It was not the first ball that Harry was set to attend, but it certainly was the most anticipated. Having just come from end of his term at Oxford, this was to be his first ball in London.
He simply could burst from the excitement.
"Aurand, please call for my mother as soon as you can," he asked his valet, frowning at his own reflection. "I believe she would know the best waistcoat to wear for this occasion."
"Certainly, sir," Aurand replied amiably, and proceeded to do as bid. Harry was not a stupid young man. He knew that underneath Aurand's agreeable warmth lay a man exhausted by Harry's whims, but he simply could not help himself nor care all that much at the moment. Everything simply had to be perfect tonight, and Harry, most of all.
Luckily for him, he was otherwise an acceptable master, or Aurand would have perhaps already attempted to drown him in his bath or strangle him in his sleep. Either way, Mrs Styles raised Harry well. He knew his limits.
This was not one of them.
"My darling boy, I thought we had already discussed and agreed that the green waistcoat works best with your colouring?"
Harry fussed with his cuffs. "I thought so as well, Mama, but look – it seems all wrong in this light. Does it not wash me out?"
"That is our light, but the ballroom will be much brighter, you'll see," she reassured him. Harry took a deep breath and a second – well, fifth… hundredth… - look in the mirror. Perhaps she was right. The light in his room did appear quite dim now, but of course, it did nothing to diminish his mother's youthful beauty. He was quite proud of that, in fact – everybody knew there was no greater beauty in the north than Mrs Styles of Holmes Chapel, apart, perhaps, from her eldest, Miss Styles, who had not only good looks but also bright youth to recommend her. Mrs Styles, however, had beauty as well as a warmth that came with motherhood and maturity. There was not a single person she met who did not feel as if they had just encountered a benevolent fairy godmother. In his whole life, Harry wished he could emulate her kindness, and her goodness.
He did not, it had to be said, lack in her good looks, either.
"You look wonderful, sweetheart," she reassured him now, her smile wide in the mirrored reflection. "Please come down, the carriage is set to leave shortly."
Harry smiled back, and finally – with Aurand's silent aid – pulled on his coat. "As you wish, Mother. I shall be down very, very soon."
"We'll be waiting," she twinkled, and, after a furtively apologetic glance at Aurand that Harry failed to miss, left the room.
"I am sorry, Aurand," Harry offered. "It's just that I am so excited, I can hardly contain myself."
"I am aware, sir," Aurand agreed evenly. "I can hardly wait to hear all about it tonight."
Harry squinted at his valet. "You're not being entirely truthful, are you?"
"Er, no, sir. I am not," Aurand agreed just as evenly as before. "However, your joy has always been mine. I hope you enjoy yourself to the fullest tonight."
Harry grinned at him and patted him on both shoulders at once. "You are a treasure," he trilled as he ran out of the room.
The carriage was, after all, leaving shortly.
It rained, of course, but Harry was never actually one to be put off by some drizzle.
No, London had called for his very first entrance into proper society – he was no longer being left alone whilst his parents and sister attended balls and parties – and Harry would have craned his neck out of the carriage had that been an option as they pulled up in front of the Cowells' abode.
Compared with the Styles residence in Cheshire, which was the envy of the county, the Cowells' house in Ludgate Hill looked so modern and stunning, it took Harry's breath away. How strange it was to realise you were more provincial than you had previously thought.
Between helping Mama and Gemma out of the carriage and away from the reminders of horses and dogs traversing nearly the same paths as the humans, it took Harry some time to adjust to the bright lights and laughter of the indoors, but once he did, he never got his breath back.
He was presented with immediate gaiety and merriment – ladies in frocks that clearly screamed the latest fashions, and gentlemen whose coats were surely far richer and more beautiful than any Harry had ever seen on himself or even on his own father. Guests held drinks in elegant crystal glasses and ices served on such fine china, Harry decided then and there he would not even attempt to touch them lest he break one with his own clumsiness.
As his eyes adjusted further, he noted, amongst a cluster of others, one particular man.
He towered over the others in his party, which was why Harry had noticed him first, and his voice rather boomed over everybody else's. His hair gave him extra height, chestnut curlicues rising as if to accentuate his larger than life persona – for Harry had already assigned him such. His profile was what some might call gawky, and definitely odd, but he had a pull about him that Harry did not know how to resist. His linen shirt and collar looked like cream, his lilac waistcoat standing out amongst the more subtle finery of his peers. His coat was steel grey. His breeches – when Harry was able to look away from his face – clung to long legs as if they were made only for them. Harry blinked and felt the need to shake out his thoughts, for they were heading in a strange direction, indeed.
It took the servant saying Harry's name for Harry's attention to snap back to his own family.
"Mr and Mrs Styles, accompanied by their daughter Miss Styles and son Harry Styles."
Harry caught Gemma's gaze and bit his lip, attempting to smile. The sudden attention from those in the hall who had heard them being announced made him feel rather unlike himself at all – shy and requiring an immediate retreat. This was certainly not how he had expected to feel at his very first London ball.
"Come, slow coach," Gemma whispered and linked her arm with his, following their mother and father. "Let us not keep your admirers waiting."
Harry could not help the laughter that escaped him. It was, of course, Gemma who was turning heads as they walked. Harry saw them, the young men who had difficulty turning away from the beautiful young lady attired in a powder blue frock with white flowers dotting her hair. Harry felt himself relaxing as he realised the attention had slid from himself to her, and walked rather gaily on until his eye caught another's.
The tall man Harry had spotted upon entering was not watching Gemma; his gaze was on Harry. His smile was huge – lopsided and disarming – and his eyes were so kind. Harry could not help but nearly stutter to a halt, just as much as he could not help but smile right back, hoping the cheekiness of his smile would disarm this man in return.
It lasted but a second, but his neck grew so hot under his collar that he longed to scratch it. Pinpricks of sweat broke out all over his skin, across his scalp and under his arms, trickling down legs, itching his fingers. His belly flopped around as if dunked into a cold lake without warning.
"Are you all right, sweetheart?" Gemma asked quietly, and all Harry could do was nod and give her a small smile, for the rest of him was in an uproar.
Harry's heart had simply not been prepared for the tall man with the brilliant grin.
Harry lost sight of him after entering the main ballroom. It was just as well, really, considering how small-town his reaction must have looked at the sight of it. Their own ballroom now seemed to pale in comparison with the splendour of this one. The chandelier's brilliant light shone on the graceful beauty of the room, reflecting the guests' crystal glasses and the ladies' jewels. Everywhere Harry looked, he saw opulence and stunning beauty.
His mother gave him an amused glance before introducing him to the people she knew. Giggling young daughters, some blushing, some attempting indifferent looks, were paraded in front of him one by one. Before he knew it, he had been lined up for the next six dances.
"Oh God," he murmured at Gemma, who had just been secured for her first five. "What if I fall? I have not danced at a ball with a lady in – ever, really."
"Am I not a lady?" she chided him with a grin. "Hush, you shall be completely fine. And if you do misstep, everybody will be charmed, you cheeky young thing." She bumped his nose with her fan. "I doubt any of the ladies will even notice your fumbles."
Harry squeezed her hand where no one could see it just as the gentlemen began intercepting their partners for the first dance, led by the hostess herself.
"Go on," his mother whispered. "Miss Grey is waiting."
Miss Grey was a lovely partner. She was a good dancer, but her skills were not so far above Harry's that he felt a fool, and she was quite pretty, as well. Her pale cream gown only served to accentuate her rosy complexion, and the ribbons in her hair gave her a slight other-wordly look, like a fairy. She giggled a lot.
By the time Harry was on his third dance, he truly found his footing. The Misses Poundstone were both quietly reserved but pleasing to dance with, and did not ask so much of Harry that he could not also notice the rest of the room now, noting not only the splendour but the other guests, such as Mrs Poundstone chatting to his own mother, the dimples on her soft cheeks standing out with each smile, and all the gentlemen his father seemed to preside over with great pleasure.
It was only by the sixth dance that Harry stumbled. For, looking down the line of dancers, he saw Gemma and a second later, noticed her partner come into view.
It was the tall man with the brilliant smile.
Harry managed to stomp onto his partner's foot as he stepped to the right instead of the left, and his plié was nearly a disastrous fall altogether.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered furiously the next time he was within his partner's earshot, having nearly forgotten her name, as well. "Please forgive me."
"It is no matter," she whispered back as she was led past him by the man next to them and Harry actually managed to do the right thing and lead the man's partner to the left. His feet went automatically where the music led them, but it did not come easily, not like it had at home, with Gemma and their governess for instructors. He looked down more than up, but when a familiar dress came into view, he found Gemma's questioning gaze on him right before his eyes were locked with another's.
Another open smile, closer this time, oh, so close that for a moment Harry wished the floor would open up and swallow him whole. What was happening to him? What had come over him that a simple and friendly smile from another man would breach his senses in such an all-consuming way?
He did not know whether he smiled back or remained dumbstruck, and afterwards, once the dance was mercifully over, all he could do was bow to his poor partner – Miss Allston, that was her name! – and flee the scene of the crime.
He put himself back together afterwards in short order, eating ices next to a young lady he had met briefly earlier. Miss Cotton had a sort of funny air of cool weariness and insecurity about her. But, she was friendly enough, so when she engaged Harry in conversation, he happily followed.
"This is your very first London ball?" she asked him. "You seem very comfortable here. I tripped through my first one," she added. Her laugh was throaty and it surprised Harry into laughing alongside her.
"I do not feel very comfortable," he confessed, discreetly licking sugary water off of his pinky. "I did trip, in fact, on my last dance. So embarrassing."
"Nonsense, everybody trips. If dancing were easy, it would be less diverting, do you not agree?"
"True," Harry agreed, tilting his head. "I am a fairly clumsy sort of person, so I suppose that's even more diverting, is it not?"
"Exactly," she nodded, smiling. "And as this is your first London ball, I feel the responsibility to impart my exhaustive knowledge on you. What do you say?"
"Oh my word, that would be wonderful," Harry said immediately and set down his crystal bowl on the tray nearest to them. "Please. I need an insider, I am so out of my depth."
"Excellent! Come with me," she said and moved easily through the crowds to a spot where, Harry imagined, some discreet pointing was not altogether impossible. Once he joined her, she sidled close enough to him for him to sense a faint scent of roses, pleasing and feminine. It immediately him put him in mind of being a small child and watching his mother readying for a party, a dab of rose oil under each ear and across each wrist.
"Do you see the gentlemen there, in the blue overcoat, with the dark hair?"
Harry squinted, then nodded. "Yes. That is Mr Cowell himself, is it not?"
"It is, very good. He and his wife are famous for these balls. She is… oh, over by the windows, in the sienna gown, with the large feather in her hair. Do you see her?"
"I do," Harry said. "She's beautiful."
"She is," Miss Cotton agreed. "And a lovely woman altogether, which, I believe you will eventually agree, can be difficult to find at these events."
"Miss Cotton," Harry gasped, one hand going to his chest. "How wicked of you!"
"I am extremely wicked, Mr Styles," she laughed. "But I am only wicked in that I speak the truth. Now, look over there, at the cluster of gentlemen crowded by the large fireplace. Do you see?"
Harry's eyes sought out where she was indicating, and – oh yes. He did see the cluster of gentlemen, but could focus only on one. Harry's heart sped up. The tall man was laughing brightly, and loudly enough that an older woman seated a few feet away was glancing back at him with severe disapproval. Harry bit his lip but laughed despite himself. "I do. Tell me, who's the, er, loud gentleman, the tall one?" He was quite proud of himself for asking her in his most casual voice.
"Aha, that is who I was going to point to next. That, Mr Styles, is Mr Nicholas Grimshaw."
Nicholas Grimshaw… Nicholas Grimshaw! The name floated up in his memory, as sudden as a bird's wings flapping overhead. "Oh! But I've heard his name before!"
"I'm sure you have – he's the toast of the town," Miss Cotton said, with a smirk playing on her lips. "He is, well. He is not of noble birth, you know, and hails from the north. His father, I believe, is a barrister of some sort, and although he is no true gentleman, quite respected in his field. Mr Grimshaw himself has no profession to speak of, but is exceptional at being the life of the party." She sounded in equal parts amused and derisive.
Harry frowned. "Do you not like him?"
"What a funny thing to ask," she laughed, looking at him. "It does not matter what I think, but I like him well enough. It is just that he is, well. He is most discreet, but word is, he knows half of London's secrets. There is not a scandal in sight that he is not, at least in some way, privy to. I suppose were he a…lesser man, he could be quite dangerous. Not," she added, her head tilted thoughtfully, "that he could not yet prove himself to be somebody's downfall."
Harry looked at Mr Grimshaw again, Miss Cotton's words ringing in his ears. He remembered now, where he had heard his name, and it was from his mother's lips. When Harry was just thirteen and not yet allowed at these occasions in London, he would soak up every bit of trivial knowledge his mother would grant him afterwards. Mr Grimshaw had, Harry now remembered, saved her shawl from where it had nearly fallen into the mud after she got out of her carriage. He had laughed her thanks off, and then proceeded to dance several dances with her, merry and gallant all at once.
Looking at him now, "dangerous" seemed the least apt way to describe Mr Grimshaw. Loud and larger than life, even with his slim build, but not dangerous. But, what did Harry know of the world? He could prove himself to be terrible yet.
"We are but acquaintances," Miss Cotton said thoughtfully, "but truly, I have nothing against him. Perhaps this is because I have no secrets to speak of. Have you not had a chance to meet yet?"
Harry thought of stumbling at the very sight of him, and shook his head. "I have not, but he did dance with Gemma earlier."
Miss Cotton gave him a quizzical look.
"My sister, Gemma," Harry corrected. "You can see her –" He scanned the room for her familiar face. "Right over there, talking to that dark-haired gentleman, blue coat?"
"Oh, I see. You look so much alike! I should have known." Miss Cotton laughed and had she been anyone else, Harry might have even suspected her of light flirtation. However, he sensed that, beneath the polite and chatty exterior, she truly believed most to be beneath her, with Harry, seventeen and untried as he was, included amongst that number.
"So," Harry began, but Miss Cotton was already waving someone over. Harry could but stand and watch as she asked an attendant to fetch her Mr Grimshaw. Harry fidgeted with his collar, and his cuffs, and his own hair, attempting to look anywhere but to where Mr Grimshaw was now approaching.
"Here he comes," Miss Cotton informed him, rather unnecessarily. Harry attempted to make his face as neutral as was possible under the circumstances. However, once his gaze was caught by Mr Grimshaw's, not smiling back became simply impossible.
"Mr Grimshaw," Miss Cotton said, extending her hand and curtseying. "Lovely to see you, as always."
Mr Grimshaw, now as close to Harry as Miss Cotton, kissed her hand and gave an exaggerated bow. "Miss Cotton, always a pleasure."
"Flatterer," she trilled and took back her hand. "Now, Mr Grimshaw, I would like for you to meet our newest friend, Mr Harry Styles."
Harry's heart was beating so loudly, he truly believed everyone in the ballroom could feel its vibrations. Nevertheless, he was quite steady as he inclined his head towards Mr Grimshaw and said, "Pleasure, sir."
"The pleasure," Mr Grimshaw smiled an easy and wide smile, "is all mine. I believe you are younger brother to Miss Styles?" His face, Harry noted with some amusement, was rather large and Harry wondered if he had trouble finding hats that fit him. Large head notwithstanding, however, he truly was striking. Not classically handsome, perhaps, and not pretty, like Harry himself, but handsome in his own right, made all the better by the warmth of his whole person.
"Yes, Gemma is my older sister." Harry felt a pang of jealousy towards Gemma for the very first time in his life. What a strange and silly thing to feel.
"A lovely dance partner," Mr Grimshaw informed him, not helping Harry's inner turmoil in the least. "And clever – I love a clever partner. Don't you find cleverness makes the dancing merrier?"
Before Harry could reply, Miss Cotton chimed in. "Well, I certainly do, even though I am not a great lover of dancing altogether. Mr Styles, however, is exceptionally new to it, are you not?"
Harry smiled at her (it was so much easier smiling at Miss Cotton than Mr Grimshaw) and replied, "I am. If I attempted to dance and be clever at the same time, I'm afraid I'd end up doing neither."
"Oh, that doesn't sound like the young man Miss Styles described," Mr Grimshaw said, forcing Harry's heart to do a strange sort of flop inside his chest. He barely stopped himself from saying, You've discussed me? What did Gemma tell you? Were you asking? Is that why?
"Yes," Miss Cotton said, narrowing her eyes in Harry's direction. "This young whippersnapper is probably cleverer than he lets on, do you not think, Mr Grimshaw?"
Harry was certain the heat climbing up his entire body was turning his neck and cheeks red. "You flatter me, Miss Cotton," he managed to say.
"Miss Cotton flatters rarely, Mr Styles," Mr Grimshaw said and laughed at his own joke. "You will soon find this out for yourself."
All Harry could say was, "Well." When his gaze met Mr Grimshaw's, he smiled before ducking his head.
"Goodness, you are a charmer," Miss Cotton laughed, with just a shade of true mockery colouring her words. "I am afraid I have quite neglected my companions, so, if you gentlemen will excuse me. It was lovely to meet you, Mr Styles," she said, allowing him to kiss her hand. "Mr Grimshaw, charmed as always." Mr Grimshaw followed suit.
And then, in a matter of mere moments, Harry found himself alone in Mr Grimshaw's company.
"So, Mr Styles," Mr Grimshaw said, as Harry struggled to untie his tongue. "This is your first proper London ball, I hear?"
"Oh, no, how embarrassing," Harry managed to laugh. "Has everyone been informed of this?"
Mr Grimshaw tilted his head and took a sip of his drink. "Why should you be embarrassed? Everybody has their first ball at one point or another."
"I suppose," Harry said slowly, "it is because I do not enjoy feeling like a child." He instantly regretted his words, for they made him feel exactly like one.
Mr Grimshaw, however, did not sneer at him. In fact, he simply laughed – a delighted booming rasp of a sound – and said, "Well, I am more than happy to tell you that, first ball or not, you do not appear a child at all. You have nothing to fear."
Harry flushed at the words and reached for a tray of drinks for distraction. "That is excellent to know, thank you, Mr Grimshaw." He took a much needed sip of what turned out to be elderberry wine.
"My pleasure," Mr Grimshaw smiled. In fact, he never really stopped smiling, just like he never stopped making eye contact with Harry, which thrilled and unsettled in equal measure. Had Mr Grimshaw been a lady, Harry would have attempted to secure the rest of the night's dances with him. What a mad thought, but he could hardly deny it.
As it was, Harry simply hoped that Mr Grimshaw was not engaged to dance with any other young lady for however long Harry could keep him in his company. Harry himself did not wish to repeat the previous disaster of a dance under any circumstances, and planned on staying exactly where he was.
"So, young Styles – do you mind if I call you Styles?" Mr Grimshaw asked, much to Harry's shocked amusement.
"Not at all. Grimshaw." Harry hoped his forwardness would not be construed as rudeness, but as mere cheekiness. Something told him that Mr Grimshaw was not offended easily by cheekiness.
"Well, Styles," Mr Grimshaw laughed, smiling wider, "Grimshaw is my name, and you are more than welcome to use it. Regardless, since you are so new to this fair city, I insist upon introducing you to its finer spots. Is your family in town for long?"
His pulse speeding up, Harry managed to say, "We are here for the season, I believe."
"Excellent! Well, then, allow me to call upon you and take both you and Miss Styles on an adventure. Would that be amenable to you?"
Even if the pretense of taking Harry on an adventure was simply to get closer to Gemma, Harry found himself not caring. Mr Grimshaw wished to take Harry out on the town and introduce him to London. Could anything be finer? Harry bit his lip and smiled. "I would wish for nothing more. I imagine Gemma will feel the same way."
"Wonderful. It is settled, then," Grimshaw responded.
Even his smallest smile – a crooked sort of grin, an air of shyness about it – made Harry's head spin. What a strangely wonderful man he was. Harry so longed to be his friend, despite Miss Cotton's not-so-friendly summation of his character. She had to be wrong, he thought. He was settled on finding out for himself.
"Unless you are otherwise engaged this coming Monday, I will call on you both at midday?" Grimshaw asked.
"We are not otherwise engaged," Harry rushed to reassure him. And even if he were, he would find a way to free them both up.
This coming Monday. Harry could not wait.
Harry quietly sneaked into Gemma's room after the rest of the household had already retired for the night, and together, they relived their night of excitement. Harry waited until what he considered to be a proper amount of time in which to bring up Mr Grimshaw.
"Tell me," he began. "What did you think of that tall gentleman, the one you danced with – Mr Grimshaw, was it?"
She smiled sleepily and poked Harry's arm. "I liked him well enough. Not half as well as you did, however."
Harry felt himself flushing. "I simply found him interesting," he attempted.
Gemma narrowed her eyes, and blinked at him slowly. "Interesting is certainly a word to describe him."
Harry chewed on his lip, looking down at where Gemma's hands were resting on her tucked-up knees. First, Miss Cotton, and now his own sister. "You did not like him, then," he said slowly. A part of him was so disappointed, he thought that he might cry. A smaller part, however, felt strangely relieved. He did not wish to dwell on that part tonight.
"Oh, Harry. I did not mean that at all," she rushed to reassure him. "I am so pleased that you have already found someone in town who could become a friend. I hope. He seemed friendly and gallant." Despite being of lesser birth appeared to hang between them.
Harry, still avoiding eye contact, said, "Well, in fact. He invited to take you and me out on Monday, to show us the sights."
"Did he?" When Harry finally looked up at her, Gemma's eyebrow went up in apparent amusement. "Well, that was quite fast."
"I believe he liked you," Harry said in a slow voice, picking each word out carefully.
"I believe," she said, just as slowly, holding Harry's gaze. "That he liked you."
Harry held her gaze for a mere second, but when he broke it, a terrifying sort of warmth flushed through his entire being.
He could not fall asleep that night. He tossed and turned until he heard the household staff begin to awaken throughout the house. The darkness beyond his curtains began to lift, a pale grey overtaking the complete blackness of night, and Harry lay in bed, with sleep nowhere to be found, gazing at the walls, terrified of a bottomless abyss that he could not name, nor define, nor stop from feeling.
Monday came around too soon and not nearly soon enough. He attempted to hide his excitement, but knew he was too obvious for his own good.
"Please calm yourself," his mother chided him at breakfast. "You must eat something, you cannot exist on tea alone."
Harry did not think he could swallow a single bite. "I'm really not hungry, Mama."
"You must eat, still. Please. Just have some of this roast beef, and a bit of plum cake. It will do your jitters a world of good," she insisted.
Harry wanted to let her know that he was not jittery in the least, but when he reached for a slice of cake, his shaking hands betrayed him. He was grateful that nobody made a comment.
The cake and beef felt like iron in his stomach, but at least eating passed the time. After retiring to the drawing room, Harry could hardly concentrate on his book, and instead, engaged Gemma in a card game. She indulged him in a way she used to when he was but a young boy, and she, a long-suffering girl of ten, allowing him to run circles around her for play.
After an eternity, however, the front door bell finally rang. Harry only managed to stay in his seat through sheer force of will. When his gaze met Gemma's, she was watching him with not a little amusement. He stuck his tongue out at her.
"Mr Nicholas Grimshaw," their servant announced, just as the man in question walked up behind him.
He was just as tall and dapper as Harry had remembered, with his hair half falling onto his sizable forehead once he took off his hat, his overcoat a lovely shade of green.
Harry's heart skipped a predictable beat. He rose from his seat, allowing Grimshaw to do his introductions properly, with Mama and Papa being the first to be greeted.
"Mr and Mrs Styles, what a great pleasure to see you again. I trust you are all quite recovered from the other night?"
"Oh yes," Mama laughed, withdrawing her hand from Grimshaw's kiss. "Quite. Some of us, however, appear to be eager for more diversions."
Harry could not help grinning, even as he wished she had not indicated him with her hand. "Hello," he said, rooted to the spot.
"Hello," Grimshaw greeted back, his smile just as wide and happy as Harry's own. "Miss Styles," he nodded, walking forward to take Gemma's hand and kiss it. "Styles."
Harry laughed and ignored the curious look his mother sent him. "Grimshaw."
He felt as awkward and unprepared as he ever had, standing in the middle of his own drawing room, unable to tear his gaze away from a young man. He wished for nothing more than to be on their way already, and a smaller wish to have Grimshaw all to himself, with no chaperones, lodged itself in his mind. He attempted to shake it away.
"Well, let us not wait any longer," Gemma said, rising. "Harry and I are very pleased at your offer to show us around London, Mr Grimshaw. Thank you very much."
"The pleasure is all mine," Grimshaw smiled, and offered Gemma his elbow for the taking. Truly, Miss Cotton had been too wicked in her assessments. Grimshaw acted the gentleman through and through. "Mr and Mrs Styles, I promise to have your progenies back to you in the same condition you find them in now."
Papa laughed and nodded easily enough. "See that you do, Mr Grimshaw. See that you do."
Harry allowed Grimshaw and Gemma to lead the way out of the door, following them out.
Their escort had come in a barouche box. "I thought you would want to be able to see as we rode around London," he explained, helping Gemma into it.
Harry grinned up at him. "It's wonderful!"
They took off at a pace his mother surely would not have approved of. Harry laughed and just barely managed to hold onto his hat.
"Our first destination shall be Hyde Park," Grimshaw announced once they were on their way. "I imagine that you must have already visited it?"
"I have," Gemma replied, holding the crown of her bonnet against the breeze. "Mama and I have gone riding there. Harry, however, has not yet had that pleasure."
Grimshaw's smile was blinding when it turned towards Harry. "Wonderful. It is a lovely park, and I enjoy a ride there myself every now and then."
Harry smiled back and tucked his hands under himself so as not to fidget.
Their ride through town was a roaring success, as far as Harry was concerned. They strolled through Hyde Park, Grimshaw keeping them entertained the entire time. Wherever they went, at least two of his acquaintances would appear to greet him and let Harry and Gemma know it was their pleasure to meet them. They all of them appeared to be of Harry's class.
One company in particular turned out to be exceptionally happy to run into the three of them.
"Styles, Miss Styles – please meet Mrs Allen, Miss Geldof, Mr Barnett, her intended, Miss Phillips, and Mr Chaloner, also shortly about to marry," Grimshaw said. "Some of my closest acquaintances."
He said it with such warmth that Harry immediately wished to impress them. "So pleased to make your acquaintance," he said, making sure to kiss every lady's hand, shake every gentleman's, and meet all their gazes equally. He was happy to be wearing gloves, for his palms felt rather itchy and damp. Gemma was more reserved, as always, but only marginally less enthused.
Once the introductions were made, they became a party of eight. "How merry," Miss Geldof said with a laugh. "We were just about to have tea in the café that you so enjoy, Grimshaw. Would you care to join us?"
"Certainly, if my new friends would be up for it?" Grimshaw said.
Harry's insides squirmed at the word friends, and he gave Gemma the quickest of glances before answering for them both. "It would be our pleasure, certainly."
He caught Gemma's smile. He knew she was laughing at him on the inside, but that was all right. Harry could not be happier to be making more friends in London. At least, he hoped they might become his friends, as well.
As they walked towards their destination, Mrs Allen engaged Gemma in conversation in a way that forced Harry to walk alongside Grimshaw. Harry could not say that he minded that much, especially considering that they were now in company of so many of Mr Grimshaw's true friends.
"Is London delivering so far?" Grimshaw asked, towering over Harry just enough that Harry had to look up to meet his gaze.
"Oh, yes," he replied instantly. "I've longed for city life for quite some time now."
"I confess, I cannot imagine trading it in for anything. I hail, as you do, from the North, so I do love it for a retreat. It's a beautiful country."
"It is," Harry agreed. "But surely it cannot compare with the excitement of London."
Grimshaw's grin was of a teasing kind, but Harry did not mind. He felt as happy as ever in that moment, caught between the gaze and the smile of his new friend.
"It's true. No other place can offer you what London can," Grimshaw said after a minute, and looked away, breaking Harry's gaze.
This time it was Gemma who entered Harry's room after retiring to bed, lifting him out of the reverie a book of poetry had settled upon him. "Hello," he smiled, adjusting his unfocused gaze.
"I thought you might still be awake," she smiled back, settling her weight on the bed and tucking her arms around her knees. "Are you happy?"
They asked each other that quite often, but this time, it felt different. He answered, anyway, because it was Gemma, and she always knew. "I am. I am so happy," he confessed, unable to stop the grin from spreading on his face. "Was not today as lovely as could be?"
"It was," she said, leaning in close. "But I do not believe Mr Grimshaw to be interested in me in a romantic manner."
Harry's heart jumped inside his chest, but he attempted to appear surprised. "Did you think that he might be?"
"Did not you?" Her gaze was shrewd upon his. "No, I confess, I wondered. But today certainly dispelled that notion."
Harry hummed as if in indifference.
"And yet, he has invited our whole family for a night at the opera tomorrow. Is that not curious?" she went on.
"Why should it be curious? He seems a gregarious and by all accounts welcoming gentleman," Harry responded. He barely noticed how tightly he was gripping his small volume of poems. "He also appears to have many friends."
"That, he does," Gemma agreed. "Well, in any case." Here, she tipped her finger against Harry's nose, forcing a giggle from him. "I'm so pleased your first trip to London is turning into a success already."
"As am I," he said, catching her hand and kissing her palm. "So pleased, Gemma."
She giggled and snuggled up against him so they could both read by Harry's candlelight.
Their box at the opera was close enough to the stage that if Harry leaned over the side, he could nearly see the details painted on the stage set. He could certainly watch the crowds milling underneath, and he took it all in with not a small amount of glee. As he was sat behind both his parents as well as Gemma and another friend of Grimshaw's called Miss Teasdale, the only person to observe Harry doing all the people watching was Grimshaw himself.
"Have you never been to the opera?" he asked, teasing as always.
Harry turned away from the crowd and smiled, feeling his neck prickle a little in embarrassment. "I have not. The most theatre I have ever experienced has been the plays put on back home, and that was not nearly as stunning as all this."
"And the play itself hasn't even started," Grimshaw laughed. "Well, I am very pleased to introduce you to the splendour. I'm a bit of an aficionado, actually, and have seen this particular production a few times already."
"Are you? Do you play anything yourself?" Harry could not help the glance down to where Grimshaw's hands were resting. He had long, spidery fingers that looked strong and delicate at the same time, perfect for playing the pianoforte.
"I do not, I'm afraid," Grimshaw replied, forcing Harry's gaze back to his face. A rueful sort of smile played around his lips. "I love music, but am completely tone-deaf when it comes to actually making any. It is my lot in my life!"
Harry laughed. "That seems unfortunate."
"Isn't it?" Grimshaw hummed. "What about you, Styles? Any musical proficiencies?"
"Well," Harry said, clearing his throat. "I love to sing, actually. Gemma is the musician when it comes to the pianoforte, but she's too shy to sing, so we duet quite a bit."
"Do you?" Grimshaw's eyes appeared to light up. "I would love to hear you both perform sometime. Does this mean you are not shy in front of crowds?"
"Well," Harry flushed, looking down at his lap for a moment before locking his gaze on Grimshaw's once more. "It depends on the crowds, I suppose. I've really only ever sang in front of family parties. I am not certain my talents would hold up in London society."
"His voice is lovely, Mr Grimshaw, believe me," Gemma cut in, having apparently been listening the entire time. Harry watched as she turned around and threw a cheeky grin in his direction. "Very soft and pleasant. He is quite accomplished in that way."
"Is he? Well, now I must certainly hear you both," Grimshaw replied just as the lights began to dim and a bell rang out. Gemma smiled at them once more before turning around to say something to her new companion. "Ah," Grimshaw whispered. "Here we go."
Harry could barely breathe. The music consumed him. He no longer cared for the crowds above or below him, because the only thing that existed was the stage, lit up and alive with story and song. He only felt himself leaning forward when the side of the box cut into his arm, and Gemma's chair stopped his knees from moving.
When the lights went down to signal the intermission, Harry turned in dismay to Grimshaw only to find him watching Harry already, a lost look that mirrored Harry's own. Harry swallowed. "There's more, isn't there? We have to find out what happens, that simply cannot be the end," Harry said.
"There's more, yes," Grimshaw replied softly and smiled. He looked sad, and Harry remembered that this wasn't Grimshaw's first time seeing this play. And still, it affected him so. "We're only halfway through."
They both blinked as the lights in the theatre came on. Gemma and Miss Teasdale were already standing up, arms linking together.
"Allow us to escort you to the refreshments," Grimshaw said, all the sadness wiped from his face as if a hand had done it. He was all congeniality and affability, now.
Harry clumsily followed suit as he stood up on wobbly feet. "I shall ask Mama if she would like to join us."
Mama and Papa decided to remain in their seats, and by the time Harry emerged in the hall outside of their box, it was filled with smells of perfume and wine. He could not see Gemma, Miss Teasdale, or even Grimshaw, tall as he was. Harry's heart sank – he had so hoped to get to talk to them all before the start of the second act. He needed to know if Gemma had felt the same clenching of heart at the heroine's illness, and her beautiful, painfully delicate solos.
"There you are." Grimshaw's voice in his ear made Harry jump, and he was clutching his chest when he turned around and came face to face with his new friend. "Miss Styles and Miss Teasdale went ahead, and asked that I wait for you. Are you all right?"
"Oh, uh, yes! Yes, I'm sorry – I did not see you," Harry stammered, attempting to move away because Grimshaw was so, so close to him, but someone was at his back, and he stumbled.
"Careful, Harry," Grimshaw said at the same time as his hand steadied Harry's elbow, and Harry felt anything but careful and steady. "I'm sorry, I meant – Styles, steady on, are you all right?"
Harry's heart was racing. Hearing his Christian name fall so easily from Grimshaw's lips flustered him more than he could have expected, and his hand on Harry's arm appeared to sear his very skin, protected as it was with many a layer of muslin and wool. "I'm – yes, I'm sorry, it's quite stuffy in here, is it not?"
"It is, I'm afraid," Grimshaw nodded, looking at Harry with some concern. "But if we move away from this spot and follow your sister and Miss Teasdale, it should be cooler."
"Let us do that," Harry agreed, his path now clear to move to a safer distance from this man who affected him so, and together, they made their way down the staircase.
Gemma's smile and easy manner helped in bringing Harry fully back to himself, once they found both ladies. Harry did not look at Grimshaw if he could help it, quite ashamed of his earlier reactions, and spent the majority of the intermission speaking with Miss Teasdale, slender and pretty and clever. He heard Grimshaw's voice as he talked with Gemma, but did not allow himself to listen to the words.
When the opera came to its inevitable tragic conclusion, Harry could only sit and stare at the darkened stage, barely able to even move, let alone applaud with the rest of the audience. It was not until the last of the actors had taken their bows that Harry was able to take a breath and look once more towards Grimshaw for guidance. When he did, he could not help but note with wonder, "You cried."
Grimshaw hastily wiped the corners of his eyes. "Unfortunate side effect of loving opera, I am afraid." Was he ashamed? Because Harry, whose eyes were also wet with emotion, could only stare at him and think, we are the same. We are one and the same.
That was the night Harry fell in love with opera.
Harry barely remembered saying goodbye to Grimshaw and Miss Teasdale that evening, barely remembered the ride home, punctuated by his parents and sister discussing their impressions of the show.
All Harry could think about was how close Grimshaw had stood to him in that crowded corridor, how his own heart raced and skin lit alight, how the very scent of him had sent Harry reeling.
Surely, this was abnormal, and wrong, but he knew no way out of the feeling. He could not account for the power Grimshaw appeared to have over him just by the virtue of being himself, but from the very first time Harry's eyes locked with his at that ball, Harry had been swimming in a sea of pure longing.
He longed now. He longed to be secluded from the world with just Grimshaw for company, to touch Grimshaw's fingers with his own, to press his body towards him until there was no air between them; to smell the spot beneath his jaw, to land a kiss there, to –
God, no, no, no – but he could not stop himself from wanting. His hand moved on its own accord, and what was once a solitary, mechanical act instantly became one of focused, unsuppressed desire. Harry dared not moan aloud, but gasped wet breaths against his pillow, his belly churning with the pleasurable, shameful feeling of it all.
God, but to allow himself just one touch, one simple touch – to kiss the smiling lips, to hold his waist, perhaps – Harry fell undone by his own heart, undone by his own hand, and spent himself in a tide of all-consuming pleasure.
The weight of shame at what he'd done threatened to crush him a moment later, and he promised himself, and God, and the darkness that enveloped him, that this was the one and only time, and that if he was abnormal and filled with sin, he would never ever allow his immorality to tarnish Grimshaw, or their friendship.
He would lock these feelings away, and never, ever allow them out ever again.
Two days later, just as Grimshaw was due to call and take Harry and Gemma out for an evening with his friends, Gemma begged to stay home.
"I am so sorry, sweetheart, but I am not up for an evening out," she told him, looking peaky and pale.
"Are you unwell? Do you need anything?" Harry asked, worry edging excitement out of his mind. "Should I stay with you?"
"I am quite all right, just tired," she reassured him. "No need to stay home for me. Mama, may I be excused to retire to my room for the night?"
"Of course," Mama replied, looking at her with less concern than Harry was feeling. Perhaps she really was just tired. "I will send Rogers up to you."
Gemma thanked her and left the drawing room just as the downstairs bell rang.
"Well," Grimshaw said, after being told of the change of plans and sending his best wishes to Gemma, "in that case, allow me to introduce you to one of my favourite spots in London."
Grimshaw took him to a gentlemen's club. Harry had never been – his father belonged to one, and was often found there, discussing politics and similar things that were beyond Harry's understanding, but Harry had only heard of it.
Now, as a young man of seventeen, he was about to step foot in one, and it thrilled him beyond compare.
The carriage drew up in front of a fine, stately building, the kind that he only found in London. Once out of their transport, they were both led through an iron gate to the entrance, marked by two sconces and a great marble staircase.
Harry drank in all the details, feeling himself more of a man with each step he took. He hoped he would not be expected to talk of politics just yet, however, as he had very little knowledge of such matters, and had not prepared for this possibility at all.
It was only as they were walking through the entrance hall that he realised that, unlike the other times they've been out together, this time, Grimshaw was keeping his distance.
As the realisation hit him, Harry felt slightly sick to his stomach. Had he shown his proclivities the night of the opera? Had he somehow given Grimshaw a glimpse of what lay beneath their innocent friendship? Was Grimshaw now utterly put off by him?
But if that were so, would he not have stopped seeing him, instead of taking him to his favourite gentlemen's club?
Harry felt his own walk stiffen with anxiety. They were about to walk through a set of ornate oak doors when Grimshaw stopped them with a hand to Harry's elbow.
Harry looked up at him immediately.
"Are you all right, Styles?"
Harry nodded automatically.
"Please," Grimshaw said, a smile spreading across his face. "Do not worry yourself. You shall be just fine here."
It took Harry a moment to realise that Grimshaw thought he was anxious about his first foray into the world of gentlemen's clubs, and his anxiety slid slowly away as he smiled right back. "Thank you. I admit, I am – quite nervous."
Grimshaw, whose hand retreated immediately, grinned. "Absolutely nothing to worry about." He opened the door and indicated. "After you."
"Grimshaw, there you are! Where have you been?" A tall dark-haired gentleman was the first to greet them, as he got up off his chair, holding a glass of a dark amber liquid.
"Guinness, hello," Grimshaw greeted warmly. They clasped hands. "May I present to you my young friend, Mr Harry Styles?"
"Delighted, Mr Styles," Guinness nodded.
"My pleasure, sir," Harry replied, feeling quite uneasy and oh so dreadfully young.
"May I present to you the rest of our party? This," Mr Guinness indicated a young man to his right, "is Mr Chaloner, this is –"
"We have already met, Guinness," Mr Chaloner interrupted and extended his hand. "Good to see you again, Mr Styles."
"You, as well," Harry smiled. It really was nice to see a somewhat familiar face. It came to him that the reason he felt so awkward was that he was missing Gemma's presence. She had always been there, really, his entire life. Left on his own, he felt precariously unbalanced.
Grimshaw's presence, however unsettling to Harry most of the time, did appear to make up for it slightly. Knowing he was here, and so eager to acquaint Harry with his friends, reassured Harry, and helped him stand a little straighter.
"Well, then, I appear to be at a loss," Mr Guinness said, with no hint of discomfort. "Please do join us, both of you. We were about to start another round of sherry and whist."
"Gladly," Grimshaw said, and allowed Harry to sit down first. "Sherry, Styles?"
Harry, who had only ever had a single sip of sherry in his life, nodded eagerly. Of course he was going to have sherry and play a game of whist. He was fairly certain he knew most of the rules.
The sherry arrived in short order, just as Harry was re-introduced to Mr Barnett ("Pleasure, Styles") and introduced to the last man of their party, a Mr Fincham. Harry waited until Grimshaw lifted his own glass and followed suit, taking just a bit more into his mouth than was probably advisable. He coughed slightly as the sweet drink made its way down his throat, then took another, smaller sip, to cover it up.
It sat placidly in his belly, warmth spreading through his veins, and he took up the cards that had been dealt to him. With Grimshaw to his left, and Mr Guinness to his right, Harry began to play.
"Did you bring him here so he could swindle us, Grimshaw?" Guinness laughed, folding his cards. "My goodness, for so young a person, he certainly knows his cards."
"Believe me, I had no idea," Grimshaw laughed. Harry caught his amused gaze and took a sip of his sherry.
He had not realised what a close attention he had paid to the games of whist he'd witnessed being played by his mother and sister, but apparently, he was quite good at this. Gone were the nerves of earlier, and in their place was a sort of mellow contentment that he could only attribute to the drink, the warm fire, and the lovely company. "I assure you," he said to the table at large, "Mine had not been the intention of a swindler. I simply learned from watching my family play."
"Well, you are, as it turns out, quite exceptional at cards. I am happy to not have gambled any money on this game," Mr Barnett said, his voice soft and warm.
"Thank you," Harry accepted, grinning.
"Cheeky," Grimshaw breathed beside him, and Harry could not help his own laugh.
"You brought me here," he reminded him. "Everybody is blaming you, in fact."
"It's true," Fincham agreed immediately.
"I do, certainly," Guinness laughed, taking a sip of his own drink.
"Well," Grimshaw said, loudly enough to awaken an older gentleman from his slumber in a chair by the fire. "Shall we have another game?"
A chorus of "Oh no's" answered him quite firmly. Harry giggled, Grimshaw giving him an exasperated look. "My dear Styles, look what you've done with our talents."
"Well, I would not blame him, Grimshaw," Chaloner said thoughtfully. "After all, lucky at cards, unlucky in love, is that how it goes? You should pity this young man, really."
Harry felt his smile drop off his face. He reached for his glass, emptying it of the remaining drink.
"Well, now, I'm not certain about that," Grimshaw replied thoughtfully. "I, for one, appear to be unlucky in both." When Harry glanced over at him, he was smiling, but there was something beneath it. Harry was entirely unsure how to read it.
"Oh, come now, Grimshaw, the right lady shall along soon enough," Guinness said, dispelling any sense of discomfort.
"Really. You are only twenty six years of age, man," laughed Barnett. "Not yet at death's door by any stretch of the imagination."
"Your only issue, really," Guinness went on, smiling, "is finding a lady of great means, to keep you in your current lifestyle for many years to come. Find yourself an heiress, man."
"Completely solid advice," Grimshaw laughed. "Now, shall we get on with our evening?"
Another round of sherries was called for, and received.
"Steady on, man," someone – Guinness? – said in Harry's ear. "Almost at the carriage."
Harry was aware that he, perhaps, should have been feeling a certain amount of shame for being unable to walk on his own, but something in his mind was preventing the feeling from actualising. Instead, he allowed himself to be handled up the walk and into the carriage awaiting them.
"Step," another voice said, closer this time. Grimshaw. "Careful, now – there, well done," and Harry was inside, nearly falling onto the bench. He heard Grimshaw and Guinness exchanging parting words, but was too unfocused to hear what they were. Instead, he felt that the best course of action would be to lie down on the seat and close his eyes.
Mmm, yes. That made the swimming sensation in his head lessen somewhat, and the brightness of the street lamps receded.
"Oh, dear." Grimshaw's voice was inside the carriage. The next sound Harry heard was the shutting of the door and Grimshaw sitting down onto the bench across from him. "I fear your parents will never let you out with me again."
"Hmm?" Harry asked, still lying down with his eyes closed.
Grimshaw giggled, then said, louder, "You might want to sit up, my friend. Once the carriage sets off, you won't like the effect lying down."
Harry frowned, for he was quite comfortable, really. Then the lurch came. And another. The pounding of the horse's hooves made for terrible knocking effects inside his skull.
Harry managed to sit up. "Oh," he said, opening his eyes.
Grimshaw was clearly very amused, watching him back. "I should have been more careful with the pour of that sherry for you."
Harry smiled, allowing his head to fall back against the seat. His eyes slid shut again. "Oh no, it was lovely. The whole… The whole evening was lovely."
"I am glad," Grimshaw said. His voice was softer now. He sounded remarkably sober.
Harry frowned. "Am I inebriated, Grimshaw?"
"I am afraid so. I feel responsible, really. You will have to have quite a lot of water to counteract what will happen to you tomorrow."
"I shall have Aurand fetch me a pitcher," Harry said. "At home." Then a thought came, and he clearly had to voice it. "Have you not yet found love, Grimshaw?"
There was a silence the length of which Harry could not account for. All time slowed for him at some point in the evening, and he felt his mastery for gauging time slip even further from his grasp. "I have not yet felt the need to propose to a lady, no," Grimshaw finally replied.
Something about the response was wrong, all wrong, but Harry could not account for what it was. He simply sat in place, his eyes closed, and allowed the carriage to take him home.
Aurand did fetch him a pitcher of water, as well as a glass to hold it. He appeared surlier than ever, but he helped Harry get undressed and wash his face before helping him into bed.
"You're a wonderful man, Aurand," Harry mumbled in between gulps of water he was forcing down his throat. "Truly. Beautiful."
"Thank you, Mr Styles," Aurand replied now as he had the first five times Harry had informed him of the benefits of his person. "That is probably enough water for now."
"All right," Harry agreed, his grip on the glass going immediately slack.
He fell asleep in what felt like seconds. He dreamed of seas and boats and an urgent need to relieve yourself with no ability to do so. It was horrible.
The next day, he spent largely in bed with the curtains drawn. Gemma mocked him, his mother sighed, frowning, and he tried to remember the conversation in the carriage, but it eluded him in the end.
A party gathered at the Teasdale abode, and Harry and his family were on the guest list. Less ostentatious than the Cowells' ball, it was nevertheless a lovely affair, with a large dinner spread, merry entertainment, and excellent company.
It turned out Miss Teasdale was one of two – her twin sister, Miss Samantha Teasdale, was equally pleasant and just as pretty. Harry immediately felt at ease with her as well as her sister, and could tell that Gemma enjoyed them both immensely.
It made him happy that she was able to find friends, as well.
Harry finished up his dance with a Miss King and returned to his previous post by the fireplace, somewhat disheveled but happy. Miss King was charming and a lovely dance partner, and the small glass of wine he had allowed himself to have this evening left a warm impression on his brain. He watched the room with a smile, enjoying everybody else's good moods and easy manners.
"Lovely evening," Grimshaw said.
Harry, used to him appearing out of seemingly nowhere by now, smiled. "It is, isn't it?"
"Quite. You know, though, I believe people have had enough of dances. I say, we call for slightly different entertainment."
"What do you mean?" Harry asked, puzzled.
"I have asked your lovely sister to play something on the pianoforte, actually. If," Grimshaw paused, leaning against the wall, "you would be so kind as to oblige us with song."
Harry froze. Was that proper? "Would that be wise? Would not a young lady rather display her talents?" he asked, wishing now he had had a little more than one glass of wine.
"I have consulted with our hostess," Grimshaw smiled, conspiratorial and kind all at once. "She would love to hear the Styles siblings' combined talents."
When Harry was able to look away from his friend's face, he saw that Gemma was already walking over to the instrument across the room, beckoning him with a hand.
"Well," he said, his throat dry. "I suppose I have been given no choice."
Grimshaw smiled. "Go on."
Harry shook his head, smiling a little, and walked over to where Gemma was poised at the pianoforte.
"'The Soldier's Adieu'?" Harry asked.
"As you wish," Gemma replied, and set her fingers upon the keys.
Harry, who felt more than heard the room hush in anticipation, chose to look down so as not to explode from nerves. He nodded. Gemma began to play.
Having not warmed up at all, Harry's voice took on a rather weak beginning. His heart hammered within his chest, but he pushed on, focusing his thoughts on the technical aspects of musicianship. Drawing deep breaths from his belly, he closed his eyes and sank into the song, the melody and the words interweaving in a familiar pattern.
By the second couplet, he was warmed up.
By the third, he felt brave enough, and steady enough, to open his eyes.
When he did, his gaze landed on Grimshaw, as if pulled there by gravity. Grimshaw was watching him back. A hot wave of pleasure crashed inside of him, but he did not stumble in his song. If anything, it gave him courage not to look away, and what he saw in Grimshaw felt reflected in Harry. Warmth, affection, and such attention as Harry had never experienced before in his whole entire life.
Their gazes still locked, Harry ended the song.
The explosion of applause brought him immediately back to the room at large. "Bravo!" rang out, and he flushed with pleasure, biting his lip. Gemma smiled up at him, then stood up to take a curtsy while he bowed.
"Oh, come, play us another," Mrs Teasdale called out. Harry caught his mother's pleased gaze and smiled.
"Would you wish to?" Gemma asked, sitting back down.
Harry looked up at where Grimshaw was still stood, his head tilted as if in contemplation. Their gazes locked again. "Yes," he said. "I would."
This was Harry's first boat ride, and he clung to the edge of his seat lest he fall straight into the Thames. "Why, the city is stunning from here!" he exclaimed, not even looking at his companion.
Their party was meant to have been several, in fact, but Gemma had begged off after being invited by Miss Teasdale for yet another dinner, while Mr Chaloner and Miss Phillips were both slightly under the weather. Harry was uncertain as to what had befallen Mr and Mrs Fincham, but he found himself alone with Grimshaw, crossing the river from Westminster to Kennington, as Vauxhall Gardens were their destination.
"Much better view than if you entered by road," Grimshaw said, and Harry grinned at him happily. It was already dark, and the few lights that were available largely stemmed from the city itself. Grimshaw's face was nearly hidden from Harry by shadow, but he saw the smile directed towards him well enough.
Once moored, paid, and off the boat, they walked a few blocks until the gardens' stunningly lit up gates welcomed them, alongside many others, into their embrace.
Crowds milled around the refreshments stands, and Grimshaw asked to be excused for just a moment. Harry had barely even heard him, busy as he was looking all around himself and wishing to be in every place at once. He knew that as soon as they walked further on, more delights would greet them. He saw ladies and gentlemen among families of lower classes, all milling about and smiling.
"Here we are." Grimshaw returned, and not empty-handed. "Arrack punch," he explained as he proffered one of the glasses. "You must try it, it is nearly a requirement of entrance."
"Thank you," Harry smiled, and took the glass. The punch was sweet, and with quite a kick. He nearly coughed. "Oh, my. What is this?"
"That, my dear Styles, is spiced rum," Grimshaw laughed. "To our night," he added, lifting his glass.
"To our night," Harry said and mirrored his motion.
They proceeded to move further inward.
"How large are the gardens?" Harry marveled, for among the lush greenery that, under the black skies, looked mysterious and dangerous, lanes were disappearing in all directions. They were all lit up by what looked like fireflies caught in jars by children, and Harry saw at least one bridge, which meant there had to have been water here, as well.
"They are not large," Grimshaw confirmed, "but they do contain multitudes. Come, let us walk towards the castle and the waterfalls."
"The castle and the waterfalls?"
Indeed, not only was there a stunning waterfalls, but also what looked to be a Far East palace, lit up and beautifully crafted, all done up in gold and red. "My goodness, that is absolutely stunning. Are those peacocks?"
Grimshaw laughed, sounding equally as delighted. "And they haven't even displayed the fireworks yet."
A crowd had formed to their right, and Harry began to walk towards it, attempting to see what they were seeing. As he and Grimshaw pushed their way in, they saw two men in tights contorting themselves into shapes previously unknown to Harry.
"Acrobatics," Grimshaw explained.
Harry had only ever heard of them, really. He felt mesmerised by the sight. The way the two played off each other's strengths, seamless and fluid, as if they were not made of the same flesh and bone as other humans – it was so beautiful, Harry could barely breathe. They jumped, they caught one another in flight, they never stopped moving in a way suggesting that they were each an extension of the other and not two separate beings at all.
When their act was done and applause broke out, Harry jerked. His throat was dry, and he was grateful that Grimshaw was already leading him away before the crowd dispersed.
"Are you all right?" Grimshaw asked him. When Harry looked at him, he seemed concerned.
"I – of course I am," Harry lied, and smiled as if he had not nearly teared up at the sight of the performers. He could not even give a reason why, and it befuddled him that a simple (yet masterful) display of acrobatics could affect him so.
"Good," Grimshaw replied. "Come, let us walk down this path, it looks promising."
Harry followed him. It did not look so very different from every other path. Lit up by the same sorts of lamps as the ones Harry had seen upon entrance, the path crunched underfoot. The shrubs lining the path were taller than them, and Harry, hearing the crowds recede, felt as if they had entered a maze. Every now and then, a feminine laugh would reach his ear, a word here, a whisper there.
Unbidden, the words "lovers lane" came to his mind.
"I believe the fireworks will be happening soon," Grimshaw said, interrupting Harry's reverie. "The end of this path affords a beautiful view. We're walking towards what I think of as the heart of the gardens."
Harry felt as if the heart of the gardens was, in fact, right here. Right where they walked, alone as suddenly as if a door had shut on all the rest, for this path was unoccupied now, save for them. Without thought or planning, Harry felt himself grow rooted to the spot.
"Styles?" Grimshaw asked, just a step ahead of him when he, too, stopped. "Are you quite sure you are all right? Shall we turn back?" He stood now a mere foot away from Harry, and spoke, for once, quietly, with such sweet concern. Harry did not deserve such a kind and thoughtful friend.
"I'm sorry, I – I am, yes, there is nothing wrong, I simply –" Harry did not know how to respond. His heart was so loud in his own ears, his entire being felt as if it was in revolt. When he looked up at his friend's face, he could not look away. He knew, without being able to stop it, any of it, that his love was writ large across his face. He knew that he would have to find his own way back tonight, if that was even possible, and that he would never see this man again, because Harry was wrong, he was all wrong. But right in this moment, in this shadowy lane, surrounded by people on both sides of the shrubbery but hidden from view, he could not stopper his heart.
He could not look at Grimshaw in any other way, for he loved him so clearly, now, and so ardently.
"Oh," Grimshaw breathed and, against all reason, stepped closer to Harry, instead of away. Harry's throat was so, so dry. He felt like a caged animal caught in Grimshaw's gaze. "Styles," Grimshaw said, and Harry's belly flopped. "Harry."
When Grimshaw's hand lifted towards Harry's face, Harry was absolutely certain he had fallen through the looking glass. Which was why he did not move when the long tapered fingers he had been thinking about for weeks now gently touched his cheek and lifted up his chin, just as gently.
Grimshaw had called him Harry.
When Harry found his voice, he barely heard it beneath his beating pulse. "Grimshaw, I –"
But he never said the rest, for just as suddenly, his lips were locked with Grimshaw's. Harry nearly gasped but any sound might have frightened the kiss away, and Harry – Harry wanted this to last forever.
Sweet and soft and heart-stopping, the kiss ended much too soon. Thoughtlessly, he chased it, a sudden movement that surprised him, clutching Grimshaw's elbows, and kissing him again, and again, and again, for what if he would lose this forever? He took what he could, his body lit up as if the firefly lights were now inside him, fluttering through his very veins. He felt himself growing hard at the scent of him, the masculine smell he had come to know and adore, the way Grimshaw's lips responded to his own, the feel of their bodies pressed up together. No air found space between them.
When the need to breathe returned, Harry dropped down from his toes and gasped, his fingers like claws now around Grimshaw's arms.
"Please," Grimshaw panted, his face still mere inches from Harry's own. "Please, call me Nicholas. Please, Harry."
A sound escaped Harry's throat, like a whine, needy and shameful, but he could not have stoppered it. "Nicholas," he repeated. "Nicholas, is this… I…" He could not find the words, but before Nicholas could even respond, a booming, clapping noise interrupted, and when Harry looked up, startled, they were both illuminated by shooting streams of light.
"The fireworks," Nicholas said, still in Harry's grasp. "It's fireworks."
Afterwards, Nicholas had led them on, but they'd walked slowly, and did not speak. Occasionally, however, Nicholas's hand would reach out and graze Harry's, dropping just as suddenly as it appeared.
All of Harry was in an uproar and simultaneously in utter peace. It was as if all the emotion in his heart was too much to bear and his body rushed to save him.
He had been kissed. He had been kissed by Grimshaw, who had called him Harry, and who apparently loved him just as Harry loved him.
For that was the word, now. That was what Harry had been searching for, and found it in a dark lane in the middle of crowded gardens, with the man now walking step in step with him.
"Harry, I –" Nicholas stopped just before the path arced into unknown territory. Harry loved to hear his own name in the beloved voice. "I cannot – I do not –" Nicholas broke off in seeming frustration, and Harry's heart drummed twice as fast. God, please do not let this end before he could steal another kiss, he thought. Please do not let him stop being my friend. "You are so young," Nicholas finally said, now looking into Harry's eyes. So kind, his gaze. "Your family is…quite above my own. I could not – I cannot ask of you this."
Harry frowned, heart beating wildly. "Ask of me what?"
"This… life. What I feel for you is… It is unbearable." The hurt must have shown on Harry's face, because he hurried on. "It is exquisite. I love you so much, not a moment goes by that I do not think of you. Do not wonder what you are doing, how you are spending your moments, what you are thinking of."
Harry vibrated on the spot.
"But," Nicholas continued, "my feelings on this matter are not… They are not important, nor are they right. I have long come to terms with…what I am. And who I am. But to ask of you to –"
"No, stop," Harry exclaimed. He had not planned on it, but now that he spoke, of course he should have been speaking all along. "I am the same as you. I have long suspected this of myself, and – and tonight, it has only been proven. Please do not – I cannot bear to think of having you and having you snatched away from me all at once."
"Please, Nicholas." Hearing Nicholas's name on his own lips felt like nectar. Harry felt powerful here, for just one moment – for just this moment, he felt as if he could conquer the world. He looked directly into Nicholas's eyes. "Don't let this end. It's only the beginning."
They watched each other for so long, Harry was certain that their voices had simply died.
Later, as he lay in bed, unable to sleep, he thought back to the moment when Nicholas had taken his hand and slowly linked their fingers together, and thought that this was the moment his heart should have exploded. That he still lived, and with a promise of more, felt like a miracle.
They had made plans previously to dine once more at the gentlemen's club, and Harry saw no reason to change the plans.
Apart from very slightly.
For, knowing now what he knew, and having experienced the sweet ecstasy of Nicholas's kiss, Harry longed for so much more.
"You appear to have found a devoted friend, Harry," Mama commented upon learning that Harry would not be dining with the rest of the family.
Harry could feel his face grow hot. Devoted, yes. Friend, however, now seemed a pale and distorted word for what he felt.
"I have, Mama, thank you," he managed. "It's been a lovely visit so far."
"He appears to be… Well." She paused with her knife and fork resting on her plate. "I hope that the company he keeps are all as… charming as the Teasdale family." When Harry looked up at her, startled, she looked uneasy.
"What do you mean, Mama?"
She sighed and took a bite of her potatoes, delaying the response. Once ready, she replied, "I do not like to make distinctions, my darling. But I simply want you to be aware of where Mr Grimshaw comes from."
"Mr Grimshaw," Harry responded, his cheeks heating up, "is a gentleman, Mama."
She sighed and gave him a smile, sad and small. "I know. I simply wished to put you slightly on your guard."
He looked down at his own plate. He had been unable to stop thinking of Nicholas and their kiss beneath the fireworks all morning. His standing in society was the last thing on Harry's mind. He had, in fact, avoided anyone else's company as much as he could, convinced as he was that one look at him would expose all of his thoughts at once.
However, that, at least so far, did not appear to be the main concern of his family's when it came to his friend. Harry felt, for the very first time, an anger building up towards his mother. He knew she meant well, but it upset him that she should be one to look down upon a person. Upon Nicholas.
He was set, now, on not dining at the gentlemen's club at all.
He took a hot bath before nightfall, barely allowing himself to imagine how Nicholas might be getting ready, across town from him.
Was he imagining the same things Harry was? Was he thinking of him at all? Was he picking his attire out as scrupulously as Harry or was his mind elsewhere entirely?
Harry was still fussing with his hair, Aurand standing patiently by and assuring him that his hair was as perfect as ever, when the front door bell rang.
Only Harry's fear of discovery managed to slow his legs to a pace befitting a gentleman rather than a child.
His heart beat so wildly at the sight of his friend, he thought surely he should faint or flutter away.
Nicholas, for his part, greeted him just as warmly as always, with all the proper decorum befitting a true gentleman. He kissed Mama's and Gemma's hands, and shook Papa's. He acted as if absolutely nothing had changed, and for a wild moment, Harry wondered if he had imagined everything from the night before, or dreamt it instead.
They descended the stairs together in silence, allowing Jones to open the door for them, and shut it behind them. As always, Harry entered the carriage first, with Nicholas following politely behind.
The carriage door shut.
Nicholas's heels squeaked slightly on the floors as he moved to his place across from Harry.
The carriage shuddered and took off.
They fell upon each other without a single word.
It had never before occurred to Harry the privacy that carriage curtains could afford one, but he was so grateful for it now. Nicholas had gone to his knees in front of Harry and they kissed now in a way that chased the memories of the previous night completely away.
Nicholas's mouth seared Harry's lips, and Harry followed him where he led. Gone were the sweetly chaste kisses Harry had known before. When Nicholas opened his lips, Harry echoed his movement, and they shared breath as they explored each other. Nicholas's tongue was smooth like velvet against his, and arousal flooded Harry's veins, alighting his skin, his very bones. It was not Nicholas's birth that should have worried Harry's mother so.
When they broke off for the need to breathe, they could not bear to part completely, and gasped against each other. Close up, Nicholas's eyes half-lidded, barely visible in the darkness of the coach, Harry held his lover's jaw tenderly and simply willed himself to breathe. Their foreheads touched.
"I have directed the driver to take us to my apartments," Nicholas whispered, his voice just a touch hoarse. "I hope that is amenable to you. I could not bear to be among others tonight."
Harry kissed him in answer.
Nicholas's apartments were located a twenty minutes' ride from Harry's family's, in Cheapside. By the time the coach slowed and stopped completely, they had largely regained their composures, fixing their cravats and settling their waistcoats and coats in place. Harry felt feverish with it all, but he hoped that no one in Nicholas's house staff would notice the flush of his cheek, or the dampness of his curls.
However, once they entered, he could tell that the staff must have already retired for the night. A single lamp sat on the letter table, which Nicholas picked up upon entering.
"I had directed my housekeeper to leave out two plates for dinner, and then allowed her a night off," Nicholas explained, leading Harry through the abandoned hallway.
Harry stopped to look around himself. The apartments were modest, yet well tended to and quite lovely. "Does she not wonder why?" he asked, a hot wave of concern rumbling through his belly.
Nicholas met his eyes and smiled in a way that made him look almost sad. "She is paid handsomely not to wonder." He paused, looked down, then met Harry's gaze again. "I have a small yet loyal staff. I've known them for many years now."
Harry nodded, only a little shaky, and allowed himself to be moved further along.
They did not enter through what Harry assumed would be a drawing room, nor the door that might have led to the parlour, but walked directly up the stairs.
Three steps into the upstairs corridor, Nicholas opened a door and gestured for Harry to walk in.
It was a smaller bedroom than Harry had seen before, but much like the rest of the house, it was decorated beautifully. In the lamp light that Nicholas held, Harry saw a small roll-top desk occupying the space between the windows. A cherry chest of drawers stood opposite from it. A dark spruce bed stood in the middle, its four posts bearing a dark green velvet valance and matching curtains. The bedding was white, downy and soft by the looks of it. Harry had not realised he had stopped in place until Nicholas came up behind him and gently shuffled him forward.
The bedroom door shut.
"I hope you will forgive the forwardness of this," Nicholas said after setting the lamp down onto the chest of drawers. His breath tickled the back of Harry's neck, where he stood at Harry's back, in a way that sent a wave of shivers all down his skin.
Harry noted the tray bearing a liquor bottle and a single glass sitting on the bedside table. He licked his dry lips and said, "Please. Please, kiss me again."
Nicholas spun him around and did as asked.
They walked backwards in their embrace, and Harry's pulse sped up with each step. Nicholas's deft fingers were already pushing Harry's coat off of his shoulders and unbuttoning his waistcoat. Harry broke off the kiss to return the favour, and their shallow breaths filled the air around them.
Harry had never been in this position before. He had only ever kissed one other person – a servant's niece when she had come to visit her uncle. They both of them had been thirteen at the time, and it had been a single, chaste kiss.
This. This was so very, very different. Their bodies felt as if pulled together by a force altogether uncontrollable. Nicholas surrounded him, breath and scent and a racing heartbeat to match Harry's own.
Harry was already hard; when he pulled Nicholas further towards him, he felt a similar hardness against his hip and whined, seeking something he could not name.
"Come," Nicholas whispered, breaking off their kiss, and Harry watched as his hands rose to Harry's throat. Harry noticed as if from far away that they were trembling. Gently, he slid Harry's cravat away. Harry felt the air cool his neck as his collar fell about his collarbone. Catching his eye, Nicholas unbuttoned the front of Harry's shirt. Harry swallowed, but did not speak.
Nicholas reached for the button at Harry's waist. His hands grazed the fall before his trousers opened on both sides and Harry gasped at the sensation. The ache at his groin intensified. He found no words to speak, not even as Nicholas slid down to his knees and gently pushed Harry to drop down onto the bed.
Their gazes never leaving one another's, Nicholas lifted first Harry's left foot to slide off his boot, then the right. Harry was in utter, shameless disarray in front of him now. The silk of his stockings slid away under Nicholas's expert ministrations, and then he wore nothing but his shirt and drawers, his prick now obvious and still so achingly, painfully hard.
"Please," Nicholas said, breaking the quiet between them. "Take off your shirt."
Harry fumbled until it finally fell to the side.
"Now," Nicholas went on, visibly swallowing. "Stand up. Please."
Harry obeyed the command, and it was Nicholas who finally slipped Harry's drawers off his waist, retreating just enough to allow Harry to step out of them.
Harry knew his shallow breathing and hard prick were giving him away, but inside, he knew that he had already given himself away so completely in Vauxhall gardens. This was merely a confirmation.
Nicholas, still on his knees, looked up at him. "You are so very beautiful." His hands hovered around Harry's hips but did not touch.
Harry flushed and, without thought, slipped his fingers through Nicholas's curls, tilting up his face. "And you?" he asked. Nicholas was, after all, still fully dressed before him.
"Not as beautiful," Nicholas said with a smile.
"I have to see for myself," Harry smiled back. Despite being the most vulnerable he had ever been in his life, Harry felt brave; reckless. He felt powerful. "Please, let me see you."
Nicholas was less careful with his own clothes. His jacket and waistcoat he dropped on the floor, followed shortly by his cravat. His shirt collar fell open, revealing a tuft of hair at the rise of his chest. Harry bit his lip and stopped his hands from reaching out to touch. He watched as Nicholas slipped the shirt from the waist of his breeches and it, too, fell onto the floor beside them.
Hair covered Nicholas's chest and his belly, in stark contrast to Harry's own body. A trail ran down to where Nicholas's trousers were still buttoned. He looked a man. His hardness was apparent now, as well, and Harry could not stop himself from reaching out this time, fumbling with the button that would allow the fall at the waist to open. His gaze fluttered towards Nicholas's face, then dropped down again – he could not bear the tender way in which Nicholas was watching him back. Instead, Harry pushed him towards the bed until he landed with a surprised laugh, then went for Nicholas's boots. Nicholas had made it look easy, but it was no easy task, slipping off someone else's boots. Harry finally managed it, exposing Nicholas's elegant calves and tapered ankles to view.
He swallowed and rolled off the stockings. Fine hair covered Nicholas's legs, and Harry sought more, indicating for Nicholas to lift up and then, there went the drawers and trousers, both together, until he was exposed to Harry completely.
He was pale but for a dusting of freckles across his shoulders and down his arms. Long-limbed and utterly beautiful.
Harry managed to rise to his feet, though he felt entirely weighed down by his own desire. "You're lovely, too," he told him, the sound of his own voice nearly unrecognizable. "What – what should I do?"
Nicholas scooted back on the bed and reached out for Harry's hand. Harry watched the movements of his body with equal parts fascination and arousal. When Nicholas pulled on his hand, Harry folded like a deck of cards.
They kissed and kissed and kissed, only this time, nothing stood between them. No muslin or wool or even air. Harry could not breathe. All he knew was the movement of his lips against Nicholas's, the feel of Nicholas's hands all down his skin, the feel of Nicholas's body pressed up against his. Their erections met and Harry shuddered, crying out. Nicholas moved again in a way that sent a fresh wave of pleasure down Harry's whole being, and Harry stopped being able to kiss.
He felt his hand grab onto the bed cover and held tightly on. Again and again, Nicholas moved against him, his breath now forcing shivers down Harry's neck, murmuring words whose meanings Harry barely understood. All he knew was Nicholas's voice pitched sweet and low in his ear, the feel of his prick sliding wetly against Harry's, his legs twined with Harry's knees, and his strong hands, pinning Harry into place.
"So good, you feel so good," Nicholas whispered, leaving kisses behind Harry's ear and down his neck. "So lovely, Harry."
"I –" Harry panted. He was falling, falling, falling, but it was much too soon. "I can't –"
"Let go," Nicholas breathed. "We have all night."
But they didn't, really. Harry was only expected to be out until very late evening, and the scant hours they had left now loomed before him, ticking down. God, he could nearly hear the clock, or could have, had it not been for the rushing in his ears.
"Let go, my love," Nicholas repeated in his ear, and Harry did. He lost control while clinging to the bed and to Nicholas. He shuddered through his coming, shameful cries emitting from his lips. Nicholas held him as he shook, and afterwards, he propped his head on his hand and drew a lazy circle on Harry's belly, swiping through the mess that Harry'd made.
It took Harry a while to regain control of his breathing. His cheeks were hot, he was flushed and sweating, but when he turned to look at Nicholas, Nicholas was watching him like Harry was the moon. It made him bite his lip and wish to turn his face away, but he forced himself to talk, instead. He'd found, in his experience, that talking made things seem more real, somehow, and at that moment, he felt unmoored in a way that frightened him.
"I'm sorry that was – that I did nothing. For you," he said, slowly, as if his tongue was just learning how to speak.
"You were exquisite," Nicholas responded and closed the distance between them. The kiss was filled with what they'd done. So heady and so real. Harry chased the taste of it, opened his mouth in a way he should have felt ashamed of, but could not bring himself to stop. He felt, within his belly, the first rumblings of returning arousal.
"What can I do?" he asked once they both felt the need to breathe. Now that his head was clearer, he felt pulled in too many directions, his desire flitting to wanting to touch and to taste and to feel as much as he could take.
"Are you certain you want to –"
"Yes," Harry said, not even wishing to hear of Nicholas's doubts. "Please. Let me – what can I do, what do you… What makes you feel good? I want so much to make you feel good," Harry whispered, his fingers already seeking the coarse hair on Nicholas's chest.
"Let us get under the covers first," Nicholas suggested with a smile.
Harry smiled back, a little sheepish. He had not even considered that he had made a mess on Nicholas's covers. Looking down now, he saw. "I'm sorry," he begged, sliding off the bed and looking for something to wipe the mess off.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," Nicholas reassured him, pulling the covers back and slipping underneath. "Please, do come back. It's quite warm and soft in here, I promise." The smile he gave Harry was less sweet now. It sent a thrill down Harry's body. "The mess can always be washed away."
Harry ran a hand through his hair and allowed himself to slip into the bed, where Nicholas embraced him, his long arms snaking around Harry's back and down his backside, forcing a gasp from Harry's throat. "I never – I never knew this would feel like this," Harry admitted, feeling like a child again, and yet not even close.
"It does not always," Nicholas responded after a long pause, not looking Harry in the eye. Harry frowned, but before he could comment, Nicholas went on, "but I admit, I am…relieved that you're enjoying yourself."
Harry thought that enjoyment did not come even close to describing the uproar currently within him. The low arousal in his belly mixed with curiosity and utter jealousy that Nicholas had been in his position before, and he grew hard, and wanting. "What can I do?" he repeated, sitting up enough to hover over Nicholas. "How can I make you feel as good as you have made me feel?"
Nicholas bit his lip and took a deep breath, his gaze heavy on Harry's. "Follow your heart," he said. "What do you wish to do?"
Harry wished for many things. He settled on beginning with touch. He fit his thumbs into the grooves above Nicholas's collarbone first. He watched for his reaction. He could not fathom the patience that Nicholas must have possessed, for he was still aroused, and had been since they'd started. He did not push, however. He waited, watching Harry back. Was it Harry's imagination or were his eyes suddenly darker, as if desire had taken complete control?
Harry went on. He skidded his hands down Nicholas's chest, coarse hair tickling his palms, until he grazed the nipples and Nicholas gasped. It was a small sound, but Harry nearly buckled under its weight. He wanted more. He wanted so much more. Without thought, he leaned down and followed the movement of his hands with his tongue, tasting his lover's skin for the very first time.
Nicholas made another noise, deeper this time, and headier. Harry's eyes slipped shut and he went lower, seeking more and more skin to touch and taste.
The air around them was still and smelled of arousal, and the room was silent, save for the small sounds escaping Nicholas's mouth. Harry felt completely out of space and time. Nicholas's room was a ship in the middle of a sea; they were the only people in existence.
He kissed and licked until he slid further down and his backside nudged a hardness that it found there. They both of them gasped. Harry felt his nails dig into Nicholas's chest, and when their eyes met, Nicholas looked almost stricken. His forehead, Harry noticed, looked damp with sweat. His eyes, glazed and unfocused.
Slowly, still watching him back, Harry sat back down. It was a strange sensation, to be sure, but it did nothing to wilt his arousal. If anything, it spurred it further into life. Nicholas, for his part, had shut his eyes and bit his lip. His chest fell up and down with shallow breaths.
Harry leaned down until his lips lined up with Nicholas's ear. He swallowed once against his dry throat and nudged the hard prick again. "Is this something that pleases you?" he asked, already rather certain of the answer.
Nicholas made a strangled sort of noise and the next moment, Harry's wanton hips were stilled in Nicholas's hard grip. "It is," Nicholas responded. His voice was hoarse but shockingly even. "But you are under no obligation to take it any further."
The thing was, Harry had never quite imagined anything like it. He knew of certain acts that couples could perform; they none of them were shared between two men. Now he was here, it seemed quite natural that, with some adjustments, he could experience them.
"I feel I must warn you that it may feel very strange, painful, even," Nicholas said. "Not every man of…our inclination enjoys it." His tone was even, but his grip on Harry's hips told a different tale.
"Will I be able to stop if I wish to?" Harry asked carefully. The mere idea of such a thing both thrilled and frightened. Both somehow made him more aroused, still.
"Without a doubt, of course," Nicholas responded, softer now.
"Then," Harry licked his lips, feeling braver now. "Will you show me how?"
Nicholas bit his lip and nodded, looking just as shaken as Harry felt. He bid him to lie down onto his back. He then slipped a small clear vial from his bedside drawer. "Oil to ease the way," he explained upon seeing Harry's quizzical look. "Come here."
It was more a matter of Nicholas settling Harry in. Harry did not know how to proceed, so he watched as Nicholas guided him. First, he opened Harry's legs, gently but in a way that forced a flush all down Harry's face and neck and chest. Then, he opened the vial and poured some oil into his fingers.
"It may be cold, and feel quite…odd, at first," Nicholas informed him, his gaze boring into Harry's. "Are you entirely –"
"I am," Harry interrupted, then hid his face behind his hands. He had no words for how he felt. Desire and embarrassment and unbearable affection all writhed inside him with no way out. He had no outlet for this, save for allowing his body to lead him where his head could not, and heart had longed to. "Please," he begged. In his restlessness, he slipped his hands onto his forehead, tunneled his fingers through his hair. He teetered on the edge of delirium.
"All right," Nicholas responded, nodding. "Just… Try to relax as much as you can." His rueful smile spoke volumes of how difficult a task he'd just assigned.
Harry nodded shakily. He attempted to even out his breathing, allowing his mind to focus on the rise and fall of his own chest, eyes shut against everything else.
It felt like an eternity before the first touch. Unbearably intimate and ever so slightly cold, Nicholas's finger slid between Harry's thighs and up. Harry jolted, gasping, and hit his lip hard enough that pain shot across his mouth. He breathed hard through his nose.
"I know, my love," Nicholas soothed, his other hand skittering up Harry's thigh. Even that felt exquisitely intimate. Harry could never have imagined such a closeness with another being. When he opened his eyes, Nicholas's face was hovering over his, a concerned crease between his brows. "Are you all right?" he asked him.
Harry was not able to say. Nicholas's finger stilled, and that felt even stranger. He had not yet breached him, but rested just before.
"Please, Harry. Say something."
Harry searched his mind frantically for what he really wanted, and what he uttered was, "Please kiss me. I need – I need –"
He needed a different sort of closeness, and Nicholas seemed to understand at once. Their kiss was open-mouthed, so hot, it drew out a line of sweat all down Harry's back. Harry found himself clinging to Nicholas's body, one hand resting just above where the swell of his backside began. This, he'd needed this, he realised.
And then, a moment of utter stillness as Nicholas entered him with a single finger. The oil made the passage easier, but Harry still felt a discomfort, a sense of wrongness, almost. What if he'd been mistaken? What if he could not enjoy it, could not give Nicholas what he wanted? Harry held his breath and then drew it in a long gasp all at once as something inside him sparked.
"There," Nicholas whispered, his breath tickling a spot beneath Harry's jaw. His finger moved again, and again a spark of pleasure lit Harry up from the inside. He felt now how strong his grip against his lover's skin was, but he could not make it stop. Again and again, Nicholas slipped the finger in and out and Harry trembled, his arousal growing strong once more.
Nicholas kissed his lips as he added another finger. Perhaps it was two, but Harry could no longer tell. All he knew was the rhythm of Nicholas's movements inside him, the way his own body opened up for him now it knew its pleasure. Harry held onto him so tightly, he did not know anything but their embrace. Entwined, they made love just like this for what felt like an eternity, until Nicholas slipped his fingers out all at once and found Harry's ear. "May I – can I fuck you now?"
Harry shuddered. He did not know how he found his voice, but he heard himself chanting, "Yes, yes, yes," and barely felt the sheets beneath him before Nicholas settled in between his thighs. Fucking, Harry thought. What a word; what a thing to be doing. It thrilled so much.
Nicholas's face showed how close he was to breaking the patience with which he'd made certain Harry was enjoying himself. Harry had already spent himself once, but Nicholas had not. It was past the time that Harry made him feel as good and loved as Nicholas had done for him.
"Please, please," he whispered, looking down to where their bodies were about to be joined. Nicholas's prick looked already wet at the tip, and Harry watched in fascination as it twitched whilst Nicholas moved to settle in. It thrilled him so. He could barely breathe when Nicholas took himself in hand and lined them up. Harry swallowed. "What can I do, how can I –"
"It helps," Nicholas told him, his voice quite strained now, "to wrap your legs around my waist."
Now that he said it, it made utter sense. His legs ached in a way he was unused to, but once he managed, another thrill ran down his spine. He'd trapped Nicholas's body between his thighs and smiled to feel it. "You're lovely," he breathed, his hands running up Nicholas's arms of their own accord.
"You're lovelier," Nicholas whispered in a shaking voice and swept a bit of Harry's hair away from his face. Harry shut his eyes and tipped up his chin in a silent plea. Nicholas's mouth tasted of their shared breath, of sex and skin, and Harry cried out a moment later as he felt Nicholas push past his opening. "Is that – are you –" Nicholas panted, and Harry nodded frantically, his breathing shallow and uneven.
Yes, God, yes, it was – it hurt, but he did not mind the pain, for beneath the pain, the pleasure grew with every thrust. Harry could no longer contain his gasping breaths, the moans ripped from his throat as if someone entirely not himself was in control of his body.
Nicholas was all around him. His body, warm and lightly muscled moved against Harry's, his tongue like velvet in Harry's mouth, his prick breaking him apart from the inside. Combined, it was unbearable, an exquisite, delirious thing. Harry felt his nails leaving indents on Nicholas's skin but could not stop it. Crying out, he tried to move his hips in rhythm with Nicholas's but simply could not manage. The air grew hotter around them with each breath. If his rhythm faltered, Nicholas did not appear to mind. Harry clung tighter, letting go of all control.
Nicholas moved his face, as damp as Harry's own, into the crook of Harry's neck and his voice was muffled as he gasped. It sent a tremble down Harry's skin and Harry groaned as, suddenly and with no warning, he spent himself, shuddering and out of control. He shook and shook, out of his mind with pleasure. He did not realise he'd bitten Nicholas's shoulder until Nicholas, too, shuddered, crying out, and Harry felt his comings a moment later. He felt filled up, completely broken.
When they both finished shaking, Nicholas slowly pulled away. He soothed his hand on Harry's belly as he pulled out, murmuring wordlessly. Harry winced at the momentary pain, and then his legs flopped down onto the sheets and he could only lie in place with an arm over his face. A wetness spread between his legs.
He could not tell how long he lay there, only that he heard a soft sigh and then the padding of feet on the ground. His mind was abuzz with thoughts, all sorts of thoughts. He wondered what hour of the night this was. He wondered at the insidious sadness in his belly. He wondered if he would ever be the same again. He wondered how long until he could embrace Nicholas once more.
"Here, love." Nicholas settled back onto the bed; Harry had barely realised he had been gone. When he was able to look at him, he saw that Nicholas held a cloth. Wordlessly, Harry planted his feet on the bed, allowing his knees to fall open. Nicholas, small smile in place, began to clean him up, sopping up the mess they had both made. The emptiness in the pit of Harry's stomach began to recede, to be replaced by a restless sort of longing.
"What time is it?" he asked, softly, not wishing to spook the air around them.
"Just gone past nine. We've a few hours yet," Nicholas told him, throwing the cloth onto the floor. Harry saw the lamp about to extinguish behind him.
"Come back to me," he whispered and opened up his arms. Nicholas did as bid.
"I was your age, or a bit older," Nicholas told him, while Harry drew imaginary patterns on his hip. They lay side by side, faces mere inches apart.
Harry had tried not touching him. He did not like it.
"Who was he?" he asked.
"A schoolmate. He was younger than me, and he frightened himself away after we were finished."
"What do you mean?" Harry could not imagine leaving Nicholas, but he could also imagine the fear.
"Once he was done, he grew scared," Nicholas shrugged. "Feared discovery, and his father most of all."
"And what about you?"
"I understood." Nicholas's smile was the same shade of sadness as when he'd told Harry about his staff. "But I felt forever changed."
And so was Harry. Try as he might, he could not imagine a woman in Nicholas's place. The mere sight of his lover's naked form excited him. The long lean legs, the torso covered in coarse hair, the swell of his Adam's apple, the softness of the prick at the juncture of his legs. This, and only this, was his desire.
"And have you loved before?" Harry asked, bolder now that they were talking.
Nicholas's smile grew soft, indulgent, almost. He did not speak for a long moment. "I thought so, once, at university, but it had been a passing thing. He had not my inclinations, and later, I realised he had not the personality that I sought. I had merely been smitten by his beauty."
Harry did not like to think of it, but tried not to let his jealousy show. "I see."
"I have never loved the way that I love you," Nicholas said suddenly, urgently, reaching out a careful hand to run through Harry's hair. Harry could only watch as Nicholas's face grew serious. "My heart. My heart is yours."
Harry felt a whine escape his lips. A desperation filled him, and he caught Nicholas's hand in his own, brought it to his lips, kissed every knuckle, then turned it over and kissed the palm. He caressed it with his cheek, allowed his lashes to tickle the skin. An accidental graze of Nicholas's thumb against Harry's mouth and Harry kissed that, too, then caught it in between his teeth.
When he looked up, Nicholas was trapped in his gaze. Watching him avidly, Harry bit his thumb again and licked it with his tongue, sucking it into his mouth. Nicholas's chest now moved quickly, his breathing harsh between them.
Harry looked down, to where Nicholas's lovely prick now grew to hardness, filled out and darkened, as if in invitation.
He let Nicholas's thumb slip wetly from his mouth and shifted down.
He took him in his mouth.
They parted in the bedroom.
Harry was fully clothed now, with Nicholas still in the nude. The coach had been ordered ahead of time and was already waiting outside the front steps. It was half past two. Harry could hardly bear it, but he simply could not wait much longer.
He longed to stay, to spend the night. He longed to wake up in his arms, to greet the morning with a kiss. The forbidden ensnared him; he had to pull away.
"I must go," he whispered, his lips a breath away from Nicholas's. "But shall I see you at the Phillipses' abode?"
"Yes, yes you shall."
When their gazes lingered, Harry knew they both felt the same. They could see each other, but they could not touch. Could not speak as all lovers do, could not even linger too long in each other's company. Harry knew that he would give himself away. He had not Nicholas's ability to guard himself, unseen in plain sight.
When they kissed, it was a sweet and lingering touch that rumbled through Harry's belly.
He spent the ride home with his forehead pressed against the velvet-encased side of the coach, drawing patterns on the window's glass. He slept badly that night, and did not dream.
They made love in snatches. Nicholas's bedroom had become an oasis, a place where they could be themselves, but the hours grew thin, and always ended much too soon. It was simply too risky for Harry to spend the night, and he would ride home filled with longing, a stoppered frustration that would continuously threaten to spill over.
They saw each other at parties, amongst acquaintances, and acted like the best of friends, but it was nowhere near enough. It felt like the most exquisite of tortures, for they could not touch, not ever, not when others were around.
When permitted, however, tumbling beneath Nicholas's sheets by candlelight, Harry would allow himself to lose control. He'd touch and taste; be touched and tasted in return. Nicholas was generous with his love, and oftentimes, his body would be Harry's only anchor, mooring him to reality when he would threaten to slip away.
He was entirely and exquisitely lost to love.
"Harry –" Nicholas panted over him. "You… please…"
Harry could not answer, but he could moan, especially when Nicholas tugged his hair in warning. He had not known that even his scalp could feel such pleasure, but when Nicholas's deft fingers curled around his hair and pulled, Harry shuddered on the bed, his own prick hard and wet with want. He writhed against the sheets as he used his mouth and hand in tandem to bring Nicholas to ecstasy. Nicholas had learned that Harry did not wish to pull away before Nicholas was finished, had always wanted to taste, to drown in scent and feel, and so he always rewarded Harry for how good he made him feel.
He fucked Harry with his fingers after, their kisses sharp with Nicholas's spunk. Harry shook apart while touching his own prick, no longer feeling any shame to just how good his body felt. He wished only for more, always for more – more touch, more taste, a harder fuck, a bigger stretch.
If he sometimes found tears in the very corners of his eyes after they made love, they could so easily be concealed, wet as he was with sweat and comings.
They did but rarely speak of the future. They never asked for more than what they could give.
It was the end of June, and Harry believed that that he might soon lose his mind from the unspoken and unknown.
He slipped into Gemma's room one evening.
"How are you?" he asked as he carefully settled onto the bed beside her.
"Quite well," she answered, "as you know." Her eyes narrowed. Even with her curls wrapped around paper and threatening to escape from under her kerchief, she looked shrewd and knowing. Harry believed she would make a tremendous mother someday. And sooner than not, for also believed she would be engaged soon, if Mr Weldon's intentions were to be trusted – and he believed they were.
"Have you come here to stare at me all night?" she asked, and Harry could not help laughing as he shook his head.
His heart beat wildly beneath his ribs and his hands trembled just a touch. But he could no longer live with this secret weighing on his heart. She was his sister. She would understand. "No, I have come to tell you something," he began. His voice shook slightly and he cleared his throat to stop it. "It is something I should have confessed to you a long time ago, but I was – I was frightened, you see, and it was not…" He cleared his throat again, not daring to look at her just yet. "It is not only my secret to tell."
When he did glance up at her, she was watching him softly, and not a little bit sadly. "Oh, Harry," she sighed and reached out to cover his hand with her own. "You really think that I do not know?"
Harry's heart stopped beating for one terrible moment. "Know what?" he croaked.
"About you and Mr Grimshaw," she said, as if it was – as if it hadn't been a terrible secret weighing on Harry's very heart for these last two months. As if – as if it were commonly known, and oh God, if Gemma knew, who – who else – oh, God. "Harry, stop, Harry, look at me," she commanded, and when he could focus on her face again, she was mere inches from him. "Nobody else knows. I worked it out."
Harry licked his dry lips and attempted to breathe evenly. "Nobody else?" His voice was hoarse.
"I promise you." She sounded certain enough.
"How – how did you guess?"
She rolled her eyes and looked at him with equal parts fondness and exasperation. "You are my little brother. The only person I know better than you is myself."
Harry pulled up his knees until he was all of him on the bed, and when his knee nudged hers, she made more room for him. "But what about Mama? Papa?" The very thought of it made him feel ill.
She shook her head. "Just me. I do confess that I am not… I am not happy about it, sweetheart." Harry looked down, unable to sift through all the hurt and disappointment. He had expected it, of course, but he had also hoped. "I – that's not how I – wait, Harry." She grew quiet and slipped her fingers in between his own. "I know that you believe yourself to be in love. I know the same of Mr Grimshaw. He is a good man." She said it so fiercely, Harry looked up, startled. "But Harry, there is no… What can you do, how do you proceed? No good can come from this. It is not normal."
Harry's heart thundered. "But what I feel, it is – it is the most right thing I have ever felt…"
Gemma bit her lip and looked down at her lap. "I have no…feeling to match your own. You scare me when you stray so far," she whispered.
Harry could not lose her. He could not lose the constancy of her love. "Please, Gemma," he begged. "Do you not feel the same of Mr Weldon?"
She looked up, startled. "I – I like him very much. I think him fine and honourable and –"
"Do you not wish to – to kiss him every time you see him? Do you not long for his touch?" Harry demanded, searching her eyes.
Under his scrutiny, she blushed. "It is not – I –"
"I know that you are a lady," Harry continued in a furious whisper, "But this is me. Please, tell me of your heart. I feel like mine is full to bursting when I am with him."
"I do as well," she said, a confession that clearly cost her anguish. "I can think of nothing else when Mr Weldon is near me."
Harry breathed out in relief, his eyes shutting under the weight of it. "This is what I feel for Nicholas. And have, since the first time I laid my eyes upon him."
When their gazes met, Gemma's face looked in utter conflict. Harry found the patience within himself to see her through it in silence, watch as confusion and love and understanding and fear all struggled for dominance, until the first tears fell. "You are but seventeen, my love. Are you quite sure -"
"I am a man, now," he cut her off. "And I know myself."
She nodded, disregarding her own crying. "But what shall you do? There is no future for you both."
"I – I do not know," Harry said, evading. He knew. He had a plan. His plan was risky but it was the only one he had. He had not even shared it with Nicholas, but he simply could not go on this way. He could not have love so close and yet so far out of his reach. What had men like them done before? He wished he knew; he did not wish to know.
Gemma's tears, in time, brought out his own, and they sat on her bed with hands interlocked, heads close together, like they had as children.
"Harry, just think –"
"I've thought already," Harry said. Nicholas was watching him with wide eyes, the earlier languor of lovemaking all but gone from his limbs. "I know my mind." He softened, not wishing to fight. "I simply want to know if you would be prepared to join me. One word from you will be enough for me to change my mind." He leaned in closer, and took Nicholas's fingers between his own. "But please, whatever you decide, let it be for yourself only, and from your heart."
Nicholas watched him, fear and doubt apparent on his face. Harry bit his lip.
"I – I know that what I've asked seems reckless, and – and probably impossible," he continued. "But I know that I cannot go on the way we have been. It is intolerable."
He watched Nicholas as he waited, poised on the edge of heartbreak.
"What of your fortune?" Nicholas asked urgently. "What of your education, your future? Your obligations?"
"I do not care," Harry insisted, his voice rising. "I am prepared to lose it all for this. I'd live in poverty, as long as it was with you."
It was as if a shadow passed across his lover's face. "I have lived a life in poverty, my darling. It is not quite as romantic as it might seem from here."
Harry flushed, the wave of shame washing over him. He had not cared about Nicholas's birth and where he had come from, only that he was now a gentleman like any other. But now he realised, perhaps that had been utter selfishness on his part, and not the other way around.
"I – I am sorry, I had not –"
"Please, do not worry yourself," Nicholas interrupted him, giving a small smile. Harry bit his lip. "I simply ask of you to consider all the consequences."
"I have -"
Nicholas shook his head, shushing Harry's torrent immediately. "Do this for me," he whispered, linking their hands together. "Let us not speak on this matter any further tonight. We have but an hour. Allow me to make you forget all this just for a while."
Harry knew this would not be the last of this conversation, for his mind and heart were set. He would, he knew, talk Nicholas into running away together. He could acquire a trade, perhaps, become a labourer. Labourers had not the rules of high society, they had not the entails and the obligations, surely. For now, however, he allowed Nicholas to pull him into his embrace and bring them both to ecstasy once more.
Harry brought it up again the week following.
"Do you not love me?" he asked, the hurt of yet another rejection clouding his heart.
"God, how can you ask me that," Nicholas whispered, taking Harry's face into his hands. "How can you ask me such a question? For you, I'd hang the moon."
"Then why?" Harry begged, wrapping his hands around Nicholas's wrists. "Why do you refuse a chance at life together?"
"What you suggest is not – it simply is not realistic," Nicholas said. "I wish, more than anything in this world, to live with you as married couples do. I wish to wake to you each morning, I wish to fall asleep with you each night. For the rest of my life, Harry."
"Then why -"
"Do you not see that the rules of the world are against us? At every turn, there is no other way but this." His voice took on an edge so bitter, Harry felt as if he could taste it in the back of his own throat. "We are but birds in a cage," Nicholas whispered. Harry swallowed thickly, tears threatening the edges of his vision. "There is no choice for men like you and I."
Harry shook his head. "No. No, I refuse to accept this," he said, his voice hoarse, his heart desperate. "If we acquire a trade along the way, if we rent a room, we can –"
"No, Harry," Nicholas said, dropping his hands once more. The tone of finality was like a hammer to Harry's heart. "That is not the way. And I cannot leave London."
Harry jumped off the bed as if burnt. "So that is the reason," he said. His heart could take no more, he thought. "You do not wish to leave your life for me."
"Harry!" Nicholas's face when Harry forced himself to look reflected the pain and hurt inside Harry. "You cannot think –"
"I do," Harry responded as coldly as he could manage while searching the floor for his clothing. "I understand perfectly."
Methodically, he clothed himself, facing away from Nicholas. He did not know what else to do. His body felt on fire from the shame of it all. Nicholas's last words rang in his ears, and now a silence descended so terrible, it threatened to choke him.
"Harry," Nicholas called out. "Harry, please. Please, turn around." His voice was small, his vowels clipped.
Harry did not wish to obey his command, but his body was already trained to do so. Waistcoat unbuttoned, he turned. Nicholas had got out of bed as well, and stood now, naked and beautiful, before him.
"You must believe me," he said in an urgent whisper. "You must believe me this is not for an insufficiency of love."
Harry bit his lip. He no longer knew what to believe. All that he knew was that the man he loved was telling him they could not be together in a way that other lovers could. "Then why?" he whispered.
"Sometimes," Nicholas began, hand reaching out towards Harry. Harry could not stop himself from taking it. Their fingers squeezed together. "Sometimes, we cannot have our heart's desires fulfilled when we wish them to be." Harry began to shake his head, mulish and stricken. "We have to wait," Nicholas went on. Their bodies were mere inches apart once more. "Please, trust in my love for you. Please," he whispered.
Harry turned his face away. He did not wish to wait. He did not wish to hear of objections and platitudes. He wished to spend the rest of his life with Nicholas, all rules be damned. But he forced himself to nod. The coach, he knew, would be downstairs in a short few minutes.
"Do you believe me?" Nicholas asked, urgency plain in his voice.
Harry finally looked him in the eye once more. "I do," he answered automatically.
Nicholas kissed him.
When they parted, it was with a promise of a night together the week following. They would see each other at the Teasdales' for dinner the next day.
But Harry could not help feeling that, perhaps, his love alone was not enough. Perhaps the thing to do was distance himself from it all. Perhaps he would beg off the dinner.
Perhaps. He would not see Nicholas during the week, either.
Perhaps. Perhaps he would heal his heart, eventually, and live out a life of obligation and lack of love.
But he simply could not bring himself to do so. When Wednesday came and Nicholas rang the bell on the pretense of taking Harry to the gentlemen's club, all Harry could do was fall into his arms in the darkened coach and kiss him breathless.
"How utterly lovely," Gemma said, smiling beneath her bonnet. The sun had graced them with its presence, and the entire company had taken it as a sign to share in a picnic in the park. Coaches had been ordered, food prepared, wine stocked, and Harry's heart felt quite full with all of it.
They lounged beneath a large oak tree, ladies hiding their pale complexions beneath their parasols, while gentlemen made do with just the brims of their hats.
Harry had, in fact, taken his off, for having it on made for a hotter day altogether. He allowed himself to unbutton his waistcoat, but no more. It clung uncomfortably to his back, but overall, he quite agreed with Gemma. The day was lovely.
Nicholas was chatting with Miss Phillips, his attention seemingly entirely on her and her easy laughter. If you were not paying attention in the same way Harry was, you would have missed the way his fingers grazed the edge of Harry's on the grass.
Harry, for his part, did not miss it. He breathed in deeply, then slowly took his hand away.
His body ached with constant longing.
"I think I'm up for a walk," he announced, jumping to his feet. "Would anyone care to join me? Chaloner? Gemma? Grimshaw?"
He had taken a gamble. He and Chaloner were not the closest of friends, but they did enjoy each other's company. He could have taken Harry up on his offer.
Luckily, he didn't, as he lay half-sprawled on the ground, lazily eating a bunch of grapes. "It is too hot, I am afraid," he said. "This shade is all that I can take at the moment."
When Harry turned to Gemma, she simply wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
When Harry's gaze finally turned to Nicholas, Nicholas appeared as if he was of two minds on the matter. He lifted a hand to protect his eyes from the sun and said, "Hmm. It is quite hot, but I think I may join you, actually. A walk in the shade might cool me off."
Harry suppressed the grin that threatened to overtake his face. "Jolly good," he responded.
Slowly, they walked towards the path, away from the others. The promised shade did cool his skin, but on the inside, he felt as if he was burning up.
When they rounded a bend, he looked about himself for the briefest of moments before tugging Nicholas towards himself by his waistcoat. Their mouths met, open and warm. "God, it has been too long," Harry breathed before leaning back in.
"Harry, please wait," Nicholas protested, but did not push him away. "We must be careful…"
"Just kiss me, please," Harry begged, already touching his lips to Nicholas's. "You looked so beautiful sitting in the sun, I had to –"
Nicholas was made of stronger stuff than Harry, but Harry fought him when he made to push away. "There's no one here, please, just one more kiss," he begged, shameless in his want.
Nicholas rolled his eyes heavenward, but looked so kind when Harry pulled him closer in. "You are the devil's child," Nicholas whispered before sealing his lips to Harry's. They lingered, trembling, for a heart-stopping moment.
Emboldened, Harry slid his hand to Nicholas's thigh, then up, grazing where his manhood lay. His movement was halted immediately.
"No." This time there was no smile in Nicholas's gaze, only the start of panic.
Harry bit his lip, wretchedly hard and wanting. "Please, there's nobody –"
"There's always somebody," Nicholas told him, pushing him away with a finality. "Always, Harry."
Harry sighed and stepped back, running a hand over his damp forehead. "This is intolerable."
"I know, my love." When Harry looked back at him, Nicholas was watching the ground. They stood some feet apart. Still, no one walked towards them.
Harry took one step, then another, down the path, until Nicholas fell into step beside him. They walked in silence back.
Later, after dropping Chaloner off, Harry had barely to say a word when Nicholas dropped to the seat beside him. "We have ten minutes before we arrive," he whispered, already reaching for the fall of Harry's trousers. "I need – I need to –"
Harry pulled him in. The task of undressing just below the waist was made all the more difficult by the sloping ride of the coach and his shaking hands, but once they both were freed, the road no longer mattered.
"Touch me, touch me, please," he begged as Nicholas had already reached his prick and was stroking it to hardness. His foot slid from underneath him, but Nicholas caught him before he could fall.
"Shh," Nicholas murmured, "I have you, I have –"
"God," Harry breathed, attempting to steady his breathing. "I hate not being able to touch you whenever I want."
"Touch me now," Nicholas urged him in a whisper, and Harry did, finding him hard and damp already.
They brought each other to completion in gasping silence after that. Harry whined with how good it felt, how not enough it was. Nicholas breathed against him, damp everywhere Harry touched, soaked through as he was from the afternoon sun.
They cleaned up quickly, Harry quite rueful at using one of Nicholas's monogrammed handkerchiefs to do the job.
When the carriage came to a full stop, they were to be found on opposite sides from each other. Harry knew he could blame their flush on the weather. If he turned his head, he could still smell Nicholas on his own skin.
There was no explaining that away. But nobody but him would know to whom that smell belonged.
"What if I run away on my own," he ventured one more time. "Would you remain here without me?"
Nicholas's face showed immediate concern. "Harry, you wouldn't –"
"I could," Harry insisted. After all, his mother had always said he was a compliant child until a mule would suddenly take his place with hardly any notice. "I would."
"Where would you go?" Nicholas asked, shaking his head.
"Up North, perhaps," Harry said. "Scotland. I do not care." His heart hammered at the mere thought of it. If he did, surely Nicholas would follow. Surely, he would miss him, the ache in his heart the same as the ache currently residing within Harry. "I'd write to you," Harry explained. "I'd settle somewhere remote, learn a trade. Then I would write to you."
"I would give you my address. You would have no choice but to follow me, you see," Harry explained, getting into the swing of his fantasy. "I would greet you. I would know the whole time you were on your way and I would wait for you."
"Please, love –"
"And I would wait until I was white-haired, you know," he continued, slow yet undeterred. His hands found Nicholas's thighs, stroking the hair there, forcing a shiver from him. "I would never move. I would stay at that address forever, until you came for me. Or until I died."
Nicholas was now half-laughing, half-frowning at him, but Harry thought, so much the better. Let him believe it was a joke, an utter fantasy. For, as he talked on, Harry realised that it could work. His plan could work.
He allowed himself to be kissed into silence for he knew. He knew the time was soon. He would turn his plan into reality.
Harry was just returning from an afternoon walk with Gemma and Mr Weldon when, to his shock, he saw Nicholas leaving his father's study. He stumbled over nothing, feeling his stomach drop out.
Their eyes met. Nicholas broke the gaze first and simply brushed against Harry's side as he made to rush down the stairs.
Harry came to enough to catch his elbow. "Nicholas!" A slow dawning was beginning to come over him, and he thought for sure he would be sick.
"Do not be cavalier with the life you've got, Harry," Nicholas said quietly, meeting his gaze once more. "Do not throw your future away."
"No," Harry whispered, swallowing against the tears. "No, no, no…"
"I love you." Nicholas's voice was but a whisper. Gently, he shook himself free of Harry's numb hold and, after one final look, took off down the stairs, leaving Harry in a million pieces in his wake.
"Harry." His father's voice could have spoken a moment or an hour later. Harry could no longer tell. "Please come into my study."
Harry's feet were made of lead. His body was no longer his own, he felt no command over it; felt hardly anything at all.
When he entered his father's study, he found Mama seated in a chair. Her eyes were red when she looked up at him. They watched each other until Harry could no longer bear it and broke the gaze. His boots were coated in mud, he realised. He had not properly wiped them when he'd come through the door.
"Sit down, child."
Harry sat. His parents seated across from him, a sense of unreality firmly settled itself in his stomach. Perhaps that was why he was able to look up into his parents' faces. He felt completely outside of himself. Everything he had hoped for was now gone, including Nicholas. He knew, in his heart, they should never meet again. When Harry had toyed with distancing himself from what they had, he had only been kidding himself. He would never have left him. He could never.
But Nicholas had left him, instead. Had left him in this room, alone with Harry's parents, whose drawn and pale faces were now watching him with so much hurt.
"Mr Grimshaw," his father began, "has told us everything."
Harry swallowed. He could not speak.
"He acted honourably in his deed," his father continued. "He told us of your plan to run away." Harry felt his lips setting into a thin line. He could not find his voice, and if he could, no words felt adequate. "Did you believe you could really do this? Leave your life, your obligations? Harry," his father said, voice nearly pleading. "You would have ruined your sister."
Harry's throat constricted. "How?" he asked.
His mother gave a shallow sob and hid her face behind her hands. His father's pale face regained colour once more. "Her reputation, along with your own, would have been forever tarnished!" he exclaimed. "Did you not consider that your actions would have reflected on our entire family?"
Harry felt the rise of heat all the way up his chest, his neck, his cheeks. "It would have been my ruin alone," he said, feeling as he did how feeble it had sounded. It began to dawn upon him.
"How could you even consider that?" Mama's voiced sounded like a pale imitation of itself. She sounded as she looked – like she'd been crying. "You know the ways of the world, Harry, of society. How could you? Why, love? Why?"
It was her voice that broke him. Harry tried to take a breath but a sob escaped him, and the weight of the shame he had so nearly brought upon his family, on Gemma, nearly crushed him. The tears came unbidden, a torrent he could not stopper. He hid behind his hands, body wracked with sobs, and wept for his own stupidity, his selfishness; for Nicholas's necessary betrayal; for his lost love.
"Please, just tell me," his mother whispered after a few minutes of allowing him to cry and then compose himself. It took some doing; he did not think he would ever be composed again. "What happened that you should wish to run away without telling anyone? With no regard for anything?"
"I –" He broke off for need to wipe his eyes again, as well as his nose and cheeks. His hands were wet with it all but he did not think to reach for a handkerchief until one was extended to him by his silent father. "Thank you," he choked out. Another long moment, and he felt fairly well able to speak. He crumpled the soggy fabric in one fist. "It was love," he managed to say. It sounded so foolish to his ears now, so naïve. "I believed that I could… That I could have all that I wanted."
An extended silence followed. He dared not look up lest he see his own shame reflected on their faces.
"Harry," his mother said in time. "You are but seventeen."
Despite himself, he shook his head. "I know, but I also know myself," he said. "I love him, Mama." He raised his gaze to hers. She watched him pleadingly. "I love him so dearly, I could not imagine being parted from him."
He was now, however. Now that it was known, he would never again see the man he loved. He would leave London immediately for Holmes Chapel before returning to Oxford. Worse than not seeing Nicholas ever again was seeing him and knowing he was no longer his to have.
"That sort of love is –"
"Please, don't. Do not say the words you are about to speak!" He had never before interrupted his father, nor raised his voice to him. He met his gaze now. "Please, I beg you." His voice betrayed him, breaking. "I know my feelings, just as I know that you shall never understand."
"Your whole life, Harry," his mother said. "Your entire future. Do you know what it would have cost us?"
"I did not think," was all that he could say. He could not fall further from their estimation than he had already. He continued, "My folly was not the love, but the blindness that came with it." Every word felt like it was choked out of his throat; it burned to speak. "Blame me for my stupidity, but please," he whispered. "Please do not question how I felt. How I feel. My heart has not been my own since the night he and I met."
Another silence. The air was stifled by it. He could not bear it any longer.
He rose to his feet.
"May I please be excused? I am unwell." He had nothing left to lose. He could not bear to be in anybody else's presence. He could not bear to be.
"We will finish this conversation, Harry," his father said, but he did not sound angry; he sounded numb. "For now, you may go to your room. You are expected down for dinner."
"Thank you," he whispered and nodded without looking at either of them. He exited as soon as he was able.
He did not know how he passed the time; he was unaware of it passing. Darkness descended, and he did not light a lamp. No one came to fetch him for dinner when the hour came; he did not go down. Still clothed, he fell asleep but did not know how long he had been so when he awoke once more.
It was after midnight when a knock came. He cleared his throat before he could bid whoever was at the door to enter.
He had been expecting Gemma. It was Mama.
In her kerchief and nightdress, candle in hand, she looked ghostly, and just as pale.
"Mama," he exclaimed, sitting up. Her dark hair escaped in wisps and curls and he had never seen her look as sad, or as lonely. "Mama, is everything all right?"
"I wanted to see how you were," she said quietly, settling onto the edge of his bed. "You have not changed."
Confused, he watched her face, the last remnants of sleep slowing down thought. "Mama?"
"Your clothes," she explained. "You have not changed."
He looked down. He had taken off his boots, but that was all. Madly, he thought that he wore the last clothes Nicholas had touched. Had seen him in. Renewed, the ache in his chest squeezed his entire being. He turned away before she could see him cry, but he could not stop it when it came. The gasps and sobs refused to cease and he clutched his own knees to hide his face from view.
"Oh, love," his mother said and he was enveloped in her arms the next moment, the scent of rose water faint and so familiar. "Harry," she whispered. "Oh, darling."
He cried until his eyes ached from it, until his face was washed anew with the tears, until his lungs could heave no more.
She held him, still, when she said, "I have a message for you."
Harry looked up, wiping at his eyes. "Papa?"
She shook her head, watching him carefully. "Mr Grimshaw sent a note." Harry's heart skipped in his chest. "It was addressed to you. Your father has allowed you to see it."
The note was in her hand, he now saw, and then it was in his. He began to rip it open, then paused. "Why?"
"Why did he allow me to see it?" Harry would have thought any further contact with Nicholas was now forbidden. Surely, there was nothing easier than to intercept a note he had not even been aware of existing. He should never have known Nicholas had written it unless explicitly told.
Unless, of course. His mind raced with possibilities. Unless the note was previously agreed upon, and it contained the breaking of any contact between them. The paper shook in his hands.
"Your father loves you," Mama responded. "We have always been a family that hides nothing from one another." Her tone was slightly chiding. Harry hung his head. Until this summer went unspoken. "He wanted you to have what's yours."
Harry, unable to bring himself to open the letter, nodded. "Please tell him I – I thank him."
"You shall tell him yourself. Tomorrow, we expect you to leave your room."
Harry nodded. She rose to her feet and already turned to go when a desperation seized him and he grabbed her hand. "You believe me, do you not?"
"Believe what?" she asked carefully, looking down at him.
Harry swallowed. "Believe me when I say it is no childish inclination? I love him, Mama." Once started, he could not stem the flow of words. "I do not know how to explain that what I feel for him feels more right than anything I have ever felt before. He makes me feel complete. Do you not see? He makes me whole, he gives me comfort, he excites me. I…without him, I shall be undone. Do you believe me? Please, say you understand!"
She did not pull away, but she turned her face so he could no longer see it in the pale light of the candle. His pulse quickened enough that he felt lightheaded. A perverse sort of relief flooded through his veins; keeping a secret had been so dreadful. Keeping a secret from his mother had been worst of all.
She sighed at length and slowly sank back down to the bed. When he looked at her face, she had tears in her eyes.
"Please," he begged. "Please, say something. I cannot bear it."
"I – I don't know what to say, my boy. My love for you has not diminished," she began. Harry swallowed. "But I can never understand your actions or your inclinations." His heart constricted once again. "That you feel this, I do not doubt." Her voice was soft. "I know your heart is strong and true. You have never been one to feel anything halfway." She paused, gently escaping his hold on her wrist. He felt his hand fall limply to his side. "There is no future in this love. There is no family. No marriage, no children. Do you understand this, Harry?"
Numbly, Harry nodded.
"The best that you can hope for is a life of bachelorhood and hiding in plain sight. What sort of life is that?"
"What," Harry forced himself to say, "sort of life is one without love?"
She shut her eyes. Her beautiful face was drawn, her kind mouth pinched. "The last thing I would ever wish for you," she said in a thick voice, "would be a life without love."
Harry felt tears spill from his eyes. They matched her own.
"A mother's only wish is to see her children happy, fulfilled, loved," she said. "The pain in my heart for you is so vast, I can hardly bear it."
Harry slipped a hand over his mouth lest he begin to sob again.
"I do not know how to make this right," she continued in a whisper. "I do not have the answer."
Through the veil of tears and hurt, Harry glimpsed the sort of hope that could escape at any moment. He grasped it with all his might. "What if we find an answer?"
"What sort of answer could we find?" Her eyes were sad. They were so rarely sad.
Harry breathed out, low and pained. "I do not know," he admitted. "I do not even know if he will have me. I have behaved so badly," he whispered. The more he thought of it, the more ashamed he felt. "I thought only of myself. I barely thought of what it would mean to him to have to leave his life behind only to fall to poverty together." He stopped, a feeling of panic threatening to overtake him. He had the note still in his hand but he did not believe it would contain a single word of love. What had Nicholas to love in a spoiled young man, nearly taken in by his own fancies that could have led to utter ruin of so many?
"Despite my pain at all that has taken place," Mama said quietly, "I believe Mr Grimshaw to be a singularly honourable man. He would understand."
Harry startled, his head whipping up.
"Do not look so surprised," she said, a first hint of a smile tugging at her lips. "He risked his reputation to save you. He, who has barely any security to fall back on, only wanted to protect you and your sister." She paused, eyebrows drawn. "All of us, in fact."
Harry's heart raced. He watched her, dumbstruck, unable to find the proper words.
"I believe that he loves you," she went on, as if not seeing Harry at all. "I believe that if this had to happen, you chose a worthy person." The last words were but a whisper, but Harry felt them as if they had been shouted across the world.
"Shh, love," she stopped him. "I am so tired. Please, try to get some sleep. Tomorrow is another day."
Harry swallowed, nodded. He thought he could feel every single fibre of paper beneath his fingers. "I love you, Mama," he whispered.
"And I you." She rose, and this time he did not stop her. "Good night."
He waited until he heard her footsteps retreating before he scrambled for the note.
I hope one day you shall forgive me. I know that you must feel betrayed, and hurt, and wronged. All I can say in my defence is that I acted only out of love. To see you and your family ruined was not something I could bear. I love you too well to see you throw your life away for a chance at something you would have had to hide forever. It is unfair. You are so young.
Please know that I shall love you always, and think back on the short months we had together as the happiest, most fulfilled days of my life.
Good luck at university, as well. The rest of your education will expose you to so much of the world. I only wish that I could watch you grow in knowledge, in manhood, in all that awaits you.
Please forgive me.
Your wayward friend,
"Congratulations, my love!" Mama was beaming at Gemma with so much joy in her eyes, Harry could not help but echo it. Gemma, in turn, was glowing. "I believe you will be a very happy Mrs Weldon."
"I believe I shall, as well," Gemma replied, leaning in and hugging their mother in a rare display of affection. Unlike Harry, Gemma was always so reserved with their parents. To see her brimming over with happiness was truly divine, Harry thought.
"I am so happy for you," he said, when his turn came. "Truly, Gemma. You shall be so happy."
She pulled him in for an embrace without speaking. It was only when her lips were next to his ear that she whispered, "Thank you, darling. I only wish for you to have this happiness as well."
Harry shut his eyes, hugging her tighter. "It is no matter," he said. "All that matters is your joy."
The last week of his life, in turn, had been utterly joyless. As if joining him in his grief, London has rained upon them shower after shower. After a while, even friendly visits from their acquaintances ceased, for nobody wanted to be out in such dreadful weather.
Only Mr Weldon had come for tea, every day, until finally he showed up this morning and begged an audience with Gemma. Alone.
Since his note, Harry had heard nothing from Nicholas. Ten times he tried to answer back, and each time, he ripped the paper up and threw it in the fire. Again and again, he searched for words, but no words could sum up the rage and love and desperation that simmered within his chest.
It was done; there was nothing anyone could do. And now, London was crying with him.
At least Gemma was happy. It was the most one could ask, really. She beamed, looking so beautiful in the same powder blue frock she had worn on their first London ball, and promised that she would, of course, visit Holmes Chapel as often as could be done after she was married. Their home without Gemma felt unfathomable, but Harry had always known it would happen one day. She had always been the eldest.
As engagement plans began to fill up his family's time, Harry felt himself retreating more and more inward. Attempting to stay out of their way, he spent hours in his bedroom, reading. He was preparing for another term at university, he told himself. It was high time he began taking his studies more seriously.
If he pictured what Nicholas might be doing while Harry was home, it was only because habits were difficult to break. If he wondered what Nicholas would think of this passage from Socrates, or this sonnet of Shakespeare's, it was only that he had had access to Nicholas's thoughts on most things for so long, it was strange to be so utterly alone with his observations.
One day, the longing would cease. One day, he would look back on his first London season and hardly feel anything at all.
What if, a thought would tickle his brain once in a while, what if he were to leave completely? Once married, there was nothing left for Gemma to fear. Was there? If he were to leave all on his own, what could that possibly matter?
What if he were to go to France? Or Italy? All on his own he'd travel, making his way through the Continent. England held so little for him now.
What if? he thought.
What if that.
"Your father requests your presence in his study, sir," Aurand said upon entering.
Harry frowned. "Is he not with his solicitor?" His father had mentioned that such an appointment was happening this morning. Harry assumed it was to do with Gemma's dowry.
"He has gone," Aurand responded.
Harry slowly shifted off the bed and slid on his shoes. "Do I look presentable enough? Should I put on a coat?"
"No need, sir," was his unflappable valet's response. Harry shrugged and followed him out.
When he entered the study, both of his parents were present. An unnamed dread settled in his belly. The last time he had encountered this scene, his life seemed to come to an end. They never did finish that conversation. When he saw his father next, he had thanked him for passing on the message, and his father had simply nodded. No other words were spoken about the matter again.
Now, Harry wondered if this was not to be a continuation, and steeled himself, wishing now that he had worn his coat after all.
"Aurand, please shut the door behind you," Father asked, and Harry heard the click of the lock behind him. His father waved him over to sit in a chair across his desk. "Sit, please."
Harry made himself obey.
"I am unhappy," his father began with no other preamble. Harry held his tongue. It took all of his strength not to tell him likewise. "You have been stewing in misery for weeks. Your Oxford term is nearly upon us, and if you go on this way, you stand a good chance of failing your courses."
Harry frowned, this time unable to hold his tongue. "I have been doing nothing but reading. One would think my studies would be the least of anyone's worries."
"Harry," his mother said in a warning tone.
Papa narrowed his eyes. "A father knows his own child. You are so unhappy, barely any of us can breathe because of it."
Harry bit his lip and looked away. He had already given up the best thing to ever happen to him for his family. If they took his grief away, as well, there would be nothing left of him at all. He felt his jaw clench and breathed steadily through his nose.
"I may not be a man of great intellect, but I am not stupid, Harry," his father went on. It was unfathomable to Harry where this was leading. "I am also not a tyrant. I cannot risk – I will not risk losing you completely." His voice broke on the last word and, startled, Harry turned to look him in the eye. How had he… "The last thing your mother and I wish for in this world is for our son to – we want you to be happy, Harry."
Harry frowned, not speaking, still. He felt entirely at sea. Misery was not his first choice of emotion, either.
"Harry," Mama said from her armchair. He turned to look at her. "We have… We own an estate in France."
Harry blinked. His heartbeat doubled in the space of a second.
"Soon, it shall be in need of repairs. It is of considerable value to my family," Mama slowly went on, "and I do not wish for it to fall to ruin."
"What – I do not –"
"You shall finish your years at university as planned," Papa interrupted him. Harry turned back to watch him. His hands felt numb. He had absolutely no idea what was unfolding before him, could not even begin to comprehend it. "Once you have earned your degree, if you wish to, you may move to the estate and be its guardian."
Were they – were they sending him away for what he was? Somehow, in all of his misery, Harry had never actually expected that his family would truly wish him gone. He felt the beginnings of panic build in the pit of his stomach. "But –"
"If he wishes to, Mr Grimshaw may help you with the running of the estate," Mama said quietly, and Harry whipped back towards her. He stared into her face uncomprehending. When he looked back at his father, he still did not understand. He watched each of them silently in turn, and barely felt the tight grip he had on his chair.
"Harry," Papa said gently. "This is your chance."
Harry swallowed and blinked. The sob that escaped him was silent and wracked his whole body at once.
He was taking a risk, calling upon Nicholas at this hour. If he knew him at all, he would be dining elsewhere, or perhaps readying for a dance. Harry was prepared to turn around and tell his driver to take him home, when the door opened and what had to be Nicholas's butler gave him a cool, assessing stare.
"Hello," Harry said dumbly. In the whole time they had been together, he had never met this man at all. Every time he entered this house, it was empty save for the two of them. He had managed to forget that Nicholas did, in fact, have a small staff that he employed.
They are paid handsomely not to wonder, had had said once. Harry wondered if the butler knew now.
"Is – is Ni- Mr Grimshaw in?" Harry asked, feeling stupider and stupider by the minute. The ride over here had been largely filled with wondering if he would look ridiculous and childish, begging at Nicholas's feet to wait for him and move to France, but he had not quite expected to feel ridiculous and childish before the indifferent stare of a man he did not even know.
"May I ask who is calling upon him?" the butler asked.
Harry licked his lips and drew out his calling card. Silently, he extended it, and just as silently, the butler nodded and took it away. Once he was gone, the reality of Nicholas being mere feet away from him hit Harry all at once. His pulse skittered to a breathless pace, his palms began to sweat. He thought he might vomit right in this entryway. He swallowed and could only breathe through his mouth. Oh God. It had been a month since Nicholas had flown down his stairs and from his life. A month had never felt as long.
"This way, please, sir," the butler said, startling Harry out of his own mind. Harry nodded and took off his hat, worrying the brim in his hand. The other hand he used to make certain that his hair was fluffed up back into place.
The walk to the parlour was short; much too short. His heart forcibly attempting to escape from his chest, Harry followed the butler through the door.
Nicholas stood with his back to the window. The sun was just beginning to set, and its light made impossible for Harry to see his face at first. What he noted was his silhouette. His hair was tall as always, and wild, as if his hands had spent many hours ruffling it every which way. He was in his shirtsleeves, and instead of breeches, he wore trousers, which outlined the lines of his long legs in a way that forced Harry's body to flood with helpless desire. Nicholas was holding onto the back of a chair with a vise grip.
When the door shut behind Harry, Harry knew they were alone.
"I cannot see your face," he croaked. "The light behind you – I do not know –"
Nicholas moved suddenly. One moment he was shadowed from his view, another he was a mere two feet from Harry, his face an anguished mask. He was pale, with shadows beneath his eyes and stubble dotting his cheeks. He was so beautiful. Without forethought, Harry reached out and smoothed a fallen strand of hair off of his face.
"Harry," Nicholas breathed. Harry watched in wonder as Nicholas shut his eyes and leaned ever so slightly into his touch.
"I've missed you so," he whispered, unable to find the words he had been planning on speaking first. "Your voice, I've missed your voice…"
"Why?" Nicholas asked, opening his eyes once more. "Why have you come?" he asked and, to Harry's horror, stepped away from him, firmly clasping his hands behind his back.
"I –" Harry clicked his jaw shut. What had he been planning on saying? How was he going to approach this? It felt unfathomable now that he could seek forgiveness, find absolution, retain this man. "May I ask for a glass of sherry?" he asked instead.
Nicholas, still watching him with worrying uncertainty, nodded. "Of course. One moment."
He did not call a servant, but walked up to a standing globe and opened its great maw. Harry watched silently as Nicholas retrieved two glasses and a single bottle from its depths.
Harry had never entered this room before now. All of the time they could spend alone, they had chosen to spend in bed. Once in a while, they would sneak into the kitchen, giggling, and filch from the cupboards.
The parlour was small, but much like the rest of the house, lovely. A small pianoforte stood by the window, its keys exposed to the room. Harry wondered who had been playing it. He frowned.
"Here," Nicholas said, extending a filled glass towards him. "Please, have a seat."
Not even when they had met had they been so formal towards each other. Harry sat, set down his hat, and drank the whole glass in one go. Once he stopped coughing, he wiped his mouth and said, "I owe you my apology."
He set the glass down next to his hat. He wiped his hands on his knees, he looked down at his own feet. He dared not look to see the expression on Nicholas's face.
"I acted the child, you see," he went on, his throat constricting. The sherry had been cloying but now its warmth spurred him on, loosened his tongue. "I thought of myself and my feelings only. The ramifications, had you not acted in a way that I could not, would have been…immeasurable." Harry swallowed, unable to look up from his feet, still. "You were the truest, best friend I could have asked for. I am – beyond grateful, and utterly ashamed of my conduct towards you. I owe you this apology and more. I am only sorry for how long it's taken me to ask for your forgiveness."
The words ceased in his throat after that. The sherry flowing through his veins was the only reason he had not yet bolted from the room. When he heard the scrape of chair legs, he still not dared look up, and only when Nicholas's feet came into view did he shift in his seat.
"Harry." Nicholas's voice was soft as it spoke his name. It was the voice he used when they were alone; a voice meant for Harry's ears, and no one else's. "You owe me nothing."
Harry looked up. Nicholas's face was plain to see now. Before Harry could think better of it, he stood up as well. They stood inches apart. "I owe you everything," he breathed. "Only I did not know it then."
Nicholas's gaze dropped to the ground. "I have missed you every day since then. My friends have begun wondering if I am unwell. At death's door, Miss Phillips had insinuated."
"My family is prepared to throw me out of the country," Harry responded, rueful.
Nicholas looked up at him in panic.
"Come with me," Harry said in a rush.
The panic on Nicholas's face intensified, his features turning tragic. "Harry, not again, please -"
"No," Harry interrupted, "not again." It was time. He took Nicholas's hands into his own, brought them to his chest, looked into his confused eyes. "My circumstances have changed, you see."
A sharp line appeared between Nicholas's eyebrows. Harry felt as if neither of them was breathing.
"I am, as you know, soon to return to Oxford once more." Harry waited for Nicholas's nod before continuing. "It will be a few years before I'm finished with my education completely." Again, he waited, and again, Nicholas nodded. "My mother's family owns an estate in France. It is not large, but holds a great importance. It is in need of a handler, someone to run it."
Harry watched as Nicholas drew his lower lip into his mouth, breathing in sharply.
"My parents have allowed me to become its guardian upon completion of my studies." Harry took a breath. His heart threatened to beat right out of his chest. "They have offered for me to invite a friend along to help. You," he rushed on. "They have offered for you to come along. And help."
Harry watched as Nicholas took in his words. His eyebrows twitched, his lips moved without speaking. He looked to barely be breathing. Harry felt much the same. This time, he knew that if the answer was no, there would be no other way. If Nicholas rejected him now, it would not be to save Harry from himself. It would be to save himself from Harry.
"It would mean leaving London," Harry rushed in before he could stop himself. "The last thing I would wish to do is to ask you do leave your friends behind. Please know that I shall understand when you say no, but I could not – I could not have lived with myself if I did not ask. I had to know. Please, just – just say the word, and I shall go and leave you be for good."
"Do not you dare," Nicholas said, his voice a raw rasp. His hands tightened around Harry's. "Do not you leave me again."
Harry felt a whine build in his chest when Nicholas pulled him, and when it escaped, it did so in Nicholas's mouth, against his tongue and teeth and heady, gorgeous taste of him. Harry's breath felt short, sharp, shallow, it was barely even breath at all. The weeks of absence had done nothing to kill the desire between them, and it blossomed instantly once more. They kissed until there was no breath or air between them, kissed until they each of them felt the hardness of the other, knew they had to stop or else they wouldn't stop at all.
"Can you wait so long?" Harry gasped out, their foreheads touching. "Will you truly wait for me? It shall be years, yet."
"I'll wait for you until we are both white-haired and infirm," Nicholas said. Harry felt the stirrings of delirious, giddy joy well up in his belly. "I'll wait for you forever."
"You'd leave your friends behind?" he asked, feeling the weight of the commitment settling upon his shoulders.
"My friends, as well you know, are people of some means," Nicholas breathed against him. "France is not halfway around the world. A journey there and back will likely be as nothing to them. Should we wish to welcome them, of course."
"What of the balls? And parties?" Harry urged.
"Have they not balls or parties down in France? No matter, we shall make our own."
"Will they be closing the English channel once we are in France?"
Harry began to laugh. The giddiness and relief threatened to erupt within his chest, and he laughed and clung to his lover and felt as if the smallest breeze would whisk them both away.
He simply could not wait.
three years later
"Grimshaw? Nicholas! Nicholas, where are you?"
Nicholas barely has time to look up from his reading and register the familiar voice when Harry appears in the doorway, dashing through it. Their gazes meet.
It has been four months. Four arduous months since he last left Harry in his room at Oxford, bare beneath the sheets, worn out from love, a sleepy smile upon his handsome face. With nothing but letters since then, Nicholas's patience has grown rather thin.
The Cox estate in Normandy has been his home for nearly a month now. Harry was meant to have met him here three weeks ago, but a family event delayed his coming.
Now, he is here, and the next moment, he is in Nicholas's arms, demanding he be kissed as he is being kissed already. Nicholas has been unable to deny him much of anything at all these last few years, and he is more than happy to comply now, as well. He kisses him until the last four months dwindle into weeks, then into days, then into hours and minutes and seconds; kisses him until he feels like they can part and Harry will not slip away again.
"You're here," Harry smiles, running his hands through Nicholas's hair, down to his back, his hips, his chest, until he clasps their hands together in the familiar gesture.
"I should say the same of you," Nicholas responds, dropping a kiss onto his knuckles. "I was expecting you tomorrow."
"We had good winds," Harry grins, uncomplicated and bright.
"How is your sister?"
"Doing well, I thank you." Harry won't stop smiling. His face glows with it, and Nicholas – Nicholas cannot look away. "Her confinement was a long one, and she was fragile at first, but now she's getting stronger every day."
"And the child?"
"You mean young Henry?" Harry's grin turns cheeky. A boy. Thank God. A boy. Named for his uncle. That must mean the world to Harry. "Young Henry is doing fine, as well."
"I'm glad." Nicholas likes Mrs Weldon very much. To hear of her wellbeing is yet another piece of happiness that's fallen into his unsuspecting lap.
"Now that that's over, come, show me around," Harry urges. "Which way to your bedroom?" Harry uses their linked hands to his advantage and attempts to lead Nicholas out of the parlour. Nicholas laughs and digs his heels in. Harry tugs at him again, then turns around, frowning. "What's wrong?"
"Please," Nicholas says, his heart in his throat. "Just let me look at you."
When Harry grins and tilts his head, he obeys nonetheless. Nicholas drinks him in. Gone is the boy he fell so madly in love with all those years ago; in his place stands a young man. He's taller now, taller even than he was four months prior. He has yet to reach Nicholas's height, but when he looks him in the eye, he has no need of looking up. His jaw is more pronounced, his shoulders wider, his stance straighter.
It would appear he has not cut his hair since last they met, and the curls that Nicholas loves so much now tumble to his shoulders, tickling his neck and covering his ears.
When they first met, there was a dangerous sort of intensity to the way Harry viewed the world. His eyes appeared to burn you when your gazes met, and when you were his object of desire, it felt as if his very breath could scald. Now, he has mellowed slightly. A maturity has settled itself upon his shoulders, but Nicholas would be mistaken if he believed this Harry was any less dangerous for him.
No. The careful, knowing way he's watching Nicholas back speaks volumes of the man in front of him. Nicholas takes his hand and, their gazes meeting, kisses every knuckle, one by one.
Because, above all else, it is Harry's devotion that has been his true undoing.
Not once since first they made this strange commitment to one another have they parted ways. Their meetings have been necessarily brief, but constant; their correspondence unwavering. Weeks of not seeing one another naturally led to some despair on Nicholas's part on whether Harry, perhaps, had found someone else; someone younger, or prettier, or smarter, even. But then another letter would arrive – ahead of Nicholas's response to the previous note – and in it, he would find a love poem, clearly written on spur of the moment and addressed specifically to him, or a pressed wild flower with no other message needing to be added.
Harry had stayed, and waited, and now, he's made good on a promise given on an evening when Nicholas had least been expecting miracles.
"Thank God you're here," he whispers now, sliding his fingers to feel the softness of Harry's hair. "I've been bereft of company, you know."
"I am sorry for the delay," Harry says immediately, as if Nicholas would ever begrudge him for caring for his sister. "Have you been very bored?"
"So bored, I have acquired a new companion, actually," Nicholas teases, then steps enough away from Harry to whistle and not hurt his ear. When he catches Harry's gaze, he looks confused and on the edge of hurt. Nicholas laughs just as Hound trots into the room. "Ah, there he is."
Harry spins around. "You got a dog?"
"I found a dog, in fact," Nicholas corrects. "He followed me around the market for a week. Is he not lovely?"
Hound is, in fact, quite an unattractive specimen, if Nicholas is honest. It took some doing for the servants to get all of his fleas out, first of all, and even with that done, he is no show pony. Slightly mangy, undersized, with one bad foot. Truly, he is a hideous creature, but he's been a loyal and terribly amusing companion these last two weeks.
"He is – are you sure he's quite… right?" Harry asks carefully. Hound chooses that moment to tap his tail on the floor and give a great big yawn, the sort that looks more like a grin than anything else. "Oh," Harry grins back, and his face clears.
Nicholas laughs. "Come here, boy," he commands and Hound happily obeys. "Hound, this is Harry. Harry, Hound."
"You named our dog Hound," Harry says, looking up at him. His nostrils flare in a way that speaks of amusement.
Nicholas's heart skips a bit. To cover up the rush of feeling, he quirks an eyebrow at him. "Well, it's as good a name as anything. He did not respond to chien, for one." Hound barks. "Hmm. Well, he didn't when I called him that the first two days," he amends, eyeing the beast. "Traitor."
Harry laughs. The sound of it sends tingles down Nicholas's spine. He longs for nothing more than to hear that laugh beneath the covers, taste it on his own skin. It truly has been much too long since he has taken Harry to his bed.
"Come," he says now. "The staff are downstairs, they shall not bother us. Aurand will take care of your belongings." Harry bites his lip, locks eyes with him. "Let me welcome you home," Nicholas whispers.
Harry takes the final step that separates them, trapping their hands between their chests. He whispers, "Please. Lead the way."
Together, they make their way upstairs.