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Flowers and Willows

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Thor could not remember a time when he wasn't jealous of his brother. Loki had always been a beauty, so refined and delicate his destiny was clear from a young age, ever since the teahouse adopted him. It was Thor's role to stand in the shadows behind the scenes, a lumpen, heavy brute whose only useful quality was his strong arms. They gave him a role as a Dresser for the Sakaar teahouse - the one who ties the obi and arranges the kimono of a geisha before she leaves for her evening. To tie the obi correctly requires a surprising degree of strength. Thor had seen Loki off to countless evening gatherings this way, ever since Loki became a trainee geisha, a maiko.

"Put your back into it, one of those pleats is loose!" critiqued Loki as he stood in front of the mirror, "I want to look as refined as possible tonight, we're going out to the theatre." He gleamed, a vision in shining greens ornamented with silver embroidery.

"All right, but you'd better hold your breath all evening, then," smiled Thor, grasping the obi more firmly still to anchor the last part of the knot in place. "Happy?"

"I suppose it'll have to do," Loki nodded. "I need to put my face on quickly, or I'll be late. Go fetch my business cards with the goldfish on them."

"Yes, brother." Thor got up to leave but couldn't help lingering a moment to watch Loki smooth the white make-up over the rest of his face. Loki used charcoal to add eyebrows back in, giving them the delicate curve suitable for a young maiko. The neck was already done, of course, otherwise it would have smeared the kimono. Loki's motions with the brushes were swift and assured, the white paste gliding over his skin to transform him into something marvellous, a vision from the floating world of flowers and willows.

"Hurry up with it!" snapped Loki, looking up. "What are you gawping at?"

Thor bowed and left hurriedly to find the cards. Every geisha handed out business cards to her clients with her geisha name on, so he would treasure a memory of their evening. It was important to get the card style right. Searching through disorganised stacks, with different decorations for each season and for Loki's whims, he couldn't find any with a goldfish on. Picking up the closest match, he dashed upstairs to apologise, nearly running into Frigga along the way. "Deepest apologies, House Mother!" he blushed, but she only smiled and shook her head at his clumsiness. "I'm sorry Loki, but I can't find any with a goldfish. Will these ones with sea-grasses and smaller fish do?" Thor asked, as Loki added the final touches to his face in the mirror - the lower lip delicately traced in red, with nothing on the top lip, to show he was in his first year as a maiko.

A frown marred the divinely beautiful face for a moment, then it smoothed again. "That style's not very fashionable at the moment - you're sure you can't find a goldfish card anywhere?" Loki asked, anxiously. Then he looked at the clock. "No, it's fine - I don't have time to wait. Just fetch my umbrella, and I'll head out." Thor bowed, chagrined. On his way to get the umbrella he searched through the cards again, having a sudden thought - perhaps the goldfish cards were new enough to still be wrapped up from the calligrapher's delivery? Indeed, he found a freshly wrapped stack buried in the last drawer of the bureau, marked with tiny blue goldfish. They must be the right ones!

As Loki made his way downstairs and prepared to leave the house, Thor dashed over in triumph. "Here brother, I found them for you!"

"Thanks. And the umbrella?" Loki raised a perfectly-shaped eyebrow sardonically. Thor whirled around and fetched it from the cupboard for him. "I swear, you'd forget your own head if it wasn't securely attached," Loki smirked, packing the goldfish cards away in his bag and lifting the umbrella with a delicate motion as he stepped outside. "Well, I'll see you later. Don't fall asleep before I get back, like last time!"

"I promise, I won't. I wish you a successful evening, brother," Thor said earnestly, as the other teahouse servants also gathered to bid farewell to their maiko and geiko. Thor had already helped Salvager to dress earlier - she was waiting for Loki by the door in her more mature-looking geisha outfit, with a less colourful kimono and obi as a sign of her status as a fully qualified geisha. Frigga struck a flint on their backs and Thor bowed to them both for good luck as they strode off for their appointment. Of course, Loki didn't turn around to see, eyes already ahead, on the future.

Thor was dropping half-asleep by the time Loki returned, late in the evening. He had been reading his favourite thing in the newspaper, sumo wrestling results and descriptions of the latest matches, but his eyes had started closing and the characters blurred in front of them. A pleasant vision of Thor's favourite wrester, Hulk the Unconquered, rose up in his mind. Hulk was handing Thor a trophy for being the Best Sumo Wrestler ... Thor caught himself nodding to sleep. He had to stay awake to help Loki and Salvager when they came back, so he pinched himself until the feeling of sleepiness receded somewhat.

Finally, he heard the sliding sound of the screen door opening, and Salvager's drunken laughter. Thor went to greet them and had to help Salvager climb the stairs, so unsteady was she. She was almost asleep on her feet as he carefully helped her remove the layers of the outfit he'd prepared for her earlier in the evening. Thor folded and set aside the different pieces of clothing while Salvager removed most her make-up with clumsy strokes of a wet rag "That's everything, my lady," Thor cleared his throat when it seemed Salvager was too sleepy to dismiss him. He still had to deal with Loki's outfit. "Y'r a good kid," she mumbled, inelegantly dumped herself facedown into the pillows of her futon. "Oh - y'can get out now."

"Uh, thank you my lady," Thor slid the door quietly shut, though from the sound of the snores nothing would wake Salvager until tomorrow noon, when she'd wake with boundless energy ready to start all over again.

While waiting for his turn, Loki had been playing with one of his fans, flicking it open and closed restlessly, like the wing of some bright insect. Thor opened the door to Loki's room and set up the bowl and make-up stand. "Ugh, I'm drunk!" complained Loki, stumbling over to his position in front of the mirror to be undressed. "They made me drink whisky again tonight, yuck."

"Don't you like it? I hear whisky is very expensive," said Thor. He'd never tasted it.

"Yes, but it's disgusting," Loki sighed, "And then when you drink it, you get clumsier, so you lose the drinking games more. It's awful." Thor loosened the obi carefully, untying the various sashes from around Loki's waist and folding them.

"At least you can hold your liquor, like Salvager. It must be very hard for people who can't." Thor drew the kimono away from Loki's shoulders. He liked this part the very best, unwrapping Loki like a gift in its layers of paper, until his adopted brother was approachable and human again.

"Yes, she took the worst of it for me like a good Elder Sister - and because she likes it, to tell the truth. But I only look as if I can drink well. I'm going to have such a hangover tomorrow." Loki began picking the jewelled hairpins out of his hair one by one and placing them in their casket as Thor untied the last few garments. Casually, he added, "I think tonight I met the man who will perform my mizuage. He's apparently the highest bidder so far, and it's getting closer, now."

"Oh." Thor couldn't think of the proper response. Laying out the make-up removal tools, he asked, inanely, "Is he handsome?" Stupid!

Loki raised a devastating eyebrow as he shrugged on a thin sleeping-robe. "What do you think? He's about sixty years old and the Grand Master of something-or-other important. His hands are like sandpaper and his eyes like a reptile's." Loki drew a sponge across his face to remove the white make-up, dipping into the bowl of water. He was more careful than Salvager, removing every particle. The lip stain was stubborn, the last of the face to come off, tinting the bowl a clear light pink.

"I'm - I'm sorry to hear that." Thor mumbled.

"It's life," Loki shrugged, and tried to look indifferent. But Thor knew him too well for that. Loki's voice trembled, just a little, as he added, "Apparently he likes collecting us. First times, that is. It's one of his hobbies."

"Brother, I - " Thor didn't know what to say.

"But what do you care. As far as you're concerned, my life is flowers and rainbows." Loki turned away and scrubbed viciously at the remaining white paint under his ears. "Here, help me get the last of this off, will you?"

Thor took the sponge and wiped the cold water in broad, strong strokes behind Loki's neck to remove the spot where the white paint still clung in the painted shape that emphasised the length and curve of the neck into the back of a kimono. Whenever Loki drew it on he always made sure to leave a small, tantalising gap of bare skin just visible below the white when he ducked his neck to laugh or dance. Loki's skin was silky and hot to the touch. Shamefully, Thor found himself suddenly aroused. He dropped the sponge back in the bowl with a plop, as if it burned him. Loki yawned loudly. "Are you done yet? I would like to go to sleep some time this century."

"Yes! I'm sorry for the delay," Thor said, ducking his way out of the room hurriedly. "A pleasant night, brother," he said as he slid the screen door shut. Was it his imagination, or did Loki look at him a little curiously on the way out?

"G'night." Loki turned away to spread out the futon, and the moment was gone.