John examined the small rectangle of cardboard once more. A formal dinner invitation was utterly ludicrous in this house, and that in itself had piqued his curiosity. So he’d dressed up nicely; not full formal wear, but smart shirt and trousers, with a tunic rather than a dinner jacket over the black silk shirt. It was close enough to his normal clothing that he didn’t feel uncomfortable, at least from unfamiliar clothes. In fact, it was what he wore when he had to dress smartly for a business meeting, but could get out of wearing an actual suit.
And now he was standing outside Charles’s room, wondering which of them was about to make the bigger fool of themselves.
His first guess was that Charles had some foolish idea of becoming friends with him, in the misguided belief that this would result in his acquiescence in Charles’s crazier schemes for saving the world. Charles should know better ‑‑ John had been sharing a house with the idiot for three months before said idiot had put him on contract as IT manager for the latest campaign, and he had been quite free with his opinions on Charles’s politics both before and since accepting employment. His second guess was that Charles had an even more foolish idea of seducing him, purpose same.
His third guess, which was the second guess without the ulterior motive attached, seemed too unlikely to even bother listing. Yes, there’d been that hint of attraction between them; but Charles was cheerfully bi and open to all prospects, and the collection of misfits and oddballs who afforded London housing by sharing a rambling Victorian monstrosity included much more enticing prospects than his misanthropic self.
And perhaps Charles was just bored and looking for company when everyone else was out of the house this weekend. After all, boredom as much as anything else had ensured that he
wouldn’t miss this dinner date. He knocked at the door and heard Charles say, “Come in,” in that wonderfully rich voice of his. He envied that voice, that ability to make the most ridiculous notions sound sensible. He walked in, and there was Charles, all dressed up nicely, too, also smart casual rather than formal. John stopped and admired the effect, his first move in determining whether guess one or guess two was correct. Charles looked good, but then Charles always looked good; physical good looks, with the height and build and gorgeous voice, but also an easy self-confidence without any off-putting arrogance. And brains to go with the rest of it. An appealing package whether in tails or faded jeans and tee-shirt.
Charles appraised him in turn. “You scrub up very nicely. If it wasn’t for the geek head-to-toe black, I might think you a normal human being.”
The cheerful insult put John at ease, putting them back on a normal footing. “I’m obviously not trying hard enough.”
Charles grinned at him. “Worried about your supernerd image? I shouldn’t, if I were you. Your guilty little secret is safe with me.”
Startled, John barely managed to control his reaction. “What guilty little secret?”
“That you’re capable of normal social behaviour when you put your mind to it.”
Oh. Just another everyday, comfortable insult. “And rapidly exhausting my limited stock of good manners, so if we could move along to this dinner you promised…”
“Of course, of course. This way.” Charles gestured gracefully, as if showing him through to a formal dining room, rather than a small table set in the middle of the room. He pulled a chair out for John, all manners.
John sat down, busied himself getting comfortable, and then glanced across the table at Charles. Only then did he check his place setting to see what might be on the menu. It took several seconds to register what was draped gracefully across his plate. The fact that it was entirely black didn’t help. By tradition it should have been red.
A single long-stemmed rose, pure black. Not just the flower, but leaves and stem too. Not real, then. He touched a finger to it, expecting to feel plastic, and found a velvety softness instead. He picked it up in wonder, stroked it, smelt it. The flower was delicate suede shaped into soft petals; the leaves some stiff, heavy fabric. An artificial rose, but an exquisitely beautiful one for all that, made with loving artistry and finished with a delicate bow of satin ribbon, just as a real rose from a florist’s would have been. It was the perfect romantic gift, and how the hell had Charles guessed?
“Do you like it?” Charles asked softly.
“Yes. It’s beautiful. Thank you,” he said, before his internal censor had a chance to realise what he was going to say, and then cursed himself.
“Good.” Charles paused, then went on, “A box of chocolates didn’t seem you, somehow, and then I saw that, and I knew what I wanted to get for you.”
“How did you know that I like leather?”
There was silence. Then Charles said, very quietly, “I didn’t.”
Mortified, he replayed what he’d said and knew there was no way out; his intonation had put a very specific meaning on what he’d said. And he’d said it assuming Charles already knew or had guessed, and wasn’t disturbed by it. He dropped the rose like the poison it assuredly was to the hope of any relationship, and said as calmly as he could manage, “Well, now you do. Congratulations.” Then he pushed the chair back, managed to stand up without knocking anything over, and walked towards the door. Walking, not running, he could hang on to at least some shreds of his dignity.
He never got to the door. Charles had taken him in a bear hug from behind, was holding him. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“You’ve found out what you wanted to know. You’ve confirmed my guilty little secret. I see no need for me to stay any longer.”
Charles didn’t let go, held him tighter if anything. “What the hell are you talking about? All I wanted for tonight was a nice romantic dinner, followed by a nice romantic fuck. My notion of a good fuck might not match yours, but you might at least give me a chance to find out if there’s any overlap!”
“Then why the leather rose?” John asked, wanting to believe, not daring to believe.
“Because it was exotic and beautiful, soft petals and sharp thorns, all done up in black,” Charles whispered in his ear. “And it reminded me of you.” Brush of lips against his ear. “And when I saw it, I realised that it wasn’t just a quick fuck I wanted with you.” Pressure on his earlobe, the gentlest of nips from Charles’s teeth, then, “Although I’d make do with that, if necessary.”