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China Cups and Top Hats

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It is late, and Bailey Hall has gone to sleep a while ago. The corridors are quiet; the kitchen is deserted, and in every room people are either fast asleep already, or on the brink of dozing off, with their eyelids getting heavier and the first images of a dream world appearing in front of their tired eyes.

Not in every room, though.

In the servants’ quarters, the small corridor with the two doors leading to the rooms of the footmen seems, at first glance, peaceful enough. If a nightly visitor would open the door and glimpse into the room on the left hand side, he would see a blond boy snuggled deep into his blanket, sleeping innocently with his mouth slightly open, snoring lightly from time to time. If this unknown visitor would, however, turn to the other bed in the room, he would find it empty and untouched, with blanket, nightshirt and owner mysteriously absent. And while this might confuse said intruder, all he has to do is to turn to the room on the opposite side of the corridor to find an explanation for that empty bed.

Nick’s room is the only place in the dark house that is still alight, with two candles burning in their holders on the small table, right next to where Kurt and Nick are sitting on Nick’s narrow bed. Both boys are in their nightshirts, and both have a blanket tightly wrapped around their shoulders. It’s very late, because after everyone finally got tired of the dancing and retired to their respective rooms, Kurt had listened to Jeff’s slow and steady breathing for almost half an hour. When he was convinced that the other boy was fast asleep, he quietly slipped out of the room and scurried across the corridor and gently knocked on the door to the other room, where he found Nick in bed, reading and waiting for him. Oddly enough, neither of them feels tired, even though it must be well after two o’clock in the morning. But having the opportunity to finally talk openly and honestly to one another is thrilling enough to keep sleep at bay, at least for now.

“You’re not going to tell him, are you?” Kurt asks, shifting his feet so that his toes, cold even in the thick woollen socks, are hidden under the edge of Nick’s blanket.

“Who, Jeff?” Nick retorts, his left eyebrow rising in silent disbelief at Kurt’s question. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Kurt is quiet for a second, before he continues, “Are you absolutely sure that he isn’t…”

“Kurt,” Nick sighs. “I have been in love with him for more than a year now. Trust me – if there was any sign that my feelings are being reciprocated, I would have noticed.”

It’s strange how much Kurt would like to object to Nick’s assessment, but when he really thinks about it, he can’t. Jeff and Nick are close, yes, but it is obvious that this closeness is nothing more than a brotherly love for a very good friend – at least on Jeff’s side.

“I force myself not to see things that don’t exist,” Nick’s quiet voice interrupts Kurt’s thoughts, “To not interpret his actions in the way I want to understand them, but to see them for what they truly are. But even if I tried to convince myself that he feels the same way about me – not even I can move that far away from reality.”

Impulsively, Kurt reaches out and rests his hand on top of Nick’s, squeezing his fingers gently in a silent gesture of sympathy. Nick looks up, and a grateful smile appears on his lips.

“Is Jeff the first boy you have been in love with?” Kurt asks. Nick tilts his head to the side and contemplates his answer for a few seconds before he retorts, “I had feelings for other boys before I met Jeff. But they were never that serious, never something I actually wanted to act upon, and they also never lasted that long. So yes. I guess Jeff is my first love.”

Kurt feels his heart ache at the words, but when he thinks about the boys Nick could have possibly been in love with, a confusing suspicion rises among his thoughts, and before he can stop himself, he blurts out, “Have you ever been in love with Lord Smythe?”

Nick stares at him in bewilderment for a split second before he bursts into laughter. “Oh dear God, no,” he says, his tone sounding equally surprised and appalled at the notion, “He’s like a brother to me. Well, an annoying, irresponsible, slightly richer brother who I have to address with ‘your Lordship’, but still.”

Suddenly though, he stops laughing, and squints at Kurt with suspicion in his eyes, “Why do you ask that?”

And finally, this is the moment when Kurt can’t take it any longer. Everything he has kept silent about for the last year, everything that had to remain secret for so long breaks out of him, and he tells Nick everything: how he found out about Lord Smythe’s relationships with Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington, how he learned that Nick and Lord Smythe are close friends, that he wanted to talk to Nick and ask for his advice, but that he was afraid Nick would side with Lord Smythe, how he met Mr Brown’s nephew and fell in love with him, how they spent the summer together, how they broke up. But most of all, he tells him how lonely he felt, how helpless, and how glad he is that he finally, finally can share everything with somebody.

When he has finished, he looks up to find the other footman staring at him, an expression of complete and utter disbelief on his face. “You have known all this time?” Nick asks eventually.

When Kurt nods, he adds, “And you never once thought about telling somebody?”

“Like I said,” Kurt replies, “I wasn’t sure how you would react to me kno…”

“That’s not what I meant,” Nick interrupts him. “You never thought about telling somebody about Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald? Or Lord Huntington?”

“Well, no,” Kurt says, puzzled at the turn their conversation is taking. “Of course not. That would have seriously damaged his reputation, wouldn’t it?”

Nick is still shaking his head at him, and Kurt has the increasing feeling that he has done something really stupid, so when Nick continues to look at him in a way that borders on being patronising, he snaps, “What?”

“You are amazing,” Nick says, emphasising each word. Taken aback, Kurt blinks at him, unable to decide how to react to this.

“You are amazing, Kurt,” Nick repeats, “Seriously, if Sebastian had treated me the way he treated you, I would have made sure that every single inhabitant of Wilton was aware of who he takes to bed with him.”

“I never would have done that,” Kurt exclaims, feeling a bit shocked at Nick’s blunt assessment. “I mean, of course I was angry at him, but nobody deserves that.”

“I was at a point where I thought he did, sometimes,” Nick says, “But maybe I just lack your patience.” He runs his fingers through his hair, and even though the gesture feels awfully familiar, Kurt needs a second to realise that it reminds him of Lord Smythe. “I told him time and time again that he needs to be more careful. I mean, heavens, it could have been anybody walking past his door that night. Or any other night.” He purses his lips, “No, it would have served him right.”

Kurt looks at Nick for a long moment, and slowly, he understands that Nick isn’t angry, not truly. He is worried about Lord Smythe. And considering what Kurt knows about their employer and his careless behaviour, he can’t blame Nick for that.

“You care about him a lot, don’t you?” he asks. Nick sighs and let’s his head fall back against the wall. “Most of the time I hate him,” he replies, with no real venom behind the words, “Because he is a reckless, irresponsible, selfish bastard.”

He shrugs and a defeated smile appears on his face, “But he’s my best friend, and the only family I have. So yes, of course I care about that idiot.”

Encouraged by this statement, Kurt dares to ask the question that he has been longing to voice for months now, “How, I mean, why did you two become friends in the first place?”

Nick takes a deep breath and pulls his blanket closer around his shoulders, “I think I have to start at the beginning.”

“That’s usually the best place to start,” Kurt agrees, eager to hear more about Nick’s past. So far, the other footman has been very reluctant to share more than a few details about his life, presumably because it is so closely intertwined with the story of Lord Smythe. But with that obstacle out of their way, Nick finally begins to tell their story.

“You know that I spent my whole life here at Bailey,” Nick begins. “I grew up here. My parents died when I was very young, and I hardly remember them. When I think of my family, I think about Mrs Bertram, about Mrs Seymour, and Mr Hale.” When Kurt frowns in confusion, Nick clarifies, “He was the valet of the former Lord Smythe, after my father died and before Mr Moore came here.” He shrugs, “I was sort of the child of everybody. I grew up in the kitchen – and Sebastian grew up in the house.”

He smiles fondly, and Kurt likes to see the way his face lights up when he recalls his childhood. “Sebastian is only three weeks younger than me, did you know that? And there were no other children here at Bailey. His brother, Frederick, was five years older, so he wasn’t interested in playing with us little ones in the first place, and he was away at school most of the time anyway. So when I wanted to play with someone, I always went to Sebastian.” He smiles, “Or, more often, Sebastian would find me.”

“And nobody objected to your friendship?” Kurt inquires.

“Not at first,” Nick replies. “I mean, we were small children, we just wanted someone to play with. And, given how energetic Sebastian was already back then – I think everybody was glad when they didn’t have to look after him for an hour or so.”

He contemplates this for a moment, before he adds, “But I think most of all it was because Lady Smythe liked me, and encouraged our friendship. Sebastian’s father didn’t approve of it, but to be honest, he wasn’t as interested in his younger son as he was in Frederick.”

Kurt notices the shadow that crosses over Nick’s face. From what Mrs Seymour has told him about Lord Smythe’s parents during that sunny afternoon in the attic, he could sense that the former Lord Smythe isn’t just a bright spot in the family history of Bailey Hall, and Nick’s assessment seems to support Kurt’s theory. He doesn’t interrupt Nick, however, because they have all night, and right now, he wants to hear more about the unusual friendship.

“When we were little, we did everything together. Sebastian usually managed to get us into trouble, and I tried to get us out of it,” Nick tells him, smiling fondly at the memory.

“You mean, he was already as difficult as a child as he is now?” Kurt asks.

Nick grins, “Yeah, he started early. He drove his governess and his teacher crazy on a regular basis. I guess that’s why eventually, I was allowed to attend lessons with him, because I was the only one, apart from his mother, who could calm him down.”

That also explains why Nick is so much more educated than the average footman, Kurt thinks. While people like Jeff and himself went to public school or were taught by their parents, Nick had the opportunity to attend private tutoring.

“Back then, I thought it was always going to be like this. I mean, of course I knew that one day, Sebastian would be ‘Sir Smythe’, and I would be a footman or maybe even a butler in his brother’s household, but it seemed so far away back then. However, our days together didn’t last forever, like I wanted them to. When Sebastian turned ten, his father suddenly remembered his younger son, and realised that this son was not as brilliant as his older brother, who excelled at school and was the favourite of his teachers. Frederick always had a bright future ahead of him.”

Nick’s eyes meet Kurt’s, “Don’t get me wrong. Sebastian has never been stupid. He merely wasn’t interested in learning. He hated discipline, he didn’t enjoy the books that he was required to read, or sports that were forced upon him.”

“You mean, he was more of a free spirit?” Kurt asks.

“I mean that he refused on principle what other people told him to,” Nick sighs. “He liked to do things at his own pace, and at his own whim. And he always had a knack for questioning authority. And while Lady Smythe loved this about her son, those weren’t exactly the qualities Lord Smythe could appreciate.” Nick pauses for a moment, recollecting his thoughts, before he concludes, “So he decided that Sebastian should be sent to school.”

Nick shifts on the mattress, and his blanket slides down from his left shoulder, “That was the worst thing anyone could have done to him. Sebastian cried, he screamed, he kicked against furniture, he refused to eat for days – in short, he threw the biggest tantrum I ever had the pleasure to witness. In vain though – in September, we had to say goodbye to each other.”

“Was that the first time you were separated?” Kurt asks, and Nick nods, “Apart from a few family visits and vacations that never lasted more than a couple of weeks, yes. And I can tell you – it was downright horrible.”

A darker expression has settled on Nick’s face now, “Of course we exchanged letters at first, but we were very young, and too much was happening in our lives, so after a while, we lost touch. I still remember that I felt terribly lonely and left behind, and even though we didn’t have much contact, I thought about him every day.”

“You must have missed him a lot,” Kurt remarks. Nick stares into the distance for a second, before he slowly says, “It got better after a while. It didn’t hurt as much. But we had spent our whole lives together, and every day I saw things that reminded me of him.”

He pulls the blanket closer around his shoulders as he continues, “The first time I saw him again was when he returned home four years later. His visit wasn’t planned, but Lady Smythe, who was always rather fragile, fell very ill that autumn.”

Kurt remembers this piece of the story from what Mrs Seymour has told him in front of Lady Smythe’s portrait. Nick’s expression is still clouded, and Kurt rightfully suspects that the following account will not relate a joyous reunion.

“Of course it wasn’t a happy occasion that brought him back home. We were all terribly fond of Lady Smythe, and when she passed away…” he pauses for a moment, searching for the right expression, “I think everyone felt paralysed. No one could quite understand that she was just… gone.” He shakes his head, “I think the most horrible thing was that Sebastian only arrived three hours after she had passed away. Until this very day, I don’t think he has forgiven himself for not being there to say goodbye.”

When Kurt looks up, he is surprised to see a faint smile on Nick’s lips, “But despite the numbness and the shock in the house, I still remember how relieved I was to finally see him again, even though I didn’t receive a letter from him in eight months.”

Eight months?” Kurt asks, “He didn’t write you in eight months?”

Nick shrugs, “Like I said, he wasn’t a very enthusiastic letter writer in the first place, and he has always been bad at expressing himself – even more so in written form. I had no idea what was going on with him at school, but somehow, I expected that when he returned, everything would just be like it was before.”

When Nick doesn’t continue, Kurt asks gently, “But it wasn’t?”

“Not at all,” Nick answers, “When I saw him again, I couldn’t believe how changed he was. Of course he had grown, and of course the worry and the grief had taken their toll on him, but I didn’t expect him to be so cold, so closed off. He didn’t so much as look at me, he didn’t look at any of the servants. And when I tried to comfort him, to offer my condolence, he looked right through me.”

He sighs, “I was so devastated, especially because I couldn’t understand why. Of course I knew that he was mourning his mother – we all were – but during those days, I never saw him cry, not once, not even at his mother’s funeral. I remember how I watched him during the entire service, standing between his father and his brother, his face alarmingly pale and his eyes never leaving his mother’s coffin.” Nick shifts, bringing his knees up against his chest, “But he didn’t cry. Not even then.”

“I suppose he didn’t want to cry in public,” Kurt muses. “I suspect that no fourteen year old boy would.”

“That’s true,” Nick replies. “I think he tried to push away his feelings, his grief, so that he didn’t have to deal with the loss. But of course, that didn’t work in long run. What happened was that he took all his bottled-up emotions out on the other people around him, and especially the ones that couldn’t stand up to him – which for the most part, meant me.”

Kurt lifts his head, his gaze meeting Nick’s. “What exactly does that mean?” he asks. Nick sighs, “I’ll spare you the details of what went down between us during the next weeks, but let’s say we both said and did a lot of things we’re not proud of in hindsight.”

This sounds awfully similar to what Kurt himself experienced during his first months at Bailey Hall, which is why it becomes even harder for him to imagine how Nick and his employer reconciled, so he presses, “And what happened? I mean, obviously you managed to move past that?”

“Well,” Nick drawls, “We were fourteen, and after a few weeks, I was very pissed, and frustrated, and disappointed, and Sebastian kept being an arse. So I slapped him.”

You what?”

“I punched him,” Nick says, “In his face. Heaven knows I’m not proud of it and I assure you, it was the only time I ever hit another person. But… you know how frustrating Sebastian can be.”

That is something Kurt knows indeed, and even though he would never allow himself to act upon it, he can understand the basic urge to slap him. “And what did he do?” he asks.

“Well before I really knew what had happened, we were rolling over the floor, kicking and punching each other,” Nick says, “And I am ever so thankful that nobody heard our fight and came in to stop it, because only five minutes later, Sebastian broke down and started sobbing in my arms.”

Kurt blinks at his friend. He’s having a hard time imagining the picture Nick is painting with his story, especially since the idea of Lord Smythe ‘sobbing’ isn’t one Kurt can quite connect with the composed appearance he has seen so far. But the longer he thinks about it, the more the notion of this exterior – along with the sarcasm and the occasional cruelness – being nothing more than a way of protection starts to make sense.

“He cried for an hour, and I did too,” Nick continues, “I can’t explain it, really, but after that, I felt closer to him than I ever did, even before he left.”

“Did he still treat you like a servant afterwards?” Kurt inquires.

“Not at all,” Nick replies, “He started to open up to me. Maybe he was just waiting for someone he could finally talk to. He told me about his life at school, how much he missed his home, even though he tried his best to fit in.”

Smiling, Nick says, “He was always a natural leader. When we were young, he always came up with some sort of plan, and I usually tried to keep him from going through with it. At school, the other boys listened to him, and now… well, you’ve seen how people like Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington are around him.”

“Did he return to school after his mother died?” Kurt asks. Nick shakes his head, “Not immediately. His father and brother left for London rather soon after the funeral. I think neither of them could bear to stay at Bailey, to be reminded of her all the time.”

“But Lord Smythe did?”

“For a few weeks, yes. We mourned his mother together, just like the rest of the household did. But even when he returned to school, we never lost touch again.” Nick is silent for a moment, staring into the darkness behind the flickering candlelight, before his gaze searches Kurt’s again, “I think we both learned how lucky we were to have each other.”

“And how long did he stay at school?” Kurt asks.

“Three years, until he was seventeen,” Nick replies, “But he visited us very often, and wrote long letters when he was away. Though now, we had to be careful to keep our friendship hidden. I started my training as a footman, and Bastian was away at a school for young noblemen. What had been adorable when we were children became quite impossible, so we learned to be careful.”

Nick’s words stir something inside Kurt’s memory, and remembering a conversation they had long ago, he asks, “Is this why you told me not to have a special relationship to my employer?” He recalls Nick’s words, what he said during the evening in last year’s December after Kurt had publicly called Lord Smythe “Sir” for the very first time, “Why you told me to not be different from the other servants?”

When Nick’s only reply is a wistful smile, Kurt says, in a voice that sounds surprisingly accusing even to his own ears, “You were speaking from experience.”

“I was,” Nick admits, “I think everything I ever said to you about Sebastian comes from experience. Especially the fact that you have to be careful if you form any sort of special attachment to people outside your class.” He is silent for a moment, thinking, before he adds, “You know, in a way, you were right before. It is a lot like having a lover nobody can know about.” His gaze flicks back at Kurt’s face, and he grins, “Though, if I understood you correctly, I’m not the expert in this room.”

The mention of lovers brings back the images of the summer, and Nick’s mischievous grin tells Kurt that the other footman knows exactly what he is thinking about. Ignoring Nick’s suggestively raised eyebrow and the fact that his cheeks feel more heated by the second, he decides that he is not yet ready to switch topics, and asks, “When did you realise that you and Sebastian… well, share the same taste?”

He doesn’t even realise that he has adopted Nick’s habit of calling his employer by his first name when in private, because Nick’s grin falters immediately. His whole face closes off, and hastily, he says, “I can’t tell you that.”

Kurt feels like he has been slapped, and his hurt and disappointment must be visible on his face, because Nick seems to regret his harsh reaction immediately.

“I’m sorry, Kurt,” he says, his expression full of genuine regret, “I didn’t mean it like that, it’s just… I can’t talk about that.”

“No, it’s alright,” Kurt replies, looking down to his lap, and even he can hear in his voice that it is not alright, “I just thought we were finally being honest with each other.”

“We are,” Nick says, his hand coming to rest upon Kurt’s knee, “It’s just… it’s not my secret to share. If it was, I would tell you.” He squeezes Kurt’s knee gently, and when Kurt looks at him again, he adds softly, “Really.”

Kurt sighs. He’s not completely happy with that, but he understands that Nick isn’t comfortable with sharing this. So he merely says, “I guess I’ll have to be content with this.”

“I’m sorry,” Nick repeats, “But you know, I just don’t like to talk about other people’s secrets. In general. I mean, I haven’t told Sebastian anything the two of us discussed that night when you yelled at him.”

“You haven’t?” Kurt asks, surprised to hear this. For some reason, he has always assumed that Nick shared most of what was going on in the servant’s quarters with Sebastian, which was why he had grown a bit more careful around him once he knew about his friendship to their employer.

“Of course I haven’t,” Nick says, nudging Kurt’s shin with his foot. “I avoid interfering with your complicated relationship.”

Personally, Kurt thinks that Nick has done quite a lot of interfering already, but there is a question that has been burning inside his mind ever since he met Sebastian for the very first time, and now, he finally might have a chance of getting an answer to that question. So he asks, “Do you know why Sebastian hates me?”

“He doesn’t hate you,” Nick objects immediately, “Whatever problem he had with you in the beginning, he has long overcome that. I think he has really grown to like you.”

“Fine,” Kurt admits, unwilling to argue about this, even though he isn’t as convinced as Nick seems to be. “Do you know why he hated me when he first met me?”

“I have a few suspicions,” Nick admits. “But I don’t know why, no.”

“Have you never asked him about it?” Kurt inquires. Nick tilts his head to the side and replies, “Not exactly. If I did, I never got an answer. But I told him to leave you alone a couple of times.”

ldquo;You did?”

“Of course I did. What kind of friend do you think I am? I yelled at him three evenings in a row when he refused to take you to London.”

“But you still won’t tell me the reason why he left me here?”

Nick hesitates, “In a way, it has to do with a few other things I don’t want to talk about. I’m sorry, Kurt. But if it’s of any consolation, I can assure he regretted it.”

At this, Kurt narrows his eyes suspiciously at the other footman, “Why would he have regretted it?”

“Well, partly because I was really upset and refused to talk to him for a couple of weeks,” Nick says. “And partly because I think what you said to him really cut deep.” When Kurt raises his eyebrows in silent disbelief, Nick continues, “He knows that he behaves like an idiot sometimes, Kurt. He can’t seem to help it, but he’s aware of it. But I think it needed you calling him out on it for him to realise how much of jerk he was to you.” The brunette footman sighs, “I think he was angry with himself most of the time in London.”

Kurt isn’t sure how to respond to this. There are so many things he wants to ask Nick, about himself, about Jeff, but mostly about Sebastian. But he sees how careful Nick still is when the conversation turns to his best friend, and Kurt can’t blame him for it. And while a part of him wants to pry, wants to hear an explanation for everything that still puzzles him about his employer – a another part wants to ask Sebastian himself about it.

It’s not an easy choice, but he decides that this conversation is not primarily about Sebastian. It is about Nick and him. One question is still occupying his mind, so he asks, “Does Sebastian know about you and Jeff?”

“I never told him,” Nick replies, “But he knows me better than anybody else. I doubt it escaped his attention.”

“But did he ever say something about it?” Kurt presses.

“No,” Nick says, and the sad smile is back on his face, “I assume he knows as well as I do that it’s hopeless, and that he doesn’t want to see me getting depressed. So he avoids the topic.” He sighs in a way that tells Kurt that he himself would like to avoid the topic too, and adds, “Let’s talk about happier things, shall we?”

“We can,” Kurt says reluctantly, “But you know – if you ever want to talk about it, or about anything else…”

“I know that I can also come to you now,” Nick concludes, and this time, his hand comes to rest upon Kurt’s, squeezing his fingers tightly. “Thank you, Kurt.” For a moment, the two footmen smile at each other, and Kurt feels a warmth spreading through his body that he hasn’t felt since his parents died, leaving him without a family.

“So,” Nick grins, “About this boy you met during the summer…” Kurt groans and hides his face in his hands, while Nick ruthlessly continues, “… how was he?”

“He was…,” Kurt says, and images flash inside his mind – the heavy scent of spices and herbs in Mr Brown’s shop, the tingling sensation of fingertips tracing the outline of his lips, the lingering, bittersweet taste of lemonade on his tongue while a pair of brown eyes watches him from across the kitchen table, “… incredible,” he concludes, and Nick laughs at the dreamy expression on Kurt’s face.

“I think I would like to hear more about this incredible boy,” he says, leaning back against the wall, and Kurt feels at the same time embarrassed and happy when he starts to tell Nick about his summer.

The new day is dawning when Kurt tiptoes back to his room. Relieved to see that Jeff is still asleep where Kurt has left him, his arm across his face and his blanket only covering the lower half of his body, he climbs into his bed. While the darkness outside slowly turns into lighter shades of grey, he rests his head on his pillow, and realises that, for the first time since he came to Bailey Hall, he feels thoroughly happy and relaxed.

And that, he thinks before his eyes finally close, was definitely worth the lack of sleep.