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China Cups and Top Hats

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Kurt would never have believed to ever see Lady Smythe entering the dining room with a light smile on her lips, her face a picture of complete and utter satisfaction. At least until Sebastian’s wedding day. Surprisingly though, the ball at Bailey Hall has exactly this effect on her ladyship, and during dinner the evening after the ball, when the last guests have finally left and the house is quiet again, she cannot stop congratulating herself.

“Everyone was so pleased with our little gathering,” Lady Smythe says, spooning the soup into her mouth with a content expression on her face. “Lady Milford was so taken with the decorations, and, Sebastian, you know that I am always willing to share some advice: ‘My dear Violet, I said, you need to give the servants quite detailed orders regarding the flowers, don’t ever leave them to their own judgement. And you need to keep an eye on how everything is arranged, personally, I always make sure that there are flowers in front of the windows, and a bouquet on each table, two if more than ten people sit around it’…”

Sebastian looks at his soup as if he is seriously considering trying to drown himself in it, and Kurt can’t blame him. Nevertheless, the fact that Lady Smythe is so busy marvelling at her own success also means that she almost forgets to nag Sebastian about his marriage for quite some time, which seems to cheer the young earl up immensely. Overall, the next few days are rather quiet, leaving the servants enough time to remove the last reminders of the event at Bailey Hall, and Mrs Bertram some room to calm her nerves after the almost-debacle with the meat course.

Oddly enough though, Kurt finds himself almost longing for something to do, for something to disturb the peace and the restfulness, because they leave nothing to distract him from thinking about that afternoon in the forest.

During these days, Kurt sometimes remembers his first weeks at Bailey Hall, and time and time again he wonders how the relationship between him and Sebastian changed from pure resentment to… to whatever it is they’re having now. Because ever since that afternoon, the word “friendship” seems to fit even less than it did before.

After all, his friends don’t give Kurt goosebumps when their fingertips touch his skin. His friends don’t make his heartbeat quicken when they walk into a room and their eyes meet Kurt’s. Kurt doesn’t spend hours wondering about his friendship with Nick, or with Jeff, or with Jane. And while he values all of their presents, he doesn’t feel the urge to hide them underneath the loose board in the windowsill like he does with the blue scarf. He wrapped Teleny in the soft material, partly because he was afraid that someone recognised the scarf, they might ask him where he got it, and partly because he doesn’t feel comfortable with the present, because he doesn’t know what to think of it. He is slowly accepting that his feelings for Sebastian are changing, but he doesn’t know whether he feels quite ready for what they are changing into.

However, he doesn’t only think about his own feelings – he wonders about Sebastian’s too. And the more he contemplates it, the less certain he is that Sebastian intends his gestures in the way they are affecting Kurt. Perhaps they are really nothing more than signs of innocent affection, signs that he appreciates Kurt as a friend. Seeing how intimate Sebastian and Nick are, never shying away from physical contact (though they mostly seem to throw things at each other), it seems a likely explanation, and yet, Kurt can’t help feeling that the looks, the touches, the smiles directed at him, are something more than merely friendly.

But then again, for Sebastian to actively seek out the contact, the flirtation, if you could call it that, between them, would require him to know that Kurt could potentially be interested in his advances. And this is the point that leaves Kurt wondering the most.

“Do you think Sebastian knows?” he blurts out one day, when he is sitting in Mr Moore’s study together with Nick. They each have a plate and a cloth in front of them because the butler decided that, after the ball, it wouldn’t hurt to give the silver another thorough going-over.

Nick looks at him, his left eyebrow raised quizzically, waiting for Kurt to continue. When he doesn’t, Nick drawls, “Well, I believe Sebastian knows a great deal of things. I think in some regards he definitely knows more than it would be good for him, and in other areas he desperately needs further education. But I reckon it would be easier for me to answer your question if you could specify it a little.”

Kurt feels embarrassed, because for a moment, he truly forgot that Nick couldn’t have possibly followed his train of thoughts, and he hastily adds, “I meant… you do think Sebastian knows about me?”

When Nick is continuing to stare at him, a picture of perfect patience, Kurt rolls his eyes, “About me and… you know, being attracted…”

“Being attracted to other men?” Nick asks. “Falling in love with other men? Thinking about sleeping with other men? Wanting to sleep with other men?”

Kurt throws his cloth at Nick’s face, his cheeks feeling uncomfortably heated.

“Kurt, you need to be able to voice these things!” Nick says, dropping the cloth back into Kurt’s lap. “Of course you can’t announce it to the world, but why do you have problems talking about it when we’re alone?”

“Well, it’s not that easy,” Kurt mumbles. “There isn’t really like, a term for what we are, is there?”

Nick sighs and shakes his head, “Not if you don’t like to call yourself a sodomite, there isn’t.”

For a moment, the two footmen sit together in silence, each one lost in his own thoughts. Finally, Nick grabs his cloth and resumes his polishing task.

“To answer your earlier question – I don’t know,” he says. “He never talked to me about it, or asked.”

“Never?” Kurt inquires.

“No, but I think he… let’s say, he suspects,” Nick says, “Sebastian has a knack for seeing people as they truly are. It’s like an instinct, maybe, an instinct of seeing who won’t shy away if you approach them. Though of course, you only really find out when you approach them.”

Kurt glances at Nick, wondering whether the other footman has also noticed the changing atmosphere between him and Sebastian, and for a moment, he wants to open his mouth and ask him. But then Nick continues, “Don’t you sometimes feel like that too? I mean, take us for example: of course we’re friends because we like each other, and because you need somebody to back you up in front of Mr Moore every now and then, but… I mean, I’m not this close with Jeff, or with Jane, because there is one important part of me that I can never share with them.”

He tilts his head to the side and looks at Kurt, “This is special between us, Kurt. Sure, there are many things that are special, but I mean that we can be honest with each other.” He looks down at his knee, where, out of a sudden wave of affection, Kurt’s hand has come to rest upon. He smiles and puts his hand on top of Kurt’s, squeezing the other boy’s fingers gently, “And I guess that this is what Sebastian is realising. That he can be honest with you too.”

It’s a thought that stays with Kurt over the next days, and more and more he understands what Nick means.  There is something between the three of them that ties them together, something more than just the fact that they don’t care about the social gap between them. It’s like a silent understanding that all of them have a caught a glimpse at a world that goes beyond the everyday life of the other people at Bailey Hall. A world that can be a horrible and cruel place, and yet offers pleasures that other people wouldn’t even dream of. Neither better nor worse – merely different.


It happens in the early afternoon of November 5th, when Kurt is sitting in the kitchen with a book on his knees. It’s a quiet afternoon – Lady Smythe has retreated to her room, probably to take a short nap (the ball has exhausted her more that she likes to acknowledge, and she now always needs a couple of hours of rest during the day), and Sir Robert is in the library, which Kurt knows because he has brought him tea and biscuits half an hour ago. He has no idea where Sebastian is, or where Harriet and Jane have vanished to, but he knows that Nick and Jeff decided to go for a walk down to the village. Kurt thought about accompanying them at first, but then decided against it – he sensed that the two needed some quality time to themselves, and when he saw Nick’s expression when he declined (relieved but simultaneously feeling bad about it), he knew it was the right choice.

But that is also the reason why he happens to be in the kitchen when loud voices from the courtyard cause him to look up from his book. He leaves it on the table and walks towards the window, peering out. He spots Jonathan and Howard, hurrying towards a third figure. Kurt needs a second to recognise Sebastian – the other man is holding onto the reins of one of the horses. Kurt believes that he is clad in his riding outfit, even though it is a little hard to tell – from what he can see, the left side of Sebastian’s clothes is completely covered in mud.

“Mr Moore,” he says, and later, he will feel proud about how nothing in his voice gives away his concern. “I believe we are needed outside.”

When they arrive in the courtyard, they soon find out that Sebastian decided to ride out – though without telling anyone about it, which is why Jonathan and Howard got very upset when they saw that Amber, the chestnut mare that tried to bite Kurt once, was missing.

“We searched everywhere and asked everybody,” Howard says, taking the reins of the horse, sounding terribly relieved, “Because we wanted to make sure she was truly gone before we alarmed anybody.”

“What happened, your lordship,?” Mr Moore inquires, his concerned gaze travelling over Sebastian. Kurt has never seen his employer looking this dishevelled before: his clothes are stained with mud, and Kurt suspects that there is no way of saving this riding jacket. Even if they would be able to get rid of the stains, there is little that can be done about the tears in the fabric. Even Sebastian’s hair is muddy, there are a few scratches on his cheeks, and he seems a little off-balance, like he can’t seem to put much weight on his left leg.

“I tried to make Amber go over the pond at the end of the forest,” Sebastian replies, staring at the mare with accusation in his gaze. “But she wasn’t inclined to take the jump.”

“You fell off your horse?” Kurt asks, his expression as incredulous as Howard’s, though by far not as amused as Jonathan’s. He has trouble picturing this – after all, he has seen Sebastian on horse-back before, and he has yet to see someone more graceful in the saddle.

“I didn’t fall,” Sebastian replies, sounding mortally offended when he glares at Kurt, “She threw me off.”

“Are you hurt?” Kurt asks immediately, despite the disapproving frown Mr Moore directs at him, presumably for constantly interrupting the adult’s conversation. Sebastian shakes his head, “A little bruised, that’s all. I’ll survive.” But he lets Mr Moore support him when he starts to hobble towards the entrance, “I just want a hot bath and a change of clothes, then I’ll be good as new.”

“I’m afraid I allowed Nicholas and Jeffrey to walk down to the village,” Mr Moore says, his voice sounding like he will never forgive himself for that mistake. “But I’m sure Kurt could run after them and tell Nicholas…”

I can help his lordship,” Kurt interrupts, because no, he is not going to fetch the two. Not when he saw how happy Nick was at the prospect of spending some time alone with Jeff.

Mr Moore stares at him in growing disapproval – not only did Kurt interrupt him (again), but now he is also contradicting him. Sebastian, who catches Mr Moore’s expression, comes to his help, “That’ll probably be the best solution, Moore. I’ve had Kurt help me before, so there’s no need to bother with fetching Nick.”

Mr Moore’s expression tells Kurt that the butler is still displeased, but he nods slowly and gravely, “Well, if you say so, my lord.” He directs his gaze once more at Kurt, “Tell Jane and Harriet to get the bath ready, Kurt, and then come up yourself. I’ll be helping his lordship to his room.”

Kurt nods and mumbles, “Yes, Mr Moore.” Before he slips away, he hears Sebastian say, “And for heaven’s sake, Moore, don’t tell my grandmother about this”, which makes him grin all the way back into the house. He rushes downstairs to the laundry to organise the water for the bath, and finds Jane and Harriet in their room, giggling over the pages of a novel. Then he rushes up to Sebastian’s room, and almost runs into Mr Moore, who shakes his head at the young man, “Kurt, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but a footman never lets anybody see him move with less than a graceful dignity.”

“Of course, Mr Moore,” Kurt says, looking down at his shoes, “I just thought his lordship would probably want to get out of these dirty clothes as soon as possible.”

“Then we don’t want him to wait any longer,” Mr Moore sighs and waves him off. Kurt waits until the butler has turned around the corner before he makes his way down the corridor in his usual speed. When he walks into Sebastian’s bedroom, the other man is sitting on his bed and just drops the second muddy boot to the floor.

“I feel gross,” he says, wrinkling his nose as he starts to unbutton his vest. “I don’t mind getting wet, but this is just…” He shudders and throws the vest, which is as stained as the rest of his clothes, onto his already discarded jacket.

“We’ll be able to save these,” Kurt says, putting the mud-covered boots next to the door so that he will remember to take them down to the kitchen, “But I fear that jacket is ruined.”

Sebastian shrugs and stands up, wincing when he carefully balances on his left leg, “I’m pretty sure I own another one. But to be honest, I don’t really feel like riding for at least the next couple of months right now.”

“Are you sure you’re not hurt, Sir?” Kurt asks, his gaze drifting back to his employer, concern tinting his voice when he sees his wobbly balance.

“Well, my pride certainly is,” Sebastian mutters. He lifts his hands to pull his shirt over his head, and then stares at it for a second, before he shrugs and tosses it onto the pile of dirty clothes next to the bed. When he looks up again, he catches Kurt’s concerned gaze, still directed at him. He sighs and the corners of his mouth lift, forming a reassuring smile, “I’m fine Kurt. Really.”

Kurt isn’t too convinced by this, because now that Sebastian is standing in front of him without his shirt on, his arms crossed in front of his bare torso, Kurt can easily spot an ugly bruise on his left side, just below the ribcage, that is already turning into a deep shade of purple.

“That doesn’t look too ‘fine’ to me,” he comments and steps closer. He reaches out to run his fingertips over the edges of the bruise, and Sebastian hisses when Kurt’s cool fingers touch his skin.

“I’ll ask Mrs Seymour whether she has an ointment for that,” Kurt offers, his fingers tracing the outline of the purple mark, leaving enough distance to the actual bruise for him to not hurt Sebastian. Now that he is that close, he can spot another bruise forming on Sebastian’s back, just over the hem of his trousers – probably where his backside has hid the dirt when he fell off Amber. There are a few scratches on his left cheek and collarbone, and on his arm, just where the fabric of the jacket has been torn. “And for those as well.”

Sebastian nods, and Kurt realises that the gaze of his employer is still fixed on the spot where Kurt’s fingers are lingering on his skin. Immediately, Kurt withdraws his hand, and clears his throat before he asks, “Do you need help undressing, or can I go check on the bath?”

Sebastian’s gaze stays on Kurt’s face for a moment, before he shakes his head, “I can manage. You can check next door.”

Kurt doesn’t need to hear that twice – he is glad to escape the awkward moment by opening the door to the adjoining bathroom. The maids have finished their preparations: the bathtub in front of the large fireplace is filled with gently steaming water, smelling faintly of lavender, a fire is cracking in the chimney, and large stacks of clean towels are on the nearby table.

“Everything’s ready,” Kurt calls, and mere moments later, Sebastian walks into the room.

Kurt remembers that the last time he found himself in this situation, he felt incredibly awkward and shy, not so much as daring to really look at the other man in his state of undress. He has changed since then – even though he tries not to stare too openly, his gaze still travels unashamed over Sebastian’s body, appreciating his long, muscular legs and his trim waist as well as the way the muscles on his back move when he grabs the rim of the bathtub to steady himself before he dips his toe into the water.

The room feels a little bit warmer all of a sudden, and Kurt is certain that not everything about that has to do with the fire, or the actual temperature in the room.

“I still cannot believe you went out all on your own,” he says, walking over to the table while Sebastian lets himself sink down into the hot water, sighing contently when he leans back. “And without telling anyone where you went off to.”

“Can we move past this topic, please?” Sebastian asks, his voice starting to sound annoyed. “Because I think you and the others need to stop making such a fuss about it.”

“I think we are absolutely entitled to ‘make a fuss about it’, because it was reckless and stupid,” Kurt says. He knows that Sebastian is definitely going to receive another, far more heated scolding from Nick as soon as the other footman returns and hears about what happened, but he can’t bring himself to stop. Maybe because he can still recall the pang he felt when he saw Sebastian standing there in the courtyard, obviously hurt. “And I don’t even want to think about what could have…”

He hears a loud splash behind him, and when he turns around, he sees that Sebastian has decided to avoid listening to Kurt’s ranting by diving under. His knees are the only thing sticking out from the water, and a few bubbles appear every now and then where his head must be, disrupting the surface. Kurt lets out an annoyed sound, and then turns to the table to shrug out of his black waistcoat, because it’s hot enough even in this vest and shirt. He has just started to roll up his sleeves when he hears another splash behind him, and when he turns around again, he sees a very wet Sebastian grinning at him, water dropping from his hair onto his face.

“I’m sorry Kurt, what was that?” he asks, combing his fingers through his hair to keep it out of his face. “I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch your last sentence.”

“You are insufferable,” Kurt informs him. He grabs a towel from the table and pulls a stool over to the bathtub, so that he can sit behind Sebastian. “You are also very childish.”

“Well, I recall that you once appreciated the fact that at least I’m not boring to be around,” Sebastian replies when Kurt drops the towel onto his head and starts to dry his hair.

“I’d rather have you boring than irresponsible,” Kurt says, rubbing Sebastian’s scalp with just a little more force than necessary. “You could have easily broken a limb when Amber threw you off, and then? How long would it have taken us to find you, lying somewhere in the woods? We probably wouldn’t have noticed your absence until it was dark, and then, what chance would we have got of finding you? You could have frozen to death, or you could…”

“Just stop, Kurt” Sebastian interrupts him. He sounds impatient, angry, but most of all, very guilty, “I get it, alright? I get it, and I’m sorry.”

Slowly, Kurt lets the towel drop down to Sebastian’s shoulders. His hair is now sticking out in all directions, a dishevelled mess, which makes him look surprisingly young, and surprisingly vulnerable. Kurt hesitates only for a moment before he drops the wet towel down to the floor, and reaches out to comb his fingers through Sebastian’s hair, and then he starts to gently massage his scalp.

Why didn’t you tell anybody where you were going?” Kurt asks. Sebastian shrugs, and stares broodingly into the distance for a moment, before he replies, “I just… I just needed to get away for a while.”

Kurt’s brow furrows, because he catches the changed tone in Sebastian’s voice, a tone that is tinted with frustration and lingering anger. “Did something happen?”

“Not really,” Sebastian replies. He sighs and leans back just a little, as if to bring his head closer to Kurt’s hands, “I just had… a conversation with my grandmother after lunch.”

“Oh. Was she talking about marriage again?” Kurt asks, because he understands how another discussion concerning this topic could have possibly ticked Sebastian off. He is actually quite glad about this conversation, because it at least partly distracts him from thinking that Sebastian’s hair feels softer between his fingers than he would have imagined. Not that he ever actually imagined how it would feel.

“Oh, no, no, nothing like that,” Sebastian replies, “We were just… she was talking about my mother.”

Kurt’s hands still on Sebastian’s skin, just when they have reached his neck. “Your mother?” he inquires.

Sebastian shrugs again, his skin moving under Kurt’s fingers. “I’m aware that my grandmother and my mother didn’t get along too well. But there are just some days when I rather wouldn’t be reminded of it.”

Kurt is quiet for a second, contemplating this. It doesn’t surprise him – he doubts that Sebastian’s grandmother was a more amiable person in younger years, and anyone not blessed with the seemingly endless patience of Sir Robert is bound to be irritated by her sooner or later. But from how he imagined Sebastian’s mother to have been like, especially when dealing with her younger son, he had always assumed that she had similar capacity of patience.

He notices that his fingers have started moving over Sebastian’s skin again, almost without his conscious permission. The skin is smooth beneath his wet fingertips, and there are still a few freckles on Sebastian’s shoulders, Kurt notices. Not many, just a few, scattered remains of the summer, a summer that sometimes seems very far away for Kurt. To give an explanation for what his hands are doing, Kurt continues his massage on Sebastian’s shoulders, searching for the tension in his muscles and trying his best to lose it.

“I’ve never really talked to you about my mother, have I?” Sebastian asks, and his head falls back into his neck when Kurt starts to work on a spot between his shoulder blades. He utters a sound that is somewhere between a moan and a sigh, and Kurt realises that he needs to keep talking to distract himself from how these sounds are affecting him.

“Well, you told me about her favourite flowers,” Kurt replies. “And I’ve seen your mother’s portrait. She was a very beautiful woman.”

“She was,” Sebastian says, his voice soft. “She was also a really good listener, and incredibly kind.” They’re silent for a moment, before Sebastian looks at Kurt over his shoulder, pulling his mouth up in a lopsided grin that somehow manages to look incredibly cocky, “Of course, she only passed the extensive beauty on to me.”

Kurt rolls his eyes, and resumes kneading Sebastian’s shoulders, a little more roughly his time.

“Come on, Kurt,” Sebastian says, and Kurt can almost hear the grin in his voice. “Admit it. I’m good looking.”

“You’re decent,” Kurt admits, unable to argue the point. Especially not since he is still very much aware of Sebastian’s naked body underneath his fingers. “You are also incredibly vain, and arrogant, and should be made aware of the fact that it’s terribly rude to talk to other people about one’s own beauty.”

“Oh please,” Sebastian snorts, “Like you have any reason to hide, with you becoming more handsome every day.”

It takes Sebastian just a moment to realise what he has just said, the same amount of time that Kurt’s hands need to still on his shoulders. Almost hastily, Sebastian adds, “Though naturally, it doesn’t take that long to look decent for everybody. Some of us are just born pretty.”

“Yes,” Kurt agrees, his thumbs pressing into a rather tense muscle with more force than before, causing Sebastian to utter a low sound of discomfort, “Some of us were also born idiots. And unfortunately, that’s not something you can outgrow.”

At this, Sebastian actually starts to laugh, and Kurt thinks it’s the first time that he has ever heard the other man laugh as carefree as this. His shoulders hunch, his body trembles, and when the last snickering has stopped, he turns around to smile warmly at Kurt, “I missed this in London, you know?”

“You missed what?” Kurt asks.

“This,” Sebastian says, raising a hand out of the water to gesture back and forth between him and Kurt, splashing single drops of water onto Kurt’s sleeve. “Talking to you like this.” He shrugs and sinks back into the water, a little to the side this time so that he is still able to look at Kurt.

The footman is rather at a loss what to reply. The summer still feels like a sensitive subject between them, and he doesn’t feel quite comfortable with saying “I missed this too”, because if he’s honest, he didn’t. How could he, when he just recently discovered how special the honesty between them truly is?

“So, your grandmother and your mother didn’t get along,” Kurt says, returning to the original topic of the conversation. “What was the problem?”

“Well, I’m sure you’ve noticed that, while my grandmother likes none of the servants, she particularly despises Nick,” Sebastian says, turning around once more so that Kurt can resume the massage on his shoulders, “I guess that you could say that he is the reason for their dispute.”

“How is that?” Kurt asks, his brows knitted in confusion.

“Well, you know that Nick and I have been friends pretty much since our childhood?”

Kurt nods, and when he remembers that Sebastian can’t see that, he replies, “Yes. Nick told me.”

“Well, generally not many people objected to that, not when we were little,” Sebastian says, splashing a little bit of water against the sides of the bathtub. “My father didn’t like it, but he also didn’t care very much about it. One day, when I was maybe five or six years old, my grandmother came to visit us. Nick and I had been playing in the fields, and I remember that we found something insanely interesting. I can’t recall what it was, maybe a large beetle or a butterfly. So we went into the drawing room to show it to my mother. Just after we came in, my grandmother started screaming.”

“Did you scare her with the beetle?” Kurt asks, grinning at the thought.

“Well, she was certainly appalled at the sight in front of her,” Sebastian replies, his voice sounding suspiciously devoid of any emotion. “But it wasn’t the beetle that scared her. It was the sight of her grandson playing with one of the servants that caused her to freak out.”

Kurt’s hands come to rest upon Sebastian’s shoulders once more, and he leans forward, just enough to spot the clenched jaw and the conflicted expression on the other man’s face.

“My mother was usually very concerned with trying to please my grandmother,” Sebastian continues, “But this time, she refused to give in. I remember her saying “Sebastian and Nicholas are friends. They have always been friends, and I won’t forbid my son to spend time with the people he loves.” And then she ushered us out of the room while my grandmother kept shouting at her.” He shakes his head, “I don’t think she has ever forgiven my mother for what happened during that afternoon.”

That explains quite a lot, Kurt reflects. Not only does it explain Lady Smythe’s attitude towards Nick, but now the fact that Sebastian doesn’t treat the servants like ‘servants’ most of the time is slowly starting to make sense. It seems like his mother taught him a lesson that day that stuck with the young earl throughout his life.

“Well,” Kurt says after a moment, “You grandmother can be quite… difficult.”

“She is a nuisance,” Sebastian says. “She is bigoted, old-fashioned, intolerant, needs to constantly voice her opinion on everything, and sometimes, I think I hate her. But she’s the only family I have left. Is it pathetic that I still want her to think well of me?”

“It’s not pathetic,” Kurt says, his fingers tracing circles on Sebastian’s skin, “But she’s not the only family you have. There are people who care immensely about you. You’ll always have Nick, and Sir Robert, and…”

Kurt realises just in time what he was about to say, and quickly closes his mouth. But of course, Sebastian notices his little slip, and he turns around in the bathtub, causing Kurt’s hands to fall from his shoulders and the water to splash against the sides of the bathtub.

“And?” he asks, propping his arms up on the rim and leaning forward, “And what, Kurt?”

Kurt blinks, “And I’m sure there are many other people who care a great deal about you.”

“What about you, Kurt?” Sebastian asks, grinning in a way that makes Kurt feel rather uncomfortable. “Do you care about me?”

“I’m going to deny that I do,” Kurt replies, “Simply because our previous conversation clearly illustrated that you don’t need anything else to feed your self-confidence.”

Suddenly, he realises how close their faces are, even closer than during that afternoon back in the forest. The tips of their noses are almost touching, and their lips are just a few inches apart. Kurt’s gaze flickers over the other man’s face, following a single drop of water which runs down from Sebastian’s hairline, over the mole next to his left eyebrow, past the corner of his eye. Sebastian blinks, his eyelashes wet and sticking together, his eyes an unsettling shade of deep and warm green.

“Well, you seemed pretty upset at the idea of me freezing to death with a broken limb outside in the woods,” Sebastian says. His voice doesn’t sound as unaffected as it did before, and the low sound makes Kurt’s skin tingle all over. “Or did I imagine that?”

It’s been months since Kurt kissed somebody, and sometimes, he really misses the feeling of being that close to another person, being intimate with someone. Nevertheless, the realisation that he is tempted, truly tempted, to just lean forward and brush his lips against Sebastian’s, not because he is here and might be willing to be kissed, but because Kurt really wants to kiss Sebastian, and only Sebastian, doesn’t come as quite a shock as Kurt would have thought. It’s been building up for weeks now, Kurt realises, and in this moment, he doesn’t wonder anymore about Sebastian’s intentions, or his own, because he is more than certain that right here, right now, he wants to kiss Sebastian – and that Sebastian wants to kiss him too.

“Well, it would certainly be a problem,” Kurt says, shocked at how low and throaty his own voice sounds. He doesn’t pay any attention to what he is saying; he is way too busy observing the way Sebastian’s lips are curled up into a smile, or the few freckles on his cheeks. “There’d be no one to pay us any longer, right?”

Even though Kurt’s entire concentration is focused on gathering up the courage to lean forward, apparently, Sebastian is still listening, and Kurt’s words have a rather unintended effect on him. He blinks once, twice, and then leans back abruptly. The water splashes over the sides of the bathtub at his sudden movements.

“I guess,” he says, clearing his throat, refusing to meet Kurt’s gaze. “Uhm… I think the water is becoming a little chilly. Could you…?”

“Of course,” Kurt replies, shaking his head, and hastily stands up to grab a large towel from the table, holding it out for Sebastian to take. He is not sure what exactly has happened now, how the atmosphere between them changed again this quickly, but there is little he can do about it. And actually, he is thankful for a moment to clear his mind, because now that he starts to think about what almost happened, without the feeling of longing clouding his senses, he is no longer convinced that it would have been a good idea.

So he just waits until Sebastian has one towel around his waist and another one around his shoulders, and then follows the other man back into the bedroom.

“Do you want me to go downstairs and check whether Nick is back?” he asks, opening the doors of the wardrobe, “Or do you trust my judgement on your evening wear?”

“I absolutely trust your judgement,” Sebastian says, and Kurt is glad to hear that his voice sounds warm again. “As much as I hate to admit it, you do have superior taste in fashion.”

“Oh, I know,” Kurt says, sorting through the waistcoats, “I saw what you picked that evening when Nick was too busy with Sir Reginald and Sir Henry to help you.”

“Are you implying that I couldn’t dress myself without Nick’s help?” Sebastian asks, sounding offended. “Because in that case, I’ll have you know that I have been dressing myself for years before Nick became my valet.”

“Of course you have, Sir,” Kurt says, and after a moment, he adds, “With the help of Mr Moore.”

He looks up just in time to see Sebastian trying to bite back a grin, and failing miserably. Kurt is glad that they managed to overcome the awkward moment, and a minute later, Nick bursts into the room, slamming the door shut behind him and glaring at Sebastian with a very pissed expression on his face.

“You took Amber without telling anyone?” he asks. Kurt has long ago realised that Nick never shouts – the more upset he gets, the calmer his voice sounds, “And you tried to make her go over the pond, even though you know she abhors water? How much stupidity can one person combine?”

Sebastian groans and lets himself fall down on the bed, burying his face into his pillow in a useless attempt to escape Nick’s scolding. Kurt grins at the other footman and says, “He’s all yours” before he slips out of the room, remembering to take the dirty clothes and the muddy boots with him.

Outside, he hesitates for a moment, gazing up and down the corridor, before he leans against the wall, wincing when the back of his head meets the frame of one of the paintings. He takes a deep breath, holds the air in his lungs for a moment before he lets it out again. He can still feel the remnants of desire pulsing through his body, and it really shouldn’t be that easy to recall the way Sebastian looked at him mere minutes ago, his gaze flickering back and forth between Kurt’s eyes and his lips.

As much as he would like to continue to lie to himself, Kurt can no longer deny that he is starting to fall for Sebastian. And the fact that he doesn’t know how to stop this isn’t even the most frightening thing about it. Neither are other thoughts, other complications that become clearer with every passing minute: the fact that Sebastian is his employer, the difference in social status, their past resentment, Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington, what Nick would say if he found out.

The most frightening thing is that, when he recalls the moment in the forest, or the moment in the bathroom, he is fairly certain that he doesn’t want it to stop.