Chapter Six

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That evening, Alexos did not come down for dinner, and Harry attended Mr Fox alone. This did not trouble Mr Fox unduly – Harry had already observed that not irregularly, father and son would come to dinner and eat whilst buried in the depths of their own thoughts or sit across from one another each with a book or a page of notes, and eat with the hand with which they were not consumed, and likewise, now and then one or the other would miss the meal entirely, and remain buried in their work.

It was not an antisocial act, he didn’t think, and as much as father and son did talk past one another, the both of them often speaking on their own pursuits and asking little about the other’s, it never seemed to Harry that this was done with any desire to be rude, nor even showed a lack of engagement on either of their parts.

The Foxes seemed to be quite affable in making conversation, happy and satisfied with one another’s company, whether they were sitting in silence or speaking together. In some months at the Foxes’ home, Harry had not once witnessed so much as a moment of tension between the two of them, let alone an argument – his uncle had often mentioned how peaceful the Fox household was, how quiet it was for nine months out of the year, but Harry had never realised precisely how peaceful, nor the nature of that peace.

Patrick and Alexos Fox were very similar to one another, each of them lanky and sandy-haired, with strong cheekbones and exaggerated features, the two of them each with large eyes and long lashes. The both of them too, at a glance, looked to be innocent and tended quickly to confusion – in the father, Harry felt that this affable naivety was precisely what it appeared to be, but in the son…

Well.

He had discovered already, upon fine manipulation, that Alexos had depths hidden within him. Harry’s uncle had never made mention of Patrick Fox being lonely, and it was somewhat clear that he wasn’t – he liked his numbers, liked his work, and at no point did Harry get the impression he disliked or was frightened of people. The older man seemed quite content in his isolation; perhaps it was this contentment of his father’s that made Alexos so determined to go through his life alone, no matter how he wore his ache and desire for company in every plane and wrinkle in his face.

“Brydon told me my son has been sleeping poorly of late, Sutton,” said Mr Fox over his meal, and Harry watched him as he continued to eat, cutting his lamb into extremely small, bite-sized pieces before he ate them.

(Once or twice, on nights he was dining alone, Harry had observed him cut his food into very small pieces and then arrange the pieces into columns, precise gaps between them, that he might stare down at the arrangement upon his plate. Harry suspected, though he had no way of knowing without asking, that he employed the exercise to somehow assist him with more mystifying equations.)

“I’m afraid that is so, sir,” said Harry.

“Don’t worry too much about it,” said Mr Fox mildly, with a small smile – it was comforting, but there was a distant sadness in it. “He often struggles more in the summer, sleeps less, walks about more. He dreams so vividly, you know. When he was a little boy, he used to drive the nanny quite mad – she had to sleep in the room adjoining his, and we had to put a bell over his door, like the sort in a shop, you know, so that she knew when it opened. Before that, she’d go into his room of a morning and panic, not knowing where he’d gone, and all of us would have to search the house through, and find him on a sofa or sat at the dining table. Once, rather memorably, we found him down in the pantry on top of a sack of potatoes, and another time curled up under Mr Lloyd’s rosebushes outside.” The smile widened, warm and full of affection, Mr Fox’s wide eyes even more distant than usual. “When he started to wear the braces for his legs, we put the bells on those at night – at university, he avoided rooming with any of the other boys, and I believe he had a very complicated lock put on his door. These days he rarely gets very far.”

“Yes, sir,” said Harry. “I only wish I could assist further, sir. I knew whilst working as a medic a great many men afflicted with sleep troubles, particularly nightmares or sudden starts that left them leaping from their beds, but I am quite unfamiliar with somnambulism – or I was, ere now.”

“I’m afflicted with the same condition, you know,” said Mr Fox casually, and Harry regarded his employer with interest, such that Mr Fox laughed. “I suppose it is very queer, that it should be so obvious in him but not in me. Now and then Brydon comes to wake me and finds me asleep at my desk instead of in my bed, that’s all – I don’t go far. Even as a little boy, when it started, I think the most unusual place I was ever found was in the library, half in the cat’s basket with her kittens all over me, and that was only a little ways down the hall from my bedroom. My son has a more adventurous soul than I – he used to be quite fiercely obsessed with the journeys of Odysseus, that endless wanderer, a natural explorer. He declared he would be an archaeologist, a sailor, a cartographer. Anything that would take him from one end of this world to the other.”

Harry had not ever heard Mr Fox speak at such length on a subject that was not their business’ accounts or mathematical theory, heard him use so many words and so few numbers. Both men of the Fox household shared, it seemed to Harry, a certain quality where they seemed at first to be very shy, but turned out to possess a surprising confidence – Mr Fox Snr was laconic only when he had nothing to say, and when he did, he would speak at length.

“He lost this spirit for adventure after his illness, sir?”

“Not at first,” said Mr Fox. “He was incorrigible in his sickbed, whilst recovering, even through the pain – he wanted more books, more newspapers, asked if he might be taken about the grounds in his wheelchair, wanted always to be in someone’s company. Fiercely exhausted and in constant pain, and yet he was ever consumed with restless energy. Your uncle had a second desk in his bedroom, the latter half of that year, and would do his paperwork in Alex’s company whenever the nurse was out. He cried with relief when he was finally allowed to walk about again, no matter that he stumbled, was so clumsy before they started to straighten his legs out, especially his bad knee. The frames on his legs were quite painful, I think, which slowed his enthusiasm, and then, once he went back to school, he… Ah, Mr Sutton. You know, of course, that children can be terribly cruel.”

“I do, sir,” said Harry.

“He lost his spirit a little. Became a good deal more reserved. Categorically refused to go to boarding school when it was suggested, but really, Georgie didn’t want to send him, and honestly, I didn’t either. When he went to university, we thought he might stay, you know, he insisted so strongly he would go, that he’d be out in the world, but he came back to us. Does it make me sound terribly cold, that I say to you I wish I might see the back of my son, and not have him home with us?”

“No, sir,” said Harry quietly, digesting all that he had been told. Mr Fox spoke without making a great deal of eye contact and spoke somewhat softly and with strange tones at times, as though talking to himself, but he was looking at Harry now – or, kept glancing at him, at least. “It sounds only as if you have a great deal of love for your son, and wish him happiness.”

“I do,” said Mr Fox. “Your uncle did his best, you know – I’ve tried myself, but I was never, ah. I’m not very good with words. Not very good with… advice, encouragement, and Alex is so curious, so intelligent. He’s like his mother that way – I really can’t keep up with either of them, much as I try. Your uncle understood it much better than I did. I don’t know that there’s anything your uncle doesn’t understand, seems to me that the man is a veritable genius, but you’re not so different. Most butlers seem to be geniuses about everything.”

“It’s kind of you to say, sir,” said Harry.

“Except wine,” said Mr Fox, suddenly stern and rather angry, his brow furrowing, his nose wrinkled in disgust. “It’s terrible to taste – so strong! I hate very much the taste of alcohol, but wine is the most abhorrent of all.”

Something must have shown in Harry’s face, no matter that he attempted to retain a neutral mask, because Mr Fox suddenly looked at him with something akin to panic, and raised a comforting hand.

“Oh, Mr Sutton, please,” he said hurriedly, “I’m… I’m teasing, of course. I don’t mean to disparage your work – you’re very good at it, and Georgie adores the stuff, knows all about it, and Alex, he does.” He chuckled to himself, somewhat nervously, and then exhaled. “I’m not good at teasing, either,” he said defeatedly. “Alex is. Your uncle taught him that – Georgie taught him to be quite cutting, I think, to, to talk and to stand up for himself, but he was severe, like I am. Too… mathematical. Cold. Your uncle warmed him up.”

“If I may say, sir,” said Harry quietly, “you have never struck me as cold at all.”

“That’s the trouble with butlers,” said Mr Fox, “all of you being so intelligent, I mean. You see what’s underneath, you know, for the most part. The most of us are quite simple – we just add up whatever we see. We never think to ask if there’s any variables in the equation that are out of sight.”

“I think you are giving my profession far too much credit, sir,” said Harry. “That, or making me quite nervous about living up to the standards set by my uncle.”

Mr Fox laughed.

For all Alexos’ tightness, he often laughed in quite an open way – his laugher was open-mouthed, and he often leaned back or opened outward, when something amused him; his father tightened, shoulders hunching, and he laughed almost without opening his lips.

“I think you’ve been quite tremendous so far,” he said. “The real test of your mettle will be when Georgie – Mrs Fox, Georgina – when she comes home. She’ll be here a month or two at Christmas time, and then go off again, and then be back a month or two again in the late spring.” He sighed. “I do miss her when she’s not here, but she fills up my life, when she’s about, so that I almost don’t miss her when she’s gone again, I carry so much of her with me – and she writes me, of course, even though I’m so terrible at writing back. She’ll have meetings and lunches and parties and fetes and all of that twice or thrice a week, when she’s home.”

Mr Fox received letters from his wife twice a week, and wrote her back every month or two – Harry was aware that Mrs Fox was constantly in motion, travelling across and between countries, sailing or taking trains or cars hither and thither, and she was quite a prominent novelist, with a dozen or so mysteries under her belt, and she was an essayist of great repute, too. Her prose was tightly written, had a cutting wit to it, and Harry had read some of her books before and found himself laughing out loud at the cold, rapier-sharp humour of her heroes, and the dark tone of the comedy itself.

He couldn’t help but wonder how much this would translate to the figure of the woman herself.

“I don’t mind parties,” said Mr Fox. “I quite like them, as it happens, now and then, so long as I’m able to keep on top of my work in between, and be left alone to rest. Alex can be… prickly.”

“Prickly, sir?” Harry repeated, keeping his voice even and polite, and Mr Fox leaned back in his seat, setting his knife and fork neatly down on his empty plate and folding his hands over his belly.

“He has a habit of excusing himself from dinner parties as soon as the last course is finished, having already waited until the absolute last moment to come down for dinner. Georgie chastises him for it – he’s really quite transparent, and she says people do notice – but there’s no dissuading him. He abhors having guests in the house, declines party invitations from all his friends, won’t come with us if we visit my brother, Lord Fox, or any of the rest of the family.” Mr Fox glanced up to Harry’s face again, once more meeting his eye before looking away, as though he needed to look away to concentrate on what he was saying. “You must be surprised by that. He’s so— so good-natured, after all. Friendly.”

Harry thought of Alexos saying that what he wanted was for him to go away and leave him to work, resisting the instinct to smile.

“Yes, sir,” said Harry. “Since my joining your household, he has been nothing but welcoming.”

“Well, I suppose that’s because you’ve never sat down to dinner with him,” said Mr Fox. “The boy clams up like a… Well, like a…” He trailed off, going silent for some few moments.

“Like a clam, sir?”

“Oh, yes, Sutton. Exactly the thing. Sorry, I suppose I’m keeping you from getting off, all this rambling of mine. Would you take this plate away?”

“Of course, sir,” said Harry, and as Mr Fox Snr ambled back upstairs, he cleared everything from dinner away.

* * *

“Um, Mr Sutton,” said Felix some hours later, just as Harry was closing his office behind him, ready to do his final rounds of the evening.

“Felix,” said Harry, arching an eyebrow. “I thought I told you to close the library for the evening and retire to bed.”

“Well, that’s just it, sir,” said Felix. “Mr Fox is still in the library, sir.”

It was unusual that Alexos should make any kind of complaint where Felix was concerned. It was true, certainly, that he didn’t like Felix to see him undressed or in distress, but he was as gentle with Felix as he was with Betty, as a rule, or any of the young maids. “He complained when you made to close the curtains?”

Felix hesitated, biting his lip and glancing back to the stairwell. He was only fifteen, but he was tall and would soon be strapping, and even looking so nervous, he did cut a good figure, would be really quite good as a footman, once he learned to stop showing his emotion so freely on his face. Harry had to wonder if he would be one of the last young men to join the profession, and more than that, he had to wonder if he even expected he would stay in service the whole of his life, as Harry had thought to do at his age, as he still hoped to do, after a fashion.

Brydon, Mrs Perry, and Mr Lloyd had all casually mentioned that the Fox house had never had a great many staff – after Mrs Ainsley, their previous housekeeper, had retired in 1918 to help care for her nephew returned from France a triple amputee, they hadn’t hired on another housekeeper, and while one of the maids, Becca, did still live in the house, the other walked in each morning from the village. Even before the war, they only hired in additional maids and footmen from the village during the busy seasons of the year.

The Fox house was a relatively modest one, neither embroiled in the midst of the city’s cosmopolitan rush, nor situated on sprawling fields in the way of the manor houses. It was a good place, Harry thought, for a young man like Felix to learn his trade.

“He didn’t complain, Mr Sutton,” said Felix. “He’s— Well, he’s asleep, sir, but I think he is drunk, or maybe he’s had some codeine, I’m not sure. Not that it’s my place to say,” he added hurriedly, “just that Mr Brydon says you can tell what he’s been at, when he’s been at something, only I can’t, just yet.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat – he’d only recently begun to regularly shave, and there was a little cut on the side of it, the scab still healing.

“Not to worry,” said Harry quietly, with a small smile, once Felix glanced up from the floor and met his gaze again. “I’ll attend to Mr Fox, Felix.”

“Should I have woken him? Or, or closed the curtains anyway? Or done something? I’m not trying to fob him off on you or get out of the work, Mr Sutton, because I know he’s left a big mess on the table, but I can come and help with it, it’s just—”

“No, no,” said Harry. “Best to leave it to me or Mr Brydon when you’re uncertain of Mr Fox, Felix. Does he really intimidate you so?”

“It’s not that he intimidates me, Mr Sutton, I just never feel as though I can get a footing with him. He’s never said a bad word to me and he does apologise when he feels he’s been harsh, but he really does almost explode, sometimes, whether he’s been drinking or not, and it just… It sets my teeth on edge, is all.”

“Your father is a veteran, isn’t he?” asked Harry. “He has outbursts of shouting himself, an uneven temperament?”

Felix, who had squared his shoulders and set his jaw, as though trying to show he wasn’t frightened of his employer, suddenly stared at Harry with his mouth agape. He blinked, once, and then a few more times. “Well,” he said, “yes, but he’s… he’s not…”

“Mr Fox hasn’t seen war himself, lad, but he is a man in pain. Pain makes a man unpredictable, and try as we might, it’s only natural to be unsure of that which is unpredictable.”

“I don’t speak ill of him, sir,” said Felix. “Or my dad – or, or soldiers, you know.”

“I know,” said Harry, with a neat nod of his head. “Get yourself off to bed, and we can talk a little more about this later in the week, if you like.”

Felix nodded, mumbling a thank you, and Harry moved past him, beginning to ascend the stairs.

Brydon had served in the war, but he’d been struck with appendicitis after barely two months in France, and had apparently had some ensuing medical issue that left him in a hospital for nearly six months, after which he was declared unfit for return to service; as for Mr Fox Snr, Harry had vaguely understood that he’d been exempted for some reason before, had guessed that perhaps that he was just too old for the draft, but if he was a regular sleepwalker, he supposed it only made sense that his doctor would have recommended against his serving.

Nightmares were one thing; a soldier placidly walking along whilst asleep on his feet was another entirely.

The library was bathed in red-tinged, late evening light, and Harry came to stand at the head of the long table, surveying the tableau with interest. A white sheet dappled with paint and varnish stains had been laid out over the table like a tablecloth, and spread out on its surface were piles of various pieces of metal. Some were panelled sheets of shining brass, but it was mostly screws, cogs, and axels, as well as what appeared to be keys, and for a baffling moment, Harry thought that Alexos had taken his typewriter apart in some sort of rage, before he saw the object’s main carapace and drawer – a cash register, it looked like.

Written out on some paper was a list of pieces, and as ever, the notes were in Alexos’ scrawled-out Greek, but Harry could read the numbers and see the tiny illustrations of each piece, enough to see that it was some kind of inventory.

Alexos himself was slumped in his chair, his head tipped forward in a way that made Harry’s neck twinge just to look at, but while Harry could see a glass at his side still with half a measure of golden liquid in it, he couldn’t smell the drink at all even when he came closer.

“Mr Fox?” asked Harry in a clear, but not very loud voice. He didn’t even stir, and Harry touched his shoulder. “Sir?”

Harry hid his wince as Alexos jolted, knowing what would come even as he jumped: Alexos hissed in pain after he suddenly straightened, both hands going to his bad knee, and at the same time he awkwardly straightened his neck, casting his gaze around the room. His teeth were gritted, his lips pulled back, and Harry felt a pang of genuine sympathy, seeing the pain writ all over his expression, and more than that, in the tension of his shoulders and chest.

“I do apologise for waking you, sir,” said Harry.

“Time’s it?” Alexos asked, teeth remaining clenched as he awkwardly rolled his shoulders, moving his neck back and forth. His hands were stained with oil and grime, which meant he’d cleaned the cash register pieces, Harry supposed, and that they’d been filthy when he’d started. It didn’t look to Harry as though he were drunk, and without Brydon or Harry to bring it, he couldn’t have had any of his stronger palliatives.

Harry had not yet seen Alexos Fox drunk, nor made to slur his words and come apart at his seams with codeine, but others on the staff had spoken about it. Felix had mentioned helping carry a drunken Mr Fox down the corridor in his very first week at the house, and while Mrs Perry rarely commented on it directly, instead making a great variety of “harrumph” and “hah” sounds when the subject was broached, Brydon had mentioned it.

Brydon had said, in relatively gentle, understanding tones, that Alexos’ mood could be understood by what bottle he asked for, that he drank whiskey to soothe or to rest, gin or vodka to be drunk, cognac to be very drunk.

Uncle Reg hadn’t phrased it like that. Uncle Reg said he drank cognac when he wanted to numb his mind. Codeine to numb his aching limbs.

Morphine to numb his soul.  

“Past ten, sir.”

“Fuck,” muttered Alexos, rubbing at his head and leaving a smear of brown grease on the skin. He didn’t appear to notice, didn’t even glance down at his hand, and Harry saw there were a few stains on his rolled-up sleeves, the front of his waistcoat.

“Shall I run you a bath, sir?” asked Harry as he began to pull the curtains shut.

“Oh, yes, why don’t you run me a bath, Sutton?” retorted Alexos sarcastically, shoving back his seat from the table. “Anything to get me undressed.”

“I wasn’t suggesting I chaperone the bath itself, sir, but I am of course happy to offer my assistance, if you find you desire it. Being as the subject appears to be on your mind.”

This earned Harry a loud scoff.

“I don’t desire it. I don’t desire you, or your perversions,” Alexos grumbled, voice hoarse with sleep, and then grunted. Harry, pulling the last of the curtains closed, turned to look at him, and saw the way he was leaning back against the table, rubbing at his leg while gripping his cane tightly in the other hand. He was leaning heavily back on the table, seemed not quite balanced as he tried to lean to rub just above his bad knee without tipping too far forwards.

“As you say, sir,” said Harry, so pleasantly that Alexos turned a foul look on him. Harry stepped closer. “Ought I do anything with this disassembly, sir?”

“Leave it for now,” muttered Alexos, rubbing at one eye with the heel of one hand, and mercifully it was clean enough not to stain the skin or, apparently, to sting, although he looked so exhausted and so focused on the pain elsewhere in his body that Harry wasn’t certain that he’d feel it in any case. “I’m sorry if it offsets the maid, but I’ll pack it all up to return to Mr Lloyd tomorrow.” When Harry didn’t say anything, Alexos said, more to the floor between them than to Harry himself, “I take things apart, sometimes. Devices, machines. I make use of some parts, and Mr Lloyd sells the scrap.”

“Where does he get the machines?”

“Here and there. I don’t tend to ask.”

“How do you make use of the parts?”

“You’re too close.”

Harry, who’d come closer with each word passed between them, came to a stop. Standing directly in front of Alexos now, he kept his feet rooted to the floor but leaned closer, and Alexos’ breath caught in his throat, his head tipping back and away. Harry wondered what his skin would feel like, if he slid his hands under his shirt, gripped his hips, wondered how Alexos would whimper if Harry straddled him and forcibly massaged the new crick out of his neck, turned his sleep-stiffened shoulders to jelly in his hands.

He was a more than adequate masseuse, and as soon as he could fuck him, he thought to massage Alexos too, soothe his pain as best he could. When Reg had first mentioned Alexos’ drinking, some years ago, Harry had thought he meant he was a lush, but it was plain that wasn’t true, and he took every other palliative very sparingly, feared to become reliant on any of it. He’d never truly internalised what that meant, before coming to the house, never fully understood quite why his uncle favoured Alexos so much, got a certain pinched expression when talking about him, at times.

Uncle Reg had never said he’d prefer it if Alexos were a drunk or an addict, but Harry had thought, at times, that perhaps he would. Seeing Alexos now, desperately leaning away from Harry but unable to move too far back because of the pain in his legs, his back, his shoulders, Harry understood.

“Am I?” asked Harry, keeping his voice low and warm, sultry in a way he knew made other men shiver, but Alexos didn’t even flinch. “You don’t want me this close, sir?”

He didn’t lean even closer, not just yet. He stood his ground, and with Alexos’ head turned dramatically away from him, he admired the column of his long neck, thought about how nice it would be to drag his tongue over the skin, bite at it, suck a bruise into place at its base.

“I will have your employment terminated, Mr Sutton,” said Alexos, staring across the room instead of at Harry.

“Really? And how will you do so, Mr Fox? Tell your father, your mother? My uncle?”

Alexos’ head whipped around to meet his gaze, and Harry saw the twinge in his expression at moving his neck so quickly, watched the careful way he brought up his hand to rub at its side, his elbow angled so that it didn’t brush against Harry’s chest.

“Your uncle,” said Alexos, “does he know what a foul and despicable thing you are?”

“I’m his favourite nephew,” said Harry. “He might have seen me as a son, were it not that you rank higher in his estimations.”

Alexos’ eyes narrowed, his lips drawing slightly back and his nose wrinkling. “Is that what this is?” he asked. “Jealousy?”

“No,” said Harry. “Felix was uncertain of waking you, that’s all. He saw your whiskey, thought you might be drunk.”

Alexos glanced down at the glass, his face crumpling slightly. “My hands were shaking,” he said. “I drank a measure, maybe two, to steady them. It made me tired, too, that’s all – and I’ve been… rather involved, all day.”

“Where did Mr Lloyd get a cash register? It looks as though it were filthy.”

“This one, out of a bombsite,” said Alexos softly. “It was only slightly dented, the mechanism mostly intact, but it was filthy with smut from the fire, and that’s before being relegated to the back of Mr Lloyd’s shed, covered with dust, cobwebs.” For the first time, he looked down at his hands, seeming to realise only now that his fingers were caked with filth, his clothes stained, and he reached up to his face again, but didn’t actually touch it.

“Shall I run you a bath, sir?” Harry asked again.

“What do you think, Sutton?” asked Alexos, and met his gaze. His eyes, which carried the same naïve look his father’s did at first glance, showed no naivety at all, up close like this, no matter that they remained large and brown and shone with the light in the room. There was a severity in them that Harry wanted to taste. “That if you carry this on often enough that I’ll let you bend me over and bugger me? Am I the easiest target about, crippled as I am? You think I’m stupid as well, powerless, think you can blackmail me?”

“I don’t want to blackmail you,” said Harry plainly. “I have no intention of forcing you into anything, Mr Fox, nor strongarming you, nor taking you by surprise or coming up on you without your knowledge. I approach you face-on, Mr Fox, that you might see my intentions in their entirety, and comprehend them.”

Alexos, lip curled, said mildly, “You’ve not denied wanting to bugger me, I notice.”

“I do want to bugger you,” said Harry. “I have every intention of doing so, Mr Fox – perhaps I will bend you over, over this desk or perhaps the end of your bed, your arms pinned at the small of your back, or perhaps my hand around your throat, pulling you against my breast, that you feel the full weight of my body against yours, and understand yourself overpowered. Perhaps I’ll have you on your back, me between your legs, one of my hands holding your wrists in place as my other tugs at your cock, our gazes locked – in a position like that, perhaps I’d kiss you, too, feel your lips against mine. Lying back, I might bring you to straddle me, that your weight should best drive you down on my cock, or the reverse, perhaps. I’m not ordinarily one to take cock, but I’d be happy to sample yours, and I can assure you I’m capable of doing so without putting too much weight on your hips. I’m afraid I can’t make any particular promises yet, Mr Fox, how I intend to sodomise you, or indeed, be sodomised – I rather plan to tailor our activities to your capabilities, what with your ailing joints. Were I to fuck you in such a way as to give you injury, we might not be able to fuck again.”

Alexos hadn’t interrupted him.

He looked almost too stunned to breathe, his wide eyes wide as dinnerplates now, his lips parted and showing the pink tip of his tongue and the order of his teeth. His face had paled, took on a pallor, but as he’d gone on talking, his cheeks had taken up colour again, and they were blooming with colour now.

“Why would I let you?” asked Alexos, breathing out the words. “You say you won’t force me, Mr Sutton, and yet repeatedly I have refused you, each refusal falling on deaf ears.”

“I’m going to run you a bath, Mr Fox,” said Harry. “That you might wash off that grease before bed. Your cock is hard, I notice. Might I assist you with that, as well?”

He caught the fist before it landed, cupping Alexos’ clenched fist between his hands and absorbing its momentum, bringing Alexos’ hand against his chest instead. He had a good stance for fighting – imbalanced, more weight on the good leg than the bad one, but he kept his shoulders squared and let his hips move, and the punch had a surprising amount of power in it.

If it had landed, it would have been a solid strike across the jaw, would have been such a surprise it might even have knocked him for six. Alexos’ hand, clutched against his breast, felt warm and slightly sweaty.

Alexos was looking at him, staring at him with his eyes wide and the snarl slowly falling from his lips, and Harry realised he was smiling. It was a genuine smile, felt warm where it curved his lips, was too much, and he schooled his own expression back to something more professional.

“If I may say, sir, you don’t appear as a man who throws a lot of punches,” said Harry softly, “but your technique is quite impeccable.”

Alexos swallowed, the gulp audible, and the muscles in his jaw moved at the same time. His hand clenched slightly tighter where it was cupped in Harry’s hands, and Harry very carefully pushed his thumbs into the ball of his fist, prying his fingers open.

Alexos let out a gasping grunt of pain as he went to wrench back his hand, and Harry said, “Shh, shh, let me,” and pressed down. Alexos whimpered, his eyes clenching shut, and Harry released another hushing sound as he carefully took the first knuckles of each of his fingers and massaged them between his thumbs and forefingers. He could feel the slick stickiness of the grease and dirt still clinging to Alexos’ fingers, felt it stick to his own instead, and as he worked to the next knuckles, he watched Alexos’ face slacken further, jaw open. Alexos’ face was unspeakably expressive, and he leaned all of his weight back against the table as Harry continued, to the middle knuckle, the first, pressing down on the tips of each of his fingers. His knees were pressed together, thighs rubbing against one another and the rest of his body stiff, even as Harry forced his hand to relax as much as he could.

“After exercise, particularly intense or vigorous exercise,” said Harry, “small tears can occur in our muscle fibres. The stiffness and the tightness in your hands is because you’ve been clenching them so tightly, and the fibre is now repairing itself, knitting itself back together. The massage is forcing the stiff muscle tissue to relax, and it will help your blood flow, too, reduce inflammation. That soothes the pain in itself, but there are a lot of nerves in your fingers, and when they’re as tight and stiff as they are,” Alexos gasped as Harry pressed his thumb hard into the meat of his palm, and began to rub a circle into it, “the nerves are contracted too, can easily be pinched or strained. Massage therapy is common for polio sufferers now, you know. I could help with your legs, too.”

“Ye-es,” Alexos grunted, breathing heavily, his cheeks a burning red and his eyes clenched tightly shut as Harry went on. “Because you’d, fuck, like that, wouldn’t you? Lay me down so you can put your ha-ands, ands, on my thighs and reach higher while you’re at it.” Every other word jumped up in intonation, almost squeaking, and when Harry turned his hand over and slid his thumbs under the base of Alexos’ own, the sound he released was unmistakably a moan. Harry kept going, didn’t let up for a moment as he felt Alexos’ tight muscles turn to butter under his ministrations, watched his thighs press tighter together.  Alexos’ cane fell to the floor beside them.

When Alexos suddenly leaned forward, Harry pressed harder, and Alexos’ sobbing sound was something Harry wanted to clutch in his hands just like he was clutching Alexos’ palm, wanted to hold forever as he watched Alexos’ knees clench and his hips jump, his eyes clenching tightly shut even as a tear eked out of one of them.

“There,” said Harry, gently coaxing Alexos’ fingers to straighten and then bend again as his breathing began to even out, as he stopped rocking in his place. Alexos was trembling, and Harry cupped his hand, squeezing it between his palms.

Alexos took in a shuddering breath.

“Would you like for me to run you a bath first,” asked Harry, “or attend to your other hand?”

“Bath,” Alexos whispered.

Harry brought Alexos’ hand up to his mouth, brushed his lips against the back of his knuckles and took care not to lick his lips, and Alexos’ intake of breath was hitched and beautiful and really quite tragic, in that it told Harry without words that no one had ever kissed his hand that way before.

He bent to pick up Alexos’ cane, handing it over, and walked ahead of him to start running the hot water.

Alone in the corridor, he let himself smile again.

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