word count: 2953
summary: The Edwardian AU, part 1.
Written March 2016.
When Adrian was younger, he had liked galas.
There was something about them that made him feel powerful. His brothers would often opt out of attending, so he would take center stage as an heir to the estate, the impossibly perfect child of the Lord and Lady of Victoria House. He was always a precocious child, speaking quietly and respectfully with a practiced wisdom that exceeded his years. Adrian had known how to charm the adults around him, and his parents had showered him with praise because of it.
Now, he tested his resolve at galas by trying to see how drunk he could get without anyone noticing.
“They’re gonna notice one day, you know.” Maria had said as he got ready, swinging her legs in his desk chair. “They’re gonna send you to finishing school before you cause a potential scandal.”
“You’re a potential scandal,” Adrian said dully as he flattened his collar. Flawlessly wrinkle-free as always, the servants always knew their stuff. “An unmarried woman in my bedroom?” he glanced over and shot her a grin. “Scandalous.”
Maria just rolled her eyes at him. “You know what I mean,” she sighed. “You get really needy when you get drunk. You get especially emotional about the guardsmen you fancy when you’re drunk.”
She really didn’t waste any time beating around the bush.
Adrian flattened his mouth into a line, and finished straightening his collar in the mirror. “It makes me sound like a slag when you say it like that,” he muttered.
“Am I wrong?” She asked.
Of course, she wasn’t.
He glanced over at her in his mirror. Even though she wasn’t going to the gala tonight, she was still dressed up to go out. Maria was going to the theatre production of the Dragon and the Apple, performed by a travelling group that had stopped in town for this night only. Maria hadn’t wanted to go without him, but Adrian had insisted, saying that she could tell him what it was like. Adrian had wanted to attend, but he had other commitments in his life.
He glared at his reflection in the mirror. It glared back.
“Don’t get banished to finishing school, okay?” Behind him, Maria flung her arms back over the chair. “If you go to finishing school, I’ll only be able to send you letters that get checked by some stuffy headmaster for obscenities. I’ll have to start sending you obscenities in code. I don’t want to have to make up a language, Adrian. I’m no good at that.”
“You can speak three languages, Maria. You’ll be fine.”
“Adriaaaan.” She turned to him, and gave him her strongest pout. “Don’t get yourself into more trouble than you need.”
Adrian needed trouble in his life.
It was just one of those things that he naturally required. Like food, water, the occasional tailored dinner jacket. Rebellion had taken ahold of him as an early teen in simple ways, like his desire to go to the theatre instead of out hunting, his lack of interest in practicing the piano, or his complete disinterest in women. All improper threads of his slowly developing character had been squashed by his parents as soon as they emerged. It had been disheartening, but he made up for it by subtly acting like a little shit whenever the opportunity arose.
A gala was not off-limits in these circumstances.
It was a busy party, with all the usual suspects gliding around. Lords and ladies, knights and foreign diplomats, full glasses in hand and fake smiles plastered on their faces. They glittered in the ballroom, all carefully kept and secured in place, the men shining with brassy metals, the woman shimmering with jewels on their throats and in their hair. They stood out brilliantly, the darkly dressed servants around them moving like incorporeal shadows against their radiance.
And at the center of them was the Lord and Lady of Victoria House themselves. Adrian stared at them from over his glass as they swooped around elegantly, almost in exact time with the live orchestra. They were all refined smiles and firm handshakes, greeting each guest with every display of etiquette that had been drilled into Adrian since he was born.
He turned back to the appetizer table.
“Ah, the little lord himself.” The diplomat to Surrey sidled in as Adrian kidnapped an entire plate of brioche-caviar salmon sliders to consume quietly in his room later. “Still got that ring on your finger, I see?” he said gaily, sipping his wine. “Aren’t you going to find a nice girl to give it to?”
Adrian gave the diplomat a forced smile. The engagement ring always seemed to find its way into these conversations with barely-acquaintances. Adrian hated wearing it, but it was tradition. It was the symbol of his unmarried status as one of the heirs, the gold and diamond ring that he was supposed to give to the woman he married. It was a stupid tradition, but not wearing it would be more obvious than not.
“I’m seventeen,” Adrian said, accompanied by a smile that would not be interpreted as patronizing to anyone but his parents. “It’s something I hope to look forward to in the future.”
And with a quick nod, Adrian whisked himself, his unmarried ring, and the brioche-caviar-salmon appetizers to the garden balcony.
Disappointingly enough, the appetizers weren’t as good as they looked. Adrian ate two before leaving the plate on the railing for the birds to pick at. He leaned against the railing, staring out into the hedge maze that cut sharp patterns into the garden, a pattern that he had memorized since childhood.
Adrian felt a bit woozy. He was about four glasses of wine into no longer making responsible decisions, and the possibilities for what he could do next were flitting around his head. He kind of felt like walking into the maze. He would wander around until he got to the well at the center, and he would drop the engagement ring down it. Yes, that felt like a good idea. A plan.
“Hey there lonesome, you need anything?”
Adrian jumped. He hadn’t heard anyone follow him outside. He turned around to see that it was a member of the serving staff, holding a tray champagne flutes.
That was surprising. Usually they gave him distance when he was alone, it was impolite of someone of his status to be approached alone by a lowly servant. But here they were. Standing close to each other, alone on the balcony. Taboo.
The servant also looked kind of new. Adrian didn’t always remember the servers, but he knew that he would have recognized this one if he had seen him before. He was young, with black hair and bright eyes and a grin of someone who knew how to get in trouble. There were too many things about him that stood out to Adrian. He was someone who his eyes would follow, if Adrian had seen him before.
Adrian gave the server a long, hard look, and took a drink off the tray.
“You’re new,” Adrian said, after a delayed pause, raising the glass to his lips.
The server raised his eyebrows at Adrian. “I am,” he said.
Adrian was mildly proud that he was right. He finished the drink in one gulp, then placed it right back on the tray. That was probably a mistake, drinking heavily in front of the help, but whatever.
The server looked like he wanted to say something about it, but he didn’t. Maybe if he was nobility like Adrian, he would be freer with his tongue, might drop a comment about Adrian’s complete disregard in the health of his liver.
“You look like you know how to have fun,” said the server with a wink.
Adrian’s eyebrows raised into his hairline. The server kept talking.
“I didn’t expect someone as stuffy as a lord to do that with a straight face,” he said airily, leaning back to give Adrian a good, thorough look. “Especially around this crowd.”
Adrian stared blankly at the server. In the foggy, partially drunk haze of his brain, he wondered if this was some kind of practical joke.
“Don’t they send you guys through obedience training?” Adrian said finally. “Or am I getting a reputation that I’m unaware of?”
The server looked delighted at that idea. “Oh,” he said, grinning. “You’ve got a bad reputation too? Same here. We should be friends. Penpals.”
The mischievous and boyish way he said it contrasted with the broad, sharp lines of his body. Adrian rolled his eyes, trying to will his face from heating up.
In a sober state, Adrian might have sicced the guards on him, or called for the butler, but right now he just felt a bit woozy, a bit amused, and more than very interested.
The server looked like he was going to walk away, sashaying into the next room with his tray of expensive champagne for more partiers to drink more delicately than Adrian had, but instead of moving away, he turned. Without warning, he slid his face right in front of Adrian’s.
Adrian’s breath caught in his throat.
“You’re a sweet thing, for a lord’s son,” the server said.
Adrian, at a complete loss for words, blinked owlishly at him.
“Considering all that inbreeding you nobility do, you turned out well.”
God, who is this idiot?
“Have you been waiting this whole night to use that line on someone at this party?” Adrian choked out. “Because I’ll have you know I have at least two grandparents.”
The server stared at him, then knocked back his head in a sudden, raucous laugh. “I thought you were going to punch me in the face for a second there,” he said, shaking his head. And then, like he read Adrian’s mind, he introduced himself. “My name’s Carter,” he said.
And before Adrian could blink, Carter had seized Adrian’s wrist and had pulled his hand to his lips, kissing his knuckles softly.
Adrian felt his breath seize.
“Nice to meetcha, Lord Adrian,” said Carter, glancing up at him with hooded eyes. “It’s been a pleasure serving you tonight.”
And with that, he pulled Adrian’s gold and diamond ring off his finger, and vaulted smoothly over the balcony.
Adrian stared blankly into the space that the handsome server had once occupied, listening to what could only be the crash of a body falling into the garden. Gathering his will, Adrian turned around and leaned over the railing.
“Ow,” groaned the splayed body of Carter in the dirt, his limbs slightly askew.
“Yeah,” Adrian called down. “It’s further down than it looks. That’s why we have stairs.”
“You could have warned me,” Carter groaned into a partially crushed rosebush.
“You should have asked me before robbing me of my family heirlooms, thief.”
“Carter,” said Carter. “It’s Carter.”
Adrian looked up into the starry sky above him, all the constellations he knew so well, all the patterns and shapes that had guided him during his childhood.
Dear stars, he was going to make a few poor decisions tonight.
Adrian took the stairs down to the gardens. He just caught the tail end of Carter, limping slightly, as he pulled himself upward.
“Well,” Carter croaked out, “It’s been a pleasure Your Highness, but I gotta dash. Byebye.” With a weak salute, Carter dashed into the mouth of the hedge maze.
Adrian didn’t even move. “HEY!” He called out. “Do you even know the way out of there?”
Silence came out from the hedges.
“You know,” said Adrian loudly, following Carter into the maze, “There are easier ways to escape than to get yourself lost somewhere that you have a territorial disadvantage in. For a thief who infiltrated my family’s waiting staff, you’re a remarkable bad judge of strategy. Do you even know the way out of here?”
“Adventure!” called out Carter’s muffled voice from somewhere inside the maze.
Adrian rolled his eyes. He had been lost in here enough times to know exactly where Carter was. He turned around, heading for a fork that he had passed by earlier, taking a left instead of a right. “I’m going to find you first,” he yelled out.
“Then what?” called out Carter, quite close now.
Adrian wasn’t in this maze, chasing this stupid, good-looking thief around for no reason. He wasn’t even trying to get the ring back, really. Adrian had already seriously considered throwing the damn engagement ring in a well. Robbery would be the best excuse for why he wouldn’t have it cuffed around his finger.
The ring wasn’t the reason why he had followed Carter into the garden.
“Hey,” Adrian said. “If you can get out of here, I’ll let you have it.”
“How cheeky of you, little lord. Are you saying you’re the one with the advantage here? Ehhehehehe.”
Carter sounded like he was practically next to him. Adrian found himself speeding up, a bit of a grin pricking at his face as he turned the corner. Idiot.
There he was. Carter was facing the dead end on the path. Adrian watched him silently as he whistled and looked up, tilting his head back at the hedge, like he was trying to decide if it was worth scaling. He shrugged and turned, then stopped abruptly in his tracks. Adrian took a small bit of joy in seeing the jolt of surprise cut across Carter’s face at the sight of Adrian standing there, blocking Carter’s path to potential freedom.
“Ohh, you’re good.” Carter said, leaning up against the back of the hedge, grinning. He had the ring between his fingers, playing with it. “I thought this would be a perfect getaway, but you were quicker than me, from the looks of it.”
Adrian stepped forward. “Yeah well, you had a bad start.”
“Fair’s fair.” Carter swung the ring over to Adrian. Adrian caught it without thinking, snatching it out of the air.
‘That’s your engagement ring, right?” Carter said, leaning back on his heels.
Adrian stared at the little ring, the blue diamond and the gold band. He could still hear the music from the band in here, violins and trumpets and flutes churning out a tune to keep hearts thumping and feet moving across the dance floor.
Carter lifted his chin slightly, his eyes barely glinting in the sharp shadows cast by the hedges around them.
“Your future lady will be happy with it,” said Carter quietly.
Adrian didn’t know what to say. He was glad that the shadowed hedges hid the fire in his face, because if it was daylight, he would have been able to signal ships off a nearby coastline.
Adrian stepped forward, close enough that he could smell the slightly different smell of Carter the Thief, the person who was not from the manor, who slipped into his staff and charmed him for a total of five minutes, a person who he felt like he should get to know much better than his position would allow.
Adrian tossed the ring back over to Carter. He caught it, his eyes wide.
“What’s this?” He said, glancing from the ring, back in his fingers, to Adrian. Adrian was just standing there awkwardly, fidgeting, not sure what to do with his hands.
Carter’s broke out in a sly smile. “My lord,” Carter crooned, “Are you proposing to me?”
Adrian gave him a slightly withering look. The drunkenness was catching up to him, that little voice was still alive and strong in his head.
Make some trouble.
“Sure,” said Adrian casually, and he was sliding up into Carter’s face, his lids low, his heart pounding away in his throat. He could see him so closely now, this strange, slightly stupid, very cute person, with his bright eyes and his pointed nose and the funny way his shoulders tensed as he moved close. Adrian could see the way the way Carter flushed spectacularly as Adrian pushed their chests together, how every ounce of smartassness slid away as easily as it came.
Adrian took the cue to step forward, put his hands on Carter’s shoulders, and shove him against the hedge.
“Consider this a proposal from your lord, thief,” Adrian said against Carter’s mouth.
He was still kind of drunk, but he took it as his win, anyways.
The band was still playing when Adrian got back to the gala.
The partygoers didn’t seem to notice his return. They were as twittery as ever, delicate amounts of champagne fueling their carefully constructed sentences, every movement fluid and practiced and controlled. Adrian lurched around them, drunk and stupid, a weight lifted from his neck and his face flushed red.
He had taken Carter out of the maze, directed him to the garden wall. Carter had climbed it like a monkey, scampering to the top, keeping his eyes out for watching guards. But instead of falling right to the ground on the other side, he paused, straddling the wall, staring down at Adrian as he stood there in the garden.
“Come with me,” Carter pleaded.
Adrian felt something twist in his chest. He looked so sweet there, his eyebrows furrowed together, knuckles white against the wall.
For a stupid second, Adrian thought it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, to leave here.
But he shook his head, and smiled.
“Another night, Carter,” he said.
He made his way through the gala and to his rooms, smiling a bit at those who greeted him, stumbling slightly on his way. When he reached an empty bit of hallway, Adrian let his fingertips linger on his lips, and wondered if he would ever have the luck to get robbed again.
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