It was mid-morning, and although the full heat of the day hadn’t yet arrived, there was enough warmth in the air that Alexos walked without a full jacket on, only wearing a loose, comfortable cardigan over his shirt, buttoned up over his belly. He didn’t move too quickly, and he leaned very heavily on his cane, stopping every thirty or forty steps to stretch out each leg, testing his joints, how much weight he could put on the limbs.
He had managed to creep out unaccompanied, but evidently Brydon or Sutton had spied him from the window, because Felix came running out from the house to keep pace with him, skidding to a stop when Alexos leaned on his cane to carefully straighten out his leg.
“How is your arm feeling, sir?” asked Felix, out of breath.
“Quite well, Felix, thank you,” said Alexos mildly. “My legs too.”
“They don’t hurt?”
“Oh, everything hurts, Felix,” said Alexos. “But I’ve taken my codeine like a good little soldier, and the unfortunate fact of my life is that pain continues regardless. Which one of our gallant commanders sent you after me?”
Felix bit his lip, and Alexos gave him as warm a smile as he could, aware that he was uncomfortable, aware that Alexos made him uncomfortable, and he did feel guilty, felt a painful stab in his gut as he often did when he and Felix contended with one another after Alexos had been deeply embroiled in an episode of illness.
“I’m not angry with you,” said Alexos, “nor with either of them. They don’t want to see me plant my face into the paving stones, that’s all – but for all I know that, I don’t always like to be attended.”
“Do you want me to go back inside?” asked Felix uncertainly, and Alexos shook his head.
“Not if you don’t mind walking with me,” said Alexos quietly, although he’d rather be alone. “Best you and I both escape the scolding we’ll each receive if I send you back inside. If it’s any consolation, Felix, I’ll do my best not to fall over.”
Felix gave him a small, shy smile, and Alexos wondered how long the both of them would do this together, Felix liking him and fearing him in turns, taking a little while to soften with him and trust him again, then clamming up once Alexos showed himself for what he was: a lush with a sailor’s mouth.
He and Betty were so alike in age, but Betty liked and trusted Alexos to pieces – Alexos was certain she must have heard him curse once or twice, but only in Greek, and never as loudly or as sharply as Felix had heard him. Betty never went upstairs, and Alexos never went downstairs unless he was sober and serious – with those two facts borne together, Betty only ever saw him at his best.
Felix, naturally, saw him at his worst often enough, and would continue to.
“It must be difficult,” said Felix. “I’m sorry that you… You know, being the young gentleman of the house, I’m sorry if it feels like you can’t be independent,”
Alexos chuckled, beginning to walk again, Felix beside him. “You and Mr Sutton have been having words, I see. Was it him that sent you out here this morning?”
“Yes, sir,” said Felix quietly. “Does it— I shouldn’t say…”
“You’re worried I’m offended that Sutton talks about me the way he does, are you?” asked Alexos evenly, leaning heavily on his cane as they moved forward, and he watched the careful way Felix measured his steps to match him. Reginald had always been tremendously good at matching his gait without making it obvious that that was what he was doing, almost gliding beside him, and naturally, Sutton was tremendously good at doing the same thing, just as he was good at everything else. Felix was still learning, of course. “You know his predecessor spoke of me in the same way.”
“Yes, sir,” said Felix. “But I…”
“Felix,” said Alexos, “one day, assuming you stay in service, assuming that Sutton trains you up as a butler and you go elsewhere to serve another household, you will take with you the lessons you learned here. The biggest of those lessons, I think, will be that you can and will and do inhabit a caretaking role for your employers. I only resist it so much because I cannot deny the truth as many of my counterparts do – that I’m reliant on you. Most of our ilk rely on our servants because we are rich and stupid and inexperienced of the ways of the world – I am all of those things, and crippled to boot.”
Felix was staring down at the floor, not meeting his gaze, and Alexos kept moving.
“Sutton’s an expert at it,” said Alexos. “You can learn from him.”
“I’m sorry,” said Felix again.
Alexos didn’t say anything, and for a while they kept walking, until Alexos needed a break and came to ease himself down onto a bench, leaning back against it with a low grunt of sound.
“You needn’t stay if you don’t like, Felix,” said Alexos softly. “I’m just going to sit and rest here a while.”
He expected to have to argue with him, for Felix to linger, but he did no such thing, rushing back toward the house for the time being, and Alexos sighed quietly, his eyes falling closed, one of his arms over the back of the bench and his cane loosely gripped in his hand.
He must have fallen asleep for a little while, perhaps forty minutes or an hour – when he woke, Sutton had brought over one of the folding tables and set a pot of tea out for him, underneath a cosy so that it didn’t go cold. His shoulders ached a little, but they weren’t nearly as bad as he expected.
The sun was wonderful on his skin – he looked around for Sutton, saw him from behind, which was a wonderful view. Sutton’s arse all but threatened to burst out of its neatly tailored trousers, big and wide and looking splendidly soft, and his hands twitched in his lap with the urge to grasp at it and squeeze it under his hands, feel Sutton’s hips thrust a little forward, hear Sutton’s pleasured sigh.
He was talking with Mr Lloyd, listening to Lloyd talk as he gestured down the garden toward the old shed where he kept the scrap. Alexos wondered in an idle way exactly how honest Mr Lloyd was being with him about who he sold the scrap to and what it was used for, or how Alexos used it himself.
It had been some time since Alexos had managed to go down to his own worktable in the shed, and he wasn’t yet in a state where he’d be able to walk quickly enough without Sutton following him or noticing where he’d gone.
When Sutton realised Alexos was awake and came back toward him, Alexos met Lloyd’s gaze over his shoulder, and Lloyd winked at him.
“Mr Riggs telephoned a few minutes ago, sir,” said Sutton, taking the cosy off of the teapot and pouring him a cup of tea, and Alexos shifted in his seat, pulling his arse back onto the bench properly. “Mr Kidd will be arriving from the train station just in time for lunch.”
“What did you say to Felix earlier?” asked Alexos, and Sutton looked at him thoughtfully, arching an eyebrow. “He seemed more nervous than usual – or more self-conscious, in any case.”
“Do you want me to actually tell you?” asked Sutton, and Alexos frowned slightly, furrowing his brows as he looked at Sutton, thinking carefully about his answer.
“Will I be that offended if you do?”
“Not offended, but perhaps raw.”
“His father has a strong case of shellshock,” said Sutton. “You remind him of the man, and he struggles with that.”
“Oh,” said Alexos, pressing his lips together. He didn’t feel offended, but Sutton was right – he did feel raw and slightly sensitive about it, remembering every time Felix had come over uncomfortable and nervous with him, brittle and uncertain. He wasn’t angry. “I remind him of his father?”
“You make him nervous the way his father does.”
“I don’t suppose you can recommend him for a position somewhere else?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, sir,” said Sutton coolly, his expression stern, as he pushed the cup of tea into Alexos’ hands. “He needs to inure himself to that sensitivity in one way or another if he’s to remain in service.”
“I’d write him a letter of recommendation if he wanted to leave service,” said Alexos.
“My uncle said you had an unfortunate habit of attempting to fix the world’s problems,” said Sutton in a gentle, tremendously cutting way. “It’s quite the endearing trait, as impotent as it may be.”
“Calling a cripple impotent,” said Alexos. “Very original.” When Sutton chuckled, Alexos went on, “I don’t want to fix the world’s problems. I’d just rather not be one of them.”
Sutton stepped closer, ostensibly to drop a cube of sugar in his tea, and used the proximity to gently squeeze his hand. “You aren’t, you know,” he said.
Alexos drank his tea.
* * *
Alexos stood out on the doorstep, leaning heavily on his cane as the car pulled up. The man they’d hired jumped out to let out Lawrence Kidd as the other fellow – his valet, Riggs – went to unbuckle his trunk from the luggage rack, setting it aside.
“Good afternoon,” said Alexos with a tight smile, putting out his hand. He could barely breathe.
Lawrence Kidd was a plain-looking man with dappled acne scars and protuberant ears, as Sutton had informed him, but he had a sort of bright energy as he came forward, his shoulders back, his hips swinging a little. He moved jauntily, he sauntered, and he wore a very light summer suit, the colour such a light tan it was very nearly pink.
“Hullo!” said Kidd brightly – his voice was very nice, richer than one might have expected of a man of his stature, which was quite average. “Alexos Fox, I take it – you don’t look much like your mother.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” said Alexos, shaking his hand and keeping his grip a little tighter than he needed to.
“Strong handshake!” remarked Kidd, and tugged Alexos’ hand closer to him. Alexos grunted as he was forced to shift on his feet, adjusting the weight he was putting on his cane to keep from being pulled over, and he stared, his lips parted, as Kidd turned his hand over and examined his palm, stroking it. “Strong hands. Do you play piano?”
“I do not,” said Alexos curtly, and dragged back his hand. “This is my butler, Mr Sutton, and this is our footman, Felix. My father sends his apologies that he can’t be with us this afternoon, he’s visiting my uncle, but he’ll return tomorrow.”
“You’re the master of the house in his absence, I suppose,” said Kidd dazzlingly, and Alexos inclined his head.
“Lunch has been laid out for us in the dining room,” said Alexos, and Kidd jumped ahead of him to the door, pulling it open before Sutton could move to do it in what Alexos supposed was meant to be a display of chivalry, and he pressed his lips together, moving slowly inside and directing him toward the dining room.
Kidd rushed to take out his chair for him, and Alexos turned to look at Sutton over his shoulder.
“He’s being considerate,” mouthed Sutton as he followed after them.
“He’s going to be beaten if he carries on,” Alexos retorted in a whisper, and Sutton pulled out the chair for Kidd as he entered, pouring a glass of wine for each of them before he stepped out to fetch their plates.
“I’ve known your mother for a few years,” said Kidd, pulling his seat forward and coming in closer to the table, taking a slice of bread and buttering it. “She’s really quite a wonderful woman – she’s very strong, isn’t she? It delights me when a woman conducts herself like a battalion commander.”
“I wasn’t aware she bore such similarity,” said Alexos, taking a sip of his wine, which was a pleasant white burgundy.
“She always schedules things to a T, gets everybody in order,” said Kidd, taking a mouthful of his bread and chewing, swallowing. “But I’m told she’s not the only author in the house! You’re an author yourself, are you not?”
“Not of fiction.”
“No, no, you write scholarly sorts of things, yes, notes on ancient plays and all of that, and translations?”
“I rather struggled with all that at school,” said Kidd. “Not enough romance in the Iliad for me – I’ve an open heart, you see. I crave to read about people’s love and affection for one another.”
“You don’t like romances, I suppose?”
“I don’t read novels.”
“Oh, what a shame,” said Kidd. “Not even your mother’s?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Alexos quietly, feeling rather as though he were being baited. “I have limited hours in my day, and a great many texts to work through.”
“What do you do for fun, if not read novels?”
“I’m not a man who especially craves leisure,” said Alexos slowly. “My work satisfies me.”
“Oh, I’m not like that at all,” said Kidd, setting his bread down. He really did have an animated face, and his mouth was just as crooked as Sutton had said, with a strange dip in the middle so that his mouth didn’t quite close all the way, but his mouth was strangely handsome nonetheless. “Me, I work like a dog most hours of the week, but I like to play just as passionately. I read quite a bit, I enjoy music, the theatre, boardgames, you know – I like to go out dancing, to the theatre, the opera, to bars and such forth. I’m not any good at any of it, but I enjoy football, shooting, rugby, you know, all of that. How about you?”
“You’re asking if I like to play rugby?” asked Alexos coolly.
“I’d tackle you,” said Kidd immediately, and Alexos arched an eyebrow.
“You seem to think I’m not even capable of pulling out my own chair,” he said mildly. “You’d really be that confident in throwing me to the ground?”
Kidd, for the first time, faltered. His mouth fell open, and he looked down at the table, then up at Alexos’ face. “Well,” he said. “Maybe that… I’d not like to hurt you.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t,” replied Alexos.
“Have I offended very grievously?”
“I’m not in the habit of being offended.”
“You can tell me if I’m insulting you, you know,” said Kidd confidently. “Or rap me across the knuckles with your cane, smack me around. Call me names.”
“You seem to have an unorthodox idea as to how a man typically treats one’s guests,” said Alexos.
“Well, I shouldn’t worry about that, I’m no typical guest,” said Kidd, and Alexos looked to Sutton as he brought in plates and set them down, swiftly followed by Felix who filled their glasses.
“If you would leave us a moment, Felix, I have one or two items to discuss with the gentlemen.”
Sutton closed the door to the dining room, and he waited a moment, appearing to listen as Felix retreated down the corridor.
“Harry,” said Kidd, and Alexos felt his mouth fall open, but he immediately closed it again. Kidd sprawled back in his seat, putting his chin on his hand, and he looked up at Sutton with his eyes wide and his lips pouted out. “Won’t you tell Mr Fox here that he can smack me across the face if I get on his nerves?”
“Mr Fox is your host, Mr Kidd,” said Sutton, although his lips were smiling slightly as he poured wine. “He is not your schoolmaster.”
“I don’t want him to be my schoolmaster,” said Kidd. “I want him to be my friend.”
Alexos clenched his teeth slightly, and focused on eating from his plate.
“I’ve met Harry a few times,” said Kidd. “He’s a good friend of the valet of Vincent Samuels, who does my book covers. He’s a splendid illustrator. Do you know him?”
“No,” said Alexos.
“What about Donald Howard? You must know the Howards, there’s dozens of them.”
“Mr Kidd, I can assure you that I don’t know anybody.”
“We’ll fix that,” said Kidd, and Alexos looked to Sutton, who met his gaze.
“One meal,” mouthed Sutton.
Alexos knew his nostrils were flaring as he inhaled, and he took a sip of his wine. “Mr Sutton tells me you’re quite the social butterfly,” said Alexos.
“I’m a whore,” Kidd pronounced with pride, and Alexos blinked.
“Are your rates reasonable?” he asked sharply, and Kidd’s face lit up as though he’d been connected to the mains, his head tipping forward as he looked over the table, his crooked mouth beaming.
“Why, what do you think I’m worth?” he asked.
“I’m sure I don’t know the going rate,” said Alexos. “Let alone the market rate for a below-average product.”
Kidd blinked at him, and then looked at Sutton. “Did he just imply I’d be a very poor prostitute, Harry?”
“You set him up for it, Mr Kidd, I shouldn’t complain.”
“Between the two of you, a man rather feels skewered from both ends,” said Kidd, wagging his eyebrows and looking at Alexos across the table.
“I hope that doesn’t mean I should expect an invoice,” Alexos replied, and tried not to show his surprise as Kidd laughed, clapping his hands together. “I do hope you’ll forgive me, Mr Kidd, but I’m afraid that I am not a particularly social man, and this house will not host soirées or the like.”
“What do you do?” asked Kidd.
“I told you, Mr Kidd, I am satisfied by my work.”
“You must have some hobbies,” said Kidd, tilting his head to the side. “Don’t you like music, to sing? Do you play any instruments?”
“The piano, sir,” Sutton said in the tone of one reminding him, and Alexos pressed his lips together at the glint in Kidd’s eyes. He was eating with a sort of dangerous relish.
“I asked if you played piano a few minutes ago,” he said, softer now. “You told me you didn’t.”
“I haven’t for some years,” said Alexos, glaring at Sutton.
“But you do know how,” said Kidd. “You’ve been educated in its playing. Me, I play the guitar, but I’m mostly a singer. I rather love music – modern music, you know. I’m always playing something from a show or whatever that I’ve been to.”
“How nice,” said Alexos insincerely.
“There must be something you’re passionate about,” said Kidd. “Are you passionate about Harry, perhaps? He’s got the most marvellous arse – it’s difficult not to be passionate about a man who looks the way he does.”
Sutton barely even reacted, standing up straight with his hands behind his back, his head up – he was already smirking, and that didn’t change at being complimented so openly.
“With respect, Mr Kidd, I could do without filth at my dinner table.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” said Kidd. “You call me Larry – or Lawrence, even – and I’ll stop flirting with your butler.”
“I’m not the habit of bartering over table manners.”
“You must be passionate about something,” said Kidd, seeming to change tact. “I’d be passionate about Harry’s arse were I you, but that aside, there must be something. Do you like cocaine?”
The stem of the glass snapped in Alexos’ hand, and he immediately stood to his feet to keep from spilling it.
“Sir—” said Sutton, but Alexos twisted free of his hand as he leaned on his cane with his other hand. The stem had cut his hand as it had snapped, but it wasn’t a deep cut, and would be easy enough to dress himself: to prevent Sutton from grasping at him again, he pushed the bowl of his glass into Sutton’s hand.
“Do excuse me,” said Alexos as venomously as he could manage, and he left the room, ignoring the way that Kidd stood up from his seat but just stood there, his mouth agape, his eyes wide.
Felix met him in the corridor.
“Fetch me the first aid kit and bring it up to the library, please,” he said, and Felix stared at the way he was holding his hand higher to keep it from bleeding too badly, gripping a napkin tightly in his palm.
“Did you… Did you finish eating, sir?” he asked as Alexos moved past him. “Shall I bring you your plate?”
“That would be appreciated, Felix, thank you,” said Alexos, and began his way up the stairs.
Sutton had the good sense, at least, to leave him be.