A fugue is a compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.
The English term fugue originated in the 16th century and is derived from Latin, also fuga, which is itself related to both fugere ('to flee') and fugare, ('to chase').
"Mr. Way certainly sounds like an interesting fellow –"
"My dear, I've heard that his estate stretches across half a dozen acres -"
"Oh, nonsense, he's just over at Bray Manor, which cannot possibly be more than half a mile in each direction. Why, it barely has its own stables!"
The deep chuckle of Mr. Jenkins echoed across the room, as Frank politely followed it out of the conversation. It seemed all too tedious for words sometimes. Every new neighbour, every new quirk of the land, was noticed, recorded, and repeated so often, it was barely even reality by the time it reached his ears. London had been similar, of course, but somehow, the level of gossip in Cumbria seemed quite disproportionate to the size of its population, while London tended in the opposite direction.
Same as ever, he thought only somewhat fondly, and joined in a conversation with the one person in the room who had always been a friend.
"My dear Raymond," he whispered, so as to not let his voice echo across the ballroom. "Should the Messiah himself descend upon this gaiety, I do not wish to hear or speak of it. Do you understand?"
Raymond quirked his lips once, and nodded solemnly. "So it shall be. Should I hear of his coming, I shall engage you in conversation about my latest work at once."
Frank smiled at him. His friend was quite a gifted composer, and Frank had often felt a certain amount of jealousy at his talents. Frank believed himself a fair to middling musician, rather more taken with music than it was with him. However, there were times when, upon sitting down with his cello, he had felt something akin to a calling flowing through his fingers.
Those times were rare, but Raymond's talents ran unchecked and unsurpassed throughout the countryside.
"Tell me," Frank said now. "Have any odes been composed to Bray Manor recently? If so, then I should dearly love to hear more of this mysterious owner's coming."
Raymond eyed him for a while, and Frank knew that it was often difficult for his friend to interpret his teasing. Taking him purely at his word, however, Raymond answered, "Well, nothing has come from me. However, should the rumours I've heard come to pass as fact, I would be more than happy to write of dark pasts, beautiful paintings, and – apparently, a younger brother, by the name of Michael."
Frank barked a laugh. "Mysterious past and brothers, you say? How very fascinating, indeed! I should like to meet this mysterious stranger who has decided to grace this country with his fascination and brother Michael."
"Oh, well, in that case! You and I have actually been summoned to meet with one Mr. Gerard Way this coming Tuesday night." Raymond's face remained honest as ever, thus Frank was forced to conclude that his friend was not lying for the sake of getting back his own.
"You're joking," he blurted out. "You and I? But what have we got to do with the price of his new mansion?"
Raymond shook his hand airily, then clasped it behind his back with the other. "The invitation I received had been passed by a chambermaid, I believe, who had received it from a footman who had been given it by Mr. Way himself." His raised eyebrows spoke of his amusement at that fact. "Apparently, Mr. Way, while a bit of a recluse, is inclined to make some sort of new start here in the North Country, and has invited quite a bit of the neighbourhood for a gathering."
"A gathering. Some of the neighbourhood? Why I am only hearing of this from you?" Frank was certain he had read all of the missives that had come for him in the past week, but perhaps he had missed one while out riding.
Raymond smiled lightly. "Mr. Way is, let us say, unused to the way things are run in polite society."
Frank furrowed his brow, attempting to understand. How could a man who owned one of the larger estates of the district not know the first thing about polite society? Frank, perhaps despite his best efforts at not behaving himself exactly as his parents might have wished him to, could recite all of the lessons bestowed upon him by his overly attentive mother. His thoughts must have shown in his expression, for Raymond smiled widely, displaying all of his teeth at once, and said:
"From what I understand, his household had always been run by his maternal grandmother, who had been something of a matriarch. Having recently lost her to old age, Mr. Way is to step up as head of household. Apparently, buying Bray Manor was step one in his acquaintance with being, for all intents and purposes, master of his estate."
Frank could not help but smile at the thought of odd and mysterious Mr. Way – whom he was picturing as a thin and sickly youth, with pale features and hair, and red-rimmed eyes, trailed by an identical youth, only smaller – attempting to follow in his grandmother's footsteps, and stumbling on the first try.
"Well, in that case – I shall be happy to escort you to this interesting affair you are engaged in." Frank bowed his head for emphasis, and laughed along with his friend.
The rest of the evening passed without much notice for Frank, and he was only too grateful to sink into his bed afterwards, pressing his toes happily to the spot that had only recently been warmed by the maid's heating iron. As much as Frank believed a lot of society's rules to be unjust and simply too sanctimonious for his own tastes, he could not quite bring himself to dislike being waited upon by men and women much more skilled at life than himself.
It was not until Monday evening that Frank remembered about his engagement. It startled him to receive a note from Raymond, reminding him of what time they were to head over to the house beyond the lake. He could not even call it his own engagement, for he had never actually received an invitation.
He had checked with the servants the day after the ball, and no messages had come for him that he had not seen or heard with his own two eyes and ears.
Looking at Raymond's note now, he chewed his lip and wondered just what he was getting himself into. Mystery or no, it appeared that Mr. Way had already caused a lot more trouble than was probably worth around these parts, and after his own near-misadventures in London, Frank was quite ready to lead a quiet life for a while, with no adventures of any kind.
However, he trusted Raymond not to lead him astray. Always solidly dependable, Raymond Toro owned the hearts and minds of all of Cumbria, it seemed. Frank had seen Raymond grow from a timid youth to a man of integrity and talent, and he was the safest escort a friend could wish for.
Making up his mind at last, Frank scribbled a hasty reply, and had Maurice deliver it to the Toro house before sun-down.
The next evening found him going through his usual routine of trying on every article of clothing he owned – including some shirts and trousers that had only fit him as a child – and discarding every single one as completely unworthy. Frank, of course, had no idea what he was to find on the other side of that lake, but he wanted to be prepared for it, regardless. Thompson had taken most of this in stride, having occupied the post of Frank's valet for more than two years now. He knew Frank well.
It took them roughly an hour, but Frank finally settled on an outfit worthy of a strange newcomer's house, and gave himself one final look in the mirror as Thompson fiddled with his collar. He saw the door creak open behind their reflections, and smiled at his mother's greeting.
"You have chosen at last, I see." She walked over to his side as Thompson retreated, her hands reaching out to mindlessly work over the wrinkles in Frank's suit, straighten out his cuffs, and pick imaginary lint off of his sleeve. "You look very handsome."
Her face was the picture of light, and Frank's stomach churned slightly at what a bad son he truly was, beneath it all. He nodded and thanked her. Then he bid Thompson to leave them.
"Now, Frank." His mother's reflection turned towards him as soon as they were alone, and he followed her mirrored gaze to the one watching him now in the warm light. "I have heard strange things about this young man. While I am not one to pass judgment on anybody I have never met, I merely urge you to be – careful. Guarded, perhaps." She paused, watching his face. "Will you do that for me?"
He looked into her eyes, so very much like his very own, and nodded. "Of course, mother. Always."
She smiled at that, and brushed her hands over his shoulders one more time. "Very well, my dear. Off you go, and enjoy yourself. My best to Raymond."
Frank felt less encumbered as he descended the stairs, walked out into the chilly night air, and was greeted by Raymond's barouche, the horses braying in the glittering light of the lanterns. Their huffing breaths were a greeting all their own.
"Are you quite prepared to meet our mysterious messiah?" Raymond asked him, as he whipped the horses around and they began their trot.
"Oh, quite," Frank answered, laughing. "Do you think he is quite prepared to meet the rest of society?"
Raymond's laughter echoed in the night air as they galloped farther and farther afield.
The first thought that came to Frank's mind upon seeing Bray Manor was how strangely gothic it all appeared, so unlike his own parents' brighter, more modern home.
His gaze wandered around the turrets and dark corners that greeted them around the hedge. It was a beautiful place, but quite intimidating and almost frightening-looking from the first glance.
However, even with the cold architecture, one could not help but feel at ease when setting eyes on the lit windows, bright with chandeliers and candles, all concentrated on the first floor of the house.
Frank allowed his gaze to wander upwards, to the darkened windows of the upper stories, the juts of the architecture sharp and at the same time weathered; old. Frank was instantly taken by a single window, hidden directly underneath the roof. There was a candle flickering on the windowsill, and although he saw no shadow move within, he felt a human presence, unnerving and exciting all at once.
Meanwhile, Raymond allowed his horses to be led away, and the two of them descended towards the main path to the house.
"What do you think?" Frank asked as they neared the parade door.
Raymond chewed on his lip, then smiled in a very reassuring manner. "Whatever happens, I have a feeling this will not be a dull evening."
Frank felt nearly giddy as he grinned in response, and followed his friend inside.
The light was almost too much in contrast with the darkness outside, and whatever he had imagined from seeing the stark walls of the manor, he had not been prepared for such a lovely sight. The house was – there was really only one way to describe it, and a quite odd way, at that – exceptionally cosy. No man could walk inside and not feel at ease at once.
Frank was never one for paying too much attention to his surroundings. He was used to his parents' quiet splendour, to the muted architecture of his own home in London. This felt somehow different, as if a true artist had walked around the home and made it all that it could be. These thoughts struck Frank as extremely silly, but he knew that had he tried to make a home his own, he would have wanted exactly this to be his forever.
He asked Raymond for his reaction, and received one of those Raymond Toro smiles that had so many of the young ladies in town swooning with delight. "This is quite pleasant, isn't it, Frank!"
"It is!" Frank answered, finding surprise in his voice, still. "Why, look, the pianoforte is simply stunning."
They entered the hustle and bustle of the party. Frank believed it to be the drawing room of the house, and it was the largest drawing room he had ever seen. The chairs were arranged all along the wall, with space of a ballroom to spare. As he watched, he realised that most of the guests were around his age, and none of his parents' friends seemed to be in attendance. Young ladies and young men conversed in all corners of the room, and Frank wondered at the daring of simply disregarding half of society. He craned his head to see if he could, perhaps, make out the owner and sole cause of such a peculiar get-together.
"Can you see him?" he asked Raymond, who was nearly a full head taller than Frank himself. "Have you any clue as to who he might be?"
Raymond shook his head and then jumped as somebody came up behind them and coughed politely. Frank and Raymond both turned immediately, and Frank's thoughts seemed to halt all at once, the buzzing conversations around him ceasing to his ears.
Mr. Way was certainly not at all what he had been expecting.
The man who stood before them was of average height, but that was where his similarities to most other men ceased. His dark hair was longer than Frank's own, and it fanned out in strange patterns around his head. If Frank had ever attempted to have his hair be that length, no doubt it would have made him look deranged, however it looked quite becoming on Mr. Way. His eyes were an expressive green, and he looked healthier – if not just as pale – and quite a bit more handsome than Frank had imagined him. In fact, Frank found him dashing.
When Mr. Way smiled and spoke for the first time, Frank was unsure how to make his heart unclench within his chest. He was unsure of anything at all. Mr. Way had the most disarming and genuine smile Frank had ever seen, next to Raymond. Better, somehow, because it was so new.
"Raymond Toro, I presume?" Mr. Way asked, and immediately, Frank saw Raymond's hand reach out and shake Mr. Way's.
"Indeed, I am! Mr. Way?"
"Indeed. Welcome to my humble abode." Mr. Way turned his gaze on Frank, and tilted his head. "Mr. Iero, I believe. The word of your friendship with Mr. Toro has reached many an ear in this county."
Frank's hand was between Mr. Way's own before he had even consented to lift it. Warm and solid, he thought, before he felt nothing with his fingers but air. He merely nodded in greeting, certain that he would be unable to find his voice in time.
"Tell me," Mr. Way leaned in. "What have I not heard of this place yet, that you could impart upon me? It appears that as soon as there is news, there is gossip, and gossip is something with which I have a rather tumultuous relationship." His smile spoke of his teasing, and Frank was fairly certain that no man or woman alive would be able to look at that smile, and not grant one back.
His voice returned to him, and he was finally able to speak. "Indeed, I believe the questions should be all ours, Mr. Way. For weeks, we have heard of nothing else but of your joining our society. It has been as if the world had fallen by the wayside, in fact."
Mr. Way laughed easily, Frank learned, and he found himself laughing just as easily back. "I apologise, gentlemen. I certainly never meant to incur such a violent storm of gossip and speculation. I had mistakenly believed that a country life was quieter than that of the city." He looked around them for a second, then shook his head. "Thus, my move up here, of course. I see that perhaps I should have investigated these parts further before making the final decision."
Frank could feel his cheeks growing hot. "Oh, please - that is –" He stumbled over his own tongue in a rush. "That had not been intended as an admonishment, in any way, merely a comment upon –"
He sensed Raymond's questioning gaze over him, but all Frank could concentrate on was Mr. Way and the way his eyebrows drew together, as if in concern, as he interrupted Frank's own halting words.
"Do not trouble yourself, Mr. Iero, I felt absolutely no offense," he assured him, putting a gentle hand on Frank's arm for a quick moment before retreating. "I believe that we have found a similar enemy, or at least a tedious neighbour, in gossip." He tilted his head as Frank forced an answering smile from his lips, embarrassed deeply by his own blunder.
"I believe you may be correct," Frank nodded, then looked towards his friend for aid, once more finding his footing. "Raymond and I sometimes appear to be the only two people for miles who would rather discuss such topics as the arts, rather than speculate upon the size of a neighbour's estate."
Raymond laughed, giving Frank a teasing look. "That seems rather ungenerous, but unfortunately," he turned towards Mr. Way, "it appears to be the truth. Regardless, we are happy to have a new face around these parts. I've been told you have moved here with a young brother?"
"Oh, yes!" Mr. Way's face lit up with a smile so blinding, Frank felt almost sick to his stomach with it, but before he could do anything else, Mr. Way had caught a young man by the arm and stood him in front of Frank and Raymond. "Mr. Toro, Mr. Iero, please meet my brother, Michael."
The young man before them was just as good-looking as his brother, though his face more angular, his eyes more guarded. He gave them each a smile and a shake of the hand, nodding shyly. Frank was pleased with his demeanour, reserved and open all at once. He did not seem flustered as perhaps Frank might have been, had he been pulled away from his previous engagement, to greet two strangers, albeit at a party intended just for such activities.
"My pleasure," Michael said in a voice deeper than his brother's.
"Very pleased to meet you," both Ray and Frank echoed. A rather awkward silence descended upon them before being broken by Raymond clearing his throat, and engaging the two brothers on the intention and length of their stay at Bray Manor.
Frank was content to allow Raymond to speak and ask questions, as if they were his own.
They were both delighted to learn that the two brothers were both musically inclined, although Michael believed himself to be a mere dabbler, while his brother, from the sounds of it, was quite the virtuoso.
Mr. Way shook his head at that, letting them know that Michael was merely being modest. Both Frank and Ray assured them that they were extremely happy to hear of their musical abilities, for they both were rather fond of music, as well, to the exclusion of most other arts.
"Raymond here," Frank interjected, "is the most gifted pianoforte player I have ever met. And, believe me, I have met more than my share of musicians, from London to Rome. His is the most elegant style," he said.
"You are too kind," Raymond smiled. "But I am pleased to hear you say so."
Frank turned back to the brothers. "I'm afraid we are keeping you from your other guests," he noted, seeing more than one curious face glancing in their direction.
"Oh?" Mr. Way looked about him with a rather disinterested countenance, as if the thought had never crossed his mind. "I suppose that I am being a rather ungracious host. What do you think, Michael? Should we make another round?"
Frank watched as Michael gave his shoulders a quick shrug, and looked about them. "Can they not entertain themselves?"
Frank and Raymond exchanged an amused glance. Frank was starting to see where the odd rumours of the two were coming from.
"Well," Mr. Way said with a soft sigh, "I suppose they could, but that was not the point of this party. If you will excuse us, gentlemen," he nodded at Frank and Raymond, putting a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Please," he added, looking directly at Frank since the first introduction. "Do not go too far, I would love another chance for a conversation. And do enjoy yourselves – it turns out, I am a lot more invested in being a good host than I had anticipated. Try the dessert – it is exquisite."
With that, the two young men walked off and were immediately swallowed by the crowd.
Frank looked at Raymond. Raymond looked at Frank. The laugh they exchanged was equally baffled and pleased. The Way brothers were certainly going to make for interesting additions to Cumbria.
The rest of the evening passed in a manner vastly different from most countryside parties. At no point did Frank find himself being presented to a young lady in a way that a horse might be led up to a potential buyer, and, what surprised him most, was how little he wished to leave the brightly lit rooms and hide in his own bedroom, under the covers with a good book.
Mr. Way, for all his apparent eccentricities, was showing himself to be a wonderful host. Frank and Raymond spent the majority of their time in each other's company, moving from conversation to conversation. More than once Frank saw Raymond glancing around, his gaze landing on the pianoforte that had yet to be played, until he gave his friend a gentle nudge.
"Go on. I have a feeling Mr. Way would be delighted," he whispered.
"Don't you think he would have offered by now? It is rather odd that nobody has played it yet," Raymond replied, eyes concerned, hands twitchy by his sides.
"Perhaps he simply forgot to make an invitation – remember, I never even received one for the party," Frank reminded him.
After a moment's pause, Raymond drew in a decisive breath and excused himself from their present company, nervously tugging on his cuffs. Frank exchanged a glance with Miss Christine and smiled at her delighted grin. Sometimes Frank wondered if he was the only one who could see how much Miss Christine enjoyed Raymond's company.
When the pianoforte sounded, most other conversations ceased almost immediately. Raymond started out with a bright happy tune, one that would not require much attention – or had, perhaps, been intended as such. However, being the skilled musician that he was, he brought to the piece an almost melancholy touch, one that clearly had an effect on the majority of those present. Heads turned, and soon, Frank saw Mr. Way stride through the crowd, looking mesmerised and haunted, all at once.
For a moment, Frank wondered if he and Raymond had committed a blunder, and Mr. Way was attempting to find a way to put a stop to the music, but no. The longer Frank watched the more convinced he grew that Mr. Way had been drawn into the music, as most others present. He had stopped short of leaning on the pianoforte, but he watched almost without blinking as Raymond's hands danced over the keys.
For a moment, Frank found his stomach tied into knots he could not explain.
Then, the feeling passed, and he contended himself with listening as the last measures faded away into a stunned silence. After a brief pause, the room roared into applause, and Frank clapped just as loudly as Miss Christine beside him, her fan fluttering over her wrist.
Mr. Way and Michael both surrounded Raymond. Frank could not make out what they were saying over the din of the crowd, but Raymond's beaming smile told him all that he needed to know. He felt extremely pleased for his friend.
He knew that Raymond would not be offended if Frank escaped out into the garden for a breath of fresh air, and so he took the first opportunity to do so, as soon as Raymond had started up another piece. This was a piece they both disagreed on, in fact, Frank believing it to be over-composed and didactic, while Raymond schooled him on his ignorance and attempted to explain that the mechanical efficiency required to render it more than made up for any lack of heart.
Frank smiled to himself as he exited through the garden doors.
The night was cool, and the open doors meant that Frank could still hear Raymond's music from outdoors. He had not realised how overheated the rooms had become until he was out here, enjoying lungfuls of fresh air.
He had missed this, back in London. Although his rooms stood very near a park, London always had a closed-in feel, even when one was surrounded by nothing but trees and lawn. Horses trampled all around, their clicking and clacking like an orchestra over the entire city. Out here, everything moved slower, less frantic; the noises were muted by all the distance and breadth.
There were times when he missed the city, and then there were times like these, when he knew that moving away from it all – away from the temptations of anonymous alleyways, away from too-knowing glances, away from being his own precarious guardian – had been the best choice. The countryside reminded him, once more, what free air tasted like.
His hair being ruffled by the breeze, Frank got to his feet and walked deeper into the garden. In the dark, it looked mysterious, like the rest of the house had, when they had first rounded the bend. The hedge all around the lawn was high, protecting Frank from being seen by whatever fields lay outside of the grounds. The space was large, however, and felt vast. Over one corner presided a statue – he could not quite make out what it was, but imagined it to look quite a bit like Zeus, perhaps, powerful and majestic. He was known, however, to have terrible eyesight, so it could have even been Athena and he would have been none the wiser.
Frank wandered through the garden until the music changed. He could not quite tell what it was, only that it sounded vastly different, and when he turned around, he saw Raymond's outline in the doorway. Somebody else was now commandeering the pianoforte.
"Mr. Way," Raymond told him as Frank approached. "I believed you would wish to hear him."
Frank smiled, and followed his friend in.
Mr. Way played very differently from Raymond. He had none of Raymond's precision, but he had the feeling, which appeared to more than make up for the lack of exceptional skill. He was quite good. The instrument sounded sad and thoughtful under his ministrations, quite unlike Raymond's airs, and in opposition to the mood the party had taken earlier.
Mr. Way did not open his eyes once, and his mouth was pursed into a barely contained grimace. He was clearly concentrating on the sounds rather than the direction his hands were taking, and Frank found himself being able to tell exactly which chords pleased Mr. Way, and which left his eyebrows pinched in annoyance. His ability to express was extraordinary.
Frank found himself spellbound, torn between watching Mr. Way's hands flying over the keys of the beautiful instrument and his face, reacting to the music, up until the very last note. Applause woke him from his stupor and he clapped along with the other guests, masking his own confusion with exuberance. He caught Raymond's eye but Raymond had not appeared to have noticed anything amiss.
So much the better. Frank allowed himself to be pushed slightly back, disappear into the crowd and compose himself before he could think any further on anything. He made his way over to the servant holding a drink tray and picked up a cool glass of champagne before draining half of it in one go.
"What a performance!"
Frank wondered, turning back towards the gathered party, how much of the guests' enthusiasm was genuine, and how much rabid curiosity about their host. For himself, he did not dare to wonder.
Instead, after finishing off his drink, he went in search of the washroom and a bit of a cool down. The room had grown stuffy in the last half hour, and he had imbibed the champagne rather fast.
Before long, Raymond was kissing Miss Christine's hand and Frank knew the party was coming to an end. He was rather grateful. It had been great gaiety, but now he felt tired and strange, and wanted nothing more than to be once more. He waited, hands clasped at his back, as Raymond made his goodbye, noting the blush on Miss Christine's beautifully dimpled cheeks.
"So, Mr. Iero, I hope you enjoyed yourself fully?"
Mr. Way's voice in his ear startled Frank more than was warranted, perhaps. He hoped his surprise did not show, however, as he turned a quick smile towards their host.
"Of course, Mr. Way. This was – marvelous, truly." He wasn't fibbing, for, despite his exhaustion and desire to be home, he could not remember the last time a large gathering of people did not leave him feeling lonely and out of sorts in a way he could not pinpoint. "The entertainment, in particular," he said, "was delightful."
Mr. Way stood so close to him, Frank found himself speaking in a low voice so as to simply not overwhelm his companion.
"I am very happy to hear it," Mr. Way replied in a similarly quiet tone. "I admit, I was rather nervous about the idea, but Michael had been convinced it would be the right thing to do." Mr. Way's smile brightened. "He is never wrong, I must remember that."
Frank smiled back. "Indeed, so far, he has proven himself beyond the pale. I do hope," he added, sincerely, "that this will not be the last experiment of this kind."
Mr. Way ducked his head and Frank heard a huff of laughter escape before Mr. Way pinned him with an amused gaze. "I sincerely hope not."
"Mr. Way, thank you so much for such a delightful evening." Raymond's voice intruded on them and Frank took the chance to step back, feeling rather warm in the clutch of people moving all round them. "Truly, this was wonderful. And I cannot say enough for your beautiful instrument."
Mr. Way's laugh seemed genuine and artless. "My dear Mr. Toro, you flatter both me and my instrument. It does not get nearly as much use as it should, but now that I know you, I am certain all will benefit."
"Oh?" Raymond's voice contained the hope that Frank dared not breathe.
"I hope," Mr. Way continued, "I am not being too forward, but I would be pleased indeed, if you were to visit and teach me some more technique, or even simply play for Michael and myself."
Frank looked over at Raymond, who was looking fit to burst.
"Of course! I should be delighted, truly, Mr. Way."
"Wonderful!" Mr. Way's eyes shone in the bright light, and then his gaze was back on Frank. "And Mr. Iero, I would be more than happy to include you in the party, for I have heard of your talents on the cello."
Frank found himself unable to respond, but Raymond answered for him. "Of course he will join us. Believe me, Mr. Way, you have neither seen nor heard anything as special as Frank on the cello."
Frank found his voice enough to say, "Flattery will get you everywhere, my friend. I'm afraid, though, Mr. Way, that Raymond exaggerates my talents."
"However, it would be a great pleasure to play for you and your brother." Frank gave a small nod, and fleetingly noticed Mr. Way's pleased smile.
It took another round of effusive goodbyes, but at last, they were in Raymond's carriage, heading west. The sky was filled with stars, a clear spring night that whipped Frank's hair with its breeze and smoothed its cooling hand across his skin.
"Ah, darling, there you are!" His mother greeted Frank as soon as he joined his parents for breakfast. His father's furrowed brow and lowered head indicated that he was displeased with something. His mustache moved ominously as he consumed his steak.
"Good morning," Frank said as he took his place across from Mother. "Father," he nodded as Maurice filled his cup with coffee.
His father put down his fork and gave Frank a look. "Had a good time, did you?"
"Y-yes," Frank answered, uncertain as to which particular aspect of his going out with Raymond had woken his father's capricious anger. He chose to stay the course of uninhibited innocence. "It was a very pleasant night, thank you."
"I'm glad," his mother offered, with the merest of glances at his father. "How – how did you find Mr. Way?"
Ah. Of course. He had trod on dangerous territory by even accepting the invitation. Frank took a sip of his coffee and sat back in his chair, as if fully at ease and unaware. "I found him to be a charming host to a charming gathering." He had addressed his father, but now turned back to Mother, his father's furrowed brow speaking for itself. "You should have seen his estate, Mother. It is quite delightful. He's got the most beautiful garden –"
"He isn't to be trusted." His father's voice had no need to rise – as soon as he spoke, Frank fell silent and both he and Mother turned their heads to look at him. His father looked at Frank with something that almost resembled love. Not kindness, but something else that made Frank frown and look down. "You should know better than not to trust gossip, Frank. You don't know as much of society as your mother and I do. Mr. Way brings with him bad blood."
"Bad blood?" Frank couldn't help asking, his skin growing hot. "And what is that, does he bleed green?"
His father's knife clattered onto the plate. "It means he is not to be trusted. That is all. Now," his father pushed away from the table. "If you will excuse me, I have some business to attend to."
Frank watched the greasy stain his father's lips had left on his napkin for a long moment before his mother spoke. "Do not toy with your father, Frank. He only wants the best for you."
Frank felt heavy waves of anger and helplessness wash over him. "He treats me like a child," he ground out. "I am twenty-three years of age. I believe myself to be a sound judge of character when I – when I choose to be. If Mr. Way is good enough for Raymond, he is good enough for me."
His mother's hands were clasped in front of her, her breakfast quite forgotten. They watched each other for a long, silent moment before she drew a sigh and lifted her hands to her cheeks. "If you say so, so it shall be," she said quietly.
Frank felt his eyebrow quirk in surprise. He barely stopped himself from blurting out, "Really?" and instead, put his palms down on the table, preparing to push away. "Thank you, Mother," he said softly.
She nodded and picked up her fork.
Frank exited the dining room as quietly as he could manage, only realising after he'd gone that he was still quite hungry and a fool, at that.
Frank had loved Sweet Pea ever since he broke her in five years ago. She had been his gift from his parents on the occasion of his eighteenth birthday, but she had proven to be a difficult mare. His father had joked that she was going through her difficult years just as Frank had been, and this was his way of returning the favour. In defiance, Frank had named her the sweetest name he could come up with.
With patience and a lot of stubbornness of his own, he had managed to make her yield when nobody else had been able to. In his years of London living, he had missed her powerful frame, the steady feel of her beneath him.
He rode hard today, and Sweet Pea, sensing his mood, took him further and further from home, galloping over the wet roads and covering them both in mud. When Frank was certain they had to be at least three miles away, he permitted her to slow to a trot and led them to a nearby brook. While Sweet Pea drank, Frank allowed himself to sag down to the ground and have a nice, long brood.
Perhaps the move back to his childhood home had been a mistake, after all.
He never really got caught, not by the law. He never intended to get caught by the law, ever. His parents' belief in his inability of looking after himself paralysed him at first, knowing how close he had come to utter ruin, but now it merely stifled his every breath, his every movement.
Frank leaned his head back against the tree and attempted to examine his situation. His return to his parents' home had been accompanied by his father's take-over of Frank's own assets. He was bound now.
Frank knew what his parents had intended: a wife. Once Frank proved himself capable of returning to society, he was to wed, and in that time, his father would once more allow him control of what was rightfully his.
If only things were so simple. If only his life could be as uncomplicated as his parents'.
Sweet Pea whinnied and moved until she bumped her head against Frank's, her hot breath fanning over his face and whistling through his hair. Frank smiled and allowed his hand to wander over her soft neck, shutting his eyes. "What do you think, Sweet Pea? Could we make it on a farthing? How far would we get, do you think?"
She whinnied again and licked his cheek, rough tongue meeting his stubble. Frank swatted at her and began to rise, his knees protesting the uncomfortable position. "You're right," he said when they were eye to eye, her reins firmly in his grasp. "I am rather pathetic. How about a nice stroll back?"
Sweet Pea huffed out her agreement and lowered herself until he could mount.
If Mr. Way were not to be trusted as an upstanding member of society, he was definitely to be trusted for the occasion of surprise. When Frank awoke two days after the now infamous soiree, his correspondence tray already contained a note, addressed in unfamiliar writing.
I trust that two days after our first meeting is sufficient time for me to request the honour of your company, and ask that you dine with Michael and I tonight at our home. I have also extended the invitation to Mr. Toro.
(I have been informed by several parties in the last few days that an invitation must be extended to every member of the party, and thus I also proffer a mea culpa for never extending one to you as regards to my gathering. I do hope you can forgive me my slight, and allow me to appear not as a dotty neighbour but a man who sometimes forgets his manners but means them in his heart.)
Hoping to see you soon,
Gerard Way, social pariah
Frank laughed as he got dressed and wrote a swift reply to Mr. Way accepting his invitation, and another to Raymond, letting him know of his plans.
Wishing to keep his good temper, Frank told his parents of his evening plans as if it were a dinner with Raymond alone, before retiring to the library with his latest acquisition.
His plans made, Frank waited until the sun began to set to dress himself for company, and went to the stables to ready Sweet Pea. He did not want a carriage on such a beautiful and warm evening.
His arrival at the Way house was much less impressive than last time. No crowded gathering, no bright lights adorning the downstairs, no fuss. It was simply Mr. Way greeting him at the door and giving care of Sweet Pea over to the footman, before escorting Frank to the dining room, where a small party of Raymond and the younger Mr. Way had already gathered.
Mr. Way and Michael both appeared a lot more relaxed tonight than last Tuesday eve. As Frank said his hellos and attempted to feel comfortable, he noted the easy smile playing on Michael's lips, so different from the other night, and Mr. Way giving simple and easy instruction to the servants.
Raymond was already taking careful sips of the proffered wine. Frank joined him.
"So, Mr. Toro," Mr. Way began as he took a sip of his own drink. "What is the origin of your name?"
Frank covered up his sudden laugh with another sip of the wine, but, apparently he had not been quick enough.
"Oh, I'm sorry – did I speak out of turn?" Mr. Way asked, looking quite dismayed as Raymond waved his hand.
"Not at all, not at all – I believe that Frank," Raymond said with a pointed look at Frank, "Is simply used to this being the first thing I'm asked around these parts."
"Ah. I get no points for originality, then," Mr. Way smiled and leaned back in his chair as he took the first bite of the roast.
"I do apologise," Frank said, knowing that he was quite probably blushing for having blundered. "I believe you get points for candour."
"This is not unusual for Gerard," Michael piped up, taking a prim bite from his own plate. "He is not known for his tact."
"Or delicacy, I'm afraid," Mr. Way admitted, smiling at his guests. "My grandmother always said that it was my upbringing abroad. Apparently, Italy did terrible things to my manners at a crucial age."
"Italy?" Frank asked, his ears perking up. "I spent some time there, visiting my father's family."
"So, you are Italian," Mr. Way smiled, turning his full attention to Frank. "I had thought so!"
"I'm afraid it is rather difficult to hide," Frank replied with a smile.
"True enough," Mr. Way answered in kind. "But did you know that Michael and I are part-Italian as well?"
"Is that so?"
"Oh, I'm afraid it is. Our grandmother was of some nobility in Italy, and had the misfortune of falling in love with an Englishman," Mr. Way said, a smile still playing on his lips as he addressed Frank and Raymond.
"The misfortune?" Raymond asked, echoing Frank's thoughts.
"Oh, yes, it was terribly romantic, you see," Mr. Way replied, gaining a sort of intensity that Frank imagined came from having a remarkable tale to tell and having told it many times already. Frank stole a glance at Michael, who watched his brother indulgently, sipping his wine and letting the events unfold. Frank turned back to their host. "My grandmother was very young, then, just about fifteen, sixteen. Her suitor was a university student, studying art in Florence. The two met at some garden, my grandmother taking a walk with her governess, while her soon-to-be-beloved was painting flowers."
Frank settled in for the story, which had all the promise (and even premise) of Romeo and Juliet.
"Was he poor?" Raymond asked.
"Oh, yes." Mr. Way's eyes got almost bigger than his smile. "Well, poor by her family's standards, of course. He was well off enough to be able to study in Italy and not subsist on bread and beans."
"Of course," Raymond smiled.
"Of course," Mr. Way grinned. "It was, as my grandmother would tell it, love at first sight. Her governess, fearing repercussions, forbade the two to meet again, but the boy – I should probably spoil the ending and tell you that he was, in fact, my grandfather – refused. Having read one novel too many, he even went as far as attempting to scale my grandmother's balcony wall, having, obviously, followed her and her governess home in secret."
Everybody's dinner sat forgotten, and Frank noticed that even the servants, who had to know the story by now, stood in rapt attention. He bit back a smile and continued to listen, chin in hand. The wine went along with the tale splendidly.
"Did he get caught climbing that wall?" Raymond asked.
Mr. Way sighed. "Of course he did. My grandfather was a good man, but not overly sensible, you see. The gardener saw him and raised the alarm. My grandmother did not see him for a year after that, and pined and pined. Her parents even went as far as to forbid walks in the garden unless she had a veil over her face, for she was considered to be a tremendous beauty by all who knew her."
It was clear to Frank that Mr. Way was not exaggerating. He had seen her portrait hanging in the entrance, and from it he knew that her grandsons both took after her. Frank frowned as soon as the thought crossed his mind, but it was too late to erase it. He forced himself to listen to Mr. Way's voice again.
"My grandfather, however, was not to be put off. Having seen and spoken with Elena only twice in his entire life, he was a man obsessed," Mr. Way went on.
"Or at least severely infatuated," Michael piped up.
"Indeed," Mr. Way allowed with a gesture at his brother. "In the year they were separated he was determined to amass as much wealth and status as an Englishman at the time could hope to. Not, I hasten to add, that it was impossible for Englishmen to have tremendous fortune, of course. But he went into the Navy and somehow managed to impress enough officers and climb up the ranks."
"How – how did he manage to leave?" Frank asked. "Desertion?"
Mr. Way's smile spread. "He never left. He took a leave, and went back to Italy, hoping against hope that young Elena still remembered him. As an officer in the British Navy with a certain amount of real wealth to his name, he was vastly more appealing to my great-grandparents. Besides, Elena had tired her parents out by the end," he laughed. "She was a very dramatic young soul, and shunned every suitor who came to court her. In the end, her parents were more than happy to allow the marriage to take place, she became a Navy wife, and after his retirement, they settled in Sussex."
Frank took it all in. "That is terribly romantic," he said. "Were they – were they happy?"
"You mean to ask, of course, did they actually have enough in common to make for a lasting union that spanned decades and spawned several generations of half-Italians," Mr. Way teased. "The answer is yes, believe it or not. Elena was headstrong and independent both as a child and an adult. Thomas, my grandfather, appreciated that and encouraged it." Mr. Way's tone changed from amusing narrator to a musing grandson.
"I am sorry to hear of her recent passing," Frank ventured, hoping that he was not treading on too fragile a territory. Mr. Way gave him a small smile in answer.
"Thank you, Mr. Iero. She lived well beyond the years anybody could ever hope to achieve. She was nearly eighty years of age, you know, and outlived my grandfather by sixteen."
"She sounds like a remarkable woman," Raymond said.
"She was," Michael replied and smiled at his brother. "But I'm afraid my brother has kept us all from our dinners with his tales of adventure. Gerard, the roast's gone totally cold."
"Oh!" Mr. Way's eyes widened and he spread out his hands. "I am so sorry. Allow me to make it up to you by doing what I had always dreamt of doing as a child."
Frank and Raymond exchanged glances.
"I suggest we go on straight to dessert and have second helpings of each," Mr. Way beamed.
Dessert, in this case, also implied a change of venue, and thus they found themselves in an adjoining drawing room Frank had not yet seen.
The sweets were served on massive silver trays, and every morsel looked gorgeous. Dark chocolates, marzipan in all the colours of the rainbow and as many different shapes, cakes of three varieties, sweet buns – it was one of the most spectacular displays of indulgence Frank had ever encountered.
"My word," he uttered, struck dumb enough that he could not find a better word.
"Indeed," Raymond said beside him as their host ushered them in and invited them to sit. "Do you dine like this every night, Mr. Way?" Raymond asked as they took their careful seats across from one another.
Mr. Way laughed and ran a hand through his hair, which led him to rather resemble every bust and portrait of Beethoven Frank had ever seen. "It is my only vice," he said, as if in admission.
"Hmm," Michael uttered as he took his place at an armchair closest to the fire. "Only?"
"Oh, all right, not the only." Mr. Way glared at Michael, but it was feeble and unconvincing. Frank and Raymond once more found themselves sharing amused glances. "But it is one of the few I've got left," he clarified and snatched a fondant from the tray, nearly upsetting the delicate balance of the whole structure. He licked his fingers, clearly disregarding the napkin a servant had had the foresight to place in front of him, and nodded in their direction. "Please! Have some. God knows, I already made your dinners grow cold, we can't let these treats go to waste!"
Frank did not need asking twice. He dove at the chocolates as carefully as manners would permit, and the next moment, all four were silently enjoying dessert. Frank's stomach growled, very much aware of the skipped meal, and he hoped that the sound of everybody else chewing had managed to cover it up.
"This marzipan is amazing," Raymond said after a moment, swallowing down his tea. "It isn't local, is it?"
"Gods, no," Mr. Way laughed, his tea cup clacking merrily against its saucer. "No, I brought that back from Germany – that's where I was before we made the move up here."
"Yes, I had been visiting an artist I had met on a journey once. He was kind enough to invite me to stay with him for a while, touring the country and all manner of historical sites."
Frank finished his chocolate before saying, "You seem to have traveled an inordinate amount." He hoped his envy did not reveal itself too nakedly. He, himself, often wished to get away more frequently than his parents permitted.
Mr. Way turned thoughtful and finally made use of his napkin, placing the unfinished fondant atop it before answering. "I know. I am exceptionally lucky to have had the means, and no ties, really. Apart, of course, from Michael," he indicated with his hand, "who has joined me on most of my journeys. And our grandmother, who – well. She loved getting my daily letters." His voice grew soft and kind. Frank had so many more questions, such as where their parents fit into all of this, but decided that perhaps those could wait. When he glanced at Michael, even more bubbled up to the surface, for the look on his face was one of a strangely inquisitive sadness.
"That is lucky," he noted, instead. "I have only been to the Continent once, to visit a few of my father's distant relations. It was stunning, of course."
"Where in Italy, if you do not mind telling me?"
Frank smiled and clasped his hands around his knees. "Not at all. My father comes from Sicily, so off we went," Frank said, and when prompted by Mr. Way, dove into his memories as best he could.
Raymond never did get a chance to play Mr. Way's pianoforte that night, nor tell him all about his own heritage. However, he did extract from him a promise of a future visit – one that, Frank could plainly see, was not granted out of mere politeness.
Mr. Way bid them good night even as they each mounted a horse. Michael, Frank saw before Sweet Pea trod off after Raymond's, stood at his brother's side and gave them each a small, pleased smile.
Frank flashed one of his own and turned towards the road, intent on enjoying the brisk night air even as it whipped the wind all over his skin.
Music had sorely been missing from Frank's life for a while. He'd left James and his violin behind in London, and while his parents owned a gorgeous pianoforte, nobody but Frank ever played it, and he only in those rare times when his parents were gone out somewhere.
Something about being overheard stopped his desire to play, for the sound traveled, no matter how softly he played.
Sometimes, Margaret would steal a few moments to tinkle out a tune, but Frank never allowed himself to listen, for he knew that should she find out that any of the masters of the house could hear her, she should never play again. He did not have the heart to stop her.
All of that seemed to change as his and Raymond's acquaintance with the two Mr. Ways began to grow into something more.
"Come, Frank," Mr. Way urged on a rainy evening. "May I call you Frank? Please, allow us all the pleasure of listening to you play."
The younger Mr. Way's cello was promptly maneuvered into Frank's grasp. He laughed, examining the beautiful instrument, then allowed his fingers to run all up and down the curved neck and grasping the bow Michael had lain next to Frank on the chair.
He closed his eyes, and began with something he knew so well, he could play it with no advance practice at all.
Bach's Cello Suite Number 1 flowed out from the instrument. The sound was deep, gorgeous, and reflected the weather that raged outside the beautiful walls of Bray Manor.
Frank breathed deeply as the sound filled their quiet room, and all other sounds ceased. Even the fire lit for coziness hardly made a crackle as the cello between his legs came alive with his playing. Frank's heart beat hard against his ribs as one movement turned into another, and the Prelude turned into Allemande, less frantic but no less beautiful for it.
Frank loved Bach, loved the gravitas his notes lent to the very air around him as he played. His mother preferred lighter sonatas, and grew melancholy if he overplayed his favourites, but Frank did not share her feelings. If he wished for melancholy, he played Beethoven.
When the last note graced the air, he lowered the bow and opened his eyes. His gaze ran across Raymond, beaming at him as he always did whenever Frank performed for him, then Michael, whose expression was more difficult to read, but who started to applaud as soon as their gazes met. Mr. Way was simply watching Frank back, his eyebrows drawn up at first, then melting into a more neutral expression. But Frank could tell, he had moved him. He gave them each a smile and cleared his throat.
"I apologise. I'm afraid I rather got carried away."
Michael smiled at him, "There is never a need for apology as far as music is concerned in this house, Frank. That was astonishing, truly. Wasn't it, Gerard?"
Mr. Way started, as if surprised anybody was aware of him, and smiled. "It truly was. It was beautiful. I am simply – out of words."
Frank felt the incipient blush on his cheeks and ducked his head, gripping the instrument harder. "I appreciate Michael allowing me the use of this gorgeous instrument. We must play a duet sometime," he said, and Michael nodded.
"Absolutely," Mr. Way said. "For now, however, might we trouble you and Raymond for one? I believe we would both love to hear you play. You must do so beautifully, no?"
Frank raised his eyebrows in Raymond's direction. "Shall we?"
Raymond had clearly been simply waiting for permission.
"Tea, gentlemen," Gerard announced. "Please, come. All that playing surely must have tired you enough for sustenance."
He had such a warm smile and manner, Frank could not but obey.
"Raymond," Michael said, breaking the silence. "I believe Gerard got carried away last time he asked you this, but I know it's been burning him up to ask you this. What is your heritage?"
Mr. Way appeared to roll his eyes at his brother as Raymond laughed and patted his lips with a napkin before answering. "My father is of Spanish descent. Much like Frank's father, he fell in love with an English girl who was far too attached to her country."
Frank smiled. It was what drew them together as children, in fact. Their differences in heritage only united them, when they felt isolated from all those children who wondered at their names, or Raymond's father's accent.
"How wonderful," Mr. Way smiled. "Have you ever visited your father's country?"
"Oh, yes. He is fiercely proud of it," Raymond responded with a laugh. "He and my mother visit it every once in a while together, and I believe he attempts to convince her to stay every time."
"No luck so far, then?" Mr. Way laughed in response.
"They have compromised. My father's family owns a large estate in Granada, and they stay there every month of January. I believe someday, however, he will convince her to stay for good."
"I could not leave England. It is my home," Raymond answered simply, and smiled, catching Frank's eye. Frank knew that there was at least one person whom Raymond would not wish to part from, and grinned in return. Miss Christine would, he was certain of it, be visiting the Toro family home in Granada soon enough.
"No, no, Mary Shelley was brilliant, and I will not hear it said otherwise," Frank heard Mr. Way insist over the general din of conversation. He excused himself from Mr. Brandon's company and made his way over to where Mr. Way was attempting to explain Mrs. Shelley's genius to a very skeptical-looking Mr. Foster.
"I find her writing ghoulish," Frank heard as he neared them. Mr. Foster was clearly not being swayed by Mr. Way's impassioned pleas. "Human nature is all well and good, but for a woman to be writing such…horrors…" Mr. Foster visibly shuddered. "It simply is not to my tastes."
Frank joined them and almost received a strong blow to the head as Mr. Way's hands flew up in clear frustration. "That she was a woman has absolutely no bearing on the genius of her creations, Mr. Foster. Indeed, we must commend that she stepped outside of the expectations of her sex and declared to the world that women are just as brilliant as men in these - oh, I am sorry, Frank, I did not notice you joining us."
Frank smiled and nodded at them both. "I was curious as to your debate, gentlemen," he told them, and turned to Mr. Way. "I believe in this case, I am entirely on your side. My apologies, Mr. Foster. Frankenstein has always been one of my favourite works of fiction."
"Oh, dear," Mr. Foster laughed, clearly uncomfortable now that the debate was to become two to one. "But surely you do not also believe this nonsense about women writing horror stories? They should really stick to their strengths, and continue writing romances, as such as Miss Austen had in her time."
"I would hardly dismiss her works as being mere romances," Mr. Way scoffed, and Frank held himself in check for fear of laughing out right. Instead, he took a gentle hold of Mr. Way's elbow, lest his parents' gathering suffer from a sudden altercation twixt two of the attendants, one of whom was already so far in the negative, when it came to winning the favour of Frank's father, that he only made the invite list out of politeness. "In the strictest sense, perhaps, but if you looked deeper – yes?"
"Excuse us, Mr. Foster, but I must take away your partner in debate for a rather important matter," Frank lied, and led a surprised-looking Mr. Way away from Mr. Foster, who looked rather relieved to see them go.
By the time they reached a safe corner, Mr. Way was scratching his head and looking apologetic. "Forgive me. I did rather overstep, didn't I?"
Frank smiled and shook his head. "Not at all. I have simply found that arguing with Mr. Foster about anything other than the weather and state of his hunting gear is a rather thankless task. Nothing can change his stubborn mind once he's set it on an opinion."
"Ah." Mr. Way smiled and scrunched up his nose. "I'm afraid I am no good at simple conversation, and tend to get somewhat…carried away."
"I'm afraid I don't see that as a problem," Frank admitted, shocked at his own cheek. "In fact, it was about time that old so-and-so received a lesson in modern thought."
Mr. Way barked out a laugh and ducked his head, fingers playing over Frank's mother's shelves. "I believe you rather flatter me, Frank."
Frank followed the progress of Mr. Way's fingers with his gaze and attempted a casual smile. "I hope you know that flattery does not come to me naturally," he admitted quietly. "I was merely speaking the truth."
"Would you show me around?" Mr. Way asked abruptly. "Forgive me for such a brazen request, but I have been waiting for an opportune moment to ask. This appears like such a beautiful home. Did you grow up here?"
Frank grew warm under the collar, and before he could attempt an answer, he found himself looking around the room. His father was engrossed in a conversation with Raymond's, while his mother was laughing in the company of the Misses Brandon.
"I would love to, Mr. Way." he replied after a moment.
"Gerard, please," Mr. Way insisted. "It is well past the time you called me Gerard."
Frank smiled and tried it out in his own mind before saying, "All right, Gerard." Gerard smiled back at him warmly. "And yes. This is my childhood home."
"No brothers or sisters at all?" Gerard asked for the third time as they climbed the stairs to Frank's parents' gallery.
Frank laughed. "I'm afraid not. I do have a slew of cousins, however, some of whom I am quite fond of it," he added. "One, in fact, is shortly due for a visit. Martha is her name," Frank informed him for no reason at all.
"Well, I suppose that is better than nothing," Gerard replied earnestly. "Still, I cannot imagine – forgive me. I'm being tactless," he stopped. "Surely, it was not your choice whether or not to have siblings, I simply –"
"No, no, I understand. Believe me, I take no offense," Frank replied smiling. "I'm afraid had it been up to me, I would have had a hundred siblings. However, my mother, she… Well. She nearly died having me, and doctors strictly forbade any more children after that."
Gerard did not reply for some time, walking alongside Frank and studying the family portraits. "I am so very sorry," he finally said in a soft voice. "It appears you are rather a miracle for them, then."
Frank looked up at the portrait of his mother that was painted for her sixteenth birthday. "I admit, I had never thought of it quite in that way," he replied. I'm certain neither has my father, he almost added, but kept himself in check. "Shall we move on to the library? I've been saving it. It is rather my favourite."
Gerard gave him a beaming smile, his eyes bright with it. Frank wondered if any portraits of Gerard existed where his countenance matched that of the real thing, and decided that there could not possibly be. No artist could have such a gift, but if Frank were an artist himself, he knew he would certainly try.
Frank could feel his father's agitation at next morning's meal. He felt, too, that he knew the subject of this agitation. He waited as they were served eggs and coffee, not daring to break the silence.
"Frank, did you enjoy yourself last night?" Mother asked after a while of the three of them chewing in silence.
"Most certainly," Frank replied, wiping his mouth as delicately as he could. "It was quite gay, was it not?"
"Oh, most –"
"Where had you disappeared to with that Way fellow?" Father interrupted. "Hmm?"
Frank blinked. He had naively thought that his father would not give it any notice. "I was simply showing Gerard around, as he had been kind enough to do in his own home," Frank said evenly.
"Ah, Gerard," his father mocked, eyes squinting.
"Frank, what is the matter?" Mother cut in, eyes on Father. "He is a friend to –"
"He is no good," Father interjected, mustache quivering somewhat alarmingly. "His opinions, my God, and he did not see it at all a problem to share them with the rest of us, and so forcefully -"
"Since when," Frank raised his voice just to stop the tirade, "do you find it a problem for a man to express his opinions?"
"Frank," Mother warned quietly. "Perhaps –"
"No, no, Linda, I should like to talk to Frank man to man about this," Father boomed, not even looking at Mother. "I find his – queer views distasteful. He has no – no pride in history, no ideas that have not been fetched out of some schoolboy trip to the Continent –"
"You're from the Continent," Frank said, his knife and fork forgotten in his hands. "And you, I am certain, once had opinions that others did not agree with."
"That is different." The words were almost drowned out by the clatter of Father's own silverware hitting the plate. "I was not out to shock any company simply because I was getting too big for my breeches. Your friend has a lot of growing to do."
"He is a grown man, he is a master of his own estate," Frank nearly snarled. "And his opinions are not something he came to on a lark, he simply happens to be of different –"
"What? Breeding? Education? Please, Frank, stop being so – so naïve. You know what they say about him, you know what –"
"No." Frank pushed away from the table and got up, his chair scraping against the floor. "I do not listen to ‘them' just as I do not put stock in ‘their' opinions," he spat out, his heart hammering at his own daring and bile. "I know that he is a friend, and that is all I care about. If you'll excuse me."
He tilted a nod towards his unhappy mother, and another at his father, who did not respond, but did not attempt to stop him, either.
Then he left as quickly as possible.
He stood on Gerard's threshold, allowing the servant to take his jacket and hat. Gerard, having come through the sitting room doors, watched him with some surprise, though perhaps not altogether unfriendly. During his ride, Frank thought virtually nothing of showing up on his doorstep unannounced, but now he felt strange and off-kilter. He had been given no invitation, and now waited to be shown inside like a wayward child.
"I wanted to –" Frank began, then paused as Wilcox retreated. "I found myself nearby," he corrected himself. "So I thought perhaps I should call, since…"
"Of course!" Gerard interrupted, walking forward. "Please, forgive my rudeness. Do come in, Frank, you are most welcome," he added warmly.
Frank breathed out, and allowed himself to follow Gerard through to the sitting room. Now he was here, he felt awkward, out of place.
"Frank, please – sit," Gerard spoke gently. "I'm afraid I might have let most of the staff have the afternoon off before thinking better of it, so I cannot offer you much. However, I believe a cup of tea can be rustled up, if need be. Would you like one?"
Frank took a moment to look at Gerard. He was wearing his shirt and waistcoat, but no jacket; why would he have been wearing a jacket – he had not been expecting company. It was late May, and even in Cumbria, that sometimes meant unusual warmth. Gerard's collar was undone. Out of the corner of his eye, Frank saw that the pianoforte was open, with sheet music placed upon it. Oh.
Gerard watched Frank patiently, as if waiting for something.
"Pardon?" Frank blurted out.
"Tea – would you like some? Or," Gerard paused, waving a hand around. "Something cooler, perhaps? I've been suffocating here with this heat. Ice water, maybe, or lemonade?"
Frank grew ten shades hotter in the span of a moment. "Yes, please. Water would be wonderful."
Gerard rang the bell, and Frank finally took a seat on the chaise. "Oh, here – that set of poems I promised you." He extended his hand with the small volume he had used as an excuse for his ride clutched between his fingers, and Gerard gave him a smile as he accepted.
"Thank you so much. You know, I can't believe I had not read this before," he mumbled as he leafed through the soft pages, Frank's own hand having already smudged and razed the newness from their surfaces. "This is wonderful. Thank you," Gerard repeated, this time looking Frank in the eye.
Frank smiled and squeezed his hands between his thighs, feeling sweat everywhere now, as if Gerard's words had unlocked the atmosphere around them, soaking Frank in heat. "I hope you enjoy it," he finally said.
For a long moment, they sat in silence, smiling at each other rather pointlessly, before Frank finally realised what had felt off about this. "Where is Michael?"
Gerard's eyebrows shot up as in surprise, and he twisted around as if Michael had merely been a child's toy that had disappeared through play. "Oh, he is visiting friends in town, I believe," he replied, turning around.
"Friends?" Frank asked before he could stop himself.
Gerard's mouth quirked up. "Indeed. He has an ability to make friends that far surpasses my own, inasmuch as I have taught myself to fake social politeness."
Frank laughed and shook his head. "That was not my question, and you know it. I had simply never heard Michael make mention of anybody in particular, that's all."
"I know," Gerard replied agreeably, nodding. "But, I was also not lying about our differences, I suppose."
Frank sensed that he needed to hear this, somehow. "Oh?" he prompted, sitting incredibly still.
"Yes, well…" Gerard's hand whirled the air for a moment before settling on fidgeting with the wood of the chair. "I am not, I suppose, accustomed to making friends – easily."
"You are joking," Frank blurted out before he could even stop to reflect.
"I'm sorry?" Gerard's surprise was evident and, Frank could tell, genuine. But it made absolutely no sense to Frank at all, as if Gerard resided in a world where up was down, black was white, and apples sprouted from birds.
"What about – the night we met, you were the most affable of hosts," he offered, "conversing so easily with Raymond and myself." He leafed through the pages of his memory. "You invited us into your home, you – what about that artist? In Germany?"
"Oh, Bertrand? Bertrand was – well." Gerard's eyebrows creased. Frank recalled just how easily he had been able to read Gerard's moods that very first night he was calling to mind now, and how strangely Gerard's sometimes almost child-like features fit in with the man who sat now in front of Frank, trying to convince him of the sky being yellow and the grass blue. "Bertrand was not – he was. Hmmm. He wasn't quite what I'd call socially graceful, but he was sort of… Well, a little bit…"
"Like you?" Frank ventured, a tiny pinprick of comprehension starting within him.
"Yes!" Gerard's eyes turned on Frank, as did his smile. "Exactly. He was not – we understood each other, I suppose, without having to conform to all the dull societal niceties. We skipped over them, in fact, the day that we met. He had very, hmm." Gerard paused and his smile grew somehow inward, thoughtful. Sweet. "He had very forceful opinions on art. We met at a museum, you see."
"Ah," Frank smiled. A part of him wondered if he was part of the dull societal niceties to Gerard right now, but he firmly told himself to stop. "He sounds quite fascinating," Frank offered instead.
Gerard tugged on his collar and, strangely, grimaced. "Yes. He is, quite fascinating."
A silence descended, like a cloud passing over a field. Frank searched for a new topic. "Did you –"
"Oh, yes – hang on!" Gerard popped up off his seat and was across the room before Frank could blink, his stride sure and quick. "I wanted to show you this – I think I'd mentioned it before, but kept forgetting to – yes, here."
He extended a small picture towards Frank, stepping closer. Frank leaned in to take it carefully.
"Oh. Oh, my word," he breathed. "It's beautiful." His fingers traced the air just above the etching, not daring to touch its flawless lines.
"Do you – do you really think so?" Gerard's voice came up closer than Frank had anticipated. He felt Gerard skirt the chaise until he was stood behind Frank, studying his own work.
Frank turned his head slightly and cleared his throat. "I – I do. I find it lovely. This was Sicily?"
"Oh, yes. Not far from where your family is from, in fact, at least as far as my geographical knowledge extends. It was a gorgeous day. Gorgeous week, really."
"It looks it," Frank agreed in a whisper, as if his voice could scare away the cliffs and stone and the Cyprus trees, all etched in detail and in shade on the paper, drawn with a sure, light hand. "This is – it's beautiful, Gerard. Truly."
"It's yours, then," Gerard said, and laid a hot hand on Frank's shoulder. Through wool and cotton he felt it, the touch, and the desire for cold water increased tenfold. And then the hand was gone, and Gerard was walking away and around, until he was sitting across from Frank, smiling, as if nothing had happened.
And, in fact, nothing had. "Thank you," Frank finally managed, his hands gripping the drawing tightly. "Are you quite sure?"
"Please, keep it. I would love it if you did," Gerard answered, his face earnest now, and open. Frank looked away as a timid housemaid came in with a jug and two glasses of water.
"Oh, wonderful!" Gerard exclaimed a beat later. "Just what we needed. Please set it down here, Grace, thank you. Thank you so much."
Once the maid left, Frank turned back to the pianoforte. "I appear to have interrupted you at your leisure," he said, clearing his throat before taking a sip of the cold drink.
"Oh, that," Gerard replied, waving an airy hand. "I was simply – composing."
"Composing?" Frank asked, surprised, and then wondering why he should be so. He composed, as well, after all.
"Yes," Gerard smiled, then frowned. "Something was eluding me, however. The tonality did not feel right, maybe. Would you –" he half-turned towards the piano and began rolling up his sleeves. Frank reached for his water again, the glass nearly sliding from his fingers from the condensation. "Would you have a listen for me? I believe I need a fresh ear."
Frank took a swallow of his water, then another, feeling it slide coldly down his insides, then nodded. "If you wish. I would love to."
The bench was wide enough to accommodate them both, but Frank opted for standing over the instrument as Gerard began plucking out his tune. It was a minor key, standard ½ measure. Frank closed his eyes.
Gerard introduced a counter beat after a minute, and Frank pictured wide plains, perhaps in autumn, that frozen time right before winter comes. Irregular, unsteady, filled with the dread of cold and none of the merriment of summer or spring.
The music stopped abruptly, and when he opened his eyes, Gerard was watching him expectantly. Frank took a moment to appreciate the green of his eyes, the way his lashes stood out against his pale skin, the inquisitive bend to his brows.
"That was quite beautiful," he finally said.
"Thank you," Gerard smiled and ducked down his head. His hands repeated two measures, the parts he clearly believed problematic. "Something about this doesn't feel quite…filled in, though." He re-played it as Frank listened, then another few measures.
"Oh, I – I think I hear it," Frank replied and without much thought, made to sit at the piano. "Would you mind?"
"Not at all, please," Gerard invited, scooting to the side.
Frank's hands sought out the keys. "Do the left hand, and I'll –"
Gerard obeyed immediately, and Frank began to improvise. Gerard's part provided a base for the music, but he had been right – something was missing. Frank introduced both hands now, his fingers somewhat unused to playing, but his ear leading him onwards. It was not until they played a dozen measures, Frank's own part somewhat halting and ever-changing, that he came to himself and realised they were quite close.
Quite close, the fabric of Gerard's trousers touching Frank's own, their elbows knocking. Frank flushed with the heat of day, his heart betraying him by beating against his ribs so loudly, he wondered if it did not wish to join them in composing.
He cleared his throat and attempted not to move at all, lest they touch more, or – or less. "I think – I think I've realised the problem," he said softly.
"Oh, yes?" Gerard's voice was so close in his ear, Frank had to shut his eyes just for a moment to retrieve his thoughts.
"When – when you were first playing it for me, I think I heard it as well, but had not realised." He waited for a prompt, but Gerard was silent, waiting for him. Frank could smell a sort of musk, fresh sweat and a delicate scent of soap beneath it. "I believe it does need to be filled out. You are writing a duet."
"Oh!" Their elbows clacked together and then Gerard's hands flew to the keys, the right a variation of the left, seeking out a harmony of chords. "Of course, Frank, that is – you are absolutely right. Please, play the – the other part."
Frank could not but obey. Slowly, carefully, he plucked out the original melody, straining for a sort of melodic discord to fully draw out the picture he had seen in his mind.
The notes seemed to bleed together, weaving into a whole new piece, until all twenty fingers between them were running across the keys, a thundering gallop of a duet, mistakes going unremarked upon, both sets of ears hearing exactly what they needed to hear. Frank no longer cared that his heart was racing, this was – this was remarkable. He did not notice his own grin until he turned his head and it was answered by Gerard's, and slowly, they ended the piece, Gerard's hand holding down the last note until the very end of sound.
Frank's breath was laboured, and he longed to purge himself of his ridiculous sweat-soaked jacket, his eyes noting the darkness of Gerard's shirt where it clung to his skin, the single line of sweat running down the side of his face, getting lost in the crinkle of his smile.
Frank ran a hand across his own forehead and looked away.
"Thank you," Gerard said quietly. "That was – fun."
Frank nodded, wanting to laugh for some reason, then turned back. "It is a beautiful instrument," he said after a moment's pause.
Gerard nodded, hands stroking over the keys without making any noise. "It belonged to my grandmother."
Frank suddenly remembered that first glimpse of Gerard seeing Raymond playing it at the party. It made sense now, the haunted look in his eyes. "I see."
For a moment, he sweated in place, unable to move or breathe lest he make a blunder. Then he drew in a decisive breath. "I believe I require more water now," he said and slowly made his way off the bench. He took his time to finish off the glass before turning around. Gerard was bent over the instrument, his hands clutching the bench on either side of him. Frank returned to his side.
"Thank you for allowing me to join you," Frank said, clearly startling Gerard, who seemed not to have noticed his return. "I hope I was of help."
When Gerard looked up, his eyes were wide. "You were, Frank. Thank you."
Frank felt only a mild guilt as he forced Sweet Pea to a gallop that was barely supported by the heat of day. He had to shed whatever it was that had settled over him back at Gerard's, back at that bench, with that music, and as they galloped together, he and Sweet Pea, they made a wind strong enough to do so.
He thought of the library as entirely his, which was why it was so unsupportable to find his father ensconced in a chair there when Frank entered.
"Oh, forgive me –"
"No need to leave," his father observed, turning the page without looking up. "It is, of course, large enough for the two of us."
Frank swallowed and closed the doors behind him. "Of course."
His book was resting by the chair his father was currently occupying, and Frank made his quiet way over to it. He was unused to sharing this space, and when he finally settled in a chair opposite his father's, he could not concentrate on his book at all.
All he could hear in his mind's eye was Gerard's melody, all he could see was Gerard playing, hair swaying in his face, the sinews of his arms standing out as his fingers played over the keys. Surreptitiously, Frank looked up at his father, wondering if he could sense what Frank was thinking.
But of course not, that would be ridiculous. His father was reading, eyes serious behind their spectacles, and Frank found himself watching him for any signs of recognition between them. How similar they looked, he and Frank. Frank never grew into his father's height, but their faces were alike enough that Frank knew exactly how he would look in twenty years.
If he ever had a son – if his parents' wishes were to come true – Frank wondered if they would ever end up like this, sat in the same room, the floor space between them like a fissure in a rock, getting wider and wider, the molecules that bound them together collapsing in on themselves and disappearing.
He cleared his throat, and his father briefly looked up over his spectacles and waited. Frank groped for something to say, his effort apparent, and his father gave him a brief acknowledgment before going back to his book.
Frank sat in place and looked out the window and tried not to think.
It was clear enough, however, that he had to get a hold of himself. He had to take some time for himself.
Frank heard his name called out and turned on his heel. As soon as he saw Gerard striding in his direction, his heart skipped a beat, and he smiled and called out a loud "Hello!" before he could think better of it.
Gerard was already doffing his hat, his hair looking just as disheveled as always beneath it, and beaming at Frank. "How fortunate we should meet!" he exclaimed, loudly enough for others on the busy street to take notice. Frank chose not to care.
"Indeed?" he asked, pretending that he was not delighted at seeing Gerard. He took a moment just for himself to note how well Gerard looked in sunlight, pink-cheeked and healthy as a maiden.
"It feels as if it's been far too long," Gerard replied, his voice softening, stride matching Frank's own. "Have you been well?"
Lonely, Frank thought. Agitated, not seeing you, he discarded. "Tolerably," he answered. "And yourself?"
An unexpected wave of jealousy came over Frank as Gerard recounted his dealings, such as a dinner at Widow Fielding's home, as well as an excursion to the nearest ruins with Michael. He stamped the feeling down, beating it into submission as Gerard continued telling his tale.
"You approve of our local ruins, then?" Frank asked, simply to fill the time.
"Most readily," Gerard replied, and jumped back just as a wave of dust came tumbling down from the inn above. They laughed and coughed in equal measure, each shaking out his hat and shoulders once they were safely out of harm's way. "So," Gerard smiled once they were restored to neatness. "I admit to having missed your company this past fortnight." His voice was not unkind, but Frank felt remorse run through him, anyway, the smallest twinge of it all through his limbs. Gerard appeared not to have noticed anything amiss, as he went on. "In fact, one of my goals today was to extend an invitation for a gathering next Friday evening. Would you – would you accept? It should be a rather gay affair. I hope."
They stopped just outside of the book shop that had been Frank's own destination. Frank watched Gerard's face as Gerard waited for his reply, and swallowed before answering. His throat suddenly felt scratchy. "Of course. I would love nothing more."
"Surely this evening will never end."
Frank, smothered his laughter in his sleeve, and turned away from his rather transparent ruse of studying Gerard's wall of books he had memorised quite well by now. He had, in fact, been feeling rather off all day, and the idea of polite conversation was rather well beyond him. He had come because he had missed Gerard's company, but he found himself unable to hold even the simplest conversation, and retired to a quiet corner early on.
When he turned towards Gerard now, he appeared to be pretending to do the same as Frank, but Frank could see the grin growing in the corner of his mouth. "Why, are you not enjoying your own soiree, Mr. Way? Shocking!" he whispered, his breath catching the smallest bit in his throat.
"Quite so, Mr. Iero. I am afraid I have rather misled you as to my hosting pleasures," Gerard sighed, and cast Frank a sideways glance. Frank giggled and then forced his features back into something resembling serious.
"Well, I am sorry to report, I have been having quite a bit of pleasure at this tedious evening of yours."
"Liar," Gerard shot back. "You've been reading my titles for the last ten minutes. I know, because I've timed you, you see." Gerard pointed at the grandfather clock looming in a corner.
Frank bit his lip and hung his head. "Then I can explain to you where you went wrong as host."
"Oh yes?" Gerard turned until they were both facing the window of the study. "Pray tell."
"You have been watching me having a boring old time instead of entertaining your actual guests."
Frank glanced at Gerard, whose smile seemed to drop right off his face. He hadn't – he had not meant – "I'm sorry, I did not mean to offend you, Gerard, I simply –"
Gerard turned his head and Frank suppressed a huge desire to wallop him on the head. "Oh, you -"
"Cad," Frank spat out before they both dissolved into laughter once more. "Oh, dear me," Frank wheezed, then coughed. He scratched his chest and found it difficult to get rid of the itch, as if it was coming from the inside. He coughed again. "Pardon me, I appear to have –" And then he coughed again, a rage of lacking air, until he was holding onto the back of a couch and doubling over, frightening even himself with it.
He felt Gerard's grip on his arm before he heard his voice in his ear, calling out his name.
"I'm – I'm –" Frank coughed once more, then the tightening in his chest seemed to pass, and he drew a single long breath that tickled. "Oh – I'm quite all right," he said, the air wheezing in his lungs, panic finally settling in. No, no, no. Not again.
"Frank, please – sit. Here, have some water."
Frank sat down onto the nearest sofa and became aware of more than one person surrounding him now. When he looked up, he was met with three identical frowns. "Really, now," he said, attempting to be as casual as possible. "I simply took a bad breath, there is nothing to concern yourselves over –"
"Drink this, Frank," Raymond commanded and forced Frank to take the glass from his hand. He drank obediently, until he himself was feeling calmer. He'd woken up but two nights ago feeling as if he was getting ill, but he had thought at the time it had simply been a nightmare in the dark, and the feeling had passed with morning.
He knew better now, knew the way his body had always known when it was betraying itself. Knew now that it had not simply been a breath badly caught. He let himself close his eyes and take a few deep breaths, knowing that they could be the last peaceful breaths he'd take for a while. And, indeed, his lungs seized up on the very next breath, and he hoped fervently that the ground would open up and swallow him whole, for Gerard still had guests, and the last thing he wanted to be was a nuisance and a sideshow. Perhaps the ride through the rain yesterday had not been such a clever idea, after all.
Over his coughing, he could hear whirls of conversation, snatches of words here and there, ladies' shocked voices, gentlemen's hushed tones of concern. Frank attempted to shut them out, focusing his every grain of energy on pushing himself up off the couch and attempting to sneak out as inconspicuously as possible, but he only got there in his mind.
In reality, twin sets of hands and voices held him back, Frank could not particularly tell who they belonged to, and then, as if by magic, all other sounds besides his breathing disappeared. Somebody must have shut the doors leading into the main room.
And then he felt the nausea surrounding him, and through his laboured breathing, he just managed to swallow against the bile when it hit, and he would have fallen to the floor had he not been held steadily as he vomited, his vision going fuzzy, his lungs shrinking in his chest.
Frank woke up in a darkened room. The grandfather clock loomed in his periphery, and he heard voices whispering urgently. He attempted to turn his head, but somebody shushed him, and an unfamiliar figure leaned over him, frowning. The whole world was frowning at him, he thought, before realising his collar had been undone, his chest exposed to stuffy air, and then the figure before him resolved itself into a physician, and then the darkness engulfed it once more.
He woke up again to different air but all the same voices. He opened his mouth to ask the obvious question, and when someone leant over him.
"Mother?" he whispered, and the figure above him appeared to turn its head to the side.
"He's delirious," a familiar voice asked, a voice that did not belong to his father, this he knew. "Dr. Parks, is this –"
"For a fever that high, Mr. Way, it is certainly not unusual," somebody answered gruffly.
Mr. Way – Gerard – Frank was –
"Gerard?" he asked, his voice barely even a whisper, and the figure above him suddenly dropped until Frank had to merely turn his head on his pillow to look at it. Not his pillow.
"Frank. Frank, you are – you fell ill," Gerard whispered, squeezing Frank's hand. Frank wanted to ask him to please not do that, he did not wish to make Gerard ill as well, but he had not strength in his lungs for complete sentences.
"I'm – I'm sorry," he whispered, and attempted to squeeze Gerard's hand back, but he lost consciousness, instead.
His mother's face loomed before him, the sky behind her gray and ominous, and her lips were redder than red, a tight red line that scared him as much as it pained him. The next moment, the wind stole her away, and Frank's cries got lost alongside her.
"You have got to eat something, Gerard, you won't help him by falling ill yourself."
"I'm not hungry, Michael, please. I'll take a cup of tea."
"You're shaking from all the tea, Gerard, just have a biscuit, something."
"I'm not –"
"I don't care."
"Fine, good lord. When did you become the eldest?"
"Just eat, please, Gerard."
Cool hands touched his forehead, the skin of his chest, his fingers. His limbs weighed him down. Surely, there were stones attached to him, chains pulling inevitably downwards, sinking him into the abyss. He could not get a single breath of clear air, the water in the sea swallowing it all as he struggled to come to the surface.
He could not. He let himself sink until he was buoyed up, again, and again, and again, until he was too exhausted to fight anything at all.
"Frank, Frank, darling, can you hear me?"
Frank struggled to open his eyes. He could no longer hear the rushing of water in his ears, and while the room around him was dark, once he won the struggle to open his eyes, he realised it was daytime.
"Mama, are you –"
"Shh, it's me, darling, it's me."
She sounded scared, and his hands were clammy and cold around hers, and when he took a breath, it allowed itself to pass through his lungs and through his throat and nose with little obstacle. He breathed out and shut his eyes again. He was ashamed to feel dampness running down his face.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
"Oh, my darling." He felt her hot lips on his cheek, his forehead, his hands. "You gave us such a scare."
"Am I –"
"Dr. Parks says you should be out of the woods now. Your fever broke last night, sweetheart. We've been waiting for you to wake up."
Frank cleared his throat, and it felt like swallowing fire. "We?" he rasped.
"Mr. Way has been kind enough to allow you to stay in his guest rooms, for you were far too ill to be moved." Her voice sounded subdued, and Frank experienced a flash of fear and shame he could not readily explain. He allowed it to pass like bile and swallowed.
"Please – please thank Gerard for me –"
"There's no need," said a soft voice. Frank swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut. He had no idea that Gerard had been in the room at all, much less seeing him like this. Frank felt naked, exposed. Stripped to his very core. His biggest fear, laid out naked in front of Gerard. He felt as if he hated both himself, for what happened, and Gerard, for having borne witness to it.
Then he forced himself to open his eyes, and saw Gerard's pale, drawn face hover uncertainly behind Frank's mother. She looked at Frank apologetically. She always knew.
"I'm – I am so glad you are better, Frank," Gerard said, just as softly as before. "I shall go and fetch Dr. Parks so he can… That is, I'll just… Excuse me." He disappeared before Frank could say another word, and when Frank looked at his mother, she had tears in her eyes.
"I thought we'd lost you," she managed before the tears came splashing down her cheeks, and Frank was seized with a sense of guilt quite unlike anything else. He made to turn towards her, wishing to comfort her, assure her he was quite well, but his arms refused to move and she shushed him immediately, rising to her feet and tucking the blankets around him with an efficiency only she could ever manage. "Hush, my love," she whispered and wiped his cheeks, then her own. "You're all right now. You're all right."
Beef tea tasted like heaven to him. His throat burned only a little now, and he could manage the pain.
He was still in Gerard's guest rooms, his mother keeping a quiet vigil beside him. He had not seen Gerard since he'd gone to fetch the doctor. Day had turned into night and back into day, and Frank drifted in and out of sleep. When last he closed his eyes, he saw his mother's sleeping face, a frown cutting across her forehead.
When he opened them, dreary predawn light spilled through the half opened curtains, and the figure in the chair had transformed into an entirely different person. Frank blinked and tossed his head just to clear it.
Gerard was asleep. Frank swallowed the thick mucus that had built up in his throat and slowly, carefully, with tedious difficulty, turned onto his side.
Gerard's hand was propping up his forehead, fingers smudged, hair tossed entirely out of place. His shirt collar was undone, his waistcoat unbuttoned, every bit of material worn and creased. One leg extended out, while the other rested flush against the chair. The hand that was free lay carelessly on the arm of the chair. He was completely and entirely at ease, Frank thought, until he noted the frown, so similar to his mother's, bisecting Gerard's brows.
Frank shut his eyes against the sight, but could not keep them shut for long. He stared ahead of him, a helpless, horribly familiar feeling flooding his chest, his stomach, his every limb. He felt a lightness, a sense of terrible impending doom, and he could not fight it. Not while he was the only one awake in this quiet room, not while Gerard looked so tired and pale in the morning light.
Frank was weak. He had always known that, had always been reminded of that fact by Father, but he had always resisted, had always pictured himself rising above it, above his weaknesses, above his sins.
He could not hide from them now. He wanted to reach over and slide his hands up over Gerard's. He longed to twine his arms around Gerard's neck, to hide his face in the crook of Gerard's shoulder, to kiss the skin he found there, to hold him.
The weakness of his body met the weakness of his mind, and together they forced him to see them, know them for what they were, what he was.
A weak, worthless man who could never escape his fate, regardless of how far he ran.
He did not bother to wipe his cheeks, and fell asleep exactly as he had been, one hand reaching towards Gerard, never having the strength to move closer or pull away.
"How do you feel?"
Frank's eyes fluttered open and he allowed his eyesight to adjust before answering. Gerard was crouched next to the bed, his face a breath away from Frank's, some colour back in his pale cheeks. Maybe a bit too much colour.
"Are you – are you all right?" Frank asked, his voice hoarse and unfamiliar to his own ears.
Gerard's mouth split into an even, unsure grin. "Am I -? Oh, Frank, my God." Frank looked on as Gerard dropped his head down onto Frank's shoulder and laughed, his hot breath penetrating through the thin material of Frank's nightshirt, dampness and heat mingling with Frank's own sweat. He was frozen on the spot, unable to even move his head to see if there was anybody else in the room. Gerard's laughter sounded wet and had a strange edge to it, but it was laughter nonetheless, and once Frank realised they were quite alone, he allowed himself to shut his eyes and breathe in the scent of Gerard's hair, tickling his neck and face, just for a moment. Musk and sweat and oil, and just the smallest whiff of lavender traveled into his nostrils.
When Gerard lifted his head, Frank barely had time to move away before Gerard caught his gaze, laughter ceasing, the frown Frank had glimpsed earlier in the day – the night? Was it even the same week? Time swam between them – returning. Frank barely breathed, his chest pausing mid-rise, his limbs going rigid. No, no, no –
"Frank," Gerard whispered and laid a gentle hand upon Frank's cheek, as if unaware of Frank's trembling panic and fear. "You scared me half to death," he said before leaning in and dropping the smallest of kisses onto Frank's forehead. "You are alive, and I am fine."
Frank's breath whooshed out all at once, embarrassment warring with desire within him. He shut his eyes and dared not move, lest Gerard move away and break the spell. "I am," was all he said.
"Thank God," Gerard answered quietly.
"You really don't have to spend every moment of your day here, you know," Frank said as Gerard set up his easel and paints by the window.
"Nonsense," Gerard answered without turning around. "I know that I could be quite content to lie in bed and think all day, but I know you, and you require entertainment."
Frank laughed despite himself, and pointed idly at the book on his lap. "You make it sound as if I am a child incapable of entertaining myself."
Gerard flashed him a kind smile over his shoulder. "You make that sound as if it is a bad thing."
"Is it not?" he asked, rising to the bait.
"Of course it isn't," Gerard replied primly, opening up the tubes of paint and beginning to mix them on the palette. "Being an adult is a tedious activity one must partake of daily. Nobody has more fun than a child."
Frank's frame of reference could only be drawn from his own childhood, and he remembered it a little differently. "It must have been – quite fun, having a brother," he said.
Gerard turned abruptly from his canvas, the brush in his hand stilling. He smiled. "It was. We were spoiled something rotten, I'm afraid, but we were quite the pair."
Frank smiled, another wave of exhaustion hitting him. "You still are."
"Sleep now," Gerard whispered, and Frank simply shut his eyes and obeyed.
Along with his health, Frank felt the slow return of his senses.
"Gerard, I am so sorry for being such a horrid imposition," he said as soon as Gerard walked through the door one morning. Frank had been attempting to stand up on his own, but had only got as far as sitting up with his legs dangling off the bed when his breath abandoned him and he felt a dizziness overtake him.
"What are you – oh, Christ, Frank," Gerard scolded as soon as he saw him, and rushed to his side. Frank winced and evaded Gerard's touch when he saw it coming. Gerard immediately snatched his hand back and when Frank looked up at his face, he saw something resembling the same frown Gerard had worn on and off since Frank's illness had begun, except – except somehow worse. "I'm – I'm sorry, I merely – you are certainly not an imposition, Frank," Gerard finally said, hands clasping behind his back. "Please, just – just allow us to get you all better, all right?"
Frank felt like a dolt, embarrassed and put out. "I just – I should not be this helpless in somebody else's house, Gerard. It's bad enough when I am ill at home."
Gerard, still frozen where he stood, took a moment before responding. "Are you ill a lot?" His voice sounded forcefully neutral.
Frank huffed and squeezed his hands into fists. "Enough, I suppose." He knew he was being insufferable, a terrible guest to a generous host, but he did not seem able to stop himself from speaking. "I'm – I'm sorry, Gerard. I'm merely –"
"Cooped up," Gerard interrupted softly, and Frank dared look up at him. Gerard, it seemed, finally changed shirts. Must have been Michael's doing, Frank realised, and his hair looked softer than it had in days previous. He looked concerned, but not unkind.
"Yes," Frank admitted, conscious of the state of him. His linens had been changed last night, as had his sleeping gown, but he still smelled of sweat and illness, and he could not remember the last time his hair had been touched with soap, or his face with a razor. "I'm afraid illness makes me quite…unsupportable."
Gerard honked out a laugh. "I dare you to find a man who doesn't feel similarly, my dear," he replied, and when he reached over to help Frank up, Frank allowed it, relying on Gerard's strength to carry him to the washroom.
"My boy," his mother greeted kindly. "I am so sorry I have not been able to visit you more often. Your cousin has been busying me with her carryings-on, but I have been getting daily reports from Mr. Way, which has been most kind of him."
Frank smiled at her rush of words, relaxing from the familiar scent of her perfume. "I'm happy to see you," he told her.
"And I, you." She sat on the chaise next to him, watching him in the way only a mother could. "You look so much better, my darling. Soon we'll get you home."
Frank was feeling better, but he was weaker than he had been letting on. The walk he had taken around the garden yesterday had nearly knocked him off his feet.
"Yes, Mama," he answered and, having marked his page, closed his book. "And how is Martha? Father?"
Mother regaled him with stories of home, a place he felt he had not seen in months, and not just over a fortnight. Father was concerned, Martha worried, but excited for her going out in society. Frank listened with half a mind, keeping the other occupied with different matters.
Matters such as having been visited by a concerned Raymond yesterday, and having had breakfast with Michael just that morning, and not having seen Gerard for two days now.
When asked, Michael had made a noncommittal comment about some business matters occupying Gerard's time, but his avoiding Frank's gaze had somehow spoken louder.
Frank cursed his failing body, wishing to get dressed as soon as possible and join his mother in her ride back home, all the time knowing it was impossible. Gerard was certain to be tired of Frank by now, and Frank could not blame him in the least. He was tired of himself, of the same four walls, of this novel he could not seem to get through no matter how many hours he spent on holding it and looking at its pages.
"Frankie, sweetheart –"
Frank forced himself back into the conversation just as his mother's hand extended towards his forehead.
"You're getting warm," she said quietly, and before Frank knew it, he was being bustled up and into the bed, his dressing gown forced off him, the sheets turned back. "You need to rest more, sweetheart. I will go call for some water in the meantime."
"No," he objected, "I am tired of rest, Mother, how about a walk –"
"Oh, yes, and what a pair we'd make, me carrying you down the hall as you collapse," she replied, hand already extending towards the bell. "Sleep, Frank. It's the best medicine there is."
When next Frank awoke, he was quite alone, the clock on the wall, and position of the sun, letting him know he'd slept half the day away, again. He flung aside the covers and slowly made his way over to the window. For all that he was tired of this room, he never tired of its view. The sunset, especially, was something to be savoured.
Gerard's garden below Frank's window reflected the rosy golden light, the statue of Zeus glowing as if from within. The leaves rustled with the light wind, the flowers trembling with it. The world was being washed of day, night settling in as fast as the sun was sinking, and Frank stood at the window and stared at it all, his desire to no longer be within these four walls growing with every breath.
He was just about to turn away and climb back into bed when a movement caught his eye, and then he saw: a horse at a gallop carrying a single rider, getting closer and closer to the house.
Frank's heart thumped in his chest and then he felt the cool glass press up against his forehead as he leaned bodily in, willing himself closer against his better judgment.
Gerard was not dressed in riding clothes, but rather in the uniform of shirtsleeves and waistcoat Frank had got so used to in his stay. Which meant – Frank caught his lip with his teeth -
Gerard had not been away, then, as Frank had secretly hoped. He had been home. He had been home, and avoiding Frank.
Frank raised a hand to the window without thought and touched the glass. It felt good against the cool surface, and he shut his eyes, breathing deeply in, still finding it remarkable that he could.
When he finally opened his eyes, Gerard was beneath the window, atop his restless horse, and he was watching Frank back.
Frank started and dove away from the window before he could do anything else.
He forced himself to stumble back into bed and turned over until all he could see was the wardrobe in the corner, quickly darkening as the sun set behind him, and all he could hear was the beat of his heart, insistent and loud within his chest.
Frank insisted on bathing himself when the valet entered sometime later, and though the man made every objection, Frank managed to stand up and stare him down long enough for the valet to retreat and leave him in peace.
It was an arduous process, but he took heart in the bit of privacy allowed for the first time since his illness. The bath grew cold as he stewed, but he felt better for it once he emerged, scrubbed and clean, at the end of it. The heated towels warmed him right up and he felt almost back to normal, as he pulled on his dressing gown and slippers.
He picked up his book and, having lit a lamp, sat down on an armchair, hoping that a change of scenery would take his mind off everything that preoccupied him. He forced his mind to wander and get lost in a story that felt so far away from his own, and once his mind did, the rest of his body relaxed into it, limbs going heavy, neck going limp.
Frank woke with a start as he was being carried the two steps to the bed by someone who smelled familiar, and warm, and was making almost no noise at all.
"Shh, let's get you to bed, Frank," Gerard whispered, the ghost of his breath tickling Frank's ear. "There, now…" His hands maneuvered Frank's body towards the bed.
Frank lay down obediently, but his arms refused to give way, and his mind refused to accept anything at all in its sleep-weary, fuzzy state. He tightened his hold around Gerard's neck and pulled him down into an embrace, warm, hearts beating frantically, a long, beautiful moment of pure joy that ended just as quickly as it had begun.
Gerard pulled away, jolting Frank out of sleep completely, and their eyes met in the dimness.
"Gerard, why haven't you –"
"But I –"
"You don't… Sleep, Frank," Gerard instructed and stroked Frank's cheek with a shaking hand. "Sleep, sweetheart."
Frank shut his eyes, swallowed down any response his body was prepared to make, and fell obediently asleep.
"Well, that ought to do it. I would say you are well enough to be moved tomorrow, Mr. Iero," Dr. Parks proclaimed. Frank had not been prepared for that, and his first response was a twinge of disappointment. But then he remembered: that was for the best.
"Thank you so much, Dr. Parks," he replied, giving as genuine a smile as he could muster and reaching out to shake the doctor's hand. "Thank you very much, indeed. I owe you a great debt."
Dr. Parks smiled, gripping his hand firmly. "No need, sir. You gave everyone quite the fright, but I am happy to report that you have nothing to fear now, except maybe draughts. I would stay away from those."
Frank laughed. "I shall do my best."
When the doctor left, Frank looked at the two brothers before him and sobered. "Gerard, Michael, I – I don't know how to –"
"Please," Gerard interrupted, and gave a thin smile. "No need, Frank. I shall see you down at dinner." He left the room before Frank could so much as form a single word. The hurt on his face must have shown itself quite plainly, for Michael, ever the sensitive soul that he was, jumped in at once.
"Please don't pay him mind, Frank," he said, his brows creasing together. "He was – we both were quite worried. He's simply had a lot on his mind."
"Oh," Frank replied, taking a heavy breath. "Yes, of course."
"The running of the estate, you know…"
"Of course. I hope – there is no trouble?" Frank managed through the quick tightening in his chest, a recollection of his illness flashing through him, a sliver of panic in his limbs.
"No, not at all. Simply – daily existence," Michael replied, finally smiling. "Shall I invite Raymond to dinner tonight? He has been so anxious to see you all better."
"I would love that," Frank answered honestly, and forced his mind to return to all things present, with none of the fancies in his heart allowing themselves to take over him.
He was all better. He was all better, and about to return home. He had to write Mother and let her know at once.
Raymond had given Frank a hug that squeezed them both together until Frank could barely breathe through his misused lungs, but he laughed through it and patted his friend on the back.
"I am so happy to see you," he said sincerely as Raymond refused to let go.
"Not as happy as I am to see you," Raymond replied and gave Frank another squeeze before letting go and gripping his shoulders as he looked him in the eye. "You gave me such a scare. Please let us never do that again."
"I shall do my best," Frank laughed and patted Ray on the cheek. "It really is wonderful to see you," he added and they both laughed. "How is Miss Christine?" he asked, noting Raymond's jolly mood.
Raymond let go and flashed him a look. "I am certain I know not of what you speak."
"I'm sure," Frank replied and let it drop, for now.
They were seated shortly after, just the four of them, as Frank had missed most achingly. The meals being brought up to him every day, three times a day, for the past fortnight, had been delicious to be sure, but he had so grown weary of little company.
"So, Gerard," Raymond turned to their host. Gerard looked startled to have been addressed and refused to meet anyone's eye. "How will it feel to be rid of this nuisance, eh?"
Frank mock-swatted at him, but kept his gaze on Gerard, his heart suddenly racing. Gerard, for his part, appeared to swallow his bite with some difficulty, but when he responded, it was with a smile. "Oh, wonderful, of course. You know how much space Frank tends to take up. Really, it was difficult to fit in the house with him in it."
All laughed, including Frank, for he had appeared to have lost half a stone during his illness. He also noticed that the servants had given him approximately twice as much beef as they had given anybody else.
"But, truly," Gerard continued, this time meeting Frank's gaze directly. "I am happy to have been able to provide him with a home while he recovered. We are relieved that all is – well," he finished softly.
Frank swallowed and nodded, feeling the shakiness of the movement as if from far away. "Thank you. Thank you – both," he responded, breaking Gerard's intent gaze to glance at Michael.
Raymond, as if sensing that not everything was as cheerful as it should have been, proceeded to regale Frank with tales of their mutual acquaintances, making sure to send all of the wishes of good health that Frank had been receiving during his convalescence. Frank was grateful for Raymond, for Gerard seemed most distant, as if Frank's mere presence made it difficult for him to remain in good spirits.
Frank did what he could to tamp down the feeling, paying the most attention to Raymond and his stories, and try to remind himself that sometimes, friends grew tired of each other, and a little distance allowed these things to mend themselves in due course. For that was all this was for Gerard, he told himself, and Frank had not permanently torn apart their friendship with one sleep-induced embrace.
For his part, Frank was certain now that the last thing he wanted to do was leave Gerard's side, no matter how cold and distant, and the worst thing he could do was stay and rip apart their friendship forever.
Raymond had stayed well past dinner, chatting amiably with Michael, while Frank had attempted to engage in conversation and failed rather spectacularly. Gerard, for his part, had gone over to the pianoforte and started up a few notes, the minor key infusing the melody with melancholy.
Frank had pictured himself walking over to the instrument, allowing Gerard to continue playing, and letting him know just how beautiful he'd found the piece. But Gerard's expression was so difficult to read for once, that Frank had not dared, and simply continued to listen.
He had pretended not to notice Raymond's worried glances in his direction, and Michael's, in Gerard's.
Overall, Frank had been relieved to be allowed to go back to his rooms and pack up the few belongings that had been brought up for him from home and ready himself for tomorrow's journey home.
He let the candle burn for a long time as he attempted sleep, but it evaded him. Instead, he sat at the window and read his novel, eyes roving the pages again and again without picking up their meaning. His mind floated, his body exhausted, but sleep simply would not come.
Even so, he started when a soft knock came from the other side of his door.
"Come in," he called out softly, noting mindlessly the short hand of the clock bearing towards one.
Heart pounding, he watched as the door creaked open and Gerard slipped through, quietly shutting it behind him.
"I was out in the garden," he said, looking wind-blown and nervous. "I saw the light in your window, and I – I'm sorry if I'm disturbing you –"
Frank hurried to respond with, "Not at all, please – I'm so… I am pleased to see you," he admitted, knowing that it was not even a portion of the whole truth.
Gerard's expression relaxed and for the first time in a while, he looked closer to the Gerard who had teased Frank about his childhood. Still nervous, still strange, but a friend. "I wanted to – apologise," he said next.
Gerard ran a hand through his hair and winced, looking away as he paced between the door and Frank's window. "Yes, I – I feel as if I've behaved badly towards you these past few days, and I know, I know you must have noticed, and I had to –"
A fear gripped Frank, a fear of something inevitable, something wholly irreparable, and he said, voice too loud, "No, no, nothing of the –"
"Please, Frank," Gerard interrupted softly. "Please. Let me finish."
Their eyes met and Frank subsided, gripping the edge of the window seat.
"I – I'm afraid I've rather shown my…my hand," Gerard said, gaze on the floor.
Gerard looked up and shrugged, a sad smile forming on his lips. "I am afraid, Frank, that I might have – misled you. As to my… As to my character."
Frank bit his lip, feeling the frown forming on his face. "How - how do you mean?" His mind raced through the possibilities, none making any sort of sense at all.
"Surely you must – Frank, you must know of my feelings for you," Gerard replied, his voice agitated, his face a picture of pain. Frank's heart sped up, his skin flushing, everything in his body waking up.
"Gerard, I simply have no –"
"Please, Frank, don't be cruel, you – you are not capable of cruelty, I know." Gerard's voice broke and Frank watched, eyes wide, mind in a whirl, as Gerard sat down heavily onto the bed and went on. "I know, and that is why I am saying this right now, I am telling you because I know I can trust you not to give up my secret, but I simply could not let you leave without explaining, without letting you know…"
Frank felt his mouth drain of moisture, his face drain of blood. "Know what," he whispered.
Gerard looked up and straightened out his back. "It is not your fault. It isn't, and I cannot have you thinking you have somehow caused a rift in our – in our friendship, when it's been me, me, all along, who has allowed this to happen, and you need not – you need not fear anything from me."
Frank felt awareness settling in, into his bones, his skin, his very heart. "What would I have to fear from you?" he asked, at once frightened and hopeful.
Gerard's answer took a long time to come. Frank watched, as they both barely breathed, the truth flowing out between them, blossoming into being, and Gerard's hands gripped the covers of the bed as he took a deep breath and answered, "I shall never allow my feelings to put you in any danger, of myself, or of anything - anybody else."
Frank closed his eyes, and asked, "And what – what feelings of yours could put me in such danger?"
He heard a movement, and when he looked up, Gerard was standing upright, his face a picture of sorrow. "That I am, completely and irrevocably, in love with you," he answered.
Frank's mind seized, his body seizing with it. It could not – it simply could not be, it was a fever dream, surely, just like all others where improbable things happened in the most improbable ways.
And yet when he shut his eyes and opened them again, Gerard was still there, looking thunderously determined, terrified, and beautiful all at once. Frank shut his eyes and turned away, allowing himself to savour the moment before it had to end.
"Gerard," he said, the word choked out of him. "Gerard," he breathed.
"Frank, I am sorry," Gerard replied, voice soft and defeated. "I would never have – I would never have dared, except that the truth is, well, it was crucial that you knew the true nature of it, the true nature of what I am, and having seen it now, seen all of it, I assure you that you will never have to be burdened with it again, as I understand how –"
"Shut up," Frank barked, turning back to Gerard and realising only then what he'd said. "I'm sorry, that was – Gerard, I'm sorry," he said, attempting to put together words that would allow them both to leave this moment even somewhat whole.
"Don't be," Gerard answered, turning away and gripping the post of the bed. "Please, don't."
Frank forced himself to rise, skirt the chair, and take the three small steps to bring himself to Gerard. "Please. Turn around."
Gerard obeyed, but did not look at Frank.
"Gerard, you're – you are no more danger to me than I am to you," he finally said, and, feeling daring in the dimness, allowed himself to lift Gerard's chin until they were face to face. "I've loved you since first we met," he whispered. "My nature is the same as yours."
For a frozen moment, Frank studied Gerard's face – the nervous set of his brow, the half-opened mouth, the wide almond eyes – and then he could no longer see it because Gerard leaned in and kissed him.
Frank's mind went blank. Gerard's lips were soft, yet his kiss was bruising, and they stood on the verge of a breath for such a long time, Frank thought that he might fall. And then the moment passed, and Frank pulled away, closing his eyes and dropping his head.
"We – we can't," he breathed, his body rebelling against the very thought.
"Yes," Gerard answered, this time forcing Frank to look at him. "We can," he urged when Frank dared meet his eyes. His whole demeanour appeared to change. "The obstacles I had previously believed to – Frank, this – this does not happen, ever," he said, his mouth absurdly smiling, despite all that has passed between them. "You said –"
"I know what I said, Gerard!" Frank took a step back and forced himself to go on despite the hurt on Gerard's face. "But – this does not happen, ever, for a reason. I know what it is I feel, and I – I cannot believe that the feeling is – shared, that you – but we cannot."
"There is no rule –"
"There is a law," Frank interrupted, his voice loud to his own ears. He forced it to drop as he went on. "A thousand laws, Gerard, a thousand ways that this cannot be." His body felt tight with fear and fight. His every instinct warred with logic and the knowledge that he was ruining his own happiness and Gerard's with every word. "I wish for nothing more than –"
His words were stolen by another kiss, and this time, he could not make himself pull away so easily. He heard his own words turn into a moan as Gerard's arms came around him, Gerard's chest flush with his, and Gerard's mouth and tongue, seeking answers with Frank's.
"This is more than laws are capable of governing," Gerard breathed as he reached inside Frank's dressing gown and touched the skin over Frank's heart, beating loudly between them. Their breath was hot and fast, and Frank let Gerard's voice wash over him as he panted. "No law can tell me that what I feel is wrong, if it's returned."
"I know. I know you're scared, I'm terrified," Gerard went on urgently. "But if we're going to remain friends, you must hear me out." Their foreheads brushed and Frank ached with the desire to crush Gerard to him, to feel their cheeks press against each other, to feel their bodies intertwine. "We can never undo this moment, and I would not ever wish to," Gerard continued in a furious whisper, as if he knew that Frank was readying himself to pull away, to put the necessary distance between them. "Do you – do you think that we can simply walk away, right now, having – having shared this secret, and go on? As we had been? As if – as if we were not aware of what the other was feeling?"
Frank squeezed his eyes shut. He was so tired, so achingly tired of keeping himself in check, of keeping his nature and his past to himself, but schoolboy dalliances and back alley strokes were nothing, nothing compared to what he was feeling right now, as if his body could not contain all the love and desire and fury that battled inside him.
He had resigned to his fate long ago, knowing that a love story – a happy one, at that – was not to be. He merely wished to rise above his anger and then the resignation, rise enough that he could feel content with his lot in life, and not shame himself or his parents. He had never imagined that he would fall in love, and that the love would be returned, and he took a steadying breath, and then another, and forced himself to speak. "What would you have us do, then?" He could not keep the bitterness from his own voice.
"I'd have you kiss me again, for one," Gerard whispered, his hand tightening around Frank's waist. Frank gulped for breath. "I'd have us talk, as lovers do. I'd have you smiling." Frank felt Gerard's hand give him a slight shake, as if vying for attention. Frank could not imagine his attention being anywhere but on Gerard.
"Smiling – Gerard, this is –"
"Just you and I right now," Gerard said and kissed Frank again, and again, and again, until all Frank could taste and smell and breathe was Gerard – his taste, his smell, his breath. They stumbled back until Frank felt his legs pinned between the bed and Gerard's body. It was warm and soft and hard and so alive, it took Frank's breath away.
"Just… just you and I," he mumbled, hands already betraying him and lifting to embrace Gerard, run over his back, and down until they met his backside.
"Yes," Gerard replied, and dipped them down.
Frank fell. His breath could barely be contained within his chest as Gerard's chest met his own, their mouths catching together in a tangle of a kiss. It was dizzying. Gerard was heavy, crushing Frank into the sheets, and Frank knew it was wrong, knew, and could not stop. He sought Gerard's lips and tongue out again and again, as Gerard's hands roamed all over his body. Frank's cock was hard, a live thing between them, and he cried out when Gerard's body pressed up against it, the sound torn out of his throat against his will.
"Dear God," he breathed, snatching his mouth away and burying his hot face against the pillow beneath him. His eyes squeezed shut as if of their own volition.
"Frank, Frank, Frank," Gerard whispered, slithering down his body, kissing all the places his mouth found. "Please, please let me…" Gerard's voice trailed off, but his hands did not stop moving until Frank's dressing gown was tossed aside, and his desire made known to them both, a shameful manifestation of all he felt.
Frank whined low in his throat and made to cover himself up, but Gerard caught his wrist in a grip Frank would not have expected from him. "You are so beautiful," he whispered, eyes catching Frank's gaze. "I – I cannot –"
Frank bit his lip and, attempting not to catch sight of his own prick, freed a hand and reached for Gerard, pulling him up, bringing him down against him. "You," he began, then stopped, for he did not know the words. "I want – I need –"
Gerard's erection was the answer he'd been seeking, and he shut his eyes and pushed him down, until it was Gerard gasping against his skin, burying his face in the crook of Frank's neck and sending shiver after shiver down his body.
"Please, please, I need – God help me –" Frank mumbled as Gerard repeated his movement, until their cocks were lined up against each other, and they were rutting, mindless, animalistic movements that shut off all thought and brought such pleasure as Frank had never, ever known before. He shuddered with each thrust, the fabric of Gerard's shirt clutched tightly in his fists, their ragged breathing the only sound they dared to make.
"Frank –" Gerard choked out, then clamped his mouth over Frank's shoulder and bit down, shaking so hard, Frank nearly lost all breath. Frank sucked in tiny, gasping breaths, his lungs seeking out air that would not come, and then he felt it, Gerard's completion, a shuddering, slick thing, a single gorgeous sound that took his breath away completely. Gerard whimpered as he slowed, and Frank held him in place and shoved up against him as his own orgasm built, built so irrevocably, he could not stop it if he tried. Without thought or apology, he bit at Gerard's neck and shuddered, limbs seizing up, as he followed Gerard over that edge, wave after wave of mindless pleasure so intense, he thought he'd lose all consciousness.
The mortification of what he'd done did not hit him until a moment later, when Gerard dropped a single kiss into his hair, and slowly tipped himself to the side, away from Frank, an angry red welt blooming on his skin that was shaped like Frank's mouth.
Humiliation crashed around Frank's ears. "Oh God," he breathed and turned over onto his back, hiding his face in his arm, unable to breathe. "Oh God, what have we done," he mumbled.
"No, I can't, I –"
He could not breathe. Before he could process the movement, he was sitting up, curling into a ball, his back to Gerard, his face in flames. He fumbled to pull the covers over his lap, concealing the traces of what he'd done.
Gerard's hand burned as he gently touched Frank's back, and Frank shuddered, his body betraying him once more. "Gerard, I – I can't. What have we done?" he repeated in a whisper, unable to open his eyes and confront anything.
Gerard was silent next to him for a long time. He barely made a sound as he moved, but Frank felt the bed tipping next to him.
"Did you – did that feel terrible?" Gerard asked finally, his voice barely above a whisper. "To you?"
Frank made a noise of protest, then forced himself to speak the truth. "God. No."
He felt Gerard's touch return, a hot palm the only warmth on his back. "I had never felt anything like it," Gerard spoke softly. It felt like a confession.
"Neither – neither had I," Frank admitted. His body ached with tension, and he noted without thought the tightness in his lungs and a churning in his stomach that did not feel like anything he knew.
"Please tell me what is wrong, then," Gerard asked, creeping ever closer, his breath ghosting over Frank's ear. Frank nearly laughed.
"What's wrong?" He forced himself to face Gerard and turned his head. In the dark, Gerard's eyes stood out like mirrors, bright and huge and tragic. "Everything, Gerard. Everything about this is wrong. We are. We're wrong."
"We're not," Gerard shot back. His hand on Frank's back curled into a fist, taking Frank's shirt with it, a tight grip. "We are anything but wrong." Frank watched him silently, feeling as if any moment he would cry from the confusion between them.
"How can you – how can you say that, when we have sinned?" he asked. "We have committed a sin of the flesh, we've gone against all laws of –"
"Of what, society?" Gerard asked in a derisive tone. "You know better than –"
"Of nature," Frank interjected hotly. "Of everything we've ever been taught."
"We have been taught wrong." Gerard's face was suddenly thunderous, all of his warmth and malleability replaced with a hard-faced anger, looming over Frank. "What I feel, what I feel for you," Gerard went on, "I could not ever think was wrong. What we have done was – it was – nothing so beautiful could ever be wrong. Loving you," he reached out and gently touched Frank's cheek, expression softening. "Loving you is never wrong."
Frank forced himself to breathe steadily, even as Gerard's words sought to eviscerate him from the inside out, tumbling into utter confusion in his mind. "You are a sorcerer," Frank mumbled, casting down his eyes so he could not see Gerard's face. "Or perhaps a being from another world. How can you – say that, knowing what I am, what has been written into law, and punished –"
Frank bit his own lip in frustration. "Gerard –"
"No, listen to me. Please." Gerard spoke the last word softly, pleadingly, and Frank forced himself to listen. "Look at me," Gerard requested. Frank obeyed. "What do you feel?"
Frank squeezed his eyes shut. "Shame."
"Beneath the shame," Gerard went on undaunted. "What is in your heart?"
Frank breathed deeply in, and searched within himself. Searched for the truth. A truth that was not defined by anything outside these four walls.
When he opened his eyes, it hurt to look truth in the face, but he made himself answer. His heart hammered within his chest. "Such affection for you that it's bringing me to my knees," he whispered. "I feel as if I will die if I don't get to kiss you again. To touch you. To love you the way we've already done."
Gerard kissed him in reply. Frank thought, surely he must shatter, surely, his body would be unable to withstand so much, but his body stayed intact as his mind reeled. Once more unable to stop himself, he allowed Gerard to push him down into the bed.
"You'll ruin me," Frank breathed as Gerard's lips nipped at his neck, and his teeth sank into the skin beneath.
"I want to," Gerard whispered and slipped his hands beneath Frank's waist. "I want to ruin you," he repeated as Frank's stomach fluttered and his cock grew hard once more. "I'll make you taste it, make you want it, make you die from pleasure," Gerard breathed, words gaining speed and power, ramming into Frank again and again. Stripped of all his barriers, and of his dressing gown, Frank had no choice but to submit to the truth.
"I want you to," he confessed and his back arched as Gerard slipped down and took Frank's cock into his mouth. Frank lost control.
Frank stared at the canopy of the bed, so familiar by now, and breathed in shaky breaths.
"Stop thinking," Gerard whispered beside him and rolled over until his knee rested against Frank's hip, his arm encircling Frank's chest. Frank laughed and took a moment to kiss his hair, musky and damp.
"That's never been very easy for me," he confessed and brought Gerard closer to him, reveling in the feel of his skin against Frank's own. It was a revelation, such an embrace, and he relished it, took it in as much as he could, in case it was the last.
"We'll have to work on that," Gerard replied with a smile Frank could feel against his neck. He grinned in response despite himself. His previous misgivings had disappeared sometime in the night, driven away by Gerard's embraces.
"I'm sure I have no idea how you would go about fixing this problem," he told him and mindlessly brushed his fingers across Gerard's pale arm, enjoying the masculinity of the sinews and the tendons, the tapered fingers, the point of the elbow.
"I don't doubt that you do, actually." Frank felt a soft kiss at the base of his neck and smiled, leaning into it, turning in the circle of Gerard's arms.
"You're wicked," he informed him, and ran a tentative hand down Gerard's entire body, stopping haltingly at every new plane and curve, enticing soft gasps from Gerard's mouth.
"I have my – ah – doubts as to that, considering I am not the one who – oh, fuck - not the one who –"
"Say that again," Frank breathed and ran his hand up to grasp Gerard's hair and tug until Gerard was facing him again.
"What?" Gerard grinned. "What would you have me say –"
Frank gripped his hair ever tighter and squeezed.
"Mmm, fuck," Gerard breathed, eyes sliding closed, his cock nudging Frank's hip anew.
Frank covered Gerard's lips with his own and rolled them over. There would be time for talking, and time for reality to intrude, but no one was awake besides themselves in the house, and the candle had burned down long ago. He did as he'd been bidden, and allowed his mind to rest.
Gerard woke him in the grey light of dawn. Frank started and gasped, looking around them.
"Shh, calm down, it is all right," Gerard whispered. Frank frowned, settling back, and noticed that Gerard was wearing his shirt. He looked down. And his trousers. Gerard nodded, as if in apology. "I know. It hurts to leave you, but I must, if we are to be careful," he said, caressing Frank's cheek and tunneling his fingers through Frank's hair.
"Are we?" Frank swallowed against the rasp in his voice. "Are we to be careful?"
They watched each other in the growing light. The house was waking up, and Frank could hear the birds twitter beyond the windows. Somewhere, a door slammed.
"I don't wish to…assume, but – I hope that last night meant the same to you as it did to me," Gerard said carefully.
Frank would have laughed, if he'd been capable of it at that moment. "Of course," he said instead, covering Gerard's hand with his own. "Of course it did."
"Then," Gerard lowered his head until their foreheads touched, "we are to be careful. We are to be exceptionally careful."
"Yes," Frank breathed and shut his eyes. How would it even work?
"We'll make it work," Gerard said as if in answer. "I will make sure of that."
Frank's mind rebelled at the thought of even trying, but he knew there would be time for doubt. Right now, he pulled himself up until he could kiss Gerard's mouth and slide his hands up through his hair, and stay together, even if for a moment.
There was little ceremony when Frank finally left Bray Manor. Gerard and Michael saw him off, Gerard holding Frank's arm as he got into the carriage Father had sent over. Wilkins greeted him with a warm smile, and all Frank could do was give quiet thanks and be bundled off home.
He leaned out of the window and watched Gerard and Michael grow smaller and smaller, Gerard still as a statue, hands clasped behind his back, while Michael waved and waved until the carriage took a turn and all but the trees and the lane disappeared from view.
Frank sat back and attempted to pass the time dosing, and not thinking. Of course, no matter how hard he tried, the thoughts swirling all around his mind would not be stilled, and all he could do was close his eyes and let them pass, unbidden.
"Ah," his father said as Frank made his way into the sitting room. "I am happy you are home," he added, watching Frank carefully from his seat, book propped open on his lap.
"Thank you, Father," Frank nodded just as Mother rose to greet him with a kiss. "It's good to be home."
"Darling," she said as they embraced. "It has not been the same without you. Please, come. I bade the servants to prepare your favourites today in celebration. Tea? Just to tide you over?"
Frank laughed as she gushed, shaking his head. "Thank you, Mother, I'm quite all right. I shall let you know if I require anything."
They sat in silence after that, his mother sending contented glances his way, Father frowning down at his pages.
Frank could not read. His mind reeled of all that had happened since he'd last been in his room. He could not believe it'd been a mere fortnight; it felt like a decade. He had left home with his heart largely tucked away, intact, safe, and come back without it.
If he turned his head slightly, he could still smell the faintest whiff of Gerard in his hair, across his skin. Instantly, he was miles away, ensconced in Gerard's guest bed, in the dark, writhing beneath him, sweating into the sheets.
Blaming exhaustion, he excused himself and fled to his bedroom.
"Are you quite sure you are up for this?" Mother asked worriedly as Frank took a minute to mount Sweet Pea. "You are just over your illness."
Frank smiled down at her as soon as he was in his seat. "I'm quite all right, Mother, I promise. Dr. Parks had mentioned that exercise would do me good," he lied.
"Well, I suppose… It is quite a nice day, isn't it?" she replied, allowing her shawl to slip from her shoulders, watching the cloudless skies. "Please take care not to take too long, all right?"
"I promise," Frank replied and squeezed his legs hard. Sweet Pea took off at a gallop.
He had received a note from Gerard that very morning, and the waiting had been nothing short of painful as he climbed the walls until he could leave.
He rode hard now towards his destination. Of course Gerard would come up with something like this. It was dangerous and mad and Frank found himself not caring even a little bit. Just the chance to see him – to see him alone - seemed worth it just now. His whole existence appeared to be tethered to the moment he would see Gerard again. He forced himself to loosen his hold on the reins. His heart beat fast.
The shady spot out by the meadow was quite picturesque. Frank slowed Sweet Pea down to a trot as he looked around, attempting to spot Gerard. Perhaps he was too early, after all.
And then he saw him. Gerard was half-lying on a blanket under a low-hanging tree, with a veritable feast, from what Frank could tell, spread out before him. His own horse was tied to the tree and feasting on some of the tall grass around it. Frank's heart beat hard as he made his way towards them.
He had just managed to dismount and bring Sweet Pea over when Gerard rose from the blanket and swept up to Frank, leading with a kiss.
Frank gasped and barely managed to hold onto Sweet Pea's reins. Gerard was all around him, arms wrapping round Frank's waist, bringing them impossibly close, his mouth tasting of fruit and lemonade. It felt like eternity dissipating, the closeness of them going right to Frank's head. He could not believe it had been but two days since their last kiss – and since their first. He was already craving more.
"Oh God, I've missed you," Gerard breathed against him as they separated enough to grab some air into their lungs. "Are you feeling well?"
Frank could not help but laugh, stumbling as he did so. "I am slightly unsure, actually," he replied. "Right now, I am rather lightheaded."
Gerard smiled in understanding and helped Frank tether Sweet Pea to a tree, where she joined Gerard's stallion in munching on the proffered grass. Then he led them both down onto the blanket, its surface bumpy from the plants buried beneath it.
"We could hide in these weeds," Frank remarked as he sank down.
Gerard's eyes appeared to positively twinkle. "That was rather the point, yes."
Frank cut his eye at him and broke off a piece of a bun for himself. "Wicked intentions?" he asked after a moment of watching Gerard arrange his limbs into a rather fetching lounging pose.
"With you?" Gerard asked, sticking a long reed between his teeth. "Always, actually. Even now."
Frank felt himself blushing helplessly beneath the sun. He ate the rest of his bun in silence, looking anywhere but at Gerard. Around them, dragonflies buzzed, and their horses huffed in unison.
"Would you like some lemonade?" Gerard offered. "I got us two jars, in case you were thirsty."
Frank accepted it with a smile, and the cool glass shocked his fingers as he did so. He felt strangely out of body and mind here, a place he had never been to before, doing things he had never done.
"A picnic," he said, finally settling down enough to turns his gaze back to Gerard, who watched him patiently, like a man with all the time in the world offered to him, still chewing on his reed. "When did you think of this?"
"Earlier this morning," Gerard smiled and spit the reed out. "I felt we had to take advantage of the beautiful day."
"And the Sunday mass," Frank noted, "where we would not be missed."
"You noticed." Gerard's smile took on a whole other quality.
"I did," Frank confirmed.
It took some maneuvering on Gerard's part, but a few moments later, nothing stood between them as Gerard devoured Frank's mouth in a heady kiss. Frank gave a startled moan, a humiliatingly open and indecent noise born out of him by heedless need.
"Lord, you are godless," Frank whispered helplessly, Gerard's body bearing down onto his own, their arousal already obvious to both. Gerard did not answer at first, but bit down at the apex of Frank's neck, where he was weakest to resist.
"Not at all," Gerard breathed after kissing the spot better. "I simply have no need for the church and its preaching." His voice pitched low in Frank's ear, and Frank grabbed him tightly back, unable to stop himself. His legs fell open to accommodate Gerard's body between them.
"You follow your own moral code, do you," he breathed back, their mouths meeting once again, no longer tasting of anything but the two of them. Frank could not stop himself from falling into it, allowing Gerard to overbear him, half-hidden as they were by the looming reeds and flowers of the meadow.
"I follow my heart," Gerard replied softly into Frank's ear, and Frank fumbled for purchase, hands gripping the increasingly frustrating fabric of Gerard's clothes. He wanted so much to be rid of them, to cast everything in the world aside and exist with Gerard alone, do with Gerard what he pleased. "I've missed you so much, I can hardly believe it," Gerard went on, as if he could read Frank's mind. "It has not even been two days, and yet…" He punctuated his words with small movements against Frank that seemed to be designed to further drive Frank out of his mind.
"Miss me? Which part of me?" Frank managed to retort before putting a firm hand on Gerard's chest and stilling him long enough to get his own breath back.
"All of you," Gerard grinned, unperturbed, and slid his own warm hand over Frank's. "Every part."
Frank shut his eyes and licked his lip, unable to believe himself in this very moment. "Tell me. How did you miss me?" Decorum should have forbidden him to speak in such a way at all, but he was no longer being ruled by anything but his own desires, and he felt the urgent need to know, to hear Gerard speak to him as nobody else ever had, or ever could. "Tell me," he repeated, eyes still closed, breathing harsh and shallow. "Please."
The next thing he knew, Gerard was untangling himself from their embrace long enough to slide carefully down until Frank felt his weight over his own knees. When he opened his eyes, Gerard's face was flushed and earnest. Their gazes met.
"All right," Gerard nodded and unerringly found the buttons of Frank's waistcoat. "I shall tell you," he nodded, and easily side-stepped Frank's halfhearted attempts at fending off his hands. The first buttons came undone and Frank's heart went into a gallop. "I missed your face," Gerard whispered, watching the very part of Frank he was describing. "I missed the easy way you blush, because you hide no secrets."
Frank shut his eyes and felt a breeze over the thin fabric of his exposed shirt. "I – I hid at least one secret from you."
"So you did," Gerard agreed easily, and Frank felt the shock of his shirt being untucked from his trousers. As if in opposition to the reality they were both eager to escape, his flesh grew hotter with each movement. "But I can read you now."
Frank bit his lip and turned away, only opening his eyes when he knew he'd only see grass and flowers. "What else? What else did you miss?"
"Your skin." Gerard's voice now rumbled against Frank's belly, breath hot and wet. "The way it feels beneath my hands."
Frank became aware of how close to the road they truly were. "What if – what if we get caught –" He felt a panic at the very thought, for there was nothing equivocal about what they were doing, no room at all for evasion or deceit.
"Nobody but you and I has been here for hours. I know, I've watched," Gerard assured him and, with gentle fingers on Frank's chin, forced Frank to look at him. "This is as far as I could get us away from danger. The grass and this tree will protect us."
He sounded so sure and firm, Frank chose to believe him. He nodded, his unshaven cheek rasping against Gerard's fingers, and shifted until Gerard quirked a smile and understood. The sun appeared to make his face glow pink.
He scooted further down Frank's body until he was a picture of immodesty, made even more so by the daylight and the open air. His face buried against the skin of Frank's lower belly, he mumbled, "I missed your cock."
Frank squeezed his eyes shut and willed himself to control, even though his entire body appeared to be thrumming, throbbing in some primitive rhythm.
"Gerard," he breathed, but Gerard forestalled him with a quiet shush, and then undid Frank's trousers with a halting movement.
Frank threw his arm over his mouth so he would not make a sound, almost scared that any noise would stop Gerard from his goal, and allowed it to happen, for the second time in his life – Gerard's mouth, on his cock.
He whimpered and forgot to breathe all at once. The pleasure being wrung from him just from the heat and tightness alone was difficult to bear, and he watched the blue, cloudless skies above them for salvation.
Gerard went about his task silently, the only noise the harsh breaths leaving his lungs, but even so, Frank could tell he was enjoying it nearly as much as Frank himself. He realised that he did not find this odd. In fact, he realised, through the haze of the air around them and the beating of his heart, that his mouth watered at the thought of – reciprocation. He wondered what Gerard was experiencing, positioned as he was, with Frank's length filling up his mouth and rubbing against his tongue.
He tightened the hand that had found itself entangled in Gerard's hair, and wished to warn him – he was close, he was so, so close – but Gerard ignored him once more. Instead, he squeezed Frank's hip tighter and sucked him harder, with clear and obvious intent.
Frank cried out as he shot down Gerard's mouth and throat, watching in bewildered fascination as some of it spilled from Gerard's lips and ran down his chin; he thought his heart would break apart at the sight.
"Gerard," he panted, his fingers tingling.
Gerard licked his lips and gave Frank a wicked grin before all but falling back onto Frank's hip. He hummed and idly petted Frank's sides. "I knew I'd missed that for a reason," he finally said. He voice sounded rough; unused; the rumble of it echoed all down Frank's skin. "Good God, Frank. You'll be the death of me."
Frank laughed despite himself and his head fell back against the grass as he laughed hoarsely up at the skies, unable to believe that he was here, right now, with this man, as if they had not a care in the world. He felt so much emotion all at once, he found he had no words for any one of them at all.
The moment appeared to stretch, infinite in its depth, until his mind nudged at him that he had some wicked intentions of his own. "I want –" he began, then stopped, the sound getting caught in his throat.
"Yes?" Gerard asked in a faint whisper. "Tell me. Tell me what you want, my love," he urged, lifting his head enough and watching Frank with those fathomless eyes Frank could not withstand. He watched them, and the bright spots on Gerard's pale cheeks, then tried his voice again.
"I want to – suck your cock. The way you have mine." He watched as Gerard's gaze turned darker under his scrutiny. "I want to taste you."
Gerard silently rolled over until he was on his back and slowly took Frank's hand. "Please," he said, and his voice broke over the one syllable. The sound fascinated Frank, for he knew that it was a rare occasion when Gerard Way could not speak. "Please," Gerard repeated hoarsely, and moved Frank's hand down to his prick, hard beneath the fabric.
Frank freed his hand and scrambled down, feet kicking over food and drink in his haste. He found he could not watch Gerard's face as he worked his breeches open, but could only focus on uncovering the necessary parts to get to his goal. Gerard's cock loomed in his vision once freed, and Frank touched its silky hardness, ran his hands over its length, fascinated by how strange it was to handle something so similar to himself and yet altogether different.
Touching Gerard was absolutely nothing like touching himself.
He knew he was flushed and must look ridiculous, but he pushed the thought out of his mind as he lowered his mouth and kissed the tip, already slick. He licked his lips and shifted down, feeling the first taste of Gerard on his tongue blossom. Without thinking, he leaned back down again and slipped the very tip between his lips. Gerard was restless above him, attempting to be quiet but not succeeding, tiny breathy staccatos escaping his lips now and again. Frank closed his eyes and allowed the sounds to wrap around them. His elbow was bent beneath him uncomfortably, and his knees dug into the ground, but he found he did not care.
Gerard's cock was thick and heavy in his mouth, chafing his lips with every stroke, catching on his tongue and teeth, slicking everything with its salty bitter taste. Frank felt like he could fall apart. He slowly found a rhythm, the way Gerard had found with him, but it was difficult to keep with his heart beating erratically and spurring him to go faster, harder, suck longer and deeper. It became even harder to do once Gerard's hips started up a halting rhythm of their own, as if restraint was getting away from him, as if Frank was giving him uncontrollable pleasure. He nearly choked himself in his enthusiasm to prove this right, so good Gerard tasted, so new. Despite his body's every tiny protest, he never wanted to stop, never wanted Gerard's cock to slip from his mouth.
He felt himself growing hard in response, as well, marveling at his body's ability to lose every single battle with propriety and sense.
With hunger, he sucked Gerard until Gerard's cries penetrated his blissful mind and he detected urgency in Gerard's voice, urgency in the hand now forcing him up and off.
"Oh," he choked out as Gerard succeeded, and then caught the first spurt of Gerard's comings on his chin, then neck, and watched in fascination as Gerard climaxed with hardly a touch, his voice breaking from it, his stomach quivering.
Frank fell back onto his back afterwards, feeling entirely spent. Next to him, Gerard lay quietly, his chest heaving with uneven breath. They lay side by side for a few minutes, Frank reliving the moments. He wondered if Gerard was busy doing the same.
Eventually, Gerard's hand found Frank's and squeezed, the sweat on their palms mingling.
"I feel as if I'm floating," Gerard finally said, a hint of a smile in his voice.
"I feel – strange," Frank admitted. Gerard made a soft sound of inquiry beside him. "I feel as if I could lie here forever, like my body – like my body could decompose and decay and become this meadow and I would not care." Frank paused. "That is a strange thought, isn't it?"
"Perhaps," Gerard replied easily. "But I believe I understand."
"Who was – who was your first?" Frank asked after a moment's pause.
Gerard did not reply at once. Frank wondered if Gerard realised how he'd guessed. He wondered if Gerard knew Frank did not care that it was not him.
"Are you sure you wish to know?" Gerard asked at length, his tone careful.
Frank turned until he could prop his head on his hand and look Gerard in the eye. "Yes."
Gerard looked up at the sky. "He was a friend at university. We all… we all had friends, I suppose. Put a hundred boys in one place and let them run wild and it's a miracle more do not turn out to be deviants."
Frank huffed out a soundless laugh, but did not comment.
"Anyway, we were – in love. So we thought, anyway," Gerard added dismissively.
"You don't think it was love?" Frank asked carefully.
Gerard turned back to face him. The bone of his neck stood out prominently at this angle and his mouth appeared nearly bruised from Frank's kisses. Startled, Frank realized the mark he had left on Gerard's skin two days ago still lingered. "No," he said softly. "I do not."
Frank ducked his head and ran a hand over the blanket beneath them to smooth it. "What was his name?"
"Did he – did he ever –" Frank faltered, surprised at how difficult it was to vocalise what he had little trouble doing. "Did he ever do to you what…what I did to you – just now?"
"Hmm. Not as such," Gerard replied and Frank had to look up at that. Gerard smiled ruefully. "I was rather fonder of the act than he was. But he was a skittish sort of lover, I suppose."
"Skittish?" Frank echoed, fingers plucking the stray threads of their blanket.
"Young, perhaps," Gerard corrected. "We were both fumbling and half out of our minds with fear. Schoolboys were ever the same," he said in a voice that appeared to conclude the conversation, and Frank did not press him further. Instead, he scooted closer and leaned in until their lips could touch. Gerard idly stroked his arm as they kissed.
"I suppose our luck will only run for so long," Gerard said afterwards with a tinge of regret. "And I'm afraid we've rather ruined our lunch."
Frank glanced down to where their feet appeared to be covered in food and drink. "Oh, dear."
Gerard sat up and together they did their best to salvage what was left of the food. "This bread appears entirely untarnished!" Gerard exclaimed with some excitement as he broke off a piece and handed it to Frank. "Although," he paused with his own piece halfway to his mouth, "decorum would state that we better tidy ourselves up before eating."
"Decorum?" Frank asked, looking down. His breeches were entirely undone, his belly shocking and pale against the dark thatch of hair and his cock, soft now, and ridiculous. He felt his chin, still sticky with Gerard's come. "I suppose it might actually be too late for that," he finally noted.
"That is a fair point," Gerard agreed, and bit into his bread. "Mmm."
Frank laughed and went to do up his breeches, anyway. Who knew how long their luck would last, indeed.
Once back home, he avoided his parents as much as he could and after a change of clothes, went to his library. He read no words, but he sat and thought of hazel eyes and dark, long hair, and knowing hands, and could not stop.
Days and weeks followed where Frank could barely keep track of time. Stolen moments in the quiet of Gerard's bedroom, hand strokes and gulping breaths, moments where Frank was half out of his mind with fear, just like a schoolboy; moments where he could not remember what danger was at all.
Moments of Gerard on his knees in front of Frank, looking up with those impossible eyes and never closing them as he brought Frank off with his mouth; moments when Frank pushed him up against walls of cupboards or down onto the meadow's grass, and took him in hand and mouth and hand again, took him in ways he could not forestall, his desires having already won over the better senses he had, at one point, possessed.
It was never enough, this kind of love. Each night that he would spend alone in his bedroom, each time that he avoided Michael's or Raymond's gaze, lest they know him for what he was, was a reawakening of unwanted reality in his mind. This was what loneliness felt like, he realised. True loneliness, for now it was doubled in two.
Martha's petticoats swung back and forth as she marched Frank through the market.
"Your mother might get some amusement from this," she told him, hefting a music box in her be-gloved palm. "I fear I've been far too busy to entertain her properly, and you're still not as well as you could be…" There was no reproach in her voice, only concern. "What do you think?"
"We should get it for her," Frank agreed and reached for his pocket. "But it should come from you," he added and she gave him a cheeky grin.
"All right, let us move on!" she announced as soon as the music box was wrapped in paper and put into a parcel for her.
Frank half focused on their errands. They weren't so much errands, really, as ways to entertain their guest. He knew the reason for her stay with them – his parents had hopes. Now that he was largely over his illness, the fervour to find him a suitable wife roared into sudden life before him, and Martha was to be his mother's first victim.
For sure, Mother was also doing it out of the goodness of her heart, for Martha had not been out as much as a young woman her age ought to have been, taking care of her ailing parents, but – but. Frank knew his mother, and he knew her concerns. Of course Martha was the best candidate for the job. It was virtually impossible to dislike her, and her share of the dowry was formidable enough that, combined, the two of them would never know monetary hardship.
Martha tilted her head and put the orange back into the crate. "You're not really here, are you?" she asked and moved enough away from the stall that they would not be in the way. "Is anything – bothering you? Would you like to go back?"
Frank flushed. He was being thoughtless, he realised. "I'm sorry." He really was. "I'm afraid I've become…unaccustomed to company during my illness, and I'm not great company as a result."
She nodded, looking sympathetic, golden curls nodding along. "I understand. It was a horrid fright, your illness. Your mother was beside herself with worry."
Frank hung his head. "I know."
"Oh, don't be daft, it wasn't your fault you fell ill, was it?" Martha laughed and reached out her hand to touch his arm. "We're friends, are we not, Frank?"
"Of course," he replied, startled at the change of topic. They were. He loved Martha. He simply did not wish to marry her.
"And as friends, we can be honest, yes?" she continued, her expression growing serious, light eyebrows drawing together, voice earnest. Frank simply nodded along, flabbergasted. "Then let's decide this here and now – we are not going to pretend this is a courtship."
Frank's eyebrows rose to his hairline. "We're…not?"
She laughed, a tinkly, light sound that turned heads of those around them. "Of course not. We're almost brother and sister. Or, at least, that's how I think of you. And you can tell me otherwise, and I won't believe you – there is not a single part of you that is in love with me, is there?"
"No," Frank uttered before he could stop himself.
"No," she laughed. "I'm afraid we'll have to deeply disappoint Lady Iero, but…" She paused, bit her lip, and then shrugged, as if dropping a weight. "I'd wager to say, Frank, that you're not, well…" She leaned in closer and lowered her voice. "You are not…the marrying kind."
Frank felt a flash of heat run through his whole body. His throat dried up. "How… Whatever do you mean?" he bit out, a touch too forcefully.
"Oh, just – you are a dreamer, I think," she replied. "You will not marry for society's expectations' sake." She paused and gave him a small smile. "Neither will I, for that matter. I've made my choice."
"You have?" Frank asked, baffled, moving them further away down the street as they were jostled to and fro.
"I have!" she pronounced proudly. "I'm here to help your Mother and appease my own. But when it comes to marrying… There is a man in my life to whom I've made a promise."
Frank felt his jaw drop, as if he were in a novel. "Who?"
"As if I'd tell you!" she laughed, then shook her head. "No, a promise is a promise, and it's also a secret promise, so I am afraid I will not reveal his identity. He's…working on building a life for us. When he is done, we shall marry."
Frank watched her proud little nose in the air, her eyes shining bright. She'd always been his favourite cousin. "You're quite extraordinary, Martha Stevenson," he said and a laugh overtook him, a weight lifting from his shoulders.
"You're quite special yourself, Frank Iero," she replied and giggled into her glove. "Come, let us away from these dreary streets. I'll teach you to crochet, if you like," she offered as she took hold of his elbow.
"That would certainly make Father proud," he said in reply.
"I've never been up here," Frank said softly as Gerard led them both up the stairs.
"I only had the idea yesterday, I have no idea why I hadn't thought of it sooner," Gerard replied, throwing Frank a glance over his shoulder. "I let the staff take the day, and Michael is away, so…" He clicked the bolt and pushed the door open in a scatter of dust. "What do you think?" he asked as Frank followed him in.
Frank gazed around him. The turret room wasn't overly large, but it was cosy, cosier than Frank would have believed possible of an attic. When he walked up to the window and looked down, he realised he'd seen this room before.
"This was – there'd been a light up here, the night of your party," he exclaimed, delighted.
Gerard laughed. "Indeed. I thought I'd never hear the end of it from Wilcox. I forgot to blow out the candle, and nearly burned the house down that night. Sorry about that, by the way," he added with an airy wave of a hand.
Frank laughed and turned about himself, taking it all in. "So, is this… is this where you paint?" he asked, realising that he was looking at a studio. Brushes and palettes and Gerard's easel all crowded one corner, with fabric draped over a broken statue and a sort of still life, composed of a skull, a quill, and an ink bottle, on the desk.
Gerard ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. "Sometimes. Mostly, this is where I keep the stuff so nobody gets upset with me."
"Do people often get upset with you?" Frank asked curiously, tilting his head.
"My mother used to, when I'd accidentally splatter paint all over her furniture. I've learned better since then," Gerard smiled.
Frank abandoned his spot by the window and took a step towards Gerard. "And is that bed," he nodded towards the far wall. "Is that for when you get tired?"
Gerard met him with a step of his own and ran a hand through Frank's hair, tucking a stray strand behind his ear. It felt as if his very eyes were smiling at Frank. "Sometimes. But not today," he whispered.
"Oh?" Frank laced their fingers together and lifted Gerard's hand for a soft kiss.
"I had the maid change the sheets on it before she left," Gerard replied and leaned in until he was kissing Frank's cheek. His breath ghosted over Frank's ear as he added, "Those are for us."
Frank did not bother with a reply, choosing instead to take advantage of their current positions and turn his head just enough to catch Gerard's mouth with his own. The kiss deepened immediately, the way they always did, always taking more than they could give at once, always hurrying, always knowing that they were nearly out of time.
Not today, though. Today, Frank knew they finally had all the time in the world. Gerard had locked the attic door, and there was not a soul who could disturb them here. Frank was not expected home until nightfall, and the sky, though darkened by rain clouds, was busy with daylight.
He slowed his kiss until he could slide his tongue against Gerard's and taste his mouth, breathe him in. Gerard moaned against him and gripped Frank's waistcoat, tugging him even closer. The waistcoat was really in the way.
"Come," Frank panted as he walked them backwards, small steps at a time. "Come, I've not seen you without all your clothes in too long," he whispered as Gerard allowed himself to be moved further towards the bed and laughed at Frank's halted movements attempting to reconcile the situation.
"Would you like some assistance?" Gerard asked as they finally tumbled onto the small bed, Frank's attempts to undo Gerard's buttons meeting with little success.
"Yes," he breathed, unable to wait. "Yes, I want to see you bare, please, please, strip down," he begged as he rolled over and started in on his own clothes.
Gerard's laughter ceased as he watched Frank struggle to get free of his own waistcoat and shirt and breeches. Frank flushed as he worked, watching Gerard back, seeing his pale skin appear inch by devastating inch, a sight he had not seen since their first night together, when he was simply too drunk on love and fear to fully take it all in.
Gerard was so beautiful – curved and muscular all at once, with soft hips and hard thighs, and a chest that was begging for Frank's mouth to taste it.
Frank fell on him as soon as they removed their clothes, and maneuvered them on the bed in such a way as to allow him to cover Gerard's pale body with his own completely. Their fingers met, as did their toes, and he breathed in the scent trapped in the crook of Gerard's neck, and hummed. "You smell so good," he whispered, kissing a beauty mark he found under his lips.
"Mmm, if the smell of sweat is your idea of good," Gerard said, wrapping his leg around Frank's waist and sending Frank's mind reeling. They were both obvious with their desires.
"It is," Frank confirmed and propped himself up until he could look Gerard in the eye. "It isn't just sweat, it's… It's grass, I think. Grass and dust and you," he mumbled, slithering down, his cock slipping against Gerard's body as he moved, making him dizzy with pleasure and want. He leaned down and trailed kisses down Gerard's chest, running his overheated cheek across Gerard's cool skin, unable to pinpoint his desires to a single purpose, wanting to take it in, take it all in, until he could no longer tell where each of them began.
As if sensing his predicament, Gerard urged Frank up with his hands and kissed him before rolling them both over and anchoring Frank down onto the bed with his own body.
"There's something," Gerard whispered and ran a finger down Frank's torso, forcing shivers all down Frank's skin with the touch. "There was something I wanted to ask you," Gerard continued, not looking Frank in the eye, talking to his body, instead.
Frank bit his lip and dragged in a deep breath. "Yes?"
"Actually, there was something I wanted to do," Gerard went on softly, and his eyelashes fluttered as he looked up at Frank and then back down again. "We have all this time today, and I've been –"
Frank shook him and laughed. "We won't have all this time if you don't just come out with it," he pointed out and forced Gerard to look him in the eye with a hand in his hair. "Hmm?"
"I wanted to fuck you," Gerard said simply, while Frank's throat dried up. "And I wondered if you'd let me."
Frank's fingers let go of Gerard's hair without his permission. He grew hot, everywhere – his face flushed down to his chest, and he could feel the flush traveling lower and lower, to the place where their bodies melded together, Gerard's cock hard and slick against Frank's hip, and his own, a twin against Gerard's own hip. "Yes," he found himself saying before he even processed the idea. "Yes."
He wanted to get closer, so much closer. He was terrified. He was elated. He was hopelessly, incredibly out of his depth, and he did not ever wish to come up for air.
"Are you sure?" Gerard asked in a whisper and tunneled his fingers through Frank's hair. Frank had not realised he was already damp with sweat, and only felt it at Gerard's touch. "I had not meant –"
"Now, please, Gerard, now," Frank babbled, knowing that if they stopped, stopped now, he might never say ‘yes' again. "Please."
Gerard watched him for a second longer, his eyes barely even green anymore, the huge black of his pupils overtaking the rest, then nodded and pushed away. Frank lay in place as Gerard reached down below the bed, his arse shifting under Frank's touch, and extracted a jar.
Frank threw back his head and laughed despite himself. "You really had this planned, didn't you?"
"Well," Gerard grinned and sat up, and Frank's attention got caught by the way his cock bobbed against his stomach. It was so gorgeous. Strange that Frank found it so gorgeous when his own had never really inspired such reflections, but all he wanted to do at that moment was taste it and suck it to completion. Gerard's words got lost in the rush of desire.
"I said that I had hoped and not so much planned," Gerard responded slowly, catching Frank's eye. "But you do not appear to be listening."
Frank lifted his chin. "No, I was not," he admitted. "I was thinking of sucking your cock."
Gerard abandoned the jar in his hands and grabbed Frank awkwardly around the middle, bringing them both to sitting position, legs knocking against each other, arms twining. "I love your filthy mouth," he breathed before kissing Frank. Frank grinned into the kiss.
"You have unlocked it," he admitted between breathless kisses. "I barely dared to think of cock before, let alone talk of it as if it were normal," he whispered, running a careful finger up and down Gerard's shaft.
Gerard hummed and shifted until his back was to the wall and Frank was sat astride him. "I love your cock," he whispered into Frank's ear. "Someday, I will describe to you in detail how much and why, but right now, I want to fuck you so much, it's like an ache."
Frank laughed and gasped all at once. "Yes, yes, yes," he murmured as Gerard pulled him off for a moment to grab at the confounded tube. "What should I –"
"Come here," Gerard whispered and pulled Frank in again, closer this time, until Frank's forehead touched the cold wall behind them. "I can't claim to be an authority on this, my love, so we will have to learn together," Gerard admitted quietly. "But I think we can manage it like this."
Frank was quiet as Gerard slicked up his fingers and slowly, agonisingly slowly, slipped a single one inside. Frank could not speak, could barely breathe, and he knew he was leaving red welts on Gerard's shoulders with his fingernails. He moaned through the painful pressure and gasped as Gerard's finger slipped out.
"All right?" Gerard's voice was hoarse, and the places where they touched felt like burning. "Frank? Do you want me to – I can stop –"
"N-no, no, please, go on, I just –" He could not think. "Please. More." He flushed at his own voice and gripped Gerard harder, distracting himself from the strange sensation by kissing a muscle in Gerard's shoulder, tense with the act. He shut his eyes and allowed himself to be penetrated, slowly, again and again, the intrusive pressure blossoming into an ache and a want he could not have conceived of before. He wanted this, he wanted - Gerard, Gerard's cock, inside him, fucking him, wringing him inside out. As the thought came, so did the words, tumbling forth with nary a permission from him.
He babbled into Gerard's ear as Gerard hefted him up, babbled about cock and fucking and love and fucking, words he could never have imagined uttering out loud, but Gerard gasped in his ear and encouraged him with urgent hands and hot kisses, until finally Frank was lowering himself onto Gerard's cock and crying out.
He had barely got used to slim fingers, but this was – this was a world of lovemaking he had not been expecting. Gerard's cock felt huge against him, so huge, he did not think that it would work. But he wanted it to, so completely, that he bit his lip and worked until Gerard was buried inside him.
"Oh my God," Frank breathed, throwing his head back and attempting to get enough air. "Oh my God, Gerard."
Gerard replied with broken ah's and curses. Frank panted and scrambled against his chest, trying to steady himself, steady them both, and failing.
"Frank – Frank, oh God –"
"I don't – I – I think you've got to move, please, please move," he gritted out, attempting to listen to his body, to parse out its wants and needs, because his mind was clearly not in control at all.
"Fuck," Gerard bit out and punctuated the word with the move, his cock driving deeper into Frank, and again, and again. Frank cried out and fell against him, his arms going limp. His body was on fire, he was burning up. Every move that Gerard made drove them closer together, then further apart, and closer together again, and Frank had never known more pleasure or more pain. Sensation bled into itself, into his skin, his bones. He spread his legs further, allowed Gerard to fuck him deeper, for gravity to take over and drive him senseless.
It was a fever dream, a hallucination, he thought, except that it felt better, oh God, so much better than a dream. He saw himself, them both, as if from outside their bodies, imagined in his mind the way they looked – Gerard against the wall, one leg supporting Frank, the other loose and hanging off the bed, and Frank himself, spread-out, wound up and wanton, astride him, riding him like – like –
"This is," he panted, gulping for breath and grabbing Gerard's hair and eliciting another wordless moan. "This is obscene. We are - ah - obscene," he breathed and laughed, surprised by himself.
"You think this obscene?" Gerard asked haltingly and grabbed Frank's thighs. "I would wager that any married couple in love engages in this act, and more, my love," he ground out between leaving a hot trail of kisses all up Frank's neck. He looked undone, his eyes having lost all focus, his hair falling in his face.
"We are not married," Frank managed to point out, some senses still left in his head, though they were waning, as his orgasm built higher and higher. He tamped it down, willed the moment to last, to stay, please last. "I," he breathed, "I wish that we were married," he admitted in a rush and hid his face from view in Gerard's hair. "I wish that I could do this on a marriage bed with you, I wish we had all night."
"Every night," Gerard replied, his voice shocking and hoarse in Frank's ear. "Every night for the rest of our lives, Frank," he breathed. "Oh God, I –"
"No, no, please, not yet," Frank begged, barely able to talk. "Please, keep – keep fucking me, keep fucking me until I – until I –"
"I'm sorry," Gerard breathed and gripped Frank's waist, his voice and his body going tight and tense. "You feel too good, I can't – Frank, I can't –"
Frank nodded frantically and rode him harder and faster, his arse burning, his own cock ready to explode without a single touch. "All right," he managed. "All right."
Gerard buried his head against Frank's chest and he came inside him, hot and slick, climaxing for ages, it felt like, moaning as if in pain. Frank thought he'd fall apart from it himself. As soon as Gerard subsided and his body relaxed, his hand was on Frank's cock, and Frank cried out in turn, gripping Gerard's hair. He could never – could never get enough of his hair like this, coarse and slick with sweat, and smelling like him, like Gerard, Gerard all over.
Frank gasped and shut his eyes and on the next stroke, his climax hit him like a bludgeon, and he fell apart completely. The only thing keeping him upright was Gerard's arm, secured tightly around his back.
"We could, you know," Gerard whispered as Frank attempted to get his breath back, unwilling to move despite the pain.
"Could what?" Frank asked, shifting slightly, his body still pulsating somehow, as if in echo. He finally forced himself to lift up and allow Gerard's cock to slip out, wincing from the pain. He felt the mess they'd made together slide out between his legs, feeling self-conscious and not yet able to consider it at all. Instead, he chose to settle back down onto Gerard's lap, the mess be damned.
"Be together," Gerard replied, as if he had not noticed anything amiss, and kissed Frank's skin, tiny touches that were barely felt. "For the rest of our lives. If – if you wanted."
Frank pulled away and forced Gerard to face him. "Gerard –"
"No, please, listen," Gerard interrupted. "Not here, of course not here. But maybe – the laws are not as… well-observed in other places. And people are not as…not as…strict. Everywhere."
Frank felt a frown form on his face, his mind lagging behind. "Gerard, what are you –"
"Let's go away," Gerard rushed on. "I have the means, I'm master of this estate, I have the means – let's go away. Together. We can go – we can go to the Continent, to the Indies, to America."
"America!" Frank gasped with laughter despite himself. "I don't believe you, they're even worse than us."
"The Continent, then," Gerard urged, a manic smile forming on his lips. "We can live on our own, with no one watching our every move."
"I don't believe that it's possible, actually," Frank objected, looking away. "People always watch."
"Not everywhere; not people who don't care," Gerard urged.
Frank forced himself to breathe evenly, but it was so difficult, Gerard's hopeful face blinding him to all reality. "You're not – you are. You're serious about this."
"I am in earnest, Frank," Gerard replied immediately. "I want to be with you. I don't care where, I only care that you want it, too. You do, do you not?" His arms were squeezing the life out of Frank and Frank could not make heads or tails of all the possibilities and all the reasons why this could or should never be.
"You wish to – run away. With me." This could not. This could not be.
"I do," Gerard replied, his face as earnest and plain as Frank had ever seen it. "Come away with me."
Frank shut his eyes and dropped his forehead until it met Gerard's, their skin still sticky and damp and their hearts beating so loudly, he thought for certain the whole house would shake with it. "I need to – I can't –"
"We can," Gerard breathed, as if it was an incantation. "We can be together. You and I."
"What about Michael? Your home, your –"
Gerard's face clouded over, and he looked down, eyelashes throwing shadows on his cheeks. "Michael will understand. He – he understands."
Frank looked at Gerard's face, watched the messy hair obscuring his forehead and falling into his eyes, watched the bright spots of colour on his cheeks, his stunning, bottomless eyes, and kissed him without thinking, kissed his mouth and chin and nose and brows, kept kissing him until he breathed, "Yes, yes, I will, yes," and had his every kiss returned in a frenzied, maddening rush, until they both fell back against the wall and held each other tightly, desperately, as if it was the very last time.
The world, however, felt quite different outside of their cocoon.
Once back in his own home, Frank felt a panic rising, a gigantic beast inside of him, threatening to swallow him whole.
How could he even think about running away, much less agreed to it just like that, easy as anything, as if Gerard had asked him out for a Sunday stroll?
The idea was so mad, so preposterous that he felt the urge to grab Sweet Pea and ride back out, ride until he could take it back, tell Gerard no, I can't, I cannot abandon my world.
He pictured her down at the stables, being tended to after her ride, huffing and sweaty, a friend who would take his secrets to her grave. Frank sagged down onto his bed and shut his eyes.
All right, he thought. I won't go. Now what?
His heart pinched and he pictured Gerard, his eyes wide, eyebrows raised in that mad, sad way he had that showed all of him, all at once. He could still smell their sex on himself, all over his clothes, his hair, his skin. He opened his eyes and thought of his father, destined forever to be disappointed in the only son he'd ever have. He pictured Mother, always determined to change his mind, forever failing.
He pictured endless balls, tedious in the only goal his parents had for him; he thought of his London home, sitting empty until such a time that he would be allowed back, a wife safely in tow.
He thought of clandestine meetings in meadows, quick fumblings in the dark, or empty homes, hearts hammering, jumping at every noise, constantly interrupted lovemaking.
He thought of not being allowed to spend a single night, just a night, asleep next to the one he loved, and never allowed to wake up to him.
He thought of Plato; he thought of God.
He thought, well, maybe.
He thought, all right.
The burden of being a terrible son was nothing new for Frank, which was why he wasn't even surprised that he felt barely anything at all at dinner that night. Martha, bless her soul, took the brunt of the entertaining, chatting away, despite little attention being paid her way. Frank had not her gift.
He ate his pork, swallowed down his potatoes, and largely watched his drink, with occasional glimpses at his parents. Mother was polite, Father, his usual.
A nearly adolescent triumph rose in Frank for a moment, that devious desire to put one over his parents, and he thought, you have no idea. No idea that at that very moment, he was planning on how to leave this home forever, and they had not the slightest clue.
A more generous part of him reared up and chided his daring, but he barely listened. A smaller part, as well, reminded him that he barely even had a plan at all. He had not a clue himself.
Mother was watching him expectantly, Martha's gaze trained similarly on him. "Martha has just told us she was leaving soon, but I'm afraid you might have been elsewhere," Mother chided softly.
Frank sagged down and took a sip of water. "I'm sorry, I'm – I was elsewhere." He turned to Martha. "When are you planning to leave?"
"A week. Your parents have been so generous to me, really, I barely know how to thank them."
"Nonsense, dear girl," Frank's father piped up. "It was our pleasure, indeed."
"Thank you," she smiled. Frank smiled back. It was rare to see his father show something like positive emotion; it was rather nice.
But when he looked at Mother, he felt a stab of guilt-ridden pity, for soon, the house will grow to be even lonelier than she could know.
Frank lowered his gaze and took another bite, feeling Martha's eyes settle on him and not waver for a long moment.
When faced with a journey, Frank learned, Gerard was a plan maker.
Frank received a missive the very next day, in which Gerard asked him to join the Ways for lunch tomorrow, and to bring an atlas.
Frank knew perfectly well that Gerard had quite a serviceable atlas of his own, nevertheless he showed up to lunch with his own copy tucked under his arm, and saw that, in addition to the meal, Gerard and Michael had spread out a map and an atlas in front of them.
Frank watched them poring over them for a moment before clearing his throat, and greeting them both.
"Frank!" Gerard beamed and waited, at least, until Wilcox exited behind Frank to stride over to him and give him a fleeting kiss on the mouth. Frank glanced towards Michael out of the corner of his eye, but if Michael had seen anything, he gave no indication either way. Gerard squeezed his hand and then led Frank towards the table.
"We are mapping out possible routes," he informed Frank excitedly as soon as Frank was sat at the table with a napkin on his lap. "But you should eat first, and we can discuss it all."
"Oh," Frank said, and furrowed his brow as he spooned out the stew. "And where are we going? Exactly?" He spooned his words out just as carefully, toeing the line between annoyance and utterly gripping fear.
"Oh! Of course, I'm sorry – I should have – I didn't –"
"Gerard, it's all right," Frank replied as calmly as he could. "I simply – I gather that you have made some plans, so start from the beginning."
Frank slowly ate the stew as he listened, the delicious food sitting like a brick in the pit of his stomach.
"Well, on a lark, I had written to a writer I know who keeps a house in Lucerne," Gerard began. "This was a few weeks ago, so –"
Before they had talked. Frank frowned down into his bowl, but then indicated for Gerard to continue.
"Right, so – he informed me that he was giving the house up, as it was getting too much to manage, and moving permanently back to France."
"I see," Frank said slowly, giving up on his lunch and taking a sip of lemonade, instead. He briefly glanced up at Gerard, who was watching him with expectant, worried eyes, and then at Michael, who was studying the same page of the atlas he had been the past five minutes. Frank noted the tight lines of his jaw and wondered if Gerard had not made a mistake in confiding in him, after all. Frank did not have brothers; he could not envision such trust.
Something writhed deep in his belly, and he felt heat rising up his body, flushing his neck, his face, until he was gripped by a panic so strong, he barely swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut and attempted to get a deep breath. He found he could not.
"Is everything all right?"
The twin voices of the brothers rose around him and he forced himself to breathe, to open his eyes, to speak. "I'm – I'm sorry, must be – I'll just pop out –"
He pushed away from the table was barely able to replace the napkin on the table before his legs took him outside, into the hall, large and empty and filled with air.
"Frank…" Gerard's voice was quiet and hesitant as he walked out behind him, lingering a few feet away from Frank, as if he, too, was scared. Frank, hand on his belly, and the panic subsiding, realised how ridiculous he must have looked.
"I'm – I'm sorry, Gerard," he gasped and forced himself to lean against the wall to get his breath back. "That was…unacceptable. Please forgive me."
He turned his head to see Gerard chewing on his lip, his eyebrows the very shape of sorrow, his hair wild around his face. "Frank, it is I who should apologise. I should have – I should have consulted with you."
Frank smiled, but did not reply. Gerard was right.
He watched as Gerard made a frantic move backwards, then ran both hands through his hair, going through every nervous tic he possessed in his arsenal of twitchy behaviour. Finally, he rubbed his neck, then his eyes, and settled down enough to walk closer to Frank and touch his arm gently. "I'm sorry," he repeated, quietly, and dropped his arm. "I got – carried away," he continued, not quite catching Frank's eye. "I thought, what a brilliant plan! This will be perfect, he'll – he'll love it." Then, Gerard did catch Frank's eye enough to give him a rueful smile. "But it's a life-altering thing, isn't it. You need more time."
"I do," Frank agreed, his lungs easing up, his blood settling down. "I need to – to talk to you. I need to know that if we are to do this, this – this maddening, crazy thing, that we will…be all right. That we are both aware of what are getting ourselves into." Frank reached out a tentative hand and presented it to Gerard, palm first. Gerard gave him his willingly.
"I know," he replied quietly, and using the momentum of his grip on Frank's hand, pulled him in, kissing Frank's forehead, allowing Frank to bury his face against Gerard's neck. "I know, my love. I want that, too."
Frank simply leaned against him, their fingers intertwined, and breathed.
Michael was curled up on a chair with both his feet underneath him, the atlas open on his lap. When he saw them enter, he did not look up, but intoned, "Gerard, you are an idiot."
"I know," Gerard replied, hanging his head. Frank's hand was squeezed hard and then returned to him, and he watched the brothers anxiously, attempting to decipher their language.
"Frank, I love him because he's my brother, but I honestly have no idea why you would choose to saddle yourself with him," Michael went on, this time looking up long enough to quirk an eyebrow at them, and turn the page. Frank stared at him and felt the wave of relief crash through his entire being. What an idiot he'd been to doubt Michael, what an idiot, indeed.
He watched as Gerard smiled at his brother, watched as Michael did the same, and slowly made his way back to the table, pulling the map closer.
"So, Switzerland, you said…"
Frank was going to miss Gerard's attic. The cosy room had been a second bedroom to him, a book of his on Gerard's drawing desk, a nightshirt Gerard had picked out for him folded underneath the pillow of the bed. Right now, he sat at the window and waited for Gerard to return.
The sky was a dull, sheer grey, not yet raining, but he knew it was only a matter of time.
He was not going to miss the weather.
He was going to miss the view. The rolling hills of North Country could not be bettered by anything he would see in Switzerland, he was certain, regardless of what Gerard had told him.
"We shall see so many sights along the way," Gerard had said, leaving a trail of kisses down the side of Frank's neck, as if attempting to reassure him through touch. "We can even stop in Paris, if you wish."
Frank had laughed at him and told him, maybe. Or maybe he would force them to go straight to Lucerne, that strange dot he saw on a map, a city he had looked up in his atlas.
What awaited them, he did not know.
Gerard announced his reappearance through boisterous steps creaking on the stairs, and the door swung out with a loud bang.
Frank turned around and smiled. "There you are," he said.
"Here I am," Gerard replied. "Shall we plan?"
Frank rose from his seat and softly made his short way to Gerard. "We shall," he agreed. "But not yet."
Gerard leaned in and kissed him. "Then what is your plan?" he asked.
Frank reached for the buttons on his waistcoat.
It was later that week that he happened upon Michael alone.
"Gerard is out doing…honestly, I'm not certain what," Michael informed him from his perch by the window. "Please, come in," he smiled, eyes hidden by his spectacles.
Frank quietly walked in, upset with himself for having disturbed Michael at his reading. He walked over to the sofa, picked up a volume of poetry lying across it, and began to read awkwardly, aware of the intrusion he had caused.
"You won't…let him down, will you?" Michael's soft voice interrupted their silence.
Frank's head flew up and he stared at where Michael was sat, eyes downcast, but very clearly not reading. Frank set down the volume in his hands deliberately and closed it.
He gathered his thoughts. "I shall do my best," he finally replied.
"I know you shall," Michael said agreeably enough. "But – this – this will not be easy, on either of you."
Gerard never spoke of the difficulties, Frank realised. Frank simply whirled the possibilities in his own mind, aware of all the things he was avoiding thinking of altogether. Aware, and still avoiding. Fear waited at the corners of his mind, ready to pounce if he edged over into its territory. So far, he'd managed to avoid that, as well.
"I know," he said quietly and looked down. "You must – you must hate me, for taking him away," he said just as the thought dawned on him.
"I do not hate you, Frank," Michael replied, his voice surprised and stronger than before. "You've – you've given him something he has never had before, and for that, I cannot hate you."
Frank watched him silently, a lump growing in his throat. "Thank you," he managed.
"Don't, it's simply the truth," Michael answered and looked Frank in the eye. "Besides, I shall know where you are. I can visit you both." He paused again, flipping a page as if by instinct, and not necessity. "You love him, that I know. You shall not hurt him. But please, just –" Michael's voice halted for a second, and Frank waited with bated breath. "Please care for him. The way he will for you."
Frank looked down at his hands, the small fingers, the broad palms. He thought of Gerard's hands, pushing back locks of Frank's hair; Gerard's hands, running down Frank's skin in the dark; Gerard's hands, squeezing Frank's own when nobody could see them.
"I shall," he replied and watched as his fingers formed fists in front of his eyes. "You have my word."
"You're – you're leaving."
Raymond's face was a mixture of deep surprise and deeper sorrow. Frank swallowed down the bile building up in his throat and nodded. Raymond's sitting room was a bright one, and with the French doors open, it smelled of summer, already nearly on the wane.
"For good." Raymond sounded like he just wanted to make sure that Frank was not having a laugh at his expense. Frank's heart lurched. In all the goodbyes he'd planned in his head, the one he was allowing himself to say was turning out to be the worst. "Why?"
Frank shut his eyes and took a deep breath. "Because – I cannot stay here any longer. I cannot tell you where I am going, for – I do not wish to be found."
"But – surely there is something – Frank, what is the matter?" Raymond pleaded, sounding bewildered. "Is it anything I can help you with? I would do – I would give anything, just say the word, please –"
"Stop, Raymond, stop, I beg you," Frank interrupted, his insides lurching. "Please, there isn't –"
"What then?" Raymond exploded. It was the first time Frank had heard him shout. "My God, man, you aren't – in any legal trouble, are you?"
Frank laughed without humour, indicating for Raymond to settle down. "No, not as…not as such. It's to do with…" Frank paused. Took a deep breath. "It's to do with love."
Raymond's demeanour changed in the next moment. He slumped back into his seat and regarded Frank for so long, Frank's neck grew warm. They watched each other for a while, Frank wondering what his life will be like without Raymond by his side.
Someday, he thought. Someday, I shall see him again.
When Raymond spoke, his voice was quiet and even. "I think that – I believe I understand."
Frank looked him in the eye. "I believe that you do," he replied sincerely.
The next moment, he was pulled off his feet and embraced tightly, Raymond's hair tickling his face and neck. "Be well, Frank," Raymond told him. "I wish you luck."
They both pretended that what they were wiping from their cheeks was simply the excess of heat in the room.
Gerard took one look at Frank's face when they met in their meadow and embraced him, a feeling entirely different from Ray's earlier one. Frank slumped into the crook of Gerard's neck and clung to him as everything whirled round and round in his mind.
They were to spend their last night in England at Frank's apartments in London. Despite his father's chokehold on his purse strings, Frank had retained the keys to the home, as well as, shockingly, the favour of the housekeeper. He knew she would keep his secret, but even if she did not, it hardly mattered.
By the time she could raise an alarm, he and Gerard would be sailing across the Channel, safe from interference.
Safe on their journey.
Frank walked into his Mother's chambers carefully, aware he was intruding. She sat in her favourite chaise and read, the lamp beside her bright and cheerful.
"Hello," he greeted quietly and closed the door behind him.
"Sweetheart," she smiled and moved to make room for him, the way she's done since he was a child. "Come sit by me. Are you all right?"
Frank moved towards her slowly, taking stock of every quiet step. "I'm quite all right," he lied and perched on the arm of her chaise. "I simply wanted to say good night before I turned in."
He watched her face, familiar lines deepening as she smiled at him. "You are not ill, are you?" she asked, reaching for his forehead. He caught her hand in his and halted its process with a kiss.
"Not at all," he replied.
For a moment, he longed to tell her. He longed to leave this house an honest man, someone who deserved her love. Then he pictured Michael's face as he spoke of their future, Gerard's face, as he talked of their plans.
He leaned down and gave his mother a hug, clinging tightly to her warm, familiar body, the smell of her, the feel of her hair against his face.
"My goodness, what has got into you?" she laughed, but hugged him back. "Oh, my darling," she whispered before letting him go. "Off to bed with you," she ordered, hands waving him away, and Frank felt rooted to the spot for a moment.
"Good night, Mama," he finally managed and her mocking tones at his formality saw him off as he glanced over his shoulder one more time, smiled, and walked out of her room.
He bid his father good night on a whim, noting his door ajar on his way downstairs. Father was in much the same position as mother, a glass of wine in one hand as he read, dressing gown already donned. When Frank peeked in, Father lifted his head and showed some surprise. "Yes?"
Frank paused, not having planned on seeing his father at all before leaving. Now he watched him, noting the frown on his forehead, the simple way he held his glass.
"Simply wished to – say good night," Frank finally said, disturbing the quiet of the room.
"Oh!" The smile Frank saw was not one he'd seen in a while. "Good night to you, as well, then."
Frank stood awkwardly for a moment, unable to move now he knew this truly was the last time. Then he gave a thin smile, nodded, and exited as quickly as he could.
Sweet Pea was chewing languidly on some hay when he made his hesitant way over to her. She huffed and leaned into his touch as soon as it happened. Frank petted her side and wrapped his hand around her neck, fingers ruffling the fringe they found there.
He was resolved. He knew that he was, and knew it was the only option available to him. But as he smelled her skin and felt the velvety touch of her against his cheek, his resolve was the closest to crumbling it had been for weeks.
He stood with Sweet Pea for a long while, quiet, unable to let her go, unable to make himself leave.
When finally he did, he dared not look back. It was enough to hear her whuffs as he walked out of the stables.
In later years, Frank would be able to account for every moment of their journey south – every tract of land under the wheels of the hired carriage, every stolen moment in the dark, every hard beat of his heart.
But if anybody asked him just moments after arriving in London, he would have replied it was all of a blur.
Just as well. When he turned the key and entered his abandoned home, the familiar musty smell of it nearly brought him to his knees.
"Oh, my," Gerard uttered as Frank lit a hallway lamp. "This is beautiful, Frank."
Frank breathed in deeply and dropped the bags in his hands. "It is," he agreed, closing his eyes and leaning against the wall. The chintz scratched against his clothes and he felt the full weight of the first leg of their journey settle onto his shoulders. "I should probably alert Mrs. Downs to our arrival," he said quietly. "I imagine it will be quite the shock."
"How old is she?" Gerard asked and Frank laughed as he opened his eyes.
"Let's hope she's young enough to not die of said shock."
Indeed, very few things could ruffle Mrs. Downs's feathers. Armed with a candle, and donning a dressing gown, her curls hidden under a night cap, she served them both tea and asked no questions apart from the immediate needs.
"Shall I prepare a guest bedroom?"
Frank glanced at Gerard and asked that yes, the guest room be prepared. Decorum maintained was all she'd ever asked of him.
"And when shall you be leaving for the docks, Master?"
"We shall depart at seven on the dot, Mrs. Downs."
She nodded and set down a plate of biscuits with a sense of finality. "Very well, I shall have breakfast ready for you at six thirty. Will that be all, then?"
London morning dawned as ever grey, loud and intrusive. Frank woke to find his bed empty, and discovered Gerard curled up in the guest bed, fast asleep. He must have gone sometime in the night, so quietly, Frank had not even stirred. Loathe to wake him, but keenly aware of the urgency, Frank leaned quietly down and kissed him awake.
Gerard's lips responded before he did, opening up for Frank's, inviting him in. Frank smiled, a giddy swooping feeling making its sudden way through his insides.
"Is it time?" Gerard murmured and finally opened his eyes, hazily blinking at Frank.
"It's time, love," Frank whispered. "It's definitely time."