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China Cups and Top Hats

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is very hard to be cheerful in the morning after not having slept for one minute the night before. Kurt realises this at the breakfast table in the large kitchen, where he tries to follow the conversation between Nicholas and Jane while fighting to keep his eyes open. When he yawns for the eighth time, Nick turns his head to look at him with critical eyes and asks, “Kurt, why do you look like you did not sleep at all last night?”

“Because I didn’t,” Kurt answers. Now that the shock of his discovery slowly starts to wear off, he realises how exhausted he feels. And still his mind is unable to stop racing with the question of what he should do now. Looking at Nick’s concerned expression, he really wants nothing more than to tell him what happened, to hear his reassurance that everything will turn out alright and then crawl back into bed. But since he is not sure whether reassurance will be Nick’s first reaction to hearing what Kurt witnessed, he keeps his mouth shut and reaches for his teacup. The glass of milk Mrs Bertram has set down in front of him he ignores, since it does nothing to improve his headache.

“Was it the storm?” Harriet asks, and looks at him with an understanding expression in her blue eyes. “It kept waking me up too. All that howling was awfully terrifying, wasn’t it?”

Kurt hesitates. Of course he could easily blame his insomnia on the storm, but they had had horrible weather and many thunderstorms during these past weeks and none of them ever kept him up at night. So he merely shrugs and starts nibbling on a piece of toast, “I don’t know whether it was due to the storm, I simply couldn’t fall asleep.” Mrs Bertram gives him a sympathetic glance and heaves an extra spoonful of porridge on his plate. Nick still looks concerned, so Kurt adds, “And Jeff wouldn’t stop snoring.” Which, while not related to his insomnia, is still very true.

Jeff looks up from his breakfast with an indignant expression on his face. “I do not snore,” he answers, with as much dignity as a man with a mouth full of porridge can muster. Frank sets down his spoon and looks at him with an amused look of disbelief, “I do hate to be the source of disappointment, Jeff, but you most definitely snore. Nick and I can hear it from across the corridor.”

Jeff swallows his porridge and looks offended, Harriet and Jane laugh, and Nick hides his smile by pressing a teacup to his lips. Kurt yawns for the ninth time.

Breakfast ends rather abruptly when Mr Moore enters the room, ordering them to hurry and prepare the breakfast room before they wake the gentlemen upstairs. The reminder that he will find himself face to face with Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald very soon does nothing to relax Kurt. He has still not figured out what he’s supposed do about his discoveries, all he knows is that he really, really wants to talk to Nicholas. He is not sure whether he feels ready to tackle this situation on his own, and Nick, while sometimes being almost too brutally honest, has so far never failed to offer valuable advice. But every time he opens his mouth to ask Nicholas for a few minutes of his time, he thinks about what is at risk here – not just for Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald, but for him as well. And every time his doubts remain behind his closed lips.

When every cup and every teaspoon is where it belongs and even Mr Moore can’t find anything to criticise about the breakfast table, Kurt and the other footmen hurry upstairs to wake the lords. To Kurt’s surprise, Sir Robert is already up and dressed when Kurt knocks on his door. He’s sitting at his desk, a book on his knees, and asks Kurt to leave him for another hour. “It’s not like anybody else will be up very soon,” he says, smiling briefly at Kurt before his eyes return to rest on the pages of The Adventures of Caleb Williams.

It turns out that Sir Robert knows his friends rather well – Lord Henry is not in the least inclined to get up, and when Kurt carefully inquires when he wants Kurt to wake him, he throws a pillow in the general direction of the door and yells, “For Christ’s sake, let me sleep boy, will you?”

Kurt decides that Lord Henry will ring for him once he’s ready, and returns to the breakfast room, where Harriet just brings in the last jugs of milk and coffee. None of the other footmen are present just yet, and Kurt wonders briefly if Jeff has more success waking Lord Edmund than he had with his brother. Since there is nothing else for him to do, Kurt takes his place next to the door, prepared to wait for some time before the first guests will be ready for breakfast.

Surprisingly, he doesn’t have to wait long. After a few minutes, somebody enters the room, and to Kurt’s dismay it is the last person he wants to see right now. When Lord Smythe stumbles into the breakfast room, Kurt closes his eyes briefly, cursing any divine entity that seems to have a rather cruel humour this morning.

Lord Smythe’s eyes are barely open, and it is supposedly only thanks to Nicholas that he managed to put on his travelling clothes. Slowly, he slumps down on the chair nearest to him, not bothering to hide his yawn. It gives Kurt a certain satisfaction to see that the night was probably as short for Lord Smythe as it was for Kurt – though presumably much more pleasant.

“Good morning, your Lordship,” Kurt says, and places the usual cup of tea in front of his employer. A bit of milk, two spoonful of sugar – one of the first things Kurt learned at Bailey Hall, and definitely one of the more useful ones.

Lord Smythe flinches at the sound of Kurt’s voice and looks up with a startled expression. Apparently he didn’t notice the footman when he entered the room. He nods, apparently not awake enough to come up with the usual condescending remark or even a patronising grin, which Kurt finds nice for a change. Instead, Lord Smythe stares at his teacup as if he wonders what on earth he is supposed to do with it.

“Would you care for some toast, or porridge, my Lord?” Kurt asks, inwardly cursing Mr Moore and Nick for not being here. Lord Smythe merely yawns again, letting his head fall back against his chair, closing his eyes for a second before tilting his head to the side and looking at Kurt with an exhausted expression in his eyes, “How can you all be so God damned cheerful at this time in the morning?”

Irritated, Kurt glances at him, not sure what to reply to that. “One gets a lot of practice, your Lordship,” he finally answers. Lord Smythe sighs and reaches for his cup. “I suppose one does,” he murmurs, wincing when the hot liquid meets his unprepared tongue. “Nick too. Well, he’s not exactly cheerful,” he adds after a moment of contemplation, “But he’s so awfully awake.” He spits the word out like it’s poisonous, and Kurt suddenly fights the urge to smile. He can image what joy a grumpy and sleepy Lord Smythe will have in the morning when being woken and dressed by an insistent, awake Nick.

Apparently, spending the night with Sir Reginald left Lord Smythe in a much more civil mood than usual. He looks up at Kurt again and asks, “Are you sharing a room with Nick, Kurt?”

“No, your Lordship,” Kurt replies, still expecting an unpleasant remark any minute. “I’m sharing a room with Jeffrey.”

Lord Smythe nods, placing his cup back on the saucer. “Poor Jeffrey. Being stuck with Nick and you every morning would make me want to kill myself for sure.” Maybe it’s the tiredness in his voice, or the waggish grin on his face, but Kurt can’t bring himself to feel offended by the statement. He’s used to being insulted – but being teased by Lord Smythe isn’t something he feels prepared for.

Lord Smythe yawns again, his gaze drifting towards the window, taking in the misty morning outside. “Toast will suffice, Kurt,” he says without turning his head, and Kurt hurries to prepare the dish. When he puts the last piece of toast on the plate, Nick enters the room. At the sight of Lord Smythe, who seems to try very hard to fall asleep in his chair again, he raises a quizzical eyebrow at Kurt, who merely shrugs and hands him the plate.

“I’m glad to see you decided to have some breakfast despite your earlier reservations, my Lord,” Nick says when he sets down the plate in front of Lord Smythe, and only the smallest hint of reprimand in his voice tells Kurt that Nick’s attempts at waking his master this early were presumably exactly how Kurt imagines them to be.

“Do shut up, Nick,” Lord Smythe replies, not opening his eyes but reaching for one of the perfectly rectangular sliced pieces of bread. “At least Kurt’s quiet in the morning.”

Kurt almost drops the cup he is holding, and he can’t help but turn around to stare at Lord Smythe, who starts nibbling on the edge of the piece of toast. He could have sworn that his master just voiced something that sounded frightfully close to a compliment.

“Well, in that case I’d be happy to leave Kurt to the task of waking you, my Lord,” Nick says, refilling the empty cup of tea in one swift motion. Lord Smythe now cracks an eye open to stare at the footman in amusement, “Now don’t be ridiculous, Nick,” he says, his voice sounding almost fond. His gaze drifts to Kurt, and he winks at him before adding, “We don’t want to scar him for life, do we?”

Nick opens his mouth to reply something, but now Sir Robert and Lord Huntington enter the breakfast room, and Nick returns quickly and quietly to the food table to help Kurt prepare their meals. Kurt is glad for his help, because he still has trouble processing the thought of having had an amiable encounter with Lord Smythe.

Slowly, the chairs at the table fill, and Jeff and Frank join Kurt and Nick. When Sir Reginald enters, Kurt catches himself watching him and Lord Smythe attentively, searching for clues that he didn’t just dream what happened last night. Lord Smythe is either a very good actor or just very tired. He doesn’t acknowledge Sir Reginald’s presence at all, instead, he quietly sips his tea and listens to the conversation between Sir Robert and Lord Henry (whom Jeff had helped getting dressed, for which Kurt is utterly grateful – he doesn’t fancy another pillow being thrown his way).

Sir Reginald, however, has a decidedly smug expression on his face, and Kurt wonders if he is the only one who notices the looks he directs at Lord Smythe, or the condescending grin on his face when he talks to Lord Huntington.

Kurt notices that he stared at Sir Reginald a little too long only when he looks up and meets Nick’s frown. The other footman raises his eyebrow in silent question, but Kurt shakes his head and grabs the tea jug, crossing the room to refill Lady Isabella’s cup. Maybe it’s because Lord Smythe for the first time appeared to be genuinely nice, but Kurt decides that before he isn’t absolutely certain where he stands on this matter, he is not going to tell anybody about last night’s events.

Not even Nick.


 

The breakfast passes rather quickly. Most of the guests are still too tired for a proper conversation, and soon they are asking for their coats, ready for the journey to Longleat House. Harriet and Jane assist the ladies with their hats, while Kurt and Nick hurry up and down the stairs, fetching the last pieces of luggage und taking them to the courtyard, where Frank and Jeff load them onto the carriages under the critical eye of Mr Moore.

Nick and Kurt are just carrying the last suitcase between them (heaven knows what Lady Catherine’s maid packed between her underskirts – bricks, judging from the weight of it), and Kurt is just about to take the first step down to the courtyard when a voice behind them calls, “Nick!” Kurt turns around to see Lord Smythe walking swiftly towards them. His gaze meets Kurt’s, and doubt flickers briefly in his eyes before it vanishes behind a blank, indifferent mask. “Yes, your Lordship?” Nick inquires, his expression equally blank. For a short moment, Kurt marvels at the talent of the two actors before him – nobody who didn’t catch the friendly encounter between them earlier would guess that they are more than master and servant.

“The letter,” Lord Smythe says. His gaze isn’t even directed at Nick, but instead focuses on Frank, who is helping Lady Isabella into the carriage, “The letter you wanted to give to me?”

It takes Nick a split second to catch up on what Lord Smythe is talking about, but then he almost drops the suitcase on Kurt’s feet. “I forgot about that,” he says, sounding equally guilty, thankful and startled. “Just a moment, your Lordship, I’m going to fetch it right away.”

Kurt looks after the other footman as he hurries away, puzzled what letter they are talking about. It seems unlikely that Lord Smythe is delivering a letter from Nick, but at the same time it didn’t sound like they were talking about something Lord Smythe wrote himself. He makes a mental note to ask Nick about it later. But now, Kurt is left standing in the doorway with a very heavy suitcase and Lord Smythe, who is still studying the courtyard outside, ignoring Kurt. Kurt feels silly waiting next to the suitcase for Nick’s return, but he can’t possibly lift it alone, and neither Jeff nor Mr Moore catches his helpless gaze from across the courtyard, both too busy saying their goodbyes to Frank. The atmosphere feels so different from the mood in the breakfast room this morning – Lord Smythe looks cold and detached, maybe, Kurt muses, because he is aware of Lady Catherine staring at him through the carriage window, and Lord Huntington, who taps his foot impatiently, probably wondering what is keeping Lord Smythe so long.

Kurt doesn’t have the nerve to say anything to his employer when being watched so closely, not even to wish him a safe journey or a nice time at Longleat House. He has almost decided to abandon the suitcase and fetch Jeff to help him when the sound of hurried footsteps on the staircase – taking two steps at a time – announce Nick’s return. He appears moments later, holding out a letter and exclaiming breathlessly, “There it is.” Lord Smythe nods, quickly takes the letter and tucks in the pocket of his waistcoat.

“Thank you, my Lord,” Nick adds. He looks much younger gasping for air, his cheeks flushed from the sudden exercise, Kurt notices. And far more vulnerable. “Thank you very much.”

The expression in Lord Smythe’s eyes softens for a second when he looks at Nick, and the smile on his face is genuine when he replies, “You’re welcome.” Apparently he wants to say more, but now Lord Huntington, who has grown impatient, is approaching them, and any further remark again disappears behind Lord Smythe’s indifferent expression.

“Is this going to take much longer, Sebastian?” Lord Huntington inquires, his dismissive glance passing over Nick and Kurt. “Isabella keeps saying that she wants to be home before it gets dark.”

“She can drive ahead for all I care,” Lord Smythe retorts. “It’s not like we don’t know the way to Longleat.”

Lord Huntington chuckles and throws an arm around Lord Smythe’s shoulder, “Come on now, Sebastian, part with your footmen. I promise you we have an excellent staff at home, you won’t miss them.” His gaze drifts to Kurt and he grins humourlessly, “Especially since our servants don’t need hours for a few pieces of luggage.” 

Kurt feels heat rising in his cheeks; embarrassed that Lord Huntington noticed his difficulties carrying the suitcase on his own. He looks at Lord Smythe, whose grin matches the one of his friend as he looks at Kurt, “Well, we all hoped Kurt would grow into his position.” He sighs, “But I guess I’ll just have to get used to having hired a footboy instead of a footman.”

It’s this precise moment when something inside Kurt just snaps. It’s by far not the worst insult he’s heard since he arrived at Bailey Hall, but this morning, he thought he had caught a glimpse of a different Lord Smythe: a Lord Smythe who could be teasing while not being hurtful. Maybe he had even hoped that this morning could signify a change, a new beginning, a sign that someday he would actually feel appreciated at Bailey Hall.

He had been wrong. When Lord Smythe grins at Lord Huntington and turns towards the doorframe, Kurt realises that nothing will ever change. Because Lord Smythe will never be anything more than an arrogant, selfish ass who doesn’t form attachments to anybody, not even his social equals, and enjoys hurting other people’s feelings for his own entertainment.

So when Lord Smythe looks over his shoulder and calls, “Try exercising, Kurt, maybe it’ll help”, Kurt finally has enough. His reaction is not a conscious decision; it’s a reflex, a response to everything Lord Smythe and his friends had thrown at him over the past weeks.

“I will, Sir.”

The moment the words leave his mouth, he knows he made a terrible mistake. He can hear Nick’s sharp intake of breath, and he can see Lord Smythe who stops dead in his tracks in the middle of the doorway. He can see Lord Huntington’s scandalised expression, and for a brief moment he wishes he could take the words back. No lord in the whole of England would ever let it pass to be addressed not according to their position, and the lower address of “Sir”, reserved only for knights and baronets, is in no way appropriate.

But Kurt only regrets it for a brief moment, because he knows deep down inside that he meant it. And that “Sir” actually doesn’t come close to all the things he would like to call Lord Smythe to his face. So he merely lifts his chin and braces himself for whatever will happen now.

Slowly, Lord Smythe turns around. His expression his unreadable, but his eyes slowly travel over Kurt’s face. Kurt can feel the heat rising in his cheeks, but he holds the gaze of Lord Smythe, refusing to back down this time. He is aware that the next words he’s going to hear will either be a terrible scolding or the order to pack his things and leave Bailey Hall for good. Nevertheless, he’s had it, and he is willing to deal with these consequences.

“My Lord...” Nick begins, his voice holding the apology Kurt will never bring himself to utter, but Lord Smythe raises his hand, a decided gesture to silence Nick. He stares at Kurt for a few more seconds, before ever so slowly, the right corner of his mouth pulls into a grin. It’s not a pleasant expression though, it holds surprise, it looks intrigued, but most of all, it looks challenged, and Kurt just knows that the lack of anger or annoyance can’t be a good thing.

This time, Lord Smythe ignores the look Lord Huntington is giving him, and takes a step closer towards Kurt, his gaze fixed on the younger boy’s face. His grin intensifies when he says, “Have a nice Christmas, Kurt. And enjoy the holidays. I have a feeling that our next meeting is going to be... interesting.“

His voice holds something between a threat and a promise, and Kurt when watches his employer turn around and walk towards the carriages, he can’t shake the feeling that the next weeks will be the calm before the storm.