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Nobody who had known Kurt Alfred Hummel at sixteen would have supposed him to be destined to be the hero of a story; let alone of one that would later be remembered by the English aristocracy as the Great Scandal of 1852.

At the age of sixteen, there was nothing that seemed remarkable about him. He grew up in Chawton, where Chawton Manor, the stately home of Lord Shaftesbury, was located. His father had spent his whole life at Chawton, serving as a footman in the household of Lord Shaftesbury for almost twenty years. He was a quiet man, very religious, diligent, and respected and valued by the other servants as well as by Lord Shaftesbury himself.

Kurt’s mother, Elisabeth Earnshaw, came to Chawton Manor at the age of twenty-one, to serve as one of the two governesses whose task it was to instruct the three daughters of Lord and Lady Shaftesbury in painting, literature, playing the piano, French, German and dancing. Elisabeth’s family had belonged to the upper-middle-class circle of Norfolk, where she grew up as the single child to a loving, if overbearing mother, and a good-tempered father. Unfortunately, shortly after Elisabeth’s twentieth birthday, her father, misguided by a friend’s advice, had invested large parts of the family’s wealth in a speculation overseas. When the three ships he invested in had sunk shortly before reaching the coast of the Cape of Good Hope, her family had lost almost everything. Her father, blaming himself for the catastrophe, had never recovered his good spirits. His body was found a few weeks after they received the bad news, crushed at the bottom of a slope. Though the family declared it an accident, speculations and rumours about him intentionally ending his life made their way through the higher circles of Norfolk. This scandal was the last straw to finally break the spirit of Mrs. Earnshaw, and she died soon after her husband’s funeral of what Elisabeth would always refer to as “a broken heart”. Left alone without relations or much money, Elisabeth was now forced to earn her own living, and through the recommendation of a friend of the family, she took on the post of a governess at Chawton Manor, where she met Kurt’s father. He was not young when he met Elisabeth, but his honesty and faithfulness (both in his religion and in the people around him) were enough for her to accept his proposal six months after she arrived at Chawton.

The couple left the household of Lord Shaftesbury, and settled in the nearby village, where Kurt’s father opened a small tobacco shop. Kurt was born in the summer of 1833, on the same day the parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act.

Kurt would always think of the years of his early childhood as the happiest time of his life. He grew up to be a lively boy, curious, intelligent and deeply attached to his mother. Elisabeth Hummel had what Lady Shaftesbury always referred to as “frightfully progressive views on life”: she believed that a good education was the best and surest way to succeed in life, no matter where you came from. Therefore, she took great care to instruct her son in literature and languages, leaving nothing but the lessons in Latin to his father’s care. She read to him the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, of Byron and Blake, and though Kurt most often did not understand the words, or did not catch the meaning behind them, he loved the sound of the phrases, the rhythm in his mother’s voice as she read sonnets and ballads – always smiling to herself, because there was nothing she loved more than poetry.

When Kurt was ten years old, typhoid fever spread in the country. It was one of the worst epidemics of the decade, and soon found its way to Chawton. Within in a week, twenty people in the village were dead – one of them Elisabeth Hummel. It was the most horrible thing to happen in Kurt’s young life, and he cried for days, clutching to her favourite volume of Wordsworth poems. Between the sheets of paper, he could still make out the faint smell of the lotion she used on her hands in the winter months, and he clung to that book, desperate to keep her in his life as long as possible. His father dealt with her death quite the opposite way: unable to cope with the pain of her loss, he sold everything that would remind him of her, everything but her books. Not wanting to stay at the house which had served them as a home for more than ten years, he closed down the shop and returned to the household of Lord Shaftesbury, who had always taken an interest in the young family’s well-being, and was more than willing to take him and Kurt into his service. Henceforth, Kurt now grew up under the care of the housemaids and other footmen; and the butler, Mr. Gardiner, who was particularly fond of the young boy, took on the responsibility to teach him all he had to know to one day become a footman himself. As Kurt grew up, he gradually took on the duties of a servant, and undoubtedly would have spent his entire life at Chawton without ever coming near to experiencing the story he was born to be the hero of.

But more often than not we are not the masters of our own fate, and in the spring of 1849, an event occurred at Chawton Manor that would change the young boy’s life forever: another epidemic broke out, taking with it not only Lord Shaftesbury and an even greater number of villagers than ever before, but also Kurt’s father. This loss left Kurt devastated: losing the last person he felt deeply attached to was almost too much to bear, and whenever he found the time he spent hours at the graveyard, looking at the fresh grave next to the one of his mother, silent tears streaming down his cheeks. The only thing that consoled him was the concern and sympathy of the other servants, which reminded him that maybe, possibly, even without a family, he was not alone after all.

This spring, things changed at Chawton Manor. The son of the late Lord Shaftesbury had recently married a Baroness from the northern parts of England. The bride, the only heiress of a very wealthy family, would bring a number of her own servants with her to Chawton Manor, to replace some of the present ones, and Kurt couldn’t delude himself: he knew he would be among the servants who would have to take their leave. Almost sixteen years old and with several years experience, he would have been fit for the position of a footman technically, had it not been for his looks. Kurt was no fool; he knew that he was neither tall nor handsome enough to serve in the household of the new Lord. He knew that the old Lord would have kept him out of attachment to his father, but his son did not share this sentiment. And while the old Lord had enjoyed his secluded life at the country estate, seldom visiting other families or receiving visitors himself, his son was known for possessing a large number of friends and acquaintances, to which he would want to make an impression by throwing only the most fashionable parties – with only the most fashionable footmen to serve.

With his light brown hair, his still slightly chubby cheeks and his moderate height, Kurt knew he stood no chance in continuing to serve at Chawton, and as much as the thought of leaving hurt him, he knew he had to seek employment elsewhere. It was Mrs. Norris, the housekeeper, who made inquiries among her relations, and soon a cousin answered her, writing that Lord Smythe of Bailey Hall was hiring new servants for the family seat in Wiltshire, and that she passed on Kurt’s references to the housekeeper. Soon, Kurt received a letter signed by a Mrs. Seymour, in which he was asked to come to Bailey Hall as soon as possible to report to his new position as footman.

On the 13th October of 1849, Kurt Alfred Hummel left his home to start what would become the journey of an unusual hero.

 


 

 

 1849, Somerset, England.

Kurt looks out of the carriage window, taking in the dark clouds on the horizon. It’s unseasonably cold for this time of the year, and Kurt is thankful that it hasn’t started raining yet. Rain would make his journey much more uncomfortable, since the road they’re currently driving on already seems to consist mainly of mud.

Turning his head, Kurt briefly glances at the other people in the carriage. Next to him sits a man in his late-fifties, his bowler askew on his head, who has been reading a letter for the past half hour, his eyes squinted to decipher the words in the twilight of the carriage. Across from him are two young girls, sisters presumably, and a woman who seems to be their governess. The girls, who can’t be much older than Kurt himself, smile shyly at him from time to time, but whenever Kurt attempts to smile back he meets the poisonous stare of the governess, so he resigns to look out of the window. They’re just passing an old and forsaken vicarage when the carriage comes to an abrupt halt, causing Kurt and the other travellers to hold on to the wooden handles to keep themselves seated. The door flies open, and the grumpy voice of the driver announces, “Bailey Hall.”

Kurt blinks for a second, and then tips his hat and smiles briefly at the ladies before he climbs out of the carriage. He looks around, breathing in the air of the English countryside. On his left he sees a few trees, and he believes to spot a village at the distant horizon. Other than that, there is nothing around him but green fields.

“I beg your pardon,” he says, turning to the carriage where the driver is busy removing his suitcase from underneath what seems to be a lady’s hatbox, “But where exactly are we?”

“Bailey Hall,” he man repeats, shoving impatiently at the pieces of luggage. Kurt takes a deep breath to keep himself from uttering the harsh reply that’s already waiting on the tip of his tongue, and says, his voice still polite, “Well, I can’t seem to spot it.”

The man finally succeeds in freeing the suitcase, and drops it down next to Kurt’s feet in the mud. A few splashes land on Kurt’s trousers and Kurt feels his eyebrow twitch. If there is something he hates, it’s people who have simply no respect for other people’s clothes – or their own, for that matter.

“You need to follow that road down there,” the man says, already climbing the driver’s seat again. “You can’t see it from here, but the house is just behind that hill.” He clicks his tongue and in a second, the carriage is rolling down the road again.

Kurt just stands there for a moment, watching the vehicle grow smaller and smaller, until he takes a deep breath and grabs his suitcase, turns around and makes his way down the road that hopefully leads him to his new home.

 

Chapter Text

The clouds in the late afternoon sky cast gloomy shadows on the grey stones of the old Palladian bridge. Kurt looks down to the dark waters of the river, and decides that all this would probably look rather romantic in the sunlight. But right now, in the twilight of the October afternoon, Kurt can’t help the shiver that is creeping down his spine, can’t shake the tingling feeling deep down in his stomach. Shaking his head as the moment passes; he determinedly grips the handle of his suitcase tighter and makes his way up on the bridge. It will take more than just a few clouds to intimidate Kurt Alfred Hummel, who has been told many times by his father: “Never get scared, Kurt. Get determined.”

When he lifts his head again, he is standing at the end of the bridge, facing what must be his new home, Bailey Hall. The driver was right – it had taken Kurt just twenty minutes to walk around the hill and to spot the large building. It’s an old house, older than Chawton Manor by some decades at least; and much larger too. The light grey stones give the building a severe outlook, but the little rectangular towers on each side make it look almost a bit playful, like somebody obsessed with medieval castles and romantic tales of chivalric knights and damsels in distress had seen the house and decided to add his own touch to it. Nevertheless, the building is massive, and Kurt is almost glad that he is still standing in the shadow of the bridge, which makes him feel less small then standing right in front of the house would.

Sighing deeply, he makes his way down the stairs and onto the road again, directing his steps to the back of the building, where he expects to find the service entrance. As he circles the building, he can’t help but think about the questions he successfully managed to banish from his mind during his journey. It’s the first time he has left his hometown, and the first time he has to start somewhere new, without being able to call upon neighbours or friends in case he needs help, people who have known him his entire life and gladly would have helped him. He also heard stories from the other servants who had served in several houses before they came to Chawton: stories about hard working conditions and mean employers, about choleric footmen and spiteful maids. He has tried his best to avoid doubt cloud his expectations so far, but now, standing in front of the house that will be his new home, he wonders what will await him inside.

Finally, he reaches a doorway that leads him into the courtyard. He spots a few men tending to a horse on the other side, and a housemaid, standing on the stairs to a small door, busily cleaning a pair of muddy boots. Slowly, Kurt approaches her, calling out, “Excuse me?”

She looks up. Her expression is guarded, but not unfriendly, as she answers, “Can I be of assistance?”

Kurt comes to stand in front of her, taking in her spotless black dress and pinned-up black curls, before answering, “My name is Kurt Hummel. I’m the new footman.” It comes out more a question than a statement. The girl’s eyes, however, light up, and a smile spreads across her face, “Of course, I heard that you were supposed to arrive today.”

She stands up, and reaches for Kurt’s hand, giving it a short but firm squeeze. “My name is Jane, Jane Woodhouse. I’m the head housemaid.” Kurt returns the smile, while she already bents down to collect her boots and the brush she used to clean them. “Come on in,” she says, climbing the stairs, “I’ll bring you to Mrs. Seymor, the housekeeper.” Kurt follows her up the stairs into a narrow doorway, past a flight of stairs and into another doorway, while she asks, “Did you have a good journey?”

“Oh, yes,” Kurt replies, smiling briefly to a kitchen maid as they pass her. “It was alright.”

“You’re from Hampshire, right?” Jane asks, turning to the left. “How long did you travel?”

“Almost eight hours,” Kurt answers, “I took the earliest carriage this morning.”

Jane doesn’t reply, instead, she comes to a stop in front of a door, and knocks briefly before opening it. “Mrs. Seymour?” she calls out, stepping into the room and holding the door open for Kurt to enter. “Our new footman has arrived.”

Kurt steps into the room, and finds himself face to face with a small, stout woman, who is eyeing him scrutinisingly. She is presumably in her mid-forties: her dark hair spots a few grey strands, but her posture is decidedly upright and her gaze is intent and discerningly. “Mr. Hummel, I suppose?” she asks, rising from her chair and approaching him. Kurt sets down his suitcase and offers her his hand, which she takes after a split second of hesitation, and answers with a nervous smile, “Yes, Kurt Hummel. How do you do?”

She ignores him, and instead nods to the maid who is still standing behind him, “Thank you Jane, that’ll be all.” Jane nods and hurries to leave, flashing Kurt one last smile before she gently closes the door behind her.

“So, Mr. Hummel,” Mrs. Seymour says, eying Kurt from head to toe. “I understand that you formerly served in the household of Lord Shaftesbury?” Kurt nods, trying his best not to fidget under her scrutinising stare, “Indeed I did.”

“Your references were very good, which is why I decided to give you the post. However...” She looks him directly into the eyes, and Kurt feels a self-conscious blush rising on his cheeks, “... as you are certainly also very well aware of, you are still very young.”

The way her lips form the word ‘young’ make it very clear that she regards youth as a disadvantage on principal.  

“Bailey Hall has a very long tradition of providing only the best of service to keep the family’s honour and dignity, and we take care to uphold this tradition. I’m only saying this to inform you that your lack of experience will most certainly be noticed, and you will have to prove to us that you are worth the post we entrusted on to you.”

Kurt feels himself stiffen. Like she pointed out, of course he is aware that, being a sixteen-year-old servant in a new household, naturally he will have to learn. But he has served for more than six years, and he knows that he is bloody well good at what he does. Plus, he thinks it rather offending to be greeted by a warning that tells him that everybody is expecting him to fail anyways.

So he meets her gaze and replies, “Thank you for your concern, Mrs. Seymour. But isn’t that just the beauty of time – one can’t really help but gradually gain experience in any case, don’t you agree?”

He meets her gaze, and for a split second, he could have sworn to detect a glimmer of respect in her eyes. Then it’s gone, and Mrs. Seymour reaches for the keys on her desk. “We will see about that, Mr. Hummel,” she says. “I don’t judge people before I have seen their work, but I thought it best to inform you that we do expect the best of you.”

She brushes past him, opening the door while Kurt, who senses that this first interview is over, reaches for his suitcase. “I’ll take to your room now, Mr. Hummel, so you can unpack, and I’ll send Nicholas to you.”  She hurries down the corridor with fast, efficient steps, and Kurt has to hurry to keep up with her. They start climbing a narrow staircase, then another one, and all the time Mrs. Seymour keeps talking to Kurt without slowing her pace one bit, “Nicholas is our first footman; he will show you around and explain everything to you. Normally this would be the task of our butler, Mr. Moore, but he’s visiting his sister, who has been taken ill last week. But he will be back the day after tomorrow, and since Lord Smythe isn’t expected to return to Bailey Hall for at least another week, Nicholas and Mr. Moore will have enough time to instruct you.”

She makes a sharp turn to the right into another corridor. Kurt, who still feels a bit dizzy after climbing the stairs at such a pace, stumbles after her.

“These are the men’s quarters. The women are located one floor above.”

She turns around to direct a very stern glance at Kurt, “If I ever catch you up there, Mr. Hummel, excuse or not, you will have to pack your bags immediately.”

Kurt feels a blush rising at the back of his neck, slowly spreading onto his cheeks. He opens his mouth to assure Mrs. Seymour that he would never, but Mrs. Seymour is already approaching a door on the right end of the corridor. “You’ll be sharing a room with our other newcomer, Jeffrey Crawford. He arrived two weeks ago... ah, Nicholas, you’re already here.”

She has opened the door and steps into the room, with Kurt on her heels. Inside, two men are rising from their seated positions to acknowledge Mrs. Seymour’s entrance. She doesn’t seem surprised to see either of them, and addresses the man to Kurt’s right while pointing at Kurt, “Nicholas, this is Mr. Kurt Hummel, the last one of our new additions. Will you take care to show him around and introduce him to his duties?”

“Certainly, Mrs. Seymour,” the man answers. Kurt is vaguely aware of the intense gaze he receives from him, but Mrs. Seymour is addressing him again now, nodding shortly and saying, “Well, Mr. Hummel, I’ll leave your to the care of these two. I’ll hope you will prove to be a worthy addition to our household.”

Before Kurt has the chance to answer anything else than “Thank you, Mrs. Seymour –”, she is already out the door again, the sound of her quick footsteps echoing down the corridor before fading away. Kurt becomes aware that he is staring after her, his mouth just slightly open, and he quickly shuts it again. He can’t help but think that this woman probably gets more things done within a day than Kurt would manage to tackle in a whole year.

“I was told I’ll get used to her,” a cheerful voice behind him remarks. “But after almost two weeks of being here, I can assure you that’s a lie.”

Kurt, who has been too occupied with being irritated by Mrs. Seymour, turns around to face the man who has previously been sitting at a table, apparently writing a letter before Mrs. Seymour and Kurt entered the room. Kurt has to fight against taking a sharp inhale of breath as his eyes take in the other man’s – boy’s really, he can’t be much older than Kurt is – appearance, because dear Lord – he is beautiful. Tall, slender, with an air of nonchalance about him that Kurt can only admire, and – Kurt actually has to look up for this, because that boy really is tall – light blond hair, warm hazel eyes and a cheerful smile on his face, offering his hand to Kurt.

“I’m Jeff, your roommate.” Kurt reaches out and receives a firm, dry handshake from Jeff, and while he still tries to determine whether he should be in awe or merely jealous of Jeff’s looks, he answers, “How do you do?”

“I’m Nicholas Weston,” a voice behind says, and Kurt turns around to examine the other person in the room. Nicholas seems to be a few years older than him and Jeff, in his mid-twenties at least. He is attractive, but in a more guarded, complicated way than Jeff is: he’s only a bit taller than Kurt, his dark eyes are observing him closely, and while not looking unfriendly, he does not smile. “I’m the first footman, and I will be introducing you to your tasks here at Bailey Hall.”

Again, Kurt accepts the hand offered to him, and if Nicholas squeeze is a bit more firm than it would have to be, Kurt makes sure to squeeze back just as firmly.

“I’m glad you’re here now,” Jeff says, resuming his seat at the table. “I figure if they have two of us to boss around, it will be easier to endure.”

“Nobody is bossing you around, Jeff,” Nicholas says, and the expression on his face softens when he looks at the other boy, though this tone remains firm. “We gently reprimand you when you make a mistake, that is all.”

“Of course,” Jeff replies, rolls his eyes and winks at Kurt, who can’t help but smile back. “So Kurt,” Jeff says, picking up his quilt again, though he doesn’t start to write, “Where are you from?”

“Hampshire,” Kurt answers. He realises that he is in his own room now, and shrugs out of his winter coat. “I served at Crawford Hall for the last six years.”

“Why did you leave?” Nicholas inquires, stepping out of the way and leaning against the wall as Kurt moves to hang up his coat. He crosses his arms, and Kurt can’t determine whether the question is meant to sound polite or whether there’s a hidden note of hostility about it. But then again, maybe he is merely being a bit paranoid.

“They were restocking the household,” Kurt answers, eying the wardrobe, “I’m sorry Jeff, but which one...”

“The two drawers at the bottom are yours, and there’s plenty of room to hang up your coats,” Jeff says, rising again to stand next to Kurt, who has opened his suitcase and begins to take out his meticulously folded shirts, thankful that he packed them carefully enough so that they survived the journey. “Do you need help unpacking?”

Kurt smiles at the offer, but replies, “Thank you, but I’d rather do it myself.”

“And here’s another one who won’t trust you with clothes, Jeff,” Nicholas says, raising his eyebrows at the other boy, a smile showing in the corner of his mouth. It is small, but it makes him look so much friendlier that Kurt feels some of his doubts fade away. “Must be an instinct or something.”

Jeff throws his arms in the air in a exasperated gesture, replying, “Nick, for the umpteenth time, it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t do it on purpose, Mrs. Smithson managed to get rid of all the stains, white is a horrible colour to begin with...”

“Of course,” Nicholas interrupts him, moving to the door and opening it. “Kurt, my room is the one across from yours. When you’re done unpacking, knock and I’ll show you around the house.”

He’s out of the door before Kurt can reply, leaving a mumbling Jeff behind. “He will never let me live that down,” he sighs, dropping down on his bed, carefully moving his feet out of Kurt’s way.

“Care to tell me what happened that apparently made you a persona-non-grata around white fabric?” Kurt asks. He feels more at ease with Nicholas out of the room, because he really can’t tell whether he likes the first footman or not – and he has a feeling that this sentiment is mutual. On the other hand, he can’t help but feel drawn to the friendly, smiling Jeff, and he is incredibly grateful for the fate that granted him his roommate.

“I’m not sure I want to relive that moment,” the blond boy answers, scrunching his nose at the unpleasant thought. Then he grins, “But maybe it’ll help you when you drop your first stack of freshly pressed linen into the mud.  So I guess I can make an exception.”

Kurt rolls his eyes, and spends the next minutes elaborating on why he will never be associated with clothes in any sort of negative way, until an unnerved Jeff begins to quiz him about his family, and makes a mental note to avoid the topic of fashion from now on.

 


By the time they reach the library, Kurt, for the first time in his young life, has fully grasped all the layers of the meaning of ‘awe’. While Chawton Manor was by no means a small estate, it neither in size nor in decoration equals what Bailey Hall has to offer. Nicholas showed him the entrance hall, the West wing where the guest rooms are located and right now, they’re walking through the corridor of the Northern wing, where the family rooms are. It is obvious that the servants are still in the process of preparing the house for the lords and ladies – in some rooms, the furniture is still hidden under white sheets, carefully draped over mirrors, chairs and tables. Other rooms, like the dining hall and the bedrooms, have already been cleaned and prepared, so Kurt can admire the dark wood of the mahogany tables, and the carefully crafted ornaments on the bedposts. Every room has its own charm, its own appeal, and Kurt is almost touched by with what care the house is being tended to. So when Nicholas opens the double door to the library, Kurt already is fairly excited to see what this room has to offer, and he is not disappointed.

The room is huge, larger than the dining hall, and surprisingly bright, even in the late October afternoon. The walls are covered with bookshelves, and more shelves divide the room into smaller units. Under the windows, chairs and tables have been set up for people to sit and read or write, and a large fireplace occupies the middle of the room, with a handful of old armchairs almost carelessly arranged around it. Closing his eyes, Kurt draws in a deep breath, taking in the smell of the books around him: dry, old, but mostly reassuring. When he opens his eyes again he sees Nicholas watching him with an expression that borders on being amused, “I take it you like the library?”

Kurt nods, and approaches one of the shelves. “I love it,” he admits shyly, brushing his fingers over the covers of the books. There’s Plato’s Symposium, right next to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethic, both works that Kurt’s father had given him to read years ago. On the shelf above Kurt spots Cicero’s De Re Publica and De Legibus, next to the thick volumes of Tacitus’s Histories and Annals. He walks past the bookshelf and approaches another one, where religious works – sermons, prayer books, bibles – are stacked.

Not really interested in them, Kurt turns to the shelf opposite from that one, and he can’t help but smile when he reads the titles of the volumes there. Some he recognizes immediately: there’s Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Walpole’s Castle of Ortranto. And there are books he’s heard of, but never been able to get his hands on: Daniel Defoe’s scandalous Moll Flanders and Cleland’s outrageous Fanny Hill (Kurt is almost certain that the possession of these books is quite illegal), Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And then there are the books that seem almost like old friends to him: Blake’s Songs of Innocence, Byron’s Vision of Judgment, Keats’s Poems. Unaware of his surroundings, Kurt reaches out and brushes his fingers lovingly along the spine of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.

“We are allowed to borrow books from the library, you know?”

Having forgotten for a moment that he’s not alone in the room, Kurt flinches before he looks up. Nicholas leans against the bookshelf, his expression now definitely amused.

“We are?” Kurt asks, frowning in disbelief, because he can’t quite imagine why a Lord should allow his servants to borrow books from his library, especially since he is fairly certain that these books are worth a small fortune.

“You have to tell Mr. Moore which ones you’d like to borrow, and he’ll note it down,” Nicholas replies. “We mostly don’t have the time anyways, not when his lordship resides here. Too much work.”

“And Lord Smythe doesn’t mind?” Kurt asks, still a bit dubious. The other man just shrugs and moves to the window. “He’s not that much of a reader, as far as I heard. He probably thinks when he lets his footmen use the library, at least his father didn’t collect all these volumes for nothing.” He tilts his head, “Do you want to look around?”

“Could I? Just for a few minutes?”

Nicholas shrugs and drops down to the windowsill, turning his head towards the grey evening outside. “The light will be gone in a few minutes anyways, and you probably won’t have time to expect the library again once Mr. Moore gets hold of you. So take your time.”

Kurt takes him up on his offer, and now starts to examine the shelves in earnest. Sometimes he picks up a volume, turning the pages and smiling down at familiar words. One novel he actually holds to his nose and inhales the smell of the pages, taking comfort in the fact that they smell just like the books he had to leave behind.

While moving around the library, he has been so focused on the books that when he glances at one of the portraits next to the fireplace, he is startled to find a very intense gaze directed at him. Carefully he sets down the novel he had been examining and moves in front of the painting, gazing up to a very interesting face.

“Who is that?” he hears himself ask, his gaze still fixed on the portrait.

“Ah, I see you met our employer,” Nicholas says, rising from his seat and stepping up next to Kurt. “This is Lord Sebastian Edward Smythe the second.”

Kurt can’t draw his eyes away from the portrait. The man in it can only be a few years older than Kurt, and not yet as old as Nicholas is. He is dressed for hunting – white trousers and a red riding coat that enhances his slim waist. For a split second the thought ‘I would kill for the opportunity to wear this coat just once’ crosses Kurt’s mind, but he shakes it off – there’s no use in desiring what you can never have – and resumes examining the portrait. The young man’s head is tilted towards the viewer, his expression under his light-brown hair – just a bit too short to live up to what is currently considered the height of London fashion, Kurt notices – seems challenging. The light smirk of his mouth is confident, his slightly raised left eyebrow almost arrogant; but there is a certain softness in the way the corners of his eyes crinkle just the tiniest bit, a hint of vulnerability around his mouth, an almost desperate determination in his features that leave Kurt puzzled.

“He looks very young,” Kurt says, finally tearing his eyes away from the portrait and looking at Nicholas again. “For a Lord, I mean.”

“He is,” the other man answers, “The portrait is a few years old, of course, but he’s not twenty-five yet. It was a shock to all of us when his father and brother died two years ago.”

Kurt feels his heart clench at the words, and he looks at the portrait again, feeling the irritating urge to console a person he has never met before, “What happened?”

“Their house in London burned down,” Nicholas replies, shaking his head. “Two servants, his Lordship, and the older son Frederick didn’t make it out of the building in time. Most of the street burned down until the fire could be stopped, but there were only no other victims. The other households were warned and left their homes in time, thank god.”

A shiver runs down Kurt’s spine, and he feels goosebumps rising on his skin. Suddenly, the room doesn’t feel so welcoming and comforting any longer, and Kurt is glad that Nicholas keeps talking, so that the gloomy atmosphere doesn’t settle around them. “Lord Sebastian was devastated. He had spent the night at a friend’s house, and arrived when they were carrying their bodies out of the building.” Nicholas shakes his head. “I never saw somebody so devastated my entire life.”

Kurt turns his head quickly to look at him, “You were there?”

Nicholas looks surprised at the question, “Surely. Most of us move to the city when the family goes there for the season. Didn’t Lord Shaftesbury do that?”

Kurt shakes his head, “He never went to London in the summer. He said he couldn’t stand the heat and the smell. The only times he went were when he had business to attend to, and he only took two servants with him.”

“So you’ve never been to the city?”

“No, never,” Kurt replies, and he can’t help the hint of longing in his voice. Because he has always dreamed about travelling: visiting London, Paris, Rom, seeing other people, meeting new friends, strolling through parks, hearing concerts, visiting galleries, conversing with writers and painters and musicians and intellectuals and philosophers, seeing the way people dress there, the men with their clean-cut waistcoats and the women with their summer dresses and parasols...

“Well, don’t get your hopes up,” Nicholas interrupts his daydreams. From the look he gives Kurt, Kurt realises that his thoughts must have been somewhat obvious, because Nicholas continues, “It’s very unlikely that you’ll get to accompany Lord Smythe next year. The year after that, maybe, if you’re lucky and still with us.”

Kurt suppresses the urge to roll his eyes – the discouraging words of Nicholas and Mrs. Seymour don’t have the intended effect on him. If anything, their reassurance that his work will be watched closely makes him even more determined to prove himself to them. But he decides to remain silent, and turns to the painting again, “So he suddenly became the heir?”

“Most people would be happy to get rid of the burden that comes with being the second son,” Nicholas answers, but Kurt notices that he doesn’t explain whether Lord Sebastian was happy about it or not. He can’t image how anybody could possibly be happy about seeing the corpses of his brother and his father lying before him. It is strange how he feels connected to a person he has never met before, but something about this painting and the story Nicholas just told him touches something inside of him.

“Is he nice?” he asks quietly. He is so focused on the portrait that he realises only after a second how Nicholas hesitates to give an answer. When Kurt turns to him, Nicholas is staring at the portrait too, his brow furrowed, an unreadable expression on his face. Realising that Kurt is looking at him, his features quickly settle into the indifferent, guarded expression Kurt has already gotten used to.

“You’ll see that for yourself, I guess,” he replies, jerking his head towards the window. “It’s getting late; I’ll show you the rest of the estate tomorrow. You’re probably hungry, aren’t you?”

At the mention of food, Kurt’s stomach gives an indignant growl. He has only had a few bites of a hasty lunch in between changing carriages in Winchester, but, being too busy with feeling nervous and overwhelmed and new, he hasn’t realised how hungry he is until now. Hearing Kurt’s stomach agree to his suggestion, Nicholas grins, genuinely amused, and Kurt is surprised how much younger the footman looks when he loses his guarded expression for a second.

“Come on, nestling,” he says, grabbing Kurt’s shoulders and leading him out of the room. “Let’s see whether we can find you something to eat.”

Kurt frowns and hopes sincerely  that this nickname doesn’t stick. 

Chapter Text

The next few days pass in a blur, and Kurt finds himself entirely too busy to pause and reflect on his new life, let alone miss his old one.

The day after his arrival, the butler, Mr Moore, returns to Bailey Hall a day earlier than everyone expected, and immediately introduces himself to Kurt. Thaddeus Robert Moore is a small man in his late thirties, who holds himself bold upright (“Like he swallowed a broomstick,” Jeff whispers in Kurt’s ear when he is standing before them for the first time) and seems to view the world and particularly the other servants from somewhere above. Kurt isn’t entirely sure whether he will grow to like him, but he soon realises that Mr Moore rules the entire household (with the exception of Mrs Seymour, perhaps) with an iron fist.

After holding a rather pompous speech about the traditions at Bailey Hall, the family’s honour and the dignity a footman at this estate has to maintain at all costs, Mr Moore sets Jeff and Kurt to work.

Though familiar with the set of tasks themselves, Kurt soon realises that he entirely underestimated the effort it takes to run a household as large as the one at Bailey Hall.

Mr Moore, who serves not only as a butler, but also as a valet to Lord Smythe, first shows them the rooms of the family in the Northern and the guestrooms in the West Wing of the house. While Kurt has already visited them with Nicholas, this tour is an entirely different one, mainly in being much more practical. Mr Moore doesn’t tell them stories about the family, instead, he opens all the wardrobes and drawers to inspect the white shirts, the condition of the light grey or pitch black waistcoats and vests, explains where everything can be found and, should they ever be required to do so, how to assist the Masters in dressing themselves. He orders Jeff and Kurt to polish the silver, to brush out the clothes. He teaches them to inspect the furniture and lamps for any dust the housemaids might have overlooked (a task Kurt hates wholeheartedly, because he abhors the idea of controlling the work of somebody else – especially when these people are doing a fine job as far as he can see). And even though he has a two weeks advantage on Kurt, Jeff struggles as much with his new tasks as Kurt does – something that Kurt finds oddly reassuring.

They have to practice laying out the cloth for the breakfast table (something Jeff and Kurt practice for half an hour before Mr Moore is convinced they manage without wrinkling the cloth), serving at the dinner table and announcing visitors (a three-hour instruction in which Kurt learns much about the country gentry in Wiltshire). Every night and every morning during the first week, Mr Moore controls not only their clothes, but their drawers and wardrobe as well, and he inspects their shoes for the tiniest specks of dirt. Luckily, he not once finds an opportunity to criticise Kurt – he cares far too much for his clothes to allow them to be dirty or wrinkled in the first place. Jeff, however, is having a hard time keeping his clothes tidy enough to pass Mr Moore’s inspection, and after seeing him getting scolded three evenings in a row, Kurt makes sure to check Jeff’s clothes as carefully as his own, gently reminding him of brushing his shoes and pointing out a wrinkled shirt or a ripped seam. Jeff thanks him by teaching Kurt tricks at card games, something Kurt learns to find very entertaining when he beats Nicholas for the first time and sees the other footman bite his bottom lip in frustration.

During this first week, Kurt also gets to know the other members of the household. Next to Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore, Nicholas and Jeff, there’s Mrs Bertram, the cook. She is full of endless chatter and good advice, and her pies are the most delicious thing Kurt ever tasted. She pinches his cheek whenever he walks past her, which makes Kurt feel young and uncomfortable, but other than that they get along splendidly. And then there are Beth and Maud, the kitchen maids, both a year younger than Kurt, and both very silly. When Mrs Bertram isn’t ordering them around, they’re giggling and whispering with each other. Kurt notices the looks they’re giving Jeff and Nicholas, and sometimes even him. He has an idea of what these looks imply, but he is entirely unsure what he feels about them, and therefore brushes them off as a silly-girl-thing.

Then there are the housemaids, Jane, Emma, and Harriet. Kurt gets along with them rather well, especially with Jane, who genuinely seems to like him. Kurt admires her effortless posture and the confidence she displays with a carelessness that seems to be fit for a Lady, not a housemaid. When he shyly makes a remark about it, she just laughs and replies, “To know you’re worth something isn’t reserved to any class, silly. I know what I can do and what not, so what’s there to fuss about?” Kurt is pretty sure that this is one of the best advice he has been given, and he tries to remind himself of it whenever Mr Moore reprimands him about the silver not being shiny enough.

He meets other people who are part of the daily life of Bailey Hall: August, the postman, who brings the newspapers and the daily correspondence, John, the stable boy, Maggie, the milk maid. Soon, he learns to find his way among these people, and learns to adapt to his tasks.

Nevertheless, the most time he spends with Jeff and Nicholas. Jeff is almost too easy to like: open-minded, carefree and always cheerful; even early in the morning when Kurt wants nothing more than to bury himself under his pillow and sleep for just another five minutes. He tells Kurt open-heartedly about his family the first night they lie next to each other in the darkness of their room: about his father who came down from Ireland to find work, and his mother who used to be the ladies’ maid in one of the big households in Bath. About his two sisters and five brothers: about Megan who is working as a seamstress, Max who has found work in a very big household in London, and Richard who is working to become a carpenter. Jeff gets a lot of letters, from home or one of his various siblings, and sometimes, when Kurt sees Mr Moore handing Jeff yet another envelope over the breakfast table, he can’t help feeling a slight pang in his chest.

Nicholas, however, is an entirely different matter. It is not that he is unfriendly to Kurt, but he is just so reserved and guarded that Kurt has trouble determining whether Nicholas likes him, or merely endures his company because of Jeff. He’s quiet too, never gives his opinion unless he’s asked for it, but when he does, it usually hits the mark. Which makes Kurt even more aware of the fact that behind that calm expression, Nicholas is probably judging him. Sometimes, when he’s telling a story about his life at Chawton, or chats with Jane about books or the latest London fashion, he can feel Nicholas’ eyes on him, but when he turns to meet the gaze of the other man, he never manages to read any verdict in Nicholas’ calm expression – only an attentiveness that sometimes makes Kurt want to scream in frustration.

His only consolation is that Nicholas is not behaving differently towards any other member of the household – with the exception of Jeff. Nicholas never manages to maintain his guarded exterior when he’s around the other boy: Jeff makes him smile and chuckle and sometimes even laugh, just by telling a silly story about the cat of his family back home. The way the two of them get along makes it hard for Kurt to believe that Jeff has known Nicholas really only two weeks longer than Kurt, but then again – maybe it is friendship on first sight?

When they’re not busy learning how to attend to the Smythe family, they’re helping the housemaids to prepare the estate for his Lordships return (an event that hasn’t received a specific date yet, though Mr Moore announces that the notice of his return might come every day and that they “need to be prepared like the excellent, reliable household we are”). Cleaning the rooms gives Kurt an opportunity to familiarise himself with the estate even more, and soon he feels quite at home in the large hall, the comfortable dining and drawing rooms and the exquisite library.

With all this, Kurt doesn’t have the time to think about anything really. When he falls into bed at night he almost immediately drifts off into asleep, and when he’s awake Mr Moore makes sure to keep him busy. When he has time think, however, he thinks back to his old life at Chawton, wonders how everybody is getting along, and if anybody ever goes to visit the grave of his parents. He has received two letters from Mrs Norris, inquiring about life at Bailey Hall, and he has answered her with long letters about the people and the house and the countryside.

Still, his thoughts don’t wander to the people at Chawton as much as he would have expected – they are also quite often concerned with the people at Bailey Hall.

When he listens to Jeff’s gentle snoring from the other bed, he wonders about Nicholas’ distance, about Mr Moore’s tradition issues, and sometimes, he thinks about his employer. Lord Sebastian Edward Smythe, though being absent, is such a presence in this house that Kurt can’t help but wonder what he is like. He has heard nothing really negative about him yet: Jane assured him that Lord Smythe is an easy-going, social and well-educated person, occasionally a bit short-tempered, sometimes a bit childish, but never too long, and never too lasting. He is very modern in some of his views (probably because, as she tells Kurt in a hushed voice, he has recieved a good part of his education in France), and never gets annoyed about something like a broken dish or dust on a mantelpiece, no matter how much Mr Moore is convinced of the opposite. He usually spends the season in London and comes home in the late autumn months with a few friends for the hunting season. The rest of the year he comes and goes, sometimes visiting friends in the neighbourhood, sometimes taking trips to Scotland or Europe, sometimes staying at Bailey Hall for a couple of weeks.

But Kurt notices that Nicholas, who has spent all his life at Bailey Hall and probably knows Lord Smythe better than anyone else at Bailey Hall (with the exception of Mr Moore, perhaps), refuses to talk about him, and how his expression clouds when he overhears Maud and Beth gabbling about whether Lord Smythe will finally bring home a fiancée after this season. When Kurt asks him questions he gives vague answers, if he bothers to answer them at all, and finally he snaps, “He is just your employer, Kurt, nothing more, and you’ll get to meet him in a few weeks anyways. Now will you please leave me alone?” As puzzling as this is, it merely adds to the lager puzzle which is Nicholas, so Kurt isn’t too hurt about his behaviour.

Nevertheless, there are a few instances when Kurt wonders about his new life. One afternoon, Mrs Seymour asks Jeff, Nicholas and Kurt to start adjusting the furniture in the music room, so that Jane and Emma can start cleaning it later. When they set to work and Kurt pulls away a white sheet from a large piece of furniture, he reveals a black piano beneath it. Carefully, he runs his fingers over the shiny surface, marvelling at the feeling of polished wood underneath his fingertips. The gesture doesn’t go unnoticed by Jeff, who is helping Nicholas folding one of the sheets.

“Do you play, Kurt?” he asks. Kurt nods, grabbing the fabric and pulling it now completely away from the piano, “A little. My mother taught me on our neighbours piano when I was little, and I continued practising from time to time with Charlotte, the housekeeper’s daughter at Chawton.”

He carries the sheet over to Jeff, who grabs two ends and starts folding it, and asks the blond boy, “Do you?”

Jeff shakes his head, a regretful expression on his face, “I never learned how. My family was very keen on singing though, and one of my sisters would accompany us on the piano while my brothers and I belted out the offensive songs they learned at work.”

He grins, and then looks over to Nicholas, who is busy pushing a small gambling table from the wall, “You play Nick, don’t you?”

“I do,” Nick replies calmly, not looking up from his work, “But not on the piano of Lady Smythe.”

Kurt is surprised to see a mischievous grin on Jeff’s face as the other boy replies, “I heard something different from Jane. She told me that Lord Smythe even asked you to play for his guests one time, when they wanted some entertainment.”

The look on Nicholas’ face turns from surprised to upset, and his brows furrow as he pushes harder at the innocent gambling table, his voice distant, “Only during one winter, when we were snowed in. Everybody was in need of some entertainment.”

“Yes, but did you...” Jeff starts to ask, but Nicholas interrupts him, his voice harsh and more distressed than Kurt has ever hurt before, “I played one time, and most of my audience was already drunk at that point. End of story, Jeff. Kurt, would you help me with the couch?”

He swiftly walks over to the other end of the room, and Jeff shoots Kurt a quizzical look, one that Kurt answers with a shrug. He never understands what is going on in Nicholas’ mind anyways, and it’s not the first time he heard him giving a sharp reply, but it is the first time he witnessed him being anything but nice to Jeff. Sensing some buried hurt or discomfort in that memory Jeff had inquired about; Kurt goes to help Nicholas with the couch, pretending not to notice how Nicholas is avoiding his or Jeff’s gaze. For a few minutes, all of them work in silence, but Jeff, who is never downcast for long, finally bumps his shoulder playfully against Nicholas’ and asks, “So, any chance you’ll give us a taste of your talent?”

“Definitely not, Jeff,” Nicholas replies, looking at him incredulously, “Do you have any idea what happens when Mrs Seymour or Mr Moore catch us?”

“Oh please, they’re both down at the kitchen, talking to Mrs Bertram about the store cupboard and what to stock before his Lordship returns,” Jeff answers, “There’s no way they’ll hear us.”

 “When I say no, Jeffrey, I usually mean no,” Nicholas replies, but his voice has lost the harsh note from before. Jeff clucks his tongue disappointedly, and then turns to look at Kurt, “What about you, Kurt?”

“I won’t amuse you either, Jeff,” Kurt answers, rolling his eyes and walking over to the windows, “Because I’ll be busy helping Nicholas taking down those curtains, while you start with that wardrobe over there.”

Jeff pouts and complains about the wardrobe being too heavy, but Kurt just huffs and ignores him. When Nicholas joins him and climbs up a stool to reach the curtains, he gives Kurt a small but genuine smile, and these are just so rare that Kurt happily smiles back, and he doesn’t even mind that terribly much when a minute later Nicholas accidently drops one of the curtains, which neatly folds itself over Kurt, sprinkling a fine layer of dust on his clothes and leaving him coughing and sneezing.

He still minds, mainly because of the clothes. But just a bit.

Kurt has just stopped coughing when Emma bursts into the room, her face red from running.

“Here you are,” she exclaims, a little breathlessly. “You all are to come down immediately.”

“Why?” Nicholas inquires, frowning at the housemaid, “Did something happen?”

“Mr Moore just received the letter. His Lordship returns tomorrow.”

 


Everything after Emma’s announcement meshes into a big blur of furniture needing polish, flowers being arranged in windowsills, boots being cleaned and curtains being drawn. Kurt practically flies up and down the stairs. Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore are bossing everyone around, yelling orders, hissing at everyone who is doing anything wrong, and generally ordering them to hurry. Apparently they are used to Lord Smythe giving only short notice before his arrival, and they managed to already prepare a lot over the last weeks, but there is still so much to do.

It is well past midnight when Kurt collapses on his bed, feeling more exhausted than he can remember to have ever felt before. Jeff just groans and only just manages to kick off his boots and slip out of his clothes before he crawls under his sheets and within minutes gently starts snoring.

Kurt takes care to fold his clothes neatly despite his exhaustion, but when he finally lies in the dark, snuggled against his pillow, he finds himself unable to fall asleep. Tomorrow he will know what his life at Bailey Hall will really be like, not just in the months of Lord Smythe’s absence, but during the time when there are actually people inhabiting the house, Lords and Ladies and maybe other servants.

And then there is Lord Smythe. Kurt rolls over onto his stomach and buries his face into his pillow. Ever since Nicholas has told him that story about Sebastian’s family in the library, Kurt can’t help but wonder about how Lord Smythe is coping with this. Having experienced loss so often and so recently, Kurt feels sympathy for the other man, though he has never met him. And then Nicholas reluctance to talk about him, and Jane’s inability to give a complete account on his character...

It’s not just about meeting his employer, Kurt realises as he slowly starts to drift off to sleep. He is genuinely curious to who Sebastian Edward Smythe is.

So when he finds himself standing in front of the gate with the other servants the next morning, lined up in two rows facing each other and awaiting the arrival of their master, most of his lingering sleepiness is replaced by his curiosity, which increases rapidly when a carriage finally pulls around the last trees of the driveway.

The driver pulls the carriage up right in front of the house. Kurt can feel how Jeff next to him stands a little straighter, then a door clangs and he hears laughter and voices, though his eyes remain on a spot far on the horizon.

“Welcome back, my Lord,” Kurt hears Mr Moore say. He can’t help it, he turns his head only the tiniest bit to steal a quick glance at them out of the corner of his eye. Mr Moore is bowing while Mrs Seymour has sunken into a deep curtsey. Standing in front of them is Kurt’s employer, and another man Kurt has never seen before. Lord Smythe looks older than his portrait, Kurt decides, and he is taller than Kurt would have expected him to be, but that is really all Kurt can determine before he hastily adjusts his eyes, staring into the distance again.

“I hope your journey was satisfactory?” Mr Moore speaks up again.

“It was alright, thank you Moore,” a voice answers, a voice that is deep and firm and sounds a bit hoarse, and is altogether very different from what Kurt has been imagining. “I take it the guest rooms have been prepared?”

“Naturally, my Lord,” Mr Moore says, and Kurt almost has to grin sarcastically when he thinks about how much work lies behind this simple “naturally”. He can hear from the footsteps scrunching on the gravel that they are now approaching Kurt and the rest of the servants. “Might I ask when the other guests will arrive?”

“Sometime tomorrow, I presume,” the voice of Lord Smythe answers, his tone careless, “Reginald and I grew tired of their company and decided to travel ahead.”

“To have one evening in peace,” another voice says, and Kurt doesn’t like this voice at all. It sounds artificial, dismissive and presumptuous, and Kurt has the feeling that the words have another meaning to them, a meaning he can’t quite seem to grasp. Across from him, he can see Nicholas’s expression, and for a brief moment a shadow passes over the face of the first footman when he hears the words of Lord Smythe’s friend. Then it’s gone, and Kurt is shaken out of his contemplation by a dry voice next him, which inquires, “And what do we have here?”

Mr Moore replies instantly, “These would be your new footmen, my Lord, Mr Jeffrey Crawford and Mr Kurt Hummel.”

Kurt and Jeff manage to bow in perfect sync – Kurt feels a bit proud – and when they look up again, Kurt finds himself for the first time face to face with his new employer.

The first thing he notices is that Lord Smythe is dressed impeccably: the ashy grey waistcoat emphasises his tall, slim frame, and his black riding boots – only the slightest bit muddy after what must have been a long journey – must be the newest fashion in London. The expression on his face is relaxed and nonchalant, and as much as Kurt tries to find signs for the grief the man has experienced in his life, tries to find hints for how much the loss of his family and the burden of his position affect him, he looks in vain. Still, Lord Smythe is very attractive, though not beautiful, not in the classic sense of the word. He lacks a general amiability, but he carries himself with so much careless confidence, so much ease that Kurt can’t help but feel drawn to him – if only because Lord Smythe continues to be a puzzle for him.

Right now, the eyes of Lord Smythe are raking over Jeff, taking in the other boy’s pretty face and handsome body, and if the slight raise of his left eyebrow is anything to go by, he approves of this new footman.

Then, he turns to face Kurt.

Kurt catches only a very short glimpse into piercing green eyes before he adjusts his gaze and looks at Nicholas again, carefully avoiding to meet Lord Smythe’s eyes directly again. Lord Smythe looks at him for a split second before his lips pull into a lopsided grin, a grin that will become oh so familiar to Kurt during the next months.

“Mrs Seymour,” he says, grinningly turning to his housekeeper, “I believe you have made a mistake.”

Mrs Seymour pales at his words. Clearly she doesn’t hear that often, and clearly she is mortified, “A mistake, my Lord?”

Lord Smythe nods gravely, “I am afraid so. Don’t you know that parliament passed an Act limiting child-labour severely just a few years ago?” He looks at Kurt again, the grin on his face nothing but mean, “We could get into serious trouble for giving a full-time occupation to a twelve-year-old.”

Kurt feels his cheeks heat up at the humiliating words, and his hands involuntarily clench into fist. The friend of Lord Smythe actually starts laughing, while Lord Smythe keeps grinning at Kurt like he is the most hilarious person since Chaucer. Kurt bites the inside of his cheek, careful not to show how humiliated he feels. Mrs Seymour starts blabbering, but Lord Smythe waves her off, still looking at Kurt, “How old are you, boy?”

“Sixteen, my Lord,” Kurt manages to get out between his gritted teeth. Lord Smythe raises both eyebrows, and fake surprise colours his words when he says, “Sixteen? Dear Lord, you’re certainly hiding it well.” He turns to Mrs Seymour again, “Mrs Seymour, make sure to give him drink an extra glass of milk every day. Maybe he’ll surprise us and grows into an adult.”

Without another glance at Kurt or any other servant, he starts to make his way to the house, accompanied by his still laughing friend – oh seriously, even if it hadn’t been on Kurt’s expense, it wasn’t even funny – and Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore who hurry after him.

When they’re inside, Kurt finally turns his head to stare after them. Only faintly does he hear Jane’s words of sympathy, hears Jeff’s jokes that try to console him, or feels Nicholas’ hand on his shoulder.

How wrong he has been about Lord Smythe being a nice or even a likable person. Sebastian Edward Smythe, Kurt decides as he stares after that grey waistcoat, is the most ill-mannered and arrogant person Kurt has ever met.

Chapter Text

“I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it,” Jeff says, readjusting his collar for what must be the fifteenth time since he can’t seem to stop fiddling around with it.

Kurt, who is combing his hair in front of their small mirror, snorts angrily, “Even if he didn’t mean anything by it, that doesn’t make him any less of an arrogant, conceited, insolent creep!”

Ever since his encounter with Lord Smythe this morning Kurt has been inwardly boiling with anger. When he helped to bring the luggage of Sir Reginald and Lord Smythe up to their respective rooms, during tea, even while dressing for what will be his first official dinner at Bailey Hall, he finds himself unable to calm down.

Though he has heard a fair share of stories about employers treating their servants or workers unkindly, cruelly, or even abusing them; until this very moment, he has never personally experienced a social superior exploiting his position as hurtfully as Lord Smythe did a few hours ago, and he is doubtful that anything could have prepared him for it.

Still, even though he would like to deny it, Kurt has to admit, if only to himself, that a very small, really rather tiny part of this anger is his own fault. Over the last days, Kurt had constructed an image of Lord Smythe in his head, an image that despite all its unfilled holes had been bound to be crushed by reality. Of course Lord Smythe is not a nice young man mourning the loss of his family; of course he isn’t an amiable employer with whom Kurt could have been able to exchange a few nice words when serving at dinner.

But despite Kurt’s unrealistic hopes, nothing excuses the mortifying words of Lord Smythe this morning. And though he appreciates Jeff’s attempts to cheer him up, deep in his heart Kurt knows that Lord Smythe was very well aware of the effect his words would have on Kurt, and that achieving this effect was very deliberately intended.

He tugs impatiently on his bangs that just won’t settle down the way Kurt wants them to. “He knew very well what he was doing,” he insists, “That mean, supercilious...”

“You really shouldn’t get so worked up about it,” Jeff says, bumping his shoulder playfully against Kurt’s. “You know you don’t look like you’re twelve.” He grins, “Thirteen, at least.”

Despite Jeff’s playful joking, Kurt can’t bring himself to smile. As much as he hates to admit it, the insult has struck a nerve. Kurt is very aware that he is still small for his age, that his voice still misses any sign of developing the deep baritone of his father, that his cheeks are still a little bit chubby (which is probably why Mrs Bertram loves to pinch them so much).

He is unsure enough of his looks as it is, something which most of the time he succeeds to conceal behind impeccable clothing and a healthy confidence in his abilities. But having his deepest insecurities dragged out into the open and being laughed at in front of the whole household is more than he is able to overcome in a few hours.

“Let’s just go down,” Kurt eventually says, deciding that his hair looks as good as it gets. “Mr Moore will be here to summon us any second, and they’ll be starting dinner soon.”

The worst thing about it, Kurt thinks as they walk down the stairs and right into a kitchen abuzz with energy, is that he can’t really talk about it, let alone complain about it. Sure, he can say something to Jeff, and considering the look Jane throws him as she hurries past him and briefly gives his arm a comforting squeeze, she also suspects what is going on inside his mind. But never could he say something about in the presence of Mr Moore or Mrs Seymour.

As a paid employee, as a servant, he has no choice but to silently take whatever insults Lord Smythe decides to throw at him.

“Kurt.”

No matter how hurtful.

“Kurt.”

Or demeaning.

Kurt.”

Startled, Kurt looks up to find Nicholas frowning at him.

“What are you doing?” the other man inquires, and Kurt looks down to find that he is holding a plate with meat in his hands that is only half-full, let alone been decorated yet. Hastily, he sets it down again and murmurs, “Nothing,” and turns to find something that is ready to be taken to the dining room.

Nicholas continues to frown at him for a second, before he says, “May I have a word with you in private, Kurt?”

Before Kurt has the chance to reply, Nicholas has already grabbed him by the shoulders and is gently shoving him out of the kitchen and into a quiet alcove in the middle of the corridor.

“Nicholas, the soup is almost ready, I don’t think we should...” Kurt objects, expecting every moment to be discovered and yelled at by either Mrs Seymour or Mr Moore. Nicholas ignores his objections, instead, he frowns at Kurt and interrupts him, “I know you’re upset about what happened, but you need to get over this. Now.”

Instead of responding, Kurt finds himself gaping at the other man for a second, unable to grasp where this request comes from, “What?”

“You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself,” Nicholas says, looking Kurt straight into the eyes. “I know you think that you have been treated unfairly...”

“I have been treated unfairly,” Kurt insists. His objection is met with an indifferent shrug by Nicholas, “Even if you have, you can’t let any of it show tonight. So I highly advise you to stop your sulking and do you work.”

Kurt can’t help it, he snorts in a very ungentlemanly fashion before he whispers furiously, “Your employer, who has never seen me before and doesn’t know the first thing about me, called me a child in front of everybody.”

“I know what he called you, Kurt,” Nicholas answers, “I was present when he did, and as you may have noticed, I’m not trying to excuse his behaviour. But the facts are: you are about to serve at the dinner of Lord Smythe, and you can’t do that while looking like there’s nothing you’d like more than to pour the soup down his trousers.”

That picture has a certain temptation to it, and if there’s a short glimmer of wickedness in Kurt’s eyes, it doesn’t go unnoticed by Nicholas.

“It won’t do, Kurt,” he says, his tone having a certain finality to it. “If you are to serve, you will do your best to look like the faithful servant you are paid to be. Trust me when I say that Mr Moore will accept nothing less.” His gaze sweeps over Kurt’s face one last time before he adds, “I won’t accept anything less.”

Without another look at Kurt, Nicholas turns around and walks back into the kitchen. Kurt stares after him for a moment, before he groans and lets his head fall back against the cold white wall.

For a minute, he concentrates on breathing, on the sound of his own, quick heartbeat in his ears. He wants to be angry at Nicholas, and he knows that he has a right to be angry at him, but he has been upset the whole day and it is starting to get tiresome. The worst thing is that Nicholas actually has a point, as much as Kurt hates to admit it. In less than half an hour he is going to face Lord Smythe, and as tempting as an accident with the soup bowl certainly would be, he can’t let show how much Lord Smythe’s words have affected him – if only to not grant him the satisfaction of seeing Kurt upset.

Suddenly, Kurt feels very tired. This whole day turned out to be much more complicated than he would have expected, and it is far from being over yet. With a sigh, he pulls away from the wall and takes in a deep breath, remembering Jane’s words before lifting his chin up and walking back into the kitchen,

“To know you’re worth something isn’t reserved to any class, Kurt.”

He has a feeling that he will need to remind himself of that a few times this evening.

 


Kurt can’t help but think about how ridiculous it is to have three footmen and the butler waiting on a dinner for only two people. But since Mr Moore hit Jeff on the head with a towel after the other boy made a similar remark, and promptly started one of his many monologues on tradition and dignity, Kurt knows better than to voice his doubts.

The dinner itself (the first full dinner he has seen Mrs Bertram put together) is marvellous: Julienne soup, broiled salmon, veal escalopes with mushrooms, multiple dishes filled with oysters, a large fruit plate, and a giant lemon cake with some sort of white and green icing that looks positively delicious. Kurt is just balancing the plate with the cake very carefully over to the side table, where the rest of the food is already waiting to be served, when he almost bumps into Lord Smythe, who chooses this very moment to enter the dining room.

“Excuse me, my Lord,” Kurt apologizes quickly and quietly, his eyes carefully fixed on the cake which wobbles slightly as Kurt steadies the plate in his hands. He is determined to walk on, to ignore his Lordship the best he can, but the dry voice of Lord Smythe stops him, “Never mind... Kurt, was it?”

Kurt nods, his eyes still on the cake, “Yes, your Lordship.”

Lord Smythe is quiet for a second and eventually, Kurt just has to peer up from underneath his eyelashes to determine why Lord Smythe hasn’t walked away yet. He finds that the other man is staring at him in way that is making him very uncomfortable, his gaze slowly moving over Kurt’s shoulders, down his chest and his legs, and then going up again to meet Kurt’s eyes. He grins, completely unashamed, and asks, “Have you had your glass of milk yet, boy?”

Kurt feels his cheeks heat up again, whether due to the reminder of that humiliating encounter earlier or being addressed as “boy”, he is not sure. As for the question, in fact, he stared at the milk pot for a whole minute this afternoon before deciding that he would take his tea without it – possibly for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, he thinks it’s safer to lie through gritted teeth, “Yes, my Lord.”

Lord Smythe continues to grin at him (and Kurt finds himself itching for the soup bowl again), his gaze again moving down Kurt’s body as he replies, “Well, I can’t say it’s showing any effect just yet. But don’t worry, boy, I’m sure we’ll have you having to shave rather soon.”

Kurt feels his fingers clench around the plate he is carrying, his face feeling flushed and hot and his teeth biting down on the inside of his cheek so hard that it hurts. He doesn’t know what to reply, because the only acceptable answers would be “Yes my Lord.” or even “Thank you my Lord.” And he can’t bring himself to say anything like that, because he refuses to acknowledge any submission to the insults of his employer.

So all he can do is to stare at Lord Smythe, who just grins as if he knows exactly what kind of battle is going on in Kurt’s mind.

Luckily, he is spared the answer, because suddenly Nicholas is standing next to him, inquiring in his calm voice, “Is there a problem, my Lord?” His expression is carefully blank, but Kurt has the feeling that Nicholas has been sensing what is going on, and has come to Kurt’s rescue.

Lord Smythe apparently also detects as much, because he rolls his eyes and replies, “No problem, thank you, Nicholas. I was just... admiring...” his eyes glint wickedly as they quickly dart over Kurt’s body one more time, “... Mrs Bertram’s lemon cake. I really missed her cooking in London.”

“I’m sure you have, my Lord,” Nicholas replies, “It is hard to find a cook that equals her skills.”

He looks at Kurt and tilts his head slightly to the right, and Kurt gladly takes the opportunity to murmur, “If you would excuse me, my Lord” and hurries past them to set down the cake on the food table, not a moment too late, because now Sir Reginald, Lord Smythe’s friend, enters the room.

It is the first time Kurt has the opportunity to look at him closely, and he is not too fond of what he sees. Sir Reginald is a man in his late twenties, rather small, with an athletic body and a fair complexion. His clothes are fashionable, and though he doesn’t wear them with the effortless nonchalance that Lord Smythe manages to display, he must be considered good-looking. Nevertheless, Kurt doesn’t like the look in his eyes or the hypocritical expression on his face as he greets Lord Smythe, his voice just the tiniest bit too smooth and too amiable. Overall, Kurt is sure that Sir Reginald is a rather unpleasant man – which, admittedly, makes him the perfect companion for Lord Smythe.

But now the two men are sitting down, and Kurt doesn’t have any more time to nurse his apprehension to Lord Smythe or his friend, because he is busy remembering everything Mr Moore has told him and Jeff about serving at dinner. It is only after they managed the first three courses without any mistake that Kurt starts to relax. Admittedly, Jeff once almost forgot to take the serving fork with the plate of roasted pork, but Nicholas noticed before he had reached the table and fetched the fork, which means that so far, they’re doing well.

Nevertheless, despite concentrating on his task, Kurt isn’t as distracted as that he would not eavesdrop on the conversation of the two men enjoying their dinner.

Generally, he knows that servants are expected to ignore what they are bound to overhear, but practically, that is a task impossible to accomplish: if one tunes out the conversation, he is most likely to miss a question or a request directed at him, and that is something no footman can ever afford. So, Kurt does his best to look completely indifferent while listening intently to the conversation – and not just because he is very interested in hearing news from London.

As he soon determines, Sir Reginald is quite tiresome as a conversation partner. Whenever he finds a topic that Lord Smythe seems interested in, or a joke that the other man finds amusing, he clings to it, repeating and paraphrasing it so for long that Kurt gets bored just by listening to it from a distance. Lord Smythe merely continues to wear a slightly amused smile, though Kurt can’t shake the feeling that this smile is not directed at the intentionally funny things Sir Reginald comes up with, but rather at his efforts to keep Lord Smythe entertained.

Though he tries his best to appear unfazed by the obnoxious boredom that is Sir Reginald, something must be showing on his face, because as he bends down to offer Lord Smythe the fruit plate, the other man catches his eye, and his smile widens before he winks briefly at Kurt.

Kurt walks swiftly back to the side table, feeling his skin tickle with irritation. He can’t make sense of Lord Smythe’s behaviour – one minute he insults him to his face, the other he acts like he and Kurt are confidents who share a private joke. The other man continues to puzzle him, but Kurt takes care from now on to school his expression into indifference even more carefully than before, because he can only imagine how Sir Reginald would react should he notice Lord Smythe making fun of him in the presence of a servant.

Eventually, the conversation turns to London, and Lord Smythe seems much more willing to join in at that topic. They talk about new acquaintances they met, balls and whist games they attended, but to Kurt’s regret, neither of them seems to be very interested in talking about fashion or art or the places he would so love to visit. Nevertheless, he soaks up every word, and thinks about a time when he will be able to explore London all by himself.

Sir Reginald is right in the middle of retelling, for the second time, an amusing encounter with a young lady at a concert (though why any young lady would seek the company of Sir Reginald is beyond Kurt’s imagination), when Lord Smythe suddenly stands up and pushes back his chair, setting his napkin down on the table.

“Well Reginald, that was a very enjoyable evening. Good night.”

Sir Reginald, looking quite dumbfounded, stares at Lord Smythe and repeats, “Good night?”

“Well, I am feeling a little tired after our journey, and the others will arrive early tomorrow,” Lord Smythe says, “So, I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“But...”, Sir Reginald stammers, “But Sebastian, I thought...”

“I know what you thought, Reginald,” Lord Smythe says, “But honestly, thinking isn’t really what you do best, is it?”

He nods over to where Nicholas is standing, “Nicholas, if you’d be so kind to come up with me, I have some things that still need to be unpacked. Mr Moore, I don’t need you tonight, Nick can help me while he’s there anyways.”

Nicholas bows in silent agreement, holding the door open when Lord Smythe, without any last look at Sir Reginald, leaves the room.

“Goodnight my Lord,” Mr Moore says, catching Kurt’s gaze and nodding over to where Sir Reginald sits, his expression still one of irritation and barely concealed annoyance. Kurt, getting the hint, walks over to Sir Reginald, and gently inquires, “Would you like me to show you to your room, Sir?”

When Sir Reginald looks up, Kurt realises that this has been exactly the wrong thing to say. His anger is now no longer suppressed, and his face has shifted into an ugly grimace of wrath. Before Kurt has a chance to react, Sir Reginald raises his hand and in one swift motion knocks over his crystal wine glass, which shatters into thousand tiny pieces on the floor and splatters wine all over Kurt’s trousers and shoes before he hastily takes a step back.

“Look what you did, you clumsy fool,” Sir Reginald says viciously, “Mr Moore, I demand that you report this incident to Lord Smythe and punish the boy for his clumsiness.” He rises from his seat and nods to Jeff, “You there, show me to my room.”

Jeff, who was staring just as shocked at the mess on the carpet as Kurt still is, nods hastily and walks towards the door, and, with a last, apologetic look at Kurt, closes it behind Sir Reginald.

Kurt is still standing next to the table, feeling the wine seeping through his trousers and hearing the splinters of glass crunching under his shoes. Finally, he feels a hand on his shoulder, and looks up to find Mr Moore standing next to him.

“Come now, Kurt,” he says, “We need to clean this up and bring the plates down to the kitchen.”

“Mr Moore,” Kurt says, desperate to mend whatever can be mended, “Please, I didn’t...”

“I know it wasn’t your fault,” Mr Moore says, and his voice is gentler than Kurt has ever heard it. “But I still have to tell Lord Smythe about the incident.”

Kurt closes his eyes. This can’t get any worse, can it?

 


Kurt feels unable to face anybody.

He doesn’t want to meet Jeff’s sympathetic gaze, he doesn’t want to feel Jane’s pitying glance on him, he doesn’t even want to hear Nicholas’s calm inquiries. All he wants is to get away from it all and away from what must be one of the most awful days in his life.

So after he has brought the last plate down to Mrs Bertram, he quietly slips out of the kitchen and up the staircase, tiptoes down an empty corridor and finally enters a room which he knows will be deserted, now that his Lordship and Sir Reginald have retired for the night.

The library is dark, but a small ray of moonlight illuminates it enough for Kurt to make out the bookshelves and the chairs. Carefully, he steps into the room until he reaches one of the large armchairs. He kicks off his shoes and curls up into the large chair, bringing his knees close to his chest and resting his face upon them.

Mr Moore will probably be telling Lord Smythe about what happened right now, and given that his Lordship already seems to dislike him, Kurt can’t fool himself about what will follow. Maybe Lord Smythe will ask him to leave, maybe just lecture him in front of everybody else and cut down his wages. Whatever it will be, it certainly won’t be pleasant.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there in the dark, too exhausted to get angry or cry or do anything other than feel defeated. Suddenly he hears the door creak, and the light of a single candle illuminates a silhouette in the doorframe, a silhouette that quietly whispers, “Kurt?”

Kurt closes his eyes and snuggles deeper into the armchair, wishing he could just melt into the soft fabric and become part of the chair. He doesn’t want to talk to Nicholas, who has probably witnessed Mr Moore telling Lord Smythe all about the incident and is here to deliver the verdict. 

Nicholas, however, seems to sense his presence, because he steps further into the room until the glow of the candle lands on Kurt’s still frame.

“What are you doing here?” Nicholas asks quietly, setting the candle down on one of the tables and kneeling down in front of Kurt’s armchair. “Everybody down in the kitchen is worried because they can’t find you.”

Kurt lifts his head and looks down at Nicholas, unsure what to reply to that. Nicholas raises his hand and hesitates for a second before he lets it rest on Kurt’s ankle, right where his still wine-stained trousers end. “I heard what happened after we left,” he says.

And suddenly, Kurt feels the anger that must have been there the whole time rising up again, and he bursts out, “That horrible man is just as awful as Lord Smythe! I merely asked him whether he wanted to go to his room, and he looked at me like I mortally offended him, and then he just smashed that glass...”

“Kurt,” Nicholas interrupts him, “I know that.”

Kurt stops ranting to blink at the other man in confusion, “You do?”

“Of course I do,” Nicholas snorts, “Sir Reginald is one of the vainest and most pompous men I have ever encountered, and he was horribly upset that Se– that Lord Smythe ignored him.”

Kurt pretends not to notice the small slip in Nicholas speech, but he makes sure to remember it to ask him about it on another occasion.

“He just let his anger out on you because you, unfortunately, were available,” Nicholas adds. He squeezes Kurt’s ankle, which should feel weird, but for the most part is just feeling reassuring.

 “These things happen, Kurt. We’re dependent, and that makes us targets. But not everyone is like that. You just have to learn to deal with the foul ones and keep close to the ones that won’t treat you like that. And don’t worry, nobody will hold you responsible for what happened.”

 “But didn’t Mr Moore tell Lord Smythe what happened?” Kurt asks, finally voicing what he wanted to know ever since Nicholas entered the library.

“Oh, he did,” Nicholas answers. “He came up and told Lord Smythe that there had been a minor accident after he left, and that one of the glasses had been broken, and that Sir Reginald demanded you to be punished for it.”

“And what did Lord Smythe say?” Kurt asks, already dreading the answer.

“He started laughing,” Nicholas replies, and Kurt is sure he detects a slight hint of disapproval in his voice. “He laughed and said that it was no big deal since he never liked those particular glasses anyway, and that nobody should be punished for anything.”

His hand again squeezes Kurt’s leg gently, “It is alright Kurt. Like I said, nobody holds you responsible for what happened.”

But that is not entirely true. Because in this moment Kurt realises that nothing that happened at dinner was ever about him. Lord Smythe had laughed at hearing the story of the smashed glass because it was exactly what he had indented – to annoy Sir Reginald. And to hear that Kurt was the one on whom he took his anger out must have been the icing on the cake, Kurt realises.

And in this moment, Kurt holds Lord Smythe very, very responsible for everything awful that happened that day.

“We should go down,” Nicholas says, already reaching for the candle, “Jeff was really worried about you and insisted that you would do something stupid like running away.”

Kurt slides out of the chair and back into his shoes, before shaking his head. Because in this moment, he makes a decision. The decision not to be beaten at whatever game Lord Smythe is playing with the people around him, and to not back down from whatever challenge the other man throws at him. And he has the definite feeling that there are more challenges to come.

“I would never run away,” he says, “If I did, who would help Jeff to take care of his clothes?”

That makes Nicholas grin fondly, and Kurt turns around to head for the door. But before he has taken two steps, Nicholas voice stops him, “Kurt?”

When Kurt turns around, Nicholas goes on, “About what I said to you before dinner.” He hesitates for second, before adding, “I didn’t want to hurt you, or to tell you that you had no right to be angry about what happened this morning, because you do. I just wanted you to pull yourself together for the dinner.”

Kurt nods. He understands that now. And he also starts to understand that of all the people at Bailey Hall, Nicholas is somebody he can trust – if only because he seems to tell him the truth even when it’s hurtful. Not the whole truth, maybe, but enough to save Kurt from getting into trouble. Because strange as it is, Nicholas actually seems to care about him.

“Yes, I know,” he says, smiling for what feels to be the first time in ages. “Thank you, Nicholas.”

“Nick.”

“What?”

“It’s Nick. None of my friends call me Nicholas, they all say Nick.” He looks at Kurt for a moment, before he adds, “I figured it’s time you do the same.”

Now Kurt smiles, a real, honest smile that lights up his formerly downcast expression, “Alright then, Nick,” he says, as if testing the sound of it on his tongue. “Let’s go find out whether Jeff has organised a search party for us, shall we?”

Chapter Text

The first thing Kurt notices in his sleepy, only half awake state is that somebody is shaking his shoulder, gently at first, but when Kurt just groans and buries his face deeper into his pillow, the hand on his shoulder gets impatient. It takes Kurt a few more seconds to realise that there are also words, and that these words are directed at him.

“... used to Jeff being this unresponsive in the morning, but you are just as bad.” Somebody cruelly rips the blanket away from Kurt, and immediately the cool morning air starts to mercilessly creep up Kurt’s unprotected feet. Kurt yelps and sits up with a start, ready to fling his pillow at whoever has decided to torture him in the middle of the night. Sitting, he finds Nick frowning at him, already in his trousers and with his shirt buttoned up, but his hair still sleep-mussed.

“Finally,” he says, and throws Kurt’s blanket back in his lap, stands up and walks over to Jeff’s bed, where a few blond bangs are peeking out from between the white sheets.

“What time is it?” Kurt asks, yawning. He finds it weird to apparently have overslept, because he is usually awake long before dawn – quite the contrast to Jeff, who, if not woken up by somebody else, would easily sleep until noon.

“Four,” Nick says and starts to shake Jeff’s shoulder – or elbow, possibly. It isn’t very easy to determine which part of Jeff is curled up where under the thick blanket.

 “Four?” Kurt repeats incredulously. Normally, they are not expected to be up until half past five, and from what Kurt has seen of Sir Reginald and Lord Smythe so far, he finds it hard to believe that they would demand to have their breakfast served at six in the morning. “Why on earth would you wake me up in the middle of the night?” Kurt asks, pulling the blanket around his shoulders, tempted to just lie down again, ignore Nick and go back to sleep.

“Because Lord and Lady Huntington arrive today, and they always travel terribly early,” Nick answers. “The others won’t be here until late morning, but everything needs to be ready for the Huntingtons.”

“I thought we prepared all of the guest-rooms two days ago,” Kurt yawns, crossing his arms over his knees and letting his cheek rest against the soft fabric of his nightshirt.

“We did, but they will expect to have some breakfast when they get here – especially since there is no way that either Lord Smythe or Sir Reginald will already be up to greet them when they arrive.”

Kurt sighs and snuggles into his blanket, enjoying the warmth of it for almost another minute before he pulls himself out of his sleepy daze and stands up, tossing the blanket back onto his bed.

Ow!”

Kurt blinks at Nick’s pain filled cry, not awake enough to be really startled, “What now?”

Nick is staring at Jeff, holding his hand an arm-length away from his body and staring at it, a disbelieving expression on his face. “He bit me,” he exclaims.

“Yes, sometimes he does that in the morning,” Kurt yawns, and taps over to the wardrobe to get a pair of socks to protect his feet against the chilly morning air. “I probably should have warned you, but honestly – you deserved that.”

Since he is still cross with Nick for ruining what, had Nick tried to wake him more gently, could have been a relaxed way to start the day, he refuses to help him to wake Jeff; and he is already on his way down to the kitchen when Nick finally loses his patience and dumps the content of the washbowl over Jeff.

 


It turns out that Nick is right.

Lord and Lady Huntington arrive shortly after sunrise, and Kurt, Nick and Jeff have barely the time to hastily gulp down a buttered slice of toast and a cup of tea before Mr Moore ushers them into the breakfast room, carrying with them plates and bowls filled with bread, rolls, toast, boiled eggs, fruits, scrambled eggs, bacon, salmon, haddock and pots with steaming hot tea and coffee. While hurrying up and down the stairs, Nick tells Jeff and Kurt about what he has learnt about the Huntingtons when staying in London with Lord Smythe in the summer.

Lord Smythe met Lord Arthur Huntington and Lady Isabella, back then still Lady Isabella Dashwood, three years ago in London, when they were acquaintances of his older brother. Lord Huntington apparently grew up a castle in the North of England, and has inherited a large fortune both from his mother’s and his father’s side of the family. Lady Isabella, who back then was in London for her second season, was one of the richest heiresses that the English gentry had ever seen, and apparently, Lord Huntington didn’t so much pick her as she picked Huntington.

When Kurt sees them sitting on the breakfast table, carefully sipping their tea, he muses over how unfair it is for a couple who not only has a title, but also a castle and probably more money than Kurt would ever know how to spend, to also look like a prince and a princess from the illustrations of a fairytale book Kurt’s mother once showed to him.

Both are still quite young, with her being in her early twenties while he is probably a few years older than Lord Smythe, but not yet in his thirties. Lord Arthur is almost unfairly attractive: tall, muscular, with smoky black hair cropped short in the back and left longer in the front, dark eyes, and clear cut, regular features. Lady Isabella is petite and graceful, and her dark auburn hair has been braided and pinned up in a daring French fashion. Her carefully embroidered, green travelling dress emphasises her large green eyes, and her jewellery is tastefully showing of its value while still making an effort to appear discreet.

It is only halfway through breakfast that Kurt notices that while they may look like a fairytale couple, their behaviour towards each other lacks any sign of them living “happily ever after”. For the most part of the meal, they remain silent, both concentrating on buttering their toast. If one of them makes a remark about the weather or asks a question (Lord Huntington wonders at least three times when Lord Smythe will join them), the other will give a short and often flippant answer, before resuming their chilly silence.

Kurt catches Jeff’s gaze over the side table and grins when the blond boy shrugs and briefly slides his index finger over his throat. Yes, clearly this is a marriage that has been decided on for financial consideration, not for affection.

The Huntingtons have to wait for almost an hour before somebody joins them on the breakfast table, and when the door opens, it is Sir Reginald who enters, not Lord Smythe. The greeting of Lady Isabella is very friendly, while her husband merely nods in acknowledgment before he turns to his scrambled eggs again. During the rest of the meal, Lady Isabella chats very amiably with Sir Reginald, who seems to have recovered his good spirits over the night, while Lord Huntington watches them vigilantly. Kurt notices that the air between the two men is reserved and rather cool, like two rivals meeting before a duel, and when he sees Lady Isabella casually placing her hand on Sir Reginald’s arm, he wonders just how faithful the marriage of the Huntingtons is.

Sir Reginald has just finished his second slice of toast when Nicholas enters the room and announces that the rest of the guests have arrived. Lady Isabella and Sir Reginald immediately hurry outside to greet them, while Lord Huntington falls behind to quietly inquire, “Nicholas, do you know whether Lord Smythe is already awake?”

“I don’t believe he is, my Lord,” Nicholas replies, “He has not yet rung for Mr Moore, and he gave us the instruction not to disturb him in the morning.”

Lord Huntington nods and walks outside without another word, and Nicholas follows him after gesturing for Jeff and Kurt to stay inside the room and wait until the others come in again. The moment the door closes behind the dark-haired servant, Jeff and Kurt exchange a quick glance and then hurry to the window to watch the other guests arrive. Outside, two large carriages pull up in front of the estate, and five people climb out: Kurt counts two women and three men. Lord and Lady Huntington as well as Sir Reginald immediately hurry forward to greet them.

Oh, I didn’t know Lady Islington was coming too,” says a voice next to Kurt’s elbow, and when he turns his head he sees that Jane and Harriet have snuck into the room to also catch a first look at their guests.

“Do you know who is who out there?” Jeff asks, and Jane nods, “I do. The girl in the navy blue dress is Lady Emily Crawshaw, and the two men next to her are her older brothers, Lord Henry and Lord Edmund Crawshaw.”

Kurt looks over to the carriage to see Lady Isabella carefully embrace a blonde woman in a blue dress, so that neither of their large hats disturbs the other. Behind them, two very men in matching navy blue waistcoats and with sandy curls underneath their top hats, who look frighteningly alike, shake hands with Sir Reginald.

“They’re twins, and terribly annoying,” Jane continues. “In London, they were drunk almost every evening. I can’t tell you who is worse though, because I really cannot tell them apart.” She points at the third woman, a rather tall figure in a rose-coloured dress, a colour which seems very unfit for travelling to Kurt. “That is Lady Catherine Islington. She is a good friend of Lady Isabella, but Lord Smythe can’t stand her.” She grins, “He called her a gormless, silly, flippant goose.”

“To her face?” Kurt asks, because he really wouldn’t put anything past Lord Smythe at this point.

“Good gracious no,” Jane answers, before she grins and adds, “Not yet, at least.” She nods towards the remaining gentleman who, clad in a grey waistcoat and matching top hat, is currently talking with Lord Huntington, who seems to be far more social now that he isn’t in the presence of just Sir Reginald and his wife.

“And that is Sir Robert Stevenson. He’s a bit quiet, doesn’t say much, drinks very little, and plays cards very reluctantly. I believe he’s Scottish. I don’t know why, but Lord Smythe is terribly fond of him.”

Kurt finds it hard to imagine Lord Smythe treating other people like he is fond of them, but then again, he has known his employer for only twenty-four hours, and the only other member of the upper class he has seen him interact with is Sir Reginald, who really is not the type of man one could be fond of. Therefore, he says nothing, and for a few seconds the four of them are watching the people outside in mutual silence.

“Oh well, it certainly won’t become boring here for the next weeks,” Harriet finally remarks, straightening her dress and checking her hair in the blurred reflection of the window.

“Not with the twins and Lady Isabella it won’t,” Jane agrees, “I reckon we have a quite turbulent time to look forward to.” She grins at Kurt and Jeff before she and Harriet hurry out of the room through a small side door, and not a moment to late – Kurt and Jeff have barely managed to take their posts by the food table when the door opens and the ladies and gentlemen enter the room, and now Kurt gets to experience what he will later consider his first real challenge as a footman: He hurries around the table, fills and refills cups with tea and coffee, offers toast and bread, fruit and eggs, and replaces used plates with fresh ones. He is entirely too busy to listen to the conversations around the dinner table, or to form an opinion on any of the newcomers. He is so busy that he even doesn’t realise when Mr Moore, who has come in with the new guests, leaves the room after half an hour. Kurt only realises what his absence meant when the butler opens the door and announces that Lord Smythe will now join them.

Never has Kurt witnessed a person becoming the centre of attention as quickly as Lord Smythe manages to do. The moment he enters – undeservingly good-looking in a light blue frock coat with matching vest, white trousers and black boots, and the seemingly ever-present smirk on his face – every head turns around, an almost half of the party scrambles to their feet to greet him. Lord Huntington is almost unrecognisable – the same man who sat gloomily sulking next to his wife just an hour ago is now smiling and talking rapidly, keeping one of his hands firmly locked onto Lord Smythe’s shoulder, like he has just met a friend he hasn’t seen for ages. Sir Reginald seems to have overcome his anger from yesterday, and his voice is more mellifluous than ever when he ushers Lord Smythe to sit down next to him. Lady Isabella and Lady Emily giggle and coquettishly flutter their eyelashes when Lord Smythe greets them, though Kurt can see his expression turning slightly sour when he bends down to kiss the hand of Lady Catherine. Sir Robert is the only one who does not participate in the general mayhem, but Kurt notices that the firm handshake between him and Lord Smythe lasts quite long, and the affection in Lord Smythe’s face seems almost genuine.

But overall, the object of desire takes all this quite indifferently, and when he sits down between Lord Huntington and Sir Reginald and takes some toast from the plate Nicholas offers him, Kurt wonders what it is exactly that these people find attractive or even amiable about Lord Smythe.

The rest of the meal goes by rather quickly, because Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to be very keen on breakfast: he merely nibbles at pieces of toast and rolls and sips his tea, while he chats with Lord Huntington about the son of a Duke they’re acquainted with, who apparently has run off with a French opera singer – a story that amuses both of them greatly.

Soon, the ladies rise and announce that they will now go upstairs and change out of their travelling dresses, and the gentlemen head for the park in order to discuss where they will be hunting during the next weeks.

“Well, that was fun,” Jeff remarks dryly and eyes the plate of one of the Lord Crawshaws, from where honey and butter have been smeared neatly into the previously white table cloth, forming something that looks like the sunflower-drawing Lord Shaftesbury’s five-year-old granddaughter Rose once gave to Kurt as a present.  “For our first time, I mean.”

“Yes,” Kurt answers, counting six pieces of bread on Lord Smythe’s plate, all of them not even half-eaten . “And to think that we get to that three times a day now.”

“Oh, the joy,” Jeff sighs, and winces when Mr Moore hits him on the back of his head with one of the napkins. Kurt hastily collects a few plates and makes sure to be halfway down to the kitchen before Mr Moore can walk around the table, because he firmly believes in the old saying: Better safe than sorry.

 


It is late in the afternoon, and the October sun gathers up all of her left-over energy and beams brightly down from the sky, cheerful and yet not completely able to banish the chilly harbingers of winter any longer.

The lords and ladies have decided to spend the afternoon in the garden and enjoy what probably will be the last warm day of the year. The three ladies have taken care to hide their alabaster skin underneath pastel-coloured parasols, and are walking up and down the flower beds, admiring the late autumn bloom of the roses. The gentlemen have located themselves at the tea table, where Jeff and Nicholas are busy handing out cucumber sandwiches and freshly brewed Assam tea. Some of them are reading, some are watching the ladies (who are very well aware of that fact) and from time to time, somebody even gets up to join them for a quick stroll.

Kurt, who has helped Jane unpack the luggage of Lord Huntington, has watched them from the windows of the upper rooms, thankful that he can stay indoors and is spared what seems to be a pretty boring afternoon – at least judging from the way Jeff has to stifle a yawn every three minutes.

Now, after having finished unpacking, he is just skipping down the stairs in the servant’s quarters, taking two steps at a time, when he almost runs into Mr Moore. Hastily, he steps backwards, but not fast enough to avoid the critical rise of the butler’s left eyebrow, “Kurt, what is it that most expresses the dignity of a footman?”

“Posture, Mr Moore,” Kurt replies, suppressing the urge to roll his eyes.

“And is hopping down staircases a fitting posture at the noble estate of Bailey Hall?” Mr Moore inquires, and answers the question himself before Kurt feels obliged to do so, “I think not.”

He shakes his head, adding, “But since I run into you anyways, please bring these books up to the library, will you?”

He hands him three books, two slim volumes of what seems to be sermons and a thick novel named The Old Curiosity Shop. “Make sure to put them into the right shelves,” he adds, and then nods at Kurt one more time before turning around and walking down the stairs in the slow, dignified pace he deems appropriate for a footman.

Kurt actually doesn’t mind the task, because he has two books to return to the library himself. He briefly stops by his own room to fetch them and then, smiling, because he has a few minutes to himself and he loves spending time in the library, climbs up the stairs, humming under his breath. He’s still humming when he’s crossing the corridor and reaches the library, and when he gently closes the door behind him, he starts again with a new melody.

The room is alight with the late autumn sunshine, and not as chilly as usual since a small fire is burning in the fireplace. Nobody had seen the need to light one while the house was uninhibited, but now that the lords and ladies might spend some time there, Mrs Seymour has made sure that there is a fire in every room of the house.

Kurt quickly sorts four of the books back, though he has to stand on his toes to reach the upper shelf where the sermon books are. He is about to return the last one, but then pauses in front of the novels, carefully examining the titles until he finds one that sound promising. His fingers are just brushing over the spine when a dry voice behind him says, “I can’t recommend that one. Too much descriptions, and the dialogue is simply atrocious. I’m not sure a narrative is successful when you actually want the protagonist to drown herself.”

Kurt flinches and drops the book he is holding, which lands on the carpet with a soft thump. He turns around so quickly that he almost twists his neck at the movement. Behind him, in one of the windowsills, sits Lord Smythe, a book resting on his knee and his body illuminated by the soft autumn sunlight. For a split second Kurt can’t help but admire the way the light plays on Lord Smythe’s cheekbones and casts flickers of gold into his hair, before regretfully thinking that it would be so much easier to marvel at Lord Smythe’s beauty if he actually were a likeable human being.   

“I’m sorry, my Lord,” Kurt says, kneeling down to pick up the thick volume of poetry. “I didn’t know... that is, I didn’t see...”

“Yes, I realised as much,” Lord Smythe interrupts him, waving him off with a hint of amused laughter in his voice. “Relax, boy. You did nothing wrong.”

Kurt bites down on his lower lip to keep himself from laughing at the irony of that statement, especially since it’s coming from Lord Smythe, who so far had managed to catch Kurt off-guard twice with well-aimed insults.

Nevertheless, Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to be in his usual spiteful mood today: his posture is relaxed, the amusement on his face seems more genuine and less patronisingly than usually – overall, he looks more at ease than Kurt has ever seen him so far.

His eyes are darting over Kurt’s face and come to rest on the cover of the volume of poetry Kurt is still holding, and his right hand reaches out in a silent request. Kurt takes two steps forward and hands him the book, carefully avoiding touching Lord Smythe’s fingers while doing so.  

The other man weights the book in his hands before he starts browsing through the first few pages, raising his left eyebrow in mild surprise.

“Wordsworth, ha?” He says, looking up at Kurt again. “You enjoy the Romantics? Wordsworth, Byron... all these men writing about nature and platonic love?”

“Yes, my Lord,” Kurt answers without a moment’s hesitation. He immediately regrets it, knowing that the grin which reappears on Lord Smythe’s face means nothing good. Lord Smythe starts flicking through the pages again, briefly pausing to look at one poem or another before closing the book and handing it back to Kurt.

“I could never make sense of them,” he says, when Kurt grabs the book hastily, as if to protect the words inside from whatever mean thing Lord Smythe is about to voice. “I mean, they believe that what they can find in poetry is better than what they would find in bed with their wives.”

“I think it’s brilliant,” Kurt blurts out before he can stop himself. “I think searching for the fulfilment of love in poetry grants them far more satisfaction than any human relationship ever could.”

He bites his lip, almost sure that he has said too much. Lord Smythe’s gaze drifts over Kurt’s face again, before he grins in that very special way that makes Kurt skin itch with irritation.

“Hold on to that thought, Kurt,” he says and smiles brightly, “With a face like yours, that attitude is going to save you some disappointment.”

Kurt feels his cheeks heat up. By now, he knows the character of Lord Smythe well enough to expect an answer like this, but while expecting it lessens the impact, it doesn’t take away the sting. It’s not only that Lord Smythe again is making fun of Kurt’s looks, but now he is also dragging something Kurt loves along in the dirt. And Kurt is not sure how long he is going to be able to take this treatment silently.

Desperate to change topics, he blurts out, “Why aren’t you outside in the garden with the others?” Only when it’s out, he becomes aware that it is not really his position to ask questions like this, and hastily he adds, at least for the sake of formality, “Your Lordship?”

Fortunately, Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to mind the question. He just turns his head and looks out of the window into the garden, where Kurt can see the bright colours of Lady Isabella’s and Lady Emily’s dresses as the women walk down a small path between the rose beds.

“I’ll see enough of them during the next days as it is,” Lord Smythe finally answers, and shrugs, as if he himself is not really sure as to why he is hiding in the library. “And entertaining them can be quite... challenging.”

His grin is back in place, and this time it has a suggestive note to it, which makes Kurt starts to feel very uneasy when Lord Smythe looks at him with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and adds, “Especially Arthur and Reginald can be... quite demanding at times.”

Kurt is sure there is another meaning to Lord Smythe’s words, a meaning he can’t quite grasp yet, but he feels like he should understand, and, looking at the observant expression of the other man, is expected to have a certain reaction to it. But really, he doesn’t have a clue as to what Lord Smythe is talking about.

Suddenly, he is feeling very uncomfortable. All his joy about the sunny afternoon, and all his hopes about using the library as a sanctuary for a few minutes have evaporated, and all he wants to do is leave.

“Would that be all, your Lordship?” he asks, desperate to get away from the other man. Lord Smythe tilts his head to the side and grins, but then, much to Kurt’s relief, nods, and turns his attention back to the book which is still resting on his knee.

“I’ll see you at dinner, Kurt,” he says, without looking up, and Kurt is on the brink of blurting out, ‘I can’t wait, you stupid ass.’ Instead, he quickly and quietly crosses the room. He is already at the door when the voice of Lord Smythe once more calls, “Kurt?”

When Kurt looks back, he knows that nothing in this world will ever stop him to hate the patronising grin on Lord Smythe’s face.

“If you decide to join your Romantics in the quest of “finding fulfilment in poetry”, make sure to let me read yours one day. I’m sure it’s going to be quite lovely.” He pauses, “And full of dreams about not having to write it.”

It takes all of Kurt’s self-restraint to close the door quietly behind him.

Chapter Text

When Kurt in later years tries to remember the weeks that follow the arrival of Lord Smythe and his guests, he regrets not having kept a journal. Because even though he remembers incidents and episodes that occurred during these weeks, overall, they blur into each other in a tangled memory of rainy, cold November days.

What Kurt remembers most distinctly are the changes that affect not only him, but the other members of the household as well, because with the guests, other servants arrive. Granted, Kurt doesn’t have much to do with most of them, since their tasks are caring for the horses or the hounds, mending and examining the equipment; or consulting with the locals who, together with Mr Moore, plan the hunting parties.

Nevertheless, there are additions to their part of the household as well. The Huntingtons bring one of their own footmen with them: Frank, a nice, shy man in his mid-thirties, who shares a room with Nicholas. Lady Isabella and Lady Catherine also bring their lady’s maids along: two tall, thin women, whose first action it is to frown at the other housemaids and start ordering them around. From the beginning onwards they make it very clear that they expect to deal with inept people who, since Bailey Hall is missing the institution of a Lady Smythe, don’t have the first idea on how to care for three gentlewomen. This particularly irks Jane, and one morning she asks Kurt whether it would be too nasty of her to search for a mouse in the stables and put it into the lady’s maid’s chamber. Kurt insists that would be too cruel to frighten the poor little thing like that. After all, it’s not the mouse’s fault.

But overall, the additions to the household are small. The changes in their routine, however, are not.

When the days before were filled with cleaning, careful preparations and, in Jeff’s and Kurt’s case, lessons, which all merged into a regular and organised daily pattern; now Kurt sometimes feels like he barely has the time to breathe in between his tasks. He has to get up very early to help preparing and serving breakfast, which has to be ready at eight in the morning, even though some days none of the guests appears in the breakfast room before ten. Nicholas, Frank and Kurt are also responsible for preparing the hunting outfits of the gentlemen: they have to brush out jackets, clean boots, lay out trousers and polish cufflinks. Kurt is glad that he has been assigned to attend to Sir Robert and Lord Henry Crawshaw – both are easy to deal with and seem satisfied with his service. He doesn’t want to begin to imagine how he would have gotten along with Sir Reginald, or, worst of all, Lord Smythe himself.

What shapes their daily routines the most are the hunting parties.

While it would have been impossible for Kurt, who grew up in the country-side and served at a country estate for many years, to remain ignorant about hunting customs, they never had much impact on his life before. Back at Chawton, hunting wasn’t much of a popular sport. The old Lord Shaftesbury had never shown any interest in it and left the task largely to his game keepers. When his sons wanted to participate in fox-hunting parties, they had to spend the season at the estates of some friends – very much like what Lord Smythe’s guest were doing during these November weeks.

When he was still very young, Kurt had thought the idea of mercilessly prosecuting and slowly killing animals, whether they were foxes or deer, very cruel and appalling, until his father had explained to him that hunting per se wasn’t a sport, but rather a necessary task. People didn’t shoot these animals because they took delight in killing them, but to control the number of game in the forests, and to keep the animal population from becoming too large. And especially the number of foxes, which were thought to be a nuisance and could cause a lot of damage, had to be restricted.

Kurt remembers this conversation with his father, but when he looks at the hunting party assembling in front of Bailey Hall every morning, he can’t help but think that this activity has moved very far away from being a ‘necessary task’.

Yes, from a purely aesthetical point of view, he has to admit that there is something extremely appealing about all these men in their red and grey hunting suits, the carefully groomed horses and the masses of terriers waiting impatiently for the hunt to start. Especially Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington seem to have been born to wear hunting jackets; but as beautiful as they are, Kurt can’t help but feel sorry for the fox that has to die in such an artificial and pointless way.

When he looks at Lord Smythe, up on horseback and idly chatting with Sir Robert, not a bit excited or even moved at the prospect of spending the next hours chasing down an animal, he realises that this picture is presumably the best one to summarise Lord Smythe: beautiful, unpredictable, and mercilessly going for the kill. 

Kurt is surprised that more often than not, the ladies join the gentlemen on their horses. Especially Lady Catherine seems to be a very good and passionate hunter, Jane remarks to him one day, and adds with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “Possibly another reason why Lord Smythe can’t stand her. He doesn’t like to be usurped at something he’s good at.”

Nevertheless, Lord Smythe still manages to surprise not only Kurt, but also his guests, by continuing to be unpredictable. Some days, he is leading the charge, on others; Nicholas has to inform the other members of the party literally in the last minute that Lord Smythe won’t be joining them today. On these days, Lord Huntington or Sir Robert fill in and lead the party, and Kurt takes care to avoid the library, because he is almost sure that this is where Lord Smythe is hiding. But to be on the safe side, he also avoids the music-room, the drawing room, and the part of the house where the personal chambers of Lord Smythe are located.

But since he does not participate in any of the chores related to hunting, the most time Kurt spends with the lords and ladies is when he’s serving at meals or waiting on them in the evening in the drawing room. It’s in these hours that Kurt has enough time to form an opinion of Lord Smythe’s friends, and he is not surprised to find that he can’t stand most of them.

Sir Reginald has already vividly proven that he is arrogant and cruel, and Lord Huntington, while admittedly being one of the most attractive men Kurt ever laid eyes on, seems to equal him in arrogance and insolence. What puzzles Kurt about them is their odd behaviour towards each other, and most prominently when Lord Smythe is around. With him, both are almost frighteningly amiable – they try to amuse him, to flatter him, to do everything to secure his attention. But as amiable as they behave towards Lord Smythe – who seems to take all their flatteries with a calm and barely concealed amusement – the nasty looks they shoot at each other indicate that they are rivals, and both very well aware of that.

Kurt and Jeff speculate about their reasons: Kurt believes that they are probably bankrupt and hope for Lord Smythe to lend them some money, while Jeff argues that maybe they just don’t want to spend Christmas at home with their mother or, in Lord Huntington’s case, wife, and therefore try to get Lord Smythe to invite them for the holidays. Nicholas never participates in these discussions; he merely frowns and walks away, clearly not willing to speculate about the motives of Lord Smythe’s guests – or Lord Smythe, for that matter.

Kurt also isn’t particularly fond of the twins: Lord Edmund and Lord Henry are primarily interested in their own amusement, and during the hunt they display a very cruel attitude towards animals, foxes, hounds and horses alike. They also drink more wine than all of the others together, and almost every evening Kurt and Nicholas have to help them back to their chambers. Their sister, Lady Emily is, on the whole, bearable, even though her most intelligent contribution to discussions about politics is, “But our Prime minister really is too ugly, isn’t he? Poor Lord Russell, having that handsome Lord Stanley as his opponent. No wonder his government collapses – nobody wants to be ruled by an ugly beast.”

If Lady Isabella is smarter then she seems to be at first glance, she hides it effectively behind a very annoying way of talking: if she deems something as ‘lovely’, it is either “absolutely” lovely, or “positively” lovely, or “completely” lovely, or “utterly” lovely. Jeff, who gets particularly irritated by her way of talking, once rolls his eyes at Kurt and whispers while reaching for the soup bowl, “Can’t she let anything just be?”

The most entertaining, if not likeable one, is Lady Catherine. The dislike between her and Lord Smythe is mutual, and neither of them takes care to conceal that dislike. Between all the others who are trying almost desperately to secure Lord Smythe’s affections, Kurt finds Lady Catherine to be a rather refreshing exception: she uses every opportunity to remind him that she is his equal not only on horseback, but in terms of wealth and status as well. Lord Smythe answers with cutting remarks about her age and the fact that she hasn’t been able to find a husband yet, and when Kurt listens to the biting sarcasm, he sometimes is glad that he hasn’t been born a woman. Because being female seems to serve as an inexhaustible source for hurtful, humiliating remarks, even more than being a servant does.

The only one Kurt truly likes is Sir Robert. Most of the time, he is quiet, watching the others and only joining the conversation when somebody asks for his opinion. But his answers are always smart and well thought out, and he never treats any of the servants in a hostile or even condescending way.

Overall, Kurt is spared another personal encounter with Lord Smythe, and he is thankful for that. Granted, he cannot escape one or two insulting remarks when they pass each other in the corridor or during meals (once during a late dinner, when Kurt hands him the fruit bowl, Lord Smythe inquires whether it isn’t well past Kurt’s bedtime; another time he remarks to Lord Huntington that it is so much easier to find mature-looking servants in London, and then grins at Kurt in a way that makes Kurt bite the inside of his cheek), but on the whole, Kurt manages to avoid another encounter with his employer.

He is glad about this, not only because he likes to be spared another tirade of insults, but also because he is unsure how long he is able to endure this kind of treatment in silence. And he doesn’t want to lose his employment just by telling Lord Smythe what a conceited, arrogant arse he really is, because in fact, he quite likes his life at Bailey Hall. The only cloud on his otherwise bright horizon is Lord Smythe, and from what Kurt has heard about his plans, he will be away quite often in the months to follow.

But even though Lord Smythe seems to be content with ignoring Kurt’s existence for the main part, unfortunately, Sir Reginald is not.

Kurt is not sure when Sir Reginald has realised that Lord Smythe likes to make fun of Kurt, but in his unoriginal way to please him, he catches on to that. While Lord Smythe is ignoring Kurt, Sir Reginald leaves no opportunity unexploited to insult Kurt’s clothes, his appearance, or ascribes him a clumsiness Kurt definitely does not possess. And as much as Kurt tries not to let it get to him, some evenings he has to leave the dining room for a few minutes to take a deep breath and fight back tears.

Thankfully, Lord Smythe seems to find Sir Reginald’s attempts far more tiresome than entertaining, and, to Kurt’s relief, puts an end to them rather quickly.

One evening, when Sir Reginald is making remarks about Kurt’s shoes (which are very fashionable and clean, thank you very much), Lord Smythe finally rolls his eyes and interrupts him, “Yes Reginald, Kurt is small and chubby and will not become a regular Perseus in the nearer future, if ever. We all agree. Can we please move on to a more fulfilling topic?”

Sir Reginald says no more about Kurt’s appearance.

One the one hand, Kurt is glad that he is finally spared the insults, and that his existence now seems to be truly forgotten. But when he catches Lord Smythe’s eye, and sees a critically raised eyebrow and that smirk that never fails to send an unpleasant shiver down his spine, he realises that while Lord Smythe might be bored with Sir Reginald attempts to insult Kurt, that does by no means mean that he is. In fact, Kurt suspects him to just have reprimanded Sir Reginald to keep the privilege of annoying Kurt all to himself.

And he can’t shake the feeling that all this is merely the calm before the storm.

 


The morning after the incident with Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald rises damp and chilly, like most of these mornings. It’s a Sunday, which means that all of the servants have a few hours off that day, a period of free time of which a large portion is spend on walking to the village in order to attend church service.

The village called Wilton lies snuggled in a valley between two hills, and usually, Kurt enjoys the walk to the village, even if it takes almost an hour to get there by foot. But due to the heavy rain the streets are very muddy, and all of their boots and trousers are dirty before they arrive at the village.

The church is old and quite large, built out of grey stone and always a bit damp, which also means that it’s usually quite cold in there, and when Kurt squeezes into the bench between Nick and Jeff, he is thankful for the warmth radiating off his friends.

The service takes longer than usual, because the curate is ill, and his sermon is often interrupted by coughing fits. Kurt likes the curate – he is still young, and while his sermons are always a little unsure, a little clumsy, they seem heartfelt and open-minded, something which, at least in Kurt’s experience, is rare to find among clergymen. He doesn’t mind attending the service every Sunday – he likes to have the opportunity to sing with other people, and many of the songs as well as the weekly attendance remind him of his parents.

But when Kurt looks around, and takes in the lowered heads of Nicholas and Jeff next to him, their folded hands and their closed eyes while they are lost deeply in their own thoughts, alone in their own conversation with their creator, he can’t help to feel out of place.

It’s not that he doubts the existence of God, or the message of the church in general. It’s just that after the death of his mother, and after seeing so many families in the village loosing relatives to disease and hunger, he slowly, gradually, lost that trust in religion that he had before. He tried to talk to his father about this, and his father listened, but no advice of his could really help Kurt regain that blind, innocent faith that all the people around him seemed to be able to hold on to. After the death of his father, Kurt asked himself more and more often whether God really had an interest in all that was happening, and if he did and really could control their lives, what the purpose of all this pain, of all this heartbreak was.

He knows that Jeff (if he’s not too tired and falls asleep right away) prays every night, and he is sure that Nicholas does the same. He used to do this with his mother when he was small, but when he tries to pray now, lying in his bed and trying to articulate wishes or thanks or even his doubts, he is just not sure whether there really is someone who listens.

He keeps these doubts to himself, and he accompanies the other servants to church every Sunday, and really, he doesn’t mind it, usually. But this time it is different. Whether it is due to the difficult situation at Bailey Hall or not, Kurt feels uncomfortable throughout the service. When he looks at the relaxed expressions of the people around him, he feels an odd mixture of envy, relief, despair and happiness, and he is glad when Nicholas insists that they don’t stay to chat with the villagers after the service like they usually do, but return home immediately to avoid the next inevitable downpour.

The first minutes Kurt walks alone, lost in his own thoughts and occasionally listening to the laughter of Jane, Harriet and Frank behind him. When he finally looks up, he has to smile almost immediately. In front of him are Nicholas and Jeff, walking next to one another. Jeff is obviously telling Nick something funny: he is gesturing, a huge smile on his face while he imitates the voices of the different persons involved in his story. Nick is quiet as usual, but he keeps his gaze fixed on Jeff’s face, intently watching each of his movements, each passing expression. He’s not saying much, but he has this genuine smile on his face, a smile that makes him look as young as he really is, a smile that he shows by far not often enough, Kurt thinks.

Suddenly, a soft arm winds through Kurt’s, and a bright voice inquires, “A penny for your thoughts?”

Kurt turns his head to see Jane’s cheerful face beaming up to him. He smiles and tugs her close to his side, pointing at the figures walking in front of them, “Sometimes I can’t believe that they haven’t spend all of their lives together.”

Jane chuckles, “I know.” She leans closer and lowers her voice, “It’s friendship on first sight. It’s an extremely rare phenomenon.” She sighs and pats Kurt’s arm, “We can be lucky that we are able to witness this, Kurt, and keep on dreaming about experience something similar just once.”

Kurt grins at her theatrics and asks, “I thought your dream was to get married to a wealthy shop-owner who owns a house in London?”

“That’s not a dream,” Jane corrects him sternly, “That’s the plan. Dreams are fickle things, but my plans are bound to become reality.”

Kurt grins, and for a moment they walk together in companionable silence before Kurt speaks up again, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Always,” Jane replies, looking at him expectantly.

“It’s about Lord Smythe,” Kurt hesitates, and when Jane merely nods, he asks, “Why does he hate me?”

Jane looks at him, her expression thoughtful. While she hasn’t personally witnessed any of Kurt’s humiliations so far, she has heard a good deal about them: partly from Kurt himself, partly from Jeff.

“I do not think that he hates you, Kurt,” she says slowly, “But I thought about that too... his dislike is a bit strong, even for him. You don’t have offended him in any way, have you?”

“Jane, he insulted me for the first time the moment he laid eyes on me,” Kurt replies. “All I did was to breath and blink. In a non-offensive way.”

Jane shrugs, “I have been here for almost three years now, and I have never been able to understand Lord Smythe. His whims change as quickly as the weather.” She smiles at him, “Who knows – one day you might become his favourite footman in the whole world.”

Kurt snorts, “Very unlikely.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Jane replies, but her expression becomes serious again. “I think you should talk to Nicholas about this, Kurt. He has spent his whole life with the Smythes. He basically grew up with Lord Sebastian. If somebody can explain his behaviour towards you, it’s Nick.”

“I know,” Kurt agrees, “It’s just that... he doesn’t seem to like to talk about Lord Smythe.”

“He doesn’t,” Jane agrees. “But that is precisely because he knows Lord Smythe so well. He doesn’t want to stand between the servants and the master, which is why he is so reluctant to reveal anything about Lord Smythe. He just wants to be like all the other servants, without any special treatment or knowledge.”

She tilts her head to the side and looks at the dark-haired man walking in front of them, “But you really should ask him, Kurt. He’ll give you some advice, I’m sure. After all, he likes you.”

“He does?” Kurt asks doubtingly. He knows that Jeff likes him; he knows that Jane does too, and he knows that Mrs. Bertram adores him at least as much as Lord Smythe dislikes him. But Nick’s behaviour is so ambivalent sometimes that Kurt hasn’t yet dared to count him as a friend rather than a cherished acquaintance.

“Of course he does,” Jane answers. “But by far not as much as he likes Jeff,” she adds, sighing heavily. Kurt grins, and they spend the rest of the walk discussing the possibility of whether Jane’ wealthy though still imaginary future husband will be rich enough to employ Nick, Jeff and Kurt at the same time, so that they all can stay together in case Lord Smythe continues to behave like ass towards Kurt – something which Kurt is confident won’t change anytime soon.

 


When they get home, it quickly becomes clear that there won’t be any time for more conversations for the rest of the day.

From what Kurt gathers, it was Lady Isabella who, still used to the merits and amusements of London, complained that Bailey Hall was “starting to become dreadfully boring”.

Granted, the weather during these last days had been horrible – constant, heavy rain showers have forced all inhabitants of Bailey Hall to remain indoors. Hunting was impossible, and even crossing the short distance of the courtyard had left Kurt and Jeff soaked to the skin.

The lords and ladies, it seems, have started to get on to each other’s nerves, and Kurt noticed that Lord Smythe has escaped to the silence and solitude of the library far more often during these days, only to stay up very late into the night playing cards and drinking wine with Sir Reginald, Lord Huntington and the twins. Sir Robert always retreats to his rooms after midnight, and though the others continue to tease him about it, he never falters in his habits.

To Kurt, this means that he has gotten very little sleep these last days: though only three footmen are required to stay up and wait on the gentlemen (and more often than not help them to get back to their rooms when they’re too drunk to walk alone), and even though he, Jeff, Nick and Frank take turns in filling the two spots next to Mr Moore, who is always present during these evenings, it means every second night Kurt has to be content with very few hours of sleep.

So, when Lady Isabella suggests that they could have a small ball in the evening, Kurt is far from being thrilled.

“What does she mean by “let us dance well into the night”, anyways?” he asks Nick, who is busy fixing Jeff’s collar. For this very special occasion, Mr Moore has demanded all footmen to be present – something which Kurt finds very unnecessary and inconvenient, especially since he would have been able to catch some sleep otherwise. “It’s not like they could invite guests.”

“Well, it’s basically the same thing they’ve done every evening so far,” Nick replies, tugging the fabric a bit more forceful than necessary because Jeff won’t stop fidgeting, “Only there will be three more courses to serve. Everybody will be in their best evening attire, and they will force one poor soul to play the piano while they hop around and show off their dancing skills.”

“But there are not enough ladies for a ball,” Kurt objects. “I mean, they’re three women and six men.”

“And you think that any of the ladies will view that as a disadvantage?” Nick asks, shaking his head. “You still have a lot to learn, Kurt!”

“And what do you mean by “best evening attire”?” Kurt continues to inquire while searching for his right shoe, which seems to have disappeared underneath his bed. “Don’t tell me the purple dress which showed off practically everything Lady Isabella has in her cleavage doesn’t belong to her “best evening attire”.”

“You underestimate the female fashion, Kurt,” Nick says, tugging at Jeff’s collar for one last time before he nods, satisfied. “I assure you – all three of them will make sure to look divine tonight.”

They do, Kurt agrees when he watches the three ladies enter the room later that evening. Clad in expensive evening gowns in light peach, embroidered turquoise and deep emerald, with their hair pinned up to elaborate styles, and sparkling jewellery adorning their necks and ears, he can’t help but feel excited at the thought of catching a glimpse of what London society must look like.

When the gentlemen enter the room, Kurt’s eyes are involuntarily drawn to Lord Smythe, clad in a crisp white dress shirt, white waistcoat and smooth black tail coat. He looks dashing, and is so awfully well aware of it that Kurt almost gives into the urge to roll his eyes.

Almost.

Later, when he observes the ladies and gentlemen devouring the delicious food selections – Kurt had been allowed to taste them and therefore knows they’re divine – he decides that while he finds most of them disagreeable regarding their character, Lord Smythe certainly has a knack for selecting good-looking people as his friends. The ladies are beauties, all three of them, and Lord Huntington is really very handsom with his smooth black curls forming a beautiful contrast the white of his shirt. Even the twins look charming, sitting next to one another, telling the amused audience an entertaining tale about how they used to torture their governess until the poor thing, on the brink of a nervous breakdown, handed in her notice.

It’s amazing, Kurt thinks when he refills the glass of Sir Robert, how little the appearance of somebody tells you about the character of this person.

The dinner is passed with idle chatter as usual, and soon Lady Isabella rises from her seat and demands to dance. Kurt’s gaze flickers to Nicholas, wondering whether the footman will once more assume the task of playing the piano, but the ladies already start pestering Sir Robert, who seems more than willing to play if it spares him the duty of dancing. Kurt isn’t entirely sure, but he thinks he sees Nicholas sigh in relief. Sir Robert turns out to be a talented piano player, and soon three pairs of dancers are swirling around the room.

The ladies are always in motion, tireless almost, with a stamina they must have acquired during the months spent in London. Their partners change with every song: during an energetic                              contredanse, Lord Smythe is spinning Lady Isabella around, while Lord Huntington dances with Lady Emily and Lord Henry has his arm around the waist of Lady Catherine.

Watching them dance is quite enjoyable, Kurt thinks, partly because he has nothing more to do than to hand drinks to the pausing gentlemen, partly because if he squints his eyes and imagines a larger room, a more festive setting and a greater number of people, he thinks he can see what it must be like to be in one of London’s ballrooms.

The dancing goes on for an astonishing period of time, until the ladies finally show signs of fatigue.

“Oh dear, I am positively exhausted,” Lady Isabella exclaims, flopping down on one of the armchairs, spreading her skirts prettily around her while fanning her flushed face. Kurt quickly glances to his right to catch Jeff rolling his eyes at her, and he can’t suppress a quick smile.

“Now Isabella, don’t tell me we tired you out already,” Lord Henry teases. “You were the one who demanded to dance all night long, if I remember correctly.”

“It’s easy for you to tease, Lord Henry,” Lady Isabella retorts, “You’ve been sitting half night long, while we ladies have been dancing without so much as one moment of rest.”

Lord Smythe, his cheeks lightly flushed from the wine as much as from the exercise on the dance floor, looks at Lady Isabella and Lady Catherine, who really do seem quite exhausted, and Lady Emily, who still looks like she has some, if not much energy left, and then to Sir Robert, who has interrupted his play and is looking inquiringly at the party, as if to determine whether he should continue playing or not.

A mischievous expression on his face, Lord Smythe rises, swaying only the tiniest bit; but his voice is steady when he says, “Well ladies, if you are truly this exhausted, we will have to amuse ourselves with what is left, don’t we?”

He nods to Sir Robert, who takes the hint and starts playing a quick waltz, and then turns to Lord Huntington, bowing mockingly before grabbing his hand and pulling him up to his feet and to the free space in the room. Lord Huntington, who had far more wine than Lord Smythe, looks startled at first, but then starts grinning and takes his hands, swaying to the music almost blindly, though not really catching on to the rhythm.

Lady Isabella laughs delightedly and claps her hands, while the Lords Crawshaw are quick to catch on: Lord Edmund grabs Sir Reginald, who is shooting sour looks at Lord Huntington and Lord Smythe, and Lord Henry, in lack of a male dancing partner, tags his sister along to the dance floor.

Kurt knows that they are drunk, and he knows that it should be something comical to look at – at least judging by the way Lady Isabella continues to laugh – to see two men dancing together. But when he looks at Lord Huntington, who has his arm around Lord Smythe’s slim waist, at Lord Smythe’s long fingers which curl around Lord Huntington’s wrist briefly before he spins him around, he can’t bring himself to laugh at them. Somehow, seeing these two men dance together feels... natural, the same way it feels to see a man and a woman dancing. And yet, there is another, more exciting feeling to it. Maybe it is because Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington both are such attractive men; maybe it is because they don’t seem to think what they’re doing to be neither serious nor overly frivolous, but in a strange way, seeing them dance to together just kind of... makes sense.

Quickly, Kurt glances around the room, to see whether he is the only one with these mixed feelings regarding the homogenous couples. Lady Isabella is still grinning, tapping her foot to the music and laughing delightedly when Sir Reginald stumbles over his own feet at the attempt to get the steps right. Jeff and Frank seem a bit amused, and Mr Moore has the same stoic expression he always displays around the gentlemen – or other people in general.

Lady Catherine is not smiling, and neither is Nicholas. Lady Catherine is staring at the dancers, a judgemental expression on her face as she keeps gnawing on her bottom lip. Nicholas is scowling at Lord Smythe, his hands clenched behind his back as his gaze lingers on Lord Huntington’s hand which rests on Lord Smythe’s hip.

Kurt has the feeling that neither of the two approves of two men dancing together, but still – it’s not like anyone means anything by it, right? They’re merely drunk and having a good time together.

When the music ends, Lord Smythe again bows down to Lord Huntington and then turns to Lady Isabella, who apparently has forgotten about her exhaustion and again demands be receive some attention.

The dancing goes on for a bit before Sir Robert puts down the sheet music and exclaims that he is tired and wishes to retreat to his room. Though Lady Isabella tries to persuade him, he firmly bids them goodnight, and his leaving marks the start of a series of exclamations like “Well, it is late.”, “I have to say, I do feel exhausted” and “Edmund, put that glass down. You had more than enough.”. So, one after the other, they start to say goodnight and retire to their chambers.

Lady Catherine and Lady Isabella are the first to leave, shortly followed by a giggling Lady Emily and a still sour looking Sir Reginald, who asks Mr Moore to bring him one last glass of wine to his chamber. (Though Kurt is thinking that whatever is troubling Sir Reginald will hardly be solved by more wine. An exorcism might help.)

The next one to leave is Lord Edmund, who is supported by a displeased looking Frank and a reluctant Jeff, who cling to his shoulders in order to keep him upright between them. Kurt sighs, knowing that he will be the one who has to help Lord Henry up to his room, and turns around to approach the man, who has sunk down on one of the armchairs, when he stops dead in his tracks.

In the middle of the room, next to the Persian green settee, are Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington. Lord Huntington has his arm around Lord Smythe’s waist, and his head is resting on the other man’s shoulder while he is whispering something into his ear that makes Lord Smythe smirk. The Lord of Bailey Hall is still holding his wine glass in one hand, but his other hand rests on the Lord Huntington’s back, slowly moving up and down along the smooth dark fabric of his waistcoat.

All of a sudden, he looks up, meeting Kurt’s gaze across the room. He raises his left eyebrow, his green eyes piercing into Kurt’s while the hand on the back of Lord Huntington travels lower and lower every second, and the right corner of Lord Smythe’s mouth slowly turns into a grin that is familiar and strange at the same time.

Kurt doesn’t know why, but he feels like he is intruding on something extremely fragile and intimate, and he knows by the way Lord Smythe looks at him that he feels this too, and that he challenges this intrusion. But as much as he wants to, Kurt can’t bring himself to look away.

Suddenly, somebody next to him clears his throat, “Lord Crawshaw?”

Nicholas, without so much as a look at Lord Smythe or Lord Huntington, brushes past Kurt and walks over to the armchair where Lord Henry has started to snore gently. He taps the man on the shoulder, “My Lord, wake up please. We will accompany you to your room now.”

He looks at Kurt, a blank expression on his face, and says, “Can you help me, please?”

Kurt nods, carefully avoiding to look at Lord Smythe again, and together with Nicholas he manages to drag Lord Henry, who eventually is at least awake enough to be able to sing, if not walk, over to the door. Kurt doesn’t glance back, but the thought of Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington doesn’t leave his mind while they steer Lord Henry to his room and leave him on his bed, where he continues to belt out nursery songs that are occasionally interrupted by hiccups.

But he is almost sure that there was more to this hug than the simple search for comfort drunkenness sometimes induces. Something much more meaningful.

And he is almost sure that Nicholas must have seen it too.

Chapter Text

December 1849, Bailey Hall

“Tell me, Lord Smythe, why is it that you aren’t married yet?” 

Kurt looks up from the plate of chicken breast in mushroom sauce he was just about to set down on the food table. They’ve finished serving the fifth course of what promised to be a relaxed late dinner. But seeing Lady Catherine shooting a provocative smile at Lord Smythe after asking that question, Kurt has the feeling that the quiet part of dinner is over.

Lord Smythe, however, doesn’t even bother to lift his gaze from his plate when he answers in tone that sounds decidedly indifferent, “I’m not sure, Lady Catherine. Why aren’t you?”

Sir Henry looks up at that and grins sneeringly at Lady Catherine. Her expression remains unfazed, and only the lightest blush on her neck indicates that she noticed the implied insult. But instead of doing what Kurt would think wise and letting the topic go, she continues, “I just think it... unusual that a man like you, who claims to have so many admirers and is certainly wealthy enough to not having to consider the dowry of his bride, has never even thought about proposing to somebody.”

“Now Lady Catherine, be reasonable,” Lord Huntington replies, a patronizing smile on his face as he sets down his fork, “Sebastian is not twenty-four yet, and like you pointed out, there is no reason for him to marry. Why should he give up the comfortable life of a bachelor just to get tied down by some foolish girl with dimples?”

“You mean like you did, Arthur?” Sir Reginald asks, which causes Lady Isabella to make an exaggeratedly indignant noise and hit him playfully with her napkin.

Lady Catherine, however, is not distracted by them. Instead, she now aims her disapproving stare at Lord Huntington, “Don’t you think it a little hypocritical, Lord Huntington, to regard women as social pariahs if we don’t manage to secure a man’s affection at twenty, while you men think it to be ridiculous to marry before the age of forty?”

“You miss the real problem here, Lady Catherine,” Lord Smythe replies, finally looking up from his plate and giving Lady Catherine a false, sweet smile, “The difference doesn’t lie between men and women, or young and middle-aged. The difference is that I could find someone who would want to marry me.”

This time, Lady Catherine is unable to ignore the insult aimed at her. She stares at Lord Smythe, a hate-filled expression on her pretty face. Lord Smythe stares back, his false, syrupy smile steady in its mock indifference.

Kurt catches Jeff’s eye, and Jeff lifts his shoulders in a half-hearted shrug, indicating that he doesn’t understand Lady Catherine’s behaviour any more than Kurt does. Ever since that ball two weeks ago she has been acting decidedly hostile towards Lord Smythe, or more precisely, even more hostile than usual. Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to be disturbed by her hostility; in fact, it rather seems to amuse him. But while similar conversations between them have occurred before, the level of resentment seems to grow with every evening, and has apparently reached a new peak this instant.

Lady Isabella, who seems to miss the sudden tension in the air, laughs and contributes her thoughts on the topic, “Well, I agree with Catherine. I also think that it is absolutely wicked of you men to leave us girls waiting for so horribly long just because you want to enjoy your life a little longer. Like it isn’t infinitely more fun having us around!”

Kurt rolls his eyes, deciding that if Lady Isabella is the embodiment of fun, he will be content to spend his life in boredom. Since the ball, the weather has allowed for more outdoor activities, but Lady Isabella has still taken on the habit of complaining about the limited life at Bailey Hall at every given opportunity. By now, everyone seems annoyed by her complaining, and nobody bothers to reply anything to her contribution.

Since the hunting season is slowly coming to an end, the lords and ladies have decided to spend the rest of the month, Christmas and the beginning of the New Year at Longleat House, the estate of the Huntingtons. It was Lady Isabella’s idea. “Not that I don’t absolutely adore the quiet life in the country-side,” she had sincerely assured Lord Smythe who had trouble biting back a condescending grin, “But you simply must admit that you live very far away from any cultured life, and we really must have friends over for Christmas. And back home, we can invite our neighbours, the Russels, and the Elliots – oh, it will be so much fun!” Lord Smythe didn’t object to her plans, and so it had been agreed on to leave for Longleat by the end of the week.

Since this is the last evening before the day of departure, Kurt and the other footmen have already started packing. Kurt is delighted at the prospect of spending Christmas in solitude, far, far away from Lord Smythe and his friends. But seeing him and Lady Catherine now glare at each other in this openly hostile manner makes him wonder whether they will end up killing each other under the Christmas tree. Not that either would be a great loss.

Lady Emily, who looks back and forth between Lord Smythe and Lady Catherine, good-naturedly tries to introduce a new topic to the conversation, “Oh Catherine, did I tell you? I just finished that book you recommended, and I have to say I’m quite in love with it.” Fortunately, Sir Robert, who rarely shows any interest in topics suggested by Lady Emily, seems also willing to change the subject, and he asks, “Might I inquire which book Lady Catherine did recommend to you, Lady Emily?”

Grateful for Sir Robert’s efforts, Lady Emily quickly answers, “It’s called Mansfield Park, but the author’s name escapes me.” She contemplates it for a moment, then shakes her head, “Some woman author, though. Not very widely read, I fear.” Lord Henry grins at his sister in a rather condescending way, “One of these horribly sentimental novels you women read, I presume?”

Kurt thinks this is a little hypocritical, given the fact that he has noticed that the pile of books on Lord Henry’s desks consists mainly of gothic and sensational novels written by Ann Radcliffe, but he hides his expression and moves to help Jeff with the fish plate while still listening attentively to the conversation. Lady Isabella scolds, “Don’t interrupt her, Lord Henry. Emily, dearest, you were saying about that book...?”

“Oh Isabella, you simply must read it too,” Lady Emily says, and Kurt can hear her clap her hands in excitement, “It is so romantic and heartbreaking.”

“I agree about it being heartbreaking,” Kurt hears the dry voice of Lord Smythe, “Especially the part at the end where she marries her awful cousin.”

Kurt looks at Jeff, who raises his left eyebrow at him, obviously surprised to hear Lord Smythe admitting to have read the novel. Kurt isn’t particularly surprised at that – considering the speed at which Lord Smythe seems to devour literature, it’s no wonder he can’t be picky anymore. There must be hardly anything left in the library he has not laid his judgemental eyes on.

At Lord Smythe’s comment, Lady Emily gives an outraged little cry, “Oh Lord Smythe! Now you spoiled the ending.”

At a sign by Mr Moore, Kurt turns around and starts to quietly move around the table, quickly and silently collecting the dirty dishes while Jeff follows with the next course. Lord Smythe looks unrepentant, but Kurt notices that Lady Catherine is again staring at him with a decidedly hostile expression, and he really wonders what happened that night during the ball that made her despise him so much. Not that generally he finds it odd for people to despise Lord Smythe, on the contrary, it would seem like the natural human reaction. It’s the sudden intensity of Lady Catherine’s loathing that surprises him.

“So, you disapprove of her marrying the man she loves?” Lady Catherine asks. Lord Smythe looks up, the false smile back on his lips, and nods, “Since the man is not worthy of her affection, let alone another person’s love, I do.”

Lady Catherine snorts in a very unladylike way at that, “I suppose you would rather have her accept that Mister Crawford who turns out to be a downright villain in the end?”

The smile on Lord Smythe’s face starts to look strained around the edges, “I do believe, Lady Catherine, that if the woman he loved had not accepted his offer first and then later crushed his hopes and dreams, his desperation might not have driven him to become a villain.”

When Kurt carefully takes her plate, Lady Catherine replies, “I can hardly believe that we are talking about the same book, Lord Smythe. That man was evil from the start.”

“I honestly doubt that any man is ‘evil from the start’,” Lord Smythe answers. Lady Catherine doesn’t seem to notice the plate that Jeff has set down in front of her, because she is still frowning at Lord Smythe when she answers, “A man able to commit the sins he commits can never have been any good, Lord Smythe. He might have not acted on it before, but I think the novel makes a point in showing how rotten he is and always has been.”

Lord Smythe raises his eyebrow at that, “So, Lady Catherine, you do not believe that a human being can change? That we can turn good or evil any minute, depending on our own decisions as much as on what other people do to us?”

Lady Catherine is suddenly sitting bolt upright, looking Lord Smythe directly into his eyes and pronouncing her next words very distinctly, “I believe that some people are evil while others are good, and I believe it is our duty to cast out those who are corrupt and profligate. I believe that the claim that our own decisions are determined by other people’s actions is a cowardly excuse, and anyone who uses it cannot call himself a real man. And...” her eyes narrow as she stares at Lord Smythe, “I do not believe that the sins we commit can ever be redeemed.”

The silence that follows could be cut with a knife. Kurt and Frank have stopped collecting the dishes; Nick and Jeff have stopped serving the fish. Everyone is staring either at Lord Smythe or at Lady Catherine, holding their breaths and waiting for Lord Smythe’s reply.

Lord Smythe is returning Lady Catherine’s glare, his eyes searching for something in her gaze. Then, slowly, a grin starts to spread on his face, and he raises his glass.

“I drink to that,” he says. His voice is sounding indifferent again, but the expression in his eyes is cold. “I drink to the most narrow-minded worldview I ever encountered.” He drains his glass and puts it down with so much force that for a moment Kurt believes it will crack in his tight grasp. However, this seems to be the sign for everyone to start moving again – Jeff hurriedly puts down the fish in front of Lord Huntington, Kurt fetches the last dish from Lady Emily’s place, and Lord Henry, Sir Reginald and Lady Emily start talking simultaneously.

Lord Smythe and Lady Catherine do not talk to each other throughout the rest of the dinner, and the conversation between the guests remains civil until the end of the last course. Kurt feels relived. Not that he personally minds the disputes between Lord Smythe and Lady Catherine much, but he knows that they not only make Nick frown at Lord Smythe, but also unnerve Jeff, who hates any kind of quarrel on principle.

Sir Robert is the first one to set down his spoon after having finished his sorbet. He wipes his mouth on his napkin, carefully folds it and places it next to his plate. “Well,” he says, pushing his chair back and rising from his seat, “That was a very enjoyable evening, but I will go to bed now. Goodnight.”

“You can’t be serious, Robert,” Lord Smythe says, looking incredulously at his friend. “It’s not even past eleven yet.”

“That is true, but since we will travel every early tomorrow, I think I will retreat to my room now to get enough sleep,” Sir Robert answers. His eyes search the room for a second before they land on Kurt, and he smiles kindly, “Kurt, could I ask you to come up with me for a moment? I have a few requests concerning the luggage.”

Kurt shoots a quick look at Mr Moore to ask for permission to leave the dining room, and when Mr Moore nods encouragingly, he quickly sets down the wine jug and answers, “Of course, Sir.”

“You’re a spoilsport, Robert,” Lord Smythe says, smiling disappointedly, “But I guess there’s no point in trying to convince you to stay, right?”

Sir Robert merely smiles and lets his hand rest for a moment on Lord Smythe’s shoulder, squeezing it almost affectionately as he walks past him, “Goodnight, Sebastian.”

Lord Smythe sighs and answers, “Goodnight, Robert” before he turns to Lord Huntington, who is eager to secure his attention by asking him which Christmas concert he would like to attend, while Kurt hurries after Sir Robert, who swiftly takes the stairs up to his bedroom.

When Kurt closes the door behind him, Sir Robert is standing at the window, gazing out into the dark night, a thoughtful expression on his face. Kurt waits for a moment, but when Sir Robert shows no sign of acknowledging his presence, he politely clears his throat, “You wanted to inform me about the packing, Sir?”

Sir Robert looks up, startled. It takes him a moment to snap out of his thoughts, but then he nods. “Yes, I did. I would like to ask you to only pack some of the lighter travelling clothes and the evening attire, but leave the hunting gear and the rest of the clothes here.”

“So you will return to us after Christmas?” Kurt asks. Sir Robert nods, smiling almost regretfully. “If experience has told me anything, it is that Christmas at Lady Isabella’s place leaves most of her guests in a hurry to depart afterwards.” He sighs and starts to shrug out of his tailcoat. Within a split second, Kurt stands behind him to assist him, carefully folding the jacket over his arm and starting to undo the cufflinks. “I trust that we will be back in mid-January,” Sir Robert adds.

Kurt nods, carefully keeping the disappointment from showing on his face. He had hoped for them to be away longer, maybe even until late February or early March. He certainly wouldn’t have minded being spared the company of Lord Smythe for a little while. But then, he thinks as he moves to put Sir Robert’s waistcoat back into the wardrobe, it means almost a month of solitude at Bailey Hall. And that surely is nothing to complain about.

When he turns around to help Sir Robert loose his collar, he notices the observant look in the other man’s eyes as he says, “Kurt, may I ask you a question?”

Unsure about where this is going, Kurt nods again. Sir Robert looks at him inquiringly, “I have noticed that you haven’t been treated very favourably by Sebastian or Reginald.”

Kurt swallows nervously, unsure as to what to reply to that. Sir Robert apparently isn’t waiting for an answer, as he continues, “I imagine it must be hard for you, being confronted like this when entering a new position, and I just want to know that you shouldn’t take it to heart, Kurt. Nothing about all this has really anything to do with you.”

Kurt thinks about all the insults, all the hurtful remarks aimed his way, and replies carefully, “Sometimes, that is... hard to believe, Sir.”

“I’m sure it is, but Sebastian is a good man,” Sir Robert says. Somehow, Kurt feels that he is talking more to himself now than directing his words at Kurt. “He’s one of my closest friends, and I chose my friends carefully. He’s... he has lost his way a little, that is all. And it’ll pass, I am sure. For now, I’m sorry that you’re amongst the ones he is taking it out on.”

Kurt notices that while Sir Robert is defending Lord Smythe, he hasn’t said a word about Sir Reginald. Apparently, Sir Reginald isn’t to be excused, he’s just plain mean. Sir Robert smiles at him when he hands him his shirt, “Sebastian has a good heart, and he’s a fair employer, Kurt. I hope he will try to display this a little more in the future. But I’m sure you will feel quite at home at Bailey Hall in no time.”

Kurt is almost absolutely sure that nothing in this world will ever be able to convince him to that Lord Smythe has a heart, let alone a good one. But Sir Robert is looking at him with so much conviction, that Kurt can only reply, “I’m sure I will, Sir.”

When he collects Sir Robert’s shoes, he thinks that Lord Smythe really doesn’t deserve Sir Robert as a friend.

 


Maybe it’s the constant sound of raindrops rapping against the small window, or the noise the wind makes, ruffling the leaves and branches of every tree in the park outside. Or maybe it’s the fact that Jeff keeps on snoring, even though Kurt has shook him half-awake twice already. Maybe it’s the darkness that somehow seems heavier than usually, but whatever the reason, Kurt finds himself unable to fall asleep.

He has no idea what time it is, but it must be well after two in the morning. He groans and buries his face deeper into his pillow, tugging his blanket closer around his shoulders. The lords went to bed relatively early, at least for their standards, and Kurt was quite glad to have an opportunity to get some sleep before rising early, preparing breakfast and then packing the rest of Sir Reginald’s and Lord Henry’s luggage. But whatever he tries, he just can’t go to sleep.

He flops onto his back, staring into the darkness and thinking about the evening. The conversation between Lady Catherine and Lord Smythe, Sir Robert trying to reassure him, how Jeff had dropped a bowl in the kitchen and received a terrible scolding from Mr Moore...

Suddenly, Kurt sits bolt upright in his bed, remembering that there actually was something he completely forgot about. When they were bringing the dishes down to the kitchen, Harriet, who looked dead on her feet, said that she had yet to extinguish the fire in all the rooms of the west wing. Kurt, feeling sorry for her, promised he would look after the fires, and ushered her to go to bed.

And he had remembered his promise and looked into every room on the first and on the second floor, except for... “The library,” Kurt curses under his breath. He completely forgot about the library. Hastily, he throws the blanket away and climbs out of bed. For a moment he considers changing into his uniform, because should any of the gentlemen or, even worse, Mr Moore catch him wandering around the house in his nightshirt, he will never hear the end of it. But now he is really worried and simply doesn’t have the time to put on his uniform, so he settles for his trousers and a shirt, hurriedly ties his shoelaces and lights a candle. Jeff continues to snore throughout the noise Kurt is making, and Kurt is pretty sure he’ll find him still sound asleep when he returns.

Quickly, he hurries out of the room and through the corridors of the house. He does not take the servant stairs: to save time, he uses the corridors in the northern wing, tiptoeing past the chambers of Lord Smythe and then Lord Huntington and Lord Edmund, up another flight of stairs until he finally reaches the library.

When he opens the door he is relieved to see that the fire has burned down, and only the faintest glimmer of dying embers is visible in the darkness. Of course nothing happened; of course he worried for nothing. It is not likely that a fire laid out carefully by the kitchen maids could get out of control, but really, you never know. One open window, one little draft in this room filled with books and paper, and the house could burn down within no time.

He checks the fire one last time and carefully puts out the ashes. Satisfied and relieved, he makes his way back to his room, only realising in front of Lord Huntington’s room that now he could have used the servant’s stairs. But then again, it’s almost three in morning, and lords and ladies alike had much wine to drink. It’s not just unlikely, it is next to impossible that Kurt will encounter any of them in the middle of the night.

But nevertheless, he takes extra care not to make any noise as he tiptoes past their rooms.

He is halfway down the corridor when suddenly, he hears a thud, closely followed by a loud crash, and he stops dead in his tracks. Attentively, he listens for the source of the noise which seems to have come from behind one of the doors to Lord Smythe’s private chambers. Carefully, he tiptoes further down the corridor, until he hears another noise. It’s some sort of ruffling, followed by what sounds like a muffled curse, which, if he hasn’t lost his orientation completely, is coming from behind the door to Lord Smythe’s bedchamber.

Slowly, Kurt approaches the room, shielding the light of the candle from the door in front of him. Now he can see that there is a small stream of light beneath the crack of the door – so Lord Smythe is still awake. Careful to not make a sound, Kurt leans closer to the door, trying to determine whether he should knock and see whether Lord Smythe needs help – as much as he despises him, his employer could have hurt himself, after all. But then again, Lord Smythe will inquire why Kurt is lurking around in front of his chamber in the middle of the night, and the only explanation Kurt has to offer does not exactly cast him in the light of being a reliable servant.

Nevertheless, his concern wins over his resentment, and he has just decided to knock when he hears a muffled voice inquiring, “Do you think that woke anyone?”

Kurt’s hand stops, his knuckles only inches away from touching the wood. It’s not the voice of Lord Smythe he heard. It’s the voice of Sir Reginald.

“Nobody has their rooms close enough to hear anything going in here,” the dry voice of Lord Smythe replies. He emphasises his point by not bothering to lower his voice in the least. “Can you please try not to step on the shards?”

“I’m sorry about that vase,” Sir Reginald replies, and there is another ruffling sound. “I presume it was a very valued heirloom that has been in the family for centuries, right?”

“Reginald, I don’t give a damn about the vase,” Lord Smythe replies.

Kurt realises that he is pressing his ear against the door, and as inappropriate as his behaviour certainly is, he can’t bring himself to leave. What in the name of reason is Sir Reginald doing in Lord Smythe’s room – at three o’clock in the morning, when they all should be asleep? Kurt can’t really make sense of it – if both of them are still up, they could have gone to the drawing room, and, judging by their way to spend previous nights, could have asked for some wine and a deck of cards.

So Kurt, confused by what exactly is going on in there, keeps his ear pressed to the wood, aware that if anyone catches him in this position, it will almost definitely cost him his post, and yet too curious to find out what is going on to leave now.

Oddly enough, Sir Reginald doesn’t reply to Lord Smythe’s statement. There is silence for a long moment, before Kurt hears the creaking of the bed and the rustling of sheets. He frowns, puzzled, wondering whatever they are doing in there. Are they walking across the bed now to avoid stepping on the pieces of porcelain? And why haven’t they rung for somebody to clean up the mess Sir Reginald apparently made? Certainly Lord Smythe has no scruples waking some of the servants, no matter the hour. Why are they trying to be so secretive?

His thoughts are interrupted by the next sound, and he almost loses his balance when he hears a loud moan coming from behind the door, followed by a low, guttural, “God dammit, Sebastian!” Another groan follows, louder this time, and the bed creaks again.

Kurt bites down on his bottom lip hard to keep himself from making any noise, and he feels heat rising to his cheeks. He suddenly has a very clear idea of what these two are doing in there – after all, he is old enough to know exactly what these kind of noises mean. Back at Chawton, the footman Claus received nightly visits by one of the kitchen maids, and since his room was next to Kurt’s, Kurt became more familiar with the sounds of nightly activities than he ever would have wanted to. But hearing them coming out of a room in which apparently Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald are alone is something Kurt wasn’t prepared for.

Instead of turning and hurrying away like he should, he presses his ear closer against the door, and now that he really concentrates, he can hear the sound of fabric rustling against fabric, and the rapid breathing of two people.

For a moment, he can only hear these new noises that fit so well into the image his mind is slowly coming up with, before Sir Reginald’s breathless voice can be heard again, “I bet Arthur doesn’t dare to come into your room late at night, right?”

Lord Smythe answers with a low chuckle, and though his voice is more hoarse than usual, it doesn’t sound nearly as affected as Sir Reginald’s when he replies, “Don’t tell me you’re still jealous of Arthur. Not after visiting his lovely wife three times this last week.”

The rustling sounds stop for a moment, and Sir Reginald sounds very guilty when he asks, “How did you notice that?”

“I’m an observant person, and, honestly, you two are not very discreet,” Lord Smythe replies. “I guess you thought shagging Arthur’s wife would give you some sort of advantage over him?”

“Please, Sebastian, you know that Isabella doesn’t mean anything to...”

He is interrupted by the cold laugh of Lord Smythe, “Please, Reginald. I couldn’t care possibly less about what you and Isabella do together. Though I find it amusing that Robert and Lady Catherine are probably the only truly virtuous people in this house. Though of course in the case of Lady Catherine, that is because her goal in life is to be more holy than all apostles combined.”

“But you asked me to come to you tonight, didn’t you?”

Yes, Reginald,” Lord Smythe sighs, “I asked you come.”

“So you care more for me than you do for Arthur, right, Sebastian?”

“Do you want an honest answer to that, Reginald? I don’t think I care much for either one of you. But you are at least quiet while we’re doing it. Arthur is terribly noisy, and I’d rather not be caught by anyone in my own house. So you were the best choice.”

Sir Reginald’s voice sounds so whiny that Kurt frowns involuntarily, “Why do you say these things, Sebastian?”

“Because they’re true, and because you asked,” Lord Smythe replies, his voice growing impatient. “Shut up and turn around now, will you?”

Kurt realises that his mouth is hanging slightly open, and he quickly closes it. Now he has no doubts about what the two men are doing in here, and the realisation of what this actually means hits him with a force he is not prepared for. Suddenly, a very vivid image of two bodies, two male bodies, moving together, pressed against one another tightly, making the sounds that are now coming from the other side of the door, rises before Kurt’s eyes, and quickly he backs away from the door.

Later, he isn’t quite sure why he chose to return to the library, or remembers how he blew out his candle and left it on a drawer in the corridor, but the next thing he knows is that he’s sitting in one of the armchairs in the library, staring into the darkness and trying to process what he has just discovered.

Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald are not just friends. Friends do not visit each other in their bedrooms in the middle of the nights. Friends do not have competitive conversation about who prefers who to whom. Friends do not do what these two, judging by the noises Kurt heard, are doing right now.

Obviously, Lord Smythe didn’t just invite friends to stay at Bailey Hall. Kurt’s fingers curl around the armrests of his chair when he realises that at least two of the men are not Lord Smythe’s friends. They’re his lovers.

Now, so many things Kurt did not understand before suddenly start to make sense.

The weird rivalry between Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington, Lord Smythe’s remark “They can be quite... challenging at times”, the dancing, the hug between Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington... Kurt almost laughs when he remember Lady Catherine’s question from earlier this evening, “Why aren’t you married yet, Lord Smythe?” Well, it looks like Kurt has found the answer to that question. And now he keeps wondering whether this is also the reason why Lady Catherine has been acting so hostile towards Lord Smythe. Because that night at the ball, she understood something Kurt still has trouble to process.

Taking a deep breath, Kurt lets his head fall against the rest of the chair and tries to sort his thoughts. Lord Smythe, his employer, master of Bailey Hall, is apparently not interested in women as lovers, but instead has some sort of relationship with Sir Reginald and, if Kurt understood their conversation correctly, Lord Huntington.

The concept of love between two men is not unfamiliar to Kurt. There was a small scandal in Chawton once, when the nephew of Mrs Wilbourne, the wife of the pub-owner, was arrested and charged in London for committing acts of gross indecency with another man. The charges were dropped eventually, but the villagers, who had neither heard of nor ever seen the young man before, didn’t stop talking about it for weeks.

Kurt was not yet fourteen at that time, but he remembers that his father had visited the pub far more often than usually, as if to demonstrate his support for the family. He also remembers that nobody had openly talked about what exactly these men had done wrong. Everyone was quick with insults and talking about eternal damnation, but Kurt, not getting what “acts of gross indecency” actually meant, had eventually asked his father. His father had not been comfortable with the topic either, but he had hesitantly explained to Kurt that some men didn’t feel any attraction towards women. Instead, they preferred other men as sexual partners. And while his father didn’t express his personal opinion on the matter, he made it very clear what both church and state thought of such acts.

Since then, whenever Kurt came into touch with the topic (which wasn’t very often), he remembered the resentment and hate of the other people, not only towards the two men, but also towards their family. But so far, the issue has been something Kurt didn’t have a direct connection to, but something that, if it happened at all, it happened somewhere far away, in London, or in Paris. Having overheard his employer and his lover only a few floors away from his own bedroom forces Kurt to face the issue like he never had to before.

Gnawing on his bottom lip, Kurt looks to the window. Now that his eyes have adjusted to the darkness, he can make out the bookshelves and the windowsill. It’s not like he condemns anyone. He knows that the church claims it to be a sin, and that the state deems it illegal. But his relationship to the church is a difficult one already, and he has troubles believing that a heavenly father who is ready to forgive sins like stealing, prostitution or murder will punish someone for falling in love with the wrong person. When his father had talked about it, he didn’t make it sound like anyone had much of a choice in these matters, and from having observed the development of some relationships, Kurt knows that sometimes falling in love brings more pain than joy. He remembers John, the stable boy, and his desperate obsession with Lady Janet, or Abigail, the housemaid, and her unrequited crush on Mr Johnson, the teacher of the Shaftesbury heirs. None of them chose to fall in love, and none of them was able to change anything about their feelings. Why should this be different between two men – or two women?

For Kurt himself, love has remained a mostly abstract concept so far. Yes, he has looked at the girls around him, knowing that he is expected one day to fall in love with, or at least to marry one of them. And he likes their company, very much so. But overhearing the other village boys talk about their sexual adventures, or listening involuntarily to Claus and his kitchen maid, he wonders why he has never felt any sexual desire towards a girl.

When he thinks about Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald together, he has to admit that apart from the fact that they are both horrible human beings, he doesn’t find the idea of two men being lovers appalling at all. Nevertheless, the knowledge of Lord Smythe and Sire Reginald’s affair brings so many complications with it – so many complications Kurt doesn’t feel ready for.

He buries his face in his hands, knowing that his growing headache is equally to blame on the lack of sleep and his discovery. Briefly, he wonders whether he is the only one in this house who knows about this. Lord Huntington is obviously aware of what is going on, and Lady Catherine seems to be too. Sir Robert might have an idea, but Kurt is unsure how much he really knows. As for the servants, he can’t imagine that Mr Moore or Mrs Seymour have any clue what is going on.

And then... there’s Nick.

He is somebody Kurt hasn’t considered so far at all. What does Nick know about all this? He has spent his whole life at Bailey Hall. Could Lord Smythe’s preferences have escaped his attention? Kurt thinks about some moments that start to make more sense now: Nick refusing to speculate about Sir Reginald’s and Lord Huntington’s rivalry, Nick trying to distract Kurt from staring at Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington hugging each other –

“He knows,” Kurt mumbles. “He definitely knows about this.”

For a moment, he wonders whether he could tell Nick what he witnessed. He has the desperate urge to talk to someone about it, just to clear his head, to hear the opinion of someone he trusts. He’s not sure how to deal with this newly acquired knowledge, and he really could use some advice. But so far, Nick has been extremely loyal to Lord Smythe, and Kurt is not sure how he will react when Kurt tells him about what he knows – or what he assumes. And then - what if he’s wrong? What if Nick is not aware of the real nature of Lord Smythe’s ‘friendships’?

Suddenly, he realises what kind of power this knowledge gives him over Lord Smythe. Only the slightest rumour of his sexual preferences spread amongst the servants and the villagers, let alone his upper-class friends, could ruin his reputation forever. Kurt wouldn’t even need proof for that – once a rumour is out there, people will watch, people will think about what they already witnessed in a new light, and many of them will draw the same conclusions Kurt has come to right now. He holds his breath when he realises that it is actually in his power to break Lord Smythe completely.

But at the same time, he knows that he could never to such a thing. Because as horrible as Lord Smythe is, and as much as Kurt despises him and really wants to pour boiling soup down his lap sometimes, he could never ruin the life of another human being.

In the end, he isn’t sure how much time he spends in the library. Half an hour? An hour? More? Finally, he realises that he has to return to his room, since it won’t be long now until they have to get up again. He regrets having left the candle behind as he fumbles his way out of the library and down the corridor, this time taking the servant stairs. Partly because there he will find this way even in the dark, partly because he doesn’t want to risk running into Sir Reginald when the man returns to his room.

So he slowly makes his way down the stairs, his mind still racing with thoughts about what he just found out, and what this means: for him, for Lord Smythe, for his relationship to Nicholas, for his life at Bailey Hall.

Because whether he likes it or not, now he is part of a big secret, a secret that has the potential to destroy Lord Smythe and everyone around him.

Kurt is still lying awake in his bed when Nicks knocks against the door to wake him and Jeff.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even Nick.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will, Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

December 1849 – February 1850

Kurt has never spent Christmas at a house without a master in it. Unsurprisingly, it feels awkward to walk through the quiet corridors and deserted rooms of Bailey Hall, empty and cold without a fire to warm them.

Back at Chawton, Christmas was the busiest time of the year. Every member of the Shaftesbury family came to Chawton Manor over the holidays, regardless of the distance they had to travel. The servants spent days and nights decorating the halls with holly and mistletoe, hundreds of candles were lit, and the dishes Kurt brought up to the dining room were the most exquisite ones he’d seen in his life. Lord Shaftesbury always made sure that the servants did not only get to eat what was left from the master’s dinner, but every year advised the cook to prepare a special meal just for the servants and the villagers, who came to eat at Chawton Manor two days after Christmas. It is one of the most cherished memories Kurt has of his former home: sitting next to the warm oven with a bowl of pudding on his knees, listening to the merry voices of the kitchen maids singing songs while Claus accompanied them on his flute.

Christmas time at Bailey Hall is quite different. As much as Kurt enjoys the absence of his employer, the days after his departure aren’t easy ones. His defiance of Lord Smythe’s authority doesn’t go unnoticed by Mr Moore. Kurt isn’t sure who told the butler about it, but since he knows Nick wouldn’t give him away and Lord Smythe didn’t look like he needed a third party to interfere, Kurt can only suspect that Lord Huntington said something to Mr Moore before he got into the carriage. But however he came to know about it: when the carriages of the lords and ladies have disappeared behind the leafless trees, Mr Moore quickly orders Kurt to accompany him to his room, where Kurt receives the worst scolding of his life. The butler makes it very clear that after merely two months at Bailey Hall, Kurt’s position is not a secure one, that there are dozens of boys out there who would give their right arm to have his work, and that any further act of disobedience or cheekiness towards his employer will without a doubt result in him taking his notice – even if Lord Smythe was generous enough to let it pass this time. Kurt returns to his room with tears in his eyes, feeling humiliated and misunderstood.

And yet, he can’t bring himself to regret finally having stood up to Lord Smythe. In fact, Mr Moore’s scolding makes him feel very much like the tragic hero of a novel, unappreciated by the people surrounding him and destined for a better, more exciting life somewhere far far away. Sadly, he only has a few hours to sulk and revel in his self-pity, because early in the evening, Nick comes into their room to tell Jeff that Mr Moore is looking for him. The moment Jeff closes the door behind him, Nick turns to Kurt, a silent question in his gaze, and Kurt knows he will have to explain himself to Nick now.

“Are you here to yell at me too?” Kurt asks from where he is sitting on his bed. “Because I can assure you, Mr Moore already took care of that.”

To his surprise, Nick sighs and gently pushes Kurt’s knees aside so he can sit down next to him. “Oh Kurt,” he says, and shakes his head, “What am I going to do with you?”

This is not quite the reaction Kurt expected, but just to clarify he inquires, “So, you are not here to scold?”

Nick shakes his head again and looks at Kurt with an almost resigned smile, “I can’t say I don’t understand why you said what you said. It’s the natural urge to give as good as you get.” He rolls his eyes and adds, “Heaven knows I have been there with him.” His expression turns serious again, “Nevertheless Kurt, it doesn’t matter how justified you think your actions are, or how much of an ass Sebastian’s being – you just can’t do something like this in public.”

It strikes Kurt as odd to hear Nick address his employer by his first name, though it doesn’t really surprise him – it only adds to his observation that there is more to the relationship between Lord Smythe and Nick that meets the eye. However, he decides not to call him out on it this time, but instead he voices the question that has been bothering him ever since that morning, “Do you think Lord Smythe will have forgotten about it by the time he returns?”

“Never,” Nick answers without a moment of hesitation, “But you have to understand, Kurt – Sebastian isn’t even the issue here.” He shifts on the bed, his expression thoughtful as he contemplates his next words, “The way he has been provoking you these last weeks, this sort of reaction is most likely what he hoped for. But you see – it’s not going to bother him. At least, not like it would bother most other masters.”

He bites his bottom lip thoughtfully, “He likes when someone gives him a little challenge. He enjoys it, and he’ll play along – for some time. But in the long run, he won’t let his authority be damaged by letting you defy him. And his reaction to it isn’t even the biggest problem here.”

“It isn’t?” Kurt asks, puzzled as to what Nick is hinting at.

“No,” Nick replies, “Like I said, Sebastian will play along, for some time at least. But can you image how the others, how Jeff, how Jane, or Mr Moore, or Mrs Seymour will react?”

This is something Kurt hasn’t thought about yet. “Having a special relationship with your employer, even if it’s a special way of despising each other, always gets you in trouble with the other servants,” Nick continues, “If you defy Sebastian’s authority, and he’s letting you, people will start to ask themselves why he is treating you differently. They’ll grow suspicious; they’ll ask whether he favours you to other servants and why, they’ll suspect you might tell him things he’s not supposed to know about. They’ll stop talking when you’re around, they’ll start calling you names, and they’ll make life hard for you. And that’s not worth it.”

Kurt looks at him for a long moment, before he slowly says, “It sounds like you speak from experience.”

Nick’s gaze meets Kurt’s only for a moment before he looks away again, “The world we live in is very different from the world of our employers, Kurt. The line between these worlds is clear, and whenever you try to cross that line, you will only end up getting hurt.”

“Have you ever tried to cross it?” Kurt asks.

Before Nick can answer, the door opens and Jeff enters the room, muttering something about “nobody manages to keep their shoes clean in this dreadful weather why are they picking on me all the time” under his breath. Nick’s gaze meets Kurt’s in silent understanding that their conversation is over for the moment.

“The dragon lady wants to see you, Nick,” Jeff says, and flops down on his bed. Nick raises his left eyebrow at the blond boy, “I suppose that by “dragon lady” you are referring to our beloved Mrs Seymour, Jeffrey?”

“Who else?” Jeff retorts, flipping onto his back. “Mr Moore isn’t a dragon. He’s more...” He muses about this for a second, staring at the ceiling before he concludes, “... more like a slightly overweight and very nervous beaver.”

Kurt snorts with laughter and even Nick grins mischievously before he stands up, “Don’t ever let either of these two catch you saying things like this.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” Jeff replies, winking at the other footman. “I like being here, and I plan on staying long enough to see Kurt pouring tea on Lord Smythe’s trousers. Preferably while he’s wearing them.”

Kurt sighs, “Not funny, Jeff.” Nick hesitates for a moment before he opens the door and says, “Just... think about what I said, Kurt. Please?”

The door closes quietly behind him and leaves Kurt to the teasing of Jeff and an evening of contemplating his conversation with Nicholas.

 


Winter at Bailey Hall is not how Kurt imagined it. Certainly, the weather does nothing to avoid the general expectation – three days after the departure of Lord Smythe and his friends, Kurt wakes up wondering where the brightness between the curtains is coming from. When he draws the curtains, he is greeted by the sight of snowflakes dancing in the cold air, adding new layers to the thick blanket of snow that already covers the fields and the trees. Pressing his nose against the freezing glass of the window, Kurt watches the quiet landscape outside for a while, before he sneezes loud enough to startle Jeff, who groans something about rice pudding before pulling the blanket over his head.

It continues to snow for two days, and Kurt learns that the people at Bailey Hall do not perceive the weather as a Christmas blessing, but as a threat. Back at Chawton, nobody worried about the snow – villagers and servants alike worked to keep the streets free of snow, and with the village being not even a five-minute walk away, nobody was really concerned.

Being snowed in at Bailey Hall, which is a one-hour-walk away from the residence of another human being, is not exactly funny. Of course everyone is prepared for it: the cellars are stocked with food, the firewood in the shed is enough to get them through two winters at least, and piles and piles of hay provide enough food for the animals. Mr Moore makes sure the footmen help the stable boys clear the snow away from the courtyard, so that all necessary buildings can be reached, and Mrs Seymour personally controls the fires, making sure that no servant has to be cold at night. But still, the snow keeps falling in intervals, confining everyone to the house and, as Jeff puts it once, “to complete and utter boredom”.

Consequently, Christmas is also a quiet affair. Since they have no masters to attend to, Mr Moore gives them the day off, and Mrs Bertram does her best to put together a truly magnificent Christmas dinner. The snow falls all day, and nobody is crazy enough to try to face the weather outside to attend the Christmas mass at Wilton. Instead, everybody assembles in the hall where Mr Moore says a few prayers, reads from the bible and asks them to sing a few songs.

The singing continues in the kitchen, after the pompous meal Mrs Bertram serves them. When everyone has assured her that even though it was truly delicious, he can’t possibly eat another crump, the leisurely part of the evening begins. People start handing out presents, Tom, the stable boy, challenges Mr Moore to a game of chess, and Mrs Seymour starts reading a Christmas tale to the kitchen maids. While planning and plotting Christmas presents for his friends at Chawton was what Kurt liked best about the season, this year he hasn’t even thought about presents until he receives two carefully wrapped packages from Jane and Nick. Speechless, he unwraps a beautifully knitted scarf from Jane and a small book containing poems by Lord Byron from the other footman. Guiltily, he starts apologising for not having any presents he could hand out in return, but Jeff, also wearing a new scarf he received from Harriet, immediately claps his hand over Kurt’s mouth.

“Be quiet and thankful,” he instructs, while Kurt struggles to be released. “Nothing is worse than people complaining and apologizing for getting presents. If you have to, pay them back by giving them something extraordinarily amazing next year, but right now just be happy about having friends like them.”

“I didn’t expect to ever say this, but I think Jeffrey is right,” Mr Moore says, looking up from the chess piece he is holding in his hand. Jeff grins at him, releasing Kurt from his iron grip, “Mr Moore, I truly believe that is the most beautiful Christmas present I ever received.”

“Don’t let it get to your head, Jeffrey,” Mr Moore retorts dryly, placing the small figure on one of the squares. “I have the strong feeling me agreeing with you will remain the exception to the rule.”

Long after midnight, Kurt falls asleep in his bed: cuddled under the soft blanket, his head pillowed on his arm, he watches Nick and Jeff sitting on the bed opposite of his, debating whether the butcher at Wilton was once a secret admirer of Mrs Bertram, and the last thing he hears before he finally drifts to sleep with a content smile on his face is their cheerful laughter.

 


It’s during an afternoon in the early weeks of January when Mr Moore decides that the library needs a thorough going-over, and asks Kurt to spend the next days sorting the shelves and returning the books that are scattered around the house. Kurt is more than happy with this task, and while Nick and Jeff fight their way through the thick snow to get to the village in order to run some errands for Mrs Bertram, he runs around the house, bringing piles and piles of books to the library and restocking the shelves one by one. He doesn’t have much time to idle about – Mr Moore checks in on him a few times every hour, to see how he’s getting along and to make sure Kurt doesn’t get lost in one of the books and forgets his duties.

The biggest piles he returns to the library are the ones he finds on the desk and next to the bed of Lord Smythe. And despite Mr Moore’s control-visits, he has enough time to study the literary taste of his employer. Interestingly enough, Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to have any fixed taste on literature: Kurt finds travelling journals on top of gothic novels on top of philosophic essays on top of contemporary poetry on top of a biography of a German painter on top of a Greek drama. It seems that Lord Smythe picks the books at random, but devours all of them with interest: Kurt finds sheets covered with notes hidden in some of them, and small slices of paper mark the pages Lord Smythe found most interesting, or maybe most outraging, or maybe most touching.

As Kurt browses through these books, he realises more and more that he has no clue how the mind of his employer works. It would be so easy to just to peg him as a shallow, heartless human being, but Kurt knows it wouldn’t do his character justice. He looks at some of the notes Lord Smythe took, and he is puzzled by their insightfulness and emotional depth. It’s almost like there are two Lord Smythes: one who randomly invites his friends to his bedchamber and insults Kurt to his face, and another one who jokes with Nick and reads challenging literature. The question that Kurt keeps asking himself during these quiet afternoons is: which one is the real Lord Smythe?

Among the books from Lord Smythe’s study Kurt also discovers the book he and Lady Catherine were arguing about that evening before Kurt overheard Sir Reginald in Lord Smythe’s bedroom, and out of curiosity, he takes the novel to his room to read it. It doesn’t give the name of the author, only references to two other novels, so it was most likely written by a woman who didn’t want to her name publically attached to her occupation as a writer – like most women do. Kurt can’t recall to have ever heard of her other novels: neither Pride and Prejudice nor Sense and Sensibility ring a bell. Sceptically as to what to expect from an author who gives her novels these cheesy sounding names, he starts to read.

He can’t say that it’s the best read of his life: the characters are dull, the descriptions endless and the plot does nothing to interest him in the fate of the characters. Finally though, he reaches the end of the book and the scene that caused such a controversial discussion in the dining room: the discovery and the banishment of the wicked lover and the reconciliation between the family members (with the marriage of the protagonist to her cousin briefly mentioned in the two-page epilogue). When Kurt carries the book back to the library, he contemplates why on earth people like Lady Catherine are so invested in such a boring story.

For him, the question isn’t whether the protagonist should have chosen her mischievous suitor over her dull cousin. The question that occupied his mind while reading was why a person like the protagonist should get a happy ending in the first place, when she spent nearly three hundred pages of being pushed around and letting everybody walk over her. Kurt has no patience with characters like her: if one didn’t manage to stand up for herself, how could one expect to get what one wanted? Fairytale endings were all very good, but Kurt liked them better when people actually worked for them.

Still, all the time while he is reading that book, the voice of Lord Smythe haunts him, and he keeps hearing the question he had asked Lady Catherine that evening, “ So, Lady Catherine, you do not believe that a human being can change? That we can turn good or evil any minute, depending on our own decisions as much as on what other people do to us?”

 


It’s in the first week of February when Mrs. Bertram looks at Kurt through squinted eyes and asks, “Kurt, have you grown taller?”

Kurt blinks at her in surprise, “I don’t know...”

“I think Mrs Bertram is right,” Jeff says, looking up the table where he is writing a letter. “Ever since he stood up to Lord Smythe, he does seem a bit taller.”

Nick interrupts his conversation with Harriet to smack Jeff on the back of his head. While Jeff starts whining, Nick directs his scrutinizing gaze at Kurt. “Well, it’s hard to tell while you’re sitting down,” he says, surrounding the table with quick steps. “Stand up, will you?”

“I haven’t grown at all for a whole year now,” Kurt replies, but nevertheless obeying Nick’s request. “I’m almost certain that I won’t be growing anymore.”

“These things are so unpredictable,” Mrs Bertram says, “A nephew of mine, August, he was always small for his age, and nobody thought that that would ever change, and then, when he turned eighteen, he suddenly started growing and growing and would not stop until he was two inches taller than his father, and trust me, my brother was never a short man to begin with.”

In the meantime, Nick has studied Kurt with a concentrated expression, until his drifting gaze stops at the hem of Kurt’s trousers. “I thought the uniform I gave you fitted well.”

“It does,” Kurt replies, looking down at his shoes and trying to figure out what about this hem irritated Nick.

“It doesn’t,” Nick disagrees, kneeling down next to Kurt and tugging at the seam. “I think these trousers are getting a bit short for you.”

Irritated, Kurt watches him, musing whether a pair of ill-fitted trousers could really have escaped his attention. It seems unlikely, but then, Kurt has really parted with the idea of growing, accepting that he will spend his life as a footman of moderate height.

“Well, we will have to keep track from now on, won’t we?” Mrs Bertram says, rummaging in the drawer of one of the cupboards. “Come here Kurt, will you?”

She steps to the doorframe, beckoning Kurt to follow. He leans against the cold stone, resisting the urge to shift his weight ever so slightly onto his toes, while Mrs Bertram carefully marks his height with a piece of chalk, meticulously writing down his name and the date next to the line indicating his height.

Stepping back and turning around, Kurt realises that so far he has never paid special attention to that particular doorframe. His line is not the first to be drawn there: dozens of marks, some of them so faded that they’re hardly legible anymore embellish the doorframe. Stepping closer, Kurt deciphers a few names – he recognises the names Jane and Emma, as well as a Frank, though Kurt doubts that this Frank is the same man that is now the footman of Lord Huntington.

What strikes him most, however, is Nick’s name.

Starting at a spot barely as high as Kurt’s hipbone, Nick’s name appears time and time again, documenting the growth of a boy who spent all his life running around the kitchen Kurt is standing in.

Seeing his own name among those of the people who give life to the estate of Bailey Hall, Kurt feels an unexpected warmth spreading through his body. It feels like a rite of passage, like some proof that despite the attitude of his employer, Kurt really belongs here.

“You look like a lost puppy,” Nick says, stepping behind him. “Stop staring and come with me, we’ll get you a new pair of trousers.”

 


Late February sees an improvement in the weather: some of the snow begins to melt away, and while it’s not getting much warmer, Kurt feels relieved that the way to the village is clear again.

It happens on a quiet afternoon, when Kurt is sitting on his bed, his feet under the warm blanket and a book on his knees. His attention is divided between the reading of The Castle of Otranto and the other bed, where Jeff and Nick sit. Jeff has his feet pushed up against Nick’s thighs in the small space and is loudly contemplating whether he really needs to fix the tear on his jacket immediately, or whether it could wait until tomorrow. Nick has a book on his knees too, but unlike Kurt, he has long given up trying to focus on the pages, and is instead grinning at Jeff, citing excerpts from Mr Moore’s speeches on the duties of footmen.

Just when Jeff has flung his pillow at Nick in a vain attempt to shut him up, the door flies open, and Mr Moore walks into the room. Kurt, Nick and Jeff scramble onto their feet while Mr Moore lifts a disapproving eyebrow at the lazy state they were obviously in.

“Well, it is a relief to see that you three aren’t occupied with anything important,” he says, “Because you are to report in the kitchen immediately.”

Kurt only notices now that he is holding a folded piece of paper in his right hand. Nick asks, “Did something happen, Mr Moore?”

“Nothing happened, Nicholas,” Mr Moore replies, “That is, not yet.” He lifts the piece of paper and now Kurt can see that it’s a letter, written by a hectic and rather messy hand.

“I just received a letter from Lord Smythe,” Mr Moore adds, “He will return the day after tomorrow, and again bring some of his friends along.” He looks at the three boys standing in front of him, “I don’t think I need to explain to you what this means now, do I?”

Nick, Jeff and Kurt shake their heads – they know that the next hours will be spend with dusting, cleaning, lighting fires, arranging furniture, checking wardrobes, cleaning shoes, and organising desks. Jeff is the only one who can’t suppress an irritated groan.

With a satisfied smile, Mr Moore waves them off, “Hurry up boys, the holidays are over.”

And when Kurt’s gaze stops again at the messy crawl of Lord Smythe, he feels certain that Mr Moore is right about that.

Chapter Text

February 1850

Maybe someday he will get used to this, Kurt muses when he takes his place in line, standing between Jeff and Nick. He still thinks that the line-up for the arrival of Lord Smythe and his guests is a vastly exaggerated display of servitude, especially since it’s still freezingly cold outside. Everyone tries their best to hide their shivering, but the ten minutes until the large carriage finally comes into view seem like an eternity. Only when the vehicle comes to a halt in front of the large estate does Kurt notice that it is not followed by a second carriage.

Confused, he wonders whether the other carriage is delayed, or whether they had an accident during their journey, but then Mr Moore steps forward to open the door, and Sir Robert climbs out of the carriage, followed shortly by Lord Smythe. They look tired, Kurt notices: Lord Smythe’s complexion is considerably paler than usual and he has dark circles under his eyes. Sir Robert doesn’t look as tired as Lord Smythe, but both men have the same look on their faces as they glance at Bailey Hall: relieved, happy, and oddly peaceful, like two refugees arriving in a safe haven after a long and hard journey.

But then Mr Moore closes the carriage door and Kurt realises that Sir Robert and Lord Smythe are the only people who climbed out of it, and he wonders where Lord Huntington and his wife, the Crawshaw siblings and Sir Reginald are. Out of the corner of his eyes he tries to get a look at Nick, and when he does, he sees that the confused frown on the footman’s face matches the one of Mr Moore, who clears his throat politely.

“Welcome back, your lordship,” Mr Moore says. Lord Smythe smiles at the butler, “Happy new year, Moore. I trust you had a nice Christmas time?”

“Yes, my lord,” Mr Moore replies, and he hesitates only for a brief moment before he asks, “I understood that all of your friends would return to us, my lord?”

“Not if I can help it,” Lord Smythe mutters, and his tone is so exasperated that Kurt has to bite back a grin. He would give anything to know what happened at Longleat House to put Lord Smythe in such a bad mood. Sir Robert gives his friend a reprimanding glance and says, “The Huntingtons and the Crawshaws will join us in two weeks, Moore, but for now, it’s just me and Lord Smythe.”

“Very good Sir,” Mr Moore replies, and follows the two gentlemen as they turn to the house. Kurt’s breath catches briefly when he sees Lord Smythe walking towards them, and suddenly, he remembers the last time Lord Smythe has greeted him in front of Bailey Hall. He half expects Lord Smythe to stop in front of him, to a raise a critical eyebrow at Kurt and to open his mouth for one of his cutting remarks – and then the moment is over and Lord Smythe has walked past him without so much as glancing in Kurt’s direction.

When they disappear into the house, Kurt realises that he feels relieved and disappointed at the same time. Relieved because he wasn’t looking forward to having a nasty encounter with his employer, especially not in front of everybody else; disappointed because he spent all this time worrying about it in vain.

“Wake up, dreaming beauty,” Jeff says, nudging his shoulder. “I’m not inclined to bring that entire luggage up to the first floor all by myself!”

“Of course you aren’t,” Kurt replies, and shakes his head to clear it of every last thought of his employer. “You wouldn’t know where everything belongs, and store Sir Robert’s underwear in Lord Smythe’s drawer. Even Nick would have difficulties explaining this.”

Nick grins at him while Jeff complains that this only happened one time and he noticed in time and nobody was harmed and that he refuses to be mocked about this anymore, and together they start unloading the carriage.

 


Having a master in the house again surprisingly doesn’t affect Kurt’s routine as much as he had thought it would, at least not during this first day. Mr Moore assigns him his old post – helping Sir Robert – but as before, Sir Robert doesn’t need much looking after. When Kurt helps him out of his travelling clothes and into a slightly more comfortable outfit, he makes kind inquires about whether Kurt had a good Christmas (“Yes, Sir”), whether he received some nice presents (“Indeed I did, Sir”), and whether the weather at Bailey Hall was as dreadful as it was at Longleat (“Only if you do not fancy snow and thunderstorms, Sir”). When Kurt politely and with barely concealed curiosity asks about Sir Robert’s holidays, the smile of the other man starts to look strained around the edges.

“Very exhausting,” he replies hesitantly but truthfully. “Of course, Lady Isabella always takes great care to keep her guests entertained, but this year, we had a little more... drama than usually.”

Kurt wishes he’d know how to carefully pry for more information because the word drama sounds awfully intriguing – especially in connection to Lord Smythe and Lady Isabella.

“But nothing bad, I hope?” he says, adjusting the waistcoat. Sir Robert shakes his head and smiles warmly at Kurt. “Nothing too bad, no. Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to a few quiet days here.”

Sir Robert leaves Kurt to unpack the rest of his luggage and retreats to the library, where he remains all afternoon. When Kurt brings him a cup of tea and some biscuits, he sees that Sir Robert is not reading, but instead is busy writing letters. “These matters always get neglected during the holidays,” he says when Kurt places the plate with biscuits next to him. “Will you let me know when it’s time to change for dinner?” Kurt promises he will and leaves Sir Robert to his paperwork.

Lord Smythe also doesn’t bother any of the servants all day long, and while that’s a relief, it’s also unusual. Kurt wonders about where he has vanished to, and when he finally asks Nick what their master is doing, the other footman wrinkles his nose in irritation and replies that Lord Smythe has retreated to his bedroom immediately after his arrival, and that the last time Nick checked on him he was still peacefully snoring between the sheets.

And indeed, Kurt only sees Lord Smythe again when he enters the dining room, almost a quarter of an hour after Sir Robert has sat down to eat. (But then again, Kurt thinks to himself, like King Louis XVIII put it once, "L’exactitude est la politesse des rois", and Lord Smythe is not exactly a reminder of royal virtues.) Clad in a slate-gray waistcoat Kurt has not seen him wearing before, he makes Kurt wonder whether he went to London to buy new pieces for his wardrobe during these past weeks, or whether he simply owns so many articles of clothing that Kurt has truly not managed to catalogue them all yet.

Sir Robert looks up from his soup when Lord Smythe sits down opposite from him, and smiles friendly, “Did you sleep well, Sebastian?”

“Better than I did these last weeks,” Lord Smythe replies, and when Mr Moore places a bowl of soup in front of him, he starts eating with an appetite that surprises Kurt. “Thank God we escaped this hell-hole.”

Sir Robert looks at him with a disapproving frown, “You know, Isabella merely did her best to ensure everybody was having a joyful holiday.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Robert,” Lord Smythe replies between two spoonful of soup. “She did her best to play perfect host, but only to remind everybody that she has more money than the rest of us.”

“For a start, that isn’t even true,” Sir Robert answers. “She’s not wealthier than you are.”

“But she sure would like to be,” Lord Smythe replies. He swallows the last spoonful before he elaborates, “In fact, I’m certain she would like to usurp Queen Victoria.” He shakes his head, “Just think of the way she kept bossing around poor Lady Sophia.”

“I thought you didn’t like Lady Sophia.”

“Oh, I don’t,” Lord Smythe retorts. “I think she’s silly and superficial and stupid. But then again, she’s seventeen.” He sighs, “People are usually intolerable at the age of seventeen.”

With his seventeenth birthday only months away, Kurt feels a small pang at these words. He takes the empty bowl from his employer while Lord Smythe adds, “But I highly doubt that with the way Lady Isabella and Catherine keep patronising her she will manage to grow into a sensible person.”

“I’m highly surprised that you have so much pity for her,” Sir Robert replies. “Especially since you treated her sister incredibly awfully.”

“I can’t imagine what you mean by that,” Lord Smythe says, a carefully innocent expression in his face. “I was the picture of politeness.”

“Really?” Sir Robert asks, his left eyebrow raised in silent disbelief. “Even when you told Lady Louisa that her pink dress made her look fat?”

 “I was only being honest,” Lord Smythe replies, raising his glass to his lips.

“You were being rude,” Sir Robert retorts without looking up from his last spoonful of soup, “And it was not the fault of that poor girl that Isabella decided to play matchmaker.”

“No, it was not,” Lord Smythe agrees. “Her fault was being completely thrilled at the idea of marrying me, asking me never-ending questions about my money and the estate, how much my yearly income is, who I’m related to and how big my house in London is.” His brow furrows, “I mean, is it too much to ask these gold-diggers to at least have the decency to be subtle about their interests?”

“I believe that you decided to dislike the sisters when you first saw them,” Sir Robert replies. “You never gave them a chance to change your opinion.”

Lord Smythe doesn’t reply to this assessment. Instead, he directs his gaze at Jeff, who has just placed a plate filled with salmon in caper vinaigrette in front of him.

“Have you ever spent an awful long time with people you can’t stand, Jeffrey?” Lord Smythe asks. Jeff looks very uncomfortable at being directly addressed by Lord Smythe who so far has never paid much attention to him. He shifts nervously and shoots an uncertain glance at Nick, before he replies, “I can’t say that I have, my Lord.”

“Good for you, boy,” Lord Smythe says, studying his fork for a second before he starts to eat. “Take my advice and try to keep it that way.”

“You are being downright horrible,” Sir Robert scolds. “You act like Lady Sophia or Lady Louisa tried to harm you in any way.”

“I’m convinced one of them would have tried eventually.”

Sir Robert looks at him, “Well, not even the prospect of getting a hold of your money could convince them to stay after...”

He pauses and shoots a sceptical glance at Nick and Jeff, who are approaching the table with wine jugs in their hands. “... after you-know-what.”

Lord Smythe follows Sir Robert’s glance, and a humourless grin appears on his face, “I don’t get why you’re afraid to talk about it in front of the servants, Robert. I mean, plenty of footmen were present when it happened, even Frank. They most likely heard about it long before we arrived.”

He looks at Nick, who has just bent down to pour wine into his almost empty glass. Nick refuses to meet the gaze of his employer, but he obeys the silent question and replies, “Heard about what, my Lord?”

“The big scandal at Longleat, of course,” Lord Smythe answers. “I’m pretty sure the household there is still talking about nothing else.”

“I’m afraid I have no idea what your Lordship is referring to,” Nick says, his voice carefully neutral.

“Are you being tactful or honest?” Lord Smythe squints at the footman, “I really can’t tell with you sometimes.”

“The latter, your Lordship.”

“Sebastian,” Sir Robert pleads, looking truly uncomfortable. “This matter is unpleasant enough as it is. Can’t you just let it be?”

“Very well,” Lord Smythe says and sighs. He turns his head to look at Mr Moore, “Though I guess I should inform you that Sir Reginald won’t be joining us anymore.”

“You mean in two weeks time, my Lord?” Mr Moore asks.

“I mean ever,” Lord Smythe says firmly. Kurt exchanges a look with Jeff, who raises his eyebrows in silent agreement that yes, this while conversation is weird. But then Sir Robert changes the subject and is now talking about the managing of his estate. Lord Smythe joins in on the topic and the rest of the dinner passes to a discussion of investment, farming and refurnishing.

When both men have retreated to their rooms and Kurt has helped Sir Robert into his nightshirt, he joins the discussion downstairs. Jeff has already told the other servants about the cryptic conversation between Lord Smythe and Sir Robert, and everybody is busy contemplating what could have happened at Longleat to put Sir Reginald out of Lord Smythe’s favour. Kurt wonders about that too, but unfortunately he can’t share his best guess (that it’s a lover’s quarrel) with the other servants. The discussion ends when Mr Moore enters the room, rebukes them for engaging in gossip about their master and sends the footmen and the housemaids to bed.

But of course, he knows that in every one of these rooms the whispering continues – and Jeff and Kurt are no exception to this.

 


The beginning of the next day feels rather similar to the ending of the day before. The kitchen is still full of speculations about what the big scandal at Longleat was, and Kurt is certain that either Mr Moore or Nick (or maybe even both) have by now written to Frank to make inquiries about what happened at Longleat.

Harry, the carriage driver, joins the other servants in the kitchen for breakfast, but he can offer little new information on the subject, even though he did accompany Lord Smythe and Sir Robert to Longleat.

“I understood there was something like a quarrel,” he says between two mouthfuls of porridge, “And I know that after that evening everyone left in a hurry. It felt like they were fleeing from the plague.”

He scratches his chin, “I know that Sir Reginald left that same evening, and that he borrowed Lord Huntington’s carriage for the journey. Or more likely Lord Huntington sent him home to never set eyes upon him again. But since all of us drivers stayed at the village and I only got orders to bring the carriage to Longleat House two days after it happened, I didn’t catch much of the drama.”

This of course does nothing to calm the curious minds of the people assembled around the kitchen table: they come up with the wildest theories as to why Sir Reginald might have quarrelled with Lord Huntington, only quieting down occasionally when Mr Moore walks in and out of the kitchen. Even though Kurt just like everybody else is dying to find out what happened, it isn’t his primary concern at the moment.

Over the course of the day, he grows more and more irritated at the decided lack of attention Lord Smythe is paying him. At first, he reasons with himself that Lord Smythe was too tired yesterday to come up with the usual teasing, and that his mind needed a good night’s rest to come up with new, creative insults.

But when Lord Smythe doesn’t acknowledge his presence neither at the breakfast table nor during lunch, Kurt sees his suspicions confirmed: Lord Smythe is indeed ignoring him on purpose.

Normally, that wouldn’t bother Kurt in the least: since their encounters have so far all been unpleasant, he would not mind if they could continue to live alongside each other like this and simply pretend that the other doesn’t exist. The problem is: he is sure that it won’t continue like this, and that the worst is yet to come.

The moment he dreaded finally arrives in the early evening, when Kurt walks down the corridor to fetch Sir Robert for dinner. When he looks up, he finds Lord Smythe is approaching, apparently coming from the library, at least judging from the books he holds in his hands.

“My Lord,” Kurt murmurs as a greeting when he walks past the other man. He is about to hurry towards the steps of the great staircase when the dry voice of Lord Smythe sounds behind him, “Oh? Suddenly I’m being Lord Smythe again?”

Kurt stops dead in his tracks and slowly turns around, only to be met by a false surprised expression on Lord Smythe’s face. “Our last meeting gave me the impression that we were past these formalities, Kurt,” he says, and it’s impossible to tell whether he is angry or hiding his amusement very well. Nevertheless, Kurt decides to react in the safest way he can.

“I want to apologize for what I said before you left, Lord Smythe,” Kurt says. It’s hard to bring himself to say it, mainly because it’s nothing but a giant lie. But ever since Nick talked to him about this matter, he has been contemplating what to do. And as much as it pains him, he knows that apologizing is most likely for the best. “I know that it was very rude and disrespectful of me, and I beg your pardon for this. It won’t happen again.”

Lord Smythe’s expression remains unreadable, and the moment in which he merely stares at Kurt’s face seems impossibly long. Slowly though, the corners of his mouth start to form a cheeky grin, and he says, “You don’t mean a single word of what you just said, do you Kurt?”

Hastily, Kurt answers, “I am truly sorry, your Lord-“

“That is nonsense if I ever heard it,” Lord Smythe says, and folds his arms in front of his chest. “You’re not sorry, Kurt, not one bit.”

Kurt feels his cheeks heating up. Why does this man always have to make things complicated? Growing more furious by the second, he retorts, maybe a bit louder than necessary, “I said I am sorry, Sir, and I mean it.”

Only when Lord Smythe starts laughing does Kurt realise what he said – again. He closes his eyes, feels his cheeks burning and wishes for a great giant hole to open beneath his feet and swallow him. Lord Smythe calms down eventually, though he never stops grinning. He steps closer, and Kurt has to resist the urge to take a step back and restore the original distance between them.

“I don’t mind it,” Lord Smythe says, his eyes meeting Kurt’s, and for the first time, Kurt thinks he detects something akin to respect in them, “Heaven knows I have been called worse things than Sir.”

Kurt knows what he means – after all, he is aware of all the things he has called Lord Smythe in his mind. The other man shrugs, letting his arms fall to his sides, “As long as you do your work, don’t disturb me in the mornings and keep your nose out of my business, you can call me whatever you like.” As an afterthought, he adds, “As long as it’s not ‘my boy’.” He wrinkles his nose in distaste, which oddly enough makes him look years younger, and adds, “That’s how my grandmother likes to call me.”

“I wouldn’t dare-,“ Kurt begins, but he is interrupted again. “Oh, I think you would,” Lord Smythe replies. “Which is why I don’t mind it.”

He smiles at the younger boy one last time before he turns around, calls over his shoulder, “I’ll see you at dinner, Kurt.” and swiftly walks down the corridor, his nose already in one of the books again.

When Kurt stares at his retreating figure, he is struck by how well Nick anticipated this exact situation. Unfortunately, the warnings of the other footman didn’t help to prevent it, and now Kurt is at loss as to what he can do. If he continues to address Lord Smythe as ‘Lord’, he acknowledges a respect that he doesn’t have, something Lord Smythe is most likely also very aware by now. If he starts calling him ‘Sir’, it will most certainly get him into a lot of trouble.

‘Being ignored really would have been the better option’, Kurt thinks as he takes two steps at a time down the staircase. Because now he feels that he has the attention of Lord Smythe, and this thought is far more uncomfortable than the feeling of being overlooked.

 


The next two days pass quietly. While the topic of the fight at Longleat is still being speculated on, people eventually find something else to talk about: the latest political scandal, the weather and the unexpected pregnancy of Nancy Brown, the butcher’s daughter. No letter from Frank has arrived yet, but since it has started snowing again, it will probably take long for the correspondence to reach him, and even longer for the answer to reach Bailey Hall.

Kurt pretty soon finds himself in a new routine: in the morning he dresses Sir Robert (who never needs to be woken and always waits for him, sitting in an armchair with a book or a letter on his knees), serves at the breakfast table, and checks Sir Robert’s wardrobe.

Lord Smythe and Sir Robert don’t eat lunch; they usually have some sandwiches and tea in the early afternoon which are served by Nick and Kurt at either the library or the study of Lord Smythe, where the two men are busy organising their affairs and planning the running of their estates. They eat in the evening, and after dinner usually retreat to the drawing room where they play chess, read or talk until late in the night.

This is such a difference to the evenings in autumn, where there were parties and balls and games and entertainment, that Kurt can’t help but be puzzled at how much both men seem to enjoy the quietude and piece of each other’s company. Especially Lord Smythe seems very different from before – while still sarcastic, mocking and occasionally mean, he is much more amiable these days, and Kurt wonders whether Lord Smythe’s behaviour always bends to the one of the people surrounding him, and whether it is Sir Robert that brings out this marginally softer side.

Kurt hasn’t quite reached a decision regarding the issue of addressing his employer, but when Lord Smythe came down to dinner only hours after their conservation, his eyes found Kurt’s immediately, and he greeted him with a casual, “Evening, Kurt.” Kurt, hearing the challenge in Lord Smythe’s voice and refusing to back down, answered (though softly enough for Mr Moore not to catch it), “Good evening, Sir.” Kurt thought that the grin on Lord Smythe’s face when he sat down was at least the tiniest bit respectful.

He continues to address Lord Smythe as ‘Sir’ when he feels safe to do so – in the presence of Mr Moore, he quickly starts avoiding any form of direct address. When Sir Robert hears him using the new address, he looks confused, but since he doesn’t say anything to Kurt, Kurt assumes that he has either asked Lord Smythe for clarification or made up his own explanation. Kurt doesn’t get as lucky with his fellow footmen – both Nick and Jeff demand an explanation when they hear Kurt offering Lord Smythe a plate by saying, “Would you care for a cucumber sandwich, Sir?”

When he has told them about his conversation with Lord Smythe, Jeff only grins at him with an expression on his face that is half proud, half dubious, and says, “Why do I feel like my baby brother is growing up?” Nick’s face looks concerned, but he only shakes his head and says, “I don’t think anything good will come out of it, Kurt. But since you refuse to back down, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

It’s late in the afternoon on the third day of Lord Smythe’s stay when Mr Moore summons Kurt and sends him to ask Lord Smythe about the number of guests he is expecting in the weeks to follow. When Kurt reaches the first floor, he is surprised to find Sir Robert alone in the library. “Sebastian is in the music room,” Sir Robert says, smiling at Kurt while his ink-stained fingers are already reaching for the quill again. “He said he needed a break from his financial matters.”

Kurt thanks him and walks down the corridor, more hesitantly now than before. An encounter with Lord Smythe alone has so far never been something good, and Kurt doubts that this time will turn out to be the exception to the rule. But however slow his steps are, eventually he is standing outside the music room. He takes a deep breath before he knocks against the door, his knuckles tapping against the wood twice in a firm manner.

“Come in,” he hears the dry voice of Lord Smythe, and Kurt gently opens the door and makes sure to close it as gently behind him before he turns around and looks around the music room. Lord Smythe is sitting on the piano bench, sheets and sheets of music carelessly piled on top of the piano and next to him on the bench. He’s flipping through an old volume of music, obviously looking for something, but pausing when he sees Kurt. The all-too-familiar, teasing grin appears in the right corner of his mouth.

“Kurt,” he drawls, setting down the volume on the keys of the piano, which gives a disharmonious sound that doesn’t seem to bother him, but that makes Kurt flinch ever so slightly, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Kurt tries to ignore the urge to role his eyes at the mockingly polite tone of Lord Smythe’s voice, and replies “Mr. Moore wants to prepare the bedrooms for your guests, and he asked me to inquire whether we are to expect anyone new, or whether anyone of your former guest will not return to Bailey Hall.” He pauses for a second before adding, “Apart from Sir Reginald, of course.”

Lord Smythe looks out of the window, his brow furrowed in thought, his teasing momentarily forgotten. He seems to contemplate his answer for a moment, before he replies, “I am sure that the Huntingtons and the Crawshaws will come, but I doubt that Lady Catherine will be joining us.” He looks at Kurt, “You can tell that to Mr Moore, but I guess I will only know for certain at the beginning of next week, when Lady Isabella knows whether she’ll take another companion with her.”

Kurt nods, and already reaches for the doorknob again when Lord Smythe adds, “Oh, and Kurt?”

“Sir?”

“Could you ask Moore to prepare Sir Reginald’s old room for Lord Huntington?”

Well, this answers the question who will share Lord Smythe’s bed during the weeks to come, Kurt thinks and answers, “Certainly, Sir.” Thinking he is dismissed, he turns towards the door, but just as he’s reaching for the doorknob, the voice of Lord Smythe calls, “Kurt, would you come here for a second?”

Kurt freezes, before he turns around again very slowly, “Me, Sir?”

He should know better by now than to give Lord Smythe an opening like this, because naturally the other man rolls his eyes and replies, “I don’t see any other Kurt in this room, do you?”

Feeling silly and fighting a blush, Kurt approaches the piano wearily, wondering what on earth Lord Smythe could want from him now. Lord Smythe looks at the piano, lifting up the volume he has placed on the keys before, and asks, “Do you play, Kurt?”

“A little, Sir,” Kurt answers, and now it is his turn to frown. Does Lord Smythe require musical advice from him of all people?

Meanwhile, Lord Smythe unceremoniously scoops up the pile of music sheets sitting next to him and drops it on the piano, where it forms a rather dangerous looking pile on top of the sheets already there, and orders, “Sit down.”

All Kurt can do is stare at him in bewilderment, because – what? Lord Smythe rolls his eyes at Kurt’s obvious confusion, and pats the space next to him once before he orders, “Sit, I say.”

It’s the commanding tone more than anything else that causes Kurt to obey and sit down on the bench, though reluctantly. He makes sure to keep his distance from Lord Smythe, but he can’t help but fidget uncomfortably. This man next to him is not only his employer and social superior, he is also – as far as Kurt is concerned – a pain in the ass. Most of the time Kurt is pretty sure he can’t stand his employer, and even more often he’s sure that this feeling is mutual, so he can’t for the love of God figure out what Lord Smythe wants from him here. But even though he doesn’t know, given Lord Smythe’s previous behaviour, he is fairly certain that it will end in embarrassment on his side.

Lord Smythe however seems neither to share Kurt’s concerns, nor does he acknowledge the absurdity of the situation. He’s looking at Kurt with an unreadable expression and requests, “Play something.”

Kurt turns his head to look at his employer, pretty sure he must have heard wrong, “I beg your pardon, Sir?”

“Play something,” Lord Smythe repeats, leaning back a little to make himself comfortable, “When people say that they play ‘a little’ it’s usually either false modesty, or it means that they can’t play at all. I’d like to see which one you are.”

The dreaded grin is back in place, and Kurt turns towards the piano, determined to prove to Lord Smythe that he falls into neither of these categories, “Do you want me to play anything specific, Sir?”

“Just something you’re comfortable with,” Lord Smythe answers, and Kurt almost laughs out loud at that, because if there’s anything he’s not being right now it is comfortable. Nevertheless, he lets his fingers settle on the piano keys, contemplating for a second what to play, before tentatively pressing down the first key, taking in the clear sound of the piano that is so much better than the one he learned to play on. He starts to play a melody his mother taught him, a French song he has practised over and over when he was small. As the melody unfolds around him, he forgets where he is, forgets the presence of his employer next to him. He doesn’t even notice that he has started to hum along to the tune until the dry voice of Lord Smythe interrupts his thoughts, “I think that will do.”

Startled, Kurt breaks the song off with a disharmonious clang as his fingers settle on the wrong keys. His head snaps around, his gaze meeting the one of Lord Smythe, who is looking at him with an unreadable expression again, “I think that’s enough Kurt.”

Kurt doesn’t know whether he is supposed to stand up, supposed to leave, but he remembers Lord Smythe’s words and he can’t help but ask, “So, what’s the verdict, Sir?” He figures if he is forced to display his talents to be mocked, he might as well get it over with.

Surprisingly, Lord Smythe contemplates his answer for a moment before he replies, “You’re not bad. Not excellent either, but I don’t get a headache from listening to you, which is more than I can say of most people I’m forced to listen to.” He grins that one-sided grin, “I guess you we’re right. You do play ‘a little’.”

Kurt is entirely unsure what to make of this. On the one hand he feels as if his pride has been seriously damaged, on the other he isn’t sure whether there was a hidden compliment in that first sentence. Suddenly, he realises how intimate their position is: sitting next to each other on the small space the bench offers, like they’re not only equals, but also friends. Hastily, he slides off the bench and onto his feet again, clearing his throat to distract Lord Smythe’s amused gaze from his reddening cheeks, “Will that be all, Sir?”

“That will be all, Kurt,” Lord Smythe says, picking up the volume he was previously browsing through. “Tell Nick to fetch me half an hour before dinner, will you?”

Kurt murmurs a “Yes, Sir” and finally closes the door behind him. For a moment, he leans against it, wondering what on earth that was about, and whether Lord Smythe was aiming to be friendly or insulting, because in some weird, twisted way, he managed to be both at the same time.  

To him, Lord Smythe remains an enigma. And Kurt is not sure whether he is ready to solve it.

Chapter Text

March 1850

If somebody had asked Kurt in autumn of the previous year if he could ever feel relaxed and at ease while Lord Smythe resided at Bailey Hall, he would have started laughing, a strained, forced laugh. Therefore, nobody is more surprised than Kurt himself when these early days of March show him that having Lord Smythe and Sir Robert at Bailey Hall isn’t as much of a nuisance as he would have anticipated it to be, on the contrary – in some moments, he catches himself actually enjoying the presence of both men.

Granted, Lord Smythe isn’t at home all the time – despite the lasting cold and wet weather, he has started travelling around his estate, mounting his horse in the early morning to visit the gamekeepers, the farmers and the villagers. He makes inquires about last year’s harvest, much needed reparations and new instruments. Sir Robert accompanies him from time to time, but mostly he stays in the library, reading and answering the stacks of letters that arrive for him every single day. The evenings remain what they were: quiet, peaceful hours in which the two men eat, chat, read or play games, and most of all, enjoy each other’s company.

Perhaps it is the serenity in the house, or the soothing, unspoiled influence of Sir Robert’s presence, but Lord Smythe’s behaviour around his servants (and around Kurt in particular) remains surprisingly civil. Not that he stops teasing them, but now, the teasing feels more friendly, more genuine, because the meanness, the intention to hurt are not as visible as they were before, and sometimes Kurt asks himself whether he could actually grow to like this new master. But despite the change in Lord Smythe’s behaviour, Kurt finds that he is reluctant to trust this development, because he suspects that it might just as easily change back to what it was during his first months at Bailey Hall. Sometimes Kurt can’t decide whether he is being unforgiving or merely careful, but the hurt, inflicted by so many of Lord Smythe’s cruel words, is too deep for him to simply forget about it. So while he finds it easier to be around his master, he remains vigilant and doesn’t allow himself to trust the change of his master’s attitude just yet.

The first tiny interruption of the peace at Bailey Hall occurs during a rainy evening. Lord Smythe, who was out to visit the farms near the River Wylye, came back when it started to get dark, and now the kitchen is busy preparing the dinner. Since Mrs Seymour has decided that the lords have eaten from the same dishes for far too long, she has ordered Jeff and Kurt to fetch the red and gold china from the second dining room, so that the kitchen maids have enough time to clean it before they arrange to food on it.

Kurt has just balanced a pile of cups down the stairs and placed them on the kitchen table when a cacophonous clang sounds behind him, causing everybody in the kitchen to flinch. When Kurt turns around, he sees Jeff standing in the shards of the soup tureen he was carrying, a thoroughly horrified expression on his face. For a moment, everyone merely stares at the scene in frozen terror.

The first one to move is Nick, throwing down the towel with which he was polishing the silver and kneeling down.

“Don’t step on the shards,” he warns when Jeff starts to move. Jane kneels down next to him, carefully collecting the biggest shards into her apron.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Jeff says, his voice miserable and scared at the same time.

“Of course you didn’t,” Mrs Bertram says, patting his shoulder. “It was an accident, and it’s nobody’s fault. Everybody here saw that. Didn’t you?” she adds, her tone unusually sharp.

The kitchen maids nod instantly, and Kurt does too. He knows that breaking something as valuable as this soup tureen will, in a best case scenario, cost Jeff at least a year’s salary, but even more likely his job.

To make matters worse, Mr Moore chooses this precise moment to enter the kitchen, holding a stack of towels in his hands. When he spots the mess on the floor, his face immediately changes colours: at first, it becomes an almost deadly pale, then, slowly, it changes into a very ugly red.

“What happened here?” he asks, with barely restrained anger in his voice. Jeff opens his mouth to admit to the crime, but quickly, Mrs Bertram moves forward, her gaze challenging the one of Mr Moore.

“It was an accident, Mr Moore,” she repeats.

Mr Moore stares at the woman standing bravely between him and the culprit, “I want to know who is responsible for this, Mrs Bertram.” His eyes flicker to Jeff, whose guilty expression has to give him away immediately.

The cook merely lifts her chin a bit higher, “Like I said, Mr Moore, it was an accident. Nobody is responsible for this.” Looking down at the shards at her feet, she adds, “And you know, as far as I know, Lord Smythe never fancied this particular set of china anyways.”

Mr Moore takes a deep breath, as if to calm himself, and then says without taking his gaze from Mrs Bertram, “Kurt, take these towels up to Lord Smythe’s bathroom.”

Kurt hesitates, reluctant to leave Jeff alone in such a precarious situation. Mr Moore however seems to be in no mood for more disobedience – when Kurt doesn’t react immediately, he snaps, “Now!” and pushes the stack of towels into his arms. When Kurt looks at Jeff, he sees that Nick and Jane are also standing in front of him, ready to defend him. Even though he doesn’t feel good about it, he figures that he can leave Jeff to the protection of these three, and when he sees Nick nodding at him, he quickly slides out of the room.

When he starts to climb the stairs up to the second floor, he can hear the deep, boisterous voice of Mr Moore behind him, the shrill pitch of Mrs Bertram and Nick’s calm voice mediating between them, and he hopes that Jeff can stand his ground. Technically he believes that Mrs Bertram take Mr Moore on any day, he just hopes that Mrs Seymour doesn’t join in on the fight, because then, the forces would be even.

Having quickly moved down the corridor, he opens the door to Lord Smythe’s bedroom and enters quietly. He has only been in here once or twice – since the duties of Lord Smythe’s valet fall into Nick’s responsibility, and Mr Moore tends to all other tasks, nobody but them has a regular reason to enter this room. Kurt looks around curiously, his eyes drifting over the books and papers on the messy desk, but since he really wants to get back to Jeff, he crosses the room rather quickly and opens the door to the adjoining bathroom. He takes two steps into the room before he stops dead in his tracks, his eyes fixed on the scene before him. What Mr Moor forgot to mention in his growing anger was why the towels are needed in the bathroom: because Lord Smythe is currently taking a bath.

A large fire cracks in the chimney and the whole room feels slightly overheated. Lord Smythe sits in a rather larger bathtub in front of the fire, and his head rests against the rim of the bathtub, exposing the long line of his throat. Kurt’s gaze travels down to the collarbone and further down to his chest, down to where the smooth-looking skin meets the gently steaming water. His usually pale skin looks darker in the light of the candles and the fire, Kurt notices, and it glistens where single drops of bathwater still cling to it.

Kurt feels his cheeks heating up, and he knows that it’s not merely due to the temperature in the room. Maybe it’s because he is so used to see people in layers and layers of clothing, of cotton and wool and silk, that the sight of naked skin is making him really uncomfortable. Because there is really nothing wrong with layers, Kurt thinks. Quite the contrary: layers are good. Layers are safe. Seeing his master like this – naked, relaxed, vulnerable – has something horribly intimate to it, and Kurt doesn’t want any kind of intimacy with a person he’s not even sure he likes or trusts.

Quietly, he tiptoes to the other end of the room, placing the towels on the small, plain table where Lord Smythe has dropped his clothes, still wet from the rain, onto. A part of him hopes that he can just sneak out of the room unnoticed, but when he turns around, he meets the gaze of Lord Smythe, who has turned his head and is looking at Kurt with an amused expression in his eyes.

“My Lord,” Kurt murmurs, hastily averting his eyes and concentrating on the pattern in the wooden floor. It’s a nice pattern, he notices, and whatever ancestor of Lord Smythe built Bailey Hall must have paid quite a large sum of money for it.

 “Kurt,” Lord Smythe answers, and Kurt hears the water splashing against the bathtub when Lord Smythe moves. “What an unexpected surprise.”

Kurt’s head snaps up, his eyes searching in the expression of Lord Smythe whether he has trespassed in any way by entering the bathroom. When Lord Smythe catches Kurt’s uncertain gaze, he smiles and clarifies, “Usually it’s Nick who attends to me, but I don’t mind the change.”

Kurt lets out a breath he wasn’t aware he was holding in, and explains, “We had a minor accident in the kitchen.” Lord Smythe raises his left eyebrow, “Nothing bad, I hope?”

“No, Sir,” Kurt replies, not wanting to be the one to inform Lord Smythe that the red set of china has become pretty useless without its soup tureen. Lord Smythe nods and closes his eyes again, letting his head fall back against the rim of the bathtub. Kurt remains next to the stack of towels, unsure what is expected of him now. He would really like to just leave, but since now he is expected to “attend” to Lord Smythe, that is unfortunately out of the question. Still, he only has a very vague idea about what to do now, since both Sir Robert and Lord Henry preferred to be left alone when bathing, and apart from these two Kurt has little experience with caring for his masters in the bathroom.  

After a minute of silence that is neither relaxed nor really tense, Lord Smythe moves again. He sits up, his neck cracking when he turns it first to the right, then to right, lifting his chin to relieve the tension in his back. Kurt can see his muscles moving when he rolls his shoulders, and for a moment his eyes are so fixed on the movement beneath the smooth skin, that he only realises after a second that Lord Smythe is holding out a sponge in a silent request for Kurt to take it. Tentatively, Kurt steps forward and takes the soft sponge out of Lord Smythe’s hand, and when the other man leans forward and exposes his back, Kurt dips the sponge into the warm water, squeezing it to let the water run over Lord Smythe’s shoulders. It feels weird at first, being this close to a person he still hasn’t quite figured out, but Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to acknowledge his individual existence – to him, Kurt is just another servant who assists him, like Nick presumably has done countless times before. And while Kurt usually isn’t fond of being reduced to his occupation – this time, it helps.

“When you see Mr Moore later, can you tell him that my guests will arrive the day after tomorrow?” Lord Smythe asks, splashing water on his face.

“Certainly, Sir,” Kurt says. He notices that Lord Smythe’s hair looks almost black when it’s wet, and that is has become quite long during these last weeks. “Can you tell me how many guests you invited? Mr Moore will want to know.”

Lord Smythe runs a hand through his hair, and a few drops of water hit Kurt in the face.  “Isabella and Arthur will come, Henry, Lady Emily, and Isabella announced that she will bring two of her friends with her.” He turns his head to look at Kurt, blinking when a drop of water runs down to his left eye, “I think we will need six bedrooms.”

“Very well, Sir,” Kurt says, and even though he doesn’t stop slowly rubbing the sponge over Lord Smythe’s back, he can’t help the small pang he feels at the idea of Lord Huntington and his friends returning to Bailey Hall.

Those last days have been surprisingly peaceful and almost enjoyable, but Kurt is almost certain that once Lord Smythe is reunited with Lord Huntington and his friends, he will once again lose his politeness and restraint and become the horrible human being Kurt learned to hate during his first weeks at Bailey Hall. Lord Smythe cranes his neck and looks up at Kurt, a curious expression in his eyes, “You don’t seem very happy about that, Kurt?”

“I hardly believe it’s my position to be unhappy about your guests, Sir,” Kurt replies, rolling up a sleeve that has started to become wet.

“True,” Lord Smythe says. “But you quite often do things that are not in your position.”

Kurt’s fingers brush against the skin of Lord Smythe when he raises the sponge to his shoulders once more, “If I remember correctly, you personally assured me that you don’t mind that.”

“I don’t,” Lord Smythe retorts, “I’m merely curious to hear what your honest opinion about my guests is.”

Kurt hesitates, aware that he could never voice his “honest opinion” about the other lords and ladies in the presence of Lord Smythe, but at the same time unwilling to lie. Eventually, he settles for saying, “I’m glad that Sir Reginald isn’t coming back to Bailey Hall.”

“While that doesn’t answer my original question,” Lord Smythe says, “So am I.”

He reaches up to his shoulders, and his fingers brush against Kurt’s when he takes the sponge out of his hand. “Fetch me a towel, will you?” he says, tossing the sponge carelessly aside. He grabs the rims of the bathtub to pull himself out of the water. Kurt is once again happy about the dim light and the fact that his flushed cheeks can easily be blamed on the heat in the room, and with his eyes steadily fixed on a rather ugly painting on the wall, he hands Lord Smythe a large towel to cover himself, and a smaller one to dry his hair.

When he dares to look at Lord Smythe again (now with a towel clad around his waist and rubbing his hair with the other one) he thinks that he can understand a little bit better why Lord Huntington and Sir Reginald are so taken with his employer: even when his body is not hidden beneath one of his impeccably fashionable waistcoats, he is an unfairly good-looking man. Kurt’s gaze drifts over the strong legs and the flat stomach when suddenly, he realises that there is no new set of clothes lying on the dressing table. He silently curses Mr Moore for assigning him this task unprepared, and he wonders how he is supposed to put a decent evening attire together when he has no clue what is stored in which wardrobe. “I’m sorry, my Lord,” he says, “I’m going to... I mean, I will right away fetch s-“

“Nick,” Lord Smythe interrupts him. He grins at the perplexed expression on Kurt’s face, “You’ve done enough Kurt, and it’s not your job to look after my evening attire. Fetch Nick, he’s had long enough a break.”

“I will, Sir,” Kurt says, happy to finally be able to escape this awkward situation. But suddenly, he remembers Jeff and the fight downstairs. He looks at his master, who is combing through his dishevelled hair with one hand and rubbing his face with the other, and he decides just this once to trust him.

“Lord Smythe?”

“Yes, Kurt?”

“Do you have a deep emotional connection to the china with the red and gold pattern?”

Lord Smythe looks surprised at the question, and he lifts his right eyebrow in confusion, “I don’t believe I have an emotional connection to any of the tableware in this house. Why are you asking?”

“Well, it might be that the soup tureen is not exactly in a healty condition.”

“I see,” Lord Smythe says slowly, a grin tugging on the corner of his mouth, “And I guess since you’re here and Nick usually isn’t a very clumsy person, either poor Jeff or one of the housemaids is really scared that Mr Moore or Mrs Seymour discover what happened?”

“Jeff is,” Kurt admits, and adds, “And Mr Moore sort of already discovered it.”

“And now he is throwing a fit downstairs?” When Kurt nods, Lord Smythe sighs and runs his fingers through his wet bangs, “Could you ask him to come up and see me? I’ll tell him that a dish is no reason to fire Jeff. And tell Nick to come upstairs too.”

“I will,” Kurt says, and he can’t help but smile at Lord Smythe, glad that it was the right decision to trust him, “Thank you, Sir.”

Lord Smythe returns his smile, and Kurt is glad to see that rare, genuine expression instead of the more common leering grin, “You’re welcome.”

Kurt nods, and turns to leave, but his fingers have only brushed against the cold metal of the doorknob when the voice of Lord Smythe holds him back, “Oh, and Kurt?”

Kurt pauses, looking over his shoulder at his employer, who is still smiling, “Tell me if you made up your mind about whether you will call me “Lord Smythe” or “Sir”, because I am getting confused at the inconsistency.”

“I can’t help it, Sir,” Kurt replies before he has time to properly think about his answer. “It all depends on whether I decide that I like you or not.”

Lord Smythe looks taken aback for second at the honest answer, but within seconds, the grin is back in place, even wider than before.

“And how much longer do you think it will take for you to establish an opinion on my person?”

“I don’t know, Sir,” Kurt replies, wondering what it is about this moment that makes it much easier to tell the truth, “You make it awfully difficult to like you sometimes.”

Lord Smythe smiles again, but this time, it’s not a happy one. “I know,” he says. For a moment he holds Kurt’s gaze, and there is more in his eyes than Kurt feels comfortable to decipher just yet. Then, Lord Smythe sighs and turns away, “Run along and rescue Jeff, Kurt,” he says. “Once Mr Moore starts shouting, it’s hard to stop him.”

Feeling that he is dismissed, Kurt slides out of the bathroom. He feels his heart pounding in his chest when he hurries down the corridor, and he wonders why. After all, he just insulted his employer to his face after seeing him naked and rubbing his back with a sponge. He shakes his head as if to get rid of the image, and quickly runs down the stairs, down to the kitchen from which he still hears upset voices. After all, there are more important things that need to be dealt with right now.

 


The next day is as busy as expected. Mr Moore wants a last check and a thorough dusting of all of the guest rooms, and Mrs Bertram orders Jeff and Kurt to walk to the village to get some last missing ingredients for the dinners she has planned. The hours pass in a busy blur, and it’s only after dinner, when Sir Robert has retired to his bedroom, that Kurt has time for a break, sitting down next to Jeff at the kitchen table to eat his own dinner. Only after he has eaten three spoonfuls of soup, Kurt notices that Nick, who just a minute ago had helped him bring down the meat plate, has vanished, leaving his soup untouched.

“Did Nick say where he ran off to?” he asks Jeff, who shakes his head, unable to answer the question since his cheeks are stuffed with bread. “Maybe he is not feeling well,” Mrs Bertram says, “He was awfully pale throughout the evening.” She eyes the disregarded bowl of soup with concern in her round face. “Kurt, could you go and check on him?”

Kurt nods and stands up, gently pushing Jeff, who has also risen and is now looking worried, down into his chair again, “I’ll be back in just a minute.”

Quickly, he climbs the steps to Nick’s room. He knocks against the door, calling “Nick?”, and when there is no reply, he carefully opens the door. Tentatively, he steps into the empty room, feeling oddly out of place. He has rarely been in Nick’s room, because whenever they have a moment to themselves, they usually spend their time in Jeff’s and his room.

At first glance, there is not much difference: it’s a small room with two beds, one of them unused, one wardrobe and a small table. Nevertheless, it feels much more like a permanent home than Jeff’s and Kurt’s room does: Nick’s personal belongings are neatly arranged on the table: little snippets of paper stick to the wall above the desk, stacks of letters, neatly tied together, lie on top of books and papers.

When Kurt steps closer, something rustles under his foot. Startled, he bends down to pick up the piece of paper he stepped on, which is covered in neat, small handwriting. He turns the letter, which has so carelessly been cast away, and seems out of place in the otherwise so tidy room. He knows that it’s wrong to read the personal correspondence of Nick, but maybe it is the only way to find out where he vanished to, and what happened to make the usually so collected footman throw this letter away in what must have been a very emotional moment. Slowly, he sits down on the edge of Nick’s bed, already reading the first lines of the letter.

My dear Nicholas,

I am astonished to receive your letter alongside one written by Mr Moore, both inquiring as to what event took place in this house that caused Lord Smythe’s and Sir Robert’s hasty departure. I will confine in you what I myself witnessed that evening, but before I proceed to do so, please note that I am telling you this in strictest confidence. I did write a letter to Mr Moore, but I tried to keep the account as neutral as possible, and I am also trying to keep my emotions from inflicting with this letter. Nevertheless, I shall give you the true account on what happened, and I hope that some of the details, especially those of a delicate nature, can remain between the two of us.

The whole affair took place during one of Lady Isabella’s evening party. Apart from the guests that were already staying at Bailey Hall, Lady Isabella also invited some acquaintances of hers: Lady Sophie and Louisa Bradford, our neighbours Lord and Lady Russell as well as the two Lord Elliots. They had a small ball for which they hired musicians, and at the beginning everybody seemed to have a rather cheerful time. Unfortunately, as the evening advanced, some of the gentlemen consumed a little more wine than it was good for them, though I do feel that I should emphasise that both Lord Smythe and Sir Robert remained sober throughout the entire night. Late in the evening, Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington began to quarrel. I was not close enough to witness the exact cause of their disagreement, but Thomas, my fellow footman, told me that they were talking about Lord Smythe when the quarrel got out of control, and soon Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington were shouting openly at one another, drawing the attention of every last person in the room towards them.

While I can’t remember every word they were saying, I do remember that they insulted each other quite heavily. Sir Reginald accused Lord Huntington of arrogance and – dare I say it – adultery, while Lord Huntington called him a liar, an imposter and a beggar. Lord Smythe and Sir Robert tried in vain to calm them down, and eventually they let their insults be followed by actions, and Sir Reginald (who was the first one to throw a punch) injured Lord Huntington quite severely: his nose started to bleed, and even now as I am writing these words, he still cannot see out of his right eye. Nevertheless, it took Lord Smythe, Sir Robert, the Crawshaws, myself and Thomas to separate the two fighters. While the ladies tended to Lord Huntington’s injuries (at least those of the ladies who had not fainted at the sight of blood and themselves needed to be cared for), Lord Smythe and I brought Sir Reginald, who still refused to calm himself, out into the courtyard.

What he said to Lord Smythe in his blind rage I cannot bring myself to repeat word by word, but among other things he accused him of committing acts of gross indecency. But whatever he said, let me assure you that it was the drunken rambling of a madman, and that none of these things can possibly hold the smallest amount of truth. I am only telling you about this because I know that Lord Smythe trusts you, but I will never repeat what I am writing now to another person as long as I live.

However, while Sir Reginald kept shouting insults at him, Lord Smythe became very calm, and told Sir Reginald that from this moment onwards he will not be welcomed at Longleat House or Bailey Hall, or any other noble estate in the surrounding counties. He went inside, and Thomas and I kept Sir Reginald out in the cold for almost an hour, forcing him to drink water until he was relatively sober again.

When he realised what he had done, he seemed very shocked by his own actions, and demanded to be brought to Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington so that he could apologise to both of them. Alas, both of them naturally refused to listen to his apologies. We were ordered to pack his luggage, and in the hours of the early morning, he was sent on his way in the carriage of Lord Huntington himself.

This is what happened during that night, Nicholas, and I suppose now you see why this matter best not be stirred into common gossip: especially in the interest of your master. Be assured that none of the guests, though they did not witness the worst part of the evening, wanted to stay after this unpleasant event, and that carriage after carriage departed in the course of the day. Your master and Sir Robert decided to stay for one more day to make sure that Lord Huntington was recovering from his injuries, and then also departed.

I hope this letter answers most of your questions. Be assured that I told Mr Moore only about the necessary facts, and not about the content of Sir Reginald’s drunken ramblings. I hope this letter finds you in good health, and please tell Jeff and Kurt that I miss them!

Yours sincerely

Frank

For a moment, Kurt stares at the letter in his hands, turning the paper as if to search for more lines, for all the things that Frank does not name in his account of the evening. Though Kurt knows enough about the nature of Lord Smythe’s and Sir Reginald’s relationship to let his imagination fill the deliberate gaps in Frank’s account, he is not yet able to grasp what this means for Lord Smythe. If it was truly only him and Frank who witnessed Sir Reginald’s accusations, and Frank really keeps quiet about it, there will most likely not be much harm done.

However, Kurt knows that even the slightest rumour can grow large enough to seriously damage a man’s reputation. Kurt’s fingers twitch with the want to burn this letter, to leave no proof of what truly happened at Longleat. But that would of course alert Nick to the fact that someone else has read this letter, and so, Kurt crumples it again and shoves it under the bed, so that it is hidden from whoever might enter this room, but still easy enough for Nick to find it again.

Suddenly, Kurt has a very clear idea where Nick has vanished to. He leaves the room and climbs the stairs until he reaches the corridor leading to Lord Smythe’s chambers. When he approaches the door to his bedroom, he hears angry voices shouting at one another.

For a moment, he pauses in front of the door, telling himself that this is very wrong, that he should be ashamed for even thinking about spying on Nick and Lord Smythe, and if anybody catches him, he’s going to be in serious trouble. Having told himself that, he takes a deep breath, and then bends forward and presses his ear against the door.

“- are you out of your mind?”

“I still don’t see how on earth this is my fault?”

“Oh, come on, Sebastian. We both know Reginald is no fool, heaven only knows what you did to him during these days at Longleat that made him this frustrated.”

“I did absolutely nothing to him.”

The next words come out as a loud whisper, and Kurt is relieved to hear that Nick is not too upset to remember to lower his voice, “So you’re telling me that you did not invite Arthur to visit you every night while you purposefully ignored Reginald?”

This at least answers the question of how much Nick knows about Lord Smythe’s nightly activities, Kurt thinks to himself, when Lord Smythe retorts, “I already told you, he was getting on my nerves.”

Of course he was getting on your nerves,” Nick hisses, “Reginald has always been an absolutely horrible, conceited, abhorrent, vile, despicable ass. How long did you think your little game with him could have lasted?”

“I didn’t think he was going to crack,” Lord Smythe defends himself; “I just wanted to teach him a lesson because he was being so damn clingy.”

“Maybe it strikes you as a weird idea, but sometimes, people actually develop feelings when they do what you did frequently with Arthur and Reginald.”

Lord Smythe laughs at that, and Kurt has never heard anyone this bitter when he says, “Oh please Nick. Reginald was not in love with me. I insulted his pride and his vanity, not his feelings.”

Nick still refuses to be consoled by this, “You could at least have told me about it, and not lied to my face when I asked you what happened!”

“God riddance, Nick you’re not my mother.”

“No, that I’m not. But I’m your best friend, and heaven knows I have done a lot to cover up your escapades.”

Kurt almost loses his balance at this, grabbing the doorframe for support. While he had always suspected some kind of intimate relationship between Nick and Lord Smythe, it still surprises him to hear his suspicions confirmed.

“What exactly is your problem here, Nick?” Lord Smythe asks, and his voice becomes more and more exasperated.

“I don’t get why you bring all these horrible creatures to your house to randomly fuck them. This is bound to end in a total disaster.”

“Then what do you want me to do Nick?” Lord Smythe shouts, “Fall in love? Find me a nice, respectable, sensible gentleman, introduce him to all of my friends, ask him to move in with me and stay together until the end of our lives? Dance with him at the Christmas ball at Longleat, kiss him in front of my friends?”

Though the anger has not left his voice, Nick sounds calmer when he replies, “Being cynical is not going to help, Bas.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Nick, cynicism is one of the few things the public doesn’t object to.”

“You don’t have to tell me how hard this is for you, Bas. I can see that. I have, for many years. I merely thought that by now, you have learned from experience how dangerous this can become. I mean, we’ve been there before.”

Kurt’s eyes grow wider at this piece of information, and he bends closer to the door, eager not to miss Lord Smythe’s answer. Sadly, he doesn’t respond to Nick’s plea, but instead says, “Nick, I can’t do this. I can’t spend my life pretending to be somebody I’m not. I can’t just go after a pretty, mindless girl, marry her, father a bunch of children and deny what I really want, just because it’s safe.”

“I understand that. But why do you chose people like Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington, people that at the bottom of your heart, you don’t even like?”

Both Nick and Lord Smythe seem to have calmed down now, and their voices become harder for Kurt to understand. Nevertheless, he hears the sad tone in Lord Smythe’s voice when he says, “What would be the alternative? Be alone?”

“Why don’t you find somebody you can stand? I’m not talking about love, but why can’t you chose somebody you genuinely like? Somebody you trust.”

There’s some rustling behind the door, and Kurt suspects that Lord Smythe has sat down on his bed, “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.”

“Maybe it doesn’t have to end.”

Lord Smythe laughs again, the same bitter laugh as before, “That’s what I thought the last time.”

For a moment, the room is silent. Then there’s that rustling sound again, and Nick says, “Do you really think nobody else heard what Reginald said?”

“Only me and Frank,” Lord Smythe replies, “And if you say that he will keep quiet...”

“He will,” Nick says, “He promised to.” He sighs, and adds, “Bas, we have to talk about things like this. Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because I knew you would start shouting at me,” Lord Smythe replies.

“I only shout when you’re being an idiot,” Nick says, and Kurt is sure that somewhere behind this door, Nick and Lord Smythe are smiling at one other.

Careful to not make a sound, Kurt backs away from the door, because he has heard enough, and because down in the kitchen, they are most likely wondering what on earth is taking him so long. He will just say that he looked everywhere, but simply couldn’t find Nick, he decides when he tiptoes down the corridor – and so he does. Later, when Nick returns to the kitchen and is met by the concerned inquiries from Mrs Bertram, Jeff and Jane, he claims that he has been in the courtyard, since he wasn’t feeling very well and the cold air was helping his headache. Kurt just nods and says, “I forgot to look there.” Everybody is satisfied, and Mrs Bertram reheats the soup for Nick.

Late at night, when Jeff is peacefully snoring in his bed, Kurt is still awake, again and again replaying the conversation he heard. So many things start to make more sense now, and yet, there are still so many questions unansweredm. At least now he knows where Lord Smythe and Nick stand in this whole mess, Kurt thinks as he snuggles deeper into his pillow.

However, the question that remains is: where does he stand?

Chapter Text

March – April 1850

Sometimes, Kurt is certain that no matter how much time he spends at Bailey Hall, there will always be nights when he lies awake in this bed, listens to the blissfully innocent, slow and steady breathing of Jeff, and wonders when his life has become this tangled mess of secrets and lies.

The night after he overheard the conversation between Nick and Lord Smythe is one of these nights.

It’s not that anything he heard truly came as a big surprise to him. When he thinks about it now, staring into the darkness that’s only illuminated by the faint light of the moon peering through the curtains, what actually surprised him most was hearing Nick state that he is not only Lord Smythe’s friend (because Kurt was already pretty certain about that), but even his “best friend”. So far, Kurt has always assumed that Sir Robert was closest to his employer, but by now, he is almost used to reconsidering his views on people in the Bailey Hall household. After all, he does get a lot of practice.

Strangely enough, the knowledge of the unusual friendship makes it harder to decide how much Kurt can trust Nick. Even though it is a relief to finally have his suspicions confirmed and to know that Nick will indeed keep Lord Smythe’s secrets, Kurt is now even less confident that he could talk to Nick about how much he has found out by now. He is almost sure that neither Nick nor Lord Smythe would be thrilled with the idea of him knowing exactly what is going on, and he is convinced that if it came to the worst, Nick’s loyalty would lie with Lord Smythe, not with Kurt.

Nevertheless, what keeps echoing in his mind, not just in the darkness of his room, but even days later when he watches his employer eat dinner or write his correspondence, is Lord Smythe’s voice, saying, “ I can’t spend my life pretending to be somebody I’m not.”

Kurt can only speculate what past event has made the other man so bitter, but for the first time, he finds himself truly trying to understand what it would feel like to be Lord Smythe: not being able to show his love for somebody, trying to live up to what his family and friends expect of him, constantly hiding who he is, and forever unable to find happiness in love. For some reason Kurt doesn’t quite understand, the thought makes him feel really miserable, and almost like he is in a strange way sharing Lord Smythe’s hardship.

Sometimes, when he enters a room and sees Nick talking to his employer, quickly drawing back when he spots Kurt, or sees Sir Reginald’s signature on an old letter Lord Smythe has left in the library, Kurt envies Jeff. Jeff, who is completely unaware of what is really going on at Bailey Hall; Jeff, who has no idea as to how much everybody is hiding; Jeff, who willingly accepts all the lies that make Kurt’s life so complicated. Sometimes Kurt wishes he could be that boy at the other side of the table, airily laughing with Jane and Harriet and not feeling a twist in his stomach when Mr Moore announces the approaching arrival of Lord Huntington.

Now he understands why Nick appears so serious sometimes, so contemplative – if Kurt is finding it hard to be silent about everything, Nick’s life must be a constant struggle to keep the balance between all the lies he made up to make sure all the secrets of Bailey Hall remain concealed.

Therefore, the arrival of Lord Huntington, Lady Isabella and the other lords and ladies actually feels strangely like a welcome distraction (though sadly, Frank isn’t accompanying his master this time). Not that Kurt is in any way looking forward to waiting on them again, quite the contrary – he is still dreading the moment where Lord Smythe turns into the heartless creature Kurt got to know during his first months at Bailey Hall.

Very soon though, Kurt realises that he finds Lord Smythe’s guests altogether more agreeable than during their previous visit in autumn. When trying to find a reason for that unexpected development, he soon blames it on the general change of atmosphere. Back in autumn, everybody had just returned from what seemed to have been an exciting season in London, and country life was dull and monotonous in comparison – something which especially Lady Isabella couldn’t have emphasised more often. But now that the dark season seems to lie behind them, and the weather is steadily improving, everybody is in unusually high spirits.

Lady Isabella and her friends are planning their first visits to the dressmakers to order their spring wardrobe. They consult fashion manuals and advertisements in newspapers, reading aloud to each other what the royal ladies and especially her majesty wore to the opera or the reception of the German ambassador.

Kurt tries his best not to appear like he is eavesdropping, but the evenings are long and the fashion discussions of the ladies are by far more interesting than the men’s conversations about politics at the other end of the room.

It’s not that Kurt isn’t interested in politics as such, but Lord Huntington and Lord Henry both are far more interested in hearing themselves talk than presenting a profound or even logical argument. Usually, the main discussion is between the two of them, and consists of heated reasoning, lots of gestures and very little content, and often it merely takes one objection by Sir Robert to expose their whole discussion as absolutely pointless. Lord Smythe generally settles on remaining silent and sometimes rolling his eyes, or, if he gets truly bored, standing up and leaving the room to seek shelter in the library – which, in Kurt’s opinion, is as rude as it is understandable.

Nevertheless, the overall enthusiasm regarding the upcoming season in London is contagious, and Kurt feels himself getting excited at the possible prospect of spending the summer in the city, though he is careful not to let himself become too enthusiastic at the idea. After all, he doesn’t know which of the servants Lord Smythe will actually take with him to London, and he doesn’t want to get his hopes up if, in the end, he will only be disappointed again.

“Of course you’re coming with us,” Jane says reassuringly when Kurt shares his concerns at the breakfast table. “Lord Smythe always takes all of the servants with him. It’s either because he wants to show off or because he doesn’t want to be bothered with searching for new ones in London.”

“Maybe it’s a bit of both,” Jeff muses, “But anyway Kurt, I think he has overcome whatever issues he had with you. I mean, he has stopped insulting you, and you weren’t assigned to take care of Lord Henry again.” His nose wrinkles in vexation, and Kurt smiles in sympathy, because if there is one thing he doesn’t miss it is trying to wake Lord Henry – an honour that has now been passed on to Jeff.

“I mean, that has to mean something,” the blond boy adds, blowing on his tea.

“Yes,” Jane agrees. “Maybe he has really grown to like you.”

Kurt looks up to search for Nick’s gaze, but the other footman has his eyes fixed on the novel resting on his lap, and only the slight crease of his brow indicates that he is listening to their conversation at all.

“I was going to suggest that he just grew to hate me more than you,” Jeff says, skilfully avoiding the playful slap Jane aims at his shoulder. “But I guess your theory works too.”

Finally, Kurt gives in to Jane’s and Jeff’s enthusiasm. He listens to Jane’s stories about life in the city and takes care to remember her recommendations on where to go to shop, what to visit and which theatres offer cheap prices. Instead of lying awake brooding over recent events, Kurt now stares into the darkness picturing what his days in London could be like. But while he imagines where he will go, who he could meet, and what he should see, he still can’t completely shake a small feeling of apprehension. And he knows that he’s only truly going to believe in visiting London once he is in the carriage heading to the great city.

 


Another thing that surprises Kurt is that Lord Smythe actually doesn’t spend that much time with his guests. While the lords and ladies are out when the weather allows it, riding, taking a stroll through the park or visiting some sights in the neighbourhood, more often than not he and Sir Robert retreat to the library or Lord Smythe’s study. And while they’re actually not that busy organising the running of their estates anymore, they still enjoy some quiet time in each other’s company, talking, reading, or playing chess. Kurt even notes that Lord Smythe is getting better at the game, but Sir Robert still beats him two out of three times, and Lord Smythe isn’t much of a good loser. Now that he is paying attention to it, he can see Nick trying very hard not to roll his eyes at Lord Smythe’s pouting when Sir Robert announces his win, and silently he agrees with the other footman – a grown man sulking like a little child is a rather pathetic sight.

It’s one of these afternoons, and just as usual, Kurt and Nick bring cucumber sandwiches and tea up to the library, where they find Sir Robert alone, brooding over some complicated looking papers.

He only looks up when Nick hands him his teacup, and his eyes seek out Kurt’s, “Kurt, could you be so kind and fetch me the Commentaries on the Laws of England ?”

“Of course, Sir,” Kurt replies, looking at the shelves, “Where is...?”

“It’s not in here,” Sir Robert answers the unfinished question. “It should be somewhere on Lord Smythe’s desk, he borrowed it from me yesterday. Could you go up to his study and try to find it?”

“Certainly, Sir,” Kurt says, and he sets down the sandwich plate, deciding to take the great staircase up to the next floor. When he opens the door to Lord Smythe’s study, spring sunshine illuminates the room, and Kurt is surprised to see that the room is empty. Reluctantly, he closes the door behind him and walks to the large desk at the other end of the room, which is covered with piles of books and stacks of paper that look rather unstable, half-written letters and unfinished notes, inkwells and used quills that leave dark spots on pieces of paper.

Kurt sighs, reluctant to rummage through the personal correspondence of Lord Smythe, but since Sir Robert explicitly asked him to search for this book, he sets to work. He moves a few letters to the side, and reaches for the nearest pile of books. On top of it is Shakespeare’s As you like it, its cover worn from being opened many times. Underneath is a rather new-looking volume with the unfamiliar title of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the pages still bright and the spine not yet cracked. Kurt puts it away, and takes the next book in his hands. It’s not so much a book as a thick booklet, and the title page declares it to be the Yokel’s Preceptor. Claiming to be “a book for every greenhorn”, it furthermore explains that it is “intended as a Warning to the Inexperienced – Teaching them how to Secure their Lives and Property during an Excursion through London”. Curious about what the unusual title means, he puts down the pile of books on the desk and starts browsing through the pages.

At first glance, it seems to be a guide to London, naming streets and places, shops and pubs. Confused as to why Lord Smythe, who has presumably spent a couple of months in the city every year since he was old enough to accompany his father and his older brother, should be in need of such a book, Kurt starts to read, and after a few minutes, he can feel the heat rising in his cheeks. What he is holding in his hands is a thinly veiled guide to all kinds of establishments in London that offer either a safe place for men to meet other men, or a place where men offer their bodies for whatever their customers are willing to pay for. Under the pretence of “warning” the innocent and naive people coming from the countryside to the big city, it meticulously lists all kinds of establishments, and all kinds of activities one can engage in there.

Equally confused and fascinated, Kurt keeps reading, not noticing that his fingers have started shaking. It feels like opening Pandora’s Box, like catching a glimpse at something that was always there, always within reach, but for the first time feels real. Hearing about Mrs Wilbourne ’s nephew in London, overhearing Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald made Kurt think about this matter, but strangely enough, he has so far never considered it as anything more than individual fates, something that would not touch him personally.

This manual, however, shows him that this is not just about some lost boys in the big city, not just about some bored aristocrats – out there, there is a whole secret society of men who try to find love in spite of the laws and jurisdiction – and they seem organised.

Kurt keeps reading, and as he turns page after page, he forgets about time, he forgets about his errand, he forgets where he is and what he is supposed to be doing. He feels himself being sucked into the manual, into a world of hidden pleasures, and what he reads sometimes appals, sometimes thrills, but most of the time fascinates him.

He is so engrossed in his reading that he doesn’t hear the door being opened. Neither does he hear it being closed, only when someone is clearing his throat pointedly, his head snaps up to meet the amused gaze of his employer.

“Lord Smythe,” Kurt says, hastily pushing the Yokel’s Preceptor back into the pile of books he had previously been holding. This is worse than being caught by Mrs Bertram with a spoon in the pudding bowl. He knows that he is blushing violently, and the more he tries to suppress it, the more heated his cheeks feel.

“Kurt,” Lord Smythe says, crossing his arms in front of his chest and looking expectantly at the boy in front of him.

Kurt tries desperately to come up with a witty reply, a sharp and clever explanation as to why he is standing in Lord Smythe’s room and going through the books on his desk, but all he hears himself answer is, “Your Lordship.”

Lord Smythe’s lips twitch, as if he is trying to suppress a grin, and he tilts his head to the right before he drawls, “Well, now that we have established who we are, may I move on to inquire what you’re doing in here?”

Kurt knows his blush is only getting worse, and once more he curses the fate that decided that he is not even able to blush prettily, like Lady Emily or Lady Isabella. What looks charming on them looks only guilty and ridiculous on him and, for some reason, he is more aware of that than usual – which doesn’t help at all.

“Sir Robert asked me to find the Commentaries on the Laws of England , and he assumed that it would be on your desk,” Kurt stammers. “I’m sorry if I was overstepping, my Lord, I didn’t mean to...”

“Ah, the Commentaries ,” Lord Smythe muses, ignoring Kurt’s stammered apologies. “Is it not among those?”

He reaches out, and Kurt has no choice but to hand him the stack of books. Quickly, Lord Smythe sorts through the pile. When he comes to the Yokel’s Preceptor, he pauses only for the briefest of moments, his gaze flickering over Kurt’s face before he puts it at the bottom of the pile.

“I thought I left there,” he says, putting the pile down. Eyeing the messy stacks of paper on his desk, he laughs awkwardly and asks, “I should really clean up this mess, shouldn’t I?” He taps his index finger thoughtfully against his nose, before he walks to the windowsill, picking up another pile of books Kurt hasn’t even noticed until now.

“So, are you looking forward to visit London, Kurt?” Lord Smythe inquires, his tone light and conversational while he is tossing one book after the other back on the windowsill.

“Yes, Sir, very much,” Kurt replies, feeling a bit wary about the question after having been caught with his nose in a rather dubious manual. “You see, I’ve never been to London before.”

Lord Smythe pauses in his sorting, and his head turns around to direct a surprised gaze at Kurt, “Never?”

“Never, Sir,” Kurt replies. Lord Smythe eyes him with an unreadable expression, before he turns to his books again.

“Well, in my experience, London is one of these all-or-nothing affairs,” he says, “People either tend to hate it, or never want to leave at all.” He turns around, crosses the small distance between them and holds a book out to Kurt: the Commentaries on the Laws of England . “I guess we’ll have to wait and see which type you are.”

Kurt takes the book, but instead of thanking him like he ought to, he looks up to the green eyes of Lord Smythe and asks, “Which type are you, Sir?”

The other man looks taken aback for a second, but then smiles, though a little too wistfully for Kurt to feel comfortable, “I’m afraid I’m neither. I am one of these rare creatures that enjoy city life, but are also glad when they can retreat to the country during the winter months.”

“I would have thought country life bores you,” Kurt replies.

“It has its advantages – and I don’t mind some quiet and peace for a change. One can only stand so much excitement.”

Kurt knows he should stop asking, but there is one question that has been bothering him for quite some time, “And Bailey Hall is your home, right, Sir?”

Lord Smythe looks around the room, as if he’s seeing it for the very first time. Running his fingers through his hair in a gesture that Kurt by now can identity as being a sign of discomfort, he answers, “Well, I grew up here. So I guess yes, you could say that.”

Kurt’s fingers close around the solid spine of the Commentaries , and he decides that it’s time for him to leave, “Thank you for helping me find the book, Sir.”

Lord Smythe nods, the expression in his eyes unreadable again, “You’re welcome, Kurt.”

Looking back at his desk, he sighs and says, “Can you tell Robert that I’ll be joining him in an hour? And please find Nick and send him to me – I’m going to need some help with this mess.”

“Of course, Sir.”

Kurt carefully closes the door behind him, and heads to back to library, to deliver the book and inform Nick about Lord Smythe’s order. By now, it’s easy for him to perform his duties while his mind is occupied with other things, but later, when he is helping Sir Robert dress for the evening or offers wine to the ladies, the descriptions in the manual still haunt him.

Looking at the calm face of Lord Smythe at the other end of the room, he wonders what else he is going to discover in London.


 

As the days pass, Kurt feels more relaxed and more excited at the same time. Excited because the prospect of departing for London tiptoes nearer and nearer, and Kurt has already started to sort his clothing according to what he will take with him, and what he is going to leave behind. Relaxed because his anticipation of Lord Smythe again turning into the deceitful creature he was at the beginning of their relationship was apparently redundant.

 

If Lord Huntington’s edginess and his increasingly irritated mood is any indication, Lord Smythe hasn’t revived his sexual encounters with the other man. Kurt suspects that this is mostly due to the rumours about his fight with Sir Reginald, which are decreasing rather slowly. It’s a smart step, and probably the necessary consequence, but Kurt catches himself hoping that it might also be a sign of Lord Smythe taking Nick’s words to heart, and distancing himself from people like Lord Huntington, who are, as Kurt has had many opportunities to witness, truly despicable human beings.

 

Nevertheless, Kurt feels relieved when the guests announce after almost three weeks that they will be leaving to prepare their move to London. At the insistent request of Lady Isabella and Sir Henry, Lord Smythe agrees that he will follow them within a week. Sir Robert agrees to depart on the same day, though instead of going to London, he will first travel back to his estate at the Scottish border, and only join them later.

 

That night, after the lords and ladies have gone to bed, Kurt sits on the floor in front of the wardrobe, folding his clothes, sorting out everything that needs to be washed before they leave, and scolds Jeff who just lies on his bed, his feet against the wall, his big toe visible through a giant hole in the left sock.

 

“I swear, I am not helping you pack,” Kurt says, letting the fabric of a shirt run through his fingers, testing how worn it is.

 

“Lighten up, Kurt,” Jeff says, wiggling his toes. “It’s still a whole week. There’s plenty of time.”

 

Kurt pauses in his inspection, narrowing his eyes at the other boy, “You’re just going to throw everything into your bag at the very last minute, aren’t you?”

 

Jeff tilts his head to the side, grinning at Kurt, “Most definitely.”

 

“You are the messiest person I was ever unlucky enough to encounter,” Kurt sighs, but Jeff merely snorts, “Oh Kurt, come on. Even if you could, you wouldn’t change a thing about me.”

 

Kurt hides his smile behind a jacket, because Jeff is right. He wouldn’t.

 

 


 

And then, suddenly and without warning, everything falls apart.

 

It’s a few days after the lords and ladies have departed for London, and it’s late after dinner, when Jeff and Kurt have already retreated to their room. Jeff is successfully trying to distract himself from writing a letter to his family by teasing Kurt about the book he is reading (Camilla, and it is not as tacky as everybody claims it to be), and Kurt alternates between reading and throwing his pillow at Jeff to shut him up, when Nick opens the door and peers into the room.

 

“Kurt, Mr Moore wants to see you,” he says, and Kurt automatically feels alarmed. Being summoned by Mr Moore is never a good thing, and Kurt can’t figure out what he possibly could have done wrong. Nevertheless, he loses no time to follow the request, and hurries down the stairs and into Mr Moore’s room, where the butler is busy scribbling down the amount of wine bottles into his housekeeping book.

 

“Ah Kurt,” he says, and points at the chair in front of his desk with his quill, “Sit down, will you? I just need to finish the calculations.”

 

Kurt obeys, and quietly watches Mr Moore fill out the margins in his book with tiny figures and numbers. He tries to appear calm and collected, and the only thing that gives away his nervousness are his fingers, which are fiddling with the hem of his jacket. After a few more minutes, Mr Moore finally dries his quill and carefully puts the book away to let the ink dry.

 

“Now Kurt,” Mr Moore says, facing the young boy in front of him. “Today, I consulted Lord Smythe about the move to London, which as you know is scheduled in three days.”

 

“Yes, Sir,” Kurt replies, unsure as to where this is going. Is there some unpleasant task he wants to assign to Kurt?

 

“We were discussing the number of servants needed. I am sorry Kurt, because I know that you were looking forward to see London, but Lord Smythe and I agreed that it would be best if you remained at Bailey Hall this summer.”

 

For a second, Kurt is not able to process Mr Moore’s words. Oh yes, he has heard them, but he has trouble understanding what they mean. So he merely blinks at the man in front of him, and when his expression doesn’t alter, when he does not smile and admit that he just made a joke, Kurt manages to say, “I can’t go to London?”

 

Either Mr Moore doesn’t notice that Kurt’s voice sounds almost an octave higher than usual (which is an achievement in itself), or he chooses to ignore it.

 

“No, Kurt,” he says, “Lord Smythe told me that there is no need to have three footmen and one butler at his house in London, especially given the fact that we also have a few servants there. So we thought it best that you remained at Bailey Hall.”

 

When he looks into Kurt’s face, his expression softens only the tiniest bit, and Kurt is certain that his expression gives away his disappointment, “Now boy, I know you were looking forward to it, but don’t look so crestfallen. You did well these last months, and I’m sure Lord Smythe will take you with him next year.”

 

“But why?” Kurt asks, and his voice sounds desperate.

 

“Because we really don’t need three footmen in London,” Mr Moore explains again, and his voice is starting to sound a little bit impatient. “I’m sure Nick and Jeff can handle everything on their own, and there is also not that much space in the servant’s quarters...”

 

“So Nick and Jeff are going?” Kurt asks, the words tasting bitter in his mouth, “Everybody is going but me?”

 

“Well, not everyone,” Mr Moore objects. “We won’t need three housemaids, so we’re taking only Jane and Harriet. Emma will return to her family in Limerick, they need her anyway. And Mrs Seymour will of course remain at Bailey Hall, as will Mrs Bertram and the whole kitchen staff.”

 

“So I’m staying behind with the women,” Kurt says, and this really shouldn’t hurt as much, but it does. Mr Moore frowns, “Stop being so melodramatic Kurt. It’s like I’ve always said, reading those novels makes you young people overreact too much.”

 

“But why me?” Kurt presses, “Why not Jeff, or Ni-... why not Jeff?”

 

“Because he is older than you, and he has been a footman for several years, though not in this household,” Mr Moore answers, “And like Lord Smythe pointed out, you might be just a little too young and inexperienced for serving in London.”

 

If Kurt didn’t feel hurt before, now he surely does. “Did he say that?” he asks, and when he looks down, he sees that this fingers are clenched into fists, trembling with hurt and fury, “Did he say that I’m too inexperienced to go to London?”

 

Images flash before his eyes, everything he had to endure since he arrived at Bailey Hall: the insults, the disrespect, the secrets, the tension, the strain, the uncertainty, the growing trust that once again is being shattered. He is too inexperienced?

 

“He did, and frankly, now that I see your reaction, I have to agree with him,” Mr Moore says, frowning at Kurt. “At first, I tried to persuade him to take you with him, but I have to say he was very right with his concerns.”

 

“What concerns?” Kurt asks immediately, but Mr Moore merely shakes his head, “Enough now, Kurt. You will stay at Bailey Hall, and you will get paid your salary. Let me point out that this is very generous of Lord Smythe, because you know as well as I that he could have just given you your notice and hired a new footman in autumn.”

 

Kurt wants to laugh at this, wants to scream “I don’t want his damn money, I want him to start treating me like a human being”, but all he does is to stare at Mr Moore in silent disbelief. Mr Moore takes his quill again – for him, the conversation is over.

 

“Go to sleep now, Kurt, it’s getting late,” he says, his eyes already on the pages again, “And I hope that tomorrow you will have gotten over your disappointment, so that you can help us pack everything without looking so sour.”

 

Kurt doesn’t go to sleep. He doesn’t even go up to his room, instead, he hurries out into the courtyard, without bothering to put a jacket on. He feels like he has just been punched into the stomach, and the cold air makes it easier to breathe.

 

Leaning against the cold stone wall and looking up into the dark, cloudy sky, he feels bitter like he never has before. Just when he has started to trust Lord Smythe, when for the first time he actually started to understand and to like him, his employer once again has managed to show him that Kurt has just been fooling himself all along. Lord Smythe will never change, and he will certainly never treat Kurt respectfully. Out in the darkness, the epiphany feels startling and very, very hurtful.

 

He doesn’t know how long he stays out in the courtyard, but he only goes back in when his teeth start clattering from the cold. When he tiptoes back into his room, Nick has already left, and Jeff is almost half-asleep, mumbling the question what has taken Kurt so long. Kurt comes up with an excuse about talking to Jane in the corridor, but before he has finished, he hears Jeff’s breathing become light and slow, and he is thankful that he doesn’t have to explain what happened. At least, not yet.

 

 


 

If it was up to Kurt, he would have taken his time before he told the other servants that he was not coming to London with them. He would have allowed himself a few more hours to wallow in his misery and pity himself before he let the others join in.

 

But, like so many other things in his life, it is not up to him. Mr Moore tells the other servants during breakfast who’s coming to London and who is staying behind, and the decision is met with unanimous confusion and disbelief.

 

“Why shouldn’t Kurt come with us?” Jane asks, her brows knit in irritation. “It’s not like having one footman more or less will make a difference, and we can always use the help.”

 

“This is not fair, Mr Moore,” Jeff protests, “Kurt has worked so hard these last months, he deserves to go.”

 

Kurt looks at Nick, who is frowning at Mr Moore, his expression shocked and irritated. When he catches Kurt looking at him, he looks at him questioningly, but Kurt only reaches for his cup. If Nick wants details, why doesn’t he just ask Lord Smythe?

 

“That’s enough now,” Mr Moore says, and his tone indicates that he is not inclined to listen to any further protest, “It’s a shame that Kurt cannot accompany us, but it is Lord Smythe’s decision, and we will respect it. Now hurry up, we have a lot to do today.”

 

Kurt is rather certain that Sir Robert notices his downcast mood when he wakes him and helps him get dressed, and the fact that he doesn’t ask him about it, but instead pretends that Kurt answering him only with “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” isn’t anything unusual, confirms Kurt’s suspicions that he knows exactly what has happened. The fact that not even Sir Robert seems to be on his side, not even enough to find a few comforting words, hurts, and Kurt wishes to just crawl back into his bed, pull the blanket over his head and remain there until everybody has left.

 

But of course, that is not possible, and Mr Moore seems determined to keep him busy during the day, ordering him and Jeff to pack whatever will be needed in London. However, as the evening approaches, Kurt feels his anger rising again at the prospect of meeting Lord Smythe, who has avoided crossing paths with him all day. He is not sure what he expects when he sees Lord Smythe walk into the dining room and take his place opposite of Sir Robert. Maybe he expects a special glance, a word of apology, of explanation. Or maybe he expects him to completely ignore Kurt, to avoid his gaze with a contrite expression on his face and thus revealing his guilty conscience.

 

Kurt is sure he could deal with either, and find a way to let Lord Smythe know what exactly he thinks of him. What he isn’t prepared for, however, is Lord Smythe acting like nothing has happened. Somehow, he is able to ignore the conflict that can almost be tasted in the heavy atmosphere of the room: in Mr Moore’s stoic loyalty, Jeff’s confusion, Nick’s frustration, Sir Robert’s quick glances between Lord Smythe and the servants, and most of all, Kurt’s simmering anger. Lord Smythe appears to notice nothing; instead, he converses lightly with Sir Robert, gives his orders to Mr Moore and even makes a teasing remark to Jeff when the blond boy forgets to put the fork on the meat plate. And if the responses and reactions are more guarded, more tense than usual, it largely seems to escape Lord Smythe’s notice.

 

By the time they serve the desserts, Kurt’s fingers are shaking with suppressed fury, and it takes all the restraint he can muster not to “accidentally” trip and hail the pudding at any part of Lord Smythe he can reach, when the conversation turns to the approaching departure.

 

“Are you sure you already want to leave the day after tomorrow?” Sir Robert asks, and Kurt almost wants to laugh at the way he is lowering his tone. After all, this is a regular sized dining room, not the dining hall at Buckingham palace, and with only two people talking there is no way Kurt could not overhear the conversation.

 

“Why not?” Lord Smythe replies, and reaches for his glass, “Arthur and Isabella are already there, the Crawshaws will arrive at the end of the week, and I look forward to see Thom and William again.”

 

“I just thought, with all the work left here,” Sir Robert begins, but Lord Smythe interrupts him, “All the important things have been discussed, and I can leave the rest in Mr Barry’s capable hands. Really Robert, I can see no reason to delay our departure.”

 

He drains his glass, and Kurt moves to refill it, focusing only on the task of not spilling any of the wine. “Besides,” he hears Lord Smythe add, “It’s not like London is that far away, Robert, and letters travel quickly enough. It’s not like we’re leaving the continent.”

 

“I suppose,” Sir Robert answers, and Kurt feels his gaze on him as he steps away from the table. “I guess you’re right.”

 

Later, Kurt isn’t entirely sure how he made it through the evening. He remembers bringing down the leftovers dishes to the kitchen, he remembers standing in a corner of the salon, he even remembers pouring wine and water into glasses, and the faces of Lord Smythe and Sir Robert as they converse. But overall, the evening blurs into a few hours of Kurt taking deep breaths to calm himself, fingers tightly clenched and his teeth biting into the side of his cheek whenever he feels like he can’t take it anymore, until the moment when Sir Robert stands up and says, “Well, goodnight, Sebastian.” Lord Smythe stretches leisurely before he stands up and also leaves the room.

 

It’s not even a conscious decision, not something he has planned all evening. All Kurt knows is that he has to be quick, because soon Nick will go up to Lord Smythe’s room, and Sir Robert will wonder where Kurt is.

 

So he quickly follows Lord Smythe up to his bedroom, slipping through the half ajar door and closing it behind him. Lord Smythe has carelessly thrown his waistcoat on the floor, and is loosening his tie when he turns around and gives a startled noise as he spots Kurt leaning against the door frame. His collected expression crumbles for the first time during the evening: he looks surprised and rather apprehensive.

 

“Kurt, what are you... is there something...?” he begins, but Kurt cuts him off – he isn’t here to explain himself. He is here to demand an explanation, “Why did you lie to me?”

 

Lord Smythe raises both eyebrows, looking like he cannot believe what he has just heard, “I beg your pardon?”

 

“Why did you lie to me?” Kurt repeats and his voice sounds firmer than he actually feels, “Why did you make me believe that I would accompany you to London, if you never had any intention of taking me with you?”

 

Lord Smythe actually laughs at that, “I never said anything of like that.”

 

“But you implied it,” Kurt shouts, “What else was that whole “We’ll find out what type you are”- nonsense about?”

 

“I changed my mind.”

 

“Yes, and you didn’t even have the guts to tell me this yourself. You let Mr Moore do it.”

 

Lord Smythe’s eyes narrow, “Because it is Mr. Moore’s job to deal with the servants, not mine. You’re largely overestimating your own relevance if you believe you’re important enough to be told directly.”

 

It feels like a slap to Kurt’s face. For months, this man has made him feel worthless and pathetic, ugly and insignificant, and this is the last straw. Kurt isn’t thinking anymore, because if he were, he’d be aware that the next words will undoubtedly get him into a lot of trouble.

 

“Since you first spoke to me, you have treated me like not just your inferior, but like I am a complete waste of space,” Kurt says, slowly taking a step towards Lord Smythe. “And I won’t accept it any longer.” He clenches his fists, his gaze holding the one of his employer, “Do you think just because I’m a servant, that I don’t feel anything when you insult me? Do you think I’m an automaton without feelings? Do you think just because I am not as wealthy as you, or as good looking, or because I don’t dine with royalty, that I’m immune to how you and your horrible friends treat me?”

 

If Kurt would have paused for just a second, he might have noticed how Lord Smythe’s face changes from being taken aback to distraught, until a wall of anger settles over any trace of concern. But he doesn’t pause. He can’t. All the hurt, all the resentment has been building itself up for so long now, and Kurt is unable to stop now that he has started.

 

“I have been loyal to you despite everything, and I never did anything that could harm you, I never thought about getting revenge, not even when-“ Kurt interrupts himself mid-sentence, because no. He is not going there. Lord Smythe’s love affairs or his sexual preferences are not the issue here – Lord Smythe is.

 

“You have showed me time and time again that you think me inferior to you. Let me tell you this, I have just as much heart and soul as you, actually, I have a great deal more of it, because I don’t go around insulting people just to feel like I am worth anything. You are a hypocrite, you are mean, you are heartless. And...,” Kurt says, his eye catching the discarded jacket on the floor, “You treat people like you treat your clothes, and I refuse to silently endure this any longer.”

 

Kurt hasn’t realised how close he has moved to Lord Smythe, but now he is standing right front of him, his chest heaving like he has just done intensive exercise. As he tries to catch his breath, he notices that Mrs Bertram really had been right – he has grown. Just two months ago, it would have been much harder to look up into the eyes of Lord Smythe. Though when he sees the angrily blazing green depths, the clenched jaw and the lips tightly pressed together, he would have preferred to see it from far away.

 

“Get out.” Lord Smythe’s voice is dangerously calm, but his gaze is furious. If Kurt weren’t so angry, he would surely shrink away, but all he does is to return the gaze of Lord Smythe. They stare at each other for a second, and then Lord Smythe repeats, “Get out. Now.”

 

And suddenly, Kurt realises what he has done. He realises that he has just screamed at his employer, he realises that he is going to lose his job, that he will have to leave Bailey Hall immediately. He realises that if Lord Smythe tells his friends and relations about what happened, Kurt will never be able to get a respectable position ever again.

 

He stumbles backwards, suddenly wanting nothing more than to get away. When he reaches the door he turns around and starts to run down the corridor. He collides with something, and he hears Nick’s voice calling after him, “Kurt?”.

 

But all he does is to keep running.

 

 


 

Finally, Nick finds him on the last windowsill on the servant’s staircase, just below the roof.

 

“So, when do I have to leave?” Kurt asks, his hands clenched in the fabric of his trousers.

 

“He didn’t say anything about you leaving.”

 

That does surprise Kurt for a second, but he just laughs bitterly and says, “Yet.”

 

Nick merely keeps looking at him silently, and finally, Kurt looks up to meet his gaze. Nick looks a little shaken, but mostly sad, and his expression is one of pure concern and sympathy.

 

Kurt tries to swallow, but his throat feels unusually tight, “I’m not taking any of it back, Nick.”

 

“I know,” Nick says, and suddenly, two strong arms hug Kurt tight, tugging him close to Nick’s chest. It’s just when he feels Nick’s calm heartbeat against his cheek Kurt realises that he is shaking, and that his cheeks are damp with tears.

 

Nick doesn’t say anything, just holds Kurt while the younger boy is weeping against his shoulder, finally releasing all the anger, the frustration and the tension that he has kept inside over the last months. Kurt is thankful that Nick isn’t trying to comfort him with empty words and promises he knows won’t hold, and he lets himself cry until he finally feels like he is able to breathe again, and the giant lump in his throat feels just a bit smaller.

 

When he raises his head from Nick’s shoulder where the fabric of his jacket is wet with Kurt’s tears, Nick releases his hold on him. He doesn’t step back however, instead, he circles Kurt and sits down on the windowsill next to him, his shoulder pressing against Kurt’s.

 

“Better?” he asks, reaching into a pocket to pull out a handkerchief and hand it to Kurt, who gratefully blows his nose.

 

“A bit,” he says, clearing his throat when he hears his own raspy voice.

 

“Good,” Nick answers. Kurt looks at the white fabric in his hands when he asks, “When do you think I should leave?”

 

“Like I said,” Nick repeats, “He didn’t say anything about you leaving.”

 

Kurt looks up and asks, “Then what did he say to you?”

 

“He told me what you said to him,” Nick replies, and his right hand comes to rest on top of Kurt’s, squeezing it gently. “I’m so sorry Kurt.”

 

Kurt blinks, not sure whether he can make sense of that, “What are you sorry for?”

 

“I should have stepped in sooner,” Nick says and shakes his head. “I know Sebastian was treating you unfairly. We all knew, and nobody really did something about it. I mean, I tried talking to him about it, but...”

 

“It’s not your fault, Nick,” Kurt says. Nick smiles, but it is not a happy smile, “Yes, it is. And the worst thing about it is that none of this actually has anything to do with you. You’re just... I don’t know, in the middle of some horrible misunderstandings.”

 

He squeezes Kurt’s fingers again, “You are a good person Kurt. You are smart, you are kind, you are a good footman. Don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise.”

 

Kurt stares at the wall, where a dark, wet spot indicates that the roof needs some mending. He knows that he should ask Nick what he means by ‘misunderstanding’, but he feels so tired, and what is the point of knowing when he is just leaving anyway? “What should I do now?”

 

Nick is silent for a moment, before he says, “You should think very carefully about what you want to do. Sebastian is not going to throw you out, I promise you. What happened is his own damned fault, and he won’t make you pay for it. But I also understand if you want to leave.”

 

He sighs, and lets his head fall back against the cold glass of the window, “I would suggest that you at least stay here for the summer. We will be gone in two days, and then you have plenty of time to figure out what you want to do. If you decide to leave, you will get a good recommendation from Mr Moore, and I can also look for a new post for you while I’m in London. If you decide to stay,” he looks at Kurt with an almost pleading expression in his eyes, “I will make sure Sebastian will not treat you like he did before.”

 

Kurt knows that Nick probably has the influence to force Lord Smythe to behave decently, but he shakes his head, “He doesn’t have to like me, Nick. All I want is some fairness and respect. And if he can’t bring himself to treat me fairly...”

 

He doesn’t finish the sentence, and he doesn’t have to. For a while, nobody says anything, and the two sit together in a silence that is not comfortable, but at least comforting.

 

“I just want you to know that if you leave, you will break Jeff’s heart. And Jane’s,” Nick finally says, his voice not as steady as usual. “I understand why you consider it, but I just want you to know that you mean a lot to us.”

 

Kurt smiles, and it feels like the first genuine smile in days. He lets his hand come to rest upon Nick’s, and squeezes his fingers, “Thank you.” And this time, he really means it.

 

 


 

When Kurt thinks back to the two days between his confrontation with Lord Smythe and the departure, he is not quite sure how he survived them. What he remembers is feeling numb when he sees Jeff throwing his clothes messily into a suitcase, while Kurt takes item after item out of his bag and puts the meticulously folded shirts and trousers back into the drawers. He remembers how Lord Smythe avoids his gaze during dinner, he remembers Mrs Bertram trying to comfort him by cooking all of his favourite meals, but his first clear memory is the morning of the departure, where he stands in the courtyard in the cold air, saying goodbye to Jane, Jeff and Nick.

 

“We will miss you so much,” Jane says, her eyes wet when she embraces Kurt tightly.

 

“We will send you tons of stuff,” Jeff promises, and almost lifts Kurt from the ground when he pulls him into a bone-crashing hug. “Letters every day, and magazines, and pictures, books – you’re not going to know where to put all that stuff.”

 

Kurt can only nod, afraid that when he tries to speak the numbness will fade and he will start to cry. Finally, he is standing in front of Nick. The other footman smiles and reaches out to ruffle Kurt’s hair, before he steps closer to hug him.

 

“Whatever you decide,” he whispers, only loud enough for Kurt to catch the words. “Remember that you are a part of our family now, and that we all are looking forward to coming back to you.” Kurt buries his face in the fabric of Nick’s jacket, taking deep breaths to keep himself from crying.  Eventually, he has to let go, and when the three start to climb the carriage, he waves at them before he takes his place in line next to Mrs Seymour. Lord Smythe is smiling at Mrs Bertram, telling her that he will miss her cooking, but his laugh seems forced, and when he says goodbye to Mrs Seymour, he seems even more discomforted than before. Finally, his eyes flicker to Kurt.

 

They haven’t even so much as looked at one another since the fight, and Kurt is surprised to see something different in Lord Smythe’s expression than he had anticipated. He expected to be met with anger, with annoyance or resentment. Instead, Lord Smythe looks conflicted, his expression equally guilty and compunctious. And suddenly, Kurt is certain that in some way, Lord Smythe actually feels sorry. Though about what exactly, Kurt isn’t quite sure.

 

Lord Smythe opens his mouth as if to say something, but whatever he is reading on Kurt’s face makes him hesitate, and finally, he closes his mouth again, lifts his chin and walks past Kurt without so much as a goodbye.

 

Kurt stares after him as he climbs into the carriage after Sir Robert, and as he watches the carriages pull out of the courtyard, one after the other, he asks himself what this meant. And even more importantly, he wonders what it means for him and the decision he has to make.

 

But after all, he has all summer to figure it out.

 

Chapter Text

Interlude

April 1850 – September 1850

 


Sometimes, things acquire their meaning by comparison. Sixteen, well, almost seventeen years of a lifetime do not seem much compared to the life of some old and wise men or women, and especially insignificant compared to people who achieved a great deal: politicians like Sir John Locke, poets like Wordsworth, leaders like Queen Elizabeth, idealists like Prince Albert, artists like Turner, or writers like Shakespeare.

Nevertheless, when he looks back, Kurt always feels that he has already experienced quite a lot in his life. When he thinks about these almost-seventeen years, he has to admit that some periods in his life can only be described as having been downright horrible. Losing first his mother and then his father are undoubtedly the worst events to have occurred, and that is perhaps the most awful thing about it: that Kurt can’t remember his parents without being reminded of the loss, the pain and the long periods of mourning following their death.

While naturally paling in comparison to those months, the days after the departure of the majority of the Bailey Hall household nevertheless feel rather horrible as well, and if Kurt had to catalogue special periods in his life, he would add this one to the “awful”-list.

Among the people remaining at Bailey Hall, the reason for Kurt’s sour mood is generally thought to be the disappointment of not accompanying the rest of the household to London, and Kurt is glad for that. It’s a reasonable explanation, and this way, he doesn’t have to explain to anyone that his downcast mood isn’t just to blame on being left behind, but also on being once again taught about Lord Smythe’s fickle and cruel nature, a lesson he should have learned by now.

In addition to that, the fight between them still leaves a twisted feeling in Kurt’s stomach. On the one hand, he is still expecting a letter from Lord Smythe to arrive at Bailey Hall every minute, telling Mrs Seymour an edited version of what happened and that Kurt is to leave immediately, without a recommendation or his last wages. On the other hand, Kurt is still contemplating leaving himself. The last months feel like climbing a jagged mountain, with no safe path and dangerous gorges and crevices appearing every other minute, always in danger, and in constant fear of falling. Kurt is unsure whether he wants to feel like this for another year or even longer, but as tempting as the thought of leaving seems during these days, the reasonable part of his mind lists even more reasons for staying.

It’s true that Lord Smythe is an insufferable ass, but he’s not even home that much. Kurt’s position seems secure (because if his employer isn’t throwing him out after this fight, Kurt doesn’t know what he will have to do to get his leave), the wages are good, the tasks are bearable, and the rest of the household has well accepted him as a part of the family. Plus, he would have to leave Nick, Jane and Jeff, and this thought hurts more than Kurt would have anticipated.

Not being able to make up his mind one way or the other, Kurt spends the days after the party to London has departed deep in thought, musing over what happened and what kind of decision he is supposed to make now. He also suspects that Mrs Seymour and Mrs Bertram have talked about his low spirits, and came to the conclusion that the best way to distract him from brooding is to keep him busy.

While the daily routine is always more relaxed with the master absent from the estate, Mrs Seymour wastes no time to start tackling the tasks that have to be neglected while the lords are present.

The first thing she orders Kurt to do is to sort through every piece of silverware in the house, and clean it thoroughly. Kurt spends his days in the kitchen, polishing plate after bowl after spoon, and when he finally puts the last fork back into a drawer, he is certain he will never be able to look at a single piece of silverware without hatred boiling in his stomach.

But just when he has finally managed to get the polish out from underneath his fingernails, Mrs Seymour summons him for the next task. Together, they sort through old napkins, polish the wood of doorframes and surfaces of furniture before they hide it again under clean linen, and, together with Maud and Beth, clean every window in the house. Kurt tries to count them out of curiosity, but after pressing a wet cloth to number thirty-seven, he gives up.

When his time is not occupied with assisting Mrs Seymour, he spends it reading, and, surprisingly often, writing, because these days he receives quite an unusual amount of letters. Instead of the two or three he gets every month from his old friends at Chawton Manor, who complain about the way the new lord runs the estate, he now receives letters every third or second day, from Jane, Jeff and Nick, and sometimes even from Frank, who is also in London. Secretly, he wonders whether they have set up some sort of schedule of who is to write to him, because their letters never arrive on the same day. But no matter whose name is scribbled down at the bottom of the sheet, whenever the postman Stephen hands him a stack of letters, points at the one on top and winks, Kurt’s day improves immensely.

Jane’s handwriting is always small and neat, and she writes Kurt lengthy accounts on the latest fashion worn in London, shares juicy gossip about who is involved in the latest scandal, and assures that they all miss him very much. Jeff’s letters are rare compared to Jane’s and Nick’s, and considerably shorter, but since Kurt knows how lazy Jeff is when it comes to writing letters, he’s happy and content whenever he spots the messy scrawl of his roommate.

Nick’s letters are written carefully and precisely, never giving information or details he finds unnecessary. He tells Kurt about the political debates he attends sometimes, about the routine that settles at the house in London, about books he’s read and plays he has seen. Kurt notices very soon how Nick carefully avoids to make London sound too interesting, and Kurt feels grateful for Nick’s attempt to make Kurt feel less miserable about being stuck in the country. He comments in great length on everything Kurt writes to him about life at Bailey Hall, even though Kurt finds his own stories rather boring in comparison, and if he mentions Lord Smythe at all, it is always in a way that makes the name seem dismissive and unimportant. He never tells Kurt how his employer is or what exactly he is up to in London. If his name appears at all, it’s always merely setting the context for a different tale, the rhythm to the life of the servants: “Last night, when Lord S. wanted to visit the theatre, we saw...” or, “Yesterday, while Lord S. was out dining with the Crawshaws, we decided to...”, or something similar.

At first, Kurt feels relieved not to be confronted with Lord Smythe’s name too often, but when Nick’s writing style doesn’t change after a few weeks, he feels his irritation growing every time he is supposed to simply read over the familiar name. Since neither Jane nor Jeff mention Lord Smythe either (Jane presumably out of reasons similar to Nick, Jeff because he simply has no interest in what his employer is doing whatsoever), Kurt starts to feel like he is looking at a map with a lot of blank spaces between familiar oceans and countries. And if there is something he doesn’t like, it’s not knowing what is going on.

Those weeks in April also confirm the suspicions Mrs Bertram already voiced back in February – Kurt has indeed been growing. Every second week, the cook measures him against the doorframe, and the chalk marks continue to move higher and higher. And the higher they move, the bigger the small bubble of confidence in Kurt’s chest grows.

But as much as Kurt welcomes the thought of growing (a hope he had almost parted with), it isn’t altogether an experience that’s merely pleasant. His legs hurt sometimes, his knees throb with an unfamiliar pain, his spine feels strained, and some times, Kurt feels almost separated from this alien thing that is his body, which keeps doing things that are beyond Kurt’s control. The pain keeps him awake some nights, and since movement strangely enough seems to help, Kurt spends much time pacing in his room, a book in his hands, eyelids almost dropping from exhaustion.

However, Kurt is thankful for the changes and new routine at Bailey Hall, because they make it easier to deal with the recent events. Of course, even though his employer is not physically present, Kurt can’t spend a day without being reminded of Lord Smythe: every trip to the library, every walk past his bedroom door brings back memories, and every letter from Nick reminds him that there is still an unresolved issue in his life. Nevertheless, Kurt is reluctant about making a decision. And as the days pass, he thinks less and less about the fight, or leaving, because the summer at Bailey Hall turns out to be much more eventful than he anticipated.

 


The first fresh breeze of summer arrives one late afternoon in the first week of May, when a loud knock on the door interrupts the discussion between Kurt and Mrs Bertram on whether Howard, the stable boy, is nursing a crush on the kitchen maid Maud.

“Answer the door, will you, Kurt?” Mrs Bertram asks, her hands deep in a pastry and her face flushed from the exercise. “It’s probably Stephen with the mail.”

“Of course,” Kurt replies, taking the last piece of toast from his plate. Still chewing, he makes his way down the narrow corridor and opens the door, a cheerful greeting for Stephen already on his lips. The words die on his tongue, however, when he is not greeted by the smile of the other man. In front of him stands a tall woman, looking distanced, though not unfriendly at the boy in front of her. “Good morning,” she says, tilting her head to the side ever so slightly. She is clad in a black dress beneath a gray coat, and a suitcase sits next to her feet. Her clothes are plain, but with her upright posture and her carefully pinned up hair, she effortlessly manages to appear elegant in a way that Kurt immediately feels envious of, “I would like to see Mrs Seymour. She is expecting me.”

Her voice seems used to sound authoritative. Perhaps it is due to dealing with Lord Smythe, but Kurt has become rather sceptical of authority over these last months. So he asks, perhaps a bit too cheeky, “Who might I tell Mrs Seymour is here to see her?”

The woman smiles, and the corners of her eyes crinkle in amusement, “Miss Julia Seymour. I’m her daughter.”

This is how Miss Julia comes into Kurt’s life. Kurt learns at the kitchen table, while Miss Julia sips her tea, that she is Mrs Seymour’s only child. Years ago, when Mr Seymour passed away well before his time, the two women had to support themselves: Mrs Seymour returned to the household of the former Lord Smythe, and her daughter started working as a governess. Barely nineteen back then, she looked after the children of an aristocratic family, who dismissed the young girl after merely a year of service, claiming that she was unable to restrict the children.

Miss Julia had been with various families since then, until four years ago when she started her position with the Johnson family. The children – two girls – had fallen in love with her immediately, and the family had decided to take Miss Julia with them when they left England. Due to Mr Johnson’s position as an ambassador, the family travelled to Italy, Austria and France. Kurt barely manages to conceal his excitement when he hears that Miss Julia has lived in Paris for two years, and keeps planning what questions he will ask her while Mrs Seymour finishes the story. The oldest Johnson daughter married a young Earl only a month ago, and her younger sister is soon to be engaged to an Italian gentleman. With her services no longer needed, the family parted with Miss Julia, though reluctantly, promising her that as soon as the first grandchildren were old enough, they would send for her again.

“So, what are your plans now?” Mrs Bertram asks, when Miss Julia sets down her empty cup.

“My mother made some inquiries,” she says, smiling at Mrs Seymour. “Mrs White, the schoolteacher at Wilton, has married recently, and I’m taking over her position for a few weeks, until they have found a new teacher and I have found a new position as governess.”

“So you don’t want to be a teacher permanently?” Kurt asks. Miss Julia shakes her head, “The work is of course similar, but the payment as governess is better, and I much rather look after a few children properly than only superficially after many of them.”

“And you are confident that you will find a new position within these few weeks?” Mrs Bertram inquires.

“Well, Mrs Johnson promised to ask among her acquaintances,” Miss Julia answers. “And she knows a lot of people. And if she doesn’t find anything, I can always advertise.”

“You will most certainly not advertise,” Mrs Seymour interrupts, with great emphasis on her words. “No fine lady would ever take on a governess who degraded herself by advertising. No, I’m sure Mrs Johnson will find something for you, and I have also written to the housekeepers I know. We’ll have you settled with a new family in no time.”

Miss Julia smiles, but Kurt thinks that underneath her calm confidence and collected appearance, Miss Julia is not as relaxed as she wants to appear. Being a governess is always hard, because so many educated women are seeking employment at the moment to support themselves. For a moment, Kurt is grateful for the work he has. Because even though it is far from being perfect, at least it makes him feel safe.

But no matter what kind of insecurities she might be hiding, Mrs Seymour’s daughter makes sure to never publically acknowledge any weaknesses. She settles into the schoolhouse, and ignores the talk of the villagers, who, in the true spirit of small-town people, are always suspicious of new-comers. Adapting a strict authority in the classroom and a friendly, sociable attitude towards the people she meets on the street, she manages to get accepted into the community within two weeks, and Kurt even overhears some woman on the street exclaiming, “What a relief that our children are taught by such an accomplished and polite young woman.”

Every Wednesday and Saturday, Miss Julia pays a visit to Bailey Hall, to drink a cup of tea in the kitchen and have a conversation with her mother. Mrs Bertram, Kurt and the kitchen maids join them most times, all of them keen to listen to the stories Miss Julia has to tell about balls in Paris, shops in Vienna and sightseeing in Rome.

After four weeks, when Mrs Seymour’s daughter has become a much welcomes guest in the kitchen, Kurt finally gathers up enough courage to ask, “Miss Julia?”

“Yes Kurt?” the woman replies, setting down her cup and looking at him expectantly.

“Would you help me exercise my French?” he asks, the words tumbling out of his mouth, “My mother taught me the language, but I haven’t properly spoken it in years, and I thought, since you lived in Paris, maybe you would...”

He trails off, feeling very awkward and rather silly. Slowly he raises his gaze, and is surprised to see Miss Julia smile warmly at him. “I’d love to,” she replies.

So a new routine is added to Kurt’s life – twice a week, he visits Miss Julia in the schoolroom after the children have gone home, drinking a cup of tea and chatting in French. At first, it feels weird to use a language he has almost forgotten, but soon, the rhythm of the beautiful words feels familiar on his tongue again.

He notices the small piano in the corner of the schoolroom the first time he visits, but it is only after a few of their meetings that Miss Julia finally asks whether he likes to play. Not five minutes later Kurt’s fingers touch the keys of the piano.

From this evening onwards, their French lessons are combined with music lessons. Miss Julia successfully merges the two by teaching Kurt to play the latest, most fashionable chansons, and Kurt starts to regard their evenings together as the highlights of his week.

He even almost manages to convince himself that his newly discovered urge to practice both his French and his piano skills has nothing to do with the verdict Lord Smythe ascribed to his playing some weeks ago.

And he almost convinces himself that the phrase “you do play ‘a little’” that sometimes crosses his mind when his fingers turn the pages of the music sheets, is in no way connected to that puzzling encounter with his much detested employer.

Almost.


 

With more than half of the household gone, Kurt is also obliged to take over tasks that previously were the chief responsibilities of other people. Being one of the few male servants left, he is the one Mrs Bertram asks to visit the village, to place her orders of supplies and buy everything she needs for the kitchen.

With the weather improving daily, Kurt enjoys these walks. He visits the post office to mail his letters to London, and sometimes stops at the small school to greet Miss Julia and the children, who are usually too focused on scribbling wobbly letters on chalk plates to notice his presence. And of course, he visits the shop of Mr Brown, who supplies the whole village (and naturally, Bailey Hall) with food. He especially enjoys his talks with Mr Brown, who runs the shop alone since his wife died a few years ago. The funny little man with the grey beard and the blue eyes is always happy to have some company, and whenever Kurt enters the shop, he is greeted with an anecdote or an amusing tale about the pastor, the butcher, the baker’s daughter or another of the villagers. Kurt learns quite a lot about the residents of Wilton in the half hour he spends with Mr Brown, and sometimes a little bit more than he would have cared to know.

Change occurs on a sunny day in the middle of May, when Kurt once more walks down to the village, feeling tired because the pain in his knees has been keeping him awake during the night. When he enters the shop, a comment about how the shop windows really needs a good cleaning already on his lips, he stops dead in his tracks, right in the middle of the room. Instead of the deep, low voice of Mr Brown cracking a joke about Kurt’s appearance, he is greeted by an unfamiliar, warm smile, and a pair of brown eyes twinkling at him.

The boy behind the counter cheerfully asks Kurt how he can help him, and Kurt somehow finds his voice again, quickly enough to not appear too awkward. Trying to ignore the strange feeling in his chest, he hands him the shopping list Mrs Bertram gave to him. While he is contemplating how to ask who that boy is without being impolite – after all, Wilton is not that large a village, and Kurt is sure that he knows all boys and girls who are the same age he is – Mr Brown limps into the room, leaning heavily on a wooden stick.

“Ah, Kurt,” he says, grabbing the doorframe to support himself. “I see you have met my nephew.”

As Kurt helps him over to a chair in the corner of the room, Mr Brown relates the recent events. A few days ago, he slipped and tumbled down a flight of stairs, twisting his leg quite badly. The doctor assured him that nothing is broken, but that he needs to rest for at least a few weeks. Unable to run the shop like this, Mr Brown had written to his brother, and his brother sent his oldest son to Wilton to help Mr Brown.

“He’s going to change schools in autumn anyway,” Mr Brown says, smiling at his nephew who is sorting through the cupboards, trying to find the honey and cinnamon Kurt has asked for. “And he’s a smart lad, so missing lessons for a few weeks won’t hurt him.”

Kurt listens to Mr Brown only half-heartedly when he tells him about his brother’s family, and how well the younger children are doing. While he nods and smiles, from the corner of his eye he observes the other boy moving around the shop, trying to familiarise himself with the system of storage. There is an energy about this boy that feels captivating. He has dark, messy curls, brown eyes, and a friendly, shy smile that appears on his lips whenever he catches Kurt’s gaze.

Kurt continues to watch him as he wraps the groceries in brown paper, taking far longer for the unfamiliar task than Mr Brown would have. The paper rustles under his fingers, and the edges of the packages turn out a little crumpled. He looks up from underneath long dark eyelashes to shoot an apologetic smile at Kurt, and Kurt’s stomach twists again.

He doesn’t mind staying with his uncle, he tells Kurt while he counts the change. He’s looking forward to start school again, but a little change is always good, and he hasn’t spent much time at Wilton since he was a little boy. His fingers brush against Kurt’s when he hands him the change, and Kurt’s fingers continue to tingle all the way back to Bailey Hall.

During dinner, Mrs Bertram asks, “How are your legs, Kurt?”

“Better,” he replies, meeting her sympathetic glance, and struck by an idea, he adds, “The walk to the village helped a great deal, though.”

From this moment onwards, Mrs Bertram insists that all errands in the village need to be done by Kurt, since a walk every now and then will certainly do him good. And even though the exercise does not much to help with the occasional pain, Kurt is mostly glad to have a plausible explanation to visit the shop every second day.


 

 

It’s the first time Kurt has ever been in love, and it feels at the same time wonderful and truly frightening.

 

The thought of being in love with another boy doesn’t come quite as shocking to him as Kurt would have anticipated it to, had he ever considered the possibility before. It feels like more of a quiet epiphany, like finally noticing something that was always there, somewhere in the back of his mind. The presence of Mr Brown’s nephew, and the tingling feeling in Kurt’s stomach whenever he enters the shop only make it seem real for the first time.

 

Of course, falling in love like this brings a whole new bunch of questions Kurt doesn’t feel prepared for. Has he been in love with men before? Certainly not the way he feels about the shop boy, but now that he needs to revaluate some incidents in his life, he remembers times when he appreciated the beauty, the appearance or the personality of other men in a way that, in hindsight, might truly have been a little bit more… dreamy than it is generally thought to be acceptable.

 

If he has been attracted to men, has he ever been in love with, or attracted to, a woman? Kurt can’t remember ever being drawn to a woman the way he is now drawn towards Mr Brown’s nephew, but then again – sexuality and attraction have never been an important issue in his life before. And the biggest problem of this musing is that all of his former attractions – if they were attractions in the first place – become insignificant compared to what he feels now for the other boy.

 

However, the worst thing (and also one of the very few bad things) about being in love with another boy is that Kurt can’t talk to anyone about his feelings. He certainly can’t mention them to Mrs Bertram and Mrs Seymour, and he just as well can’t write about it to Jeff or Nick. Not because he doesn’t trust them, but because he knows better than to admit something like his affection for another boy on paper, where everyone could read it.

 

Involuntarily, this new development also makes Kurt remember Lord Smythe, somebody that he previously avoided to think about if he could. Granted, his mind is mostly occupied by thinking about a pair of brown eyes twinkling in the sunlight, but a certain face, with one eyebrow raised sceptically and a lopsided grin, appears more often than it used to, and no longer in way that is purely upsetting. Accepting what is happening to him is making Kurt feel oddly connected to Lord Smythe – something he isn’t very comfortable with, but at the same time can’t change. Sometimes, he even feels a wave of sympathy, because now he is experiencing what it feels like to have to hide an essential part of yourself. And while he has only been doing that for a few days, he doesn’t even want to imagine what it feels like to keep silent about his desires for years, let alone a lifetime. But then he remembers that Lord Smythe has never been truly alone, that he always had someone to talk to, because he has never been without Nick. At least that’s what Kurt assumes, and the sudden wave of sympathy towards his employer decreases again.

 

Kurt doesn’t like to think of himself as vain, but it doesn’t hurt that the other boy is also really good-looking. He’s muscular, a bit shorter than Kurt, and tries to tame his curly hair by wearing it close-cropped. Kurt likes to think that he would look quite dapper in formal evening attire, but the loose fitting shirts he wears have the advantage of revealing a bit of collarbone, which Kurt doesn’t mind in the least. When working at the shop, Mr Brown’s nephew is constantly humming or singing while he sorts through boxes and cupboards. He tells Kurt that he likes to read, and even though he doesn’t spend as much time leaning over the pages of a novel as Kurt does, he has read some of Kurt’s favourites, which provides much material for conversations.

 

One day, when he has just dropped in to greet Mr Brown and his nephew on his way to Miss Julia, he asks out of an impulse whether the other boy would like to accompany him. Miss Julia doesn’t mind his company, she merely pours two cups of tea instead of one and claims to be “delighted to meet one of Kurt’s friends.” When said friend points out that they already met when she came to his uncle’s shop, she merely smiles and replies, “There is a great difference between meeting an assistant in a shop and meeting a friend’s friend.” Kurt tries not to smile too openly at that.

 

The other boy doesn’t understand a single word of French, but he insists that he likes to listen to their conversation. They keep it short though, and when Kurt sits down at the piano, the other boy sits down next to him on the small piano bench, his knee pressing against Kurt’s thigh. They play a few songs together, and Kurt notices that their voices complement each other. And if their fingers brush against each other more and more often when pressing the keys on the piano, this can hardly be considered Kurt’s fault.

 

After all, he is the more advanced player.

 

 


 

Kurt wakes up on the 27th of June because the sunshine is creeping through the curtains and tickles the tip of his nose. When he sits up, he is greeted by the sight of a number of packages in brown paper sitting on the end of his bed, and he realises that he has turned seventeen without so much as noticing it.

 

He scoots out from underneath the blanket and grabs the first package. He has never received presents like this since his parents died; back at Chawton, he usually got a volume of morally supportive sermons, and sometimes a special cake from the cook.

 

For the first time, he has friends who sent him packages from London (he suspects that they sent them to Mrs Seymour or Mrs Bertram, who must have placed them on his mattress this morning), and when he rips the paper open, he realises that as much as he misses them, it definitely has its advantages to have friends in a big city, surrounded by all kinds of amazing shops. The first package is from Jane, and contains a birthday card with some beautiful flowers painted on the front, and a carefully embroidered bookmark, “to mark the pages of all the novels we will bring back from London for you”, as a small note attached to it reads. The feeling of gratitude increases when he opens Jeff’s package and sees a pair of gloves made out of black leather. Kurt runs his fingers over the smooth material, feeling touched that Jeff, who doesn’t care for clothing in the least, would remember him mentioning that he would like to own a decent pair of gloves.

 

Last is Nick’s present. Kurt presses the package for a few seconds, trying to guess what is in there. It turns out to be a scarf, one of the fashionable ones he saw in one of the magazines Jane sent to him. “It’s weird to give you something like this in the middle of June,” Nick’s note reads, “But it was cheap, and I guess that by the time we return to Bailey, you will need something like this.”

 

Puzzled, Kurt looks down at his blanket, where one more package is still waiting to be opened. He turns it in his hands, searching for a name or an address that could indicate who this is from. When he can’t find anything, he loosens the cord and unwraps the present. What falls out of the brown paper and into his lap leaves him breathless for a second. Beneath the plain paper is a leather bound copy of William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. There are tiny golden leaves imprinted on the cover, and Kurt feels the texture of the surface before he dares to take it out of the wrapping paper. There is no note, no card, no letter, not even a signature on the front page to reveal who could have possibly sent it to Kurt. All he knows is that it couldn’t have been Jeff, Jane or Nick. Neither of them has enough money to buy such a valuable book, and neither would have posted it without a return address and risked that it could get lost. And of course, why should they send this to him anonymously, when they had included notes in all other packages?

 

So the question remains: Who sent this to him?

 

Tossing the empty wrapping paper to the side, Kurt tries to think logically about this question, and concludes that there are two determining aspects: Who does he know to have enough  money to buy it, and also a reason to send it to him?

 

There are only two possible answers to that question, Kurt decides: Sir Robert and Lord Smythe.  He muses about both possibilities while his fingers caress the spine of the book. Sir Robert likes him, surely, and perhaps he would do something like this on a whim. But then again, Kurt doubts that Sir Robert even knows what kind of literature he likes, let alone when his birthday is. He is also fairly certain that Sir Robert wouldn’t spend that much money on a servant, no matter how charming a person Kurt certainly is.

 

The other option, however, seems much more unlikely. Sure, Lord Smythe knows about Kurt’s love for Wordsworth, and he could always ask Nick about his birthday. Or maybe Nick mentioned something about it in one of their private conversations they seem to have so often. But given the terms on which they parted, Kurt is completely certain that Lord Smythe would never send him a present. Before he refused to take Kurt to London, before the fight, maybe, just maybe, Kurt could have imagined him being the unknown benefactor. But every word he said that night is still fresh in Kurt’s mind, and he is certain that Lord Smythe isn’t one to forgive or forget easily.

 

No, it must have been Sir Robert who sent it, Kurt decides. There simply is no other possible explanation.

 

And still, the mysterious present leaves a weird, uncomfortable feeling in Kurt’s stomach, and he is unable to turn the pages of the book without feeling a strange sense of discomfort. He really doesn’t like mysteries.

 

 


 

One evening, Mrs Seymour remarks that she hasn’t seen Kurt smiling as much in all his time at Bailey Hall as he did during these past weeks. Kurt looks up from his soup warily, but the expression on her face is merely genuine and unsuspecting. After a moment of hesitation, he replies, “Well, it’s summer, Mrs Seymour.”

 

“It’s summer, the master is away and the boy has some time to himself,” Mrs Bertram says, passing the bread over to Beth. “No wonder he’s happier than when his Lordship was picking on him.”

 

“Mrs Bertram,” Mrs Seymour chides, the smile on her face disappearing within a split second.

 

“Oh please Mrs Seymour,” the cook says. “You know I mean no disrespect to his Lordship, but we all saw how he unfairly treated Kurt. As far as I know the boy never so much as stepped on his toes, so I won’t blame him for being happier when the master is gone.”

 

Kurt feels all eyes on him, and he shifts uncomfortably on his chair. This is the first time the matter has been openly addressed among the other servants, and he doesn’t like being at the centre of everyone’s attention. Yes, it feels good to know that Mrs Bertram is on his side, but his relationship with Lord Smythe is far too complicated and touches far too many secrets to be discussed in the kitchen.

 

“Do you have something to add to that, Kurt?” Mrs Seymour asks, her tone no longer the one of a kind woman, but that of a strict housekeeper. Kurt meets her eyes for a moment, before he looks down at his soup again and asks, “Can I have some more bread?”

 

And with that, the tension in the room slowly fades away. Mrs Seymour looks at him for another minute before she turns to her meal again. People relax, Beth hands him the bread, and Howard and Jonathan start to talk about one of the horses that has some kind of eczema – which is a rather lovely topic to discuss during dinner.

 

“You know, I can think of another reason why Kurt has been so happy lately,” Maud says, and Kurt glares at the kitchen maid who is too oblivious to know when it’s time to let go of a topic. “I know I would be happy if I had such a good looking fellow to spend time with.”

 

Beth chuckles and says, “You should bring him along more often Kurt. It isn’t fair that you are keeping him all to yourself.”

 

She looks at Maud and both girls start to giggle. Kurt’s glare intensifies. It’s true that the other boy has accompanied him home from time to time, especially when Kurt had problems carrying the packages on his own. Mrs Bertram, sceptical at first, has grown rather fond of the boy in no time, and Beth and Maud are both nursing crushes on the dark-haired boy. Kurt has never seen him being more than superficially friendly towards either of the girls, but their comments and giggles nevertheless bother him. Especially since a small part of him wants to join, wants to comment and gush and giggle too. But he can’t, and he never will.

 

“Well, if you two have time enough to wonder about what Kurt’s friends are doing, then this has to mean that you don’t have more useful things to do,” Mrs Bertram says, her tone cold, and Mrs Seymour nods in agreement, her stern gaze fixed on the two kitchen maids. “Starting tomorrow, you are going to scrub the oven and the pots, thoroughly, and if I find so much as a single speck of dirt you will do it all over again.”

 

The smiles of the two girls falter, and hurriedly they continue to eat their soup in silence. Kurt feels almost sorry for them – after all, they’re growing up, and it’s not like he is unaware of the other boy’s good looks. Quite the contrary – he is very aware of them. He just likes to have them to himself.

 

Nevertheless, during the following days Kurt asks himself what the two them might look like to others when they’re spending time together. Miss Julia never says anything, just smiles at the two boys at the piano, but Kurt can’t help but feel a little more wary, a little more hesitant to show physical affection when they’re in public – and they’re always in public.

 

He believes to notice a sad flicker in the other boy’s eyes when he drops the arm around his shoulders once somebody is entering the shop, or puts a little more distance between them when they are walking down the street together. But then, it might also just be wishful thinking on Kurt’s part, for it is far more likely that the other boy doesn’t notice the change at all.

 

One of these days, it happens that he accompanies Kurt home. It happens that he stays for a glass of lemonade and chats with Mrs Bertram. It happens that Kurt accompanies him a part of the way back, as far as to the Palladium Bridge in front of the estate. It happens that they stay at the bridge for hours until the sun begins to set over the trees, sitting on the warm stone, watching the water of the river run merrily over glistening rocks, talking and laughing. It happens that their hands touch, hesitantly and under the pretence of being “accidental” at first, but more and more confident and reassured when they realise that the other seeks out the contact just as much, until neither of them wants to let go again. It happens that Kurt discovers that the other boy’s eyes have golden flecks in their brown depths, and that the sun-kissed skin is smooth under Kurt’s fingertips.

 

When they kiss, Kurt believes that he can taste the warm summer sunshine on the other boy’s lips.

 

 


 

Sometimes, Kurt thinks this summer is some sort of beautiful dream, a dream he is going to have to wake up from. Some mornings, before he opens his eyes, he believes that he can hear Jeff breathing on the other bed, and that every minute Nick is going to knock on the door, telling them to get up because Sir Robert or another one of Lord Smythe’s friends needs him. But when he opens his eyes, he finds Jeff’s bed empty in the warm morning sunshine, and he knows that in a few hours, he might be walking down to the village again.

 

He is almost glad that Mrs Seymour does her best to keep him busy, because without his work, he has way too much time to think, and way too much time to doubt what is happening. And he much rather just wants to enjoy these days.

 

One sunny afternoon, Mrs Seymour finds Kurt in the kitchen, drinking a glass of water and trying to ignore Maud’s and Beth’s giggling behind him.

 

“Kurt, would you come with me?” she asks. “I need to go up to the attic.”

 

“The attic?” Kurt asks. Neither he nor Jeff have ever been up there, because the door to the attic is locked, and no servant is allowed to go up there without the explicit permission of either Mrs Seymour or Mr Moore. Of course, the prohibition only makes Kurt’s imagination run wild, and whenever he imagines what the attic looks like, he invents boxes filled with secret letters betraying some sort of secret affairs, or a chest with long lost family jewels, or perhaps some other sort of secret that nobody dares to speak of. After all, he has learned that Bailey Hall holds a lot of secrets.

 

“I sorted through the napkins, and we simply cannot keep on using the embroidered ones anymore,” Mrs Seymour says, tying an apron around her waist. “But there must be another set of napkins up there, left from Lady Smythe’s dowry.” She looks at Kurt expectantly, “I need you to help me find the right box.”

 

Kurt nods in agreement, and together they climb the many stairs up to the highest floor. When Mrs Seymour turns the key in the lock, he feels a small rush of excitement, of expectation, and he can’t help but feel disappointed when the door opens to reveal a large room that is dusty, but apart from that, looks very much like the rooms downstairs do at the moment.

 

It’s crammed with furniture: wardrobes and dressing tables line up on the walls, chairs and tables are piled up on top of one another, large boxes and chests stand next to each other on the ground, and large portraits in elaborate frames lean against the furniture. And of course, everything is hidden under dusty linen.

 

“I haven’t been up here for ages,” Mrs Seymour says, closing the door and frowning at the piles of furniture. “I really can’t remember where we put it exactly, but it has to be in one of the chests over there.”

 

She points at the far end of the room before she starts to make her way over, stepping over piece after piece, the seam of her dress gathering dust as she moves. Careful not to upset too much dust, they start to pull linen away from chest after chest, opening and closing them again. There are no hidden treasure, no jewellery, no letters – all Kurt finds are old accounting books, clothes and used silverware (which he puts away as quickly as possible with a shudder, for the memory of days spent polishing silver are still fresh in his mind).

 

Kurt is just stepping over another box when he loses his balance, and grabs a wardrobe nearby to steady himself. Unfortunately, he can’t help but knock against two paintings, and the cloth, only loosely draped over them, slides down to reveal the face of a woman.

 

“Be careful, Kurt,” Mrs Seymour chides, but when she turns around and her gaze falls on the painting, the expression in her eyes softens. “I had almost forgotten about this,” she says, stepping closer.

 

“Who is…” Kurt begins, but when he looks at the painting more closely, he realises that there is no need to voice the question. The resemblance to her son almost immediately gives away Lady Smythe’s identity. Her face is long, with delicate features and high cheekbones. She wears her hazelnut hair pinned up elegantly, though the style is of course a little outdated. Her lips are thin, but the smile on her face is friendly, and the light colour of her dress enhances her green eyes. The only thing that Lady Smythe didn’t seem to posses is her son’s attitude: her face is gentle where his is guarded, her smile kind where his is cocky.

 

“She came into this house when she was merely seventeen years old,” Mrs Seymour says. “The former Lord Smythe worshipped her, and not without reason. She was a real beauty.”

 

“Was it a marriage out of love?” Kurt inquires. “Partly, I think,” Mrs Seymour replies, “Lord Smythe could have chosen richer girls, but Lady Constance’s dowry wasn’t small either. I doubt he would have married her if she didn’t bring a title, an estate and a large amount of money into the marriage. But yes, in his way, he loved her very much.”

 

“What was she like?” Kurt asks, looking at the pale face and the large eyes. Feeling amazed at how much Lord Smythe resembles his mother – from the colour of her hair to the curve of the nose – he raises his hand to touch the frame of the painting, as if to make sure that it is indeed real.

 

“She was a kind soul,” Mrs Seymour replies, moving a dusty vase out of her way. “Very delicate, very fragile. She never truly recovered from an illness she had as a child, and she never was in good health again. It’s a miracle she survived giving birth to two sons.”

 

She looks at the painting, “But I never heard her complain, not once. She wasn’t like these capricious young ladies nowadays.” She sighs, “Her husband, however...”

 

Kurt turns his head to look at her, eager to learn more. Mrs Seymour hesitates, before she concludes, “Well, I guess we should not speak ill of the dead.”

 

Kurt has no interest in criticising those who have passed away. But he has the feeling that knowing more about them might help him to understand the living.

 

“Was she very young when she died?” he asks.

 

“Well, she wasn’t twenty, if that’s what you mean,” Mrs Seymour says, “But Lord Sebastian was only thirteen when his mother passed away. I guess it was easier for his brother – Master Frederick was of age by then, and he was with his mother when she died. Master Sebastian was at school, and when they sent for him to come home, it was almost too late. He only managed to come back in time for the funeral.”

 

She sighs, “When she died, Lord Smythe was devastated. We had to clear out her rooms, her possessions, every painting of her. He couldn’t stand being reminded of her.”

 

She shakes her head and pulls another cloth away from one of the boxes, “Master Sebastian fought hard to keep the library as it was, for it was her favourite room. And to keep her piano in the music room. Eventually, his father let him have his way, but he never set a foot in either of the rooms as long as he lived.”

 

“Losing someone dear to you is always hard,” Kurt says, his voice soft. “Especially when you’re very young.”

 

“The boys were devastated, surely,” the housekeeper answers, “But they could bear it better than their father.” She hesitates, before adding, “The death of his wife left him a little… bitter, I would say. It didn’t help the relationship with his sons, and the brothers never got along anyways.”

 

“Lord Smythe didn’t like his brother?”, Kurt asks.

 

“I wouldn’t put it quite so drastically,” Mrs Seymour objects. “They were brothers after all, and you know what they say – blood is thicker than water. But they were like fire and ice, these two. They just didn’t have anything in common.”

 

She shakes her head, and says firmly, “Enough with the tragic stories, Kurt. Put the cloth back over the painting, will you?”

 

Kurt does as he is told, and when he turns around, he spots a satisfied smile on Mrs Seymour’s face. “Ah, here it is,” she says finally, opening a large chest to reveal folded stacks of creamy coloured linen. “Take these, will you?”

 

It takes Kurt eight times to climb up and down the stairs to bring all napkins down to the laundry. He barely notices though, because his mind is still occupied with what he has just learned about the Smythe family.

 

 


 

Mrs Bertram once remarks that this is an unusual summer. Granted, she is talking about the weather when she makes the remark only to point out that is has been an unusually warm summer, with little periods of rain and lots of sunshine. Nevertheless, Kurt wholeheartedly agrees with her assessment – for him, the summer feels extraordinary.

 

Something of that certainly has to do with the fact that he never had quite as much time to himself. Mrs Seymour does her best to keep the servants busy, but there is only so much silverware to polish and things to clean or to sort through, and as the weeks go by, Kurt has more and more time to himself. A large portion of that time is spent on letter writing – his three friends in London are consistent in sending him letters every second or third day, and Kurt replies with anecdotes from the kitchen, stories about the villagers or comments on the books he has been reading.

 

Kurt’s favourite letter so far has been an unusually lengthy account from Jeff, which he sent at the end of July. Kurt is intrigued to find that the letter contains a detailed description of Jeff’s and Nick’s visit to the London Zoo, to have a look at the latest new-comer: the hippopotamus Obaysch.

 

“I have never seen anything like it before,” Jeff writes. “It’s weird to think that it travelled all these miles from Egypt, just to be stared at by Englishmen, but it didn’t seem to mind it much. In fact, it didn’t acknowledge any of the visitors at all – and there were thousands of them, Kurt. Nick and I had to wait for two hours before we could even get a glimpse at Obaysch, and Jane keeps saying that she doesn’t see the point in waiting, so she’s not going. But it was fascinating to see him – and he seems like a nice fellow. He only yawned and moved his ears in all directions, but granted, it was a hot day, and I really didn’t feel like moving myself.”

 

Kurt makes sure to tease Jeff in his reply about his understanding of the hippopotamus’ nature, but truly he loves hearing all these stories from the great city. When at the beginning of the summer he still felt sad about not being there with the other three, he now feels content and in fact, relived that he stayed behind. Because if he had left, he would never have met the person that now seems to occupy his mind every second of the day.

 

Kurt has stopped visiting the shop too often, mainly because he doesn’t want people to grow suspicious. However, he has not stopped his visits to Miss Julia, and usually, there is another figure already sitting on the piano stool when he enters the living-room of the governess. The shop boy has even learned a bit of French while listening to the conversations between Kurt and Miss Julia, or so he claims. When they leave Miss Julia, the other boy insists on accompanying Kurt home every time. This usually ends with them staying at the bridge or beneath some of the old oak trees until it gets dark, and they both have to hurry home.

 

Some days, when Mrs Seymour can’t think of anything to keep him busy, or when he has visited Miss Julia just the day before, he slips out of the house with a book or Nick’s latest letter to read, and spends the day in the shade of the Palladium bridge, or beneath the trees in the park. Sometimes, when it’s late and Mr Brown’s shop has closed, and Kurt is still lying in the grass and listens to the wind in the leaves and the water of the river, he hears soft footsteps approaching, and when he feels somebody sitting down next to him, cupping his cheek and leaning down to press a kiss against his lips, he smiles blissfully.

 

The pains in his legs start to ease, though his body doesn’t stop changing. Sometimes, Kurt steals into the guest room that had belonged to Lady Isabella while she was staying at Bailey Hall, to look at himself in the big mirror on the dressing table. He notices that, little by little, his cheeks, previously still a bit chubby, slim down. His face is starting to look longer, his cheekbones more defined, his features more regular, and perhaps it is to blame on the exercise he gets from his many walks to the village, but the soft skin on his arms and legs is slowly replaced by muscles.

 

Kurt changes his hairstyle too, wearing it shorter to enhance his forehead and his eyes. Mrs Bertram is not to keen on the change and laments that he looked “much more adorable” with the old hair. But for the first time, Kurt is starting to feel like he doesn’t have to hide behind his bangs any longer, and he likes to celebrate his feeling.

 

And as is body changes, his confidence, little by little, improves. This is partly because of the change he can see for himself, but even more because of what he sees in the eyes of his lover when they are together. There is something about the way the other boy touches his body, watches the movement of his muscles and trails his eyes over Kurt’s face that makes him feel less and less self-conscious about his looks. “You are beautiful,” he hears time and time again, whispered into his ear or from lips pressed against his skin. And slowly, Kurt starts to believe it. 

 

It occurs to him one evening, when he is just slipping out of his shirt, that during these last weeks, he didn’t think about leaving for a single second.

 

 


 

Now that he is not only in love, but learning little by little that his feelings are being reciprocated, Kurt more than ever wishes he had someone to talk to. He starts to miss his parents again. He doubts that he could talk to either of them about what is happening to him, but he remembers his mother’s calm presence, never asking, never judging, only watching and understanding, and his father’s silent protest against the ignorance and gossip during the scandal of Mrs Wilbourne’s nephew’s arrest.

 

More than ever though, he wishes Nick was here. Nick would listen, just listen, and not judge. He would try to help him, give some advice in his calm, dry way. Kurt thinks it would be easier if he could just voice what is going on with him, and many times the tip of his quill hovers over the paper, yearning to scribble down what Kurt really wants to write, but time and time again he hesitates too long, before he settles to write about the weather or his lessons with Miss Julia.

 

He misses Jeff too – his cheerful nature his effortless optimism is something Kurt wouldn’t mind having around.

 

Sometimes, he catches himself wishing for Lord Smythe’s company. He has started to feel a strange sense of kinship, and involuntarily, he begins to question some of his former judgements. Now that he experiences what it feels like to be left alone with something you can’t change, don’t want to change, but also can’t talk about to anybody, he asks himself whether Lord Smythe doesn’t have the right to be a little bitter sometimes. But every time his thoughts arrive at that point, he shakes his head and mutters, “No”. Because even if he is allowed to be bitter, nothing gives him the right to treat people like he treated Kurt. And even if he feels more understanding towards his employer, forgiving or justifying his actions is not part of his sentiment just yet.

 

Nevertheless, the longing for advice, for guidance, for understanding never diminishes. Being in love is thrilling, is exciting, and leaves him breathless and giddily smiling most of the time. But it is at the same time terrifying, and it gets even more terrifying because for the first time, Kurt’s body expresses its physical desires.

 

Already feeling at war with his own body due to the growth spurt, desire, while naturally not unfamiliar to Kurt, has never taken form in this intensity. Every kiss, shared in the sanctuary under the safe pillars of the Palladium Bridge, leaves him longing for more. And dreams of his lips against tanned sun-kissed skin leave him waking up feeling sticky and weirdly guilty in the mornings.

 

Finally, Kurt searches for guidance in the only place that has never disappointed with helping him through hard times – the library. Spending time there is nothing unusual for him, and Kurt is glad for the fact that nobody will suspect him of searching for anything else than a good novel.

 

The first book he finds is also the only one Kurt has heard of before, and he chooses it chiefly because of its reputation: Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Kurt knows that the publication has been banned, but unsurprisingly, Lord Smythe doesn’t care about technical details like restrictions. And honestly – what does a Lord like him have to worry about? It’s not likely that somebody will ever search through his library for indecent publications. Well, anyone else but Kurt.

 

He doesn’t dare to take the novel to his room, so he stays in the library, hidden in one of the large armchairs while he turns page after page. But very soon after he has started reading, he already feels strangely irritated by the content of the story. Granted, maybe a book written about the sexual adventures of a woman isn’t the right thing to help him in the first place, but Kurt’s biggest problem isn’t the difference between the sexes, it is that he absolutely hates the protagonist. Awfully passive, surprisingly unfeeling and never reflecting on the consequences of her actions, Fanny Hill is a character Kurt doesn’t feel the slightest empathy towards.

 

He turns page after page, scanning the text to find out how the book ends. When he reaches the final pages, where Fanny Hill is married to the man of her dreams, has a bunch of children, and socialises in the highest circles of society, Kurt has to resist the urge to throw the book into the empty fireplace.

 

The notion that a woman could sleep around like that and still get a happy ending, while a man gets condemned just for looking at another man, feels upsettingly unfair. Plus, he is pretty sure that this is not what any woman would do, but what a male author would fantasise about during his lonely hours. Feeling irritated and not a bit more educated than before, Kurt puts the novel back on its shelf, and then begins to really search for other publications that touch on the topic of sexual intimacy. After all, this is the library of Lord Smythe – there must be something more suited to their shared interest somewhere around here.

 

The first thing he finds are four paperbound, small volumes, crammed between two large encyclopaedias at the end of a shelf, entitled The Romance of Lust. Curious, Kurt takes the first volume out of the shelf, and lets his eyes linger on the promising title before he opens the first page and starts to read.

 

Three minutes later, he slams the book shut, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. This now is a whole new level of graphic detail, not at all like the tentative descriptions in Fanny Hill, which came up with the most colourful symbols and metaphors for a man’s intimate parts.

 

This books is downright pornographic, and Kurt finds himself rather appalled and disgusted by the descriptions than reassured. Why would people want to do that?, he asks himself, while he browses through the pages. He feels downright sick when he reads about the protagonist having relations with close relatives, and even when sex between men is described, he can’t bring himself to focus on the technicalities of the descriptions. He tries the second and the third volume, but it just gets more horrifying and unrealistic, and after cramming them back into the shelf, Kurt practically flees from the library, vowing never to try to read anything like this ever again.

 

It’s a week later, and this time, Kurt returns to the library only to search for a new novel to read. He has just taken Vanity Fair and The Castle of Ortrant down, when he notices that another book is hidden behind them at the back of the shelf. Curious as to what somebody has wanted to hide, he removes volume after volume until he can reach the book. He hopes it’s not something private, like a diary or letters, because dear Lord, if they belong to Lord Smythe, he’s not ready for this. Opening the blank cover, he reads Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal. Frowning at the unfamiliar title, he starts to browse through the pages. It seems to be the story of a man remembering his life, a strange mixture of dialogue and descriptions of parties and decorations, but suddenly, the words “for I could never love a woman” catch his eye. Sitting down in one of the armchairs, he goes back to the beginning, and starts to read.

 

An hour later, he is still in the same chair, and has not been able to tear his eyes away from the pages of the book for a single second. The narrator tells the story of how he once met a young man, Teleny, how they fell in love and started a relationship. The love scenes between the two are detailed, and yet don’t feel anything like the ones Kurt has tried to read before. Where the other ones felt dirty, and uncomfortable, and unrealistic, these feel genuine, and honest, and about something more than just the search for passion and satisfaction.

 

It also depicts the apparently common occurrence of not finding satisfaction in physical intimacy, or trying things that feel actually unpleasant or even painful to the inexperienced, and as much as the idea frightens him, it also feels like a relief. The other books made it seem like every single one of the characters was a natural champion at things that still very much frighten and intimidate him. But this story makes it seem natural, in a way that Kurt hasn’t considered or believed in before.

 

He doesn’t know how long he stays at the library, but he reads the whole books until the last pages, where Teleny, the lover of the protagonist, has stabbed himself, and dies in the arms of his beloved.  When he turns the last page, he realises that his fingers have started shaking. He feels deeply moved by what he just read, and at the same time, he is very aware that the possession of such a book, if ever discovered, is going to bring a great scandal over its owner.

 

The possession of pornographic novels is one thing. It’s illegal, certainly, but this? A novel depicting a tragic love story between two young men, and not condemning them for it, but instead celebrating their intimacy? This is a completely different story.

 

Without thinking, Kurt crams the book between two other innocent volumes of poetry, and takes the whole stack to his room, careful not to run into somebody on the staircase. When he arrives in his room, he quietly locks the door before he quickly moves over to the windowsill. He has just recently discovered that one of the boards has become loose, and that there’s a small room underneath it – just enough space to fit the small volume in there. Only when the board is back in place, and he has placed some heavy books on top of it, does Kurt sit down on his bed, taking a deep breath.

 

What was Lord Smythe thinking, leaving the book so poorly hidden? Kurt has no doubt that his employer is the owner of the book, for Kurt was the one to clean the shelves in February, and he knows that the book was not there when he did. He feels furious, and strangely worried. Lord Smythe knows that the servants borrow books from the library, and yes, even if Kurt is the one who visits the room most often, he is not the only one.

 

What if Maud had discovered the book? Or Jeff? Or Harriet? Or Jonathan? Or – worst of all – Mrs Seymour?

 

Kurt wishes to have his employer in front of him, because he very much feels like yelling at the other man for his stupidity. He is even more angry because by hiding the book in his room, he has now made it his responsibility. He knows how unlikely it is for somebody to find it, but still – he would very much like not to be burdened with Lord Smythe’s secrets. Again.

 

And yet…

 

When the house has gone quiet at night, Kurt takes the book out of his hiding place, reading and rereading his favourite scenes. For the first time, he feels a strange thrill at the idea of intimacy, because if it is only a bit like this book describes it, it’s worth it.

 

As dangerous as the possession of this book might be, the education it provides helps him gain confidence in his relationship. Because now he doesn’t feel as insecure anymore when kisses get a little more heated, and fingers start to search for skin under the hem of loose shirts. And though things between him and the other boy never become as heated as they do in these stories, it feels good to be prepared, to know what might be following once they’re ready to cross the line.

 

However, the book remains under the windowsill, even when the first leaves start to change their colour.

 

 


 

Kurt doesn’t want the summer to end. He has never felt more happy than when he is lying in the field near to the park of Bailey Hall, listening to a deep voice humming a song or reading to him, while the sun warms his skin and makes him feel drowsy. If he could, he would stay there forever. Alas, he can’t. As the days become shorter and the nights colder, Kurt has the impending feeling that this beautiful time will soon come to an end.

 

The first sign of change is Miss Julia’s departure. Thanks to the careful inquiries of Lady Johnson, she was able to secure the former governess of her daughters a position with an aristocratic family in Ireland. Kurt feels devastated to see her go, but he knows it’s for the best. Hoping that her new family will respect her and treat her well, he smiles despite his sadness when she visits Bailey Hall for the last time, to say farewell to her mother and the other servants.

 

Everybody pretends to be terribly busy in the kitchen to give Mrs Seymour time and privacy enough to say farewell to her daughter. Mrs Bertram gives Kurt a lecture on how to stir pudding, and hits his arm with a wooden spoon when she catches him looking over his shoulder at mother and daughter, locked in a tight embrace.

 

Eventually, Miss Julia empties her last cup of tea, thanks Mrs Bertram warmly for all the times she felt welcome in her kitchen, and finally turns to Kurt. She takes his hand in hers, shaking it firmly.

 

“Goodbye, Kurt,” she says, smiling in her own, reserved way. “You were one of the most brilliant students I ever had the pleasure to teach.”

 

She reaches for her suitcase, “I have something for you.” She searches for a moment, before she pulls out a thin booklet and hands it to Kurt. It’s a collection of music sheets, of French chansons.

 

“I thought you might like something to remember these last weeks,” she says.

 

For a moment Kurt stares at the book in his hands. Suddenly, he is certain that Miss Julia knows exactly what connected the two boys sitting at her piano, and in a strange way, this book feels like an approval, like a reassurance that she doesn’t mind their relationship, and never has. When he looks up, a question on his lips he can’t voice in front of all the others, she adds, “Write to me, will you? I would like to know how you are from time to time.”

 

Kurt nods, his fingers closing tightly around the booklet. “I will,” he says, “Thank you, Miss Julia.

 

He accompanies her to the door, and stands next to Mrs Seymour on the doorsteps, waving goodbye to her daughter until she has disappeared behind the trees. The housekeeper sighs, and when Kurt looks at her, he spots a strangle twinkle in the eyes of the usually so collected woman.

 

“I presume every good time must end eventually,” she says, and Kurt can’t help a strange chill running down his spine. Because she is right. All good things must come to an end.

 

 


 

When a few days later Stephen does not only hand him some letters in the morning, but also a note, Kurt’s surprise only lasts a moment. The familiar handwriting reads “Meet me at the bridge this evening”. It’s not signed, but there is only one person in the village who would send him a note like this. And still, it is the first time they have ever needed some correspondence to schedule their meetings.

 

Strangely enough, Kurt doesn’t feel nervous, or excited. He also doesn’t stop thinking about it for the entire day, but when he sits on the cold stone of the bridge, feeling the evening sunshine getting weaker every passing minute, and waiting for the familiar head of dark curls to appear at the other end of the bridge, he feels calm. He is aware he also feels a little too detached, a little too calm about it, but he doesn’t fight the numbness. It will help with what is to come.

 

He knows what the other boy will tell him when he arrives. He is not surprised when the shop boy keeps a distance, not greeting him with a kiss or a hug, even though they are completely alone. Mr Brown’s leg has healed, he says, and during the last days he has been able to stand behind the counter again, joking with his customers. He can’t move as fast as he could before yet, especially when he has to climb the ladder to reach the upper shelves, but he manages very well. School is starting in two weeks, and Mr Brown’s brother has written to his son to ask him to come back. He will leave tomorrow, taking the earliest carriage, for he has a long way to travel. Kurt nods and smiles, because he has been expecting this for some time now.

 

It’s only when he sees the tears in the other boy’s eyes that something inside his chest clenches, and not in a pleasant way. He embraces his lover, and for a long moment they just stay like this, trying to hold on to a moment both already feel slipping away. Neither of them suggests that they stay in touch, and Kurt is grateful for it. He doesn’t want promises, he doesn’t want waiting. He is also not ready to let go – for now, he just wants to process the thought of losing something that has become so dear to him.

 

Finally, the other boy clears his throat, and steps out of Kurt’s arms. He should go now, he says, it’s getting late and his uncle will wonder where he wandered off too. Kurt nods, unable to reply anything. His lover hesitates for a brief moment before he once again moves closer, pressing his lips against Kurt’s. It’s a soft kiss, more gentle and at the same time more intense than any of the kisses they shared before, but Kurt has barely the time to close his eyes before the touch disappears again.

 

He looks up to see the other boy smiling at him for another moment, before he turns around and starts running down the path to the village, slowly at first, then faster and faster. He doesn’t turn to look back.

 

Kurt isn’t sure how long he remains at the bridge, looking after the other boy when he has long disappeared. After some time he realises that tears are rolling down his cheeks, and much, much later, when the sun has started to set behind the trees of the park, the numbness starts to fade, and he begins to feel the hurt.

 

He has finally woken up from this dream.

 

 


 

Being heartbroken is as unfamiliar as being in love was, but Kurt finds he is not brilliant at dealing with either of the two. While being in love confronted him with a whole new range of emotions, with thrills and excitements he felt unprepared for; during these days in September the world seems dull, and strangely colourless now that he is once more, on his own.

 

He tries not to let the other servants see how much the departure of Mr Brown’s nephew affects him. When he cries (and he does), he does so in the sanctuary of his room; when he needs to be alone, he visits the library or the garden, for he can’t bring himself to visit the village, the park or the bridge again.

 

Of course the other servants notice that something is wrong, and Mrs Bertram becomes quite concerned because of Kurt’s utter lack of appetite. He manages to pull himself together, at least enough to eat a little, and remain in their company when he has to. “He has low spirits,” he overhears Mrs Bertram say to Mrs Seymour. “Of course, with another two of his friends leaving… and he was so fond of your daughter.” “He forms attachments a little too easily, and a little too intensely,” Mrs Seymour answers. “That will cause him much hardship in his life, believe me.” The worst, Kurt thinks when he tiptoes away to cry a little more, is that in a strange way, they’re right.

 

As the days go by, Kurt realises that it becomes easier to deal with the pain. It doesn’t vanish completely, but he feels more like searching the company of the other servants again, and not like hiding in the library all day long. It also helps that Howard and Jonathan have apparently made a bet on who succeeds at cheering Kurt up, and even Kurt cannot help but smile or laugh at the funny stories the two tell him. He sometimes visits them in the stables, though he keeps his distance to the horses – in his experience, it is downright foolish to trust these beasts.

 

One morning in September, Kurt wakes up shortly before dawn. He dresses quietly, grabs a coat against the morning air, which is growing chilly, and slips out of the house. In the dim twilight he walks through the misty fields to the Palladium Bridge. He slips onto the cold stone, pulls the coat closer around his shoulders, and rests his head against the rough surface of the pillar behind him.

 

While he watches the sun slowly rise above the old trees of the park, he thinks about everything that happened in the past months.

 

He has grown, he realises, and not just physically. Even though his reflection in the mirror has become much more enjoyable to look at, it is not the main thing that has changed over the course of this summer. Kurt has, if only in the respect that he feels far more comfortable with being himself than he did in spring, or even in winter. He has realised that he is talented: his numerous lessons with Miss Julia have confirmed that his French and his piano skills are worth noticing. For the first time, he has grown to like his appearance, because even if he will never be as effortlessly handsome as people like Lord Smythe or Jeff are, he feels comfortable now with the realisation that he is worth looking at. And – even if the thought still hurts a little – he has learned that there are people who can love him for who he is, and who think of him as “beautiful”. And this, perhaps, is the most important lesson he learned this summer.

 

However, life has become a bit too quiet, and Kurt finds himself longing for the return of Nick, Jeff and Jane. Unsettling as it is, he also finds himself longing for the return of Lord Smythe – even if his presence won’t make his life more enjoyable, it will certainly make it more interesting. And he could do with a distraction from the dark thoughts that sometimes still haunt him.

 

Perhaps it is time to move on, Kurt thinks when he jumps down from his stony seat. He doesn’t yet know how to do that, but he is confident that over time, he will find out. There is just one thing he is sure about – that moving on begins with a large breakfast and convincing Mrs Bertram to make some pudding for dinner.

 

“Ah, there you are Kurt.” Mrs Bertram says when he enters the kitchen. “Stephen was just here, there’s another letter for you.” She hands him the envelope, and Kurt frowns in confusion when he recognises Nick’s handwriting, for he has only received a letter from Nick two days ago. Normally, it should be Jane’s turn to write to him.

 

But when he unfolds the small piece of paper which has very little text on it, he smiles more genuinely than he did over the past weeks when he reads the words, “We’re coming back.”

 

 

Chapter Text

September 1850

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lord Huntington?” Kurt asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?” Kurt begins tentatively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, your lordship?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I did,” Kurt admits.

“Why did you decide to stay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Kurt says, “Is she any good?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

It is amazing how quickly people can adapt to changes, how easy it is to get used to something, especially if one has experienced it before. Maybe it is because the life of a footman consists mainly of patterns, of routines and fixed schedules. Or maybe it is because after five months, peace and quiet can become too peaceful, and too quiet. But whatever the reason: when he dresses himself for the evening, Kurt feels glad that life at Bailey Hall is finally becoming more eventful.

Even though he at first dreaded the moment in which he would see Lord Smythe again, now he actually feels grateful that he had the opportunity to talk to his employer in the early afternoon. Admittedly, if somebody asked him about it, he wouldn’t know how to describe to an outsider at what stage his difficult relationship to Lord Smythe has arrived. But it feels like they reached some sort of truce, and that is something Kurt can live with for the moment.

Serving at dinner that evening also gives Kurt an opportunity to meet Lady Isabella’s older sister, Lady Claudine. His first impression of her is that she is much more quiet than her sibling – though that might be to blame on the fact that even the most eloquent talker pales in comparison to Lady Isabella, who spends the first half hour of the meal telling everyone who may or may not wish to know how immensely she enjoyed the season, how awfully much she misses London already and how horribly dull the winter is going to be.

Lady Claudine is just as pretty as her sister, Kurt observes: she has the same auburn hair, the same petite figure, and the same way of batting her eyelashes at her conversation partner. Nevertheless, there is something weirdly fake about her that confuses Kurt. Her dress is far too elaborate for the occasion – all the lace and embroidery would look marvellous in a grand ballroom, but seem rather out of place in the small dining room at Bailey Hall. Her dark curls are carefully braided and pinned up into a complicated hairstyle, just like her sister’s, but Lady Claudine for some reason felt it necessary to additionally adorn it with feathers and pearls – which once again doesn’t fit into the countryside. And maybe it’s just Kurt’s personal taste, but he thinks that she would look a lot prettier with less lipstick on her lips and rouge on her cheekbones.

Soon though, Kurt notices that the apparent quietness of Lady Claudine isn’t to blame on the fact that she isn’t saying anything – it is to blame on the fact that she is solely focused on captivating the attention of her dinner partner. He can’t tell whether Lord Smythe actually notices the attention he is given, but even if he does, his employer seems to be much more interested in his meal than in the remarks of his neighbour.

Kurt almost feels pity when he sees her sitting on the edge of her chair, making a great display of listening attentively to each and every one of Lord Smythe’s scarce words and laughing just a tiny bit too loudly at every ironic remark that leaves his lips. It is painfully obvious, if not to her, at least to him, that her charm is lost on Lord Smythe.

His pity for her lessens somewhat when she and Lady Isabella start to talk about their acquaintances in London, or, to be more precise, start to gossip viciously about the debutants they met during various balls. Kurt isn’t quite sure what these girls have done to deserve this much dislike from the two ladies, other than being young and inexperienced at social gatherings, but whatever it was they did wrong, it gives the sisters something to talk about during the rest of the dinner. He tries his best to keep himself from grinning when Lady Claudine begins to speak of her performances, and out of the corner of his eye he sees a carefully blank expression settling over Lord Smythe’s features while he nods and drains his glass of wine.

Kurt doesn’t have to wait long before he gets a chance to witness how great Lady Claudine’s talent truly is. After dinner, when the lords and ladies have both retreated to the drawing room, and Jeff and Kurt are busy with filling and refilling glasses and passing around sweets, Lady Isabella sits down at the piano, demands everybody’s attention, and starts to accompany her sister’s performance. Lady Claudine really does have talent, Kurt thinks, and undoubtedly was blessed with an instructor and many lessons to train her voice. But she is trying much too hard to push her voice over its limits, to give her performance an operatic touch. If she had been content to sing just one or two lighter songs, her recital might have been enjoyable, but with her voice ruthlessly tackling higher and higher notes, it becomes strained and distorted.

Lord Huntington (who apparently was blessed with no ear for music) is the only one who claps enthusiastically once his wife rises from the piano and curtsies together with her sister. Kurt carefully avoids meeting the gaze of Lord Smythe, who looks like he has just bitten into a slice of lemon, but tries very hard to smile around the sour expression on his face.

Fortunately, the sisters are tired after their journey, and they are not the only ones. When the clock strikes eleven, Sir Robert rises and makes his usual excuses, and this time, neither Lord Smythe nor Lord Huntington object to his early departure, on the contrary – they agree on retiring to their rooms as well.

While the lords say goodnight to one another, Kurt walks over to the chimney to collect the half-empty wine glass Lord Huntington left on the mantelpiece. Suddenly, a hand appears in front of him, setting down a second glass on the tray Kurt is carrying. He turns around to find himself chest to chest with Lord Smythe, whose smile would be smug if it weren’t for the exhausted touch around its edges.

“Did I promise too much?” he asks, his voice low enough to only be heard by Kurt. The young man thinks about it for a split second before he answers, “I expected it to be worse.”

“Of course you did, after I warned you,” Lord Smythe replies, and finally lets go of his glass and drops his arm down to his side. “Maybe I’ll force Nick to sing tomorrow,” he muses, while Kurt rearranges the glasses on his tray, “Just for a change.”

“I doubt Lady Claudine would like to be usurped by one of your footmen,” Kurt objects, but Lord Smythe just grins, “In that case, I’ll sneak in here after midnight and do enough damage to the piano that it sounds like it has never been tuned. And then tell Lady Claudine that unfortunately, no one within a sixty mile radius is able to fix it.”

“You are being an awful human being tonight,” Kurt observes, because he figures nobody has told Lord Smythe yet, and decides that someone should inform him about it.

“I suppose that it is true,” Lord Smythe sighs, “But you would start to be awful too if you already had been enduring concerts like this for the last three weeks.”

Unable to argue this point, Kurt lifts his tray from the mantelpiece and asks, “Is there something else, your lordship?”

“There isn’t,” Lord Smythe replies. He looks at the boy in front of him for a moment longer, before he smiles and merely says, “Goodnight, Kurt.”

Kurt allows himself to return the smile, and when he looks after the retreating figure of Lord Smythe, walking swiftly out of the room, Kurt wonders briefly why it is so much easier to talk to his employer now.

The next day is a quiet one. Everybody is still settling in, and Kurt notices that Lord Smythe spends two hours in the library, and when he looks at the empty spaces in the shelves later, he is sure that his employer must at least have taken two very high stacks of novels to his bedroom. Lady Claudine and Lady Isabella spend the morning in the drawing room at the piano (which causes the lords and the servants alike to avoid the room for a few hours), and in the afternoon, they take a stroll through the park, marvelling at the beauty of the rose beds in their autumn bloom.

The gentlemen have retreated to the drawing room, from where they also have a wonderful view on the sunny park outside, and Kurt joins them to bring the tea tray in while Nick is still waiting for Maud to finish the cucumber sandwiches. He has just set down the tray on the empty table and started to pour the first cup, when Lord Huntington looks at him, frowns and asks, “Sebastian, did you hire a new footman?”

Lord Smythe’s eyes meet Kurt’s and he grins, “This is Kurt, Arthur. He joined us last autumn, don’t you remember?”

“What, the little one?” Lord Huntington asks, staring at Kurt disbelievingly. “Really?”

“He’s grown a little over the summer,” Sir Robert says, smiling and mouthing a silent “thank you” when Kurt hands him a cup of tea.

“That he did,” Lord Smythe agrees, and Kurt can feel the gaze of his employer on him as he bends down to pour another cup of tea. He has just taken the full cup into his hands when Lord Smythe adds, “He’s growing into a regular Antinous, don’t you think, Arthur?”

Kurt has no idea what Lord Smythe means by that, or who or what Antinous is, or was. But the mood in the room changes immediately. Lord Huntington throws a confused and almost irritated glance at Lord Smythe, before he turns his head to frown at Kurt. Sir Robert’s gaze moves back and forth between his two friends, his expression wary. And even though Kurt doesn’t understand the meaning of Lord Smythe’s statement, he immediately realises that it carries a lot of weight.

Trying to appear like he can’t hear anything the other men are saying about him, he hands Lord Huntington his cup, and tries to remain unaffected by the hostile expression on Lord Huntington’s face when he studies him, ignoring the cup in his hands.

“I can’t say I agree with you, Sebastian,” he says eventually, “I find him taller, but apart from that, utterly unremarkable and plain.”

Kurt knows that this is the moment when his face crumbles a little bit. He is aware that probably nothing about this conversation has actually to do with him, and once more revolves entirely around whatever kind of twisted relationship is still going on between Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington, but nevertheless, it hurts. Not much, not like it would have before the summer, but he is fed up with being in the middle of a conflict that doesn’t concern him in the least.

He wants nothing more than to retort something, to point out that it is far better to be “unremarkable” and “plain” than the hypocritical, false, despicable person he knows Lord Huntington to be, but he knows better. Even if he is on better terms with his employer now, Mr Moore would never allow for him to insult a person of a higher social rank. And Lord Huntington is definitely not worth leaving Bailey Hall for. Therefore, he keeps quiet and takes the third cup to hand it to Lord Smythe. When he looks at his employer, he finds him glaring at Lord Huntington, with an expression on his face that borders on being aggressive.

“Sir?” he mutters, quiet enough so that none of the other men hears the informal address, but Lord Smythe’s head snaps around, his green eyes meet Kurt’s, and his expression visibly relaxes once he sees whatever he reads on Kurt’s face.

“Thank you,” he replies, and his fingers brush against Kurt’s for the briefest of moments when he takes the cup from his hands.

“The ladies seem to enjoy the weather, don’t they?” Sir Robert inquires. He has walked up to the window and is looking out into the garden while sipping his tea. Kurt is thankful for the change of topic, especially when Lord Huntington seems eager to join in.

“They do,” he says, walking up next to the other man, “Who knows how long the sunshine will last.” He looks at Lord Smythe, “So what do you think about Claudine, Sebastian?”

“I don’t know what makes you think that I will give you a different answer now than the last eight times you asked me that question,” Lord Smythe retorts, “I told you before, I’m not interested.”

“I don’t understand what your problem is,” Lord Huntington remarks, his expression puzzled, “She’s wealthy, from a respectable family, and more than willing to…”

“Arthur, I’m trying to be polite here,” Lord Smythe interrupts, “Believe me, ‘not interested’ is the nicest thing you will hear me say about your sister-in-law.”

“Come on, Bastian,” Lord Huntington says and, for some reason unknown to himself, Kurt has to grit his teeth at the nickname that sounds so familiar, and somehow oh-so-wrong from the other man’s lips, “At least you have got to admit that she’s a beauty.”

Lord Smythe merely sighs and turns to the window again. He stares outside for a second, before he asks, “What do you think, Kurt? Do you think she’s attractive?”

Kurt glances down at the women in the garden, at Lady Claudine’s auburn ringlets peeking out from underneath an elaborately embroidered hat. At this moment, he sees her glance at the window, and suddenly, he realises that the ladies are very aware of the men watching them, and that all of their actions, the supposedly careless laughter, the walking along the rose bushes to show off their figures, are just a show, and before he can stop himself he blurts out, “No, Sir.”

Lord Smythe throws his head back and starts laughing, while Lord Huntington shoots a murderous glare in Kurt’s direction.

“I mean,” Kurt tries to mitigate his words, “I mean, I’m sure there are many men who would appreciate…”

“I don’t see how a footman could know anything about beauty,” Lord Huntington hisses, and the expression in his eyes tells Kurt that he has just made an enemy.

“Well, we are all men,” Sir Robert tries to mediate, setting his cup down on the table. “And therefore, we should all be able to appreciate female beauty. Even though our individual tastes may differ.”

His gaze meets the one of Lord Smythe for a split second, and Kurt decides that this is the perfect moment for him to leave the drawing room. Hastily taking the tea tray into his hands, he swiftly walks over to the door, just when Nick enters with the cucumber sandwiches. He holds the door open for Kurt, and Kurt smiles gratefully at his friend before he hurries out of the room.

And while he walks down the stairs to the kitchen, carefully balancing the tray, he vows to avoid Lord Huntington during the next days. Just in case.

 


“Nick, can I ask you a question?” Kurt inquires. It’s late in the afternoon, and Mr Moore has ordered him and Nick to polish the silver they need for the dinner, ignoring Kurt’s protest that he has just cleaned everything during the summer. Slamming the door shut behind him, the butler has left the two footmen in his room, and now they are sitting knee to knee and polish the silver with a decided lack of enthusiasm. 

“I believe you just did,” Nick retorts, not looking up from his task. Kurt rolls his eyes at his friend, and hesitates only the briefest of moments before he asks, “Do you know who somebody called ‘Antinous’ is?”

Nick’s hands stop polishing the plate he is holding, and his gaze, wary and suspicious, lands questioningly on Kurt, “Why are you asking?”

When Kurt guessed before that there was some hidden meaning to the reference he didn’t understand, Nick’s reaction proves his suspicions even more. Nevertheless, Kurt takes care to have an indifferent expression on his face and to not look up from the bowl he is polishing when he replies, “I came across a reference in a novel, and I couldn’t make sense of it. Somebody was compared to somebody called Antinous, and I couldn’t figure out whether that means something good or bad. I just thought maybe you’d know what it means.”

Nick relaxes visibly, then frowns as he likewise continues his polishing, “Antinous was the companion of the Roman emperor Hadrian for many years. Then he died. I think he drowned himself in the Nile, because some ancient belief said that a sacrifice like this would grant the emperor a long and prosperous reign.”

Now Kurt feels really confused, because he doesn’t understand how the suicide of some Roman or Egyptian boy, who lived some centuries ago, could relate to him in any way. However, he can sense that there is more behind Nick’s dry and rational account of the story, so he inquires, “He must have been a close friend to Hadrian if he would give his life for him.”

“I guess,” Nick says, swiftly polishing the plate in his hands.

“Was he… an officer in Hadrian’s army?” Kurt asks. “Were they like, comrades-in-arms? Did they fight together?”

“Not exactly,” Nick replies, not taking his eyes from the plate in his hands. “As far as I know, he was just a boy Hadrian met in the countryside and took with him to his court. He was supposed to be rather good-looking.”

“And Hadrian needed a good-looking boy at his court because…?” Kurt asks, not catching up on what Nick is not saying.

“Christ, Kurt, do I really have to spell it out for you?” Nick snaps, slapping his cloth against the plate impatiently, “They were lovers, alright? Antinous committed suicide because he believed that his sacrifice would grant Hadrian a long reign, and in return Hadrian declared his dead lover to be a god.”

Blinking, Kurt stares at the man next to him. Of course, now the conversation between Lord Huntington and Lord Smythe finally begins to make sense. The remark about Antinous referred to a relationship between two men, to somebody worth being noticed by other men because of his looks. And Lord Huntington would naturally disapprove of Kurt being referred to in that way. Well, actually Kurt doesn’t know whether he should disapprove of it too. Of course, the underlying ascription is true, but on one hand, Lord Smythe cannot possibly know about Kurt’s sexual preferences, and on the other hand, even if he truly knew, Kurt definitely feels uncomfortable being included in the twisted relationship between Lord Smythe and his lovers. But even if he just assumes that Lord Smythe referred to him in that way only to annoy Lord Huntington, he doesn’t feel good about it. Because he has had enough of that during the winter, and he no longer feels inclined to serve a toy to Lord Smythe’s whims.

But of course, he can’t say any of this to Nick, so he chooses to reply, “Hadrian declared him to be a god?”

“Normally, that was what they did with the emperors after their death,” Nick explains, his tone a bit calmer when Kurt doesn’t dwell on the relationship-aspect of the story. “They declared them to be gods to ensure their divinity. Hadrian broke the rules by doing this for Antinous, but I guess he just wanted to give something back to the man who sacrificed his life for him.”

He puts the plate to the side and grabs one of the few bowls that are left, all the while not meeting Kurt’s gaze, “Does that answer your question?”

“It does,” Kurt nods, because yes, it certainly did. And this sad love story should give him something to think about during the next days. “Thank you, Nick.”

The other footman looks up, smiling a tight-lipped smile. He opens his mouth to add something, but before he can even start the sentence, he is interrupted by Jeff walking into the room.

“Is there some unwritten rule I don’t know about?” the blond boy asks, sinking down on the chair next to Nick, a displeased expression on his face. “Like a secret law that turns every spinster older than twenty-three into a nasty witch?”

It’s unusual to see Jeff frown in the first place, and to see him looking as pissed off as he is now causes Nick and Kurt to ask simultaneously, “What’s wrong?”

“He ran into Lady Claudine, poor thing,” Jane says, following Jeff into the room and bringing a new stack of polishing cloth with her. “One of the maids has misplaced her perfume, and she needed someone to unleash her anger on.”

“She called me a peasant,” Jeff snorts, “And a twat.”

“She’s probably just frustrated because Lord Smythe isn’t taken by her,” Kurt says, rubbing a new cloth against the shiny surface of the next bowl.

“I wonder why that is,” Jeff grumbles, “If she treats him as charmingly as she treats everybody else.”

“Oh, she is charming when he is around,” Nick objects. “Didn’t you watch her last night during dinner?”

“You’re referring to when she was practically sitting on his lap?” Kurt asks.

“Well, at least she’s subtle about her intentions,” Nick replies, biting back a grin, while Kurt admits, “I almost felt sorry for her.”

“I almost felt sorry for Lord Smythe,” Jeff says, looking like he is surprised by his own assessment, “He looked really uncomfortable. Not that I can blame him.”

Nick grins, and Kurt has just opened his mouth to add something when Jane, who has been quiet so far, interrupts him.

“Stop it at once, you three,” she says. Her tone isn’t teasing anymore, and when Kurt looks up, he sees the serious expression on her face, “You’re being unnecessary cruel, and you should be ashamed of yourself for saying that. All of you.”

“But you don’t like Lady Claudine either,” Jeff objects, obviously not sensing when it is better to remain quiet.

“Not particularly,” Jane agrees, “But that doesn’t give me the right to make fun of her.”

When Jeff and Kurt merely keep staring at her, she shakes her head, “Don’t you understand how hard this must be for her? Her little sister is already married, and she is still at home, presumably listening to her parents complaining that she is not getting any younger. And Lord Huntington is very wealthy, so now she needs to find a man who is at least as wealthy as her brother-in-law is.”

Kurt stares at her. He has to admit that he never thought about what it was like to be Lady Isabella or Lady Claudine. He had always assumed that they had everything they wanted, and if they behaved nastily, it was because they could afford to do so. So far, he has never considered that either of them, or any of the other ladies in Lord Smythe’s company, could be unhappy.

“But that doesn’t give her the right to treat other people the way she does,” Jeff objects.

“Of course it doesn’t,” Jane admits. “But honestly, none of you knows how it feels like when your value as a person is measured by how wealthy a husband you can find.” She sighs, “I think Lady Claudine is desperate, yes. And now Lord Huntington seems to have given her some hope that Lord Smythe might be interested in her, even though all of us can see that he would rather marry Sir Robert than Lady Claudine. And no, nothing about that gives her the right to take her anger and frustration out on you, Jeff. But nevertheless, you shouldn’t make fun of her.” She pauses, “Not for trying to do what everyone wants her to do.”

For a moment, everyone is silent. Nick and Kurt have stopped their polishing, and Jeff looks really guilty. The silence is finally disturbed by a bell ringing from somewhere below, and Jane rises from her seat.

“Time for tea,” she says, “Come on, boys.”

Kurt hastily puts the cloth and the plate he was holding down on the table and hurries after the housemaid. When he catches up with her at the staircase, he says, “I’m sorry, Jane. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Jane looks at him, and the expression on her face softens. “I know, Kurt,” she replies, and her hand squeezes his arm reassuringly. “I know you didn’t. But sometimes, you forget what it is like for us women.” She smiles wistfully, “Something I never can.”

She sighs and pulls Kurt to her side, takes his arm, and they begin to walk down the staircase together, closely followed by Nick and Jeff. Sensing that the serious part of their conversation is over, Kurt asks, only partly joking, “When will you marry, Jane?”

Jane grins wickedly and, just loud enough for the two men behind them to hear, replies, “I’m waiting for Nick to ask me, of course.”

“You what?” Nick asks, and when Kurt turns his head, he sees that the expression on the other footman’s face is something between surprise and sheer panic. Jane laughs airily before she says, “I was joking. Don’t worry.”

“And you don’t have to look so shocked,” Kurt says, “Anyone could consider himself lucky to marry our Jane.”

He smiles when Jane presses a kiss to his cheek and turns around to the other footmen to remark, “And this, you two, is why Kurt is more of a gentleman than you will ever be.”

Ignoring the noisy protest behind her, she pulls a grinning Kurt into the kitchen.

 


The next day brings a change in the weather. The sunshine disappears behind dark clouds, and shortly after breakfast, thick raindrops start tapping against the windows, leaving the lords and ladies no choice but to stay indoors and pass the time by playing cards, talking or reading.

Apart from the thunderstorm that follows in the early evening (a clear sign that the summer is over and autumn has finally arrived), it would have been a rather uneventful day, were it not for the fact that this day is also Mr Moore’s fiftieth birthday. Even though he takes great care to emphasise that he doesn’t want to celebrate, Mrs Bertram makes sure to prepare her most delicious pudding, and in the evening, the servants clear the furniture out of the kitchen, so that there is enough space for them to dance. Howard, Jonathan and Peter bring their flutes and their violin, and soon, the first couples are spinning each other around on the improvised dance floor.

Kurt is clapping and laughing along with the others. Mr Moore is dancing with Mrs Bertram, Howard has handed his flute over to Adrian and cheekily asked Mrs Seymour to dance, Stephen has his arm around Jane and Jeff twirls Harriet around. Kurt is surprised to see how good a dancer Jeff is – he moves with the effortless grace that comes from not caring about other people’s opinions, something Kurt will never manage to pull off, at least not like him.

When he looks to his right, he sees that Nick is standing in the shadow of the doorway, his gaze focused on the dancers in the middle of the room. It takes him a moment to notice that Nick isn’t watching all of the dancers, instead, his eyes are fixed on the tall figure of a certain blond footman, who spins around without ever letting go of Harriet’s hands. The longer Kurt observes Nick, the more certain he becomes that Nick’s eyes never leave Jeff. And when he looks back and forth between Nick and the dancers, slowly, he starts to see what Nick is seeing. And why his gaze never leaves Jeff’s features.

And suddenly, Kurt realises how blind he has been the entire time. He doesn’t need to see the soft and tender expression on Nick’s features, the fondness in his eyes, to finally understand what he has been missing the entire time. It’s incredibly stupid now that he thinks about it. Of course he always noticed how close the other men were, the chemistry between them, and the silent understanding that only seems to have increased since their time in London. He can’t believe that he, of all people, has missed that.

But the longer he watches Nick watching Jeff, he realises that this is not the look of a man observing his long time lover. This is a man watching something that he yearns for, more than anything else in the world, something that he knows he can’t, and probably never will have. Kurt turns his gaze to the dance floor, where Jeff has just bend down to whisper something into Harriet’s ear, and he sees the girl laughing and beaming at her partner. And he understands why there is an edge of bitterness to Nick’s smile.

He remains where he is for a little while longer, until finally, he gets up and walks over to where Nick is standing, and tries to avoid running into any dancers by pressing himself up against the wall. He is sure Nick notices him when he steps up next to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge Kurt’s presence, and he doesn’t take his eyes off of Jeff. Both of them watch the dancers in silence, until Kurt speaks up.

“How long?” he inquires, hoping that Nick understands what he is asking.

For the longest time, the other footman doesn’t react to that question, doesn’t even acknowledge that he heard what Kurt said. Finally though, Nick turns his head, and his gaze meets Kurt’s. They look at each other for a very long moment, and a strange and silent communication passes between them. Kurt knows that Nick understands what he is asking, and why Kurt is able to ask such a question without so much as doubt or judgement clouding his eyes.

After what feels like an eternity, Nick turns his head again, his gaze once more fixed on Jeff, who is clapping along with the others and laughing merrily.

“Ever since he shook my hand for the first time and said, ‘Nice to meet you, Nick. I’m Jeff.’”, he replies, and it’s the matter-of-factness in his voice, void of any hope or regret or denial that pierces Kurt’s soul. He suddenly understands that while he was lucky enough to have an actual relationship during the summer, Nick has been in love all this time, and all this time he had to keep silent about it, without any hope of his feelings ever being reciprocated.

When the musicians start a new song and Jeff pulls Jane towards him, Nick eventually looks at Kurt again, and rests a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“We should talk.”

Chapter Text

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

Not in every room, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Lord Smythe did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ldquo;You did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

When Mrs Bertram glances down the breakfast table in the morning, she is rather surprised to find two footmen looking strangely exhausted. Jeff is his usual cheerful self, chatting with Jane and Harriet and stuffing his cheeks with porridge, like only a boy who is still growing can. Next to him, however, Nick is staring at his breakfast with bleary eyes, his elbow propped up on the table and his chin resting heavily on his palm. Close beside him, Kurt is yawing loudly, his eyelids threatening to close any second, and his head only inches away from resting on Nick’s shoulder.

“Whatever is the matter with you two?” she asks, causing the two tired boys to jump and look at her with startled expressions on their faces. “You look like you didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“I didn’t,” Nick admits, lifting a spoonful of porridge and staring at it for a second before letting it drop back into the bowl. “I was reading, and I forgot the time. When I finished the book, it was early in the morning.”

“I just couldn’t sleep,” Kurt says, too tired to come up with a witty explanation, “I don’t know why.”

“It wasn’t because of me, was it?” Jeff asks, his expression turning guilty within seconds, “Because I told you, you need to wake me if I’m snoring again.”

“You were,” Kurt admits, “But that wasn’t what kept me awake.”

“Well, whatever the reason for this insomnia is, I do hope that it isn’t becoming a new habit of yours,” Mr Moore says, his disapproving glance moving from Nick to Kurt. “We can’t have you two yawning while serving his lordship and his guests. I sincerely hope that you will pull yourself together, so that we don’t have a reason to be ashamed of our service.”

“Yes, Mr Moore,” Nick and Kurt mumble simultaneously, and, under the stern gaze of the butler, concentrate on their breakfast, even though both of them silently hope that they will be spared hard work for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t improve during the rest of the week. It keeps raining, and the only noticeable change is when one of the heavy downpours becomes a light drizzle, only to change into a thunderstorm a few hours later. It’s not very cold during these early days of autumn, but spending time outside is unpleasant nonetheless, and therefore, the lords and ladies mostly remain indoors, which naturally requires the constant attention of Mr Moore and the footmen, and leaves very little time for Nick and Kurt to catch up on some sleep.

During these days, Lord Smythe takes up his old habit of using either the library or his study as a hideout, and Kurt can’t blame him for it. He has never seen Lady Isabella and Lord Huntington work hand in hand before, but they are doing it now rather successfully, and everything they say, everything they do seems focused on one goal: to unite Lord Smythe and Lady Claudine in holy matrimony.

Especially Lady Isabella is insufferable these days. Every second sentence that leaves her mouth concerns the topic of marriage, and her not-so-subtle hints in that direction make Lord Smythe squirm uncomfortably and Lady Claudine look hopeful – and Kurt can’t bring himself to decide which one is worse. Lord Huntington is just as bad: he encourages his wife in every way possible, and readily joins in whenever she changes the topic of the conversation to white dresses and church bells. From time to time, they leave Lord Smythe and Lady Claudine alone under the false pretence of having something private to discuss, “like married people do sometimes, my dear.” Kurt is relieved to see that Lord Smythe refuses to play along: he either leaves the room with a mumbled excuse, or pulls Sir Robert into their conversation immediately.

Kurt isn’t entirely sure whether he enjoys seeing Lord Smythe this uncomfortable, just a tiny little bit, or whether he pities him immensely. Most of the time the latter feeling prevails, however, his attention during these incidents isn’t always primarily focused on his employer.

After having been reprimanded by Jane, Kurt tries to see Lady Claudine with different eyes, to keep in mind what the housemaid has told him about the difficult position the lady finds herself in, and he is surprised at what he discovers. His first impression of Lady Claudine wasn’t that much different from the one he had of her sister: vain, arrogant, and quite delusional about her musical talents. But now that he tries to look closer, he realises that there is more to the lady than meets the eye.

As uncomfortable as the situation seems for Lord Smythe, it must be completely unbearable for Lady Claudine. Kurt notices how every remark by her sister, every hint by her brother-in-law causes her grip on her glass or fork to tighten and her shoulders to drop. He notices how she wrings her hands, or how often she checks her reflection in the mirror to make sure that no curl, no ruffle is out of place. He notices how she forces herself to talk to Lord Smythe, even when neither of them truly has anything to say to the other person.

Slowly, Kurt understands that Lady Claudine is trying very hard to achieve something she doesn’t really want, while being utterly afraid of not living up to the expectations of her relatives. In the light of this epiphany, he learns to view even her fashion choices differently: her elaborate dresses, her exquisite hairstyles, not at all suitable for the countryside, feel like a way of protecting herself, especially against the careless remarks of her sister. Kurt realises that she is nothing more than a toy for Lady Isabella, who seems to get a sick sense of satisfaction from the way her sisters smiles uneasily whenever Lady Isabella says things like, “I still remember, on our wedding day…”, or, “as if shopping for dresses isn’t troublesome enough, I still remember the nightmare of ordering my wedding gown…”, or, “my dear Claudine, once you find somebody...”

It takes him longer to understand why Lord Huntington encourages the relationship, and what he has to gain from trying to convince Lord Smythe to marry his sister-in-law. When he expresses his confusion to Nick, the other footman shakes his head, “You’re thinking too honestly for this sort of people.”

“But why would Lord Huntington do that?” Kurt presses. “I mean, he must know better than anybody why Sebastian doesn’t want to marry.”

“But Sebastian is an Earl,” Nick replies, “Which most likely means that he will have to marry one day, whether he wants to or not.”

“But...,” Kurt tries to object, startled to hear Nick of all people say this, but Nick interrupts him, “And if he has to marry, why would it be convenient for Lord Huntington if he gets married to his sister-in-law?”

Kurt stares at the other man for a moment in confusion, before he says, “You mean, he’s trying to tie Sebastian to himself by forcing him to marry a relative of his?”

“He knows that Sebastian isn’t going to endure his ‘friendship’ much longer,” Nick explains, “I’m sure he picked up the tell-tale signs over the summer. And this way, he doesn’t have to worry about them ever losing contact. Not to mention how convenient it will be when the family comes together, on Christmas or in London: the ladies sipping tea in the drawing room, discussing the latest fashion trends, while the men are upstairs, fucking each other into oblivion.”

Kurt stares at his friend, feeling shocked at the crude language which he has never heard from Nick before. At seeing Kurt’s expression, Nick shrugs, “I’m merely offering you a glimpse into how Lord Huntington’s mind works. It’ll never happen though. Sebastian isn’t stupid, and he has been tired of Lord Huntington for months now. I’m pretty sure he’ll have enough of this very soon.”

Nick is right, as usual. It takes two more days until Lord Smythe has reached his breaking point – and still, what happens isn’t quite what either Kurt or Nick had anticipated.

That evening, dinner has been more tedious than usual. Sir Robert, having caught a light cold, decided to remain in bed, and without his mediating presence between the parties, Kurt isn’t sure whether he will survive the night. Lady Isabella is chatting away as usual, and by the end of the third course, her hints have finally lost all air of subtlety. Lord Smythe’s jaw is clenched so tightly that Kurt wonders how he manages to eat his fish, and he is steadily avoiding eye contact with anybody.

When everyone has finished dinner, Mr Moore opens the door to the drawing room, and he and Jeff follow the Huntingtons inside, while Nick and Kurt remain in the dining room to collect the dirty dishes. Lady Claudine is just about to follow her sister into the adjoining room when Lord Smythe catches her elbow to stop her.

“Lady Claudine?” he asks, “May I have a word with you in private?”

Even across the room, Kurt can see the way her eyes light up, and he almost can’t bear the hopeful smile that appears on her lips. Because he is certain that the following conversation will not go the way she hopes.

Suddenly, he realises that he and Nick are still in the same room, and that it would probably be more appropriate for them to leave Lord Smythe and Lady Claudine to their conversation. But the door is on the far end of the room, and walking past them would mean to draw their attention to the fact that they actually not ‘in private’. Furthermore, it would indicate that they have been listening to the conversation – something which of course all footmen do, but never should admit to. Kurt catches Nick’s gaze, and Nick shrugs – as long as Lord Smythe doesn’t ask them to leave, there isn’t much they can do now. So they go for the only option left for servants in these situation – they try to melt into the background by pretending to be terribly busy with stacking plates and collecting glasses, while both of them furtively glance at the two people at the other end of the room.

Lord Smythe sighs and runs his fingers through his hair, a sign that Kurt by now has learned to interpret as a sign of great discomfort.

“Look, Claudine,” he begins, “I’m aware that this is going to hurt your feelings, and I realise what sort of idea the behaviour of Arthur and Isabella must have given you, but I’m sorry – I’m not going to propose to you.”

Kurt looks up from the tray he is carrying, and sees that Lady Claudine looks like somebody has just slapped her in the face.
“What?” she asks, her voice toneless.

“I’m sorry,” Lord Smythe repeats, “But I am not inclined to ask for your hand. Not now, and I am afraid, not ever.”

Lady Claudine is merely staring at the man in front of her. Her mouth is slightly open, and while she remains perfectly immobile, red spots start to appear on her perfectly white cheeks.

“You are a beautiful and accomplished young lady,” Lord Smythe continues, and it sounds rehearsed, even to Kurt’s ears, “And I am certain that you will make someone very happy one day. But I would like it to be understood that that someone won’t be me.”

A heavy silence ensues between them, and Kurt tilts his head to the side to be able to glance at Lady Claudine again. She has closed her mouth, but her lips are now trembling ever so slightly. Finally, she clasps her hands in front of her and says, very slowly, “So... I have made a fool of myself these last days.”

Lord Smythe seems unsure how to respond to that, “I wouldn’t say...”

“No,” Lady Claudine interrupts him, shaking her head and finally looking up to meet the gaze of the other man. “I have.” Her cheeks and throat are stained with red spots, but her voice sounds more firm than Kurt would have expected. “I think, in this case, we should depart the day after tomorrow,” she says, “I wouldn’t want to impose on your hospitality any longer.”

Lord Smythe looks like he wants to object, but after a moment of consideration, he nods, “That would probably be the best solution.”

Lady Claudine gives a short nod and backs against the door, obviously desperate to finally leave, “I will retire to my room now. Please give my excuses to my sister and Arthur. Tell them I’m not feeling well.” She turns on the spot and hurries outside, her dress rustling when she squeezes through the door.

For a moment, none of the three men left in the dining room moves. They all stare at the half-ajar door, pity and discomfort evident on their faces. Finally, Lord Smythe sighs and runs his fingers through his hair once more. “Now I genuinely feel like a really cruel bastard,” he says.

Before he even has time to think about it, Kurt has already retorted, “Well, that can’t be an entirely foreign sensation for you.”

Lord Smythe looks at him with a sour expression on his face, “Thank you Kurt. You’re being ever so helpful.”

“Stop it, both of you,” Nick says. “I think you did the right thing, Bas. Or rather – I don’t believe there is a right way to handle something like this. But at least now she knows the truth.”

“Yes, and I’m left to deal with Arthur and Isabella,” Lord Smythe says, glancing at the door to the drawing room with dread in his eyes. “Or I could just go to bed as well...”

“You won’t do anything of the sort,” Nick says, stepping up to his friend and smoothing down the edges of his collar. “You will go in there, tell them what you said to Lady Claudine, and that, sadly, they will have to depart the day after tomorrow.” He quirks up an eyebrow when he looks at the taller man, “Don’t tell me you’re not dying to finally kick them out.”

“I’ve wanted to do that for God knows how long,” Lord Smythe admits, “But you know...”

“I know,” Nick assures him. He gives Lord Smythe’s appearance once last look before he steps back. “Poor Lady Claudine, though. She really doesn’t deserve this.”

“Maybe she’ll handle it better than we think,” Kurt says, remembering the way she lifted her chin and looked Lord Smythe directly into his eyes.

“I hope so,” Lord Smythe says. His eyes linger on the door for a moment, but his expression changes from sympathetic to cocky when he turns his head and meets Kurt’s gaze, “Though of course, most women would be terribly disappointed at the prospect of not marrying me.”

Kurt returns Lord Smythe’s gaze, and very slowly, shakes his head in silent disapproval.

“Please go,” Nick says, shoving his friend lightly in the direction of the drawing room. “Leave the sane people to their work and join the madness next door.”

Lord Smythe grins, but before he turns around to leave, Kurt catches him looking at the spot where Lady Claudine disappeared, his expression turning guilty once more. But then he straightens his back and opens the door to the drawing room, and Kurt can hear Lady Isabella’s excited chatter until Lord Smythe closes the door behind him.

And as satisfied as Kurt feels at the thought of what his employer will tell Lady Isabella and Lord Huntington in a moment, he feels deeply sorry for Lady Claudine.

After all, he knows exactly what it feels like to become entangled in other people’s schemes.


 

The next day is even more quiet than usual. The maids and footmen spend the day packing the suitcases of the Huntingtons and Lady Claudine. When Kurt walks past the drawing room, he overhears snippets of a very heated fight between Lady Isabella and her husband, and the atmosphere between them during breakfast is icy.

Lord Smythe and Sir Robert take their breakfast in Lord Smythe’s study and remain there for the rest of the day, and since Kurt, together with Jeff, is serving the Huntingtons, he doesn’t see either of the other two men until the evening.

Lady Claudine also stays in her room, and Jane, who has calls upon her several times to bring her some food and take care of her luggage, tells Kurt that she is sitting around in her night gown, staring into space, and barely acknowledges Jane’s questions concerning the open suitcases.

However, she does join the men and her sister for dinner, and Kurt is glad to see that she has managed to overcome the disappointing evening. Strangely enough though, she doesn’t appear downcast or embarrassed at all, on the contrary - she looks almost relieved, like some kind of weight has been lifted from her shoulders. The change in her appearance is remarkable too: her dress is plainer, her hairstyle more natural, and, most striking of all, her behaviour isn’t as forced as before. She’s quiet during most of the meal, but when she smiles at a remark of Lord Smythe or Sir Robert, it’s a genuine smile, one that really lights up her features and causes the corners of her eyes to crinkle, and Kurt thinks that he could really grow to like this Lady Claudine.

After dinner, they retreat to the drawing room as usual. It’s not long before Lady Claudine sits down behind the piano, but this time, she asks Lord Smythe to join her. Lord Smythe looks apprehensive at first, but when Lady Claudine smiles pleadingly, he nods, sets down his glass and walks over to stand behind Lady Claudine, turning the sheet music while she plays and, after she has sung the first verse on her own, joins in.
It’s the first time Kurt has heard his employer sing, and he is pleasantly surprised. The songs are not the usual operatic choices of Lady Claudine – they’re lighter ones, the ones Kurt wanted to hear from her all along, and his suspicion that her voice fits these pieces much better proves to be true. It’s obvious that Lord Smythe never had much training, but his voice can keep up with Lady Claudine’s, and the applause they receive after each song is far more genuine than during any other evening.

And while their voices work well together, there still seems to be some kind of barrier between them that prevents them from truly conveying the emotional depths of the songs. And while that is understandable after the recent events, Kurt feels curious to find out how Lord Smythe would sound with a partner whose voice truly complements his.

After four songs, Lord Smythe eventually excuses himself, claiming that his throat has become terribly dry, and, after grabbing his empty glass, he walks over to the corner where Kurt is standing alone next to the wine jug.

“You look like you are dying to comment on my performance,” he says, eyes twinkling with mischief when he comes to stand in front of his footman.

“Maybe I’m not dying to comment on your performance, but on Lady Claudine’s,” Kurt retorts, unwilling to say anything that would further increase Lord Smythe’s confidence. It’s large enough as it is, “Her voice sounds lovely this evening.”

“It does,” Lord Smythe agrees, holding his glass out for Kurt to take it, “But if I’m not very much mistaken, you weren’t staring at her most of the time.”

While this accusation is true, Kurt feels uncomfortable that Lord Smythe has noticed. To cover his embarrassment, he takes the glass and sets it down to refill it, reluctant to deliver the verdict his employer is asking for. Finally, he decides to shrug and reply, “I didn’t know you were a singer.”

Lord Smythe tilts his head to the side, and his eyes linger on Kurt’s face when he grins and retorts, “Well, I didn’t know you are fluent in French.”

When Kurt stares at him in surprise, Lord Smythe’s grin intensifies, and he adds, “Looks like we both still have to find out some things about each other.”

“Who told you?” Kurt asks, “About me speaking French, I mean.”

“Nick, of course,” Lord Smythe replies, glancing to the corner of the room where the brunette footman is offering some biscuits to Lady Isabella. “I bothered him about what kind of lessons you had over the summer.”

“You asked Nick about me?”

“Yes,” Lord Smythe replied. “Several questions, actually. This was one of the few he didn’t refuse to answer.”

“Well,” Kurt says, setting down the jug and picking up the glass to offer it to his employer, “You could just ask me next time.”

Lord Smythe looks at him for a moment, his eyes twinkling with some emotion Kurt can’t name. Finally and without taking his eyes off the younger man’s face, he reaches out to take his glass.

“I believe I will do that,” he says, “Next time.” His fingers brush against Kurt’s for a moment, trapping them between the cool glass and Lord Smythe’ warm skin, before he finally takes the glass and lifts it to his lips, his eyes never leaving Kurt’s.

“Sebastian?”

Kurt almost flinches at the sound of Lord Huntingtons voice. For a moment, he has forgotten that they are not alone in this room. Lord Smythe looks over his shoulder and replies, “I’m coming”, and casts one last look at Kurt before he returns to the group around the piano, where Lady Isabelle is trying her best to talk them into a game of charade.

Kurt makes sure to busy himself with the half-empty wine jugs, especially when he catches the distrustful look Mr Moore is sending in his direction. Once he is sure that the butler isn’t looking at him any longer, he flexes his fingers, and even briefly rubs them against the fabric of his jacket.
But as much as he tries, he can’t completely get rid of a strange and tingling sensation, right where Lord Smythe’s skin has touched his.


 

The Huntingtons and Lady Claudine depart early in the next morning. The sun has just barely risen over the trees, and nobody feels inclined to eat breakfast at such an early hour. Mrs Bertram prepares a few boxes filled with sandwiches and fruit for them to eat on their journey, while Kurt, Jeff and Nick bring the suitcases down to the carriage, glad that the almost constant rain has stopped long enough for them to accomplish their task without getting completely  soaked.

The lords and ladies arrive in the courtyard just when the three footmen are heaving the last of Lady Isabella’s suitcases onto the roof of the carriage (while fiercely discussing what Lady Isabella has in her suitcases: even together, Jeff and Nick hardly managed to carry them down the stairs). The sisters and Lord Huntington are clad in warm coats, and when the footmen hurry to take their positions next to the doors of the carriage, Lady Claudine turns to Lord Smythe, who takes her hand in his.

“I’m sorry your visit had such an unpleasant ending,” Lord Smythe says, and Kurt hears a genuine apology in his voice.

Lady Claudine shakes her head. “Don’t be,” she says, “At least you were honest with me. Which is more I can say about most people I know.”

Lord Smythe follows her gaze to where Lady Isabella is saying her goodbyes to Sir Robert, with her miserable looking husband waiting for her. Lord Smythe smiles, and Kurt sees something akin to respect in his eyes when he lifts Lady Claudine’s hand to his lips. “You are more of a lady than I gave you credit for originally,” he says. “I sincerely wish you all the happiness in the world, Claudine.”

Kurt’s stomach twists at the honesty in his employer’s voice. He can’t believe that this is the same man who insulted him two seconds after they met for the first time, the same man that chose people like Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington as his companions. Something has changed, he realises, and not just between him and his employer, but about Lord Smythe himself.

It’s a strange thought, but maybe, just maybe, Kurt wasn’t the only one growing up over the past year.

In the meantime, Lord Smythe has kissed Lady Isabella’s hand, assured her that naturally he and Sir Robert will visit them for Christmas (a statement that, if Sir Robert’s amused expression is any indication, is a downright lie), and half-heartedly hugged Lord Huntington, who looks like he wants to say something, but his wife drags him to the carriage before he has the change to utter more than three words.

Lord Smythe and Sir Robert look after the carriage as it leaves the courtyard, and when it reaches the first trees of the alley, Lord Smythe lets out a huge sigh.

“Thank heaven they’re gone,” he says, and when Kurt catches Nick’s gaze, he returns the grin of the other footman.

“I was surprised you didn’t throw them out sooner,” Sir Robert remarks, “Or was that because you didn’t want to spoil our chances to get invited to their Christmas celebrations?”

“I’ll rather eat dirt than spend Christmas at Longleat again,” Lord Smythe replies matter-of-factly. “I’m staying at home this year, and you are very welcome to join me.”

Sir Robert smiles and places his hand on top of Lord Smythe’s shoulder, squeezing it gently, “Of course I will.” The two men look to the end of the alley, where the carriage finally pulls out of sight. A comfortable silence settles between them for a few seconds, before Lord Smythe sighs once more and says, “Let’s go in, shall we?”

Nick and Kurt take this as their call to hurry down to the kitchen, where Mrs Bertram and the maids have been busy for hours, and quickly bring the plates loaded with fruit, toast and porridge up to the breakfast room, where Jeff and Mr Moore take them. The table is ready in no time, and when Sir Robert and Lord Smythe enter, Kurt has just finished preparing the first cup of tea.

Next to their plates are the letters that arrived early in the morning. Lord Smythe sits down and starts to sort through his correspondence while Kurt sets down his employer’s usual cup. It’s something Lord Smythe does every morning, Kurt noticed – looking at all the letters first and then opening them in a specific order, starting with the ones that make him smile the most.

This morning, however, when he spots his address in a particularly curly handwriting, he frowns, puts down his spoon and opens the letter immediately. Kurt sees his frown intensifying, and then, suddenly, Lord Smythe utters the most obscene curse Kurt has ever heard in his entire life.

The room falls silent immediately – Jeff, who has dropped the slice of toast he was holding, is staring at his employer with his eyes wide open. Nick and Sir Robert are looking at their friend with mixed expressions, like they can’t decide between shock and disapproval. Mr Moore, however, has no such difficulties. Kurt could have sworn that he has seen every displeased expression the butler is capable of, directed either at him or – more often – at Jeff, over the last year. But he has never seen the other man looking at somebody like he just murdered someone in front of him, or, even worse, used the salad fork during the fish course.

“Sebastian,” Sir Robert says, sounding equally shocked and alarmed, “What on earth…”

Lord Smythe stares at the piece of paper on his plate, sounding absolutely miserable when he says, “My grandmother is coming to visit.”

“Oh,” Sir Robert says, a smile appearing on his lips, which he tries to hide behind this napkin. “In that case, I can hardly understand your reaction.”

Lord Smythe looks up from the letter to glare at his friend across the table, while Sir Robert continues, “It’s been a long time since she visited Bailey Hall, hasn’t it? More than a year?”

“A year and a half,” Lord Smythe replies, his tone still miserable, “She was here in spring.”

“Well, in that case it’s time she returned to Bailey,” Sir Robert says. Kurt isn’t entirely sure what is going on – he understands neither Lord Smythe’s horrified reaction to the visit of a relative nor Sir Robert’s amused expression.

“When will she arrive?” Sir Robert asks, buttering a piece of toast.

“Monday morning,” Lord Smythe replies, looking horrified when a new thought enters his mind, “Oh god. We have to clean the house.”

“I wanted to leave on Saturday,” Sir Robert remarks casually, taking a bite from the toast before reaching for his tea cup.

“Robert, you have to stay,” Lord Smythe says, and his voice and expression are positively pleading. It’s a look Kurt has never seen on him before, and he would lie if he said that he didn’t enjoy seeing it. “You can’t leave now.”

“Really, Sebastian, you behave like the Dowager Countess is some sort of monster,” Sir Robert says, and looks at Nick, who has placed a glass of orange juice in front of him. “I’m sure you will be able to handle her on your own. Wouldn’t you agree, Nicholas?”

“Certainly, Sir,” Nick replies without a moment’s hesitation, ignoring his best friend at the other side of the table, who stares at him like Nick has just betrayed him. “We will take good care of her ladyship.”

“Do shut up, Nick,” Lord Smythe says, and Kurt sees Mr Moore frowning at his employer once more, though less openly. “Robert, please. Why don’t you stay for one more week? It’s not like any urgent matters await you back home.”

“Alright,” Sir Robert agrees, “I can stay a couple days more, but I need to leave on Friday the latest. If your grandmother wants to stay longer, you’ll have to entertain her on your own.”

Lord Smythe looks defeated when he nods, “Thank you, Rob.” He glances at his toast like he expects some help from it, and Kurt can’t help it – he feels amused and sympathetic at the same time.

While he rearranges the fruit plate, he makes a mental note to ask Nick about Lord Smythe’s grandmother as soon as they’re alone. But judging from the matching grin on both Nick’s and Sir Robert’s faces, he already has the distinct feeling that the next days are going to be very interesting.

Chapter Text

If Kurt had to evaluate the level of proficiency the servants at Bailey Hall display, he would admit that he can’t imagine a more organised, well-structured service. It’s needless to add that preparing the house for a visitor is not a task that challenges the household in any way. Due to Lord Smythe’s usual inability to inform them about his arrival on time, they are also very well accustomed to visits which are a bit of a short notice. Therefore, having four days to brace themselves for a single guest (who even brings two maids with her), should not be any problem at all.

What nobody is used to, however, is the presence of a slightly flustered Lord Smythe in their midst, who seems reluctant to trust Mrs Seymour’s judgement on how clean a room needs to be.

The announcement of his grandmother’s visit seems to have thrown their employer into a state of barely restrained, unorganised activity. He appears in the kitchen to ask Mrs Bertram, who is clearly tongue-tied by the presence of her employer, about the menus for various dinners, and he makes sure to remind Mrs Seymour to prepare the best rooms for her ladyship (an order that wasn’t necessary in the first place, and doesn’t become more significant when he repeats it four times over the next days). When he isn’t bothering Mr Moore or Mrs Seymour, he retreats to his study, and Kurt is speechless when he walks in with a tray of sandwiches and sees that Lord Smythe is actually trying to clean up his desk.

It’s the first time Kurt has seen Lord Smythe this nervous, and he uses the first opportunity he gets to pull Nick aside and ask him about Lord Smythe’s grandmother.

“I’m sure I already told you about her,” Nick replies when they climb up the stairs to the second floor, stacks with clean shirts for Lord Smythe’s and Sir Robert’s wardrobes in their arms.

“You told me she was the only relative Sebastian has, and you told me that she lives at the other family estate in Shropshire,” Kurt replies. “That doesn’t explain why he was so horrified when he learned about her coming here.”

“Presumably because he has a rather difficult relationship with her ladyship,” Nick replies, holding the door to Lord Smythe’s room open for Kurt with his shoulder. “Which might have something to do with the fact that she is the only person who doesn’t let him get away with anything,”

“I always thought that person was you,” Kurt says dryly.

Nick thinks about that for a moment, before he grins and corrects himself, “She is one of the two people who don’t let him get away with everything.” He sighs, “No, but seriously – Lady Smythe has very strong views on how an Earl should present himself in public. And I don’t think I have to point out that Sebastian shares only very few of these views.”

Kurt nods, because yes, he can see why Lord Smythe’s blunt attitude, his reluctance to appear polite, can be problematic in the higher circles of society – even though Kurt has learned to find them refreshing sometimes. When another thought crosses his mind, he asks, “Does she know about, you know…”

When Nick looks at him expectantly, he raises his eyebrows and looks pointedly at the white linen on Lord Smythe’s bed.

“God, no!” Nick exclaims, looking horrified at the very notion of this thought. “And I hope for Sebastian’s sake that she never finds out about it.”

“Oh,” Kurt says, taken aback at Nick’s strong reaction. For a little while, being in the warm shelter of Nick’s, and in a way even Lord Smythe’s, presence has pushed the thought of how the world would react to their true colours back into a corner of his mind. Not that he could ever truly forget about it, but the unquestioning acceptance from Nick has made the thought seem more bearable.

At least until now.

“The main reason Sebastian is so nervous about her visit is that over the summer, he has neglected a few of the people she thinks important to socialise with,” Nick’s voice interrupts his thoughts. The brown-haired footman takes a few shirts from the stack in Kurt’s arms, “And I don’t think he’s looking forward to hear her opinion on that.”

“But why this obsession to clean the house?” Kurt asks, when Nick closes the door to the wardrobe. “I mean, Mrs Seymour will never allow it to look anything but spotless, even when there are no guests to expect.”

“I think he wants to give her as little openings for criticism as possible,” Nick replies, “And I can’t blame him for that. She will have enough to say on the matter of him not visiting her friends regularly.”

“I get that,” Kurt says, “But her ladyship is hardly going to comment on the state of the curtains, is she?”

“Oh, trust me,” Nick says, “Her ladyship has an opinion on everything.” He grins when he opens the door for Kurt, and the grin is just the tiniest bit gleeful when he adds, “And I’m not going to deny it – just from time to time, it’s hilarious to watch.”

Even though Kurt has to wait for a little bit longer to see for himself whether this assessment is true, he closely watches Lord Smythe over the next days – and if his behaviour is any indication, Nick is very right claiming that their employer wants the house to be as neat as possible.

On the day before the much anticipated arrival of her ladyship, Lord Smythe walks into the drawing room where Kurt has just placed a large vase with beautiful violet asters and white roses in front of the window. He lingers in the doorway, his gaze drifting over the furniture, the curtains, the carpet, until they finally come to rest on Kurt and the flowers in the warm light of the afternoon sun.

“Did Mrs Seymour select those for the whole house, or just for the drawing room?” he asks, stepping up next to Kurt.

“Every room down here has asters and roses,” Kurt replies, “The bedrooms and the library will have clematis and dahlias.” He looks at the bright flowers in front of him and smiles, “I think she’s simply picking the ones that didn’t drown during the thunderstorms last week.”

Lord Smythe doesn’t answer immediately. He reaches out to run his index finger over the petals of a rose, starting with the outer ones and moving in circles until his finger has reached the centre, where the petals are still so tightly clasped together that they don’t react to the pressure of his finger at all.

“Those were my mother’s favourites,” he says, and Kurt is surprised at how soft his voice sounds. “We always had roses in the drawing room when she was still alive.”

His finger lingers on the petals for a moment longer, before he lets his arm drop down to his side again. He laughs uncomfortably, like he has just shared something with Kurt he didn’t intend to, and says, “It’s just strange to see them again, I guess.”

“Didn’t you have roses in the house after she died?” Kurt inquires gently.

“We had some at her funeral,” Lord Smythe says, “But never after that, no.”

He stares at the flower with a frown on his face. Kurt tilts his head to the side to watch his employer for a moment, before he asks, “Do you miss her very much?”

Lord Smythe’s head snaps around, and his gaze meets Kurt’s. He looks at the footman for a long moment, before something in his expression softens, and he replies, “I do.” He raises his hand to adjust his sleeve, avoiding Kurt’s eyes, “Nick told me your parents aren’t alive anymore?”

“No,” Kurt says, and he feels the old, familiar pain in his chest – like a wound that has healed, but left a scar nonetheless. He looks at the flowers, “My mother passed away when I was a little boy, and my father died last year, a few months before I came here.”

For a moment, a heavy silence settles between them, both men occupied with thoughts about the loved ones they’ve lost. Kurt is shaken out of these thoughts when a hand settles on his, and he looks up into the sympathetic eyes of Lord Smythe.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says, and the genuine concern in his voice touches Kurt just as much as his hand gently squeezing Kurt’s fingers does. “I know that losing your family is hard.”

“It is,” Kurt agrees, “And I will always miss them. But…” He contemplates the rest of his answer for a second, feeling a little surprised at what he is about to say, before he concludes, “But I think I’ve been lucky enough to find a new family here.”

Lord Smythe’s left eyebrow rises at this assessment, and the smile that follows the surprise isn’t his usual cocky grin, or an arrogant smirk – it looks happy, and maybe even a little bit flattered. “Well, I’m glad to hear that,” he says, before he draws his hand back. “Though from what Nick tells me, I imagine that it can be a bit of a madness downstairs.”

“Not as much of a madness as I have seen in your company,” Kurt retorts, smiling in relief because the gloomy atmosphere is leaving them. Lord Smythe clears his throat, and the hand that just a moment before has touched Kurt’s, wanders to his neck.

“I should go, I’m keeping you from your work,” he says. “I’m sure you still have a lot to do.”

“Don’t worry, Sir,” Kurt replies, and his voice is just a little bit patronising when he adds, “I believe we’re ready for her ladyship.”

Lord Smythe grins, and for the first time in days, he seems a little more relaxed when he answers, “Well, I’m glad at least you feel that way.”





After these four rather busy days, Kurt would lie if he claimed that the general excitement and nervousness have no affect on him at all.

On Monday morning, he takes his usual position in the line-up of the servants standing in the courtyard and waiting for her ladyship to arrive – a routine he hasn’t particularly missed, chiefly because it brings back unpleasant memories. He glances down the line, to the spot where Lord Smythe is standing, fiddling with his collar and glancing nervously at the trees of the alley.

For a moment, Kurt wonders whether it’s really been a year since he heard the footsteps of Lord Smythe on the white gravel, and looked into his employer’s eyes for the very first time. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem that long ago, on the other hand, so much has changed since then that Kurt can hardly believe that it has been merely one year.

He is pulled out of his thoughts when a large and pompous carriage comes to a halt before the line of servants, and Mr Moore hurries towards the door to help the head of the Smythe family out of the carriage.

Lady Smythe is tall, almost as tall as her grandson, and her lean figure is clad in a black dress that fits her well, but Kurt isn’t sure whether there has ever been a time in which that dress would have been called fashionable. Her hair is steel-gray and pined up under a large hat with black feathers, and her eyes, still a clear and piercing blue, attentively observe her surroundings.

Lord Smythe walks towards her, and bends down to kiss his grandmother’s cheek, “Welcome, grandmother,” he says, “I hope you had a pleasant journey?”

“Well, I wouldn’t call it pleasant,” her ladyship replies, her expression unmoved, “I can hardly call three hours in a shaking and clattering carriage pleasant, but since this seems to be the only way to ever see my grandson, what choice do I have?”

Lord Smythe seems speechless, and before he has time enough to come up with a reply, Lady Smythe has already sailed past him and towards Sir Roberts, who is trying very hard to hide his grin.

“Sir Robert,” Lady Smythe says, when Sir Robert reaches for her hand and bends down to kiss it. “Such a pleasure to see you again.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Sir Robert says, “I’m glad you decided to pay us a visit, your ladyship.”

“Well, I am relieved that at least you seem to think that,” her ladyship retorts, her gaze drifting once more to her grandson. Lord Smythe squirms uncomfortably, but asks, “Would you care for some breakfast, grandmother?”

“Of course I would care for some breakfast,” Lady Smythe says, taking the arm Sir Robert is offering her. “Were you not listening when I told you about having spent three uncomfortable hours in a carriage? When did you think I had time to eat?”

She walks inside with swift steps, swift at least for her seventy-four years. Lord Smythe rolls his eyes, but follows her inside. Kurt looks down the line of the servants to see that most of them no longer try to hide their amusement, and when he catches Nick’s gaze, he has to grin himself. It’s not a mean sort of amusement, however – the sympathy for their employer is evident in the whispered conversations that start when the footmen hurry after Mr Moore and her ladyship to the breakfast room.

In spite of her former complaints, Lady Smythe eats sparsely, cutting her toast into small pieces and leaving most of it on her plate. When seeing this, Kurt has a sudden revelation about where Lord Smythe’s eating habits come from, and looking at the way his employer keeps stirring his porridge without eating even one spoonful, he feels his suspicions confirmed.

They don’t have to wait long before Lady Smythe brings up the issue Nick has claimed to be her reason for coming. “I have dined with Lord and Lady Milford a few weeks ago,” she says, sipping her tea.

Lord Smythe’s apprehensive expression tells Kurt that he is aware where this conversation is going, and he replies, “Have you? How are they?”

“Well Sebastian, you would know how they were if you had accepted at least one of their invitations to their many dinners in London,” Lady Smythe remarks, directing her piercing gaze at her grandson. “To my horror and embarrassment, I have heard that you neither visited them, nor the Campbells, nor the Griffiths once in all the time you spent in London.”

Lord Smythe pushes the porridge bowl away, and reaches for a slice of bread to crumble on his plate. “Well, we were rather busy in London,” he says, chewing on a tiny piece of bread, “And I didn’t feel well for some weeks, so we couldn’t attend as many…”

Sebastian,” her ladyship interrupts, her expression horrified while she stares at her grandson, “I can’t believe you still haven’t lost the habit of speaking with your mouth full.”

Lord Smythe looks like child caught with his fingers in the biscuit jar, and he swallows hastily while his grandmother continues, “As for the issue regarding your lack of sociability – I don’t think I have to point out how absolutely dishonourable such a behaviour on your part is. You refusing to socialise with some of my oldest friends, not to mention some of the most respectable families in the country, is an absolute-“

She doesn’t get to finish her sentence, because a polite and quiet voice interrupts her by asking, “Your ladyship?”

Startled, Lady Smythe looks at Nick, who has stepped up next to her and is holding the fruit plate in front of her, his gaze politely cast down, pretending not to notice how his interruption has startled her ladyship.

“Well, we do not have to discuss this in front of the servants,” she says, and with a hostile glare at the brunette footman that surprises Kurt, she waves the plate away. “We have plenty of time for that later.”

On the one hand, Kurt would lie if he claimed that he isn’t enjoying, just a little bit, to see Lord Smythe not in control of a situation for the very first time. As the conversation continues however, the feeling of pity and sympathy towards his employer increases, and he feels relieved when Lady Smythe waves for Mr Moore to help her rise from her seat, thus declaring the meal to be over.

Her ladyship has just taken Sir Robert’s arm and walked the first steps into the direction of the drawing room, when Kurt looks up and spots Jane, standing in the door leading to the servants’ entrance, right next to the food table, and frantically whispering something into Nick’s ear.

Kurt frowns. The housemaids are not allowed in the dining room when the masters are present, and even when they have left, it’s the task of the footmen to take care of the dishes and the leftovers. Mrs Seymour once put it like this: “A good housemaid gets praise for her work. A perfect housemaid is one whose existence isn’t even remembered.” And while Kurt personally has a lot of problems with this statement, it seems to be the general rule of behaviour for all female employees in great households – which makes it even more odd to see Jane in the breakfast room. She looks very worried: her face is paler than usual, her brow is furrowed, and her fingers fiddle with her apron in a nervous way that is rather atypical for the usually so confident and collected young maid.

When she stops her whispering Nick nods, his expression now likewise concerned, and Kurt’s stomach twists uncomfortably. Jane vanishes into the adjoining room again, and Nick quickly walks over to Lord Smythe. He catches his elbow just as his friend starts to walk over to where his grandmother and Sir Robert are waiting for him, and whispers a few words into his ear. Lord Smythe’s brows knit in confusion, but he nods and looks at his grandmother. “Please go ahead,” he says, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

“Whatever is the matter?” her ladyship inquires, but Lord Smythe merely shakes his head, “Just a small issue concerning one of the servants. It won’t take long.”

“I should hope not,” Lady Smythe remarks, frowning at her grandson. “No gentleman keeps a lady waiting. I hope you are aware of that, Sebastian?”

“Yes, grandmother, I am,” Lord Smythe replies, and Kurt has the feeling that the other man is trying very hard to keep his voice polite. Lady Smythe keeps her stern gaze on him for a moment, before she turns to Sir Robert once more, asks, “Why don’t you tell me about your investments overseas in the meantime, Sir Robert?”, and finally walks out of the room with him.

Kurt notices that Mr Moore is looking expectantly at their employer, obviously waiting for the “small issue concerning one of the servants” to be discussed with him. Lord Smythe, however, merely nods at him briefly as he walks past him, “Carry on, Moore,” and vanishes behind the door through which Jane has disappeared mere seconds before.

Kurt knows it’s not the most polite thing to do, but, well – since Nick and Jeff are already busy collecting the dishes from the table, isn’t it the smartest thing for him to walk over to the food table and start stacking the leftovers – even if the table is located directly next to the half-ajar door to the other room? Kurt realises that his reluctance to eavesdrop on people has decreased significantly over the last months, but so far, it has never done him any harm. He is careful not to clatter the dishes too loudly, so that he can still hear the conversation taking place in the adjoining room.

“… didn’t interrupt anything,” he can hear Lord Smythe say. “Stop apologising already and tell me why you wanted to talk to me.”

There is a short pause, before Jane’s hesitant voice starts to explain, “I received a letter this morning, your lordship. From my mother.” She is silent for another moment before she continues, “Apparently, my father had an accident at work. He wasn’t injured as badly as other workers, but he hit his head very hard, and they haven’t been able to wake him yet.” Another pause, “Mother writes the doctor doesn’t know whether he will wake up at all.”

The plate Kurt is holding clacks loudly when he sets it down on the table with more force than necessary. These are really bad news. As horrible as the notion of losing her father is on his own, Kurt also knows what it would mean for Jane’s family. Her mother has work as a seamstress, but Jane has three younger siblings, and only one of them is old enough to work. Kurt doesn’t even want to imagine what the death of Mr Woodhouse would mean to the family – both emotionally and financially.

“I know the timing is very bad, with your grandmother visiting and everything,” Jane’s voice interrupts Kurt’s thoughts. “But still, I wanted to ask whether I could visit my family, just for a few days.”

Her voice doesn’t sound very hopeful, but Lord Smythe doesn’t need so much as a split second to answer, “Of course you must go.” Before Jane has the opportunity to reply anything, he continues, “If you hurry with changing out of your uniform and packing, you can catch the coach at noon in Wilton. Tell Howard to take you there in the carriage, and then you can easily make it.”

“But your lordship…” Jane starts to protest, only to be cut off by her employer, “No objections Jane, please. They only take a lot of time and I’m going to get my way in the end anyways. You can tell Mrs Seymour that I forced you to take the carriage, and I’ll deal with her disapproval.”

Kurt can’t see whether Jane is smiling or not, but he can hear the relief in her voice when she answers, “Thank you, your lordship.”

“Do you have enough money for the journey?” Lord Smythe asks, ignoring her gratefulness just like her objections. Kurt knows the answer to that question as well as Jane does. Servants like Jane or Jeff, who support their families, always send the largest portion of their wages home, and only keep what is necessary.

“I’ll ask Nick to lend me some money,” Jane says, “That won’t be a problem.”

Kurt hears the faint sound of fabric rustling, and then Jane’s loud protest, “Your lordship…”

“I’m not giving it to you,” Lord Smythe interrupts, “Those are three wages in advance. You still need to come back and work for them.”

“It’s too much, your lordship,” Jane objects, “One is more than enough.”

“Take two,” Lord Smythe says, “Please. Your family might need the money now.”

It’s an unfair argument, especially because it’s true. With having to pay the doctor, and with Mr Woodhouse not being able to work for god knows how long, Jane’s family will need every penny they can get. Kurt hears the housemaid sigh in defeat, and her voice is soft when she says, “Thank you, your lordship.”

“Don’t mention it,” Lord Smythe says, “Seriously, don’t. I can’t have that ruin my reputation.”

“I understand,” Jane replies, and Kurt can almost hear the smile in her voice, “We can’t have anyone know that you are actually a kind-hearted person, can we?”

“Hurry now, Jane,” Lord Smythe replies, and Kurt is almost certain that he is grinning too. “You don’t want to miss your carriage.” Kurt hears footsteps approaching, “I’ll tell Mr Moore and the boys that you’re leaving. Give my regards to your family.”

“God bless you, your lordship,” Jane says, and Kurt hears the rustling of her dress as she hurries away. A moment later, Lord Smythe appears in the doorway, his expression still a bit worried. He almost walks right into Kurt, who is still pretending to be terribly busy at the food table.

Lord Smythe’s expression changes from concerned to startled, and then, when his eyes have travelled over Kurt’s features down to what he is doing, into an impertinent grin. Kurt follows his gaze to his hands, and he can just barely suppress a curse when he realises that instead of scraping the leftover porridge from Lord Smythe’s plate into the bowl with the leftovers, he has neatly scraped it onto the previously white table cloth.

He doesn’t need to look at the grin on Lord Smythe’s face to know that he’s screwed, and he even less needs Lord Smythe bending down to whisper into his ear, “I think you missed a spot there, Kurt.”

He is glad that Lord Smythe doesn’t stay long enough to witness the embarrassed blush on his cheeks blossom into full bloom, instead, his employer straightens immediately, walks over to where Mr Moore is supervising Nick and Jeff’s work, and calmly informs him about Jane’s departure. The butler doesn’t look too pleased when he hears about Lord Smythe giving her two wages in advance, but he allows the footmen to hurry down to the kitchen to say goodbye to their friend.

Jane seems calm and collected again when she arrives in the kitchen, a small suitcase in her hand and a warm coat over her grey dress, though her face is still very pale. The boys and the other maids hug the petite girl, and Jane promises to write as soon as she has news – whether they are good news or bad news.

The three footmen accompany her outside and wave after the carriage when it pulls out of the courtyard. Together, they watch Jane’s figure grow smaller and smaller.

“Poor Jane,” Jeff says and sighs, “I hope she has good news soon.”

Kurt and Nick nod in agreement. “Maybe we don’t have to worry too much,” Nick says, “Mrs Woodhouse is very easily alarmed from what Jane has told me, so perhaps her father’s condition isn’t as critical.”

“Let’s hope it isn’t,” Kurt says. They spend another moment in comfortable silence, before Nick sighs and says, “Well, let’s get her ladyship something to drink, shall we?”

“Which reminds me – Lady Smythe doesn’t seem to like you very much, does she?” Kurt asks when the footmen walk back into the house.

“Not particularly, no,” Nick replies. “I don’t fit very well into her views on the distance a servant should keep to his master.”

“Well, sometimes you do seem a little too familiar with Lord Smythe,” Jeff says carelessly, and once more Kurt doesn’t know whether he finds his obliviousness endearing or worrying. “I mean, I get that’s because you’ve known him for a long time, but sometimes you two seem like friends, almost. Maybe you should try not to do that while she’s here.”

Kurt catches the amused twinkle in Nick’s eyes, but the brunette footman manages to keep a straight face and nods solemnly when Jeff turns to look at him.

“I will do that,” he says, “Given the mood her ladyship is in, she really doesn’t need any further provocation.”

“I almost feel bad for Lord Smythe,” Jeff admits, and Kurt nods in agreement.

“Oh well, he is used to her,” Nick says, “And in my experience, the best way to endure Lady Smythe is a large dose of patience and humour.”

But while that is true, it doesn’t take long for Kurt to realise that neither humour nor patience are enough to endure the true reason for Lady Smythe’s visit.



The rest of the day passes quickly. Lady Smythe retreats to her room to rest for a while, and Lord Smythe and Sir Robert make themselves comfortable in the library, while the servants downstairs get to know the two maids of the Dowager Countess: Miss Jenkinson, a grave lady in her late forties, and Frances, a young maid in her twenties, who smiles shyly and doesn’t dare to say a single word in the presence of Miss Jenkinson.

Since Kurt’s duty is to help in the kitchen while Nick and Jeff serve the gentlemen during the rest of the day, he only sees Lord Smythe again when the other man enters the dining room in the evening, his grandmother on his arm and a slightly apprehensive expression on his face.

Apparently, the rest has restored Lady Smythe’s energy: She takes to the conversation again with full force. During dinner she further talks about the acquaintances Kurt’s employer has neglected over the summer, and, to the apparent horror of Lord Smythe, she not only has plans to pay a few visits together with her grandson, but seems set on the idea to invite them for social gatherings and small parties to Bailey Hall.

“Everybody’s just returning from the season at London,” she says, cutting her meat with a strange, determined energy. “And nobody wants to spend all these months until Christmas at home. We can invite the gentlemen for hunting parties, and have music and a few balls for the ladies.”

She raises her fork to her mouth and starts to chew firmly, not catching the desperate look Lord Smythe is sending Sir Robert.

The conversation takes another unexpected turn later in the evening, when the gentlemen and Lady Smythe are seated on the soft pillows in the armchairs of the drawing room. At a sign of Mr Moore, Nick has gone back to the kitchen (presumably because Lady Smythe keeps glaring at him), and Kurt and Jeff are standing by the window, waiting for an opportunity to refill cups or glasses.

Lord Smythe and Sir Robert have just started a discussion about politics when her ladyship suddenly interrupts them by saying, “I heard that Lady Isabella’s sister Claudine has stayed here over the last few weeks?”

Lord Smythe head snaps up, his expression startled at the unexpected question, “Uhm, yes?”

“May I ask why Lady Claudine chose to accompany her sister and spent some time at your estate?” Lady Smythe says, raising her cup to her lips.
Lord Smythe groans, and his hand moves up to his hair immediately, his fingers threading through the brown strands, “Not you too, grandmother.”

“What do you mean, ‘not me too’?” Lady Smythe says, the corners of her mouth pulling down noticeably.

“I spent days fighting off Isabella and Arthur urging me to propose to Claudine,” Lord Smythe says, and Kurt notices how Lady Smythe’s eyebrows pull together in silent disapproval when he uses the informal address for his acquaintances. “Please don’t tell me you’re not hinting at that too.”

“I am astonished by your reaction,” Lady Smythe retorts, and sets down her cup. “Lady Claudine is a very accomplished young lady from a respected and old family. Well granted, her father isn’t the wealthiest man, that much is true, but luckily, you don’t need to look for money in your future bride, and her title and her family are highly recommend-“

“Grandmother, I’m twenty-three,” Lord Smythe interrupts her. His glass still in his hand, he stands up and starts pacing around the couch. “I’m not going to marry anybody, at least not yet. And I am definitely not marrying Claudine.”

“Twenty-three is no unreasonable age for a young man to find a wife,” Lady Smythe retorts, “And there are many very respectful young ladies among my acquaintances. If Lady Claudine doesn’t strike your fancy, I’m certain one of them will.”

“Why are you so keen on me getting married all of a sudden?” Lord Smythe asks, his tone getting more upset every minute. “I still remember how you said to Frederick that every man who marries before he is at least thirty-five has not understood the joy of…”

Yes,” Lady Smythe interrupts him, her voice suddenly sounding strict and harsh, “That’s what I said to Frederick, when I thought that your brother had his whole life before him.”

And just like that, the atmosphere in the room changes. The amused smile drops from Sir Robert’s face, and instantly, he directs his concerned gaze at Lord Smythe, who is staring at his grandmother in shock.  In all his time at Bailey Hall, Kurt has never heard anybody mention Lord Smythe’s brother, at least not in his presence, and if the hurt and upset expression on his face has anything to with that, he is glad that so far no one did.

Her ladyship appears not to notice the charged atmosphere, for she continues, “We have all hoped that the title and the estate would pass on to Frederick, when my son died at a very old age. There was no need for Frederick to marry. But sadly, neither my son nor Frederick were granted as much time here on earth as we anticipated.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss, your ladyship,” Sir Robert’s calm and quiet voice interferes. “You have my whole sympathy. And I believe Sebastian is very aware of the responsibilities resting on his shoulders. But I’m sure there is no need for him to consider marriage just yet.”

“I have great respect for you as a person, Sir Robert,” Lady Smythe replies, directing her gaze now at the friend of her grandson, “But your family has only reached the ranks of nobility very recently, and your father was infamous for his rather… modern views on the world. Please do not take offence at me saying this, but maybe you don’t understand the responsibilities a family like ours has to consider in their decisions.”

Sir Robert smiles, but his smile is strained around the edges, and Kurt feels a sudden wave of hatred towards this woman, who has just insulted the most kind-hearted and patient person Kurt has ever met in his entire life. He is glad Nick is not present, for he is unsure how the footman would have reacted when seeing Lord Smythe’s and Sir Robert’s expressions.

Lady Smythe wastes no time caring about the feelings of either man, instead, she turns to her grandson once more, “Sebastian, I will now tell you the reason for this visit. I suggest, no, I demand that you will start to seriously consider marriage to a sensible young lady.”

“But I don’t want to marry…” Lord Smythe starts again, only to be cut off by his grandmother once more, “I understood that this is not what you want. But it is your responsibility as the last member of the Smythe family to make sure that our line of heritage will not die with you.”

She hasn’t raised her voice one bit during the whole conversation, and yet, Kurt can feel each of her words piercing the air, “It is your duty to make sure our family line is carried on, and to be perfectly honest, I am astonished and disappointed at your attitude. I highly doubt Frederick would have ever behaved in the same childish and irresponsible way that you seem to have adopted these days.”

The silence that follows her words could be cut with a knife. Sir Robert is still looking at Lord Smythe, pity and concern in his eyes, his own humiliation long forgotten. Mr Moore and Jeff have matching expressions of confusion on their faces, like they aren’t quite sure how they are expected to behave now. But Kurt’s eyes are fixed on Lord Smythe, who looks like someone just punched him in his stomach.

Kurt looks down and is surprised to see that his hands are clenched into tight fists, and tremble with silent emotions. Slowly, he forces himself to relax, just when Lady Smythe sighs deeply.

“Well, I suppose there is no use in continuing this conversation tonight, when you are clearly unwilling to see my reasons,” Lady Smythe says, and rises from her seat, though not without difficulty. “We shall discuss this tomorrow. I will retire to my room now. Mr Moore, would you be so kind and fetch Frances?”

Mr Moore nods to Jeff, who hurries out of the room to get the maid, while Mr Moore and Sir Robert both assist Lady Smythe, who seems a little unsteady on her feet, and clings to Sir Robert’s arm.

“That is very kind of you, Sir Robert,” she says, “If you could just help me up these stairs…”

“Of course, your ladyship,” Sir Robert replies, and Kurt can’t believe that the same man who was just so rudely insulted is now once more smiling at her ladyship. Sir Robert doesn’t help her immediately though, instead, he turns his head to look back at Lord Smythe, who is still standing by the sofa, “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Sebastian.”

Kurt only notices now that Lord Smythe hasn’t moved one inch since the last remark of Lady Smythe. He isn’t looking at her or Sir Robert anymore though, instead, his gaze is fixed on the darkness outside the windows.

“There’s no need for that, Robert,” he says, his voice carefully neutral. “I think we should call it a night. Go to bed, I’ll just finish this drink.” His voice still void of emotion, he finally adds, “Goodnight, grandmother.”

“Goodnight, Sebastian,” his grandmother replies, not looking back at him once before she walks out of the room, carefully supported by Mr Moore and Sir Robert. The door closes behind them, leaving Kurt and Lord Smythe alone in the drawing room.

For a moment longer, Lord Smythe remains in the exact posture as before – rigid, stiff, almost defensive. Finally, he lets out a huge sigh, and with the sigh, the tension seems to leave his body. His legs bend when he leans back against the sofa behind him, like they can’t seem to bear the weight of his body any longer. His shoulders drop in a defeated motion, and his head falls back into his neck. His eyes are closed, Kurt notices, but not in a relaxed way: they are tightly pressed together, like he is trying very hard to suppress a thought or a memory from entering his mind. He opens them after a moment, and raises his glass to his lips, draining the rest of his wine in one sip.

Kurt watches the movement of his throat when he swallows, the motion of his hands when they carelessly set down the empty glass on one of the tables nearby. He watches his fingers as they travel over his face up to his hair, and he observes his lips when they form a toneless, and undoubtedly offensive curse.

A year ago, seeing his employer this distraught, this hurt, wouldn’t have affected Kurt in the same way it affects him now. Maybe he would have felt a small notion of pity, but maybe, just maybe, a tiny part of him would even have liked to see this man as helpless as Kurt had felt most of the time.

One year ago.

Kurt isn’t sure what exactly has changed. All he knows is that the man standing in front of him is the one that, though clumsily and tentatively, reached out to Kurt after their fight. It’s the same man that treated Lady Claudine with more respect than Kurt would have thought him capable of. It’s the same man that almost shrinks in front of his grandmother, the man who is Nick’s best friend, the man who didn’t hesitate for one second before he gave Jane enough money for her journey back home. It’s the man who, for some reason, fascinates Kurt enough to care about him, and a man that maybe he is starting to form some kind of friendship to.

A year ago, Kurt would have quietly slipped out of the room. Now, he sets down the tray he was holding and slowly walks over to his employer. He isn’t thinking about what he is doing, all that he knows is that it hurts him to see Lord Smythe – no, to see Sebastian like this, and that he somehow wants to comfort him. It’s more out of an impulse than a distinct decision that his fingers curl around Sebastian’s elbow.

“Sir?”

Sebastian jumps slightly, and Kurt realises that the other man thought he was alone in the room, that Kurt wasn’t meant to witness what he saw. But it’s too late to retreat now, so Kurt leaves his hand where it is and asks, “Are you alright?”

Sebastian stares at Kurt’s hand on his elbow, and for a moment, Kurt isn’t sure whether he has even understood the question. Before he can repeat it, however, Lord Smythe quietly says, “No.”

He inhales deeply and looks up to meet Kurt’s gaze, “No, I’m definitely not alright.”

Kurt doesn’t know how to respond, or what he is even allowed to do in a situation like this. On the other hand, he would like to keep his hand where it is, just because the physical contact might be the easiest way to comfort Sebastian. On the other hand, he is crossing so many of the boundaries between them already that he thinks it’s safer to let his hand drop from his arm.

He doesn’t know whether it would be wise to ask one of the many questions he wants to voice, but he feels that he has to say something, so he asks, “Is there anything I can do?”

“I don’t think so,” Sebastian says. His gaze isn’t directed at Kurt any longer, instead, he stares into the darkness outside the window, past the flowers Kurt has put on the table just a day ago. For a moment, both of them are silent, and Kurt contemplates whether it would be the smartest thing to say something else, or just leave Sebastian alone. Finally, and without taking his gaze off the window, Sebastian says, “I’m sorry.”

Kurt isn’t sure what the other man is apologising for (he isn’t even sure whether the apology was meant for him), but he tilts his head and replies, “I don’t think you have anything to be sorry for, Sir.”

Sebastian laughs, and it’s not a joyful sound, “I have many things that I need to be sorry for, Kurt.” He turns his head, and his gaze meets Kurt’s, “You of all people should know that.”

It’s the first time that the past is openly addressed between them, and also the first time Sebastian admits to be sorry for what has happened. Kurt has imagined his reaction to this situation in very different scenarios: how he could tell Sebastian exactly how horrible the first time at Bailey Hall has been for him, or how he has kept his secrets all this time. But now, that he sees Sebastian in front of him, fighting some inner demons that clearly go beyond his previous conflict with Kurt, he no longer feels any urge to get satisfaction for what has happened.

“We all make mistakes,” he finally answers, “As long as we realise they were mistakes, and try not to repeat them in the future, I don’t think there are a lot of things that people can’t forgive eventually.”

His gaze never leaves Sebastian’s, and he notices how the expression on the other man’s face changes during his answer. There’s a hopeful twinkle in his eyes, and, maybe to reassure Sebastian that he meant what he just said, Kurt pulls the right corner of his mouth up into a light smile. It takes a moment for Sebastian to return the smile, but when he does, his face lights up in the way Kurt has hoped for the entire time.

“It’s late,” Kurt remarks, looking at the clock on the far end of the room. “You should go to bed too. I’m sure your grandmother takes her breakfast pretty early?”

“She does,” Sebastian groans, rolling his eyes and running his fingers over his face. Kurt is relieved to hear that the other man’s voice sounds as confident as usual when he adds, “You’re right. I should probably go to sleep. I need enough energy to face the old dragon in the morning.” Kurt grins and turns around to collect the glass Sebastian has left on the table. Before he can bend down, however, he suddenly feels warm skin on his own as fingers softly wrap themselves around his hand. He turns around and sees that Sebastian has reached out to hold Kurt back, his eyes searching for Kurt’s gaze one last time.

“Thank you, Kurt,” he says, and the sincereness in his voice, for some reason, causes Kurt’s heartbeat to quicken. Even more distracting than his words are Sebastian’s fingers, still loosely wrapped around Kurt’s wrist. His thumb is slowly moving up and down on the back of Kurt’s hand, as if it is trying to memorise the texture of Kurt’s skin. And as much as Kurt would like to deny that this simple touch is causing goosebumps on his arms, he can’t. He is thankful that at least his voice sounds completely unaffected when he replies, “You’re very welcome.”

With a last nod, Sebastian finally lets go of his wrist, and Kurt bends down to collect the glass Sebastian has left on the table. There’s a little bit of an awkward moment when Sebastian stumbles against Kurt shoulder as he tries to walk past him, but finally, both of them have reached the door to the corridor.

“Well…” Kurt begins, not entirely sure what he wants to say. This whole day has been strange, and suddenly, he wants nothing more than to curl up in his bed and forget about everything that feels somehow complicated – Jane’s father, Lady Smythe, Sebastian – for a couple of hours.

“Goodnight, Sir,” he says eventually, smiling at little, because even though whatever this is feels complicated, it also feels strangely good. Sebastian merely looks at him, his gaze darting over Kurt’s face, down to his hands holding his glass, and up to his face again. He opens his mouth to say something, hesitates for a second, and then closes it again. Finally, he returns Kurt’s smile and replies, “Sweet dreams, Kurt.”

His eyes linger on Kurt’s face for a second longer before he turns around to leave. Kurt’s gaze follows him as he tries to process why their conversation leaves a strange and foreign sensation in his chest.

He isn’t sure what exactly has just happened between them. But when he looks at Sebastian’s back as the other man walks towards the staircase, he has the distinct feeling that it is significant.

Chapter Text

October – November 1850


 

Kurt doesn’t quite remember how he originally imagined to spend this autumn. A few weeks ago, he probably would have expected a rather quiet time, with a few guests during the hunting season, Sir Robert’s constant presence, and himself trying to hide from his employer most of the time. But not only has the relationship to said employer changed significantly – with Lady Smythe staying at Bailey Hall, the autumn is suddenly developing into an entirely unforeseen direction.

Immediately after her fight with Sebastian, his grandmother truly sets to work, and if Kurt had previously believed that her age could be any kind of obstacle in the ruthless pursuit of her plan to get Sebastian married, he has been sadly mistaken.

She sets up her work space in a small salon in the west wing, and Kurt is relieved to see that she didn’t try to invade Sebastian’s study – Lady Smythe would undoubtedly have noticed that, in a wave of last-minute-panic, Sebastian had merely crammed most of his papers into the drawers, leaving the surface of his desk shiny, and the insides messier than ever before.

Lady Smythe spends her mornings writing letters and replying to an insane amount of correspondence. She accepts invitations, suggests visits and fills paper after paper with inquiries about daughters, nieces and cousins. In the afternoons, she summons Sebastian to the drawing room to instruct him about her plans. Most of the time, Sebastian drags Sir Robert with him, and they listen to who Lady Smythe plans to visit, who she is going to invite, and, most importantly, how Sebastian is to behave. Kurt is surprised to see that Sebastian endures most of it with rolling his eyes and muttering protests under his breath.

“He knows that, ultimately, she is right,” Nick explains to Kurt when they’re bringing the tea trays back down to the kitchen. “In a circle as small as theirs, it is important to maintain relationships with people and to cultivate contacts. Naturally, Sebastian hates it, because it forces him to actually behave like a decent human being.”

Kurt clicks his tongue in mocking disapproval at Nick insulting his friend, but Nick just grins, “But believe me, he will listen to her. Because Lady Smythe didn’t spend the majority of her life in the highest circles for nothing. And because he knows it’s for the best.”

The only issue that continues to cause serious tension between Lady Smythe and her grandson is the question of Sebastian’s marriage. If it was up to the dowager countess, she would undoubtedly like to see the young earl married before the end of the year. Sebastian endures her nagging silently for two days until he reaches his breaking point.

It’s late in the evening on Wednesday, and Lady Smythe has been going on and on about the daughters of Lady Milford for what feels like hours. Kurt has stopped actively listening a while ago (one of the daughters plays the harp, another one draws, and one has hips that are very well-suited for childbirth, that’s all he remembers), and he almost drops the tray he is holding when Sebastian sets down his glass with so much force that it cracks, and, with forced composure, asks the servants and Sir Robert through clenched teeth to leave him alone with his grandmother for a moment.

This is nothing but a civil gesture towards his grandmother, Kurt realises a few moments later, because he is fairly certain even the servants down in the kitchen can still hear Sebastian shouting. Lady Smythe stands her ground (though her voice never becomes as loud as the one of her grandson), but so does Sebastian, and when Lady Smythe exits the drawing room a few minutes later, her cheeks an angry red and her voice sounding higher than usual, Kurt knows that this time, Sebastian was the one victorious. When Lady Smythe starts to order the servants, who are waiting outside the room, around in what seems like an attempt to assure herself that even though she just lost some power over her grandson, she still has authority over the employees at Bailey, Kurt quietly slips back into the drawing room.

He can see Sebastian leaning against the frame of one of the high windows, his cheeks flushed, his eyes brighter and his chest rising and falling a little quicker than usual. Kurt hesitates for a short moment before he walks over to the table with the drinks, ignoring the usual wine for a bottle with golden liquor and pouring some of it in one of the glasses. He walks over to where his employer is standing and tugs on his sleeve, and, when Sebastian turns around, he offers him the glass.

“You look like you deserved it,” he says with a one-sided smile, and Sebastian, who looks a little bit startled, needs a second before he returns the grin and takes the glass from Kurt’s hand.

“I suspect you heard everything?” he asks, turning the glass around in small circles and watching the amber liquid move inside the crystal.

“I’m almost certain our colonies in India heard everything,” Kurt retorts, and adds, “Are you alright though?”

“I am,” Sebastian replies, raising the glass to his lips and draining it at once. He winces slightly at the strong taste. “Don’t worry.”

“So, do you think she’ll stop bothering you about marriage now?” Kurt asks. From what he has seen of Lady Smythe so far, he is almost convinced that she doesn’t admit defeat this easily.

“She’ll wait,” Sebastian replies. He sighs and hands Kurt back the glass, “She’ll say nothing more of it for the time being, but just wait until we’re in the company of what she calls ‘respectful, sensible young ladies’.” He shudders, “And she’ll make sure I’ll be in the company of these ladies soon.”

Sebastian is proven right over the next days. Lady Smythe no longer addresses the issue of marriage directly, but when Kurt sees her sitting at the desk they brought into the salon for her, scribbling furiously with a determined expression on her face, he knows that she is far away from having given up.

On Friday, Sir Robert departs for his home in Cumbria, leaving a sulking Sebastian and a satisfied Lady Smythe behind. Kurt needs Nick to explain the reason for Lady Smythe’s satisfaction – with Sir Robert staying at Bailey Hall, it would have been impossible for her to sweep her grandson away for visits – she would either have been forced to stay with their guest, or would have had to bring Sir Robert along. But with him being gone, she can now force the young earl to visit every family that can easily be reached in a few hours. Sebastian is not enthusiastic about these visits, especially not since his grandmother insists on accompanying him, but he gives in, and Kurt catches enough of the gossip in the kitchen to understand that due to Lady Smythe’s hints, they leave the daughters of every family behind with the clear notion that Sebastian is very willing to marry.

In the meantime, letters from Jane arrive almost every second day. Fortunately, her father is slowly but steadily recovering, and Jane writes that he will be able to work again in a couple of weeks. Her younger sisters have started to help her mother with her sewing, and with the additional work and the money Jane has given them they can easily get by until her father is restored to full health. Kurt is relieved to read this – for a while, Jane’s departure had seemed like a dark omen for an even darker season. But the letters are written in Jane’s usual cheerful tone, and Kurt doesn’t worry too much: if her family resembles Jane in any way, they’ll muddle through.

With Jane gone, Harriet is the only housemaid left at Bailey Hall, and the girl seems lonely without her female companion. This is most likely the reason why she starts to spend more time with the boys, and Kurt doesn’t mind her company. He has always liked Harriet, and while she will never be as close a friend as Jane is, she is nice, always honest and just cheeky enough to keep up with them. No, he really doesn’t mind her company at all.
What does irk him, however, is the fact that Jeff and Harriet seem to be a lot closer than they were before the summer. He’s not sure whether he imagines it at first, but when his suspicions are growing, he starts to pay more attention – not to Jeff or Harriet, but to Nick. And even though the other footman is undoubtedly the best actor Kurt has ever met, he finally does notice the way Nick’s expression hardens when he thinks nobody is watching him, and how the corners of his mouth drop slightly when he sees Jeff and Harriet laughing together.

“Well, they spent a lot of time together in London,” he shrugs when Kurt finally confronts him about this, “Jane and I were out very often, so I guess it was only natural.” He’s doing his best to appear nonchalant, and a few months ago, perhaps he would have even been able to fool Kurt. But not anymore.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” he asks, his voice still sounding concerned.

“Kurt, you need to stop trying to make me the hero of some weird and twisted tragic love-story,” Nick says, shaking his head. “First of all, we have no reason to believe that this is anything more than a harmless flirtation.” Kurt needs a moment to understand that Nick is voicing what he keeps telling himself, what he is trying to convince himself of, in order to cope with the situation. “Jeff never gave you any indication that he thinks of her as more than a friend, did he?” Kurt shakes his head, and Nick continues after a moment of hesitation, “And even if he did… it’s not like I could change anything about it.”

Kurt is glad that they are having this conversation in the privacy of Nick’s room, because here, he is allowed to sit down next to the other footman, to bring his arm up around Nick’s shoulder and pull him close. Nick doesn’t struggle against the embrace – he rests his forehead against Kurt’s shoulder and just lets the younger boy hold him for a while.

A couple of days after the departure of Sir Robert (when every important and respectable family within the county has been paid a visit), Lady Smythe announces that they will be spending a few days in Bath – much to the dismay of her grandson.

“Bath is where everyone is spending the first weeks of autumn,” she explains matter-of-factly when Sebastian starts to protest, “And since you missed out on paying your respect to the people whose opinion you should care about while you were in London, we will have to make up for that in Bath.”

Instead of staying to listen to Sebastian’s protest, she sweeps out of the room immediately, to give Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore detailed and completely unnecessary instructions about the luggage. And even though Sebastian doesn’t stop complaining, he does give in to the idea of spending some days in the city – not without sulking though.

“You act like a spoiled child who has been told it can’t have another biscuit,” Nick says, while sorting through Sebastian’s vests and occasionally selecting one and handing it to Kurt, who folds it carefully and puts it in the open suitcase sitting on the bed. “Most people, including me and Kurt, would be happy to spend a few days in the city.”

“But unfortunately, not all of us have the means to take lodgings at the Royal Crescent,” Kurt adds, feeling a slight pang of jealousy at the thought that Sebastian gets to spend time in one of the country’s cultural centres, when Kurt is still stuck in the countryside.

“I hate Bath,” Sebastian groans, flopping down on the bed, right next to the suitcase. “Nothing ever happens there. People spend all day taking walks in the city or strolling through the Pump Rooms. It’s nothing but walking and gossiping.”

“I heard Bath has very good concerts,” Kurt speaks up, “And galleries.”

“Yes, and at those concerts and galleries and balls and dinners are more people who do more walking and gossiping,” Sebastian moans, letting himself fall back on the bed and sinking in into the white blankets.

“There’s no use talking to him when he’s in this particular mood,” Nick says, looking at Kurt and shaking his head. “He’s going to go to Bath, sulk for a few days, and drink too much at two or three parties. And then, shortly before he departs, he will realise that he could have spent all this time enjoying himself, if it wasn’t for the fact that he is a stubborn idiot.”

Kurt is very sure that Nick and Sebastian have had similar discussions like this before – at least that would explain the effortlessness with which Nick catches the pillow aimed at his face a second later.

Contrary to Sebastian’s initial reluctance, the stay at Bath turns out to be not that much of a torture – he and his grandmother remain in the city for more than two weeks, and from what Kurt reads in the small notes Sebastian sends to Nick, he seems to be enjoying himself more than he wants to admit.

During the absence of the family, Jane finally returns to Bailey Hall. Her father has started working again in a different factory, and her older brother has come to stay with the family as long as their father’s health isn’t fully restored. The weeks at home have changed Jane – her face is paler, and Kurt is sure that she has lost some weight when she didn’t have any to lose in the first place. But her face lights up when she enters the kitchen, almost toppling over under the weight of three footmen and three maids trying to hug her simultaneously, and her laugh is as carefree as it has always been.

When Sebastian returns to Bailey Hall, he brings Sir Robert with him – and, to Kurt’s displeasure, his grandmother. Most of the servants have silently hoped that she would go home after the stay in Bath, but since, unsurprisingly, her plans to set Sebastian up with some daughter of her acquaintances have failed so far, she seems determined to not leave Bailey Hall without having tried everything she can think of.

It is strange, but during these busy weeks, with very few opportunities to actually spend some time in Sebastian’s company without anybody else being present, and with Sebastian being away that often, Kurt nevertheless feels that the friendship between them is intensifying. He is still a little reluctant to call whatever exists between them ‘friendship’, but he does so in lack of another, more fitting word. It’s not the kind of easy, comfortable friendship he shares with Nick, Jane or Jeff – in a strange way, his relationship with Sebastian seems to be less, and at the same time, much more.
Kurt can’t even explain it to himself, and he fails miserably when he tries to voice his thoughts to Nick. Nick does nod in understanding and explains that it probably has to do with the class difference, and that this is a feeling he knows all too well – after all, it is rather hard to be the friend of the person you also work for.

And yet, Kurt is rather sure that this is not what is confusing him. It’s not about the different social statuses; it’s not even about his memories of the early time at Bailey Hall – all those certainly matter, but not to the question Kurt is trying so desperately to find an answer to.

It’s the way Sebastian looks at him sometimes from across the room, or flashes him a brief smile when he enters the breakfast room in the morning – like he is incredibly happy to see Kurt, and then, a moment later, when his face almost reflexively changes into a carefully composed expression, like he deeply regrets showing the previous sign of affection.

And then there are the touches. It’s not that Kurt minds physical contact, not at all – he seeks it out whenever he can, and there is little he enjoys more than Nick’s hand on his shoulder, Jeff’s chin resting on his head or Jane linking her arm with his. Those are gestures of love, of family, of home – they feel comforting, and they feel safe.

Sebastian’s touches don’t have the same effect on him. Granted, they also don’t happen as frequently – sometimes it’s a brush of fingertips when Kurt hands him his glass or a cup of tea, a gentle squeeze of Kurt’s shoulder or arm, a coincidental brush of their hands when they’re standing next to each other. And yet, Kurt starts to question whether all of these touches are truly accidental, or whether Sebastian is seeking them out on purpose.

Granted, it’s not very plausible that he is, because that would imply some kind of interest that goes beyond the tentative friendship between them, wouldn’t it? And Kurt has difficulties believing that after Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington, he fits within the categories that apply for Sebastian’s lovers.

But this isn’t even primarily about Sebastian’s intentions – it is about what all of this is doing to Kurt. Because the touches, the looks, the easy banter and the teasing that come so naturally when the two are alone – they all leave Kurt’s skin tingling with a foreign sensation. He feels strangely intrigued and cautious at the same time, like he wants more of this (and once or twice, he actually catches himself seeking the company of Sebastian when he knows he’ll find the other man alone in the library or his study), but like he is at the same time afraid what will happen if this continues. And as confusing as the thought of Sebastian becoming not only someone important, but someone special is, Kurt slowly begins to realise that not everything about this is as unfamiliar to him as it might have been before the summer. And this thought is what scares him more than anything else.

Therefore, when Lady Smythe announces that she wants to host a big ball at Bailey Hall before she leaves, Kurt feels genuinely excited for two reasons – because he has always wished to attend an evening in one of the big ballrooms in London or Paris (and even though Bailey naturally pales in comparison, it’ll do for a start), and because the preparations will keep him busy enough to not spend any more time wondering about Sebastian.

Lady Smythe plans her autumn ball for the first day of November, and there are an awful lot of things that need to be organised: food is stored in great quantities in the store cupboard and the kitchen, flowers and decorations need to be carefully placed in the salons, drawing and dining rooms. Additional servants need to be hired, invitations must be written and sent, and the house needs a proper going-over. Kurt never would have believed that he’d see the day when they would actually have to prepare all of the guest rooms (because when he counted, the final number of bedrooms was forty-seven), but apparently, that day has arrived.

It seems that, after weeks of restless activity, Lady Smythe’s efforts are finally reaching their climax.


There are some days on which everything you do, everything you try, is bound to end in a small (or big) catastrophe. The smartest way to cope with days like this would be to stay in bed, pull the covers over one’s head and ignore the world outside until the next morning dawns.


Unfortunately, that is no option for the servants at Bailey Hall, especially when Lady Smythe has invited all of her closest friends to the estate.
The footmen rise two hours earlier than usual, and the first indicator that this day is not going to go smoothly is Kurt stabbing his toe on the wardrobe, hopping on his foot and hissing in pain for two minutes. Jeff is laughing at him at first, until he realises that his last clean pair of socks has a hole large enough to reveal three of Jeff’s toes. When Kurt, still pissed at Jeff for making fun of him, refuses to lend him a pair, he has to walk over the cold corridor barefoot to knock against Nick’s door.

At breakfast, one of the new maids manages to spill too much salt into the porridge, leaving it inedible, so that there is only toast and bread for everyone to eat. Mrs Seymour discovers that the gardeners have brought clematis instead of roses, to which Lady Smythe claims to be allergic, and Mr Moore finds a tear in his best waistcoat, which results in him accusing the laundry ladies first of recklessness and then of sabotage, until Jane assures him that she can repair the coat in no time.

Kurt has never seen Bailey Hall in such a frenzy before, and even though he is surprised to see that nobody seems to be quite able to deal with the chaos, personally, he kind of enjoys it. Over the course of the day, carriage after carriage arrives, spilling out ladies in beautifully elaborate dresses and men wearing elegant top hats and fashionable waistcoats, and the house is soon buzzing with laughter, chatter and the constant hum of voices.
The kitchen is bustling with energy and people bumping into each other, Mrs Bertram’s shrill voice giving instructions and berating the maids when they do something wrong. Mr Moore and Nick are most of the time busy instructing the new maids and footmen that they have hired for the evening – after all, it’s downright impossible to serve more than fifty guests with a staff of merely four people.

In the afternoon, the already messed-up day finally reaches its climax. Kurt and Nick are in the kitchen to ask Mrs Seymour about the spare uniforms they need to provide for the other footmen, when Maud and Beth lift the large plate with the to-be-roasted pig (the main course for the evening) from the table, to bring it over to the oven. Kurt sees the moment when both of them loose balance, and the heavy plate slips out of their small hands, but he is too far away to do anything. Helpless, he closes his eyes, and a split second later, a cacophonous clash sounds when the plate hits the stones of the kitchen floor.

When he opens his eyes again, everyone is staring in shock at the spot on the floor, where the pig, now looking terribly distorted, is lying in small pools of gravy and the broken remains of the plate. Beth and Maud are staring at the mess in utter horror – Beth’s face is mask of sheer fear, and Maud has both hands pressed to her mouth, as if to muffle a scream.

For a moment, nobody moves. Then, Mrs Bertram lets out a piercing scream of utter agony, and rushes towards the girls, who shrink away against the wall. Just as quickly, Mrs Seymour and Nick step between them, and Mrs Seymour catches Mrs Bertram just when she raises her hand to slap Maud.

“They didn’t do it on purpose, Mrs Bertram,” she says, holding the arms of the cook while the maids hide behind Nick, “It was an accident.”

“What are we supposed to do now?” Mrs Bertram asks, her wrath leaving her quickly when she stares at the ugly mess, giving way to a shrill despair, “We won’t have any pork tonight. And we can’t use this set of porcelain anymore, this was the only large plate, and, ooh…”

She clutches the arms of the housekeeper when a sudden wave of weakness overcomes her. Together with Nick, Mrs Seymour steers her to a nearby bench and forces her to sit down and drink some water that Beth brings in a cup. The housekeeper straightens, gives the people in kitchen (all staring at her in silent anticipation) a quick look over, and takes deep breath, “Nick, run down to the village. Go to Mr Brown and Mr Alden, and see what you can get for the main course. And stop by the Crawleys and fetch their daughters, we need some additional help if we want to be ready on time.”

“I’m afraid Mr Moore needs me,” Nick objects, looking over his shoulder, “Kurt, maybe you could…?”

“Of course,” Kurt nods, already backing out of the room, “I’ll just get my coat.”

“And hurry,” he hears Mrs Seymour shout after him. He doesn’t need this reminder – he knows how incredibly tight their schedule is, and how much of a catastrophe the mess in the kitchen is.

And yet, when he reaches the courtyard, buttons his coat and hurries outside into the chilly autumn air, he feels relieved to get away from the hustle just for a moment. He takes a deep breath and lets the last rays of the late autumn sun warm his skin when he hurries over the bridge and down the alley. He decides to take the short-cut through the forest, because as much as he enjoys the short break, his thoughts are still with the people at the kitchen. He knows that if they cannot manage to organise another main course in time, it will be a terrible embarrassment – not only for them, but for Sebastian and Lady Smythe as well. And Kurt really doesn’t want to imagine what Lady Smythe would have to say to Mr Moore and Mrs Seymour if this evening turns out to be anything less than perfect. He is so deep in thought that he doesn’t hear the crack of twigs or the rustling of feet meeting leaves in the distance, and he flinches violently when a voice behind him suddenly calls, “Kurt?”

Kurt spins around, and he needs a second to recognise the figure heading towards him. He is surprised to see Sebastian outside, clad in a cerulean-coloured coat with matching scarf and grey riding boots. Even though he would never tell his employer, Kurt can’t help but think that he looks unfairly divine, clad in fashionable clothes and moving through a brightly coloured autumn forest. He has just stopped with his silent admiration when Sebastian comes to stand in front of him, and he is proud that his voice sounds perfectly nonchalant when he greets his employer, “Sir.”

“What are you doing here?” Sebastian asks, his cheeks lightly flushed from the cold air and his brows knit in confusion, “I thought everyone was busy getting everything ready for tonight.”

“We are,” Kurt replies, “But we had a minor accident down at the kitchen.”

“Did somebody get hurt?” Sebastian asks, his voice sounding alarmed.

“No, no,” Kurt says quickly, but adds as an afterthought, “Well, the main course didn’t survive.”

“Oh,” Sebastian replies, eyes widening in understanding, “Oh. Bollocks. Is Mrs Bertram going crazy?”

“She is,” Kurt confirms, “I’m off to the village to get a few missing supplies and some help.”

“That’s probably for the best,” Sebastian nods, “I told Mrs Seymour to get enough help for this, but I know that a ball this large is a lot to handle. Especially when my grandmother is meddling with everything.”

“Don’t ever tell that to Mr Moore,” Kurt says, “He’ll go to great lengths to prove that the service of Bailey Hall can manage each and every task you throw at us easily.”

Sebastian grins, and Kurt feels his own lips pull into a smile. “But what are you doing here?” Kurt asks, “I thought you were busy taking care of your many guests.”

“I left that task to my grandmother for the moment,” Sebastian replies, shrugging, “She’s better at dealing with them anyway.”

That much is true – Kurt was shocked to see the sweet and sugary personality she adopted when greeting the people who arrived this morning. It’s something that he knows Sebastian will never truly be able to pull off – and for some reason, that makes him so much more likeable.

“I just needed to get out for some time,” Sebastian continues, “I snuck out of the back door and went for a walk.”

That is something Kurt can relate to, even though he is sure that Lady Smythe will throw a fit when she finds out that her grandson has gone missing. He has just opened his mouth to make a remark about that when Sebastian cuts him off by asking, “Aren’t you cold?”

His gaze lingers on the edge of Kurt’s collar, right where the dark material stops covering Kurt’s bare skin. It’s only in this moment that Kurt himself realises that he has left his scarf at the estate, and that the cold November air is drifting uncomfortably over the sensitive skin of his neck.

“Not much,” Kurt says, shrugging and tugging at his collar until it covers his neck. It’s partly true – until a second ago, he was too distracted to even notice the missing piece of fabric. “I’ll just borrow a scarf at the village. Besides, it’s not that cold.”

Sebastian looks at him for another second, before he sighs and lifts his hands to his neck. For a moment, Kurt doesn’t understand what he is doing, and before he has time to react, Sebastian has already stepped in front of him and started wrapping his scarf around Kurt’s neck.

“Sir…” Kurt starts to protest, but when he feels Sebastian’s fingertips grazing his jaw, and the soft material of the scarf, still warm from having been pressed against the other man’s skin, covering his neck, he stills. He looks at the man in front of him, trying to catch his eyes, but Sebastian’s gaze is fixed on his task of tying the fabric around Kurt’s neck. He hooks a finger under the lapels of Kurt’s coat to pull the fabric away from his body, enough to tug the ends of the scarf into the coat. When it is secure around Kurt’s neck, Sebastian finally looks up, his fingers still lingering under the lapels of Kurt’s coat.

“There,” he says, smiling down at the boy in front of him, who is no longer that much shorter than his employer. Kurt realises how close their faces are – he can count the freckles on Sebastian’s face, which still haven’t vanished even though the summer is long over, and sunshine has become rare during these last weeks. He notices the way his eyes are a striking cool green on the outside, but fade into a warm kind of olive around the irises. He notices the length of his eyelashes, the single strand of hair falling into his forehead.

“We can’t have you catching a cold, can we?” Sebastian asks, and Kurt’s gaze drops down to his lips, catching their every movement when he forms the words. “Mr Moore would never let you hear the end of it.”

Suddenly, Kurt has a very vivid image in his mind, an image of Sebastian using the fingers under Kurt’s lapels to tug him forward, close against the body of his employer. There is a sudden flash of warm arms enfolding around his body, and rough fabric against Kurt’s cheek, but before Kurt’s mind can dwell on the image (and Kurt is shocked when he realises how much his body seemingly wants to react to the image), Sebastian has already dropped his hands from Kurt’s coat and stepped back. He frowns, and, for a moment, seems lost as to what to do with his hands now that they aren’t holding onto Kurt’s lapels, before he stuffs them deep into the pockets of his coat. He is avoiding Kurt’s gaze, and a part of Kurt is glad for it, because it gives him time to come back into reality.

“Well,” Sebastian says finally, clearing his throat, “You should probably hurry. I’m sure they’re waiting for your return in the kitchen.”

Kurt shakes his head, as if to clear it from whatever this just was about, and then nods hastily, not noticing how undecided this must look, “No, I’m sure they are, you’re right. And you should hurry back inside. You can’t catch a cold either, you’re needed tonight.”

At this, Sebastian finally looks up, grinning at Kurt and opening his mouth to retort something, but once more, he stops himself at the last moment. Closing his mouth, he merely nods, and takes one step back, then another, but doesn’t turn around yet, and his gaze lingers on Kurt. “I guess I’ll see you later then,” he says, and Kurt nods, and blurts out, “I’ll put the scarf back into your wardrobe as soon as I’m back.”

Sebastian smiles, a genuine smile this time, and impulsively shakes his head, “Keep it.” When Kurt’s lips part to protest, he says, “No really, keep it. It looks good on you.”

And, without another word or a glance back at Kurt, he turns around, taking long and swift steps towards the Palladium Bridge looming in the distance.

For a moment, Kurt remains where he is, staring after his employer and wondering what the hell just happened. He brings a hand up to feel the soft material of the scarf (softer than anything he owns), and his fingers twist in the fabric when he remembers the warmth of an embrace he didn’t actually feel, a warmth that still lingers somewhere between his own skin and the scarf wrapped around it. Kurt takes a deep breath, forcing as much of the cold air into his lungs as he can muster, then lets it out and turns around to finally hurry towards the village. The realisation of what this means is dawning somewhere at the back of his mind, but he just doesn’t have the time to think about it now. Sebastian was right – they are waiting for him, and he can’t let them down, not now, not when so much is at stake tonight. So, Kurt forces himself to run, and it is only partly out of hurry – because as long as he has to concentrate on where he is going, he doesn’t need to think about anything else.


 

In spite of what the beginning of the day promised, the ball is a tremendous success. Everyone has compliments for the delicious food (which, with the help of the three village girls and the meat supplies of Mr Alden, could be completed just in time), the musicians play song after song while tireless dancers twirl around on the dance floor, and even Lady Smythe seems to be in a splendid mood, tapping her foot along with the music.

“Is it just me, or is Lady Josephine quite taken with our Sir Robert?” Nick asks Kurt when they meet in a corner of the room at the table with the drinks, and start to refill the glasses on their trays. It is late, and some of the guests have already retreated to their rooms, but there are still enough people on the dance floor, and even more standing around and chatting in small groups.

“She is,” Kurt agrees, “But I’m glad he’s holding her arm, because I think that she also had a little bit too much to drink.”

Nick opens his mouth to reply something, when something catches his eye and he grins, nudging Kurt’s shoulder, “Something wicked this way comes.”
Kurt looks up to spot Sebastian stepping up next to him, placing his empty glass in front of Kurt and frowning at the brunette footman. “Please, Nick,” he says, “It’s much too late for your grotesque remarks.”

Nick’s grin merely intensifies in reply, and he lifts up his tray in one experienced motion. “I overheard Lady Julianne complain that you stepped on her toes during the waltz,” he says, “Perhaps you should consider this to be your last glass of wine.”

Without giving Sebastian a chance to come up with a witty reply he walks away, leaving his best friend muttering a fond insult under his breath.
It’s amazing that even in this room filled with chatting and laughing people, Kurt is extremely aware of Sebastian’s presence next to him, and how his arm is just inches away from Kurt’s. It’s like all the other people fade into the background, their conversation becoming a low drum, while Kurt desperately tries to think of something to say.

“I see you haven’t caught a cold,” he finally remarks, using the concentration on refilling glasses as an excuse to not look up at his employer.

“I see neither have you,” Sebastian retorts, standing with his back to the table and watching his guests mingle. “Sweet merciful… whatever is Robert doing with Lady Josephine?”

Kurt casts a quick glance over his shoulder to check, before he replies, “I think it’s the other way round, actually. She definitely had a few glasses to much.”

He more feels than sees Sebastian shrug beside him, “Oh well. As long as everyone’s enjoying themselves…”

Finally, they are no more glasses to refill. Kurt straightens himself and hands Sebastian his glass back before he arranges the rest on his tray – at least in appearance, nothing but a very dutiful footman.

“My grandmother just told me she will leave next week,” Sebastian says, “She made me promise to dance with the Milford girls first, but that was a small sacrifice given the result.”

“I like the Milford girls,” Kurt informs him, “They all have superior taste in fashion and music.”

“They do,” Sebastian agrees, “Unfortunately, they’re also much better at dancing than I am.”

Kurt grins, but quickly suppresses the emotion – it would be conspicuous if one of the guests should look in their direction.

“So, Lady Smythe will be leaving next week,” Kurt says, when both his face and his voice are indifferent again. “What about you?”

Sebastian’s brow furrows in confusion, “What about me?”

“Will you stay here, or are you going to leave too?” Kurt asks, “Visit more families, now that you’re on good terms with so many of them, travel with Sir Robert… maybe spend Christmas with the Huntingtons?”

Sebastian suppresses a shudder. His grandmother had insisted on inviting the Huntingtons, but Kurt and Nick caught Sebastian going through the finished stack of invitations and dropping a few of them into the fireplace – including the one destined to Longleat.

“I’ll think I’ll rather stay here,” he replies. “See whether I can get Robert to enjoy a little hunting, and read. You know, a few quiet weeks after all this ruckus.”

Kurt nods, and takes his tray. “I’m sure that’ll be nice,” he says, cursing himself for not having anything more clever or more interesting to say.

Sebastian is looking at him again now, and the expression on his face is the same Kurt saw in the woods earlier, just before he wrapped his scarf around Kurt’s neck.

“I thought you and the others might have enjoyed a little quiet time while we were in Bath,” he says. “I know that something like this evening brings Mrs Bertram to the brink of a nervous breakdown.”

“It does,” Kurt says, “But personally, I like when things are busy around here. And I did have a rather quiet summer.” He notices the way Sebastian’s expression changes, and because he doesn’t want him to think that Kurt is trying to bring up unpleasant memories, not now, he quickly adds, “And it’s certainly never boring with you around.”

Sebastian grins, and raises his glass to his lips. Kurt hates that he notices the way Sebastian’s throat moves when he swallows, the way he slowly licks his bottom lip.

“Well, in that case,” Sebastian retorts, “I’ll be happy to stay and make your life a little more interesting.”

He winks at Kurt and saunters off, leaving the footman with a tray in his hands and a quickened heartbeat pulsing through his body. And when Kurt looks after his employer as he makes his way across the room, smiling at people and exchanging a few sentences with one or the other, he realises that he is beginning to recognise the feeling deep down inside his stomach, the warmth spreading through his chest, and the tingling sensation in his fingertips.

He knows that his feelings for Sebastian are starting to change into something he feels quite unprepared for. And worst of all – he is afraid that if he isn’t very careful, Sebastian will soon become aware of that too.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never?” Kurt inquires.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You missed what?” Kurt asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

 

January – February 1851


 

Kurt stares at the butler in disbelief for a long moment, before he slowly repeats, his voice sounding strangely distant to his own ears, “Lord Smythe has left Bailey Hall?”

“He departed in the carriage,” Mr Moore emphasises, looking at Kurt with a puzzled expression on his face that indicates very clearly that he doesn’t understand why his youngest footman has suddenly become this slow on the uptake, “He said he planned to travel to London first, and then to Edinburgh, to see how Sir Robert is recovering.”

“Did something happen?” Kurt asks, suddenly feeling perturbed. “Something with Sir Robert…?”

“No no,” Mr Moore interrupts quickly when he sees Kurt’s concern, “No, his lordship assured me that Sir Robert is doing quite well, there is no reason to feel alarmed. Lord Smythe said he merely wishes to inquire about Sir Robert’s condition personally, and stay with him for a while after leaving him alone on Christmas and New Year. He also indicated that he wishes to visit his solicitor in London, but I assume he won’t…”

Kurt keeps staring at the butler, nodding mechanically even though he is no longer listening to a word of what the other man is saying. All of a sudden, he feels strangely detached from his surroundings, and only vaguely realises that he is following Mr Moore down the corridor. He isn’t quite sure what to make of what the butler has just told him. He doesn’t doubt that it is true, but he can’t make sense of it at first, can’t find an answer as to why Sebastian would leave this abruptly.

It seems strange that Sebastian took off in such a hurry (especially since Nick’s condition is still a little critical), and without saying goodbye, without talking to Kurt first, telling that footman that he had to leave, and explaining why he had to leave.

There must be a reason, Kurt manages to assure himself, even if he can’t understand it right now. Perhaps – even though Kurt wishes deeply this not to be the reason – Sir Robert’s condition is worse than Sebastian let himself admit to Mr Moore. Perhaps there is truly some urgent, private business at London regarding his finances, or maybe even politics, that Sebastian can’t share with the servants. Perhaps something happened with his grandmother. Or perhaps one of his friends (or, as Kurt has chosen to think of them lately, his acquaintances) has gotten himself into some trouble, and has called on Sebastian for help.

But even though he is able to come up with a number of possible justifications for Sebastian’s departure, what remains is a nagging doubt somewhere at the back of Kurt’s mind, a doubt that derives from the fact that Kurt cannot find a reason for why Sebastian would leave without an explanation. What could be this urgent that he couldn’t wait for half an hour until Kurt returned, then snatch him away under the pretence of ordering the footman to pack his suitcase, and explain everything to him in private?

It’s this question, along with a growing self-consciousness about the fact that Sebastian and he didn’t have any opportunity to talk about what happened between them, which leaves a queasy feeling in Kurt’s stomach.

But perhaps, Kurt realises suddenly, he is jumping to conclusions. Maybe Sebastian has left something for him – a note, a letter, something to explain his sudden departure.

Beside him, Mr Moore has resumed his original lecture on how to pack his lordship’s suitcase – as if Kurt hasn’t helped Nick half a dozen times packing Sebastian’s clothes over these last months. Impatiently, Kurt waits for an opportunity to interrupt the butler, and when Mr Moore pauses briefly, he quickly interjects, “I will take care of it immediately, Mr Moore. I would just like to quickly check on Nick before I fetch the suitcase.”

Mr Moore’s brows furrow, though Kurt cannot determine whether in annoyance at the footman interrupting him or at Kurt expressing his wish to delay his duties, and replies, “I believe Nick is still asleep. He hasn’t woken since you left with Doctor Bell.”

While that eliminates the possibility of Nick being able to explain Sebastian’s sudden departure, it doesn’t rule out the possibility that Sebastian has left some note with him – addressed either to Nick, or Kurt, or both of them. “I shan’t disturb him,” Kurt assures the butler. “And I’ll start with the packing right away, I promise.”

Mr Moore sighs deeply before waving dismissively, muttering something about youth and duties and gratitude under his breath as he continues to walk down the corridor. Kurt only waits until the butler has vanished behind the next corner before he makes his way up the stairs as quickly and quietly as possible, taking two steps at a time. He slows only when he approaches Nick’s door, tiptoeing down the last part of the corridor before gently turning the doorknob.

Nick is alone, which in itself is a testament to his recovery, illustrating that none of the servants feel the anxiety to keep close watch over him every minute of the day any longer. He has burrowed deep beneath his blankets, and Kurt can only make out the curve of his cheek and his hair, dark against the white pillow.

Despite his nervousness, Kurt can’t help the smile that crosses his features at seeing Nick this peaceful. He makes sure to move quietly around the room while he searches for a note, a letter, anything that Sebastian could have left in an inconspicuous corner. He checks the windowsill, the books on Nick’s desk, he lifts the white porcelain bowl from the washstand, he looks under the bed, he even climbs on a chair to peer onto the dusty top of the old wardrobe – but there is no letter, no note in sight.

When he has looked in every corner, every place he can possibly think of, Kurt sits down on the chair next to Nick’s bed – a sinking feeling in his stomach, but still thinking hard. Perhaps he is merely looking in the wrong places. Would Sebastian really have left something here, in a room that Jeff and Mr Moore and Doctor Bell and Mrs Seymour will continue to enter regularly over the next couple of days, exposing any note to a constant danger of being discovered?

He sits there for a few moments longer, listening to Nick’s deep breaths which turn into light snores every time he inhales. Despite his earlier promise to Mr Moore, Kurt decides that it won’t hurt to postpone the packing for just a couple of minutes longer, and he slips out of the room as noiselessly as he entered it.

The first room he searches is his own, and he examines it as thoroughly as he checked Nick’s. When he has looked in all the obvious hiding spots, he even slides a hand under his pillow, hoping that his fingertips will brush against a piece of paper – but all they meet is stiff and cold fabric. He moves on to examine Jeff’s pillow in the same way, because it occurs to him that Sebastian, who has probably never been in this room before, couldn’t have known which bed belongs to Kurt. Only when his fingers brush once more against nothing more than cool linen does he realise his own stupidity. Hiding something beneath Kurt or Jeff’s pillows would in no way be safer than hiding something in Nick’s room – quite the contrary.

Before he can allow himself to start feeling foolish and humiliated, Kurt quickly leaves the room, deciding that the servant’s quarters are out of the question. He takes the stairs up to the second floor, thinking that he should have started to search Sebastian’s own rooms right away. Thankful that none of the maids have come up yet to clean the chambers after Sebastian’s departure, he starts with the study, where he checks the messily scattered letters and half-finished notes on the desk (none of them addressed to Kurt or Nick) and between the books on shelves that, after Sebastian’s stay of almost two weeks, are beginning to gather dust again. When his search continues to prove fruitless, he moves onto search Sebastian’s bedroom: the bed, the wardrobe, the washstand – but all in vain.

Finally, Kurt finds himself once again in the library, taking every book out of the shelves that he can remember talking about with Sebastian and browsing through their pages. The stacks on the tables and chairs are piling higher and higher, and yet all Kurt finds are two old bookmarks and a pressed flower, the faded bloom of a clematis which must have been hidden between the pages of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida for some years already.

Eventually, he stands in the middle of the room, slowly turning and scrutinizing the shelves for any volume he might have overlooked. As he turns, his gaze falls on a painting, a painting that he hasn’t paid much attention to over these last months, mainly because its subject was at the centre of Kurt’s attention.

He takes a step towards the wall, his eyes fixed on Sebastian’s features smiling down at him from above the fireplace. Kurt remembers how he saw this painting for the first time, on his very first day at Bailey Hall, when Nick showed him around the estate. He recalls wondering what his employer would be like, and how he tried to read in Sebastian’s features what kind of person the young earl would turn out to be. Now, more than a year later, Kurt feels like he simultaneously knows so much more, and yet, not nearly enough about the other man. But looking at the portrait brings back some unpleasant memories of their early encounters, memories that stir the nagging voice inside his head, the one which keeps asking:

What if Sebastian hasn’t left him, or Nick, or anyone an explanation for his sudden departure?

What if he had not so much as spared a thought for Kurt before he left?

Gnawing on his bottom lip, Kurt leaves the library, not bothering to clean up the chaos. He can always do that later, he decides, and, in case someone complains, claim that it was Sebastian who has left the library in this state – after all, it wouldn’t be the first time.

He keeps thinking as he fetches the suitcase from the storeroom, and brings it up to Sebastian’s bedroom, leaving it on the mattress before he opens the doors of the wardrobe. He doesn’t pay much attention to what he is doing, because after countless times of packing and unpacking suitcases, Kurt doesn’t need to stop his contemplation while he throws socks and undergarments, shirts and trousers and waistcoats into the brown trunk.

He has to accept the fact that apparently, Sebastian not only refrained from waiting and explaining his departure to Kurt, but he also didn’t bother to leave an explanation behind. Kurt briefly considers the possibility that Sebastian might send a letter from London, like he did during the time he stayed at Brighton with Sir Robert. But as much as Kurt desperately wants to justify Sebastian’s actions, he slowly begins to accept that there is really nothing that truly explains why Sebastian has left his home without so much as a glance back when his best friend is just recovering from a serious illness.

And even less, why he did it without giving Kurt an opportunity to talk to him about what happened that morning in Nick’s room.

It takes Kurt a moment to comprehend that he has been standing in front of Sebastian’s open suitcase, staring at the piece of clothing in his hands for what must have already been a couple of minutes. His thumb moves over the smooth fabric, tracing its delicate pattern and the neat seams. It’s one of Sebastian’s favourite waistcoats, a light blue one with brass buttons. Kurt remembers holding it in his hands before, passing it to Nick when they were packing for Sebastian’s trip to Bath. It feels like a long time ago. And suddenly, he remembers that they also packed a scarf in a matching shade of blue – a scarf that, currently, rests under a loose board beneath the window of Kurt’s room. 

Kurt doesn’t know how long he stands in front of Sebastian’s bed, staring at the waistcoat while that fateful afternoon in the forest plays over and over inside his mind.

He remembers the way Sebastian’s fingers brushed against his skin when he was tying the scarf around Kurt’s neck in an unexpected gesture of affection. He recalls other incidents: the afternoon in Sebastian’s bathroom, and his wet skin smooth beneath Kurt’s fingertips. Christmas morning, and their mutual reluctance to let go of each other’s hands. And finally, that morning by Nick’s bed, climaxing in an impulsive kiss tasting of longing, reassurance and the excitement of newly discovered feelings.

But as Kurt reflects on these incidents, he begins to remember other things as well: Sebastian’s reluctance to speak to Kurt, his repeated withdrawal from what could have become intimate situations, his hesitance to indulge in the flirtation with Kurt. He recalls how Sebastian was the one to pull away that afternoon in the bathroom, when Kurt was ready to cross the invisible line between them. He muses about the look on Sebastian’s face after their first kiss: a tentative happiness mixing with relief and wanting, but also a certain doubt and hesitance clouding his gaze. He remembers what seemed like attempts to speak to Kurt, yet shying away from the confrontation – and Kurt, too caught up in his own happiness to notice the signs, not pressing for a conversation, believing that they had all the time in the world to talk about what would become of them now.

What if – and Kurt suddenly realises that this is the question that has been at the back of his mind since the moment Mr Moore had told him about the sudden departure – what if the kiss, and everything that has happened between them over the last couple of days, weeks, is the reason why Sebastian has left?

In the winter after Kurt turned nine years old, some boys from the village tried to skate on the frozen surface of a small pond behind Chawton Manor. Kurt was among them, and it was out of sheer misfortune that he was the one to first reach the middle of the pond, where the ice wasn’t yet thick enough to bear the weight of a young boy. It cracked under his feet, and Kurt toppled down into the icy water.

It wasn’t truly dangerous – the pond wasn’t deep enough for Kurt to sink completely underwater, and the other boys pulled him out immediately. While Mrs Norris, the housekeeper, ran down to the village to fetch his mother, the maids in the kitchen fussed over Kurt – they freed the shaking boy from his soaked clothes, wrapped him in blankets in front of the fireplace and rubbed his arms and legs until Kurt stopped shaking, and his skin was glowing pink with warmth again.

While it wasn’t a particularly traumatising event, neither has it become a pleasant childhood memory. It takes Kurt a moment to understand why he remembers the incident now, standing in Sebastian’s bedroom and clutching an innocent piece of clothing so tightly that the fabric starts to wrinkle. When he tumbled down into the icy water as a boy, there was a split second of complete numbness, of not feeling anything, a few almost blissful moments before the shock of the icy reality around him set in.

There is no other reason for Sebastian’s departure, Kurt realises with startling clarity, the numbness in his chest giving way to something much more awful, no other reason than Sebastian deciding to run away from Bailey Hall, from Kurt, from what happened between them. While Kurt was too busy revelling in his own happiness, Sebastian decided to avoid the inevitable confrontation by leaving under the pretence of checking on Sir Robert and settling something in London.

He could have seen the signs, Kurt realises. He should have seen the signs, should have paid attention to what was actually going on around him, instead of dreaming about what could be. Until mere seconds ago, he had clung onto the idea that Sebastian’s feelings for him were of the same nature as Kurt’s: unsure and hesitant, and yet starting to evolve into something deeper, something that was worth crossing the boundaries between them. But in this moment of clarity, Kurt realises that Sebastian’s actions show that Kurt clearly had the wrong idea about what was truly happening between them.

And yet – letting go of this idea hurts more than Kurt ever would have anticipated.

“Kurt?”

Suddenly, there is a gentle touch on his elbow, and when he turns his head, he sees Jane standing next to him, a concerned expression on her face. “Are you alright, Kurt?” she asks.

Only when her fingertips touch his cheek, and Kurt feels the dampness on his own skin, he realises that he has started to cry. He looks at Jane, unable to form words, to come up with an explanation of why he has never been so far from being ‘alright’. Even in this state, he is aware that he needs to come up with a plausible explanation why he is standing in front of Sebastian’s opened suitcase, clutching the other man’s vest in his hands and weeping – but he can’t think of anything to say. Instead, he just stares at the girl in front of him, hoping that she will understand, and at the same time praying that she won’t understand anything at all.

Jane doesn’t pay any attention to the waistcoat or the opened suitcase. Instead, her gaze lingers on Kurt’s features while her fingertips brush over his cheek, trying to wipe the tears away. She doesn’t ask anything, but her touch is soothing, and her gaze concerned while she patiently waits for Kurt to speak.

“I...” Kurt finally tries, but his voice breaks at the first sound, and he has to clear his throat before he can try again, “I’m sorry...”

“This is nothing you need to feel sorry for,” Jane interrupts him gently. She takes the waistcoat out of his fingers, lays the wrinkled fabric aside, and hands him her handkerchief, “To be honest, I was almost expecting this.”

Kurt takes the white piece of cloth to dab on his cheeks and the tip of his nose, blinking at the maid in confusion, unsure as to what she is referring to.
“It’s been a bit much,” Jane says, resting her hand on Kurt’s shoulder and gently pulling the younger boy against her delicate frame, giving Kurt every opportunity to pull away if the affectionate gesture should be unwelcome. When Kurt merely rests his cheek against her shoulder, she continues, “All those weeks with this dreadful epidemic, and the fussing over New Year’s, and then Nick’s illness... and you have born it so well.”

She sighs, her gaze fixed on something in the distance, “It’s strange, because when times are really hard, everyone seems to simply… work. They function. It’s only when the worst is over that people tend to break.”

She leans back and smiles at Kurt, her hand resting on his arm in silent comfort, “When my father was so ill in September, I couldn’t even pause for a moment to think about what it would have been like had he really passed away. There was just so much to do, and since my mother couldn’t leave him alone, I had to take care of everything: cooking, cleaning, washing, caring for the little ones… And in all that time, I didn’t cry, not even once. It was only two days after the doctor assured us that my father would make a full recovery, I found myself standing in the kitchen one morning, stirring the porridge and sobbing uncontrollably.”

“That isn’t...” Kurt begins, wanting to point out that he is not breaking down because of exhaustion or nerves, that he is not overworked, that it is simply the disappointment that comes from having to face the fact that he has once again trusted the wrong person that hurts so unbelievably much – but instead, he closes his mouth again. Because how on earth could he ever explain to Jane what he is really crying about?

“It’s nothing you need to feel ashamed of,” Jane says, smiling reassuringly, “We all have our limitations, Kurt. And I saw how hard you worked over these last weeks. You took care of everyone, especially of Nick – and I think that now it is time we take care of you.”

She looks at Kurt with so much honest concern and understanding in her hazel eyes that Kurt can’t help but lean forward and rest his face against the soft fabric covering her shoulder once more, thinking that if he ever wished for a sister, he would have wanted someone like Jane.

“Now,” Jane says, letting Kurt rest against her shoulder for a moment before she gently grips his shoulders and pushes him up, just enough to be able to meet his gaze, “I want you to go to bed, lie down, and sleep as long as you want to. I’ll talk to Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore about letting you rest for a day or two.”

Kurt blows his nose noisily before he shakes his head, saying, “I need to finish packing first.”

“I can do that,” Jane objects, steering him gently but firmly towards the door. “I’ll have the suitcase ready in a few minutes, don’t worry.”

“But I...” Kurt tries again, but Jane interrupts him, “Kurt, we’ll manage without you this evening. Jeff can take care of Nick, I can see to the packing, don’t worry. What you really need to do is get some rest.”

For a second, Kurt thinks he should object to this, should insist that he is fine – but then, he really isn’t. He feels awful, and the prospect of getting away from everything, of getting to rest for a few hours, alone, to be able to sort his thoughts, or even just to wallow in self-pity, sounds too good to refuse.

“Thank you,” he says, squeezing Jane’s hand gratefully. The head housemaid merely smiles and ushers him out of the room, “Don’t mention it. Now off with you, before I change my mind.”

Without any further objection, Kurt makes his way down the corridor and the flight of stairs, retreating to his room without meeting anyone. He undresses quickly and folds his clothes neatly on one of the chairs before he slips under the covers, pulling the blankets close around his body and resting his heated cheek against the cool linen of his pillow.

He doesn’t know what Jane tells Mr Moore, but soon he can hear their voices from below, raised in what appears to be a heated argument. The voices eventually subside into the usual clattering and bustling coming from the kitchen, and half an hour later, soft footsteps approach his door, hesitating briefly before someone turns the doorknob. Kurt hears Jeff whisper his name, but he remains where he is, his eyes shut tightly, and pretends to be asleep. Jeff remains in the doorframe for a few moments, listening to what Kurt hopes appear to be deep and regular intakes of breath, before he shuts the door quietly behind him. Kurt can hear his footsteps moving to the door opposite their room, and the faint sound of voices a moment later tells him that Nick is awake now. Jeff will probably tell him that Sebastian has left Bailey Hall, Kurt realises suddenly, and that Kurt has retreated to his room to get some rest. For a moment, he feels bad for making everyone, including Nick, worry about him – and for another moment, he wished to be the one to tell the other footman about Sebastian’s departure. It wouldn’t have been too hard to catch Nick alone for a little while, to inform him not only about the fact that Sebastian had left Bailey Hall, but also why he did. Because if Kurt is sure of anything, it is that Nick would be able to offer some helpful advice.

But the fact that he can’t even think about it, can’t remember the moment Sebastian and he shared at Nick’s bedside without fresh tears clouding his vision, tells him that he should calm down a little before he tries to talk to Nick – not only to be able to relate what happened without bursting into tears, but also to give the other footman some time to recover from his illness before being faced with new problems.

And since apart from Nick, there is no one at Bailey who Kurt can confide in, he has to accept that this time, he has to deal with his heartbreak on his own.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, Kurt thinks bitterly. He pulls the covers over his head, as if they could help him to shut out the world around him. After all, it hasn’t even been a whole year since Kurt spent another night crying over misplaced trust in someone who, despite Kurt’s belief regarding a change in their relationship, had sorely disappointed him. He almost has to laugh when he realises the cyclical turn of events – how he is crying, once again, because Sebastian has left for London without him. The chief difference, however, is that this time, Kurt is not let down by an employer who had started to behave more amiably towards him – he is disappointed by a friend, a friend who Kurt believed would soon become so much more.
The longer he lies in his bed, clutching the edge of his blanket and staring at the ceiling, the more the disappointment and hurt give way to other feelings – humiliation, mostly, and later, when the afternoon has long faded into a grey twilight, and Kurt can hear the other servants rushing down to the kitchen for dinner, anger. He doesn’t know whether he feels more angry at Sebastian for leaving him, or at himself, for once more being so stupid and naive and trusting, when he had observed how Sebastian approached relationships for more than a year, and should know better than everybody else – except for Nick, maybe – that Sebastian could never have given Kurt the relationship he dreamed about.

Long after Jeff has tiptoed into the room, changed quietly into his nightshirt and blown out the candle, careful not to disturb his roommate, Kurt still finds himself unable to fall asleep. It must be around midnight when he finally starts to cry again, muffling his sobs against his pillow. What hurts most is not the shock, not the anger – it’s the fact that apparently, Kurt is not important enough, is not worth enough for Sebastian to stay and fight whatever doubts he has about them.

It’s only in the earliest hours of the morning when the exhaustion of the last days, and particularly the last hours take over and Kurt finally drifts off into a deep slumber. If he dreams about anything that night, he cannot recall it when he wakes the next morning.


When Kurt appears at the breakfast table with dark circles under his eyes and pale cheeks, his eyes barely open due to the dull pain throbbing behind his right temple, Mr Moore takes one long look at him before he sends the boy back to bed, claiming that he won’t have another person falling ill if he can prevent it.

While Kurt welcomes the opportunity to sleep for a few more hours, he finds that being alone brings too many unpleasant thoughts and memories, things he can’t bring himself to face right now – at least, not alone. So, despite Mr Moore’s strict instructions, he tiptoes over to Nick’s room in the early afternoon. He is relieved to see that Nick is looking much better, and they spend the afternoon talking and playing cards until Jeff comes up to bring them their dinner. The blond footman stays half an hour to complain that they get to enjoy themselves (Nick’s objection that this is only because Kurt is exhausted while he himself was on the brink of dying is brushed aside with a shrug) while he is left alone with Mr Moore, who makes sure to keep his last remaining footman as busy as possible. Jeff leaves the room half an hour later, taking the empty trays with him down to the kitchen to get his own dinner.

A few times over the course of the afternoon, Kurt opens his mouth, desperate to tell Nick about everything that happened, but every time he looks at the other man and sees the slowly fading paleness of his cheeks, and the way he still tires quickly when talking for too long, he can’t bring himself to address the issue. Partly because he is not sure whether Nick has the energy to deal with what Kurt is going to reveal, and partly because Kurt is not sure how Nick will react to his confession in the first place. He is uncertain whether Nick will reprimand him for being too naïve, and remind him that he has started to dream of something, to hope for something that he cannot get from Sebastian – a fact he should have been aware of from the start. And while Kurt is slowly reaching that realisation himself, he is not sure whether he feels ready to hear Nick voice it.

Naturally, the topic of Sebastian’s departure does come up in their conversation, right at the beginning, when Nick asks him whether Sebastian said anything to Kurt before he left. Somehow, Kurt manages to keep a largely indifferent expression when he replies that he spent too much time at the village that afternoon, and was therefore unable to see Sebastian before he left.

“I’m worried about Sir Robert,” he remarks, not only because it is true, but also because he wants to distract Nick from the original topic of their conversation, “He has seen so many doctors now, but it doesn’t seem like his condition is improving.”

“I was hoping that it wouldn’t turn into something chronic,” Nick agrees, “But I’m afraid that is what’s happening.” His expression becomes a little puzzled when he adds, “I understand that Sebastian wants to check on him. He probably wants to see whether there is anything he can do to help. I just find it strange that he took off in such a hurry.”

Kurt would be lying if he claimed that he is not immensely proud of himself when he maintains his unaffected expression, shrugs and replies, “Perhaps there is some other urgent matter in London. I’m sure he will send a letter soon – if only to see how you are doing.”

Nick looks at him for a long moment, his gaze sceptical, like there is something about Kurt’s response he finds strange – but then he merely asks Kurt whether Jane has heard anything from her family. And it’s with a bitter taste in his mouth that Kurt wonders whether he has finally become as convincing at acting as Nick and Sebastian have been all the time he has known them.


 

Sometimes during these days, Kurt feels like he has so many secrets and lies bottled up inside him that he fears at some point, he won’t be able to keep silent any longer and will do something stupid, like announcing at the breakfast table, “By the way, his lordship kissed me. Twice. Harriet, could you pass me the butter, please?”

But of course, he doesn’t. Under Jane and Mr Moore’s watchful gazes, he stays in bed for a day longer, and then he is ordered to take it easy for a while. Much to Jeff’s chagrin, Mr Moore keeps the blond footman busy while Kurt is chiefly assigned one task: taking care of Nick. The third footman’s recovery goes slowly, but smoothly, and every time Doctor Bell visits his patient, he leaves with a more satisfied expression. After three days, Nick is allowed to leave his bed for the first time, and Kurt and Jeff help him down to the kitchen where he spends an hour chatting with the other servants, before Mrs Bertram, still afraid that he might overexert himself, gently but sternly tells him to retreat to his room.

Every day now, Nick is able to spend longer periods in the kitchen or in the library, reading or playing cards with the other footmen. Once, he asks Kurt to bring over the chessboard, and an unpleasant feeling spreads through Kurt’s chest when he gazes at the innocent game when the memory of a firm shoulder pressing against his, a low chuckle in his ear when he mistakenly moves the wrong figure crosses his mind. He is not entirely certain whether he manages to keep his expression indifferent, but he knows that his voice quivers ever so lightly when he claims not to be in the right mood for chess. He can feel Nick’s piercing gaze on him for the rest of the afternoon, but the other man doesn’t inquire any further, and Kurt feels relieved about that.

He is certain that by now, Nick must have grown suspicious, not only because of Sebastian’s hasty departure and Kurt’s thinly veiled reluctance to talk about the other man, but also because even after five days, not a single letter from Sebastian has reached Bailey Hall.

Kurt already feels angry at Sebastian for a vast number of reasons, but that the other man doesn’t even care to inquire after Nick, when his best friend’s condition had been really serious, is something that Kurt begrudges him even more than his sudden departure.

“Has his lordship written when we can expect his return, Mr Moore?” Kurt finally blurts out one afternoon, when he is helping the butler to collect the large wine jugs and bring them down to the kitchen, where Nick and Jeff give them a thorough going-over. He doesn’t expect the butler to give a positive response – he merely wants to make certain that no letter from Sebastian has escaped his attention at the breakfast table.

“He has not written anything,” Mr Moore replies, and thus confirms Kurt’s suspicions, “But he told me not to expect any correspondence from him when he departed.”

“He did?” Kurt asks, confused at this new piece of information.

“He did,” Mr Moore confirms, “Given the fact that he is busy travelling, I didn’t expect him to write in any case. He merely asked me to write him immediately should there be any change in Nicholas’s condition.”

Kurt is just about to lift one of the larger jugs, but now he stops dead in his tracks to stare at the butler and ask, “What?”

“He gave me explicit orders to keep him informed about Nicholas’s recovery,” Mr Moore says, running his finger over the rim of a crystal glass, testing whether there is even a tiny crack in the surface. “I have posted three of four letters, to assure him that Nicholas is doing fine, and that he doesn’t need to worry.”

He looks at Kurt, and when he sees the footman still staring at him, his left eyebrow rises in mild rebuke and he says, “That jug isn’t going to carry itself, Kurt.”

The revelation that Sebastian did not simply leave without forgetting about his best friend should be reassuring – and yet, some awful, bitter part inside of Kurt would have liked to just be able to stay mad at Sebastian. It is almost grudgingly that Kurt admits to himself that he has misjudged the other man – at least in this regard.


It’s on the eighth day after Sebastian’s departure when Kurt finally finds an opportunity to talk to Nick about what has happened.

The day is unseasonably warm, and the sunshine grows even stronger around noon, melting the last remnants of snow away. Since Doctor Bell mentioned when he visited his patient the day before that a little bit of fresh air would do Nick good, Kurt and Jeff bring out a chair into the rose garden, and wrap Nick up in every blanket they can find before they bring him outside.

“I feel like one of them,” Nick laughs, freeing his arm from beneath the countless blankets and points towards the rose bushes. In autumn, Howard and Jonathan helped the gardener to protect the delicate flowers from the first frost by wrapping old jute sacks around their stems, and there really is a certain likeness between the plants and the muffled up footman.

“Don’t complain,” Kurt says. He sits down next to Jeff on the low wall surrounding the rose garden, pulling a blanket around his own shoulders to protect himself against the chilly air. “You know that Doctor Bell said you need air and sunshine.”

“And since we can’t afford to send you to the seaside, that leaves the garden,” Jeff concludes, pulling his legs closer to his body and resting his chin on his knees.

Kurt knows Jeff hasn’t thought about the casual remark, but the mention of the seaside, and the accompanying image of the bright beach of Brighton he saw once on a postcard, nevertheless causes an unpleasant feeling to spread through his chest. He hates how everything around him – the books in the library, the boots in the corridor, the flowers in the drawing room – reminds him of Sebastian, and he hates himself for not being able to push the memories these reminders bring aside, no matter how hard he tries.

He is glad when Jeff hands him a book to read from, not because it’s one of his favourite Dickens’ stories, but because it gives him something to distract him from his thoughts. He reads quietly, only loud enough for the other two boys to hear. Nick seems to doze off after the first couple of pages, his face still turned towards the sunshine, a relaxed smile on his lips, and when Kurt’s gaze meets Jeff, they smile at the calm expression on Nick’s face.

After approximately half an hour, Kurt’s looks up from the pages when he spots a movement from the corner of his eye. He sees Harriet standing in the doorway, gesturing, and it takes Kurt a few seconds to understand that her silent request is not directed at him, but at Jeff. The blond footman grins and nods, and quietly hops down from the wall, careful not to disturb Nick. When he catches Kurt’s questioning gaze, he merely shrugs and winks at the other boy before hurrying after Harriet, who has disappeared in the door again.

Kurt stares after them, not sure whether he should be feeling surprised or worried. He can’t claim that he hasn’t noticed how close the maid and the other footman have grown over the last weeks – and yet, he didn’t think that there was anything truly serious going on between them. He quickly casts a look at Nick, but the other footman is blissfully oblivious as to where the blond boy he is in love with has just vanished to, and Kurt feels thankful for it.

He doesn’t continue reading. He remains on the wall, and watches the last bits of ice slowly melting into puddles of muddy water on the gravel. There are birds chirping in the trees of the park, not many, but the remaining ones are warbling so loudly that one might believe that spring has already arrived. And yet, Kurt can’t find anything soothing about the sound – the chirps seem harsh, demanding, like they are pressing him to do what he should have done days ago.

He manages to keep silent for a few minutes longer, before he finally blurts out, “Nick?”

The other footman gives no answer at first, and Kurt has to repeat his address to extract a far-off, “Hmm?” from Nick. He doesn’t open his eyes or turn his face, but for Kurt, this acknowledgement is enough to finally blurt out, “I kissed Sebastian.”

The confession is enough to startle Nick out of his drowsiness: he turns his head and blinks at Kurt before he slowly asks, “You what?”

“I kissed Sebastian,” Kurt repeats, but then he remembers the way the other man leaned in, the eager way his lips moved against Kurt’s, and he hastily corrects himself, “He was… I mean, we kissed. When you were ill. Or, not when you were ill, when you were better. Perhaps because you were better, I mean… and… well…” Kurt trails off, glancing at Nick uncertainly. When the other footman merely keeps looking at him with a blank expression on his face, Kurt begs, “Say something, please.”

Kurt isn’t entirely sure what he expected from Nick, but he feels oddly relieved when Nick merely sighs deeply and closes his eyes, nodding a few times before he says, “I was afraid something like this might happen sooner or later.” He opens his eyes again and looks at Kurt, his expression even but his gaze inquiring when he asks, “So, you two kissed?”

Kurt nods, his gaze fixed on the muddy puddle next to his right boot, and says, “I wouldn’t have thought that it would happen at all. I mean, I thought about it for a long time, and I really wanted to kiss him, and there was that afternoon, a little while back, when we already almost kissed, and I…” He trails off when he realises that Nick can’t possibly follow his flustered account, but when he looks up, he can spot a faint but understanding smile in the crinkling corners of Nick’s mouth.

“Maybe you should start at the beginning,” the other man suggests gently. Kurt takes a deep breath, nods, and begins to tell Nick everything. He tells him about the first changes in their relationship: Sebastian’s apology after his return from London, their first private encounters, the first, tentative touches. He knows that Nick has witnessed some of these, of course, but he feels like it’s important to include them in his account before he moves on to the things Nick is still unaware of. He tells him about the increasing level of intimacy between them, of the flirtations, the signs of affection. He mentions the afternoon in the forest, talks about Teleny and the scarf that is still hidden in his room. He talks about the evening in Sebastian’s bathroom, and about how willing he was in that particular moment to cross all boundaries between them. He tells Nick about Sebastian’s Christmas present, about the hours they spend together at Nick’s bedside – and eventually, he tells him about the kiss. 

Nick listens to his tale silently and patiently, not interrupting Kurt once. When Kurt reaches the end of his account – the afternoon he found out that Sebastian had left Bailey Hall, and how he hasn’t heard from him since – Nick is silent for a few seconds longer. And when he finally speaks, all he says is, “I see.”

“Do you?” Kurt asks. He is not surprised when he hears his voice quivering – now that he has once more revisited all the moments he shared with Sebastian over the previous months, brought back the memories he more or less successfully managed to repress over the last days, the pain in his chest, dulled for some time, has become sharp again. “Because I don’t see it, Nick. I don’t see it at all.”

He flinches when he feels an unexpected, gentle touch on his skin, and looks down to see Nick’s long fingers closed around his right hand, prying it away from where his fingers have started to fiddle with the hem of his coat. Nick, who has reached out without rising from his seat, envelops Kurt’s fingers with his, holding them firmly against his dry and cool skin. Kurt closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, squeezing Nick’s fingers. Even though one or two tears escape and roll down his cheeks, he doesn’t start crying, not really. Not like he did that evening eight days ago. He concentrates on taking deep breaths for a few minutes, and on the steadying feeling of Nick’s fingers around his own. When his breathing has calmed again, he opens his eyes and sees Nick looking at him with a concerned, but completely unsurprised expression.

“You knew all this time that something had happened,” Kurt accuses him, wiping at his already drying cheeks with the hem of his sleeve.

“I guessed,” Nick confirms, “You behaved very strangely these last days. Not to mention that it’s odd that Sebastian hasn’t sent a single letter since he left. Or that you two seemed really close before I caught that cold, and now you avoid talking about him like the plague. So yes, I thought something happened. But I figured I could wait until you were ready to talk about it.” He sighs, “I thought you two might have quarrelled again. And apparently, I was right and terribly wrong at the same time.”

Kurt lets go of Nick’s hand to rummage around in his pocket, pulls out his handkerchief and blows his nose noisily. Nick takes in his flushed cheeks, the circles under his eyes, and slowly, a sad smile starts to spread across the other man’s features.

“You’re in love with him,” he says. It’s not a question, it’s not an accusation – it’s a statement, as matter-of-fact as if he was remarking that the sky is unusually blue today, or that the porridge this morning was a little bit too salty.

Kurt’s first impulse is to deny the assessment, and he has already opened his mouth when his gaze meets Nick’s. He would have expected to spot pity, or perhaps even a little bit of condescension at the idea that he has fallen for someone like Sebastian, who, as he has been made aware time and time again, is not the appropriate material for a love-story – or at least, not for an easy one. But all he sees in Nick’s eyes is honest concern, perhaps a little tiredness, and a small portion of anger and disappointment – though the latter do not seem to be directed at Kurt. Therefore, Kurt merely replies, his voice much calmer now, “I’m not sure I want to be.”

“He has really hurt you this time, hasn’t he?” Nick asks quietly, and Kurt looks down at his feet again, swallowing before he answers. “It’s just… I thought that this might be the start of… something,” Kurt says, and the words sound terribly naïve, even to his own ears. “Of a… relationship.”

“Is that what you want?” Nick asks, “To be in a relationship with Sebastian?”

“Well, it’s quite obviously not what Sebastian wants,” Kurt laughs, his voice bitter, but Nick shakes his head, “Let’s leave Sebastian out of this for a moment, Kurt. This is about you. You’re in love with him, I understand that. But what is it that you want from him?”

“Why are you asking me this?” Kurt inquires, puzzled and not quite able to follow Nick’s train of thoughts.

“Because I think whatever you pictured your future with Seb to look like might not be able to live up to reality,” Nick says, his voice even and firm.
“You mean, because of whatever issues Sebastian has, that you still refuse to-“ Kurt begins, but Nick interrupts him, “I told you, leave Sebastian and his issues out of this for a second.” He tilts his head to the right, “I want to know whether you are aware of what you’re getting into when you say you want to start a relationship with Sebastian.”

“Nick, what are you talking about?” Kurt asks, because there is so much he has wanted to ask Nick for so long now, and this conversation is wasting time, time he could spend getting some clarification about Sebastian’s reasons for leaving.

Nick looks at him, his left eyebrow raised in silent criticism at Kurt’s question, as if it should have been obvious what he has been referring to all along, “I’m talking about the fact that you are a footman, and Sebastian is your aristocratic employer. I’m talking about the fact that you belong to different worlds, Kurt, and have different social standings.”

Kurt stares at the other man in disbelief for a few seconds, before he feels incredulous laughter bubbling up at the back of his throat. With everything that happened, everything that he still doesn’t know, everything that is hurting him and making him question what he believed to know about Sebastian, this really seems to be the last thing on Kurt’s mind right now.

“Different social standings?” he repeats, and his voice betrays his incredulousness. “Nick, I honestly don’t think either of us cares about that.”

“That’s the problem,” Nick retorts, “Because frankly, both of you should.”

Kurt opens his mouth to reply something, to object to this, but Nick is faster. “You think your relationship with Sebastian will be like the one you had in summer, with that boy you told me about,” the other footman continues. “It won’t be. With that boy, you were able to meet whenever you wanted to, spend time with him how you chose to – and as long as you weren’t behaving too obviously, no one would have ever suspected anything.”

He shakes his head, “That’s not what it’ll be like with Sebastian, Kurt. Have you considered this?” When Kurt hesitates with his reply, he adds, “Think about it. You wouldn’t be able to see each other over long periods of time. And even if you are together, you wouldn’t be able to act as friends, not even as acquaintances in public. I admit, it’s easier at Bailey – you will find opportunities to spend time together, like you did over these last months.”

His gaze meets Kurt’s, and his expression softens a little when he continues, “But Sebastian spends at least four, sometimes six months in London. And you weren’t with us there last year Kurt, you don’t know what it’s like in the city.”

Some part of Kurt wants to disagree, wants to tell Nick that of course he has thought about this, and that even though naturally they couldn’t be together all the time, surely there would always be opportunities to share a few moments. But another part of him – the rational part, perhaps – knows that Nick not only has a point, but that he is speaking from experience. Therefore, after a moment, Kurt looks up to meet Nick’s gaze and ask, “What is it like in the city?”

“It’s awful,” Nick admits straightforwardly. “Everything is smaller and more narrow, there isn’t much space, and there are always other people around. It’s like you’re being observed every minute of the day. And Sebastian is always with his friends, attending parties and games, driving out, taking walks through the park, going to the theatre or the opera…” He shakes his head, “Even though we live in the same house, sometimes days go by without a single opportunity to talk properly to him. I admit, it was better last year, because Sebastian was feeling anti-social, and I was promoted as his valet, which gives us more private time together.”

He looks at Kurt again, “But it’s hard Kurt. And if it’s hard for me and Sebastian, I imagine it’s going to be even worse for you. All I’m asking you is to think about this: how will you feel when you’re unable to speak to the man you love in front of others? When he constantly treats you like he doesn’t care about you, doesn’t even acknowledge you exist most of the time? Because I can tell you – even though you know that it’s all just an act, after a while, it starts to get to you. It always does.”

Kurt is quiet for a few seconds, letting Nick’s words sink in before he says, “But you two have been friends all your life. Even though it’s hard, you manage.”

“Yes, and this is precisely why I know what I’m talking about,” Nick retorts. “I’ve been through all this, Kurt. I know what I can expect from him, how I have to act around him. I know that the time we can spend together is severely limited, that we have to pretend all the time to not care about each other more than it would be appropriate. But I also know from experience that our relationship can endure it.” He looks at Kurt, his left eyebrow still raised quizzically, “My question is: could yours?”

Kurt blinks, staring at his friend while thoughts are racing through his mind. Over these past days, he has been busy with being angry and disappointed, guessing at Sebastian’s reasons, asking himself what he did wrong, which of Sebastian’s actions he overvalued, and which ones he completely overlooked. For the first time, he tries to leave all that aside for a moment, and only concentrate on the notion of Sebastian and himself in a relationship.

Whenever he imagined them together, it had been in the sanctuary of Bailey Hall, without any of Sebastian’s friends or relations bothering them. Of course he considered the company of Nick as their confident, and thought about Jeff, and Jane, and the rest of the servants, who, over the last year, have become a second family for him. He has to admit though that he has never thought about what happened if one of them did not remain blissfully ignorant to the true nature of Sebastian’s and his relationship. Not once has he considered what would happen if Mr Moore, or Howard, or Jane grew suspicious of them – he only realises now that he had assumed that since they haven’t noticed anything so far, they probably wouldn’t in the future.
Of course he knew that they would have to be careful in public, that Kurt could never allow himself to show the affection he felt for Sebastian, and vice versa. But he believed that there would always be opportunities to steal intimate moments, even if they had to be cautious. Not once had he considered the months in London, or the longer periods in which Sebastian would be busy entertaining guests, or paying visits himself. In his vision of their future, he merely assumed that everything would go on like it did during the weeks in autumn and winter – and it is only now, after Nick’s sober speech, that he realises that it could not simply continue like that.

For the first time, Kurt remembers Sebastian’s restlessness, his attempts to seek out some company, some distraction. He remembers the lonely hours on Christmas, recalls how out of place his employer had looked down in the kitchen. Kurt slowly understands that Sebastian is not the kind of man who will be happy in a country estate, with the sole company of his servants and a lover. While it’s partly something he could never afford to do due to his position, it’s also not the kind of life that would suit his character. Sebastian is the kind of person who needs to be active, to see new places, meet people, the kind that becomes bored too easily to sit around for too long. The kind of life that Sebastian wants, that he needs, isn’t one that takes place in the countryside – it happens amidst people, in the bustling activity of the big cities. And while Kurt feels the same way, while he has always longed to travel, to explore, and wouldn’t mind doing that at Sebastian’s side – he isn’t quite sure whether this is the kind of life that can offer a place for him at all. And even less, a place that Kurt would want to have.

Perhaps his thoughts are visible on his features, because after a moment, Nick says gently, “I don’t know what you are thinking about, but I’m almost certain you’re exaggerating.”

Kurt shakes his head, as if to clear it of its thoughts, and replies, “No, you were right. That is something I haven’t thought about yet.”

“I’m not saying it’s impossible for you to start a relationship,” Nick says, his gaze kind, “But it would be difficult, for more than one reason. And I just want you to be prepared, to be aware of what you agree to if you and Sebastian become a couple.”

“Do you still think we could?” Kurt asks, because with all the hurt and anger still inside him, with the new complications brought along by Nick’s recent remarks, and with whatever issues Sebastian has, in this moment, he honestly has no idea how they could ever overcome all this.

“Because,” he says, meeting Nick’s gaze, “Even though I haven’t thought about everything, I know that I don’t want to become the next Sir Reginald, or the new Arthur Huntington.”

Nick snorts, “I’ve never seen Sebastian leave the county because he lost control for a second and kissed Sir Reginald or Lord Huntington. Though I saw him kicking them out quite frequently.” He smiles, a faint smile that nevertheless look sincere around the edges, “So I think it’s safe to say you’re not like them.”

“But why did he leave then, Nick?” Kurt asks, and his voice portrays all the anger and disappointment and frustration that he bottled up inside him over the last days. “Why did he run away without even trying to talk to me first? What is he so scared of?”

Nick looks at him for a very long moment, contemplating his answer, before he finally says, “I don’t know why he left. But I have a pretty good idea why he is scared of the idea of being in love with you.”

Kurt’s head jerks up at that, his gaze meeting Nick’s, who looks amused at Kurt’s incredulous expression. “He cares about you Kurt. From what I saw in those weeks before Christmas…” he trails off, thinking about this for a moment, and then shakes his head, “No, actually, from what I saw already in London, the way your fight affected him, left him sulking for weeks – he cares about what you think of him. He wants you to think well of him. And Sebastian seldom cares about other people’s opinions.” The other footman smiles wistfully, and pulls the blankets closer around his shoulders, “Therefore, I don’t think the fact that he left like this is a sign that he doesn’t care about you. Quite the contrary, actually.”

“But why wouldn’t he talk to me about this?” Kurt inquires.

“Because he’s a god damned coward who would rather run away than face his problems,” Nick states matter-of-factly.

“But what is his problem?” Kurt presses. “I understand that it wouldn’t be easy. I understand being scared. But I don’t understand why he behaves like this when he, like you said, cares about me, and wants to be with me.” He pauses for a long moment, before he adds, his gaze scrutinizingly fixed on Nick’s features, “And I think there is more to this. There is something neither he nor you are telling me.”

It’s the way Nick avoids Kurt’s eye, the way he squirms uncomfortably that tells Kurt he has hit the nail on the head. “I’d really rather have Sebastian tell you about that himself,” Nick finally answers.

“To be perfectly frank, Nick, I’m tired of waiting for Sebastian to explain things to me,” Kurt replies. “Because in case you didn’t notice – he never does. And I’m not going to sit here and wait for him to make up his mind. Because whatever happens between us is my decision too.”

“I think he knows that,” Nick says calmly, “I’m afraid he might even hope that you’ll make this decision for him.”

“I don’t want to make a decision for him,” Kurt retorts, feeling exasperated, “I want to know what’s truly going on here, and I want him to talk to me instead of running away like a child.”

“I want to tell you,” Nick says, and for a moment, Kurt can see his inner conflict in the torn expression that crosses his features. “Because you’re right – you deserve to know. But Sebastian is my best friend, Kurt, and I can’t act behind his back like this. It wouldn’t be fair.”

When he sees the turmoil in Nick’s eyes, Kurt can’t help a guilty feeling rising in his chest. He knows that he is putting Nick in a difficult position by asking him these questions, and he doesn’t like to see his friend this conflicted. And yet –there is a part of him that feels tired of being considerate, of stepping back, of being the bigger person while Sebastian does as he pleases, not caring if he hurts the people who care about him. A part of him – and it’s not a small part – wants to insist that Nick finally tells him everything that is truly going on, to demand an explanation, especially since he can’t seem to get one from Sebastian.

He doesn’t know whether any of his thoughts are visible in the expression on his face, but Nick looks at him for a long moment, contemplating, before he says, “Let me write to him. Let me write to Sebastian, and give him one chance to come back and explain himself to you. And if he lets this opportunity pass, I promise you I will give you a full explanation of everything that happened, of every reason – or at least what I suspect to be the reasons – for the way he acted. And then, you can decide for yourself what you want to do now.”

Kurt hesitates for a moment, before he slowly starts to nod – partly because he would actually prefer Sebastian to explain himself, and partly because he really, truly doesn’t want to force  Nick to decide with whom of this two friends he wants to side.

He opens his mouth to ask Nick about when he plans to send the letter, and what exactly he wants to write to Sebastian, when suddenly, a movement at the other end of the garden catches his attention. He looks up and spots Jane, who steps out of the garden door and lifts her face towards the warm sunshine for a second. When she turns, she catches Kurt’s gaze, smiles, and tiptoes down the path, moving quite noiselessly by avoiding the gravel and instead treading on the wet, brown grass. She quickly steps up behind Nick’s chair, covers his eyes with her small palms and leans forward to whisper in his ear, “Who am I?”

“The ghost of Christmas Past, who has come to tell us that Mr Moore wants us to tidy something that has been forgotten over the holidays?” Nick retorts, his voice dry.

Jane grins and pulls her hands back. She takes a few steps around Nick so that she is able to face both him and Kurt when she answers, “Quite the opposite, actually.” She sits down next to Kurt, taking up the discarded novel and turning it in her hands to examine the title before she adds, “I came to advise you to stay out here a little bit longer, until everyone in the kitchen has calmed down.”

“Did something happen?” Kurt inquires.

“Maud put too much salt in the soup,” Jane sighs, “And of course Mrs Bertram started berating her, but Maud is in a terrible mood today, and got cheeky. Now they’re both screaming at each other, Beth is crying, and Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore are trying to mediate.”

“And you thought it best to slip away?” Nick inquires. Jane shrugs, “Let them yell if they have to. In half an hour, they’ll be hugging each other and apologising for being so harsh.”

Kurt can’t help the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, because he knows that Jane is probably right – while Mrs Bertram’s temper can be terrible, it never lasts too long.

“I actually wanted to see where Harriet has run off to,” Jane continues, “But I couldn’t find her anywhere.”

Kurt quickly looks up, checking whether Nick’s expression gives any hint of him having noticed Jeff slipping away with the maid. If he did, nothing in his features gives it away, and Kurt feels grateful for this – because he is not sure whether he could bear another heartbreak, and especially one that’s not his own. Therefore, he merely smiles when the housemaid next to him exclaims brightly, “Well, but I found you two instead.” She looks down at the novel in her lap, and asks, “Do you want me to read to you for a bit?”

Kurt has no opportunity to ask Nick about his letter to Sebastian during the day. They spend another quarter of an hour with Jane outside, and when Kurt accompanies Nick back to his room, Jeff suddenly appears by his side again. His hair looks suspiciously dishevelled, and Kurt has to bite his bottom lip to keep himself from making a comment about it, and so neither he, nor Nick or Jeff himself address the issue of Jeff’s temporary disappearance. Instead, the three of them play cards until Mrs Seymour summons them for dinner, and during the rest of the evening, Mr Moore keeps them busy by ordering them to clean his lordship’s boots over the kitchen sink until Nick starts yawning.

The next morning, however, Kurt notices how Nick slips a thick envelope into Stephen’s hand after the postman has handed the usual stack of letters to Mr Moore at breakfast, whispering a few words into the other man’s ear before he sits down next to Jeff and reaches for his cup of tea. Kurt sees Stephen raising his eyebrows in surprise, his gaze lingering for a moment on Nick’s neat handwriting before he slips the envelope quickly into his back pocket and bids Mr Moore a good day.

Kurt tries to catch Nick’s gaze throughout breakfast, and when the other footman finally looks at him, he responds to Kurt’s inquiring gaze with a single, curt nod.

Kurt doesn’t ask him about what he wrote to Sebastian. They don’t talk about the letter at all: in fact, they seem to have reached a silent but mutual understanding that the topic is postponed until the long-awaited letter from Sebastian arrives. Instead, they help Mrs Seymour to clean out the attic, repair one of the carriages together with Howard and Jonathan, and teach Jeff how to play chess. Life at Bailey Hall becomes almost like it used to be – if it wasn’t for the fact that every morning, two of the footmen look at Stephen with anxious expressions as soon as he enters the kitchen.

They wait for almost two weeks during which Kurt grows steadily more impatient and frustrated. He almost wishes he could blame this on Sebastian, and curse him for taking so long to reply – but he knows that the reason for this delay is the weather. While January has been relatively mild at first, the last days seem determined to make up for any lack of winter feeling. It starts with a drop of temperature that results in three days of snow falling softly, but without stopping. It becomes warmer on the first days of February, though not pleasanter – a series of thunderstorms follow, which cause the snow to melt away, but also reduce Mrs Bertram and Howard, who both are deadly afraid of thunder and lightning, to two pale bundles of nerves, jumping at every loud crash coming from outside.

Only when the skies clear up again, and the rain first gives way to a thick fog, and then, slowly, a faint, but visible sunshine, does Stephen enter the kitchen one morning and slip Nick a small envelope before he hands a considerably larger stack to Mr Moore. Kurt’s stomach gives an unpleasant turn at the sight, but he is able to suppress his nervousness until he is able to corner Nick alone.

“And?” Kurt inquires. He doesn’t know what he is hoping to hear in that moment, but he feels so tired of waiting, of not being able to do anything, that he is relieved to see a sober smile on Nick’s features.

“Well, he has been with Sir Robert these last weeks,” Nick tells him, pulling the letter out of his pocket and unfolding it. “He writes that Sir Robert’s condition didn’t improve much in Edinburgh. The doctor says that the only thing he can prescribe him now is a change of place, a longer stay in a warmer climate.  Therefore, Sir Robert will travel to Italy over the next few weeks, and maybe extend his stay or travel further to Greece, depending on the weather and the effect on his lungs.”

“And Sebastian wants to accompany him?” Kurt asks, feeling a strange sensation above his stomach, very similar to the feeling he gets when he misses a step on the stairs, and for a split second expects to tumble down the rest of the staircase before he can restore his balance.

“He writes that he thought about it, but that Sir Robert refuses to take him with him,” Nick replies, and there is something in his gaze that makes Kurt squirm inside when he adds, “And he also writes that,” he lifts the letter and reads, his voice quiet while he quotes, “’I know I made a mistake, and I need to come home as soon as possible.’”

Kurt knows that Nick watches him, but this once, he refuses to give into the temptation to get his hopes up. He is done with being satisfied with hints and suggestions, and while he knows he should be happy about Sebastian at least admitting his mistake, it’s just not enough. This time, he needs the complete and honest truth before he can bring himself to consider forgiving Sebastian.

“So he is coming back to Bailey?” he inquires.

“Yes, but not immediately,” Nick replies, starting to fold the letter again, all the while still watching Kurt’s expression, “He writes that Sir Robert wants to take the boat to France from Dover, and he wants to accompany him to the city. He’ll probably stay with him and help him organise his journey, and then come home afterwards.”

Kurt can’t help it – his expression softens the tiniest bit at Nick’s words. He might have gladly taken any other reason as an opportunity to scorn Sebastian for making him wait even longer, but he cannot resent that Sebastian is taking care of his friend – especially not since he is really fond of Sir Robert.

“How long do you think will that take?” he asks finally.

“A week, at least,” Nick estimates, before he walks over to the fireplace and tosses the paper into the crackling flames, like he does with every one of Sebastian’s letters. “Perhaps ten days, depending on how long Sir Robert needs to settle everything – and on how quickly Sebastian can muster up the courage to face you again.”

Kurt doesn’t reply. Instead, he watches the edges of the paper, slowly turning black and curling inwards while the flames devour Sebastian’s messy handwriting.


He has to wait for seven days. On the morning of the eighth day – a misty Tuesday – Kurt has gone up to his room to fetch his coat, planning to walk down to the village with Jane and Jonathan to visit Mr Brown. Just when he opens his wardrobe, he hears the clattering sound of wheels, of hooves meeting the white gravel in the courtyard. He hears the sound of surprised voices from beneath his window, and clattering sounds down at the kitchen when everybody discards their breakfast to hurry outside.

Kurt doesn’t join them. He knows that he most likely will receive a scolding from Mr Moore for neglecting his duties, but at this moment, he can’t bring himself to care. Instead, he slowly shrugs out of his coat again and puts it back into the wardrobe. He doesn’t look out of the window – he merely sits down on the edge of his bed. He feels calm, and his mind feels strangely empty while he listens to the sounds coming from outside. Soon enough, he hears a voice answering Mr Moore’s questions, a voice that as much as he tried these past weeks, he has never managed to quite get out of his head. When he looks down at his hands, he notices that his fingers have tangled themselves in his blanket, and he slowly lifts them to fold in his lap instead.

There’s the sound of footsteps coming from below. A door slams, and Kurt hears the clacking sound of hooves once again when Jonathan and Howard unhitch the horses from the carriage and bring them to the stables. Another door slams in the distance, and the sound of more footsteps down in the corridor announces that the servants return to the kitchen to quickly finish their breakfast before they tackle their daily tasks.

Kurt doesn’t know how long he waits. It cannot be too long though, because he can still hear the typical sounds of breakfast from down in the kitchen when a knock on the door announces his visitor. Kurt looks up to see Nick opening the door, lingering in the doorway as he takes in Kurt’s pale, but collected and calm appearance.

Their eyes meet, and Nick pushes the door open a little wider before he leans against the doorframe and says, “He’s waiting for you in the library.”

Chapter Text

After living at Bailey Hall for more than fourteen months, Kurt is certain that he has seen every niche and every corner of the large estate. He has climbed up the stairs to the attic, peered down into the dark rooms of the cellar, and tried to count all the numerous bedrooms, storerooms and drawing rooms. But despite the vast beauty and splendour Bailey Hall offers to its inhabitants, Kurt has never had any difficulty naming the one room he feels most at home in. Ever since he entered the library for the very first time – on that fateful afternoon when a certain footman who would eventually become his best friend showed him around the estate – ever since then the high shelves and the large, bright windows, the thick carpets and the cosy chairs have had a comforting feeling to them, as if nothing bad could ever happen while Kurt was standing between them. It has, in various ways, become a kind of sanctuary.

It is precisely for this reason that there is something decidedly strange about the moment when Kurt finds himself standing in front of the library and, for the first time, feels apprehensive about entering. He looks at the dark wood of the double doors in front of him, his hand already resting on the handle, and yet he is quite unable to muster up the courage to turn it and face what awaits behind the doors.
He can hear noises from the drawing room below, and he listens to Mrs Seymour’s voice as she instructs Jane and Harriet to take down the curtains in the breakfast room. He knows that it won’t be long before someone walks down the corridor and catches him in this peculiar position, and it is that fact that finally makes him take in a deep, if shaky breath, and open the door to the library.

The room is bright with morning light, even though the faint rays of the winter sun have not yet reached the windows. Had Kurt paid any attention to his surroundings, he could have noticed that none of the maids has lit a fire in the chimney, and that the room is quite chilly with the cold February air. He could have observed the frost flowers blooming on the bottom of the windows, or the dust in the bookshelves that speaks of the neglect the library has suffered over the past weeks. But Kurt doesn’t notice any of this, because his attention is solely focused on the figure leaning against the windowsill, slowly turning around when Kurt closes the door quietly behind him.

Kurt has wondered what this reunion would be like countless times over the last couple of weeks. He has imagined what Sebastian would say, and, in far greater detail, what he will say to Sebastian. He has practised – in his thoughts, at least – how he will confront him, how he will construct his arguments, and turn his words into sharp sentences which will convey how deeply Sebastian has hurt him. He has gone through a large range of scenarios, has come up with shrewd replies to feeble excuses, and with harsh words, whether meant to clarify or to merely hurt – Kurt himself couldn’t tell.

And yet, nothing of all that has truly helped him prepare for the moment when Sebastian turns around, and his gaze locks with Kurt’s. He is still wearing his travelling clothes, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his coat. His boots and the hem of his trousers are soiled with specks of mud, and the only thing he has taken off is his grey scarf, which lies curled into a ball of fabric next to him on the windowsill.

The short wave of hurt and anger piercing through his chest comes as no surprise to Kurt. But while he anticipated the hostile feeling rising inside of him, what he didn’t expect, didn’t calculate in all those weeks of waiting, is the feeling of longing, an impulse to reach out for Sebastian – because somehow, quite inexplicably, and despite everything that happened, Kurt realises that he still has feelings for the man in front of him. It is a short impulse, quickly extinguished by his anger and frustration, but it nevertheless causes his fingers to twitch, like they actually want to reach out for Sebastian. Almost defiantly Kurt crosses his arms in front of his chest, as if to keep them from doing something stupid.

Sebastian’s gaze travels slowly over Kurt’s features. His eyes linger on Kurt’s face, as if they’re trying to take in every changed and unchanged detail, before his gaze moves down, rests on Kurt’s shoulders for a moment, and hesitates when he sees how Kurt’s arms are crossed in front of his chest in a decidedly hostile gesture.

Finally, he looks up to meet Kurt’s eyes again, and he smiles, a serious, almost tired smile, “I’m still trying to determine whether the fact that you look even more handsome every single time we meet is some sort of personal revenge on your part, or simply some divine punishment.”

Kurt’s first impulse is to give a sharp reply, because flattery is not something he feels in the mood for – but he quickly realises that Sebastian didn’t mean to be flattering, or even charming. He sounds weary, and a little wistful, like Kurt’s appearance isn’t something he finds pleasant, but rather one more problem on the enormous pile of issues he needs to deal with. He looks tired too, Kurt notices – his skin has finally lost its last freckles to a winterly paleness, and his hair has grown decidedly longer than the London taste would deem fashionable. There are dark circles under his eyes, and even though it’s hard to tell with Sebastian’s body being hidden under the dark coat, Kurt believes that he looks thinner too.

Kurt leans back against one of the bookshelves, and with the comforting feeling of the spines of large volumes pressing against his back he retorts, “Well, I certainly can’t say the same about you.”

Sebastian’s smile widens at his reply, and there is a new warmth to his expression when he looks at Kurt again, a warmth that makes Kurt’s stomach clench painfully. Sebastian doesn’t answer immediately; instead, he simply keeps looking at Kurt, long enough for his smile to melt back into a sober expression. Eventually, he sighs, and closes his eyes before he says, “I think I made an awful mistake.”

“You did,” Kurt confirms, his eyes never leaving the other man’s features. “What I would like to know is why.”

“I’m afraid that’s a long and not very pleasant story,” Sebastian replies hesitantly. His gaze still lingers on Kurt’s face, and Kurt merely raises his eyebrows – a silent request for the other man to begin.

Sebastian holds his gaze for a moment longer, before he sighs again. He leans back against the windowsill, and turns his head to look outside into the garden. A moment of silence ensues between them, while Sebastian seems to be contemplating how to start. Kurt merely keeps looking at him, waiting.

Finally, Sebastian turns his head to look at Kurt again, and begins with a question, “How long have you been aware of my… taste in sexual partners?”

“Since December last year,” Kurt retorts after pondering on his answer for a second. This doesn’t seem to be the reply Sebastian has been expecting, however, since he stares at the footman with wide eyes.

What?”

“I... uh… happened to overhear you and Sir Reginald one night,” Kurt explains slowly. He avoids Sebastian’s eyes, instead, he concentrates on a spot on the carpet, left over from a cup of tea Jeff spilled once. “And after that, it wasn’t too hard to figure out Lord Huntington’s intentions as well.”

There are a few moments of silence before Kurt raises his head to cast a cautious glance at the other man, and sees that Sebastian merely keeps staring at him in a way that Kurt finds decidedly unnerving. After a few more seconds, Kurt finally snaps, “What?”

“You knew about Reginald and Arthur all this time?” Sebastian asks, his tone still in incredulous, “You knew about them, about me, already when I refused to take you to London?”

“Yes,” Kurt confirms, his brows furrowing in confusion since he has trouble tracing a connection between these facts. But Sebastian merely shakes his head, his lips pulling into a smile that is half amused, half regretful.

“Dear Lord,” he says, “I truly don’t deserve you.”

Kurt isn’t quite sure what to reply to this statement, but fortunately, Sebastian quickly continues. “Well, then you know that I had relations with Arthur and Reginald,” he says. “There were others before them, of course, in London especially. There was a time when I wasn’t too… selective… regarding who I took to bed with me.” He keeps looking at Kurt, as if he is searching for a reaction in the footman’s face. Kurt, however, doesn’t feel shocked or even surprised at the confession – he had already assumed as much.

When Kurt doesn’t react, Sebastian continues, “They all had one thing in common, though. All of them were the sons of earls, or baronets, or dukes.” His gaze holds Kurt’s, and firmly, he adds, “And the reason for that is because I don’t sleep with servants.”

Kurt feels like he just has been slapped to his face. Of all the things he’d expected Sebastian to say, this wasn’t among them. He stares at the other man in disbelief and hurt, and Sebastian, seeing the change in Kurt’s expression, hurries to add, “No, Kurt, you don’t understand–”

“Oh, I believe I understood you perfectly,” Kurt hisses. “I understand that despite everything that happened between us, you just happened to realise that I’m not one of your uptight, noble friends, and that it’s below your status to….”

“Will you just let me finish the sentence,” Sebastian snaps, “What I meant to say was: I don’t sleep with servants anymore.”

This admission silences Kurt. He stares at Sebastian for a second before he drops down into one of the armchairs, resting his elbows on his thighs, and says, his voice calm again if a little raspy, “Explain.”

Sebastian doesn’t sit down. Instead, he begins to pace back and forth between the shelves and rubs his palm over his face.

“Nick said that he told you about how we grew up together?” he finally asks, “About our childhood, and about the time when my mother died?”

“He did,” Kurt confirms.

“But I suppose he didn’t tell you about what happened after I returned home from school?” Sebastian asks. “Anything about my father? My brother?”

“Well, he implied that you didn’t exactly get along with them,” Kurt replies, furrowing his brow as he tries to recall what Nick told him, that evening when they were having their first truly honest conversation. “But he didn’t explain what the reasons for that were. Or,” he adds after a moment, “what any of that has to do with what happened between us.”

Sebastian stops in front of the window, and gazes outside. His fingers wander to his neck, threading into the long brown strands of hair, tugging at them in a gesture which looks so awfully familiar. Finally, he takes a deep breath, as if to brace himself, and turns around to face Kurt, his fingers dropping from his neck to curl around the bright wood of the windowsill instead.

“I never found the idea of sleeping with girls particularly engaging,” he begins. “At school, all the other boys kept talking about the girls who worked in the kitchen, and while of course I pretended to be just as interested as anybody else, I never could…  I don’t know, could even imagine getting excited about them. It took me a while to understand that I had to look for my excitement elsewhere. It took me even longer to realise that I was not the only one who felt like this, and to learn how to recognise other boys like me. To notice the tell-tale signs, and to muster up enough courage to find out whether my suspicions were correct.”

He stares past Kurt’s shoulder, into the dark fireplace, where the remaining ash of the last fire has not yet been cleared away.

“I kissed another boy for the first time when I was fifteen,” he continues, “I gained some experience at school, but of course we were at constant danger of being caught by one of the teachers – or even worse, one of the other boys. We fooled around a little, but you know – all things considered, it was rather innocent.”

Briefly, Kurt wonders whether anything he has experienced so far, especially with regard to the last summer, would qualify as something more than “innocent” according to Sebastian’s definition. Somehow, he doubts it.

“When I turned eighteen, my father decided that I had studied enough, and asked me to return home,” Sebastian says. He tilts his head to the side and ponders about his last words for a few seconds, before he adds, “Though until this very day, I’m not exactly sure what he wanted me to do here.”

Kurt looks at the other man, and sees a wistful smile crossing Sebastian’s lips. “At first, I was incredibly happy to be back. I hadn’t seen Nick in such a long time, and I was actually looking forward to meet Frederick again.”

Kurt blinks, and it occurs to him that, even though he has heard Sebastian talk about his mother a couple of times, so far he has never heard him mention his older brother.

“But it was also strange to be back,” Sebastian continues, “at least during the first few weeks. Nick and I had to be insanely careful when we wanted to spend time together, because my father knew about our former friendship, and observed us closely to determine whether I still maintained ‘unsuitably close relations with the servants’.”

He bites down on his bottom lip and pauses for a few seconds, avoiding Kurt’s gaze. When he looks up again, there is a strange emotion flickering in his eyes, one that causes an almost uncomfortable feeling in Kurt’s chest when Sebastian adds, his gaze never leaving Kurt’s, “But you know – it turned out that Nick was not the footman my father should have been worried about.”

Kurt continues to stare at Sebastian, countless thoughts and suspicions racing through his mind, while he waits for the other man to continue with what Kurt suspects to be the story behind perhaps not all, but many of the mysteries surrounding the young earl.

Sebastian hesitates for a moment longer. When he speaks again, his voice is quieter than before and he stumbles over the words, as if he wants to tell this part of the story as quickly as possible.

“We had six footmen back then, because father frequently entertained guests, and of course there were me and Frederick. They were all nice, but there was one in particular that caught my attention the minute I saw him.” Sebastian’s voice remains carefully neutral when he continues, “His name was Daniel, and he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen.” He muses about this for a split second, before he adds, “He presumably still is.”

Kurt arches an eyebrow in a silent question, but Sebastian continues, never looking up, “At least that was what I thought back then, and heaven knows I wasn’t the only one. Daniel was pure charisma, and he charmed everybody left and right. All of the maids were madly in love with him, and I suspect that half of the stable boys and footmen were too.”

“So, you fell for him as well,” Kurt says. It comes out sounding like a question, but he remembers the conversation he once overheard between Sebastian and Nick, and Sebastian’s words that had clearly indicated that he had been in love before. Kurt doesn’t doubt for a single second that this Daniel is the person Sebastian was talking about back then.

“I fell fast and hard, and I did not land on my feet,” Sebastian agrees, his voice dry, “But I will get to that later. At that time, I was merely infatuated with him.” He shrugs, “And it really was nothing but an infatuation at first. He flirted with me, but then again, he flirted with everyone. I was flattered, intrigued even, but I didn’t think much of it.” He sighs, “But one day, Nick sprained his wrist badly when he fell down the stairs, and for the following weeks, Daniel was assigned to take over his duties until Nick’s hand was fully recovered – which naturally included helping me dress.”

His gaze meets Kurt’s, and he concludes, “Let’s just say that those weeks changed things.”

“Changed how?” Kurt asks. It’s not that he can’t imagine what happened between Sebastian and the footman in those weeks, but he is tired of letting his imagination time and time again fill in the gaps and secrets that everybody at Bailey seems to keep. Just this once, he wants to hear the details from Sebastian himself.

“Well, we continued to flirt with each other,” Sebastian says. “But flirting can suddenly feel very different when you do it in the privacy of your own bedroom.” He sighs, but it’s not a nostalgic sound – it sounds exhausted, like he has wasted far too much energy on this particular period of his life already. “We kissed after a week, and he stole into my bedroom for the first time the same night.”

“Was he–” Kurt begins to ask, but Sebastian nods before he can finish the sentence, “He was the first man I slept with. And he was the first man I fell in love with.”

Sebastian furrows his brow in contemplation, musing over the actions of his younger self for a moment before he continues, “I had never experienced anything like it before. You hear about these things, in stories and books, but I never anticipated that it would be so… addictive.”

“Did he love you too?” Kurt asks. The question sounds terribly naïve, even to his own ears.

“He said so, once or twice, in the heat of the moment,” Sebastian shrugs. “And I certainly believed he did. But you know…” For the first time during their conversation, there is a familiar gleam of mockery in Sebastian’s eyes, “We didn’t talk very much when we were alone.”

Somehow, the statement makes Kurt skin tingle, though whether in irritation, discomfort or perhaps even jealousy, even Kurt himself can’t tell at this moment.

“Did Nick know about this?” he asks. Sebastian snorts, “Of course Nick knew. I could never keep anything hidden from Nick. He knew, and he thoroughly disapproved.”

When Kurt raises an eyebrow in surprise, Sebastian shrugs in reply, “Nick was the only person at Bailey who didn’t like Daniel very much. I suppose he has always been more perceptive than the rest of us.” He smiles briefly before he continues, “Our relationship, if you can call it that, lasted for a couple of months. We were very secretive about what we did, or at least we thought we were. In hindsight, I have to admit that we were terribly careless.” He shakes his head, “There were so many times when we almost got caught, but somehow, we never truly felt threatened. If anything, the feeling of risk made it more exciting.”

Kurt furrows his brow. It’s not that he cannot relate to what Sebastian is saying – after all, he himself has experienced the thrill that comes from touching something, someone forbidden – but the way Sebastian is continuing his tale leaves Kurt deeply apprehensive of what is to follow. Therefore, he asks, “And eventually, you were caught, weren’t you?”

“Oh no,” Sebastian replies. “We weren’t. Perhaps it’s true that fortune favours fools, but in spite of our carelessness, we were never discovered. I recall Nick walking in on us once, but even though he gave me an awful lecture afterwards, there were never any consequences. I was blissfully happy, and even more so when my father took us to London that summer and I found out that Daniel was to accompany us.”

Kurt realises that he keeps twisting his fingers, and quietly slips them under his thighs while he listens to Sebastian’s story.

“London was of course even more exciting than our secluded life at Bailey. I had been to the city a few times before, but not that often and never for long. And I had never been at the liberty to explore it on my own before – much less under the guidance of someone like Daniel.”

His gaze meets Kurt’s, and his bitter smile broadens the tiniest bit, “My father was occupied with instructing Frederick how to run the estate, deal with finances and lawyers, all these things, and he didn’t particularly care whether I came along or not. Therefore, I often left them to their business, and instead explored the city with Daniel.”

Suddenly, Kurt remembers the book he once found in Sebastian’s study, the Yokel’s Preceptor, that detailed the ways one had to take to find their way around the city, and to certain establishments where the taste in sexual partners would be reciprocated.

When he mentions this to Sebastian, the other man’s sober expression is momentarily brightened by an amused smile, “I wonder when prying around in my rooms became such a habit of yours , Kurt.”

“It’s not a habit,” Kurt replies indignantly. “It was a coincidence. And I can’t see how it’s my fault that you leave things like that lying around openly. Just like Teleny. Really Sebastian, it’s careless and irresponsible.”

“I hid Teleny at the back of a shelf,” Sebastian objects, pointing at the shelves behind him with this thumb. “If it wasn’t for your obsession with reading, you never would have found it.”

“I’m terribly sorry to be the source of disillusionment, but it wasn’t that brilliant a hiding place,” Kurt retorts, feeling irritation rising in his chest. “You should be grateful I took it to my room and hid it there. I don’t even want to begin to imagine what could have happened if somebody else discovered it.”

When he looks up, he sees that Sebastian is looking at him with a rather strange expression on his face. He keeps staring at Kurt for a long moment, before he slowly says, “You wanted to protect me. That’s why you took the book.”

Kurt’s first impulse is to deny the assessment, to claim that he only took the book because he found it so fascinating. But there is something in Sebastian’s eyes – a good portion of disbelief, mixed with a small, but seemingly growing portion of hope – that makes him look away and sigh. “Partly,” he admits.

“Why?” Sebastian asks, his voice quiet. “You found it last summer, didn’t you? We weren’t exactly on good terms back then. Why would you want to protect me, when I did everything I could to give you a hard time, to push you away?”

Kurt holds Sebastian’s gaze for a very long moment. He knows that the answer to this question explains not only why he decided to give Sebastian a second chance back then, but also why he is still here, listening to Sebastian’s explanations. And suddenly, he realises how important it must be for Sebastian to hear him voice this reason.

“Because I care about you,” he says slowly, his eyes never leaving Sebastian’s. “I don’t have a clue why I do, but I have cared about you for a long time.” He can see the look in Sebastian’s eyes change, but before it can become too hopeful, Kurt adds, “But I’m tired of how you keep treating me, and I’m tired of you being the one who keeps making decisions for both of us. And I am still extremely mad at you, especially since I don’t understand why, after everything that happened between us, you care so little about me that you left the way you did. So perhaps you should tell me what happened with Daniel in London.”

For a moment, Sebastian merely continues to stare at the young man in front of him, his expression unreadable. Finally, he nods and continues, “I didn’t need the Yokel’s Preceptor during the summer I spent with Daniel in London. He knew his way around the city, and he took me with him.”

“But seeing you two together, wouldn’t people…” Kurt starts to question, because the notion of Sebastian and his footman strolling casually through the city side by side seems quite unlikely.

Sebastian explains, his smile becoming just the tiniest bit mischievous, “I borrowed some of his clothes and disguised myself as a fellow footman.”

Kurt clicks his tongue in silent disapproval, causing Sebastian to shrug.

“Like I said – I wasn’t particularly reasonable during those days. But just like during the weeks at Bailey, we were lucky enough to not get caught. We spent a few enjoyable weeks in London, went out almost every night to drink and gamble. And then the problems arose.”

Kurt waits while Sebastian pauses and tries to sort his thoughts. It takes him only a moment to decide how to continue his account, but when he does his voice sounds a little more quiet than before, “When I was out with Daniel, I could see for myself that he was very fond of drinking, and also a little too fond of gambling. But I had enough money for both of us, and I didn’t think much of it at first. Of course, I didn’t witness what he was up to the nights when I did not accompany him, when I had to attend some parties together with my father and Frederick.”

He bites down on his bottom lip for a short moment before he continues, “It wasn’t until much later that I learned that, over the last years, Daniel had run up debts with several gambling houses, so of course he only took me to those houses where he wasn’t known. We both used false names, naturally, but it took me quite some time to realise that in his case, it was a necessity – and not simply because he was with the son of his employer.”

Sebastian’s fingers are holding onto the windowsill so tightly now that his knuckles are almost as white as the painted wood they’re clinging to, Kurt notices, while a feeling akin to apprehensiveness spreads through his stomach.

“He didn’t ask for much at first. Smaller sums, for those evenings when he went out without me, and seldom more than what we spent when we went out together. I thought nothing of it in the beginning; I simply gave him the money and wished him a good time while I was forced to dance with some beauty from a respectable family, longing to be with him instead.

“But it didn’t take too long before he started to ask for larger sums. Always under some pretence, of course. He told me something about an ex-lover he still owed some money, about a sick aunt in Manchester.” He laughs, a bitter, humourless laugh that hurts Kurt’s ears, “I was so unbelievably naïve and stupid back then. Or not stupid. Perhaps I didn’t want to see what was truly going on – because God knows there were enough hints for me to notice.”

“Did you give him the money?” Kurt asks quietly.

“At first, I gave him everything he asked for,” Sebastian replies. “I didn’t mind, you know? I never inherited my father’s sense of stinginess, and I never learned to care about money the way he did. As far as I could see, we had more than enough, so why not give some to someone who needed it, someone I cared about?”

Sebastian’s admission makes Kurt remember the morning when he witnessed the other man trying to give Jane three wages in advance, and realises that in this respect, Sebastian hasn’t changed at all. Sebastian is quiet for a moment longer, before he adds, “And maybe there was something else to it. My father and I weren’t exactly on great terms during those weeks in London. I knew that I wasn’t what he hoped his younger son would grow up to be – I had no interest in politics, and zero intention of marrying some rich heiress. I could see him constantly comparing me to Frederick.” He smiles, a crooked smile that has a bitter edge to it, “And I probably don’t have to emphasise that the result of this comparison didn’t work in my favour. So yeah, it was probably also a way to get back at my father.”

His gaze meets Kurt’s, and he adds quietly, “I told you this before, Kurt: I have made a lot of mistakes.”

Kurt doesn’t know what Sebastian has read in his eyes that prompted him to say this, but he knows that he isn’t ready to discuss guilt and errors before he has heard the entire story. Therefore, he merely asks, “I assume that at some point, you stopped giving him money though, right?”

“Well, at some point, I couldn’t continue doing that without anyone noticing,” Sebastian replies. “Frederick had already noticed that I was spending way more than I normally would, and definitely more than would be acceptable, even if it was my first real time in London. It was probably his growing suspicion which finally alerted me to the dangers of my behaviour. So I told Daniel that we had to be more careful. I could tell he didn’t like it, but he was very understanding. At first.” A crease appears on Sebastian’s forehead when he continues, “But when he nevertheless continued to ask me for money, even I began to grow wary. I even suspected that perhaps he had another lover in the city, but Daniel was very skilled at dispelling my doubts and jealousy.”

He shakes his head, “But we had started to drift apart, and while I still did my best to deny it, Daniel was pretty quick on the uptake. And he decided to act before it was too late.”

His gaze flickers to meet Kurt’s again, briefly, before he once more turns his head to stare into the empty fireplace, “He came to my bedroom one night, something he hadn’t done for a while. Partly because of the risk, and partly because of the quarrels we’d had earlier that week. I remember that I was surprised he came to me at all, and even more at the unusual gentleness of our love-making.”

Kurt winces, just a bit, and hopes that Sebastian will spare him more details on their activities. Sebastian, however, doesn’t notice his reaction, and continues, “Later, when I was lying next to him, already on the brink of drifting off, he suddenly asked me for a ridiculously high sum of money. I laughed, convinced that he was joking.”

He shakes his head again, “I still remember how nonchalant his voice sounded when he said, ‘Well, I do think I deserve a little reward from you, Sebby, don’t I? After all, imagine how hard it was for me to never mention our intimate acquaintance to anyone. Yesterday, for example, down in the kitchen, when that hag of a housekeeper wouldn’t stop lecturing me. Oh, I was so tempted to tell her that I knew for certain that at least you are very satisfied with my… service. But I couldn’t say that, could I? Only imagine how quickly a rumour like this would pass on between the servants, and how soon it would reach to the ears of your father – or those of your good-looking brother. You wouldn’t want something like this to happen, would you?’”

Sebastian’s voice breaks at these last words, and he clears his throat, avoids Kurt’s gaze and continues quickly, “It’s almost embarrassing how long it took me to understand that he was dead serious. I just watched as he put his clothes back on and left. I didn’t understand what had just happened, and I had even less of an idea of what to do next.”

“So what did you do?” Kurt asks.

“I went to the only person I trusted,” Sebastian replies. “I’m eternally grateful that Nick didn’t say ‘That’s what I’ve been telling you all along’ that night, even though it would have been perfectly justified for him to do so.” He shakes his head, “He waited until I was done being angry and upset and crying into his shoulder, and then talked very calmly with me about the options we had.” He laughs briefly, and adds, “And we didn’t have many.”

“But… I don’t understand,” Kurt interrupts him, his brows furrowed in confusion. “If Daniel had told your father and brother everything, if he made what happened between you two public knowledge, that would have harmed him just as much as it would have harmed you, right?”

“Oh Kurt,” Sebastian laughs, running his fingers through his hair and finally looking up again, “Can you really not see that? Of course it would have stained his reputation too – at first. But what would have been the consequences for either of us – on the long run? He would have gotten fired, everyone would have talked, he would have had to leave Wilton, or even London for a while. And then? Then he could have gone to Edinburgh, or Dublin, or Manchester, or even return to London after some time. He could have taken on a new name, claim to be somebody else from somewhere else. He would have had to be careful, of course, but he could have found work again. If he had travelled far enough, he even could have worked as a footman again. It would have been difficult for him, undoubtedly, but he would have been able to carry on with his life.”

He looks at Kurt, and Kurt bites down on his bottom lip when he sees the expression on Sebastian’s features, desperate and trapped, “But could you imagine what would happen if the slightest rumour of me taking men to bed made its way into the higher circles of London society? I would be ruined, Kurt. Forever. My family would have been ruined. There is no recovery from something like that. Even if my father would have thrown me out on the streets, nobody would have forgotten about it. I’ve seen this happen to families, Kurt – barons who tried to get their sons out of prison, claiming they had been seduced or bewitched or led astray. Families who had to move away to Italy or to France or even to the colonies in order to get away from the gossip – in vain, of course, because news like this travel fast. And our circle is smaller than you would think.” His eyes stare into Kurt’s, and his voice is almost to quiet for Kurt to hear, “There is no way of getting away from something like this.”

Kurt stares at him, realisation dawning at the back of his mind. “This is why you said you don’t sleep with servants,” he says slowly.

Sebastian nods, “For Reginald or Arthur, the stakes are just as high as they are for me. As soon as word gets out, we suffer equally.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “Though even this prospect is not always enough to make them careful.”

“That night, more than a year ago,” Kurt says slowly, remembering an incident he had almost forgotten about, “When you stayed at Longleat with the Huntingtons during Christmas, something happened with Sir Reginald…”

“He got drunk, and momentarily forgot about the danger. Unfortunately, one careless moment is usually all it takes,” Sebastian says dryly. He turns his head to the side, and watches the first rays of the morning sun creeping slowly over the light wood of the windowsill. “I suppose it was my fault. I knew that he was jealous of Arthur. Not because he was particularly fond of me, mind you – he and Arthur always had a weird sort of rivalry going on, and I somehow ended up in the middle of it.” He shakes his head, “Nevertheless, I should have known better than to tease him. I shouldn’t have fuelled his jealousy even further. If it wasn’t for the fact that hardly anyone understood his drunken slurs, who knows what might have happened.”

He turns his head again, his gaze searching for Kurt’s eyes, “You understand that, don’t you, Kurt? It has nothing to do with status, or with me thinking anyone who wasn’t born with a golden spoon in his mouth is worth less in any way. Hell, when I think about it, I probably like my servants better than most of my friends. It’s a precaution, Kurt. Because ever since what happened with Daniel, I could not bring myself to trust another person enough to accept the risks that would come with a relationship like this.”

This last sentence makes Kurt’s stomach clench uncomfortably again, but he decides to push the question about what this means for their relationship aside for now. Instead, he leans back into his chair and asks, “What did happen with Daniel?”

“Well, at first, Nick and I tried everything we could think of: persuading, threatening, pleading. I think, deep down inside, I still couldn’t believe what was happening. Somehow, a small part of me was still convinced that Daniel had genuine feelings for me.” Sebastian lifts his shoulders in a half-hearted shrug, “Nothing worked. If anything, it made Daniel more hostile and demanding. But while I was still at a loss regarding what to do, Nick was thinking practically. We had to avoid a scandal at all costs, but there was no way that I could get the sum of money he was asking for without anyone noticing.”
Sebastian bites down on his bottom lip, catching the soft flesh between his teeth briefly, “So I did what I had to do. I asked my father for help.”

Kurt stares at him in bewilderment for a moment, before a feeling of dread settles in his stomach, “You told your father about Daniel?”

“Believe me, it wasn’t my first choice,” Sebastian replies, his jaw a hard line. “But what else was there for me to do? Nick was certain that Daniel had no scruples in following through with his threat, and there was only one way for me to get the money he wanted. I spent days trying to muster up the courage to talk to my father.” Sebastian’s fingers tighten their hold on the windowsill, “So, one evening, when Frederick was at a ball and we were alone in the house, I asked my father for a private conversation, and told him about Daniel’s attempts to blackmail me.”

“And what did he say?”

“Nothing at first. He merely listened. When I had finished my account, he only asked one question: ‘And are these accusations the footman is making against you based on the truth?’” Sebastian closes his eyes, his fingers threading through his hair once again. “I still wish I could have lied to him in that moment,” he says, “But I couldn’t. I just nodded. I couldn’t read my father’s expression. He looked at me like he always had: severe, collected, and with a hint of disappointment.”

When Sebastian opens his eyes again, he doesn’t look at Kurt. Instead, his gaze comes to rest on one of the portraits on the walls, “He asked me to leave him and sent for Daniel. Until this day I have no idea what exactly he told him. I know that he paid him a very generous sum of money, probably even more than what he had originally asked for, and I assume that he threatened him to make sure Daniel would keep his mouth shut in the future. My father was never squeamish regarding his business methods.”

Sebastian’s hand travels down from his hair and rests on his neck, and Kurt follows its movement with his eyes while Sebastian continues, “Whatever the particulars of their conversation were, Daniel left the house immediately. I don’t know where he went or what he did afterwards. I never saw him again, but sometimes, I still walk down the streets of London, and I fear that our paths will cross once more.”

Kurt looks at the man in front of him, his fingers twisting in the dark material of his trousers. He isn’t quite sure what he is feeling, now that Sebastian has revealed the reason behind his behaviour. A lot of what happened makes more sense now, but in a strange way, Kurt feels empty, as if the anger and hurt inside him have clashed with the pity, the shock and the misery he feels when looking at Sebastian’s tortured expression, leaving nothing but a weird feeling of exhaustion. Nevertheless, he asks, “And what happened to you after Daniel left?”

“Oh, my father wasn’t done with me yet,” Sebastian says. “As soon as Daniel had left the house, he called me to him one more time. ‘I don’t think I have to emphasise how much you have disappointed me,’ he said, ‘and I dare say you will understand that after what transpired I think a change of scenery would do you good. I told Nick to pack your suitcase right away. You’re leaving in the morning.’”

Kurt blinks at Sebastian. While a reaction like this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him, he still feels shocked, “He threw you out?”

“He didn’t throw me out,” Sebastian replies dryly. “He sent me on an educational journey.” His gaze meets Kurt’s, and his smile is the same sarcastic one Kurt has seen so often in the early days of their acquaintance, “Of course it’s basically the same thing, but it sounds nicer than ‘getting rid of that sodomite of a son’, and causes much less scandal among friends and the family.”

There is a short moment of silence, before Kurt asks, “And where did you go?”

“To Paris first,” Sebastian says, “To Rome later, then to Venice and Florence, and finally to Vienna. I did what my father would have wanted me to do. I studied. I went to balls and to parties. I danced with the right kind of girls and conversed with the right kind of people. I was a perfect son, a perfect gentleman – and of course I hated every minute of it.”

Sebastian raises his right hand to his forehead, absentmindedly rubbing his brow before continuing, “The only good thing about this journey was that I met Robert. We met in Vienna, through mutual acquaintance, and for some inexplicable reason he immediately took a liking to me. Since my father hadn’t allowed Nick to accompany me, I was relieved to find someone I could talk to – even if not about the things most heavy on my mind.”

“How long did you stay abroad?” Kurt asks.

“Almost two years. I kept hoping that by the time I returned to London, my father would have forgotten what had happened – or at least forgiven me for it. He wrote to me occasionally, short letters filled with indifferent inquires how I was doing or whether I needed money…”

Sebastian meets Kurt’s eyes, and quietly, he says, “My father wasn’t a bad man, Kurt. He just wasn’t very affectionate or caring towards his sons, neither of us, and I don’t think he ever quite figured out what to do with me. What little of a relationship we had when I was younger was destroyed when he learned about Daniel. After that, I was a risk, a danger to his reputation and his family that had to be kept at bay.”

There it is again – the same expression Kurt has seen a number of times on Sebastian’s face. He has glimpsed it after the conversations with Sebastian’s grandmother, or when he caught Sebastian sitting alone in the library, staring out of the window deep in contemplation. It’s not mad, not sad either – it’s desperate in a quiet way, more resigned than frustrated, and incredibly lonely.

Sebastian’s story reminds Kurt of his own parents. Over the past weeks he has wondered time and time again what would have happened if both of them were still alive. Could they have accepted what was happening to Kurt? Could they have lived with a son like him?

Maybe it is terribly naïve of him, but something inside of Kurt, the part of him that remembers his kind mother and his tender-hearted father, wants to believe that his parents would have been different than Sebastian’s father. He isn’t exactly confident that they would have understood him – but he is certain, he needs to be certain that they would have loved him anyway.

“But nevertheless, you returned to England,” he says.

“I returned to London,” Sebastian confirms. “Robert accompanied me, for which I was unbelievably thankful. I wasn’t looking forward to facing my father on my own again.” He smiles briefly as a new thought crosses his mind, and adds, “Though of course, nothing could have kept me from seeing Nick again.”

“Was he in London at that time?” Kurt inquires.

“He was, along with my father and my brother, and if there is a divine entity watching over us I thank it for bringing Nick to London that summer. Without him or Robert, I don’t know how I would have survived the weeks that followed.” Sebastian shakes his head, “But I’m rushing ahead of things.”

There is a nagging thought on the back of Kurt’s mind, a rising suspicion as to what point of Sebastian’s story they are approaching now. But Kurt pushes them back when Sebastian continues, “My father greeted me and Robert with his usual cool politeness. I could see that he greatly approved of Robert as my acquaintance, and I think that even though he certainly never forgot what had happened before, he might have even been pleased with my efforts.” Sebastian sounds like he wants to convince himself more than Kurt with that last part of his statement. “I can’t say the same for Frederick though. I don’t know if my father told him anything, or if there were more rumours about my absence than I was aware of. But somehow, he got some idea of what had happened.”

Sebastian pauses for a moment and draws his bottom lip between his teeth, holding it there for a moment before releasing it, and continuing, while the blood quickly rushes back under his skin, “Let’s just say that our reunion passed without much happiness on either side. Frederick had just announced his engagement to Miss Linton, a very young, very beautiful young heiress from a very respectable family. They were to be wed in two months. My grandmother was rather suspicious towards Miss Linton – she didn’t believe that a girl that young would make a good addition to our family – but my father was almost ecstatic about Frederick’s engagement. One evening, he pulled me aside to have a word with me in private.”

Sebastian pinches the brim of his nose and closes his eyes, as if to recollect the exact detail of said conversation, “He suggested, not even unfriendly, that it wouldn’t be fit for me to stay at Bailey Hall with the newlyweds. He suggested that I should travel some more, since it ‘had done much improvement for my character so far’; maybe even visit the colonies in India or the Caribbean Sea, where he was planning to show some interest. Or even better, he said, I could just follow in Frederick’s footsteps, find a sensible girl, marry her and settle down with her at Acton Hall.”

While Kurt has never been to Acton Hall, he knows it’s the third estate that the Smythe family owns, apart from Bailey Hall and Rowton Castle in Shropshire, where the Dowager Countess currently resides. Mrs Bertram once told him that it’s a rather small and secluded estate down in Dartmoor – a bit damp, and not very charming.

“Over the following days, he grew more and more fond of the idea of me marrying. I assume he thought that this would put an end to whatever unnatural tendencies I was still not cured off, and he implored Frederick to introduce me to all the ladies he knew, hoping that one of them would strike my fancy.”

Kurt watches the other man take in a shaky breath, and when the silence between them stretches out, he asks, “And what did you do?”

Sebastian shrugs, “Nothing really. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what there was for me to do.” He pauses for a short moment, before he continues, “When I think about it now, I realise that during all the time I had been away from home, I had, deep down inside, still hoped for some kind of honest reconciliation between me and my father. It took me a long time to realise that all I could hope for was that the past would never be mentioned again, and that by indulging his wishes he would let me stay in England.”

Sebastian’s lips twist into a humourless smile, “And father handled the situation far better than Frederick did. Of course he never would have disregarded one of father’s requests, but he hated every minute he was forced to spend with me. I could see the pity in his eyes when he introduced me to some lady, the unspoken ‘I sincerely hope you won’t be the poor thing that ends up with my no-good brother’.”

He shrugs, “Not that I behaved in a more mature way, on the contrary – I made sure to taunt and humiliate Frederick whenever an opportunity arose. I was smart enough to be subtle about it, of course, but after a couple of weeks, the atmosphere between us had grown… tense.”

Sebastian stares into the distance for a second, his expression hard to read. “It reached its boiling point one evening in late September. My father had gone out to visit an old friend, and Frederick and I had just returned from a party. We had spent the evening trying to avoid each other, and we were both more than a little tipsy when we got home. I don’t remember who started it, or what it was exactly that finally broke our restraint, but I never had a fight like the one with Frederick that night.”

Kurt watches Sebastian’s face attentively, the hard line around his mouth, the dark look in his eyes, when the other man continues, “We had both tried to be polite and civil around each other for too long. Not just after my return to London, but years and years before that. And that night, we finally voiced what we had both kept hidden for the longest time.”

Sebastian’s posture is rigid, and he is not meeting Kurt’s eyes when he continues his account, “I’ll spare you the details of what was said between us that night. But while my insults – and believe me, I used the most colourful insults I was capable of – while they angered him, they didn’t have the power to truly hurt him. He was father’s favourite, after all: successful, popular, rich, good-looking… what was there for me to criticise? His insults, on the other hand…”

He pauses, and Kurt can see the tension in his shoulders, in the way he speaks through clenched teeth, “His insults struck exactly where they were supposed to.”

Sebastian uses a short pause to run a hand over his face, and continues, more quickly now, “It wasn’t just what Frederick said – it was knowing that everything he said was the truth. I would never gain father’s understanding or support. The only option I had was hiding in an unhappy marriage, and putting on a façade for the rest of my life.” He shakes his head, “I turned and fled. I couldn’t stand his smug smile, and I couldn’t stand being in the same house with him a moment longer. I just wanted to get away from him, from my father, from everything they wanted me to be, everything I knew I would never become. I spent the night at Robert’s place, who, fortunately, didn’t ask too many questions.”

A dry grin crosses Sebastian’s lips, “Nick had seen me leave, and he came after me as soon as he could slip away unnoticed. He, unfortunately, asked a lot of questions.”

Sebastian leans back and lets the back of his head rest against the cold glass of the window behind him, “We spent the entire night in Robert’s living room, talking. I flat out refused to go back to my father and my brother, convinced that nothing would make me live with them again. But despite my adamant refusal I was quite at a loss regarding any other options I had. Nick and Robert tried to reason with me, tried to think of what we could do now, but I believe I wasn’t particularly receptive towards reasonable arguments that night.”

Sebastian’s fingers clench around the white wood of the windowsill once again, and his voice sounds strained when he continues, “When the sky started to turn from black to grey, there was a knock at the door. A breathless, pale servant – one of our footmen, I cannot recall his name – entered, and told us that there had been an accident in the kitchen early in the morning, and that my father’s house, along with seven other houses in the street, had burned down completely. Neither my father nor my brother had made it out of the burning building.”

Sebastian’s eyes close, and in this moment, despite everything that has happened between them over the past weeks, Kurt wishes he could reach out and offer any comfort to Sebastian. He has heard this part of the story before, from Nick, from Mrs Bertram, Mrs Seymour, but hearing about it from Sebastian makes it ten times more horrible.

The other man’s eyes are still closed when he speaks again, “I… I don’t think I can clearly remember the weeks that followed that morning. Suddenly, I was an Earl. And at first, I… I don’t know how, but I just functioned. I knew I had tasks to fulfil, and I fulfilled them. But it was like someone else was controlling my limbs, my body; like I myself had no real connection to what was happening around me. I remember visiting the family of Frederick’s young fiancée, who couldn’t stop weeping. I remember arranging the funeral. I remember attending the funeral. I remember settling the necessary affairs, visiting lawyers, mostly with Robert, because suddenly I was facing a task I had never been prepared for, and I slowly realised that I knew nothing about running an estate. And that I had to learn everything.”

He exhales, and his voice, though still shaky, gradually becomes steadier, “I sent Nick and the servants back to Bailey Hall. Nick urged me to come with him, or to let him stay with me, but I couldn’t. It was the first, and I think the only time I pushed Nick away like that, but he, and Robert, and everything around me reminded me of what had happened, and more than anything else I wanted to get away. So as soon as I had settled all the necessary affairs, I travelled to Paris.” His gaz