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China Cups and Top Hats

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September 1850

 


Kurt first hears the clattering of carriage wheels and the crunching sound of hooves meeting the white gravel in the alley when he is in the music room, helping Mrs Seymour to restack the shelves in the cabinet with sheet music.

When his ears pick up the first sounds, he lets the stack of paper fall back onto the piano and rushes to the window facing the alley. He draws away the heavy curtain to glance down at the road, where two carriages are just approaching Bailey Hall. He spins around to look at Mrs Seymour with a pleading expression on his face, and the housekeeper sighs, smiles and waves dismissively at him before she closes the door of the cabinet, knowing that they won’t get any work done in the next hours. Kurt hurries out of the room and takes three steps at a time as he flies down the stairs, and almost knocks over Maud, who is barely able to pull the stack of towels she is carrying out of the way when Kurt speeds past her.

Racing through the corridors, he manages to get to the courtyard just in time to see the carriages coming to a stop in front of the stables. He runs towards them, and arrives precisely at the same moment in which Jane unceremoniously jumps down from the carriage, right into his arms. She laughs airily, and holds onto her hat when Kurt twirls her around twice before putting her down.

“We’re back,” she exclaims, beaming at the boy in front of her, and Kurt doesn’t mind her stating the obvious at all, because yes – they are finally back!

Before Jane has another chance to say something, Kurt feels a pair of strong arms around him, pulling him into a literally breathtaking hug and almost lifting his feet up from the ground.

“We missed you, little one,” Jeff says, his breath tickling the shell of Kurt’s ear, and Kurt realises that he is grinning giddily into the fabric of Jeff’s jacket.

“Let him breathe, will you?” a dry voice comes from behind Jeff. “I did not endure hours of you two chanting “We’ll be home soon, we’ll be home soon”, only to stand by and witness you strangling Kurt now.”

Gently, Kurt pushes at Jeff’s arms, and reluctantly, the blond boy lets go so that Kurt is able to step around him. Nick has his arms crossed in front of his chest, but the smile on his lips betrays his indifferent tone and his disapproving posture. London hasn’t changed him much, Kurt thinks: his hair is slightly longer, and his skin a bit more tanned, but the gentle expression in his eyes is the very same Kurt remembers.

“I missed you too, Nick,” he says, astonished to find that he no longer has to look up to meet Nick’s eyes, for they are now almost the same height. Nick’s eyes travel over Kurt’s body, his slowly rising eyebrows indicating that he notices a change too.

“You’ve grown,” he says. Kurt nods, and unable to wait any longer, he crosses the last distance between them and wraps his arms around the other boy, burying his face against his shoulder. Nick laughs, his arms reflexively coming up around Kurt’s shoulders. “But I see you haven’t changed,” he says, and Kurt holds on to him for just a moment longer before he lets go.

Out of the corner of his eye he notices that now the whole household of Bailey Hall has assembled in the courtyard: Mrs Bertram is laughing and pinching Harriet’s cheeks, Mr Moore is shaking Mrs Seymour’s hands with more enthusiasm than Kurt would have thought him capable of displaying, and other servants have already started to unload the carriage. But the four of them are still too caught up in their reunion to care about helping with the luggage.

“But really, look at you, Kurt,” Jane exclaims, running her hand down his arm, as if she can’t bear to lose the physical contact with the boy they have been separated from for five long months, “You have become so handsome.”

“And tall,” Jeff says, who is still towering over all of them by a few inches. “Seriously, what have you been eating?”

Kurt laughs, and while he had in a way hoped for their reaction to be like this, right now, it doesn’t matter anymore, because he is too busy being happy to still have room for feeling flattered. “I adore your hat,” he says, beaming at the small, fashionably grey hat on top of Jane’s black hair.

“I adore you,” Jane says, her eyes roaming over Kurt’s body, the tone of her voice still incredulous.

“When you are done gushing over each other, just say the word,” Nick mutters. Jeff shoves against his shoulder lightly, “Oh come on, Nick, don’t be a spoilsport, tell Kurt how handsome he looks.”

“I don’t care how Kurt lo…” Nick drawls, but yelps in pain when Jane delivers a skilful, if not a very hard, kick to his shin. “Fine, you look very handsome, Kurt,” he growls while rubbing his leg, and Kurt laughs again and pulls his favourite footman once more into a tight embrace.

The welcome goes on like this for some time, in which Mrs Bertram hugs Jeff and Nick and tells them how happy she is to finally have enough people to cook a real meal for, and Mr Moore blinks at Kurt for at least two seconds before he is able to collect himself and greet the youngest footman in his usual grave tone (and this reaction alone, Kurt thinks, was worth all of the growing pains). The conversation flows effortlessly for some minutes, before Mr Moore gently reminds them that there are suitcases to unpack and things to do, and ushers them to help unload the carriage.

By the time Mrs Bertram serves dinner, Kurt’s cheeks have started hurting from smiling so much. Jane can’t seem to stop touching him or marvelling at how much he has grown, Jeff has adopted the annoying habit of ruffling Kurt’s hair, and he notices that Nick, even without being as talkative as the other two, does not leave his side for a second.

But when they sit down to have the unusually substantial meal Mrs Bertram is serving just for the occasion of their return, Kurt can’t help but feel a strange sense of alienation when he observes the other three. There is something about the way they talk to each other, with an easiness that only comes from spending much time in each other’s company and sharing the same experiences, that makes Kurt feel excluded, and for a moment a peculiar sadness threatens to overwhelm him. But then he shakes his head and tells himself that he is being childish. Of course they are used to each other’s company, and he is sure that within days, they will once more treat him with the same effortless familiarity they treat each other.

It’s late when the servants retire to their rooms. Mr Moore makes an exception and does not usher them to go to bed early like he used to do – for once, he stays in the kitchen, sipping a small glass of port wine with Mrs Bertram and discussing the work that needs to be tackled during the next days with Mrs Seymour. It is well past midnight when Nick, Jeff and Kurt say goodnight to Jane and retreat to their rooms, but they are far from being tired or inclined to go to sleep just yet.

“Tell me everything,” Kurt demands, pulling a pillow towards him and stuffing it behind his back to soften his seat against the wall. “We can’t tell you everything,” Jeff replies, moving to the end of his small bed to make room for Nick’s legs, “Everything would take far too long, and everything would be far too boring.”

“And we already told you everything in our letters,” Nick says and sits down next to Kurt. The bed creaks threateningly, and for a short moment Kurt fears that it will collapse under the weight of the three grown footmen. Their position is far from being comfortable: Kurt’s toes are pressed against Jeff’s knees, Kurt’s shoulder leans against Nick’s chest, and Nick’s legs threaten to slip off the bed every minute. Nevertheless, there is something so comforting, so homely about this uncomfortable closeness that neither of them feels inclined to stand up and move over to Kurt’s bed.

“But I want to hear about London, not just read about it,” Kurt complains.

“Well, there are some things that happened recently, and we didn’t have time to write to you about them,” Nick says, and Jeff adds, “Like how Lord Smythe got himself thrown out of the opera.”

“That’s not exactly what I…” Nick begins, casting a wary glance at the boy next to him, but Kurt is way too curious to stop himself from asking, “Lord Smythe got thrown out of the opera?”

“We don’t know what happened exactly,” Jeff tells him, ignoring Nick’s disapproving stare, “It was last week, just after he announced that we would go home soon. He went out that same evening, but merely an hour after he left, the carriage brought him and Sir Robert home. Sir Robert looked truly pissed.”

“Of course he looked pissed,” Nick says and his disapproving tone tells Kurt that if Sir Robert did express his annoyance towards Lord Smythe that night, he was presumably not the only one. “I don’t know what he did to get thrown out, but his lordship is a grown man, he should know how to behave in public.”

“Come on, Nick, he did behave during all these months, mostly,” Jeff says. “I mean really, after seeing how he was around his friends here, I expected something else. And if you compare him to Lord Huntington…”

“Lord Huntington?” Kurt asks.

“Well, he didn’t behave at all,” Jeff says and frowns, “If they would have paid me a penny every time we had to escort him back home, completely drunk…”

“But that was only during the first weeks,” Nick says, and Kurt thinks that it’s weird to hear Nick defend Lord Huntington. “Maybe he just had a bad time.”

“We didn’t see as much of him as I thought we would though,” Jeff muses, “So all in all it was bearable.”

Kurt needs a moment to process that information. It sounds like the relationship between Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington cooled down even more during their time in London, which, if Lord Smythe was the reason for this, would explain Lord Huntington having what Nick referred to as “a bad time”.  Kurt feels strangely pleased by that piece of information, until a new thought enters his mind, and he asks, “So, did Lord Smythe make any new friends he is bringing to Bailey Hall with him?”

He does notice the quick glance Nick is giving him, but Jeff, unsuspecting as ever, replies, “Not really. He mostly kept to Sir Robert, and didn’t go out that often.” He tilts his head to the side, “I mean, it was a bit strange now that I think about it. During the first weeks he didn’t seem to enjoy London at all, and he was in a terrible mood. Then there was a month or so when he was out almost every night, and slept through most of the day. And then these last weeks he kept to the house again, and when he went out, he always took Sir Robert with him.”

“I don’t think Kurt wants to know all this in that great detail,” Nick says, and Kurt almost wants to object to that, because oh yes, he does want to know. But he can see that Nick is uncomfortable, and there is no need to make things awkward on their first evening together. So he merely inquires, “And when are they returning to Bailey Hall?”

“Next week,” Nick replies, “Sir Robert will accompany him, as well as the Huntingtons and Lady Isabella’s sister, Lady Claudine.”

“I thought you just said Lord Smythe didn’t spend that much time with Lord Huntington in London?” Kurt asks, feeling confused. Nick shrugs, “He didn’t, but they didn’t exactly lose touch either. I guess the Huntingtons are just staying for a few days until they continue their journey to Longleat. And Sir Robert will leave as well, I presume – he didn’t spend much time at his estate this year, and I believe he will want to check on how things are before the winter.”

Kurt nods. That makes sense, but the thought of seeing Lord Smythe again that soon is not a comfortable one. He still hasn’t quite made up his mind on where he stands in the conflict that might have been postponed due to the London break, but has never been resolved. He knows that he doesn’t want to leave, not when Nick and Jeff and Jane have just returned. And – in the light of the recent revelations about his own sexual preferences – he has started to think about Lord Smythe differently, though not more favourably. But he can’t really anticipate how he will react to seeing his employer again – and much less, how his employer is going to react.

However, he doesn’t want to think about it. Not now, not when he is happy and relaxed and has so many other things to ask. Therefore, he merely rests his head against the wall and inquires, “So, what about this hippopotamus you fell in love with, Jeff?”

Kurt doesn’t know how long they stay awake, but it must be early in the morning when he finally dozes off, with his cheek resting against Nick’s chest, and his feet in Jeff’s lap. And even though he hasn’t been the one away from Bailey Hall, nevertheless he feels like he is the one that has come home.

 


The next days are busy ones. Jane, Jeff and Nick don’t have much time to settle in, for Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore set them to work immediately. Linen is being removed from furniture, rooms are being dusted, floors are scrubbed and Kurt is starting to feel that by now, he is so used to the rhythm of preparing the house after an absence of the lords that he barely has to listen to Mr Moore’s instructions anymore.

They have a week before the masters arrive, which is short notice, but nothing they haven’t managed to pull off before. And while they are preparing the house, Kurt realises how much work they actually managed to get done during the summer – the cupboards are organised, the clothes washed and pressed, and the house is still relatively clean.

What is new, however, is that, for the first time, Kurt is spared the line-up in front of the estate. During the morning of the anticipated arrival, a small crisis takes place in the kitchen. Realising that she has run out of cinnamon and nutmeg, Mrs Bertram yells for Kurt and orders him to run down to the village to get the supplies, for without them she can’t get started on the dinner. Kurt makes it to the village in record time, and Mr Brown laughs at the breathless boy in front of him, who delivers the order while gasping for air.

“So they’re coming back already?” he asks, folding paper into small bags for the spices. “You must be rather busy at the estate.”

“We’re always busy,” Kurt replies, handing over the money for his purchases, “I am positively certain that Mr Moore believes that as soon as we’re not busy, the estate will collapse and rightfully bury us and our lazy arses.”

Mr Brown’s laughter follows him out to the street. Kurt hurries back to the estate, and when he enters the courtyard, he spots the large carriage, as well as Howard and Jonathan who unhitch the horses and bring them to the stables.

“They’re here,” Mrs Bertram yells when Kurt enters the kitchen, and snatches the packages out of his arms. “They’re here, and I haven’t even started the pastry. Maud, be careful with the soup, oh Beth, don’t you dare…”

Kurt slowly backs out of the kitchen, because he knows better than to disturb Mrs Bertram when she is feeling rushed.

“Kurt, thank God you’re back,” Mrs Seymour’s voice comes from his left, and when he turns around, he sees the housekeeper hurrying towards him. “Jeff and Nick are taking care of Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington, but Sir Robert said he’ll wait until you’re back.”

Her stern gaze travels over him, and she pushes a strand of hair out of his forehead and straightens his collar, “Go up immediately, will you? Sir Robert is going to want to change out of his travelling clothes, and I don’t want him to have to wait any longer.”

Kurt does as he is told and hurries up the staircase and down the corridor on the second floor, to the guest room which he has grown to view as Sir Robert’s room. When he opens the door, he sees that Sir Robert is sitting in his armchair, a book on his knees and a smile on his face when he looks up and spots Kurt closing the door behind him.

“Kurt,” he greets the footman. His face is paler, Kurt observes, and he looks a little tired. But of course, that might be to blame on the long hours spent in the carriage. After all, travelling from London to Bailey Hall is quite a distance. “How are you, my boy?”

Kurt feels startled for a moment, because the last time anyone referred to him as “my boy”, he was talking to his father.

“I am fine, Sir, thank you,” he replies. Sir Robert carefully marks the page and puts the book aside. Kurt is ready to take his jacket once the other man is standing in front of him, but instead of starting to change out of his travelling suit, he watches Kurt in a manner that by now almost feels familiar. It’s the same way Jane, Jeff or Mr Moore looked at him when they saw him again for the first time.

“You have been growing up over these last months,” Sir Robert observes, and he smiles, “I can hardly believe you are the same boy I met back in autumn. The summer has done you good.”

“It has, yes,” Kurt agrees. “What about your summer, Sir?”

“Oh, it was alright,” he says, shrugging out of his jacket, “London is terribly stuffy in July, and sometimes you feel like you can’t breathe in the streets. I always thought it would make much more sense to spend the winter in the city, and the summer in the country where it’s cooler.” He sighs, “But I guess I can’t ask the London society to change their ways because of my unease.”

“I suppose not,” Kurt says, folding the jacket over his arm, “How was the season?”

“A bit more quiet than last year,” Sir Robert replies, stepping out of his trousers, “I had the feeling that there were not as many balls. Or maybe we just weren’t invited to as many.”

He takes one of the clean shirts Kurt is handing him while Kurt asks, “But you visited the theatre, surely?”

“Oh yes, quite often,” Sir Robert replies. “They were crowded as always. But I was also fortunate enough to spend some enjoyable afternoons and evenings in the sole company of a glass of wine and a good novel.” When Kurt begins to button the shirt, he adds, “It’s the hustled life in the city that makes you appreciate the quietness of the countryside. Perhaps this is why we go – to remind ourselves of that.”

Kurt doesn’t listen to his last words as attentively as before, because Sir Robert mentioning the reading of novels brings back something Kurt has managed to push back into a corner of his mind. He has put the Lyrical Ballads at the bottom of the stack of novels resting on the windowsill, under which the copy of Teleny (which he has read many times over the course of the summer) is still safely hidden. But now, he contemplates asking Sir Robert about the anonymous present. In all these weeks, he couldn’t really come to a decision on who must have sent him the volume of poetry, but he is sure that there has to be some connection to Sir Robert or Lord Smythe. And unlike his employer, Sir Robert is someone he actually trusts enough to ask him that question.

“Sir?” Kurt begins tentatively.

“Yes, Kurt?” Sir Robert replies, while Kurt straightens the shirt and begins to tuck it into his trousers.

“This summer I received a package on my birthday. It didn’t say who it was from, but it was a copy of Wordsworth’s...”

Lyrical Ballads,” Sir Robert concludes. “Yes, I know. I was the one who sent it to you.”

“You, Sir?” Kurt asks, unsure how to react to this. A part of him feels satisfied that his suspicions proved to be true, but there is another, very small part that he almost hates to acknowledge, and that part is feeling disappointed. Thinking logically, it couldn’t have been anybody else than Sir Robert. But over these weeks Kurt had also fabricated another story in his mind, a story in which Lord Smythe realised how wrong and hurtful he had behaved, and in which he had send Kurt the book as a silent apology. Of course, Kurt had never been delusional enough to actually believe in that story, but still – it had existed. 

“Oh well, I was the one who bought it and sent it to you,” Sir Robert replies, lifting his arms to let Kurt fasten the cufflinks. “Though technically, I suppose it’s also from Sebastian.”

A button slips through Kurt’s fingers as he glances up at the other man. “Sir?” he asks again, feeling profoundly irritated.

Sir Robert sighs and drops his arms, starting to fasten the cufflinks himself, “Well, those first weeks at London weren’t pleasant ones, I can tell you. Sebastian was in an awful mood, and though I didn’t manage to learn why, I have known him long enough to be able to tell when he feels guilty about something.”

He briefly glances at Kurt before he starts to fasten the buttons on the other sleeve, “One afternoon, I convinced him to go out. We went to various shops, and eventually I dragged him to his favourite bookstore, hoping that it would cheer him up. And it actually did, for a couple of minutes. Until he saw the editions of Wordsworth’s works lying on the counter.”

Sir Robert sighs, “He picked up the Lyrical Ballads and browsed through the pages, all the while frowning at the book as if it had mortally offended him. When I asked him what was the matter, he stared at it for another second before he said, ‘Kurt loves the Romantics. Did you know?’ Then he suddenly put the book down like he had burned himself and left the shop immediately.”

Finally, Sir Robert looks up, and his gaze meets Kurt’s when he says, “He was in an especially sour mood throughout the evening, and for the rest of the week as well. I’m not even sure why, but the next day I went back and bought the copy. I guess I just felt that you should have it.”

Kurt’s throat seems unusually dry, and he clears it before he asks, “And how did you know it was my birthday?”

“I didn’t, actually,” Sir Robert replies, “I planned on giving it to you once we returned to Bailey Hall, but then I overheard Jane and Jeff talking about your birthday presents. I asked them about the date, and I figured I could just send it to you as another present. I didn’t include a name because I thought it could make you feel awkward.”

Kurt isn’t sure how he would have felt back then, but he is fairly certain that he is feeling awkward now. He doesn’t know what to reply to this. Actually, he doesn’t even know what to think about this. The thought that their fight had something like a lasting impact on Lord Smythe’s mood seems hardly believable, the notion that he felt guilty or remorseful about it downright ridiculous.

And yet, this is exactly what Sir Robert’s account is implying, isn’t it?

“Sir,” Kurt begins, not sure how to continue the sentence himself, but Sir Robert merely shakes his head.

“Look, Kurt, I don’t want an explanation from you. I understood that something happened the night before we left for London between you and Sebastian. He refused to answer any of my questions about it, in fact, he told me rather directly to mind my own business. And you know presumably better than I do that there is no way to coax information out of Nicholas if he is not inclined to share any.” He smiles, and the expression on his face is serious, though not unfriendly, “But I’m not blind, and I have known Sebastian for many years now. If there is something he hates, more than anything else, it is being wrong about something, or someone. Or having made the wrong decision.”

Kurt understands what Sir Robert is trying to say, though he is uncertain as to why the other man is trying to apologize on Lord Smythe’s behalf.

“I think I know what you mean, Sir,” Kurt says, slowly forming each word, “But I think that I would like to hear something similar from Lord Smythe himself.”

“I’m afraid that is rather unlikely,” Sir Robert replies, “I’m not saying that you wouldn’t deserve it. But there is one thing he hates more than admitting he has been wrong, and that is apologising.”

“Why are you on my side, Sir?” Kurt asks, finally voicing what has not only been bothering him about this, but also about previous conversations with Sir Robert. “Why do you care about what I think of my employer? Or whether he or I are on good terms or not?”

Sir Robert looks at him for a long moment, before he answers, “Because I like you, Kurt. And because Sebastian needs more people in his life who don’t let him get away with everything, who are not afraid to occasionally stand up to him. As I understood you did that night.”

“You care very much about Lord Smythe, don’t you, Sir Robert?” Kurt asks, deciding to use the opportunity while they’re having an honest conversation and try to understand the friendship between Sir Robert and Lord Smythe.

“I do,” Sir Robert sighs, “But unfortunately, I’m not very good at standing up to him. Or at being a useful friend. I’m not good at seeing him unhappy.” He shakes his head, “That is why I am so thankful for Nicholas. He knows how to deal with Sebastian much better than I do.”

A moment of silence settles between them, before Kurt speaks up again. “I think Lord Smythe values your opinion very much,” he says, “And I think you shouldn’t underestimate how important you are to him.”

Sir Robert smiles, “Thank you, Kurt.” His hand comes to rest on top of Kurt’s shoulder, and he looks at the footman for a long moment before he straightens himself, and his gaze drops down to the suitcases sitting on the bed.

“Well, I guess I should leave you now to unpack,” he says, his tone not quite as personal as it was before.  He reaches out to take the jacket Kurt has left on the bed, and puts it on, “I shall see you at dinner?”

“Of course, Sir,” Kurt replies, thinking how rare it is to catch a glimpse at the inside of Sir Robert’s mind, for the other man is usually so quiet and reserved, and not easy to read. When Sir Robert opens the door, he says, “Sir?”

When the other man looks over his shoulder, he adds, “Thank you. For the book, I mean. I really do love Wordsworth.”

Sir Robert smiles and nods at him before he leaves the room and closes the door behind him. Ignoring the fact that he should not be doing this, Kurt sinks down on the bed and takes a deep breath, shaking his head at the conversation he just had. He can hardly believe that Sir Robert is the one who, for some reason, doesn’t feel worthy of his friendship to Lord Smythe – judging from everything he has witnessed so far, it should really be the other way round. But then again, what he has now learned about Lord Smythe’s behaviour in London leaves him once more puzzled as to what kind of person he is actually working for.

Sighing, Kurt turns to the suitcases. It is simultaneously the best and worst thing about his work, he muses when he takes the first stack of underwear out of the suitcase, that it leaves him some time to think. And he has a lot to think about.

 


Kurt knows that seeing Lord Smythe again is inevitable. However, he would have preferred to have a little more time to muse over what Sir Robert has told him. A lot more time, if it were entirely up to him, but he knows that he needs to be present at dinner, where he undoubtedly will meet his employer. Unfortunately though, he is not even granted the afternoon. When he has finished unpacking Sir Robert’s luggage, Kurt leaves the room, but as soon as he has closed the door behind him and turned around, he runs into a solid body.

A hand comes up to his shoulders to steady him, and an oh-so-familiar voice, a voice Kurt has not so successfully managed to ban from his thoughts over the summer, says, “Careful here, we wouldn’t want… oh.”

Kurt looks up to meet the green depths of Lord Smythe’s eyes and the hand drops from his shoulder, “Kurt?”

He isn’t sure who moved away first, but suddenly, there is an arm’s length distance between them, and both men are looking at the other very carefully. Lord Smythe’s hair is shorter, Kurt observes. He is, as usual, dressed impeccably, and Kurt is very sure that he hasn’t seen the olive waistcoat and the gray riding boots before.

Lord Smythe likewise scrutinises Kurt, and the longer his eyes travel over Kurt’s features, his throat, his shoulders, and up to his face again, the higher his left eyebrow moves, and the expression on his face changes to something that, if Kurt were vain, he would describe as approval.

“Your lordship,” he says, and lifts his chin only the slightest bit.

“Kurt,” Lord Smythe repeats, and he blinks twice before he laughs awkwardly, “Is that really you? My Goodness, what has Mrs Bertram been feeding you?”

No milk’, Kurt wants to retort, but he settles for, “I grew a little over the summer.”

“I can see that,” Lord Smythe says, his tone still a little flabbergasted, “I almost didn’t recognise you. Have I been away that long?”

“Almost five months,” Kurt replies, and wants to bite his tongue immediately. Because that sounds like he missed the presence of Lord Smythe in some way, when he was only counting the weeks until Jane, Jeff and Nick were returning to Bailey Hall.

“Right,” Lord Smythe drawls, a carefully unreadable expression replacing the surprise on his features, “It has been a long time.”

An awkward silence settled once more between them. Finally, Lord Smythe asks, “So, how was your summer, Kurt?”

“Good,” Kurt nods. It’s weird that he could answer the very same question much more easily when Sir Robert asked him, whereas now he has the weird feeling that he needs to prove something with his answer. “Quiet, mostly. But I had a lot of time to read, and some opportunity for lessons, your lordship.”

“Good,” Lord Smythe says, “That’s good.”

There’s another pause, and Kurt desperately searches for an excuse to leave, but before he can come up with one, Lord Smythe speaks up once more, “Kurt?”

“Yes, your lordship?”

For the first time in all these months Kurt has known him, Lord Smythe actually looks uncertain. He glances at Kurt, at the floor, and back at Kurt before he says, “I thought we agreed that you could call me ‘Sir’.”

Kurt needs a moment to understand what Lord Smythe is saying. He remembers Sir Robert’s earlier words, and figures that this is as much of an apology as he can expect. And back in April, it would have been enough for him, maybe. But it’s not April any longer, and a lot has happened since then. And now, this is not enough.

“I thought I told you that I haven’t made up my mind about that yet,” he says. Lord Smythe raises his eyebrow sceptically, “You mean you still haven’t? You had some time to think about it, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Kurt says, his eyes never leaving Lord Smythe’s, “But like I said, you don’t make it easy to decide. One way or the other.”

Lord Smythe smiles, but it’s a not a happy smile. It looks bitter, and he crosses his arms in front of his chest before he says, “Nick told me you thought about leaving,”

“I did,” Kurt admits.

“Why did you decide to stay?”

Kurt realises that he honestly doesn’t know the answer to that question, mostly because it doesn’t feel like a decision at all. Because during the weeks spent lying in the warm grass, his fingers intertwined with those of another boy, he naturally didn’t think about leaving for a single second. And afterwards, he was too busy dealing with being heartbroken, and then too happy about the return of Jane, Jeff and Nick to consider leaving.

But of course, he can’t say anything about this to Lord Smythe.

“I would miss Nick and Jeff,” he says, because that much is true. “Jane too.”

“Of course you would,” Lord Smythe nods. He looks at the floor again, and suddenly, Kurt realises that he is not looking for an apology. He knows that Lord Smythe is an awfully complicated person, who makes mistakes and acts irrationally most of the time. And he has had enough time over the summer to view these irrational actions with an inclination to understand them. And he knows that Sir Robert is right – he won’t ever hear the words “I’m sorry for how I treated you” coming from Lord Smythe lips. And strangely enough, he isn’t even sure that he needs to hear them.

What he is looking for is reassurance, for the promise that what happened in April won’t happen again. That he won’t be disappointed once more. But Lord Smythe isn’t promising him anything. He’s not saying that he will treat Kurt differently, or assuring that he won’t behave like a giant ass again. And Kurt realises that he has to make a decision for himself.

There is no guarantee that he won’t be disappointed again, that his employer won’t ever fall back into his behaviour of last autumn. It’s a risk Kurt, and Kurt alone, has to take.

But seeing Lord Smythe in front of him, squirming and searching for words, clearly feeling as uncomfortable as Kurt is, makes him realise that the other man is trying. Not apologising, not promising. But strangely enough, Kurt’s feelings seem to be important enough for him to keep him from pretending to be indifferent, to act like he forgot everything that happened between them. Somehow, he cares enough for Kurt to pick up the strands of their relationship where they left them after their fight in April.

And that, perhaps more than anything else, is the reason why Kurt says, “And I don’t mind a challenge.”

At this, Lord Smythe looks up to meet his eyes, and slowly, a grin that is far more genuine than the one before appears on his face. Kurt is almost certain that he will comment on Kurt’s last sentence, but instead his employer merely remarks, “I’m glad you stayed. I think it would be rather quiet without you.”

“I’m sure you would manage without me,” Kurt says, and remembering something, he adds, “Among other things, I heard you managed to get yourself thrown out of the opera recently.”

Lord Smythe needs a moment to catch up to his train of thought, but then he grins, “Oh, I would hardly call it an opera. A travesty, maybe.”

Kurt doesn’t bother to hide his own grin, “Nick didn’t tell me what you did to get yourself thrown out?”

“I laughed,” Lord Smythe admits unrepentant. “Loudly. And for a very long time. I basically started the moment the curtain raised and couldn’t stop until we were asked to leave.”

“That sounds rather rude,” Kurt comments, but Lord Smythe merely shrugs, “I didn’t choose to laugh. It was more the only way to suffer through this performance.” He tilts his head to the side and looks at Kurt, “Have you ever been to the opera?”

“Not yet,” Kurt replies, “Though I would give my left hand to go one day.”

“I am rather sure that they don’t want more than a sixpence,” Lord Smythe grins. “You can go when...”

He pauses, and for a moment, the atmosphere between them becomes awkward again. But only for a second, because Lord Smythe straightens his shoulders and says, “You should go next year.”

“I will,” Kurt says, careful not to consider Lord Smythe’s words a promise. “Though I would love to see an opera in one of the big playhouses one day.” He sighs, “But I guess I have to be content with the small theatres.”

“They’re not bad,” Lord Smythe replies. “Usually they’re by far more fun.”

Seeing Kurt’s surprised expression at hearing this, he shrugs, “Just because I have access to the big playhouses doesn’t mean I exclusively go there all the time.”

“I’ll make sure to ask for your recommendations next year then,” Kurt answers.

“Or maybe Lady Isabella’s sister will give us the honour to perform a song or two while she is here,” Lord Smythe adds, “She fancies herself to be quite the musical talent.”

“Oh,” Kurt says, “Is she any good?”

The expression on Lord Smythe is so genuinely horrified that Kurt has to laugh. “You find it funny now,” Lord Smythe says, “That’ll change once you have to listen to her, I promise.”

“We’ll see about that,” Kurt replies, “But thanks for the warning, I guess.”

Lord Smythe opens his mouth to reply something, but the sound of a door opening startles him. At the end of the corridor, Jeff just backs out from Lord Huntington’s room, a jacket over his arm and a slightly annoyed expression on his face.

“I’ll see you later,” Lord Smythe says, and with one last look at Kurt he turns around and walks down the corridor. Kurt looks after him until he hears Jeff’s footsteps behind him.

“Hey Kurt,” the blond boy greets him, “I swear, nobody takes as long as Lord Huntington to decide which jacket he wants to wear. I mean, he’s already married – who is he trying to impress?” He shakes his head, and Kurt is glad that he isn’t expected to answer the question – because he could. “Are you done in Sir Robert’s room?”

“I am,” Kurt says, “Let’s go change for the evening.”

“I guess,” Jeff sighs. “Looks like everything’s back to normal.”

Kurt nods, but when he follows Jeff down the staircase, he can’t help but think that “normal” is not a word he ever could have used to describe his life at Bailey Hall.

Or one he will be able to use in the future.