November 1850 – January 1851
In the years to come, Kurt will remember the winter of 1850 as the most exhausting, gruelling season in his lifetime – even though it starts with a rather pleasant event.
On a bright sunny morning, a week after Mrs Seymour has removed the last left-over decorations from the ball, Lady Smythe finally leaves Bailey Hall. Unsurprisingly though, she doesn’t leave without giving out instructions first. On the evening before her departure, she hands her grandson a list with appointments, invitations and parties for him to attend over the course of the following weeks. Kurt takes care to lean over his employer’s shoulder under the pretence of refilling his glass, and sees that the list has a total of forty-seven items.
Sebastian (who has successfully managed to hide the bruises and cuts from his accident from his grandmother, and thus spared himself another scolding after the ones he received from Kurt, Nick and Sir Robert) groans in frustration when he reads through the list, only to be immediately reprimanded about the duties and responsibilities of a young earl by Lady Smythe.
“You also need to consider where and with whom you intend to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve,” she reminds him sternly. “Personally, I would advise you to visit the Milfords. If I could, I’d visit them myself, but I do feel obliged to accept Lord Brougham’s invitation. He is so lonely now that his wife has passed away, and you know how much he values my opinion on political matters.”
“I might have to visit Longleat, grandmother,” Sebastian objects, though quietly, “I did promise Lady Isabella that Robert and I would be there for Christmas months ago.”
The fact that Sebastian apparently prefers Longleat to the Milfords tells Kurt exactly how much Sebastian hates being thrown at the young Milford sisters. Either that, or that he is lying through his teeth and has no inclination to attend either party – which, Kurt decides after a careful look at Sebastian’s decidedly innocent expression, seems like the most likely option.
“Oh, very well then,” his grandmother replies, actually looking pleased at the idea, “Isabella has quite a large number of acquaintances, and you can spend a little more time with her sister. And there is always time to visit the Milfords in the new year.”
Only Sir Robert’s barely concealed grin makes Kurt turn his head quickly enough to spot Sebastian rolling his eyes at this. But for the sake of peace-keeping, he nods and agrees to all other suggestions his grandmother makes that evening. It is only after Lady Smythe has said goodnight and retired to bed that he walks over to the fireplace and unceremoniously throws the list into the crackling fire.
When Lady Smythe’s carriage pulls out of the courtyard the next morning, taking her ladyship with her, it’s as if the whole house breathes a sigh of relief. Kurt realises only now how much pressure her presence has put not only on Sebastian, but on the whole household: in what almost feels like an act of rebellion, Mrs Seymour orders the maids to bring the last blooming clematis into the drawing rooms, now that no allergy of Lady Smythe can stop her from doing so; Mr Moore seems considerably less tense (even for his standards), and Mrs Bertram celebrates the occasion by making the pastry that Lady Smythe declared to be “positively repulsive” – a judgement which prevents neither Sebastian nor Sir Robert from eating three servings each.
Quiet weeks follow, days during which the gentlemen spend lazy hours in the library or take walks under the leafless trees of the park. From time to time, Sebastian even manages to coax Sir Robert to ride out with him, and twice he can even convince him to accompany him on a hunting trip. It turns out that the accident has no lasting effect on Sebastian’s love for riding – even though Kurt believes that his employer is eyeing Amber with a little more respect than he did before.
Despite Sebastian’s initial reluctance, they do pay visits to some of the neighbouring families – not to the Milfords though. They also receive a few guests in return: a short visit from Lady Josephine for example (the lady Sir Robert became so intimately acquainted with at the ball), who is chaperoned by her brother, Count Jonathan, shows rather clearly that the young girl has fallen very hard for Sir Robert, who seems flattered, but not truly interested.
Overall, it’s a relaxed time during a surprisingly mild November. However, this quietude also means that Kurt not only has a lot of time to himself, time to think and to evaluate, but also continues to have a number of private encounters with his employer – all of which serve to illustrate that his relationship with Sebastian is changing at a pace Kurt doesn’t quite feel comfortable with yet.
Ever since that afternoon in Sebastian’s bathroom, when he was mere seconds away from leaning in closer, from giving into the impulse of pressing his lips against Sebastian’s, Kurt has to admit (if only to himself) that he has not only grown to like Sebastian – he can also no longer deny the physical attraction he feels for the other man.
While Kurt has seen Sebastian naked and in various states of undress before (which is really not an unusual thing if one of your primary tasks is to dress people), it never had the same effect on him as that afternoon did. Because now, whenever he looks at Sebastian while the other man is eating his breakfast, or when he serves the gentlemen tea in the afternoon, he frequently catches his thoughts wandering: the skin between Sebastian’s collar and hairline makes him think of the long line of his neck, the broad shoulders he knows are hidden under the layers of clothing; and he finds himself staring at Sebastian lips, mostly curved up into a grin or a smile these days, more often than usual, and decidedly more often than would be wise.
But even though Kurt is mostly rather successful at pushing these thoughts aside during the day, they keep entering his mind when he is less alert, and especially when he is less awake. A rather alarming number of dreams these days are filled with Sebastian’s presence: dreams about what his hair feels like between Kurt’s fingers, his skin beneath Kurt’s lips, testing what it feels like, tasting it; dreams about Sebastian’s fingers cupping Kurt’s cheeks and tilting his face upwards so that their lips finally meet – and it is always at this precise moment when Kurt wakes up, his own heartbeat pounding in his ears and his fingers clenched into his blanket.
It usually takes him a moment and a few deep breaths to realise where he is, to find his way back into reality; a few moments to notice how alert his body feels: the feeling of longing, of want, mixed with a surprisingly small portion of guilt or embarrassment about the fact that he is dreaming about his employer in this way, twisting somewhere below his stomach – and it’s during these mornings that Kurt feels more grateful than ever for the fact that Jeff sleeps like the dead, and never wakes from the sound of sheets rustling or quickened breathing.
Therefore, even if Kurt wanted to ignore the change in his relationship with Sebastian, it would have been quite impossible. And while he has long come to terms with the fact that he has grown to respect, to like, even to trust the other man in ways he would have deemed impossible half a year ago, it’s the intensity of the physical attraction that surprises him. It feels nothing like his relationship this past summer, even though in a way it’s as new and as foreign as Kurt’s first experiences were back then. However, the main difference between them is that Kurt is fairly certain he is not falling in love with Sebastian – at least, not yet. But he knows that it won’t take much longer for the attraction and the affection to turn into something more. And while his own changing feelings are in a way troubling to deal with, at least they are comprehensible – and Kurt only wishes he could say the same about Sebastian’s.
Over those weeks in November, they encounter each other on numerous occasions, and in quite a few of these instances they find themselves completely alone: they discuss literature in the library, gossip about Lady Josephine and Sir Robert in the drawing room, and Kurt even finds himself part of a heated discussion about politics in front of the fireplace one night.
Kurt can see that Sebastian likes him from the way the other man’s gaze is drawn to him whenever Kurt enters a room. He can see trust and affection in the way the corners of his lips pull into a smile whenever they find themselves alone in a room, and he can even see the occasional glint of appreciation in Sebastian’s eyes when his gaze travels over Kurt’s features. Kurt is also neither dense nor self-conscious enough to identify their interactions, their easy banter, their teasing as anything but what they are: flirtations.
The problem is that, as soon as Sebastian seems to become aware of what they are doing, he retreats from it as quickly as possible. Not in a way that would be obvious – any outsider watching them probably wouldn’t even notice a change in Sebastian’s behaviour. But Kurt has long ago started paying attention to small details, not only, but especially regarding his employer, so he does notice the changes: the way Sebastian’s expression becomes a little more guarded, the way his fingers drop from Kurt’s arm or Kurt’s shoulder whenever he seems to realise that he is touching Kurt, and the way he walks over to the table to pick up a book, or to the window to look outside, anything just to put some small distance between himself and Kurt.
On one hand, it feels increasingly frustrating – but on the other, Kurt isn’t sure whether he shouldn’t be thankful for Sebastian’s behaviour. Because as much as he enjoys the flirtation, the easiness, the spark between them, and as much as he finds himself longing for more: the rational part of his mind knows that crossing the invisible line between them probably wouldn’t be a good idea.
Kurt forces himself to think not only about the next steps – about what he almost did in the bathroom, about what his body seems to desire – but to also consider what would follow if they ever passed that point-of-no-return.
He got a first taste of intimacy, a first glimpse into what having a relationship would mean during the summer, and he knows how addictive being this close to another person can feel. But Kurt has also seen the way Sebastian handles intimacy, has witnessed how quickly he tires of the people he takes to bed – and Kurt doesn’t want that. Because what he has at Bailey Hall, what he shares with Nick and Sebastian, feels immeasurably precious to Kurt – and no longing, no want could ever be enough to put that at risk.
Thoughts like these and others occupy Kurt’s mind during the weeks in November, and sometimes, he finds himself longing for some activity, for a little distraction other than picking out a waistcoat for Sir Robert in the morning.
But Kurt quickly learns to be careful about what he wishes for. Because when the distraction arrives, there is nothing Kurt wouldn’t trade to go back to these uneventful times.
It starts with a sudden change in the weather. During the last days of the month, the temperatures drop rapidly, and one morning, Kurt wakes up to an unusual brightness coming through the curtains. He looks outside to see a thick layer of freshly fallen snow, and when his hand, pressed to the glass of the window, starts to feel cold, he walks over to Jeff’s bed to wake him by placing it on the neck of the fast-asleep footman – something for which, as he repeatedly states throughout the breakfast, Jeff won’t ever forgive him for.
Two days after the footmen spent their morning clearing the snow from the courtyard, Sir Robert starts coughing. It’s not severe at first, and he claims to suffer from nothing but a sore throat. However, the coughing soon becomes more violent, and at Sebastian’s concerned inquiries, Sir Robert finally admits to having had a terrible headache for days. When he starts to feel feverish, Sebastian finally puts his foot down, and sends Sir Robert to bed and Jeff to the village to fetch Doctor Bell.
“Influenza,” is the doctor’s diagnosis, after he has gazed into Sir Robert’s eyes and listened to his coughing for a few seconds. “They have it down in the village too. You’re the fifth patient I’m visiting today.”
“But it’s nothing serious, is it?” Sebastian inquires, his tone anxious as he gazes back and forth between Sir Robert and Doctor Bell.
“Not yet it isn’t,” Doctor Bell reassures him, and grabs Sir Robert’s wrist to check his pulse. “You’ve gone to bed immediately, and the fever isn’t too high. You should take care to get rid of the sneezing and the coughing, because they’ll give you quite a headache.”
He places his hand on Sir Robert’s chest, feeling the way it lifts with every breath the other man takes.
“I told you it was unnecessary to worry,” Sir Robert says, smiling up at Sebastian. “I’ll be back on my feet in no time.”
“I wouldn’t say there is nothing to worry about,” Doctor Bell objects, his brows knitting in disapproval. “You need to stay in bed for a couple of days, even if you’re feeling better. With influenza, relapses are by far more dangerous than the first wave of illness.”
He sighs and opens his bag, rummaging around for his instruments.
“I just hope we’re not on the brink of an epidemic this early in the winter,” he remarks, to no one in particular. “Because it’s promising to become a cold one.”
As much as Kurt, and probably everybody else in Wilton, would like to brush aside Doctor Bell’s gloomy prediction – it soon comes true. The illness quickly spreads through the village over the next days, and before the end of the week, two infants and Mrs Alden, the mother of Mr Alden the butcher, have passed away. Kurt asks Mr Moore for permission to attend their funerals, and when he stands in the graveyard, and watches the tiny coffins being lifted into the frozen ground, a sudden chill creeps down his spine, causing him to shiver and to hide his hands deep in the pockets of this coat.
Maybe it’s because he has already seen so many people dear to him pass away. Maybe he merely remembers his parents’ funerals more strongly at moments like these.
But whatever the reason – suddenly, Kurt feels deeply afraid of the winter ahead of him.
The illness is bad enough down in Wilton, but Bailey Hall isn’t spared its fair share of patients. And while Sir Robert is the first to fall ill, he doesn’t remain the only one for long. Maud, Jane and Howard are sent to bed the next day, and one servant after the other follows. Beth leaves to nurse her family in Wilton, and Mrs Seymour sends Mrs Bertram to her room sternly when she discovers that the cook is also running a fever. Though naturally, having to remain in bed doesn’t stop Mrs Bertram from ordering the remaining maids into her room to give them detailed instructions on how to run the kitchen.
Kurt understands that it is in her nature to keep going no matter what, that she abhors nothing more than to be idle and useless. Nevertheless, it seems quite unnecessary to instruct the maids to cook elaborate meals when half of the household is living on tea, water and porridge anyway. Kurt himself is spared the illness – he feels a little uneasy for a day or two, but since nothing follows, he keeps busy by running up and down stairs, caring for the patients, assisting in the kitchen and in the laundry, and generally making sure everyone has everything they need to recover.
Luckily, none of the cases is truly severe – most of the patients recover rather quickly once they sweat out the fever. But despite having been the first one to catch the illness, for some reason, Sir Robert doesn’t. Granted, his fever vanishes quickly enough, but no matter what Doctor Bell prescribes him, no matter what treatment he tries, he can’t seem to get rid of the coughing.
During the days of the illness, Sebastian displays an amount of patience that surprises Kurt. The young earl stays by Sir Robert’s side constantly, only leaving the room when his friend his sleeping, or urging Sebastian to get some sleep himself. The rest of the time he keeps his friend company, and since Doctor Bell left strict instructions for Sir Robert to remain under the blankets all the time, Sebastian reads to him. He manages two novels and three collections of poetry before his voice is starts to sound decidedly sore, and Sir Robert convinces him to wrap him up in a couple of blankets and play cards for the next hour.
So when during one of these afternoons, Kurt enters the library to search for a few books for Howard and Jonathan (who came down with a fever this morning), he is not at all surprised to find Sebastian there too. What does surprise him, however, is the fact that the other man has somehow managed to reduce the previously rather well-organised library to a state of complete and utter chaos. Most of the books have been removed from the shelves and are now piled messily on the floor, the chairs, the tables, and on the windowsill. Sebastian is standing in the middle of the room, both hands buried in his hair while he turns around slowly, scrutinising the half-empty shelves with a frustrated expression.
“Are you looking for something, Sir?” Kurt asks, not sure whether he should feel sympathetic towards the helplessness in front of him, or annoyed because he knows that Sebastian won’t be the one cleaning up this mess.
“No,” Sebastian retorts, his tone irritated, but when he catches Kurt’s sceptical gaze, he sighs, “I mean, yes, in a way. I was looking for new books to read to Robert – he says Mrs Radcliffe’s novels are starting to bore him – and while I was looking, I remembered that I left a book in here somewhere some time ago, and I started looking, but I can’t seem to find it.”
“Which book was it?” Kurt asks. He thinks that he probably could have helped Sebastian with his search – after all, he has cleaned and restacked the shelves god knows how often, and therefore believes it justified to claim that he knows the library better than anybody else. But when he carefully makes his way around and over the stacks on the floor, he sincerely doubts that anyone could find anything in here anymore.
When he steps up next to the other man, he notices that Sebastian’s gaze is fixed on his features, and that he is looking at Kurt with a very calculating and contemplating expression on his face. He hesitates for another moment, and his eyes never leave Kurt’s face when he slowly says, “It’s called Teleny.”
The realisation of what Sebastian is asking him hits Kurt quite unprepared. During the weeks that they have grown closer, neither has ever openly addressed the unspoken question between them – the question of whether both of them know about the other’s sexual preferences. Kurt is aware that Sebastian has probably had his suspicions about him since that afternoon in the bathroom, and that he must have noticed the way the footman never shied away from their flirtation, from the physical contact between them. And yet, now that he is addressing the issue, Kurt momentarily feels unsure as to how he should react, even though he has wanted to find an opportunity to talk openly to Sebastian, to reach a mutual understanding that whatever is happening between them it is met with general interest on his side.
In a way, Kurt realises when he is blinking at his employer, trying to gather his thoughts, he is leaving the choice to Kurt. Because nothing would be easier for Kurt than to simply lie, to shake his head and express his regret at not being able to help him since he is unfamiliar with the title. Ultimately, it’s a matter of trust, and the fact that Sebastian trusts Kurt enough to ask him about the book, to admit to its possession, in the end is enough for Kurt to make up his mind.
“It’s not here anymore,” Kurt blurts out, and he notices that his voice sounds just a bit higher than usual. “I borrowed it.”
“You did?” Sebastian asks, raising his left eyebrow, his expression quite unreadable.
“Well, you said we were allowed to take books to our rooms, so...”
“No, that’s not what I... it’s fine,” Sebastian quickly retorts, and for a moment they just stare at each other, like they’ve just discovered something entirely new and yet awfully familiar about the other person, and the silence between them becomes more awkward by the second. Finally, Sebastian tilts his head to the side and asks, “Did you like it?”
“Uhm...” Kurt replies, contemplating his answer for a moment, “I suppose I did.”
That causes both of Sebastian’s eyebrows to wander upwards, and his expression becomes decidedly wicked when he replies, “Well, I wouldn’t have expected that.”
“Why not?” Kurt asks, “I mean, I admit I’m not too fond of how it ends, but the story is alright.”
“Well…” Sebastian drawls, his gaze never leaving Kurt’s features, as if they’re trying to notice every small shift in Kurt’s expression, “I would have thought some of its descriptions to be a little too… frank. At least for a follower of the romantic idea of love, like you are.”
“Actually, the frankness was the main reason I borrowed it,” Kurt admits, forcing himself not to shy away from Sebastian’s gaze.
Sebastian stares at him for a second, blinking, before the right corner of his mouth slowly pulls into an intrigued grin, and he replies, “Interesting.”
Kurt knows he is blushing, and he hates himself for it. Because this is not something he should feel ashamed or embarrassed about, not in front of Sebastian of all people. And he doesn’t, not really. But it’s partly the knowledge that Sebastian knows a great deal more about the topic their conversation is touching right now that makes him uncomfortable, and partly the fact that he is talking about sex with the man whose touches send shivers down his spine on a regular basis.
“Well, you were my second guess,” Sebastian says, interrupting Kurt’s thoughts. When the footman looks at his employer again, he sees a contemplating look on Sebastian’s face again when the other man continues, “At first, I thought Nick might have borrowed it.”
For a moment, Kurt actually feels a little shocked that Sebastian is addressing not only his, but also Nick’s sexuality this openly, because after all, that wouldn’t be his secret to share. But the longer Kurt looks at Sebastian, the more he understands that while things have always been ambiguous between Sebastian and himself, his employer seems to have little doubt that the conversation they’re having right now has taken place between Nick and Kurt a long time ago – which is, after all, accurate. Therefore, Kurt replies, “Honestly, I doubt that Nick is in the right mood for tragic love stories right now.”
Sebastian takes a pile of books from the nearest table and starts to put them back on the shelf – though, much to Kurt’s annoyance, not in any particular order. He thinks about Kurt’s words for a moment, before he answers, “Well, from what I gathered over the last weeks, I would have thought that those are exactly the kind of stories he can relate to right now.”
Kurt has to admit that he is just a little impressed by this assessment. Because after Nick confessed that he never talked about Jeff with Sebastian, Kurt wasn’t sure whether Sebastian did pick up the signs that Kurt himself took long enough to understand. But apparently, Sebastian is more perceptive than Kurt initially gave him credit for, so Kurt merely sighs and replies, “I suppose we don’t choose who we fall in love with.”
“No,” Sebastian retorts, “We really don’t. The world would be a much easier place to live in if we could.”
He stares at the books in front of him, a gloomy expression clouding his face. And suddenly, Kurt remembers a conversation he overheard a long time ago, a conversation between Nick and Sebastian. And he recalls Sebastian saying, “I can’t do that, Nick. I can’t get emotionally invested, get attached to somebody, to start a relationship that is bound to end.”
He wonders whether there ever was someone in Sebastian’s life who felt special, someone he loved, someone who was different from the men Kurt has seen him with so far. But there is no way he can ask him about that. Not even now, and not just because deep down inside, he’s a little afraid of the answer. Instead, he decides to ask, if just to distract Sebastian from his gloomy thoughts, “How is Sir Robert feeling today?”
Sebastian shrugs, “The same, I guess. He would recover in no time if he could just lose that blasted cough.”
“Well, with all the time you spend with him, let’s hope you won’t be the next one to come down with a cough,” Kurt says, but Sebastian just shakes his head, “I’ve never been ill in my entire life, Kurt, and I have no plans to start now.”
“Never?” Kurt asks, surprised and fairly certain Sebastian is just showing off.
“Well, a few broken bones here and there, and a few scratches,” Sebastian admits, “I was involved in a couple of fights when I was at school. But I have never been coughing or sneezing, or any of that nasty stuff.”
“Well, then I guess what they say is true,” Kurt retorts dryly, “Fortune favours fools.”
Sebastian grins and bumps his shoulder against Kurt’s lightly, “You should take your own words to heart and take care not to fall ill yourself. We can’t really afford to lose anybody else at this point.”
“You’re just worried that there won’t be someone to serve you your tea in the morning,” Kurt teases, “And don’t worry. I firmly believe that as long as Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore don’t retreat to their bedrooms, Bailey Hall will stand its ground.”
Sebastian grins, but the expression in his eyes remains concerned when he looks at Kurt and says, “Still, take care of yourself, Kurt. It’s bad enough that the village isn’t handling the illness very well – I don’t want to lose anyone at Bailey.”
Kurt stares at the other man for a very long moment, before he asks, while carefully keeping himself from smiling too openly, “Is it possible that you’re worried about me, Sir?”
His words have the effect that by now, Kurt almost expects, even though he doesn’t like it. Sebastian straightens, and the expression on his face becomes carefully indifferent. “Not particularly,” he replies and shrugs, “These times just make people worry in general, I suppose.”
He grabs three books from the nearest shelf without so much as looking at them, books with navy covers which tell Kurt that they belong to a series of incredibly boring travelling journals that usually gather dust in the top shelves because no one ever looks at them.
“I really should go back to check on Robert,” Sebastian says, turning around and heading towards the door. When his hand touches the doorknob, he pauses, and turns his head to look at Kurt one last time, “Be a dear and take care that someone cleans up this room, will you Kurt? We don’t want for any more books to go missing.”
He closes the door behind him, leaving Kurt to wonder whether their friendship will ever grow to a point where Kurt doesn’t occasionally have the urge to cause the other man some bodily harm.
He doubts it.
The only positive thing about this illness, Kurt realises one of these days, is that it comes in waves, so that by the time Jeff, Harriet and Mrs Seymour start coughing, Jane, Maud and Mrs Bertram are almost back on their feet again.
“This wouldn’t be half as bad if it wasn’t so damn mucous,” Jeff remarks, eyeing the contents of his freshly used handkerchief with disgust.
“Spare us the details please,” Kurt says, tugging the covers firmly over his friend’s feet. “It’s bad enough to hear you coughing across the corridor at night.”
Kurt has moved into Nick’s room the moment Jeff started sneezing – partly to avoid catching the illness too, and partly to give Jeff more peace and quiet.
“I would have thought it to be a nice change from the snoring,” Jeff replies. His smile is presumably supposed to look optimistic, but with his pale skin, his fever-flushed cheeks and his bangs, wet from sweat, plastered to his forehead, he looks perfectly miserable.
“Oh, you still snore,” Nick remarks, his voice teasing, but Kurt can see the worry in his eyes when he presses a damp cloth to Jeff’s forehead, cooling his feverish skin and wiping the sweat away. “And since you can’t breathe through your nose right now, it’s gotten really loud.”
Jeff tries to stick his tongue out at Nick, but is interrupted by one of his coughing fits.
“You guys really shouldn’t be in here this long,” he says, once he can speak again. “I bet Mr Moore has a ton of things he wants you to do. Is he still showing no sign of weakness?”
“None whatsoever,” Nick replies. “The day Mr Moore becomes ill will be the day Bailey Hall collapses. But Kurt and I haven’t caught anything yet either, maybe some of us will just be spared looking as shitty as you do right now.”
“I hope you start sneezing really soon,” Jeff says, without any venom behind his words.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Nick replies, “I don’t catch illnesses that easily.”
Kurt only barely stops himself from pointing out to Nick that sometimes, he bears an almost frightening likeness to his best friend – but he doubts that even Jeff’s feverish state would keep the other boy from making inquiries about such a remark.
But while, one after the other, the servants slowly start to get back on their feet, Sir Robert remains a source of worry and concern. While Doctor Bell has tentatively allowed him to leave the bed and spend a few hours sitting in an armchair by the fireplace, a bundle of blankets around his slimmed-down form, the dry cough just won’t leave his body. The doctor has tried everything he can possibly think of: barley water with ipecacuanha wine three times a day, henbane tincture to allay the irritation of the lungs, even occasionally a few drops of opium. He has made Sir Robert inhale the steam of boiling water, which at least seems to have a temporary effect. But while it is sufficient to calm his breathing for some time, the cough usually returns with a vengeance a couple of hours later.
Since none of his remedies seems to have any lasting effect on Sir Robert, Doctor Bell advises Sir Robert to leave Bailey Hall for a few weeks, and spend some time by the seaside, where the ocean and the fresh air might help to improve his condition. Naturally, Sebastian accompanies his friend, and soon, they leave for Brighton, Sir Robert almost hidden under a pile of blankets in the carriage and Sebastian carefully watching over him.
Kurt is used to Sebastian writing to Nick when he is away, little notes and letters he never signs with his name, but which nevertheless inform the footman about what is happening in the life of his best friend. Nick never keeps these letters – he always burns them immediately after reading. What is new about the notes that arrive at Bailey Hall now is that while the addressee on the folded paper is still Nick, the letters really are addressed at Nick and Kurt.
It starts with little sentences like “Oh, and tell Kurt that Robert forced me to attend a reading of Keats’ poems. Though for details, he’ll have to ask Robert, I fell asleep halfway through”, sentences that turn into direct remarks like “And Kurt – during our walk on the pier yesterday I saw three gentlemen wearing exactly the same coat you referred to as “an atrocity” earlier this autumn. Looks like your taste is getting a little out of fashion.” Soon, the letters include whole paragraphs addressed at Kurt, and very often Kurt scribbles a few sentences himself under Nick’s replies, such as “The fact that some people share your awful taste in clothes does not make the coat itself fashionable, I’m afraid. But I’ll let you take comfort in numbers.”
Kurt isn’t quite sure when Sebastian’s letters became the highlight of his day, but before he has time to think about it that’s exactly what they are. Nick doesn’t say anything about it, but sometimes, when Kurt catches himself chuckling involuntarily at Sebastian’s detailed description of a trip to the Brighton Baths, he notices that Nick is observing him with a very thoughtful expression on his face.
While Sebastian writes that so far, neither the seaside nor the long trips to the Baths have made a lasting improvement on Sir Robert’s condition, the patients at Bailey Hall recover one after the other. The illness has demanded seven lives down at the village (one of the children was Beth’s younger brother Benjamin, and Kurt accompanied the maid to the funeral, holding her hand while she wept silently), but luckily, none at Bailey Hall. Still, the atmosphere is gloomy, and Kurt is glad when Doctor Bell allows Jeff to leave the bed again. As the last patient to have caught the illness, it seems like a sign that the dark times are finally starting to fade away.
It’s good to see the blond footman down at the kitchen again, a blanket around his shoulders and still looking awfully pale, but a smile on his lips and joking with the other servants while he nibbles on a slice of toast that Nick handed him. Kurt is not only glad for Jeff’s sake – he knows that Nick worried immensely over Jeff’s condition, and he is glad to see the other footman relaxing visibly the livelier Jeff becomes.
With everything that happened over the last days, Kurt feels flabbergasted when Mrs Seymour announces one morning: “Well, now that everyone is back on their feet again, I think we should start to prepare the house for Christmas, shouldn’t we?” Kurt looks up to spot Jane’s surprised expression, mirroring his own. “Today is the twentieth of December,” Nick says, grinning when he sees the startled look on his friends’ faces, “Didn’t you know that?”
“No,” Kurt admits, and Jane also shakes her head, “I knew what day it was, it’s just that with everything happening lately, I truly forgot about Christmas.”
“Well, I doubt his lordship and Sir Robert will return home for the holidays, so let’s keep it simple,” Mr Moore says, letting his gaze drift about his still recovering staff. “No elaborate decorations or celebrations, just a few ribbons in the hallways, a nice meal, and attending the service if the weather allows it.”
The weather seems to have decided to not allow it – just when Nick and Kurt return from the forest, their arms full of fir branches and holly, it starts to snow again. Nobody is much deterred by that – since Kurt and Jane were not the only ones who simply forgot about Christmas approaching, there is a lot of sudden secret indoor-activity, of last-minute-gift-wrapping and people retreating to their rooms and locking the doors behind them.
Due to the weather, the post is delayed, which comes as no surprise, but dampens Kurt’s spirits just the tiniest bit. He realises how much he has started to look forward to receiving Sebastian’s little messages every other day. But since he has long given up lamenting things he cannot change, he distracts himself with other things – wrapping the gifts for his friends neatly in paper (and helping Jeff wrap his), tasting the desserts Mrs Bertram is preparing (with and without asking for her permission first), and decorating the halls, the kitchen and the library together with Jane.
Bailey Hall is looking forward to a relaxed Christmas, to a few days of quiet celebration, during which everyone will be able to regain their strength. Which is why it comes to everyone’s surprise when on the morning of the 24th of December, the clattering sound of carriage wheels, barely softened by the snow in the courtyard, announces the arrival of a visitor. Everyone at the breakfast table discards their toast and porridge to head outside in the courtyard, and Kurt is baffled when he sees Sebastian stepping out of the carriage, his black coat a dark contrast to the snow around him.
“Your lordship…”, Mr Moore says, his expression just as baffled as everyone else’s around him. “Why are you… I mean, where is… did something…”
It’s rare to see the butler flustered like this, and suddenly, Kurt also feels worried that something has happened to Sir Robert, or perhaps even to Sebastian’s grandmother, which would explain his sudden return to Bailey Hall.
“Don’t worry, Mr Moore, nothing happened,” Sebastian says, and the smile on his lips reassures Kurt more than anything else. He looks at his servants shivering in the cold air, and his expression becomes apologetic, “I’m sorry to startle all of you like this. I sent a note, but I guess I travelled ahead of it.” His gaze meets Kurt’s, and for a moment, Kurt could swear he sees an emotion flickering in the green eyes that he has not seen there before: a mixture of relief, happiness, and something else Kurt can’t quite name.
“Do you plan on staying at Bailey for the holidays, your lordship?” Nick inquires. As usual, he is the only one not bewildered by any of Sebastian’s actions, and once again, Kurt wishes to be able to catch a glimpse into their childhood, to witness what random adventures these two encountered that left Nick so utterly unimpressed with any of Sebastian’s antics. Perhaps one day he’ll ask Mrs Bertram about it.
“I do, actually,” Sebastian says, walking towards the house while the servants hurry away from the entrance, “Robert’s condition improved a little over these last days, but not much, so he went to Edinburgh to see some special lung-doctor.”
“And you chose not to accompany him?” Nick says, his face neutral, but Kurt can hear the underlying criticism in his voice.
“I wanted to,” Sebastian replies, and his expression becomes disapproving in a way that almost borders on sulking, “But he pretty much ordered me to leave him and return to Bailey. He said he didn’t want me to spend Christmas in a hospital in Scotland.”
Kurt suspects that there is a story featuring a lot of arguments and stubbornness hiding behind this simple sentence, and he is actually surprised to hear that for once, Sir Robert was apparently able to defy his best friend’s will.
“I know you haven’t been expecting me, Moore,” Sebastian says, turning around in the entrance and facing the butler while taking off his gloves, “But please, don’t trouble yourselves. I’m just here for some quiet time. There won’t be any visitors for Christmas, you don’t need to prepare anything just for me.”
“Very well, your lordship,” Mr Moore says and gives an understanding nod, seemingly having overcome his momentary bafflement. Sebastian smiles in reply, and his gaze moves over the faces of his household. Kurt thinks it remains on his face for a few moments longer, but Sebastian looks away again before he can be sure.
“How is everyone?” Sebastian asks, “I admit I was a little worried. The illness seems to have spread through the whole country, everyone at Brighton was talking about it, and the Baths were crowded with patients. I kept wondering how you were doing.”
“I believe we are doing rather well, your lordship,” Mr Moore says, “There were a few fatal cases down at the village, but I believe the worst is over by now.”
“That’s what I hope too,” Sebastian sighs. “But I guess we will see. Well, I’m going up to change. Nick?”
The footman wordlessly takes the suitcase Howard hands him and hurries after his employer, and once more, Kurt admires the acting skills of both men, who manage to look like they are nothing more than a slightly tired earl and his dutiful valet. And for a moment, he finds himself longing to be in Sebastian’s bedroom with them, to be able to freely talk to Sebastian about his time at Bailey Hall, to ask him what happened in Brighton that he did not write about. With a startling clarity, he realises that he has missed Sebastian.
Even though Sebastian gave explicit orders not to prepare anything just for him, naturally nobody listens, especially not Mr Moore and Mrs Seymour. Kurt and Nick have to take a second trip to the forest when the snow stops for half an hour, to gather more material to decorate the drawing and the dining rooms. Mrs Bertram decides to throw all her plans overboard and comes up with a complete new menu for the evening, and Nick and Jeff have to help to peel the potatoes, while Kurt and Jane tie red ribbons around green branches and hang them up in the hallway.
To his own disappointment, Kurt isn’t able to see Sebastian for the rest of the day – Nick tells him that he slept for a few hours after the early journey, and the rest of the afternoon, he spends alone in his study, reading.
Therefore, the next time he sees Sebastian again is when all the servants are assembled in the kitchen in the early evening, eating Christmas dinner. Mr Moore has allowed them for once to eat before Sebastian does, because some of the servants want to walk down to the village for the mass, and because apparently he has received no explicit orders about when the master desires to have his Christmas dinner. Kurt can tell that the butler feels immensely stressed about not having an exact schedule he can stick to, and improvising isn’t his strongest suit. And while Kurt feels sympathetic, he himself doesn’t share the sentiment: he feels happy for the change of routine, for the distraction from the still gloomy atmosphere. He cannot deny that after Sebastian’s arrival, he feels decidedly more in the Christmas spirit than he did before. Especially when he is squeezed in on a bench between Jeff and Nick, laughing with the other servants and eating three portions of dessert for dinner without anyone reprimanding him for it (though he sees Mr Moore’s disapprovingly raised eyebrow, he chooses to ignore it).
When everyone suddenly scrambles to their feet, Kurt mimics their action mostly out of habit, and it takes him a second to understand that Sebastian has entered the kitchen. Kurt stares at the other man in surprise. He has never seen the other man in the servant’s quarters before, and he wonders what has happened to change that.
“Your lordship,” Mr Moore breathes, and Kurt is suddenly worried how many breaks of protocol the butler is able to stomach in one day.
“I’m sorry,” Sebastian says, his fingers threading through the hair at the back of his head self-consciously, like he is only now realising how out of place in the kitchen he is, “I didn’t want to intrude, I didn’t realise you would be eating dinner.”
He looks around the room, glancing at the servants, most of whom don’t meet his gaze. He looks a little forlorn, a little lost, and Kurt remembers that Sebastian will be eating dinner alone in the large dining room, all by himself, on Christmas Eve. Suddenly, he wants nothing more than to reach out, to pull Sebastian down on the bench between Nick and himself, to put a plate with some pastry in front of him, and spend the rest of the meal bantering, like they always do.
But he can’t do that. Because Sebastian is his employer, because he is nothing more (though also nothing less) than a footman in his household.
Because even though neither he, nor Sebastian, nor Nick gives a damn about that, the rest of the room, the rest of the world does.
Kurt has never felt the distance between himself and Sebastian more clearly than in this moment, when Sebastian is standing just a few steps away. A distance that could be crossed so easily, and that yet will never be bridged. It’s something he was always aware of, somewhere in the back of his mind, but the realisation hits him with a force he is quite unprepared for.
Meanwhile, Sebastian has let go of his hair, and his insecurities are once again hidden behind a carefully indifferent expression.
“Is there something we can help you with, your lordship?” Mr Moore inquires, the bemusement as to why Sebastian didn’t just ring for one of the servants clear on his face.
“No, I guess...” Sebastian replies, smiling a little uneasily, “I just wanted to wish you all a merry Christmas.”
Kurt wants to hug him, right then and there, and he is very glad when Jane smiles back at Sebastian immediately and replies, “That’s very kind of you. Merry Christmas, your lordship.”, before Kurt can give in to the impulse.
Her sentiment is echoed around the table, and Kurt involuntarily smiles at the way Sebastian’s face lights up. He catches the other man’s eye for a moment, and Sebastian winks at him briefly before he turns to Mr Moore again, “Take your time with the dinner, Moore. I won’t be eating until nine tonight.”
“Very good, your lordship,” Mr Moore nods, and with a last, slightly awkward wave at the servants, Sebastian vanishes again behind the corner.
Kurt sits down with the others. Suddenly, he feels less happy, less cheerful than before. It’s a strange sensation he can’t quite put into words, but it feels like he has just lost something, something that was never his in the first place.
Even though Mrs Seymour sends Jeff to bed early, pointing out when he protests that he is still sneezing, and that Lord Smythe doesn’t need three footmen and a butler to serve him dinner, there is still something decidedly sad about three people serving dinner to Sebastian, who is sitting alone in the dining room. It’s not a very large room as such, but it feels awfully big when there is just one person sitting at the table. Kurt is glad for every snippet of conversation, for every question Sebastian asks Mr Moore about how Bailey Hall managed in his absence, because he is not sure whether he could endure the silence right now, when there is something inside of him that feels like screaming.
Thankfully, the meal doesn’t last that long, though Kurt notices to his relief that Sebastian is almost eating normal-sized portions again, something he didn’t do in all the time during Sir Robert’s illness. After dinner, Sebastian retreats to the library and settles down in an armchair in front of the fireplace, a novel on his knees and a glass of wine next to him. Nick and Kurt join Mr Moore and their employer after cleaning up the dining room, but as soon as they enter the library, Sebastian looks up from his book and says, “That’ll be all for tonight, thank you, Moore.”
The butler nods hesitantly, and Kurt briefly wonders whether the butler feels the same reluctance at leaving Sebastian alone that Kurt does, “Well, if you’re sure, your lordship…”
“I am,” Sebastian says, tilting his head upwards to smile at the butler, “I disrupted your schedule enough for today, Moore. I’ll just read for a while and then go to bed. If I need something I’ll ring for Nick.”
“Very well then,” the butler nods, “In that case, goodnight your lordship.”
“Goodnight Moore,” Sebastian says, “And thank you.”
“Actually, your lordship,” Nick speaks up suddenly, “I have been meaning to teach Kurt to play chess. Would you mind if we borrowed one of the games?”
Kurt stares at his friend in bewilderment, because this is the first time he heard of these plans.
“Not at all,” Sebastian says, not looking up from his book, “You can stay here for all I care, and use the large board.”
Kurt looks at Mr Moore, whose gaze is moving back and forth between Sebastian and Nick, a wary frown on his features. But Sebastian’s attention is already absorbed by the pages of his book again, and Nick walks over to the table with the board carved into its surface and the beautiful figures on it without so much as looking at his employer when he asks, “Would that be alright, Mr Moore?”
The butler shakes his head, as if to chase away unwanted thoughts, and backs towards the door while saying, “If his lordship doesn’t mind, you can stay, but don’t stay up too long. I expect you to be up early tomorrow.”
Kurt and Nick nod, and with a last, long look at the three of them, the butler closes the door behind him. For a moment, the three men are quiet, until they hear the sound of Mr Moore walking away in the corridor.
“Finally,” Sebastian breathes, closing his book and tossing it aside. “Sometimes I feel like I’m running out of excuses to spend time with you.”
“I believe in you becoming tired of lying the day I see it,” Nick retorts dryly, and starts to pull the chess table over to the fireplace.
“Does anybody care to enlighten me about why there was lying in the first place?” Kurt inquires, causing Sebastian to tilt his head to the side and grin at him. “Nick and I have a Christmas tradition – if I’m at Bailey, we spent the night playing chess. You can stay and watch me beat him if you want.”
“You can stay and teach Sebastian to become a better loser,” Nick replies, sitting down in the armchair opposite of Sebastian’s. “He threw the board at me one time.”
“I was ten, and you cheated,” Sebastian retorts, not taking his gaze off of Kurt’s features, “Have you played chess before, Kurt?”
“I know the rules,” Kurt admits, “But I haven’t had much opportunity to practice lately.”
“How about you watch the first game, and then we switch?” Nick suggests, placing one of his pawns on a black square, adding in a tone that sounds just the tiniest bit too matter-of-factly, “This won’t take long, I promise.”
Sebastian responds with a grin that tells Kurt the other man has noticed the challenge in Nick’s voice, and readily accepts it.
While Nick and Sebastian start their first game, Kurt sits down on the armrest of Sebastian’s chair, pretending to be completely oblivious to the way Sebastian’s shoulder keeps brushing against Kurt’s arm. Slowly, he becomes more and more engrossed in the game, and smilingly listens to Nick’s and Sebastian’s explanations and frequent provocations (he once heard that the game is supposed to be played in silence and concentration, but clearly Sebastian and Nick are above such nonsense). After watching three games, he finally pulls a chair over, and, under the excessive commentary and advice of Sebastian, which is really more distracting than helpful, starts his first game against Nick. Unsurprisingly, he loses, and he might find the vehemence with which Sebastian accuses Nick of cheating almost endearing, if it weren’t for the fact that he listened to Sebastian’s advice during those last three moves that brought on Nick’s victory.
It’s a very long and very entertaining night, and Kurt is sure he can hear the first birds outside before he falls asleep, curled up in the large chair, his cheek resting against the soft material of the armrest. When he watches Sebastian and Nick argue with unbroken vigour from beneath his drooping eyelids, he thinks that, maybe, he overreacted a little earlier down in the kitchen.
Because even though there certainly are rules and distances and impossibilities, and countless obstacles yet to come, there will also always be moments like this. And it’s with this last thought that Kurt finally falls asleep, a content smile on his lips.
When Kurt wakes up the next morning, he is momentarily startled while he tries to remember how he got into his bed last night, until a grumpy and bleary-eyed Nick (who, as Kurt suspects, probably didn’t sleep at all) yawns and explains that he half carried, half dragged Kurt to their room with him. Kurt groans and buries his face deep into his pillow, desperate to get at least another hour of sleep before he has to get up. His efforts are in vain though: when Jeff, who apparently heard their voices from across the corridor, he hurries into their room mere moments later, still in his nightshirt and his arms full of presents, eager to receive some for himself. While Nick grins tiredly when Jeff plops down next to him on the mattress, Kurt curses the fate that gave him a friend who chooses to wake up early on the one morning during which Kurt would really love some additional sleep for once.
The morning passes quickly while people are running around in the corridors, trading presents or wishing each other a merry Christmas (much to Mrs Seymour’s disapproval, especially when she catches Jane and Harriet in the door to the footmen’s quarters in their nightgowns). The time spent unwrapping presents is followed by a lazy breakfast. Even Mr Moore seems less inclined to take up his tasks – Jeff tells Nick and Kurt in a hushed voice that Mrs Bertram and Mr Moore drank a whole bottle of port the other night, and, at least judging from Mrs Bertram’s cheerful expression and Mr Moore’s sour mood, it is not particularly hard to guess who drank more – or who is better at dealing with the consequences.
After breakfast, the footmen are instructed to help the maids and Mrs Seymour complete the hastily begun decorations in the drawing rooms and the corridors. Around noon, Kurt finds himself alone in the music room with a couple of boxes that contain ribbons, paper in various colours, nuts and cones. Mrs Seymour asked him to sort through the boxes she found in the attic, to throw away the old and faded ribbons and sort everything that they can still use. Kurt finds that he actually quite enjoys having a little time to himself, mostly because he still feels very tired. And here, sitting on the piano bench, a box on his knees, nobody minds if he closes his eyes for a split second before he continues to sort through the ribbons.
At first, Kurt doesn’t notice that he is no longer alone in the room, at least not until he straightens and turns around, unprepared for the sight of Sebastian leaning against the doorframe, his gaze fixed on Kurt. The footman flinches, and almost lets go of the box he is holding. Sebastian laughs at his startled expression and pushes away from the doorframe to take a few steps towards the other boy, “Relax, Kurt, it’s just me.”
“Please don’t ever do that again,” Kurt replies, setting the box down on a piano stool and glaring at his employer.
“Do what?” Sebastian retorts, his face a picture of perfect innocence.
“Creep up on people like this,” Kurt says, his body still feeling strangely alert after the moment of surprise, “I think my heart stopped beating for a second.”
He knows that this was the wrong thing to say the moment he spots Sebastian’s grin, and hears the other man reply, “I do tend to have this effect on people.”
Kurt merely rolls his eyes and asks, “Did you want something from me?”
“I received a note from the Huntingtons,” Sebastian remarks casually, taking one more step towards Kurt until he is standing right in front of him, “I wrote them I would be returning to Bailey around Christmas, and apparently they want to drop by for a visit during the next couple of days.”
Kurt can’t help but frown. He had hoped to have a couple of quiet days until the New Year, with enough time for the servants who were ill to fully recover, and yes, perhaps a few more opportunities to spend some time in Sebastian’s and Nick’s company. Lady Isabella, who constantly demands activity and attention, and Lord Huntington, whom Kurt despises for many reasons, are among the last people he desires to see right now. His thoughts must be visible on his face, because Sebastian grins when he looks at Kurt and spots his reaction.
“I understand you’re not too keen on seeing them again?” Sebastian asks, amusement causing the corners of eyes to crinkle.
“Are you?” Kurt retorts, raising his left eyebrow, “Because I think your opinion on that matter is more relevant than mine.”
“Well, I… it’ll be nice to have some company again,” Sebastian muses, lifting his shoulders in a half-hearted-shrug, not quite meeting Kurt’s gaze. “This winter has been a tad depressing so far. I think I could do with some distraction.”
Suddenly, Kurt remembers Sebastian sitting alone in the dining room last night, how he sought out the company of his servants down in the kitchen. As much as he is not pleased by the idea of seeing the Huntingtons again, Kurt understands why Sebastian might need to see some familiar faces. With Sir Robert away and being treated at a hospital in Edinburgh, the young earl probably really does need some distraction. But as much as Kurt understands it, he still feels somehow miffed about the fact that Nick’s and his company doesn’t seem to be enough for Sebastian. Granted, he knows that the opportunities for them spend time together without Mr Moore or Jeff noticing are quite limited, but even with being aware of this, the thought that Sebastian prefers the company of the Huntingtons to his somehow still irks him.
“Plus, I suppose it’ll spare me the furious letter of my grandmother asking why I didn’t mingle with the people on that blasted list she gave me,” Sebastian adds contemplatively. He sighs and meets Kurt’s gaze again, “Will you tell Mrs Seymour about them coming?”
“I will,” Kurt retorts. Sebastian nods, and for a second, Kurt expects him to leave. Instead though, the other man lingers, not quite looking at Kurt, but feigning interest in the paintings next to the piano, before his gaze moves on to observe the details carved into the wood of the cupboard containing the sheet music.
“Was there something else you wanted from me?” Kurt inquires, when the silence becomes too peculiar.
Sebastian hesitates for a second, directing a contemplating look at Kurt before he sighs and admits, “Actually, there is.”
Kurt only notices that Sebastian’s right hand has been hidden behind his body the whole time when the other man takes one last step towards him and offers Kurt a package, wrapped in plain brown paper, and simply says, “Here.”
Puzzled, Kurt takes the package in his hands, turning it over to see whether there is an address written on the paper. When he can’t find anything, he looks up again, and asks, “Do you want me to post this?”
“No,” Sebastian replies, once more avoiding to meet Kurt’s gaze. Instead, he looks at the ceiling, raising his right hand to his neck, “It’s for you.”
“Oh,” Kurt says, blinking in bewilderment for a second, before he realises what exactly he is holding in his hands. It takes him another moment to fully comprehend that Sebastian has just given him a present for Christmas, and that apparently, he searched for Kurt not to inform him about the visit of the Huntingtons, but to give him this in private. Kurt’s head jerks up, and he stares at Sebastian, who is looking extremely uncomfortable, and Kurt thinks he can even spot a little bit of a blush on his cheeks. An unfamiliar warmth spreads through Kurt’s chest, and he has to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep himself from grinning like an idiot.
“You shouldn’t have…”
“I know,” Sebastian interrupts him, stuffing his hands deep into the pockets of his waistcoat. “Trust me, I know I shouldn’t have. But I saw it in a shop when I was in Bath and thought of you, so…,” he trails off, shuffling on his feet, a perfect picture of unease. “Just open it already, will you?”
Kurt stares at him for another second, unable to decide how to react to this. Finally, he turns to the package in his hands, breaking the seal and unwrapping the present. When he peels back the brown paper, it reveals the dark cover of a leather-bound book. There are tiny golden leaves imprinted in the surface, leaves that look awfully familiar, and when Kurt opens the cover, the words Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth confirm his suspicions. Before he can stop himself, he has already blurted out, “I already have this one.” The moment the words leave his mouth, he realises how ungrateful they sound, and he quickly looks up.
Sebastian’s expression changes from the eager and hopeful look he had when he watched Kurt unwrapping the present to a surprised and disappointed frown, and he asks, almost disbelievingly, “What?”
“Sir Robert sent me a copy on my birthday back in June,” Kurt explains. He feels hesitant to relate the whole story, unsure how Sebastian will react when he hears how Sir Robert basically apologised on his behalf. Therefore, he merely adds, “He said you told him what kind of books I liked, and he thought it would be nice to send me something from London.”
“Oh,” Sebastian replies. He looks annoyed, though the anger doesn’t seem to be directed at Kurt. It seems to be more directed at himself, perhaps for telling Sir Robert about Kurt’s literary preferences, or maybe for not taking Kurt to London in the first place, though he tries to hide it behind an indifferent expression. Finally, he shrugs and lifts his hand, reaching for the book, “Well I suppose if you already own that many books, I can have this one back.”
“No,” Kurt retorts immediately, pulling the book close to his chest and wrapping his hands almost protectively around it, “You can’t.”
Sebastian looks at him sceptically, and his eyebrows lift questioningly at Kurt’s vehement reaction, “Why not? What do you need two copies of the same book for?”
Kurt finds it impossible to explain to Sebastian that he wants to keep this book because it’s worth so much more receiving it from him than merely in his name. It’s not about the book itself – it’s the fact that Sebastian thinks about him enough to remember his likes and dislikes, to be reminded of him when he is away from Bailey Hall. It’s the knowledge, the proof that Sebastian cares about him that feels precious to Kurt – even though he hasn’t quite decided if he truly wants to find out how much Sebastian cares about him.
Or how much he could grow to care about Sebastian.
“It’s a present, after all,” Kurt finally says, settling for a version that feels true while not admitting the extent of Kurt’s feelings. “And it’s the thought that counts, right?”
Sebastian still doesn’t look too convinced, at least not until Kurt adds, “And I’m… happy that you thought of me.” When he looks back down at the book in his hands, he notices that his thumb is drawing small circles on the cover, feeling the texture of the letters, the smooth surface of the leather beneath his skin, “Thank you.”
He reaches out in an impulse to shake Sebastian’s hand, raising his hand, but then hesitates, looking up into his employer’s eyes. He has hugged Nick for the pair of gloves, Jane for the pair of slippers, and Jeff for the collection of fairytales they have given him this morning. He has hugged Beth and Maud for the sweets they made together with Mrs Bertram and gave to everybody, and he has kissed Mrs Bertram on her cheek for the knitted scarf he found next to his breakfast plate.
Sebastian’s present crosses the invisible line between them considerably, and yet, Kurt can’t bring himself to do the same, to reach out and just embrace Sebastian like he did with all his other friends. It’s not the fear that a hug wouldn’t be welcome, it’s not even the fear that someone might catch them in this rather compromising position – what’s holding Kurt back is the fear that once he makes the first step to cross this line, he might not be able to stop himself from crossing others as well.
He is aware that Sebastian is still looking at him, waiting for Kurt to do something. Finally, when the footman keeps just standing there, gazing past Sebastian and gnawing on his bottom lip, he sighs and reaches out to grab Kurt’s hand, something akin to disappointment flickering over his face. Kurt squeezes Sebastian’s fingers, finding the other man’s skin soft and dry against his own, but when the other man starts to pull back, Kurt’s fingertips almost involuntarily linger on Sebastian’s skin, stroking over his palm first, then down the length of his fingers, feeling the different textures: the softer skin on the inside of his hand which becomes rougher the closer Kurt gets to his fingertips. Before he can pull away completely, Sebastian’s index finger hooks around Kurt’s, holding it back firmly against its own.
Kurt can feel Sebastian’s eyes on him, but instead of looking up, he keeps his gaze on their hands, on their fingers as the only connection between them.
Kurt is no longer the inexperienced, naïve boy who arrived at Bailey Hall more than a year ago – he has long learned about a variety of touches, the sensation of lips against skin and skin against skin and lips against lips. He has spent weeks lying beneath the shadows of the trees in the park or leaning against sun-warmed stones while exploring those touches, learning about the things that excite him, about things that excite others. Therefore, the notion that a simple connection like their index fingers holding each other could be enough to send a shiver down Kurt’s spine, to make his stomach twist with an unknown intensity of want, should be downright ridiculous.
And yet, that’s exactly what it does.
Finally, Kurt’s finger slips out of Sebastian’s hold, and Kurt takes the opportunity to also take a step back, to bring a little bit of a distance between them. He clears his throat, and repeats, thankful when his voice sounds far more unaffected than Kurt is actually feeling, “Thank you, Sir. For the book, I mean.”
He looks up just in time to catch Sebastian looking at him strangely, almost contemplating. It’s the same look he had on his face a few weeks ago, during their encounter in the library: like he is trying very hard to estimate Kurt’s reaction to whatever he is going to say next.
“I really think you should stop calling me that,” he says eventually, stuffing his hands deep into the pockets of his waistcoat once more. He is not quite meeting the other boy’s gaze when he adds, “’Sir’. I mean, you and I are beyond those formalities, right?”
“Right,” Kurt says slowly, because it’s true. They have moved past those formalities a long long time ago. “I guess we are.”
Sebastian looks at him, and a sheepish grin appears on his features before he adds, “Though I’m glad you’re not calling me a ‘mean, heartless hypocrite’ anymore.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not behaving like one anymore,” Kurt retorts instantly, and, with a chuckle that admits defeat, Sebastian turns around to leave. Before he can close the door behind him, however, Kurt adds, almost without thinking about it, “Maybe one day you will tell me why you ever did in the first place.”
Sebastian pauses in the doorframe, and turns his head to cast one last, long look at the footman, who is still holding the book Sebastian gave him in his arms, his thumb once again caressing the cover in an almost absent-minded motion. Slowly, Sebastian’s lips pull into a smile that is almost as sad as it is hopeful, and he replies, “Maybe one day I will.”
Kurt half hoped, half anticipated that the cold weather and the snow might be enough to delay, or perhaps even cancel the visit from the Huntingtons. But no weather in the world seems to be enough to stop Lady Isabella’s determination: The carriage of the Huntingtons pulls up in front of Bailey Hall three days after Kurt’s conversation with Sebastian in the library.
Sebastian actually seems quite happy to see them, much happier than during some of their previous visits at least. At first, watching Sebastian talk and laugh together with the Huntingtons reminds Kurt of his first months at Bailey Hall – which is not a pleasant memory. Even though Kurt curses himself for his over-dramatic reaction, but during the first evening of their visit, when he observes their casual conversation, he can’t shake the sinking feeling that Sebastian is slipping away from him, back into a world of light entertainment and cruel jokes.
His worries soon reveal themselves to be unfounded though: after that first evening, Sebastian seems to tire rather quickly of their company, after the initial relief of being-no-longer-alone has worn off. The main reason for this might be that neither Lord Huntington nor Lady Isabella seems to have given up on the idea of matching Sebastian with Lady Claudine. Kurt has to give them credit for being considerably more subtle than before, but Lady Isabella’s need to share the specific content of every letter her sister has sent to her over the holidays bores Kurt just as much as it seems to annoy Sebastian.
Nevertheless, Lady Isabella is not the person Kurt primarily observes. Initially afraid that Sebastian’s loneliness might cause him to resume his relationship with Lord Huntington, Kurt is immensely relieved when he sees Lord Huntington’s optimistic expression and the secret smiles he directs at Sebastian quickly change into a look of growing disappointment. But despite his relief, Kurt can’t help but wonder how much longer Lord Huntington is going to endure watching his hopes being crushed.
Two days before the end of the year, the company at Bailey Hall increases. In what appears to be an act of desperation, Sebastian has invited the Milford family, the Crawshaw siblings, Lady Josephine and her brother, as well as two other couples from the county to Bailey Hall to celebrate the dawn of the new year.
“Maybe he hopes that if he brings all the people he finds exhausting together in one room, it’ll be easier to hide from them,” Nick shrugs when he helps Kurt to carry Lady Josephine’s suitcase to her room, “But I have given up trying to understand each and every one of his decisions a long time ago.” He sneezes twice, and the suitcase wobbles slightly before Nick is able to regain his balance.
“You’re not falling ill now too, are you?” Kurt asks, scrutinizing the other footman closely over the suitcase between them. He did notice that Nick had started coughing and sneezing a little bit over the last days, but so far, he hasn’t thought much of it.
“Don’t worry,” Nick replies when they enter Lady Josephine’s bedroom and set the suitcase down in front of her bed. He straightens and rolls his shoulders back in an attempt to relax them before he rummages in his pocket for a handkerchief, “Maybe I caught a bit of a cold, but it’ll be gone in no time.”
When Kurt doesn’t look too convinced, Nick rolls his eyes and grabs his shoulders to gently steer him out of the room, “I told you before, I don’t get ill that easily.”
“That’s precisely what Sebastian told me too, and that’s precisely what worries me,” Kurt replies. “Because I know that you’re both deluded people with excellent acting skills. And don’t take that as a compliment,” he adds, when he cranes his neck to look at Nick over his shoulder and sees that the other footman’s grin has a decided air of pride to it.
Kurt watches Nick closely for the rest of the day; but he can’t spot anything that would be a reason to feel alarmed. The other footman sneezes occasionally, coughs a little, and is a bit quieter than usual, but he also sensibly retreats to bed rather early (and alone, now that Kurt has moved back in with the almost convalesced Jeff), and Kurt is hopeful that a light cold like this can be cured with a good night’s sleep.
He has barely time to check on Nick over the next days, because with sixteen guests staying at Bailey Hall, and even with the additional servants from the village, nobody really has enough time to breathe, let alone worry. Mr Moore is a frantic mess of activity, snapping at the footmen whenever something does not go according to plan. With Jeff being barely back on his feet, Kurt and Nick take care to split the majority of the work between them, leaving the blond footman at least a little time to rest. Maud and Beth regularly fall asleep during dinner, and Kurt can’t blame them. Mrs Seymour and Mrs Bertram have come up with the most ambitious menu Kurt has seen so far, and two girls hired from the village have no other task than to decorate the countless plates with pastries, tarts and cakes.
At breakfast on the 31st of December, Kurt notices that a very pale-looking Nick seems to force himself to nibble on a slice of toast, while everyone else is trying to eat as much as they can before Mr Moore ushers them to start their respective tasks.
“Are you alright?” Kurt asks. It takes Nick a moment to realise that the question is directed at him, and he slowly shakes his head, “I didn’t sleep much, and I have a bit of a headache.”
“Do you want me to tell Mr Moore you’re not feeling well?” Kurt asks. Now that he looks closer, he notices that Nick’s cheeks are unusually flushed against his otherwise pale skin, and that his forehead is creased in silent discomfort.
“There is no way you can manage today without me,” Nick says, and Kurt realises he’s right. They can’t. “Don’t worry,” Nick adds, and his lips pull into a smile that looks exhausted, but convincing, “I’ll just make you and Jeff do the heavy stuff, and I’ll ask Mr Moore whether I can skip serving at breakfast tomorrow.”
“You’ll go to bed right after dinner tonight,” Kurt insists, his voice firm, “We can manage the drinks on our own, we don’t need you for that.”
Nick hesitates, but nods slowly, though not slowly enough to prevent the motion from causing him some additional pain, as his wincing expression shows.
“And you’ll tell me if you need to step outside for a moment, or lie down,” Kurt insists. Nick merely sighs in defeat and replies, “I promise” before he reaches for his cup. It sounds sincere, though Kurt is not entirely convinced – he has already witnessed that, while he is most considerable and anxious to look after others, Nick is not exactly apt to take care of himself.
The dinner preparations actually go smoothly this time (with no meat being harmed in the process), and at eight o’clock, the footmen start to serve the soup. The lords and ladies seem to be in an unusually cheerful mood this evening: Lady Isabella’s laughter sounds even more frequently than usually, Lord Henry tells one joke after the other to the giggling Milford girls, and even Sebastian seems to enjoy himself, laughing and chatting with Lord Edmund and Lord Huntington. Kurt hates the way his stomach drops when he sees them sitting next to each other, and even though he knows how completely unlikely it is, he can’t help but wonder if Lord Huntington might be invited to Sebastian’s bedroom this night.
It’s almost a relief that Kurt needs his full concentration to focus on serving course after course of Mrs Bertram’s masterpiece. If he does have a moment’s attention to spare, he keeps watching Nick, and notices with a growing concern that the footman seems to grow paler as the meal progresses. He can see that Nick successfully manages to suppress occasional coughs, but he increasingly seems to have trouble focusing. Twice he mixes up the plates, and only last-minute whispered corrections from Kurt or Jeff prevent him from serving the roasted mushrooms with the meat fork.
Kurt notices that the plates he holds out to the lords and ladies wobble ever so slightly, and he can see Mr Moore frowning at the footman occasionally, obviously also realising that something is amiss. About halfway through the meal, even Sebastian seems to notice his best friend’s struggles: while Lord Huntington tries to amuse him with funny stories about the Christmas celebration at Longleat, Sebastian’s eyes follow Nick, his expression growing more and more wary, his eyes narrowing in silent suspicion. When Nick remains oblivious to Sebastian’s increasing attention, Sebastian finally catches Kurt’s gaze, and raises his left eyebrow in an unspoken question. Since he is just offering the cheese plate to Lady Josephine, there is little else that Kurt can do but mouth the word “headache”. It doesn’t seem to calm Sebastian: his brow furrows in concern, and during the rest of the meal, Lord Huntington becomes increasingly frustrated when Sebastian doesn’t respond to any of his jokes or witty remarks, but instead keeps watching his best friend closely.
Things go rather well until the desserts are served. When Nick is approaching the table, a plate stocked dangerously high with cream tarts in his hands, Kurt looks up just in time to see Nick trip over his own feet, causing him to lose his balance and the plate to slip out of his hands. There is a cacophonous crash when the plate hits the ground, breaking and spilling splotches of cream all over the room. The ladies shriek, the gentlemen curse and start to rise from their seats, but Kurt is only focusing on Nick, who is standing in the middle of the mess, his trousers soiled with splotches of cream and pieces of tart. He blinks like he is having trouble comprehending what just happened, and sways dangerously on his feet.
Kurt and Jeff both set down their plates immediately and hurry towards Nick, but before either of them can reach him, Sebastian is already by his side, grabbing his shoulders to steady him.
“I’m so-“ Nick begins, only to be cut off by Sebastian placing his hand on Nick’s forehead to feel his temperature. Kurt is close enough to hear Sebastian mutter softly “Idiot”.
“Your lordship, I am truly and deeply…” Mr Moore begins, wringing his hands as he hurries towards his employer. His expression is utterly horrified, his face slowly turning into a deep shade of red. Kurt knows that this probably counts as one of the most humiliating experiences for pedantic butler, but Sebastian merely interrupts his stammered apology by firmly saying, “Moore, please fetch Jane and Harriet from the kitchen to clean this up. Jeffrey…” he turns his head to look at the blond footman over his shoulder, “Tell Howard to take the carriage and drive down to the village, I’m afraid we need Doctor Bell here.”
He ignores both Nick’s mumbled protests and Jeff’s agreeing nod to swiftly turn his head to look at Kurt. When their eyes meet, Kurt sees the worry beneath Sebastian’s calm exterior, “Kurt, can you help me to take Nick to his room?”
“Of course,” Kurt replies, stepping up on Nick’s other side and placing a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
“Well, I suppose it’s the season,” Lord Huntington’s laugh sounds behind him. Kurt had stopped paying attention to the lords and ladies for a moment, but now he peers back at them over Sebastian’s shoulder. Most of the women have come to assist Lady Josephine, who looks like she might start to cry every moment. Her dress is covered with tiny splotches of cream, and Lady Emily and Lady Theresa dab at the fabric with their handkerchiefs, only making it worse. The gentlemen have also risen from their seats, and Kurt catches Lord Huntington’s jealous stare, barely masked by his laugh, fixed on Sebastian’s back. The other man has a decidedly unpleasant expression on his face when he remarks to Lord Henry, “And this epidemic of course. People are dropping like flies. Two of our maids died last week. It’s unfortunate, of course, but Isabella was never that fond of them in the first place, were you, dearest?”
“I’ll thank you not to joke about a serious matter, Arthur,” Sebastian replies, his voice cold and clear above the other noises in the room.
“Come on, Sebastian,” Lord Huntington says, laughing just a bit too loudly, “Just because one of your footmen has caught a little cold? I didn’t know you were so attached to them.” His eyes meet Kurt’s for a brief second, before he adds, “Especially the clumsy ones.”
“I also have to ask you not to speak ill of my servants,” Sebastian continues.
All conversation in the room has stopped. Every lord and every lady, as well as Mr Moore, Jeff and Kurt, is staring at Sebastian and Lord Huntington. Sebastian has turned around to look at his former lover. Kurt notices that his voice has become very quiet, which is usually a definite sign of anger boiling beneath the otherwise calm exterior, “And I should point out that the service my employees provide is in every way impeccable. But if you think we cannot live up to your expectations, feel free to leave anytime.”
Lord Huntington is staring at his friend in shocked silence for a moment, just like the rest of the room. The smug smile has dropped from his lips. “You’re not serious right now Seb, are you?” he asks finally, and his voice sounds equally incredulous and dangerously irritated.
Sebastian doesn’t so much as bother with a reply. He merely repeats, “Doctor Bell, Jeffrey, now,” before bringing his arm up around Nick’s shoulders and saying quietly into his ear, “Come on, let’s get you to your room.” With Kurt’s help, they prop Nick up between them and steer him into the corridor, leaving a silent room behind them.
“If my head didn’t hurt so much, I would tell you how stupid that was,” Nick mumbles when Sebastian and Kurt steer him towards the staircase.
“Well I guess then there is one good thing about the headache,” Sebastian retorts, his tone teasing but his gaze worried. “How are you feeling?”
“Not too good,” Nick admits, wobbling when he starts to climb the stairs, one step at a time. “I feel a bit queasy.”
“Do you have to be sick?” Kurt asks.
“I doubt it,” Nick murmurs, making it up another couple of stairs by grabbing the handrail for additional support. “I don’t think there is much left in my stomach anyway.”
“I told you to tell me when you were feeling worse,” Kurt says, barely keeping himself from shouting at the other footman in frustration. “You promised me you would.”
“You might as well have asked Amber to promise you that,” Sebastian says, just as they reach Nick’s room, his voice sounding as frustrated and worried as Kurt is feeling. “The blasted horse might at least have pretended to listen to you.”
They set Nick down on the bed, and Kurt tells Sebastian, “Help me undress him.” It speaks volumes of Sebastian’s worry that he does not make an offhanded remark at that, but just quickly and quietly helps Kurt to remove Nick’s soiled trousers, the waistcoat, vest and shirt, and throws a nightshirt over his head. They have just tugged him under the blankets when the door opens, and a very worried looking Jeff enters the room, his gaze immediately drawn to Nick’s pale face.
“Howard left five minutes ago,” he says, keeping his voice quiet, “He should be back in the next hour if the doctor is home.”
“Good, thank you,” Sebastian replies, “How are things downstairs?”
“Jane and Harriet have cleaned up the tarts,” Jeff says, his tone sounding like he couldn’t possibly care less about things downstairs. “Lord Huntington seems pretty annoyed, Lady Isabella is complaining about something, perhaps about everything, and Mr Moore looks like he is close to a heart-attack.”
“You should probably go down to talk to them,” Kurt says, directing his gaze at his employer, but Sebastian shakes his head, “I’m staying here until Doctor Bell has looked at Nick. They’ll survive for half an hour without us.”
Jeff takes their brief exchange as a signal that he’s dismissed, and hurries to Nick’s bed. He sits down on the covers, next to Nick’s knees, and the movement of the mattress causes Nick to tilt his head and to look at Jeff with a faint smile on his face, “You’re here.”
“Of course I’m here,” Jeff says, reaching out to brush a dark strand of hair from Nick’s sweaty forehead. “You’ve got everyone terribly worried.”
Nick doesn’t seem to truly understand what Jeff is saying, or perhaps he has just no energy left to properly respond. He merely nods and closes his eyes, his brow creasing as he fights against a growing headache. His voice is quiet when he asks, “And you’ll stay here?”
“Of course I’ll stay here with you,” Jeff replies, though when the words have left his lips, he immediately turns around to look at Sebastian with a pleading expression in his eyes, “I mean, I’m allowed to stay, right?”
Sebastian’s expression is unreadable, but he nods slowly, which is all the confirmation Jeff needs before he turns around to Nick again, squeezing the other man’s hand in silent reassurance.
Sebastian’s and Kurt’s gaze meet, and suddenly, Kurt feels the strong urge to reach out and take Sebastian’s hand in his, to curl his fingers around the other man’s and feel the warm skin against his own, just like a few days earlier. He can’t quite decipher Sebastian’s expression, but there is some emotion flickering in his eyes, something about his lips parting ever so slightly, that makes Kurt believe reaching out for Sebastian would not be met with any resistance.
Luckily, before the urge to reach out becomes too overwhelming, there is a knock on the door. Kurt opens it to find Mrs Seymour in the corridor, anxiously inquiring about Nick’s condition. Behind her are Jane and Harriet, Maud and Beth, Jonathan and Stephen – every member of the Bailey household seems to be desperate to hear that Nick is alright.
“In all the years I have known him, the boy has never been sick, not once,” Mrs Seymour says after Kurt has told her about Nick’s state. “It’s not that blasted illness again, is it?”
“We don’t know yet, Mrs Seymour,” Sebastian replies, appearing in the doorframe behind Kurt. It might only be due to the limited space that his shoulder bumps against Kurt’s twice. And when Kurt shifts his weight from one foot to the other, it might only be due to a momentary loss of balance that he leans against Sebastian for a fleeting moment, feeling the warmth of his chest against his back.
But then again, it might be not.
“We expect the doctor to arrive soon,” Sebastian continues, “In the meantime, can I trust you to look after the people in the drawing room?”
“Certainly, your lordship,” Mrs Seymour replies, straightening a little.
“Please tell Mr Moore that Kurt and I will come downstairs as soon as we have heard the doctor’s diagnosis,” Sebastian says, and with a curt nod, Mrs Seymour turns around and ushers the servants back to the kitchen.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Sebastian asks quietly. Kurt turns around and Sebastian closes the door behind him again. “As much as I don’t care about the idiots, Mr Moore can’t manage the service on his own for the rest of the night. And I thought…” Sebastian trails off for a moment, his gaze travelling to the bed, where Jeff is talking to Nick in a hushed voice, “… I thought maybe Jeff should stay here for the moment.”
Kurt looks at the other man for a long moment, before he slowly shakes his head, “I don’t mind. At all.” And when his knuckles brush against the back of Sebastian’s hand, he doesn’t care to pretend that there is anything accidental about it.
Howard and Doctor Bell arrive twenty minutes later, and the Doctor takes one long look at Nick before his expression becomes serious and he ushers everyone out of the room to examine the state of his patient in solitude. They wait in the corridor for ten minutes, Sebastian marching up and down the hallway, and Jeff biting down on the nail of his thumb nervously, before Doctor Bell allows them to step inside again.
Nick has drifted off into a light sleep, and Doctor Bell keeps his voice down when he delivers the assessment they have all been afraid to hear.
“I thought the epidemic was dying down,” he says, “But Nick seems to have caught it rather late.”
“Seems?” Sebastian inquires, lifting his eyebrows questioningly.
“It might also be a severe cold, not influenza,” Doctor Bell says calmly. “It’s hard to tell at this point, and it doesn’t make much of a difference.”
“At what point are we, doctor?” Jeff inquires, his voice almost a whisper when he looks at his friend, his brows knit in silent worry.
“He must have had it for a couple of days already,” Doctor Bell says, and Kurt feels his hands clench into fists in silent frustration. “The usual symptoms don’t seem as severe, but the fever is rather high, I’m afraid. I’ve given him something to get him to sleep, and hopefully a good night’s rest will help him to recover.”
“But…?” Sebastian asks, pressing for what Doctor Bell has not yet articulated.
“But it also might not,” Doctor Bell says, his calm, serious gaze meeting Sebastian’s. “Maybe he will be back on his feet in a few days time, your lordship. But I’m afraid I have to tell you that at this point, I can’t make any guarantees about his recovery.”
Somewhere in the house, a clock chimes, and Kurt can hear the faint sound of cheering coming from the drawing room. His gaze locks with Sebastian’s, who looks like he has just been punched in the stomach, which is exactly like Kurt feels himself.
“What is your personal assessment, doctor?” Sebastian asks, his voice toneless. Doctor Bell shakes his head, “I have been treating patients for more than thirty years now, my lord. Illnesses like this are a tricky business. Sometimes you think a patient is going to die, and within days he recovers like he was never ill in the first place. And sometimes, you think your patient is improving, and the next day he’s dead.”
He closes his bag and takes his hat, his sympathetic gaze on Sebastian, “I don’t wish to unnecessarily alarm you. Like I said, it is possible that he overcomes the fever easily. But I need you to understand that his condition is critical, and to be prepared if he does not recover from it.”
Nobody responds to this for a very long moment. Jeff’s gaze keeps darting back and forth between Doctor Bell and Nick’s sleeping form, like he can’t believe that there is a connection between them – especially not such a fatal one. Kurt bites down on his bottom lip sharply, and the short pain helps him to understand that unfortunately, this is not just a bad dream.
Sebastian is looking at Doctor Bell intently, like he is searching for something in his expression, in his eyes; something he can’t seem to find beneath the calm but firm sympathy. Eventually, he closes his eyes and nods, rubbing his palm over his forehead before he says, “I think the new year is off to an awful start.”
After Doctor Bell has left, Kurt and Sebastian hurry back downstairs, Sebastian to join his guests and Kurt to help Mr Moore. They take care to enter the room through different doors, and Kurt quickly grabs a tray with glasses and joins the butler, who looks like he is close to a breakdown, his face a dangerously deep shade of red. The ladies and lords eye Sebastian very strangely when he sits down next them, and Kurt realises only now how Sebastian’s behaviour earlier must have appeared in their eyes. While he was too busy worrying about Nick to see anything than a caring person helping his best friend, they saw an earl taking care of his sick footman, hugging him close and personally accompanying him to his room instead of leaving it to Jeff and Kurt to care for Nick. And now that he sees the cold and distant expressions of the gentlemen, and the guarded smiles of the ladies, Kurt wonders whether Sebastian didn’t make a really huge mistake earlier.
But as it turns out, Kurt has once again underestimated Sebastian’s acting skills.
When he thinks about it later, Kurt isn’t quite sure how Sebastian managed to do it, but within half an hour, he has the whole room laughing along with him again. It’s the first time that Kurt has seen Sebastian deliberately charming, making an effort trying to please people, and he finds it simultaneously surprising and frightening how good his employer is at this. He flirts with the Milford girls, making them giggle and hide their faces behind their fans, he compliments Lady Isabella, he jokes with Lord Henry and Lord Edmund. It feels strange to see him move around these people with such ease, such effortlessness, hiding his worries and concerns behind an easy smile and a carefree laugh. Over the last weeks, no, over the last months, Kurt has come to believe that this world, the world of the aristocracy, of lord and ladies and balls and big events and money, that this world is something that merely happened to Sebastian, a world that he might have been born into, but that he doesn’t truly belong to. Seeing him in this company, Kurt understands that Sebastian might be an unwilling participant in their endless game of idle chatter and restless activities, but that he is also extremely aware of the rules and limits that apply to him. During the past weeks, the boundaries between their worlds have become blurred, and lately, they have become almost invisible. Kurt realises that, deep down inside, he has started to think of Sebastian as one of them, as someone equal to him and Nick in all regards. Seeing him now move among his friends like this shows Kurt with a startling clarity that Sebastian is as much a part of their world as he chooses to be. And yet, when Kurt recalls everything that happened between them, all the touches, the glances, all the times when Sebastian preferred Kurt’s or Nick’s company to the one of his friends, or even his own family, he thinks that maybe Sebastian doesn’t need to belong to one world or the other. That perhaps, he can mingle with lords and ladies as much as he has to, and, somehow, still also belong downstairs. With Kurt and Nick.
The only person who is not too impressed with Sebastian’s performance this night is Lord Huntington. Sure, he plays along, laughing with the others and joining in with Sebastian’s carefree banter, but he keeps his distance from Sebastian, and sometimes, Kurt sees him staring at the other man with a calculating look in his eyes, and an unpleasant expression on his face. And Kurt has the sinking feeling that while the incident earlier may be forgiven for now, it is certainly not forgotten yet.
When the lords and ladies retreat to bed in the early hours of the morning, Kurt feels exhausted in a way he never has before. And yet, the worry is enough to make him tiptoe into Nick’s room to check on the other footman before he goes to bed. He finds Nick asleep, and Jeff still by his side. The blond footman has rested his cheek against Nick’s knee, his arm cushioning the weight of his head against it, and he sleeps peacefully with his other hand still holding Nick’s. For a moment, Kurt stares at the two of them, a feeling that is both warm and at the same time bittersweet spreading through his chest. He looks at Jeff’s peaceful expression, at Nick’s flushed cheeks and his creased brow, and back at their joint fingers. He feels drained, and out of energy, and something inside of him wants to scream in frustration because he knows that, right now, he’s looking at something that would be perfect, and yet will never come to be.
Eventually, he merely sighs and grabs a blanket from the other bed, draping it around Jeff’s shoulders. The other boy shifts ever so slightly, but doesn’t wake. Kurt stumbles back to his room, and for the first time in his entire life, he doesn’t fold his clothes carefully before he changes into his nightshirt – he merely shrugs out of them and leaves them where they fall on the floor. He crawls into his bed, curling under his blanket and pressing his face into the soft pillow, desperate for some sleep and hoping that everything will look better in the morning.
The next morning, things are still looking rather serious, and they continue to do so the morning after, and the morning after.
Nick’s condition doesn’t improve – if anything, it seems to become worse. The fever doesn’t subside, and in the evening of the second day of his illness, Nick starts to shiver. He is barely coughing or sneezing, but he alternates between complaining to be cold and struggling out from underneath his blanket mere minutes later, claiming to be too hot. He refuses to eat, and Kurt is thankful when they manage to force him to drink a little bit of milk, or wine, or meat broth.
Doctor Bell drops by once a day to check on his patient, but there is little he can do. Nick’s condition continues to make the corners of his mouth crinkle with worry, but apart from advising him to take care that he drinks enough, and to air the room regularly, he can offer little help.
Jeff, Kurt and Sebastian take turns in changing the damp cloths on his forehead, his chest and his legs to cool his body. They read to him when he is awake, but most of the time, he drifts in and out of consciousness, waking only when they try to get him to drink something or to take his medicine. Kurt takes care to split the majority of the work, the time they spend watching over Nick, between himself and Sebastian, because Jeff still needs a little rest himself, and the last thing they need now is the other footman having a relapse. Luckily, Mr Moore shares Kurt’s sentiment, and he is the one who forces Jeff to retreat to bed early, leaving Kurt and Sebastian alone to watch over Nick’s sleep.
Sebastian’s guests leave the next day. Sebastian informs them at the breakfast table that the doctor diagnosed an outbreak of influenza once more among his servants. It’s not a complete lie, and after the weeks in November, when anxiety and insecurity spread through the country, this hint is enough to cause a hasty departure. In the late afternoon, the last carriage pulls out of the courtyard, much to Kurt’s relief. Having only Sebastian to care for leaves considerably more time for Jeff and Kurt to look after Nick – especially since Sebastian spends the majority of the time in Nick’s room anyway.
Kurt sees that Sebastian’s constant presence by Nick’s side leaves most of the household confused, and the other half disapproving. And he finds himself torn as to how to react to it. Because while he is certain that Sebastian plainly doesn’t give a damn about what any of them might think, after seeing the reactions of the lords and ladies on New Year’s Eve, Kurt can’t help but feel increasingly worried – not just about Nick, but about Sebastian as well.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t spend this much time in here,” Kurt suggests half-heartedly one afternoon, when they are once more sitting together in Nick’s room, with a book in their laps and pretending to read while they listen to Nick’s erratic, restless breathing. Jeff is downstairs in the kitchen, and Kurt decided to take this opportunity to address the issue that has been nagging him for quite some time now.
Sebastian turns his head to look at Kurt. “You want me to leave?” he asks, his voice doubtful.
“No, I don’t,” Kurt replies impulsively, because really, he doesn’t. He feels thankful for Sebastian’s presence, not just because it helps to calm him down, but because he knows that Nick needs Sebastian by his side just as much as Sebastian needs to be by Nick’s side right now. And yet, he can’t stop worrying about what he sees in Mrs Seymour’s and Mr Moore’s faces when they watch their employer changing the cloth on his footman’s face. “It’s just… I’m afraid people will wonder about you being with Nick all the time.”
Sebastian turns to look at his best friend, and smiles wistfully, “I’m aware that this will raise the gossip again, Kurt,” he says, “And if Nick was awake, he’d definitely scold me endlessly for not being more careful.”
He bites down on his bottom lip before he looks up and meets Kurt’s gaze once more, “And I know he would be right. I know you’re right. But I don’t care about them right now, Kurt. Not one little bit.”
Impulsively, Kurt reaches out and brushes his fingers over Sebastian’s hand, which is resting on the other man’s knee. He slips his fingertips under Sebastian’s index finger and feels Sebastian’s hand twitch, and then turn slightly so that his fingers can curl around Kurt’s, holding on to them as firmly as Kurt’s hold on to his. Sebastian stares at their joint fingers for a moment before he looks up to meet Kurt gaze, and his lips slowly pull into a smile. Then Nick shifts, and Sebastian turns around to place a wet cloth on his forehead, all while not letting go of Kurt’s hand.
They sit like this until Jeff returns.
When there is still no visible change in Nick’s condition after five days, Sebastian sends for Doctor Bell once more. The doctor arrives in the late afternoon, and spends almost half an hour examining his mostly unconscious patient, this time with the other men present in the room. Kurt can feel Sebastian shifting next to him, sees the impatience and worry in the crease of his brow, the way he twists his fingers. Jeff has been sent to bed to get some rest some time ago, but Mr Moore is with them, tapping his foot in a restless gesture that is very atypical for the normally so composed butler. Kurt’s fingers are buried deep into the blanket on the bed he’s sitting on, holding onto the fabric while he watches the doctor carefully. And with each and every one of Doctor Bell’s frowns, his heart sinks.
After what feels like an eternity, the doctor shakes his head and lowers Nick’s hand back onto the blanket, “I’m afraid there is nothing I can do anymore, your lordship.”
“What do you mean?” Sebastian says, his eyes quickly darting back and forth between Nick’s feverish face and Doctor Bell’s dejected expression. “Surely there is something you can…”
“I tried everything I could think of, my lord,” Doctor Bell interrupts him. “But there is simply no cure for a fever like this. There are remedies, with which I helped him as much as I could. Now it’s up to Nicholas to either defeat this illness, or…”
He doesn’t complete the sentence, and he doesn’t have to. Everyone in the room has dreaded exactly this kind of diagnosis for days now, and it’s not shock or surprise that keeps the men silent. It’s the helpless fear of seeing someone slipping away.
“I’m leaving you a bit of opium in case he has trouble sleeping,” Doctor Bell continues, rummaging in his bag, “It’ll help him relax, but that’s all I can do for now.”
“How bad is he exactly?” Kurt asks, surprised at how calm his own voice sounds, even though he feels like something is breaking inside of him. Doctor Bell looks up at him and tilts his head, contemplating his answer for a moment before he says, “The fever is very high, and he is very exhausted from fighting against the illness for so long. If he makes it through the night, there’s hope. But right now, and under these circumstances, I do not wish to encourage hoping.”
Kurt wonders how many of these situations a person has to go through before he is able to deal with them. Or whether it is even possible to learn how to deal with them. Having lost both of his parents to fatal illnesses, he is almost familiar with the numbness spreading through his limps, the growing nausea pooling deep down in his stomach, the feeling of something heavy settling on his chest and making it harder to breathe. And yet he can’t quite grasp what the doctor is implying, can’t bring himself to imagine that there will be a day when Nick simply isn’t there anymore.
He looks at Sebastian, who is staring past the doctor, to where Nick’s pale face is resting against the pillows. Sebastian has wrapped his arms around his waist, as if he is trying to hold himself together. His eyes are looking treacherously shiny, but he bites down on his bottom lip with an air of desperate determination.
“I’m sorry to be so blunt, your lordship,” Doctor Bell says, and when Kurt looks at the white-haired man, who undoubtedly has seen many of his patients pass away over the years, he sees nothing but honest sympathy in the doctor’s eyes. “I know this must be very hard for you, but I think you should prepare yourself for…”
“Thank you, Doctor Bell,” Sebastian replies through clenched teeth, “We’ll let you know immediately if there is any change. For now, thank you for your efforts.”
Doctor Bell looks at the young lord for a long moment, before he reaches out to rest his hand on Sebastian’s arm in a gesture of silent comfort.
“Send Howard in case you need me,” he says, waiting for Sebastian to nod before he turns to Mr Moore. “I’ll show you out, Doctor Bell,” the butler offers, and with a brief smile at Kurt, the doctor follows Mr Moore outside, closing the door behind them and leaving Kurt and Sebastian alone.
Sebastian doesn’t move for a long moment. He keeps staring at Nick, chewing on his bottom lip, his hands gripping the fabric of his shirt, as if they are searching for something to hold on to. Kurt waits for him to say something, to do something, anything, even if it’s just acknowledging Kurt’s presence. When he doesn’t, Kurt eventually gets up and moves towards him, reaching out to pry Sebastian’s fingers away from the tortured fabric.
Sebastian flinches at the unexpected touch, his head jolting upwards, like he truly forgot there was still someone in the room with him. When his gaze locks with Kurt’s, he can see his own fear, his own helplessness reflected in the other man’s expression. Sebastian’s gaze flickers back to Nick, and presses his lips together until they’re nothing but a thin line.
“Kurt, I can’t lose him,” he says finally, and his voice cracks at the last word. “I just…”
Kurt knows that anybody can enter the room any moment. He knows what it’ll look like. And for a fleeting moment, the consequences of what he is about to do pass through his mind.
But then, the moment is gone, and Kurt lifts his arms to wrap them around Sebastian’s shoulders, tugging him close against himself. His fingers trail over the fabric of his shirt until they reach his neck, brushing over bare skin and soft hair. For a second, Sebastian stands perfectly still, this body rigid in Kurt’s arms. But suddenly, he leans back into the touch with such vehemence that for a fleeting moment, Kurt thinks he’s losing his balance. But then Sebastian’s arms curl around Kurt’s body, one around his shoulder, the other resting on the small of his back, holding Kurt secure in his embrace. He feels Sebastian’s cheek against his own, the stubble on the other man’s jaw scraping over Kurt’s skin when Sebastian buries his face in the crook of Kurt’s neck.
Kurt has no idea how long they stand there, holding each other as close as possible. He doesn’t let go when he hears Sebastian’s breathing become irregular for a few minutes, not when he feels a dampness against his throat, not when he gives up trying to blink his own tears away. Neither of them makes a sound while they hold each other, but when Kurt’s cheeks are already starting to dry, Sebastian says, his voice husky but determined, “He won’t leave me, Kurt. Not now, and not like this.”
For a moment, Kurt wishes he could see Sebastian’s face, could read the expression on his features. But he merely keeps holding onto the other man, his jaw moving against the soft fabric of Sebastian’s shirt when he nods and replies, “You’re right. I’m sure he won’t.” Because just like Sebastian, he wants to cling to a desperate hope for just a few more hours.
The longer they stand like this, the more they relax into each other’s touch. Sebastian’s thumb, which is resting just above Kurt’s hipbone, is starting to move in slow, comforting circles, and Kurt allows himself to close his eyes and bury his face against the other man’s shoulder.
Sebastian finally pulls back rather abruptly, and Kurt has already opened his mouth to inquire what is wrong when he also hears the footsteps in the corridor, hurrying towards Nick’s room. He steps back hastily, and there is a considerable amount of distance between him and Sebastian when the door opens and a worried-looking Jeff enters the room.
“Mrs Seymour told me Doctor Bell left a few minutes ago,” Jeff says, lowering his voice when he sees that his friend is asleep, “How is Nick?”
Kurt exchanges a look with Sebastian, who merely swallows and shakes his head. And a few seconds later, when Kurt rests his hand on Jeff’s shoulder and calmly tells him about Doctor Bell’s diagnosis, he misses the feeling of Sebastian’s arms around him. Because even though they cannot protect him from the world, they might make whatever happens in the next hour just the tiniest bit more bearable.
It’s the longest night of Kurt’s life.
Jeff refuses to leave this time, and neither Kurt nor Sebastian has the heart to force him out of the room. Sometime after midnight, Jeff falls asleep nevertheless, curled up into a ball on the mattress of Kurt’s old bed. Kurt drapes a blanket over his body and lets him sleep, because it’s not like there is much he can do to help. Sebastian and he take turns in changing the towels on Nick’s forehead, legs and chest, and they take care to wake him enough to be able to force him to drink a little wine and a little water every once in a while. But mostly, one of them wipes the sweat from his face, while the other one is holding his hand.
The hours drag on, and Kurt can’t tell whether Nick’s condition is improving or not. Around four in the morning, he seems to drift into a deeper sleep than before, but neither Kurt nor Sebastian can decide whether this is a good or a bad sign.
“Do you want me to get Doctor Bell?” Kurt asks. Sebastian looks at Nick for a moment before he shakes his head, “He said there was nothing left for him to do, and I trust his judgement.”
Kurt sighs and gently shoves Jeff’s feet away to sit down next to Sebastian. His shoulder brushes against the one of the other man, and Kurt finds that he is beyond caring at this point. Sebastian seems to feel the same way: he doesn’t look at Kurt, but rests his hand on his knee, his palm turned upwards, fingers spread as if they are waiting for something. Kurt immediately understand what the other man is asking for, and he even smiles briefly before he reaches out and threads his finger through Sebastian’s.
They don’t say another word for the rest of the night. When the birds outside start to rise, despite the worry and the fear Kurt is fighting very hard to keep his eyes open. His head keeps dropping to his side, so he decides to rest it on Sebastian shoulder. ‘Just for a minute,’ he tells himself, and then he feels an arm coming up around his waist, tugging him closer to Sebastian’s body. He smiles and nuzzles into the curve of the other man’s neck, his nose moving against the exposed skin beneath the loose collar. He can feel Sebastian’s shoulders relaxing under his cheek, just a little, and he smiles against the warm skin before he starts to drift off. He can feel Sebastian’s neck moving, and suddenly, chapped lips press against his temple. It’s not enough to make Kurt open his eyes once more, but sufficient to cause his skin to tingle pleasantly, and to make him move a little closer to Sebastian’s body before he drifts off.
The next thing he knows is that a hand on his shoulder is shaking him awake, and a voice is yelling into his ear. Kurt jolts up from where his head has been resting, blinking in confusion. He only needs a split second before he realises where he is, why he is here, and guilt comes crushing down on him when he realises that he actually fell asleep.
“Kurt,” comes the urgent voice he has heard before, and he looks up into Sebastian’s face. The other man’s hand is still resting on his shoulder, shaking him, and Sebastian looks like he has just woken up himself – his eyes a little bleary and unfocused, and the pattern of the wall still visible where his cheek has been pressed against it. “Kurt, look,” he repeats, his voice urgent, and Kurt instinctively follows the order and looks at the bed in front of him.
Nick had twisted himself out of the blanket during the night, which is now only covering the lower half of his body. His face is turned towards Sebastian and Kurt, and while his hair is still a sweaty mess, his face looks less pale than before. His expression is peaceful, not the pained, feverish look they’ve almost grown used to over the last couple of days.
Kurt stands up, ignoring the protest of his stiff body at the sudden movement, and kneels down next to Nick’s bed, immensely relieved when he hears the other footman breathing softly, when he sees his chest rising and falling with every deep intake of air. Carefully, Kurt reaches out and rests his hand on Nick’s forehead to feel his temperature.
“Is he…” Sebastian’s voice comes from behind him, but Kurt ignores him, feeling Nick’s skin beneath his fingertips, listening to his breathing. He can’t believe it at first, so he turns around to look at Sebastian with a disbelieving frown, “I think he’s… better.”
Sebastian bends down to feel Nick’s forehead himself. His fingers brush a strand of dark hair out of his way before they come to rest on the mostly dry skin. The longer his hand remains on Nick’s forehead, the farther the corners of his lips pull up into a hopeful smile.
“Do you think…” Kurt asks, but Sebastian is already tapping his hand against Nick’s cheek gently, but firmly, trying to wake the other boy, “Nick?”
Nick groans, but it’s not one of the pained, feverish moans Kurt has listened to over the last days: it sounds surprisingly awake, and even a little annoyed. Now Nick shifts, as if to escape from Sebastian’s attempts to wake him: he pulls the blanket around his shoulders and mutters, weakly but audible, “Let me sleep.”
Sebastian looks at Kurt, a hopeful expression in his eyes and a questioning, shy grin on his lips. Kurt nods, and for a moment, they just stare at each other, their grins growing slowly.
“Do you think he’ll be fine?” Sebastian asks, as if he needs to hear it from Kurt in order to truly believe it.
“He seems a lot better,” Kurt says, looking back to where Nick’s face is now buried in his pillow, “And Doctor Bell said if he survived the night, there was good chance of him getting well again.” He looks to the window, where the grey light of pre-dawn slowly begins to fade into the morning, before he turns around to smile at Sebastian, “I think he’ll make it.”
Suddenly, Sebastian laughs and grabs Kurt’s hands to yank him upwards. Kurt stumbles, but it doesn’t matter because Sebastian is already pulling him against his chest, holding him closer than he did last night. The iron grip around his back is so tight it almost hurts, but Kurt can’t bring himself to mind because he is clinging to Sebastian equally tightly, hiding his grin against Sebastian’s shoulder. They hold on for a few more seconds before Sebastian releases his hold on him just a little, and the embrace becomes softer. And slowly, Kurt becomes more and more aware of the way his body fits against Sebastian’s: his upper thigh brushing against the other man’s, his fingers twisting in the loose fabric of his shirt, his chest pressing close against Sebastian’s. The young earl’s shoulder is the perfect height for Kurt to rest his cheek against, and his hands on Kurt’s back are low enough to make Kurt’s skin tingle with an sensation that is at the same time new and achingly familiar.
Finally, he leans back, though he keeps his arms around Sebastian’s neck and only brings enough distance between them to be able to look at the other man. Kurt is still smiling, and he opens his mouth to say something, but then he meets Sebastian’s gaze, and the words die on his lips. Something in Sebastian’s features has shifted, and he is looking at Kurt with an expression that mirrors the feelings Kurt has become so well-acquainted with over the last couple of weeks: longing, temptation, and a compelling intensity of want. He gazes at Kurt for a long moment, his eyes darting down to Kurt’s mouth, lingering there for another moment, before he looks up to meet Kurt’s eyes once more. And without another warning, Sebastian leans in, cupping Kurt’s left cheek with his hand split moments before his lips meet Kurt’s.
It’s simultaneously exactly and nothing like Kurt imagined kissing Sebastian would be – and he has to admit that he imagined it quite often over the course of the last weeks. His hand on Kurt’s cheek feels grounding, like Sebastian needs to hold onto him to make sure he doesn’t vanish. His lips move against Kurt’s eagerly, and perhaps, Kurt thinks as he leans back into the kiss, capturing Sebastian’s upper lip between his own, familiarising themselves with the texture, the feeling of the quick pull and press that makes Kurt shiver pleasantly, perhaps the other man has wanted this for as long as Kurt has. But when Sebastian’s tongue darts out between his lips, teasing gently over Kurt’s, Kurt decides that some things are really worth the wait.
And then, just as suddenly as he has leaned in, Sebastian pulls back, and the hand on Kurt’s cheek slowly travels down to his neck. They stay like this for a moment, catching their breath, and Kurt is alternatively torn between asking one of the thousand questions that are running through his mind, or just leaning in again to be as close to Sebastian as he was a second ago.
Sebastian’s forehead is resting against Kurt’s, and when Kurt shifts ever so slightly, the tip of his nose brushes against Sebastian’s, a motion which only intensifies the tingling sensation all over Kurt’s skin. After a few seconds, he opens his eyes, trying to remember when he closed them in the first place, and searches for Sebastian’s gaze. The other man is staring at him, his lips parted, and the expression on his features seems overwhelmed, his flickering gaze showing an insecurity Kurt has never seen on him before.
“Kurt,” he murmurs, and when his breath ghosts over Kurt’s lips, Kurt decides he doesn’t want explanations or discussions or reasons, at least not right now.
This time, he isn’t sure who leans in first, but their lips meet again with unbroken eagerness. Kurt’s fingers thread into Sebastian’s hair, finally allowed to explore its texture, and he can’t stop carding them through the strands again and again while Sebastian’s teeth scrape against his bottom lip, and Sebastian’s hand on his back travels lower and lower.
The kiss is messy, hasty, over-enthusiastic and it’s so, so far from perfect. And in a strange way, this feels just right, because if Kurt wanted someone perfect, he never would have fallen for Sebastian in the first place. It’s the imperfections, the short pain when Sebastian’s fingers dig into Kurt’s skin a little too tightly, the way Kurt can feel Sebastian smile against his lips when he tries to capture Sebastian’s bottom lip between his teeth, that make the kiss feel utterly and frighteningly real, and so much more intimate than anything Kurt has ever experienced. He can’t remember having felt this close to another person before, and yet, it still doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
It’s a muffled groan coming from the bed beside them that finally breaks the kiss between them, and both Kurt and Sebastian quickly turn their heads to look at the friend they forgot about for just a moment. Nick rolls onto his side, and sighs again, his eyelids fluttering like he is about to wake at any moment.
“I’m going down to the stables,” Sebastian says quietly into Kurt’s ear, and Kurt can’t help the pleasant shiver creeping down his spine when he feels Sebastian’s breath ghosting over his skin. “Howard and Jonathan should be up, and I want the doctor here as soon as possible. You’ll stay with him, right?”
When Kurt nods, Sebastian smiles and brushes his hand against Kurt’s, squeezing his fingers gently. He looks like he wants to say more, and even starts with, “Kurt…” before his gaze is once more drawn to Nick, and he shakes his head.
“Never mind,” he says, his fingers lingering on Kurt’s skin for another second before he lets them drop to his side. “We’ll talk later.” He waits for Kurt to nod once more before he hurries towards the door. He pauses in the doorframe, his eyes searching Kurt’s for one last time before he closes the door behind him.
Kurt takes a deep breath, his whole body still tingling with a raw and unfamiliar emotion, his thoughts unfocused and hazy. It takes another movement by his side to interrupt his staring at the door, and he kneels down next to the bed, just as Nick shifts and turns his face towards Kurt. He blinks, his gaze unfocused at first, but after a few moments, he recognises the boy beside him, and his lips pull into a tired smile before he asks, “Kurt?”
“That’s me,” Kurt replies, smiling at the other boy and reaching out to clasp his fingers over Nick’s, “How are you feeling?”
Nick seems to think about it for a second. When he tries to answer, his voice cracks, so he clears his throat before he looks up at Kurt and says, “Thirsty.”
Taking this as a good sign, Kurt offers Nick some of the wine, feeling strangely relieved when he sees Nick taking long sips from the glass. Over the last days, they almost had to force him to drink, let alone eat, so when Nick drains the glass and sinks back down into his pillows, looking exhausted but by far more awake than before, Kurt feels the corners of his mouth pull into a bright smile.
“You look tired,” Nick says, his gaze moving over Kurt’s face, taking in the dark circles under his eyes.
“I am, a little,” Kurt admits, “Sebastian and I stayed up because we were worried about you.” He points over his shoulder at the other bed behind him, “Jeff tried to, but he’s asleep over here. He still needs a little rest.”
Nick props himself up on his elbows at that, enough to be able to glimpse over Kurt’s knee and spot the blond bangs on the other mattress. When he sinks down on to his pillow again, the smile on his lips is so tender, so loving that Kurt has to try really hard to keep himself from giving into the impulse to hug Nick and never let go.
“I’m sure that wasn’t necessary,” Nick says, his eyes searching for Kurt’s once more. “You two staying up all night, I mean. Where is Sebastian?”
“He went down to send for the doctor,” Kurt explains. “And of course it was necessary,” he adds, grasping Nick’s hand between his and squeezing it tightly. Nick looks down at their joint fingers, and back up at Kurt’s face, searching for something in his expression before he asks, “Was it that bad?”
“It looked pretty serious,” Kurt admits, not wanting to alarm Nick but at the same time unwilling to lie to him, “But you’re better now, aren’t you?”
“I feel better,” Nick confirms, “My head doesn’t hurt as much.” He stares at the ceiling for a moment, before his gaze turns to Kurt once more, “How is Sebastian?”
“He was… worried,” Kurt says, reluctant to admit to the full extent of Sebastian shifting between quiet panic, stubborn hope and utter despair. He doesn’t have to: he can see in the way Nick’s expression changes the longer he looks at Kurt that the other footman can imagine very well how the last days must have been for the people caring about him.
“I’m sorry,” he says quietly, “I didn’t want to make you worry. Or Sebastian. Or Jeff.”
“Don’t be ridiculous now,” Kurt chastises him gently, “You would have done exactly the same if it had been me or Jeff or Sebastian.” He thinks about it for a moment, before he adds, “In fact, I think you would have worried more than the three of us did together.”
And there is really nothing more reassuring than the cheeky grin appearing on Nick’s features when he retorts, “You’re right. I definitely would have.”
Doctor Bell shows no sign of surprise or relief when he arrives at Bailey Hall. He merely takes one long look at Nick and sends everyone else out of the room. During the half hour he spends alone with his patient, Sebastian resumes pacing up and down the corridor, and Jeff complains quietly into Kurt’s ear that they let him sleep, even when Nick’s condition was looking so severe. When Doctor Bell opens the door and tells them to come in, Kurt has to pry Jeff’s fingers away from digging into his arm.
“I don’t want to be too optimistic, especially since it might be prematurely,” Doctor Bell says, looking over to the bed where Nick is sitting, leaning against a couple of pillows, “But I think there is sufficient reason to believe that Nicholas has overcome the worst.”
Kurt feels his lips pulling into a relieved smile, he can hear Sebastian letting out a deep breath, and he feels Jeff’s fingers clasping around his arm once more while the other footman is grinning and bouncing next to him.
Doctor Bell warns them that he will be only able to give a reliable diagnosis the next day, when he can determine whether Nick’s improvement isn’t just a temporary thing, but Kurt decides to be optimistic, just this once.
They spend the rest of the day by Nick’s side, even though the brunette footman is asleep most of the time. Sebastian leaves to change and to look over his correspondence, something he has neglected severely over the last days, and Kurt and Jeff play cards on the bed, and, when Nick is awake again, tell him about what he missed during the last days: how Jonathan has twisted his ankle, how Maud and Beth got into a huge fight over whose turn it was to do the dishes, and how Mr Moore discovered that a bottle of port was missing, and suspected one of the servants from the village until Mrs Bertram gently reminded him that they drank the bottle themselves on Christmas Eve.
Sebastian and Kurt have no further opportunity to be alone over the course of the day, but Kurt finds himself to be surprisingly content with that. For the moment, Nick is what is important, and he figures that Sebastian and he will still have enough time to talk about what happened, maybe later, when Jeff and Nick are asleep. In a way, he is glad to have some time to sort his thoughts, to comprehend what happened between them. He can still see the remnants of longing in the way Sebastian watches him from the other side of Nick’s bed, and he is more aware than before of how the other man’s eyes follow him when he moves through the room. And he is glad that everybody seems to believe that the reason why he can’t seem to stop smiling giddily is Nick’s recovery, and of course, they’re not entirely wrong about that. It’s just not the complete explanation.
As afraid as Kurt was of crossing the line between them before, now that it finally happened, he mostly feels relieved, simply because things are starting to become clearer between them again. There is no longer the question of what they feel about each other, what they want from each other – Kurt is fairly certain they reached a mutual understanding about their basic desires that morning. And while he is not certain what exactly will happen between them, what this relationship, whatever they are going to call it now, will develop into, he doesn’t feel afraid, or even nervous.
“They’ll talk”, Sebastian promised him, and Kurt is sure that in this conversation, he will finally get the answers to a few questions that have been bothering him for quite some time now. But he knows that he cares about Sebastian, that Sebastian cares about him, that he wants to be with Sebastian just like Sebastian seems to want to be with him – and he is confident they will be able to figure out the exact terms of their relationship together.
Sebastian doesn’t seem to share the extent of Kurt’s optimism: Kurt can see his gaze flickering with some kind of insecurity when he meets Kurt’s, and he notices the way Sebastian’s fingers twist into the material of his trousers when he seems lost in his thoughts for a moment. Twice, Sebastian opens his mouth, maybe to ask Kurt to accompany him outside under the pretence of helping him with something, but both times, he hesitates, and finally closes his mouth again without saying anything.
They’ll talk about it later, Kurt tells himself. He even briefly thinks about sneaking into Sebastian’s bedroom if they can’t find an opportunity to talk before everyone retreats to bed, but he dismisses the thought rather quickly. Because being alone with Sebastian in the privacy of his bedroom now entails a whole lot of new possibilities that Kurt doesn’t quite feel ready for.
In the end, they find no opportunity to talk during that day, but it’s neither due to a change in Nick’s condition, nor to the fact that Kurt doesn’t dare to enter Sebastian’s chambers. It’s due to the fact that after three days of barely having time to rest, Kurt falls asleep at the kitchen table in the early evening. Jeff manages to wake him up enough to drag him to their room, force him to wash his face and change out of his clothes before Kurt crawls under the blankets, asleep before his head hits the pillow.
It’s almost noon when he wakes up the next day, surprised that he was able to sleep so long without anyone waking him up.
“His lordship gave strict instructions not to disturb you,” Mrs Bertram tells him when he comes down to the kitchen, hoping to still get some kind of breakfast, and he is rewarded by the cook with a bowl of porridge and a cup of tea. “He said you deserved some rest after all that time you sat by Nick’s side, and I couldn’t agree more.”
“How is Nick?” Kurt asks, spooning the porridge into his mouth as fast as he can, because for the first time in days, he has an appetite.
“Better, much better,” Mrs Bertram says, beaming at Kurt over the chicken she is stuffing with onions and carrots. “Doctor Bell is with him right now, but he ate some soup last night, and the fever isn’t quite so high any longer.”
She hits the chicken with a determined slap that echoes in the kitchen, “Not that I was ever truly worried about him. I’ve known the boy all his life, I knew it would take more than that little fever to take our Nick away from us.”
Kurt, who has never seen Mrs Bertram more frantic and nervous than during the days of Nick’s illness, hides his grin by biting into a slice of bread and replies, “Of course not, Mrs Bertram.”
He finishes his breakfast quickly and hurries upstairs, entering Nick’s room to find Sebastian and Jeff sitting next to each other on the spare bed, watching Doctor Bell examining Nick.
“Ah, Kurt,” Doctor Bell greets him, smiling at the footman before he turns around to take Nick’s wrist in his hand, checking his pulse, “I was just asking where you were.”
“He was sleeping,” Nick replies, and his gaze locks with Kurt’s over Doctor Bell’s shoulder, the expression in his eyes soft, “He deserved a few hours of rest.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Doctor Bell says. Kurt walks over to the other bed, to where Sebastian is sitting next to Jeff. The other man is not looking at Kurt, instead, his gaze is focused on Doctor Bell and Nick, his eyes following the doctor’s every movement when he listens to Nick’s breathing, asks him to cough, and finally gazes into his eyes, before he smiles and claps the footman on his shoulder.
“You gave us all quite a fright there, young man,” he says, “But I think the worst is over.”
Kurt releases a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding, and he can see Sebastian’s shoulders relaxing visibly next to him.
“Nevertheless, you need to take it slow,” Doctor Bell says, his voice strict, “I advise you to stay in bed until the fever vanishes, perhaps one or two days longer. After that, you’re allowed to be up for a few hours, but remember to rest in between.”
Nick nods, as well as Jeff and Kurt to signal that if Nick doesn’t care to rest enough, they will be there to force him to.
“As long as you don’t exhaust yourself, I see no point in worrying about a relapse,” Doctor Bell continues, already starting to pack his instruments.
“Should I ask Howard to bring the carriage?” Kurt asks, but Doctor Bell shakes his head. “Thank you my boy, but I’ll walk down to the village.” He looks up from his bag and smiles at Kurt, “Why don’t you accompany me?”
“Me?” Kurt asks, surprise colouring his voice.
“I think you need to spend a little time outside,” Doctor Bell explains, “From what I witnessed, you barely left this room during these last days, let alone the house. It’s a little cold outside, but sunny, and a walk will do you good.”
“That is an excellent suggestion,” Sebastian says. When he looks at the other man, Kurt can’t quite decipher his expression, but he notices the soft concern in Sebastian’s voice when he adds, “You really could do with some fresh air, Kurt.”
“I’m fine,” Kurt retorts immediately, because he really feels fine, especially after a long night’s rest. He looks down and notices the way Sebastian’s fingers twitch, as if he wants to reach out for him, but then clench into a fist while a carefully indifferent expression settles on Sebastian’s features, mixed with a hint of impatience. And even though Kurt knows that this is probably just to distract the other men in the room, he feels uncomfortable seeing it.
“That’s good, but you have become awfully pale over the last days,” Sebastian continues, his voice sounding unaffected, “And if you fall ill too, I really need to start looking for some new footmen to fill in for you.”
“And that would be a shame,” Doctor Bell agrees, closing his bag and holding it out for Kurt to take. Kurt rolls his eyes, but then sighs in defeat and takes the bag, not because he thinks he needs the fresh air as much as Sebastian and Doctor Bell seem to believe he does, but because a walk to the village means an opportunity for him to visit his friends there – something that he hasn’t done since Christmas.
Whether it’s due to the weather or to the long time spent inside, Kurt truly does enjoy the walk by the doctor’s side. The snow has not yet completely melted away, and the wind is still icy, but the sunshine feels warm and invigorating on Kurt’s cheeks, and he takes deep breaths, finally feeling the weight of the last days lifted from his shoulders. He chats pleasantly with Doctor Bell, and, after he drops him off at his house, keeps walking until he reaches Mr Brown’s shop. The old man is delighted to see the young footman, and Kurt spends half an hour in the shop, telling Mr Brown about the recent developments at Bailey (because the news of Nick’s illness naturally has reached the village too), and in return listens to the newest gossip about the villagers.
The sun has started to retreat behind the trees of the park when Kurt returns to Bailey Hall, exhausted but happy. He spent his walk back carefully planning the evening: he will have dinner with the servants, read to Nick for half an hour before he switches with Jeff, and then see whether he can catch Sebastian somewhere private, where they have an opportunity to finally talk – and perhaps to do some other things as well.
He has a little bounce in his step when he climbs the stairs, drops off his coat and walks down the corridor to the kitchen, where he bumps into the solid form of Mr Moore.
“Kurt,” Mr Moore greets him, his expression showing hints of disapproval for Kurt’s un-footman-like haste, “I was looking for you. I understand you know where his lordship’s suitcases are?”
“In the storeroom, together with the others, Mr Moore,” Kurt replies, puzzled by the question.
“Can you take one of them up to his lordship’s bedroom and start packing his clothes? Don’t take the largest one, you can’t manage that on your own, and the brown one should be sufficient…”
“Is his lordship planning to travel?” Kurt interrupts, asking for clarification because he is still feeling confused. He can’t believe that Sebastian is considering leaving Nick now, even after the positive assessment of Doctor Bell.
Mr Moore’s brows knit for a fleeting moment of impatience when he understands that the footman standing in front of him isn’t quite following him.
“No,” he says, “His lordship is travelling, and he told me to send the suitcase after him because he didn’t want to wait until you came back. Please remember to pack at least three waistcoats, and enough…”
“What do you mean, his lordship is travelling?” Kurt interrupts him once again, and this time, there is a decided frown on Mr Moore’s face when he stops in his step and turns around to face Kurt. Slowly and very deliberately, like he is afraid that Kurt still won’t understand him if he doesn’t pronounce each syllable distinctly, “His lordship has left Bailey Hall half an hour ago.”