Harry placed the typewriter on the table before he pulled back the chair for Alexos, and he eased the chair back under the table as Alexos slipped his cane into its hook. Alexos kept his distance as they came back into the library, and there was a flatness to his features, as though he were struggling to control his expression.
He had removed his blazer before taking his seat, leaving him in his shirt sleeves only, and as Harry fetched the small table and folded it out at the other side of him, ready for tea in a few moments, Alexos took the links out of his cuffs and set them aside. He was very careful, very particular, about the way that he rolled up his sleeves – Harry hated to do that himself, to put them all the way up to the elbow the way that Alexos did, and would instead clip them with a band at his mid forearm, but Alexos folded them crisply, over and over, so that they were rolled almost flat to the skin.
“May I have a sandwich as well as my tea, please, Sutton?”
“Of course, sir – if I may ask, would it be possible for me to stay before I fetch it for you?”
Alexos glanced up at him.
His shirt sleeves rolled up, he had removed the typewriter from its case, removing a small roll of tools from a pocket, and a pair of rounded discs. It was partly an excuse, that much was true, but another part of Harry was genuinely interested to observe the process of readying the typewriter for use – he had never closely observed the use of a typewriter, and foolish as it might have been, he found himself inquisitive, wondering if the mechanism was as loud as he had heard, if it was so easy as it was made to look, in the advertisements.
“Oh,” said Alexos, after a few moments had passed. “You want to watch me put in the new ribbon?”
“The ribbon?” Harry repeated, and Alexos’ lips twitched, but there was no unkindness in his smile. If anything, he seemed almost shy of his expertise, looking Harry up and down – Harry had set him off-balance earlier, feigning as if almost to kiss him, simply to see how he would react, and Alexos seemed to be determined to forget the moment entirely, to convince himself that it had been but an accident, a misinterpretation. This was the strange balance that Alexos seemed to go through, whenever they did talk, these past weeks: Alexos avoided him, for in his presence he went from suspicion to uncertainty to fear to desire to embarrassment…
And always back to desire.
Alexos did want him, and would come around to embracing that want.
Harry wanted to believe it, wanted to be certain of it, but one could never be certain until one tread unto the breach whether desire would be enough. Alexos did desire him – did he desire him enough not to panic when the gap was broached between them? Did he desire him enough not to flee from him, to call for his resignation if not his arrest?
All he could do was observe the many signs pointing in the direction he wanted them to point, and draw Alexos closer. Alexos either looked at his body with hunger in his eyes, or he studiously looked elsewhere: did he ache to touch Harry as badly as Harry wanted to touch him? More so? Had he ever been touched before, by a man, by a woman? What did he like, to be tied up, to tie another in bondage? To submit, to rule? To be beaten, to have his hair pulled, to be caressed, threatened, bitten, kissed?
“Of course,” said Alexos softly. “I suppose no one at the Bisphams was a typist.”
“No, sir,” said Harry, stepping closer and standing to Alexos’ side and just beside him, looking over his shoulder. “I’m sure I know typists by extension – one or two of my brothers work in offices – but I have never closely regarded their use.”
“Your missives during the war weren’t typed?”
“They were, sir, but not the notes we used within the infirmary. None of us had time to learn to type, given all the chaos all about us – it would have sunk more time than it might have saved.”
“Here,” said Alexos. He seemed more confident, more comfortable with Harry, with some task to occupy his hands – the biggest clue as to his shared desire, as Harry saw it, was the way he had been avoiding Harry’s presence of recent. It had been subtle, so much so that Brydon had even gone out of his way to assure Harry it was likely to do with the young master’s embarrassment around his infirmity, that it was unlikely to do with Harry himself.
Harry believed otherwise.
Alexos unclipped the upper lid of the typewriter, pulling it aside, and Harry peered at its inner workings with interest – at the front of the machine was the array of keys, but now revealed, he saw a disc of carefully arranged hammers and pins, and standing either side of this disc were a pair of small prongs.
“You can use a sewing machine, can’t you, Sutton?”
“Yes, sir, of course.”
“Ribbon spools aren’t so different to one’s bobbin – they just hold an ink ribbon instead of thread.”
Harry observed very keenly as Alexos carefully pulled two spools of dark metal apart, and Harry inhaled the heavy, familiar smell of ink as the ribbon soaked in the stuff was bared to the air. Neatly, Alexos laid the spools on the prongs, clipping them into place, and Harry listened to the click, wondered if it felt the same as the click of a bobbin into place, as Alexos said.
“You see these hammers, they’re not dissimilar to the hammers that strike a piano’s strings,” said Alexos, gesturing to the disc of pins. “Each of them, in much the same way as a piano, falls with the press of a key. Instead of the hammer striking a string, however, it hits the ribbon held taut just here, by the ribbon vibrator, so we feed it into place…” Alexos manipulated the ribbon with tweezers, that he not touch the black ink with his bare hands, and Harry watched the neat and easy way he fed the ribbon between the tiny metal clips, turning one of the spools to pull the ribbon tight. “With that, it’s as simple as pressing a key.” He pushed down very gently on the Q key, and Harry watched the hammer move forward, not yet touching the ribbon – when it did, he saw it would press the ribbon against the paper from the other side.
His hand splayed over the keys with each of his fingertips resting on letters, Alexos looked very much at home, as though his hand had been trained to a starting position: his pale fingers, long and graceful, looked just as right and correct laid upon this instrument as they might against the ivory keys of a piano. Delicate flesh stood in stark contrast to the polished dark metal of the mechanism beneath it.
There was something deeply appealing, more so than Harry expected, in the sight of Alexos at his typewriter – he enjoyed very much to observe the other man writing his notes, whether they be in Latin, Ancient Greek, English, or whatever arcane languages he had committed to memory, because Alexos had a very square and particular hand. It was not neat, exactly, and it was perhaps not handsome, but it was supremely legible, no matter that it was rather cramped and small upon the page. The appeal in the typewriter was a different one – Alexos conducted himself at the machine’s keys with ease and a great deal of visible experience, competence.
Harry had always found a certain appeal in those men with skills different than his own.
“Thank you, sir,” said Harry as Alexos removed a sheaf of paper sized to the typewriter, and fed a page through the machine to work from, tightening it into place. He set his margins with deft, simple movements of levers and keys, and Harry wondered when it was he had learned, if he had been compelled to – did his mother use a typewriter? Had his university requested it of him? “What sort of sandwich would you like, sir?”
“Sandwich, Sutton?” repeated Alexos distractedly, frowning deeply as he tightened a wheel on the side of the typewriter, pressing experimentally down on a key.
When Harry returned twenty minutes later, sandwich in hand – cheese, lettuce, and ham – he found Alexos frowning very deeply in concentration at a page of handwritten notes. His fingers moved at such a pace over the mechanical keys, creating a great chattering of metallic noise, that Harry could scarcely believe his eyes: with each key hammered home the page would move to the right a tiny increment, and when a bell chimed, Alexos would release a lever and pull the paper back across and continue typing almost uninterrupted, as smoothly as if he was part of the machine himself.
Harry really did not know for how long he stood there, mesmerised by the perfect rhythm of Alexos’ work as he typed, his focus narrowed down to the world he was creating with his words, that terrible banquet set down in printed type.
“Oh,” he said when he took a moment, moving the page with a turn of a dial, manually pushing up the page. “How long have you been there, Sutton?”
Harry really didn’t know. There was a warmth under his suit, observing Alexos focused and impassioned and with such unexpected mechanical skill – Uncle Reg had never mentioned this particular quality of Alexos Fox, but he had known Harry’s affection, his delight, with such things.
The first man Harry had ever gone to bed with had been a chauffeur.
“I didn’t wish to interrupt your focus, sir,” he said simply, and set the tray at Alexos’ side. “Might I ask you a question, sir, about your typewriter?”
“Hm? Oh, yes, Sutton, of course,” said Alexos as he picked up his tea and sipped at it.
“Is the device often serviced? Sent away for the purpose, I mean?”
“Oh, no, no,” he said dismissively. “I can rather take this machine apart and put it back together, Sutton – I had another until two years ago, ‘til I dropped it on the stairs, and I might have put that one back together, but these new models are a good deal lighter and more compact, so I just traded it in. I clean and maintain it myself.”
Harry’s lips shifted without his permission at the same time that Alexos looked up at his face, and Alexos smiled.
“Don’t tell me you disapprove, Sutton. Were I a man besotted with a bicycle, you wouldn’t bat an eye at my caring for that myself.”
“On the contrary, sir,” said Harry, “I would think that work best left to the chauffeur.”
“The sky will not fall, Sutton, if I brush and clean my typewriter myself.”
“The sky notwithstanding, sir, the cleaning and maintenance of tools and devices is not a responsibility due the young master of any household.”
“Do you know how to clean a typewriter, Sutton?” asked Alexos, arching an eyebrow. For all they were on differing sides of the field, Harry rather wanted to kiss him in this moment, and wipe that challenge and superiority from his face – Harry did not smile at being teased, but that did not mean he did not inwardly surge to be met with it.
“I would readily commence to learn, sir.”
“But you don’t at this moment?”
“… No, sir.”
“Then I’ll take the responsibility,” said Alexos, tone warm and wry, his large eyes sparkling with a sort of enticing mischief, “all for my own.”
Harry leaned over him to reach for the typewriter case to set it aside, his chest brushing against the back of Alexos’ shoulders, and he heard Alexos’ soft gasp, felt the way he stiffened. Harry leaned forward, putting just the slightest bit more of his weight on Alexos’ back before he drew away and set the leather case down on a side table.
Alexos’ cheeks were flushed pink, when Harry looked back to him.
“Are you quite alright, sir?” asked Harry.
Alexos’ expression was at first one of embarrassed uncertainty, but as Sutton remained in place, keeping his gaze, Alexos’ brow furrowed, his lip curling fractionally. “I sometimes feel, Mr Sutton,” he said, in very measured tones, “that you are playing some joke on me to which I am not privy.”
“What joke would I play, sir?” asked Harry: at the same time, he drew himself up to his full height, pulling on the hem of his waistcoat that it settle more tightly against his breast. Alexos, as he had expected him to, glanced down at his chest, and then looked away. “Would I be correct in presuming, sir, that this apparent jape on my part is the reason you have avoided my presence, of late?”
“I hardly fail to see, Mr Sutton, how it’s any of your business,” said Alexos, so coldly and so cleanly that Harry almost smiled, and had to stop himself. “If I choose to dislike you, I will do so – there is no clause in your contract of employment that I should take pleasure in your company, nor seek it out.”
“I endeavour only to please, sir,” said Harry smoothly. “Might I ask what error on my part has fostered this dislike?”
“You may ask,” said Alexos, “but I am not compelled to answer.”
“Ought I guess the answer?” asked Harry, stepping closer, that he stood directly over the chair in which Alexos was sitting, and now in line with Harry’s belly, forced to look up at him, Alexos faltered. He shrank slightly back, his lips parted, and Harry began to see his cheeks flush pink. First, it was two tiny pinpricks of redness, but as Harry stood his ground, breathing evenly, his shoulders squared, the flush widened, the colour blooming.
“Mr Sutton,” said Alexos, “I believe you have severely overestimated where lies the limit of your bounds.”
“I endeavour only to please, sir,” said Harry for a second time, and leaned over him. Alexos drew in a shuttered gasp. “I believe I am correct in estimating, sir,” he went on in a low voice, drenching it in all the syrup he could muster, “that there are bounds between us you would like for me to cross.”
“Get out,” said Alexos sharply. “Out, Sutton, now.”
Harry straightened, kept the movement slow and deliberate, and finally allowed himself a small smile.
Alexos clenched his beautiful hands tightly into fists.
He did not shout. He did not tell Harry to hand in his resignation, nor advise he was being given his notice. He did not call Harry disgusting, or perverted, or even attempt to say he was wrong.
He said, “Leave me be,” and for the time being, Harry did.
He carried his victory with him as he went.
* * *
For some time, following this, Harry allowed Alexos the distance he desired.
He allowed Brydon or Felix to take up the vast majority of the young master’s service, as far as it was needed; at breakfast and at dinner, he made no attempts at conversation or even at eye contact when Alexos came in alone; when he did come up to the library where Alexos was working, he would silently set down his tea and something to eat and take his leave.
Alexos would not acknowledge him in these moments, would not even look in his direction.
This was all well and good: Harry was more than content to let his desire simmer, and a watched pot would not come to boil.
I hope you are not being too cruel to him, nor too impatient, Uncle Reg had written to him recently. He is stubborn, and he will be cold, when first you begin to lean on him – I don’t know that he has ever allowed himself to be shown affection, and as an animal cornered, he will bare his teeth and swipe with his claws. But if you can only get close, Harry, I do think he will soften. I think if you get close, he will come to pieces, in the way anything must come to pieces before you can make the proper repairs.
Harry swept out the whole of the cellar: with the summer heat so increasingly oppressive, there was a great deal of relief to be found in the cool, dank rooms beneath the Fox household, and Harry liked the work. By the time the cellar was entirely in order, every bottle of wine and spirit newly catalogued and organised, the whole of the space cleaner and tidier than it had been in some decades, Alexos – according to Betty and Felix – had finished typing up his manuscript.
It had been three weeks or so since their toe-to-toe in the library – it had been months, since this silent treatment first began.
When Harry went up to the library in the afternoon, he found that Alexos’ manuscript was neatly bound in string and resting on the edge of the table. Alexos himself was on his feet, favouring his left leg as he bent over the table and scrubbed carefully and painstakingly at the segment of his typewriter.
It had seemed to Harry that the typewriter had been incredibly clean when first he had seen it unveiled earlier in the month, but now its metallic pieces gleamed under the light. Alexos moved his hand, gripping so tightly at a small brush that his knuckles whitened and the tendons showed in his hands, quite briskly, but with an astounding delicacy and precision, never straying from the piece he meant to scrub.
If Felix or Betty had even a fraction of his dedication to cleaning or polishing, Harry almost believed he might be able to see his reflection on every surface in the house.
“Send that to my editor, please,” Alexos said, by way of greeting. They were the first words he had spoken to Harry in some time, intoned very crisply, and Harry inclined his head, setting the lunch tray down on the side table. Felix was late, but not very – it was only two minutes past the hour.
“Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?” asked Harry.
“Yes, Sutton,” said Alexos, “you can go away, and go away quickly. Leave me to work in peace.”
Harry was in a good mood. He said, “Something tells me, sir, that I am capable of disturbing your peace even in my absence.”
Alexos’ foul look was terrific in its makeup: defiant, furious, vulnerable, a cocktail of handsome emotions on a handsome face. Alexos’ hands twitched against the bared undercarriage of his machine.
“Does it please you?” he asked. “To be so— so improper with your employer? Do you want that I should give you your notice?”
“No, sir,” said Harry. “Of the things I want from you, my notice is not among them.”
“I am not what you think I am. I have nothing against your— your sort, Sutton, but I am not as you are. That you think I might entertain or indulge these unnatural urges is…” Alexos was sweating. Harry could see the glisten of moisture on his skin, around his temples, dripping down his jaw, and he could see, too, the way he trembled, the way his beautiful fingers twitched, resisting the urge to clench into fists. There was a tragedy in it, seeing a man so full with desire, and yet feeling he ought restrain it to himself, let himself fill up and over with it. Harry had never much cared for tragedies. “I could have you arrested, I’m sure you know.”
Harry considered his answer, wondering what phrasing precisely might be most effective, and then made his decision: “I am arrested, sir.”
He did not linger, having said this – it would only reduce his impact – but he committed Alexos’ shocked expression, his mouth ajar, his eyes wide, to memory.
Alexos would look at his cock in precisely that manner, before the year was out. Harry would ensure that this was so.
* * *
Alexos was losing his mind.
In the aftermath of Sutton leaving, he scrubbed frenetically at the segment of his typewriter, so frenetically in fact that he almost cut his fingers on the brush – his hands were already aching from the way he’d been holding them all day, his fingers the whole day through gripped tight upon one brush or other, desperate to keep it stable as he worked.
His typewriter was the cleanest it had ever been – he’d finished the manuscript at a little past eight o’clock, and then commenced working on the typewriter, and time had sort of narrowed down to a very fine point, and the point had been facing the other direction.
He struggled to unclench his hands as he finally set the brush down, and he wrapped both of his sore hands around the warm pot of tea, feeling its heat against his stiff fingers and clenching his eyes tightly shut.
He hadn’t slept in weeks. Every time he tried to sleep, he woke from heated and vivid dreams, skin burning with heat, and all the cold baths in the world wouldn’t stop him waking up soaked through with his own emissions – and Christ knew that if he allowed himself too much space to, too much time to, he’d end up rubbing himself fucking raw.
He felt like tearing off his skin – he would tear off his skin, or at least tear the skin off his cock, he felt so frantic and feral with want, felt like a hound beset with the rut, and what could he do?
Run? Lift weights? Fuck?
When he stood to his feet, forcing his palms flat against the table so that his fingers had to straighten, he heard and felt the knuckles pop in all of his fingers at once. He stood too fast, jarring his hip in the process, and he cursed sharply, slamming his hand down hard against the table.
The slap in his palm burned, and he’d brought his hand down with enough force that it made all the nerves up his arm, right up to his shoulder, jangle like sleigh bells. It distracted from the aching, desperate ache in his bad knee, if only for a few moments, and it was enough to collect himself.
Felix must have cleared his throat or moved or something, because somehow Alexos knew he’d been stood in the doorway even though he hadn’t seen him, and as Alexos turned to regard him, he tried to rack his brain to remember what he’d said a moment ago, when he’d cursed aloud.
He so hated to curse in front of the staff – he wasn’t an intimidating man, but it frightened them, all of them except Brydon, and he so hated the idea that they should think him ready to abuse them, that he might curse at them, and not at his situation. If they had to hear him swear, the least he could hope for was that it not be in English – he couldn’t remember.
His brains were awash.
“Do apologise, sir,” said Felix hurriedly. “I see Mr Sutton’s already brought you some lunch, sir.”
“What time is it?”
“A little past noon, sir.”
“You weren’t here on the hour.”
“Sutton has you all running like soldiers on a cuckoo clock’s dial, doesn’t he?” asked Alexos, more coldly than was right, because poor Felix didn’t know a thing about it, and was looking at him with a sort of dismayed bafflement. “Ready to move at the chime of the clock?”
Felix actually looked rather guilty, and Alexos’ chest clenched with guilt, as though someone were squeezing his heart in their hand.
“I’m sorry, sir, I lost track of time, sir, I was only ironing the—”
“Felix, please,” said Alexos hurriedly, and tried to force his tone to soften, but he couldn’t tell if he was doing it right, couldn’t tell if he sounded genuine or wooden. He couldn’t feel his teeth. “I wasn’t… I wasn’t scolding you. I do apologise for my tone, and I can assure you, I am in no way dissatisfied with your work – nor would I even have known you were late, had Mr Sutton not already been through. I don’t keep track of the clock, and do not carry a watch – I note the change of the hour only because of the butler’s march.”
Felix seemed, Alexos thought, somewhat comforted by this, although he wasn’t entirely sure – he did seem to straighten up, no longer seeming so small, although Alexos wasn’t sure if he was just imagining it. Hoping it.
“And I wasn’t swearing at you,” he added.
Felix hesitated. “Can I, ah, can I get you something for the pain, sir?”
“Do you know where Tom is?”
“Mr Lloyd, sir?” asked Felix, and nodded.
“Go tell him I want something to take apart. Bring whatever it is to me here, and my tool box, and the white sheet. Mr Lloyd will give those to you as well.”
Felix stared at him.
Alexos shifted his jaw, felt his temper rising, and he pressed both palms harder against the table top. It took the weight off his legs, and at the same time the pressure against the flat surface made his fingers stretch out again where they’d begun to curl. He could feel the build up of stiffness in the muscles burn slightly at the pressure, feel the ache turn to something in the bones, the nerves, instead of just the flesh.
“Was something about my request unclear, Felix?” he asked.
He tried his best to make it as gentle as possible – he obviously failed, because Felix looked at him as though Alexos had just pronounced his intention to slit his throat directly.
“Yessir,” he blurted out, and went away so quickly that Alexos could actually hear him jog in the corridor.
He reached slowly back for the case of the typewriter, putting the lid on and clipping it into place to protect the segment from dust, and then set it into its leather bag. It gleamed with how clean it was, every piece of chrome and steel shining like the paint on a new car, but there was no satisfaction in it – there was only a sort of numb frustration that he’d finished the job, but didn’t feel finished yet.
Sutton had brought him a sandwich, and he ate it with a dry mouth and no real head for what it tasted like – once the plate was empty, which seemed to take about sixty thousand years, he realised he hadn’t noticed what had been in it. Bread, certainly. Butter, he expected.
His legs hurt, and he wanted a hot bath, and he wanted codeine – fuck the codeine, he wanted the morphine, which he never wanted, because the aftermath always made him feel like he was dying. He had to feel like he was dying in the first place, to want to touch the stuff, and that was fucking stupid, because he didn’t feel anything at all, except for want and pain.
He wanted a wank.
He wanted to lie in the hot bath and fuck into his hand until he brought himself off, and then do it again, do it a third time, wanted to spread his legs apart and slide two fingers inside himself, wanted to curl his fingers inside himself and rub against the knot of nerves there until his bollocks were so empty that it was agony to touch himself anymore, and then he wanted to keep going.
Henry Sutton – Henry Reginald Sutton.
An invert. A queer. And it was one thing, thinking about it, imagining it, knowing it was just a stupid and unwholesome fantasy, just dirty dreams that had a new, precise target, but were not in themselves a new activity.
It was another, if Sutton was there, Sutton who was tall and fat and strong and commanding and had that rich, wonderful voice, Sutton with his plump lips and his strong hands, Sutton whose thighs were almost as wide each as Alexos’ waist, Sutton who could kill him with a fucking look, let alone his fingers – his cock!
He couldn’t get him arrested. It was an empty threat, and Sutton had to know that, probably saw it on Alexos’ face. He couldn’t do that to someone like him – and even were he not the way that he was, even were he not inclined the way he was, he couldn’t.
He didn’t think he could report another man for murder, let alone buggery – he’d met men who’d been put to hard labour, and he couldn’t see anyone put to that, not in all his life. He’d kill himself before he’d testify to have another man arrested for anything – he’d kill a policeman before he did.
Perhaps that wasn’t true.
Policemen scared him to his bones.
He was gripping so tightly at the wooden edge of the table that his thumb felt like it would break, and he released it, making blood suddenly start to exist in his hands again, although he wished it would have the good graces to stay there, and stop flowing down to his cock at every available opportunity.
He couldn’t have Sutton arrested – he couldn’t end his employment, even if he gave him a glowing reference. How would he explain it to Reginald, to his father, his mother, without drawing some suspicion, without everyone knowing, hating him?
He didn’t know if Sutton would resign – why should he? He evidently thought he was onto a terribly good thing: driving the young master out of the library and into the nearest sanatorium.
“Erm,” said Felix, and Alexos turned to look at him, and breathed a desperate sigh of relief. “Where do you want it, sir?”
“Pass me that sheet, Felix,” said Alexos. “And put my typewriter on top of the wardrobe in my room.”