.

"I don't want to wait," Eduardo murmurs after trailing kisses to his ear.

It takes all of Mark's considerable willpower to latch back onto his train of thought. "Divya, he stopped me in the hall, tried to say he could do more -- oh -- wait, Wardo, I need to tell you something, too. You're being strange." Mark takes a step back, bumping into the bed. There's an odd light in Eduardo's eyes that's never been there before, his hands hover above Mark's waist, close but not touching.

It's -- Mark doesn't know what it is, but he doesn't want to see it anymore, so he reaches out and finishes tugging Eduardo's shirt off before sweeping the throw pillows off the bed, pulling Eduardo down to lay next to him. The room is always too cool for Mark, so he presses close, until they're touching from thigh to sternum. One of Eduardo's arms wraps tightly around his back and a second later Eduardo is nosing at Mark's hair like he always does, but the arm is just a fraction too tight, Eduardo's breathing a little too harsh.

"Wardo, what is it?"

"Nothing," Eduardo mutters. "What did you need to tell me?"

Mark is too excited to try to pry whatever it is that's bothering Eduardo out of him if he's going to be difficult about it, so he plunges ahead with the news of Thiel's investment that quadruples the funds he has at his disposal, the plot of land just outside the city he'd looked at that morning, a small but adequate house situated at one corner of the property.

"Congratulations," Eduardo says softly into his hair.

"You don't sound surprised. Or happy."

"It's wonderful news, of course I'm happy for you." Eduardo does not sound happy at all, Mark decides, it sounds more like he's just been told that he'll never be able to finish his marque. "You're in Bryony House, Mark, we knew about Lord Thiel's decision this morning. We know where the money goes." Here Eduardo pauses, Mark can feel him take a deep breath before adding, "I suppose I won't see you again after this."

A surprised "What?" tumbles out before Mark has time to fully process Eduardo's words. He hadn't expected to be rejected before he'd even asked if Eduardo would consider a position as his financial advisor, so the question he had planned on asking twists around in his head, confusion marring its straightforward nature. "Some Servants of Naamah -- they don't stay dedicated to her. They do other things with their lives. Don't they?"

"Yes," Eduardo agrees slowly, his arm still tight against Mark's back. "I -- before -- I was hoping to find a place in the palace treasury when my marque was complete."

"The treasury is nothing, you should -- I wanted to ask you to -- " Nothing is coming out right, he wants to say that what he's offering has the potential to be so much more than a middling job at the treasury, but Eduardo knows that, he'd seen Mark's ideas for what they were from the beginning. "I was going to give you the money you need to finish your marque, I was going to ask you to work for me, permanently."

"Oh," Eduardo says, tone completely different as he pulls away far enough to kiss Mark hard. "Really?"

"Yes, really. You've been in charge of my money for months, why would this change anything? I trust you. There's room at the house, and I thought I could look in the City for office space, if... stop looking at me like that," he trails off, alarmed at the sudden bright sheen to Eduardo's eyes.

Eduardo lets out a wheezy laugh against Mark's lips as he presses forward to kiss him once more. "Did you just ask me to live with you?"

"You don't want to stay here, do you?" Mark asks, confused. Eduardo is so much more than a Servant of Naamah, more than an adept of Bryony House, surely he doesn't want to stay in the very same House that wrongly labels him flawed.

"Oh, Mark," Eduardo is laughing again, a gentle kind of laugh that Mark knows means that he's done something Eduardo likes. Eduardo shifts his hips, deliberately rubbing his arousal against Mark's, making him gasp, because despite the conversation they are half-naked and in bed together -- something which inevitably leads to mutual satisfaction.

"Does that mean you accept?" Mark asks, hooking his thumbs into the waist of Eduardo's pants near his hipbones, tugging them down far enough to curl his fingers around the hard length of his cock.

"If I accept, do we keep having sex?" Eduardo returns, canting his hips into Mark's touch.

"Unless I am mistaken about the capacity in which a financial advisor typically functions," Mark's tone implies that he is certainly not mistaken, "sex is not part of the job description." Mark moves down the bed, dragging Eduardo's pants around his knees in the process, stopping when he's level with Eduardo's cock.

"I don't want to have sex with you because it's part of my job description, idiot," Eduardo says, short of breath, his hand reaching down to bury his fingers in Mark's hair.

"In that case, yes, we can definitely keep having sex," Mark agrees, generously ignoring the playful insult, darting his tongue out to lap up the drop of precome. Mark has done this before -- a few times back at the University -- but never with Eduardo and it's that detail that makes him unaccountably nervous. He licks his lips, tasting Eduardo on them, then glances up and feels a flood of confidence at the expression on Eduardo's face, his eyes wide and dark, pupils blown as he looks down at Mark.

Mark leans in to drag the flat of his tongue up the whole length of Eduardo's cock, moving with it as it twitches and more precome leaks out to drip toward his tongue. The fingers in his hair tighten but don't try to pull him away, so he takes the head in his mouth and tries to mimic the things Eduardo has done to him.

"M-Mark, I want, can you, ah," Eduardo pants out after a minute, and Mark pulls off with a soft pop and a pleased smirk.

"What?" Mark asks, voice hoarse.

Words seem to have become insignificant to Eduardo; he mutely kicks off his pants and stretches to reach the basket beside the bed that holds the oil he uses to stretch himself for Mark. When he spreads his legs and shoves the bottle at Mark, it's impossible to not know what he wants. Mark has to press a hand to his own aching cock through his pants for a moment before he can focus on giving it to him.

"Wardo, you haven't said if you accept yet," Mark says as he works one slick finger into him. He watches with satisfaction as Eduardo's cock twitches, another wet line dripping down as he succeeds in finding the spot that makes Eduardo gasp and moan. He takes as much of it as he can in his mouth, too aroused to feel any embarrassment at the wet noises it makes as he bobs his head at a steady pace.

Coordinating his mouth and his fingers becomes more difficult when he adds a second beside the first, spreading them slowly. The noises Eduardo is making are worth it, and he quickly learns to concentrate on his fingers and let his mouth do what comes naturally. Eduardo's moans grow louder and louder, and at the end of one breathless gasp Mark presses his fingers firmly against the spot inside Eduardo and is rewarded with a sharp cry and Eduardo spilling into his mouth.

When Eduardo's breathing evens out, Mark worms his way back up the bed, removing his pants as he goes. His cock presses firmly against Eduardo's hip as he licks his way into his mouth. "I accept," Eduardo says when Mark pulls away, smiling.

"Good," Mark replies, and coats his cock with the oil as Eduardo rises up onto his knees.

Eduardo bucks against him as Mark fucks him, back arched beautifully, the muscles in his shoulders working to keep him rocking backward, setting the lines of his marque dancing. Looking at it, knowing the unmarked skin at the nape of Eduardo's neck will soon bear testament to Eduardo's freedom from his House -- it's more than enough to send Mark over the edge, his grip tightening on Eduardo's hips as he gets in one final thrust before collapsing on top of him.

Somehow Eduardo manages to clean both of them off, then pulls Mark close to kiss what seems like every inch of skin on his face.

"I have work to do," Mark grumbles, but he curls up against Eduardo's side, absently tracing the faint scars across his chest, as has become his habit.

"You're never going to ask about them, are you?" Eduardo says fondly, pressing another kiss into Mark's hair.

"Do you want to tell me?" Mark asks, glancing up at Eduardo's face briefly before turning his attention to one of his nipples.

Eduardo bats his hand away, then grabs it back to entwine their fingers and rest their joined hands on his chest. "Someday."