A strange levee had broken in the weeks following that night.
Alexos’ arm healed bit by bit, and Harry had been warned a hundred times, a thousand times, by the other household staff that during periods of being bedridden, the young Mr Fox became incredibly difficult to manage.
He would be even colder than usual, even more so than he had been in the previous weeks; he became prone not only to fits of profanity and loudly telegraphed self-loathing, but would also become cruel – if not abusive – on a personal level; he would ordinarily deaden himself more with morphine than codeine, and some weeks would drink himself through whole bottles of spirits in the course of just a few days.
Brydon had mildly advised him that he tended to take responsibility for the majority of Alexos’ care during these periods, except for that which Uncle Reg hadn’t taken over.
Reg had never mentioned that, or at least, he hadn’t described it in detail – Harry remembered significant periods where he would advise that the young master was bedridden with some illness or other, that he was spending more time with him.
“It’s not that he insults us, so much as he rather aims to eviscerate at times like this, or does so almost without aiming,” Brydon had said over a quiet breakfast the two of them shared the morning after Harry had first taken Alexos to bed. “The young Mr Fox is a remarkably observant man, and he knows more about me and my sins than I’ve ever admitted to anybody out loud, least of all confessed to him – and he has a certain ability to feel for one’s most vulnerable parts, the better to create a deep and long-lasting wound. The things he said to your uncle at times, sir, were spellbindingly cruel – comments about his being unmarried and alone, implying he was on bad terms with the rest of your family, about his lack of education, his…”
Brydon had trailed off as Harry had looked at him, and then glanced down at the table, took a sip of his tea.
“And me, too, of course. He says the most dreadful things to me – I won’t let Felix in the room, when he’s in one of his states, let alone one of the girls, not that Mr Fox wants them there.”
“Why ever do you let him?” Harry had asked, and Brydon had laughed, seeming to think the question through, his lips pressing together. “You’ve been telling me since I’ve come here what a kind man the young master is, despite his brittle nature.”
“He is,” said Brydon softly. “Perhaps it’s because he’s such a kind man that I always ignore him when he tells me to leave his drugs with him and let him be. I followed Reginald’s wake in that respect, but it is… worth it. Worth doing.”
“You think it’s alright what he says,” said Harry, “in these states, because he doesn’t really mean it?”
“What he says about me has never been as cruel as the things he says about himself,” admitted Brydon, with a delicate shrug of his shoulder. “And more than once he’s begged me not to put myself in front of him, when he’s like that. Told me I ought let him stew alone in his misery, that he not lash out and draw me in.”
“You said you liked his frank speaking before,” said Harry.
Brydon’s lips had twitched. “Mmm,” he’d said. “I do, actually.”
“Even when he insults you?”
“Weathering the insults of the young master has made me far better at poker,” he admitted with a wry smile.
The funny thing was, as much as these warnings were given to him, by Brydon, by Felix, even by Mrs Perry and the other young women serving in the household, that Alexos would be in a very foul mood, crueller than ever, in the weeks to come, he wasn’t.
He was blunted by the codeine when he took it, yes, but he drank surprisingly little, and he worked so prodigiously that one of them not irregularly had to bring him more paper or change the ink cartridge in his pen. When he was not working, he talked, and it was the most open that Harry had ever found him to be – the most open, he rather got the impression, that he had ever been, perhaps with anyone.
It wasn’t that he shared a great deal about his life or his personal feelings, his experiences – in fact, he avoided these almost pathologically – but he enthused about the work he was doing, his reading. Whenever Harry entered his room throughout the course of the day, Alexos would read or recite to him a passage hastily translated from Greek or Latin, and would speak at length about the different ways it was translated – Harry had laughed for some time when he had recited a piece from Aristophanes’ The Clouds and insulted a good many translators for their work in approaching it, but had enthused about what the passage taught the modern reader about standards of attractiveness in the minds of Aristophanes and his contemporaries.
“So,” said Harry, “I have a fat arse, strong shoulders, a gleaming chest, good skin… Is my tongue small?”
“No,” said Alexos mildly. “And nor is your cock, I’d wager.”
“Do you think Aristophanes might have deigned to sleep with me nonetheless?”
Alexos laughed. “I think he might have lowered himself,” he murmured quietly, a smile tugging at his lips. He’d been sleeping extremely poorly, and there were heavy bags showing under his eyes. “Do many men admire your arse?”
“Certainly they do,” said Harry pleasantly, and as he turned away to pour Alexos more tea from the pot he’d brought up, he felt the heat of the young master’s gaze on his backside.
This was where Alexos was fundamentally quite open – he asked questions, genuine, real questions about Harry, engaged with him. The questions weren’t only about sex or his relationships with men – he’d asked about the war, too, asked about his work.
He had come alive, held himself with a certain vivacity that Harry had never witnessed from him even on his most cheerful and pain-free days, let alone days when he was confined to his bedchamber. He expected it to be commented on by Brydon or Felix, but no such comments were forthcoming, and Harry was interested to note, as the days passed by, that Alexos retained his ordinary politeness, his delicate propriety, with them.
He retained a good mood, yes, but not this new verbal liberty – Harry was an exception.
The reason why was simple enough, obvious even, but Harry brought it up anyway: “You’ve been speaking to me very freely, these past weeks.”
Alexos stopped short on the bed, where he’d been making copious annotations on a medieval transcript of a Latin text that he’d recently been complaining about, his gaze settling on Harry’s face before it flitted to the door. It seemed to Harry that Alexos stiffened, his body seeming smaller in the bed, his healing arm clutched a little tighter to his chest.
“You want me to stop?” he asked.
“By no means,” said Harry, moving forward.
The door was locked, but this raised no eyebrows – Brydon had accepted that however it had come to pass, Alexos had gotten over his nervousness of Harry seeing him disabled and exhausted by his condition, and that for whatever reason, Alexos was content to have Harry serve as his primary assistant. If anyone wanted to come in, they’d knock on the bedroom door, and Harry was always careful not to put himself into any state of undress unless everyone else had gone to bed, for now.
Once Alexos’ arm was healed, and they had further run of the house, then—
Then, they might experiment a little more.
“Why comment on it, then?” asked Alexos.
“You don’t speak so freely with Brydon or Felix.”
Alexos arched one eyebrow, and gave Harry a delightfully cold look. “Neither Brydon nor Felix,” he said scathingly, “have been putting their mouths between my legs – and I don’t expect them to.”
“Surely other men have wanted to put their mouths between your legs,” said Harry, and Alexos set down his pen, placing its lid on. Harry moved forward, sliding onto the bed as he had done several times the past few weeks, and Alexos went square and stiff until Harry’s hands alighted on his back and his thumbs pressed into the hard, knotted muscle of his shoulders.
Alexos grunted, his eyes squeezing shut – his body rather reminded Harry, in many ways, of a spring. No matter that he could convince the muscle to temporarily relax and uncoil, as you might stretch a spring, it would inevitably tighten up against as soon as you drew away, and this was the Sisyphean journey he’d been experiencing in his attempt to massage Alexos’ body into a state of genuine relaxation.
Any small progress he made on the other man’s shoulders, his back, his upper arms, his thighs, was undone within what seemed like hours, let alone a night’s fitful lack of sleep, but Harry was determined.
As tightly coiled and bound as Alexos’ shoulders were at first touch, Harry firmly kneaded them into something more resembling relaxation, delighting in the way Alexos squirmed and hissed underneath him.
“Why would they?”
“You really had no friends of the same bent as you?”
“Here and there,” muttered Alexos. “But none that found me attractive – the cripple with his cane is not as hotly in demand as you might believe.”
Harry kissed the side of Alexos’ neck, feeling the way he shuddered and gasped under the touch, and shyly, his hands moved up to touch Harry back, one hand cupping his shoulder, the other sliding to nervously touch his cheek. He didn’t know how to touch Harry back – increasingly, Harry was of the impression he thought he needed to ask permission to do so, to even think of doing so.
How long would it take before he felt confident in grasping for him, moving him here and there, taking from Harry what he wanted, or asking for Harry to give it to him?
“I don’t believe the cripple is as unlovable as you seem keen to telegraph,” Harry agreed, pressing fingers either side of Alexos’ spine and feeling him straighten like a wooden toy, muscles popping under his fingers. “Quite fuckable the cripple is, in fact – or he will be, once I see fit to bounce him on my cock.”
Alexos shuddered. “A horrible word,” he scolded. “You oughtn’t use it.”
“What will you do if I continue?” asked Harry, taking Alexos’ earlobe in his mouth and delicately nibbling at it, almost laughing at the gasping whimper he got in response. “Give me a swift smack on the backside?”
“I might deny you the privilege of massaging me.”
“Might you? Oh, don’t do that. I might just die, so deprived.” He slid his hand down over the fabric of Alexos’ pyjamas, cupping his cock, and Alexos gasped, his head tipping back against Harry’s chest. “You’ve turned men down. Don’t lie.”
“And if I have?”
“You’ve accepted me. Gone from denying your desire for men to letting me touch you in a heartbeat. Why—”
Alexos grabbed hard at his wrist, and Harry’s smile froze on his lips at the cold, serious look Alexos was giving him, the twist of his lips, the heaviness in the world.
“You really wish I hadn’t?”
“Of course not,” Harry murmured. “But you’ve softened so entirely in so short a time – and yet, only with me.”
“Of course, only with you,” replied Alexos.
“Because of our arrangement.”
“If you like.”
“And your friends?”
Alexos’ cold gaze grew colder. “I told you, Sutton, I—”
“Harry,” he corrected him gently, and twisting the arm that Alexos was holding, he pressed a kiss to the side of Alexos’ hand.
“Does it truly bother you to see me of a good mood?” asked Alexos. “You wish to put a stop to it?”
Harry, an idea coming to mind, shook his head. “No, Alexos, I don’t. Will you object to my having friends, even as you don’t?”
“Why would I?”
“We will have to have a serious conversation about this,” murmured Harry, “but I’m not in a terribly serious mood.”
Harry licked a swipe up the side of Alexos’ neck, feeling the way the other man shuddered, and then submitted himself to Harry’s attentions, still nervous and uncertain of touching him, but he would learn.
Harry would teach him.
* * *
The pain had been a near continuous hum the past few weeks, as much as he tried his best to soothe it – true, Alexos was almost always in pain, always experiencing some level of distant, dull ache in his thighs and hips and knees, if not his shoulders too, but the pain had been worse of recent, which was only natural. He attempted to do some small exercises from his bed, straightening and bending his legs so that he wasn’t experiencing stiffness of the muscle and flesh as well as the deeper ache of the bones underneath, but it was difficult to do with one ankle sprained and the rest of his legs never much in good commission anyway.
That aside, his arm was really very awful, and it ached horribly as the bone worked to knit itself back together, regular twinges of nastier, sharper pain burning up his upper arm and into his shoulder apart from the continuous gentle agony that made up the ache. He tried to open and close his hand, to move the wrist a little, his elbow, because he knew it had to be done, and yet, what difference did it make?
The pain continued.
The codeine never really numbed the pain away entirely, but spread a layer of unawareness and unsensation across the top, the same way you might spread jam over a slice of burnt toast – it wasn’t that you couldn’t taste that it was burnt, or that the burntness went away, merely that the jam obfuscated the flavour and the texture, so that it wasn’t quite as noticeable.
He couldn’t always concentrate when working from his bed – he preferred to sit properly at the table in the library, without so much softness underneath him, and although he had a desk in his bedroom, he disliked the small space the desk offered him in comparison to the broader spread of the library table, constantly felt cramped and confused whenever he had to place one paper beneath another so that it would fit, instead of simply broadening the space he took up. This week, though, he retained a certain energy that allowed him to focus, and Sutton—
It was possible, of course, that this remained an elaborate scheme the better to blackmail him, or that it was something worse, but something had snapped in Alexos Fox.
He found that it almost didn’t matter any longer, so long as Sutton kept touching him, put his hands on Alexos’ body, and more than that, looked at him the way that he did with his plump-lipped handsome smiles and his dazzlingly green eyes and his rounded, bright cheeks.
He didn’t know that he could ever remember feeling quite so little weight on his shoulders, feeling so entirely at liberty to speak with another man – he had never known well the men who’d engaged him as a like-minded fellow at university, or at least, never permitted them to know him well. They would ask too many questions about his polio, his cane, the status of his legs or the rest of him; they would look at him in discomfiting, unpleasant ways, as though measuring his coffin for him in their heads; they would invite him and disinvite him from somewhere in the same breath, recalling the stairs he would struggle to clamber up, or the steep incline that would give him trouble.
And he knew already the state of Alexos’ body, had seen it before he’d seen anything else, and seemed utterly undeterred and unbothered by it, and he talked about it, and it was…
Perhaps it wasn’t easy. Perhaps it was all an act, and if it was, Alexos would act along.
“Your post, sir,” said Sutton.
It had been a little over five weeks since his fall on the stairs, and Doctor Logan would be coming over before lunch time to examine his broken arm. With his ankle healed, he was at least able to move about his room and to the bathroom more freely, and he had taken to pacing clumsily with his cane in hand some evenings.
When they’d thought him asleep, he’d heard Felix asking as he’d helped Sutton take out tea things and just-changed bedsheets, “Why’s he still on bed-rest if his legs are alright?”
“If he trips on the stairs with the hand not on his cane still out of service, how does he break his fall?” Sutton had replied. He hadn’t taken on a sarcastic tone, and nor had he responded as Alexos might have, blustering and defensive and uncertain. His voice had been quiet but full of a pleasant kindness, not for Alexos but for the young man taking instruction, and Felix had replied with an “Ah,” of understanding, and the matter had been left at that.
In the sheaf of letters brought him, two were expected – one being a colleague’s notes on a recent publication on Aristotle’s politics, another a rather amusingly angry response to a footnote in one of Alexos’ books, disliking the tone he had employed to refer to the destructive legacy of Heinrich Schliemann – and one was a pleasant surprise – a missive from Reginald Sutton about the state of his garden and his home in retirement, chattering on about this and that.
The fourth, however, was an unknown, and Alexos examined the flourished, exaggerated handwriting of a stranger on the envelope, glancing then at the return address, which was for an address in Cambridgeshire.
“Dear Mr Fox,
I beg your pardon for penning what I expect is rather an unexpected missive – my name is Lawrence Kidd, and I’m a novelist. I’m well-acquainted with your mother, and whilst I know she is currently out of the country…”
Alexos felt his heart sink as he read onward, his lips twisting, and Sutton, who had been throwing open the curtains to allow in some of the uncomfortably bright morning light – Alexos ached to go out and sit under the kiss of it, and rather thought he might brave the stairs this morning, so long as someone was there to catch him as he descended – looked his way.
“Is all well, sir?” he asked.
“Do you know Lawrence Kidd?” asked Alexos quietly.
“The author, sir? His most recent book was a romance between a watchmaker and a pickpocket – he has a certain capacity for novel ideas in his work, but I often find his execution is too saccharine for my liking.”
“He isn’t one of your heroes, then?”
Sutton’s expression was so very innocent that Alexos could almost see the mechanisms whirring underneath it, and Alexos looked at him very flatly as he said, “No, sir. Ought he be?”
“Stop calling me sir, Harry,” Alexos muttered. “You’ve met him, haven’t you?”
Sutton actually looked surprised, but he didn’t deny it, turning about and standing at the foot of his bed, looking at him seriously. Sutton had complained, idly, about Alexos’ lack of footboard – it was a favourite pastime of his, he’d said, to lean on the footboard to speak to whomever was in bed, but Alexos preferred his bed to be accessible on three sides than two – earlier in the week, and Alexos almost wanted to see him with his hands resting on it, his chest forward, his gaze focused on Alexos and Alexos alone.
“He’s an author,” Sutton said, the innocence polished out of his tone, and replaced with a sort of familiarity. “I don’t know him very well, but we are acquainted – we have some friends in common, and his valet, Riggs, was a student of mine whilst I was serving Lord Loxley at the Bisphams’ as underbutler.”
“What do you make of him?”
“He’s a very friendly man,” said Sutton. “Self-centred and arrogant, as many authors are, and the sort that can only be tricked into discussing craft so long as he’s first plied with drink, good food, and good company, but he’s funny, flirtatious, a skilled raconteur.”
Alexos stared at Sutton’s face, taking it in, examining it as carefully as he could. “He’s like us,” he said – a statement, not a question.
“He is,” said Sutton slowly, and he narrowed his eyes as he looked back at Alexos, so that the two of them were studying one another now. “Riggs, too.”
Sutton shook his head. “I doubt it, Alexos. Riggs is… Well, he’s a peculiar young man, not very keen on being touched, and Kidd isn’t keen on being untouched. Why’s he written you?”
“He wants to stay here,” said Alexos. “Apparently there’s a play adapted from one of his books here in Brighton, and he wants to stay a few weeks as he oversees the production.”
“You don’t like guests.”
“No, I bloody don’t like guests,” said Alexos, sighing. “When my mother’s here, the house is always full up with guests – when she’s not, there’s a bit of respite, at least.”
Sutton took this in, his head tilting to the side. “You plan to refuse him?”
“Well, I can’t do that,” muttered Alexos, sighing, setting the letter down against his thigh.
“Your father warned me when I joined the household,” said Sutton, and Alexos’ gaze whipped up to his face, seeing Sutton’s small smile, the playfulness showing in his eyes, “that you dislike houseguests. That you tend to avoid them.”
“And if I do?” asked Alexos coolly.
“Lawrence Kidd is the sort of man who’ll get up from the table and follow you if he’s still interested in talking.”
“Alexos Fox,” replied Alexos, “is the sort of man to trip another with his cane if he finds he’s being followed.”
“And if you like him?”
“Like him?” repeated Alexos, uncomprehending.
Sutton shrugged his shoulders. “He’s handsome, charming. A whore.”
Alexos stared at Sutton’s face, his raised eyebrows, his handsome lips and cheeks. “You want me to fuck him?”
“No, not particularly,” said Sutton. “But he’s going to flirt with you – he’ll compliment you, I expect, ask about your work, tell you about his. None of your friends, from what I have gathered in my time here, ever come to visit you. Your correspondence is entirely made up of academic commentary and the exchange of notes – you receive not irregular social invitations by other academics, literary commentators, archaeologists, archivists, translators, authors, and you refuse them all.”
“And so you’ve employed a charming and whorish novelist to be my friend?” asked Alexos, and leaned forward, his lips pressing together. “Did you tell him to do this?”
Sutton laughed. “You overestimate my influence, I’m afraid,” he said smoothly, “but I think you might like him. I think he’ll like you, so long as he’s permitted a glimpse at your personality.”
“My personality is best kept behind closed doors,” muttered Alexos, looking down at Kidd’s widely-looping – fruity – handwriting on the page.
“As you say, sir,” said Sutton.
“Sir,” Alexos repeated.
“I might give you my advice,” said Sutton mildly. “It’s your choice as to whether you take it from me as your butler or as a friend.”
“Is he handsome?”
“No,” said Sutton. “Not particularly. He’s a man of exaggerated proportions – his ears and nose are larger than the rest of his face, his eyes are a little small and sunken in. His smile has a bend in the lip, so while it isn’t imbalanced to one side or the other, it retains a crookedness in the middle. He’s got a handful of acne scars on his forehead and around one eye – but he’s got a phenomenal head of hair, dull in colour but thick and handsome. His voice is smooth and easy, strong – he sings wonderfully, and he’s impossibly charming. It’s rather difficult to remember how bland his features are when he gives you his full attention – or so I’m told, in any case. He’s not exactly my type.”
“Your type is wide-eyed men with limps and drinking problems.”
“It is, it is,” said Sutton. “But to be more specific about what my type isn’t, it’s arrogant men.”
“You’ve enough arrogance without anyone else’s being involved, I suppose.”
Alexos set the letter aside in a pile with the rest, pushing aside the little standing desk he’d been working from.
“Harry,” he said quietly.
“Eat with me.”
“I’ve already eaten.”
“Eat some more.”
“If you agree to speak with Kidd,” said Sutton. “One meal together once he’s here, Alexos, just the two of you, without your father’s supervision to worry about. Let him talk to you – and try talking back.”
“Why do you care?”
Reginald had tried this, once or twice. He’d ensured certain people were invited to the house, or arranged seating so that Alexos was sitting across from those Reginald thought he’d like best – communists, artists, a sitting Labour MP, an antiquities specialist. A dancer, once.
He was certainly better at picking potential friends for Alexos than Alexos’ mother was, because she picked anyone she thought might be proper or appropriate rather than those he might like, but it wasn’t about propriety or liking anyone, at the end of the day.
What Alexos didn’t like was people in his life – he liked work, liked to read, liked to be left to attend to it in peace.
“If you don’t like him,” said Sutton, “you can still watch me fuck him.”
Alexos’ lips parted, and he stared at Sutton’s face, at the completely honest and genuine look on his features. He was unrelenting, confident, and spellbindingly, quite frighteningly beautiful.
“Watch you…?” he repeated, and Sutton showed his teeth as his smile widened further. “I thought he wasn’t your type.”
“Does it make your cock hard, Alexos, to think of me fucking another man in front of you?”
Alexos swallowed, feeling heat burn in his cheeks, feeling more heat pool between his legs. After a short inhalation, he said, “One meal with him, Harry. I’ll have one meal with him.”
“That’s all I ask,” said Sutton pleasantly, and Alexos watched him go before he pulled his desk back over his lap, and started penning a curt but polite response to Kidd, inviting him to stay in the Foxes’ home for as long as he needed.
Outside, the sun grew a little brighter, and Alexos moved to the side on the bed so he could feel the rays on his face.
He was smiling as he took his codeine, but he didn’t know why.