The start of summer in Musutafu was never a subtle affair. The temperature would climb to an almost unbearable level a week or two before the summer solstice, a muggy sort of heat that never seemed to go away, even in the middle of the night. But summer also meant days spent reading an entire library of books while taking shelter in the shade of a tree whose branches were rich with dark green leaves, going out with friends for a picnic in the grass, or cooling off for a few hours in a boat on the lake.
Of course, the summer didn’t really begin until the morning after Toshinori Yagi’s annual summer ball, held the week after the solstice each year. And for one Neito Monoma, the summer never started at all.
The ball was always, without fail, one of Neito’s least favorite times of the year. Normally, Mr. Yagi, successful in business as he was, was a quiet man who tended to keep to himself, but once a year, he allowed himself this one luxury. That one luxury, however, only made Neito and his fellow servants - he’d been doing this his whole life, and he still despised the word - incredibly busy for a few days in preparation, and a good night’s rest was thrown by the wayside each and every year. And this year was bound to be even worse, what with Mr. Yagi’s son coming of age.
Oh, well. With the preparation out of the way, the worst of it was over, and the ball itself had been in full swing for a few hours. There was nothing to do now except let things take their course and make sure they didn’t crash and burn too badly.
Neito had passed through this corridor, the carefully hidden passageway from the ballroom to the kitchen, approximately a hundred times since the start of the party, carrying plate after plate of refreshments as the guests needed them. Precariously balancing a set of fifteen glasses on a thin, wide plate was his specialty, after all. He prided himself on having the best balance out of every servant in the household, especially in the dark.
As he walked back to the ballroom once again, the muffled sounds of the string quartet drifted through the walls, bouncing off them again and again in a soft echo, and for a second, he was tempted to stay. The soles of his feet burned with the urge to dance, just for a minute, in here if not out there. But there was work to be done; he would be scolded if he was late, and he didn’t want to take that chance if he could help it.
He didn’t need to be told what to do once he walked back into the ballroom; he’d done this so many times before that the movements were second nature. He waltzed around the floor like a ballerina, balancing his tray in one hand, letting people take a glass as he passed by. He didn’t like it, but he’d be damned if he didn’t do it well.
After just a few minutes, the platter was empty, and he was left to stand in the back until whoever was in charge tonight requested another. His job now was to be inconspicuous and watch everything else, two things he absolutely hated.
But there was something to look forward to from his current vantage point.
“Have you seen Mr. Todoroki’s choice in attire?” Hitoshi Shinsou’s voice was light and quiet, a whisper that barely scraped the edge of Neito’s ear, but of course, that’s exactly why Neito decided to stand next to him. If he was too far away, he wouldn’t be able to hear.
“I’m afraid I don’t know which one you’re referring to,” Neito whispered back. They had the displeasure of having two Todoroki’s at the ball tonight: Shouto was a bore, but he was at least bearable compared to his father, Enji, who often treated Yagi’s servants as if they were his own.
“I’m referring to the one standing right in front of you,” Shinsou said, just barely glancing ahead.
Neito barely saw Shouto for a second before he realized just what Shinsou was referring to: With hair like that, his fashion options were... severely limited, but surely someone as wealthy as he was must have had someone to make the right choices with regards to his accessories.
“That shade of red?” Neito couldn’t help but laugh, hiding it carefully behind his mouth so no one else would see. “That’s far too close to the color of his hair, I would rather die than be the person behind that mistake.”
“I don’t think anyone here has the heart to tell him it looks horrible.”
Neito hummed to himself. “I’m perfectly fine admiring it from a distance.” He took another look around the ballroom, recognizing every face but not knowing anyone’s name. He probably should have taken some time to go over the invitations and prime himself on who was coming, but it didn’t matter much now. Some of the dresses were so delightfully garrish that they made the faces above them fairly unnoticeable. “So what did I miss?” He asked.
The best part of the ball always was the gossip.
“Well.” Shinsou pursed his lips in thought. “Miss Yaoyorozu has already asked Miss Jirou for a dance, and I highly suspect this isn’t their last.” His mouth curled up into a smirk. “But the elder Todoroki looked awfully bothered at that. I think he wanted to set Miss Yaoyorozu up with his son.”
Sometimes, Neito wondered how Enji Todoroki was able to live such a rich and successful life when he was that ignorant. Even he knew about Shouto’s strong feelings for Mr. Yagi’s son, and he didn’t even care.
“Anything else?” Neito pressed, always wanting to know more.
“Do you notice anyone missing?” Shinsou asked back. This was another one of their games, because there clearly was someone missing. It was just up to Neito to figure out who it was.
It didn’t take him long to come up with the answer. After all, it did seem quieter than usual tonight. “I’m guessing you know where Mr. Bakugou is.”
“I do,” Shinsou confirmed, “He practically dragged Mr. Kirishima out into the hallway and up the stairs right when they got here and I haven’t seen either of them since.”
“...I’m not sure I wanted to know that, actually.”
“I didn’t, either.” Shinsou frowned. “I have a feeling I’m supposed to keep track of them to make sure they don’t get into trouble-”
“But even if you did keep track of them, they would get into trouble anyway,” Neito cut in. “I don’t see why you would even try.”
“I’m sure they can fend for themselves.” Neito shrugged, setting his gaze on the floor in front of them. “Besides, there’s no shortage of distractions down here.”
Sometimes, he thought it ironic that he ended up working under such a selfless man as Mr. Yagi, considering the ear he’d developed for rumors as he grew up, but at least Mr. Yagi was wealthy enough for the rumors to travel down the grapevine to his estate. Even if the man himself didn’t personally care for them, his closest servants did, and things naturally trickled down from there, so Neito always managed to hear a watered-down version, at the very least.
Thankfully, that watered-down version was more than enough to give him a bigger picture than just what he was seeing on the dance floor. When he saw Miss Yaoyorozu dancing with a particularly red-faced Miss Jirou in the corner, he knew that Miss Jirou was home from music school for a few months and the two of them were thus able to continue their relationship without the aid of the sometimes scandalous letters that had kept it afloat up for most of the year. When he saw Mr. Iida and Miss Hatsume striking up a conversation, he knew that they had met under unfortunate circumstances--their parents, interested in the business connections a marriage between their families would provide, had practically forced them to spend an afternoon in a small boat on the lake, only to almost capsize said boat in the particularly violent storm that no one had seen coming--but the experience had only brought them closer, and now they were practically inseparable, even if they didn’t look it.
But the best gossip was the homegrown kind, and Mr. Yagi’s son had plenty of it surrounding him as well.
“Has Mr. Midoriya been hiding out with Miss Uraraka like that the whole time?” Neito asked, noticing the two of them standing in the back corner of the ballroom.
“As far as I know, yes,” Shinsou said. “And in case you were curious, Mr. Todoroki hasn’t been too subtle about it, either.”
Sure enough, there Shouto Todoroki was, standing in the opposite corner with a drink in his hand. Neito wouldn’t be surprised if he had been there the whole time, especially now that Miss Yaoyorozu was no longer there to provide emotional support.
Neito chuckled. “I have the strangest urge to go do something about it.”
“You can try.” Shinsou huffed with a dry smile in return. “I don’t think anything short of a fire is going to get that man to budge.”
“And that is absolutely terrible,” Neito lamented. “What a wasted opportunity!”
“I know--wait, he’s moving.”
“Who is?” Neito asked, only to spot Mr. Midoriya starting to walk across the room. “Oh, please let that mean what I think it means.”
“From the look on Miss Uraraka’s face, I don’t think it could mean anything else,” Shinsou said.
“I see.” Neito’s lips curled up into a smirk. “Shall we wait and see how this plays out?”
Shinsou barely shrugged. “It’s likely going to be the most entertainment we get for at least a few months.”
Neito just nodded, standing back to watch the action unfold.
Mr. Midoriya slinked across the floor, apologetically weaving between long skirts and flowing coattails as he made his way from corner to corner. The string quartet stopped playing just as he passed them, finishing their piece off with a satisfying cadence, and waited for him to cross the room before they began their next selection. Despite his shy disposition, Mr. Midoriya was one of the most important people in the house, and even if it didn’t look like it, all eyes were on him.
“Do you want to place bets?” Neito asked.
“What’s your wager?” Shinsou replied.
“If Mr. Midoriya somehow manages to thaw his cold feet and ask the younger Todoroki to dance, I’ll give you a drink from my next tray.”
“You have a deal.”
Neito narrowed his eyes as he watched Mr. Midoriya like a hawk. It was a win-win situation, really; if Mr. Midoriya didn’t work up the courage to ask, Neito didn’t have to risk his life or the wrath of Mr. Yagi’s butler trying to sneak a drink off his tray on the way back here from the kitchen, but if he did, he would have a reasonable excuse to spend a few minutes alone with Shinsou on this hectic, chaotic evening. Of course, the former was a better outcome in the practical sense, but he needed the latter more than simple practicality, going against his own bet be damned.
Mr. Midoriya innocently whispered to himself as he went to stand next to Mr. Todoroki in front of the table. It was a little sad that he thought he was being subtle, but Mr. Todoroki didn’t seem to identify his intentions either. They were both oblivious as they come.
Fortunately, it only took a second for Mr. Todoroki to turn to him, saying a few words that likely amounted to a question: “Is anything wrong?” Mr. Midoriya laughed it off, his cheeks bright cherry red.
“He isn’t fooling anyone,” Shinsou said.
Neito chuckled. “Anyone except Mr. Todoroki,” he corrected.
“That appears to be the case.”
Still, even though things seemed hopeless, Neito couldn’t help but watch. Now that they were actually talking, despite the undeniable awkwardness of their conversation, anything could happen. They were close enough for one man to grab the other’s hand and drag him out onto the floor.
Mr. Todoroki didn’t do that, but he glanced out at the floor, at the string quartet looking right back at him, and told Mr. Midoriya something else. Whatever it was, it made Mr. Midoriya’s eyes light up as they walked toward the center of the floor side by side.
Neito’s mouth fell open. “He actually did it.”
“Well, one of them had to.” Shinsou shrugged with a smirk. “It seems you owe me a drink.”
Neito sighed. “It seems I do.”
The string quartet started to play just as Mr. Todoroki got to the center of the floor, signaling the start of another dance. Every couple on the floor carried themselves with elegance and poise, the only sign of excitement a miniscule glint in their eyes. It was more of a ritual than anything remotely resembling an actual show of affection, but somehow, it lured Neito’s gaze to it like a fly to honey, and he found himself staring with something more mild and complicated than simple revulsion.
If he were to be completely honest with himself, he would call it jealousy. He knew this event well, having been coming for years now, but he only ever stood in this spot next to the door, never moving except to pick up another tray. He had always been told to stay still, never allowed to move to the enchanting music floating across the room.
He looked down at the empty tray in his hands and realized that he would be in a great deal of trouble if he couldn’t get a replacement by the end of the song. The guests needed refreshments throughout the night, after all.
“This way,” he whispered to Shinsou as he walked out into the hall and down the corridor to the kitchen. It was dimly lit, with only a few candles here and there, and he never liked to linger here for very long. There was no way to truly know what hid in the darkness.
“Do you hear that?” Shinsou asked after a few seconds, stopping right in between two candles where the corridor was at its darkest.
“I can’t say I do-” The words left Neito’s mouth just as he heard the sound for himself.
The wall separating this passageway from the ballroom was thin, and that could not have been more obvious than it was at this moment. The unified footsteps from the other room rang loud and clear here, and the music of the quartet filtered through the wall with ease. Without the white noise of conversation to distract him, Neito could easily feel every beat, every pulse.
“Forgive me if I’m being too forward,” Shinsou said, taking a step towards him in the dark, “But may I have this dance?”
Neito raised an eyebrow, glancing both ways to confirm that no one was around before setting his tray down on a table. “Of course,” he said, “But if you step on my foot just once , I will leave you right here to spend the rest of the night on your own.”
“You couldn’t do that if you tried.”
In one swift motion, Shinsou took Neito into his arms, drawing a gasp that the latter tried desperately to hide. In the darkness of the hallway, where the limited candlelight illuminated their eyes more than the rest of them, he could have pulled it off if he were to be completely silent. Unfortunately, though, despite the redness on his cheeks being well hidden, the gasp was just loud enough to echo from wall to wall and back again.
“Sorry, did I scare you?” Shinsou asked, not sounding very sorry at all.
“No,” Neito lied. “If you were able to scare me, I would be quite the coward.”
Shinsou simply hummed to himself, taking small steps along with the cello on the other side of the wall. Every time the bow touched the strings was less of a note than a pulse, a tiny heartbeat that was more felt than heard.
The circles they danced in were small, so small that they could barely be called dancing, but when Neito closed his eyes, everything felt much larger. When his feet touched the ground, he felt like he was stepping on stars, lighter than air, and when he pushed off again, something inside him felt like it was floating. The tiny patch of hallway they were allowed to stand in stretched out into an endless field of rhythms and melodies and subtle movements only they could feel as the conversations only a few feet away died out into something there was no need to deal with for a long while.
But the music persisted, impossible to ignore as it began to build on itself, and the sounds made up a language they had never heard before but somehow understood perfectly. The words created by their heartbeats and their footsteps spoke louder than anything they could possibly say.
Just as the quartet’s energy climbed to its peak, though, Shinsou stopped, suddenly leaving Neito with his feet firmly planted on the ground and a strange feeling in his head that he was unable to ignore. The most he could do as the strings traveled on a seemingly endless crescendo was look up at Shinsou’s face and attempt to find something there. He could not.
This wasn’t the first time they had stood this close, with their faces mere inches from each other. Their eyes flared with expectations of what was certain to come, what had come every time they had found themselves in each other’s arms like this.
Neito’s eyes flicked from one end of the hall to the other. “We shouldn’t--”
“We shouldn’t what?” Shinsou asked with a simple raise of his eyebrow.
“This!” Neito exclaimed. “Have you given any thought to what would happen if we were to get caught? We would never be able to see each other again, you know.”
Shinsou chuckled. “After everything we’ve done, I’m fairly certain we won’t ever get caught. Besides--” He glanced down to the end of the hallway, at the lights that could never really illuminate the two of them even when they stood in their glow, and for just a moment, Neito saw a glimpse of longing in his eyes. “Everyone else in this house gets to live tonight. Why shouldn’t we?”
And with that, their lips came together, soft and sweet in a way that would put the decadent cakes outside to shame.
Neito was nothing if not the affectionate type as soon as anything like this arose, and somehow Shinsou both knew this and was able to exploit it. When, in the shock of it all, Neito threw his arms around Shinsou’s shoulders simply because there was nowhere else for them to go, Shinsou only hummed to himself and leaned into the kiss more. After all, neither of them were particularly afraid to get close.
Neito could feel his hair starting to ruffle, tangled in Shinsou’s hands, his coat starting to crumple up in places near his shoulders and the back of his neck where Shinsou decided to put his hands. By the time they were done, both of them would look like they had gone outside and been pummeled by a wild animal, and a part of Neito didn’t want to try to look presentable.
He wanted them to see.
His hands found their way up to cup Shinsou’s cheeks, the skin soft under his fingers, and somehow, he managed to pull him even closer. Waiting in that ballroom for hours for something to happen, not to Mr. Midoriya or Mr. Bakugou or whoever else but to him , was an unparalleled form of torture, and now he could only bask in the relief that it was over, that he was finally living a story of his own.
By the time they they pulled away from each other, it felt like an eternity had passed in the span of a few seconds, and they took the liberty of using a few more to look at each other’s faces. Their cheeks were red, the smiles on their faces seemed invisible to all except those who knew to look for them, and their clothes were rumpled beyond what a simple pushing down would fix.
But a simple pushing down would do enough, and enough was all Neito cared for.
“I suppose we should be getting back,” Shinsou said, glancing down the hall again like nothing happened, “It would be quite unfortunate if Musutafu’s upper echelon were to starve thanks to our negligence.”
Neito heaved a sigh. “If we must.”
“And remember,” Shinsou reminded him as they walked back down the hallway, “You owe me a drink.”