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all of the things we didn’t choose

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Frank had no intention of going to the White Ball this year. He had attended in the past, but had always left the way he'd arrived: alone.

It was the coat, of course, that changed his mind. It was a dark green, with deep cuffs and fantastic silver embroidery on the lapels. It was flamboyant and decadent, fit for an airship pirate and Frank wanted it like he'd never wanted any other piece of clothing in his life.

He was sure it was out of his budget, and certainly not in his size, but he went inside the tailor's shop anyway.

"It was special ordered," the tailor, Mr. Stumph, confided in a hushed voice, "by a highly placed Wolf family. The wastrel daughter of a captain in His Majesty's Navy Royale. Quite a rogue, that one." Mr. Stumph winked conspiratorially. "The coat was the captain's present to his daughter on the occasion of her graduation from the Naval Academy. Alas, the daughter eloped with a young woman of unsavory reputation, and the last anyone has heard, they turned to piracy to support themselves."

Frank was charmed, and let himself be helped into the coat. It was long on him, falling to the back of his calves, but the sleeves, originally meant to be three-quarters length, fit him perfectly.

"Oh, sir," Mr. Stumph sighed, urging him to stand in front of a full-length mirror. "We can hem the bottom so it's not quite so long." Mr. Stumph pulled a tape measure from a pocket and quickly pinned several sections. He checked the fit of the shoulders, fastened the elegant clasps down the front. "Very good, sir. It would only take a day at most to complete the alterations."

Frank was torn. He had no real use for such a beautiful, fancy coat. . .

"It is discounted, since it was commissioned for a specific person, and a deposit was paid. . ."

Frank caved, and two days later it was hanging against his armoire as his best friend Gerard tried to help him piece together an outfit to go with it.

"The black trousers, and the burgundy shirt, you know, the one with the ruffles," Gerard said from his chaise by the window, flinging a wrist out in demonstration. "The burgundy shirt has a low neck, so you can show off the collar you'll be sure to wear."

Frank tried not to blush. "Fuck you."

"What?" Gerard asked, taking a sip of wine. "That's the whole point of the White Ball, yes? To find a partner with . . .similar tastes? No reason to be shy about it."

"It's— polite society—"

Gerard actually laughed at him. "We've never given a damn about polite society before, Frank. Why start now?"

Gerard had a point. "I suppose."

"Trust me," Gerard said. "The burgundy shirt, black trousers. You'll look gorgeous and tempting, and some beautiful man will sweep you off your feet. In the meantime, can we discuss these manuscripts that have been submitted?"

Frank gave one last, longing look at toward the frock coat before joining Gerard. "Of course. What did you think of them?"

Years ago, after University, Gerard and Frank had started their own boutique publishing concern which had turned into a runaway success. Eventually they'd turned over the majority of the business to their extremely competent staff, but on occasion their senior editor would send them submissions that she thought would be of interest to them.

"I thought they were all very daring examples of modern literature, sure to shock the stodgy old men who currently think they are the arbiters of good taste."

Gerard beamed at him. "Excellent! That was my thought, as well. Shall we inform Miss Jamia that we definitely want to acquire the rights to publish these?"

Frank could only grin back.

The day of the ball arrived more quickly than Frank anticipated. Gerard came over to play valet, helping Frank into his clothes. The trousers were simple enough, but the burgundy shirt had laces that required a steady hand and patience, neither of which Frank had at that moment. He stamped into his formal boots, and let Gerard do up the ties on them, as well.

Gerard brushed Frank's hair away from his face and fastened it back with a silver hair ring, and skillfully applied kohl around Frank's eyes. Next, Gerard settled Frank's mask on his face, tying it securely with the attached ribbons. It was a family heirloom, made of supple leather and decorated with diamond chips, forming a fanciful web design.

Gerard carefully held up the coat and lifted it onto Frank's shoulders, tugging to make sure it sat correctly. He turned Frank around and stepped away, looking him over from head to foot. "Perfect. All that's missing is your collar."

Frank had been toying with the collar, opening and closing the clasp. He looked at it, soft leather and shiny silver findings. He'd bought it a few years ago, when his. . .inclinations became obvious. The front ring had a charm attached, the symbol indicating Frank's status as an free submissive. He hesitated, taking a deep breath and gathering his nerve.

He lifted the leather up to his neck and slid the leather tongue through the buckle, fitting the prong into the appropriate hole and— The collar wasn't too tight, it rested lightly against his skin, but he could feel it. The sensation made him gasp.

He could feel the way his hands were trembling, and he wasn't sure he was going to be able to go out like this, shaking apart with fear and excitement.

"Frankie," Gerard said, softly. He tipped Frank's chin up with a careful finger. "You deserve to find someone who makes you happy. The White Ball is your best chance for that. You're going to be fine." Gerard hugged him, careful of Frank's finery. "I promise. "

Frank swallowed hard, and nodded, feeling slightly more fortified. "Thanks, Gerard. You're the best friend a gentleman could ever ask for."

"Of course," Gerard said gently. "I will stop by for dinner tomorrow, to see how the evening fared. Unless you are otherwise engaged. . ."

Frank blushed and escorted Gerard to the door.

Frank took his own carriage; the idea of trying to flag one down after the Ball was off-putting. He waved Simmons off when she tried to open the door for him; she looked at him with concern. "Sir?"

"I'm fine," Frank insisted, and she tipped her head in agreement. "To the White Gardens."

Simmons straightened the lapels of her suit before climbing up and taking a hold of the reins. The trip was quick, and Simmons stopped the carriage near the entrance. "I'll be waiting."

Frank nodded and adjusted his coat, his nerves returning full force. His throat was dry and it felt like his heart was going to pound right out of his chest. "Oh, God, what am I doing?"

The doors to the Ballroom were thrown wide open. He could hear laughter and conversations floating through the night air, and Frank scolded himself for being so damn ridiculous. There was nothing to be afraid of, and if he was lucky, he might meet someone who suited his particular tastes.

He went in, unannounced, since it was a masquerade. The ballroom was lit by candles and lamplight, and the attendees were dazzling in their array of formal clothing. It was like stepping into Gerard's jeweled kaleidoscope, a slow whirl of colors and light.

At one end of the great hall a section had been set aside for the hosts of the White Ball, Lord and Lady Morrison, the highest among the Wolf peerage. Frank stood on his tiptoes and caught a glance of the pair.

They were both dressed in nothing but white, with Lord Morrison lounging indolently in his high-backed chair, his infamous fur-trimmed jacket framing his puckish face. Rumor was that a particularly bloodthirsty Morrison ancestor had lined the jacket with the fur of an enemy.

Lady Morrison was elegant, restrained, beautiful; the perfect complement to Lord Morrison. Her long blonde hair was dyed white and held back with a jeweled circlet and her dress flowed around her like quicksilver.

They were magical, and Frank promised himself that he'd work up the courage and pay his respects before the evening was over.

Frank walked over to the refreshment table, nodding to the few faces that were recognizable behind the masks. He got a glass of punch, and found a spot along the wall that allowed him an unobstructed view of the dance floor. He watched the dancers swirl to the beat of the string quartet playing the most fashionable songs of the season.

There was so much activity going on, the sound of clinking glasses and voices raised in laughter, that it was rather overwhelming.

A roar of laughter erupted near by, and a particular voice caught Frank's interest. The laugh was rough and growly, and it made something low in Frank's belly heat. He turned and tried to identify the source of the voice.

After a few moments he managed to pinpoint the person in question. He was taller than Frank, and very solidly build. He wore unrelieved black: trousers, shirt, and jacket. His face was hidden by his mask, a red devil with horns and a wide, flat nose, clearly Asian in design.

Frank spent a considerable amount of the evening observing him surreptitiously over the rim of his punch glass.

The man was clearly an extrovert, telling stories and jokes within his circle of friends, laughing louder than was normally acceptable in polite society. He didn't dance, instead drank punch and talked, gesturing wildly.

Frank wasn't quite close enough to hear the words, and he wasn't willing to risk moving closer. Someone was sure to notice him lurking nearby and say something.

Instead, he accepted an invitation to dance from a man with a pretty smile that looked vaguely familiar, wearing a skull mask with a cocked hat. They talked of pleasantries: the weather, the most recent winner of the Round-the-World Airship Race, the failure of His Majesty to convince his royal progeny to behave with a modicum of propriety.

The other man lead the dance, so Frank didn't have to concentrate on where they were going, just let his body go where it was directed. Whenever he was facing the right direction, his eyes sought out the man in the devil mask, noticing that he had a wide, uninhibited smile. If his dance partner realized that Frank was distracted, he was too polite to say anything as he returned Frank to his section of wall.

"Thank you, sir," Frank said with a quick bow.

"The pleasure was all mine, I'm sure," the other replied, returning Frank's bow and walking away.

Frank watched his dance partner disappear into the crowd, and when he turned back to his quarry, he was startled to find him gone. "Damn," he muttered. He stood on his tiptoes, trying to unobtrusively look for the man, but he couldn't see him in the press of people. "Fuck."

"Such a filthy mouth," a voice purred in his ear.

Frank startled and when he turned to look at the person who'd somehow managed to sneak up behind him, he almost squeaked. It was him.

"You've been spying on me all evening," the man said, lips curving into a smile. "Thought I'd come 'round and introduce myself." He laughed softly, and the sound sent a shiver down Frank's back. "Well, as much as I can, until the grand reveal at midnight." He indicated his devil's mask. "You can call me J."

Frank panicked. "I'm sorry? I—I have no idea what you're talking about. I've been here, watching the dancers, minding my own business—"

"Come now." The man dipped down to whisper in Frank's ear. "You are too striking to be particularly covert. I must confess to being extremely curious about your interest." He held out an arm. "Shall we take a turn around the Gardens? They're lovely this time of year."

Frank found himself unable to say no, and let the man lead him out of the rotunda and into the gardens. There were so many gravel paths, it was like a maze. Frank had never had the opportunity to explore them to his satisfaction, but the stranger seemed to have more than a passing familiarity with them. "Have you been here often?" he asked, curious.

"Often enough," J answered. "But never with someone as interesting as you."

It was like one of the penny dreadfuls that Gerard read when he was sure no one was around, full of longing glances and fleeting touches. "Does that actually work, as a pick up line?"

The other man laughed. "I don't know, I've never tried it before. Usually I just—" Here he waggled his eyebrows ridiculously at Frank, startling an embarrassing giggle out of him. "Is that better?"

Frank clapped his hand over this mouth to stifle his laughter, which was loud and as far from refined as laughter could be.

"No," J said. "I like hearing you laugh." He pulled Frank's hand away and tucked it back into the crook of his arm, his thumb rubbing against the pulse beating in Frank's wrist. "Midnight is still an hour away; what shall I call you in the meantime?"

"F," Frank said.

"F," J repeated. "F for. . .Ferdinand, perhaps? Fabio? Festus? No matter," J said with a flamboyant wave of his hand. "All will be revealed at midnight. In the meantime, tell me why a young man such as yourself is unattached."

J's voice dropped, deliciously rubbing against Frank's nerve endings, and a flash of heat race through his body. His fingers, resting against J's arm, trembled.

"Oh," J breathed. He stopped walking, forcing Frank to halt. "Indeed." He leaned in, face near Frank's collar, and slowly inhaled. "You smell. . .tasty."

Frank released the breath he'd been holding, and couldn't help gulping for more air. He'd suspected, of course, that J was a Wolf, but until this moment, he hadn't been sure.

"Tasty little human. . ." J hummed. "You going to run for me? Sprint across the Gardens while I shift and chase you, hear your heart pounding and the blood rushing through your veins—" He sniffed at Frank, and smiled. "You like the idea." It wasn't a question.

J's smile was more sharp-toothed than it had been before, and that sent a shiver of terror through Frank. What would happen if J let his Wolf out? Frank would have to run, for his life, and chances it would end badly for him.

"Are you one of those hangers-on, the thrill-seeking ones who sneak in, hoping for a glimpse of a Wolf? Looking for some excitement in their dull, boring lives, a quick fuck with a beast—"

J's voice was mostly an angry growl, and Frank found the courage to meet his eyes. "If that's what I'd wanted, I would have gotten it hours ago and gone home."

That clearly made J pause. He circled Frank, looking him over like he was a particularly delicious meal. "Then what do you want, little human?"

Frank thought about Gerard's words, dropped to his knees and tipped his head back, exposing his neck. His eyes were tightly closed, because that required bravery, and Frank was just mostly foolhardy.

"Oh, look at you," J breathed, sounding a bit surprised. He traced a line down Frank's throat, stopping short of where his collar rested. His hand paused, before sliding to the nape of Frank's neck and squeezing. "I'm going to kiss you."

Frank gasped, and then any further sounds he made were lost in the press of J's mouth, warm and wet, against his. It was almost chaste, this kiss, but it made Frank's heart race and his chest tremble with want.

It was over too soon; J pulled away, and Frank's eyes fluttered open. J looked at him and pressed his thumb against Frank's lips, stroking back and forth, back and forth, hypnotic and arousing. "For the next hour, we are going to stroll decorously through the Gardens, speaking of pleasantries and exchanging amusing stories." He held out his hand and helped Frank back onto this feet. "When the clock strikes midnight, we will unmask ourselves and pay our respects to Lord and Lady Morrison before departing to a more private location. Your residence?"

Frank nodded.

"Yes," J said. "And then we will find out how talented your mouth really is."

Frank bit his lip hard, to keep a moan from escaping. "Yes, sir."

"Good boy," J whispered.

Simmons was good; she didn't look twice at J—James de Wees, minor Wolf nobility and Frank's companion for the evening. Maybe for longer; Frank couldn't really focus on anything beyond what was going to happen once they were safely behind closed doors.

It didn't help that James insisted on describing to Frank exactly what he wanted to do, the slow removal of Frank's fancy clothes, the careful exploration of Frank's skin with hands and mouth— "Enough," Frank hissed. He pressed James' hand to his cock, letting him feel how hard he was.

James just hummed in reply and pressed a kiss to the soft skin behind Frank's ear. "Want to leave marks behind, make it clear you belong—"

Whatever else James was going to say was preempted by their arrival at Frank's home. Simmons helped them out of the carriage and Frank lost no time in clasping James' hand and leading him inside. He tried to rush them up the stairs, to his quarters, needing to feel James' skin against his own.

James decided to be contrary and slowed things down, pausing frequently to push Frank against the nearest wall and kiss him leisurely, until Frank's head was spinning. "Please," he said against James' lips. "I can't—"

"Of course you can," James replied, but he relented. His hand was sweaty and trembling in Frank's, and it was reassuring to know that Frank wasn't the only one being overwhelmed by his feelings.

Once the bedroom door was shut and the candles lit, it was like the world shifted, growing soft at the edges.

"Don't move," James murmured, undoing the jacket clasps, one at a time. He pushed the heavy fabric over Frank's shoulders, letting it drop heavily to the floor. Frank had a fleeting thought about wrinkles and dirt, but James kissed him again, and the thought was gone.

James went to work on the laces on Frank's shirt, the ones along both forearms, delicately pulling the drawstrings free of the fabric, rather than simply loosening them.

"James," Frank whispered. He wanted to stamp his foot, or maybe kick James in the shin, anything to get him to undress him faster.

"Yes," James said, smiling wryly, and continued what he was doing. Once he was finished with the sleeves, he pulled the silky fabric over Frank's head and let it settle atop the jacket on the floor. He knelt then, to work on Frank's boots.

Frank swayed, and rested a hand on James' shoulder for support, watching James' nimble fingers work his bootlaces free. He grunted as James tugged his boots off, and then he was unfastening Frank's trousers. "James," Frank said again, but this time his voice was breathless.

"Yes," he said, and he pushed Frank's trousers and drawers down, letting his fingers trail up Frank's legs as he stood up.

"Oh." It tickled, a little, but didn't distract him from how much he wanted James' hands on him.

James was smiling, open and happy. "So beautiful," he said. "On your knees, Frank. Hands behind your back."

It was almost a reflex; Frank didn't even have to think, his body just obeyed.

"I'm taking this collar off," James said quietly. "The next time you wear a collar, it will be mine."

Frank shuddered, closing his eyes and nodding, because he wanted that. He'd always wanted that, to wear someone's collar, to belong. "Yes."

James removed the collar, making sure not to touch Frank's skin until it was tossed into the pile of discarded clothes. He traced the line of Frank's jaw, down to his neck, and then to Frank's collarbones. "You going to show me how good you are?"

Frank made a soft, hungry sound as James quickly disrobed, letting his fancy clothes puddle around his feet. James was solidly built, broad shoulders and a wide chest, sparsely covered with dark hair. He had a rounded belly, and his goodly-sized cock jutted out from a tangle of pubic hair.

He was, once stripped of his finery, plain and ordinary, but he made Frank feel anything but.

"Please," Frank said, and he didn't wait for James to respond, simply leaned forward and brushed his cheek against the softness of James' belly, like a cat marking its human. "Let me—"

"Anything," James said, and Frank took him at his word, licking a long stripe from the base of James' cock to the head, savoring the musky taste. It was hard for Frank to balance himself with his hands locked behind his back, and he wasn't terribly experienced with this particular act, but he tried to make up for it in enthusiasm.

James petted Frank's hair, cradling his face like Frank was the most precious thing James had ever touched, murmuring endearments and praise as Frank sucked and licked his cock.

"So good," James moaned, and Frank tried to take James in deeper and faster, but James wouldn't let him, used his hands to keep the pace steady and shallow. "Perfect."

James was getting close, Frank could tell by the way James' thighs trembled. He was panting, and the taste of his cock more pronounced, bitter and astringent. Frank wanted to cup James' balls in his hand, feel the way they would draw up as James was about to come, but he didn't have permission.

He was a good boy. Next time he would ask for permission.

"Frank—" James said, and he threaded his fingers through Frank's hair, pulling him further down his cock as his back arched, making Frank swallow as he came, hot and salty. "Oh, Frank—"

James pushed Frank away from his cock and dropped to his knees, kissing Frank, nipping at Frank's lower lip and chasing the taste of himself in Frank's mouth. "Perfect, so damn perfect," he whispered, and Frank couldn't help but feel proud.

James got to his feet, and pulled Frank to his. "You have a bed."

Smiling, Frank nodded. "I do."

"A very fine bed, from the looks of it."

Frank tilted his head. "I've had no reason to complain."

"Excellent." James bowed. "Let me escort you to the bed, little human. I'm too old to spend so much time on my knees, and I want to take my time sucking your cock."

Frank bit back his laughter. "A lovely suggestion. I am amenable."

"Indeed you are." He kissed Frank again, and something about the kiss felt different to Frank. There was intent there. He let James lead him to the bed, and the rest of the evening was consumed by the mutual exploration of their bodies.

Frank had forgotten to send a note to Gerard indicating that he was otherwise engaged for the evening, so Gerard arrived at his doorstep for dinner, curious and cheerful.

"Is that a bite mark?" he asked.

Frank immediately slapped his hand over the mark on his neck. "No, of course not, why do you ask?"

Gerard just tsked at him. "You met someone, I take it. Did he sweep you off your feet? Dazzle you with his charming wit?"

Frank knew he was blushing, and he made himself meet Gerard's eyes. He needed Gerard to understand. "He makes me laugh."

Gerard did. Something in his face softened, and he smiled. "I'm glad, Frankie."