“Who is that ,” Lance muttered to Hunk, staring across the ballroom floor to see a pale young man with striking dark hair make his way down the staircase. He was flanked by Takashi Shirogane, so he must be of some import. But Lance did not recognize him.
Hunk glanced over briefly, “I cannot say that I know,” he said, before turning his attention back to the dance floor. Lance did not turn back with him, he could not tear his eyes away from the newcomer. His dark hair was pulled back at the nape of his neck and his shoulders seemed to be straining in his waistcoat. His hands were clenched behind his back and Lance longed to feel them around his waist, leading him across the dance floor.
“He has just moved himself to the top of my dance card,” Lance said dreamily.
“What? No, Lance,” Hunk exclaimed, whipping around to his friend, “You promised several men and ladies dances. You cannot just ignore them.”
“Whoops,” Lance deadpanned, dropping his dance card off his wrist and kicking it under a nearby table. “Oh no, whomever shall I dance with now? I have completely forgotten who was on my list.” He glanced around the room, his eyes alighting on the dark haired stranger, “Oh wait, now I remember.”
“Lance,” groaned Hunk, anxiously pulling at his waistcoat. “You know you cannot just change your dance card like that. People will talk. ”
Lance ran his fingers through his coiffed hair, “Let them talk, then. You know I am above ruin.” He turned to face his friend and winked, “Perk of being a lord and of noble blood.”
Hunk glared at him. Lance deflated almost immediately and grasped his friend’s hand, “I am sorry. That was unnecessarily cruel and unthinking. I hope you can forgive me.”
His friend sighed, “You know I always will. You just cannot always think like that. One day you will get into trouble that your family name cannot dig you out of.”
“Perhaps,” Lance agreed, “But for him, I think it would be worth it.” With that final note, he swept away across the ballroom’s glittering floor, closer to his mystery man.
As Lance nears the young man, he can see that his waistcoat is a deep maroon, suiting him incredibly well. Mr. Shirogane was seemingly attempting to introduce him to a few courters who Lance recognized, but could not place. He hung back a few steps, observing. While Mr. Shirogane was talking to the courters, who Lance observed, seemed to be fawning over the stranger, the man himself was fidgeting and not seemingly engaging in the conversation. Eventually, the courters picked up the signals and left the pair, and Lance watched as Mr. Shirogane tensely muttered something to the stranger, who only shrugged. This was his chance.
Lance made his way closer and caught Mr. Shirogane’s eye, who happily waved him over.
“Mr. McClain,” Shiro smiled, “always a pleasure!”
“Likewise,” Lance demurred, eyeing the man standing stiffly next to Shiro. “How have you been?” He could play nice to be introduced to the mystery man.
“Fine, thank you. Adam is doing well, and he will be sorry that he missed you,” Shiro apologized.
Lance felt a pang of sadness, “Oh, I did not realize he was not here! I assumed he was in the crowd. How disappointing; please tell him that I miss him.”
Shiro nodded fondly before turning slightly to his left, “This is my dear friend, Mr. Keith K-”
“Just the dance partner I have been looking for in a man,” Lance interrupted, grinning widely at the man whose name he finally had.
Shiro choked and Keith’s eyebrows shot up. Lance faltered, was there something he was not aware of?
“Lance,” Shiro whispered hurriedly, “you cannot say that to-”
“Alright,” Keith blurted, “I will dance with you.”
An awkward silence fell over the three; Lance watched as Shiro and Keith seemed to have a silent conversation through glares. Keith evidently won, and Shiro huffed and stepped backwards with a short bow. Lance frowned at him; Shiro and he were in the same station, so there should be no need to bow. He turned to question that further, when Keith held out a gloved hand.
“Well,” he questioned, hesitantly. Shyly , Lance realized with a start. Oh, he could work with this.
Lance bowed deeply at his waist, holding out his gloved hand, “After you,” he said, grinning cheekily. Keith’s nose twitched in momentary embarrassment, being the center of someone’s full adoration. Lance was in love.
The moment Lance felt Keith’s gloved hand grasp his, he swept the shorter man into his arms and out onto the dance floor. Keith sucked in a breath quietly, clearly thrown off by the sudden jerking movement. Lance led him around the room in a lazy waltz, following the other couples under the sparkling chandelier.
The man in Lance’s arms seemed stiff. He was refusing to meet Lance’s eyes and seemed instead to be intently aware of everyone’s eyes on them. Lance cringed internally; most of his dance partners were accustomed to the stares of others because of his social standing. Keith must not usually dance with such high members of society. Although, Lance noticed, there did seem to be an unusually high number of courters watching him. He shook his head, clearing his thoughts. He needed to focus on convincing his soulmate to marry him.
“I am sad to admit I have not seen you at any previous social events,” Lance began, hoping to draw Keith’s eyes back to his.
“I tend to avoid them,” Keith curtly replied. Lance internally groaned; this was going to be harder than he thought. It was time to lay on the charm. He wrapped his arm around Keith’s waist a bit tighter, grasping their gloves hands a bit more firmly together than strictly appropriate, praying Keith would notice. He clearly did, judging by his unimpressed stare.
Lance cleared his throat, “Why would you ever deprive anyone of your beauty?”
“To be honest, the staring gets a bit tiresome,” Keith shot back, a faint smirk dancing on his lips. Lance felt his stomach drop a bit; finally, this was getting good. Lance suppressed a grin.
He made sure his mama was nowhere near them, and reeled Keith closer to him. Much closer than what would be considered appropriate. He could almost feel the man’s chest against his own, but they were still slowly dancing towards the edge of the room. It was safe enough. Safe enough to be daring. “I could look at you for hours and never tire,” Lance murmured close to Keith’s ear. He felt the other man shiver slightly and grinned widely back at him.
Keith smiled tentatively back at him and said fondly, “I believe you are all flattery, good sir.”
“Pray tell,” Lance demurred, “what other action could I have in the countenance of one such as yours.” He added a wink for good measure and watched delightedly as Keith’s cheeks were covered in a blush as he quickly looked away. Lance twirled him under his arm, feeling satisfied when Keith met his steps quickly and without hesitation. They made for excellent dance partners. It was almost as if Keith knew where Lance was going to guide him before he did. They twirled carefully around the edge of the ballroom, candelabras glittering behind Keith’s head and in his eyes. The pair turned out from each other, promenading slowly following the dancing pair in front of them. Lance surreptitiously eyed his dance partner as they made their way around the room; he felt like he should know this man, but nothing clicked in his mind.
Lance then glanced around the rest of the room, only to find people still staring at him and Keith, who was beginning to look very uncomfortable. Lance quickly bent down to whisper, “This part of the dance is almost over, we move back to a normal waltz in 8 measures.”
Keith almost immediately relaxed a bit and smiled gratefully at Lance. “Am I that obvious?”
“No,” Lance conceded, “But I have a great eye for details. Especially the details of a masterpiece,” he finished grinning and squeezed Keith’s hand. If Keith was scandalized by that brazen action, Lance had no time to notice. Their 8 measures were up and Lance turned back to sweep his partner into the final waltz of the song. He tried his best to continue to keep them near the edges of the dance floor, away from the prying eyes.
“So,” Lance began, Keith’s eyes darted up to meet his, “are you finding tonight’s social event to your liking?”
Keith merely shrugged, “It is fine, I suppose, though a bit dull in comparison to other balls I have attended.”
Lance felt his eyes widen, a ball better than the Lord and Lady DuBois seemed unthinkable. They were some of the most wealthy in the town. Their parties were nearly impossible to get into without sucking up for months to Lady DuBois; even for Lance with his family’s name and wealth. Lance’s mama and sisters had been to every social event that Lady DuBois had thrown over the past few weeks to ensure their family would be invited to this ball. Lance had even gone shooting with his father, brothers, and Mr. DuBois at the urging of his mother. Just to make sure, she had insisted, that we will all receive an invitation. This ball is important to society and that means it is important to us, she had stressed to her family. And for Keith, a stranger, to so casually insult this family, it seemed odd.
“You mean to tell me that you have been to a ball grander than this one,” Lance questioned, without thinking . It was rather rude of him, and Keith recognized that, his brows furrowing.
“Yes, obviously,” Keith snapped and Lance stiffened. Lance bit the inside of his cheek in a panic; he had questioned Keith’s word. He had overstepped, Hunk had warned him of doing just this minutes before. He felt himself deflate.
“I apologize,” he stated firmly, looking Keith directly in the eyes, “I should not have questioned you. I do not know where you are from, it is quite possible there are dances grander than this one. I hope you can forgive me.”
Keith looked confused, his mouth opening and closing silently a few times, as if he was debating his next words. Then, his grip on Lance’s hand tightened, “Lance, who is this ball for?”
Lance felt a bit of whiplash. He was not sure what Keith was asking him. “I am not sure,” he answered honestly. “I believe it is for a duke or someone important.”
“ A duke or someone important ,” repeated Keith incredulously, his grip on Lance’s shoulder tightening just shy of inappropriate. Lance swallowed nervously, and quickly glanced around the room. He hoped his mama was not watching him; he would surely get a lecture if she saw how close he was dancing with a courtee.
“I will admit I do not often care for whom the ball is thrown,” Lance said hurriedly, “I usually pay my respects with my family and then go my own way.” Keith’s eyes widened in shock, and Lance felt his stomach drop. He was ruining his one chance. “It is not that I do not care,” Lance pleaded, “It is that I cannot imagine it easy, being a duke So, I try to make myself scarce. They so often have people begging or even lying for favors, and while I would never do that, I would hate to add any stress to their lives.”
Keith had stopped dancing, and was staring at Lance, standing heavy in his arms. Lance let his arms drop and felt himself bring his hands together to wring them nervously. “I only say this because I imagine it is a hard life to be a duke, not knowing who to trust and I know that trust is a cornerstone of every relationship. I cannot imagine a ball is where they are able to be honest with themselves, let alone other people.”
Keith glanced around quickly, and then took Lance’s arm to guide him off the dance floor and down the side corridor . Lance felt nauseous. This is what Hunk was always warning him about. This beautiful man was going to slap him and break his heart. Keith pulled a tapestry back, revealing a small alcove, and shoved Lance in who yelped in surprise.
“I meant no disrespect, I swear,” Lance cried, “If you know the duke, I sincerely apologize, I did not mean to offend-”
“Be quiet,” said Keith firmly. “Tell me honestly, did you mean what you just said?” His eyes gleamed a deep indigo in the shadows and Lance swallowed nervously. He bit his lip, determined to not babble his way into a deeper hole, and briefly noticed Keith’s eyes flicker down.
“Mr. McClain,” Keith implored, “did you mean what you said about trust?”
Lance eyed Keith nervously, he could not tell what was going on through the other man’s mind.
“ Lance ,” Keith pleaded, making Lance’s stomach drop dangerously. Wonderfully. A courter had never said his first name before. It was improper. Too familiar. It felt right with Keith.
Lance sucked in a breath of confidence and then met Keith’s eyes steadily. “Yes, I meant what I said. I think every relationship should start and end with trust.” He swallowed nervously and blurted, “And I do not know how a duke could gain that at a ball with everyone desperately vying for their attention.”
Keith’s eyes never wavered from his now rapidly heating face. “If,” Keith started, then stopped abruptly, grimacing at himself. He took a breath, seemingly to steady himself, and continued, “If you courted me, could I trust you? Trust you to always be honest?”
Lance gasped, grateful they were hidden away, and also terrified that they were hidden away. This was far more bold than he had ever dreamed of being with a courtee. Any conversation he had that was remotely this scandalous had taken place in the middle of a dance floor. Not a shadowy alcove. If anyone was to find them, the rumors that would start would be insurmountable. He strained his ears anxiously, listening for any footsteps outside their hiding spot.
“ Lance, ” demanded Keith, his eyes shooting back down to Keith’s. “Could I trust you?”
It was absurd, and irrational, and maybe a bit impulsive. But Lance knew that he needed to say yes to Keith. Knew that he could say yes to Keith. There was something about this bold man in front of him that he wanted to chase after. He would never betray Keith, there was something here and Lance was going to follow it. Even if it led to social ruin.
He cleared his throat, “You could trust me with your life.”
“Would you always tell me the truth,” demanded Keith, eyebrows furrowing.
“I swear,” Lance pleaded, needing to know how this would end. Needing to follow the conversation to its end.
Keith grinned, and in a moment, Lance knew that this was not the end of Keith’s demands. Keith stepped forward, dangerously close to Lance. Closer than any other courter had ever stood, and said in a low voice, “What if I was making a terrible choice? Would you fight me on it?”
Lance could feel Keith’s breath on his cheek, feeling the challenge in the words. He swallowed, he knew what he wanted to say and he knew what he should say. What his mama and Hunk would want him to say. He met Keith’s eyes searching for a hint of what to say, and for a split second, he saw a spark. He smirked.
“We could fight all we wanted, as long as we made up later,” he murmured.
Keith exhaled noisily, and grinned. “Excellent,” he breathed out, and then ripped the curtain open. Lance yelped and jumped farther back into the shadows. Keith snorted.
“Come see me tomorrow,” Keith stated, fixing the cuffs of his waistcoat. “I am staying with Mr. Shirogane.” He glanced back at Lance, “Will you come?”
Lance’s mouth was on the floor. This man was far too demanding. Had he no manners? Lance had half a mind to say no and to make Keith apologize, but then he took a better look. Keith’s shoulders were in a tense line and he was stubbornly avoiding Lance’s eyes. Lance felt his resolve weakening; Keith was just nervous.
“Keith,” Lance stated firmly, taking his hand. Keith’s eyebrows flew up and Lance wondered if he felt the same sparks he had. “Keith, look in my eyes,” Lance stated again. Hesitantly, Keith met his eyes and Lance grasped his hand tighter. Keith’s eyes widened and Lance knew Keith was feeling the same sparks as he was. “I promise I will be there tomorrow,” he said slowly, “And if I cannot make it, I will send word. I swear.”
Lance saw the tension bleed from Keith’s frame and watched as the corner of his mouth quirked up. Lance wanted to taste it.
“Thank you,” Keith said sincerely. He moved to let go of Lance’s hand, regretfully, it seemed to Lance. “I will see you tomorrow at Mr. Shirogane’s.”
“I look forward to it,” Lance replied. Keith suppressed a grin and turned and made his way back to the party.
Lance promptly collapsed back into the alcove. Had that really happened?
He could feel his heart racing against his sternum; he had never been that close to a courtee before. He breathed in deeply in the silence of the alcove, trying to breathe in whatever there was left of Keith.
Who even was Keith? So demanding and pompous. At that exact moment, Lance realized he did not ever get Keith’s last name. He groaned loudly to himself, sinking onto the bench in the alcove. How could he ever call upon Keith if he did not know his last name?
Mama , his brain quickly supplied him. Mama would most certainly know. Lance sprang from the alcove, almost tripping over his feet to find his mother in his haste. He hurries down the hallway and pauses before he reaches the ballroom. Taking a few steadying breaths, he tugged his waistcoat into place before plastering a smile on his face. He stepped into the ballroom and began to search for his mother, listening for her distinct laughter. To his surprise, she found him first.
“Lance,” his mother beckoned him over to a corner of the room, and he took off. “Lance, where have you been? We just met Duke Kogane,” his mother scolded him while gesturing to the rest of his siblings behind her. “I cannot believe you were not here.”
Lance grimaced while she continued to go on about the Duke and how polite he was and how considerate he was to stop by to talk to them before he gestured for her to stop. “Mama, please , I am truly sorry that I was not here, but I,” he paused, and looked at his siblings, then back to his mom, a pleading expression on his face. His mother understood immediately, she always did and Lance loved her for it.
“Veronica, Marco, please give Lance and I a moment,” she waved them away quickly. Turning back to Lance, concern lacing her voice, she asked quietly, “What is wrong, mijo? Is everything okay?”
“No, mama, I am fine, but I think I just met the man I plan to court and marry,” he said in a rush.
Mrs. McClain’s face lit up and she smiled warmly at him. Lance felt a bit of giddiness having said those words out loud finally. “Lance,” his mother hooked her arm through his, as she guided him around the edges of the room. “You must tell me everything. Who is he? What does he look like? Who is his family?”
Lance suppressed a giggle. His mother had always loved gossip more than anything. “I am planning on going to his home tomorrow to officially begin courting him. Please let me find out more there, then I promise to tell you everything.” His mother side eyed him suspiciously.
“Lance, are you sure about this? You know life is not like those romance novels you read.”
“Mama,” Lance squawked indignantly, “You are the one who gave me those books!”
She chuckled at his outburst, “I know, but I would hate it if those books gave you an-” she pauses, looking for the right words. “An unrealistic outlook on courting and love.” She turns and faces him, grasping both of his hands tightly in hers. “Lance, I trust you to know yourself and the man you are going to court. Just be careful with your heart. You have so much love to give,” she put her gloved hand to his cheek. “I do not want you to be hurt.”
Lance felt a warm rush of affection for his mother rush through him. “I promise to be careful, mama. He is a good man, I can feel it in my bones.”
Mrs. McClain smiled happily at her son, “I felt the same way about your father. It is a good sign.” She poked his cheek and Lance yelped. “You bring him to meet me as soon as you officially propose courtship,” she says firmly. “I want to meet my future son-in-law.”
“I promise, I promise,” Lance cried, squirming away from her hand.
“Wonderful, now, are you done socializing for the evening, mijo? I have had my fill of gossip and Mrs. Danvers keeps trying to set Lucille up with Marco,” Mrs. McClain eyed the woman across the ballroom. “I would rather leave now, before she can corner me again.”
“I would be more than happy to escort you home, mama,” Lance said, holding out his arm again. “As long as you promise to tell me everything you learned tonight.”
Lance cleared his throat and adjusted his coat. Then he fixed his gloves for the fifth time and checked his hair again. He was nervous and he knew that anyone looking at him could tell. Standing on the front stoop of Shiro’s door, his plans seemed a bit too daunting. Woo Keith? Whose last name he did not even have? He was already starting this out inappropriately. Lance groaned silently to himself and then took a deep breath.
Keith was worth the few moments of humiliation of not knowing his last name.
Lance raised his hand and knocked on the door. A few moments later, a servant opened the door and led him to a small drawing room just off the main foyer.
“Lord McClain is here to see you, sir,” the young woman said to Shiro, who was reading that morning’s paper in a wingback chair.
“Thank you, Mary, that will be all,” Shiro said, closing his newspaper and smiling warmly at her. Mary returned his smile, gave a quick bow and returned to her duties.
“Lance, it is so good to see you,” said Shiro, happily. “What happens to be the occasion?”
Lance grimaced, here comes the mortifying moment where he had to admit he did not know Keith’s last name. He swallowed and steeled himself, “I am here to see, um.” He side-eyed Shiro, hoping he would give him an easy out and tell him Keith’s last name.
Shiro smiled serenely at him. Lance narrowed his eyes.
“Do you know,” he demanded.
“Do I know what,” Shiro grinned.
“Alright, so you know,” exclaimed Lance, crossing his arms over his chest. “You know that I do not know.”
“Oh, I know,” Shiro’s grin seemed to widen. “I know you do not know Keith’s last name. And as someone who recently went through the courting process, I know how embarrassing that is.”
Lance groaned. “You have to help me, I beg of you. He is all I could think about last night, I could barely sleep from fear that I would ruin my chances before I even began.”
Shiro was silent for a moment, before slowly stating, “I do not think this is wise,” seemingly picking his words with care.
Lance felt his stomach drop nervously. “Mr. Shirogane, you do not understand. I truly believe I love him!” Shiro raised an eyebrow in suspicion. Lance huffed, “Fine, I may not love him yet, but I know that I could very well! He is everything I desire in a partner, and I fear I cannot let go of my dream just yet.”
Shiro seemed to waver; he seemed to think about his words very carefully, as he slowly said, “Lance, you should know Keith’s last name, and when I tell you, I need you to stay calm.”
“What? How could his last name cause me panic,” Lance said dubiously.
Shiro seemed to steel himself, then he took a breath, and the door slammed open.
Lance let out a yelp and whipped around. Keith stood there, clearly trying to catch his breath.
“My last name is Smith,” Keith shouted from across the room.
Silence descended on the room as Lance watched Keith watch Shiro who was looking at Keith with exasperation. Keith and Shiro seemed to be once again trying to communicate without speaking and this time, Lance was certain Shiro was just as concerned as he was.
“Takashi did not want you to know because it is so common,” Keith said hesitantly, the words sounding more like a question than a statement. Lance heard Shiro sigh heavily as he sank back into his chair.
Lance looked to Shiro, who had his newspaper high over his eyes, clearly trying his best to ignore them. Lance decided to tell his mama that Shiro had been the perfect chaperone if she asked. “I sincerely apologize I should have asked for your name immediately,” he told Keith, bowing low at the waist. He swallowed nervously and said impulsively, “I was caught up in the moment and was distracted by your beauty.”
Shiro snorted from behind his newspaper and Keith glared at him, a blush spreading across his face. Lance felt his stomach flip in excitement. He wanted to see how much he could make Keith blush.
“No, the apology is mine. I forgot my manners and did not offer my name,” Keith smiled warmly. Lance felt his heart skip a beat. Keith cleared his throat, “Shall we sit then, Mr. McClain,” he asked cordially, gesturing to the sofa across the room from Shiro.
Lance felt a smile on his face and hoped he did not look too eager. “Happily,” he replied, taking a seat across the room from Shiro and turning to face Keith. Mr. Smith, actually, he supposed. He needed to use his last name; much more appropriate.
“Now, Mr. McClain,” Keith cleared his throat next to him on the sofa, “Would you care to tell me a bit more about yourself?” Lance grinned and began to talk.
“And that is why I am no longer permitted in the kitchens after the cooks leave,” Lance finished with a huff. Keith chuckled at him, hiding a smile behind his hand.
“You seem to be quite a handful, Mr. McClain,” Keith teased.
Lance smirked, “For the right person, of course.”
Keith grinned, then bit his lip and side eyed Shiro, who promptly raised his newspaper higher. Still determined to ignore them at all costs.
Lance cleared his throat awkwardly, here came the embarrassing part. “I must admit, Mr. Smith, I do not know much about your family. I have spent the past hour telling you about mine, would you please share a story or two about your own?” Keith blinked owlishly at him and Lance hurriedly continued, “It would make my mother happy to hear about your family.”
Keith shifted uncomfortably in his seat, seemingly picking his words carefully. “My mother,” he began slowly, “recently came into,” he hesitated, “some wealth. However, she did not want it, so she passed it on to myself. I received money and a title.” He looked at Lance in the eyes and said clearly, “There is no one else. I have no brothers, or sisters, or siblings. No aunts or uncles or grandparents. It is just my mother and I, and even then, we are not particularly close.”
Lance’s heart clenched in sadness for Keith. He could not imagine being so alone in the world. He wished he could hold Keith, even if just for a moment. Or hold his hand to give him some form of comfort. When we are married, Lance tells himself, this will all be much easier.
“Mr. Smith, I am sorry for that. It sounds lonely,” Lance said softly. “I hope I can alleviate some of that solitude.”
A warm smile graced its way onto Keith’s face, “You do, Mr. McClain, and I promise, it is not as sad as it sounds. I have Takashi, of course.”
Keith smiled over at Shiro’s newspaper, which lowered slightly for Shiro to say, “Barely.”
Lance burst into laughter, while Keith narrowed his eyes at Shiro, who had gone back to hiding behind the paper. “You are just like an annoying brother, I suspect,” Keith informed Shiro’s newspaper imperiously.
“Keith, you know you are my dearest friend. It makes me glad to know that you count me in yours as well,” Shiro said kindly, making eye contact with Keith for the first time since he burst into the room. He grimaced slightly, “I am sorry to announce that Mr. McClain must take his departure from us. It is almost an hour past the appropriate time for calling.”
Lance shot up with a yelp, glancing around for a clock and seeing that it is clearly almost supper time. “Mr. Smith, I sincerely apologize for overstaying my welcome, but I must leave immediately.”
“Will you return,” Keith demanded, standing quickly from his spot on the couch.
Lance’s stomach tightened dangerously at the boldness of such a demand from a courtee. Keith is lucky he recently became a lord, Lance muses quietly to himself. Otherwise his attitude would not go over well with anyone.
“Mr. McClain,” Keith demanded again, an impatient huff in his voice.
“You know for someone who recently became a lord, you have a lot to learn about the ways in which you must conduct yourself,” Lance teases as he makes his way out of the room. Keith’s answering silence made him turn back around, only to see Keith and Shiro glancing at each other nervously. “I promise to return tomorrow, and if I can not, I will send word,” he makes direct eye contact with Keith. “I promise this to you.”
Keith visibly relaxed, and stood a little straighter at the assurance. “Then I suppose I will see you tomorrow,” he grinned at Lance.
“You will see me every day this week if I have anything to say about it,” Lance shot back before bowing shortly at the waist and taking his leave of the pair.
The next few weeks were nothing short of perfection, in Lance’s opinion. He and Keith spent hours talking and visiting, going on long walks around Shiro’s gardens or even walking along the river in the park. Keith did not seem to like that as much; he was still unaccustomed to people watching Lance. Though Lance had to admit to himself, more people seemed to be watching him than before.
Usually, he could catch people watching him out of the corner of their eyes, assessing his manners, his clothes, his words. This appeared to be more blatant staring. He told himself it must be because they were all so curious about the new lord, Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith was, in a word, wonderful. Lance was almost certain that he loved the man, but how could anyone not? He never tired of seeing Lance, even though Lance had kept his promise and had shown up at Mr. Shirogane’s house every day for the past 3 weeks. Every time he was led into the sitting room, Mr. Smith’s face would light up in a smile. It made Lance’s knees go a little weak.
Mr. Smith was truly everything Lance had dreamt of finding in a partner. Kind, considerate, well-educated, and it did not hurt that his wit keeps Lance on his toes. They had read the same books, studied the same subjects, and enjoyed most of the same recreational activities. Mr. Smith had spent quite a few hours one visit showing Lance his fencing equipment and several of the swords he had designed himself. He had shyly admitted later that he had not shared that part of himself with many people; designing one’s own sword was not often viewed favorably for a lord. But Lance thought it clever, and admired how much thought and care Mr. Smith had put into his passion. In return, Lance took Mr. Smith and Shiro, of course, shooting for their next visit, and had a marvelous time teasing Mr. Smith the moment he noticed the other man admiring his shooting.
“Is there anything you cannot do,” Mr. Smith had asked breathlessly, after watching Lance hit his target for the fifth time in a row.
“No, I quite enjoy taking my time and learning all the skills necessary in any of my passions,” Lance had shot back with a salacious grin.
Mr. Smith’s ears had turned pink as he nervously glanced towards Shiro, who was, as always, pretending to hear nothing. He had then stepped closer to Lance and murmured quietly, “Then I hope, perhaps one day, I could be one of your passions.” The other man had then turned and walked back to reload their shotguns, while Lance had taken several deep breaths to calm down. Mr. Smith would be the death of him. And what a glorious death it would be.
Lance bounded up the stairs to Shiro’s manor. Today was the day; he was going to ask Mr. Smith to meet his family and then he was going to propose. He planned to do it on the grounds of his family’s estate, underneath the sprawling oak trees. The sunlight filtering through the green around sunset was the most romantic spot he could think of in the entire world. He could see Mr. Smith’s face in his mind, his crooked grin splitting his face open as he laughed joyfully when Lance begged for his hand. They would have a wedding as soon as possible. Lance had already decided he would wear a navy waistcoat to bring out his eyes and Mr. Smith could wear whatever he liked, he would look marvelous in anything.
Lance sighed giddily to himself, resting for a moment at the top of the stair before he knocked. This was it. This was the day his life truly began. He straightened his shoulders and knocked at the door. He was let in by one of the servants and made his way to the drawing room. To his surprise, the door was ajar and he heard Mr. Smith and Shiro’s voices within.
“You must tell him, Keith,” Shiro was saying impatiently. “You cannot keep playing this game with him.”
Lance’s hand fell from the door as if he had been burned. Playing a game with him? Mr. Smith would not, Keith , would not hurt him. His throat felt dry all of a sudden. Society manners would dictate that he knock on the door and announce his presence. It was unbecoming to hover and eavesdrop, but Lance felt himself stilling in the shadows of the hallway. No one was around, and this sounded like a conversation he needed to hear.
“Please, Shiro,” Keith was begging from inside the room. “Please, keep my secret for a few more days. I cannot bear to see what will happen when he finds out.”
A lump rose to Lance’s throat. Was Keith playing a game with him?
“You are aware that the longer you wait, the worse it is going to be,” Shiro replied incredulously. “You cannot really be considering to drag this out longer?”
“The moment Lance knows it is over for us,” Keith said, sounding close to tears. “He treats me so kindly and normally, he is all that is good in this world and I cannot lose it just yet.”
Lance furrowed his brow. Now he was just confused. Keith did want him, but if Lance found out his secret, then Keith assumed Lance would leave him? None of it made sense. There was nothing in Lance’s mind that could keep him from Keith.
“I want to marry him, Shiro,” Keith continued. “But a marriage cannot be built on lies, so please give me a few more days to come up with a plan.”
The world tilted a bit for Lance; Keith wanted to marry him. Keith wanted to marry him. It seemed too good to be true. Lance felt his stomach swoop with happiness. He felt like he could shout with joy or enter and win every shooting competition in the country. Run for a thousand miles without tiring or dance an entire night with Keith.
“Keith,” Shiro hissed, bringing Lance’s attention back to the room. “You cannot propose marriage without Lance knowing the truth.”
All at once it hit Lance, Keith was destitute. He was given a title, but only a little money. It explained so much. Why he was staying with Shiro instead of at his own estates, why he had poor manners, why he had avoided meeting Lance’s family. He had no money to go with his new title of Lord.
Lance felt a sharp pain swell in his chest. He loved Keith, no matter his financial status. Keith was a gentleman, beautiful, considerate, witty, clever, and above all, kind. It did not matter to Lance that Keith had no money. Lance had enough for both of them and if he made some investments, they could live comfortably for the remainder of their lives. He could talk to his father about it tonight; he would do anything to keep Keith in his life. Nothing else truly mattered.
Lance’s mind was running a thousand miles a second. He vaguely registered that Shiro and Keith were still arguing inside, but none of that mattered. He had plans to create for his future with Keith. They could buy a smaller estate out in the country, hire a few workers to help them farm the land. Lance knew nothing of the sort, but he could learn for Keith. They could make money by living off the land and maybe even keep cattle. They could probably only come to town for a handful of society events per year, but Lance would give all of that up for Keith. Lance was so deep in his planning for his future with Keith, that he did not notice the servant standing before him.
“Sir,” questioned the woman. Lance yelped in surprise and the voices from inside the room halted abruptly.
“Excuse me,” Lance stammered, as the doors flew open and Shiro stood there staring at the pair.
“Lance, do come in,” Shiro said calmly, smoothing over any awkwardness Lance felt at being caught eavesdropping.
Lance stumbled into the room and saw Keith standing by the fireplace, his hands nervously twisted up in his waistcoat. Keith refused to meet Lance’s eyes, stomped angrily over to the couch and threw himself down.
Shiro sighed heavily, “I can give you both a few moments alone to sort this out,” and he swept out into the hall, the doors closing behind him.
Lance hovered uncomfortably by the door, waiting for Keith to acknowledge him. After a few moments of Keith refusing to meet his eyes, Lance sighed heavily and made his way over to the couch. Keith’s hands were twisting nervously together and Lance could hear the fabric of his gloves straining. Lance settled heavily on the chair across from the couch, hoping some space would help Keith calm down even a little bit.
“Mr. Smith,” Lance began, and a pained look stole across Keith’s face. “I apologize for eavesdropping. It was incredibly untoward of me and I hope you can forgive me for my error.” Keith still refused to make eye contact, so Lance continued on, “I hope you can forgive me for being so bold, but what I heard does not change my affection for you.”
This finally caught Keith’s attention. His eyes shot to Lance’s and his jaw dropped. Lance squirmed uncomfortably. Speaking this candidly went against everything he had been taught as a courter, but he felt that for Keith, it must be done.
“It does not bother you,” Keith questioned slowly, hesitantly, as if he was scared of Lance’s response. A pang shot through Lance’s heart at the clear fear on Keith’s face. He longed to reach over and take the other man’s hands, but if speaking quietly unchaperoned in a room was scandalous, holding Keith’s hand would have been both their ruin.
“It bothers me more that you did not tell me,” Lance replied gently. “You should know by now at the very least, I care not for your status, but for you as a person.”
Keith sighed heavily, his hair falling into his face. It looked as if he had been running his hands through it all morning. Lance wondered briefly if Keith might permit him to tie back his hair for him one day. Lance shook his head quickly; first he had to propose.
“Of course, it does complicate things a bit,” Lance continued, rolling his shoulders back and preparing to talk business. Keith eyed him warily, clearly waiting for Lance to finish his thought. “I do not have a clear plan, but I know I could make it work.” Keith’s nose scrunched up in confusion. Lance hesitated, but determinedly explained, “We could talk to my father about investing in a few companies, or we could even buy some land and hire a few farmers. I know nothing of the sort, but for you I am willing to learn.”
“Farming?” Keith looked bewildered. Lance felt his heart nervously skip a few beats.
“Well, alright, if you do not like that idea, I know I can come up with more. We could buy a few ships and invest in the shipping market. Or buy bonds in a handful of companies. I only mean that I can find a way to provide for you.”
Keith only somehow looked more baffled. His mouth opened and shut a few times, as if he was trying to figure out the right words to ask. “Mr. McClain, what do you think my financial status is?”
Lance’s mouth clicked shut and his eyebrows flew up. Well, he certainly was not going to outright call his beloved poor. That was most unbecoming of a gentleman. He knew at least that much. He and Keith sat for a few moments in silence, neither wanting to concede first. Lance recognized he must be missing something and just as Keith took a breath to begin speaking, there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” Keith called, once again refusing to meet Lance’s eyes. A young man in an expensive suit appeared and Keith’s eyes flew open all at once. “Wait-”
“Your Grace,” the man said, “The investment papers for your next charity are here to be signed, if you have a moment.”
“Your Grace,” Lance chuckled, unthinkingly. “I think you may have the wrong room, my good sir.” He shot a look at Keith grinning, and to his horror, Keith was staring red faced at the ceiling.
“What,” Lance inelegantly blurted, his eyes darting from Keith to the man at the doorway.
Keith sighed heavily, “Thank you, Daniel. Could you give me a few minutes? I lost track of the time.”
Daniel bowed and left the room quickly. Lance felt something akin to horror dripping down his spine. “Oh god.”
“Mr. McClain,” Keith desperately began.
“Oh god, are you Duke Kogane,” Lance demanded. Keith stayed silent, his lips thinned out in an angry line. That was all the confirmation Lance needed. “You lied to me for weeks. ”
“Yes, of course I did! Not one single person has treated me normally since I inherited this title. Not one, not until you and I would have been a fool to let that go,” Keith hissed angrily, launching himself off the couch to go glower out the window.
Lance felt himself sink further into the chair, his mind relentlessly playing back the past few weeks. How far past his station he had reached and how improperly he had treated Duke Kogane. His face began to flush with embarrassment; Shiro knew too, this must have been what he was trying to warn Lance about all those weeks before. He knew that Lance would be reaching so far above his station; but Shiro had only stopped him once. Did Keith demand Shiro to stop trying to reveal his secret to Lance?
He glanced up at the Duke, who was still glaring out the window. His face was bathed in sunlight, lighting him up in an ethereal glow. Lance still longed to kiss those cheekbones and run his fingers through his dark hair. Of course, now he knew that he could never do those things. He needed to apologize for his brazenness and then leave, immediately. Maybe he could ask his father to send him overseas for a bit. The humiliation would be too much to stay in town for quite some time.
“Your Grace,” Lance began nervously, trying to swallow his humiliation. “I sincerely apologize for how I have treated you these past few weeks. If I had known-”
“If you had known, you would not have ever even approached me,” Keith said furiously. “No one ever approaches me with honest intentions. Everybody wants something, and all you wanted was one dance.” He turned around to meet Lance’s eyes, heartbreak clearly written over his face, “How was I ever supposed to say no to that?”
Lance stayed silent. Years of being told how to behave at dances told him exactly how the Duke was supposed to say no to that, but he could no longer voice that opinion. He looked nervously around the room, hoping Shiro would come back so Lance could escape and go drown his humiliation in the liquor he knew his father was hiding in the family library. Lance felt his stomach drop; his family. His mother had been begging Lance to bring Keith over for weeks now, hoping to get to know the man her son was courting. Everytime he tried to bring it up, Keith had shot it down. Lance had chalked it up to nerves and knew that eventually, Keith would join him at his family’s home, but now he was not so sure.
“Is that why you refused all my invitations to my family’s home,” Lance demanded, the words flying out of his mouth before he could even think.
Keith gaped at him incredulously, “I beg your pardon?”
Lance huffed angrily, “You always refused my invitations to my home. My mother has been desperate to meet the man I have been courting and it has pained her every time you turned down an invitation. Was this all just a clever joke for you? A fun way to pass the time before you travel back to your estates?” He felt his hand clenched into fists. Lance knew he would be able to eventually get over his own humiliation, but treating his family so poorly was something he would never forgive the Duke for.
“Lance, I met your family at that very first ball,” Keith groaned, exasperatedly. He made his way back over to the couch and collapsed onto the seat. “They would have known immediately who I was and everything would have been ruined before it could even begin.” He covered his face in his hands, bent in half and looking absolutely miserable.
Lance shot up, too full of nervous energy to stay seated. “What was your plan then, Your Grace,” he asked sarcastically, all pretenses of decorum firmly out the window at this point. “Have me propose and then what? Tell me at the altar?”
“Perhaps I might have,” Keith shot back, full of anger.
That was the final straw for Lance. He began to make his way to the door, “Goodbye, Your Grace, I hope you find someone else to play these games with,” he stated furiously over his shoulder. Lance felt like his entire body was on fire with humiliation. He had been playing the fool for weeks and Keith, Duke Kogane, would most likely share this story with everyone. He felt tears welling in his eyes, and he wiped them away furiously. Lance had one foot out into the hallway, and felt himself preparing to break into a sprint, when he heard sniffling behind him. Incredulously, Lance turned back around to find the Duke still huddled on the sofa, hands covering his face, trying to control his tears.
“I only just,” the Duke began, his voice choking up. Lance stepped back into the room, closing the door quietly behind him, eyes watching Keith unwaveringly. Keith cleared his throat and forced his eyes to meet Lance’s, “I only just wanted someone who wanted me. ” He took a shuddering breath and then continued, “When Takashi found me living at the orphanage 10 years ago, and he explained to me how my life was going to change, I believed that finally, someone would want me.”
Keith’s eyes flicked away, nervously, “But then, my mother stayed true to her decision at my birth and wanted nothing to do with me, and I was given an outrageous amount of money and a title at 15. And I was still alone. No one had wanted me when I was an orphan and no one wanted me when I was a Duke.”
Lance felt his heart ache, and he slowly made his way to Keith, sitting beside him on the sofa. Keith seemed bolstered by this, and continued, “So, I decided to be the best Duke I could be. I caught up on all the school I missed growing up; I demanded that Takashi teach me all that he knew about how to run estates and opportunities I could take to help others. But still, all people cared about was my title and how much money I had. They did not care that I wanted to build an orphanage on my estate, they did not care that I had plans for my money, and they did not care about me.” Keith nervously met Lance’s eyes again, “But, you did. You asked me for a dance and said that you felt bad for dukes and that relationships needed to be built on trust. And, I wanted that.”
Keith held out a gloved hand to Lance, “I still do.”
Lance took Keith’s hand without thinking, interlacing their fingers together and murmuring, “As do I.”
Keith’s crooked grin lit up his face and he opened his mouth to speak, but Lance interrupted, “This still was all very painful, I have not forgotten so quickly, Your Grace.” He added the title hurriedly onto the end, and Keith’s mouth shut quickly. He gestured for Lance to continue.
“I thought you did not want to meet my family, I thought you had no manners, and I thought that you were using me. It is quite a lot to recover from all at once,” Lance swallowed nervously.
Keith nodded somberly, “I understand that I caused you pain, and I sincerely apologize for it. It was not my intention, and if you need time apart, I would understand.” Lance instinctively grasped Keith’s hands tighter, not willing to let him go. A flush spread over Keith’s cheekbones, and Lance felt his own cheeks get hotter. A moment of awkward silence passed over the pair, until Keith muttered, “Well, I do not want time apart.”
“Nor do I,” Lance admitted quietly. A small, relieved smile flickered across Keith’s face and Lance felt his heart skip a beat. Keith loved him, wanted him, and desired to marry him. He was going to get to marry the man of his dreams. Kind, handsome, brilliant, hard-working, and generous.
“Did you really mean what you said about building the orphanage,” Lance questioned suddenly.
“I am not willing to compromise on that,” Keith said firmly, running his thumb over Lance’s knuckles, sending shivers up Lance’s arms. “I want to use my wealth for good and to help children like myself. I was lucky, others not are not as fortunate. I hope to provide them with a family, at the very least.”
Lance’s heart nearly burst with emotion. He was in love with the kindest man in existence. “If we were to wed,” Lance started, Keith’s eyes locking with his. “My family would be yours. They would welcome you with open arms, Keith ,” he said softly, saying Keith’s name for the first time since the ball.
A blissful expression fell upon Keith’s face, and he shifted closer to Lance, “I would have to propose first,” he said happily.
“You would,” Lance replied easily.
Keith grinned and leaned in closer, “I would also have to meet your family first.”
“You would,” Lance said breathily, trying to not lose himself. He could feel Keith’s breath upon his cheekbones.
Keith paused nervously, and whispered, “I would have to kiss you first.”
“You must,” Lance confirmed, and immediately felt Keith press his lips to his. Lance’s stomach swooped as he felt Keith’s lips move against his. Slowly, and with intent. Lance felt sparks race up and down his spine, felt like he might melt off the couch, onto the floor and bring Keith with him. He felt Keith’s fingers trace his collarbone, up his neck and into his hair, twisting his fingers almost absentmindedly. As if his hands and lips were separately cataloging what they wanted to do to Lance.
Lance forced himself to break away with a gasp. Keith was breathing heavily and Lance knew he was in a similar state. Keith wetted his lips, as if trying to taste Lance again. Lance whimpered quietly and Keith murmured, “I need to propose immediately.”
“No, you have to meet my family immediately,” Lance stated firmly, watching eagerly as Keith slowly moved back toward him.
Keith hummed in agreement, eyes straying down to Lance’s lips, his neck, his collarbones. Lance felt his stomach drop in excitement. “Are you trying to ruin me, Your Grace,” Lance teased, breathily.
“Why not,” Keith said, lips trailing up Lance’s neck, “you have already ruined me for all others.”
Lance groaned, and ran his hands up Keith’s shoulders to tangle and tug his hair. He felt Keith take a shuddering breath and filed that piece of information away for a later use. Keith was pressing his body as close as he could to Lance. It was intoxicating and nothing that Lance had ever felt before. Keith slowly began to push Lance backwards on the sofa, and Lance happily hummed his agreement against Keith’s lips, which had miraculously made their way back to Lance’s.
Keith shot backwards suddenly, and hissed at Lance, “Takashi,” and Lance had mere moments to scramble upright when Mr. Shirogane knocked at the doors and entered.
“Lance, I assume by now,” he stopped abruptly, taking in the pair of them. Clearly rumpled, clearly flustered, clearly sitting far too close to be deemed appropriate.
“Keith Kogane,” Mr. Shirogane hissed angrily, “I know you were not blatantly disregarding all of the rules about courting that I instructed you on in my home. ”
Lance felt shame flush through his body, mortified to having been caught in such a scandalous position. He opened his mouth to stammer through an apology when Keith drawled, “Takashi, I am but a simple orphan boy. I cannot remember all the rules you gave me.” Mr. Shirogane glared angrily at Keith, who did his best to look as innocent as possible.
Lance could only giggle hysterically. He had been dangerously close to losing his virtue on Mr. Shirogane’s sofa.
Mr. Shirogane narrowed his eyes at the pair, “I am going to get the carriage ready, then the pair of you are going to get in it and ride straight to Lance’s home where you,” Mr. Shirogane pointed sternly at Keith, who gave his most convincing wide-eyed stare, “will propose immediately so these dalliances will be between spouses.”
“Yes, obviously,” Keith stated imperiously. “We will follow straight behind you.”
Mr. Shirogane rolled his eyes, “If you are not out front looking put together in five minutes, I will come back in without knocking and nobody wants that.” Lance nodded in agreement, quiet laughter still coursing through his body.
Keith rolled his eyes good-naturedly as Mr. Shirogane left the room. He stood up and held out a gloved hand to Lance, “Are you ready then?”
Lance grinned widely, “Are you ready to explain this situation to my family? Think of the scandal it will bring.” He took Keith’s hand and let himself be led out of the room, and towards the front door.
“Ah, but you forget,” Keith told him conspiratorially, “the bigger the scandal, the shorter the engagement.”
Lance shook his head in mock disappointment, “Oh, Your Grace, was this your plan all along?”
Keith chuckled ruefully, as he laced Lance’s arm through his own, “Of course not, I only wanted to know you.”
“Well, you do, and I know you,” Lance said warmly, meeting Keith’s eyes happily.
“I am so honored that you do,” Keith replied, as he led Lance to the carriage.