In the weeks he had been working for the Foxes, Harry had been watching Alexos more and more closely. He recalled when his uncle had first suggested that he take over from him, that he come to the Foxes in his stead, as such a time as he had retired.
Uncle Reg had wanted for him to receive a good promotion, of course, had wanted Harry to have command over a household of his own, to be able to move forward in his career with more experience, but he had wanted also to entrust his position here to someone who would understand the family and appreciate them for who they were – who might carry on his work as butler, for the family, the wine cellar, and the other servants.
And might care for Alexos Fox, of course.
Harry remembered when they had first discussed it, the two of them sitting together with a bottle of whiskey between them, when Uncle Reg had said, “You’ve no young man of your own, have you?”
“I have yet to go out and lasso one,” Harry had said. “Why, you want me to mount one on my wall?”
Uncle Reg had laughed, shaking his head. “You oughtn’t be alone,” he’d said, his voice quiet and thoughtful. Introspective, in its way, although Harry hadn’t said so, didn’t like to point it out. “It oughtn’t be the case that you come to be an old man, with no marriage or connection to another man, no intimacy. Even for men such as us, dear boy, there remains a human need for love and affection.”
“Love and affection isn’t as expensive as you might worry, Uncle.”
“Tch, don’t be crass, Harry,” Reg had said, clucking his tongue. “A marriage you pay for is no marriage at all.”
“Something there falls flat, in between what you say,” said Harry, “and the Bible, kings and queens, dowries—”
“You’ll like him,” had said Reg. “He’ll like you.”
Harry did like him.
Now and then, these past few weeks, he found himself watching Alexos Fox while he was at work – he would linger in doorways and watch Alexos concentrate on his essays, see the frown of his lips and the furrow of his handsome brows, see his careful hand movements, his grip very tight upon his pen; he would watch Alexos walk with his cane in his hand, his chin high and his gait smooth, his gaze far away and his mind elsewhere; he would occasionally witness Alexos half-undressed for bath or bed, his hair wet, some of his skin bared.
Harry had believed his Uncle Reg, when he’d said he thought that he and Alexos would get on – he’d believed him when he said he was handsome, that Alexos was kind, that Alexos was funny. Alexos was all of those things – he was also cool and frosty at times, was prone to poor moods and self-pity, particularly, so it emerged, when he had not slept.
The night previous, Harry had been advised that Alexos had already risen with a bout of somnambulism at some time in the earlier evening, at a little past ten. Felix had found him and guided him back to his rooms, which was all well and good – it was midnight when Harry was approaching the stairs and heard a scream of pain.
Mr Fox, without the use of his cane, had limped to the top of the stairs, and tipped downward.
Outside, the rain was thundering down so loudly that it sounded like distant gunfire, and Harry’s skin had been prickling with recollection and heat and roiling tension since it had begun: the scream kicked him into action and primed his body for a fight, although he knew he would find one.
Alexos was sprawled on the landing, swearing in such smooth, unerring Greek that one might have thought him a true Spartan, and there was blood down the side of his face where he’d caught himself on the edge of the banister on his way down. Clutching at his bad leg, he had his eyes tightly shut, spitting out words as though they’d shut out the world, and Harry did not hesitate.
He put his arms under the backs of Alexos’ knees and his shoulders, and lifted him bodily from the floor.
“Ungh, fuck,” growled Alexos, his voice husky from sleep and pain, and his eyes were wild as they searched around, but Harry said nothing as he brought him back to his room and set him down upon the bed, moving promptly to turn the taps upon the bath and put out hot water. “No, Sutton,” said Alexos. “I’m not having a bath at this time.”
“Then, sir, will you be convinced to take the codei—”
“No, I will not,” snapped Alexos, and stripped off the shirt of his pyjamas rapidly, so much so that Harry heard the pop and tear of its seams.
He returned with the little first aid tin from Alexos’ bathroom, and gently pushed the young master to tip back his head.
“Let it bleed,” Alexos muttered, dropping the blood-soaked shirt to the ground. “Let it kill me.”
“Very good that would look upon my next application to a place of employment too, Mr Fox,” said Harry coolly. “Yes, I watched my last employer die of a head wound, at his instruction. After a poor night’s sleep, he chose to commit himself to death, being as the inconvenience of it put him in ill mood.”
“It’s as good a reason to kill oneself as any,” said Alexos.
“Suicide rarely has a good reason, sir,” replied Harry, swiping iodine over the cut – which, he was glad to see, was more a nasty graze that a deep wound – and making the other man grit his teeth and muffle his shout. “Unless one’s greatest desire is to make a mess for others to clean up.”
“You have just described the essence of my existence, Mr Sutton,” said Alexos.
Harry tugged on his hair, making him gasp in surprised pain, and then despite his scowling mood and exhausted irritation, he laughed, and the sound was so beautiful, so unexpectedly joyful, that Harry’s very heart surged in his chest.
“You treat me so cruelly, Mr Sutton,” said Alexos, softer now, with sweetness and warmth folded into his words like sugar folded into dough. “I shall write this on your reference, if ever you decide to leave us.”
“Will this be before or after your death, sir?”
“I will decide closer to the time,” said Alexos, and closed his eyes as Harry put a bandage against his head. “I’m going to ask you to do something you don’t want to do, now.”
“I want you to tie my wrist to the bedpost.”
“You’re quite correct, sir: I do not want to do that.”
“Oh, Sutton, please,” said Alexos. “Your uncle has done it a hundred times before. You needn’t do it tight to my wrist – leave a two-finger gap, that I not cut off the circulation, and it’ll just wake me up if I try to get off, a tug out of the shoulder joint instead of my face planting against the landing.”
“Why not just lock the door?”
“I can unlock the door without waking,” said Alexos. “I do, frequently, quite automatically. Please, Sutton, won’t you? I just want to sleep.”
Alexos’ eyes were rimmed red with a lack thereof.
Harry wanted nothing more than to tie him up – tie him up by both wrists, and bend between his legs, watch him arch and beg and try to struggle free, desperate for more than what Harry would give him.
Tonight was not the night for that.
Alexos had a pair of ties bound together for this purpose, and after he had folded himself back into his bedclothes, lying on his side, Harry leaned over him and looped the tie around the central post of the bed. He was aware, leaning over the young master, of the way Alexos’ gaze went from Harry’s belly to his crotch and then away from both.
Harry’s lip twitched, and when he came to tie the loop around Alexos’ wrist instead, he did so in a neat, careful motion, and leaned much of his body over Alexos’. He could feel the heat that radiated from the younger man, and more than anything he wanted to climb on top of him, straddle him and pin him in his place.
Would he curse in Latin, swear in Greek, when Harry finally fucked inside him, or mounted him upon his cock?
Alexos was looking up at him, his lips parted, his eyes half-lidded, as Harry drew away his hands. He smelt faintly of laundry soap and sweat, and like this, Harry was aware of how easy it would be to kiss him, to lean in and close the gap between them. Alexos’ fingers flexed, his bound wrist shifting in its silk bondage, and he broke eye contact, as he so often did, looking away, but all this did was give Harry a better view of the column of his neck.
In the dim light of the room, most of it filtering in from the hall, it looked beautifully unmarred, the sort of expanse a man would delight to bring to bloom with bites and bruises.
“Thank you, Sutton,” said Alexos, his head turned on the pillow, his hair a halo about his head, so fine that in the light, the pale brown looked almost blond. “I know that your uncle coached you as to what to expect, but I’m sure this is far from the position you dreamed of, when first you entered service.”
“I don’t remember what I dreamed about, sir, when first I entered service,” said Harry. In the quiet of the room, he kept his voice low, and the sound came from low in his chest. “I’m sure I must have dreamt of something, but I no longer recall.”
“Was it truly so long ago?” asked Alexos softly, in barely more than a whisper. He was looking not at Harry’s face, but at his chest. He had made no mention of the way Harry was leaning over him, had not even stiffened, and that, Harry thought, was a good sign.
“A little more than twenty years, sir,” said Harry in the same soft voice. “But with the war in the middle, it feels like fifty.”
Alexos tipped his head back into the pillow, shifting himself in his place – as Harry stood up straight, he was very aware, looking down at him, that Alexos had slept like this before, that he was used, in a way, to sleeping bound. Something about that very thought thrummed beneath his skin, made him feel like a plucked cello string, although he held back the sound he felt compelled to make.
“Of course,” said Alexos. “How old were you, when you went?”
“Twenty-four,” said Harry. “I served in the trenches throughout the war, and then stayed on, a little while after the ceasefire. I lingered on the Western Front for some while, until the last of us were recalled, and following this I volunteered in a veterans’ hospital, sir. I did advise your father of these details when first I joined your staff, but he seemed to think they were of no great import.”
“I hope he didn’t offend you,” said Alexos. “He forgets details, that’s all – my father is a man quite attached to the now, for the past soon becomes a very distant friend.”
“I did not take offence at all,” said Harry. He did not say that he had noticed this trait in Alexos himself – he thought, judging by the way his expression froze a moment, that he was considering saying it himself, but he held his tongue.
“I thought you seemed rather confident in your application of first aid,” muttered Alexos, and Harry gave him a very small smile in the darkness.
“Without meaning to embarrass you, sir,” he said, “I believe it was a factor that influenced my uncle’s recommending me for the position.”
“My being so accident prone, you mean?”
“I don’t recall saying that, sir,” said Harry, and Alexos laughed in a sleepy, soporific way, stretching out upon his bed. Harry saw the slight stiffness on his one side, the way his expression froze a moment for the pain, but then his face slackened again, and he let his head drop further into the weight of his pillow.
“A lot of my friends went to war,” said Alexos. “Directly from university or just after. I recall going into an office one morning, and finding myself the only man there, but for my tutor, where I ought have been one of six.”
“May I ask you a question of a very personal lilt, sir?”
“Do many of your friends live some ways away, in London, or elsewhere in the country?”
Alexos said nothing, but shifted his wrist in the silk bond, wrapping his hands loosely around the tie that connected him to the bed post.
“You work every day, sir, without fail,” said Harry, “and your correspondence, I have noticed, is addressed either to academic institutions or presses.”
“You’re asking me in quite a roundabout and polite way, Mr Sutton, if all my friends are dead.”
“Yes, sir,” said Harry. “If you would prefer me to be frank, then yes, that is what I’m asking.”
“I never really had friends even before a good many of my peers died, Sutton,” said Alexos. “I do apologise if you feel your talents are underutilised, with my lacking any particular adherence to a social calendar, but when my mother is home, she does like to put herself to things like that.”
“I would never expect an employer to make appointments that I might have the pleasure of planning for them, Mr Fox,” said Harry. “I ask merely that you know this matter is in my thoughts, that I have not neglected the consideration.”
“It is not you that neglects my friendships, Mr Sutton, it is I,” said Alexos. “Don’t waste your time wondering if I might be lonely – it’s not a matter I concern myself with. I care that the staff are well-treated and compensated, and that you can each take your time off, as allotted you. That is the most I think about other people, outside of myself and my parents.”
Uncle Reg had said that Alexos was a lonely man, that he had few friends, few intimate connections, but there was something profoundly tragic in Alexos’ low and muted tones, not particularly weighted with tristesse so much as resignation.
“I’ll come to wake you in the morning,” said Harry softly. “Good night, sir.”
“Yes,” said Alexos, his eyes already closed. “Good night, Mr Sutton.”
Harry took his leave, and Alexos spent the rest of the evening in his bed, where he belonged. He made his decision, somewhere in between tying Alexos’ wrist in place and leaving for the evening, to dispense with subtlety, and to mount his seduction in earnest.
* * *
Alexos’ sleep had been very poor, these past few weeks, and the lack of rest had made him anxious, irritable, and even more prone to accidents and clumsiness than usual. He dropped papers, books, plates, pens, cutlery, and anything else one could think of quite frequently; he not irregularly stumbled and had to take haste to right himself, particularly on the stairs; every day, he jarred his bad leg badly, or some other part of himself.
His temper was quite short, and he felt very badly when he swore profusely under his breath – in English – after falling against his door when trying to pull it closed, and he realised that young Betty was standing behind him, looking up at him with her eyes quite wide with horror, before she rushed past and away.
It was the turn of the season that did it, the cool spring days giving more and more over to the summer, and the brightness and the length of the days was beginning to wear on him, not to mention the fact that soon enough, his rooms would no longer need a fire lit, and after that, there would be days where he should want to sleep in the cellar because his rooms were too hot and balmy.
It soothed his sore limbs, at least, the muscle and the joints, but that didn’t count for much when he felt like peeling his skin off when he woke in the night, or tore off his clothes in a fit of overheated somnambulism and strained the aforementioned sore limbs in the process.
Were any of the Titans to be put to death, he would put forward Chronos’ name before the rest – was there any torture on this earth so painful as the passage of time?
The summer heat did more than soothe, at that: already, his blood was hotter, his skin ever prickling to life in want of touch, and he took cold baths some days just to quieten his body’s plaintive, wanting demands, found himself infuriated by the burning passion of his own desires.
Mr Sutton didn’t help, of course.
In Alexos’ dreams, of late, he had been making one appearance after the next, each time in some state of undress – he dreamed of Henry Sutton coming in wet from the rain, his shirt stuck fast and wet and tight to the rounded edges of his belly and chest, his heaving shoulders; he dreamed of Henry Sutton lounging in just his shirt sleeves, a cigarette hanging from his lips, which would be curved in a smug and superior smile; he dreamed of Henry Sutton naked of even a stitch of clothing, and dreamt of his weight over Alexos.
The week before, he’d asked Sutton to tie him to the bedpost, as Brydon had done before, as Reginald had done so many times before – and had Brydon or Reginald ever leaned over him, as Sutton had that night? Had either of them ever leaned close to him, so much so that Alexos could smell their subtle cologne or the grease in their hair or the starch in their shirts, could feel the warmth radiate from them?
Reginald had done as Sutton done, more than once, had lingered at his bedside and spoken to him in the darkness, but—
Not like Sutton had.
It had been for the best, in the end, that Alexos had been bound, and unable to reach for him – not that he would have, not that he ever could have, but he had wanted to. He had thought about it, considered it, what it might be like to reach out and touch, squeeze, hold – be held in return.
Held by the throat, Alexos supposed, until Sutton had him suitably overpowered or thrown away from him. What would be worse, that Sutton should hate him for his perversion, or pity him for it, take it for another sign of the infirmity of Alexos’ mind, his spirit?
He somewhat avoided Sutton, from then on.
He’d spoken too freely, on the verge of sleep, been too bolstered by how freely it had seemed Sutton spoke to him – Sutton was his butler, not his friend, and Alexos did know that, ought know that, but he turned it over and over in his mind, the thought of Sutton in his uniform and his great coat on the Western Front, his rifle in his hand, perhaps – or his aid kit, more accurately, if he’d been a medic. Both, perhaps: he didn’t know.
Alexos hadn’t lied, when he’d told Sutton he’d never had many friends – he’d had a few contacts, men with whom he was casually friendly, men who seemed like they might be of a kind with him. Alexos was always on the outside of everything, no matter who he took up with – it wasn’t wholly his cane or his tendency to exhaustion, nor wholly his scattered personality or his impatience, nor again his shyness and uncertainty of new people, but these factors in combination.
He had never been good at making friends, and never any good at keeping them either, and his loneliness was an easier state to maintain than the opposite.
Men he’d written to had died, in the war. He was aware that quite a few young men he’d gone to school with had died themselves – upperclassmen, mostly, those a year or two older than him, or as old as Sutton himself.
He’d have been sent off to war himself, he supposed, were it not for the fact that he were unfit. He’d never even received a letter or some notification that he needed to be examined – the family doctor had written him off for him in advance, he thought.
People thought it was a war wound, at time – he never knew how to respond, when people made those assumptions, thought him a veteran, thought he’d done something somehow noble, when what he’d done is managed to wrestle his way out of the fatal vice grip of polio.
He’d let his letters taper off to the one or two casual friends that had made it out of the war alive, and come home, and never left again. It was for the best, really.
“After you, sir,” he heard a voice from behind him, actually managing to disturb him from his reverie, his concentration was so shot for lack of sleep, and when he turned to look at Mr Sutton, he saw that Sutton had stood back to allow Aristaeus to walk ahead of him into the room.
The dog approached Alexos with his customary chubby, speedy trot, and Alexos smiled down at him and slipped off his shoes, resting them immediately upon the hound’s belly as soon as he dropped onto his side underneath the desk.
He tried not to look at Sutton directly, but when the butler walked away from him to fetch the side table, Alexos’ gaze dropped to the curve of Sutton’s hefty arse, and he wondered—
He’d spent the whole of the week dragging his mind through one gutter to the next, and he was distracted enough already.
“You needn’t bring up my tea of a morning, you know, Sutton,” said Alexos. “I’m sure there are better uses of your time – please, do delegate the task to Felix, in future.”
“I’m sure it is no great sink of my time, sir,” said Sutton as he set out the table, “but I can of course arrange to dispatch Felix with your morning tea.” Sutton’s strong hands were steady and handsome, pouring from the pot, and there was a pair of biscuits upon the plate. “How proceeds your work this morning?”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t,” said Alexos quietly. “This last essay is nearly finished, but not yet – and I’ll redraft again once I’ve typed it up.”
“Typed it, sir?”
“My typewriter is in a case on top of my wardrobe, Sutton,” said Alexos. “It has been neglected some while, as I have drafted, but it’s soon to come down again.”
“Is it not impersonal, sir, a typewriter?” asked Sutton, although he sounded interested more than he looked disapproving, and there was surprise in his features, as though it were quite unusual that a man should use a typewriter in the year 1926. “Do you not crave the pen in your hand, its flow upon the page? The typewriter, mechanical as it is, seems so… distant.”
Sutton had a wonderful mouth. Sutton was a plump man, so it only followed that he had plump lips, and when he spoke in his calm, measured, collected way, Alexos felt like swallowing every word, drinking them from his tongue, capitulating at his feet that Sutton should just keep talking, that Alexos should just be able to observe the smooth movement of his plump lips and his fine teeth and his tongue, and hear, hear, that rich, plummy voice, that deep rumble, that came from a man with a barrel chest like Sutton’s own.
“One needs distance at times, Mr Sutton,” said Alexos, scratching Aristaeus’ chest with his better foot and smiling when he snorted, his tail wagging. “But there is a reason I write it out first, and type it up after. I can’t type directly onto the machine, as some men do.”
“Do you play piano, sir?” asked Sutton in his rich, wonderful voice. Alexos felt like burying himself in the earth, if not against his chest.
“I do. Or— I have, in the past. I don’t often.”
“Your hands seem primed for it – beautiful instruments, with such long fingers, such graceful presentation of the hands. It seems apt, sir, that you should play the piano, but I suppose hands like yours are as-suited to the keys of a typewriter as they may be the instrument.”
Alexos knew not how to reply to that, knew not what he could say, he was so flattered and so embarrassed and so surprised, and by the time he had halfway collected his thoughts, Sutton had departed, the door closing behind him.
Aristaeus gave a low and plaintive “roo!” at being neglected, and Alexos looked down at him, meeting his drooping, red-brown eyes as he went back to rubbing his belly, rocking Aristaeus back and forth as a nanny might rock a baby with her foot upon the cradle, and picked up his tea.
He almost regretted it, when the morning after, it was Felix that brought in his tea, but it was for the best, he thought. Felix was a nice young man, handsome insofar as he was full of youthful potential – he held no appeal, as Sutton did.
And yet, as the days went on after this instance, Alexos still saw Sutton. Of course he still saw him. Sutton was the butler, the leader of the household below stairs, and he oversaw all their mealtimes, but there was a distance there, when Alexos was eating with his father, or when he read while he ate, which he took to doing, that Sutton not speak with him.
He asked for Brydon, always Brydon, if he stumbled or fell, and Felix or Betty asked who they ought fetch to help him, if they couldn’t help him themselves, and Alexos did quietly ask Brydon if he might be the one to come in the morning, as before, which Brydon agreed to quite readily.
Alexos made no great spectacle of it – if anything, he was somewhat shrewd and rather manipulative about it, feigning vulnerability with his father’s valet, as if his reasons for desiring Brydon’s care were out of nervousness and shyness and insecurity in his infirmity and his body, and not in not being able to swallow down fantasies of Sutton taking his body quite apart.
It came to the point where, for some two weeks, he had not spoken to Sutton one-on-one at all – the only words that had passed between them had been a polite good morning as Sutton served him breakfast or handed him the newspaper, or asking Sutton to pour him another glass of wine.
He was sleeping even worse, the dreams just as vivid, just as often wet, and he knew from experience that practising any sort of maintenance, tugging himself off too often, would only spur his body to action even more, make him want more. Twenty years of erections that went nowhere except his own bathwater or bedsheets, and one would think his body would come to understand the unfortunate fact that he would never be anybody’s husband nor anyone’s lover, and it had best give up the fight.
“Felix,” he called into the hall as the steps went by, sitting as he was on the bed and massaging a pattern into his bad leg, but it was not Felix who appeared in the doorway, but Sutton himself. “Ah,” said Alexos. “Mr Sutton.”
“Mr Fox,” said Sutton, “I can summon Felix for you, but I’m afraid he’s currently polishing silver below stairs. If you’ll give me just—”
“Oh, no, Sutton,” interrupted Alexos, and gestured to the top of the wardrobe. “I just wonder if you might get my typewriter down, that’s all, and put it into the library for me?”
“Of course, sir,” said Sutton, moving across the room to fetch it down. “Your draft is completed, then?”
“As completed as they ever get,” said Alexos, looking away from Sutton’s arse, his strong, round thighs, his muscled calves.
Alexos almost asked how he knew, but they must have discussed it, he knew, he must have told him. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, about Thyestes and Atreus, who after the death of their brot— Have I told you this before?”
“You have, sir,” said Sutton as he came down.
“I do beg your pardon,” said Alexos. “I forget, you know. What I tell people.”
Sutton was standing right ahead of him, the typewriter’s leather case held in his hands, and he was looking down at Alexos where he sat upon the edge of the bed, and he was so tall, and so beautiful, and Alexos wondered if he would already be dead, if he’d never had the polio. If the polio hadn’t killed him, if it had never gotten him to begin with – would he have died in the Great War? Would he have been arrested, caught in some police raid?
“You speak well upon your subjects, sir, with erudition and passion, and I’m sure you know that the cadence of your voice is pleasing,” said Sutton. “I would be quite content to listen to any anecdote of yours thrice over, if you felt compelled to reiterate it.”
Alexos, stunned, stared up at Sutton. “Are you mocking me, Sutton?” he asked, aware that his voice was quiet and severe and very cold, that his cheeks were burning with humiliation, even as he stood to his feet and his cane.
He tried to take a step forward, that they be toe to toe, but although there was scarce two inches between their heights, Sutton’s girth was twice or three times around as Alexos’ own, and stood like this, Alexos felt incredibly small indeed. Were it not for the typewriter Sutton was holding, Alexos might step closer – were it not for the typewriter, their chests might brush against one another.
How would that feel?
Sutton’s expression seemed genuine, but Alexos had never been any judge of all that.
“I am not mocking you, sir,” said Sutton. “I’m speaking quite truly. You are an academic – you know your subject, and you know your voice. Does it truly surprise you that I should enjoy to hear you speak?”
Alexos was breathing heavier now, was aware of the hard beat of his heart in his chest, and he stared at, studied Sutton’s face. He stared at the neat curve of his plump lips, at Sutton’s green eyes, the part of his hair. He looked… cool. Collected. Calm.
“You needn’t say these things to flatter me,” muttered Alexos.
“Why not, sir?”
“You object to a butler flattering his employer, sir?”
“I do not…” Alexos stumbled, leaning slightly back to better look at Sutton’s face, but in the other man’s features there was scarcely the smallest falter, no sign of anger or mockery, not that he could see. He sounded earnest – he seemed earnest. Alexos felt like swimming in lava. “I do not object,” he said, “but I don’t see why you… why you would.”
“Why indeed?” asked Sutton, and leaned in closer.
Alexos gasped as Sutton’s face came closer to his, their mouths not brushing, their noses not even touching, but he almost expected the kiss, and it didn’t come – Sutton plucked a piece of lint from his collar, and stepped away.
Alexos stared at his back.
“At another place setting on the long table in the library, sir?” asked Sutton.
“Yes,” said Alexos numbly, reaching up and touching his own mouth, assuring himself that it had not been kissed. “Yes, precisely.” Watching Sutton take his leave, Alexos felt quite unsteady, and frowned to himself as he tried to think on the words that had just passed between them, tried to make sense of them.
He didn’t know that there was sense to be found – all that was there was want, and want could not be trusted.