"May I have this dance?" Florian offered his hand, smiling nervously when it was accepted. He escorted his companion onto the dance floor and shifted into position just as a new waltz started. At fourteen he was all awkward limbs and over-large hands and feet. Although he tried, his movements weren't very graceful.
"Come on, Florian," the young woman snapped. "You're not holding my hand tight enough and you're too far away. Afraid you'll step on my foot? Poor Nadine is still limping from last Saturday night when you practically crippled her."
"I'm sorry for being such a poor dancer," Florian offered, managing to keep his tone and expression sincere when all he could think of was getting through this, the last of his duty dances for the evening, and fleeing. He was quite sure he'd be seeing this particular girl and her rose-covered gown in his nightmares.
"May I cut in?" Florian had never been so grateful and relieved to see his friend Vincent. He nodded his thanks for the dance and handed Rosamond Le Claire to her new partner. As he made his way off the dance floor and towards the refreshments, he wondered how he could repay Vincent for his sacrifice.
"This way!" Vincent grabbed his arm and together, they ducked down the hallway and into the nearest room. Vincent eased the door closed silently while Florian glanced around guiltily.
After a long moment, their eyes finally met and they burst out laughing. Florian clamped his hand over his mouth to muffle the sound, but his eyes were watering he was laughing so hard.
"Saved your life again," Vincent reminded him when he'd finally managed some control over his mirth. "Her perfume alone could suffocate someone your size."
"And you're so much bigger?" Florian demanded, straightening to his full height. At 16, he was half-a-head shorter than Vincent and a good thirty pounds lighter. Where Vincent was broad and strong, Florian was slender and prone to fevers.
"Big enough that Rosamond Le Claire won't crush me when we dance. She could snap you like a twig."
"I think she tried that already," Florian confessed with a wince, remembering the last ball he'd attended – the one where Vincent had been dancing with Nadine and Florian had spent an interminable waltz being simultaneously crushed and berated by Rosamond.
"She likes you, you realize," Vincent said with a grin. He had pushed himself away from the door and was moving restlessly around the room, as if looking for something. Florian watched him move curiously, wondering what was his friend found so interesting inside this small, rather plain waiting room for guests.
"What?" he asked, finally realizing what Vincent had said. "Rosamond detests me. She tells me as much every time we share a duty dance."
Vincent finished his circuit of the room, stopping beside Florian. "As oblivious as ever." He grabbed Florian's hand and swung him around until they were in waltz positions. The music was muffled, but they could hear it well enough to dance. They had done this many times before, in private, starting as awkward pre-adolescents practicing for their first ball. They'd learned the moves years ago, but they still shared the occasional dance. It was comfortable and comforting in a time when Florian's world was slowly crumbling around him.
"Her family has money, you know," Vincent offered. "Not like mine – all tied up in land and shipping. You could…"
"I couldn't." Florian shook his head, glad that Vincent was looking straight ahead instead of seeing the misery on Florian's face. "Mother… would not approve. Not the right lineage."
"Of course. That's why Rosamond's so miserable to you. She does like you." Vincent knew better than to voice his opinion on Florian's Mother and her aristocratic snobbery. She'd be the ruin of her precious du Rocheforts, Florian included. Vincent had said as much to Florian, once, and it had nearly ruined their friendship.
Gripping Florian a little tighter, Vincent guided him through the rest of this dance, and the next in silence. When they finally broke apart, they were both smiling softly.
"You're leaving." It wasn't a question, of course. Florian knew the truth of the matter after one look at his friend's face.
"Harvard," Vincent offered, not quite as enthusiastic at being sent to America as he tried to be. For the others he could pretend, but not for Florian. Not when they'd be so far apart when Florian needed him the most.
"I tried to convince Father," Vincent said, his eyes on the decanter as he poured measures of brandy for Florian and himself. He handed Florian the glass without quite meeting his eyes. "Told him it would help encourage investors to have two solid families involved in the business. Told him we'd both work at the office during breaks." Vincent swallowed the brandy in one go, trying to wash away the memory of his father's angry refusal to have any business association with the du Rocheforts.
"So we're drinking all his brandy because he's sending you to America alone?"
"No, we're drinking all his brandy because it cost more than the whiskey."
"Good enough reason," Florian conceded, finishing his drink and setting the glass down on the desk. He reached out and caught Vincent's hand, pulling him up and around the desk, out into the middle of the floor where there was room enough for them to move. Without a word, he guided Vincent through a silent waltz, leading easily despite his smaller size. They were both eighteen now, and one of them was off to see the world.
"I'll write," Vincent promised, and Florian smiled even though they both knew how bad Vincent was at correspondence.
"I'll expect postcards. They'll give me something to talk about when I've got Rosamond for the duty dance."
"Always expecting me to rescue you from Rosamond." Vincent shook his head. "Promise you'll trod on her feet for me once in a while."
"There's a promise I can keep." Florian laughed with delight. They both knew he was far too good a dancer for that to happen by accident. "Shall I practice?" he demanded, brushing his foot against Vincent's. Vincent returned the favor and the two of them continued to turn, laughing until they cried.
"You're quiet today." Ray rested his hand on Florian's shoulder, leaning over to see the postcard Florian was staring at.
"Someone I haven't thought of in a while sent me this." Florian offered with a wistful smile. "Four years late, but he finally sent me a postcard."
"Old… friend?" Ray asked, making it clear he meant 'lover'.
"Friend. In the truest sense of the word," Florian reassured him, standing up and pressing Ray backwards gently so that they had room to move. They didn't need much – they were comfortable in each other's space.
"Dance with me?" Florian asked, but Ray was already holding him, guiding him as they moved.
"Was it good news?" Ray wondered; Florian was usually happy to receive correspondence from friends.
"It was," Florian assured him. "I'm just feeling nostalgic, I suppose. We haven't seen each other in so long because he was away at university. He's just come back and now he's getting married."
"You'll want to go." Ray made it a statement. No matter what others thought of their relationship, Ray was not Florian's master.
"He's invited us both and you're going," Florian replied and there was enough mischief in his tone that Ray had to pull back to look him in the eyes.
"What aren't you telling me?"
"The bride's an old acquaintance and I have a promise to keep."
"Do you?" Ray was already dreading this wedding and he didn't even know the date.
"I'd better practice," Florian told him seriously, hiding his amusement at Ray's discomfort. He could feel Ray tensing, as if expecting a "practice" kiss. He certainly didn't expect Florian to step on his foot.
"Ow!" Ray complained while Florian burst into laughter, grabbing Ray and spinning them around, their movements not graceful enough to be dancing. It was a month until the wedding where he'd finally see Vincent again and share one last dance with his bride, Rosamond.
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