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Of Duty and Love

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Yuuri flies down the spiral staircase, fingers working nimbly at the tie round on his neck. He's vaguely aware that his dress shirt is not properly tucked, white fabric spilling out wildly over rumpled trousers. He ducks a housemaid on the way to prepare the rooms, ignoring the look of surprise on her face.

He has made a terrible error in judgment, and now he's ridiculously, absurdly late, and he's not in his room. The butler of the house is going to have his head on a platter.

Mentally, he runs a list of possible excuses through his mind: he had a nightmare and needed a walk to clear his head; he heard noises and left to investigate; the young master had summoned him for a personal request – no, no, oh, that one is far too close to the truth –

He lets out a squeak when a hand clamps down on his arm, stopping him in his tracks.

"Yuuri, where have you been," Phichit says, concerned, grip tightening, "You've missed breakfast and Feltsman is going mad looking for you – "

"Tell you later," Yuuri says, pushing lightly past his friend to hasten down the stairs to the kitchen.

Yakov is there, barking orders at the kitchen staff. Anya's face is dark with annoyance as she scrubs at the pots in the sink, while Celestino scurries about in his rush to cook breakfast for upstairs.

Hurriedly, Yuuri shoves the fallen edges of his shirt into his trousers and smoothens down his waistcoat, before walking up as calmly as he can to the peevish butler. "Good morning, Mr. Feltsman, I'm so sorry for the delay – "

"Save the apologies, Mr. Katsuki," Yakov snaps, whirling round on him with fire in his eyes. "His Lord Marquess Giacometti and his Lord Earl Popovich will be staying at our honorable estate for the next two days, and as Lord Giacometti's valet has recently left service, he will require your services for the entirety of his visit. I am, however, beginning to question if you can juggle between two lords, given that you appear to have sufficient difficulty managing one."

Yuuri stands tall, chin lifting. Yakov the butler has worked for the masters of the estate for generations – "Centuries," Phichit insists, "Like a gargoyle," – and he is renowned for his disapproval of meek behavior, even in the face of a scolding. Fake or not, confidence is key. "I will manage, Mr. Feltsman."

Yakov snorts. "See that you do. And fix your hair, will you," he growls as he strides past, "You look like a dog that's been through a wind tunnel."

Once the heavy footsteps fade, Yuuri allows himself to sag, dropping his hands to the top of a dining chair to steady himself. The relief is palpable; he didn't have the proper excuse for his absence and the truth would have given Yakov a lethal heart attack.

"Thank your lucky stars he didn't skin you alive," Celestino says, flashing a grin as he bustles by with a ladle. An Italian chef who used to work at a celebrated hotel, Celestino's cooking is second only to his mother's Japanese home cooked meals.

"Sorry if I've made him more irate than usual," Yuuri starts, but Anya sniffs disdainfully at the sink.

"Please, he and Baranovskaya were born irate," the kitchen maid says, her thick country brogue betraying her humble background. "They've both got their knickers all up in a twist with two lords visiting this week."

"Baranovskaya's on the rampage, too?"

"She's upstairs, surveying the housemaids. I don't envy them at all."

"Never you mind," Celestino chides and gestures at the dining room. "Sit down and have breakfast, Mr. Katsuki, you're going to need your strength soon."

Eagerly, Yuuri complies.

 


 

At mid-afternoon, with the sun beating down upon them, they assemble at the entrance, awaiting the lords' arrival.

Yuuri takes his place at the end of the line, greeting the rest of the downstairs staff with a smile. Though they return his greeting amiably, Yuuko and Minako sport similar looks of irritation, no doubt a result of Lilia's morning surveillance. Phichit throws him a jaunty wink while the other footmen, Guang Hong and Leo, respond with smiles of their own.

"Where were you," Sara mouths where she stands across from him.

Yuuri shrugs, just as the front door opens to reveal the lords and lady of the estate, accompanied by Yakov and Lilia.

"It's just Georgi and Christophe," the younger lord grumbles. "Must we wait outside in this bloody heat?"

"Lord Popovich and Lord Giacometti are important guests, Yura," the lady corrects, smacking the smaller blond in a distinctly unladylike fashion. Silently, Sara stifles a giggle behind her hands. "Welcoming them is the least we can do."

"I doubt Christophe appreciates being addressed so formally, Mila, though Georgi seems to enjoy it."

The master of the Nikiforov estate, oldest and the most regal in blood and appearance, steps through the doors. His Lord Duke Viktor Nikiforov tosses his head and silver hair flows almost ethereally, shimmering like glints of sunlight over calm waters. Elegant, charming, and debonair, he outshines even his half-siblings; both blessed enough with a sense of transcendent beauty that stuns men and women alike. All three are Russian by heritage, and Yuuri sometimes wishes he could take a trip to Eastern Europe to see if there are others like them.

Those bright, bright turquoise eyes flicker over, and Yuuri swiftly averts his gaze, cheeks growing warm.

"Feltsman," Viktor calls, voice smooth as velvet, "Who will be serving as Christophe's valet?"

"That would be Mr. Katsuki, your Grace."

There is a glimpse of displeasure on Viktor's face before it vanishes as quickly as it appeared. "Perhaps one of the footmen could do it instead?" he says serenely. "After all, Katsuki has his hands full serving out his duties as my valet."

Yuuri flushes harder at the possessive note in the young master's tone. From the corner of his eyes, he can see Phichit's growing smirk and he knows he has to prepare for a barrage of questions when the day is over.

Yakov frowns. "I would advice against that. None of the footmen have any experience serving in the capacity of a valet. I am confident that Mr. Katsuki can fulfill both duties with adequate competence, can you not, Mr. Katsuki?"

Heads turn to Yuuri who feels as though his face is on fire from the scrutiny. "Ah, y-yes, of course, Mr. Feltsman."

"Well," says Viktor, his stare deeply penetrating. "If Katsuki is certain."

It is the younger lord who breaks the uncomfortable silence that follows.

"I don't have a valet," Yura says. "Why should Christophe require one?"

"You don't have a valet because you dismissed the last four," Mila points out.

"Must you always undermine everything I say, you old hag?"

"Only when you speak without thinking, you silly child."

"And your mother was a – "

Feltsman clears his throat loudly, nodding towards a car in the distance. "It appears his lordships have arrived."

 


 

"All right, what happened last night," Phichit demands in a hushed whisper.

Eyes wide, Yuuri looks up from polishing Viktor's shoes. The interrogation is not supposed to happen till the end of the day and most certainly not in the presence of so many potential eavesdroppers. Phichit must be feeling impatient today. "Nothing happened," the valet replies in an unnaturally high pitch.

So much for being casual.

"Nothing my skinny Asian arse," Phichit snorts. "You and his Grace were clearly making doe eyes at each other. Don't even get me started on the whole 'my valet' business."

"Phichit," Celestino calls from afar. "Could you bring up the stew, please?"

"The stew, Phichit," Yuuri says, pointing to the kitchen.

"Uh no, you're not distracting me that easily," Phichit huffs. "What. Happened."

Anya pops her head into the dining room. "If the first footman could bother his Grace's valet on his free time before the stew gets cold and Mr. Cialdini busts a vein?"

"Tell Ciao Ciao I'll get right on it– " the maid rolls her eyes and withdraws back into the kitchen " –once someone tells me what happened last night."

Desperately, Yuuri flails with the polish cloth, making shushing noises at his friend. "I'll tell you later, you mad man," he swats feebly at the footman's chest, "Happy?"

"Ecstatic," Phichit responds, grinning. He heads out to the kitchen just as Leo descends the stairs.

"Feltsman wants to know where the stew is," Leo says, shaking his head. "His eyes are doing that weird twitching thing."

"It's on the way, it's on the way~" Phichit sing-songs, sweeping up the stairs.

"How's it going upstairs?" Yuuri asks.

Leo leans on Yuuri's chair, shoulders rolling in a shrug. Yuuri rather likes Leo: the footman is sweet, affable, and an incredible source of information. Together with Guang Hong, they know much about the comings and goings of the household, especially the latest gossip from upstairs. "Nothing new, really. Lord Popovich is waxing poetry about his latest whirlwind romance while his lordship and ladyship gag on the side, and Lord Giacometti is still persuading his Grace to find a suitable wife to wed."

"Oh," says Yuuri. He bows his head and resumes polishing with vigorous motions, heart pounding in his ears. Of course Viktor would have to find a partner; the great Nikiforov estate needs an heir worthy of the title. He would have to be a fool to even consider the alternative – if there even is an alternative at all.

"You all right, Yuuri? You've gone all pale," Leo says, eyebrows furrowing.

"Just fine," Yuuri says quietly.

"Good heavens, are those shoes I see on the dining table?"

Yuuri leaps to attention at the shrill voice, shoes cluttering off the table in his haste. "Mrs. Baranovskaya, I was just – "

"Out," Lilia snaps, the lines on her face growing sharper in her fury, "Out of the dining room with you. And you, Leo, don't you have a dish to serve upstairs?"

Snatching the shoes, Yuuri hurries out of the room to the sound of Lilia lecturing poor Leo for his lackadaisical attitude and slipshod work ethic.


At Viktor's request, Yuuri heads to Christophe's room first at the ring of the dressing gong. He knows the Swiss noble is a handsome man with the reputation of flitting from lover to lover, pleasuring any lady that happens to stumble across his path. The irony of a lady's man trying to convince the Duke to settle down doesn't escape Yuuri's notice, but it's certainly not for him to comment on. Not aloud, anyway.

"Ah, you must be Katsuki," the Marquess drawls. He's sitting on the edge of his bed with his bowtie undone, legs spread open in a lewd fashion.

Suddenly, Yuuri thinks he knows what it feels like to be one of those ladies.

"I'm, um, I am here to assist with your dressing, your lordship," he stammers nervously.

"You mean my un-dressing," Christophe suggests, lips curling.

"Um," says Yuuri eloquently, frozen in place as the noble's eyes rove down his figure lazily, sensuously. This is familiar, all too familiar, and the very tips of his skin prickle in trepidation at the dark sensation.

Christophe laughs then, rich and throaty, and the tension drops a notch. "No need to panic, I'm only teasing you." He rises from the bed, stretching his arms out. "Go on then, assist me."

After some hesitation, Yuuri walks over to remove the lord's jacket and reach for the buttons of his waistcoat.

"How long have you been working on this estate, Katsuki?"

"Just a year, milord," Yuuri replies, consciously willing himself not to stare when Christophe removes his dress shirt to reveal hard abdominal muscles underneath. "His Grace was generous enough to offer me a position when we met at the outdoor rink in London."

"Rink?" asks Christophe, inhaling deeply.

Yuuri's eyes dart away from the Marquess's chiseled stomach. "Y-Yes, the, um, the ice skating rink."

"Oh yes, one of Viktor's quaint little pastimes."

There follows a lull in their conversation, which Yuuri is grateful for. He's not quite sure why he divulged that information about his first meeting with Viktor, but there's really no point in crying over spilt milk. He is picking up the sleepwear he has prepared when Christophe speaks again.

"Are you any good at skating?"

When Yuuri sees Christophe's reaching out, feels fingers stroke at his cheek, it takes a few seconds to register the sensation, then a few more to hastily evade the touch. "I, I skate well enough not to fall," he stutters, holding out the pajamas, stretching his arms to their full length and as far out as possible.

"How modest," says Christophe, eyes at half-mast. He takes the sleepwear slowly, somehow still managing to brush against Yuuri as he does. "You know, Katsuki, I couldn't quite fathom why Viktor was so vehemently against taking a bride." Slipping on the clothes, he gives a salacious smile. "Now I believe I understand."

Trembling, Yuuri begins edging to the door, hands clasped tightly behind his back. "Will you, uh, will you be in further need of my services, m'lord?"

"Hmm," Christophe rumbles. "If I were to say yes?"

"It depends on the exact service you're requesting…"

"Perhaps the very one Viktor has been enjoying since your employment?"

Yuuri's breath catches. "I'm afraid I don't – "

"Katsuki, are you finished? I do need sleep at some point tonight."

When Viktor emerges at the door, Yuuri resists the strong urge to throw his arms round the man's neck and thank him profusely for his fortunate timing.

"Sorry," Yuuri gasps, darting out of the room like a mouse sprung from a trap.

As he sprints down the hall to Viktor's quarters, he hears the master's voice behind him, sharp as a knife. "What did you do to him?"

"Nothing you haven't already done, I'd wager," says Christophe.

The next few minutes feel like years.

Yuuri spends it standing awkwardly by the closet in Viktor's bedroom, fidgeting with the sleeves of his livery and hoping to the gods above that Christophe hasn't actually figured out his relationship with the young Duke. It will absolutely destroy Viktor's reputation and reputation is everything to a person of his status. Terror, guilt and shame grip his heart at the very idea of being the reason for Viktor's ruin.

When the noble in question finally returns to his room, Yuuri braces himself for the inevitable reprimand for letting the cat out of the bag and his lack of propriety with a man of status. Instead, Viktor is silent, pacing up and down the room in mute agitation.

"Your Grace?" Yuuri ventures after a while.

"That is why I didn't want you serving Christophe," Viktor spits out abruptly. "Much as I like the man as a friend, he's an incorrigibly sexual being."

Yuuri chews on his bottom lip. The gods had answered that much of his prayers at least: the Duke's rage seems centered on the Marquess's impropriety rather than his. His last employer hadn't been as kind. All the same, luck has its limits. "Does… does his lordship know?"

Viktor pauses. "Know what?"

"About, um… about…" Yuuri swallows as Viktor tilts his head to the side questioningly. Somehow, it feels wrong for him to say it aloud. "Are you seriously making me say it?" he blurts out in frustration.

Viktor studies him for a moment. Then, with the grace of a panther, he advances, tugging his tie off with one swift movement. The look on Viktor's face is hungry, almost predatory.

Yuuri backs into the wall, just in time for Viktor to slam two hands on either side of his head, pressing against him in a way that shoots a bolt of lightning straight down his spine. The young master has the body of a trained athlete, lithe and trim in a way that is entirely surprising for an aristocrat of his class, and the feel of those hardened muscles alone is enough to force all of Yuuri's senses to take leave. But it is Viktor's mouth – dropping feathery kisses across the line of his jaw, down his neck, and sweeping up again to claim his lips, hard and possessive – that drives him positively mad.

"I would've liked for you to talk about our dalliances," Viktor purrs when they finally part for air.

"You haven't answered my question," says Yuuri, flushing.

"No he doesn't know," Viktor presses his lips on Yuuri's ear, breath hot against his skin. "At least, he believes this to be nothing more than another hobby of mine."

Yuuri breathes. "You mean it's not?"

"Oh my Yuuri," Viktor chuckles softly, and Yuuri feels tendrils of joy coiling warmly within his stomach, "You are far, far more than a hobby. You are the Juliet to my Romeo, the Ophelia to my Hamlet…"

Yuuri laughs. "So I'm due for a tragic death in the near future then?"

"Cheeky," Viktor nips admonishingly at Yuuri's skin. "I'm going to insist to Feltsman that Christophe have one of the footmen instead, starting tomorrow. Have you any objections to that?"

Boldly, Yuuri leans up, brushing his lips lightly across a fair cheek. "None whatsoever."

"In that case, my darling valet," Viktor murmurs then, low and deep, "Isn't it high time you stopped shirking your duties?"

"Yes, your Grace," Yuuri sighs, hands gliding under Viktor's jacket.

For a noble of his class, Viktor is also far quicker at removing clothes than a trained valet.

 


 

"You've been shagging Viktor Nikiforov!?"

Yuuri flings a bolster at Phichit. They're in their shared room in the men's quarters with paper-thin walls; the entirety of Leo and Guang Hong's conversations can occasionally be heard in the next room. "By all means," he hisses, "Say it loud enough for the rest of the staff to hear."

"Blimey, Yuuri," Phichit slaps both hands to his face in a shocked gesture, dropping his exclamations (thankfully) to a whisper. "This whole time I thought you might finally have something going on with his Grace, but apparently you've had it going on! I am so happy for you!"

"Thanks," Yuuri says, feeling somewhat abashed by his friend's enthusiasm. "Honestly, we've been together a while now… today's just the first time I've slipped."

"So your tardiness this morning…?"

"Was because I made the mistake of falling asleep in his arms the night before, and he, well…" Yuuri blushes at the thought. "He let me."

Phichit looks as if he's about to burst at the seams with pure delight. "To think I've never noticed you sneaking back in the middle of the night! My best mate – and a Duke no less – !"

Yuuri smiles weakly. "Yes but nothing can be more scandalous, can it?"

"What do you mean?"

"For a start, our status couldn't be further apart."

"You do know Lord Popovich fancies Anya, right?"

"What," says Yuuri, blinking.

"He's in the kitchen every time he visits," Phichit explains, smirking impishly. "You probably don't know this because you're with his Grace whenever Lord Popovich comes downstairs."

"But his 'whirlwind romances'?"

Phichit scoffs. "Just a façade. The only 'whirlwind romance' is Anya's constant rejection of his advances, which, honestly, are a shade away from disturbing sometimes."

An Earl openly courting a kitchen maid; a Duke dallying in secret with a valet. Both disasters waiting to happen, but nothing is more catastrophic than his relationship with Viktor, who is of higher rank and the same gender. Yuuri recalls the first time Viktor kissed him in the shadow of the trees behind the skating rink, his mind reeling from pure elation: he's like me, this beautiful man is just like me, an impure, an abomination, an unwanted – just like me –

And he recalls the revelation right after – the alarm – of Viktor's admission of his title that sent him crashing back to reality.

"Be that as it may," Yuuri sighs, "The fact that his Grace and I are both men – "

"Shhh." Phichit pushes a finger to Yuuri's lips, effectively cutting him off. "Cross that bridge when you get to it. For now, enjoy what you've got." The footman pulls away with a grin. "It's the only way we common folks can get by, eh?"

Yuuri laughs. When he took Viktor's offer and returned to service, he never imagined he would meet someone like Phichit Chulanont. They were cordial at first, unsure of what to make of the other, until the night Phichit walked into Yuuri with his hands in his trousers, coming to a strangled gasp of Viktor's name in their room. In place of the looks of pure disgust Yuuri had come to expect, the Thai-born's simple, empathic reaction – "We all have needs!" – had sealed their friendship forever. Really, Yuuri cannot remember a time in his life without his infectiously optimistic, accepting best friend. "Thanks, Phichit."

"Anytime, mate." Phichit flops back onto his bed. "How am I to sleep with that knowledge now? Hardest thing I'll ever have to do in my life."

Yuuri lies down, hiding a smile in his pillow. "Don't be so dramatic."

 


 

Their routine solidifies as the seasons change. They share stolen kisses when they're alone, soft, intimate conversations with each dressing, and rounds of blissful lovemaking at night.

The Duke is a passionate lover: tactile and affectionate at best, thoughtlessly driven by emotions at worst. More than once Yuuri has had to remind him, breathlessly, against leaving marks that can be seen, against touching him in public – those sinfully talented fingers trailing for just a little too long on his shoulder, his wrist – even against, oh, looking at him like he is the very air that gives life. The struggle is neverending as Viktor defies him time and again, seeming to enjoy making him squirm.

("You'll be ruined," Yuuri moans.

"My solnyshko," Viktor rolls up and forward, mouthing at the bruises scattered beneath a sharp jawline as Yuuri keens above him, "You have already ruined me.")

Phichit turns out to be a formidable ally in Yuuri's apparently solo mission to keep the sordid relationship a secret – "I told him to keep it below the neck," Yuuri grouses over Phichit's sniggers, yanking his collar up as high as it can go – and the valet wonders why he didn't tell his friend earlier. The wily footman is swift to cover for Yuuri whenever there's a slip.

That one time Viktor decides to feel extra raunchy before breakfast, Phichit manages to distract Yakov's tirade on Yuuri's disheveled appearance with the shattering of a very expensive piece of china. When Yuuri develops a limp from banging his hip against the heavy dresser in Viktor's room, Phichit lies to Lilia about kicking him in the ankles by accident. ("Yuuri, you filthy animal," Phichit shrieks in glee later that night and Yuuri has to spend most of next morning fending off Leo and Guang Hong's questions.)

Lapses aside, Yuuri hopes to repay Phichit for his kind loyalty someday.

It is in winter almost a year later that the gears of fate start to shift direction.

"The Season is upon us," Viktor announces to simultaneous groans from his half-siblings. "It is a privilege to be invited to Buckingham Palace," he continues mildly, keeping his gaze fixed on the gathered servants, "And we shall leave for London in three days. As you'd imagine, we will require some of you to come with us. I have left the decision in the capable hands of Feltsman, with the exception of Ms. Crispino and Katsuki. They will accompany Mila and me, as they always have."

Next to him, Phichit nudges Yuuri with his elbow, grinning like a Cheshire cat. Yuuri nudges back, silently telling his friend to keep calm.

"One more thing," Viktor adds. "We must be dressed in our finest wear when we appear before the King and that's not likely when one of us seems to think that suspenders are appropriate dinner attire."

"Ex-cuse me?" Yura growls.

Smiling brightly, Viktor turns, ignoring the blond. "Feltsman, perhaps Chulanont could serve my brother as he had with Christophe?"

Yakov nods. "Certainly, your Grace, I don't see why not – "

"Oh no," Yura snaps, rearing up to full height and looking taller than he actually is. "If you're going to force a valet to play dress-up with me, I'm not getting some wretched footman to do the job." He jerks a head at Yuuri, whose eyes widen in surprise. It's the first time the young lord has addressed him, even indirectly. "I want him."

"Katsuki?" says Viktor, eyes narrowing. "Why on earth would you want Katsuki?"

Yura crosses his arms. "Because he's the only real valet we've got."

"Christophe was quite satisfied with Chulanont's services."

"Ha! Christophe would've been satisfied with anything warm with a hole." Sara looks absolutely scandalized, while in the back row, Anya begins to quiver with suppressed snickers. Unfazed by the servants' reactions, Yura gestures at Viktor's pressed suit. "Besides, Katsuki dresses you well enough."

"Is that an actual compliment?" Mila chimes in with a mock gasp.

"No one asked you, crone."

"I am only three years older, you know." Mila glides over to lay a hand on Viktor's shoulder. "What's the harm, Viktor? You'll only have to make allowances for a couple of days. Surely even Katsuki can handle an unruly teenager in that time."

"I'm standing right here!"

Yuuri keeps his stare locked onto his shoes, determined to stay out of the siblings' bickering. He feels Viktor's eyes on him, lingering for just a scant few seconds.

"All right," Viktor relents, sighing, "But you will heed Katsuki's advice on your dressing without complaints."

"Fine," says Yura, looking smug to have won the battle.

"In fact, let us start with the arrangement tonight, so the two of you can become acquainted with each other before the trip."

"Fi – Wait, tonight?" Yura says, looking much less smug.

"Good luck to you," Mila says to Yuuri, before she barely dodges her brother's vicious high kick.

Vikor clicks his tongue. "Feltsman, I believe we're ready to proceed with dinner now."

"Very well, your Grace."

The new change results in a flurry of excitement thrumming through downstairs staff, particularly among the housemaids. Tittering, they surround Yuuri the minute he enters the kitchen.

"Lucky you, serving two of the handsomest lords in all of England," Minako says, stars in her eyes.

"And to be handpicked by his lordship," Yuuko swoons, clasping her hands together in reverence, "When he's dismissed all his past valets!"

Yuuri rubs nervously at his neck, uncomfortable with the attention. "Steady on, ladies, he might just dismiss me too before we're done."

"I highly doubt that," Leo remarks, breezing past with a dish of seafood.

"Lord Yuratchka's previous valets were nasty pieces of work to begin with," Guang Hong adds, following after his friend with another plateful of food.

"Ah," says Yuuri, impressed as ever by the pair's endless breadth of knowledge, before he startles at the sight of the maids watching him with wide, watery eyes. "I-Is there anything else you wanted…?"

"Since you asked, yes," says Minako, beaming.

"Do you think you could nick something of his for us?" Yuuko asks sweetly.

Yuuri blinks owlishly. "What?"

"Oh, something small, you know, something he's not likely to miss."

"An unused cufflink," a maid suggests eagerly.

"Or a loose thread," says another.

"Or a lock of hair," Minako says.

"A what?" says Yuuri.

"Are you quite finished with your nonsense?"

As the tall shadow of Lilia falls over them, the maids disperse instantly, muttering about chores or errands they have to run. Yuuri smiles feebly at Lilia when she turns her glare on him, lips curling. If Yakov Feltsman is the guard dog of the Nikiforov estate, his bark worse than his bite, Lilia Baranovsky is his companion with a bite that sinks deep and festers as time progresses. Even Yakov himself has shown fear in the face of her ire.

"How is your ankle, Mr. Katsuki?" she asks, looking past her nose with disdain.

"Better," Yuuri replies, catching the grin Phichit tosses at him as the footman ascends the stairs with a plate expertly balanced on one hand.

"Good," Lilia sniffs. "We certainly can't have an invalid serving both our young masters now, can we?"

"No, Mrs. Baranovsky, we cannot."

"Oh, leave him alone, Phichit's the one who injured him," Sara says at the dining table where she's mending a tear in Mila's dress.

Scowling, Lilia sweeps out of the kitchen, keys jangling ominously down the hallway.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Yuuri pulls up a seat next to Sara. The lady's maid is a beauty, with her tanned skin and long, dark eyelashes, dampened only by the modest black dress she wears for her station. She's a mentor of sorts to Yuuri, having trained him immensely on the duties of serving the Duke. As his last employer was a mere Baron with a small mansion and less than five staff, he would've been utterly lost without Sara's assistance.

The maid prods at him gently. "You really should stand up to them. You're of equal rank as his Grace's valet, if not higher."

"They've been in service for so long, it doesn't feel right." Yuuri smiles. "And I'm not as brave as you."

"Silly," says Sara, a tinge of fondness in her voice. "You're taking on the young lord for the next few days. I'd say that takes more courage than a soldier going into battle."

"It's not like I have a choice in the matter."

On the panel, a bell rings, sharp and insistent.

"Speak of the devil," Sara giggles. "I'll be here, praying for your survival."

"Very funny," Yuuri laughs, but he makes sure to walk at double speed to the young lord's room.

Clink, goes the gears of fate.