Arthur woke to a pair of liquid brown eyes, soft tawny ears, and a shiny black nose. Was he being robbed by a pack of stray dogs? Or was this just a particularly friendly member of a SWAT team? He pushed its muzzle away from his face and it stepped back politely, still watching him. Now he saw the collar and its jangling bone-shaped tag: Berlitz.
Ah, yes. The German.
Arthur groaned again, scrubbing a hand down his face. He tried to recall the last Sunday he’d woken up in his own bed. He might as well sublet on the weekends, at this point. He risked a glance over his shoulder and sighed in relief, stretching his way right across the empty bed. His shoulder popped, then his back. Berlitz twitched an ear. Arthur scowled at her. “We’re not all purebred, you know.”
He didn’t cover himself as he picked up the clothes he’d left stranded at the foot of the bed, even though it felt slightly perverse. He recalled one thread of thought from the night before: Those dogs better not watch us. He hadn’t bothered voicing it, though; the door had been closed firmly behind them. It did occur to him to wonder, now, how the dog had gotten in. The door was ajar. Had the albino left it open when he went downstairs? Rather inconsiderate, even if it was his house not to mention his bedroom. Did a guest not have a right to privacy?
Probably Arthur shouldn’t refer to him as the albino. He just couldn’t remember the man’s bloody name. Something German, something that started with a G. He picked his brain for anything that fit the description. Gottfried? He wouldn’t sleep with someone called Gottfried, surely.
Berlitz was keeping a close eye on his hands, so Arthur surrendered and gave her a stroke. Her tail thumped the floor. “If only people were so easily pleased,” he remarked. He thought the dog agreed.
Down they ventured, after a brief detour to the bathroom. (He rubbed some toothpaste on his teeth with his finger and dunked his head under the tap to rinse. Berlitz didn’t comment.) The kitchen smelled like butter and something frying. Two other dogs, the retriever and the doxen, clacked round the table to greet Arthur. He was bent down to scratch Blackie’s ears—and people call me short, you poor little bastard—so he didn’t see anything but the feet when someone stepped in front of him. Matching black socks. Who wore matching socks? And who wore black socks when they lived with three dogs?
Arthur looked up. A tall but surprisingly young guy was watching him. Blond hair, blue eyes, jaw like a fender. Was this the albino’s daylight form?
“You’re one of Gilbert’s, I assume,” he said. Accent and directness still well intact, bless him.
Gilbert. One of those names that sounded sexier the drunker you were. “Yep.”
He nodded. “I’m his brother. Ludwig.” A slight pause, then he gestured to each dog in turn. “This is Berlitz, Blackie, and Aster.”
“We’ve been acquainted.” He gave Berlitz a particular look, but she only panted contentedly at her master’s side. “Did you leave the door open, or Gilbert?”
“He did.” Ludwig turned his back on Arthur to mind the stove. He didn’t mind; it was a nice back to have turned on you. “I didn’t look in on you or anything. The dogs are just used to going in and saying good morning to Gil.”
“Uh-huh.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. Half eight, and Ludwig was already bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Hair slicked, shirt buttoned and tucked. Arthur ran a hand through his hair. He hadn’t even bothered with it in the bathroom, but he also hadn’t expected to be talking to someone who hadn’t been the driving force behind the nightmare atop his head. “Where’s he gone, then? Gil?”
“Work.” Ludwig sidled to put two slices of bread into the toaster. “He normally doesn’t let his—partners sleep in, but he said today is the day of rest.”
Arthur didn’t bother correcting the stumble into partners. It didn’t matter what people called it, at the end of the day. “You’re not religious, are you?”
“If we were, that wouldn’t have happened last night.”
Arthur laughed a bit. “Yeah, good point.”
Ludwig glanced over his shoulder. “Did you want to have breakfast?”
“Er . . . with you?”
“Yes.” He flicked the stove off and turned around so Arthur could see the pan heaped with scrambled egg. He must’ve cracked the whole carton. “There’s enough.”
Arthur considered what awaited him—the drive of shame back to his flat and cold cereal with milk that was probably off by now—then slid into a chair at the table. “Sure. Cheers.”
Ludwig shoveled egg until Arthur pulled his plate back to stop him, then dumped the rest onto his own plate. The toast leapt up, so Ludwig buttered each slice generously and offered one to Arthur. Their fingers brushed when he took it. In the corner of his eye, Arthur saw the tips of Ludwig’s ears start to turn pink. Oh, little brother, he thought as Ludwig poured two glasses of orange juice, don’t tempt me.
“So Gilbert has a harem, does he?” Arthur asked once he’d swallowed the first bite of toast. He’d have to sneak a peek at what brand of butter they were using. Maybe if his family hadn’t sworn by pallid margarine he’d be six-foot as well.
Ludwig glanced over, still chewing. His toast was already half gone. “I don’t want to get involved in it.”
“I’m not asking you to. Just curious.” Arthur shrugged, cutting his egg into smaller bits with the side of his fork. “It’s not like he and I are dating. I only met him last night. I’m not going to be a regular.”
“He doesn’t really have regulars.”
“That’s why I’m asking. So I can present accurate information.”
Ludwig chuckled, then seemed to catch himself. “Well. I don’t really see them. Only sometimes, when they’re leaving the next morning. They never talk to me.”
“Then why am I talking to you?”
Blue eyes focused on scrambled egg. “Because I offered you breakfast.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Why did you offer me breakfast?”
It took a while before the response came. “When I walked by Gil’s room this morning, I didn’t look in, but I heard you. You were sort of talking, in your sleep.” Finally, his gaze flicked up to Arthur. “Do you remember your dream?”
“No. I never remember my dreams.” This was nothing new, however. He’d had the you talk in your sleep conversation so many times he probably could do it in his sleep. (It was the direction the conversation went that was the important part: there was a big difference between it’s so cute and I don’t think I’m going to be able to put up with that.)
“It must have been a nightmare.” Ludwig pushed around his egg but didn’t pick any up. “You were . . . I think you were whimpering. You sounded afraid.”
Arthur stared at him.
“That’s probably why Berlitz was in there with you,” he added. “She wanted to protect you.”
“Did she,” Arthur said. Soft. Thoughtful.
Ludwig looked over at him shyly.
Arthur considered dropping his gaze as a kindness, but something kept him watching those blue eyes. He imagined the intensity they must have been capable of. This man could have passed for a fierce military commander, yet here he was in this kitchen, muffled by dogs and domesticity.
Part of Arthur mourned that loss. I bet he can play rough. Look at the size of his hands . . .
A smaller, morbid fraction wondered at the potential mechanics of that union. Would he be different than his brother?
Most of him, though, could tell just by looking at Ludwig that there would be no swift route to carnal knowledge of him. He was not Gilbert—and thank God for that, since Arthur doubted the breakfast conversation would be this civil were he invited. Ludwig was different. So much quieter than anyone Arthur had met in a long, long time.
“Well,” Arthur said at last. “Please forward my gratitude to Berlitz.”
Ludwig nodded as if this was a serious burden to be shouldered (and what fine shoulders he had for it). “I will.”
Arthur watched Ludwig brush toast crumbs from the corner of his mouth and imagined sinking his teeth into those blocky fingers. Those knuckles would be deliciously painful on their way into his—
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Ludwig asked. Under the table, someone scratched enough to jangle their tags. Ludwig didn't look, but he reached down; that alone was enough to soothe whoever was down there.
“It’s a free country.” For better or worse. Arthur squeezed his knees together and focused on eating his egg. He wouldn't have put quite so much pepper, probably, but then again he'd eaten eggs with hot sauce before and enjoyed the burn. He missed the days when his diet was an afterthought rather than an integral component of his sex life. Perhaps Ludwig was still living in the former phase. The longer Arthur watched him, the firmer his belief that Ludwig couldn't be more than twenty-five. And how very thirty-two that made him feel . . .
Ludwig’s mouth thinned, then warped around his inquiry like the words didn’t quite fit through. “Well. Why did you sleep with my brother?”
Arthur blinked. He scanned his lexicon and chose the word he thought would be most fitting. “We were both blitzed?”
Okay, then, no historical humor at the table. Fair. “I dunno. We both wanted something the other could give without too much effort? We wanted a good time?”
Ludwig’s mouth slanted now. If he found the mental image of his brother’s successful conquests to be distasteful, he did a good job hiding it. “But . . . I just don’t understand why you did it in the first place. Why you, I mean, why you decided . . . how you decided that's what you wanted.”
Arthur felt himself cocking his head, an old habit his father had repeatedly scolded him for, but he didn’t correct himself. He couldn’t see Ludwig finding a canine gesture annoying. “How d’you mean?”
Ludwig gave a tiny exhale of frustration. “I don’t know. Never mind.”
Arthur observed his intense egg focus, then decided to go out on a limb. “So . . . you’re not with someone, then?”
A shake of the head without looking up from his plate.
“Not for lack of trying, or?”
Ludwig shook his head again. His words came quiet this time, almost mumbled. “I don't understand it.”
Arthur tried to find a welcoming tone that wouldn’t sound cloying or patronizing. “You wouldn't happen to be a fan of cake.”
Ludwig, bless him, looked up with startled eyes. “Wait, are you—”
“Definitely not. My cousin is, though." Arthur’s smile was small, but he didn’t stifle it. Matthew was a soothing balm, present or not. “I could give him your number.”
Ludwig blinked in something like panic. “I’m not looking for—”
“Match-making?” Arthur raised an eyebrow. “I just slept underneath your brother. I’m definitely not in that business. I’m just saying, he could be somebody to talk to. Figure stuff out. I don’t think he’d mind. He’s generous like that.”
“Well . . .” Ludwig finally smiled, the shyest little curl of his lips. “I would be in your debt.”
I wish. He wondered if it was just the language barrier, or if these brothers had actually been encouraged to speak English in such a formal way. Gilbert had definitely abandoned it, but for Ludwig it suited. Arthur imagined him one last time, booted and gloved, crop in hand . . .
“Don't worry about it, mate.” Arthur offered his glass. “But I’ll take some more orange juice, if you’re really hung up on payment.”
Ludwig hopped obediently to the task, and Arthur glanced down to see Berlitz sitting beside him. She perked her ears, cracking a doggish smile, and he rolled his eyes but gave her a stroke anyway. Last night had been far from horrible, and this morning was quite the pleasant surprise, so . . . One way or another, he had a feeling they might as well get used to each other.