It had been a difficult night.
Nightmares were not uncommon for Harry, were something he’d been very used to even before he’d been shipped off to the frontlines to have the peaceful nights shelled out of him, but there were nights when he simply had uneasy dreams, and there were other nights when his dreams were vivid and his sleep unrestful, and there were nights like this, when he hadn’t slept so much as lain awake for long periods with small windows of unconsciousness in between.
Every fall of rain on the roof had made him think of rifle fire, and the night through he’d been plagued by ghosts – he’d fall asleep for barely ten minutes, just finally manage to doze off, and then half open his eyes to the silhouette of a man standing over him with a knife, a sniper standing at his window, a wounded man bloodied and sobbing for want of a medic, and as soon as he jolted out of bed to work, to help, to fight…
Naturally, there’d been no one there at all.
At one point, he’d even thought that Alexos was in the room with him, that the young master had somehow materialised directly through the wall between their two bedrooms for all they existed in different sections of the house. In that strange, dream logic way, it had made sense to him before he’d really been awake, and he recalled sleepily holding back the sheet, feeling the other man crawl into bed beside him before he remembered that Alexos Fox struggled to walk down the corridor unaided, let alone materialise through walls, and awoke suddenly in a cold sweat, alone and disoriented.
He tried to work properly when his sleep was poor, didn’t like to use such a thing as an excuse not to put himself to work with discipline and focus, but he was unbelievably grateful for his luck, that last night had fallen before a day he had off.
It had been a long, painful day, all in all – he’d gone about the errands he had on his list to get on with, gotten a pair of shoes repaired, sent off a parcel with a birthday gift for one of his nephews, attended a few orders for wine and similar household necessities while he was in town. Each and every task had proved slow, laborious, taxing his exhausted mind, and although no one showed the slightest bit of impatience with him, everyone relatively intimidated by his stature and his status at the Fox House, he disliked to be seen at his slowest or most stupid, which today very much was.
“Tea, Mr Sutton?” asked Felix when he came into the kitchen, having already changed his clothes, and Harry shook his head.
“Thank you, but no,” said Harry, turning his head so that Felix wouldn’t see when he wiped at one tired eye. “Is Mr Fox in the library?”
“No, sir,” said Felix “I went up to bring him his tea, but he’s not there, nor in his bedroom.”
Harry slowly turned to examine Felix, his lips pressed loosely together. “Where is he, then?”
“I don’t know, sir,” admitted Felix. He stood stiffly, his lips pressed together and his eyes not quite meeting Harry’s. “I thought he might come down here, and be cooking or something, because he does sometimes with Betty, but I’ve not seen hide nor hair of him.”
“And Mr Kidd?” asked Harry.
Felix looked at him blankly a moment, and Harry inhaled, but then turned around and commenced moving through the servants’ rooms one by one, checking the kitchen, the pantry, even ducking his head down into the cellar before he ascended the stairs.
There was no sign of Larry or Alexos on the ground floor, either in the rooms that Larry might frequent – the dining room, one of the front-facing sitting rooms, even the storage rooms, before he ascended the stairs and checked the library in its entirety, Alexos’ bedroom and bathroom, then Larry’s.
Larry’s bedroom was a last resort, a sort of vain and maddening hope that somehow Larry had seduced Alexos into bed, but his room was empty, and nor was there any sign of them upstairs.
“Mr Brydon,” he said as he came up to the second floor, and Brydon looked at him as he came out from Mr Fox Senior’s bedroom, looking at him in consternation. “Did Mr Kidd call for a taxi, or the use of a car?”
“No,” said Brydon. “Not that I know of – and I would doubt it, as Riggs has been working with me all afternoon, he’s only just gone downstairs to work on a tear in Mr Kidd’s trousers. Why, is he gone?”
“He is,” said Harry, feeling a painful tightness in his chest, his body stiff. “As is Mr Fox.”
Brydon stared at him, then looked behind him at the other rooms. Harry could see the calculation on his face as he stepped back and ducked his head into another room, one of the spare bedrooms, Harry supposed.
“And they’re not outside?” he asked. “Mr Fox did say—"
“Both of them?” Harry asked rhetorically, but he went down the stairs regardless, almost running down the steps to go out into the garden. He couldn’t quite envisage any situation wherein Alexos, who virtually said how much he despised Larry every moment of the day, would go off into Brighton with him or anyone else, couldn’t quite imagine—
“Mr Fox!” he called out, striding out from the house and scanning the grounds. His skin felt hot, and he was aware he was sweating, and he knew full well that were he properly rested he wouldn’t be the mess of nerves he was now, wouldn’t feel the fear quite so keenly – and what fear, precisely? What harm could Larry do Alexos, even if he wanted?
“Hullo, Mr Sutton,” said Tom Lloyd, the gardener. “Trouble?”
“I’m looking for Messrs Fox and Kidd,” said Harry.
“Oh, them,” said Tom dismissively. “They’re in the shed, so.”
“Shed?” Harry repeated.
Tom gestured, easy as you please, to a shack that stood beside the potting shed, and Harry looked at him askance, but then moved past him, striding over. It was a simple building, stone with a slate roof and thick glazed windows, but he grabbed hold of the metal door and slammed it against the inner wall as he pushed it open.
Alexos, who was sitting at a wooden desk right in front of the door, looked up from the work he was doing; despite the loud bang, Larry, who was fast asleep in a rocking chair beside a roaring furnace, didn’t so much as stir.
“Hullo, Harry,” said Alexos, looking the calmest and most relaxed Harry had ever seen him, although he was looking at Harry now with a sort of gentle concern, apparently baffled by Harry’s state of barely concealed distressed. “Are you alright?”
“I didn’t know where either of you were,” Harry muttered, closing the door behind him. “I had no idea that this was.. here.” He trailed off, looking about the room from his position near to the door: on the shelves were different machines in varying states of disrepair – typewriters and a cash register, a box of watches, several clocks that weren’t ticking, a few wind-up machines and different utensils that used a crank. Up against a wall was even a mechanical clothes wringer, the cogs rusted and the mechanism itself looking very stiff.
In front of Alexos was a clock intended for a mantelpiece, and on several pages on the desk Harry saw several sketches of the internal mechanism of the piece.
“May I?” he asked, and Alexos waved him off, not even looking at Harry as he kept working with his tweezers, putting cogs into place on small pins. Alexos had labelled each layer of cog work as he’d worked further into the mechanism, sketching each layer before he took it apart apparently to make his repairs, and Harry saw a tray of several hundred little cogs on the desk before him.
“This was a broken one?” Harry asked, picking up a cog no bigger than his smallest fingernail – the cog itself wasn’t bent, but some of its teeth were slightly twisted.
“Mmm,” said Alexos, and Harry stood there for a few minutes, watching him work. Every movement was smooth and full of confidence and ease, and seeing him repair this clock was every bit as satisfying as watching him attend his typewriter, if not more impressive because of the skill in it.
This wasn’t a man knowing his own machine, after all, and how best to attend its care – this was, instead, a mechanic at work, the repair its own complex craft and vocation.
He turned the key, winding back the mechanism, and Harry watched his lips shift into a slight smile as the cogs began to move as they should, ticking regularly. The anxiety still lingered with him, the ghost of it thrumming under his skin even though his heartbeat had slowed and he was no longer breathing fast.
“Harry, would you?” he asked. “I don’t have a timepiece on me.”
“It’s past five,” said Harry. “Haven’t you eaten?”
“Oh, no,” said Alexos, blinking as though he’d just woken up, and Harry took out his watch, comparing the time against the clock as he wound it back. “My cup of tea is empty – I suppose I’ve been here some time.”
“And Larry?” he pressed, and Alexos turned to glance at him as though only just realising he was there.
“Ah,” he said quietly. “He followed me out here, and I told him to fuck off, but then he went silent, so I…” He gestured to Larry asleep in his rocking chair, and Harry carefully picked his way past Alexos and over to him.
It was a little room, far better arranged to get around, Harry wagered, for Alexos and Larry’s skinny frames or even Tom’s than for Harry’s own, but for being so little it was warm and cosy, even surrounded on all sides by bits and pieces of machinery and metal, and it was surprisingly free of odour – there was a scent of black oil and grease, but it was faint, and evidently the furnace was very well-ventilated, because he couldn’t so much as smell the coal dust.
“Mr Kidd?” prompted Harry, gently touching Larry’s shoulder, and Larry shifted in his sleep, blinking as he sat forward. Upon seeing Harry’s face, his own broke out in a smile, and he caught hold of Harry’s forearm, loosely gripping his wrist.
“Oh,” he said, looking around blearily, his eyes hazy even as his lips smiled. “Hullo, Harry. Do you know that Alexos here is quite the inventor?”
Harry took the box out of Larry’s lap – it wasn’t particularly large, about four inches on each side, and it was clumsily welded together on a few sides, with the other closed by a mechanism that had already been solved, a series of cogs turned into one another until they loosened the clasp.
Pressing it closed, he watched the cogs turn back on one another and then pushed on one of the levers, opening it again.
“Is it nearly time to eat?” asked Larry.
“Very nearly, Mr Kidd,” he answered, and was about to go on when he felt a touch at his hand and turned to look at Alexos. Alexos was smiling at him as his thumb slid against Harry’s palm, and as Harry stared down at him, barely comprehending, Alexos brushed his lips over Harry’s knuckles.
He was going to make a habit of this, it seemed – was Harry’s heart going to make a similar habit of fluttering every time? Was he going to be so affected every time, his lips tingling, his body almost surging with the want to touch him back with equal tenderness and at the same time, with none at all, an urge making itself known to bend Alexos right over his desk in this cosy shed of his and bugger him until he couldn’t speak, let alone walk.
“Fairies,” said Larry, his lips twisted in a funny little smile as he waggled his eyebrows. “The both of you.”
“Go fuck yourself, Larry,” said Alexos, and Larry’s jaw dropped. Harry tried to stifle his laugh as he pulled back his hand, turning his attention back to winding Alexos’ newly repaired clock.
He was successful only until Larry said in soft, disbelieving tones, “You called me Larry!”
The laughter was unbelievably relieving, after the day he’d had, unexpectedly so, but what was even more of a relief was the way that in response to Harry laughing, in response to Larry’s lack of indignation, Alexos actually smiled, and kept smiling.
* * *
“So, what was wrong with it?” asked Larry, and Alexos glanced up from his meal at Larry, who was buttering his bread roll clumsily but with great enthusiasm. “The clock, I mean?”
“Repairing a clock, were you?” asked his father, and Alexos nodded his head.
“It belongs to Mrs Glover,” he said.
“Who’s that now?”
“The wife of Mr Glover, who I’m told is the cobbler.”
“Do we know them?”
“I suppose we know Mr Glover by his work,” said Alexos, “but I can’t claim to know either man nor wife by sight. Nonetheless, the clock fell off her mantel – most of the cogs were just fine, but the one that was knocked loose had gone into the mechanism and bent some of the teeth, so I replaced that. Nice work on the thing too, it’s beautifully made.”
“So you’re a sort of… repairman?” asked Larry. “For people in the village?”
Alexos’ father started laughing, and Alexos huffed out what was almost a laugh himself, glancing down at his knees and not making eye contact with Larry or his father, or even with Harry, who was standing aside.
“I do repair things, now and then,” said Alexos. “Mostly whatever amuses me, or whatever bits and pieces Mr Lloyd finds. But whenever Mr Lloyd offers to repair something for someone in town, he doesn’t exactly bandy my name about. It’s the impression of quite a lot of people in the village that Mr Lloyd is an extremely capable mechanic. Which— He is, he can normally tell what’s wrong with something, even if he lacks the dexterity to repair it himself.”
“Alexos had dreams of being an explorer when he was a boy,” said his father affectionately. “He wanted to be able to repair his own plane and boat engines.”
“Yes, thank you, Father,” said Alexos dryly, but to his surprise, he didn’t feel embarrassed or vulnerable, as he so often did, when this topic arose. His father had always seen the romance and the appeal in attending to engines and mechanisms, and Alexos recalled when first he had begun to take an interest, how his father would excitedly dive into the mathematic principles that spoke to the function of cogs or levers or pulleys or anything else.
His mother had never cared for it. She still made idle threats now and then, upon returning home, to clean out his repair shed, particularly when he fled a house full of guests and locked himself in to work. She didn’t like that it was messy or dirty, that he got grease on his hands.
Or, he supposed, she just didn’t like that he enjoyed it.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like Alexos enjoying things, per se: what bothered her, as far as Alexos had ever been able to determine, was the way in which he enjoyed things. He and his father both enjoyed things in too much isolation, or enjoyed things too passionately, or with the wrong sort of passion.
“I think it’s marvellous,” said Larry enthusiastically, didn’t appear disgusted by the concept of Alexos doing such menial work, but better than that, he wasn’t… condescending. Alexos didn’t know what it was, exactly, about the way Larry spoke about it, about the particular tone of his enthusiasm, but he wasn’t treating it like a rich man’s hobby, wasn’t treating it as though it were something that didn’t matter. “It’s one thing to do such repairs and be able to do them, you know, to divine from examining a mechanism’s innards the nature of its malady or injury, like a sort of clockwork doctor, but to do so in secret, using one’s gardener as a mask? How splendid. What an enigma you are, Alexos Fox!”
“Shut up, Larry,” said Alexos almost without meaning to, the second time such an outburst had come out unbidden today, and his father coughed as he sipped at his drink, laughing.
“I’ll do no such thing,” said Larry, undeterred. “Why should I?”
“I am not using Tom Lloyd as my masquerade cloak,” said Alexos, unable to hold back his scorn even as his father chuckled, and he shook his head. “Tom Lloyd tells people he repairs everything because he takes money for “his” services, and I let him take said payment for the additional services he renders me in sourcing parts and mechanisms for me.”
“No word about this to Georgina,” said his father suddenly, putting out his hand, and Larry looked between the two of them with his eyes wide. “No sense mentioning it to her, you know.”
“Oh, but Mrs Fox loves that sort of mischief, doesn’t she?” asked Larry.
Alexos scoffed, sipping his drink.
“In stories,” said his father, looking mildly reproachful at Alexos’ expression, but not actually saying a thing about it. “She’s not so approving of it happening in the house, though, let alone, ah… Well.”
“My mother dislikes my lack of social habits,” said Alexos dryly. “It rubs salt in the wound when I engage in such shrewd and strange business with the staff.”
“Oh, well, that’s not to be a concern now, is it?” asked Larry confidently. “What with the two of us being such friends?”
Alexos stared at him, swallowing the urge to immediately disagree with him. He realised, almost all at once, that he’d probably had the easiest time he’d ever had at dinner with someone tonight, that Larry had tricked him into feeling at-ease, into… relaxing, almost.
He felt an urge to suddenly say “Certainly not,” and storm from the table, but he knew that this was childish, and more than childish, was unreasonable and unfair to himself as well as Larry. He glanced back to Harry, who met his gaze, and gave him the smallest smile.
“I really don’t know,” said Alexos, his voice sounding stunted to his own ears more than it sounded cool or disaffected, and Larry looked nervous for a moment, but then leaned forward.
“Do you repair many things?” he asked. “Other than clocks and typewriters? Can you fix a plane engine?”
“Larry, when would I ever have learned to repair a plane engine?”
“I don’t know. When did you learn to repair clocks?”
“I couldn’t always run around as a child,” said Alexos, after only a moment’s pause. “I never much cared for making models. If I wasn’t observing Mr Sutton – not Henry here, but his uncle, Reginald, who was for many years our butler – I was observing the cook, or the chauffeur, or Mr Lloyd.”
“I used to be like that,” said Larry immediately. “I could walk, of course.”
“… Of course,” said Alexos, biting back the urge to say anything else.
“But I was always running off and watching people at their work, I used to be a terror as a child – my father or my mother would be walking to work, holding my hand, you know, to drop me off at school, and they’d turn around and I’d be gone – I’d be in someone’s workshop watching them attend their craft, or I’d have walked into a theatre, or I’d be down by the docks watching the sailors work… I’ve always had quite a dangerous affection for sailors.”
“Do you like to travel by boat, Mr Kidd?” asked Alexos’ father, and Larry nodded enthusiastically.
“Oh, certainly, I do, I’ve gone to America, of course, and Ireland, and France, and sailed between places. I normally need a day or two to adjust, you know – I don’t get sea-sickness, I’m never ill over it, but I’m ever such a clumsy man, and I’m even clumsier on boats, such that I can barely walk at all until I adjust.”
Alexos didn’t say anything, turning his head to meet Harry’s gaze. Harry pointedly refused to respond in kind, keeping his stare facing forward, but Alexos could see his lips twitch in repressed amusement.
It was surprisingly easy, listening to Larry go on about his delight watching sailors at work, watching sailmakers, watching ropemakers, watching engineers, carpenters – he kept looking at Alexos, kept meeting his gaze, but didn’t actually push him to respond, just kept chattering on to his father, which was—
It was probably the most pleasant dinner he’d ever had with a guest in the house, except for the guests who had entirely ignored him, which ordinarily, he preferred.
It was plain to him, all told, that Larry Kidd was an idiot, that he talked before he thought, that he was in some ways obsequious and a little too desperate to please, but something about that panged in him, triggered an echoing call from his own self. Wasn’t that a damning indictment?
Larry Kidd, by no means, could be called lonely. He wasn’t lonely at all, couldn’t be lonely – he spoke quite frequently of his various friends, spoke with affection and knowledge, and these friendships were not one-sided, because Alexos knew for a fact that he got some great stack of letters delivered to the house every other day, and it seemed to Alexos that a good half of what he wrote, on top of his already being an apparently prodigious author of fiction, must be replies to all this correspondence.
But there was a loneliness in him, Alexos thought, or an isolation, or some sort of vulnerability to him that felt familiar, as familiar as looking at himself in the mirror, although he wouldn’t like to admit it. He wouldn’t like to admit to any of this, or talk about any of this, didn’t much like even thinking of it.
Alexos had felt a strange sort of peace earlier that afternoon, knowing that Larry was there fiddling with different things, even knowing that Larry was asleep behind him – it had reminded him, strangely enough, of how much of his childhood he had spent in the presence of Reginald or Brydon or Lloyd or someone else, not actually being attended to or looked at, but simply there in the same room as he entertained himself.
He rather wanted more of that peace.
Listening to Larry talk, watching him gesticulate wildly as he told some story about his friend who was an illustrator and had apparently helped a man climb in through his window at university when said man was fleeing a murderous girlfriend, he wondered what that might be like, actually being—
Friendly with him.
Being friends with him.
Having a friend.
When Larry cheerfully bade him good night, Alexos responded with a polite smile and a nod of his head – when Larry suddenly said, “Oh, do you need help on the sta—”, Alexos said, “No, Larry, my cane is more reliable than a clumsy man’s arm, as well you know.”
To which Larry laughed, quite contentedly, and said, “Oh, yes. I suppose that’s true, isn’t it?”
Harry didn’t say anything right away as he helped Alexos undress, putting aside his clothes and hanging them up. Alexos was lost in his thoughts, thinking of Larry, thinking of the way he talked, the way he ate, the way he smiled.
“The ice thaws,” said Harry.
“Only because he’s so willing to accept someone being so awful to him.”
“I’ll find you a dozen men willing to accept far worse,” Harry promised, and Alexos laughed, shaking his head, but he found that the smile lingered on his face.
“Will you stay a while?” he asked quietly, and Harry nodded his head.
“Yes,” he said. “If you like. I dreamt last night that you came into my room through the wall.”
“Oh,” said Alexos, looking to the wall between their two rooms, thinking of how Harry’s could only be accessed if you came up from the servants’ stairwell, the corridor on the other side of the house. “When you first came here, you know, I sometimes dwelt on how you were on the other side of that wall when I got into bed.”
“I did the same,” said Harry.
Alexos felt himself smile, and he pulled Harry closer, put his hands on Harry’s chest, slid his palms against his chest, felt the heat that radiated from him.
“How’s the pain?” asked Harry, and Alexos sighed, leaning in closer, basked in the warmth from his body, the strength of him, the weight of Harry’s hands when they settled on his arse.
“Fairly bad,” said Alexos. “I got too into what I was doing – I’m stiff as a board.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You’re really quite wonderful, aren’t you?”
“I like to think so,” said Harry, and Alexos laughed, setting his cheek against his chest. “Do you think you’d like to fuck him?”
“Larry? I hadn’t given it much thought. I— don’t know.”
He didn’t know. He’d like to know. He wanted to know, wanted to touch him just to be sure, because it felt all too overwhelming, the idea that he could touch, experiment, that Larry would let him – encourage him, even. Kiss him back, explore back.
What sort of ridiculous, accidental insults could be manage seeing Alexos naked, rather than just seeing him limp around?
Harry kissed him, and his mind went gloriously blank.
“Let’s think about it tomorrow,” Harry murmured, and pushed him back toward the bed.