Alexos would never get married.
He had resigned himself to this fact quite a long time ago, the first time he was eleven or twelve and sitting on the bench as the other boys played cricket, the summer heat making him feel sweaty and uncomfortable so that the leather of his braces stuck and shifted against his skin, and the metal just felt so heavy, and his legs felt even sorer than usual.
Sitting there, in a white shirt and shorts, he’d watched Mr Wickers, one of their schoolmasters, in his full cricket whites, and the way the sweat made his shirt cling tight to his body and go almost transparent so that you could see his chest hair through the cloth—
He’d been aware even then, before then, even, that he felt a certain way about Mr Wickers that most of the young men playing cricket felt about young ladies, and knew, too, that he felt nothing about young ladies at all.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true.
He quite liked Audrey Jones, who used to regularly come around to the house when she’d still lived nearby – the two of them had learned to play Bridge, and had set themselves to compete against her aunts, who’d been delighted.
But he did not kid himself that his enjoyment at playing cards with a young lady was the same as more masculine desires – in his case, very masculine desires indeed.
He wasn’t handsome, he didn’t think, or at least, not handsome enough to draw undue attention. He had examined his face in the mirror, from time to time, and although he felt he had been drawn with a cartoonist’s proportions, God’s own precursor to the funny pages, he did not feel he was ugly. He was fine, he thought, and drew no especial attention one way or the other.
Many was the time that he had come along to a luncheon or a party where a pretty girl had laid eyes on him and he had seen the look in her eyes as she glanced around at all the very handsome men already speaking with other girls. Many was the time he had seen that moment of consideration, of careful thought as they looked at his face, thinking as to whether they found him handsome or the opposite – which never offended him, because he looked at men in much the same way, from time to time. It brought him great comfort, the moment where such women nodded to themselves or smiled, thinking to approach him, took one or two steps, and then their gazes flitted down to the cane he leaned on, and their cautious interest evaporated like mist.
And perhaps, perhaps, he exaggerated the extent to which he relied on his cane from time to time. Certainly, he needed it and needed it quite keenly, even walking the corridors of his own house, but he had caught himself hunching his shoulders or making it appear that he was leaning more heavily upon it when someone looked at him for too long.
Perhaps he restrained himself from bobbing along to the music, even when it was a nice song, in order to dissuade anyone from asking him to dance. Perhaps he sat down a great deal, and always hovered off to the side… But there weren’t so many dances these days, of course, even with the war having finished – or at least, not so many that Alexos accepted invitations to.
He missed, at times, the bustle of university. He’d very much liked living on the campus, had enjoyed taking up with other young men even with all the temptations this came with, seeing the young Austrian gentleman across the hall who had a habit of playing his cello almost undressed, for example, sweat glistening on his flesh in an enticing way that made one want to lean in and lick.
Alexos opened his eyes, staring up at the ceiling, and shifted uncomfortably, pressing the heel of his palm down between his legs in a useless attempt to stave off his erection.
He’d laid for quite a long time in a sort of dreamy daze, and his mind had strayed to the figure of Henry Sutton, his great breast, his shoulders, his arse, his thighs. He was a big man. Alexos wondered what his skin was like, under his clothes, if he was a bear of a man thick with hair all over or if it was about his body in patches, at his chest and his navel or on sections of his arms.
He wondered if he had a big cock.
This was not, in any way whatsoever, convincing his own cock it was best to calm down, but before he could weaken and wrap his hand around himself, there was a crisp, quiet knock at the door, and Brydon walked in.
“You’re awake, Mr Fox,” he remarked as he went to pull open the curtains, letting bright sunshine into the room. “I’ve a bath run for you, but it might be a little hot – there’s space enough to pour some cold in if you want to get in right away.”
Brydon was his father’s valet, but he had made it his habit to assist Alexos in the mornings – Alexos woke an hour or so earlier than his father, most days, and he tried not to take too much of the man’s busy schedule. It wasn’t as though he really needed assistance dressing himself or picking out his clothes – the most difficult thing was carrying things about with his limp.
He always laid out the next morning’s clothes in the evening himself, and Brydon took the pile from on top of his dresser.
“I’ll set this on the bathroom table, sir. Any particular requests for breakfast?”
“Not at all,” said Alexos softly. “I trust Mrs Perry’s judgement.”
Brydon gave him a small smile – they had this conversation, in some form or other, every morning.
“Has our new Mr Sutton been barking orders at you?” Alexos asked.
“He’s remarkably well-scheduled,” Brydon said thoughtfully. “A regimented man – your father mentioned he was a lieutenant in the army, but it seems to be he schedules his day to the minute.”
“He’s doing the same to you?”
“He hasn’t been unpleasant about it. I rather get the impression, Mr Fox, that he is trying to capture the best spirit of our schedules to see where they might intersect with his own. Do you need anything from him?”
“No, no,” said Alexos, sitting up. “Not at all. Thank you, Brydon.”
He stepped into the bath with the water a little too hot, feeling the scalding heat against his legs, the sudden stinging pain on his skin being replaced with utter bliss as the hot water seeped further into his flesh, into his bones, and soothed the ache in them.
Closing his eyes, he rested his head back in the water, sinking into the salted water and sighing blissfully.
He basked for some time in the heat of the water before he washed his hair and scrubbed himself clean, and then stood up to get himself dry, pulling his clothes on and making to comb his hair. His hair was still somewhat damp when he descended the stairs to breakfast and found, as ever, that his father had yet to rise. They always set two place settings, but inevitably, Alexos’ was taken away before his father even sat down to his.
He ate his breakfast in silence whilst idly paging through the newspaper, and when the door opened, he glanced at his watch on the table and was surprised that his father should already be awake, but it was Mr Sutton who made his way in, not his father.
“Oh,” said Alexos chewing and swallowing a little bit harder than he meant to. “Good morning, Sutton.”
“Good morning, Mr Fox,” said Sutton pleasantly, his hands folded in front of his belly. He was dressed in a very fine morning suit, and Alexos distantly wondered if the tight white waistcoat was new, if he’d gotten it for his new position as butler, or if he’d already had it, and it was simply once reserved for special occasions until now. “Does breakfast meet with your approval?”
“Oh, yes, of course, always,” said Alexos, feeling himself sit up a little straighter. “I know it’s a little odd, but with just me and Father in the house, it’s just easier if she serves us a plate each rather than bother with all the serving platter palaver. We normally only take out the service if we’ve guests.”
“Mr Brydon advised me of that,” said Sutton. “And Mrs Perry told me that yourself and your father each trust her judgement in filling a breakfast plate for you, that neither of you have any particular preferences except for a hot breakfast.”
“That’s right,” Alexos said. “Mrs Perry rather knows us inside out.”
“Do forgive me for inquiring, Mr Fox – I am merely doing my best to accurately make my surmise of the routines and schedules of the household, that I not interrupt happy processes in a push for efficiency. I confess myself to be a far more rigid man than my uncle, and I’m afraid I greatly crave predictability in my day to day.”
“Don’t we all,” Alexos said weakly, trying not to dwell overmuch on the word “rigid” pronounced in Sutton’s rich voice.
“I’m disturbing you,” said Sutton softly, tilting his head slightly and raising his perfectly kept eyebrows. “Perhaps I ought make my inquiries of you later today?”
“No, no, now is— now is quite alright, Sutton,” said Alexos, cutting a piece of bacon on his plate.
“I merely wished to know if you would want to oversee my work in the cellar, sir. I understand that your father has no interest in wine, and in the absence of Mrs Fox, I should think that in organising the cellar I ought tailor my curation to your tastes. You are a young gentleman, no doubt with a sophisticated tongue, and I would like to keep your pleasure in mind.”
Alexos swallowed again, despite having nothing in his mouth to swallow.
The idea of being down in the cool air of the cellar with Sutton, where the racks were very tightly packed with very thin corridors a man like Sutton would have to go down sideways, even without Alexos beside him, was an exercise in imagination in itself.
“Oh,” he demurred hurriedly, “I shouldn’t worry about me, Mr Sutton, I’m sure you’re very knowledgeable about— about wine, I should happily trust you to distinguish what will make the best addition and investment to the cellar.”
“Wine is to be drunk, Mr Fox, not merely collected,” Sutton said wisely. Alexos was trying not to look at his face. “After all, the bottles are quite handsome in their neat racks, but are not truly appreciated until the lip of a glass kisses our own, that the wine might flow between them. What sort of wines do you like most?”
“I’m sure I like all sorts, Sutton,” Alexos said, aware that he sounded slightly weak. “As I said, I should trust your judgement to put good wine in front of me as I trust Mrs Perry to deliver good food.”
“But Mrs Perry has had years to ascertain what pleases you best, Mr Fox,” said Sutton reasonably, as Alexos pressed his knees together under the table. “I should like very much to learn how to please you best.”
Alexos inhaled very slowly through his nose, doing his very best not to be too obvious about it, and he finally looked to Sutton’s face instead of his plate. There was no hint of innuendo or implication drawing on the butler’s expression, no hidden smirk, no raised eyebrow: Sutton’s face was entirely polite and respectable, as befitting a man of his station, and merely exuded a sort of attentiveness.
Because Sutton was polite and respectable, and was paying keen attention. He wanted to do well in his new position without being ogled by the young man of the house, and if he had the slightest idea what thoughts were currently running through Alexos’ mind, like the Olympians naked and glistening with olive oil, he would probably beat him senseless.
Before him in the paper were a few articles about recent sodomy trials, each of which he had done his best to page past without letting himself read through them. Sometimes, his horror manifested in a sort of helpless, masochistic curiosity, and he let himself read every word of the little articles to their completion. With that done, the words would linger with him as though he had carved them into his skin – and smart as if he had, too.
He’d never been beaten.
He’d never so much as kissed another man, although certainly he’d wanted two – a handful of times at university, he’d ventured out with some more obvious young men on the circuit, allowed himself to be swept along to certain secreted little places, in backrooms or down alleyways. He never really involved himself in the action of everything, often just sat aside and watched, too cowardly to attempt a seduction of anyone, and—
Once or twice, someone his age would sit on his knee and play with his hair and be terribly, terribly nice, and it—
It never seemed to go anywhere. He never knew how to make it go anywhere, or if he even wanted to risk it. It was bad enough he was always bristling with anxiety just dipping into one of those speakeasies, fully aware that if it was raided, as they apparently were from time to time, he’d never have a chance at outrunning the police.
“Sir?” asked Sutton, and Alexos looked up from his plate. Sutton’s polite attentiveness had morphed into something more concentrated – concern.
“I do beg your pardon, Sutton,” said Alexos hurriedly, wiping his hands and pushing his plate aside. “I’m rather in my own head this morning. I’ve a lot of work to be getting on with.”
“Very good, sir,” said Sutton, and as Alexos put his fork and knife on top of his plate, ready to hold the whole of it in one hand to carry into the other room, Sutton interrupted him, and swept the plate out from his grip. His fingers brushed Alexos’, warm even through his gloves, and Alexos let out a tiny exhalation.
“Thank you,” said Alexos briskly, and picked up his cane to go upstairs.
He wrote in blissful silence, buried in his work, for some hours afterward, and tuned out the world the best he could.
* * *
It was a nice house, Harry thought.
The Bisphams’ home was not so much a house and more a manor, with some dozens of rooms, complicated corridors with servants’ walkways to accommodate a servant moving out of sight, and whilst he had appreciated the short cuts from side to side, he’d always struggled somewhat with them, the corridors being built so narrowly they scarcely accommodated a wide dinner tray, let alone a wide valet.
The Fox House was far less hyperbolic in its size: the three floors were neatly laid out, sensibly and efficiently designed, and while there was one back stairway that led into the servants’ bedrooms upstairs, it wasn’t so narrow one had to sidle down it with one’s elbows forward.
Harry’s room was right beside Alexos’, although they were accessed from entirely different corridors and directions, and it was a comfortable room, with a strong, plush bed, a good writing desk, space to move within the room, and the window gave a neat view of the grounds, the same view Alexos had, when he woke up.
Harry rather liked the symmetry in that.
Breakfast was a strange affair indeed – his uncle had advised him that Alexos was a repressed young man, that he was unlikely to flirt without hesitation, but Harry hadn’t realised he wouldn’t even recognise it for what it was. Harry had rather comfortably layered double entendre into his words, and how interesting it had been to see Alexos shift and squirm in his seat, to press his knees together, for his hands to tremble, for his ears to turn pink.
Would he be so shy, so retiring, when Harry had him undressed and bent him over the nearest hard surface, when he had Harry’s cock buried in him, Harry fucking him hard enough that he could taste it? Would he blush when Harry fingered him open, when Harry swallowed his cock into his mouth?
It was arrogant of him, to think of when instead of if, but a man had to have some hopes in life, and watching Alexos walk away from him, his grip tight on his cane, the back of his neck ruddy with rushing blood—
How could Harry think of anything but fucking the young master senseless?
That morning, Harry sat down with the whole silver service and sat down to polish it all. It was kept in good order, of course, but as soon as Mrs Perry had advised they didn’t often use the full service he had wanted to inspect the whole of it, and as he had worried, the larger serving dishes had a little tarnish on them, but nothing extreme at all.
It took him a few hours to finish it all, and then he set all the silver away in its cabinet, making a note in his diary to add it to his schedule on a regular basis, as the plates in the back weren’t to be inspected as regularly as the others. It would do no huge damage to the silver, of course – it was a hardwearing substance, and tarnish was primarily an aesthetic flaw, so long as it wasn’t allowed to deepen, but in the event they had sudden and unexpected guests, he hardly wanted for anyone to have to sit down and spend twice as much time as expected on the platters.
He liked for time to be accounted for.
Already, moving through the house, he was making his own quiet calculations as to how quickly certain journeys might be made, from his bedroom down to the entrance hall, from the servants’ quarters to the servants’ hall, from the kitchen to the dining room, and so on and so forth.
His pocket watch was an ever present comfort in his pocket, had been since his uncle had given it to him years ago, and his affection for his timepiece had only deepened with the years, although there was glancing damage to its side, where a piece of shell had glanced off it and luckily done the mechanism no damage.
“Hullo, Mr Sutton,” said young Betty politely as he entered the kitchen.
“Good morning, Betty,” said Harry pleasantly. “I am told Mr Fox takes his tea at ten-thirty, Mrs Perry.”
“I don’t know what he notices when he has it, Mr Sutton,” was the cook’s reply, flour clouding the air in front of her as she continued to knead tomorrow’s bread under strong fingers. “He’ll have his head in them books and won’t even know the time unless the gong sounds or someone pats him on the shoulder. There’s a pastry in the cold cabinet for him, or biscuits in the larder.”
“Has he a preference?” Harry asked, taking the hot water off the stove and filling a pot.
“He doesn’t really notice that either,” said Betty sheepishly when Mrs Perry scoffed and didn’t turn around to answer him. “He just sort of eats while working, Mr Sutton. I don’t know that the modern world exists for him, when he’s wrapped up with Homer and his friends.”
“Mr Fox has been known to say he yearns for a time before timepieces, Mr Sutton,” said Brydon as he entered, and Harry handed him the rest of the hot water, watching him pour tea for Fox Snr.
“That does disturb me,” Harry admitted, and Brydon laughed, nodding his head. The two of them worked in neat parallel to one another, setting tea trays for a Fox each, although Harry imagined that Fox Snr does have a preference for what he took with his tea, as Brydon put together a cucumber sandwich and cut it in two, placing it on a plate with a napkin.
“We have to keep on top of him if he has an appointment and gets to working,” said Brydon quietly, with a rueful smile. “But he doesn’t do it on purpose – he and his father share a sort of singular purpose, when left to their work. I confess, the son isn’t quite so scatterbrained as his father.”
“My uncle did warn me of that,” said Harry. “And he doesn’t have any preferences for wine, so he tells me.”
“Mr Fox takes what he’s given,” Brydon admitted, a little more quietly now, and his tone was almost solemn when he said, “Young Mr Fox is a very kind gentleman, Mr Sutton, but he’s not like many men his age. He’s very keenly aware of other people and their needs, but I fear he has a bad habit of ignoring his own.”
“He’s insular is what he is,” grunted Mrs Perry. “What he needs is friends.”
“Hasn’t he got any?” asked Harry.
“He has a few pen pals from university,” said Brydon. “But he tends to keep to himself.”
“Hardly becoming of a young heir,” said Harry, and Brydon laughed.
“You’ve a job convincing him of what he should become, Mr Sutton,” said Brydon, not without affection. “I don’t envy you the task.”
Harry picked up his tray and made the ascent to the library, where the junior Mr Fox was working.
True to what Mr Brydon had told him, Alexos didn’t even look up from his work as Harry leaned on the door with his shoulders to push it open, making his way inside. The library dominated the first floor, a great, sprawling room with floor-to-ceiling shelves, a few sofas to the edge about the fire.
Mr Fox had said that they entertained in here from time to time, that it was a comfortable place to settle with guests when not downstairs in the dining room or the parlour, but that most of the time, it was Alexos’ space as Mr Fox’s office was his.
In the centre of the room was a long table with a few chairs around it, the sort of thing he would expect of a public library rather than one installed in a private home, but Alexos’ studies were spread out along it, several books and manuscripts open with different pages marked.
Alexos’ cane was resting in a little hook that stood out from one corner of the desk – Uncle Reggie had advised that there were a lot of little flourishes throughout the house for purposes like this – and the man himself was leaning forward, a frown pulling at his mouth, his brow deeply furrowed. His eyes flittered back and forth over the page in front of him, and his notes, Harry noticed, were not in English but in an easy and sweeping Greek, his wrist lifted from the page.
He was nervous of staining his sleeves, Harry suspected – Alexos had stripped off his jacket, laying it over the back of another chair, and thus down to his shirt sleeves, he had carefully rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, pinning them there to ensure he didn’t get any ink on the white fabric.
He had fine, delicate wrists, and Harry was glad to see he wasn’t quite so thin as he looked at a glance – Alexos had a habit of somewhat shrinking into his clothes, making himself appear smaller, but although he was thin, he didn’t seem unhealthily so.
Harry set the tea tray down on a side table and stepped forward: even when he stood directly beside Alexos, he didn’t stir or look up from his work until Harry cleared his throat.
He expected the other man to jump or startle, but he did no such thing: the way he suddenly looked up and around was reminiscent of a rabbit or a deer, and when his gaze landed on Harry, he straightened up, leaning away from his notes.
“I’ve tea for you, sir,” said Harry mildly. “Where do you prefer to take it?”
“Oh,” said Alexos quietly, setting his pen aside and leaning back in his chair. “There’s a folding table against the fireplace, do you see it?”
“Of course,” Harry said, and took up the folding table, his palm sliding over the leather surface, feeling the neat clasps for the purposes of holding the tea tray in place.
His brother, John Edmund, a smith, had made this. There were a few of them dotted around the house – they made it easier on the young master, Uncle Reggie had said when he’d paid John to make them, when he couldn’t move well on hard days and he needed a table close by.
“On my right, please,” said Alexos.
“You write with your left hand, sir,” said Harry as he pulled the lever on the table and set it down, and he watched the sweet flush that began to gather in Alexos’ cheeks, like reddening clouds with the sunrise.
“Yes, well,” Alexos said quietly. “My mother harboured doubts as to my learning to hold a pen at all, and certain allowances were made. My schoolmasters were frightened to beat me.”
“I’ve never heard of a schoolmaster frightened to beat his charge,” said Harry with an easy smile laying the tray down and clipping it into place, and Alexos laughed quietly.
“I think they were frightened of the result that came of it, Sutton – that is to say, my mother’s wrath.”
“There are few things quite so frightening, sir.”
“Quite right, Sutton,” said Alexos softly, and he drew his hands neatly into his lap, watching as Harry poured tea for him. “Thank you.”
“Does this time suit you well for tea, Mr Fox?” asked Harry.
Quite delightfully, quite wonderfully, for all he disliked the reason, Alexos blinked. “What time is it?” he asked, and looked to the clock on the wall. He didn’t wear a watch of his own, Harry noted. “Oh. Yes, that’s quite alright, Sutton. Thank you. The dog didn’t follow you up?”
“I haven’t seen him, sir.”
“You couldn’t call him as you go, could you?”
“If the pastry does not meet with your approval, Mr Fox, I would bring you another,” said Harry teasingly, daringly. “You needn’t give it to the dog.”
“The pastry…?” Alexos glanced to the plate, and then laughed breathlessly: once more, he was shy and sweet, avoiding Harry’s gaze, and the blush in his cheeks deepened. “I assure you Aristaeus will receive not a crumb, Sutton,” he said softly. “My feet are cold, that’s all.”
“I’ll put more wood on the fire, sir.”
“It’s not the room, Sutton, it’s my blood,” said Alexos, more quietly now. “The dog will help.”
“Very well, sir,” said Harry, noting the sobriety in the young master’s tone, and he pushed open the door, whistling for the dog.
The tubby little hound’s claws skittered on the stairs as he rushed upstairs, and he stopped to allow Harry to scratch his ears before he wandered in, dropping onto his belly at Alexos’ feet, which slipped from his shoes and rested on his back.
There was something uniquely endearing in it.
“Do ring if you require anything, Mr Fox,” said Harry.
Alexos had already returned to his work, teacup held in his free hand, and didn’t seem to hear him.