Alexos was breathing heavily, his shoulders pressed back so hard against the wall that he almost felt as though their blades would pierce his own skin. All of his weight was on his back and his good leg, his cane lost somewhere else, because Alexos couldn’t keep hold of his cane at a time like this: his hands were splayed on Sutton’s great breast, his fingers splayed over the sweat-slick skin there – Mr Sutton’s hair grew in patches after all – and doing their best to hold him back.
Sutton’s hands were braced either side of Alexos’ head, and Sutton was leaning in, his lips curled into the smallest of easy smiles, his eyes gleaming with desire.
“May I, sir?” he was asking softly, the sound of his port-rich voice soaking into Alexos’ ears and rendering him even more drunk in feeling than he already was. “Won’t you allow me, sir, to kiss you? To embrace you?”
“You mustn’t, you mustn’t, Sutton, you must—“
“I must kiss you,” said Sutton. “I feel it will be terrible for my health if I don’t, Mr Fox.”
Alexos’ cheeks were burning, every inch of his skin flushed, and there was a heat pooling between his legs that filled him to the brim and over with shame, made all his hair stand on edge, made him feel as though he would tremble completely to pieces.
“Mr Sutton,” he begged again, “Mr Sutton, please—“
And before he could finish his sentence, Sutton’s mouth was crushing into his, and Alexos was whining from low in his throat, whining sharply and desperately, so much that it felt like a keen.
It was the sound of this noise, he suspected later, that woke him from his dreams and made him sit up straight in his bed, soaked to the skin and sticky, and he put his head in his hands, exhaling hard.
Limping from his bed, he dropped his stained pyjama trousers directly into a basin of water to soak, and then he leaned awkwardly on the edge of his bed, wrestling with the bedclothes and stripping off their sheets, leaving it all in a messy pile before he went into the bathroom to start running hot water into his bath.
He jarred his leg twice in his haste, each time sending a painful bolt of juddering heat up his leg and right up his body, such that it chattered his teeth and made him grunt in pain, but he set the bath running nonetheless, and then went into the other room again. He scrubbed at his pyjama bottoms with a nail brush before he tossed them into the pile with his sheets, and dragged off his pyjama shirt to join them.
It was an awkward, clumsy carry-on, and he hated how embarrassed he felt even knowing there was no one to witness his fumbling – and hopefully never would be, given as he had no intentions to marry, and had never seen fit to have a valet of his own. His skin was heated with shame and lingering arousal and humiliation, and he tossed the heavy outer blanket to the side of the bed, so that when the maid came into the room later, she would see that the bed had been stripped and needed new clothes.
“The young master,” he imagined Brydon telling Sutton quietly, in that subtle and quiet way Brydon had, “is prone to sudden fevers and night sweats, especially when it’s cold and his pain is at its worst. Now and then, he experiences bouts of somnambulism – these aren’t in themselves dangerous, of course, but in young Mr Fox’s case, he often sleepwalks without the use of his cane, and wakes when he falls.”
Sutton already knew about the somnambulism, of course – or so Alexos thought, anyway. He’d had a bout last week and had come to on the stairs, luckily with his cane in hand, and Sutton had stopped on the landing underneath him. He hadn’t come up to find him, and Alexos didn’t think he’d made a great deal of noise – it was just that they’d passed one another on the stair.
“Are you well, sir?” he’d asked, candle in hand, looking as though he were about to turn in for bed himself. “Walking in your sleep?”
Alexos had been too groggy to string sufficient words together to answer him, had simply nodded and gone back to his bed, but that didn’t mean Sutton knew that he was so stupid in his dreams sometimes, he forgot his legs couldn’t carry his weight.
Shaking his head, he drained the basin of the dirtied water and went into the bathroom, running the cold tap alongside the hot to cool down the liquid steam filling the tub. Clouds of it were thick in the room, leaving condensation on the floor, and the tile was slippery: it was on this that he fell hard, and couldn’t contain his shout of shock and pain.
It was only a little past five, and he swore profusely, cursing every inch of the tile he was stood on and slapping his palm hard against it – swore so profusely, in fact, that instead of coming directly in, he was fairly certain Sutton paused at the bathroom door, because when he knocked, it was hesitant, and didn’t come until Alexos paused in his outpouring of profanity to catch his breath.
“Sir?” he called. “Have you need of assistance?”
Alexos dragged himself to the bathroom mat, which someone always laid down for him in the evenings in case he took an early morning bath like this one, and tried to push himself to his feet. He managed to get his good knee bent under him, but when he tried to pull himself to his feet his bad leg spasmed under his weight, and he collapsed onto the floor again.
“I’m afraid so, Mr Sutton,” he called back, and the door opened with a neat turn of the knob. “I’m quite undressed,” said Alexos miserably, more to the white side of the bath than to Sutton himself, his arms hooked over its edge. “Could you just support me into the bath? The hot water will set me to rights.”
“Is it cool enough?” asked Sutton, coming from the clouds of white steam toward him like some hero from the fog, and Alexos stared up at him from the other side of the bath, watching as he bent neatly at the portly waist to put his fingers in the water. “Sir,” he said scaldingly, whipping his hand back. “I will not assist you of a morning by setting you to broil.”
“It will help,” said Alexos powerlessly.
Sutton turned up the cold tap and turned off the hot, and as Alexos watched, he poured some salts into the water. “Sleepwalking again?” he asked quietly.
His time thus far in the Fox household had given him a little more understanding of their eccentricities, Alexos knew – he had not delved with great interest into the new scheduling of the household’s processes, but at such a time as he noticed the chiming of the hour, he often noticed immediately after a sudden bustle and surge of new activity, as everyone moved precisely with the time. He had overheard the gardener, Tom, speaking with some approval to the footman, a clumsy but affable young lad named Felix, that Felix had been coming on in leaps and bounds, and Felix had said Mr Sutton scheduled an hour to work with him every day, and that he was very grateful.
They did all seem to like Sutton for the most part – he’d heard Mrs Perry complain about Sutton reorganising the larder, even though part of this had been putting in more shelves suited to Mrs Perry’s height, and Sutton had quarrelled with Tom about coming into the house in his mud-stained trousers, although Alexos didn’t know the precise nature of that disagreement, nor its resolution.
He did know that Sutton had wrought a lot of changes in his time thus far, and that he seemed to be well-suited to his position, as much as his uncle had been.
He hadn’t yet, of course, had to assist Alexos like this – Reginald Sutton had had to help him not irregularly, but ordinarily, it was Brydon, and whenever it was Felix or one of the maids that knocked when he fell, regardless of his state of dress, Alexos asked that they fetch him.
It wasn’t about modesty – it was bad enough that the rest of the house sometimes saw him fall on the stairs or stumble elsewhere, but he looked at his most pathetic in the mornings, and when he fell on the stairs, at least it looked suitably dramatic. When he fell in the bathroom or the bedroom and needed help, it was normally a bad fall, but didn’t loo as though it were something that ought have caused him injury.
“I slipped,” said Alexos. He felt like drowning in shame – he’d wiped off the stains from his thighs and his cock when he’d stripped off his nightclothes, so at least he wasn’t wet with his own emissions like he was fresh from some brothel, but this was no great comfort when one was sat on one’s arse, wearing not a stitch, and being tended to by one’s new butler. “You’re a month in, Mr Sutton. Do you find yourself suited to a household made up of one gentleman and his defective son?”
“I couldn’t say, sir, belonging to no such household,” replied Sutton immediately, with not even the mildest of hesitation, and giving him quite a stern look. “Unless the defect you refer to is self-pity.”
Alexos, despite himself, laughed. It was a soft, defeated sound, but to his surprise, just laughing made him feel better, and he watched Sutton’s handsome hands dip through the water again, swirling the bubble bath and the salts in the water and spurring the froth to multiply.
“You are your uncle’s nephew, Sutton,” said Alexos softly. “You scold a man in much the same manner.” He sighed, pressing his face to the bath’s side and trying to ignore the tremors of pain juddering up his side – his bad leg was awkwardly laid at his side, because he hadn’t been able to force himself to bend the knee and get it beneath him, but that was not to say that this position was comfortable.
“Shall I fetch you something for the pain?” asked Sutton cautiously.
Sutton didn’t have the script for this situation, was feeling out his way – evidently, none of his previous households had featured the presence of infirm, crippled old men, let alone young ones.
“I’ve no interest in being dashed out of my skull on the codeine all day,” muttered Alexos, aware that he was speaking irritably and feeling a distant guilt about it, “and the aspirin won’t do much, I’m afraid. The hot water will soothe pain, relax the strained muscle, and hasten the healing process. I just landed badly on already scarred tissue, that’s all, Mr Sutton. No sense going to pieces over it.”
“You will forgive me, I hope, for not wishing to see my employer in pain,” said Sutton slightly coolly.
“You are quite forgiven,” said Alexos, breathing in the sweet-smelling steam as it rose from the bath, “but also instructed, without meaning to impugn your good wishes, to buck yourself up. I’m not yet forty, Sutton. I’m only going to get worse. Would you help me to stand?”
“Of course,” said Sutton, coming around the edge of the bath.
“Don’t put your hands on me, if you don’t mind,” said Alexos quietly, fighting the urge to turn and suddenly beg Sutton to call for Brydon instead, that he not learn to debase himself for a new assistant. “Just crouch with your arm out, let me put my weight on you. Is that alright?”
Sutton’s arm was so strong and solid that Alexos felt as though twenty of him could hang off it whilst being pulled to stand, and Alexos carefully lifted his bad leg into the bath before he sank the rest of him inside.
The relief was immediate, and he let out a low noise of bliss as the pain faded, his eyes falling closed, even as Sutton turned off the tap.
“I am sorry,” said Alexos. “For my poor mood. You’ve not yet had to see me in this state.”
“Why, sir?” asked Sutton, looking down at him with his eyebrows raised, and for the first time this morning Alexos looked properly at his face, at his expression. He didn’t look as disgusted or distressed as Alexos had thought he might – but nor was he wearing a butler’s mask of neutrality. His gaze was quite active, not shying away from meeting Alexos’ own, and his lips were shifted into a small, casual smile. “You forget my uncle advised me precisely as to the household I was entering. You think he forgot to mention my employer’s impairments?”
“Having it mentioned that your employer is sickly and frail is one thing,” said Alexos. “Peeling him from the bathroom tile and having to drop him into his bath is another – particularly when he is, theoretically, a healthy young man.”
“You seem more than healthy to me,” said Sutton, with such rich intonation that Alexos was reminded of last night’s dreams, and he sank further into his water, feeling his sore knee and hip twinge before soothing further as Sutton moved about the room, picking up towels for him. “Will you take your breakfast in bed, sir?” he asked.
“No, Sutton, I shall take it in the parlour, as I always do.”
Sutton hesitated before he started, “But—“
“Yes, yes, I have a sore leg,” Alexos said irritably, “but I have a cane, too.”
Sutton closed his mouth, inclined his head, and went into the other room to fetch Alexos’ clothes. Alexos watched his back when he paused in the bedroom doorway, surveying the scene of chaos within, before he went forward.
“I could, of course,” he said slowly as he re-entered, setting Alexos’ clothes down, “remake your bed with fresh sheets, that you might return to bed nonetheless.”
“Mr Sutton,” said Alexos.
“Mr Fox,” replied Sutton.
“Do you know what would happen if I spent all the day resting in bed and taking my medicine every time I took a fall?”
“Why is it, Mr Fox, that I feel some greatly exaggerated imagery of the young master adrift in an opium den is forthcoming?” asked Sutton, arching one eyebrow, and Alexos laughed, picking up a sponge.
“It’s not exaggerated,” he said. “If I took as much of the codeine as my doctor prescribed me I’d be dead. I’ve always felt it was a casual ploy at euthanasia on his part, that he might finish the job the polio didn’t.”
“Sir?” asked Sutton, frozen, angry, and abruptly severe, and Alexos waved him down. There was something quite hypnotising in the anger on Sutton’s face, not at all like his uncle’s was – there was a sort of commanding power in it, and Alexos exhaled. He was already red and flushed, and he was spent with his dreams, but nonetheless, there was an allure in it that made him nauseous with dislike for himself.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” he said. “Just a joke.”
Sutton adjusted his waistcoat, standing straighter to attention, and Alexos watched him school his expressions into something somewhat less severe, but disapproval still poured from the steep downward curve of his lip and the slight narrow of his eyes. “You don’t think it’s a dark thing to joke about, sir?”
“I was writing about Thyestes’ banquet last night, Mr Sutton, I’ve no measure for dark,” said Alexos, and when Sutton frowned slightly, but didn’t seem to immediately understand, he occupied himself with scrubbing down his arms, bruised elbows included, as he explained. “Thyestes and Atreus returned to Pisa following the death of their father, who had banished them for their part in the death of their half-brother, Chrysippus. They quarrelled upon their return – Thyestes stole from his brother a golden ram, the command of which the right to rule was predicated, not to mention seduced his wife. Atreus invited Thyestes to a banquet in his honour, supposedly as a precursor to inviting his brother to rule alongside him, but at this feast served him a meal of his own sons, and wine made rich with their blood.”
Sutton stared at him, his lips parted, but then he went slowly to folding Alexos’ clothes. “That is very dark,” he agreed. “I don’t recall the inclusion of that particular tale in Homer.”
“It’s Seneca,” said Alexos. “Euripides, originally, but we don’t have the original play, only the fabula cothurnata.”
“I don’t know much about your work,” said Sutton, and Alexos watched the way his skin turned red at how hard he scrubbed it, dreading getting to his legs – once he’d scrubbed them hard, it would soothe the pain some more in the aftermath, but that didn’t make the scrubbing more pleasant. “I am given to understand you are an essayist of some repute, and contribute to various academic publications.”
“That’s the long and short of it,” said Alexos quietly. “I’m a philologist, Mr Sutton. My studies at university were broadly in deciphering one script or other, but most of my work now is in reconstructing text as best we can, comparing different manuscripts and interpretations and seeing what threads remain the same. Euripides is my white whale – or at least, his lost body of work is.”
“You mourn the loss of Alexandria every day, I expect,” said Sutton, and Alexos sighed, tipping his head back against the bath’s curved edge.
“Every day. There are and were a great many other libraries, but those lost to us are the most painful – Alexandria, Antioch, Nishapur.” Mournfully, he sank further into his waters, and said, “Constantinople.”
Sutton chuckled, and Alexos watched him as he poured water and made up shaving cream for him.
“Do you think me very ridiculous, Sutton?” asked Alexos.
“Perhaps somewhat, sir,” said Sutton, “but I hope you don’t feel it amounts to disapproval.”
“If you didn’t think me at least a little ridiculous I couldn’t trust you,” Alexos said. “Even Brydon admits to it, although Felix doesn’t.”
“Young Felix is a man possessed of immense respect for his betters, Mr Fox,” said Sutton after a moment’s consideration. “He worries that he will offend.”
“As if he could,” said Alexos. “I’m sure Brydon has told him that he could call myself or my father a slur to our faces and we’d be like as not to forget it within the hour.” Sutton said nothing for a moment, taking great care not to let his expression change, and Alexos asked, “Do I shock you with my plain speaking this morning, Sutton?”
“Only because I have not heard you speak this way before, sir,” said Sutton evenly.
“Well, when one needs to be lifted naked from one’s bathroom floor one doesn’t see the point in holding one’s tongue, Sutton,” said Alexos. “I am without dignity already.”
“Without meaning to impugn your self-pity, sir,” said Sutton, making Alexos laugh, “all men are undignified in the privacy of their rooms, whilst bathing and performing their ablutions particularly. You are no less dignified than anyone else I have served.”
“You say that now,” said Alexos. “What will you do when I fall down the stairs in front of company, or collapse unexpectedly when I stand from the dinner table?”
“I’m sure I’ll think of something, sir,” said Sutton.
He wasn’t like his uncle, but the patter was similar – in its tone, in its comfort, if not in its precise phrasing. “I shouldn’t worry, Mr Sutton,” said Alexos quietly. “I’ll have calmed down again by later on.”
“Mr Brydon informs me you prefer not to be assisted as you dress.”
“Mr Brydon informs you correctly.”
“Is there no other act of service I might provide you with, sir, before I take my leave?” Mr Sutton asked the question whilst standing directly beside the bath, one of his strong, wonderful hands resting on its curved edge, and Alexos’ mouth was dry as he looked from Sutton’s calloused fingers and defined knuckles and robust wrist up to Sutton’s face. His cock, hidden under the white foam of his bath, gave a valiant twitch, and he allowed himself a moment to imagine drowning himself in the water.
He coughed as he tried to answer, clearing his throat, and said, “Not at all, Mr Sutton, you have serviced me more than enough – that is, I mean to say, you’ve been quite the, quite the help, I...” He closed his eyes. “Thank you, Sutton. For your words of mild impatience and severity, and lacking in grating sympathy.”
“I shall make note of your preference, sir, as I have for your preferred strength of tea.”
“You are a star amongst men, Sutton.”
“Ring the bell for service if you change your mind about breakfast, sir,” said Sutton, and took his leave.
After the door closed, Alexos slipped his hand between his legs, wrapping his hand around his mostly soft cock – and when he stiffened, his hips shifting forward, he immediately regretted it, because his bad leg twinged horribly, and he let himself go.
“Hubris,” he said to his bathwater, and sank his head down under the surface.
* * *
“I was about to attend to young Mr Fox and run his bath,” said Brydon two hours later, as Harry was straining the wine for dinner into their decanters. “But I see he’s already at work in the library.”
“His night sweats woke him early,” said Sutton, “and he fell in his bathroom. I attended to him at around five o’clock. Does he do that often?”
“Fall? Yes, quite regularly,” said Brydon. “He stumbles and falls often – he rights himself if he can, but when he’s moving about without his cane, he can fall worse. He fell on the tile?”
“He slipped on the condensation, I think. I felt quite badly for him,” said Harry. “He was shame-faced, asking me to help him up, and he seemed quite bitter about it. I didn’t want to embarrass him by insisting, but—“
“He ordinarily has the others call for me,” said Brydon quietly, leaning on the door with his arms crossed over his chest. In his time at the Fox house thus far, Harry had a growing affection for Brydon – he was an easygoing man, utterly unflappable regardless of what was said to him, and took even apparent insults with calculated good humour. He played for the local darts team and was involved in several card games and gambling dens, and was very popular at several public houses in the area.
Harry knew to treat this with a certain level of caution – Brydon never returned from his nights off in any state of inebriation, and nor had he actually heard rumours of his being particularly good at cards, only that he played often and at several tables, but whether it was a vice of alcoholism, gambling, or con artistry, one or any of the others could cause trouble if they applied. Uncle Reg mentioned that from time to time, someone would come around owing Brydon money, and rarely the reverse, but Harry didn’t know that he liked that.
“It’s a sign of some trust, I think,” Brydon went on, “that he let you assist him. I think some part of his honour only allows the house butler and valets to see him so undone – he doesn’t even like for his parents to come into his rooms without warning so that they shouldn’t see him unwell.”
Harry thought of Alexos Fox on his bathroom floor, slumped against the side of his bath in utter defeat. He had found it almost curious, that Alexos made no attempt to hide his body from Harry, not to ask for his banyan or a towel – he was used, as Harry supposed some men of one infirmity or another were, to being seen undressed.
Harry hadn’t looked tremendously lasciviously, but of course he had looked: Alexos had had a lovely body, thin but not emaciated, rounder at the middle and the chest. There were scars on the back of his neck, and particularly at his hips and his knees – these were from the braces he’d worn as a child, worn so tightly they bore in places into the flesh, Harry presumed.
He hadn’t gotten a glimpse of his cock, but that hadn’t mattered. What he had seen was Alexos’ flushed cheeks and chest as he sank into his bathwater, heard his quiet moan of pleasure, his soft sighs of satisfaction, seen his eyes close, seen his face go slack. He’d heard him curse from the other side of the door as he’d been passing in the corridor, heard him release a slew of curse words and profanity in English, Latin, and Greek.
Once Harry had spoken to him in the bathroom, all that sharp anger had faded, and he’d seen a sign of Alexos he hadn’t before thus far.
Alexos, whilst working or while at breakfast, even at dinner with his father, Harry had observed, was often somewhat out of himself – scatterbrained and distracted, he and his father often dipped in and out of conversation, even with one another, spoke past one another and got excited about their subjects. It wasn’t that they didn’t listen, Harry didn’t think, observing them in conversation with one another. They were simply somewhat chaotic in their natures, and their respective chaoses weren’t well combined.
This morning, he had been... lucid.
Lucid and focused, yes, but more than that, he had been quite sharp. Brittle, in a vulnerable way, but more than that, he had been rather delightfully cold – each time he had corrected Harry or disagreed with him, a part of Harry had grown more interested, more curious.
This was part of Alexos’ private infirmity, it seemed to him: as he hid his scars and his clumsiness and his injury, like a cat who secreted himself to lick its wounds, he hid this, his sharper attitude, his self-awareness, his... What could one call it?
“Is it the pain that makes him that way?” asked Harry, and Brydon tilted his head slightly to the side, arching one eyebrow in expectation. “This morning, whilst I tended to Mr Fox in his bath, he was... different. Keener, perhaps.”
“Nastier?” asked Brydon, and Harry chuckled, but nodded his head. “He thinks it’s ungentlemanly – he was scolded for it, as a boy, for being too ungrateful for people’s care of him, for being too brutal in conversation. It isn’t a lack of tact – he knows precisely what he says, and when he cuts, he knows where he’s cutting and how deeply. He gets frustrated with people’s pity, but he has been advised this frustration is improper.”
“I rather found I liked it,” said Harry softly, watching the red wine strain through the muslin cloth and into the decanter as he continued to pour, thick red dripping into the crystal. He thought of Alexos, with his impatient, distracted passion, talking so easily of wine made thick with children’s blood, speaking on such a gory story as though anyone should know it, as though it were nothing, as he scrubbed at his arms.
“I do too,” said Brydon. “He says very funny things, behind closed doors with one of us, I must say. Your uncle knew him best, but I do often get the impression there are depths to him that other people aren’t privy to – that no one is privy to.”
“I’ll get those depths out of him yet,” said Harry, and Brydon laughed.
“I wish you luck,” he said, and Harry smiled to himself, and set the cloth aside.